Archive for June 29th, 2009

Adapting In Place Is Not a Choice For Most of Us

Sharon June 29th, 2009

A while back I wrote an essay arguing that while many people will lose their homes and have to move in with family or into rentals in the coming crisis, still more will end up trapped where they are, unable to sell their homes, unable to get credit to buy another, or even to find rental housing due to credit rating losses, and with other family dependent on the only stable home available to them.  That is, the flip side of disruption and movement is that many people are going to be adapting in place – only often with more people in the place than they thought.

 It seems that all of these things are probably roughly coming true.  There has been a substantial increase in the number of people combining housing, although it is hard to measure how much, because there are often prohibitions against such things.  More people are leaving homes and looking for rental housing, although many of them have a hard time finding it, because credit ratings are still important.  Meanwhile, the migration rate – the rate of people moving, has dropped like a stone.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, Frey said, as many as 20 percent of Americans moved in any given year. Mobility rates slowed to 15 percent to 16 percent during the 1990s. But in 2008, only 11.9 percent of Americans moved, he said.”

Meanwhile, some people are Adapting in Place without the amenities of utilities, as reports come in that more foreclosed houses are being squatted in by the original owners. 

Many of us, I think will go into these tough times not where we want to be, but where we are. Others will be the “brother in law on the couch” – moving in with family as needed (I’ve got a post in the works on being the BIL on the Couch, btw, for those who have requested it).  It won’t always be the best prepared person who ends up staying in their home, nor will it always be the best home – it may be the person who keeps their job longest or whose mortgage is smallest, or who happens to live in a place where there is still work. 

And while some folks already have the superinsulated straw bale house, the solar panels and everything else, most of us, well, we don’t.  We’re trying to cobble together our infrastructure, hoping desperately for a few more paychecks and discovering what exactly people mean by “red clay” “R-value negligible” or “fixer-upper” in world where there isn’t as much money, time or energy as we’d like. 

My belief is that in most places, for most people, the process of dealing with our collective crisis is going to be messy.  It will not be as graceful, elegant or smooth as we’d like.  It will involve making the best of what we’ve got, and it will probably involve extensive cursing of how we used our last great burst of wealth and energy.

The good news is that there really is a great deal you can do while you curse (far be it from me to suggest people stop cursing – I try not to advise anything I’m not willing to do ;-) ).  Did you always secretly want to be MacGyver, escaping from dangerous agents with baling twine and toilet paper (I’ve never actually seen this show, so I can’t tell if this is an accurate description, but I gather from pop culture references that it was something of the sort)?  Well, think what happens if you manage to survive peak oil, climate change and economic collapse with nothing but 1960s split level ranch, the stuff you can dumpster dive and your paycheck.  It may not be elegant, but you’ve got to admit, it is interesting.

Anyway, there’s no need to despair if you didn’t yet get the money to buy land, if the eco-village turned you down because you still use regular toilet paper, or if your present version of community mostly involves the local brewpub.  There’s probably land that’s underused around you, toilet paper can presumably be used for some MacGyver-like purpose, and beer remains the universal solvent to resistance to forming useful community groups.  Use what you have.  Adapt in place.


Permaculture Future?: Part I

Sharon June 29th, 2009

Recently, Dmitry Orlov offered a selection of possible topics for a talk he was giving, and several of them dealt with the ubiquity of permaculture as the articulated solution to our present crisis.  Orlov’s point was that a consensus seems to be emerging that permaculture strategies – particularly the Transition movement – have emerged as the de facto solution to our collective crisis without a lot of public conversation or questioning.  I didn’t get to hear Dmitry’s commentary on this subject (although I can guess what some of it would be), but it pushed me to begin a subject I’ve been gently avoiding for a while. 

Now I am commonly described as a permaculturist, and I’ve no objection, in fact it rather pleases me - I generally don’t worry much about how people describe me, and this is one of the nicer ways.   Officially, I’m not sure I qualify – I’ve never taken a full design course myself, and am mostly self-taught.  I’ve taught in a few design classes, but have never sought certification for one reason – I don’t think of myself primarily as a designer, at least in a classical sense.  That may seem strange, since a lot of what I do is design work – I teach garden design, Adapting in Place (ie, designing your life to work with less money and energy), etc…  But permaculture design is formal design of a particular kind – deeply visual, deeply concerned with maps and images.  I’m not a terribly visual person – my own strengths have to do with the translation of the world into words, not images.   There are too many pictures in permaculture design  for me ;-) .

Moreover, I tend not to sign up quickly for membership in “ists” or “isms” – even ones that I approve of deeply.  The only club I officially belong to is the order of agrarians, and only because I want to meet Wendell Berry someday ;-) .  

Despite my lack of official signing up (I have the same issues with joining the Kantians ;-) ) I do approve of permaculture in a broad sense.  I like many of the things it has brought to our society as a whole, and I like many permaculturists.  I can think of far worse principles from which to build a new society.  Moreover, I give enormous credit to Rob Hopkins and Transition practitioners, who have essentially created the only viable, large scale alternate model for dealing with a coming crisis – that’s quite an accomplishment.  One of the reasons I have not written this post before is that I really don’t want to criticize or undermine permaculture and transition, which have been fairly successful – Transition astonishing successful in a short time – in energizing a lot of people with a new idea and vision.  Given our shortage of good solutions for responding, and the need for coherent solutions, I don’t want to seem as though I’m sniping at something I admire and value. 

That said, however, I admit to some doubts about the political viability of permaculture as a solution for our collective crisis, doubts I’m going to articulate here, in the interest of promoting a larger discussion about permaculture, and about the possibility of movements in general as a strategy of mitigation.  I do want to be clear that I am not trying to undermine the enormous efforts made by people involved in permaculture and Transition, nor do I want to see them discontinue their efforts.  But I do feel that there are questions to be discussed and answered.

I should be absolutely clear here – all of my concerns about permaculture are about elements of permaculture’s presentation and emphasis – not about the overall goals of Transition or the permaculture movement. That is, even if I don’t qualify as an official permaculturist, even if I critique them, there is no question I want to work with permaculturists – their emphasis on scale, on  integrating food production and local economies, their emphasis on appropriate technology – all of these things are, I think, absolutely right.  The question is not whether permaculture is bad – I would deny that outright.  The question for me is whether permaculture and its offshoots, as they are presented and emphasized now,  can do what they would like to do – make a smooth (or smoother) transition than any other method through tough times.

The first one is a philosophical one – can permaculture as a movement actually attract enough mainstream people to really and truly make a difference? This to me is a sincere and serious question, and perhaps the deepest issue to be addressed.  When I have given talks at permaculture classes, attended group meetings, or given talks to permaculturist audiences, I’ve noticed a pervasive consistency among the attendees.  While there are exceptions, and I can’t speak for permaculturist gatherings outside the US, the ones I’ve attended (and I’ve attended quite a few in different areas of the country) have had some common denominators.  The attendees tend to be white and middle class, or if they are not middle class, they are very young, and immersed in alternative culture.  I don’t mean to stereotype, but most of the people who attend these groups tend to visually signal their attachment to historical leftist or alternative communities.  There are plenty of exceptions, but the predominance is of grey pony tails, yoga mats, priuses, flowered skirts and lefty bumperstickers.  These are not bad things – I grew up in precisely this culture and am quite fond of it.  But the absence of trucks with gun racks, right wing bumper stickers,  non-white people and other signifiers of ideological is somewhat disheartening, if you are looking for a universal movement.  At the Albany permaculture gathering, I was discussing with one of the other participants how pleased I was that the demographic involved more younger people, only to be mocked by the speaker, Larry Santoyo, for praising the diversity of the nearly all-white group.  And he was right – my standards have just been lowered over time ;-) .

I realize that permaculture has a somewhat wider audience in the UK and Australia, and that these may be primarily American objections.  The US, for example, has never gotten permaculture into any soap opera ;-) .  I also recognize that both are comparatively new here in the US, and that the early adopters don’t necessarily describe who will come to the fold in the long term.  Both are meant to be deeply flexible and adaptive to local conditions, and it is possible that they will become so.  There is a case to be made that some elements of leftist culture – universal therapy, yoga and tofu, for example, have permeated into the mainstream of American culture quite gracefully.  There is a case to be made, however, on the other side, that other elements have not.

My claim is not that permaculture as an idea is ideologically leftist, or particularly hippyish, but that its practice has been, at least in the US.  And this, I think is, quite frankly, a bad thing if the goal is the creation of a mass movement.  Frankly, having grown up the child of baby boomers, my own tastes don’t run that way.  I find myself in sympathy with people who aren’t attracted to the Transition Training’s emphasis on visualizing, community building activities, etc…  My own entry into visualization exercises and trust-building dates back to summer camps as a child, and the whole thing makes me a bit queasy.  When the words “get in a circle” are uttered, I tend to start wandering off.   I recognize this may be my own personal design flaw, but I have no interest in ever building a Web of Resilience, and I think it extremely unlikely that many of my neighbors would be interested as well, or would take time off work and home life for it.  I’m sure some of them would, but the emphasis of many permaculturists on the language of popular therapy and summer-camp style activities designed to create consensus, build trust and visualize the sustainable future are, well a turn off for whole classes of people.  They will speak to other groups – but the question of who you are speaking to is, of course, the essential one. 

Even the language of “acknowledging one’s sense of loss and grief” is one that is tough for a lot of people to swallow, despite the pervasiveness of Oprah and Dr. Phil.  I think there is a real question about how much public discussion of one’s feelings is going to be attractive in different populations and communities.  A friend of mine recently attended Transition Training in his town, and said to me “there was good stuff, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was about to join a cult.”  This is not the impression one wants to cultivate ;-) .  I make no claim that his experience was universal, but I’ve heard more than few people express similar sentiments from different parts of the US and different countries.

There are countries in the world and a few regions of the US in which a movement that uses tools that primarily appeal to the crunchy left will be successful.  Speaking as an American, for America as a whole, however, I do not think the entire US is one of them, nor are most regions.  I think it is important to recognize that while permaculture itself is not a leftist movement philosophically, an extended diet of bearded and ponytailed permaculture teachers and enthusiasts ;-) making comments about the Republicans will tend to associate the movement with the politics of its public faces. 

The painful reality of American politics for us leftists is that at no time as the American public cast open its arms and said “we were just waiting for you to invite us to join with you” ;-) .  Associate permaculture to closely with the American left, and the reality is that many people won’t join.

Is there a solution that problem?  I suspect so, perhaps some attention to the design of permaculture’s PR image.  Many (not all) of the people who embraced permaculture were mostly on the left, at least to a degree (thank G-d for Bill Mollison and Larry Santoyo, who offer a cheerful confirmation that permaculture really isn’t politically associated with one side or another, and provide hard drinking, reality pushing, capitalist (in Larry’s case, anyway), versions of the things itself ;-) – I may not be a capitalist and I’ve long since lost any tolerance for hard drinking, but I find them refreshing and funny, which is helpful), and they certainly know things we need to know. And most of the permaculturists I know are more complex than that – Larry Santoyo was a California Cop, Toby Hemenway a scientist…. that is, they aren’t what they are widely perceived to be.  But perceptions matter more than reality in some cases, and polling people who are not part of the club, the widespread perception I find is that permaculture is another hippie thing, to go with the “liberal left behind movement” reputation of peak oil. Whether it is fair or not, it matters.  At a minimum, I’d be careful about the language associations and techniques one adapts – I don’t think that evoking meditation or trust building is a really good idea, say, for Transition Mississippi, or even Transition rural upstate NY if the goal is critical mass.

My main suggestion would be that at least in the US, Transition movements begin engaging religious communities on a serious level.  I give a lot of talks at churches and synagogues and other religious communities.  Many of those communities are already engaging in the nuts and bolts work of responding to an *existing* Long Emergency – they are doing the marrying and burying, the preaching of moralities, both productive and not.  They run the food pantries, the battered women’s shelters, the emergency funds.  They find clothing for the naked, food for the hungry and offer sanctuary and public appeals when violence breaks out.  This is the nitty gritty work of responding to the crisis as it unfolds, and it must be done simultaneously with the building of the “better model.”  I would argue that some of (not all) the best people to make the case for Transition to are the people who are already on teh ground in our cities and towns doing the work that desperately needs more hands. 

My other suggestion is that permaculture groups seek out people who are *already* doing the work of sustainability, but don’t get any credit for it, because they are poor.  Some do this, but the fact that these groups tend to be mostly made up of middle class white folks suggest to me that that asking the people who are already living in the city with no electricity, because the bill gets cut off every April, and the people who are already dumpster diving and making their livings of the waste of the city, and the people who are already stretching every resource because they have no choice, or urban farming because that’s just what you do where they come from ought to be invested in the local permaculture community.  And it will not do to go among them as missionaries and teach them – let them teach you.  You may have done the food stamp budget challenge one month – they’ve been doing it for years, and can tell you how to keep eating when the money runs out.  I do not want to see something so valuable become the territory only of an affluent middle class who can afford to pay a few thousand bucks and take two weeks off work to take a design seminar.

The second question/critique I’d offer is this – is it possible to imagine permaculture responding successfully in situations not of peaceful exigency, of gentle shifts, but of violent ones?  I think there is little doubt that some places will experience violent shifts – by this I mean war, civil or otherwise, rioting, vast increases in criminal activity and violence, and civic disruption.  Some of those places may not be in the US ;-) .  Recently Rob Hopkins and Richard Heinberg made public their correspondence about whether Transition should incorporate emergency preparedness into its training and work – it was an excellent conversation, and long overdue, but it inadvertantly exposed some real limitations to Transition’s planning - Hopkins’s conclusion was that perhaps it could begin to do so, and his first thought was that it could include camping and wilderness survival skills.  As useful as these might be to many people, and as good a thought as that is, it struck me as a measure of how far off from dealing with a truly disastrous situation we are – it is true some people may retreat into woods as refugees, but far more likely to be needed are plans for quelling local violence, building emergency shelters and providing emergency medical services, and urban survival.  Hopkins noted that he saw little way to address preparedness measures because they were traditional “top down” applications – ie, provided by the state.  But if Transition’s bottom-up structures are overridden the moment there is a major crisis by existing top-down structures, then we can assume that we will no longer be living in a society governed by permaculture.  I realize that the long term goal is for permaculture models to replace existing structures, smoothly and gradually. 

The problem is lack of time – historically institutions that have done very well in tough times have been those that had something to offer people in exigency – that took up the work of dealing with the crisis.  If a crisis comes before the town council or the local government is replaced by loving permaculturists, permaculturist movements must offer a compelling case that they can handle a rough transition better than existing infrastructure – that means heavy emphasis on preparedness.  Religious institutions have known this – think how powerful the relief institutions and madresses of Islam, or Catholic social welfare structures have been in influencing local relationships to religious communities.  Permaculture is not a religion, but it is perhaps, a faith at this stage – a faith that it has something to offer.  But if tough times come rapidly and it has nothing to offer those already experiencing exigency, if its message is “wait, we’ve go the right technique, it just takes a while…” I think that permaculture will be rapidly pushed aside. 

Naomi Klein’s superb _The Shock Doctrine_ observes the degree to which people cling to the familiar in tough times – and they cling even harder to those they believe were there for them.  If we had a decade or more before the Long Emergency was thrust upon us, or if we could assure a smooth shift, and if the language of permaculture can be shifted (and I think it can be) to one that is more encompassing, that works as well in the US as it has elsewhere, I would be less uncertain about the value of some of the work being done now.  But for most of us, our time to transition is measured in months or a couple of years at most – for a host of reasons.  The economic crisis is on us now, and we know that the energy crisis is coming rather quickly alongside it.  We have less than 5 years left from James Hansen’s deadline to begin making “radical and draconian” changes on the climate.  We have so much to do and so little time.

I admire enormously much of the work of permaculture and permaculturists, and every time someone calls me one, I’m pleased and proud to be associated with that community.  There is no group out there that does not have issues that need consideration and critique – and permaculture has more that I will attend to in my next post on this matter – the issue of how we will address the larger questions of feeding cities and whole populations, and the question of what degree of actual success Transition is having at this point are, I think, important questions to ask.

I find myself wanting permaculture to succeed – there are plenty of things to like about it, particularly as an economic model. And if Transition or Permaculture can’t do enough fast enough, I’m honestly dubious that they will succeed at all.  If we had world enough and time, that would be great.  But the models that will help us most are the ones that can work under circumstances of enormous disruption and difficulty as well as during a smooth shift.


Independence Days Update: Life in a Northern Tropical Rainforest

Sharon June 29th, 2009

Ok, I’m just asking, but whoever is in charge of rain, could you please do me a kindness, and send it off to Australia or something for a while.  I’m sure they could use it, and well, I’m a little done.  I don’t mean to complain.  I realize that 50+ inches of rain in an era of climate change is an excellent thing.  Mine is just an argument for, say, dividing it up over the whole year, rather than dumping half of it in June.

Ok, that’s an exaggeration, we haven’t had anything like 25 inches of rain.  It just kind of feels that way.  I am tired of hanging out laundry and looking out the window and saying “oops, I guess I might as well just leave it up another day.”  I am tired of mosquitoes.  I am tired of being damp, and having damp, muddy children hug and kiss me.  Don’t mind me, I’m just whining.  On the other hand, it really does look like I live in a rainforest – everything has grown and grown – the word lush doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It is glorious – hard to believe that two months ago I was spotting patches of green among the dead, brown things.  Now I’d be hard pressed to find a spot not burgeoning with life, except, of course the places where the goats have been through the mud so much that they’ve killed all the vegetation.  Not too many of those, though.

Otherwise, it is has been a pretty decent week here – despite swine flu exposure that necessitated rescheduling my Dad’s annual visit to the end of July, we seem not to have gotten sick.  Eli is on vacation, which is not his favorite thing, but he seems to be handling it with reasonable grace.  Things are quiet, which is good.  If the grass wasn’t up to my knees and the weeds weren’t getting ahead, we’d think we lived somewhere else ;-) .

We’re expecting the arrival of 20 turkey poults this week – they were supposed to come at the end of May, to be sold and butchered at Thanksgiving, but the hatchery called and said their hatch had failed, and that they wouldn’t have more until now.  Not sure what size they will be by Thanksgiving, but since I’m not sitting on the eggs myself, there’s really nothing to be done about it, so I decline to worry.  Also anticipating more hens to supplement my aging layers, since we’re going back to the egg business. 

I did, in fact, get my birthday present agreed to, so at the end of July we’ll add 3 more goats to the herd, Bast, who is small and cute and new, and two milkers, Jesse and Mina (for those of you who have seen my food and farming powerpoint, Mina is the goat that appears in said powerpoint – she was already my “appropriate technology, livestock variation” illustration, so it seems only appropriate she should live with us.  Jesse is being sold because she’s not as “refined” as the owners would like (ie, she’s big and eats a lot for a Nigerian Dwarf) but she comes from kick-ass milking lines, so we’re happy to have her in the mix.  Meanwhile, Selene and Maia look as though we successfully got them knocked up this time, so we should have kids just in time for Rosh Hashanah.

Ok, on to the update:

Planted something: Arnica, green beans, beets, turnips, cabbages, layered black currants, lavender, calendula, cucumbers.

Harvested something: bok choy, chinese cabbage, lettuce, parsley, basil, beets, orach, eggs, milk, onions, various herbs, peas, kale, broccoli, peppermint

Preserved something: Dried elecampane roots, tinctured elecampane and valerian roots (not enough sun to dry the valerian roots outside, and I’m not having the smell of valerian in my dehydrator in my kitchen – blagh!), dried strawberries, froze snap peas, dried greens, made salt herbs (layered fresh herbs with sea salt).  Dried comfrey for winter goat feed.

Ate the food: My favorite beet recipe ever, beets with tahini and yogurt with fresh beets laid out upon their greens…yum!  Made a cold borscht as well for our concert picnic.  Made strawberry soda (strawberry syrup mixed with seltzer) when the neighbor kids were over. 

Waste not/Managing Food Reserves: Gave away most of last year’s pickles to make room for this year’s.  Finally made a master-food-storage buying list. Found some stuff I hadn’t been rotating and put it in the front of the rotation.  The usual composting, feeding all food waste to some critter or other, etc… 

Want Not/Prep and Storage: Synagogue yard sale yielded winter clothes for Isaiah and Asher, t-shirts not permanently stained for husband, books and a poster of the latin names of common vegetables.  Local yard sale yielded new crowbar.  Local trash picking yielded two rabbit cages in need of minor repair.   

Build Community Food Systems: Did the base work for putting in a schoolyard garden at a nearby school, did a bunch of radio interviews for ANOF, began working on a small-scale livestock workshop to be held in Albany.

How about you?