Saturday, November 25, 2006

Husbanding Resources

Presumably I'm not the only person whose personal preparations continually run up against a limitations of funds and time. Learning to find ways to get as much benefit out of our limited income and free time is one of my major projects. Thinking about the ways we (and other people in the American economy) use their resources has led me to think it might be worth pointing out to people how often what they have goes outwards, to feed the economy, rather than inwards, to benefit themselves, theirfamilies, their communities. To me, ensuring that my expenditures not only produce the optimal result for me, but also benefit the economies (household, communal, etc...) that I most want to serve seems like the basic goal of any human centered economics.

Consider the contemporary model of family (btw, can we just skip ahead and assume here that family is whatever you call it - I'm going to use a nuclear one as an example, but I'm not making any major assumptions, other than that nuclear families of some sort constitute a significant majority in the culture). For purposes of simplicity, we'll imagine that Mom and Dad have a couple of children, and one set of aging parents, but we all know it gets more complex than that. Mom and Dad have a baby - how exciting. They are comparatively young, and both work full time, so they put baby in daycare at 8 weeks, which takes up a large percentage of one household income. They save what they can to afford a down payment on a house, but it is a struggle to put anything away.

Meanwhile, Grandma and Grandpa have a house that is too big for them, now that Mom and her sibling have grown and moved out. They spend too much of their time caring for it, while Mom and Dad pay rent and try and save a mortgage payment. Eventually, Grandma and Grandpa decide to sell their house and move into a smaller place. They'd like to retire, but can't yet, so they go on working. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad are expecting baby #2, and they go into tremendous debt to buy a house surprisingly like the one that Grandma and Grandpa just sold, but, of course, closer toDad's job (which is regarded as fixed and sacrosanct, even though he'll probably be laid off a couple times in the next decade).

Grandma and Grandpa live to see their grandchildren, but don't spend as much time as they'd like with them, since they are still working, and it is a long drive to Mom and Dad's place. A little later on, Grandma and Grandpa retire. They'd like nothing better than to devote their money to their children's inheritance and their time to their grandchildren, but the kids are in school/daycare all day, Grandma and Grandpa can't make the drive too often, and they have to live cheaply so they can someday afford assisted living. Mom and Dad still work full time, with the kids attending school and daycare. They are deeply in debt, because of their mortgage and cost of living. They are also exhausted all the time, from home care, childcare and two jobs. If they ever have any spare income, they spend it on having others cook their meals (takeout), clean their house, mow their lawn, entertain them (cable), etc...

Move on a bit, and Grandpa dies. Grandma sells her house, gives up her familiar possessions, and her relationships in her community and moves into assisted living, which gives her the exclusive company of her peers. Her grandkids don't visit too often because it isn't very kid friendly, and of course, it is a long drive. Mom and Dad are now constantly torn between the needs of their parents and the needs of their children, with neither being able to provide any benefit to the other. Just now, the children are teenagers, and begin saving money doing pointless labor completely unlike the labor their parents and grandparents are paying other people to do. Finally, grandma dies, her saved money spent on assisted living. Mom and Dad can look forward to a decade of frantically working to pay for college, until they start the cycle over again...

Sounds stupid. Sure. And yet, that's the scenario our culture endorses as the norm, in the name of independence. How many of us see ourselves in it? Changing it, and keeping our resources in our family and community would both save energy and money in general, and also enable us to transform our lives. Families, biological and other, could easily transform the situation into the following.

Mom and Dad have a baby. They move in with Grandma and Grandpa, who have the room. Because they are sharing the house, they only need two full time incomes, so it is agreed that Dad and Grandma will work full time, and Grandpa will take early retirement. He helps with the childcare, and Mom and he do the housework together. They both have enough time to pursue other ways of saving money, such as gardening and cooking from scratch. Grandchild grows up intimately connected to his Grandparents. As Grandma and Grandpa get older, adaptations are made to the house, or another, handicapped accessible house is purchased for the extended family, but with minimal indebtedness, because they have the first house as a stake.

Once Mom is done being pregnant and breastfeeding, she may go back to work part time, so that Grandma too can retire and devote herself to home and grandchild, or perhaps they will find a way to live on only a single income, with three adults caring for home and children. As the children grow, they take on domestic work too. If Grandma and Grandpa need help getting along eventually, grandchildren, now grown to adolescence, can provide it, along with their parents. In exchange, grandparents provide help in funding education and other needs with their savings, knowing that they don't need to prepare for a long life in assisted living - they will be cared for by their family. The pace of life is comparatively slow and relaxed - there are always enough people to play with the children, do the domestic work, earn an income and provide food, entertainment and affection.

Very little money goes out in this scenario - far less is earned, but total wealth is greater and indebtedness less. Moreover, the family is happier (which is not to say that they don't get on each other's nerves) and everyone receives more and better care, by virtue of it being done by people who love them. Are there problems with this scenario at times? Sure. Some families can't live together. Some arrangements would never work. Sometimes outside investment is necessary. But we could do far more to ensure that we retain what we earn, and everyone benefits than we do. And we can create these scenarios with others than our biological family - perhaps if daycare is truly necessary, a neighbor can be enriched. Perhaps family conflicts can be resolved. Perhaps if we change our patterns of thought, and create new models of the ideal, we can have what we need when things get hard. In the end, we will have
to find a way to recreate the extended family. Why not do it now?

As Lois McMaster Bujold points out, all true wealth is biological. Perhaps we should take better care of the wealth we do have.


I need help.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. So here, I admit it. I can't do html. Which is a problem, because I have a website ( I have people who want to write columns for me. I have columns of my own to post. I have ideas for pictures of people who will volunteer to powerdown. And I can't get it put up on the web. My kind neighbor was helping me, but she's working more now, and I can't bug her too much.

So I am asking for aid. Is there someone out there who has a little free time, and some good basic web skills that we work with me on the technical (and content, if that interests you) labor of the Our Victory At Home website? I have so much more to do there, and I'm so overwhelmed by the technical demands of simply getting things onto the screen - it takes me *hours* to put up an article - hours I don't have right now.

I'll happily barter space on the forum for you to write your own articles, or perhaps I can mail you some yarn, or cookies or something. But I have hit my skill limits, and exceeded them - can anyone give me a hand?

Email me if this is something you are interested in. And thank you.

Sharon (who has no technical skills to speak of)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

God and Oil: Why Religion Matters to the Peak Oil Movement

Among overeducated leftist types, I'm something an anomaly - a religious person. A majority of the people I know who are involved in the peak oil and environmentalist movements are secular people who are either not religious or consider themselves spiritual, rather than religious. Most of them perceive themselves as dissenting from a mass culture that presses people towards cultural conservativism, unethical social practices, lack of concern for social justice and adherence to conservative Christianity. They tend to perceive religion as manipulative, often very negative in its effects, and anti-intellectual.

I also spend time working with and talking to fellow homesteaders, people who for various reasons have gone back to the land to subsistence agriculture, or small farming. And a large percentage of people in the homesteading movement are religious - the majority of whom are devout Christians. Overwhelmingly, these are people who perceive themselves as engaged in the practice of self-sufficiency, thrift and agriculture as part of a religious obligation. They see themselves as dissenting from a mass culture that encourages sexual immorality, lack of concern for community and traditional values, and adherence to a secular culture. They tend to perceive secular culture and its adherents as manipulative, negative in its effects and elitist.

I find the symmetry of distress between those secular folks who feel themselves oppressed by a religious majority that believes them naive and without principle; and those religious folk who seem themselves as minority in a largely secular world, assumed to be unthinking idiots by those who "think for themselves" both amusing and disturbing, because it represents a failure of natural allies to recognize one another. After all, adherence to any sort of moral philosophy is sufficiently rare in this day and age that I would imagine that instead of assuming the worst ofone another, secular and religious adherents of principle might make some useful alliances. Indeed, I believe strongly that the peak oil and environmentalist movements can only succeed if they work through synagogues, churches, mosques and temples across the world.

While there are some brands of faith and faithlessness that will probably never reconcile themselves to one another, the human majority, as always, probably stands closer to the middle ground than any of us think. All religions have their fundamentalists, but to judge a faith on its most extreme believers is kind of like judging all of capitalism's good and ill on the ground of one reading of Ayn Rand's collected works. And dismissing humanism, or Neitzcheism or socialism or any other philosophical grounding because it is not centered upon G-d is equally shortsighted.

The simple fact is that in a statistical sense, more people are subject to religious arguments than not, and there are compelling theological arguments in every faith for taking peak oil and global warming seriously. We also need to engage humanists and secularists as well - the grounds for ethical action inthe future can never be primarily or solely theological grounds - that way lies factionalism and represssion. We need to recognize that there is a philosophical category of both religious and non-religious anti-modernists out there, people whose overriding common interest is in exploring the ways that modern industrial capitalism has failed us - morally, personally, economically. I do not pretend that issues like abortion or gay marriage don't matter - they do. But they are secondary to the shared bond of the leftist environmentalist and the conservative Christian who both knwo with a queasy horror that something about our society is fundamentally, utterly wrong, bereft of integrity and truth. That common ground is powerful, and potentially transformative.

It is a mistake, and a foolish one, for secular thinkers denythat a tremendous amount of power lies in religion. While evidence for both the positive and disastrous power of religion abound, there is no question that religious communities of all sorts represent a power that can bedirected to changing the world for the better. If we are to soften our landing at all, and prevent total disaster, we need the grace ofG-d (if such exists) and the works of man brought together - we need the grounds of reason and the grounds of deferral to whatever higher power or principle you prefer. Both religious people and activists represent a kind of resistance against a populace that often seems to adhere to no principles at all, that exercises no discipline upon desire, and often seems to care for nothing greater than the next thing. Both are people who willingly subjugate their desires to a greater good, although their assessment of what is the greater good often differs. And all of them are adept at conversations about how we should begin to live better.

People who believe are not morons - I cannot persuade anyone who doesnot believe of this, but a sense of immanence is just a thing, a sort of awareness, a kind of meta-kinesthesia. My own experience of the divine is that I know G-d is there in the same way I am aware of having a tongue, in a totally inexplicable and preconscious manner. That others do not share this has always, since early childhood, been a bit of a surprise to me. I am aware that this makes me a lunatic by secular standards. But it does not make me unreasoning or dumb. If you are going to accuse believers of anything, make it madness, not stupidity. After all, the debt of secular thinking of theology is profound and essential, and cannot be erased. Science, mathematics, philosophy, literature, art...they were all to a large degree formed by people who believed profoundly in G-d and weren't fools. I can think of nothing more likely to undermine any movement to engage the whole populace than it being led by people who (covertly or not) believe that all religious people are imbeciles, or that they are all of a piece, incapable of making individual decisions.

At the same time, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge that choosing to work outside of a theological framework for morality is often an act of courage, one that requires you to locate or draw on a less accessible template of ethical action. Those who do not believe in G-d are not amoral, and I am certain that there are those who know that G-d is unreal down to their bones, in the same way I believe that G-d is real. Denying the truth of that is an insult to others, and unworthy of us. Ultimately, Jews believe that our actions, not our interior thoughts, or beliefs are what we are held responsible for, and what matters most is that we are engaged in Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Those who do that work, no matter what their beliefs or their reasons are the righteous of the world, and I propose that may be a useful way for us to think about this - of righteousness as engagement in transformation. The righteous are the righteous, no matter on what grounds they act, and they deserve honor.

Right now, conservative Christians are engaged in a dialogue on global warming and environmentalism. They are struggling to find their place, and to determine what faith calls them to do. Members of other faiths are also newly engaged, recognizing that whether G-d created the world or it came to being some other way, we have an obligation to mend what we have broken. Peak oil will break on the public consciousness soon enough, and members of religious communities and secular ones will have to decide whether and how they want to talk to one another. Now is the time to look to one another as natural allies. Will it be difficult? Of course. But the stakes are these - if we cannot make both secular and religous moral arguments that convince one another to work together, we're doomed. So let us begin.



Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Well, we Americans will be celebrating Thanksgiving here the day after tomorrow. Being part Native American, I'm not totally unambivalent about Thanksgiving, but I like the notion of gratitude, however superficial, being interjected into our rather selfish culture. And for those of us who are aware how delicately things are balanced, and can imagine a more difficult future, I think that only enhances the urgency of both gratitude, and its partner, generosity.

I've been thinking a lot about the degree to which peak oil is pushing me simultaneously in two directions that I would once have thought were exclusive, but now I know are not. On the one hand, my job is to become more self-sufficient - less dependent upon marketplaces, electronic and gas powered slaves, and public economies. On the other hand, because I can't do everything, I become more dependent on neighbors, and people and friends, and, since that is my personal sort of thing, on G-d. Regardless of whether theism is your thing, it can be a little unnerving to know that going into the future, you will have to rely on a lot of awfully contingent others.

I think a lot of people find the notion of being dependent upon others frightening, and they are not alone in that. Other people are, after all, much less reliable and far more complicated than lawn mowers, dishwashers and private cars. And when, as often happens, the balance of what they do for me shifts, and I've done less and they've done more, I'm grateful, but uncomfortable with the necessity of gratitude at times. Risking owing someone more than you can pay is frightening. Indebtedness is difficult. No one wants to be the one who owes more, and most of us are on some level afraid of being taken advantage of as well. But more than being owed, I think we're afraid of owing. We have this notion that all debts must be paid, when in fact, the only way all debts can be paid is if you live wholly and purely in a money economy, and never at all in the economy of love.

And in fact, the economy of human love is what we're moving towards as we give up our electric tools and our reliance on the grocery stores - that is the basic nature of community, or family - an unbalanced, imperfect, inadequate set of exchanges. Barter, and sharing and community are, as people often point out, far less efficient than money. Money allows you to figure out what things are "worth" - with barter or simple sharing, there are things that can never be quite worked out. Is that firewood equivalent to 12 dozen eggs? Was it really enough for me to babysit in exchange for the help getting the gutters cleaned out? Should I make some cookies too? What is the correct repayment for loving your child, or helping care for your elderly parents, or for chasing the local pest dog across an icy field to rescue your chicken? Things never come out evenly. You always have to be grateful, and thus, dependent. If we give up all the things that have stood as barriers between ourselves and the people we need, that have enabled us never to be dependent, we're never again going to be square. The only hope is that the person you are working with or bartering with or sharing with is secretly afraid that she/he hasn't done his fair share either.

But then again, that's what love is, isn't it? I've never met anyone who loved someone, or was truly loved by someone else who didn't secretly think that their spouse (or parents, or child or friend) was crazy to love them, that if they could really see all the way through, they'd realize how inequitable things are. So you end up just being grateful, feeling damned lucky that this time, you got more than you ever deserved. That some miracle, or gift appeared to you, and someone loves you.

Sometimes all barter is is "I've got honey, will you give me carrots?" And sometimes all neighbors are are someone you can ask to help pound the fence pole in. And sometimes all friends are is the person you sit down at the table with on the day you are supposed to consider gratitude. But the day you start to trust that your neighbor will remember that you need some carrots, and the day that your neighbors step away from their own work, no matter how urgent, because keeping you secure and your sheep in is more important than their work, and the day that the friend sits at your table, and shares the fruits of her garden and you the fruits of yours, and you eat and you eat and you eat and you are full together of what you share, you have achieved not just community, but gratitude, and an economy of love.

Shalom, and happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Self-Sufficiency Plan for a Suburban Home

I have been talking a lot lately in various places about adaptation - the ways in which we can use our existing infrastructure to live a lower-impact life. And so, I wanted to describe how that might work. I chose as a model the suburban home of a college friend of mine, who coincidentally has become aware of peak oil and asked for my advice not long ago. She lives in an exurb of Boston, with no direct public transportation (there is a train line 15 minutes away), in a fairly conventional suburban home with her partner and two children, 1 1/2 and 5.

She has a lot of slightly over an acre, of which 1/2 is wooded, the rest being open yard and a few raised garden beds. Her neighbors have mostly similar lots, often quite shady, but with fairly good tree cover. The population is quite dense there, but there are few lots of less than 1/2 acre. She is not terribly connected to her neighbors, but they get along reasonably well.

She is permitted poultry, but no larger livestock, and she wanted to know if she could feed herself and her family from the land she has. The answer, I think, is not quite, but she could make an enormous reduction in the amount of food she has to purchase.

There are a lot of potential problems, but here are the suggestions I gave her, and I hope they might be helpful to someone else in a similar situation. She has a limited budget for home improvements, so my goal is to keep costs to a minimum, although there will be some by necessity.

The first major project is to ensure a reliable water source. She has a well, in addition to town water, and she might consider putting a manual pump on the well. If she can afford it, however, it might be more pleasant for her to dig a large cistern tank and put a manual pump on her kitchen sink, so that she can get water without going outside in bad weather. In a pinch, she might get away with a narrow well bucket (sold by Lehmans) for a drilled well, but drawing all your water with that would get old, very fast. The cistern and pump would probably cost between 2 and 3 thousand dollars. The well pump would cost about $800. The well bucket maybe $30, although you can also make a substitute out of PVC for much less.

Next, heat. She does have some woodland, enough to take perhaps a half cord of wood off (with coppicing and very careful management) every year, possibly less. Preserving her wood supply should be a high priority. She does have a woodstove in her finished basement,and I suggested that the finished basement become winter quarters, since it would need far less heat than the rest of the house (being at least partly below the frost line). Her wood supply would probably not be sufficient, but it would minimize what she had to purchase, and in the worst degree of extremity, they could live with it, heating the stove only to cook. Hopefully that will never happen. She will have only enough wood for cooking and a little heat on the coldest days if she must rely on her own supply - but every item for which she is self-sufficient makes it more likely she will be able to purchase supplemental wood, even if she and her partner endure extended job losses or other financial crises. Summer cooking will be outdoors. I would recommend building a small masonry oven, on the rocket stove model which uses minimal fuel and cooks quite well.

Animals - at present, she has two cats, one of which is an excellent mouser, and I suggested she keep the cats, as long as her economic situation permits her to feed them, especially if she's going to be living in the basement for a lot of the winter. The cats will provide both warmth (sleeping) and rodent protection.

I would add meat rabbits (3 does and a buck), 4 hens and a pairof geese as livestock, which is close to the maximum she could hope to feed on her property. A portion of each year's garden would be put to growing alfalfa hay, both to restore garden fertility and to feed the animals over the winter. In addition to gathered weeds from the garden and property margins, a small amount of wheat, oats and corn will be grown in the garden. About half would go to the maintenence of the animals and growing out of their young for meat and breeding replacement.
They might choose to go vegetarian, but in a cold climate, vegetarian gardeners have difficulty growing a reasonable quantity of fats.

If the situation (and thus local tolerance) changes, I would strongly recommendthat she get a rooster, and it goes without saying that she will choose a heavy, dual purpose breed of chicken, with good setting instincts so that older hens can be eaten and replacement young raised. At the moment, zoning does not permit a rooster, but at the moment she can purchase replacement chicks. Most of her sunny, open half acre would be taken up with a garden, nearly 1/2 of which will be in cover crops providing fertility, hay and mulch. In the remainder of the land, the garden will be heavy on perennial edibles. Landscaping is with edibles - blueberries replace rhodedendrons, raspberries replace privet, and several small ornamental trees (except the mulberry and crabapple) are replacedwith fruit trees. The diet will be low on grains, but high on potatoes and other roots. Rose hips from existing bushes, potatoes and cabbage will provide vitamin c. All roots can be stored in a seperate, doored off area of the basement after the furnace stops burning. I estimate that with good management, she will be able to have bread every other week, and meat one day per week (mostly rabbit, chicken 2-5 times per year, goose 1-2 times per year as a celebration). She should get about 450 eggs per year, heavily concentrated in the warm weather. The eggs, 1-2 slaughtered geese per year, and occasional bits of extra schmalz from older hens will provide most of the fats in their diet. Sunflowers will be grown as a high-protein animal feed, and in bountiful years might provide a bit of extra fat for humans as well.

In her woods are a number of sugar maples - she should be able to take several pounds of sugar (or liquid maple syrup, although sugar stores better) off of them, which would be the year's sweetener. She might also be able to keep one or two hives of bees. I'm not aware of any really local salt sources (obviously, this assumes she must provide herself with everything, which is unlikely, but to cover all the bases), but she lives within 30 miles of the ocean, so I suspect salt could be achieved. In the meantime, I strongly recommend that she store food for her family for at least two years, including enough for anyone she anticipates might come to live with them. Stored food, judiciously used, will also add to the grains in her diet and help provide food for the remaining cat (along with a share of eggs, butchering offal, etc...) I would recommend weighting storage heavily towards dried foods like grains, beans, salt, along with storable fats and flavorings.

The poultry will live in a tightly built pen attached to the back of the house, to minimize theft, and predation and will have a yard plus short ranging priveleges under supervision. A large amount of green food, grass seed and weeds are available on the margins of the neighborhood, and I suspect that few of her neighbors will be wise enough to use them. Rabbits will be kept on the screened in porch in summer and can be brought into the house in the winter. All animals should probably be moved to the garage or house for security and warmth over the winter. Animals adept at living on forage willbe chosen.

The woods can provide small quantities of firewood, acorns (for humanand rabbit feed), a small number of mushrooms, and leaf mulch, but must be carefully managed. Again, I suspect all of these things will be able to be acquired in her neighborhood, since most people will not be aware of their value. I estimate that her garden should, if very carefully planted, provide enough food for her familyand a small extra quantity for barter. The emphasis will be upon roots and high nutritional density foods, along with some foods for flavoring.

If she can store enough food for one, I would recommend the acquisition of a mid-sized dog as well, to alert her and her family of night visitors, human and animal, and to assist with security. I would also suggest she get stout locks and deadbolts for the doors, and get to know her neighbors well, to provide local security. I would also suggest that she and her husband offer their skills to neighbors, to help them start gardens, edible landscaping, etc.. to increase her security. She is in training to be a midwife, and is a talented seamstress, so her skills should be in demand, as, most likely, will be her husband's carpentry and brewing skills. I would also suggest stockpiling some tradables, like seeds and other items, to increase their economic security.

Fertility will be provided from a number of sources - human and animal waste, of course, the former properly composted. I would suggest she remove the toilet from their guest bathroom and replace it with a homemade composting unit. In dire heat situations, some of the animal waste might be burned for heat, and the ash applied to the garden. Wood ashes will be used to balance the soil's natural acidity. In addition, some of the cover crops can be composted or used as mulch, and weeds, leaves, etc... can becollected from unused sources nearby - and on the property. I recommend that she initially build the soil up to high levels of organic matter, while such is available, adding rock powders, manures, and whatever else will help, and that she build more raised beds to allow earlier planting. She might also consider a hoophouse.

There will be considerable inter and undercropping, but movement of plants in and out will be limited by the need to grow seeds both for the next year's garden and for winter sprouting. Large pots she already has can be brought into the warmest parts of the house to allow biennials to overwinter for seed production. In addition, in large windows and under old glass windows already in her possession, it should be possible to overwinter greens, carrots and parsnips for winter and spring harvest. Sprouts will provide most of the green food in the winter diet, but her large windowsills may allow some herb and lettuce production.

I make no claims that this is a perfect scenario - the word "optimal" occurs too many times, and life is rarely optimal. But she could pull it off - it has possibilities for those of you tied to a specific, densely populated area. I hope this is helpful, both to her and to others.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Plant your share of trees!

Wangari Maathai, who has done more to change the landscape of Africa than almost anyone is calling for the world to plant a billion new trees, and keep them alive. Doing so will reduce desertification, absorb heat-creating carbon from the atmophere, and improve our quality of life worldwide.

A friend of mine from college works helping plant trees in Africa, and describes the sheer amount of labor it takes to keep trees alive in the desertified soil of much of Kenya. And yet, the people who do Maathai's work haul water and protect their trees from animals with enormous attention and care, because they know their quality of life and the quality of life of their children depends on it. Can we, who are more priveleged, work less hard and have everything they do not, do less?

In the Northeast here, the problem is often keeping the forest at bay, not growing it. But as heating oil prices rise and the climate changes, we also need to tend to our trees. Because 200 years ago, the Northeast was largely denuded of forest. If we put woodstoves in every house, where will the wood come from? What harm will we do in our quest to keep warm. So everyone reading this needs to plant some trees (I'll have to wait until spring, sadly). Call the Arbor Day foundation, or check out the Musser Forests catalog for some wonderful trees Or plant some fruiting trees, and add to your food self-sufficiency as well.

And support the work that Maathai and others are doing in the third world. In part, their world is hot and dry because we in the west are burning fuel. The very least we can do (and there's much more) is plant our trees, and send some money to Kenya. And don't forget to register your trees with the UN.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

Peak Oil is a Women's Issue

The Heck with Mars… The Peak Oil Movement Needs Women!!!

Let me be quite explicit here to begin with - when I speak or write about peak oil as a women’s issue, I do not mean what many people have taken the term “women’s issue” to mean - that is, something that is solely and primarily the interest of women, and therefore irrelevant to men, or a situation where women’s interests are in some way in opposition with the interests of men. I mean, instead, that peak oil has not been envisioned or considered seriously as an issue with particular impacts upon and considerations for women, and that women and the men who care about women - any man with a mother, sister, wife, female partner, lover or friend, daughter or any other relationship with women - that is to say, all men and all women - need to think carefully about how women are going to be affected by peak oil. When I call for women to join the peak oil movement, it is not because our interests are different than the interests of the men presently working on that subject, but because without us, those men may not perceive the impact of their actions upon women, or the importance of the female perspective. I have no doubt that men are just as concerned about the fate of their children as women are, that they care as deeply as women do that their mothers not spend their old age in terrible poverty and that their female friends are well educated, free, healthy and safe. What I think women bring to the table is greater consciousness of the impact of peak oil on women’s bodies, women’s lives and women’s goals. But whatever future we envision, it will only be accomplished as a joint and human project

I do however, believe quite strongly that if the calls for radical cultural change that peak oil activists are making are going to lead anywhere at all, those calls are going to have to be directed to women in a way that connects them to the issue. And if the peak oil movement is going to speak to women, it needs some women to stand up and be public figures. I believe strongly that we cannot repair the world without the engagement, aid and willingness of women. Thus far inclusion (And I must add that everything I say about the need to engage with and meet the needs of women goes double, triple and quadruple for other minority groups, but for the moment, I am going to stick with women as my subject) has not been a priority, and it must be.

My trip to the ASPO-USA conference (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil - the people who did the hard and necessary work of raising the alarm) was perhaps not representative of the situation (the 10 to 1 male-female ratio was unusually disproportionate), but it is the case that the majority of people who are aware of and involved with peak oil are men. Most of the major public figures are men as well, although there are some important exceptions, including ASPO board member Debbie Cook, Community Solutions Outreach Director Megan Quinn, film director Faith Morgan, and writer Carolyn Baker. But even at the Community Solutions conference, where the ratio of men to women was closer to 60-40, and where there were three women speakers out of 10 total (At ASPO there was only one out of 33 listed speakers, and one panel chair), we had the odd scene of three men sitting up on stage discussing what should be done about population. To be fair, this was not planned - it arose from a question in the audience, and the gentlemen in question did a good job of addressing the issue - which does not change the fact that many women, me included, have a strongly visceral reaction to a bunch of men sitting up on a stage discussing the future of women’s reproductive habits. While women are better represented at the local level of peak oil, we need more public speakers, and more locally active women to put women’s issues at the front of the agenda.

Now to some degree, as Julian Darley pointed out to me at ASPO, the problem is that women have not stepped up yet and written the books or engaged with the subject. We are not doing our share of the leading here (I‘m working on it, I promise!), and for those of us who are peak oil aware, we can‘t place the blame for that anywhere but on ourselves. I would hope that one of the results of this essay might be that more women would take leadership roles in this movement. Because if we do not, we can expect to be disenfranchised from the policy decisions that will invariably affect us. Darley makes an entirely legitimate critique, but that said, it also the case that the peak oil movement also has a decidedly male tone, and places like ASPO are not especially welcoming to women. Take, for example, Art Smith’s joke during his presentation (otherwise liberally sprinkled with fishing pictures) about the difference between spending and investing, for example, in which spending is what his wife does at the grocery store and investing is what he does when he buys her gold jewelry…because he expects a good return on his investment. Now leaving aside, for the moment, that I come from another generation (translation - he’s a dinosaur), and that among my own peers, a husband making a public joke implying that his wife is a whore who sells her favors for jewelry would, umm, shortly be permanently incapable of entering any more pissing contests, think about what that kind of joke says to your audience. It says, “we all mostly are going to think this is funny” - and realistically, since no woman under 50 will even laugh politely at that kind of joke, it means “we’re all men of the world here in our little club.” Now I thought rather highly of Mr. Smith’s presentation, and they were very nice fish, but what what he did (and what quite a few other presenters did, with slightly more subtlety) is remind the women in the room that at least a lot of the people on the stage think of them as suited to the role of consumer and lovely wife. The implication is that its no accident that he’s up there and the girls are home shopping. And so if we’re wondering why women aren’t leaping to change their habits and join the peak oil movement, it is worth noting that there isn’t always that much in the whole thing for us.

None of this derives from malice, but from the habit of people in power of being powerful, and thus, not thinking very much about less powerful people. Petroleum geology, for example, is a boy’s club, and an old boy’s club at that - there was much discussion of the fact that there are few petroleum geologists in training and that the average age was approaching 50. The men who did the hard work of drawing our attention to the problem deserve enormous credit for that - they put their careers on the line to say something important and unpopular, and as stupid I think the good old boy jokes are, I truly and genuinely admire what they have done. But there is no reason for peak oil to remain a boy’s club - the major and central issues of peak oil are no longer “2007 or 2009?” Or “how much seawater is being pumped in the Ghawar?” Those are relevant issues. But the big questions are “how will we live sustainably.” “How will we radically cut our consumption?” “What is the most ethical way to act?” “How will we change our assumptions and our culture as a whole?” And not only are those not questions optimally answered by a little club of investment bankers and scientists - many of whom are uncomfortable with nuance, ethics and grey areas, but by the public as a whole. And the answers we come up with must take the needs and concerns of women into account.

This is because peak oil is a women’s issue in the most basic sense. Whatever happens in the post peak future will hit women differently, and in many ways harder, than it will hit men. For example, women are more likely to be poor than men are. In an economic crisis, women are more likely than men to be impoverished, and more seriously. Elderly women are the poorest and most vulnerable people in the US, and their lives are not likely to be improved by peak oil. Women are more likely to be single parents, a job that will come with a whole host of new difficulties post peak. They are more likely than men to work minimum wage jobs, to be exploited at work, to not be unionized, to have their rights violated. Poor women are more likely to be victims of violence, to have unplanned children, to be trapped in poverty from which they can’t arise. In a period of economic crisis, where everyone is desperate for work, women will be even more vulnerable than usual, and we are already more vulnerable than men.

Creating a sustainable future requires that women who don’t want to have children, or not yet, or not many, be able to cease doing so. And yet poverty dramatically decreases access to medical care and birth control even in our first world society. The poorer and less well educated you are (and those two things are reciprocally related) the more likely you are to become pregnant without intending it, both because of reduced access to reliable birth control and insufficient education in how to use it. The younger, poorer and less well educated a woman is , the younger she is likely to have children, the more children she is likely to have, the more health consequences she and her children are likely to have (prematurity, high blood pressure, etc…), and the less likely she is to ever escape poverty - or for her children to escape it. In a major economic depression, the ranks of poor women are likely to grow enormously, and we are likely to see not fewer children, but more and more unwanted children unless we plan very carefully to ensure that we prioritize medical access for everyone as one of the things we do with our limited resources.

If public policy is to address the population issue, it must be in a way that does not reduce women’s power and freedom. Whatever measures we take to limit growth, they must be taken with the full consent of the female half of the population. The very best things we can do to limit population are increase women’s access to education, health care, and ensure that the children she does have will have a chance to grow up. The US has poor literacy levels, poor access to health care for those without insurance, and poor infant mortality rates for an industrialized nation, and has just entered into an endless war which is already killing young soldiers at a ridiculously high rate. We must improve all of the above - keep our children alive, well educated and healthy. But we are entering a period of economic and social crisis, and we’re going to have to make difficult policy choices. Education, social welfare and medical care are historically the first things to get the axe - we must change that aspect of the culture immediately, if we’re to have any hope of population stabilization. We must stand firm in saying that health care and education come before large new alternative energy projects that may never pay off, or we will never, ever be able to catch up in a world of eternal, exponential growth.

The present economy, in which women are nearly as likely as men to go out and work full time, depends enormously on cheap energy. Mothers of young children can only go to work if they have easy access to and can afford formula, or fancy breast pumps and refrigeration for the milk. Unless wet nursing makes a come back (and it may, but most of us almost certainly won’t be able to afford it), women in their childbearing years will not be working far away from home. And given the dramatic increase in domestic labor created by using less energy, it will make sense for them to be at home. They will be the ones who almost certainly shoulder much of the burden of food production, housekeeping, sanitation, and childrearing. It will be damned hard work, and there will be a lot of it. If we are to shoulder that burden, we must be involved in the creation of the systems that we will live under, and prioritization of resources - that is, we cannot allow the old saw, that those who are employed in the world of the GDP are doing “real” work, which should thus receive a larger share of the remaining resources in accomodation. The elimination of domestic labor from calculations of value and worth is an intentional lie of growth capitalism, to devalue the work subsistence labor, which meets most of our basic needs. We need to demand that any calculations of priority take into account the fact that the food, clothing, shelter and nurturance provided by people engaged in homemaking is, in many cases, more valuable than the non-essential paid work that many people engage in.

It is very easy to effectively disenfranchise women who have been moved out of the workforce by biological necessities. If you only have the money to send one child to college or trade school, and your daughter is likely to spend a decade or two bearing children, nursing them and living at home, it is easy to prioritize the education of your sons. If women can’t get out much because they have little access to transportation, and no way to safely bring the children, they will not vote, or participate in public affairs. If we plan a post-peak future without taking the needs of women entirely into account, we will end up with something that may keep women out of power for generations - and will vastly impoverish us all. It isn’t just that women need to be included - we need a place at the table more than we ever have. For all of us who value our freedom, independence and education, the thought that our daughters and daughters-in-law may have none of that should be terrifying.

Women routinely outlive their husbands by some years in the US, and we have created a culture where elderly and disabled family members are not part of the home, but are to a large degree removed from the family and placed in institutional structures like assisted living or nursing homes. Women are disproportionately represented, because we live longer, and because women often care for their husbands at home at the end of their lives, and then no one is left to care for the caregivers. As we change the culture, we must change this, lest a generation of grandmothers suffer in poverty and desperation. We must care for our mothers and grandmothers (and, of course, fathers and grandfathers) in our homes, integrated fully into our families, with as much autonomy and respect as possible.

And we must have women involved in the work of recreating family and community structures. People will not have fewer children, if, for example, the grown children of one child families must struggle to care for four elderly parents alone. The parents of disabled children will not stop their families at one or even two, if there are no existing structures to help with the care and welfare of the disabled. People will not willingly take on new burdens before it is required of them, unless they are rewarded by their communities and valued by their families for doing it, unless the receive cultural capital and practical support. All those things are surmountable obstacles. But they will not be surmounted unless people, including and especially women, are shaping the new culture.

All of this sounds rather bleak, and if we don’t choose wisely, it may be. There are clearly
excellent reasons for women to step up and insert themselves into the peak oil policy dialogue, and for men who are there now to seek out women, to ask their wives and partners, friends, sisters, daughters and mothers what they think, what they want and what they need. But there are other reasons, more about women’s power than women’s vulnerability, that also need consideration.

Last week’s Sunday New York Times Business section reported that women now influence or make 90% of all purchases, including purchases in areas not traditionally thought of as the province of women - that is, cars, housing, home repairs, and hardware, as well as clothes, food and toys. Well guess where virtually all of our personal energy consumption is embodied? In the things women buy, and the choices they make. Women make the decision to buy compact fluorescents or incandescent light bulbs, they make the decision to renovate the kitchen and what kind of appliances to buy. They decide whether to buy local food or supermarket food. They buy their own cars, and pick the houses. Their consumer power drives much of our ridiculous rate of consumption. But they are also more likely than men to be concerned about the environment, to make economic choices based on concerns about the long term future and health issues.

Women are the ones who need to understand the urgency of choosing the low impact life, and they need support in doing so. But their potential impact, if they are reached, is enormous. Women are largely driving the organic movement in the US, which, for all the limitation of industrial organic food, is a tremendous change in the shape of agriculture and food production. It is not everything it could be, but the fact is that because women are concerned about the health of their families, we are changing our relationship to pesticides. The same could be true of any number of other issues.

Women also still do a disproportionate amount of child-rearing in just about every society, especially among very young children. They are the ones who instill values and ethics in their children to a large degree. They take the kids to church. They take them shopping. They show and tell them what they think. Women talk to their children more than men do, and they spend more hours doing ordinary household things with and around them. Every moment that women do these things, they are teaching their children something. We must connect with women, and help them see what they are teaching, and think about what they want to teach in the future. The habits of another generation are being shaped right at this moment, and unless we enlist the shapers, a great opportunity will be missed.

Add to that that women, especially women over 40, make the world go around. Next time you go to the polls, look and count the number of women running the show. Next time your church puts on a fund raisers, or you visit a food pantry, or you attend a rally, watch and see how many women, especially but not exclusively older ones, are running the show, doing the organizing, arranging the details. When I’ve spoken on peak oil, every time I’ve met wonderful women, old and young, who do a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes or in front of them, but who are not, by personality, inclined to put themselves forward and say (as I sometimes do) “look at me!” But we simply could not manage without them - women are more likely than men to volunteer in the US, and they put in more hours than their male counterparts. And we in the peak oil movement are not using them to their full capacities - using their knowledge and energies, their experience in organizing, their brains and wisdom and their enormous skills. We are wasting the most powerful thing in the world - the anger and fear of women who feel that what they love is in danger. And if we continue to waste it, we will deserve the fate we get without their gifts.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Making art in the post-carbon world

I have often theorized that wealth and privelege don't really do anything to improve the quality of our art. The art that I'm most intimately familiar with, of course, is literature, but as far as I can tell that's a fair statement about most arts. My personal theory is that a life of both comfort and consumption retards our perceptions to a degree that alters our capacity to produce art, but I don't insist on the interpretation. What I do think is that after years and years of reading books created in the past, damned little matches it at present.

I often wonder what the poetry or fiction of the future will look like, what its art and architecture will be. It turns out that Richard Heinberg wonders the same thing in this article from his _Museletter_ series. I was intrigued by this, but I find myself dubious about some of his conclusions, particularly about his choice to look at the Arts and Crafts movement as a forerunner of what may arise. Now part of this is probably aesthetic preference - while I find Arts and Crafts movement architecture and furniture pretty enough, I find the self-conscious nostalgia of it a bit heavy handed, and if you gave me a choice between the work of craftsmen, say, from the colonial period, who achieved clean lines and high quality craftsmanship without the interminable self-congratulation of someone like Wright.

I also find the over-engineered look of Arts and Crafts style somewhat irritating, personally. It is designed to look heavy, in every sense, with its heavy geometric lines and thick shaping, it uses more material than strictly necessary. This over-engineering is a kind of ornamentation in itself, to my eye, which is no accident - it is, after all, harkening back to the overly ornamental gothic period.

Now this part of this could be summarized by "I don't like Arts and Crafts stuff nearly as much as Richard Heinberg does" and if that was the whole point, there'd be nothing to discuss - tomato, tomahto, whatever. But by focusing on the attempt of an already industrialized culture to nostalgically return to a pre-lapsarian moment before the invention of the middle class and their sensibilities, Heinberg imagines a future aesthetic that will derive from the same basic principles as the Arts and Crafts movement. But for people enduring a time of crisis and radical transition, the pre-lapsarian moment will not look like the turn of the 20th century, but today, right now, when we were rich.

And much of what we will have, for a very long time, will be the scavenged remnents of our world. That is, as we get poorer, and don't have as many things , we are likely to cling to what we have, and integrate them. Instead of recreating a new aesthetic, we are likely to, paraphrasing Eliot, shore fragments against our ruin. The post-peak aesthetic will, I suspect, derive from a reconstruction of the world with its remainders, glued together and filled with natural materials. We are likely to see a true integration of natural and artificial, industrial and organic. In American design, "shabby chic" has had its day recently - the advent, for example, of the "pre-distressed" item of furniture is a model of this. But what we are likely to find is that shabby, post-industrial, rebuilt and reintegrated becomes beautiful.

I don't say this from a position of finding this future vision especially beautiful. Like Heinberg, I'd love to believe a new craftsman aesthetic would be derived from the past. But people who are working frantically to hold together what they have don't cut from the immediate past - they cling to it with both hands. I'm not fond of industrial design, but I suspect we'll find elements of industrial production integrated in intriguing ways - faux artificials - wood painted to shine like plastic, perhaps, and sheet metal integrated with wood and fibers. If a new craftsperson aesthetic does arrive, I suspect it will come later, a backlash against the attempt to preserve the old.

My own house these days is more functional than beautiful. Certainly, there are objects I love in it, but the general aesthetic sense is chaotic. I fantasize, someday, about being able to integrate entirely my own sensibilities with my home - to be able to have only natural materials, rather than the brightly colored plastic that most children's toys come in. On the other hand, perhaps my attempts to tidy up, and integrate my own taste for the natural with the necessity and reality of the artificial is the beginnings of a new beauty. Too bad I can't see it yet.