Archive for May, 2008


Sharon May 31st, 2008

Hallelujah, the book is done!!!  We’re free!

 Ok, expect few posts until mid-week, I’m going out in the garden and may never come back (never probably being until at least Wednesday ;-))!

Thanks everyone for all your support and kind words during the process!

 Sharon, who, even though she’d done this before, can’t quite get over the fact that she wrote a real, live, book - and that someone is crazy enough to publish it!

Independence Days Update, a Day Late and a Dianthus Short

Sharon May 31st, 2008

Ok, today is the LAST DAY of writing the book.  Did you hear me (of course, I’m naturall such a quiet soul, so I doubt you can hear me ;-P)?  THE VERY LAST DAY OF SPENDING ALL MY TIME IN FRONT OF THE CURSED-TO-HELL COMPUTER.

Tomorrow, as Aaron put it, “Beer for Breakfast!” - but it is going to be a long, long, long day - it is 6:19 and I’ve been at the computer for close to two hours already.  Don’t even ask when I went to bed.  And don’t think I haven’t considered whether beer for breakfast might not make this day go faster. 

And yes, I kinda forgot about Independence Days yesterday - actually, I think I mostly forgot it was Friday ;-).  So please, post your updates. 

I will be posting my update on Monday, after exploring just how caught up I can get in a day.  My first big management project will be the removal of 14 sheep and 1 donkey from  my front yard. Note, the kids would prefer they stay, despite the decimation of my strawberry harvest. Today while I am turning pasty and typing incoherently, the boys will be celebrating Xote’s (our donkey) birthday.  Did you know it was our donkey’s birthday?  Me neither.  But Isaiah says it is, and wants to make him a cake out of rolled oats, mushy apples and some other stuff. 

I think the first category I will get something into is “management” since the removal of sheepies and their guard will enable me to then remove the approximately 400,000 individual bits of sheep and donkey manure presently adorning my lawn, garden and porch into the garden.  Think of it as a treasure hunt.  But it sounds delightful compared to writing any more books, ever.

So you’ve all got to be way, way ahead of me!


Are There Any Good Choices Between Klingons and Cylons?

Sharon May 30th, 2008

 In the future, airplanes will be flown by a dog and a pilot. And the dog’s job will be to make sure that if the pilot tries to touch any of the buttons, the dog bites him. - Scott Adams

Growing up  in the last half century, most of us spent a lot of time exposed to imagined visions of our future.  We encountered them in science fiction novels, comic books, or on TV, and we’ve spent much of the last hundred years with our necks craned as far as possible, trying to see into the future.  And the future, as portrayed in almost every one of these visions, is progressive, moving forward, solving problems and making things better. 

Think about it - from the Jetsons (where’s my flying car?!) to Star Trek, all problems except the Klingons have essentially been conquered.  There have been projections by medical and technological journals which describe how magic technologies will fix everything, and economists and their reporters who saw us moving towards a perfect, globalized world, united in capitalism.  All of the visions of the future with which most Americans are familiar entail going forward as we are, but becoming better through advancements that make us more homogenized, more technologically advanced, to the logical culmination of our perfection.  As Rob Hopkins points out, this fantasy is still alive and well. 

Or, they aren’t.  In the same genre, there’s Battlestar Galactica, in which the remnents of a decimated population have to seek a new world after an apocalypse.   For every novel that imagines us enjoying our leisure with robots that do all our work, there’s a reciprocal novel like Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road which imagines us wandering hopelessly in an utter wasteland.  

Eric, who teaches the history of Space Exploration to literally thousands of excited students every year sees both sides of the fantasy in his classes.  He tries gently to lead his students to the reality that a future is space probably won’t happen - and to remind them that earth, too is a planet, and that exploring and understanding it in a deep ecological way is also a frontier.  But every year as he talks about the barriers of energy and environment, he unintentionally sends students away who, if they dreams of space are destroyed, lose hope.  This is both sad, and deeply unnecessary, but the narrow bounds of our imagined futures contain many of us. 

Ever since we realized, in the 1940s, that nuclear weapons meant that we really could destroy the entire world, we’ve been fascinated by this flip side of our progress - the ability to utterly annihilate ourselves, the logical contrast to the idea that we can become the perfect species, Homo technologicus, roaming the galaxy in our faster than light spaceships, civilizing other peoples on other planets.

Thus, it is perhaps no great surprise, then,  that if you ask most people about the problems we face, you will find that most of us  place a great deal of faith in  growth market solutions and new technologies, and a smaller, but equally certain group feels that we are bound for complete and utter self destruction.  After all, those are the choices that our culture has given us.  Virtually everyone living in Western society grew up with those alternatives presented to them as starkly as possible.

But as we discussed before, market and technological solutions are beginning to fail, and show no signs of being able to solve our problems.  Does that mean we’re bound for an inevitable disaster, an absolute and utter apocalypse?  Some people think so.  For example, Gaia-hypothesis creator, scientist James Lovelock imagines that within a hundred years human beings will be limited to “a few breeding pairs at the poles.”  No wonder most people prefer to believe that something- the market, scientific solutions, divine intervention, extraterrestrial technologies- something will fix our problems.  After all, what is the point of contemplating the absolute and utter destruction of everything?  Why not deny that there are problems at all, or perhaps place our hopes on any anyone who says hey can develop another technology if just given enough money?  Moreover, what possible incentive could any of us ever have for overcoming our trained faith in capitalism and technology if the best alternative we can be offered is a chance to hole up in a bunker with some spam and an automatic weapon?

But like all dichotomies, the choice between “rely on technology and growth to perfect us”  vs. “accept the end of the world” is a false one.  There are other options but we have not been taught to see them.  We have been told for so long that all we have is to go forward as we are or accept absolute annihilation that we have come to believe that we cannot change our course, and move in some new and different way.  But this is not true, and the first step in recognizing this is to learn to see false dichotomy for what it is - then we can begin to look around at alternatives.

Writer and activist Maria Mies writes in her seminal book (written with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen), The Subsistence Perspective, about the fixity with which many people believe that these are the only choices.  She talks about attending a panel in Germany with a number of scientists prognosticating an absolutely bleak future for the world, and then goes on to answer them by observing,

“I looked at the audience: all young people with worried faces.  They had come on this Sunday morning to get some orientation from these famous speakers for their own future.  But they only painted an apocalyptic picture gloom and hopelessness.  The gist of their presentations was that there was no alternative, that we could do nothing.  I could not tolerate this pessimism any longer and said, ‘Please, don’t forget where we are.  We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman empire.  An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world.  But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome.  The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit the stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne.  On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass had gown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.  I wanted to say that even the collapse of big empires does not mean the end fo the world; rather, people then begin to understand what is important in life, namely our subsistence…The image of my father behind the plough on the old Roman road stands for another philosophy, another logic.  For most…scientists this subsistence logic is difficult to grasp.  It is neither expressed in the slogan that ‘life will go on by itself’ (nature will regenerate herself, grass will grow by itself) nor by the attitude that we humans can control nature and repair all damage done by our master technology.  The difference between a subsistence orientation and scientific omnipotence mania is the understanding that life neither simply regenerates itself, nor is it an invention of engineers; rather, we as natural beings, have to cooperate with nature if we want life to continue.”[i]

Here Mies begins to articulate the possibility of something in between apocalypse and progress, a new way of thinking.  She and Bennholdt-Thomsen call this “the subsistence perspective” but it might also be described as a return to cyclical, rather than linear thinking and living.  What she describes is the idea of our integration into history and nature, rather than a choice between our mastery over both forces or our utter destruction at their hands.  This is not simply a rhetoric of “everything will fix itself” but suggests that we could be a part of a partial solution.

We so desperately need expressions of this other vision - I was thinking about this when as I read the discussions on about the possibility of hitting 1000 ppm.  The discussion vibrates wildly between the choices we’ve been given - denial, technologies, doom…doom…doom.  Most of us recognize that the technofixes won’t work - or at best, are a long term solution.  And certainly, doom is a possibility for many of us.  Joseph Romm has discussed the potential harm of the melting of the permafrost, and its capacity to get us rapidly from 450 ppm to 800 or 1000ppm. 

But, just as the leap between technologies and doom seems to have no gaps, we can stop and say “umm…what was that middle thing again?”  You know, that place between the Klingons and the Cylons? 

 Don’t expect me to have any better ideas about how to get there than I ever have before.  But I do sometimes think that the first step might be just pointing out - there is a middle thing.


Public Health and Welfare Part II - Depletion and Abundance Book Excerpt

Sharon May 29th, 2008

This is the second part of what will be a four part series, the excerpt on health care from _Depletion and Abundance._  You don’t have to read part one, but it will make more sense if you do:

 The section focuses on the third and fourth myths of high energy medicine.  The next two suggestions will be ways we can triage the health care system - so if you think I forgot something, it might be there.  Or it might not - this is hardly all there is to say about post peak medicine, but because so far there is so little on the absolutely essential topic, my goal is to give a broad overview and a set of broad strategies. 

 One thing I don’t talk about in the book, because I’m trying to present an overview, is strategies for relocalizing drug availability.  Obviously, there are natural alternatives, but for those for whom they are not adequate, we need a better alternative than “sorry.”  I certainly on’t tend towards an apocalyptic vision in which all medicine production disappears - instead, I tend to think that ordinary human poverty will price most of us out of the drug market, the way it already does for billions of the world’s poor.  Obviously, for those who are dependent on medicine, that’s a huge problem.  But one of the fascinating things I found in my research was that some medicines - not all, but some, could probably be made in college or high school chemistry labs, if the raw ingredients were stockpiled.  Later on, I do talk about making a couple of simple antibiotics that way (and both of them have huge downsides, so this is not a way to go unless you have to).  But several research chemists I discussed this with did say that a variety of older, simple drugs could probably be made if power were available to college or even good high school labs.  This suggests that prioritizing health care and education might be even more important, and that building relations with your local chem prof or high school chem teacher might be worthwhile for some people.  It won’t fix everything, of course, there are risks involved, and many medicines are simply not reproducable on those scales.   Which again, argues for collective action and strategies to make sure that basic medications are available.


The Costs and Benefits of Modern Medicine

In considering the second myth, the first thing we need to do is establish what gains from modern medicine we have received. Our intuitive response to modern medicine is to exaggerate our need for its input in many cases, or exaggerate its benefits compared to the alternatives. By this I mean that modern medicine and modern industrial life do enable us to treat some illnesses better than others but also cause or enable other illnesses to occur more frequently. Were we suddenly to experience a catastrophic energy shortage (something I do not view as especially likely, but will use as a model here), like that which struck Cuba during the special period of the 1990s, we would likely see some illnesses increase and others almost wholly disappear.

Among the medical concerns we would not see, or would see infrequently in a low-energy, relocalized, sustainable society, would be death and injury from car accidents. Right now, 1 million people die annually worldwide from car accidents, and another 7 million are injured or disabled. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for people under 25

Illnesses we would probably see less of in a low-energy society include all communicable illnesses, including things like flu, colds, SARS, and other airborne diseases, particularly those originating in other nations (fewer people traveling means less disease transmission). We would also experience fewer “lifestyle diseases” such as high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and type two diabetes. All of the illnesses brought on by poor diet and sedentary lifestyle would certainly be reduced. In fact, in the aftermath of the special period in Cuba, a significant rise in lifespan was seen because of increased exercise and better diets.

We would also probably see fewer medically induced deaths. A study released by Health Grades, a private medical quality control group, suggested that in 2000, 2001, and 2002, an average of 195,000 people died from in-hospital medical errors. The study suggested that this number is double previous estimates. In addition, the hospital environment, including inappropriate use of antibiotics is responsible for the spread of “superbugs” such as MRSA, which has now escaped the hospital environment and is showing up in schools. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that the US has 95,000 MRSA cases per year, of which approximately one out of five is fatal. More people die in the US from MRSA than die from HIV. Though it is probably too late to eradicate some of the superbugs already created, a lower input health care system, used less often, would create fewer opportunities for superbugs to evolve and escape into the general populace.

Over the longer term, much lower emissions of pollutants, industrial toxins and carbon would make a huge difference [ad1] in reduced levels of cancer, autism, birth defects, neurological disease, asthma and lung disease, among others. As far as I know, no one has yet run the numbers to calculate the total net gains and losses here, but I mention this mostly to observe that we pay an enormous price for our lifestyle, and yet we tend not to think of it in those terms. We tend not to think of the sudden death of a family member from a heart attack or a child’s cancer as part of the cost of our society — we tend to think of it in isolation. But when we envision change, we tend to see the full costs of that difference[ad2] .

There would be costs, in terms of lives, in a lower-energy medical system. If we anticipate that we could manage many essential treatments, but that high-input items such as elective surgery, helicopter evacuations, defibrillators in every public building and other high-energy medical investments might be less available, some people would suffer and die. There is no question of that, and it is not something that should be minimized or elided. But it is important to remember that some people who would have died in a high-energy society would not suffer and die in a lower-energy one, and that too should not be minimized or elided.

Why Health Care Should Be At the Center of Things

The third myth is the one that says that we must focus on the economy, on rail systems, on everything but health care. Underlying this assumption is the belief that if we’re headed for disaster, it is self-evident that we can’t provide universal health care. After all, we don’t have that now. But we cannot allow that to be a barrier.

Instead, I wish to make the case that we absolutely must focus our energies on health care — to the exclusion of other projects, if necessary. The national discussion on universal health care has focused so far only on creating “perfect” modern models — that is, systems where everyone can have as much unconstrained access to treatment of illness as they want. In fact, when universal health care is proposed, the notion that any kind of constraint of access might occur is the single most effective negative argument. How many times has each of us heard the claim that if we had universal national health insurance, we might have to wait for surgery?

But if we imagine a national health care service [ad3] that focuses on maintaining health (as opposed to treating sickness), on delivering basic preventive care as widely as possible, and on investing in the health care measures with the greatest possible benefits for longevity and public health at low cost, we might be able to create a model that could co-exist with any national health insurance plan and, until/unless one is created, could serve the existing needs of the 40 million Americans currently without health care. Such a system would reduce the death rate from lack of health care access (18 million people die each year because of insufficient access to health care). Right now, many insurance programs simply will not pay for preventive measures. For example, my midwife friend Kathy Breault notes that she has difficulty getting insurance reimbursement when she vaccinates for the HPV virus, which causes cervical cancers, but no difficulty getting payment for expensive tests once a patient has an abnormal pap smear.

And if we were to look more carefully at the Amish, the Cubans, the Keralans, we might find a model of health care sufficiency that is an optimization of the best of the modern and the low tech, and we might begin to make decisions more wisely about how to expend our energy and financial resources to keep people healthy.

By “sufficiency” I mean the notion, advanced by Professor Thomas Princen, that instead of seeking out market-based efficiency solutions, we might find a principle of “enough” that can be widely applied. Some Americans have far too little access to medical care, and some have far too much. The notion of restraint and optimization in health care, up to now advanced only in the service of HMO bottom lines, might be used, instead, to create an adequate health care system that might serve people’s needs, rather than market needs. What Princen calls “enoughness” seems to be a real phenomenon in health care, available to us in the light of other societies that use less health care, use it differently, and still obtain the same positive results.

The examples of Cuba and Kerala, both poor places that have elected to preserve health care and social welfare above all else, even in times of crisis, should point out what is possible for us. Going into this crisis, our society as a whole is probably going to do some things to adapt while leaving others undone. I write this book in the hope that we will have a model to work on if we are left with the burden of doing the work that governments left undone, of making do from where we are, but also in the hope that we will begin to prioritize our remaining resources as Cuba and Kerala did, even if times get very difficult. Historically, that has not been the American way — when times get hard, we ration basic needs like food, shelter and health care by price, leaving a large segment of the population’s needs unmet. But we could alter that.

Now, both Cuba and Kerala have roughly socialist economies, and it would be easy to leap to the conclusion that I am calling for socialism here or that socialism is a necessary prerequisite to providing health care in an increasingly impoverished society. Neither is true — I believe all useful economic models are hybrids of multiple philosophies, and I hold no particular allegiance to a single economic model. Moreover, I don’t believe that using government resources to tend to the well-being of one’s populace is a socialist project — any more than using government resources to support a war machine is.

If we pay taxes for any reason at all (and sometimes most of us wonder), it is that government should meet the needs of ordinary people. Right now, I think most Americans of all political stripes would agree that it is not doing so. And any analysis of health care must begin, for example, with the fact that the American military budget is twice the military budget of all other nations together, and that what we have spent on the war in Iraq would provide lavish health care many times over. Yet I’ve never met an American who thinks that the war in Iraq is a better investment than health. It seems self-evident to me that this is not a question of Marx versus Adam Smith, but a question whether government should serve the people or the government — something I think we can get an easy consensus on.

Where Should I Go?

Sharon May 28th, 2008

So have I mentioned I have a book coming out soon ;-)?  A lot of people have asked me where they can buy it.  I will be putting up information about ordering autographed copies (while supplies last) directly from me shortly.  Otherwise, New Society is offering a discount coupon that will allow you to pre-order it at a lower price.  I’ll post a link for that as well, and no, I won’t be offended if you need to husband your resources and order it more cheaply than I can offer it ;-).  In fact, I’m also all for people getting books from their libraries - although I suppose I shouldn’t say so.

One of the things I’m supposed to do is help promote said book.  And I’m getting a ton of requests by email to do talks and various things - very exciting.  That means going places and giving talks, teaching classes and doing readings from _Depletion and Abundance_.  This is a double-edged sword for me - I love teaching, I love meeting people, I love talking to them.  That part is absolutely a blast.  The hard part is finding the time to be away from home, and finding the balance I need between the environmental consequences of this and the potential benefits of raising awareness and, well, making a living.

We are getting to the time at which I have to start figuring out where I’m going, and when, so that we can plan our lives for the coming year.  This gets complicated for a host of reasons.  #1 is that while I don’t rule out flying, I won’t fly if I can get there by some more environmentally friendly method, like a big carpool or a train.  That means, no matter how cool it would have been to actually go to the big Peak Oil Conference in Michigan this weekend, there was no way I could, because I would have had to fly (and because the book was due this weekend) since I can’t be away from my garden in early June for more than a day or to.  That’s why I’m sending video and calling in, which is almost but not quite as much fun.

On the other hand, when I was invited to Pakistan to talk about biofuels and their ties to food systems this spring, had it been possible for me to go, I would have flown, since the trains from Albany to Pakistan are extremely poor and no one seemed to want to pay for the Queen Mary to take me ;-).  I’m told that luxury cruise liners aren’t carbon negative anyway - pity.  Again, if you want me to fly somewhere, I’d have to really believe that there’s a good reason for it, and that it will help more people than the carbon hinders.  So far, I haven’t quite found the justification, no matter how badly I really did want to see Islamabad.  You can try and persuade me, though ;-).  Note, I don’t claim perfect moral purity here, either.  You will have better luck getting me to spend a lot of energy going somewhere I really want to go (say, Hokkaido) than somewhere I’m not at all interested in, like, say, Disneyworld.

There are other complexities.  If I am going to spend three days crammed into a train bunk the size of a coffin, crossing the country, I am going to do all of my visits to a given area while I’m there.  My husband and children probably would prefer that I didn’t disappear for a week or more than once or twice a year.   So planning a trip involves trying to coordinate a host of other bookstore stops and other visits.  It also involves me planning the economics of the issue - doing a reading somewhere I’m going to be anyway is no big deal, but filthy lucre does come into the issue if there’s a long trip, and an extended period not doing other things that keep the family fed.  I get requests to volunteer my time, and I try as often as I can to say yes - but I can’t only do volunteer work, much as I’d like to ;-) - again, I’m trying for some balance.  So generally, if you’d like me to read and I’m going to be there anyway or nearby, no worries, if you want an extended chunk of my time for something big, we’d have to talk.

 I’m getting a lot of emails right now from various people inviting me to various thingies, and my impulse is to say yes to everyone, but realistically, that’s not going to be totally feasible.  So even though I know I’m presuming a lot to assume y’all want to meet me,  I thought I would post a broad sense of my itinerary here, and if you want to put in dibs for me to come by during one of those trips, send me an email (I can’t swear I’ll respond before the book is done).  I’ll also put the information on my appearances page once I have my life back in a few days.  I’ll also be updating the information about classes, and taking registrations for the ones I plan to do in July and August.  Look for it in a week or so.

Anyway, broad outlines of where I’m thinking of going when in the Fall:

Boston, probably in late September, working around the Jewish holidays.  Since I’ve got family there and it isn’t very far, this is one is pretty flexible.  Southern ME and NH would be easy from there too, since my Mom is up on the North Shore.

New York City: I’m going to be there very briefly for a panel in July, but am planning a more extended book promotion visit around Halloween.  Again, I’ve got family here, and the train ride is only 2 1/2 hours, so I can do this one more than once if necessary.  But figure Halloween.

Washington DC and possibly points in the Southeast - Either the week between Christmas and New Year or right after the New Year.  We’ve got family there, and assuming that the economy doesn’t tank, we might take the train down en famille, and then if there was a desire for my presence, I could go further into the Southeast by train.  I’ve already got one invite, but the date is a bit up for grabs.

Then There’s the Really Long Train Trip - I’m still mulling over when to take it, but I’ve got a tentative invite to go to Edmonton in January (isn’t that where everyone wants to go in January? ;-)).  Mid-January is good because of childcare issues - DH is still off university then.  So what I would probably do is go across the US, stop somewhere in the middleish if time allows, cross to CA or Seattle, visit my Dad in Bellingham, WA, go north to Vancouver, and then to Edmonton.  I could, perhaps go back across the Canadian Prairies to Toronto, I’m told.  So if you live somewhere on this route, it is possible (not at all definite) that I might be coming to a whistle stop near you.



Next »