Sunday, December 31, 2006

History and the New Year

I think it was Spider Robinson who once said, of Occam's Razor, "Old William's Blade doesn't shave every chin." In fact, I suspect you could define all the really interesting events of history as "what occurred instead of the most logical thing that could have happened." It is certainly true that reason will get you a good way, but we miss things that way too.

Right now, people are listing off their predictions for 2007. I'm going to make some too, with the caveat that I really have no freakin idea what will happen. Speaking as a non-chin shaver (thank G-d for that mercy!), I don't really anticipate being right. But it makes for an amusing entertainment to see how wrong you are.

Here are my bets for 2007, some of them even semi-serious:

1. At least two major interest rate hikes, and a whole lot of housing foreclosures. But McMansions will still look like a good idea to many dim people.
2. We will not begin pulling troops out of Iraq. We will however issue a stern series of resolutions to begin thinking about it.
3. We will begin moving more troops towards somewhere else in a manufactured crisis (Cuba? Iran? North Korea? The Canadian Oil Sands?) Personally, I'm betting Venezuela, but only so that our poor high school students can learn the geography of South America.
4. The winter of 2007 will kick over and most people will begin to believe, however feebly, in global warming and want to do something about it. They won't, though.
5. Israel and Syria will begin speaking. It won't help that much.
6. Energy prices will rise, and the economy will teeter, but hang on. China won't dump our sorry currency...yet.

My bet for 2007 is that we will call it "the year of hanging on by our fingernails."

If you'd like to see a better, more useful set of predictions by someone smarter about this sort of thing than me, check out Jeff Vail's site

Have a happy New Year!


Friday, December 29, 2006

Public Energies, Private Energies

I've been thinking about the above distinction in terms of my own peak oil plans for some time, but I thought it might be a helpful tool for thought for others as well. Whenever I talk about going to lower energy usage, a percentage of people shout out something like "But that would mean going back tothe stone age, to lepers walking the streets and people throwing their feces out the window on our heads!!!" (Ok, I exaggerate for effect. I do that.) But I think it is fair to say that variations on the "without power, life would be intolerable" is a common assumption.

Part of the thing that bothers me about it is that I don't think it is true. I've spent a lot of time studying history, and I don't think the lives of all of those in human history who preceeded us were intolerable. I am fond of useful things like antibiotics and nutritional knowledge, but those are things that can be had at a very low level of technology. I've met a lot of people who lived all or much of their lives with very little power, and seen their homes, and I have ample visual evidence that often life can be quite graciously lived with little or no gas, electricity, and other inputs. Oh, everyone uses some, if only when they hand-till their land with an iron hoe, and is dependent in some ways or another. But I'd like to propose what I think is an important and useful distinction - between public use of energy and private use of energy. The former, I would argue, is essential to maintaining a good life, the latter is not.

People who have access to neither private energy usage nor public energy (and by energy I mean mostly fossil fuels, or fossil fuel based renewables, like solar panels) tend to be at a distinct disadvantage. It is not impossible to live in a horsedrawn economy, but it is difficult. Without public energy for things like clinics, the transport of food and goods, the importation of medicines, etc... life can be highly functional, but often is very vulnerable to disaster, either personal (disease, injury, loss of land or income), or public (witness the recent Pakistani earthquake, for example). While there are ways of mitigating some of the problems lack of access to all forms of energy come with (the use of animal power instead of tractor power, or instead of powered vehicles, for example), the lack of certain resources usually puts people at some disadvantage.

On the other hand, people who have no private energy resources, but have access to public ones often have extremely high quality of life, assuming that natural resources enable them to feed themselves and produce some tradable extras. There are parts of India, Cuba, Georgia, etc... where there is power for public buildings (some schools, hospitals, etc...), collective transportation (buses, trains, communally owned cars and taxis) and where energy is expended wisely on importing or making certain energy intensive goods that require (or are much eased by) the use of fossil fuels - but only on the ones that are demonstrably and significantly a public good. For example, money and energy are spent on power to pump water for the community well, or on vaccinations, but not the subsidy of personal transport or private electrification, generally speaking.

It is no accident that the places where a high quality of life and low levels of personal energy consumption coexist are often former or present marxist cultures and economies, with strong cultural incentives towards the creation of a collective good. That said, however, it is not impossible for capitalist economies to also determine that personal good and collective good are the same. But what is required is a fundamental belief in cooperation - the idea that enriching your neighbor, even at the cost of one's private wealth, makes you richer, not poorer. And of course, this is true, although we rarely believe it as a first thought.

It is lovely, of course, to have private energy resources, assuming that they are sustainable, but it generally isn't necessary for high quality of life. In quality of life evaluations, people in Kerala were generally happier with their status, possessions and lifestyle than most Americanswere, even though many lived at extremely low levels ofconsumption. There are some exceptions, of course, but neither life-span nor happiness seem to correlate all that closely with private energy consumption.

The distinction between public and private is important because we have limited resources, and limited time, and one of the big questions is where do we put our personal and economic and literal energies. If we put our resources primarily into lifeboat building (as Richard Heinberg puts it), building independent, free-standing households in which everyone has one of everything they need, we may not have enough resources remaining to be able to afford to build public structures that would fulfill the needs of many more people. And second, if we begin to think in terms of public requirements and private requirements, we have another tool to help us distinguish between what is necessary and what is pleasant to have, something I think a lot of us have troublewith.

One of the questions we can think in terms of, then, is "how can we make our need for X" resolvable in some communal or public way. For example, the American model is already pretty much "everyone has their own private water source from a well or resevoir." In rural areas, where houses are far apart, this may make some sense. In towns and cities, however, much of Africa and Asia gets its water from public wells, pumped with electricity. Doing so is obviously somewhat less convenient than having running water in your house, but a public well in your neighborhood obviates the great problem of power loss in many communities - which can mean that no one has safe, drinkable water. One or several communal wells can be pumped by stand alone solar units, and even in hard times, water will be available.

It is a commonplace that most westerners have many more of nearly everything than their community needs - everyone has their own vacuum cleaner, their own lawn mower, their own 2 cars - even if they only need 1 1/2 cars, they don't share. Even people who want to conserve are often uncomfortable entering into a shared relationship with others, and find negotiating such things intimidating. But public resources are different - they are *for* sharing. And creating them means enabling people to do without in a private sense - that is, as the price of energy rises, those who can't afford cars or washing machines are least damaged if their needs can, tosome degree, be met through local, public infrastructure, by say, public buses and laundromats.

We're all going to build our lifeboats to some degree. But thinking in terms of how you can soften the blow by creating public resources, and public energy sources, means prioritizing community based resources that enable both personal conservation and collective security. Public resources provide a safety net, potentially a better, richer community, allow us to allocate scarce resources towards other things. They encourage inclusion, and keep the poor and the disabled, the elderly and the especially vulnerable from being deprived of their most basic needs. Since peak oil means that almost any of us could join the poor, that only makse sense.

Thinking in terms of public energy also enables us to do more, if our governments will not cooperate. In most cases, I suspect those public resources are going to have to come out of our own pockets. And that's another argument for doingit - 10 of us can put that well pump on, 50 can arrange to have the physician's assistant come to town one day a week, 75 can fund thevolunteer ambulance corp, and can probably continue to do so even if things get rough. But we probably will not be able to do these things if we're stretching our personal and economic resources thin by trying to maintain our private consumption *and* build public resources - that is, if you are still trying to maintain thepersonal car, you may not be able to afford to help create the taxi service. While there are exceptions, I think it would behoove most of us, in most cases, to choose public resources over private, even at the expense of some inconvenience to ourselves, and when we think aboutthe importance of power, to distinguish between the two.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Scenes from my Future, Part 1

Scenes from My Household, Five Years From Now: Part I

(I don't have a crystal ball, and I don't necessarily expect that this is what will happen in my life. But the combination of increasing US indebtedness and economic instability, climate change and rising energy costs means that this scenario is not impossible. I hope life will be better. But I suspect that will not be the case unless a large percentage of us take action.)

-August 9, 2012
We just got a letter from the school district, announcing that they will no longer comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and bus our son to school. We could sue, of course, but the sheer number of school districts that have already done this means that the backlog of cases is huge, and even if we won judgement, I doubt we'd be able to extract anything from the district, which is essentially bankrupt. School was down to only 3 days per week, and many of his services have been intermittent, as the school district has cut back on "luxury" items like speech therapy and reading assistance. So I think that means we'll be homeschooling Eli. I hope we can pull it off. We've been collecting books on teaching children with disabilities for some time now, so hopefully it will stand us in good stead.

August 15, 2012
I'm 40 years old today. My first 35 years were both easy and pleasant, and I can't complain about them. The last five years have been more complex, but in the great scheme of things, we're doing ok. We have a home. We have enough to eat. We have clothes and can keep warm. We're not as comfortable as we once were, nor as rich by world standards, but for us, things are ok. I wish that was true of everyone. One of our neighbors has been out of work for three years, and just lost their house. Fortunately, they have extended family nearby, so they have a place to go. But it is sad - we miss having them here. And they aren't the only ones. I'm seeing more and more people I know at the food pantry and seeing more and more people selling their possessions off. I once said that any year that took me away from 14 was a good one. But the tragedies of 14 were little ones, personal misery and unhappiness that prevented me from seeing what I had. Now, I'm not so sure that me being miserable but the rest of the world puttering alone well enough wouldn't be an improvement.

August 28, 2012
The US government announced that it will open FEMA trailer parks to refugees of the southwestern drought. The estimate is that 500,000 people will need to be relocated over the next two year. The temperature was 99 degrees here, but 119 degrees in Las Vegas, and 56 more people died from the heat there. Our garden seems to be holding out ok, despite the heat, although the broccoli is a little stunted. Our spring rains have meant that it is hard to plant early, so even though our growing season is extended by global warming, we often can't plant any earlier in the spring, while we wait for things to dry up. But we do have a better fall garden, which is a blessing.

September 7, 2012
We've been homeschooling the three younger boys for years now, so it wasn't really that strange when Eli didn't go to school today. But the autism is a challenge, and it cuts into the time we have to do other work. Eli needs someone one on one all the time. But we're still having fun. Simon and Isaiah are working on a project tracking local climate change in our region, and Asher is working his way through his first chapter book.

September 11, 2012.
There was a cartoon in The New Yorker a few months after September 11, 2001. Acouple was in their bed, and the woman was complaining to the man, "If you want sex, just ask. It isn't necessary to preface everything with 'in light of recent events.'" I think that was my favorite reference to the way that September 11 changed us. Because it wasn't that it really changed that much - it justified some things. It justified the damned Iraq war, and it justified Americans feeling superior about their imperialism. But it didn't change us inside. And because it didn't change us at all, in any deep way, we're here now.

September 20, 2012
Rosh Hashanah starts tomorrow, and we won't be going to synagogue. We simply can't afford the gas. I can't believe I'm writing this - that we cannot pray among our community, because we cannot afford to drive there, but it is true. We had a family crisis last month that necessitated a long car trip, and we don't have gas coupons left. So we'll welcome the new year in together at home, and go to shul for Sukkot, when the new coupons come out. I did manage to get dried cherries for the round challah, and we have plenty of carrots for tzimmes, and we'll butcher a chicken. So it will be festive, but a little lonely. L'Shanah Tovah, all!

September 29, 2012
We're having steak tonight. One of our dairy farm neighbors has given up and butchered most of his cows, and we were able to barter eggs and honey for 4lbs of steak. It seems a sin to eat it, when there are so many people going hungry right now who could have used the milk those cows could give, but the payout for milk is tiny, and the costs of hay, feed, veterinary care, etc... are so high that our neighbor simply can't make a go of it. No one is buying holsteins, so he is butchering and selling the meat. Some of our neighbors haven't had meat in a long, long time. We have a little more, since we have the livestock, but it is still a rare treat, mostly a seasoning. We mostly eat potatoes, and grains and beans.

October 12, 2012
Things have been hectic, between the Jewish holidays and the stuff caused by cancelling unemployment. With the federal government unable to pay unemployment to the 16% of American households now receiving it, a lot of our family and friends are in deep trouble. We've invited a couple of old friends to come share our house, since they've had to sell their own place. Both have been largely unemployed for over a year, and they have two young daughters. It will be nice to have them here, but stressful for everyone too. We've been emptying out the apartment and setting up sleeping space for the girls. There have been other big changes as well. My step-SIL and BIL and their kids moved in with my MIL and FIL, to everyone's distress. And the rising cost of all imported goods (along with the fact that there really is no US manufacturing business anymore) means that we're just praying no one needs new shoes or winter coats this year. I gave all a couple of spares to various friends and family, so if something gets damaged, we'll be repairing it or going without.

October 22, 2012
Damn, its cold. We've had an early cold snap, which took out most of the garden crops, except for the ones in the hoophouse and the cold frames. I harvested this weekend, and took everything we could spare to the food pantry, which has issued a call for anything at all, it is so swamped. I hope people like turnips and beets! We've got a lot of food put away from the garden, but I worry about us. There are now 5 adults and 6 kids between the ages of 5 and 12, and we all eat a lot. We've got the woodstove banked, but are carefully conserving wood. If it is a hard winter, we'll be pushed to keep both sections of the house heated and the pipes from freezing with what we've got. We can cut more, of course, but it will be green.

October 31, 2012
I chased some wood poachers off early this morning. I heard the chainsaw and ran out - by now I recognize the signs. There were two men cutting down trees in our woods. I took the gun out, and they ran off. I feel a little bad about doing it, since they may well be cold, or just trying to make a living, but stabilizing the climate depends on preserving what forest we've got.
It is halloween here. The kids made costumes out of scrap fabric. I bought chocolate chips, and melted them, and dipped dried strawberries from our berry patch in them. Our kids ate them, and I gave them to the neighbor kids. It used to be that you couldn't give out homemade treats, but I don't think anyone cares anymore. Junkfood is too rare a treat.

November 4, 2012
Isaiah fell out of a tree and broke his arm. It took most of our gas coupons and our whole discretionary income for the next month to take care of it. We'll be able to get along after this, but just barely. Thank
G-d we have food, and that we're mostly healthy. I understand the urge to climb trees, and I don't want to deprive my kids, or make them fearful, but Eric and I had to talk to them about how we can't afford to have accidents, and they need to be extra careful. It broke my heart, since some of my happiest moments were spent in trees as a child.

November 9, 2012
We're having Indian summer, and so everyone is at work banking the house with hay bales. It really does make a difference in how warm things stay. My job is to plan Thanksgiving dinner. There will be no turkey - we can't afford one, but we'll have a chicken, and we'll give a couple away to neighbors who I know rarely get meat. I have plenty of potatoes and root vegetables, so we'll be ok. I can't get soymilk to make non-dairy (ie, kosher) pumpkin pie, so I'll make pumpkin cake and apple pie instead.

November 20, 2012
Simon is 11 years old today. He's a responsible kid, and a bright one. He wanted for his birthday to spend a weekend with Grandma and Grandpa in New York City, and they kindly sent a train ticket for him and his Dad, so this morning he left on his first trip. Simon told me he was plenty old enough to go by himself, but given the violence there in the last year, there was no chance of that. But Eric hasn't seen his Mom for months, so that's a good thing. I'm grateful my MIL could do it - things in Manhattan are sketchy at times, with the rolling blackouts and the food shortages, but so far they seem ok. I worry for them. We have less money, and we struggle more economically, but our food and energy supplies are more certain. I've heard horror stories about people freezing in their apartments, and while most of them are not on the upper west side of Manhattan, I still worry. I'm also praying my husband and son make it home safe.

November 26, 2012.
Happy Thanksgiving. We had 22 people here, including one family of neighbors who clearly have not been eating well. They mentioned they hadn't had chicken in "quite a while." I suspect it was a lot longer than that. They were hungry, and a lot thinner than they used to be. We had a wonderful time, although I missed being with my family. I hate that they are so far away, and we can't visit very much anymore.

December 1, 2012
Eli read an entire chapter of _Wind in the Willows_ this week. That was a huge accomplishment for us, and it suggests that maybe he won't suffer too much because of our inadequacies as teachers. But his speech has definitely declined in quality without therapy. We work with him, but we don't have the skills. I took Simon to the pediatrician for his annual checkup this morning, and he was healthy, thank G-d. He got a tetanus booster, which is essentially when you work in the dirt. Our pede takes some of his fee in a CSA subscription, thankfully, so we can afford some routine care. He doesn't seem to have any nutritional deficiencies, even though we have had to stretch the multivitamins by giving them only one every other day. But our doctor mentioned that he's seeing cases of rickets, malnutrition and even scurvy in kids right now. I put up pounds and pounds of rose hips this fall, and I promised to bring him some next time we bring one of the kids in, and he can distribute them and teach people how to make rose-hip tea.

December 14, 2012
Happy Chanukah! Well, we all know the miracle of the (crude) oil is over. I don't see a lot of people with light up menorahs or outside decorations. Most folks here are just wondering how to make sure their kids get a gift under the tree. We had latkes last night, and used up all the rest of the eggs. No more eggs until the hens lay in February. Each child gets one purchased gift. Asher and Isaiah will each get a box of crayons and some paper, and the two older boys get books. I've made them new mittens and hats (although Simon is now too cool to wear a hat), and baked them cookies. And that's it.

December 21, 2012
Tonight I give Eric the quilt I sewed him. I think I managed to keep it a secret. I'm making two very similar ones, one for Eric and one for our roommates. Eric knows about the latter, but not the former. It is made entirely from scraps of the kids wardrobe, going back to babyhood. It looks pretty nice, given that I can't sew for shit. I miss the days when presents were a commonplace. I know it was crazy excessive, but it was awfully nice, too.

December 27, 2012
Did I say I missed my family? Well, some of them are coming to live here. My sister and BIL and their kids have been out of work for a long time, and while they've been able to keep their house, they can't afford heat. They've been living in a cold house, wearing winter coats all the time, and the pipes finally froze and burst. They can't live there, and they can't afford to repair them. So they'll come here for a while. I'm glad we can help, and it will be wonderful to see them, but things will be tight with that many more people here. I might have to take a break from writing for a while, since I'm not sure there will be space for the computer. The kids can all sleep dormitory style, one room for the boys, the other for the girls, but the adults need privacy more than I need an office these days. The blackouts have been happening more and more, too, so I'm not sure how much use there will be for it. That's ok, I have a lot to do. With the tightening of gas rationing, we're shopping less and making do, so there's plenty of work here.

December 31, 2012

I pray that 2013 will be better than the last year. I don't know that that's true. The US army is invading Venezuela, and there is talk of reinstituting the draft. My boys are, thank G-d, too young yet, but we've been continually at war now for 11 years, so I'm terrified of the day they won't be. The kids talk about wanting to go to college, and become X or Y thing. I just want them to live.

2012 was the hottest year on record, and the number of nations experiencing famine is higher than it has been in a decade. 10% of the American population is now homeless, and 22% is unemployed. We've been notified that gas will no longer be rationed at all - if you can afford it, you can have it. We can't afford much, so that'll be it for Eric's teaching job at the end of the spring semester. We're going to try opening a school at our house, given that we've got 3 unemployed Ph.ds and two equally unemployed MAs here. I pray that inn addition to the CSA and the livestock, we'll be able to pay the taxes. My BIL recently got a job working at the auction house, selling off people's goods, so that helps a little.

We saw this coming, and we prepared for it. And all we did, it wasn't really enough. No one of us could insulate ourselves from what happened around us. As Benjamin Franklin suggested, we are now all hanging seperately, each in our little personal crisis. But it is, of course, all the same disaster.


So, how much do you care if your kids, or someone else's live or die?

That's pretty much the question, isn't it? How much do you actually care whether you children, or grandchildren, and the children of others get to live decent lives, or if they die horribly of starvation and disease? Because we say we care very much about the future, about sustainability, and the environment, that we worry a lot about climate change and energy issues. But most of us mostly act like we don't care.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not belittling the changes you've made. Those compact flourescent lightbulbs, the recycling, the moving closer to your job, those are important things. But they aren't enough, and we all know it. In order to stabilize climate change, we in the west need to make a 60-70% reduction in our energy consumption. Really, it is probably more, because those figures represent an overall reduction, but we can't ask people who just starting to use coal fired energy to get running water to make a 60% reduction, while we're switching to CFs and hybrid cars. But let's call it 70%. And we need to do it *NOW.* Check out this BBC interview transcript. It does not quite translate to "we're all gonna die" but it does mean that climate change is much more disastrous than even we've thought. That means within this century, while my kids and grandkids are trying to live most of the coastal cities in the world may well be underwater. There will probably be widespread drought and hunger. And, if the cascade effect of melting the permafrost does release enormous stores of methane, the planet may become uninhabitable.

We cannot wait while each of us gets personally more comfortable with reducing our footprint - we have to do it big, and we have to do it today. We can't wait for cheap solar technology, we can't wait for biofuel algae to gas up our pluggable hybrids, we can't wait. The question becomes, what are you willing to do, what sacrifices are you willing to make from your own comfort and happiness in order to make sure that your kids, and millions or billions of other children in the world are not dead and dying in the future.

Now I know parents and grandparents. In the short term, we'd all hurl ourselves in front of oncoming buses in order to protect the kids we love, and enable them to have good lives. So, I ask you all, why in hell are we destroying their chances of life and security right now? Why are we consuming the remaining fossil fuels, the ones that may ensure that they can have minimal things like insulin for diabetics and lighting, so that we can have air conditioning and cold beer? Whether or not you have children, I'm going to bet you have an investment in the future - the idea that someday someone will put a stone on your grave, or tell their children about Grandma Leah or Uncle Daniel. Or perhaps just the investment in the idea that the planet was not yours to waste, or in the idea that someday, someone will read Shakespeare like you did, or listen to a piece of music you loved or laugh at the same joke. So why in hell are we throwing that away.

When I visited my family recently (burning a good bit of energy to get there), I was talking with my mother and step-mother, who are making real and meaningful changes in their lives. We were talking about paper consumption, and I mentioned that the next step in reducing paper consumption was probably handkerchiefs rather than tissues, and they both instinctively reacted with "ugh." Now I know what they mean, but let's be honest. For centuries, people used cloth handkerchiefs without dying. Is one's personal "ugh" reaction to handkerchiefs, or using your urine to fertilize your garden, or getting to know and butcher the animals you eat, or using a composting toilet really enough to justify the cost that we may be inflicting upon others? Remember, all of that stuff we react to with such hostility *belongs* to us - our wastes and the things we eat are part of us. We can try to pretend they don't really have anything to do with us, that we don't shit or pee, are never dirty or snotty, that the animal corpse on the plate was never a chicken or a cow, but no matter how hard we pretend, we're still killing, we're still shitting, and it is still our responsibility, no matter how hard we try to pass it off on others.

The same thing has to do with our instinctive aesthetic assumptions, which are also hard for all of us (me too) to overcome - the fear of looking poor, or cheap leads us in all sorts of dangerous directions. But again, is it so terrible to imagine giving up your car and going to the bicycle, or giving up meat, or replacing that front lawn with edible plants, if the rewards are that someday, your grandkids, or the grandkids of someone who loves them just as much as you do, have enough to eat, home and shelter.

Let's be honest, most of us who are adults now have had a lot. We're the wealthiest, most priveleged, most secure, luckiest people in human history. We haven't had to work hard for much. And we're in the odd position of probably being able to maintain our privelege for much of the rest of our lives, if we really work at it. But the cost comes in human lives. And not the lives of people who live out of sight, or downstream or in other countries - we've been doing them harm for decades and it hasn't bothered us much. But now the damage is coming home to roost. Do you want to keep your toaster and your hair dryer, or do you want your kids and grandkids to have food? And if you want them to have food, you have to be willing to give up your priveleges right now, to overcome your instinctive reactions, and also our instinctive urge to protect ourselves and what we have, no matter what the cost to others, and choose differently. We are going to have to give up things that we like and we love and we feel we need.

I only hope that we find that what we really like and love and need most is for our kids, and our children's kids, to survive and flourish.



Saturday, December 23, 2006

Chanukah Sameach (Happy Chanukah)

Yes, I know Chanukah is almost over, but I'm slow and overworked, and until today, I didn't get to wish others a proper greeting. So Chanukah Sameach, everyone! And to the rest of you, Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice, Good Diwali, and Happy New Year.

Here is my take on Chanukah and the environment.'


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Staying Put

It almost doesn't matter what you believe is the central problem of our present society, whether you are focused on economic instability, peak oil, climate change, poverty and inequity or just the decline of community and standards of behavior. When you filter out the details and get down to brass tacks, the answers to all of the above problems are this. Go home. Stay there. Cook your dinner instead of getting it out. Donate what you save. Talk to your neighbors. Buy local. Grow your own. Go to your town meeting, neighborhood council, or other public forum, and try and improve things. Vote. Make things instead of buying them. Share. Help those in need in your own neighborhood. Walk instead of driving. Play with you kids instead of buying them stuff. Turn down the heat and put on a sweater. Chase your kids or play soccer with your neighbors instead of going to the gym. Talk instead of watching tv. Plant trees. Learn permaculture. Barter. Raise some money for a good cause. Pare down. Live simply. Garden. Go home. Stay there.

Now the first and the last clauses here represent something of a problem for a lot of Americans - because you cannot build community, or develop a local society, or have an orchard, or depend on others for the things that you need, unless you actually stop moving around and stay somewhere. And most of us are not very good at that last - the average American moves every 5 years. Which doesn't really give you enough time to pay off the mortgage, or see that standard apple tree grow to fruition, or get to know the local issues well enough to have an impact on your town. In five years, you can get a carpool together, and get some bartering going, but you'll have to leave just as things get good. It gives you just enough time to begin acquiring that wonderful quality, "known-ness" in which you know your neighbors, and you understand how they are connected to other people (that the postman is the BIL of the woman in the third house down, and that the woman in the green house is worried about her mother, whose health is failing), and how you fit in (you are the weird one who composts and has chickens, right?). And then, most likely, you move - for the best of reasons - because this was a starter house and you need something bigger, or to get closer to your dream house, or to build your own passive solar place, to be closer to your elderly parents, or so the kids can walk to school, to be nearer a new job or in a safer neighborhood, or to downsize now that the kids are gone. And you start again with a new garden, and new soil, new trees and new neighbors, new friends for the kids and new everything.

Now I have a lot of natural sympathy for people who move a lot. I would be one of them, but I can't be. My husband, Eric, feels about moving much the way I feel about toxic chemicals, only not so positively. If it were left to him, we would probably still be living in an apartment in Somerville. But now that he's here, it has taken him the better part of six years to get used to being here, and he's happy, so he's never, ever moving. Add to that that this is the house we lived in with his beloved grandparents, and we're here forever. On the other hand, if three months have passed since we moved here that I haven't looked over the local real estate listings, I'd be shocked. Me, I'm a grass-is-greener kind of person. I've never been anywhere that I didn't think (however briefly) "could I live here?" And often, when I'm most frustrated with my life, my first reaction is "we should move to where we could be carfree/have more land/be nearer X relative/be further away from other people/have a smaller house/build green/etc..."

It has been a long, long struggle for me to realize that I am staying here forever, if possible. I still fight against that reality sometimes. I do love my house, but like many of the people I love, I'm not always sure that I actually want to live with it. If you were to describe the ideal post-peak house, I suspect you would not choose a 4000 square foot rambly, under-insulated farmhouse with a bat collector (er, cupola space). It is a pain in the ass to keep clean (and I am an indifferent housekeeper at best), drafty, too big even for our four kids (we had hoped Eric's grandparents would be with us much longer), because of its size, the taxes run high, and has a host of other things that make it much more difficult and annoying to make efficient than would a new, green-built home. It doesn't come with an ocean (I grew up near the sea, and that bugs me), and it is in every way imperfect, even when I like it.

And in that sense, it is perfect, isn't it? Because I'm going to bet that most of you live in the wrong house too. And in fact, no matter how hard we try, we're not going to replace our 90 million dwellings with brand new, perfectly designed ones. We can't, and think of what we'd waste in doing so. A few people will build new, green houses, but most of us will make do with what we've got, or, as most of us do, buy another house and another house, trying always to get to the point at which our house will fulfill its dream functions for us. But we never quite succeed. I once read that people who build their dream houses only live in them an average of 7 years. Because in 7 years, dreams change, I guess, and we get frustrated by the fact that houses, no matter how wonderful, are in the end, only houses, and go looking for the magic house that will be more.

And all that moving around exacts a price. First of all, there's the economic price - the cost of realtors fees, and advertising, moving costs and buying new things at the other end - we lose an average of between 6 and 8% of the purchase price on each house. In a bubble market like the one we've been in, that's no big deal - we get it back. But that's not the norm, and we all know those days are over. So moving costs us economically. And it sets us back on every goal we have in creating local economies, local communities, local cultures. Every time we pick up and move, we lose a year or two of high quality work - because while we're adapting to a new place, meeting people, finding out about local resources, getting used the new job, seeing where the sun falls in the yard and testing the soil, we're spending time that could be gardening and working at the shelter and bartering with the neighbors. It also costs energy - moving our crap, buying new stuff, flying on airplanes, renting trucks, these are not low energy input activities. They raise our personal energy footprint.

Now sometimes we're going to have to move. But over the coming decades, a lot more of us are
going to have to stay put. We are, as author and Post-Carbon Institute founder Julian Darley puts it, going to have to change to a foot economy, and "relocalize." But you cannot relocalize if you are dreaming of the day you will move to your perfect house, that you will find the perfect community of people just like you. We can't wait until we can all afford the perfect place. And some, perhaps many, of the places we're in are going to have to become perfect because they are ours. With the crash of the housing market, it isn't going to be economically feasible to trade up all the time. No matter how good your R value, the building materials in your perfect house come with a big energy footprint. No matter how annoying your neighbors, maybe it is time to share with them, rather than dreaming of the perfect community. Even if the house is too small, or too big, doesn't have the garden space you dream of or is down the street from weird people, it might be the best place for you.

So I'm trying. We were fortunate enough to inherit some money from Eric's grandparents. And we decided to put it into making the house more "ours" and I've stopped looking at the real estate ads. Last night I looked out at the stars and I tried to imagine that this, with its benefits and limitations, is our permanent world, the place where we will always live. The only home my children will know. We are renovating the house to make ourselves more self-sufficient, and to set things up so that we can live comfortably without electricity or other fossil fuel inputs. I am trying to make it more beautiful, to pare down what we don't need, and to make things prettier. And I am trying to believe that here is where I am supposed to be.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Winter Garden

The kids and I ate about half a raw cabbage this afternoon. We had four heads left in the garden, marginally protected, and we're going out of town this weekend, so we decided to harvest. The kids always have to eat what we pick, so off we went to get a knife, and nibble at slices of cabbage. And, of course, since we've gone through some heavy cold temperatures, the cabbage's starches were all converted to sugars. I knew it happened, of course, but I rarely have cabbages in the garden so late, so I'd never tasted one quite this good. So we ate and ate until we were full of raw cabbage and happiness, partly from the sheer surprise of it.

We still have turnips and beets, parsnips, carrots and daikon mulched in the ground, and kale, mustard and spinach as well. It has been a mild year, of course, but even in the coldest winters here, with minimal effort I was able to winter-over leeks and kale.

I've heard people say, "I love to garden - I have to garden all year round, so I could never live where you do." Well, I do garden all year round. By the time most of the garden is finished, in mid-December, I'm picking out seeds. Leeks and the earliest container tomatoes, some greens and pansies will be started in January. When the first thaw comes (it is a fake, of course, but we'll take it) in February, we dig parsnips and check the cold frames for signs of life. The first protected greens are ready by the third week of March, by which time my house is exploding with seedlings, and at the beginning of April, the potatoes and onions go out, along with various greens and roots.

Global warming may have extended our season some (a pleasure not worth its price, of course), but even without it, gardening goes on forever.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Hemenway Strikes (Out) Again!

On Running on Empty 2 and 3, I have been a fairly harsh critic of Toby Hemenway's writing on peak oil (some of my criticisms have also been reprinted elsewhere). While I do like his book _Gaia's Garden_ very much, I have found his analyses of the peak oil movement to be less impressive and helpful than his work on permaculture. For example, in his essay, "Apocalypse Not," Hemenway made several significant errors in analysis, among them implying that demand destruction was an inevitability (Matthew Simmons has documented that it is not, at least in terms of gasoline), claiming that China was cash poor (in fact, China has very, very deep pockets indeed) and thus would be unable to compete for oil with us, and also using erroneous figures to say that world oil demand has grown only 0.75 percent annually in the last 25 years. In fact, the average annual growth has been 1.4%, and over the last decade it has been rougly 2%. Since much of his analysis is predicated on this figure, it undermines his arugments significantly.

Hemenway also goes on to claim, "Humanity has reached the stage, finally, where basic survival is not in doubt for many people." (Hemenway, "Apocalypse Not"" I personally find the above statement, along with his consistent errors, to be frustrating, because it is so patently false. Not only does Hemenway ignore the reality that the struggle for survival is both urgent and present for an enormous percentage of the world's population, but, as I wrote in my critique of his paper, "yes, in wealthy nations, the struggle for survival is over. It should be replaced with the struggle not to kill, enslave, poison and impoverish, ideally, but hasn't been. But the fact that we have passed the struggle to survive on to others is no accident - it is a conscious choice on our part, and one that doesn't bode well for our ability to transform ourselves. (Astyk" Hemenway's figures about reductions in US oil consumption ignore, for example, the fact that we have moved much of our production offshore, and so many other nations "consume" the oil used to raise our food or produce consumer goods that arrive in our home." Were we to consider the "shadow" oil we use, our consumption figures would rise dramatically. He claims to be debunking "errors and half truths" of peak oil catastrophism, but his own writting is riddled with both. The reality is that our struggle to survive is over because millions of other people have taken over that struggle for us - and we are deeply dependent upon the labor and wealth that they create for us.

In another essay, Hemenway wrote an explanation of his move out of a rural area and back an urban one, an advocated that others do the same. He recounts his that he made his move because he was unable to develop relationships or community with any of his neighbors in his rural area, and talked about how he knew he was back with his own sort of people when he spotted a Mercedes Benz with a leftist bumper sticker (Hemenway, I think that single statement may be the best possible indictment of the consistent limitations of Hemenway's thinking - he simply cannot conceive the "view from below," a less priveleged perspective which might lead to a darker viewpoint than his own.

So I approached Hemenway's current article on the origins of peak oil apocalypticism ( with some skepticism, particularly since he's writing about a topic near and dear to my heart - the subject of the apocalyptic impulse, which was the focus of my uncompleted doctoral dissertation in English literature. And Hemenway has justified my every doubt - he's written an extended attack on those who dare to criticize him, couched in the form of an analysis of the history of apocalyptic thought. It really is quite a creative way to discredit your critics, and for that, I'll give him credit. It would be more creative if it were not essentially a duplication of or rehash of the arguments made in the essay _Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse_ which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine. He covers pretty much precisely the same ground, and makes very similar arguments, without citing the article. I assume Hemenway hasn't read it, but he ought to, since it renders his essay to a large degree redundant.

Hemenway begins speaking of peak oil "doomers," a group of people he does not define, but implies, that it is anyone who doesn't share the vision he laid out in the article "Apocalypse Not." And much of the article represents a (carefully phrased in terms of an objective analysis of the issue of "doomerism," of course) dismissal of his critics and anyone who believes that peak oil might result in a radical alteration in our society. He manages to mention many of the major public figures in the peak oil movement (Kenneth Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg, Thom Hartmann, among others) marking them all out as "doomers." He is quick to claim that he is not arguing about whether or not peak oil doomers are right or wrong (sure, he's not), saying, "Again, my point here is not that Peak Oil doomerism is wrong. The apocalypts may, for the first time in thousands of predictions, be right."

So let us begin by considering that last statement. It is true that the ranks of American Mercedes-owning leftists have not been pruned in recent history, (although some might argue that a brisk culling is in order), so perhaps we can justify Hemenway's assumption that all doomer predictions are wrong. But then again, perhaps not. For example, early Zionist Jews who spun out tales about the possible destruction of the Jewry by antisemites, were, if anything, unimaginative compared to the scale of the eventual apocalypse that befell European Jews under Hitler. Boccacio, who predicted that much Italy would see corpses choking their rivers unburied lived to see it during the Black Death. The Lakota religious leader, Wovoka was probably accused of doomerism in his claim that if the Lakota could not spiritually remove white folks, it would end in the death of the Lakota people, but Wounded Knee suggests that he may have been more on-target than not. Cassandras are not always wrong, and it is not always a bad idea for Noah to build an ark.

So it is perhaps not quite accurate to suggest that in thousands of predictions of human disaster, none of them have been right. In fact, quite a few have. Quite a number of peoples and populations have undergone dramatic, even apocalyptic changes, including the deaths of massive portions of their population, and in every case, some people who have used the available evidence to make predictions, even dark ones, have been right. So that contention doesn't really hold up.

It might help to figure out what "doomerism" is. Is it the belief that the growth economy cannot and should not continue ? The belief that millions or even billions of people might die from hunger? The Olduvai Gorge hypothesis, in which we are reduced to a few primitives? Hemenway's work offers very little suggestion for what he's thinking as doomers, other than that doomers clearly disagree with him. Is doomsday a disaster only if it affects the whole planet equally, or could it fall unevenly on the shoulders of some? Because he offers no statistical grounds, I would only note doomers, who believe that millions or billions might starve have considerable evidence on their end. 24,000 people die each day worldwide, both from direct hunger and the illnesses related to the long term effects of starvation. That amounts to something less than 1 billion people per year. Die-off is not, in fact, (except in Hemenway's upper middle class viewpoint) an imaginary thing that might happen someday, but a reality. The question is whether it will come to visit any individual community or nation. If, for example, one lived in South Africa and watched their families and communities decimated by AIDS and related illnesses, one might be forgiven for believing that in fact, the apocalypse has come calling.

The clearest guess at what Hemenway believes it is comes at the end of the article, where Hemenway refers to Richard Heinberg's recent paper entitled _50 Million Farmers_, and says of Heinberg's analysis, "He and others envision a future with far fewer people, many of them living rurally and raising most of their own food using permaculture and bio-intensive gardening. Some argue that post-peak, only those with primitive skills such as tanning and flint-knapping will survive. Suburban drones will die. So after the collapse, we follow the myth’s final trajectory into the survival of an elect, and a rebirth in the Garden and simpler times." Hemenway is getting ahead of himself - Heinberg proposes a return to small scale agriculture as a means of staving off the danger of becoming far fewer people. Now to be fair to Hemenway, Heinberg is on record as believing that the sustainable population of the earth is only 1-2 billion, and that peak oil could potentially be disastrous, but the focus of this paper is the avoidance of hunger, famine and disaster. Heinberg is arguing that we might potentially avoid hunger and the death of billions by re-ruralization. This is not the pattern of apocalypse and happy ending that Hemenway documents over the course of his article, but a series of acts human beings can engage in to improve their society and reduce the danger of famine, for everyone, including the "suburban drones." Hemenway seems unclear on the difference.

Now the question of the apocalyptic impulse is, indeed an interesting one, and I think a complicated one. We cannot simply say, as Hemenway does, "The path to “end of the world” thinking is well trod, most heavily so in times of oppression, uncertainty, and corruption. But perhaps some of us can recognize how familiar is this dark road, resist the natural urge to repeat the story once more, and remember that there are many routes into the future other than the one toward the lowest common denominator," because Hemenway is retooling the question into a way of dismissing apocalypticism. But there is more to say about it than that we have a cultural predisposition to imagine a disaster and rebirth. Because, of course, we do, perhaps in part for the reasons Hemenway lists, but also because thus far in human history, when disaster has befallen us, we've eventually picked up the pieces and gone on to rebirth. That narrative is inscribed in human consciousness not just because of our religious leanings (as Hemenway suggests), but because that describes the collective historical experience of human beings throughout human history. Things fall apart, and we repair, and those who survived go on to experience joy and relief. Yes, that describes most stories of religious ending. It also describes the actual realities of most bad things that happen to people.

It might be more useful, I think, to ask why we approach the apocalypse with such a combination of fear and fascination. I think it may be because our fears and our fantasies are so tightly linked to one another that in one sense, our fantasies are our fears, and vice versa? Or perhaps because the root experience of counting is so central to the operation of our minds? We instinctively count other people, and calculated them in an immensely complex analysis that allows others to both be "too many" - that is a threat to our privacy, or our resources, or our sense of self; and "not enough;" that is, too few of our own group in the face of the impingement of another tribe, not enough of the right sex with the right availability, or enough to carry on the name. It is possible that we long for numerical reductions to approximately the same degree we are terrified of them. Or perhaps that we as a people associate smaller numbers with smaller and more manageable social systems (correctly, actually, as Heinberg's paper documents). Or perhaps some combination of these reasons and others not yet proposed. But regardless, Hemenway's analysis stops short of the useful.

Despite his contrary claims, there is little doubt that Hemenway oversimplifies to get in a few good digs. For example, he says, "Rather, it’s an exploration into why, given an impending crisis or major challenge, many people in our culture spiral so quickly and automatically toward an “end of the world” vision rather than imagining any of the countless other options" Instead of granting those who disagree with him good faith that they have been led by their data, and that they are actually invested in a vision that is far from a cultural norm, Hemenway's opponents are now "automatically" drawn towards an uncritical majority viewpoint by an irresistable cultural psychology. Hemenway, however, is nobly and wisely able to resist, and, according to him, so should the rest of us fear a path so well trodden. Apparently the psychological path of the person who thinks that things simply won't get that bad because they haven't before is more independent in some way I can't identify.

I don't consider myself a peak oil "doomer" in the sense that I believe massive casualties are an inevitable outcome of peak oil - I believe strongly in the capacity of human beings to change and rework their world. I do, however, believe that the world is simply more nuanced and the dangers are more complex than Hemenway seems able to acknowledge. I would suggest to him that it is at least as dangerous to apply the oversimple pattern of thought that leads one to believe that one's personal perspective represents the perspective and realities of the world at large, and that is often not such a bad thing to take your critics seriously. Yet again, I think Hemenway takes the easy intellectual road, while chastizing others for doing the same.



Wednesday, December 06, 2006

50 Million? 100 Million? 200 Bazillion? How Many Farmers Do We Need to Change the World?

I hope you will forgive me for going on about a technicality for a moment, but I've been getting a lot of queries on this subject lately. Rather than write the same explanations over and over again, I'm going to publish this here and anyone who asks me in email will get a link to save repetitions.

At the end of the summer, I wrote a paper to present at the Community Solutions Conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Among other things, I called for a massive return to small scale agriculture in America as a way of ameliorating the affects of both peak oil and climate change. I argued that doing so would end the disaster of industrial agriculture, and also act to renew our democracy, by reducing our dependence on corporate interests and leading us back towards the Jeffersonian ideal that the US should be "a nation of farmers." In my paper I noted that in most of the 3rd world today, and through most of history, approximately 1/3 of the total populace has been involved in Agriculture, and for several reasons, knowing that the US population was about to reach 300 million (which it has since done), I chose to call for "100 Million New Farmers."

I picked 100 million, rather than 50 million (a figure I considered) because while 50 million represents somewhere between 25 and 30% of the fully employed adults in the work world in America, agriculture is something that doesn't actually work in the same ways as traditional employment. That is, when one member of a family farms, everyone farms. My concern about the 50 million figure was that it would imply that farming was a single breadwinner activity, and that the only farmers who "count" would be those who do it full time, on large acreage. I did not want to return to the "Farmer" and the "Farmer's Wife" model, in which only the primary breadwinner's work is calculated as farming. But on a farm, everyone works, including children, who do a good deal of the productive economic activity of many family farms. Women farmers are the fastest growing segment in agriculture. Retirees can and do farm for a small supplemental income. People who are employed to do agricultural work on farms, but do not own them, or farm on rented land are farmers. Many of this nation's farmers at present are Chicano, Latino and Carribean migrant workers, who we should dignify with the name "farmer". And many of the people who have traditionally been called "gardeners" can and should be re-named farmers, for what I think are important reasons.

Farming is not necessarily a full time economic activity - in fact, the majority of full-time professional farmers also either have an outside job or a spouse or family member who does. So even among the people we define as professional farmers, you don't have to quit your day (or night) job. In fact, I think any smooth transition to small-scale agriculture must include people who are both farmers and shopkeepers, teachers, doctors, construction workers, at home parents, retirees, truck drivers, dancers, and everyone else. Farming, I believe, cannot be an exclusive club if we are not to face food shortages down the line.

A month or so after delivering my Community Solutions talk, I was immensely rewarded and flattered to discover that Richard Heinberg, who was also speaking there, went on to write a now-famous paper entitled "Fifty Million Farmers" which in some part derived from my analysis. I was still more flattered to be credited at the end of the paper thus,

(This lecture drew on certain ideas earlier put forward by
Knox, New York farmer Sharon Astyk in her remarks at
the 2006 Peak Oil and Community Solutions conference
in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and on others that emerged in
conversation with Pat Murphy of Community Service and
Julian Darley of the Post Carbon Institute.)

For those of you who read this blog who don't know anything about peak oil (ie, some of the ones who are related to me), Heinberg is the GLF (Greatest Living Figure - although that makes him sound like he's 100 years old and carved of stone, and he's actually maybe mid-40sish, and is friendly enough) and I'm pretty excited to have had any impact on his thought at all.

I have recently published some material that refers to my own 100 million figure, and there has been some confusion, both as to whether I'm ripping Richard Heinberg off (I don't think I am) and also why my numbers are so much bigger than his. So I thought I'd clarify as best I can. As far as I can tell (and this is interpellation from Heinberg's paper, I don't know for sure), there is very little difference between what we want to see. In fact, I don't believe our numbers are very different in the end. Both of us chose a nice, functional, big wonking number based on numbers that are very rough estimates, but not, I think, wrong for all that. I suspect we are imagining a not-dissimilar number of total farming households in the US. I've sent a copy of this to him, and if he'd like to clarify beyond what is available in the paper, I'll happily publish it.

If there is a significant distinction between our numbers, it is probably located here, where Heinberg writes,

"Indeed, we need perhaps to redefine the term farmer. We have
come to think of a farmer as someone with 500 acres and a big
tractor and other expensive machinery. But this is not what
farmers looked like a hundred years ago, and it’s not an accurate
picture of most current farmers in less-industrialized countries.
Nor does it coincide with what will be needed in the coming decades.
We should perhaps start thinking of a farmer as someone with 3 to
50 acres, who uses mostly hand labor and twice a year borrows a
small tractor that she or he fuels with ethanol or biodiesel produced

If I have any difference with Heinberg (and I'm not at all sure I do), it is that I believe that the word "farmer" is more elastic still, and should be expanded to include anyone who produces a food surplus for barter or sale, or who provides a significant portion of their own food (ie, subsistence farmers.) I think the word "farmer" can and should include not just people who have returned to rural areas and are growing food on 5 or 10 or 50 acres, but people who are growing food for sale and subsistence on existing suburban lots, people who have been described as gardeners in the past. Because if our cities and suburbs are to survive or thrive, these will be the people who feed them, from their 1/4 acre lots and 2 acre suburban spreads. And farmers, ultimately, are the people who feed us.

So I personally would not use the size of one's land-base to narrow the definition of "farmer". In fact, many farmers in the world farm on truly tiny lots - subsistence farmers worldwide average 4.5 acres, with many growing enormous amounts of food on much, much smaller acreage. What matters is that we, as a nation, give up on the enormously destructive and inefficient industrial model and turn towards small scale agriculture, and that those who do so are dignified with the correct term.

I believe in this very passionately. Indeed, my friend Aaron Newton and I are writing a book on just this subject. And I can't begin to say how delighted I am that Richard Heinberg is also devoting his intellect and his considerable scholarly weight to this unbelievably urgent project. A New Yorker article a few months ago reports Bill Clinton describing in some detail how compelling he found Heinberg's first book on peak oil, _The Party's Over_. What Richard Heinberg writes on this subject has the potential to change the world. Having more than an average share of hubris, I have hopes that Aaron's and my book will have an impact there too.

Here is an excerpt from my own talk, in the hopes of persuading other people to become one of the 50 million or 100 million, or whatever.

"Now I know this talk is supposed to be about “large scale gardening” but I keep speaking of farming. That’s because there’s an untenanted space between the word “gardener” and the word “farmer” that needs to be addressed. A gardener is usually someone who grows things for their pleasure, from the sheer joy of it. When we talk about farmers, we usually mean someone with a profession is growing food on a large scale. But somewhere in between them is the idea we need to grasp with language - that there could be someone who grows a lot of food to eat, but still takes pleasure in the act, who may sell food, but whose work cannot be traded on the commodities market.

Or perhaps we don’t need a new word, because we have one. In nearly every nation in the world small scale or subsistence agricultural producers are called “farmers“. In English, the word derives from the word for “earth,” as in “firmament” or “terra firma,” but it also shares its origin with the word “form” to mean “to shapes or creators.” . It occurs to me that right now, we need to become a nation of people who see themselves as creators rather than conquerors or consumers, people who see our central work as the maintenance and sustenance of the earth and human cultures. So I’d like to propose to you that for the purposes of this talk, we think of all our exercises in food production as a kind of farming. In fact, I’d be thrilled if you’d go on thinking of yourself as a farmer after we’re done here, because I think that habit of thought could be a powerful one for most of us.

Because it isn’t such an outrageous leap to imagine yourself as a farmer. It turns out that only in our highly commodified culture, which values only large scale agriculture at all, and even that not much, is a farmer defined as a big man with a big tractor who grows a thousand acres of corn and votes republican. In fact, he’s not a he at all - the average farmer, worldwide is a woman, and not a white woman at that. Even in the US, the only really fast growing segment of agriculture is that of independent women farmers. The average farmer in the world is a woman, farming 4 ½ acres, growing 15 different crops on them. They own no tractor and do most of their labor by hand, and their household has at least one outside source of income (that last part is the only thing that is true of most professional farmers as well - 70% of them must either hold a second job or have a spouse work outside the home to support themselves). And the average farmer world wide doesn’t look all that different from what American farmers used to look like. Because the average first settlers in the US farmed only 7 acres, and by the time that Thomas Jefferson was rhapsodizing about the democratic possibilities of a nation of farmers, the average farmer only had 10 acres.

What we are talking about, then, is a return to human norms, in which many people are involved in a subsistence economy, producing most of what they need, with enough to create a small outside income for the things they cannot grow or barter for. We have been conditioned by growth capitalism to see such work as endless drudgery, grinding poverty and misery. But in fact, as Veronika Bennholt-Thomsen and Marie Mies describe in their book _The Subsistence Perspective_ (a book I highly recommend, btw), most small polyculture producers value what they have, their independence and their strong cultural ties. We should think carefully before we assume that a subsistence lifestyle is a step down - because for many independent small farmers in the world, our dependence on the money economy, military and economic expansionism and outside things like fossil fuels look like a kind of vulnerability and dependence that would be intolerable."

And if anyone out there knows what the correct form of citation is for the work of someone who was influenced by your work, but published first, and went on to influence your later work, please let me know. My brain hurts just thinking about it ;-).



Monday, December 04, 2006

Do you knit? Spin? Sew? Embroider? Weave? Maybe you should.

This is my latest bit, on what I'd like to call the "Slow Clothing" revolution. You cannot overthrow the government while wearing BVDs from Walmart - you just can't.