Archive for April, 2007

Food Security and Relocalization

Sharon April 15th, 2007

Rebecca sent me an email recently that raised an issue I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I wanted to quote her, because she expressed the problem so clearly,

“The issue is food security and food scarcity. We’ve had a lot of crop failures lately, in the nation and locally. The frost a few months ago took out much of California’s crops and the latest one wiped out a lot of the Midwest and the Southeast. The early estimates around here are that 90% of the peaches, early apples, plums, figs, strawberries, nuts, and winter wheat are gone for the year. As is much of the early spring wheat and corn plantings. Many of the other spring crops –peas, broccoli, radishes etc (including in my own garden) were damaged. We haven’t had a frost this late in years, even though the frost-free date is April 15. This one was really bad as well; three full nights of record lows. Furthermore, it was in the 60s here in February and all of March it barely dropped below 80, so everything started growing early. Spring’s been coming earlier every year, but this year was the earliest yet. (You and I both know the reason for that, though most of the area residents don’t believe it.) Anyhow, if the area had to rely on just local food, there’s a good chance we’d be facing serious food shortages later this year. And that’s the crux of the issue; the main objection I’ve heard to relocalization –save from one couple who thinks a tragedy is not being able to buy a bottle of their favorite fancy french wine ;-) –is the issue of food shortages. If you’re not connected to a longer supply chain and the crops fail, you’re in for a hard time. I thought maybe you might know how to address this.”

I’m not 100% sure I know the best ways to address Rebecca’s comments, but I’ll take a stab at it, because I think it is deeply important subject. If we are to rely on our own food production and our own local food sources, we are most likely going to be more vulnerable to those supply failures. This is a real worry, and like Rebecca, I’ve encountered this concern - and I’ve had it for myself. Two years ago we lost most of our potato crop to flooding, along with several other major crops. It wasn’t a big deal - I just drove over to the localmarket and bought 3 50lbs of potatoes from better drained land than I have. But what if it has been a regional issue, and there were no potatoes to be had?

I think it is helpful to dissect, at least a little, how the current system works. Right now, most hunger is caused by inability to pay. For example, in the US, there are 21 million people who are food insecure - that is, they don’t know from one day to another whether they will eat. Those people are not hungry because there are food shortages in Milwaukee, they are hungry because even though the stores overflow with food. The same is true on a larger scale in many poor nations. In fact, we tend to think of poverty as the inability to buy food - thus equating, for example, self-sufficient farmers and hunter-gatherers who live on less than 2 dollars per day but produce most of their own food, with those who have no land, produce nothing, and cannot feed themselves and their families with that little money.

For example, economists recently argued that CAFTA will enrich Central American farmers - it will displace farmers from their land, but since CAFTA will lower the total price of food, that’s considered a net gain. Of course, given the steady rise of food prices, I’m not sure how they calculate this, much less the difference between the value of owning land and having those resources to derive something from vs. the value of being a slum dweller who owns nothing, but hey - low food prices! In a world where food is rationed by ability to pay, regional crop failures are fairly meaningless for the rich - most Americans don’t even realize they happen.

But a relocalized society, as Rebecca points out, would bring home the concrete realities of things like climate change, local weather conditions and environmental degradation. Rebecca doesn’t say where she lives, but, for example, for the millions of people who have moved to the Southwest, things are going to get really hairy. It isn’t at all clear to me that the driest parts of this nation, or Australia or other places enduring lasting drought due to climate change, are going to be able to feed themselves in the long term. People certainly would endure shortages of desired crops (like the fruiting plants that were harmed by the combination of an early warm spell and hard frosts), and individual regions might well become unable to feed themselves. So whatever system we have has to have built in systems of trade. Some of these problems may be altered by the relocation of populations, but it is easier to move food than people in many cases. What might be usefully different from the current system would be for communities to have an investment in each other’s food security, thus protecting one another from volatility and inflationary food prices. I will talk more about this below.

For the third world, in many cases, the situation would be reversed - many of the poorest and hungriest places in the world are currently exporting food. South India, where hunger rates are rising among the poor, has replaced much of its coastal rice production with export crops like shrimp, and is a major exporter of primary staple foods including wheat and rice. Ethiopia, currently undergoing global warming linked drought, exported food all through the famine of the 1980s and continues to do so. Bangladesh, where the poorest 1/3 of the population eats only 1500 calories a day, grows enough rice on its densely packed land to give everyone two thousand calories, and enough other crops to ensure a balanced diet, and yet a considerable portion of that rice is exported.

So relying on a local system would reduce the likelihood of hunger for many people in the world, while increasing our own danger of famine. I’m tempted to let my answer stop here - to simply argue that it is time that the rich world bore some of the risks. I suspect that sounds callous, but we’ve been increasing people’s risks of hunger for a long, long time, and perhaps doing what is best for the majority but less perfect for us would be the right thing. I think (and I’m not suggesting Rebecca has suggested any such thing) that our fear of localized potential hunger cannot be used to justify causing *real* hunger to people now.

Fidel Castro just issued a j’accuse statement, arguing that the rich world is perfectly willing to create famine among the poor people of the world in order to fuel our cars with ethanol, and he’s right - heck, even Business Week Magazine, hardly a bastion of leftist dissent, admitted Castro had a point. Bringing home our food vulnerabilities might be an excellent object lesson for us, sadly. That is not to say that I wish famine on my nation, but there’s an old Latin American prayer, one that begins, “For those who are hungry, may they have bread. And for those who are not hungry, may they know the hunger for justice.” Some of us could use a little more of the other kind of hunger.

But I won’t leave it at the notion that we should share, with the rest of the world, the same vulnerabilities that the poor do. Not because that’s too harsh, but because it doesn’t resolve the basic question of how we get to the point that every person in the world has food to eat. Nor have I any wish to condemn anyone, ever, to hunger. So along with relocalizing our gardens, we need local food security programs.

Now I’m not wholly committed to this model, but it is one of the possibilities that has occurred to me as I think about this issue. I’m sure some of you will have better ones. My proposition would be that local communities open food security centers, consisting of (ideally), a food pantry, a community kitchen for community canning and food storage, along with cooking classes, a cafeteria, and a food banking system and store.

How would this work? Let us imagine A, who is a farmer of 70 acres of mixed hay, oats, sheep, orchard and vegetables. He has a truck garden, sells locker lambs, hay, and grain, and runs a pick your own and a pumpkin patch in the fall. B lives on a 1/4 acre lot in this town, and grows a vegetable garden and has a few peach and pear trees.

A grows and puts up a lot of what he eats, or barters some of his things with neighbors who provide him with things like milk, honey, beer and strawberries. After he feeds himself and his family, he sells what he doesn’t need. But let us say that this year was a very good one for everything but pumpkins. A has more apples than he can sell, had a great oat year, and a bumper crop of tomatoes. And since other people had good tomato years, the price isn’t that high. So first, A puts up a lot of extra stuff. He puts some extra sacks of oats in his feed bin, just in case next year isn’t so good, and he sun dries a ton of tomatoes, cans some up, and make a lot of applesauce. He makes enough apple and tomato products so that he’s good for a couple of years. And then, he has a choice - he can sell his surpluses out of the community, if he can find a buyer (although prices have been going down since shipping costs have risen), or he can sell them at a slightly discounted rate to the local food bank.

The food bank will take his tomatoes and put them up in the community cannery. Some of the tomatoes will go fresh to the food pantry, others will go in the form of sauce made in the cannery to meet immediate food needs. This is supported by local taxes, and by a percentage of the profits the food bank makes. Some will go to the cafeteria, which serves simple, good meals made out of seasonal, local ingredients. The prices are fairly low, and the food is very fresh. Some of the food for the local schools is also produced here and transported over to them, and the school buys ingredients from the food bank as well. The cafeteria used to only be open once a day, for lunch, but demand has risen so much that it is available for dinner now too, and they are thinking of adding breakfast. The cafeteria is a semi-private enterprise - that is, a local chef was offered a very low rent and stable prices for local ingredients if she was willing to provide food using mostly those ingredients and at a comparatively small profit per item. The small rent helps defray costs in other areas. The community cannery is funded by the small fee charged for its use, by putting on cooking classes (focused on how to use local ingredients) and by the trading surplus.

When Farmer A sells his oats to the food bank, some are immediately put into the community reserve, which attempts to grow a reserve supply of locally produced food to last 6 months for every member of the community. The rest of it is added to a trading coop, which may hold the grain until prices rise, or sell it now, or may even barter it for a like quantity of grain from another region. The Coop markets shippable dry staples - grains, beans, dehydrated foods, herbs, spices, wool, other luxury items to similar trading coops. There are caps on prices for all such community coops - but that doesn’t mean prices can’t rise, just that they can’t experience runaway inflation. Farmers are paid the present trading price for their goods (or they are free to trade them other ways - there are no quotas), which cannot fall below or rise above a particular price point for each good. If a profit is made, 5% of it returns to the farmer who initially sold their product at a stable lower price. The rest is put into the coop. Staples are either shifted to food stores, or sold at capped prices for the rest of the community during off seasons, when they won’t be competing with local growers. That is, the community center sells tomato sauce in the winter, and oats in the summer when local people have the smallest stocks.
The elected board of the food bank includes several local farmers, as well as community members. The coop might also eventually start selling non-food items - soap, used clothing, locally made tools and woodworks.

Now what happens in a really bad year? Let us say that A loses half his lambs to disease, a late frost drops his apple harvest by 80%, and his oat crop is flattened by hail. This year he has only hay and a few vegetables to sell, and nothing but garlic to put up for his own use. Well, the good thing is that his personal storage is his first line - A still has tomatoes, applesauce, and oats. And since a lot of his customers also put up extra, most of them have those things too. But the whole town is falling short of its needs. Well, fortunately, we’ve got that food bank. Not only is there a 6 month supply of staple foods (and not only have we been offering food classes all along in cooking and eating those foods), but we’ve been trading all along with other communities, and can buy grain outside the community at capped prices, that make it affordable to local people. Why doesn’t the market simply drive up prices? Well, because it is generally in everyone’s interest to have stable food prices - because, given the environmentally volatile period we’re in, you never know whether it will be you next.

In fact, the towns might go further than this, and create an expansion of the CSA system to the community level. That is, town X might forge a relationship with town Y in another region. In it, town X and town Y, one in a warm place, one not, might broker an agreement to each grow and subsidize some extra capacity for one another, and then split the proceeds down the middle if it is profitable year, and otherwise, sell directly to the other if there is a food shortage. The idea would be for their to be a formal relationship, and a mutual investment, that pays off when and if there is a significant crop shortage. The cost of transporting food from one place to another could be paid by the sale of the surplus capacity, and systems for emergency distribution set up using that mechanism.

One place to read more about possible models would be Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe’s book _Hope’s Edge_. In it, they describe a variety of possible solutions to the question of food security.

I have no doubt that my readers will take me to task on all sorts of fronts for this, and I also have no doubt there are probably better ways to manage these risks. Nor do I deny that none of these is a perfect system - an extended drought, seven lean years, all sorts of things could happen that would exceed any local and individual system, which is why I also think state and national reserves need to be expanded. In order to do that, we will almost certainly have to stop making biofuels. We need to be able to move food aid to places that have exhausted local resources - on the other hand, having local resources (most communities have none) could only improve things.

I don’t think there is a solution that can resolve the basic vulnerability created by relocalization. At best, relocalizing food systems and creating food sovereignty can only mitigate, it cannot entirely eliminate it. What we can do is probably ensure that people avoid hunger, for the most part. But in an extended crisis, Americans would find themselves, like their poorer counterparts, relying on food aid, rather than going to shops and buying anything they want. I hope you will forgive me for thinking that this might also have some salutary consequences.

I’m not sure I have answered Rebecca’s question. I’m not sure I can. Perhaps others have better answers.


Production, Consumption and Amish Economics

Sharon April 12th, 2007

Out in the middle of nowhere, where we live, the shopping options aren’t so great. There’s a Wal-Mart (ick) about 20 minutes in one direction and a conventional grocery store 20 minutes in the other. If I don’t mind driving 1/2 hour, I can get to a collection of ethnic grocers, and if I want to go 45 minutes, there’s a food coop in downtown Albany. For other items, there’s the Crossgates Mall in Albany, about 45 minutes away, but since I’d rather kiss John Yoo than go to a mall (ok, not quite - not unless I get to bite him), our clothing and material goods needs tend to be met (in years when we shop at all) by goodwill, yard sales and occasional online shopping.

But while official grocery stores aren’t plentiful, we’re fortunate, even out here, to have a number of reasonably good other options. The first is our own garden. Today we’re having a late-season ice storm (just in case I was in denial that this is still the Northeast), and steady, cold temperatures have prevented me from doing any serious planting yet. But there’s still spinach and kale to be had in the garden, and the first chives. We like those better than any supermarket alternative anyway - the cold weather gives them wonderful flavor.

And then there’s what I call the “Localmarket” - the major farm stand in the next town over from us has expanded to sell locally raised milk, meat, eggs, soap, pottery and blankets, as well as the flowers, bedding plants, vegetables and fruit they grow themselves. We look forward to going there, simply because it is such a wonderful place to visit - a walk through the greenhouse inspires us to believe in spring, and a we invariably run into people we know, catch up on gossip, and chat up the owners while picking up local cabbage they grew last fall and cheddar cheese made from the milk of local Amish farmers.

In a small village between the Localmarket and me is a 19th century general store that has since been taken over by a friend and fellow homeschooler. She used to sell bulk goods out of her home, but they overflowed her kitchen, and now she sells organic flours, grains, beans, as well as goodies, her own home baked bread, local milk, and subs and slushees of distant vintage. I get the soybeans for my homemade tofu from the general store, the wheat we grind, the oats we eat for breakfast and dried apples when we run out of homemade ones.

Between the Localmarket and the Little Store on the Corner, we don’t really need to shop at the supermarket (although we do buy some things there - bribes for the disabled oldest and the potty training three year old, for example), and we can make the occasional trip to the food coop and Asian market once every month or two. In fact, except in the dead of winter, we don’t really need to shop that often at all - there are plenty of vegetables in the yard, and eggs in the henhouse. As long as we store some staples - beans, grains, seasonings - why shop? Dinner can always be had, and the food is always good.

A disturbing proportion of all travel involves shopping. Now one of the things we can all do to minimize our energy consumption is to live closer to shops and jobs, so that we can walk or bike for our daily needs. And in movements like the new urbanism, the idea that we should build stores into neighborhoods has a lot of play. The idea is that we should create officially mixed use neighborhoods, with stores built downstairs and residences above and next door. The pictures are always so pretty - they show lots of people out, walking, presumably shopping…
But wait - isn’t part of what we have to do to stop buying so much stuff entirely? That is, I have no doubt that we’ll still need nails and potting soil, books and beer, peas and sweaters, but how often do we have to buy these things? How much of our time and energy do we actually need/want to devote to shopping? And how much of our cultural life do we want to devote to consuming? And do we need to enable this by creating a lot of separate, official “shopping” spaces that have to be heated, and lighted, and maintained, and that implicitly encourage things like chain stores, which have the capital to rent, heat and light a separate building? Also, what aren’t we doing if we live in urban areas - now many of the nicest planned areas include plenty of greenspace, including community gardens. But is such concentrated planning sufficient to allow individuals to grow most of their own food, or are they tokens?

I just had an email exchange with NoImpact Man himself on this subject (btw, he was on the Colbert report this week - I haven’t seen it yet, since I have no cable and no vcr, but a neighbor taped it and I will eventually), and he asked me whether it was realistic to expect urbanites to produce things. I think that’s a real question - that people without access to land and natural resources to nurture and use sustainably may only ever have the choice to support the production of others and reduce their consumption as much as possible. But I wonder sometimes whether we can convince the world to change based on what you can’t have, rather than what you can buy and make? I don’t claim to have an answer, but I do think that densely populated areas will run into these questions - and that while I applaud some visions of new urbanism (particularly those that don’t cost 300K a house), I think it may be that even a small patch of ground that is yours by right or tradition matters. But certainly, we could also do a great deal more production in urban centers than we do - most cities in Asia and Africa, for example, produce significant amounts of their food and often other goods as well.

Now if you live in an urban center, and in a small apartment like many New Yorkers or Parisians, you certainly will need to shop pretty regularly. Those 50 lb sacks of rolled oats don’t fit so well in tiny galley kitchens, and there’s only so much toilet paper you can put under the bed. And, of course, if you live in a place where commerce is the primary project of everyday life, your life is probably affected by that as well in assorted cultural ways. My father recently came to visit this side of the country, and before he came to visit me, he spent some time in NYC seeing friends and pursuing a research project. He noted to me that at the New York Public Library, in an institution whose central project is fundamentally anti-commercial, there is now a gift shop, so that if you need not merely borrow a copy of _Where the Wild Things Are_, you can buy it, and a giant stuffed Wild Thing to go along. It seems to me that the tendency to forget that there are barriers between commercial life and the rest of it may be more acute in places where you can’t escape commerce, because that’s what people do. But I don’t insist on the interpretation - because, after all, all of us consume like crazy no matter where we live.

And there’s nothing inherently bad about daily shopping - although urban folks buy more meals out and ride on airplanes more than the rest of us, they often consume fewer resources in total than we do, because they don’t necessarily have cars or large homes that they can stuff with stuff. In fact, being able to buy your daily bread means that you don’t have to have a big old fridge, a lot of appliances, etc… I know quite a few New Yorkers who use their kitchens as places to story the coffee pot and not much else. In the net, this may be good, particularly if sustainable New Yorkers begin pressuring local restaurants and other facilities to use local, seasonal ingredients, to buy only sustainably produced meat, etc…. In many places, upscale restaurants are already in the vanguard of such movements - now we need to make it accessible to everyone, bringing local food to the local diner.

The only caveat I’d have is that in many cases, urban gentrification has meant that people who live in tightly packed cities have “shadow” footprints - that is, they don’t need to use that much gas themselves, but they are in part responsible for the long commutes of the people who come into the city to serve their needs - the poor folks who live in the Bronx or the burbs who spend an hour on the subway or in cars every morning coming in to be nannies and doormen, delivery guys and cooks. If your small footprint depends on a lot of people who can’t afford to live in your neighborhood being able to get there, you are responsible, in part, for those footprints too.

That is, when we calculate ecological footprints, we tend to think that everyone is wholly responsible for their own footprint - the suburbanite with the long commute who drives 45 minutes to her mall takes responsibility when she calculates her footprint. But let us say you live in a city that is increasingly wealthy, and the increasingly wealthy people who live in your neighborhood mostly work as stockbrokers and college professors, not as waiters and garbage men. Now is the guy who commutes an hour to haul your garbage, or the woman who comes down from her much poorer neighborhood (where there isn’t any accessible farmer’s market) to clean your toilets responsible for the whole of her ecological footprint? Or does some of the responsibility lie with the people who have made the neighborhood accessible only the rich - and thus dependent on long-haul poor people? There’s a report in this week’s Nation about how poor people in the suburbs now outnumber those in cities - as a direct consequence of the gentrification of cities. So you now see people who live in suburbs and old smaller cities who now drive long distances to serve the needs of people with comfy small ecological footprints in urban centers. And of course, those ecological footprints cost money - it costs those poor people money to haul into wealthy neighborhoods to go to work. As prices rise for things like gas and public transport, the benefits they get are cut back. The further away they live, the more of their own ability to provide for their needs they lose (because they haven’t time) and the less of their own money they take home. This is true as much in wealthy suburbs as cities, of course. But cities require a density of support workers greater than suburbs, so I’m focusing on them.

Now this may sound like I’m picking on city dwellers, and I don’t intend to - we need city dwellers, because there isn’t enough land in the world to have everyone have a big chunk of it. On the other hand, I do think that wherever you live, advocacy is going to be the name of the game - we need to rethink the places we live in. If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of dentists and architects and not a lot of nurses and cooks, you need to think about where your community’s nurses and cooks will come from (or what our communities would look like without them), and about ways in which we might enable them to come live where we do. And some of us might have to decide that it is time to clean our own toilets and cook our own dinners, unless we’re willing to make it possible for others to lower their footprints by living closer to their jobs (actually we should clean our toilets, cook our dinners and when we don‘t pay those who do that much better). I’m going to talk more, later in this essay, about advocacy and zoning, because I think these are going to be among our most important battles in the future.

For those of us who live in cities, large and small, and even good-sized towns with viable downtowns (increasingly unavailable), and work there too, the “walk-to-daily-shopping” model is entirely viable, and it has a long tradition. This is what one does in much of Europe - off one goes to the baker and the butcher, the cheese maker and the vegetable person, or the open market with its vendors. It is important to remember that in these little markets, the food is mostly only one remove away from its origin at most - the butcher probably slaughtered his meat himself, and knew the farmer who grew it, the farmer grew those melons herself, the fishmonger spent the morning picking over stock from local fisherman, the cheese maker sends her daughter. Note the absence of multinationals, the recognizability of origins, and the connection between seller and grower. And if you aren’t inclined to take your bread and cheese and melon home and eat it, there’s the local vendor, who will cook local fish and vegetables for you. Sometimes the cook is the one who grew the food, or perhaps he bought it this morning from the grower. And ideally, at every step you will be enriching not the people who own stock in Banana Republic or the dictator of some banana republic, but your neighbor who does the cooking, and the farmer who brought his wares down the river to you, and the baker who lives down the street - above her shop.

Unfortunately, a decreasing amount of urban development looks like this, and the only way to make it happen is to make it happen with a combination of rezoning, rent subsidies and rent control, local subsidies for local agriculture, food coops - that is, the only way to make it happen is with a heck of a lot of collective work. It means before you figure out what to have for dinner (or what to wear, or what to build or what to fix or whatever) you have to figure out where to get it and create the kind of conditions necessary to enable it. It is a bit of work (you probably will want something to eat while you are at it - it might take a while).

But what about the millions of people who live outside cities, who can’t at present walk to anything? What about people who live in suburbia, or out in the country like me? You’ve all read Jim Kunstler telling us that suburbia is going to hell in a handbasket, and that the suburbs of the present will be the slums of the future. And as foreclosure rates rise, this may end up being true. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be, and the answer is a combination of rezoning, advocacy and Amish Economics.

What do I mean by Amish Economics? Well Gene Logsdon has an essay in _Living at Nature’s Pace_ about the economies build around Amish communities. In “A Horse Drawn Economy” Logsdon points out that his small, rural county in Ohio is home to a huge amount of business - much of it spurred by the Amish. Livestock auctions, small factories making cookstoves and horse-drawn equipment, farmstands and little quilt businesses. All of these spring up where the Amish go - because they patronize not the cheapest business, but members of their own community, and because others see benefits to patronizing them, they are profitable. And also because they don’t need to pay electric bills and large infrastructure utility bills, or even rent, since they usually work out of their homes and barns or buildings they build on their own properties, they keep most of the money the bring in.

I see that myself. We have two local Amish settlements. One is a bit of a ways away, where friends of ours live in the town of Palatine Bridge. It has a fairly sizable Amish community, and nearly every road you go down with a horse and buggy warning sign on it also has a sign that says “Jams and Jellies” “Baked Goods Saturday” “Bentwood Rockers” or “Harness Shop.” At minimum, just about every farmstead has a day they bake for sale, and a sign that says fresh eggs. My guess - a rough count at best - is that there are between 100 and 200 Amish families, and that 1/2 of them have some kind of cottage industry. Not bad in a town that has never heard of a tourist (this is *not* Lancaster). Add to that the fact that cottage industries are kind of a thing out in the country anyhow, and there’s a small but burgeoning economy, Amish and non, and a host of people who mostly take in local dollars, keep them local, and don’t give much of it back to National Grid, supermarkets or what have you. Even their property taxes are lower - the lack of wiring cuts down the value of the property as resale thing - which is ok, since they plan to live their, not flip it for a profit.

Now the Amish have recently begun moving to a small town much closer to us where we also have friends. First there was one family, and hardly had they moved in when the eggs and pies started selling. Now there are half a dozen, with a couple more houses going up. There’s a man with a small sawmill, selling mostly to non-Amish neighbors, a guy who makes chicken coops and gazebos, one who sells draft horses, and two bakers - all in a town of less than 500 people that has only had Amish in it for about two years.

Now what’s interesting about this is that these communities don’t have any of the things that
New Urbanists deem necessary for life - you can’t walk to shopping, there aren’t a heck of a lot of stores nearby, and they don’t build shops. At most, they build the occasional farmstand. But generally speaking, you go into people’s houses, and buy your bread at their kitchen table, your quilts from their spare room, or pick up your rocker from the barn. And, of course, they farm, too. The place where they earn their livelihood is their home.

We’ve already built our suburbs and exurbs, and to a large degree, how well we do in the future is going to depend on how well we extract happiness from what we’ve got. So for those of us who don’t have village shopping - should we be troubled? I don’t think so, not if we’re prepared to put Amish economics into place, and fight to rezone the suburbs. Some of this could happen in cities as well, and probably will, but it is tougher - space is tighter and zoning is stricter, and opening a blacksmith shop in your 16th floor apartment probably isn’t going to happen.

Now most of the houses people have been building out in the burbs are *big* - since 1950, our per capita square footage has tripled, from 293 square feet to 893 square feet. Now we if we used to get along just fine on a third of the space, that means we could do that again, while reserving some of our home space for things like cottage industries and telecommuting for them that can. Heck, we’ve got millions of garages, and cars don’t need houses. We could easily turn them into small business spaces with minimal or no investment of resources - nothing more is needed than for you to move that old table into the garage in many cases. Or perhaps we could convert those garages, or the spare rooms we keep just in case someone comes to visit (couldn’t possibly kick the kids into sleeping bags so Grandma could have the bed, could we?) into space we could rent affordably, so that our neighborhoods could be a little more diverse, and the people who work in them now could afford to live there too.

Meanwhile, we’ve got all these yards - the average American house has close to 1/2 acre around it. You can grow an awful lot of food in that space - enough, if you both generalize and specialize, to grow most of your veggies and a crop to trade or sell. We’ve put in fancy gourmet kitchens, large enough for us to bake muffins for our neighbors or make enough lasagna to drop off next door. We have closets full of clothes that could be replaced with closets full of home canned goods, homespun yarn and buckets full of whole grains.

Suburbia is already designed to create small, walkable retail centers for shopping - it has the means of production (land), and the space to hold them (houses). And we, like the Amish, could look upon our homes as the places we produce things, and do our work. What we have to do, as in urban centers, is to rezone our land, and then to start thinking of our homes as the center of our economies. At home, we do the things that enable us not to need money (we cook from scratch, clean our own toilets, make things, make do, repair, live lightly), at home we do the things that enable us to make a little money for the taxes (whether telecommuting or making axes). Right now, our homes are places we spend our cash, and from which we extract cash - things to borrow against. But a sustainable future depends on us being able to own a place to live, and none of us want to end up the next Hoovervilles.

Like the Amish, we’re going to have to need a lot less, and keep most of our money for ourselves. That might mean giving up electricity altogether, or certainly giving up a lot of our lovely powered appliances and toys. It might mean encouraging things that don’t “raise the value” of our homes - but raise the quality of life in our homes, like adding low income or interstitial housing (my husband, btw, commenting on the fact that our local rich suburb has the houses marked by 4s, leaving plenty of numbers available for new homes in this densely packed burb, argues that they are planning for interstitial shantytowns, just in case ;-))

It will take some work (or a massive crisis) to get people to recognize that zoning as it exists now mostly operates to enforce a life that has to end. We need to accept that it is possible to have peace and joy with gardens instead of front lawns, shops in your neighbor’s garage and chickens in the backyard. We will probably need to scrap a whole host of regulations, including, perhaps some involving the sale of food - while it may be that large scale food production should still take place in certified kitchens, there are things (bread, for example) with which it is almost impossible to poison anyone, and other things where one ought to have the opportunity to understand the risks and take your chances - there is no inherent reason why my neighbor’s chicken soup is ok for me to eat when she brings it over if I’m sick, but not ok if I pay her a buck for a cup. We will need to get over our sue-happy culture, and start expecting that reasonably intelligent people can be expected to behave like grownups and deal if something accidentally goes wrong. Poop on your chicken eggs? Well, let me just wipe that off! Or you could go to the supermarket where they have the eggs that magically come from the special, never-poopin chickens…right. We all need to relax a little.

And we will need, in general, to buy things less often, which is where I started all of this, and why I’ve talked so much about food. Because we have to eat every day - that is, you either grow all your food, or you buy some of it, and you buy it fairly regularly, since you do it all the time. On the other hand, how often do we need to buy clothing? Or tools? Even food could be shopped for only occasionally if we had gardens and room to store things. And you don’t have to have a big freezer or fridge, or even a freezer or fridge at all to do these things - there are other ways of putting things up, and if you mostly eat meat as a festival meal, when others have it, you will find you don’t need more refrigeration than you can get by putting things overnight in a bucket of cool water.

Some of our shopping is for necessity. Some of it is just for habit - we shop for comfort, for fun, because there’s nothing else to do. And the more that we rely on buying things as a way to meet needs, rather than making them or fixing them or doing without, the more we find shopping inevitable, and the more often there’s nothing else of interest to do. That is, if you don’t knit your socks or build your furniture or bake your bread, not only do you need to buy these things, but you have that much less interesting, meaningful and productive work in your life, and when you are thinking about what to do, shopping sounds better than staying home.

Once upon a time, areas too small to have their own in-place shopping center had a local market. Once a week or once every other week, people with something to sell came by and everyone did their marketing then. Once in a while, a festival market would happen - there would be a larger quantity of goods, many of them luxury items, or things that weren’t usually available. We have that model already, in the modern farmer’s market, and that is the other possible way of rehabilitating suburbia - instead of building the stores into the community, the stores come to you once in while, and when they do, you buy what you need, celebrate, enjoy, and wait until next time. And in the meantime, your mind and creativity are focused on making what you have last. That’s good work.

Now I know that this will engender the protest from someone that no one has time to do these things - we can’t have shopping on just one day per week, because, after all we wouldn’t all be able to get our shopping done. And we can’t start a cottage business, or fight to rezone because it is too time consuming - we have to do X or Y. And all of that is true, as far as it goes - we are busy. We are tired. Many of us don’t have time to bake bread or knit sweaters. But as I keep doing, I’m going to ask - for those of us who are middle class and better, isn’t baking the bread and knitting the sweaters, running the cottage business and growing the garden enough, along with extreme frugality and care, perhaps enough to let one member of a household focus on that work? Isn’t this a way out of the whole rat race thing?

And for those who are too poor to have many options - well, again, those of us who aren’t certainly need to do our share of enabling them to have better lives. And for those poor folk who do have a little spare time to write or argue or think, perhaps a good use of that time would be telling the rich folk around you that it is their insistence that you can’t earn money from the land you own, and their ways of keeping your from owning that land that are part of the problem. I know we mostly haven’t cared before. Who knows, maybe we can change that too.


A Cheery Thought

Sharon April 9th, 2007

My several weeks of chaos, guests and madness are still in progress, not leaving me an enormous amount of time for blogging. But I did want to mention something heartening I noticed the other day. This may not mean much for those of you who don’t pay too much attention to the peak oil movement, but to me, it is good news indeed.

For those of you who don’t know, Richard Heinberg is the person who wrote the first, and still most canonical book on oil depletion and its consequences, _The Party’s Over_, and he’s probably the most influential person in the peak oil movement. When Heinberg speaks, not only do true believers listen, but so do governments and scientists - he’s testified before the EU and congress and has proved himself to be have a remarkable gift for synthesizing evidence from a range of fields.

This year, he’s turned a large portion of his focus to agriculture, has been a strong voice for the deindustrialization of agriculture (one of my particular passions). Because I think Heinberg’s analyses are consistently good, I was excited to read this particular passage in his recent interview with _Acres_:

“Using the knowledge that we’ve built up over the last several decades about organic farming, about small-scale food production using techniques such as permaculture and bio-intensive and so on, I think it’s possible for us to produce food in a way that doesn’t destroy topsoil, in a way that preserves fresh water and that feeds as many people as we have in the world today. But it’s going to require a lot more people doing the work of producing the food, because truly sustainable agriculture is a much more labor-intensive process.”

I think the notion that we can feed the world *as it is* represents something of a turn around for Heinberg. In _The Party’s Over_, he says,

“How Many people will post-industrial agriculture be able to support? This is an extremely important question, but one that is difficult to answer. A safe estimate would be this: *as many people as were supported before agriculture was industrialized* - that is, the population at the beginning of the 20th century, or somewhat fewer than 2 billion people.” (Heinberg, 196)

Now I don’t want to overstate what Heinberg said in _Acres_ - I don’t think that this in any way represents a change in his advocacy for self-limitation, including population limitations, nor should it. But I do want to point out that one of the best minds I know, having turned his focus to food production, agrees that even a catastrophic loss of fossil fuels does not have end in hunger (and if Russia is telling the truth about continued indications from the US that we’ll bomb Iran, that’s good news indeed). We can feed ourselves, if we are willing to do the work of farming and gardening.

Someone recently said, “I’ll believe we can feed the world with organic agriculture when we feed 1 billion people.” Which delighted me, since a 1995 FAO report points out that we’re actually feeding more than 2 billion people already with low input, largely organic agriculture, mostly by small scale farming. And those 2 billion people tend to be poor, and to have been pushed off the best land in their countries. What could we do if instead of export crops, they got to grow their own food there? What could we in the rich nations do on our lawns and greenspaces?

I recommend you read the rest of the interview, and, if it isn’t 20 degrees there (like here), you could go out and plant some potatoes.

Sharon in upstate NY

World War II as a Metaphor - Part I

Sharon April 5th, 2007

This post was inspired by the fact that I keep running up against the notion that all we have to do is be as we once were, and we can defeat peak oil and climate change without really disrupting our world and society. I don’t think that’s likely - but whether or not it is possible, it certainly requires more analysis than simply referencing World War II as a metaphor for what we can accomplish. This is Part I of a two part series.

World War II as Metaphor
by Sharon Astyk

The response of the US to World War II has emerged as one of the most commonly used ways of thinking about what will be required of over the coming decades as we confront peak oil and climate change. Because the second world war was a period of remarkable national unity that accomplished some astounding things, we tend to look back at the period as evidence that we as a nation can accomplish equally astounding things in our response to these challenges. And to some degree that may well be the case.

The Hirsch report, commissioned by the US Department of Energy and published in 2005 uses World War II repeatedly as an analogy. We are told that a program that was similar to but *in excess of* the World War II response would be required in order to effect a transition away from fossil fuel dependency *in 20 years* - the word used more than once is “unprecedented.” So to do climate change writers use WWII as an analogy. Joseph Romm, former Assistant Secretary of Energy under the Clinton administration writes in _Hell and High Water_, “This national (and global) reindustrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer.” (Romm, 235). Romm’s book and the Hirsch report are among dozens of books I am aware of that use reference to World War II scale changes as a useful model or analogy.

Such analyses imply that not only would we need to do what we did in World War II, as Niels Bohr put it, “turn the entire nation into a factory,” but also that the same mobilization of civilian resources would be required - that is, ordinary Americans would be called upon in similar ways to World War II. During the second world war, Americans endured rationing, women were called upon to enter the workforce, factories were staffed 24 hours a day, imports were restricted and nearly every aspect of daily life was altered.

But if we are to use World War II as evidence, metaphor or argument for our capacity to transform our society, we need to understand which parallels are relevant and which are not - that is, we need to know what enabled the World War II response, and what is similar or different in our own society. I am not attempting to assess the whole of our national capacity to respond to peak oil, or whether World War II is the best or only analogy, but merely to analyze how likely it is that the same strategies used during the 1940s would be available to us now. In taking a closer look at home front strategies, it is worth noting that much has changed that may make things more difficult for us. We do have some advantages as well, most notably that the entire nation could be mobilized, rather than moving large percentages of it overseas to die (assuming, of course, that we cease waging war in our spare time).

I suggest, then, that we think very carefully about what we can and *should* do (it may well be the case that something like what we accomplished in the 1940s could occur, but that it would be a disaster to do so from a long term standpoint - more on this later), what is possible and what is not possible, what is different and what is the same. It is all very well to call for a national commitment and build out, but the stakes of failure are extremely high, and if we allow the metaphor of World War II to overpower the fact that we live in a very different world than we did then, we are likely to make mistakes in our choices.

First, the major disadvantages we experience. You will note, sadly, that this is a much longer list than the subsequent one of advantages that will appear in part II.

1. We are starting much further behind than we were in World War II. To a large degree the success of the World War II build out depended on the anticipatory vision of Franklin Roosevelt and some of his advisors. He began laying the groundwork for the defense build out long before it was obvious that the US must become involved in the War - as early as the 1938 Munich Conference, Roosevelt ordered the development of a preparedness program and a vastly expanded air force. Until the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, the US was at best divided between isolationists and interventionists, and there was no unified political will to create a defensive build up. And yet, by using his political capital, Roosevelt began laying the groundwork for expanding American defensive resources in 1938, and for providing aid to Britian in 1939, several years before the US would be embroiled in war. 18 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in the spring of 1940, for example, Roosevelt established the NDAC, a board designed to bring business, consumers, labor and industry together for defense production While the board was later replaced, the notion that all participants in the economic process had to be brought together, because of the scale of the operation was a radical one, and Roosevelt anticipated it, laying the groundwork for the war production board, rationing, price controls and other economic strategies.

It is worth noting here that even though Roosevelt was extremely prescient, the delays inherent in large-scale build out might have proved disastrous in other circumstances. Britain was able to hold out against the Nazis in part because of a miscalculation by the Germans that enabled the evacuation of Dunkirk. Had the Germans pressed further on Britain, they might have taken the Island early in the war, before the US managed to bring its supplies of guns, tanks and its men into full preparedness. Germany would then have attacked Russia on a single front and most likely taken all of Europe fairly quickly (the single front estimates of time for Russia to fall to Germany were under 2 months), and then begun to look toward the US. That is, we got damned lucky, and we should not count on that happening again. It took a full 18 months to get US production up to where it was intended, much of it in infrastructure construction.

We should take from this the lesson that we cannot begin preparing too soon - in fact, as we all know, it is almost certainly too late. We are already well into climate change, committed to a significant and continual temperature rise. We are also most likely at or near the world oil peak, with natural gas to follow shortly. And new research suggests that coal is also in shorter supply than expected. In both cases, we should have begun decades ago, and whatever we do now will be affected by contracting resources, rising prices and the fact that infrastructure construction will also take a considerable amount of our time and energy. Our position is roughly analagous to our beginning war planning only after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

2. Leadership counts - and we haven’t got it. To an enormous degree, the US ability to respond to the rise of fascism was determined by the leadership of Roosevelt and his advisors. He was able to guide the nation in a direction that its own political will was not adequate to take - and convince the nation to support him. Roosevelt took enormous risks with the nation - and they paid off. It is hard to judge whether he was simply fortunate or whether his ability to forsee what happened was a particular gift, but whatever it was, for example, Roosevelt believed that Britain could hold on despite the German onslaught. The majority of Roosevelt’s military advisors believed that Britain would fall, and strongly opposed Roosevelt’s plan to send arms to Britain - arms that the US would need in the event of an attack. But Roosevelt’s strategy of stripping the US army to buy time worked.

Roosevelt also had Eleanor, whose importance should not be understated. Her consistent emphasis on not just winning the war but creating a just society influenced her husband, who had similar goals but was much more inclined to bow to political realities. Both believed that soldiers had to return home to a real democracy - for example, FDR called for the nation to treat “four freedoms”, including freedom from want, on par with the Bill of Rights. He did not live to see that happen, but they did effect a large scale redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, encouraging the rise of the middle class. Eleanor Roosevelt consistently brought human rights and civil rights to the table, and insisted that her husband pay attention to those interests, and that plan for a just future. She consistently was concerned with the creation of a post-colonial society, with universal civil rights, desegregation and the needs of women and returning soldiers. While Franklin Roosevelt was primarily focused on what was necessary, Eleanor Roosevelt was most concered with what should be. The two of them together, along with their aides, creating something greater than either could have alone, a nation with not only military might but a moral center. We lack a moral center today.

Neither were perfect, and I do not intend to suggest that their handling of the war, or their policies were ideal. The Japanese internment camps, the refusal of refugee status to fleeing Jews, and many other war policies were just plain amoral, and many other practices were mistaken. But realistically, we cannot expect leaders who won’t make mistakes, or even leaders who will never do anything wrong or evil. At best, we can hope for people who see the future and seek to get us there, while keeping track of issues of principle and justice. I am not attempting to absolve either Roosevelt for any of their errors - but the reality is that both led the nation, rather than simply following - and that alone is quite an accomplishment.

The present situation is very different - not only, as well know, is the present administration made up of fools and liars, but there are no great leaders waiting in our wings that I am aware of. Perhaps such a leader will appear as a product of difficult times, or perhaps someone who I do not see as great will find greatness. I do not know. Moral arguments, however, have been reduced to what Ron Dreher, author of _Crunchy Cons_ describes as “Look, it is Janet Jackson’s unsheathed ta-ta!” Finding someone (or someones) who can enable us to face the future and also our own deficiencies seems difficult. Preserving what is worthwhile (or was) in American society will be as integral as preserving what we can of our economy and culture, perhaps more so.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that many nations have faced crises without a great leader - as long as the people were great and led in the right direction, “leaders” arose and stood around directing traffic. The Roosevelts, for example did not arise in a vacuum. They were products of a nation of activists and the politically engaged, and both were regularly moved by the influence of ordinary people who spoke publically about their experience. The power of ordinary people often drove events forward, while Franklin and Eleanor enabled them. Even if we have no great leaders, we the people have the power to move the nation forward without them. It is also possible that a new moral commitment to a better society would draw those who resist public life but care about justice into it. We might create better leaders if we become better people.

3. We’re starting from behind on many counts. Those who believe in a techno-fix to peak oil often point out that the US produced 6000 military planes in 1939, and that number, in merely 3 years, rose to nearly 100,000. This is absolutely true, and it was a remarkable accomplishment that we might to some degree duplicate. But it is worth noting that at present the US is starting with some notable disadvantages. Among them are our loss of manufacturing, the globalization of trade, a shaky economy, energy shortages and lack of a trained populace.

In 1940, the US had the largest manufacturing economy in the world. Despite the great depression, the US had enormous production capacity, far greater than even Germany’s. And while it was an enormous political project to begin mobilizing commercial production for military use, the facilities themselves, and a large population of trained laborers was in place. Thus, when the war production began in earnest, factories that produced civilian goods rapidly began producing for military purposes. Clothing manufacturers made uniforms. A toy factory made military compasses. The auto industry essentially ceased manufacturing personal vehicles in favor of building tanks and planes.

While many untrained workers eventually joined the production workforce, including many women, the transitional period occurred before the first large scale wave of call ups, and much of that transition was created by using practiced labor. It is certainly possible to train new workers - World War II provides considerable evidence. At one point an advertisement suggested that if a woman had sewn on a button, she could operate a lathe, and to a large degree, this turned out to be true. But in a society where comparatively few people either sew on buttons or operate lathes, we face something rather different.

Over the last 20 years, the US has seen the destruction of most of its manufacturing base. Thousands of factories all over the US have closed, many have been abandoned or converted into office space, and workers have been retrained. Much of our manufacturing has been offshored to Asia and other nations. Most younger workers have absolutely no experience with making things - they have worked in a largely service based economy. At the same time, we have seen a tremendous loss of power to labor - if we are to draft large portions of the population into aiding us with a build out, we must also reverse decades of bestowing power on corporations and away from ordinary people, or those who are being asked to sacrifice will simply decline - or be effectively enslaved. If we imagine our build-out occuring without becoming a fascist nation, power will have to be vested in the lands of employees, citizen and laborers, not in corporations.

The US managed its enormous rate of production by effectively nationalizing many industries, including the automotive industry. The government set prices, profit margins and policies. They made possible things like 24 hour shift staffing, building worker housing in urban centers and creating infrastructure, while also ensuring reasonable labor standards and practices. That is not possible for industries located outside the US - we cannot, for example, demand that Chinese factories meet our production goals. We certainly cannot hold them to decent labor standards - although, of course, we have ample evidence that Americans don’t much care if things are built by slaves. But even if we don’t care about labor practices, we cannot ensure, for example, that other nations will build production capacity when we need it and ensure we get what we want when we need it. If the US is to engage in a massive build-out, in order to ensure production and stable prices, this will have to occur in our own factories, under our own regulations. Unfortunately, that means recreating our manufacturing infrastructure, which we have just spent a generation dismantling. This will add on to our lead time. We will almost certainly require much, much more than 18 months.

Could we do this on a world scale, rather than on a national one? Could we simply allow market forces to resolve the issue? Perhaps - but we would be depending on getting just as lucky as the British got at Dunkirk. We would be depending on the stability of our currency, that other nations would prioritize production for our needs on our timescale, and we would, in the end, ensure that much of the wealth from this new growth industry travelled out of our nation (probably based on debt) and to other nations. That is, if every nation is trying as best they can to address coming urgent shortages of resources, other priorities will fall by the wayside - if other nations are engaged in similar build outs, trying to complete them before they run into shortages of energy and before rising costs affect national economies, many of the things that Americans do to make money will fall by the wayside - and thus, the US economy is likely to falter. If the next (last?) big boom is in renewable energies, a service economy that cannot be sustained without large influxes of fossil fuels will not make us rich enough to adapt our infrastructure.

Globalization also represents a potentially serious barrier to success. The conventional wisdom of market economics, including the doctrine of specialization is antithetical to the practices we need to engage in in order to ameliorate both climate change and peak oil. As the energy and climate implications of moving things around the globe increase, the need to create local infrastructure for millions of items, including food, tools, clothing and other essentials increases. But the globalized economy discourages generalization, and localization. It is virtually impossible for local food and clothing systems to compete with existing industrial mechanisms unless subsidies for industrial systems are withdrawn, and economic burdens like carbon taxes level the playing field for those goods made locally. We may well be hoist on our own petard.

4. Where does the money come from?

One would think that in comparison to the US in 1940, our economy would be one of the ways in which we come out ahead in the 21st centure. We are certainly much richer, and we have the advantage of not having suffered more than a decade of deep depression. But the economic advantages that enabled success in war are unlikely to be duplicated. The US government was ultimately responsible for 38% of the total build out, and it funded its military program in two ways. The first was through borrowing, and the second was by taxing the heck out of the populace, particularly the richest portion of the populace, while simultaneously strongly encouraging voluntary investment in War Bonds. The national savings rate rose to its highest levels ever during World War II - with most of that money invested directly in the country itself, in part because of memories of the dangers of banks.

It is conceivable that the present government might be able to convince gullible Americans to invest their savings in War Bonds or something similar. Given America’s present credit rating, however, there is no reason to believe that this would be a wise long-term investment, and I think present day cynicism about government would prevent many people from taking advantage (being taken advantage of).

Our capacity to borrow from other nations is also somewhat limited by our enormous debt and shaky currency. The US was, at the time of the second world war, a comparatively good credit risk because many of the nations it was borrowing from were dependent on US munitions to survive against the Germans. While China may well become increasingly dependent on US grain, it is not at all clear that China requires us to be a rich nation in order to keep their interest in our agriculture alive. At the very least, the incentives other nations have to keep our economy going are much smaller than the incentives lending nations had during the second world war.

In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt proposed taxing all income over 25,000 dollars at the 100% tax rate (to give you a sense of perspective, General Douglas MacArthur made 8,000 dollars per year and only 48,000 Americans made more than 2,500 dollars per year in 1940). Although Roosevelt’s proposal failed (pity), it is beyond imagining an equivalent proposal today - try and conceive of any leader attempting to tax incomes over 1 million at the 100% rate. But the fact that Roosevelt’s proposal was a serious one is a measure of how hard the government worked economically to keep wealth fairly distributed. This emphasis on fair distribution enabled the national savings rate - despite the fact that in equivalent dollars people were much poorer than they are now, the redistribution of wealth downward meant that ordinary people could invest significantly in their nation. At present, however, wealth is vastly less fairly distributed, national savings is negative, and there are real limits to our ability to mortgage our houses and put our infrastructure changes on our credit cards.

Large tax increases may end up happening, but they will probably lead in the long term to the expansion of our permanent underclass, rather than, as the World War II expansion did, an across the board increase in wealth among working people. At the end of World War II, the average income of ordinary people had doubled, while the incomes of rich folk rose only 50%. The massive changes in policy that would enable ordinary Americans to be financially stable enough, in the face of an energy crisis, to invest in their nation seem politically impossible in the present situation. They may not be. But yet again, we are starting from behind.

Our economy is being held up, to a large degree, by other nations, because it is in their interest to keep our economy afloat and thus keep us buying their manufactured goods. But a new, national economy that focused on serving national needs would keep money at home, rather than sending it overseas. Combine that with the fact that every other nation on earth will also need to husband their resources in order to respond appropriately to climate change and peak oil in their own nation, and the incentive for foreign banks to continue to loan money to us and prop up our currency are greatly reduced.

Will China and Japan loan us the money to serve our national interests, given that we have at present no prospect of paying back what we’ve borrowed? Their economic investment is great, and it stands to cost them if our currency collapses, or our economy does. On the other hand, our currency collapsing would reduce our ability to compete with them for major stores of fossil fuels. I’m no economist, and I don’t claim to be able to predict whether our economy and our ability to borrow money will continue as they are - but I wouldn’t count on it.

Our national debt rating has been steadily downgraded - will we be able to borrow the money to make massive infrastructure changes and educate our populace for the new economy? And given our warmaking, will other nations see it as in their interest to fund us. Speaking of war, our policies in the middle east are at present overextending us economically on another front - at some point, the sheer number of complications and variables we face overwhelms the ability of systems to cope. Can we take on several enormous projects while waging war? Because it does not seem that the Democrats are going to meaningfully stop the war. So whatever we do will take place in a politically unstable arena, while many of our resources are being devoted to a pointless war or wars.

5. Where does the energy Come from?

In 1940, America was the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, and to a large degree, that, combined with the massive production capacity it enabled, was what won the war. America never experienced gas shortage - there was gas rationing, but rationing existed in order to conserve tires, since rubber production was controlled by Japan. The transformation of the entire nation into a massive factory was fueled by (for the period) unlimited access to energy. Indeed, Germany’s loss was at least in part caused by literally running out of gas. America effectively nationalized its oil and gas production, giving itself priority for all energy resources and installing price caps, and was well able to fuel its build out with its own resources.

Now, almost 40 years past the American production peak, there is no way that America can fuel a massive build out without relying heavily and for many years to come on imported fossil fuels. We have no way of manufacturing solar panels, mining metals, building wind turbines and rail lines, manufacturing insulation or growing biofuels without massive inputs of fossil fuels at every stage of the process. Because we are starting when we are, in an era of rising energy costs, decreasing production and reduced availability (OPEC announced 3% cuts this year, but export rates are falling by 7% overall according to Jeffrey Brown), our ability to fuel our own infrastructure transformation is likely to be dramatically affected by oil availability and price.

For example, solar panels, already beyond the means of many Americans, will probably drop in price somewhat as mass production ensues, but that drop will be offset by consistent rises in production costs, and eventually, potentially, reduced availability. This is true of everything we may come to need, from woodstoves to buses, efficient deep well pumps to low output toilets.

Many people assume that if we simply build out enough spare capacity, we will eventually have
the ability to manufacture more renewables entirely with renewable energies, but there is no evidence for this claim. It is conceivable that large scale technological break-throughs will occur, or that we will find ways to return to earlier materials (one of the great research products of the war was the struggle to create synthetic rubber for tires and other uses, made from petroleum - perhaps we will go back to rubber and back to natural materials for thousands of other products now made from petroleum derived synthetics), but this will involve not one but hundreds and thousand of individual technological breakthroughs, and many may simply not happen.

Much as we like to believe otherwise, simply wanting something to happen often does not make it occur. And even if such breakthroughs were inevitable, all of this depends on our being able to manufacture enough spare capacity quickly enough to then use our renewable energies not just for running hospitals and lighting our homes, but also for alloying metals, running heavy mining equipment, shipping, making plastics and doing a million other things that have thus far been done by fossil fuels. It seems more likely, given the time required for build out, that we may not have that spare capacity, so that even if it were technically possible (and we have no idea if it is) to replace all or even most fossil fuel based processes and materials, we may well not have the energy to do it without sacrificing something else we desperately need. This represents the largest possible barrier to having any success with build out - and is a reason we should seriously reconsider our expectations.

A massive build out on World War II scale is simply not a permanent, automatic solution to our energy crisis - wind turbines and solar panels, rail lines and woodstoves age and breakdown, or must be replaced by more efficient models. Eventually, everything must be replaced or done without - and having used our resources and burned that carbon, the next generation, who must, 20 years from now, build all this over again, will be vastly less able to do so. If we rely primarily on build-out as a strategy, and are not lucky enough to manage sufficient extra capacity for renewables to become self-replacing, we condemn our children and grandchildren to a much, much worse future. They may not have the option of mobilization - instead, they may simply have to suffer as the solar panels for even needed things like hospitals gradually fail. Perhaps it will be worth it to risk build out - but we should know what and who we are risking, and choose carefully what risks younger people and people yet to come should bear.

It may simply be that fossil fuels can never be replaced in some uses - in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and plastics for medical equipment or solar panels - and it may be that we have no choice but to reserve some oil and gas for future generations to meet their most basic needs, rather than serving our own desire to maintain our own comfort.

6. Who will do the work?

The final barrier to a build out in itself is the lack of a trained populace. World War II does show that it is possible to fairly rapidly mobilize untrained populations and make them into skilled manufacturers. But there are two simultaneous projects to a World War II scale program - the first is to obtain the skills required to build what we need to make infrastructure changes. The next is to build the skill set required to live a sustainable life. Both are necessary, and both together will constitute the most massive retraining of a population ever. During World War II, only one form of retraining was required.

In World War II, the Victory Garden movement was begun by garden clubs and groups of home gardeners. 44% of all of America’s vegetables were grown in gardens. This was possible because a large percentage of the US population (48%) had already had extensive gardening experience. Many families survived the depression in part because of food they were able to grow. If we are to reduce reliance on long distance transport for watery foods like produce, we will need a new Victory garden movement - in a nation where less than 8% of the population has any familiarity with gardening, and where more than 1/2 of all school children don’t know whether broccoli grows on trees or not.

On the home front, ordinary people took up hundreds of different jobs necessary to the war effort. Women sewed clothing and knitted socks for soldiers. People repaired items that couldn’t be had because they were imported or rationed. When food rationing was in place, people mostly ate at home, cooking from scratch. For the most part, large scale training in these skills was not needed - most families cooked meals from scratch, repaired things that were broken, sewed some of their clothing or at least did simple repairs. Those who lacked these skills were surrounded by those who had them - and local clubs and social organizations offered canning classes and training for hospital volunteers. Large percentages of Americans belonged to charitable, social and community organizations and were accustomed to learning things from them and volunteering through them.

Both America’s basic skill set and its sociology has changed. By every measure, we are less sociable, less connected to our neighbors, less involved in our communities and more suspicious of one another. We spend less time volunteering, and many traditional sources of social and community support have declined or disappeared. The US government relied on existing social structures to transmit knowledge and encourage their memberships - many of those groups don’t exist. In order to enact large scale social changes, we will have to form new groups, and get people reaccustomed to engaging with their neighbors. There are some hopeful signs - the growing co-housing and intentional community movements and the resiliance of religious communities suggest a strong desire for community. But infrastructure building of all sorts takes time, and this is likely to extend our lead time further

We also lack many necessary skills. Rosie the Riveter may have needed to learn how to rivet, but she already knew how to cook dinner, even in the face of rationing, and how to grow a victory garden. We no longer cook from scratch- less than half of all meals are eaten at home, and only 1/4 of those eaten at home don’t involve opening some kind of package. Rosie is not only going to have to get a new job, she’s going to have to learn an entirely new skill set - operating in a society where you can’t go buy anything you want, anytime you want, and where old manual skills that the depression generation learned at their parents knees must be recreated by clumsy adults with no experience.

We should neither underestimate the learning curve for things like intensive gardening and sustainable living, nor should we mistakenly prioritize the industrial skills of build out over the skills of daily, low-input life. At best, those industrial skills for most people will have short term, limited utility. The ability, however, to grow food, use tools, make do and make things, however, will be necessary for many lifetimes and ought to be prioritized.

7. Ask what we *weren’t* doing during our build out!

While the US turned itself into a massive production factory, it stopped producing many other items and either instituted rationing. Rationing was a good idea - and it remains a good idea for the coming crisis. It ensured that things weren’t rationed by cost - that is, rich folk didn’t get the tires while the poor folk got the shaft. Instead, rationing meant that rich and poor were both in the same boat, and that class resentment was comparatively minimized. There is no question that a system of rationing for both carbon emissions and probably many other resources is an inevitable outcome of peak oil and climate change - we will have to prioritize our use of resources, just as we did during World War II. The national system proposed in the Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell’s Oil Depletion Protocol, for example, proposes tradable energy rationing, as do various carbon regulation systems.

Rationing during the second world war affected every element of domestic life. Most people were limited to 3 gallons of gasoline per week, at a time when fuel efficiency was very low. Coffee was rationed - 1 cup per adult per day. Industry was required to limit the use of leather, cotton, silk and other materials - so the government went so far as to regulate hem lengths and lapel sizes. Butter, meat, sugar and wheat were all rationed - recipes for vegetarian and sugar free recipes abounded. You needed ration coupons to buy an annual pair of shoes, and there was an attempt (although public outrage eventually overturned the ban) to eliminate girdles. Unnecessary trips and travel were strongly discouraged, and many imported goods were simply unavailable because of the danger of shipping goods.

It was not just the automobile and shipbuilding industries that were mobilized - toy companies made compasses, printing companies produced military maps, clothing manufacturers made uniforms, lingerie companies produced parachutes. Automotive production stopped entirely. All of that is to say that a vast number of things that people were accustomed to simply became unavailable - because we were building up our defense resources.

It was so essential to focus on the most necessary projects that Roosevelt proposed conscripting civilians so as to resolve labor shortages in copper mining and munitions manufacture. That is, he felt the war could only meet production goals by telling people where they had to work. His bill to do so was defeated, but Britain did in fact engage in civilian conscription, and the US used POWs and prison labor to work on farms and to do difficult and dirty jobs no one wanted to do. There was so much work to do that there was a national labor shortage.

The consequences of the 1940s build-out included the relocation of millions of people to where the jobs were. For example, 81% of southern, rural African-Americans relocated to urban centers over a period of 12 years, beginning at the end of the depression. Millions of people flooded Detroit and California taking on jobs building tanks, planes and ships. Although there were exemptions for farmers from the draft, farmer’s children often were taken off to war, and many of them never returned to the land, hastening the reduction of the US’s agricultural population.

A large scale build out is likely to require large quantities of manpower to concentrate in the places where the factories are. But peak oil and climate change also require large scale relocalization and the return of small, stable, fairly self-sufficient communities. The build out of World War II, and its associated housing shortages, racial conflicts and other difficulties was the beginning of both urbanization and suburbanization in its contemporary form. To a large degree, this was the result of the mobilization of home front manpower to jobs.

There is a fundamental incompatibility, then, between industrial scale build out and the society that we need to be creating. If we are to get to work at making all the things we will need in the future, that is likely to happen in centralized areas. But the centralization of the population will not enable us to produce food without massive fossil fuel inputs - for that, we need to decentralize and disperse. This will not be an easily resolved incongruity - most of the projects of addressing climate change and peak oil require reasonably stable communities, and food and energy security are long term projects of relocalization. We cannot move large percentages of the national population to where factories are, and then move them out again at great fossil fuel cost.

We might decentralize production, producing millions of small factories rather than thousands of large ones. This would probably be wise, and would enable people to find jobs in small towns. But the transport of components to decentralized locations represents in increased cost and use of limited resources, and such factories may not be able to make use of economies of scale. And it is worth noting that doing so would require a different model than the World War II one, in which an enormous amount of production was concentrated in only a comparatively small number of companies. Doris Kearns Goodwin notes that in 1939, 70% of production was done by small companies, and 30% by a few hundred large ones. By 1944, those numbers were entirely reversed, concentrating most war production and the wealth it created in only 100 companies.

And, if we were to engage in a massive build out on the same scale, an almost infinite number of other projects would have to be put aside - we would be using our fossil fuels to manufacture and import railroad electrification materials, not ipods, and to make woodstoves, not cars. Large chunks of our economy would be changed or would disappear entirely - our service economy, for example, would be largely destroyed. While travel agents and fast food managers might find work making solar panels, there would be widespread economic disruption. In 1940, 17% of the US workforce was out of work, and another 6% was on the New Deal payroll. Many others remembered recently having been unemployed.

This is not true at present, and thus, prioritizing resources will be much more painful than it was almost 70 years ago. At best, what we are anticipating is two simultaneous, somewhat incompatible projects - the people of our nation need to stay put, and we also need to produce a lot of things. It is not clear to me how we would do this.

We would also have to change our national habits enormously - not only would our customary levels of consumption change, not only would we have to build distribution centers to bring food to exurbs and suburbs, not only would we have fewer private cars and a new economy, but we would have to change our ways of thinking about our future - the short term thinking we have engaged in over the last few decades must end if there is to be any significant hope for the future. All of this psychological readjustment will be an enormous undertaking, and since we have squandered the possible opportunity to move the nation in a new direction offered after September 11, any future change requires being attuned to arising opportunities that will certainly be less dramatic.

Part II forthcoming. Some good news at long last.

40 Years Ago Today

Sharon April 5th, 2007

Thanks to Roel/Ulu for reminding me that today is not only the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, but also the anniversary of his radical speech on peace. This is the unsanitized MLK, not focused only on racism, but on the systemic conditions that legitimize racism and violence. If you simply change the word “Vietnam” to “Iraq” you can see that the words have no less importance today.

This is merely an excerpt - please read the whole speech.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [applause]A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it haseverything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. [applause] War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy [applause], realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.”

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.

It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low [Audience:] (Yes); the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low [Audience:] (Yes); the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message-of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide, In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light. Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”,

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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