Archive for October, 2007

A Plan to Limit Foreclosures

Sharon October 10th, 2007

In our discussions about foreclosures, nomadism and homelessness (see the comments to my “fertile crescent” post), we’ve been talking about the problem of the coming foreclosures for agrarian society. I’ve been arguing that if you can get past the first wave of foreclosures, we may have a good chance to keep our land and houses. You can see some of my suggestions on this here:

But political change in existing bankruptcy laws would make an enormous difference in the coming tidal wave of foreclosures, see the article here:

“Under the House bill, the bankruptcy judge would have the option of reducing what the homeowner owes the lender. Say a homeowner’s property is worth less than what he owes. The judge could reduce the principal to match the home’s current market value as well as reduce the loan’s interest rate.

The rest of the original principal would then be treated as unsecured. That means it becomes a lower priority for repayment than the borrower’s secured debt, such as the newly reduced principal on his home. Unsecured debts may be discharged.”

This bill is going to have a rough time getting through. As this article rightly points out, the 2005 changes in bankruptcy law meant that we’ve got a new form of debt slavery going: This bill could use your political support, and lots of it. The house you save may be your own.

The reality is that, as an author I like says, “all true wealth is biological” - your house may be worth little or much, but the land that grows your dinner, and the soil that you build for the next generation, the wood that heats your house and cooks your dinner - that is worth something. Help people hang on to their houses. Get in touch with your congressman.


You Are How You Eat

Sharon October 9th, 2007

We’ve had some issues here recently with politeness about food - particularly politeness about food when visiting other people’s houses. Now those of you who read here regularly know we have firm rules about not ever complaining about food. So when I heard that while visiting a neighbor, my three year old said that the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was “yucky,” Mommy sat down to have a little talk with Isaiah.

I reminded him that we don’t ever complain about food, that you can always say “no thank you.” And then I asked why he objected to peanut butter and jelly, which we eat at home. He said the bread wasn’t Daddy’s bread, and the Jam wasn’t Mommy’s jam and they didn’t taste good.

So I explained that I’m glad he likes Daddy’s homemade bread, and I’m glad he likes Mommy’s homemade jam, but that some people don’t make bread or jam, and that we have to be polite about it. Why don’t they make it, he wanted to know? Well, some people don’t have gardens and the don’t want to or know how to make food. So they get their food from the supermarket.

Isaiah was shocked by this. “Really?!? You mean they get all their food from the supermarket?” He thought for a minute. “That’s really sad,” was his final response. And he really felt bad about it - we revisited the discussion several times, and he kept asking me if they *had* to go to the supermarket, and whether they ever had good bread or jam.

Now I try hard not to diss other people’s food ever, so I don’t think he got this from me or his Dad. And I’m kind of pleased to see that my son has somehow absorbed the real truth - that the best food out there is not available at even the most upscale supermarket. The best food out there is the stuff that you make and grow yourself.


School and Energy

Sharon October 9th, 2007

We’re officially in our first full year of homeschooling this year. At least, some of us are. My oldest son is not homeschooled, and Simon, my five and half year old was homeschooled for kindergarten last year, but legally, we were not required to file any paperwork because kindergarten isn’t mandatory. This year we’re doing the “official” thing complete with lists of materials (my kid reads so fast that I can’t keep up with him - do I really want to write down the titles of all 38 Magic Tree House books plus everything else he’s absorbed since August?), dates of evaluations (Call it parent testing, clearly designed to make sure you don’t shut them up in a closet) and the urge to make snide comments about required subjects (Must. Resist. Temptation. To. Put. Chomsky. On. Syllabus. For. “Patriotism.” ;-)). It is definitely an education - for us.

We’re also homeschooling Isaiah, 3 1/2, who will be entering his second year of “kindergarten” and who is a very self-disciplined, hard working little person, proud of accomplishing his share of studying and maintaining his garden. Asher, 22 months, is entering his second year of being a major hindrance, old enough to be a pest, really too young to fully participate. But he cheerfully colors, dances, dumps flour into baking projects and tootles as loudly as possible (which is really loudly) on his recorder during music. By next year, we have hopes of being able to include him in “kindergarten.”

Our approach can best be described as a mix of Waldorf curriculum, a whole lot of books, Jewish education and whatever works, combined with a total lack of parental organization that looks surprisingly like unschooling. I read books about homeschoolers whose days are disciplined, well organized and who have planned out their entire year in detail. We are not them. But Simon is well ahead of things in most areas (although woefully behind in handwriting and superhero underwear collecting), so we’re not worrying too much about it.

Now a lot of homeschoolers do what they do because of a passionate dislike of public school options or from strong religious convictions. I’m not one of them, although both are factors to a degree. I hated school from first grade until I went to college - college was such a relief that I danced through my entire freshman year. My husband didn’t hate school until fifth grade, but experienced a similar delight at his release. The problem wasn’t that we were bad at school - the contrary, we were both very good at it, but easily bored and impatient. School to both of us was eight hours of grinding monotony - and I admit, I don’t see a compelling reason to send a kid who is learning everything they need in a couple of hours hanging out with their parents to school.

And certainly religious factors enter into things - our rural school district has been very kind about us, but Jews are an anomaly here, and we constantly have to explain ourselves “No, Chanukah should not be described as ‘Jewish Christmas.’ “No, it is not ok if you read a story about the birth of Christ just because you read some story about a little girl lighting a menorah.” “No, my son may not have a ham sandwich.” “No, it isn’t a beanie, and no there aren’t horns underneath it.” It gets old - fast. And while I expect my kids to be able to operate in mainstream culture, I think there’s really no great urgency for them to confront it - 8, rather than 5, will do just as well.

But I’m hardly a homeschooling absolutist, and most of my reasons have more to do with energy than educational philosophy. My oldest son, Eli has been attending school since he was 2, receiving large quantities of speech, OT and other therapies designed to help him function in the world. Although both of his schools have been private, the first an integrated preschool, the second a school entirely devoted to the needs of children with autism, our public school district has helped us find these programs and paid for them, bused him there (actually a shorter ride than to our regional school) provided wonderful people to transport him and been generally both accomodating and supportive. We’re very grateful to them. Our hope is that one day, Eli will return to the school district in as integrated way as is possible for him. We may someday homeschool him, by choice or necessity, but for now, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have a supportive school district.

So obviously, I’m hardly the person to condemn public schools, and I’m grateful for the resources we have access to. Sooner or later, the buses will probably stop running. I suspect for Eli it will be later, fortunately, since the district is obligated to provide him with an appropriate education, but as in New Orleans where thousands of special needs students went a year or more without appropriate facilities, these things slip by the wayside. We are prepared, if necessary, to homeschool Eli, but it isn’t our first choice. And since the whole of society, not just our family, benefits if Eli achieves his fullest potential and becomes an independent adult, we don’t have any deep qualms about taking advantage of this.

Not only am I not opposed inherently to public education, which meets real needs in some case, I’ve often thought that if my developmentally normal children could attend school the same way my autistic son does - surrounded by enough supportive adults with a lot of attention to give him, and an entirely individualized plan for his education, I’d send them all to school in a heartbeat. Obviously, that’s hardly feasible in economic terms - but effectively, that’s why we homeschool, to provide my non-disabled children with the same richly supportive and individualized atmosphere that my oldest child gets.

Eli gets what he does despite the cost and inconvenience because he literally cannot function without it, and our society recognizes that a large investment in such children now is likely to have greater net benefits than leaving him dependent all his life. But while my other children are better able to adapt to a generalized, one-size fits all program than Eli, who simply can’t, I’m not sure they are in fact, better served by such a thing. While Eli is an extreme case, the notion that an education should be customized to fit non-disabled children as well doesn’t seem that radical to me. My five year old is as unique, and in many ways as different from other children as my autistic son. He learns better in some ways than others, and has things he needs special assistance with and things he is radically ahead in. School tends to reduce all these distinctions to a sameness, as though they do not matter. And while my son will not always find himself in a world customized to his needs, I’m not convinced that, as some people have argued, my son must prepare himself for the “real world” by living in the unfettered harshness of the “real world” from five on. We could probably wait a little on that one.

Thus, we homeschool. But of course, there’s more than that. One of the reasons we do is because it is an environmentally wise choice. We live in a large, rural school district. My sons would cover many miles on the bus each day, on a bus that doesn’t have to come down our road except to pick up my kids. Right now there are school districts all over the country struggling to provide busing for their students, and some are ceasing to bus entirely as higher energy prices make transportation expenses difficult to bear. Similarly, many school districts are struggling to keep buildings heated or cooled. Stephen Beltramini kindly posted this link over at ROE2: I’ve heard stories about bus system changes all over the country the last few years, as energy prices rise and already strapped districts tip past the point of no return.

The push to regionalize and expand schools has led to a number of consequences that are potentially troubling in a lower-energy world. Students are travelling more miles on the bus and in cars, and more children are travelling that way, rather than walking or bicycling. Streets and communities are often less accomodating to walkers, and schools are often in inaccessible neighborhoods, that involve crossing busy streets or highways. Many towns and neighborhoods no longer have their own school systems - they are now in large consolidated districts, and as we are less and less able to transport children long distances, many children will be less and less able to go to school.

The sheer cost of maintaining large regional schools that have put their money heavily into extraneous things like football fields and training grounds is likely to make them, like everything else, collapse under its own weight. The buildings are huge, requiring enormous quantities of heating, cooling and maintenence. Weirdly, in the Northeast, these all seem to be designed by the same architect, mostly from the school of butt-ugly - and all seem to have flat roofs (easily damaged by heavy snow loads), air quality problems and large expanses of green lawn regularly treated with toxic chemicals. This is not going to last.

There are psychological and cultural problems associated with large scale education. Classrooms of 28 kindergarteners (as friends of mine in an affluent suburb have) simply can’t have the same degree of individual attention that smaller groups can. Thus, there is an enormous amount of pressure to conform. I live in the school district that has the honor of, having been the very first (but hardly last) in the US to try and legally force a family to administer Ritalin to a child whose parents didn’t think he needed it. Such things are far more common now - a friend of mine who is a school psychologist in a low-income school district in Massachusetts observes that many of the teachers he meets recommend drugs for nearly every difficult child - in part because they simply don’t have the time or energy to use them. Boy children are particularly a concern, partly because they are more likely to have a disability, but often because we have eliminated physical activity by reducing PE and recess time.

All schools provide pressure to conform, and large regional ones have even more reason to provide such pressure. Simon, our first grader is an independent minded, imaginative bookworm, rather like his mother. He liked preschool just fine, and enjoys Hebrew school and was well behaved and compliant, but is happiest following his own interests. He’s also an obsessive kid, who focuses intensively on one or two ideas at a time. Since he was two, he’s gone through periods of obsession about birds, space, dinosaurs, jazz, Winnie the Pooh, the Beatles, mythology, geography and presidents. At 5 1/2, he routinely corrects me on the capitals of small African states, can tell you how old John Lennon was when he first picked up a guitar, has a stuffed Penguin named “Coltrane” and is mad as heck that Kuiper Belt objects don’t qualify as planets.

None of which is to imply that he’s anything of a prodigy - he’s an ordinary small child, bright in some ways, average or below in others. But he’s a specific small child, and both my husband and I vividly remember the limitations of a system meant to do the best by everyone. When we spoke to his future kindergarten teacher, trying to decide whether to send him to school or not, I joked that all of Simon’s games eventually “turn into Calvinball” (for those that remember “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Calvinball” was the imaginative, constantly rule changing game Calvin and Hobbes played together), and that he tended to spend a lot of free play time doing his own thing. The teacher responded, “We’ll fix that for you!” I know she was being helpful, but yikes! I didn’t want my son to be “fixed.” The qualities that I like in him - his imagination and autonomy, were immediately perceived as potential problems to a teacher who has so many children to tend that “unconventional” means “trouble.”

And the reality is that large chunks of public school educations are about conformity, and sometimes conformity in itself isn’t the problem, but the shape you are being forced into is. I’m not at all convinced that the conformity that they encourage is the sort that will help my kids in the future. That is, much of what is being taught is preparation for (as almost every school says) “being part of the global economy.” Lucky kids, who get to be cogs in that wheel! But whether I like the idea or not, the reality is that I don’t think the global economy with its hyper-specialization and emphasis on make-work is going to be around when my son is 18.

Our school is definitively not preparing our children for a local but not parochial society - in fact, the curriculum in things like patriotism that I’ve seen seems to be quite the opposite - we are trying to create a parochial and globalized society. That is, we are teaching children that they are supposed to participate in a “global” economy but also to believe that Americans are better than other people. My own goals are precisely the opposite - to have my children experience a wide world, through the lens of their particular place. So while foreign languages are not offered in our public schools until middle school, our children study Hebrew and Spanish now.

But for all of this, I’m not an opponent of public schools, and believe public schools can be valuable. In part, my children have the luxury of homeschooling and a better education than could be provided locally because their parents have the luxury of time, which stems in part from frugality and care (our annual income for a family of six is in the mid-30s) but also from comparative wealth, a stable two-parent family. I believe that public schools are important, and I strongly believe in participating them, and helping to shape the curriculum so that it better mirrors the realities of our world. We do that too - we participate in our public schools as well as our homeschool group, and we believe that we do not serve our community if we completely absent ourselves from the institution that does so much to shape what our kids understand about the future. We see homeschooling as a necessary corrective, the reality that we’re not going to sacrifice what we value in our kids’ education to the inadequacies of public schools, but we also believe good public schools must be available.

Some homeschoolers like to say that all parents should home educate. This is clearly not the case. For example, there are millions of parents who have to work two or three jobs, millions of parents who lack the basic ability to teach their children - including a minimum of 84 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Teaching your children at home when you can barely read in any meaningful sense is not like staying two piano lessons ahead of your students - it is impossible. There are also millions of parents who are simply too poor, and work too many hours to homeschool. There are tens of thousands of disabled children like Eli who will benefit more from school than home, and millions of developmentally normally children who love and benefit from schools all over the country. And we also all know the simple truth - that there are millions of children in the US for whom school is a far better place than home. It does not do to romanticize too much here - there are millions of households where violence, drug and alcohol addiction and other factors simply mean that children are better and happier at school than at home. There are millions of children whose only hope to escape their bad homes is for them to get lucky enough to have a teacher take an interest them, or for them to show a special spark. Unfortunately, school can’t and doesn’t do that for everyone. So we need not just good home education, but much better public schools.

Blanket dismissals of the value of public education are wrong too. Homeschooling is an excellent choice for many families who don’t think that they are served by public schools, but all of us have reasons to be invested both in public schools and in home education. That is, it isn’t an either/or choice. For example, many parents who send their children to school also provide supplemental education to their kids in religious studies, areas of interest, languages, etc… As we develop the skills of relocalization, all parents, homeschoolers and public schoolers are going to have to teach their kids subsistence skills. And for every parents who is happy with their local public school, there are reasons to consider homeschooling in a post-peak, post-climate change society, and to be prepared to do so. For every parent who can’t now imagine homeschooling, there may come a time when their children cannot go to school.

But also, if those times come, we cannot simply retreat to our own private households, all in all. We must recognize that homeschoolers, just like everyone else, are dependent on public education - our children will play with children whose parents can’t take the time to homeschool. Our children may marry children whose parents didn’t speak enough English to homeschool them. All of us benefit enormously from living among well educated people - the kind of society we get depends on our ability to understand the issues that face our society, and to address them, and those are often factors of education. While I think the public schools suffer from some serious deficits, I think we are better off as a society with more education, not less, and we cannot abandon people who cannot or do not which to homeschool.

One strategy we can use while there’s still time and resources is to advocate in our communities against larger, district schools and in favor of local, walkable, smaller schools designed to serve neighborhoods. This will difficult because it is bucking the consolidation trend, but it is also important - as oil prices rise, busing and its associated plowing costs become a larger and larger portion of the town or district budget. Small, community schools can cut those costs enormously. They also can bring about other benefits - a small community school with simple infrastructure can also serve, in many ways, as a community center. Here, after all, is where the parents congregate. Here is a kitchen used every day to prepare meals - perhaps it could be adapted to become a community canning kitchen during the weekends, or perhaps a school cafeteria that used local food ingredients could also send home pre-made, local ingredient, healthy meals to be reheated by community members at home, or the cafeterias could be opened on weekends. It is not an accident that in many small towns, the school is the center of communal life - and that it could be again.

All of us can help shape the education children receive in public schools, both by voting and also by participating in discussions about educational culture. Schools generally welcome community participation, and teachers are generally overstretched and have enormous demands placed on them. There is no reason an energetic and devoted person couldn’t get a school garden started, or a cooking program using seasonal ingredients. Certainly you could bring out your skills and offer to come in to school to teach ecology or how to build a solar oven.

Most importantly, we can lobby to bring back agricultural education to our schools. The one point in Richard Heinberg’s essay about _50 Million Farmers_ here: that I strongly disagree with is the idea that we should center the educational aspects of agriculture in colleges. Not only do I think that our agricultural colleges have stepped away from relevant missions in many cases (the largest section of many ag schools is now turf and lawn maintenence), but I also think that that’s far too late. We need to be teaching our kids to grow food in elementary school and high school, not when they are in college. And since less than half the population ever goes to college, this absolutely cannot be an elitist pass-down from the university educated to those who actually grow the food. One of the great class divisions in the US is between those who actually get to go to college and those who don’t, and we can’t, now that food growing is finally being seen as important again, associate it with class division more than it is now. But I digress.

As I’ve said, the line between homeschooler and public schooler can be quite fine. Any of us may find that our child wants to go to school, or that we have a child whose abilities or disabilities suit them better to public school than to home. That is, instead of thinking in terms of “public education vs. homeschooling” I think we need to consider ways in which we can integrate the two. Ways in which we can meet our own needs whenever possible, but also offer a *good* and *responsive* and *public minded* education to people for whom homeschooling is not a good option.

What does that mean? First, in practical terms, I think simple preparedness means that those of us who have children should have a plan for a long-term disruption in existing educational services. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying a curriculum or anything, but it does mean having easy access to (either in your private library or at your local, walkable public one) a good variety of educational materials, it means parents picking up textbooks and other materials at local library sales, and being prepared to introduce algebra if the schools are closed for a while due to a natural disaster or the inability of the district to afford heating oil. And it means knowing what your local educational resources are - it isn’t necessary for every parent to be able to teach physics or Latin poetry if there’s someone on the neighborhood who can help. In a relocalization system, where you want to keep as much of your wealth in your neighborhood and area as possible, educational services are just one of the items of exchange available in our new home economies.

But what if there’s a longer term disruption in services and you can’t homeschool forever? This doesn’t have to mean an end-of-the-world disaster. It could simply mean that the system can no longer afford to run the buses and you can no longer afford to drive them. Or it could involve a localized natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Either way, your region or school district could be unable to meet needs for long periods, and even if you can personally homeschool, the neighborhood may be full of kids whose parents can’t school them.

That’s when parents should get together to consider collective home education. Generally speaking, it will not serve your community to have kids hanging around doing nothing (or better yet, coming up with creative things to do ;-), all the time. It certainly won’t serve the long term good to have kids miss years of education. And while the unstructured life has some advantages, in a crisis, those are likely not to be the salient points. So getting together with your neighbors and dividing up the teaching just makes sense. There’s no reason a child shouldn’t come to your house on Monday to study history and botany, and to learn about herbs, and go to the neighbor’s house on Tuesday for cooking and arithmetic.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that one should mimic the schools exactly - public schools have valorized some kinds of education while neglecting or rejecting others. For example, we’ve long emphasized that “smart” people don’t need “vocational” skills like fixing things, building things, growing things and making things. This, of course is errant nonsense. We need to teach our kids to think critically, to write well and compellingly present their ideas, to read complicated material and understand it, to be able to grasp the science and math they are encountering and to recognize the literary, philosophical and historical origins of things. But we also need them to understand how nature works and how science is as yet only a thing that describes one aspect of nature, but is not nature itself. They need to know the limits of book knowledge as well as the potential of that knowledge. And they need to have experience with the basic work of providing for ones own needs - growing and making things.

In his seminal The Archaeology of Knowledge Michel Foucault argues that the way we organize our knowledge always and utterly transforms our relationship to it. And just as peak oil and climate change are in the broadest possible sense “market failures” - that is, failures that illuminate the deep inadequacies of our present economic system; they are also “education failures” - that is, profound revelations about the inadequacy of how we organize knowledge.

The way we categorize our knowledge, segregating our pieces of it as belonging to X or Y part, seperating “reading” from “art” from “mathematics” and “ethics” has led us to this particular point in history. The idea that we can take something and seperate out ecological impact from something like “work” or “sex” or “science” has driven us to a real crisis. That, if nothing else we must change. That is, we have to teach our children new ways of looking at the world and of imagining our future. We need to naturalize, from birth, the connections between moral principle, science, history and our daily actions. We need them to understand the whole impact of what they do and how they live.

I will write more about this in time, because it is far too large a subject for a single (already really too long) post. But I wonder, some times, if the breakdown of our existing educational structures might not be one of our best hopes for the future. Because, in the end, it will all come down to education - the education we offer at home, and in schools, the self-education of billions of adults who transform their lives without any real guides to help them and the messages we pass on to the next generation. It will all come down to what gladly we would teach and learn.


The Fertile Crescent and the Closed Circle

Sharon October 8th, 2007

“These fragments I have shored against my ruin”. - T.S. Eliot

The closed system is the holy grail of self sufficiency. In it, you would be able to produce everything you need at whatever level the circle operated (on your property, in your neighborhood, in your town, in your bioregion, and on up), without any necessary imports. And you would simultaneously grow enough resources to replace everything you consume - fertility, soil humus, natural resources. And ultimately, the quest for sustainability requires that as a world we be able to live off the interest of our planetary capital - that we cease to deplete non-renewable resources and that we renew the renewable ones at least the rate of depletion. We
are doing neither, and thus we need all the models of closed systems we can get.

When a lot of us discover peak oil or other ecological crises, we start by thinking about how we can preserve our immediate family and ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this - but we often begin from the notion that we ought to try and achieve a kind of self-sufficiency. So we often start on the journey to self-sufficiency thinking primarily about sustainability at the household or family scale.

At some point, however, we look up from our family situation and realize that we can’t attain security without other people around us having security. And then situation becomes larger, and seems less manageable. Sometimes we draw tight borders, imagining that we can keep those limits under control, other times we give up on the project altogether, and focus our energies somewhere else.

Now when you begin talking about self-sufficiency, people are always quick to point out that no one can be perfectly self-sufficient. And on one level they are right - few of us will achieve a perfectly closed circle, and many of us may need many inputs on one level or another - or on all levels. But I also think that it is worth revisiting the question of how possible it is to close the circle, or what an imperfectly but largely closed system might look like.

We go at this is fragmentary ways, for the most part - or at least I do. I think in terms of fertility, or of clothing. I write about it that way too - how can I reduce this input or that output. There’s nothing wrong with that - that’s how we tend to imagine these projects, but in the attempt to create something whole, I wonder if we’re going about it the wrong way, thinking about the closed circle piece by piece, as though it were a slice of pie we would eat for dinner, and then start on the next one. Is there a way, I wonder, to get closer by thinking of the process in a less fragmentary, more unified way? Is there a way to change the nature of our thinking about the potential of the closed circle.

Now the closed system is never perfect - even the earth requires heavy inputs of externally produced sunlight. But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. That is, it is possible, on several scales, to produce remarkably complete systems. For example John Jeavons and Ecology Action have managed to create very small gardens that produce all the food a person needs in very small spaces (as little as 700 square feet, although 1000 is more realistic, and I wouldn’t call it ideal), that include all the fertility needed to produce that food in perpetuity. The food they produce is adequate and healthy - they’ve had the people who lived on this checked regularly by doctors. It really is possible for people to feed themselves on remarkably small plots of land, although it takes much care and practice. And it depends on what you are willing to eat. These diets are low in fats, vegetarian and involve eating a *lot* of parsnips - now I love parsnips, but I’d like a more varied diet than that. But that’s rather the point, isn’t it - what I’d like, rather than what I need. And that, of course is the key to the thing.

The reality is that there are examples of mostly or effectively closed circles out there. One of the thing that characterizes them, though, is that while needs are quite commonly met, and so are social and communal wants, the baseline level for material wants has to be quite low. By baseline, I mean that the question of self-sufficiency begins at the question “how am I prepared to live?”

Helena Norberg-Hodge, in _Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh_ observes that the people there, in a cold, infertile, high elevation region managed to be almost entirely self sufficient for food, fuel, fertility, clothing and shelter - and that most people lived a comparatively middle class existence (by the standards of their community) with an enormous quantity of leisure - they supported most of their needs working only 4 months per year. Before Ladakh was opened to western contact, the only items imported by Ladakhis were metal implements, jewelry and the occasional religious item. They operated, functionally speaking, as a largely closed circle, and one that thrived in a tremendously difficult area.

It is *possible* to create regions or farms that meet the vast majority of their needs sustainably, in, if not a closed circle, a crescent with ever shrinking tips curling towards one another. There are places that have lived a long, long time by human standards on the resources of one forest, or one island. While recognizing we’re a long way from there, we shouldn’t deny that is is feasible - even if we don’t want to do it. Permaculture attempts to recreate similar systems, ones that are not perfectly closed but that do involve capturing and recapturing expended energy over and over again, to extract the maximum value from it.

When I first got this farm, creating something rather like a closed circle was one of my goals. Over time, the sheer amount of effort involved in that has come to overwhelm me, and I’ve let it go to a degree - I’ve settled for good enough. We do reasonably well, but we sell some things off our farm, and we don’t get back comparable fertility. We import some soil amendments, buy some extra manure from the neighbors to supplement what our animals produce, and if we happen to pass by a bag of leaves on the curbside, we snag it and throw it across our beds. We bring food in. We use electricity, computers, buy tools, etc…

One of the things that several people have asked me is whether the 90% reduction project is in conflict with the basic project of preparing for hard times. When I’ve got only 1000 dollars a year to spend on all consumer goods, for example, will I be able to reinsulate my house? Will I be able to make/find used/scavenge what I need? Can I really fill my food storage pantry with home produced and locally produced reserves? Can I make not only what I need, but a surplus for future years and some to sell? The 90% reduction represents a real and very positive challenge for me to explore how a reduction in inputs - less energy, less water, less money - affects my ability to meet my short and long term needs. And in the long term, I honestly think it may be a help, rather than a hindrance.

The thing that is important about the Ladakhis or about the Ecology Action diet, is that they are living examples of the simple, obvious fact that the less you need, the easier it is to meet those needs. This shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us, but I think sometimes it is. When we set out to ensure that we can feed ourselves, or that we can meet our own most basic needs, we will find the greatest degree of success in personal demand reduction. That is, if I am content with a vegetarian diet made up largely of root crops during the winter, I only have to do 1000 square feet worth of gardening each year. If I want a more varied diet, I have to work harder. It may be worth it to work harder, but I may also give the project up if I cross that critical “too hard” level.

If I have 3 sets of clothing, and wear them for a week before washing, I have much less laundry to do than I do if I wear a new outfit every day. If I am willing to live in a very small house, or if I am content to wear many layers during the winter and have only 1 warm room in a large house, I can cut all my firewood for the winter by hand easily enough. If I need to have a whole house be warm all the time, the burden of firewood cutting is greater, and I’m more tempted by chainsaws and other things.

Every measure, from the degree of personal security required (how much food to store, whether health insurance is necessary, what kind of savings to have) to the degree to which ornamentation matters to me (Do I need jewelry? Pantyhose? Make-up?) shapes what would be needed to close my circle. For example, if I were Peace Pilgrim, who walked the US for many years eating what others gave her to eat and sleeping where she was given a chance to rest, I would have a very low need for security in my circle. But because I’m me, with four young kids, my need for economic, food and medical security is much higher. That rise in need makes us more dependent in some ways, potentially less in others, but it drives our baseline up, and makes the circle harder to close.

To the extent that this is possible, it might be better not to break each category into pieces, but to think of our needs and desires a whole cloth. Instead of just asking (although this is important too) “can I change how many shoes I need” we could ask “what is the whole least I need?” The answer might be useful to us. Or perhaps we should start from “what do I care about the most?” If something that takes up a lot of energy or resources in your life doesn’t fall in the top 10 or 20 or 30 things, maybe you could eliminate it, or change it.

Or perhaps the most useful way to think about our own circles is to ask “how can I make it beautiful?” Because I know of no better way than to make others want to reduce their baseline needs as well than to demonstrate the simple truth embodied in the fact that there are few ugly medieval villages or Amish farms - artfulness is often merely the extraction of every bit of loveliness and wonder and good purpose from the world itself. Sue who comments here sometimes told me on another list about looking at magazine pictures of beautiful country kitchens, trying to figure out what made them that way, and realizing that they had no plastic, no small appliances. What made them beautiful, in part, was the all-natural materials. I wonder how many people might be attracted to a more beautiful life?

We are creatures of habit. We get comfortable doing things a particular way, and we convince ourselves that what we do is necessary. So necessary, in fact, that we are often reluctant to experiment. We tell ourselves we’d freeze to death if we slept in a cold room - ignoring the fact that most cold climate people through most of history slept in unheated rooms and did fine. We tell ourselves we have to wipe our behinds a particular way, with a particular thing, that anything else is “gross” when, in fact, human beings have had a myriad of relationships with their own excrement over time, and as long as one is reasonably hygienic, there are a good number of options. Distinguishing between want and need becomes very difficult because our cultural assumptions rise up and blur the distinctions.

Most of us live in a society with very high baselines for most of these things, and it can be very, very difficult to buck cultural assumptions in this regard. When you are judged negatively for only having a few clothes, it is very hard to endure that judgment. When guests expect a certain kind of house or food, and judge you for it, it is very, very hard to resist those pressures. I’m certainly not immune to them. In some cases, there’s a real price to pay for bucking them. No pantyhose or not enough nice clothes can cost you a job. Reduce your need for electricity enough or let your children wear dirty clothes in public and you have to worry about someone taking your children away for neglect.

At best, most of us from high-baseline societies can hope only for functionally closed circles - that is, we can each of us live at our personal outer edge of the cultural standards, but we cannot begin to change them until we reach a critical mass of people - until enough people challenge the standards themselves, saying “no, it isn’t necessary for me to wear X to work, and it doesn’t lower property values to have laundry hanging on the clothesline,” they will endure. But pushing the envelope and drawing attention to what you do makes a difference in reducing our baselines.

Besides reducing our needs, the next best way to close our personal circles is frugality, in the root sense of the word, which means “to make fruitful.” That is, we can use careful husbanding of our resources to maximize what we get out of our inputs, and recapture each expenditure of energy as many times as possible. If we get a lot from a little, we are not only making good use of our resources, but we are mimicking nature, where the tiny seed leads to the huge plant and a thousand more seeds. Extraction of benefit from tiny quantities of resources is not unusual - it is fundamentally natural.

We tend to think of frugality is a fragmentary thing - I am frugal in my use of money, or careful in not wasting things. And we tend to talk about these jobs as one at a time projects - how can I reduce my use of X, or how can I save more of Y. I do this - I make lists and weekly sectioned out “how to do this” and I find them valuable. But frugality can also be a wholistic way of thinking, a way of thinking about your life as an optimization project.

Norberg-Hodge writes about this in Ladakh,

“Where we would consider something completely worn out, exhausted of all possible worth, and would throw it away, Ladakhis will find some further use for it. Nothing whatever is just discarded. What cannot be eaten can be fed to the animals; what cannot be used as fuel can fertilize the land.

Sonam’s grandmother Abi-le, did not throw away the barley after making chang from it. She had already poured water over the boiled and fermented grain to make four separate brews. Then, instead of discarding it, she spread the grain on a yak-hair blanket to dry so it could later be ground for eating. She molded the crushed remains of apricot kernels, a dark brown paste from which oil had been carefully squeezed, into the form of a small cup; later, when it had hardened, she would use the cup to turn her spindles. She even saved the dishwater, with its tiny bits of food, to provide a little extra nourishment for the animals.

Ladakhis patch their homespun robes until they can be patched no more. When winter demands that they wear two or three on top of each other, they put the best one inside to keep it in good condition for special occasions. When no amount of stitching can sustain a worn out robe, it is packed with mud into a weak part of an irrigation channel to help prevent leakage.” (25)

This version of frugality isn’t culturally derived - many of us had grandmothers who did similar things. Some of us do it now, but we also sometimes let things slip through our fingers, or fail to see the possibilities for use in something. We can close our circles to a great degree by reusing to the nth degree, but practicing a wholistic frugality, one that begins at the acquisition point and even then begins to think “how long will it last, and how will I dispose of it?” Companies are beginning to do real lifecycle analyses of things - we can do them too.

My children have a wonderful book, a child’s version of a classic Yiddish folktale, rewritten and illustrated by Sims Taback. In it, a man starts out with an overcoat, and when that wears out, it becomes a jacket, a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief and a button. And finally, when the button is lost, it becomes the story of the overcoat and its many transformations.

It is the final transmutation, of the object into narrative, the robe into irrigation channel, the “dirty” water into something nutritious that offers us a real glimpse at what is possible in imperfect, but largely closed system. Things there become not just other versions of the object, but entirely new things, from an alchemical and wholistic vision that reorients the fragmentary into the whole.

It is that reintegration of the fragments into the whole that I think we’re all working on. That is, it isn’t about transportation, or housing, or food, or clothing - it is about the intersections of our life as a whole, about the integrity, in the literal sense of the word, of our beliefs, our lives and all the little pieces. It isn’t that we don’t need to take these bits and pieces apart and think about them that way, but we also need a real sense of the circle we’re working on closing, a real sense of how the pieces go back into the puzzle.

We start then, perhaps with a realistic assessment of where your circle should begin. That is, it may never be possible to make an urban apartment into a closed system - but perhaps some cities, or urban centers and their surrounding farmland could be. Or perhaps your farm can be a closed system, but you would choose otherwise - you’d like your diet to be replete with vanilla and good wine. Fair enough - but if you can meet your basic needs, those luxury desires can be fulfilled reasonably fairly, enriching others and building relationships through trade, while also offering a measure of basic security.

The 90% reduction in itself acts to close our circles a little more. Because if there are things we will say (with a joyful heart and little regret) that we will no longer have, then there are things we no longer have to labor to produce. And if there are needs we no longer have, the resources we once used to satisfy those needs can now be turned towards real existing needs - or towards the community, and its most vulnerable, or to be put aside as a reserve.

I can’t achieve perfect household self-sufficiency. I don’t even want it - if I were wholly self sufficient, I wouldn’t need my neighbors, or my family, or the help of others. But by needing - not just wanting - other people, I can extend my circle a little further, and achieve yet another alchemical transmutation - the transformation of something as ordinary as needing a hand to an act of love. I can unify one more fragment against my ruin - I can transform ordinary acts of exchange and neighborliness into the beginnings of something transformative.

If we can’t create perfectly closed circles, perhaps we can create something like a crescent, with the tips of our moons stretching closer and closer to one another, until finally, acceptable margins are the only fragments, and the rest resembles, from the correct angle, a perfect whole.



52 Weeks Down - Week 24 - Form a Neighborhood Cooperative

Sharon October 7th, 2007

There’s a lot one can do to get one’s energy use and budget down on your own, but when you start hitting the wall, it is time to start looking for other people to work with. There’s an enormous amount that an organized neighborhood group can do to help you get along with minimal energy usage. It isn’t an accident that most people in low-energy societies spend a lot of time interacting with their neighbors - low input living means we *need* each other. One of the best ways to get started is to form a neighborhood group.

What do your neighbors have to do with your energy usage? What can you do to get your energy down? Well, let’s say you’ve been driving out to the local farmer’s market to buy fruits and vegetables every week? All you need are two other families who also want fresh, local produce, and you’ve cut your drive time down to once a week - one family does pick up one week, the next family the next. A coop, set up with the specific goal of finding ways to meet energy reduction and money saving needs can help you connect your seperate goals.

Or perhaps you’ve been driving your daughter to music lessons once a week. Perhaps a neighbor’s child is going the same way, or perhaps a neighbor could teach basic piano to your daughter in walking distance, or neighborhood teenager could be paid to bicycle with your child safely to music lessons. You’ll never know unless you try.

What about a swap meet? Once a month you have swap, with a different theme every time - this month it is duplicate tools, next month, toys or maternity clothes or books? What about a neighborhood “Free” box, where anyone can put anything they are getting rid of? How about bartering babysitting or garden produce or help painting your garage for something you’ve got that they need?

You need a new vacuum cleaner…or do you? What if you simply borrowed a neighbor’s vacuum cleaner once a week, and in return, she borrowed your hedge trimmers? You may already do a little of this, but a coop formalizes the relationship, sets up rules and makes it easy.

How about a neighborhood dinner trade-off. Two families get together. Every Thursday, one family cooks, and drops off enough food for the other family. Ta Da! Free time, a meal you didn’t have to cook or clean up from, and not much additional work for the person dropping off the extra lasagna.

How long before you trust each other enough to loan cars while one is in the shop, or to share a car entirely? How long before an elderly neighbor who really shouldn’t be driving can trust that you’ll help her out on errand day if she’ll do your mending for you?

A neighborhood coop could offer classes, taught by the members. The lady down the street teaches sewing and knitting, you teach cabinet making, the guy up the hill teaches beer brewing. Or you could get a guest speaker in once in a while - hire someone to teach soap making or how to clean with ecological products, or edible landscaping.

A neighborhood coop has power with your local zoning board - you don’t just represent yourself, you represent a neighborhood full of people who want to allow chickens, or hanging up laundry or bring a bus route your way. A neighborhood coop represents a way of resolving disputes, and focusing on common ground - you may not vote for the same people or share the same culture, but you both care about good food for your kids and living within your means.

A neighborhood coop has buying power - you can order your food in bulk and divide it up. Bringing in enough organic free range chickens for a whole neighborhood might make it worth a trip for a farmer to deliver, while one family’s needs wouldn’t be sufficient. A neighborhood coop can search out new sources for things, even ask local farmers to consider growing a new crop, and be sure that there’ll be a good market for it. Perhaps together you can even afford to buy that woodlot and save it from developers, or hire one of you to provide a car service so that people could give up their vehicles and someone could have a job closer to home.

You can throw parties together, and let everyone have fun closer to home. Instead of driving into the city for live music, the best harmonica and guitar player in your neighborhood can get together and play. Instead of everyone at home watching their own tv, consider neighborhood movie nights for the kids and adults. Everyone gets to throw popcorn, make fun of the subtitles or sing along with the theme song.

There are countless ways that we could reduce energy - if only we could just share the burden a little. Get together. Form a group. Set up a plan. Let everyone tell you what they need and want. Change your lives. Change the world, just a little. Have a party. Start a coop.


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