Archive for July, 2008

How to Eat From Your Pantry - and Why

Sharon July 22nd, 2008

I’ve written a bunch of posts about the question of how to integrate food storage into your daily life.  Because honestly, not only am I not that interested in foods you buy and put in a bunker for 20 years ;-), but I think that is a really bad way to go about this.  You lose almost all the advantages of food storage if you don’t integrate it – you lose the advantage of saving money, you lose some of the nutritional value over the years, you lose the knowledge that in a crisis you won’t have to adapt psychologically or physically to a new diet, you lose the advantage of not having to make trips to the store, the advantage of having your comfort and ritual foods be made from things you can always get and afford.  It simply doesn’t make sense to buy food, or preserve food, or grow food and not eat it.

And yet, it happens all the time.  People buy a big reserve for an emergency, but don’t know how to make it tasty or to use it well, or it isn’t familiar, and somehow, they look up and five years have passed, and you are wondering whether the canned chicken is still edible several years post expiration – and you’ve just lost the time and energy and money you put into this.  And no wonder people who did this once don’t really get excited about doing it again.

The thing is, the kind of eating you do if you rely on food storage is fundamentally different than the way you eat when you rely on supermarkets.  You are generally using whole grains, because those have the maximum in nutritional value and storage ease.  Most Americans don’t use whole grains in their whole form.  For many people, this will mean eating fewer animal products – because most of the reasonably prices purchasable options are of low quality (usually industrially processed) and because storing a lot of meat by any mechanism other than “on the hoof” or “freezing” is expensive and/or time consuming.   Freezing is increasingly expensive, and sometimes unreliable – it is a good way to keep meat, but you risk the economic loss of a lot of high value meat in a power outage.   It is simply easier to store more beans and eat a bit less meat than it is to can 200 chickens – you can definitely do it, but you might not want to.

For people who have been used to eating all their produce fresh, this involves changing menus a bit – during the time when things don’t grow, you’ll be eating food grown by season extension, root cellared or long lasting fresh foods, and preserved foods.  What the balance of these things is depends on you – our family, for example, doesn’t honestly eat that many canned vegetables – we’d rather eat raw cabbage from the root cellar, but people who like canned green beans might prefer that to stir fried cabbage.

I’ve written about this before here:

But the easiest way to get started is simply to start making menus.  You start thinking “Ok, what can I make with what I’ve got?” Come up with as many things you like, and things you think you might like as you can. Look at cookbooks – if you are going to have a lot of squash to deal with, flip through the cookbooks you’ve got looking at squash recipes.  Hit the library and check out their choices, and use inter-library loan to get cookbooks on the relevant subjects.  And, of course, read online. 

Can you make familiar recipes while changing ingredients slightly so they become “pantry” meals – our family always has the ingredients for certain meals in the house – we automatically stock up on these as our stores get depleted, because then we’re never caught out if someone suddenly stays for dinner or we’re out of ingredients.

Think about substitutions – most classic recipes already contain the history of substitution written into them.  The cake you make with vanilla?  It was probably flavored with rosewater when your great-grandmother made it, since vanilla was expensive and tropical.  Great-Grandma probably often substituted one kind of flour for another, used vinegar instead of lemon and a host of other techniques.  Many recipes grew up in regions where they were constantly adapted to one place or another  -paella might have used freshwater frogs and snails, along with meats available in that region, while coastal paellas used fish.  There are hundreds of recipes for pancakes in the world – because you can make pancakes out of almost anything, and people have.  Anyone who says that there’s only one way to make something (Unless they are talking about clam chowder, when there really is only one way to make it, and anyone using tomatoes is evil ;-)) is just plain wrong.  I avoid cookbooks and recipes sites that speak of the one true way to make food.  That’s not to say some things don’t taste better than others, but with the exception of some fundamentally uneuphonious combinations, often things can be made to taste not funny with a bit of work, even with changed ingredients.

This is one of those practicing things – getting familiar with the food and new ways of cooking it, gradually integrating it into your diet and family life.  It does take work and practice.  It is also worth it.



Is this Hoarding? The Ethics of Storage

Sharon July 22nd, 2008

What is hoarding? If I store food am I hoarding stuff?  Is that bad? 

 These are probably the most common emails I’m getting these days, from nice and smart people who genuinely want to protect themselves and their families, and who also don’t want to do bad things.  So I thought it would be useful to discuss what hoarding is, and what the ethics of food and goods storage actually are.

First, a quiz!

Question 1: If James has a large group of Hummel figurines (those weird looking kids with big eyes in cutesy poses), including some that are very rare and scarce, and he has more Hummel figurines than anyone could possible use or appreciate (for me, that number would be 1 figurine ;-)), will people say James is hoarding Hummel figurines?

Question 2: If Laurie has more money than she needs to pay her expenses, and she takes this extra money, and puts it away where it earns interest and is available to her for future use, even though there are people in the world who could really use that money, will people say she is hoarding money?

Question 3: If Li goes to the grocery store only once every few months, purchases in bulk and in quantities he needs for a year, will people say he is hoarding food?

Question 4: If Gloria knows she is likely to lose her job soon, and takes her kids to the doctor, gets their teeth checked, and gets a 3 months supply of her allergy medication while insurance will still pay for it, is she hoarding medical care?

Question 5: If Gloria knows she will lose her job soon and isn’t confident about finding a new one, and goes to the thrift shop and buys clothes that are available in larger sizes for her oldest son and stores them, so that he’ll have nice clothes for school even if they are quite poor, will people say she is hoarding?

Queston 6: Laurie is also worried about affording clothes for her children.  So she puts as much of her salary aside in a specific account marked for her daughter’s clothing as possible.  Will people say she is hoarding?

Answers: 1. No, James is a collector.  2. No, Laurie is saving. 3. Probably many will. 4. No, people will say she is exercising common sense Question 5. Probably, yes.  Question 6 - No.

I do this simply to point out the fact that we don’t always look at having a lot of something, even more than you need, as a kind of hoarding.  In fact, we look at two different ways of dealing with precisely the same problem - not enough money for clothes - one is perceived as hoarding and the other isn’t.   We also tend to have a very visceral reaction to the idea that we would hold quantities of food or other basic staples - those, we’re supposed to get through the “just in time” delivery system, and any other methodology is really strange to people.   We tend to use the term “hoarding” on anything that seems strange to us.

 Why do we jump to it?  Partly the problem is that most of us don’t understand what hoarding actually is.  Part of the problem is that we’ve been trained (and our training strongly benefits the economic system) that some things are for collecting, saving or preserving and some things aren’t - and we need a language to express our shock and dismay at people who violate the social rules.  And partly the problem is that we are carrying cultural baggage left over from the World Wars, when there was a system of reasonably just allocation in place, and where stockpiling disrupted that system.

First of all, let’s figure out what hoarding actually is, and what can be described with less emotionally laden language as “saving” or “storing.”  Hoarding is an attempt to disrupt an ethical, equitable, reasonably functional system of distribution by claiming widely needed scarce items in greater supply than you need, or than the system can support while maintaining ethical distribution.  In order to have hoarding, you have to have two things.  First, you need a system under which most people can get what they need, regardless of circumstances, and in the face of forseeable consequences - that is, if the system is “just in time delivery to stores” most people have to be able to afford food, or subsidies have to be available, and food has to come into the stores regularly.  If any of those things falls apart, say, if the food stops coming in to stores regularly, the people who buy extra so they’ll have something to eat when the food isn’t there are not hoarding - they are using common practices and saving.

The other thing you need to hoard is scarcity of something necessary, or a conscious attempt to create scarcity.  That is, you can buy up all the beanie babies you want, hoping that they will someday make you rich, but because beanie babies aren’t necessary, this would be not hoarding.  You can buy up all the dandelions you want, and transplant them all into your yard, and that’s not hoarding either, because dandelions aren’t scarce.  You are only hoarding it you take something people really need, that is in short supply, and put it away, not for your own use, but either to manipulate markets or in excess of your ability to use it.  For example, if you buy up 10 years of brown rice in a market that is short of rice, that would be hoarding because you are essentially preventing other people from getting rice, and you can’t possibly eat it before it goes rancid.

Now you could make the case that my own food storage falls in the category of hoarding.  There is, at present, a system that enables people to get food - it is the just in time delivery system and a combination of the growth economy and food stamps (with 1 out of every 11 Americans, and 1 in 7 in Michigan, Washington DC and Ohio -  getting food stamps, it has reached the point where it isn’t just a social welfare program, but a basic way that people get access to food - fundamental to the system) and other social welfare programs.  And I have more food than is required to meet my immediate needs.

The difficulty is that the system I am expected to rely upon won’t work under a range of highly plausible situations - for example, the CDC itself in its avian flu preparations admits that in order to best avoid an epidemic, we need most people to have a large stockpile (12 weeks) of food reserves, because otherwise, the most effective means of controlling infection - avoiding contact with most people - can’t be utilized at all.  It won’t work in an extended Depression, for example, because the rising costs of food and energy are, in fact, already pricing people out of markets for basic commodities.  The US Government once stored commodities to use as food reserves for “safety net” systems like food pantries and for distribution in an emergency - the US no longer has substantial food reserves - they’ve been stripped.  So if there are supply problems, we have no recourse but our own reserves.

Moreover, we aren’t short of food - neither in the US nor the world is there an actual shortage of food.  I’m not buying up something that would otherwise be eaten by someone else - there is more than adequate food around - the problem is the distribution system.  In fact, because it is better to use food as well…food than it is to say, put it in your car, IMHO, people who buy corn and soybeans right now, and create markets for farmers to sell their grains as food grains to are actually doing something quite good.  Most US grains get used either in biofuels or in Confinement livestock production - and both are driving forces of the price rises we’re experiencing. Undermining them by creating viable markets for whole grains that people actually eat is a good thing. 

Equally importantly, storing food is part of human culture.  Just about every region on earth has a period of the year where less stuff grows than others.  Every region on earth has experienced times of food shortfalls, or bad harvests.  All through human history, our culture has grown up around the process of creating a reserve and a safety net to adapt to the fact that food systems are natural systems, not machines.  Human food cultures grew up around food storage and stored foods are essential to those cultures.  If we stop storing food, we are abandoning a large part of our heritage.

Now the danger of lots and lots of people buying food to store is that they will drive prices up. This has happened in some poor countries - when food prices rise and keep rising, people who like to eat buy as much as they can at lower prices, because they are afraid they won’t have any tomorrow.  And this does, in the short term, contribute to price increases.  So we might say that we shouldn’t buy food if the price is increasing.  But the categorical imperative isn’t always the best way to figure out whether something is ethical or not, and it isn’t in this case.  For example, while people buying out cooking oil or rice did raise the price in the short term, the fundamental problem - the thing that drove the prices up so high that people started buying all they could anyway, the thing that most deeply disturbed the system of distribution in the first place, was biofuels.  Instead of taking grains and selling them on markets for food, the not-very-but-more ethical system of distribution we had in place was fundamentally undermined and disrupted when the appetites of cars were treated as equal to the appetites of people.

The truth is that we don’t have an equitable system of distribution, we don’t have a system that can withstand reasonably forseeable shocks, and we don’t have any organic scarcity of food - what we have is a new set of competitors, created by a subsidy system, for people’s need for a resource - a resource that is not, in any objective sense, scarce, but has been made artificially scarce by the introduction of these new, heavily subsidized artificial appetites.  The right response is to remove the subsidies and to create a system in which cars can’t compete with people for food -  it is not to start feeling guilty becuase you want to be able to eat even after you lose your job.

Does that mean there are no ethical grey areas or problems?  Of course there are - this is human life, not a sitcom.  If we are going to store, we have the obligation, if we can afford to be conscious of these issues, to store carefully, not to buy foods that others are experiencing real shortages of if we have any choice, to buy and store foods that are as basic as possible - ie, prioritizing whole grains rather than industrially produced powdered milks and dried meats that reduce the total quantity of food for humans, and most of all to spend our dollars in ways that actually increase the equity, quality and accessibility of the food system.  Just like everything else, storing food has to be done as ethically as possible.  The rules vary depending on your abilities - those who have the money to buy locally and sustainably every time should, those who don’t should do what they can.

The same rules apply to the storage of goods, as well as food.  For example, I buy shoes for my kids to grow into.  I do this for several reasons. The first is that my kids’ feet are going to get bigger no matter what I do, but there are other reasons - environmental health, the saving of used goods from landfills, saving money. The convention, of course is that I should go to the mall when they get bigger and buy the next size up. Of course, that isn’t the most ethical choice - the dollars go to a large corporation, the gas to the mall is a waste, nor is it the best choice for me - I have to make more trips to the mall since I don’t have a supply at home, even if I’d rather be doing something else (and trust me, I would), and I have to spend more money. 

As long as I’ll use the shoes - and I will - there’s no ethical issue with me buying a supply of used shoes at Goodwill.  In fact, I honestly don’t understand why anyone does it any other way - hmmm…cheaper, often barely used or never used, keeps things out of a landfill, subsidizes a charity, don’t have to drive to the mall, saves energy making a new thing…what’s not to like?  But to do this successfully, you pretty much have to store - the thing is, buying used isn’t like going to a department store - you don’t say “I’ll take the green in a size 5″ - in order for me to have a pair of size five shoes, I have to plan ahead, because yard saling is only in spring and summer, and Goodwill gets what it gets - a pair of suitable, high quality size five shoes might not come in for six months - and then I’d have to go buy new.

In fact, it isn’t possible for me to live as I do without storing - I came to this not because I worry about the end of the world, but because my family of 6 has lived, for the last 7 years on between 20 and 40K per year, without any debt but mortgage debt, and while accumulating a reserve of goods, and expanding our farm.  The fact is, there is no way we could live this way - no way we could run the farm, keep the husband’s commute and thus carbon emissions as low as we do, no way we could feel ourselves comfortably well off on that income (which to be fair has hovered closer to 40 for the last few years, but was much, much, much less for a long time before that) without these strategies. 

In order to be sure that I’ll have a clean, nice, high quality, reasonably priced wardrobe, shoes, library, toys for my kids, I plan ahead.  I started buying children’s books for older kids at yard and library sales when my children were babies - because a lot of children’s books are series, and I wanted to have the whole sets.  But used books don’t usually show up as whole sets - they come in bits and pieces, so I knew if I wanted to have a complete set of Narnia or His Dark Materials, I should start hunting earlier - and lo and behold, I now have much of what I want. 

The same is true of clothes and shoes - I buy three sizes ahead, generally speaking.  Some years I get tons of bigger kid clothes in sizes that are just what they are growing into.  Other years, I don’t find much at all - or only things that are much too big. I have reasonable confidence, however, that my kids will keep growing for a good while yet - and some of the things I bought a few years ago that looked crazy too big, now are part of their regular wardrobes.  The reality is that the lifestyle that enables us to live cheaply, the lifestyle that enables us to be as secure as we are, that depends on stockpiling, on planning ahead at many levels - on buying in bulk, on buying used goods when they are available, on looking to future needs.  We don’t do a lot of this in our society, and like all the other basic skills of thrift, they are probably going to be among the most urgent skills out there for us - we may need our guns and ammo far less than we need the ability to stretch soup, look ahead to the future, and make do with what we’ve got.

 Now it is true that I’m also buying stuff because I believe that hard times are coming.  I’m concerned not so much that there won’t be food in the stores, but that my husband might lose his job and I might not be able to buy it. I think it is possible that energy shortages will mean that there will be supply disruptions, but the most likely scenario to me is always this - we become poor.  Our lives start looking more and more (and they already are looking that way for many) like the lives of the world’s poor.  And sometimes the world’s poor experience supply disruptions of things they really need - food, power, energy - because less reliability is a hallmark of poverty.  But more importantly, the economy and energy prices and climate change make it more likely that I’ll be walking by a store thinking, ‘I don’t have enough to afford this thing I need.’  And since I have enough now, and the things we’re talking about are things we waste and throw away all the time, it only makes sense to get them now. 

But this is one of those “Theory of Anyway” things - it makes sense if “the world ends” - or more likely, our world changes, but it makes sense if it doesn’t.  And no, you can’t store your way out of everything - but you don’t have to.  As long as you use your stores and use them wisely, you don’t have to have enough to last you forever.  The truth is that if the present system stops working, a new system will arise - we had shoes and food before peak oil and climate change, and people will make and grow them afterwards.  But there is a transitional period where there might not be enough food for sale, and where no one may be making shoes or distributing them, or where you can’t store them.  And while some of these things are just plain things we may have to get used to living without, it doesn’t hurt anyone to make that a gradual transition, not a rapid one - others, we might have to live without if we don’t store them.  Books, for example, can be copied, or reprinted using very simple technology and renewable energies.  But they can’t be copied if we don’t have them in our communities.

Am I saying everyone should store? No, everyone is different.  Some people are already better suited to a light, migratory lifestyle.  Some people don’t want to the burden, or don’t have the space.  But I do think that for many of us, who are settling in a place and creating a likely refuge for others, storing makes sense for three reasons - the first is that it enables you to spend less and use less energy, which is inherently good.  The second is that it is perfectly normal, in every human society except ours we have stored extra food as a reserve for hard times and seasonal periods where it is necessary, and it is not hoarding to do so.  The third, and perhaps most important reason is that in the absence of a system of fair and equitable distribution, we have no choice but to create those systems - we have to compensate for the failure to maintain a public system.  For some of us, our compensation might be simply the creation of a private reserve, designed to protect our own - and our own could be a broad or narrow category depending on who we call “ours” - maybe immediate family, maybe extended, maybe a whole neighborhood.  But we may also be compensating for the loss of the public sphere - that is, our libraries may be the community library, our store of seeds can be multiplied and spread through our communities, our extra shoes and clothes, when outgrown, can go to the next family in need, to compensate for an overburdened or absent support system.

 Ok, next, living off stored food as a way of life, not as an emergency practice.


The Limits Thing and Why We Aren’t Mining the Asteroids

Sharon July 21st, 2008

One of the more fascinating sections of the book (pg 83 in my used 1977 paperback) is when the book brings up the original _The Limits to Growth_ - they are on the Johnny Carson show and Johnny starts asking about the merits of a manned probe to study comets.

“Johnny jumped in to give the show back to Sharps.  ‘But tell me, Charlie, what good will it do to study that comet?  How will that change our lives?’

Sharps shrugged.  It may not. You’re asking what good new research does. And all I can answer is that it always has paid off.  Not the way you thought it would, maybe.  Who’d have thought we’d get a whole new medical technology out of the space program?  But we did. Thousand are alive right now because the human-factors boys had to develop new instruments for the astronauts.  Johnny, did you ever hear of the Club of Rome?

Johnny had, but the the audience would need reminding ‘they were the people who did computer simulations to find out how long we could get along on our natural reasources. Even with zero population growth -’

‘They tell us we’re finished,” Sharps broke in.  “And that’s stupid.  We’re only finished because they won’t let us really use technology.  They say we’re running out of metals.  there’s more metal in one little asteroild than was mined all over the world in the last five years! And there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids. All we have to do is go get ‘em.’

‘Can we?’

 ’You bet!  Even with the technology we already have, we could do it.  Johnny, out there in space it’s raining soup, and we don’t even know about soup bowls.’

The studio audience applauded.  They hadn’t been cued by the production assistants, but they appluaded.  Johnny gave Sharps an approving smile and decided how the program would go for the rest of the night.  But there was a frantic signal: time for a Kalva Soap commercial.

There was much more after the commercial.  Whe Sharps got going he was really dynamic.  His thin bony hands waved around like windmills.  He talked about windmills, too, and about how much power the Sun put out every day.  About the solar flare Skylab’s crew had observed.  ‘Johnny, there was enough power in that one little flare to run our civilization for hundreds of years! And those idiots talk about doom!’”

In TMIAHM, Heinlein acknowledges that banging up against limits is an inevitable consequence of being human, admits that for individual humans, especially for those without balls enough to go kill things on the frontier, limits are a real problem. Niven and Pournelle, however, argue that there really aren’t any limits at all - and in fact, that the basic problem is that “they” (The Club of Rome doesn’t really have Clubs, so I’m not quite sure how this works) prevent them from using totally obvious, accessible forms of energy and resources like asteroids and solar flares.

NowI’m going to do a full post on the technical feasibilty of both TMIAHM and LH, because I thought it would be fun to post my husband’s professional analysis of technical feasibility, but I think it is worth noting here that much of the above is complete and utter bullshit.  We do not now and did not in the mid-70s have the technology to harness solar flares or mine asteroids - period.  Assuming that Sharps the character keeps up with his journals, he would be ummm…lying to the general public were this a reality.  Now the thing is that Pournelle and Niven did a lot of research on this - “Dan Forrester” is based on a real guy.  They were at JPL and Caltech and all these other places, so they presumably actually knew, as they were writing this story, that this was errant nonsense.  Pournelle’s Ph.d is in something closely enough related that I find it hard to believe that they just did shoddy research or believed what they were told - I think the book contains a couple of out-and-out technical falsehoods, designed to convince readers that the fact that we don’t have all the energy and resources we want is the fault of an ignorant public and a mysterious “they”who just don’t want us to. 

Frankly, I find this much more disturbing than the bigotry.  You see I used to be an academic, and while I’m hardly perfect, I still find the idea that you would explicitly misrepresent technical capacities, even in a novel, really repulsive - even more repulsive than the racism.  This is, I know, geeky, and yes, the standards for fiction are lower than in academia but it pisses me off - fine, try and make the point, but don’t lie to get there. 

But then again, perhaps it is necessary to lie to get there - this was written deep in the 1970s recession, in the energy crisis.  Perhaps the story has to lie to get its essential message across - that limitations, even the external limits of being hit by a comet - the problem is attitude.  A good attitude, and a firm belief in the power of science is what is needed.



Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Lucifer’s Hammer - Run, the Cannibals are Coming!

Sharon July 21st, 2008

Ok, I’m not going to try and pretend that I think this is a good book. In fact, I think it is a really, really dreadful novel.  Sufficiently so that sometimes it is funny.  So why am I making you read this? 

The thing is, if this was the “Post-Apocalyptic Novels Sharon Loves” book club it probably wouldn’t take us a whole year ;-).  A lot of the books are problematic, in part because it is really difficult genre to work in, in part because it is genre fiction - and even if genre writers are good (and some of them really, really are), they also come with genre audiences, and the *perception* of those audiences - particularly for older science fiction, we’ve got to remember that the widespread perception well past the 1970s was that the audiences were all teenage boys.  That means an enormous amount of pressure to write to teenage boys. 

But there’s more - Jerry Pournelle (who a friend of mine says “contaminates everything he writes”) is a serious survivalist - he edited a survivalist journal and a military technology person.  This novel doesn’t just represent an exploration of the issues, it represents advocacy for them - the idea that a disaster is going to be like this.  Because of this, I’m pretty ok with making fun of this book - besides the very 70s elements (which are funny), the messages are just downright appalling. 

I picked this book because people mention it a lot, which means a lot of people have read it - and I see it referred to periodically as evidence that “they” will come pouring out of the cities to eat us any time now, and thus we need to stock up on ammo and small personal tactical nukes.  I think the impact of this book has been far larger than it merits, and thus, I think it is worth talking about.

Ok, before I get serious, a brief interlude to make fun of this big wad of badness:

Now my own take is that my favorite part of this novel is the “genius astrophysicists will save us all” bit - which actually shows up in a couple of other novels. Now I actually had the foresight, when planning my bunker, to make sure that it contains an astrophysicist, and I recommend that all of you include one in your stocking up plans.  I often tell Eric that I married him primarily because of the Ph.d in Astrophysics, which means that he’ll be able to fend off marauding hordes and explain how to make everything - because, after all, we see in the novel that farmers are too dumb to realize that you can make bombs with fertilizers.  Woah - it is amazing what sciencey guys know!  Who coulda figured that out?

Other useful things you can learn from this book, if you are planning your bunker:

1. It helps a lot when you are trying to survive to bang a powerful person’s daughter.  Fortunately, this isn’t hard - the powerful person’s daughter is widely available and more than willing to spread it around - thus she can act as a pawn between the male elks banging their horns together and smile a lot.  Of course, you are most likely to get to do this if you are a tough journalist who can fly a copter, an astronaut, or a major local landowner.

2. Black people are very, very scary, unless they are in space.   Ideally they’d all be there, right?  They turn to cannibalism nearly instaneously - pretty much “Ok, we’re running short on cheetos - who do I eat first?”  They also like to set fires, torture people and do drugs, unless, of course, they are conveniently floating in space.

3. Women are good cooks.  They are also good at sex and having babies.  Occasionally one can ride a horse, drive a truck, go into space or do secretarial work - but these things rarely get in the way of their cooking, screwing and birthin’ babies.  Most of everything that happens after the apocalypse will not involve women much - fighting the cannibals is not a girlie job.

4. Chemical weapons and slavery are bad, of course, but because the enemy is going to be so totally, perfectly evil that they’ve passed humanity, it justifies what we do to them.  So mustard gas is definitely a good thing, and slavery is just what you gotta do - plus, with the slavery, they are mostly black anyway, so they’ll be used to it.  Definitely be prepared to use any means necessary, because the hordes will be inhuman.  Don’t worry about the morality issues.

5.  Farming is humiliating.  It would be worth any price to keep “the lightning” around, because otherwise, well, you’d be a farmer.  It would be wise, along with your astrophysicist, to keep a nuclear power plant in your yard, so that you don’t lose the lightning.  There will be, of course, no technical issues with keeping it going after a major asteroid strike. 

Ok, beyond mocking the book, I’m curious as to why people find this vision of the future so compelling - other than it looks like tv?  That is, it isn’t enough for there to be a disaster, there have to be clear “bad guys” to fight, and all the moral lines have to be unambiguous - if you are a good guy, you can enslave people, murder them, use chemical weapons and still be a good guy, because, well, you gotta.  And the bad guys where a giant flag that says “bad (very convenient when the flag is their skin color) guy”  Even when things do degrade into violence and war, which does happen, and is a legitimate scenario, it is rarely so clear cut.  Why are we so compelled to imagine that there will be actual wars with cannibal hordes? 

I have to say, I think this book and Heinlein’s _Farnham’s Freehold_ which both imagine African-American populations reverting rapidly to cannibalism are an example of just how terrifically *afraid* a lot of people are - that is, the idea that the people in cities are one disaster from coming out and eating us, literally devouring us is really just one step further from the widespread sense that we are one disaster away from people with guns coming to take our food.  I think the sheer level of fear of people in cities, especially non-white ones is really, deeply disturbing.

Margaret Visser, in her wonderful book _The Rituals of Dinner_ which is an exploration of the history of food sharing and table manners (totally fascinating book, btw) starts her discussion with an analysis of the rituals of cannibalism.  Cannibalism is a concept that we’ll see arising over and over again in these novels, so I think it bears some thinking about it.  And one of Visser’s central arguments is that cannibalism always lurks beneath the surface of our meals - that is, we are almost unaware of the degree to which our table manners and culture are constantly a reminder “I do not threaten you this way” - that is, much of our whole food culture is organized around NOT being cannibals.

 She says of the literary use of cannibalism:

Just because cannibalism has been so very successfully rendered taboo, it has always been one of the major “effects: a writer can rely one when he or she reaches for some fully fledged enormity, an atrocity to make our skins crawl.  For thousands of years cannibalism has seemed to us to be everything that civilization is not - which is why Homer’s hero Odysseus, in search of home, city, order and seemliness, must meet and vanquish such creatures as the cannibal Cyclops.  Cannibalism is a symbol in our culture of total confusion: a lack of morality, law and structure; it stands for what is brutish, utterly inhuman.  The idea is that, unlike cannibals, we are upright, orderly, enlightened, and generally superior.  But what we might use for symbolic purposes as an embodimnet of structureless confusion has nevertheless a basis in clear cold fact: cannibal societies have existed since time immemorial.  AS social beings, however, cannibals must inevitably have manners.  Whatever we might think to the contrary, rules and regulations always govern cannibal society and cannibal behavior.”

Visser goes on to observe that this is true even when the cannibals are very hungry - that cannibalism is always structured in ritual - it isn’t primarily a symbol of the breakdown of society.  In “Donnner Party” scenarios, people might eat the already dead, but the killing of human beings for meat is a very structured, acculturated process - but enormously taboo in our society.  So we symbolize it as the breakdown of everything, proof of inhumanity, but in fact, cannibalism is as mannered as our own table rituals, and in fact, a huge chunk of our dietary custom is designed - from our unwillingness to point knives at each other to the way we only ever use food terms for people’s bodies when we are being terribly derogatory.  That is, our customs say “we know, at some level, that  this could be us too” while our writings say that that’s impossible, we’re good guys.

One more fascinating point that Visser makes is that an exo-Cannibalist society (one where you don’t eat your friends and community members, just the enemies you defeat on the battlefield) *need* a continuing supply of enemies to devour - that is, they have to be warlike societies, constantly manufacturing reasons to go to war, because otherwise, the supply of meat dries up.  One of the fascinating things to me is that while we don’t eat people literally, we too have the same requirements - in our case, it isn’t our diet, but our economy, which is based on military Keynesianism (half the federal budget goes to warfare, and into the economy that way) is similarly dependent on enemies - that is, we’ve managed to make cannibalism utterly taboo, but not the culture that needs enemies to devour metaphorically just as badly.

Cannibalism is going to show up over again in this series - from Cormac McCarthy to SM Stirling, comparatively few of the writers can resist the chance to be this dystopian, to symbolize disaster so clearly.  I think when we see it, it is worth asking “What is the writer doing here?  Why cannibalism?  Do they need it as a symbol?  An exploration of fears?  Whose fears?”  It is worth asking also why the rush to respond to the disaster with the creation of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

 Thoughts?  I’ll be back with another post on this - could it happen?  My husband the science dude weighs in!  And more on limits.


What is a Human Being Worth? Less Per Barrel Than You’d Think

Sharon July 20th, 2008

The Gents over at The Oil Drum are having a discussion of what human labor is worth in energy equivalents.  Luis de Sousa rather unfortunately titled the post “What Is a Human Being Worth?” - obviously, he was being tongue in cheek, but also obviously, he wasn’t fully prepared for the kind of response that question generates. If you want to gently joke about human value, and implicitly raise issues like slavery and Nazism as part of your joke, well, you can pretty much expect what you get.  Some folks will mind, some won’t, but I think any whinging about how it was just a joke and that we don’t really have to talk about moral and ethical stuff, we were trying to be *empirical* about it doesn’t get any of my sympathy. 

Now I adore The Oil Drum, and I owe the guys having this conversation a lot - I’ve learned a lot from them.  But this article does kind of make Crunchy Chicken’s point about gender and the peak oil movement come up to the forefront - this post felt like a circle jerk at the boys club.  It must have been fun while they were doing it - “Hey, can we figure out what a human being is worth?  And express it in kilowatt hours? Cool!” Oy vey.  And I realize I’m a mere humanities scholar, and totally graph free, but if you were comparing something to barrels of oil, a source of energy wouldn’t you want to compare the source of my energy with the machine’s energy, rather than the source of energy with me? 

The most interesting part of the article (I’m tempted to say the only interesting part, but I’m trying to play nice) is the comments.  Like Bart Anderson and Kiashu, I think that the question is being asked badly - hmmm…who can run faster, me or a barrel of oil? Now I’m by no means a serious runner, but I still think that I could outdistance the barrel pretty good.   Well, but if you give the barrel of oil a human manufactured and maintained motorcycle, it can outrun me, you say.  True, but do I get a person to maintain me, maybe a personal trainer?  Without me on it to steer, the oil in the motorbike can presumably go faster, but will fall over pretty quick, won’t it?  I, on the other hand, won’t hit a tree for at least umm…two minutes? 

Then there’s the quality of the work - what about helping Grandma to the bathroom?  Now a robot designed to help a big nursing home full of Grandmas to the potty might well be able to do more assisting than I do - on the other hand, Grandma probably doesn’t like the robot and its probes nearly as much as she likes me (well, for most versions of “Grandma”), and then comes the problem of the occasional beheading caused by robot error - well within the statistical margin, but those that like Grandma get pretty annoyed and start bemoaning the loss of the good old days when Grandma never got beheaded in the nursing home (they probably can’t remember the days when she didn’t even have to go there).

The best computer programs in existence with a lot of human guidance to design parameters could probably produce more words than me on a barrel of oil.  But would they be better, more on-topic, more engaging, more titillating than my words?  I’m not sure I want y’all to answer that ;-), but the old “an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters writing for an infinite amount of time would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare” bit does apply.  And while my works may well be more on the order of 5 monkeys working for 15 minutes, I still will bet that I can mock the TOD Dudes attempting to do the math on human worth better than the best humor generating programs (except for the one now using the cyborg brain of George Carlin, of course).

But there is a reason I’m pointing this out - because underlying a lot of people’s thinking about peak oil is a “OMG…we use X number of terajoules of energy to do Y, and now we’ve got to replace it with backbreaking human labor - and doing even the most essential things - digging ditches or growing food, pays for shit -  we’re all gonna be slaves!” 

Now there are several problems with this analysis, but I want to focus on one important one - the fact that cheap energy has had the function devaluing human labor.  This is fairly obvious - if a gallon of gas can do the equivalent of four men’s work digging outhouses in one day, and the gallon of gas (plus the machine to use it, the man to operate it and the (almost certainly subsidized)  infrastructure to support it) is cheaper, the value of the men’s labor as outhouse diggers drops to…zero.  Because no one in their right mind will hire them, instead of the machine and its dude.  Or maybe not quite zero - perhaps some people with money to spare will see the value of hand-dug outhouses, and tell their friends, and a small niche market will arise - but most people won’t.  And most of the outhouse diggers will have to go do something else to make money.  The best money, obviously, will be in doing things machines don’t do well (yet), like helping Grandma to the potty, writing blogs about the injustices of society and breastfeeding (oh, wait, the money for all of those things sucks… damn, the fact that I’m not an economist kicks me in the ass again.)   

You’d think that doing stuff machines and oil can’t do would pay pretty well, but in fact, the fossil fuels essentially devalue all human labor - the highest paid jobs become not the ones that machines can’t do that benefit society, but the ones that enable more fossil fuel usage, because functionally, cheap energy is (this seems obvious, but I make it explicit because its amazing what people miss) a way of printing money - getting a lot of work done for virtually nothing is a great way to make a profit - that’s why people used to like slavery, and then they liked fossil fuels. In fact, they devalue human work so much you can’t do the work even if you want to - you can’t breastfeed your baby because you have to go back to work at Walmart 3 weeks after the birth (because you are needed to help the growth economy), and you can’t manufacture things things, because the things are too expensive if they pay you a living wage - the only way they can use human labor is to find labor that is literally cheaper than oil - by creating economic structures that ensure that the wealth doesn’t get spread around and that there always are people who are cheaper than oil.  So it isn’t so much work that machines don’t do well that is valued but work that enables the expansion of energy use, and thus, more exchange of cash - for example, being a real estate developer paid (until the energy prices started to rise) really, really well - because they make new markets, and make new uses for fossil fuels - all those houses need faucets and insulation, all those suburbanites need grocery stores and gas stations, all those new toilets need toilet paper. 

Now the economy and culture that rise up don’t just value things that enable things that involve burning stuff more than things that don’t, they explicitly *DEVALUE* things that don’t - that is, it isn’t just that now the guys who used to build outhouses can’t do that work any more, it is that the very fact that they used to do that is now treated as appalling, strange and bad.  People marvel that anyone could ever have done it at all, and describe the work as “drudgery” and “backbreaking” - which may be true - the guys digging the outhouses may well have hated it, and may well have preferred their new jobs, unloading pallets at Walmart to digging outhouses.  Probably on rainy days, the certainly did - although maybe when their boss was timing their bathroom breaks they missed their old job and the convenient woods, and when they were working a 12 hour shift under the flourescent lights on a beautiful, breezy fall day, who knows?  Certainly, their backs probably hurt either way. 

The women who used to nurse their babies aren’t just doing something different, or contributing to a different segment of the economy (ummm…healthy intelligent workers - those aren’t useful, are they?)  what they are doing is arcane and immodest, maybe a little dirty,  showing off their boobs like that.   Certainly, it is anti-intellectual and a waste of what education they had -  staying at home rotting their brains, rather than going to do some useful work where someone else can care for the baby while your boss times you as you attempt to pump breastmilk on the toilet of the Walmart bathroom.  Of course, you give up, but that’s good, because that creates jobs for formula manufacturers and Baby Stalin Video developers.

And not only do they devalue that work, but they devalue the men and women themselves  who weren’t “smart” enough to get in on the ground floor of the fossil fuel pyramid scheme - we make a lot of redneck jokes, and talk about how important our work is and how we’re too important or smart to clean toilets or wipe bums ( And yes, these are actual things I’ve heard expressed quite explicitly)  Doing work that can be done by machines and oil (unless you manage a niche market like the perfect outhouses, coming soon to a Martha Stewart show near you), like weeding, breastfeeding or digging means you must be dumb - because didn’t you know we can do that with fossil fuels now?  Or better yet,  or with a combination of fossil fuels and people whose main characteristic is that they are cheaper than oil.  

 And it isn’t just these folks - anything that can be profitably done with cheap fossil fuels is obviously devalued -  but also, oil produces a lot of energy.  I know, I know…duh.  But bear with me.  This is its virtue, but also its cost.  At first you can take the obviously demanding jobs and replace them with machines and oil, and make slow things go faster.  Now maybe that’s ok and maybe it isn’t - we don’t do a lot of intellectual case by case thinking about this stuff -  but after a while, all the outhouse diggers are out of business.  But we still have all this energy coming in - and now we have to grow into to work that isn’t so well done with fossil fuels - work that doesn’t get done with powered machines, but that can only be replaced either with diminishing quality (ie, Grandma gets probed by a potty-machine instead of having her need for help and kindness met simultaneously), or by convincing people that what isn’t as good really is.  So, for example, despite the manifest case that industrial food production produces food that tastes like shit, has fewer nutrients and is more toxic, we have to be told that this is progress, that Campbell’s Soup is better than homemade and that Grandma is pissed not because she doesn’t like where the probe goes, but also because the frozen lasagna is better than hers ever was. 

And that’s the other way that fossil fuels devalue human labor - they convince us that the world we get with fossil fuels is  equivalent in every respect to the human powered one, that we can do analyses like the one being done at The Oil Drum, and that there’s no danger, nothing inherently demeaning there in sitting around and discussing how many barrels of oil a human being is worth.  Not only do fossil fuels devalue human labor directly, but because they produce so much energy, they must create uses for that energy - they are the primary agency of growth - a 30-1 EROEI for oil means that even if we only need to use 10 barrels of oil for everyone we extract, we have to create a need for the other 20.  Thus, you start out replacing the outhouse diggers, and replacing hand loomed cloth with machine loomed cloth, making huge differences in productivity - but gradually you start making bread machines and salad shooters and clothes dryers that don’t really do the job any better than human beings with ambient energies.  But we can’t tell anyone that’s not true - so you start selling the idea that you need a bread machine to make bread, and a backhoe to dig a hole and formula to feed a baby and that these things are better, or at a minimum just the same.  

When you have children, you can do enormous harm to them by following them around and telling them “no, don’t try that, it is too hard, too dangerous” - the result is children without self-confidence, without courage, and without competence.  What they are “worth” (and I used that term ironically here) as human beings is shaped by the ways they are valued and supported by the surrounding infrastructure (ie, the people who love and care for them).  The same is true of human beings at large, and of ordinary adults.  In this case, it is fossil fuels that stand in for overprotective parents, telling us, implicitly by the very existence of the machines and explicitly through advertising that we are not competent, that our own energies are insufficient to the job.  The very existence of the rototiller says “The shovel is insufficient” - and most people who purchase one probably do so, not after extensive trials with the shovel and with mulch, but because they “know” that the rototiller is necessary. The formula that comes in the little bag they give you in the hospital when you have a baby says “Your breasts probably won’t work as advertised - we can’t trust in them, or in you.”  In the same sense, we “know” that most of the work we do that doesn’t require fossil fuels isn’t really valuable, because, after all, it could be done much more cheaply with fossil fuels, or with one of the people “liberated” from their old jobs digging ditches or growing foods who can now do the cheap labor of caring for our children or cooking our dinners.   In the net, a whole host of people from anthropologists to Juliet Schor have shown that industrial society needs more of our time and energy than either agrarian or other subsistence societies - that is, the push to burn the oil also means a push to get us pushing the buttons that burn the oil, and making money to buy the salad shooter - it means besides telling us we can’t do things, it embeds us in a system that absorbs the time we might have had to get stuff done.

What happens in a lower energy world, or one where energy isn’t cheap anymore?  Do we have to put all those human beings on treadmills to run the machines that make the wii systems, and then have someone running behind your kid generating power while he’s pretending to run on his wii?  Hmmm… just maybe there’s a simpler way.  Like maybe a large percentage of the activities that seem so necessary when we have all these fossil fuels we have to burn won’t seem so necessary. Maybe the question isn’t “is it more efficient for Steve to fly or walk from Alabama to Michigan for his business meeting” but “will it be necessary for Steve to work for a company that sells B to B software and has business meetings in Michigan?”  Might it be possible, in a world where energy isn’t cheap anymore to shift our valuation of things, to valuing human labor highly enough to support someone doing something more useful, and perhaps closer?

Might it even be possible to ask a different question - how much human time and energy is required to support the infrastructure for a fairly simple, reasonably humane, low energy, mostly human powered society, that gets to keep some of the best elements of the fossil fueled world, while jettisoning the rest?  And then, how much human time and energy is required to support a heavily industrialized, toxic society that devalues human beings?  There’s a very good chance that the answer to the first question is *less human work* than the answer to the second one.  Juliet Schor’s explorations, and Helena Norberg Hodge’s research in Ladakh, as well as investigations into Hunter-Gatherer societies and the work of historians generally all pretty much agree - most people worked rather less than we do in most agrarian socieities - they worked long hours during planting and harvest, and very short ones in the winter or the rainy season.  The averages range from 2-4 hours of daily work to support all the need of a !Kung to a daily average of about 6 hours per day in medieval agrarian societies.

I am grateful for fossil fuels in my life, and I use them, if advisedly and with care.  My point is not “fossil fuels are evil” - they aren’t.  But they have consequences, practical, economic, moral as well as phsyical ones that go unexplored in this kind of very narrow analysis.   To a degree, it is only possible for us to be sitting here asking what human beings are worth in relationship to a barrel of oil because fossil fuels enable us to devalue human labor, and humans themselves so thoroughly.  One Oil Drum commenter suggests that it would be useful to think about how many slaves fossil fuels have replaced - but in fact, as I’ve written about here, and as recent studies have suggested, there are more slaves in the world now than there ever were pre-fossil fuels.  The fact is that slavery is an expression of how we value other human lives - the idea that we can honestly transform people into energy and dollars.  This is not dependent on fossil fuels - but it can be enabled by them (and by other things as pre-modern slave societies show) - it is enabled by any model that represents human beings primarily as a source of energy.  I understand that the people doing this analysis meant to be contributing something useful to the world - but what they succeeded in doing was rather different - their article is as much a defense of this kind of ethics free reductionism as it is an exercise in mathematics.

So what’s a human being worth? Not nearly as much as you’d hope, it seems. 


« Prev - Next »