Archive for January, 2008

Haitians Eat Dirt, Cars Eat Corn

Sharon January 30th, 2008

I often say that the worst excesses of the rich world are actually less ethical problems than grammatical problems. I say this for effect, of course, because they are deeply ethical problems. But a part of the difficulty is our articulation of the difficulty. Consider this story, about Haitian people who cannot afford even the most basic staple foods are literally eating dirt:;_ylt=At.SCYedMcllZmKLaFqaJqBw24cA

“When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day,” Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth.”


I’m hoping one day I’ll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these,” she said. “I know it’s not good for me.”

Now this simple fact is that the rich world is doing this to this woman. Our society, and the people in it. There is no doubt about it - the rise in food prices is closely tied to biofuels, used by rich people to feed corn and soybeans to their cars, rather than to people, and by meat consumption.

It is also true that virtually no one in the rich world, as we struggle to deal with our own political and personal strategies, chooses to phrase this relationship in a grammatically correct way. That is, we say things like “I have to go do this thing or that thing - I have to commute long distances, because that’s where my job is, or I have to go bring my kids to visit their grandkids, or I have to go get a dress for the wedding.” And all of these facts are absolutely true as far as it goes - that is, often our society doesn’t give us a lot of choices.

But what we never say is “I have to commute to my job, so those people in Haiti have to eat dirt” or “I have to make sure my kids spend time with their grandparents, so some Bangladeshi farmers have to drown.” That is, we leave out the implied second clause in our sentences. And that’s because we couldn’t live with ourselves if we articulated the whole of our statements.

Now whenever I say these things, I royally piss people off, because they don’t want to hear this. No one wants to think that they are responsible for harm to others. We don’t intend it, we don’t want to be, we want badly for us just to be able to go about the basics of our own lives without doing harm to others. We want this so badly that we change the structure of our sentences so that we don’t even have to think about the full consequences of our actions.

On the same point, no one much likes the conclusion that we may already have pushed the climate and other natural resources so far that we may not have a lot of good options for fixing it - we may have to live a very, very different kind of lifestyle. We dislike it so badly that we’re willing to do all kinds of twisting and turning to avoid the conclusion that we may not be able to have most of the things we want.

I’ve spent a lot of time coming to these conclusions, and they no longer freak me out - too much. But that’s not the same thing as saying I like them. That is, I’ve gotten pretty good at reducing my emissions, and using less energy, but what I really want is for the projected reality to be just about the level that makes me comfortable - that is, I want us to be able to do a renewable build out that has enough energy and is used in particular ways so that I can do my happy little low energy thing and feel good about it. That is, I want pretty much what everyone else wants - I want to go along living my life without worrying about whether I’m doing harm, or I have to push myself to a scary, different place. And I want that really, really badly.I really have to watch myself, because I find myself doing what most of us do - twisting the facts around to support the conclusions I personally feel like I can live with.

But the truth is, that’s not what the evidence says. That is, the climate writers who say “oh, if we just do this massive infrastructure project…” are wrong - most of those massive infrastructure projects can’t possibly be supported while stabilizing the climate - most of them will push us over the top. And it isn’t just that biofuels are a bad idea - it is the idea that we’re all going to get to have personal transport is a bad idea. But, of course, we want it to be true. We want there to be a way out - most of us don’t demand that it would be easy, just bearable.

And if it isn’t, if the news is really bad, we respond to it by getting angry at the person who is saying it, or saying, “Oh, well, it is hopeless.”But it isn’t hopeless. It is just that what we have to do is enormously hard and painful. And that’s maybe not fair. And we have every right to be angry and frustrated - just as long as we don’t allow ourselves to forget, however much we would want to, that other people are eating dirt. That is, our anger and frustration is legitimate, but as hard as this is on us, we cannot ask other people to pay a far higher price. Period.

All it takes to know that is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of that woman in Haiti. Imagine you haven’t had any food in three days, you’ve never had enough food, that all you and your child will have eat today is a cookie made of shortening and dirt. And ask yourself, is what I am being asked to do so very hard? Is it so hard that I can ask that woman to bear a little more of my burden?

I do not diminish the challenges of finding a way, but this woman in Haiti is the beginnings of a vast, vast and evil tragedy created by us. Just as the farmer in Bangladesh who said, as his farm and only sources of food were washed away under him, “I have been told this problem is caused by electricity, but I swear, I have never had even a single lightbulb.”The burden of these problems will be borne anyway. There is no longer time to imagine that someone will not suffer.

The question is whether we will take up our share of the suffering, and find a way to change the things we “have to” do, so that others, who might, if we bothered to ask, say that they “have to” eat and “have to” live get a chance to do those things.We need to stop the biofuels boom, and working on that means working at every level - we need to tell political candidates what we care about, and speak and write, and also drive less, and not buy ethanol. We need to stop climate change at every level - that means voting and running for election ourselves, or writing, or calling or marching - and also cutting our own emissions.

Because otherwise, we become cannibals. We are feeding other people’s lives to our cars, devouring the world’s poor. And it doesn’t stop there - as we warm the planet and draw down biological resources, we are eating our own children. It must stop.

The article notes that the price of the good dirt is going up. Now there’s a metaphor - when we reduce the world’s poor to eating dirt, and eat the next generation’s topsoil, what will be left?


Low Energy Seed Starting

Sharon January 29th, 2008

Seed Starting, Low Energy Style

The first thing you need to remember is to think ahead, and bring in the compost before three feet of snow and ice lands on top of it. That was my big discovery two years ago, and like so many big discoveries was a. unpleasant and b. completely obvious - in retrospect. Living in a linear society, it can be difficult to get cyclical.

You see, I knew you could start seeds in lightly sifted compost – in fact, I’d seen Rodale Institute tests that showed that seeds did best in finished compost. So, the year before, I’d gone out in February, dug up some compost, let it defrost, and then sifted it through an old screen and used it, with lovely results. All those living organic bacteria made a very happy arrangement, and the seeds I started that way did far better than those I did in potting mix.

Because that winter was an extremely mild one, it didn’t occur to me that normally, getting compost out of the pile in February in upstate NY was going to be trouble. If I’d thought about it for 2 seconds, I would have realized I had to do it in October, but I didn’t, and thus, the trouble. This year I took 20 minutes to shovel and haven’t regretted it.

Which is all just a reminder of how seed starting, as most of us do it, is a heavily energy intensive process. It can involve lights, heating mats, lots of purchased seed starting mixes and various liquid substances that make your house smell vaguely of rotting fish for a week after you use them. All of these substances have to be transported to you. How do you get along without all those things, either if you have to or if you want to?

Well, the first thing you’d do is rethink how much you need to start inside. I do a lot of transplanting, from preference – I enjoy it, and I think it saves me time on weeding later and works better with my mulching techniques. But there’s no reason why I have to do so much. There are a few crops that need an advance start, but even a few cherry tomatoes will self seed and make a late crop. Now I want tomatoes earlier than that, and different varieties, but I could make do, and start fewer inside. Some crops I get a head start on, like broccoli, could easily be entirely direct seeded.

The next strategy I’d probably use is starting things a little later – my house is quite cool in February, and since space by the stove is always limited, I’d probably need to cut down on the things that simply don’t germinate well without some bottom heat in cold temps – peppers, eggplant and basil being some of the biggies. But a smaller number of these could be germinated by the stove, and waiting until late March would mean later harvests (late August, September), but would require less supplemental heating. In March, the windowsills are warmer, because there’s more sun and the outdoor temps are higher – not high, mind you, but higher.
Another alternative would be a hotbed. This is a coldframe with a thick layer ( a foot or so) of uncomposted horse or pig manure, covered with a layer of soil, and a cover on top and insulators on the side. The manure, decomposing, heats the soil and creates a great environmental for little seedlings.

What about those little flats? Well, they really aren’t hard even for a klutz like me to knock together with scrap wood, and we aren’t going to run out of old food cans for a long, long time. With some holes in the bottom, they make find pots for seed starting. Same with old plastic containers. I don’t think we’ll see a shortage for some time.

What about seed starting material? Well, you can plant things in straight, *finished* (that is, no longer heating up) compost, but that does use your compost apace, and you do have to plan ahead in cold places. Now the next part is controversial. If you use soil, the conventional wisdom is that you are supposed to sterilize it by baking the soil at 250 degrees. That’s supposed to spare you damping off disease. My own feeling is that this is stinky, unpleasant, a waste of energy and kinda nuts. That is, I think killing all the good soil bacteria so that you can get rid of a single bacteria is a bad idea.

If you use light dirt (you can mix some sand or compost in to lighten it up – I find 1-1 compost and dirt to be nice, I don’t bake it, I dig it in the fall (remember, cold weather people have to plan ahead), and bring it in. I mix in the compost, and let it sit. And then I give everything a nice bath of chamomile tea periodically to prevent damping off. In 5 years of doing this, I’ve had damping off two or three times, mostly when I’ve overwatered – but I’ve had it at least 5 times with plants started in a seed starting mix.

What about light? Well, windowsills are still a good idea, particularly if you make a reflector from tinfoil and cardboard and put it behind the plants to maximize light access. But if you haven’t sunny windows, you’ll have to use hotbeds and cold frames – that is, plants will have to go straight from germination outside, in a protected way. An easy cold frame is an old window and some hay bales, but you can get more complicated and build some structures. I’ve also seen (but not tried) pop up greenhouses, that can be set over a row in the garden. The big problem with starting out in the cold isn’t the cold, but the heat, I find – a bright sunny day can fry your seedlings even when it is quite cold. So either keep a close eye on the temps and open them up a little, or acquire an automatic opener – these are powered by temperature changes and don’t need any energy, but they are pricey.

How about fertilizing? Compost and manure teas will do it – they do get a little ripe smelling in the house, but no worse than fish emulsion or most kelp-fish mixes. And if you use compost as a large portion of your seed medium, you won’t need much fertilizer, another plus.

If you want to know where to buy your seeds, I wrote this last year:

Note my correction of my error re: Burpee here:

Thomas Jefferson reportedly planted juniper seeds in a bed by feeding the seeds to his chickens and confining them where he wanted the seeds to grow. Despite the cold, they did rather well, encased in chicken manure. So there’s always that, too.

Happy growing,


The Cure is Worse Than the Disease: Can We Afford a Build Out?

Sharon January 29th, 2008

I’m sure people are getting sick of me responding to Stuart Staniford all the time - “Does she read anything else?!?” you all must be thinking, but if you’ll bear with me one more time, the reason I do it is because even when Staniford annoys me, he’s usually a little bit right, or at least pointing in an interesting direction. In this case, Staniford has offered me a tool to try and analyze something that I’ve intuitively suspected was true for a long time. In Staniford’s latest post, he tries to come up with a unified energy plan for how to fix the world’s environmental problems. My own take on the post is that his postulates, including unending growth as the earth is depleted, simply don’t hold up. But that’s not what interests me.

What I’ve been wondering for a while is whether, in fact, we actually can build out renewable energies and create other large scale industrial solutions, without tipping the planet over into a climate disaster. That is, one of the questions that has been bugging is this - do those who postulate our going on based on a massive build out of our infrastructure risk destroying more than they create? Is, in fact, relocalization the only remaining viable option?

Now I’m biased in favor of relocalizing, as we all know. That is, my bias stems from the sense that I believe for a host of moral as well as empirical reasons, that relocalization would improve our society. But it is hard for me to determine whether my bias is a chicken or an egg thing - that is, I have long believed, without doing the math carefully, that the odds were good that another layer of complexity and build out is not feasible and would be destructive. That is, I believe relocalization is a good thing, but part of the reason I believe it is because I believe it may be the only choice that prevents a climate disaster.

These are, I think, important questions to ask. Joseph Tainter, in _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ observes that collapses come precisely because we keep layering on new, more complex, more energy and resource intensive solutions to the problems that our old solutions created. At some point, the sheer weight overturns the edifice, and things come tumbling dow. Staniford’s post, with its proposition of a global energy grid - or really any other worldwide techno-fix, is a heavy weight of complexity. If it worked, if it actually reduced emissions and gave us nearly unlimited, cheap energy that could be equally distributed, that would be great. The problem, of course, is that that’s unlikely, and ahistorical. That is, most of the problems we have now are *caused* by our technological solutions to other problems - and the problems we’re creating are generally worse than the things they were fixing. Trying to forsee whether any solution is actually going to create a greater problem than it fixes is, I think a basic necessity to avoid making more of the same mistakes.

Now to figure this out, we need some kind of metric, and Staniford has thoughtfully provided me with one in his article #node/3540#more. Most importantly, he’s provided me with useful parameters - a model for a global transition off of fossil fuels, the cost of doing so, and the time frame. While I personally find the likelihood of global solar grid very, very tiny, this is a useful set of parameters for the purposes of this discussion. We will imagine things go just as Staniford describes in his highly optimized scenario - although it is worth noting that Staniford’s scenario is probably most valuable because it isn’t totally out of scale with other proposed scenarios, including world wide nuclear, or Monbiot’s retrofit described in _Heat_ to which he does not seem to give a monetary cost figure.

First the time frame - Staniford imagines that a global renewable grid could be online by 2025. The nature of a global grid means that renewables and nuclear grow reasonably quickly, but most of the major gains are seen at the end of the project in the 2020s as the project comes online. Now I grew up around the Big Dig in Boston, which came in years and billions over budget, so I admit to some skepticism on this point, as well as on the technical feasibility, the economics, the political will and just about every other point, but again, for the sake of argument, we’ll put the global solar electric grid online 2025, and able to meet all our energy needs worldwide.

Next, Staniford helpfully provides a cost. He estimates 400 trillion dollars. Again, I restrain my skepticism on the economy required to make this possible and the likelihood that the cost would come in so low, and accept his terms. This cost estimate makes it possible to figure out the carbon implications of such a project. Professor Charles Hall, of Syracuse University calculates that every dollar spent produces about 1/2 lb of carbon. Now this is an older study, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has actually estimated this higher, saying that a dollar produces more carbon than that, but in the interest of giving Staniford the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to choose the more conservative figure. Which means that Staniford’s project is going to produce 100 billon tonnes of carbon over a bit under years. I think if anything, I’m estimating low - remember, this is an average, consolidating numbers of low carbon activities like spending a dollar on a book and high emission ones. The process of building a global grid, including the mining of materials, placement of underground lines, etc… is likely to run on the high side of the emissions spectrum, but again, we’ll give Staniford the benefit of the doubt.

So 100 billion tons over 17 years - oh, let’s call it 20 and imagine that Staniford manages to completely absorb the last couple of years of production energy into his solar grid before it is finalized. Again, let’s make it easy for Staniford. That means an average production of 5 billion tonnes of carbon per year. That’s on top of (at first at least, this will ge a little more complicated shortly) the 8 billion tons of carbon we are expected to emit this year. So this project will nearly double worldwide emissions, until the grid comes online. And while we’ll see some benefits initially, the nature of a worldwide grid is that most of the power gets tranmitted to far away places, and to make it work on a world scale, the whole project has to be up and running. You could imagine this working a number of ways, with local regions connected first, so we’ll need to figure out a way to amortize the rising value of renewables over time, but I think it is reasonable to say that most of the reduction in carbon production will happen at the very end of the project.

Staniford imagines that until 2015, fossil fuel use will remain more or less flat. That is, growth in renewables and economic troubles will keep us from producing any more fossil fuels than we do now. Now Staniford knows this is inadequate to deal with global warming, but presumably believes that getting to a world in which we have all the energy we want with no carbon is worth it. I’m actually going to back up and reduce Staniford’s parameters here, and argue that we cut 25% of worldwide emissions - the maximum I think any of us can imagine happening while maintaining an economy that could support the capital needs of such a mammoth project. Again, one of the parameters is that we have to assume this is feasible, that economic constraints, war, etc… are not factors.

But again, I’m going to give Staniford an additional 25% of leeway, claiming that we cut our emissions back to 6 billion tons of carbon each year. *And* I’m going to give him a 25% across the board cut in emissions for the amortized benefit of the big renewable system as it comes online - that is, I’m going to say that over the years between 2015 and 2025, the growing solar grid is able to take on 1/4 of the total emissions produced by the world right now, before it gets them all. This is not quite accurate - a better model would be a percentage growth, but when I set that, it comes out to roughly the same thing. And I’m going to buy Staniford’s assumption that when the grid comes on, we’ll have all the energy we want, and won’t use fossil fuels for anything or make any more greenhouse gasses, other than the occasional animal fart ;-). Again, that’s ridiculous, but we’ll accept the claim, because I want to show how problematic this is even under the best of scenarios.

So until 2015, we produce 6 billion tons of carbon ourselves per year, and another 5 billion building out the new system - that is, we nearly double our emissions. And from 2015 to 2025, when all our emissions magically disappear in the new system, we produce 5 billion in new infrastructure production and 4 billion, because the new system is picking up a significant percentage. So from now to 2015, we average 11 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, and until 2025, we average 9 billion. After that, human emissions magically disappear, and the atmosphere begins to right itself.

How does that correspond with the science about what we need to do. After all, we talk a lot about critical numbers - 50% or 80% of emissions by 2050 or some other date. What does the science suggest?

Well, some of the most cutting edge science suggests that we need to make cuts of more than 90% *within this decade* - that is, James Hansen, for example, suggests a 90% cut within 10 years, and argues that our increasing knowledge of climate sensitivity requires us to keep emissions at the carbon equivalent level of 350ppm - that is, a level we passed somewhere in the 1980s. The present carbon equivalent levels are at 469, according to the latest IPCC report. That is, we’re already way past our limits, and we have to make dramatic cuts to get back within them as fast as possible. But although this is my own view, and seems to be reinforced by data coming in about sea level rise and arctic melt, perhaps we’re being unfair to Staniford.

That said, however, the speed at which we do this is undoubtably an important element of our calculations. For example, the British Meteorological Office estimates that by 2030, the earth’s ability to absorb carbon will drop by 1/3. Right now, the biosphere can absorb about 4 billion tons of carbon and caronb equivalents annually. By 2030, the warming planet and feedback loops will drop this to 2.7 billion, and the drop continues as long as the world warms, the ocean acidifies, etc… So the longer we wait to make dramatic carbon reductions, the greater those reductions would have to be. A recent study in _Geophysical Research Letters_ showed that in fact, even with a 90% reduction by 2050, the 2 degree threshold was broken - the only scenario in which the tipping point was not reached was with a 100% reduction in industrial emissions. (Andrew J. Weaver et al, 6th October 2007. “Long term climate implications of 2050 emission reduction targets.” Geophysical Research Letters).

So what’s a more conservative approach? Well, the IPCC is fairly conservative. So let’s take their figures, even though the 2007 IPCC report has been shown repeatedly to have badly underestimated the severity of global warming - for example, the arctic ice melt is 70 years ahead of its estimates. But let’s use the IPCC numbers, in the interest of accomodating Staniford, despite the growing consensus (including the self-assessment of IPCC members) that the IPCC figures are too conservative:

A recent IPCC table
show different temperatures linked to different emissions levels. It shows that avoiding the critical 2 degree threshold (which actually is by no means a certain avoidance of disaster) requires us to limit total emissions by 2030 to 15% of 2000 levels. With a growing population, that means a 93% cut for the US, an 85% cut for Europe, etc… But in a footnote to the same paragraph, the IPCC notes that it has not taken into account the reduced ability of the planet to absorb carbon as the planet warms, or any of the feedback cycles mentioned above. So this is very likely too low a number. One paper recently argued that 18% of all warming at present is attributable to feedback loops, and that that number is rising rapidly. But what does that mean in tons of carbon?

Regardless, in Staniford’s scenario, we finally hit targets around the middle of the 2020s, having put an addition 100 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, while making fairly significant inroads (again, inroads I postulate, Staniford does not) into carbon emissions in general. Is that enough to fix the planet? As Fred Pearce notes in _With Speed and Violence_, the critical point in billions of tons of atmospheric carbon seems to be about 935 billion tons, equaivalent to 450 ppm. That means 55 billion tons of carbon are left to us. We put 8 billion into the atmosphere each year, and 40% is now absorbed, although that number is declining annually. But with the growth created by a massive build out, we reach that number well before 2020 - pushing us past the 2 degree threshold, and holding us there long enough for it to be really scary.

So here we have a puzzle - what happens if you raise global emissions levels radically with the goal of eventually essentially eliminating them - that is, can we do that - do a massive build out and then let the earth heal itself? Do we have time for just one more carbon binge?

This is a hard question to answer, but the odds are excellent that the answer is no. For example, Australian scientist Wenju Cai estimates that if we stopped making emissions right now, it would take 600 years to get the planet back to where it once was. Once the feedback loop cycle gets ahold of us (and it is not clear that it hasn’t already), we can stop it simply by reducing emissions. Because the warming we do now is something we’ll pay the price for for centuries, we have to be more careful, sooner.

But the returns are so great, some would argue? Even if we push past 2 degrees, into a tipping point, we’ll still get no carbon emissions in the future and all the free energy we want. We can fix all the problems then, or at least mitigate them, keep economic growth going steadily. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

Well, it depends on what price you are willing to pay. Here are the consequences we’re dealing with. In the Sahel, food production will drop by half by 2020, while population doubles. Rice production, the staple grain of 2/3 of the world begins to fall as temperatures rise, reaching a 40% decline by the middle of the century, as population rises to 9 billion. That means half the population ends up under water stress:, and the amount of irrigated farmland (which presently produces almost 1/3 of the world’s grain) that can no longer be irrigated is likely drop from 17% to 2%, according to Monbiot’s _Heat_.

The Stern review estimates half a billion permanent refugees, including residents of major US coastal cities. But UN estimates have suggested that up to 1.5 billion refugees could be an outcome. And, of course, a whole host of wars. The present conflict in the Sudan is already connnected to climate change - a whole host of additional wars are a likely consequence. All of this has an enormous effect, not only on the misery level of the world, but on its economic activity. Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the costs of climate change estimates that the total cost of unchecked global warming to be greater than the combined costs of all 20th century wars and the Great Depression combined, a literally unprecedented economic burden. How much of that would be mitigated by a late-term reduction in emissions is not clear, however, all evidence is that the climate is more, rather than less sensitive than we expect.

So would it be worth it? All the energy we want, but war, drought, thirst, hunger, refugeeism, and the destruction of much of the world (I have not included the loss of biodiversity or anything related to it, although that has costs, and many of them for us), all to get the energy we want, so we can keep lifestyles roughly the same in the west.

But what are our choices? Well, this option would probably be better than any business as usual scenario, in which we face peak oil by converting to coal. So if we postulate, as people often do (Monbiot does this too) that the only choices are “blow the limits” or “do nothing” - that radical change in our way of life is impossible, that people will “never” agree to lower their standard of living, this probably looks comparatively good.

But, of course, assertions about what the populace will tolerate are always offered in the absence of the real choices. That is, it is very unlikely that our general populace will ever choose voluntary self-limitation instead of, say, going on happily as usual. But if Staniford can imagine that he gets to be emporer of the world, we can also imagine a group of political leaders who are compelled by the evidence and by grassroots people pointing out their lies, to offer up the real choices - that is either we cut emissions radically and fast, or we accept that we lose Miami and most of the Southwest, the one to sea level rises and the other to drought, that we can expect to spend an endless depression, because we will have to spend an increasing quantity of our GDP to mitigate costs. That is, people can be asked to choose between real options, not hypotheticals.

And that is when relocalization rears its head again. Here is where carbon rationing leads us back to a mixed local and agrarian society, more or less inevitably. Because everyone trying to live in this society, as we have it, without a massive energy build out is in for hell. On the other hand, a smaller scale, heavily adapted society with lower energy requirements, and a number of cultural returns, including “rituals of non-consumption” described by historian Timothy Breen, small scale agricultural, more meaningful work and stronger social ties does offer something in return.

Now it is perhaps unfair of me to not do a similar calculation of the energy costs of relocalization. This is a difficult exercise, because it is a highly fungible exercise. That is, a relocalized, low energy strategy for dealing with the cold can be the reinsulation of a whole house in a cosmetically pleasing way, complete with new windows and passive solar energy, at extremely high cost, or it can be the moving of a woodstove into one room of a cold house, the practice of hauling water from outside rather than using indoor pipes which would then freeze, and everyone dressing warmly and hanging out by the stove. That said, however, I’ll attempt to do so in a later post - and to demonstrate that we could still feed, clothe and shelter the population. I’ll also at some point try and figure out what amount of energy we probably can produce from renewables without causing a disaster - because relocalization does not necessarily mean us all going back to living in mud huts, as we know.

More soon,


Let Her Go Down: On Collapse

Sharon January 27th, 2008

And all of the crew they were brave men,
But the Captain he was braver.
He said “Never mind the ship me boys
There’s none of us here can save her.

Let her go down. Swim for your lives!
Swim for your children, swim for your wives
But let her go down.” - Knight, sung by Steeleye Span

I was going to write about something else entirely today, when this song sequenced through, and I was reminded of an email I got recently. It was from a man who asked that I not his name - he asked me (and this is a question I get asked fairly often with variations for personal experience):

“Can you tell me when you think a crisis point will be reached, and what a collapse will look like? I have to make some decisions - my daughter is headed to college in a couple of years, my wife wants to move, and I just don’t know what to do - do I try to get a piece of land, or do I go on acting like everything will be ok? Do I save for retirement or put my money into gold? I’m a peaceful person, but this makes me want to get guns and defend my own. I feel like the world is changing under me and I’m not ready!”

As I said, I get this kind of email fairly often. They always worry me - that’s an awful lot of trust to be placing in someone who simply can’t read the future much better than anyone else. I never know what to say, and my emails are generally heavily hedged with comments like “well, if it were me” or “That’s not to say that…” I don’t much like the idea of having someone lose their retirement benefits if the culture at large shrugs things off and goes on as expected, nor do I like the idea of having someone underprepare.

This also comes as I’m feeling inspired by Stuart Staniford’s potent (and I think partly justified) critique of the relocalization movement’s inspecificity about what we imagine the future to look like. Staniford points out that if we’re going to call for a relocalized society, we have to articulate why - what we imagine the future to look like, and how relocalization will improve things.

I think he’s largely right. For example, peak oil thinkers (including me) tend to take some kind of major crisis, often a large scale social collapse, as a given. Now I’m not really sure, as Staniford implies, that we can calculate the likelihood of systemic collapse out to the percentile, or that, in fact, we need to prove that a collapse is anything like inevitable - a reasonable likelihood - even 10%, is probably sufficient to justify a major precautionary shift of society (if we could arrange one - not especially likely), because the negative results of collapse are so potentially disastrous.

Personally (and for reasons I’ll write more about soon), I also believe that in fact, relocalization would be a better system for us than the present model. That is, I think that relocalization works whether or not we undergo a widespread crisis or not, whereas the growth capitalist neoliberal economic model only works when things are fairly good, and works unethically, externalizing real costs, and stealing resources from the world’s poor and from future generations. Actually, in some senses, I think the case for relocalization has been largely made by Staniford himself, who calculated that industrial agriculture and society were likely to kill an awful lot of people - up to 40% of the population in the worst case scenarios - simply by allowing markets and the growth economy to keep going. Now all relocalizers really have to prove is that if we adopted those practices, our worst case scenario is that we would kill only 39% of the world’s population or less ;-). (Just FYI, I actually think relocalization is unlikely to do any of the above).

In addition, my own case is (and has always been) that peak oil and climate change related “collapse” are somewhat fungible terms. It is true, of course, that societies as a whole can completely collapse from fuel shortages or economic crises - look at the Soviet Union. But it is also possible that a society could become wildly balkanized, with a functioning rich class, a few people in the middle, and a lot of really poor people stuck making bad choices. That is, as I’ve said for years, peak oil and climate change will hit each of us at different times. If you lived in New Orleans, you may already have undergone a climate change related collapse - most of the victims of New Orleans, the vast majority of whom were already poor, are project to never regain their prior levels of stability, health or economic status.

And here’s the question. If you think you are likely to remain one of the rich and fortunate, there’s a good chance that you don’t need or want my advice. That is, even in the most collapsed of circumstances, there are always people who stay rich and priveleged. That class may be increasingly small, and who is in it may shift, but there have been rich people forever, and there will be some even if the US or the world completely collapses economically. The question, to my mind is this - what are the odds that any one of us is going to be part of the fortunate few? My own observation (backed up by plenty of studies about the consolidation of wealth) is that the fortunate tend not to be terribly uncomfortable impoverishing other people - they may later give some of their money away in the form of philanthropy, but they are pretty much ok seeing money consolidate in their hands. So I tend not to want to bet on the goodness of those in power, and their desire to make sure that middle class people don’t get poor. That is, I tend to assume that if peak oil and climate change make us poorer (as it seem pretty reasonable to believe they will), I’m going to be one of the poorer people. And thus, whether everyone is having a collapse or not, it may be collapse time at my house - and at the homes of a lot of my readers.

In fact, we are already in the early stages of a collapse of some sort - if by “collapse” we mean a “accellerating reduction in quality of life” - the question is how far this will go. That is, I believe that if can essentially say “we’re not going to rebuild a major American city, and we’re going to write off a large chunk of the population” or in response to crumbling infrastructure say “We’re not going to pay to keep it up, we’re going to have more sewer and water and bridge collapses,” or “We’re going to compromise on all the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights except for quartering Hessian soldiers in people’s homes” we’re already no longer the nation we once were (note, we were never the nation we believed we were, but still). And I think a number of rich world nations are already showing these early signs of collapse. Does that mean it is impossible to arrest the process? I honestly don’t know - and I’m not sure anyone does. How long, how far, how deep - I don’t know. Perhaps we will have only a little collapse, merely a downward slide to some mid-level steady state. We’ll become somewhat less rich, somewhat less stable, maybe (G-d forbid) a little less of a democratic. Perhaps the world will change under us.

What will it look like? I have no idea, but I’ve been struck recently by the voices coming out of the former Soviet Union. Here’s a new article I just saw:

And here are several by the incomparable Dmitry Orlov:

Now I recently had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Orlov’s book _Reinventing Collapse_, and I strongly recommend it. It was wry, fascinating, beautifully written (good prose in the peak oil movement is sometimes hard to find) and fascinating. Some of that material is in the above articles.

But the thing that most struck me about both accounts of living in the Soviet Collapse is their symmetry - that is, both describe in many respects, the same issues, in much the same way. And they remind me of my husband’s grandmother’s stories about living first in Nazi Germany and then in London during the blitz.

I was particularly struck by the first author’s brilliant articulation of a central question - when do we try and just survive, and when do we try to focus to do more than that? That is, do we risk failure trying to hang on to what we value, trying to make sure there is more than just survival, that we remain the people we want to be, or do we simply accept that surviving requires different choices of us? His conclusion, that there isn’t a single answer, I think may be one of the most important truths we can learn - one may carry more risk, or less risk, but sometimes we have to choose based on where we are. What we need most may be flexibility, an ability to reimagine ourselves, and live with our reimaginings.

All this was in my head as I was listening to Steeleye sing “Swim for your children, swim for your lives/But let her go down.” That is, when it is the “braver’ thing to accept that change is coming, and that it is time to let go of our hope that everything will go on as it has?

My own personal take on this is that the time begins now, because the collapse, or downward slide, has already begun. I don’t know where we’re going to end up, or what, if anything, will change over the next few years. But I do know this - we are not as we once were now, and the rate of change appears to be accellerating. Perhaps it is not time yet to abandon ship, but it is, perhaps time to make sure that there are lifeboats at hand and start putting supplies in them. Perhaps it is time to begin making sure that if you put your energies into repairing the boat, those energies will also serve you to make floating devices if it sinks - that is, perhaps it is time to say that our purposes should be doubled - we have to serve the functions of our daily lives, hedge our bets and continue in the world as we know it, but to the extent we can, we might look at that world through the lens of future utility, making sure that we put our efforts in the places that will serve us best in both worlds.

The only answer I can give anyone on what is coming is this. Remain flexible. Be prepared for change. Be brave - and sometimes brave means saying “ok, I have to protect what I can.” Stuart Staniford, in our discussion of relocalization on TOD articulated the concern that sometimes relocalization means essentially “I’ve got mine, screw the rest of you.’ And that may be a fair critique of a few strains of the movement. But what I’ve seen is the contrary - that thousands of people out there are reaching out to protect their own, but also, to extend their preserve to include some small piece of the world that belongs to them because they have claimed its preservation as their own work. That is, I think most of us, once we begin to move past our immediate panic response to the changes in front of us, realize that we serve ourselves by serving others, that our communities (and both of the above authors articulate this quite clearly) matter as much as our homes and families.

That is, there is a degree to which relocalization, as a response to potential collapse, focuses on the personal. But instead of imagining the majority a kind of clutch-fisted self-preservation at the cost of the society, I see it far more often as a host of birds taking flight, men and women outstretching their wings, reaching as far as they can to cover, with their preparations as large an area of “my own” as they can. Sometimes their wings can only overstretch their own territory, and a small bit beyond. Others find ways to make far away people and places part of “their own.” But the net effect of enough outstretched wings is a vast, sheltered place, growing larger by the day. And in the shelter of those wings, hopes are nurtured, futures born, and the possibility of surviving, thriving, retaining and growing our essential selves begins.


How Big is a Farm? Who is a Farmer?

Sharon January 26th, 2008

Well, the game of post-riposte is winding down over at TOD, 400+ comments, etc… on my response to Stuart Staniford (his original essay linked at the top of mine or in my last post) #node/3541#more, complete with Staniford’s response to me, and back again…. Fun and all, but back to work.

One of the problems in this discussion is the question of “how big is a farm?” That is, when we talk about “farmers” who are we actually talking about? What’s “agriculture”, and what’s “gardening?” Where does “homesteading” “smallholding” “horticulture” and “subsistence farming” fall in the mess?

BoysMom was helpful enough to ask about that in comments, and I thought it had been long enough since I covered this topic that it would be worth discussing it here. Is part of the problem of discussing “relocalization” that our definitions of “farmer” vary so widely that we’re talking past each other?

I have a strong opinion on this subject (gee, could you have guessed?) I think (and yes, all the real farmers yell at me, and I don’t entirely blame them), that “farmer” should be the umbrella term for remunerative food production. That is, I think you are a farmer if you grow food for sale, for barter or as a large portion of your own personal economy - that is, I think we call them “subsistence farmers” for a reason. If farming either provides a significant part of your income.

My criteria for this is simple - we don’t live in isolation - the word “farmer” should mean something across national and cultural boundaries. That is, a “farmer” in India, and a “farmer” in Canada should be able to recognize one another as fellow creatures with a shared profession, and art. As we are speaking now, the word “farmer” as it is used in the rich world erases the vast majority of world farmers out of the language, and that shouldn’t be acceptable to us. As important, it gives us a mistaken sense of what agriculture actually is- even what agriculture was. In the 1940s, a large amount of victory garden literature spoke of “garden farms” - that is, home gardens that operated, like farms, to both supply the subsistence needs of the family and to serve the large public interest by freeing up food to be sent overseas.That is, it isn’t that long even in North American history that a “farmer” has been a guy with a thousand acres. And in the rest of the world, it may never work that way:

You’ll note from the first paragraph, even the experts have a hard time with the naming problem - and so they just call them “farmers.” (My computer does not permit me to use PDFs, and for some reason I can’t copy text from the html format, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to look back).

That is, the World Bank and the UN FAO have essentially deemed as farmers anyone who calls themselves a farmer, sells food, or subsists primarily on their own food. The distinction they make is “small farmer” vs. “large farmer” - but all of them are farmers.Right now, the majority of the world’s farms are small farms. The average farm size in Africa and Asia is 1.6 hectares (for those who are accustomed to acreage measurements, a hectare is about 2.5 acres - thus, the average farm size in Africa and Asia would be a bit under 4 acres). This means that there are a whole lot of farms much smaller than 4 acres.

95% of all farms in many parts of the former Soviet Unions are under 1 hectare, and that they provide the majority of all agricultural production, a total of 52% of all food eaten in the region.The US, as of the last Ag Census, contained 66,ooo+ small farms under 2 hectares. Which just goes to support Kiashu’s well taken point

that about half of the world’s food already comes from small farms. Add to that Helena Norberg-Hodge’s observation that *2 Billion* people live almost entirely on subsistence agriculture that is low input and largely organic (because they can’t afford not to be), and we can see that agricultural norms are simply different than what we Americans and Canadians think of.

The claim that large farmer are essential to produce grain turns out also to be false - in India, 40% of all food grains are produced by small farmers in parcels under 2 hectares, and not totally dissimilar data is found in other developing nations. It may well be more efficient to produce grain in more centralized areas, by some definitions (the distinction here between efficiency of land and efficiency of labor would apply in some cases), but for those who immediately leap to the conclusion that we’d never have any grain if we didn’t have big farms, this is a useful observation.

But aren’t all small farmers poor? In a 2004 analysis for the _Handbook of Agricultural Economics_, Eastwood, Lipton and Newell observe that in developing nations, small farmers tend to be disproportionately taxed, while in developed nations, they tend not to receive the benefits of agricultural subsidies. That is, small farmers tend to get the worst of both worlds, with both poor and rich nations tending to disadvantage them economically. That’s not to say that the economic disadvantages of agriculture as we do it now (which apply to most North American and European farmers except during ethanol booms) don’t make farming a difficult choice - but it does suggest that just as agricultural policy has driven farmers in the US out of business for decades, agricultural policy is also working in many cases to impoverish farmers in the poor world. FAO agriculture economists Binswanger, Deinenger and Feder, for example, conclude that generally speaking larger farms in the poor world are dramatically less efficient than smaller, family farms, but that policies favor them so strongly as to elide much of this difference. That is, in both the rich and the poor world, we work very hard to keep our small farmers poor. It is interesting to try and imagine what a systematic set of agricultural policies that supported small scale, diversified agriculture would do to the present equation of poverty and size.

Interestingly, it seems that in both south Asia and the former Soviet Union, the trend that economic development generally creates towards larger farms seems not to be the case - that is, the Handbook of Agricultural Economics cited above notes that as of 2004, neither Russia nor south Asia seems to be following the pattern of getting bigger as they get richer. In Russia, the authors speculate, it may be because of the powerful impact of the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union, where consumers now associate small farms with food security. In Asia and parts of Latin America (Brazil and Argentina have steadily increased farm size, while smaller nations have declined, implying that averages are not as much to the point here as the articulation of two seperate trends), where farm sizes actually seem to have declined in the later part of the 20th century.

So what should we take from all this data? First, that small farms are normal, and that the majority of the world’s farmers are small farmers of less than 5 acres. That is, it is hard to claim that someone farming a comparatively small piece of land is not a farmer, if they constitute a majority - in fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to call many large scale farmers (as some prefer) “agribusinessmen” and leave the term farmer to the majority.

In addition, in many, many nations there are substantial numbers of farms that are pretty much the same size as a suburban lot. The people who farm them are farmers. The average Bangladeshi farms half a hectare. In Barbados, the average piece of land is 1.6 hectares. In China, 0.67 hectares, in India 1.34 hectares. Lebanon 1.2, Japan, 1.2, Egypt 0.95. And of course, averages mean that many, many of these farms are quite a bit tinier.So it must be that farming isn’t about land size.

Even in the US this can be true - in her glorious book _The Earth Knows My Name:Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America_, Patricia Klindienst notes that there is no clear boundary between those who call themselves “farmers” and those who call themselves “gardeners” - some of the gardens are bigger than the farms, in fact. That is, even in America, there are thousands of small farms, being worked by thousands of small farmers, and size doesn’t seem to be the defining factor.

So perhaps what matters is what you are doing on your land, not how big it is. How should we narrow this one down - the tax purposes model is, I think, insufficient to offer us an overarching definition that crosses borders from the rich world to the poor (I once read that in at least one US state, one way to be a farm for tax purposes is to own a cow - period, and in that state (which one I’ve forgotten) there are a number of people keeping cows in their garages, buying their hay, and accepting a tax write off, but this may be purely anecdotal).

One obvious way to distinguish between farmers and gardeners would be by economic remuneration - that is, if you sell farm products, you are a farmer. But this model effectively removes from the language the millions, perhaps even billions of subsistence farmers who sell little or nothing off their land. These people live their lives as farmers, with all the benefits and disadvantages that applies - we cannot erase them from the language. In most cases, they are taxed in their countries as farmers.

Such subsistence farmers exist in the rich world as well - there are not a huge number of subsistence farmers these days, but they do exist, and I know a few. They grow their own food, cut their own wood, hunt, and work off the farm or sell enough to pay the land taxes. One of my neighbors, Paul, is a subsistence farmer, living from his half acre garden, two deer a year, a couple of wild turkeys and enough work as a substitute teacher to pay for taxes and beer. He jokes that he works as a teacher 5 days a month, and grows and hunts food the other 25, but when the government asks him what he does, he’s a teacher.

We cannot say that having a non-agricultural job is a criteria for ceasing to call someone a farmer either - according to the USDA, 71% of all US farmers of all sizes have either an off season, or off farm income, or a household member who provides an off farm income. In _Ending Hunger In Our Lifetime_ ed Runge, Senauer et al notes that this is true of many poor world farmers as well - not quite 80% also do seasonal or off farm work, or have a household member who does so. The numbers are oddly similar. In fact, Peter Rosset in _Food is Different_ tracks the ways that farmers subsidize consumers and their own agricultural practices, and notes that in general, farmers subsidize cheap food more than governments do - that is, because farming is not merely a job but a culture and a way of life, farmers will do almost anything to keep their land - including sending family members off the land to allow those who farm to growing corn or rice or beans at low prices. See:

A farmer is not someone who never does any work off the farm, then. She is not someone (btw, “he” is a “she” - the majority of the world’s farmers are women - and many poor nations have long traditions of agriculture and land ownership in women’s hands) who owns a lot of land, or necessarily sells much or any food in the market place.So what does distinguish farmers from gardeners? Not much.

Perhaps, then, we should think about the distinction linguistically. “Gardener” derives from a the french, and means “an enclosed space” - that is, its linguistic focus is on limitations. A “garden” linguistically speaking, is seperated from the space around it by cultivation.

“Farm” and “farmer” on the other hand come from the same root as “to form” and imply creation. The oldest English forms of the word, going back to Beowulf and the Domesday book, also meant “a banquet or feast” - that is, farms and farmers are linguistically tied to bountifulness, to eating, to abudance and plenty, and also to the power of creation - by implication to the power that created “terra firma” - that is, the linguistic implication is that farming is acting in G-d’s image, creating plenty.

My own take, is that as valuable as the word “gardener” is, the kind of agriculture we’re trying to create is more appropriately described as “farming” than as gardening - that is, a truly sustainable agriculture happens not in boundaries, but across them. Is a permaculture garden a bounded space, or do its lines blur into the trees and wildlands around it? Is an agriculture designed to create mixed use pasture for wildlife and farmed animals about its fences, or about what can pass through them? Is a family living in part on what they grow and what they forage and harvest from untended spaces in their town or city tending a garden, or farming their community?

It isn’t that gardening isn’t a good word, it is that I think farming is a better one.All of the other terms offer some kind of subset of the above. It isn’t that I have any objection to someone calling themselves a smallholder, a gardener, a homesteader or an edible landscaper, it is merely that there exists an umbrella term that serves, not just because it is accurate, but because it describes so well what we must become.