Archive for June, 2008

How Not to Be the Next North Korea

Sharon June 20th, 2008

John Feffer has a really, really good article over at Asia Times Online.  It points out the deep danger we’re in – how teetery both the world and America’s food and energy systems are.  It is well worth a read, particularly because of its clear articulation of the bind we’re in – the strategies we’ve used in the past to get out of disaster will only accellerate collapse in the very slightly longer term. 

 The analogy that I’ve been using for some time is to the seawater used to extract oil in the Ghawar and other aging giant oilfields.  Matt Simmons, the world’s expert on this subject, argues that you can make the oil production levels look good for a while – but the seawater you pump in only accellerates the day that disaster strikes.  And that’s true of our agriculture – at this point, we’re in a losing race between expanding food production and climate change – all the conventional strategies for growing more food push us faster and faster towards the day that the planet can produce much, much less food.  Every bite of food we eat now through conventional means takes food out of the mouths of our children.

I think many people, deep in their hearts, think that ecological disasters apply mostly to other people.  But, of course, as Midwesterners are finding out right now, that’s not true. And it isn’t over – every image of floodwaters we see is brown – washing precious topsoil away, and pushing artificial fertilizers into water tables.  And the rest of us will be thoroughly schooled in that lesson as well, most likely. 

So how do we avoid becoming North Korea – are there personal or policy approaches that can fix this?  Could you have guessed that I have some suggestions, some obvious, some perhaps not.

The first one is obvious – we need to get the oil and gas out of agriculture – and rapidly.  Farmers are already struggling to afford the fossil fueled inputs that are required for conventional agriculture, and industrial organic agriculture is almost as dependent on fossil fuels as conventional.  And all the fossil fuels, especially artificial nitrogen,  that we use are preventing future generations from eating.  Heck, it won’t take until future generations grow up – most of us under 50 will probably live to see it.

We’re seeing now just how oil and natural gas costs reverbate through the food system, and while it is possible to use wise forms of management to reduce those reverbations, the only possible way to stabilize the food supply and seperate it from volatile energy prices is to end the dependency of the food supply on fossil fuels.  We know that this is possible – besides the study mentioned in the paper above, other studies, including one last year at University of Michigan and a host of others have shown that organic agriculture can match and exceed yields.  Moreover, organic practices that match yields in optimal seasons often exceed conventional yields in times of plant stress – that is organic soils rich in matter hold up better to drought, heavy rains and other difficult conditions.  It isn’t a panacea, but in a world where drought and flooding are inevitable, we need the best cultural practices possible.

 But doing this involves replacing the oil and gas with *people* – that is, when Cuba moved to organic agriculture, it matched and exceeded agricultural yields on small farms.  But the large collective farms owned by the state never could match up yields – one of the agronomists concluded that “farms of this scale are not easily compatible with organic production.”  And that’s the problem – we can get our need for fossil fuels in agriculture down quite low, but we can’t do it without paying more people a living wage to grow food.  And no, this isn’t just me, the UNESCO report made essentially the same claims.

Which brings me to the second conclusion – gardens are even more essential in the fossil transition than they may be overall.  Think about it – food prices are already high – a shift in our economy towards more agricultural labor, and paying farmers better will keep food prices reasonably high, and involve large scale economic changes. That means the cheapest food out there is going to be food grown by those who are not depending on it to make a living – who grow food for subsistence or for very small scale sales on their own land or on community land.  And because they are less dependent on either hired labor or fossil fuels, gardens are the future of affordable food in the US.  Will they meet every need?  No.  But they can make the difference between getting by and widespread hunger. 

The next point is perhaps a bit less obvious.  A few years ago, in my paper “The Ethics of Biofuels” almost no one noticed that one of my principles was that we had to shift our “biofuel’ priorities from corn and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel to…trees.  For wood.  And perhaps even more importantly, for climate stabilization and for erosion control and soil repair. The home heating crisis I’ve been discussing for years is beginning.  And there is the real danger that the US will deforest itself nearly as badly trying to keep warm as North Korea did trying to grow food.  The long term consequences of that would be horrifying. 

Thus, instead of pushing to grow food on marginal land, moving Crop Protected soils into production (which we’re seeing now), we need to use hilly and marginal lands to grow forests, ideally forests at least partly composed of edible protein, oil and other crops.   We will need the wood, as home heating moves back to biofuels. We will also need the erosion control – midwestern fields once had hedgerows, that could stop the flow of soil, provide space for wildlife, and wood for stoves.  Bringing back the hedgerows might be a beginning strategy.

In already forested areas, the struggle is going to be for management.  And that’s going to have to be a big, big focus of our energies.  The thing is, it gets bloody cold up here ,and most of us have gotten used to “room temperature” being a heck of a lot warmer than it was in any other period of human history during northern winters.  The temptation to burn just a little more is going to be vast.  But we can’t – the pollution will be a disaster, and the deforestation worse.

So we’re going to have to strictly self-regulate our forests – and plant new ones as fast as we can.  And since this is not likely to make it on to the public agenda anytime soon, we’re going to have to do it on our own, on the small pieces of soil we tend.

It wouldn’t be easy for us to turn into North Korea – it would take a lot of bad management.  But it wouldn’t be so hard we couldn’t do it, either.  We’ve got to do better.


In Praise of My Husband

Sharon June 18th, 2008

My favorite moment in my whole marriage came on the phone, the night before I was supposed to give my first talk at the Community Solutions Conference - I was panicking about standing up in front of 250 people, and I said to Eric “I’m just praying for courage so I can get up there and say something.”  And very calmly, in the way one soothes heated and not-very-bright people, Eric said to me, “Honey, do you think you could pray for something other than courage?  Something you don’t already have an excess of, like… common sense?”  I laughed so hard I almost threw up, which helped.  But I also was struck by how wonderful it was to be understood so well by someone, and loved anyway.

Eric appears here mostly as a character on my blog.  Most of the time he’s either in the background, working his behind off so that I can look like I actually accomplish stuff, or he appears here as a comic foil to me, complaining about my habit of collecting livestock and my apocalyptic hobbies. 

Tomorrow is Eric’s 38th birthday, and just for the record, he’s a heck of a lot more than that – brilliant and wonderful, funny and extremely hot.  Just this once (normally we have the kind of marriage where soppiness is not only not required it is unacceptable, and a certain amount of mutual abuse is mandatory), may I observe that all the stuff I do, all the bad news I read, all the work I do – all of that is made possible by one very simple thing.  I’m happy.  That is, as bad as the other crap in the world is, and it is sometimes, there’s a core of joy in my life that none of it can penetrate into.  And the source of that happiness is my husband – yes, my kids too, but they come in part from him.  He is quite literally the best thing that ever happened to me.  In fact, to me, he’s proof that there is hope in the world.  Because he’s absolute proof that sometimes someone (that would be me) gets much, much more than they deserve.  And if the universe can be that merciful to me, well, maybe there’s mercy for all of us in the future.

Next week he goes back to being a character on the blog, but I thought just once I’d break the marital rules and get all soppy in public.  Happy Birthday, Eric.



Post-Apocalyptic Book Club Redux

Sharon June 18th, 2008

Well, it does seem like there’s some interest in the book club, no? I got 116 comments and a bunch of fascinating suggestions!

 I love all the suggestions – and I’m already mentally making lists “P-A Book Club – Year 2.”  The downside is that we’re going to have to leave off some favorites – not enough time.  But as mentioned, we can make supplemental lists as we go.

I did make some revisions based on suggestions, and have a few comments about why I chose what I did.  I’ll put together a list of supplemental suggestions for each month as we go along, using a lot of these suggestions.  And thanks – there are some I don’t know about, and I’m going to be reading.

Ok here are my revisions, and I’m going to let y’all vote on a few of them.  Let me know your preferences, post your vote in the comments, (the actual poll is below and numbered), and I’ll let you know the outcome.

July “Classic Guy Doom“ - Heinlein _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ and Niven/Pournelle _Lucifer’s Hammer_.  I agree that LH isn’t a great book – there are parts of it that are quite compelling, but it has a lot of serious problems.  But I do really think we should read it, because it is the archetype of a particular kind of world vision.  This one stays as is.  Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is going to be the supplement.

August “The Girl’s Guide to the Apocalypse” – A lot of people suggested _Into the Forest_ by Jean Hegland and we might do this one for some other topic, but the thing is, I think in many ways, structurally, it is very similar to _Life as We Knew It_ by Susan Beth Pfeiffer, in that it offers a female perspective in a very narrow world – both books have some references to community, but ultimately, the survival aspect of both is “family alone” – I think both have things to offer, but I want the other choice we make for a gendered perspective to be more focused on community.  I had proposed _The Gate To Women’s Country_ by Sherri Tepper, in part because I think it is a good parallel to _The World Made by Hand_ by James Kunstler which we discussed here recently – that is, it isn’t just a feminine view, but a totally woman-centered communal one – with some problems.   The other possibility would be _The Fifth Sacred Thing_ by Starhawk, which also has a strong community vision.  So I’ll be letting you pick. Poll down below, please answer in comments (I don’t know how to make a real poll in wordpress, so you’ll have to put up with my low tech model).

September “Energy Crash Month” – I’m going to keep things the same – _Dies the Fire_ by Stirling and Johnston’s _After the Crash_.

October “Reader Choice Month”   Ok, so far the themes that have been suggested (explicitly or by implication) might include “Zombie Month” with (”World War Z” and “Monster Island” as the suggestions - neither of which I’ve read), “Hunter-Gatherer Month” (_The Earth Abides_ and _Into the Forest_), “Apocalyptic Children’s Books (Quite a few suggestions here, I’d need to sort through, although _The Girl Who Owned a City_ Was a Fave of Mine when I was 11 – the perfect pre-teen power trip novel ;-) ).  These seem to be the most popular, so I’ll be letting you vote.

November: “Nuclear Holocaust Month” –  I can’t believe I forgot about _A Canticle for Lebowitz_ by Walter Miller.  Definitely that one and Pat Frank’s _Alas, Babylon_.  Excellent!

December: “Ecological Doom Month” For Ecological Doom, Moran’s _Earth of Ice_ was suggested, and sounds promising (I haven’t read it, but that’s part of the fun!).  And Kim Stanley Robinson’s _Forty Days of Rain_.

January: “High Culture Doom Month“ Cormac McCarthy’s _The Road_ and selections from _The Canterbury Tales_ (”The Pardoner’s Tale” definitely, maybe also “The Cook’s Tale” and _The Decameron_)  And I’m going to need you all to offer me suggestions on what the absolute worst post-apocalyptic novel ever is.  Right now, my vote is for an excresence I picked up at a used book shop called _The EndLight Event” by John Cater.  This makes “Farnham’s Freehold” look like Shakespeare.  But I bet there’s something worse out there.  Help me out!

February: “Horrible Disease Month” – I’m not giving up Saramago, which I just think is a wonderful, beautiful book.  Several people have suggested Atwood’s _Oryx and Crake_ which I have not read.  Would people rather that than Stephen King’s _The Stand_ which, believe it or not, I also have not read?  I realize I’m the only person on the earth who hasn’t read the King book – it was just that that was all anyone in my high school read, it seemed (Kim who commented before and went to high school with me can probably attest to this ;-) ) and I read a couple and got bored and quit.  So I partly put it on there to make myself read it, but if y’all like _Oryx and Crake_ better in the disgusting disease department, I’m fine with it.  The other possibility, although this isn’t a human disease is _No Blade of Grass_ by John Christopher (which I also forgot about and really like)  Poll below.

March: Religion and Apocalypse: I actually did read one of the _Left Behind_ Novels in graduate school, because I felt I ought to – it wasn’t the first one, and it was dreadful. I still feel really strongly that we should read it, because it is culturally important – those books are the most read apocalyptic novels in our culture.  The problem is that I’m torn.  I definitely want us to read _The Parable of the Sower_ but someone mentioned _Good Omens_, and I’m really struggling with my desire to do that one too.  So I’ve decided I’ll run all three – none is that long.  And I won’t ask y’all to read any high culture books at all.  I think the three together will really kick ass!

April: “The Collapse of the State”: David Brin’s *ORIGINAL* (I’m totally with MEA on this one) “The Postman,” and Roth’s _The Plot Against America_ along with Achebe’s _Things Fall Apart_ for those who want more to read.

May: I’m making a slight change here “Internet Fiction and Movie Month” – I’m going to put together a bunch of online fiction and a list of movies, and we’ll take a break from actual books for a month.

June: Population Apocalypse: Thanks, thank, thanks to those who reminded me of Brunner’s _Stand on Zanzibar_ which I read in High School, loved and haven’t seen since.  I think that one, combined with PD James in _The Children of Men_ will be nice juxtaposition.  And, of course, we’ll read Malthus himself.  

Ok, so I need your answers to a poll (please put the numbers in so I don’t completely lose track of what questions are being answered.

1. For August, would you rather read Starhawk’s _The Fifth Sacred Thing_ or Tepper’s _The Gate To Women’s Country_?

2. For October, would you prefer “Zombies” “Apocalyptic Children’s Novels” or “Hunter-Gatherers” as a theme?

3.  For January – Your votes for the worst post-apocalyptic novel ever!!!

4. For February – Should we read _The Stand_, _No Blade of Grass_ or _Oryx and Crake_? 

 Post your votes, and let the doominess begin.  I’ll run the first discussion of Heinlein on Monday, July 6, so get a’readin ;-) .



The Good News and the Bad News

Sharon June 17th, 2008

I think we all know what the bad news is.  You can see a first-hand view of it at my friend Matt’s site, where he’s been describing life in Cedar Rapids during the floods.  I know that some of you have first hand accounts as well. 

 Early this year, two different market analysts predicted corn rationing in the face of rising ethanol and meat consumption.  Another agricultural expert essentially said that famine was inevitable unless we had record harvests in all major producing regions.  Well, guess what’s not going to happen?  I have to admit, I’m completely in agreement with this gent over at Daily Kos and with Kunstler (for once ;-) ) that the reverbations of the Midwestern flood through out a host of systems are going to be problematic. 

And it isn’t just the floods in the US Midwest – there are the floods in rice producing regions of Southern China, the Australian Drought, the Drought in California and more.  Meanwhile, the increasingly shrill voices of the ultra-orthodox freemarketeers continue to say “No subsidies, no tariffs, nothing we can do here but decrease the surplus population.”

Of course, that is complete and utter bullshit.  There is gracious plenty food to go around, and so those who argue that we shouldn’t subsidize, shouldn’t try and create local food sovereignty, that we should keep investing in the bankrupt globalized food market are unblinkingly and casually condemning the starving to death.  Never do we hear them call for less meat, fewer biofuels, restraint of appetite.  Afterall, restraint is bad, human intervention in markets is bad, starvation, well…call it creative destruction.

There’s a fairly decent chance that we’re going to have a famine in hundreds of places all over the world, and hunger growing everywhere – including here – all for no reason whatsoever.  At some point, people will grow so angry that other options, including local food security and just allocation of food will have to be explored, but we’re not there yet in the places that are powerful enough to change things. 

I have to say, the whole thing makes me spitting mad.  And there’s damned little I can do, except make you spitting mad, and get the hell of my car.  I think the thing I want people most to remember is this – you and I aren’t different than the people who are being allowed to starve.  That is, if they will starve them, they will starve you.  But I dop’t know how to get that message out before it happens.  The only good thing is that I don’t have to say it, your government is working overtime to demonstrate the truth of that statement.

Now the good news.  The good news is that the Independence Days Project and my Food Storage classes are going to combine to become another book.  I’m going to be focusing on the food crisis, and Food Indepenence and Preservation as a solution to said crisis.  I think it is going to be a good book, and it will be enormously better from all the feedback I’ve gotten from y’all.

And, the book (tentatively called _Independence Days_) is going to include about a dozen profiles of other people doing the Independence Days challenge and trying to integrate food storage, preservation and local food into their lives.  Guess where I’m imagining those profiles will come from…hmmm…. ;-).   So I’m hoping some of you will volunteer to be profiled – I probably can’t use everyone who will volunteer (although I may take some extras and run them in my other project, the previously mentioned new food magazine _Hen and Harvest_) in the book, and I’ve already got a few of you in mind, but I’m definitely looking for more.

 So if you want to be profiled, send me an email at [email protected], and let me know where you are doing it, what you are doing, what your personal situation is!  I think this is going to be a blast.

 Also, I still have spaces in both my online classes, Food Preservation (July) and Adapting in Place (August).  Send me an email to the above address if you’d like to participate – the July class will have a strong emphasis on preserving the harvest, season extension (ie, planting a fall garden and keeping it going through the winter) and storing in the context of the food crisis.  The August class will focus in on making your yard feed you even in imperfect conditions, keeping warm/cool as prices rise, living a low energy life in a home built for a high energy one, community building, and getting along well no matter where you live.  I think both are going to be fun!  More details are here.  I’ve filled the low-income spots already for both classes, but if you were hoping to take the class and can’t afford it, send me an email – if the class doesn’t fill up, I’ll donate the rest of the spots. 

Actually there’s been so much demand for the low-income spots that I think sometime this winter I’m going to offer an “Adapting in Place” class that will include a food storage component, specifically for very low income households.  That class will be free (but will include the same enrollment benefits as my other classes), and open only to people who are trying to get settled on a minimal income.  So if you don’t get in this summer, I’m going to do a whole class on adaptation on the ultra-cheap.  I’m not yet taking enrollments, just because I don’t know my winter schedule yet, but if you are interested, you can let me know in the comments.

I’m still pissed, but I admit, it helps to know that I’m doing at least what little I can – growing what I can, sharing what I can.  I recommend it, just in case the bad news gets overwhelming.


Independence Day Update – And Sunday Seems to be My New Normal

Sharon June 15th, 2008

I think I’m shifting my Independence Day updates to Sunday.  Why?  Because I’m actually getting them written on Sundays, and so it seems wise for me to give you the impression that this is by actual intention and wise and careful planning.  You are buying it, right?

 Ok a fair bit to report:

Planted something: Raspberries, Strawberries (to replace the one the sheep ate during their tenure in my front yard), tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, watermelon, squash, pumpkins, zucchini, borage, lettuce, kale, parsley, okra, tomatillos, saskatoon, carrots, turnips, beets, arugula, marshmallow, corn, beans, limas.  Garden is still not finished or anything, but getting slowly in that direction.  I hope to finish spring planting before it stops being spring – so soon.

Harvested something: Alpine strawberries (the only ones we’re getting since abovementioned sheep at all the rest), rhubarb, lettuce, arugula, bok choy, chinese cabbage, parsley, peas, peonies, chives, lemon verbena, radishes, baby beets.

Preserved something – Froze and canned rhubarb.  Kim chi’d Chinese Cabbage.  Made calendula flower oil.   Dehydrated strawberries.  Lemon verbena jelly.

Cooked something new: Lemony Carrot Soup – really good. 

Managed reserves: Sorta cleaned out the freezer, enough to get our share of the cow (32lbs – will last us a long time at the rate we eat meat) we split with my friend Joy, my Mom, my aunt and my sister.  Beef is raised about 5 miles from me, on grass only, and was butchered locally.  Tried to figure out what the heck these packages of beef are for (We tend to buy ummm…cheap cuts, but when you buy the whole cow, you get a good mix of stuff – a much more exciting mix than I normally have anything to do with). 

Prepped something: Bought some more sprouting seeds, priced propane grills on Craigslist and new.  I want one with a side burner, for pressure canning, which I suspect means I’m going to have to buy new, but checking the local options.  Right now, besides our solar ovens, summer cooking is with electric, so the grill should save energy.  Plus, grilled eggplant is an inspiration in and of itself.

Minimized waste: Got our first load of free kitchen scraps from our friend’s deli/bulk store, fed them to the chickens – yay! 

Learned A New Skill: I tried (from a book, with advice from a friend) to graft my first fruit tree ever.  Time will yet tell whether I have actually learned this skill.

 Ok, how about y’all?


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