Renewable Energy: the power of the human body

The End of Cheap Oil and the Rise of the Scythe

Originally posted on You Tube by Kaivido

Quaintly out-dated?  A bit antiquated?  Well, we might think we can look back fondly on those days of heavy labour and hard graft from the techno-safety of our retrospective armchairs but it’s not so far-fetched to believe that in this age of rising oil prices, food shortages and climate change, we might once again come to rely on pure muscle-power.

 Just watch that girl work the land using only one ecological tool and her own body for energy.  Forget your petrol-driven mower and your electric strimmer.  This may well be the future.  Gandhi, with all his natural insight and indeed, foresight, was way ahead of his time . . .

“Its a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have ceased to use their hands as hands. Nature has bestowed upon us this great gift which is our hands. If the craze for machinery methods continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God.”  Mahatma Gandhi

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28 Responses to Renewable Energy: the power of the human body

  1. matt says:

    I got the idea after the first 30secs! Wouldn’t be allowed in the UK: H&S. I know, pathetic isn’t it.

    Grit will pop along & enthuse about his mega powered beast of a tractor no doubt. 🙂

    Interestingly, enquires & uptake of allotments/turning backyard into veg patch is on the increase. Certainly a more satisfying workout than a bloody gym!

  2. Dave (The Void) says:

    Can we really feed the world in this way, EP?

    The future cannot look like the present – industrial agriculture has been shaped by capitalism, into something unsustainable, unfair and unhealthy that needs to be changed – but it can’t look like the past either – without modern technology, there’s no way for however-many-billion people to survive on this planet.

    We aren’t in control of the system – we never have been – but the answer isn’t to wish for a time before the system existed. It’s to take control of the system and make it work for us.

  3. earthpal says:

    Matty, yes, I’m expecting Grit to have an opinion. Hoping so anyway. He adds a new and interesting dimension.

    Allotments – yes, more and more people I know are getting busy “growing their own”. And unlike the people at the gym, they will literally reap their rewards rather than get ripped off by extortionate membership fees.

    Hi Dave.

    Well it might not feed the world and I absolutely agree that we must make the system work for the people rather than the ruling elite etc. but I was really looking at it in terms of indivual sustainability as touched on by Matt in his comment.

    But even a larger scale, methinks that once the fuel runs out/becomes inaccessible and climate change gets a real grip, eco-farming/permaculture may eventually become not so much an ethical decision but more a case of Hobson’s choice because our dear leaders have been too busy procrastinating over renewables and what best suits the wealthy corporates etc..

    And while we’ve come to depend less on our own physical abilities and more on machinery and technology we may well come to mourn the loss of those natural physical abilities, not just in terms of muscle-power but also in the loss of knowledge.

    Maybe I’m being fanciful. But maybe I’m not.

  4. Pete Smith says:

    Hi EP, there’s a nice resonance here with my recent post ‘World Made By Hand’.
    Dave questions whether we can feed the world this way. Setting aside the fact that subsistence farming has been the norm over human history, and continues to be so for much of the world even today, I would question whether we have a choice, given looming shortages of energy and other resources.
    Labour-intensive horticulture has a long-standing reputation as the most efficient, productive and environmentally friendly method of food production. It doesn’t have to be all peasant farmer, “back to the sun, face to the land” stuff. We have the ability to devise technologies that increase the leverage of manual labour, e.g. more efficient hand tools, and boost productivity, e.g. permaculture regimes.
    Matt, yes allotments are on a high right now, but don’t assume they’re machine-free environments. At my site, there’s a machine for everything: rotovator, strimmer, lawnmower. People like me who persist in doing everything manually are regarded as a little eccentric.

  5. earthpal says:

    Hi Pete. Thanks. That’s what I was trying to say. You say it much better than me. Lol.

    Yes, I can remember some of the things you’ve said about this sort of thing . . . and survival etc. I wanted to link to some of your posts (on Change Alley) but my pc was acting up and taking ages to load pages so I gave up and published the post before I threw my shoe at the screen.

  6. Pete Smith says:

    As someone who actually used a scythe in my distant rural youth, I have to express admiration for the young lady’s technique. Note how she works in a circle anticlockwise, throwing the cut inwards to her left. A complete contrast with machine- or animal-powered techniques, which always work in straight lines. This is the kind of skill that will have to be re-acquired.

    I bet she’s fit as a butcher’s dog. It’s not all down to strength and stamina though, a dull blade will ruin your day. I foresee a future for old trades such as knife sharpeners.

  7. matt says:

    > I bet she’s fit as a butcher’s dog.

    I couldn’t work out whether the youtube video was going for hippy romantic tones or agri-soft-focus -porn! Quite a bizarre take on agriculture.

  8. Pete Smith says:

    LOL I did mean fit, rather than ‘fit’ (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)
    I found it quite inspiring, what with symbolic scythe twirlings while standing on a tractor ‘n’ all, y’all. I think the message is retro-agricultural agitprop.
    One word on Health & Safety: I think you’d have to look long and hard to find an experienced scythist who’d work barefoot without any kind of leg protection. Leather gaiters were the must-have gear in the 60s.
    Probably still are in a certain kind of club 🙂

  9. earthpal says:

    Yes, she’s pretty impressive isn’t she. I would end up chopping my legs in half even though the design of the tool should make that virtually impossible. That or drop with exhaustion after the first half hour.

    There’s an article about scythes that you may be interested to read. I haven’t read it all but you may know that the writer is from Tinker’s Bubble in Yeovil. I’m sure you’ve mentioned it in your blog – or here. Anyway, here’s the link . . .

    Well done Pete btw for persisting with those manual tools. People may regard you as a bit eccentric but I think it’s inspiring and it results in less emissions. Not only that, your skills will probably serve to be your saviour one day.

  10. Pete Smith says:

    For those who still find using manual tools inexplicable when you can use powered ones, here’s something from my own recent experience. 2 fat and noisy Cypriots took over an overgrown plot at my allotment site last Autumn. They got the usual free newcomers’ service, an application of weedkiller at £45 a pop. Having reduced the plot to a poisoned desert, they failed to work it till this April, by which time it had reverted to prairie. Their request for another dose of Agent Orange having been firmly rejected, they hired the site’s petrol strimmer at £2.50 an hour. It took them the best part of a day to cut all the grass and weeds back, I could have done it in 2 hours with a scythe, and 4 or 5 with a sickle.
    I hate strimmers, because the cut doesn’t get pushed to one side as it does with a scythe, it just drops. So much time and energy is wasted cutting and recutting because you can’t distinguish what’s been cut from what hasn’t. And they’re heavy, noisy, smelly, expensive to run and bloody hard work for poor results. Apart from that, they’ve got a lot going for them 🙂

  11. Pete Smith says:

    Yes EP, the longer sweep of the scythe makes a leg-related incident less likely, but accidents still happen. More so with a sickle, which you always use with a stop stick in the other hand to block the follow through.

    Nice link, there’s a lot of good stuff at the Permaculture site. Wasn’t me who mentioned Tinker’s Bubble, doesn’t ring a bell at all, unless my brain really has gone this time.

  12. the Grit says:

    Hi y’all,

    First, let me just say that you people come up with some great thought provoking stuff, and I really appreciate your work.

    Moving along to Matt’s hope, I have to dash it. Wheat is not harvested with a tractor, but with a specialized behemoth called a combine, which is a shortened form of “combined harvester.” The combined part stems from the fact, mostly overlooked in these industrialized times, that harvesting grain crops is a multi-step process. First, the grain has to be cut in the field just at the time when it’s ripe. This is really important since, if it’s cut too early the grain won’t separate from the rest of the plant easily, and if it’s cut too late the grain will fall off too easily and much of it will be lost. Second, the harvest has to be collected and moved to an area where it can be thrashed. Thrashing, the next step, consists mostly of beating the cut plats to make the grain fall off. Next, you toss the plant stems to the side. This leaves you with a pile of grain mixed leaves and bits of other plant material. That stuff is called chaff, which has to be separated from the grain before that grain can be processed. Historically, this was done by tossing the mass into the air while a wind was blowing. The heavier grain would fall down and the lighter chaff would be blown away. The “combined harvester” does all of this in one pass and puts reasonably pure grain into a truck with a single operator. Thus, with the aid of this one monster machine, which runs some where between $100,000 and $200,000 US, one person can do the work of several hundred people, keeping in mind that the labor is time sensitive.

    Even better, in the US where the country is large enough from South to North, the grains ripen at sufficiently differently times, that the same equipment can be used to follow the harvest as it moves up our country. Thus, as a service for those farms that are too small to support the expense of owning their own efficient harvesting equipment, we have several business groups that do nothing else than move their harvesters from farm to farm up and down the country at the right time of year. In a related note, we also have similar services where people move truck loads of bees around to fertilize crops at the correct time.

    As to the harvesting video you posted, I must point out that the scythe being used is, even for a scythe, antiquated technology. One of the major improvements in agriculture made during the American Colonial Period, back before the Revolution as best as I can remember, was the addition of a cradle to the scythe, which, as part of the cutting stroke piled the cuttings in a neat pile. This made the second step in the harvest, bundling the cut grain plants for transport, much more efficient, and also allowed a more gentle handling of the ripe crop, which extended the period of time when it could be reaped without significant loss.

    An additional note on mechanical harvesting, it should be noted that the same basic harvester can, with the swapping of a few parts, pick corn, wheat, or most any other grain. It can also, with a few minor adjustments pick cotton and soy beans. This is important as, at least in this area, the basic cycle of farming is to grow corn or wheat, followed by cotton, followed by nitrogen fixing soy beans. This is an ancient principle called “crop rotation” that helps maintain farm productivity and, if memory serves, was first put forth by Jethro Tull, who was a very smart English person and which is also the name of my favorite band,

    Glad to make even a small contribution to the discussion,
    the Grit

  13. matt says:


    You are always at your best when imparting your farming knowledge. Thank you.

    The most important part of your comment is the clear reference to the efficiency of machine based agriculture when dealing with providing food on a large scale. Sharing such large equipment makes perfect sense.

    If a small holder wants to use a scythe that’s fine too. But lets all realise that small holdings and large scale agriculture are quite different systems but both have an important role to play in getting our food onto the table.

    As far as the issue of fueling the machinery goes there are different fuels available and no doubt the price of oil will dictate how this works out. I wonder how many farm machines run on biodiesel at the moment for example instead of 100% petroleum based diesel. There is a lot of waste oil out there from food processing/cooking for biodiesel use for example.

    Looking at the economy as a whole governments/markets will need to work out which industries get the dwindling supplies of oil. Planes vs combines; obviously it’s the latter. Home holidays folks!

  14. Dave (The Void) says:

    If a small holder wants to use a scythe that’s fine too. But lets all realise that small holdings and large scale agriculture are quite different systems but both have an important role to play in getting our food onto the table.

    Absolutely! Not that either one is working as it should at the moment, but such is capitalism.

    @Grit: we did the Agrarian revolution in school*. Jethro Tull invented the seed drill, for more efficient sowing, and popularised the technique of properly areating the soil. The practice of crop rotation predates him by a long way, and while he was very smart in some senses he refused to believe that fertiliser was of any use. Indeed, the proof of his innovations’ effectiveness was that they allowed him to farm profitably even without fertiliser.

    *many years ago, I should specify

  15. the Grit says:

    Hi matt,

    Thanks. As to scythes and small holdings (which we call hobby farms over here) some people who only grow enough wheat to make their own bread just for the heck of it use them. I tried it once and, with a little practice, it’s not that bad as compared to splitting wood. It’s also really good and well rounded exercise. Still, to reap more than an acre or so takes real commitment 🙂

    As to bio-diesel, we have a reasonable amount of interest in that, with many large cities having companies that collect discarded restaurant oil to sell to processors. Most of the resulting product is sold along our interstate highway system to long distance truckers. On an interesting side note, the waste oil, in light of rising diesel prices, has become valuable enough to become the target of thieves. On another interesting side note, Mr. Diesel, who invented the engine, originally intended it to run on vegetable oil. Funny how these things work out 🙂

    On the other hand, I can’t resist pointing out that the world is not running out of oil at the moment, although it is becoming more expensive to harvest. The US, for example, has estimated untapped reserves of several TRILLION barrels. The current problem is that our extremest environmental lobby has managed to block all efforts to suck it out of the ground and all efforts to build more refineries to process it. Fortunately, the current fuel price spike has been enough to get the general public excited, and our Government will be forced to remove these prohibitions or loose their jobs.

    Along this line of thought, if you want to see some exciting political fighting, keep track of our Presidential race this year. My theory is that, since the Republican candidate, John McCain, has something like a 20% chance of beating the Democrat candidate, Barack Obama, in the normal run of things, there’s been some manipulating behind the scenes to push gas prices up and make bringing them down the decisive political issue. Keep in mind that, while They always point out that oil is priced in a competitive international market, the actual number of players at that table is relatively small, so price fixing is, quite often, a given.

    Hi Dave,

    Well, now you see why I added that bit about my faulty memory 🙂 In this instance, I blame it on the fact that Jethro Tull is my favorite band, so I tend to give their name sake more credit than he is due.

    As to Big Agriculture working well, sorry to disagree, but ours is doing quite nicely. Well, until this year that is. The recent floods in our intense grain growing states are going to put a dent into this year’s production. Beyond that, the only problem we’ve had is the diversion, at Government direction, of food crops into producing ethanol, and what a brilliant plan that turned out to be.

    the Grit

  16. Pete Smith says:

    Hi Grit, always nice to meet a fellow Tull fan.

  17. earthpal says:

    Thanks for the input folks. I just can’t keep up with you guys!!

  18. matt says:

    You better keep up. At Pete’s suggestion, you’re the one we’re putting in the field to pose with scythe for the UK version!! 🙂

  19. earthpal says:

    Well, thanks for that Pete!

    Well you’ll see me training hard in the fields across the road from my house. I’ll be the barefooted one with flowers in her hair. No shin guards for me. I’m a tough cookie.

    Where should I plug in the scythe? 😀

  20. Pete Smith says:

    Matt is, of course, making it up. However, I think a Brit version has some potential. I’m thinking ‘Blazing Scythes’, a cross between ‘Children of the Corn’ and ‘Riverdance’, music by Seth Lakeman, choreography by the Wombles.

  21. earthpal says:

    Lol. I know Pete. That Matty is such a tease.

    “Blazing Scythes” I like it. 🙂

    Oh, and forget the Wombles. I’ll do the choreography.

  22. the Grit says:

    Hi Pete,

    Tull is my musical version of comfort food. Keep the faith!

    the Grit

  23. Pete Smith says:

    There’s a fascinating web site containing details of over 750 antique farm tools dating between 1600 and 1940, see

  24. matt says:

    Like the ‘Wooden dyke shovel’

  25. Pete Smith says:

    A bit specialised for me, not many wooden dykes in the People’s Republic of Suburbia 🙂
    What really struck me was the range of different names for tools that to my ignorant eyes look virtually identical.

  26. Pingback: My New Toy | Change Alley

  27. This is an interesting conversation. Please visit GreenMicrofinance Resource Document Library were we have created a new category: Source – Body Energy.

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  28. matt says:

    Thanks Elizabeth. A great site you have as well. I look forward to going through it in more detail. 🙂

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