Archive for August, 2007

Technology Addicts All

Sharon August 31st, 2007

Technology Addicts

I really liked Dale’s essay a great deal. I admit, I’ve had exactly the same thought about the bees and cell phones - I think it is a compelling example of just how addicted to our comforts we are, because I think Dale is right that few of us would have voluntarily given up our cell phones simply to keep our food supply coming. Our “have to” is too close and “food” is simply too abstract in this society.

That may be the single reason that we most need to begin growing food. Not because we might starve (although that seems a serious and compelling rationale to me), but because unless we reconnect our brains and bodies with natural cycles like the food cycle, we’ll never be able to recognize our collective technological death drive for what it is. And yes, I know that writing this on the computer is a great irony - and one I have to start dealing with. Here’s my essay on that:

The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged, Either

Ned Ludd kinda had a point, no?


Right, Schmight, Left, Schmeft

Sharon August 29th, 2007

I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Richard Heinberg’s new book, _Peak Everything_ recently, and I found it to be typical Heinberg - engaging, wise, scrupulously balanced. It comes out this month, I believe, and it is well worth a read.

My personal favorite thing about it, however, was not the writing or the subject matter, but the subtitle, which (on my copy), included the phrase “Transitioning gracefully from the Age of Excess to the Era of Modesty.” I admit, I was struck by the sheer aptness of the phrase “era of modesty” to what we’re coming to. Now I gather that in the process of revision, the subtitle was changed to something else, but I keep thinking about the term he coined, both because it is great piece of phrasing, but also because it manages in three words to invoke a great transition in political and social thinking. It should be no surprise that Heinberg is ahead of the curve again, of course, but I am impressed by the way the very title invoked not just an era of more modest usage, but also social, sexual and cultural modesty, subjects that, if they are discussed at all, tend to be thought of as discussions to be had on the “right” rather than throughout the political spectrum. With that one word, “modesty” Heinberg manages to invoke a confluence of left and right. I admit, I’m impressed, and sorry the term doesn’t appear on the actual book (I wonder if Heinberg will let me steal it for mine ;-)).

Now the peak oil movement has been called the “liberal left behind” movement - the apocalypse of the left. Of course, it is no such thing, and never has been. Former Bush energy czar Matthew Simmons is no leftist radical, Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett never dated Abbie Hoffman and the US Army is not, as far as I know, handing out “Free Mumia” buttons with its rifles. And yet all are among the first to recognize the immanence of peak oil. While it is true we’ve got our share of aging hippies, we’re also flush with survivalists, Petroleum geologists, investment bankers and other bastions of the right and center. And this is all to the good - the end of cheap oil is not a political fact, it is a simple, practical reality. The same is true within the climate change movement - we are all moving rapidly to the recognition that no matter what your political position, the hard, scientific truths about sea level rise, aquifer depletion and drought really don’t care whether you prefer Bill O’Reilly, Thom Hartmann or Stephen Colbert.

But it is insufficient to say that these issues cross party lines, because what they actually do is destroy party and political lines, and the divisions we’ve carefully worked out to decide who is “left” and who is “right.” Now it is worth noting that these have always been artificial distinctions for most real people. I’ve been very kindly called “a voice of the left” and I take some pride in that designation - I value the history of leftism, including my own family’s history, going back to the early twentieth century union movement and through my parents. But “left” has never been more than a shorthand for my positions on some issues - and had we drawn the circles other ways, I might have spoken, at times for other constituencies, even, perhaps, for some segments of the much dreaded “other side.” All of which is simply proof, that, while it isn’t true that we’re all exactly the same under the skin, neither designation is sufficient to describe most people’s political and ethical thinking. Most of us are political hybrids.

Where, for example, did one put the leftist nun putting her life on the line for economic reform in Latin America - and equally passionate about ending abortion? Where does my passionately pro-drug legalization, harsher sentencing police officer neighbor go? How about the gun-toting, anti-tax radical environmentalist I know? The disabled neighborhood activist who opposes abortion and euthanasia because she sees it as the genocide of the disabled? My neighbor who believes that his sons have an absolute obligation to defend their country - and that their government has an absolute obligation to stop the war? My pro-public education, feminist, Orthodox friends who believe that modest women cover their hair - on the protest lines? My conservative, fundamentalist neighbors who believe that Jesus demands devout Christians hold no private property and resist corporate power? Where would you put me? Feminist, pro-social justice, anti-growth capitalist - and yes, pro-private property (in some senses), pro-modesty, pro-personal responsiblity farmgirl who used to help her father make bullets? The reality is that most people are more complicated than our current designations will describe.

The last decade or so has blurred things further. Which party again is the big government, tax and spend one? Which party is the party of genocide, the Dems who killed half a million children in Iraq with the embargo or the Republicans who killed half a million civilians in Iraq with the war? Now it is the left who is screaming in horror about the dangers of big government (and some of the right is screaming along with them). Where were the feminist voices of anger about sexual harrassment so evident during the Clarence Thomas hearings when the democratic president was in the hot seat? The conventional political lines are shifting.

And at the same time that this shift is happening, those of us who forsee the coming crisis have to make major internal political shifts as well. For example, in _The Upside of Down_, Tomas Homer-Dixon observes that to deal with all of the coming crises, we’d have enact,

“…a global society that I’ve come to call ‘Holland times ten,” with vastly more sophisticated, pervasive and expensive rules and regulatory institutions than anything the Dutch live with today. Do we really want such a future for ourselves and our children?”

Homer-Dixon, not exactly a right winger, recognizes the simple reality that a vastly more repressive beaurocracy might actually be worse than the collapse. He observes, following Joseph Tainter, that institutions created to deal with crisis invariably stick forever, leaving us laden with ever more oppressive layers of government. What is remarkable about Homer-Dixon’s book is that it, like Heinberg’s title, shakes off conventional left/right thinking and simply allows the data to lead him to a conclusion that is neither. I’m not sure I agree with Homer-Dixon, but I find him a particularly creative example of the ways in which these problems shake up our traditional assumptions.

The same could be said of Rod Dreher’s book, _Crunchy Cons_. Dreher too is motivated by the honest recognition that the current realities, including peak oil (which he describes) and the environmental crisis have changed things. He tries very hard to slip all the good stuff under the rubric of conservativism, for example, arguing that traditional social welfare programs that support families are conservative. I’m not convinced he succeeds, but he does one of the most remarkable analyses I’ve imagined, and his work has real power among conservatives who haven’t fitted into the exact mold around them. I know many of these people, and I believe that generally speaking, Dreher is one of the first people to seriously reconsider, in a popular and accessible way, how to reconfigure politics to deal with the future.

What is disappointing in Dreher, of course, is his longstanding allegience to the politics of balkanization. That is, instead of seeking a middle ground, he wants to shove environmentalist, agrarian conservatives into Republicanism. Personally, I think he’d be better off abandoning that territory and seeking a new one. The reality is that for most of the people who work in these issues, left and right stop becoming fully explicatory categories. Heinberg himself writes about the problem of doing so in _Powerdown_ where he discusses his preference for anarchism and minimal government, while arguing simultaneously that no societal powerdown can occur without a large, invasive government structure. And that it cannot succeed without that large structure eventually voluntarily handing out power to smaller, localized units of power. This represents a remarkably hybridized vision of government - personally, I don’t necessarily believe it to be right, but again Heinberg has allowed the realities of the system to override his personal political preferences and at least to imagine how we might enact the changes required.

Like Homer-Dixon’s rejection of large government structures and Dreher’s rejection of unfettered capitalism, Richard Heinberg’s call for modesty, at least to me, raises some fascinating questions. One of the most fascinating is why it is that the word “modesty” so powerfully invokes sexual modesty, almost overriding the notion of modest desires, expectations and practices outside the realm of sexuality. I admit, my personal theory about why we have abandoned all other senses of modesty along with traditional sexual modesty is this - modesty of all kinds is, to a large degree, about choosing not to be looked at. Both sexual modesty and economic modesty reject the external gaze of others, saying “don’t focus on me.” Historically speaking, many of the rules of sexual modesty have been applied to women, with the assumption that the burden of rejecting the gaze must lie upon women, because it is their sexuality that draws the eye. Feminism rightly rejected the idea that men should not be required to limit and control their own gazes and desires. But it also rejected the notion that there should be limits on the power of the gaze - popular feminism focused on the notion of the powerful female “I” at the center. But a world of people walking around trying to draw gazes and be powerful creates a superficial culture, intent on “self-expression” in a visual sense - the house, the clothing, the car, the membership. That there might be power in not being at the center of the gaze itself, that modesty might also carry power was overlooked.

This is because feminism’s rejection of the origins of modesty also happened to coincide with the largest capitalist expansion in history. Feminism was as successful as it was, precisely because it served the goals of capitalism (I’ve written about this in more detail before here: ) And growth capitalism is, far more than feminism, about the rejection of the notion of modesty. That is, if all of us are not constantly calling out “look at me” there is no market for designer clothing, fancy decorations to make our house an expression of our “self,” fancy cars to express our wealth.

In a culture that rejects modesty of all kinds, that demands the gaze rest upon us, that validates the notion that the “I” is at the center of the “eye” all the time, markets flourish. In a culture that values modesty of all sorts - that rejects the gaze, the notion that the self is at the center of everything, there is no place for endless growth. Thus, the notion that the culture of modesty was bad, because it derived from the sexual repression of women was wrong - what was bad was the notion that women were “drawing” male gazes, and thus had to regulate their bodies, rather than expecting men to regulate themselves. But the actual assumptions of both sexual modesty (as it applies to both men and women), and economic and cultural modesty is simpler. It is “My worth is not in what is visible. I am one among others, I am not the center of everything.” We threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is true that one can read “don’t make me the center of things” as “I am powerless” or as a form of silencing. But it is also true that modesty can represent that power of self-deferral, the placement of others before the self. Undoubtably, one can have too much of that. Equally indubitably, in western society, we don’t have too much of that sort of self-abnegation - far from it.

At the risk of alienating people on both the left and the right who read this blog, and ending up with absolutely no readers at all, I’m going to observe that none of the problems we are facing can be fixed from the right or the left, or even through discussion of things in those terms. And speaking to the left, to which I have a longer and deeper alliegence, there are things that we really ought to reconsider. Here are some of the places where I think leftists might want to look to the right to find, if not common ground, some useful tools.

1. I believe passionately in the importance of personal responsibility, and of fair accounting for one’s choices. I do not mean by this that one’s situation is wholly a product of one’s personal choices, and thus tough patooties if you were born poor. What I mean is that each of us needs to take greater responsibility for our present, societal circumstances than we do. I often hear people lamenting the power of corporations - as though that power does not derive from our dependency and willingness to give them cash. Walmart isn’t powerful because they are an evil corporation - they are powerful because they have great stinking wads of money and those wads came from you and me. Stop buying their crap and guess what - Walmart won’t be powerful. I also hear many voices call for public policy solutions, when what they really mean is that they want the government to take care of peak oil and climate change for them, without being personally inconvenienced. Again, this is a failure of personal responsiblity, because if we tell governments that what we want is solutions without personal sacrifice, we will get only inadequate solutions, that will fail us and the next generation.

I believe that everyone has a degree of personal responsibility, and that the level of responsibility is increased by every advantage given to you. Were you born into a family that loved you? Guess what - you got a present, or a gift from G-d, and you owe a little more than someone who was beaten daily or neglected. Did you get a decent education? There’s another level of responsibility - if you were either lucky enough to get a good education at good schools with teachers who cared about you, or you were born smart enough to be an autodidact and compensate for the inadequacies of what was given to you, bow down to diety or thank your lucky stars, and get your ass in gear because you owe a little more than those who didn’t. And so it goes.

Full scale, straight out, honest accounting of responsibility is important. That means that yes, people are responsible for what they do and do not do, the choices they make. And those who shape the choices other people can make, or don’t shoulder a greater degree of responsibility in privelege are also responsible.

One of my professors, when I was complaining about some terrible personal situation I was enduring, once pointed out to me that most of the great deeds of human history were performed by people who were having really bad days and extenuating personal situations. That’s not to say no one ever has an excuse for anything, but the more excuses we make for ourselves, the more we say “well, I deserve just a little extra because…” (and who doesn’t), the less likely we are to have any extra for the quiet people who have learned to expect nothing and who truly need our hand up.

Ultimately, we need to be held responsible for our choices. The Peter Parker system should apply here - with great power, should come great responsibility. The better off you are, the more you need to take full responsibility for your actions - to stop asking for tax breaks and accomodations. But this goes all the way down.

2. I sure as heck don’t expect the government to save me in a crisis. Ok, I’m going to tell the truth. I don’t understand why it is that people in Florida don’t have any bottled water or boards for their windows, and are standing in line for it the day before the hurricane. For cripes sake, you live in Florida! The same is true with people who are unprepared for blackouts during winter storms in up near me, or earth quakes in CA. I’ll grant you, one of the better uses for government is to get the helicopters up and make sure people don’t die of typhus after the disaster, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Look, we all watched the footage of Hurricane Katrina, and it confirmed what everyone on the right has been saying for generations - our present government isn’t going to save our asses in a crisis. Now there are good and useful reasons to want to try and get what government does better than anyone else done right by them, and I’m all for that. Agitate for change - yes. Because there are always going to be people who can’t protect themselves and situations we can’t prepare for.

But ultimately a certain degree of self-sufficiency is merely common sense. Now there are people who may not be able to afford extra food or blankets, or a way out of a dying city - and we need to help those people. But it would be really helpful if you aren’t one of those people, if you aren’t elderly or disabled or desperately poor, if you’d get your act together and be prepared to meet your own damned needs for most predictable situations, so that you won’t clog the system.

3. I don’t want to see power centralized any more than strictly necessary anymore. Ok, let’s be honest - this used to be the big old left/right debate - social welfare or not, big government or little government. It is no longer a right left issue. The current administration has a bigger government than the last one, with more debt and beaurocracy, and now the dems are calling for restraint. No one has a monopoly on this one.

And let’s be honest, whether you hate the Clintons or the Bushes (or both equally), every single one of us can see exactly why we want to decentralize power, and exactly why we should be getting rid of political dynasties and the system that locates private armies and our own right to justice in the hands of any one person.

In fact, both peak oil and climate change require, absolutely mandate a reduction of scale of government - just as conservatives have been calling for. Yes, we also need to expand some central projects - but the general movement has to be towards local sovreignty and local power and resources being kept in the communities.

4. We’re going to have to develop better family relationships and a strong focus on family units, and ASAP. I’m not talking about getting into people’s bedrooms here, I’m talking about getting people to take care of aging parents, disabled family members, to stop whining about “what about *myyyyyy needs* and to start thinking a bit more of other people. Those of us who had ordinarily fucked up families (as opposed to transcendently so) are going to have to start getting along again, and recognize that biological and chosen family are going to be much more important in our lives for a long, long time. And we’re going to start having to value and honor the work of caring for others - instead of acting like helping grandma to the bathroom or breastfeeding your kid is a pain in the ass to be shoved off on other people, we have to start realizing that this *is* the point - the reason we’re here. To be of use. To do good work. To care for others.

We’re also going to have to parent better, and stop telling our kids how special and perfect and wonderful they are, and tell them to get their asses out from in front of the tv and get to work helping out. Instead of telling Jimmy and Jenny that the best thing they can do is to get good SAT scores and go to Tae Kwon Do, tell them the truth - that you want them to grow up to be good and righteous people, who care about others, are hard workers, honorable and generous.

5. If you harbor any lingering prejudices about blue collar work with your hands, get over them now. It is not, in any sense of the word, more noble to be a tax lawyer than a plumber, and it doesn’t mean you are smarter. If you call the middle of the country “flyover states” cut it out now - you won’t be flying much of anywhere anyway, and they grow your dinner. They might get pissed off and stop growing it.

The reality is that most comparatively well off, well educated people have been doing things that aren’t very useful and are soon going to stop being done. Most of the people we have been told we are smarter then are actually doing good and useful work - feeding people dinner, keeping houses running, building things, making things, growing food. It is likely that we have been so firmly told we are smarter simply because it was a good way to avoid pointing out that we are, as my husband likes to put it, “the surplus population.”

And if you think all religous people are the same, and religion is the cause of all problems, and religious people are idiots - ok with me, but shut up about it. As we’re less and less able to control our future, more and more people are going to be praying in their foxholes, maybe even you. Get over it, and stop feeling superior.

And if you reject religion, don’t want to see it flourish, but aren’t working to provide community support, care for the sick and dying, festivals of celebration and release, and a way to think about why the world is so screwed up, expect to fail. Don’t blame it on religion - blame it on the fact that you aren’t very good and doing the things that religion does very well for many of us.

6. We’re going to have to start talking about sex differently, and say a hard word for many of us to swallow - “Don’t.” I’m not talking about today’s rather ineffective forms of abstinence education - I’m talking about the unpleasant reality that poverty means less health care, which means more STDs, less access to reliable birth control, more teenage pregnancy, more complications, more AIDS. I’m going to be blunt - unless we completely change our government’s attitudes on these subjects, we’re going to enter into a society where the ability to mitigate the dangers of sex are radically reduced - a society which for many resembles the pre-pill society.

Ignoring the moral issues, let’s be practical. Birth control is expensive - a really reliable set up requires a woman to have regular medical check ups and access to pricey medicines. Condoms are expensive to your average poor teenager. Heck, they are expensive for my budget. Abortion is really expensive. A truly reliable system for young people requires a form of birth control for the woman and a condom for the man - pricey, and hard to come by if you don’t live near a drugstore - which thousands of us don’t.

Now the ideal for some people might be to use government to make all these things available and free, and to place no restrictions on sexual practices, age at onset, etc… But the reality is that our present system is as much a product of cheap energy as everything else - if we don’t want to rely on a universal system to keep our actual kids from getting pregnant or diseases, we have no choice but to change the way we think about sexuality. If we want to ensure that AIDS in the US doesn’t come to mirror AIDS in Africa, we need to be very careful about what we teach our children about sex.

We have become a society in which personal restraint is unimaginable, and abstinence education will always fail as long as a small minority is struggling against a society that calls every form of sexual restraint repression. But we need to think and talk about this - even though most of us who grew up in the age of birth control aren’t exactly the poster-children for such restraint. But we can’t afford to have our kids get pregnant earlier and earlier, to have outbreaks of diseases we can’t afford to treat, to create an expanding underclass of children born to other children. So we’re going to have utter the words “no” “don’t” “wait.” And we need to talk about how we can get there - talk to the people who were there all along.

7. We need a new sense of personal freedom, one in which limits in the form of things like honor, self-discipline, modesty, courtesy, and public order are perceived not as acts of repression, but as structure in which culture can bloom. The notion that there are things we should not and ought not do is likely to be a painful one to those who spent their youth practicing iconclasm and smashing idols. The notion that we should follow our bliss, support our own self-esteem and do what feels best to us has to be replaced with the notion that we should regulate our desires, limit our choices and do what is best for the community.

Our culture has grown to reject hypocrisy as the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy in the popular (rather than the moral) sense, of course, is defined as doing things that you don’t believe in/expressing feeling you don’t have for the sake of the community. But, of course, communities run on just such self-restraint, and in tighter knit, more strongly bound communities, how you feel about things may not matter that much all the time. It may be that what you do, how you treat others, and how you regulate your own feelings and intentions is more important to your own survival and success than the following of one’s bliss.

In my religion, we believe that feeling follows form. Instead of the Christian (and popular secular) notion that what is in your heart will lead you, instead we believe that you do the right thing, and that practice in doing the right thing will lead you to be able to feel the right way doing it. That is, when your failing mother needs help, you care for her because it is the right thing to do, to honor your parents, and in doing so, you open up the possibility that you will do it purely from love. But unless you do the work itself, you have few opportunities to change your feelings and develop that sense of love. I personally believe that a shift from relying on how you feel to what you do is necessary to success on the community level.

Again, capitalism has enthusiastically supported the notion that we should follow our hearts all the time - just as it has rejected modesty of ambition, of lifestyle, of desire. Because if you believe that your feelings are authentic, immutable, and natural - that is, that you feel the way you do about X for some fundamental reason of self, then there is no reason to limit one’s desires. But if you believe that one’s desires are shaped by your actions, if you believe that, for example, you might come to feel love (I do not claim this is inevitable, by the way, merely possible. Nor do I claim that everyone should love their mothers - not all mothers are even possibly lovable), where there was none before, if you were to care for your mother, spend time with her, know her better by virtue of helping her, you open up the possibility that our instinctive feelings are not necessarily our most reliable guide.

There are more, but now that I’ve traumatized everyone on the left, eliminated all readership and gotten my book contract revoked ;-), I’ll stop for the moment.

Now does this mean I’ve gone right on everything? Nope. I still believe that sex is one of those things that is none of my business, I’m still pro choice, pro-reallocation of wealth and regulation of markets and rabidly environmentalist. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can disagree on these issues and agree on others. Perhaps we can put a few of them to the side, and get together some of the time, fight tomorrow and talk today. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can find a way to talk from less fixed positions than right, left and center. And I’m going to email Richard Heinberg and tell him how much I liked his original subtitle ;-).



Diversify, Diversify, Diversify

Sharon August 28th, 2007

One of the great tragedies of the current environmental crisis is the present and potential loss of about 50% of everything, including everything we never knew existed and now never will. Most of the estimates of the impact of human behavior on the world suggest that over the next century, human beings will destroy about 50% of the life on earth. That is, more than 50% of all frog and fish species. Almost 50% of all plant species. Tens of millions of insect species. All those large mammals we purport to care about.

These may be the last years of the Polar Bear, the Great Apes, the Elephants, and those, of course, are the poster children for extinction. But we will probably miss as much or more, in our own way, the native British bumblebee, the spearfish, or the dozens of South American tree frogs. Some of these creatures we will not grieve because we will never have known they existed. Others we will miss, but we won’t be able to identify what we miss - we’ll miss the beauty of the wild animals gone extinct, but our children will remember them only as story creatures, the dinosaurs of their days. What name will we put on “the quality of loss that one generation feels for something that seems imaginary to another?” I’m sure some language has a word for this, but ours, as yet, does not. Or perhaps we’ll miss them when we suddenly need them. We’ll miss the wild plant that might have provided the only cure for a newly developing epidemic. We’ll miss the landrace species of potatoes that would have prevented worldwide crop loss from a new disease. We’ll miss the old breed of cows that would have allowed the current Jerseys and Holsteins to live through a new infectious disease. We’ll long for the seeds of the past, the wild plant that would have meant enough vitamin A in our diets and sight for our grandchild. We’ll miss the species that would have provided for another species that would have enabled the pollinators to survive and provide us with fruit. Novelists will coin words and create a poetics of the loss of things we never really knew we had, and thus, did not value.

The reality is that we don’t fully grasp how much we depend on other species - for example, some species support as many as 200 other species by pollinating the right plants, providing food for others, etc… We don’t grasp how vulnerable we are to a worldwide plague, or blight, as our crop varieties get narrower and narrower. We don’t fully grasp how vulnerable *we* are to the loss of our ecosystem. Because, if we understood it, we’d have to stop - even if the price of stopping were high. How much easier to ride gaily towards extinction - whose extinction, we shall not know until we know.

It may be too late for some species - the black rhino, for example, has already probably fallen below the number required for long term survival. But before we keen our song of mourning, perhaps each of us should ask whether we’ve done everything we possibly can to ensure the survival of our own share of the world’s diversity. Because, after all, all of us have a little bit of control over the world around us - maybe just a very small amount, perhaps enough to save one breed of plant, one meter of wild space, one single species. But, as they say in my own faith, he who has saved a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. Now that was spoken of human lives, but it may be that some portion of the whole world depends on your personal commitment to diversity.

First, there are seeds. Even if you only grow in windowboxes, or a tiny garden plot, you can save some varieties of seed. And if you take up a variety of seed that isn’t one of the most common (you can get many of them by joining Seed Savers Exchange at, or join a local seed saver’s group) ones, you may well be preserving a food plant that would otherwise go extinct. The best estimates suggest that over the last 200 years, between 50 and 80% of the known domesticated varieties of common vegetables were lost, including their precious genetic material, and their adaptation to local coniditions. The potato, the pea, the squash you grow in your garden may be the last in the whole world, and the seeds you save the only ones that can keep it going, or perhaps you will adapt a new variety to the conditions you and others most need.

Because, of course, seed saving and plant breeding are the same process in some cases. The farmer who selects her best plants, best adapted to her soils and conditions, is creating genetic material slightly different from the material that you started with. Your “Hopi Blue Jade” corn, grown in your own soils, in your own climate for a few years will be appreciably, notably and genetically different than the Hopi Blue Jade someone across the country or the world has adapted to their place. It may have resistance to different diseases, a greater cold or heat tolerance, an ability to adapt to particular types of soil.

We breed seeds when we consciously select and choose our best, as well as when we set out to create something new. Each act of seed saving is an act of creation, of selection, the transformation of something that is continually, eternally becoming, a selection shaded by time and climate and soil and water, but also human intention, wisdom and commitment to the future.

One of the most important things we can do, then, is preserve old varieties and also breed new ones, whether by formal plant breeding or by wise selection of plants to save seed from. The best books on these subjects are Suzanne Ashworth’s _Seed to Seed_ and Carol Deppe’s wonderful book _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_. Even if you’ve never imagined yourself as a plant breeder, Deppe’s book is well worth a read for a deeper understanding of plant genetics and selection.

The more we grow out old and uncommon, forgotten and lost varieties, the greater the degree of genetic variation we preserve. There are seed banks, of course, to preserve them, but the best way to keep seeds alive is to grow them, eat their products and plant them again.

We also should grow as great a variety of crops and as many kinds of each crop as we can. Some of us in very small gardens will not be able to grow a large variety of anything, but those of us with space should hedge our bets, growing more than one kind of each thing whenever possible. There will be some accidental genetic crossing, but that isn’t necessarily bad - while we want to preserve old varieties, reasonable care can allow us to grow multiples. And the simple fact is that if we ever have to rely on the products of our garden for our food, we are safest with a wide variety of plants and animals in our lives.

So, for example, it is easy to grow many varieties of beans and peas without worrying about crossing. Tomatoes can be spaced apart a small amount. Even that difficult cross-pollinator corn can be grown by time sequencing in many climates - two or three sequential crops can be grown and the seed saved.

The reason for this is twofold - to keep as many varieties as possible alive, but also to keep your garden going, and your belly full, even if you have an attack of pests or diseases, flood or drought. You may not live in a tepary bean climate, but that unusually dry year, it might be the only one that produces well. My Purple Peruvian potatoes never fail me, no matter what the weather, even if I prefer Green Mountain as a staple.

Besides growing multiple varieties within a species, growing a range of crops makes a huge difference. I’m fond of the phrase “belt and braces” - that is, as much duplication of purpose as humanly possible. Redundancy is your protection. So besides your potatoes and wheat, add some Amaranth, Corn and Buckwheat. Besides your apples, try Medlars or Mulberries. Add groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes to go with your peanuts and sweet potatoes.

And don’t just get fixated on food - a good garden needs wild places, to increase diversity as well. Even a tiny yard can have a patch of multi-purpose attractive insectiary plants - dill and cilantro gone to seed, along with bee balm, echinacea and hyssop and some tall grass or wildflowers to provide a place for ground nesting birds and wild pollinators to live. Or perhaps you can leave that dead tree standing to provide nests, or some brush piled up near your compost to make a home for birds.

Instead of having your local park mowed every other day at great expense and with great exhaust, perhaps consider campaigning to let the grass grow longer, to plant a meadow or simply leave some areas wild. Perhaps you can get your city to let you turn a vacant lot into a wildlife garden or bird sanctuary, a seed saver’s garden or orchard. Perhaps you can convince them not to build that access road that takes out so much wildlife, to preserve those wetlands, to keep what diversity is left going. But don’t forget the overarching issue - we’ve lost so many environmental battles by focusing on the animal we want to preserve, not the larger issue of human impacts. Wearing your Wildlife Federation t-shirt while driving to the mall and home to your McMansion is missing the point.

What about animals? Oddly, I sometimes hear the argument that domesticated animals don’t “count” in the diversity game. And if we had to choose between domesticated animals and wildlife, we probably should choose the wildlife. But most of the endangered and landrace species of domestic animal are the answer to the terrible environmental impact of today’s industrial livestock breeds. The Icelandic sheep, bred to winter on four bales of hay and the fat on her back, and still bear a healthy lamb in Iceland’s difficult winters is a far better answer to our desire for good protein than either infinite fields of GMO soybeans or feedlot cows. Pasture is generally the most diverse ecosystem on a farm, with more wildlife than cultivated fields that get run over by heavy equipment. Animals that can primarily or solely grass, and are adapted to climates where it is difficult to raise crops or till soil are the logical things to raise on prairie lands that turn to desert when they are tilled or on hilly, rocky, cold wet ground like the northeast. We can produce much needed food, fiber and manure on soils, while still leaving them open to use by as much wildlife as possible.

The reality is that the preservation of genetic diversity is one of the most important and urgent projects we have. We need as many species, wild and tame, of as many plants and animals as possible. The more we cultivate them, preserve them, save their seed, spread them around, even guerilla plant them into uncovered soil, the better the chance that we and our children will have a world to grow up in.

As you are designing your land use, as you are working within your neighborhoods and community, remember the watchwords - diversify, diversify, diversify. It is as if you have saved the whole world.


52 Weeks Down - Week 18 - Get On A Bike

Sharon August 26th, 2007

Will you all forgive me for the indelicacy of pointing out that the first time I got back on a bike after a while, I noticed that, umm, my butt is no longer as umm, refined, as it once was, and that skinny little bike seats are a literal pain in the tuchus? Will you promise not to laugh too hard at the fact that sometimes I *walk* my bike up the giant hill that I live on (I was once way too cool to ever walk a bike)? And when I say that bike shorts will never come near these thighs, may I hear an “Amen.”?

All of which is not an argument for staying off your bike. What I am saying is that if I can do it, most of you can too. You do not have to be in shape (biking is actually easier on your body that walking), or look cool in spandex, and they make bike seats and are comfy for those of us who have, ummm…back. In fact, there’s a bike for everyone, even the imperfect.

Now why should you get a bike? Well, first of all, it is without question the most fun way to travel. There’s something about speeding along on a bike that immediately returns you to childhood. Now I don’t recommend you return so far that you, like my husband, try riding down a street no-hands, with your eyes closed (hit a parked car) or like me, tried popping a really big curb (knocked out two teeth, needed complicated dental surgery). The great thing about being a grownup on a bike is that (probably) you aren’t an idiot anymore. It is a taste of childhood without the necessity of doing regular stupid things ;-).

It is also the most efficient way to travel, bar none. A human being on a bike uses their energy more efficiently than a walker, a driver, someone on a train. It is good for your health, good for the environment, and a good bike is infinitely cheaper than a car. Most people’s cars will set them back 3K this year in taxes, maintenence and repairs, not to mention the gas, which is more. I’ve bought good bikes for $20, and got them in good road condition for another $20, but optimally, you might want to pay a bit more. Even if you buy a really nice bike, you are way ahead.

Now if you haven’t been on a bike in 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, you will remember how to ride, but it isn’t quite like getting back to being a teenager. As I say, a comfy seat is good, and you might want a bit more stability than you did as a kid. If you have a bad back, you will want a good seat, or perhaps a recumbent. And it takes some time to get your body up to long bike commutes. But the reality is that many of us may not have anything in easy walking distance, but do have shopping, a job, public transportation or family in biking distance. And every trip you don’t need a car for saves you money.

For older folks, the disabled and those hauling heavy loads up mountains, electric assist, or even fully electrified bikes are available. For people worried about falling and stability, there are three wheeled trikes, and some of them come with child seats behind them. My family is looking into adult trikes with two double seats. I recently heard someone describe a bike with wheelchair attachment in which an able bodied person could convey his wheelchair bound spouse around. There are trailers for small children, and tandem and side hitch arrangements for kids who can do some but not all of their own biking. Bikes are a technology whose limit is still being plumbed, and there really is a bike for almost everyone.

We’re working on teaching the kids to ride. We’re hoping eventually Eli, who doesn’t have traffic safety skills will be able to be tandem hitched to Eric or me, and pedal along while we handle the driving. Eventually, I envision a family of four teenage boys, my husband, with their poky mother trailing behind yelling “wait up!” It is a nice image.

Like everything, if you’ve gotten out of the habit, you start slow, and work your way up. My goal is to run local errands entirely by bike. Given that we live fairly far away from nearly everything, that’s a bit difficult, but we’re working on it. I’m not quite there yet -we’re still figuring out if we can afford to build double trikes so that when we have to or want to take the kids with us, we can all go by bike. But the reality is that pedal power is the way to go, both to save money and the planet. Oh, and it is good for me, and my slowly shrinking behind as well ;-).



My One And Only Stock Market Advice Post

Sharon August 26th, 2007

I learned to drive very late - I was 29 years old. After decades of urban living, I’d never needed a car, so I didn’t learn until we’d moved out to the country. I’ve never liked driving, mostly because it struck me just how bizarre the whole thing is. When I was finally behind the wheel, I realized “wow, big metal things driving towards each other at 60 miles per hour just seems like a bad idea.” And, of course, it is a bad idea for thousands and thousands of people who die or are maimed by cars every year. Nor is it good for the huge percentage of the population killed by pollution (40%), much of which is created or enabled by cars at some point.

But most of the time we get into our cars and we get there alive. That still seems very odd to me - because even though I’ve done it a thousand times, driving still seems crazily risky to me. It turns out that people are a lot more competent than my gut would expect, and that there’s a lot more resilience in the driving system than one might expect. There isn’t as much as the most enthusiastic advocates of the open road would like you to believe - in fact, driving is really dangerous, far more dangerous than almost any other ordinary activity. But neither is it as scary as it looked to me when I first got into a car.
Now I regularly get emails and posts requesting that I give my opinion on the state of the stock market, whether to liquidate your 401K, how and whether to plan for college and a host of other financial advice I’m totally unqualified to give. I generally ignore these questions, not because they aren’t real and legitimate, but because I honestly don’t know how to answer. I can tell someone what I do, or what I’ve read, but I feel even less qualified to advise here than usual. My basic take on the stock market is the same as my basic take on driving - it seems crazy to me that everything would work as well as it does, so I’m probably not the person to expound enthusiastically about the possibilities of any particular investment.
And part of the reason for this is that I don’t quite understand why the free market system works even to the extent it does. That is, I understand why economists say it works, but any close look will point out that the claims economists make about rational choices and market resilience don’t tell even half the story. For example, during the five years as housing prices have risen, I’ve been assuming that people would stop buying houses that cost half a million dollars for a suburban ranch on a postage stamp lot, rather than continue to do so. I’d assumed that lenders would stop loaning huge amounts of money for houses that couldn’t possibly have the value they were appraised at, with almost no downpayment or relationship to the person’s salary. And I assumed people would pause at taking out loans they could never hope to repay. I was wrong on all counts - and yet, I think my wrongness wasn’t based on a failure to understand economics, but on a lingering hope/belief that we could never possibly be this stupid and irrational.
I was completely and utterly wrong - I’ve been waiting for the housing bubble to pop for several years now, and it hasn’t, mostly because millions of people are saying the equivalent of “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do…” over and over again, in total opposition to the evidence against the fairy tale they are being told - that is, that their houses could ever in any long term, empirical sense have the value they are ascribing to them. What economists describe as “confidence” really turns out to be pretty much a collective exercise in wish fulfillment. And it can tolerate a few people opening their eyes and recognizing that this is a fairy tale, but at a certain point, boom, it all comes crashing down. When? Who knows - maybe right now, maybe in five years. I don’t know, and I don’t claim to. The case for “now” is looking more and more compelling to me, but the magic of denial is more resiliant than I would have ever credited.

The only reason I could possibly ever make any comments at all about the markets is that if you were to ask me, a Wall Street analyst and a Baboon to predict, beyond the level of common sense advice, what the market will do, we’d all have about an equal chance of being right. It turns out that almost all human beings suck and anticipation. Personally, given the choice between a market analyst who believes that growth can go on forever, and me, who doesn’t understand how we got this far without exploding, I’d let the baboon pick.

Now my personal financial strategy is pretty simple. No debt, except mortgage debt, and get rid of that as fast as humanly possible. We save some money, save some for the kids college/setting up house funds, and the rest goes back into the farm in the form of new roofs, barn repairs, goat fencing, perennials, warm boots, down comforters, rechargeable batters, etc… I don’t have a lot of gold or silver (a bit, mostly inherited), we have no major investments, and we tend to trust that our savings plus our willingness to work will get us through most crises. Honestly, I don’t expect to retire - I think it unlikely that social security will be there for me, and so my basic hope for the long term is that I’ll be able to adapt and make a little money growing food or medicinals, or teaching or writing, and that we’ll get along with what savings we’ve got - assuming we have any by the time that comes. I might be crazy, and I’m probably missing a dozen opportunities, but given the present degree of market volatility, I’m a lot more relaxed this way.

The other reason I don’t invest is that I believe that the origin of our economic problem is growth capitalism - that is, the debt based money system that requires that our economy grow always faster and consume more and more resources. If we don’t change that, we’ll never be able to live within the bounds of nature. But that means I want to participate as little as possible - to pay and receive as little interest as possible. What I make I’d like to be the profit of my own hands, and my own labor, not a system I deplore. The interest I want to live on is my own fair share of the natural resources of the world - the dirt I live on, the food I grow on it, the energy I produce from it. I’m not there yet, but seeking out a significant return in interest seems contrary to the basic principles I hold.

Now I’m not perfect, and my savings accounts do pay a little interest. I don’t keep my money under my mattress, and I am no saint. But generally speaking, I stay out of the money game to the extent I can. It means I don’t have as much, and I don’t have as big a cushion as I might, and that’s a price I’m prepared to pay right now. I tend to think that we were richer after the last crash, when our wealth came from *saving* not investing.

I’m going to be blunt - I don’t think money we’ve invested will be there making you richer in the long term. Oh, some of us will stay rich, and some of us will get rich - I’d tend to bet that if you put your cash in oil wildcatting, electric cars for the very rich, tobacco, alcohol and prescription sedatives, you’ll be able to weather all sorts of hard times, at least for a while. Video games and escapism will probably be big in bad times as well. But I don’t necessarily want my money used for those purposes. I tend to think that if you deplore things, but still give them your money to play with, you have a small ethical problem.

And Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful line “all true wealth is biological” resonates in my head. She was speaking of children, but this is more widely true - ultimately, our wealth is based on the natural capital we keep drawing down. My personal path to wealth is to enrich my own soils, to improve my own pastures, to plant more trees, and husband my land better, and then live off the natural divedends it provides, reinvesting for the future. I believe that this enriches the society as a whole, and my self and my family - it creates a wealth that will be reaped for generations, and, I hope, onto the future. If it doesn’t serve me and mine, at least it will serve the world. I don’t mean to romanticize it - my tax collector and the bulk food lady still mostly take cash. But at some point, our wealth depends on the preservation of what we have, not expansion and the concommitant destruction.

Most of us want wealth for the security it brings - the knowledge we could handle a health care crisis or a job loss, the ability to retire. And these are real and good things, and I’m drawn by the siren song of more and more for me and mine so that I need never be afraid again. But when would that be? A single cancer diagnosis will wipe out the savings of anyone but the richest. A pension fund scandal and a stock market crash, and many folks will be back to the traditional plan B of retirement - relying on help from my kids. No savings can endure a long term of unemployment. Few people’s retirement savings are enough to keep them in assisted living their whole senior years - if you live too long, you are back to family again. As a single, and private person, one never achieve enough security to keep me safe - and what I do in the process of my accumulation often impoverishes others, denying them a measure of security as well.

Part of what I do is try and find other definitions of security - security is soil that can grow food, and family to rely on (and also family who will in turn, rely upon me), security is good work and a plan for continuing to work as my body grows older. Security is not needing much and having a strong community and a tradition of sharing that may return to me if I need it. Security is (and this is a difficult one for me) recognizing that I will some day die, and leave the world I love, and that nothing I do to be “secure” will spare me that inevitability. Security is supporting collective, public measures that improve everyone’s security, rather than simply privatizing the meeting of my own needs.

The other part of this is recognizing that “security” is a construct, an attempt to master the world and have dominion over something I never made and cannot fully control. The notion that I can escape risk by being rich is part of the problem - because a world in which rich people preserve their own lives and well being first and foremost is one in which we cannot be generous enough to achieve equality, or fairness, or equal access to things like food and health care.

So here is my stock market advice - I have no idea what you should invest in. I don’t know what you should do with your 401K. It depends on where you are and what you are planning. I don’t know what the future holds or what anyone should do with their money. Except this.

I think all of us who have a little to spare should give more of it away. I think all of us should invest in natural resources, and take our divedends in soil fertility. I tend to think that buying the things you will really need in the long term is, if you can, wiser than waiting, and figuring out what you don’t need is wiser still. Some of us won’t be able to get much ahead, but a little stored food, a tool, educational materials for your children, shoes, a flashlight might provide a little security and a measure of comfort. But I would also remember that the flashlight will break, the tool handle will crack, the food will get eaten. The shoes will wear and the child will outgrow the materials. Real wealth is the ability to make a new tool handle, to sing in the darkness, to grow tomorrow’s meal. It is the ability to fix the shoes and run around without them when the weather permits. It is the ability to learn from whatever situation you encounter, and to teach your children what you have learned yourself.

Now all of that sounds very nice, of course, but we still all have to pay the bills. And that’s absolutely true. I don’t want to get all fuzzy here about money, particularly since I have enough to eat and health insurance, and many people do not. I’m young and healthy and can work, and I know this looks very different from the other side. And, much as I admire her, I’m no Peace Pilgrim, walking with only the clothes on my back. It scares me to think of reducing my own security, of my children becoming vulnerable to an accident, to imagine that the cost of sharing things more equally in the world might be a closer acquaintace with death. But what choice do we have? If you read my blog for any reason other than to argue with me, you probably know that the days of your 401K, your investments returning enough to live on are probably numbered. I’m sure you can find a way to preserve some of that wealth for a poorer future. But that doesn’t resolve the basic problem - that what you can do for yourself, your children won’t be able to do, and your neighbor may not have enough to do, and that despite your best planning, we’re all of us teetering on the edge of real personal insecurity.

What I do think I want to invest in, if we ever have the spare cash, is my neighbors. I’d love to see my neighbors start their own businesses manufacturing things that now come only from far away, or see young couples able to get farmland and start producing food. I don’t know what, if anything, it would ever return to me. Maybe all the hoes I can ever use (the two I have were both bought at least 40 years old and seem set to go another couple of decades, so that isn’t many) or a few peppers in season. Or maybe just better neighbors and more local security. I’ve been mulling over ways that my neighbors and I might do this - ways we might, as many immigrant communities have, invest in one another, providing interest free, or minimal interest capital loans to get started producing what we need.

For those with enough wealth to be investing in the stock market (I do not refer here to those who have minimal control over things like state pensions), I would recommend investing as much as possible locally. Many of the things you are “investing” have historically been the territory of philanthropy, but I think we all know better. This is called “covering your own ass” in a world where poverty is likely to be our norms. So I’d invest, say, in local free clinics, food pantries and poverty support programs. If you want a modest, but real return, try investing in reasonably price rental properties, making it possible for blue-collar people to live in your town and pay their rent and still have food. Invest in small scale manufacturers and combine with friends to form scholarship funds to send young people to colleges and help them learn useful things. Invest, that is, in the possibility of a real future, and your own place in it. I can’t ensure that the returns will be anything impressive. On the other hand, neither can anyone else.

Look, I don’t have any answers here. I know you want to retire, I understand that you need to provide for the future. Me too. All of us are tied into the economic system in ways that we can’t quite extricate from, and all of us are standing, one foot in, one foot out, waiting to see what happens. All I can tell you is this. Here is what I am doing. Don’t listen to my advice. And if you have to pick, take the baboon - I hear he’s got a system.



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