Archive for August, 2008

If You Tried to Order a Book…

Sharon August 27th, 2008

Hi Everyone -

Ok, I had some trouble with email back in July and August, and somehow, people who emailed me asking to order a book didn’t get through.  I have sent out all the books I have the emails for, but I’ve gotten enough “Where’s my book” queries to know that there is a problem.  My apologies – gmail seems to be straightened out, but the messages are nowhere to be found.

 So if you tried to order a book from me and never got one (fortunately, I don’t think anyone who didn’t get one paid already), you can do so now, either by paypal to [email protected] or by mailing a check to Sharon Astyk, PO Box 342 Delanson, NY 12053.  Please include *with it* (so that I don’t get confused – I get confused easily ;-) ) your address and how you want me to inscribe the book. 

 The cost of the book is $18.95 plus postage – I’ve listed below.  If you want to order one somewhere not listed, email me at [email protected]

For US postage: $2.40

For Canada: $4.80

For Britain and Australia $10.30

I realize this is not cheap, and am not at all offended if people get the book elsewhere – amazon is selling it quite reasonably and delivers quickly, and I love to see local bookstores make a profit as well, or you can order directly from New Society at  And local libraries are great also – so please don’t see this as pressure or solicitation.  But if you did try to order and never heard from me, I apologize for the technical difficulties and they are still available.


Practical Security

Sharon August 26th, 2008

Ok, I’m going to run through a range of security options, covering both personal and community, and talk a little about the pros and cons of each.  I’ve divided them into four categories – personal, preventative (ie, avoiding security issues in the first place); community, preventative, personal, responsive (ie, when something bad is/has already happened) and community responsive. 

It is almost alwasy cheaper, easier and more efficient to devote most of your resources to personal and community preventative measures than to devote them to responsive ones.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a way to respond to violence or threat – no preventative works all the time.  But if you have limited resources, preventative measures are usually the easiest way to start, and the most effective overall.  The most important thing to remember is that most threatening is based on a fairly rational risk assessment by the person doing it – they think they’ll be better off stealing from you or hurting you than not - now there are plenty of exceptions –  some criminals are morons and can’t tell what their risks are, and some people are sociopaths, ormotivated by compulsions beyond rational control –  but the odds are good that the person looking to steal from you or attack you and take your money is looking to do it with minimal risk to themselves and good odds of success.  If they do this as a regular hobby or a living, they are probably pretty experienced at this.  If they don’t do it very often, odds are they are quite nervous about being caught.  So anything that slows them down (and thus increases their chance of being caught), make yourself and your family appear to be a less attractive victim, raises their risk of being caught, or raises their risk of being hurt reduces your risk.

Now at the moment, I’m talking mostly about criminal assault here. And I think the odds are that increasing poverty will increase the crime rate, although variably in various areas.  It is worth remembering, however, that while individual or small band criminal assault is a fairly common scenario, it is not the only possible scenario.  For most women and children, I would remind all of us again that domestic violence is far more common than external violence, and neighbors, friends, etc… often perpetrators as well.   In a lower-energy world, most of our problems will probably come from people we know, or who don’t live very far away, rather than the bands of roaming marauders some people worry about.  I think this is particularly important when we talk about guns (and it is so hard to talk about security without all the focus landing on guns, even if we don’t want to, because our thoughts are so heavily weighted and polarized on this issue).

One of the reasons I don’t recommend guns to every household is that for women who are victims of husbands, lovers and boyfriends (or occasionally girlfriends and wives), having a gun is probably more dangerous than not having one.  Someone in an abusive partnership has already failed to use (and I understand this is a difficult thing to do in many situations) the most potent weapon they have – getting out (this does not necessarily apply to those who have left abusive situations and have to fear a partner coming after them).  And if you can’t leave an abusive partner, odds are, you won’t shoot them either.  On the other hand, abusive partners often kill the women they abuse, sometimes with their own guns.  So as we go through, it is worth noting that all people, especially women (some men are abused too, but the situation is less chronic) need to think about not just “the stranger trying to jack my car” but other, more intimate realities.

Another real and serious question, raised by one of the commenter’s in my previous post is the issue of suicide.  This is a particularly big issue for men – the disruption of male economic roles tends to cause depression, anxiety, and stress related illness and a lot of suicide, especially by middle aged and older men.  Teenagers are also vulnerable to suicide.  And as my poster wisely pointed out, having the gun available in the house means that you don’t need a sustained desire for suicide – merely a brief period of despair.  For those with a history of depression or concerns, the benefits of guns may well be outweighed by the dangers of having them.

Finally, there’s the issue of children.  If you have young children, generally speaking it is wise to keep guns and ammo locked up – there are rural families who live in ways that don’t allow this, and police and military parents who need to use other strategies, but most parents will be safer if there is no possible way for young children, children with disabilities that limit their ability to understand the consequence of guns and others to get ahold of them. Now it is easy to assume that this situation means that a gun is totally useless – but that assumes that the only scenarios in which a gun would be useful are ones where someone is breaking down your door just as you are sitting there thinking “damn – I wish I had my weapon.”  And it is true that if you have young kids or disabled kids who function like them, you probably necessarily lose that ability to respond in a heartbeat.  But since that’s not the only possible scenario – plenty of home invasions or acts of violence have lead times, with people scoping out an area, or lying in wait, notice being given by a barking dog, etc…  it isn’t the case that guns are only useful if you don’t have kids.  My own feeling is that it is generally worth limiting your ability to respond rapidly for the safety of your children – and it is also worth training yourself in the ability to rapidly open and load your gun if you are going to have one.

The other scenario worth talking about is state supported violence.  If you are black in the US, you are already probably pretty clear on this one, at least one scale.  A lot of us tend to leap immediate to the idea of ”camps” or something as the logical face of state authorized or created violence, but simply the idea that you have to be as or more afraid of the police than criminals is one form of state violence.  This can occur at any level – town, state, federal.  There are people and places where police will never be your allies, and it is definitely worth being aware that the US military, the police and the state can be used against you, and has been.  The last charge of the US Cavalry, for example, occurred not against a foreign enemy but during the Great Depression when impoverished veterans of World War I marched peacefully upon Washington and set up shantytowns demanding that they be paid a promised subsidy.  The fear of the state is perfectly reasonable.  This does not mean that agents of the state are bad – or that they can’t also be a really good thing.  It merely means that even the most humane and best agent of the state always risks being misused by an evil state.

That said, what you should do about the fear of the state is a tough question – personal solutions will probably only work in very rural areas where the state has few representatives, and while an armed populace represents something of a deterrant, it honestly isn’t clear to me how much.  In the case of widespread federally supported state violence (and I should note by this I mean “more than now” and not to imply it doesn’t exist now), probably the best solution is a revolution, and probably a non-violent one.  But this involves a level of community organization I’m not quite prepared to cover in this one post ;-)

Personal Preventative Measures:

1. Self-confidence, or at least the appearance thereof.  It isn’t true that all victims look like victims, but it is the case that if someone is calculating whether to attack or steal or do something illegal, they are probably calculating their risk too.  The stronger and harder to intimidate you appear, the less likely you will be to look like an easy target.  For some people this is easy – for example, I’m 6′ tall and not thin.  I’m a big woman and I walk and act like I take up space – this is to my advantage.  But I’ve known very small and very elderly women who also have this quality.  It may not truly be the case that all bullies are cowards, but some are, and you can put off some assaults with a certain measure of self confidence, and the ability not to respond fearfully.  It isn’t magic, and it has to be carefully balanced with the instinct for self preservation, but it can help.

For women facing domestic violence, I realize this is much easier said than done, but part of this has to include the ability to say that it is never permissable for anyone to touch you violently, even if they love you, and that you will leave immediately, not the second or third time, but the first time it happens.

2. Common sense.  Don’t make yourself unnecessarily vulnerable.  Walk with another person when possible.  Stay close to other people if you are out alone.  Don’t flash cash where no one else has it.  Don’t punch your atm card in clear view of everyone.  Don’t leave your bags unattended.  Don’t start bar fights you can’t finish.  Don’t let your kids roam around alone if there are lots of human or animal predators around.  Be aware of your surroundings, pay attention to other people, avoid people looking for fights or trouble.  Use your brain – that’s what it is for.

3. The ability to shift the ground and understand the person you are dealing with.  This may be about slowing things down, increasing the perception of risk by the criminal, making you seem a poor choice of victim or about making them fear being hurt (use that latter one carefully).  If the threat to your security is a person, sometimes you can change the threat by talking to them, or dealing with them.  I’ve already mentioned the woman I know who got out of a carjacking by talking about her kids and their need for her.  But I’ve also met a woman who got out of being raped by claiming she had her period, and Derrick Jensen talks about his sister getting out of it by saying she had VD.  That doesn’t mean things like this always work, but they are tools you have.  I’ve also met an elderly nun who rather famously disarmed multiple soldiers on several seperate occasions – she lived in a nunnery near Serajevo, and soldiers would come to the nunnery – sometimes to steal, sometimes to intimidate, at least one time, she said, bent on rape, and she would talk to them, joke with them sometimes, guilt trip them others, remind them of their own mothers, and every single time, she ended up with the soldiers leaving, and a couple of times, she was holding their guns at the end.  This is a gift, obviously, that not all of us have, and that some people are not susceptible to.  But some are, and language, persuasion, emotional manipulation, identification even humor - these things are tools people have to use and should be aware of as such. 

4. Basic home security measures that slow someone down and make it more likely they will be caught.  Good locks.  Actually lock them if things get risky (I live in an area where locks are not presently used much).  Stout doors.  Bars for the doors.  Heavy metal screens or window bars for particularly dangerous areas.  Fences to keep things out of sight.  Padlocks on sheds. Locks on your gas caps.  A safe place to move animals to.  

5. A dog, geese or guinea hens.  These work both to raise the risk of being caught, and to raise the risk of a criminal being hurt.  I don’t generally suggest that most people get trained attack dogs, but some kind of animal deterrant that can alert you to unusual situations is a good idea.  A dog is the most common choice, but geese have some real advantages - they are also excellent watchdogs, and in some ways, your average criminal may be more afraid of an aggressive gander than a dog, simply because it is more unfamiliar, and they eat grass.  Basically, you want something that hears and smells better than you do, and will give you some warning time, while also discouraging the large number of people who want an easy target. 

I don’t recommend this one if you don’t like animals, can’t take care of them, or don’t have a plan for supplying them with food in the longer term.  The world does not need more abandoned or euthanized animals. If you have kids, the dog must be gentle and good with kids, ideally raised from a puppy, and you must not leave young children along with dogs ever.  But if you are prepared to do this wisely and carefully, watch animals can reduce your risk and provide you with some warning of trouble.

6. Electronic security systems depend on electricity, money, monitors, police infrastructure and cars to get there quickly – they are an option while things are good, but I wouldn’t bet on them unless you are quite wealthy and you and your neighborhood can afford to maintain the infrastructure behind them.  Even then, the “gated community” model is not something that particularly takes my interest, so I’m going to skip over it.

Community Preventative:

1. A community.  This is one of those “duh” things, but it is useful to have those relationships built *before* you need them - that way if things change quickly,  you’ve got this in place.  And honestly, a non-car community – a place where people walk and bike and talk to each other and sit on porches or interact regularly at meals and occasions – ie, where there are people around and connected to each other, is itself a measure of deterrence.  That is, a neighborhood where there are people isn’t as easy pickings to a burglar as a place where people aren’t.

 2. Neighborhood watch – this is related to the above.  Getting together, keeping an eye on things, having people out in the streets, showing presence – these things help make you look less vulnerable.  Obvious neighborhood unity is protective against state violence as well, because if the police have to deal with a large community en masse they will be less powerful than if they can deal with isolated citizens.  A neighborhood watch that looks within may also be a preventative against domestic abuse as well, discretely enabling victims to get away, or making it clear to perpetrator that they pay a public price as well.

3. Bells, code words and other alert methods.  Jews in urban New York city use a yiddish codeword.  Carnival operators yell “Hey Rube!”  In some places “Help” or “Socorro!” or some other equivalent gets the response.  Other places may use whistles or loud bells.  But the idea is that when an alarm is sounded, everyone drops what they are doing and comes running, ideally armed with what ever is at hand – a stick, a rock, a loud voice.  This works on any kind of violence or criminal activity (and is especially effective if neighbors can bring themselves to do it in the case of domestic violence, which relies heavily on the tacit silence of neighbors and their fear of intervention).  Numbers have power!  Two criminals with knives are scary if they are facing a few people – against 30 or so angry neighbors, they aren’t quite as scary. 

4. Public and private security, and a good relationship with them.    There are places where police have little relationship to the people they serve and protect – and many times this can be remedied.  Getting to know the police, and talking to them, having them have a relationship with your neighborhood or community group can be really helpful.  Their presence can provide a deterrant, slow crime down and increase the chance of a criminal paying a price.  In some situations, post-collapse, many societies rely on private security – in some cases, you may have no choice but to rely on private security, as in some places the choice is “hire” protection or need protection from those  you might otherwise have hired.  Having people whose job it is to see to security is a good thing, assuming they are good people with the public (whole public) interest in mind.

5. Walls, gates, lights, speed bumps, etc… barriers to entry.  While I’m not much interested in the wealthy gated community, in some neighborhoods reducing car or pedestrian access to certain areas, providing motion sensor lighting, etc… make a lot of sense.  Do an evaluation of your area and its needs.

6. Organized non-violence.  This can be an extension of much of the above, but also can include passive resistance strategies and a host of other things.  I strongly recommend Mark Kurlansky’s excellent history of non-violence.  This is actually potentially the most effective strategy ever against state violence, and can be used quite effectively.  It does require, however that you have a strongly organized and consistent community that pretty much agrees to this policy – that is, it can’t work without strong community ties.

Personal Responsive:  Everything in this category is totally pointless if you don’t know what you are doing with it.  Seriously, if you can’t take the time and energy to deal with learning how to use this properly, when to use it, when not to use it and a host of other things, don’t bother – concentrate on the above.  Because having a weapon that can be taken from you and used on you is a bad idea. 

 It is just as important to know when *NOT* to use these as when to use them.  For example, self-defense trainers teach people not to hang onto their purses during most purse snatchings – the first thing most of them teach is how to let your purse go.  The reason is that most purses don’t have anything worth risking your life for.  If you respond to a low level threat with a strong response, maybe you’ll end the situation – but if it goes wrong, or you make a mistake (and mistakes happen, and will no matter what), you may find yourself facing a much greater threat.  One of the classic peak oil worries is the question of the marauding band.  My feeling is that if there’s someone after my food, and I have young children, it doesn’t matter if my band is bigger and meaner than the food hunting band – the minute the shooting starts, I risk the loss of someone to crossfire, which kills as many people as intended violence when bullets are flying.  There are situations where each of these tools can be useful – but plenty of situations where they are not, and telling one from the other is a bigger problem than can be handled in this post.  So if you are going to pick up one of these methods, think hard about when you might want to use them and when not.

 All of these options act as deterrents, as well as actual responses.  But the problem is that if you aren’t prepared to use them, they can be easily used against you.  But it is never a bad idea to gently let people know that you are familiar with self-defensive methods (the only exception to this is that some kinds of martial arts, in some kinds of crowds, I’m told create a guy kind of “I have to try and take him” crap, so keep that in mind), or perhaps to not make your non-violent proclivities the subject of public discussion.  If you are resolutely non-violent, you might consider an unloaded shotgun which can still be “pumped’ because the sound of a shotgun is such a visceral and powerful one.

1. Self defense or martial arts training.  This ranges hugely from purely defensive techniques to aggressive ones, to basic police sponsored self defense training to serious martial arts.  Almost anything you will get is better than nothing, assuming it comes with a competent trainer that can help you with evaluating your situation.  In the broadest possible terms, even very basic self defense training will help you make yourself a lot harder to hurt or attack.  It won’t fix everything, but again, assuming that people who want to hurt you in part rely on the fact that you will be frightened, panicky and not know how to hurt them, this helps a lot.  It is also a huge confidence booster – I was friends with a woman who used to teach self defense to elderly women who lived in urban areas, a terribly vulnerable population,  many quite frail and disabled, and she said their tracking showed that assaults halved, mostly not because the women could do terribly much harm, but because they acted like they could, and made it difficult for their attackers.

2. Blunt objects.  I really like these.  A good, heavy blunt object has a lot of uses in icky times.  Baseball bats, one of my students like Maglite flashlights, axe or hatchet handles, even a good cane for them that use them.  Now knowing some commonsense use is really helpful – it is easy for a strong attacker with a long reach to take this away and use it on you (this is true to varying degrees of all weapons).  Still, if you can figure out how to use them productively, they are cheap, widely available and useful at close range.  Various blunt objects traditionally used in stick fighting of various sorts can be trained upon, and this is not a bad idea.  But often in a non-weaponed conflict, simply the sight of a stick or other weapon makes you look like a bad target.

3. Pepper spray – I’ve heard very mixed things about this stuff, and must admit to no personal experience with it. It has the advantage of being usually (but not always) non-lethal, of being painful as hell to the attacker, and cheap and widely available.  I’ve known several people, however, who didn’t realize just how close together you have to be to use it successfully.  Two of those people used it at a far enough range that it wasn’t very effective, and one of the attackers was *REALLY* pissed off.  So like everythink KNOW HOW TO USE IT.  It is also worth noting that it can cause death by asthma and is incredibly painful – so you might not want to use it in uncertain situations.  

4. Tasers cannot be classified as a non-lethal, as they do cause death sometimes.  They are legal, including for concealed carry in many states, and they do work rather well – but shouldn’t be used casually or treated as a non-lethal weapon.  They do tend to end a confrontation quite rapidly, but they depend on fairly close proximity and decent aim.  They are not legal in my state for civilian use.  It would be wise to treat a taser as less likely to kill than a gun, but as potentially as dangerous.

5. SCA weapons.  I’m unfairly putting bows of all sorts, swords, fighting knives and a host of things in this category. I am not doing so because I dismiss them, but because they are not things to fuck with unless you know what you are doing, and generally speaking, the SCA isn’t a bad place to master them.  The problem with the SCA as I see it is that there are a certain number of gamer geeks who think that once a week waving a sword about makes them quite something, and who are totally wrong.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that the SCA is made up only of these people.  But I think it would be easy, with the wrong people, to get the sense that your weaponry is more useful than it is, or that you are more skillful than you are.  If you are going to rely on SCA weapons, train extensively with multiple people, and know their limitations and abilities.

6. Knives.  An emergency backup, if you are using your knife in a conflict, you are already pretty screwed.  Knives, like everything else, can be taken away from you, and most people know this.  If you are already in close quarters, getting out a knife and using it will be awkward, but if you can do it, might be as effective as all hell.  But stabbing someone is not physically easy (bodies do not penetrate as easily as on tv).  Not the worst reserve item ever, but not easy to use.

7. Guns.  We’ve already talked so much about guns that I feel like we’ve covered a lot of the ground.  Who shouldn’t have a gun?  Kids who still think they are immortal and those with mental or psychological disabilities, anyone likely to seriously consider suicide, anyone who hates and fears guns, anyone who doesn’t think they’d use a gun, morons who think guns make the invincible (although though these people probably already have them),  and anyone who is vulnerable to violence from someone they love.  Who might want to consider them?  Anyone with animal predators around (and packs of feral dogs are a likely consequence of a poorer society), hunters, women, especially single women, and older women and couples.  Anyone who is good with guns and will take the time to use them carefully.  Anyone who needs a long range weapon, and who can effectively use a gun, never pointing it unless they are prepared to use it.  Anyone who can disconnect themselves from TV and the popular culture relationship to guns and treat it as a tool of limited usefulness.

Community Responses:

1. Organized Collective Non-Violence with Media Attention.  I mentioned this above, but I think it works both actively and passively.  It is worth noting that non-violence is not the same as “non-resistance” – it does not mean accepting outcomes, but thwarting violence before it happens.  The reason I mention “media attention” is that perhaps the most important things non-violent resister’s can do in a violent situation is draw the attention to the realities, make people see what they do not see.  One of the points of Kurlansky’s book on non-violence is that the inevitability of violence is almost always clear – at the point that we have lost every chance to resolve a conflict without violence, usually simply discarding those moments of possibility, in which public sentiment and other practices might have been used.  That is, it is very easy to say “Oh, non-violence wouldn’t have saved the Jews under the Nazis” – and that is almost certainly true.  On the other hand, non-violent forms of resistance did save the Danish Jews, who virtually all survived.  There is no question that allied nations could have opened their borders to the Jews and most of the loss of life would have been prevented.  That is, violence became inevitable once we closed down every other choice – and that may well happen to many of us.  But that doesn’t mean that non-violence pointless, or has no role in the lives of people who are not pacifists – sometimes, often, especially when states are involved, nonviolence is extremely effective and powerful.  It is not, as some argue (including Kurlansky, and I think he’s wrong) the only tool – but it is a tool and important one.

2. Militias/Community self-Policing.  This works best if you are trained by someone who actually knows what they are doing – I don’t recommend it otherwise.  Getting a bunch of people together to practice using weapons is kind of pointless, if no one has ever thought critically about strategy, or when not to use weapons or fight.  Half of such work is knowing how to disperse a crowd, distract a drunk and send him home, or recognize trouble waiting to happen and intervene.  If the police are unavailable, corrupt or absent and private security untrustworthy or too expensive to manage, get someone with serious training to teach you.  While I think the risks of guns are often overstated by the mainstream media, I think the risks of weekend warriors with weapons waving them around without a lot of training couldn’t possibly be overstated.

 Ok, now that we’ve talked about death and violence, on to finances and sex.  What fun!



Security – Thinking Reasonably About a Hot-Button Issue

Sharon August 26th, 2008

I got an email recently from a very kind gentleman who very politely told me that he’d feel better if I had some form of protection, that he didn’t want to push me on the subject, but he assumed that all our family had was good intentions on this subject.  And since I often write that I think the “marauding hordes” vision of the future is false, I can understand why he thinks this, and appreciate his tremendous and respectful kindness on my behalf. 

In fact, despite the fact that I don’t buy the idea that isolated armed homesteaders will be secure in the future, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have guns, or that I’m a pacifist – I’m not.  Among other things, I live in an area populated by bears (of course, the official maps say not, but the bears say otherwise) and at least one large cat (we didn’t see it, but from the sound of its movements and its noises, not to mention the fact that it scared the poop out of my very intrepid dogs (one took out a raccoon when he was considerably smaller than the coon),  we have either a bobcat or a cougar – which also aren’t supposed to live here) and assorted mid-sized predators.  We also have poultry, small goats and sheep to protect – so weapons are just a tool of our trade, along with shovels.  We don’t hunt, because we keep kosher, but my husband is learning, because honestly, kashruth will go out the window if my kids are ever hungry enough.  I’m not working on that skill set simply because my eyesight is so appallling that I think the odds of my hitting a food animal are pretty small.  But I can hit a target pretty well at distances needed for humans and animals, and I have reasonable confidence that I’d do so.  I learned to shoot when I was a child, taught by my father for self-defense, and I remember well helping him make bullets in the furnace of our house.  So no, I’m not opposed to the careful and wise use of guns.

And I don’t honestly buy the bullshit that is passed around about the evils of guns.  I certainly believe it is quite possible for guns to be used stupidly, and I have no problem with the regulation of certain kinds of weaponry – and problems with the regulation of others.  I think different countries can and should have different approaches – but in the US, given the reality of an already heavily armed populace, I tend to think that guns in private hands do operate as a kind of deterrant against some of the very worse excesses of the government.  

I also think that statistic show quite clearly that women, particularly women living alone, if they know what they are doing and use it carefully, are safer in the US if they carry a weapon and know how to defend themselves.  I think the best discussion of this issue I’ve seen is by Joe Bageant, in his great _Deer Hunting With Jesus_ where he debunks most of the standard, urban liberal perceptions about weaponry.  That doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to kill your own kids with a stupidly managed gun, or that guns are the answer to everything, or that everyone should own one – quite the contrary.  But if you think that today’s class is going to focus on all non-violence, you are incorrect.  While people will make a large range of choices, they also need to explore their options.

But before we go to guns and other variants on weaponry, I’d like to back up, and talk about why “Security” in and of itself doesn’t translate to ” everyone get a bunch of guns.”  Especially in the US there’s an immediate leap to “guns=security” and in many cases, I think they are a component of personal and community security.  But only one.  Before we start to talk about weapons, and the loaded (so to speak) discussion that that leads to, let’s remember that the gun comes into the security discussion quite late – if you are pulling a weapon, you are already well past many things that you could do to ensure your own security.  Not getting to the weapons stage should be the focus of everyone’s relationship to their own security. 

The truth is that while my pulling a weapon on a person might be useful in some situations (when I am being treated aggressively by one or two people, and all other scenarios have failed me), and assuming I am resolute enough and quick enough not to have it taken away from me and used upon me (and this happens), doing so also escalates a situation in a dramatic way.  There are plenty scenarios one can imagine in which my not appearing to be a threat could be just as valuable as my ability to present the appearance of one.  I know at least one woman who had a gun in her glove compartment, when she experienced a man getting into her car and threatening her.  There was a decent chance she might have gotten the gun quickly and turned on him – but she might also have failed, and her reading of the situation was that she was better off emphasizing that she was a mother, that her children would be alone and vulnerable.  She did so, and the man let her out of the car.  In another case, with another person, she might have been wiser to go for the gun.  In all scenarios, however, she would have been wiser to have kept her car locked, and not to have pulled up to search through her purse in an unlighted area without any protection.  As in almost all cases, reducing risk would have helped the most. 

I’m also going to mention that this is one of many issues in which there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  A lot of this depends on who you are – your personality, your level of physical ability, your psychology, your age, gender and time of life, as well as your neighborhood and other constraints, and who the person or persons or animals threatening you are, what their reasons are and what the situation is.  One of the things that shocked me when I became a mother is how fearful I became for myself – I’d never worried much about dangerous things, or feared death much in any conscious way, and now I realized I was terrified that something would happen to me, or my husband.  I was puzzled by this – but I’ve found now that my last baby is turning into a kid, that level of fear has eased off again.  And now I see it for what it was – a perfectly reasonable recognition that as a pregnant or breastfeeding mother, I depended on my husband’s survival in many ways (because it wouldn’t have been easy for me to take up the economic responsibility) and my child depended physically on my survival for his.  Now that my babies are not babies any more, I find that while I certainly don’t like the idea of my death, or my spouse’s, I can breathe a bit when I have to contemplate them.  And that’s simply because my children are no longer physically dependent on him, and I’m no longer in such a vulnerable stage of life.  I mention this because I think that a pregnant woman, for example, has a different set of vulnerabilities and potential responses (and remember, the person most likely to be assaulting a pregnant woman is not some random criminal, but her husband, boyfriend or lover) than, say, her husband, or an unencumbered male.  That is, what we can do and what we need to do varies quite a lot.

The truth is that how you deal with security issues depends a lot on where in life you are – a mother with multiple young children has different choices to make than someone with older or adult children.  And those choices aren’t certain – that is, a woman in her fifties whose children are grown might be able to commit to organized non-violence even at the expense of her own life, while a woman in her 30s with three small kids might feel she had no choice but to defend her children.  On the other hand, a woman with small children might feel that escalation to violence would lead to her children’s death as well, while a woman with no kids might not feel that same fear pulling her gun.  The truth is that all situations vary a lot, and it is impossible to talk here about every possible scenario. 

It is also true that most of us are going to make our choices on the fly, in response to stimuli, and without fully understanding what we are doing.  That is, most of us aren’t going to have time to make considered choices, to do the right thing every time, and mostly, we aren’t going to know what is right for sure.  I often talk about the choice my husband’s great-grandmother made for her daughter – they lived in Nazi Germany, and Jews were being rounded up to the ghetto, but as yet, there were no major death camps, and the violence against Jews seemed mostly non-fatal.  At the same time, the Germans were near conquering England, and Britain was being heavily bombed.  Jewish parents had the choice of sending their children on the kindertransport, a train travelling through France, to England – that is, putting your children, now comparatively protected in Germany and under the protection of their own parents, on a train that will travel through a war zone, to a country being heavily bombed, to be cared for by people who did not know or love them, in a place that odds are, was likely to be conquered shortly anyway by the same Germans.  Or they could keep their children by their side, and hope that German anti-semitism didn’t escalate into widespread mass murder.  Of course, it had before, but there were also plenty of examples where, well, it hadn’t.

I remind people of this because it seems so obvious now – Eric’s great-grandmother put her daughter on the kindertransport, and sent her off to England, along with one cousin.  A third cousin elected to stay behind.  And of course, that third cousin died in the concentration camps.  In the same sense, the Warsaw Ghetto survivors make it seem so obvious that Jews should have taken up arms early on in the Nazi conflict against the Germans.

But if there is any truth about history it is this – no one knows how it will work out.  Security is something that each of us is going to navigate from a different perspective, and from a different place.  And at some point most of us may have the horrible thought – damn, I could have done that better if only….  But the truth is that most often we are going to decide what to do at climactic moments with not enough information, just our guts and what we do know – and sometimes, we’re going to be wrong, or make mistakes. 

The best thing most of us can do is reduce our level of risk – to reduce the number of those moments as best we can by planning for those reductions.  The second best thing we can do is to prepare for those moments – to make sure we won’t be overcome by panic, to have the tools to deal with them, whether they be a barking dog, a neighbor on speed dial or a gun, and to know what our choices are. 

But before we go into my next post, which will be about our options, I want to remind people that all of this – all of the process of adaptation, of which security issues are a part – is about skewing the odds in your favor.  It is not about the elimination of all risk.  It is not about ensuring that no one will ever die, or make a mistake, or have something horrible befall us.

And perhaps the beginning point of talking and thinking about security is talking about something none of us really like – thinking about death.  Our own deaths, the deaths of people we love and rely on.  These are not fun things, but they are important.  The idea that we can all be magically insulated from death is something that American culture sells us – we can sue if by some chance someone dies from something, because, after all,  we can find immortality through the medical system – these are things we are told in a thousand ways. 

But the odds are good that in a lower energy world, one that is poorer and harder and probably has more violence in thus-far protected areas, some of us are going to die sooner than we’d like.  The odds are that most of those deaths will be less from marauding hordes than from diseases we can’t afford to treat, but some of them probably will be from violence.  And having some sense of how we face this reality, scary as it is, is probably the first tool we have.  There are things we can’t protect ourselves against, and some things we could protect ourselves against in the hypothetical, but that will run up against our real imperfections.  And people die anyway, even while we’re told no one should.  All of us need to hold in our heads the truth that death is a reality for all of us, and sometimes sooner than we would like. 

I once was a noble idealist, and could think of things that (in the hypothetical, since it was never asked of me) that were worth dying for, and that I hoped I’d have the courage to die for.  And then I had children, and for a while, courage meant staying alive at any price, to ensure their survival.  I can just barely begin to see around to the day when I might think that there are principles that would be worth dying for again – now don’t get me wrong, I very much prefer to live for my principles, and who knows whether I’ll actually have the ovaries to live up to any of them.  But both of those perceptions are real and rational responses, one to a youth when you have that glorious sense of immortality, the other to the sudden recognition you have flesh in the game.  Both are reasonable.  And neither perception allows for the fact that one is just as likely to die ignobly, and that those who need to be immortal sometimes aren’t.

When we talk about security, even before we begin minimizing our risks, and talking about our options, we have to recognize that there is no perfect solution, no way for you to be certain, reductions in various risks, but no perfect security.  Being secure starts, I think, recognizing this – that all the scenario planning in the world, all the thinking and choosing we do, gets us only so far, and probably will never get each of us back to the level of security that most affluent Americans have already experienced.  That doesn’t mean we’re all doomed, or that the zombies are coming anytime soon.  It is just this – we will never be secure enough.  We can use some or all of the tools in our hands, we can plan and think and prepare and train ourselves not to panic and how to respond, but we will never be wholly safe, we will never know what the perfect choice is, except in hindsight.  And all of us will die, some of us sooner than we’d like – and that has to be part of our planning as well.  I don’t like it – probably even less than you do.  But security only goes so far – we can plan and hope, but sometimes things go wrong, and we do the victims and the dead a great disservice if we imagine that death can always be prevented, mistakes can always be avoided and that failure is something for other people.


Post-Apoacalyptic Novel Discussion Slightly Delayed

Sharon August 25th, 2008

Ok, it was a long busy day – a good one, but I’m finally free to write my PA bookclub discussion and, well, I’m too tired to sort things out.  My brain has gone into screen-saver mode.  I promise a scintillating discussion (or at least semi-coherent) on Wednesday.  In the meantime, feel free to discuss the book (or anything else) among yourselves.  I’ll be back with AIP stuff tomorrow and hopefully will have stopped drooling by then ;-) .



The Grand Tour: A Post-Peak Travelogue

Sharon August 24th, 2008

If you read various oil blogs, you can’t turn around this summer without kicking over someone’s observations on what places are like in the era of high energy prices and teetering recession, usually beginning with a list of exactly how many RVs they’ve seen on the road.  And who am I to buck the trend?  I admit, it feels a little lame, given that once my grand tours covered multiple European nations or large chunks of say,  Indonesia, rather than some of the central parts of New York State, but hey, a gal with four kids has to take what she can get. 

Ok – RV count…0.  This is perhaps not as remarkable as you’d think since other than a stretch between Monticello and Binghamton, we stayed off the Interstates entirely, but we didn’t see a one, except those stationary and for sale.  Also not seen – cars hauling motor boats and jet skis.  Frankly, these were absences I could live with, but it did seem to be part of a trend.  So were the for-sale signs everywhere, especially on obvious second homes.  People are trying to unload economic burdens – and it may be too late to get rid of them, given the sheer number.

Perhaps the most startling moment actually occurred before we left – riding with my Mother on our way back from the local farmstand we took a slightly different route, only to discover that a long stretch of pot-holed back road near us was having its asphalt ripped up and replaced by…gravel.  That is, my local town has now officially joined rural areas around the country in giving up paved roads in areas where it is simply too expensive to maintain them.  Gravel is much less expensive.  I’d heard reports of this from other people, and in fact, we’ve seen it on our own road, where potholed areas were dug up and replaced by gravel – but this is the first time I’ve seen someone getting rid of all the paving entirely.  We saw several other examples of this, and heard about more as we travelled around, talking to people.

I once read a report from South Africa that pointed out that pot-holes can be seen as a measure of the level of crisis, and if this is the case, our trip through rural areas of New York state shows a region experiencing a great deal of economic turmoil (duh!) – the roads were, well, bad.  Eric got to see this in great detail – the most direct way to my guest lecture at the Catskill Permaculture course was a beautiful rural route through the back of a couple of neighboring counties, and let’s just say that by the time that we were ready to go, Eric (ok, me too) was really, really ready.  So when I told him to go get the bags and put them in the car, Eric got all the bags he could find – including my mother’s suitcase, containing her clothes and needed medication.  We didn’t discover this until nearly 10pm that evening, so Eric got to see the road conditions – and the lovely views several times, as he rose at 6 am on our first day to drive back home, return the suitcase, and then come join me.  It added an element of comedy to the whole thing.

Amazingly, and despite the fact that we researched the area when we were planning on moving to New York, I had never been to the Borscht-belt parts of the Catskills before.  I suppose I’ve long since missed their heyday, but still, there’s a firmly 1950s feel to the whole thing, right down to advertising pornography with the word “exotic” – when was the last time you saw a sign that had that word on it?  The road where the Ashram that the permaculture class took place on had a Chasidic summer colony, a now-defunct Pentacostal summer camp and an Ashram on it.  ‘Tis an interesting area, and I wish I’d seen more of it.  The places we did visit outside the Ashram mentioned that it was a slow year for visitors, but to my untrained eye, things were pretty active, potholes mostly under control on the main road, and touristi abounded (not, of course, excluding us).

We had a great time at permaculture summer camp, got to hang out with assorted students, guest lecturers and the remarkable Larry Santoyo and Toby Hemenway, and then hit the road again, this time bound for the Fingerlakes. Before we departed we attempted to get a sense of local food systems, but everyone we asked looked at us rather blankly.   There are obviously farms in the Catskills, but we struggled to find local agriculture, and we’d have thought that an area that full of tourists looking to rusticate would be flowing with agritourism - pick your owns, and such.  But everyone we asked about this looked as us rather blankly.  But the trouble may have been the areas we were in, or our own failures.  I’d love to hear about the vibrant local food culture of an area that obviously draws a lot of New Yorkers.

Now there are several ways to approach this kind of travelogue – we stayed, except for the aforementioned diversion up route 17 – off the highways, driving through countryside and suburb, and trying, as much as one can from a car and occasional stops to wander about, to get a sense of how places are faring or will fare in the coming years.   You can go Kunstlerian, and be mired in the bleakness of it all, or optimistic, seeing with sensitized eyes just how much land there is untouched, just how much potential. 

Generally speaking, I tend towards the optimistic approach, except when I’m near Binghamton.  I probably have some readers there, and I regret deeply any offense I cause when I admit, the only word I’ve ever been able to come up with the for the visual perception of how Binghamton looks, no matter how you approach it, is “Stalinist” – and not in a good way.  I’m sure that if a competition for most “Soviet-industrial looking city in the US” were held, Binghamton wouldn’t be more than a runner-up, but just the sight of Binghamton in the landscape makes me start channelling Kunstler, and his assertion that we must start making better places or we’re all doomed. I’ve no doubt that Binghamton has its redeeming qualities, but we couldn’t bear to be there long enough to discover them – and I’ve never been able to spot them during previous visits.  The one time I was ever in Binghamton for a farmer’s market, for example, several years ago, it was a sad little thing, dwarfed by the farmer’s market in (much smaller and similar in some ways) Cortland.

It is, however, completely unfair to compare comparatively affluent, green, eco-village filled,  two-University Ithaca with poor, one-State University, Industrial Binghamton.  The fact that one would prefer the former to the latter is one of those obvious things – the game was rigged to begin with.  Still, it was fascinating to see (I’ve been to Ithaca and Binghamton both a bunch of time before, but mostly in connection with my old academic career, not my new one) the degree to which the magic of Cornell’s far reaching and creative agricultural program has created an agricultural area that has a truly unified feel.   That is, it isn’t hard to imagine that Ithaca and the surrounding regions will be unified in large part under the aegis of Cornell Cooperative extension.  Talking to local farmers and residents, we got the impression that this is one area set to pull together.

We did a little ag-tourism ourselves, checking out local cheesemakers, eating some truly great goat cheese and quite nice Kefir cheese, making an obligatory stop at a couple of wineries (Far be it for me to discourage local agricultural projects, but the thought of a future where fingerlakes wines are the only ones available to me is not heartening – most of it was dreadful stuff by my standards, and even Eric, who likes sweet white wines and has a childhood nostalgia for Manischewitz found it uninspiring.)  But what we were impressed by was the sheer quantity of roadside stands, suburban gardens and local farm producers.  Of course, it was driven by a tourist economy – but it isn’t clear to me whether at least in the short term the tourist economy for the Fingerlakes or the Catskills is likely to disappear or expand.  Certainly in a gradual, growing crisis, for a while, those who stay home entirely will be replaced by those who would have drunk wine in France, but now need something cheaper.  And the influx of foreign visitors was truly remarkable – and commented upon everywhere we went.  The rest of the world may be on the verge of economic crisis, but those affluent enough are certainly taking advantage of the falling dollar.

We spent one night eating Cuban food (best I’ve had in a long time) at a local farmer’s market and attending a local draft-horse pull.  I love draft horses, and I love to watch  horse pulls.  It is, in most places, an man’s sport, complete with places on the side for the wives to watch the men – most of them older men – at their work.  I can’t quite parse why I love this sport – there’s the beauty of the animals, of course, and the courage and enthusiasm with which they take on such an enormous burden, and the symmetry with which these men work their animals.  There’s the risks they take – one family at the horse pull I watched was made up of an 81 year old father, his 50 something son, and a grandson who looked to be in his late teens or early 20s.  At the moment the horses are hitched to the weight there’s a great deal of risk for the man driving, in this case the elderly grandfather – if the horses pull away at the last moment, preventing the hitch, they can easily drag the driver. 

It all happens in a second – the hitch is made or not made, one person connects the points, and the man holding back the force of two 2000+ lb draft horses transfers over the reins to the driver. Towards the end, the horses missed the hitch, and watching grandson and father leap together in absolute unison to reclaim the reins to prevent the grandfather from being pulled from his perch – and succeed in a tiny fraction of a second – was both a remarkable feat of athleticism and grace and strangely moving.  Some poet once asked where all the strong men, the giants of his childhood, the men with biceps of iron and raw courage have gone – well, they (and perhaps the strong women of courage as well, although I never see any) are out at the draft horse pulls, testing the strength of human and horse, simply to be able to say they can.  Talking to a few of them afterwards, nearly all told the same story - men in their forties and fifties and up, most of them don’t farm primarly with the horses themselves, but their fathers and grandfathers did, and they grew up around the horses, and loved them, and were unwilling to fully give up the symbiosis between human and horse.

The horse pull was part of an agricultural fair - and we had only recently attended our own agricultural fair.  But this is one place where the local agricultural tradition seems far more straitened than in my region – while the local County fairs in our region – Cobleskill and Altamont – struggle with the competition of the midway and with declining participation in some of the traditional agricultural areas, the Trumansburg Fair was a true shell of its agricultural self - a half dozen cows, one goat, a few crocheted articles and a few dozen baked goods and jams and jellies.  Almost half the domestic art building was taken up with an exhibit on the fair past – because there was almost no present. 

In one sense, the idea of the agricultural fair is archaic - just like the horse pull, the remnent of something older.  After all, who needs to bring their pickles, their lamb, their ear of corn to the fair to get a small prize?  What’s the point?

Well, the point is that agriculture doesn’t happen in isolation.  It is easy to think it does - easy to live in a kind of isolation when you are caught up with your land and garden and place.  It is easy to work every day on the farm, and to never stop long enough to be part of the context you really live in, to never take a break and celebrate.

And perhaps in a world where we disdain the homey virtues of canning and growing and tending, where vacation time is written into your contract and where the biggest pumpkin is just one more big thing in a world of big things, they don’t matter.  But the agricultural fairs may come to matter again, and maybe not so far away.  You see, in a world where most of the work gets done and has to be done again the next day or week or year – you wash the dishes, the next meal comes and you need to wash them again, you fill the pantry or grow the garden and the next year it all gets done over again – those moments when you can look at what you’ve done and see an achievment matter.  In a world where harvest is a time for celebration, the fruits of that harvest are worth celebrating.  It may be a small thing in some senses to get a red ribbon for your jam, or to take a prize heifer to the fair – but it is also a very large thing, the moment in which the ordinary work of feeding yourself and your community gets placed in context, in which your neighbors compare their pickles to yours, and perhaps turn and ask for the recipe, the seed stock, the stud – the time at which you get both rewarded for what you do and a chance to strengthen the whole of the communal enterprize of agriculture.  

After our brief shift back to the 19th century, we then were back in Ithaca for garden tours and to check out local trial orchards. A surprisingly large number of our fellow tourists were involved with food themselves, and a surprisingly large number were on working vacations hunting up local food supplies for New York City or Philadelphia or Montreal, responding to a rapidly growing demand that they can’t keep up with (unfortunately mostly among consumers with lots of disposable income, but still).  Several times during conversations about local food systems, I mentioned a producer near me, only to learn that the buyer had never of them, and hadn’t been looking up in our region.  At the farmer’s market in Trumansberg, the New York State Cheesemaker’s guild rep had out a map of all participating cheesemakers in the region – and I discovered two within a reasonable range of me that I’d never known about.  Not one of the farms or local extension services seemed to have this map available – it became obvious that my area needs to do a better job of agricultural marketing.  And since we have the river to enable shipping even in a low energy world, building up stronger market ties (and there are many, just many more to be made) especially to New York

We took the old route 20 home – this was once the way to cross New York State before the advent of the highways.  The building of Route 88 pretty much killed Route 20′s business economy – we live at one end of 20, and have seen the final fall of old businesses that depended on motorists driving this route.  It is a gorgeous trip, though, across the state, and meanders through a mix of farmland and some fascinating small towns.  Only one of them, the oddly placed  (and as far as I can tell, completely inexplicable (in the sense that I honestly can’t figure out why people would go there – its main feature seems to be a smallish number of expensive shops) Cazenovia, showed much in the way of signs of life.  Though we passed hundreds of farms, almost none took any advantage at all of the passing cars to sell anything directly off the farm. 

What we did find at every stop was a lot of discussion of the coming winter, the town plowing budget, and the price of gas.  We saw going-out-of-business sales everywhere, especially in small rural towns.  At the coffee shops and diners we stopped at, older people just sighed and looked worried – and younger people talked about leaving.  Everyone worried about the jobs, often in small economies and places where jobs are hard to find to begin with.  There were struggles between town and county over whose responsibility something increasingly expensive was.  One town just outside the fingerlakes mentioned that they thought that the town sherriff’s office would be closed al together.  All along the way we tried to talk to people about their place, about their future, and all along the way, we found people worried, sometimes angry, but mostly resigned to a change.

Lots of people mentioned all the gardens they were seeing, and that they were growing more themselves.  It has been a wet year here in upstate New York, and the tomatoes and other heat lovers are late, and sometimes diseased.  Everyone complained about the tomatoes – but complaining about your garden is a time-honored tradition.  But this year, two different people, both old timers and first-time gardeners expressed to me, without any prompting on my part, their worry that a bad garden year could leave them without enough to eat.  Everyone mentioned the oversubscription of the church food pantries.  Everyone said they didn’t know what they’d do next – but mostly with a resignation that there would be a next.

Overall, I came back from my trip hopeful – New York is rich in green space and arable land that we are not using, in wisdom and history and talent we don’t take advantage of. We have ties enough to old ways and new ways, and resources that could rise up to fill gaps.  I talked to person after person who mentioned that their Mom used to grow all her own food, or that Dad farmed with oxen and still knows how to train them.  Travelling through the countryside and small cities, it felt as though the rural parts of my state are not so very far removed from the life we’ll be leading, and that there’s courage and endurance not far beneath the surface of things – that we aren’t the soft and selfish people that we are often portrayed as.  Or maybe we are – in part because it is so easy to be that person.  But I worry for everyone I talked to, in city and countryside as well – with a few exceptions, there’s not much being done to help people transition, and I fear those few resources will be overwhelmed.

We used two tanks of gas on this trip – enough to probably mean I won’t quite make my 90% reduction goals this year either.  I don’t justify it, exactly, but I suspect it may be Eric and my last road trip together, at least for a long time.  And I’m glad I got to see a little more of the way things are moving, before I stop moving.


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