Depletion and Abundance...

Plant a garden

Depletion and Abundance are just two sides of the same coin. We're no longer speaking of the future when we talk about climate change and peak oil. So now the project is to accept depletion, and still find a good and abundant way of life, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. We can do this - it is one heck of a challenge, but we have to find a way, so we will. That's what this site is for - finding a way forward.

Please watch for my upcoming books from New Society Publishers: Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front will be available in the Fall of 2008. A Nation of Farmers, coauthored with Aaron Newton, will be forthcoming in the Spring of 2009.

Ordinary Human Poverty

Sharon September 24th, 2008

At one point in his writings, Sigmund Freud (who, btw, was not at all the caricature that many readers imagine him as and who is well worth reading in his own right) wrote about the difference between two states - one of them abnormal, and subject to resolution by the “talking cure,” the other ordinary and not necessarily remediable.  The first he called “neurotic misery,” the other “ordinary human unhappiness.”  His point was that psychoanalysis could only address pathological states, neither it nor any other solution could preserve us from the ordinary bad experiences of being human, and that distinguishing between them was essential.  Ordinary human unhappiness did mean, of course, that one was unhappy every second, merely that one accepted that normal human states had periods of suffering, sadness, anger and fear in them too - it was important to recognize that nothing, no tool, could ever make life good every second.

Riffing on Freud, for some years, I have been arguing that the reality of peak energy, climate change and our precarious financial situation was leading us towards re-experiencing “ordinary human poverty” - a state that I would argue is fairly normal, if at times unpleasant.  I also believe it is the future for most of us.  And it would be easy to imagine that this meant that our future was one of true horror, an pathological nightmare from which we cannot awaken.  The despair many of us feel when we see that word “poverty” can’t be underestimated.

I think we are now at the point where the argument I’ve been making all these years - that peak oil will be less about whether there is gas in the gas stations or whether the grid crashes - and more about whether we can buy gas or whether the utility company shuts us off for nonpayment is pretty much certain.  Right now, we are watching the crisis unfold mostly far from us.  It is coming home - and rapidly, and we are shifting to a lower eocnomic level.  For example, as the New York Times reports, retail chains are in real danger - remember, 70% of our economy depends on consumer spending.  Most of us will cut back, and many chains will go bankrupt for lack of funds and credit - and that cascade of bankruptcies will further echo, as more and more of us who still have jobs and money to spend see no point in buying things at successful chains - why bother when the same jeans are available at 75% off at the going out of business sale of another store in the same mall? 

We could make much the same analysis for many other segments of the economy.  Whence the high paying NYC and other urban restaurants that depend on high finance types buying expensive meals?  Poof!  Whence travel and tourism in an era of unemployment and expensive gas.  We may go some places - those who still have money may head to the beach, rather than Cancun - but the overall amount of wealth flowing through the economy will drop like a stone.  And the fear takes the rest of it with us, as we become afraid to spend, afraid to invest, afraid to lose what little we’ve got left.  Bailout or no, the economy is headed into something deep and dark, and most of us are going into this new world with it.  Poverty is about to go back to being our human norm - just as it always has been for most of the world’s people.

And yet, the reason I’m using Freud’s language here isn’t just to remind us that poverty is a normal state for human beings.  It is in part to imply that there is a distinction between the deep suffering of what I would call “pathological poverty” and the functional poverty that is “ordinary human poverty”, sometimes unpleasant, probably always troubling in comparison to the relative wealth we’ve had, but basically livable state.  In it one can have periods, even long periods of happiness and security and comfort along with some less pleasant momemtns.  And I believe that while none of us can insulate ourselves entirely from the trauma of the darker ends of this, there is a great deal we can do to ensure that our coming poverty is not the pathological kind.

I find this reassuring then, when I read Dmitry Orlov’s latest account of where we stand in his “Five Stages of Collapse” - on the one hand, there’s not much cheery about the fact that we’re jumping over from Stage One to Two - and I think he’s right. But there is the reality that we can do a great deal to keep the elevator from dropping down to the basement. 

What is the distinction between “pathological poverty” and “ordinary human poverty?”  Well, cast back in your heads to your grandparents or great-grandparents.  Among the stories of hardship in post-war Europe and Asia, of recurring crises across the Globe, and of the Great Depression in America are likely to be moments that distinguish between the pathological poor.  “We were very poor, but there was always food on the table.”  “We were poor, but we didn’t really know it.”  “It was a struggle, but we were happy.”  We will also hear stories the other side of poverty - the pain of hunger, the blind terror of being turned off with no place to go, the deaths and the pointless losses and tragedies.

The question becomes how do we turn this story into one where most of us can say “We were poor, but we had enough - just enough, but enough.”  And where our kids may grow up not really realizing just how poor we were? How do we accustom ourselves to the ordinary human unhappiness (which, after all, isn’t unhappiness every moment, merely a recognition that most people aren’t happy all the time) that is our shift in wealth, without allowing ourselves to fall through the floor, into the deeper stages of collapse?

There are three answers to this.  The first is to reduce your needs.  I expect that for a long time, the stigma that attaches to any kind of poverty will keep many of us struggling to keep up appearances.  We are likely to feel ashamed the first time we have to ask for help, ashamed that our clothes are no longer as fine, that dinner is plainer and that we now share our homes.  The best way, I think to get over these feelings is to get over them in advance - to change your values as so many here have.  Thrift shop clothes and patches should be sources of pride, symbols of your independence from industrial manufacturers. The food on the table - and the people who share it - are the point - not whether high-social value elements like wine and meat are present.  The need to speak out against the culture that tells us that poor is dirty and bad becomes paramount - because the more resources we waste keeping up appearances the harder it will be to adapt.

The second is self-sufficiency of the kind most of us are trying to achieve.  The garden, the sewing needle, the saw and hammer, the ability to make and repair, to grow and produce and nurture things - these are things that demonstrate, as Jeremy Seabrook has contended, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is self-sufficiency.  None of us will ever be wholly self-sufficient - but to be able to say that it doesn’t matter if you can afford shoes this year because you can repair last year’s boots, or to not have to spend much of your money on food means that you have a much better chance of covering that emergency medical bill or the property taxes. 

But these things alone are not sufficient.  One’s self-sufficiency can be taken away too easily when we lose access to land.  You can lower your standards to allow “poor but decent” but when we get to “filthy and rat infested” that’s not such a good idea.  The only way to live in the world of ordinary human poverty is to live there in a world where your pocket isn’t picked constantly, where you aren’t the victim of endless resource conflicts, where your government doesn’t sell your future out.  And the only way to be a nation of reasonably self-sufficient, ordinarily poor people living decently is this - to remember that the reason we use the word “ordinary” here is that there are a lot more of us peasants than there are of the powerful.  The truth is that repressive governments, of the sort we have had and are rapidly entrenching are scary - but they never have enough troops, enough power to stand up against the unified dignity of those who are simply ordinary, and simply want enough.  But that requires that we trust each other, that we work together, that we create the institutions of ordinary poverty, the ones that have fallen into disuse - Granges, Unions, Consumers Unions, neighborhoods, voting blocs, and larger groups that can be used to pull us together.  These things too are ordinary and human - and it is getting to be time to build them.


Dances With Wood: Life With My Cookstove

Sharon September 23rd, 2008

As Bernanke and Paulson attempt to impress the urgency of the bailout on Congress with all the subtlety of a mob kidnapping (”Don’t actually read the plan or consider its implications, no time for that,  just give me my blank check or the markets get it”), and my congressfolk respond with all the subtlety they are capable of (”Re-election good….not getting re-elected…ummm…bad?”), while the markets teeter anyway, I’m taking a break to dream of the first fire of the season, and the soup I’ll simmer on the back of my cookstove.  Heck, a girl has to have a happy place when the world is going to hell.

Perhaps the single most visible symbol of the differences between my life and ordinary American lives is my wood cookstove.  So much of what we do to conserve energy is invisible - we don’t go places, we don’t use things, we don’t buy stuff. And the rest often looks fairly ordinary - lots of people have clotheslines, lots of people have gardens - and not necessarily for the same reasons I do.  But my wood cookstove, well that’s something rather different, something not in the kitchens of most houses.  Everyone who comes into my home stops dead at my Waterford Stanley and stares, admires, wants to know how it works.

I’m going to do a later post on wood heating and cooking in general, covering the climate impact, practicalities and dangers of using and overusing wood and the future of forests.  This time, I just want to talk about what it is like to live with wood, and particularly to combine the jobs of cooking and heating, simply because I know that thousands of people in the Northeast (who are particularly affected by rising oil prices) and all over the US (as people struggle with increasing gas and electric costs) are converting to wood, or considering it, and need to know a little bit about wood stoves in general, and perhaps about cookstoves in particular.

 Why choose a cookstove?  We have both a cookstove and a heating stove, although they only run simultaneously on unusually cold days or when we have guests enough to need to heat the whole house.  During much of the year, the cookstove is our primary heat source, particularly in the early spring and late autumn, when the worst of winter’s cold abates, but it is still chilly enough to need a source of heat. We haven’t yet started the stove for the autumn this year - since wood smoke is polluting, we try not to use it when it isn’t truly necessary.  But I’m looking forward to going back to dancing with wood.

If you are trying to decide whether to buy a cookstove or a conventional heating stove, it is worth considering what your priorities are.  Do you already live in a climate where you can use a solar oven or outdoor masonry oven most of the time (ie, somewhere sunny, fairly dry and warm?)  Then you probably don’t need a cookstove.  Do you have trees on your property or lots of sustainably harvested and carefully managed forest in the area, so that wood makes sense at all? 

Do you cook much?  Can or preserve?  If you live alone and rarely cook, I would go for the more efficient wood heating stove - remember, you can cook on one of those as well - you can put a pot of soup on the top of the stove, and even get or make a sheet metal oven to go on top of it that will allow you to bake.  It isn’t as precise, easy to control or as large a surface, but it can be done. On the other hand, if you live in a large household, preserve a lot and cook from scratch most of the time, a big flat hot surface and oven going all the time might be a huge blessing.  Also, where does your cooking energy come from? If you are cooking now with coal powered electric, replacing that stove with a cookstove might make a big dent in your emissions.

How much is cost an issue?  What kind of stoves are available to you?  New cookstoves are often a bit more expensive than new conventional woodstoves of similar heating ability.  If buying an older stove, be careful with what you are buying - older stoves of both kinds may be heavily polluting and inefficient. Used stoves are often available, but make sure you know what you are getting, and that they check out for a good tight gasket seal and are in good condition.  Also think about the costs and impacts of the wood you are using. If you live in a forested area, or can manage your own woodlot or track how wood is harvested locally, wood might make sense. In an area without a lot of woodland, where wood has to be trucked long distances, perhaps a stove using another fuel would be wiser.  Many woodstoves can be adapted to use pellets or corn, but I’m not aware of a pellet/corn basket that would fit the smaller firebox of a cookstove - although such a thing may well exist. 

How often are you prepared to tend things?  A cookstove necessarily has a smaller firebox than most woodstoves, simply because a lot of the space available is used for the oven - so while some stoves can be banked and kept going overnight, many cookstoves can’t.  Certainly, when you are cooking, if you need precise temperatures, you’ll find that you need to be able to be around, to feed the stove more often and keep an eye on things - it isn’t quite like setting the oven to 350 and walking away. It probably doesn’t require as much attention as you assume it does, but it does require more than electric or gas.  Also, are you prepared to learn how to keep your chimneys clean, prevent fires, cut wood, etc…

Finally, how worried are you about having a source of heat and cooking power that doesn’t require electricity or natural gas.  Since we have regular power outages in our rural neighborhood anyway, it is just commonsense not to depend on the electric lines for our heat (our oil furnace requires electricity to be used) or cooking.  If you aren’t worried about your fossil fuel supplies, or have a better, more locally appropriate alternative, maybe a cookstove isn’t for you.  The same would be true, even if you have these worries, if you don’t expect to be home to check on the stove regularly.

If you pressed me, though, to answer which of the above was the major factor for me in choosing a cookstove, I would have to admit, although a cookstove makes sense at my house, the primary factor isn’t anything so logical.  I just wanted one, and now that I have it, I find that I love it. 

Some of the things I do to cut my energy use and live more sustainably are fine, but I don’t feel passionately about them, but the cookstove is one of my favorite things in the world (milking goats and hanging laundry also fall in the category).  I love tending it - I actually love the regular interruptions to my work to go tend it when I’m the only adult in the house.  I love the intricate dance of adjusting temperatures and cooking, and the huge expanse of hot surface that entices me to start just one more pot.  I love canning on it in the fall, the way the warmth is almost too much, and the combined smell of the wood and applesauce.  I love the way I feel it helps me cook better - the way things taste when they come out of it, and the way its enticing hot oven and surface encourage me to cook, and cook creatively.

What is it like to use it? In the mornings, whichever of us is up first lights the stove - we don’t usually keep the cookstove going overnight, even though we can, simply because if it is cold enough to need a stove going overnight, we usually prefer the heating stove with its larger firebox and longer burn.  Sometimes we take a scoop of embers from the other stove, or if it isn’t as cold, we play match games with our junk mail and the newspapers friends save for us and the kindling that my kids collect all autumn.  It takes about 5 minutes to get the stove lit and be sure it is going, and another 20 minutes of hanging about doing other things, but checking on the stove and gradually getting it up to a proper burn before we can load it up and go about our business.   I think of lighting a fire as a kind of dance - a delicate balancing of materials and the temperatures outside, the air and the draw of the fire.  I love the symmetry, and most of the time, I love the challenge of getting it right.

Once we’re up and running, I immediately put the kettle filled with filtered water on the hob, and when it starts to boil, I’ll pour my first cup of tea and move it over to the coolest part of the stove which will keep the kettle hot all day long.  Since we often bake bread in the morning that we’ve set to rise overnight, many mornings the first project is to get the oven hot enough to bake bread, which is good anyway, since a short, hot burn will keep creosote from forming on the stove.  Meanwhile, the bread is put on for a final rise in the warming oven above the stove - a nice toasty spot that sends it bounding right up.  If you are in the market for a stove, the enclosed warming oven is a wonderful place to make yogurt, raise bread and dry mittens, or even dry pieces of wood for the next day’s fire that have been iced over or had snow melt on them outside.

Meanwhile, I will probably put something on to simmer on the stove - it could be a pot of soup or stew, or some applesauce - the kind of warm, hearty food that one craves in the cold weather.  Lunch will be ready when I want it.  The stove is good for multiple purposes - the kids come there to get dressed, I come to warm my hands after typing in a cool office and refill the teacup.  We can take the grate off and toast marshmallows or grill vegetables.  We don’t have a resevoir for hot water, my one regret about my stove, but occasionally we take a big stock bucket and bathe the kids in front of the stove anyway, just for fun, heating the water on the stop of the stove.  If the power goes out, we hang our solar shower bags up on hooks behind the stove to get hot for a bedtime shower.  And most days, the drying rack comes over near the stove so that we can rapidly dry our clothing, adding pleasant humidity to the air.

 Once the stove is going, and if there’s not much food to tend, I usually visit it once every hour.  It doesn’t have to be done quite that often, but I find that it helps me avoid getting engrossed in work or homeschooling and forgetting about the stove entirely.  Plus, the break - getting up, bringing in some wood or poking up the stove and adding wood - is pleasant.  I fill my tea cup again, fill the kettle and check on my simmering thing then too.

Lunch and dinner somehow seem easier with the cookstove to me - it is so simple to put something on to cook when I’m tending the stove anyway.  The structure and discipline of dancing with wood bring food along with them.  And the rich smells of food that comes out of the woodstove oven seem to make things even more delicious.  We eat in the dining room, basking in the warmth of the cookstove.

This reminds me that where you put the stove, and the shape of your house, will also affect your decision about having a stove.  You could put your cookstove in the garage or somewhere away from the kitchen, I suppose, but that will likely create a good bit of hassle for you if you do - carrying food that is bound to be spilled sometimes, running back and forth for things.  So if the kitchen - or a room right off of it isn’t a place you want to be, having a cookstove might not be for you. For us, we have a good sized older kitchen with room for the stove, and right off of it is the dining room where most of our homeschooling is done.  The stove concentrates us in the kitchen and dining room, which is lovely - it makes our public space more public and collective - we are all together, often working on different projects.

When we’re doing a big cooking project, with things in the oven and going on the stove, this requires more attention, a familiarity with the vagaries of our draft and the best strategies for heating up quickly.  Learning to use a cookstove does take some practice, and will probably involve a few mistakes as you master the idiosyncracies of your particular stove.  I think I burned things once or twice, and underestimated the time for something at least as often, but it was a surprisingly short learning curve, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by it.  It wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be, and the learning was a lot more fun. 

You’ll want a plentiful supply of potholders and wooden utensils, since these don’t transmit heat, and cast iron cookware is the nicest and easiest to use on the stove - but since I like wood and cast iron better anyway, that’s no hardship for us.  Other than a few basic fireplace tools and a tight metal can for storing ashes, that’s really all you need. 

During the daytime we all gravitate to the stove, both to tend it, to enjoy the enticing smells and to be warmed by it.  At night, we shift the stove to warming the bedrooms - that is, we put bricks into the oven (we soak them in water first)  where they get hot.  The bricks are then carried upstairs, wrapped in flannel, and put into the children’s beds to radiate warmth to the sheets, and then gradually warm up their feet as they cool down.  We also heat water in hot water bottles, and rice bags to warm the kids.  Since we do not really heat the upstairs - we all prefer sleeping in a colder room with plenty of blankets - this means the pleasure of getting into a cozy, warm bed without the fire risk or magnetic field risk of an electric blanket.  Later, we’ll do the same thing for ourselves. 

If we do keep the stove going overnight, there’s an art to banking it - it takes a little time and practice again.  Otherwise, we fill it up before bed, and then just let it go out - because our stove is cast iron and tight, the stove will still be quite warm to the touch most mornings, even hours after going out, still radiating heat into the kitchen. 

All of it, to me, feels like a dance - occasionally clumsy or awkward, but often delicate and oddly freeing, despite the structures it imposes on my day.  It seems odd that one of the secondary (after the husband, kids and other family of course) loves of my life is green, squat, named Stanley,  and often too hot to touch ;-), but so it is. 


On the Radio this Week

Sharon September 23rd, 2008

Hi All - I realize that for the first I’m not giving you much notice, but just in case you live in one of the relevant areas, I thought I’d let you all know that I’ll be on the radio a lot this week talking about the book and current events.

 This morning, from 9:10-9:20 I’ll be on the Alvin Jones show in the Ralegh/Oxford NC area, on WCBQ-WHNC AM.

 Also this morning, in Madison and Central WI at, I think 10 - 10:20 am (it will be 11 - 11:20 my time, but I suck at time zones) I’ll be on WBEV with Jim Stowell.

 If you are in the Santa Fe area, at, I think 5:15-5:40 your time (7:15-7:40 my time) I’ll be on Santa Fe Public Radio KSFR with Diego Mulligan.

Listen in if you have a chance!


Remember the Patriot Act….?

Sharon September 22nd, 2008

Ok, anyone remember the Patriot Act, you know that thing that Congress signed because we’d just had a great big disaster and everyone was scared and accomodating because they didn’t know what else to do?  Remember how nobody really even read it, and it didn’t do jackshit to reduce the problem of terrorism, but it did do a whole lot to reduce democracy in the US? That is, it worked out to ensure that we and our grandchildren will be suffering from the undermining of every principle we valued, but did nothing useful. Sound vaguely familiar?  Guess what - we’ve got a new Patriot Act.

It is called the Federal Bail Out.  And guess what - it hands to Hank Paulson and a few other unelected people huge powers, destructive powers, that, of course, we know that they will use for good.  Now where does it get those powers?  Through the abrogation of the constitution and the ripping them out of your hands. 

And we’re getting the same message that went with the patriot act - pass it now, or disaster will befall us, we’re all doomed if we actually read it, and don’t just sign it into law.  It comes with an appropriate “scaring the shit out of fairly dumb political figures” bit (remember Hillary saying that if we knew what she knew about WMDs, we’d be for the war too?)  Christopher Dodd and my own Senator Schumer were practically drooling with fear after their private viewing of the Wall Street situation.  They won’t, of course, tell us what they were told, but it was so horrible that we should definitely allocate untold billions more to bailing out the rich.

Now here’s the thing - bailing them out won’t fix the problem.  The markets lost 3 trillion + last week - 700 billion isn’t going to fix the problem. Neither is the next 700 billion.  It won’t cover the losses in the housing market that is still declining, it won’t make your house worth what it was, it won’t do much except send foreign investors running for the exits.  In short, it won’t save us from a Great Depression.  Whatever Chuck Schumer is waking up in a cold sweat about, it is too late to avoid it becoming reality. 

But what we’ve got here is more Shock Doctrine economics, more destruction, more rapine stealing of democracy at the moment that things are falling apart.  And we can go into this crisis in one of two ways - either with all the power that we can hold in our hands, the memory of what is good about America, and a vision to put those pieces back together and with what remains of our country’s assets used to build something new, something that could potentially last us for generations.  Or we can go in to our homemade disaster with less power, fewer resources, more thrown down the drain, less of America left.  Our choice.  Actually, odds are there is no choice - this will pass, and it will be too late, and besides making do with what we’ve got less in a massive Depression, in an energy poor society, we’ll also have to try to reclaim what we’ve got.  But the thing is, it isn’t passed yet, and we honestly have no choice about trying to resist - because it will only be worse later.

 Read about it now here  (please read the posts for the last 3 days), and here: and this and do what you can to stop it. You know who to yell at.

And since it does look like the damned thing will probably pass, you could also get in on Verde’s 21 day preparation challenge -  It might not be such a bad idea to imagine that your world will change dramatically in a very short time - after all, it already has. 


The Dog Ate My Homework or Why the PA Novel Discussion Will be Delayed

Sharon September 21st, 2008

Due to technical difficulties (ie, my copy of “After the Crash” was unreadable and has to be replaced), the PA discussion will have to proceed without me until I can a. get my copy of the book and b. read it.  So y’all go ahead - I’ll post a proper discussion ASAP.


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