Archive for May 14th, 2009

Beggars Would Ride

Sharon May 14th, 2009

At the end of last year, I predicted that by the end of this year, the US would have experienced an economic collapse into a deep Depression.  Despite the rhetoric about bottoms and “green shoots” my own take is that we’re on target for that outcome – the realities of losing millions of jobs through the auto company bankruptcies (now inevitable, at least in the case of Chrysler and GM), the hundreds of thousands of teachers and state employees on the chopping block, and the expected losses, which even the IMF’s conservative estimates mark as stunning, combined with the deep economic crisis of the states and declining tax revenues and massively increasing deficits means that it is very unlikely that we’ve seen anything like a bottom.

Indeed, my 2009 predictions suggested that the rally brought about by a new president and completely irrational exuberance would probably last until mid-summer – if anything, I may have been too optimistic (not something I get accused of a lot ;-) ).  I still may well be wrong about this – others will tell us that we’ll see a recovery.  But I find it very hard to believe we are not facing a major crisis, if not when I expected, not far after.  The recent evidence linking the economic crisis to the oil price spike points out that when/if growth gets going again, we’re likely to see the same boom and bust cycle, only shorter.

Add to that the fact that I don’t see consumer confidence recovering soon – the reason being that price volatility and economic instability are not going away – whether oil crashes further (perfectly possible) or we see a short term recovery, price spike and collapse again, food prices are likely to remain volatile in a tight market, and people will never know for sure whether their heating bills, gas costs and grocery budgets will be small or large.  That kind of economic instability undermines the desire to purchase – even if things seem to be getting better, as they seemed in April, consumers aren’t buying because they are afraid (correctly) of the next wave of instability.

The news that Medicare will be bankrupt in 8 years (and that figure is based on a sustained recovery – we can expect to see it shortened next year, I suspect) means that older consumers, who disproportionately hold the nation’s wealth, have even fewer reasons to spend – they now know they may be struggling on their fixed incomes with heating, gas and food costs, but also with more health care costs not covered by Medicare.  Most baby boomers did not prepare for a future in which more or all of their health care costs have to be paid by them or through private insurance – they are already concerned about drug costs, for example, but Medicare’s economic instability means that they must expect to bear more of the health care costs themselves.

But this post is primarily not about what might bring about a major crisis (and right now I think we are in a minor crisis, although, of course, many people experience it as dire), but about the impulse to put it off just a little longer.

I do not speak here of an abstract impulse that I recognize in other people, but of my own desire to see events, if they are inevitable, delayed as long as possible.  You might think I was immune to this, or that I even gloried in the idea of “ripping the bandaid off.”  I’m not – I think like everyone else, I’m very fond of my comfortable life, and have no desire to face the unknown – and it is unknown, even given the amount of time I spend speculating about it.  And what is not unknown, I do not anticipate mostly enjoying – while I have never lived through a Depression or economic collapse, none of my reading on the subject has left me with the impression that I will be delighted by the experience, even if eventually, in some measure we end up better off for our endurance.  That which does not kill us may make it stronger, but evidence suggests that some of us do get killed, and I’m fairly content as a weakling, thank you very much.

All of which is just a long way of saying that when I see signs on the horizon that our constant running faster just to keep in place is starting to lose momentum, my immediate impulse is bargaining “just one more year!”  I doubt that I’m the only one.

I find I want more time mostly for my children’s sake, although this implies a great deal of unselfishness, and right behind them are plenty of selfish motivations.  I find I want my kids to grow older before they are faced with hardship – I don’t know if that is selfish or unselfish – I hope that perhaps while they are little, they will remain insulated from the worst in ways older children can’t.  And yet, I want them to have as much of the good of modernity as they can before it goes away.  Even if the easy life isn’t always good for them, I want it for them as a gift, and to fill them with good memories of good times. 

I want my oldest son to get the enormous investments that our schools make in disabled children as long as he can – while if we have to, we will do what we need to for him, I have no doubt that we will fail miserably to replace his speech therapists and special education teachers.  We will do what we can – but every year he can have those resources is one that gets him further.

I want these things selfishly for myself – I want the trips to visit family and the internet to roam (I don’t necessarily think all these things will disappear, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to afford them).  I wan the pleasure of being a writer a little longer – it is still a new profession for me, and I do enjoy it.  I want enough money to continue accumulating books and plants.  Yes, I know I’ll be able to make do with what I’ve got.  And that I don’t especially want to.

I want more security, more time of comparative affluence to put up the hoop houses and build a greenhouse, to get the herb business up and running and master more skills. And I want time for everyone else who needs those things – I want more time simply because I don’t want people I care about to be hurt.  I think about all the people moving slowly, gradually, in their comfort zones, the ones who only just now see trouble on the horizon, and I want them to have time.

I want more time for all of us, sometimes badly enough to consider seriously – should I personally use my tiny influence on strategies that mostly just buy time, even at a price, so as to make this easier.  Should I fix on strategies that allow us to adapt more smoothly, to move more by baby steps?  I realize that I will not make policy, that for most people the choice is out of our hands, and yet, I still wonder what I should do, if it mattered?

I know that I will never have time enough.  And the part of me that approaches this subject rationally (not that much, actually)  recognizes that there is a compelling case for *not* wanting more time. Not because I want my predictions to be right, not because I want suffering, but because if we were to put the crisis off another ten years, we risk facing it further ecologically degraded, further down the energy curve, in a warmer, more dangerous, hungrier world, with fewer choices and resources for mitigation.

In the 1970s, when I was running around in pigtails, oblivious to the discussion, there was a great national discourse about the state of our ecology and resources.  Nearly everything we know now, we knew then – that is, we knew in the 1970s that the oil would eventually run out, and indeed, many of the scenarios offered then have turned out to be surprisingly accurate.  We knew by the late 1970s that Global Warming would be one of the great challenges of the 21st century.  We knew that we were rapidly degrading our ecology.  We knew it, and many courageous people tried very hard to push us to living our lives then as though these crises were immanent.

That we did not listen, that we chose to believe it was morning in America will turn out to be one of the great human tragedies of all time.  In the 1970s, there was still time to shift our resources to renewables, time to build a sustainable economy, time to mitigate the worst of our climate shift.  When I was a child and had no power to change things, when my parents stood in the place I am in now, holding the future for the next generation,  the adults around me faced a real choice – and chose to put the issue off.  I understand why they did so – it is hard to look to the future.  I understand that many of them tried so very hard, and still grieve their failures.  I understand.  But I don’t want to be them.

I don’t know if it is possible to put off our crisis – I suspect in some ways it may be, in others, maybe not.  But I cannot doubt that the choice to delay facing the crisis was a mistake, and a terrible, terrible mistake.  So as badly as in some ways I want more time, I do not think it it right to allow that desire not to have to face the hard stuff to take root. In the end, the buck has to stop somewhere, someone has to take responsibility, not just for the problem, but for facing the crisis, and enduring it.  I think we all will always wish someone else had done it for us.  But that doesn’t give us the right to ask that of anyone else.

To the extent I can separate out what I wish for and what I believe will happen, I think in some measure, we are facing a crisis, and very soon.  Whether it will be the beginning of something deeper, or just the first step down on a long flight isn’t clear to me.  What is clear to me is that in the absence of a collective national movement to mitigation, that my wish that we have more time may be perfectly reasonable, but it isn’t an impulse I should give in to much.  If we get it, we get it, and I won’t complain.  But I am better off thinking “how will I go forward in a positive way from this moment” than in wishing.


Getting Ready for an Outage

Sharon May 14th, 2009

Those of you in the Midwest have already had some hefty storms – I hope all is well. The high winds that caused those tornadoes are headed my way, so we’re getting ready for a power outage here.  The National Weather Service is warning of widespread potential outages in the Northeast.  So I thought a quick post might be in order, reminding people of how to prepare for a power outage.  Most of this is common sense, but you never know, and it doesn’t hurt to be prepared – in fact, IMHO, we’re all a lot happier when we are.

One thing we don’t bother with is racing to the grocery store to stock up on chips and bottled water.  Water comes out of my tap – I don’t see much point in paying for it, and people throw away thousands of bottles each year.  We store water in soda bottles, scavenged out of other people’s recycling.  Wash them out, and in goes the water. 

And because we keep a reliable supply of food, we’re not panicked about life without it.  Make sure you do have some stuff that can be eaten with minimal preparation – the makings of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example.  Obviously, if you have no food reserve, you’ll have to go shopping, but often, we don’t have a lot of warning before the power goes out – so better you just keep stuff around.

If you don’t keep a gas can around, and the tank full, it might be worth getting gas, however, just in case of an extended outage (remember, such a thing isn’t particularly likely, I’m not trying to panic anyone, but these things do happen).  Make sure you have adequate food for pets as well, if you are going out.  Also, if you are near to running out of medication, pick up your refill, just in case roads are closed. 

 Here’s what we do do:

- We check and refill our water containers.  We have three 55 gallon rain barrels, as well as bottles of water. Almost any bottle can be used, and if you are going to use the water in the short term, you don’t need to treat it.  Open containers, like pots and other things are ok for water for a couple of days too. 

Everyone says “fill your bathtub” – well bathtubs always leak.  So if you are going to rely on that water, put big containers in your tub, and fill them, rather than simply filling the tub. 

If you live in town, you may not have to worry as much about water, so it is up to you. If you have a hot water heater, you can drink that water as well, but make sure you know how to drain it.  Remember, it is warm now, and you may need more water than you would for a winter outage.  Don’t forget water for pets and livestock. 

 Some of the water, this time of year, is in the freezer, because we’ve been eating down our freezer supplies, and the freezer cools best if it is kept full.  We make sure the freezer is full and cover it with a blanket, and then put a heavy 5 gallon bucket filled with food on top, to discourage people from opening it.  When you do open, do so very quickly.  We also have a backup plan in case the power is out for an extended period – we know we can can the remaining meat and use most of the food.  If you are out for more than a couple of days, invite the neighbors in and have a party with the food.

Speaking of neighbors, you should plan on checking on them during an extended power outage.  Particularly, you’ll want to stop in with anyone new to the neighborhood, anyone with an infant, the disabled and the extremely elderly – make sure they have water, food, a way to get along.  You might stop in and make sure they’ve heard the news and are ready beforehand, if you like – can’t hurt.

Since high winds are expected, make sure you anchor down or put away your outdoor tools and equipment – the last thing you want is someone hurt by a flying lawn chair. 

Make sure you know where all the flashlights are (include one for each child old enough to handle his/her own), as well as any other methods of lighting.  The solar lanterns are in the window.  I find battery powered led nightlights to be invaluable for children who become nervous when the lights are completely out.  While not very sustainable, glowsticks are good for kids old enough not to put them in their mouth, but too young to handle a flashlight effectively.

It isn’t going to get cold here, or I’d suggest bringing in firewood, but if your only method of cooking without power is a woodstove or fireplace, make sure you bring in kindling and wood, so as not to have to use wet.  Otherwise, check on whatever method of cooking you have, and make sure you have all the pieces.

Don’t go out if the roads aren’t safe and you can avoid it.  I realize this sounds obvious, but every year people are in car accidents because they are out for totally optional reasons.

After high wind storms, trees may be down.  If you’ll be clearing roads or land with a chainsaw, make sure you know how to use it and have googles, steel toed boots, etc…  If you are using a buck or crosscut saw, again, make sure you know how to use it safely.  Stay away from limbs near downed power lines.

Stay safe – if the roads are blocked ambulances may not be able to get to you easily.  So use common sense, and wait until the safety nets are back before you do anything risky.

 Make absolutely sure all candles, kerosene lamps and fires are extinguished when you are not present – we never, ever leave the room with candles burning – too many kids and animals in my house to risk it.   Make sure you have fire extinguishers, and your smoke and CO detectors have backup batteries.

Make some plans for fun activities – schools may be closed, or buses not running if the power is out or roads blocked.  Plan on enjoying your outage – play games, cook special foods over the fire or grill them, do yard work, enjoy yourself

It is pretty simple, but simple preparations can make the difference between a lousy time being had by all, and the whole thing being a pleasant adventure.