Heat or Eat - An Expanding Crisis

Sharon February 12th, 2008

Well now, listen people let me tell you some news
I’ll sing a song called the crude oil blues
We’re low on heat .n all
We’re low on gas
And I’m so cold I’m about to freeze my A..self

We got the crude oil blues
Cause the winter time sure gets cold to the bottom of my shoes
Well my hands are shakin’ and my knees are weak
But it ain’t because of loveIt’s from lack of heat

I’m gonna tell you a story anout this drunk I know
He kept his basement full of homemade brew
But the winter got so bad it screwed up the boy’s thinkin
‘He got so cold he had to burn all his drinkin’

He’s got the crude oil blues
He said the wintertime can sure get cold to the bottom of your shoes
He said, burnin’ this booze just destroys my soul
But there’s one thing about it honey
When you’re cold, you’re cold - Jerry Reed “Crude Oil Blues”

If you’ve been following the situation in Tajikistan, you know that we’re seeing an acute variation on a crisis that is occurring in a number of cold places all over the world, including the US.

“The crisis has already gone far beyond power supplies, affecting every sphere of this impoverished and fragile society.

Humanitarian agencies say hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from severe food shortages.

“People are spending all they have on trying to keep warm, and they don’t have enough money to buy food,” says Zlatan Milisic, the country director for the UN’s World Food”

When it happens here in America (thankfully less often) we call it “Heat or Eat” and this fall the Boston Globe reported on rising cases of children suffering from malnutrition in winter because their parents cannot afford to feed them and keep them warm. Now this is nothing new, but the tripling of heating oil prices (the Northeast uses almost all the country’s heating oil) and rising natural gas prices have increased the severity of the problem: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/10/21/the_heat_or_eat_dilemma/

“Federal research shows that while both rich and poor families increase their expenditures on home fuel during the winter, poor families offset this cost through decreasing food purchases, with an average 10 percent decrease in caloric intake. Parents know that children can freeze to death more quickly than they starve to death, and so most decrease food purchases first to pay for heat. Many inevitably sacrifice on both fronts, living with food scarcity while heating their homes with cooking stoves and space heaters, both of which dramatically increase the risk of fires, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

These untenable choices wreak havoc on the health of children. Babies and toddlers lose body heat more rapidly than older children and adults because of their higher surface area-to-mass ratio. When babies’ bodies have to divert already-scarce calories to maintain body heat, cold and hunger intertwine to jeopardize their health and growth as well as their future ability to learn and relate to others.

The health effects of energy insecurity surface in emergency rooms at hospitals like Boston Medical Center during the cold of winter. Medical researchers found a 30 percent increase in the number of underweight infants and toddlers in the BMC emergency room in the three months after the coldest months compared with the rest of the year.”

While thankfully America’s poor are not in the situation of the Takjiki people, it is also true that both parties are early victims of a dilemma that is likely to hit more and more of us, in both rich and poor nations - the conflict between meeting energy needs and food needs.

Thus far, biofuels have rightly drawn most of the attention in explorations of the link between energy and hunger, but they aren’t the only such link. And heating energy is likely to be a particularly acute such interface, as both natural gas and oil supplies destabilize and rise in price.

Richard Heinberg’s recent essay on the coming crisis over natural gas supplies that the US and Canada face #40035.html suggests that a crisis point in heating energy could come upon us fairly quickly. The vast majority of Americans heat with natural gas, and a disruption in the Canadian supply is likely to send prices skyrocketing, and potentially, show up as actual shortages in some regions, although whether of the US or Canada is not clear:

“From a Canadian perspective there are some problems with the arrangement, though. First is the fact that Canada’s production of natural gas and conventional oil is declining. Second is that Canada uses lots of oil and gas domestically: 70 percent of Canadians heat their homes with gas, and Canadians drive cars more and further than just about anyone else. The problem is likely to come first with natural gas; as production declines, there will come a point when there isn’t enough to fill domestic needs and continue to export (roughly 60 percent of Canada’s gas now goes to the US).

That point is not decades in the future, it is fairly imminent.”

A recent article observed that because of global warming issues, more and more new electrical plants are turning to natural gas. Given that the North American (and many regions of the world) gas situation is quite acute, such a rush to natural gas is likely only to raise prices and push heating energy costs even higher, and possibly impact availability. http://www.thestar.com/Business/article/301621

It is hard not to come to the conclusion, then that we in Northern regions face a heating crisis, and probably within a few years. And since we live in a society that practices cost rationing even for the most basic needs, that means that poor people in cold places will be increasingly priced out of heating energy. Or they will be priced out of food, as they futily stop eating in order to try and keep warm.

Meanwhile, natural gas based fertilizer prices will continue to rise along with the commodity, as more and more competition for gas ensues, further boosting the price of food, and making the heat or eat problem even more acute.

And what choices do we have as an alternative? Wood heating could be a decent option in many places, although not in urban centers where particulate emissions costs would be greater than the benefits. There is just barely enough wood in the US to warm the northern houses without losing forests, if carefully and sustainably managed, we all get used to colder temperatures and if we insulate as best we can, but we’d find ourselves with virtually no wood for building or paper making or any other use. Anything other than absolutely perfect management would result in deforestation - and something less than perfect management is far more likely than the alternative. Rising wood prices could give us the absolute incentive to deforest the landscape of the US, vastly increasing the consequences of climate change, topsoil loss, desertification and turning our country into the blasted landscape of post-apocalyptic novels.

We could grow more corn, this time to be burned in corn stoves, further accellerating global warming with artificial nitrogen and further putting pressure on food prices, pushing more of the world’s population into hunger.

Electrification of heating is probably a necessity, particular in population centers, but right now, as we transfer more electric load to heating, that means more coal or nuclear plants, since no renewable build out can meet that need - we risk warming the planet more seriously in order to keep ourselves warm.

Or we can accept the current model, pricing people out and letting them starve and freeze - or see mass migration to already water stressed and overpopulated but warmer areas. The truth is that our energy problems *ARE* our food problems - the longer we view the two as distinct, the worse our problems will be. They cannot be seperated from one another.

We need some better choices than this - and the first step in such better choices would be taking up seriously the larger questions of where our heating fuel is going to come from. From there, we need to ask how our resources are best spent - and one of the ways in which they would be best spent would be in a massive reinsulation of American homes to require minimal heating fuel. If we’re going to build anything out, it should be this - or rather, we should build them in - new levels of insulation and warmth. This will be as necessary in the South as it is in the North, as rising heat waves and failing electrical supplies raise heat deaths.

The Community Solution is working on this. At this point, the plan is simply too expensive to be applied in many houses without massive national subsidies that are at this point unlikely to be forthcoming. So the other thing we need is a plan for ordinary, poor people to keep warm (or cool), without destroying the planet and without starving to death.


21 Responses to “Heat or Eat - An Expanding Crisis”

  1. Tameson O'Brien says:

    What? The northeast uses the most oil in the US? What do they use in Alaska, or Colorado, or Michegan and Montana? Is it colder in New Hampshire than in those places? I have oil as a backup system (use Pellet stove as primary - chimney lining issues caused us not to have split wood as primary) and I see enough oil trucks to know that we do use a lot of it in NH, but Most? I just can’t wrap my head around that.

  2. Matt says:


    Almost all of the rest of America uses Natural Gas for our furnaces. I don’t know why the NE wasn’t switched over in the past. As far as I can tell, we went straight from coal to NG around here.

    I use a corn stove for my heat, but who knows if it will still be around in the future either.

    Sharon-You feel like tackling the issue of shortage of wood? How can we possibly have enough wood for heating and cooking? Our country was already massively deforested in the past for these two purposes, only now we’ve got 10 times as many people. I don’t see how people will do it right and then I’m afraid of the consequences. I’m afraid we’ll go back to coal.

  3. jewishfarmer says:

    Matt’s right - for some reason, heating oil usage is concentrated in the Northeast. That doesn’t mean we use more heating *ENERGY* just that we’re the ones using oil.

    Matt, please note distinction between what is possible and what is likely - we have enough forested acreage to use wood. Of 90 million homes in teh US, about 60 million really require significant supplemental home heating. There are just about 500 million forested acres in the US, and sustainably managed, this would represent enough heating fuel to carefully, conservatively heat the nation with wood.

    But as I say, it would require draconian management practices, and an ethic we don’t have. And the pollution consequences would be terrible. But there are not a lot of great options, either. And coal won’t do it either - the price of coal is rising rapidly, and the US is already most likely past its coal peak. Given the huge cost of shipping coal around the world, we’re unlikely to get it from far away.

    The only solutions I can think of are something like funding a passivehaus style retrofit, getting more people into houses, and cutting home heating energy dramatically, while also cutting current electric use and building renewables, and converting particularly population centers over to renewables. But either way, the crisis is coming fast.

    I’m sure corn stoves will be there in the future - the only question is whether it makes more sense to burn corn or to try and reforest and then manage carefully places like Iowa - the nitrous oxide from corn growing is a major greenhouse issue, and forestation would have other carbon benefits. It might make sense to create economic incentives to grow *wood* for biomass (ie, home heating, the original biofuel) and manage it carefully.


  4. jedimomma says:

    How plausible is geothermal heating once the energy crunch is really on? I’ve been looking into this for our own house, but I’m concerned that it still takes enough outside energy input to work the system that it’s not likely to solve anything. But then again, I’ve been having trouble finding reasonable sources of info (that is, sites that aren’t actively selling geothermal). Anyone have an opinion here?

  5. homebrewlibrarian says:

    jedimomma -

    While I can’t speak for geothermal energy in any sort of intelligent way, I am sending out a link to the Chena Hot Springs Renewable Energy Center. Chena Hot Springs is north of Fairbanks, AK and has been doing some rather groundbreaking work with geothermal energy. I haven’t perused the site but it looks pretty comprehensive.


    I don’t know if it helps you at all in terms of residential uses but it will give you examples of what can be done with geothermal energy. There might even be links to more research based information.

    Good luck!


  6. Tameson O'Brien says:

    Natural Gas is only available in relatively urban areas, and where I live it’s not urban at all. We had Natural gas heat/cooking and dryer when I lived in Exeter (NH), we also had chlorinated city water and curbside pickup. Here in Deerfield (NH again) only about 2/3 of our roads are even paved, There are no amenities except cable and electricity and a k-8 school. We like it like that. So is there a method for bringing natural gas to those in rural areas that we in the north east didn’t adopt or were your rural areas retrofitted with buried gas lines?

  7. Marnie says:

    What about a revival of the coppiced woodlot for wood management? Wiki has a decent article explaining:


    It’s a method that’s been around for ages, and well used in places like Britain, where tree management has always been as issue. It could be used as a method by the individual or communally by towns and villages. I can’t find very much info on people doing this in North America, but it’s got to be out there….it’s something we’re planning to try if we move out of the city.

    As pointed out, the pollution is absolutely an issue, one that is avoided if you are using a properly built masonry contraflow stove (usually called Finnish or Russian masonry stoves). It’s certainly not for everybody (although it is possible retrofit in some cases)…but if anyone’s interested, you can find the Masonry Heater Association of North America here:


    As for us for now, we’re stocking up on woollen longjohns and turning down the heat on our natural gas :-)

  8. BoysMom says:

    Tameson-I don’t know how we came to get natural gas so throughally spread in the west, but we do have it in very rural towns. We may have gone straight from wood to natural gas through most of the region. Though I’ve known some folks still running coal burners. My town is a hundred miles from the nearest walmart and rail line, and we have natural gas. Now, we are a natural gas mining area, but to the best of my knowledge it has to go somewhere else to be refined and then pumped back here.
    People who are way out of town here who don’t use wood tend to have propane tanks. I don’t know how efficient/effective propane is, I’ve heard it’s more expensive than heating oil, but you can cook on it and run your fridge on it too, and as often as the electricity is out here, that’s a big deal. Especially the cooking-you can just throw the food out on the back porch and it’ll freeze solid, after all.
    There are people who have heating oil tanks, my folks just switched to propane maybe five years ago when their old oil burner wore out, but population wise-we’re a lot less dense in population, first off, and people in towns (mine is 1500) have natural gas available, and I expect that makes a difference. I think the oil tank folks make up a very small percentage compared to the propane folks and the wood folks, but I don’t know of any real data to back that up.
    I can’t speak for the midwest at all.
    The biggest problem I see with wood heat is getting the wood from where it is, here, to where it’s needed, over there. The regions that are still heavily forested seem to be mainly difficult-to-log because of terrain, remote, and not possessed of particularly good roads to haul stuff out on. I’d think we’d have a fuel problem with transporting wood, as well: it’s bulky and can’t be run through the existing pipes.

  9. Heather G says:

    Re: Passivhaus — yup, that’s one of the things we’ll need to work on, to cut back on fuel use, regardless of the type of fuel. Of course the US DOE eliminating their 30-year old weatherization program doesn’t help… Our state has some programs that help with some of this sort of thing, but people need more. I’m thinking of approaching our local enviromental/parks person and seeing if we can do a little creative brainstorming.

    Our old house used oil, but I know natural gas is used in some houses in Massachusetts, just not a majority. Generally speaking, people around here don’t switch to a different heating system until the current one needs to be replaced.

    The farm has a wood furnace with oil backup (which is rarely, if ever, used). And fortunately for a lot of folks around here, most have dual systems, given the increase in oil prices. A neighbor of my brother-in-law Warren came to him to see about getting a little bit of wood, and he stocked her up with enough until he could get in touch with my father-in-law William about getting a full load. He’s local and doesn’t charge as much as he could, just enough to have some take-home money after expenses.

    The problem she was having is that the local oil company will only deliver if the order is for at least 150 gallons — that’s $495 as a lump sum, and no way did she have that much in the bank. It’s been a cold winter this year, so the folks with limited income are already suffering.

    I’m really glad I moved up here this year, not just because we’re away from oil, but because I’m learning more about my in-laws and the community up here, and how they help each other out. We’re truly blessed, and I hope to share our fortune with other folks in the coming years.

  10. homebrewlibrarian says:

    Marnie (and boysmom),

    Coppicing is mentioned as having an economic value in the U.S. but very little research has been done on it so far as I can tell. The U.K. is seeing a resurgence in coppiced wood products and boatloads of information is available from across the pond. Which is helpful, but only to a point (whenever I see photos of Brits out coppicing in January and there’s no snow on the ground but mud and dead leaves, I have to laugh).

    I’ve been reading up on the subject as fast as I can because a friend owns 80 acres of wooded land about 60 miles from here. It’s mostly birch with spruce and cottonwood and some willow and aspen. Except for the spruce everything else supposedly does well with coppicing. Unfortunately, the birch trees are mature so it’s unlikely they’ll send up shoots from the stump. They might, however, send up root shoots which could work out okay. The problem is testing the theory. If we cleared an acre of mature birch and nothing came up, oops. Cottonwood, on the other hand, is a “first responder” when the canopy is removed and it grows fast. There aren’t very many cottonwoods on the property (they get shut out as soon as the birch move in) so it’s hard to say if they’d colonize an open area quickly. But they might. We’re going to spend some time wandering around particularly to check out an area of younger birch trees. The property was homesteaded 40 years ago but was abandoned. The old garden patch has a whole bunch of young birch growing in it and it’s a pretty good sized area but I haven’t seen it in several years. But we’ll likely go check it out soon.

    She’s very interested in field testing coppicing. I’m going to see if the Forestry Service folks or the local extension office can provide any guidance. It might be we just do the best we can and figure it out as we go.


  11. Rebekka says:

    Here in Victoria, Australia, we have an excellent government program called the Energy Taskforce, that retrofits the homes of low-income earners (renters or owners) to cut their heating and utilities bills.

    What’s more, the people doing the retrofitting are long-term unemployed people who’ve been retrained. They’ve done over 3000 homes so far.

  12. EnergyTech Bill says:

    NG: Retail natural gas in the west, midwest, other areas is found where population (customer) density allows a meter count that can recover the piping investment. Rural areas sometimes have pockets of customers that are along the cross-country lines. NE region, like large parts of Appalachia, have no gas infrastructure except on production/transmission corridors.

    Geothermal: Ground-coupled heat pumps, while a big initial investment are most efficient way to pull heat from below earth’s frostline in winter and push heat into the earth in A/C season. Not to be confused with geothermal “fired” steam cycle power plants-a rare thing, of big scale and big investment viable where there are geysers.

    US Monopoly utilities still fight efficiency programs as they are usually investor owned, or, like TVA, only concerned about growing their empire. Studies show if users simply could see real-time what their power draw is, they cut about 20% of use. Time of use rates would wipe out the need for wasteful (gas fired) peaking plants. US SE region -the power exporter, has hit the limit of power plant building due to lack of water for plants-that’s the crisis Atlanta is battling-keeping the 5 power plants (including Nuclear Plant Farley) downstream cooled not just lawns watered. Food production isn’t talked about, though Bush now proposes cutting funding to 11 USDA research centers-Georgia’s is the soil erosion study center going back to the 30′s…all a very grim picture.

  13. kenneal says:

    “ANNUALIZED GEO-SOLAR HEATING” would be useful in a rural or suburban setting. Go to http://www.greenershelter.org/ for more info. It could be retrofitted using the thrust mole technique. You would need to ensure the house was well insulated though.

    Birch coppices well where we are in the UK, even older stools.

    If Peak Oil hits soon I can see people house sharing to save fuel, especially in houses with a chimney. Present space standards aren’t sustainable long term. In the US you can burn the empty houses to keep warm. Won’t work in the UK as most of our houses are masonary construction with only the first floor and roof in timber.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Imported natural gas supplies will peak and become prohibitively expensive too therefore NG conversion is not the answer.

    1. Why waste heating fuel to cook food when there is the solar oven concept. A small one can be constructed from cardboard [or even an upside down umbrella] and tinfoil. The construction plans, usage guidelines, and recipes are on the internet for free.

    2. Underground basements stay cool in summer. No need to burn electricity /fuel on AC if you’ve got one. Just move everyone downstairs.

    3. Regarding heating, you are so right: Insulation Insulation Insulation.

    4. What’s “coppicing”?

  15. The Conservative Pagan says:

    My family and I use a combo of wood/kerosene/electric in that order. I have a large wood cook stove in the front room. I also have a couch that doubles as a bed. I have a kerosene space heater, which can be brought into the bed room at night to heat it exclusively. I have an electric space heater to heat the bath room since neither the kerosene or the wood stove heat it very well.

    We collect our wood from the dead trees in our mini forest. We also collect any free wood the neighbours offer. Our kerosene bill is 120 dollars a month If we get it every single week. By comparison our food bill drops to about 20 dollars a week or 80 dollars a month for a family of seven.

    We try to keep from buying any kerosene until the temperatures reach freezing out side…or just above. This year we didn’t buy any kerosene until December. We have had some off and on through to the present. On cold nights when we don’t have kerosene we layer the blankets thickly. I found that four or more blankets will keep an adult warm. My children all sleep in the same bed to keep warm. All of them sleep under 4 or more covers as well. The baby sleeps in my bed with me to keep warm.

    We moved to rural Arkansas in part due to the high cost of heating in Connecticut. Also in part due to the extremely high taxes in Connecticut. Arkansas has very low taxes in comparison. I know that we do not have enough wood on our property, if we cut down the whole mini forest, to heat our house for the next 5 years. I am actively planting trees each year, but this only adds minimal additional fuel. I plan to manage the forest in a sustainable way.

    I would like to add solar electricity so that I could afford to have more electric space heaters or geo thermal heat supplied by a solar electric pump. I was surprised to see you didn’t suggest geo thermal heating measures for the south as well as better insulation. Geo-thermal heating is quite simple and could be installed by most home owners and some heavy machinery.

    I am just too poor for even that.

  16. Anonymous says:

    we are facing a near future of freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer . the days of spring and fall are over. i truly believe that the movie ‘soylent green’ will prove to be a reality within twenty years. i also believe we could stop this nonsense if the governments of the world banned the use of SUV’s , six wheeled monster trucks , and various other gas guzzling commodities of these idiots who must feel a need to express their manhood because of a lack of package between their legs. SCREW NASCAR !

  17. Anonymous says:

    I own a heating fuels sales, service and installation business. Many people in our area burn heating oil, kerosene or propane. In the cities when natural gas is available most people burn natural gas, but there are still a lot of homes with oil fired boilers, furnaces and water heaters. The cost of connecting to the gas main, removing oil tanks and replacing a boiler can run big bucks, so people stick with what they have. Many people have also upgraded their oil fired boilers with modern high efficiency three pass horizontal boilers as well as adding an outdoor reset control, indirect water heater and new oil tanks so they’ll keep them as long as possible.

    Fuel prices are only a small part of the problem in comparison to poorly insulated, poorly weatherized homes with old windows and poorly designed, poorly maintained, grossly oversized, inefficient heating systems.

    The low income households are suffering due to the cost of heating oil, kerosene, propane and the way it’s sold. Some people don’t take advantage of pre-buy and price-cap programs due to cost, minimum purchases and auto-fill requirements. Some customers have larger tanks or twin tanks, but they can’t afford to fill them when prices are lower. Many low income households can’t afford 100 to 150 gallon minimum deliveries, emergency deliveries or short charges so they’ll often buy kerosene at the pump 5 or 10 gallons at a time. Because of this, we’ve seen a large increase in run-outs, freeze-ups and emergency service calls. Since people are keeping their tanks low, some are having issues due to condensation in outside steel tanks.

    The heating assistance and weatherization assistance programs also haven’t kept pace with fuel, professional labor, materials, service and installation cost inflation.

  18. Jorge Lacomb says:

    Excelent blog, I recently came across it and I’m already a fan. I recently shed 30 pounds in thirty days, and I am excited to share my weight loss success with as many people as possible. If I can lose weight then any one can. Whatever you do, never quit and you WILL achieve every one of your weight loss ambitions!

  19. bradford white 55 gallon gas water heater says:

    Thanks for the information on on demand tankless hot water heaters. I have not decided if this is a do-it-ur-self project I want to to do or not…lol.

  20. internet marketing says:

    Nice website … Check out this as well 81% profit within one Hour

  21. descargar Google Chrome says:

    I have recently started a website, the information you provide on this web site has helped me greatly. Thank you for all of your time & work.

Leave a Reply