Friday, December 28, 2007

You Heard It Here First...Sadly

Remember This: 350 Parts Per Million

Guess what - I'm starting to wonder whether I do have magic powers to predict the future (yeah, like common sense ;-)) - this blog, which has been going on for months about the notion that we have to cut emissions faster and harder than anyone has acknowledge turns out to have beaten even James Hansen and Bill McKibben to the punch. Why is it, I wonder, that my predictions are only right about things that suck?

"It means, Hansen says, that we've gone too far. "The evidence indicates we've aimed too high -- that the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2is no more than 350 ppm," he said after his presentation. Hansen has reams of paleo-climatic data to support his statements (as do other scientists who presented papers at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco this month). The last time the Earth warmed two or three degrees Celsius -- which is what 450 parts per million implies -- sea levels rose by tens of meters, something that would shake the foundations of the human enterprise should it happen again.

And we're already past 350. Does that mean we're doomed? Not quite. Not any more than your doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high means the game is over. Much like the way your body will thin its blood if you give up cheese fries, so the Earth naturally gets rid of some of its CO2each year. We just need to stop putting more in and, over time, the number will fall, perhaps fast enough to avert the worst damage.

That "just," of course, hides the biggest political and economic task we've ever faced: weaning ourselves from coal, gas and oil. The difference between 550 and 350 is that the weaning has to happen now, and everywhere. No more passing the buck. The gentle measures bandied about at Bali, themselves way too much for the Bush administration, don't come close. Hansen called for an immediate ban on new coal-fired power plants that don't capture carbon, the phaseout of old coal-fired generators, and a tax on carbon high enough to make sure that we leave tar sands and oil shale in the ground. To use the medical analogy, we're not talking statins to drop your cholesterol; we're talking huge changes in every aspect of your daily life.

Maybe too huge. The problems of global equity alone may be too much -- the Chinese aren't going to stop burning coal unless we give them some other way to pull people out of poverty. And we simply may have waited too long.

But at least we're homing in on the right number. Three hundred and fifty is the number every person needs to know."

McKibben is being cheery about the bad news, so I will be to. We've been given a huge and perhaps exciting challenge - how to entirely stop producing more industrial carbon emissions. And believe it or not, I've got a few ideas (doesn't she always you say, rolling your eyes ;-)).

Or rather, they are the same ideas. It turns out that Monbiot was far too conservative - he was trying to keep things at 450. This is going to require a fast and serious drop in our fossil energy use down to near 0. The fast part means we're going to have to prioritize - think hard about where we want to put our very limited carbon emissions. Building more renewables, keeping medical care and food supplies coming, enabling an educated populace - that's where they need to go, and that's where they should go.

I've been working on trying to create a model of life of some sort for a few years - not a perfect life. If I were perfect I would have had 1.5 kids, started before I was 30 and would be pedalling everywhere. But a model of an imperfect life in transition, making do with what I've got, the best I can. When I try and think about what my role in this is, it comes down to that - I'm an ordinary person, ordinarily selfish and cranky and lazy, greedy and flawed. So what I can do with my imperfect life, from my imperfect start, in my imperfect home with my limited funds and energies I believe others can do - or they will do it some other way and tell me, and I can tell others, so that there's one more model out there. It isn't a perfect solution, and maybe there's other work to be done that I should be doing. But maybe this is mine.

After we reallocate, our personal use is going to have to be done by our limited supply of renewables (that means we all get a little bit of energy to use) and our hands and feet, some animals and a complete change in our way of life. There is no model I've ever seen that enables us to do a very rapid (under a decade) build out of renewables, and keep the global economy going as is. We're simply entering uncharted territory. If we become serious about this, everything is going to change.

And everything will remain the same - we'll still be the people we are. We'll still care about the things we care about most - the people we love, keeping people healthy, cared for and fed, giving our kids a decent education, having good and honorable work to do. We'll do different work, different play, live different lives, but we'll still be us, and the things we always say we really care about - those will still be the things we can have.

We can do this. We have to, but more, we can.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Here Be Dragons: Predictions for 2008

Ok, last year I made some (quite tongue in cheek) bets, and it is interesting to me to see how they stood up - you can see them here:

History and the New Year

Generally speaking, my predictions (which weren't exactly going way out on a limb or anything) were pretty much right, except for Israel and Syria - it was Iran, not Venezuela, and the interest rate hikes were met by later cuts, but overall, I called it - more or less. I promise, this surprises me more than anyone. And I suspect that "the year of hanging on by our fingertips" wasn't a bad way to describe the last year.

My intuition is that in 2008, we'll no longer be able quite to hang on. I'm going to call 2008 "The Year of Dragons" - that is, the year we get off of all the maps we've had and enter uncharted territory. once upon a time, the parts of the maps that were unknown bore the sign "Here be Dragons" - I think this is the year we'll begin getting to know the dragons on the other side of our understanding.

So here are my predictions - and again, let me reiterate that the thing that I hope makes me marginally credible is this - I do not believe that every single idea I pull out of my head is the absolute truth. And if I don't, you certainly shouldn't.

But here goes.

1. This year, the words peak oil will go mainstream, but this mainstreaming will not be matched by a subtle or nuanced understanding of what the words mean. That is, peak oil will be used for political purposes, and not necessarily ones anyone will approve of.

2. By the end of the year, there will begin to be runs on preparedness equipment and food storage, a la Y2K.

3. The NeoCons will not go gently into that good night - there will be at least one serious surprise for us. G-d willing, it won't involve the word "nukuler" or any of its cognates.

4. Hillary will not win the 2008 election. Neither, despite all the people who keep sending me emails saying he will, will Ron Paul.

5. The economy will tank. Yup, I'm really going out on a limb here.

6. Many of us will find we are being taken more seriously than we ever expected. We will still be taken less seriously than any celebrity divorce, however.

7. We'll see food riots in more nations and hunger will increase. The idea of Victory Gardens won't seem so crazy anymore.

8. The biofuels craze will begin to be thought the better of - not in time to prevent the above.

9. We will see at least one more image of desperate people, walking out of their city becuase there's no other alternative. And a lot of images of foreclosures.

10. TEOTWAKI, if it ever happens, will be delayed long enough for my book to be released this fall and to make back at least the advance, so my publisher won't have any reason to try and sue me ;-).

Ok, that last is more of a prayer than a prediction - the bad thing about writing books for a publisher that deals a lot with peak oil and climate change is that the words "if everything doesn't go to hell in a handbasket" are actually included in the legal documents (ok, I'm joking).

Those are my bets, folks. We'll reconvene in late December of next year to make fun of me and my predictions. In the meantime, a happy, safe, healthy and hopeful New Year to all!



Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hallowing the Descent

"One might say with the Buddhists, that this is an important form of "mindfulness" and try and cultivate the inner posture in which such consciousness can be relatively sustained. Consulting the dictionary I find that for the word "hallowing" the following definitions are offered: 'make holy or set apart for holy use, consecrate; to respect greatly; venerate." It was a new and most encouraging idea to me - that one's diminishments could be "made holy," "consecrated," "respected greatly," even "venerated."

I saw that the first step for me in learning to "hallow" the progressive diminishments in store for me was deep-going acceptance. But the acceptance would have to be positive, not a negative one, if it were to be a real hallowing. I must learn to do something creative with it."

Quaker writer John Yungblut writes this in "On Hallowing One's Diminishments," using the ways of thinking he found to deal with his Parkinson's disease to provide a new way "into" times of personal and collective hardship. I'm indebted to my friend MEA for sending me Yungblut's pamphlet, and introducing this idea of the hallowing of loss to me, which has been in my thoughts a great deal lately.

There is no question in my mind, or in the minds of many thinkers, that we cannot go on from here the way we have been. That is, whether global warming, peak oil, world water supplies or financial crisis becomes the tipping point, things cannot continue the way they are. At the moment, most people do not know this yet - they believe fervently that if they just carry a cloth bag and vote for higher CAFE standards, the world will more or less go on for them as it has. They believe this, in large part, because they want to believe it. But that has to change.

My own takes is that if to convince people that their lives have to change dramatically, it will require a mix of different approaches - we will have to show the consequences of not doing so, show the rewards of doing it, provide social and cultural support, tell people that making changes is patriotic, cool, sexy and fun, also warn people about pain and suffering, and tell them that they are sacrificing for a cause - that is, we're going to need all the tools in our boxes. And one that I hadn't considered is Yungblut's fascinating notion of "Hallowing the Diminishment." It is a tool, I think that for some people - those who are religiously or spiritually inclined, may be quite powerful, and thus, it deserves a wider audience. It would be deeply false for us to argue that such a change will come with no hardships - so how do we help people accept these hardships, and move on? Here, I find Yungblut most useful.

What does it mean to consecrate or venerate your own losses? Yungblut does not lay them out this way, but there seems to be three strategies involved here. The first is the notion of treating your losses and suffering as companions to whom you are obligated to feel a friendly spirit towards. He notes that if your diminishments are not tormentors, it is easier to have a sense of humor about them, to seperate yourself from your sufferings.

The second point Yungblut raises is that each diminishment comes with gifts - the physical limitations that come with aging also bring with them "the reconversion from earning a living to cultural activity" - that is, there is time to talk to others, to think, to devote to the outside world as we retire and age. The definition of success changes - instead of focusing on work and outer definitions, success becomes children grown well to adulthood, the love of family, warmheartedness, kindness. Yungblut reminds us to look for the gifts in our losses.

Finally, Yungblut notes that we can view our losses as leading us gently towards our adaptation to the ultimate diminishment - death. That is, we can come to recognize that sometimes, the point is not whether we can alter events, but how we face them. We can find meaning, even when we cannot change things, in our ability to shape the meaning of things - to do right, even when the right thing is not enough, to face even very hard times with courage and honor, even though it won't make the hard times go away to do so.

What would this mean going into peak oil and climate change? How might we begin to "hallow" our descent. The first thought would be to recognize our companions entering into the future - name them, "peak energy" "Climate change" and "Depletion" and call them what they are - our future, and our companions for the long haul. Because once we acknowledge them, we might be able to get to know them, to get over our deepest fears that if we look too closely at the future we will not be able to bear it, and recognize and go on from there. Perhaps if we saw them as our companions in the future, we might be able to get over our own sense of personal punishment - the belief, for example, that our suffering is particular, and deeply important. That is, we might be able to recognize that turning the heat down to 55 is not an unjust cruelty, but simply what is asked of us, our share of the burden. Perhaps we might even develop a sense of humor about it.

The idea of venerating these companions does not mean we accept that they are good - peak oil, climate change and depletion are undoubtably evils for the world. But they are less fearsome when we understand them fully, and less fearsome still when we recognize that this is the world as *WE* have made it - this is the consequences, not of some unjust suffering inflicted upon us, but on the world we chose. There is a generation of people coming who did not choose this, and our children and grandchildren will have the right to be angry that they have to suffer. But we who are adults now must meet our descent as our choice, and our responsibility to ameliorate as best we can.

Finding the benefits will not be hard. There are enormous benefits, as well as losses, in the diminishing of industrial society. We can gain time with one another, stronger families, cultural wealth, more nutritious food, more exercise, peace and beauty, less stress, and a future for our children and our planet. These things are of great value, and we need to start recognizing their value immediately. There is a great deal of talk in the culture about "what really matters" - at the same time that we all have less and less of what we claim really matters. Pointing out that most of the virtues of a less industrialized, lower energy society are the things that we say we want most is going to be essential.

We must, however, do this in the context of recognizing real losses - that is, what I like about Yungblut's analysis is that it does not attempt to erase those losses. There are things that will get better for some of us, and things we will lose. We shouldn't lie about this, and pretend that all will be happy, easy and cool. The truth is that this will hurt us - and finding beauty and peace and better things in the midst of self-sacrifice is our only hope. Our choices are whether to lie, or not to lie - and I tend to think that the true message is far more powerful than the false one.

Finally, Yungblut's analysis reminds us that we cannot change everything. We must do all we can to prepare, to make things better, to ameliorate the suffering of others. And there's an excellent chance that what we do will be insufficient. But just as it matters how we enter death and leave life - whether on our feet or our knees, with courage or with cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, it matters how we act now *EVEN IF WE CANNOT CHANGE THE OUTCOME.* I am not claiming we shouldn't complain - and neither is Yungblut. I am not saying we should be perfect, without anger or fear or cowardice - we cannot. But we should understand that what we accomplish is one thing, and what we attempt is another. Our reach must exceed our grasp here - anything else would be a diminishment of ourselves and the meaning of our lives. We must try and do the impossible.

I doubt there is a single person out there reading this who does not fervently wish that we had addressed peak oil and climate change 30 years ago and that we really could go on the way we have been. But we're past that - the change in our world is as inevitable as death. We now only have the choice of facing the change - and how we face it. But the difference between embracing our future and changing our thinking to place the long term, the future of future generations at the center of ourselves, or running in fear and denial, is a difference beyond speaking.

Yungblut and I do not share our vision of what death is, and I'm sure there are many people reading this from other faiths and no faith at all. But the notion that we can make even our hardships into moments of creativity, honor, consecration, I think has value regardless of your faith. The truth is, we have power in two realms - the first is what we do. The second is in the meaning we apply to what we do - the way we face the world, the stories we tell ourselves. We must claim power in both realms - that is we must not only act to avert tragedy, but we must ensure that we have, to the extent we are able, made everything we can out of the meaning of our choices.

A long, long time ago, I wrote an undergraduate dissertation arguing that for the poet John Milton, this is the limitation of God - that is, in "Paradise Lost" God is omnipotent - except in the realm of meaning. God can make things happen - but God cannot choose their meaning. I think, for those of us who believe in some God or Gods, this is what human beings are for - the creation of meaning. And for those who believe in no God at all (and trust me, I'm not ranking these choices), we are the only people who can make things mean anything at all. If we want the legacy of our diminishment to be something other than that we, in greed and selfishness, did not understand and made our choices from no meaning at all, we must find a way to hallow, or at least apply meaning, to our descent.

Indeed, the Torah commentator Rashi suggests that the human capacity for meaning creation is tremendously powerful, perhaps more powerful than the ability to act, for he says in his gloss on the story of creation,

There was no vegetation on the earth when creation was completed on the sixth day, before man was created. Even though God had commanded “Let the earth sprout vegetation” on the third day, it had not emerged, but remained just at the rim of the soil, until the sixth day. Why? Because God had not sent rain. Why not? Because “there was no man to til the soil and so there was no one to realize the goodness of the rains. But when man arrived and realized that they are a necessity for the world, he prayed for them, and they fell, and the trees and vegetation grew.”

That is, the rain came because we knew we needed it, we saw the emptiness of the world, and we made it necessary. It may be that we need to make peace with our companions, find our blessings and understand that how we face the future may matter as much as what the future is, in order to bring about the rain that will make the future bloom.


The Future of the Quik 'N Easy Meal

“Eating is an agricultural act.” – Wendell Berry

Because I don’t celebrate Christmas, I had nothing important to do the other day. Because my husband and kids were headed out to a local social event with other Jewish families with kids, and because our van, the only vehicle we own that can get all six of us from place to place is in the shop, I had no choice but to stay home. So I thought I’d cook – specifically, I thought I’d try out three “fast, easy, healthy, local” recipes that were sent to me from a green website that shall remain nameless because I’m not trying to give them a hard time – I appreciate what they are trying to do.

Why? Because my job now is to think about food. That is no hardship – regular readers of this blog will know that the question of how we will go on eating is my great passion. So much so that I’m now working on book #2, co-authored with Aaron Newton, titled _A Nation of Farmers_ and coming out from New Society in spring ’09. The subject of the book is all of the agricultural acts we will need to undertake to survive and thrive in the coming decades – and on how reclaiming food – growing it and cooking it – might preserve or maybe remake our democracy. The title is drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s claim that it was a nation of independent farmers who were best able to create and sustain democracy, because personal independence made it possible for us to make moral and just choices.

My only trouble with my title is that it places so much emphasis on the growing of food, and thus distracts us from something even more central. A lot of people have talked and written about how urgent it is that we change our agriculture, that we move away from the tremendously destructive system and start maximizing production per acre, while reducing the damage of a fossil fueled agriculture which includes global warming (nitrous oxide from industrial fertilizers, methane from industrial livestock production, loss of carbon storage ability in the soil and high carbon levels from energy used in agriculture, shipping, transport, etc… are among the problems), soil and aquifer depletion and a host of other difficulties. I am one of the people writing about these things, and I believe all of us are right to put part of our focus here. But few of us have focused, except in the most superficial terms, on food, cooking and diet as the means to save the world.
And yet I do not think it is overstating things to say that how we grow food will always be secondary to how we cook and eat. If we are to survive the coming crisis, a surprising amount of it will depend on our ability to adapt our diet – and that will depend on our ability to cook and eat differently.

I suspect too many people it seems a small thing to talk about cooking, self-evident that when different things are in the stores or our gardens, we will eat differently. But I think further consideration will show that it doesn’t work that way. Consider the dual problem of hunger and malnutrition in the US. Overwhelmingly, these are problems of poverty, as you would suspect. But also, these are overwhelmingly cooking problems. That is, a number of people have shown that it is perfectly possible to eat nutritiously and cheaply – for example, that a whole grain, vegetarian, even organic and local diet is possible on a food stamps budget. No one in their right mind would rather see their kids go hungry than eat this way. So why is hunger so endemic in the US? Part of it is lack of time – single mothers and their children are among the most likely people to be hungry in the US, and they have little time to cook. Often, as someone noted on this blog recently, older siblings prepare food for younger children, and about all they can handle are boxed mac and cheese. Some of it is dietary preference.

But some of the problem is simply not knowing how to cook cheap foods. For example, my local food pantry observed that flour is one of the last things to leave their shelves – because few of their patrons know how to make their own bread or baked goods. When dried beans are given out, they must come with instructions, and often people don’t seem to follow them.

A large portion of the American poor *DO NOT KNOW HOW* to cook, and because of this, they *GO HUNGRY*. That is, anyone who thinks that when we have different foods available we’ll all just eat them isn’t paying attention to the evidence of their own eyes – in fact, so few of us have cooking skills, particularly skills of the necessary sort, that would allow us to adapt easily to dietary changes. No doubt some of us will – particularly those who are most literate and have the most time to adapt. But the truth is in front of us – people who don’t know how to cook don’t find it easy to learn, even when the stakes are terrifically high.

This brings me back to these recipes. I wanted to test them out because I thought it might be useful to look at the comparatively small class of Americans who do still cook from scratch regularly, and see how applicable what they’ve been learning is to the future. So I took three recipes I’ve recently received from the nameless website – roasted vegetable enchiladas, whole wheat cornbread and apple-cranberry crisp. All were advertised as quick, easy, seasonal and local, a meal to be prepared in 45 minutes or less (I think – I’m not clear on whether the timing was supposed to be cumulative). And I decided to prepare them completely from scratch, using little or no powered equipment, substituting whatever was missing in my home.
Now to be fair, this isn’t really much of a test. Because I store food, I have an extremely well stocked kitchen and all the equipment needed for low power cooking. That is, even if I couldn’t get to the store, or buy much food, it would be a good while before I ran out of ingredients. Still, I thought it useful to describe my experience.

It also isn’t a test because I cook this way every day. I live nearly 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, and in my rural hamlet there are two places that do take out – both make pizza, neither delivers, and my husband and I cook better than either one. We produce 3 meals a day for our family, usually 7 days a week (we do eat out sometimes, but try to keep it to a minimum), and if we run out of something, we don’t go to the store, we make do. But even in my relatively isolated area, I don’t know a lot of people who cook, who cook like I do, like I suspect we may have to. I suspect a disproportionate number of my readers are serious cooks, who do eat and cook as I do - but it can be hard to remember how very unusual that is in our society.

The enchiladas began with roasted vegetables. They called for roasting peppers and tomatoes, neither of which are in season here now, but that was easy, I just left them out. So took sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes and carrots (called for) and added parsnips and turnips (not), tossed them with olive oil and some chili powder and threw them in the wood cookstove. Easy – I could have made these in the sun oven on a warm day, but we haven’t had one of those for a while. The next part was the dried beans, which I’d soaked over night (I’ve left that time out, plus the time getting the woodstove up and hot, plus the time spent splitting wood for kindling), which I put on the stove to boil. The recipe called for canned refried beans, but that’s not the sort of thing I keep around. If I hadn't had oil, I could have roasted the vegetables with water in the pan - I wonder what percentage of the population would know that?

Meanwhile, I set about making the cornbread. I took dried corn and put it in the grinder and ground it by hand. Then I ground the wheat for flour, mixed them together, added water, honey, butter and ooops…out of baking powder. Ok, I’ve got baking soda and somewhere, buried in the back of the kitchen is cream of tartar. It took about 10 minutes to find it, but I finally did, and was enormously relieved I didn’t have to figure out sourdough cornbread or wait until summer for grapes from which I can precipitate cream of tartar… Ok, mix it up, throw it in to the oven – nope, the 475 temp that I have it at for the veggies will not do. So we wait 10 minutes with the oven door open to get it down enough to bake bread. Ah well, probably won’t rise well in the oven, but it will still taste good.

Meanwhile, I’m making tortillas for the enchiladas out of purchased masa (yeah, to be fair, I should grow my own, but I don’t). I don’t have a tortilla press, so they come out a little thicker than I like, and I burn one, but not bad. This is time consuming, however, and I wonder how many people consider tortillas “quick and easy” – but I don’t know anyone making local tortillas. My guess is that the recipe authors exempted some parts from their "local" and "quick" distinctions.

Ok, the apple crisp. Plenty of apples galore, but no dried cranberries. I do have dried blueberries and some dried cherries – which to pick? Well, there are more blueberries, so those. I cut the sugar back by about ¼, because it is designed to sweeten tart cranberries, not sweet blueberries. It calls for lemon and vanilla – no lemon. Should I try cider vinegar to make it tarter? Leave the lemon out? I’ll add a little of the vinegar, and some orange zest to try and make it citrusy. It is supposed to be thickened with cornstarch, but I haven’t got any that I can find (I’m pretty sure there is some, somewhere, but eventually I give up so as not to burn the cornbread) and I don’t much like the stuff anyway, so I go and look up how to thicken with flour without getting lumps.

Roasted veggies and cornbread are done and cooling. Now the streusel topping. Grind more flour to mix with rolled oats – the recipe calls for white flour for the topping, but whole wheat will be good too. No nuts, ignore them (actually, I do have hazelnuts in their shell, but I’ve no intention of shelling them – the recipe calls for chopped walnuts, which presumably come from a plastic bag). White sugar only, but I’ve got molasses, and since molasses is extracted from brown sugar to make white, I mix a bit of molasses in with the sugar, sprinkle it over and off into the oven it goes – but I’d better haul more wood, the oven is cooling.

Now it is into the oven and the last step is to take the cooked beans, fry them with oil, garlic, and spices into refried beans . I mash them with the potato masher, then sauté them. A layer of tortillas goes down in the pan, then the beans, then roasted vegetables, then more tortillas, then a layer of tomato sauce that I’ve mixed with dried chiles and roasted garlic and chile vinegar I made – to me it tastes better than conventional enchilada toppings. The recipe calls for “enchilada sauce” or “bottled local salsa” – the former would hardly be local, the latter is unavailable right now - the only local salsa maker I know of that makes it from local ingredients is me, and my family ran out of salsa two weeks ago. Now cheese. I have local mozzarella, which I use. By rights I should have made it, but the last (and only) time I made mozzarella it didn’t melt very well.

Into the oven again. Ok, I’ve timed the whole thing – 3 hours and 46 minutes for my quick, easy meal. It was excellent, by the way. And of course, the whole thing is a little self-conscious - again, I'm not trying to pick on anyone. But a lot of what we've been trained to do as "cooking" in our quick, easy recipes is use items where someone else did a lot of cooking or processing for us. If we are to imagine a diet that depends on our garden economies, we have to imagine that we are doing the work.

I think about all the times I substituted one thing for another – how many people know that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable, but that you can add cream of tartar to make a passable equivalent? How many people do I know personally who believe recipes appear straight from the hand of some deity and would never, ever consider deviating from them? How many times have I posted a recipe somewhere mentioning “to taste” and had six people email me about exactly what I mean by that? How many people who cook based on Martha Stewart Living and Rachel Ray know how to make a quick, easy, healthy meal *really* from scratch, when you are missing half the ingredients? Most of our cooking is grocery store cooking - it requires no substitution, no adaptability, no understanding how ingredients go together and choosing among choices - they simply prescribe a set of practices. But cooking from a garden, without a trip to the store isn't always like that.

Someone once observed that you can tell what decade you are in by how long the “quick and easy” meals take. In the 1970s, a good portion took as much as an hour. By the 80s and early 90s 30 minutes was it. Amazon now counts 23 cookbooks advertising meals in 20 minutes or 15 minutes or less, and a number of them are best sellers.

Now there are 15 minutes meals in sustainable, from scratch cooking. They are called “salads” – or if you don’t count the time spent to make cheese, can jam or bake bread, maybe a sandwich. Even those who cook on a regular gas range, who have to cook from scratch aren’t going to do it in 15 minutes. That’s not to say there are no quick prep options – a lot of times things take longer, but you don’t have to do anything. I can assemble a pot of vegetable soup in 15 minutes, and set it on the back of the woodstove, ignore it for three hours, and then a meal is provided. Bread takes 10 minutes of attention, max – the rest of the time is rising and baking. If I was pushing myself, I could produce a pot of soup, a loaf of bread and a salad in 20 minutes of actual prep time – but 3-5 hours of advance planning for rising, cooking and baking.

It isn’t that there is no such thing as sustainable, quick food – there are a lot of options there. But there is no such thing as sustainable, *THOUGHTLESS* food – that is, meals we don’t think about until five minutes before we eat them. Either we think about them far, far ahead, when we stock up on pasta and can tomato sauce so that we can have five minute spaghetti come spring, or we think about them that day, when we soak the bulgur, harvest the parsley and tomatoes, dig out the lemon juice we froze when organic lemons were on sale, and sort out a sweet onion for the tabbouleh.

It seems beyond self-evident to say that the ability to cook is tied to our ability to eat, but it has not been in the first world. That is, most of us, except for the 12% who go hungry, have had the money to buy the processed bags of baby carrots, the premade yogurt, the restaurant meals, the canned beans. Now we may not have that money, or we may not be able to get them, or we may not be able to afford the harm that shipping them around does to the planet. And we have now raised several generations of people who do not cook.

And they really don’t – slightly over half of all American houses own a roasting pan. More than 10% do not even own a frying pan. 31% of Americans say they “never” cook. More than half of all thanksgiving meals include premade, restaurant and canned items – the one time of year we cook, we don’t. And this isn’t a class issue – Americans who say they “love” to cook do it slightly less often than Americans who say they are neutral on the subject. One study I saw some years ago (and can’t cite because I can’t find it again) notes that people who own no cookbooks, and people who own 30 or more cookbooks both eat the vast majority of their meals from premade ingredients and restaurants – the only difference is that one group eats at diners and fast food places, the other eats at more expensive restaurants. But neither are cooking, and neither are cooking the way they will need to – even the people who have the best information and who say they love to cook aren’t doing it day in and day out, and they aren’t practiced at the kind of cooking we’ll do in the future.

And even those who grow food have trouble eating it. Bart Anderson, in an essay a few years ago in _Permaculture Activist Magazine_ noted that almost no one has made the connection between *growing* the food and actually eating it. Now I’m growing tons of Jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts too – but they haven’t replaced potatoes as my staple foods yet. If they ever had to, I could do it, and I flatter myself I’m a good enough cook to make it taste good too – but appetite fatigue is a real risk for children, the elderly and the ill. Sudden changes in diet can be so stressful that people simply stop eating – and those who are most vulnerable suffer malnutrition and illness as a consequence. Some even die. It is not enough to say “Oh, I’ll eat like this when I have to.” The learning curve is simply too steep, and the stakes too high.

My own observation is that in many cases, it is harder to learn to eat and preserve what you grow all the time than it is to grow it. That’s even truer as we begin eating less common foods, or moving towards a truly local diet. We are making an enormous change in our diets, and in our society as a whole. Food is more than fuel – It is culture, love, happiness, comfort, a part of who we are. How we eat and what we eat is part of our identity – far more than what we grow. We are about to change our identities in a profound way. And at the root of this transition is the question of time – the quick and easy 3 hour meal requires someone to be around to cook it, watch over it, check on it. With a majority of households working hard to make ends meet, we encounter a bind – we could make ends meet better if we didn’t have to buy our food at restaurants, but cooking quickly and sustainably requires knowledge, experience and the time at least to learn how to do it. Most often, it requires someone at home.

Aaron and I probably won’t change the title of the book, or at most we’ll add “A Nation of Cooks” to the title somehow. But the truth is this – a nation reared on instant and quick and easy is about to make a very hard transition – one that transforms the question of what to have for dinner to “how shall we transform our very society down to its deepest roots." Now the good thing is that I suspect that much of this transition will improve our lives, our health and a whole host of other things. But it will be hard, and harder still until we recognize that as challenging as getting 100 million farmers and gardeners will be the creation of 200 million home cooks.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Food for the Solstice

With the solstice, and the darkest night of the year, comes final evaluations of the year's food production. The data are mostly in, the news is quite bad.

"The US Department of Agriculture has predicted that global corn stocks will fall to a 33-year low of just 7.5 weeks of consumption, while global wheat stocks will plunge to their lowest level in at least 47 years at 9.3 weeks."

And there's this:,,2221372,00.html#article_continue

"The risks of food riots and malnutrition will surge in the next two years as the global supply of grain comes under more pressure than at any time in 50 years, according to one of the world's leading agricultural researchers.

Recent pasta protests in Italy, tortilla rallies in Mexico and onion demonstrations in India are just the start of the social instability to come unless there is a fundamental shift to boost production of staple foods, Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute, warned in an interview with the Guardian."

This blog will be quiet for a bit, while we enjoy the rebirth of the cycle of light and darkness, and relax in the quiet time of the winter. For those of you celebrating Christmas and Yule and the Solstice, I wish you a good holiday. And as we go into this time of feasting, pleasure and joy, I hope each of us will think hard about what our role in averting hunger can be in the new year.

Some of us will plant gardens, or expand the ones we have. Some of us might start selling a little more food. Some of us may volunteer with local food security programs or poverty abatement groups. Perhaps we'll give talks at our local church, synagogue, mosque, temple, community center or farmer's market about local food and food security. Perhaps we'll bring food to a neighbor and let them taste the lush glory of local eating.

Maybe we'll start a farmer's market or a coop. Maybe we'll talk to a neighbor or three about the importance of local food systems. Maybe we'll run for zoning board and change that rule about backyard chickens. Maybe we'll get some chickens this year, or rabbits or worms or bees. Maybe we'll work on preserving open space for the animals already here on the planet.

Maybe we'll join Seed Savers, pick out a single variety, and commit to maintaining it in perpetuity so that it doesn't disappear from the earth. Maybe we'll grow a new crop, or more of it, and donate to our food pantry or a local low income family. Maybe we'll make a donation to the Heifer fund or another charity that supports local food systems. Maybe we'll give a little more, and live with a little less and be happy.

Maybe we'll buy more local food, and less from the supermarket. Maybe we'll encourage our local schools or restaurants to buy from local farmers. Maybe someone will start a seed company, microbrewery or a CSA. Maybe we'll get our town to plant fruit and nut trees instead of regular street trees, or start a permaculture forest garden. Maybe we'll start a Victory Garden campaign in our town, city, state... Maybe we'll start thinking of "Victory" as not something you get from war, but from a world where no one goes hungry.

Maybe we'll learn to cook something new from scratch, or teach someone else how to cook staple foods. Maybe we'll do something to promulgate the joys of a really local diet, or explain the problems of CAFO meat and industrial agriculture to someone who doesn't understand. Maybe someone will run for office, and change agricultural policy in your region. Maybe we'll feast gloriously, and eat a little lower on the food chain the rest of the time.

Maybe we'll can or dehydrate something this year, ferment or preserve something we've never tried. Maybe we'll teach a neighbor, a friend, a school class how to put up food, or how to forage. Maybe we'll get our kids to eat the kale this year,
even if we have to disguise it somehow. Maybe we'll get our spouse to eat it too.

Maybe we'll build soil, add organic matter, and sequester some carbon this year. Maybe this year will be the one we give up the chemicals, or the gas powered tools. Maybe this year we'll stop treating the earth like dirt.

Maybe we'll do what we've been doing all along, only more and harder, because we understand what is at stake. Maybe we'll take on a new project, marshall our time and energy a little better. Maybe we'll start tentatively and gain confidence, or take courage and go further with this than we ever have. Maybe one of us will make a difference, or all of us will.

Remember, there are moments that are dark - it isn't just seeming. But the light comes back every year, and it can come back in the face of any darkness. Be the light.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Best Books About Nearly Everything - Part II - Books to Help Us Regenerate

I assume most of you saw Michael Pollan's essay on "sustainability" and our food system, but just in case: Now "sustainable" is a word I've never much liked ever since the assholes at the World Bank began appending the term "development" to it. But I've used it because it conveys something, and I haven't been able to think of a better choice. My friend Keith Johnson, Permaculturist extraordinaire uses, however, "Regenerative/Degenerative" in place of "Sustainable/Unsustainable" - and when he mentioned it while forwarding the Pollan piece, it was like a lightbulb going on - YAY - a better word! I've never liked any of the proposed alternatives so much - after all, we're past the point of sustenence - we have to repair what is broken now.

So here are books I recommend to help us regenerate our society. When I have a chance I'll do a third such post on some other areas, but space is limited, so here's what I've got. Coming in the next post - food preservation, livestock, sewing, knitting, bicycle, soil regeneration, grassroots organizing, brewing, and non-electric vehicle repair and a host of other things. BTW, I welcome suggestions in the comments section, and I strongly suggest people looking for recommendations read the comments section of both posts. There's a lot of wise information there.

Part II: Books to Fix What Is Broken

New Visions for Society

The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy by Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies. Zed Books, London: 1999. This underrated, under-read book proposes a real and meaningful alternative to conventional Marxist/Capitalist debates, and also writes from a perspective focused on women and families. A superb book.

Earth Democracy:Justice, Sustainability and Peace. By Vandana Shiva. South End Press, Cambridge: 2005. Shiva draws the link between environmentalism and democracy quite clearly here.

Powerdown:Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World by Richard Heinberg. New Society, Canada: 2004. Heinberg takes a serious look at what the possibilities are going into peak oil.

Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth by Bill McKibben. Milkweed Editions, Canada: 2007. Other places in the world have managed to navigate some of these problems. McKibben tells us how. By far the best of McKibbens many good books.

Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans… by Rod Dreher. Crown Forum, New York: 2006. Dreher makes the case for a conservativism of conservation, moving right and left together to the sustainable center.

The Logic of Sufficiency by Thomas Princen. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA:2005. Wise and imaginative, Princen dares to propose an alternative vision to our present economy and culture of “efficiency.”

Low Energy Life

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende. HarperCollins, New York:2004. A lovely, poetic account of the author’s experience living with a minimal level of technology.

A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity by Wm. Coperthwaite. Chelsea Green, White River Junction VT: 2004. Coperthwaite has spent years developing a democratic way of living – homes that can be afforded and achieved by even the poor, an axe and a chair that anyone can make. This is a beautiful and useful book.

The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life. Ed. Scott Savage Ballantine Books, New York: 1998. From the practical to the philosophical, this book offers a vision of people all over the country living imaginative, plain lives.

Homesteading and How to Do Nearly Everything – Big Books That Cover Lots of Ground

The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book By Carla Emery. If you could only take one book from this list, this would be the one. Carla tells you how to grow food, cook it, eat it preserve it, and how to do a million other things. It truly is an encyclopedia of sustainability, and despite the word “Country” in it, everyone can use this book.

When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival. By Matthew Stein, Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe: 2000. This book takes you clearly through what you need to know about every imaginable subject in a sustained crisis, and gives clear, solid information and lots and lots of further references. When I want to know something about something I know nothing about, I often go here first.

The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour. DK Publishing, London:2003. A beautiful book that covers how things were once done in Britain, Seymour offers a real sense of the scope of self-sufficiency. The emphasis is on country and rural life.

The Integral Urban House by the Farrallones Institute Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: 1979. This older book is a wonderful tool for a whole host of things, for city dwellers and rural ones. The emphasis, however is on urban dwellers and enabling them to live sustainably. A wonderful book.

The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT: 1999. This book has no peer, except, perhaps, all of Logsdon’s other works. No one is as wise and funny and readable, and has as many ideas. No one is as willing to admit his own flaws and limitations, and no one has as few.

Permaculture, Design, Landscaping

Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, Vermont: 2000. If Permaculture is a new concept to you, or you are attempting to begin transforming a small yard or area on Permaculture principles, this is the best book out there, bar none. In fact, I’m tempted to say it is the best book on Permaculture period that is out there. While others may cover more territory, none of them are as clear, thoughtful and beautifully written as this one.

Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability By David Holmgren. Holmgren Design Services, Victoria AU:2002. Holmgren, the less famous founder of Permaculture, has a full grasp of the application of Permaculture to a lower energy world - he was ahead of the curve on both peak oil and climate change. Lots of great information here.

The Permaculture Design Manual by Bill Mollison. I’m not sure reading Mollison is always a good idea – he can be as obfuscatory as he is enlightening. But he’s a genius, and there’s always good stuff to be had in genius. But if it gets irritating after a while, no, it isn’t just you.

Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier. Toensmeier and Dave Jacke have also written an enormous, two volume tome about Forest gardening in temperate climates. Both are valuable. But the giant encyclopedia is representative of an anality so profound it puts my own to shame – these books are overkill. In Perennial Vegetables Toensmeier has managed to produce an admirable book of reasonable scope with a great deal of helpful information about how you can eat without replanting all the time. Check out the others if you are interested in a more expansive vision – or if you need a big doorstop. They really are of great value to temperate forest gardeners - but like JK Rowling, could have benefitted from a much more assertive editor

The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco: 1982. The emphasis here is on food plants that are beautiful enough to be used even on covenanted lawns. Invaluable!

Adapting Your Home

Insulate and Weatherize by Bruce Harley. Taunton Press, Newtown, CT: 2002. Widely recommended. The only book on this subject that meets Linda Wigington's rigorous standards - and she knows more than anyone about this.

No Regrets Remodeling by the Editors of Home Energy Magazine. Energy Auditor and Retrofitter Inc, Berkeley: 1997. Green remodeling that actually works.

The Backyard Builder: Over 150 Projects for Your Garden, Home and Yard. Ed. Jon Warde. Random House, New York: 1994 Includes plans for a compost drum, orchard ladder, root cellar storage bins.

The ‘Have-More’ Plan by Ed and Carolyn Robinson. Storey Books, North Adams, MA:1983. More than 50 years old, this book still hasn’t lost much of its relevance. The original homesteading design book.

The Reader’s Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual by the Readers Digest Association, Pleasantville, NY: 1973. A friend of mine with much experience in the building trade noted that he could build an entire house with just this book.

The Handyman’s Book:Essential Woodworking Tools and Techniques. By Paul N. Hasluck. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2001. Most woodworking books emphasize power tools – this is a refreshing change, showing you how to build with and use hand tools.

Water and Outputs

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure by J.C. Jenkins. Jenkins Publishing, Grove City PA:1994. What we do with our outputs is at the heart of how we adapt. This is a very important book. It is also surprisingly fun to read.

The Home Water Supply: How to Find, Filter, Store and Conserve It by Stu Campbell. Storey Books, Pownal, VT:1993. Water will be one of the great problems of the coming decades. We all need to know more about our water systems.

Playing with Fire: Heating and Cooking

The New Woodburner’s Handbook by Stephen Bushway. Storey Press, Pownal, VT: 1992. If you are going to heat with wood, be sure to know what you are doing. This book is definitive.

Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost, Wood-Fired Mud Oven by Kiko Denzer. Handprint Press, Blodgett, OR:2000. A wonderful, clear book on how to cook cheaply. Great bread recipe as well! We've done this, and it works beautifully.

Capturing Heat and Capturing Heat II by the Aprovecho Research Institute, 1996. These two pamphlets show how to build a high heat, low fuel use rocket stove, solar oven, masonry stove and other valuable heating and cooking resources. Heating and cooking fuel will be enormous issues in the future, and unless we want to live in a deforested moonscape, we must find efficient ways to keep warm and fed

Gardening and Small Scale Farming Note: People always ask me what one gardening book they should buy - there isn't one. All gardening books are inadequate in a host of ways. You need a gardening library - or a good local library. Also, all gardens are fundamentally local, so seek out writers who focus on your own area whenever you can.

Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Rodale Press, Emmhaus, PA:1981. There is no one garden book that covers everything, but for new gardeners, there is no better single volume.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots by Sharon Lovejoy Workman Publishing, New York: 1999. There can be no more essential work than teaching the next generation to garden. A wonderful, inspiring book for everyone who loves a child.

How to Grow More Vegetables… By John Jeavons. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2002. Technical and deep, this book may have more to do with saving our lives than any other. Jeavons shows how to produce enormous amounts of food in small spaces. The tables in the back alone are worth the price of the book.

One Circle:How to Grow a Complete Diet in Less than 1000 Square Feet. Ecology Action Publications, Willits, CA: 1985. An invaluable companion to the above, David Duhon actually lived on what he could grow in a very small space, and describes what crops and diet can enable us to grow our own food.

Rodale's Successful Organic Gardening: Fruits and Berries by Susan McClure, Rodale Press, Emmhaus, PA: 1996. Beautifully illustrated, this book goes point by point through the basics of raising small fruits and nuts, with a plant by plant guide, including variety recommendations. There are similar books for vegetables and tree fruits, both are good.

Organic Orcharding: A Grove of Trees to Live I by Gene Logsdon, Rodale Press, Emmhaus PA:1981. I like Logsdon's older book better than any current book on organic fruit tree growing. Very readable, very smart, very useful.

Small Scale Grain Raising by Gene Logsdon Rodale Press, Emmhaus, PA:1977. An absolutely essential book, very important going into the future, the only book on this subject, and absolutely definitive. I believe it is available for download.

The Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables From Your Home Garden All Year Long. By Eliot Coleman. Chelsea Green, White River Junction,VT: 1999 How to eat fresh food all year with minimal inputs – a necessary and well written book.

Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers by Edward C. Smith. Storey Publishing, Pownal, VT: 2006. Self-watering containers (aka Earthboxes) can produce enormous yields, expanding our food production capacity. See my post on this here:

Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Seed Saver’s Exchange Inc., Decorah:IA:1991. If we are to have truly self-sustaining food systems, we must save seed. This book tells you how.

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties:The Gardener's and Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving by Carol Deppe. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT: 2000. You think this sounds too arcane? Not at all - the book includes a very readable discussion of genetics and seed viability, easily understood by anyone, that everyone who plants a seed needs, regardless of your other intentions. And all of us who save seed *ARE* breeding plants - it can't be avoided. A wonderful, enjoyable, necessary book.

The Bountiful Container by McGee and Stuckey. Workman Publishing, New York: 2002. This is the best single book about container based food gardening out there.

Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich. Workman Publishing, New York: 2001. A good introduction to mulch gardening and the science behind it.

Growing 101 Herbs that Heal by Tammi Hartung. Storey Books, North Adams, MA 2000. The best book I know about growing medicinal herbs.


Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook by Werner, Thurman and Maxwell. Hesperian Foundation, Berkeley: 2002. Everyone should own this book, read it, and be familiar with its information. This book was designed for people in rural areas who might not have access to medicine, but represent a powerful blueprint for communities in America who may also struggle to get the medical care they need in a lower energy society with climate related health problems.

Where There Is No Dentist by Murray Dickson. Hesperian Foundation, Palo Alto: 1983. Millions of Americans have no access to dental care right now. This book fills an enormous gap in our culture.

Where Women Have No Doctor by Burns, Maxwell and Shapiro. Hesperian Foundation, Berkeley: 1997. Again, an essential resource for those who may have no access to women’s medical care – either today or in the future.

The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook by the American Red Cross Society and Kathleen Handal M.D. Little, Brown and Co. New York:1995. This represents the absolute minimum an ordinary person should know about first aid.

Heart and Hands: A Midwife’s Guide to Pregnancy and Birth by Elizabeth Davis. Celestial Arts Publishing, Berkely:1997. Several of the midwives I’ve met recommend this book as one of the best books on home birth and midwifery. Everyone in community must have someone who can safely deliver a baby if it is needed. An excellent text.

Ditch Medicine:Advanced field Procedures for Emergencies by Hugh Coffee. Paladin Press, Berkeley: 1993. This is the book you hope you never, ever have to use. But in the mean time, make sure someone in your community, ideally several someones, have read this book.

The Bates Guide to Physical Examination and History Taking by Bickley and Szilagyi. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, New York: 2007. This is a highly technical and extremely expensive book, but also very important. Knowing how to examine someone and take a medical history is essential to providing even basic community medical care.

Herbal and Alternative Medical Care

The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions… by James A. Duke, Ph.d. Rodale Press, Emmhaus PA: 1997. James A. Duke is one of the world’s foremost herbalists, and this is an alphabetical (by ailment) guide to the use of herbal medicine.

Herb Contraindications and Drug Interactions by Francis Brinker, N.D. Eclectic Medical Publications, Sandy, OR: 1998. This highly technical work is essential for people using herbs. It provides exhaustive lists of potential problems. Very much recommended.

Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria by Stephen Bulmer. Storey Publications, Pownal, VT: 1999. The wild growth of MRSA and other antibiotic resistant infections make this book absolutely essential.

The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual by James Green. Crossing Press, Berkeley:2000. Most books on herbalism assume that you will buy your remedies at the store, but this one offers real strategies for getting medicine from your yard.

The Textbook of Natural Medicine by Pizzorno and Murray. Churchill Livingston, New York: 2007. Very expensive new, and highly technical, this is not a layperson’s guide, but valuable for anyone who wants to go beyond ordinary lay knowledge.


The More With Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre. One of four cookbooks in a series by the Mennonite Central Committee, all four focus on staple foods, meat used as a treat or seasoning, and accessible recipes. TMLC is great for basic, staple American-style reciples. _Extending the Table_ provides authentic ethnic recipes and stories from around the world and is my personal favorite. _Simply In Season_ focuses on seasonal eating and the _Simply in Season Children's Cookbook_ is the best kid's cookbook out there, bar none.

From the Earth:Chinese Vegetarian Cooking by Eileen Yin Fei Lo. MacMillan, New York: 1995. There are lots of recipes in American storage cookbooks for mock meat made from tofu and gluten. Most of them, frankly, suck. They don't taste anything like meat, and they don't taste particularly good, either. On the other hand, if you've ever eaten Chinese Buddhist cooking, you will realize that there exists the perfect fruition of fake meat cookery. It is very,very good. So if you think you may have soybeans and wheat for dinner any time soon, this is the cookbook to have.

Mediterranean Grains and Greens by Paula Wolfert. One of the more fascinating cookbooks I own. It is 350 pages of recipes using mostly whole grains and fresh greens. Most Americans would hardly believe it was possible to write such a cookbook, but it is not merely possible, but glorious.

The Soup and Bread Cookbook by Crescent Dragonwagon. People borrow this book, and it is never seen again. I've given up lending it out, and now I make everyone get their own. It is a very simple concept - recipes for soup made of everything imaginable. Every vegetable, legume, etc... Soups with milk, soups with broth, even a few soups with meat (although the vast majority are vegetarian). And some bread and salad recipes to accompany them. The soups are the centerpiece. A definite keeper - under lock and key, if necessary.

The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Lewis was one of the great figures of American cooking. She grew up in a community of farmers, African American descendents of freed slaves, and this book is an evocative and delicious link to that culture and its cuisine. This is real, seasonal, delicious country food, along with lovely narratives of what the life was like. The food is simple, and if you don't grow your own, you are unlikely to understand what is so beautiful about her emphasis on the natural, real flavors of food.

The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book by Laurel Robertson. Random House, New York: 1984. If you are going to grind your own to make your bread, you need this book.There's definitely an old fashioned, 1970s complete proteins and carob cookies feel to it, but who cares. There are hundreds of recipes for bread products using every kind of grain, and it is well worth having.

Local Food Systems

Coming Home to Eat by Gary Nabhan. WW Norton, New York: 2002. The first of the local food books, it remains one of the best, and is particularly useful for those looking to eat local in the West.

Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community by H.C. Flores. Funny and smart, with a strong leftist agenda, this is not so much a garden book as a food systems book. Worth a look.

Bringing the Food Economy Home by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Zed Books, London:2002. Norberg-Hodge analyzes the present food system and imagines an alternative, demolishing myths in her wake.

Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Racuous Year of Eating Locally. By Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. Harmony Books, New York:2007. Smith and MacKinnon had the disadvantage of their book coming out in the same year as Kingsolver’s, but both books are important and worth a read, offering different gifts.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, New York: 2007. Lyrical and funny, wise and brilliant, if you read only one book about food, make it this one.


Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber. WW Norton, New York: 2001. No woman should ever enter the journey to motherhood without understand what industrial society has done to her body and her capacity to create life. A beautiful and disturbing book.

Last Child in the Wood: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, New York: 2006. Details the horrific damage we are doing to our children as we destroy the natural world.

Homeschooling and Ecological Education:

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich Marion Boyers Publishing, New York: 2002. Like all Illich’s books, wonderful, radical, inspiring, outrageous, ultimately hopeful.

Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment and the Human Prospect by David Orr. Island Press, Washington:2004. David Orr is wise and wonderful, and more fully grasps the problems of creating an ecological education than anyone I know of.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere. Continuum Publishing, New York:1993. A classic. First, they tell you that what you know doesn’t matter – this is the truth that underlies much of the difficulty in our educational system. Every teacher (and this means all of us) should read this book.

Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. By John Taylor Gatto. New Society, BC:2005. Gatto, a former teacher, sees little hope for “the system” but a great deal of hope for new ideas.

Monday, December 17, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 31 - Learn to Do It Yourself I liked this article, in part because I identify. I grew up with handy parents, and I learned some things from them - cooking, chopping wood, making do - but I also missed out on others. Even though my step-mother is a talented woodworker, I never learned. Even though she does plumbing repair, I didn't pay attention. My father hunted, but I wasn't interested when he might have taken me and taught me to be a good shot. My grandmother and aunt were remarkably talented at knitting, sewing and crocheting - I've had to painfully learn those skills over myself without them. Can I just say how badly I'd like to have my adolescence and early adulthood back, so I could PAY ATTENTION when people showed me useful things.

Almost all of us need to learn new/old skill sets - even if we already cook, we have to learn food preservation. Even if we already build thing, we may have to learn to do them with hand tools, rather than power tools. And in some areas, we're starting from 0. What is timber framing, anyway? What's the difference between straw and hay, and which one do I want to mulch my garden with? How do you make a pickle? How do you make a running stitch, and will that fix that hole? What's greywater?

It can seem utterly overwhelming - so many things to do, so little time. Why even start?

Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is while I'm a big fan of enriching your neighbors, and we do hire out for a number of projects, the truth is that sometimes, things just need to get done - now, by you. The second is that many of us may not always have the money to pay someone else, or the option of hiring out in tough times. And finally, even if you don't want to do something yourself, knowing the basics of how it works means that you don't have to get taken by someone you hire. Greenpa has a great post about that here, in regards to researching, purchasing and installing solar panels (something I have no idea how to do, btw ;-):

The thing is not to get overwhelmed. Just go ahead, and figure it, get started, and expect to make some stupid mistakes. Accept that it will take a good long while before this is as natural to you as it was to people who learned it from childhood - but that it will come. I'm not a patient woman, and the part where you sort of know how to do something but it takes six times as long as it takes a skillful person, you keep messing up and every step is painful is *NOT* my favorite part of anything. I get frustrated easily, and I just want to skip ahead to being a natural. But it doesn't work that way. You have to suck at things for a while first.

The best way to learn anything is to apprentice yourself to someone. Call up your neighbor the bow hunter, your grandma the canner, your uncle Al who builds boats, and say "I want to learn what you know - can I come hang around and help you. I'll do scut work if you tell me how." This is both flattering and useful, and most people will really like it. Books are good too - they can tell you the basics, and you can really learn a lot from good books - my favorite books for hands on type skills are books written for kids - they tend to be very, very clear in their directions, while books written arean't always. The internet is obviously a powerful tool too - video, for example, is wonderful. Taking classes can be great - but the absence of any of these things shouldn't keep us from starting, nor should our fear of failure ever prevent us from goinger forward

And eventually, your job is just to dive in. Never baked bread before? Well, there are some bad, horrible things you can do with baking break (a college roommate of mine somehow managed to make a loaf of bread that had the density of a collapsed star and the smell of newly made vodka - I still don't know how he did that), but if worst comes to worst, your compost pile will happily eat them. When you screw up, laugh and try again. And most of the time, things will come out fine.

So get a piece of cloth, and start cutting out quilt squares. Get a hammer, some nails and a saw, and build something. Got a broken appliance? Take it apart - maybe you'll fix it. At least you'll start to know what the inside of a toaster or a radio looks like.

The thing is, you probably will make messes, and horrible mistakes. But you'll also learn a lot - including some things that no one can tell you. No one, for example, can tell you whether you really do need a spinning wheel or if you can make do with a drop spindle until you know how much spinning you'll do and how you like to do it. No one can tell you whether you'll want a chainsaw or if you can be content with a bucksaw until you've tried. And once you've established some basic competence, you know whether you are going to like this enough to need an expert's equipment or if the cheap version will do you fine.

And then it is on to the next thing - read, research, apply, and while you keep applying, once you have some fluency and mastery, on you go to the next project. Feeling incompentent regularly makes you humble ;-). And getting competent regularly makes you proud.

So instead of lamenting what your Dad knew that you don't, just try it. Pretty soon you'll be calling up Dad and asking to borrow his belt sander.


Friday, December 14, 2007

The Price of Things

John Michael Greer has an interesting article about agriculture over at energy bulletin here:, because of its emphasis on the paying of a (largely unspecified) price for things. Generally speaking, I approve of Greer's willingness to be clear on the fact that transitions are not always easy - I think there are threads in the peak oil and climate change movements that both overestimate and underestimate the sheer amount of trauma change will cause - I think generally Greer, who doesn't sanitize things, but also is alive to possibilities, does a good job.

But here, I think, Greer's vision of a future agriculture falters, based, I think on an implied mathematics in which the full price of one side of an equation (the cost of transitioning to a sustainable agriculture) is laid up against an account that elides the costs of the other side of the equation. That is, Greer is right to want us to be open about the price of transitioning to another sort of agriculture. But he potentially overstates the price of this transition, by ignoring the gains offered in such a change, and thus, leaving readers with a misleading sense of the balance sheet.

This is not an error made by Greer alone, and I use this article as an example in part because I think it is a useful demonstration of how much what we "know" is naturalized into our lives so that we cannot see the consequences. I admire Greer's writing and thought, and don't intend to single him out here - but his are assumptions I see made often, and worth deconstructing.

Allow me to quote Greer's claims about the "price" we are likely to pay at length here.

All these transformations and the others that will come after them, though, have their price tag. The central reason why modern industrial agriculture elbowed its competitors out of the way was that, during the heyday of fossil fuel consumption, a farmer could produce more food for less money than ever before in history. The results combined with the transportation revolution of the 20th century to redefine the human food chain from top to bottom. For the first time in history, it became economical to centralize agriculture so drastically that only a very small fraction of food was grown within a thousand miles of the place where it was eaten, and to turn most foodstuffs into processed and packaged commercial products in place of the bulk commodities and garden truck of an earlier era. All of this required immense energy inputs, but at the time nobody worried about those.

As we move further into the twenty-first century, though, the industrial food chain of the late twentieth has become a costly anachronism full of feedback loops that amplify increases in energy costs manyfold. As a result, food prices have soared – up more than 20% on average in the United States over the last year – and will very likely continue to climb in the years to come. As industrial agriculture prices itself out of the market, other ways of farming are moving up to take its place, but each of these exacts its price. Replace diesel oil with biodiesel, and part of your cropland has to go into oilseeds; replace tractors altogether with horses, and part of your cropland has to go into feed; convert more farmland into small farms serving local communities, and economies of scale go away, leading to rising costs. The recent push to pour our food supply into our gas tanks by way of expanded ethanol production doesn’t help either, of course.

All this will make life more challenging. Changes in the agricultural system will ripple upwards through the rest of society, forcing unexpected adjustments in economic sectors and cultural patterns that have nothing obvious to do with agriculture at all. Rising prices and shrinking supplies will pinch budgets, damage public health, and make malnutrition a significant issue all through the developed world; actual famines are possible, and may be unavoidable, as shifting climate interacts with an agricultural economy in the throes of change. All this is part of the price of adaptation, the unavoidable cost of changing from a food system suited to the age of fossil fuels to one that can still function in the deindustrial transition.

The same process can serve as a model for other changes that will be demanded of us as the industrial system moves deeper into obsolescence. Adaptation is always possible, but it’s going to come with a price tag, and the results will likely not be as convenient, abundant, or welcome as the equivalents were in the days when every American had the energy equivalent of 260 slaves working night and day for his or her comfort. That can’t be helped. Today’s industrial agriculture and the food chain depending on it, after all, were simply the temporary result of an equally temporary abundance of fossil fuel energy, and as that goes away, so will they. The same is true of any number of other familiar and comfortable things; still, the more willing we are to pay the price of transition, the better able we will be to move forward into the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.

It isn't entirely clear to me what sequence of events Greer is imagining - he allows the root causes of the malnutrition, public health problems and famine he imagines to remain vague, a vagueness that me suggests that he wishes ust to take these results as a given, and an inevitability without too much scrutiny. But I think we do need to scrutinize his claims, which seem to be that Industrial agriculture produced cheap food, and a transition to sustainable agriculture comes with two big bumps in the road - long term rises in food prices, and the problems of shifting systems.

And to some degree, Greer is almost certainly correct. My objection is not to his articulation of the difficulties, but to his presumption that such difficulties must inevitably lead to a price as high as malnutrition, damage to public health and famine - this, I think he has not established, but is rather relying on the unbalanced equation mentioned above to substantiate.

To balance the equation, let's begin with the claim that we have produced more food at lower cost than ever before. There are a number of scholarly analyses that suggest otherwise. While Americans, for example, spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any people in history, in _Bringing the Food Economy Home_ Helena Norberg-Hodge documents that this is misleading - in fact, if you account for the fact that most families are now two income households, we are paying more for our food as a percentage of income that we were before World War II and the great move to industrialization.

In addition, Chalmers Johnson documents the role that militarization has played in the food economy. The move of millions of young men and women who would have stayed on family farms into the workforce has encouraged, enabled and required enormous investment in military programs, to give working class, high school educated young men and women work to do. This money comes largely from our tax base, and if factored in, raises the price of food dramatically above all prior estimates. It is at least twice as expensive to shift your young people into the military and its subsidies and go to war as it is to let them grow dinner and eat it.

Were we, for example, in America to give up the project of empire, keep a defense-suited only, smaller military, and move the same tax subsidies into food price stabilization and (vastly cheaper) investments in agricultural job training for the young men and women who now go into the military, we could expect to see several million new young, healthy farmers, lower overhead costs for their training, medical care and lifetime disability from being blown up or blowing people up, and an enormous new body of food producers, with stable prices. This is only one possible paradigm, and one that obviously involves major foreign policy shifts, so is unlikely - but it is important to note that our food is not, in fact, cheap - the costs are externalized, and if we were able to either shift those costs that are externalized onto the general public either back to them, or towards more productive, useful places, we would reap enormous benefits.

The health costs of industrial food also exceed the likely rise in food prices in a small scale industrial agriculture. At this point, 1/4 of the US population has no access to health care at any price, and nearly half have no insurance. More than 1/3of the population spends more on medical care than on food. And the effects of better nutrition are well documented - longer lifespans in Europe during WWII and in Cuba during the special period suggests that a shift to garden agriculture can result not in malnutrition, but improved nutrition.

The reality is that food yields at present are counted only in the largest consumed staple grains - but the shift to industrial agriculture has resulted in these grains being planted to the exclusion of other foods, all foods lost in the agricultural stream. It is not just in the third world where more grain has resulted in worse nutrition, but in the rich world as well. According to Marion Nestle's _Food Politics) up to 1/4 of the US population is overweight *and* suffering from malnutrition, in the technical definition of the term which means suffering from multiple nutritional deficits. We think of malnutrition as a matter of starvation, but it is not - it is the lack of a nutritionally adequate diet, and that describes many Americans, and to a lesser extent members of other rich world nations. There are reasons to believe that a shift to small scale polyculture, and a reduced emphasis on grain agriculture would result in less malnutrtion, not more. There is every reason to believe it would result in substantially lowered costs for health care - whether those reductions in cost would come about quickly enough to help out the average family is debatable - probably not for baby boomers and other elders suffering from the consequences of a lifetime of eating industrial food. But is worth noting that Cubans saw lifespan increases and improved health not only among younger people, but among the elderly as well.

The nutritional density of the food we eat also matters as much as sheer quantity. We need a certain number of calories, of course, but the number of calories required depends in large part on our ability to meet basic nutritional needs through them. So, for example, organic produce that is in many cases 40% or more nutritious than conventional produce means that less food can still mean better nutrition. There are limits on how far this equation can be played, particularly among the elderly and children, but even normal weight adults can often live in substantially fewer calories than recommended provided they are the right calories, and that they maximize nutrition.

Greer's claim that it "became economical" to centralize agriculture also bears some scrutiny. As Peter Rosset shows in _Food is Different_, the total subsidies (overt and covert) to industrial agriculture over the last 50 years are measured in trillions of dollars. It is not, in fact, clear that it was ever more economical to centralize agriculture. As Jules Pretty has documented over and over again, low input, small scale agriculture results in a substantial increase in caloric output. His studies, covering more than 50 countries and 150,000 farmers suggest that small scale, low fossil input produce substantially more output - 150% or more, than industrial agriculture. The "economies of scale" that Greer mentions are mostly a myth - it is true that in terms of yield - that is, maximizing the production of a single crop per acre, organic yields at best can compete with but not vastly exceed present yields. But the truth is that we don't have to, as Americans mostly do, eat just corn in a variety of ways in every meal - diversified polyculture on a very small yield has a vastly greater output - that is total production of food calories and nutritional value, as Peter Rosset documents in his paper "Small is Bountiful."

The fact is, it may never have been economically sensible to centralize food production - and if that's true, we can expect to see that, again, if we shift social costs around wisely, we may not find ourselves paying so vastly much more for food that we cannot bear the price. The same is true about sheer quantities of food - a real and fair analysis must include the food we aren't growing in place of what we are, what we lost as well as what we gained.

I've written more about this in paper on the Green Revolution here:, but as food writer Margaret Visser notes in _Much Depends on Dinner_, industrial agriculture improved grain yields, but in many cases reduced nutritional value, and in some cases, reduced the total number of available calories. The classic example was in rice paddy farming, where "higher yielding" rice varieties also had higher rates of shattering (more crop loss), were more vulnerable to pests and diseases (more crop loss), and because of their dependence on chemicals and fertilizers, killed the frogs and fish that were traditional sources of fat and protein, and destroyed the green weeds that provided nutritional balance. In the net, more grain often meant less food and worse nutrition.

It is a commonplace to believe that industrial agriculture has given us cheaper food. Why do we believe this? Not because it is definitively true - in fact, it is probably not. Even the World Bank now admits that small scale polyculture is both more productive and cheaper than fossil fueled agriculture. At best the subject is up to dispute. But so many of us "know" this that it is easy for us to begin from this assumption, and thus carry it out to argue, as Greer does, that a future of sustainable food is bound to be caught up in hunger and malnutrition.

And, of course, I've left out the obvious costs of externalization - the fossil fueled economy was only ever cheaper than the agrarian economy because we declind to pay the price of fossil fuels. That is, we shifted the price diachronically, onto future generation - right now, we are paying for planetary warming done when I was a small child. A whole host of such payments are coming due now. This I have left largely out, because there are few short term returns here to compensate for rising food prices - that is, the economic benefits here will largely fall upon our children.

Greer is not very clear on exactly what the price of a food transition will be, but he focuses on higher food prices. This is, to an extent, likely to be true. He is correct, for example, that a transition to an animal-powered agriculture will consume a substantial portion of our total production.

But again, let us balance the sheets. For example, Greer mentions the loss of about 1/3 of one's land production to animal feed. That is true for a horse-based agriculture (oxen use less, as do water buffalo), and it can be hard to imagine a society in which 1/3 of all food is fed to draft animals. But we presently live in a society where very nearly that amount of food is lost to waste. That is, 17% of our food is lost to disease and pests (up by more than 10% from the pre-pesticide era), and almost 20% more is lost, mostly in transit, or in the back of our fridges. The minimizing of waste created by local, organic agricultures (use of Integrated Pest Management can raise yields and reduce losses to below pre-green revolution levels as Pretty documents) would account for half of that. Grazing animals on unused marginal space and land unsuitable for tillage would increase production still further. And intensive, human scale agriculture would reduce the need for draft animals - such agriculture could be wholly human powered or powered by food producing animals, "pigging" up ground, or geese weeding gardens.

Here we come to the heart of the question - is a shift to a new kind of agriculture likely to be inherently disruptive? Are food prices likely to rise out of control, and shortages occur, creating famines and malnutrtion?

The answer, of course, is "it depends" which is somewhat different than Greer's claim that we have to be prepared to pay this price. It is certainly possible, even probable that the process of shifting to a new form of agriculture could be painful and disruptive. It is also within the realm of possibility that it could not be. Remember, we have made agricultural/cultural shifts before without famine. In World War II, Americans were warned to expect food shortages, and the Victory Garden movement arose to compensate - in fact, food shortages, despite enormous disruptions in the agricultural labor force, in farming techniques, in input availability and other sources never arose. While hunger did arise in Cuba and the Soviet Union, widespread malnutrition never did, nor did full scale famine. While the Soviet Union was a public health disaster, Cuba demonstrated that food system changes don't have to be accompanied by such a crisis. And it is worth asking whether, if a movement or national program to transition *in advance* of the crisis had arisen, even such consequences as were borne in both countries might have been avoided.

Now this is not World War II, George Bush is not Franklin Roosevelt, and we can all imagine here why a transition today might not be as smooth. Greer is almost certainly taking these points as a given, perhaps that's fair. But I personally prefer to call the proverbial (and apt) spade a spade here - the likelihood of system failure that Greer attributes to the process of adaptation is more accurately attributed to *poor* processes of adaptation. That may, horribly, be the best that Americans can hope for - but other rich world nations, which Greer includes in his famine list, are likely to do better. And it is not fully clear to me that even the American case is hopeless.

Nor are out of control food prices an inevitability. We can expect to see a rise in food prices, and expect the poor world to suffer from it. But a transition to a sustainable agriculture that includes large numbers of gardens can compensate by simply reducing the funds required in outlay for food. The average American yard is just over a quarter acre. That quantity of land can produce an enormous amount of food - not everything anyone might want to eat in most cases, but enough to allow Americans to compensate for rising farmer payments. Moreover, when farmers actually get to keep most of the money they put into their food, rather than passing it on to multinational corporations, it becomes feasible for farmers to make a real and adequate living. Simply eliminating middlemen, processing, shipping and supermarkets and stabilizing food prices would enrich most farmers beyond their present dreams of avarice.

In addition, we can expect to see other costs fall - health care is most likely one of these, but there are others. Housing costs are another - the decline (if there has been one) in food prices in the rich world over the last fifty years has been compensated for by rising costs for housing, and by a transition of housing into the role of "consumer of resources" rather than creator of them. Changes in zoning, home food gardens, but moreover, a move to cottage industry and small scale local economies, combined with an inventory of low cost "walkaway" housing and consolidated homes mean that US cost of living is unlikely to remain the same. It is true that energy costs will continue to rise - which is one of the reasons why a *good* transition matters so much - with guidance, average families can be guided away from a need for much fossil fueled power, to homes that operate with human power and little energy.

Public health disasters are not inevitable either - a low cost, low input health care system can be added to most local areas, improving the current health status of the 40% of all Americans who presently can't afford even the most basic of health care, because of lack of insurance access. We have as model medical infrastructure in places like Kerala and Cuba that expend little money (Cuba spends $176 per person for health care, and Kerala less than $40 per person) and manage to maintain similar lifespans and infant mortality rates to the US. Because most public health measures can be achieved with minimal energy inputs and education, there is no need for such a disaster to occur - again, the distinction between a poor transition, and the problems of transitioning, I think are important here.

It is true that in a very fast crash, such a transition might inevitably lead to famine, malnutrition and public health crises, but I find it hard to believe that Greer, one of the most reasonable voices in the discussion of "doom" has shifted his position to believe that we are all going to go straight to Mad Max. But a slower adaptive process, implied in Greer's opener, need not involve large scale shortfalls.

That is not to say that price won't be paid - it just isn't necessarily the one Greer articulates. The price would come in dietary and cultural changes, the amount of labor that food production would demand of us, and economic changes. Fairly rapidly, we would have to move to a society with many more people working on small farms, and most people growing gardens at home. The economic shift would be rapid and probably stressful - we have trained a workforce to mostly pass information and stuff back and forth, and they are going to have to learn to produce something. The educational and training component, as well as the economic and social shifts are likely to be difficult.

Schools will have to shift to teaching food production, workers will have to be rapidly retrained to grow food in gardens and on farms. Agricultural salaries will have to be ramped up, and there will be some price rises. Land will have to be acquired, large farms probably broken up and sold off, and intensive farming and gardening courses offered, along with cooking and food preservation.

All of us are going to have learn to eat regionally, to give up the fantasy that we can all eat the same thing all the time. Diets will shift away from high fat, high meat, high sugar consumption and transition to more vegetables, more staple root crops (easier to grow than grains on a home scale). More time and energy will have to be shifted into cooking and preserving food, and diets will become not only local, but seasonal. Farmers in regions will have to shift to crops that grow well in their area, and consumers will have to begin eating those crops.

Most of us are also going to have to find time to garden. The industrial economy, to the extent it goes on, is going to have to become less productive as we delve more deeply into subsistence.

But all of these transitions can come without famine, public health crises or rises in malnutrition - in fact, both the latter factors could be improved by a good transition. There will be a cost, and I do not think it is wise to underestimate what it will be - many people will mourn the days when microwave dinners filled with fat and salt were available to them. Many of us will miss our evenings curled up with a bag of cheetos. I am not joking when I say that these are real losses.

So too will some people suffer when the jobs they've trained for disappear under them and they are expected to get to work in their gardens and on farms. Men especially seem to struggle with the idea that they have lost their professional identity, and this will bring about real pain. Nor should we underestimate the physical pain of transitioning our bodies back to whole foods and regular exercise. All of these will exact prices.

But they are prices an order of magnitude different than the ones Greer articulates. His prices may still strike us - but they are a not an inevitable cost of adaptation, but a result of bad adaptation. And I do not believe that it is so self-evident that we cannot adapt well that we should begin from the assumption that we cannot. For example, it is hard to imagine a national program of leadership that led us to a large scale Victory Garden movement and an agricultural transition - but as I discussed recently in my article about Richard Heinberg's claims about how achieve such a transition, in Cuba and the Soviet Union, and in World War II, most of the largest food system changes that mitigated hunger came not from above, but from ordinary people in communities. That is, it is not evident to me that even if we have (and we do) a feckless, evil government, that the people cannot do better.

The price of change is often high. But I'm not sure I agree even with Greer's larger claim that we have to be prepared to pay this price. We were not prepared to pay the price of industrial agriculture - even now, most people do not seem to realize that industrial agriculture has something that can be described in the whoel as a "price" rather than fragmentary inconveniences. Instead, we were sold a set of benefits - told that industrial agriculture would do this and that. In fact, many of those benefits were false - they were lies and we did not get even what we were promised. But to the extent that industrial agriculture did do what we were promised, we took our promises and didn't ask the price. Which is why I think it is so important that we look carefully at the benefits of giving up industrial agriculture and shifting to a sustainable system, in relationship to the price. We need to know, just as clearly as real price we'll pay, what we get in return. And what we get is not just "avoiding the apocalypse" - there's more, much more.