Archive for July, 2009

Class and Interfaith Discussion

Sharon July 31st, 2009

Hi Folks - I feel a weekend coming on ;-) .  Before I close down for the sabbath I just want  to remind people of two things.

1. I still do have spaces in my Adapting In Place Class, taught with Aaron Newton, starting on Thursday.  The class is run online and asynchronously (ie, you don’t have to be there at any particular time) for 6 weeks, starting this coming Thursday and running until September 10. 

The class is designed to help people find a way to adapt their lives and their homes and families to difficult times, given the resources they actually have.  It is by far my favorite class, and has been really valuable for many of the participants - a number of them have told me that it has been literally life changing.  Cost of the class is $180.  To register, send an email to [email protected]

 Here’s a copy of the syllabus:

Week 1  – How to evaluate what you have.  We’re going to concentrate on figuring out what the major concerns are for your place and your community.  We’ll talk about your region and its climate, culture and resources, your house itself, your community and neighborhood – the challenges you forsee and maybe ones you haven’t thought about yet, and your personal circumstances – how much money, time and energy you have to deal with it.  How does the definition of home change when we do this?  We’ll also talk about when adapting in place is not an option, or when you should consider relocating, and what your options are if you do need to leave or move.

Week 2 -  This week  will focus on your house itself – we’ll talk primarily about low energy infrastructure for heating, cooling, cooking, lighting, washing, etc…  About costs and options and choices for both private homes and for communities.  We will also cover home scale renewables, especially low cost options.

Week 3 – We’re going to go into the walls of your building and into other mysterious home infrastructure- water, plumbing and toileting, insulation, keeping warm and cool and all the other things that your shelter does or could do for you.   We’ll also explore what’s around your house - your soil and other resources that can help sustain you.

Week 4  We’ll focus on Family Issues – Sharing resources with both immediate and extended family (whether biological or chosen), dealing with people who aren’t on board, Building collective infrastructure, cannibalizing what you have, dealing with the brother-in-law on the couch, helping kids adapt, disability, aging, college

Week 5  - We’ll talk about Finances, money, employment, making do, getting along on a shoestring, thrift, subsistence labor, starting cottage industries and businesses and community economics.  This is also when we’ll talk about transportation of all sorts. We’ll also begin discussing building a set of plans – 1 year, 5 year – to adapt to different scenarios.

Week 6 – We’ll talk about Community at every level, about how to build it, what to bring to it, how to get your neighbors to help, even if they are weird. How to get along with them even if you are weird ;-) , about models and ideas for bringing resilience and community to every level from the neighborhood to the state.  We’ll also talk about security, dealing with unrest or violence, and try and get those plans finished.

 BTW, for those of you already registered for the class, please go and sign up the for the discussion group (details in your registration email) ASAP.  For some reason, no one seems to have signed up, and some early class material will start showing up early next week. 

2. Some of you may have missed that I’ve started up an interfaith group to discuss Peak Oil and related issues, with Bob Waldrop and John Michael Greer. A week into our adventure, we’ve already got nearly a hundred members!  If you are interested in joining the conversation, send an email to subscribe to: [email protected]

Have a great weekend!


Tell Me Your Adapting-In-Place Story

Sharon July 31st, 2009

It has been a long, hectic week here, simultaneously putting the last touches in _Independence Days_ before it goes to the printer, and also getting the AIP book fully organized, a new contract agreed on, etc… 

Now that I’m writing the book on my own, I admit, I’m going to rely on other people to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and provide a wider perspective - we had always planned to include profiles of people’s efforts to make their place functional in tough times, but they’ve taken on a new importance for me, because, of course, there’s a lot I don’t know, haven’t tried, etc…  I’m taking on this huge subject, and I’m dependent, as always on other people’s expertise.  But I had been planning to stick Aaron with a lot of the stuff that I didn’t know as well, and somehow, taking this on alone seems overwhelming.  But I’ve decided to deal with the overwhelming simply by including as many interesting case studies as I can.

All of which is a long way of saying that I’d love to hear your story about how you are going about making your future where you are. I’m interested in stories from cities and countryside, from suburbs and even the much-maligned exurban housing projects.  I’m interested in people moving back with family, and people making their way alone, in big extended families and singles, young and old, immigrants and emigrants, religious and athiests, and people of all ethnicities.   My assumption is that all of us, when we choose a place to stay are working within constraints, often severe constraints - and I’d like to see how you are making the best possible future for yourself despite the fact that, say, your family is far away and doesn’t take you seriously, or you don’t have much money and live in an apartment,  or your neighbors are radically different, or you are settling in a place that may be subsumed by the sea someday - but that’s where your family is.  That is, one way or another, none of us have the perfect place, the perfect people, the perfect list of resources.  And yet, we’re here, and making a future.  I think that’s worth celebrating.

 I’d really love to hear how you are making your place liveable and viable at every level, from how you are retrofitting your house to how you are making community with your neighbors.  All of that’s a lot of information, of course, and I can probably only read some of it, but I’d love to hear the highlights, in comments or email at [email protected] or in a link to your blog in comments.  And if you want, I’m looking for a few people to be profiled in the AIP book.  I can obviously only choose a couple of those (I’ve already got some selected), but even for those who aren’t chosen, it might be possible to eventually put them all up on the book website.  So there’s some cool possibilities there (I’d love to hear from you even if you don’t want to be in the book, obviously). 

So tell me - what are you doing?  What are you concentrating on?  How are you starting where you are and going from there?

Thanks so much,


365 Books #3 - "The Subsistence Perspective"

Sharon July 31st, 2009

Ok, I’ve already probably pimped this book so many times that y’all are bored, but it is a brilliant, important, and deeply under-rated book, and I don’t want anyone to miss it.  Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies have put together a truly necessary analysis of what is available to us, once we acknowledge that in their industrial forms, both capitalism and socialism have failed us. 

That we believe that there’s no other choice but a few industrialized, huge scale economic options leads us to make terrible choices.  With their emphasis on small scale and humane models, they argue that there are other choices, all emerging from cultures of subsistence. 

The authors are feminists, and they take as given that subsistence models must include basic justice issues, and must stop erasing the contributions of women and the poor.  But don’t let that turn you off - nor the fact that it is translated from the German.  This book is worth your time and effort.


The Personal Materia Medica

Sharon July 31st, 2009

One of the projects I’ve been undertaking as I research herb growing and expand my body of knowledge is the development of my local Materia Medica - that is, what plants would I have to rely upon locally - ones I can grow well or wildcraft ethically - if I was unable to afford or locate others?  I was inspired on this project by James Green’s list of 35 Herbs that he felt were sufficient to meet most needs.  That’s great, and I’m all for it, but a lot of those don’t grow near me.  I can purchase some of them and preserve them in tincture form, if they preserve well that way, but I want to be able to renew my resources.  So I’ve set out to discover which herbs I can grow or find locally.   I’m also researching which ones I might also be able to grow for sale locally as well.

Here’s my current list:

Alfalfa, Aloe (lives happily in a pot here),  Angelica, Arnica (not A. Montana, but the less fussy native),  Astragalus (although saving seed is somewhat challenging in this climate), Barberry,  Bee Balm, Betony, Black Cohosh, Boneset,  Borage, Burdock (got enough of this to provide blood thinning and anti-cancer benefits to billions of people, approximately ;-) ), Calendula, California Poppy, Cardinal Flower, Catnip, Cayenne, Chamomile, Chickweed, Comfrey, Crampbark, Dandelion, Dill, Echinacea, Elderberries, Elecampane, Evening Primrose, Feverfew, Gayfeather, Goldenrod, Gotu Kola (tropical, but will overwinter indoors), Hawthorn,  Hops (used to be a major crop around here), Horehound, Joe Pye Weed, Lady’s Mantle, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena (drops leaves a couple of times in the winter but is happy enough indoors), Lovage, Marshmallow, Meadowsweet, Milk Thistle, Mormon Tea (maybe, it hasn’t grown that much, but it did survive in pots), Motherwort, Mullein, Mugwort, Nettle, Oats, Oregano, Pennyroyal, Peppermint, Periwinkle, Plantain, Red Clover, St. John’s Wort, Sage, Self-heal, Shepherd’s purse, Sheep Sorrel, Skullcap, Spilanthes (won’t overwinter, but will set seed), Thyme, Uva Ursi, Valerian, Vervain, Violet, Willow bark, Wormwood, Yarrow.  

I’m struck by what a long list that is, and how long it will take me to exhaust the possibilities of those many remarkable plants. I think it would be easy to get hung up on what you don’t have, but I suspect many of us have more than we think. Do you have a list?


Will the Internet Still Be Here in Tough Times?

Sharon July 30th, 2009

If you didn’t see Kris De Decker’s fascinating essay on the embodied energy cost of high technology, you definitely ought to.  De Decker writes;

Most important, however, is the energy required to manufacture all this electronic equipment (both network and, especially, consumer appliances). The energy used to produce electronic gadgets is considerably higher than the energy used during their operation. For most of the 20th century, this was different; manufacturing methods were not so energy-intensive.

An old-fashioned car uses many times more energy during its lifetime (burning gasoline) than during its manufacture. The same goes for a refrigerator or the typical incandescent light bulb: the energy required to manufacture the product pales into insignificance when compared to the energy used during its operation.

 Advanced digital technology has turned this relationship upside down. A handful of microchips can have as much embodied energy as a car. And since digital technology has brought about a plethora of new products, and has also infiltrated almost all existing products, this change has vast consequences. Present-day cars and since long existing analogue devices are now full of microprocessors. Semiconductors (which form the energy-intensive basis of microchips) have also found their applications in ecotech products like solar panels and LEDs.”

De Decker’s conclusion is that it might well be harder to maintain access to the internet than we have imagined.  Because the energy costs have to be frontloaded into the product, as energy and resource prices rise, we may see an end to the decline in technology prices and the expansion of availability.  De Decker also points out that recycling is no solution - it takes massive amounts of energy to recycle the components of high tech materials. 

I find this evidence dovetails with my own assumptions about energy-intensive resources - it is possible, of course, that they will disappear, but more likely (and thus, less easily believed) that people will simply stop being able to afford them.  The planned obsolescence of most computers is already foretold - replacing them is cheap now, when w are affluent. It will not always be. And while public institutions like libraries and schools may maintain some of these resources, it is impossible to do the scale of work that most of us do on the internet relying on these alone. 

John Michael Greer has made the case for the possible end of widespread internet access eloquently in his essay “The End of the Information Age” where he argues that we mostly don’t think this could happen because we don’t want it to happen.  But in fact, the loss of the internet for the majority is not an unlikely occurance:

“Very few people realize just how extravagant the intake of resources to maintain the information economy actually is. The energy cost to run a home computer is modest enough that it’s easy to forget, for example, that the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together. Multiply that out by the tens of thousands of server farms that keep today’s online economy going, and the hundreds of other energy-intensive activities that go into the internet, and it may start to become clear how much energy goes into putting these words onto the screen where you’re reading them.

It’s not an accident that the internet came into existence during the last hurrah of the age of cheap energy, the quarter century between 1980 and 2005 when the price of energy dropped to the lowest levels in human history. Only in a period where energy was quite literally too cheap to bother conserving could so energy-intensive an information network be constructed. The problem here, of course, is that the conditions that made the cheap abundant energy of that quarter century have already come to an end, and the economics of the internet take on a very different shape as energy becomes scarce and expensive again.
Like the railroads of the future mentioned earlier in this post, the internet is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Once the cost of maintaining it in its current form outstrips the income that can be generated by it, it becomes a losing proposition, and cheaper modes of information storage and delivery will begin to replace it in its more marginal uses. Governments will have very good reasons to maintain some form of internet as long as they can, even when it becomes an economic sink – it’s worth remembering that the internet we now have evolved out of a US government network meant to provide communication capacity in the event of nuclear war – but this does not mean that everyone in the industrial world will have the same access they do today.

Instead, as energy costs move unsteadily upward and resource needs increasingly get met, or not, on the basis of urgency, expect access costs to rise, government regulation to increase, internet commerce to be subject to increasing taxation, and rural areas and poor neighborhoods to lose internet service altogether. There may well still be an internet a quarter century from now, but it will likely cost much more, reach far fewer people, and have only a limited resemblance to the free-for-all that exists today. Newspapers, radio, and television all moved from a growth phase of wild diversity and limited regulation to a mature phase of vast monopolies with tightly controlled content; even in the absence of energy limits, the internet would be likely to follow the same trajectory, and the rising costs imposed by the end of cheap energy bid fair to shift that process into overdrive.

The waning of the internet will pose an additional challenge to the future, because – like other new technologies – it is in the process of displacing older technologies that provided the same services on a more sustainable basis. The collapse of the newspaper industry is one widely discussed example of this process at work, but another – the death spiral of American public libraries – is likely to have a much wider impact in the decades and centuries to come. Among the most troubling consequences of the current economic crisis are wholesale cuts in state and local government funding for libraries. The Florida legislature was with some difficulty convinced a few weeks ago not to cut every penny of state support for library systems – roughly a quarter of all the money that keeps libraries open in Florida – and county and city libraries from coast to coast are cutting hours, laying off staff, and closing branches.”

Greer and I don’t agree on everything, but in this case, our visions are very much in accord.  Just as I keep beating the drum that even more likely than grid failure is the likelihood we may find ourselves unable to afford electricity, I think the odds are good that even if the internet remains, it may be out of reach to many of us - technically, it is possible for each of us to have a private airplane, but the technical ability to have it doesn’t make it economically or structurally feasible.

We also agree on the importance of libraries and other methods of preserving information access.  The more we rely on the internet, and assume it can exist as a repository of available knowledge, the more we lose.

And this is also true of community - so many of us rely on the internet to find like minded people, to find communities around us.  And that time we spend on the internet is time we don’t spend in direct connection to other people.  Now we may not be able to get from our neighbors what we get here - just as we may not be able to get in hard copy at our library what we can get on the internet.  But it would be wrong not to recognize the possibility that at some point we will be left with only our library (or not even that if we allow state budget cuts to undermine that) and with only the people around us. 

I once wrote an essay called “The Revolution Will Not be Blogged, Either” (now I should probably add tweeted or facebooked) in which I noted that no technology is without its unintended negative consequences - and I think the assumption that we are making, that the internet will always be here for all of us - and I think it is an assumption made even by many people who should know better - risks enormous negative consequences.  Whether we are printing out valuable information (on the backs of other paper, of course) or remembering that even though we may like the people on the internet better, we still will have to live with our neighbors, perhaps exclusively, our assumptions should be that we may not always have things, just because we find it unthinkable to live without them.


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