Archive for August, 2011

Quick Update

Sharon August 18th, 2011

Just to keep you all updated, we learned yesterday that the children’s social worker has decided to separate the children, and place them in three homes.  Two will stay with the current foster mother, one with one home, and they are seeking a home for one child and the newborn – since we will take larger groups than two and there are very few homes that do so, they don’t want us to take those two, saving us for a larger group.  I admit, I’m relieved not to have to make a decision about taking these kids – it isn’t the numbers, so much as the ages – I realized about myself that while I would happily take a baby, we really would prefer to work mostly with a slightly older group.  That said, it would have been very hard for us to say no if we were their only chance at staying together, and otherwise were a good fit.

As much as I’m relieved that my gut intuition that this wasn’t the group for us didn’t come up against any actual decisions (and as much as I’m grateful that it isn’t my job to make decisions that hard about small children!), I’m terribly sad for the kids who are losing each other.  Unfortunately, of course, that kind of sad happens all the time, but it doesn’t make it better.  The only consolation is that at some point some other larger group that would have been separated will be able to stay together.  But oh, how sad for them.

This was a really good experience for us, in a lot of ways.  It revealed several things we hadn’t actually figured out before – when faced up with the decision, it was useful to know them.  First, we found out how much both of us really secretly want a daughter or two out of this.  When we first talked about it, Eric and I both said that we were wholly contented with our boys, and that in some ways, it would be easier to take a sibling group that was male.  We even talked about submitting our homestudy for a legally-free group of three boys available downstate, although our homestudy wasn’t done before they were placed.

Despite all that,  most larger groups are mixed gender.   We expressed no gender preference in our homestudy, but we did sort of have in our head that once we got up to three or four, there probably would be a girl.  One of the possible scenarios we were being asked to consider had us taking three of the kids, and not the only girl – and we both had to admit that while three more boys would be entirely wonderful once we got our head around it, we both sort of wished that there was a girl included.  I don’t think either of us had realized (although I probably should have gotten a clue when I went to goodwill and bought a range cheap girl clothes in a large range of sizes so that I’d have some if we got an emergency placement – some girls are fine with wearing boy clothes, some mind, and I didn’t want to have nothing pretty for a girl who needed something new – but I’m not sure I needed quite so many things ;-) ) that we’d allowed ourselves to dream about a daughter.  I don’t think that means that we wouldn’t accept an all boy group, and with enthusiasm, but it was good to talk about the images we have in our heads.

It is funny, because for years I wasn’t aware of any desire for a daughter – I love my boys, I love having a big group of sons and in many ways, I think I’m a really good boy Mom.  I was never disappointed when I learned I was having boys (actually I was sure from the beginning with everyone).  Eric initially wanted a little girl, but by the third boy had gotten over it, and was happy to have more boys.  The big revelation of this isn’t “we’d only take a group with girls in it” but “sometimes you have dreams that you aren’t even fully aware of.”

The other thing that was useful was that this was a good reminder of one of my own worst failings – intellectualizing things I don’t especially want to do and talking myself into them.  Sometimes this is a good quality, when there’s a strong moral case to be made for doing the thing you don’t enjoy – and this may have even been one of those times.   But over the years, I’ve periodically made major, and inevitably mistaken life decisions because they made rational sense, even if at a gut level, they didn’t seem right.  Many years ago, we almost bought a house that in retrospect, we all would have hated, because it seemed to have so many rational good qualities.  Fortunately, the friend we were purchasing with (this is many, many years ago) backed out – again, to my sudden relief.

In the end, we’re probably only going to take one sibling group (hopefully, but at least one at a time) – that is, we’re not going to be able to save all the kids in the world, and we know that intellectually.  That means that we might as well trust our instincts – historically speaking, whenever I talk myself into things, I usually am making a mistake – but I suspect  I will know when a match feels right.  I would like to go into this with more enthusiasm and energy than I could have gone into this particular arrangement.

It is hard to say that those things are necessary – thousands of kinship placements begin in ambivalence “I thought I was done with children…but they are my grandkids.”  Most foster placements begin too little knowledge for enthusiasm – “Sure, three kids, you think they are all boys but haven’t checked the little one’s diapers, yes it is 1 am, ok, c’mon over…”   I don’t have to have those feelings to take children – and I know that you can grow to love children you don’t start out loving.  Unlike those who at the moment of birth felt instant adoration, I remember looking at Eli after my long labor with a “Ok, he’s pretty interesting, but I don’t adore him or anything yet.”  Love came along somewhere later in the process.

In this scenario, however, it was necessary –  I could have imagined my pushing harder, telling the social worker not “I would need X and Y more information, and then may we would consider it” but “I really want these kids, and would like you to think about placing them together with us, because they sound right.”  In that case, they might have kept them together (or not).  This time that didn’t happen – but I suspect I will know when it is right. I just have to listen, and pray for happy homes for those children I didn’t know but who might have been.

I know I owe y’all some content, and you’ll be getting it, but not today ;-) .. In other news, I’ve agreed to push up the deadline for _Making Home_ my adapting-in-place book to this fall (since I’ve got all this free time now ;-) ), and the book will be available next spring!  So there’s some good news!

Sharon

Low Energy and Large Family Logistics

admin August 15th, 2011

As some of you may have heard, we got a call last week about (possibly) taking a group of five siblings – or possibly three or four of them.  It is not entirely clear that they will all come into care, or that we would be asked to take all or any of them.  It is also possible we would decline – five is more than we bargained for, the group is very, very young (ages 5 to newborn) and we don’t have enough information about them yet to make a decision. We probably won’t get that information until the county makes its decisions about what they will do, so we wait.

Still, the thought of going from four children to seven, eight or even nine has me curious about the logistics – how will all of this work for us?  Technically, I have a large family – in the US large families start at 3 or 4 kids.  I still remember, shortly after Isaiah (third child) was born, I went to a tea party held by a good friend for a group of women who had all had babies recently.  All of us had our second or third, and one woman, on her second, said to me “Well, you have all those children!”  I blinked, because it had never occurred to me that a family of three constituted “all those” but in fact it does.

Indeed, when I recently attended an event to receive an award in New York City, I was as much a curiosity as a three-headed bear because I was a professional writer of some minor note *with four children.*  In New York, where outside some ethnic and religious populations, one or two children is an absolute maximum, I found myself surrounded by women stunned that anyone could have multiple children and write books as well.  Everyone asked “how does she do it” as though accomplishment plus children were impossible – and perhaps it is if women have to do all the domestic work alone. I’m fortunate in that it is a shared project in our household.

But if mine is a technically large family (four kids, two adults, sometimes additional adults, as when Eric’s grandparents lived with us or our housemate Phil did), the shift from four to seven, eight or nine (probably in a matter of days)  is a pretty big one in this culture.  Ok, not just the culture – in our lives as well, and yes, I’m freaking out a little ;-) .   Besides that, however, there’s public perception too, however.  Despite the tv-show prominence of a few large families, most households in the US are 2.7 people – ours would be 11 if we took all five kids.

If four children is already a big family, what the heck is eight or nine kids?  As Melissa Fay Greene writes (she’s the bio and adoptive Mom of 9) in _No Biking in the House Without a Helmet_, that many kids marks you as weird and makes people put you in “…among the greats:  the Kennedys, the McCaughey septuplets, the von Trapp family singers and perhaps even Mrs. Vassilyev, who, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, gave birth to sixty-nine children in eighteenth century Russia.”  Now there’s a company I never thought to join.

Besides the fascination with sheer numbers,  everyone who writes and reads about large families is fascinated by the logistics – how many gallons of milk a week, how do they do the shopping, how much laundry and how many dishes?  I admit, I’m no different – I want to be able to envision how this all works, to try and have a set of strategies in my head that might make the transition doable if this – or some other – group of siblings joins my extant herd of boys.

So I googled – a bunch – about larger family logistics, and how do people do it.  Unfortunately, a lot of what I found didn’t really apply to us, in the same sense that a lot of standard american cultural assumptions don’t apply to us.  The advice offered to large families is centered on families that don’t seem terribly worried about their ecological impact.  Maybe they can’t worry about it, or maybe it isn’t part of their consciousness.

Whatever the reason, advice for parents of large families (ok, let’s actually admit it is almost always mothers of large families!) tends to emphasize big appliances at lots of them.  Get three fridges one family suggests – one just for the milk!  Two industrial washers and two matching industrial dryers as well – that’ll keep the laundry under control!  Use paper and plastic at every meal to minimize dishes!  Color code everything  - every kid gets a color, and everything they own – socks, underpants, towels, backpacks…it all comes in purple or green or puce (for the truly mega-families, what happens if you are the last kid and your color choices are puce and ashes-of-roses ;-) ).

I’m not sitting in judgement here – many of these families, particularly the large adoptive families with many kids with special needs, may simply not be able to add on energy reduction.  Indeed, for the families that keep large sibling groups from separation, or take in hard-to-place older and disabled kids, just giving the kids a family will probably reduce their energy and resource consumption considerably by reducing visitations, consolidating kids into one home instead of four, etc…, not to mention the other deep goods – the fact that kids get families.  My point isn’t that other families should do differently, but that it was hard to find role models, except by digging into the past.

I don’t have a working refrigerator – we use a small fridge as an icebox.  It is a side-by-side (inherited from Eric’s grandmother), so I might open up the other side, but I won’t be buying a plug-in model.  I will be buying milk when the kids come, because I’m not legally permitted to feed foster children our goat’s milk, but I don’t see myself with an infinite number of gallons of industrial milk in a fridge, as so many blog pictures show.

While when our present front loader washer meets its inevitable end, I do anticipate replacing it with a commercial model, that probably won’t be for quite a while –  who knows about things that far away?  My mother asked me recently if I would need to get a dryer to keep up with the laundry – my assumption is no, since generations of women raised large families without them, but I haven’t done the laundry for more than 7 people yet (although at one point I was doing laundry for a baby, a toddler and an autistic, non-toilet trained five years old, as we as an incontinent elder, plus others so I’ve got a faint sense of this).  The plastic and paper are not part of my plan, and where would I find that much color-matching stuff in my usual shopping haunts, Goodwill. Savers and various yard sales?  Besides, who wants to wear purple every day?

Some of the advice for large families is good – make lists, get organized, get rid of stuff you don’t need.  Organize the kids into buddies, with a bigger kid keeping an eye on a younger one.  Cook double and freeze.  Chore charts, calendars – all good advice.  Most of it is good advice for those of us with small-big families too, which is why a lot of it is already in place, and I have some doubts about my ability to do some of the other stuff.

Some things we are already doing – bulk purchasing, a large pantry, buying clothes for larger sizes in advance – I’ve just added girl things into the mix and am starting to accumulate a stash of clothing for potential daughters, if any. The kids already have chores.  I already have multiple calendars.  I’m just now sure how much new will be required of me as I scale up.

Then there’s the old-fashioned advice – wash on Monday, iron on Tuesday, etc…  But I don’t iron, and I have to do laundry just about every day as it is – much of the year the limiting factor is drying space, so a “day” to wash is out.  I can imagine modifying it – preserve on Monday, bake on Tuesday, weed on Wednesday, mend on Thursday – but I haven’t quite pulled it together yet in my head, and I’m not clear that baking on Tuesday, rather than when we’re low on bread, will actually have me any time.

So those of you with large households, particularly trying to Riot or keep your energy use down in other ways, what do you do?  What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you for managing a large household?   How do you organize yourself? Keep up with the clothing and the washing, the cooking and shopping?  Do you use a full range of appliances?  Do without?  What’s worth having and what isn’t?  I want your advice!

Sharon

The Lazy Goatkeeper

admin August 8th, 2011

I get a lot of inquiries about goats that go pretty much like this: “I’d love to have fresh goat’s milk all the time, and cheese, but my schedule just isn’t compatible with milking twice a day at 5am and 5pm, 365 days a year, so I guess I can’t have dairy goats, but I love to hear about yours.”

Well, let me start by saying that my schedule is also not compatible with milking twice a day on that schedule.  Once upon a time I was routinely up at 5am, and I still start my day between 5:30 and 6, but now that my children sleep later, I’m into sleeping too.  Moreover, I can’t face a warm goat until I’ve had one cup of hot tea.  I don’t milk twice a day.  I don’t milk 365 days a year, and I do go away on vacation.  In large measure, we have shifted our milking schedule so that it fits with our lives.

How is this possible? Well, it is not if you plan to run a goat or cow dairy for profit – in that case, you will be tied to the same schedule, because 12 hour, twice per day milkings are necessary to maximize production.  Most of us who want a couple of goats, however, do not have to maximize production – in fact, we may not want to.  It becomes pretty feasible to make milking work for you.

First of all, no goat milks 365 days a year, unless you choose not to breed her annually.  Generally speaking,  the last two months of a doe’s pregnancy, they are dry – ie, not milking so that they can put their energies into kid development.  If all your goats are dry at the same time, this is an excellent time of year to go on vacation, since they only need to be fed and watered.  If you don’t want kids, you can breed every other year, and in this case, you will have to milk all year ’round.

Generally, however, it is pretty feasible to work around goat biology.  We milk once per day, in the morning, at about 7am.  Because goats, like all mammals must have a kid in order to produce milk, we separate out their kids, starting at two weeks old, at night.  From 7pm to 7am (actually we start out with 10pm and gradually move backwards to adjust the kids), the kids are in their own pen or section of the pasture (depending on age of kids and season).  At 7am, we milk the does, and then let them out with their kids.  During the day, the kids have all the milk.

I could also milk once a day during the evenings, and keep the kids separate during the daytimes, but this works better for us – and I think is preferable for the kids as well, since goats are diurnal and do eat more during the daytime – a day separation would be feasible, however.  You can schedule your milking for whatever time is convenient to you.  I do try not to push milking much past 8am, since a full udder is uncomfortable for them, but I have no difficulty milking earlier than usual, if we need to be somewhere early, or occasionally even leaving the kids on their mothers overnight so that we don’t have to milk at all on a particularly rushed morning (say, if we have to leave at 5am – this is rare thing, however).

Left to themselves, the kids will nurse for 5-7 months after birth (actually, they’d do it a lot longer, but the Moms get annoyed after a while when a kid nearly as big as they are practically lifts them in the air).  So for the first six months (average) after birth, if you keep the kids that long, you can go away.  All you have to do is put the kids in the pasture with their Moms and they will be fine – no milking needed.

Some people worry about scours (diarrhea) if the goats were getting all their milk – we’ve never had a case of scours except in goats bought from other farms.  Our goats tend to do very well on free choice nursing – and this is, of course, what they’d do in nature.  No, the don’t get fat, either – they eat as much as is appropriate to them.   Indeed, we recently had a goat from another farm come to ours who had been bottle fed, and we got to see the dramatic difference in size and vitality between bottle and mother fed.

You cannot do this if you have CAE in your herd or are engaged in CAE prevention.  Our herd comes only from tested CAE negative herds, and we don’t show or otherwise bring our goats out into the world, so we feel very comfortable with dam-raised kids.  Some people will tell you that dam-raised kids are unfriendly and can’t be handled – ours are not.  They like to play with us, eat treats and be petted.  Indeed, again, our experience with bottle babies is that they don’t fully know how to work in the larger herd – they aren’t sure if they are goats or humans.  We like goats who are goats.  I would recommend that you purchase goats only from CAE negative herds if you want to be a lazy goatkeeper.

If you kid in springtime, a six month nursing cycle will coincide with the cycle of the grass in most northern areas that get summer moisture.  One thought is to milk only on this seasonal cycle – following the grass and drying the goats off during the winter, as they would naturally have dried off.  You can then eat your residual milk in the form of cheese that you made over the summer, and milk can be frozen if you have space for it.  You will, of course, get less milk in total, but the economics of this are pretty good, because goats need less grain during summers when pastures are lush and may well be able to do acceptably on grass alone.  This allows you to be flexible all year round – you can leave the kids on the does in spring, summer and fall and in winter, they will be dry.  The only time of year you won’t want to leave the farm is kidding season.

The main disadvantage of this situation is that it sets you to selling the goat’s offspring in late fall.  Now if you plan to butcher males and keep females, this works very well – your goats are mature at precisely the point at which you’d want to butcher them anyway.   If you plan to sell offspring, most people want their livestock earlier in the year, and more people don’t want to winter goats over, so prices fall – and most people prefer young goats when they are small and cute.  One option is to breed the doelings (if you have a breed that can be bred at 7months – some breeds wait longer) and sell them as bred does – which bring higher prices.  Another is to overwinter them yourself and sell them in the spring as milkers, after they have kidded, which also bring higher prices.  In many breeds, twins are the norm, and you can sell one of the goat’s babies at 8 weeks, so you can partially obviate this problem, if not wholly.  Do remember to wether your boys if you are doing this – by six months, they could easily impregnate Mom – in some breeds significantly earlier.

What if you want year ’round milk?  This is the case for us –  and the reason we have two kiddings a year, one in July and one in April.  In that case, actually going away becomes more complicated, and there are periods of the year in which it is necessary that someone be around to milk if you are going to leave.

Working on that schedule, we can go away and leave the kids with their Moms from May (after the first cycle of kidding) through June, come back in July (for the second cycle) and then are free from August to November.  Depending on how long the April babies nurse, we might even be able to get away with December (if you routinely travel for Christmas or other December holidays, it might make sense to have May babies – we do our travelling at Thanksgiving in general).  From December to May, if we want to leave the farm, we have to get help milking.

Which is where this thing comes in handy – the Maggidans Milker.  Essentially a manual breast pump for goats (the first one was, I believe a modified human breast pump), this takes the skill out of milking, and means that a competent 12 year old (I know this because we used one for several years) can handle the day-to-day ins and outs of goat care.  You will see some decline in production if you go away for an extended period and have someone milk with only this – the milker gets the majority of milk, but for maximum production, you want to strip the goats teats afterwards, to get the last of it (the hindmilk is also the richest).  But for a couple of days, we’ve seen no significant drops in production in a doe that is established, and you may find it worth it.  There’s another brand as well, the EZ Milker that is more expensive, but we have had a great experience with this one.  Given that I have carpal tunnel syndrome from too much time in front of the computer, the Maggidans is helpful – we’re milking 12 does right now, and while two or three are easy, after a point without the milker, it got painful.

If you are prepared to pump and dump for a few days, (ie, give the milk to other animals), you don’t even have to take the time to sterilize.  We had no trouble teaching a 12 year old to handle our goats for a few days – and it allowed us to go away and feel comfortable about it. Many more people could have goats if they could rely on a local teen, just as they do to walk their dogs.

The economics of this model work well for us – including the cost of hay, grain, fencing,  amortized goat cost (over 10 year breeding life), medical care, etc… my summer milk cost for organic raw milk is $3.11 per gallon.  My winter milk cost (where more hay and a bit more grain are involved) is about $4.00 – well below the price of a gallon of organic milk.  Besides this our milk has much higher butterfat (ie, more cheese = not all goats have the same butterfat ratios), tastes like sweet cow’s milk (no goaty taste) and we get manure, companionship and kids for sale, replacement or meat.  Because I have dwarf goats, two does can easily fit in many backyards, eating weeds and brush and garden wastes for part of their diet.  Larger breeds are more appropriate for larger lots.

Although you will not maximize milk production this way, generally speaking lower input (less grain, more flexibility) milking has good economics – yes, you could get more milk out of your doe, but with more concentrates that many of us do not grow.  Summer-only production probably has the lowest cost to production, but if you want year-round milk, the numbers still add up.

For many people, concerned with sources of good milk, and with the high (legitimately so – the cost of dairy certification adds a lot) cost of good milk, a couple of dairy goats and lazy goatkeeping could make it feasible.

Sharon

Time to Riot!

admin August 1st, 2011

The Riot for Austerity came about this way. In 2007, after the release of the IPCC report, and a number of books drawing attention to climate change, a friend of mine and I were discussing our frustration that no political organization was considering any kind of emissions cuts that even resembled those necessary to limit the damage from climate change. In fact whenever we discussed the 90+% emissions cuts required to give us the best chance of a reasonable stable climate, the immediate reaction was “that’s not going to happen!”

Stealing a great line from George Monbiot’s wonderful book _Heat_, in which he laments “no one has ever rioted for austerity” Miranda Edel and I, both mothers of children who would be living for this world, wondered if it was really so inconceivable that people could change their lives. After all, our grandparents had done so during WWII – was it really so alien, so far away? Frustrated at lack of political responsiveness, we decided we wouldn’t wait – we’d see if we could make the cuts in our own lives. Someone, we argued, had to model a way of life that was actually viable given the limits of our planet’s resources and pollution absorption capacity. So, why not us?

We set two goals. First, we would spend a year trying to get our emissions down by 90% over the American average. Second, we’d use this as part of a larger public strategy to point out that it can be done – that we don’t have to wait for political action – indeed, that we can’t wait.

What we didn’t expect was that the Riot would take on a life of its own – at its peak in 2008, several thousand people in 14 countries were rioting – and talking about it in a lively, sometimes contentious, often very funny discussion group. Wjat was most astonishing about it was how much fun all of us were having getting our emissions and impact down.

Or maybe that isn’t very surprising. The historian Timothy Breen has argued that during times of crisis, what he calls “rituals of non-consumption” arise in order to fill the gap created by the inability to consumer, for whatever reason. Those rituals – sharing recipes for homegrown teas during the American revolution, knitting socks for soldiers during WWI, etc… are as satisfying or more satisfying than the old rituals. People don’t miss what they give up – provided, of course, that they can fill the gap with community.

In 2007, while it was frustrating that the people had to lead the political discourse, it seemed possible we might do something, however inadequate, about climate change. In that sense, it seems like a good time to re-start the Riot. As our government has less and less to do with what our kids and grandkids actually need from governments, as all of us face a world where we’re losing control of the real essentials, it is more necessary than ever to build that way of life worth living, and more necessary than ever to not allow the political process to stand in the way of making change. The Riot was always political as well as personal (and y’all know I don’t think they can be separated) – there is nothing more powerful than saying to governments – we don’t need you to make change, we can do it ourselves. Strangely, that’s when governments tend to get involved – when enough ordinary people start transforming the world for themselves.

To me, this isn’t a rejection of the idea that there are some things governments do well – instead it is an affirmation that we can lead, rather than wait to be led. The Riot was set to point out – look, thousands of people can do what you have said is impossible, and we can do it without help. We can get to this point in our emissions production without waiting for the public transportation projects, for the renewable energy projects, for the subsidies for things that are worth having. How much more could we do with those things?

Moreover, there are practical reasons to join as well. As Dmitry Orlov points out, when the world is headed for a fall, and you have a choice of falling out of a fourth story window or a first story window, choosing the first-story window just plain makes sense. The lower we get our energy and resource consumption, the better prepared we are for our emergent future in which we are constrained by limits of climate, resources and wealth. If you recognize we cannot go on as we are, we must not wait for someone else to lead the way – it is time to make the changes that are needed ourselves.

If the only reasons were to change the world, make things better for your kids and grandkids and prepare yourself for the future, there’d probably be no reason to do it ;-) . The real reason to riot is this – it is a heck of a lot of fun. There’s an artistry in extracting the most from the least that offers a great deal of pleasure – the formal structures of the riot act, I think, like the framework of a sonnet or a the basic positions of dance, a discipline in which a new freedom and possibility emerges.

Ok, down to brass tacks. How does this work?

In its simplest terms, we’re going to spend the next year asking “how low can you go?” Think of it as the energy limbo! The first step is to figure out what the average American uses. For this, I’m using EIA statistics whenever possible. Sometimes it is easy to figure out what the data are – other times it is more complicated. Sometimes the data is readily and accurately available in per-person numbers, sometimes you have to work with household numbers, which is more complex. Sometimes there is comparative consistency across regions, other times wide ranges, and it is hard to know how to evaluate.

One of the things that we found the first time is that there’s a lot of debate and a lot of grey areas. How much does the energy you use at work count into your resources? Maybe you can affect that not at all – you don’t have any control over how resources are used in your workplace. Maybe you can control it entirely – perhaps you work at home? How should we calculate renewable energy in your state – should it count as a 0 if you can afford to pay extra, even though there isn’t enough renewable production to support everyone who might want to use it, even though the backups come from coal or diesel? What about wood heat? How do you could public transportation?
What about things that aren’t easy to calculate, like food? Do we average things? Does doing well on some of the categories get you out of some of the others?

Other people noticed that things weren’t necessarily fair. Was it fair to have to try and work around national averages when you live in a much hotter or colder place? Was it fair that single person households were at a disadvantage in some areas? Was it fair that larger households were at a disadvantage in others? City dwellers have public transport – should rural dwellers be held to the same standard? Rural dwellers can grow more food – that doesn’t seem fair!

What we found in the year and more we struggled with these questions was that in fact, life isn’t fair. I know that will be news to all of you ;-) . Ultimately, you can do whatever you want – we set up the rules, but there’s no one demanding any of us stick to them or interpret them one way. But I do know that I found the challenge of living on my energy budget to be most satisfying when I chose to calculate things in the way that seemed most in keeping with my principles. It was helpful to remember that this was a set of goals and ideals, and it isn’t a race, it isn’t a competition and there’s no olympic energy-use cutting event. This is a collaborative project, one in which ideally we’ll be proud of what we accomplish – that’s what I care most about.

There are complicated questions – the answers aren’t easy. Ultimately, at some point soon, we’re going to have to just decide how to answer them, so that people don’t get bogged down in the questions, but I do want your input. What do you think? How should we think about these things?

We’re starting over from scratch, because almost all the material dedicated to the prior Riot has now disappeared from the internet entirely – we had, among other things, a cool calculator that allowed you to plug in numbers and find out where you stand without getting out a pen and paper, and a useful FAQ. These have gone missing, so we’ll have to recreate them (note that “we” hint, hint ;-) ).

I should say upfront that this is not a one person project – yes, I’m going to take the lead on writing and publicizing this, yes, if the buck has to stop somewhere, it will stop with me, but I NEED YOUR HELP!!! I need your help in a number of ways. I need someone to help us set up an energy calculator, and someone to volunteer to do the research for the FAQ in each category, for how to calculate grey areas and less clear options. I need a few people to volunteer to moderate the two groups I’m setting up for discussion of Riot issues, one on Yahoogroups, the other on facebook (we’ll also be talking about it here on my blog, but that’s not enough – people need to be able to raise their own problems and get answers). And I need y’all to publicize the riot on your own sites, to tweet and blog about it, to call up your local newspapers and publicize it. The first Riot got a surprising amount of attention – the second Riot could blow the roof off with your help.

So please, in comments, tell me what you want to contribute to this. Want to do the math on the transportation section? Ready to use your skills to set up a new calculator? Want to give the Riot a webpage and discussion group all its own so you don’t have to use Facebook? Got an idea to share about cutting your usage? Want to have a meetup at your place for rioters in your area? Tell me! The part about this that is so much fun is the collaborative element!

Ok, let’s focus on what we’re talking about – the categories. There are still 7 of them.

1. Transportation Energy – here the average American uses 500 gallons of gas per person, per year. That makes it pretty easy to figure out – everyone gets 50 gallons per year. Then the questions begin to emerge. How do you calculate different public transport options? We really need someone to set up a calculator that covers diesel buses and hybrid buses, plane mileage, carpooling, and what have you.

2. Electricity – this is a big grey area as well. How do you calculate your share of your office’s energy use? Is it fair that people who live in the far north like me don’t consume as much electricity as folks who need a/c? Space cooling is the single largest use of electricity in the US, at 17%. How do you calculate hydro? What if it is environmentally damaging hydro power? Do peak and off-peak consumption matter? How do you count nuclear?

The average American uses 2,000 kwh per person *household* (not “per houseold” but “at home” as opposed to “at work and other places you go”) use – total use is 4,000kwh annually. So that part is fairly easy – each person gets 200kwh per year. And the great thing is that this is the easiest part to calculate, since for most people on-grid, the utility company will be sending you an analysis of your usage every month.

3. Other fuels – mostly used for heating and cooking, but sometimes for other things as well. Natural gas, heating oil and propane are the major fuels, but these also include various forms of biomass (wood, pellets, corn, etc…). In some cases, this won’t be a relevant category, if your home or apartment is all-electric, but most of us use some other heating fuel. Again, this is one of those places where a lot of grey areas emerge. Should wood be counted as carbon neutral all the time? Some of the time, depending on how it is harvested and used? How to calculate pellets or corn or biodiesel heating fuel? Which equivalencies do we want to use to allow people using heating oil to compare with those using biomass, natural gas or heating oil?

4. Water. Why include this? Well, because water resources use is a huge portion of the environmental picture. At 130 gallons *houseold* average (with an average household size of 2.6 people) that gives us 13 gallons per household per day.

Water is nice and clear in some areas, but almost no one actually made the 10% goal. I was almost tempted to take it off the list, but I think it is stands as a good goal, even if most of us don’t achieve it. Water is going to be a huge source of stress in the coming century in many parts of the US. Our family actually uses about 35% of the American average, and I’m content there – but we also did go down for several months to the lower level and we know we could do it – and still live comfortably, although I admit, I missed the showers. Still with water capture and storage, and greywater usage, we weren’t hurting. We live in a wet area, and I’ve become comfortable with this – maybe too comfortable – I’m looking forward to challenging ourselves again.

5. Garbage. Like water, there was a case to be made for leaving garbage out, but I do think it counts. Among other things, garbage is a significant source of methane emissions due to the inappropriate disposal of biodegradable material in landfills. Getting your garbage down really counts. The good news is that this is actually one of the areas where most households can do the most the fastest as well!

The average American household produces 40lbs of garbage per week – that gives you a limit of 4lbs per household.

6. Food. This is a hard one – there aren’t any really good figures for figuring out how to lower the impact of your food, so we kind of made it up. Our calculation was that no more than 10% of your food should be from the mainstream industrial food system. Everything else should be either local low-input (organic isn’t a very useful term most of the time because of the prevalence of industrial organic), or bulk purchased goods with minimal packaging, either organic or low-input, and fair trade if bought from the Global South.

There’s a lot of grey here. For example, even though the local hydroponic tomato farm is near me, it sure as heck isn’t low input – tomatoes from Florida would make more sense in March, and no tomatoes at all until tomato season still more sense. What do you do if you can’t transport bulk goods? What do you do in a food desert? What if you are on WIC or food stamps? What if you can’t afford these things? These are complicated questions – at the same time, every dollar we spend in the industrial food system constitutes an endorsement. Again, the fact that the goal is challenging, and perhaps impossible for some of us doesn’t make it wrong.

Finally, category 7 is consumer goods. Multiple studies have found that every dollar we spend in the US results in an average of 1.6-2.kg of atmospheric carbon being produced in the process of manufacture, transport of goods, etc…. Not addressing the problem of consumption seems like missing the point. We know that Americans spend almost 1.5 trillion dollars a year on things that can only be viewed as non-essentials – luxury boats, marshmallow peeps, jewelry, Johnny Walker, lottery tickets…and those are just the things that the US commerce department feels comfortable acknowledging that *no one* needs – lots of other luxury items count as “necessary” because someone thinks they are. They don’t include things like mansions (counting as housing) or $500 sneakers (clothing) or what have you. We spend almost 12% of our total household budgets on luxury items alone.

We also buy new when we could buy used 90% of the time. The average American spend 11,000 per year on items that don’t include food, insurance, energy, housing and other necessities. Much of that money is in the form of debt. So everyone gets 1,100 dollars for consumer purchases – but used goods count as only 10% of their asking price, because keeping used items out of the waste stream is awesome! So if you can afford it, you can have you full 11K as long as you buy used. (Unfortunately, we are unable to supply you with the cash to do so as part of your membership in the Riot ;-) ).

One important thing to know is that when numbers are for households, that the average American household size is 2.6 people, so you can get a rough estimate of the per-person usage by dividing by that. Different people have different takes on this – my family strove to meet the household averages even though we are more than double that size, other people chose to work with per-person averages.

What do you do if not everyone in your household wants to Riot? Well, you can try and persuade them, but honestly, maybe you’ll have to work only on per-person consumption, and there may well be things that you can’t control – if your spouse or parent wants the heat at 75 all winter or the a/c blasting, you may not be able to deal with those issues – or maybe not right away. Remember the power of benign example can do a lot.

This is a big challenge, and it would be easy to get overwhelmed. I got some criticism last time by seeing people say “wait a minute, don’t we need to take baby steps?” I admit, this is a critique that annoys me – the problem is that babies only take baby steps for a very short time. Pretty soon they are off and running. Yes, at first you may need to take it slow – particularly if this is all new and overwhelming to you. At the same time, however, baby steps can become an excuse for not making real change. Sure, take your time getting started, but the goal is to move faster and faster, just like any one growing in confidence and strength.

If last time is any measure, you are going to have a lot of company to share strategies with, complain with, to compare notes and figure out with. No one can riot alone – but riots have a life of their own, they start as a little buzz, and end up making a noise no one can silence. We’ve seen it in the middle east – now it is time to start a Riot of our own!

Please, post suggestions for how to do the calculations and volunteer to take on roles in comments. Or email me at [email protected], or at facebook. I’ve started the facebook group here under the “Riot for Austerity” name – drop me an email with your identity, and I’ll add you!

Can’t wait to get started!

Sharon

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