Archive for February, 2007

All the News…

Sharon February 28th, 2007

Well, there were two bits of excitement yesterday. The one you probably missed was that an indpendent panel of scientists from all over the world warned that we are closer than we think to an irrevocable tipping point that will lead to the planet warming by as much as 11 degrees by the end of the century (no one ever hypothesizes what will happen after the end of the century - don’t think too much about why that might be), and the deaths of millions or billions of people from climate change.

Now Hitler killed 11 million people, give or take a few, and we have branded him one of the greatest monsters of all time. What do you think our children and grandchildren will think of us if we succeed in killing 12 million, or 100 million (within the potential forecasts) or a billion people. Do you think of yourself as a monster? Well maybe it is time to think about what kind of unconscious monstrosity we’re engaging in as a population, and how to resist.

The panel of scientists is still calling for alternative energies, and I have no objection. But we are increasingly unlikely to be able to replace large chunks of what we consume with alternative energies - and you and I don’t have time to wait until we can afford to power our whole lifestyle with our cute little solar panels - we have to stop emitting now. And the only way that will happen is if we get comfortable with the notion that private cars, lots of appliances and unlimited resources are not in our future - period.

The event I bet you noticed was the stock market. Now I make no pretensions to understanding financial markets - heck, I’ve noticed that most of the people who say they do understand them are wrong most of the time, so I won’t predict anything. This could be a little blip, or it could be the beginning (well, not quite the beginning - 1 out of every 35-45 American homeowners is being foreclosed upon right now, and foreclosures have hit epidemic proportions in places like CA, Ohio and TX) of a recession. After all, we’ve blown a large chunk of our GDP on war, and we’re about to blow more (BBC reports that we’re building up steadily for an immanent attack on Iran - does this surprise anyone), and we haven’t been investing in much of anything that matters.

Now I don’t know if this recession is a big economic crisis, but if other countries find themselves in trouble and stop propping up our currency (note, the problem started in China), we’re in big trouble, and it could take a long time to get out of. And that long time is just what we don’t have in terms of peak oil and climate change. It may be that what we go into a recession with today is much of what we’ll have when we come out.

All of which is just an argument for being prepared. Who cares if are set at risk because you lose your job or because of peak oil? The solutions are the same. Get the heck out debt - cut everything you can out of your budget - new clothes, meat, vacations, all extraneous driving, etc… and put it towards your debt, or, if you don’t have any, your mortgage. Have a solid economic reserve not entirely dependent on the stock market. Store food - when you go shopping, buy a few extra bags of beans, rice, cooking oil, honey, spices, peanut butter, canned veggies. Or better yet, go to the bulk store, or a local farmer and buy potatoes, wheat, dried beans. Don’t just store it - learn to eat it and enjoy it, and get your family used to it. Start a garden. Landscape with fruit and veggies - get rid of your lawn, and replace your shrubs with berry bushes. Use less, need less, get used to fixing things and making do. Find a way to get water, heat and light without power, just in case.

Because maybe it will never happen - but in most lives a little rain does fall. Get an umbrella.
Do it now. And remember, we can stop the rain from turning into a flood if we’re just willing to do things differently.


The Silliest Possible Way to Save the Earth

Sharon February 26th, 2007

So by now you probably know that Richard Branson, along with various other climate change luminaries has offered a 25 million dollar prize to anyone who can suck 30% of the greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. Inventors all over the world are competing for the prize, to be judged by Al Gore and various famous climate scientists.

Perhaps it is just sour grapes that I have no inventing skills, and thus am doomed to poverty and obscurity, but this reminds me of the time our refrigerator broke down. The freezer was icing up heavily, and preventing the vent of cold air into the refrigerator. And the man who came to repair it couldn’t figure out what the cause was, so he suggested adding a small electric heater to our freezer, which would prevent the ice from forming and blocking the cold air flow.

We declined this solution, because it was stupid, not to mention wasteful. Instead of fixing the root problem, it manufactured a solution that a. was fraught with potential problems and b. didn’t fix the root problem. And the Branford prize seems oddly similar.

Now let’s think hard about what kinds of solutions people might come up with to resolve the climate change problem - most of them (I checked all this with DH who is an astrophysicist), pretty much come down to “change the carbon dioxide and methane into something else” or “move the carbon dioxide/methane somewhere else). Now correct me if I’m wrong, but chemical reactions to change something into something else tend to be umm…energy intensive, no? And moving large quantities of diffuse gases around would be…ummm…also energy intensive. And isn’t the problem that we’re umm…burning a lot of energy?

Now, of course we could come up with a renewable means of powering this enormous energy guzzler, but don’t we need to be building those renewables to replace even a small part of our *existing* energy consumption? And in fact, the production of all those renewables is going to spew a not-insignificant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, because those renewable sources are made with ummm…fossil fuels.

Now then there’s the problem of what to change the carbon into if we use a chemical reaction. Personally, my husband is partial to graphite, because it is comparatively harmless and can then be used in pencils. The problem would be that it would fall to earth in chunks, which would be tough on people standing underneath. Now I’m sure scientists can come up with something soft, but there are real concerns about changing the carbon to another gas, and changing the basic composition of the atmosphere.

Now one solution to the problem of energy intensiveness would be to create a living solution, something self-perpetuating that “ate” carbon dioxide or methane. But the problem with these ideas is that the potential for unforseen consequences is fairly high. If, for example, a self-perpetuating something or other (this is a technical term) that “ate” carbon dioxide were to be created, what would prevent it from accidentally eating all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, destroying the greenhouse effect, dropping the worldwide average temperature to -10 degrees and freezing the oceans solid. If we are relying on our prior record as human beings for forseeing the unpleasant consequences of our technology to save us, let me just say, “no freakin’ way.”

Every such solution is bound to be dangerous. Adding particulates to the atmosphere (which wouldn’t win the Branson prize but has been proposed quite seriously) to cut down on the sun’s penetration further, has a whole host of possible negatives, including increasing asthma, giving the whole planet emphysema or plunging us into an ice age.

And, of course, the biggest danger, and the most likely one, is that it just plain wouldn’t work. So of the most likely solutions, one or two or ten are likely to fail before we hit on one, if we ever do - and each one is likely to contribute enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, and take billions of dollars and waste time and money and resources we do not have while we try really hard to fix what we’ve done.

Now we’ve known about global warming for decades, and for decades we’ve declined to use the obvious solution - cut back radically on our consumption of energy, use what energy we can use to create non-polluting, renewable solutions, and change our lives. Now we’ve managed to drag ourselves to the brink of viewing our own extinction - whether as planet or simply as a whole lot of suffering individuals who are going to die because we wouldn’t give up our conveniences and live more reasonably. Technologies are what got us into the problem - there’ s no too ways about it. Thus far, we have never created a technology that didn’t in the long term, result in using more stuff, more energy. If we make a more efficient doohickey, the money we save goes to consuming other crap. Our energy consumption has grown steadily, despite all sorts of advances in efficient technology.

In the end, the solution to the global warming problem is mostly not going to be found in a lab - it will be found in our own convictions, and the democratic processes we use to convince our leaders that we are prepared to change and sacrifice in order to see another generation, and ten generations, go forward. It isn’t that technology will do nothing - there are technologies that will enable us to be a little more comfortable, to keep some of our infrastructure and economy intact - how much is not yet clear. But in the end, what will save us, to the extent we can be saved (we are already committed to a great disaster and a century of crisis), is that we stop looking to high technology and start using what already is here, and what we have - our hands and our feet, our backs and our minds, to substitute for the things we think we need.

I will never win the Branson prize, but here’s my entry. If you want to remove 30% of the carbon from the atmosphere, immediately ground the Virgin Atlantic fleet and most airlines, tell Al Gore to get his ass off the jet and stay home in Tennessee (or if he wants, he can run for president from his hybrid bus - whatever). Take the 25 million dollars and all the tax revenue you would have spent sucking methane and use it to pay tropical farmers to preserve the rainforests, rather than grow wheat for cows there. And every person who owns a patch of ground that will grow anything should get their behinds in gear and start turning that patch of earth, every single available cm to garden. Till once, if at all. Use mulch, or seed balls or other low and no till options. Pour every bit of compostable material, including humanure (which fertilized farmer’s fields in the US well into the 1900s and could do it more safely now with good composting techniques and central composting stations in crowded areas), food scraps, garden waste, etc… on the ground and raise the levels of organic matter as high as you can. Raising soil humus levels really does remove carbon from the atmosphere. Will it get us to 30%? No, probably not. But it will get us a fair way, and with far lower chance of extinguishing all human life, wasting billions of dollars and burning up the remaining fossil fuels on stupid solutions.

It is time to stop thinking in terms of putting a heater in the refrigerator, and fix the root problem. Duh.


Lessons from the Not-So-Distant-Past

Sharon February 26th, 2007

My friend Amy loaned me a pile of old _Organic Gardening and Farming_ magazines from the 1970s, and I’ve been meandering through them. If you’ve only ever known the inane magazine that goes by (sort of) the same name in the last decade or two, offering up dim articles like “Get Excited About Pansies” or “Parsnips:Great Tasting Phallic Vegetables,” you are missing something. The old _Organic Gardening and Farming_ Magazine was quite serious about growing food and helping people learn what they needed to know.

One of the things that caught my eye was the December 1976 issue, about an entire town that gardens on a large scale. The town was (and presumably is) named Ursina, somewhere in southwest PA, and was an ordinary, depressed little town suffering from stagflation, oil shocks and assorted miseries of the 1970s (I have no idea what Ursina is like now). The majority of the town’s population was over 60 or under 18, and there were only 80 employable adults out of 284 people. The town had once boomed (the title of the article is “Ursina Had an Opera House”) and now suffered from economic hard times, lack of jobs, an aging population and chronic poverty - rather like a lot of places in the US right now. And probably even more like a lot of places in the years to come, as the Baby Boomers age, and find that they haven’t saved very much and that the safety nets they’ve counted on are at risk of evaporation.

The majority of the town’s members got some kind of government money - many of the employable adults were seasonal construction workers, consistently laid off in the winter and collecting unemployment, the seniors mostly got pensions or social security, and a few people received welfare. But overwhelmingly, they were poor people - people who mostly had worked as miners or on railroads, in construction or whatever, and now didn’t have a lot left. The postmaster notes that most people got a check on the first of the month - and that the end of the month was often a difficult time for people.

I think that last will describe a lot of people in the coming decade. The oldest baby boomers are 61 this year. The savings rate nationally is at -1% - that is, we’re so indebted that we have cancelled out everything we have saved as a nation. The average boomer has much less than they need saved for retirement, and a many of them are counting on their houses - often houses that are still mortgaged - to fund their retirements, just at the cusp of a bubble burst (the slight decline in house prices we’ve seen so far does not constitute a burst - the serious stuff is still to come, as the decline in starts and Toll Bros. profits and such seem to indicate). Many boomers *bought* houses in the last 5 years, moving up to fancier digs, and this will not result in wealth they can easily transfer to their retirements.

As the population ages, there will be more and more people collecting money - social security, pensions (the ones that are left), medicare, etc.. and fewer and fewer people making money for a good while. Any major strain on the economy - say, having to adapt your infrastructure massively to deal with energy depletion or climate change, a few unwise wars (note the buildup on Iran - how much is that one gonna cost?), a currency crisis (China dropped our bond rating again) or a few major disasters (that couldn’t happen… climate change couldn’t cause…oh wait), and there are going to be a lot of older folks in this nation who are going to be struggling economically. Even those who have saved may well be affected - if China and Japan cease propping up our currency, or the stock market crashes, many private savings, 401Ks and pension funds will collapse, worth little or nothing. Consider the victims of Enron, for example.

Now in the 1970s, the government support systems were able to keep paying out for a good long time. But the 70s were fueled by the largest single generation in history coming solidly into their most productive years. That is not the case now - I’m part of the baby bust, born right around the demographic trough before the boomers started having kids in earnest and as the depression generation was winding down. During the depression, for example, the government refused to offer national relief, and the states struggled to maintain a tax base large enough to support the tremendous need. Tax delinquency rates were 30% in much of the country in the early 1930s because of simple inability to pay, and massive foreclosures. And the 1930s did not have the demographic that we have today.

While we have a federal system in place, there is already concern that social security and medicare will be overwhelmed - this year’s budget applies the vast majority of our national resources to foreign wars with no hope of success and destructive consequences. Our debt means we have mortgaged our ability to borrow our way out of a new crisis. Several economists report that there is no way that federal unemployment could continue to pay out if the same percentages of the population were unemployed today, as in the depression - we would bankrupt the system.

Which brings us back to the town of Ursina in 1976. The town had no grocery store, and prices were high because of nearby tourist pressure. One of the few local businesses was an auction house that would sell off anything, even “broken screen doors” to enable people to get by. But the community had a large number of gardens - five families together, for example, combined to grow two huge gardens on combined lots. 80% of the population gardened, 60% of them canned food for winter.

Over 50 or 60 years, according to the story, Ursina moved from being an almost totally independent local economy, with three cider mills, a thriving maple sugar business, an opera house, theater company, mill, tannery and 200 student schoolhouse. By 1976, virtually every penny spent in the town came from outside - from government sources, tourist jobs in other towns, mines and railroads. The only local product that remained were the gardens.

Now I don’t know a thing about Ursina, PA, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that today it is an outlying suburb of somewhere or other, with good schools and a community full of people who get in their cars and drive to a job elsewhere. I’d be willing to bet that most of the money that is used in Ursina comes from far away and goes back there on a regular basis - that is, people drive to their jobs, and then they spend their money in supermarkets and big box stores that take the money and move it elsewhere.

If Ursina is anything like the rest of the US, its demographics involve an aging population, only this time one that hasn’t grown up gardening and farming. The older folks interviewed by _Organic Gardening and Farming_ overwhelmingly had spent their youths in the garden or on the farm. They weren’t picking up hoe and spade for the first time in their lives at 60 or 70 or 80, they were continuing to do what they’d done since childhood, and what was in some senses second nature to them.

These were people who had spent most of their lives in one place - their families were from there, they knew their neighbors, so they could join together and expect adult children to help with the heavy work, or to work with the people who lived near them. This is also probably unlike the present-day population of Ursina, or at least your town.

The people of Ursina did what they had to do to make ends meet in hard times - they planted gardens, canned food, did a little deer hunting, sold off their extra possessions. In short, they did all the things that we are most likely going to need to do - they look rather like us in a decade. The only difference is that this is second nature to them.

It is hard to emphasize how important that last part is - I have no idea what it is like to be 60 or 70, but I have no doubt whatsoever that a 70 year old who had worked in a garden every year for his whole life is in for less stress, pain and suffering than a 70 year old planting his very first garden. Many baby boomers are retiring, not from years as active, blue collar workers, but from years of sitting for 8 hours a day in front of desks - this is going to be a difficult physical transition.

What is needed, first of all, is for every one of us, no matter what age, to begin to pick up, if not the hoe, the hand trowel. Even the physically limited can garden sitting down, in pots, at raised beds. The next thing is to begin to recreate the communities that small towns of 800 could have an opera house, a place for art and music and performance, and a local economy where economic security came and stayed, rather than just visited. The people of Ursina, most of the older of whom are now long gone, I assume, represented people created to operate in local economies. When those local economies fell apart, led by suburban dreams and cheap energy, the ones who stayed may have been left behind, but they had a measure of security that we will have to duplicate without their resources and skills.

The things we have to remake are legion - local economies, physical knowledge, a myriad of skills and community connections. Otherwise, when the next depression comes (and it will), we will find that the elders of our community (and the rest of us too) fare far worse than the people of Ursina.


12 Reasons to Stay Married After Peak Oil and Climate Change

Sharon February 24th, 2007

I wrote this a while back, when someone on a list I’m on asked about reasons to stay together. And no, I don’t believe in purple haired mutants ;-).

1. Gives you something sustainable to do during those rollingblackouts (sex and fighting would probably both fit the bill, actually.)

2. When energy costs bring a romantic evening out’s price up towardsa week’s salary, you’ll have someone to stay home with.

3. Purple haired mutants are poor conversationalists, rarely bring flowers and often have hygeine problems. Some spouses have the samedifficulties, but you’ll be used to them by then, and said spousesrarely eat human flesh.

4. Partners will, out of love, often pretend interest in things like the rate of oil extraction in the Ghawar and the carbon impact of LEDs vs. Compact Flourescents when others begin yawning and wander off.

5. Romantic evenings with spouse may already consist of offering to be the one to cook dinner *and* do the dishes.

6. Newly met potential partners are often turned off by birth control discussions that require home vasectomies or slaughtering a pig tomake condoms.

7. If marriage/partnership produces children, both partners may reasonably blame all homesteading errors and failures on said children, either directly “No, Johnny must have left the gate openfor the cows;” indirectly “Yes, I know I was supposed to weed thegarden but the baby has been crying and I haven’t slept and…;” or abstractly “Yes, I know I screwed up and let the tomatoes rot, but parenthood has rotted out my remaining brains, and I can’t be held accountable.”

8. Huddling together for warmth with a damp spouse who has just come
out of the barn is marginally more pleasant than huddling with adamp dog who has just come from the same place. Usually.

9. No one but your spouse will ever get you to sell/burn/compost your precious collection of 19th century glassware/first edition\nCowboy novels/crackers in the shape of 70s hair bands, no matter how desperately you need the money/heat/soil fertility.

10. When your unbearable sister in law and her three obnoxious children move in because of the crisis, the only person who will put up with them is the person who knows that if he/she doesn’t, his/her demanding, drunken parents will be out on their behinds. Moreover, the absence of tv can be much compensated for by lengthy discussions of whose relatives are more horrifying.

11. Spouses/partners may come to find your true hair color/hairylegs/face/back/chronic allergic snoring/tendency towardssimultaneous wrinkles and zits endearing after you can no longer locate or afford products intended to conceal them. One hopes.

12. Once the peak comes, you know that you’ll have each otherforever, though thick and thin, good times and bad, in the great exigencies of life. After all, divorce is too expensive and you are conserving bullets.


Just Keep Farming Until the Money Runs Out

Sharon February 21st, 2007

There’s an old joke among farmers. One asks, “What would you do if you won 100 million dollars in the lottery?” The farmer thinks for a moment and says, “Oh, I’d probably just keep farming until the money ran out.” And unfortunately - this is, in the end, no joke, but representative of the reality of most American family farmers, and a vast number of farmers world-wide. All over the world, the industrial economy has created situations where the costs of growing food are greater than the prices we pay for it. That means that farmers are terrifically indebted, and terribly vulnerable. And yet, they are willing to pay that price in order to keep a way of life going.

Peter Rosset in his book _Food Is Different_ notes that in Mexico, despite the fact that NAFTA and WTO policies meant that the price of imported corn was up to 33% below the cost of growing it in Mexico, 3 million poor and indigenous farmers still planted their land to maize - even though they couldn’t sell it for a profit because of American grain dumping. The traditions of corn growing were so important, and their commitment to their land so great that the farmers kept on farming, despite heavy economic counterpressures.

And how did they keep on farming? Well, to a large degree by having family members move to Mexican cities, or to America, and send back money to subsidize the desperately poor farmers who still cling to their land and the via campesina, the traditional way of life in the countryside. Despite the active intent of industrial agriculture to undermine traditional ways of life and drive peasants into the cities where they can be used for cheap labor (and into the US for the same purpose), peasants in Mexico and all over the world recognize that even if they have to seperate families, disrupt cultures and risk death by illegal immigration into wealthier nations - life on the land is worth something.

Millions of American farmers recognize the same thing - they work off farm jobs, working at night after a full day on their land, or farming in the evenings on their way home from work. Families that once worked together now are divided as spouses go off the land to get health insurance and make enough money to support their farming. Others become tenant farmers on their own land - going into debt to companies who micromanage each decision and use the farmers as virtual serfs, so indebted are they for huge buildings, elaborate equipment and other materials dictated by large meat and milk processors.

Farmers, in essence, are subsidizing your cheap food by working extra hours, by sending their family members off to work in other nations, by impoverishing themselves. They value their land and their lives sufficiently that they are willing to pay the price to keep farms that are rendered economically unviable by the industrial economy available. This is a shame - that is, something we should be ashamed of, that we treat the people who feed us so shoddily, and do them so much harm.

In poor nations, many farmers are serfs on land they or their families once owned. Over the last decades, the best farmland in the world has been forcibly claimed for multinational corporations, and the peasants who once owned the farmland (but rarely had formal deeds, because their ownership was traditional, going back generations) were impressed into service on plantations as virtual slaves, or cast out to become urban slum dwellers.

When farmers fail, they are either driven off their land and out of their culture, their community and their way of life, or they kill themselves. The rate of farmer suicides in the US has been horrifically high since the 1980s, and those rates are rising in places like South Korea, India and Africa. The choice is offered - the death of way of life - or the end of your life. When Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae committed suicide on the barricades of the 2003 WTO protests in Cancun, he did it holding a sign saying “WTO Kills Farmers” - and they do. Globalization murders farmers, and it murders the way of life that farmers hold dear. It drives them to exhaustion, to illegal immigration, to slavery and serfdom, and to suicide.

Not only is this situation morally horrifying, and destructive to food security and human life, but there’s another issue. Ask yourself - what do these poor Mexican peasants and Korean rice farmers, American corn farmers and African subsistence farmers know that I do not? Seriously, how many of us, if our jobs made us no money at all, if in order to keep them we’d have to do dangerous, exhausting things and break up our families - how many of us would do it? How many of us care so very much for the work we do?

No one, of course. So for those who were not born with a strong connection with land, it is worth asking - what is it about agriculture that makes farmers so desperately willing to sacrifice almost anything, even their lives, rather than lose their relationship with a place, and a piece of land, a culture and a way of life? What do we have in our jobs, in our culture, in our places that we value as much?

And if the answer is “nothing” - that is, if the answer is that we do not value our work and our homes and our way of living and our communities enough to sacrifice nearly everything for it, to stand up and resist what industrial civilization demands, then perhaps we need to look for new ways of life, at the same time we are working to ensure that farmers do not have to make these choices. Most of us regard our homes as a fungible commodity - we could live here or there. We regard our work perhaps as part of our identity, but also fundamentally mobile, changeable. We see our culture, if we feel we have one, as troubled, and few of us would sacrifice to maintain it as it is - we see it as something that ultimately needs transformation. We certainly have little or no relationship with the land itself - most of us only go outside occasionally.

What would we feel about our culture and our lives if we were to stay in one place, invest ourselves, our culture and our lives in soil and community and culture in a deep way, if we were to know a single place profoundly and in depth. Americans right now are the most depressed people in the world - we turn to medication and therapy, but rarely ever to good work and a powerful connection with nature.

It is not enough to say that we must fix agriculture, although we must do that. But in a world of increasing misery and displacement, we must fix ourselves, and agriculture may be a way to do that. It is possible that by returning to small scale agriculture we might find ourselves again, along with remediating some of the great harm our shift to industrial food production has done.


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