Archive for June, 2008

Blog (and Me) at Rest

Sharon June 29th, 2008

So I’m leaving shortly for a week of vacation – visiting family on Cape Ann near Boston with a brief interlude in New York City.  Don’t expect much, if any, posting here, although I will be checking email occasionally.

 A few updates, though.

1. If you are in New York City on Wednesday (July 2), definitely come see myself, James Kunstler, Colin Beavan and Michael Hogan discussing “Catastrophe” – what it might look like, what we need to do.  I think it is going to be both fascinating and fun.  The panel is 6-8 at the Atlantic Gallery – I’m told their capacity is only 100, so it might be wise to arrive early if you can.  I’m really excited about this panel, and I think the whole evening is going to be fascinating – the art exhibit is supposed to be amazing (and who knew Kunstler painted?). More info here.

2. On Monday, July 7 we’ll have the first discussion in the Post-Apocalyptic Book Club, starting with Heinlein’s _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_.  I’ll talk a little about it in relation to “The Wasteland” as well, so if you feel like reading the Eliot, you might look it over.  We’ll spend 2 weeks on Heinlein and move on to Niven/Pournelle’s _Lucifer’s Hammer_ after that. 

3. On Tuesday, July 8 my Food Preservation and Storage Class will begin, and you all can follow along on the blog. If by some chance you requested a spot in the course and you have not heard back from me with information about how to register and what to do in advance, could you please email me at [email protected].  I’m having some problems with disappearing emails, or emails appearing on back pages of my account, and so I’m a little worried I may be missing someone. 

Ok, have a great week everyone, and I’ll be back next Monday!

 Cheers,

Sharon 

Independence Days Update – Focus on Planting

Sharon June 29th, 2008

Hi All – It has been a busy week, some of which I talked about in my latest garden post. I know that “plant something” is kind of obvious, but my own observation is that July is when things like succession planting and getting ready for fall tends to peter out – you’ve been planting all summer, and now there’s tons of weeding and harvesting to be done, and it is easy, easy, easy to just put off that next row of lettuce or bush beans. So my exhortation to everyone here this week is – don’t.

If you live in a place where it is too hot now to plant, but you’ll be able to do it in a month or so, it can be good to get a few weeks jump on the season, and to start things inside, in your (hopefully) comparatively cooler house. If you live where it is generally cool, like me, the next few weeks are key to getting a good harvest of vegetables continuing to come in through late fall and early winter.

Ok, on to my update.

Planted: Onions, bush beans, mustard greens, potatoes, beets, chard, brussels sprouts, cabbage, borage, basil, cucumbers, watermelon, carrots, winter squash, saskatoons, comfrey.

Harvested: Strawberries, more strawberries, more strawberries (from the pick your own – mine got toasted), bok choy, arugula, lettuce, mint, the very first baby summer squash, peas, onions, garlic scapes, chard

Preserved: Strawberry jam, dried strawberries, strawberry sauce, triple lemon vinegar (lemon peel, lemon verbena, lemon balm), willow bark tincture

Stored: Sprouting seeds, whole wheat linguine, peanut butter, chana dal

Prepped: Bought two used sets of sheets for guest sheets (and kicked myself for not noticing the brand new down comforter for $10 that was snagged by a friend), bought some bigger shirts for Eli at Goodwill.

Cooked something new: Elderflower fritters with honey, Robyn M’s garlic scape pesto recipe – very good!

Managed: We have rats in the barn, and they are killing our baby chicks. Eric and I constructed an elaborate cage of chicken wire and pvc, which took them a whole two nights to break into – the dogs kill them, Zucchini the not-quite-barn cat kills them, but not enough. We cleaned out the whole barn, but still have not gotten rid of them. We are thinking short term of using poison, very, very carefully out of desperation (and with very careful awareness of
other things with barn access, careful restriction of dogs and cats away from barn etc…) since we are desperate (these are birds for sale, and they need to live), and while we are gone, the chicks are moving into my bathroom ;-P. Dealing with the rat problem has taken much of our time and energy this week. As a longer term solution, we’re thinking of getting a terrier breed dog with ratting skills – anyone have any recommendations?

Worked on Community Food Systems: Put in an herb garden for a friend, had dinner with a friend from Albany who knows everything about local food projects.

Reduced Waste: Same as last week.

Ok, how about y’all?

Sharon

Garden Doom…No, Not Really

Sharon June 27th, 2008

Ok, you are a terrible person and you are totally doomed.  You see, you meant to plant a garden this year (or a bigger garden, or a better garden or something…), you really did.  But you were sick in May and then there was a work crisis, and the tiller didn’t work, and the guy who was going to bring the horse manure never came and somehow, here it is, the last week of June, and your garden isn’t even started, or is only half the size you intended, or three of the beds aren’t planted.  Or maybe you did plant it, and the drought or the floods or the locusts or the herds of armadillos destroyed it completely, or weeds the size of Godzilla have sprung up and you are fairly sure there were some carrots in there once, but you can’t find them.  And here it is, the end of June, and you have no garden, or only half of one, or nothing like what you’d thought you’d have.

 And you are thinking… I’m doomed.  My family is going to be eating bugs, and not the good kind of bugs, which will all have been harvested by Sharon and her family who are so far ahead of us.  No, we’re going to be eating the bugs she wouldn’t even post recipes for.  You are thinking…if I can’t even get one stupid little garden planted/can’t protect it from disaster, my whole family is going to starve to death…and it will be all my fault.  I am bad.  I am worthless.

Ok, stop.  Guess what. You aren’t doomed, and my family is pretty much like yours.  You see, there were these sheep, if you’ll remember.  That took care of the strawberries, the early tomatoes.  Then there was this book – do you remember that, the thing that meant that I didn’t even start until June?  And then there were a host of reasons, some real and some stupid,  why half my garden is in cover crops or something else – I could claim it was because of my deep commitment to the soil, but that wouldn’t explain why I was crawling around on my knees sticking random unplanted onions in between things…onions, folks.  Do you know when you are supposed to plant onions here?  The middle of April.  And I was planting them on June 26.  Nor would it explain why there are sad looking hot pepper plants looking at me and crying “plant me….for the love of god…plant me…I could fruit still before frost if you’d just get me the hell out of my flat, where I’ve been since March…!”And if I don’t get them planted by the time I go to Boston on Monday morning, they are mostly going on the compost pile.

 Am I panicked?  Guilty?  Nope, (well, a little), but only because I’ve been here so often that I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the reality – all the perfect gardens live in my head, and the truth is, every year’s garden is totally messed up.  The thing is, I end up eating a lot of food from that messed up garden, and it does get better every year.  Or at least every year without sheep in the front yard.  And since the disaster is bad, but not that bad yet, we’ve all got another year of screw ups.   

Heck, this sort of thing happens to everyone – and I do mean *EVERYONE* – there are thousands of farmers in the Midwest who have absolutely no choice but to say “ok, no corn this year…hmmm…soybeans or do I wait for winter wheat?”  That’s not to suggest this isn’t hard, or scary or painful, or that the consequences of having a bad garden couldn’t get a lot tougher than they are.  They certainly are for those farmers, and I’m not trying to mock the sheer pain of seeing something you’ve worked on washed away.  But now that we’ve mourned our follies or nature or whatever, it is time to move on.  And it is not too late to produce a good bit of food for most of us, while loftily implying that you meant things to come out this way. (Gardeners are like cats - everything they do is intentional, even when it isn’t.)  The trick is knowing how.

One option for most of us to just say “the heck with the summer garden, I’m just going to have a super-amazing fall garden.  For us northerners, that starts right quick now.  I finish my summer planting on June 30, and then I begin my fall planting on July 1.  Sounds crazy, but that’s when I need to start cabbages and other late crops by (ok, actually it’s usually more like July 7, but it sounds better this way).  The thing is, most fall crops need time to mature while days are still long - some things, like spinach and mustard greens can be planted as late as September here, but this far north, most of the fall garden gets planted in July and August.  And fall gardens are the best – no bugs, things don’t require as much attention since the weeds grow slower, etc…

 You can also plant most short season summer crops now – near me it is by no means too late to plant cucumbers, basil, zucchini, green beans, etc… Other than a few beets and carrots for summer enjoyment, I don’t even really bother to plant my main crop of most root vegetables until early July – we are so busy in high summer eating tomatoes and eggplant that I don’t really want turnips, cabbage or the main crop of carrots until late September – so why rush about madly trying to get them planted when everything else is going in?  And some crops, like lettuce and rapini do better in the fall anyway.  No worries about the broccoli going to seed at all – just enjoy having a good fall crop. 

The other things I plant late are canning vegetables. I used to plant my cukes in late May, when everyone else did.  Then I realized something – I don’t really love standing over a hot canning kettle in July.  Now I can do it for the blueberries – that’s their time, and there’s no good way around it.  But the cucumbers keep coming until October…so why is it I was I melting here again in July?  Oh, because I have a giant glut of pickling cukes, and I don’t want to waste them. But if I make the glut come when I want it…  So now I start my cucumbers in mid (or sometimes late) June and the glut comes in early September when it is cooler, and I don’t mind canning as much. 

 It probably is too late for tomatoes and peppers and eggplant, at least from seed.  But what if you have some, or if your local nursery is trying to get rid of its stuff so it can start the Chrysanthemums, and you want to try it.  Well, my suggestion is to go for it – pull off any blossoms, plant them deep, and take a shot at it.  Or even better, stick them in a nice big pot.  Because then, if frost hits before the tomatoes do, you can drag it into the lobby of your building or into your garage for those first few frosty nights, and stretch the tomatoes out a bit.  The peppers and eggplants are true perennials, and you might even be able to overwinter them, if you’ve got conditions, and then brag to everyone about how smart you are and that you’ve got hot peppers in June.

The other possibility is that you can put in cover crops.  Now this is especially good because true serious gardeners know that soil is everything.  In fact, serious gardeners believe that the vegetables are mere by-products of the good soil – you pretty much just plant the chard to keep the earthworms happy.  So if you tell everyone “Oh, I put 80% of my garden into vetch and oats for green manure this year – I really felt the soil needed it” other gardeners will nod wisely and feel sad and selfish because they don’t love their soil enough to forgo pumpkins and parsnips.  It helps the effect if you look sad at their selfishness too.

Some of these cover crops actually produce food, too.  For example, buckwheat has a delicious salad green, and if you are lazy about cutting it down (which I often am) produces tasty and nutritious seed.  It isn’t quite as good for your soil after going to seed, but it isn’t terrible either, and I won’t tell if you don’t.  Red clover makes a nutritional tea if you harvest the blossoms.  Daikon radishes break up soil, and I promise not to tell if you accidentally harvest one or ten and make kimchi or Japanese pickles with them.

You could even experiment – I have some seed potatoes I have not planted this year – I ran out of space in the potato patch, and I had thought I’d allocated all of the rest of my garden to other things.  But I’ve got a spot and I’m curious as to what kind of yield I’ll get from potatoes planted at the end of June around here – for those in warmer places, fall is a good time to plant potatoes.  And since my potatoes keep best if they are harvested when it is quite cool, this might actually work out well.  ‘Twill be worth a shot, anyway. 

“Experiment” explains anything.  Just point to your flooded out plot and look wise and say “This is a test garden, planted to compare how well hybrid corn does in marginal conditions vs. open pollinated.”  Imply there’s a comparative plot “over there somewhere” and that it is all supposed to look that way. 

 Most of all, remember that you are not doomed.  Your next garden will be better, because you will have learned from experience.  You have mastered something – next year you will do remarkable things.  You will probably make a whole new set of mistakes next year, and come up with a new, creative range of personal excuses.   See, you’ve learned something!

 And you needn’t worry that my family will get all the good bugs.  We’ll be right there along with you, trialing recipes for the discards while some other family, who always does it right, eats the locust croquettes with their correctly succession planted arugula, that never bolts before another crop gets put in place.  I already hate them, don’t you? 

Cheers,

 Sharon 

Is Electricity Really the Lifeblood of Civilization?

Sharon June 26th, 2008

I don’t think there are a lot of people who, except in their most facetious tones, refer to me as anything along the lines of “Little Sharon-Sunshine.”  And yet I actually consider myself a strong optimist, and by the standards of the peak oil movement, I certainly am.  I believe that a way of life is very much on its way out, that the transition will be painful – more painful than it had to be, but that’s just the reality of the world. I think we are currently in a deep and horrible disaster, being visited on the world’s poorest and the tentacles are gradually crawling up the anchor to take down the rest of the ship.  But I also think that there is a good deal of reason for hope – we have vast capacities, vast resources and vast imagination.  Peak oil and climate change could, if we work really hard at it, be pretty much the end of the world.  But there’s no reason to believe that we will, in fact ,work quite that hard – we’re lazy and the odds are good that the edifice that allows us to destroy ourselves may preceed most of our lives to the grave.  That thought alone gives me hope.

And because I am an optimist, because I take joy in being a ray of light ;-) ,  I generally dissent from the final prognostications of the Olduvai Hypothesis, while agreeing that we are on the downswing of a certain kind of industrial civilization.  I differ from Richard Duncan in several respects, while giving him credit for articulating the danger of peak oil long before most of us had ever heard of it.   I differ most of all on his conclusion, rearticulated here in this article by James Leigh, that it is necessarily the case that,

“The permanent blackout of electricity is crippling. Without oil to continue to fire up our industrial society we will be without: public electricity, transport, industry’s processed products (food, clothing, packaging, and machinery), communication and computer services. A little bit of brainstorming shows that the society and its systems would come eventually to a standstill. A totally paralyzing set of circumstances with hunger and deprivation on an unprecedented worldwide scale.”

I don’t honestly know whether, as the Olduvai Hypothesis postulates, after 2012 we’ll experience widespread, permanent blackouts.  I suppose it is possible, and for the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that that’s the case that electricity could be the marker point for our collapse.  As Duncan argues in this paper, electricity is more defining than transport:

“As we have emphasized, Industrial Civilization is beholden to electricity. Namely: In 1999, electricity supplied 42% (and counting) of the world’s end-use energy versus 39% for oil (the leading fossil fuel). Yet the small difference of 3% obscures the real magnitude of the problem because it omits the quality of the different forms of end-use energy. With apologies to George Orwell and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics — “All joules (J) of energy are equal. But some joules are more equal than others.” Thus, if you just want to heat your coffee, then 1 J of oil energy works just as well as 1 J of electrical energy. However, if you want to power up your computer, then 1 J of electricity is worth 3 J of oil. Therefore, the ratio of the importance of electricity versus oil to Industrial Civilization is not 42:39, but more like 99:1. Similar ratios apply to electricity versus gas and electricity versus coal.”

My own intuition (and I’ve given it fairly little thought so that’s all it is) is that Duncan is right about the weighted importance of electricity to our present model of society, but wrong in his extrapolation of the long term consequences of short term adaptation to living without electricity.  And I think because Duncan was prescient in peak oil circles, his conclusion (which comes down to “we’re all doomed” has had disproportionate weight in the debate – in fact, there are a number of peak oil writers who have spent a lot of time arguing that “we’re all doomed” is the majority opinion in the peak oil world, and spend a great deal of time debunking this perspective – and inadvertantly giving Duncan’s conclusions far more emphasis than they actually merit among a range of far more nuanced and complex range of thought.

Part of the problem is Duncan’s timeline for industrial civilization.  He imagines that it began in 1930 – but, of course, the beginnings of industrial society existed in the US for at least 100 years before that, and of course, in Britain for quite some time before that.  I lived for a few years in a building converted to apartments from the old Lowell Massachusetts textile Mills, and I can attest that the structures, and the city of Lowell in the 19th century were indeed industrial.  It is true that a majority of people didn’t live in “industrial society” in the US until the 1930s – but of course, Duncan is speaking of the world as a whole, and a slight majority of people in the world only began living in industrial society last year – that’s when the urban population worldwide finally exceeded the rural one. 

Industrial society long preceeds electricity – even if we imagine that we will rapidly run out of the capacity to produce electricity, we have to recognize that Industrialization itself did not depend on electric power.  On the other hand, nor would I be the first to argue that life without industrialization sucked – parts of it undoubtedly did – I’m very fond of cloth making machines, for example, and have no particular desire to spin every thread my family wears.  On the other hand I could, given the urgent necessity of doing so, and I could teach others.  I could even make a primitive (not as nice as mine) spinning wheel (a huge jump in speed over the drop spindle, which I can make with three sticks) out of an old bicycle rim.  And if low tech little old me, who flunked birdhouse building in woodshop,  could do that, how long before the spinning jenny and the massive industrial looms of the 19th century get recreated by some bright chick who likes to tinker? 

There’s a tendency, I think, when talk about going to a lower energy society to imagine that we then become a lower-knowledge people, that we rapidly lose the germ theory of disease, the ability to do algebra and the capacity to build bicycles – and maybe that’s true – John Michael Greer has argued that a long term collapse may drop our knowledge base back further than we think.  But at a minimum, returning to illiteracy is going to take a couple of generations of huddling in our caves banging rocks together so we can forget all that other stuff, like how to build an efficient stove and an arch or two.  We’re going to have to work at it.

But let us assume that Duncan is, in fact, correct – that we’re going to fall off an energy cliff.  That we are facing a world without electricity – I’m not sure I think it likely, but I’m willing to accept the hypothesis.  Does that lead immediately to Duncan’s envisioned conclusion?  Leigh plainly thinks that the results would be catastrophic, from the construction of the below sentence:

“Pause for a moment – just imagine the catastrophic consequences of no electricity: no phones or computers, no industry which is electricity based, no dairy products or processed foods, no refrigeration, no water as the water pumps won’t work, no cars or transport because the petrol pumps won’t work, no schools or universities, no banks which can’t electronically process transactions, no employment, no income – dwindling stocks of everything as society collapses to unprecedented levels of chaos and deprivation.”

It is certainly the case that if we go in a single step from air conditioning and cold beer today to total blackout tomorrow, the transition will be extremely difficult, and the period of reorganization and the scaling up of other technologies will be stressful.  It is, however, unlikely to happen overnight.  But let’s take a look at these assumptions.  Would, in fact, we be thrown, as Duncan has argued, back to the Stone Age?

Let’s see…no phones or computers.  Check!  That means communication would have to rely on…mail?  Wow, that’s just horrible, because after all, we’ve had phones for thousands of years, and there’s no evidence at all that we can live without them…oh, wait, maybe there is.  No computers – well, that means no math, right, because we didn’t invent calculus until…oh wait.  No industry which is electricity based – well, that means we’re back to banging rocks together, because we never built or produced anything before electricity, right? No dairy products?  You mean cows run on electricity?  Woah, you learn something new every day.  Or perhaps he means no fridges, which means…we’d have to eat cheese.  Dear G-d…not that!!!  No processed food.  Well this one is true – I can’t think of a single means to produce a Hostess Sno-ball without fossil fuels.  Do not ask for whom the bell tolls…it tolls for thee and they Sno-balls.

 No refrigeration…yup, that means we’re going to have to cook differently and eat differently.  Of course, billions of people do that now because they don’t have refrigerators, but who’d want to be them?  No water – now that will be a tough nut to crack, unless, say we have any time between now and 2012 to deal with it…after all, it isn’t like water falls from the sky or something.  No cars or transport.  That’s right, before cars, everyone just sat on their asses where they were born until they were up to their knees in their own feces.  No schools or universities.  Yup, no one had literacy before electricity – those ancient Greeks, they were writing in 1935.  That’s why we call them ancient, right?  No banks which can electronically proces transactions – true, and I’m sure that means there will be no currency, since money and markets were invented in 1985 by the folks who brought us the TSR-80, right?  No employment – of course, there’ll be nothing to do but sit around drooling and waiting for death.  And no income – didn’t you know Henry Ford invented work? 

Now I’m being sarcastic here, and it would be an easy accusation to say I’m minimizing the difficulties of making a transition from an industrial society to a less industrial one, and that’s fair – sarcasm is never the most nuanced of genres.  But this stuff really toasts my buns, because it is so damned ignorant. 

I’m reminded of an essay by Chuck Trapkus in _The Plain Reader_, he tells the story of doing an demonstration of spinning, and a woman telling her children “This is how they used to make clothes, long, long ago.”  Trapkus responds with,

She’s right, of course,” I’m thinking. “But this is how I make clothes.  Today.” 

He goes on to add:

“But lest we in our ignorance make the same assumptions the woman made while watching me spin, let’s be clear on one thing: Not everyone makes bread in an electric breadmaker.  Not everyone has access to a phone.  Not everyone has a refrigerator, a car, a toaster, a chainsaw.  Billions of humans right now, sharing this same Mother Earth, get by with far fewer electric/atomic/petroleum-powered gadgets and appliances that we United States citizens.  They may not all grind their own flour or weave their own cloth, but then, millions of them do.  So when w ask how they ever did anything then, we should ask how they still do it now, and acknowledge our profound collective ignorance in so many basic matters of human sustenance”

Let us not bullshit ourselves – if we had to suddenly, rapidly transition to no fossil energies at all (very, very unlikely for most of us), it would suck and be destructive.  But it would not send us back to Olduvai Gorge.  Many people would probably die in an overnight transition (also wildly unlikely) but most people probably wouldn’t.  Some people would curl up, unable to bear this world they lived in, but the rest would get to work reorganizing into something else, bringing back and recreating older technologies, using human and animal power, changing their work, building new economies and markets.  And not only could we survive, but we might not think that our lives were suddenly without meaning – electricity is not the defining characteristic of our beings, merely of our economy.  And economies are remade all the time.

The part of this that I find most troubling is the offensive notion that living without all the above-listed goodies makes life completely untenable.  Because that implies that the lives of our great-grandparents, and the billions of lives that don’t have electricity are an unmitigated hell, a place we wouldn’t even be willing to visit, that all that is “civilized” about our lives began in 19-freakin’-30.   If our past, and the lives of the world’s ordinary poor are utter doom, we are doomed.  But what if they aren’t? Let us acknowledge a vast and difficult transition, and a great deal of potential and probably real trouble and misery a’coming.  But let us not start with the assumption that “modern industrial civilization” is equivalent to “civilization” itself.  And let us not seperate ourselves from everything that came before us and everyone now who lacks what we have as though some barrier keeps us from reaching out to them.

Can we kill ourselves off in the coming decades?  Sure, I never wish to underestimate the stupidity of our collective humanity.  Is that a likely and inevitable consequence of even sudden, extreme depletion and shortage – no.  Only if we choose the worst possible forms of mismanagement (and grant you, there’s some good bit of evidence for this), only if we race headlong towards doom in a concerted effort can we create the consequences that Duncan and Leigh imagine are the simple results of the loss of electricty and other energies.  Electricity is a goodie, a sugar coating. It makes a few lives possible – lives that would be lost in a world without it, and that is at tragedy.  But mostly, it makes lives easy and convenient, and grows the economy – and that’s pretty much it.  It is not our life or our blood.

Sharon

One More Thing

Sharon June 25th, 2008

I wrote my last post, and I went off to hang laundry, and I got to thinking that it sounded wrong to me – that I made the post sound too much like I was talking about far away people who are not me.  And that bothers me.  So I thought I’d stop what I was going for a minute and correct that.

 I grew up mostly in a town with strong, strong class divisions.  There was a wealthy section (really wealthy) in Beverly (Bevery Hills is actually named after the wealthy section of Beverly and a much more working class section.  Guess which side I lived on?  And when I was in middle school, going to the school that had most of the working class kids, I was tracked in among the very bright, college bound, lots of potential kids.  And by the time I got to high school, where they merged the working class bright kids with the wealthy bright kids and edited some out,  most of those very bright kids from my side of the tracks (literally)  weren’t in the top tier, the ones headed to any college but the community ones or maybe UMass.  It wasn’t because they got less smart – they were still incredibly bright and talented.  But in some cases, they didn’t have parents to advocate for them to keep them “on track” and in some cases, they fucked up.  Maybe because they were fuckups, or maybe because the pressure of being seperated out from the people in your neighborhood or your class was hard. 

I found it so – my family has a lot of education but was economically struggling most of my childhood, and lived mostly in working class neighborhoods growing up.  We tended to have much more education than our neighbors, but the same economic problems.  Most of my family worked in human services, teaching or doing social work or doing other low-paying but slightly higher status jobs than the truck drivers and fishermen and plumbers who owned the houses around us.  And the lure of the neighborhood, and of the class culture around us was strong – these were the kids we played with and our friends.  It was hard being seperated out from them -  hard because other kids made it hard, of course, and made you pay a price,  and hard for reasons far too complicated to articulate when you are kid, reasons of class and culture and belonging that I still struggle to fully articulate.  I never made it to Professor, in part, I think, because I never could see myself as a Professor, never could imagine myself in that world, with all of its class and cultural connotations.  I know some people who crossed that boundary quite successfully, but I wasn’t one of them.

I was a fuckup myself, so long that I’m embarrassed to tell y’all – it isn’t like it stopped in high school.  I was lucky – I was bright and articulate enough that teachers let me go, gave me decent grades I didn’t deserve, helped me explain my screw ups enough to get into good colleges and get enough scholarship money to go.  I was lucky in college and graduate school – good teachers thought I was worth helping even when I fucked up again and again.  I got the education and the critical thinking skills I have because all along in the process, people gave me more credit and help than I deserved.  Professors gave me books, helped me get grants, and put up with the fact that I was often deeply ambivalent about the work I was doing and my place in it, and that that ambivalence often played out badly, for reasons I didn’t understand.  And they forgave me because they thought I was worth forgiving – and I’d like to think that’s true of almost everyone, that it was true of the people who didn’t get that extra boost.  They were worth forgiving too – they just never found anyone to do it.

Had I had just a little less grace from other people, just a little less kindness, just a little less capacity to pull things out at the last minute, had otherd gotten a tiny bit more frustrated with me, I doubt I would be writing this now.  Or perhaps I would, but as a different person, from a wholly different set of experiences.  One of my high school teachers pulled me aside when I was a freshman, and I was failing his class – simply because I wasn’t doing the work. He told me he was going to pass me anyway, and that he didn’t expect gratitude, but he did expect me to do what it takes to get of our town and go do something else.  It is, of course, trite beyond bearing to say “we have to get out of this town, it will destroy us” but sometimes there’s some truth in trite beyond bearing.  The thing is, I was boosted, all the way, to getting to the point where I could understand energy issues, to get to the point where I could have a life in which I had time and energy and understanding to cut back my consumption, above all, to a point where I could see the wider world from a different perspective.  Some of it was my doing, of course.  And some of it was the grace and mercy of others. 

So another answer to the question of why I feel sorry for people who consumed too much and screwed up their own finances is this – I could easily be them. I made stupid mistake after stupid mistake in my life, and generally speaking, I wasn’t punished for them.  People wanted to help me and did.  I usually didn’t get justice – I got mercy.  I understand the temptation of justice, and the sense that one doesn’t have energy to care about the sufferings of the fortunate – and I also understand that sometimes perfect justice doesn’t get you better results than a more merciful approach.  I’m guilty of asking for too much justice myself, and forgetting that I too got the benefits of mercy – and that I can’t see that I’d be more useful to the world if I’d gotten only what I really deserved.

I guess that’s why as the energy crisis explodes on the rest of us, I’d like to advocate for mercy for those who don’t yet fully understand.  Maybe it won’t be forthcoming in the world of creditors or government support, but there’s no reason for the rest of us to dispense justice.  By all means, feel sorriest for those who have the least.  But sympathy and kindness are not small things to be rationed out by droppers, only to those perfectly deserving – they should be ladled out and poured from buckets and flow out of us like rivers.  Any scarcity of kindness is artificial – and far too many things are growing scarce for us to have artificial shortages of generosity.

 Sharon 

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