Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hey, Engineers!

Ok, I have a project for you technical folks. It won't get you the glory of developing the perfect hydrogen fuel cell or the newest wind turbine. But it might have a bigger impact than either. And it will make you rich. So I need someone out there to develop, perfect and patent the reusable condom.

This is not a joke. The condom is the most commonly used form of birth control in the world, especially during sexual activities that pose a high risk of pregnancy or disease transmission. The people who are most likely to use them are more likely to be poor than those using other forms of birth control. They are more likely to be in temporary or at least unmarried relationships, so that the pregnancies that result are more likely to lead to single parenthood for women. They are cheap by industrial standards, but expensive by the standards of most of the developing world. And because they are single use, and most human beings have sex fairly often, keeping yourself in condoms can be pricey. Lack of a condom, or lack of funds for condoms, is a classic reason for accidental pregnancy or disease transmission.

So what if everyone had their own? What if condoms could be reused hundreds of times, like diaphragms, or menstrual cups? What if you could wash it was soap and water, squeeze out a drop from a little tube of spermicidal lubricant, and have sex without worrying about breaking the condom budget. What if everyone in Africa could afford condoms, because they only had to buy 1 per year? How many unwanted pregnancies would be prevented?

It has got to be possible - both the menstrual cup and the diaphragm already exist, although both are made of materials thicker than most people would want in a condom. But there are very fine, very strong materials out there that would also be impermeable to disease organisms.
Regardless of your take on the population issue, I think we all can agree that the world is a happier place when people who don't want to have children don't get pregnant. So c'mon, engineers - save the world, change a condom!


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Dancing with the Elephant

I thought about it for a while before I put the fact that I have four children in my biography and my talk. It would have been easy enough to leave out - no one else mentioned their kids, and that's probably the cultural norm, especially for women. Mentioning your kids in a professional thing is considered a sign that you are not a serious sort of person, just a Mom, in many cases.

But in this case, I really thought it was important that I put it in both my talk and my bio - because the population issue is such a BIG DEAL in the peak oil and environmental movements. I certainly didn't want to be accused of attempting to conceal it later, and also, for me at least, my children are the sole and primary reason I'm so involved in this. Don't get me wrong - I like life, but what drives me is their future security. Being a parent shapes my thinking in a lot of ways that I think it would be intellectually dishonest to leave out. Finally, I think copping to the things you do that don't fit the "can everyone do it and have us survive" model is important - because we tend to be very protective of our personal little pockets of greed and privelege - and never more than when we're talking about our kids. So I very intentionally put it in. I expected it to come up for critique and comment (it did), and that was fine.

What I didn't expect was to have more than 30 people come up to me and tell me how glad they were that I put the population issue on the table. Some of them had lots of kids - an older woman with six children who has been involved in the environmental movement for decades told me about how she tried never to mention the number of children in her family. An Amish gentleman pointed out that by his standards, my family of four was quite small. Some of them were on the other side - I talked with several people who have chosen not to have children, or who only have one, a man from Zero Population Growth and quite a few others. Some of those were quite fierce on the subject of my choices, and that's ok. But everyone, on every side of this issue said, "I'm so glad you brought it up - we have to talk about it." And the more I watched, the more I thought that while there are quite a few elephants in the room in the peak oil movement, this one deserves to come out for a trot around the floor - and soon.

To be fair, I didn't bring it up. It was raised earlier in the conference as a panel question to Julian Darley, Richard Heinberg and Pat Murphy. Pat called for voluntary population reduction, Richard called for policy initiatives without naming them, and that was it. But that's not enough. No one was sure what Richard Heinberg was suggesting - is he suggesting China-esque policy initiatives or tax penalties? No one talked about what we would have to do to achieve world-wide voluntary reductions - that is, raising the cultural status of women, providing them with education and enough medical care to make sure that their children live to adulthood (there's a long post from last year on this blog somewhere on just this subject, if anyone is interested). How would we fund that? Is there some way to accomplish that goal, or do we just have to give up on it? The generalities are not sufficient.

Nor are the questions that aren't being discussed. It is very easy for discussions of population to demonize women in general, and poor women (especially poor women of color) in particular. Are we going to talk about American consumption rates, and they way they alter the population equation - the way that American children consume the resources of many non-American children. Are we going to talk about immigration? About life extension techniques for the elderly? Are we going to have orphanages? Rationing? Free sterilization? Mandatory sterilization? What about the disabled? What about people who lose their children? Are we going to talk about the care of the elderly in a society with a drastically lowering population? Are we going to continue to subsidize the fertility business? What will this do to adoption? To family structures in general? How will we handle growing poverty rates? Ensure equal application, so that the rich and poor are both evenly affected? How shall we persuade people of this, and enlist the support of things like religious organizations? And there are a thousand other questions. And we have to talk about this. But nobody is.

To his credit, Julian Darley seems willing to both put it on the table (he told my friend from Zero Population Growth that he could organize something and he'd speak), and to talk about his own choices (he has one child, and plans no more). So is Richard Heinberg (none, no plans). But that's not enough. First of all, ultimately, this discussion MUST include women, perhaps a majority of women - a bunch of men, no matter how thoughtful, wise and brilliant, cannot set policy that will so deeply affect women in their bodies, without including them.

Every single person I spoke to said that we had to talk about this - even the Amish gentleman admitted that without prompting. Not one of the people who talked about their children denied that population was an issue that had to be addressed publically, and perhaps with policy initiatives like tax penalties for having more than two children. Not one of the people who wanted to constrain childbearing denied that there were compelling issues of freedom involved. And like most elephant-in-the-room situations, it is made much worse by silence. Everyone is scared to speak - the population limitation crowd "knows" that we can't talk about it because we're too religious, or it is too sensitive a subject. The people who have more than the official set number of children (as Darley put it..2, 3, or...even 4!) are afraid to talk about why they have children. And that needs to change.

I do know this. No mainstream movement can ever function if it makes women like the wonderful, wise, engaged, activist woman I spoke to with six children, or the young farmer with 7 feel ashamed of themselves. Nor can those of us who had more than a fair share fail to face that reality, and talk to the people who are concerned about overshoot.

Personally, my proposal would be that family energy rations be pegged to a family of four. Heinberg has a detailed plan for this in his new book, and he outlined it at the petroleum depletion protocol. What I suggest is that biological reproduction wouldn't get you any increase in your yearly energy credit, whereas non-biological reproduction would - bring your Mom to live with you, and you get a fifth person's energy to work with. Adopt a child, and you get a fifth person's energy. Give birth, and you have to make do with what you've got (this *ONLY* works with good access to birth control and basic medical care - if we lose this, we simply end up penalizing the poor and unlucky even more than they are already penalized). Thus, those couples who elect to have more than two children would either have to be able to pay for it by buying extra energy on the markets, or they would have to be very frugal, and consume much less, which knocks out the very worst effect of having a child in the US anyhow - the obscene rate of consumption. Most of the larger families I know are very, very frugal and I'm going to bet that they'd still have spare energy at the end of the year to sell back into the community at large, or to save for the next year (when allotments drop at the same rate as oil production drops). I'd also be fine with tax penalties, but I suspect these may function less well as the nation gets poorer and poorer. I will tell the simple truth - I would have paid any amount of money I could possibly have produced in order to have children. But for those who would rather have a more comfortable existence than more children, this will provide further incentives (overwhelmingly, people in the US cite money as a main reason for not having more children anyhow).

I do believe however, that no movement can afford to make people ashamed of the children they already have. Nor can we afford to be anti-child, or anti-elderly, or anti-disability. If we can't find a moral way to deal with the population issue, than we've no hope of dealing with it at all. But nor can we lie to ourselves and say, "it was ok for me to do X - just not those women in Bangladesh."

I'm going to lobby Pat Murphy or someone to put on a public discussion of this at next year's conference, if I can't find a venue to do it sooner. Actually, when I first spoke to Pat, I suggested to him that I talk about peak oil as a woman's issue, and he told me that he doubted anyone would attend my talk if I did. After this conference, I don't think we need just a talk on that subject - we need a whole conference. But however we do it, the elephant needs to dance for a while, and we need to think about a coherent way of both valuing children, women and people in general, and also addressing the fact that the planet has biological limits.

Sharon in upstate NY

Monday, September 25, 2006

12 Months of Naked Men

So like most of my "brilliant" ideas, this was conceived in a moment of madness, and committed to without really any plan. On Saturday, I slipped out for a bit to see former grad school friends, and while I was waiting for them to arrive, I met Andrew, the CSA farmer of song and story. We were chatting, and some how I got on to my theory that the peak oil movement needs to pander more. I had been very much annoyed by a section of David Orr's talk (not because it was in any way inherently annoying, just because it hit one of my buttons) describing all the terrible ways that the current administration, corporations and the right use sex and power amd fear to manipulate us. And this reason this annoys me is because I hear that outrage so often. But let's be honest - all of us, even we environmental and peak oil activists, like sex and power. I like sex, and I think I could get used to power too. To me, when we complain that the "other side" (a misnomer, but I'll use it) is using these terribly unfair techniques, that we won't use because we're so high minded (and really, that wasn't what David Orr said at all - this is just me riffing) and noble, we really mean that we're bad at using those techniques, so we're going to call them out of bounds.

Seriously, PETA has become a mainstream movement in large part because of a lot of naked models who will strip rather than wear fir. They could be our role models (that's really the only good thing I may ever say about PETA). So could the anti-tobacco campaigns showing the woman in her 30s dying. We have, as I said in my talk (I have largely forgotten my talk, and will never ever be able to reproduce it, except for this one short section, which I sort of remember, and a quote from Thomas Paine which I had to write down anyhow), got all the good stuff on our side (I'm going to write much more about this later, because I think it may be centrally important) - the images of the farm, and world war II levels of cooperation, of victory gardens - and truth and justice. I said something about pictures of cute kids holding baby lambs, I'm fairly sure. And then I think I mentioned sexy dairy maids and muscular men planting vegetables (the whole thing is really a total blur - that I didn't fall on my ass is a miracle). All of which came out of this conversation with Andrew the day before, where somehow we'd gotten to joking about a "Men of Peak Oil" Calendar. And G-d help me, I said something about it on stage. It definitely got a laugh. And I was still wired and insane enough to actually ask Richard Heinberg to do it (I'm sure the covering of his face and turning away in horror was a "yes").

But now, 30+ hours later, I still think its a good idea, from a slightly cooler perspective. First of all, because peak oil needs its first fund raiser - if we're ever going to get people to start associating us with lambs, muscles and little house on the prarie, which is absolutely essential (here I am not joking), that costs. And while women are the traditional models on these things, there are two reasons not to do that - a. It would be 12 months of Megan Quinn (no bad thought, certainly it would get a following, probably a big one, but that seems really unfair to her, and there's no one else) and b. the boys started this - they should skin for it.

Actually, the real reason that this would work is simple - the peak oil movement needs women more than anything in the world. Think that's an exaggeration? I don't. Because an enormous amount of the social capital (I hate that word, but we'll use it) in the world comes through women. They tend to be the organizers in small communities. They run the church functions, the synagogue sisterhood, cook the food, administrate the PTA, call people in emergencies, drive the carpools, spend time with the kids when their values are forming, talk about their worries with friends and families - including peak oil. They pick the clothes and decorate the houses - they do the grocery shopping and run the appliances - most of our energy consumption is managed by women. I don't mean to stereotype, but whether they work or have kids or neither, they probably do most of the household labor and most of the "processing" and maintaing of relationships - and those are big, big things for us. This cannot be a guy's thing and succeed. There were many, many, many women at that conference who I know just from speaking to them have organizational skills that this movement should be tapping, who have contacts and power that they don't think of as a potential asset but that they should. And because a lot of women (not all, there are plenty who can) don't have my willingness to talk loud in front of crowds, those skills aren't seen and gathered up and in.

I have no idea whatsoever whether any of these women really want to see the gentlemen who have done so much for the peak oil movement naked or not (actually, a few of them told me they did, but I don't know if they constitute a quorum or not ;-) - but what they want is to *laugh* (no, no, they aren't going to be laughing at your ummm, accoutrements...I'm talking about the kind of good natured laughter that women...oh, just go rent The Full Monty if you don't understand.) But the calendar would make some money, it would bring peak oil to some more mainstream people in a lighter, less scary way, and it would also say we're serious in a different way - that we're willing to embarass ourselves for a good cause. The other thing that I do remember from my presentation (oh, lord, I rather wish I didn't) was me pirouetting, showing off just how fat and flabby I am, in order to prove that many, many people can grow food - that it really isn't that hard. If you don't think that that scared me to death, well...let's just not talk about it)

I'm sure there are better ideas - in fact, I've got quite a few more serious ideas. For example, if you pushed me I might admit that we could get even further with some of them, and that I'm just fixating on this because it is so much fun. But I think that something funny-serious might not be a bad start. Because peak oil isn't just a fact, now its a movement, and people aren't they want to move when the whole thing is so depressing. Lightening things up just a little might do some real good. I keep thinking about the "Scenes From a Liberal Apocalypse" article in Harpers a few months ago (about last year's conference), in which the article attempted to dismiss peak oil because the whole thing seemed so humorless, so sincere. That article is the one thing that no one talked about at this conference (we should have, IMHO) and that no one talks about on the lists I'm on. We're afraid of being made fun of, because we think it takes away our credibility. But we're a lot less easy to be made fun of if we make fun of ourselves first. Satire is powerful. So let's steal it for a good cause.

I'm going to ASPO. I'll be seeing Richard Heinberg again (I was wondering if he'd remember me, but now I suspect he will ;-), and I'm going to ask him to introduce me to Matthew Simmons. I wonder if *he'll* take his shirt off ;-).

Sharon in upstate NY, who has had very, very little sleep in the last few days, and may regret this post later, particularly when she finds out that no one important in the peak oil movement will ever speak to her again.

Return from Ohio Part II - Famous Folk

My favorite moment at the whole conference was after I spoke, a woman I'd met earlier at the conference came up to me and said, "I had no idea you were *someone.*" I think that describes a lot of the experience for me - until sometime Sunday mid-morning, I was essentially travelling incognito among the famous (not Oprah famous, but definitely peak oil famous). Quite reasonably, no one but Pat had any idea who I was (and realistically, if you had any idea who I was that still wouldn't tell you anything important). I have no book. I have a teeny website that went up last week and remains partly unreadable because of technical difficulties. I was there because Pat liked my writing style and took a chance on the possibility that I could speak too. And I'm tremendously grateful that he did. But I'm still not "someone" in the sense that the kind lady meant it. (BTW, if the people I'm writing about aren't famous to you, here's their info, so you can follow along

But the serious someones were out in force. Let me start with the person who was the absolute highlight of the conference for me - Peter Bane. I think we were 20 minutes into the speakers dinner when it became clear to me that I had fallen deeply, passionately in love with Peter. Fortunately for Eric, Peter's partner Keith (who is just as wonderful) and probably the gentleman himself, this was the kind of love that makes you want to get down and worship someone as a god, rather than anything more earthy. When Peter Bane speaks, you get TRUTH - capital letters truth. And unlike every single other person at the conference who, no matter how deeply committed they were to telling everyone about peak oil (and they were), was selling something - a worldview, books, a website, etc... (I do not exclude myself - I was selling a perspective). Peter wasn't. He has things to sell - he and Keith do courses, which I can only imagine are amazing, and of course, he's the editor of Permaculture Activist Magazine. But while he answered questions about his magazine and other enterprises readily enough, but there was no agenda, just wisdom that he was passing along as fast as it could flow out of him. I don't really know how to describe what was different about Peter than everyone else there - and anyone who can put their finger on it better than I should definitely try - but it was one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak or take one of his classes, do.

Probably the biggest star of the event was Vicki Robin. Now I have to confess something. I went into this assuming that she would be a lightweight - I've read The Book, as it is called, and I thought it was very wise. But most of the representatives of the voluntary simplicity movement that I had met have been in it for purely personal reasons, and never really connected fully to the culture at large, and as far as I could tell, the impact of the movement on our culture of consumption didn't seem perceptible. While I could understand why Pat might invite someone from a related movement who had millions of followers, while I liked *her* personally on sight, I wasn't expecting all that much other than some good advice on frugality.

Boy, oh boy was I wrong. Vicki Robin is a smarter person's Oprah, with a much better sense of humor (and I don't think Oprah is either dumb or humorless, so that's saying something). She was a terrific showwoman, but never anything but sincere. And she looked at us in the audience, read the audience, and gave it what it needed - not only a way to get out of an overpowering inertia, but also a good talking to about self-righteousness. Afterwards, she joked that I should kiss her feet - and I'd have been glad to. Because I've never seen 250ish people lose 10,000lbs off their shoulders in an hour before. After Vicki spoke, everyone straightened up, shook their heads and was ready to *go forward* - that sense that they could go on from where they were was of inestimable value, and she deserved all the foot kissing she wanted.

Now of course, like any peaker, the three people I was most excited to meet were Richard Heinberg, Julian Darley and especially David Orr. In a purely technical sense I met David Orr - I was introduced to him. But at the speakers dinner he was at the other table, and after that I never quite worked up the nerve to go chat him up. Which is really too bad because David Orr is one of the most wonderful and brilliant of all agrarian writers, really just a shadow below Wendell Berry.

That said, I really didn't like his speech much. Despite its attempts to talk about the root of the problems we're facing, I think it got bogged down in partisanisms and laying blame. Nothing he said was untrue, but it didn't take me anywhere I needed to go, personally. But I was thrilled I got to hear him.

Richard Heinberg is a very, very polite man. We stayed across the hall from one another, and he managed very quickly when Pat Murphy introduced me to him, to lie and say he'd heard of me (Suuuuuurrre.) Later on, when I think he might actually have placed the face to the fact that I was on the stage too, he was kind enough to praise my talk and not run screaming away when I first lobbied him about putting education and agitprop more seriously on the agenda for peak oil (more about that later), and then asked him to consider taking off his shirt for a camera for my randomly generated idea of "The Men of Peak Oil Calendar" (which I still think is a good idea - more on that later too!) He is also a terrific violinist. Those are the only things I can say about him personally, since neither conversation lasted more than 3 minutes. As a speaker he was very good, very graceful, even unveiling something that was both very important and a little boring on some level (oil depletion protocols - we need to know this stuff, it is very important, he's written a book about it and we should all read it, but 40 minutes of powerpoint, after 40 prior minutes of power point, all first thing in the morning was a bit long). This was not Heinberg's fault so much as the structure of the conference's. And it wasn't the conference's fault either, because we need this information - I think we just needed a step aerobics class in the middle or something to get everyone moving (yeah, right, like I would ever do that).

Julian Darley preceded Richard Heinberg. In a personal sense, I would say that Julian Darley seems like one of the most over-extended people in human history. Despite that, he's very nice. Much, much, much nicer than I could be if I had as many balls in the air as he did, and as many people who want to add more balls. And he handled his over-extension astonishingly well - not only are all these balls in the air, but he's juggling with both hands and feet.

I managed to irritate him during the first 2 minutes of our acquaintance during the speaker's dinner (he was late after a bad day, trying desperately to stuff down his first meal of the day before the keynote address, and I was caught up in a prior discussion, and accidentally
baited him a little at a bad moment - my fault, not his). The very first thing he said to me, having caught my statement that I have four kids was "Have you Read a Book Called _Maybe One_?" (Yes, I'd read it - for those not in the know it is Bill McKibben's account of why he and others should only have one child, and it is quite good. As you know if you read the blog, I'm not trying to pretend the population issue doesn't exist or that I'm not culpable - much more on that later, too). I think this may be a new personal record - I've never before ticked off a famous person enough to have them be rude to me in under 2 minutes (please note the modifier "famous" here - I've ticked off regular folk in under 2 *seconds* ;-). His was definitely the most obvious "And who are you and why should I be polite to you" moment. I'm actually kind of glad it worked out that way, because it is a much funnier story this way.

But I did have a chance to both watch Julian Darley speak and to talk to him several other times, and I was impressed by his genuine commitment to live as sustainably as possible given his job(s), by his really astonishing range of knowledge about nearly everything, and about the fact that he may be the only person that I've seen in the peak oil movement who fully gets how mainstream this is about to be, and how many ways this is going to have to play out. He's quite astonishing, and he handles 50 new proposals every 20 minutes with grace and style. The talk was again, a bit too much crammed into a little. I think the problem is that it is a fairly new thing for peak oil speakers not to have to explain the problem to their audience - for so long Heinberg and Darley have been speaking to people who are only just getting it, and all of a sudden, there's a critical mass of people who understand and are ready for the next move. And to both Heinberg and Darley's credit, they are ready with next moves - the Oil Depletion protocol Heinberg has worked out with Colin Campbell, the smart jitney program he and Pat Murphy put together, and all the thousands of projects Julian Darley is juggling between Global Public Media, Post-Carbon Institute and the relocalization project are exactly what is needed, on both grassroots and policy levels. They are keeping ahead of the curve on what they have to offer (think about how rare that is - if they were rock and roll musicians, they'd be Paul Simon and Madonna, not the Beach Boys, playing the same stuff at the state fair). But I think they are still trying to explain peak oil a bit too much. On another note, I regret, since I didn't get to talk to Darley again after my talk, I have nothing to report on his willingness or unwillingness to strip at least partially naked for the cause ;-).

I admired Richard Olson from afar, which was a great pity, because he was a terrific speaker and the things he is doing at Berea College are astounding - and like Jeff Christian, they aren't building houses for the priveleged, but bringing sustainability to the poor. I think that big old economic issue - how do we get down away from the relatively educated and priveleged - is going to be a huge deal, and Richard Olson is doing it right now (along with his wife who I did chat with briefly). I never even shook hands with Jeff Christian - he was there and he wasn't, and we passed in the night. Pity that.

Bob Brecha was my fellow non-celebrity, and I'm so grateful he was there. He's local, and we got to see the strawbale house he built, which was amazing. He's a good guy, fun to argue with, and he gave a really nice, solid presentation - at least the 1/2 of it I saw. I ducked out to drink tea with my old grad school friends who were in town, and missed some of it. I got the sense at the end, as I came back, that 3 engineer/scientist types talking about building in a row may have been a mistake in terms of excitement levels, but that's hardly his fault. He should be more famous in the peak oil movement than he is - a lot more. I think after his talk, he was.

As for me, I think it went fairly well. It was clear early on that Peter Bane and I were going to be saying some of the same things. As Peter spoke, it became clear that my talk was essentially a faint subset of his, and had to go in the trash. So while he talked I scribbled this sad little outline, and got up and ranted for a while. And people clapped, and said it was good. So I guess I got my five minutes of being somebody. Fortunately, my ego did not overflow, because when I came home, Simon told me, "Your job is to take care of *me*" - ie, I'm somebody already, and let's not forget precisely who - the one who cooks lunch.

Next post - Pat, Megan, Faith and why you should go next year.


Back from the Community Solutions Conference - Part I

A Report from the Community Solutions Conference : Part I - the non-famous people

Well, first I have to say how glad I am to be home. I think Eric was faintly worried that all
the attention would turn my head, and home with its clutter and long list of chores would pale by comparison. But I actually was dying to come home and get to work on all the new projects and ideas that the wonderful people at the conference inspired. I missed my little boys terribly, and got very, very sick of my breast pump. Not to mention that I missed Eric terribly - I think a happy marriage can best be described as the perfect person to make all your jokes and snide comments to, and life without that is very pale indeed.

The trip was great - something big only fell off the plane once, and thankfully it was already on the ground, so we lived. That’s really all I hope for from the airline industry these days. And Yellow Springs OH is a really cool place - if Pat will hire me to be Megan’s slave and Antioch will hire Eric, we’d move in a heartbeat (well…) I especially was thrilled to meet several local CSA farmers, including the famous Andrew, who had been mentioned and described to me at least half a dozen times by the time I actually ran into him on Saturday. He’s already doing more with his farm than I am, and the thing I love best about him is that he’s mad as hell (in fun way) about all the right things, in all the right ways. Since I have a little outrage problem myself, I was thrilled to meet him! I’m also mentally collecting people - I suspect the peak oil movement is going to need a lot of new, different kinds of public figures really soon, and Andrew struck me as someone who could matter a lot (and not just because I want him to pose for my “men of peak oil” fund raising calender - btw, I wish I’d had a camera when I asked Richard Heinberg!). There’s a moral seriousness and authenticity to him that is potentially important.

I must now begin a series of apologies to people I met, adored, want desperately to meet again, and I still can’t remember their names. I’m sorry - I’m like that. I remember about 1/50th of people who name themselves to me, and sometimes it takes several tries for me to get it. Please understand that this in no way is a reflection of my liking or esteem for you, just my own neurological failings.

Larry and his partner, whose name I’ve lost, even though I met her several times (aaaggghhh) were kind enough to drive me back and forth from the Dayton airport, and they impressed me as two of the most practical and clear-eyed people out there. They aren’t sentimental (that’s a compliment from me, btw - I’m not incapable of sentimentality, but it isn’t my favorite characteristic) and Larry especially was extremely perceptive. I would never have noticed that part of Richard Heinberg’s effectiveness was that he has perfect pitch (as does Bill Clinton, according to Larry, something else I didn’t know). The two of them are living a low key, sustainable life in a small, depressed city near Yellow Springs (YS is pricey), and doing it for reasons in part of economic necessity. They are doing all the right things, with no hype and no fuss, and that in itself is admirable. Unlike me, they aren’t proclaiming things from the rooftop, just pointing out how simple and practical it is.

I met many other wonderful people - a man who is planning on transforming a large chunk of his Ontario farm into a permaculture farm, and who immediately connected me with someone who could answer questions about horses. There was the very sweet gentleman with the public health background who was speaking very seriously about zero population growth until I embarrassed him by asking him if he was telling me all this because of the number of children I have (he wasn’t, and it would have been ok even if he had ). There were several couples who read me on ROE2 or ROE3, who came up and told me how very excited they were to meet me. While I was deeply flattered, I hope they went and met some of the really important and famous people there, who merited a great deal more excitement than me.

I met people who had been in the environmental movements and energy movements not for years, but for decades. I met a lovely Amish gentleman who knows more about almost everything I want to know than I do, and who sadly kind of got shafted in the end because short time compelled us to move on from his legitimate question about patriarchy (the shafting was my fault in part - I made a joke out of it, which I often do, but I don’t think I sufficiently acknowledged that I think patriarchal and hierarchical structures are a real issue that deserves discussion). I met people who farm with horses, build amazing houses (one woman showed me the most gorgeous tiny house she designed for herself, and I immediately wanted to move in!), and people who know about almost everything.

I call it human google - want to know the answer to a question? Want to know about land trusts? Tillage equipment for small draft horses? Bicycle powered-washing machines? Ferments for beer? Hand-spindling angora? How much biodiesel it would take to keep the airlines running? What kind of solar greenhouse is best? Turn around and ask the person next to you. If they don’t know, they’ll find the person who does - on average, I think it took less than 3 minutes to answer any single question I had at any given time.

There were so many wonderful other people, and I can’t talk about them all, but I do want to mention Aaron Newton. First of all, he gave me his card the first day, and I didn’t look at it carefully until this morning - he’s *THAT* Aaron, of the powering down blog (www.powering - he’s a terrific writer and thinker, and I’ve actually been reading him for a while, but never made the connection. He’s also an editor of a new Environmental magazines, (also well worth checking out). He’s an absolute delight as a conference buddy - we're both shy about approaching people, and so we strategized together. And he’s my personal pick for the charismatic face of peak oil phase 2, the part where we need a bunch of new figures who can present the message in a way that is compelling to a mainstream audience. I’ve been watching for a while, and despairing that I hadn’t seen anyone (besides Megan Quinn, of course, who is already there) who was fairly young, smart and had the gift of connecting to people. Aaron’s got that, and if I have any role at all in determining who helps introduce the rest of America to this, he’s going to be in it (not that I’ve mentioned this to Aaron - oops, guess I just did!) His wife asked him if he’d picked up a lot of crazy ideas at the conference - well, she has no idea how crazy *my* ideas are.

Ok, on to the famous people next time I get a chance!


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Website is Up!!

Thanks to Sandy, my wonderful and noble neighbor, the preliminary form of my website is now up and running. There will be much, much more soon. The goal is to encourage people who haven't traditionally been engaged by the peak oil and environmental movement to see themselves as potential participants in saving the world and our nation. And the stakes really are just that high. I welcome comments, critiques, question, anything. You can respond here, or send them to me at


Sharon, who promises much more as soon as she returns from Ohio

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Peak Oil and Credibility

There's an interesting list here of all the people who believe in peak oil. I don't offer this as an attempt to persuade anyone, although I've always thought that anything that Michael Moore and Dick Cheney agree on must at least be worthy of consideration. But I do offer it as a bit more proof being the raving chick on the blog may make me nuts, but I'm in interesting company.

ASPO, by the way, is the most serious and dignified of the peak oil groups. If you look at the list of speakers, they are almost all very respectable, very important, very knowledgeable. They also pretty much all have penises. I tend to think of ASPO as the penis conference - not in a bad way, precisely, but as something that focuses on the manly attributes of peak oil - energy depletion curves, large scale economic planning, the hard science of alternative energy. All of those things are important, and the people who are bringing them to us are doing urgent work. Many of them have paid a price in credibility for supporting where their data takes them, and I'm mostly not making fun of them, even gently.

But I do want to point one thing out - this is a conference with a stated agenda - they want to talk to the elite managers, leaders and thinkers (and they say so on the conference page). This is not a conference designed to create bottom up change, or to attract and engage people who haven't fully connected to peak oil, except perhaps rich, priveleged, highly educated ones. I admire many of the speakers deeply, and am grateful to ASPO for the information it passes out and the programs it runs. I look forward to the conference. But I also believe that a solution to peak oil will never be a top-down process, created by the Elite and run for people with penises and portfolios. If we're to transform our culture, the work of that transformation must come from ordinary people who demand it because it is right and because it is necessary.

I'm going to ASPO, I suggest you do too. But I also suggest that while you are there, you do as I do, and point out that true revolution comes from the bottom up, not the top down, and includes people without stock portfolios, ph.ds and penises ;-).


Astronomers are Weenies

Ok, except for the one I'm married to. But I feel a need to express this point of view, speaking as the mother of a space obsessed kindergartener (not to mention the mother of a 2 1/2 year old who tags along on all his big brother's obsessions), about the demotion of Pluto. Astronomers are major weenies. As I understand (and DH teaches history of space exploration, and thus is something of an expert) it there was no true, compelling reason to demote Pluto - scientifically it was equally possible to expand the definition of planets or contract it. Neither had much effect on anything, except certain obscurist elements of astronomical terminology, and on the pedagogy of space for kids and young adults. And thus, the Union of Astronomical Twits chose to demote Pluto, rather than expand the definition of planet in such a way as to actually teach people something about what makes a planet. We might have included Ceres, and children might have needed to learn about the asteroid belt, what makes a planet a planet, etc... Instead, we all now get to take our model solar systems, and add a little notation that Pluto doesn't really count - and neither does the newly named Eris, Ceres or anything else.

Speaking as someone whose four year old and 2 year old knows the names and/or numbers of all the moons of Jupiter (Do you? Nope, me neither), I find the claim that we're all better off with a narrower canon of objects being called by the dignification "planet" lest we be unable to learn their names, umm...stupid. We're dumbing down our solar system. This is, I think a sign of the apocalypse.

In the past I've noted that an astronomer/astrophysicist a la my husband is a handy fellow to have around in an apocalypse, or at least a whole lot of science fiction novels include an astrophyisicist who saves the world. If you have a comet racing towards you, or a the earth is being wrenched out of its orbit, fiction would suggest that an astronomer is just what you need to save the world. That, of course, is why I married my husband - so I could keep him handy in case of cometary collision. However, the recent course of events has forced me to revise my opinion of at least some astronomers. They are weenies. If they expect us to keep them around in case of sudden space-borne disaster, they'd better shape up.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Cookbooks for the Future

As an inveterate cookbook collector, I'm aware that a lot of my beloved books about food, food history, and food culture aren't goingto be all that useful after peak oil. In fact, many of them aren't all that useful to me now, much as I enjoy reading them. Most cookbooks emphasize fancy, elaborate cooking that takes a long time, involves combining odd or unlikely (certainly unseasonable) combinations, and have a heavy emphasis on foods that are likely to be unusual treats or festival food in the future - cakes, large roasted animals, etc... But there are some that I truly use now, and expect to continue using in the long term. I thought I might list some off, in hopes of inspiring others to do the same (after all, I need more cookbooks...really.) These are the books I know that I think can genuinely help people make the connection between the food they grow and the food available to them and what we really eat.

I'm going to assume that nearly everyone owns _The Encyclopedia ofCountry Living_, Carla Emery's recipe bible that begins her noodle recipes with "first, till the soil..." I was lucky enough to be Carla's friend (I miss her still) and part of a group that tested recipes for her. I tested quite a lot of them. I have to say some of the recipes are straight out dreadful. Others are really good. But there are recipes for everything, few call for exotics or out of season combinations, and most, if not perfect in themselves are good jumping off points - they operate as ideas about how to cook and eat sustainably.

Another book I consider a basic staple is Doris Janzen Longacre's _More with Less Cookbook_ - conceived by the Mennonite Central Committee as a way to help people eat more sustainably and ethically, it is effectively a Joy of Cooking for the poor, plain and frugal. It is a bit dated, and some of the ethnic recipes are not very authentic (_Extending the Table_ part of the same series, is a much better source of ethnic recipes and an excellent cookbook in its own right), but for staple food recipes, Longacres' is one of the best.

Totally unlike the pragmatic conscience of the two previous books is a new favorite of mine (a gift from my MIL), _Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations_ - it is a pretty hardcover, designed to appeal to the kind of people who buy cookbooks and try three recipes in their Calphalon kitchen. A few of the recipes are of the fussy type - I suspect even before peak oil I am quite unlikely to ever stuff and roast a quail with black walnuts, white sage and adobe bread. But by and large, this book is a slightly modernized three sisters cookbook, with additional recipes for desert foods like cactus pads and prickly pears. I don't live in a desert climate, but I've rarely seen so many wonderful recipes for corn, squash, hot peppers and beans. The meat section emphasizes game and includes recipes for jerky. The sunflower cakes were a huge hit with my kids last summer, and the garbanzo bean stew is totally delicious. Definitely worth looking past the fancy cover.

Another cookbook that would be easy to overlook would be Eileen YinFei Lo's _From the Earth_, a cookbook of Chinese Vegetarian (some fish is involved) recipes. There are lots of recipes in American storage cookbooks for mock meat made from tofu and gluten. Most of them, frankly, suck. They don't taste anything like meat, and they don't taste particularly good, either. On the other hand, if you've ever eaten Chinese Buddhist cooking, you will realize that there exists the perfect fruition of fake meat cookery. It is very,very good. So if you think you may have to make do with soybeans andwheat for dinner any time soon, this is the cookbook to have. That is not to say that everything is a perfect substitute - but the textures are good and the flavors are spectacular. So are all the vegetable recipes I've tried, many of which are for traditional asian vegetables. If you grow these things (and you should), this is worth having. While not all of the recipes are easily adaptable to storage or local foods, most of the sauces can be reproduced. I've had excellent luck, for example, with my first bottles of homemade soy sauce, made by the recipe in Carla Emery's book.

On the other hand, if you want to find more conventional recipes for gluten, the best of the wheat related books I've seen is LeArtaMoulton's _The Amazing Wheat Book_ - not only does she do bulghur, bread, noodles, porridge, etc... but also gluten meats, sweets made from whole grains, even faux non-dairy "ice cream" made from the settled starch after gluten making. I haven't loved everything I've tried here, but the ideas are right, and the recipes work, and can be fixed with a lot more seasoning (blandness is endemic in American cookbooks).

Paula Wolfert's book _Mediterranean Grains and Greens_ is one of the more fascinating cookbooks I own. It is 350 pages of recipes using mostly whole grains and fresh greens. Most Americans would hardly believe it was possible to write such a cookbook, but it is not merely possible, but glorious. Wolfert knows Mediterranean cuisine inside and out, and the recipes are a look into real peasant cuisine - a peasant cuisine that is all the more luxurious because it does so much with so little.

_Please to the Table:The Russian Cookbook_ was written by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman back when "Russia" was the entire Soviet Union. And while there are recipes here for luxury foods, there are also plenty of simple, cold climate foods that are absolutely delicious, simple and eminently reproduceable in a post-peak future. This was one of the first cookbooks I ever owned, and in college, I ate von Bremzen's Mothers "Super-Quick Vegetarian Borscht" more or less constantly, often with Holubtsi (stuffed cabbage with buckwheat and mushrooms). My family on one side is Polish, and this was the cuisine of my great-grandmother. It is delicious food, but also food suited to cold, wet places like the one I live in.

I've bought 5 copies of Crescent Dragonwagon's _Soup and Bread_cookbook for myself and others since I first acquired it in college, and they keep disappearing. People borrow this book, and it is never seen again. I've given up lending it out, and now I make everyone get their own. It is a very simple concept - recipes for soup made of everything imaginable. Every vegetable, legume, etc... Soups with milk, soups with broth, even a few soups with meat (although the vast majority are vegetarian). And some bread and salad recipes to accompany them. The soups are the centerpiece. Speaking as someone with no southern credentials whatsoever (you can laugh at me for this), her gumbo is spectacular. She has three recipes for zucchini soup, which alone is endearing when you are trying to use the bloody things up. There are 50 different recipes for bean soup. Not everything is sustainable, it certainly isn't designed with peak oil in mind, but the recipes are unfailingly good, and fairly simple. A definite keeper - under lock and key, if necessary.

If I could only have one cookbook, it would be Laurie Colwin's _Home Cooking_ or perhaps her equally indispensible _More Home Cooking_. I like the recipes in these books - I've never made anything from these books I didn't like, and by now I think I've made nearly everything in them (her Damp Gingerbread is the best on earth and Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers will kill you, but is worth it). But it is her way of thinking about food that is most wonderful - she writes wryly, humorously, warmly about her love of food and the pleasures of eating regular old homemade things. If I met someone who did not cook, and wanted to, these would be the books I would suggest they start out with.

Sylvia Thompson's _The Kitchen Garden Cookbook_ is a pleasure, and she emphasizes making use of what you have. Thus, there is a recipe for using the outer leaves of cabbage, cooked Ceylonese style and one for stuffed stems of chard. We will need to minimize waste in our kitchens in the future, and learning how use these foods is potentially important.

Edna Lewis died not long ago. She was one of the great figures of American cooking. She grew up in a community of farmers, African American descendents of freed slaves, and her _The Taste of Country Cooking_ is an evocative and delicious link to that culture and its cuisine. This is real, seasonal, delicious country food, along with lovely narratives of what the life was like. The food is simple, and if you don't grow your own, you are unlikely to understand what is so beautiful about her emphasis on the natural, real flavors of food.

It is possible that a book on whole grain breadmaking has superceeded _The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book_, but if so, I missed it. If youare going to grind your own to make your bread, you need this book.There's definitely an old fashioned, 1970s complete proteins and carob cookies feel to it, but who cares. There are hundreds of recipes for bread products using every kind of grain, and it is well worth having.

If you want really old-fashioned, try _The Little House Cookbook_ byBarbara M. Walker. She's a food historian who went back and found ways of making all the foods in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I'm not sure how often one would cook out of thisbook, except perhaps as an educational project (we've been doing some of that), but it is an excellent overview of a poor to middle class family's diet 130 yearsago, and how it was shaped by politics, science, and environment. I've only cooked a few things from here, among them the green pumpkin pie (it really does taste kind of like apples) and the buckwheat pancakes. But mostly, I think it gives you a sense of the centrality of food production to everyday life, and what our own lives may be like.

On the subject of books that are only sort-of cookbooks, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Albert Bates's _The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook_ - the couple of recipes I've tried were both quite good. The chick pea patties and the spicy cabbage salad were very good. The book contains a lot more information than this - the recipes are almost a side-note. It is worth having on several fronts - Bates knows a lot, and writes wonderfully. His focus on vegetarian food I think is right on, although I do have my doubts that, say, rum will be vastly more available than eggs. But it is a book well worth having.

Equally valuable, I think is Laura Schenone's _A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove_ which tells the story of women in America throughout history through their food, including recipes. This is a wise and important book, and well worth a read for anyone, even if you never do use any of the recipes - and some of them are very good. Our future is probably somewhere in our past, at least in terms of cooking, and the more we know about that past, the better off we are.

_The Joy of Pickling_ is my favorite book on pickles and lactofermentation, although there are other good ones out there as well, including Bill Mollison's (of permaculture fame) _Ferment and Human Nutrition_ - lactofermentation particularly is an important skill, because lactofermented foods have natural antibiotics specific to ecoli in them. Eating kimchi and sauerkraut with your food can protect you from food poisoning. And nutritionally, lactofermented vegetables are very good for you - not to mention unbelievably delicious. If our future is mostly local food, we are going to want that food to be as tasty as possible, and lactofermentation is one way to make that happen.

I have more to add - this is a subject on which I could go infinitely, because food is my favorite subject, but I think I'll stop for the moment with one addition, _Keeping Food Fresh_, a community food preservation cookbook by thegardeners and farmres of Terre Vivante. This is another must-have book, for it details ways of preserving food used by European farmers for hundreds of years, excluding freezing and canning. Some of the recipes are obvious, dried apples on a string. Most of them are not, and some are methods that get little consideration now, but might yet again, such as preserving meat in wine, home salting of fish, traditional candying, and lacto-fermenting. Some of the combinations, like the apples kept in elderflowers, are truly spectacular. I'm pretty sure the recipes haven't been vetted by the FDA, so use with a grain of salt. But it is worth knowing how people preserved food before the FDA.

I think here I will stop. But I'd welcome more suggestions!


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Well, someone thinks I'm a grownup, not just a lunatic ;-)

If any of you are even remotely interested, I'm going to be speaking on sustainable agriculture and food security at the Community Solutions Conference on Peak oil. Check them out, and then check out the cool bio and picture of me (yes, I know the website isn't up yet...I'm working on it, I swear!) under the speakers section, here The conference is this month from the 20th to the 22nd, and I'd love to meet anyone who is interested there!

Wow, I'm kind of amazed to see myself looking so credible. I always thought my fame would come with a mug shot!


Sharon, who is frantically wondering how she can loose 40lbs, so she won't look like a large consumer of resources ;-)!