Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Are Americans Ready to Start a Nuclear War?

I think everyone who reads this blog should read George Lakoff's essay on what an invasion of Iran really means: It is important for those of you who don't read him regularly to realize that Lakoff is not a crank - he's a serious scholar, and he's picked up on something that most Americans would prefer not to notice - that what our nation is in danger of doing in Iraq is beginning a nuclear war. We will be the first nation in history to use nuclear weapons as unprovoked aggressors. It is horrifying enough that the US is using depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan - the consequences of DU are serious for both the people of Iraq and for our own soldiers. But, covertly, what is being discussed right now is the destruction of Iran's nuclear program - and the country - by using a nuclear weapon against another nation.

And every man, woman and child who allows it, who does not throw their time and energy and money into stopping these people from nuking another nation, who does not tell every person in power who will listen, "No - we will not be the people who begin nuclear wars," has tacitly acquiesced to an act of evil, and a loss of moral authority we never will regain.

Stop it. Say the words. Say "take the nuclear option off the table." Publicize this reality everywhere - if we can stop them from bombing at all, so much the better, but let it be known far and wide that we're still Americans, and there are still things of value that American people refuse to do, evils we refuse to consider. Call. Write. March. Yell. Stop it.


All the News...

Well, there were two bits of excitement yesterday. The one you probably missed was that an indpendent panel of scientists from all over the world warned that we are closer than we think to an irrevocable tipping point that will lead to the planet warming by as much as 11 degrees by the end of the century (no one ever hypothesizes what will happen after the end of the century - don't think too much about why that might be), and the deaths of millions or billions of people from climate change.

Now Hitler killed 11 million people, give or take a few, and we have branded him one of the greatest monsters of all time. What do you think our children and grandchildren will think of us if we succeed in killing 12 million, or 100 million (within the potential forecasts) or a billion people. Do you think of yourself as a monster? Well maybe it is time to think about what kind of unconscious monstrosity we're engaging in as a population, and how to resist.

The panel of scientists is still calling for alternative energies, and I have no objection. But we are increasingly unlikely to be able to replace large chunks of what we consume with alternative energies - and you and I don't have time to wait until we can afford to power our whole lifestyle with our cute little solar panels - we have to stop emitting now. And the only way that will happen is if we get comfortable with the notion that private cars, lots of appliances and unlimited resources are not in our future - period.

The event I bet you noticed was the stock market. Now I make no pretensions to understanding financial markets - heck, I've noticed that most of the people who say they do understand them are wrong most of the time, so I won't predict anything. This could be a little blip, or it could be the beginning (well, not quite the beginning - 1 out of every 35-45 American homeowners is being foreclosed upon right now, and foreclosures have hit epidemic proportions in places like CA, Ohio and TX) of a recession. After all, we've blown a large chunk of our GDP on war, and we're about to blow more (BBC reports that we're building up steadily for an immanent attack on Iran - does this surprise anyone), and we haven't been investing in much of anything that matters.

Now I don't know if this recession is a big economic crisis, but if other countries find themselves in trouble and stop propping up our currency (note, the problem started in China), we're in big trouble, and it could take a long time to get out of. And that long time is just what we don't have in terms of peak oil and climate change. It may be that what we go into a recession with today is much of what we'll have when we come out.

All of which is just an argument for being prepared. Who cares if are set at risk because you lose your job or because of peak oil? The solutions are the same. Get the heck out debt - cut everything you can out of your budget - new clothes, meat, vacations, all extraneous driving, etc... and put it towards your debt, or, if you don't have any, your mortgage. Have a solid economic reserve not entirely dependent on the stock market. Store food - when you go shopping, buy a few extra bags of beans, rice, cooking oil, honey, spices, peanut butter, canned veggies. Or better yet, go to the bulk store, or a local farmer and buy potatoes, wheat, dried beans. Don't just store it - learn to eat it and enjoy it, and get your family used to it. Start a garden. Landscape with fruit and veggies - get rid of your lawn, and replace your shrubs with berry bushes. Use less, need less, get used to fixing things and making do. Find a way to get water, heat and light without power, just in case.

Because maybe it will never happen - but in most lives a little rain does fall. Get an umbrella.
Do it now. And remember, we can stop the rain from turning into a flood if we're just willing to do things differently.


Monday, February 26, 2007

The Silliest Possible Way to Save the Earth

So by now you probably know that Richard Branson, along with various other climate change luminaries has offered a 25 million dollar prize to anyone who can suck 30% of the greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. Inventors all over the world are competing for the prize, to be judged by Al Gore and various famous climate scientists.

Perhaps it is just sour grapes that I have no inventing skills, and thus am doomed to poverty and obscurity, but this reminds me of the time our refrigerator broke down. The freezer was icing up heavily, and preventing the vent of cold air into the refrigerator. And the man who came to repair it couldn't figure out what the cause was, so he suggested adding a small electric heater to our freezer, which would prevent the ice from forming and blocking the cold air flow.

We declined this solution, because it was stupid, not to mention wasteful. Instead of fixing the root problem, it manufactured a solution that a. was fraught with potential problems and b. didn't fix the root problem. And the Branford prize seems oddly similar.

Now let's think hard about what kinds of solutions people might come up with to resolve the climate change problem - most of them (I checked all this with DH who is an astrophysicist), pretty much come down to "change the carbon dioxide and methane into something else" or "move the carbon dioxide/methane somewhere else). Now correct me if I'm wrong, but chemical reactions to change something into something else tend to be intensive, no? And moving large quantities of diffuse gases around would be...ummm...also energy intensive. And isn't the problem that we're umm...burning a lot of energy?

Now, of course we could come up with a renewable means of powering this enormous energy guzzler, but don't we need to be building those renewables to replace even a small part of our *existing* energy consumption? And in fact, the production of all those renewables is going to spew a not-insignificant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, because those renewable sources are made with ummm...fossil fuels.

Now then there's the problem of what to change the carbon into if we use a chemical reaction. Personally, my husband is partial to graphite, because it is comparatively harmless and can then be used in pencils. The problem would be that it would fall to earth in chunks, which would be tough on people standing underneath. Now I'm sure scientists can come up with something soft, but there are real concerns about changing the carbon to another gas, and changing the basic composition of the atmosphere.

Now one solution to the problem of energy intensiveness would be to create a living solution, something self-perpetuating that "ate" carbon dioxide or methane. But the problem with these ideas is that the potential for unforseen consequences is fairly high. If, for example, a self-perpetuating something or other (this is a technical term) that "ate" carbon dioxide were to be created, what would prevent it from accidentally eating all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, destroying the greenhouse effect, dropping the worldwide average temperature to -10 degrees and freezing the oceans solid. If we are relying on our prior record as human beings for forseeing the unpleasant consequences of our technology to save us, let me just say, "no freakin' way."

Every such solution is bound to be dangerous. Adding particulates to the atmosphere (which wouldn't win the Branson prize but has been proposed quite seriously) to cut down on the sun's penetration further, has a whole host of possible negatives, including increasing asthma, giving the whole planet emphysema or plunging us into an ice age.

And, of course, the biggest danger, and the most likely one, is that it just plain wouldn't work. So of the most likely solutions, one or two or ten are likely to fail before we hit on one, if we ever do - and each one is likely to contribute enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, and take billions of dollars and waste time and money and resources we do not have while we try really hard to fix what we've done.

Now we've known about global warming for decades, and for decades we've declined to use the obvious solution - cut back radically on our consumption of energy, use what energy we can use to create non-polluting, renewable solutions, and change our lives. Now we've managed to drag ourselves to the brink of viewing our own extinction - whether as planet or simply as a whole lot of suffering individuals who are going to die because we wouldn't give up our conveniences and live more reasonably. Technologies are what got us into the problem - there' s no too ways about it. Thus far, we have never created a technology that didn't in the long term, result in using more stuff, more energy. If we make a more efficient doohickey, the money we save goes to consuming other crap. Our energy consumption has grown steadily, despite all sorts of advances in efficient technology.

In the end, the solution to the global warming problem is mostly not going to be found in a lab - it will be found in our own convictions, and the democratic processes we use to convince our leaders that we are prepared to change and sacrifice in order to see another generation, and ten generations, go forward. It isn't that technology will do nothing - there are technologies that will enable us to be a little more comfortable, to keep some of our infrastructure and economy intact - how much is not yet clear. But in the end, what will save us, to the extent we can be saved (we are already committed to a great disaster and a century of crisis), is that we stop looking to high technology and start using what already is here, and what we have - our hands and our feet, our backs and our minds, to substitute for the things we think we need.

I will never win the Branson prize, but here's my entry. If you want to remove 30% of the carbon from the atmosphere, immediately ground the Virgin Atlantic fleet and most airlines, tell Al Gore to get his ass off the jet and stay home in Tennessee (or if he wants, he can run for president from his hybrid bus - whatever). Take the 25 million dollars and all the tax revenue you would have spent sucking methane and use it to pay tropical farmers to preserve the rainforests, rather than grow wheat for cows there. And every person who owns a patch of ground that will grow anything should get their behinds in gear and start turning that patch of earth, every single available cm to garden. Till once, if at all. Use mulch, or seed balls or other low and no till options. Pour every bit of compostable material, including humanure (which fertilized farmer's fields in the US well into the 1900s and could do it more safely now with good composting techniques and central composting stations in crowded areas), food scraps, garden waste, etc... on the ground and raise the levels of organic matter as high as you can. Raising soil humus levels really does remove carbon from the atmosphere. Will it get us to 30%? No, probably not. But it will get us a fair way, and with far lower chance of extinguishing all human life, wasting billions of dollars and burning up the remaining fossil fuels on stupid solutions.

It is time to stop thinking in terms of putting a heater in the refrigerator, and fix the root problem. Duh.


Lessons from the Not-So-Distant-Past

My friend Amy loaned me a pile of old _Organic Gardening and Farming_ magazines from the 1970s, and I've been meandering through them. If you've only ever known the inane magazine that goes by (sort of) the same name in the last decade or two, offering up dim articles like "Get Excited About Pansies" or "Parsnips:Great Tasting Phallic Vegetables," you are missing something. The old _Organic Gardening and Farming_ Magazine was quite serious about growing food and helping people learn what they needed to know.

One of the things that caught my eye was the December 1976 issue, about an entire town that gardens on a large scale. The town was (and presumably is) named Ursina, somewhere in southwest PA, and was an ordinary, depressed little town suffering from stagflation, oil shocks and assorted miseries of the 1970s (I have no idea what Ursina is like now). The majority of the town's population was over 60 or under 18, and there were only 80 employable adults out of 284 people. The town had once boomed (the title of the article is "Ursina Had an Opera House") and now suffered from economic hard times, lack of jobs, an aging population and chronic poverty - rather like a lot of places in the US right now. And probably even more like a lot of places in the years to come, as the Baby Boomers age, and find that they haven't saved very much and that the safety nets they've counted on are at risk of evaporation.

The majority of the town's members got some kind of government money - many of the employable adults were seasonal construction workers, consistently laid off in the winter and collecting unemployment, the seniors mostly got pensions or social security, and a few people received welfare. But overwhelmingly, they were poor people - people who mostly had worked as miners or on railroads, in construction or whatever, and now didn't have a lot left. The postmaster notes that most people got a check on the first of the month - and that the end of the month was often a difficult time for people.

I think that last will describe a lot of people in the coming decade. The oldest baby boomers are 61 this year. The savings rate nationally is at -1% - that is, we're so indebted that we have cancelled out everything we have saved as a nation. The average boomer has much less than they need saved for retirement, and a many of them are counting on their houses - often houses that are still mortgaged - to fund their retirements, just at the cusp of a bubble burst (the slight decline in house prices we've seen so far does not constitute a burst - the serious stuff is still to come, as the decline in starts and Toll Bros. profits and such seem to indicate). Many boomers *bought* houses in the last 5 years, moving up to fancier digs, and this will not result in wealth they can easily transfer to their retirements.

As the population ages, there will be more and more people collecting money - social security, pensions (the ones that are left), medicare, etc.. and fewer and fewer people making money for a good while. Any major strain on the economy - say, having to adapt your infrastructure massively to deal with energy depletion or climate change, a few unwise wars (note the buildup on Iran - how much is that one gonna cost?), a currency crisis (China dropped our bond rating again) or a few major disasters (that couldn't happen... climate change couldn't cause...oh wait), and there are going to be a lot of older folks in this nation who are going to be struggling economically. Even those who have saved may well be affected - if China and Japan cease propping up our currency, or the stock market crashes, many private savings, 401Ks and pension funds will collapse, worth little or nothing. Consider the victims of Enron, for example.

Now in the 1970s, the government support systems were able to keep paying out for a good long time. But the 70s were fueled by the largest single generation in history coming solidly into their most productive years. That is not the case now - I'm part of the baby bust, born right around the demographic trough before the boomers started having kids in earnest and as the depression generation was winding down. During the depression, for example, the government refused to offer national relief, and the states struggled to maintain a tax base large enough to support the tremendous need. Tax delinquency rates were 30% in much of the country in the early 1930s because of simple inability to pay, and massive foreclosures. And the 1930s did not have the demographic that we have today.

While we have a federal system in place, there is already concern that social security and medicare will be overwhelmed - this year's budget applies the vast majority of our national resources to foreign wars with no hope of success and destructive consequences. Our debt means we have mortgaged our ability to borrow our way out of a new crisis. Several economists report that there is no way that federal unemployment could continue to pay out if the same percentages of the population were unemployed today, as in the depression - we would bankrupt the system.

Which brings us back to the town of Ursina in 1976. The town had no grocery store, and prices were high because of nearby tourist pressure. One of the few local businesses was an auction house that would sell off anything, even "broken screen doors" to enable people to get by. But the community had a large number of gardens - five families together, for example, combined to grow two huge gardens on combined lots. 80% of the population gardened, 60% of them canned food for winter.

Over 50 or 60 years, according to the story, Ursina moved from being an almost totally independent local economy, with three cider mills, a thriving maple sugar business, an opera house, theater company, mill, tannery and 200 student schoolhouse. By 1976, virtually every penny spent in the town came from outside - from government sources, tourist jobs in other towns, mines and railroads. The only local product that remained were the gardens.

Now I don't know a thing about Ursina, PA, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that today it is an outlying suburb of somewhere or other, with good schools and a community full of people who get in their cars and drive to a job elsewhere. I'd be willing to bet that most of the money that is used in Ursina comes from far away and goes back there on a regular basis - that is, people drive to their jobs, and then they spend their money in supermarkets and big box stores that take the money and move it elsewhere.

If Ursina is anything like the rest of the US, its demographics involve an aging population, only this time one that hasn't grown up gardening and farming. The older folks interviewed by _Organic Gardening and Farming_ overwhelmingly had spent their youths in the garden or on the farm. They weren't picking up hoe and spade for the first time in their lives at 60 or 70 or 80, they were continuing to do what they'd done since childhood, and what was in some senses second nature to them.

These were people who had spent most of their lives in one place - their families were from there, they knew their neighbors, so they could join together and expect adult children to help with the heavy work, or to work with the people who lived near them. This is also probably unlike the present-day population of Ursina, or at least your town.

The people of Ursina did what they had to do to make ends meet in hard times - they planted gardens, canned food, did a little deer hunting, sold off their extra possessions. In short, they did all the things that we are most likely going to need to do - they look rather like us in a decade. The only difference is that this is second nature to them.

It is hard to emphasize how important that last part is - I have no idea what it is like to be 60 or 70, but I have no doubt whatsoever that a 70 year old who had worked in a garden every year for his whole life is in for less stress, pain and suffering than a 70 year old planting his very first garden. Many baby boomers are retiring, not from years as active, blue collar workers, but from years of sitting for 8 hours a day in front of desks - this is going to be a difficult physical transition.

What is needed, first of all, is for every one of us, no matter what age, to begin to pick up, if not the hoe, the hand trowel. Even the physically limited can garden sitting down, in pots, at raised beds. The next thing is to begin to recreate the communities that small towns of 800 could have an opera house, a place for art and music and performance, and a local economy where economic security came and stayed, rather than just visited. The people of Ursina, most of the older of whom are now long gone, I assume, represented people created to operate in local economies. When those local economies fell apart, led by suburban dreams and cheap energy, the ones who stayed may have been left behind, but they had a measure of security that we will have to duplicate without their resources and skills.

The things we have to remake are legion - local economies, physical knowledge, a myriad of skills and community connections. Otherwise, when the next depression comes (and it will), we will find that the elders of our community (and the rest of us too) fare far worse than the people of Ursina.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

12 Reasons to Stay Married After Peak Oil and Climate Change

I wrote this a while back, when someone on a list I'm on asked about reasons to stay together. And no, I don't believe in purple haired mutants ;-).

1. Gives you something sustainable to do during those rollingblackouts (sex and fighting would probably both fit the bill, actually.)

2. When energy costs bring a romantic evening out's price up towardsa week's salary, you'll have someone to stay home with.

3. Purple haired mutants are poor conversationalists, rarely bring flowers and often have hygeine problems. Some spouses have the samedifficulties, but you'll be used to them by then, and said spousesrarely eat human flesh.

4. Partners will, out of love, often pretend interest in things like the rate of oil extraction in the Ghawar and the carbon impact of LEDs vs. Compact Flourescents when others begin yawning and wander off.

5. Romantic evenings with spouse may already consist of offering to be the one to cook dinner *and* do the dishes.

6. Newly met potential partners are often turned off by birth control discussions that require home vasectomies or slaughtering a pig tomake condoms.

7. If marriage/partnership produces children, both partners may reasonably blame all homesteading errors and failures on said children, either directly "No, Johnny must have left the gate openfor the cows;" indirectly "Yes, I know I was supposed to weed thegarden but the baby has been crying and I haven't slept and...;" or abstractly "Yes, I know I screwed up and let the tomatoes rot, but parenthood has rotted out my remaining brains, and I can't be held accountable."

8. Huddling together for warmth with a damp spouse who has just come
out of the barn is marginally more pleasant than huddling with adamp dog who has just come from the same place. Usually.

9. No one but your spouse will ever get you to sell/burn/compost your precious collection of 19th century glassware/first edition\nCowboy novels/crackers in the shape of 70s hair bands, no matter how desperately you need the money/heat/soil fertility.

10. When your unbearable sister in law and her three obnoxious children move in because of the crisis, the only person who will put up with them is the person who knows that if he/she doesn't, his/her demanding, drunken parents will be out on their behinds. Moreover, the absence of tv can be much compensated for by lengthy discussions of whose relatives are more horrifying.

11. Spouses/partners may come to find your true hair color/hairylegs/face/back/chronic allergic snoring/tendency towardssimultaneous wrinkles and zits endearing after you can no longer locate or afford products intended to conceal them. One hopes.

12. Once the peak comes, you know that you'll have each otherforever, though thick and thin, good times and bad, in the great exigencies of life. After all, divorce is too expensive and you are conserving bullets.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Just Keep Farming Until the Money Runs Out

There's an old joke among farmers. One asks, "What would you do if you won 100 million dollars in the lottery?" The farmer thinks for a moment and says, "Oh, I'd probably just keep farming until the money ran out." And unfortunately - this is, in the end, no joke, but representative of the reality of most American family farmers, and a vast number of farmers world-wide. All over the world, the industrial economy has created situations where the costs of growing food are greater than the prices we pay for it. That means that farmers are terrifically indebted, and terribly vulnerable. And yet, they are willing to pay that price in order to keep a way of life going.

Peter Rosset in his book _Food Is Different_ notes that in Mexico, despite the fact that NAFTA and WTO policies meant that the price of imported corn was up to 33% below the cost of growing it in Mexico, 3 million poor and indigenous farmers still planted their land to maize - even though they couldn't sell it for a profit because of American grain dumping. The traditions of corn growing were so important, and their commitment to their land so great that the farmers kept on farming, despite heavy economic counterpressures.

And how did they keep on farming? Well, to a large degree by having family members move to Mexican cities, or to America, and send back money to subsidize the desperately poor farmers who still cling to their land and the via campesina, the traditional way of life in the countryside. Despite the active intent of industrial agriculture to undermine traditional ways of life and drive peasants into the cities where they can be used for cheap labor (and into the US for the same purpose), peasants in Mexico and all over the world recognize that even if they have to seperate families, disrupt cultures and risk death by illegal immigration into wealthier nations - life on the land is worth something.

Millions of American farmers recognize the same thing - they work off farm jobs, working at night after a full day on their land, or farming in the evenings on their way home from work. Families that once worked together now are divided as spouses go off the land to get health insurance and make enough money to support their farming. Others become tenant farmers on their own land - going into debt to companies who micromanage each decision and use the farmers as virtual serfs, so indebted are they for huge buildings, elaborate equipment and other materials dictated by large meat and milk processors.

Farmers, in essence, are subsidizing your cheap food by working extra hours, by sending their family members off to work in other nations, by impoverishing themselves. They value their land and their lives sufficiently that they are willing to pay the price to keep farms that are rendered economically unviable by the industrial economy available. This is a shame - that is, something we should be ashamed of, that we treat the people who feed us so shoddily, and do them so much harm.

In poor nations, many farmers are serfs on land they or their families once owned. Over the last decades, the best farmland in the world has been forcibly claimed for multinational corporations, and the peasants who once owned the farmland (but rarely had formal deeds, because their ownership was traditional, going back generations) were impressed into service on plantations as virtual slaves, or cast out to become urban slum dwellers.

When farmers fail, they are either driven off their land and out of their culture, their community and their way of life, or they kill themselves. The rate of farmer suicides in the US has been horrifically high since the 1980s, and those rates are rising in places like South Korea, India and Africa. The choice is offered - the death of way of life - or the end of your life. When Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae committed suicide on the barricades of the 2003 WTO protests in Cancun, he did it holding a sign saying "WTO Kills Farmers" - and they do. Globalization murders farmers, and it murders the way of life that farmers hold dear. It drives them to exhaustion, to illegal immigration, to slavery and serfdom, and to suicide.

Not only is this situation morally horrifying, and destructive to food security and human life, but there's another issue. Ask yourself - what do these poor Mexican peasants and Korean rice farmers, American corn farmers and African subsistence farmers know that I do not? Seriously, how many of us, if our jobs made us no money at all, if in order to keep them we'd have to do dangerous, exhausting things and break up our families - how many of us would do it? How many of us care so very much for the work we do?

No one, of course. So for those who were not born with a strong connection with land, it is worth asking - what is it about agriculture that makes farmers so desperately willing to sacrifice almost anything, even their lives, rather than lose their relationship with a place, and a piece of land, a culture and a way of life? What do we have in our jobs, in our culture, in our places that we value as much?

And if the answer is "nothing" - that is, if the answer is that we do not value our work and our homes and our way of living and our communities enough to sacrifice nearly everything for it, to stand up and resist what industrial civilization demands, then perhaps we need to look for new ways of life, at the same time we are working to ensure that farmers do not have to make these choices. Most of us regard our homes as a fungible commodity - we could live here or there. We regard our work perhaps as part of our identity, but also fundamentally mobile, changeable. We see our culture, if we feel we have one, as troubled, and few of us would sacrifice to maintain it as it is - we see it as something that ultimately needs transformation. We certainly have little or no relationship with the land itself - most of us only go outside occasionally.

What would we feel about our culture and our lives if we were to stay in one place, invest ourselves, our culture and our lives in soil and community and culture in a deep way, if we were to know a single place profoundly and in depth. Americans right now are the most depressed people in the world - we turn to medication and therapy, but rarely ever to good work and a powerful connection with nature.

It is not enough to say that we must fix agriculture, although we must do that. But in a world of increasing misery and displacement, we must fix ourselves, and agriculture may be a way to do that. It is possible that by returning to small scale agriculture we might find ourselves again, along with remediating some of the great harm our shift to industrial food production has done.


Monday, February 19, 2007

It Isn't Gridcrash that Makes the Lights Go Out

There's been some interesting discussion since the revision of the Olduvai Hypothesis about gridcrash and blackouts as a likely indicator of infrastructure crisis. Personally, I don't really have a strong opinion about whether the grid as a single entity will live or die.

I do think that there are some compelling reasons to worry about the ability of the existing grid to satisfy the needs of a society that, because of oil and gas depletion and carbon reduction, is moving more and more of its energy burden to electricity. That is, many of the proposals to clean up carbon involve changing the source of energy away from oil to either nuclear energy or coal plants with scrubbers and sequestration (I will have more to say about the problems of carbon sequestration from coal plants in another post - I am less sanguine than many people that we can actually do this). In many proposals we would begin powering our transportation with electric cars, buses and trains, replacing the heat we generate in our homes, schools, offices, etc... with oil and natural gas with electric heat, etc... While I have my doubts about whether we will ever do all of these things, if we did, it would certainly place enormous pressure on the grid, and require enormous investments in infrastructure. It is no big deal to recharge a few thousand electric cars - if everyone had one, this would be something of an issue. But regardless, I think it is also possible that we could accomplish this, or that we could fail to convert our infrastructure quickly enough (this is an enormous economic undertaking) thus not overburdening the grid. I officially take no strong position here.

But what I do have a strong opinion on (you knew there had to be something ;-), is this: I think most of us ought to be preparing for a life without electricity, regardless of whether we believe that peak oil may cause disruptions in the electrical grid.

I believe this for purely practical reasons. Peak oil, for most of us, will be less about geopolitics and large scale infrastructure crisis than it will be about what I call (riffing on Freud) ordinary human poverty. That is, we're going to be poorer, many of us much, much poorer. Even economists who dismiss peak oil acknowledge that significant oil shocks of any kind - caused either by depletion or by political crisis, would cause a major economic crisis. The things that many of us (by no means all) have been able to be certain of - a certain kind of stability and comfort, are going to go away. The economic problems created by oil and gas depletion are likely to create a serious, and deep economic crisis, much more serious than anything we've seen in my lifetime. During the last depression, 29% of American schoolchildren suffered some form of malnutrition. Herbert Hoover famously said, "at least no one has starved" only to be caught out as cases of starvation appeared around the nation and mothers in cities rioted because they had nothing for their children to eat. The classic image of stockbrokers selling apples on the street and bread lines going around the block doesn't even quite convey how desperately poor many people were. It is not unlikely this view of our past is part of our future.

One of the useful things about having been crazily poor for some years during college and graduate school (living illegally in school buildings, apartments with no hot water, eviction notices, no phone, no power, etc...), which is not something I generally remember with fondness, is that it gives me some experience with what living poor is like. And one of the things it is like is never being able to pay all your bills. So you play bill roulette. You pay the one with the most urgent exclamation points and potent threats first, and then you pay the next one. And you can go on like this for some time. But it is very hard to maintain when you don't have enough money to meet your basic expenses. And eventually, you get caught out - the check bounces, the next payment doesn't arrive in time, you have an unexpected crisis, or the bill collectors threaten you into paying out of order, and something happens. This isn't just my experience - in the years I volunteered with various poverty abatement programs, I saw thousands of people in the same situation. And when you let one of the balls fall, the next step is to set you back even further. Because getting your vehicle back from the impound, or your phone turned back on, or contesting your eviction, or whatever is expensive. Those things cost money you don't have, and you end up further behind.

Peak oil will hit most of us where it hurts - in our jobs, our pocketbooks, in the homes where we won't be able to make the rent or mortgage payment, in our health because we'll no longer be able to afford routine care, in our choices - instead of "vacation fund or 401K, we'll be wondering "shoes or groceries." Add in that we can expect the price of electricity to rise - carbon sequestration is expensive, nuclear power is expensive initially and dealing with its wastes is very expensive, much of the easily accessible, cheap coal is gone, investment in renewables is not cheap either - we can expect the price of our electricity to rise steadily.

So whether or not we ever have rolling blackouts again or grid failure, lots of us will be having our power turned off. And since electricity for the most part runs luxury items (although we are not accustomed to thinking of them as luxuries) like refrigeration and lights, if it comes down to hard choices like "food or electric," "lights or medicine" we should all recognize that electricity is not essential to (most) human life, and prepare to function well and comfortably without it.

Now private renewable energy (and I do not mean pyramid scams, such as Citizens RE) is an option for some people. But the systems are expensive and somewhat complicated, and in the northern part of the country, we can expect periods where there isn't enough sun to run our solar systems. I am not trying to discourage anyone who can afford it from investing in renewable energy systems, in fact, quite the contrary. But the process of adapting our homes to operate on less is a large and expensive one. In a nation with a negative total savings rate, enormous quantites of mortgage and credit card debt, and a shaky currency, a lot of us, probably a majority, aren't going to be able to go solar, and probably shouldn't, because it really doesn't return the most bang for our bucks.

If you have $2000 to spend, you could choose between several things. For that money, you coul add significant insulation to your leaky house, make or purchase insulating curtains for all windows, and buy four solar lanterns, a couple of battery powered lanterns, a solar battery charger and some rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries and the lanterns would provide you with light and music for your existing CD player, and the insulation and curtains would provide a lifetime reduction in your heating and cooling needs. Or, for that same $2000, you could get a battery backup solar system that sat on your roof, and run four lights and a CD player. I know which one I would choose.

For those who are way ahead of the game, and already have their insulation and everything else they need, great, and if you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on your house, you don't need my advice as to how to use it. But for the rest of us, solar panels on your roof or a wind generator in your yard is probably not the best use of your money (if you have the right spot for microhydro, you might have a better deal, and I'm envious). Because if you triage your life, and think about what is most important, it will be making sure you can live as comfortably as possible and as securely as possible, while, in hard times, needing to buy as few things as possible.

In addition, solar systems generally cannot heat houses, run conventional refrigerators (the kind they can run are usually well above $1000, and the cost of the system to run them is quite significant as well), run toasters, electric stoves or, except with the largest systems, air conditioning. So if you live beyond the gas lines, or, say have some reason to believe that natural gas might rise in price and drop in availability, you will still have many needs unmet, after you've invested thousands and thousands of dollars in your private RE system. That is, you'd have to buy the solar panels, and still buy the woodstove, the insulation, etc...

If you are like us, that's just out the question economically. We can't afford to preserve electricity at all costs when there are so many more urgent needs, and both household wind and household solar are not totally reliable where I live. We'd have to have non-electric backups for the times when the skies were cloudy or the wind wasn't blowing - or we'd need a generator, which is also pricey, depends on outside gas and produces a lot of carbon. We cannot afford to do both, and I think that's true of many or most people. There's also the issue of mobility - like it or not, in economic hard times some of us will lose our houses, or having family combine housing with them. It is not very hard to pick up your solar crank radio, or to pack your hand-washing machine. It is something of a bigger project to get the solar panels unwired from your house and moved.

For those of us who need the most bang for our buck, we need to prioritize. Electricity is nice - I'm very fond of it. But most of us should have homes that function well without it, just in case. And non-electric, human powered solutions, and stand-alone renewables (that is, things like solar calculators, solar battery chargers, solar radios, etc... that are cheap, last a long time and can serve many of the functions we normally rely on wall plugs for), are overwhelmingly more reliable, cheaper and more secure than dependency on the grid or on house-sized renewable energy systems.

In the cold climates, we need water, heat, light, a source of food and some way to prepare it, and toileting and washing facilities. A means of keeping food cool is helpful too, but a bucket of water taken from the ground and a mason jar will keep your dinner overnight. Laundry facilities would be great, but if you don't get to that, you can wash your clothes in a bucket and hang them on a $2 clothesline. If you are prepared to scavenge, can build a lot of stuff and don't require new things, all these needs can probably be fufilled for less than $2000. If you buy everything new, it might cost you four, depending on your circumstances. Even if you don't own your home, many of these items are usable in rental housing, and a landlord might well let you install, say, rainwater cachement onto existing drains.

In the west, water is a bigger issue. Most of the rest of us can capture rainwater, but horribly, in part of the west it is illegal to capture the rainwash off your roof. Very deep wells cannot be pumped manually. For you, solar direct pumps are probably the best option, or perhaps we will return to windmills. Changing the water laws so that you can collect your own rainwater would probably help.

In the hot states (an expanding number), cooling is a much bigger issue than heating. And while a lot can be done with good insulation, heavy curtains and shades, and a good solar attic fan, some people may still need air conditioning. In this case, if air conditioning is a life or death issue, house-attached solar might make sense. But for poor people, swamp coolers and battery powered fans, changes in lifestyle (do work in the early morning and evening), cool baths and showers and a change in pace will probably do it.

Our plan is to make our house functional and comfortable without electric power. That means a manual pump on our well, as well as (because I'm lazy and want water in my house) a cistern tank with a hand pump at my kitchen sink). We have two solar lanterns, two solar battery chargers, and a crank/solar radio for lighting and music (we consider music an essential). I can do my laundry in a bucket, but I'm coveting a James Handwasher and wringer - I'm hoping to add one this year. Refrigeration will be natural during the winter (we have an insulated area that stays plenty cold but does not freeze) and water based during the summer. It will also mean changing the way we cook in warm weather, but that's no tragedy - the planet is full of people without fridges, and they created some of the best cuisines on earth without them. We have a wood cookstove and a regular woodstove, and plenty of warm clothes and blankets for the unheated sleeping areas. We had a homemade outdoor masonry oven, but we'll need to build a new one this year, which will be fun. I've got two homemade solar cookers, but am coveting a professionally made one, which will achieve higher temperatures. But I could get along with my homemade ones. Our baling-wire and glue composting toilet set up is about to be replaced with something new and pretty, but the original worked fine, the bucket was free and the commode bought at a yard sale for $5. We buy sawdust now and again, but could use old leaves. We're reinsulating, which is not cheap, but we could, if necessary, just get used to the cold. It would not kill us. Homemade insulated curtains, tapestries or blankets hung over underinsulated walls, reusable bubble wrap on windows, even styrofoam insulation covered with bookshelves, and handmade draft dodgers would do the same job for much, much less money, as would moving more and faster and putting on more clothes. We should not confuse issues of comfort with issues of necessity.

My writing requires I have a computer. I could, if worst came to worst, write things out longhand or put them on the ancient typewriter I inherited, but I suspect we will purchase a stand-alone solar panel and a laptop for me eventually, assuming I ever get paid for doing this. But that, again, is a matter of convenience and having the money, not necessity.

Ultimately, we may turn the power off for other reasons than necessity. If our nation fails to cut its emissions, and our electricity is increasingly created by dirty coal, or by nuclear plants that endanger our communities, turning it all off may be the only possible way to avoid participating in the harm we're doing. It is important to me that I keep in mind that electricity for private homes (I am not speaking here about electricity for hospitals), is something that was not necessary through most of human history, and is not truly essential today.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Enough with the Freakin' Bathroom Metaphor Already!

About 1 time per week, someone sends me Albert Bartlett's lectures on population and exponential growth. If you haven't seen or heard them, you can do it here:, or read it at various sites online (if you really can't find it I'll forward you one of my many copies). They are very smart, and, of course, sending them off is intended as a pointed jab at overpopulators like me. And while I could argue with some of Bartlett's contentions, for the most part I don't want to, because I agree with much of what he says. But let us stop at "much." Because the one thing that most drives me up the wall about this lecture is that it uses the famous bathroom metaphor. Bartlett attributes it to Ivan Kasanov, but I've seen it attributed to Isaac Asimov as well. Regardless of who said it, I think it is one of the stupider quotes of all time.

Here's the quote as it is offered up by Dr. Bartlett:

I'd like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and they had two bathrooms then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need, and everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in the freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person; you have to bang on the door, "aren't you through yet?", and so on. Kasanov concluded with one of the most profound observations I've seen in years, he says, in the same way, "...democracy can not survive overpopulation. Human dignity can not survive over population. Convenience and decency cannot survive over population. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only decline it disappears. It doesn't matter if some one dies, the more people, there are the less one individual matters. And so, central to the things that we must do is to recognize that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crisis".

One of the reasons I hate this quote, is that I've actually pretty much lived in the circumstances above. That is, I've lived in houses with regular membership of ten or just below it, sharing a single bathroom. And despite the claim that doing so is inevitably destructive - it isn't. My memories of those households are very fond, and the bathroom simply wasn't that big a deal. I grew up in a house that, with foster children, regularly had 9 claimants for the single bathroom. I lived in a house in college that averaged 7 or 8 such claimants, and in graduate school, there were six of us crammed into a tiny apartment with a single bathroom - plus periodic guests bringing our numbers up higher. And all of the people in those houses were able to comfortably accomodate one another with little or no difficulty. It did require that we acknowledge and respond to one another, that we place less priority on our own modesty or recognize that the 1/2 hour shower was not just, but it did none of us any harm. And billions of people in the world know how to share - not just me.

Now it is true that eventually, the bathroom will get awfully crowded. Two bathrooms for 20 is one thing, two bathrooms for 1000 is another. I am not arguing that population is irrelevant here. What troubles me about this, however, is something more subtle - because I don't think its an accident that the comparison created is between "I can always use the bathroom as much as I want" and "I would be slightly inconvenienced by having to share the bathroom." I think embedded in this argument is "dignity is equivalent to my not having to share." And I think not only can human dignity survive sharing your bathroom with a lot more people than us Western folk are accustomed to, but I actually believe the contrary - that real dignity begins at the point that we recognize that other people have rights to the bathroom too, and find a means of accomodating them.

What the bathroom metaphor actually does is equate "freedom" with "no limits" - it says that freedom and dignity are constructs of privelege and lack of constraint. That is, you have the perfect freedom of the bathroom when you never have to wait, or accomodate anyone else, adapt to or respect anyone else's needs. But that is *not* what freedom is - and I think this is an important point, because our consumer culture tells us over and over again that freedom is the ability to have whatever you want, whenever you want it. Freedom is "freedom of choice" and that is the equivalent of 63 choices of soda on the grocery store aisle, rather than the freedom from want, or freedom from repression - freedoms that only work when other people are aware of and attentive to others. Freedom, according to Dick Cheney, is the American way of life being "non-negotiable" rather than an egalitarian, shared and just life that extends beyond the borders of America. The bathroom example perpetuates the "freedom is choice" notion - that being free means never having to say, "excuse me."

I think that's truly and deeply wrong, and if we think this way about the population issue, we are perpetuating our most foolish habits of thought. Freedom is the right to assert your wants and needs in a world where others exist, and the right to have them respected, but it is not the right to never have to accomodate anyone else or share, and I think that's a really important point. If we believe that freedom is the right to always have what you want, when you want it, we will persist in equating freedom with wealth and privelege. And some versions of the overpopulation argument seem to basically go like this "there are too many people - they are impinging on my right to have the stuff I want - if there were less of them, I'd have to make fewer accomodations to other people, and that would be better." That's not freedom, but greed. We all have it, we're all greedy folk, but we need not give our our own selfishness and greed a pretty cloak to wear and call it science.

Again, I am not defending having four kids, or advocating no limits on population. I know my heinie is about to get fried by every person outraged that I have children and thus would dare point out that this is a weak argument. I am not saying population is not an issue. But if population is an issue, it deserves to be discussed in useful and productive terms, not false ones. And this one is false.

Jim Merkel, author of _Radical Simplicity_ uses the ecological footprint to analyse what kind of population the world can support. He argues

"When people would say, 'Population is the problem, there are just too many of us,' it raised my hackles. I'd respond, 'Yes, but if we became as skilled at extracting life quality from less land as the people of Kerala, 60 percent of the global bioproductivity could be left wild (and still maintain the present population). Then population wouldn't be such a big deal. The high income countries need to consume less.' (Merkel, 183)

Merkel goes on to say that we need to do both - reduce population and consumption, and I agree entirely with him. But Merkel's point is important - we are not yet in the position of having to share our bathroom with so many people that it is impossible to accomodate one another - it is merely challenging to learn to do so. We can be (with careful and wise management) at the 20 person for two bathroom stage that Bartlett quotes. And that is not a tragedy or a serious constriction of human freedom, dignity and access to justice - it is merely a situation where we have to share.

Moreover, using biology and silly metaphors to imply that accomodation is impossible naturalizes our resistance to giving up our own priveleges - it makes our unwillingness to reallocate some of our wealth to others seem natural, because, after all, we are unfree and burdened, unable to provide others with dignity because of the tragic experience of overpopulation. But that's garbage. Human beings can choose the society they want to live in. We have the capacity to alter our way of being, and extend our hands andopen our bathroom doors to others. There is nothing inevitable or biological about our refusal to share, nor anything tragic about our having to shit *and* get off the pot so someone else can use it.

We need to recognize that our own assumptions about population sometimes contain some not-very-productive underlying thoughts. And one of them is the notion that human dignity is not a product of never having to give way to another, never having to do and use less - in fact, I would argue that human dignity begins at the very moment that you recognize that other people are fully real in the philosophical sense, and you begin taking you identity and sense of freedom not from the time you get in the bathroom, but the society that you create. And the culture of that society is created by how you use limited resources like bathrooms. Culture is cool - a thousand societies can come up with a thousand different rules. Maybe everyone has some time per day, plus license for emergencies. Maybe we give up our sense of physical modesty and pee while someone is in the shower. Maybe we get accustomed to shorter baths, or regular habits. There are any number of ways that people can accomodate one another - and those accomodations are the basis of human culture. It turns out that many people like and value their cultures, even the parts of their culture that represent limitations. We like the rules on our sports that say that you can't kick the basketball, we derive comfort for the repetition of funeral and wedding and birth rites that say, "we do this when we come together, but not this," we create manners to limit the way we behave "no one over the age of 8 months gets to take fistfuls of mashed potatoes." And we derive pleasure from living within our ways of accomodating one another.

What does impinge upon human dignity is the scale of management - global structures are less humane and wise than local structures. While population has a relationship to what is available and the degree of accomodation required by individuals, the relation is not the one that Asimov/Kasanov makes and Bartlett so strongly approves of - that every single body on the earth makes us less able to live with dignity. What it does is demand more of us in terms of accomodation and respect for one another. It demands stronger cultures and more local management, rather than destructive homogenization and global authority. It demands that we think of ourselves differently than rich, western people have been accustomed to. We must derive our sense of pleasure not from what we are able to do without constraint, but from creating beautiful accomodations and social structures for one another.

Again, I do not disagree wholly with Bartlett's arguments, but I think the "Tragedy of the Bathroom" both fails to enhance his case and reveals a false and ugly streak at the root of our thinking about population.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Book Excerpt #2

"From our western point of view it would be easy to imagine that eating rice or bread at every meal was a step down from the diversity and wonder of our own habits, where we can have take out Thai for lunch, Mexican for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast, but that is, in fact, not the case. Most people love their staple foods, find them comforting and pleasurable, and come to believe that a meal without them is not a meal. For example, in several Asian cultures the question, "Have you eaten?" actually means "Have you had rice." Margaret Visser points out,

"Rice eaters are intensely knowledgeable about varieties of flavour
and aroma in their favourite food; they may be used to eating little,
but they care a great deal whether that little is good. (Visser, 175)"

The same is true of any people with staple foods. Varieties of bread are debated and preserved and recipes passed down among those who rely on wheat. Sourdough eaters preserve their starters, those accustomed to dark ryes search the earth for them when they travel, and at holidays everyone enjoys their sweetened celebratory breads. Those whose traditions involve corn preserve ancient varieties, like traditional Mexican and Hopi varieties for making tortillas, because of the remarkable flavors involved. They know a thousand ways to use cornmeal - as breads, porridges and desserts, and never seem to tire of them. And anyone who has ever eaten a buttery, yellow yukon gold potato, and a waxy carola potato know how different they can be, how much a "meat and potatoes person" finds a meal without potatoes an empty thing indeed.

In fact, you might turn Visser's statement around, and point out that the only people who don't care about the quality of their food are us, the people who have so much of it that we don't know what to do with it. We have allowed our tastes for salt and fat and sugar to override the natural, profound liking for a staple whole grain and its natural partners, and we can no longer taste the subtleties of their pleasures. Or perhaps because we rely on the supermarket we simply don't know how very diverse these tastes can be. We imagine ourselves as having a tremendously interesting diet, but is it really better to eat lobster, chicken and pork in one week, or to enjoy sourdough, black rye, honey-wheat and salt rising bread?

I want to emphasize that when we call for a return to staple starch based diets, we are not calling for a return to the bland, the boring, the unbalanced or the unpleasant. We have become accustomed to another kind of diet, one that is tremendously energy and carbon intensive and often very boring - in the sense that everything tastes strongly of salt and fat. Becoming a nation of home cooks means, in part, developing a new, but not at all inferior diet. It involves opening ourselves to new tastes, and reconsidering what constitutes novelty and good food.

In fact, we imagine ourselves as eating a variety of foods, but in fact, if we eat from the typical supermarket, much of our diet is derived from a single ingredient.. As Michael Pollan points out in _The Omnivore's Dilemma_, corn is a central ingredient in virtually everything Americans eat. We are not aware of how dependent we are upon zea mays, but we are, as Pollan observes, rather like Koala bears that eat only one sort of plant. He says,

"Corn is what feeds the steeer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds
the chickens and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the
tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that
fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made
of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from the
dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins
that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating

Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate
manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn
upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but
so do most of the nugget's other constituents, including the modified
corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter
that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less
obviously, the leavenings and lecitithin, the mono-,and di-, and
triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid
that keeps the nugget 'fresh' can all be derived from corn.
To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink
in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the
1980s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the
supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup
(HFCS) - after water, corn sweetener is their principle ingredient.
Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you'd still be driking
corn in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from
corn..." (Pollan, 18)

Wow, doesn't that sound yummy! It turns out that our diet isn't nearly as diverse as we'd like to be, and changing to devote ourselves primarily to a few staple food might actually be an expansion, rather than a contraction of our experience and our palates.

We would encourage people to think about what is likely to be their own natural staple starch(s), and how to provision themselves with it, to learn to cook it well and in multiple ways, and to enjoy it. For many people farming on small lots, growing a lot of grain is probably not feasible, although you certainly can grow a surprisingly large amount in small spaces. There are good reasons to grow some staple grains and vegetables. One of them is as a hedge against famine in hard times, and also as a means of creating complete local food systems. If the basis of your diet has to come from far away, there are limits to how food secure your community can ever be."


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Love Miles

I think there are some significant things to argue with in George Monbiot's _Heat_ (excerpts here: but one of them is not his assessment of the airline industry. He does what I think is a thorough and careful analysis of the possibilities of cleaning up the airline industry, and concludes that there is no way to do it. Air flight causes so many negative effects, from contrails to the carbon emission, that, as Monbiot observes,

"...the climate impact of aeroplanes is not confined to the carbon they produce. They release several different kinds of gases and particles. Some of them cool the planet, others warm it. The overall impact, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a warming effect 2.7 times that of the carbon dioxide alone. .. (and)...aviation has been growing faster than any other source of greenhouse gasses...Unless something is done to stop this growth (in flying habits) aviation will overwhelm all the cuts we manage to make elsewhere."

A just carbon allotment, that allowed everyone on earth a fair share of the carbon we can emit, would mean that one flight across the US or one transatlantic flight would cost one's entire carbon allotment for a year - and by one flight, I mean *one way* - you can't come back. After taking that flight you would be entitled to no electric lights, heat, food or shelter. We might conceivably plan for an every decade or so trip if we were very careful. But the carbon allotment is not generous, and it would be stretch.

Monbiot considers alternative fuels for airplanes, and concludes that it is impossible to tranform the world's air fleets to anything more sustainable. None of the alternative fuels are possible, and some have worse global warming impacts than the current ones. For example, hydrogen fueled planes, Monbiot documents, would likely have a climate impact 13 times greater than current airplanes.

Monbiot's basic conclusion is that we have to give up flying - period. 96% of present flights would have to be grounded, unless we could recreate a fleet of small prop planes, but even then we'd talking about cutting about 90% of all flights.

Now this means two things. First of all, it means that we have to give up business travel - period. Video or internet conferences only. There is no excuse for flying around the world to do things that could be done over the internet - and yes, it will be harder to do them by internet, but if the choice is having all the people of Bangladesh drown, or creating an annual Hurricane Katrina, tough patooties. Or you can travel by train (occasionally, if your train is powered by electricity with sequestered carbon - and most of them aren't) and expect your trips to take longer. I'll be doing this - I'm presently turning down all opportunities to speak that involve a plane.

Recreational travel is also off the table - no more trips to lie in the sun, no more backpacking around the world unless you are prepared to get there by sailing ship or train or on foot, or perhaps to live more or less nomadically, allotting all of your carbon share to travel and owning and using only what you can carry on your back. Most of us have seen all of the world we are going to see. This is an enormous pity and source of grief for me, and it comes with some real consequences - knowing about the rest of the world makes it more real to us. It is easier to care about people in other countries when you have met some of them, seen their lives, been in their homes. But we're going to have care *more* about them, not less, and still not know them. This is a source of great grief - many of the people I care about most come from or reside now in other countries. The idea of not knowing them, of not seeing them is a real agony to me. But I do not know any better solution.

What will be even harder is what Monbiot calls "love miles" - the issue of how do we deal with far flung people we care about. How do we deal with the fact that our families are seperated, and if we live like this, we may never see each other again? How do we live with the idea that grandchildren might not know grandparents, and parents might lose adult children not just for months, but for decades? How do we deal with aging families, or ill members, weddings, funerals, and other seeming necessities.

The answer to that is that we do a lot of hard thinking and talking to one another. We won't enjoy it - but we have no choice. This is not a case where we can inflict the problem on other people - flying is a privelege of the rich, and the burden sits squarely on our shoulders. And unfortunately, the solution is practically unAmerican - we're going to have to voluntarily restrict our comfort and happiness and change our lives in ways that are usually off the table in conversation. That is, we're going to have to decide flat out if we'd rather see each other or if we'd rather live apart.

My own family and friends probably have an average degree of flying associated wtih them. Most of our family and social circle live in the Boston/NY/WA corridor, but there are some significant outlyers in California and Washington, and a few scattered midwesterners. Every other year or so we're invited to a major family event involving flight. One to two times per year, my father comes from Bellingham, WA to visit his grandchildren on the east coast. Two months from now, Eric's side of the family will convene for the unveiling of his grandparent's graves, and a number of family members will fly in from across the country. My step-mother is headed shortly to CA with her sister to visit their aging father and step-mother who are starting to have serious health problems. What do we do about this?

We talk about it. I recognize that not everyone will immediately accept this necessity, but there is no question that whether through carbon taxes or emissions caps, eventually, air travel will become much less frequent. The challenge to us is to make our changes *before* it is mandatory, because otherwise we risk even more serious consequences. But this is hard. It is one thing to say, "I'm sorry, no, I can't attend my sister's wedding because the government has put caps on flights" and another to say, "No, Sis, I'm sorry I'm not coming to your wedding, but I care more about global warming than you." Or to say to an elderly, failing parent, "I can't be here for you in the last years of your life because doing so is warming the planet." But despite the fact that all of this is crazy-hard, it is necessary. Emissions caps will come, but the odds are we're already at the point where the seas may becomes sterile, famine widespread and hurricanes of the Katrina sort an annual event - the planet will keep getting warmer even if we stopped all emissions today. So delaying makes the long term consequences greater.

So what we need to do is begin by sitting down with loved ones who live far away, and asking "what do we do about this that enables us to leave a planet for our children and still enables us to care for one another." The answers will be different for every family. In some cases, phone calls, email and internet video conferencing might be enough, particularly when everyone is a grownup, or when the benefits of staying apart outweigh the risks. But in other cases, we're probably going to decide that our current distance may not be the way to go.

That's a really hard conversation to have. Because someone, maybe everyone, is going to have to make sacrifices. Either your kids will grow up without their grandparents or you may have to give up your chosen career, your beloved home, the things and place you love. We're going to have to ask "do you come here, do I go there, do we meet in the middle." That's a lot of people relocating. People are going to have to adapt to new places, new economies, new climates and cultures. But there's no avoiding it. Either we do as the pioneers did and accept that distance communication is what is left for us, that we will travel to see our distant families once a decade or less (that is, you can see the new baby, the 10 year old and the college graduate), or we will have to live closer together.

I need to have this conversation with my father. He likes Bellingham, and frankly, we often get along better when he lives 3000 miles from me. But I can't in good conscience keep sending him plane tickets. For older people, we may have to press them to make unpleasant changes at hard times in their lives. For our children, we will have to explain why the school trip to Israel and the yearly visit to Grandma in Arizona is no longer ok. Young adults may have to decide whether to pursue their dream career or one that could enable them to live close to home. Families may have to give up some of their dreams and make up new ones. It will not be easy. It is, unfortunately, necessary. Many people who come from families dispersed across national borders may have to struggle to gain entrance into the nations where the people they love reside. This will not be easy.

What is possible is that a society in which we have fewer love miles might be a more coherent and less divided society. Living across the country from one another seems like no big deal when you are young and your parents are healthy - the move to California or New York or Singapore to pursue that career opportunity, that graduate education often seems like a good idea to young adults. Afterall, how much do you need to hang out with your parents and siblings anyway? You can always fly back.

But even in a world of unlimited air travel, I notice consequences for people I know and love. Living far from your family is no big deal when you are young, but when you start having children, that isolation is often very difficult. A friend of mine, whose siblings and parents are in CA, and whose husband's parents and sibs are in WI mentioned how lonely she often was - and all the grandparents visit regularly now. No matter how free you are to fly, it is sad when grandchildren long for grandparents they cannot see, or when you need someone to help you with the baby.

And illness, disability and aging place enormous stresses on families even if you can fly - what do you do when your aging parents begin to have a series of health crises? No one can fly weekly across the country. What happens when a family member develops cancer, or is struck by a car? I've seen so many people frustrated because they cannot *help* one another, and they desperately want to. I've felt that myself when my mother had surgery or my sister was ill after having a baby, and both live within driving distance for real emergencies.

It may be that once we get used to our new reality, there will be some powerful benefits - but there is no doubt there will be major losses as well. Again, the only reason we could possibly imagine doing this is that it is worth the price - that ensuring that our children and grandchildren have food and water and are safe from rising seas is worth it.


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Home Economics, Sustainability and the "Mommy Wars"

As I write this, I have a pair of blue jeans on my lap, and as I wait for pages to load on my slow dial up connection, I am cutting them to pieces. The jeans are past wearing - the holes are beyond my capacity to patch, and in spots that reveal things my husband would be better to leave covered. So I am turning them into a pile of material which has a diversity of uses. The large pieces of cloth are cut into squares to make denim and flannel patchwork quilts for my kids. The hem and seam pieces are cut out in long strips, and will be sewn together and braided to make a denim rug eventually. The buttons are snipped off and the zipper cut out for use in future clothing. The larger odd-shaped pieces, unsuitable for quilting are set aside for patching other jeans and extending their lives. Small scraps are added to a box of cloth scraps for the kids to practice sewing upon. Fine shreds could be used to stuff homemade toys, but I'm not that organized, and they end up on the compost pile. The work is a little tedious, but well suited to a time when I'm sitting about anyway and my hands aren't always in use.

I do this in part because I am trying to reduce our waste stream, and in part because I worry that someday we will want more blankets because we have less heat or more people needing them, in part because I like to make things, but mostly because I do not want to spend money. I make the jean quilts so that I don't have to buy blankets for the kids. I save the patch scraps to delay the day when I'll have to buy new jeans for any of us. I braid the rugs because I need something to stand on at the kitchen sink, and I don't want to purchase anything. I save the buttons because otherwise, the next time one pops off my jeans, I'll have to buy them. They are cheap. Even jeans are cheap, of course. But the total savings, however small, is one piece of the puzzle that enables us to live on comparatively little money. Add to that our tendency to own older cars, and drive as little as possible, keep the heat down and eat little meat and garden - all of which we do from a combination of frugal and environmental motives, and we're able to live quite cheaply.

Nominally, at least, I'm an at-home mother. That is, I don't go to work, I don't wear pantyhose, and one of us, often me but nearly as frequently my husband, is at home with the kids virtually all the time. What paid work I do, I do from home. We are fortunate in that our frugality, the way we bought our house (jointly with family members) and some good luck have also enabled my husband to do much of his work from home, so he is obliged to commute to work only 3 days a week. Because he is paid by the class, we try hard to need as little money as possible. The less we need, the less he has to work, and the more time we have together. And in order to do this, we are mostly at home. My choice not to try and work outside the home, and to be a full time parent comes with a particularly strong set of cultural assumptions and expectations, and often "At Home Mother" is shorthand for a set of political and cultural habits that don't, in fact, fit me all that well.

Now those of you who are not parents probably don't really know about the "Mommy Wars." That's the official name for a really, really stupid conflict, mostly played out between women who otherwise would be natural allies, over whether it is better to stay at home with your children or go to a job and work. This is an endless, cruel and inane conflict. Some wrking mothers level the charge at at-home mothers that they are dumb, or wasting themselves and their educations, implying that their own time is more valuable than that of women who do not go to a job, and in hundreds of ways otherwise demean women who are at home and the work they do. Many stay at home mothers assert that women who go to jobs are selfish, that they don't care about their children, that most women don't "need" to work and only do so for luxuries, and that they don't raise their own children. People who rightly argue that children need their parents are set up against people who rightly argue that children need health insurance, and no one ever conceeds anything. Everyone swings around statistics about daycare, the number of children who become axe murderers under each system and how much any given bit of information matters. As could be expected, no resolution is ever achieved, people who could work together find that they can't, and everyone gets their feelings hurt. I've managed to be on both ends of this - I've been told condescendingly by a neighboring attorney, "Oh, I couldn't help out - I work you know." And I've also been told that leaving my kids to go teach meant that I didn't love them. Now not every family get stuck in this ugly dualism, but more do than don't.

And, of course, the whole discussion not only makes everyone miserable, it misses the point - or several points. One of them is that neither party really has what they need. All the mothers I know who work agonize over leaving their children, often with people who do not love their children as much as the do. Most of them are also deeply ambivalent about how much they like working - that is, many of them (including me) when you push them feel a deep-seated sense that they *should* want to be home with their kids, even though they like their jobs, and particularly like the community and connections they find there. Many of the women I know who work full time are exhausted and frustrated with the things they can't do, and they gain time by hiring out as many things as possible - they eat take out, have someone else clean their house and tend their yards. But they never feel that the things they pay others to do are done as well as they would do them. They often don't spend much time with their spouses alone, and much of the time they do spend with their children is spent driving places. Everyone reports a great deal of stress, a desire for more time together and anger and frustration that this is not enabled by their jobs and their lives. For poor working women, there is often no choice, no job satisfaction and no ambivalence - many of them believe that feminism sold them a bill of goods, claiming to give them something positive and mostly doubled their workload. And they are not wholly wrong.

For stay at home mothers, there is a sense of isolation, the loss of of the community they often had at work. Because this is the less common choice, it is often difficult to find company. The economic pressure for a two-household economy is very high, and the choice to stay home for many poorer women means a loss of security - no insurance or poor insurance, no economic safety net if something happens to the working spouse. Many have little time with their husbands, because the husbands have to work long hours to compensate economically for having only one income. And the job is often boring for women - they secretly admit that they sometimes wonder if the accusations that there is something wrong with them because they are willing to do this dull work are true. This is not conducive to self-esteem. In short, both sets of mothers are, often, having a lousy time. I asked 40 women I knew what the best choice was, and virtually all of them said there were no good options, or that good options would only be forthcoming with government mandates of things like paid maternity leave and good daycare.

But I would argue that the question of whether women should work outside the home is the wrong question entirely. The right question is how much power we should give to the public economy, and its presumptions. At least as important as the question of what women with children should do, for example, is the far less commonly asked question, "should fathers work outside the home?" And almost no one asks, as Wendell Berry does, whether it is good for marriages that husbands and wives work apart, outside the home. The question becomes, then, "how much should we value the work we do outside the home, and how much should we value the work we do in it?" That question, I suspect, might begin to get us somewhere that Mommy Wars cannot. Perhaps it might even take us to a good answer.

Berry answers this question in no uncertain terms in his essay, "Feminism, the Body and the Machine." He says, in answer to critics who accused him of sexism for having a wife who worked in the home and typed his essays,

"I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything bettter to do than to make one's marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that 'employment outside the home' is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either
men or women. It is clear from my experience as a teacher, fo rexample, that children need an ordinary association with *both* parents. They need to see their parents at work, they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents....My intrest is not to quarrel with individuals, men or women, who work away from home, but rather to ask why we should consider this general working away from home to be a desirable state of things, either for people or for marriage, for our society or for our country....But for the sake of arguument, let us supposed that whatever work my wife does, as a member of our marriage and household, she does both as a full economic partner and as her own boss, and let us supposed that the economy we have is adequate to our needs. Why, granting that supposition, should anyone assume that my wife would increase her freedom or dignity or satisfaction by becoming the employee of a boss, who would be in turn also a corporate underling and in no sense a partner?" (Berry, 68-69)

Will you forgive me for saying that I think Berry's is a damned good question? He goes on to observe that what is bad for his wife is also bad for her husband - that men do not receive a greater share of independence, dignity or happiness by working out of the home, away from their spouses and families. We are accustomed to debate whether the breakdown of the family stems from the habit of women going out to work. But if the family broke down thoroughly, it was around the time the baby boomer children were being born - the levels of alienation and misery, depression, anxiety and family disruption among boomers are radically higher than among the previous generation - and many of those families had stay at home mothers. So perhaps we need to look at the fathers and their role.

And all of this focus on the women in question, and the impact of whether women work misses the basic point that for most of human history, children spent much more time with both parents than they do now, and that many of the negatives we attribute to the seperation of children from their mothers might equally or more be said of the separation of children from their fathers.

Until 200 years ago, a vast majority of all children spent most of their lives with both parents every single day. In hunter-gatherer societies, the tribe often travelled together, and since hunting was generally a less common activity than gathering, male hunters often had considerable time to spend with their children. In most such societies in existence today, they do a considerable amount of parenting. Once agriculture came to predominate, again, children spent their days with their parents. Young, nursing children were often with their mother, but by the age of weaning (four or five in most traditional societies, unless a younger sibling pushed it ahead), children might work or play alongside their fathers for part of every day. Boys would join their fathers in traditionally male work, but even daughters would often help in the barn or around the farm. Everyone would recovene for regular meals, and the family would spend all sabbaths and festivals together. Many agricultural societies had much more free time than we do now - 11th century serfs worked only 178 days per year. Helena Norberg-Hodge has documented that the people of Ladakh, one of the harshest climates in the world, were able to feed themselves by working intensely only four months of the year, spending much of the winter in celebration and parties, and described the integration of children into the lives of both parents and grandparents as well.

As the percentages of people living on farms
and in small towns decreased, more separation arose, but it is worth noting that as recently as 1920 or 1930, more than half of the US population farmed, ran small local businesses or worked within a mile of their homes. All of which meant that children were involved in their parents' daily lives in ways that are hard to imagine right now. A family that ran a shop would have children playing the back. By seven or eight, children would take turns assisting customers and stocking shelves. The family would often convene for meals (even children were allowed to walk home for lunch from school, hard as that is to imagine now), and children would join their parents in their work.

The level at which the family was integrated into one another's lives is hard for most Americans to imagine now, and it is not an accident that this was a more sustainable, more environmentally sound way of life, as well as one that led to greater psychological happiness. Living at a scale that enables integration is almost always a better choice environmentally - but after decades of living apart, unsustainably, we have created a population of people who valorize apartness, and who fear closeness. Women say, "I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I was trapped with my kids all day." Men take their identity from their jobs, rather than their relationships. Children say, "I would never want to live that close to my family" and aging parents say, "I don't want to depend on my children." People don't want their neighbors to drop by, or "know their business."
We have created not only physical dependencies on cheap energy, but psychological ones, so that no matter how much harm our dependencies do, we now fear to live any other way.

In some senses, we have adopted a new theory of "seperate spheres" - it is different from the Victorian notion by the same name, but structurally very similar. The Victorians imagined this in terms of gender roles - one had the "angel in the house" and the man out at work (a division that described significantly less than half the population during the actual Victorian Era), and each was supposed to have their own role. Now the division is not made by gender, but by age and work. Each parent goes off to their own seperate jobs, away from their homes, and spends long hours there, or at best, one parent stays home and the other is parted from them for much of the week. The children routinely spend long hours at school and activities designed to educate them, usually provided by professionalized adults. The spheres are so seperate that they rarely overlap - friends of ours both with two important careers acknowledge that at times the only communication they have with one another is to list off the necessary information about the children, before one heads to bed, the other to childcare. The child, the parents, all are deemed to have important work to do, and it is almost never done together. Even their leisure time is rarely conjoined - on the weekends, everyone will have their seperate obligations and activities - one child has a birthday party to which his siblings are not invited, another has sports practice, mother runs errands, father shuttles the children about.

This is not, I think, a good way to run a railroad - or more accurately, a family. We tend to focus on the costs to children, but Berry's emphasis that this is not good for marriages is important as well, given the nation's appalling divorce rate. The divorce rate has an enormous cost for children as well, of course, and the two things cannot be separated. No one has yet succeeded in finding a cure for the fact that we are bad at staying together. Is some of it perhaps the pernicious influence of the industrial economy that seperates us, and keeps us from creating the bonds that shared work and shared domestic interest create? Is it possible that marriages are better when husband and wife share whole and integrated life together? I can only speak from my own experience, but my marriage is happier when my husband and I are together than when we are apart. We both enjoy our work, but our preference is always for more time together with each other and our children.

I cannot say what impact millions of years of human beings living together and working with their children had upon our biology or our psychology or our instincts, but it seems not wholly coincidental that an enormous body of unhappiness arose in our society precisely as parents began to seperate from their children routinely, and childhood became a period enacted in isolation from family and without meaningful ways of contributing to he household, family and domestic economies. Children seek meaning. I can remember from my own adolescence a passionate desire to do things that would matter to adults, to enter the world of adult work in some useful way, more important than simply entering the cash economy. I wanted what I did as a teenager to matter, and very little of what was available to me seemed to. I noticed in my peers similar desires, and a willingness to engage in destructive meaning-making, if that was the only way into the adult world. Segregating children into their own seperate spheres of school, music lessons, sport and homework is, at the very least, an experiment on a couple of generations of children that violates everything that human history has taught us about what makes a strong and healthy family. And it represents a tremendous change in how much we value a strong and healthy family - that was once considered a central requirement for a happy life. Now, we are willing to sacrifice that in order to have other things.

The sphere we value least, of course, is the domestic one. We see it as a repository of our wealth - a house and a home is a place to decorate, but it is not a place to do good work in. It is not a place that makes us better able to live in the world, but the thing that keeps us running on the rat treadmill to pay the mortgage and keep the repairs up. And because "labor saving" devices have stripped much of what was valuable and interesting from domestic work, home labor is boring. We are no longer engaged in the absolutely urgent process of feeding and clothing ourselves, nurturing and loving and protecting others. That happens at work, where we make the money to buy food and provide security. Many of the labor saving devices have been proven not to save us much time or any at all if you count in the time to earn the money to run and maintain and service them. But what they did do is take the fun and excitement, the meaning and urgency out of the work done in domestic life, and make it seem valueless, something always to be relieved by technology.

Helena Norberg-Hodge documents the ways that this happened in Ladakh, where she witnessed the coming of the industrial economy and the "home/work" division in a society that had previously looked like the society from which we came too, at least in the sense that fathers and mothers both worked at home,

" not earn money for their work, so they are no longer seen as 'productive.' Their work is not recognized as part of the gross national product. In government statistics, the 10 percent or so of Ladakhis who work in the modern sector are listed according to their occumpations; the other 90 percent - housewives and traditional farmers - are lumped together as 'non-workers.' This influences people's attitudes toward themselves and others, and the lack of recognition clearly has a deep psychological impact. Traditional farmers, as well as women are coming to be viewed as inferior, and they themselves are obviously developing feelings of insecurity and inadequacy....Despite their new dominant role, men also clearly suffer as a result of the breakdown of family and community ties. They are deprived of contact with chidlren. When they are young, the new macho images prevents them from showing affection, while in later life as fathers, their work keeps them away from home...In the traditional culture children benefitted not only from continuous contact with both mother and father, but also from a way of life in which different age groups constantly interacted. It was quite natural for older children to feel a sense of responsiblity for the younger ones. A younger child in turn looked up with respect and admiration, seeking to imitate the older ones. Growing up was a natural, non-competetive learning process....Now children are split into different age groups at school. This sort of levelling has a very destructive effect. By artificially creating social units in which eveyrone is the same age, the ability to help and learn from each other is greately reduced. Instead, conditions for competition are automatically created...Now there is a tendency to spend time exclusively with one's peers. As a result, a mutual inolerance between young and old emerges. Young children nowadays have less and less contact with their grandparents who often remain behind in the village. (Norberg-Hodge, 126-7)

Norberg-Hodge does a marvellous job of documenting how profoundly perceptions of what is valuable affect us. We view domestic work as unimportant, and thus women who do it are demeaned. And since in most households, whether they work or not women do the work - either themselves, or by paying poorer women, the work itself is seen as demeaning. No wonder women who make different choices are so hostile to one another - one group attempts, against impossible odds to redeem something that the entire culture and economy attempts to dismiss, including dealing with her own created insecurities about it. Another woman has to choose both lousy options - working out and doing most of the housework, and cannot help but see the distinction between the things she gets paid for and rewarded for with cultural approval and those she does not. Everyone loses. I have spoken little about the losses of men, but there is no doubt that they lose out - on time with their children, time with their wives, in psychological pressure as providers. And, of course, children lose too.

That emptiness of meaning and segregation has meant that the industrial economy has leaped to fill the void we manifestly experience. They have filled it with processed foods, video games, television, educational toys that sing to your child and teach her the alphabet, so that parents do not have to. We have filled it with sports and other things that don't matter very much that keep our children active by replacing meaningful labor with meaningless exercise, and what should be pleasurable athletic activity with intense competition. In effect, we have turned childhood over to corporations, and meaning-making over to advertising. And the kind of children that creates are ones that are disconnected - instead of their imaginary lives being connected to imitating their parents and integrating into their family life, their imaginations are shaped by shopping and the economy from a very young age.

As David Orr has observed in his essay, "Loving Children: a Design Problem" we endlessly repeat the claim that we love our children, but we do not live our lives that way, or enable our children to feel loved in the ways that time has shown are successful. Orr notes,

"In an ecologically and esthetically impoverished landscape, it is harder for children and adolescents to find a larger meaning and purpose for their lives. Consequently, many children grow up feeling useless. In landscapes organized for convenience, commerce, and crime, and subsidized by cheap oil, we have little good work for them to do. Since we really do not need them to do real work, they learn few practical skills and little about responsibility. Their contacts with adults are frequently unsatisfactory. When they do work, it is all too often within a larger pattern of design failure. Flipping artery clogging burgers made from chemically saturated feedlot cows, for example, is not good work and neither is most of the other hourly work available to them. Over and over we profess our love for our children, but the evidence says otherwise. Rarely do we work with them. Rarely do we mentor them. We teach them few practical skills. At an early age they are deposited in front of mind-numbing television and later in front of computers. And we are astonished to learn that in large numbers they neither respect adults nor are they equipped with the basic skills and aptitudes necessary to live responsible and productive lives. Increasingly, they imitate the values they perceive in us with characteristic juvenile exaggeration" (Orr,

How do we create a society in which we actually act like we love our children? How do we get women and men out of the ugly set of choices they have - working too much in isolation from children and one another, or one parent, isolated at home with children in an environment that has been degraded and stripped of its importance and meaning?

My suggestion, then, is not that mothers should stay home, but that everyone should. Recognizing, however, that in many cases complete escape from the industrial economy is not possible, how should we, as Orr puts it, "reconnect living with livelihood?" The first solution would be to need as little as possible. Everyone who is asked believes they need the income they have, or a little more, but would that actually be true if we treated our homes and households as places that produce what we need, rather than suck up our income? If the costs of a car payment, new clothing, much of one's food and other items could be eliminated from the budget, along with daycare, would one person in the family be able to cut back on their work, or quit altogether? Could both cut back? Could one person take a job making less that would require fewer hours, less commuting?

Are you doing work that improves the world, or work that harms it? Because we need to make a living, many of us exclude our jobs from our environmental and social consciousness, assuming that our work creating paper on some irrelevancy is not a negotiable issue. But that is a lie - we have to do good work, and model good work for our children, so that they will want to join us in it. Could you create a small home business? Start a farm or market garden? Work from home? Work less? Involve your older children in your work? Take a baby or toddler with you one day a week? Homeschool? Many of these things may not be feasible for most people, but have you seriously considered them?

Could you move, live somewhere cheaper, or closer to family? Could you live with family, and enable your parents, for example to retire and help care for their grandchildren, or a sibling to stay home with her child and yours? Could you choose a new way of life, where some work that could be done with your children around was part of your income? Could you both work part-time? Could you find work that husband and wife could do together? Could you combine several of these options with increased frugality and self-sufficiency, and get by on only one part time income? There is a great deal of information out there on frugality - I strongly recommend others begin with Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez's _Your Money or Your Life_ and Amy Dacyzyn's _Tightwad Gazette_ books. It is quite possible for people to cut back enormously on their needs, simply by focusing on two things - making their home economically productive (either by producing income or needing less), and also by staying home - on cutting back on the things that cost us so much out in the world and tempt us to consume more.

Many of us work for health insurance - but for an increasingly large number, such is not available at any price. It is true that being less of a participant in the industrial economy makes us less secure in that regard, if more secure in others. Ideally, we will find ways at the national or state level of ensuring that everyone can have equal access to medical care. If not, perhaps we could do as the Amish do, and form mutual aid societies that cover medical bills for a group. Most states have insurance for children, and some have it available for those who have home businesses, and this might be a starting place.

As for saving for retirement, I do not wish to presume too much about what my children will think of and want for me, but in much of the world, and through much of human history, one's family was one's security, not money. We all should know the danger of a lost pension fund, a stock market crash, a currency crisis - money is often less secure than we would imagine. But it is absolutely necessary if we continue to live our lives, as Orr notes, as though we do not truly love our children. If we continue to live in the world in ways that degrade it and deprive children of family connection, we will have children who do not want to help us in our last years. Despite our cultural nostalgia for the 1950s, we should note that the children of the 1950s, who remember it so fondly, were the first generation to overwhelmingly stick their parents in assisted living and nursing homes. The mothers that were at home baking cookies weren't much valued in their old age.

None of us likes the idea of dependency, but we will be dependent, no matter what - some day, unable to work we will either be dependent on a collection of machines, the industrial economy and professional people doing a lousy job for minimum wage, or we will be dependent on the children we loved and raised and the grandchildren we adore. Which is better? I know which one I would choose.

My five year old is making a blanket for his stuffed animals out of scraps of the denim. My three year old is playing peek-a-boo with the baby, hiding beneath a half-cut up denim jean leg, and my six year old spins a long strip for braiding around and around. Simon, my five year old, takes a turn at the scissors. The baby chews my knee. My husband does dishes at the sink while I cut up these jeans. I am reminded of those mastercard commercials - "Some things are priceless. For everything else there's mastercard." The implication is that buying things enables you to have those priceless experiences. But this contradicts my experience. The most precious moments of my life are the ones in which there is nothing at all to buy. The most priceless moments are not rare constructs of purchase, or occasional special events, expensive to create, but moments whose value is only increased by their ubiquity, by the fact that we are together *as we usually are* in our accustomed ways, enjoying accustomed pleasures. The moments are precious in that sense because they are apart from the economy, not despite it - or rather, because they are fully integrated into the most essential of all economies, the home economy.