Archive for June, 2007

Constitutionally Unsuited to the 21st Century

Sharon June 22nd, 2007

The last two weeks have been madness here - multiple end of school events, a big synagogue charitable event, deadlines for articles, for submission of homeschooling materials, for preparation for a class I’m teaching, various social and community obligations, lots of short notice changes, appointments and schedulced events, and, of course, lots and lots of work in the gardens and on various books.

I’ve found myself living a life rather like the one that a lot of my friends do, in which days are scheduled to the hilt, much time is spent running around or getting ready to run around or doing things. This is rather unlike my own life, and that’s by intent. Generally speaking, we try hard to keep a comparatively slow pace, but things snuck up on us. And I don’t it like it very much. I hate when I’m saying “ok, we’re home from 2:30 to 3:15, and then we’ve got to…”

Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, because I know plenty of people who arrange their lives this way and seem contented. Two of my dearest friends maintain two fairly high powered jobs, their kids have a full schedule of activities, they are active volunteers at the synagogue, the school she teaches at and the university he does. Their kids play sports, have music lessons, all sorts of social activities and they seem not only happy, but comfortable. They are actually remarkably good at this life - most of the trouble comes from the fact that neither parents sleeps more than 5 hours a night.

I on the other hand seem to be ill designed for this. I find myself rushing, and worrying about being late, and that’s when I start snapping at the kids “Simon, come *ON* - get your shoes, we have to leave *RIGHT NOW!*” I don’t feel I write well or think all that clearly when my mind is on something else as well. And it leads me to wonder whether there’s something wrong with me personally, whether, in fact, I am simply constitutionally unsuited to the pace of 21st century life, or whether there’s something wrong with the expectation that we’ll all run around like this.

My kids mostly seem to have inherited this lack of taste for running around. My three year old, Isaiah is a particular homebody, who will happily spend hours picking chard and flowers for the table, and often asks if he can stay home with whoever is not going somewhere. This week pushed all of us - my 20 month old was calling ‘Go home, go home’ by the end of the day yesterday, in which we dropped of educational materials, brought end of school thank you gifts (which Mommy had stayed up making the night before) to eldest child’s school, dropped Mommy off to volunteer at the shul, took the kids out for a picnic with friends, came back, picked me up, rushed home, cleaned the house, baked cookies for playdate, had playdate and sent husband out to make music with his new banjo while I stayed behind to make tofu, do laundry and catch up on email.

Now I really am open to the notion that it might be me. Except that a lot of the people I know, even the ones who do it to themselves quite voluntarily (as opposed to the folks I know who work 2 or 3 jobs just to get by), seem to worry about it. A lot of them talk about looking forward to a slow down period, or needing a rest, or feeling stressed out. And, in fact, it turns out that Americans in general seem to think that they really need to relax pretty badly.

For example, I recently received a magazine in the mail that seemed mostly to be about how people could “pamper” themselves. Advertisements like “You Work Hard. You Deserve to Be Pampered” and “Life is Hard. Embrace Luxury. Pamper Yourself” certainly seemed to emphasize how stressed out we are and how badly we need to be taken care of by someone. Since that person couldn’t possibly be ourselves - that is, we couldn’t meet our own needs for care - someone else has to do it, preferrably at an expensive spa, cruise or resort. Or, if you can’t afford that, several of the ads suggested you could, in fact, come up with an inferior version of self-pampering if you were to purchase perfume, body lotion or the right underwear.

Now the infantilizing description of pampering isn’t an accident, I suspect. Because only if we are stressed, exhausted, miserable and regressed to toddlerhood will we really miss the basic point - the 4K that the pampering vacation requires as a prerequisite requires you to work your heinie off during the year getting stressed and miserable. If, as seems likely for most Americans, you put it on your credit card, well, by the time you pay it off, you may have worked an extra 2 or 3 weeks just to justify that one week of “pampering.” Even if you get a massage every day, and lie in the pool and the sun, is it really worth that much extra labor?

In _Deep Economy_ Bill McKibben does a careful analysis of a great deal of data on personal happiness trying to answer the question of whether the life we live really does make us happy or not, and the answer he comes up with is a general “no.” There’s been a steady drop in the number of people who consider themselves happy since the 1950s. The most fascinating figures in McKibben’s book is the one that documents that money buys happiness up to a point - that until about the 10K (American equivalent) income ceiling. But, for example, when homeless peopel are housed, even in a slum, their estimates of their own satisfaction are about the same as the average college student’s. Which suggests to me not only does money not buy happiness after a certain point, but that our life as a whole isn’t good even for very young, comparatively unfettered people.

The message we get - we’re all supposed to work really, really hard, all the time, except when we regress into total consumption is a crazy one, but, of course, it is useful to the economy at large. Tired, stressed out people don’t have the energy to make dinner - much better to run through the drive through (and don’t think I’m judging anyone here - the only reason we *don’t* do this is that all the drive throughs are so far away we couldn’t possibly justify the trip as faster ;-)). They don’t have the energy to make things or do things - easier to watch tv. They don’t have the energy even to *think* critically about stuff. In fact, I find that myself after a high stress week - I find that when I’m tired and overwhelmed, it is very hard to care about other people, or the future or much of anything. I just want to be fed and nurtured and entertained and not have to think. Those are the days I want the 20 minute hot showers, the take out meals, mindless television and someone, anyone to “pamper” me.

Now for comparatively lucky and wealthy (by world standards) people like me, you can make trade offs on this one. My family’s household income is in the mid 30s most years. It stays pretty stable because if I make more money, we compensate for that by Eric working less. Some of that is necessity - we don’t have daycare, and the kids are homeschooled, so someone has to be around. And some of it is desire - we don’t want to rush too much. This year is unusual - I’ve got two book contracts and am working *a lot* more than usual - and I’m not always too thrilled about it. Both books should be done by early next year, and after that, if I ever get to write another, I’ve sworn we’ll never live like this again. And by the standards of your average overscheduled family, we’re still pretty low-key.

But what about most people in the world, who need to work long hours in order to stay employed and feed their families? They don’t really have a choice. Or what about parents who don’t have our advantages in education and who feel like they need their kids to have a lot of experiences for them to be able to compete? What about single parents, or those supporting disabled or elderly family members, people without health insurance? That is, what about most people, who might prefer to work less, but also feel unable to give up security in order to have a little breathing room?

One of the things that helps us is having a Sabbath. One day a week, we rest - and it can be a challenge to let go and stop work. But one day a year stands as a real holiday in our week, an oasis of relaxation, peace and pleasure in which we simply do not do the same work we do every day. On our sabbath we don’t consume, we don’t clean, the children don’t have chores, we try not to drive (except for religious and community things), we don’t spend money. We do nap, take walks, spend time with friends, eat good food, read, sing, talk, play. And every week we emerge, restored. It isn’t alway easy - but we consider this a great gift.

Whenever I tell this to people, they immediately reply that they couldn’t do that. And I do understand - many people can’t. But many could - religious Jews, rich or poor, for centuries have insisted - we will not work Saturdays, we will not buy Saturdays, we will act, in our own homes, as though we are free and at peace, even if the world around us mistreats us. There’s something powerful in claiming the right to a day of rest and peace, an act of resistance to the notion that there are those who have the right to compel you to do things - to work, to buy, to do. Of course, there are those who simply can’t find the power to do this alone. But we don’t always have to be alone

The options for those who would take more time away but lack the resources to do so are poor for individuals. But there are alternatives for people acting together. It was the labor movement that managed to get us the 5 day work week, the abolition of child labor, and all other changes. The women’s movement and concerted advocacy got women in the job market and access to almost all work. Over the next decade, we’re likely to experience a vast national retirement - baby boomers are going to be moving out of the workplace and leaving jobs open. By necessity, there are going to be fewer people working full time and more people out of the job market. This is likely to be stressful in many ways, as productivity makes some falls (fewer people doing more work), and there’s more work for fewer bodies. This is also likely to make workers more powerful - and that’s a good thing. It is conceivable that workers might be able to get their hours cut, or reduce the sheer numbers of workers in the workforce while raising salaries back to the days of one worker (although who shouldn’t be decided, as it once was, by gender) being able to actually support a family. This, of course, requires a degree of economic stability that may not happen - but on the off chance it does, we ought to take advantage.

Alternately, of course, if the more likely economic crisis occurs, we may not have much bargaining power at all - people desperate for work don’t. But then, the creation of local economies and local markets will be all that much more urgent, and we’ll only be grateful for any work we’ve done now on those things.

But whether or not we can work less, there are things we can choose to do in order to slow the pace of our lives. One of them is to try and make in our communities the things we now go far afield for. Things like food coops, babysitting coops, community gardens, farmer’s markets, local swap groups, small cottage businesses, homeschool groups, afterschool programs, play groups, summer stuff for kids to do…. Because the less we have to run around to meet our needs for support, friendship, good food, and other basics, the more we can relax. Those of us with the luxury of time can offer to share it with those who don’t have that luxury - “Can I pick up some stuff for you at the farmer’s market?” “Can I give you some basil?” “Could Rose come over and play with Steve and Annie after school one day a week?” “Could we get together once a month and bake together, and freeze extras?

And for all of us, a little work and time on self-sufficiency can reduce our need to work overtime, or maybe allow one family member to work part time or not at all. Reducing our needs, producing more of our own basic wants and needs, these things can be the key to more time, more freedom, less clock punching and more time doing whatever it is that makes you happy.

And perhaps we can change our notion of what constitutes luxury or pampering. There’s no doubt that time for yourself and time for pleasure are an enormous factor in our quality of life. But the person who works 55 hours a week and then comes home to dishes and laundry, 51 weeks a year so they can have someone bring them drinks and rub their backs the other week doesn’t sound lucky to me - it sounds to me like someone who doesn’t get nearly enough pleasure or luxury. Pampering, in the sense of being able to take care of yourself and have a little private joy is something that most of us should work to make an everyday thing - that doesn’t mean expensive luxuries or fancy scented crap - that means being able to do what brings you joy on a regular basis, whether that’s playing with your kids, or listening to the birds sing, reading on the couch or tinkering in your workshop, praying or singing, dancing with friends or playing pickup basketball. Instead of working long hours just to have those things, we should be seeking ways to meet those needs not once a year, but daily, and as part of a more peaceful life.


We Simply May Not Have Time to Wait for the Technology Fairy

Sharon June 20th, 2007

The simple facts are these - the IPCC report, which is scary enough, is vastly more conservative than it should be. It turns out that by every measure, the earth is warming faster than expected, and feedback loops are starting to build. In a paper released yesterday, major climate scientists evaluated 400,000 years of climate data and suggested that climate change could be far more deadly and far more rapid than we think.

Here’s the article, sent to me by several people:

It turns out that we have much less time to fix this than the IPCC or anyone else believes - a decade at most. And that our future is that much bleaker. And this article speaks only of one of the

The most disturbing bit of the article is the last line, particularly when read in parallel with the last comment of Ban Ki-Moon in the article I posted about yesterday.

Here’s what climate scientists say it will take to save the world, *along with* “draconian” emissions limits: “We conclude that a feasible strategy for planetary rescue almost surely requires a means of extracting [greenhouse gases] from the air.”

Now here’s what Mr. Ban says about saving Africa from climate change induced drought: “Any real solution to Darfur’s troubles involves sustained economic development,” perhaps using new technologies, genetically modified grains or irrigation, while bettering health, education and sanitation” (if you missed this article, the link is here:

That is, at the end of each article where a little hope is supposed to be offered, we are told that the only hope is a technological breakthrough - that is, that the authors can’t imagine anything that would fix this except a magic visit from the technology fairy. I don’t think I’m pushing the evidence to admit that in both cases, the speakers don’t fully know what to do, and they are, if not scared, at a loss to offer a real and immediate solution.

I’ve talked about the problems of waiting for technologies to emerge before. The whole process of developing them is quite carbon intensive, and with a decade to keep the planet from roasting, and vastly less to keep more violence from breaking out in Africa, we need a faster plan than “hope for new technologies.”

Moreover, just as our plans for renewable energies at this stage are working on the (wrong) assumption that we can still keep our private cars and still keep our houses at 70 degrees, and still be affluent, so too is at least Mr. Ban working on the assumption that we’re inevitably stuck with the same economic and political models. The simple hopelessness of his call is based, in part, on the inability to imagine real change. And it is hopeless within those parameters. It is hopeless if we have to wait for technology fairies. It is hopeless if we have to keep growth capitalism up and running forever.

The only hope we have is the notion that the assumptions we make are merely assumptions - that we don’t actually have to live as we do right now. That we don’t have to extract food from the third world, while burning our own dinners in our cars. That we don’t have keep growing - in fact, we can’t. That we can’t reduce our usage by not 50%, but 90 or 95%.

As far as I can tell, there is no better plan than this. Build soil. Plant trees. Grow food. Make Do. Do Without. Give what you can to others. Fix your mistakes. Cut your emissions to the bone, and then cut them some more. And every time it hurts (and it will sometimes), close your eyes and imagine your nieces and nephews or your children or grandchildren or your friend’s beloved children grown to womanhood and manhood in a world where there is food and peace and water. And then imagine them without. And ask yourself “What else don’t I need so I can bring about a decent future.”

Otherwise, when we say we can’t do it, we’re choosing the next generation’s future. The places we love underwater. Wild creatures that live only in zoos. The deaths of more than a billion people from drought and famine - some of them people we love personally, and all of them people we should be capable of caring about.

On the plus side, the Riot for Austerity is growing *FAST.* We’re working on transitioning to the creation of local groups in people’s communities - because that’s how we need this to spread, house to house, neighbor to neighbor. I know, it is hard that way - some of your neighbors won’t care. But give it time - the great thing about human beings is that very quickly, under the right cultural pressure, they forget they ever objected. Think about it - how many people living in the US will admit to having been a racist? Three? And yet there were tens of thousands of people all over the country who once were unashamed to admit to it - maybe millions. If you ask in Germany whose parents were involved, you’d get the impression that the Nazi party was 8 guys in a beer hall. The reality is that we re-write our history pretty fast. The neighbor who paves his lawn and loves his Hummer today is tomorrow’s “I was an environmentalist back before it was cool.” Our job is to nod and grin.

So put up a flyer in your library or at your post office, put an ad up online. Start a local group today! Link it to something else - “Carbon conscious banjo players” or “Fantasy Baseball Rioters for Austerity.” Make it fun. Throw a party. Get in the pool. Eat some good, local food. And remember, live your life with joy, but as though other people’s lives depended on it - they do.

BTW, I’m going to be on KMO’s C-Realm Podcast going up today - I’m flattered, because KMO has a lot cooler people than me on. In fact, he invited me on to discussion population issues raised by his prior guest, Dr. Albert Bartlett, but I also got to talk a little about sustainable agriculture, democracy and why my turkeys won’t stop pooping on my porch and eating my geraniums. I have infinitely slow dial-up, so those of you with decent connections will probably hear it long before I do - let me know if I said “umm…” every six seconds or not ;-)


Elegy in Fragments

Sharon June 19th, 2007

I receive news feeds on various issues from several sources. Every morning I get up and check my email, and see as many as 30 or 40 related news items on climate change, economic policy, energy, international events. I call it my in-box of doom, because so often the news is truly frightening, or achingly sad. And every once in a while, this vast grief of prose turns into poetry. That happened yesterday when Roel sent me this statement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

“”The Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change,” Ban said in a Washington Post opinion column.
UN statistics showed that rainfall declined some 40 percent over the past two decades, he said, as a rise in Indian Ocean temperatures disrupted monsoons.
“This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming,” the South Korean diplomat wrote.

“It is no accident that the violence in Darfur erupted during the drought,” Ban said in the Washington daily.
When Darfur’s land was rich, he said, black farmers welcomed Arab herders and shared their water, he said.
With the drought, however, farmers fenced in their land to prevent overgrazing.
“For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out,” he said.

A UN peacekeeping force may stop the fighting, he said, and more than two million people may return to rebuilt homes in safe villages.
“But what to do about the essential dilemma: the fact that there’s no longer enough good land to go around?”"


Think about those words. “For the first time in memory, there was no longer enough food and water for all. Fighting broke out.”

Think about how mystifying it must be to see the water stop coming and the food run short and know that other people are making this happen. Where does your anger go, except to the person next to you?

I read recently an interview with a Bangladeshi peasant who lost his farm and his land to flooding. He will now live in a slum, and eat and drink what he can get, in a house that is not his, rather than farming the land his grandparents farmed. He said, “I am told that all of this is because of electricity, but I promise you, I have never had even a single light bulb?”

How many lightbulbs have I had? Have you?

Roel appended a prose of statistics to append to his own elegaic observation “What will peacekeepers do in Darfur? Grow food? Make land?”

What indeed? I can grow food. Apparently, we can flick a switch and stop the rain. But I can’t make land, and I cannot make it rain.

Here are some numbers. That the drought in Australia comes with only 10% less rain - but that higher temperatures and increased evaporation mean 70% less water. Rainfall in sub-saharan Africa decreased 40% in 20 years. That 1/3 of all arable land has been rendered unusable or is in immanent danger of doing so from poor agricultural practices. That in the last 50 years, the population of Africa has tripled.

That yesterday, here in America, we made 5 BILLION gallons of ethanol from food people might have eaten. And today we’ll do it again. And again. Energy independence, you know.

That today each one of us will turn on a light switch, throw some clothes in the dryer, toss on a load of laundry, and a man without a lightbulb will wonder if he lost his land because it was his fault.

And when it is our turn to learn what it is like not to have enough food and water, where will the fighting break out?

I once wrote that peak oil and climate change aren’t the end of the world, that life goes on. And it does - for some of us. And for the rest, a small and endless, and desperate series of apocalypses ensues.

We did this. We have to fix it. What will we do?


52 Weeks Down - Week 8 - Lose the Petro-Lawn

Sharon June 18th, 2007

I live far enough away from my neighbors that I can’t hear what they do now, but I have vivid memories of Saturday morning in my small city, when all of a sudden, sleep was interrupted by the sound of a rhino passing a kidney stone. Oh, wait, it was just everyone in the neighborhood firing up their lawnmowers.

The average American uses 18 gallons of gas on their lawn a year - lawnmower, leaf blower, string trimmer, sprinkler, hauling the products, and landscaping eats up half our average personal water use. The average homeowner is putting 20xs the pesticides on their little lawn per acre that commercial farmers use on their land. Many of those chemicals are untested, undertested, and carcinogenic. The extras, along with the chemical fertilizers, run off into our local water tables. And running your lawnmower for an hour puts as much greenhouse gasses into the air as driving 20 miles, according to the EPA, not to mention particulate pollutants that cause asthma and other illnesses, and noise pollution as well that can damage hearing and reduce your ability to be outside and enjoy your neighborhood. Mowing the lawn is especially toxic for the mower.

And think about all the *time* you are spending on your lawn - it isn’t just eating up oil and gas and chemicals, but every Saturday morning (or whenever) you are devoting your limited free time to standing behind a lawn mower that smells bad, makes so much noise you can’t hear nature. Instead of listening to the birds and smelling the fresh air, you are riding or walking behind a big old machine. And for what? So the neighbors can glare at you if you let the lawn get over 1.5 inches long?

Time to re-think the lawn rituals. There’s a lot we can do. First and foremost, consider checking out H.C. Flores’s _Food Not Lawns_ - an inspiring book about all the things your lawn could be.

First of all, think about replacing your lawn with something else. How about trees that shade and cool your house, protect them from winter winds, and absorb carbon? How about native grasses and wildflowers that would attract beneficial insects and native pollinators? How about xeriscaping that wouldn’t require watering? Or replace it with a vegetable garden - grow a beautiful “V” of eggplants, kales or peppers, and wait for the neighbors to ask you about it.

We need millions more small, even tiny farmers in order to de-industrialize our food system. And the places we most need food producers is in the places people live right now - in your neighborhood. During World War II, American Victory Gardeners produced 40% of the nation’s produce - many of them in cities. We can ensure a safe, reliable, healthy food supply by growing food on our lawns - in fact, we need to do this.

We can also use permaculture techniques to design a gorgeous landscape of edibles and medicinals on your lawn. Many food producing and useful plants are gorgeous - you don’t have to tell anyone that you eat the acorns from your white oak, that those flaming autumnal bushes are blueberries, not burning bush, that you had daylily petals in your last salad and that last time you got a cold, you treated it with something from the border of coneflowers. Toby Hemenway’s _Gaia’s Garden_ is a great place to start here, as is the magazine _Permaculture Activist_.

But say you’ve got to have a lawn - the deed restrictions say so. Well, if I were you I’d start talking to local zoning boards about changing the rules - all these zoning restrictions about lawn heights, no clotheslines, no front gardens, no chickens…these are energy wasters. If we’re going to be aware, we need to change the rules. But if you can’t do that, the next best thing is to cut down on the energy you use on your lawn - reduce fertilizer, mowing, water use, and dump the chemicals altogether.

You can still mow the lawn with a push mower. My family uses one - we mow over 1/2 acre with it, and don’t find it too strenuous. If you’ve only ever used an old push mower, you’ll be shocked at how well they work. My 5 year old can push it, and when his friends come over, they fight over who gets to mow the lawn. It is quiet, pleasant to use, and will save you money on gym memberships, because it provides a nice upper body workout.

You could also switch to an electric mower, or to sheep, if you can get them in past the covenants. But I really love my push mower. The other tool we use constantly is a scythe - with 27 acres, the only way to keep things up is to let some of the longer grass go to hay, and scythe it down when we’re done. Scything is a *ton* of fun - relaxing, pleasant, soothing. Eric’s birthday is tomorrow, and when I asked him what he wanted to do, he asked if he could spend the day scything one of our fields. I am not joking - scything is a blast. Now this might not work for everyone, but it also substitute for string trimmer.

If you do need a powered mower, cut the grass less often - optimal height is around 3 inches. There’s no reason to devote all your spare time to this. And don’t leaf blow, rake - it really won’t kill you. If you can’t do these things yourself, teenagers are a time honored tradition. Show them the push mower and the rake, pay them well and don’t forget the occasional glass of lemonade.

Instead of using groundwater or city water to water your lawn, either let it go dormant in hot weather, or collect rainwater whenever possible and use that. If you stop adding commercial fertilizer and replace with compost, more organic matter in the soil will also improve its water holding ability. But remember, dormancy is a normal, natural response - when it gets hot and dry, that’s what the grass is supposed to do.

Don’t fight the weeds unless you really have to - most of them are products of disturbed soil and some are edible or useful. Remember, your land is an ecosystem - no ecosystem has just one species in it. And get out on your lawn - don’t just mow and go back into the house, but get outside. Put a table out, or chairs, and wave to your neighbors as they pass by. Use those lawns to build community. Invite people to join you. Put up bird baths and bat boxes, make butterfly gardens and plant some tubular red flowers for the hummingbirds - invite not just your human neighbors but your flying ones as well. Track your ecosystem. Make lists of the birds and animals you see. Get out a magnifying glass and identify bugs. Get to know your lawn as a living thing, and invite more living things to enjoy the space.

Best of all, tell your neighbors what you are doing and why. We can turn our lawns into something more than a way to make noise on a Saturday morning.


Free Nitrogen! Comes with a Handy Dispenser!

Sharon June 17th, 2007

Sometimes I think that having grown up with a lesbian Mom and step-Mom and two younger sisters, I was inadequately prepared for life with a husband and four sons. Now don’t get me wrong - it isn’t as though I didn’t know anything about males. I have a father, and male friends, uncles and during college and graduate school, I lived with more men than women. But by 18 or so, and certainly by graduate school, the men in question had learned that getting girls required a bit more grace than waving your genitals in their faces. Mostly.

But my background makes me much better qualified to answer questions about first periods, whether boys will really die from blue balls and when a bra is officially required for gym class than Isaiah’s recent query about whether when he grew up he could pee all the way up to the sky or not. Thank G-d for Daddy.

After a long and tedious toilet training process, my son Isaiah finally clicked into big-boyhood last week, when he discovered peeing on trees outside. He was *so* excited and pleased with himself - now he and big brother Simon can try and hit a spider on a leaf from 5 paces (sorry, spider!), and discuss who went further at considerable length, to Mommy’s utter bemusement. Some days it seems like they spend more time with their pants down than up, but who am I to ruin their fun?

We do have some firm rules. No peeing in the container plants (I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my poor impatiens). No peeing off the porch when Mommy is sitting and reading just below it (hmmm…rain…that’s funny.. not a cloud…ick!!!). And strong encouragement to pee in the nice bucket that we keep. Because while Mommy may not fully grasp just how cool it is to play “shoot the grasshopper,” Mommy is a major fan of free nitrogen.

You see, we all of us, during garden season, fertilize our garden with our urine. I use a commode we inherited from Eric’s grandparents, and the rest of them use a bucket outside, and the commode in. Human urine is powerful fertilizer - every day people in the US discard 7 million pounds of nitrogen and trace minerals in the form of human urine. In fact, if you go to the farm store, you can buy artificial pee, called “urea” - except that that stuff is made with natural gas and lots of fossil fuels, whereas the other stuff comes out whether you like it or not.

The thing is, one of the scariest elements of the forthcoming energy peak is that we are terrifically dependent on anhydrous ammonia and other artificial nitrogen sources, mostly derived from natural gas, to feed ourselves. If we are to keep eating, we need to find another source of nitrogen. Conveniently, the artificial nitrogens that have been supporting the human populace (in our food) gets recycled through our bodies and comes back out in highly usable form. You just have to dilute it 1-10 to keep it from burning your plants.

And natural nitrogen, rather than the artificial stuff, is much gentler, and somewhat less likely to float downstream destroying the oxygen in the oceans. We apply way more artificial nitrogen than soils can absorb, and it is creating the famous dead zone in the gulf of Mexico - fish can’t live there because a vast excess of nitrogen has destroyed the capacity of the sea to carry oxygen.

While feces can contain all sorts of bacteria, urine is generally sterile, and there’s virtually no health risks to putting urine on your garden. Even if you have a UTI or salmonella (one of the few things that can be excreted in your urine), exposure to air means that pathogens die pretty fast afterwards. The most conservative estimates are that you shouldn’t use urine directly on plants a month or less before harvest. Since we tend to pour it on teh ground around them, that’s not a problem, and for our personal use, we don’t worry much about the urine (if you live in a place where tropical diseases like leptopirosis and schistosoma are endemic, you probably want to have your household tested before you use your urine and not take anyone else’s free pee - these could be passed on if you had them, which is pretty unlikely). We don’t use it on sale crops, however.

In Sweden, however, farmers often use urine from city toilets (urine diversion systems are in place, and the urine is held in tanks until it is collected) on the farms that feed Stockholm. Swedish studies have found urine to be similar in composition to fish emulsion, which is great because the little fish like menhaden and others that are used to make fish emulsion are important to ocean ecosystems and feed larger fish. Those little fish are being depleted for organic agriculture, and aren’t a great alternative in the long term (there are some sustainably harvested fish emulsions).

You can also compost urine, or put it in a big barrel (six months in a barrel in your garage and it will stink to high heaven, but be pathogen free). You can pee on a few straw bales, leave them for a rain and then mulch your garden with them. You can use it to water your houseplants. Ideally, just don’t dump it in drinking water and flush it away!

Now us girls can collect our pee easily enough, but boys really have a natural advantage in this regard, plus my three year old regards it as a potential hobby, the kind of thing you really devote a lot of time and energy to. And I’m very grateful, even if I don’t quite understand the appeal. Plants fertilized with urine really grow beautifully. Peter Bane of _Permaculture Activist_ says that a person’s yearly urine output can provide all the high nitrogen fertilizer a half acre needs.

So I spend a lot of my time smiling at the “Mom, look, I peed on a *big* tree this time.” I just nod and tell Isaiah how proud I am of him. And I am. I did laugh, however, the other week when he was in the bath, flipped over onto his stomach and complained to Daddy, “Daddy, my penis gets in the way.” Daddy’s reply? “Get used to it, sweetie.” There are times when I *know* I’m just not up to a task. Thank G-d for Daddy, because that just wasn’t in my manual ;-).

Happy Father’s Day!


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