Archive for December, 2006

History and the New Year

Sharon December 31st, 2006

I think it was Spider Robinson who once said, of Occam’s Razor, “Old William’s Blade doesn’t shave every chin.” In fact, I suspect you could define all the really interesting events of history as “what occurred instead of the most logical thing that could have happened.” It is certainly true that reason will get you a good way, but we miss things that way too.

Right now, people are listing off their predictions for 2007. I’m going to make some too, with the caveat that I really have no freakin idea what will happen. Speaking as a non-chin shaver (thank G-d for that mercy!), I don’t really anticipate being right. But it makes for an amusing entertainment to see how wrong you are.

Here are my bets for 2007, some of them even semi-serious:

1. At least two major interest rate hikes, and a whole lot of housing foreclosures. But McMansions will still look like a good idea to many dim people.
2. We will not begin pulling troops out of Iraq. We will however issue a stern series of resolutions to begin thinking about it.
3. We will begin moving more troops towards somewhere else in a manufactured crisis (Cuba? Iran? North Korea? The Canadian Oil Sands?) Personally, I’m betting Venezuela, but only so that our poor high school students can learn the geography of South America.
4. The winter of 2007 will kick over and most people will begin to believe, however feebly, in global warming and want to do something about it. They won’t, though.
5. Israel and Syria will begin speaking. It won’t help that much.
6. Energy prices will rise, and the economy will teeter, but hang on. China won’t dump our sorry currency…yet.

My bet for 2007 is that we will call it “the year of hanging on by our fingernails.”

If you’d like to see a better, more useful set of predictions by someone smarter about this sort of thing than me, check out Jeff Vail’s site

Have a happy New Year!


Public Energies, Private Energies

Sharon December 29th, 2006

I’ve been thinking about the above distinction in terms of my own peak oil plans for some time, but I thought it might be a helpful tool for thought for others as well. Whenever I talk about going to lower energy usage, a percentage of people shout out something like “But that would mean going back tothe stone age, to lepers walking the streets and people throwing their feces out the window on our heads!!!” (Ok, I exaggerate for effect. I do that.) But I think it is fair to say that variations on the “without power, life would be intolerable” is a common assumption.

Part of the thing that bothers me about it is that I don’t think it is true. I’ve spent a lot of time studying history, and I don’t think the lives of all of those in human history who preceeded us were intolerable. I am fond of useful things like antibiotics and nutritional knowledge, but those are things that can be had at a very low level of technology. I’ve met a lot of people who lived all or much of their lives with very little power, and seen their homes, and I have ample visual evidence that often life can be quite graciously lived with little or no gas, electricity, and other inputs. Oh, everyone uses some, if only when they hand-till their land with an iron hoe, and is dependent in some ways or another. But I’d like to propose what I think is an important and useful distinction - between public use of energy and private use of energy. The former, I would argue, is essential to maintaining a good life, the latter is not.

People who have access to neither private energy usage nor public energy (and by energy I mean mostly fossil fuels, or fossil fuel based renewables, like solar panels) tend to be at a distinct disadvantage. It is not impossible to live in a horsedrawn economy, but it is difficult. Without public energy for things like clinics, the transport of food and goods, the importation of medicines, etc… life can be highly functional, but often is very vulnerable to disaster, either personal (disease, injury, loss of land or income), or public (witness the recent Pakistani earthquake, for example). While there are ways of mitigating some of the problems lack of access to all forms of energy come with (the use of animal power instead of tractor power, or instead of powered vehicles, for example), the lack of certain resources usually puts people at some disadvantage.

On the other hand, people who have no private energy resources, but have access to public ones often have extremely high quality of life, assuming that natural resources enable them to feed themselves and produce some tradable extras. There are parts of India, Cuba, Georgia, etc… where there is power for public buildings (some schools, hospitals, etc…), collective transportation (buses, trains, communally owned cars and taxis) and where energy is expended wisely on importing or making certain energy intensive goods that require (or are much eased by) the use of fossil fuels - but only on the ones that are demonstrably and significantly a public good. For example, money and energy are spent on power to pump water for the community well, or on vaccinations, but not the subsidy of personal transport or private electrification, generally speaking.

It is no accident that the places where a high quality of life and low levels of personal energy consumption coexist are often former or present marxist cultures and economies, with strong cultural incentives towards the creation of a collective good. That said, however, it is not impossible for capitalist economies to also determine that personal good and collective good are the same. But what is required is a fundamental belief in cooperation - the idea that enriching your neighbor, even at the cost of one’s private wealth, makes you richer, not poorer. And of course, this is true, although we rarely believe it as a first thought.

It is lovely, of course, to have private energy resources, assuming that they are sustainable, but it generally isn’t necessary for high quality of life. In quality of life evaluations, people in Kerala were generally happier with their status, possessions and lifestyle than most Americanswere, even though many lived at extremely low levels ofconsumption. There are some exceptions, of course, but neither life-span nor happiness seem to correlate all that closely with private energy consumption.

The distinction between public and private is important because we have limited resources, and limited time, and one of the big questions is where do we put our personal and economic and literal energies. If we put our resources primarily into lifeboat building (as Richard Heinberg puts it), building independent, free-standing households in which everyone has one of everything they need, we may not have enough resources remaining to be able to afford to build public structures that would fulfill the needs of many more people. And second, if we begin to think in terms of public requirements and private requirements, we have another tool to help us distinguish between what is necessary and what is pleasant to have, something I think a lot of us have troublewith.

One of the questions we can think in terms of, then, is “how can we make our need for X” resolvable in some communal or public way. For example, the American model is already pretty much “everyone has their own private water source from a well or resevoir.” In rural areas, where houses are far apart, this may make some sense. In towns and cities, however, much of Africa and Asia gets its water from public wells, pumped with electricity. Doing so is obviously somewhat less convenient than having running water in your house, but a public well in your neighborhood obviates the great problem of power loss in many communities - which can mean that no one has safe, drinkable water. One or several communal wells can be pumped by stand alone solar units, and even in hard times, water will be available.

It is a commonplace that most westerners have many more of nearly everything than their community needs - everyone has their own vacuum cleaner, their own lawn mower, their own 2 cars - even if they only need 1 1/2 cars, they don’t share. Even people who want to conserve are often uncomfortable entering into a shared relationship with others, and find negotiating such things intimidating. But public resources are different - they are *for* sharing. And creating them means enabling people to do without in a private sense - that is, as the price of energy rises, those who can’t afford cars or washing machines are least damaged if their needs can, tosome degree, be met through local, public infrastructure, by say, public buses and laundromats.

We’re all going to build our lifeboats to some degree. But thinking in terms of how you can soften the blow by creating public resources, and public energy sources, means prioritizing community based resources that enable both personal conservation and collective security. Public resources provide a safety net, potentially a better, richer community, allow us to allocate scarce resources towards other things. They encourage inclusion, and keep the poor and the disabled, the elderly and the especially vulnerable from being deprived of their most basic needs. Since peak oil means that almost any of us could join the poor, that only makse sense.

Thinking in terms of public energy also enables us to do more, if our governments will not cooperate. In most cases, I suspect those public resources are going to have to come out of our own pockets. And that’s another argument for doingit - 10 of us can put that well pump on, 50 can arrange to have the physician’s assistant come to town one day a week, 75 can fund thevolunteer ambulance corp, and can probably continue to do so even if things get rough. But we probably will not be able to do these things if we’re stretching our personal and economic resources thin by trying to maintain our private consumption *and* build public resources - that is, if you are still trying to maintain thepersonal car, you may not be able to afford to help create the taxi service. While there are exceptions, I think it would behoove most of us, in most cases, to choose public resources over private, even at the expense of some inconvenience to ourselves, and when we think aboutthe importance of power, to distinguish between the two.


Is E85 a good thing?

Sharon December 28th, 2006

Nope. And here’s more on my take on biofuels.


Scenes from my Future, Part 1

Sharon December 24th, 2006

Scenes from My Household, Five Years From Now: Part I

(I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t necessarily expect that this is what will happen in my life. But the combination of increasing US indebtedness and economic instability, climate change and rising energy costs means that this scenario is not impossible. I hope life will be better. But I suspect that will not be the case unless a large percentage of us take action.)

-August 9, 2012
We just got a letter from the school district, announcing that they will no longer comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and bus our son to school. We could sue, of course, but the sheer number of school districts that have already done this means that the backlog of cases is huge, and even if we won judgement, I doubt we’d be able to extract anything from the district, which is essentially bankrupt. School was down to only 3 days per week, and many of his services have been intermittent, as the school district has cut back on “luxury” items like speech therapy and reading assistance. So I think that means we’ll be homeschooling Eli. I hope we can pull it off. We’ve been collecting books on teaching children with disabilities for some time now, so hopefully it will stand us in good stead.

August 15, 2023
I’m 40 years old today. My first 35 years were both easy and pleasant, and I can’t complain about them. The last five years have been more complex, but in the great scheme of things, we’re doing ok. We have a home. We have enough to eat. We have clothes and can keep warm. We’re not as comfortable as we once were, nor as rich by world standards, but for us, things are ok. I wish that was true of everyone. One of our neighbors has been out of work for three years, and just lost their house. Fortunately, they have extended family nearby, so they have a place to go. But it is sad - we miss having them here. And they aren’t the only ones. I’m seeing more and more people I know at the food pantry and seeing more and more people selling their possessions off. I once said that any year that took me away from 14 was a good one. But the tragedies of 14 were little ones, personal misery and unhappiness that prevented me from seeing what I had. Now, I’m not so sure that me being miserable but the rest of the world puttering alone well enough wouldn’t be an improvement.

August 28, 2023
The US government announced that it will open FEMA trailer parks to refugees of the southwestern drought. The estimate is that 500,000 people will need to be relocated over the next two year. The temperature was 99 degrees here, but 119 degrees in Las Vegas, and 56 more people died from the heat there. Our garden seems to be holding out ok, despite the heat, although the broccoli is a little stunted. Our spring rains have meant that it is hard to plant early, so even though our growing season is extended by global warming, we often can’t plant any earlier in the spring, while we wait for things to dry up. But we do have a better fall garden, which is a blessing.

September 7, 2023
We’ve been homeschooling the three younger boys for years now, so it wasn’t really that strange when Eli didn’t go to school today. But the autism is a challenge, and it cuts into the time we have to do other work. Eli needs someone one on one all the time. But we’re still having fun. Simon and Isaiah are working on a project tracking local climate change in our region, and Asher is working his way through his first chapter book.

September 11, 2012.
There was a cartoon in The New Yorker a few months after September 11, 2001. Acouple was in their bed, and the woman was complaining to the man, “If you want sex, just ask. It isn’t necessary to preface everything with ‘in light of recent events.’” I think that was my favorite reference to the way that September 11 changed us. Because it wasn’t that it really changed that much - it justified some things. It justified the damned Iraq war, and it justified Americans feeling superior about their imperialism. But it didn’t change us inside. And because it didn’t change us at all, in any deep way, we’re here now.

September 20, 2023
Rosh Hashanah starts tomorrow, and we won’t be going to synagogue. We simply can’t afford the gas. I can’t believe I’m writing this - that we cannot pray among our community, because we cannot afford to drive there, but it is true. We had a family crisis last month that necessitated a long car trip, and we don’t have gas coupons left. So we’ll welcome the new year in together at home, and go to shul for Sukkot, when the new coupons come out. I did manage to get dried cherries for the round challah, and we have plenty of carrots for tzimmes, and we’ll butcher a chicken. So it will be festive, but a little lonely. L’Shanah Tovah, all!

September 29, 2023
We’re having steak tonight. One of our dairy farm neighbors has given up and butchered most of his cows, and we were able to barter eggs and honey for 4lbs of steak. It seems a sin to eat it, when there are so many people going hungry right now who could have used the milk those cows could give, but the payout for milk is tiny, and the costs of hay, feed, veterinary care, etc… are so high that our neighbor simply can’t make a go of it. No one is buying holsteins, so he is butchering and selling the meat. Some of our neighbors haven’t had meat in a long, long time. We have a little more, since we have the livestock, but it is still a rare treat, mostly a seasoning. We mostly eat potatoes, and grains and beans.

October 12, 2023
Things have been hectic, between the Jewish holidays and the stuff caused by cancelling unemployment. With the federal government unable to pay unemployment to the 16% of American households now receiving it, a lot of our family and friends are in deep trouble. We’ve invited a couple of old friends to come share our house, since they’ve had to sell their own place. Both have been largely unemployed for over a year, and they have two young daughters. It will be nice to have them here, but stressful for everyone too. We’ve been emptying out the apartment and setting up sleeping space for the girls. There have been other big changes as well. My step-SIL and BIL and their kids moved in with my MIL and FIL, to everyone’s distress. And the rising cost of all imported goods (along with the fact that there really is no US manufacturing business anymore) means that we’re just praying no one needs new shoes or winter coats this year. I gave all a couple of spares to various friends and family, so if something gets damaged, we’ll be repairing it or going without.

October 22, 2023
Damn, its cold. We’ve had an early cold snap, which took out most of the garden crops, except for the ones in the hoophouse and the cold frames. I harvested this weekend, and took everything we could spare to the food pantry, which has issued a call for anything at all, it is so swamped. I hope people like turnips and beets! We’ve got a lot of food put away from the garden, but I worry about us. There are now 5 adults and 6 kids between the ages of 5 and 12, and we all eat a lot. We’ve got the woodstove banked, but are carefully conserving wood. If it is a hard winter, we’ll be pushed to keep both sections of the house heated and the pipes from freezing with what we’ve got. We can cut more, of course, but it will be green.

October 31, 2022
I chased some wood poachers off early this morning. I heard the chainsaw and ran out - by now I recognize the signs. There were two men cutting down trees in our woods. I took the gun out, and they ran off. I feel a little bad about doing it, since they may well be cold, or just trying to make a living, but stabilizing the climate depends on preserving what forest we’ve got.
It is halloween here. The kids made costumes out of scrap fabric. I bought chocolate chips, and melted them, and dipped dried strawberries from our berry patch in them. Our kids ate them, and I gave them to the neighbor kids. It used to be that you couldn’t give out homemade treats, but I don’t think anyone cares anymore. Junkfood is too rare a treat.

November 4, 2022
Isaiah fell out of a tree and broke his arm. It took most of our gas coupons and our whole discretionary income for the next month to take care of it. We’ll be able to get along after this, but just barely. Thank
G-d we have food, and that we’re mostly healthy. I understand the urge to climb trees, and I don’t want to deprive my kids, or make them fearful, but Eric and I had to talk to them about how we can’t afford to have accidents, and they need to be extra careful. It broke my heart, since some of my happiest moments were spent in trees as a child.

November 9, 2022
We’re having Indian summer, and so everyone is at work banking the house with hay bales. It really does make a difference in how warm things stay. My job is to plan Thanksgiving dinner. There will be no turkey - we can’t afford one, but we’ll have a chicken, and we’ll give a couple away to neighbors who I know rarely get meat. I have plenty of potatoes and root vegetables, so we’ll be ok. I can’t get soymilk to make non-dairy (ie, kosher) pumpkin pie, so I’ll make pumpkin cake and apple pie instead.

November 20, 2022
Simon is 11 years old today. He’s a responsible kid, and a bright one. He wanted for his birthday to spend a weekend with Grandma and Grandpa in New York City, and they kindly sent a train ticket for him and his Dad, so this morning he left on his first trip. Simon told me he was plenty old enough to go by himself, but given the violence there in the last year, there was no chance of that. But Eric hasn’t seen his Mom for months, so that’s a good thing. I’m grateful my MIL could do it - things in Manhattan are sketchy at times, with the rolling blackouts and the food shortages, but so far they seem ok. I worry for them. We have less money, and we struggle more economically, but our food and energy supplies are more certain. I’ve heard horror stories about people freezing in their apartments, and while most of them are not on the upper west side of Manhattan, I still worry. I’m also praying my husband and son make it home safe.

November 26, 2012.
Happy Thanksgiving. We had 22 people here, including one family of neighbors who clearly have not been eating well. They mentioned they hadn’t had chicken in “quite a while.” I suspect it was a lot longer than that. They were hungry, and a lot thinner than they used to be. We had a wonderful time, although I missed being with my family. I hate that they are so far away, and we can’t visit very much anymore.

December 1, 2022
Eli read an entire chapter of _Wind in the Willows_ this week. That was a huge accomplishment for us, and it suggests that maybe he won’t suffer too much because of our inadequacies as teachers. But his speech has definitely declined in quality without therapy. We work with him, but we don’t have the skills. I took Simon to the pediatrician for his annual checkup this morning, and he was healthy, thank G-d. He got a tetanus booster, which is essentially when you work in the dirt. Our pede takes some of his fee in a CSA subscription, thankfully, so we can afford some routine care. He doesn’t seem to have any nutritional deficiencies, even though we have had to stretch the multivitamins by giving them only one every other day. But our doctor mentioned that he’s seeing cases of rickets, malnutrition and even scurvy in kids right now. I put up pounds and pounds of rose hips this fall, and I promised to bring him some next time we bring one of the kids in, and he can distribute them and teach people how to make rose-hip tea.

December 14, 2022
Happy Chanukah! Well, we all know the miracle of the (crude) oil is over. I don’t see a lot of people with light up menorahs or outside decorations. Most folks here are just wondering how to make sure their kids get a gift under the tree. We had latkes last night, and used up all the rest of the eggs. No more eggs until the hens lay in February. Each child gets one purchased gift. Asher and Isaiah will each get a box of crayons and some paper, and the two older boys get books. I’ve made them new mittens and hats (although Simon is now too cool to wear a hat), and baked them cookies. And that’s it.

December 21, 2022
Tonight I give Eric the quilt I sewed him. I think I managed to keep it a secret. I’m making two very similar ones, one for Eric and one for our roommates. Eric knows about the latter, but not the former. It is made entirely from scraps of the kids wardrobe, going back to babyhood. It looks pretty nice, given that I can’t sew for shit. I miss the days when presents were a commonplace. I know it was crazy excessive, but it was awfully nice, too.

December 27, 2022
Did I say I missed my family? Well, some of them are coming to live here. My sister and BIL and their kids have been out of work for a long time, and while they’ve been able to keep their house, they can’t afford heat. They’ve been living in a cold house, wearing winter coats all the time, and the pipes finally froze and burst. They can’t live there, and they can’t afford to repair them. So they’ll come here for a while. I’m glad we can help, and it will be wonderful to see them, but things will be tight with that many more people here. I might have to take a break from writing for a while, since I’m not sure there will be space for the computer. The kids can all sleep dormitory style, one room for the boys, the other for the girls, but the adults need privacy more than I need an office these days. The blackouts have been happening more and more, too, so I’m not sure how much use there will be for it. That’s ok, I have a lot to do. With the tightening of gas rationing, we’re shopping less and making do, so there’s plenty of work here.

December 31, 2022

I pray that 2013 will be better than the last year. I don’t know that that’s true. The US army is invading Venezuela, and there is talk of reinstituting the draft. My boys are, thank G-d, too young yet, but we’ve been continually at war now for 11 years, so I’m terrified of the day they won’t be. The kids talk about wanting to go to college, and become X or Y thing. I just want them to live.

2012 was the hottest year on record, and the number of nations experiencing famine is higher than it has been in a decade. 10% of the American population is now homeless, and 22% is unemployed. We’ve been notified that gas will no longer be rationed at all - if you can afford it, you can have it. We can’t afford much, so that’ll be it for Eric’s teaching job at the end of the spring semester. We’re going to try opening a school at our house, given that we’ve got 3 unemployed Ph.ds and two equally unemployed MAs here. I pray that inn addition to the CSA and the livestock, we’ll be able to pay the taxes. My BIL recently got a job working at the auction house, selling off people’s goods, so that helps a little.

We saw this coming, and we prepared for it. And all we did, it wasn’t really enough. No one of us could insulate ourselves from what happened around us. As Benjamin Franklin suggested, we are now all hanging seperately, each in our little personal crisis. But it is, of course, all the same disaster.


So, how much do you care if your kids, or someone else’s live or die?

Sharon December 24th, 2006

That’s pretty much the question, isn’t it? How much do you actually care whether you children, or grandchildren, and the children of others get to live decent lives, or if they die horribly of starvation and disease? Because we say we care very much about the future, about sustainability, and the environment, that we worry a lot about climate change and energy issues. But most of us mostly act like we don’t care.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not belittling the changes you’ve made. Those compact flourescent lightbulbs, the recycling, the moving closer to your job, those are important things. But they aren’t enough, and we all know it. In order to stabilize climate change, we in the west need to make a 60-70% reduction in our energy consumption. Really, it is probably more, because those figures represent an overall reduction, but we can’t ask people who just starting to use coal fired energy to get running water to make a 60% reduction, while we’re switching to CFs and hybrid cars. But let’s call it 70%. And we need to do it *NOW.* Check out this BBC interview transcript. It does not quite translate to “we’re all gonna die” but it does mean that climate change is much more disastrous than even we’ve thought. That means within this century, while my kids and grandkids are trying to live most of the coastal cities in the world may well be underwater. There will probably be widespread drought and hunger. And, if the cascade effect of melting the permafrost does release enormous stores of methane, the planet may become uninhabitable.

We cannot wait while each of us gets personally more comfortable with reducing our footprint - we have to do it big, and we have to do it today. We can’t wait for cheap solar technology, we can’t wait for biofuel algae to gas up our pluggable hybrids, we can’t wait. The question becomes, what are you willing to do, what sacrifices are you willing to make from your own comfort and happiness in order to make sure that your kids, and millions or billions of other children in the world are not dead and dying in the future.

Now I know parents and grandparents. In the short term, we’d all hurl ourselves in front of oncoming buses in order to protect the kids we love, and enable them to have good lives. So, I ask you all, why in hell are we destroying their chances of life and security right now? Why are we consuming the remaining fossil fuels, the ones that may ensure that they can have minimal things like insulin for diabetics and lighting, so that we can have air conditioning and cold beer? Whether or not you have children, I’m going to bet you have an investment in the future - the idea that someday someone will put a stone on your grave, or tell their children about Grandma Leah or Uncle Daniel. Or perhaps just the investment in the idea that the planet was not yours to waste, or in the idea that someday, someone will read Shakespeare like you did, or listen to a piece of music you loved or laugh at the same joke. So why in hell are we throwing that away.

When I visited my family recently (burning a good bit of energy to get there), I was talking with my mother and step-mother, who are making real and meaningful changes in their lives. We were talking about paper consumption, and I mentioned that the next step in reducing paper consumption was probably handkerchiefs rather than tissues, and they both instinctively reacted with “ugh.” Now I know what they mean, but let’s be honest. For centuries, people used cloth handkerchiefs without dying. Is one’s personal “ugh” reaction to handkerchiefs, or using your urine to fertilize your garden, or getting to know and butcher the animals you eat, or using a composting toilet really enough to justify the cost that we may be inflicting upon others? Remember, all of that stuff we react to with such hostility *belongs* to us - our wastes and the things we eat are part of us. We can try to pretend they don’t really have anything to do with us, that we don’t shit or pee, are never dirty or snotty, that the animal corpse on the plate was never a chicken or a cow, but no matter how hard we pretend, we’re still killing, we’re still shitting, and it is still our responsibility, no matter how hard we try to pass it off on others.

The same thing has to do with our instinctive aesthetic assumptions, which are also hard for all of us (me too) to overcome - the fear of looking poor, or cheap leads us in all sorts of dangerous directions. But again, is it so terrible to imagine giving up your car and going to the bicycle, or giving up meat, or replacing that front lawn with edible plants, if the rewards are that someday, your grandkids, or the grandkids of someone who loves them just as much as you do, have enough to eat, home and shelter.

Let’s be honest, most of us who are adults now have had a lot. We’re the wealthiest, most priveleged, most secure, luckiest people in human history. We haven’t had to work hard for much. And we’re in the odd position of probably being able to maintain our privelege for much of the rest of our lives, if we really work at it. But the cost comes in human lives. And not the lives of people who live out of sight, or downstream or in other countries - we’ve been doing them harm for decades and it hasn’t bothered us much. But now the damage is coming home to roost. Do you want to keep your toaster and your hair dryer, or do you want your kids and grandkids to have food? And if you want them to have food, you have to be willing to give up your priveleges right now, to overcome your instinctive reactions, and also our instinctive urge to protect ourselves and what we have, no matter what the cost to others, and choose differently. We are going to have to give up things that we like and we love and we feel we need.

I only hope that we find that what we really like and love and need most is for our kids, and our children’s kids, to survive and flourish.



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