Archive for October, 2006

Off to Boston

Sharon October 25th, 2006

I’m headed to ASPO tomorrow morning, with Kathy from Running On Empty 3. It’ll be an interesting trip - I taught a couple of semesters over at BU, and, of course, lived and went to school in the Boston area for a decade or so, so this will be old haunts for me. It will be interesting to see what people like Tom Menino and Michael Klare have to say. And, of course, whether Richard Heinberg will still talk to me after I embarassed him ;-).

I’ll bring back my report, as well as whether there’s any evidence that my call to “Remember the Ladies” had any impact. I’m looking forward to lunch with Megan Quinn and meeting lots of new people. Anyone else going?


You Have to Admit, Its Getting Better All the Time

Sharon October 20th, 2006

There are the good days and the bad ones. The don’t often come quite as close together as the last few days. Three days ago I was seriously considering putting all four children out by the road with a Free-To-Good-Home sign (actually, the word “good” was up for discussion). Nobody was napping, everyone was cranky, all the baby wanted to do was nurse and cling, all the other kids wanted to do was whine because it was raining and they wanted to play outside.

And then there are the days like yesterday, where you begin to think you are doing something right. Simon finished his first ninepatch quilt block, the one that is going to make a pillow. He’s not a kid with a lot of fine-motor dexterity, so you have to understand how much *work* this was for a four year old. And not only was he proud of himself, but he wanted to start again with the next one.

Isaiah spent most of the afternoon in the garden, eating raw chard and pulling odds and ends of weeds, while quizzing me on the identities and properties of various bugs and plants. Then, he and Simon wandered back into the house to help bake chocolate chip cookies for our neighbors.

Eli has a hard enough time with the english language, but has mastered the words to the Schecheyanu prayer, which is the traditional Jewish prayer to say when you do something for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Simon reminds us to say it each time we do or eat something seasonal for the first time. So we have prayed over our first acorn squash, or our first brussels sprouts, Eli’s first swimming lesson and the first time we got a new Magic Schoolbus book out of the library ;-).

And both Simon and Isaiah have taken to heart the message that it is better to make things than to buy them. Sadly, we, their parents, have a hard time living up to their standards. Simon wants to build a schoolhouse - a real one, and Daddy has had to inform him that his woodworking skills are more on the birdhouse level. Simon asked me if we could make needles for sewing, and since mommy neither carves bone or works metal, I had to pass him off with the fact that we have enough needles to last a good while. Isaiah wants to make a bat costume for Halloween, even though we have a perfectly good bat costume that he wears daily to breakfast. When asked why, he says, “It would be my bat, and it would be better.”

Well, two people down, 6.7 billion to go on the “living voluntarily with less” message. My kids are (for today) convinced that the things they make are the best and most beautiful and most wonderful things in the whole world. And there is a world full of artisans and craftspeople who believe that as well. If only we could figure out how to pass that message along - because this is the central, essential method of peak oil and all the others. Life is better this way. Getting out of the rat race and building communities and living more simply is its own reward. Matching your values to your actions is its own reward. Children can see this is more fun and better. Why can’t the rest of us?


The Walmart Dilemma

Sharon October 19th, 2006

Now I’m no fan of Wallyworld, but I found myself there one day last week. I’ve got this cat, you see - he’s an old male, and like some old male cats, he’s prone to urinary tract infections. The only way to prevent them is to feed him special food. I can buy that food from the vet, but the annual food bill for the cat is over $1000 if I do. But Purina makes a reasonably priced brand that does the job. The problem is that no place in 30 miles of me other than Walmart sells it. So once every few months, I go and donate the price of a couple of bags of cat food to the cause of industrialization.

I won’t justify it, except to say that I don’t think spending four times as much gas to go buy it at a Kmart is really all that much better - Kmart being only marginally preferrable, and just as much money going to feed the monster of industrial civilization. And from a purely sociological perspective, Walmart is kind of interesting. For example, I was nearby early one morning, and discovered that really early in the morning, our local Walmart plays Christian devotional music on the PA system. How interesting is that - apparently, only Christians shop early.

One of the things that has interested me the most lately about Walmart is its turn toward organic food. Now this is the most industrial of industrial organics. And they’ve always had some - as long as I’ve lived out this way you could buy organic tofu, Stonyfield farms yogurt and organic goat’s milk. But now there’s a *lot* of organic food. For example, I saw some grapes there - 3xs the price of the conventional grapes, and packaged in a giant plastic clamshell box, lest one of the grapes (which cost 5cents each, I suspect) get squished. But it has a nice, earthy brown paper label, with a picture of a pretty farm, and that all important label “organic” on it.

Target has decided to compete, creating its own organic label. And helpfully, the USDA has relaxed the already not-very stringent rules on what constitutes organic in industrial agriculture. Apparently you can use a little bit of poison here and there, and add some petroleum distillates to your food - just not as much. And, of course, there are no limits on the amount of petroleum permitted to plant, harvest, package, ship, refrigerate, etc… your food. Very few limits on the inhumane treatment of animals, and none at all on the inhumane treatment of human beings, including migrant workers. In fact, organic agriculture often is worse for workers, who don’t get pesticide exposure but do get massive repetetive strain injuries. Industrial organic agriculture is a disaster - just a slightly smaller, milder disaster than regular industrial agriculture. If you don’t believe me, definitely read Michael Pollan’s account of it in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_.

Now the good thing about Walmart and Target going organic is that millions of people who don’t have food coops, or local farmers will have access to organic food. In fact, Walmart is committed to making it cheap (don’t think too hard about what has to be done on the other end to make it cheap!), so that poor people can have equal access to organics. Lots of people are happy that now they can have pesticide-free food in their little town.

But here’s a question. Is it reasonable to say that the only thing we have to do if we want a safe and sane and just food system is “create demand?” Because that’s what the free market claims is the only obligation we “consumers” (think hard about that word - do you want to be known mostly for your capacity to consume things?) have. If we demand things, the magical market will supply them. But what is left out of this equation is that it won’t really supply what we *want* - it won’t give us the things we dream about, or that we hope for, or that we believe are good and right. Markets and corporations don’t do that - they can’t. They aren’t people, they don’t have a morality, or a sense of justice, or passion or love. Corporations are facsimiles of human beings, stripped of ethics, love, caring, justice and honor. So what they give us is facsimiles of what we truly want and dream of. Thus, you get the organic frozen turkey dinner, with paste-flavored mashed potatoes, instead of the turkey grown by a neighbor and roasted by someone who loves you. The same is true of industrial organic food - it requires so much petroleum, because it is essentially a plastic model of small scale organic food. We are told all we have to do is want, and open our mouths like a baby bird, and the market and corporations will drop something into our open gullets. But let us remember that if all we are going to contribute is demand and an open mouth, we should expect what is dropped into our mouths to be a worm.

The reality is that any decent future asks more of us than simply demanding and wanting. If your community has no access to truly organic, local, sustainably created food, then you need to help create some, not rely on Walmart or Tarjay to produce it. It is easy to rail against corporations, when in fact the reason corporations have so much power is that we have ceded it to them. We have said we don’t have time or knowledge or energy to create just systems, so that we should allow markets to do our work for us. And then we act surprised and outraged when artificial human beings, motivated by greed, fail to live up to our principles. The only possible solution is for us to cease to subcontract our needs and responsibilities out to artificial human beings. Instead, buy things from people, ideally people you know, and put your own work into the system. If there’s no food coop, start one. If there’s no farmer’s market, talk to local farmers about sourcing food or finding them. If all the clothing is made by slaves in the third world, buy used or make your own. Grow some food yourself, maybe even enough to sell. We cannot expect corporate ogliarchy to cease if we are not willing to make it stop, one dollar and one project at a time.

As for me, I’m looking into making my own cat food. As much of a learning experience as my trip to Walmart was, more is being asked of me. And you.


Plan C, Community Solutions and the Most Important Thing Any One of Us will Ever Do

Sharon October 14th, 2006

I left Megan Quinn, Faith Morgan and Pat Murphy off my “famous folk” post because I’ve been meaning to come back to the subject of the Community Solutions conference with everyone who bothers to read this. Because I want everyone here to read the Community Solutions “Plan C” and think carefully about how we can make this happen.

As a nation, we have no choice but to change the way we live. Even if you don’t believe in peak oil, it doesn’t really matter. Because even if this weren’t the right response to Peak Oil (and it is), it is the right response to Climate Change. And even if it weren’t the right response to Climate Change or Peak Oil, it is the right response to the central injustice in economic globalization. And even if that weren’t true, it is the right response to give Americans the highest possible quality of life.

I know I sound a little like a suck up when I say how impressed I am with Pat Murphy. After all, he invited me to be a speaker, and gave me what he called my “debutant ball.” But if you’ve actually met me, you know that if I don’t like your ideas, it won’t matter a tiny bit how much I like you personally. I’m a no quarter asked or given person. Pat doesn’t need any quarter - he’s come up with something truly brilliant on his own.

What Pat Murphy did, in Plan C and in his Smart Jitney program was question established realities. Are renewable energies really underfunded? Pat demonstrates clearly that they are not - that their limited utility doesn’t come from lack of research into them. Is light rail really the best alternative? Pat shows that when you add the long term energy costs of construction, it is easier and cheaper and more efficient to use the existing car fleet, and simply put many more people in them, and use them more efficiently. With Megan Quinn, who is the public face of community solutions and a brilliant thinker on peak oil in her own right, Pat and Community Solutions have started to reconsider received ideas and create a model of the future that could work, and that doesn’t simply put off a disaster upon our own children.

More than any single organization working on peak oil, Community Solutions offers hope and optimism. Faith Morgan’s documentary, _The Power of Community_ offers Cuba as a model for what we could do and accomplish. And Plan C is, I think, the most hopeful vision of what we might get and achieve, if only we’d concentrate on what really matters - community, meeting basic needs, achieving a level of personal security, and finding a safe way down from the disaster we’re teetering on.

I believe sufficiently in this that I’ve decided that my website will start a new program - the “thousand picture” program. Because if a picture is worth a thousand words, what would a thousand pictures of volunteers to live sustainably be? Because the major public opposition to any strategy of curtailment is the idea that Americans will never, ever go along with anything that means buying less, and living more simply. But I don’t believe that’s true - in fact, I think most Americans would like very much to live a simpler, more basic life, but don’t know how to get there from here. If we who believe in good stuff like frugality, conservation, home economy and local development could stand up and say, “this is the way, and we’re volunteers,” there is no question we could transform the world.

If Plan C is ever to become public policy, the prejudice of public figures who believe they “know” what everyone wants must be overcome. So I’m asking for public sign-ons to plan C - to a voluntary strategy in which we gradually cut our consumption, and concentrate on creating stronger communities and happier lives. I’ll have more details on my website shortly( But what I want is for at least one thousand (heck, I’ll keep paying for the space if I can get a million - or 10 million - why not aim high!!!) people to sign on to the basic ideas of Plan C, and with their signature, send in a picture of yourself doing something sustainable. Send your name, email and your picture, along with a few lines about who you are and what you are doing to make your life more sustainable, and the address of your web presence, if you have one, to me at [email protected] or [email protected], and I’ll post them on the website. I’m going to chase down some celebrities as well, so we can all have fun flipping through the pictures looking for famous faces.

There will be prizes for the most beautiful pictures, the funniest, the weirdest and the cutest (at the moment I’m giving out hand-knitted mittens, but if you live in Florida I’ll come up with something else!). I’ll give out prizes once a month, or as fast as I can knit them. I want to see people in their gardens, kids collecting eggs, people riding bikes, trikes and unicycles. I’ll take pictures of your homemade solar showers and your solar panels and your gardens that spell out “Victory.” I want to see you wearing your own homespun, homewoven, homecrocheted, homeknitted clothing, and chopping wood. I want to see your homebuilt and home cooked products. And most of all, I want to see you - this is going to be, I think, a collections of pictures of the most beautiful, courageous, generous and amazing people in the world doing the work they do to improve upon it. Because if enough of us stand up and say we are willing, and our neighbors are willing, then our “leaders” will finally begin to follow.

So send me your pictures, and your info, along with a quick summary and your email and website. Show your face and the faces of your families, friends and neighbors. Help make it impossible to pretend that the world isn’t full of willing volunteers.


Get Chickens…but think too.

Sharon October 14th, 2006

Someone on a list I’m on recently announced that he was convinced by peak oil, and that means he needs to get chickens. Now on one hand, I think that’s a good idea. There are many compelling reasons to keep chickens. First of all, industrial chicken and egg production is one of the filthiest, most inhumane, most grotesque industries of all time. You probably already know that the chickens are essentially tortured during their short lives, living in filth, crammed in tiny cages, etc… I won’t bother reiterating what we all already know, but if you buy eggs or chicken at the supermarket, you are, with your dollars, saying, “I’m ok with torturing animals and polluting the planet just so I can have meat.” Organics, industrial kosher and “free range” (which really doesn’t mean what you think it does) are marginally better, but much more like industrial production than not.

So what is a person who likes to eat eggs and the occasional bowl of chicken soup to do? If you raise four laying hens in your backyard, you will average 2 eggs per day - enough for a household of four to have an egg each every other day. 8 hens, which would fit comfortably in your average suburban backyard, will keep you in all the eggs you want much of the year. Eggs are a superb source of protein, and quite delicious. They enhance most baked goods. In addition, you will get chicken manure (in industrial concentrated production, chicken manure is a problem - in your yard, it is a blessing on your garden), and when the hens get older, and stop laying so well, if you are brave about this sort of thing, you can make chicken and dumplings out of them. Or you can keep the hen as a pet. They are friendly things, make pleasant noises (you don’t need a rooster to get eggs, and in fact most people in close proximity to neighbors shouldn’t keep a rooster) , and good natured. Children can pet them, and there isn’t a child or adult in the world who doesn’t get excited when they find an egg. All my children have grown up with chickens, but the excitement has never waned. Chickens will eat your scraps, including meats and things you can’t put on the compost pile, and return you beautiful eggs. They will eat bugs, including japanese beetles, slugs and ticks that pester us. All they require is an area of grass to scratch on, the most basic housing (4 hens can live comfortably in a doghouse, but for gathering eggs and straw removal you might want something else).

Now some areas do not permit chickens, but surprisingly many do, and if they don’t, this is something to take up with your town board or whoever is in charge. Get your neighbors to help - promise them as many delicious, orange yolked, lovely eggs as they want if they will help you. Show them how cute the baby chicks are, and how sweet natured a Buff Orpington hen is when a five year old picks her up and carries her around. 6 hens make far less noise, mess and trouble than one Golden Retriever for neighbors, and are infinitely more useful.

But - and I want everyone to pause at that but - it is worth thinking about how we’re going to feed these chickens. Because a lot of people get chickens and think their work on the path to sustainability is done. But if your chickens are eating a lot of grains, it would probably be more productive for you to simply eat the grains. And if those grains come from long distances, and are not organic, you’ve done something, but not enough. If you are feeding your chickens GM corn and Roundup-ready soybeans, then you will both get out of them what you put in, and are again, with your dollars, tacitly saying “these practices are ok.”

So how do we feed chickens so that they produce eggs and meat for us, but don’t require us to violate basic principles about raising things sustainably? Well, chickens are always going to need some grain, but they can get quite a lot of their food foraging in your yard for bugs, eating grass, and from your household scraps. Most American households could easily feed half a dozen chickens more than 50% of their diets from their own scraps, lawn and bugs. Now presumably, you didn’t want the bugs, mostly anyway. The lawn might bother you a bit - after all, if you live in a suburban neighborhood, you may have one of those lawns that looks like it was painted on, and the thought of chickens pooping on your lawn may be traumatic.

But if you build something called a chicken tractor (that is, a small pen that can be moved easily), and put the chickens in a small spot on your lawn each day, you’ll fertilize that spot, won’t have excessive quantities of manure, and get your grass trimmed too. Or, you can build them a yard where they can poop their heart’s content, and you can bring them your weeds, lawn clippings, as well as the scraps from your garden, and keep them blissfully happy.

For the other 50% of their diet, you’ll need grains and a source of fairly intense protein, and maybe a source of calcium. If they have open ground, you won’t need to worry about grit or Now we shouldn’t be trying to duplicate commercial diets - the idea is not to maximize meat or egg production, but to get the most out of the animals without either shortening their lives or making your own life stressful.

Locally produced staple grains can feed chickens - you can grow them in your garden if you have enough grain. Dry corn, for example, is not hard to grow, and it wouldn’t take much space to grow a year’s supply. Wheat, oats or millet need not be threshed or anything. Just grow them (they grow like grass, because they are grasses), cut them down, and toss a bundle in with the hens now and then - the straw will make bedding for them and they’ll scratch out all the grain. Even potatoes can be used, and potatoes are the easiest staple starch to grow in cold, rocky areas like the Northeast. Potatoes should be cooked, but you could easily boil a big pot of potatoes every few days and toss the rest to them gradually. Or you can buy grains from a local small producer.

As for protein, if you have enough land, you could use extra milk from goats or cows (chickens will also happily drink milk you let sour in the fridge.) If you can find enough scraps to support them and the chickens, you could raise worms in your house, and use them as a supplementary source of protein. Or, of course, there’s soybeans, if you can buy them locally. Your own meat scraps will provide some. If you have spare eggs, you can even cook them and feed them back to the hens (you don’t want to teach them to eat raw eggs, trust me). In any case, any shells you don’t need should be cooked, crushed and fed back to the chickens for calcium supplementation. With that, you’ll need only a little oyster shell or other source of calcium.

At most, you should be bringing in less than half of the chicken’s total diet - because the goal here is to create higher-quality protein than you can get from eating the grain directly, while also using no more or even less grain. That absolutely can be accomplished.


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