Archive for July, 2007

Low Energy Food Preservation

Sharon July 12th, 2007

So you’ve grown the garden, and the quantities of tomatoes and zucchini are getting really embarassing. How do you preserve it, using the fewest possible fossil fuel inputs? What’s the best way to keep your pantry full and your democracy alive (if you have no idea why I’m talking about democracy and pickled cabbage together, you might want to read my post on “Food Preservation and Democracy” here: -they really do go together like locally produced hot dogs/tofu dogs and sauerkraut ;-)).

A lot of what I’m talking about here applies best to people with space for decent sized gardens or even small farms. But a good deal of this can apply to urbanites with no or small gardens. For example, even urbanites can forage for herbs and greens to eat and preserve. In many cities it is possible to keep rabbits or chickens for meat and eggs, and preserve them, and many cities have fruit trees on private or public property whose fruit goes unharvested. Simply asking may get you abundant citrus or peaches or apples. And, of course, everyone can go to local farms and farmer’s markets, buy large quantities of food and put it up. If money is an issue, the best time of day to go is late in the afternoon, when farmers have a strong incentive not to haul everything home. Buy what they have and put it up.

I will also note that I am including a discussion of preserving meat here. I know many people have ethical or religious reasons not to eat some kinds of meat, or meat all. That’s fine, but I’m not going to discuss vegetarianism in this post, and I’d ask that you refrain from bringing it up. If information about meat preservation doesn’t apply to you, go on to the next item. I’ll gladly discuss vegetarianism at another time, but this post is about the best and least energy intensive ways to produce all foods, whether any given reader eats them or not.

Before we get started, the odds are good that unless you are adding a major energy hog appliance (that is, you are going out and buying a big freezer), you will be reducing your fossil fuel dependence in total when you put up food, no matter how you do it. The food you grow or buy locally to put up has already used vastly less fossil fuels to produce it, and when you freeze things, you are saving yourself trips to the grocery store, which many of us do by car. So whatever choice you make will probably be better than not putting up food. But it still makes sense to cut fossil fuel whenever possible.

Generally speaking, when I talk about food preservation, people immediately think “canning” and “freezing.” Those are the most familiar methods of extending the life of food in our garden. But they are also the most energy intensive choices. Both are also water intensive (electricity generation takes a lot of water, as does canning), canning is comparatively time intensive, and generally, they are more expensive than other options. So while I do both, my long term planning increasingly deemphasizes both of these. There are other options. Food can be salted down, preserved in sugar or alcohol, lactofermented (more on this shortly), root cellared (stored in a naturally cool place), dried or dehydrated, or preserved by keeping it alive in the garden or barnyard through season extension or “keeping it on the hoof”. And while I do can and freeze some foods, I’m increasingly focusing on other methods because they are lower input, and often produce better results.

Freezing is probably the most common way we preserve food, and is generally the most energy intensive. In _Eating Fossil Fuels_, Dale Pfeiffer notes that if food is kept more than four months, freezing is usually more energy intensive than canning. But of course, this information is based on an average person, canning on average gas stove, compared to an average chest freezer. There are any number of factors that might change this equation some. If, for example, you have a very small freezer, and an electric stove, the length of time might change. Or, for example, if
you can do much of your canning on a wood stove you’d be using anyway to heat your house. But generally speaking, freezing is the most energy and emissions intensive methodology. And freezers have the added disadvantage, if you don’t have one already, of putting more freon into the world.

On the other hand, if you have a freezer and are going to run it anyway, the most efficient way to run it is to keep it full all the time (I’m assuming you are using a newer chest freezer, which is vastly more efficient than an upright or much older model). All of which is an argument for freezing if you already have a freezer you are using. We do have a freezer, and since we’re finally turning off the fridge this weekend (yay!), it will be our only method of refrigeration, keeping the ice packs for the coolers cool, and also we’ll be keeping the freezer full. In our case, using the freezer for some foods makes sense for now. In the long term, however, our plan is to get rid of the freezer too.

The things that I think are best kept frozen are: Raw meats, apple cider, milk, butter, blanched brassica vegetables (broccoli especially), okra, pesto, zucchini some leftovers and peas. That really isn’t a very long list, but given that we generally have our poultry for the year butchered all at once, the turkeys and chickens will take care of it. Eric put up about 10 quarts of broccoli yesterday. Even though other brassicas freeze well, we don’t bother with it much because they almost all keep well by other methods. So at the end of the year, the freezer generally has some broccoli, some peas, some okra, our meats and a bunch of gallons of apple cider that we stick in to have over the course of the winter. Honestly, the more I look at this list, the more I wonder why we’re keeping the freezer at all.

At this stage, we don’t freeze much milk or butter. But it is worth noting that these products are usually produced using grain when they are eaten year ’round - that is, they are produced by feeding human food to cows. That’s not evil, but if the goal is to make as much food available to human beings as possible, seasonal, grassfed milk from goats, sheep and cows might make more sense. This is the historical way of doing this - animals were allowed to dry up during the winter. Grassfed dairy could be produced here for 7 months of the year, more or less, and the rest of the time we’d be eating preserved (frozen or salted and kept cool) butter and cheese. And, if we were running a freezer, we might keep some milk frozen.

Other people freeze other vegetables, but generally speaking, I find that most of the typically frozen veggies do as well or better in other means of storage, or we simply don’t like them frozen that well, so we eat them only in season. Chief in this latter category is green beans. I love green beans - fresh. I’ll eat a few as dilly beans. But generally speaking, both canned and frozen are distinctly inferior to my mind. Which means that we enjoy green beans from July to October, and then just stop worrying about it, and eat other things. We feel asparagus is another such vegetable.

In fact, seasonal eating is helpful in putting all of this in perspective - that is, if you insist on eating the exact same things all year around, you can expect to find food preservation time and energy intensive. But if you are content to enjoy things in their season, your need to transfer, say, summer foods to winter is going to be reduced to luxury and pleasure. We eat our fair share of bread with blueberry jam in the winter as well, but it is helpful to recognize that things have their time, and that winter apple season, not blueberry. That means I don’t have to worry about a year’s worth of blueberries - just enough for our regular jam fixes and a few dehydrated for winter pancakes.

Canning is the next most energy intensive method, in part because it requires extended periods of boiling, and also because each canning requires new canning jar lids. Canning is also time intensive. Some of that time you don’t have to be paying attention - for example, with practice I’ve found I can pressure can and do chores at the same time, as long as I stay in the same room. But much of the time you spend canning food, you have to be keeping an eye on it. The good thing is that much of one’s canning can be done in intensive batches, or casually, a little each evening. One way to cut back on difficulty is to do some of your canning later in the season. Applesauce, for example, can be put up in the fall after you get the apples, or in the winter, as you sort through the stored apples and sauce the ones that are getting wrinkled. I often wait to do pickles until things have cooled down and the stove is welcome.

Generally speaking, using older style jars with reusable rubber rings is not recommended. I know some of you may do it, but botulism is nothing to play with, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend canning anything other than high-acid (pickles, jams and jellies) foods. The same goes for reusing canning jar lids, or sealing jars with parrafin. Generally speaking, not a great idea, and if you had to do it, don’t do it with anything that could support botulism spores.

There are two kinds of canning. Water bath canning is only for high acid foods - fruit juices, jams, jellies and some tomato products (generally with added lemon, vinegar or vitamin c tablets). Pressure canning is for everything else, and you need a pressure canner in good working order to do it safely. If you don’t do it correctly, your family could get botulism, a deadly bacteria that thrives in anaerobic environments and is endemic in our soil. Don’t mess with it. Get a copy of the _Ball Blue Book_ for canning, check out USDA regulations, and don’t use older canning books - ever. I’m not trying to be discouraging, but there’s a lot of misinformation about canning out there, and the price of screwing up can be deadly. Learn how to do it right.

Once you have, canning is generally a good method for longer term storage. It is less energy intensive than freezing, and while in the short term there’s some loss of nutrients, by the time frozen food is six months old, it has lost more nutrients than canned. Canning is by far the best method of putting up jams and jellies, some pickled things, and is, I think a good way to store cooked meat items, like chicken broth and stew. Such food is convenient and tastes good. It does require an outlay for materials (a good, reliable pressure canner, new lids, water bath canning rack, a few other things), but is a vastly smaller investment than a freezer, for example, and I’ve acquired every single canning jar I own (800+) for free or less than 5 dollars for a big box of them. They are common fodder at freecycle, yard sales, estate sales, etc…

I don’t can all that much food, and again, I could get along quite comfortably entirely without it. I make jams (strawberry, blueberry, black currant, raspberry), apple butter, pumpkin butter, and other sweets. I usually put up some grape juice (for sabbaths), and can some pickles. And, of course, tomatoes as sauce, salsa and canned tomatoes. And later in the cold weather, after we butcher, while the stoves are running anyway, I’ll put up turkey and chicken. But everything but the water bathed, high acid jams, pickles and tomatoes could be preserved in other ways as well. For all that we tend to think that canning and freezing are essential to get through the winter, they really aren’t - if they were, humanity wouldn’t have survived for the last few thousand years before they were invented.

The method I like best is root cellaring. I don’t actually put my food down cellar -our cellar is gross, damp and floods occasionally. Instead, I store food in a closet on our enclosed front porch and in our attached garage. I’ve also stored foods on the uninsulated porch itself in a cooler. But you can use any area that doesn’t freeze but gets quite cold. There’s a wonderful book by Scott and Nancy Bubel _Root Cellaring_ that covers the details. You can also build or dig an unattached root cellar, or build a small insulated above-ground space. All this does require a cold period, but if you have one, it is well worth a one-time investment creating a secure space for cool food storage. Attics will often work, so will existing basements - you can build a small seperate area which is insulated with board insulation and vented. If you do it yourself, it might not cost more than a few hundred dollars, and could provide you with thousands of dollars of food storage every year. Heck, a closet on an outside wall could be lined with board insulation and an outside air source added - instant root cellar!

We store more food this way than any other. We store potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, celeriac, apples (15 bushels a year), pears, quinces, cabbages, persimmons, salsify and more, and there are plenty of things you can store that we don’t. These are the basis of our winter eating. It does take up space, but surprisingly little if kept well organized.

This is especially important because of the potatoes - potatoes grow everywhere. They can be grown on rocky or hilly or poor soil that won’t grow anything else. One year, I threw an inch or two of compost down and dumped potatoes on my gravel driveway, covered them with straw and got respectable yields. You can also grow large quantities of potatoes in barrels. They are nutritionally dense, tasty, store well and much easier to grow and preserve than grain. They can be the basis of your diet. Sweet potatoes and some other roots (manioc, taro) can do the same. That makes it possible for ordinary people to grow an entire, healthy diet on a space the size of an average suburban lawn. Ecology Action has emphasized potatoes and sweet potatoes and found that really good gardeners on really good soil could feed themselves a fully balanced diet on 700-1000 square feet. The book _One Circle_ documents how.

IMHO, if you can do one thing, it would be grow and store potatoes and sweet potatoes. We would all prefer more variety in our diet (and at a minimum, make sure you grow multiple *varieties* of potatoes and sweet potatoes - not doing so caused the potato famine in Ireland), but potatoes are life sustaining in difficult times. There are places you can’t root cellar and places you won’t need to, but if you don’t live in one of them, consider finding a place for cold storage of roots and other crops.

We also store some food in our house, with us. There are some foods - sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squash, onions and garlic that tolerate or prefer cool home temperatures - that is, they like the temperatures that conserving people have in their homes in cool weather - 50s to low 60s. So it is simple to store squash under the bed, stick the sweet potatoes in a spare closet, and hang the garlic up in your kitchen. These vegetables can and should keep us company.

Then there are the things we dehydrate. We have an electric dehydrator, and we dry some things in the sun outside. My husband is presently building a solar dehydrator so that we can dehydrate more of our food without using energy at all. Electric dehydrators are commonly available at yard sales (I’ve bought 2 and seen many more) and generally speaking use the equivalent of a 40 watt bulb’s worth of energy. Mine takes about a day to dehydrate most items. So depending on how much you use it, this could be a big energy expenditure or a small one.

For those who live in dry climates, particularly in the west, it should be possible to simply lay the food outside on a screen, with a layer of cheesecloth covering it. For us in humid places, a solar dehydrator is a little more complicated. But there are many plans on the internet, and they work beautifully. I’ve also used my car as a dehydrator, and while there are some concerns about outgassing, I tend to think if you *sit* in your car, you have more to worry about than eating food dehydrated in a car with the windows left partly open. It works very well, although the entire vehicle smells like strawberries if you do those ;-). Your gas oven with a pilot light on will work quite well, as will a rack hung at a reasonable distance from a woodstove.

Dehydrated food keeps less of its essential nutrients than most other methods. Generally speaking, the most nutrients are retained when food is dried away from direct sunlight, at comparatively low temperatures - the lower the better. Thus, the best way to dry many quick-drying things is simply to hang them up in a well ventilated, airy place away from direct light. This works very well for herbs, greens, hot peppers, and even apple slices and green beans (called “leather britches” when they are dried this way. Take a needle and lace a string through the peppers, or just bunch the herbs and hang them. Once things are dry, no matter how pretty they look, however, store them in glass (great use for those old rubber ring canning jars and the jars with nicks) jars or other bugproof containers. I regularly find metal tins from flavored popcorn at yardsales - these work well.

We dry herbs, greens, tomatoes, sweet peppers (if you like sun dried tomatoes, dried sweet red peppers are even better), sweet corn (delicious!), almost all fruits, pumpkin and fruit “leather,” garlic and hot peppers. We’ve also made dried meats before, like jerky, but since poultry doesn’t work, local fish is mostly contaminated and we don’t eat much red meat, it isn’t a big thing for us.

We also dry some foods on the plant. In dry places, I’m told you can pull up the entire plant of “Principe Borghese” tomatoes and hang it over a fence and the tomatoes will dry on their own. That doesn’t work here. But beans, peas, limas, favas, corn and grains will dry on the plant. I find that popcorn often needs a little more time drying inside, but generally speaking with peas and beans, all you have to do is leave some on the plant and harvest when the pods are dry and rattling.

Generally speaking, I tend to think that dried foods are among the tastiest, and dehydrating, like freezing, is quite quick - just cut up the food and ignore it until it is at the stage of dryness you want. Using solar energy, ambient air circulation or heat that you’d be creating anyway, it requires no additional fossil fuels. After root cellaring, drying food is a favorite.

But not quite as favorite as season extension/keeping animals on the hoof. Because, after all, in most of these cases, what we’re seeking is the flavor of fresh growing things as closely approximated as possible. There are exceptions, of course - jams or sundried tomatoes, flavors we enjoy in their own right. But generally speaking, we don’t freeze peppers to get the terrific flavor of frozen pepper - we’re trying to get as close to fresh as possible. So the best strategy of all is, as much as possible, to extend your garden season so that you can have fresh, really local things when you want them.

I’ve written about fall gardening here, and that might be a place to start planning. We find that with very basic season extension techniques - no greenhouse, artificial heat or anything like it - we can have fresh greens and salads as well as a few extras from the end of March to the end of December. But as Eliot Coleman’s _Four Season Harvest_ demonstrates, the possibilities are much, much greater - you can have food 12 months of a year with minimal inputs in many climates.

Everyone, for example, can sprout seeds all winter long. Most of us can keep some fresh herbs alive. And if you have no garden, you might consider talking to local farmers or your CSA farmers, and telling them that you’d be glad to pay for local greens all winter long. Perhaps someone will start the project.

I don’t freeze most cabbage-family vegetables because we can have them all year. Kale will overwinter in the garden with minimal protection - it often isn’t easily available to us because of deep snow, but it is there all year round. The same is true of leeks, and some other greens like miner’s lettuce and arugula. Brussels sprouts and cabbage will generally hold out until December here, and the brussels sprouts will last another month in cold storage if the plants are pulled up whole. Cabbage will last many months - often through the whole winter. Lettuces can be grown in a sunny window all winter long to provide some salads. So there’s really no reason for the inferior taste of frozen cabbage or brussels sprouts.

Turnips and beets will sprout greens in cold storage, and these can be cut several times. I’ve never done it, but endives can be forced in winter. Leeks will overwinter here pretty reliably, as will parsnips and salsify. So if you are reasonably content to eat turnip greens, beet greens, kale, lettuce, spinach, arugula, asian greens, cabbage, sprouts, fresh herbs, brussels sprouts, and supplement these greens with root cellared vegetables, dried ones, and other methods I’ll talk about, there’s really no reason, even in cold snowy places like upstate NY, to *need* freezing or canning. You may want them - and that’s fine. But they really aren’t necessary for a delicious and diverse winter diet.

For those who choose to eat meat, keeping meat animals alive may or may not be a more efficient way of preserving their meat than canning or freezing. And no, this need not apply only to farmers. For example, a suburbanite or even many urbanites could easily keep several hutches of rabbits which would be fed mostly on food scraps, very small quantities of grain and “hay” and dried weeds from your yard cuttings (make sure you know something about animal nutrition).

Generally speaking, if you can produce an animal’s winter food without too much in the way of fossil inputs, it may make more sense to simply care for the animal until you are ready to butcher it. The meat will be fresher, have greater nutritional value and will taste better. This technique is particularly useful if you eat meat mostly for festivals, and share with neighbors and community members. For example, in many nations at holidays, extended families will come together to butcher a sheep or goat and share it out.

Generally speaking, if you are feeding purchased food to an animal, you probably would be better off butchering and preserving some other way, rather than wasting food, especially grain, on an animal whose destiny is to be dinner. And generally speaking, this requires you be willing to do your own butchering, rather than sending animals away to be processed. Personally, I prefer to do my own when possible, because it is better for the animal and less traumatic for them, and this encourages us to butcher one animal at a time, only as needed. There’s no better way, I think, to sort out your relationship to the meat you eat (if you do) than to be responsible for the animal’s life and death. This isn’t feasible for everyone, but more people could and perhaps should do it than do.

The other food preservation method I recommend is lactofermentation. The two forms of lactofermentation most Americans are familiar with are making sauerkraut and barrel pickles. If you’ve ever bought a pickle from a barrel or a refrigerator case, or *fresh* (not canned) sauerkraut, you’ve had a lactofermented food. But there are many other kinds, chief among them is kimchi, the Korean national food, to which I’m entirely addicted.

Lactofermented foods use a salt brine to encourage natural bacterial fermentation, and lactofermented foods are very good for you - unlike any other method of food preservation, some vegetables stored through lactofermentation are actually more nutritious than the original vegetable, because the fermentation makes additional nutrients available. For example, kimchi has levels of B vitamins that are twice as high as the chinese cabbage alone. The acid preserves the foods naturally, and they will last for many months kept in a cool place. You can can them, but I don’t recommend it, because the hot water will kill all the bacteria and reduce the nutritional levels. Sauerkraut (which really tastes infinitely better homemade than anything you’ve ever eaten from a store) is very high in vitamin C - enough to prevent scurvy over long winters.

You need only pots and salt to do this, so it is very cheap, very low energy, very low time and very tasty. You can make many complicated and delicious flavors - for example, my great-grandmother made sauerkraut with sour cherries in it. When most people think of kimchi, they think fiery, but in fact there are hundreds of kimchis, some sweet, some spicy, some very sour. All the ones I have ever had are delicious. The average korean eats 200 *pounds* of kimchi a year.

Lactofermented foods also have the specific advantage that some of them produce natural, narrow spectrum antibiotics specific against ecoli, listerian and clostridium botulinum. That is - they protect you against food poisoning. With all the food contamination scares we’ve had recently, this is a non-trivial benefit. Fermented foods in general tend to have these - yogurt and miso as well, but sauekraut, brined pickles and kimchi have especially high levels of these natural antibiotics.

If you have a spot cool enough to keep potatoes, you can keep lactofermented foods. They will very gradually get sourer over time, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There are still other methods of food preservation. For example, the preservation of fruit in alcohol (as liqueurs or as rumpot), the salting of fish and meat, preservation in fat, smoking, preservation of vegetables and fruits in layers of sugar and salt all have a long history. We’ve experimented a little with some of these, but the above are the major techniques we use. If you are interested in these other methods, the book _Keeping Food Fresh_ by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terra Vivante. None of their food preservation recipes include canning or freezing.

So what’s the best way to preserve food? Well, the lowest energy techniques are generally root cellaring, season extension (especially in climates that require little or no protection), solar/ambient dehydrating, and lactofermentation. The fastest ways are generally root cellaring (overall winner), season extension, solar dehydrating and freezing. The most nutritious methods are generally lactofermentation, season extension and root cellaring, followed by freezing for short periods. Canning and freezing are generally speaking not best at much, and I’m personally working on reducing them in my life.

The best tasting way? Depends on the food. Below I’ve listed my personal preferences in order of preference, but you’ll have to experiment and see what you like.

Happy Preserving!!

Apples: Root Cellaring, dehydrating, canned as sauce/apple butter
Apricots: dry, sauce (canned)
Asian greens: season extension, lactofermentation
Bananas: dried, frozen
Basil: frozen as pesto
Beans, dry: dried
Beans, Green: eaten fresh, pickled/lactofermented
Beets: Root cellared, pickled
Blueberries: jammed, dried
Brussels sprouts; season extension
Carrots: root cellared, season extension
Cabbage: root cellar, lactofermentation
Corn, sweet: dehydrated, canned, frozen
Corn, pop: dry
Corn, flour: dry
Citrus: Root cellared, salted (preserved lemons), sugared and dehydrated (orange slices), liqueurs, dried (peel), canned (juice)
Cranberries: jammed, sauce, frozen, dried
Eggs: Root Cellared, on hoof
Figs: dry
Garlic: root cellared, dried
Greens: season extension, lactofermentation
Herbs: most dried, some salted
Lettuce: season extension
Meats: On hoof, canned, frozen, dried
Milk: fermented as cheese and yogurt, frozen, preserved as salted butter
Onions: Root Cellared
Pears: Root cellar, canned, dried
Peas, snap and snow: frozen
Peas, shell; dry, frozen
Peaches: dry, canned
Peppers, sweet: dried, frozen
Peppers, hot: dried, frozen
Plums: Jam, dry,
Potatoes: Root Cellared
Pumpkin: root cellared, dry (the USDA recommends against canning pumpkin or squash at home), seeds dried
Raspberries: sauce, jam
Squash: ibid
Strawberries: Dried (fabulous), jammed
Summer Squash: frozen
Tomatoes: Season extension, root cellared, dry, canned
Zucchini: dry, frozen, pickled

I’ve probably missed a few things, but here’s some.


IEA Essentially Confirms Peak Oil

Sharon July 10th, 2007

Earlier this year that General Accounting Office of Congress announced that a majority of the world’s petroleum geologists believe we are at or very close to an oil peak. Today the Internation Energy Agency, probably the biggest and most influential international energy research body announced that peak oil will almost certainly happen by 2012, and that without Iraq’s oil (how much you wanna bet that Iraq will be peacefully pumping oil anytime soon), the head of the IEA announced the world will be petroleum crisis by 2015. Some links are here at Energy Bulletin (the original report is paywalled) #31865.html.

Essentially, they are predicting oil shortages within five years. And since production capacity decline is 2-3% per year in the field, but more like 5% in actuality (as more oil goes to actually getting the oil out of the ground and nations reserve more for themselves), we can expect some significant difficulties. The 1970s oil shocks, complete with gas lines, recession and people freezing to death in their houses came from a shortfall of about 5% total - whereas we’re expecting, worldwide, a 3-5% reduction in capacity annually.

Shocking news - guess what, we’re using up the last of the cheap oil right now! If peak oil is a new concept to you, do some research. An excellent beginning is Gail Tverberg’s very clear material on peak oil, including the oil quiz : #31847.html and her explanation of the limits of alternatives : #28051.html. You might also look at Matthew Simmons’ (George Bush’s former Energy Czar and head of Simmons and Assoc. investment firm), who is presently predicting that refinery capacity shortages will cause gas lines this summer or next. #31847.html

Peak oil is really no longer a debate - the question is when, and how do we respond. And even when doesn’t matter as much as we think - as long as we still dreamed there was hope that it was 40 years from now, we had an excuse not to get to work. But the difference between peak oil in 2005, 2010 or 2015 is insufficient. The US Department of Energy’s Hirsch Report analyzed that we needed a minimum of 20 years *before* the peak to make a comfortable transition.

Peak oil is here. It is a real part of the everyday discourse now, not a marginal position. And it is about to be a real, everyday part of our lives.


52 Weeks Down - Week 11 - Organize!

Sharon July 9th, 2007

Ok, the minute they saw the title of this essay, all my friends and family started laughing their collective behinds off ;-). Because this is the one section in which I’m telling you folks to do as I say, not as I do. I’m not great at this in some respects (in others I am, actually). But it is also something I’m working on - hard. And I think it is worth my speaking from my own limitations here, because this really is that important. I honestly believe that the big thing that will decide whether I can live my life at 90% reduction or below is whether or not I can really get organized. If I can pull that off, I’ll make it.

Let’s start with the ways that organization can save you energy and money that I do do comparatively well. One of them is with food. The big chunks of one’s food budget come in the number of trips made, the cooking and refrigeration energy you use, etc… And growing your own food requires considerable planning - a pizza I want to eat in the fall requires I start thinking about wheat last fall, tomatoes this winter and basil in may. Planning and organizing can make a huge difference in your consumption. Buying in bulk, and keeping quantities of your staples around, learning to eat seasonally and recording what works and what doesn’t, consolidating your cooking so that you do all the baking in one shot for a few days, and can keep the oven off…this is planning.

Another thing I actually do pretty well is consolidating trips. We’re down to driving 3 days per week at this point. It will go up to four in the fall, when my husband goes back to teaching (I’m working from home this summer), but we’ll have it down to two by next week if I have anything to say about it. That means we need to schedule ahead on drive days, and accomodate drive days to scheduled things. On one trip to the pick-your-own fruit place, we might also stop at the pool to swim and eat a packed lunch, at the bulk store, and go visit friends. On our trip to synagogue we don’t do commerce, but we’ll spend as much time with friends and community as possible.

Ok, here’s what I’m bad at - keeping the clutter from piling up. And this eats up a lot of my time, as I spend it cleaning up a mess that wouldn’t be there if I were better organized. I have better uses for that time, and I suspect so do all of us. It also eats energy. Am I the only one who has gone out and bought something because they couldn’t find a tool or thing we knew we had? The only person who has wasted gas on a last minute run out to the hardware store because I hadn’t thought ahead to the next project? Wasted heat because I hadn’t gotten around to digging through the boxes to find the insulating curtains - and the reason I hadn’t is because the attic is such a mess? Stopped off for pizza instead of going home and getting dinner because of an errand that wasn’t really necessary had I been better organized?

Record keeping is important too. How do you know how much impact that change in behavior has unless you track your prior usage and your current one? How do you know how long 50lbs of oatmeal will last you unless you track it? How do you know whether the chickens or the cell phone is worth the money and energy they cost unless you keep track? This is another one I’m not very good at, in part because I actually have a very good memory. For a long time, I could keep an awful lot in my head with only minimal losses ;-). Four kids worth of brain damage later, I need to write it down. I don’t always. But I’m working on it.

Honestly, I truly think that the one thing that would make the biggest difference in my environmental impact is a greater degree of organization. As I said, I’m working on it.


Pick Up Your Hat

Sharon July 9th, 2007

Way back in college, I read a short story by Robert Heinlein that I’ve never been able to find again. In it, a bartender is standing at his bar, when two nuclear scientists come in. They are talking about the immanent danger of nuclear attack on the US, and the bartender gets scared. He asks them whether they really believe what they are saying, and then says something along the lines of “If you really believed that, you wouldn’t be sitting here drinking, you’d get out of the target area right now.” The scientists assure the bartender that everything is really that serious, and then list a host of reasons why they can’t leave right now. The bartender, convinced, picks up his hat and walks out of the bar and city right then, leaving all his connections behind. And this being fiction, just as he gets outside the city limits, he starts to question his own instincts, and he tries to make a phone call (or something), only to see the mushroom cloud go up behind him.

Now life very rarely justifies our assumptions so rapidly, but I find this story interesting because it illustrates just how hard it is to live your life as though you believe bad things are going to happen to you. Even when we know they are likely, even when we see things forthcoming, it is awfully hard to pick up our hats and set aside one set of options to pursue another. Particularly when there’s little cultural support for it - when the assumption that even basic preparedness makes you a wacko is so prevalent. The story struck me, long before I discovered peak oil or climate change, because I wondered how it is one knows that *now* is the time to pick up one’s hat. I was struck, for example, by the dilemma of the Jews who left Germany - how do you know that the worst is really here? My husband’s grandmother was on the kindertransport, that took German-Jewish children to England. She wasn’t even 13, and her parents put her on a train with one suitcase and sent her off to a far away country to be raised by someone else. It saved her life. A cousin of hers, living in the same neighborhood in the ghetto stayed with her parents - they thought the risk of harm coming to her in England was greater than the risk of harm in Germany. That cousin died in the concentration camps, and Inge, Eric’s grandmother, survived. How do you know it is time to risk so much?

Now if any of you read Matt Savinar over at, you could argue that on nearly every measure, Matt’s much more apocalyptic in his thinking than I am. He writes under the name “Juris Doctor of Doom” and he makes the argument that we should just follow the money trail - he says, “we’re spending billions to fix problems we spend trillions creating.” Matt forsees a real apocalyptic disaster, whereas I tend to talk a lot about what we can do to mitigate disaster, and I tend to think mostly in terms of poverty, rather than anything I’d call “apocalypse.” In that sense, it would seem that Matt’s a “doomer” and I’m not.

But it isn’t that simple. If you read Matt’s writings, you’ll see he’s currently on a hunt for the perfect place to live in the post peak world, at the very same time that he posts “we may only have 18 months left (this was a few months ago).” Right now, he’s living in a place that he admits probably won’t do very well. And Matt knows as well as I do that building community, and food systems, getting accepted in an area, and getting trees to fruiting and getting practiced in meeting many of your needs really takes time. I’ve been doing it for going on 7 years now, and I’m still hoping for more time. If you look at our words, Matt’s got a far darker vision than I have. If you look at our actions, Matt’s risking a whole lot more than I’m prepared to. I picked up my hat a long time ago. Matt’s just now ready to pick up his.

I’m not picking on Matt Savinar, or anyone else. Heck, I don’t know the future, and Matt may well be wiser than I am. Also, given that he doesn’t have kids, is more mobile and has more money than I do, he’s probably making the right choice for him. I mention this not because I think Matt doesn’t believe what he says - I’m sure he does - but because all of us are hedging our bets to one degree or another, and also because even when you believe it, it can be damned hard to keep the link between hypothetical futures and reality alive in your head and your thinking.

Like everyone, I make my risk analyses based on my reality, and other people have to make theirs on their own. I judge based on my own assessments - do I believe the IPCC or Hansen? Do I believe CERA or Simmons and Assoc. on peak oil? Who do I choose to track? And what are my priorities. For me, protecting my kids is #1, and everything else is a distant second. But even that leads me to one set of solutions, not another. I could, for example, believe that what was needed was a ton of guns and total isolation, or that I would be best protecting my kids by converting to Christianity and fitting in in middle America, or by making a lot of money and protecting them by living in a gated community. And honestly, it is conceivable that any of those strategies might be right - and my “build community, grow food” theory might be entirely wrong, or I just might be unlucky. Like everyone, I’m playing the odds.

The post I wrote yesterday, arguing that people should start living now like they may have to in the long term for selfish reasons got some people quite concerned. They felt that I was either panicking or driving other people to panic. To a large degree that wasn’t my intention, but I did intend to create a sense of urgency. I
do want people who read this to think seriously about whether they have a viable back up plan for a crisis that begins in the near future. Why? Not because I think the whole world is likely to collapse, but because I think any collapse will come in stages and segments. For a Katrina victim, it may already have happened. For me it might be tomorrow. For you, it might wait a decade. We don’t know - we’re playing the odds.

I do want people who read this to thrive in the future, and if you think I’m a wacko, so be it. I tend to think that after Katrina, in an inflationary economy, someone who says “store food, plan ahead, get ready now” might not look like the Unibomber, but I might not be much of a judge ;-).

I think I’d rather have you believe that I’m a nutcasethan believe that I always and only think “we can do it” and thus, don’t encourage you to hedge your bets. And I genuinely do believe that we are fairly close to a situation in which many of us will be most concerned with just getting by, and the things that a lot of us might want or need to do to live comfortably with much less are going to be less and less available to us. I think we *can* change many things, and fairly quickly at that - but I’m not at all certain that we will - and I don’t want to bet my life on what Brian called, in comments “the political will fairy.” I sure as heck don’t want you to bet your future on *my* vision of the political will fairy ;-).

Why do I think that we need to start picking up our hats right now, and making the changes that we’re going to have to make anyway right now? Well, at this point it still looks like world oil production may have peaked over two years ago - OPEC simply doesn’t seem to be able to increase production. Mexico is experiencing double digit declines, and will stop exporting oil altogether shortly. While some new production capacity is coming online, I think we’re at the bumpy plateau. That means over the long term, oil prices keep going up forever - they may trend down again a few times, but when they level off, they’ll be higher…and higher…and higher.

Natural gas prices have been rising slowly, but mostly because we’ve had a series of mild winters. One cold one, and we can expect much higher heating costs. Natural gas is set to peak in the next decade, the US has already had its peak and Canada is next. Coal is not far behind. Peaking means rising costs, increasing difficulty getting at it, and a lower return on investment - more and more energy gets eaten up just getting the oil or coal out of the ground. And we’re seeing nations that are energy producers reserving more and more of what they do have for themselves - eventually, they stop exporting, and other nations have to make do with what they have. The US’s oil reserves peaked more than 30 years ago, our gas almost a decade ago, and most likely our coal has peaked as well/

Energy isn’t the only thing getting pricier. Food is too. First of all, the good food we’re all supposed to be eating *does* cost more than industrial crap. But even the crap is going way up in price, mostly because of energy costs, but also because of drought (climate change induced in many cases), desertification and soil destruction, and falling yields in many places in the world. I don’t think that trend is gong to change for quite a while - food prices will continue to rise because we’re putting our food in our gas tanks, and because our food costs are dependent on cheap energy - which is over. That means that food you buy now and store is a good bet to be cheaper. And food you grow yourself is an even better one. Stores won’t save you - but they can help a little.

Meanwhile, we’re on the verge of some deep economic trouble, and a large number of people believe we’re headed for a recession. A lot of them are fairly reputable people who ought to know - Greenspan, for example, has been manipulating the US economy for a long time, and he thinks it is likely we’ll experience recession by year’s end. Now recessions come and recessions go - but if no big boom of growth comes along to fix them, they don’t go. And with less and less available cheap energy, and more and more time spent just fixing problems like climate change created environmental disasters, resource wars and energy shortages, we have less capital to adapt with. The Bank for International Settlements, the world’s most significant financial body has warned we’re in danger of another Great Depression - this is not their ordinary message, nor is it Greenspan’s. That’s bad news for us - and a long lasting recession during the period in which we’re adapting to climate change and peak oil could mean that we really do mostly have what we’ve already got, that all our dreams of an orderly transition are over.

Add climate change to that. Yesterday, we learned that the drought in the Southwest is expected to last another century. Think about that. There are 60 *million* Americans there, plus another 60 million Mexicans in the affected area. How long can they stay there? Where will they go? Add to that the people on the Gulf coast and in South Florida - all of whom are vulnerable to the next big disaster we can’t afford to stop or fix, and there are going to be a lot of migrants just in this nation alone in the next decade or so. That’s going to change the economy, your local job market, and a whole host of things. BILLIONS of people are going to be refugees within their countries or from outside them by 2050 - and it won’t all happen in 2049 - that means real people, real us, are going to start being affected today.

James Hansen and the other NASA scientists who argue that we don’t have much time say that we only have a decade to fix this - a decade to make the “draconian” changes that would stop the worst sea rises. Let’s say we do make good on all those measures - what will that be like? What will it be like when 300 million people have to slash their personal emissions to the bone? I’d tend to bet on some competition for resources, and lots of price rises - at the time that most of us can least afford them.

The thing is, things seem ok on many levels. We may believe that these are crises, but life is still going on. the kids are still in college, the money is still piling up in the 401K, the stock market is still hanging, and we all have a life going on. We’re still caught between the life now and the life to come, and it can be damned hard to navigate that distinction. All of us have to figure out what we believe, and hedge our bets as best we can. But it is damned hard to know what to do. Do we pick up our hats, put our kids on the train, give up the present for the hypothetical future? How do we know that something won’t pull off a miracle?

One of my commentors pointed out that my prior post created an urge to hoard, to preserve one’s own, rather than think communally. Now I grasp that urge. My first reaction to peak oil, many, many years ago, was precisely the same. I had it again when I had my first child, and I have it again every time I worry about my kids. And I did pick up my hat. I blew off my Ph.d in order to start a small farm - I thought for a long time I could have it both ways, but it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t, and so I gave up Shakespeare, which was sad in some ways. I closed some options off. We made some bets on what our kids will need - our money is more in land than in the stock market, so who knows what we’ll have to do if nothing bad happens when the boys want to go to college. We can’t have everything, and we’ve made our choices, and we have to live with them.

But we also can’t choose all the way every time - so we hedge. We put money away for college, and we also put money back into the land. If I had to pick one, I’ll tell the truth - I don’t think the college dollars will be there in a decade. But I’m not willing to risk my kids entirely on my predictions. I quit my Ph.d, but in part because I love farming and writing, and I wanted to do those too - I didn’t just dump it. I invest in community support, but I also have a stockpile of clothes for bigger kids, and educational books for children so that my kids can learn at home through the college level and so they have shoes to wear and don’t have to dress in the ugly things I can sew if the worst happens. I don’t believe I can stockpile my way out of anything really bad - but I also store food as a hedge, a way of dealing with extended family that might need extras, crop failures, my own mistakes.

We all know people who were prepared for Y2K, had nuclear bunkers, went back to the land because the end was at hand in the 1970s, have been expecting the last coming for decades. And it is tempting, because of those factors, to think that the system is strong enough to endure any crisis. And who knows, it may be. I’m not a prophet - I don’t know the future. But look back a little. In the course of a lifetime, ask yourself if your grandparents, and great-grandparents ever endured a time of crisis during the course of their lifetimes. Again, we’re not talking about Mad Max here - we’re talking about poverty, war, economic disruption, having to leave a beloved place for a new one, epidemic, hunger, want. Now maybe none of your family has ever had those things, but looking back at my grandparents and great-grandparents, I see 2 world wars and a host of smaller ones. Hunger. Want. Poverty. Desperation. Dislocation. Refugeeism. Violence. Disease. Death. And thoes were the lucky ones, who survived to have kids and grandkids. The generations after World War II are among the first in human history to live their whole lives in peace, wealth and good fortune. Should we bet that we too will be so fortunate? And what’s the price if we’re wrong?

That last question is the real bugger, isn’t it? And that’s the one that I rest on, my own private version of the precautionary principle. That is, in trying to decide whether James Hansen or the IPCC is right, ultimately, I find that the price of believing in Hansen and being wrong is a lot lower than the price of believing the IPCC and being wrong in my choice. I think the evidence for Hansen’s reading is probably better, but the cost in lives and the future of *not* making changes quickly is almost certainly greater than the admittedly high price of making them sooner. The same is true about personal preparedness. What if I don’t do it? Sometimes the price is low and light. Sometimes it isn’t.

Ultimately, what has to happen is that we find ways to be prepared, and to hedge our bets, without compromising many of our basic principles. This means that we prepare for a future that doesn’t work out very well, while also trying to build a future in which it does. That’s harder than choosing just one, but I think it is also necessary. That means we buy local, organic, sustainably grown bulk foods for our storage, and fill out those clothing bins with used goods, not new ones. It means we make the new purchases we do need judiciously - yes, perhaps, to the grain grinder, no to the fancy butter churn when a shaken jar will do as well.

I want everyone who reads this to make their own choices based on their own experience, their own reading of the data available to them, their own needs and personal circumstances and their own ability to change. My bet is that change will come soon to some of us, later to others, but that the changes I’m worried about are now essentially already in motion - that whatever happens, we’re probably never going to be quite as comfortable or priveleged or lucky or ready as we are today. That sucks for all of us - others even more than me. I want time. But I don’t think that I can live my life based on my own want for it - that’s wish fulfillment fantasies. Ultimately, my life needs to find a balance between preparing for hard times and attempting to avoid them, between living now and being ready to live in the future. Everyone will choose a different balance. Everyone will make different bets. Everyone will read the future a little differently. And some of us will be wrong - quite possibly me. It is impossible to be prepared for everything, but it is not only possible but wise to prioritize and prepare for many outcomes.

In the end, my own analysis comes down to this. If I’m wrong about what’s coming down the pike, what price did I pay? I never got to be a professor of English Literature. My kids may have to earn college scholarships, or we may have to mortgage our land. We may have missed out on some opportunities. But generally speaking, I have a life I love now, work I love now, a family that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy as much if I were doing the full time academic life. I have an imperfect degree of security, but a vastly greater one than I could have had otherwise. In the net, the limitations of my choices are endurable. If I’d chosen otherwise, would I be able to say the same? I might love my work, but the risks to my kids future are unacceptable to me. Others would make a different choice, and I don’t know if they are wrong - only time will tell.

If it were me, I’d at a minimum make a serious backup plan for what to do if your five or ten year plan fails. That is, I’d be ready now to live where you are, with what you have. And if you don’t think staying where you are is possible, I think I’d risk relocating. But I’m not you, and I don’t want you to do it because I say so - make your own decisions.

What I can say is this. If you see the evidence much the same way I do, if you really believe it, then it really is time to pick up your hat, or at least memorize the train schedule heading wherever you want to be.



Al Gore Calls on Everyone To Riot for Austerity - and Why You Should Too.

Sharon July 8th, 2007

Well, if you watched Live Earth (I didn’t), you saw that a holographic Al Gore went where the Riot for Austerity had boldly gone before, calling for a 90% reduction in emissions across all areas, including personal household consumption :

Not a big Al fan here, but I’m stil pleased that he’s catching up to our dust ;-). This, my husband points out, is the really, really inconvenient truth - we have to make radical changes, and every minute we put it off makes it harder. If we’d started this 30 years ago, it would have been a cakewalk. Now it is more of a project - but I’m having fun.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the arctic ice is disappearing vastly faster than anyone has ever estimated before. Like almost all the information flowing in over the last few months, it simply demonstrates how very conservative the IPCC report is.

Among the thing the IPCC report was wrong about was the rate of emissions rise (3 times greater than prior evidence had suggested), the race of ice melt in the Antarctic (2.5 times faster), the point at which soils will begin to release their carbon (now), when we’ll see methane hydrates start being released from seas (probably now), and a whole host of other things.

Some of these are timing issues (the science is changing rapidly - I wrote a chapter on climate change for one of my books two months ago, and large chunks of it are now out of date), and some are based on the fact that this report was written by a big committee and edited by governments to say what they wanted to see. And the IPCC report was *still* scary. Now we know that the truth is significantly worse - and that really hard measures are necessary. As James Hrynyshyn points out, the ice melt in the arctic represents one of the famed tipping points - and not in 2100, when my grandkids are middle aged, but when I’m middle aged. We don’t know what the impact of an early albedo shift will be - but is it a really good idea to find out? Odds are good we will - at this point, even if we stopped emitting carbon today, we’d probably still lose the arctic ice. The simple reality of the precautionary principle demands that we don’t bet the lives of half of humanity on “well, it might not be that big a deal.”

Of all the things the IPCC was wrong about, the big one is probably the most important. The big one is peak oil. The IPCC report, and most people in the world, believe we can fuel a new economy based on environmentally friendly, renewable energies as we shift over. The problem is, of course, that right now, and for the forseeable future, all those technologies, the economy as a whole and the infrastructure it requires depends on large quantities of cheap and readily available fossil fuels.

And it is peak oil that is likely to cause us our deepest problems - because peak oil is at its heart an economic problem. Without the cheap energy that fuels every aspect of our economy - from the food on our table to the amount of spare capital firms have to invest in renewable research, to local and national tax bases, to military policy - we’re not going to be able to completely overhaul our system, unless we do it quickly - and probably not even then.

And most of us are not going to be able to make large scale *personal* changes unless we do them soon. Everyone in the world is now seeing their grocery budgets rise. For the 2 billion people worldwide who spend more than half of their annual income on food, the 30% rise in food prices is a true disaster. Much of this stems from ethanol production - but also from rises in the price of artificial fertilizer, fuel for your tractor, etc.. Millions of Americans and Australians are starting to experience “transportation poverty” - that is, getting to work eats up a huge portion of their budget. Such wild radicals as Alan Greenspan and the Chair of the National Board of Realtors have announced we are most likely headed towards a deep recession.

If even Al Gore (who could only bring himself to mention Compact Flourescents and turning down the thermostat in his movie) is calling for such a change, what’s the incentive to be out in front with us over at the Riot? Well first of all, this is a great deal of fun. Second of all, we’re a long way from persuading any national government to even propose the necessary changes. And third, since most estimates of time scale came in before we knew how fast ice was melting, desertification was proceeding and carbon emissions were rising. Now maybe the IPCC is right, but does anyone want to bet their lives, and the lives of their kids and grandkids on it?

Even if you can’t bring yourself to make radical changes in your emissions as an investment in the future, I’d also argue that there are compelling selfish reasons for everyone who reads this to beginning making radical lifestyle changes - not just emissions cuts, but vast reductions in your dependence on fossil resources, and very, very soon. The biggest one is now is probably the best opportunity you’ll have. And now is our chance to “Use What We Have”

There’s a whole tv show out there, I’m told (don’t have cable) called “Use what you have decorating” - the idea being that most people like their stuff, and that they could make their world beautiful by tastefully rearranging what they’ve already got. And we’re about to come into contact with “use what you have peak oil/climate change adaptation” - the reality that we probably aren’t going to rip apart and rebuild our whole world in a more environmentally friendly way. We probably aren’t all going to get cool monorails and tax breaks for greening our homes. Technology isn’t going to magically save us. Realistically, most of us are going to go into the hardest of hard times making do with what we’ve got, and what adaptations we can get in under the wire.

Now “Use What You Have” can be an ugly strategy or a lovely one. Obviously, if someone managed to make a tv show out of it, it can make pretty and elegant (may I take leave to digress and note that I’m pretty sure that pressboard furniture and hummel figurines can’t be made beautiful - period ;-)?). And use what you have strategies for peak oil and climate change can be graceful and lovely. Quilts and blankets hung on underinsulated walls can keep you warm, and can look nice too. Carefully stapling bubblewrap into wood frames can make cheap, light translating insulation that last for many years. Homemade wool socks are toasty and fun to make. With practice and time and a few resources, you can develop the skill and grace to keep yourself warm and fed and still have a little comfort and even beauty.

Or, use what you have can be horrible. It can lead to lives spent scavenging through garbage dumps (not referring here to trash picking, but landfill scavenging, which millions of poor people in the third world do for a living - and pay a heavy price for in contamination and disease), burning your wood furniture to keep alive and selling off your possessions one by one to keep the wolf from the door. Both involve using what you already have. And to some degree, the difference between grace and garbage scavenging is sheer luck - knowing how to make socks won’t save you from the worst if you are unfortunate. But some of it also derives from practice - from having the relevant skill set you can access, and also enough familiarity with the lifestyle not to panic when it is thrust fully upon you. And the familiarity is gained only by living it. The ability to make good choices when things get nasty - to know what is necessary and what isn’t, comes only with practice. And that’s why you should think hard about living now the way you may have to.

Right now, as a society, there’s a good chance we’re as rich as we’ll ever be. The price of most tools necessary to live sustainably is probably as low as it will ever be - does anyone remember Y2K? It was something I pretty much ignored, but I’ve read about the shortages of woodstoves, bulk foods, and grain grinders. Back orders ran at several years at the peak of awareness. And let’s be honest - the evidence for a Y2K crisis was nowhere near as compelling as the evidence for a peak oil/climate change 1-2 punch. What happens when 300 million Americans actually grasp what the future looks like? I’d bet on high prices for many adaptive technologies, at a minimum. Do you live in dangerous coastal area? How long before homeowners insurance companies refuse to insure anyone? How long before the value of your home drops, before awareness rises enough to make living in a low lying coastal area a major problem?

Even if fossil alternatives start making a big dent in things, those too will rise in price, because they are dependent on fossil energies at a hundred steps in the process of making each solar panel and windmill. The price of your electric bill, wherever it comes from is going up, along with the price of gas, food, and everything you purchase. How long before this starts to hurt your ability to do things like reinsulate, move to a different house, get that deeper well, get the heck out of the southwest… (Today we learned that the drought in the southwest may well last another *90* years. How many of the 60 million people in affected areas do you think will want to leave? How much will your house in Tucson sell for in a decade?

But more importantly, peak oil means that most of us are kidding ourselves if we’re fantasizing that we can have a pleasant, gentle transition that means mostly just buying cool eco-friendly products, and driving our cool electric-car pod. Most of us are going to get a lot poorer, and probably fairly quickly - certainly over the next decade. The best case scenarios mean that fixing Global Warming will probably cost more than 2% of the GDP and require what James Hansen calls “draconian” measures. That’s going to hurt us all. But the worst case scenarios for global warming alone involve 20% of the global GDP - a level of economic damage we’ve never seen before. And peak oil makes that harder, faster.

For the average person, who will probably lose a job, see the costs for basic things like food, energy and clothing rise dramatically, the future is going to be doing the best you can with what you’ve got. And that’s where switching over to the 90% Reduction plan now, or something very like it right now will help you make the transition gently. Because the odds are good we aren’t that far from some of us making it the hard way. Peak oil and climate change will hit each of us at different times - the day it strikes us is the day we lose *our* job, or the day it no longer makes sense to go to work at all, because the gas cost is so high. The day we have to choose between treating an infection and buying shoes for the kids. The day the thermostat inches off. The day they foreclose, or you realize you have to sell, even at a loss. The day the only choice is to use what you have then, and hope you can keep most of it.

It can be hard for those who haven’t got any experience with real poverty to imagine that this could happen to them. Sometimes I think the reason so many people get fixated on Mad Max type-scenarios is because they are in some ways, less frightening (and what does that say about us) than the simple realities of grinding poverty - the ordinary human misery that people in the rich world have been granted a pass on for so long.

Living closer to Chinese peasants than American consumers gets you in practice for your reality. It allows you to figure out what you will need to adapt and prepare while you still have resources. Better buy that woodstove now, because in 2 years, if it is available at all, you may not have the money. Better learn to do the laundry without power, grow a garden, bike 10 miles to work now - because if you do them only when you have to, you’ll be overwhelmed. Introducing one change at a time, using what we’ve already got, with support and aid is a lot less painful than the sudden, horrible realization that the old way of life is gone and it isn’t coming back. And there’s an art to it, and a craftsmanly quality that is exciting, engaging and fun - you are making beauty, if you are doing it right. You are creating a thing of clean lines and small inputs and artful reuse. There’s grace there, even when we least intend it. Perhaps Grace with a capital too, if that’s the sort of thing you believe in. Or at least a little mercy.

If you are interested in joining the Riot, the information is here:

Sharon in upstate NY

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