Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Marathon

I'm back after a bit of time off, including 24 hours each way in transit. I've learned a whole bunch of new things, met some wonderful people, got some new ideas and gotten myself properly excited and energized. Besides being totally sleep deprived, behind on the latest news and desperately short on clean underwear, I'm delighted to be home. Six days apart from Eric and the boys was a long, long, long time - too long.

The most fascinating thing about the conference was the people, as always. Last year I called it "human google" and I think that's a good way to describe it. If you bring 240 smart, engaged, active, passionate people together, you are bound to learn an enormous amount. I spent a week apart from the internet, which was lovely, and I didn't even notice the absence of internet technologies, because I had only to ask a question, and if the person I was talking to didn't know, they could find someone who did. I learned a great deal about public health, the economic value of humanure, agricultural educational policy, old soil research and a million other things.

My favorite presentation by far was Larry Halpern's description of the low energy home he and his wife Gail have created. They've done this without spending very much money (at most a few thousand dollars), but have invested a lot of energy, thought and care into living a low, low, low energy lifestyle. Low as in *36* watts of electricity for the month of October this year. I was lucky enough to see the house, and it was fascinating - they live in one of the most economically depressed areas of the US, in a small city, and are making the most of what they have, practicing "Use What You Have" creative thinking to get the most out of the minimum.

I won't post a full review here - I have no doubt others will, and I won't duplicate their efforts. There were a number of wonderful presentations, workshops and discussion, and right now I'm still processing things in my head. I'll post more about the conference as I go along over the next few weeks.

What did strike me was that when I had my little "enough" moment two weeks ago, I apparently wasn't alone. That is, a number of the people dealing with these issues seem to be struggling a little with their own confrontation with reality. Richard Heinberg looked (and I hope he'll forgive me for this) like death warmed over, which he attributed to far too much travel and bad news. Peter Bane spoke in a discussion panel about panicking at the thought of getting in a car and doing that much harm - even to do good. Several participants told me that they feel compelled to pick up the pace, to move faster, as events appear to be, while others spoke of feeling overwhelmed, or both simultaneously.

As I was talking to the wonderful Faith Morgan about this (Faith has the remarkable gift of always putting her finger right on the most essential point), I realized that to some degree, my own brief period of burn-out came from the simple fact that I've been treating this as a race to the finish, rather than an exercise in endurance.

That is, for so long there has been the hope that if we just worked fast enough and hard enough we could avoid the worst consequences of our inaction. And even though I know better, some small part of my mind had hoped that if I just worked hard enough now, I could fix what was broken, and come to a moment at which things are "ok" again. On every conscious level, I knew that was wrong, but denial is a happy space in your head, and nothing ever brought it home like looking at my fellow activists and seeing how hard the confrontation with the present was for them. I thought it was just me. In fact, this may actually be the first time I was ever in touch with the cultural zeitgeist ;-).

Back when I was caring for Eric's elderly grandparents, I used to stop and remind myself that caretaking was a marathon, not a sprint - that there was no question that I had to do things quickly, but with attention to conserving my own resources. So I'm going to try and take that approach to peak oil and climate change myself, despite my normal "damn the torpedos" relationship to the world.

I quoted T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland" in my own talk, quoting the voice that overrides in the end all the others voice of the Game of Chess section of that poem, asserting "Hurry Up Please, Its Time." And I spoke about how I keep hearing that voice in my own head. It is time to hurry up. There is no doubt whatsoever that we have very little time left to get our acts together. But it is also useful to remember what kind of race you are running before you lace up your shoes and set a pace.

Time to get back to work,


Monday, October 22, 2007

Guest Post by No Impact Man

Note: I'm still on Vacation, but I wanted to pass this important alert on to everyone from New York State. We need to act on this one. And let me add my thanks to Colin's!!

Your chance to get diesel fumes out of kids lungs (but you have to act NOW!)

By dialing two phone numbers, we can help save a bunch of kids from getting asthma. Not hopefully. Not maybe. But definitely. I'll tell you what to do in a minute, but first some background from an OpEd by Errol Louis of the
Daily News:

"The latest chapter in New York City's saga of garbage politics - and political garbage - is being written on the West Side of Manhattan, where a group of allegedly liberal pols are, once again, bargaining away the health and very lives of children in Harlem, the South Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

I wonder how these politicians sleep at night.

Right now, Manhattan generates 40% of the city's garbage. Nearly every last scrap of it - all the rotting food, dirty diapers, restaurant waste and nonrecyclable office trash - gets trucked outside the borough to other neighborhoods for sorting, packing and shipping to landfills.
This results in heavy concentrations of diesel-truck traffic, rodent infestations and smog in a handful of neighborhoods like the South Bronx - which, not surprisingly, have sky-high levels of asthma."

The good news is that we can help the asthma kids. In 2006, New York City passed a new
Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) that depends on new, state-of-the-art, environmentally-safe transfer stations based in the boroughs where the trash is generated, transportation of trash by barge and rail instead of trucks, and the elimination of truck-dependent clusters of transfer stations in the outer boroughs.

These features taken together will eliminate 5.5 million truck miles traveled in New York City each year, improving air quality and quality of life for City residents. Think of the diesel fumes the kids won't have to breathe! The of the eliminated greenhouse gases! The plan is supported by New York's major environmental organizations and by the New York Times.

But the entire plan faces catastrophe this week thanks to not-in-my-backyard politics in the New York State Assembly. Members Deborah Glick, Richard Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal, representing constituents on the west side of Manhattan, don't want the plan's associated recycling facility on the Gansevoort Penninsula just south of 14th Street or the transfer station at 59th Street (you can read more about the issues here and here). The assembly members are trying to ensure that the requisite legislation never gets to the Assembly floor.

Needless to say, I'm upset. I'm pissed. I live very near the Gansevoort Peninsula, and inside the relevant Assembly district, but all the same, my representative is choosing to try to screw up the plan. Well, I don't want little kids in the South Bronx and elsewhere paying the price for trash produced by me and my neighbors, especially when the price is not being able to breathe.

But we can fix the problem. I am hoping that those of you who are New York State residents will join me in making a couple of phone calls to let the State Assembly know that we want NYC's solid waste plan enacted as it stands. The calls that need to be made are, first, to our own Assembly members (you can search for yours by zip-code here) and, second, to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (his numbers are 212 312 1420 and 518 455 3791).

Please ask your assembly member to let Speaker Silver know that they support the "forthcoming amendment to the Hudson River Park Act (HRPA) that will allow for the construction of a Manhattan recyclables acceptance facility off of the Gansevoort peninsula" and that they want it brought to a vote. Then call Speaker Silver and say the same thing.

I'm told that 20 phone calls to an Assembly member's office is a virtual landslide. But they need to be made today (Monday) or tomorrow. This is a case where we can really make a difference. So please help, and let me know you did by leaving a comment on the blog or emailing me privately. Thanks for your help!!!

PS This time I really would appreciate it if you could email this post, link it on your blog, Digg it, StumbleIt or otherwise promote it using the buttons below. Thanks.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ok, No More Posts, But...

I really am not going to post again for two weeks - until November 1. But I can't leave the blog on the previous two posts - too freakin' depressing to come home to, if nothing else.

So, in the interest in departing in a better mood, I leave you with 10 things to be happy about.

1. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on...fuck that. I am happy that I live in a Sound of Music free zone.

2. We have to have achieved "peak stupid" right now, so it is all downhill from here. Right?

3. Pie. Banana Cream. Peach. Apple-Cranberry. Pear-Ginger. Strawberry. Pumpkin...

4. Chippy the Wonder Chipmunk and My lord Vader only have a year left to go until the mercy of term limits ends their Evil Reign of Terror.

5. We are no where near peak sheep. In fact, we need to make maximum use of marginal land for grazing. Which means lots and lots of sock yarn, beyond my dreams of wooly avarice.

6. The food is better when you live sustainably. The sex is better when you live sustainably. The two can be integrated in fascinating ways.

7. My faux-artsy photo series "1000 Decaying Hummers with Nudes" becomes easier to photograph as the price of oil rises.

8. My property contains enough burdock root and burdock burrs to feed approximately half the human population while continually reseeding. This used to be a design flaw. Now it is a feature.

9. If society collapses rapidly enough, I may never have to break out my "why you may not have a playstation" speech.

10. My life is better, richer, happier, more loving, more joyous, healthier since I took up this way of life. If I can just convince 2 billion more people of this basic truth, we're all set. I'm on it ;-).

Ok, off for real now.


The Big Melt

A few years a go, a friend of mine in late pregnancy went to her routine midwife appointment three weeks before her due date. The midwife checked her cervix and discovered, to everyone's shock, that my friend was seven centimeters dilated (which, if you aren't familiar with childbirth, means you are in quite a late stage of labor). My friend, who hadn't felt a thing (yes, I hated her for this ;-)), on being told that she was to be sent to the birthing center to deliver said, "No, I can't, we aren't ready to have the baby. I'll come back on Monday." The midwife laughed, and set to explaining that this wasn't optional, that the baby was coming - and soon. But my friend, who couldn't quite get over the unreality she felt after believing she had plenty of time, and her panic that things weren't ready for the baby, said, "Well, how about I come back tomorrow morning - we have to go shopping." The midwife gently bundled my protesting friend into her car, rode with her and her husband to the birthing center, and 29 minutes later, delivered my friend, who claims she still didn't quite believe it, of a beautiful little girl.

I was reminded of my friend's birth story while I was reading Carbon Equity's report
The Big Melt yesterday. If you are a sensitive sort, I strongly recommend reading it while clutching a teddy bear and having your back massaged. I wish I had - frankly, I just want to hang on to my kids as hard as I can right now. I can't include a direct link because my computer doesn't get along with Adobe Acrobat, but Rob Hopkins over at Transition Culture has a direct link). As you may intuit from his subtly negative thread title, it is not happy news. Among other important points, it observes that the famed "2 degree" threshold is a political, rather than scientific construct, and that climate sensitivity may well be double what we expected.

I know, I know, I'm supposed to be off vacationing. But this is important news, and I think we need to read and talk about this, even if we'd rather not. And I know I'd rather not - but that's not really an excuse. The fact is, we'd all rather that we had more time, less reason, less urgency. But some biological realities simply are - there is no place to negotiate. We're having the baby, everything's changing, and the only choices left are "car or birthing center." We may want more time and better options, but those aren't the choices anymore.

But within the limited choices we have real and meaningful options. That is, we can transition to a lower energy society quite rapidly, helping people obtain the tools and skills to live in one, or we can go to a lower energy society by necessity. We can cut our emissions dramatically and perhaps live with a 2 meter sea level rise, rather than 5 meter rise. We can cut our emissions and still have hope of growing food in the Southeast, even if it is too late for much of the Southwest. These are not small choices, if only we can look closely enough to see beyond what we wish our choices were, to what they really are.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Have We Hit the Critical Climate Tipping Point?

Remember I was going to not blog for two and a half weeks - wow, that time passed quickly. It seemed more like 2 1/2 days. I did say it was a compulsion. But I'm still on vacation, I swear

I do, however, feel obligated to discuss the question of whether or not irrevocable climate change is upon us, because of the debunking RealClimate gave of Tim Flannery's analysis here:

Now I should say that I take Flannery's analysis far less seriously than the article I posted a few days ago, that includes the climate model by Weaver and U Victoria here: But it is also worth observing that Flannery is not the first person to come to the conclusion that we have already passed the tipping point or will do so in the next few years. While RealClimate is right to point out the relevant excluded distinctions, I'm inclined to believe that Flannery and Weaver are both right.

Why? Because Flannery's analysis relies on data that the IPCC did not have at the time that its report was compiled. It is not the case that Flannery's analysis simply excludes negative factors and includes positive ones - his analysis derives in part from the fact that emissions rates are rising far faster than the IPCC ever predicted - than anyone ever predicted. And that factor is enormously significant, and one of the reasons I think RealClimate's analysis is insufficient. It may turn out that Flannery is wrong, when all the reports are made available, but their flat statement that this is wrong is, I think, far too quick - we are dealing with subjective data analyses, and I don't think anyone knows that for certain. As one of the commentators on the RealClimate site observes, the negative factors tend to dissipate quickly, while the positive factors tend to linger in the atmosphere, continuing to warm the planet longer than the negatives cool it.

Moreover, when you reduce the positive (heating) emissions, you also reduce the compensatory (negative) emissions, and get more total warming. This is the factor (essentially left out of the IPCC analysis) of Global Dimming, which potentially doubles or triples the heat factor of our emissions. It is Global Dimming that has, most likely, prevented us from reaching 2 degrees already. Flannery's analysis follows the analysis of other major studies, including ones at the Hadley Center and the British Panel on climate change - it is by no means as clear to me as it seems to be to the RealClimate folks that we have an absolute consensus that we should include all the negative factors - or rather, that we fully understand what an absolute total of 450 ppm greenhouse gases, *with* the negative factors will do.

Remember, the 450-550 number is not something for which there is a uniform scientific consensus. At best, the lower number give us a 2 out of 3 shot of not hitting the critical 2 degree scenario. There is no scientific consensus that 550 ppm is acceptable - that is a political number, not a scientific one.

But I personally don't take Flannery's or Weaver's analysis as the final word, but as tools in the aggregate data that is coming out that demonstrate that climate change is occurring far faster and harder than anyone ever thought. Their analysis seems, in general, to better follow all the other bits of data that are flowing in so rapidly. The reality is that if you follow the IPCC's lines of analysis, the arctic ice shouldn't be melting at the present rate. If you follow their analysis, the seas shouldn't have started releasing methane. If you follow their analysis the Greenland ice sheet shouldn't be showing signs of early destabilization. All of these things shouldn't happen for between 40 and 100 years - but, in fact, they are happening now.

Whatever your analysis of the data as a whole, it seems clear that the IPCC figures are simply inadequate to the reality of climate change. This is not a slur on the IPCC scientists - the world as a whole, scientist and layperson alike, are struggling to catch up with our own impact. Whether Flannery is correct or not, the reality is that we have to deal with some really inconvenient truths of our own. They are:

1. Climate Change is striking us more immediately than we ever expected. We are probably closer to a tipping point, if we are not there, than anyone knows.

2. We are flying by the seat of our pants here, and no one analyst really knows what's going on - the most exact tools we have right now are not scientific, but ethical - that is, we cannot risk killing billions of people simply to serve our own convenience.

3. In a sense it doesn't really matter - we're not right now doing much of anything. The odds are good that the rich world will continue its practices for some time.

4. But, of course it does matter enormously. It isn't just the case that at 2 degrees, we're committed and there's nothing we can do. The effects of 450 ppm are very different than 600 or 700ppm. We have to stop making personal and industrial emissions. And that means changing - fast and hard.

Sharon, going back on vacation for real this time...probably

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blog On Vacation

Even though I suspected it was coming, I admit, I'm pretty bummed about the dual confirmation that there's not much we can do about the tipping points in climate change. I've decided (and we'll see whether I actually do manage not to write anything for a few weeks - it is something of a compulsion sometimes) to take a couple of weeks off from the blog to work on my books, take a breather from the news, and otherwise get my head in order. So I'll be back on November 1.

For those of you who are around Ohio, or who might be there for the occasion, I'll be at the Community Solutions Conference in Yellow Springs Ohio from Friday 10/26 to Sunday 10/28. I'm speaking Saturday on food, diet and agriculture, sitting on a panel about how to adapt, and doing a workshop with some other farmers on agriculture and food production. Because I'm training it, I'll be offline from Wed 10/24 to Wed 10/31. Before that, I'm around, just not posting new material. I came from CS last year inspired and energized - hopefully that will be true this time as well.

If you are just dying for something to read, or an excuse to slack off at work, I offer some older articles on various subjects, relevant and irrelevant.

Here's one of my analyses on how peak oil may play out:

Here's a creative writing piece on what my life might look like five years from now:

Thinking about chickens? My sister and her husband just got their first ones. Here's a bit about chickens:

This subject will get more in-depth analysis in _A Nation of Farmers_ but I think is still enormously important:

This is just silly, but I had fun writing it:

I just kind of like this piece:

Right now I'm not so wild about my writing job, either:


Even when I'm in a lousy mood, I still think this is true, and maybe the most true thing I've ever been able to say:

See you in two weeks!



Sunday, October 14, 2007

100% Emissions Reduction

One of the most important studies I've seen, coming out of a major climate change lab whose work has been used in the IPCC and other models was released yesterday. Here's the good news - the Riot for Austerity with its 90% reductions is broadly on track. Here's the bad news - it's goals are 10% too low. The only way of avoiding the critical 2 degree temperature rise is to reduce all industrial emissions worldwide by 100%. Let's repeat that sentence. We're going to see massive warming, flooding, the loss of the polar bears, etc... unless we reduce emissions by 100%.

Here's the study:

Another analysis, Tim Flannery's, confirms this here:

The important points:

"Andrew Weaver and colleagues at the University of Victoria in Canada say this means going well beyond the reduction of industrial emissions discussed in international negotiations.

Weaver's team used a computer model to determine how much emissions must be limited in order to avoid exceeding a 2°C increase. The model is an established tool for analysing future climate change and was used in studies cited in the IPCC's reports on climate change.

They modelled the reduction of industrial emissions below 2006 levels by between 20% and 100% by 2050. Only when emissions were entirely eliminated did the temperature increase remain below 2°C.

A 100% reduction of emissions saw temperature change stabilise at 1.5°C above the pre-industrial figure. With a 90% reduction by 2050, Weaver's model predicted that temperature change will eventually exceed 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures but then plateau."


"Tim Lenton, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK, agrees that even the most ambitious climate change policies so far proposed by governments may not go far enough. "It is overly simplistic assume we can take emissions down to 50% at 2050 and just hold them there. We already know that that's not going to work," he says.

Even with emissions halved, Lenton says carbon dioxide will continue building up in the atmosphere and temperatures will continue to rise. For temperature change to stabilise, he says industrial carbon emissions must not exceed what can be absorbed by Earth's vegetation, soil and oceans.

At the moment, about half of industrial emissions are absorbed by ocean and land carbon "sinks". But simply cutting emissions by half will not solve the problem, Lenton says, because these sinks also grow and shrink as CO2 emissions change.

"People are easily misled into thinking that 50% by 2050 is all we have to do when in fact have to continue reducing emissions afterwards, all the way down to zero," Lenton says."

Ok, everyone who thinks we can reduce emissions by 100% raise your hand. And remember no burping or farting - ever again.

Now periodically I get yelled at for daring to criticize people who don't want to make "extreme changes" for pressuring them to go further than the IPCC and national governments want to. This is considered mean. It turns out, though, that I've actually been way too warm and fuzzy, because 90% is by no means enough. This post:, which I mostly mention because I think everyone who hasn't should read Auden's amazing poem was a good example of my meanness, but I've seen nothing to indicate it isn't the truth.

Is this shocking news? Not to me it isn't. This information merely confirms the aggregate data that I've been looking at. The IPCC report was wildly outdated by the time it was published, in part simply because the new science is coming in so fast, and in part because it is a political body, affected by governments. The IPCC report, for example based its assessments on linear arctic ice melt, which we now know to be wrong. It based its assessments on political expedience, which we know has nothing to do with science. It based its assessments on outer numbers, unsupported by science. And it based its assessments on the notion that our emissions would rise at a rate only 1/3 rate between 2000 and 2004. The IPCC was wrong, vastly, horribly, grievously wrong.

I don't particularly begrudge the IPCC or Al Gore their Nobel Prizes - I honestly give them credit for what they did. But the truth is that their work (and perhaps anyone's work on this matter - certainly my own) was too little, too late. We are committed. The report offers fairly faint hope - they call for all industrialized nations to rapidly reduce their emissions by 90%, while finding some realistic measure for carbon capture. The likelihood of this happening is about the same as the likelihood that we'll all be reducing our emissions to 0 - very, very tiny. That's not to say that some parts of this should not be attempted - as Mark Lynas describes in his forthcoming book _Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet_, there's a big difference between saying "we can't stop catastrophic warming" and "we can't stop it, but we can limit it." The ecological changes we make now may be the difference between a mere disaster and something out the Christian Bible, apocalypse section.

You know, here's the part where I get to validate my own readings of the data and my role as prophet. If I had something worth selling, here's where I'd say "I was absolutely right about this, and if you'd like to see more of my predictions, stock market advice and ideas, buy this booklet." The thing is, it isn't very much fun to be right on this one. Because the really bad news is this - if by some miracle we can get the political will to reduce our emissions enough to avoid turning into Venus, we're still going to spend the next decades cleaning up an increasing number of disasters. We're still going to visit the circles of Hell with no Virgil to guide us. I guess I should be excited I was right. Instead, all I can see is that I should have moved up the dates in my essay on what my children's future under climate change will look like: . Writing this piece made me cry, and my family felt it was overy negative - but all the data coming in suggests that in fact, I may have underestimated. Damn.

This should not be taken, however, to mean that there is no hope. The fact that we are in for a very, very rough ride does not mean that we also cannot make a large difference in just how rough and how awful things are for ourselves and our descendents. Getting carbon levels down fast is going to have to be a worldwide priority - and yesterday.

And here's the other thing I'm going to be proved right about. I am going to be proved right shortly in the fact that we don't have the time, money or resources to burn to do an enormous build out of renewables. Because such build-outs come with enormous energy costs - and they would be fueled by fossil emissions - by coal and artificial nitrogen fertilizers, by oil and natural gas. And we can't afford to do that. Today's Energy Bulletin has a post by Richard Heinberg offering up Eco-Keynsianism as a possible outcome for the post-peak, climate change future. Here's Heinberg's always-interesting commentary:, and Susan George's work on Eco-Keynsianism, which I think is very interesting, if not perhaps, right I would note, just as a sidebar that Bart over at EB includes Amartya Sen's claim that there has never been a famine in a democracy with a free press without noting that many people have disputed this claim, including Vandana Shiva, who notes that regions of India have undergone famine in a democracy with a free media. That's not to say that I don't agree with Bart's point about democracy - I absolutely do.

While I think some elements of EcoKeynsianism will be applied, I think there are powerful reasons why we should not be imagining a New Deal/WWII escape from this problem. I've articulated some of them here: We're running up against our own walls - the fact is that even if we could all agree to make a 90% emissions reduction, it wouldn't look like what we've been talking about - it wouldn't be so much a thing we do as things we stop doing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not imagining that the world suddenly switches, overnight, to an agrarian society, but I think the likelihood that we'll be following the ecojobs and doing the big build out is pretty small. We don't have the resources and we don't have the luxury of time or of burning coal and oil to help us manufacture enough rigid foam insulation and windmills to make the society as a whole look familiar to us.

Is that the end of the world then? No, I don't think so. Mixed in with the bad news is some good news - not enough, but some. And the good news is this - there is an alternative to the public economy and to borrowing money to put people to work on ecological projects. There is an alternative to present-day industrial society. And the answers are related - they involve a return to small scale "intermediate" technologies that are powered by human beings, animals, wood, manure, etc... They involve a world where many more people are engaged with the basics of food and shelter, caring for those who need care and tending land.

The good news is that the informal economy is significantly more robust in many ways than the formal economy, and doesn't require massive inputs of fossil fuels. It was the informal economy that kept people in the Soviet Union and Cuba alive during their social crisis - the gardens they grew, the things they bartered and sold, the local economies they produced. We have an informal economy too, but we don't rely on it very much - or at least, most middle class Americans don't. Many of my neighbors do - they cut a little firewood, sell some pumpkins around Halloween, barter some labor, do a little handyman work in the winter, babysit a neighbor's kids - all under the table. And they tend to make a passable living doing so, enough to pay the taxes, buy beer and supplement the deer and wild turkey they hunt with food.

Now there are problems in imagining 300 million Americans and 6.7 billion human beings all relying primarily on the informal economy and such informal methods of feeding their families - except that 3/4 of us actually *do* rely on that. That is, according to Teodor Shanin, the founder of Peasant Economics, only 1/4 of the world's total economy exists in the formal sector, with formally paid, documented work. The rest of us do other things. 2 billion people live by subsistence farming. Another billion survives entirely by selling off-book to their neighbors.

As Gene Logsdon puts when he writes in The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening, about "gardening to save us from the economy,"

"It seems to me that the part of 'the economy' that depends on biological processes, not industrial processes - especially food, but also renewable resources such as cotton and wool and other natural fiberts for clothing, and wood for construction, furniture and fuel - is particularly vulnerable to the volatile and chaotic conditions of the industrial manufacturing marketplace. An ear of corn grows at its own sweet pace, no matter hwo the interest rates are manipulated. Much more biological production than is now the case should be protected from this market vulnerability, and the most practical way to do so is by having more gardens. A garden economy would provide society with a much safer 'social security' than pension money sunk into volatile stock and bond markets...maybe this sub-economy could offset the money madness enough to avert a real catastrophe..." (32)

Is this any easy society to create? Of course not. It will be hard to keep our houses, it will require enormous advocacy. It will be hard to adapt our suburban and urban homes with comparatively little investment to serve us in hard times. It will be hard. It will undoubtably be disastrous for some of us.

But all of us can begin, just a little now, to put our feet on the comparatively stable ground of the informal economy - one that will never make you rich but might allow you to go on. We can begin adapting our infrastructure right now, using what we have and what we can acquire. We can pay down our mortgages a bit more each month while we've got the money and grow a bigger garden each year. We can start that cottage business and find time to do mending or bake bread and sell it, or tutor local homeschoolers. We can begin the process of creating Amish-style local economies, and teaching others how:

And we can begin to prepare ourselves and our gardens for a changing world, remembering that even though some options are gone to us, we are still the youngest and weakest fair godmothers at the Christening - we cannot take the curse away, but maybe, just maybe, we can soften it a little.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Feeding New York

Well, Al Gore and the IPCC won the nobel prize, something I'm more than a little ambivalent about. On the one hand, they both did an enormous amount to draw attention to climate change, and that's really important. On the other hand, in re: Al Gore, I'm reminded of what Tom Lehrer said when Henry Kissinger was given the nobel peace prize, that it made political satire obsolete. I mean the man was a participant in the Clinton policies that, among other things, allowed half a million kids in Iraq to die from sanctions. But then again, I would have thought "never was a Nazi" was a criteria for Pope, and that's clearly untrue. And obviously the "never was a mass murderer" bar for the Nobel Peace Prize, if it ever existed, is long since broken. Probably my standards are too high.

As for the IPCC, I would tend to say that were I give out Nobel Prizes (which no one has asked me to do yet, for the record, but I'm sure any day now), I would tend to focus on people who actually bring about peace and show moral courage doing it. While some IPCC scientists have shown enormous courage, the committee as a whole has not been able to withstand the pressure of governments not to water down its findings - as hundreds of its own members admit. So yes, I'm glad the IPCC is bringing attention to this issue. I'm glad Al Gore is bringing attention to this issue, and that he is in some sense redeeming his participation in other ills. Heck, if he runs for president and we have to choose between mass murderers, him, the comparatively powerless veep, the current monster or the she-president who could have at least withheld sex (ok, Al could have withheld sex too), I'll probably vote for him. And my fantasy world, the Nobel Peace Prize actually stands for telling the truth and bringing about change. Of course, in my fantasy world, all this new awareness is happening 30 years ago, when it would do a lot more good. Ah well.

But moving on to more interesting news, I was wondering how I could get from the Nobel Prize in climate change to the following. Pat Meadows sent me the report on this fascinating study at Cornell on how much land is needed to feed people. This is a really important study for a couple of reasons. But equally important is the study that came across my desk yesterday, documenting that shipping goods around the planet produces more carbon than flying does: The reality is that relocalization of food and goods is more urgent than ever. We have to start growing and producing more goods and foods locally.

The value of the Cornell study, particularly as it intersects with the UN's work on shipping emissions, is that it brings to our attention the deeply urgent word POLYCULTURE. As we know from the work of Peter Rosset and other researchers, diversified farming is the name of the game to getting the most possible good food out of our land. The revelation that we need farmers to make use of grazing and marginal land in multiple ways shouldn't be news, but it is.

Second, it supports something I've been arguing for a long time - the future will not be vegan. I don't mean that we won't be eating vastly fewer animal products than we do now, but this study demonstrates that animal husbandry is an integral part of maximizing food production per acre. The 0.6 acres required for a largely vegetarian but some animal products diet is just about how much arable land will be available per person in the US by 2050.

Third, it highlights the absolute urgency of getting gardens going. The arable farmland calculations used in the Cornell study do not include home yards, public greenspace, etc... According to this study, the maximum number of people that New York State could feed is about 32% of its current population. Well, we don't have much choice but to raise up those numbers - transportation issues, natural disasters, rising food costs - we need more regional food self-sufficiency, even as this study also indicates our interdependence with other states.

If we put our lawns and yards under intensive cultivation, integrated small scale chicken, rabbit, pigeon and goat raising into our gardens, if we encouraged the growth of small farms of 1/2-5 acres, encouraged polyculture techniques in existing farms, and layered animal agriculture, if we transformed some of our existing marginal and forested land into nut forests providing protein, if we invested our interests into absolutely maximizing our food production, how many people could we feed?

Half, I suspect, at least - maybe many more - on a largely vegetarian diet with small amounts of meat, eggs and milk mostly as flavorings. And that brings up an important point. Half is not everyone. We're always probably going to depend on agricultural areas for some transportation, and stabilizing those relationships is going to be essential - we don't just need ways to transport food, we need ways to keep farmers in the midwest from going out of business in the long term - because the best farmers are the ones who know their land, and are invested in their land. The best farmers want to make a living working the land - they need to be able to do the kind of farming we need, and still make a living. They need not to be pressed by the money into growing biofuels, because it takes time to develop polycultures. That is, we need to expand the CSA model, so that whole regions are directly connected to the people who are growing the food they cannot grow, and are invested in their success. The Japanese term for CSA is "farming with a face" - we not only need to maximize our production, but we need to put a face on the people who we depend on, and integrate their success with ours. Because their failure is certainly ours.

And at the same time, we cannot say "well, because New York may not be able to grow all of its food" it shouldn't absolutely maximize its production. We cannot afford to warm the planet by bringing oranges from Israel to the US, or lettuce from Columbia. We need to get our food (and our goods, but I'll write more about that later) as close to home as possible - which means we need polyculture, diversified *small* farms, experimental agriculture, and every other trick in our collective book.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

We're Going to Need More Pie

The other day I got embroiled on a newsgroup in one of those endless discussions/debates/headbangings about what the best approach to greening the planet is. Of course, all of you know that my defining characteristics are my reasonableness, aversion to confrontation and sensitivity, so my role here was to calm the hot tempers and settle the differences of others, which I do from my sheer love of humanity. I provided a calm and rational perspective that I know helped settle everything right down, because that's just the kind of healing, caring person I am.

Ok, just on the off chance that anyone involved in that group says otherwise, I want ask you upfront, who will you believe - them or me? After all, the people saying I was fanning the flames of this stupid umm...integral argument are nothing more than two or three hundred ordinary voices, where as I am a professional I daily produce hundreds of words that are pulled randomly out of my crafted and honed for maximum effect. Sometimes the words even make sentences. Once in a while even grammatical sentences. These words are read by as many as eight or nine people around the world every single day. So you can certainly imagine that my wisdom should outrank the sworn testimony of several hundred people.

So you'll be proud to know that I, of course, natural leader that I am, did come up with a healing solution, something that we could come together on, a real commitment to change, a possible solution to the profound difficulties wrought upon us by the Great Change that comes sweeping over the (ok, stupid metaphor deleted).. But I did have an idea.

The idea was pie. And my position is that I'm for it. I know this is just the kind of hard-edged, radical position taking that you can expect on this blog, the reason you know you can turn here first to hear opinions that are beholden to no one...except the guy up the road with the cherry trees, who I can't afford to piss off if I want pie. But this kind of risky political statement in favor of pie is just the sort of thing I know you'll wish to support by donating a large portion of your salary to keep me going. Just click on the button below that says "big heaping wads of cash."

I'm in favor of pie. I mean, what could be better than pie? It is commonly associated with good, noble things like motherhood, America, light bondage and domination, clowns and the federal reserve, so how could we not be for pie? In fact, who isn't for pie? Well...I have to tell you the ugly truth. There are powerful anti-pie interests in our government, and people working night and day to restrict your pie access. But we here at Casaubons book (Who is "we" you ask in puzzlement? Well, Sharon has obviously gone off the deep end writing her book, as you can tell from this post, so mostly the voices in her head. But they sometimes wear cool hats, and one of them is named "Leo.") are committed to bringing you the truth about pie access and other equally crucial issues, like socks and beer.

It occurred to me, as I was healing the rift in this newsgroup brought on by unnamed troublemakers not named Sharon, that pie can do a great deal to heal our environmental crisis. For example, today's climate change and peak oil news was particularly awful. There's the coal, the war, the monks in Burma. There's the fact that even if we halved our emissions, global warming will keep going for 600 years . There's the mass extinctions. The fact that one of the few bits of environmental good news, the reforestation of the east is threatened by us: There's the money news. All in all, I think the only possible reaction (other than hysterical weeping) to all this bad news on a cool, grey October afternoon is to put on fuzzy pajamas, bunny slippers and eat half a pie. Or to drink a lot of local beer, I guess. Heck, you could drink beer and eat pie together.

Yes, I know that’s pathological of me, but sometimes a retreat into pathology is rather comforting. I doubt I’m the only person who has ever responded to the bad news about our environment by thinking “apple or pumpkin?” The reality is whether we believe in stockpiling ammo or creating sustainable ecovillages, the need to derive comfort where we can is our common ground. Pie can bring us together. And that unifying power isn’t limited to the peak oil movement – pie can cross religious, cultural and national boundaries. While there may be deep cultural divisions between those who believe that you should make your sweetened orange vegetable pies with sweet potatoes and those who vote for pumpkin, I believe these barriers can be crossed, if only we’ll just take a piece of each with a lot of whipped cream.

Pie can be a powerful political motivator as well. Right now, money tends to be the most powerful tool in politics, but let us not underestimate the influence of pie. Pies in the face are a powerful tool of political resistance in Europe. I’ve heard rumors that Bill Clinton sent the Haitians back because the republicans offered him all the blueberry pies he wanted. Dick Cheney regularly sits around nude, plotting his attacks on Middle Eastern countries while eating entire mince pies. If he gets indigestion, he invades – a reliable source tells me it is as simple as that. This kind of inside information isn’t easy to come by – the author had to send several pies to congressional aides. Fortunately, they are sleep deprived, wired on coffee and morally bankrupt so bribing them with pie is very easy.

But pie is also essentially, deeply democratic. Pie is an essential ingredient in town-meeting style democracy in many New England states, along with baked beans. And pie is about democracy – fundamental pie (and pasties, empanadas, dumplings, wontons and all the other pie relatives) are about stretching high value foods to share with everyone. If you have six apples and ten guests, someone gets screwed, unless you put them between two crusts with some spices and call it pie – everyone gets a piece of sweet apple, everyone gets some crust. Pies are a way of getting maximum enjoyment from high-value foods. Meat, fruit, spices – these things are special. But they can be enjoyed regularly if carefully combined with filling starches. They are about democracy, frugality, comfort and family.

And pies are things that you have to produce either for yourself or in your locality. The truth is that frozen pie crust tastes awful, and that Sara Lee pies taste like corn syrup, which is what they are mostly made from. Real pie. Good pie comes either out of your kitchen or a local bakery or diner where they make it fresh every single day from real ingredients. Pies are part of a whole lifestyle – if you want to eat pie, you have to cook, or you have to have a little Mom and Pop bakery. And those things are democratic too – as opposed to corporatist.

Sure, you say, but if I eat too much pie, I’ll get fat. And lord knows, that’s a real possibility. But here’s the thing. How many of you have ever met a really fat Amishman? I haven’t. And they eat pie more or less constantly, or so my Amish neighbors tell me. Pie can power a human-powered lifestyle in the way that junky processed crap can’t. Certainly the Amish cookbooks I’ve seen are filled with pies. And back when dessert (or breakfast in New England) was routinely pie, people were a lot thinner. One might argue that pie isn’t what makes you fat – it is not living the pie lifestyle. Because the pie lifestyle means picking berries or walking to the bakery. It means eating pie as a treat, and as the place where you put your special festival foods that you don’t have all the time, while most of you meals are basic, beans, rice, greens, vegetables. Instead, our breakfasts are poptarts, which despite a plastic resemblance are not pies at all – because they aren’t actually food. The poptart lifestyle makes you fat, the pie lifestyle makes you thin, or thinner.

Pie makes you thin. It brings about democracy. It brings about agrarian or relocalized societies and economies. It provides comfort, crossing political lines. People talk about oil as the “master resource” but perhaps we need to start reconsidering the power of pie to create a sustainable, human powered economy. Pie-centered societies, ones that provide a chicken in every pot pie, are what we're striving for. We can all consume less, and still have an evenly distributed piece of the pie.

Which is why I must say to you with a heavy heart – we are facing peak pie. Corporate interventions, and the “better than homemade” slogan has resulted in a US population that mostly doesn’t know how to cook anymore. Millions of people think that pumpkin comes from a can. Farmers are still going out of business at an appalling rate. The majority of our pie ingredients are contaminated by pesticides. Our ability to provide for our pie needs is deeply threatened. We are facing the final destruction of the pie lifestyle – and the end of the last remnents of our democracy.

So what can we do about it? How can we fight back for the pie lifestyle, for Mom, Teddy Bears and Apple (or Peach) pie? The only way to deal with this depletion crisis is to start living the pie lifestyle. Bake a pie today from locally grown ingredients. Eat a pie today, and use it to fuel human powered activity – dump your leaf blower and get out a rake, get rid of the power mower and bring out the push mower, lose the chainsaw and get the bucksaw down. Make a pie and give it to a neighbor. Give out the recipe. Get together and make pies for elderly shut ins or the school bake sale or to buy solar lighting for the neighborhood watch. Throw a pie at a warmonger – we’ll have a bake sale to raise your bail. Point to the coal plant builders and the energy wasters and tell people - they are against pie! Start "Pie Eating Veterans for the Truth" and tar polluters and heavy emitters with the scorned label "pie haters." Don't forget to mention that they don't like mothers, babies or kittens either. Have a town meeting and hand out pie. Give out pie at the voting booths, to hungry people in the park, to the shelter and soup kitchen. Try pies from other places, other lands – and send the money you would have spent on poptarts to good causes. When the world seems to suck, eat pie, and use that energy to get back on your feet and fight again.

Fight now, for motherhood, justice and apple pie!


Read This Speech

Van Jones has hit the nail on the head - here's more of the speech than I've quoted below:

"So we live together in these bubbles that touch, and we call that diversity, but we don’t know each other. And when that bubble breaks for just a second and we’re face to face with each other, it’s very, very hard to hear that reality.

But white supremacy, to use the provocative term, will reinterpret that experience for you; and make it not be about your inability to hear, but be about other people’s inability to speak. This is one of the most remarkable things: if you can get this, all doors open. There is the assumption—this is deep, this is deep—there is the assumption that when there’s a breakdown in communication between people of color and white people, that there is an deficiency but that the deficiency is not in white listening, that the deficiency is in black speech. “Why are they so angry?” People start critiquing, and then you find somebody who keeps themselves together just for a little bit and it’s, “Oh that one’s very eloquent, that one’s very articulate.” Right? Always the assumption is that the deficiency lies with the people of color. “Why don’t they care about the environment? What wrong with them, don’t they see the big picture? We’ve been talking at them about this for years? Don’t they see that we have this big beautiful conference, this big beautiful training? Why aren’t they coming? What’s wrong with them? We’ve been outreaching at them for years, I could show you the e-mails I’ve sent outreaching at them. I even make phone calls out reaching at them. What’s wrong with them? Maybe they are just too poor or busy, because certainly there is nothing wrong with our speech!”"


"People are always talking about their comfort zones, you ever heard that expression? “This is outside of my comfort zone.” Grow your goddamn comfort zone then, okay? ‘Cause we are running out of time. My suggestion is, grow the comfort zone.

People say that I am hard core about some of this stuff but I know because I have been to Davos, and I’ve sat with Bill Clinton and I’ve sat with Bill Gates and I’ve sat with Tony Blair and I’ve sat with Nancy Pelosi. I’ve sat with all these people who we think are in charge, and they don’t know what to do. Take that in: they don’t know what to do! You think you’re scared? You think you’re terrified? They have the Pentagon’s intelligence, they have every major corporation’s input; Shell Oil that has done this survey and study around the peak oil problem. You think we’ve got to get on the Internet and say, “Peak oil!” because the system doesn’t know about it? They know, and they don’t know what to do. And they are terrified that if they do anything they’ll loose their positions. So they keep juggling chickens and chainsaws and hope it works out just like most of us everyday at work. That’s real, that’s real.

And so I’m hard on people, I try to tell a few jokes, you know, to make it go down easier, but I’m hard on people. But I will tell you why I am hard on people. This is real ball, this is the last chance, this is it. I’m not telling you that; Tracy’s not telling you that. You go to places like I go, and the Pentagon will tell you that. This is real ball and people, for whatever reason, need sometimes a little encouragement. You walk up to that limit of yourself and you want that limit, ‘cause that wasn’t your limit yesterday and you go Whooo! I made it, now let me start telling everybody else what to do. But the goal is over there and every step hurts and every step is challenging and every step is humbling but every step has to be taken or we’re not going to be here."

A while back I wrote a piece on racism and peak oil, based on some material sent to me by a gentleman who had a lot to say about this. You can read the piece here:

And the response was mixed, as such things always are, but a lot of the response focused on me, on who I was, and on what was often called "guilty white liberal Jewish pcism." And I can understand why people saw it that way - after all, middle class overeducated white chicks from upstate NY talking about racism look like apologetics, and to a degree, I guess they are.

But Harvey Winston wrote to me because he didn't want to take the much nastier shit he'd get for writing it himself. He'd been around the internet enough to know what he would have to eat in order to express himself. He wrote to me because I'd asked what to do. And I sat on my ass for about 2 months with his letter, thinking "someday I'll write about it" and hoping to G-d I wouldn't have to, because what if I said something stupid and what if I wrote for someone else and ended up misrepresenting them and because I was a coward. Eventually, I sort of got over it, and figured out that maybe it was better that I write something, even if it was wrong. And, because I have a big mouth, I wrote it anyway, and probably said a lot of stupid, wrong things.

But a lot of people were much more comfortable reading my piece as about me, rather than the black anger that I got from Harvey Winston's letter - and I guess that's ok, because we're a lot less scared of liberal white women than black men. But I think a lot about how sad it is that the peak oil community is such a hard place that Harvey had to come to me first, because he couldn't say it out loud here, and then his anger got lost because it was filtered through me.]

I'm accused of being too angry a lot. And maybe that's fair - maybe I am. Or maybe I'm too angry because I don't really have a lot of good reasons for anger. But it seems to me that when we fear anger, when we feel like anger of any kind is personalized and scary, we find ourselves talking in the passive voice a lot. That is, we get angriest when we name perpetrators, when we assign responsibility. We like to talk about environmental issues in the passive voice, in ways that mean that no one in particular did this, or is responsible for this. But that's wrong. As Jones says, the things we're trying to undo are in us, and in our heritage - we're fixing the sins of our fathers and our own sins. We don't like to use the active voice, to name names and take responsibility. That's too angry, and more importantly, the anger takes everything out of the passive voice, in which it just happened, and thus, it is no one in particular's fault.

Some people who read my prior essay were particularly angry that I'd named names and accused people like Kunstler and Lundgren of bigotry. And maybe that's fair - peak oil is still a small community, and it is hard to go around smacking each other in the face. I was told there is a solidarity issue here.

And there is, but it isn't with me and Kunstler. We've already got common ground and all the solidarity in the world. We're both white, we're both roughly middle class, we're both writers, both passionate anti-modernists, we live about an hour from one another, we both think the Northeast is the best place to survive peak oil, we're both jerks who say stupid things sometimes, we both think that the word "fuck" can be grammatically used as a comma. He's only 10 billion times more famous than I am, vastly cooler and smarter - if I were really lucky, I'd be related to him. But he'd still be wrong about some of the stuff he says.

The thing I like best about Jones's essay is that he tells the real truth - there's a solidarity issue, and it is mostly between people who don't know how to talk to each other, who are a little afraid of each other, who both want to yell "kwitcher bitchin', it ain't my fault." The thing is, solidarity isn't about really understanding each other, or really liking each other, and I'd I don't think it is about spiritual development either. It is about sucking it up and going to stand next to the least comfortable person in the room, and asking them to sit down with you. It is about, in every sense, growing our comfort zones.

There's a lot of talk about like-mindedness on the subject of peak oil and climate change. But the people we need to talk to, and listen to most of all are the people with wholly different experiences than ourselves. I'm not particularly good at that - knowing this doesn't make it easy. The people who have the most to say about living a low impact life are mostly poor. The people who have the most to say about the effect of climate change on the world so far are mostly people from the Global South. The people who most need to hear about peak oil are devout conservative Christians in churches. The people who most need to confront anger are the people most afraid of anger. The people who need most to sit down together and, not stop being angry or afraid, but at least accept that they are going to look stupid and be angry and afraid are the people least likely to do so. But we have to.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Plan to Limit Foreclosures

In our discussions about foreclosures, nomadism and homelessness (see the comments to my "fertile crescent" post), we've been talking about the problem of the coming foreclosures for agrarian society. I've been arguing that if you can get past the first wave of foreclosures, we may have a good chance to keep our land and houses. You can see some of my suggestions on this here:

But political change in existing bankruptcy laws would make an enormous difference in the coming tidal wave of foreclosures, see the article here:

"Under the House bill, the bankruptcy judge would have the option of reducing what the homeowner owes the lender. Say a homeowner's property is worth less than what he owes. The judge could reduce the principal to match the home's current market value as well as reduce the loan's interest rate.

The rest of the original principal would then be treated as unsecured. That means it becomes a lower priority for repayment than the borrower's secured debt, such as the newly reduced principal on his home. Unsecured debts may be discharged."

This bill is going to have a rough time getting through. As this article rightly points out, the 2005 changes in bankruptcy law meant that we've got a new form of debt slavery going: This bill could use your political support, and lots of it. The house you save may be your own.

The reality is that, as an author I like says, "all true wealth is biological" - your house may be worth little or much, but the land that grows your dinner, and the soil that you build for the next generation, the wood that heats your house and cooks your dinner - that is worth something. Help people hang on to their houses. Get in touch with your congressman.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

You Are How You Eat

We've had some issues here recently with politeness about food - particularly politeness about food when visiting other people's houses. Now those of you who read here regularly know we have firm rules about not ever complaining about food. So when I heard that while visiting a neighbor, my three year old said that the peanut butter and jelly sandwich was "yucky," Mommy sat down to have a little talk with Isaiah.

I reminded him that we don't ever complain about food, that you can always say "no thank you." And then I asked why he objected to peanut butter and jelly, which we eat at home. He said the bread wasn't Daddy's bread, and the Jam wasn't Mommy's jam and they didn't taste good.

So I explained that I'm glad he likes Daddy's homemade bread, and I'm glad he likes Mommy's homemade jam, but that some people don't make bread or jam, and that we have to be polite about it. Why don't they make it, he wanted to know? Well, some people don't have gardens and the don't want to or know how to make food. So they get their food from the supermarket.

Isaiah was shocked by this. "Really?!? You mean they get all their food from the supermarket?" He thought for a minute. "That's really sad," was his final response. And he really felt bad about it - we revisited the discussion several times, and he kept asking me if they *had* to go to the supermarket, and whether they ever had good bread or jam.

Now I try hard not to diss other people's food ever, so I don't think he got this from me or his Dad. And I'm kind of pleased to see that my son has somehow absorbed the real truth - that the best food out there is not available at even the most upscale supermarket. The best food out there is the stuff that you make and grow yourself.


School and Energy

We're officially in our first full year of homeschooling this year. At least, some of us are. My oldest son is not homeschooled, and Simon, my five and half year old was homeschooled for kindergarten last year, but legally, we were not required to file any paperwork because kindergarten isn't mandatory. This year we're doing the "official" thing complete with lists of materials (my kid reads so fast that I can't keep up with him - do I really want to write down the titles of all 38 Magic Tree House books plus everything else he's absorbed since August?), dates of evaluations (Call it parent testing, clearly designed to make sure you don't shut them up in a closet) and the urge to make snide comments about required subjects (Must. Resist. Temptation. To. Put. Chomsky. On. Syllabus. For. "Patriotism." ;-)). It is definitely an education - for us.

We're also homeschooling Isaiah, 3 1/2, who will be entering his second year of "kindergarten" and who is a very self-disciplined, hard working little person, proud of accomplishing his share of studying and maintaining his garden. Asher, 22 months, is entering his second year of being a major hindrance, old enough to be a pest, really too young to fully participate. But he cheerfully colors, dances, dumps flour into baking projects and tootles as loudly as possible (which is really loudly) on his recorder during music. By next year, we have hopes of being able to include him in "kindergarten."

Our approach can best be described as a mix of Waldorf curriculum, a whole lot of books, Jewish education and whatever works, combined with a total lack of parental organization that looks surprisingly like unschooling. I read books about homeschoolers whose days are disciplined, well organized and who have planned out their entire year in detail. We are not them. But Simon is well ahead of things in most areas (although woefully behind in handwriting and superhero underwear collecting), so we're not worrying too much about it.

Now a lot of homeschoolers do what they do because of a passionate dislike of public school options or from strong religious convictions. I'm not one of them, although both are factors to a degree. I hated school from first grade until I went to college - college was such a relief that I danced through my entire freshman year. My husband didn't hate school until fifth grade, but experienced a similar delight at his release. The problem wasn't that we were bad at school - the contrary, we were both very good at it, but easily bored and impatient. School to both of us was eight hours of grinding monotony - and I admit, I don't see a compelling reason to send a kid who is learning everything they need in a couple of hours hanging out with their parents to school.

And certainly religious factors enter into things - our rural school district has been very kind about us, but Jews are an anomaly here, and we constantly have to explain ourselves "No, Chanukah should not be described as 'Jewish Christmas.' "No, it is not ok if you read a story about the birth of Christ just because you read some story about a little girl lighting a menorah." "No, my son may not have a ham sandwich." "No, it isn't a beanie, and no there aren't horns underneath it." It gets old - fast. And while I expect my kids to be able to operate in mainstream culture, I think there's really no great urgency for them to confront it - 8, rather than 5, will do just as well.

But I'm hardly a homeschooling absolutist, and most of my reasons have more to do with energy than educational philosophy. My oldest son, Eli has been attending school since he was 2, receiving large quantities of speech, OT and other therapies designed to help him function in the world. Although both of his schools have been private, the first an integrated preschool, the second a school entirely devoted to the needs of children with autism, our public school district has helped us find these programs and paid for them, bused him there (actually a shorter ride than to our regional school) provided wonderful people to transport him and been generally both accomodating and supportive. We're very grateful to them. Our hope is that one day, Eli will return to the school district in as integrated way as is possible for him. We may someday homeschool him, by choice or necessity, but for now, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have a supportive school district.

So obviously, I'm hardly the person to condemn public schools, and I'm grateful for the resources we have access to. Sooner or later, the buses will probably stop running. I suspect for Eli it will be later, fortunately, since the district is obligated to provide him with an appropriate education, but as in New Orleans where thousands of special needs students went a year or more without appropriate facilities, these things slip by the wayside. We are prepared, if necessary, to homeschool Eli, but it isn't our first choice. And since the whole of society, not just our family, benefits if Eli achieves his fullest potential and becomes an independent adult, we don't have any deep qualms about taking advantage of this.

Not only am I not opposed inherently to public education, which meets real needs in some case, I've often thought that if my developmentally normal children could attend school the same way my autistic son does - surrounded by enough supportive adults with a lot of attention to give him, and an entirely individualized plan for his education, I'd send them all to school in a heartbeat. Obviously, that's hardly feasible in economic terms - but effectively, that's why we homeschool, to provide my non-disabled children with the same richly supportive and individualized atmosphere that my oldest child gets.

Eli gets what he does despite the cost and inconvenience because he literally cannot function without it, and our society recognizes that a large investment in such children now is likely to have greater net benefits than leaving him dependent all his life. But while my other children are better able to adapt to a generalized, one-size fits all program than Eli, who simply can't, I'm not sure they are in fact, better served by such a thing. While Eli is an extreme case, the notion that an education should be customized to fit non-disabled children as well doesn't seem that radical to me. My five year old is as unique, and in many ways as different from other children as my autistic son. He learns better in some ways than others, and has things he needs special assistance with and things he is radically ahead in. School tends to reduce all these distinctions to a sameness, as though they do not matter. And while my son will not always find himself in a world customized to his needs, I'm not convinced that, as some people have argued, my son must prepare himself for the "real world" by living in the unfettered harshness of the "real world" from five on. We could probably wait a little on that one.

Thus, we homeschool. But of course, there's more than that. One of the reasons we do is because it is an environmentally wise choice. We live in a large, rural school district. My sons would cover many miles on the bus each day, on a bus that doesn't have to come down our road except to pick up my kids. Right now there are school districts all over the country struggling to provide busing for their students, and some are ceasing to bus entirely as higher energy prices make transportation expenses difficult to bear. Similarly, many school districts are struggling to keep buildings heated or cooled. Stephen Beltramini kindly posted this link over at ROE2: I've heard stories about bus system changes all over the country the last few years, as energy prices rise and already strapped districts tip past the point of no return.

The push to regionalize and expand schools has led to a number of consequences that are potentially troubling in a lower-energy world. Students are travelling more miles on the bus and in cars, and more children are travelling that way, rather than walking or bicycling. Streets and communities are often less accomodating to walkers, and schools are often in inaccessible neighborhoods, that involve crossing busy streets or highways. Many towns and neighborhoods no longer have their own school systems - they are now in large consolidated districts, and as we are less and less able to transport children long distances, many children will be less and less able to go to school.

The sheer cost of maintaining large regional schools that have put their money heavily into extraneous things like football fields and training grounds is likely to make them, like everything else, collapse under its own weight. The buildings are huge, requiring enormous quantities of heating, cooling and maintenence. Weirdly, in the Northeast, these all seem to be designed by the same architect, mostly from the school of butt-ugly - and all seem to have flat roofs (easily damaged by heavy snow loads), air quality problems and large expanses of green lawn regularly treated with toxic chemicals. This is not going to last.

There are psychological and cultural problems associated with large scale education. Classrooms of 28 kindergarteners (as friends of mine in an affluent suburb have) simply can't have the same degree of individual attention that smaller groups can. Thus, there is an enormous amount of pressure to conform. I live in the school district that has the honor of, having been the very first (but hardly last) in the US to try and legally force a family to administer Ritalin to a child whose parents didn't think he needed it. Such things are far more common now - a friend of mine who is a school psychologist in a low-income school district in Massachusetts observes that many of the teachers he meets recommend drugs for nearly every difficult child - in part because they simply don't have the time or energy to use them. Boy children are particularly a concern, partly because they are more likely to have a disability, but often because we have eliminated physical activity by reducing PE and recess time.

All schools provide pressure to conform, and large regional ones have even more reason to provide such pressure. Simon, our first grader is an independent minded, imaginative bookworm, rather like his mother. He liked preschool just fine, and enjoys Hebrew school and was well behaved and compliant, but is happiest following his own interests. He's also an obsessive kid, who focuses intensively on one or two ideas at a time. Since he was two, he's gone through periods of obsession about birds, space, dinosaurs, jazz, Winnie the Pooh, the Beatles, mythology, geography and presidents. At 5 1/2, he routinely corrects me on the capitals of small African states, can tell you how old John Lennon was when he first picked up a guitar, has a stuffed Penguin named "Coltrane" and is mad as heck that Kuiper Belt objects don't qualify as planets.

None of which is to imply that he's anything of a prodigy - he's an ordinary small child, bright in some ways, average or below in others. But he's a specific small child, and both my husband and I vividly remember the limitations of a system meant to do the best by everyone. When we spoke to his future kindergarten teacher, trying to decide whether to send him to school or not, I joked that all of Simon's games eventually "turn into Calvinball" (for those that remember "Calvin and Hobbes," "Calvinball" was the imaginative, constantly rule changing game Calvin and Hobbes played together), and that he tended to spend a lot of free play time doing his own thing. The teacher responded, "We'll fix that for you!" I know she was being helpful, but yikes! I didn't want my son to be "fixed." The qualities that I like in him - his imagination and autonomy, were immediately perceived as potential problems to a teacher who has so many children to tend that "unconventional" means "trouble."

And the reality is that large chunks of public school educations are about conformity, and sometimes conformity in itself isn't the problem, but the shape you are being forced into is. I'm not at all convinced that the conformity that they encourage is the sort that will help my kids in the future. That is, much of what is being taught is preparation for (as almost every school says) "being part of the global economy." Lucky kids, who get to be cogs in that wheel! But whether I like the idea or not, the reality is that I don't think the global economy with its hyper-specialization and emphasis on make-work is going to be around when my son is 18.

Our school is definitively not preparing our children for a local but not parochial society - in fact, the curriculum in things like patriotism that I've seen seems to be quite the opposite - we are trying to create a parochial and globalized society. That is, we are teaching children that they are supposed to participate in a "global" economy but also to believe that Americans are better than other people. My own goals are precisely the opposite - to have my children experience a wide world, through the lens of their particular place. So while foreign languages are not offered in our public schools until middle school, our children study Hebrew and Spanish now.

But for all of this, I'm not an opponent of public schools, and believe public schools can be valuable. In part, my children have the luxury of homeschooling and a better education than could be provided locally because their parents have the luxury of time, which stems in part from frugality and care (our annual income for a family of six is in the mid-30s) but also from comparative wealth, a stable two-parent family. I believe that public schools are important, and I strongly believe in participating them, and helping to shape the curriculum so that it better mirrors the realities of our world. We do that too - we participate in our public schools as well as our homeschool group, and we believe that we do not serve our community if we completely absent ourselves from the institution that does so much to shape what our kids understand about the future. We see homeschooling as a necessary corrective, the reality that we're not going to sacrifice what we value in our kids' education to the inadequacies of public schools, but we also believe good public schools must be available.

Some homeschoolers like to say that all parents should home educate. This is clearly not the case. For example, there are millions of parents who have to work two or three jobs, millions of parents who lack the basic ability to teach their children - including a minimum of 84 million Americans who are functionally illiterate. Teaching your children at home when you can barely read in any meaningful sense is not like staying two piano lessons ahead of your students - it is impossible. There are also millions of parents who are simply too poor, and work too many hours to homeschool. There are tens of thousands of disabled children like Eli who will benefit more from school than home, and millions of developmentally normally children who love and benefit from schools all over the country. And we also all know the simple truth - that there are millions of children in the US for whom school is a far better place than home. It does not do to romanticize too much here - there are millions of households where violence, drug and alcohol addiction and other factors simply mean that children are better and happier at school than at home. There are millions of children whose only hope to escape their bad homes is for them to get lucky enough to have a teacher take an interest them, or for them to show a special spark. Unfortunately, school can't and doesn't do that for everyone. So we need not just good home education, but much better public schools.

Blanket dismissals of the value of public education are wrong too. Homeschooling is an excellent choice for many families who don't think that they are served by public schools, but all of us have reasons to be invested both in public schools and in home education. That is, it isn't an either/or choice. For example, many parents who send their children to school also provide supplemental education to their kids in religious studies, areas of interest, languages, etc... As we develop the skills of relocalization, all parents, homeschoolers and public schoolers are going to have to teach their kids subsistence skills. And for every parents who is happy with their local public school, there are reasons to consider homeschooling in a post-peak, post-climate change society, and to be prepared to do so. For every parent who can't now imagine homeschooling, there may come a time when their children cannot go to school.

But also, if those times come, we cannot simply retreat to our own private households, all in all. We must recognize that homeschoolers, just like everyone else, are dependent on public education - our children will play with children whose parents can't take the time to homeschool. Our children may marry children whose parents didn't speak enough English to homeschool them. All of us benefit enormously from living among well educated people - the kind of society we get depends on our ability to understand the issues that face our society, and to address them, and those are often factors of education. While I think the public schools suffer from some serious deficits, I think we are better off as a society with more education, not less, and we cannot abandon people who cannot or do not which to homeschool.

One strategy we can use while there's still time and resources is to advocate in our communities against larger, district schools and in favor of local, walkable, smaller schools designed to serve neighborhoods. This will difficult because it is bucking the consolidation trend, but it is also important - as oil prices rise, busing and its associated plowing costs become a larger and larger portion of the town or district budget. Small, community schools can cut those costs enormously. They also can bring about other benefits - a small community school with simple infrastructure can also serve, in many ways, as a community center. Here, after all, is where the parents congregate. Here is a kitchen used every day to prepare meals - perhaps it could be adapted to become a community canning kitchen during the weekends, or perhaps a school cafeteria that used local food ingredients could also send home pre-made, local ingredient, healthy meals to be reheated by community members at home, or the cafeterias could be opened on weekends. It is not an accident that in many small towns, the school is the center of communal life - and that it could be again.

All of us can help shape the education children receive in public schools, both by voting and also by participating in discussions about educational culture. Schools generally welcome community participation, and teachers are generally overstretched and have enormous demands placed on them. There is no reason an energetic and devoted person couldn't get a school garden started, or a cooking program using seasonal ingredients. Certainly you could bring out your skills and offer to come in to school to teach ecology or how to build a solar oven.

Most importantly, we can lobby to bring back agricultural education to our schools. The one point in Richard Heinberg's essay about _50 Million Farmers_ here: that I strongly disagree with is the idea that we should center the educational aspects of agriculture in colleges. Not only do I think that our agricultural colleges have stepped away from relevant missions in many cases (the largest section of many ag schools is now turf and lawn maintenence), but I also think that that's far too late. We need to be teaching our kids to grow food in elementary school and high school, not when they are in college. And since less than half the population ever goes to college, this absolutely cannot be an elitist pass-down from the university educated to those who actually grow the food. One of the great class divisions in the US is between those who actually get to go to college and those who don't, and we can't, now that food growing is finally being seen as important again, associate it with class division more than it is now. But I digress.

As I've said, the line between homeschooler and public schooler can be quite fine. Any of us may find that our child wants to go to school, or that we have a child whose abilities or disabilities suit them better to public school than to home. That is, instead of thinking in terms of "public education vs. homeschooling" I think we need to consider ways in which we can integrate the two. Ways in which we can meet our own needs whenever possible, but also offer a *good* and *responsive* and *public minded* education to people for whom homeschooling is not a good option.

What does that mean? First, in practical terms, I think simple preparedness means that those of us who have children should have a plan for a long-term disruption in existing educational services. That doesn't necessarily mean buying a curriculum or anything, but it does mean having easy access to (either in your private library or at your local, walkable public one) a good variety of educational materials, it means parents picking up textbooks and other materials at local library sales, and being prepared to introduce algebra if the schools are closed for a while due to a natural disaster or the inability of the district to afford heating oil. And it means knowing what your local educational resources are - it isn't necessary for every parent to be able to teach physics or Latin poetry if there's someone on the neighborhood who can help. In a relocalization system, where you want to keep as much of your wealth in your neighborhood and area as possible, educational services are just one of the items of exchange available in our new home economies.

But what if there's a longer term disruption in services and you can't homeschool forever? This doesn't have to mean an end-of-the-world disaster. It could simply mean that the system can no longer afford to run the buses and you can no longer afford to drive them. Or it could involve a localized natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Either way, your region or school district could be unable to meet needs for long periods, and even if you can personally homeschool, the neighborhood may be full of kids whose parents can't school them.

That's when parents should get together to consider collective home education. Generally speaking, it will not serve your community to have kids hanging around doing nothing (or better yet, coming up with creative things to do ;-), all the time. It certainly won't serve the long term good to have kids miss years of education. And while the unstructured life has some advantages, in a crisis, those are likely not to be the salient points. So getting together with your neighbors and dividing up the teaching just makes sense. There's no reason a child shouldn't come to your house on Monday to study history and botany, and to learn about herbs, and go to the neighbor's house on Tuesday for cooking and arithmetic.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that one should mimic the schools exactly - public schools have valorized some kinds of education while neglecting or rejecting others. For example, we've long emphasized that "smart" people don't need "vocational" skills like fixing things, building things, growing things and making things. This, of course is errant nonsense. We need to teach our kids to think critically, to write well and compellingly present their ideas, to read complicated material and understand it, to be able to grasp the science and math they are encountering and to recognize the literary, philosophical and historical origins of things. But we also need them to understand how nature works and how science is as yet only a thing that describes one aspect of nature, but is not nature itself. They need to know the limits of book knowledge as well as the potential of that knowledge. And they need to have experience with the basic work of providing for ones own needs - growing and making things.

In his seminal The Archaeology of Knowledge Michel Foucault argues that the way we organize our knowledge always and utterly transforms our relationship to it. And just as peak oil and climate change are in the broadest possible sense "market failures" - that is, failures that illuminate the deep inadequacies of our present economic system; they are also "education failures" - that is, profound revelations about the inadequacy of how we organize knowledge.

The way we categorize our knowledge, segregating our pieces of it as belonging to X or Y part, seperating "reading" from "art" from "mathematics" and "ethics" has led us to this particular point in history. The idea that we can take something and seperate out ecological impact from something like "work" or "sex" or "science" has driven us to a real crisis. That, if nothing else we must change. That is, we have to teach our children new ways of looking at the world and of imagining our future. We need to naturalize, from birth, the connections between moral principle, science, history and our daily actions. We need them to understand the whole impact of what they do and how they live.

I will write more about this in time, because it is far too large a subject for a single (already really too long) post. But I wonder, some times, if the breakdown of our existing educational structures might not be one of our best hopes for the future. Because, in the end, it will all come down to education - the education we offer at home, and in schools, the self-education of billions of adults who transform their lives without any real guides to help them and the messages we pass on to the next generation. It will all come down to what gladly we would teach and learn.


Monday, October 08, 2007

The Fertile Crescent and the Closed Circle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norberg-Hodge writes about this in Ladakh,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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