Archive for November, 2007

Scared? Duh.

Sharon November 7th, 2007

“I’m afraid there’s no denyin’
I’m just a dandelion
A fate I don’t deserve.
I’d be brave as a blizzard…
If I only had the nerve.”

I don’t think that conference speakers are supposed to say what I did at the Community Solutions Conference. We’re supposed to be inspiring, energizing. Instead, towards the end of my presentation, I admitted that I was afraid. That’s not very inspiring, right up there on the disheartening meter with the list of current democratic candidates. Unfortunately, it is also true.

Now I tend to be an optimist by both nature and inclination. I’m not generally fearful or easily made unhappy. I love my life. Despite the fact that my job is to read all the bad news about peak oil, climate change, soil and water depletion, resource wars, environmental toxicity, financial trouble and all the other crap you can imagine, and write about it, I tend not to take it all too seriously. That is, I do, but I also take very seriously the good stuff in my life. Generally speaking, they balance one another out. But not always. Not, perhaps, as much lately as I’d like.

The thing is, I think most people have a choice when they are confronted by a reality like peak oil and climate change - either they develop a thick skin for at least some things, or they deny. We’re all aware that denial is the most popular choice, and why not - denial is a very happy place to live, as long as you don’t mind the cost. Otherwise, you have to develop enough emotional scales to at least cover up the horror of the thing. For example, confronted with the fact that 40% of the population of Swaziland is starving to death, you have to be able to find something darkly, horribly funny in the appalling realization that the government of Swaziland is still growing Cassava to make biofuels - that is, in the face of starvation, a government has decided to turn the staple food of that nation into gas, or in the larger truth that we’re doing that all over the world now, as we drive food prices up and up and up…

I’ve got a lot of practice laughing rather than weeping, or winding up my computer and typing out my outrage hoping to break through someone else’s scales and make them as angry as this stuff makes me, so that maybe, maybe we can do something to stop it. But I’m less practiced at dealing with my own fear. I’ve been dripping with outrage at the world’s injustices pretty much since I was old enough to have a political conscience, sometime in the mid-Reagan years. But I haven’t been particularly scared, because my own blood was never in the game. I was always outraged on someone else’s behalf, and of course, that’s an easy emotion.

I have, as we all know, four little hostages to fortune, and at least the average person’s fear of suffering, death and inconvenience (Lest that list seem strange, I’ll be blunt - I’m actually really good in a real crisis, but I can be a bitch when I’ve been put out in some way. Oddly, I’ve noticed that is is fairly common - we act like jerks when we can afford to, and something better often comes out when we can’t - is that perhaps hopeful news?). I’m scared for my kids, and scared for myself. Some of the time I desperately wish this would all just go away and I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Sometimes I wish denial was an option.

But mostly, I’m glad I know even the bad, hard stuff. Because I honestly have doubt whatsoever that being prepared is better than not being prepared. I’m not even always sure I want more time - part of me does, but part of me believes that we are better off going through our fossil fuel crisis sooner than later - soon enough that we still have money and resources to make some major infrastructure changes, soon enough that we may avoid the worst of catastrophic warming, and that there might be enough oil left for future generations some wind power and vaccinations. And I can’t wish it would go away because it is my job to protect my kids, and my desire to protect the next generations in general - I don’t want to dump this burden on my sons or on other people’s children. I don’t think that’s the proper work of parents who love their kids.

John Adams once said that he was a soldier so that his son could be a farmer, and his grandson a poet. I’m no soldier, and if this is war (it isn’t) it will be won by farmers and perhaps by poets too. But I share in the sentiment. I’m going to do this work, and face this as head on as I possibly can so that my children may someday choose other work. That’s what Moms do. Now the thing they don’t tell you about parenting when you become a Mom or Dad is this (for those of you without kids I’m going to reveal on of the dirty little secrets, something, if you are thinking about parenthood, you might rather not know) is this: being parent doesn’t make you a better person.

That is, when you become a parent, if you are going to be any good at it, a certain amount of selflessness and self-sacrifice is mandatory, but you do not, as some people seem to think, immediately become the sort of person who enjoys self-sacrifice and wants to be selfless. The ugly truth is that you are still the same greedy, lazy, selfish person you were before (ok, maybe you aren’t, but I am). If you were the sort of person who would rather read a novel on the couch than answer the question “what does this spell” 78 times in a row, nothing about parenthood, or even love for your kids will transform you magically into the kind of person who finds having your novel interrupted every 2 minutes delightful. I know the world is full of better people than me, but the truth is that a lot of us are still the same ordinarily rotten people we were before we had kids. We just don’t have the option of indulging our rottenness. That is, parenthood, for parents who really want to do it right, requires not that you be a good person or that your better nature predominate, but that you suck it up and do the unselfish thing anyway, even when it sucks, even when you don’t want to, even when it is damned hard. Some people really are good, unselfish people - and that’s great - I envy them. But it actually doesn’t matter very much whether you are one of them or not, if you care about your kids. You have to go around pretending to be unselfish most of the time in the parent business.

The same is true about our present situation. This is scary stuff. There’s nothing crazy or unreasonable about being scared by what we’re facing. We’ve got bad news, and it is *appropriate* to feel bad about it. There’s no reason we have to be fearless here - frankly, the only way I can imagine being fearless is to be stupid. But we do have to be brave - that is, we don’t have to feel brave, but like the Cowardly Lion, like the Mom who doesn’t really want to get up for the two am feeding, we have act the right way, to pretend as hard as we can that we have, as the song says, the nerve. And the amazing thing about pretending hard is that sometimes - not always, but just sometimes, you become, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “what you pretend to be.”

Which brings me back to fear, and the only antidote to fear I know - good work. I learned in pregnancy, facing labor (all of my labors were very, very, very long) to simply screw up my nerve, accept that the only way out is through, and to go forward. We’re in the same situation now - the way out of this current crisis is through it, to go forward from where we are, with what we have and who we are. It isn’t required of any of us that we not be afraid, or that we don’t spend a lot of time grumpily wishing that someone else would do the work and leave us alone with our book. But it is required that while we curse fate, previous generations, the current administration, G-d and the Federal Reserve, we get to work. What work? Tikkun Olam, if you are a Jew, or even if you find the metaphor compelling - tikkun olam means “the repair of the world.” In my faith, that is why we are here - to fix what is broken, repair what is damaged, to improve what can be improved. As the saying goes, it is not required of us that we complete the work, but it is not permitted for us not to try.

Now I do not come from one of those religous faiths where you put aside the lesser emotions like fear and selfishness - in fact, as far as I can tell, the right to whine is a sacrament in Judaism. So I’d hardly be the person to tell anyone “don’t be afraid.” Instead, I suggest we all be afraid - that isn’t pathological, it is appopriate and reasonable. Nor do I suggest any of us fail to whine about it as much as possible - that, after all, is what the internet is for, collective whinging. We might as well take advantage of the technology while we’ve got it.

But let us whine while we hammer, moan while we cook, sigh in outrage while we write and march and yell and build and fight our fear with good work and the pretense that maybe we’ll become better people while we’re pretending that we already are. There’s too damned much to do to do it any other way. I may be a coward at times (and trust me, I am), but like the Lion of song and story I’d like to think that , “I could show my prowess…be a lion, not a mou-us…” We’re going to need lions, or at least busy mice with really loud roars.


Hitting the Nail on the Head With the Hammer…of Fear

Sharon November 5th, 2007

“Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Dr. Samuel Johnson

Richard Heinberg’s gift for making hammer meet nail is evident again today in his analysis of the implications of Carbon Equity’s recent report “The Big Melt” (discussed here at length last month) in light of the problem of depletion. I strongly recommend that all my readers consider his analysis.

Heinberg aptly describes the predicament we’re in - the solutions to climate change and peak oil for the world as a whole involve the richest nations and their populations making enormous, voluntary transformations of their way of life, and quite rapidly. It means the overturning of our entire economy, the end of everything we have taken to be religious doctrine about the value of growth capitalism, a new commitment in a selfish society to creating justice for the poor, and an absolute sea change in everything from the way we get around to the way we do our laundry. There is no evidence whatsoever at this point than any world government can be reconciled to that change, or that the people of any nation would accept it if their leaders proposed it.

The other option is some variation on collapse - waiting until fossil fuel shortages, economic crisis and increasing environmental disasters reduce our energy consumption dramatically, and drive us, as Heinberg describes, to a society with much less inequity, but without the good parts of less inequity - that is, we’ll see our collective wealth destroyed by disaster after disaster, flushed down the toilet rather than shared with anyone else.

I doubt that there are many people who read this blog who believe that we’re better off waiting for things to fall apart (more). That is, we a huge amount of work to do - personally, as a nation, as world. But how do we get past the big, big, big bump of convincing leaders by convincing people that we would choose the rough but more equitable path, either because it is the right thing to do, or because it is better for us (both are true here)?

To imagine us having any success at addressing climate change and peak oil, we must imagine a society willing to make presently unimaginable sacrifices. We have seen that up to a point, people are willing and able to make sacrifices, particularly when they are scared to death. Thus, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, most people were willing to give in to Roosevelt’s calls for sacrifice, while before he faced considerable political opposition. And thus, since 2001, most Americans have been willing to more or less silently acquiesce to the stripping of the Constitution, torture and war crimes, because, we’re told, it is keeping Akron safe from the terrorists salivating to blow up its gas stations.

I’m occasionally accused of fear mongering, of not being “positive” enough. And while I think there are positive things about the post-peak future, mostly I think that peak oil and climate change are very bad things for our society, and that it would be the most errant nonsense to tell everyone that their lives are going to get warmer and fuzzier during the transition. I think we do need to talk about the good things about this - the social pleasures, the better food, the physical benefits, the quality of life issues. Those are real and sincere positives. But they are not sufficient to offset the fact that even if we did this right, it would be enormously difficult and painful for most of us. Yes, walking more and biking more will improve our health - but not having a car will also mean less time with distant family, longer transit times, more blisters, staying home, less travel, less exposure to knew ideas and the world. I don’t think we serve anyone by lying on that score, and pretending that the benefits exist in isolation. It would be lovely if we were still at the point where we had the option of addressing this within our comfort level. We don’t. And we all need to get over that quite rapidly.

The simple fact is this - we have ample evidence that fear moves mountains. If we are to avoid collapse, it must rapdily become politically feasible to make enormous and painful changes very quickly. History suggests one of two things. You can make up strawmen to fear (Jews, Terrorists, whatever…) or you can direct people’s attentions to the real problems, with real and penetrating explanations of what they are and what you must do to prevent them. But telling people about the health benefits or the fact that they’d be happier if they did this can only get people so far - we’ve been telling people about the benefits of a healthy diet for decades, and yet, we eat worse every year. We have millions of avid sportspeople to tell the benefits of exercise, and yet more millions are happier sitting around on their asses. The positives have not moved us the way negatives have.

I have strong personal reasons as a Jew to loathe and fear the idea that we would direct our terror towards a person, or group of persons. Every Jew knows how that goes, and it usually means getting on a boat again. So my own personal preference would be to direct it towards an event - that is, my suspicion is that we are now presently waiting for the next great disaster. It will come, probably in the next few years. And the hope for peak oil and climate change is to take control from the beginning of the meaning of this event - to do what we failed to do with Hurricane Katrina, what we failed to do with 9/11, and explain to the world, “We must make this sacrifice, or have it happen again and again and again to you and your family…” I get told all the time that I’m too scary, but let’s be honest - I’m a piker. Bin Laden in your laundry room, that’s scary. Nazis around the corner, that’s scary. Now we just have to figure out how to make Climate Change coming for your grandkids just as scary. The only good part is that we get to tell the truth.


52 Weeks Down - Week 25 - Change your Diet

Sharon November 4th, 2007

This isn’t the first post I’ve written about how to eat in this series, but I keep coming back to it because it is so central and potentially so powerful. At Community Solutions last week, a woman from Manhattan asked me and the other CSA farmers in our workshop why it was that she could only get local food for 20 weeks a year or so. It took me a minute to answer her, because the truth is that in one form or another, I can fairly easily produce food from April 1 to December 1, but the CSA delivery season is only mid-June to mid-October. Why is it then, that I’m not selling food 8 months of the year? Or twelve, for that matter, which I could do with a fairly small investment in season extension techniques.

The simple answer to that is that I can grow local food 8 months a year uncovered (longer sometimes), and another four months with cover, but what I can’t do is find enough people who are truly committed to eating a real, seasonal diet to make it worthwhile. I’ve considered it - Eliot Coleman in Maine grows food for sale during the winter only, and gardens for his own pleasure in the summer. But he sells in larger markets than I do, and the CSA model does place some limitations on me - that is, in order for me to offer a year-round CSA, I would have to have a large population that wanted to eat the kinds of things that grow here in the winter.

What grows in upstate NY in the winter? Green stuff. Cole crops like cabbage, Collards, Kale and Brussels Sprouts. Spinach. Some lettuces. Arugula. Asian greens like mizuna and bok choy. Cress. Mustards. Mache. Minutina. Lots, and lots and lots of greens. I can keep some root crops in the ground under cover (carrots, turnips, parsnips) as well. But in order for me to sell those crops, I’d have to have a large population that likes brussels sprouts, arugula and kale enough to eat large quantities of them daily.

I do. My family eats from our garden 8 months a year, and then gardens all winter under cover for our own pleasure. The food is wonderful - the cold weather transforms the taste of the crops, making them more flavorful than you can imagine. We love our greens - my oldest son will devour an entire plate of spinach, and all of my kids adore mee pad, a dish of noodles, greens and tofu. We really do eat greens several times a day, with most meals, and consider ourselves richer for it. We’re weird, though.

Most Americans don’t derive from a greens eating culture, and we’re not sure what to do with multiple bunches of greens - unless you are southern and cook them with pork (not in my kosher home - but I don’t feel the loss, since there are plenty of wonderful non-pork ways to cook greens), you probably eat greens once or twice a week - mostly in salad. So changing our agriculture to focus on local food has to start at the table.

And may be the most basic truth about food I can think of. The simple fact is that if we’re ever to change our agriculture, the initiative cannot primarily come from farmers - farming pays too badly for your average farmer to subsidize the tastes of their customers. It has to work the other way around, starting at our dinners. That is, if we want a society where our food is safe and grown in a non-violent, non-destructive way, we have to eat in a non-violent, non-destructive way, in tune with the reality of the place we live in.

It is easy to believe that the great transformative acts are about marching and voting, but our power to alter the nature of our agriculture is firmly located at our tables. When we reject corporate food and look locally, when we learn to cook and eat what is native to our place and can be grown by our farmers, when we insist of creating a local cuisine, we not only eat better, but we make what may be the most central necessary change in our lives - we create food security.

More brussels sprouts anyone?



Two recipes for Greens that Everyone Will Eat

1. Any Green with Sweet Soy and Mushroom Sauce

Steam or sautee as much of your favorite green as you can cram in a pan for as long as necessary to get it to the just tender stage. For something like brussels sprouts or kale stems this might take a bit, for tender greens like spinach, just seconds. Add a tablespoon or two each of Mushroom “oyster” sauce (or the real stuff if you like it) and Kecap Manis, or sweet soy sauce. Eat over rice. This is especially delicious with cabbage or kailaan (chinese broccoli).

2. Any greens with lime dressing

Steam a good bit of greens until just tender, or a little longer in the case of brussels sprouts (don’t let them get to the grey stage though). Make a dressing of the juice of half a lime, soy or fish sauce (as you prefer), a little water, honey or sugar, and hot sauce or chili garlic paste. You can make the proportions anything you like - more sour and hot, or more salty and sweet. The idea is to create a balance you like. The Vietnamese version of this dressing tends to be salty and sour, the Thai version sweet and hot. We like it both ways. This is the best way on earth to eat brussels sprouts, but is good on nearly anything. And no, the sauces aren’t local, but you only use a tiny bit of them at a time.


Acts of Non-Consumption and the Riot for Austerity at Community Solutions

Sharon November 1st, 2007

First, the most embarassing part. I ran overtime on my talk in Yellow Springs last weekend, and I never mentioned the Riot for Austerity at all. I thought I had time, and then I didn’t, and it never got talked about. Which is really too bad, because when it did come up, later at the Community Solutions post-conference strategy session, the subject got a lot of attention and excitement. In retrospect, I think I should have made the Riot the focus of my whole talk.

Because the Riot for Austerity is a remarkable and powerful project, and one, I think, that demonstrates the sheer possibilities of personal transformation. It started out as a political gesture by Miranda over at SimpleReduce (the rules and FAQ for our project can also be found there) and me, thinking that if we could prove it was possible for people in the rich world to reduce their consumption by 90% in each category, we could answer the politicians who say that it is politically impossible to do what is necessary to stop global warming with the words “We did. Others can.” We hoped to live our lives using only a fair share of the world’s resources as a model.

But it became, almost immediately, something more than that. Instead of just a political gesture, it became a way of life, first for a few hundred people, and now nearly a thousand all told in 14 countries. We have a support group at yahoogroups, imaginary pie parties and sleepovers, and hundreds of people to ask any question you can from “How do I get to Ashtabula on public transportation?” “How do I engage my church community with this project?” “How much food can urban dwellers really expect to grow?” to “How do I make my shaving razors last longer?” and “What do you do about reusable menstrual supplies?” (The Riot is about 65% female, so don’t ask that last question unless you really want to hear the answer ;-))

The Riot is different from other environmental groups because we’re not mostly talking about buying high tech gadgets or expensive solutions. Oh, I’m sure there’s some of that, but mostly the question is how to transform our lives now, today, with what we have - and how to keep living this life year in and year out. We argue sometimes, but mostly we provide support, encouragement, solutions, ideas, analysis, suggestions.

It wasn’t until I began describing the Riot for Austerity to a room full of Peak Oil activists, including Richard Heinberg, Megan Quinn, Kurt Cobb, Peter Bane, Building expert Linda Wigington and others that I began to realize just how potentially powerful the Riot is. I was perhaps too close to it to realize how exciting it was that people were having fun, creating a self-organized democracy to support one another and enable them to make real change.

People were excited by this idea, particularly by my accounts of the most courageous members - the ones who came to this not from the perspective of having worked on reducing their impact for years before, but those who jumped in feet first, starting from the American norms or even above them, and who have bravely taken on a project far harder than my own - to make a 90% reduction or something very close to it, with great rapidity. Going back to my marathon metaphor of the previous post, I’m reminded of the fact that I read once that a marathon is far harder on the slower runners, because their joints and bodies have to endure far longer, and they strike the pavement far more frequently. I’m from Boston, so if you’ll forgive me, there are people right now making it up over Heartbreak Hill who have never run a block before, and they are damned brave people who I’m proud to know.

American Revolutionary War historian Timothy Breen has coined a term for the rituals of boycott, of self-restraint, of collective non-participation that enabled victory in the Revolution. He calls them “Acts of Non-Consumption” and writes at length about how powerful the collective choice not to consume, to resist, to restrain oneself for a larger goal can be. I’ve written more about this in an essay “Can Rationing be Made Palatable“, but the central truth that Breen points out is that in hard times, the pleasures of communal Austerity can be as powerful as any act of consumption - more so.

Thats what the Riot for Austerity is doing - and we’re not doing it in just one area. We’ve chosen to reduce our personal impact in 7 categories, not just Heat, Electricity and Gas, but also Food, Garbage, Water and Consumer Goods. We’re using only 10% of the American average each - or working on it. Some of us are already there (my running joke is that Larry Halpern, whose project I described in my previous post looked up a week into the project and said, “Ok, I’m done, what’s next?”), some of us are a long way away, and some people may never quite achieve 90% in every category. But we are doing something potentially powerful and transformative, that offers up the hope that other people might do it too.

Because if I can do it; if the people who had never run a step or changed a bulb to a CF before can do it; if people from every country can do it, if people in cities and suburbs and rural areas can do it; if rich and poor can do it; if men and women can do it; if people with big families and single folks, young and old can do it; then there is no one who can’t. And if all of us are doing it in part because we find fun, and pleasure and joy and delight in the rituals of non-consumption we’re engaged in, it is just possible that millions of other people might not only be able to do it, but want to.