Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Off to Boston

I'm headed to ASPO tomorrow morning, with Kathy from Running On Empty 3. It'll be an interesting trip - I taught a couple of semesters over at BU, and, of course, lived and went to school in the Boston area for a decade or so, so this will be old haunts for me. It will be interesting to see what people like Tom Menino and Michael Klare have to say. And, of course, whether Richard Heinberg will still talk to me after I embarassed him ;-).

I'll bring back my report, as well as whether there's any evidence that my call to "Remember the Ladies" had any impact. I'm looking forward to lunch with Megan Quinn and meeting lots of new people. Anyone else going?


Friday, October 20, 2006

You Have to Admit, Its Getting Better All the Time

There are the good days and the bad ones. The don't often come quite as close together as the last few days. Three days ago I was seriously considering putting all four children out by the road with a Free-To-Good-Home sign (actually, the word "good" was up for discussion). Nobody was napping, everyone was cranky, all the baby wanted to do was nurse and cling, all the other kids wanted to do was whine because it was raining and they wanted to play outside.

And then there are the days like yesterday, where you begin to think you are doing something right. Simon finished his first ninepatch quilt block, the one that is going to make a pillow. He's not a kid with a lot of fine-motor dexterity, so you have to understand how much *work* this was for a four year old. And not only was he proud of himself, but he wanted to start again with the next one.

Isaiah spent most of the afternoon in the garden, eating raw chard and pulling odds and ends of weeds, while quizzing me on the identities and properties of various bugs and plants. Then, he and Simon wandered back into the house to help bake chocolate chip cookies for our neighbors.

Eli has a hard enough time with the english language, but has mastered the words to the Schecheyanu prayer, which is the traditional Jewish prayer to say when you do something for the first time, or the first time in a long time. Simon reminds us to say it each time we do or eat something seasonal for the first time. So we have prayed over our first acorn squash, or our first brussels sprouts, Eli's first swimming lesson and the first time we got a new Magic Schoolbus book out of the library ;-).

And both Simon and Isaiah have taken to heart the message that it is better to make things than to buy them. Sadly, we, their parents, have a hard time living up to their standards. Simon wants to build a schoolhouse - a real one, and Daddy has had to inform him that his woodworking skills are more on the birdhouse level. Simon asked me if we could make needles for sewing, and since mommy neither carves bone or works metal, I had to pass him off with the fact that we have enough needles to last a good while. Isaiah wants to make a bat costume for Halloween, even though we have a perfectly good bat costume that he wears daily to breakfast. When asked why, he says, "It would be my bat, and it would be better."

Well, two people down, 6.7 billion to go on the "living voluntarily with less" message. My kids are (for today) convinced that the things they make are the best and most beautiful and most wonderful things in the whole world. And there is a world full of artisans and craftspeople who believe that as well. If only we could figure out how to pass that message along - because this is the central, essential method of peak oil and all the others. Life is better this way. Getting out of the rat race and building communities and living more simply is its own reward. Matching your values to your actions is its own reward. Children can see this is more fun and better. Why can't the rest of us?


Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Walmart Dilemma

Now I'm no fan of Wallyworld, but I found myself there one day last week. I've got this cat, you see - he's an old male, and like some old male cats, he's prone to urinary tract infections. The only way to prevent them is to feed him special food. I can buy that food from the vet, but the annual food bill for the cat is over $1000 if I do. But Purina makes a reasonably priced brand that does the job. The problem is that no place in 30 miles of me other than Walmart sells it. So once every few months, I go and donate the price of a couple of bags of cat food to the cause of industrialization.

I won't justify it, except to say that I don't think spending four times as much gas to go buy it at a Kmart is really all that much better - Kmart being only marginally preferrable, and just as much money going to feed the monster of industrial civilization. And from a purely sociological perspective, Walmart is kind of interesting. For example, I was nearby early one morning, and discovered that really early in the morning, our local Walmart plays Christian devotional music on the PA system. How interesting is that - apparently, only Christians shop early.

One of the things that has interested me the most lately about Walmart is its turn toward organic food. Now this is the most industrial of industrial organics. And they've always had some - as long as I've lived out this way you could buy organic tofu, Stonyfield farms yogurt and organic goat's milk. But now there's a *lot* of organic food. For example, I saw some grapes there - 3xs the price of the conventional grapes, and packaged in a giant plastic clamshell box, lest one of the grapes (which cost 5cents each, I suspect) get squished. But it has a nice, earthy brown paper label, with a picture of a pretty farm, and that all important label "organic" on it.

Target has decided to compete, creating its own organic label. And helpfully, the USDA has relaxed the already not-very stringent rules on what constitutes organic in industrial agriculture. Apparently you can use a little bit of poison here and there, and add some petroleum distillates to your food - just not as much. And, of course, there are no limits on the amount of petroleum permitted to plant, harvest, package, ship, refrigerate, etc... your food. Very few limits on the inhumane treatment of animals, and none at all on the inhumane treatment of human beings, including migrant workers. In fact, organic agriculture often is worse for workers, who don't get pesticide exposure but do get massive repetetive strain injuries. Industrial organic agriculture is a disaster - just a slightly smaller, milder disaster than regular industrial agriculture. If you don't believe me, definitely read Michael Pollan's account of it in _The Omnivore's Dilemma_.

Now the good thing about Walmart and Target going organic is that millions of people who don't have food coops, or local farmers will have access to organic food. In fact, Walmart is committed to making it cheap (don't think too hard about what has to be done on the other end to make it cheap!), so that poor people can have equal access to organics. Lots of people are happy that now they can have pesticide-free food in their little town.

But here's a question. Is it reasonable to say that the only thing we have to do if we want a safe and sane and just food system is "create demand?" Because that's what the free market claims is the only obligation we "consumers" (think hard about that word - do you want to be known mostly for your capacity to consume things?) have. If we demand things, the magical market will supply them. But what is left out of this equation is that it won't really supply what we *want* - it won't give us the things we dream about, or that we hope for, or that we believe are good and right. Markets and corporations don't do that - they can't. They aren't people, they don't have a morality, or a sense of justice, or passion or love. Corporations are facsimiles of human beings, stripped of ethics, love, caring, justice and honor. So what they give us is facsimiles of what we truly want and dream of. Thus, you get the organic frozen turkey dinner, with paste-flavored mashed potatoes, instead of the turkey grown by a neighbor and roasted by someone who loves you. The same is true of industrial organic food - it requires so much petroleum, because it is essentially a plastic model of small scale organic food. We are told all we have to do is want, and open our mouths like a baby bird, and the market and corporations will drop something into our open gullets. But let us remember that if all we are going to contribute is demand and an open mouth, we should expect what is dropped into our mouths to be a worm.

The reality is that any decent future asks more of us than simply demanding and wanting. If your community has no access to truly organic, local, sustainably created food, then you need to help create some, not rely on Walmart or Tarjay to produce it. It is easy to rail against corporations, when in fact the reason corporations have so much power is that we have ceded it to them. We have said we don't have time or knowledge or energy to create just systems, so that we should allow markets to do our work for us. And then we act surprised and outraged when artificial human beings, motivated by greed, fail to live up to our principles. The only possible solution is for us to cease to subcontract our needs and responsibilities out to artificial human beings. Instead, buy things from people, ideally people you know, and put your own work into the system. If there's no food coop, start one. If there's no farmer's market, talk to local farmers about sourcing food or finding them. If all the clothing is made by slaves in the third world, buy used or make your own. Grow some food yourself, maybe even enough to sell. We cannot expect corporate ogliarchy to cease if we are not willing to make it stop, one dollar and one project at a time.

As for me, I'm looking into making my own cat food. As much of a learning experience as my trip to Walmart was, more is being asked of me. And you.


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Plan C, Community Solutions and the Most Important Thing Any One of Us will Ever Do

I left Megan Quinn, Faith Morgan and Pat Murphy off my "famous folk" post because I've been meaning to come back to the subject of the Community Solutions conference with everyone who bothers to read this. Because I want everyone here to read the Community Solutions "Plan C" and think carefully about how we can make this happen.

As a nation, we have no choice but to change the way we live. Even if you don't believe in peak oil, it doesn't really matter. Because even if this weren't the right response to Peak Oil (and it is), it is the right response to Climate Change. And even if it weren't the right response to Climate Change or Peak Oil, it is the right response to the central injustice in economic globalization. And even if that weren't true, it is the right response to give Americans the highest possible quality of life.

I know I sound a little like a suck up when I say how impressed I am with Pat Murphy. After all, he invited me to be a speaker, and gave me what he called my "debutant ball." But if you've actually met me, you know that if I don't like your ideas, it won't matter a tiny bit how much I like you personally. I'm a no quarter asked or given person. Pat doesn't need any quarter - he's come up with something truly brilliant on his own.

What Pat Murphy did, in Plan C and in his Smart Jitney program was question established realities. Are renewable energies really underfunded? Pat demonstrates clearly that they are not - that their limited utility doesn't come from lack of research into them. Is light rail really the best alternative? Pat shows that when you add the long term energy costs of construction, it is easier and cheaper and more efficient to use the existing car fleet, and simply put many more people in them, and use them more efficiently. With Megan Quinn, who is the public face of community solutions and a brilliant thinker on peak oil in her own right, Pat and Community Solutions have started to reconsider received ideas and create a model of the future that could work, and that doesn't simply put off a disaster upon our own children.

More than any single organization working on peak oil, Community Solutions offers hope and optimism. Faith Morgan's documentary, _The Power of Community_ offers Cuba as a model for what we could do and accomplish. And Plan C is, I think, the most hopeful vision of what we might get and achieve, if only we'd concentrate on what really matters - community, meeting basic needs, achieving a level of personal security, and finding a safe way down from the disaster we're teetering on.

I believe sufficiently in this that I've decided that my website will start a new program - the "thousand picture" program. Because if a picture is worth a thousand words, what would a thousand pictures of volunteers to live sustainably be? Because the major public opposition to any strategy of curtailment is the idea that Americans will never, ever go along with anything that means buying less, and living more simply. But I don't believe that's true - in fact, I think most Americans would like very much to live a simpler, more basic life, but don't know how to get there from here. If we who believe in good stuff like frugality, conservation, home economy and local development could stand up and say, "this is the way, and we're volunteers," there is no question we could transform the world.

If Plan C is ever to become public policy, the prejudice of public figures who believe they "know" what everyone wants must be overcome. So I'm asking for public sign-ons to plan C - to a voluntary strategy in which we gradually cut our consumption, and concentrate on creating stronger communities and happier lives. I'll have more details on my website shortly( But what I want is for at least one thousand (heck, I'll keep paying for the space if I can get a million - or 10 million - why not aim high!!!) people to sign on to the basic ideas of Plan C, and with their signature, send in a picture of yourself doing something sustainable. Send your name, email and your picture, along with a few lines about who you are and what you are doing to make your life more sustainable, and the address of your web presence, if you have one, to me at or, and I'll post them on the website. I'm going to chase down some celebrities as well, so we can all have fun flipping through the pictures looking for famous faces.

There will be prizes for the most beautiful pictures, the funniest, the weirdest and the cutest (at the moment I'm giving out hand-knitted mittens, but if you live in Florida I'll come up with something else!). I'll give out prizes once a month, or as fast as I can knit them. I want to see people in their gardens, kids collecting eggs, people riding bikes, trikes and unicycles. I'll take pictures of your homemade solar showers and your solar panels and your gardens that spell out "Victory." I want to see you wearing your own homespun, homewoven, homecrocheted, homeknitted clothing, and chopping wood. I want to see your homebuilt and home cooked products. And most of all, I want to see you - this is going to be, I think, a collections of pictures of the most beautiful, courageous, generous and amazing people in the world doing the work they do to improve upon it. Because if enough of us stand up and say we are willing, and our neighbors are willing, then our "leaders" will finally begin to follow.

So send me your pictures, and your info, along with a quick summary and your email and website. Show your face and the faces of your families, friends and neighbors. Help make it impossible to pretend that the world isn't full of willing volunteers.


Get Chickens...but think too.

Someone on a list I'm on recently announced that he was convinced by peak oil, and that means he needs to get chickens. Now on one hand, I think that's a good idea. There are many compelling reasons to keep chickens. First of all, industrial chicken and egg production is one of the filthiest, most inhumane, most grotesque industries of all time. You probably already know that the chickens are essentially tortured during their short lives, living in filth, crammed in tiny cages, etc... I won't bother reiterating what we all already know, but if you buy eggs or chicken at the supermarket, you are, with your dollars, saying, "I'm ok with torturing animals and polluting the planet just so I can have meat." Organics, industrial kosher and "free range" (which really doesn't mean what you think it does) are marginally better, but much more like industrial production than not.

So what is a person who likes to eat eggs and the occasional bowl of chicken soup to do? If you raise four laying hens in your backyard, you will average 2 eggs per day - enough for a household of four to have an egg each every other day. 8 hens, which would fit comfortably in your average suburban backyard, will keep you in all the eggs you want much of the year. Eggs are a superb source of protein, and quite delicious. They enhance most baked goods. In addition, you will get chicken manure (in industrial concentrated production, chicken manure is a problem - in your yard, it is a blessing on your garden), and when the hens get older, and stop laying so well, if you are brave about this sort of thing, you can make chicken and dumplings out of them. Or you can keep the hen as a pet. They are friendly things, make pleasant noises (you don't need a rooster to get eggs, and in fact most people in close proximity to neighbors shouldn't keep a rooster) , and good natured. Children can pet them, and there isn't a child or adult in the world who doesn't get excited when they find an egg. All my children have grown up with chickens, but the excitement has never waned. Chickens will eat your scraps, including meats and things you can't put on the compost pile, and return you beautiful eggs. They will eat bugs, including japanese beetles, slugs and ticks that pester us. All they require is an area of grass to scratch on, the most basic housing (4 hens can live comfortably in a doghouse, but for gathering eggs and straw removal you might want something else).

Now some areas do not permit chickens, but surprisingly many do, and if they don't, this is something to take up with your town board or whoever is in charge. Get your neighbors to help - promise them as many delicious, orange yolked, lovely eggs as they want if they will help you. Show them how cute the baby chicks are, and how sweet natured a Buff Orpington hen is when a five year old picks her up and carries her around. 6 hens make far less noise, mess and trouble than one Golden Retriever for neighbors, and are infinitely more useful.

But - and I want everyone to pause at that but - it is worth thinking about how we're going to feed these chickens. Because a lot of people get chickens and think their work on the path to sustainability is done. But if your chickens are eating a lot of grains, it would probably be more productive for you to simply eat the grains. And if those grains come from long distances, and are not organic, you've done something, but not enough. If you are feeding your chickens GM corn and Roundup-ready soybeans, then you will both get out of them what you put in, and are again, with your dollars, tacitly saying "these practices are ok."

So how do we feed chickens so that they produce eggs and meat for us, but don't require us to violate basic principles about raising things sustainably? Well, chickens are always going to need some grain, but they can get quite a lot of their food foraging in your yard for bugs, eating grass, and from your household scraps. Most American households could easily feed half a dozen chickens more than 50% of their diets from their own scraps, lawn and bugs. Now presumably, you didn't want the bugs, mostly anyway. The lawn might bother you a bit - after all, if you live in a suburban neighborhood, you may have one of those lawns that looks like it was painted on, and the thought of chickens pooping on your lawn may be traumatic.

But if you build something called a chicken tractor (that is, a small pen that can be moved easily), and put the chickens in a small spot on your lawn each day, you'll fertilize that spot, won't have excessive quantities of manure, and get your grass trimmed too. Or, you can build them a yard where they can poop their heart's content, and you can bring them your weeds, lawn clippings, as well as the scraps from your garden, and keep them blissfully happy.

For the other 50% of their diet, you'll need grains and a source of fairly intense protein, and maybe a source of calcium. If they have open ground, you won't need to worry about grit or Now we shouldn't be trying to duplicate commercial diets - the idea is not to maximize meat or egg production, but to get the most out of the animals without either shortening their lives or making your own life stressful.

Locally produced staple grains can feed chickens - you can grow them in your garden if you have enough grain. Dry corn, for example, is not hard to grow, and it wouldn't take much space to grow a year's supply. Wheat, oats or millet need not be threshed or anything. Just grow them (they grow like grass, because they are grasses), cut them down, and toss a bundle in with the hens now and then - the straw will make bedding for them and they'll scratch out all the grain. Even potatoes can be used, and potatoes are the easiest staple starch to grow in cold, rocky areas like the Northeast. Potatoes should be cooked, but you could easily boil a big pot of potatoes every few days and toss the rest to them gradually. Or you can buy grains from a local small producer.

As for protein, if you have enough land, you could use extra milk from goats or cows (chickens will also happily drink milk you let sour in the fridge.) If you can find enough scraps to support them and the chickens, you could raise worms in your house, and use them as a supplementary source of protein. Or, of course, there's soybeans, if you can buy them locally. Your own meat scraps will provide some. If you have spare eggs, you can even cook them and feed them back to the hens (you don't want to teach them to eat raw eggs, trust me). In any case, any shells you don't need should be cooked, crushed and fed back to the chickens for calcium supplementation. With that, you'll need only a little oyster shell or other source of calcium.

At most, you should be bringing in less than half of the chicken's total diet - because the goal here is to create higher-quality protein than you can get from eating the grain directly, while also using no more or even less grain. That absolutely can be accomplished.


Friday, October 13, 2006

More on Exceptionalism

My last post got some interesting responses, and I think it would be useful to discuss them a bit more, in part perhaps because I may not have been fully clear, but also because I think this whole concept of exceptionalism is a delicate subject.

Deb's comment, that believing that you have the right policy strategies is, in fact, a kind of theory of exceptionalism is both true and untrue. It implies that your ideas are exceptional - in the sense that they are more right than other people's ideas. But I don't think believing that you have better policy plans than other people implies a theory of moral exceptionalism (btw, I was being somewhat ironic when I used the phrase "we who know better"). While Deb is absolutely right that no strategy will ever be perfect for everyone, it is also the case that we do need policies on every level of government for responding to peak oil. And yes, I think my ideas, and the ideas I admire are better than other people's ideas. I think this for several reasons. First of all, I'm not a moral relativist - while I think that human beings are all pretty similar, I don't think all ideas or schools of thought are equally good. Some of them are quite bad, in fact. Second, I don't think that because policy can't perfectly respond to everyone's needs that we're better off without it - people can articulate their needs, and help refine it.

I do think that a proposal like the Community Solutions Plan C (my own views are similar, if not exactly identical) or Heinberg's Powerdown have significant merits, and one of them is that they meet the criteria of "what if you are wrong." A solution that imagines us making enormous investments in alternative energies risks causing a disaster if peak oil and the associated economic problems are closer than we think, or if we rely on technologies, such as carbon sequestration, that are neither proven nor safe within any margin of error. But a scenario in which we engage in voluntary curtailment and relocalization has a number of virtues - if we're wrong, say, about peak oil, we're still probably right for the purpose of social justice and climate change. And the allocation of resources to social welfare, rather than to creating private wealth is something that can be changed if it turns out we're richer than we think we are.

I think Deb raises a good point - there's a level of arrogance and hubris (I've got a good bit of both) inherent in believing you know what is best for the nation and the world. And yet, someone has to do it. I think my ideas (which aren't really so much mine, but the ideas of better and smarter people like Pat Murphy, Richard Heinberg, Julian Darley, etc...) are better, and I'd rather see them implemented than the ideas of most of those presently in power. But it is hubris, and if the stories of greek mythology turn out to be true, I'll be changed into some animal and chased across the earth if I'm wrong ;-).

RAS's point is, I think, especially well taken. The psychological weight of learning that your lifestyle can't last is traumatic. Personally, I think these traumas are best handled by finding lots of useful work to do, and lord knows, there's plenty. But if the emotional consequences of understanding peak oil are too traumatic, they can be immobilizing. There's a website out there that I've criticized in the past - I think they encourage you to find peak oil depressing. But I'm famously skeptical of the theraputic model, being a therapist's child. So for those who come into contact with peak oil and can't go any further, you might check out That said, however, I think that the psychological element will to some degree receed when more people are peak oil aware - that is, I think that when "everyone is doing it" the emotional trauma of peak oil, or the capacity for denial will simply change. Families who think they have too much going on to address peak oil will suddenly find they have a little spare time to make sure their kids get to grow up. Peak oil is deniable precisely because it is a minority viewpoint - but not, I think, for very long.

I agree with most of what Dougii says, although I think you misunderstand me when I say what matters is what you believe. I believe that actions are what matters (in fact, that's a basic tenet of my religion - Judaism presumes that actions, rather than intentions, are what is judged and what matters) - but you cannot act persuasively towards others if you believe that the general population is made up of people whose personal greed or selfishness would prevent them from ever learning what is necessary. Your actions are shaped by how you think and what you believe.

The next step, if we are to change the world, is to make what is necessary to address peak oil into the public agenda for the nation. My personal preference is to do so from the bottom up - as a grassroots movement that is open to as many people as possible - not just historical liberals, but the new environmentalists arising from conservative Christian movements, traditional American patriots who value America, and believe that America can lead the world - this time into sustainability and justice, and every ordinary person. We can't rely on counter-culturists - we have to create a collective culture. And if we're going to do that, we need a big tent, and a general message, and a way for ordinary people to act. Then we wait for the "leaders" to catch up.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Theories of Exceptionalism

One of the things that drives me crazy is the constant statement that we all know that people (or Americans, or first worlders, orwhatever subset of "people" we're talking about today) will never voluntarily change their lifestyles. Usually this is said by someone who has changed their own lifestyle towards greater sustainability and conservation, and is said of the rest of the people out there, who, it is either explicitly claimed or presumed as a functionof the conversation, are simply too stupid and greedy to ever voluntarily change.

But believing that most people won't change their lifestyle implies a theory of exceptionalism - that we who know better are better people, more moral, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, nicer, probably prettier too. We good people who know about peak oil and conservation, we are wise and noble, and the rest of the hoi polloi are disgusting morons, wallowing in their own excess. Well, frankly, I think that's a load of garbage, and a kind of self-aggrandizement, rather than anything useful. Because let's be honest - much as we'd like to believe it, we're no different than anyone else.

Or at least I am - I'm capable of a full range of stupidity, foolishness, selfishness, greed and pettiness. I have lied, cheated and stolen in my lifetime. I have been mean and ugly and cruel and done harm by both action and omission. Now I'm sure some of you have fewer sins than I, but I'm guessing you have your share too. So unless you choose to go with the "I'm noble and everyone else is crap" theory of humanity, then you must believe that regular people are capable of change. Because if *we* did it, so can others. If we changed our lifestyle voluntarily, because we wanted to and thought it was the right thing to do, or the thing that would give us the most happiness and security, other people must be subject to the same kinds of suasion. If we care about ethics more than personal comfort and privelege, so must other people. So why don't they?

Well, to a large degree, the issue is probably lack of comprehension. Virtually everyone on this list had a time when they too lived a normal life, standard to their nation (there are some exceptions, but they are mostly exceptions), class and culture. And they change their minds.

I know hundreds of people personally who have made a dramatic change in the conventional lifestyle and there are many thousands more who are acting, because of peak oil or global warming, or theories of justice or some other reason, from conviction and necessity. Those thousands, are of course, a drop in the bucket - but they are also potentially a beginning, the first step in a long, collective journey of cultural self-transformation. What matters is how we view ourselves, and what we believe we can accomplish. There is no fundamental difference between myself and anyone else, except that I have a little more information.

The issue is one of understanding, persuasion, and cultural pressures. And those are things we can work on. But any account of peak oil that begins with something like the statement "We all know that no one will do X until they have to" has lost me right there - because we don't all know that. Some of us may choose to believe it, because it is easier tobelieve that than to do what they would have to do to help others understand, or because they enjoy feeling exceptional. But it is not the truth, and not a starting point. We cannot begin to transform the world until we acknowledge that we as a people are ripe for transformation, and need only a catalyst to move on.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

I'm not a crier...

I can't think of another public event, since the two people jumping out of the twin towers hand in hand, that made me want to cry. But this one did.

So ask yourself - am I raising my children to have that much courage and selflessness? Do I have it myself? Am I raising my children to love their neighbor as they love themselves? If not, why not?

No, me neither. But we should be looking to learn what they know and we do not. I pray no one else's children will ever need that kind of courage - but wouldn't you want your children to have it, in the terrible event it were necessary.

If you pray, pray for their families.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Wonder Is What It Is

_A Warning To My Readers_

Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.
-Wendell Berry

The first time I ever wrote anything good, I didn't realized I'd done it. I got mad. I had a history teacher in 9th grade, and he didn't like anything I did. I'd always done well in history, and I loved to read history. But I couldn't figure out what this man wanted (sadly, I can't remember his name - and I owe him a great deal). He'd have us read pieces and answer the questions, and I'd answer them, and he gave me Cs. And I got more and more frustrated - I was reading. I was giving the obvious answers - it never occurred to me he didn't want the obvious answers, because every single other teacher I'd ever had did. And then he gave me a section in a book about ancient Greece to read, that argued that the ancient Greeks didn't value manual arts, and crafts. And the piece based that argument in part on the fact that the Greek god of the forge, Haphaestus, was always pictured as dirty and ugly and crippled. Well, it happened that I read a lot of Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell in my early teens, and
I happened to know that Athene, a fairly high status goddess was also the goddess of most crafts - of weaving, and pot making and most kinds of artistry. So even though I was certain I'd be failed for *arguing* with the book, I got mad and wrote a piece about how the book as completely wrong. And I got my first A+. And all of a sudden, I understood what he wanted, and the teacher stopped being my tormentor and became the first person to teach me the most important thing I've ever learned - the answer to all questions is more complicated than it seems.

I got better at writing good things now and again, but it was not and is not a universal experience. Sometimes I write and when I'm done, I find that I've said something new, something I never knew I had inside my head. Sometimes I write things down and they are so far from the ideas percolating inside me that I can't bear to look at them. And every once in a while, I look at what I wrote and it is as though some other, better author was there to write it for me. I'm grateful when that happens. I consider it a kind of magic, or gift. It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, however. And the rest of the time I struggle along saying things that are bad, or stupid, or not what I want.

Why am I writing about this? Because, strangely enough, I apparently achieved a tiny modicum of fame the other week. People have very kindly invited me to speak to their peak oil groups, or to advise them on something. And I must tell you, if you are one of them - I don't know anything special. People say "I want to see your gardens" - and I wonder - that one? The one with all the weeds, that produced such a terrible tomato harvest? Or, "I bet you have wonderful children" - well, most days I like them, but I'm not the mother I'd like to be. Or, "I'd love to see your home - I bet it is beautiful" to which I can only scream, "NOOOOOOOO!!!"

My garden looks like yours or maybe a bit worse - messy, weedy, buggy, imperfect. My house looks much worse than yours, I'm willing to bet. There are cheerios ground into the carpet and boxes I haven't unpacked since we moved in, and neither of us cleans as much as we should. My children are ordinary children (ok, I think they are wonderful - but not, perhaps, perfect) - loud and whiny sometimes and weird and rude - and also sweet and loving and gentle.

And I don't know anything more than any of you about the future or what is to come. I write with a certain degree of authority because that's how I write. I'm funny and passionate when I speak because that's how I am - and because I write better than I talk in real life. But I'm also just plain stupid sometimes, and angry and foolish, greedy and petty and small. And this is not modesty, just the reality of me. Now I don't really believe that Wendell Berry could be crude, so I understand why you think that when I say I garden you envision something perfect. But I can't possibly live up to what you envision, and I'm bound to be a huge disappointment.

I am lucky in two things as a writer. Every once in a while I exceed myself and make a sentence or an idea or a paragraph that is a worthy offering to lay at the feet of some some better writer. And unlike Wordsworth and all romantics, I've never yet had that moment of disappointment when you look back at your younger self and think that you've lost a kind of perception. I was never a prodigy - I came into everything I did well in the fullness of time. And I never was nostalgic for anything of my youth - I'm still just as outraged and passionate as I was then - only smarter and wiser, I hope. So unlike Wordsworth and his ilk, I still believe, despite all the evidence of my mind, in the transformation of whole worlds by simple human will. But that's all I have - and none of it makes me a better person.

I keep writing because I believe I can have an impact, and because there's something heady about those moments when my other, better self takes the keyboard away from me and puts the right words or the right idea on the page. But I don't understand how that is connected to the real person of me any better than you do. I just wonder at the wonder of it.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Now to the important stuff...yarn

I am, of course, firmly opposed to consumerism and corporatism in all its forms, and I believe that we are deeply confused about material needs and wants. Now let me explain how books and yarn are totally different than the material things that other people want ;-).... Ok, I'm working on my own little bits of consumerism.

As we enter our third month of not buying things, I'm not minding it at all. We've had our failures (we ate lunch out once because it was pouring down sheets of rain, there was absolutely no place to eat a picnic indoors, and the kids were hysterical with hunger; I bought a packet of lifesavers and a bean burrito over the course of my trip to Ohio, and I ordered the component parts of a Halloween costume for Simon, since I have no real desire or skill at making homemade chicken beaks), but by and large, we're not buying anything much, and we're dramatically reducing our consumption of gas and electricity.

The only things I really miss are books - I really, really wanted to buy both David Orr's new book and Richard Heinberg's new book at the conference, and I whined a lot mentally, but didn't - and yarn.

Now it isn't like I don't have any yarn. Actually, I have quite a bit of yarn. In fact, my husband would describe it as "an insane amount of yarn" - he has been known to ask me whether I'm collecting the stuff or knitting. And I'll admit to an occasional bit of doubt about the answer. But there are important reasons why I don't have enough yarn. First of all, it comes in many types. Perhaps other people don't understand why if you have blue sky alpaca's alpaca yarn and plymouth's andecita alpaca yarn, you would also want knitpicks' alpaca yarn. All I can say is that they are totally, utterly different, and I had excellent reasons for needing all three kinds. Plus, they all come in a range of colors, and it is important to have most of them. I'm not saying I need *all* the colors. I only need two or three shades of green, not all seven. Now multiply that by angora, wool, cotton, llama, quiviut, various combinations, plus various weights of yarn, not to mention special cases like sock yarn, and how could anyone (anyone here is named "Eric" just for the sake of discussion) not understand the need to have a full range of all these kinds of yarn, enough, perhaps, to remain warm and comfy during any major crisis, say, one involving the closing of many yarn shops.

OK, so I'm kind of kidding. I have to admit, my yarn habit (let us not even discuss the thousands and thousands of books that fill every available shelf in my house...those are practically the same as oxygen, and I'm pretty sure I'd die without them) got a little out of hand over the last few years. So now, I'm working my way through what I've got, and absolutely not buying yarn. But that doesn't mean I don't occasionally open a pretty catalog, sent to me from patternworks or WEBS or something, and stare longingly at something by Noro or Adirondack Yarns, rather in the way that teenage boys stare at underwear catalogs - that is, with a longing made only more urgent and poignant by the fact that the chance of the starer getting anywhere near the desired object is pretty teeny.

But I'm good with not buying yarn. I have only 10 more months to go, and in the meantime, I have fleece to dye and spin, so I won't suffer too much. But if I were buying yarn, here's what I'd probably buy...

More Plymouth Baby Alpaca Grande - which knits up beautifully on much smaller needles than most bulky yarns (it is so soft that you can get away with this) and produces the warmest, softest, most beautiful hats in the world. I like their marled colors especially.

Cascade 220 in their really beautiful Colonial Green - I want to knit a felted skirt in precisely this color. That would take an enormous amount of yarn and time and be expensive and a real pain to do. But that doesn't change that I want to do it.

More Lopi - I may just get icelandic sheep and produce my own, if this goes on too long.

More six-ply bulky merino from Malabrigo ( - I was an early discoverer of them, and I still have more of their yarn than anyone else's. Now that the worsted is no longer available directly, and the prices have risen, I have trouble knitting it, because I know it is never coming back. But the bulky is nice too. I just wish I could get more of their super-saturated blue...

Ok, consumerism is bad. It is wrong. I will abase myself later. But I'm going to go pet my yarn first.


Monday, October 02, 2006

The one thing we did right...Was the day we started to fight

I've been watching the rerelease of _Eyes on the Prize_ which I haven't seen since high school. And I recommend to everyone that you watch it to. Because not only is it a brilliant representation of our history, and one of the best documentaries of all time, it is also an inspiration for what could be the future of peak oil.

Because peak oil is not about petroleum geology, or economics when you get right down to it - oh, those things matter, but they aren't the center of things. Peak Oil is a justice movement, plain and simple. It is about fairness, morality and justice - we in the rich world have chosen to steal from the poor in our own country and other nations, and from our children and grandchildren, and we need to stop it right now. The stakes are very simple. Our children's lives. Other people's lives. The food in their mouths and the medicine that keeps them from dying unnecessarily. If we keep consuming resources as though there is no tomorrow, there will be no tomorrow, and those who are too young or too weak or too powerless to demand anything be saved for themselves will die. They are dying right now, today in third world countries as we in the west extract 38 billion dollars of wealth from them every single year. And that is a drop in the bucket compared to the number who stand to suffer and die because of climate change, peak oil and economic disruption. Don't believe me? Take a look at the actuarial projections the insurance industry is making - 40,000 extra people a year dead from climate change. It can't always be someone else. Your kids. My kids. Other people's kids - children just as loved as yours and mine.

And why? What do we get out of it that matters so much? Not love, or happiness, or freedom. We're not the happiest people in the world (the US the 74th happiest nation in the world - is that sad or what?). We have the 27th freest press. We're not the healthiest, we don't have the best marriages, we don't have the highest quality of life - by every measure of what we say matters, all we get out of this is things, and convenience.

And even people within the peak oil movement often believe we can't give up our convenience, even to save a life right now, today. Not even if it were life of our own child, our own grandchild, our own niece or nephew. I hear reasons - from my own voice - why I can't do X or Y thing that would save something for the future.

But if you or I believe we can't give up our cars, or our heat or air conditioning, or our jobs that produce nothing and give wealth to the corporations we pretend to deplore, watch _Eyes on the Prize_ right now, and watch a 65 year old maid with diabetes and varicose veins tell with pride how she walked 8 miles round trip to her job scrubbing floors and serving people, and never, ever took a ride on a bus no matter how tired she was. Watch a 7 year old girl walk past a row of people screaming obscenities at her and throwing things. Watch an old man face death threats to walk into a courtroom to testify. See people face down dogs and firehoses and men with guns who want to kill them and link arms and march forward. We all know people did this, but what EOP does better than any other single source is show how ordinary those actions are.

Those people were no different than you or me. They were ordinary people with ordinary fears and an ordinary degree of courage. What they had is integrity in the literal sense of the word - the belief that their deeds must be fully integrated with their beliefs and sense of ethics.

What would the world look like if all of us who worry about peak oil and climate change showed true integrity? What would it look like if the millions of people who know what is coming refused to participate? What would happen if had the courage of our own convictions and stood up and said "I will no longer steal from the future and the poor, I will live only on what is mine by right and in justice."

There is no doubt in the world we could do it. I'm trying to find my way there. Who wants to come?


Creating an American Communal Culture

It seems pretty clear that we have no choice but to change not onlyour economic and political systems in the US, but the very ways in which we think about ourselves and others. We are, in the name ofAmerican-ness discouraged from deferring our own desire for more wealth, more stuff, more comforts, even if such a desire is destructive to someone else. We won't do it for the poor of foreign nations, who are harmed by our excesses. We won't do it for our neighbors, but will proudly go about flaunting what we have that they don't. And we won't do it for our children and grandchildren,who will have less because we had more. But that isn't an inevitable result of our humanness - there are cultures all over theworld which prioritize the general good, rather than the individual good, where making sure everyone's basic needs are met is moreimportant than selling the fantasy that you can be one of thefortunate wealthy.

And no, this isn't exactly about capitalism and communism - oh, it could be if you wanted it to be. But there is nothing in either economic system that prevents us from prioritizing the general good before the individual good, much as economic theorists would like us to believe so. You can have a form of capitalism that begins from the premise of mutual responsibility - that ownership creates a requirement to serve those not priveleged with access to the same resources. Feudalism began with precisely that assumption, but it could easily apply to capitalism. Or you could create a socialist economy that applied state ownership only on one particular level -as the Chinese one does. We tend to assume that economics and politics are bound up in one another, and they are to some degree, but only to the point that we lack enough imagination to make our tools meet our needs.

Our local newspaper had an interview with half a dozen gas consumers, asking how they felt about rising gas prices. And every single person they interviewed answered questions about drivingless, reducing pollution, etc... with "I'm American/this isAmerica." Not one person seemed to believe that "American-ness required them (or even made it desirable) to defer their own immediate desires in order to improve the future and present for others. And I don't think this is unusual - Americans routinely believe that America stands for freedom (even when it doesn't) - but we never think of America standing for responsibility. We've bought a bill of goods that tells us that freedom is about buying things, about freedom to purchase, rather than freedom from hunger, for example. But this system clearly cannot continue to work without bringing about profound harm - and its moral bankruptcy will mirror our own collective economic status.

In a world of dwindling resources, the "get what you can for you and yours and don't plan for the future" theory is bound to end in fire. So here's the question. How do we change ourselves from a people who believe that our freedom is bound up in consumption, and in the right to become rich, regardless of the consequences, to a people who think it is more important to ensure that their neighbors also have food and shelter? How do we make ourselves into a people who willingly endure some hardship for the greater good? How do we make self-deferral a virtue?

Ideally it would to start in the cradle and the home, of course, as everything does. What do we teach our kids? What do we tell them is valuable? What do they see us doing every day? What do we buy, grow, show them? What do we send them off to learn and do with others? Are we teaching the right things, giving them an ethical worldview that prepares them to live and thrive in a hard future?

And how do we convince adults to look critically at the consequences of their own actions? To defer the wants they've been taught to have by Madison Avenue, and replace them with a vision of success that is cooperative, less materialistic, and ultimately, less about what you have than the responsibilities you fulfill and therelationships you've created?

I'm an eternal optimist. I believe we *can* do just about anything we want to, including transforming our culture. We simply have to want to, and then one person has to start living that life and telling others about the beauty and joy and virtue of living well and rightly. That's all there is to it. So why does it seem so very hard?

Sharon, who is trying