Archive for January, 2009

Getting Your Family on Board With Food Storage

Sharon January 27th, 2009

Ok, I’ve convinced you - you need a reserve of food, you want to learn to can and dehydrate, you want to start eating more local foods.  But you haven’t done anything yet, because, well, the rest of your household isn’t on board.  Before you go there, you need to convince them.   So I offer up this handy guide of answers to common protests about food storage and preservation.  I also offer up some suggestions on what not to say, just in case you need them, mostly because that part was fun for me to write ;-) .

Protest #1: It will be too expensive!

Bad answer: “But honey, the world is going to come to an end soon, and male life expectancy is going to drop into the 50s, so you won’t need your retirement savings anyway.  Let’s spend it on food so I have something to eat in my old age.”

Good answer: “I’m glad you are so concerned about our finances, and I share your concern.  I think in the longer term this will save us money, allowing us to buy food at lower bulk prices and when it is at its cheapest, and thus will insulate us from rising prices.  But let’s sit down and make a budget for what we think it is appropriate to spend on food storage.”

Protest #2: No one has time to can and preserve food anymore!  Isn’t that a leftover form the bad old days?

Bad answer: “Of course you’ll have time to do it, sweetie - can’t you get up before the kids do to make pickles?  You already get 5 hours of sleep a night, so what’s the problem?  Here, read this woman’s blog and you’ll start feeling guilty that you don’t love the kids enough to make your own salsa.”

Good answer: “What I think will end up happening is that we’ll save time later from effort spent now - and we’ll know that our food supply is nutritious and safe - I don’t feel good giving the kids processed foods with all the recalls and contaminations.  But let’s definitely start slowly - I’ll make some sauerkraut, and then if you think we should, we’ll look into plans for a dehydrator.  But we’ll do it together.

Protest #3: Where are we going to put all that stuff?  There’s no way it will fit!

Bad answer: “On those shelves where you keep all your old vinyl records, silly.  As soon as I get that stuff out to the trash, we’ll be ready to build our pantry.”

Good answer: “I think there’s some unused space in that guest room, and if I clean out this closet, I know we could put shelves up and store some food.  I guess I should think about cleaning out some of my junk, right?”

Protest #4: Storing food is for wacko-survivalist types - that’s not us.

Bad answer: “Oh, didn’t you read that stuff by Nostradamus that I gave you?  Oh, and do you know how to use an uzi?”

Good answer: “No, storing food is what my grandmother did to get through the great depression.  It is pretty normal, actually - so normal that FEMA and the American Red Cross recommend that every American store some food.”

Protest #5: Nobody in our house is going to eat Garbanzo beans.  I’m certainly not going to - they make we want to puke!

Bad answer:”Oh, you’ll eat those beans, young lady,  or you’ll spend the rest of your life in your room!”

Good answer: “Ok, you don’t like chickpeas.  That’s ok - what would you suggest we get instead?  Would you like to come with me to the bulk store and help me pick out some storage food?  It needs to be about 1/3 protein sources to grains - what would you suggest?”

Protest #6: I don’t want to think about bad stuff that might happen, or be reminded of it!

Bad answer: “Ok, you don’t have to.  But have you ever seen this great website, The Automatic Earth?”

Good Answer: “But remember, we’re not just storing food for bad times, we’re storing food so that we can save money, go shopping less, have more time for each other, and so we have to worry less about money.”

Protest #7: Things will never get bad enough that we need our stored food, so what’s the point?

Bad Answer:  ”I expect things to get so bad that we seriously consider whether or not to eat the hamsters - probably by next Friday.  After Pookie and Herman, the neighbors will be next.”

Good Answer: “Well, this is really about a whole way of eating - not just storing food for an emergency.  So no matter what happens, we come out ahead - we have the food, and it will get eaten.

Protest #8: Ok, I’m willing to think about some food storage, but storing water?  That’s for whack jobs.

Bad Answer: “Ok, well I’m storing water for me, and if anything bad happens, I’m just going to sit there watching you shrivel up.”

Good Answer: “Remember the floods in the midwest this summer?  A lot of areas had contaminated water, and I don’t really want to go for days with no water to wash hands in or to cook with.  All we’ve got to do is take these recycled soda bottles and fill them with water and a couple of drops of bleach, to know that we won’t be in that position.”

Protest #9: Home preserved food isn’t safe - I heard about someone who died from eating home canned food.

Bad Answer: “Oh, you are right.  Let’s only eat industrially packaged food with lots of peanut butter in it.”

Good Answer: “It is true that unsafe canning practices occasionally result in home canned food hurting or killing someone.  But think of all the trouble we’ve had with the industrial food system - the melamine in dog food, botulism in canned chili, salmonella and ecoli on tons of things.  I agree we have to be very careful, especially when pressure canning, and I plan to be.  But we can preserve our own in lots of ways that are completely safe, and overall, home preserved food is actually safer, not to mention more nutritious, than commercial canned food.

Protest #10: There are so many things about this that are hard - it takes time, energy, new tools, money.  It may be a good idea, but why would you want to take it on?

Bad Answer: “Because Sharon (yes, that woman on the blog you call “the nutjob”) says I should - she fed me the zombie paste, and now I have no will of my own.”

Good Answer: “Because I think we deserve better food than we’re getting.  I want it to taste better,  I want the money we spend to help do things we’re proud of. I want to depend on ourselves more and on corporations less.  I want us to be healthier, and I want us to work together on this as a family.  I want us to feel like when we are eating, we’re doing something good - for us and the world.” 

Best of luck on this!


Utility Shut-Off Deaths Begin

Sharon January 27th, 2009

I’ve been worrying for a long time about what is going to happen to many of us when we can no longer pay our utility bills - and urging people to put what resources they can to being able to live without their utilities.  I’ve written about this a number of times.

 Now a reader (thanks, Edward!) has sent me this, the story of a 93 year old World War II veteran who died of hypothermia in his home because he couldn’t pay his electric bill.  Marvin Schur’s death is the first case I know of during this Depression that involves someone freezing to death in their home due to a utility shut off, but it will not be the last, I fear.

Bay City Electric Light and Power, which is owned by the city, said a limiter was placed on Schur’s electrical line.


The device limits the power that reaches a home, and it blows out like a fuse if power consumption rises past a set level.


The manager of Bay City said the limiter was tripped sometime between the time of installation and the discovery of the man’s body.


The city manager said city workers keep the limiter on a house for 10 days, then shut off power entirely if the homeowner hasn’t paid utility bills or arranged to do so.


A medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Schur told TV5 and that Schur died a painful death due to the hypothermia.


Dr. Kanu Varani has done hundreds of autopsies, and he said he’d never seen a person die of hypothermia indoors.


A neighbor who lives across the street from Schur is angered that the city didn’t personally notify the elderly man about his utility situation.


Schur’s neighbor, Herndon, said Schur had a utility bill on his kitchen table with a large amount of money clipped to it, with the intention of paying that bill.”

This is, of course, a horror and a shameful thing to allow to happen.  But a life with few or no utilities is probably in many people’s future - already families are unable to fill oil tanks and are making do with electric space heaters.  What happens when the electricity goes as well?  While many states have limits on utility companies shutting off during the heating season, some places have suffered chronic violations of these laws, and the pressure to shut off is likely to rise steadily as more and more Americans are in debt to their utility companies.  At last check 26% of all Americans were overdue on at least one utility bill.

This is one of my older articles - I’ve written about this a number of times - but my own conviction is that many, many of us will live without utilities, not because the grid crashes (which might also happen), but because we will increasingly be priced out of basic services like lights and heat.  I don’t want this to happen to anyone else - so find ways to live comfortably without power if you can, and please, please keep an eye on your vulnerable neighbors.  The elderly and disabled have the fewest recourses and are the most likely to die - and they may be ashamed to ask for help.  Don’t make them ask, be there offering, so that no one will ever die this painful death again. 


Food Security as a Cottage Industry

Sharon January 27th, 2009

It would be great if all of us had the luxury of putting our community’s food security needs at the top of our agendas, simply because we care.  The problem, of course, is the need for us to meet other requirements - to make a living, get food on the table, tend our families, etc…  One of the ways we can find more time for this project is to shift some of our income to local food security work.  So what kind of jobs are there that allow you to improve your local food economy?  How might you make a cottage industry niche for yourself that might simultaneously improve your family’s economic security in tough times, and also help your community maintain a food supply?

Now obviously if you and your partner already work two full time jobs, or you are a single Mom struggling to just get through the day, the last thing you need is a new business.  But for the retired, underemployed, unemployed or for at-home parents who might need a little extra income, this offers the possibility of doing good and also keeping the wolf from the door.

So here are some jobs I can think of (I’m leaving out jobs as growers or raising livestock - I’ll do a post on growing and producing food for income next month during the Garden Design class) - I’m sure the rest of you can come up with others. 

Let me be clear that anyone dealing with food is going to have to decide how they want to operate in relationship to food laws.  Know your local food laws, and know how they are enforced.  The recent Manna Storehouse raid suggests that we need to take care.  I believe that many food safety policies do exist for a reason - but the fact that they so hugely prioritize the well being of rich corporations, who still can’t keep the food supply safe (witness the current peanut contamination and cyclical contaminations that show up every few months), that we’d be better off allowing more small scale food production.  I personally don’t have a lot of problem circumventing the laws, or campaigning to overturn them, but I do want people to understand the risks.

 1. Bulk food/local food sales.  My friend Joy now operates a storefront that sells bulk foods, local dairy, cheese and eggs, and also makes homemade baked goods and sells sandwiches.  Her place operates as a convenience store/sandwich shop and bulk goods store.  That might be a little much of a project for beginners, but her example is timely because before she operated her storefront, she did bulk food sales out of her house, ordering bulk foods, repackaging them in smaller quantities for sale and recruiting customers.  Her prices are a bit higher than my local coop, but I want her and her family to succeed.   This is a great cottage industry for someone - or even for a couple of people at home.

 2. Home baker - now food sanitation laws can make any kind of food production at home difficult - most states require certified kitchens, with equipment most of us don’t have.  Some of us may have access to certified kitchens somewhere - we may be able to use them for a small fee or even barter for their use during times when they aren’t open, and then sell home-produced food.  If you are going to work outside the law, the place where there are the fewest risks is in baking - it is genuinely challenging to poison people with bread.  In addition, Amish communities routinely sell home baked goods outside the law, and are mostly ignored, setting a precedent that might be useful.  So if you are going to try and set up as a food producer outside of a certified kitchen, I suggest baked goods.  In fact, I’ve done this - when our CSA was in operation, we used to include Challah in our deliveries.  At one point, we were baking 50 loaves of bread every Thursday, without legal approval.  We were very clear with our customers - we were neither certified nor we were certified kosher, although we keep a kosher kitchen and take challah when baking.  The bread was a gift, never mentioned in our literature, and not part of their purchase.  We still could have gotten into trouble, but I mention this as a possibility.

 3. Other cooking - basically, I think the “ratio of things likely to get you in serious trouble” runs this way baking is the lowest because illness from bread is unlikely.  Homemade meals or “lunch bags”, delivered to neighbors or brought to a workplace are probably next lowest risk, particularly if you can simply have them pay you for “grocery shopping” enough to cover.  I personally would not mess with selling dairy or home canned goods - just in case something goes wrong, but then again, I live in a state with draconian dairy laws.  Find out what your local laws are and work with them - or know what you are risking working around them.  If you have access to a certified kitchen, or can get some institution to certify a kitchen for the collective good, by all means explore these routes.  We are going to need more people cooking - and this is a reasonable source of income. 

4. Teaching food storage, preservation and food security.  There are a couple of ways you could do this.  One is through your local community college extension courses, another is privately.  You might run classes out of your home or you might offer private lessons if the market will bear it - you go to their house and help them with their first canning attempts.  You will probably need a fair bit of experience and some practice or credentials - my suggestion would be to teach the classes for free a few times through a local coop or health food store, as a volunteer, and then use that to leverage yourself into being able to charge.  This will depend on the market and local interest - but it is worth a shot.

5. Canning on shares - if you can find a certified kitchen, what about preserving other people’s food for them?  They could pay you, or they could give you a portion of the preserved food as part of the deal - which, if it was canned in a certified kitchen, you could then sell.

6. Produce sales - you talk to local gardeners who grow enough extra to want a little cash, but not enough to be worth setting up a stand.  Find 5-10 of these and ta da - you pay them for their extra strawberries and sweet corn and you sell it, either from an actual produce stand at the farmer’s market or through a stand at your house, and you keep the markup.  You can do eggs this way too, and even local crafts, soap, etc…

 7. Food access expansion.  When Eric and I were caring for his grandparents, his grandmother wanted very much to buy local, fresh food.  The difficulty was that at first, she was nervous about driving to unfamiliar areas, and later, unable to drive herself.  It was easy enough for us to pick up extra produce when we went to our local farmstand.  And gradually we noticed that other seniors in our rural area had the same problem - they missed the fresh raspberries and really “chickeny” chicken of their youth, but trips to the farmer’s market were hard - they were often tired or relied on other people to take them shopping.  Extra stops and out of the way areas were simply too overwhelming.  So, for a time, we’d stop by and pick up extra produce for them too.  Now this was a not-for profit thing, but the seeds of a business are there - either shopping on comission for those too busy or unable to get out, or transporting people to farmer’s markets or farmstands in order to increase demand for local food.

8. Set up pantries.  I suspect there are some people out there concerned with food storage who have more time than money - they want to build food storage, but don’t have time to clean out space, set up a pantry and stock it.  So you be the “provident pantry” dude.  You volunteer to come over, clear out the shelves, place and pick up the bulk order and put it into buckets.  You might also offer menus and suggestions for using food storage.  I should note that I generally shy away from strategies that mostly involve serving the affluent, but in this case, I actually think food security is one of those things that serves everyone - everyone in the community is better off when people have enough to eat. 

9. Teach cooking classes - teaching people to cook bulk staple foods and to adapt their diets to food storage and local eating is important work.  If you haven’t taught before, do it as a volunteer a few times.  Consider seeing if you can get local grant money from any organization to cover your time, so that you can offer classes for free for those who may need them but can’t afford to pay - many towns have budgets that might locate a few hundred dollars to pay you to help low income folks be able to make better use of low cost foods.  These classes can be taught anywhere, though - through churches, out of your home, to teenage homeschoolers and even through workplaces.

10. Combine items, but don’t ”cook” them - there are plenty of grey areas here that might allow you to sell home produced foods, but without getting into the legal mess of selling cooked items.  You can mix teas, spice mixes,  beans for soup mix, make flour mixes for gluten free or specialty baking, make herbal tinctures (don’t do this unless you know what you are doing and are familiar with the laws about making health claims for herbal medicines), and otherwise take other people’s products and mix them without doing anything that can get you in trouble. 

Ok, other suggestions?  The reality is that with almost 70,000 jobs gone in just one day yesterday, a lot of us are going to need ways to do good work and make a living.


Hard Realities: Why Understating the Cost of Dealing With Climate Change Hurts

Sharon January 26th, 2009

Despite our taste for doing so, the world can never be divided into two kinds of people.  Still, were one to try and divvy up climate change activists, one way to do it might be to divide up those who admit that addressing climate change is going to be painful and those who are inclined to minimize the difficulties, perhaps even claim that in our mitigation strategies lies the beginning of a new economy.

Among those who stand on the “this is going to hurt and it is best we prepare people for it” side of the aisle are Bill McKibben, who has discussed the costs of climate change in recent articles in _Foreign Policy_ and _Yale Environment 360_, George Monbiot, whose superb _Heat_ describes his concern that our calls to insufficient action actually reflect our desire to fail, and thus not be forced into austerity, and James Hansen, who has described the methods that must be implicated in the next few years as “draconian.”  Longtime readers will recognize that I fall firmly in this category as well - in fact, one of my proudest achievements was the inclusion of language I wrote (profuse thank to Albert Bates for arranging its inclusion) in a document on climate change presented to Kofi Annan calling for a reconsideration of climate activist’s reluctance to call for sacrifice. 

On the other side of this divide stand, well, I think most major climate activists.  I do not think I am misrepresenting the field to say that the majority opinion is that climate change can probably be addressed without too high a cost, and that hopes are running high among many people that new green jobs will mitigate the current economic crisis.  I certainly don’t blame such writers for their hope, but I think they overstate.  For example, Grist contributor Anna Fahey has argued that the fact that a recent poll puts climate change down as number 20 out of 20 of national concerns really isn’t that bad, because

“The fact is, solutions that will address the top two concerns — the economy and jobs — as well as several other top 10 concerns — energy, terrorism, helping the poor — are all wrapped up in the best solutions for combating climate change.

The fossil-fuel roller coaster has long whiplashed family budgets, and our economy remains shackled to its adrenaline-boosting unpredictability. Any economic recovery we muster in coming months will sputter if we fail to reduce our fossil-fuel dependence. As soon as the economy rebounds, oil prices are sure to shoot up again, negating the economic gains that we’ve made. “

There is some real truth there - but there’s a big missing elephant in this room.  The problem is that if the people don’t actually care about climate change, they are likely to seek solutions, say, to rising oil prices that make the climate situation worse.  For example, in the Northeast, where I live, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of households burning coal for heat, in response to rising heating oil prices and availability issues.  In order to choose spending thousands on insulation, rather than a thousand dollars on a coal stove, a household will have to actually care about climate change - and convey that concern to their representatives in such a way as to provided economic incentives to choose the more expensive option.  It is not clear to me that the best ways to keep people comfortable in their homes or to get us new jobs are always ones that lead towards the radical shifts in carbon usage that are needed - and my concern is that as long as the message remains “we won’t ask too much of you” people will indeed expect not to be asked.

In this sense, my own feeling is that those who understate the costs of mitigating climate change actually do more harm than good.  I don’t blame them for their preference for the politically palatable - I would prefer that too.  But I would argue that there are two problems - the first is that a more politically palatable strategy is infeasible, particularly given the current economic situation, and that it risks branding climate activists as liars later on, when the bills come due. 

A good example of those who dispute the “this is gonna hurt” strategy is Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope’s recent missive “Moving the US Off Carbon with Less Pain, More Gain.”  He writes,

“But if, as Bill McKibben has said elsewhere, there is no silver bullet for climate change, just lots of silver buckshot, then insisting that sacrifice is the key has the effect of distracting us from the reality that it will take many answers to solve the problem. Often, advocates of inaction or tokenism say the reason we must do too little is that the price of doing more is too extreme. It is not strategically helpful to reinforce this notion.

The assumption that the costs of climate recovery will be prohibitively high simply does not stand up to scrutiny. A study by McKinsey & Company last year documented large opportunities to reduce U.S. emissions by 2030 that could be achieved with a negative cost — meaning that these represent investment opportunities that would increase the productivity of the overall U.S. economy. Less speculatively, experts at the University of California-Berkeley recently documented that more than 1.5 million jobs were created in California by relatively aggressive clean energy policies adopted by the state between 1972 and 2006. And other studies show that in the long run, energy costs are lower under a high efficiency and renewable energy scenario.” I would never presume to speak for Bill McKibben, but my own guess is that the reason that he presents sacrifice as key is that “sacrifice” is not in itself a BB, a bullet or a wedge, but something different - a national relationship to our collective actions, some hard, some not, one that opens up the range of available possibilities.  Were I making the case, my inclination would be to observe that we are more likely to succeed with more ammo to fire against climate change (can I just say that I really hate the BB-Bullet discussion - is there no other terminology we can get to here?) rather than less - a call to sacrifice offers us a range of options not available without that compelling rationale - without, we have fewer BBs to shoot.But is sacrifice really even necessary?  Pope mentions studies that suggest that we might actually make money on the climate, and the possibility of job growth.  But let’s take a closer look here at the studies he cites.  It might first be noted that the McKinsey report mentioned was sponsored by such ecological luminaries as Shell and PG&E - this does not in itself devalue the research, but it does suggest that the research was undertaken by those who would probably like to find necessary energy cuts economically profitable.  But more importantly the essay shows comparatively low cost abatements for limiting emissions to 550 ppm, moderate cost for limiting them to 450ppm (among them Carbon Capture and Storage, often falsely described as “clean” coal -  which does not exist and probably never will - so is irrelevant to any discussion), and then leaves open “higher cost abatements” for stopping at 400ppm.  Moreover, it presumes a fairly stable economic situation - neither of which assumptions deal with the reality.

Much of the problem lies in shifting assessments of what we have to do - analysis based on older climate estimates of 450 ppm by mid-century simply don’t match up to the new science.  For example, see Gar Lipow’s timely discussion of how fast we have to cut emissions radically.  Generally speaking, those who claim that climate change can be arrested without signficant economic costs are those who still accept the IPCC assumptions about climate sensitivity, many of which were proved false before or shortly after its release.  Williams, I think does a superb job of demonstrating the big gap in our understanding - at this point, we don’t know what precise rate or by what date we need to reduce emissions.  But it seems likely that Pope’s analysis, while better than the IPCC’s, is still understating the scale of emissions reduction.  He says,

“Confronted with the urgent need to reduce our economy’s greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent to 35 percent in the next 12 years, and 80 percent to 95 percent by mid-century, it is difficult to imagine this shift not requiring massive sacrifice.”

The “mid-century” figure is almost certainly far too far in the future.  Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute suggests we have to be down 80% in 11 years.  Most other cutting edge analysis suggest at the latest by 2030.  Nearly all analysts find that the costs of mitigation rise rapidly when we have to do it faster and make deeper cuts. 

The other relevant point, and one that seems to be grasped by few climate activists is this.  In 2006, 80% by 2050 seemed quite radical.  In just 2 years we’ve learned that climate sensitivity is, as Carbon Equity puts it, ”double” what was thought in 2006.  Meanwhile, in two years we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in arctic ice, in the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon and we’ve begun to see signs of substantial increases in methane release - all things that the IPCC had predicted might happen at the end of the century. 

Which means that given the pace at which the acceptable carbon levels are being pushed back, it would be foolhardy not to leave room in our analyses for the reality that the earth’s response to carbon already emitted may push back acceptable levels of carbon still further.  That means, we may have to move even faster than we think.  I realize this is not pleasant to consider, but we have no choice but to allow some leeway.  Pope’s analysis assumes lower targets than the emerging scientific consensus, he assumes a longer period to make the shifts, and most importantly, he leaves no room for further revisions, even though events of the last few years suggest that they are likely to be needed. 

The other difficulty with Pope’s analysis, and with many other climate activists’ assessment that we can count on this to be easy is that their analyses seem to take a given a stable economic situation.  Generally speaking, brief mention is made of the economic downturn, the assumption is that life will shortly return to Business As Usual.  The problem with this assumption is that it leaves out other contributing factors, and views climate change in isolation.  I think it is not accident that among those activists who endorse a call for sacrifice, every single one is on record as believing in peak oil.  Hansen, McKibben, Monbiot - all seem to fully grasp peak oil *and* the fact that peak oil is most likely to manifest itself as an economic difficulty.

 Indeed, I’ve argued that our current financial crisis is, in fact, an expression of both climate change and peak oil, indirectly.  In my essay ”Peeling the Onion: What’s Behind the Financial Mess” I argue that the food crisis, which is both an energy crisis (much of the rise in food prices was driven by the rich world’s misguided rush to biofuels) and to a lesser extent a climate crisis (climate instability has also been a contributing factor in the rising cost of food) drove millions of new consumers in the Global South back into poverty, forcing them to spend more and more of their income on food, and thus cut the flow of growth in the world overall. 

Whether you accept that analysis or not, it is certainly no accident that rising energy prices eventually helped push an fragile bubble into collapse - and quite honestly, there’s little reason to believe that future high energy prices, when they return, won’t also cause another economic crisis (assuming we actually get out of this one), or extend the current one.  In fact, I’ve argued that in the US, most of our truly serious economic crises have lasted a decade or more which suggests that there is a tolerable chance that whatever strategies we will use to deal with climate change must be compatible with a vastly poorer society, with its eyes fixed on its economic difficulties.  Is this inevitable?  No, but just as we need to take into account the possibility that climate sensitivity will be further revised downward in accordance to new realities, it would be imprudent to base any policy on an assumption of wealth for which there is no clear evidence.

In a Global Depression, which is what we seem to be facing at present, the realities of long term economic returns and cost benefits are radically different than all the prior estimates have been based upon.  As far as I know, there is no major economic analysis of the consequences of climate change mitigation in a negative growth Depression.  All of our economic analysis has so far assumed growth, the ability to borrow, and most importantly, a population of reasonable affluence.   The gap in our understanding this lack of research creates is vast.  The reality is that things have changed, and we forgot to allow for those changes.  This is understandable, but the rhetoric of climate change must change now, to reflect the new realities.  Yes, our president is calling for year over year trillion dollar deficits, and some of that money will probably be poured into green development - indeed, it absolutely should be.

But more and more of that money will be needed to simply mitigate economic suffering - states will need it to keep the plows and buses running and basic policing going, unemployment funds will need to be replenished.  Pope’s observation that green growth led to the creation of 1.5 million jobs in California from 1972 to 2006 ignores the fact that that was a 34 year span (I was born in 1972) - that adds up to a job creation rate of about 250K a year - and we lost more than twice that in jobs last month.   Again, do not mistake me - my goal here is not to dismiss the value of investing in environmentally friendly infrastructure, it is to talk about things as they actually are, in the hopes that we might not abandon the project of mitigating climate change altogether.

 In a declining economic situation, where much of our action must be undertaken in a period where people are struggling economically and where their eyes are primarily fixed upon their suffering, climate change risks being driven off the agenda altogether by the economy.  If the current Depression goes on - and there seems no realistic end in sight, and more and more economists are assuring us that there is no quick fix - we will have to cut our emissions hugely while people are also enduring involuntary economic pain.  We may also have to cut those emissions while enduring the early effects of peak oil, which may further cut into the resources we have to adapt.

It seems likely that the next decade, which James Hansen calls “critical” will be one of collective suffering, and a major shift in economic realities.  Even Pope admits that there will be some hardship.  Those who deny the reality of climate change are already claiming starting to claim that misguided attempts to deal with climate change are already the cause of our suffering - and that will only increase, no matter what carbon cost strategy we adopt.  The climate deniers are already trying to seize the public narrative - and as people get poorer they will be more likely to accept the idea that their poverty is in part caused by our strategies for dealing with climate change - or even to agree with those who believe climate change isn’t a real problem.  We have seen over the last decade and more just how powerful the anti-scientific but rhetorically brilliant climate denier lobby.

Pope’s strategy, which is to reassure people that they will end up better off is doomed to failure.  The reason is that whether climate change has anything to do with it or not, the odds are good that during much of the period in question, people won’t be better off - and they are not foolish enough to accept being told that something is for their benefit when they do not see benefits.  This strategy is likely to enable the denier narrative that says that climate science is false - because they will point out that we promised something we could not and did not deliver.  And we will have.

On the other hand, the rhetoric of sacrifice is potentially powerful here.  Historically speaking, in the US, in Britain, in many nations we’ve seen a willingness to endure privation if we felt we were part of a greater national project, if our sacrifices were needed.  And this is where climate change, overlain upon the economic crisis, offers us a chance to pull together.  That is, poverty due to economic crisis has no inspiring qualities.  But sacrifice for the cause of building a better future for one’s posterity - that has possibilities.  In that narrative, one can ask people to forgo the coal stove, can ask them to bear with cooler temperatures, not just because they can no longer afford to heat their houses as they have been, but as part of a Global and national project that ensures the well-being of the future.  That is, the call to sacrifice makes possible a range of actions impossible without it, and enables an overarching narrative that makes even involuntary sacrifice part of a heroic story.  It is, I think, impossible to underestimate how important the sense of personal heroism can be to shaping one’s understanding of events.

Moreover, I think the public will forgive hardship in ways they will not forgive lies.  Do not mistake me, I think Pope is telling the truth as he sees it, and so are optimistic climate activists.  But there is a solid chance that what he’s saying will become a lie, and be perverted into one by the denier right.  Only by taking command of the story we are being told can we acknowledge necessity and bring (if we must speak in the language of ammunition) as many BBs to the battle as possible.


Green Sex: Family, Reproduction, Children, Love, Lust, Power, Strangers…and Social Policy.

Sharon January 25th, 2009

It has been a full two weeks since I finished _Independence Days_, so, of course, I’m thinking about my next book ;-) .   Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a while - I even submitted the proposal a while back, although so far no one has bought it - but I’ve never let details stop me. 

For the moment the working title is “Green Sex” and my goal is to explore the social and policy issues involving family, reproduction, demography, love, sex, passion, and the politices thereof that are likely to arise as energy depletion, climate change and our financial situation reshape our world.  And I’ve been waiting impatiently to have the time to begin exploring these issues here, on the blog, where I work out most of my craziness ;-) .  The good news is that this book and Aaron and my project on narrating the Greater Depression “Far Past Our Father’s Land” are likely to be longer term projects than my previous ones, and the pace will be slower.

In a sense, this book might be described as the one I’ve been waiting to write all my life, although that sounds a little fustian.  But my doctoral dissertation (still unfinished, unlikely to be) was about the ways that demographic issues (in that case, the Black Death) shaped human relationships, and understanding of others.  That is, I spent much of my 20s figuring out how a depleted world (in this case, of humans) shaped the way people loved one another, how they thought of one another, what they dreamed of - and how writers like Shakespeare, Jonson and Milton narrated those relationships.  Despite the shift from past to present, the questions to me remain much the same - how do events transform our most intimate relationships - and how do those transformations reshape our laws, our social policy, even our sense of who we are.

Now part of my desire to work on these issues is sheer intellectual curiosity, but there are other reasons.  Our view of ourselves and the social structures we evolve to respond to events always ends up affecting how we legislate ourselves, and our political future.  In fact, in many cases, it comes to define us.  After all, while in times of crisis there are certainly one issue economic voters, generally speaking, it is our social policies that define us politically - that is, we vote against those who oppose same sex marriage or only for politicians who are anti-abortion.  It is sometimes fashionable to deplore the fact that these issues get so much attention, that they distract us from real and “weighty” issues of economic policy or energy policy. 

I don’t share that view, actually.  I think that while all issues can fall into triviality and self-parody (anyone watched the Fed lately?), that often not only are the issues themselves critical to our self-definition, but they are the only ways we have in the public sphere at getting at the question of who we are, and what we believe in, not just at the superficial level of “I am for or against X thing” but at the deeper level, in which we attempt to figure out how to relate to our fellow human beings.

I was deeply influenced in my training by the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who argues that a particular form of philosophical skepticism lived at the center of many narratives from the Renaissance onwards.  At its root is the Cartesian doubt that others are fully as real as you are.  He tracks this not through explicit doubt that others are physically real, but through human relationships, which constantly struggle with the question of how to treat even the people you love most as though they were truly as vibrantly real as we feel ourselves to be.  

My own feeling is that this abstracted solipsism that Cavell detects is perhaps at the root of most of our present problems -  we find ourselves unable to believe that others are as fully real as we are.  So, for example, that fact that our choices often result in harm to others - fewer resources, a warmer world, actual deaths - becomes something we simply cannot grasp, because faraway others, even our own posterity, literal or figurative, is something we cannot grant full human status.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, like Cavell, I think that the first questions of how we relate to others actually begin with the questions of how we relate to those we have the most intimate connections to - that is, on some level our relationship to the larger human whole depends on whether we treat those we love skeptically, or whether we are able to find some way to fully recognize them as having different, but equally important human priorities.  That is, to some degree it is in our families, from our partners and spouses, through our acts of love that we come, eventually, to find a way to love the rest of humanity enough to act ethically.

Thus, it is all the territory broadly covered by sex - from our demographics and reproductive acts, to our relationships and intimacies, from our family structures and our family politics that in the end, get us to something we can all live with - if we can get there.

Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think that most people have begun yet, as they sort through the implications of climate change and energy depletion and the Greater Depression, to realize how this is likely to shift our social policies.  How, for example, will we begin dealing with question of reproduction and demography, either directly or indirectly?  How will shifts in our family structure as our aging population loses its retirement savings change the way we think about family?  How has energy changed things for women, and men?  What kind of gender roles and equity are we likely to see?  How will childbearing and rearing change when we have less energy and less wealth?   How will people on the right and left, concered equally with conserverving and preserving what we have navigate political minefields like abortion and gay rights?  How will minority cultures of all kinds fare in the future?  What is the future of marriage, gay and straight?

These are just some of the questions that interest me.  But more than interesting me, I care very much that some kind of analysis of these issues begin, and that conversations begin to arise on these subjects - because the reality of our social, sexual, reproductive and family life cannot but be transformed by our new realities - and having a framework for viewing and thinking about these changes as they happen seems to me essential - lest they be wrested into the agendas of those who would use them cynically.  So far, those who have acknowledged the realities of our economic, ecologic and energy depletion are still at the “this means we need to” - and we do need to do all the things they and we are talking about, with windmills and trains and farms.

But at the same time, we need to think about whither the family - biological and chosen.  Whither our children - what kind of education  and values will be transmitted to them.  Whither the population question - what kind of policies will we consider or adopt, and what will be their implications.  Whither people of faith, whose viewpoints cannot be translated in whole cloth into policy, but whose thinking matters in any democracy.  Whither marriage, as both a social and an economic institution - how will our fragile domestic life fare in harder times.  Whither sex itself - is it possible that there is a truly green sex?  Whither our relationship to love and life?  And whither our relationship to the soon to be 7 billion other people caught in variations on the same mess?

Anyway, you’ll be seeing essays in this vein a lot in the next few months. 

 Ok, more soon!



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