Sunday, July 01, 2007

The First Month of Rioting for Austerity

Was, umm...not very dramatic. Our baselines are pretty low, so right now we're picking a little at a time at reductions. I wish I could write about how we did something really simple that cut our usage dramatically, but nothing so far ;-). I think the big step will be the fridge turn off. Which I meant to have done already, but haven't quite, simply because we're still using up all the bits of condiments in the fridge. I can't quite bring myself to throw away good food, even though this is stupid ;-). But I think we'll do the big turn off at the end of this week, finally.

Our electrical assessment will have to wait until the monthy bill comes in - I expect a fairly dramatic drop, because March was artificially high. We were brooding out turkey poults, and we had frost periodically until May 22. We've been more diligent about turning off the computer, and I'm trying hard to have 3 days a week (only succeeded once so far) in which I don't connect at all. We're also trying to wean our son to a smaller nightlight with an LED. We've been using our solar cooker and other cooking energy savers as well, so hopefully this will work out as a large net savings.

One thing we're considering later in the project is simply going entirely without grid power - not with solar, but simply converting our life over to electrical free for good. We're debating.

Gas - our approximate monthly allotment is 20 gallons per month for the household. We used 34, including the trip back and forth to NYC my husband took with the boys. Which is significantly over, but getting better. My oldest son's whole annual allotment (and perhaps more) will be used by his busing to the school for kids with autism he attends. I'm hoping we'll come in under his allotment - it will depend on the size of the bus they assign, and the number of other special needs kids going his way. We don't really have any control over this, and I doubt our family will have enough extra gas to cover his full allotment if, for example, the school district does something insane and puts Eli with only 1 other kid on a 12 passenger school bus. So this may be our failure point. Over the summer, the big reasons for driving are synagogue and swimming. But we want to save up gas for the fall, when DH has to commute to work.

I'd love to get rid of the van we have, which is comparatively low mileage, but fits all 6 of us. I hate having two cars. Heck, I hate having one car. They are never on the road at the same time - ever - we inherited the little car from Eric's grandmother and we use it for commuting and anything we don't all do together - the van is driven only 1x per week or so, or occasionally on long car trips. So I'm looking for a higher-mileage 30+ vehicle that could fit six passengers, 3 in car or booster seats. Oh, and it can't cost too much, but has to be reasonably reliable. If anyone has any wisdom, I'll gladly accept it. We'd dump both of the other cars in favor of that such a magic vehicle.

I got the information about the trike with kid seat Colin Beavan is using over at Noimpactman, and I'm looking into that - Eli doesn't have the developmental skills to ride a bike safely in traffic, and no one else is big enough or a good enough rider to be able to cover the multiple hilly miles between us and anything else. We've looked into rickshaws, but too pricey as yet. We have yet to figure out how to transport four kids with pedal power. Which is too bad - we'd love to. Horse and buggy would be the other option, but I don't know that I have the horse skills or the time to really acquire serious driving ability - enough to feel really safe with my kids in the buggy. I used to ride, but I've never driven. Any good advice on this front?

Heating - not been a problem here ;-). We don't usually turn the heat on until late October. And unfortunately, one of the two beautiful birches that shades our house is moribund, and has to come down. The upside is that the wood will be nice. But we want to replace it with a similar, but less disease prone tree - anyone know something that provides light, dappled shade, isn't too prone to disease and is pretty to look at? I was thinking locust, perhaps, or maybe Chinese Chestnut.

Food - we were already very nearly at the 90% reduction, and as the garden and local produce gets better, we're pretty comfortably there. I wish I could come up with a good substitute for cheerios, but that's about it. Oh, and a cheaper organic juice source for popsicle making. We're really enjoying the very beginnings of the real "summer" things - the first green beans and zucchini. No tomatoes yet, but forthcoming.

Garbage - the debacle in which my shop shelving collapsed and crushed a whole bunch of glass jars of pickles into sacks of grains and beans pretty much killed my garbage quota this month. We were way over - I didn't even other calculating how much. We have been working to minimize our garbage, but that kind of killed it.

Consumer goods - I was doing so well until I bumped up against Simon's homeschool materials at the end of this month. Most of it is a good investment - amortized over the 2 kids following him, we'll get 3 years of usage out of every curriculum year. And we were able to mix and match, which was good - at 5 1/2 he's ready for most of the 2nd grade materials, but not quite all. And I simply couldn't find everything we needed used. So I spent more than my @80 per month allotment on that - we bought a total of 140 dollars in used goods (most of that was DH's banjo), which at a 10% allotment was 14 dollars, but then spent $105 dollars on Simon's second grade school materials, new. I'll probably spend another bit this month on Jewish materials, which simply aren't readily available used.

Water: We're averaging 10-11 gallons per person, just above optimal. I think I can get that down pretty well once we move the other toilet to composting, which will happen as soon our friend who is building new ones for us gets it finished. The cistern *should finally* go in in July, and we'll have more flexibility then, particularly because of our abundant rainfall.

The big learning curve on this has been not that it is so terrifically hard, but how many little places there were for us left to make cuts.

The other cultural thing that has been interesting is the level of negotiation. I describe this project a lot, and the immediate reaction tends to be an attempt at negotiation - "Well, but I couldn't do that because I have to..." I think a lot of people just don't realize that science doesn't negotiate - that is, they don't seem to grasp that while you can dispute the grounds for doing this, if you conceed that we have to do what it takes, you can't bargain on the what it takes. It is a painful realization to recognize that every day we wait to make these changes raises the bar - it makes it less and less possible. I've had two people say to me "well, once it gets to 100%, we won't have to do it anyway." They were joking, but that scares me - the idea that if we just make the disaster irrevocable we don't have to take responsibility...that's scary. But then there are the people who do get it, and want a role in changing things. That's reassuring.

BTW, I'm going to be interviewed live (GACK!) on the Reality Report on Global Public Media by Jason Bradford tomorrow from 12-1 EST. There's a call in portion at the end, so feel free to participate. Live streaming is here:
http://www.kzyx.org/pages/listen_now.html and the phone number is 707-456-9991. I'll be talking about sustainable agriculture and 100 Million farmers.

Cheers,

Sharon

44 comments:

Cameron said...

They're also pricey, but Bakfiets bikes are neat alternatives to rickshaws. I've read of one two-adult four-kid family that uses them.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon,

I have a "bakfiets" (I wrote about it in my intro at 90%Reduction), it is great!!! I use it everyday with my two daughters. But to transport 4 kids, you would need two bakfietsen.

Catharina
The Netherlands

Donna said...

Sounds like you are in the same place as I am trying to find the perfect car that caters for the needs of a growing family while being relatively environmentally friendly. I wish Honda had a hybrid version of the Odyssey...
In September I will have 3 kids aged 6, 3 and a newborn so I need a car that can take all the jolly child restraints, all of the kiddo paraphernalia and their friends, a spare adult and frequently 2 dogs.
I think there is a potentially huge market out there...whoever produces a safe, relatively eco-friendly vehicle with reasonable comfort levels and great design should be laughing!

Katie said...

Sharon,

Will you share more info. on the trike with kid seat? I have been searching for exactly that for over a year with no luck (seven local bike shops think I'm mad...;).

Please and thank you! --Katie

MSquirrel said...

I use to drive my grandfather's horse team while he threw hay for the cattle out the back of the sledge. Frankly, its easier than driving a car, but that's only because "Babe" was a perfect team leader and gentle as a teddy bear. But if you want something that isn't going to spook quite as easily, or will be less likely to have an attitude with you, mules are an excellent substitute. They are smarter, braver, and more sure-footed.

Shaunta said...

After a long and painful search for a place to live in our little town that has zero rentals, we finally rented a duplex in the next tiny town, which is 11 miles away. I feel sick about it, but I think we can lower our other energy bills to make up for it. I hope. We'll be using our little car to drive back and forth to work, instead of the nicer, air-conditioned mini-van.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, do you know those bikes that are really carts -- 2 people (with room for a smaller third one) sit in the front and peddle and up to 4 ride in the back? There is also a tiny bit of cargo space, and you could work out ways to make more?

I've seen them at boardwalks, but never ridden in one because dd the elder (then age 4) decided they looked like giant egg beaters and was rather frightened by them. I was told, however, that they are easy to peddle, but you have to learn how to stear them neatly.

No idea how much they cost or where to get them.

MEA

Flick said...

We drive a 1995 Ford Escort 5 speed manual wagon. it gets 41 miles per gallon on a highway trip driving medium speed (using premium gas). My previous experience with Fords was that they were all junk, but this type is not. This car is essentially a Japanese car dressed in Ford clothing. We got it four years ago for $1800. It now has 240,000 mostly troublefree miles on it and still runs fine. They are way undervalued because they are not Hondas or Toyotas. There are still many on the road. For a car it's Okey Dokey. It would be difficult to fit six people but with ingenuity you could probably rig another seat in the rear cargo space. Good luck!
Flick

Anonymous said...

What you pejoratively call "negotiating," other people might call accepting reality. Your philosophy is that, if we Americans must reduce our consumption by 90% by 2050, then we should reduce our consumption by 90% right now, this year. But for most of us, that is genuinely impossible. We can't afford to quit our jobs and purchase a large acreage of loosely regulated rural property where we could build a straw bale house and settle down to be peasant farmers - as if most Americans nowadays could even feed their children as peasant farmers, never mind provide any education or health care. We are stuck with our existing jobs, communities, and often residences, both their physical constraints and their legal constraints (e.g., we may not be allowed to heat with wood, or to do certain things with our bodily wastes or roof water runoff).

I can turn the thermostat on my furnace way down; I can insulate to the degree that my inconveniently built small urban house permits. But I cannot stop heating that home without freezing, nor can I afford to rip out a nearly new natural gas furnace (installed shortly before I bought the house) and replace it with some ecologically correct alternative. I can sign up for a local CSA, and swear off factory-farmed meat; I cannot grow much of my own food in the poor soil of my small back yard, nor may I keep livestock.

Give us a few decades to get to near-zero consumption, and we can do it; over time, we can afford to make one improvement in efficiency after another. Better yet, as zoning codes and public opinions change, the new homes that replace demolished old buildings can be smaller (thus easier to live in with minimal utility service) and more energy-efficient, and over time, each new buyer will automatically get a big head start on energy savings. We simply cannot afford to rebuild our homes top to bottom all at once - and imagine the mess it would create if we tried! If you let these things happen incrementally, with each person buying the most energy-saving roof, say, when it comes time to replace the roof, significant reductions in usage will occur gradually and without disruption. I don't mean to criticize your choice to pursue instant radical conservation, but please don't imply that those who don't hop on the bandwagon are "in denial" or don't care. Not everyone is capable of moving to a farm next week, but that doesn't make us scum; some of us urbanites make significant contributions to society and even to the environmental cause.

Anonymous said...

With a fairly regular weekly use of the mini-van, are there any neighbors who could let you borrow theirs for such times? Maybe trade some of the CSA yield?

Richard

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous, you've set up a bunch of strawmen to knock over. I don't demand that anyone do anything - I have invited people to join the 90% reduction, but these weren't people I was browbeating into joining, these were people whose immediate reaction to the project was dismissal - I don't think we can afford that.

There are no figures that suggest we have until 2050 to do anything -when Monbiot wrote _Heat_ he estimated we had until 2030, because carbon ppm were below 400ppm. Now, with the latest IPCC report, we know that in fact we're above the tipping point numbers - atmospheric carbon is at 469 ppm - above the 440 that gives us a 2 out of 3 shot at night having to evacuate our entire coastlines. So now we have that much less time - most scientists are saying less than a decade. James Hanson and six other Nasa scientists just estimated that we'd need "draconian" measures within the next few years. Unfortunately, sometimes "res ipsa loquitor" really is true - the thing does speak for itself. We don't have a lot of good choices, the way we would have in the past. I didn't make these numbers up arbitrarily, and I'm not responsible for anything other than pointing out that we have to choose - sooner, rather than later. The numbers are science - the "I don't want it to be hard for me" attitude I encountered is a natural reaction - but it is also a denial of reality.

I don't think making a 90% reduction requires moving to a farm, and I never suggested it did. In fact, in many ways, urbanite will find it easier to reduce energy in many categories than a rural dweller. In an apartment, your neighbors provide insulation to reduce heating costs. Public transport is widely accessible. Many cities do have foodsheds that can support them buying largely local food, particularly midwestern ones. Others don't. I've never said a thing that implied that urbanites can't accomplish approximately the same degree of reduction (btw, poor soil can be improved!)

But the reality is that we don't always have the choice of doing this the optimal way. We may just have to do it - that means making bigger sacrifices - giving up better paying jobs to lower paying ones closer to home, turning the heat down to 50 or 40 even, and dressing very warmly. Insulating the house not with an expensive renovation, but by covering the walls with homemade quilts. Renting out that extra bedroom so you can afford to make some change, changing your lifestyle. It is hard, often painful. But it is also necessary - again, I'm not doing this because I think it is so much fun to tell people to give things up, I'm doing it because the science won't negotiate with me, no matter how much I want it to.

I agree we all run up against limits externally imposed - sometimes the first step is to change those limits. To fight your zoning laws, to change the rules. But within the limitations of our lives, most of us could do more than we are. I could. I would bet you could. And realistically, as wonderful and productive as you are (and I am not at all being sarcastic here - I have no doubt you are), there's not a lot of choice but to become more environmentally productive.

And realistically, if we don't, we're going to be asking people with far fewer resources than ourselves to edure far more inconvenience. It would be hard for many of us to make these changes. The changes that the people in Africa who are dying of drought and famine are experiencing, the changes people in Bangladesh and New Orleans have experienced - those are fatal. And they are our responsibility - they are linked to our actions, whether we meant them or not. So if the choice is more dead people, or more inconvenience, I'm for more inconvenience for myself, and I think that's true of most people.

Again, I invite you and other people to join the 90% reduction. I don't demand anything of anyone. But science isn't going to take our feelings, or our personal needs into consideration - more's the pity.

Sharon

Anonymous said...

Humans can adapt to all kinds of things. But we are very bad at doing it unless we feel forced to. You CAN quit your job, and move to a rural location and become a peasant farmer, and so can I. But I can't quite manage to convince myself to do it, because I don't feel forced to, yet. You and I COULD use our waste water, or burn wood, regardless of what the local laws, say, certainly we and others break other parallel laws regularly, but we don't break these laws because it doesn't seem worth the risk, yet. You could kludge insulation in your urban home, or move away. When the Soviet Union collapsed many people did many unpleasant things because they felt they had to.

You and I are probably living better than average for the US already, and we probably ARE making significant contributions to society and environmentalism. But our society is in bad trouble, and that won't save us when push comes to shove, and zoning codes won't get changed much until they are badly too late. Sharon lives at close to 90% austerity (at least apart from her kid's busing) because she feels she ought to. I live at maybe 30% for the same reason, but can't push myself to anywhere near where she is yet. Soon we are going to be doing all this unpalatable stuff, living at at least 50-80% austerity because we can't afford not to, regardless of what our morality says one way or the other. At least 30% of the US is going to have to become "peasant farmers" within our lifetime or starve, regardless of what other contributions we could make to society.

Look around where you live in the city. Which ones will starve? Which ones will move away? Which ones will become farmers? Which ones will grow food in their back yards despite the small size and poor soil? When you can no longer afford to make ends meet where you are, which will you do? You think the issue is 2050? I think its more like 2015. Incremental is good when you can do it. Look at Cuba's peak oil experience, they never got around to better building codes, they had to basically suspend all new building projects, and do the best they could with existing buildings. I don't question your heart or think you scum, I just think that things are going to get bad a lot quicker than you do, and that neither of us has "a few decades" left to slowly ease down. I'm not even condemning you. My family has a lot of the same problems, and I doubt we'll be used to living austerely, by the time we have no choice in the matter. But I sure hope I can arrange it so my kids don't starve or freeze to death. And I fear that even when austerity comes to America will-it-or-nil-it, it won't be quite austere enough to assauge the climate change worries.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Sharon - Political science doesn't take our feelings or personal needs into consideration any more than atmospheric science does. Are you aware of any political scientist who thinks that "Draconian" measures can be passed in the US within the next few years? As you say we are already past the tipping point, and the culture is just barely beginning to budge. Isn't that the thing speaking for itself too? Most American people WOULD rather let Africans starve and Bangledeshis drown than do the terribly inconvenient things that 90% would require. We know what it costs us, and we hardly ever even see them, much less understand their suffering. Heck, I'm there too, I could do more and don't. We are the choices we make, even if they are ugly ones when dragged out into the light. It seems to me that the "I don't want it to be hard for me" attitude is as much a part of reality as the atmospheric numbers are, that IS how people are, at least at the moment. I just don't understand why you keep fighting the climate change battle, which looks to me like it is lost, lost, lost, and its time to cope with the consequences of losing it and move on to the next battle.
-Brian M

Anonymous said...

Perhaps she (and we) fight on becuase there will be no next battle.

MEA

Anonymous said...

MEA - Do you really think that if the seas rise and the climates shift there will be no more battles? I think that many will starve and some will survive, at least a while. I want myself and my kids and my community to be among the survivors. Don't you? For every defeat, I can imagine better and worse scenarios. If we can't stop the seas rising massively, can we keep the oceanic conveyer belt going? If that stops, can we keep some civilization despite the unstable climate? If that tanks, can we keep some humans alive despite the collapse? If the human species are gonners, how many other species can survive? If we are irrevokably on the path to a Venus-like planet devoid of life, how much time have we got? I'm more or less given up on the preventing massive sea-level rise, or preventing the US economy tanking, because of peak oil. But I see lots of later things that can go better or worse depending on what we do, that don't seem to be already too late. Do you think we are at the Venus-like all or nothing stage? Even if so, wouldn't you want to survive as long as possible? Do you think peak-oil chaos will lead to global nuclear war? It's odd for me to feel like the optimist on these topics!
-Brian M

Anonymous said...

This is the original Anonymous here again -- I didn't intend to offer anything that could be viewed as a straw man argument, and apologize if it had any such character. The CO2 level is still at 380-something - attempts to add in human-influenced GH gases as "CO2 equivalents" are problematic because they invite confusion with studies that make predictions based on CO2 alone. Monbiot is regarded by many as an extreme alarmist whose opinions are not well supported by science; he may say we have to change immediately or die, but the IPCC says we have a few decades to get the job done. I am acquainted with at least one IPCC panelist and consider him to be a far more authoritative source than Monbiot. Anyway, since it is genuinely impossible for all us wage slaves to lay down our old lives and take up new ones overnight, I can either accept the IPCC view or become a doomer.

Agreed, there are things we non-farmers could do that we don't, and we will do more of those things as the costs of energy and thereby of goods and services increase, either due to peak oil or to carbon taxes (which I fully support). That's rational and predictable behavior, and in a serious economic crunch, when your neighbors also are being forced to tighten their belts, doing without "basic" services will become socially more acceptable and legally less risky.

Not only for physical and financial reasons, but for psychological reasons, I think that a gradual change in society over 30-40 years (1-2 generations) is the only way to go. People change slowly. Look at the civil rights movement; 40 years ago some people had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the idea that blacks should be hired and paid equally, whereas today no American will admit that he ever thought otherwise. The environmental movement suffers from a division between those who offer suggestions for change that neither challenge people nor make much real difference, and those who demand too much, too fast. Ask for a sacrifice that is meaningful, that will make a difference if enough do it, and that hurts enough to feel like a gift to the earth but not enough to destroy one's marriage or valued career, and you will get more takers -- and you will find that many of those people feel so good about it that they will go on to make further sacrifices. Right now, I can get my spouse to eat CSA veggies and free-range eggs. Maybe later he will develop enough ecological spirit to bring home groceries on foot instead of by car, although that would cause him some physical pain. If I started off by suggesting that we should stop using toilet paper (another of those ideas that's not practical for people who have jobs), he would violently reject the whole subject and go buy two Big Macs!

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous (the original), you are certainly entitled to interpret the IPCC report anyway you want (I actually know several of the scientists), and reasonable people can disagree on this subject.

I assume you know that the report was widely critiqued for being extremely conservative and not taking into consideration tipping points and accellerating factors. There's certainly a great deal of controversy about how to think about this. But the figures Monbiot is using, for example, from the Potsdam Institute are actually widely accepted as reliable, by among other things, the British Royal Academy of Science and NASA. And it is hardly only Monbiot arguing that we have much less time than the IPCC assessments. Besides the Potsdam institute, the Institute for Climate Research in Germany, the Six scientists led by Hanson and the 56 IPCC scientists who signed the letter claiming that the time scale of the IPCC report was excessive, there are others. And, of course, the IPCC report was released without access to data like the vastly accellerated rate of ice melting that we're seeing, or the vast rise in rates of emissions over the first years of the 21st century. It was (by necessity) dated by the time it was released.

So personally, I don't find the IPCC report to be a final statement, but I'm much more open to this argument than the "you're saying everyone has to get a farm" one ;-).

While I certainly think it will take time to make significant changes, I honestly think that sometimes making radical change is far easier than making slow, incremental change. There's some solid evidence for this involving weight loss, for example - people who make wholesale lifestyle changes, like going on Dean Ornish's 10% fat diet are more likely to lose weight and keep it off than people who go on incremental measures. There are other psychological studies that are relevant, but to some degree this is a matter of taste - some people like to take things slow, some people don't.

It is also important to note that many of the most radical cultural changes of the civil rights movement happened in just a little more than a decade. In 40 years, the number of people who will admit to bigotry has shot way down, but the number of substantive cultural changes that benefit African Americans has also fallen - we've repealed many of the significant gains we made over 10-15 years, or at best are just holding ground on many basic things like income equality, franchise, affirmative action, political representation.

African Americans made the most progress during a decade or 15 years of radical, angry, difficult change - much of it that seemed like too much. And often, people doing it encountered precisely the same argument - don't ask too much, too fast. And they got the same reply in return - we can't wait.

What changed over 40 years was how much we were willing to admit to bad behavior - but not so much how much we were willing to hire African Americans at fair salaries. The big changes came fast, actually.

I've never demanded other people join the 90% reduction, and I'm not doing so now. I have invited other people who have already made significant changes but want to take the next step to do so, but it doesn't sound like you want to. The purpose of doing so is to point out what is possible. I support whatever changes other people make, and their right to make them at their own pace, up to the point that they are willing to face necessity.

But I'm still going to point out that I think the "I'll do it when they make me/when circumstances make me" is somewhat misplaced. Because when circumstances or political will make things happen, they aren't likely to be optimal for many of us. Carbon taxes, for example, are a strategy that rebounds heavily on the poor. But peak oil means a lot more poor people - the combination could be miserable. On the other hand, the acquisition of the tools to live a low carbon life, and practice doing it can make the transition comparatively less painful. I honestly think it is strongly in most our personal self-interest to get our lives adapted to living on vastly less as soon as possible - peak oil is very likely to rear the economic part of its head soon, which means that some of us may have choices now that we simply won't have in the future. Many of those things won't get easier by delay - and some will become much harder.


I also think there's little doubt that whatever political choices we make, America probably won't be at the forefront of things - waiting for us to bow to political necessity means almost certainly waiting too long. I don't think that last is in much dispute among too many people ;-).

Sharon

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, I simply disagree with you that the climate change issue is decided. And even if it is decided to 2 degrees, how long that change will persist and how much it will accellerate is still very much in our power to control. So that's why I'm fighting this one.

I also believe that most of what I'm doing is good prep for peak oil - as I said to the previous poster, I think right now we've probably got more disposable income, choices and options than we will ever have again. Right now there's still a ton of waste in the system to take advantage of, and time to acquire the right tools and make infrastructure adaptations. But that is likely to change very quickly. A recession that starts may simply never end for many of us - and that would end our choice of choosing to adapt gradually. So I don't see anything really incompatible with what I'm doing now and dealing with peak oil.

Actually, I don't think political science is a science in any sense, or that its rules are immutable. Societies have made radical transitions in very short periods of times many times - the time from the advent of the first major labor movement in the US to most of the major changes was less than 10 years. The beginnings of the socialist movement in Cuba to the revolution - 8 years. Time from the sons of liberty being a tiny minority to overthrowing the British - less than 10 years. There are plenty of other historical examples. Movement move fast. I simply don't see the laws of politics as being anything like as immutable as the laws of science - political scientists, like economists, just like to call it a science, but naming doesn't make it so ;-). I doubt many political scientists think anything radical will ever happen - but that doesn't mean much.

I simply don't quite see things as as bleak as you do - and I think there's a real danger to moving to the "its hopeless" stage - it becomes a matter of personal survival and we start to naturalize all sort of behaviors that then lead to the results we say we deplore.

Does that mean I think the best outcomes are likely? Probably not. But it isn't an either/or scenario - there is a lot of middle ground that you can achieve. Sorta apocalyptic is a real possibility ;-). So is "sorta pulled it off." ;-).

Sharon

Alan said...

Sharon,
A really good post and the comments by the two anonymice and your response to them are what blogging is all about.

Alan

Anonymous said...

You're right, I wouldn't want to instantly adopt a lifestyle as low-impact as your own, and you can attribute much of that to a desire for creature comforts. But it is also true that doing so would be impossible for us. Given financial, legal, and infrastructure constraints, and the limited number of hours in a day, we couldn't attain such strict targets where we now live.

I don't care to quit my job, which (IMHO) is one that does some good for the environment, but if we did quit work and move to a rural area, we would face immediate and concrete disaster. We would have neither the land and resources nor the skills to live nearly as well as you do; besides, my husband needs access to basic medical care, which means at least one of us would need to have a paid job in town anyway, and would have to burn fossil fuels to get to it. Where I now live, I can walk home from work and take public transportation to many other destinations.

Your lifestyle sounds in some ways idyllic, and I certainly hope you'll be happy and successful in it. You may indeed be modeling a possible life for many people. But it seems as if people in this movement are almost competing to see who can be more "low-impact" faster, and people who feel or know that they can't win the competition could be discouraged from entering at all.

I'm not sure what your position is on whether and how much people's individual needs should be taken into account. On the one hand, you have criticized Americans for providing various excuses, such as demands of employment or physical limitations, to use more than their share of resources because, as you noted, there are people in poor countries who have the same problems but simply don't have the resources to ameliorate them. On the other hand, in your column about why many folks are turned off by peak-oil doomers, you mentioned a friend's wheelchair-using daughter who apparently drives everywhere and suspects doomers of wanting to "get rid of inconvenient people like her." Does this mean that you do feel it is okay for her, and other people with physical limitations, to rely on private cars? If so, it should also be okay for me to choose a lifestyle in which my husband can get the prescriptions he needs to remain healthy.

To point this in the other direction, you have a "special need" in that you have four children. You have noted before that people have criticized you for this, and I once posted a comment supporting you. But it is true that over the next 40-50 years, your family's total resource consumption will be higher than mine (no kids, spayed cat) even if all of your children follow in your low-impact footsteps. Suppose I were to argue that the principle of equitable sacrifice should allow me to have more hot showers than you now! (That may be a joke on the individual level, but it's becoming serious on the international level. India is insisting that any carbon cap must be strictly per capita -- but they don't ask to fix proportions of emissions for each nation based on population in a starting year. Rather, if Italians continue to control their fertility and Indians continue not to, the proportion to which Indian carbon use may exceed Italian carbon use will increase over time, while the absolute amount of carbon use permitted to individual Italians (and of course Indians) plummets. This is not going to go over well.)

Anonymous (the original)

jewishfarmer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree that climate change is not "decided" there are still lots of variables of better and worse that are real possibilities depending on what people do. I also agree that almost all of the practical peak oil things you do are good for climate change too and vice versa. We don't really disagree that much, it just sound like we do. I even agree that history and any decent political theory show that quick changes in political movements can happen rapidly.

What frustrates me is the issue of motivation, and I wish I could explain my thinking as eloquently as you do. Pragmatism teaches that we adapt out means to our ends, but that we also adapt our ends to our means. We pick goals to strive for based on the means at our disposal. Its better to pick an achievable goal, achieve it and then aim even higher, than to pick a goal out of reach, fail to achieve it and then say, oh well at least we tried. An ethics which values right intention, or good-will over results (like say, Kant or some forms of Catholicism) PREFERS to aim high and fail honorably, than to achieve an achievable but "impure" compromise. Ethics of clean hands, would rather say, at least it wasn't my fault, I did my best, rather than find a workable compromise that might actually do good. This seems disasterous in an emergency.

Rather we have to practice triage. In a large scale medical emergency, you sort people into those who are likely to die even with immediate help, those who are likely to survive even without immediate help, and those where immediate help will make the difference, and you focus on the third group first. That means making the painful choice to give up on some people in hopes of saving others. It sucks. But that is what rational people have to do when resources are tight. A doctor who wastes time trying to save those who are likely to die anyway in an emergency is guilty of doing evil and wrong, albeit perhaps with good intentions. A doctor who gives up on one case as hopeless in a triage situation, does so only because he/she thinks that other cases are NOT hopeless. We seem to be in a kind of moral triage state. Some problems will solve themselves (painfully) eventually, even if we don't address them immediately. Some problems will remain serious even if we spend our precious resources on them now. But for some problems timely use of resources now can make the difference. We give up some battles as hopeless precisely because we still have hope for other battles, as long as we are wise about using our resources and picking out battles. IS this "starting to naturalize all sort of behaviors that then lead to the results we say we deplore?" Yes! That's exactly right. When we find outselves in a deplorable situation, with so little power that we cannot think of a non-deplorable way out of it, we must regretfully do the deplorable. The doctor who gives up on a triage patient to move on and save another is acting deplorably, even though she/he is doing the best they can. Moral compromise is compromising with the deplorable to try to achieve something of value despite having limited resources in a deplorable situation. And that's getting to the heart of the moral problem, as nearly as I can figure it or express it.

It seems to me that too many of the liberals I know, are like those over-kind doctors, who kill savable people by wasting effort on hopeless cases. I used to work a lot with anti-war protestors, and they were unable to give up or lower their sights to achievable goals, when the war in Iraq became inevitable. They could have reached out for compromise and gotten a torture ban through, but they'd rather hold their ideals and not compromise. Or heck, they could have tried to set up for being positioned right once public opinion began swing back the other way later on, but they didn't. Our political power, our influence over others is so small. Corporations and the rich have the power, the money, and the media. Can grassroots movements work? Sure, and quickly. But only if they are genuinely mass movements.

I admire the heck out of George Washington who led the Sons of liberty, by carefully husbanding his resources and power. He never committed himself wholly to any battle, he always fought to keep the next battle winnable and he retreated and fled a lot. He picked his battles carefully. He and the forefathers made a lot of odious compromises that they hated, and that later cost the US plenty, but they made them anyway. I'm not a doomer, I'm really not. We're gonna have a long political crisis and emerge from it. The technology fairy and the political will fairy won't save us from terrible suffering. But technology will be developed in its usual slow steady way with occasional breakthroughs, and often based on funding. And political will, will be forged in the usual way, via suffering in crises and banding together to take collective action as things are perceived to be desperate. I think we'll rise to the occasion. But not until normal Americans suffer enough to feel genuinely desperate. And watching the tragedy of Darfur isn't going to be enough to launch a real mass movement. Neither is fear of coastlines rising. Katrina might have worked, but it doesn't seem to have.

If a real mass movement started today which succeeded at cutting Americas emissions by 90% within 8 years (2015) would that prevent the ice caps melting enough to raise the ocean levels significantly? That's not how the atmospheric science looks to me, but Anonymous can read the IPCC and disagree, fine. But I don't think that a real mass movement can be started in America today, until regular people start feeling scared and desperate. Altruism is simply not a strong enough motivation for deep cuts, and I always worry when I see bright, eloquent leaders like you leaning on the altruism card. I don't think anything short of serious sea level rising, or harsh peak oil effects (or I guess serious escalation of war) will cause that, and then we're still talking 5-10 years before the movement gets results. Is climate change decided? no! Are sea levels the right place to pick our battle? It doesn't seem that way to me. Use the political will created by the suffering of the displaced people (including Americans) to fuel a mass-movement. Set up enough structure to be ready to catalyze the movement when the political will does come through. But don't pretend you can run a mass-movement for deep rather than surface cuts motivated on altruism. But hey, I'm not George Washington, maybe I'm wrong. Keep leading us, but keep listening and thinking too please. Thank you.

-Brian M.
(And I'm not really an anonymouse, I just don't have a google/blogger account)

Anonymous said...

I didn't say (or think) that you were a bad person for having those kids, nor that they don't now have a right to exist. I guess nobody is immune to the temptation of a straw-man argument from time to time! And I will agree that you have never said everyone should be rural (I think 33% of the country in farming is your suggested goal), but if you remain in an urban area with typical costs and regulations and you aren't wealthy, you will find that it's hard to avoid consuming a fair bit of fossil fuel energy. My job is not particularly lucrative, by the way, but switching to a lower-paying job would not make my lifestyle more ecological; it would make me unable to buy local produce or CFLs (or health insurance).

I'll let this argument drop now, because you seem to feel that I'm personally attacking you for promoting this goal, and I assure you that wasn't my intention. I meant rather to express my own feeling of being attacked by certain characterizations of the supposed psychological motives of people who reject the concept. Maybe you don't intend to insult those people, but if that's how it comes across to them, you will not succeed in converting many of them.

Anonymous (the original)

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous O, I'm sorry, I really should have put smileys up on the "I'm a bad person" bit - I was joking, and no, you didn't say that. My apologies. And again, I never suggested you quit your job - I suggested *some* people might.

I'll also let this drop, except to note 3 things for the sake of accuracy. The first is that while yes, I've argued that 1/3 of the nation should be farming, I've also said, very explicitly, every single time that that *doesn't* mean moving the country - it means growing as much food as possible in cities and on suburban lots, often farming on a very tiny scale. And yes, this is farming. So I think the problem may be that - the word "farming" here does not mean "living in a rural place" - it means making use of all available land to grow food. For example, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated places in the world grows almost 1/4 of its produce and meat within the city limits. So I think the confusion may come from knowing what I said about farmers, but not the whole context.

Second point. Almost 1/2 of the 90% reducers are urban dwellers, and they seem to think that you actually can avoid consuming 90% of the fossil fuels the average American does. I don't honestly agree with you that you can't make dramatic reductions in an urban environment - some things will be difficult. In some places you might not be able to achieve perfection - but city livers can do an enormous amount of reducing.

Finally, going back to hot showers, just for fun, I should point out that the 90% reduction project actually does substantially favor smaller families - 4 of the 7 categories are per household, rather than per capita. The average American household is 2.6 people. The average 90%-er household is 3.1 people.

Which means that my six person household is, in those categories, making a dramatically greater reduction than a 2 person household. Effectively speaking, I get half of what the 2 person household gets. Essentially, the project does penalize larger families, which is fine with me.

When this occurred to me this afternoon, I was struck by how remarkable it is that there has been exactly 0 bitching about this - not one household I've encountered has argued that they should get a greater share, or amortize. And almost half of the larger-than average households are larger than average for much better reasons than I am - they have roommates, or extended family living with them, or have adopted children. Another 10% of the smaller households include someone with a disability, or a very elderly person.

You could certainly make a compelling case that in each case, it would be more than justified for those who don't have large numbers of biological children to adjust upwards, and yet, as far as I know, no one has. And it isn't because they aren't smart enough to figure out that they are getting hosed ;-) in the fair share department.

I find this truly remarkable, because we talk so often about how unlikely it is that people will do hard things. There are close to 700 people - a very small number in the world, but quite a lot for little blogs with no media links - who want to do this, and who, while doing something really hard, aren't worrying that they get precisely their fair share.

I think that's a lovely, lovely thing.

Sharon

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree with you that triage is the right metaphor - I used to do EMS in some scary, far away places, and the triage metaphor is the right one.

But I do disagree strongly with you about the altruism card - in fact, I think that personal fear is easily moved in all sorts of direction - the problem with fear as a motivator is that, though knowing you're to be hanged does concentrate one's mind, it doesn't necessarily make the best use of that concentration.

On the other hand, altruism, and its kid sister, wanting to *look* like a good and altruistic person, are very powerful motivators. Hundreds of Thousands of people throng churches and mosques and synagogues and do awfully inconvenient things for their respective faiths on a daily basis. In some cases, in many, there are people who are literally willing to die for the truth of the message that personal convenience is not the be-all, end-all.

I think a lot of people who aren't adherents of a strong religious or moral system (and I have no idea if you are or not - no personal implications intended) feel that most people act primarily in their own interest. I tend to think that the absolute opposite is true - that human beings are wildly attracted to rigorous moral systems that reward them for being good - however good is defined.

I play the altruism card both because it motivates me sometimes - but also because I think it may be the most underestimated force on the planet. I suspect that underestimation is a product of growth capitalism and the economicization of our culture - the idea we're primarily motivated by self-interest, has, for people, replaced morality or philosophy. But I don't think that's actually true.

And yes, I think we need to do triage - but the kind of triage we need to do is up for discussion. We call it triage, for example, when we confirm what *systems* we can save, and also when we consider which lives we can save. It isn't at all clear to me that in our daily lives, we're at the "dying people all around" triage stage yet. That is, at this stage, we're triaging the system as a whole, trying to figure out what pieces we can keep in what form. Lives probably do depend on it, but it isn't at all clear to me that we can make the kinds of high-knowledge decisions that one makes when triaging - triage is done by highly trained people with a lot of immediate knowledge who can say "that looks bad but it isn't, and that has to be dealt with know." We're all (all human beings) at the point pulling this stuff out of asses (so to speak ;-). And I'm not sure we're doctors here, so much as janitors, trying to do a doctor's job. And if you don't know what you are doing, triage won't work. That's not to say I don't think we can make good choices at all, but I'm wary of jumping the gun here, particularly with deeply inadequate knowledge.

I'd also note that sometimes, triage isn't right. As I said, I have more than a nodding acquaitance with the pretty awful rigors of triage in some kinds of crises. You seem to be presenting it as self-evident that we're at the point where we have to let a big chunk of people die, and maybe that's so. But triaging patients implies that you have the knowledge and ability to judge whose life is salvagable. And sometimes, you don't. For example, when a large number of approximately equally damaged people come in, or occasionally, when any pause may result in disaster - for example, if you are doing heart compressions and someone brings in another patient, stopping to evaluate will decide the outcome. Then, the wrong thing to do is to sit around calculating which lives are best saved or most savable. Then, the right thing to do is the right thing - that is, do as much as you can as hard as you can, and recognize that we aren't G-d.

Triage, is, in itself, an ethical system when performed by knowledgeable people. And when you strike the limits of what triage can do, you return again to the moral system, often lofty and difficult, because ultimately, whatever moral principles you have, and wherever you derive them from, that's the test. Can you do the moral thing when things really get hard? It doesn't strike me that lofty ethical principle and triage are opposed, so much as complementary.

Sharon

Alan said...

A point about urban farming: In the not too distant past, here in Oregon, when the strawberry crop ripened in June(farmers grow determinate berries here for canning, freezing, making into syrup, etc), high school kids used to commute to the exurban farms in large numbers to get the crop in. Countless Oregonians of a certain age have this memory (not necessarily pleasant -- harvesting strawberries is hard, stoop labor).

In more recent times, migrant labor has largely displaced local teenagers, but nothing says this model couldn't be used again. Much farm labor is seasonal and temporary and lends itself to transporting large numbers of urban laborers to rural and semi-rural locations for periods of time as short as a day at a time.

Farm labor can become a community obligation, just as trash collection, recycling, and composting ought to be. Such tasks can be made more palatable with good meals, modest entertainment, fair pay and hours, and the knowledge that the food being grown and harvested will be consumed by the community which is producing it.

We have evolved the idea that much of what we do in the ordinary economic and educational world is __so__ important that it cannot be interrupted for community tasks. This is mostly bullsh*t. The default position ought to be that whatever we are doing can be interrupted for important community obligations and that if we feel otherwise, we must justify this position to the community. Jury duty operates on this model and it works pretty well.

Anonymous said...

We agree on most of this again Sharon. Getting lofty ethical principles and triage to be complementary rather than opposed is not as easy as it looks, that's actually what I'm working on at the moment, but I share your intuition that that's the way to go.

My only real clarification would be your claim "you seem to be presenting it as self-evident that we have to let a big chunk of people die." We are long long past that point. Big chunks of people die from preventable reasons all the time, and have for a long time, and yes I think this is self-evident. Millions of North Koreans died when their agricultural system collapsed and we let it happen, before eventually the Chinese and South Koreans stepped in. Big chunks of Africans die because of climate change already, and we let it happen. Big chunks of Americans die from car crashes, or health problems related to poor diet already, and we let it happen. We could re-design our society to minimize car use and thus car crashes, but we don't because it would be too inconvenient, and the powers supporting car use are too entrenched. That IS letting a big chunk of people die, and we've done it for decades. Big chunks of Americans died and still do from smoking. Personally I don't see a way to bring about political change quickly enough to prevent the ice caps melting and the sea levels rising, and surely big chunks of people will die in that process. But hopefully most of them will evacuate and re-locate. I don't see any way that political change can happen quickly enough to keep many Americans from suffering and dying from obesity related illnesses. There are so many people in our world, that big chunks of people die all the time, from all kinds of causes. Triage is a dramatic case that makes the moral issues clearer, but it sure seems to me that every one of us every day lives in the same basic moral situation as triage. People all around us are suffering and dying of many causes, and our power to save them or calm their suffering is limited. In most cases we are powerful enough to prevent this or that, but not all of the threats at once. And worse, every choice we make, is causally connected in various dim ways with the causes of the suffering of others.
-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Alan, the only difference I have with you here is the distinction between "have to" and "choose to." As you say, we chose to let the North Koreans starve to death. The point I think we're not at is the point at which we have no better options.

Sharon

Anonymous said...

Alan didn't make those comments, I did. And the problem is the power of various "we's." We Americans had the power to save millions of North Koreans, and choose not to. We, my family, did not have the power to save millions of North Koreans, and had to let them die. "Have to" and "choose to" are both true for diferent "we"s. We Americans could prevent many cases of obesity, but choose not to. We, my family, can help with a few cases of obesity among our friends, but have to let many others die, because our power is very limited. Even we the people of America as a whole, have lots of some kinds of power but little of others. Even talking of "choose to" often fails to take seriously the costs of a hard choice. My family could choose to take in a refugee, say an African, or Bagledeshi, and so could your family. But we haven't, and you haven't said anything about it if you have. Somewhere, right now, a person is dying because you and I have chosen not to help them, and that will be with us always. And if we do sacrifice to save one, could we save two with more sacrifice? Yep. And so on. So nearly everyone, no matter how pure or self-righteous they think they are, are in the same boat, of finding the line they draw. We draw the lines in different places, but your family is personally letting people suffer and die right now that you could prevent if you chose to, just like mine is. So we choose, as Confucius advocates, to protect those closest to us, even though that means choosing to let others die. That's how moral trade-offs work in a world of preventable suffering with limited individual power. But many people, can't think about the people they have chosen to let die, and retreat into self-deception. We Americans have many better options, but we lack the power to bring them about, because we don't have sufficient political will as Americans to overcome the forces that like the current system just fine. So in a sense, they aren't even really "options" more like, wishful hopes, if only we had the power. And it was wishful thinking, to think that America, could have overcome decades of animosity to help save the starving North Koreans. Like tabletop fusion, is that a "better option" for dealing with energy crises? Sure, if we had the power to bring it about instead of just hoping for it. We, our families, have a few more options, but they all have steep costs, its not at all clear that we have better options.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

If you have kids already, you have to prepare the best you can to take care of them. But if you don't have kids yet, I strongly suggest you keep it that way. Knowing what we're going to be facing, it's selfish to bring more children into the world. And honestly, when all this really starts to come down upon us, I have a feeling there will be so many children abandoned that anyone with parenting instincts will have plenty of little ones around to reach out to. We have to quickly lower our impact on the earth, and that means also voluntarily reducing the population.

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