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City, Country, Suburb? It isn’t Where You Live, But How You Live There.

Sharon June 10th, 2008

I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions lately with various people about optimal locations.  First, there was the large city dweller who talked about his fear of living without access to land in a city.  Then there was there were the two news stories that suggested both outer suburban and rural dwellers were (surprise!) suffering more from high gas prices than those who live in population centers.  Finally, there was Kunstler’s latest screed, more gleeful than usual, about the death of the American South due to high energy prices.   So I thought it was worth taking on a topic I’ve written about before - whether to live in cities, suburbs or in the countryside in an increasingly energy depleted and warming world.  And the answer I’m going to give you is that IMHO, all of the above have possibilities.  But a lot depends on how you - and the people around you - choose to live in a place.  Or maybe it depends on what kind of person you are - or can become.

I’d make the argument that many, perhaps even a majority of cities, suburbs and countrysides have a future of some sort.  What’s important, though, is that in every case, those futures are very different in ways they aren’t right now.  That is,  right now there are differences between the three, but they are easily overcome. It is perfectly possible, though miracles of cars, delivery trucks and online purchasing for city and country dwellers to have very similar frames of reference.  One may live in an apartment, the other in an old farmhouse, but they can vacation in each other’s neighborhoods, share the same frame of reference by seeing the same films, the same shows (one travels for this), wearing the same clothes, eat much the same diet, etc…  Now they may have different priorities, and there are distinctions, but the differences are comparatively small, and easily overcome if that’s one agenda. 

We are about to enter a period in which the differences in way of life between urban, rural and suburban are going to be magnified dramatically.  It will no longer be possible, for example, for city dwellers to have a “country place” far away, or for people to move out to the country and keep the amenities of suburban life.  So the question becomes - how do you want to live?

There has been a lot of lively debate about the merits of suburb, country, city - much of it, I think, far too polarized.  For example the powerful impact of James Kunstler and the (otherwise excellent) film _The End of Suburbia_ have effectively led a lot of people to simply dismiss the suburbs.  And yet many suburbs have approximately the same population density as 19th century large towns that supported considerable infrastructure.  Now in many cases, because of the ridiculous zoning laws, there is no such infrastructure, but large suburban houses and garages are appropriately sized to create it - interstitial businesses will spring up rapidly as people can no longer afford to shop, and zoning laws will be overthrown.

Let me be clear, I agree entirely with Kunstler that suburbia was a tremendous misallocation of resources - I think the project of the suburbs was deeply flawed.  Where I disagree is in the idea that we should now abandon them - that we must.  In fact, I think we must not, simply because industrial agriculture is increasingly disconnected from producing real food for real people.  As more and more Americans get poorer and are priced out of food by rising energy prices, we will absolutely require suburbia to keep fed - that arable land, much of it superb farmland - has to be brought back into production.  And since we won’t be commuting from the cities, we’ll be living the houses.  Yes, it would absolutely have been better to build better houses and design better- but that doesn’t make suburbia uninhabitable.

The same thing is true with cities - cities of 1 million or so have existed for a very, very long time.  I have my doubts about whether cities of 8-10 million will be sustainable in a world with high transport costs, but I also have no doubt that most cities, which were established for reasons - because they sit in a useful or valuable place - will continue to be cities, even if their infrastructure changes and their population reduces in the longer term.  Manhattan and Chicage and LA all do have a future - but it is important to be able to live within the kind of future they do have, and within the limitations of urban centers. 

The countryside suffers most from transportation costs - it is reasonable to believe that deliveries may stop being made to rural areas.  It become plausible to think that such shortfalls might begin comparatively soon.  And for those who live in the countryside and have enjoyed the advantages of city jobs, suburban amenities, etc… this is likely to be a rough transition.  But that doesn’t mean we will abandon the countryside - being able to eat creates tremendous incentives to keep some lines of connection open.

In short, I think it is most important to talk about how to live in the suburbs, or the city, or the country in a low energy future.  I think that may be more productive than extended screeds against one model or another.

The countryside, as we see in the above articles, is likely to suffer first and deepest from the shortage of fuels.  Now there are (and I am overgeneralizing here) two broad groups of people living in the country right now.  The first is made up of the rural poor and working class, farmers, homesteaders and country and those who want to be countr people - that is, people with ties either to land or other people in rural areas.  The other group are exurban commuters who may have hobby farms, keep horses (not all people with hobby farms and horses fall into this category, obviously), or built McMansions out in the pretty countryside when gas was cheap, but who have no particular tie to the area, and strong ties to suburban style amenities.  They have either gotten these amenities by encouraging rural towns to use their growing tax base of exurban commuters to provide them, or by driving distances to where they are available. 

Now the harrowing process of high fuel prices is likely to drive a lot of group #2, the exurban middle class, back towards population centers.  Some will stay and become part of group #1, or find some other way to do well in the rural areas, but most of them will probably pick up and move in the coming few years, dropping tax bases, leaving a lot of empty housing, and in otherwise emptying a large part of the rural landscape.  This change is likely to have two big effects.  The first is that the exurban middle class (who often moved out as far as they did because they couldn’t afford good housing nearer population centers) will be competing with poorer urban residents for housing now - that is, they are likely to displace lower income people from cities and out into the countryside in a process of gentrification.  The second is that the tax and service base of rural areas is likely to simply collapse.  Many of these areas were pressed into making changes that won’t be sustainable - large multi-town district schools, for example, are simply going to be impossible to afford busing for.

On the other hand, group #1 probably won’t move, and shouldn’t.  They are (not universally, but often) lower in income than the departing exurbanites, but they are also better adapted to their place. The thing that makes it possible for most of the rural working class to get along where they do is that land prices are comparatively cheap - and they are going to become more so for at least a while.  In many ways this may be good - some of the buyers for the foreclosed McMansions are likely to be extended families, people who were already living together by necessity in trailers, and who now can live together in a four bedroom house. Universally my rural neighbors are extremely handy, and if they can’t afford the foreclosure, would be happy to help build an addition onto their trailer from the scavenged pieces of the McMansions as well.  The un-gentrification of rural areas may actually have some benefits.  The same is true as absentee property owners of rural land sell or rent their holdings - some of these may be purchased, others simply reclaimed if left unused long enough. 

The other thing that group number 1 often has are family ties - social connections that mean that Grandma takes care of the baby while doing their crappy low wage jobs, and then they take care of Grandma, rather than putting her in a home.  These ties are going to become increasingly valuable. Yes, the cost of gas is going to be troublesome, but rising prices for food, firewood and fiber will partially offset this, and in general, these places haven’t even begun seriously economizing.  Yes, it is presently illegal to put 8 people in your pickup flatbed and drive to the Walmart for morning shift.  How much enforcement do we expect there to be as the rural police departments can barely afford gas?  I’m guessing not much.  Rural dwellers are suffering now because of high food prices and energy prices, but they have barely begun to use mitigation strategies - in most rural areas, the jobs are all in one or two locations, as are the supermarkets.  It will not be hard to put together large carpools and taxi services.  The problem is that as yet, no one has figured out that this is a permanent situation, so the adaptation process has not begun. 

The same goes with growing food - yes, many rural dwellers don’t grow gardens.  But they are often not very far removed from people who did, and they probably hunt, and they often are very resourceful. Living in the formal economy, it is often very hard to do more than just get by - living in the informal economy can actually be much easier in rural areas, where there are natural resources to build upon (or exploit - but hopefully that will be kept to a minimum). 

 My expectation is that many of those displaced from cities will probably be recent immigrants, many not very far removed from agricultural livelihoods as well.  There are likely to be some difficulties with this transition, and some hostility on both ends, but in the end, I suspect that many rural dwellers will find that they have a considerable amount in common with their new Mexican or Somali or Hmong neighbors.  I anticipate some trouble here - and some surprising alliances.

What will not be possible is for rural dwellers to live the way they do now - families will have to do subsistence work, most families will have to go back to one earner status (because they can no longer afford transport costs), which should be possible as property values begin to fall.  The shift will be difficult and painful, and particularly hard on the elderly, but it will be possible in many cases.  That is not to say pleasant, or that many people won’t be ground up and spit out in the transition, but it is possible.

Living in rural areas will mean being comfortable with a degree of isolation previously unknown to those who went there - you won’t be taking the kids to soccer practice and swimming lessons.  You will *have* to get along with the neighbors - you are going to need to work together to get enough gas to afford to truck your produce into the city.  You will have to be very comfortable with fixing things yourself, making do and adapting to shortages.  Meeting your own needs becomes more important when every trip to the city is begrudged, and won’t be repeated for a month or more. 

The nature of shopping changes - every expenditure of precious cash is begrudged (in the county my great-great-grandfather lived in in Maine, there was the story that the only cash money in the whole county was a gold piece brought home by a neighbor man from his service in the Civil War), and barter and growing/hunting/foraging your own become more and more essential.  Because shopping changes, eating practices will have to change.  Do you drink a lot of milk, or eat a lot of meat?  Well, I hope you plan to milk each morning and butcher your own - or have good relationships with someone who will, because you will not be buying fresh milk and meat regularly. 

That’s not to say that rural towns won’t have resources - for example, exurban McMansions will make great home business sites, and rural areas have been known to produce great local culture - many small rural towns had opera houses and theaters, recitation and music groups.  The Blues and Appalachian folk music, for example, grew up largely in rural areas where nearly everyone made music.  As the urban poor move outwards they will bring urban cultures into rural areas, and the cultures will blend and merge in creative (and probably sometimes destructive) ways.   Rural towns did once have thriving cultures - it is not at all impossible to imagine them having them again - or continuing to have them in many cases.  But they will be small cultures. It will be necessary to derive one’s pleasures from intense, deep knowledge of a narrow place, rather than broad shallow knowledge.  That is, we will have to find culture and diversity in new ways.  But while we can imagine having culture, we should assume virtually no *services* in rural areas - we will be on our own for protection, trash disposal, regulation of pollutants, etc…  What people don’t band together to do won’t get done.

Access to markets will be intermittent - when you can afford the trip, rather than when you necessarily want to go.  It may also be strenuous - bicycling for long distances, for example.  Eventually new market lines will be built in many places - and some places may die out for lack of them. But while a transition from the habit of being able to transport quickly may be hard to overcome and painful, it is worth remembering that rural life has existed for centuries.  Anyone who has ever seen a man walking for several days bringing his flock of sheep to market in a poor country, or a truck full of farmers heading down a mountain on market day, all crammed together, knows that it is perfectly possible to overcome scarcity of fuel - but setting up systems to do so is harder. Ultimately, the ability to adapt and make do will be a fundamental requirement to rural living.   

But that’s true of urban dwellers as well. Cities will certainly continue to be centers of trade, but the reality is that as prices for urban infrastructure rise, money, which becomes less available and less important for rural dwellers, becomes harder to come by and more essential for urbanites.  Perhaps the defining characteristic of succesful urban dwellers is the same one that defines rural dwellers - the ability to adapt.  But the adaptive abilities required are different - while rural dwellers may need subsistence skills, urban dwellers may need the ability to recognize commercial opportunities and fill them, to rapidly shift from one business to another - first importing goods, then auctioning repossessed items, then being the middleman with local farmers.   The informal economy is likely to be just as important for urban dwellers as for rural ones, but instead of the subsistence economy subsidizing job loss, scavenging, meeting newly opened needs and taking advantage of short-notice opportunities, and black market activities are likely to be among the biggest sources of jobs in cities.  Economic flexibility will probably be key. 

While urban centers are likely to be the last places where actual shortages will hit, the high cost of urban living - even urban slum living - is likely to effectively cut many people out of marketplaces.  And there is far less space for further consolidation in urban housing - there is some, and consolidation there will be, both because urban owners will only be able to keep their condos and homes by bringing in other people, and also because density is profitable. 

Living well in cities will probably involve the ability to live in quite small spaces, and to tolerate infrastructure breakdowns with reasonable good cheer.  They won’t happen as often as they do in the countryside, but when the sewer lines break or the gas goes off or the electricity goes out, the consequences are likely to be considerably more acute.  While country dwellers may find that many services simply disappear - there is no one to plow the road, there are no police anymore, intermittency is likely to be a characteristic of urban life.

The ability to work with others and self regulate well is also likely to be absolutely essential - urban population densities mean the threat that fairly commonsense responses to breakdown could lead to disaster - for example, if the water stops flowing, it only makes sense to begin bringing human manures out of the buildings - but *everyone* must do this in a way that avoids water contamination and that handles the wastes wisely, or disease spreads and the city stinks.  If the gas goes out, the temptation to use a small burner to cook becomes almost intolerable - but the need to regulate these and train people in safety is acute, since a single fire can take out a whole apartment building - or neighborhood.  

One of the questions worth asking is whether you will like urban life as it is lived by the poor - because that is probably the reality for most of us, no matter where we live.  For those who are comfortably living in cities, this may be a very rude awakening. And for those whose experience of urban poverty is primarily of the graduate student or actor/waitress kind, a similar, if not quite as acute shock awaits.

Job losses are rising in the financial centers, in tourism and tourism tied industries, and will rise further. Without the ability to borrow money to go to college, professors will be laid off.  Those who aren’t comfortably well off themselves in cities, but rely on the disposable income of the middle and upper middle class may also find themselves suffering as that class becomes less wealthy.  If you presently enjoy all the benefits of urban life with extended trips into the countryside to reconnect with nature, ask yourself how you will like doing without these - in August, during a heat wave.  If you have depended on air conditioning to keep cool, and heat to keep warm, think about what happens when the infrastructure fails, or when you simply can’t pay the bills. If you love your job, ask whether you will love the work you are going to be able to get.  In fact, I generally speaking would say that if you would be reasonably comfortable living in the poorest and worst neighborhood in your city now, you’ll be fine in the city.  Many urban poor already experience most of the dangers of post peak life - health complications because of urban life, insufficient security, insufficient access to food, energy shutoffs, indifferent response from the wealthy. 

The two worries most articulated about urban life are security and food.  Both of these are real worries - but they apply to everyone else on the paradigm to.  Rural areas that don’t produce all they eat risk not getting imports because it isn’t worth bringing in supplies to the outer margins of the supply lines.  Rural areas that have poor alliances between neighbors are likely to experience rising crime rates, as poverty provides greater incentives for crime and violence.  There is generally more crime in urban areas, but there are also more people - alliances are remarkably powerful in this regard.  Again, urban dwellers may be broadly divided into two groups - the kind who politely try not to know their neighbors and who never make eye contact, and those who have strong community ties.  Many urban dwellers in poor neighborhoods have been dealing with precisely the same things we are facing for decades - inadequate security, poor police presence or reason to fear the police themselves, high crime rates - and often community groups are able, working together, to minimize these problems.  The successful will be those who are prepared to work together in deep ways, and to prioritize the welfare of the community overall.

As for food, it is far more likely that you will go hungry because you can’t afford to buy food than because there is none in the stores.  Shortages are a possibility, but again, cities are cities for a reason - they are often at the hub of rail, water, or other lines.  Some cities, particularly those with acute water shortages, simply may end up with a comparatively small population by necessity.  But for the rest, the food will come in, usually.  The question is, will you be able to buy it.  My own feeling is that cities will have to produce a large portion of their produce and probably meat - the end of refrigerated shipping is coming, and probably quite quickly for any but the rich.  While grains will probably be shipped out by train, things that have to be kept cold, that now come from irrigated farmlands far away, are probably going to go out of the reach of many people.  Fortunately, this is possible - even Hong Kong, for example, produces a large portion of its meat and vegetables within the city limits.  For the dryest cities - LA, Las Vegas, Pheonix-Tucson, this may not be possible, and that may be their undoing - they won’t go away, but the populations of these cities may contract dramatically.  Not coincidentally, these are also tremendously hot places, and without air conditioning, urban dwellings may be nearly intolerable.

But it is completely possible to imagine even Manhattan or San Francisco or Chicago or Toronto producing quite a lot of its own meat and produce, and certainly Cleveland and Atlanta and Ottawa will be able to do so.  It will be done in vacant lots, on rooftops, on stoops and balconies in containers, in tiny backyards and by the reclamation of public space - food will have to go wherever there is room, and that includes livestock.  Anyone who plans to stay in a city really must take some responsibility for their own food systems, IMHO, not in a light way, but in a commitment to produce as much as possible within city limits.  The great difficulty for cold climate cities will be heat - if utilities become intermittent or too expensive, it will be very cold, and there are fewer options for heating in densely populated areas.  But cold won’t generally kill you - it will be merely unpleasant, and the heat island effect and the sheer proximity of neighbors will probably keep most people alive as they wait for spring, in worst case scenarios.

And thus we are back to this question of what kind of person you are - there are those entrepreneurial spirits who will take any job, do any work, and can turn anything into gold, and may always be able to buy food.  And there are those that simply can’t.  It is worth knowing thyself.  Again, the merits of strong family and community ties come up - a great deal can be accomplished by self-help groups working together.  Food supplies can be bought collectively, slum conditions overcome, community gardens reclaimed from the city, security provided, soup kitchens opened.  But one must work together, and be prepared to adapt.  In fact, where to live may depend on how you want to work with people.

Both urban and rural life will require community ties - in rural places, because without those ties, things simply won’t happen. In urban ones, to restrain one’s self-interest for the greater good.  My own observation is that most people tend to prefer one kind of these regulations to another - they chafe, for example, at the idea that one could restrict their right to do as they want on their property, no matter how stupid or dangerous, or they chafe at the idea that others might be doing things they consider unwise in the privacy of their own homes, and they are not there to observe and stop them.  It is useful, I think, to decide which sort of person you are, and thus, where you will be happy - out in the country where you can get drunk and shoot deer through the unopened windows of your trailer or in the city where you can get drunk and lecture a passerby on the evils of public urination ;-). 

Then again, many of us prefer a middle ground - and suburbia, of course, is supposed to be precisely that.  Whether the ‘burbs are the best of both worlds or the worst depends on your perspective and probably on the kind of suburb you are living in.  Many suburbs near where I live actually have long histories as towns with meaningful economies, and now simply have more housing in them.  It is not at all improbable to imagine much, say, of suburban Boston reconstituting itself as towns, changing its restrictive zoning to allow the transformation of garages into shops and spare bedrooms into rental housing. 

The great advantage of suburbia is that it is often both reasonably proximate to some kind of employment and possible to produce a substantial part of one’s needs on the land attached to it.  Most suburban lots won’t enable any kind of self-sufficiency, but most suburbanites could meet a surprising portion of their needs.  Not enough to obviate the need for supplemental income - while rural dwellers may have little or no cash to pay the property taxes, and urban dwellers cash but not enough to buy food, suburbanites will struggle on both ends - their houses cost a great deal initially, and they won’t generally have large enough surpluses for sale.  Successful suburban dwelling may require more flexibility than either urban or rural life, because it will require the maintence of an income in most cases, while also requiring that costs be absolutely minimized so that people can keep their houses. 

On the other hand, this may actually be possible.  If people are willing to consolidate housing, and bring extended families (biological or chosen) together, keeping the roof over one’s head should be manageable.  Meanwhile, there probably will be some empty lots across the road, and a few foreclosed buildings to take down and scavenge.  We have essentially been filling suburbia with a large chunk of our wealth - it is no longer worth what we thought it was, of course, but that doesn’t mean that boards and reclaimed insulation, copper piping and shingles have no value.  That wealth will probably keep a surprisingly large number of people going, while they also grow gardens and commute, crammed together, into population centers.

The transition from nuclear family to extended is unlikely to be easy - and less easy on middle class suburbanites than on the poor in both rural and urban areas, who already require social ties to keep lives going.  The distances between suburban families will also be a problem as people begin to negotiate - which set of parents do you live near or with?  Who moves?  Whose house goes on the block and who keeps theirs.  In many cases, this will be shaped by sequence of events, rather than intent, but I suspect it will go better if intent is involved, if the conversations required for this begin sooner, rather than later.

The anomie of suburbia is legendary, and probably wildly overstated.  Some neighborhoods are better at ties than other. But what is true is that these ties are generally recreational, rather than practical.  That is, neighborhoods are having barbecues and commercial parties (cooking equipment, sex toys and lingerie being the most popular, an alliance I’ve always admired), playdates and PTA meetings, not organizing for survival.  That is true elsewhere, but suburbia has tended to have fewer self-help groups (by which I mean not emotional self-help but practical) than cities or the country.  That will have to change for suburbia to be successful.

And this, I think, may be the root shift that has to occur in suburbia - what must finally change is the perception of what constitutes “a good life.”  The suburbs were the good life for millions of Americans and Canadians - and what may ultimately hurt us most is what Kunstler calls “the psychology of previous investment” - our inability to let go of what we expect a particular life to be.  I think that Kunstler and others are right that this is particularly acute for suburban dwellers, who have had in their midst many fewer people showing alternate visions.  Zoning regulations, for example, will have to be rapidly overturned to allow people to survive in many suburbs - and that is likely to be contentious, simply because disaster never hits everyone equally.

But the psychology of previous investment has another side - it may prevent us from abandoning the suburbs, but the sheer psychological weight of our investmen in the suburbs may ultimately enable us to make that shift - that is, people are attached to their place, to the idea of their place, and it may be possible for them to make that space mean something else, in order to keep it.  The question of whether the suburbs are the best or worst of both worlds will depend, finally, on whether our attachement to our previous investment is to the place, or the idea of suburbia. If it is to the place, to the actual land and soil beneath our feet and if we can become attached to our houses, stop moving so much and settle in a place, it is possible that suburbia could thrive in many regions.  If it turns out that what we wanted was a dream of Eden, only without the snakes, suburbia will fall apart.

Suburbia is so tied up with children and family life that I feel like I should say something about that.  The suburban model of childhood will simply have to come to an end.  Many more children will probably be homeschooled, many more children will probably be put to work sooner helping out at home, and the child-centered model will probably disintegrate, replaced by a family-centered model in which children are expected to pitch in, listen and are not treated always like visiting heads of state to be deferred to and offered the best.  For those who moved to the suburbs for their children, the loss of the way of life and the hopes of giving them the best they can will be painful - and it may be here we are most unable to adapt.  This will apply to some rural and urban dwellers, particularly the wealthy ones now made poorer, but it will be most acute in suburbia.  Some people may actually leave, seeking the pleasures of urban or rural life now that the suburbs can’t offer them a fantasy-perfect childhood picture.  For others, a new vision of family life may grow up.

Suburbanites will always be more at risk in the general economy than those who are closer to economic centers, and they will always be more at risk in terms of food security than those who can meet their entire dietary needs, but most suburbs offer enormous potential to allow people to live with one foot in the formal economy and another in the informal economy (or both feet in the informal, but in different branches thereof).  Dmitry Orlov observes that most post-collapse soviet gardens were very small - smaller than the average suburban lot.  Now grains kept coming in - but except for the very outermost suburbs, the lines between city and suburb are fairly strong. Even if public transport doesn’t exist. there are enough people, a large enough market to justify moving food and fuel and goods out to many suburs.  Houses are large enough for suburban dwellers to stockpile, just as rural ones do - both the produce of their gardens and food bought on infrequent trips to supply centers by shared vehicle.

Suburban dwellers will probably need a wider balance of skills than either their city or country counterparts - they will simultaneously need the skills to minimize dependence on the public economy and the ability to function well there.  They will need to be able to grow their own, fix their own and make do, and also to run businesses or find work when old sources dry up.  And like everyone else they will require strong community ties to keep back the forces of collapse, and to create a local economy and culture worth having.

Moreover, while rural dwellers may struggle to get their pigs or their fruit to market in an era of reduced transportation, suburbanites who can produce moderate surpluses will have hungry and relatively proximate markets for what they own.  I recall someone telling me about their cousins who became “dill millionaires” growing dill on an 1/8 acre suburban lot outside of Moscow, simply bringing their herbs into the city.  For those in the areas around cities, the old system, where suburbanites shuttled in to work in city businesses may continue - and those going to work there may be bringing in their eggs and apples to sell to coworkers. Or the jobs themselves may disappear, and the eggs and apples become the point of the trip.  In this sense, the more proximate suburbs, despite (often) greater density, may have an advantage.

 In short, I don’t think it is easy to generalize about where the best place to live is.  In all cases, flexibility, adaptability, self-sufficiency and practicality will matter a lot.  And in each case, it isn’t that any choice is inherently bad, it is that it depends on what we are prepared for, what skills we want to emphasize, what balance we hope to find.  It is easier, of course, to generalize about one choice or another, but ultimately, IMHO, less productive.


My Family’s Deep Breaths

Sharon April 24th, 2008

I thought it might be interesting to tell you how we’re stepping back a little from the thoughts of crisis today.  My boys and I are…inventing permaculture.  Shhh…don’t tell Simon and Isaiah this existed already.  They think it was their idea.

 You see, in his wonderful book _Gaia’s Garden_ Toby Hemenway mentions that three sisters gardens actually have a fourth sister, cleome serrulata, also known as Rocky Mountain bee plant.  We’ve been planning for some time to do a family 3 sisters garden - the kids have drawn pictures, helped me make a garden plan and chose varieties of corn, beans and squash.  When they heard that, of course we had to add a fourth sister, and while we don’t have that particular Cleome, we do have seeds of common spider flower, also a Cleome.  Will it work?  No freakin’ idea, but we’re going to experiment. 

Well yesterday, as we were out on the swings, Simon and Isaiah came running up with a new idea.  Could they make a Four Brothers Garden, one based on plants that were special to them and that would work together?  And…and…could they be plants that come back forever, so that they have them every year.  I swear - they thought of the whole thing themselves.

So we started to talk about what a Four Brothers Garden would look like.  We all agreed that Eli’s plant should be the biggest, and that it should be an apple tree.  Since Eli can eat a half bushel of apples in a weekend, this seemed important.  We have apple trees, but one more is always welcome.

Simon, being the next sized down kid wanted  a shrub, and I suggested a Goumi, since we don’t have any, they fix nitrogen and I want one.  And Simon likes the idea because birds like them and he likes to say “Goumi.”

Isaiah wanted to have the pollinator plant - he loves bees, bugs and humming birds, and wanted something red that would attract hummingbirds and other pollinators.  We picked some Bee Balm - good also because Isaiah loves to make salads with edible flowers.

Finally, Asher is the little guy, but with a big, pushy personality.  What could be better than comfrey, dynamic accumulator that it is, for its natural mulching pleasures.  Yes, it is a spreader and occasionally a PITA, but then again, so’s my kid ;-).

With just a little guidance from Mom, we’ve essentially reinvented the wheel.  But boy are the boys excited - and proud of themselves.  And it strikes me as remarkable what kids of four and six can accomplish when they put their minds to it.  Heck, permaculture summercamp - the next big thing!

BTW, I really wish I could go to this - I want to go to camp!  My relationship to permaculture is self teaching plus bugging some people I know to help me out - I’d love a chance to do a more formal program.  But I thought I would recommend it to those who don’t have four little tutors - and I’m told there’s some fundraising being done for those who can’t afford the full program.  

I’ve been invited to stop by and visit, and I might - although there are factors working against it.  First, there’ll be the goats to milk.  Second, there are the four kids and the lack of many people who really want us to dump them on them.  Third, there’s the driving miles - Rioting, y’know.  And finally there’s the real reason - I’m afraid Toby Hemenway will throw composting fruit at me ;-).  We had a little argument once, and I think he might be out for revenge - permaculturists are a rough bunch ;-).

Ok, must abandon the blog - the screaming in the yard suggests that it is now time for Mommy to encourage the children to reinvent non-violence.


What To Do With Your Appliances When You Get Over Them

Sharon April 8th, 2008

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.” - Henry David Thoreau

My kitchen is old fashioned.  I’m not talking about the wooden cabinets, the open shelving of grains and stored foods, the home canned jams, or the lack of a refrigerator in my main cooking space.  I’m talking about the electric stove and the fridge itself.  That is, these appliances are archaic residues of a life in which energy was cheap and abundant and our whole lifestyle was created around that abundance.  These energy sucking appliances may have a place in our future or they may not, but they are fundamentally a product of a day when energy sucking appliances with 5-10 year lifespans could be made, replaced and disposed of.  Those days are as over as the days of the Crimean War, and my kitchen has a growingly retro look to me - I bet yours does too.

A poll of her Crunchy Goodness’s got me thinking about the question of appliances, and the problems they solve - and create.  Her Poultriness  asked which of a host of appliances we felt like we couldn’t live without, and a number of people, me included, mentioned that we really could do without all of them.  Now of course, this was Crunchy’s point too - she was writing about the psychological hold our equipment has on us.  For example, she talked about Greenpa’s fridgelessness, and the way that idea eventually came to seem possible for her.  For us, it was a similar process - we first heard about the unnecessity of the fridge and thought it sounded crazy - but gradually we came over, seduced by the vision of hitting our electricity energy targets.   We honestly haven’t missed our fridge much (although unlike Greenpa, we’re still running a freezer, since we sell our poultry frozen).  It takes a bit, as I wrote in “The Familiarity of an Idea” (although about a different idea, one that Miss Crunch was ahead of me on), to get your mind wrapped around the fact that just because your house has something, it isn’t an inevitability. 

What struck me about this, however, was the number of people who truly were aware that they didn’t need their appliances.  This, I thought, is a heartening thing.  Perhaps even a growing movement.  As it becomes more and more necessary that we reduce our usage of fossil fuels and as more and more people want to live an environmentally sound lifestyle, perhaps we’ll change our kitchens.  But here’s a question - if we do get over the big psychological hump that tells us we desperately need a house full of energy sucking appliances, what do we do (or if we get to the rapidly approaching moment when we can’t afford to run them) what do we do with these houses, built for a world of cheap energy and accessible appliances?  What do we do with the appliances?

Getting to the point of not needing appliance can be hard if you have a cheap-energy house. The truth is that the appliances themselves often create their own necessity.  For example, the poll didn’t even mention the vacuum cleaner - the classic example of an appliance that actually creates more problems than it solves.  In _The Overworked American_ Juliet Schor observes that vacuum cleaners saved women exactly 0 minutes per day on cleaning floors - in fact, peak floor cleaning time was hit in the 1980s, when vacuums had made it to every house.  Because with vacuums came the possibility of wall to wall carpeting, and new, higher standards of floor cleanliness.  And now, if you have one of those houses filled with wall to wall, it really does seem impossible to get buy with a manual carpet cleaner.  And ripping out the carpet and replacing it with something else is vastly more expensive than leaving the nylon, outgassing crap in place and vacuuming it.  So when we say we need our vacuums, in some senses, we’re right - it is damned hard to turn a cheap energy house into a low energy house sometimes.

So while a bunch of us pedants pointed out that we technically could live without things, I understand the perspective that answers “umm…no way” to those questions.  When someone asks you whether you can live without your cooktop, which came with your house and which comes with an energy infrastructure that pipes right out of the wall, in order to change your mind, you have to go looking.  It takes time and research and thought - things we don’t often devote to our kitchens - to figure out how to get a kitchen that actually meets 21st century realities.  The solar oven is a mature technology and a wonderful thing - but people can be forgiven for not knowing they exist, or how to get a hold of one.

 Plus, if you ever finally do get to wanting to/having to live without all this stuff, what do you even do with it?  In a perfect world, we’d all have the money and not need to worry about waste, so we could pull it out and remake our kitchen in the image of the non-electric fantasy kitchens in our head.  In truth, however, by the time most of us get to that point, we’ll have either less money or or less time to worry about how the dishwasher goes with the outdoor masonry oven in the yard. 

But waste not, want not, and no environmentalist wants to haul those appliances to the dump.  So how do you turn the 20th century, cheap oil retro kitchen into a kitchen that meets modern, low energy needs?

Now you can sell your appliances to someone else, or if they are completely unsalvageable, send them to the dump.  But I’m going to assume that you want to do something else with them. 

Fortunately, my side job as the Design Consultant at the fine magazine _Better Homesteads and Rat Holes_ gives me every qualification to offer suggestions for how to make use of those old appliances, now that you’ve shaken off the past and moved on to the low-energy future.  So here are some suggestions for post-electric uses for common appliances. 

 Dryer: We actually bought one of these about 5 years ago, because my husband’s grandmother insisted.  And it was used, mostly by her, until her death, and once in a great while by me until we started Rioting.  Now it is sitting in my laundry room, waiting to be pulled out and put in the garage as permanent storage for apples or potatoes (pulling it out involves removing the washer and some other stuff, and I’m a slug).  With a small piece of wire over the dryer vent, it will be rodent proof, provide a nice surface to set things on, and a measure of insulation on the coldest nights.  Other possible uses: manual compost tumbler (would require a bit of adaptation, but I bet there are some handy folks out there with ideas).

Washer: I have heard several people mention the possibility of hooking a regular washing machine up to a bicycle to power it.  I’ve not found plans for this, but it is a compelling idea for me, since I’m still dealing with two kids using cloth diapers some of the time.  In the meantime, I have one of those small, no power washers that can handle a couple of shirts, and I do some laundry with the soak and hang method described in _The Plain Reader_.  If I couldn’t bicycle power my washer, I might still fill and hand agitate it for washing wool if/when we get sheep. I once met a small farmer who used his for washing large quantities of greens for sale.  But I’m leaning towards the bicycle method, if I can find a set of plans that are moron proof enough for me.

Electric/Gas Stove and Oven: If you already have a flat top cookstove, you’ve got a perfect counter, and it isn’t worth messing with.  For gas ranges, a piece of sheet metal or thick butcher block cut to fit would probably serve the same purpose. Most of us home cooks and gardeners never have enough counter space, so I’d keep the stovetop for that.  We have two electric stoves in our house - one was for the grandparents, and since we’re not using that kitchen, we’ve unplugged it.  The oven, it turns out, makes a large, superb bread box - it is airtight enough to keep baked goods remarkably fresh for a good long time.  So we use it for that. 

Dishwasher: Now there is a case to be made for not getting over the dishwasher.  People who hand wash generally use more water than a dishwasher will - and in water scarce areas, this is a real virtue.  Of course, they also use more electricity, since hand washers can usually use cold water.  Depending on where you live, it might be better to use the dishwasher to save water, or to hand wash to save electricity - for me, electricity is by far the bigger concern.  So what to do with the dishwasher -like the oven, the odds are you can’t take it out without creating an unsightly mess.

Well, you could do what we used to do with it - use it to hide the dirty dishes - most dishwashers are right next to the sink, and they work fine as mess concealment, even when you haven’t run it.  Or you could use the racks as storage for clean dishes, freeing up your cabinet to hold food or your collection of canning jars.  Or, use them for the canning jars. 

Refrigerator: Right now, we use our fridge about 7 months a year as an ice box.  Because we still have a freezer, what we do is freeze several large jugs of water and ice packs, and simply rotate them in the fridge. I put the jugs in, and when they are wholly melted, take them out and replace them with other ones and put them back in the freezer.  This keep us with a functional refrigerator, maybe not quite as cold as a regular fridge, but cold enough that you can feel it if you open the door.  Keeps food just fine.  The other 5 months a year, we don’t bother with this because we have natural refrigeration outside. 

So one possibility is simply to convert your fridge to an icebox, particularly if you were thinking of keeping a freezer.  They also make decent storage for jars and tools - those bins and things would work very well.  The most creative use I’ve seen for both old fridges and even better, chest freezers, is to dig a big hole in the ground, bury them, and use them as a root cellar.

Freezer: This is the next appliance we’re going to look into - the problem is that we do sell meat off the farm, and customers want it frozen.  And there are some foods we like to store in there - greens, for example, are better frozen than dehydrated. But they are better still season extended and fresh, and we’re planning on putting up a hoophouse in order to achieve that, so we may yet be able to lose the freezer.

Old freezers make great root cellars either buried as above, or simply set in a place that stays cold over winter.  The other possibility is that if you need a fridge, you could turn your chest freezer into one.  There are plans all over the web for converting chest freezers into low-energy fridges, and they work quite well.  My own take on this is that if I have to have one device (and I manifestly do not) I’d rather have the freezer, which effectively also gives me refrigeration.

Microwave: This is a point of some pride to me - I probably am not the first person ever to come up with this idea, but as far as I can find, I might be, and I am a little proud of it.   I turn black microwaves into solar ovens.  Now depending on your perspective, microwaves are either great energy saving tools or nutrient destroyers. I’m kind of agnostic on this subject - I’ve read some research for, some against, and I occasionally use the microwave we inherited from Eric’s grandmother to warm something up - once in a great while my kind MIL brings us take-out Thai from New York City, and the microwave has its uses for that.  But if you don’t want a microwave, or run into a cheapie old one at a yard sale, my best use for it is to hack the cord off, make a set of reflectors out of tinfoil and cardboard, cover up the vents, and point the thing at the sun.  It won’t heat up as well as a commercial oven, or even the best of the homemade ones, but it is perfectly adequate for heating water, cooking beans and rice, etc…

Vacuum Cleaner: Ok, you got me.  I have no idea what to do with this when you don’t need it anymore. 

I recently got a copy of this year’s _Old Farmer’s Almanac_ and it had a discussion of future technological advances that we can expect any day now in our houses.  My favorite was a toilet that umm…measures your output and tests it for health problems, then discusses it with  you.  Ignoring the larger question of who in the Holy Name of George Washington Carver would ever want such a thing, all I can say is that they clearly have no idea what the new hot appliance trends of the 21st century really are - composting toilets, hand pumps in the kitchen, and the hot new appliance - the wood cookstove ;-).  The other stuff is just so last century!


How Expensive is Food, Really?

Sharon February 24th, 2008

There is no doubt whatsoever that rising food costs are hurting people all over the world. More than half of the world’s population spends 50% of their income or more on food, and the massive rise in staple prices threatens to increase famine rates drastically.  We are already seeing the early signs of this in Haiti and in other poor nations.

 It is also undoubtably true that rising food prices are digging into the budgets of average people, including me.  And I’ve got it easy. The 35 million Americans who are food insecure (that is, they may or may not go hungry in any given month, but they aren’t sure there’s going to be food) are increasingly stretched.  Supportive resources like food pantries are increasingly tapped.  And regular folks are really finding that food and energy inflation are cutting into their budget substantially.  The rises in food and energy prices alone have eroded real wages by 1.2 percent.  The USDA chief economist has announced that overall food prices will probably rise by another 3-4% this year, and grain products will rise considerably more. 

But there’s another side to this coin.  Rising food prices are to some extent  good for farmers.   Certainly, large grain farmers in the US, Canada and many other rich world nations have been experiencing a well deserved boom.  And there are plenty of people, me included, who have been arguing for years that we don’t pay enough of the true costs of our food.  So who is right?  How do you balance the merits and demerits of food prices?

One way would be think historically, as Jim Webster does in an opinion piece in The Farmer’s Guardian.  He observes something that has long struck me, that historically, it is completely normal to spend a lot of your money on food:

“It probably took 150 years for our civilisation to swing from a man’s annual wage being the yield of one acre, to that same acre paying him for a week. I wonder how long it will take to swing back?

Obviously we can try and push for increased yields, but to match the scale of increase we have seen since they huddled in gloomy bars and decided the Egyptians were liars if they said they got over 400kg an acre, we would have to hit 20 tons an acre. GM is not going to deliver that.

So personally I don’t think that wheat is dear, I don’t think it is dear at all.”

High food prices are obviously a matter of perspective.  By long term historical analysis of agrarian socities, food prices are undoubtably low, despite their current rise.  But when we talk about low food prices we tend to be implying that we could and should spend more money on food.  That is undoubtably true of middle class and above rich world denizens (who constitute a tiny percentage of the world’s whole population).  Many of these people already voluntarily spend more on food than most people, for pleasure or as participants in food movements of various sorts - specific diets, high culture food preferences, or environmental reasons.   But can most of the world endure higher food prices? And are all high food prices created equal?  We already know that poor urbanites and small scale subsistence farmers who buy some of their food are likely to be badly hurt.  But what about everyone else?  And are rising food prices the best way to create agricultural justice? 

As Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield and Steven Gorelick argue in _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ that the supposed low price of food masks several other truths.  The first is that percentage of household income spent on food comparison is based, to a large degree, on concealed costs. 

 The first is the reality of the two worker household.  When we compare the decline in percentage of US income spent on food between 1949 and 1997, a decline from 22% to 11%, the difference seems stark indeed.  But in that same, the single earner household went from being a norm to an anomaly - that is, it now took two people to support the family.  So yes, the percentage has dropped, but that represents in most cases, the percentage of two people’s working wages. 

But more importantly, as Norberg-Hodge et al point out, as the percentage of income spent on food fell, the percentage spent on housing skyrocketed.  And these two things are entirely related.  As the authors write,

 This is a direct consequence of the same economic policy choices that supposedly lowered the cost of food.  Those policies have promoted urbanization by sucking jobs out of rural areas and centralizing them in a relative handful of cities and suburbs.  In those regions, the price of land skyrockets, taking the cost of homes and rentals with it.

Thus, the proportion of income spent on food today may be less, but since total income needed is so much higher, people pay much more for food now than the statistics would lead us to believe.” (Norberg-Hodge et al, 73)”

I think this point is especially important, because it means we cannot view food prices in isolation from the society as a whole. 

 The reality is that industrialization creates not just costs, but real dependencies.  It isn’t just the high price of concentrated housing (housing whose value is now utterly divorced from the productive value of the land itself), but also upon a host of other things - urbanization means increased dependencies on energy, because large populations in close proximity can’t meet their own heating and cooling needs with locally sourced solutions, and infrastructure must be created to handle outputs.  As areas become more tightly populated and work is centralized, transport to those regions (agrarians may need to transport to sell and shop, but they often don’t need to “go to work” in the sense of daily transport dependencies) starts creeping up in cost, whether public or private. 

The process of industrialization and urbanization then creates the need to compensate for the rise in price to meet needs that were not previously monetized.  One way is to take more labor from either a single breadwinner, or add more breadwinners.  Juliet Schor, in her book _The Overworked American_ has documented that 19th century industrialization represented the longest hours ever worked by any people, despite our overwhelming perception that farmwork is unnecessarily hard.  The next most overworked people in history are us - we come right after the 19th century factory workers and coal miners, and well before any agrarian society.  But the rising costs of meeting basic needs mean that we must work harder than many agrarian people have.

For example, in _1066: The Year of the Conquest_ historian David Howarth notes that the average 11th century British serf worked one day a week to pay for his house, the land that he fed himself off of, his access to his lord’s woodlot for heating fuel, and a host of other provisions, including a barrel of beer for him and his neighbor on each Saints day (and there were a lot of him).  How many of us can earn our mortgage payment, our heat, and our beer on a single day’s work? 

The long hours required by industrial society also have the further “benefit” of ensuring that it is extremely difficult for those embedded in it to meet their needs outside the money economy.  It is difficult (not impossible, just difficult) to feed yourself from a garden when economic policies supporting urbanization create incentives to build on every piece of land, and when one works long hours, or multiple jobs.  As we see now, it is difficult even to feed your family a home cooked meal, much less grow one. 

But demanding more labor to meet these needs is only one part of the coin of industrializing economic policies - it is also necessary to move people who would prefer to stay there off their land, and to reduce prices for food, so that those now paying much more of their income into housing and energy can afford to eat.  As George Kent exhaustively documents in _The Political Economy of Hunger_, the main beneficiaries of the Green Revolution were not the world’s poor, the supposed recipients of our help, but the food buying members of the urbanized rich world, who got increasing quantities of cheap meat and food products.  This study was backed up by a 1986 World Bank study that concluded that increased food production in itself does not reduce hunger. 

What it does do, however, is reduce food prices paid to farmers, thus meaning fewer people can make their living successfully in agriculture.  It does create surpluses to dump on markets, thus increasing market volatility, and it does create incentives to turn farmland into urban land, and to increase the size of cities and their suburbs.

 Moreover, the industrial economy that strips value from food shifts that value, and the health of the economy to other things - thus, the ability of consumers to stop buying plastic crap and entertainment and shift their dollars to food is extremely limited - their jobs often depend on the plastic crap, not the food economy.  So we create powerful incentives to keep food prices low. 

There’s a tendency to look at the world through progressive lenses, and the story that Jim Webster tells is part of that.  It is true that food was far more hard earned in the past than it is now.  It is also true that other things that were comparatively low cost in an agrarian society were buried in the cost of food - the cost of land was tied to what it could produce.  Thus the cost of land was constrained in ways it cannot be when those ties between land and what it produces are broken.

Thus, when we think about the distinction between what is good for farmers and what is good for the population as a whole, we need to shift our thinking from short term analysis to long term, societal thinking.  That is, a short term boom in ethanol is undoubtably good for some farmers, but booms are followed by busts in many cases - given that biofuels produce more greenhouse gasses than fossil fuels and risk creating famine, the bust is nigh-inevitable.  And what farmers do not need is a boom and bust cycle that leads them to invest in land and equipment, only to find the value of their dropping again.

It is true that farmers benefit from rising per bushel prices for grains - or at least some of them do.  Many struggle as land taxes rise, fertilizer costs rise and the price of livestock feed goes up faster than the prices for their products.  But some benefit.  But it is worth noting that this represents no real shift towards enriching farmers - we are still using the same agricultural policies that give farmers the tiniest percentage of the cost of a loaf of bread.  To put this in perspective, agricultural writer A.V. Krebs observes that the Philip Morris corporation alone receives 10% of every single dollar spent on food in the US.  ConAgra alone gets 6%.  All the farmers in the US put together get just over 4%. 

 It is true that we underpay farmers - but the biofuels boom does nothing in that regard.  In fact, it inserts farmers into another boom and  bust cycle.  What farmers need are stable food prices, probably slightly higher than they have been, and to receive a decent portion of the price of the food we grow. And that will only happen if we start cutting out the corporate middle man, and working with farmers - giving them incentives to sell directly to consumers (who have to start eating whole grains instead of processed crap) because they know that the consumers who buy from them will not stop eating when the ethanol plants have to close down. 

 More importantly, we cannot create an agrarian economy without shifting back, on some level, to land and housing prices that are tied to the value of the soil underneath it - that is, having artificially inflated the cost of housing, we must, in the devaluation of housing, shift value back to agriculture.  As we lose other jobs, we must concentrate on creating agricultural jobs - and pushing the economy towards efficiencies of land use, not a reduction of human labor.   The price of food here is only a small part of the massive retrofitting of our economy required to pay the real price of our agriculture - and receive the real value.


Heat or Eat - An Expanding Crisis

Sharon February 12th, 2008

Well now, listen people let me tell you some news
I’ll sing a song called the crude oil blues
We’re low on heat .n all
We’re low on gas
And I’m so cold I’m about to freeze my A..self

We got the crude oil blues
Cause the winter time sure gets cold to the bottom of my shoes
Well my hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak
But it ain’t because of loveIt’s from lack of heat

I’m gonna tell you a story anout this drunk I know
He kept his basement full of homemade brew
But the winter got so bad it screwed up the boy’s thinkin
‘He got so cold he had to burn all his drinkin’

He’s got the crude oil blues
He said the wintertime can sure get cold to the bottom of your shoes
He said, burnin’ this booze just destroys my soul
But there’s one thing about it honey
When you’re cold, you’re cold - Jerry Reed “Crude Oil Blues”

If you’ve been following the situation in Tajikistan, you know that we’re seeing an acute variation on a crisis that is occurring in a number of cold places all over the world, including the US.

“The crisis has already gone far beyond power supplies, affecting every sphere of this impoverished and fragile society.

Humanitarian agencies say hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from severe food shortages.

“People are spending all they have on trying to keep warm, and they don’t have enough money to buy food,” says Zlatan Milisic, the country director for the UN’s World Food”

When it happens here in America (thankfully less often) we call it “Heat or Eat” and this fall the Boston Globe reported on rising cases of children suffering from malnutrition in winter because their parents cannot afford to feed them and keep them warm. Now this is nothing new, but the tripling of heating oil prices (the Northeast uses almost all the country’s heating oil) and rising natural gas prices have increased the severity of the problem:

“Federal research shows that while both rich and poor families increase their expenditures on home fuel during the winter, poor families offset this cost through decreasing food purchases, with an average 10 percent decrease in caloric intake. Parents know that children can freeze to death more quickly than they starve to death, and so most decrease food purchases first to pay for heat. Many inevitably sacrifice on both fronts, living with food scarcity while heating their homes with cooking stoves and space heaters, both of which dramatically increase the risk of fires, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

These untenable choices wreak havoc on the health of children. Babies and toddlers lose body heat more rapidly than older children and adults because of their higher surface area-to-mass ratio. When babies’ bodies have to divert already-scarce calories to maintain body heat, cold and hunger intertwine to jeopardize their health and growth as well as their future ability to learn and relate to others.

The health effects of energy insecurity surface in emergency rooms at hospitals like Boston Medical Center during the cold of winter. Medical researchers found a 30 percent increase in the number of underweight infants and toddlers in the BMC emergency room in the three months after the coldest months compared with the rest of the year.”

While thankfully America’s poor are not in the situation of the Takjiki people, it is also true that both parties are early victims of a dilemma that is likely to hit more and more of us, in both rich and poor nations - the conflict between meeting energy needs and food needs.

Thus far, biofuels have rightly drawn most of the attention in explorations of the link between energy and hunger, but they aren’t the only such link. And heating energy is likely to be a particularly acute such interface, as both natural gas and oil supplies destabilize and rise in price.

Richard Heinberg’s recent essay on the coming crisis over natural gas supplies that the US and Canada face suggests that a crisis point in heating energy could come upon us fairly quickly. The vast majority of Americans heat with natural gas, and a disruption in the Canadian supply is likely to send prices skyrocketing, and potentially, show up as actual shortages in some regions, although whether of the US or Canada is not clear:

“From a Canadian perspective there are some problems with the arrangement, though. First is the fact that Canada’s production of natural gas and conventional oil is declining. Second is that Canada uses lots of oil and gas domestically: 70 percent of Canadians heat their homes with gas, and Canadians drive cars more and further than just about anyone else. The problem is likely to come first with natural gas; as production declines, there will come a point when there isn’t enough to fill domestic needs and continue to export (roughly 60 percent of Canada’s gas now goes to the US).

That point is not decades in the future, it is fairly imminent.”

A recent article observed that because of global warming issues, more and more new electrical plants are turning to natural gas. Given that the North American (and many regions of the world) gas situation is quite acute, such a rush to natural gas is likely only to raise prices and push heating energy costs even higher, and possibly impact availability.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion, then that we in Northern regions face a heating crisis, and probably within a few years. And since we live in a society that practices cost rationing even for the most basic needs, that means that poor people in cold places will be increasingly priced out of heating energy. Or they will be priced out of food, as they futily stop eating in order to try and keep warm.

Meanwhile, natural gas based fertilizer prices will continue to rise along with the commodity, as more and more competition for gas ensues, further boosting the price of food, and making the heat or eat problem even more acute.

And what choices do we have as an alternative? Wood heating could be a decent option in many places, although not in urban centers where particulate emissions costs would be greater than the benefits. There is just barely enough wood in the US to warm the northern houses without losing forests, if carefully and sustainably managed, we all get used to colder temperatures and if we insulate as best we can, but we’d find ourselves with virtually no wood for building or paper making or any other use. Anything other than absolutely perfect management would result in deforestation - and something less than perfect management is far more likely than the alternative. Rising wood prices could give us the absolute incentive to deforest the landscape of the US, vastly increasing the consequences of climate change, topsoil loss, desertification and turning our country into the blasted landscape of post-apocalyptic novels.

We could grow more corn, this time to be burned in corn stoves, further accellerating global warming with artificial nitrogen and further putting pressure on food prices, pushing more of the world’s population into hunger.

Electrification of heating is probably a necessity, particular in population centers, but right now, as we transfer more electric load to heating, that means more coal or nuclear plants, since no renewable build out can meet that need - we risk warming the planet more seriously in order to keep ourselves warm.

Or we can accept the current model, pricing people out and letting them starve and freeze - or see mass migration to already water stressed and overpopulated but warmer areas. The truth is that our energy problems *ARE* our food problems - the longer we view the two as distinct, the worse our problems will be. They cannot be seperated from one another.

We need some better choices than this - and the first step in such better choices would be taking up seriously the larger questions of where our heating fuel is going to come from. From there, we need to ask how our resources are best spent - and one of the ways in which they would be best spent would be in a massive reinsulation of American homes to require minimal heating fuel. If we’re going to build anything out, it should be this - or rather, we should build them in - new levels of insulation and warmth. This will be as necessary in the South as it is in the North, as rising heat waves and failing electrical supplies raise heat deaths.

The Community Solution is working on this At this point, the plan is simply too expensive to be applied in many houses without massive national subsidies that are at this point unlikely to be forthcoming. So the other thing we need is a plan for ordinary, poor people to keep warm (or cool), without destroying the planet and without starving to death.


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