Archive for January, 2007

Do the Right Thing

Sharon January 23rd, 2007

My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls “The Theory of Anyway.” What it entails is this - she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crisis in energy depletion, or climate change, or whatever is what we should do anyway, and when in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing “Anyway.” Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

This is, I think, a deeply powerful way of thinking because it is a deeply moral way of thinking - we would like to think of ourselves as moral people, but we tend to think of moral questions as the obvious ones “should I steal or pay?” “Should I hit or talk?” But the real and most essential moral questions of our lives are the questions we rarely ask of the things we do every day, “Should I eat this?” “Where should I live and how?” “What should I wear?” “How should I keep warm/cool?” We think of these questions as foregone conclusions - I should keep warm X way because that’s the kind of furnace I have, or I should eat this because that’s what’s in the grocery store. Pat’s Theory of Anyway turns this around, and points out that what we do, the way we live, must pass ethical muster first - we must always ask the question “Is this contributing to the repair of the world, or its destruction.”

So if you told me that tomorrow, peak oil had been resolved, I’d still keep gardening, hanging my laundry, cutting back and trying to find a way to make do with less. Because even if we found enough oil to power our society for a thousand years, there would still be climate change, and it would be *wrong* of me to choose my own convenience over the security and safety of my children and other people’s children. And if you told me tomorrow that we’d fixed climate change, that we could power our lives forever with renewables, I would still keep gardening and living frugally. Because our agriculture is premised on depleted soil and aquifers, and we’re facing a future in which many people don’t have enough food and water if we keep eating this way, and to allow that to happen would be a betrayal of what I believe is right. And if you told me that we’d fixed that problem too, that we were no longer depleting our aquifers and expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I’d still keep gardening and telling others to do the same, because our reliance on food from other nations, and our economy impoverishes and starves millions, even billions of poor people and creates massive economic inequities that do tremendous harm. And if you told me that globalization was over, and that we were going to create a just economic system, and we’d fixed all the other problems, and that I didn’t have to worry anymore, would I then stop gardening?

No. Because the nurture of my piece of land would still be the right thing to do. Doing things with no more waste than is absolutely necessary would still be the right thing to do. The creation of a fertile, sustainable, lasting place of beauty would still be my right work in the world. I would still be a Jew, obligated by G-d to Tikkun Olam, to “the repair of the world.” I would still be obligated to live in way that prevented wildlife from being run to extinction and poisons contaminating the earth. I would still be obligated to make the most of what I have and reduce my needs so they represent a fair share of what the earth has to offer. I would still be obligated to treat poor people as my siblings, and you do not live comfortably when your siblings suffer or have less. I am obligated to live rightly, in part because of what living rightly gives me - integrity, honor, joy, a better relationship with my diety of choice, peace.

There are people out there who are prepared to step forward and give up their cars, start growing their own food, stop consuming so much and stop burning fossil fuels…just as soon as peak oil, or climate change, or government rationing, or some external force makes them. But that, I believe is the wrong way to think about this. We can’t wait for others to tell us, or the disaster to befall us. We have to do now, do today, do with all our hearts, the things we should have been doing “Anyway” all along.


You have to read this…

Sharon January 21st, 2007

I thought I’d seen all of Dmitry Orlov’s wonderful essays on peak oil, but I missed this one, and it is well worth a read - very funny and, like all his stuff, spot on.

My favorite passages are these:

“Now, take the drivers’ average income and hours worked, and find out how many hours of labor it takes to cover all of these costs. Add to that the actual time spent driving. Now take the number of vehicle miles traveled, and divide it by the total number of hours spent both driving and earning enough money to pay for cars. Rather than give you the answers, I encourage you to do your own homework, but I can tell you that the end result of this exercise is always the same: the bicycle is faster than the car, and, depending on one’s assumptions, driving is slower than walking.”


“In short, the only freedom the car confers is the freedom to drive to and fro between places where you are not free, and the only true exception to this rule is your own driveway. No proper suburban home can be without one: it is your own private highway that leads to your own private house. This image dictates that it be expensively and unnecessarily paved, and not with paving stones, for then it would be a walkway rather than a driveway, but with asphalt. Suburban driveways are not paved for the benefit of the cars, which can handle dirt roads, and clearly not for the benefit of the now commonplace off-road vehicles, but for the benefit of satisfying some innate drive within their drivers: the urge to own a piece of the road.

The symbolic function of the suburban home is to serve as the final resting place at the end of the long drive home. Peace and quiet are considered to be its most essential features, and although the overt preoccupation is with safety and security, its source is an irrational urge for ultimate peace. If a suburban dweller were to trade both the car and the house for an apartment within city limits, the increased chance of becoming a victim of violent crime would be more than offset by the decreased chance of dying in an auto accident, and so the choice is not a rational one from the standpoint of safety.

The real concern is not with safety but with the embodiment of an abstract image of peace. Zoning regulations and bylaws restrict noisy hobbies and deviations from community standards, for it is a sacrilege to violate the eternal slumber of the suburbanite. The ideal suburb features an unbroken expanse of manicured grass dotted with little neoclassical monuments, all slightly different yet all essentially the same. This is the essential d├ęcor of a cemetery: the house is in fact a family crypt. Not surprisingly, the final destination of the death-car is the death-house.

All other functions of the death-house, save one, are superfluous, since people can, and do, eat, sleep, and have sex in their cars. As cars grow larger and commutes become longer, more and more of the living is done inside the car, with the sepulchral dwelling only used to unwrap fast food, keep beer cold, and fall asleep in front of the television set. But the death-house has one room that is essential, because it offers services a car cannot provide. This is the bathroom, and it contains the shower, and, of course, the toilet. And not just any toilet: a chamberpot or a bucket of sawdust simply would not do. No, it must be a most unlikely contraption that allows one to defecate directly into a pool of drinking water (which may be deodorized according to taste) and flush it down with copious amounts of more drinking water. How curious it is that while other carnivores have an instinct to bury their feces, to avoid spreading disease, these ones insist on mixing theirs into their drink! Various expensive artifices, none entirely successful, are then needed to keep the drinking water and the sewage apart.”

What’s Going On Around Here

Sharon January 20th, 2007

Well, winter seems finally to have arrived. We’re expecting below 0 temps tonight, for the first time this year. And things seem to be getting back to normal - which is nice.

Eric started his new semester this past week, which was, oddly enough, kind of a relief for me. I love having him home, but this winter break wasn’t quite like most of the past ones - his being home meant that I could (and should) work on the book more or less full time. And so most days, I’d disappear into the computer room and Eric would take the kids. And…I hated it. I didn’t like sitting in front of the computer all the time, what Eric Brende calls “the voluntary quadrapalegia of contemporary life” - it made me stiff and achy. I didn’t like being away from my kids so much - or the way Asher would sob when I passed him to Daddy (something that never bothered him before) or how Isaiah would ask me very solemnly if I would come with him places. And I didn’t like all the other things that didn’t get done. I don’t think I’m meant to be a full time writer. So even though the kids have colds and were cranky, I was actually very happy to get back to my normal, less productive but more fun, life.

All of this is part of a set of anxieties I have about the book. Other people, I’m told, have fear of failure. I tend towards fear of success. I’ve gotten a lot of offers to come speak since the Community Solutions Conference, and so far, I’ve turned them all down - I enjoy speaking, but I don’t want to leave my family more than very occasionally, and I don’t want to fly for environmental reasons. Unfortunately, if the book is published and successful, I probably won’t have the luxury of saying “no.” I worry that if I do write a good book, the job of promoting it, speaking and writing about what I’ve done will overtake my life. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, telling people how to live a life I am not presently living. I don’t mind making recommendations and detailing my flaws, but if I get on an airplane and fly about the country instead of planting corn, or hire someone to clean my toilets so that I can write about how necessary it is we do it ourselves, I’ll look like a flaming asshole, and I don’t want to be one. Not to mention the fact that I don’t *want* to be apart from my family. We’ve very carefully arranged our lives so that we have a lot of time together - we don’t always have a lot of money, but for us, time to be together is worth more than cash. I’m a domestic creature to a large degree - that’s why it is so easy for me to focus in on food and shelter and clothing - because those basic things engage me more than many abstractions.

So there’s a part of me that hopes the book isn’t a success. That part is overridden by the part of me (known as my ego, and just slightly smaller India ;-), that hopes we’re a howling success, that Oprah wants to add the first peak oil book to her book club and that Dick Cheney will read it and say, “Oh, of course, we should have been conserving, not invading. Damn. Why didn’t I think of that? Maybe I’ll plant some peas on the White House lawn now.” So we’ve got what some folks might call a certain level of ambivalence here. But I’m not complaining too much that I’ve got more domestic work and a little less time to write.

In other news, Asher, at 14 1/2 months is going for the record as our latest walker. He has been taking steps occasionally for a month now, but I don’t think it has ever occurred to him to use it as a mode of locomotion. Like his brother Isaiah, he’s learned to locomote while carrying things, which sort of obviates the largest incentive to walk. But we’re anticipating any time now.

Our non-electric kitchen renovation proceeds apace. We’ve painted, are putting in the new sink (the hand pump and cistern will have to wait until the ground melts in spring), having new shelving put in, and my Waterford Stanley cookstove arrived this week, right after our ice storm, causing a major degree of unhappiness in the two gentlemen whose job it was to get the 700lb cast iron stove up the ice covered driveway and into the house. No major injuries were caused, fortunately. If I can figure out how, I’ll try and post before and after photos once the work is finally done.

And finally, seed starting and seed ordering are beginning. I’ll start leeks, pansies, onions, scallions, some kale and bok choy, parsley for pesach, some very early sweet peas (for pots) and the stuff that has to stratified this coming week. Because I grow so much stuff and order too many seeds every year, I’ve picked up a trick to organize what has to be done. Every year, afte the first of the year, when calendars are really cheap, I buy one (this year, I didn’t - I’m using a homemade one), and then I count backwards from my last frost date, and on the first couple of days of the week, list what seeds to start. Then, on the later part of the week, I list the ones I actually got to - which makes it easy to slide things over to the next week. I then put each week’s seed packets in a plastic bin or tin (coffee cans are good). I keep seperate tins for “start inside” and start outside. It helps me keep track, because often I have to start things several times during the season (first and second plantings of things like broccoli and lettuce, for example). I also write in everything to be planted in or out during the whole season, ending with spinach that I start inside (to keep it cooler) at the end of August for winter. I’m also trying to note temperatures, how much rain and snow we get, what birds we’re seeing, etc… Climate change is obviously changing things, and it is helpful to keep records of how our local systems seem to be arranging themselves.

I think that’s about all the news from our place. Anyone else got anything exciting going on?


The opposite of poor is not rich…

Sharon January 19th, 2007

…it is self-sufficient. That’s the observation of Jeremy Seabrook in _The No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty_ (good book, btw). I think this is an important point, particularly because we’re very vulnerable to the traditional measure of self-sufficiency (that is, cash) being devalued. We all know how shaky American currency is right now - we’re being propped up economically by precisely the people that we’re competing with. That makes for some interesting possible scenarios. Lester Brown details one, in which China, which is on the verge of some major grain shortfalls, may end up competing for the food we grow with us - and winning. Another possibility is currency collapse. My friend Les, from Tennessee, who has a much stronger grasp of how markets work than I ever will, once explained it as we import 80% (actually a bit more now) of the savings of *EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD* to make up our deficit. That this situation is untenable, and probably can’t last, is really no shock. Les suggests one watch the hedge fund markets, and on the day the economy crashes, go out and buy a couple of pairs of boots from China - because you won’t see $75 boots again for a long, long, long time. More like $450. And when that comes up against our ability to buy oil…well…

Now most Americans have little or no savings, and those who do, many of whom are baby boomers like my parents planning to retire in a few years, are terribly vulnerable to an economic crisis. Everything is in the markets. If the markets are devalued, so is their future security.

Now I’m sure economists of all stripes will tell you I’m nuts, but if the opposite of poor is self-sufficient, it seems like there are some good and interesting ways to avoid being stripped if the currency collapses. Now maybe it will never happen, but then again, this falls in the category of things that can’t hurt you anyway. So here are six things that (IMHO) will contribute to your security.

1. Stay out of debt. Get out of consumer debt, and pay down your mortgage ASAP. Stop buying stuff you can’t afford, sell off extra things you don’t need if necessary to pare down your debt. If you carry a mortgage, the more of your property you own, the less likely you are to be foreclosed upon and the more likely it is that banks will negotiate. If you have a huge home loan, consider either paying it down by selling something or buying a cheaper house. Or consider consolidating with family members. If you are considering making housing changes, I would do it soon - most of the people I’ve read doubt we’ve seen the bottom of the housing market, and negative equity could kick in quite quickly, making it impossible for people to move.

2. Don’t need so much. Get good at repairing things, making do. Learn to avoid waste. Get good at stretching meals and mending clothes. Get over your anxieties about looking poor, and start cutting back everywhere you can. While there are essentials that everyone needs, no one can deprive you of your luxuries without your consenting to feel deprived.

3. Keep a reserve of both money and goods. Ideally, keep some of your money in something that isn’t subject to rapid devaluations. I’m no expert on this one - some people say gold, some people say, silver, some people say foreign currencies or treasury bonds, some people say cash under the bed. Look around and research the options and make your own decisions - I don’t really have a strong opinion on this one. What I do have a strong opinion on is this - that anything you buy now and reserve for later is probably going to help you economically. That includes a reserve of food, tools, clothing, basic goods, etc… So if you can do it without going into debt or stretching your reserves, I would strongly recommend a six month supply (at a minimum) of storable food, seeds and basic necessities, supplemented with a backup of other basic items - an extra pair of glasses, some extra blankets, boots, warm clothes, whatever you might need to replace within a few years. Worst comes to worst, and you are ahead of the game on your shopping.

4. Access to natural resources. Money is paper. It is often a nice kind of paper to have, but at its root, money depends on a stable economy. A really unstable economy often results in inflation, or deflation, or, if you’d rather, a lot of unpleasant crap where your money isn’t worth much. On the other hand, the things that money mostly gets traded for are useful, even if you don’t have money in many cases. Even if you can’t sell your potatoes, you can eat them, and trade them to your neighbors. Maybe you don’t have money, but you have trees, and other people need firewood. Even if you live in a city, grow some of your own food in pots. The soil in those pots may keep you together some day. You can cut out the middle person to some degree (they still don’t take tax payments in chickens anywhere I know of) by simply producing the things that money is a substitute for - soil, a good mine, a forest…these are good things to have. Just don’t waste or strip them - use them wisely and carefully.

5. A strong community and/or family (ideally both). Your tribe are the people you can pool resources with in hard times - the ones who will take you in if the bottom falls out from under you, or share what they have if things get difficult. A strong community means that the more vulnerable members - pregnant women, mothers of very young children, the elderly, the disabled, small children - can be secure and protected. A community is stronger than an individual or individual household. Make sure you have one, and that it will hold through hard times.

6. The ability to live in the unofficial economy as well as the real economy. Only 1/4-1/3 of the total work human beings do is part of the “official” economy. That is, counted in GDP figures, taxed, included in discussion. Almost 3/4 of what human beings engage in operates in the unofficial economy - the biological economy, from which subsistence farmers, foresters, hunters, and gatherers obtain food, fiber and heat, the household economy, in which the work of domestic labor and childrearing is specifically not considered as “counting,” the family economy in which members of biological or chosen families extend credit to one another and share resources, the criminal economy, where the Mafia, the guy who grows pot in his backyard and the Mom who pays the babysitter under the table operate, the barter economy where you trade goods for one another, and other permutations of the unofficial economy. This is where most of most human beings’s real work goes on. And the less dependent we are on the “official” economy, and official jobs, the more secure we are. In practical terms this doesn’t mean quitting your job, but it does mean having a skill set that will allow you to be, say, an handywoman or a home seamstress, a farmer or a childcare provider in the unofficial economy, able to subsist and earn a small amount of extra income through under-the-table or barter projects. Because no matter how few people are employed or how bad the economy is, the daily exchanges that are necessary for life will probably go on to some degree.

It isn’t that nothing can destroy even the most self-sufficient and prepared person’s preparations. That can happen in an instant. But by hedging your bets, we can make ourselves less vulnerable. We can retain our stake in the official economy, will still building our security and self-sufficience.

For those who have a hard time imagining that times could ever be that bad, or that hard, I strongly recommend two books. Timothy Egan’s _The Worst Hard Time_ is an account of the people who stayed and endured the dustbowl. His account of the man-made disaster, the dust storms that lasted for days and the droughts that endured for years is both acute and compelling. His most important observation is that people did it, unknowingly, to themselves - the dust storms that went on for days, the death of virtually all the livestock on the prarie, children dying of dust-pneumonia, hunger, thirst, heat and drought. It is worth observing that right now the same areas are enduring an extended drought that has been called worse than the dustbowl. The other book is David Shannon’s older work, _The Great Depression_ - it uses primary source material to describe the lead up to the depression and the collapse that follows. The descriptions of the housing boom and bust, and the hunger that went hand in hand with farmers unable to sell their food is both disturbing and evocative.

In almost every way, the people who endured the depression and the dust-bowl were vastly more self-sufficient than we were. And for those who survived, that, not their savings or their planning, were what enabled them to go on. It is also worth observing that in many ways, the thing that brought us out of the great depression was cheap energy. I don’t think we should count on that happening again.


Living Off the Waste of Industrial Society

Sharon January 19th, 2007

My friend, MEA, inspires me a lot with her attention to the moral details of conservation. She has written eloquently on various groups we’ve both on about the impact of deriving secondary benefits from industrial society, and thus enabling it. And I think her ideas are important ones. Because the more dependent we are on the consumption of others to allow us to live sustainably, the harder it will be to maintain in the long term.

What am I talking about? Well, there’s the fact that I’ve decided to cheat on my buy-nothing year this summer so that I can buy used clothing at yard sales for my children, particularly my oldest son. My reasoning is, of course, that it would be foolish to miss a whole season of yard saling and then have to buy retail in the fall to make sure he has enough clothes. Now this reasoning is absolutely correct - used items have a smaller environmental impact, by buying them we’re keeping things from being wasted, etc… But it is also a way of making me dependent upon other people buying lots of stuff. Someone has to buy new clothes, and lots of them, in order for me to have anything to pass down. There’s a whole movement, called “The Compact” in which people agree not to buy anything new. But how hard would that movement be if there weren’t so many used things to buy. Amy Dacyzyn, of the _Tightwad Gazette_ observed that once, yard sales tended only to carry battered, poor quality items, but now times have changed - that is, they’ve changed precisely in relation to our lack of commitment to making do, using things up, repairing them and not buying many new things.

Here’s another example - a recent paper came out of MIT, cautiously endorsing corn-based ethanol. The woman who ran the study pointed out that whether ethanol comes out as having any net energy benefit at all depends on how you define the product - that is, which energy inputs you count, and what value you give the co-product, that is, the fermented grain left over after ethanol is produced. Draw a small enough circle around what you’ll include and ethanol is a net positive. Expand the circle enough, and it turns out not to be. David Pimmental at Cornell and Ted Paczek at Berkeley have done a number of studies saying no, the USDA (surprise, surprise), says yes. But what Tiffany Groote’s MIT study did that was interesting was say, “you are both right.” Her cautious yes on whether ethanol is a net energy positive, and whether its pollution consequences are lower depends on using the coproduct of ethanol production to feed to industrially farmed animals. But guess what? It turns out that feedlot meat is a bigger contributor to global warming than SUVs are - because feedlot meat is to incredibly toxic to the environment and consumes such a crazy amount of energy, using ethanol by products to feed cows, which seems like a good use for waste, turns out to be just a way of propping up a disastrous system and doing more harm.

On another group I’m on, there was a discussion of the rise in price in pellets for wood stoves. It turns out that a combination of the rise in recycled plastic lumber (which uses sawdust as part of its materials) and the decline of the new house boom has meant that there isn’t as much sawdust around, and it is getting more and more costly to burn it in the form of pellets. Now this is kind of a problem for several reasons. First of all, that means people who have pellet stoves may burn more oil and natural gas instead. But second of all, it represents another way that the best of intentions (making good use of a waste product to reduce energy consumption), may come back to haunt us. Because when we’re dependent on the by product of industrial, cheap energy, wealthy societies, a reduction in wealth and or cheap energy, or a desire to limit the environmental consequences mean that we’re that much less able to shift over to a truly long-term system. If, for example, new home construction drops even further, there will be a whole lot of people with pellet stoves either paying more for pellets than they might have, or simply unable to maintain their backup heat system. And if it turns out that pellet stoves aren’t such a long term good deal, because many require electricity and because the price and availability of pellets depend on the housing market, we’ll all have wasted a lot of energy, and time and money on manufacturing, buying, using pellet stoves - and we’ll still have to find another heating alternative.

It isn’t that it is bad or wrong to make use of the by products of industrial society. The issue is that we have to start thinking more than 2 steps ahead, and our infrastructure needs to be adapted so that it is neither dependent on cheap energy, high carbon outputs and high consumption, but also so that it isn’t dependent on its waste. That is, there’s nothing wrong with me using other people’s outgrown clothes for my family, but I need to be thinking hard about what happens when the cost of clothing and the economy mean that most people are hanging on to their discards? What happens when more people need to rely on waste, and fewer people can afford to waste things?

Books like _Planet of Slums_ document the millions, even billions of people who are now living, to a large degree, off the garbage and waste of affluent people. In Asia, Africa and Central America, there are now millions of people who live their whole life on the edge of giant dumps, being slowly poisoned by the toxins therein, scavenging wire, or food, or bits of plastic from the things rich people simply throw away. Our own scavenging is usually cleaner and safer, but on some level, those of us who derive our security from the discards of cheap energy and lots of carbon are both enabling and vulnerable to the day when it begins to … stop. And we need to take care, both in a personal sense, that our security is not so dependent on waste that it collapses when waste lessons, but also that we are not enabling things to continue warming the planet and wasting our remaining resources. Because someday, unless we wish to make our livings from the dumps of the rich, it will indeed, have to… STOP.


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