Archive for July 22nd, 2008

Everything You Need to Know, In Order

Sharon July 22nd, 2008

Like my title?  Never let it be said I’m not ambitious.

 A student in my class asked me for a list of skills we need to get ready for peak oil, prioritized. I admit, it took me about a day after she asked to stop thinking “Holy Crap, how do I figure that all out!”  But it is an interesting question.  And while it isn’t all just about food preservation, I thought I’d take a shot at it. I will, of course, be relying on my fearless readership to point out gaps in my thinking.

 Now I’m not going to get everything, but it did occur to me that we could break it down a bit, and then subcategorize.  So what the heck, here goes.  In order of priority – the main categories are numbered, and the skills in each category are lettered.  I’m going to do this in several posts, so that I don’t go mad.  But here’s the beginnings of my list. 

 1. How not to panic. 

- This is probably the most important skill set – when stuff gets hard, you need to focus and do what needs doing.  In order to do this, you need:

a. To feel like you are able to handle things, because you have mental contigency plans and you have built trust in your own competence.  The best way to get this skill is to plan, to talk and think out scenarios so you would know what you would do, and to practice doing things until you are reasonably confident that not only can you do familiar things, but you can learn new ones as you go.

b. To have the skills to control your own reactions – these may be strong.  You need to be able to put your anger, or grief or fear to the side long enough to make everyone safe and to meet immediate needs.  Meditation, biofeedback or simple compartmentalizing may help with this.  It is also extremely useful to develop the ability to accept that sometimes you will make mistakes and fail at things, and that that isn’t the end of the world.

 c.  To help other people remain calm, respond appropriately, and find a role for themselves. Some kind of leadership training, Community Reponse training or just practice organizing people. Some folks are not good at this – if you can’t be a leader, that’s ok - maybe your job is to find someone who is totally losing it and help them stabilize.  Certainly, knowing how to help your immediate family and neighbors, thinking about how they may respond and how to help them.  For children, it might be helpful to give them some training, or plan out specific jobs for them to do to help them feel powerful and useful.

2. How to learn things – and how to teach them

You are never going to learn every useful skill.  It won’t happen.  It is very helpful, though if you figure out how you and members of your family learn, and think about how you might make it easy for you and your family to learn more things as you need to – if you are a book person, get books.  If you need diagrams, get diagrams.  If you learn best from people, find out who knows what in your area.  But the basic skills of learning things are all pretty much the same – most of us can learn to do almost anything.  So learning how to learn – how to research an issue, how to pick up a physical skill, how to help another person do that, how to analyze a problem and find a solution, how to avoid major errors of logic, and what the necessary basic tools are will really help you expand your skill set.

3. How to get along with everyone else.

I sometimes get emails from people telling me that everyone around them is an asshole, and that they can’t possibly get along with their neighbors. Now once in a while that is actually true – there are horrible places and circumstances in the world.  But if someone tells me that there’s no one in their whole town who they can be friends with, that everyone is ignorant or mean or self-centered – the most likely scenario is that the person talking isn’t very good at getting along with others.  Now I don’t mean that people who are content without a large community are necessarily bad at this – some people are just introverts.  And some people who are bad at getting along in the course of things either can do better in a crisis, can find one role they can fit into, or can be protected by their families, who can get along with them.  But if you aren’t great at getting along, learning to be tolerant, learning to listen, learning to like other people even when they seem weird, and perhaps most importantly, learning to judge them gently (and I am not the natural master of any of these skills either) is really, really important.  Do it now.  This is especially important if you have trouble getting along with your relatives, and might end up with them.

4. How to deal with an immediate medical crisis in an emergency.

a. Basic hygeine, safety, self care and nutrition.  How to make a balanced meal, and to provide a balanced diet, how to make a rehydration syrup, how to wash hands, how to sterilize things, how to cook safely, how to keep water from being contaminated, how to deal with contaminated water, how nutritional needs vary by age, sex and medical condition. How to care for teeth, skin, etc.. without commercial preparations.  How to prevent pregnancy and disease.  How to use tools, including any weapons safely and keep children and others safe in their presence. Sounds obvious, will kill people if you don’t know it.

b. Basic first aid and triage of a situation – everyone needs to know these things – period, no discussion.  Maybe you’ll never use it, but you should be able to stop bleeding, do CPR, help a choking victim, evaluate whether someone can be moved, help clear an airway, and decide whether medical treatment is necessary.  This comes up all the time regardless of whether there’s a crisis on.

c. More advanced medical care, when to use it, and when not to.  This is particularly likely to come up in a localized disaster, an epidemic, or a transport crisis.  If you can’t get someone to the hospital, if the emergency rooms are overflowing with people, if the hospitals are closed or evacuated, or if there’s no way to get someone somewhere because of a gas shortage, snowstorm, ice storm, hurricane, earthquake…  You need to be able to meet emergency medical needs – to observe a concussion victim, make a temporary splint for a broken bone, birth a baby, ease the pain of a dying person, etc…  At least one person and preferrably everyone old enough should get some or all these skills per household.

5. How to feed yourself.

1. How to cook simple foods, and make them tasty and appetizing. How to adapt your cooking to changing availability of ingredients. How to deal with special diets that you might likely encounter. 

2. How to grow and forage simple, easily accessible foods.  These vary a lot by climate and culture, but generally the indigenous foods of your region will give you a good idea of what grows well.  Includes how to save seeds of these plants, what kind of soil conditions they need, teh basics of soil science, and how to harvest and preserve them, as well as how to recognize safe wild foods and how to use them.  I will discuss foraging and gardening later in this, but even if you imagine you won’t have to garden, or you have very little land, learn these very basic skills.

3. How to store your food so that you will have minimal losses from predators, mold, bacteria, theft, etc…  Includes security, hygeine, good storage practices, rotating, maintaining, checking, managing stores. 

4. How to secure your food from predators, and if you are interested, how to be a predator – how to hunt, trap, fish and butcher wild and tame livestock.  Even vegetarians may want this skill set to feed their pets, if the cost of food or its availability becomes prohibitive. Includes understanding the rules of hunting, gun, bow, dog and trap safety and humane practices, when not to take animals, and the best strategies for predator removal.

Ok, I’m about to have mega-thunderstorms, so I’m on my way offline.  More on this – next – storing and cleaning water, growing food, preserving food, growing medicinals, and much more.

How to Eat From Your Pantry – and Why

Sharon July 22nd, 2008

I’ve written a bunch of posts about the question of how to integrate food storage into your daily life.  Because honestly, not only am I not that interested in foods you buy and put in a bunker for 20 years ;-) , but I think that is a really bad way to go about this.  You lose almost all the advantages of food storage if you don’t integrate it – you lose the advantage of saving money, you lose some of the nutritional value over the years, you lose the knowledge that in a crisis you won’t have to adapt psychologically or physically to a new diet, you lose the advantage of not having to make trips to the store, the advantage of having your comfort and ritual foods be made from things you can always get and afford.  It simply doesn’t make sense to buy food, or preserve food, or grow food and not eat it.

And yet, it happens all the time.  People buy a big reserve for an emergency, but don’t know how to make it tasty or to use it well, or it isn’t familiar, and somehow, they look up and five years have passed, and you are wondering whether the canned chicken is still edible several years post expiration – and you’ve just lost the time and energy and money you put into this.  And no wonder people who did this once don’t really get excited about doing it again.

The thing is, the kind of eating you do if you rely on food storage is fundamentally different than the way you eat when you rely on supermarkets.  You are generally using whole grains, because those have the maximum in nutritional value and storage ease.  Most Americans don’t use whole grains in their whole form.  For many people, this will mean eating fewer animal products – because most of the reasonably prices purchasable options are of low quality (usually industrially processed) and because storing a lot of meat by any mechanism other than “on the hoof” or “freezing” is expensive and/or time consuming.   Freezing is increasingly expensive, and sometimes unreliable – it is a good way to keep meat, but you risk the economic loss of a lot of high value meat in a power outage.   It is simply easier to store more beans and eat a bit less meat than it is to can 200 chickens – you can definitely do it, but you might not want to.

For people who have been used to eating all their produce fresh, this involves changing menus a bit – during the time when things don’t grow, you’ll be eating food grown by season extension, root cellared or long lasting fresh foods, and preserved foods.  What the balance of these things is depends on you – our family, for example, doesn’t honestly eat that many canned vegetables – we’d rather eat raw cabbage from the root cellar, but people who like canned green beans might prefer that to stir fried cabbage.

I’ve written about this before here:

But the easiest way to get started is simply to start making menus.  You start thinking “Ok, what can I make with what I’ve got?” Come up with as many things you like, and things you think you might like as you can. Look at cookbooks – if you are going to have a lot of squash to deal with, flip through the cookbooks you’ve got looking at squash recipes.  Hit the library and check out their choices, and use inter-library loan to get cookbooks on the relevant subjects.  And, of course, read online. 

Can you make familiar recipes while changing ingredients slightly so they become “pantry” meals – our family always has the ingredients for certain meals in the house – we automatically stock up on these as our stores get depleted, because then we’re never caught out if someone suddenly stays for dinner or we’re out of ingredients.

Think about substitutions – most classic recipes already contain the history of substitution written into them.  The cake you make with vanilla?  It was probably flavored with rosewater when your great-grandmother made it, since vanilla was expensive and tropical.  Great-Grandma probably often substituted one kind of flour for another, used vinegar instead of lemon and a host of other techniques.  Many recipes grew up in regions where they were constantly adapted to one place or another  -paella might have used freshwater frogs and snails, along with meats available in that region, while coastal paellas used fish.  There are hundreds of recipes for pancakes in the world – because you can make pancakes out of almost anything, and people have.  Anyone who says that there’s only one way to make something (Unless they are talking about clam chowder, when there really is only one way to make it, and anyone using tomatoes is evil ;-) ) is just plain wrong.  I avoid cookbooks and recipes sites that speak of the one true way to make food.  That’s not to say some things don’t taste better than others, but with the exception of some fundamentally uneuphonious combinations, often things can be made to taste not funny with a bit of work, even with changed ingredients.

This is one of those practicing things – getting familiar with the food and new ways of cooking it, gradually integrating it into your diet and family life.  It does take work and practice.  It is also worth it.



Is this Hoarding? The Ethics of Storage

Sharon July 22nd, 2008

What is hoarding? If I store food am I hoarding stuff?  Is that bad? 

 These are probably the most common emails I’m getting these days, from nice and smart people who genuinely want to protect themselves and their families, and who also don’t want to do bad things.  So I thought it would be useful to discuss what hoarding is, and what the ethics of food and goods storage actually are.

First, a quiz!

Question 1: If James has a large group of Hummel figurines (those weird looking kids with big eyes in cutesy poses), including some that are very rare and scarce, and he has more Hummel figurines than anyone could possible use or appreciate (for me, that number would be 1 figurine ;-) ), will people say James is hoarding Hummel figurines?

Question 2: If Laurie has more money than she needs to pay her expenses, and she takes this extra money, and puts it away where it earns interest and is available to her for future use, even though there are people in the world who could really use that money, will people say she is hoarding money?

Question 3: If Li goes to the grocery store only once every few months, purchases in bulk and in quantities he needs for a year, will people say he is hoarding food?

Question 4: If Gloria knows she is likely to lose her job soon, and takes her kids to the doctor, gets their teeth checked, and gets a 3 months supply of her allergy medication while insurance will still pay for it, is she hoarding medical care?

Question 5: If Gloria knows she will lose her job soon and isn’t confident about finding a new one, and goes to the thrift shop and buys clothes that are available in larger sizes for her oldest son and stores them, so that he’ll have nice clothes for school even if they are quite poor, will people say she is hoarding?

Queston 6: Laurie is also worried about affording clothes for her children.  So she puts as much of her salary aside in a specific account marked for her daughter’s clothing as possible.  Will people say she is hoarding?

Answers: 1. No, James is a collector.  2. No, Laurie is saving. 3. Probably many will. 4. No, people will say she is exercising common sense Question 5. Probably, yes.  Question 6 – No.

I do this simply to point out the fact that we don’t always look at having a lot of something, even more than you need, as a kind of hoarding.  In fact, we look at two different ways of dealing with precisely the same problem – not enough money for clothes – one is perceived as hoarding and the other isn’t.   We also tend to have a very visceral reaction to the idea that we would hold quantities of food or other basic staples – those, we’re supposed to get through the “just in time” delivery system, and any other methodology is really strange to people.   We tend to use the term “hoarding” on anything that seems strange to us.

 Why do we jump to it?  Partly the problem is that most of us don’t understand what hoarding actually is.  Part of the problem is that we’ve been trained (and our training strongly benefits the economic system) that some things are for collecting, saving or preserving and some things aren’t – and we need a language to express our shock and dismay at people who violate the social rules.  And partly the problem is that we are carrying cultural baggage left over from the World Wars, when there was a system of reasonably just allocation in place, and where stockpiling disrupted that system.

First of all, let’s figure out what hoarding actually is, and what can be described with less emotionally laden language as “saving” or “storing.”  Hoarding is an attempt to disrupt an ethical, equitable, reasonably functional system of distribution by claiming widely needed scarce items in greater supply than you need, or than the system can support while maintaining ethical distribution.  In order to have hoarding, you have to have two things.  First, you need a system under which most people can get what they need, regardless of circumstances, and in the face of forseeable consequences - that is, if the system is “just in time delivery to stores” most people have to be able to afford food, or subsidies have to be available, and food has to come into the stores regularly.  If any of those things falls apart, say, if the food stops coming in to stores regularly, the people who buy extra so they’ll have something to eat when the food isn’t there are not hoarding – they are using common practices and saving.

The other thing you need to hoard is scarcity of something necessary, or a conscious attempt to create scarcity.  That is, you can buy up all the beanie babies you want, hoping that they will someday make you rich, but because beanie babies aren’t necessary, this would be not hoarding.  You can buy up all the dandelions you want, and transplant them all into your yard, and that’s not hoarding either, because dandelions aren’t scarce.  You are only hoarding it you take something people really need, that is in short supply, and put it away, not for your own use, but either to manipulate markets or in excess of your ability to use it.  For example, if you buy up 10 years of brown rice in a market that is short of rice, that would be hoarding because you are essentially preventing other people from getting rice, and you can’t possibly eat it before it goes rancid.

Now you could make the case that my own food storage falls in the category of hoarding.  There is, at present, a system that enables people to get food – it is the just in time delivery system and a combination of the growth economy and food stamps (with 1 out of every 11 Americans, and 1 in 7 in Michigan, Washington DC and Ohio –  getting food stamps, it has reached the point where it isn’t just a social welfare program, but a basic way that people get access to food – fundamental to the system) and other social welfare programs.  And I have more food than is required to meet my immediate needs.

The difficulty is that the system I am expected to rely upon won’t work under a range of highly plausible situations – for example, the CDC itself in its avian flu preparations admits that in order to best avoid an epidemic, we need most people to have a large stockpile (12 weeks) of food reserves, because otherwise, the most effective means of controlling infection – avoiding contact with most people – can’t be utilized at all.  It won’t work in an extended Depression, for example, because the rising costs of food and energy are, in fact, already pricing people out of markets for basic commodities.  The US Government once stored commodities to use as food reserves for “safety net” systems like food pantries and for distribution in an emergency – the US no longer has substantial food reserves – they’ve been stripped.  So if there are supply problems, we have no recourse but our own reserves.

Moreover, we aren’t short of food – neither in the US nor the world is there an actual shortage of food.  I’m not buying up something that would otherwise be eaten by someone else – there is more than adequate food around – the problem is the distribution system.  In fact, because it is better to use food as well…food than it is to say, put it in your car, IMHO, people who buy corn and soybeans right now, and create markets for farmers to sell their grains as food grains to are actually doing something quite good.  Most US grains get used either in biofuels or in Confinement livestock production – and both are driving forces of the price rises we’re experiencing. Undermining them by creating viable markets for whole grains that people actually eat is a good thing. 

Equally importantly, storing food is part of human culture.  Just about every region on earth has a period of the year where less stuff grows than others.  Every region on earth has experienced times of food shortfalls, or bad harvests.  All through human history, our culture has grown up around the process of creating a reserve and a safety net to adapt to the fact that food systems are natural systems, not machines.  Human food cultures grew up around food storage and stored foods are essential to those cultures.  If we stop storing food, we are abandoning a large part of our heritage.

Now the danger of lots and lots of people buying food to store is that they will drive prices up. This has happened in some poor countries – when food prices rise and keep rising, people who like to eat buy as much as they can at lower prices, because they are afraid they won’t have any tomorrow.  And this does, in the short term, contribute to price increases.  So we might say that we shouldn’t buy food if the price is increasing.  But the categorical imperative isn’t always the best way to figure out whether something is ethical or not, and it isn’t in this case.  For example, while people buying out cooking oil or rice did raise the price in the short term, the fundamental problem – the thing that drove the prices up so high that people started buying all they could anyway, the thing that most deeply disturbed the system of distribution in the first place, was biofuels.  Instead of taking grains and selling them on markets for food, the not-very-but-more ethical system of distribution we had in place was fundamentally undermined and disrupted when the appetites of cars were treated as equal to the appetites of people.

The truth is that we don’t have an equitable system of distribution, we don’t have a system that can withstand reasonably forseeable shocks, and we don’t have any organic scarcity of food – what we have is a new set of competitors, created by a subsidy system, for people’s need for a resource – a resource that is not, in any objective sense, scarce, but has been made artificially scarce by the introduction of these new, heavily subsidized artificial appetites.  The right response is to remove the subsidies and to create a system in which cars can’t compete with people for food -  it is not to start feeling guilty becuase you want to be able to eat even after you lose your job.

Does that mean there are no ethical grey areas or problems?  Of course there are – this is human life, not a sitcom.  If we are going to store, we have the obligation, if we can afford to be conscious of these issues, to store carefully, not to buy foods that others are experiencing real shortages of if we have any choice, to buy and store foods that are as basic as possible – ie, prioritizing whole grains rather than industrially produced powdered milks and dried meats that reduce the total quantity of food for humans, and most of all to spend our dollars in ways that actually increase the equity, quality and accessibility of the food system.  Just like everything else, storing food has to be done as ethically as possible.  The rules vary depending on your abilities – those who have the money to buy locally and sustainably every time should, those who don’t should do what they can.

The same rules apply to the storage of goods, as well as food.  For example, I buy shoes for my kids to grow into.  I do this for several reasons. The first is that my kids’ feet are going to get bigger no matter what I do, but there are other reasons – environmental health, the saving of used goods from landfills, saving money. The convention, of course is that I should go to the mall when they get bigger and buy the next size up. Of course, that isn’t the most ethical choice – the dollars go to a large corporation, the gas to the mall is a waste, nor is it the best choice for me – I have to make more trips to the mall since I don’t have a supply at home, even if I’d rather be doing something else (and trust me, I would), and I have to spend more money. 

As long as I’ll use the shoes – and I will – there’s no ethical issue with me buying a supply of used shoes at Goodwill.  In fact, I honestly don’t understand why anyone does it any other way – hmmm…cheaper, often barely used or never used, keeps things out of a landfill, subsidizes a charity, don’t have to drive to the mall, saves energy making a new thing…what’s not to like?  But to do this successfully, you pretty much have to store – the thing is, buying used isn’t like going to a department store – you don’t say “I’ll take the green in a size 5″ – in order for me to have a pair of size five shoes, I have to plan ahead, because yard saling is only in spring and summer, and Goodwill gets what it gets – a pair of suitable, high quality size five shoes might not come in for six months – and then I’d have to go buy new.

In fact, it isn’t possible for me to live as I do without storing – I came to this not because I worry about the end of the world, but because my family of 6 has lived, for the last 7 years on between 20 and 40K per year, without any debt but mortgage debt, and while accumulating a reserve of goods, and expanding our farm.  The fact is, there is no way we could live this way - no way we could run the farm, keep the husband’s commute and thus carbon emissions as low as we do, no way we could feel ourselves comfortably well off on that income (which to be fair has hovered closer to 40 for the last few years, but was much, much, much less for a long time before that) without these strategies. 

In order to be sure that I’ll have a clean, nice, high quality, reasonably priced wardrobe, shoes, library, toys for my kids, I plan ahead.  I started buying children’s books for older kids at yard and library sales when my children were babies – because a lot of children’s books are series, and I wanted to have the whole sets.  But used books don’t usually show up as whole sets – they come in bits and pieces, so I knew if I wanted to have a complete set of Narnia or His Dark Materials, I should start hunting earlier – and lo and behold, I now have much of what I want. 

The same is true of clothes and shoes – I buy three sizes ahead, generally speaking.  Some years I get tons of bigger kid clothes in sizes that are just what they are growing into.  Other years, I don’t find much at all – or only things that are much too big. I have reasonable confidence, however, that my kids will keep growing for a good while yet – and some of the things I bought a few years ago that looked crazy too big, now are part of their regular wardrobes.  The reality is that the lifestyle that enables us to live cheaply, the lifestyle that enables us to be as secure as we are, that depends on stockpiling, on planning ahead at many levels – on buying in bulk, on buying used goods when they are available, on looking to future needs.  We don’t do a lot of this in our society, and like all the other basic skills of thrift, they are probably going to be among the most urgent skills out there for us – we may need our guns and ammo far less than we need the ability to stretch soup, look ahead to the future, and make do with what we’ve got.

 Now it is true that I’m also buying stuff because I believe that hard times are coming.  I’m concerned not so much that there won’t be food in the stores, but that my husband might lose his job and I might not be able to buy it. I think it is possible that energy shortages will mean that there will be supply disruptions, but the most likely scenario to me is always this – we become poor.  Our lives start looking more and more (and they already are looking that way for many) like the lives of the world’s poor.  And sometimes the world’s poor experience supply disruptions of things they really need – food, power, energy – because less reliability is a hallmark of poverty.  But more importantly, the economy and energy prices and climate change make it more likely that I’ll be walking by a store thinking, ‘I don’t have enough to afford this thing I need.’  And since I have enough now, and the things we’re talking about are things we waste and throw away all the time, it only makes sense to get them now. 

But this is one of those “Theory of Anyway” things – it makes sense if “the world ends” – or more likely, our world changes, but it makes sense if it doesn’t.  And no, you can’t store your way out of everything – but you don’t have to.  As long as you use your stores and use them wisely, you don’t have to have enough to last you forever.  The truth is that if the present system stops working, a new system will arise – we had shoes and food before peak oil and climate change, and people will make and grow them afterwards.  But there is a transitional period where there might not be enough food for sale, and where no one may be making shoes or distributing them, or where you can’t store them.  And while some of these things are just plain things we may have to get used to living without, it doesn’t hurt anyone to make that a gradual transition, not a rapid one – others, we might have to live without if we don’t store them.  Books, for example, can be copied, or reprinted using very simple technology and renewable energies.  But they can’t be copied if we don’t have them in our communities.

Am I saying everyone should store? No, everyone is different.  Some people are already better suited to a light, migratory lifestyle.  Some people don’t want to the burden, or don’t have the space.  But I do think that for many of us, who are settling in a place and creating a likely refuge for others, storing makes sense for three reasons – the first is that it enables you to spend less and use less energy, which is inherently good.  The second is that it is perfectly normal, in every human society except ours we have stored extra food as a reserve for hard times and seasonal periods where it is necessary, and it is not hoarding to do so.  The third, and perhaps most important reason is that in the absence of a system of fair and equitable distribution, we have no choice but to create those systems – we have to compensate for the failure to maintain a public system.  For some of us, our compensation might be simply the creation of a private reserve, designed to protect our own – and our own could be a broad or narrow category depending on who we call “ours” - maybe immediate family, maybe extended, maybe a whole neighborhood.  But we may also be compensating for the loss of the public sphere – that is, our libraries may be the community library, our store of seeds can be multiplied and spread through our communities, our extra shoes and clothes, when outgrown, can go to the next family in need, to compensate for an overburdened or absent support system.

 Ok, next, living off stored food as a way of life, not as an emergency practice.