Archive for May, 2007

Pandemic flu, Meet Peak Oil.

Sharon May 20th, 2007

Miranda and I are hard at work on some minor revisions and an FAQ for the 90% down project, but I wanted to direct your attention to a recently released Pentagon report on the military’s preparations for bird flu. I think this is important for several reasons. Here’s a summary of the report: - a link to the direct report is contained within.

The military is preparing for a sustained, recurrent epidemic of avian flu, with a mortality rate of about 1 out of 100, major societal and economic disruptions, and to see our medical infrastructure totally overwhelmed, and many of us in effective quarantine. There are two reasons why this is important. The first is that this could actually happen - every account I’ve seen suggests that at some point our bodies will come into contact with a flu variant we’ve not got much immunity to, and the results will be disastrous. For example, even allowing for the possibility of many unrecognized cases, the mortality rates of avian influenza in humans are extremely high, especially among young children. This is, to say the least, worrisome.

Now it is also unlikely to happen in any given year. This essay is not intended as scaremongering - the likelihood of the virus mutating quickly is comparatively small. The issue here is prudence - is it serious enough to be worth thinking about? I think so. And are the intersections of avian flu likely to affect other factors, that is, to bring about some kind of crisis? I think for that we have only to look at Hurricane Katrina - to the New Orleans still not rebuilt, to the refugees who remain refugees two years later. Our society has proved its inability to cope with a localized, if severe disaster. Why on earth would we believe it could handle a national one?

An article in Foreign Affairs (which is not a hype-driven source) estimates that worst case scenarios suggest up to 20% of those affected could die - 16 *million* people. Now that is unlikely, and extreme - the military is expecting the death rate to be much more in line with CDC averages - about 1 in every 100 people. But that’s an awful lot as well. The Foreign Affairs article is here:, and it is worth noting that its estimate of the economic costs is sky high - 166 billion dollars just for medical care, not including vaccination (a vaccine for a specific strain will require a minimum of 6-9 months, if it is possible at all - and remember, viruses mutate - by the time we have one, it may not be the same virus). There is no firm estimate of the national or world economic costs, but think about it.

All transport between communities is restricted. That’s it for the travel industry for the duration. Schools are closed, as are entertainment venues, churches, mosques and synagogues, malls and all non-essentials. And this could last for 18 months or longer - how long before widespread unemployment leads to basic, structural breakdowns in the economy. And given that our economy is already stressed by high energy prices, inflation, housing problems and currency difficulties, it wouldn’t take long to push the US over to a major recession. Think about the lines for basic goods, or the shortages of things you rely on - food, water, clothing, tools. Think about nutritional imbalances likely in food distribution, and the way information is likely to fail to travel.

During periods of influenza outbreaks, how many of us believe that we’ll be hard at work on adapting our infrastrucutre to climate change and energy depletion? How many of us will be at community meetings, or at our jobs keeping the grid in order or helping people reinsulate their houses? How much time will be lost to illness and quarantine, and when things level off, will we be able to get started again? I’m not much for fast crisis/crash scenarios, but this one seems like it really could deeply affect our long term ability to deal with economic and energy crises (not to mention climate change).

The healthcare infrastructure will likely be overwhelmed - millions of people, 50% of those affected, are expected to be treated in hospitals. Given that medical personnel are likely to contract the disease early, those facilities will likely to be totally overwhelmed. Estimates of hospitalizations are listed here: Which means that everyone with a brain will want to stay as far away from medical care as possible whenever possible - because if you go in to the hospital or pharmacy to pick up of a prescription or deal with a broken arm, nearly everyone is likely to have the flu around you. So there will be corrollary casualties, and a real need to be able to meet your own health care needs.

Now my rural area has nothing like enough beds, hospitals or medical care to tend the sick, and neither does any region I’m aware of. So we should translate the Pentagon’s plans to quell rioting and guard hospitals as “even if you are very sick, you may not get any medical care.” The US has very minimal stocks of flu relieving drugs, and as we mentioned, a vaccine may not come quickly. We have seen in Hurricane Katrina and with the response to the recent tornadoes that the military tends to be most concerned with “securing” an area, rather than actually helping anyone. That is, if the military comes to your region, there is every chance that they will be there to point guns at people who want to do things like travel for medical care or to help out family, and less chance that you will find them helpful. The references to rioting probably mean scared, sick, hungry, desperate people who would like to have a better situation, and the military who will probably try and stop them from things like taking food out of stores. Perhaps this sounds cynical. It probably is. It there is also a decent chance it is accurate.

But there’s another reason why we should be concerned about pandemic flu and this military report. Pandemic avian influenza (or some other form of pandemic - a new strain of swine flu appeared recently, although it is rarely mentioned) might not be that big a deal. It may turn out that the high death rates lower as the virus mutates to become communicable. Or it may not be that communicable, giving our bodies time to adapt to it. The reality about flu pandemics is that we’re due for one - sometime in the next century. All this worry may be for nothing.

Except, it probably isn’t nothing. That is, it is worth noting that pandemic flu is an excellent excuse for instituting nation-wide martial law, limiting basic freedoms, and controlling freedom of assembly, public discourse and access to both information and goods. Now, if we hadn’t seen the last 7 years, you could rightly call me a wacko-conspiracy theorist for this. But can anyone who has seen Guantanamo really believe that the current administration wouldn’t use a flu crisis to consolidate power? In fact, they might even be right to institute restrictive measures - no one will probably no how severe the outbreak will be until it has been around a while. The question is, how likely will our government be to simply relinquish power in a crisis. Hmmm….

This means we should be worried about two things. The first is that pandemic flu might be a true medical disaster. The second is that it might not be, but it might still result in economic, political and other crises, because it represents a really good way for our government to take power - and it represents something to blame the current concatenation of economic factors on. Flu may become the bad guy for all sorts of problems - which is important to know, because we’re very much unlikely to do what is necessary if all the fault lies in the flu.

Now let’s add the current situation into the mix, and assume that a human form of avian influenza develops this fall or next. Oil is peaking, energy prices are rising steadily - we certainly expect $4 per gallon gas this year, and potentially even higher prices and gas lines. The economy is teetering as well, as is the housing market which has funded nearly 20% of all jobs, directly or indirectly (that is, not just jobs building houses, but jobs decorating them, and also jobs in travel and shopping which is what people are spending their equity on).

It seems likely that among other things, whether it is true or not, avian flu will be held responsible for whatever crisis occurs (remember that juggling thing?). And that a firm response will have to be taken. Now I don’t know what form a firm response would take, but it is likely to put things like climate change and peak oil on the back burner, further delaying our response. It is also not likely to make us happier or freer. And I’d be just shocked, shocked and appalled (I really would be appalled!) to find that it affects the outcome of our elections.

As I’ve said, I’m not much for fast crash scenarios, and I don’t think this is hugely likely. But at a minimum, it offers a model in which things could go from 0 to hell in a very short time, and all our mitigation strategies might collapse underneath us. Again, the problem is that at some point, our ability to cope begins to fall apart.

Are you ready for an economic crisis that begins this fall, restricts your access to basic goods and adaptive tools, and stresses the economy? Are you ready to spend 3-18 months mostly quarantined in your house, with distribution of food, water and information controlled by your military?

On a personal level, knowing that our government is thinking mostly about how to keep us contained, not how to treat us in a medical crisis, we should all be fairly well prepared to deal with things on our own. And that’s a problem, because the best possible response to peak oil and climate change is community organizing. And in a quarantine situation, where everyone is struggling to feed themselves and avoid getting sick, our community structures are likely to collapse under us, as is our collective ability to deal with longer-term crises.

Here is what I would take from these materials.

- Be prepared to meet most of your basic needs for an extended period - the timeline is probably 3-5 months for the first outbreak, followed by another within 3-10 months. In a worst case scenario, much of the nation and its economy could be shut down for months, even more than a year. Government unemployment would run out, communities ability to collect taxes from people not being paid would collapse, and health care costs would overrun everything else. So have food, medicine and the ability to handle a sustained crisis at home. Make sure you can live with power outages, because, as the Foreign Affairs article notes, grid crisis is a possible outcome. Store food. Store water. Store basic medication. Get basic medical knowledge together so you can treat medical problems yourself if possible (be careful doing this). Keep healthy - and think hard about what risks you want to take, particularly if you have elderly people, children or the disabled in your house. Ultimately, try and have the means to live without your jobs for a good long time if necessary - you don’t want to risk a serious illness because you need to make money to feed yourself.

- Get prepared *NOW* - that is, assume that this could happen as early as this year. It isn’t likely, and I don’t want people to panic, but it also isn’t impossible. So where you are now, and what you have now or can do in the next months is likely to effect you for some time. There’s no reason to stop planning a move or a change, but make sure you can meet your own needs where you live right now. Find a way to collect water, store food, start a garden, plant some fruit trees, stock up on blankets and flashlights. It can’t hurt, and it might just help someday.

- Don’t count on government help, including military help. Remember, we had a tough time dealing with one, highly localized tornado crisis, or with the Gulf Coast. Now imagine that there are multiple crises all across the nation. The military is likely to be heavily hit by the flu, simply because they are widely dispersed across the world, and pulling them suddenly out of Iraq or Afghanistan is likely to cause a crisis too. Even the best intentioned government (and when was the last time we had one of those?) is likely to be incompetent.

- Because of the potential economic consequences, I would expect quarantine orders to come in well after it was optimal. That is, we’ve seen that this government is most concerned with keeping the economy happy, regardless of cost. So I wouldn’t wait for your community to close schools or tell workers to telecommute - make your own plans based on your own risks and level of concern.

- We’ve seen how the mainstream news responds in a crisis. Try and keep real truth moving along - write and talk about what is really happening in your community whenever possible. If we can’t gather in person, resist in writing. Don’t let this be an excuse to lose what is left of our freedom.

- If avian flu turns out not to be the disaster it could be, we have to keep our eyes on the real problems - on preparing for energy crises and climate change. Keep advocating that we keep our focus.

- Think about how your community would manage its infrastructure if gathering was impossible. Come up with an alternative to the “everyone for themselves” strategy our government is proposing. Consider community food stockpiles, phone trees, local non-electric water sources, virtual town meeting set ups, ways of distributing food, checking on the elderly and educating kids without person-to-person contact.

- The better prepared your community is, the less likely you are to see federal troops on your ground. Remember, your personal security also depends on the stability of your community and the region around you.

- Finally, recognize that although it is not likely, a fast crash scenario is possible - that is, it is possible that a short term crisis like avian flu (or for that matter a widespread natural disaster) could cause enough disruption that when the crisis is over, we no longer have the resources to make major infrastructure changes. Move your timeline up accordingly, although recognize this is not a time for panic, and it is not the most likely scenario. That is, be rational. Be prepared to get along, but also recognize that it will probably be ok.

I’m sorry that this is depressing. But it is better to know than not to.


Making The Change - 90% Emissions Reduction Rules and Regs

Sharon May 17th, 2007

The first thing you will all notice about this is that it says “90%” up there, instead of 93%. The reason for this is twofold. First of all, I did all the calculations out with 93%, and then looked at Monbiot’s actual book, and realized that it was 94%. Now you will know what small, petty person I am when you hear that my immediate reaction to that was “Oh, crap - I don’t want to give up another 1%, and I really, really don’t want to run the numbers again!” But that’s not the main reason fro the change. The main reason is this - doing this will involve a lot of regular, daily math. Now if you are one of those ultra smart people who can do fairly complex math in their heads, congratulations. And if you are one of those super-organized people who keeps their records so perfectly that the hope the IRS will audit so they can show off their superior bookkeeping, congratulations again. I hate to tell you this, but I’m a slob, and a lazy slob. While I’m more than willing to live like a Chinese peasant, I’m not at all willing to sit around every afternoon thinking…”Ok, carry the one..ok, I can have 1/17th of a gallon of oil…”

And I suspect that I am rather more like other people than not - that is, I think this whole project will go better if we all use nice round numbers and don’t make ourselves too crazy with the calculations. My consultants, Miranda and Aaron also seemed happier with the nice round numbers. So I picked 90% as a target figure, because that means we can all work with the same basic figures, only at 1/10th the average. I also rounded most averages to the nearest round number. On the other hand, I was conservative in other ways, as you’ll see, so I think this comes out solidly at or below 90%. And 90% is a big old cut, especially without any government help. But I’m happy to try and continue the cuts after 90%, because once we’re down to 10% of the average, we’re working with nice round numbers again - that is, each additional percentage is a convenient 10%. But let’s concentrate on getting down 90%, and we’ll go from there.

If you’d like to do this more precisely, I’ll gladly send you my original figures, and you can calculate your stuff any way you’d like.

The Rules of the Game are as follows:

1. EVERYONE can play. Even if you only think you can make a major reduction in a few categories, or 1, you are invited to join us. Every drop in your emissions is a huge accomplishment, and another person who can stand up and say “I can do it, even without any systemic help - therefor, we can all do it.” The goal is to reach 90% - but some of us will probably fail. A 20% reduction is still something to be proud of.

2. The time period is 1 year - the goal is to reach a 90% reduction (or the best each of us can do) *AND KEEP IT THERE* after 1 year. That is, we’re not dropping our emissions instantly and then going back to business as usual later - the goal is to use this year to figure out what we need to do, what kind of adaptations we need, and how to change things. I suspect for a lot of us, initially the project will be figuring out what we need and acquiring or making those things, so particularly the consumption and garbage portions of this may be difficult initially.

3.Ideally, we’ll all calculate and post our approximate usage at the beginning of our personal projects. Please do send in an official “I’m in and here are my numbers email as soon as you can manage it, so we can keep head counts and info around.”

4. Every week we post an update - you can put yours on your blog (email your blog links to Miranda at, and she’ll hook you up), or update on the comments section of either Miranda’s or my blog. Let us know how you are doing, what you are having trouble with, what your numbers are, what you want help with, what your best ideas are. We want to hear how it is going!!!

5. Otherwise, you are in charge of making choices. We have left categories like health care and housing out of this, on the assumption that you aren’t going to buy a new house, or give up needed medical attention. If you want to include some of these issues, great. If you need to opt out of a category altogether, fine. If you disagree with my assessment, say, of how things should be calculated, certainly tell me - you may have a better method than I do - but you can also feel free to make your calcuations differently. Just tell us what’s going on.

6. If you live in another country than the US, you’ll have to do your own baseline - it isn’t very hard, and your government websites should have the information. For Canada, Australia and the US, Monbiot’s calculation is that reductions must be above 90%, so you’ll probably want to use the 90% figures with your own national averages. Most of the rich EU nations are in the mid-to-high 80s, and he doesn’t offer figures for other nations. I leave it up to those from other countries to figure out whether they want to try for the 90% reduction ,or choose another number - 80% or 85%. Those are the only numbers Monbiot lists, but I can probably help you figure out an approximate for your country if you email me.

7. If you use a renewable or sustainable resource that I haven’t mentioned, email me. I’ll add it to the list, and come up with a figure for it.

8. One of the things I think is most important is that we admit when/how/where we fail. We’re trying to do something very difficult, and we’re doing it without the support that would make this much easier. If there are places where a lot of people can’t accomplish a reduction, this is a good argument for some kind of larger intervention.

Some things will be easy for one of us, but not another. I think food will be easy for my household, but gas a real struggle. Other people might find the opposite.

9.Ultimately, this is a support network. We’re trying for real and radical change, and also to offer up a model for other people who might want to make these changes. Be kind and be supportive.

10. Remember, when you falter, we can do this. And that Miranda and I are very grateful that you are doing this along with us!!!

Ok, here are my calculations. I’ve done my very best to make this simple. Whenever possible, I have rounded numbers, so that it would be easy to figure out specifics. Also, whenever possible I have used individual usage and short time periods. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been able to find data for shorter periods or for individual usage, in which cases, I’ve put household, or annual figures. This is imperfect science, but you do the best you can - I think it mostly evens out. But final calculations will be made as yearly, household figures. That is, if your spouse has a job and you stay home with the kids, you can give some of your gas allotment over to her for her commute. And if you need a/c 2 months a year to survive, you can cut back more in the winter. The goal is to be able to meet these goals annually.

The estimates I’m giving for renewable resources may be controversial. I welcome discussion of the subject, or better guidelines - remember, better, but simple. I’ve tried to be very conservative - that is, I’m trying to err on the side of greater emissions reduction whenever possible. In that interest, I’ve measured, for example, the net energy return of some renewables as much lower than, say, a company that makes them would. For example, I give no credit at all for ethanol or biodiesel, since I think they are no better and perhaps worse in the emissions department. In the end, if you really disagree, feel free to use your own numbers, just explain how you are calculating things.

We’re dividing this into 7 categories. You do the calculation for each one. We’ve included water, even though it isn’t by itself a greenhouse gas problem, because water stress is one of the most serious and immediate consequences of global warming.

If you work out of the home, or spend large quantities of time out of your home, you should include calculations for your work environment, or school environment - % of your time, energy used, divided by number of people using it. Now you may not have much control over this measurement, and if you don’t, I suggest you keep three tallies - one for home energy, one for work energy, and one for your total energy in each relevant category. But the good thing about including your work is that this offers incentives for trying to get your work to be more efficient as well. Who knows, you may fail, but it is worth a try.

If you want to look at the figures, you can find most of them here: Statistics for water are quite variable, but the best I came up with is this: Garbage figures are here:, and consumer spending is from the updated version of Juliet Schor’s _The Overspent American_. Food data came mostly from Marion Nestle’s _Food Politics_ and Dale Pfeiffer’s _Eating Fossil Fuels_.

Here are the 7 categories:

1. Gasoline. Average American usage is 500 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR. A 90 percent reduction would be 50 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR.

-No reduction in emissions for ethanol or biodiesel.

-Public transportation and Waste Veggie Oil Fuel are deemed to get 100 mpg, and should be calculated accordingly.

2. Electricity. Average US usage is 11,000 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR, or about 900 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. A 90% reduction would mean using 1,100 PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR or 90 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH

- Solar Renewables are deemed to have a 50% payback - that is, you get twice as many watts.

-Hydro and Wind are deemed to have a 4 to 1 payback over other methods - you get 4 times as many.

3. Heating and Cooking Energy - this is divided into 3 categories, gas, wood and oil. Your household probably uses one of these, and they are not interchangeable. If you use multiple sources, you are going to have to do some more complicated math to figure out how to divide things proportionally. If you need help, email me. If you use an electric stove or electric heat, this goes under electric usage.

- Natural Gas (this is used by the vast majority of US households as heating and cooking fuel). For this purpose, Propane will be calculated as the same as natural gas. Calculations in therms should be available from your gas provider.

-US Average Natural Gas usage is 1000 therms PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% reduction would mean a reduction to 100 therms PER HOUSEHOLD PER YEAR

-Heating Oil (this is used by only about 8% of all US households, mostly in the Northeast, including mine).

-Average US usage is 750 Gallons PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% cut would mean using 75 gallons PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. Biodiesel is calculated as equivalent.

- Wood. This is a tough one. The conventional line is that wood is carbon neutral, but, of course, wood that is harvested would have otherwise been absorbing carbon and providing forest. There are good reasons to be skeptical about this. So I’ve divided wood into two categories.

1. Locally and sustainably harvested, and either using deadwood, trees that had to come down anyway, coppiced or harvested by someone who replaces every lost tree. This is deemed carbon neutral, and you can use an unlimited supply. This would include street trees your town is taking down anyway, wood you cut on your property and replant, coppiced wood (that is, you cut down some part of the tree but leave it to grow), sustainably harvested local wood, and standing and fallen deadwood. You can use as much of this as you like.

2. Wood not sustainably harvested, or transported long distances, or you don’t know. 1 cord of this is equal to 15 gallons of oil or 20 therms of natural gas.

4. Garbage - the average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY.

5. Water. The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons PER PERSON, PER DAY.

-Rainwater you collect is unlimited.

6. Consumer Goods. The best metric I could find for this is using money. A Professor at Syracuse University calculates that as an average, every consumer dollar we spend puts .5 lbs of carbon into the atmosphere. This isn’t perfect, of course, but it averages out pretty well.
The average American spends 10K PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on
consumer goods, not including things like mortgage, health care, debt service, car payments, etc… Obviously, we recommend you minimize those things to the extent you can, but what we’re mostly talking about is things like gifts, toys, music, books, tools, household goods, cosmetics, paper goods, etc… A 90% cut would be 1,000 dollars PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR

-Used goods are deemed to have an energy cost of 10% of their actual purchase price. That is, if you buy a used sofa for $50, you just spent $5 of your allotment. The reason for this is that used goods bought from previous owners put money back into circulation that is then spent on new goods. This would apply to Craigslist, Yardsales, etc… but not goodwill and other charities, as noted below. This rule does not apply if you know that the item would otherwise be thrown out - that is, if someone says, “If you don’t buy it, I’m going to toss it.” Those items are unlimited as well, because they keep crap out of landfills. Because garbage is such a heavy methane producer, making use of stuff that would be thrown away is a great improvement!

-Goods that were donated are deemed to be unlimited, with no carbon cost. That is, you can spend all you want at Goodwill and the church rummage sale. Putting things back into use that would otherwise be tossed should be strongly encouraged.

7. Food. This was by far the hardest thing to come up with a simple metric for. Using food miles, or price gives what I believe is a radically inaccurate way of thinking about this. So here’s the best I can do. Food is divided into 3 categories.

#1 is food you grow, or which is produced *LOCALLY AND ORGANICALLY* (or mostly - it doesn’t have to be certified, but should be low input, because chemical fertilizers produce nitrous oxide which is a major greenhouse contributor). Local means within 50-100 miles to me (you can choose your own metric - we’ll be using 50). This includes all produce, grains, beans, and meats and dairy products that are mostly either *GRASSFED* or produced with *HOME GROWN OR LOCALLY GROWN, ORGANIC FEED.* That is, chicken meat produced with GM corn from IOWA in Florida is not local. A 90% reduction would involve this being AT LEAST 70% of your diet, year round. Ideally, it would be even more. I also include locally produced things like soap in this category, if most of the ingredients are local.

#2 is is *DRY, BULK* goods, transported from longer distances. That is, *whole, unprocessed* beans, grains, and small light things like tea, coffee, spices (fair trade and sustainably grown *ONLY*), or locally produced animal products partly raised on unprocessed but non-local grains, and locally produced wet products like oils. This is hard to calculate, beause Americans spend very little on these things (except coffee) and whole grains don’t constitute a large portion of the diet. These are comparatively low carbon to transport and produce. Purchased in bulk, with minimal packaging (beans in 50lb paper sacks, pasta in bulk, tea loose, by the pound, rather than in little bags), this would also include things like recycled toilet paper, purchased garden seeds and other light, dry items. This should be no more than 25% of your total purchases.

# 3 is Wet goods - meat, fruits, vegetables, juices, oils, milk etc… (we’re going to assume you’ll buy organic whenever possible, but transporting water and wet things around is still way too energy intensive) transported long distances, and processed foods like chips, soda, potatoes. Also regular shampoo, dish soap, etc… And that no one should buy more than 5% of their food in this form. Right now, the above makes up more than 50% of the average person’s diet.

Thus, if you purchase 20 food items in a week, you’d use 14 home or locally produced items, 5 bulk dry items, and only 1 processed or out of season thing.

Ok, let me know what you think and if you are still in! My brain hurts!

Here are our best estimates: Right now we’re using:

Gas: We’ve achieved a 71% reduction - I think this will be our toughest category, especially dealing with Eli’s bus ride to the private school for the disabled he attends.

Electricity: We’ve achieved a 60ish percent reduction - we’re still trying to estimate the impact of Eric’s job and Eli’s school, but 60 is about right.

Heating oil: We used about 55% less than average last year, because our original woodstove was disconnected during the house renovations. We used almost no wood for the same reason.

Garbage: This one isn’t clear to me, because we’ve never weighed our garbage before this week ;-). But if the last week is any representative, we make about 1/3 the garbage of the average family.

Water: We’ve got about a 60% reduction, less than we would have if our new composting toilets were finally set up. We haven’t been as conservative about water, particularly for bathing, as we might be, because we live in a wet climate. This will make us be more careful. It’ll also make me get the cistern finished!

Consumer goods: This year is probably not very representative, because we’re still on our not-buying things year. We actually are very close to a 90% reduction, and most of what we spent was on seeds and plants, and I’m not sure whether this should fall under food or goods. I actually suspect we’ll get to buy more stuff - because we can rescue used goods - doing this than we have in the last year ;-).

Food: Again, we’re not very far off of this one right at the moment - maybe 80%? But the change on this one will be somewhat difficult because it will mostly involve our kids, especially Eli, who is very attached to certain things like popsicles and cheerios.

So we’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m excited, and nervous. I hope you are excited too!


The Juggler’s Lament, Ecological Collapse and Making Change

Sharon May 17th, 2007

I really recommend that you check out this article at The Oil Drum, #node/2534. Professor Francois Cellier does a fascinating analysis of the impact of ecological footprints, the Human Development Index and the problem of population. Although I don’t agree with everything Professor Cellier says, I think he does an excellent job of reviewing the peculiar, and serious stresses on our society and environment. He leaves some important points out, including the possibility of further reducing our footprints voluntarily, and also of voluntarily reducing populations.

Now I’m going to play prophet for a moment, with the caveat that I’m really no better at it than anyone else, and that I’m often wrong. But my guess is that within the next two decades, probably sooner, things will get very, very different, and not in a very nice way. And that when we get there, instead of our being able to point to a single cause “Oh, it was peak oil” or “Damn that climate change” the problem will be a concatenation of factors, many of which we won’t recognize when they happen.

Believe it or not, that true of the great depression. Economists and historians still don’t have a clear consensus on why the great depression happened, or why it lasted as long as it did. There are theories and arguments, but there is no single event that one can point to. And I predict that we’ll find ourselves puzzling (to various degrees) about what went wrong eventually.

One of the most fascinating passages in _The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update_ is one that describes the way their computer models began to show collapses not due to any single factor, but due, ultimately, to the system being unable to cope.

Wait a minute, you say, _The Limits to Growth_? Didn’t we debunk that a long time ago? Actually, the answer is no. The original LTG was a series of models that offered projected possible outcomes. What people remember about it was the direst set of predictions, which were only one of three such models offered up, and which authors specifically said were not intended to be specifically predictive. When you look at the moderate predictions offered by LTG, in fact, it turns out that it was fairly accurate. The problem lay mostly in the publicity.

Since then, the original authors from the Club of Rome have put together two further volumes, the most recent of which was released in 2004. They are now using even more complex computer modelling (than existed in the 1970s), but generally speaking, their current modelling validates their older models as well.

In the 30 year update, Meadows, Meadows and Randers ran multiple models of their “World 3″ program, with different inputs. In some of their models, a single factor brought about a crisis - pollution and global warming, or resource depletion. But in others, the origins of the problem were multicausational - the intersection of multiple problems like capital shortages, failures of food production, pollution, soil degradation, depletion began to intersect and exacerbate one another. As they write,

“A second lesson is that the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is to run into several of them at the same time. In most World3 runs, including many we have not shown here, the world system does not totally run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability. What it runs out of is the ability to cope.” (TLG30, 223)

In one scenario, society addresses the fundamental problem of pollution, but cannot, because of it, resolve the problem of declining agricultural yields. In another, so much capital is diverted to compensatory strategies for dealing with loss of services and new crises that the economy collapses. Or investment in human resources (education, health and welfare, etc…) are eternally deferred to fund war or address crises, until it isn’t possible to resolve the technical problems forthcoming.

Over at Running on Empty, Robert Waldrop recently made the connection between the news that tornado cleanup and response were delayed because too many national guardsmen were off at war, the failure of Hurricane Katrina and this basic problem - the inability of the system on a small scale to cope with one too many problems. We can juggle only so many balls in the air before they start to fall, one by one, to the ground. Whether or not Robert’s contention is right, one of the reasons I am less than wholly optimistic about our long term future is simply this - we now have an awful lot of balls in the air. I know most of you already know this, but just in case, let’s go over some of them:

1. As far as anyone can tell, world oil production seems to have peaked in Spring of 2005. There are some new fields coming on line, although they will not do more than (at best) offset the massive declines of major energy sources. Cantarell (Mexico) is declining at double digit rates. The Saudis are down by 8% in the last year, and show no signs of being able to raise production - in fact, they are predicting decreasing demand due to conservation (probably wishful thinking), which looks awfully like an excuse for not producing. While we may yet see a slightly later peak, the GAO report notes that a majority of petroleum analysts now believe we are at peak.

2. Natural gas is likely to reach its peak in the next decade, and has peaked for the US, and probably North America as well. Two new studies on coal resources suggest that we could reach the halfway mark on coal extraction in as little as 10 to 15 years. Since a vast majority of mitigation plans for climate change have depended on the vision of “clean” coal as an unlimited resource, this means a real reduction in the likelihood that this will be possible. Add to that the fact that the Americas are most likely already past their peak, and that coal is tremendously expensive to transport (as is LNG), and it seems unlikely that either fuel will fill the depletion curve.

3. Climate change is likely to take between 2 and 20 percent of the whole world’s GDP for mitigation over the next decades. As a large group of scientist warned recently, week, almost everything about climate change is proceeding faster than predicted in any model. The one consistent truth about climate change is that we have no idea exactly what we’re getting into, but it is probably bad.

4. Americans are increasingly living on the edge. Americans now have a negative savings rate, which means that they are living on borrowed money to an enormous degree. The housing market has fueled much of this borrowing, but seems to be on the verge of a crash - foreclosures are rising rapidly, and are expected to increase by 4000 percent over last year in California alone. Most major economists are now predicting a recession - which means job losses. Right now, people are able to get along spending more than they make and borrowing more than they can repay - what happens when job losses begin to rise and people begin to seriously lose their houses?

4. The American economy is also over-extended. We are enormously indebted, and there are troubling signs that China and Japan may not want to loan us money we have no hope of repaying forever. Our national credit rating has been effectively downgraded, and China particularly has been making noises about ceasing to buy US Treasuries. Since this is what is propping up our currency to a large degree, cessation will mean inflation, economic crisis, etc…

5. We are involved in failing wars on two fronts, and we are investing money we could spend on domestic resources in getting our own kids blown up in the middle east. There is every reason to believe that our current president plans to open a third front with Iran, perhaps via Israel, to give us a formal excuse to intervene. Meanwhile, domestic priorities are languishing. Real wages are falling, as are high school and college graduation rates. The percentage of Americans with no insurance is rising, as is the percentage who are food insecure and truly poor. Social support programs like fuel assistance and food pantries are increasingly overwhelmed.

6. Worldwide, agricultural yields are falling while populations rise. We are eating our grain reserves, and because of our growing reliance on biofuels, we are risking starving the poor world, inflating prices for the rich world while depleting our remaining agricultural resources to keep our cars going. The world now has less than 3 weeks grain reserves, as Australia essentially gives up on a meaningful harvest and Europe struggles with a spring drought.

7. Economic inequity of every sort is on the rise. 60% of China’s much vaunted wealth is in the hands of less than 1% of its population. American economic inequality is as bad as it was right before the stock market crash. One out of every 7 Americans currently lives on $7 per day, which is roughly equivalent to the $2 per day that constitutes absolute poverty in third world nations - that is, one out of every seven Americans would, but for the increasingly shredded safety net, be living in the equivalent of a third world slum. Growing shantytowns in California and Arizona actually do look just like third world slums.

8. By 2050, one out of every 3 people in the world is expected to be short of water, and 1 person out of 7 can expect to be displaced. According to some climate models, much of the American west has a 100% chance of severe, annual warm season droughts. The same is true for much of Australia, the Mediterranean and Southern Europe, and vast parts of Europe and Asia. Almost 1 billion people may be water refugees.

There are more, of course - we could write about the decreasing critical thinking and educational skills of average Americans, the aging population, rising anger and rejection of the political process, corporate power, the problem of dealing with an increasing number of disasters, the structural problem of dismantling and rebuilding infrastructure like car based transportation systems and globalized economies, but you get the point. The problem isn’t peak oil, or climate change, or water depletion in and of itself. The problem is that the juggler has all the balls in the air right now, and more are coming. And no matter how deft and graceful, at some point, the juggler falters.

So here is the question. Can we voluntarily give things up? Can we change our rate of consumption, and choose what amounts to voluntary peasantry? Can we drop our ecological footprint, our needs and desires, our habits and practices enough that we can be ready when the juggler drops the ball? Or maybe even help the juggler hold on?

I know some of you don’t really believe in collapse. After all, the 20th century meant the invention of world-scale collapse, and ever since we discovered we could actually kill pretty much the whole human race, we’ve been fascinated with it and going on about it. If you are a baby boomers, you’ve lived through nuclear annhilation drills and ice age predictions, an energy crisis, worries about epidemics and y2k, and you are still a middle class guy with a mortgage. So why believe in this one?

I’d say for two reasons. The first is that the odds are so good - again, look at the models. Remember, TLG didn’t predict a likely collapse in the 1970s - new reporters fixated on TLG did. The timing proposed wasn’t radically dissimilar to the one we’re actually seeing. Is collapse inevitable? No, it isn’t. But there is no question that if you start using up your capital, someday you will be broke. And we’re using our capital at an alarming rate - we’re depleting the soil our kids will grow food on. We’re burning the forests that they will use to modulate temperatures. We’re polluting and using up the water they will want to drink. I do not think we should bet on ths problem never coming home to roost - or on their forgiving us for it.

But more importantly, look back at your parents and your grandparents. How many of them went through their lives without something that resembled a major disaster - a war or three, a depression, a pogrom, a decolonialization, a revolution, a monetary collapse, inflation, or something more person - hunger, disability, disease without safety net. Why is it that we’ve come to believe that 3 generations of peace and prosperity means that nothing bad will ever happen again? I’m pretty sure that during the prosperous late 10th and early-to-mid 11th century in Britain, most of the peasants thought nothing bad would ever happen again too. After all, Britain had been at peace and prosperous for nearly a hundred years, or so they thought in 1065.

We really only have two choices, whether viewed from an ethical or a practical perspective. One of them is to stop hoarding all the cookies, stop stealing from future generations, stop fucking over the poor, and start living, right now, like an ordinary person in an ordinary world. We need to stop believing our wealth can protect us from everything, and accept that a certain degree of vulnerability is a reality. We need to be willing to make the ordinary sacrifices that other generations have made for their own children - that is, to give up our comforts and wealth and risk our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor in order to ensure a future for our kids.

The other choice is to let it happen on its own, and to see if we can inhabit the space of collapse. See if we can get along - if we’ll be as fortunate as the Cubans, or if this will be more like the Soviet Union, where lifespans dropped into the 50s, or like Iraq. And the choice is to be known to the rest of the world as people who took up their responsibilities, or as the most hated nation in the world, the ones who kept fiddling while the earth burned.

Which brings me to the project I wrote about in “Starting the Riot For Austerity” - Miranda and I (and a bunch of you - have I mentioned how grateful I am to have the company!?) are going to try and make massive cuts in our emissions and energy use. When I proposed this project, I didn’t realize quite how difficult it would be even for us. I thought “we’re used to consuming little, what’s a bit less.” But this is a lot less - we’re looking at living a lot more like Chinese peasants (at least in terms of energy consumption, if not lifestyle) than like Americans. And that’s scary - for all that we know that the life of an ordinary peasant (that is, most human beings through most of history) was not inevitably a hell, Americans are opposed to being peasants. The message of America is “I’m extraordinary, and I’m entitled to everything I can get my hands on.” Peasants are ordinary. Their entitlements are traditional, fairly simple, and imperfect.

I wish I could say that I’d have the courage to do this simply because it was morally right. I’m not sure that’s true. I’m a coward sometimes. But we’ve moved past right to moraly necessary. If we are to inhabit our future, we can do it gracefully, or be dragged kicking and screaming along by events. I choose grace, or I think I do.

I’ll be posting more information about our emissions/energy cuts project later today or tomorrow. We’ve made some revisions and are still working on the details of setting up simple calculations.



Cow Dance

Sharon May 16th, 2007

Just about three years ago, I was planting corn. It was a damp, drizzly day, which was good, because we needed the rain, but muddy. So I decided to try planting corn a different way than my usual “hoe to cover technique.” I dropped the corn seeds in the wet furrow, and then, instead of hoeing them, I took off my shoes and danced in the mud, using my bare feet to cover up the corn. I joked to myself that I might be able to call down a good, soaking rain that way.

Now you have to understand that my house is between two hills, and at the time (we’ve since acquired a nearer neighbor), the nearest neighbors were at least a quarter mile away. Now during the daytime, our street usually gets about a couple of cars an hour, so generally speaking, I wasn’t too worried about being spotted and laughed at.

Well, I must have gotten pretty engrossed in what I was doing, because I was dancing away, and our young dog Rufus was napping underneath the wheelbarrow, when all of a sudden, I looked up, and there were a dozen cows, standing about 5 feet from me, watching me dance.

Now I live in the country, and it is dairy farming territory, so there are cows about, but not usually in my garden. While once in a while someone’s cow breaks a fence and blocks traffic for a few minutes (if you ever come to visit, you should know that neither cows nor slow hay trucks respond to horns, so don’t even bother ;-), but a dozen cows right next to me are something a bit unusual.

There was a long pause, while the cows and I considered one another. My thought pattern went something like this. “Ummm…something strange…does not compute…are there supposed to be cows here? I wasn’t dancing for cows. (I have no idea why I immediately jumped to the mad conclusion that somehow this had something to do with my dancing - proof of insanity, I think.) Hmmm…better find out where they came from…” I have no idea what the cows were thinking, but it was probably rather more lucid than my own thoughts, which included a brief moment of embarassment that the cows had seen me dancing. Why, I have no idea.

Unfortunately, just as I realized I should feed the cows something (other than the basil they were eyeing) and call my dairy farming neighbors to find out which ones were missing some cows, Rufus woke up, and apparently went through a similar, if doggier thought process, approximately “Huh? What the… Cows! Wait a minute, no one said anything about cows here. Must. Bark. Furiously.” And the cows rather rapidly disappeared across the road.

I was planting corn yesterday, and thus thinking about my cow dance, and I was briefly tempted to try and use the cows as a metaphor for the weird-seeming things we all are doing in our little efforts to conserve. Thankfully, though, since it would have been awkward and tendentious, I spare you that. Plus, the thing about the cows that was important was that the cows didn’t seem at all troubled by what I was doing. It was me who was worried about what things looked like. To the cows, it was just interesting.

I leave to you, then, to take what you might from this story. Perhaps it could be a useful object lesson that the gazes we sometimes worry about are often just curious. Or perhaps a story of magical realism, in which it turns out that we ordinary people do have almost-magical powers to bring things about - but the things we bring about aren’t the ones we intend. We dance for rain, and we get cows, and the challenge is to be happy about the cows and put them to use.

Or, perhaps I’m low on blog material today, and this is just a story about a goofy woman, with corn to plant, dancing in the rain, watched by a herd of cows. Who knows?


How To Keep Your House

Sharon May 15th, 2007

Well, it has been a few weeks of really nasty economic news for poor folks. To recap, we’ve been told that gas will probably go to $4 per gallon (which many of us laud as a good thing, but is effectively the ’screw the poor’ method of encouraging conservation), with a decent chance of shortages, that Con Ed here in New York will raise its electric prices by 12%, that a minimum of 1.1 million additional foreclosures are expected next year, that the price of food is up 12% in the US (and more than 25% in poor nations where people already spend 60% or more of their income on food), that in Boston 8,000 people stand to have all their utilities cut off for non-payment and that pretty soon the Southwest is going to choose between having power and water to drink. Plus, of course, there’s the IPCC mitigation report, which does not quite add up to “we’re all gonna die” but given that the world target figures of even the most ambitious nations don’t come near making the full cut in in the full amount of time, are not good news. Oh, and guess what - clean coal, always an illusion, just got a little more illusory, with coal peaks in the next 10-20 years according to two seperate analyses

A few months back, I wrote an essay about how likely it is that many of us will not have grid-supplied electricity in the future, not because I’m prognosticating the apocalyptic end of the grid, but because we won’t be able to afford it. The essay is here: if

anyone is interested. Unfortunately, I think this is one of the predictions I’ve made that is turning out to be right - as energy costs rise, a (at first) small but increasing number of people will be priced out of fossil fuels altogether in the US, just as many of the poorest people in the world are losing their access to fossil fuel due to rising prices. Most of the people who read this blog probably haven’t been affected yet. But give it time.

You must be wondering why I’m going on about utilities when this post is titled, “how to keep your house.” But the two are connected. When people lose property to foreclosure, they’ve often already gotten themselves in deep in other ways as well. And sometimes, the problem ends up being that you have to pay so many other high priced bills that you can’t pay the mortgage. But there are ways to reduce the sheer number of bills you have to pay, including turning off your utilities.

Now on to the official subject - what happens if you are one of the million (s) of people who stand to lose their homes in the next year or two, due to rising interest rates, a stumbling economy and inflation for everything else? Even if you don’t think you fall into this category, you may yet be surprised. So far, job growth has merely slowed - we’re not seeing large scale layoffs. But it doesn’t take much to tip the economy into a real recession, and most of the major economic figures are now starting to predict one. Given the confluence of unpleasantness facing us, do you really want to bet your life that you’ll keep your job? And how long could you keep up your mortgage payments without a salary? Or what if your employer drops health insurance and other benefits - how long before the costs of meeting basic family needs made it impossible for you to keep up with everything else? Americans are very poorly prepared for the coming crisis - they are overwhelmingly in debt, have little or no savings (the average Baby Boomer has less than 10K saved for a rapidly approaching retirement - and they have more than the rest of us), and has a large mortgage. American national savings rates are at -.5, but that’s actually misleading - the savings rate doesn’t count in the costs of housing, which are wildly inflated. So the amount we’re overspending our income, some analysts estimate is really more like *5%* annually - that is, Americans are spending significantly more than they earn every single year. With the dollar falling, we can expect to see prices rising for a good long time. That’s the makings of a real mess. So none of us should be too complacent about what we have.

First of all, I hate to say this, but you should think seriously about whether your house is worth saving, or savable. That is, before I offer any suggestions on how to avoid being foreclosed upon, take a clear eyed and hard look at your life and think about whether you want to even try. Because there are some people who are going to lose their houses anyhow, and others who may be pouring good money after bad to keep something they don’t need.

The questions you should ask yourself are these. Did I buy my house at the price peak? Because if you did, sorry to say, there’s a good chance you’ll never regain your equity. So you need to ask yourself, do you want to spend 30 years paying off a house that cost too much? Will you be able to pay it for the next 30 years? Can you afford this house? Think seriously about this one. But, you say, I can’t get my house price back. Well, but if this is a long term decline, you won’t be getting it anyway. Are you prepared to see equity drop even further, to stay in your house for a decade or more, or to take an even bigger loss? Sometimes it is better to cut and run.

Did you put much money down? Do you have an ARM (adjustible rate mortgage, or g-d forbid, an interest only loan?) And how much of your income goes to this mortgage? If it is more than 1/3 of your household income, and you absolutely need both jobs to pay your mortgage, while having little or no equity, you should start looking for a buyer today. Because the odds are good that sooner or later you’ll lose your house - or be trapped in it forever, scrimping and struggling to own a property that will never be worth what you paid for. It is always better to get out on your own terms than to have the bank foreclose on you. Even if you lose some money, it is better than your losing everything you’ve paid into the house up until now.

Remember, banks don’t really want to own houses. They don’t like foreclosing (although they don’t dislike it so much they won’t do it, unfortunately.) And they also know that the longer they can keep you paying for something, the better off they come out in a foreclosure situation. So they are likely to be extremely “kind” for a good while, offering to lower payments or help you out with late ones. But only you know if this is real kindness - there’s nothing helpful to you about you paying a lot of money to the bank that you’ll never see again, only to lose the house later. Again, if you think you will have to get out, do it on your own terms.

Do you want to live in this house for the long term? If you bought this house in the hopes trading up, if it has no yard, or is in an area with restrictive covenants and high property taxes, if it is house that shows off your lifestyle more than meets your needs, perhaps getting out and buying a much cheaper property somewhere else is worth it.

Remember, there are areas of the country that are not overvalued. And even if that means changing jobs or careers, you might have a better, more secure life if you lived less on the financial edge. We tend to think that our jobs and careers are non-negotiable - “I have to live here - that’s where the jobs are.” But there’s no need to fetishize your job - it is, presumably, mostly how you manage to keep body and soul together, not the whole reason for your existence. And if that is true, consider carefully whether you might not be able to live as well somewhere else, being paid a bit less or doing something somewhat different. Obviously, this won’t work for everyone, and there are those for whom a job is a passion. But if your job isn’t your life, and you live in an expensive place, and are already concerned about keeping up, think seriously about going somewhere cheaper. Salaries will be lower, but then, so will costs.

But assuming that you do want to stay in your house, but that you are already struggling or forsee difficulties, how do you do it? Of course, the first thing is to get the heck out from under any other debt you have if possible. If you can see this coming while you still have an income, then the first thing you do is cut *WAAAAAAYYY* back on everything. That means no more meals out, no more cable, no more keeping the heat and a/c at 70, get rid of the car with the payment and replace it with a junker or take the bus, buy everything used that you can, and don’t buy much of that. Get rid of the dryer and line dry your clothes Plant a garden and eat that instead. For many of us, this isn’t news. For the rest, this will be hard. You won’t die from it, though. Divide the money you save (track it!) into two funds - one savings, one debt reduction. Pay off the highest interest rates first. Consider consolidating to a short term 0% interest credit card, and then paying it off diligently.

Are things more urgent than that? Are you starting to feel the pinch already? Well cut back some more - sell the computer, and give up the internet - go to the library instead. Find a carpool and give up your car. Dump the tae kwon do for the kids, and teach them to cook from scratch and play pick up soccer instead. Go vegetarian. Give up luxuries like coffee and beer. Make your fun at home. Turn the thermostat way down (or up, depending on whether we’re talking about heating and cooling), cut the water bill by limiting showers to 3 minutes. Again, use the money to pay down debt and build some savings.

But what if you are already in trouble - the utility people are threatening to shut you off, the mortgage people are threatening to foreclose, the bill collectors are calling day and night? What then?

First of all, the bill collectors can’t call you if you tell them not to. Tell them not to. And don’t panic or go into denial. It is easy to feel that you “just can’t deal” with all of this, or to be so ashamed that you can’t focus on fixing it. Right now, people are getting poorer - real incomes are falling, inequities are rising. If you are one of them, you should not buy into the notion that you are a bad person, who is making bad choices. And if you have made bad choices, remember, all of us have. So forgive yourself, resolve not to do it again, recognize that this isn’t your fault, or wholly your fault, and get your butt in gear and concentrate on ensuring yourself a stable place to live. One of the most remarkable things about American culture is how much we blame poor people for being poor - we isolate them, tell them it is a moral failure and that they are scum. DON’T BUY IT! This is the beginnings of a systemic failure, and if it is hitting your before your neighbors, that’s probably mostly bad luck. Even if you made mistakes, everyone does - yours just hit you harder.

Second of all, if things are that dire, make an order of priority. First is food. Get the cheapest healthy food you can - don’t live on ramen noodles. But buy whole grains and beans and live on bread and bean soup, along with the dandilions from your yard and produce you buy at the very end of the day for bargain prices at the farmer’s market. Second, is needed medicine. Every state now has insurance programs for poor children - get your kids on them. Check out drug company programs if you are genuinely dependent on some medication. But also think about whether you really need what has been prescribed for you - we are the most overmedicated people on the planet. Yes, I know that you are about to say that you really, really need your drugs. And maybe you do. But think about whether if you could rest more or live differently or relax a little more you might not be able to get away without things. Remember, Americans use the health care system more and take more drugs than anyone in the world - but other places have longer lifespans and higher qualities of life. It may be that a little less medication would help. Or perhaps you could choose a cheaper, older drug. Talk to your doctor about this, and don’t mess with it on my advice alone, of course.

The next thing should be your house - the reason you should keep your house (assuming it is worth keeping as above) is that the land you are on allows you to grow food, the house is shelter, etc… So you need to keep your home and garden going. Make sure you are planting every inch of lawn with fruit trees, bushes and gardens. You’ll want to eat that food. Call up your extension agents and ask if they can help you find sources for divisions and inexpensive seeds, or hook you up with a garden mentor. Every dollar you don’t spend on food is one you can put towards the mortgage. If you are older, and can’t do as much, call your local garden club or 4 H and explain your situation - tell them you need to garden, but can’t put one in, could some nice strong teenagers help you out.

Consider adding more people to your house - allow a friend, college student or relative to come live with you in exchange for a small rent. Or perhaps you could take in a local elder who can’t live independently, but can meet most of their own needs. Those giant houses we’ve been building all these years of the boom - the problem is that there aren’t enough people in them

If you have children, talk to them about what’s going on, and enlist their help. Any child over 10 can work to meet some of their own needs, or even give a little money to the family to help. I know, you don’t want to do that - you don’t want to worry them, you don’t want to ask your kids to help support the family. Well, I’m going to be blunt. First of all, they already know things are dire - they aren’t stupid. What they may not know is exactly what’s wrong, but unless you are very, very gifted at denial they’ve already felt your fear, seen your stress, heard you fight, etc… So sitting down and talking to them (at an age appropriate level) can only make it better, and help them work out their own anxieties. And giving them something productive to do, while valuing their contribution, is actually good for them. I don’t mean that your kids should quit school, but saying, “It would be a big help if you would mow lawns for your snack and activity money” or “If you could watch your sister so that Daddy could look for a job, we’d be grateful.” One of the real problems our society has is that children don’t do enough work, and they don’t feel valued. Let your kids help you out of this one. You may worry it will scar them to have to give up activities and go to work - once upon a time, we used to call this “building character.” I suspect we will again.

Sell stuff. Don’t just turn off your freezer, sell it. Get rid of the big appliances. Get rid of fancy, newer stuff and replace it with cheaper older stuff. It may not seem like selling those new sofas would be worth it, but if you can get $250 off of Craig’s List, and then get another for $50, you are $200 ahead. To be blunt, the whole nation got into an economic mess by looking at pretty pictures and thinking “I want that. I should have that.” Well, we need to go back to houses that reflect our real standard of living - poorer. That’s no shame and we’ll have to get used to it. And while we’re at it, stop reading the catalogs, the magazines and watching tv - don’t look at the pretty pictures that create desire.

Because mortgage payments and property tax assessments are such a large part of your costs, the idea is to cut back wherever you can elsewhere. You may be able to reduce your tax assessment if property prices have fallen in your area. Consider requesting a new assessment.

And you can (you may not like it much) cut back in a myriad of ways. That is, it is perfectly possible to continue living in your house without electricity or heat in many cases. It won’t be easy. But if you consider you consider your house worth it, think seriously about it. The average American could save more than a thousand dollars a year by giving up utilities. First you minimize, but if things get tough, turn it off. You can keep cool by sitting outside in the shade with your feet in a 5 dollar kiddie pool, and turn off the a/c. You can keep warm by bundling up, moving around a lot and drinking hot tea. There’s no reason for anyone to ever die of heat stroke or cold in a house - I know it happens all the time, but it doesn’t *have* to.

Most people who die of heat stroke are elderly, small children or disabled, and they don’t realize they are becoming stressed and confused. But with simple attentions, things as basic as cool cloths and a footbath can keep someone from overheating in very hot weather, and warm clothing, moving around, hot stones or hot water bottles and blankets can keep you more than adequately warm in the cold. It takes preparation and thought, but you do not need either heating or cooling to live - as evidenced by the billions of people who live without them.

You do need water, and that may mean electricity. It also might mean a hand pump, if you can get ahold of one. They cost a few hundred dollars, but can pump water up from 200 feet down by hand. Or some rainbarrels (food grade only), or even a hand-dug cistern (dig a deep hole, line it with stone or cement, let the water wash off your roof into it. Don’t drink it without filtering. Consider a handmade composting toilet. John Jenkins’s _The Humanure Handbook_ is available for free download online - google it, and try building one. It really requires only a bit of scrap wood and a five gallon bucket, and is easy to do. I would reccomend being quiet about it, though.
And *do not* skimp on water for washing hands - your health depends on this, and you can’t afford to get sick.

I’d keep lights and a stove as long as possible, but it is possible to do without even these things. A simple solar cooker can get you through the summer, and you can build an outdoor oven for the winter - make it with bricks or cement, and use little bits of wood and kindling to get it hot enough to bake/cook stews and casseroles in.

Get a push mower for your lawn, so that the neighbors don’t complain too much, if you can, or quietly go to a neighbor and work out a barter arrangement to borrow their mower. I mention this not because I care about your lawn - personally, I’d rather see it turned into food plants - but because your neighbors are more likely to remain your allies if they are aware you are paying attention to their property values.

This will not be easy or pleasant. The one thing I would do is caution you to avoid letting people know that you have turned off your utilities. There are a few cases of over-zealous social workers taking children out of homes without power because this is a necessity. A Mennonite family I know approached a social worker in my state about wanting to adopt disabled kids, and were told that they could lose their own children for not having running water. Later on, they were told this was not true, but this isn’t something you want to mess with. Try and avoid making a big public thing about this.

On the other hand, feel free to make use of support programs and other resources if necessary. If your kids need school lunches or breakfasts, get them. If you can’t buy clothes, check the free bin. If you need food, don’t be ashamed to use the food pantry. Just remember - pay it back and then some when you can. Because the next time, it will be your neighbor.
Ultimately, the moment you know your house is in danger, you should go into triage mode - first, decide whether to keep it. If you are going to keep it, make your focus ensuring that that can happen, and recognize that everything else is secondary. You can do this - the life you are changing towards is likely to be familiar to many of us in time. And it is eminently doable.

I hope this helps someone.


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