Archive for February, 2008

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:

“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.

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.


Making the Riot Easy

Sharon February 11th, 2008

Kiashu has a terrific post over at Green With a Gun about what a 1 tonne carbon lifestyle looks like. For those who have been terrified by the calculations of the Riot for Austerity, Kyle gives you a mental picture of what a fair share life actually looks like. I was very impressed by this, and the level of detail involved.

I think one of the hardest things about making changes is having a sense of what it would look like.

I particularly liked this point:

“But I can’t because…

In the developed West, the average person can do this. For every person who is 100km from work and won’t cycle, there’ll be another one who is just 3km from work and can walk, not even having those public transport emissions. Some will need more meat because they’re menstruating or recovering from surgery, but others will be vegan. Some won’t have any yard at all to garden in, or even a balcony for container plants, but others will have relatives living in the country who’ll be delighted for them to plant trees in some disused paddock. Individuals may be able have less emissions in one area but more in another, walking to work but eating more meat, using less electricity but buying more books, and so on and so forth. So this represents an average. Just because you find one area difficult doesn’t mean you have to forget the other areas.

Doing these emissions-reducing things, living the one-tonne-carbon lifestyle, is not something everyone can do, because we don’t have the public transport or renewable energy generation capacity. It’s a bit like becoming rich - anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it. The difference between this lifestyle and becoming rich is that as we put in the public transport and renewable energy infrastructure, everyone will be able to live like this, whereas it’ll never be the case that everyone can be rich. As the public transport becomes used more, and more people sign up for wind energy and so on, the infrastructure will be built. This is why even though the lifestyle suggested here you could live tomorrow, in the Goal Emissions article I allowed a decade for everyone to change to this lifestyle. That also allows ten years while you say, “but I can’t because…”

And a lot of us can do a lot of this sooner, rather than later. We live out in the country, and my husband can’t bike to work in the winter, but he can carpool, and I can stay home altogether, and share my emissions with him. My oldest son has to be bussed to a school for kids with disabilities, but his brothers can be homeschooled, and share their fair share of emissions with their big brother. We can all change our diets to a degree. We can all do some of this now, and a little more each day.

Nice one, Kiashu!


It is Time for a New Victory Garden Movement!

Sharon February 10th, 2008

There is little question that it is time for us to create a new Victory Garden movement. That’s one of the central premises of Aaron’s and my book, and I don’t think there are very many people who understand what we’re facing who would deny that this is true.

In fact, there are quite a number of people in the Community Garden movement, and the blogging community who have supported the creation of a new Victory Garden movement. Some people doing this work include Bob Waldrop, whose call to action on local food systems has drawn considerable attention here (among other places): , Foodshed Planet’s site has inspired others, and the group Revive the Victory Garden, who have called for 2 million new gardens to combat climate change in 2008:, and there are literally too many others for me to list. But the movement is nascent, still beginning, and seems to need a little midwifing to get things moving along.

The reality is that interest in really, really local food is growing, and so is interest in food production, as food prices skyrocket and quality falls. And the best news is that this is a case where grassroots action not only can work, but it is the only thing that ever has worked - that is, in the US during both World Wars, in Cuba, in Russia - gardens for food security began and grew under the aegis of ordinary people acting to improve their world. While we can enable it from above, the creation of a victory garden movement is a person to person, blog to blog, neighbor to neighbor project. Why do it? A host of reasons, personal and political.

Victory Gardens Mean:

-Better Food - Fresher, better tasting, straight off the plant food money literally cannot buy!

- Better Health - More nutrition in just picked vegetables, grown without chemicals, while getting the kind of exercise many of us pay the gym for! Safety from industrial food contamination and toxic imports.

-Food Security - Food in your pots as prices get higher, supplies that can’t be disrupted by energy shortages, greater regional self-sufficiency. Millions of new gardeners can make sure that Americans don’t have to wait for distant food supplies to be trucked in - weeks after they are needed. Every gardener makes your region more secure.

-Higher Quality of Life - A more beautiful environment, stronger community, a better environment.

-More Money in your Pocket, More Time for What Matters - If you don’t need as much money for food, or to work as many hours to pay the grocery bills, you can use that money or take that time for what you really care about.

- The Chance to Serve Others and Create a More Just Society - Your Victory Garden can be a strike against hunger and poverty - you can have food to donate, and the ability to teach others to fish (ok, garden), and thus, eat for a lifetime.

- Reduce Corporate Power and Improve Democracy - We cannot simultaneously deplore the power corporations have in our society and depend on them to supply our most basic necessities. If we stop giving our hard earned money to the corporations who undermine our democracy, they will be less powerful!

-Protect Against Climate Change - Humus rich soils, full of organic matter can sequester tons of carbon, quite literally - and grow the best vegetables. We reduce our carbon emissions when we don’t have to drive to the store or buy fossil fuel grown food.

-Reduce our Energy Dependence - Fossil fuels are used in agriculture, both industrial and industrial organic at every step, from the fertilizer in the ground to the refrigerated truck to plastic bag they come in. We can eliminated fossil fuels from almost every step when we grow our own.

- Create Peace - We’re at war for oil right now. If we can cut back on our need for the stuff, we don’t have to kill or die for it.

-Hope for the Future - In a changing world, the ability to grow food, to share and enjoy it, and to live in a healthy world full of beautiful gardens may be the best legacy we can our children and grandchildren.

Ok, so we agree that we need Victory Gardens. How do we bring all the participants in this movement together, and create a real and national Victory Garden movement? How do we bring together professional farmers, with Victory Farms and city Gardeners, schools and community resources, and backyard advocates? How do we get Victory Gardening onto the national agenda? How do we teach millions of people how to grow, cook and eat their own, and why?

One part, of course, is the person to person work we’re doing now. The next step is to create a large-scale Victory Garden umbrella organization guided by people in every part of the Victory Garden movement - chefs and cooks helping people learn to eat, teachers helping children get involved, churches, corporations and community groups all putting gardens on public and private greenspaces, local “garden farmer markets” where very small scale producers can exchange or sell their extra in their neighborhoods, climate change and energy activists working on this simple way to cut our energy usage and reduce atmospheric carbon. That is, we need a movement - a real, serious movement. And we can do this.

And to get those new gardens and gardeners started. And for that, we need your help. We’ll be asking for more specific help as we go along, but getting started, we’d love all of you who blog to put out the Victory Garden idea, even if you usually write about other things. If you can, start a Victory Garden blog, and post a link in comments - I’ll put links up on this site and my other one.

And make the effort - reach out to one neighbor, at least, and help them get started gardening. Share seeds. Talk to your community, your synagogue, mosque, church, neighbors, school about gardening. Take a risk - for greater security later. Plant a front-yard garden, centered around a “V” for Victory (cabbages look great like this, particularly mixed with nasturtiums or calendula, but use your imagination). Be courageous - we need this Victory!



Shameless Self-Promotion

Sharon February 7th, 2008

I was thrilled to see the idea of 50-100 million farmers percolating down into the mainstream in this article:

“Without some miraculous new energy source, muscle power could soon again be a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels for growing food. Blunt economic pragmatism seems set to out-shout nostalgia in the call to put more farmers on the land.

Just how many more farmers would it take to cure farming’s fossil fuel habit? Lots, according to farmer and writer Sharon Astyk and “Oil Depletion Protocol” author Richard Heinberg, both leading activists for facing up to life after world oil production peaks.They estimate that without cheap fossil fuels, we would need 50 million new farmers. That’s one farmer for every two households in theUnited States, 25 times more than there are now.

This isn’t a move-to-the-boonies-or-starve ultimatum. In fact, many people are ideally positioned to become farmers right where they are– it’s the silver lining to suburban sprawl.”

It isn’t just the idea of millions of new farmers, either - in the past few weeks I’ve been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and an AP reporter about life changes due to climate change and peak oil. Although this is still a part of a “weird” subculture, that’s the first step to ideas being accepted - getting them out there at all.

Meanwhile, as long as I’m engaged in shameless self-promotion, I’ll be giving a free class on the basics of food storage at 3pm on Saturday February 16, at my friend Joy Heckman’s bulk foods shop, The Olde Corner Store, 133 Factory, Gallupville, NY 12073. I’ll include materials on what a month or year’s food supply looks like, how to find local, sustainably produced sources, how to store it, how to cook with storable foods, etc… Everyone is welcome!

BTW, I’m considering offering this class online at some point, if there’s interest, so let me know if you think that would be worthwhile.



Bob Waldrop’s Call to Action on Local Food Systems

Sharon February 6th, 2008

Bob Waldrop is one of my heroes. He knew about peak oil before most people, and has been moderating the RunningOnEmpty2 group forever. But the fact that there isn’t an existing system or magic solution just seemed a challenge to him. So he started the Oklahoma City Food Coop, about which you’ll hear below. He retrofitted his house to reduce his energy usage, and he’s making plans for his whole city, including for the bicycle powered transport of food from farmland outside OKC inside. He’s a one-man transition town.

This is what he sent to his food coop newsletter readers. I think it is damned good advice for nearly everyone, and deserves a wider audience. And as always, Bob puts his stuff in the public domain, because he just wants everyone get a “local food and energy system.” So listen to the man.

Let’s just cut right to the point:Growing vegetables in your back yard (or your front yard) is an excellent way todevelop some part-time income and provide your family with great food.

Growing vegetables in your back or front yard will increase your quality of lifeand your economic security and your physical and mental and emotional health.

Growing vegetables in your back or front yard provides exercise which is important for good health.

Growing vegetables in your back or front yard provides food that tastes verygood and is full of nutrition.

We need people willing to start part-time, micro-businesses, growing food and distributing and selling it into the local market.

Lately there has been a lot of news talk about economic uncertainty. Entire sectors of the debt industry are in near-melt-down mode. The economic chattering class is going on and on and on about The R Word (recession).

Our government says the 2007 inflation rate for the year was 4.1% and energy price inflation was 17.4%.But in the last quarter of 2007, inflation took a sharp turn up.The inflation rate for all items Oct-Dec 2007 was 5.1% — and for energy it was37.1%. Primary data is at .

The globalized economy means that when Shanghai, or Hong Kong, or Washington, orLondon, or Moscow sneezes — everyone gets a cold, even us’ns here in OklahomaCity.

Just as we are not in complete control of our food destiny right now, we are not in complete control of our economic destiny. Changing our food destiny is what the Oklahoma Food Coop is about. And economic viability is as important as social justice and environmental sustainability.

By working together, we can change our food destiny and our economic destiny and our environmental destiny.

Given how important “economic viability” is to most of us, now is the good time to explore creating a part-time business that produces something for the local market. Consider it a hedge against the possibility of economic and food disasters.

Local food production grows in a very sustainable way — many small enterprises, spread over a large area, cooperating with each other in a local circle of trade and enterprise. No “one big operation” that monopolizes everything.

Nobody should quit their day job. I’m not. But within a month or two, I plan to bring to the coop market my product — bulgar wheat, made with certified organic wheat bought from another coop producer. And also Hotter Than Hades Homemade Habanero Sauce. (HTH3.)

I recently pointed out to the producers that we may sell a million dollars of local food products in 2008. I asked them, “What are you going to do to make sure you contribute to that million dollar in one year bench market?”

Now I would like to ask our general membership — “What could you do –something new — to increase local food production while at the same time creating yourself some part time income?”

If you don’t think you can make money out of a relatively small plot in your back yard, go to and read all about how these folks in Canada gross $50,000/year on one-half acre in a city — and its not even one contiguous half acre, it is scattered around town in 20 plots.

We have their guides. There’s a lot of expert advice available. You’re not going to make $50,000 your first year, or even in your first several years. But you will earn income and as your skills, production, and customer base increase, you will earn more economic and food security. We even have a structure handy and already operating to help you market. You can become a coop producer yourself, or you can hook up with the City Farms Coop founded by food coop member David Rushton, and sell through the network they are establishing, which includes a producer membership in the Oklahoma Food Coop. Check out their producer info at .

In an economy as uncertain as the present, diversifying your income sources is more than a bit prudent. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative can help you do that. By2012, we could be selling a million dollars of locally produced foods every month. But to do that, there must be a million dollars of locally produced foods available for us to sell. So we’re not talking “we need five or six”, I’m saying we need hundreds, and then thousands, of new local food producers (or existing producers who re-orient their focus). In the next 4 years.

This month, 63 producers have something to sell through the coop, and many of the more in demand products are already sold out. 82 people opened baskets in the first hour of today’s order (I call this the Oklahoma Food Coop Land Rush, although it’s really an Egg Rush.) 258 people have ordered thus far today. Four years from now I bet that thousands of people order on the first day of theFebruary 2012 order. And in 2016? We will be even more popular.

If you’re going to bet, this is where you should lay your money. That’s where this train is headed. I hope we’re all on board for the ride. I am sure it will be bumpy at spots, but the food is something to write home about all along the ride.

So ponder those apples in your cider and see what you come up with. (That’s an official directive from the head office, so I hope everyone is paying attention.)

Y’all have a bon appetitin’ good time ordering these 2,461 great Oklahoma foods and artisan products that are on sale this month.

Bob Waldrop, Oklahoma Food Cooperative

PS. One final note. Every day people are dying in wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Ultimately, they are fighting over oil. Thus far, in the midst of our global troubles, we tend to forget that there are things we need to do here on the homefront to contribute to a world of peace and justice.

During World War I and II, “Victory Gardens” made an important contribution to local economic and food security. In those days they remembered the truth of this children’s rhyme:

Little drops of water,
little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
and the pleasant land.

In 1918, 1/4 of the US population was cultivating a Victory Garden.

Ninety years later in 2008, we here on the home front send our petro-dollars to pay for the bombs and bullets that terrorists use to kill civilians and our soldiers. The more money we send to OPEC, the more death and suffering there will be.

That’s obviously not our intention, but that is the unmistakable and unavoidable consequence. It’s a bad picture, and we need to get a better one. And everyone needs to contribute something, somehow –producer, customer, advisor, teacher, cooperator, entrepreneur, researcher, distributor, investor.– all these are necessary for a functioning local food system that rewards environmental sustainability, supports social justice, sustains rural and urban communities, and is economically viable.

More local food production helps break our destructive petroleum dependence on the good graces and “friendship” of OPEC et al. It positions us to meet the energy realities of the future (higher cost, less availability) and thus insulates us from potential economic shocks. It reduces the flow of money to the enemies of peace and freedom.

It’s really unlikely that the complex world situation is just going to muddle along for the next 50 years the way they have for the last 50. We’re building towards what the sociologists call a “punctuated equilibrium” — that is, big fundamental changes.

During all of my lifetime until recently, gasoline has been cheap. My first car, a 1960 Ford Falcon, I could fill up for 23 cents/gallon, and like all of us, I just got into that car and went anywhere I wanted to go. One gallon now costs the price of a fill-up in 1964.

That was then, this is now. The tank is much more empty than it was then. The price of fuel will continue to increase. Meanwhile, back at the drawing board, our entire built infrastructure, agriculture, and transportation systems are predicated on cheap energy. Oops!

We need built infrastructure, agriculture, and transportation systems that can cope with future energy realities and we need that sooner rather than later.”Not meeting this challenge” is not an option. The only thing we can do to moderate the price of energy is to use less fossil fuels and more renewable energies.

Growing a local food system is an essential aspect of our region’s energy transition.

Procrastination is the thief of time.

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