Thursday, August 31, 2006

Scientific Progress goes "Boink"

Most people I know recognize that oil and gas reserves are finite. Most of my friends and family lived through or grew up in the 1970s during the oil shocks, and they always knew we were going to run out...some day. The leap that is intellectually most difficult for people to make isn't to recognition of scarcity, but to recognize the fact that there's no evidence that we can buy our way out of this one.

What most people, including those who believe we need to cut fossil fuel usage dramatically say is something like, "we need to devote a lot of money and energy to researching alternatives to oil and gas." And to a certain degree, of course, they are right. If we're going to blow our GDP on something, improving solar efficiency would be a lot more useful than buying more crap at ChinaMart. But that claim reflects an inability to grasp that alternative fuels may not, in fact probably will not, fix the problem.

We have an unrestrained faith in science and progress - even people who say they don't really believe that if we put our mind and wallets to something, we can fix it. And, after all, we've had a remarkable degree of success in that regard. But we tend to remember the success stories and let slide all the failures, giving us a skewed sense of our own power.

For example, over 30+ years we have devoted at least 28 billion dollars, and untold hours of brain power to research into fusion reactors, and, as Julian Darley points, we're always at least 30 years from creating useful fusion reactors. We have devoted over 100 billion dollars and the whole lives of many scientists to eradicating and eliminating the influenza virus from the earth, with the result that we're no closer than we were before. We have spent over 60 billion dollars world-wide researching and developing wind power, with the result that at this point, wind power produces less than 1% of the world's electricity. While wind generators rose in efficiency by 69% over that time, their efficiency is still many, many times less than burnable fossil fuels. The same could be said of hydrogen - the billions of dollars to create a "hydrogen economy" has left us about as far from having one as we were when we started. Ethanol has consumed even more billions, and it still takes more energy to turn corn into ethanol than the ethanol itself produces - and alcohol manufacture has been gradually refined over the whole of human history, so it isn't exactly a new industry.

The hardest idea to get your brain around on peak oil is that just putting money into research, just getting smart people to think hard isn't going to make magic happen. There are things we can't do - or perhaps we could do them, or could have done them, had we devoted our energies to them when we recognized the problem 30 years ago, but we probably can't do them now.

For example, we probably can't create a solar and wind-based electrical grid. Among other reasons, because doing so requires a major technological breakthrough. Wind is an intermittent power source, as is solar - they only work when the sun shines or the wind blows, and intermittent power sources can destabilize the grid, because we don't really have a good way to store electricity at a lot of seperate sites, as is required for wind farms - even Denmark, which uses more wind power than any country in the world, has capped its wind power at about 15%. Wind provides less than 1/10 of 1% of the total power usage in the US - we'd need 150 times the wind farms we have to get even that 15% up and running, and that would be our maximum for all intermittent sources.

I posted back a while ago a link to the DOE Hirsch report, which evaluates the threat of peak oil to the US. Its essential message is that if we devoted our money and our time and our national will towards resolving the energy crisis for 20 years on the same scale or higher than we worked on WWII, we could avoid ill effects. The problem is that we're much closer to the peak points for oil and natural gas than 20 years - by a decade or so, at least. And we're not putting our energy there.

To convert to nuclear energy would require 500 new nuclear plants, and nuclear plants are extremely time consuming to build (10-15 years), very expensive (costs borne by the tax base) and vulnerable to attack, accident and storage issues. At the moment, there are 0 nuclear power plants in production in the US. So even if we all wanted another several hundred (coming soon to your neighborhood!), we couldn't have them tomorrow. No matter how hard we research, we haven't found a way to turn gold (money) rapidly into nuclear power.

Yes, alternative energy is a good thing. But most alternative energies produce a few times the amount of energy they consume. Oil, gas and coal produce many, many, many times the energy they consume when you burn them. Nothing anyone has proposed offers the return of fossil fuels. And nothing we've done in research for three decades has changed that. Sure, solar efficiency has risen, and we can now make gas from algae...maybe. But scientific progress doesn't have time to save us. And as the economy starts to tank and energy costs eat up more of our reserves, we're going to have to decide. Do we fund scientists looking for the ultimate magic bullet, or do we put our money and time and resources into things like trains for public transport, and insulating our houses so that we can do without oil and gas to heat them.

Part of the problem is that for our whole lives we've been taught to believe in magical economic thinking - free markets will fix it. If we just put our money and energy into it, we can make anything we want happen. But free markets don't have brains, and they don't see things coming. By the time it is cheaper to use solar than buy oil, it will be too late - our economy will be in collapse and we won't be able to afford solar. And as wonderful as our accomplishments and brilliance has been, we keep running up against reality - sometimes we can't fix it, and we can't buy our way out of it. All we can do is live with it.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Alphabet Garden

Eli, Simon and Isaiah have their own garden this year. Last year Simon had a bed in my garden, but this year he has his own (shared with his brothers) right next to their playset, and it has been an enormous success.

Simon like to address the world alphabetically. When he set himself to memorizing the states and their capitals, it was alphabetically. He likes alphabets of places, birds, historical sites - you name it, if it comes in A-Z form, Simon will be pleased. So it shouldn't have surprised me, but did, that Simon insisted on an alphabetical garden. And that's what we did. We had a mix of flowers and vegetables. Here's our list.

B=Beans (cool purple bush ones)
C=Cucumbers (pickling type, Simon and Isaiah are both pickle addicts)
D=Dianthus (these were picked out at the local garden center)
E= Eggplant (didn't really thrive in the cool, wet weather we've had all summer, but we picked a couple.
F=Flower of an Hour (did poorly)
G=Gourd (birdhouse type)
H=Heliotrope (also known as "vanilla cookie flower" for its scent at our house)
J=Johnny Jump Ups
K= Kiss me Over the Garden Gate (which took up way more than its share of space).
L= was supposed to be liatris, which I didn't plant until the bulb had sat in the sun too long, so became Lemon balm
M=Morning Glory - Grandpa Ott's (which tries to take over everything)
O=Okra (we're just about to harvest our first pods - it has been a cool summer here)
P=Pumpkins (jack o lantern type)
Q=Queen Anne's Lace (laboriously transplanted by Mommy who muttered a lot of not too nice things about transplanting weeds into gardens and the lack of better plants beginning with Q)
R=radishes (which no one but Mommy and Daddy really liked, but provide instant gratification)
S= Snapdragons and strawberries (there was some debate)
U=Umbellifarae (sort of cheating, carrots are umbellifarae)
W= Watermelon (which isn't going to mature, but is exciting to loook at - we only succeed with watermelon in pots or black plastic)
X= X-tra flowers. There's actually some wildflower out there that has a latin name including X, but we got lazy.
Z=Zinnias and Zucchini

Tonight we're eating the last of the purple beans, stir fried with oyster sauce, chicken soup with zucchini and carrots in it, and the last of the alpine strawberries with a bit of sugar and lemon balm. A bouquet of zinnias and snapdragons is on the table. And we're planning next year's garden, which is going to have a colonial American theme, if Simon's attention span for that sticks long enough.

Garden with your kids.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Permaculture of Domesticity Part II - Practice

Now, on from the theory (which is, after all, the easy part), to the practice. Here are some strategies of mine, complete with thestupid things I've done to learn them

-1. Attitude adjustment is probably the first alteration any of us can make. We can choose how we think about domestic labor, how we respond to the activity, at least in a purely mental and emotional sense, and often in a physical one as well. I can think of 2 kinds of attitude adjustment that apply to domestic work. First, there's lowering or altering your standards. Most of us can do this (in my case, further lowering might not be such a good idea), and it can be a considerable time-saver. For example, if you ordinarily wash sheets and towels every week, try stretching it to two weeks or three, and see if there is a significant reduction in quality of life. Clothes can be worn more often before washing, floors can go longer between washings as well. While some jobs (laundry for example) get bigger and less manageable by ignoring them, many things can be put aside for a while.

You might also adjust to less white whites, or a less tidy house. Only you can say where your quality of life is unacceptably diminished. This should not be used, however, for any household work that involves basic hygiene, health issues and safety. So while you could choose to let your floors get grubby in many cases, if you have an infant eating crud off of them, that may not be wise.

Second attitude adjustment can be choosing to enjoy or find satisfaction in work you have previously not enjoyed. People can change their preferences, and can choose to find pleasure in most activities. You might consider taking a chore you particularly dislike and attempting to find a way to enjoy it, either by trying to take pleasure in the process, altering the process to make it more pleasurable, or by deriving satisfaction from the accomplishment. Obviously, there may be some chores that simply can't be readjusted to, either because the activity is in some way stressful or painful, or because no matter how hard you try, you can't come to like it. Some people with physical limitations will have fewer options in this department. But it is worth trying.

I strongly disliked organizing clothing for my four sons. With four kids who grow rapidly, I have boxes of clothing for every size from preemie to boys 12, plus cloth diapers and covers in many sizes, andtracking the clothes, sorting outgrown things, switching them around as the seasons change, mending them, keeping track of what I have and what I need, etc… was time consuming, and, I felt, extremely boring. But I've managed to convince myself, if not to like it, to take a good deal of satisfaction from doing it, simply by, instead of begrudging the time it takes and seeing it as an annoyance, recognizing it for what it is - a useful and necessary job that saves us money and time in the longer term. I still like other things more, but I don't find the job as difficult and intimidating.

A third way of adjusting your own attitude is to think seriously about the requirements of your life, and distinguish carefullybetween wants and needs. The classic example of this is the parent who works full time, but when commute, wardrobe, meals, daycare,etc… are calculated in has a household net loss, or only a tiny gain. (Please note, this is not to say that parents should stay home - this is merely an example, so don't get your kidneys in an uproar, as DH's grandmother liked to say). For example, if you dislike dusting, perhaps you could choose to have fewer dustable objects, or to keep them in closed boxes, even if there was some slight inconvenience.

2. After attitude adjustment, the next lowest input thing to do about household work is to find ways to either do chores with others, or to get others to help with difficult or distasteful projects. The most obvious such method, if you have kids, is to train them to help out. The difficulty with this is that teaching children to do things is, in the short term, inevitably much more time consuming (although it can be fun) than just doing it yourself. After a while this ceases to be so, but many parents find it difficult to build time into their daily lives to teach their kids the necessary skills. Planning for this, accepting the short-term reduction in efficiency, and adapting to it is usually worth the hassle. Even very small kids can help out if you give them time to learn how.

The same is true of getting a spouse or other family member to take on an job they have traditionally not done. It is worth noting, however, that it helps not to be over-committed to a single technique. Many people who would willingly take over X job are turned off by someone insisting that it be done exactly X way and to X's standards. Women are, I think, particularly guilty of the sin of over management.

For large scale chores, involving other members of your community, or friends and extended family might improve the experience. For example, my extended family on one side has at times had an annual "work-weekend" where once per year, the entire family descended upon one of the members who owns a home and devotes a long weekend to making repairs or completing major projects. The whole thing is considered enjoyable by everyone - the homeowner provides accommodations, food and materials, and everyone enjoys being together. Everyone eventually gets a turn. We're working on build a neighborhood coop, which functions in the same way, volunteering once per month to help each family get a big work project done.

Also, the simple act of working together can provide a tremendous degree of satisfaction. Cooking can be an unpleasant job if it takes you away from your family and isolates the cook in the kitchen. The same job is quite enjoyable when done with a partner, a friend, or even a child helping. Simple proximity to one another makes big jobs much more manageable in many cases. Finding ways to bring people into the kitchen when you have guests, or to make whatever job you are doing part of the life of your household can make an enormous difference. One neighbor I know has her children read aloud to her while she cleans - they get practice reading, the family hears a story together, and everyone has a good time.

3. The next most significant way to reduce labor sustainably is to experiment with time and energy costs. Most of us have a built in set of assumptions about what constitutes labor, and what constitutes labor savings, what is efficient, what is easy and what is difficult, andwhat the best uses of one's time and energy are. But these assumptions may not be correct, and can only be verified by experimentation. It is not at all uncommon to assume that that one thing is faster than another, only to realize that it is quite the opposite - our own perceptions are shaped by what we expect to find. Want to know how much time it takes you to do a load of laundry by hand, compared to the washing machine? Try it. But not just once - try it three or four different times, in as many ways as you can think of. Think about ways in which you can make the process more efficient. The next time you chop an onion, do it a different way than you usually do. Don't take for granted that labor-saving devices actually are. Some are. Some aren't. For example, my husband and I were given an electric citrus juicer as a wedding gift, and we rather unthinkingly used it for a while, until one day my husband got frustrated and said, "I could do this faster with a lemon reamer." Well, what do you know - he could. The same is true for me of the dryer - I can just as easily hang laundry as transfer it over, clean the lint filter and earn the money to pay for the electricity.

When you calculate labor-savings, make sure that all labor required to buy, maintain, use, clean, repair, store and tend to the item is included. For example, my husband and I don't drink coffee, but keep a coffee maker around for guests. Because the coffee maker is stored in an inconvenient place (which makes sense since the convenient ones are for things we actually use regularly), the time spent climbing upon the step-ladder and pulling the box down, cleaning the parts which get dusty between uses, etc.... make it a surprisingly time-consuming project. I suspect a press-style glass coffee maker which could also be used for tea (which we drink a lot of) would be more efficient (although I've not done anything about it), even if making coffee that way were slightly more work.

4. Design your infrastructure to accommodate *your* needs. If you are going to spend money and energy on your domestic life, try and reduce labor by adapting your home and work space to the way you actually live, rather than based on the assumptions builders and the consumer culture make about how people ought to live. A one-time investment of non-renewable energy that makes things easier, or quicker, or enables you to consume less is always probably worth while. Looking carefully at how you actually use things can make things more efficient - for example, if you use one set of bowls for mixing bread, it might make sense to also keep other bread-related materials right next to them. If you can't stand for very long, setting up your kitchen so that you can sit while working there simply makes sense.

Most kitchens are designed for women, whose average height is about5'5. At 6' and with a 6'2 husband, and children who promise to be quite tall (6 year old oldest is already 4'5), one of my dreams is a kitchen with counters properly designed for tall people. In the meantime, we've put a couple of blocks of wood on top of the existing counters so that we don't have to bend uncomfortably while chopping things. For a shorter than average person, lower counters, or alower work area (a simple butcher block, for example) might makesense.

My children get dressed downstairs, under the supervision of their father every morning, but for quite a while I was washing their clothes downstairs, hanging them outside, then carrying the clothing upstairs to be put away, because upstairs was where we had room for the dressers. But that meant that laundry had to be carried upstairs to be stored, and then down again to be worn. We put up a long set ofopen shelves in our largest downstairs closet, and now all the children's clothing is out on those open shelves, and I no longer carry their clothes up and down stairs (I haven't yet adapted this system to my husband and I, but I'm thinking about it, since we can perfectly well get dressed downstairs too. This is, frankly, one of the best things I've done - it is an enormous time saver, and it cuts the mess, since I often had laundry baskets sitting at the bottom of the stairs waiting to go up.

5. Get the right tool for the job, and learn how to do the job well. Learn how to use and maintain the tools well. Before using non-renewables, try developing skill at using renewable techniques and human-powered tools. Do what you need to develop the physical skills needed to do things well and easily. Everyone find unfamiliar work time consuming and stressful - it takes time to become quick and comfortable with any kind of work. Anyone who has ever seen a professional chef chop a clove of garlic and someone without the same skills laboriously peel and slice the same clove knows that there are a lot of bad ways to do domestic chores. But there are few domestic skills that truly require talent - they mostly need practice. So practice, practice, practice. Learn to handle a knife, to do laundry by hand efficiently (ie, to get most of the cleaning done by soaking, rather than scrubbing), how to use a hammer well, or wash dishes quickly. Watch other people do these chores. Think about ways to increase your own comfort and efficiency. And do them the hard way enough times that you find yourself looking for ways to make things easier.

If you are going to invest in a tool for whatever job you want to do, get a good one. Cheap shovels are not worth the cost. In many cases, a non-electric tool of high quality will be much cheaper than a powered one of low quality, and the difference may not be as great as you think. In fact, the non-electric tool is often better. If the powered tool is superior, get as much use out of it as possible, while using it as efficiently as possible - for example, wash your clothes whenever possible in cold water. You can't really do this with a wringer washer, and it is one of the virtues of the electric washing machine - clothes will get clean without water heating. On the other hand, the wringer might make sense for able bodied people who do only a few laundry loads a week, or during the winter if you can heat water as part of radiant floor or wood heat.

My one experience with a wringer washer was pretty dreadful - I actually preferred using a soak and rinse method of hand washing. But I've since heard from several people that swingle-handledwringer washers are quite easy on the body and low in effort. I'm looking forward to trying one, and seeing if the tool makes a difference.

6. Integrate the waste products. It doesn't take a lot of effort to re-route your pipes so that your grey water (ie, water used in showers and sinks, but not toilets) goes for irrigation or toilet flushing, and yet it makes a dramatic difference in water usage. If you have food scraps, feed something with them (garden,worms, chickens, rabbits, goats, whatever). Even apartment dwellers can have worms or a pet rabbit. Compost your humanure if possible - it doesn't take a fancy composting toilet in most places, just a commode, two buckets and a place to do it. It really isn't gross at all, and the product doesn't smell. Read John Jenkins's _The Humanure Handbook_ before you run away. Or, if you grow things, at least pee in a bucket during the growing season and dilute it 10-1 to feed your plants. Seriously - people pay a lot of money for dehydrated pee for their gardens in the form of urea - you make it for free! Why waste it?

Most parts of food plants commonly wasted have potential uses - as dyes, animal feeds, fiber, extra food for your plate, etc… Use them up. Make your own non-toxic cleaners if you don't already, as well as beauty products. I know that sounds overwhelming, but it is as simple as putting vinegar in a jar in many cases. Only put into your system (your body, your household system, your town, your nation, your world) the things you want to take out of them.

7. If you don't love it or need it, there is no reason to own it. We're all storing things for the future, and it can be hard to distinguish between necessity and junk. But every possession takes energy to manage - it has to be cleaned, dusted, stored, serviced,attended to. You pay rent or a mortgage or taxes on a house big enough for the stuff. Things demand energy we don't have. So unless you are sure you'll need it, or you care about it, get rid of it. That goes double for things like wall to wall carpeting that not only need maintenance, but need *powered* maintenance.
I have a problem here - I often dither about whether something is truly needed or not. But it is worth making these distinctions to haveless to do. I'm trying to reduce our possessions by ¼ over the next year, and I'm finding it an interesting exercise.

8. Hire people rather than buy stuff. If you can, hire help rather than buying a tool. The money for local help goes into the local economy. Or barter for labor you can't or won't do yourself. Whenever possible, give your resources to someone local, or someone who needs it. So if you need more time to get work or family things done, perhaps you could hire help with the chores, or a mother's helper to play with the kids, or trade labor with a neighbor - you do her most hated job and she'll do yours. Only buy a device or tool if you really need it.

The corollary of this is that most neighborhoods do not need one of everything. You may need a washing machine, and so may your neighbor, but you might not need two between you. Try sharing whenever possible. It took us a while after we moved here to get into the sharing mode with neighbors - sharing is scary, because it involves asking people for things, and trusting them to say "no" or "yes" and building relationships. Now we barter or share quite a few things (at times we've had a shared car with our neighbors, among other things), and we try always to offer more than we take. It is worth the risk, but it does take time and practice and a kind of courage, I think.

9. Keep records! Keep lots of records. Organize. You save time by tracking what you use and what you need, by noting the best way to do things (if you are the forgetful type like me). By sorting and organizing and writing down what is stored where. It always seems like keeping notes adds in time, but the time spent *not* trying to figure something out for the 7th time is well worth it. One trick that works well for me is to have multiple calendars. I buy them cheap at our dollar store, or after we're a few days into the new year. We have one for religious events and family stuff (birthdays, etc…), another is for the garden - what to start, what to harvest, what the temperature was, the first time we saw a blackbird, how many eggs we got. Another calender is for every little daily event - playdates, when the compost guy is coming, travels, etc.. the usual stuff. Then there are the lists in my notebooks - lists of books to find cheaply, things we need to look for at grocery stores, things to do, articles to write, how much of each food we've got in storage - I save a considerable bit of time and money by knowing what I have and what I need.

Related to this, find ways to store and sort so that you don't have to waste time hunting for things. Figure out a system and make yourself stick to it. I'm not always good about this, but when it works, it is glorious. Think about the last time you needed to do a project and couldn't find the right tool or materials. You know you just had it...make sure you know where things are, so you don't waste time and energy.

10. Have a place for everything. Try and mostly put things in their places. One of our biggest problems in keeping clean is the stuff that doesn't really live anywhere. Mail we might want to look at eventually. The books that don't really fit on the shelves. The clothes that don't fit in the drawer, or on our bodies anymore. Instant mess. The more you can either get rid of things or make an appropriate place, the easier this all is. Make workspace for yourself, if you need it - accepting the realities of your life (ie, "I'm never going to dump all the junk mail, I like looking in the catalogs too much." And make a space for the catalogs). If you are going to be canning, for example, make room for it if possible, and plan that room into at least the times when you are canning. Have a place to put the mending, the knitting needles, a chair to sew in, a useful and comfortable space to do necessary mobile (ie, can be done in more than one place) chores.

11. Look at your schedule for time and space that might go unused (although remember, down time is good too) . Try new stuff and see if you can multi-task. For example, I learned to knit and breastfeed, to type and breastfeed, etc… out of sheer desperation to get things done. Otherwise, I never got to knit or write. I find that I can get a surprising amount of cleaning done if I set a timer for 15 minutes and say, "ok, I'm going to do what I can in the next 15 minutes". Knowing the time is short increases my efficiency. Remember, nothing has to be all or nothing. Can't hang all yourlaundry? Hang as much as you can, and the next dryer load will be that much shorter and use that much less energy. Don't have time to wash all the dishes by hand? Do as many as you can in 10 minutes,and try to do more each time. Then, you'll have that much longer between dishwasher loads. Most of us have a few 10 minute increments now and then we could spend doing some simple chore.

12. When in doubt, drink beer. Permaculture works from the principle that theoretically, yields are unlimited - you can optimize so much you get more out of a system than you ever put into it. That violates the laws of physics, of course, but it is fun to try. Beer works kind of like magic - you ferment it, people get to drink the beer ,and the grain is nearly as good for animal feed (and more digestible) as it was nutritionally before. So drink locally made, sustainable beer before doing household chores, and you'll find them much easier to bear. As you strive to get more out of it than you put into it, strive also to relax and enjoy yourself. Really, no one is going to remember whether the tile was grouted and the towels were clean when bad times come. But they will remember whether there was food, basic hygeine, a place to sleep, hospitality, good things to drink, and peace in the home. These are things worth having, and worth making time for. The rest is gravy.

Sharon in upstate NY, who is still nursing and, sadly, drinks verylittle beer.

The Permaculture of Domesticity (Part I - Theory)

It struck me that since for many people the biggest problem in their domestic life is time, and thus the most compelling argument for using high-energy consumptive appliances like dishwashers and dryers is the time spent on chores, it might be worth strategizing on ways to manage domestic labor with the fewest possible inputs and the greatest degree of productivity and pleasure. (Of course, the first trick to increased productivity at my house would be to actually go do the domestic labor instead ofwriting about it - say, to go fold the laundry and put it away, rather than nattering on about the best ways to get it done. But*that's* not going to happen, is it ;-)?

I'm calling this the Permaculture of domestic life. For those not in the know, permaculture is "permanent culture" and it is one of the ways to get the most out of everything in life. And whether you do this because you have to (ie, the rolling blackouts in your area make it necessary) or because you want to, IMHO, all of us need to figure out ways to makeour domestic work manageable alongside our other work in the coming years. I'm by no means an expert here, and would welcome suggestions for more and better techniques.

First, the theory (even the sorting of underwear requires a good grounding in theory, or so I try to convince myself, as I merrily ignore the actual underwear in favor of the meta-under things and their philosophical grounding.) So here are the broad points of a Permaculture philosophy of domesticity (much of it stolen wholesale from various other, smarter people).

-1. "In Chaos lies unparalleled opportunity for imposing creative order." (Bill Mollison). Given that housekeeping is the act of imposing order, the key term here is "creative" - old ways may not do, traditional assumptions may be flawed. The first thing we needto do with housekeeping is look at the project with new eyes. We may find that there are better ways to do things, our what seems efficient, isn't.

-2. "There is no such thing as a free lunch" (Robert Heinlein, articulating the second law of thermodynamics). Energy must be used as wisely and efficiently as possible, and we must make as much effort as possible to use ambient energy before it escapes our reach. Human energy, fossil fuel energy, mental energy, renewable resource energy - all have end points. Those that are most limited must be used with the most care and attention to avoid waste.

-3. "Every object must responsibly provide for its replacement; society must, as a condition of use, replace an equal or greater resource than the one used up." (Mollison) When energy is consumed, it should be gainful, and provide the maximum benefit with the fewest possible consequences both for the user and for others affected. If we use labor saving devices, the uses we turn our saved time to should be valuable, since our use of them cost others and the environment something. If we use fossil fuel energies, we should store or conserve more energy than it cost us.

-4. "The problem is the solution. Everything works both ways. It is only how we see things that makes them advantageous or not."(Mollison) We can choose actively to see domestic labor however we want, and we can choose to make use of things we've often viewed as a problem. Wastes and involuntary outputs should be reintegrated into the system. Our attitude, and our creative adaptability are perhaps the most important tools we have.

-5. "That Which is Hateful to You, Do Not Do to the Other." (TheTalmud). If you are not willing to absorb all the consequences of your actions personally, in your own immediate environment, you should reconsider your actions. There is no such place as "away" - we cannot throw things "away" or waste things without doing harm to others. Thus, we cannot conceive environmental consequences, or consequences to people we cannot see as not part of our practice. Preserving what we have is virtually always the most energy, time and money efficient way of acting for the earth and people as awhole.

-6 "Make the Least Change for the Greatest Possible effect"(Mollison) Don't make more work for yourself than you need to. Evaluate carefully what you already have, and what resources(and "problems") you can make use of. Domestic life, like any other part of life, can be an optimization exercise.

Ok, now that we're done talking theory, how does that play out in actual life, when you've got dirty dishes to wash, laundry to do, things to get done, meals to cook, plus your job, your internet life, your family, and all the other stuff you've taken on. How do you get things done?

That'll be the subject of Part II.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Buy nothing, week 1

Well, it has been a week now. I'm not missing the shopping at all - the goal is to shop 1x per month at our local coop and the asian grocery store, and then no more than 3xs per week at our local farmstand for things like milk (not currently able to barter for milk, although we have at times), fruit outside what we grow, and other things we don't produce.

So far the big dilemma is whether to replace the 50 chicks that gotten eaten by something unknown (very mysterious). We lost our layers for next year (our current batch are 2+ years old and starting to slow a bit), as well as 25 bantam chicks that I'd planned to give away to various people I know who want to try keeping chickens in their suburban backyards. I figured cochin bantams would be excellent - they are attractive, quiet, decent layers and good setters, as well as small and good foragers.

I think I've decided that I will replace the layers, since they are a business expense - we sell eggs and make a decent profit off of them. But I'm less sure about the banties - a pity, since it was a good cause.

I'm also looking for a free kitten - we lost two cats last week. One of our indoor cats (Tycho, our cat's cat) slipped out and met with a neighbor's German Shepherd. His spine was broken, and he had to be put down. And we lost Yorick (Alas Poor Yorick, actually) to the neurological condition that he's had for years. That leaves us with three cats, all fairly elderly, none of them a spectacular mouser (Yorick was by far our best, although Angus is good at catching bats and birds that slip into the house). I think we need a kitten. But, of course, nobody *needs* a kitten, right? Hence, we look for a freebie.

But I admit, otherwise, I feel a pleasant sense of satisfaction at not having to go near a mall, particularly as my friends complain about the joys of back to school shopping. My children, dressed in a combination of gifts, yard sale clothes, cousin cast offs and things I've made for them may look like hopeless ragamuffins, but they are cute ragamuffins, and at least I don't have to go to the mall.

We had guests all this week, including my Mother-in-law, who despite the fact that we've explicitly asked her not to compensate for our not-buying things (after all, we're choosing this, not living in a cardboard box in the train station) arrived with a big bag of toys for the kids (just little things, of course, she said ;-)), brought cookies and a meal of take out malay food, and insisted on buying us some ice cream before she left. She's very, very worried her son and grandsons might die of starvation or deprivation, I suspect. But she's also very, very sweet. My sister kindly asked me, "Can you go out to dinner if I buy?" I find it kind of funny (although also very wonderful) that people are so willing to try and save us from ourselves. And who knows, after a year without restaurants, I might be. But so far (and fortified by the take-out Malay MIL brought) I'm able to handle the first week sans restaurants (given that where we live there are only two options - pizza and diner, neither very good, I often go months without eating out - we're better cooks than any food we can buy very locally) without *too* much strain ;-).

Someone asked what we are saving money for. Partly to increase our charitable donations. Partly to add to our preparations - we want to reinsulate, add more food storage, rip up the carpet, fence the yard. But mostly, I'm only generally curious about how much money we'll save (although, of course, we can always use the money). What I most want to accomplish is transforming my relationship to scarcity - I want my instinctive reaction to losing something, breaking something, running out to be "how can I manage without it/repair it myself/find something else/make it do" not "I need to get..."


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hot Weather

We're pretty comfortable today inside the house. It is 101 degrees outside, and 77 in here, with windows closed, shades drawn and ceiling fans on. We're lucky to have a good house for this - the newer part of the house is tremendously well insulated, and the older part, is, for reasons completely inexplicable to me, cool in the summer while it is cold in the winter. The dogs have dug a den under the porch and seem happy there. But even when we lived in a fourth floor apartment, we could manage with regular cool showers, window fans and trips to the movies. We had an air conditioner for a while - and then my cat, Entropy (now long deceased) had a horrible incontinent period as he was dying, and peed in the air conditioner. The scent of cat-urine processed cool air was not worth the price.

But the heat is frustrating and scary, not least because it leads us to the worst kinds of short-term thinking. I can't count the people I know who say they "need" air conditioning - even though air conditioning emits greenhouse gasses at a rate that means that their kids are only going to need it much worse. We're unwilling to endure even the shortest term discomfort for long term security.

Not to mention the fact that everything feels worse when you come out of air conditioning. Unless you are in serious danger of health consequences, find other ways, particularly here in the Northeast. And remember, it is temporary. Winter will be here soon enough.


The Buy-Nothing Year Begins

Today begins Eric and my exercise in non-consumption. For one year, we're going to purchase nothing that isn't necessary. No processed foods. Much less gas (we're trying to reduce driving by 50%). Much less electricity (50% reduction). No books, no music, no movies, no videos (this last won't be much of a hardship - my MIL gave us netflix last year, so we've got that for a while, but we won't renew unless she does). No junk food. No clothing. No toys. No meals out. No alcohol (given that I've been pregnant or nursing for the last 7 years, this won't be the hardship it sounds like to others). No reeses peanut butter cups (which to me do not fall in the category of junk, processed foods or non-essentials ordinarily ;-). No coffee or tea (we don't drink coffee, and we'll use up the tea we have or do without.) No magazine subscriptions, presents for anyone (we make 'em or do without.) No travel except mandatory work or to visit relatives, and a lot less of that.

We did buy a few things in advance, front-loading as we call it, mostly homeschooling materials for Simon for this year, and a few extra (but desperately needed, of course ;-P) books for me. And I've got a tiny stash of Reeses. Eric's got a couple of 12 packs of beer (he asked me, "Am I being rude if I don't offer guests beer, when I've only got 30 bottles for an entire year." My answer is "yes.") But when things run out, we will try not to replace them. The rule is that first, we make do or do without. If we can't, we then try and either fix it or make it ourselves. Last and only if we deem it impossible to live without do we replace it.

We will buy toilet paper, the components of food (no pre-made foods - not that we ate many, but the kids like pretzels and granola bars and I'm fond of a particular kind of sesame sauce, etc...). We'll buy the components to make gifts, if we cannot make them from what we have (sadly, this is not an excuse to purchase yarn, since I could make gifts for many thousands of people from the yarn I already possess, or so Eric estimates ;-).

Books will be the hard thing for me, I know. I read a lot and read fast. Eric will miss movies and music, and we'll both miss eating out. The kid will miss trips out for ice cream (we'll make ice cream at home instead), but they are young enough not to mind this very much, and over-indulged enough not to feel a drastic loss having to play with their many, many toys.

The thing is, we're on average far more frugal than most people in the culture - but there's a surprising amount of fat in our budget (not to mention the fat on me from the reeses and other indulgences - I'm hoping to lose some weight this year). And someone has to do it. Actually, people have done it - there's a book, one I'm working on now but recommend _Not Buying It_ by Judith Levine, about a couple that did the same. I admit, much as I like Ms. Levine's writing style (I do, quite a lot) and find her funny and erudite, I don't find myself drawing a lot of logical parallels. Much of the book is devoted to how much she misses entertainment - theater, art, musical performances and especially movies. Perhaps because I have four kids under 7, those joys are already mostly closed to me. I've been to three plays since Eli was born, one concert, and perhaps a dozen movies. I'm fine without it. She also misses buying clothes, something that I do only when roped and hogtied.

What will be hard for me is the pleasure of yard saling, of browsing used book stores, and of buying supplies to make things like quilts and knitted objects. And it will be hard to eliminate the convenience of not meeting people at restaurants. But mostly, it will be about gaining things - more time, more money for essentials (we will use some of the funds during the year to reinsulate our house and do other energy conservation activities), for tzedakah (1/4 of our savings will go to charity), and less thought about what I don't have, what I need, what I want. I suspect I'll enjoy it.

Wish me luck!