Sunday, September 30, 2007
If you wanted to organize your energy reductions, you might take two approaches. The first one is the "Pick the Low Hanging Fruit" plan. That is, you look and see what the easiest changes to make are. For example, you've been running to the library on Thursday and the grocery store on Friday. But suddenly, you realize you can combine those choices if you go to the other library branch, and do it on Friday - and without any major effort, you've cut out 9 miles of round trip driving. Or you suddenly realize that you've had the computer on all the time, but don't use it on Mondays because you don't have time - so you start disconnecting the computer on Sunday night and leaving it off until Tuesdays. The low hanging fruit is simply a matter of applying your mind to the obvious, and picking up things as they seem easiest.
Another way of approaching this to decide to make your cuts in your biggest expenditures. That is, you might look at where your energy usage is and see that your electric use is way above average. So you might concentrate on electric usage - removing some bulbs, replacing others with Compact Flourescent or LEDs, turning off your computer, cutting phantom loads, maybe saving up for a more efficient fridge. You could divide your energy consumption up into categories, much as we have over at the Riot for Austerity, and decide to focus on that.
One of my favorite ways of sorting these out is economically or temporally. If I'm trying to decide between two choices, I tend to prioritize those things that give me either the gift of time or money. And a large number of choices do. For example, in October, I will buy 10 bushels of local apples for 140 dollars. My local Walmart would sell me 10 bushels of apples for 400 dollars. No contest. My dryer would cost me about $100 per year to run. My clothesline and pins cost $4 - 6 years ago. Amortized annual cost is under .50 per year. Running our second car costs us more than a thousand dollars a year in taxes, maintenence and insurance - the second I figure out how to find an efficient commuting vehicle that will also hold six people, our van is out of hear.
Or there's the pleasure sorting method - what gets you the most fun. I love to cook and hate to sew, and if I have to choose between a method of energy reduction that involves cooking something or sewing sometihng, let's just say it isn't always that much trouble. So while I make my own crackers, granola, popsicles and yogurt, I'm still buying my underwear and bras. It is on the list to do someday, though. I have the hope of getting rid of our van and going to a single car (as yet we have two, because one is an efficient commuting vehicle, but can't fit all six of us, two dogs and a bale of hay, and the other is an inefficient vehicle that can fit the above) and a pair of expensive dutch bikes with big kid-carriers in front. This will eventually be an economical choice, but right now I mostly like it because the sheer pleasure of pedalling vastly exceeds driving.
However you approach it, the best trick is simply to do it. In many ways, it is the breaking of old habits, automatic consumption and assumption that is hard, more than the practices themselves.
Friday, September 28, 2007
You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn't have to buy soda or haul a bottle around, you just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do. They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there - if you whined "Daddy, I'm thirsty" - waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.
And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one's lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them (never mind that most plastic water bottles involve drinking a big old slug of dioxin, which isn't exactly good for you). After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually share anything with. Thus, we magnify our fears of other people to avoid having to find public solutions. Or we simply get in the habit of privatizing everything, leaving the public sphere only to those who can't afford to leave it - and thus allowing us to call this "the tragedy of the commons," when, in fact, it is the tragedy of privatization and wealth and our rejection of both commons - and common ground with other people.
My youngest son, Asher, is in the full throes of toddlerhood right now, and when exhorted that he has to accomodate his brothers in some way, he tends to shout, "I don't! I don't share!!" And most of us don't share very much either - we have decidedly toddlerish relationships to sharing. There are two problems with this. The first is the problem that it isn't right to allow poor people to be screwed because we're afraid to have to sit next to them on the bus, but we've already gone there. The real problem for the people who have most embraced private solutions is that when we're unable to achieve and afford them, we find that we've trashed our infrastructure. That is, as we began carrying our water bottles around, we closed up and stopped maintaining our water fountains. And now that it turns out that the bottles are bad for us and the water in them contaminated, our options are a lot smaller.
The same is true of most peak oil and climate change preparations. I've been accused here of fatalism, because I don't think we're going to have money or resources to radically transform ourselves into a society powered by alternative energies, and I don't think most of us are going to have the money to put tens of thousands of dollars into retrofitting our homes. But what I do think we could do is dramatically reinforce and recreate our public infrastructure, and to create public solutions to problems we now typically examine as private. We can live in homes that are dramatically stripped down, with low energy infrastructure, if we have access to a few powered public resources that we share with others.
That is, while I think it unlikely we will all be having solar powered pumps to bring up water from our private wells, there is no reason your town can put solar or hand powered pumps in central, public places to provide water in the event of a major outage. While most people will not have a perfectly retrofitted canning kitchen, there's no reason our church and school kitchens can't be transformed into public use. While we won't all have cars, there's no reason those of us who do can't put many more people in them for most trips, a la the community solution's smart jitney program. I may not be able to afford a solar system for my home, but my neighbors and I may be able to afford to solar retrofit a garage on our street that could be used as a schoolroom, a clinic for our local nurse practitioner, as a place for band practice and neighborhood parties.
It is easier to plan for ourselves. It is easier in many ways to carry our water bottle. It is easier not to talk to other people, it is easier not to need other people, or have to share and accomodate them. It is easier to pick the people you want to share with, to be exclusive rather than inclusive. There are all sorts of reasons not to think in public terms, and only, I think, two major ones to do so. First of all, if we are to break out of our isolation, we have to, and second, because we have no choice - privatized solutions are too costly, too exclusive, too limited. Anyone who goes into peak oil and climate change imagining you will be one of the rich and lucky who will always be able to afford your bottle of water is, I think, betting on winning the lottery.
I've written more about this here:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/12/public-energies-private-energies.html
Thursday, September 27, 2007
It wasn't that wasn't carefully researched or written, just that the data on climate change is coming in so fast right now that what I wrote this spring is now largely outdated. There are now further refinements, subsequent studies and new models to deal with. I subscribe to a number of news feeds, and people send me additional studies and items of interest. My husband, an astrophysicist who teaches environmental physics also tracks the same material. And what, overwhelmingly I'm seeing, and most scientists seem to be seeing, is that global warming is progressing far faster than anyone would ever have expected.
For example, as recently as this spring, the IPCC report was estimating that arctic ice might disappear in the summers as early as 2050, but more likely towards the very end of this century. Research by James Hansen and other scientists at NASA projected an ice free arctic as early as 2023 this year, which stunned the scientific community. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7006640.stm In fact, however, this summer's ice retreat was so dramatic, that in, fact, the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center is now suggesting that the arctic could be ice free as early as 2015, 8 years from now. In less than six months, we've jumped our predictions for a major tipping point factor up by a minimum of 30 years. That's astonishing - and terrifying.
The IPCC's assessment of when major climate induced famines may occur originally focused on 2050, but yesterday the IPCC released a study suggesting that all agricultural production in Africa may halve in 12 years. http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=74481. Given that Africa presently has millions of people struggling to feed themselves, we can only imagine how horrifying this may be. Or rather, we don't have to imagine it - almost all of us will live to watch it. India, set to become the world's most populous country, also stands to lose up to 40% of its agricultural production by mid-century.
A 1 meter sea-level rise http://www.terradaily.com/2007/070925082357.ukuaaqza., may submerge 1/3 of the nation of Bangladesh. According to James Hansen's most recent studies at NASA, an ice-free arctic would virtually ensure we pass the critical 2 degree mark, setting in motion a sea level rise of up to 25 meters. A 1 meter rise could happen as early as 2019, 11 years from now, if sea level rises continue as predicted. Such a rise, incidentally, would do irreparable harm to American, Canadian, Australian and European coastal communities as well.
The IPCC report does not include the impact of tipping points on global warming for the most part - that is, it assumes that effects will proceed linearly, in a convenient, orderly fashion, rather than in the irregular way that nature usually does things. We have ample observational evidence, however, that things like ice melting don't actually proceed linearly, but create feedback loops that accellerate the process. Thus, virtually every scientist whose work I have read, whose studies I've seen, or who I see interviewed makes exactly the same point - everything about climate change is happening much, much, much faster than anyone expected.
I'm married to a scientist, and generally speaking, scientists are carefully trained to equivocate - to say what they don't know, and what the limitations on their knowledge are, to speak in terms of possibilities, rather than absolute truth. One of the most disturbing things about listening to scientists studying climate change, then, is the fear in the voices and words of people not accustomed to be fearful, and the sense that generally speaking, scientists are far more worried than most of us are. We can either believe they are worried because they are foolish, easily frightened and scaremongering, or we can believe they are afraid because they are seeing things they have never seen before with implications that are terrifying, and do not understand why the rest of us are so unafraid.
12,800 years ago, the Younger Dryas climate change occurred. It was the last great climactic shift of the great ice age, and is notable mostly because of its tremendous rapidity - in less 20 years, the world went from warm to cold, entering a 1300 year old ice age. In Maine, over a decade, average temperatures dropped by 28 degrees. But believe it or not, that's not the disturbing bit of data. As Richard Alley, of Penn State University documents in his studies of Greenland ice cores, when the Younger Dryas ended, it did so even faster, within a decade. Fred Pearce quotes Alley as saying, "Most of that change looks like it happened in a single year. It could have been less, perhaps even a single season."
The cause of these radical changes seem to have been all the bad guys of present climate change - melting ice, the ocean conveyor belt, releases from soil and water of stored methane and carbon - that is, the planet changed its entire climate in a matter of decades, or less than a decade or a season because of all the things we're watching right now. And it looks like the first of the great potential tipping points is coming not in 50 years or 40, not when those of us writing now are dead or old and grey and our children grown with children of their own, but very soon, in the next years and decades.
The simple fact is that one of the things we do know is that climate change can happen with astonishing rapidity, and produce radical changes in planetary climate quite quickly. As we gain more and more evidence, one of the things that seems overwhelmingly true is that very little about this is smooth or linear.
Now insert humanity into this. Never before have we had the power to make such a huge change. For example, we could figure in the issue of global dimming alone. Earlier in this post I pointed out that Global Warming is being blamed for a 50% reduction in agricultural production in Africa, especially the Sahel, the subsaharan area many of us in the West associate so strongly with drought and famine. Atmospheric physicist Leon Rotstayn argues that in fact, the drought of the 1980s in the Sahel that led to the Ethiopian famine was probably due less to global warming than global dimming. Neither the IPCC report on climate nor their report on famine in Africa takes full account of global dimming.
Global dimming is an observed phenomenon about which there is comparatively little scientific controversy. It simply points out that atmospheric pollution caused by industrialization has reduced the amount of sunlight we're receiving. And because sunlight striking water is the largest factor in evaporation rates, we are seeing reduced rates of evaporation. This evaporation fuels the monsoons that run across Africa and Asia providing much of the rainy season warming. Dr. Rotstayn argues that our pollution has damaged evaporation rates so much that the Sahel experienced drought and famine. The same, we are warned, could potentially occur in Asia, where billions of people depend on the monsoons for irrigation. http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/dimming_prog_summary.shtml
But here's the thing. We know that atmospheric pollutions means that we are getting less sun than we would be without it. We must reduce atmospheric pollution of all kinds, lest we plunge up to 3 billion people into famine and drought, not to mention that millions of deaths from asthma, lung cancer and pollution related health consequences - up to 3 million people annually in China alone. But we also know that in the past, the amount of atmospheric carbon we have at present led to warming of up to six degrees. Right now, it has warmed the planet only 0.6 degrees. One of the most likely explanations for this is that we're simply getting less sun, that a dimming planet has held back global warming. But if we stop polluting, if we do the things necessary to stop global warming, we are likely to reduce our atmospheric pollution as well, leading to a much more dramatic, sudden rise in temperatures.
The arctic sea ice and global dimming aren't the only factors that could accellerate climate change. But they are two of the most urgent and immanent threats to us. None of this research takes peak oil into account. As we refine our understanding of the real and material limits of fossil fuels, trace metals and other resources, it becomes less and less likely that any long term solution involving a mass build-out of renewable energies is likely to occur. That is, we're likely to find our solutions to global warming dramatically restricted by the availablility of energy and wealth. No one, with the exception of Richard Heinberg, has so far full grasped how short a time we have to remediate global warming - perhaps only a matter of a few years in which we are rich enough to begin the conversion of our infrastructure.
And, of course, the reality is that we all talk about 2 degrees and 440 or 450 or 480 ppm as though they are absolute limits, and we'll all be just fine until we hit them. The truth is more complicated. Even if we were on track to reach the "limits" of atmospheric carbon, we have no certainty that they will help us avoid a tipping point - merely a likelihood, the estimates of models that even the scientists themselves admit are probably inadequate to deal with the fact that climate change is happening now, far faster and harder than anyone ever expected.
We cannot know exactly what will happen, but the fact that we cannot know things exactly doesn't mean that we can't know anything, or that we have no way of making any kind of rational choice. While Occam's Razor, for example, is an imperfect logical tool, it also has real merit here - the fact that climate change seems on its own to be accellerating rapidly means that in our search for solutions, we should focus not only 30 or 50 year plans, but on doing as much as we can to ameliorate the harm we've done as rapidly as we can. Instead of focusing on CAFE standards and hope for technological breakthroughs, we are simply going to have to accept that having altered our world irrevocably, we have no choice but to live in that world - and thus, to ensure in any way we can, that the world remains livable for those who live today and those who will come after us.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
I admit, even though I've been studying herbal medicine in my spare time, even though I've read enough scientific studies to know that most of these herbs have both long history and a host of scientific studies to support their efficiacy, even though I know that many medicines are synthetics of natural herbs, I think I honestly thought that it was the comfort of the blanket on the lap, the excitement of drinking from a good tea cup and the warmth of the tea that seemed to "fix" everything so quickly, rather than the tea itself.
But Eric and I came home from an evening out with friends the other day, both of us feeling weighed down and unpleasant. The meal, made by our friends, was very different than our usual diet - heavy enough that it was bothering both of us. Eric took a shower, and I made myself a cup of tummy tea. I drank half of it, and was shocked to notice how quickly my stomach settled, feeling better from the very first swallow. I gave Eric the second half of my cup, not mentioning what it was, just saying that it warm him up, and he noticed the same thing - the moment the tea hit his stomach, he felt better.
This is hardly the first time herbal medicine has worked for me. I've treated mastitis successfully with garlic, my husband takes hawthorne for a minor heart irregularity, and ginger tea got me through my morning sickness. But when it works, I'm somehow surprised in a way I'm not when pharmaceuticals work. Despite this, I have quite as much experience with the failure of pharmaceuticals as I do with the failure of herbs - for example, narcotic pain relievers don't relieve pain and do make me throw up, traditional medicines for indigestion tend merely to take awful, and I've long noticed that a swig of rum mixed with juice and honey is as good as any cough syrup or better. That's not to say that I don't see real and persistent value in some modern medicine, just that I find it interesting that I've been so well trained to expect to turn to pharmaceuticals that even though I know better, I can't help a frisson of surprise that I could fix things simply myself.
And that, of course, is the great revelation of any kind of self-sufficiency. Not that we can do away entirely with the outside world, or would want to. Not that we should cast away all of modern medicine and everything we have achieved, but that in many cases (and one needs to use common sense here) we turn outside, rather than to ourselves, to nature, to the garden, simply out of habit and cultural training that tells us it would be dangerous to trust our own impressions too far. And yet, that ought to be the very first thing we trust.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Now is the time to plan ahead. Do you eat apples until the rhubarb and strawberries come around in spring? Well, you'll be needing a few bushels at least (we buy 10, but we eat a *lot* of apples, and there are six of us). Instead of buying a big sack of sugar, how about local honey, or sorghum or maple syrup, depending on where you live. Instead of 50lbs of generic white beans, how about local tepary beans or black soy beans or Jacob's Cattle. If you eat meat, consider local lamb, beef, fish or poultry. What about wine or beer? Pick your own berries to be made into a winter's jams and pie fillings?
Explore your local options, and if you can't find something locally, at least buy direct from farmers whenever possible. It is often possible to encourage local farmers to grow something you want if possible. I'm working on this right now - a local farmer I know about 15 miles from me grows grains for mixing animal feeds. I'm trying to persuade him now that I could help him expand his markets (he grows soybeans, wheat, barley, corn and oats) if he would consider planting some grains next year for human consumption with no spraying. Right now I'm getting my oats from over the border in Montreal and my soybeans and wheat from PA, and only corn l
really locally, and if hard times ever hit, I'll feel happier if our region produces more of its own grains.
Instead of grains as your primary staple, consider potatoes and other root crops if they grow well in your region. And again, consider adapting your diet to a truly regional one - that is, focus on the crops that grow well naturally in your area, not the ones that require greenhouses or extensive irrigation. In many places, it is not yet too late to plant cold weather crops that will mature in winter or early spring, so that you can be less dependent on the supermarket.
Storing may not be necessary if you live in easy walking distance of a year-round farmer's market or coop that pays farmers fairly, but for the rest of us, it cuts down on driving trips to get local food, it saves us money to buy in bulk and when availability is greatest, it puts more dollars into the pockets of local farmers and in the local community, and it enables us to have a personal security, more to donate to local charities, and a freedom from the supermarket.
A lot of this is mostly just planning - figuring out what you will want and need through the long winter, and getting it now, from farmers who will make a decent profit on your purchases, rather than from a supermarket chain where most of the money will be taken by middlemen, and where your food will travel countless miles, producing emissions all the way.
Where do you put all this food? For those with tiny spaces, under the bed is great for buckets of dried food or squash and pumpkins (which like to live where we do), a cooler or old fridge in an unheated garage or shed will keep potatoes and other roots, apples (don't store them together if possible - apples speed up rot in most root crops), or even a closet with a small vent cut into the wall. Many basements will work. If you rent, consider asking a friend or neighbor nearby with more space or more options to store your food for you. If you buy meat, perhaps you can barter some for space in a freezer if you haven't got one.
Stored food can also beautify. I collect glass mason jars, and store much of my immediately accessible foods in them, an idea I stole from my step-mother. The jars, on wooden shelves built into the kitchen, look lovely, and everyone who sees them comments on them. I also use old large metal popcorn tins to store grains - these are often available at yard sales for a quarter. Consider building something to store potatoes and onions. A pantry is a beautiful thing, and should be treated as such. A house kept cool in the winter will store much food quite well in the spaces people live in.
Friday, September 21, 2007
My mother and step-mother are lesbians. They have been together since 1979, when I was 7 years old, and my sisters and I grew up in their household. By the time my sister and I knew what lesbians were and this was something unusual, we were made aware in a whole host of ways that this was a dangerous thing in society. My mother and step-mother were very cautious about public evidence of their sexual preference, from necessity. We kept an empty bedroom that was my step-mother's "official" room, so that no one who visited would know they slept together. When my parents divorce was being finalized, both father and mother warned us seperately not, under any circumstances, to mention my mother's sexual preference to the judge who decided custody - because despite the fact that both parents agreed with and had a mutually acceptable arrangement, the judge had the right, power and precedent to take us away from our mother because of her sexual preference.
When it became known at school that my mother was gay, this was a matter of some great violence - my sister and I were both regularly assaulted by schoolmates who had strong opinions on this subject. We got in more than a few fights, and got used to running home from school. There were children not allowed to play with us, or come to our house. There were occasional and frightening acts of anonymous homophobia. There was danger that either could lose their jobs working with children if the circumstances were known. In our religious community, there were dark comments about the inappropriateness of their participating in religious rituals, and no effort to make these comments out of their children's hearing.
All of this occurred in Massachusetts, which was and remains probably the most comfortable state in the Union for gay people to live in - which at the time was the only state with a publically gay congressman and other visible gay public figures. Being gay was dangerous, physically, culturally. It had, to a large degree, to happen in secret.
All this was true when I was 8. By the time I was 18, my step-mother had spoken publically at my high school on being gay, and there was a nascent gay and lesbian student's association, sanctioned by the high school. The acts of homophobia, casual violence and threat and the muttering in church went away, as though they had never been. Responses were positive. Both mother and step-mother were out at work and everywhere else. My mother and step-mother were permitted to raise foster children, and were overwhelmingly praised for providing them with a good and healthy environment to live in. It is hard to describe the difference in the culture, and this is not merely my personal perception, or the difference between childhood and near-adulthood. I know dozens of people who confirm that their world simply, deeply, changed for gay people.
A little less than a decade after that, my mother and step-mother were married in their church, and a couple of years later, they were married in the city courthouse of their community, and their picture appeared in the newspaper. All of this in 20 years. It was not perfect. It was not pure - homophobia still exists, marriage is not legal in most places, there has been backlash and there is still violence. But the difference between today and 1979 is the difference between night and day.
Brian is certainly right, it would be every kind of hubris to imagine that I could change the world alone, or that any single individual action could be the lever that moved society. And yet, societies change, often radically and rapidly. It would be wrong to identify one single mover that made that change - was it Oprah and Donohue who put gay people on their stages? Was it the Drag Queens at Pride? Was it the slow opening up of people to their parents and families in ways that made them think, "Oh, I cannot generalize on this subject now - it applies to me?" Was it Barney Frank or Roseanne kissing a woman on tv? Was it political action and marches or everyday things people did in their daily lives, when they turned to a colleague and said, "Meet my partner, James." I don't know. But I do believe that every person my mother and step-mother came out to, every time they insisted that we are a normal family, every time I said "my Mom's a lesbian - so what?" that made a difference too. It is not the difference of heroics, or hubris, or single actors. It is the difference of small things, and it was all the difference in the world to me.
When I came out as bisexual in college, I experienced difficulty and challenge, but the overwhelming support of a community, and nothing like what it must have been for my own mother at my age. She, after all, lived in a society where she could literally not know that she was gay, because being gay was so alien and unacceptable that she, like many people of her generation, married a man. I, thankfully, never had to live in that society - and yet she's only 22 years older than I am.
This was more than just that people did, as Brian put, the best worst thing. This was people doing the *RIGHT* thing, and transforming society to make it far better than it was before, and quite rapidly, too. And because I've seen this, I believe it possible. It is not possible to stop all the effects of climate change. It is not possible to do it without pain and discomfort - there was pain and discomfort in the change of society around gays and lesbians. It is not possible for me personally to change the world by myself, except in the tiny and incremental ways that ordinary people do by doing, to the absolute hilt, all the ordinary things they are capable of doing.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
And the international wrong.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
-W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939)
William Cline's recent study on the implications of climate change for agriculture provides further evidence, just in case there was any real doubt, that climate change represents one of the greatest acts of human evil in history. Without intention, but without caring enough to consider and assess the consequences of their actions, the wealthiest, best educated, most priveleged, luckiest people on earth are going to kill millions, perhaps billions of the poorest, most desperate people on earth by their actions. We are going to commit an act of murder that exceeds anything ever accomplished by the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin or any of the great "villains" of history. We are, of course, still denying moral responsibility, or any connection to the bad guys.
And while we do it, we're going to sit around and debate whether it is "fair" for us to have to give up our appliances, our car rides and our plane trips to visit family. Because, after all, such discussions show our virtue. They show that we're very seriously willing to actually begin to consider not killing these people...we're just not ready to actually stop *doing* it. Give us time, we say...give us time. Soon, I'm sure, we'll stop, but if we stopped now, it would be hard for us. We'd lose our jobs, our economy would slow down, we'd miss our families. And of course, these are real hardships. And it isn't fair. It is merely more fair for us than for people paying a higher price, who have never derived any benefit from it.
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, people with families rather like yours live desperately on the margins, playing the odds so that they might eat, knowing, of course, that if the wheel lands on black (as it increasingly does because of our habits) they and their families and children will die.
In Subsaharan Africa, which has the highest birthrates in the world, the population will grow and food growing capacity will fall. So people who already eat minimal diets will see more of their babies die in infancy, watch more children succumb to illness our own kids would shake off, see more people suffer and die before their time. All so we can have our cars and decide how much meat we want to eat in the name of personal choice.
We want to believe ourselves charitable and kind. We want to believe ourselves just and honorable. And we try to be. But we seem unable to overcome the enormous disconnect between people who are dying because of our actions, people we are killing, because we haven't found a good way out of our way of life, and ourselves. I am not sure how we should bridge this gap, only that we must.
Over the last 150 years, the rich world has engaged in a massive transfer of wealth from the "have-nots" to the "haves." We have plundered the natural resources of the Global South, and continue to do so. And now that we have most of what we want from them, we will simply destroy those resources, and the lives that depend on them. We will turn their forests to desert, their food producing lands to wasteland.
Were these people who lived in our towns and our nation, we would be horrified. But somehow, we're not. We say we believe these people are real like us, but we do not live our lives that way. We choose not to live our lives that way. We act as though the deaths we are responsible for are secondary, and as though those who remind us of them are being needlessly unkind at mentioning that our actions cause the death of innocent people. After all, we need support, help, accomodation, kindness in making our transitions from plastic to cloth. Yes, people are dying in these poorer parts of the world, but it is cruel to mention it, because it might make well-intentioned people feel bad.
And thus we talk about more and more complex ways of "fixing" the problem. Here, we trumpet, is how we can reduce household energy use by 70% - it just involves the production of a few thousand more pounds of greenhouse gasses per household...each. Here, we are told, is the way we can keep our cars on the road without any inconvenience to ourselves...and reduce greenhouse emissions. Here is our plan for allowing us to keep our houses warm and toasty and machines doing our dishes while we reduce greenhouse gasses - because, of course, inconvenience to ourselves is unthinkable. And while we pretend we will accomplish these things, we have more than 150 old style coal plants in plans or production in the US. Each one will produce the electricity to run our computers and washing machines, to give us those glorious conveniences that allow us the time to read blogs and dress nicely. And people who have had no breakfast and no lunch will give their weeping children grass to eat, until the grass all turns brown and dies.
Whenever I write these posts, I'm told I should keep things positive, that I sound too angry, that people need to be gently reassured, since they are doing the best they can. And maybe that's true, that I'm the wrong messenger, because I do get angry - at myself as much as anyone else. I still have a car, although I drive it vastly less. There are lives on my hands. And I do not wish to be the kind of person who has preventable, eminently unnecessary deaths on my hands.
But I'm not totally sure that the warm cuddly narrative of "we're all doing our very best job, and we should take our time and do it gradually" is sufficient. What for the people who cannot wait for us, whose lives hang in the balance NOW - for the people who will die tomorrow because of today's greenhouse gas emissions. Do they get a voice, a vote? Does their fear and anger even count? Do we hope that somewhere, the starving people will say, "Well, you tried. You bought some offsets and used the cloth bag. That was good enough." How would you feel, were it your life, your child's life?
Tonight begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Repentence, when we remember our dead and ask forgiveness for our collective sins. We beat our breasts, literally, and name the sins that have been spread among our community. On Yom Kippur, there is no escape from the notion that you are responsible for your actions. On Yom Kippur, there is no pretending that the dead do not follow us home and haunt our lives. On Yom Kippur, all the sins of one's community and fellow Jews belong to us, personally - we expiate, to the extent we can, the sins of others as well as our own.
The rich world has a great number of sins to right. The first step, we believe, to making your sins right is to undo the harm that you have done, or compensate those who you have harmed. But we also believe you cannot make amends to the dead - the dead are dead, and no forgiveness is possible.
The only thing we can do is to cease making more dead. The only thing we can do is to stop killing. The only thing we can do is to recognize that this cannot be a question of comfortable accomodation, that while we can warmly congratulate ourselves on the steps we take, we must always be driven and prodded forward- further and faster -by the reality that lives as valuable as our own are on the line. We must do what generations of humans have tried, and often failed (but occasionally succeeded) at doing - treating others as we would be treated, doing to others nothing that is hateful to us.
And we must stop seeking the perfect technology, the 50K solution, the magic bullet. Instead, we must, as Auden says, love one another, or die.
Monday, September 17, 2007
As our homeschool focuses on "how we get ready for winter" we're splitting wood and canning tomatoes, replenishing our supplies of basics like soybeans and popcorn, digging potatoes and onions and picking apples by the bushel at our local orchard. Mom and Dad both knit when we're sitting quietly, and 3 1/2 year old Isaiah has started his first scarf and brought in his first pumpkin. The older boys take (heavily supervised) turns with the axe.
Now some of this is the weather. If you live in cool places, there's something about shaking off the lethargy of summer and beginning the transition to winter. Some of it is necessity - our heavily local diet means that if we don't preserve food, we'll have a very boring selection of foods all winter.
Some of it, of course, is worry. It was less than totally cheering today to open my inbox and see that there was a run on a major, first world bank. I admit, that's not something I've seen in my lifetime:
http://news.independent.co.uk/business/comment/article2964436.ece. I don't think there's a lot of doubt that the recession so widely predicted is going to happen. The question is how hard, and how fast, and how our own situation will play out. Untenured faculty and writers aren't exactly raking in the dough, and the less I have to buy in tough times, the better.
But most of it doesn't have anything to do with that at all - it has to do with the restoration of our connection to agricultural cycles. Most Americans have lived most or all their life in a society where thinking ahead to the future is not much required, but that was not true through most of human history. The reality is that for most of human history, life was cyclical, not immediate. You didn't just eat seasonally, you lived seasonally. So in autumn, one was thinking not just of curried root vegetable soup tomorrow, but of what we would eat in the springtime, before the first crops began to come in. In May, one was thinking of next winter's meals. And for northern folk, the whole of the world worked around one reality "winter is coming." On some level, each season, from the spring planting to summer's haying and canning to autumn's harvesting was preparation for the space in between, for the dormant, quiet time in the middle.
A friend of mine who works at a historical reenactment museum says she hears almost daily "you left your beans too long..." or "those beets have gotten to big..." She observes that even those who clearly garden often don't realize what is required to feed yourself through a winter without bananas and broccoli from Chile. Those beets have to be large to last, the beans are drying to be eaten that way in soup, and a percentage of all the crops must be left on the vine to provide seed for the next year. But we're not in the habit of thinking in those terms, when so much is so readily available to us.
Right now, one of my jobs is to figure out where my spring crops will go - I have to plant the new garlic soon, and figure out which beds will get wood ashes over the winter and which won't, because they'll have tomatoes in them. So even now, as it gets cold and I bring in the cabbages, half my mind is in the springtime, and on next fall's harvest. The turkeys go to the butcher next week, and the space is already reserved for the spring turkeys, and perhaps more geese. The barn is rebuilt for the milk goats I plan to add, and if we want to get them this fall, we must get the fence in the ground before it freezes, or we'll wait until spring... It is an endless cycle.
I have wondered for some time if one of the reasons we as a society don't seem to be able to look far ahead to a future that isn't immediately visible is because we've gotten out of the habit of thinking further ahead than tonight's dinner. I can't prove it, of course, but I occasionally suspect that if we could just grasp again the habit of cyclical thinking, perhaps we might be able to see a little further on the horizon.
This of course, is merely speculation, the speculation of a squirrel in pursuit of her own nuts.
The first goal is to wait as long as possible to heat the house at all. Now my house is divided into two parts - a well insulated newer addition (small) and a large, old drafty farmhouse (big). But even in the drafty farmhouse, we haven't felt any need for the heat these last few days. Yes, it is quite chilly in the am, but with daytime temps in the 50s or higher and sun striking the house, we can count on warming things up during the day, opening the windows when the outside air is warm enough, and sealing the air in when it gets chilly. We simply dress warmly and cuddle up together - it is actually quite pleasant. We play "heater chicken" all fall, and try and see if we can go longer this year than last year. The goal is to reduce the heating season from Nov. 1 to April 1 - we usually end up fudging on one end or another, but we try to get closer each year.
We also don't heat the bedrooms. The temps here in the hills of upstate NY have dropped to minus 30 degrees a few years ago, and routinely get to minus 20, but we've never heated our bedrooms. Ambient heat from the stoves and household drift upstairs through a couple of vents in the floor, and our bedrooms have been reinsulated so that even at their coldest, the temps are in the high 40s. We dress the children for bed in double layers - warm long johns covered with footed fleece pajamas (Lands End makes these up to size 14 kids and Big Feet Pajamas makes these in adult sizes, if you care - my crazy-tall 7 year old son is now almost ready for the smallest adult size), and have plenty of warm blankets. When we had young babies, they slept in the warmest room in the house (never dropped below 50), in the same outfits plus sleeper blankets. Even an infant over 10lbs (the weight at which they can maintain their own body temperature) can sleep in a cool room, and in fact, rooms in the low sixties or below have been found to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Our goal is to use the oil heat (mix of forced air and radiant floor) as little as possible and to use as little wood as possible. We do this by mostly living in the well insulated apartment during the winter, except when we have guests, keeping the heat low (50 (lower when the woodstove is going), 55 when we have guests), and by dressing appropriately. That means layers, long johns or tights under pants or skirts, t shirts under turtlenecks, under sweaters. In the early fall, after acclimating to summer, even 60 feels quite chilly. After a winter of shovelling snow and hauling water jugs to the poultry, 55 inside feels pleasantly toasty. The key is to acclimate.
We are in the process of reinsulating the older part of the house but this is an expensive proposition, so we've chosen cheap ways of dealing with this, including heavy curtains (you can make your own out of blankets or pretty quilts, or buy insulated curtains - we have a mix of both - there's a great article here on window quilts: http://www.manytracks.com/Homesteading/winquilt.htm). We also have used free bubble wrap from packages on windows, and I've heard of people stapling the bubble wrap into wooden frames so it can be reused year after year.
If your walls are leaky, consider "tapestries" - they were the classic insulation of the past. Either make quilts or hang blankets. If you are cold at night, create an enclosed space that can be heated by your bodies - a four poster bed was not a mere decoration - the top and curtains meant that your body heated the space to a cozy warmth and kept the heat in.
Keep blankets around the house for when you sit, and a shawl is not a mere nicety, but a truly useful thing. Keep spares for guests, and perhaps extra warm slippers and a few sweaters to share. Drink hot beverages - my kids think a cup of herbal tea under a blanket with Mom while we read stories is a huge treat. Even a guest who isn't used to the low-heat house will find themselves comfortable when offered a lap blanket, a warm sweater and a cup of hot chai.
Insulation doesn't have to be expensive, if you do it a bit at a time. Replace old windows when you can, fill in cracks and otherwise, keep the house comparatively tight, while still allowing for good ventilation. But mostly, it is easier in many ways to acclimate and insulate yourself than to keep your house perfectly warm. A nightcap on your head, or a hat in the house will keep a good bit of your body heat in.
Most of us will find that we can tolerate a lot more cold than we've become accustomed to - it will take time and practice, but it is well within the realm of possibility. If we keep our houses heated to 70 or more, we'll never allow our bodies to acclimate fully, and thus, we'll never really appreciate how warm and cozy a fire in the stove can be, even in a cool house, as long as you are busy and working or playing.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
I was building a dream.
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow
Or guns to bear.
I was always there.
Right on the job.
They used to tell me
I was building a dream.
With peace and glory ahead.
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?
Once I built a railroad
I made it run
Made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad
Now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?
- Gorney and Harburg "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
One of the most interesting aspects of editing my own older writings on peak oil for my book is how often I find myself change "may" or "could be" or "has been predicted" to "is." That is, it is striking even to me how rapidly we have moved from the realm of prediction to observed phenomena. The habit of thinking in terms of anticipation rather than reality is a hard one to break - after a seeming endless divining of signs and portents and wondering if you are crazy or not, it is strange to suddenly realize, "Oh, we're here in the beginnings of the new world." It shakes me sometimes, and I sometimes wonder if I'm the only one.
That was one of the most striking revelations I had when reading Naomi Klein's wise essay in this month's _Harpers_, "Disaster Capitalism." (The original article, at Harpers, is behind a paywall, and this is somewhat different than the 2005 article of a similar title written in The Nation and available for free - it is really worth reading the article in full, and probably better to read the book from which it is adapted _The Shock Doctrine_) Klein, without a full analysis of the energy implications, has grasped the basic economic reality - that our next "bubble" will be/is the scavenging of wealth from the ordinary poor people (most of us) by the comparatively fortunate (mostly corporations), as we privatize the cleaning up of the messes we've made and pass their costs out upon the rest of us. In fact, one could describe the massive growth in much of the housing industry as an early version of disaster capitalism, offering a fantasy of security to the poor who were bound to lose their security and homes. Bottom feeding is the new black, I guess. As those who can afford it (or who in desperation can secure credit when they can't afford it) pay privately to fix the consequences of the terrible things we've put in motion, the rest of us will be stuck.
Klein quotes, among other figures, the observation that it would cost 1.5 *trillion* dollars in five just to get America's basic engineering infrastructure up to speed - just to keep the bridges from falling down, the sewers from backing up. Since that's a bit less than we intend to spend in Iraq, according to Joseph Steigletz, do any of us really believe that our heavily leveraged economy is going to allow us to spend trillions to fix up the existing infrastructure, much less to engage in the vastly more expensive project of adapting that infrastructure to a low energy, renewable dependent future?
That's why the gentlemen over at The Oil Drum who reply to every thread with "But all we have to do is...." and then offer some lengthy proposal about electrified rail, 500 new nuclear plants, wind farms everywhere or covering up Arizona with solar panels, so amuse me. And it isn't that I don't think that we'll ever do any of those things. Yes, we will almost certainly build new nuclear plants, wind farms and lay some new rail track. But what we won't be having is a (successful) Manhattan project for renewable energy, or any universal system that allows all of us to spend the next 35 years comfortably adapting our lives to better houses, a renewably powered grid and electrically powered cars. Demonstration projects will be built, some states and communities will adapt more than others, we'll do some piece work in infrastructure, but ultimately, the money isn't there. Bottom feeding is never going to be as profitable as our previous economic mobilizers, simply because it depends on eternally extracting tinier and tinier sums from more and more desperate people. As there are fewer wealthy, the folks who now offer hurricane evacuation on luxury cruises will find fewer customers. So not only will we have a security apartheid, but also a shrinking class of those who can afford it.
Now my own particular take on peak oil is very simple. Energy and money are powerfully linked. Less available energy and higher costs for it mean less money. A few people will get rich on this. A vastly larger number will get poor - and indeed, have been getting poor, as real wealth has fallen steadily since shortly after American oil peaked in the 1970s. This trend is likely to accellerate, and its consequences is this - Iraq may well be the last giant public boondoggle of America, unless ethanol outlives it. That is, by the time we extract ourselves from Iraq, and see the full consequences of it, by the time we realize that we just blew the last chance we had to rebuild New Orleans or provide universal health care, we'll realize that there simply isn't enough money left for all the big stuff we need to do.
In order for us to have a life anything like the one we're living right now in 20 years, we would have to do the following:
1. Rebuild the grid, and replace existing plants with new one, a project estimated at several trillion dollars.
2. Devote 2% of our GDP annually to the remediation of climate change - minimum. This does not include the costs of responding to disasters because we've let things go too far.
3. Reinsulate and retrofit 90 million dwellings for minimal heating and cooling needs, at an estimated cost of 20-50K per home.
4. Reorder and build a local agriculture infrastructure and build transport and delivery mechanisms for food.
5. Engage in public transport building and the adaptation of our whole economy to more local societies. Bring millions of families that can no longer afford to fly to one another together.
Shall I go on? Because this is merely the beginning. The projects are so enormous, and the combined effects of so many of our foolishnesses coming home to roost so vast that while we *could* do any one or two of these things, we probably won't even do that. What, instead, we will do is manage in bits and pieces, and then not manage when we can't. We've seen in New Orleans and with our crumbling infrastructure that we can no longer actually keep up with fixing and maintaining, recreating and rebuilding what we have let go. All of the things, as Christians say in prayer, what we have done and what we have left undone are starting to tumble apart, and we cannot afford to mend them.
The reality is that when we covertly acknowledged we could no longer maintain the basic infrastructure of industrial society, when we implicitly acknowledged that we would tolerate the war to keep the fossil fuels going, when we explicitly said "the American way of life is non-negotiable" we accepted our reality - we're not going to fix the problem, even if we could have. We're racing towards a wall, and not only are we not slowing down, we're gunning the motor by doing things like expanding ethanol production and sending the next generation's hope against malnutrition down the river, and letting the terms of the political discussion be shaped by whether or not to tighten fuel efficiency, rather than how fast we can get the cars off the road. As George Monbiot has observed, we have chosen the path of appearing to do things while not doing them, and we have thus sealed part of our future.
Any major infrastructure projects will come out of the tax dollars of increasingly poor and desperate people - or out of the corporate coffers of the people who prey on them, who will be absolutely certain to ensure that anyone who *doesn't* have the cash to pay doesn't benefit. The simple fact that we can't afford to rebuild a major American city, or keep the bridges up should point out to us that the notion of preserving a public good of any sort has passed entirely out of the culture.If you retain hope that you or your kids will still be living the same basic kind of life, only with more renewable energy and maybe a nicer bike that you ride more often, I would abandon it now. It is true that you may be one of the fortunate whose corporate pensions were invested in growth industries like private militias and bringing bottled water to the drought stricken, but do you want to bet on it? I know my own personal bet has always been this - that I will be like most people - poor. And most of us, like the young man in "Brother can you spare a dime" will be shocked that we, the middle class who were once the subject of a great deal of attention to our plight, will cease to be recognized. "They called me Al. / It was Al all the time. / Why don't you remember?/ I'm your pal. /Say buddy, can you spare a dime?" We have already explicitly ceased to recognize people from the class who serve in the military, work on farms, and otherwise do the basic labor we depend on, and increasingly, they will cease to recognize us.
Now I imagine that for some people, perhaps many, this post seems remarkably bleak. I think a majority of even those who are convinced about peak oil and climate change think that we've still got time. And in a sense, we do - the slow grind is on, but it won't hit everyone at once. The problem is in betting that you will be one of the fortunate who gets hit later, rather than sooner. But the notion that the crisis is happening now, that we really are at the end of things, and the beginning of them, is a frightening one.
But there's an upside. At the end of his analysis of the problem of complexity in _The Collapse of Complex Societies_, Joseph Tainter includes a very brief explanation of why "undevelopment" that is, voluntary regression of society to lower levels of consumption and complexity is bound to failure. He argues,
"Here is the reasons why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological." (Tainter, 214).
Now Tainter's central argument is that complexity, and the diminishing returns of maintaining it, is what drives societies towards a crisis point, and we can certainly see diminishing returns in our own society. The very fact that bottom feeding and cleaning up after ultimately economically destructive events like war and disaster is being seen as growth industry points out that we truly have no place left to go economically. Having built a tower to the moon that has fallen short, we are now picking up the bottom items, pulling them out one by one, and using them to lengthen the tower, giving us the illusion we get where we are going without actually falling over. But as anyone old enough to have seen a Wiley Coyote cartoon knows, at some point, you look down and see the absence of any solid base.
Why should this be even remotely refreshing? Because Tainter is right - we probably won't ever stop the growth machine voluntarily - we *can't* - but once things fall apart, we have no choice but to start again. And as difficult as that will be, and as little as I relish it, I believe my children's future is more secure in a world where can't afford to burn as much fossil fuel as we like, and where we have to leave some resources in the ground for future generations. That may seem a small hope, but it is actually a vast one. I do not propose that peak oil will make us better people - hardly. But since we appear entirely unable to put the brakes on ourselves, I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that better now than later.
And the reality is this - we actually need very few fossil fuels. There is little question that human beings pee out enough nitrogen to keep us fed, along with judicious use of land. Our basic needs - and I mean very basic ones - are for food, shelter, water. We can get along with considerably less of everything than we presently use by changing our diets, making do with our existing housing, learning to live comfortably where we are, using water much more carefully. The vast majority of what we use fossil fuels for are comfort and convenience, and we may find that without them, we do surprisingly well. There is no doubt that we can manage this better or worse, that our life with minimal resource use could be bleak and horrible, or comparatively graceful, and it is this distinction that concerns me - not "how do we keep the trains running on time and the job market for lit professors healthy" - because while I might prefer a life of trains running and Shakespeareans, we all have a solid bit of historical evidence for that fact that neither is essential to human life; but "how do we keep lifespans long, infant mortality low, literacy high and community ties strong?" And the best possible answer I can come up with right now is that the first step to making those things happen is to acknowledge all the other things that we are never going to do.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Vegeculture has several advantages over grain culture. For example, you don't have to till up a lot of ground at once, since these crops are adapted to "patch" culture. They often can be stored in the ground and dug up as needed, and can tolerate being integrated with perennial tree plantings. The tradition of planting in patches and leaving grown fallow to restore fertility in West Africa translated well in slave garden in the US and Caribbean islands because such gardens often had to be hidden. Often slave and later share-croppers had only hilly or otherwise difficult to use land, which is best served by being kept in perennial or semi-perennial root crops. Because slaves and tenant farmers had very little time to work their land, they needed high yielding crops that could provide nutrition and caloric density together.
In her essay "They have Saturdays and Sundays to Feed Themselves: Slave Gardens in the Caribbean," Lydia Pulsipher observes that there is considerable evidence that islands that included many slave gardens didn't suffer the classic malnutrition of slavery. In fact, the available data on the history of produce sales by slaves (who sold their surpluses to both white and black customers), suggests that white people were considerably healthier on islands that had large numbers of slave gardens. The implication seems to be that the starchy, vegetable poor diet of Europeans on these islands was significantly inferior to the vegetable rich, nutrient rich diet of the slaves, and the influence of slave gardens improved the European seed diet enormously (probably to the less-than-total delight of the slaves themselves).
As I was reading these various sources, tracked back from Westmacott's fascinating book, I also read The Community Solution's latest bulletin, which among other things observes that only 2.5% of American agricultural land produces vegetables, fruits and nuts. The other 97.5% is largely devoted to the production of grains and seeds for things like feeding livestock, feeding cars (ethanol and biodiesel) and transformation into processed food.
What struck me about this is how small an impact we would on the industrial agricultural juggernaut even if we were able to replace every single vegetable, fruit and nut we eat with locally, sustainably produced produce. That is, if we are looking to home production to help end the tragic power of industrial food production with its heavy greenhouse gas outputs, water consumption and soil degradation, we need to start thinking in terms of producing more of our total calories at home. Growing our lettuce and tomatoes is a good start, but the next step is a return to home production of calorically dense foods, and to that, I am more and more convinced that vegeculture is part of the answer.
Now the majority of that 97.5% of agricultural land is producing feed for meat, so obviously, and as I've said before, we simply must stop eating feedlot animal products - period, no negotiation. All of us need to eat less meat altogether, but also must, if we continue to eat meat at all, choose better sources of grassfed local or home produced protein.
Now most of us, in our city lots and suburban yards, will not be raising a lot of animal products. That doesn't mean we can't grow some. But if we are to get more of our calories from our own yards and from local farmers wherever we are, we need to choose high-nutrition, calorically dense, satisfying foods. Right now, as Michael Pollan has documented, Americans eat mostly corn, either as meat or highly processed foods. And it is hurting us. Although our lifespans recently inched up to 78, that's still several years behind other rich nations, while costing us twice as much. Quality of life in later years has fallen steadily over the last few years.
We simply have to change our diets, and eat more whole foods. We also have no choice but to live off a much smaller amount of agricultural land. In a 1994 paper, David Pimmental and Mario Giampietro document the falling amount of available arable land in the US per person http://www.dieoff.org/page40.htm. Between desertification, the transformation of agricultural lands to housing and a rising population, by 2050, there will be less than half as much arable land available to feed each person in the US - a total of 0.6 acres, as opposed to the 1994 1.8 rate. The current American diet requires 1.2 acres. We cannot hope to continue deriving many of our calories from "shadow" acres in other nations, in part because it would be unethical, and in part because it is likely that China, which is right on the cusp of being unable to feed itself, will be able to outbid us. So while we may have the luxury of a considerable amount of land per person, our children will not. It would be unconscionable, however, for us not to begin to transition to living on a fair share.
Which means, if our children are to eat, we have to change the current American diet. One way we can do this by adding land to our stock of "arable" lands - that is, we can start growing food on lawns, in public parks and anywhere else we can fit it. There are millions of acres of lawn available to be transformed into food producing land, much of it in housing built on the planet's best farmlands. And if there is to be enough food to go around, those gardens will have to include our staple crops, not just the things we grow for pleasure and flavoring.
And our farms will have to grow more calorically dense foods, suited to our particular climates. I've written about this before, of course, but we simply can't go around with all Americans eating the same basic diet of french fries and soda. Not only do our diets have to become more nutritious, and not only do they have to be produced more locally, but they have to reflect local conditions, and produce as much food as possible in as small a space as possible. We have, for the last 60 years, concentrated on making land more efficient in the sense of reducing the amount of labor needed to produce food on it. It is now deeply urgent that we change our notion of efficiency, and think in terms of total calories, fiber and fertility per acre, investing more human energy, more attention to soil humus and more care into our choice of crops. We cannot simply go on growing continuous corn, and washing our remaining soil down into the Mississippi.
Traditional West African gardeners, growing food in hot, dry areas of comparatively low fertility emphasized perennial vegetable crops as their base food crops, as have many Latin American farmers. Indeed, despite their tendency to rely on grain crops, Northern Europe made much of its agricultural prosperity on the turnip, and later, the potato. Large scale root cultivation enabled the milk culture of northern Europe, and there is archaeological evidence that in areas where turnips were cultivated, people grew taller and healthier than in areas where wheat and barley were emphasized. Root crops were higher yielding than grain crops, particularly when grown on a small scale. Hot weather root crops like sweet potatoes were tremendously drought tolerant and could be grown on ground of low fertility.
A few centuries later, John Jeavons at Ecology Action would pioneer an intensively grown diet for a human being based largely on calorie and nutrient dense root crops. In his book _One Circle_ David Duhon documents his life on a diet that could average less than 700 square feet, and heavily based on parsnips, potatoes and sweet potatoes. By eating these in place of grains, one could get virtually all the nutrition needed, keep full and healthy and feed four people on a single yard.
Meanwhile in Cuba, as grain imports fell, Cubans were raising more vegetables, and replacing rice and beans with sweet potatoes. In Russia, when no one could figure out why the Russian people weren't starving to death, as wheat imports ceased, beets and potatoes provided the primary food sources to keep people alive.
While most of us would rather live on a diet slightly more varied than the one that Duhon describes in _One Circle_ what is remarkable about all of these agricultural systems is that they represent a high yielding, extremely nutritious, good tasting diet that can be produced easily by ordinary people on comparatively small pieces of land using hand tools. Hand production of potatoes, for example, outyielded corn well into the industrial age. Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains.
But this involves changing our diets to emphasize not seeds, but roots. That doesn't mean we won't eat bread or rice or other grains. But it means that most of us need to think in terms of the root crops we can easily grow as our household staples. And the perfect time to begin such a dietary adaptation is in the autumn, when roots are at their finest. Now is the time to think in terms of beets and tomatoes and carrots (where I am) and in terms of sweet potatoes and taro in hot places. By integrating vegetable proteins or very small quantities of meat with these roots, we can have sufficient protein, excellent nutrition, comparatively low levels of fat and a great deal of food satisfaction. These foods taste good.
In the spring, or in the winter for those in warm climates, we can begin to grow them as well. Of course, in most places, potatoes, onions and other roots are cheap and plentiful - it seems so much more sensible to focus in on high value vegetables like tomatoes and lettuces. But some potatoes on the ground, or sweet potatoes in the backyard not only are a source of security, they represent the beginnings of something important - an old new kind of agriculture, suited to a world in which fossil fuels must be replaced by human power, and old priorities must be replaced by the notion of a fair share.
I'll write more later this week about what such a diet actually looks like, and I invite people here to share their favorite root crop recipes.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
The Book of Life, Sarah and the Fairy Godmother: Stories and Prayers for the End of Industrial Society
In Judaism, we tell the story that at the beginning of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), G-d decides the fate of all human beings in the next year. They are, metaphorically speaking, "inscribed" into the book of life or death. Now there are several variants of this story. In some, those who do not fall in the category of obviously wicked or obviously good (that is, most of us) are not inscribed at all until Yom Kippur, ten days after. That is, there are ten days left for us to prove our worth, and to repent for our sins. Other versions suggest that G-d makes a provisional decision, but may change her mind in the interim, if we truly alter our ways during the ten days of repentence. In either case, as the story goes, our future hangs by a thread, by the things we do now to make ourselves worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life.
I know that the New Year is coming, but somehow, it always sneaks up on me. First it is summer and there's all the time in the world, and then, in a blink, the high holidays are upon us, and I am unready to face my future. I have not prayed or prepared or thought as far as I ought to - even though I knew it was coming. I have not been the person I ought to - I have left things undone and done things I shouldn't have, and failed to make amends. And thus, I am grateful that G-d understands us so well, that grace is offered for those, like me, who miss the obvious, who somehow convince ourselves that there is always more time, even when there isn't.
I would suggest that this is in many ways, an apt metaphor for the place we find ourselves in right now, facing peak oil and climate change. The world is becoming something very different, something that we have made it and yet, that we are almost wholly unprepared for. We are entering an era in which the cheap energy we've relied upon for our wealth and comfort is moving out of our reach. We are in danger of transforming our planet in such a way that billions of us may die. The New Year, the new era, is upon us. And we are not ready. We are desperately pleading for more time, an easier transition - and the inexorable reality, which does not negotiate, confronts us. But perhaps, just perhaps, there's a little grace left for us. We can at least hope that we still have time to repent, make good, repair.
In some senses, our fate is sealed and scheduled. We do not have the range of choices any of us would like. All of us would like to make gradual cutbacks and a smooth adjustment to the coming hard times. But that's not an option any more. The new data about ice loss in the arctic suggests we are hitting one of the major tipping points in climate change *NOW.* Data coming in on world food supplies suggests that the confrontation between population and resources is coming very soon. We are probably already past our oil peak, and all sources of reliable energy may well peak within two decades. Our choices are few and hard, and those who will pay most and longest are those who had the least to do with causing the problems. If we are to fix things, it will involve a great deal of self-sacrifice and difficulty.
And the environment may not give grace periods. If we were to make draconian energy cuts, along the lines of the ones that the Riot for Austerity advocates across the board, we'd still have no better than a 2 in 3 shot of avoiding a tipping point - and the odds are probably worse now than when they were calculated almost two years ago. James Hansen has said that any solution that doesn't include the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere will probably fail.
It might be helpful to imagine ourselves in another story - Sleeping Beauty. The child is blessed by each of her fairy godmothers, until the one who was forgotten, the embodiment of the things we have left undone, returns and curses the innocent child to pay the price for the adults' neglect. There remains only the last fairy godmother, who cannot undo the curse - she can only soften it a little. We too are the last and weakest of the fairy godmothers, unable to undo all that we and those before us have undone. But that does not mean that we cannot soften the curse a little. We, like the fairy godmother, can make a small recompense for what we failed to do before.
We cannot undo everything. We cannot go back 30 years and make better choices. We can, at best, only soften the blow a little, take the burden that will fall upon our children and grandchildren, and carry a little of it ourselves. We will give them a warmer world, fewer resources, fewer choices. But perhaps it need not be a disaster. We can recognize the harm we've caused, and resolve to shoulder as much of that burden as each of us can possibly bear, but we cannot make it go completely away.
We could weep for that. We could and rightly do mourn the possibilities we no longer have. We could, even knowing that it is just, weep for what we have, mostly unknowing, inflicted upon ourselves and our children.
Or (or perhaps "And"), we can stop weeping, and shoulder our burdens, and face the truth and find satisfaction in honor and courage. What if the stories were real, and one's fate could be known? What should we do, if we knew that this year, this month, were our very last, that we had been inscribed for death in the coming year? Would it still be worth repenting? The parents of Sleeping Beauty know that no matter how long it is delayed, someday, death will come for their daugter - perhaps the day after she awakens from her hundred year sleep. Is it still worth softening the curse? Would any parent ever answer "no?"
It would still be worth repairing the evil one had done, even if one was to die, because in doing so, you transform both the history of your life and the nature of your death. It would still, to the parents of the sleeping child, be worth it to give her one more day, for them all to have one more day. And it will still be worth it to us to make the tremendous sacrifices necessary even if we cannot fix everything - because we will have done what we could, what we should. Even if we cannot perfectly mend the future for our own children, we will have done what we can for someone else's, and given one less grief to the world.
It isn't that there isn't every reason to weep, but there are greater reasons to get to work, to face the future square on, and with all the courage we can muster. Because even if our magic is weak, and our future foreordained, we can still change the way that future falls upon us. We can face it with honor or dishonor, courage or moral cowardice, concern for the future, or eyes looking only back to what we've lost. The facts may not change, but the stories we tell about them, the way we understand them, the way we understand ourselves, that we have power over. And we may still be able to change the facts as well. If we are willing, if we have courage, we might still make a fairly graceful descent. If we are willing, if we have courage, we might still preserve what is most needed for the future. If we were willing to give up enough, to act, as David Orr has put it, as though we truly love our children.
At Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeda, the classic story of faith. I admit it is a tale that fills me with great ambivalence, because I certainly have no such faith, and I'm not sure I can admire Abraham for having it. Abraham, who argues with G-d in other contexts, takes up the knife here. I've never fully been able to come to terms with Abraham, even through the lens of Kierkegaard's Panegyric. Nor, as is often the case, I think in religious life, am I all that happy with G-d.
I have often wondered what the story would look like if Sarah, rather than Abraham, had been asked by G-d to sacrifice her only son. I enjoy constructing Biblical sounding variants of "Are you out of your freakin' omnipotent mind?!?!?" I cannot imagine a scenario in which Sarah and her son would walk willingly together to the mountain. That is, of course, perhaps why Abraham has the job, but I have often wondered whether it would truly be a poorer Judaism if a different sacrifice were as hallowed. Perhaps this illuminates some essential limitation in me, or perhaps in Jewish mothers.
We learn from the commentaries that Sarah dies from this event - and at least one of the tales that is told of her death is that she dies at the moment that Abraham raises the knife, whether from fear or knowledge, or perhaps, as seems appropriate, because she, at a distance, inserts her own life in front of the blade that is set to take Isaac. It is never described as such, but whether or not her sacrifice was required, in some sense, Sarah does what many parents would literally choose - to lay their bodies in the place of the children they are asked to sacrifice. I cannot imagine any conversation between the woman who had the courage to laugh at G-d, and G-d that does not include the request that the sacrifice G-d asks be made of her, not her child. Because, to the extent that we parents have the courage, that is the way of things. It is our job to value our own lives less than the lives of our children.
It is our job to find a way to return to living our lives, as David Orr says, as though we truly love our children. It is our job to find the way that Sarah found. We are not told why she died at that moment. There is no indication that her sacrifice made any difference in the outcome. Perhaps she thought it might. Perhaps she did not expect to die, merely wished for it. Perhaps she knew it would not matter, that G-d would not alter the outcome.
When Sarah was barren, she sent her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham. G-d had told Abraham his descents would be as many as the stars above, but Sarah was old and the ways of women had ceased for her. So she tried to formulate a response to bring about the future that her husband and G-d seemed to want. It is not hard to believe that Sarah, who laughed when G-d told her he could make her pregnant, believes, because she has done it (with admittedly mixed results) that she is powerful enough to transform the future, to insert herself into what is foreordained. It is not impossible to imagine that Sarah died at the moment Abraham raised the knife because she hoped, she tried to replace his sacrifice with hers. Perhaps it didn't matter whether she believed she could alter what was ordained by G-d. It mattered that she knew that she had no choice but to try and alter it.
We are not asked anything so great. For us, the requirements are fairly simple. That we recognize that other lives are at stake, in danger of sacrifice. That we do what is necessary to preserve them. That we make radical and difficult changes very rapidly, so that others may live. That we live our lives as though we love others, and value their lives more than our own comfort. That we, like Sarah, believe that we are powerful, and that our actions can alter what seems to be ordained, at that we live our lives as though our actions matter - even if sometimes it seems they don't, that they aren't enough, or that the future is not in our hands.
And doing so, we can hope for something better. That we, all of us, regardless of faith or origin, will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Not merely for this year, or the next or the one after, but for 100 years, and 1000, and 10,000 years. That we might be better, in the next year, that we might overcome some of our selfishness, that we might remember to do what we must do, and to preserve what we must preserve. That we might do well, and honorably, and deserve to honored by future generations.
May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may you do and be well in the coming year.
L'shana Tovah Tikatevu.
If you don't knit, and you read this for advice about how to address peak oil and climate change, you may be thinking "couldn't she have picked something even more boring to write about?" But here's one of the details the apocalyptic websites rarely include - disasters are actually really boring. During the instant that bad things are happening there's likely to be all sorts of excitement, screaming and running about, but in the aftermath of a disaster, particularly the sort that are likely in a slow, grinding loss of stability and wealth like the one we're facing, there's an awful lot of time spent standing around. Unemployment comes. You don't have a car any more and can't go out to the movies or to get a beer. No more recreational shopping. You turn the lights way down to save money at night, so you can't read. Your sister in law and her three kids moved in and there's nowhere to go to escape. What do you do? That's the beauty of fiber arts. They are portable, cheap (or they can be - you can blow a lot of money if you want), and accessible. They provide something to do with your hands in a dark place, or a light one, it can be complex or relaxing. Whittling and other small woodworking projects work too, but fiber arts have the advantage of using only minimally pointy things, and being permissable in places like court and planes where knives get you in trouble. Seriously, this is the way the world ends - not with a bang but with a "Mooooommm...I'm bored!" Might as well have something useful to do with your hands.
First let's talk books and patterns. I have my favorites, of course, and lots of them are just filled with pretty things. And you really could get pretty well along with a few downloaded patterns from the internet But if I had to narrow it down, I'd probably include in my knitting library the following books:
1. A sock book. Ok, you don't need a sock book. One book, with one basic sock pattern will get you through your whole life. On the other hand, socks wear out fast, and you are likely to have to knit a lot of them. It will be much less boring if you have a few different patterns, and also faster if you have a variety of options for different yarn weights. You could really have almost any such book, but one of my favorite basic books is Knit Socks!. I like it because it includes a wide variety of patterns, very clear, very basic descriptions and a wide variety of yarn weights. I also love Nancy Bush's _Folk Socks_. If you don't like double pointed needles, Cat Bourdieu's _Socks Soar on Two Circular Needles_ is way better than its stupid title, and the patterns are quite nice.
2. A mitten/glove book. If you live in a cold climate (and why would you knit mittens if you didn't), Robin Hansen's classic _Fox and Geese and Fences_ has recently been reissued, I'm told. This is, IMHO, the best mitten book for *practical,* *warm* mittens in the world. If it will keep a Maine fisherman warm while hauling lines, it will keep your fingers warm. You can still find used copies around as well - mine is starting to fall apart from too much love.
3. Or, if you wanted one book to cover all the little objects, including socks, mittens and gloves, I'd go with _Homespun, Handknit_ by Linda Ligon. This is a useful book for those making their own, but also has some lovely and practical patterns, some that are intriguing and challenging, and enough basics to keep even new knitters busy.
4. Now you absolutely don't need any books at all to make scarves, baby blankets, afghans, washcloths, towels, etc... except a knitting stitch pattern book (actually, you don't need even that, but you might go mad with boredom making 100 stockinette washcloths). You can make 'em up on your own - they are flat rectangles, afterall. I wish I owned Barbara Walker's multiple knitting stitch treasuries, but instead I have the decent _Big Book of Knitting Stitch Patterns_. Since you absolutely, positively do not need such a book, I'm being selfish in recommending Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne's _Mason Dixon Knitting_, which has a lot of patterns for cool things you can do with rectangles - felted boxes, washrags, towels, afghans. The thing is, the stuff is so cool and the book is so much fun that I'm recommending it anyway. Need is subjective here.
5. If you live somewhere cold, you need a sweater book. My favorite, because of its overwhelming applicability, is Priscilla Gibson-Robson and Deborah Robson's _Knitting in the Old Way_, which shows you how to adapt almost any sweater structure to any size or shape, using any yarn or needles. I also like _The Wonderful Wallaby_ a pattern booklet from Cottage Creations. Wallaby sweaters are just about the coziest, cutest hooded sweaters on the planet. I've seen a number of them, know many people who knit them, have one on needles (for one of my sons) and am going to have to knit one for myself. It is, as the above, infinitely adaptable, and practical.
6. If you are going to knit for babies, I think it is helpful to have one book of ideas for doing so. I like Melanie Falick and Kristin Nicholas's _Knitting for Baby_ quite a bit, but almost anything will do. The idea is "cute ideas" to keep you entertained. The other plus of this book is that it has a giant felted tote bag pattern designed to be a diaper bag, but also useful for shopping. I can't really justify suggesting it, but there's also a geat _Farmer's Market Tote_ pattern in Falick's _Weekend Knitting_ that I've made twice now. But you don't need that book. Or any of these books. What I want them for is inspiration - of course I can knit a rectangle, but sometimes I like to see how things look.
Now what if you don't spin, or knit, or crochet or weave? How do you learn? My first choice would be from a person - find a neighbor, a friend or a family member and ask them. Or call up a senior center and ask if anyone there could teach knitting or crocheting. Or join a local stitch and bitch group and ask for help. But what if that isn't possible?
Honestly, I think the next best option is to use the internet, and some of the excellent video and image options out there. Unfortunately, I can't link you to any, because I have achingly slow dialup, and don't watch them myself. Do some searching, and maybe some folks who read this will have some suggestions. But these are all things best taught visually.
Last would be books - the books are sometimes useful as a reference point anyway, but I don't think learning these things from books is easy. But if you are trying to figure this stuff out from descriptions, the best ones are books and directions written for children. For example, Melanie Falick's _Kids Knitting_ and the other books in the series _Kids Crochet_ and _Kids Weaving_ are all terrific - very clear, good pictures, with instructions for making low cost materials like homemade needles and a pvc loom.
Homemade tools are great - dowels make simple knitting needles, and my homemade spindle works as well as the much fancier versions I've tried out. I've not made a loom of any sort yet, although I'd like to, so I can't discuss the merits thereof. There are also a ton of used tools out there - from cheap auctions of used knitting needles and crochet hooks to various source of pricier tools like looms and spinning wheels.
A spinning wheel is not a project for anyone but the most ambitious home woodworker, though. My personal preference (and others may have other ideas on this subject and be more right than I), if you are buying a non-local spinning wheel (in my case, non-local means "old or used," since I don't know of anyone manufacturing wheels here), I like Kromski, because all the pieces are metal or wooden. That means if it breaks, it is likely I'll be able to fix it.
One thing we might want to consider is going back to the walking wheel in some cases. While I doubt that we'll ever entirely lose the industrial manufacture of cloth, it may be that local and artisanal yarns and clothing come back into fashion, and my own observation and discussion with historical reenactors is that the walking wheel is both quicker than the seated wheel once you are skilled, and also in some ways easier on your body, since you are not sitting all day. There's a 19th century original in good condition at an antique store near me that I can't possibly afford, but I visit it and pine occasionally. There's also the charka, which has its merits for spinning cotton, one of them being its potential cheapness and reproduceability.
Ok, now yarn, fleece, etc.... Stocking up for the end of the world? Planning to keep a supply coming through all sorts of hard times? My first choice would be to explore your local fleece options. Some of my favorite yarn every comes from my friend Amy at Stone Fence Farm, who had some beautiful natural colored grey yarn spun up. I made mittens for every male I knew from them, and I've got to see if she's got any left in her stash. She lives about 10 miles from me, so this is really and truly local yarn. There's a woman nearby who dyes her own using mill ends from a spinnery an hour away. There are plenty of local shepherds around, and I'm fantasizing about my own stash of Romney or Icelandic fleece, from my own pastures.
Another option - buy old sweaters and unravel and reuse them. Our local goodwill will sell woolen sweaters quite cheaply. I've done this once so far, but the yarn I got was lovely once it was soaked and hung up to dry for a bit - just like new.
There are yarns out there that serve good causes - yarn is one of those light, dry things that isn't too awful to ship around the world, and some of the coops make a real difference in poor places. I'm fond of Malabrigo www.handpaintedyarn.com, Manos del Uruguay (which wears like Iron) and Peacefleece. I also like MangoMoon's recycled sari yarn, although it is too pricey for me to do much with. There are probably other good sources as well, as well as sources of organically raised yarn. I'm not familiar enough with all that's out there to provide a complete sourcing, and I knit mostly with wool, so I honestly don't know what is out there in terms of organic, sustainably grown cotton, politically correct alpaca, hemp, bamboo or soy. Someone else may have good advice - I know someone recently included in the comments that she was looking into making bamboo fiber - perhaps we'll get to hear more about that.
Someone once suggested that the day will come, and not too long out, when we'll carefully treasure our acrylic and polyester yarns, because they will be rare and valuable materials. Right now we're not there yet - there are good acrylics out there, but they aren't cheaper than most natural materials, and IMHO, their utility is pretty limited. They won't keep you as warm as wool, or as cool as cotton, linen or hemp. Their major advantage is that they go through the dryer - which we shouldn't be using anyway. Still, when I see sacks of the nicer cheap acrylics at yardsales, I occasionally buy them and donate them to various knitting charities. I also keep a few skeins around for teaching people to knit.
Even better than stocking up may be to make your own. Even apartment dwellers can keep an angora bunny or two (which will become many if you aren't careful), or a dog with spinnable fur. Those of us with more land can choose from a dazzling array of sheep, camelids, goats and other critters to supply us with fleece. My personal interest is in animals that need are adapted to cold, wet climates like mine, and that are adapted for thriftiness. The Icelandic sheep I've seen fit the bill, although I may end up with Romneys simply because they also suit my region and are vastly less expensive.
Seriously, folks the apocalypse, such as it will be (and I don't really believe in apocalyptic scenarios of any sort) will be boring. Bring something to do. Bring your knitting.