Archive for July, 2007

Did the Soviet Union Collapse Because it Ran Out of Farmers?

Sharon July 31st, 2007

My friend and co-author Aaron Newton has a wonderful post over at his site here:

food sovereingty and the collapse of nations

This is definitely worth a read, and I think his response to other readers in the comments section is also excellent.

Now it is too soon for me to make really strong assertions about why the Soviet Union did collapse - I do read Russian, but so slowly that I might as well just wait for the translation. But there’s no question that this book raises a really important about the security and stability of nations, and I think Aaron’s take is a good and wise one.

We give lip service to food security in our nation, but we don’t really know what the term means. It is worth noting that almost 1/4 of all American households experience food insecurity - that is, they aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from. That number is indubitably rising as food prices rise. And America as a nation doesn’t really know where its next meal is coming from - literally in some cases, as we discover toxic food imports are rising - and metaphorically, because almost a third of think potatoes grow on trees.

If the book turns out to say what is implied in the article, it may turn out that national security at food security are more deeply intertwined than any of us had expected.

And yes, I know it would be better if I could get the links to work. Despite all the good advice, I’m apparently incapable. Working on it.


52 Weeks Down - Week 14 - Halve It!

Sharon July 31st, 2007

If you are just getting comfortable with environmentalism, it can be helpful to think in terms not of giving things up, but of halving them - using a combination of techniques to stretch things out a bit, and let you use or need only half as much. Because everything you halve, means half as much pollution, half as much waste, half as much money. Sometimes we think too quickly in terms of all or nothing - start in the middle.

Now one can’t cut everything in half, but if you use what the manufacturer recommends or what fits in those little convenient measure containers products give you, you almost always can cut it in half, or at least get more out of it. For example, I use an environmentally friendly dish detergent. When I get a bottle, I squeeze half of it into an old bottle, and fill both the other half with water - ta da! Two times the dish detergent, and I don’t find I need any more on the container.
By washing my scalp with baking soda and rinsing with vinegar, I only need to shampoo half as often. By using old shirts as “table bibs” for my messy kids, I only need to wash half as many clothes.

If your water isn’t very hard, most dishwashers and washing machines will work fine with half the detergent called for, or even less and still get things plenty clean. Unless you have terrible allergies or are a slob like me who really needs to do these things *more* often, you could probably vacuum half as often and clean your toilet half as often as you do now.

Unless you’ve already pared down, you could probably get rid of half of the clothes in your closet without really noticing - studies suggest most of us only wear about 1/3 of what we own regularly. If you changed your style slightly, you could probably get your hair cut professionally half as often (unless you can cut it yourself, which is even better - I can’t). You could almost certainly buy half as many consumer goods as you usually do each year, and still have everything you need.

You could eat dessert half as often, and unless you are super careful about fats, you could use half as much oil, sugar and salt and be the better for it. The average American could cut their meat/dairy use in half and replace it with half again as many whole grains and fresh vegetables. You could commit to producing half as much food waste, and really work carefully on using up leftovers and making sure things don’t rot in the fridge.

If you live within a few miles of a store, you could take half of your trips by foot or bike, and feel better as well as limiting emissions. You could commit to trying to consolidate your errands and try and make only half as many trips in the car over the course of the year. You could try and cut your vacation distance travelled by half - see something local you’ve always been meaning to explore.

You could watch half as much tv, and try and use the rest of the time for trying out a new skill, catching up on sleep or volunteering. You could spend half as much money on some special luxury you care about - makeup, or trips, or something, and donate the rest to charity.

Halving it doesn’t mean giving up anything you love - it simply means extracting as much pleasure as possible from every bit of what you have, and taking the extra, and making good and wise use of it. All of us can do that. In the peculiar mathematics of good fortune, often you get more than twice as much pleasure - you feel healthier, save money, improve the environment, have more time, more peace, more quiet, a slower pace. Sometimes half as much means vastly more than double the return.


Understanding the Demographic Transition

Sharon July 26th, 2007

My most recent post on Population, _Talking Population with the Old Men_ was mostly about the way the personal has informed my own political take on the subject. This one is about something far more concrete or abstract - the shift in world population that is occurring right now, how it works, what causes it, and what we can do to encourage it.

The term “Demographic Transition” describes the movement of human populations into a roughly steady state. Initially birth rates are high, but so are infant mortality and other death rates, and population may rise, but it does so quite gradually. In Europe and North America, the Demographic Transition occurred over two centuries - gradually, as hygenic practices changed, medicine improved and other factors lowered death rates, women grew up noticing “hey,five kids aren’t necessary - I can have three and be assured of getting them to adulthood.” Thus, the average TFR (that’s the total fertility rate) dropped steadily from 6 to 2.8 and then down further. Now the developed world has an average TFR of 1.8, below replacement rate.

This began in the 19th century in the rich world, but didn’t happen in much of the poor world until the mid-20th century or later. Generally speaking, however, the third world has undergone a much faster demographic transition than the rich world did - in many cases, radical change has come in less than 50 years. And because in many places in the third world, there has been considerable instability, the factors that lead to a transition haven’t been consistently available in many places.

And, in fact, this is happening right now all over the world. We all know that rich world nations like Japan and Italy have a TFR well below replacement, but more than half of all poor nations are below replacement rate, and the rest are following. The highest reproductive rates are in Sub-Saharan Africa, and those too are following the pattern of other poor nations, but are 20 years behind them. Subsaharan Africa now has a TFR of 5.0, down from 6.3 in 1990. Latin America is now at 2.6 as a whole, and has nearly halved in merely 20 years. All over the world, population rates are generally falling much faster than even the most radical demographers expected.

What’s most interesting about the demographic transition is that birth control had comparatively little impact on it - that is, in America, for example, we dropped our birthrate to 2.8, before disseminating birth control information was even legal. Despite a widespread increase in birth control availability after World War II, American birth rates rose well above what they were in the era of the Comstock laws when birth control was illegal. Birth control is estimated to affect about 15% of demographic decline - but that’s a comparatively small percentage. In their book _Understanding Reproductive Change: Kenya, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Costa Rica_, editors Bertil Egero and Mikail Hammerskjold observe that fertility change seems largely unlinked to contraception access. That is, people tend to have about the number of children they want, regardless of access to birth control. The question is how do people come to want a particular family size.

And the answer to that question is that generally speaking, people make fairly rational choices, based on their personal economics, their personal situation, their need to have a child of a particular sex, their need for workers, their need for someone to help them in old age. Time and time again, studies like Pritchett’s on “Desired Fertility” demonstrate that women worldwide, in every situation, mostly make fairly rational choices for themselves about their family size. And when circumstances change, and give them positive incentives to want fewer children, they hae them.

The current, ongoing demographic transition is not, as it is commonly thought, primarily a feature of the rich world. Poor nations as diverse as Albania, Costa Rica, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Philippines have rapidly declining birth rates. And what factors do most of these nations have in common? Generally speaking, basic commodities are widely available - that is, people get to eat. For example, a 1996 USAID report documents a direct link between subsidizing rice in Sri Lanka and a drop in TFR from 3.1 to 2.0 in less than a decade. Basic access to medical care is widely available. Women have high literacy rates and political power. Women are comparatively well protected from rape, and can choose their husbands. A 1994 study by Yale Economist Paul Schultz fournd that female literacy was perhaps the most defining factor in TFR in poor nations. In India, Kerala, with a 100% female literacy rate has a 1.7 TFR, compared to a 4.1 TFR in regions with a 30% literacy rate

But, all the individual factors together add up to what Jeremy Seabrook rightly observes is “security.” If kin are the only safety net you have access to, then you will have children as a form of security and wealth. If there are other options, you will turn to those. Education represents the possibility of work if a husband dies, knowledge of laws, access to information - it is not in itself a reproductive constraint, but an aid to security. What most people want when they have children is security, pleasure and comfort. If 2 children can do that as well or better than 5, they will have two.

A reader in my _Talking Population with the Old Men_ discussion took me to task for not making the link between population and poverty more clear. He argued that large populations cause poverty, and that the only hope of increasing wealth is populations stabilization. But I must say, I disagree. For example, it is manifestly the case that population *density* simply doesn’t cause poverty - otherwise, Hong Kong, Japan and England would be vastly poorer than Georgia and Peru. The evidence for whether high TFR causes poverty is, at best, mixed. For example, prosperity in India has grown dramatically despite a fairly high TFR. Even Paul Ehrlich, famed Zero Population Growth advocate and author of _The Population Bomb_ and _One with Nineveh_ admits in the latter volume that the answer is extremely difficult to sort out, and that there’s limited evidence on that subject. Generally speaking, the demographic transition occurs as a result of a certain degree of wealth - that is, there’s now money for infrastructure improvements such as water systems and sewers. But very poor nations can and sometimes do prioritize these solutions, for example, desperately poor Tanzania uner Nyerere did so, and saw its level of wealth rise while its population was still increasing.

What is true is that population instability does create poverty - for example, the death of 20 million people in Africa to AIDS has left economies stripped, societies filled with children and elderly people caring for them, while the central working generation is ill and dying. Into this situation comes greater poverty, lower educational levels for women, despair, greater need for young women to become prostitutes, and a rising birth rate in some places, massive economic gaps in others. A slow stabilization of population is probably better than wild fluctuations brought about by short term conditions.

The factors that work to limit population growth deserve some greater attention than my quick summary above, because they way they seem to work is as important as the fact that they do. They give us a sense of what kind of society we’d need to create in order to achieve population stabilization well below 10 billion. So let’s consider them a bit more carefully.

The first factor, education, works in several ways. Literacy for women benefits families in a number of ways. It increases her health (a literate woman can read material about health and hygeine practices), it increases her family’s security (if her husband dies, she can get a better job), it increases her desire to see her children receive education and it increases her political power - she can read and understand national issues. Mandatory education for all children serves to remove children from the labor pool, and makes children not producers, but consumers, and thus parents are forced to view their children in that light.

Food security, including price supports, and many other possible programs improves the likelihood of having healthy and non-disabled infants, it makes it less necessary to set children to work finding food, and it makes it possible for women to reserve time for public participation.

The security of elderly people and the disabled can be assured in a number of ways - public support a la social security is one. Traditions of family obligation are another - were we to treat our obligations to aunts and cousins as strongly as we treat those to sisters and parents, as some societies do, the requirement that individuals have more children is greatly reduced.

Basic health care and hygeine matter because they reduce infant and child mortality, reduce harm in childbirth, and enable women to take advantage of contraception when they want it. They also make childbearing less dangerous, which paradoxically reduces birthrates, because it increases family stability and reduces rates of disability and death within families that drive children out to work at early ages.

Another powerful factor is sexual practices in regards to rape, marriage, prostitution and birth control. Birth control, is, surprisingly, the least important of these factors. Discouraging men from seeing prostitutes, in the Gambia reduced fertility rates significantly, as prostitution is generally a result of extreme poverty and often precludes the use of expensive birth control. In Libya, enforcement of existing rape laws was found, to reduce TFR signficantly. All of these factors are associated with the status of women, and the more cultural and political power women have in a society, the fewer unwanted pregnancies she has. These are factors that generally speaking are mended by cultural pressures - for example, in the US, where rape and prostitution are huge problems, how many of us sit down with our sons and not only discuss rape in detail, but talk about prostitution?

Freedom from war is perhaps the most underestimated factor. People who fear that their children will be taken from them by the state have every reason to have extras to ensure their survival. And because war disrupts security, it is hard for families to make rational choices in the face of war. Genocide and racial conflict encourage the harmed parties to increase fertility rates to compensate. And similarly, the state (or other instigators) have every incentive to encourage women to have as many children as possible in the interest of the state. Despite Albert Bartlett’s claim to the contrary, rising death rates due to war actually tend, over the long term, to increase birth rates. And the environmental impact, so critical to the I=PAT formula (explained in my previous post on the subject, “Talking Population to the Old Men”) of military action raises the impact of any individual child. Militaries worldwide are responsible for up to 10% of global emissions and 11% of global resource use. We would have considerably more earth to work with without the massive military industrial complex.

Like war, nationalism itself represents a serious incentive to have more children. Low TFR nations like Japan and Italy that also have strong anti-immigrant sentiments have experienced periodic public calls for a pro-fertility campaign. The notion that national interests should have higher priority than the well being of the world as a whole has led us to short term thinking on population, as so many issues.

It may sound as though achieving a worldwide population stabilization is impossible -as though we must fix all human problems first. But that’s not the case. In fact, it turns out that the total investment in reducing world fertility levels voluntarily is comparatively low. Because most of the changes are human powered, low input, and comparatively cheap. That is, most of what would be required would simply be to prioritize these things. Fossil fuels, for example are not required to have small local schools, small amounts of fossil and renewable energy are required for some basic medications, but as we can see from the timing of the European and North American example, the demographic transition in the rich world was mostly not a product of fossil fuel based medicine, but a result of improvements in nutrition, hygeine and access to food and water. Political power for women is not a product of fossil fuels either. States can far better afford price supports for local farmers and public cafeterias where prices are kept low than they can afford war, famine relief, etc…

Can we do this in the face of peak oil and climate change? Absolutely. We are going to need to make massive changes in our infrastructure. Thus far, much of the discussion of what to do about peak oil has been about trains and renewable energy, new economies and new extraction technologies. And as long as the conversation stays there, we’ll be missing the point. Because ultimately, people care most about being fed, having their kids live to grow up, having safe water, basic housing, etc… As long as we continue the “growth and replacement” model of discussion, we’ll miss the basic point - that what we need most to concentrate on is health, education and social well being.

But what would be required is that we make it a priority - that we reallocate wealth from rich nations to poor ones, something that would require, among other things, a real reduction in worldwide emphasis on short term, national interests. That is, unlike the person who wrote the amazingly stupid ASPO article (which I can’t presently find) some while back that called to close the borders of Britain, enforce a one-child policy by any means necessary and beef up the military (presumably with senior citizens, since there won’t be many young people to expand it with - but hey, 70 year old geezers can defend the shores of Britain from…I can’t remember, was it the French?)

Now the gentleman who complained that I didn’t conceed to his claim that poverty is a consequence of high birth rates also complained that I brought up China, because, as he said, it the only example of compulsory fertility control. But, of course, that isn’t true - states have a long history of manipulating fertility, sometimes through compulsion, sometimes through effective compulsion - in the interest of the state. China’s policy is merely the most recent - for example, the American Eugenics policy was a direct result of the demographic transition. The Intelligentsia argued that we needed to reduce the number of “unfit” children, and increase the birthrate of the fit. Not quite coincidentally, the unfit were the poor, the disabled, the nonwhite, and the disenfranchised. Anyone want to take bets on who the “fit” were? US Courts regularly ordered poor people sterilized against their will, and sterilized non-white women after birth without bothering to get their consent.

And, of course, the state often feels free to encourage birth rates. And if we believe that the state has the right to manipulate fertility rates in its own interest, then we have opened the door to changes in population policy when racial and military conflict arise, or when economic conflict is in play. The minute we say that the state should be in the business of telling people how many children to have, we’ve opened the door to a kind of policy making that we don’t much want to mess with. What the state can and should do is reduce or remove existing incentives to have more children (for example, eliminate the child tax credit or cap it at two children), and then focus its efforts on meeting basic human needs.

I think it is really important to assert that population reduction works best when it is wholly voluntary - really voluntary, with the state focusing its interests on improving the lives of the people who actually make the real, everyday decisions about what to do. It is worth noting that China’s present TFR is just below 2.0, while many poor nations have successfully reduce their TFRs well below China’s without such measures. Our focus, in that case, ought to be on reallocation of wealth, creating infrastructure to enable and preserve basic things like basic medical care and adequate food for all, both in the rich world and the poor, and most of all, ceasing to think of our own interests as primarily tied to those of our nation state, and recognizing that our interests are the interests of the world as a whole.

The UN estimates that World Population will stabilize between 8.5 and 9 billion people by 2050, and then gradually begin to decline. There’s fairly compelling evidence that we can feed that many people, if we chose to do so, and if we choose to act justly. That would mean giving up ethanol, reducing our meat consumption, and radically reducing our consumption of goods. It would mean living a much simpler lifestyle, and devoting more of the resources of the rich world, while we have them, to education, health and welfare and sharing our good fortune. The benefits we reap would be enormous. Worldwide, nations that have prioritized food security, basic health care and stability for its populace have seen an average fall of their TFR to below 2 - in many cases, well below it. At that rate, by 2150, the world’s whole population would be below 3 billion, without a massive die off.

I think it is worth it, no?


The Time is Now

Sharon July 25th, 2007

Cheery news on the climate change and peak oil front this week. If you aren’t actually witnessing climate change in all its glory, say in Britain (massive flooding, officially confirmed to be connected to global warming) China (massive flooding some places, drought and desertification elsewhere), the Amazon (drought), The Southwest and Southeast US (drought) or somewhere else, there’s increasing evidence that the Arctic Ice will be gone within the next decade or so. This is not good news. Add to that the new study that suggests that the Amazon Rainforest may essentially be destroyed within the next few years, and we’re facing two climate tipping points - not at the end of the century, but in the next few years.

Virtually all research suggests that most climate change isn’t very gradual at all - the IPCC report imagines linear, slow, moderate climate change, which is scary enough. But there’s ample science suggesting that in fact, what happens is radical, quick change, in non-linear ways - ice melt, for example, simply doesn’t proceed the way the IPCC report has presumed. It is not at all out of the question to imagine that we could experience massive climate change over the course of decade - arriving suddenly in a world we don’t recognize. Oh, and just plain old pollution is getting nasty - 75,000 Chinese people a year, 30,000 in the US:

On the peak oil front, The Oil Drum suggests a more significant decline in Russian production (up until now the only major oil producer not showing significant declines in supply) than otherwise expected: #node/2716. If Russia starts declining as Mexico and Saudi Arabia have, we can expect to see radically higher energy prices very soon. Goldman Sachs reiterated that we could see $100 barrel by 2009 , and Pat Robertson apparently told his 700 Club listeners to get bicycles, that peak oil was here. And a newly translated book argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused largely by too many farmers leaving the land: . Sound like anything anyone has heard of?

If you’ve been to the grocery store lately, you know that the price of food is way, way, way up. Last week the price of powdered milk rose by *300%* - and almost everything else has risen by 25% or more over the last year. I’m starting to see working people ask how they are supposed to get by. And that’s a real question. Tens of thousands of Americans and Australians are now experiencing “transportation poverty” - that is, they spend so much on gas getting to work that they can no longer buy basic essentials. And if you are struggling to make ends meet, well, you can feel you are in good company - the UN last week announced that because of the ethanol boom and its effects on food prices, it will no longer be able to provide food aid to millions of hungry people That is, we’re going to let millions of people starve to death so we can have more gas in our cars - and realistically, ethanol is a very short term boom - as fossil fuel prices rise and the environmental consequences become clear, ethanol, which provides a very, very minimal energy return, if that, is going to disappear. One of our last big build outs was wasted making booze for our cars. I’m sure we’ll be glad we did that. Since food production is expected to halve in developing nations over the next 20 years, due to environmental constraints, the UN will certainly have more people not to feed: We’re warned that unless we lower our rate of consumption of just about everything, millions of people will starve. How much *do* we want that spongebob basketball set? That steak? That beer? Those shoes?

And does anyone still eat industrially produced food? There’s botulism in your chili, plastic in your dog food, salmonella in your peanut butter, and ecoli on your bagged spinach. Leaving your food production to corporate America can’t just kill you by giving you cancer, heart disease and diabetes - it can do it instantly! Whee!

We’re more indebted and our economy is shakier than at any time since right before the Great Depression. China and Japan are showing signs that they don’t want to prop up our economy forever. A new film suggests that without credit cards, many middle class people would be genuinely poor. Up to 60% of the British economy and 70% of the American is directly or indirectly tied up in our housing,,2133131,00.html. And there are few people who think we’re anywhere near the bottom of the housing market, or the foreclosure crisis.

Now it is perfectly possible that a few or some or even the aggregate of all this information is wrong. It is possible that magic bullets will be found, comfortable forms of adaptation will occur, and that everything will be less severe than the most acute forecasts. And realistically, I think that’s even likely - for some of us. The thing is, these circumstances won’t hit everyone the same way. Some of us will still be mulling over whether to install the sustainably harvested cork floors in their new “eco kitchen” while most of us are wondering whether the kids will have shoes.

Now some of you are on board, of course, but I’m sure there are plenty of readers here who think I’m overreacting - after all, the world is always going to hell in a handbasket, isn’t it? Why not just watch “24″ reruns, and not worry about it?

So we come to the question of when and how to act. And I’m going to suggest that everyone who reads this take 10 basic actions to provide for their security right now - this year, whenever possible. I could be absolutely off base, but it seems like the combination of peak oil, financial instability and climate change is going to strike us hard, and soon. Now maybe you disagree - you expect technological solutions, or things to be gentler. But even if you do, there’s good reason to hedge your bets, invest a few resources and a little energy into preparation, so that just in case the crazy lady on the blog was right, your family, your community will be a little bit better off.

All of these things are ideas you can implement with very little money, very little time and without people thinking you are a weird-assed loon. They don’t even have to notice. So if you aren’t yet willing to come out and admit to anyone that you’ve been reading my site ;-), just do me this favor - make a few quiet plans, spend a little bit of money, and then laugh your ass off at me if I’m wrong. It will make me feel better, and I think you, too. Because, after all, the consequences of my being wrong are pretty small - a couple less dinners out, one less magazine subscription and you wait on the new car lease for an extra six months. The consequences of me being right on your family, however, could be pretty big. Life and death. So why not indulge your own family’s security just a little.

1. Wherever you are, begin to adapt to lower energy living. I’ve written before about my basic assumption, which is that regardless of any apocalyptic visions of grid crash (which I have no strong opinion on), poor people get their utilities shut off a lot. In fact, shutoffs are rising dramatically all over the US right now, and tens of thousands of people are now in debt to their utility companies. A lot of us may have to choose between food and electricity, and it would be insane to prioritize electricity, which is merely a convenience. Here’s my take on the issue, if you are interested: #26246.html.

At a minimum, you should get prepared to be able to get water from the sky or your well without power, keep yourselves tolerably warm or cool without central heating or a/c, etc… For those who aren’t convinced, this can be a fairly low input project - a pvc pipe turned into a well bucket costs about $5. Cap it with a plastic cap, make sure it is smaller than the diameter of your well, and ta da! Or try this: Alternately, get some rainbarrels and a gravity fed filter - camping stores have them. The filter may set you back a bit ($75-100 for camping style, $200+ for a good table top whose filters will last a year, but clean water is a good thing.

Make a homemade composting toilet using leaves and a bucket.

For heat, go to yard sales and thrift shops and buy blankets, long underwear, and warm clothing. If you can, you might put in a woodstove, but you *can* live in a house with no heat without freezing to death. People have done it for centuries. Dress warmly, move around during the day, and at night, rig a four poster bed, with cloth covers over your bed and hung for curtains will create a small, tight space that is well insulated and heated by your body. Try not to let anyone sleep entirely alone - kids can sleep together or with parents. Or encourage the cat or dog to join you.

For heat, you’ll have to stay outside most of the time, open windows at night and keep them closed during the day. Do your cooking in the early morning and at night, and eat cold things during the day. Don’t do heavy exercise during the day, if you can avoid it, and keep a close eye on small children and elders, who are much more vulnerable to heat than most adults. Use cool water to cool people down.

2. Start a garden. It isn’t too late to start one today in most cases. Build some raised beds, or sheet mulch (cover with newspaper and a lot of organic material - manure, grass clippings, non-weed seed yard waste, compost), and let it all decompose. Or plant some herbs and vegetables in pots. But whatever you do, start thinking ahead to your long term food security. Every meal and nutritious bit of produce you grow is something you don’t have to buy. Many seed companies have fall sales - stock up on extra seeds for yourself and your neighborhood, just in case next year your food budget is stretched.

3. Store food. With rising food prices, it would be nuts not to. Buy local and organic when you can, but store bulk local grains, local honey, dried beans, and put up some other items. Food storage doesn’t have to be costly - each week, alot $10 to food storage. The first week, you might buy 10lbs of organic, whole wheat pasta, or 20lbs of organic rice. The next, a 5lb box of salt and two bags of dried pinto beans. The following week a bottle of vitamins. As it gets cooler, and fall produce starts to come in, a cooler on your back porch will store bulk potatoes and onions that often can be purchased at very little. Buy a little extra of everything you eat, and practice cooking it. Remember, one of the consequences of hard times is family lose their homes and security. You may want this food not because there’s none in stores, but because you have no money, and the food pantry is stretched to the limit, or you may want it because your sister in law and her two kids are sleeping in your living room after their house was foreclosed upon, or perhaps you’ll want to be able to continue to give to charity, even when your resources are stretched by rising gas and food prices. Don’t forget to put some water in old soda bottles and other heavy duty beverage containers, and store it in your freezer or add a little bleach and put it in a cool, dark place.

4. Get out of debt! I can’t emphasize this too strongly - make some cut backs and start paying down your credit cards. Get rid of the cable, the dinners out, the Sunday drive, the hobby expenditures. Pay down consumer debt first, car loans next, then your mortgage. The more equity you have in your home, the less likely you are to lose it if you stop being able to pay the mortgage.

5. Get to know your neighbors. Talk to them. Make friends with them. Find out about them. Have an open house, a barbecue, a neighborhood party. Start a local community group, a home church, a local minyan. Get the kids together to play. Start thinking in terms of neighborhood solidarity - can I pick up some stuff for you at the farmer’s market? Why don’t you borrow my vacuum cleaner, instead of replacing yours? Can I feed your cats/help you out, etc… You need them and they need you. Start carpooling. Start a community garden. Get together to knit, or can or just talk. But start something.

6. Have a plan. That is, think about what you would do if your income was halved or prices doubled? What if someone lost their job? What about health insurance? What if the power was out for an extended period, or like millions of Britons today, you had no safe water supply? What if something happened when the kids were at school and parents at work - how would you get in touch with one another? Cell phones may not be working - do you have a meeting place? If you had to evacuate, do you have the basics - copies of id, enough gas to get somewhere safe, food and water for a few days, changes of clothes, basic medical care? Think about what is most possible in your area, and be prepared for it.

7. Get on your bike and start riding, on your feet and start walking. Most of us aren’t used to getting around by human power anymore, and we need to be. Suburbia is often pretty feasible if you have a bike. A 5-10 mile bike ride is quite doable for most healthy people, and even many unhealthy ones can cover a few miles on an adult trike or recumbent - my father, overweight, with lung disease and severe arthritis and nearly 60 rides his every day. A five mile round trip walk should be doable for most of us. And most of us do have some resources within walking distance. It just takes practice and energy. Cheap bikes are widely available, although investing more money will often get you a more comfortable one.

8. Gradually start to replace powered items with human powered ones. Get a manual grain grinder for grinding flour for bread - fresh ground tastes better anyway. A push mower for the lawn. Some hand tools. A crank flashlight or two and a crank cell phone charger. You don’t have to go crazy, but as things need replacing, used items come up or opportunity arises, make sure you can be comfortable.

9. Protect the vulnerable. Breastfeed your baby if at all possible, and don’t wean early - disease proliferates where hunger or flooding or other problems come. If you run out of food, you’ll make milk for a little while in a crisis. Keep the lives of babies and young children as stable and secure as possible, and watch their nutrition carefully. Prepare for older children in an unstable situation - buy clothes and shoes in larger sizes at yard sales, and help them understand what is happening. Be prepared to teach your kids at home for a while if necessary. Also be ready to take elderly people into your home, to check on neighbors. Stock extra medications, and have backup plans for caring for seniors and the disabled.

10. Support your local poverty support programs, and build new ones. Local food pantries and fuel assitance programs are stretched to the max. Show up at yours and help them find new sources of food - grow food for them, volunteer, raise funds. You may need them someday.

Now the neat thing about all of this is that if you do these things, you’ll save some money in the long run, get more exercise, eat better, have better tasting food, a happier neighborhood, and a greater degree of personal security. Most of these preparations can be undertaken for very little money - and some are free. So get too it, folks - mock away, but protect yourselves.



52 Weeks Down - Week 13 - Catch Some Rain

Sharon July 23rd, 2007

Right now, my garden is getting a lovely watering. We’re fortunate to be enjoying a summer with a nice mix of rain and sun. I know many people all over the world right now are suffering through a hot, dry summer, and often, serious local drought. This is a real problem - the Southwestern Drought is essentially expected not to end in our lifetimes. Much of the best farmland in the world is now in drought conditions. We’re deeply grateful that our land is pretty well situated for water. Still, we don’t take it for granted. We mulch our gardens, pour our dishwashing liquid and cooled cooking water on the potted plants, use a composting toilet and otherwise focus a lot of energy on the conservation of water, simply because we don’t like waste, and because the time may come when these practices will be necessary.

Which is why it is so urgent that, whenever possible, we keep collect water off our roofs. Water that hits asphalt or gravel represents a real management problem for towns and cities, causing flooding, and when it soaks into sewers, it is contaminated. It would be wiser to catch water as much as possible where it strikes the ground and make the best use we can of it - for irrigation, clothes washing, hair washing. I was horrified to learn that some American cities prohibit rainbarrels - personally, I think this is madness. I understand that dry areas depend on their runoff, but in many cases, such a large portion is lost or contaminated in heavy rainfall that allowing homeowners to capture a few hundred gallons would represent a signficant net benefit. And because industrial agriculture always uses more water than growing your own food, if people are capturing rain water for irrigation, that has even greater net benefits. We simply can’t afford to let this resource go.

The simplest option here is a rainbarrel - any food grade plastic barrel will do, and there are cheap ones out there, or you can get something pretty and fancy that will make your homeowner’s association happy. Hook it up to your gutters, and you are set to go. A few more and you’ve got more. You can put a couple on your barn, or your garage as well, or even your garden shed, so water things there.

Even better for us, is the cistern. This house came with an old one, but after several failed attempts to fix it, we’re waiting to have the gentleman come and dig us another one. The beauty of the cistern is that it can collect vastly more water (5,000 gallons - our rainbarrels together can only collect 200), and because it is set in the ground below the frost line, won’t freeze. The whole set up, including a hand pump for our kitchen sink costs about $1800 dollars - not cheap, but worth it for the security of non-electric, soft water (our well water is hard as nails and has sulfur and iron galore) that comes into the house without going out with a bucket. It cost only a little more than a manual pump on our drilled well.

Rainwater is great for irrigation, and some people even raise fish in their rain barrels. I can’t help you much there, but I do know that I love the way my hair feels when it is washed with rainwater. I can’t wait for the cistern to be finished!


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