Archive for June 22nd, 2009

You Will Never Know

Sharon June 22nd, 2009

The area I live in, the Northeast US, has a particularly acute sensitivity to oil prices, because 82 percent of the households heating entirely or partially with oil are in this region.  Natural gas lines simply don’t go out to many exurban or rural areas in the Northeast, so in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Northern New York where I live, a disproportionate percentage of the population heats their homes with oil.

Last summer, when Eric and I were driving through New York on a short vacation, the subject that consumed most of the people we met in small cities and towns was this – how will we get through the winter.  Winter hunger is already a problem in this region – while food security is generally better than the rest of the country, hunger proliferates in the winter when poor families have to put hundreds of their hard-won dollars towards energy bills simply to keep warm.

Last winter was not an especially painful one in the Northeast – somewhat insulated from the economic crisis, the timing of the oil price collapse was perfect, if by perfect one means “causes the least immediate harm and of course, undercuts all incentives to shift to better solutions” – the winter heat crisis did not, in fact, materialize.

Now, we are back to summer, and seeing gasoline prices sneaking up above $3 gallon in some places, while heating oil costs are above $4.  No worries, those dependent on oil can wait, after all, summer just started and winter is a long way away.  But I have begun to hear some worry again – what if oil prices continue to rise.? After all, even here, job losses are beginning to accumulate, and wages to be cut. 

One of the things I’ve been telling people when I give talks lately is this – peak energy’s major feature is volatility – it was a mistake for anyone to call it ‘the end of cheap oil’ or to imply that we’d never seen price collapses, and I think the framing of this issue in those terms has hurt the peak oil cause in the shorter term.  Instead, we need to make apparent the full ramifications of price volatility in our work – that is, you will never know, from one season or month or year to the next, how much of your income you will pour into gasoline, heat and food.

After all, it is not just energy prices that are on the rise at the moment – so are food prices, which are tied to many of the factors of the long emergency in complex ways.  In 2008, average food costs rose 5.5 percent.  Retail food prices rose 9% in the past 3 months alone, including slightly over 2 percent in May.  That is, it isn’t just your perception that things are getting tight at the supermarket.

There is little doubt that we are now in a deflationary period – but it is important to remember that in an overall contraction of the money supply (yes, yes, the Fed is printing – but credit is contracting so fast it is overwhelming this), not all prices are going to fall.   Even if they do, the magic of deflation is such that even if food prices fall, your income falls faster, stripping you of purchasing power.  The volatility works two ways – it leaves those who need to eat or drive panicky, vulnerable, unable to plan for the future.  And it wildly undermines producers – we saw this in the dairy industry this year, when the bottom fell out of milk prices and dairy farmers slaughtered they herds en masse in many places.  The lingering high cost of last year’s feed, grown with fertilizers bought during the oil boom meant that farmers couldn’t afford to keep feeding their dairy cows, with milk prices dropping.  Later, this translated to price increases for consumers.

Uncertainty is the order of the day.  You will not know what your heating and cooling will cost you next year.  You will not know if it makes sense to stay put or look for a job closer to work – will the job stay? Gas prices rise?  You will not know whether food prices will go up or down, with climate change and input prices – only that it gets harder most years to keep food on the table.  We have had a period of unprecedented stability in the last decades – mostly declining food and energy costs have allowed us to live as we have.  That’s changed.  Now, we’ll never know.


My Home, My Shadow Home: Where We Really Live

Sharon June 22nd, 2009

My friend, Permaculturist Keith Johnson’s site pointed me to this excellent article
(there’s a direct link to the whole original there), in which ecologist and ecological footprint inventor William Rees makes the case that cities (and really, not just cities, all people in the developed world) are rather like human feedlots, disconnected from the acreage on which they really “live” – ie, the acreage that supplies their food, energy and other needs.

Rees writes,

 “What eco-footprinting shows is that, in ecological terms, the Dutch don’t live in
Holland. Similarly, urban dwellers don’t “live” in their cities; urbanization simply
separates us from the productive ecosystems that sustain us but lie far beyond
the urban boundary. An apt analogy is “the city as human feedlot.” Like the city,
a livestock feedlot is an area with an extraordinarily high density of consumer
animals and a corresponding major waste management problem. Cities and
feedlots are incomplete ecosystems – the productive land component is some
distance away.”

Now I think this is an acute assessment – but I hope it will not be taken simply as the sort of indictment of city life that many rural dwellers, who do not like city life, are inclined to make.  Before I was a rural dweller, I lived in a number of cities, and I do like them.  I do not think that cities will disappear, or that living in one is inevitably disastrous.  Nor do I think that the above statement is inaccurate if you substitute the terms “suburban” or “rural” in most of the developed world – even in places where one potentially can meet most of one’s needs from the agricultural and natural resources readily available, few people do.  But I think this is a tremendously useful way of thinking about this issue – to say that we truly live where our needs are met forces us to ask the question – if our lives are not in the places we reside, where are they?  Where should they be?

Now to some degree, as long as there has been human trade, there have been “shadow acres” – that land that supplied needs that could not be locally met.  It is a very ancient reality – there has been trade almost as long as there have been humans.   And yet, there is a real and qualitative difference between societies that provide much of their own needs, and those that do not.  Among other things, distance makes us willing to be exploitative – that is, we do not feel we have an incentive to preserve the acres of other people, far away, even if that land feeds or clothes us. 

For cities, historically the surrounding outlands provided their food – often in literally reciprocal relationship.  Rees mentions the enormous waste-management problem caused by urban population density – in much of the world, the reciprocity of that relationship was direct, food was brought in to the cities from the outlying countryside, while human wastes were brought out, to be applied back to the fields.  While the direct application of human manures to the fields is not desirable, this relationship is almost certainly one that will have to be re-established – but one made difficult by the fact that our growing land is quite distant from most of our largest cities – the transmission of municipal manures would be enormously energy intensive, and the surrounding suburbs, densely populated themselves, cannot absorb them.  That is, without large quantities of fossil fuels, there’s really no way to set up a truly sustainable system, in which waste becomes not a problem, but a benefit.

All cities, indeed, all non-indigenous societies involve some deferral in where we live, with some resources coming from elsewhere, but we have taken this to new and problematic heights.  For example, the Indian historian Dharampal has demonstrated that before British colonialism, 80-90 percent of India’s resources were utilized at the local level for the local economy, resources and well being.  Less than 20% – often much less, depending on the region, went to serve leaders or central authority.  Colonialism completely reversed this economy - taking 90% of produced resources for export or to serve the empire and its landlords and central authorities, leaving only 10% for general populace – with a corresponding destruction in wellbeing and personal economies. 

Ecological footprinting shows that the results of globalization, which is colonialism’s ugly step-sister, are similar – where local resources once were “wasted” on the populace, now they concentrate wealth and serve mostly people who are already affluent.  For example, research demonstrates that the vast majority of green revolution grain increases went not into the mouths of the poor and hungry who they supposedly were meant to serve, but into livestock and processed foods that fed people who were never hungry and were already affluent.  At the same time, places that once fed themselves shifted to export crops, and were made vulnerable to fluctuating markets, dumping and ecological destruction. 

Do we live where our food is grown?  After all, most of us eat 3 times a day.  So look around you and ask this question – where does our food come from?  If our relationship with that place means that part of us “lives” there, how is our citizenship within that place?  That is, do we treat it as a place to extract resources from, at minimal return, as a colony to provide for our needs, or as a place we are citizens of, with an investment in its well-being and future?  For most of us, it is the former – and from this, I would argue, stems much of the deep hostility of rural places to those who consume their food, and much of the deep political divide in this country.

Do we live where our water comes from?  We know that similar hostilities exist in places where the water comes from far away – my own region supplies part of the watershed for New York City, and at times, conflicts.  But this is nothing compared to water-poor areas of the country – the conflicts between Northern and Southern California, say or Georgia and northern Florida, much less across the US/Mexican border.  If we cannot grow food, or even live without water from somewhere else, what is our relationship to that place?  What happens when both parties need the water?

Do we live where our goods come from?  We are finally beginning to ask this question – Sir Nicholas Stern has opened the door to considering whether China’s emissions, for example, belong only to it, if it provides goods that are mostly used in the rich world?  Can we blame China for its coal use entirely if we absorb the products of that use, if Chinese factories replace our own, and allow us to claim a reduction in emissions? 

Do we live where our energy comes from?  To this question, we might answer a resounding yes – we know for a fact that the Iraq war was about oil, that it followed in the footsteps of the Carter doctrine, which observes that since inconveniently, “our” oil is under their sand, our military and political agendas must always center on the Middle East.  But we live their not as citizens, but as a military presence, building more and more resentment and anger.

Do we live where our waste goes?  Do we float in the Dead Zone off the gulf of Mexico?  Do we live where our old computers contaminate the soil and poison children in Africa? Most of us do live where our own feces contaminates our water, those things we imagine being whisked magically “away” that inevitably, somehow, come back, floating on the water at the beach, until we pour chlorine in and try hard to pretend it never happened.

Do we live where the primary work, once done mostly by us, is now done by others?  If we eat meat, do we live where the great slaughterhouses are, where migrant laborers are hurt and killed to provide us with our clean, packaged foods?  If we wear t-shirts with clever sayings on them, do we live where Vietnamese teenagers sew 12 hours a day in unventilated rooms?  If we use toilets, do we live where they are cleaned by poorer people than we?

We are not good global citizens – we know that.  We are devourers of the world.  But is it even possible to be a decent and honorable global citizen?  Certainly, in some measure.  Certainly, it is possible to be better global citizens of the places that we live than we are now, and if we are to draw resources from somewhere, we are going to have to work on this.   We will need to work on building those connections, on finding those means of honest internationalism.   The world is not going to go away, we will not be instantly reduced to a kind of isolated localism that needs have no truck with other nations – truck with other nations long preceeded fossil fuels and modernity, and will be even more essential in warming world, full of migrants and refugees escaping rapidly changing economies, ecologies and war.

But there’s a measure in which being a true citizen of a far distant place is not fully feasible.  I cannot honestly know whether my rice, grown on the Indian coast, was grown by someone who loves to grow rice, who does it well, or who is coerced by the large corporation that uses them as slave labor.  I cannot know how they use their land.  I can learn a little about their place and time, their needs and wants and hopes for the future, particularly if their rice is my primary indulgence.  But I cannot be a part-time citizen of India for rice, Bolivia for flowers, China for electronics, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia for oil, etc….ad infinitum.  I cannot.  All I can be in that case is a consumer.

And not only is a consumer an ugly, faint thing to be, a pale imitation of an engaged and fully human citizen-participant, but because a consumer only eats and by necessity, excretes their waste where they are, the relationship is destructive in two ways – not only do I take away soil nutrients or oil or wood or water and participate in the exploitation of distant places in my country and others when I consume their resources, but because all of us make our waste where we live, I then foul my own nest.

I do this because it is not possible, in such an expansive world, to transform the outputs of our consumption into anything but waste.  Consider the difficulty of human excrement now – even sterilized and dehydrated, it is tremendously energy intensive to even consider returning human manures from, say, Boston to the places where most of its food comes from in Iowa or Nebraska.  And human outputs are not the only kind of waste that could managed on a smaller scale – historically the end points of human cloth making became paper, animals were fed on scraps and bones that are now transported into landfills.  The problem of scale, the problem of taking and excreting always seem to defeat us.  We can do much to ameliorate them, but the first and most important amelioration would be to live where we live.

Of course, that’s a difficult proposition.  The suburbs of even midwestern cities like Chicago are often filled, not with farmland, but with suburban landscapes of the densities of small cities of the past.  Even if they can harness their land base to grow food, they are unlikely to have much to export, and they have plenty of their own manures and wastes.   One must go much further afield, and expend more energy to get food, and to find a sustainable way of turning wastes into valuable inputs.  To some degree, dependence for water, goods and food is written into every large city – and indeed, has been overinscribed by our investment in fossil fueled agriculture into the developed world as a whole.  Our project now is to uninscribe it as best we can.

Obviously, the proportion to which we are able to actually live where we live is going to vary by where we are.  For urban dwellers, there is absolutely no doubt that the proportion is vastly higher than is conventional in developed world cities, and a small number of urban community gardens is merely scratching the surface.  We know that this is true – we know from the examples of Havana, the Jewish ghetto gardens during WWII, from Harare and Kampala how urgently necessary urban food production is – that it can sustain far larger populations than anyone would expect in a crisis, whether a war or simply poverty.

But cities are not going to feed themselves, and they are not going to provide their own water in the whole – many cities could probably produce 25-50% of their meat and produce, but they will never provide most of their own staple crops.  Which means that urban-rural ties must be strengthened – that those who are citizens of a city must also be partly citizens of the rural towns that supply their dinners, the rural areas that collect their water.  But this is not a one way transaction – cities as centers of trade, and renewed (we hope) centers of manufacture will have their own rural and suburban citizens – the customers who rely on urban areas to meet their need for goods will have to end their contempt for city life and city dwellers, since their hammers and clothing come from those cities.

If we cannot eliminate shadow acres, we must find ways to narrow them, to mostly get our goods and services from our bioregion, or as near to it as we possibly can.  Aaron and I have called this “the bullseye diet” – but it doesn’t apply just to food.  And in order to do this, we are going to have to build reciprocal economies, and reciprocal senses of citizenship.  Some of this is in its nascent stages, as city dwellers come out to “their” farm to pick up their CSA share, or to pick the cherry tomatoes or strawberries, or volunteer, or as rural and suburban dwellers come into “their” cities, to enjoy art and music, culture and diversity not available to them, and then bring those things in small measure back to their own places.  But we are still at a beginning point.

I often speak of these issues in terms of the practical imperatives for doing so – we must, for example, reduce fossil fuel usage because of climate change and peak energy, or we must build local food systems because we may not fully be able to access distant ones.  But I like very much the idea of asking ourselves the moral and aesthetic question “where do I want to live?”  I think for most of us, this is not a complex question.  If we have a choice, most of us want to live where we chose to live – we would like, in the abstract, to live there as fully and wholly, as well and honestly as we can.  We would like to be good citizens, in a place with a lively and vital civic life.  If we live in other places, we would like to live there kindly and lightly, as participants and welcome members, even part-time, rather than hated colonizers or bad neighbors.  We would like, in short, to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We simply do not know how.

Viewed through this question of how and where we wish to live, the choices we make in localization, conservation and consumption, in our acts of citizenship and participation take on a new weight.  We are not merely eating, we are travelling to a distant land, or a neighboring state, taking part in their bounty, and incurring some obligation to reciprocation.  How shall we reciprocate?  What can we offer them in return?  We are not merely excreting, and flushing our wastes away – there is no place called “away.”  Instead, we are contaminating those downstream – or we are returning our outputs to the place that fed us, or to some neighboring place that can be enriched.

Most of us give considerable thought to this question of where to reside – we consider schools and neighborhoods, climates and soils, family and friends. Our new project is to give as much attention to the question of where we live – where our needs are met.  None of us will ever live without some shadow acreage, without some resources from far away, but the quantities can be great or small, the relationship civic and civic or colonial and hostile, the result contamination and waste or reciprocity and fertility.  It all depends on where we choose to live.


Independence Days Update: Strawberry Solstice

Sharon June 22nd, 2009

Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup. – Wendell Berry 

We spent the longest day yesterday picking strawberries, which was delightful.  The four kids helped to their varying capacities, and it took significantly less than an hour for us to pick 16 quarts of Strawberries.  Besides the ones that will be eaten, these will be jam and dried berries – our first big harvest mostly gotten eaten straight. 

Our home strawberry harvest is pretty limited this year – last year’s sheep pasturing in my garden (we had no choice) pretty much took out the strawberry patch, so while I’ve replanted, this year, the harvest is small, so we go to our favorite pick your own fruit place, Bohringers, in Middleburgh, NY for preserving quantities.  It is one of the most stunningly lovely farms I’ve ever visiter, in the flats of the Schoharie Valley, which fed the American Revolution in its day.  The soils are good and the hills that surround the valley (we live up on one of them) rise up above it. 

The rain that was predicted held off until mid-afternoon, so there were a goodly number of people out berrying, mostly older folks, many of whom knew each other and clearly were pleased by the chance to chat, discuss recipes and baseball and ideas for using up these berries, and direct young grandchildren in the art of picking.  It was lovely to overhear people discussing jam recipes and how many mason jars they have.  The only sad part was how few of the folks, even on a Sunday afternoon, were young.

A few years ago, I wrote a post about picky eating that began with strawberry picking, and observed that really, only Simon of all my children seriously did any actual work at picking.  But what a difference two years makes – Simon filled 3 quarts in 45 minutes, Isaiah nearly 2, and even Asher and Eli filled most of a quart basket, with only moderate scavenging out of it.  Bohringers makes its own ice cream from its own fruit, and the reward for disciplined work is an ice-cream cone, and the right to debate whether raspberry or peach, strawberry or blueberry is better, so this is a powerful incentive.

Historically speaking, berrying is children’s work, or the work of adults on a celebratory day like Father’s Day/Solstice.  Light enough to be pleasurable, with  plenty of opportunities for self-indulgence by eating, wandering off to collect rocks or chase toads, it is one of those borderline play/work activities that is of real and serious use, and yet not too terribly onerous, like watching animals in fields near home, tending younger siblings, etc…  Thus, children were given the merits of work, while also integrating in play and imagination.  We will need more of that in times to come.

Beyond berrying, we also stopped at the local animal shelter, and managed to not adopt any more cats, even though there were plenty that needed homes.  We stopped to visit a 1 year old Great Pyrenees/Golden Retriever mix. He’s a beautiful dog, and we liked him a lot, but are not sure he’s the dog for us – and someone else may have first dibs.  I hate to say it, but I think we’re going to find a breeder and buy an LGD or LGD cross puppy – we’ve simply had no luck finding a suitable dog through either breed rescue or shelters, and we’ve tried quite a number of times.  The problem is that we are looking for something truly specific – a farm/family dog, and I think that achieving that mix is going to involve having a dog from the right lines grow up with us.  If anyone knows a good breeder in the Northeast, we’re somewhat flexible about which LGD breed, although we’re leaning towards Pyrs, Anatolians or Tibetan Mastiffs.  

Ok, on to the update:

Planted something – Not a bleeding thing, actually.  We’ve had so much rain that I haven’t been out to the garden at all. I’ve weeded a fair bit, but this week there’s nothing to report here – although I should start the next crop of greens and kale indoors – perhaps today.

Harvested something: Strawberries, obviously.  Rhubarb, beets, mustard greens, bok choy, chard, very small carrots, peas (snap, snow and shelling), valerian root, elecampane root, milk, eggs, peonies, sorrel, chinese cabbage, lettuce, edible flowers, chives, mint.

Preserved something: Dried strawberries, strawberry syrup (to be mixed with seltzer on special occasions), dried valerian root (ugh, smells like dirty socks, of course), elecampane root, froze beaten eggs.

Waste Not: Turned the drawers of our old crib into instant raised beds by knocking out the bottom and filling with compost.  Turned broken cinder blocks into drainage for raised herb bed for mediterranean herbs getting grumpy because all it does is rain.  Canned up the last turkey from last year into soup and meat.  Scavenged some really big industrial sized cans to be used for making a bigger rocket stove.  Experimented with brine pickling the thick stems of nettles and lambsquarters – results not yet apparent.

Want Not/Preps: Nothing, really. Oh, wait, I did buy organic dried cranberries and pears, since they were on sale at my bulk supplier, and add them to storage.

Build Community Food Systems: Offered to teach workshops to low-income folks on how to build up food storage through adult education program - awaiting answer, did a bunch of radio interviews for ANOF.

Eat the Food: Discovered that lightly sweetened strawberry juice mixed with seltzer is considered an amazing treat by my children.  Made fresh spring rolls filled with every imaginable green and herb – were readily devoured.

 How about y’all?