Archive for May, 2007

Childhood, Industrialized

Sharon May 25th, 2007

One of the consequences of living in a rich culture is that we sometimes get confused about what really matters. A good example of this is a situation I came upon recently. I got to chatting with a local Mennonite couple that we know slightly (mostly because since we’re religious Jews, we stick out as the other people in the neighborhood wearing funny hats), and they told me that they’d contacted their local social services office because they’d like to adopt children. Their five kids are getting older - two are now nearly grown, and they thought it would be nice to share their home with some kids who need one. They were interested in adopting hard-to-adopt kids, including kids with disabilities.

The thing is, not only did they end up not signing up for adoption training, but they were scared to death that a social worker would come investigate their own kids. Because when they told the woman they spoke to on the phone that they had no electricity or running water, the woman started asking pointed questions and demanded their address. When they tried to explain that this was for religious reasons, they were told, “oh yes, we’ve heard that before.” Given that New York state has a plentiful Amish population, I’m sure they have.

And, in fact, in 2004 there was a case in North Carolina of parents of a family losing custody because of neglect. How had they neglected their children? The family was poor, and refused to take handouts or subsidies, and so lived without electricity or running water. By all accounts the children were loved and well fed, simply lived the way our great-grandparents all did.

In 2006, here in New York, the state labor board began invesigating Amish families for their labor practices. The Amish send their children to school only through eighth grade, after which the children are apprenticed out. The state began investigating them for child labor violations - even though the children were being educated in a trade. Apprenticeship has a long history. It can be abused, but there was no evidence that the children involved were having unusual or unjust demands made of them. The problem was that the children, instead of spending their time learning calculus, were learning to work with their hands, work we don’t think of as “educational.”

Or to use another example, my oldest son is disabled and not yet toilet trained. We would prefer to use cloth diapers with him, but the school legally will not permit my son to use cloth. It doesn’t matter that they wouldn’t have to do anything more than send the dirty diapers home at the end of the day, instead of throwing them in the trash. The law is the law, so we buy disposables. Fortunately, we can afford them. But if we couldn’t it wouldn’t matter.

Or even simpler. I still remember the neighbor of my MIL in New York City who asked, “what activities do you do with your child.” The child in question was about 15 months old. So when I said we really didn’t do any - that we played outside and went to the library occasionally, she didn’t quite know how to respond. Parenting a toddler, for her, was taking them to music and art classes. To me, it was having him help to hang the laundry, but I knew what she was asking - was I giving my child a good start?

We’ve become so accustomed to our wealth and comfort that even childhood has been industrialized. You can now literally lose custody of your children for being poor, or living the way your grandmother did. Good parenting, to a large degree, is defined as taking your kids places so that other people can teach them things, and buying them things - whether toys or experiences. We want our children to have “every opportunity,” and most opportunities we value are things you can purchase - that trip to Disneyland, the week at space camp, the computer, the beautiful children’s books.

There are two problems with this. The first is that we’re raising consumptive children who are being taught that what they can buy matters more than anything. This has been exhaustively documented in books like _Born to Buy_ and _Affluenza_. Among other things, the authors of Affluenza observe,

As affluenza becomes an airwave-borne childhood epidemic, America’s
children pay a high price. Not only does their lifestyle undermine the
children’s physical health, but their mental health seems to suffer too.
Psychologists report constantly rising rates of teenage depression and
thoughts about suicide, and a tripling of actual child suicide rates since
the 1960s.

Much of this stems from the overscheduling of children to prepare them
for our adult world of consumerism, workaholism and intense competition.
In some places, this reaches truly ridiculous levels. Since the passage of the
No Child Left Behind At, nearly 20 percent of American school districts
have banned recess for elementary school children. The idea, as one
Tacoma, Washington, school administrator put it, is to ‘maximize instruction
time to rpepare the children to compete in the global economy.’ This is nuts
We’re talking second graders here….

What kind of values do our children learn from their exposure to
affluenza? In a recent poll, 93 percent of teenage girls cited shopping
as their favorite activity. Fewer than 5 percent listed, ‘helping others.’
In 1967, two thirds of American college students said ‘developing a
meaningful philosophy of life’ was ‘very important’ to them, while fewer
than one-third said the same about ‘making a lot of money.’ By 1997
those figures were reversed. A 2004 poll at UCLA foudn that entering
freshmen ranked becoming ‘very well off financially’ ahead of all
other goals.

Juliet Schor survyed children aged ten to thirteen for their
responses to the statement ‘I want to make a lot of money when I grow up.’
Of those children, 63 percent agreed,; only 7 percent thought otherwise.
Asked about their ‘highest priority’ in a 1999 poll taken at the University
of Washington, 42 percent of those surveyd cited, “looking good/having good
hair.” Another 18 percent listed “staying inebriated,” while only 6 percent
checked “learning about the world.”
(Affluenza, 61-62)

We have come to believe that good parenting is something you buy, and our children have, as children do, understood us a bit too well - they have learned that the things that matter are all things you buy. We no longer think of poverty as ordinary - we no longer look at a small, simple shelter, with enough food and some clean clothes and love and say “that’s like our house.” Because our house doesn’t look like that. And we have a lot more than that. And most people look at simple, everyday, ordinary poverty with fear, distaste and a hint of judgement - ordinary people must have failed somehow. Our children know that. They know that not having stuff and being poor are bad - even if they are poor. Especially if they are poor. Think about that - in a world where all of us are a little less rich, what are we teaching our kids?

But the second problem is even more insidious. It isn’t just that we’re raising children whose morals are deeply skewed, but more importantly, we’re creating a culture in which good parenting is equated with being wealthy. That is, good parenting has become not the provision of love and basic food and shelter, but a host of things that are both superficial and impossible to achieve if you are very poor. In a world where more of us may become poor someday, that means any one of us could face state intervention because of things we can’t control. If electricity and running water, your own room and not having to do too many chores are requirements for an ordinary life, what happens if those things cease to be available?

A friend who has read about these CPS cases emailed me recently and asked whether I should keep talking about all the energy cuts we’re making. And I worry that she might be right - maybe I shouldn’t. For now I still am. But I am aware that in cutting my energy usage down to what represents a fair share, I am risking something more than discomfort - and all parents who do so are taking those risks. That’s a fearful thing, if we are to enter into a world where all of us take only our fair share.

I tend to hope that these are isolated cases, and that as long as we love our children and take good care of them, use good judgement and keep them safe, that is enough. I don’t demonize social workers -my mother worked for DSS in Massachusetts for more than a decade, and I’ve met enough foster kids to know that most social workers are honorable and do the best they can at an overwhelming and difficult job. And they don’t exist in isolation - they are products of their culture, and it is the culture as a whole that is the problem here. And sometimes poverty does come with all sorts of bad stuff. But not always. And if we cease to be able to seperate out ordinary human poverty from real suffering, we lose something - something that may matter to us personally, and that matters to our society.

Economic status is not virtue. We do not have our wealth because we are better or smarter or wiser than poor people - in this country or any other. I doubt many people would admit to believing that the poor are inferior, and yet we act as though there is something inherent that divides us from the ordinary poor people around us. And we live our lives as though we view material things as more important than kindness, a sense of justice or love for one another. Unfortunately, our children see this. We live our lives as though we are good because we are rich. And children, being children, understand the underlying message. They learn that poor is bad, that wealth is what matters, and they begin to judge us by the standards we teach them.

Children have begun to substitute the objects in their lives for the virtues we wish for them. A good home is good not because of what it does for the child, but because of what it has. And that’s wrong - it is a wrong way of thinking, and it may yet come back to haunt us. We start substituting things for experiences, and that way lies…well, we’re finding out. It does not appear to lead to closer or happier families.

The problem is us. The longer we think that normalizing being rich and priveleged and lucky will keep the wolf away from our door, the longer we pretend we can all live like the people on tv, the longer we pretend our children hear what we say, but don’t watch what we do, the worse off we’ll be. And the richer we are, the poorer we are - that is, the less likely we are to raise children who fully understand what self-sacrifice, honor, courage and integrity are - because, in the end, we cannot have those virtues and be rich ourselves - not in a world of increasing scarcity, where our wealth is borne on the backs of others.


Austerity Riot Intro and FAQ are Up!

Sharon May 23rd, 2007

Here’s the Intro to the Austerity Riot/90% Reduction Project:

Here’s the FAQ:

And if you are looking for them, here are the rules and regs, over at Miranda’s site where they look so much cooler:

If I can ever figure it out, I’ll put a permanent link like the ones Miranda has on my blog. Don’t hold your breath for technical competence from me, though ;-).

Ok, gotta go garden - the weather is finally decent for a change!


52 Weeks Down - Week 4 - Grow Food

Sharon May 21st, 2007

Now there are so many good reasons to grow your own food that it seems silly to list them, but I will anyone. No melamine. No carcinogens. No GMOs. You know where it came from, and where it has been. Your kids can pick a strawberry or tomato and pop it their mouth without wondering whether they’ll get cancer. Oh, and it tastes better, is more nutritious, fresher and nicer. And it doesn’t burn fossil fuels, warm the planet, or require a hog manure lagoon. Really one of those win-win situations.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the contamination of our food supply, you might want to check out these two articles, detailing the simple truth - the melamine isn’t really all that unusual. What’s abnormal is that we noticed.!Q2ANignppiNjdd,NdfNjQ25NpBQ5CuQ5CpuNjQ251n(xQ60yuPWiQ60Q7B

Now some of us already have big gardens, and some of us are just getting started. This week’s project is to grow more of your own food - in many places, now is a good time to start your garden. If it isn’t - if now is your dry season or your winter, just hold this thought and revisit during garden season.

Now if you don’t grow any of your own food, the step up from 0 may seem like a big deal, but it isn’t really very hard. Get a windowbox or two. Or a pot. You don’t have to buy it - cut off the top of a big tin can that you get from a restaurant nearby, and poke holes in the bottom. A 5 gallon bucket (again, with holes), or just about anything will do. Put it in a sunny spot. Add dirt, and your own compost if possible. Plant some food. Put in a few basil plants and a head of lettuce. Or if you have a big container, like a 5 gallon bucket, put in a cherry tomato, with a few lettuce plants underneath. In your window boxes, plant some gem marigolds (good in salad), nasturtiums (even better in salad) and arugula - voila, a decorative salad. Pat Meadows, who knows more than anyone I’ve ever met about container gardening (she used to run a seed company devoted to container-friendly varieties) has a great container gardening yahoo group - well worth joining by sending an email here:

[email protected]

Or you could join a community garden and get a plot of land. There’s no better way to learn to garden than hanging out with lots of other gardeners. Community gardens are cool, and one of those plots is a great way to learn to maximize your return.

Or perhaps you can start on your own lawn. You might consider checking out the books _Food Not Lawns_ and _Micro-Eco Farming_, not to mention Toby Hemenway’s wonderful _Gaia’s Garden_ about home scale permaculture. Maybe replace some of your foundation plantings with blueberries while you are starting your garden. You don’t have to dig raised beds or do anything fancy - just lay some plain cardboard or newspaper over the ground, wet it thoroughly, put some compost, grass clippings and maybe composted manure (or whatever you’ve got) on the ground and plant right into what you’ve made. It really isn’t that much work!

Don’t have enough lawn? How about growing in a neighbor’s yard and sharing the proceeds. Aaron has a terrific article about how he did just that with an elderly neighbor. This could both give you more food and improve your community. Here’s that article - well worth a read, and one of his best.

If you’ve already got a garden, what about expanding it? Consider adding fruit trees and bushes, or if you mostly grow food for fresh eating, how about dry corn for cornbread and dry beans? Perhaps you simply need to grow more potatoes or apples or cabbage or onions to last you through the winter? Or maybe if you built a simple coldframe, you could have fresh greens for salad through the whole winter. Perhaps you are one of those people who puts your garden in on Memorial Day and harvests everything before the first frost - you could have fresh food for months more on either side in many cases, with simple season extension techniques like cold frames and row covers.

Or maybe you already do all that. Well, how about a bigger challenge. Maybe you’ve already got a small farm and livestock. Do you grow any food for your animals? What about some small grains like buckwheat, oats or corn for your hens and your family? You can grow all small grains like grasses in an ordinary garden plot and thresh and eat them - or just give them whole to the hens or goats or whathaveyou. Or maybe you need to expand - maybe you grow all the food you need - could you start a small CSA? When people hear the word “CSA” they think “must be a big farm.” But that’s not true - we started with 5 customers, and a CSA can be as simple as “I’ll grow enough veggies for both of our families if you’ll buy the seeds.”

There’s a huge range of possibilities, depending on where you are. But everything you do to produce your own food makes you more secure, your family healthier and improves the state of the earth. All you need is dirt and a seed to get started - you can grow as you go.


Will Peak Oil Save us from Global Warming?

Sharon May 21st, 2007

There’s a swedish article over at energy bulletin worth having a look at: In it, Kjell Aleklett of Uppsala University argues that we simply don’t have enough carbon to burn to bring about the worst case scenarios of global warming, and that the energy crisis will prevent the outside temperature increases.

I know I’ll be watching the responses to this piece, because I’m certainly no climate scientist. In many ways I’d be thrilled to see that Aleklett was correct - I think dealing with peak oil but not with global warming is a much more manageable situation.

On the other hand, I have my doubts, particularly because Aleklett’s arguments are based on the IPCC numbers, which are terrifically conservative. The thing is, the Potsdam Institute estimates that our best chance of keeping temperatures below the critical 2 degree threshold means keeping the parts per million of atmospheric carbon below 440 (at which point have 2 out of 3 odds - not that great - of maintaining the lower temperatures). But the IPCC estimate is that we are now at 469 ppm - that is, in order to stabilize the climate we have to lower the atmospheric carbon levels dramatically, because we’re already over the line. The IPCC, being a political document, holds the 500 ppm line, but the facts don’t back this up. At 500 ppm, we have only a 30% chance of avoiding the critical 2 degrees of warming.

Now Aleklett is right that we probably do have to hold atmospheric carbon levels for some time in order to have a dramatic warming effect, but I think his article, because of its focus on the IPCC, underestimates the time we need to be burning carbon. Even if the direst predictions are right - that oil is past peak, natural gas is about to peak and coal will do so within the next 10-15 years, that means at least another decade of heavy carbon energy use, including a great deal of coal. While it is true that the IPCC models show long term human carbon contributions, what may matter most is simply having enough carbon long enough to get the earth into an irrevocable cycle. In fact, emissions rates are rising much faster than the IPCC report indicates - a paper published today by scientists at the Global Carbon Project shows that the rate of emissions increase tripled between 2000 and 2004 We’re burning more carbon, faster, than the IPCC or anyone expected, which means that the IPCC models are dangerously conservative, and Aleklett’s analysis is impacted by that.

Now the reason we’re trying to hold things below the 2 degree mark is this - climate change has an ugly tendency to accellerate on its own, but most of the things that cause it to snowball are left out of the IPCC report because they are controversial. No one knows exactly how much methane the seas might release, or the soils. So for the most part, the IPCC models leave out the worst possible consequences - that we might already or soon be past the point of no return, at which the earth simply takes over. By setting his baseline against the very conservative IPCC report, which includes comparatively few of the factors that might cause accelleration, Aleklett ignores the reality that we may get to the worst case scenarios even given peak oil.

Now were these factors merely speculative, there would be a case for Aleklett’s arguments. But while the exact impact of these factors is not known, most of them represent *observed* phenomena - not speculation about what might happen, but things that are already occurring. That is, this week a report was released that showed that the southern oceans are now saturated and ceasing to absorb carbon
Last year, British scientists began to observe soils releasing their carbon, and artic researches spotted bubbles of methane newly released by northern seas. And of course, the rainforests are already heating up, catching fire and burning - tens of thousands of acres have done so in the last year.

Is Aleklett’s analysis possible? It is. Is it complete - I don’t think so. For example, none of these take into account the issue of global dimming, which by itself might be enough to push the climate over the edge. Nobel winning professor Paul Creutzen estimates that if global dimming - the particulate emissions that cut the sun’s impact on the earth - were taken out, temperature rises would be between 7 and 10 - on the apocalyptic end of things. Global dimming is a particularly important factor if Aleklett is right, because those particulate emissions that are keeping the sun from heating up the planet even more are also products of fossil energy consumption - that is, as we are priced out of fossil energy, or begin to radically conserve, the sun’s heating effect is likely to increase dramatically. Even demand destruction is likely to accellerate global warming - one of those rock and a hard places things.

What Aleklett’s essay seems to me to imply is something that worries me a great deal - we may have time to up our emissions, but not enough time to get them down. Think about it this way - let us say that Aleklett is correct, and that all three major fossil sources will have peaked by the end of the next decade, and energy prices will get off their undulating plateaus shortly and begin to rise even more radically. What does that do to the world economy? What does that do to our daily lives? And how likely is it that we will then begin a major build out of renewable energy, infrastructure changes, etc…?

The thing is, switching over, even to a very limited and low energy society (one which is largely human powered), much less the “we can have it all with renewables fantasy that most people cling to” - is a hugely energy and money intensive project, much more so that simply going on the way we are. And it depends on our basic ability to keep the economic balls up in the air - that is, having enough capital to invest in even basic public transport, letting our hospitals run on renewables and reinsulating our houses depends on the economy going forward. And right now, our current, debt based economy going forward depends on the economy continuing to grow, which requires a ton of energy.

It is much less energy and capital intensive to simply go on the way we are, letting the market gradually price people out of things like gas and electricity. So if we’re as close to the end, there’s a good chance that we can keep things going as long as we don’t try and mess with it too much, but we’ll have a tough time starting big projects - that is, we have the ability to keep burning the carbon, but not the ability to stop burning it in a productive way.

Aleklett is absolutely right that an analysis of the impact of peak oil on global warming is absolutely necessary, and reliable energy numbers are necessary. I have my doubts that he’s right that peak oil will stave off global warming, though.


Getting My Numbers Down

Sharon May 20th, 2007

I promise, the FAQ is coming early this week. In the meantime, I’m finding myself mulling over the ways that I can get my numbers down. A surprising amount of it involves buying new stuff, which is worrisome in some ways, but also, I think inevitable. That is, I think all of us are going to end up spending some money this year if we’re to make this a permanent way of life. Hopefully what I save will offset them economically, but there will be an energy cost.

Miranda and I have been worrying about how to calculate those purchases - should we give everyone a break on their responsibility for the emissions of things that will lead us to fewer emissions in the long run? Miranda, I think, is pro, and for good reasons - she points out that people want to succeed, and she’s afraid that we’re risking making people feel like they’ve failed right up front. So even though this year is to be transitional, she thinks we should give credits for those necessary things - insulation, or clothelines or solar ovens - that make this possible in a comfortable way. And I think she’s got a point.

On the other hand, there’s an anal part of me that says “But even good stuff creates emissions in manufacture. Shouldn’t we be responsible for those things, even if we need them.” I also worry because I think that reasoning is seductive to the selfish part of me. I’ve had people say to me, “You should come talk in our far away place, because you’ll help more people save more energy.” But I wonder - what if I don’t? What if I’m not quite inspiring enough, and I’m just using this as an excuse to take a trip? What if people don’t go home and plant gardens or stop using their dryers, and then I just flew all this way? All of which is just a way of saying that I worry about my own temptation when excuses are put my way. Would it be just a little too tempting to buy something mostly just to buy it, rather than because of its environmental benefits. I know myself well enough to know I like loopholes ;-). Anyway, we’re still figuring this one out, but I suspect I’m tarring other people with my own occasional bouts of weakness here. Apologies if I’m maligning the rest of you by thinking you might be as easily tempted into cheating as me ;-).

Speaking of cheating, am I the only person out there doing this who is having a “oh, crap, gotta do X before it starts “counting.”" Now of course, we all know it counts anyway, so I’m trying really hard to keep those urges under control, but I think I will get a couple of things I need anyway - shoes that my oldest son can’t take off easily and lose in the yard, more clothespins, vodka for making homemade liqueurs, and my husband will be buying some beer. I will not buy yarn. I will not buy books. I really, really won’t buy yarn or books. I believe my own statements. Really.

Ok, down to the plans for how to reduce my emissions. The one I’m worried the most about is water. First of all, I really like my shower (often the only cone of silence I get in a day), and my kids are usually so filthy by the end of the day that spot washing them would require more water than a bath does. Second of all, you should see the clothing at the end of the day. It poured here for two days, and Eli resembled the swamp thing from the comic book more than a child by the end of the afternoon. In weather like this, with the six of us, and two and half in diapers, I wash every day.

I also need to set up a more formal grey water system than “dumping the water out in buckets.” Which means a call to our friend Woody, who fixes cool stuff and tries not to laugh at how un-handy we are. He’s already building us two nice looking composting toilets, so we can stop using the commode we inherited from Eric’s grandparents for that purpose. Pee already goes straight to the garden anyway. But I’m definitely going to have to think about this water one. Do you think the children will stop getting dirty any time soon ;-)? On the bright side, Isaiah is nearly toilet trained - hurray! He wore underwear to synagogue this weekend, which is quite a milestone. Let us just say that that’s one of the last bastions of training pants.

Electricity - I think I’m going to have to get a laptop. The desktop uses a crazy amount of power. The thing is, it is probably necessary anyway, now that Simon wants to use the computer in homeschooling so much. I’ve been resisting because of the embodied energy, but I’ve got *two* book contracts for this year, and I think I’m going to have to have better access and less energy intensive solutions than I’ve got now. We can sell the desktop. I’d use the local library, but that’s a five mile walk or drive, and they have a 45 minute time limit. The fridge is going to go - we’re going to keep the freezer for a while and see how that goes, but we’ll unplug the fridge and use rotating ice packs in a cooler to keep food cool. We’ve already got some solar lanterns, and we use pretty minimal lighting. The killer will be the electric stove - I’m hoping to build at least one more solar oven, and maybe buy a professional one, since mine don’t get much over 320 except on crazy hot days - which we don’t have many of. We’re also going to build an outdoor masonry oven, as seen in the book _Earth Ovens_ so we can use small quantities of wood to bake and keep the heat out of the house. Also, a good tip I got at Sue Robishaw’s website - whenever the solar oven is empty, heat water in it, and use thermoses to keep it warm - instant soup, tea, coffee or whatever water.

Heating will be tough because the house is so crazy huge. We always shut off a portion of it, but the problem is that we have a lot of guests, and while we don’t mind having the heat at 55, not everyone really likes it. Most of our wood will be no problem, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do about the visitor thing. The thing is, we love our visitors - they are people who are generally important to us, and we want them to be happy because they’ve often travelled a long time on a rare occasion to get out to the boonies to visit us. I don’t want everyone to respond to being here by running rapidly into the night.

Ok, more on this when I get a chance, because my soup, cornbread and asparagus are waiting!


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