Archive for November, 2006

Husbanding Resources

Sharon November 26th, 2006

Presumably I’m not the only person whose personal preparations continually run up against a limitations of funds and time. Learning to find ways to get as much benefit out of our limited income and free time is one of my major projects. Thinking about the ways we (and other people in the American economy) use their resources has led me to think it might be worth pointing out to people how often what they have goes outwards, to feed the economy, rather than inwards, to benefit themselves, theirfamilies, their communities. To me, ensuring that my expenditures not only produce the optimal result for me, but also benefit the economies (household, communal, etc…) that I most want to serve seems like the basic goal of any human centered economics.

Consider the contemporary model of family (btw, can we just skip ahead and assume here that family is whatever you call it - I’m going to use a nuclear one as an example, but I’m not making any major assumptions, other than that nuclear families of some sort constitute a significant majority in the culture). For purposes of simplicity, we’ll imagine that Mom and Dad have a couple of children, and one set of aging parents, but we all know it gets more complex than that. Mom and Dad have a baby - how exciting. They are comparatively young, and both work full time, so they put baby in daycare at 8 weeks, which takes up a large percentage of one household income. They save what they can to afford a down payment on a house, but it is a struggle to put anything away.

Meanwhile, Grandma and Grandpa have a house that is too big for them, now that Mom and her sibling have grown and moved out. They spend too much of their time caring for it, while Mom and Dad pay rent and try and save a mortgage payment. Eventually, Grandma and Grandpa decide to sell their house and move into a smaller place. They’d like to retire, but can’t yet, so they go on working. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are expecting baby #2, and they go into tremendous debt to buy a house surprisingly like the one that Grandma and Grandpa just sold, but, of course, closer toDad’s job (which is regarded as fixed and sacrosanct, even though he’ll probably be laid off a couple times in the next decade).

Grandma and Grandpa live to see their grandchildren, but don’t spend as much time as they’d like with them, since they are still working, and it is a long drive to Mom and Dad’s place. A little later on, Grandma and Grandpa retire. They’d like nothing better than to devote their money to their children’s inheritance and their time to their grandchildren, but the kids are in school/daycare all day, Grandma and Grandpa can’t make the drive too often, and they have to live cheaply so they can someday afford assisted living. Mom and Dad still work full time, with the kids attending school and daycare. They are deeply in debt, because of their mortgage and cost of living. They are also exhausted all the time, from home care, childcare and two jobs. If they ever have any spare income, they spend it on having others cook their meals (takeout), clean their house, mow their lawn, entertain them (cable), etc…

Move on a bit, and Grandpa dies. Grandma sells her house, gives up her familiar possessions, and her relationships in her community and moves into assisted living, which gives her the exclusive company of her peers. Her grandkids don’t visit too often because it isn’t very kid friendly, and of course, it is a long drive. Mom and Dad are now constantly torn between the needs of their parents and the needs of their children, with neither being able to provide any benefit to the other. Just now, the children are teenagers, and begin saving money doing pointless labor completely unlike the labor their parents and grandparents are paying other people to do. Finally, grandma dies, her saved money spent on assisted living. Mom and Dad can look forward to a decade of frantically working to pay for college, until they start the cycle over again…

Sounds stupid. Sure. And yet, that’s the scenario our culture endorses as the norm, in the name of independence. How many of us see ourselves in it? Changing it, and keeping our resources in our family and community would both save energy and money in general, and also enable us to transform our lives. Families, biological and other, could easily transform the situation into the following.

Mom and Dad have a baby. They move in with Grandma and Grandpa, who have the room. Because they are sharing the house, they only need two full time incomes, so it is agreed that Dad and Grandma will work full time, and Grandpa will take early retirement. He helps with the childcare, and Mom and he do the housework together. They both have enough time to pursue other ways of saving money, such as gardening and cooking from scratch. Grandchild grows up intimately connected to his Grandparents. As Grandma and Grandpa get older, adaptations are made to the house, or another, handicapped accessible house is purchased for the extended family, but with minimal indebtedness, because they have the first house as a stake.

Once Mom is done being pregnant and breastfeeding, she may go back to work part time, so that Grandma too can retire and devote herself to home and grandchild, or perhaps they will find a way to live on only a single income, with three adults caring for home and children. As the children grow, they take on domestic work too. If Grandma and Grandpa need help getting along eventually, grandchildren, now grown to adolescence, can provide it, along with their parents. In exchange, grandparents provide help in funding education and other needs with their savings, knowing that they don’t need to prepare for a long life in assisted living - they will be cared for by their family. The pace of life is comparatively slow and relaxed - there are always enough people to play with the children, do the domestic work, earn an income and provide food, entertainment and affection.

Very little money goes out in this scenario - far less is earned, but total wealth is greater and indebtedness less. Moreover, the family is happier (which is not to say that they don’t get on each other’s nerves) and everyone receives more and better care, by virtue of it being done by people who love them. Are there problems with this scenario at times? Sure. Some families can’t live together. Some arrangements would never work. Sometimes outside investment is necessary. But we could do far more to ensure that we retain what we earn, and everyone benefits than we do. And we can create these scenarios with others than our biological family - perhaps if daycare is truly necessary, a neighbor can be enriched. Perhaps family conflicts can be resolved. Perhaps if we change our patterns of thought, and create new models of the ideal, we can have what we need when things get hard. In the end, we will have
to find a way to recreate the extended family. Why not do it now?

As Lois McMaster Bujold points out, all true wealth is biological. Perhaps we should take better care of the wealth we do have.


I need help.

Sharon November 26th, 2006

The first step is admitting you have a problem. So here, I admit it. I can’t do html. Which is a problem, because I have a website ( I have people who want to write columns for me. I have columns of my own to post. I have ideas for pictures of people who will volunteer to powerdown. And I can’t get it put up on the web. My kind neighbor was helping me, but she’s working more now, and I can’t bug her too much.

So I am asking for aid. Is there someone out there who has a little free time, and some good basic web skills that we work with me on the technical (and content, if that interests you) labor of the Our Victory At Home website? I have so much more to do there, and I’m so overwhelmed by the technical demands of simply getting things onto the screen - it takes me *hours* to put up an article - hours I don’t have right now.

I’ll happily barter space on the forum for you to write your own articles, or perhaps I can mail you some yarn, or cookies or something. But I have hit my skill limits, and exceeded them - can anyone give me a hand?

Email me if this is something you are interested in. And thank you.

Sharon (who has no technical skills to speak of)

God and Oil: Why Religion Matters to the Peak Oil Movement

Sharon November 23rd, 2006

Among overeducated leftist types, I’m something an anomaly - a religious person. A majority of the people I know who are involved in the peak oil and environmentalist movements are secular people who are either not religious or consider themselves spiritual, rather than religious. Most of them perceive themselves as dissenting from a mass culture that presses people towards cultural conservativism, unethical social practices, lack of concern for social justice and adherence to conservative Christianity. They tend to perceive religion as manipulative, often very negative in its effects, and anti-intellectual.

I also spend time working with and talking to fellow homesteaders, people who for various reasons have gone back to the land to subsistence agriculture, or small farming. And a large percentage of people in the homesteading movement are religious - the majority of whom are devout Christians. Overwhelmingly, these are people who perceive themselves as engaged in the practice of self-sufficiency, thrift and agriculture as part of a religious obligation. They see themselves as dissenting from a mass culture that encourages sexual immorality, lack of concern for community and traditional values, and adherence to a secular culture. They tend to perceive secular culture and its adherents as manipulative, negative in its effects and elitist.

I find the symmetry of distress between those secular folks who feel themselves oppressed by a religious majority that believes them naive and without principle; and those religious folk who seem themselves as minority in a largely secular world, assumed to be unthinking idiots by those who “think for themselves” both amusing and disturbing, because it represents a failure of natural allies to recognize one another. After all, adherence to any sort of moral philosophy is sufficiently rare in this day and age that I would imagine that instead of assuming the worst ofone another, secular and religious adherents of principle might make some useful alliances. Indeed, I believe strongly that the peak oil and environmentalist movements can only succeed if they work through synagogues, churches, mosques and temples across the world.

While there are some brands of faith and faithlessness that will probably never reconcile themselves to one another, the human majority, as always, probably stands closer to the middle ground than any of us think. All religions have their fundamentalists, but to judge a faith on its most extreme believers is kind of like judging all of capitalism’s good and ill on the ground of one reading of Ayn Rand’s collected works. And dismissing humanism, or Neitzcheism or socialism or any other philosophical grounding because it is not centered upon G-d is equally shortsighted.

The simple fact is that in a statistical sense, more people are subject to religious arguments than not, and there are compelling theological arguments in every faith for taking peak oil and global warming seriously. We also need to engage humanists and secularists as well - the grounds for ethical action inthe future can never be primarily or solely theological grounds - that way lies factionalism and represssion. We need to recognize that there is a philosophical category of both religious and non-religious anti-modernists out there, people whose overriding common interest is in exploring the ways that modern industrial capitalism has failed us - morally, personally, economically. I do not pretend that issues like abortion or gay marriage don’t matter - they do. But they are secondary to the shared bond of the leftist environmentalist and the conservative Christian who both knwo with a queasy horror that something about our society is fundamentally, utterly wrong, bereft of integrity and truth. That common ground is powerful, and potentially transformative.

It is a mistake, and a foolish one, for secular thinkers denythat a tremendous amount of power lies in religion. While evidence for both the positive and disastrous power of religion abound, there is no question that religious communities of all sorts represent a power that can bedirected to changing the world for the better. If we are to soften our landing at all, and prevent total disaster, we need the grace ofG-d (if such exists) and the works of man brought together - we need the grounds of reason and the grounds of deferral to whatever higher power or principle you prefer. Both religious people and activists represent a kind of resistance against a populace that often seems to adhere to no principles at all, that exercises no discipline upon desire, and often seems to care for nothing greater than the next thing. Both are people who willingly subjugate their desires to a greater good, although their assessment of what is the greater good often differs. And all of them are adept at conversations about how we should begin to live better.

People who believe are not morons - I cannot persuade anyone who doesnot believe of this, but a sense of immanence is just a thing, a sort of awareness, a kind of meta-kinesthesia. My own experience of the divine is that I know G-d is there in the same way I am aware of having a tongue, in a totally inexplicable and preconscious manner. That others do not share this has always, since early childhood, been a bit of a surprise to me. I am aware that this makes me a lunatic by secular standards. But it does not make me unreasoning or dumb. If you are going to accuse believers of anything, make it madness, not stupidity. After all, the debt of secular thinking of theology is profound and essential, and cannot be erased. Science, mathematics, philosophy, literature, art…they were all to a large degree formed by people who believed profoundly in G-d and weren’t fools. I can think of nothing more likely to undermine any movement to engage the whole populace than it being led by people who (covertly or not) believe that all religious people are imbeciles, or that they are all of a piece, incapable of making individual decisions.

At the same time, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge that choosing to work outside of a theological framework for morality is often an act of courage, one that requires you to locate or draw on a less accessible template of ethical action. Those who do not believe in G-d are not amoral, and I am certain that there are those who know that G-d is unreal down to their bones, in the same way I believe that G-d is real. Denying the truth of that is an insult to others, and unworthy of us. Ultimately, Jews believe that our actions, not our interior thoughts, or beliefs are what we are held responsible for, and what matters most is that we are engaged in Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Those who do that work, no matter what their beliefs or their reasons are the righteous of the world, and I propose that may be a useful way for us to think about this - of righteousness as engagement in transformation. The righteous are the righteous, no matter on what grounds they act, and they deserve honor.

Right now, conservative Christians are engaged in a dialogue on global warming and environmentalism. They are struggling to find their place, and to determine what faith calls them to do. Members of other faiths are also newly engaged, recognizing that whether G-d created the world or it came to being some other way, we have an obligation to mend what we have broken. Peak oil will break on the public consciousness soon enough, and members of religious communities and secular ones will have to decide whether and how they want to talk to one another. Now is the time to look to one another as natural allies. Will it be difficult? Of course. But the stakes are these - if we cannot make both secular and religous moral arguments that convince one another to work together, we’re doomed. So let us begin.




Sharon November 22nd, 2006

Well, we Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving here the day after tomorrow. Being part Native American, I’m not totally unambivalent about Thanksgiving, but I like the notion of gratitude, however superficial, being interjected into our rather selfish culture. And for those of us who are aware how delicately things are balanced, and can imagine a more difficult future, I think that only enhances the urgency of both gratitude, and its partner, generosity.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the degree to which peak oil is pushing me simultaneously in two directions that I would once have thought were exclusive, but now I know are not. On the one hand, my job is to become more self-sufficient - less dependent upon marketplaces, electronic and gas powered slaves, and public economies. On the other hand, because I can’t do everything, I become more dependent on neighbors, and people and friends, and, since that is my personal sort of thing, on G-d. Regardless of whether theism is your thing, it can be a little unnerving to know that going into the future, you will have to rely on a lot of awfully contingent others.

I think a lot of people find the notion of being dependent upon others frightening, and they are not alone in that. Other people are, after all, much less reliable and far more complicated than lawn mowers, dishwashers and private cars. And when, as often happens, the balance of what they do for me shifts, and I’ve done less and they’ve done more, I’m grateful, but uncomfortable with the necessity of gratitude at times. Risking owing someone more than you can pay is frightening. Indebtedness is difficult. No one wants to be the one who owes more, and most of us are on some level afraid of being taken advantage of as well. But more than being owed, I think we’re afraid of owing. We have this notion that all debts must be paid, when in fact, the only way all debts can be paid is if you live wholly and purely in a money economy, and never at all in the economy of love.

And in fact, the economy of human love is what we’re moving towards as we give up our electric tools and our reliance on the grocery stores - that is the basic nature of community, or family - an unbalanced, imperfect, inadequate set of exchanges. Barter, and sharing and community are, as people often point out, far less efficient than money. Money allows you to figure out what things are “worth” - with barter or simple sharing, there are things that can never be quite worked out. Is that firewood equivalent to 12 dozen eggs? Was it really enough for me to babysit in exchange for the help getting the gutters cleaned out? Should I make some cookies too? What is the correct repayment for loving your child, or helping care for your elderly parents, or for chasing the local pest dog across an icy field to rescue your chicken? Things never come out evenly. You always have to be grateful, and thus, dependent. If we give up all the things that have stood as barriers between ourselves and the people we need, that have enabled us never to be dependent, we’re never again going to be square. The only hope is that the person you are working with or bartering with or sharing with is secretly afraid that she/he hasn’t done his fair share either.

But then again, that’s what love is, isn’t it? I’ve never met anyone who loved someone, or was truly loved by someone else who didn’t secretly think that their spouse (or parents, or child or friend) was crazy to love them, that if they could really see all the way through, they’d realize how inequitable things are. So you end up just being grateful, feeling damned lucky that this time, you got more than you ever deserved. That some miracle, or gift appeared to you, and someone loves you.

Sometimes all barter is is “I’ve got honey, will you give me carrots?” And sometimes all neighbors are are someone you can ask to help pound the fence pole in. And sometimes all friends are is the person you sit down at the table with on the day you are supposed to consider gratitude. But the day you start to trust that your neighbor will remember that you need some carrots, and the day that your neighbors step away from their own work, no matter how urgent, because keeping you secure and your sheep in is more important than their work, and the day that the friend sits at your table, and shares the fruits of her garden and you the fruits of yours, and you eat and you eat and you eat and you are full together of what you share, you have achieved not just community, but gratitude, and an economy of love.

Shalom, and happy Thanksgiving.

Self-Sufficiency Plan for a Suburban Home

Sharon November 16th, 2006

I have been talking a lot lately in various places about adaptation - the ways in which we can use our existing infrastructure to live a lower-impact life. And so, I wanted to describe how that might work. I chose as a model the suburban home of a college friend of mine, who coincidentally has become aware of peak oil and asked for my advice not long ago. She lives in an exurb of Boston, with no direct public transportation (there is a train line 15 minutes away), in a fairly conventional suburban home with her partner and two children, 1 1/2 and 5.

She has a lot of slightly over an acre, of which 1/2 is wooded, the rest being open yard and a few raised garden beds. Her neighbors have mostly similar lots, often quite shady, but with fairly good tree cover. The population is quite dense there, but there are few lots of less than 1/2 acre. She is not terribly connected to her neighbors, but they get along reasonably well.

She is permitted poultry, but no larger livestock, and she wanted to know if she could feed herself and her family from the land she has. The answer, I think, is not quite, but she could make an enormous reduction in the amount of food she has to purchase.

There are a lot of potential problems, but here are the suggestions I gave her, and I hope they might be helpful to someone else in a similar situation. She has a limited budget for home improvements, so my goal is to keep costs to a minimum, although there will be some by necessity.

The first major project is to ensure a reliable water source. She has a well, in addition to town water, and she might consider putting a manual pump on the well. If she can afford it, however, it might be more pleasant for her to dig a large cistern tank and put a manual pump on her kitchen sink, so that she can get water without going outside in bad weather. In a pinch, she might get away with a narrow well bucket (sold by Lehmans) for a drilled well, but drawing all your water with that would get old, very fast. The cistern and pump would probably cost between 2 and 3 thousand dollars. The well pump would cost about $800. The well bucket maybe $30, although you can also make a substitute out of PVC for much less.

Next, heat. She does have some woodland, enough to take perhaps a half cord of wood off (with coppicing and very careful management) every year, possibly less. Preserving her wood supply should be a high priority. She does have a woodstove in her finished basement,and I suggested that the finished basement become winter quarters, since it would need far less heat than the rest of the house (being at least partly below the frost line). Her wood supply would probably not be sufficient, but it would minimize what she had to purchase, and in the worst degree of extremity, they could live with it, heating the stove only to cook. Hopefully that will never happen. She will have only enough wood for cooking and a little heat on the coldest days if she must rely on her own supply - but every item for which she is self-sufficient makes it more likely she will be able to purchase supplemental wood, even if she and her partner endure extended job losses or other financial crises. Summer cooking will be outdoors. I would recommend building a small masonry oven, on the rocket stove model which uses minimal fuel and cooks quite well.

Animals - at present, she has two cats, one of which is an excellent mouser, and I suggested she keep the cats, as long as her economic situation permits her to feed them, especially if she’s going to be living in the basement for a lot of the winter. The cats will provide both warmth (sleeping) and rodent protection.

I would add meat rabbits (3 does and a buck), 4 hens and a pairof geese as livestock, which is close to the maximum she could hope to feed on her property. A portion of each year’s garden would be put to growing alfalfa hay, both to restore garden fertility and to feed the animals over the winter. In addition to gathered weeds from the garden and property margins, a small amount of wheat, oats and corn will be grown in the garden. About half would go to the maintenence of the animals and growing out of their young for meat and breeding replacement.
They might choose to go vegetarian, but in a cold climate, vegetarian gardeners have difficulty growing a reasonable quantity of fats.

If the situation (and thus local tolerance) changes, I would strongly recommendthat she get a rooster, and it goes without saying that she will choose a heavy, dual purpose breed of chicken, with good setting instincts so that older hens can be eaten and replacement young raised. At the moment, zoning does not permit a rooster, but at the moment she can purchase replacement chicks. Most of her sunny, open half acre would be taken up with a garden, nearly 1/2 of which will be in cover crops providing fertility, hay and mulch. In the remainder of the land, the garden will be heavy on perennial edibles. Landscaping is with edibles - blueberries replace rhodedendrons, raspberries replace privet, and several small ornamental trees (except the mulberry and crabapple) are replacedwith fruit trees. The diet will be low on grains, but high on potatoes and other roots. Rose hips from existing bushes, potatoes and cabbage will provide vitamin c. All roots can be stored in a seperate, doored off area of the basement after the furnace stops burning. I estimate that with good management, she will be able to have bread every other week, and meat one day per week (mostly rabbit, chicken 2-5 times per year, goose 1-2 times per year as a celebration). She should get about 450 eggs per year, heavily concentrated in the warm weather. The eggs, 1-2 slaughtered geese per year, and occasional bits of extra schmalz from older hens will provide most of the fats in their diet. Sunflowers will be grown as a high-protein animal feed, and in bountiful years might provide a bit of extra fat for humans as well.

In her woods are a number of sugar maples - she should be able to take several pounds of sugar (or liquid maple syrup, although sugar stores better) off of them, which would be the year’s sweetener. She might also be able to keep one or two hives of bees. I’m not aware of any really local salt sources (obviously, this assumes she must provide herself with everything, which is unlikely, but to cover all the bases), but she lives within 30 miles of the ocean, so I suspect salt could be achieved. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that she store food for her family for at least two years, including enough for anyone she anticipates might come to live with them. Stored food, judiciously used, will also add to the grains in her diet and help provide food for the remaining cat (along with a share of eggs, butchering offal, etc…) I would recommend weighting storage heavily towards dried foods like grains, beans, salt, along with storable fats and flavorings.

The poultry will live in a tightly built pen attached to the back of the house, to minimize theft, and predation and will have a yard plus short ranging priveleges under supervision. A large amount of green food, grass seed and weeds are available on the margins of the neighborhood, and I suspect that few of her neighbors will be wise enough to use them. Rabbits will be kept on the screened in porch in summer and can be brought into the house in the winter. All animals should probably be moved to the garage or house for security and warmth over the winter. Animals adept at living on forage willbe chosen.

The woods can provide small quantities of firewood, acorns (for humanand rabbit feed), a small number of mushrooms, and leaf mulch, but must be carefully managed. Again, I suspect all of these things will be able to be acquired in her neighborhood, since most people will not be aware of their value. I estimate that her garden should, if very carefully planted, provide enough food for her familyand a small extra quantity for barter. The emphasis will be upon roots and high nutritional density foods, along with some foods for flavoring.

If she can store enough food for one, I would recommend the acquisition of a mid-sized dog as well, to alert her and her family of night visitors, human and animal, and to assist with security. I would also suggest she get stout locks and deadbolts for the doors, and get to know her neighbors well, to provide local security. I would also suggest that she and her husband offer their skills to neighbors, to help them start gardens, edible landscaping, etc.. to increase her security. She is in training to be a midwife, and is a talented seamstress, so her skills should be in demand, as, most likely, will be her husband’s carpentry and brewing skills. I would also suggest stockpiling some tradables, like seeds and other items, to increase their economic security.

Fertility will be provided from a number of sources - human and animal waste, of course, the former properly composted. I would suggest she remove the toilet from their guest bathroom and replace it with a homemade composting unit. In dire heat situations, some of the animal waste might be burned for heat, and the ash applied to the garden. Wood ashes will be used to balance the soil’s natural acidity. In addition, some of the cover crops can be composted or used as mulch, and weeds, leaves, etc… can becollected from unused sources nearby - and on the property. I recommend that she initially build the soil up to high levels of organic matter, while such is available, adding rock powders, manures, and whatever else will help, and that she build more raised beds to allow earlier planting. She might also consider a hoophouse.

There will be considerable inter and undercropping, but movement of plants in and out will be limited by the need to grow seeds both for the next year’s garden and for winter sprouting. Large pots she already has can be brought into the warmest parts of the house to allow biennials to overwinter for seed production. In addition, in large windows and under old glass windows already in her possession, it should be possible to overwinter greens, carrots and parsnips for winter and spring harvest. Sprouts will provide most of the green food in the winter diet, but her large windowsills may allow some herb and lettuce production.

I make no claims that this is a perfect scenario - the word “optimal” occurs too many times, and life is rarely optimal. But she could pull it off - it has possibilities for those of you tied to a specific, densely populated area. I hope this is helpful, both to her and to others.


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