Archive for April 23rd, 2009

Will We Feed China? What That Might Mean

Sharon April 23rd, 2009

I’m headed off this weekend to the North Country for New York’s largest community energy event.  If you are in the area, definitely check it out!  Among other things, this will be _A Nation of Farmers’_ public debut, and I’ll be giving a talk on the food system.  I’ve got some posts lined up for while I’m gone, but to get you thinking about food…

 Lester Brown has a lead article in _Scientific American_ this month, on the potential unrest caused by growing food insecurity worldwide.  The article is appropriately dark about the potential problems in feeding ourselves, and he asks whether it is possible that widespread food insecurity could “bring down civilization” by destroying functioning nation states from the inside.  It is a fascinating article, and well worth a read.

What struck me about it was one rather brief point that Brown makes - along with his discussions of soil loss, falling water tables, climate change and population, he very briefly debunks what I think is a prevailing idea - that because the US is a major producer, if things get tough, we’ll simply stop exporting grain.  He writes:

“No country is immune to the effects of tightening food supplies, not even the U.S., the world’s breadbasket. If China turns to the world market for massive quantities of grain, as it has recently done for soybeans, it will have to buy from the U.S. For U.S. consumers, that would mean competing for the U.S. grain harvest with 1.3 billion Chinese consumers with fast-rising incomes—a nightmare scenario. In such circumstances, it would be tempting for the U.S. to restrict exports, as it did, for instance, with grain and soybeans in the 1970s when domestic prices soared. But that is not an option with China. Chinese investors now hold well over a trillion U.S. dollars, and they have often been the leading international buyers of U.S. Treasury securities issued to finance the fiscal deficit. Like it or not, U.S. consumers will share their grain with Chinese consumers, no matter how high food prices rise.”

This, I think is an important point, and one that becomes more acute as we become more dependent on buyers for our Treasuries - and we are presently becoming more and more dependent, not less and less.  As Bloomberg reported a few days ago, lost tax revenue in the US means that we need to sell dramatically more Treasuries, even as nations have indicated they are inclined to pull back. 

Brown predicted this - in _Depletion and Abundance_ I quoted Brown’s Plan B 2.0 (he’s up to 3.0, and I admit, I wish he’d change book titles ;-) ) on just this subject:

The first big test of the international community’s capacity to manage scarcity may come with oil or it could come with grain.  If the latter is teh case, this could occur when China - whose grain harvest fell by 34 million tons or 9 percent between 1998 and 2005 - turns to the world market for massive imports of 30 million, 50 million or even 100 million tons of grain per year.  Demand on this scale could quickly overwhelm world grain markets.  When this happens, China will have to look to the United States which controls [over 40 percent of] the world’s grain exports…some 200 million tons.”

Brown has written an entire book on the subject, _Who Shall Feed China_ as well. 

Last week, China Daily and other Chinese papers reported that China has begun a national audit of its grain supplies due to recent speculation that grain reserves have been exaggerated, and due to expressed concern that it may not be able to weather an extended drought.  China now imports about 5% of its national grain demand, but because it depends on irrigation for 80% of its grain production, that figure is expected to rise, as soybean imports have already risen.

This is important, not to scapegoat China (I’m always a little wary of the “bad China - poor us” narrative), but to realize that while many peak oil and climate change activists fear an absolute scarcity of food - periods where food is simply not on the shelves - they perhaps should be at least as concerned with dramatic rises in food prices, and an increasing number of everyday Americans who go hungry.  This is already the case, of course.  But a poor to seriously crappy economy, combined with rising food prices is a recipe for real and serious trouble for all of us.

I think a lot of people express skepticism about the idea that the US, the world’s breadbasket, will have bare shelves.  And while I think that is technically possible, it is far more likely that, as in most places with deep endemic hunger, the US will likely have full shelves - and more and more people peering in at them, unable to purchase food.

This is why we need, at every level, from family farms to family gardens, a renewed focus on food security, increased access to food in its cheapest form (the seed), local food trade,  a nation of people who can eat grain, rather than processed foods,  and a nation of farmers.


Would They Hide You?

Sharon April 23rd, 2009

My friend, Kathy Harrison, said something that really struck me while we were talking the other day, and I asked her to write about it, so I could share it properly with all of you. As the financial situation gets more dire, as we face more and more people suffering from state budget cuts, the loss of their pensions, the crashing of major industries, what we do have left matters more.  Kathy quotes a story told by Warren Buffet, and then muses on her own experience,

A woman by the name of Belle Eisenberg, who recently passed away, lost her entire family in Auschwitz. She was the only one to make it out. She told Mr. Buffet that every time she met someone she asked herself whether this was the type of person who would hide her from the Nazis. He said that if you had a dozen people in your life who would hide you and you them then you lived a pretty successful life. Mr. Buffet said that he knew billionaires whose own children would not hide them….

Some weeks we are on the recieving end of the favors. We have eaten countless meals prepared by others when I was ill. We have planted adopted seedlings and worn hand-me-down clothing. Our children have been minded by friends as have our animals and our plants. We have been picked up from airports and driven lent cars. Our life is a series of good deeds done by people who probably found it inconvenient but did it anyway.

This economic mess is a terrible thing for many families but when I look for the silver lining to a grim cloud it comes from the world getting smaller. Small makes it easier to hold hands with each other.

This, of course, is a very high standard of relationships - and yet, it is also, I think, a useful way of thinking about the depths of our relationships.  Ask yourself who you would risk your life for, who you would take in in very difficult times, who you would speak up for, who you would make sacrifices for.  Odds are good that some of those people are the ones who would do it for you.  The stakes of community really are not that low, and community should never be last on our planning list.

I’ve recently been thinking about relationships as well - last fall, my youngest sister and brother in law came to visit.  Now I adore my wonderful brother in law, but while my sister and I are quite close, and talk regularly, I sometimes feel like Billy and I go long stretches without connecting, and miss him - he works long hours, and so she and I chat on the phone or she comes out to visit without him, and often, when we do see him, it is at large family gatherings, rather than intimately.  This was a rare occasion when my husband and I got to spend some real time with Billy, which was wonderful. 

Our dining room roof leaks quite badly, and because we are in an extended conflict with the company that supposedly fixed the roof, but didn’t, we’ve been advised we can’t actually fix it ourselves without losing leverage in our ongoing process of resolution.  On the autumn weekend they visited, we had torrential, icy rain that night, and, not unexpectedly, our dining room roof was leaking horribly.  We’d just gotten the kids to bed, and were sitting around drinking beer and talking, when Billy turned to me, and asked whether we’d like him to go up on the roof and replace the tarp that was now failing to keep out the leaks.

And I was struck by this - how many people in your life will go up on the roof on a cold night in the pouring rain simply because they want to help?  It isn’t quite as dramatic as asking “would these people hide me from the Nazis” but it isn’t too far off, either - in both cases, the question is this - is the relationship deep enough to endure difficulty, cost, strain - and is the faith in the relationship sufficient to endure periods where reciprocity may not be possible? 

Now people have these relationships for different reasons.  Even though Billy and I don’t spend a ton of time together, I’m family, and both of us have a strong commitment to family.  Our friendship is real, but not deep enough to explain this - but the ties of marriage and blood are.  But I have other relatives who would never think to do the same.  Family can be the origin, but it isn’t always.

I have friends who I know would go up on the roof, would hide me from the Nazis, based on relationships we’ve had for years, people I would trust with my life, and who are as important to me as my family.  I sometimes struggle with the choice to live so far away from my parents and sisters - but the thing that keeps me here is that we’ve managed to build communities and relationships that are just as strong as the familial ones in many ways.  I feel very lucky and blessed to have such friends.

And there are a few people who would do these things not because they love me, or because I love them, but because it is the right thing to do.   There are those people who hid others from the Nazis not based on intense personal relationships, but because they felt it was right - people who show up to help out the neighbors even if they don’t personally like them, or know them very well, who are there with a helping hand.  Sometimes those people become your friends, your intimate circle.  And sometimes they never do - sometimes all you will ever be to one another are members of the same community, but that’s enough.

I hope, of course, that none of us ever need to be hidden.  But it is a fair likelihood that all of us will need help from someone at some point.  It is a fair likelihood that all of us will haev the opportunity to extend help to one another.  And every time we do this, we create something.  It isn’t always the same thing - not every relationship extends as deeply as the ones Harrison talks about.  Some things will go as far as the roof, but not as far as hiding you, or vice versa.  Some people will be able to offer different things. 

But it is worth thinking of these moments of exigency when we truly rely on one another when we inventory what we have in our lives.  I often talk about acquiring or making things that we might need - but this, I think, is the one thing we all most need to make - those ties, deeper than ordinary ones, on which we can trust and wholly rely.


Utility-Free Boot Camp

Sharon April 23rd, 2009

At the end of our Adapting-In-Place class,  Aaron and I asked students to consider disconnecting from all of grid and city services for a weekend, to discover what it is really like to do so.  Because while all the discussion and speculation we do here on this blog, and elsewhere is great, all of us will learn more in a couple of days - or longer if you can do it - without power and services than we ever could from reading.  Even the teachers learned things from testing - here’s Aaron’s account.

Only when the power is actually out do you discover that your backup plans had problems and defects.  Only when the power is actually out do you remember that you need enough stored water for the dogs, or that your daughter is scared of the dark and needs a light at night, or that Mom can’t go out to use the hastily made latrine.  Only when you really rely on your preparations do you discover where you need redundancies, spare parts, more consideration or investment of time, money or energy. 

Now in the past year, people in 11 states endured power outages that lasted more than 1 week.  In Kentucky, Houston and parts of New England, people were out for several weeks.  If you were one of them, you now know a lot more about what it is like to live without power.  And quite honestly, I think that two days is really much too short a test - for two days, you can drink stored water, but odds are, if you are out for two weeks, you’ll have to find a water source.  For two days, you can do without almost anything - but if the crisis lasts two weeks, you’ll find yourself really struggling to keep things going.  For two days, you won’t need to do laundry, get to work, and some people can even skip medication (not everyone, and don’t try this at home without checking with a doctor). 

So I’m tempted to say “ok, everyone has to practice doing without grid services for two full weeks.”  But since I’d like more than two people to do it, I’m trying to be realistic here ;-) .  But you should know that the experience will be a lot more authentic if you act like you actually have to live a daily life over an extended period when you do this.  That is, of course it will make your practice a lot easier if you don’t do laundry and rely on stored water.  But this will not help you in any way be ready for a more extended power outage - the easier you make it on yourself, the harder the reality will be when (and I don’t mean if, I mean when) you face it. 

And that’s why we all ought to do these practices fairly often, under different conditions.  Again, the idea is to discover the gaps in your preparations *now* - while you still can purchase something you need, get the parts to fix what didn’t work, or figure out how to make it less painful.  That means it isn’t enough to do it once in the spring warm weather, when the climate is comfortable - you should try it in the heat of summer, and make sure you have enough water and a plan for cooking and sleeping comfortably; and in the cold of winter, and be sure you have a way to keep warm.  You should imagine the most adverse conditions imaginaable - all the water is contaminated has to be boiled (this is not that unlikely in a hurricane or flooding emergency), that the roads are blocked by ice or downed trees (happens all the time), that the hotels are packed, that the gas stations are without power, that the supermarket shelves are empty, that you are sick…because unfortunately, these are precisely the kinds of things that happen.  The point is not torture, it is to remind yourself that these things rarely happen at the most convenient possible moment - they happen on the hottest day of summer, on the day your father needs to go to the doctor, during a bitter cold spell.  And people do actually get sick, seriously injured or die because they are not prepared for these events.  I don’t want any of you to be among them.

So I’m proposing that all of us consider scheduling utility-free weekends during the course of this year.  With climate change raising the number of natural disasters, the odds are very good that sooner or later your family is going to get to know what it is like to do without utilities and city services for a period of time - almost certainly much longer than you’d like.  So utility-free boot camp is simply good for all of us. 

 I’m going to schedule a couple of weekends over the year - I’ll be doing it too.  I’d love it if you’d join the utility-boot camp challenge.  But even if you don’t, try and plan on doing this with your family.  No, they may not like it - but they’ll be happy on the day you wake up with the power out, and are warm, fed and safe and have met most of your basic needs.