Archive for April 25th, 2011

Zombietopia – The Best Case Scenario for the Apocalypse

admin April 25th, 2011

A while back I ran a post-apocalyptic novel book club, which was a lot of fun although it tends to peter out (my fault, of course). It allowed us to get our doom on at low stakes. Now I’m not, strictly speaking, a hard doomer. I suspect most of the likely scenarios involve gradual declines in resource availability and increasing poverty. In some ways this is more depressing than the grand and more dramatic scenarios that writers love to create – you can win against the zombies, but it is tough to win against the enemy “crushing national debt and gradually increasing world temperatures.”

I think most apocalyptic novels are fun thought experiments, but they go for big and shiny when what we are facing is dull and slow. But I retain the right, as your Apocalyptic Blogiste, to occasionally amuse myself with “when the zombies come” scenarios like those commonly found in novels. “When the Zombies come” on this blog basically means “when the really bad-ass stuff hits.” It covers meteors, war, collapse, ice age and reversion to mammoth hunting and, of course, the undead. I find it extremely useful, given that rather dreary nature of the real disaster going on, to get my zombie on once in a while.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is what the ideal zombie scenario would be. I mean, sure, it would be awful and all, but most post-apocalyptic novels work on the premise that Our Heroes are 1. super and 2. extremely lucky. That is, they get all the good stuff mostly going their way – they weren’t standing under the meteor. They had a genius astrophysicist on hand to fend off disaster by figuring out something no one else could have. They are smart enough to respond immediately – they never think “well what if the power goes back on and we’re embarrassed that we went straight to cannibalism?”  They are always right. Unlike the myriad of red shirt characters invented to die horribly, they get to live, and usually there’s some kind of happy ending – that is, in the end, they get to Zombietopia.

Now most of the novels focus, on some level on Zombietopia and its ideal principles (not dead yet, reanimating society), and what struck me, when I was thinking about my own vision of Zombietopia involved some of the same major miracles (not being under the meteor or on top of the volcano, having my own private astrophysicist).  Still,  I’m much more concerned than the characters in novels with very small quality of life issues, which IMHO, can make the difference between leading a mostly happy and plucky band of survivors in your silver lame suit and saying “fuck it, I’m joining the cannibals and getting a prion disease.”

It seems clear to me that the characters in novels are much more high minded than I am. They are thinking of much more important things in their utopias than laundry. So what are the requirements for my own, personal zombietopia, the very best case scenario for me and mine (the rest of you have to get your own zombietopia, but I’ve no objection if they exist simultaneously ;-) )?

1. The zombies have to come ashore somewhere else, ideally somewhere inhabited only by the only grizzled old seaman to have actually known zombies before, who then recognizes them for what they are, and raises the alarm. This will give me time to get my zombie-preps ready. This is particularly important if they come in the middle of the night, since I’m not a fast waker. I need a few minutes and a cup of tea so that I’m not completely betwattled.

2. My child needs to stop bed wetting and I need to be caught up on laundry, so that I don’t immediately have to face the pile of hand washing that will inevitably result from this grid going down.

3. I want there to be a 12 hour period where we know the disaster is occurring, but most people don’t, where the power is still on and the merchants are still taking credit cards that will never be paid off (assuming, of course, that the collection agents aren’t already zombies). Then I can get one of those “shopping for the end of the world” scenes that pervades every single apocalyptic novel. These scenes are like porn for doomy girls, and hey, I want one. In the books, miraculously, no one ever declines your credit card and you’ve always been able to get out plenty of cash, or perhaps the grocer is just extraordinarily noble.

4. When I have to go out on night zombie hunts, I’d really rather not be partnered with my neighbor who will explain to me at some length how this is all Obama’s fault.

5. I don’t actually want to wear silver lame.

6. I would like to discover a secret talent for ninja fighting that I never knew I had. And Scrabble.

7. I want to develop the secret knowledge that all book characters have. The moment the grid crashes or whatever, they know. They know that it will never come back, and act accordingly, unlike all the rest of the stupid fools who hang around waiting to see if this is doom or just a power outage. Moreover, I want this knowledge to be absolute and certain, so that I never accidentally begin leading my plucky band across a smoking landscape, only to see the lights come back on and everyone go about their normal work.

8. I also want the special gift for meeting exactly the right people. It must just happen that wandering down my rural street is an expert in zombie demolitions, or a doctor who has previously treated the zombie plague. It seems much more likely that on my street, we’d run into a couple of construction guys who had read World War Z and maybe a hairdresser who definitely saw Night of the Comet, but if the novels get the Navy Seals and the master-archers, I want them.

9. My neighbors and I will instantly pull together and form a noble group of pure-hearted allies who always do what’s right. What is right will instantly be clear, and if someone occasionally points out that it would be easier to do the wrong things, whoever is leading us will always speak for the, the truth and the goodness. We will never get into stupid debates about whether Josie’s ex was an asshole or not, who is in charge or who broke the scythe blade. More importantly, it will not be me who broke the scythe blade.

10. My children will recognize that this is a heroic and important moment, and rise nobly to the cause, behaving gracefully under pressure. They will not whine, pick their noses at meetings or distract us from zombie fighting by fighting with each other.

11. We will find the secret stash of goods that we really, really needed. Whether taken from a recent museum exhibit or found in an old attic, we will never be without the pre-modern tools needed in this new age.

12. Bruce Springsteen will not be killed by the zombies, but will live and write awesome songs about the heroic resistance. Leonard Cohen, who writes awesome songs but already looks kind of undead will rise again to write (but not sing) the zombie’s soundtrack lyrics.

13. In my Zombietopia, all the women of middlish age will not have to bring coffee to the hot warrior chicks and guys in their 20s, the way they do in all the books. Indeed, it turns out that middle aged geeks with agrarian tendencies will somehow be just what is needed.

14. That which does not kill us will make us stronger. I’m hoping that that which doesn’t kill me also makes me thinner, more organized, less irritable and more heroic.

15. My zombietopia will bring people together – while the zombies can be DWMs if they like, the side of good is always multi-ethnic, non-heterosexist and culturally diverse. My little rural town will be the nexus at which the Rebel Amish, the Agrarian Radical Faerie Zombie Hunters, the Asian-American Neo-Pagan Society for the Destruction of the Undead and even a few members of the Republican party come together in a new era of understanding and common interest. After the undead are defeated, they will create a new Utopia, based on the cultivation of turnips and love of their fellow men.

16. Publishing will reanimate in time for me to write a kick-ass memoir of my days as a zombie fighter. Zombie-Oprah, kept around for sentimentality’s sake will have me on her show.

That’s my fantasy – what’s yours?


13 Ways of Looking at the Future, the Anyway Project and the Blogger’s Dilemma

admin April 25th, 2011

Three seemingly unrelated thoughts.  The first was reading a magazine profile of Andrew Sullivan, which observed that no more than a few thousand people in the US could be said to make a living as bloggers, mostly by writing on mainstream politics – ranting about Sarah Palin (one way or another) or mainstream popular culture.  I admit, I found myself wondering whether the disasters that we are facing – the real ones, not the Hollywood “outrunning the bomb” disasters could garner enough attention to actually support someone who focuses on those issues.  And I admit, I took it as a challenge – because I’m way cuter than Andrew Sullivan, plus I’m sick of Sarah Palin and I know you are too ;-) .

Second, I’m presently working hard on the Adapting in Place book, I’ve also found that I’ve written a lot in the last few years on how to view the world we’re entering into which doesn’t really fit in a book about the nuts and bolts of how to keep warm, keep fed, etc…  but that I think is just as central.  This larger project of imagining our future, looking at it and then figuring out how to make a life for ourself is something that needs to be gone at in a number of ways.  I keep looking at these essays, and seeing something that needs saying, but that I don’t have a place for.  That too became a challenge.

Finally, as a part of our “Anyway Project” analysis of our finances, I did something I’ve never done before – I ran the numbers on my work as a writer.  What came out of this was the realization that for the 7 years that I’ve been writing various permutations of blogs here, at blogspot, at Science blogs, as well as writing books and the occasional magazine article, my husband has essentially been subsidizing my writing and speaking habit.  I’m not sorry about it – but again, there is an emerging challenge here.  This one is a little more daunting than out-cuting Andrew Sullivan, however.

In a way, this has been a really good thing – I was able to write three (with a fourth forthcoming) books for a tiny little environmental publisher that uses recycled everything and offsets its carbon.  I’ve been able to write whatever I liked without feeling beholden to anyone – because, after all, I wasn’t making any money.  I could take the speaking gigs I really liked – little engagements that paid a few hundred bucks and barely covered the losses of my being away, rather than the corporate talks that I never liked doing anyway.  I could talk for free to churches and community organizations whenever I felt like it.  I was making a little bit of money, and I was having a blast.

The problem is that when I did the formal accounting, it turned out that I wasn’t making much money.  My book advances were all in the single digit thousands of dollars – mostly the low single digits, and I was spending hundreds of hours writing them.  The speaking engagements ended up costing us money in most cases, or at a minimum making us so little it wasn’t worth the time away from home and family.  Our family has been pretty comfortable living on a combined total income that most years comes in substantively below 50K, and thrift has never been our problem, but all the time spent at the computer was starting to have a negative outcome – I had less time to save money and cut the budget, so our expenses crept up, and the work wasn’t returning what it might have.   The thing is, I have no regrets – I like the little speaking gigs, I like the environmental publisher, I like writing what I want, when I want.

Over the years, I have actively resisted making more money a lot of the time – I’ve declined to run advertisements on this site.  I turned down a paid blogging gig for a site I found totally appalling and couldn’t respect.  I’ve turned down a lot of corporate speaking gigs or “energy and sustainability fairs” that were mostly vehicles for greenwash products.  I haven’t done product placement.  I’ve been grateful to be freed of the blogger’s dilemma – ie, the problem that a successful blog takes up more and more of your time, and then eventually, you find it takes up so much time it has to return money, which is harder.  Both Eric and I felt that this was a community service, time well spent and pleasurable for me, and compatible with our basic way of life.

Besides, while Eric was the primary breadwinner, in some ways this was true of his job as well – instead of getting tenure in his field like most of his colleagues, Eric had taken the opportunity to concentrate on science education, and to developing courses that introduce concepts like peak oil and collapse to his undergraduates through Environmental Physics and even a course on Space (wherein he points out that earth is a planet too…and that most of our imaginary exit strategies are just that…imaginary).  Most of the people he knows with Harvard Ph.ds and MIT BAs in Physics make three times or more his income – but Eric is happy teaching on the edge, with a large contingent of first generation students.  For a physicist who wants to concentrate on education, rather than bench science there are two choices – a pricey private college where most of his students would be more affluent, or no tenure and less money.  We chose the latter, and we’ve never regretted it – how many people get to be happy with all their work?

Unfortunately, over the last year or two things have changed.  Our property taxes spiked, and then spiked again as our rural school district tried to compensate for lost state and federal revenues and declining incomes.  Eric’s job as a non-tenured Professor of Physics seemed safe for a while, but we’ve just learned that while his department and Dean both want to re-hire him, voices from on high are suggesting that no job security can be offered to non-tenured faculty, and they are threatening cuts – and we both feel strongly that particularly with more kids joining our family, either of us need to be able to be the primary breadwinner.  While our farm income is growing, and my longer term goal is to build the farm up to be a larger portion of our income, most of the projects we want to do are slow growing – the medicinal woodland herbs take years to mature, the goat herd is growing slowly, but in the meantime, until we get to where we want to be, we’re retaining goats and buying stock, more than selling.  Some of the projects, like opening up the farm, require some major infrastructure work – and since I hate debt, that means making the money to do the work somehow upfront – by writing.

Which leaves me on the horns of a dilemma – because my work at present does not support us, we need a plan to make it do so.  Which leaves me with a few choices.  1. I could get a job.  I’m qualified enough – there are a number of ways that could happen. I could teach nonfiction writing, I could do a variation on my present work only professionally – perhaps focusing on food and agricultural policy, or I could a writing/blogging gig that would provide enough income for my family to make ends meet.  I turned down two in the last year, one the aforementioned at a place I’d rather not be associated with and another which I should have taken, but which seemed to preclude another, better opportunity that seemed definite and then sadly didn’t actually come into being (bird, hand, bird, bush, duh!)

2. I could take most of the speaking engagements I get, particularly the ones that pay the most.  The problem with this is that it is tough on my carbon budget, I still don’t love talking mostly to the rich, and most of all, it is hard on my family.  This one isn’t my first choice – I love doing speaking engagements, I’m good at them, but I don’t want to be away from home so often.   I’d like to be able to keep doing these without worrying too much about the money – but that requires some financial success some other way.

Or, 3. I could make a job.  That is, I could keep doing what I’m doing, only make it financially viable for us.  This could happen one of several ways, and my guess is that it would have to be several ways.  My teaching is the one thing that does make us some money, so that will be part of it. I’ve long wanted to bring more people to the farm and do on-farm classes, so I’m working on making that possible.  I could commercialize the website – either wholesale with lots of ads or, since the former makes me a little nauseous, with ads for things I actually think are worth having.  I could run more content and offer more material, perhaps some by subscription.  I could sell books through Amazon.  I could sell other things.  I could do more publishing for myself so that I got to keep more than a buck and change or so per book sold – possibly some fiction as well as my non-fiction.  I could raise the traffic of this site and awareness of peak oil by providing more basic content along with the other things, and use that audience growth to help subsidize my blogging habit.  I’m not sure how this will work with my principles, but if it were possible, this might be the best option.

One way or another, unfortunately, things have to change.  I think there’s a decent chance that Eric is going to lose his job, and our expenses are not going to be met by my present work model.  I’ll miss my present work model – at the same time, I think how rarely anyone has the luxury of treating their day to day work as an avocation, as a largely volunteer project.  It has been a lovely run, but I can’t say I’m ashamed of having to make a living – it is, after all, the norm.  I expect my financial situation, indeed, all of our financial situations, to change a number of times in the coming years.  Given the necessity, Eric and I will chop wood, pump gas at the convenience store, or do any other job necessary to feed our kids and keep our farm going.  But while I like chopping my own wood, I think I’m probably better off playing to my strengths and sticking with the writing – I do it better than pumping gas.

Whatever the trade offs actually end up being, they will come.  If I get a job that is not a writing job, what will happen is that I will write less.  If I get a writing job I will write more, but somewhere else. If I make a writing job here, I will write more – but the site will change.  I’m curious about what the rest of you think would be the best outcome?  I think my own preference would be do more work helping people reduce their impact and come to terms with the nitty gritty of this life here, but I would like to hear your thoughts.

This site has been somewhat neglected since my move to Science Blogs, which is a real pity since I like it better ;-) .  I am hopeful that perhaps I could begin to do all the things I’ve really wanted to do with this site – a barter board, more discussion, better community support.  I don’t know what’s possible, but if you’d asked me in 2004, when I started blogging what I could accomplish, I’d never have guessed as much as I have.   I feel like there are so many fun and interesting things that I haven’t been doing at my home site that just require a new energy.

One thing I am going to do is publish those essays that I’ve been thinking about for so long – I’m putting together a short book of essays called _13 Ways of Looking at the Future_ – riffing on Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” I will offer a range of perspectives on where we’re going and how to think about getting there.  Some of them may be essays you’ve seen, some will be new.  I’ve been debating how to offer them – I could sell them for a fixed price, enough to make a profit, but honestly, I want to make them as affordable as possible for my low income readers, while also being in the spirit of my new need to make a living.  So I’ve decided to do this – I will send a signed essay collection (the publication will be sometimes in June) for any donations to this site over $10 (plus $3 for US shipping and handling – email me at [email protected] with your address and email to find out about international shipping).  Donations can be made through paypal to [email protected] (I’ll put a button up just as soon as I figure out how to do it).  I’m not going to pester anyone, I won’t do fund drives, and if you don’t have $10 spare, don’t worry about it – in fact, I also promise to do a raffle for some free copies once they are published as well!  If you’d like to make a larger donation and want multiple copies, just email and let me know.

For me, this is an experiment – it might be successful, it might not.  What I really want to know is whether I can, in fact, join the comparatively limited number of people making a living as bloggers – even if I want to write on the edge of our coming collapse.  My heart won’t break if the answer is no, but I admit, it would be pretty neat if the answer was yes!


Revisiting the Riot for Austerity

admin April 25th, 2011


Almost exactly four years ago, my friend Miranda Edel and I were discussing the recent IPCC report on Climate Change and George Monbiot’s book _Heat_ and the reactions that we got when we talked about about the sheer depth of the reductions in climate emissions that would be needed to stabilize the climate.  Whenever we began to discuss emissions reductions on the order of 80 or 90% (depending on your country of origin – for the US Monbiot’s estimate was 94%, although there are reasons to question that number now), the universal reaction we got was that it was impossible – impossible to imagine living in the developed world on so much less.  So impossible there was no point in even discussing or imagining it.
Miranda and I disagreed.  We felt that this critical inability to conceive of what was necessary was something that we had to – and have to – overcome.  Both of us were aware of material limits on a renewable energy build out, and the time frame for such a transition, and we knew that the evidence at the time increasingly suggested that we had to make our changes sooner than we could possibly imagine such an energy transition.  Moreover, both of us looked at this through the lens of energy and resource depletion as well as climate change, recognizing that there were forces driving us towards a life with less whether we like it or not.
Someone, we agreed, had to take the very first steps to conquering the underlying doubt that we can change.  Someone had to do the basic work of establishing a vision of a life in the Global North that doesn’t include conspicuous consumption of energy.  More importantly even, as long as we felt that our response to climate change and energy depletion had to wait on policy measures – to wait for the high speed rail lines and superinsulated new homes, to wait for carbon credits or whatever, we would not act.  We needed to find a way to show that you can act right now – and make not a little tiny difference by carrying your cloth bag, but a big and measurable one – a change that nobody else thought was possible. We stole from George Monbiot the wonderful line “Nobody ever rioted for austerity!”  He was right – no population in human history has marched and demonstrated to have less.  We figured we’d be the first.
Miranda and I set out to document our project and spend a year reducing our energy consumption by 90% over the average American’s. What we didn’t expect was that first dozens, then hundreds, and by the end, several thousand people joined us.  We had expected to struggle.  We hadn’t expected to find community, and most of all, to have fun.  Perhaps we should have, though – as historian Timothy Breen has shown, rituals of non-consumption replace rituals of consumption and are as satisfying to most people as the consumption.  That is, while during wartime, people might miss meat or sugar or drives in the country, that the communal exercise of substitution becomes a good in itself – so exchanging recipes for cakes that use less sugar and playing cards instead of taking drives becomes just as satisfying when you are acting together for a collective purpose.
We set out to cut our usage in 7 categories – Electricity, Heating and Cooking Energy, Gasoline/Transportation Energy, Garbage, Water Usage, Consumer Good Consumption and Food Energy Consumption (we were not, in fact, striving to reduce our food intake by 90% ;-) ).  We measured our baselines and ran the calculations.  A few months into the project, my wonderful friend Edson built a calculator for us, so that you could just plug in your elecric usage and know where you were.
People joined us from 15 countries – and did their own baselines and measurements.  We had people from cities and countrysides and suburbs, the elderly and families with multiple children, the healthy and the disabled, the rich and the poor.  We listened, shared strategies, argued about the best way to do things.  We tried things and failed.  We got frustrated when it seemed like it would never work.  We celebrated, as for example, when there was a Riot for Austerity wedding!
Some fundamental revelations emerged.  The first was that the first 50% reduction in energy usage isn’t that hard for most of us – that was heartening.  Most people could get big drops in energy usage by making changes that weren’t too difficult.  After that, of course, it got harder.  We also found that most of us had a Waterloo – a place where we found ourselves struggling.  Out here in the country it was transport energy.  In the cities, it might be food and consumer goods.  We shared our struggles, and thrilled when someone made it – our friends Larry and Gail dropped their electric usage to well below 90%.  Someone asked “do you even live in your house?”  Not only did they live there, they worked out of it too!
In June of 2008, my family had achieved 80% in all categories, at least at one point.  We had achieved our 90% goal with water usage, but slid back up again to about 60% down from the American average, as our climate became increasingly wet – our 60+ inches of rain annually simply meant we didn’t feel we had to reduce our water usage quite so much.  We were never able to consistently keep transportation energy down to 90% – my oldest, disable son’s busing and the distance from Eric’s job made that harder for us out here in a rural area.  We had to settle for using only 4/5ths of the energy used in most households.
We have kept our energy levels down at the 80% mark for the most part, except for water and a home renovation project that put us well over the consumer goods limit one year.  By the end of 2008, a great deal of more data about climate change had emerged, and between that and the lack of political action that followed President Obama’s election, it became clearer and clearer that world action on climate change either had not or would not come in time (depending on whether you think we’re already past critical tipping points, which may be the case.)  While we’d never expected to change the world wholly, even the most dedicated families, the ones who had been living the Riot most passionately began to ask the same questions – why should I do this if it isn’t going to make any difference?
Meanwhile, my appearance in the New York Times as an advocate of carbon restriction had been played to create a new pathology – the Riot for Austerity wasn’t even mentioned, and I was classed in a story with other environmental activists as a “Carbo-rexic” – someone who was pathologically afraid to use their fair share of carbon.  The story did its best to portray me as a bad mother – taking several remarks out of context and implying that my children were freezing to death in their home (actually, when the article was run, the photographer wanted to take pictures of them under their blankets, but they declined because it was 80 degrees ;-) ), saying they “huddled together for warmth” (again, it was 80 – no huddling!) and implying that we didn’t let our son play baseball, the great American pastime because Mom is an environmental meanie.  For a couple weeks after we were bombarded with threats to call CPS, and we were afraid we would be investigated. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth about exposing my family’s experience in too much detail.
The Riot, born of the attention to climate change that followed 2006-7 emerged from a hope that it was possible to create a grassroots, collective response to climate change that would accompany other responses.  As it became more obvious that 90% wasn’t enough, that 350, not 450 was the target  and that we weren’t going to do anything about climate change, I shifted my focus towards adapting to energy and economic issues.  While we still used comparatively ilttle energy, we focused more on “Adapting in Place” than on Rioting for Austerity.
I have wanted to revisit the Riot for Austerity for a long time, but have been hesitant to do so, to start again, because I was struggling with a good answer to the question “Why do it?”  It isn’t that I think it is any less critical to learn to live on much less than it was in 2007.  It isn’t that I think cutting carbon emissions matters less – there’s a big difference between 550ppm and 800ppm.  It isn’t that I don’t believe that one of the central projects of dealing with both climate change and peak energy is to create a new American Dream, a vision of a life that can actually go forward into the world we have – a dream that requires less money, less energy, and that replaces the consumption at its center with something better.  I believe in these things, but I also understand why people ask “Why do with so much less if it won’t stop climate change, won’t delay an energy peak? Why live now like I’m going to have to then?  Why do the hard thing, when there’s so much hard coming?”
I’ve come to believe there are three reasons.  The first, is that it isn’t that hard – and that getting the most out of little is an art form, a pleasure, a life worth having and enjoying.  The second is the reason articulated by my old friend and colleague Dmitry Orlov, where he observes that if you are facing a fall out of a window, you’d probably prefer to fall out a first story window, rather than a second story window – that is, everything you can do to get yourself closer to the place you are going anyway softens your fall.  The third is that it is simply right.  Our narrative in which we in the Global North use so much more than everyone else on the planet implies that no one else minds, that such inequities are fundamentally normal and acceptable.  But, of course, everyone else does mind.  Our actions make their world less habitable.  Our consumption leaves less for our posterity.  This is wrong – and it is based on a fundamental lie.  We must find a way to change our lives, not so much because it might save us from the worst consequences of our behavior – might spare us the floods, the heat waves, the hurricanes, the tropical diseases – that’s just getting out of the logical consequences.  Instead, we have to change our ways because they are wrong, and we should do right instead.
So starting on June first, I’m revisiting the Riot for Austerity – my family is going to try and get back down in some of the places we’ve crept up, and we invite the rest of you – those of you who did it before, those of you who never to join us.  I’ll make some changes here – we’ll probably make our group go on facebook instead of yahoogroups (not 2007 anymore ;-) ), and I need to run a new set of numbers, as the data for the American baseline has changed, but the basic project is the same.  So is the basic goal – as long as most of us in the North feel that there’s nothing we can do but cling with both hands to a way of life that is doomed, we will both suffer the consequences of our clinging and also doom others with us.  The moment we can find a way out, a new story to tell, a new way of life, and the power to act on our own, we begin again.
There’s more to come, as with all new beginnings!

Food Production, Food Preservation, Food Storage – A Three Legged Stool

admin April 25th, 2011

Periodically someone will come up to me and denigrate one of the three things discussed here, while praising the others.  For example, someone will tell me that food preservation is simply too much work, and not worth their time, but assure me they do have a garden and store food for a crisis.  Other times, someone will tell me they don’t bother to garden because “other people will just come and steal your garden” or “gardening doesn’t pay.”  Sometimes food storage is the target – after all, the commenters observe, eventually stored food runs out, right?

While I’m always grateful to see people picking up on one or two of these principles (after all, the average American practices none of them), I do find myself troubled by the idea that one can grasp the need for and merits of one, but not another.  To me, they look like a three legged stool, on which a very basic concept – food security – rest.  And like most three legged stools, you can’t sit on it with one of the legs missing.

If we are to make by necessity or desire, a shift to a lower input society, it is necessary to take the lessons learned in other lower-input societies and ask the question – what are the major food security issues likely to be?  We already see from the current recession that food issues are more acute than they were anticipated to be – the newest set of numbers is likely to show one in every seven Americans and one in every three children, for example, requiring food stamps.  Six million plus American households have no income at all except food stamps.  Food pantries and soup kitchens are dramatically overdrawn – and need cannot be measured by output, because demand so dramatically exceeds it.  And yet, just a few years ago at the beginning of the recession, we were told that food insecurity was unlikely to be a major issue in the US as it was in the Great Depression.  It turns out that in reality, food insecurity has risen much faster than expected, and the food crisis in the global south is playing out in parts of the developed world as well, and stands only to get worse.

It is simply clear that food is going to be a central site on which this crisis plays out – and because of this, it is necessary that we take lessons from our own history and from other societies that use less energy in their food system to begin to predict what will be needed.  What we know, doing so, is that we will not have a viable food future without all three legs of the stool standing solid.

Food production is probably the easiest sell – gardening is trendy, it is pleasurable, and we all know that food straight from the garden is both more delicious and more nutritious than broccoli from the grocery store that is five or six days old.  Heck, the salad you pick outside your door even has it over the good stuff from the farmer’s market.  Still, there are plenty of people who don’t grasp the importance of gardening, or who don’t think their gardens can make a difference in food security.

Let’s look at the evidence, however.  We know, for example, that in 1944, US Victory Gardens together produced as much produce as all the truck and produce farms in the entire US – fully half of the vegetables in the US came from victory gardens.  We know that urban gardening in cities in the Global South (and historically in the Global North during times of crisis including the Great Depression, Europe after WWII, Russia after the Soviet Collapse etc…) has helped make the difference between nutritional inadequacy and adequacy.  Consider, for example, in Tanzania, where involvement with urban food production means that poor children whose families garden and/or raise livestock have nutritional status equal to middle class children.

The historical evidence is very, very clear – in difficult times (which, realistically are likely forthcoming, and in many respects already here), gardening is a basic way that people who are struggling put food in the table.  To those who observe that urban and suburban gardeners can’t grow all their food – this is absolutely true.  What small gardens do is make the difference between an unremitting diet of staples and a nutritious, tasty diet.  They can grow chiles to spice their food, greens to keep their children from getting sick from nutritional deficits, fruits to add sweetness and flavor to bland diets.  Add small livestock living on garden wastes and human food wastes, and as long as you are able to buy a small amount of staple grains in a market, you can live.  All of us know that meat and veggies are expensive – for poor people, affording these things is a much bigger issue than getting ahold of some staple foods.

For larger households, gardens can provide staples as well – although we are accustomed to seeing grains as our primary staple, root crops have operated, particularly in cold climates, as staple foods – “vegetables” doesn’t mean “lettuce” – it  can also mean staple foods like potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets and other filling root crops that supported the people of Northern Europe for decades.

At both the household level and the regional level, a sweeping view of gardening is best – in much of the global south gardens cover rooftops, balconies, marginal space along roads and railroad tracks, and it includes marginal weeds on which local livestock pasture, fallen tree branches that provide fire wood or brush for staking and building, and perennial crops that belong to the whole community – bamboos whose shoots are taken home from the park, fruiting street trees, and wild edibles.  Consider the difference that planting food-producing street trees alone could make.  Perennial edibles represent a kind of garden bank account on which the community can draw on for pleasure and upon need.

Ok, we’ve established the not-very-difficult case for why we need to garden.  Why is food preservation a fundamental pillar?  The reason is pretty simple – in just about every place on earth, there is a season in which not much grows that well. It could be the dry season, the hot season or the cold snowy one, but gardens slow down or stop, and not much fresh is coming out them.  Even in places where there is year round production, there are also bumper years and bad years – years in which everything does well, and years in which everything – or some important things do badly.  The ability to preserve what you grow for periods in which such things are not available is central to the project of food security – because most of us can count on some periods where we either will not be able to garden or where not much is available.

Moreover, one of the examples to look at is that of the global south, where food is wasted in more or less the same quantities as it is here.  The difference between the Global North and the Global South is pretty dramatic, however – overwhelmingly almost half the food produced in the Global South is lost because it cannot be preserved.  Lack of refrigeration or adequate storage, lack of techniques for food storage, problems with transportation.  In the Global North, more than half of all food wastage is lost after it is transported from the field, in stores and in our kitchens.  This gives us a sense of our future – we may find ourselves with a great deal of food loss due to problems of preservation, unless we can support and build the infrastructure for preserving food in a lower-energy input society.

That infrastructure doesn’t have to be industrial – it might be simple as large solar food dryers and better storage to keep grains away from rodents.  It would include networks for delivery and distribution by bicycle, water, rail or other ways, so that food doesn’t rot in the fields.  It might include strategies used in the pre-oil era, in which families took their “vacation” to help harvest and preserve crops like hops or fruit, acting as migrant laborers in exchange for fresh air, accomodations and good food.  It may also include something like the rural dachas of Russia, where urban dwellers grow their gardens and preserve homegrown and wild foods for the long winter to come.

I wrote _Independence Days_ in large part in response to a question a woman once asked me. I was speaking at a conference, and the woman, an urban dweller, asked me what she was supposed to eat once her 22 week CSA subscription ran out, and what people had eaten in the past.  I observed that they ate preserved and stored food and she asked me who did that – beyond Clarence Birdseye, the answer that was that there are some small producers out there that to produce high value (and usually high cost) preserved foods, but for the most part, this was a do-it-yourself job – the next logical step in eating out of your garden was to take what is abundant and make it last.

You can, of course, purchase preserved foods, and store them that way, but this is much more expensive proposition, and it isn’t a terrifically strenuous one.  Despite the rhetoric of standing over a hot canning kettle, the actual work load of slicing some fruit and sticking it in a solar dehydrator or an electric one, or canning up some chicken broth is not terrifically demanding.  Many people hear the word “food preservation” and think “canning” – but while canning is one strategy for preserving food, it isn’t the only or best one.  Indeed, if one couldn’t survive without canned food, the human race would not exist, since it was invented only in the 19th century. It is a lovely addition to people’s tool box, but root cellaring, in garden-storage in clamps and with mulches, dehydrating, lactofermentation, and the rest of the toolbox will get you everywhere you need to go if you prefer.

What about food storage?  What does that have to do with anything?  Most of us have fond memories of grandma and her homemade pickles or whatever else – we may think it is too hard or too much work, but we can see the point.  Food storage, however, having  pantry that can sustain an extended period without a trip to the store, well, that seems weird.  Our society does a great deal to make it seem weird, pushing us to view stored food as the territory of survivalists with bunkers and guns.

This is very strange, because of course, storing food is one of the most basic things humans do – first they preserve it, then they put it by for years of shortfall.  Consider the Biblical Story of Joseph, who tells Pharoah to put up food for the days when “there will be no food in all the land.”  It was considered a simply responsible and necessary thing to do – in fact, food preservation and the storage of food for the cold season is an older human activity even than agriculture – we have been reserving our bounty for times of hunger for as long as we have been human, or nearly.

Why might we need stored food?  It could be as basic as a period when we are ill or out of work, and unable to shop.  It could be a supply interruption or a natural or non-natural disaster (think Japan) that contaminates or prevents food from reaching us.  It could be a medical crisis that require isolation and reduced contact and makes shopping risky.  It could be a short term power outage or a several month supply interruption.  Indeed, most of us experience periods in our lives when stored food is or would be valuable.  This is so normal that the US government, the US and International Red Cross and most governments recommend that people store food.

It is something that must be done in anticipation of a crisis – in a crisis, storing up food when shortages are already present is viewed as hoarding and can be discouraged, penalized with social consequences, or outright illegal.   In order to ethically ensure a reliable food supply during a period of constraint, you need to have a reliable supply of food all the time.  Moreover, all the evidence suggests that we waste the least amount of stored food when we base our storage on what we eat already, and include it in our daily diets and rotations.

The line between preservation and storage is very fine – once you have done the work of preserving food, you need to know how to store it.  Some people’s food storage consists entirely of things they have grown themselves, other people rely heavily on food produced elsewhere.  Since most of us rely on dry staples, often these will be grains produced in other places, but this varies from situation to situation.

Preserving food is not like preserving works of art, or insects in amber – it doesn’t last forever.  So preserved food must be properly stored, in order to maximize both its lifespan and its nutritional value.  With grains, this may be a matter of putting them in air-tight containers in a place without wild temperature fluctuations or too much moisture for years.  For lactofermented food, it may be finding a cool basement spot or underground spot to allow it to last a few months.  Without the knowledge to both store food correctly and integrate in your diet, all your money or labor in preservation and purchase is wasted – instead of reducing waste by preserving a bountiful harvest, you are simply throwing money and food out the window.  And none of us can afford that.

Nor can any of us afford to believe that natural or human-caused disasters, economic crises and other hard realities will never affect us.  None of us can rely entirely on stores and good fortune in a world where climate-linked disasters are on the rise and where instability of all kinds is the normal.

Without all three legs of the stool, you place yourself, your family, your community at risk.  With all three legs integrated, we have the beginnings of a model of collective food security on which we can build.  If there is a leg that is weak, wobbly or absent on your stool, time to make it strong and build it up.