Monday, October 08, 2007

The Fertile Crescent and the Closed Circle

"These fragments I have shored against my ruin". - T.S. Eliot

The closed system is the holy grail of self sufficiency. In it, you would be able to produce everything you need at whatever level the circle operated (on your property, in your neighborhood, in your town, in your bioregion, and on up), without any necessary imports. And you would simultaneously grow enough resources to replace everything you consume - fertility, soil humus, natural resources. And ultimately, the quest for sustainability requires that as a world we be able to live off the interest of our planetary capital - that we cease to deplete non-renewable resources and that we renew the renewable ones at least the rate of depletion. We
are doing neither, and thus we need all the models of closed systems we can get.

When a lot of us discover peak oil or other ecological crises, we start by thinking about how we can preserve our immediate family and ourselves. There's nothing wrong with this - but we often begin from the notion that we ought to try and achieve a kind of self-sufficiency. So we often start on the journey to self-sufficiency thinking primarily about sustainability at the household or family scale.

At some point, however, we look up from our family situation and realize that we can't attain security without other people around us having security. And then situation becomes larger, and seems less manageable. Sometimes we draw tight borders, imagining that we can keep those limits under control, other times we give up on the project altogether, and focus our energies somewhere else.

Now when you begin talking about self-sufficiency, people are always quick to point out that no one can be perfectly self-sufficient. And on one level they are right - few of us will achieve a perfectly closed circle, and many of us may need many inputs on one level or another - or on all levels. But I also think that it is worth revisiting the question of how possible it is to close the circle, or what an imperfectly but largely closed system might look like.

We go at this is fragmentary ways, for the most part - or at least I do. I think in terms of fertility, or of clothing. I write about it that way too - how can I reduce this input or that output. There’s nothing wrong with that - that’s how we tend to imagine these projects, but in the attempt to create something whole, I wonder if we’re going about it the wrong way, thinking about the closed circle piece by piece, as though it were a slice of pie we would eat for dinner, and then start on the next one. Is there a way, I wonder, to get closer by thinking of the process in a less fragmentary, more unified way? Is there a way to change the nature of our thinking about the potential of the closed circle.

Now the closed system is never perfect - even the earth requires heavy inputs of externally produced sunlight. But we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. That is, it is possible, on several scales, to produce remarkably complete systems. For example John Jeavons and Ecology Action have managed to create very small gardens that produce all the food a person needs in very small spaces (as little as 700 square feet, although 1000 is more realistic, and I wouldn't call it ideal), that include all the fertility needed to produce that food in perpetuity. The food they produce is adequate and healthy - they've had the people who lived on this checked regularly by doctors. It really is possible for people to feed themselves on remarkably small plots of land, although it takes much care and practice. And it depends on what you are willing to eat. These diets are low in fats, vegetarian and involve eating a *lot* of parsnips - now I love parsnips, but I'd like a more varied diet than that. But that's rather the point, isn't it - what I'd like, rather than what I need. And that, of course is the key to the thing.

The reality is that there are examples of mostly or effectively closed circles out there. One of the thing that characterizes them, though, is that while needs are quite commonly met, and so are social and communal wants, the baseline level for material wants has to be quite low. By baseline, I mean that the question of self-sufficiency begins at the question "how am I prepared to live?"

Helena Norberg-Hodge, in _Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh_ observes that the people there, in a cold, infertile, high elevation region managed to be almost entirely self sufficient for food, fuel, fertility, clothing and shelter - and that most people lived a comparatively middle class existence (by the standards of their community) with an enormous quantity of leisure - they supported most of their needs working only 4 months per year. Before Ladakh was opened to western contact, the only items imported by Ladakhis were metal implements, jewelry and the occasional religious item. They operated, functionally speaking, as a largely closed circle, and one that thrived in a tremendously difficult area.

It is *possible* to create regions or farms that meet the vast majority of their needs sustainably, in, if not a closed circle, a crescent with ever shrinking tips curling towards one another. There are places that have lived a long, long time by human standards on the resources of one forest, or one island. While recognizing we’re a long way from there, we shouldn’t deny that is is feasible - even if we don’t want to do it. Permaculture attempts to recreate similar systems, ones that are not perfectly closed but that do involve capturing and recapturing expended energy over and over again, to extract the maximum value from it.

When I first got this farm, creating something rather like a closed circle was one of my goals. Over time, the sheer amount of effort involved in that has come to overwhelm me, and I've let it go to a degree - I've settled for good enough. We do reasonably well, but we sell some things off our farm, and we don't get back comparable fertility. We import some soil amendments, buy some extra manure from the neighbors to supplement what our animals produce, and if we happen to pass by a bag of leaves on the curbside, we snag it and throw it across our beds. We bring food in. We use electricity, computers, buy tools, etc...

One of the things that several people have asked me is whether the 90% reduction project is in conflict with the basic project of preparing for hard times. When I've got only 1000 dollars a year to spend on all consumer goods, for example, will I be able to reinsulate my house? Will I be able to make/find used/scavenge what I need? Can I really fill my food storage pantry with home produced and locally produced reserves? Can I make not only what I need, but a surplus for future years and some to sell? The 90% reduction represents a real and very positive challenge for me to explore how a reduction in inputs - less energy, less water, less money - affects my ability to meet my short and long term needs. And in the long term, I honestly think it may be a help, rather than a hindrance.

The thing that is important about the Ladakhis or about the Ecology Action diet, is that they are living examples of the simple, obvious fact that the less you need, the easier it is to meet those needs. This shouldn't be a surprise to any of us, but I think sometimes it is. When we set out to ensure that we can feed ourselves, or that we can meet our own most basic needs, we will find the greatest degree of success in personal demand reduction. That is, if I am content with a vegetarian diet made up largely of root crops during the winter, I only have to do 1000 square feet worth of gardening each year. If I want a more varied diet, I have to work harder. It may be worth it to work harder, but I may also give the project up if I cross that critical "too hard" level.

If I have 3 sets of clothing, and wear them for a week before washing, I have much less laundry to do than I do if I wear a new outfit every day. If I am willing to live in a very small house, or if I am content to wear many layers during the winter and have only 1 warm room in a large house, I can cut all my firewood for the winter by hand easily enough. If I need to have a whole house be warm all the time, the burden of firewood cutting is greater, and I'm more tempted by chainsaws and other things.

Every measure, from the degree of personal security required (how much food to store, whether health insurance is necessary, what kind of savings to have) to the degree to which ornamentation matters to me (Do I need jewelry? Pantyhose? Make-up?) shapes what would be needed to close my circle. For example, if I were Peace Pilgrim, who walked the US for many years eating what others gave her to eat and sleeping where she was given a chance to rest, I would have a very low need for security in my circle. But because I'm me, with four young kids, my need for economic, food and medical security is much higher. That rise in need makes us more dependent in some ways, potentially less in others, but it drives our baseline up, and makes the circle harder to close.

To the extent that this is possible, it might be better not to break each category into pieces, but to think of our needs and desires a whole cloth. Instead of just asking (although this is important too) "can I change how many shoes I need" we could ask "what is the whole least I need?" The answer might be useful to us. Or perhaps we should start from "what do I care about the most?" If something that takes up a lot of energy or resources in your life doesn't fall in the top 10 or 20 or 30 things, maybe you could eliminate it, or change it.

Or perhaps the most useful way to think about our own circles is to ask "how can I make it beautiful?" Because I know of no better way than to make others want to reduce their baseline needs as well than to demonstrate the simple truth embodied in the fact that there are few ugly medieval villages or Amish farms - artfulness is often merely the extraction of every bit of loveliness and wonder and good purpose from the world itself. Sue who comments here sometimes told me on another list about looking at magazine pictures of beautiful country kitchens, trying to figure out what made them that way, and realizing that they had no plastic, no small appliances. What made them beautiful, in part, was the all-natural materials. I wonder how many people might be attracted to a more beautiful life?

We are creatures of habit. We get comfortable doing things a particular way, and we convince ourselves that what we do is necessary. So necessary, in fact, that we are often reluctant to experiment. We tell ourselves we'd freeze to death if we slept in a cold room - ignoring the fact that most cold climate people through most of history slept in unheated rooms and did fine. We tell ourselves we have to wipe our behinds a particular way, with a particular thing, that anything else is "gross" when, in fact, human beings have had a myriad of relationships with their own excrement over time, and as long as one is reasonably hygienic, there are a good number of options. Distinguishing between want and need becomes very difficult because our cultural assumptions rise up and blur the distinctions.

Most of us live in a society with very high baselines for most of these things, and it can be very, very difficult to buck cultural assumptions in this regard. When you are judged negatively for only having a few clothes, it is very hard to endure that judgment. When guests expect a certain kind of house or food, and judge you for it, it is very, very hard to resist those pressures. I'm certainly not immune to them. In some cases, there's a real price to pay for bucking them. No pantyhose or not enough nice clothes can cost you a job. Reduce your need for electricity enough or let your children wear dirty clothes in public and you have to worry about someone taking your children away for neglect.

At best, most of us from high-baseline societies can hope only for functionally closed circles - that is, we can each of us live at our personal outer edge of the cultural standards, but we cannot begin to change them until we reach a critical mass of people - until enough people challenge the standards themselves, saying "no, it isn't necessary for me to wear X to work, and it doesn't lower property values to have laundry hanging on the clothesline," they will endure. But pushing the envelope and drawing attention to what you do makes a difference in reducing our baselines.

Besides reducing our needs, the next best way to close our personal circles is frugality, in the root sense of the word, which means "to make fruitful." That is, we can use careful husbanding of our resources to maximize what we get out of our inputs, and recapture each expenditure of energy as many times as possible. If we get a lot from a little, we are not only making good use of our resources, but we are mimicking nature, where the tiny seed leads to the huge plant and a thousand more seeds. Extraction of benefit from tiny quantities of resources is not unusual - it is fundamentally natural.

We tend to think of frugality is a fragmentary thing - I am frugal in my use of money, or careful in not wasting things. And we tend to talk about these jobs as one at a time projects - how can I reduce my use of X, or how can I save more of Y. I do this - I make lists and weekly sectioned out "how to do this" and I find them valuable. But frugality can also be a wholistic way of thinking, a way of thinking about your life as an optimization project.

Norberg-Hodge writes about this in Ladakh,

"Where we would consider something completely worn out, exhausted of all possible worth, and would throw it away, Ladakhis will find some further use for it. Nothing whatever is just discarded. What cannot be eaten can be fed to the animals; what cannot be used as fuel can fertilize the land.

Sonam's grandmother Abi-le, did not throw away the barley after making chang from it. She had already poured water over the boiled and fermented grain to make four separate brews. Then, instead of discarding it, she spread the grain on a yak-hair blanket to dry so it could later be ground for eating. She molded the crushed remains of apricot kernels, a dark brown paste from which oil had been carefully squeezed, into the form of a small cup; later, when it had hardened, she would use the cup to turn her spindles. She even saved the dishwater, with its tiny bits of food, to provide a little extra nourishment for the animals.

Ladakhis patch their homespun robes until they can be patched no more. When winter demands that they wear two or three on top of each other, they put the best one inside to keep it in good condition for special occasions. When no amount of stitching can sustain a worn out robe, it is packed with mud into a weak part of an irrigation channel to help prevent leakage." (25)

This version of frugality isn't culturally derived - many of us had grandmothers who did similar things. Some of us do it now, but we also sometimes let things slip through our fingers, or fail to see the possibilities for use in something. We can close our circles to a great degree by reusing to the nth degree, but practicing a wholistic frugality, one that begins at the acquisition point and even then begins to think "how long will it last, and how will I dispose of it?" Companies are beginning to do real lifecycle analyses of things - we can do them too.

My children have a wonderful book, a child's version of a classic Yiddish folktale, rewritten and illustrated by Sims Taback. In it, a man starts out with an overcoat, and when that wears out, it becomes a jacket, a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief and a button. And finally, when the button is lost, it becomes the story of the overcoat and its many transformations.

It is the final transmutation, of the object into narrative, the robe into irrigation channel, the "dirty" water into something nutritious that offers us a real glimpse at what is possible in imperfect, but largely closed system. Things there become not just other versions of the object, but entirely new things, from an alchemical and wholistic vision that reorients the fragmentary into the whole.

It is that reintegration of the fragments into the whole that I think we're all working on. That is, it isn't about transportation, or housing, or food, or clothing - it is about the intersections of our life as a whole, about the integrity, in the literal sense of the word, of our beliefs, our lives and all the little pieces. It isn't that we don't need to take these bits and pieces apart and think about them that way, but we also need a real sense of the circle we're working on closing, a real sense of how the pieces go back into the puzzle.

We start then, perhaps with a realistic assessment of where your circle should begin. That is, it may never be possible to make an urban apartment into a closed system - but perhaps some cities, or urban centers and their surrounding farmland could be. Or perhaps your farm can be a closed system, but you would choose otherwise - you'd like your diet to be replete with vanilla and good wine. Fair enough - but if you can meet your basic needs, those luxury desires can be fulfilled reasonably fairly, enriching others and building relationships through trade, while also offering a measure of basic security.

The 90% reduction in itself acts to close our circles a little more. Because if there are things we will say (with a joyful heart and little regret) that we will no longer have, then there are things we no longer have to labor to produce. And if there are needs we no longer have, the resources we once used to satisfy those needs can now be turned towards real existing needs - or towards the community, and its most vulnerable, or to be put aside as a reserve.

I can't achieve perfect household self-sufficiency. I don't even want it - if I were wholly self sufficient, I wouldn't need my neighbors, or my family, or the help of others. But by needing - not just wanting - other people, I can extend my circle a little further, and achieve yet another alchemical transmutation - the transformation of something as ordinary as needing a hand to an act of love. I can unify one more fragment against my ruin - I can transform ordinary acts of exchange and neighborliness into the beginnings of something transformative.

If we can't create perfectly closed circles, perhaps we can create something like a crescent, with the tips of our moons stretching closer and closer to one another, until finally, acceptable margins are the only fragments, and the rest resembles, from the correct angle, a perfect whole.




feonixrift said...

Another image came to mind while I was reading this. That of chain mail, with lots of little circles linked together to form larger ones and meshes.

Amelia said...

As someone with one of those old kitchens, I would add that it's a lot easier to minimize small appliances when you've only got one or two working electrical outlets and one of them is dedicated to the fridge!

Sometimes it's the limitations that maintain the beauty: my mother was furious when she found that I'd used a gift certificate to a high-end kitchen toy store on knives rather than a food processor. Once she saw that I don't have room in the cabinets to store a processor or its add-ons, and I can't expand the space I'm working in -- two of the walls are load-bearing exteriors, two layers of brick on a stone foundation -- she grudgingly agreed that two good knives with locking sheaths and a crosscut honing steel, which can be safely stored in a drawer and resharpened twice a year, made more sense.

I'm spending a lot of time in the kitchen this weekend, as it's been in the 30s at night and we have no heat at present (the new boiler is in place, but not connected to the radiators). Last night I slept in a long-sleeved T-shirt and flannel pants, wearing a red fleece cap that turned up while cleaning out the bedroom closet; the cats piled onto (and sometimes under) the quilts with our son, and all of us woke up surprisingly well rested!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think that reducing what one needs is the key to this. All too often when I discuss any of this with people, they get trapped by their perceptions of what they need, which in actuality are wants. We no longer seem to know the difference between wants and needs. I'd say a good way to live is to have what one "needs" and a bit of the "wants" as well.

HopefulPessimist said...

Our present culture has transformed every want into a need. I think one of the biggest unexpected consequences of an extended period of hard times may be the surprise at finding out how much we are able to reduce our current levels of consumption and still live very satisfying lives. I think that the culture is too strong to change without a big shock - but when peak oil, peak debt, peak whatever finally delivers that shock, it may turn out to be less apocalyptic than many of the worst case scenarios.

A growing number of people are very dissatisfied with their current way of life, but are too heavily invested in it to contemplate a dramatic change, especially while being constantly bombarded by all the messages of a consumer culture desperately trying to keep itself alive. Everyone knows someone who was unhappy, streseed out, living in fear of losing their job. Then when the layoff came, after recovering from the initial shock and changing the focus of their life they realized that it was one of the best things that could have happened to them. When that happens to larger and larger numbers of people, our culture will begin to change for the better.

Anonymous said...

Your comments on clothing were pretty meaningful to me. I have two pairs of everyday "office pants" that, by necessity, I wear for weeks between washings. I wear them with several shirts from Deva Lifewear (organic cotton, domestic fair trade manufacture too!). Those are mostly getting faded and threadbare, and I am tempted to buy another couple, but I have decided to wait until some of the ones I have now are truly unwearable to work. I do dress up for special occasions and have a pretty casual workplace otherwise, but I do worry on occasion that people will start to suspect I rewear shirts and sneer at me for it. (Hope none of them read this, they might recognize me.)

I had another "aha" moment recently. My beloved pair of blue jeans got too holey to wear a year or two ago, and ever since, I have kept saying, "I need to get some new blue jeans," but never doing it, mostly because I hate shopping. Last week, I happened to see the old pair and said again, "I need a new pair of jeans." Then I stopped and thought about it: obviously this was not a NEED, because I got through this whole summer without any and didn't notice the lack. It's a want, and apparently not a deeply felt want. So cross it off the to-do list! That actually felt quite liberating.


Anonymous said...

I taught Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs today, which teaches that every desire is a need, it is just that needs come in more basic and more refined. The need/want distinction is well and truly effaced in our culture.

I'm thinking about this picture of frugality and the rate of change, or security issues. Peace Pilgrim didn't reuse much stuff, she couldn't carry it with her, she didn't even know where she'd be tomorrow, what she'd need or want. She could give things to others, but couldn't really re-use. You need to be able to predict the future to some extent, and to stay in one place to be able to use any of these tricks. Will I be able to use my clothing to patch irrigation when it wears out? Will I still even own a field to irrigate, much less this one?

Ladakh society like many other traditional societies has a lot of trouble coping with competition from the modern world. It creates new possibilities, ups the rate of change. People leave. They move. New opportunities and problems develop. Closed systems require a LOT of stability, that is security! Even a close to closed system requires long-term planning and a high degree of security. Heck, as you point out, even just competent gardening requires planning many aspects a year ahead. That means you have to know where your going to be, and what your going to need/want in a year. And whether you'll have access to this patch of land.

Catholic labor folk have theorized for a while, that the big problem nowadays in the first world isn't exactly poverty but precarity. That is living standards aren't that low per se, but there is very little security, or gaurentee of continued ability to work or survive in the same way. The job may disapear, and you may need to get a new one. You may need to move, sickness may strike, etc. Or contrarywise, new opportunities may lure away those you rely on. Temporary, flexible, contingent, casual, intermittent work in postindustrial societies leads to a kind of "flexploitation" (low pay, high blackmailability, intermittent income, etc.) But it also undercuts the ability to plan lifestyles long term or get anywhere near the fertile crescent. In my neighborhood about half of the people are here long-term and about half of the people will move away again in a year or two. Neighborhood cooperation has been stymied by the high turnover rate.

One of the original questions was if 90% reduction work conflicts with preparing for hard times to come. But the problem is that peaking and economic crisis, isn't just going to be poverty its going to be rapidly changing styles of poverty, precarious poverty. In the US, many people will have to move, a lot, both because they lose homes, and because they are chasing work. They won't be able to carry all this stuff from place to place, and won't know what is and isn't useful in the new place they are going. Fertile crescents are for people with security, and that will be in short supply.

It is almost as if there are 2 seperate paths, the post-industrial-villager and the post-industrial-nomad. If you can stay in one place, you need to cut needs, and work seriously to improve the fertility of your system. You won't get it closed but you can make progress. Likewise you need to build tight communities with the other locals who are staying. A good gig if you are rich enough to own or buy land and not worried about being driven from it. And you aren't worried about what you need to survive being confiscated or stolen. And as you point out, what you can live on, and what you can live on while earning enough money to pay a mortgage are not the same thing. I don't suppose the Ecology Action Project, created enough food to live on sustainably, AND a cash crop to pay for the mortgage on the land did it?

But the nomad style requires very different attitudes. Travel light. Carry only the most flexibly useful things with you. Cut needs way, way down, but take advantage of opportunities for more when they present themselves. Don't put down roots in a community, because you might need to leave. Survive as much as possible on the waste and goodwill of others. I said recently that people who think seriously about this stuff, tend to drift into a lifestyle that looks a lot like the Amish, or one that looks a lot like the Freegans. Certainly the great depression saw a lot of farm-communities try to hunker down, and a lot of folks forced to hit the roads and rails, and a huge surge in the "hobo" class.

And hobos, even hobo families, don't live in anylike like a closed circle or fertile crescent.

Even Ladakh isn't really a fertile crescent economy anymore. Here's what Wikipedia says "Although tourism employs only 4% of Ladakh's working population, it now accounts for 50% of the region's GNP.[6] Large-scale infrastructure projects — including, crucially, road links — have helped consolidate the new economy and create an urban alternative to farming. The combination of subsidised food and the new infrastructure has accelerated a mass migration of men folk from the farms into Leh to serve the tourism industry." Ah subsidized food, money economy replacing self-sufficiency, urbanization and growth of a service economy!

-Brian M.

Ares Olympus said...

Brian M's thoughtful comments clearly identify two different paths towards security - investing energy strong tap roots OR investing energy in strong skills that can carry you where the world needs you.

Well, that's my happy interpretation.

Daniel Quinn's attempted "new tribalism" perhaps offers a model for the second lifestyle, seeing the traveling circus as an example nomadic group that can only carry what it needs. Quinn sells the idea that the materialism dream for life is not open to everyone, and those who find civilization isn't giving them what they need should look to a lighter lifestyle.

Anyway, worthy thoughts for me - easy to say one or the other is wrong, while compliments can add to each other and create something much greater.

Also interesting to think how these two "lifestyles" produce a different morality perhaps, a different set of problems to solve, and attention.

The home-diggers hoard against future scarcity and then need to expend energy to protect their wealth. The nomads (homeless) will find themselves sometimes welcome, sometimes not, and sometimes make themselves "at home" at times in "other people's land", squatting etc, on the grounds that its unoccupied. Even public space isn't a welcome place to set up a tent for the night in the civilized world.

Anyway, I'm solidly on the homestead world by inheritence, even as I see its trappings. A 30-year mortgage isn't my cup of tea, but I'm glad I'm "ahead" in the game, even if I've not begun to address the weakness of my neighbors homes and lifestyles.

Ares Olympus said...

Further thoughts...

I wonder if there is room for compromise between the materialists and nomads. Of course its an ancient problem, of distrust and different world views.

I wonder how they can be better bridged, in understanding and in working towards harmony.

I imagine stories like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, although from a different view. The Flock lives in a garbage dump - because that's where the food is! (Jonathan is too pure to be sustained by bread alone, but perhaps his fantastic flights still are fueled by having the free time available from exploiting an easy food source from a wasteful neighbor.)

Anyway, basically I see "nomads" not having the same standards for what is valuable, what food and shelter are acceptable, and community can aid this transfer of wealth for the freedom it provides.

On a darker side, I imagine the nomadic lifestyle can be full of more threats to face daily, less security, less access to medical care.

And specifically, those I've known closest to the nomadic lifestyle are those who couldn't fit within the rules/expectations of society, and thus greater mental illness/impairment, greater susceptibility to drugs and alcohol. One homeless man I talked to said he just wanted a place to drink without being harrassed by police.

Sad to me without harassment, but I have nothing to save his soul, and perhaps mine needs saving as much!

Anyway, easily scares me to imagine dangerous people out there who see the world differently, even if drugs are not a great part of their lives.

I still would try to imagine how community can be more inclusive.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, as usual, you've hit the nail on the head. There are at least two models here. They are, of course, deeply intertwined with one another. Nomadic models require either large pieces of uninhabited land (unlikely) or large stable populations with surpluses that will trade for trade goods, pay to see the circus or the play, or to listen to the music. The nomads need the agrarians to horde just as badly as the agrarians do themselves, because they rely upon surplusage.

And most nomadic traders, travellers and hobos have "regions" and routes - that is, they go the same way every year, they have ties in existing communities. For example, circus performers had their traditional travel circles - I'm just old enough to remember when the same circus came each year to town. Herders historically move from the same summer pastures to the winter ones. Traders, musicians and other mobile people rely on relationships as much as agrarians do, just on a wider range - they need those relationships to ensure a place to pasture their animals, or a place to show. Thus, you get the depression era "kind hearted woman" signs that show hobos where it is safe and wise to go, and the same travelling shoemaker and musician coming back to the same towns each year, and everyone looking forward. While strangers do come to town, to a large degree even mobile people rely enormously on the quality of "known-ness."

I should have specified that Norberg-Hodge's account of Ladakh mostly describes it before it became a major tourist destination - she includes a long description of what has happened to the Ladakhis since tv, tourists and imports have entered their society.

The thing is, there will always be a powerful intersection between stable and mobile communities - the problem, of course, comes when resource levels are low. Ban Ki Moon recently described the crisis in Darfur as occurring between herders and farmers who had always had strong positive relationships - but when drought came and there wasn't enough food, the agrarians started to protect what was theirs. As Ki Moon said, "There was no longer enough food to go around. Fighting broke out."

So one of the tasks for us (does it ever seem like too many) would seem to be the creating of relationships between the mobile and the immobile. I think that frankly, the rhetoric around peak oil is often unbelievably hostile to the mobile, an anticipatory attack on people - perhaps a visceral, ancient fear. I think shaking that out may be among the most important work we do.


Anonymous said...

Here let me put this another way. Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations is careful to distinguish between counties with "static" economies (what we might call sustainable) and those with "declining" economies. In a static country, whether it is rich or poor, and whether you are rich or poor, security and stability are in abundant supply. The agrarians nearly close off their fertile crescents, the nomads have fairly fixed traditional routes. Even the poor people are often quite happy. (And Smith argues that static societies will tend over time to become highly stratified, because labor will multiply until the cost of labor is very low, whereas income from rent and capital will become concentrated in a few hands).

But "declining" economies aren't like that. The income of labor drops below the replacement value to put the next generation into the same class of laborers. So members of each class begin poaching the jobs of the classes below them, until some people are so desperate as to and rove from place to place seeking work at any terms that lead to their survival. Because most people are dropping a class, they usually don't have the skills and routines of the class they are descending to down.

Now desperate nomads DO require the surplus of the agrarian class. But in most systems, much of the surplus of the agrarian class goes not to the agrarians, but to pay rent on the land to the owners of the land, and perhaps interest on the capital of the owners of the capital stock used to farm the land. So the owner class has the agrarian surplus, and spends it on hiring "servant" that is people in service sector jobs, or funding industrial luxuries, and people to work in the factories to make them. When the great depression hit, there were some folk already used to the established hobo life, but many, many new people fell into it out of desperation, and rambled the country randomly, chasing after rumors of where there were jobs to be had, rather than traveling established routes of temporary jobs.

Now in distributivist economics, the goal is to have the means of production spread out among many individual families. Most families own their own farms, and are thus the agrarian and the (small scale) owning class are one in the same. Like in old Ladakh, or many parts of the 19th century US. If ownership of land and capital can be kept in the hands of individual laborers rather than accumulating into hands of a wealthy large scale owner-class, you can prevent steep class divisions, and have a nice fertile crescent economy. America has even pulled this off before.

But that isn't our current ownership structure. Dmitry Orlov has lots of great articles on how Russia's economic collapse of the 90s is likely to be similar and different than the USs coming economic "decline." One point he emphasizes is that since the state owned all the homes most people were able to stay home. Homelessness grew, but mostly among badly dysfunctional folk. But the US isn't like that. We have a huge renter population, and plenty of folk who "own" their homes or agrarian land only so long as they can regularly make mortgage payments. The job dries up, the house is sold or foreclosed, and now one roves looking for a new job. Post-industrial nomadry, without the security of a set route. Foreclosures are growing and will get even worse, and many people will be involuntarily homeless. Heck, I'm an academic nomad, travelling from job to job, anywhere that will have me, as are most other junior philosophers. My wife's father recently moved to Arizona desperately chasing a job, that might earn him enough to allow him to keep up the mortgages on the land he "owns" in Missouri, rather than working to improve or live off that land. After all, it would just be taken from him without the regular mortgage payments. Indeed, many agrarians will find their bank takes the land sells it cheap to Cargill or someone, and will find themselves tenant farming for big corps, (and probably not in a "fertile crescent" style for several decades). Post-Industrial nomadry, of these styles, works a lot different than more stable forms of nomadry, and its already here, just getting slowly more common.

The fertile crescent strategy is EXACTLY how most lives in a static, stable, sustainable society should work. And sustainable nomadry should complement them. (And there is lots of uninhabited or very sparsely inhabited land in the US West. My dad grew up in Elko Nevada, a town full of Basque pastoralists at the time). But we aren't now, and aren't going to be a stable, static, secure, sustainable economy anytime soon. We are going to be a declining economy, and the heart of that is bitter competition for jobs and deep economic uncertainty. Where many people, perhaps even most people, are uncertain what they will do to get by in a year or two, rather than making long-term investments in the fertility of land they don't really own.

Zhuangzi tells the parable of the broken suitcases. When the suitcases are broken, things occasionally leak out, and petty thieves can easily steal from them. So people keep their valuables in secure suitcases. And the one who advises thus is called a sage. But when the master thief comes, he simply takes the whole suitcase and runs away, to break it open later at his leisure. The sage is actually the gaurdian of the interests of the master theif against the petty theives, and isn't really benefitting the people at all, although he seems to be. If agrarians horde, the owners will simply take their hordes, via rent and interest. Or else organized crime will more directly. Agrarian hording, plays to the interests of the owning class (or master thief class), not the agrarians or the nomads. Instead, as you often advise, agrarians need to as much as possible spread their wealth into many hands, creating networks of obligation that cannot be stolen the way concentrated hordes can be. When many people owe you favors, it is hard to steal these favors. Although people can, of course, forget, or move away, or ignore the debt.

You are giving good advice for what people should try to do to live sustainable lives, but we gotta pass through decades of fire before we are in stabbing distance of sustainability, and I worry that you aren't giving good advice for how to survive and thrive between here and there. If you genuinely own land, free and clear, then agrarian focus on building good fertile crescents, makes sense. It is self-investment. Although even then both Russia and more recently Argentina had big problems with desperate people commiting crimes in rural locations where they assumed it would be difficult for the victims to summon help. Ownership provides a kind of security against legal foreclosure, but not against common criminals or organized crime. Indeed, one of the traditional jobs of wandering folk looking for work, is helping to defend honest agrarians against crime and organized crime.

Your right that peak oil literature seems to fear desperate mobile folk more than sympathizing with them. Every class naturally fears the class below it, which is constantly trying to horn in on its niche. Most involuntary wanderers would love a community that will accept them long term where they can put down roots. That's why they are a threat to settled folk, they're competing for niches. And this competition will heat up and get uglier, in a vast musical chairs of the desperate.

And what advice for us poor desperate nomads who don't really own our land free and clear? All we can do is invest in the most portable and flexible forms of wealth we can, and curry favor with the high, and chase those jobs and keep our eyes open for any niches that might be open or insufficiently defended, and give up and move on when we can't defend our own little temporary niches sufficiently, and live off the goodwill and waste of others, and cut our needs as much as we can. If the heart of agrarian is is thinking about fertility, then the heart of nomadry is being unattached.

-Brian M.

Rosa said...

I don't think it has to be either-or. You can stay in one place for a decade and then start traveling around, and then light somewhere else for years.

There seems to be a hippie network all over the country that involves little nodes of stay-heres - intentional communities, coops, activist churches, organic farms, coffee shops & collectively run restaurants - that are like the french knots in a larger quilt of gone-tomorrows.

I'm not tied into the network but I see it in action sometimes - someone will show up at our coop and be greeted with open arms by people who haven't seen them in several years, and pointed to a place to stay and a place to eat and maybe a paying job.

That's one of the best uses of the internet, actually - keeping in touch with people in a casual way over long distances and stretches of time, so that if you're actually near each other again sometime you can get together.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, I've often wondered what whether Orlov is right that the decline will be different in the US in that one factor. Because I wonder whether or not the defining issue will turn out to be not whether the state owned or private banks owned, but whether anyone has a real incentive to do large scale evictions and foreclosures. And I'm not sure that it will turn that we do have such an incentive.

We're in the early stages now, and there's a real incentive for banks to foreclose, because there are a lot of people out there desperate for a bargain. But later, when no one is buying at any price? So far, this is a credit crisis - there are already major corporate deals failing because they can't put the money together. So while I have no doubt some people will buy up foreclosures and rent them for whatever the market will bear, screwing the peasants for what they can grow, my guess is that there's simply so much housing on so much land that the idea that we'll have widespread nomadism doesn't seem right. We'll have people moving around, but mostly from a place, to a place, rather than more generally - because we've got almost a million more houses right now than even the most balkanized version of our culture can fit into. And the average American has 800 square feet to themselves - there's no reason that they can't fit 2 or 10 more people into those McMansions.

Add to that the enormous political and social fallout of mobility and instability, and I forsee a lot of civic and governmental programs to enable people to stay put, on the local and maybe state level, if not federal. In the Depression, there were movements in the African American communities, for example, to simply resist foreclosure - the sherriff came and put you out, and an hour later, the local neighborhood association put you right back in. No one would rent from a landlord that threw people out, so landlords in some areas just stopped doing so.

When things are not scarce, they get cheap. One of the remarkable things about the latest boom is how we've been able to sell something that there is tons of at higher and higher prices - that won't last. And while Mom and Dad may not be able to keep that McMansion on what's left of their salaries - or on what they can scavenge, if Grandma and Grandpa and Sis and her two kids move in, they probably will be able to pay something, if not the whole mortgage - and by that point, whoever holds the mortgage, who is also holding an awful lot of foreclosed properties they probably can't sell will be thrilled with "something."

So I don't think the outcomes you predict are inevitable at all - I think the forces encouraging us to stability are actually going to be greater than the ones encouraging mobility. There will be some migrations - movement out of the US Southwest to me seems utterly inevitable, but I suspect to a large degree, people will simply take in borders in their large houses, and consolidate.

One of the reasons I devote a lot of energy to telling people how to live without power and how to cut back on everything else is that I think if you can get through the first few waves of change, including the present foreclosure wave, you'll be able to stay where you are, provided you are prepared to do what it takes. And I think people *should* get where they want to be and then stay where they are generally speaking, unless you've got a family farm two states over. I think if you want to be a nomad, great. But I personally think that now that we've subdivided our best arable land and put houses on it, it makes sense to sit on a piece, work your ass off to keep it, even if it is very hard, and then reap the benefits of having land over the long term. And I don't think that's an unattainable dream for most people.

I agree there are many empty places in the West - I just have my doubts about how many people they will have water enough to support, but you'd know better than I, I suspect.

Certainly, violence is a threat to both nomads and stable people - generally more to refugees and nomads than to people in stable places. And I agree that providing security is a niche - although I think wandering gunslingers and such doing this are far less common than settled "security" folk who are then integrated into the community - or than agrarians doing their own security work as was often the case in US in teh past.

This is perhaps an odd line for a Jew to be taking, but I tend to think that most of us will probably end up hunkering down where we are now, or in places very like them with family or close friends. And thus, even if our investment in our own particular place doesn't pay off, the tools we acquire, the knowledge we acquire, the skills we acquire - those are all transferrable to another piece of soil much like our present one.

The reality is that we all place our bets and spin the wheel on what the future will hold. I have my vision, you have yours. You may be right - I can't say.


Anonymous said...

Excellent point! The issue is the incentive to evict and the extent to which surplus goes to pay rent.

If things collapse really fast, there won't be large scale evictions, because there will be too many people to move. But if the collapse is slower they can evict people a couple of percent of the population at a time, as happens now. Likewise, it is easy to hire desperate people to help you evict folks, and local security goons (typically as you say settled ones) to occasionally re-evict squatters. Banks may well allow the families to stay but foreclose and charge them rent. It's hard to imagine what their incentive not to is. The banks or whoever they sell the property to will be desperate to recover whatever value they can from the house at a time when housing prices are falling because there are too many houses. The rental market serves as a floor on the value of the property. As you say when things are abundant they will be cheap, so rent will get low in many places. But it won't go to zero very often, and it will as always, be what the local market can bear. Also, of course, a lot depends on how fast the ocean levels rise. A quick rise in ocean levels will make a lot of coastal residences uninhabitable and massively push up prices at places which are still habitable. It doesn't take a lot of positive feedback caused icecap melting to put America millions of homes too few instead of millions of homes to many.

What pushes nomads is jobs moving around not lack of housing. Rent near places that are hiring or still have functional economies will be high, because people will be moving to places with runors of jobs. Those who are most skilled in homesteading, will move places where rent is cheap and try to opt out of the cash economy as much as possible (or in many cases live there already). We aren't disagreeing there. But most people will not be able to get by even with extended families, without a fair bit of cash income, and will need to locate their families near places with access to reliable cash incomes, and those will be in short supply. Many jobs will evaporate and many new job opportunities will open up, and this will happen repeatedly. People chasing jobs will move around and drive the real estate markets up and down locally. People are still moving TO the southwest, despite its many problems, because thats where the jobs are right now.

I don't think it is an unattainable dream for most people away from coastal areas to successfully sit on a piece of land. I think it is highly unlikely that they will be able to own it, or will reap the benefits from it long-term. When things are slack your landlord may allow you to slide desperate to get whatever they can out of the land. But as the land becomes more desirable the landlord will take more of the surplus or kick you off in favor of someone else willing to pay more for the land. Now if you develop the highly portable skills of working the land well, that will serve you where ever you end up, but again the wages of labor and the rent income of land ownership are two very different economic spheres in most times and places.

Also I agree the West will have pastoralists, but not very many, and "security" will be far more settled than wandering.

As for me, my mother's husband's largish farm in Indiana will probably take us, and my brother's family, when we lose our own jobs and houses. I'm skeptical whether my wife's father will be able to keep his little farm, but it could happen. When the time comes I'll work the best I can at whatever place will take me. My own bet was placed long ago, before I understood anything about peak oil, before I even had a family to take care of, on a longshot career that never had good prospects even in times of plenty. So I can't really complain, only try to understand and predict.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Ok Brian, I'm going to call you out on that last post. I apologize in advance if I've forgotten or misremembered some of the stuff you've said about your life in past posts - I have a terrible memory. But the whole "that choice was made..." bit bugs me.

Because, I'm going to guess that you are not working second shift at the local Walmart - maybe I'm wrong about that. Whatever your career is, you could change it - lots of people work jobs they didn't exactly train for. And if I remember correctly, you have a big expensive house that you are kind of stuck with...because you choose to be.

Where I live there are a number of five acre properties with aging but usable mobile homes on them available in the mid-30s. I saw a 700 square foot hunting cabin on 10 acres for 39K - it doesn't have running water, but it has a nice outhouse. Or, if you aren't a country guy, there are houses in urban Detroit with goodsized lots going for 35K. Many of them have owner financing. Bare land out here goes for a 2-5K an acre, and old RVs are often available for a few hundred. Sometimes the oldest mobile homes are available free for the hauling, but you generally either have to do without electric or gut it. The Amish folk around here can put up the wooden shell of a 500 square foot house for about 5K here, so you could have a house and land for 10K, another 3K to drive a well and put a pump on it, and build your own outhouse.

Are you honestly going to tell me that if you and your wife both worked, even if you had to walk away from your house and sell it back to the bank, you and your wife couldn't pay off most or all of a 35K mortgage in a few years before things get desperate? Or that you couldn't build a 15K shack and pay off your land? After which point, you could build something fancier, or not.

I don't demand that anyone do this, but I think that it is just posturing to present the issues, at least for yourself, as being trapped by your choices. Perhaps I'm wrong - perhaps you are caring for an elderly, disabled mother who absolutely can't be moved - of course, she's gonna have a tough time when you go nomad anyway, though.

If you could combine with any other person not later, but now, you'd have a whole host of other options.

I'm not trying to pick on you, Brian, but what I'm saying is that I think many of us *CAN* stay where we are, or in places like them. We may not want to, we may not feel like making the kinds of sacrifices in lifestyle that this entails. And that's fine. But the choice is made every day we elect not to do anything, and to view ourselves as passive in this situation.

How do you think it is I have a house and land, mostly paid off? It isn't because I've ever made more than 15K in a year, or because Shakespeareans are such a desirable economic commodity. Theoretical astrophysicists aren't exactly essential to life as we know it either. The fact is, we picked a cheap area, bought a ratty house in dire need of repair (no running water for a while), saved everything we had, fixed it up gradually and shared housing with my husband's grandparents, taking care of them. A lot more people could choose to have a potential fertile crescent than do. We bought our house after living as graduate students on grad stipends (in English!), in the second most expensive housing market in the US at the time. The only thing that was true was that we weren't too wrapped up in our careers to get what jobs we could find.

There are people who are genuinely stuck - I don't tend to think that most well educated people are among them. You can do all sorts of tolerably paying but crappy jobs to make money and live decently - if you want. Teach private school, teach public school in some places, sub, edit the local newspaper, run the town museum, etc... Your options are a sight better than someone who has only ever worked at the local slaughtering plant. And even they have some choices, some of the time.

If your trade off is "middle class, comfortable existence now, nomad later" fine - but no whining ;-). And I admit, if I had as bleak a view of the future as you do, I'm not sure that would be my choice.

Cheers, and this is intended kindly, so I hope it isn't offensive,


Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon. Not offended, but uhm on the defensive. Its always weird to defend your hard thought lifestyle choices to people you only kinda know. It is always tricky to get tone right in digital formats so maybe I've seemed whiny when I was trying to avoid that. But theory first, and then self-defense.

OK, no one lives in closed systems, they live in fertile crescents and in the US they aren't even really that close to closed systems anymore. That means that everyone needs a "cash crop" of some kind. You need some way of participating in the cash economy to pay property taxes on what you own, or mortgages on what you kinda own, and whatever other parts of your lifestyle you can't quite provide for yourself. The Amish need "cash crops" and they are really good at homesteading. Even you need a kind of "cash crop" and so do we or any other people working to reduce our footprint and become more self-reliant. Now some folk, market gardeners, and others might actually have a crop as their "cash crop," good ole greenpa comes to mind, but not many people can pull that off yet unless they are professional croppers. It will become easier as agrarian food distribution systems start replacing industrial ones, and that is certainly already well begun. But there just isn't room for a lot of that yet. Most folk support their farms or homesteads with cash earning jobs, that is a job in the cash economy serves as their "cash crop." The land helps defray costs, but can't defray costs to zero unless the crescent closes to a circle so you rely on some other job to fill in the crescent. My mother's husband managed to keep the family farm when many others were unable to, because he wasn't a farmer, he paid for his costs and the land's costs with his income as a geology professor. Farm income tends to vary too much year to year. Your family, I take it, relies heavily on cash income from your husband's job, at least until your books are done (I'm optimistic that they will be brilliant and well received and may even earn you some money :). But every family exists on a spectrum from the closed circle, to the totally reliant on the cash economy.

This means that whether a house or piece of land will work for a family is a function of both its cost, and its access to jobs that that family can use as "cash crops." A great fertile, cheap ass plot of land, at a location where the job market is saturated or deteriorating, isn't really worth anything, unless the family is so skilled at homesteading they don't need any money, or so loaded they have all the money they will need for the forseeable future already. A plot is only viable if you can make ends meet between working the land, and working any jobs locally available. Because the jobs move, people will often have to move with them, as long as they can't close the circle. Don't get me wrong. I agree that many people will have to stay where they are whether they want to move or not. But others will have to move whether they want to or not. Certainly both happened in the great depression.

OK so where does my family get off making the choices we have? Well first let me correct tone and misconceptions. I am so grateful for the luck we've had. We've been very lucky, and I fear losing what I have vastly more than I want to complain about where I am.

We were nomads and are now trying hard to put down roots here in Terre Haute. Our house was built in 1902 and is not "big" or "expensive" by modern standards or those of my colleagues or family. Certainly my father thought we were insane for buying something so small, but we love it. We were certainly thinking about the peak and the future when we bought it. We do not feel trapped in it. I hope I can stay, but fear I will be a nomad again soon, (or more likely now move to my parent's farm.)

One of the many things I love about our house is that I can walk to work, and walk my kids to school, and we can bike to many other things. We have friends who are serious homesteaders (although they are still learning the ins and outs). They live on a cheaper property in the country, with more land, and are able to grow more crops and animals. But they also have vastly higher transportation costs. I'm not trying to insult them. I respect them although they have made different choices. But the choices all have trade offs, and its not clear to me that they are genuinely more self-sufficient than we are, or that they have a lower overall footprint. The more expensive, but more centrally located property means we have to buy more food at the farmer's market rather than growing it ourself, and pay more to the bank, but have less transportation costs, are less dependent on foreign oil, and have better access to jobs. We can pay for the house and our other debts (at a fair bit more than the minimums) without bizarre financing, at least as long as my job holds, or Robyn and I can get get others later.

So could I walk away from the house sell it back to the bank, buy a 35K property in urban Detroit, or a rural area and pay it off in a few years? Well it depends on what jobs Robyn and I could hold down while living there, and what the side effects were. Cheap ass properties tend to be the one with the highest transportation costs to decent job pools. For another thing Robyn has more than twice that in student debt, and our (imperfect) understand of current debt law, is that primary homes can be and are seized to cover student debt, and so that we can never be free and clear until we pay off the house and the student debt. So a cheaper house would only hasten that day a little, especially if it inhibited our ability to get or hold jobs. We thought about this. Our old Rev. lived in a teepee for over a decade here in Indiana, and everyone thought he was insane, but it really worked for his family. Heck, if Robyn or I we handy enough to fix up a fixer-upper (sadly not things we are good at), we could get a house here in TH for that price, and we have friends that are going that route (Although neither of them can walk to their work, and are feeling the transportation pinch worse and worse). And my current job is extremely location sensitive. I spent over a decade gaining a very expensive education which has rendered me fit for a few very specific jobs, and one of the trade-offs is no say over where the job is located at. Am I trapped by my choices? Only to the extent that Robyn and I are still waiting to see if the gamble pays off or not. I can always walk away from my stake and try another career or job, and I certainly do contemplate that option. But I am so lucky to have been hired at all, so lucky to have been hired repeatedly, so lucky to have gotten a tenure track post. Perhaps my job will evaporate this year, or in a few more. Or maybe I'll get tenure - its a longshot, but it is still possible. If so, I think we can stay in this house and make things work all through the crisis and after, and be settled folk with a real niche - a great jackpot. After all a professor was able to do that here back in 1902, and I don't think we'll be going back that far. But yeah Robyn or I could look for other jobs, here or in Detroit or in a more rural location. Would I be good at them? No. Might we be competent at them? Maybe. If my eyesight doesn't get bad enough to lose my literacy entirely, I could probably be a cashier at Wal-mart again, I was competent at that. But I don't think we could keep up with Robyn's student loans that way, much less that and a cheap house, I think we'd become renters again. More plausibly I could take over the homemaking and Robyn could try to get a job, she's been competent at many things in the past. But then much would depend on what kind of job she could get and its hard to see why to stay here rather than move even closer to family. Could we both work cash jobs? Sure but then we'd lose a lot of the things we do to defray costs and lower our footprint. Homemade bread and jam is nice, but it requires both skills and labor time. We couldn't have pulled it off back when we both worked heavily. Heck, Robyn has turned down jobs when we did the math and realized the child-care required would cost more than the income received.

Are we trapped? No, or only to they extent that I am unwilling to walk away from the career I have worked so long on. Yet. As Zaphod says, "sorry to bother you, I'll just go find something else for my entire life to be about." Orlov points out the Russian collapse was hard on middle-age men unused to useless irrelevancy. We certainly have friends vastly more trapped than we are. We have been so much more fortunate than many we know.

Perhaps I will turn out to be competent and employable at "crappy jobs to make money and live decently" especially if I'm able to remain literate. As you say, many people take this route and are successful at it. If I had genuine confidence in this I would be much less scared. One of the most satisfying things about being a cashier at Walmart was the knowledge that I could support myself this way if push came to shove. But that was before I had a wife with heavy debt and two kids, and Walmart based families didn't work out very well. And frankly Walmart and cashiering jobs aren't going to survive the coming troubles. Further, living the life of crappy jobs to make money and make ends meet often mean what I am calling post-industrial nomadry, or the "precariat" because these are precisely the jobs that ends suddenly, or that get bad enough that you need to walk away. It is this sector that lives the life today I am describing as post-industrial nomadry. Certainly the jobs you mentioned are pretty taken and fought over here (except the people we know who've tried subbing weren't able to get enough hours to make it work). We knew people who had only ever worked at the local pig-slaughtering factory back in Kirksville, before it fired most of the locals and imported Mexican workers who were forced to live in barracks on company property. I do not envy those poor folk at all. Most of them moved away looking for jobs elsewhere, or went into meth production. In fact, they are a great example of folks I've known forced into nomadry.

My trade-off has always been a longshot chance of a good job in field I love, at the cost of a high chance of failure and having spent a decade, and being over-educated and nearly unemployable. This was tolerable when I was single, but I often wonder where I found the optimism to marry. But I have family who are in far better shape than me, so really the worst case scenario is moving to my mother's husband's farm and sponging off them. (Although it would mean tearing up our roots here and moving again). All that is really at stake is my pride and self-reliance, and as with you, and most academics I know pride is my main vice. It would be nice to leave the space at the farm open for my brother's family in case they need it, but Robyn is increasingly convincing me that the farm could support all 10 of us. Is this all posturing? Maybe. I am trying to be honest about our choices but it is hard, few people cope without some degree of self-deception.

Perhaps I have talked too long, or missed tone again. Many people are far worse off than us. Or you. A cheap place where you could grow lots of food AND have access to decent jobs in one of your fields was a lucky find on your part (or perhaps a skillful one). That you were able to make a deal with grandparents was lucky, that you even tried was insightful. As you point out, not many even think to take that route. That you were able to care for elderly relatives and young ones, and farm, and keep down decent jobs all at once is a credit to you. You're even willing to keep chatting with me after pressing you over and over. Perhaps, I don't compliment you enough. I suspect you are the smartest wisest person I interact with (although not as all-around wonderful as Robyn ;).)

We live closer to the fertile crescent than many we know, and try to help others improve. I'm proud of the changes our family has been able to make in the last few years. We are getting slowly better at gardening. But we aren't homesteaders or market gardeners and probably never will be. Maybe you can get 30% of the US farming in a generation, but you can't get all of us to and we shouldn't all have to. We help too, who organize coops or teach or buy the food at farmers markets, or find lease-land for market farmers. When it comes to home schooling vs public schooling, you make nuanced, balanced, wise, points, that neither is right for everyone, but that both have ups and downs. The same point is true of the homesteading vs cash economy. Everyone exists on the spectrum and thoughtful honest people make different choices, sometimes even for thoughtful honest reasons.

Many of us CAN stay where we are, we agree. I sure hope we can too. But not everyone even CAN, and it isn't the right, or only right choice for everyone. And I'm sure glad your not trying to pick on me, I'd hate to see what that was like. :). I in turn hope I haven't repaid your kindly intentions poorly.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, you've actually been unbelievably nice about me picking on you. You certainly didn't have to compliment me for giving you a hard time - I don't expect them and I respond to your long posts because I like them - a lot - and I learn from them. I'm not totally clear why I'm writing a book and you aren't, but that's another issue ;-).

All I can say to all that is, I'm sorry to the extent I misremembered prior conversations, and it sounds like a fair set of choices. I don't mean to make it sound like everyone can always do everything. It sounds like you are as happy as you could possibly be, which is all that anyone ever can get.

I, for example have this at the price of the tenure track job and academic career I spent a long time training for. Do I have my regrets on that front. Sure. I've ended up quite content with my combo farming and writing (so far, farming is significantly more profitable - which isn't to say much - than either writing or being a graduate student. I look at the book writing as another form of graduate school - a good education with little hope of remuneration ;-). Most books sell 99 copies or less - I fully expect to be among them, unless my Mom really wants a lot of copies.)

So who the hell am I to tell someone "don't be an academic" or "don't have a stay-at-home parent" or "move over here near me so we can argue all the time and I can take credit in my books for the useful criticisms and ideas you give me as though I were smart enough to think of them myself ;-)?"

Nor am I one to criticize anyone for their house - I'm glad you like yours, its just that your prior post gave me the impression that you fully expect to lose it - and not too long from now. I have a giant house (old farmhouse, expanded for needs of elderly grandparents now deceased) and I think our only solution will turn out to be hunting around to find another couple or family to share the farm with - since the house is already subdivided and easily big enough for two families. Right now we just don't heat much of it in the winter, but that's just because we haven't yet found the right arrangement with people we like and who won't kill me in their sleep because I'm nosy, presumptuous and obnoxious ;-).

I guess all I mean is that if the security meant enough to you, I think you could probably have it. Sure, there are issues about transportation costs, although I think many of them can be finessed if you are reasonably healthy (which I'm not assuming) - for example, my husband commutes to work 17 miles by bike fairly often, weather allowing. With one of the human charged electric supplements (no plug in needed) like a stoke monkey, I would tend to think that most overweight 60 year olds could do the same if their basic health was ok. Good all weather tires and warm clothing would reduce the number of days that had to do this dramatically. My husband can also carpool - the thing about living out in the middle of nowhere is that the jobs, few that they are, tend to be in one general direction. So my husband can ride in with a neighbor (about 3 hours before he has to be in to teach and coming home about 2 hours afterwards, so it isn't ideal for our family, but will do) and take a bus or walk or ride his bike from there.

I tend to think that transportation costs at least in relationship to housing costs are much easier to finesse. That is, it is much easier to find cheap transport alternatives in rural areas than it is to find cheap housing in expensive ones. Heck, if we could afford the initial investment, or if we are willing to go into a small amount of debt for the initial investment, I suspect we could go car free out here with bakefieste minivan bikes or a horse cart (we've got the pasture and hay already). It would be neither painless nor inconvenient, and it would involve our either accepting a lot more seperation from our religious community or doing a whole heaping lot of work to put such a community together in our area, but it could be achieved.

Again, that's not to say that everyone should move to any particular place. But I do think that if the trade-off between stability and other choices led someone to *want* stability (and I mean want in the really want it, rather than my own "sometimes it sucks that one choice closes down another choice" - what my old diss advisor described as "disappointment") - the impression I perhaps falsely got from your post - I think it is achievable, but not without a significant price in other things.

Hell Brian, you provide me with so much entertainment that if your family won't take you in, we will. Let me know if you ever want directions. The house is a mess, the chatelaine is a PITA, the kids are loud and mowing the hay with scythes gets boring after a while, though. But you are sincerely welcome.

Cheers and apologies,


Anonymous said...

Ah. When I was young and had no family to support I DIDN'T value security, because I was flexible and I trusted that I could live very poor and still be happy. And I tried it, and I could. So I went for an academic career which had a low shot at stability, but a pretty decent non-stable existence. Being a grad-student is a good gig while you can keep it, at least without kids.

But kids change it. It hurts a lot more to be poor with kids than poor by yourself. Because you chose it but they didn't. And you need more space not to feel crammed in. And they need a lot of time and attention and care, which draws a lot from other activities. And kids need more stability than adults do. And somehow depriving your kid of something they really want because you can't afford it, just hurts a lot worse than depriving yourself of something you really want because you can't afford it. The second seems noble, the first seems cruel.

The Strauss-Howe theory of historical cycles, involves a 4 phase historical cycle of 80-100 years driven by a progression of 4 generational archetypes. Those who come of age in a 3rd phase - a period of "Unravelling", like us X-ers, or the "Lost Generation" of Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, or the "Gilded generation" of Twain and William James. Are called "Nomads" in the Strauss-Howe theory. And they note that Nomad-generations tend to shift from high risk instable lifestyles while young, to conservative, even reactionary settled lifestyles in middle-age. A kind of mid-life crisis in reverse. (Indeed, in many ways a reverse parallel of what happens to generations who come of age in 1st phases, like the Progressives of the Roosevelt-Wilson era, or the Silent Generation after WWII, or our own kids). I suspect my experience is common in our generation, and ones like ours.

But once I did value security I wasn't convinced I could find a stable career anymore, and my best shot seemed to be to ride out my past investments. And indeed, for the last two years we have managed to make the US median family income, (and thus more than you) for the first time ever. Much will work out well, including keeping our house, if I can keep my job. And it could happen, but I am not optimistic. I suspect my job, career, and home are all going to be lost soon, but I am trying hard not to give up on them.
I got some bad news on the short and long term prospects of my eyesight yesterday, but it could have been worse. I agree I probably could have gotten stability over other things, if I had deeply wanted them early enough in my life, and maybe it isn't too late. Although I think that real security is going to be a lot rarer then next 20 years than you seem to. And many of our friends are lucky to have what little stability they do now, and probably couldn't have done much better even with earlier choices.

You're probably also right about transportation costs being easier to finesse than housing. We certainly didn't understand such things as well a year and a half ago. I still couldn't commute 17 miles on a bike, (and can't imagine time-budgeting with 5 hours less) but in another year of biking I might well be able to, and I don't really understand what a stoke monkey is, I've never even seen or tried one.

I am blessed with a loving, wise family, and am not very worried on that front. My wife's husband, managed to keep his family land, although he couldn't farm it, because he valued it anyway. He decided to reforest 1/4th of it. He studied up on how to re-forest land, drew up a 30-year plan for re-foresting this land, and then actually carried it out (despite living 2 states away for most of the time), planting 100 trees a summer, until he could start thinning and such. I often express my awe at the sort of fellow who can make a 30-year-long plan, and then in fact carry it out to its completion. He still maintains the forest, but he doesn't really need to any more, it would take care of itself now I suspect. They will retire from teaching and move back to their land soon, and our kids loving visiting the farm.

My strengths have been in criticizing and struggling to understand, not in farming or, for example, organization or professionalism. I've been listening to the Talking Heads song "Nothing but flowers" recently, one of the last things they did before breaking up, about a man adapting poorly to an agrarian future. Have you heard it? I doubt I'll cope well as a farmhand for my step-father, but I am optimistic my children will thrive in that life, and it is probably the best I can do, unless I can adapt to my eyesight and other problems enough to make and hold tenure here. Ah well, back to grading.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Brian - I'll call it done at this, since we're both using this as an excuse to slack off. But it has been interesting.

One of the reasons I have my land is precisely because I have kids - I think they do need stability, and more stability than freedom from superficial poverty. That is, I think it was a heck of a lot harder for me to buy my house in some ways than for someone in my parent's generation to buy theirs, and I don't see that changing for my kids. Taking the long view, I think that I'm much less worried about short term poverty in childhood than lifetime poverty.

And because I grew up in the kind of borderline lower middle/poor class household that was alway struggling to pay bills and saying, "no, you can't have that" it doesn't scare me, and I don't think it creates a bad childhood. Perhaps my kids will blame me for not giving them even a remotely typical middle class childhood - I'm placing a bet here. I'm hoping that will be somewhat compensated, in the crappy things Mommy did with the fact that there's a paid off place that they can live, and a legacy. Teodor Shanin says of peasant societies that household "owners" aren't really owners at all - they are stewards, in charge, for a generation, of taking care of what little the family has, preserving and increasing it, so that it can be passed down in perpetuity. We've chosen that model, which isn't perfect, and plenty of peasants end up on the road - maybe us too. But I think it is the only possible method to stabilize things.

There are two other things I have some differences with. One of them may be a gender thing - I'm not sure that men have different midlife crises, I just think women's come when we have babies. It was very, very obvious to me about six months into motherhood that my family's career plans (two faculty jobs at the same school - dream on, tenure, dream on) were not going to happen. And it was obvious when we decided to have a second child (3 and 4 weren't quite decisions, but that's another issue) that the person whose dreams would be changing was me. Because extended breastfeeding and pregnancy can be done with two full time careers, but you can't do much of anything else, and often, you fail even at the above.

I think I came up against a harder wall than most men do - what my friend George Franklin calls the truth that "there's nothing fair about pregnancy and childbirth." That is, all the things I spent my 20s working on simply weren't going to happen the way I'd hoped. I wasn't going to be the high powered career of the two of us - because I didn't want it bad enough to give up all sorts of other things. And looking around at my overeducated, highly trained female friends, there are damned few who haven't come bang up against the reality that what the life they planned didn't work. Either they waited until they had tenure had trouble having kids, or they had kids younger and then had to change jobs, change careers, stay home, or, if they were lucky, switch off with a spouse. We call it the "what do you want to do when you grow up" experience in your mid30s.

That's not to say I might not have been an academic, but for me, the big confrontation with career options came with motherhood - by the time we bought a farm, we'd already hit that wall and accepted that we had to go over it. So we looked around, and I found that I have an enormous number of options compared to most of the blue collar folks around me. I can teach comp, or teach online (both pay for shit, but better than selling tires), I can adjunct, sub, teach high school. I can do a whole host of boring, stupid jobs editing, managing etc.. It is possible to cobble together a job that pays passably and isn't too demanding, is compatible with family life. That's totally inconceivable to most of my neighbors, and I'm willing to bet that if someone with creds in english literature can, not too many other academics are going to be shut out of all the options.

So what I don't buy is the "Walmart or nothing" choice. I don't have any objection to someone preferring to do what they love - I just tend to think that most of us can decide to love a lot of things. I found that not only did I love Shakespeare and teaching, but I loved growing food and writing (which was not a career I even considered - this happened utterly by accident), etc...

This isn't particularly directed at you - but I think it is important in general. Because while it is true none of us have real job security or anything like us, I tend to think an enormous degree of security comes in job flexibility, especially for those of us who are lucky to have a big wad of education. Yes, there is competition for these jobs, but there's competition at Walmart too.

I think that there's going to be a real mix of disruption and people sitting tight. But it really isn't obvious to me that sitting tight isn't going to predominate, simply because we have so many houses, and people are going to consolidate, so we're going to have so many *more* houses sitting empty. When you move in with your stepfather, and my sister and Eric's Mom move in with us, that's three more houses no one really needs. As that happens all over the country, we may break up families and send one party out to work in another place for a while and send back money, a la Mexico. But I don't think we're going to be on the move that much - or at least not because of foreclosure.

The association of "job security" and "land security" don't, intuitively speaking, seem like they will have enormous amounts to do with each other. In fact, we've made a somewhat peculiar choice for the moment - my husband has rejected the largest source of job security available to almost anyone - tenure - to take less formal job security, and, we hope, more practical job security. That is, instead of taking a tenured job at a small private college without a large endowment and with ok benefits, my husband took a lecturer position at a large state university with tolerable money and good benefits. We figure there's a good chance that college #1 will go bankrupt in a crisis, but that the state will bail out the state college for a while. And my husband is vastly cheaper than a tenured faculty member, so when the state budget gets tight, we suspect he'll be kept on while older tenured faculty will be pressed into retirement and others either won't be tenured or won't be hired. This is what happened in the 90s, of course in academia, and we expect it to happen again. It is a gamble, but one we're prepared to risk on.

But simply put, we don't believe in job security. We believe in having your feet as much as possible straddling the formal economy and the informal economy - and I believe strongly that in the end, the informal economy is more robust than the formal one, if less likely to support us in the style to which we'd like to be accustomed.

But I do believe in home security, and I don't think they have to be linked that deeply - that is, if you want it badly enough, many of us could choose to move to reasonably priced areas where salaries are lower but where costs are lower still. That many of us could afford to pay down our mortgages faster if we cared about it. That many of us could move in with family right now. That would mess up a whole lot of things, and maybe people won't do it. But I think it is worth taking seriously, and perhaps risking something for. Maybe not for you, but generally. But that is a matter of opinion, of course.

I'm sorry to hear about the vision, btw. A stokemonkey is an electric assist for a bike powered by pedal charging - it can get you moving up to 30mph. There are other electric assists that are charged by your house, and the general thing is that they can dramatically extend your range and your ability to handle terrain.

Cheers, and the offer still stands.


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