Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Jenny Put the Kettle On

So we're starting to run out of things. Today marks the six month anniversary of our buy-nothing year. Now I store food and goods, so it generally takes a good while for me to run out of staples. But we're down to only four beers (Eric is grieved), I'm out of my favorite kinds of tea, I'm starting to get reminders that my magazine subscriptions are running out (no more Nation!) and various other minor shortages are arising. So I think not buying things is going to get harder for the second half of the year. Which is good, because in a way it has been too easy. I did find a very pleasant surprise this morning - a box of Constant Comment tea in the back of my storage. Guess what I'm drinking now? That orange peel scent is inspiring.

The one big challenge facing me is that I have to be best person in a friend's wedding in April, and I don't have anything suitable. So I'm going to canvas my friends' wardrobes and dig around to see what I can come up with. The problem is that most of my female friends are *short* - and I'm 6'. But I'll come up with something - maybe a guy friend will loan me a suit that I can tart up a little. My friend is very sweet - she said just pick something you like.

Several people have asked about the new kitchen and how we're enjoying it. The answer is that we aren't yet. We're still under construction, and Bill, our socialist heating guy who is supposed to install the new cookstove, and swore up and down he was free all of January seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. So while the cookstove is a lovely looking piece of equipment, I have no actual experience with it yet, other than to admire it and set things on it.

The kitchen renovation should be over in the next week or two. The cistern pump won't be up until spring, because we didn't get started until after the ground froze. The new composting toilets should be done shortly (for those who come to visit me who read this, don't panic, we're still keeping the guest potty ;-)), and it will be nice to have a permanent set-up there.

The kitchen will not be entirely non-electric. We left the electric stove in temporarily, although the goal is to convert eventually to propane. But the fridge is out - we have one in the little kitchen in the addition, but we're debating turning that off too, and keeping only the freezer. We'd use reusable ice packs and a couple of coolers in place of a fridge. It would cut back on our energy usage and emissions, but allow us to keep the much-more-essential freezer going. One of these days, I want one of those sunfrost freezers, but unless the book hits Oprah's list, that ain't gonna happen ;-).

But there will be a space on the counter to permanently mount my grain grinder, and places to hang my cast-iron pans. The staples will all live in glass mason jars and there will be a spot for the dogs to nap in front of the cookstove. I'm excited.

Seeds and plants are mostly on order, and I've got to call the Alpine goat breeder near us soon, to see if she'll have any does in late April (after we return from said wedding). There are geese going on the poultry order form, as well as (hurray!) chickens for my Mom and Susie (And
I'm trying to sneak some Polish hens on the order for myself and my sister, whose new house is going to need chickens. Eric questions the utility of chickens that aren't great layers and can't see where they are going. But I'm sure they serve some purpose, other than being cute). The old garage is going to be turned into a barn, and the side yard will be drained and fenced for goats. I've got to get on this milk thing - time to practice my cheese making.

And in a fit of total madness, I ordered a potted dwarf olive tree to live in my house. Anyone know how to take care of one?

Well, that's all the news around here. Anyone want to tell theirs? You can pull up a chair, put your feet on my woodstove (it isn't even warm so you might as well) and I'll make you a cup of constant comment.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Book Excerpt #1

My co-author, Aaron Newton and I have decided to post occasional excerpts from the book drafts as they stand. You can see his over at his blog Here's the first of mine. Remember, these are early drafts, so be gentle in your comments ;-).

This one is from my section that argues everyone should be a farmer because the food is better. As you'll see, that ain't all that's better:

"The food is sensuous, luxurious, beautiful, lush. It will make you happy, feed every sense as well as your hunger. Growing it and picking it with your family will give you a sense of warmth, security, happiness and joy. It will improve your health, improve your diet, improve your sex life.

Wait a minute. Did she just say "sex life?" Yup. Food is sensuous. We all know that. Ever read _Like Water for Chocolate_ or see the movie _Tampopo_? Ever feed each other strawberries or enjoy the taste of coffee on a lover's lips? Well growing food is the ultimate sensual experience. The range of tastes and textures, the pleasure of the sun on your shoulders, or the warm rain on your back, the smells of herbs, flowers and warm earth, the rich colors and silky textures... Whether you fall down and take one another in the garden or wait until bedtime, the taste of ratatouille or blueberry pie still on your tongues, gardening together improves your sex life. It awakens your awareness of one another, warms up your muscles and gets your juices flowing. You are talking to a woman with four kids here. Trust me.

It is also an excellent family activity, if, by some chance, you should be so swept away that you lie down among the eggplants and forget your diaphragm. If, in the pleasure of generation you decide to do some generatin' yourself, rest assured that gardening is one of the best things you can do for your family. It gets you all outside. When children help grow food, they are more likely to eat it. They can play in the garden and learn to help at an early age, pulling weeds and planting seeds. Children are naturally attracted to the garden, and it nurtures them, helps them develop a sense of place and an appreciation for their environment. It is good for their bodies and good for their souls to be out in the garden, especially with Mommy and Daddy, working and playing together, watching the sky and the butterflies and nibbling at the strawberries. This is what childhood should be."



Thursday, January 25, 2007

How Much Did the Green Revolution Matter? or Can We Feed the World Without Industrial Agriculture?

"It is well that thou givest bread to the hungry, better were it that none hungered and that thou haddest none to give." - St. Augustine

There are many questions that have come up for me in writing a book about food, energy and climate, but the one that I find most engaging is the question of exactly what was gained and lost in the transition to industrial agriculture and the green revolution. While there have long been critiques of the Green Revolution, many, many people assume that without the work of Norman Borlaug and the other scientists who brought us new hybrids and who convinced much of the world to convert to nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides based on fossil fuels, we cannot feed the world. I am suspicious of this claim, and have been musing on it for some time. It is certainly true that grain yields rose dramatically during the Green Revolution, but how much does and did that actually matter?

Now some of this, all of us interested in the subject already know. We all know that the introduction of massive quantities of fertilizer, the replacement of traditional staple crops with hybrids and the rest of the Green Revolution meant total grain yield increase of 250% over 35 years, with an increase in fossil energy inputs of 50% over traditional agriculture. It would seem that that rate of return was quite gratifying - put in some energy and get five times the total food. That was, however, a short term success, one that couldn't be sustained. The quantity of fossil fuel inputs required to maintain these increased yields and keep up with population growth have grown steadily, and as Dale Allen Pfeiffer observes in _Eating Fossil Fuels_ "Yet, due to soil degradation, the increased demands of pest management, and increasing energy costs for irrigation (all of which is examined below), modern agriculture must continue increasing its energy expenditures simply to maintain current crop yields. The Green Revolution is becoming bankrupt." (Pfeiffer, 9) For those who don't think much about agriculture, the last bit of information should disturb you. The world's population is set to grow for some time (by close to 1/3 before it levels off and begins declining towards the middle of the century, all factors being equal), and we are only just holding steady (actually, there's been a bit of a decline lately) in the amount of food we're able to grow, despite our best efforts. This matters - right now we still produce more than we need. But population is growing steadily, and the climate is changing steadily, and the day is not so far away when our total food yields may not feed the world. And if oil and natural gas peak soon, as seems not unlikely, yields will decline still further. That's a scary prospect.

But there's more to say about those Green Revolution numbers, because they leave out something very important - how much food was actually lost due to the green revolution. Look at the above numbers, the 2.5 fold increase in grain yields, and the situation will look hopeless. But that's not quite the end of the story. Because the Green Revolution actually cost us something too - and not just the costs that all environmentalists are familiar with in fertility, soil erosion, aquifer depletion, etc... but a whole realm of food that we once used to grow and eat that we didn't anymore after the Green Revolution. While the Green Revolution increased grain yields, it also cut back on other food sources. For example, among rice eating people, the pesticides required for the cultivation of the miracle rices produced in the 1960s killed fish and frogs that provided much of the protein in the diets of rice eating people, resulting in, as Margaret Visser points out in _Much Depends on Dinner_, "...the sadly ironic result that 'more rice' could mean 'worse nutrition.' The same can be said of the loss of vegetables often grown in and at the edges of rice paddies. The famous "golden rice" that was supposed to alleviate blindness due to Vitamin A deficiency, a common problem among poor people who have little but rice to eat, ignored the fact that one of the reasons for the decline in Vitamin A consumption was that nutritious vegetables and weeds traditionally grown or harvested with rice were no longer available

The same is true of food grown in the US, in our very own breadbasket. As our corn and wheat and soybeans were produced by larger and larger farms, with more and more industrial equipment, we began to stop producing other, smaller crops that were less amenable to industrialization, but that made up a significant portion of people's diets. For example, virtually every farm family in the US had a garden in the first half of the 20th century, and most of those gardens produced most or all of the family's vegetables. Since we're talking about a time when 1/3-1/5 of the US population lived on farms, that is an enormous quantity of produce. The significance of gardens is easy to underestimate, but it would be an error to do so. During World War II, 40% of the nation's produce was grown in house gardens. The figures were higher in Britain during the same period. In the late 1990s, a study done by the Louisiana Extension service suggested that the average house vegetable garden produced $350 worth of produce. Food produced in gardens was a significant part of our dietary picture not so very long ago, and much of it was lost to industrial agriculture, either directly, in the consolidation of family farms, or indirectly, through agricultural subsidies that made purchased food often nearly as cheap as growing your own, and even social policies that encouraged suburbs to become places of lawns, not vegetable gardens.

House gardens in rural areas, urban centers, and suburbs are another casualty of the Green Revolution - the artificial cheapness of food, created by industrial, subsidized agriculture
in the second half of the 20th century drove the house garden out of existence. We went from producing 40% of our produce to less than 3% in home garden over four decades. And it would be a mistake to see "produce" as watery vegetables like lettuce, and thus believe that few of our calories came from our gardens - among the vegetables lost were dense calorie crops like potatoes and sweet potatoes, which can substitute for grains in the diet.

Going back to what the Green Revolution, and its ugly step-child globalization did to the American farm family - the exhortation by Earl Butz to "get big or get out" in the 1970s, and the systematic farm policies that favored large commodity growers and regional specialization cut back enormously on the quantity of food we produced. Small farmers in the 1940s might have raised corn or wheat as their central crop, but they also grew gardens, had an orchard, raised some pigs for sale and milked a house cow. The loss of all that food value, spread over millions of farm families, was a significant one. A farmer might have tapped his sugar maple trees and sold the syrup, and would probably have sold some eggs. He might also have sold a pig to a neighbor or had a calf butchered and shared the meat. The industrial commodity farmer rarely does these things, and in many cases, the area that permitted them - the woodlot, the barn, the chicken coop have been removed to allow unhindered access to more acres. In a bad crop year, a farmer might have planted a late crop of sunflowers for oil seed, lettuce or something else, which is also not calculated into our total consumption. In many cases a family member might also operate a small truck garden and sell produce locally - even children did this routinely.
All these are foods that were removed from the food stream, and this systematic deprivation over millions of households reprents an enormous loss of total calories produced.

The economic pressure of farms to specialize also took its toll. Joan Dye Gussow, in _This Organic Life_ (Gussow, 141) documents that in the 1920s, Montana was self-sufficient for 75% of its produce, including fruit. Now Montana is one of the harshest climates in the US and has very little water, comparatively speaking, and yet this was possible in part because the economic pressure of big business had not yet persuaded small farmers that they couldn't grow fruit effectively in Montana, but should leave it to Washington and Florida. None of us know how many calories were lost this way, but it is almost certainly an enormous quantity. And this systematic removal in the name of efficiency and specialization happened all over the world to one degree or another.

All this is particularly important because of the urgent distinction between yield and output. Peter Rosset has documented that industrial agriculture is, in fact, more efficient in terms of yield. That is, when five acres of soybeans and five thousand acres of soybeans are compared, you get more soybeans per acre by growing 5000 acres. But when you compare output - that is the total amount of food, fertility and fiber you get from small scale polyculture farms (that just means farms where you grow a bunch of different things, not a single commodity), the five acre farm comes out not just ahead, but vastly ahead in per acre output. It isn't just that five acres are more productive in terms of total output, they are often hundreds of times more productive (Rosset, Rosset's figures are not in dispute, as Rosset points out here:

"Surveying the data, we indeed find that small farms almost always produce far more agricultural output per unit area than larger farms. This is now widely recognised by agricultural economists across the political spectrum, as the "inverse relationship between farm size and output". [5] Even leading development economists at the World Bank have come around to this view, to the point that they now accept that redistribution of land to small farmers would lead to greater overall productivity. [6]"

And the difference in total output rise further when you talk about garden models. A half acre garden is often tens or hundreds of times more productive than the same acreage in industrial agriculture. The displacement of house and farm gardens by industrial agriculture represents a dramatic loss in important food crops due to the Green Revolution. On a given acre of land, the Green Revolution might have increased rice or wheat yields by several times, but since the garden, henhouse and berry bushes that could have been on that acre would have been many times *more productive in total* than what was granted to us by fertilizers and hybridization, what we are experiencing is a net total loss, not a gain in many cases.

This is also important because most of us eat a fairly varied diet. Grain crops are important, but so is the enormous diversity of food in our diets. And many of the vegetable crops that have been lost were significant sources of food, or oil, or flavoring (now displaced by corn syrup and soybean oil). We cannot assess the global food supply correctly by focusing only on grains, or by failing to recognize how much of the calories produced in grain were once produced, often more nutriously, by vegetable and fruit crops. As Hope Shand notes,

"There is no doubt about the global economic importance of these major crops {rice, maize, wheat and soybean}, but the tendency to focus on a small number of species masks the importance of plant species diversity to the world food supply. A very different picture would emerge if we were to look into women's cooking pots and if we could survey local markets and give attention to household use of non-domesticated species" (Hope Shand "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-Based Food Security")

In the US, during most the last 50 years, we have had enormous grain surpluses, mostly of corn, and as Michael Pollan documents in _The Omnivore's Dilemma_, industrial food production has been challenged to keep finding new ways to use our spare corn up. Processed foods are all sweetened with our extra corn, made of processed corn, or of meat from corn fed to livestock. And we have seen a rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease - all associated with high meat, low vegetables, processed food diets. We kept raising our yields, at the cost of our outputs, and our diets came to reflect that - we ate fewer kinds of vegetables and fruits, and fewer of them. To a large degree, what happened was that we gave up foods that we did need to be healthy and have good, varied, tasty diets, and replaced them with a couple of grain crops that we did not particularly need more of, and we harmed ourselves doing so.

I cannot find a single reliable number about how much food was lost to us, worldwide by the Green Revolution. It may never be possible for us to find out what we lost to industrial agriculture, and I will make no claims that I know precisely. If someone can locate such a number, I'd be fascinated. But there is no question that it was enough food to feed millions, maybe even billions of people. And we must, in our analysis of what the Green Revolution cost us, also recognize that we lost an uncertain, but enormous quantity of future food, mortgaging the future to overfeed the present.

As Dale Pfeiffer documents, we have reached the point where the damage caused by the Green Revolution and Globalization mean that we can no longer raise our food yields by technological methods. We are constantly hearing about the latest genetically modified solution, and besides the dangers of GM food, so far none have produced as advertised. The price of industrial agriculture is uncalculated quantities of food that future generations will not have to eat. As the ability of soils to hold water decrease due to erosion and climate change, arable land becomes desert. As soils are depleted of nutrients and the price of natural-gas based nitrogen fertilizers rise, untold people will find the cost of growing their own food in their depleted environment prohibitive.

That said, however, we should not underestimate the resiliance and power of local, indigenous, sustainable agriculture. For example, in _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield and Steven Gorelick cite several World Bank and FAO papers that indicate that as recently as the mid-1990s, *2 billion* people, 35% of the world's population were being fed by traditional agriculture with minimal or no fossil fuel inputs (Norberg- Hodge, Merrifield, Garelick, 4) . This often occurs on marginal land, because the best agricultural land in the South has been turned to non-food, or luxury food items. Shrimp farms displace rice farms in coastal India, Coffee displaces small polyculture farms or food providing forests in Latin America and Africa, flowers displace food in much of Latin America and Asia, cotton, to feed our endless appetite for cheap clothing displaces food in many nations. It will be a non-trivial problem to return this land to sustainable food production, but it is possible. These statistics, along with the others here should at least raise some significant questions in those who believe we know what the earth's proper carrying capacity is. That does not make the issue of population irrelevant, but it does mean we may have time and choices that we did not know we had.

Vandana Shiva describes (and I will quote this at some length, because I think it is very important) what the Green Revolution has done in the third world, but it is important to remember that the loss of calories that occurred there also happened to us - for us, the cost came in the form of our loss of health and nutrition. For the poor of the world, it came as a significant loss of food and nutrition.

"Industrial agriculture has not produced more food. It has destroyed diverse sources of food, and it has stolen food from other species to bring larger quantities of specific commodities to the market, using huge quantities of fossil fuels and water and toxic chemicals in the process.
It is often said that the so-called miracle varieties of the Green Revolution in modern industrial agriculture prevented famine because they had higher yields. However, these higher yields disappear in the context of total yields of crops on farms.

Green Revolution varieties produced more grain by diverting production away from straw. This "partitioning" was achieved through dwarfing the plants, which also enabled them to withstand high doses of chemical fertilizer. However, less straw means less fodder for cattle and less organic matter for the soil to feed the millions of soil organisms that make and rejuvenate soil.

The higher yields of wheat or maize were thus achieved by stealing food from farm animals and soil organisms. Since cattle and earthworms are our partners in food production, stealing food from them makes it impossible to maintain food production over time, and means that the partial yield increases were not sustainable. The increase of yields in wheat and maize under industrial agriculture were also achieved at the cost of yields of other foods a small farm provides. Beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables all disappeared both from farms and from the calculus of yields. More grain from two or three commodities arrived on national and international markets, but less food was eaten by farm families in the Third World.

The gain in "yields" of industrially produced crops is thus based on a theft of food from other species and the rural poor in the Third World. That is why, as more grain is produced and traded globally, more people go hungry in the Third World. Global Markets record more commodities for trading because food has been stolen from nature and the poor." (Vandana Shiva _Stolen Harvest_ 12-13)

As I said, I don't know whether in the net the Green Revolution gave us more food or not. But it is absolutely clear that it did not give us the enormous increases in food that were claimed for it. And it may well be that all of us experienced a loss of nutritious food, or food value. It is manifestly the case that not only may we not need industrial agriculture to feed us, we may well be better off without it.


More on "The Theory of Anyway"

Pat Meadows, my friend who inspired my recent post on ethics has added some commentary on this, including its relevance to major religious faiths, on her blog here: Definitely worth reading.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Long Emergency Mix CD

Just for our own amusement, Eric and I have created our own personal "Music for the Long Emergency" Mix album, and we offer up our playlist for your own amusement. Volume two is coming shortly, since we ran out of space before we could put all the fun stuff we wanted on. The goal was maximum amusement value, maximum irony and maximum strange juxtapositions. We're sure we're missing things, since we mostly pulled stuff out of our own collections, so feel free to suggest things, although anyone who mentions REM or Hootie will be emotionally abused.

Peak Oil Mix Tape #1 Song List:

1. "God's Away On Business" Tom Waits
2. "It Ain't the Money" Macy Gray
3. "Nine to Five" Dolly Parton
4. "Busted" Johnny Cash
6. "Fight the Power" Public Enemy
7. "Little Pink Houses" John Mellencamp
8. "Once in a Lifetime" The Talking Heads
9. "Too Darn Hot" Mel Torme
10. "She Blinded Me With Science" Thomas Dolby
11. "My Oklahoma Home" Bruce Springsteen
12. "Walking Through a Wasted Land" Richard Thompson
13. "The Sky is Crying" Etta James
14. "A Hard Rain Is Going to Fall" Bob Dylan
15. "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" Nancy Griffith
16. "Lord, Mr. Ford" Jerry Reed
17."The Middle of the Road" The Pretenders
18. "The Blackleg Miner" Steeleye Span
19. "Bicycle Race" Queen
21. "Redemption Song" Bob Marley
22. "Gone At Last" Paul Simon
23. "Hayseed Like Me" Pete Seeger
24. "Hands on the Wheel" Willie Nelson
25. "Yell Fire!" Michael Franti


Do the Right Thing

My friend Pat Meadows, a very, very smart woman, has a wonderful idea she calls "The Theory of Anyway." What it entails is this - she argues that 95% of what is needed to resolve the coming crisis in energy depletion, or climate change, or whatever is what we should do anyway, and when in doubt about how to change, we should change our lives to reflect what we should be doing "Anyway." Living more simply, more frugally, using less, leaving reserves for others, reconnecting with our food and our community, these are things we should be doing because they are the right thing to do on many levels. That they also have the potential to save our lives is merely a side benefit (a big one, though).

This is, I think, a deeply powerful way of thinking because it is a deeply moral way of thinking - we would like to think of ourselves as moral people, but we tend to think of moral questions as the obvious ones "should I steal or pay?" "Should I hit or talk?" But the real and most essential moral questions of our lives are the questions we rarely ask of the things we do every day, "Should I eat this?" "Where should I live and how?" "What should I wear?" "How should I keep warm/cool?" We think of these questions as foregone conclusions - I should keep warm X way because that's the kind of furnace I have, or I should eat this because that's what's in the grocery store. Pat's Theory of Anyway turns this around, and points out that what we do, the way we live, must pass ethical muster first - we must always ask the question "Is this contributing to the repair of the world, or its destruction."

So if you told me that tomorrow, peak oil had been resolved, I'd still keep gardening, hanging my laundry, cutting back and trying to find a way to make do with less. Because even if we found enough oil to power our society for a thousand years, there would still be climate change, and it would be *wrong* of me to choose my own convenience over the security and safety of my children and other people's children. And if you told me tomorrow that we'd fixed climate change, that we could power our lives forever with renewables, I would still keep gardening and living frugally. Because our agriculture is premised on depleted soil and aquifers, and we're facing a future in which many people don't have enough food and water if we keep eating this way, and to allow that to happen would be a betrayal of what I believe is right. And if you told me that we'd fixed that problem too, that we were no longer depleting our aquifers and expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, I'd still keep gardening and telling others to do the same, because our reliance on food from other nations, and our economy impoverishes and starves millions, even billions of poor people and creates massive economic inequities that do tremendous harm. And if you told me that globalization was over, and that we were going to create a just economic system, and we'd fixed all the other problems, and that I didn't have to worry anymore, would I then stop gardening?

No. Because the nurture of my piece of land would still be the right thing to do. Doing things with no more waste than is absolutely necessary would still be the right thing to do. The creation of a fertile, sustainable, lasting place of beauty would still be my right work in the world. I would still be a Jew, obligated by G-d to Tikkun Olam, to "the repair of the world." I would still be obligated to live in way that prevented wildlife from being run to extinction and poisons contaminating the earth. I would still be obligated to make the most of what I have and reduce my needs so they represent a fair share of what the earth has to offer. I would still be obligated to treat poor people as my siblings, and you do not live comfortably when your siblings suffer or have less. I am obligated to live rightly, in part because of what living rightly gives me - integrity, honor, joy, a better relationship with my diety of choice, peace.

There are people out there who are prepared to step forward and give up their cars, start growing their own food, stop consuming so much and stop burning fossil fuels...just as soon as peak oil, or climate change, or government rationing, or some external force makes them. But that, I believe is the wrong way to think about this. We can't wait for others to tell us, or the disaster to befall us. We have to do now, do today, do with all our hearts, the things we should have been doing "Anyway" all along.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

You have to read this...

I thought I'd seen all of Dmitry Orlov's wonderful essays on peak oil, but I missed this one, and it is well worth a read - very funny and, like all his stuff, spot on.

My favorite passages are these:

"Now, take the drivers' average income and hours worked, and find out how many hours of labor it takes to cover all of these costs. Add to that the actual time spent driving. Now take the number of vehicle miles traveled, and divide it by the total number of hours spent both driving and earning enough money to pay for cars. Rather than give you the answers, I encourage you to do your own homework, but I can tell you that the end result of this exercise is always the same: the bicycle is faster than the car, and, depending on one's assumptions, driving is slower than walking."


"In short, the only freedom the car confers is the freedom to drive to and fro between places where you are not free, and the only true exception to this rule is your own driveway. No proper suburban home can be without one: it is your own private highway that leads to your own private house. This image dictates that it be expensively and unnecessarily paved, and not with paving stones, for then it would be a walkway rather than a driveway, but with asphalt. Suburban driveways are not paved for the benefit of the cars, which can handle dirt roads, and clearly not for the benefit of the now commonplace off-road vehicles, but for the benefit of satisfying some innate drive within their drivers: the urge to own a piece of the road.

The symbolic function of the suburban home is to serve as the final resting place at the end of the long drive home. Peace and quiet are considered to be its most essential features, and although the overt preoccupation is with safety and security, its source is an irrational urge for ultimate peace. If a suburban dweller were to trade both the car and the house for an apartment within city limits, the increased chance of becoming a victim of violent crime would be more than offset by the decreased chance of dying in an auto accident, and so the choice is not a rational one from the standpoint of safety.

The real concern is not with safety but with the embodiment of an abstract image of peace. Zoning regulations and bylaws restrict noisy hobbies and deviations from community standards, for it is a sacrilege to violate the eternal slumber of the suburbanite. The ideal suburb features an unbroken expanse of manicured grass dotted with little neoclassical monuments, all slightly different yet all essentially the same. This is the essential d├ęcor of a cemetery: the house is in fact a family crypt. Not surprisingly, the final destination of the death-car is the death-house.

All other functions of the death-house, save one, are superfluous, since people can, and do, eat, sleep, and have sex in their cars. As cars grow larger and commutes become longer, more and more of the living is done inside the car, with the sepulchral dwelling only used to unwrap fast food, keep beer cold, and fall asleep in front of the television set. But the death-house has one room that is essential, because it offers services a car cannot provide. This is the bathroom, and it contains the shower, and, of course, the toilet. And not just any toilet: a chamberpot or a bucket of sawdust simply would not do. No, it must be a most unlikely contraption that allows one to defecate directly into a pool of drinking water (which may be deodorized according to taste) and flush it down with copious amounts of more drinking water. How curious it is that while other carnivores have an instinct to bury their feces, to avoid spreading disease, these ones insist on mixing theirs into their drink! Various expensive artifices, none entirely successful, are then needed to keep the drinking water and the sewage apart."

What's Going On Around Here

Well, winter seems finally to have arrived. We're expecting below 0 temps tonight, for the first time this year. And things seem to be getting back to normal - which is nice.

Eric started his new semester this past week, which was, oddly enough, kind of a relief for me. I love having him home, but this winter break wasn't quite like most of the past ones - his being home meant that I could (and should) work on the book more or less full time. And so most days, I'd disappear into the computer room and Eric would take the kids. And...I hated it. I didn't like sitting in front of the computer all the time, what Eric Brende calls "the voluntary quadrapalegia of contemporary life" - it made me stiff and achy. I didn't like being away from my kids so much - or the way Asher would sob when I passed him to Daddy (something that never bothered him before) or how Isaiah would ask me very solemnly if I would come with him places. And I didn't like all the other things that didn't get done. I don't think I'm meant to be a full time writer. So even though the kids have colds and were cranky, I was actually very happy to get back to my normal, less productive but more fun, life.

All of this is part of a set of anxieties I have about the book. Other people, I'm told, have fear of failure. I tend towards fear of success. I've gotten a lot of offers to come speak since the Community Solutions Conference, and so far, I've turned them all down - I enjoy speaking, but I don't want to leave my family more than very occasionally, and I don't want to fly for environmental reasons. Unfortunately, if the book is published and successful, I probably won't have the luxury of saying "no." I worry that if I do write a good book, the job of promoting it, speaking and writing about what I've done will overtake my life. I don't want to be a hypocrite, telling people how to live a life I am not presently living. I don't mind making recommendations and detailing my flaws, but if I get on an airplane and fly about the country instead of planting corn, or hire someone to clean my toilets so that I can write about how necessary it is we do it ourselves, I'll look like a flaming asshole, and I don't want to be one. Not to mention the fact that I don't *want* to be apart from my family. We've very carefully arranged our lives so that we have a lot of time together - we don't always have a lot of money, but for us, time to be together is worth more than cash. I'm a domestic creature to a large degree - that's why it is so easy for me to focus in on food and shelter and clothing - because those basic things engage me more than many abstractions.

So there's a part of me that hopes the book isn't a success. That part is overridden by the part of me (known as my ego, and just slightly smaller India ;-), that hopes we're a howling success, that Oprah wants to add the first peak oil book to her book club and that Dick Cheney will read it and say, "Oh, of course, we should have been conserving, not invading. Damn. Why didn't I think of that? Maybe I'll plant some peas on the White House lawn now." So we've got what some folks might call a certain level of ambivalence here. But I'm not complaining too much that I've got more domestic work and a little less time to write.

In other news, Asher, at 14 1/2 months is going for the record as our latest walker. He has been taking steps occasionally for a month now, but I don't think it has ever occurred to him to use it as a mode of locomotion. Like his brother Isaiah, he's learned to locomote while carrying things, which sort of obviates the largest incentive to walk. But we're anticipating any time now.

Our non-electric kitchen renovation proceeds apace. We've painted, are putting in the new sink (the hand pump and cistern will have to wait until the ground melts in spring), having new shelving put in, and my Waterford Stanley cookstove arrived this week, right after our ice storm, causing a major degree of unhappiness in the two gentlemen whose job it was to get the 700lb cast iron stove up the ice covered driveway and into the house. No major injuries were caused, fortunately. If I can figure out how, I'll try and post before and after photos once the work is finally done.

And finally, seed starting and seed ordering are beginning. I'll start leeks, pansies, onions, scallions, some kale and bok choy, parsley for pesach, some very early sweet peas (for pots) and the stuff that has to stratified this coming week. Because I grow so much stuff and order too many seeds every year, I've picked up a trick to organize what has to be done. Every year, afte the first of the year, when calendars are really cheap, I buy one (this year, I didn't - I'm using a homemade one), and then I count backwards from my last frost date, and on the first couple of days of the week, list what seeds to start. Then, on the later part of the week, I list the ones I actually got to - which makes it easy to slide things over to the next week. I then put each week's seed packets in a plastic bin or tin (coffee cans are good). I keep seperate tins for "start inside" and start outside. It helps me keep track, because often I have to start things several times during the season (first and second plantings of things like broccoli and lettuce, for example). I also write in everything to be planted in or out during the whole season, ending with spinach that I start inside (to keep it cooler) at the end of August for winter. I'm also trying to note temperatures, how much rain and snow we get, what birds we're seeing, etc... Climate change is obviously changing things, and it is helpful to keep records of how our local systems seem to be arranging themselves.

I think that's about all the news from our place. Anyone else got anything exciting going on?


Friday, January 19, 2007

The opposite of poor is not rich... is self-sufficient. That's the observation of Jeremy Seabrook in _The No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty_ (good book, btw). I think this is an important point, particularly because we're very vulnerable to the traditional measure of self-sufficiency (that is, cash) being devalued. We all know how shaky American currency is right now - we're being propped up economically by precisely the people that we're competing with. That makes for some interesting possible scenarios. Lester Brown details one, in which China, which is on the verge of some major grain shortfalls, may end up competing for the food we grow with us - and winning. Another possibility is currency collapse. My friend Les, from Tennessee, who has a much stronger grasp of how markets work than I ever will, once explained it as we import 80% (actually a bit more now) of the savings of *EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD* to make up our deficit. That this situation is untenable, and probably can't last, is really no shock. Les suggests one watch the hedge fund markets, and on the day the economy crashes, go out and buy a couple of pairs of boots from China - because you won't see $75 boots again for a long, long, long time. More like $450. And when that comes up against our ability to buy oil...well...

Now most Americans have little or no savings, and those who do, many of whom are baby boomers like my parents planning to retire in a few years, are terribly vulnerable to an economic crisis. Everything is in the markets. If the markets are devalued, so is their future security.

Now I'm sure economists of all stripes will tell you I'm nuts, but if the opposite of poor is self-sufficient, it seems like there are some good and interesting ways to avoid being stripped if the currency collapses. Now maybe it will never happen, but then again, this falls in the category of things that can't hurt you anyway. So here are six things that (IMHO) will contribute to your security.

1. Stay out of debt. Get out of consumer debt, and pay down your mortgage ASAP. Stop buying stuff you can't afford, sell off extra things you don't need if necessary to pare down your debt. If you carry a mortgage, the more of your property you own, the less likely you are to be foreclosed upon and the more likely it is that banks will negotiate. If you have a huge home loan, consider either paying it down by selling something or buying a cheaper house. Or consider consolidating with family members. If you are considering making housing changes, I would do it soon - most of the people I've read doubt we've seen the bottom of the housing market, and negative equity could kick in quite quickly, making it impossible for people to move.

2. Don't need so much. Get good at repairing things, making do. Learn to avoid waste. Get good at stretching meals and mending clothes. Get over your anxieties about looking poor, and start cutting back everywhere you can. While there are essentials that everyone needs, no one can deprive you of your luxuries without your consenting to feel deprived.

3. Keep a reserve of both money and goods. Ideally, keep some of your money in something that isn't subject to rapid devaluations. I'm no expert on this one - some people say gold, some people say, silver, some people say foreign currencies or treasury bonds, some people say cash under the bed. Look around and research the options and make your own decisions - I don't really have a strong opinion on this one. What I do have a strong opinion on is this - that anything you buy now and reserve for later is probably going to help you economically. That includes a reserve of food, tools, clothing, basic goods, etc... So if you can do it without going into debt or stretching your reserves, I would strongly recommend a six month supply (at a minimum) of storable food, seeds and basic necessities, supplemented with a backup of other basic items - an extra pair of glasses, some extra blankets, boots, warm clothes, whatever you might need to replace within a few years. Worst comes to worst, and you are ahead of the game on your shopping.

4. Access to natural resources. Money is paper. It is often a nice kind of paper to have, but at its root, money depends on a stable economy. A really unstable economy often results in inflation, or deflation, or, if you'd rather, a lot of unpleasant crap where your money isn't worth much. On the other hand, the things that money mostly gets traded for are useful, even if you don't have money in many cases. Even if you can't sell your potatoes, you can eat them, and trade them to your neighbors. Maybe you don't have money, but you have trees, and other people need firewood. Even if you live in a city, grow some of your own food in pots. The soil in those pots may keep you together some day. You can cut out the middle person to some degree (they still don't take tax payments in chickens anywhere I know of) by simply producing the things that money is a substitute for - soil, a good mine, a forest...these are good things to have. Just don't waste or strip them - use them wisely and carefully.

5. A strong community and/or family (ideally both). Your tribe are the people you can pool resources with in hard times - the ones who will take you in if the bottom falls out from under you, or share what they have if things get difficult. A strong community means that the more vulnerable members - pregnant women, mothers of very young children, the elderly, the disabled, small children - can be secure and protected. A community is stronger than an individual or individual household. Make sure you have one, and that it will hold through hard times.

6. The ability to live in the unofficial economy as well as the real economy. Only 1/4-1/3 of the total work human beings do is part of the "official" economy. That is, counted in GDP figures, taxed, included in discussion. Almost 3/4 of what human beings engage in operates in the unofficial economy - the biological economy, from which subsistence farmers, foresters, hunters, and gatherers obtain food, fiber and heat, the household economy, in which the work of domestic labor and childrearing is specifically not considered as "counting," the family economy in which members of biological or chosen families extend credit to one another and share resources, the criminal economy, where the Mafia, the guy who grows pot in his backyard and the Mom who pays the babysitter under the table operate, the barter economy where you trade goods for one another, and other permutations of the unofficial economy. This is where most of most human beings's real work goes on. And the less dependent we are on the "official" economy, and official jobs, the more secure we are. In practical terms this doesn't mean quitting your job, but it does mean having a skill set that will allow you to be, say, an handywoman or a home seamstress, a farmer or a childcare provider in the unofficial economy, able to subsist and earn a small amount of extra income through under-the-table or barter projects. Because no matter how few people are employed or how bad the economy is, the daily exchanges that are necessary for life will probably go on to some degree.

It isn't that nothing can destroy even the most self-sufficient and prepared person's preparations. That can happen in an instant. But by hedging your bets, we can make ourselves less vulnerable. We can retain our stake in the official economy, will still building our security and self-sufficience.

For those who have a hard time imagining that times could ever be that bad, or that hard, I strongly recommend two books. Timothy Egan's _The Worst Hard Time_ is an account of the people who stayed and endured the dustbowl. His account of the man-made disaster, the dust storms that lasted for days and the droughts that endured for years is both acute and compelling. His most important observation is that people did it, unknowingly, to themselves - the dust storms that went on for days, the death of virtually all the livestock on the prarie, children dying of dust-pneumonia, hunger, thirst, heat and drought. It is worth observing that right now the same areas are enduring an extended drought that has been called worse than the dustbowl. The other book is David Shannon's older work, _The Great Depression_ - it uses primary source material to describe the lead up to the depression and the collapse that follows. The descriptions of the housing boom and bust, and the hunger that went hand in hand with farmers unable to sell their food is both disturbing and evocative.

In almost every way, the people who endured the depression and the dust-bowl were vastly more self-sufficient than we were. And for those who survived, that, not their savings or their planning, were what enabled them to go on. It is also worth observing that in many ways, the thing that brought us out of the great depression was cheap energy. I don't think we should count on that happening again.


Living Off the Waste of Industrial Society

My friend, MEA, inspires me a lot with her attention to the moral details of conservation. She has written eloquently on various groups we've both on about the impact of deriving secondary benefits from industrial society, and thus enabling it. And I think her ideas are important ones. Because the more dependent we are on the consumption of others to allow us to live sustainably, the harder it will be to maintain in the long term.

What am I talking about? Well, there's the fact that I've decided to cheat on my buy-nothing year this summer so that I can buy used clothing at yard sales for my children, particularly my oldest son. My reasoning is, of course, that it would be foolish to miss a whole season of yard saling and then have to buy retail in the fall to make sure he has enough clothes. Now this reasoning is absolutely correct - used items have a smaller environmental impact, by buying them we're keeping things from being wasted, etc... But it is also a way of making me dependent upon other people buying lots of stuff. Someone has to buy new clothes, and lots of them, in order for me to have anything to pass down. There's a whole movement, called "The Compact" in which people agree not to buy anything new. But how hard would that movement be if there weren't so many used things to buy. Amy Dacyzyn, of the _Tightwad Gazette_ observed that once, yard sales tended only to carry battered, poor quality items, but now times have changed - that is, they've changed precisely in relation to our lack of commitment to making do, using things up, repairing them and not buying many new things.

Here's another example - a recent paper came out of MIT, cautiously endorsing corn-based ethanol. The woman who ran the study pointed out that whether ethanol comes out as having any net energy benefit at all depends on how you define the product - that is, which energy inputs you count, and what value you give the co-product, that is, the fermented grain left over after ethanol is produced. Draw a small enough circle around what you'll include and ethanol is a net positive. Expand the circle enough, and it turns out not to be. David Pimmental at Cornell and Ted Paczek at Berkeley have done a number of studies saying no, the USDA (surprise, surprise), says yes. But what Tiffany Groote's MIT study did that was interesting was say, "you are both right." Her cautious yes on whether ethanol is a net energy positive, and whether its pollution consequences are lower depends on using the coproduct of ethanol production to feed to industrially farmed animals. But guess what? It turns out that feedlot meat is a bigger contributor to global warming than SUVs are - because feedlot meat is to incredibly toxic to the environment and consumes such a crazy amount of energy, using ethanol by products to feed cows, which seems like a good use for waste, turns out to be just a way of propping up a disastrous system and doing more harm.

On another group I'm on, there was a discussion of the rise in price in pellets for wood stoves. It turns out that a combination of the rise in recycled plastic lumber (which uses sawdust as part of its materials) and the decline of the new house boom has meant that there isn't as much sawdust around, and it is getting more and more costly to burn it in the form of pellets. Now this is kind of a problem for several reasons. First of all, that means people who have pellet stoves may burn more oil and natural gas instead. But second of all, it represents another way that the best of intentions (making good use of a waste product to reduce energy consumption), may come back to haunt us. Because when we're dependent on the by product of industrial, cheap energy, wealthy societies, a reduction in wealth and or cheap energy, or a desire to limit the environmental consequences mean that we're that much less able to shift over to a truly long-term system. If, for example, new home construction drops even further, there will be a whole lot of people with pellet stoves either paying more for pellets than they might have, or simply unable to maintain their backup heat system. And if it turns out that pellet stoves aren't such a long term good deal, because many require electricity and because the price and availability of pellets depend on the housing market, we'll all have wasted a lot of energy, and time and money on manufacturing, buying, using pellet stoves - and we'll still have to find another heating alternative.

It isn't that it is bad or wrong to make use of the by products of industrial society. The issue is that we have to start thinking more than 2 steps ahead, and our infrastructure needs to be adapted so that it is neither dependent on cheap energy, high carbon outputs and high consumption, but also so that it isn't dependent on its waste. That is, there's nothing wrong with me using other people's outgrown clothes for my family, but I need to be thinking hard about what happens when the cost of clothing and the economy mean that most people are hanging on to their discards? What happens when more people need to rely on waste, and fewer people can afford to waste things?

Books like _Planet of Slums_ document the millions, even billions of people who are now living, to a large degree, off the garbage and waste of affluent people. In Asia, Africa and Central America, there are now millions of people who live their whole life on the edge of giant dumps, being slowly poisoned by the toxins therein, scavenging wire, or food, or bits of plastic from the things rich people simply throw away. Our own scavenging is usually cleaner and safer, but on some level, those of us who derive our security from the discards of cheap energy and lots of carbon are both enabling and vulnerable to the day when it begins to ... stop. And we need to take care, both in a personal sense, that our security is not so dependent on waste that it collapses when waste lessons, but also that we are not enabling things to continue warming the planet and wasting our remaining resources. Because someday, unless we wish to make our livings from the dumps of the rich, it will indeed, have to... STOP.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Am I romanticizing poverty?

Someone who reads my blog recently emailed me with the accusation that my Community Solutions Paper and my writings in general are a call to mass, collective return to poverty, and that I'm intentionally romanticizing subsistence agriculture. And I started wondering, am I?

And the answer, I suspect, is a little bit, in the sense that I don't think anything is served by my saying, "your future and the future of your children is drudgery and misery." I think it is certainly possible that I elide some difficulties - or rather, that I prefer not to focus on them. Some of that is the optimist issue - I am one, despite my dark prognosis for our culture. And part of it is that ultimately most of the things that will necessarily get harder aren't the things I value most. That is, I suspect our physical loads will get heavier. On the other hand, I suspect that will only be good for my overall health and wellbeing, so I choose to look at it not as a negative, but as mostly a positive.

There are some things about a life low on the economic food chain that, I think, really are better. For example, poor agrarian societies generally have stronger social ties. In many cases, people who live in simpler economies with fewer things they can't have dangling in front of them report themselves to be happier. And the things about contemporary, wealthy society that really matter are mostly things that we can continue to have - if we are very careful. The things that wealth has given us that I value are these: basic medical care, including birth control and preventative care, social support networks for the elderly, the disabled, the very poor and other vulnerable people, good education, access to information, access to clean water, safe food and secure shelter, personal freedom and a just society. And what is fascinating about all these things is that they aren't very expensive. A good education, up to and including college doesn't have to cost 30K a year. Basic public medical care including vaccinations, preventative medicine, midwifery, simple palliative care for the dying, many basic medications, birth control, and some hospital care doesn't have to cost us what it does. Neither do libraries, public services and support programs for the poor.

It is worth remembering that when the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped supplying oil to Cuba, crashing the economy and everything along with it, the Cuban government did exactly the opposite of what the American government does in hard times - they kept up their social support programs. Instead of taking much needed funds out of education, social welfare, programs for the elderly and poor, they kept those up. They opened new University campuses and more clinics since people couldn't travel as far or as easily for medical care and education. That's a choice we can make too - if we want to.

On the other hand, am I going to deny that our wealth has been extremely pleasant? Heck no. I've enjoyed all sorts of things other people can never imagine. I've travelled. I've had pretty things. I have a home of my own, I can travel to visit family far away, I have nice clothes and cool toys and a computer to write on and the internet. Right now I'm sitting here on a 15 degree day, two sleeping dogs at my feet, in a warm house typing and listening to The Little Willies. Pretty soon I'll get up and dig some leftover Thai noodles (Eric makes them) out of the fridge for my lunch. Would I prefer to be outside, hand pumping icy water into buckets and carrying it? How about chopping wood?

Probably not, although I may go out and hatchet up some kindling later on, since our new woodstove just arrived and I want to have a good supply. But for me, the larger question is this. If that were my life, if I were hauling water in the cold instead of writing here, would I be unhappy? Maybe momentarily, but generally speaking, I don't think so. I like personal comfort as much as anyone else, but, as chintzy as this factoid will seem, the things I really care about don't depend on my not having to grow food or haul water.

Our perceptions drive our sense of what is work more than the actual work does. How many people can remember doing some now-unthinkable job when they were young and poor, and now say, "but we were happy." I've met people who walked in the snow to their outhouses, who boiled their laundry on their coal stoves, who hung their dripping, freezing laundry off a fourth story balcony. And I've hauled a month's worth of laundry 1/2 a mile on my back in a sack, I've carried my groceries for a mile, stood outside in the cold waiting for a bus every morning, walked four miles to work... And when I look back at every one of those activities, it really wasn't that big a deal.

We tend to look back on what we used to do and think "Amazing. We were happy. All that work didn't impinge on us enjoying life." But what's amazing about that is what we've forgotten - that all that work really doesn't impinge on us enjoying life when it is our life. We take on our labor savers as though they are a miracle, but the life we had before them is usually not so very bad afterall. The miracle, if you can call it that, is that they've reshaped our memories so that our pasts are untenable, and untenantable to us - we begin to think that we can't go home again.

Do I romanticize subsistence agriculture? Maybe a little. I like farming, and someone who doesn't might not agree with me. And I tend to think that if we're going to have to do something (and I have little doubt that we have to, for a host of reasons), we might as well go into it excited, treating it as an opportunity to optimize and improve upon our lives, rather than as a tragedy to be endured.

But I also note that I'm happier since we moved here. And I think this might not be a purely personal preference. Some of you may have watched the PBS documentary series "Frontier House." Like all such things, it was imperfect in its creation, to some degree more about the personalities than the work. It was originally intended to debunk the myth of Little House on the Prarie, the romanticism of subsistence agriculture. And in the end, it failed to do so - in fact, it proved that that romanticism wasn't entirely misplaced.

At the end of 6 months without any of the amenities of 21st century life, without indoor plumbing or refrigeration, thermostats or grocery stores, 7 adults and 6 children came out of the experience changed. A majority of the adults and all the children overwhelmingly found that they preferred their frontier lives to the ones they returned to. One of the men actually moved back to live in his old cabin and help out on the ranch where the filming had occurred. Another child experienced a serious depression, because she missed the life she described as more "real." Overwhelmingly, the kids on the show said that they missed having chores, they missed taking care of animals, and they missed being with their parents all the time (this included multiple teenagers). A wealthy woman building a 5000 square foot house admitted that her house felt too big, and that in a 400 square foot cabin, six people had never felt crowded.

Now Frontier House was television, but what matters about it is how thoroughly it failed to do what it set out to do - it showed all the physical harships of frontier life, but the producers had assumed that those physical hardships would overwhelm every other part of the experience. They did for a short adjustment period, and then they ceased to for most of the participants (in general, the women were less happy than the men, in part because of the producer's insistence on mimicking traditional gender roles). And what happened is that the emotional, and spiritual and personal benefits of the life overtook the transitory concerns of physical work, and again, life was good.

So maybe I'm a little romantic. But I draw hope that if we may not be more comfortable, we might still be having fun.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Help Susie Get Her Chickens!!

My step-Mom, Sue, has wanted chickens for a while. She and my Mom live in a row house in a town on Cape Ann in Massachusetts. They have about 1/8 acre on a long, thin, narrow lot. The very back of it is very shady, and difficult to garden in. And Susie, with my encouragement, has determined that the best thing they could do with that portion of the yard is get a few chickens. She's checked zoning and the board of health, and it looks like a few hens will be fine.

The problem is, my Mom doesn't want her to have them. She thinks that chickens are too weird (my mother and step mother live in the only state in the Union where a lesbian couple with chickens is a lot weirder than being a lesbian couple with no chickens ;-), and that they don't belong there. I, of course, being the helpful daughter that I am, have been doing everything I possibly can to abet Susie on her poultry-quest. I got them Heifer fund chicks this year, and told my Mom that I got Sue some chicks. My Mom's response? "I hate you. I really hate you."

Still, Mom has softened up some, even though she doesn't like to admit it. She was recently heard to say the words "our chickens." Now according to her, she immediately regretted it, but still, that's progress. My sister Rachael just bought a house in a nearby town, and has been admiring the Polish hens from the Murray McMurray catalog (they are cool looking), and my youngest sister's husband wants some ducks (youngest sister is not to enthused). So there's considerable family peer pressure to get into the poultry game (me, I'm musing on whether to add turkeys and more geese...)

But I also thought that my Mom, who is currently recuperating from surgery, might also be moved by some testimonials, particularly from people who were a little ambivalent about the chickens in the first place, or who are raising their poultry in cities and suburbs, rather than out in the country like me. So if you have chickens, and you were either a reluctant poultry owner or a town or suburb dweller, leave a comment reassuring my Mom that chickens are cute, chickens are friendly, chickens are fun, and if you are already kind of weird, having chickens just adds to your luster ;-)


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Wanna see the talk I gave (sort of) at Community Solutions?

The talk I *wrote* is here, at I have no idea what I actually said when I ad libbed. But this isn't totally far off.


"A Little Weasel In It:" How our Language Tells Us What We Think

"Now I hears talkin' about de Constitution and
de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold
of dis Constitution. It loos might big, and I feels
for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says,
'God, what ails dis Constitution?' He says to me,
'Sojurner, dere is a little weasel in it."
-Sojurner Truth

On another list, someone scolded me for daring to use the word "productivity" to apply to land, instead of people. He argued that in common parlance, only people produce things. I argued back (and in less than wholly courteous terms, since this an issue I care a lot about - after all, I've spent my entire adult life as either a person who teaches other people's writing or a writer), that, in fact, such a claim was raving horse manure. Now it is absolutely true that "productivity" as economists mean only applies to people (mostly, actually some economists do actually refer to it in regard to land, if the quick paper search I did is any evidence). But the word "productive" derives from Latin and French words that meant "generative, able to give birth to." And no one has ever written a sentence that implied that people give birth to potatoes - the land gives birth to those potatoes, and we are the midwives who enable them. The earth is fruitful, and agriculture, when practiced wisely, enables that generative power to both feed us and renew itself. The earth feeds us, and we enable and serve it (at least we used to).

The linguistic shift that makes people the ones who generate food is the one that enables a fully exploitative sense of what land is. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out that children do not learn about chairs by having them described to them, or by imagining chairs in their Platonic form, but by sitting on chairs, and climbing upon them - that language begins at the point of our experience with the world. And the people who used the word "productivity" chose it because they had experience growing potatoes and wheat on soil - they were farmers and house gardeners, and they saw what the relationship of humans to the earth was, and described it. The people who then went on to describe land in other terms were, generally speaking, not the ones who had to live with or on it, not the ones who went hungry if its productivity declined, not the ones who planted potatoes, or even who lived nearby and at the gardener or farmer's potatoes. They were people who sat in office buildings trading potatoes in large quantities, and whose priority was..., well, we all know what the priority is.

The term I was ordered to use, if I wanted the great mass of those who read my papers to understand me, was "efficiency." Now efficiency is a word that applies to what can be taken from land - as far as we can tell, my old friend Chaucer invented the word in english, and it means what can be brought about. That is, the productivity of land is what the land can generate from its natural state. Efficiency is what people can make the land do. There's an important distinction here, because we've proven over and over that we can make the land do an awful lot - for a little while. Then we get consequences, like salinization, erosion, falling crop yields, aquifer depletion, demineralization.

Now what's *really* interesting about this is that efficiency often isn't. We like to think that industrial agriculture is more efficient - with all those big tractors bustling about, it must be, right? And that's true, if you are talking about extracting the maximum amount of food from a place with a minimum of human labor - that is, if you want to use 1 person to feed 1000 people. But if you talk about what the land is capable of producing, the land can produce much, much more food when farmed in smaller, even much smaller units. This is a really important thing. If land efficiency is calculated as "the most food/fiber/fertility I can generate with the fewest human inputs" then tractors make a lot sense. But if land efficiency is calculated as "the most food/fiber/fertility I can generate *per piece of land*" then tractor farming is much, much, much less efficient. The per acre output of a 10000 acre farm is 2000 times lower than the per acre output of a 1 acre farm.

That gardens and small farms are more productive than giant farmed fields should be no great surprise to us - it has been known since the 18th century at least in France, and long before that in China. But economics points to rises in "yield" as farms increase in size. Which means that you can get more corn off a particular thousand acres than 100 acres if you increase to 1000 acre size. But economics never asks what you don't get - where the wildlife and the eroded soil go. Where the food that used to come out of the pasture fields, gardens and from the livestock of the 100 acre polyculture farm went. It doesn't count any of that. It just says, "look, more corn."

Words matter. What the words we have available to use mean shapes the way we're able to think. And, as Sojurner Truth said both of the consitution and of the language it was written in, in many cases, there's a little weasel in what we say. What she meant, of course, is that we're using our words to change the meanings of things. The constitution spoke of universal rights, but it turns out that they weaseled it into meaning something else, something we eventually had to have the most deadly war in our history to fix.

There's a little weasel in our language today. I don't just mean the ways that we use words to avoid the realities - calling Iraq sectarian violence instead of civil war, or describing poor people in the southern hemisphere as "the developing world" even though in many cases they are being systematically denied economic development. I'm talking about the ways in which our word choices make it impossible for us to imagine other alternatives.

I have already heard a biofuels advocate refer to a second-growth forest as "heat-producing biomass." If that's what it is, we might as well cut it down and burn it, because that's what it is *for.* A field full of soybeans are not a crop, or a field of food, but "biodiesel feed stocks." Now I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I can't eat biodiesel feedstocks, so there would be no point in observing that field could feed a lot of hungry people instead of a bunch of hungry automobiles.

We hear about world oil reserves, and we imagine something reassuring, a place where the remaining oil the world is just waiting for us to come and get it. But in fact, much of what constitutes world oil reserves are things we don't know if we can extract, or if we can afford to extract them. And since nations report their own reserves, in many cases without oversight, we don't know if they exist, although we're relying on them. We hear "clean burning fuel" and think "oh, thank g-d, they've found a solution that will keep my car running," and we don't notice that it only burns clean in your gas tank - it actually produces more pollution back at the refinery and the factory.

The language of commerce and economics is, to a large degree, the language of little weasels. It is a language that never counts the real cost of anything, that seeks to obfuscate and mislead. It is not the language of ordinary people. It is the language, for example, that turned the word "farmer" - which through most of history in our nation and in most of the world right now means someone who grows food for themselves and a little extra, no matter how large or small their plot of land, and turned it into a word for someone who does large scale, heavy equipment agriculture. It erased thousands of people who were farming, and obliterated our connection with millions, even billions of small farmers over the world at large. It made "being a farmer" something distant, unachievable, extraordinary, when in fact the work itself is local, eminently achievable, and the basic work of human beings all over the world.

I have no objection to economics having its own jargon - every discipline does. But language does not belong to the economists - it is public and democratic, and to the extent that we allow the economic viewpoint, which externalizes all the inconveniences, pollutants and consequences, to form our thinking, we accept the inevitability of pollution, and global warming, and peak oil. Language shapes us. It shapes what we think and what we believe and who we are. And if we're to reshape our world, back to the days of guarding the productive capacity of our land and farming, we're going to have to chase down the little weasels and put them out of our misery and our mouths.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

I screwed up

I have represented rumor as fact. In my "Where to Buy Seeds and Where Not To" essay, I claimed that Seminis had bought Burpee, which appears not to be the case. I apologize for screwing up.

Other than changing the shock value, however, I don't think it changes anything about Burpee in practice - I still don't want to buy Seminis seed varieties from them, and I don't recommend anyone else do either. I also find the close relationship of their boards, as discussed here:
to be a little queasy-making.

Still, the goal is to give good and accurate information, and this was bad, inaccurate information. My apologies.


More on Nudity

Matt Savinar of has been picking up some pieces from this blog over at his site, and the one he most recently added was my suggestion for a calendar of male peak oil luminaries posing, as it were, as nature created them Now Matt and I periodically have clashed on the great Freudian question, "What Do Women Want," usually right around the time I bring up the suggestion that Matt, who unlike Congressman Roscoe Bartlett is not 83 years old, ought to be our pull-out centerfold. He's pretty much the youngest major figure in the movement (as far as I know), and he has most of his hair and faculties intact (also as far as I know). Matt sent me this a while back, under the title, "Video of Hot Stud Inside" - I offer it to the world for their collective imaginings of how Matt would look as Mr. October

First of all, let me be absolutely clear that I never actually took this idea seriously. I never planned to do it. I could care less what Colin Campbell looks like in the altogether. I'm probably happier not knowing. With four small children, I have a hard enough time finding energy to lust after my own spouse, much less strangers talking about oil depletion curves. I presented this as a joke, but also to illustrate two points. First of all, that very rich people and corporations are presently selling the message that everything will be ok, that we can hold our basic life together by just converting to ethanol or whatever the dream of the week is. And they are doing this with lots, and lots of advertising (big surprise). Someday, people in the peak oil movement might also want to tell the story of our future to the world, probably though advertising. So raising money is important and so is disrupting the primary cultural narrative in as many creative and funny ways as possible.

The second point is, as I have written before, peak oil needs women (and minorities, and younger people, and just about everyone *but* middle aged petroleum engineers - we're doing ok there) to participate, and thus far we're doing a spectacularly crappy job of getting the attention of much of the populace. Whatever we do to address this, we've got to get women involved and included. *AND* we have to learn to laugh at ourselves. Self-righteousness will get us only so far before everyone gets bored and wanders off to watch "Snakes on a Plane."

Now Matt is right that the peak oil club is full of men who are famous for their intellects, not shapely behinds. There are a couple of exceptions. My co-writer Aaron Newton (and honorary boyfriend) has a not-unimpressive backside. I personally have a prejudice against men with chickens on their heads, plus we're both happily married, but some of you might find him enticing (sssh...don't tell Aaron that if the book gets published and we get famous, he's going to have to pose ;-) - and I'm sorry, you'll just have to imagine his rear end. It isn't my fault he left the important bits out). Back when I was in college, and Jaime Hecht of was my TA (we were briefly in the same Ph.d program as well), he was pretty damned hot. I haven't seen him in a decade or so, and he could resemble Bob Hoskins by now, but I'm guessing not - it would be a long trip down.

The germ of this idea came to me more than a year ago, when we ran a screening of the film _The End of Suburbia_ with some friends. One couple brought their two teenage daughters to see the movie, and the younger of the girls said to me that she was looking forward to the movie, because she'd heard the guys in it were really hot. After I finished cracking up, I managed to find out that she thought the film we were about to see was not a peak oil expose but a biopic of a band called, "Suburbia" or something. And somehow we got from there to playing a game we called "Peak Oil Idol," voting on the comparative cuteness of the talking figures in there.

Now it was probably a combination of lack of exciting options and the fact that several of the louder guests were women in their 40s and 50s, but Richard Heinberg won our competition with a slight lead over Julian Darley. I then took them off for a quick internet tour of the other options, people who did not appear in the film, including Bob Waldrop, who was then running for mayor of Oklahoma City and was a dark horse candidate for best looking peak oiler based on his really cool beard, visible here:

Now all of this is pretty stupid and arcane (although if you want to vote on who *you* think is the sexiest gent in the peak oil movement, feel free to do so in the comments - I'll definitely pass them on to the winners), and let's be honest, if there were more women in the peak oil movement, people would be making the same jokes about me in comparison, say, to Megan Quinn, that Matt's making about Roscoe Bartlett.

But what happened that night is that two teenage girls who were prepared to be bored and resentful of their parents' attempt to drag them to see an improving documentary had a really good time. And they got the message, and took it seriously. One of them is now in college, and on a recent visit home she mentioned that she was thinking hard about how the future is going to play out for her.

And the other adults had a good time too. Think about the enormity of that statement - they had a good time learning about peak oil. When was the last time *that* happened? Yes, they laughed at the gentlemen in question, but they also *heard* them. And the laughter wasn't the kind of laughter of frat boys pointing at the ugly girl, but the kind of laughter that comes with female culture, a slightly raunchy and affectionate kindness. Because women don't care that much how guys look. Matt made precisely this point a while back, and I agree with him - looks aren't the issue. What I disagree with is his conclusion, that because women don't judge men on their appearance in the same way that men judge women, women wouldn't want to see those pasty guys.

Because what women like is courage, and humor, wisdom and honor. And strip a smart, courageous, funny man down, who has the balls (and I mean that literally and figuratively) to stand up for what he believes in, no matter what it costs him, and you've got someone that most women would look at, naked or clothed, with admiration. Pasty isn't the issue. Fat or thin isn't the issue. It is that you can sometimes see something about how a man thinks of himself, and what he's willing sacrifice, where his ego is and what makes him laugh if he's willing to throw caution to the winds and risk something. Women who buy those fundraising calendars "Naked Guys of Rural Maine" or whatever don't do it because of prurience, for the most part. They do it for a good laugh, a little fun, and a look at what a certain kind of integrity looks like. It isn't something you have to strip to get at, but maybe it helps a little sometimes.

Again, I don't really have any plans to do this, but I'm still waiting for a better suggestion. And while I'm waiting, feel free to flood Matt's email account and tell him you want to see him pose, maybe with a small, cute sheep ;-).


I don't know how she does it...

I'm getting a lot of really sweet comments from people, marvelling at how I manage to do it all - motherhood, writing, the farm, etc... And I guess I want to nip the admiring part of that right in the bud. Because the secret of my success, the answer to "how do I do it all" is...

...I don't. Mostly I focus on one thing at a time, and with everything else, I do the minimum until some one (or several) things get so disastrous that I have to pay attention to them, and then I blow something else off.

All of which means that I live in a very untidy house much of the time, that I don't always hold my children to the standards I would like to, that some days instead of lovingly letting them help me make pancakes, I tell them "go away, and yes, we're having noodles again." It means my garden is usually full of weeds, the tomatoes are often unstaked, I usually lose at least one and sometimes more crops to laziness and lack of attention. There are usually piles of laundry to be folded and put away and my whites are not their whitest. We cheat periodically on our principles and buy pretzels, or bribe the kids with sugar. I often take writing out of sleep, or exercise, or time that could be spent reading stories. I the same fleece and 1/4 skein of yarn have been on my spinning wheel for 11 months now, with minimal progress. Nearly everyone in my family got IOUs for their holiday mittens, and I have gained and lost the same 8 lbs about every other month this year. We've managed to dramatically cut back our energy usage, but we've also bought some unsustainable materials to renovate our house. I've bought some books for use with the book I'm writing, and you don't want to know what I've paid to the library in overdue fines. I broke my glasses 2 weeks ago, and haven't yet managed to get them replaced because doing so means taking a day off from other work and going to the mall. I still haven't finished my seed orders, although I need to start leeks in two weeks. I haven't left the house in 2 days, since I've been madly working on the book, I've been feeding meat chickens for 6 weeks beyond their butchering date because I keep forgetting to call and make an appointment, and they are starting to die of coronary attacks, and I never fully cleaned up my yard or put my garden to bed. We're definitely the tacky yard in our neighborhood, and the grass is rarely mowed (you wouldn't think I needed to mow in January, would you?). I didn't get the goat fencing in before winter, or the cistern dug, or the new composting toilet built, or the raised beds next to the house put in. I have a friend who lives 15 miles from here, is involved in homesteading, and it has been almost 15 months since I've managed to see her. The last time Eric and I had a date we the hardware store, and met a friend and we walked around the hardware store together as a social event. Every year I lose at least one of the trees I order because I simply don't plant it in time, and if I had the money for all the food I've let rot, well, I'd be a lot richer. I start projects and don't finish them, and I'm already behind on the book because I'm writing this post ;-).

And I don't have a full time job, I do have a wonderful, very egalitarian spouse who also can do much of his work from home, and who, during vacation periods (like now) does a lot of my share of the work as well as his own. I have wonderful, supportive friends and family who help, and good neighbors I can call on. Despite the fact that we don't have a huge income, we're quite comfortable financially, in part because of the generosity of Eric's grandparents and other family. I have a disabled child, but as autistic children go, he's easy, loving, happy and content.
I don't yet have any animal that needs daily milking, and my kids are generally content to stay at home.

All of which translates to the fact that I have it easier than most people who are trying to do similar things, and I still don't pull it off. So relax. You are doing fine, probably better than me in many respects. I'm writing because this is the thing I do well, the contribution I can make, not because I'm perfect. Remember that one.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Time to Face Ugly Reality

I'm still waiting for the arrival of my copy of George Monbiot's widely praised book about global warming, _Heat: How to Stop The Planet from Burning_, but I don't expect it to contain too many things I disagree with. Here's a quote from a review that I think is particularly telling,

"We wish our governments to pretend to act," he writes. "We get the moral satisfaction of saying what we know to be right, without the discomfort of doing it. My fear is that the political parties in most rich nations have already recognized this. They know that we want tough targets, but that we also want those targets to be missed. They know that we will grumble about their failure to curb climate change, but that we will not take to the streets. They know that nobody ever rioted for austerity."

You can read the rest of the review here, but if we're honest, it doesn't tell you much that we didn't already know. That is, the 60% reduction in emissions required to stabilize global warming before the planet turns into Venus really means 80 or more reductions in emissions for those of us in the western world, since it is not fair to screw people who use energy for running water and the occasional antibiotic out of their share, so that we can have our cars and vacations. That that means a bunch of hard, hard, serious choices, that are only even remotely possible because the alternative is to be dead - to have your children be dead, and your grandchildren. To have the coasts of the world be uninhabitable and people starving because of drought and flooding.

Dick Cheney said that the American way of life is non-negotiable. Well, we're about to find out - will we negotiate, or would we rather die, and kill our children and grandchildren than give up our airplane travel, our microbrews, our vacations, our private cars, our shopping habit?

Now I think Monbiot is right on the money about what most people, including most "environmentalists" really want - they want the perception of trying to change without actually doing anything hard. We don't want to admit that what we really need is a totally different way of life. But sometimes reality confronts us, whether we like it or not, and this is reality, unbearable or not.

COWARDS!!! Not just you, but me, and all of us are engaged in a "Mommy, can't I just have five more minutes and two more drinks of water" bit of whining with the blunt reality of what we have done to our world. We've partied, we've spent what we had and mortgaged our children's future and now we're desperately trying to bum a buck from someone because, as James Kunstler has eloquently put it,

"The signal failure of public debate in this country is embodied in our obsession with this particular theme -- how to keep the cars running by other means at all costs. Everybody from the greenest enviros to the hoariest neoliberal free market pimps believe that this is the only thing we need to worry about or talk about. The truth, of course, is that we have to make other arrangements for virtually all the major activities of everyday life -- farming, commerce, transport, settlement patterns -- but we are so over-invested in our suburban infrastructure that we cannot face this reality."

Well guess what, sometimes reality is reality, and it doesn't always negotiate with what we'd like it to be. I'm 34 years old, I have four kids under 7, and I'd love to believe that they can have long distance travel and vacations, private cars and the wealthy lifestyle I've enjoyed. But I'll settle for having them live, and if I am too damned big a coward to give up my luxuries for that, I deserve to pay the price in hell, if there is one.

Read Monbiot's book. Look at your life, and realize that every single thing you do has a carbon cost. Every book you buy, every toy, every drive, every plane flight, every meal, every shopping trip. Look at it and think "how can I, and everyone, do 80% less. And when you get to the point of answering, as I am "I have no freakin' idea, but I have to try" that's the beginning. And it is easier for all of us if a lot of us try at once. It is easier to get out and grow food if others are there to help. It is easier to give up flying to visit family members, to weddings, on vacation, if others are there to understand. It is easier to give up driving if there are thousands of other people committed to the same change. Heck, with enough of us, we can even ask the idiots who mostly run things to make it a little easier for us. But we can't wait for them.

It is time to stop being pathetic cowards and confront the dark reality we've created. Deal.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Where to buy your seeds, and where not to

If we're to become a nation of farmers, and a nation of people who take home and small scale agriculture seriously, I think it is important to think about our seed sources. After all, without good, safe, reliable sources of seed, there is no agriculture - period.

I'm a big advocate of buying locally, but as I just told a friend, seeds are one thing that I don't always purchase from my local retailer. There are several reasons for this. The first is that my local retailer tends to carry commercial garden center varieties of seed, which come from very far away. There are good reasons to want to buy local seed, from plants that have already adapted to your particular climate. Often the seed I mail order from far away is more local than the seed that I would buy from my neighborhood garden shop. The second reason is that I can often get organically grown seed if I buy by mail - and even though you don't eat the seeds themselves, there are excellent reasons to want to avoid drenching the field your seeds are grown in with pesticides and chemicals. Also, small seed companies often struggle to get along, and they need all the business they can get. Finally, there is so much variety out there in food plants that buying locally simply wouldn't allow me to try as many different things - if I had to rely on local sources there'd be no Glacier Tomatoes coming early, no Stein's Late Flat Dutch Cabbage hanging on in my garden until December.

There has been a heavy consolidation of the seed industry in the last few years, to its detriment. The darkest force here has been the evil Montsanto, the Satan of agricultural corporations (and that's saying something since there are quite a few other dark angels out there), who bought up Seminis a couple of years ago. Now Seminis is the wholesaler that provides much of the seed for the seed trade, including many classic hybrids and nonhybrid varieties. And recently, I've just learned that Seminis has bought Burpee seeds - the largest single mail order supplier. Now I have a fondness for the Burpee seed catalog, and there are a couple of non-hybrid varieties of theirs I love - a red french marigold, a cherry tomato. But I won't be buying there again. Pity, but I have no desire to support Montsanto's chemical agriculture, their attacks on farmers, their attempts to patent seeds created through laborious home breeding. And I try very hard to avoid Seminis varieties of seed. Because Seminis is a wholesaler, and sells to many of the seed companies that send out your catalogs, it can be difficult to tell where your seed originated. That means that I'm pretty much limited to some of the funkier catalogs out there. The good thing about that is that those catalogs have a large selection, a lot of neat stuff, and are usually good stewards of the environment. Giving them my money is an excellent thing.

Fedco seeds, for example, out of Maine, was the first catalog I know of to drop all Seminis varieties, and I applaud them for it. I love their catalog, and, and they have wonderful prices and quality. Much of their seed is locally grown, a lot is organic, and they are well worth the visit. They do not sell seed year round, so if you are planning a fall garden, order now. They also have one of the best selections of fruit trees out there in their tree division, and I get most of my potatoes from them. They are my source for, among other things, the bulk sweet alyssum I undersow among my cucumbers and melons to attract pollinators and they were the source for my beloved "Benchmark" green beans, sadly discontinued this year. But I'll trust their recommendations that the replacement is even better.

Baker Creek Heirloom seeds is totally out of my region, and I don't know for sure that they don't get any seeds from Seminis, but I doubt it. They have the biggest selection of open pollinated (that is, not hybrid) seeds I've ever seen in a catalog. They were started by a 17 year old boy, who is now a 27 year old married man, and it is run as a family business. One of my first seed orders ever came from them, before knew about local seed, and I get a lot of things from them anyway - I've almost always been happy with their seeds, and they carry many things suitable to my climate. Plus, they have wonderful service and are strongly opposed to GMOs and are interested in the political implications of our seed choices. Black Futsu squash is pretty amazing, as is their huge collection of sweet peas.

High Mowing Seeds is another one I recommend. They grow all their seed locally (to their Vermont area) and while they are expanding their hybrid offerings, offer an alternative to Seminis by growing out many of the classic OP varieties, including Waltham Broccoli and Long Pie Pumpkins. They have good prices, good service and they sent me 25lbs of buckwheat within a week of my order. What more can you ask for (full disclosure - the family that runs it are somehow connected to the church my mother and step-mother attend, which is how I got my first copy of their catalog, but I assure you my alliegence is purely to their seed) from a seed company?

Seeds of Change is sort of the Industrial good guy. They have a very polished catalog, and lots of wonderful varieties. They are not local to me (NM), but I like them anyhow. I'm not sure I totally trust anyone who has a line of processed foods, but they also do a lot of neat plant breeding, and have a great book section. Italian White eggplants produce very well for me here in upstate NY, and Golden Giant Amaranth is both beautiful and a delicious and nutritious grain crop. Their prices are high, and their bulk selection isn't great, but they are worth a look.

You'd think I might want to buy seed from Gurneys, Vermont Bean Seed, Totally Tomatoes, Select Seeds and Jung's, and sometimes I wish I could, but they are all essentially the same company now, part of the great consolidation, so I mostly avoid them. You can read more about this at

There are three grey area companies that I do sometimes support, although less and less because I can't find out their policies on Seminis. I'm very fond of the Pinetree Seed catalog, and Johnny's seed company was the catalog I grew up with - until I was in my late 20s, I thought all seed came from Johnny's And then there's Territorial, the fascinating catalog focused on the pacific northwest, I like them, but I am increasingly focusing my ordering on companies that grow more open pollinated, non-commercial seed. Still, Johnny's was where I discovered "Fortex" pole beans, and got my very first and still beloved Jacob's Cattle seeds.

Given a choice, my favorites are the catalogs that are in a different category entirely - not only are they good catalogs, but they are noble causes, and any money you spend there will enrich the world.

Bountiful Gardens is a terrific small seed company that is run in part by John Jeavons, the person who has most devoted himself to figuring out how to feed the world in small spaces. Not only do they have great seed, but they are a great cause. They also have a remarkable variety of compost, fiber and other uncommon crops. For those of you in northern CA and the Pacific NW, this is probably the place to buy, but all of us can get some wonderful things from them. I'm going to take another stab at rice this year, from their offerings. Don't forget to look at their books, if you are at all serious about feeding yourself.

Sand Hill Preservation Center, run by the amazing Glenn Downs, is devoted to preserving heirloom breeds of poultry and seed. They are a single family operation, and you have to wait your turn for things. But if you can get things from them, you should. They are well worth your dollar, and virtually everything they offer is produced on farm. While you are picking out seed, don't forget to check out the chickens and ducks - I definitely want some Marans. They do not take internet orders, and they are picky about how things work. But that's ok - they are such a good cause that we just have to get over ourselves and wait politely for this tremendous gift they are giving us. Don't forget to say "thank you" for keeping our heritage alive and our food more secure.

Finally, and in a class entirely by itself, is Seed Savers Exchange, at You can buy seed from them directly, and they have a wonderful selection. Even if you don't save seed, you should become a member - the Seed Savers Exchange has been losing members, and more and more people are the only repositories of a particular kind of tomato, or green, or millet or pea. The Irish potato famine and the corn blight of the 1970s should be evidence to us that relying on one particular crop is unbelievably dangerous - we need all the genetic diversity we possibly can get. The people at Seed Savers are keeping our heritage, our history and possibly our food security alive, and they need you at the very least to join up and give them money. But why only do that? Because the very best place to get seed is not from a catalog at all, but from your own garden, or your neighbors. So join seed savers and consider maintaining one or two or 20 varieties of seed yourself. Grow them out year after year, and save a little to trade to others. This is good practice for yourself, and enhances your own security - after all, if you ever couldn't get seed, having some at home is a big thing. But most of all, it is a way of your participating in the provisioning of the earth.

There are great books out there about seed saving - my personal favorite is Suzanne Ashworth's book _Seed to Seed_, and I'm also fond of Carol Deppe's _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_, which is a surprisingly fun read for ordinary gardeners, even if you never plan to breed a thing. Because the amazing thing is that when you grow out a plant and save seed, you *are* breeding. That is, the plant begins to adapt to your region, and after a few generations, you've got a strain of something that is truly your own. It is a magical process, and one I'm still experimenting with. But more people need to do it.