Sunday, February 24, 2008

If You Are Looking For Me...

You won't find me or my writings here any more. They are over at my new site, See you there!!


Tuesday, February 19, 2008


A couple of notes for y'all:

1. There are still four spaces left in the online food storage class. The in-person one (much less in depth than this) was a lot of fun - I really enjoyed it, and can't wait to get into more detail about food storage. That class concentrated almost entirely on bulk purchasing and dry grains, but I'm looking forward to getting into preserving your own and a host of other things. So if you were hoping to join, but presuming the class was full up, please send me an email at

I'll also be putting up preliminary materials for those following along online next week. I'm looking forward to the blog conversations we'll have about this.

2. So only a short time after I premiered my latest blog, I'm shutting it down - and this one too!

But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop blogging (give up my rantings - never!). After I premiered Depletion-Abundance, an online friend of mine, Deb, kindly emailed me to say that she thought the site sucked ;-).

Note: Edited to say Deb didn't actually say it sucked. She said she thought it was kind of underwhelming. I don't want to give anyoen the impression Deb was rude - but it sounded funnier this way ;-).

But she had a cure for this - she offered to help me set up a brand new website that would cover blog, books, and other materials. She wouldn't even take my firstborn son in return - so I hope she'll take my profuse public thanks!

So Deb has designed a gorgeous new site for me, and kicked my behind into taking it seriously. She's been working like a dog on it, and I'll be premiering the site sometime next week. All the material from here will be available there (link coming), including the older archived posts from both sites. Plus there will be new material.

In the meantime, there probably won't be many new blog posts in the next few days, as we transfer stuff over. Bear with us - it should be a short term problem.I'll put up an announcement when the time comes, but I just wanted you to know that it is in the offing.



Monday, February 18, 2008

Everyone Talks About their Period, but Nobody Does Anything About It...

...Except Crunchy Chicken. One of the things I like best about Crunchy's writing is her straightforward bluntness on bodily issues. In fact, she rather puts me to shame - I was once famous for that sort of thing. When I was doing AIDS education, I used to do a "15 ways to put a condom on a banana (or a partner)" demo that managed to embarass almost everyone. But since I've become a staid peak oil and climate change writer, I've hardly even mentioned bodily fluids or the orifices from which they flow. This is a pity, and must change.

Well, Crunchy has done me one much better - she's not only talking about menstruation, she's making change in the world. Millions of young African women miss school because they have no menstrual supplies. Commercial makers of disposables are supplying some of them - and getting a lot of advertising credit for it, but the pads are then burnt, and the free supplies are a temporary measure, designed to create a market for disposable products many poor women and girls can ill afford. Crunchy has started a non-profit, working with aid agencies, to get women to sew or donate reusable pads to these women - and asked me if I'd help. Not only do I want to help, but I can't say enough how much admire Crunchy's passion - and her speed. It was less than a week before she had a project up and going.

So I strongly recommend that all of my readers read Crunchy's posts on this matter: and and visit her new website here: and make a donation, either of your time or money. I will be.

You will also soon be able to donate through this site, but as you all know, I'm a techno-moron, and the addition of something as complex as a donation button to my blog is way, way beyond my skills. So I'm relying on a kind friend to help me.

And, as long as we're talking bodily fluids here, may I also recommend that everyone think seriously about their own, as well as the menstrual needs of the world's poor. Disposable menstrual products bite - they aren't as pleasant or comfortable as the reusable ones, they cost tons more, and they add to landfill waste and used ones produce methane, an greenhouse gas with many times the warming power of carbon. While teenage girls may not yet be ready to carry around used pads (although it is perfectly possible to do so very discreetly), all us grownup women have no excuse.

You have a whole host of choices here - long lasting, very comfortable cups like the Keeper and the Diva Cup (I have a diva):, and various cloth pads that can be made: Note, the ppatterns Crunchy is using work well for ourselves too: or bought: or some other site - my own come from gladrags, and I've been very happy with them: but She Who Must Be Crunched has a list here:

While you are doing good in Africa, if you aren't using reusable menstrual supplies, do good here, for us and the entire planet, and switch over.

And men, I don't want to hear any whinging about this post. In fact, unless you are gay or celibate and never interact with women under 60, you should be reading this with some interest. Perhaps you have a daughter, a friend, a sister, or a wife who might be interested in this information. There are lots of women out there who might be nervous about doing this because they've been taught that menstruation is dirty or bad. It helps to have a husband or friend who deals matter of factly with your period, and who (if the relationship is intimate enough to allow for this) is gently encouraging (without pressure) to make the conversion.

And please, folks, donate to Crunchy's project. It is such a little thing - and a huge thing - women's education is enormously important for their political and social status, their reproductive future (education is tightly correlated with birthrates) and their economic and environmental security. It would be easy to underestimate how important this is. Fortunately, Crunchy hasn't!

Goods for Girls

And next on the bodily fluids parade: the reusable condom, its engineering and the future of sperm (which isn't actually a joke - I've written about this:



Thursday, February 14, 2008

Seize the Day - Threshold Moments and the Hope for Change

It is common to respond to plans for radical change by stating that it is impossible to get this or that change enacted. This, of course, is manifestly wrong. We have only to look at historical events to see that it is perfectly possible, for both good and ill, to radically change circumstances in a host of ways that looked completely impossible not very long before.

The question is, how does that happen? And is it possible to imagine that we could, in fact, change things, and for example, bring about a relocalized economy, or 100 million farmers? Is that even feasible? More importantly, could it possibly happen before it has to? That is, we all know that we'd be a lot more secure if the transition to a sustainable agriculture happened a little before we were all out of food. Is that within the realm of possibility? I think so, but it requires a change in our perspective.

Now generally speaking, radical change is enacted one of two ways. The first is by revolution of one sort or another – a violent (not always warlike, but always violent), and deeply disruptive overthrow of what has gone before. In a very short time – the casting off of what has always seemed inviolable – slavery, colonialism, the divine of kings – transforms the landscape.

The problem with revolutions is that the costs are extremely high. Even a non-violent revolution means that large chunks of the existing population in power are simply cast out, and often come back to haunt you (think Cuba’s wealthy landowners, for example). Revolutions are vastly destructive, and anyone who simply isn’t ready, either adapts, or is overrun.

The other option is culture change – the gradual transition of a society from old values to new ones. It starts as a small movement, growing gradually, until ideas permeate the culture. Most of those who resist are given the chance to acclimate, and eventually come to accept, if not like, the dominant culture view. Eventually, cultural norms make it impossible even for those who espoused previous views to acknowledge them or to express them – think, for example, of the American Civil Rights movement. While racism was once a cultural norm in the US, now if you ask around, there are only about 4 people in the US who will admit to ever having expressed racist views.

The difficulty with this method is that it is far too slow for our present purposes – the major advances of the Civil Rights movement, for example, came over a period of 20 years. We simply don’t have 20 years of marching and gradually changing cultural norms.

Now it is necessarily the case that every movement contains elements of both of these – that is, the Civil Rights movement did include revolutionaries, and revolutions often begin with demonstrations. It is impossible for me to describe historical courses in any detail in a five page essay – but most such changes are dominated, either by a moment of overthrow, or by the lack of that moment.

Are those our only choices? That is, are our only options taking up arms, or marching and singing? Both might work or they might not – we may well be able to transition our culture, given enough time or enough will and anger – to a society that can adapt to the new environmental norms. But we do not have multiple decades to make such a transition. James Hansen, for example, notes that most of our environmental changes will have to come rapidly over the next decade. And because almost all our changes take some major lead time, that means that the period we have to change attitudes is very short.

As for revolution, it is simply too destructive, even were it not a bad idea for a host of other reasons. The human costs of radical, sudden transformation are resistance – lots of it. And lots of resistance means either the failure of overall goals or repressive responses that destroy what is created from the inside out.

So are there any other choices between the complete rupture of prior experience and the gradual transition to a new way of thinking? I think there is another option, but it depends upon being prepared to take hold of a moment, and claim it as your own.

The third choice is something I’m calling (for lack of a better term) “threshold moments” – those points at which history intervenes, and something that was unimaginable the day before becomes entirely possible. At those moments, it is possible to make a larger step forward than could previously have been imagined – people are poised for radical change.

Now such moments occur in two ways. The first is when events demand a particular change – for example, as in Cuba when the cutoff of oil supplies demanded a rapid fire deindustrialization of agriculture and the transition to a new economy. In this case, cause and effect are direct – that is, the systemic response to food shortages is the institutionalization of a new system. The bombing of Pearl Harbor leads to a military response and US participation in the World War. While it can never be said that there is no other response possible, the response is the logical, successful addressing of a problem

But there is another kind of threshold moment, one in which we perceive we are at a transitional moment, and at which it is possible to imagine a number of possible responses – where what matters is that the populace is poised for response – and multiple possible successful responses are possible. Here is the moment at which it is possible to advance a new agenda – and possible to override other public agendas by laying claim to that moment and advancing one’s agenda as a logical response.

The obvious example here is 9/11. If you are not American, I think it is hard to understand how desperately Americans were casting around after 9/11 for some way to make their own response match up to the radical change in their world that they experienced. And there is nothing logically contiguous with the event about, say, invading Iraq or going shopping – that is, what was most notable about 9/11 was that people were willing to make massive changes, had they been asked. They were not asked – and no one made a strong attempt to wrest the narrative of 9/11 away from the government – individuals resisted the story we were being told, but there was not a fully formed attempt, say to recast our response to 9/11 in terms of oil and energy, and to use it as a major call for renewable growth. Some attempts were made, but there weren’t enough people working together.

Such threshold moments come around fairly often in history, and are likely to come more often as we enter what has been called “interesting times.” In the last decade, we’ve had large-scale threshold moment, 9/11, and a smaller one in which some significant cultural changes might have been enacted, Hurricane Katrina.

Does that sound strange and unlikely? I think it is true that had Americans been told after 9/11, “We want you to go out and grow a victory garden and cut back on energy usage” the response would have been tremendous – it would absolutely have been possible to harness the anger and pain and frustration of those moments, and a people who desperately wanted something to do. Even after Katrina, it would have been possible for a concerted narrative that ran the pictures from the superdome over and over again saying “And if you never want this to happen again, you must…” Katrina would not have been nearly as effective as 9/11, but a great deal of change could have been made with it, regardless. And making use of the momentum of such events could have enabled us to be that much further along in the adaptation process before a moment comes at which a particular response is truly necessary.

Naomi Klein notes that this is precisely the claim of Milton Friedman’s “Shock Doctrine” which says that at a moment of crisis, you can sweep away the old and transform things utterly. Up until now, such a system has been mostly used for ill, for market reforms that are utterly destructive to our public life. But since such events will be used, it only makes sense for us to use them for good.

Moreover, as Klein points out, the Shock Doctrine’s essential message, overthrowing the past, is destructive to the ordinary people who are victims of a crisis. That is, those who live through such threshold moments in history and are directly affected by them want to cling to what they have of the past, to restore what they have lost. The Shock Doctrine model destroys, rather than reclaims the past.

Here, sustainability advocates have an enormous advantage in being able to claim the narrative from those who want to overthrow the past. Because ultimately, our propositions are always tied to the past, to previous successful responses to hard times and disaster. We are tying our propositions to what people dreamed of in suburbia, the small slice of personal eden that never was, and saying you can have that thing you once sought, as part of the promise of restoration. Those who claim that we are merely advocating a return to the past are missing the point – it is never possible to go back, but it is feasible to anchor the future in the past, to offer a narrative in which we do not have to give up what we value, but can retain it, and take it with us into a new and radically different world.

To do this, we will have to prepare and watch for the next such threshold moment. The peak oil and climate change movements were simply not organized enough 7 years ago at 9/11, and we mishandled Hurricane Katrina – there were plenty of individual attempts to tie it into climate change, but there was no unified attempt to create a single narrative account of Katrina.
If we are to imagine Relocalization and steady state economics taking over, if it is possible (and I do not say that it is, merely that we cannot fail to try), we must be absolutely prepared for the next threshold moment, and to explain how it is (and it will be, we won’t have to lie) about the oil, about the climate, and how it demands a particular response, not blowing up another country far away, but a change in us.

I have no idea when that moment will come, and neither does anyone else. It could happen tonight, and have us wake up in a changed world. Or it could leave us hanging for years, and the next such threshold we cross could be the transition into a real disaster, one in which our options are limited. But regardless, since it is always possible to fuck things up worse than necessary, sustainability advocates of every kind must be prepared to take one story and echo it back across media and blogs, to tell it and tell it, and teach others to demand a particular kind of response.

One of the things about this that is important is to remember that this doesn’t work in a linear way. That is, the process involves going along making small changes, and adding a few new recruits and tiny incremental alterations for a good long time. At first it seems like you aren’t making any progress at all – that the change is so vast that the little moves can’t get you there. But it is important to remember that you are doing the advance work for something that is likely to alter, not with a gradual building, but in a moment. That is, we’re doing what we can now, so that when the right time comes, we can do vastly more.

Kurt Cobb observed at Community Solutions that the best example of this narrative claiming is the 9/11 Truth Movement – regardless of what you think of their claims, they have been enormously effective in changing the official story about what 9/11 was. There are more of us – Paul Hawken has called the sustainability movement the largest movement on the planet, and that may well be true. There are tens of millions of people all over the world who care about this. And we have to be able to tell the story, the true story, of how climate change and peak oil have created a disaster to which we must now respond.

In the meantime, we grow our victory gardens and build our movement and educate our neighbors and plan and wait. It won’t be too long in coming. And then it will be time – to pass the word, and make our move – to try and take control of the narrative and say “This is what is needed as a response, to make us better.” And everything we do in the meantime, everything we start, every working model we create, every program we start, every change we make in our homes and neighborhoods, gets us that much more ready to seize the day.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Thank God I'm a Country Girl! (With Apologies to John Denver)

This was not what I was supposed to be writing today, but all I can say is that my brain is a strange, strange place sometimes. Had the radio on, caught this song, and couldn't get it out of my head (it isn't like I'm even a John Denver fan, but stranger things have happened) until this came out.

If you don't know the tune, the song is available through Itunes ;-).

Thank God I’m a Country Girl! (With apologies to John Denver)

Well, I was born right here, in these suburbs
Its where I catch my rain and where I grow my herbs
Walk the kids to school, and cross at the curbs
Thank God I'm a Country Girl!

With my husband and kids we’re ridin’ on our bikes
To the farmer’s market, y’know its quite a hike
Littlest one even does it on his trike!
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

Well, I got me a fine life, got a green plan
I’m cookin’ homegrown in my cast iron pan
I can't do it all but I'm doing what I can!
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

I live in an apartment on the fourteenth floor
But you can see I’m green when you open up my door
Never owned no car so my feet get kinda’ sore
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

Well a simple kind of life never did me no harm
My community garden is my own tiny farm
Thrift shop clothes have their own kinda charm
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

Well, I got me a fine life, I got a green plan
I’m cookin’ homegrown in my cast iron pan
I can't do it all but I'm doing what I can
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

Its 33 miles to the supermarket
But I’ve no need for goin’, took the car and parked it.
Huntin’ my own and the deer ain’t remarked it
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

We gone organic when I was just a bride
Now I’m a grandma and we’re riding with the tide
Hard times a’comin’ but folks are on our side
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

Well, I got me a fine life, I got a green plan
Cookin’ up homegrown in a cast iron pan
I can't do it all, but I'm doing what I can!
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

We’re just folks who remember what we’re after
We’re not seeking riches, we’re really chasin’ laughter
Those that think we’re crazy, we know they’re daft-er
Thank God I’m a Country Girl!

Country’s not just a place, it is a state of mind
There’s earth under the feet of folks of every kind
The country and the future they belong to me and mine.

Sharon, who will be keeping her day job ;-)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Online Food Storage Class Info

Ok, folks, I'm putting together the online food storage class that there was so much interest in. I thought I'd offer it in four weeks, over the month of March.

There will be four components, and this class will go considerably beyond the talk I'm giving on Saturday, so you don't need to feel bad if you live too far away to attend ;-).

-A weekly blog post, with discussion on my regular blogs. This will be open to everyone. I'll also post some recipes from the weekly "how to eat it" section on my blog.

- A set of follow along readings. The list of readings for each week (not required for participation but helpful) will also be available on my blog to anyone who wants to participate.

- A group for registered participants to discuss food storage issues. I'll be around to answer questions and facilitate discussion. This will also include recipes, additional materials, and suggestions.

-Help setting up an individualized food storage program based on your family, concerns and conditions.

The course will be divided into four week long sections.

Week 1: March 6 and 7: The Basics: Why store food? What kinds? How much? Where to Put it? How long to keep it? How to eat it? How to ensure a nutritious, balanced, good tasting food supply?

Week 2: March 13 and 14: Buying in bulk, finding sustainable sources, cooking with grains and legumes, adapting your diet to "store what you eat, eat what you store," accoutrements (buckets, grain grinders, etc...), spices and seasonings, food storage on a budget.

Week 3: March 20 and 21: Food storage local - how to base your food storage on homegrown and local sources. Long term food preservation strategies, storing seeds, meat, milk and vegetables, staple produce as a grain substitute. How to eat seasonally from food storage.

Week 4: March 27 and 28: Special Circumstances, special diets, medical issues, appetite fatigue, infants and children. Community food storage ideas, and getting the idea of storing food out in your own community. Setting up your own plan and implementing it gradually.

The classes will be offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during March. That is, new posts will go up on Tuesday mornings on my blogs, and new discussion topics and materials on the class discussion group. I'll be available to comment, offer help, answer questions and help set up plans during Tuesday and Wednesday each week - that way, no one has to be there at a specific time. On Thursday evenings, I'll post the next week's reading materials.

The cost for the class will $125 for the course, and for this first time, will be limited to 25 participants, so that everyone gets a fair share of my time. It is free to follow along on the blogs, but since this will represent a large investment of my time, and I hope to be able to offer participants help getting started and setting up their own goals, I do need to cover my costs. I don't want to exclude anyone, however, so if you need a sliding scale, email me and we'll talk. My goal is to make this as accessible to as many people as possible.

If you are interested in registering, email me at, and I'll follow up with you this week, confirming registrations and sending more details. Please bear with me as I get this organized - I wasn't expecting quite the enthusiastic response I got to my initial query, so I'm still pulling things together by the seat of my pants ;-).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Making the Riot Easy

Kiashu has a terrific post over at Green With a Gun about what a 1 tonne carbon lifestyle looks like. For those who have been terrified by the calculations of the Riot for Austerity, Kyle gives you a mental picture of what a fair share life actually looks like. I was very impressed by this, and the level of detail involved.

I think one of the hardest things about making changes is having a sense of what it would look like.

I particularly liked this point:

"But I can't because...

"In the developed West, the average person can do this. For every person who is 100km from work and won't cycle, there'll be another one who is just 3km from work and can walk, not even having those public transport emissions. Some will need more meat because they're menstruating or recovering from surgery, but others will be vegan. Some won't have any yard at all to garden in, or even a balcony for container plants, but others will have relatives living in the country who'll be delighted for them to plant trees in some disused paddock. Individuals may be able have less emissions in one area but more in another, walking to work but eating more meat, using less electricity but buying more books, and so on and so forth. So this represents an average. Just because you find one area difficult doesn't mean you have to forget the other areas.

Doing these emissions-reducing things, living the one-tonne-carbon lifestyle, is not something everyone can do, because we don't have the public transport or renewable energy generation capacity. It's a bit like becoming rich - anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it. The difference between this lifestyle and becoming rich is that as we put in the public transport and renewable energy infrastructure, everyone will be able to live like this, whereas it'll never be the case that everyone can be rich. As the public transport becomes used more, and more people sign up for wind energy and so on, the infrastructure will be built. This is why even though the lifestyle suggested here you could live tomorrow, in the Goal Emissions article I allowed a decade for everyone to change to this lifestyle. That also allows ten years while you say, "but I can't because..."

And a lot of us can do a lot of this sooner, rather than later. We live out in the country, and my husband can't bike to work in the winter, but he can carpool, and I can stay home altogether, and share my emissions with him. My oldest son has to be bussed to a school for kids with disabilities, but his brothers can be homeschooled, and share their fair share of emissions with their big brother. We can all change our diets to a degree. We can all do some of this now, and a little more each day.

Nice one, Kiashu!


Sunday, February 10, 2008

It is Time For a New Victory Garden Movement

There is little question that it is time for us to create a new Victory Garden movement. That's one of the central premises of Aaron's and my book, and I don't think there are very many people who understand what we're facing who would deny that this is true.

In fact, there are quite a number of people in the Community Garden movement, and the blogging community who have supported the creation of a new Victory Garden movement. Some people doing this work include Bob Waldrop, whose call to action on local food systems has drawn considerable attention here (among other places): , Foodshed Planet's site has inspired others, and the group Revive the Victory Garden, who have called for 2 million new gardens to combat climate change in 2008:, and there are literally too many others for me to list. But the movement is nascent, still beginning, and seems to need a little midwifing to get things moving along.

The reality is that interest in really, really local food is growing, and so is interest in food production, as food prices skyrocket and quality falls. And the best news is that this is a case where grassroots action not only can work, but it is the only thing that ever has worked - that is, in the US during both World Wars, in Cuba, in Russia - gardens for food security began and grew under the aegis of ordinary people acting to improve their world. While we can enable it from above, the creation of a victory garden movement is a person to person, blog to blog, neighbor to neighbor project.

Why do it? A host of reasons, personal and political.

Victory Gardens Mean:

-Better Food - Fresher, better tasting, straight off the plant food money literally cannot buy!

- Better Health - More nutrition in just picked vegetables, grown without chemicals, while getting the kind of exercise many of us pay the gym for! Safety from industrial food contamination and toxic imports.

-Food Security - Food in your pots as prices get higher, supplies that can't be disrupted by energy shortages, greater regional self-sufficiency. Millions of new gardeners can make sure that Americans don't have to wait for distant food supplies to be trucked in - weeks after they are needed. Every gardener makes your region more secure.

-Higher Quality of Life - A more beautiful environment, stronger community, a better environment.

-More Money in your Pocket, More Time for What Matters - If you don't need as much money for food, or to work as many hours to pay the grocery bills, you can use that money or take that time for what you really care about.

- The Chance to Serve Others and Create a More Just Society - Your Victory Garden can be a strike against hunger and poverty - you can have food to donate, and the ability to teach others to fish, and thus, eat for a lifetime.

- Reduce Corporate Power and Improve Democracy - We cannot simultaneously deplore the power corporations have in our society and depend on them to supply our most basic necessities. If we stop giving our hard earned money to the corporations who undermine our democracy, they will be less powerful!

-Protect Against Climate Change - Humus rich soils, full of organic matter can sequester tons of carbon, quite literally - and grow the best vegetables. We reduce our carbon emissions when we don't have to drive to the store or buy fossil fuel grown food.

-Reduce our Energy Dependence - Fossil fuels are used in agriculture, both industrial and industrial organic at every step, from the fertilizer in teh ground to the refrigerated truck to plastic bag they come in. We can eliminated fossil fuels from almost every step when we grow our own.

-Create Peace - We are at war for oil - reducing our fossil fuel dependency through Victory Gardens gives us hope for Peace in our time.

-Hope for the Future - In a changing world, the ability to grow food, to share and enjoy it, and to live in a healthy world full of beautiful gardens may be the best legacy we can our children and grandchildren.

Ok, so we agree that we need Victory Gardens. How do we bring all the participants in this movement together, and create a real and national Victory Garden movement? How do we bring together professional farmers, with Victory Farms and city Gardeners, schools and community resources, and backyard advocates? How do we get Victory Gardening onto the national agenda? How do we teach millions of people how to grow, cook and eat their own, and why?

One part, of course, is the person to person work we're doing now. The next step is to create a large-scale Victory Garden umbrella organization guided by people in every part of the Victory Garden movement - chefs and cooks helping people learn to eat, teachers helping children get involved, churches, corporations and community groups all putting gardens on public and private greenspaces, local "garden farmer markets" where very small scale producers can exchange or sell their extra in their neighborhoods, climate change and energy activists working on this simple way to cut our energy usage and reduce atmospheric carbon. That is, we need a movement - a real, serious movement. And we can do this.

And to get those new gardens and gardeners started. And for that, we need your help. We'll be asking for more specific help as we go along, but getting started, we'd love all of you who blog to put out the Victory Garden idea, even if you usually write about other things. If you can, start a Victory Garden blog, and post a link in comments - I'll put links up on this site and my other one. And make the effort - reach out to one neighbor, at least, and help them get started gardening. Share seeds. Talk to your community, your synagogue, mosque, church, neighbors, school about gardening. Take a risk - for greater security later. Plant a front-yard garden, centered around a "V" for Victory (cabbages look great like this, particularly mixed with nasturtiums or calendula, but use your imagination). Be courageous - we need this Victory!


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Where to Live?

This is by far the most commonly asked question I receive. I'm going to answer it in two parts, first, broad regional issues, and next I'll do the city/suburbs/country question. Or rather I'm not going to answer it at all - that is, I don't think that there's only one good answer to this question, so I'm not going to try and provide them, so much as offer some things to think about.

First let us dispense with the obvious. I assume you know that the north is cold, the south is warm and that this is mostly a matter of personal preference. That is, you can live quite well on little or no energy in the very cold north, or the very hot south. You might not like it, but it will not kill most people. Every time I say this, someone argues that heat and cold do kill. This is true - they just don't have to, for the most part.

Yes, there are a few medical conditions that make you especially sensitive to one or the other. And yes, you can die from both heat and cold. But even without powered heating, people are designed to tolerate a lot of cold - if they weren't, we'd never have survived until the invention of central heating. If you dress warmly, bundle up when sleeping, wear a hat, layer, sleep with another human or a dog, and move around during the day, you can live with no supplemental heat. You probably won't like it very much, but you will do fine. It is worth noting that the Lapp people routinely slept out in -50 temperatures in tents heated only by our body heat – if they can do that, we make a four-poster bed and layer up and do the same at night. During the day, just keep moving. People who freeze to death in their homes are generally elderly or children and don’t know how to respond to growing hypothermia – they may even feel warm and take off their clothes. The best cure for this is being together, and adults watching over the very vulnerable, and making sure they get enough calories and are protected from the worst of the cold.

The same is true of heat. Yes, people die of heat stroke - but mostly they are elderly or disabled people who are alone, muddled by the heat's affect on their bodies, who lack the ability to do simple things like put their feet in a bucket of water or hydrate adequately. As in the cases in California recently, most of the people who die of heat stroke or cold, die because they are isolated, not because of the weather per se. Have close communal ties and a system of support for those without family, especially those with medical conditions, infants and the elderly, and understand the basics of physiology and treating the early stages of hypothermia or heat exhaustion, and such deaths could be greatly reduced or eliminated.

All of which means that temperature in and of itself is largely a matter of personal preference. My personal preference is that I will gladly live with minimal (I sleep already in a room heated only by the ambient heat of a distant woodstove, as do my children) heat all winter than live in a place with 90+ degree temperatures all summer long.

This is a matter of taste - I hate the heat and like the cold. This is one of those pick your poison issues - snow, ice and cold or heat. You should be aware that all regions will get warmer gradually, so be prepared to live with not just what it is now but what it will be in a few decades. In the meantime, if you like neither extreme, there are some options there, too - the Pacific Northwest and the southern Appalachians, for example.

Then there's the matter of neighbor prejudice. This you can get in bulk at various websites and in various books, so I'll try and keep it to a minimum here. The idea that right thinking people don't want to live near conservative Christians, that scary Asian pirates will depopulate the Pacific Northwest, that Latinos will rule the Southwest with an iron hand, and that inner cities will be filled with "them" rioting and shooting all assume a. we are not whatever "them" we're worrying about and b. that this is going to be the defining feature of the future. I don't swear it isn't true, but I also think the whole thing is probably rather overstated.

There are some people who probably will have good reason not to pick certain regions - but there will be many people who find those regions compelling precisely because of a scary-to-others immigrant population or religious culture. Since I know there are various “thems” of all sorts among my readers, I’m going to suggest that instead, you find communities that you feel secure in – gay readers may not prefer to live in the conservative Christian south, but they might be happy among the terrifying them of flannel shirt wearing lesbian Vermont farmers, while an African Methodist reader might find the whole idea of Vermont horrifying. Pick your poison.

Having grown up in New England, personally I think reserve, protestant work ethic and a tendency to wear winter hats with shorts and sandals is completely fine, but that is a matter of taste. My ancestors tend to be among those who heard the message "Go West Young Man" and rather thought, "Ayuh, it may be cold, and the land grows better rocks than corn, but clam chowder and not sitting on my behind on a wagon for six months look pretty good to me." Thus, I am no Westerner, either. But again, let us not mistake these things for knowledge, or truth, or anything but custom, comfort and habit. I'm all for indulging personal preferences - I think mostly people should live their lives where they are comfortable, where their community is supportive and where the climate suits them.

So what should you care about when choosing a place to live? Here's my own personal list of the most important factors:

- A PLACE TO STAY, to pass down and that you believe will be good for you and your family for the long term. The coming changes may well involve a great shift in how we regard natural resources like land and water. We are moving from a society that has invested enormous economic value in things far removed from the origins of their production, to a society that is probably going to be hyper-aware that wealth = natural resources. In a society where food is scarcer, water is short and resources are stretched to their limits, land and the resources on it, along with the capacity to do things like grow food and wood, are likely to be intensely valuable.

In many societies, ordinary people have been sustained by their access to the land and their long term ties to that land. Generally speaking, ordinarily poor people cannot buy much, if any land - instead, they inherit it - families steward land and pass it down from generation to generation. We do not do this in the rich world very much, but I think we may go back to it. While for a short while we may become a mobile society, with many refugees relocating, over the long term we may become more fixed, more bound by our investment in a place and the community ties we depend on.

So the first factor I personally take into account is a place to stay. This is not a perfect solution, of course - no one can know the whole future, and migration is always possible. But unless we stop and stay, we will not be able to feed ourselves from our land, and we will never become truly native to anywhere, with a native awareness and love for a place. So I would recommend an area that you have reason to believe will continue to be a good place to live not just next year, but in 50 and 100 years. This is difficult, given the impact of climate change - projections are uncertain. But generally speaking, if the map shows that your home will be under water in 25 years, you might want to consider moving before the rush devalues your home. Take a good and serious look at the long term.

WATER, and lots of it. I can't stress this one enough. Anything less than 20cm of rainfall a year is impossible to farm without extensive irrigation - don't bet on having the power to do this. Personally, if you think there's any chance at all that, due to pump failure, aquifer depletion, drought or competition from others that you might need to rely primarily on rainfall, I wouldn't take less than 20 inches of rain per year, evenly distributed. That is, if you have a dry season, where it doesn't rain for months on end, be absolutely sure you can fill your tanks sufficiently to get through.

Now I know there are people who worry about water less than I do. I have a friend doing remarkable things with dry land tree agriculture in Israel, and she, among others, has great hopes. I, however, have my doubts. The reality is that most very dry places have never supported large populations. Moreover, in such places, the foodshed is extremely large - Gary Nabhan, author of Coming Home to Eat required a local diet of 250 miles, rather than 100, simply because of limited availability. While some people will undoubtedly do very well in the dry plains, deserts or other low rainfall areas, the question becomes what kind of population the area will be able to support.

I personally would be very reluctant to live in much of the dryer parts of the American Southwest, parts of Australia and the driest parts of the Plains of Canada and America, unless I had full legal rights to reliable sources of water. Riparian water rights, as practiced in the Western US make water issues more contentious, and I would want to be absolutely sure that I could draw water from my source for a long, long time.

In addition, look for comparatively clean water. This is increasingly difficult to find all over the US - there is almost no drinkable groundwater, or freshwater that I'd like to take a lot of fish out of these days. We've contaminated our most basic resource beyond compare. Make sure that you get water tests from any well you might consider using, understand the basic pollutants in your area, and have a good idea what and who you are downstream from, and I would recommend that everyone have a high quality water filter, ideally gravity fed, like the British Berkefield or Katahdin filters. Even if you have to eat beans, dandelions and rice for a month to afford it, I'd consider this a worthwhile investment for anyone who has any spare cash at all.

At a minimum, unless your house has a spring as pure as ivory, I would never permit children or women who are or might become pregnant to drink unfiltered water from any source that has not been thoroughly and carefully evaluated. We cannot afford to damage future generations, and if we are to have fewer children in the future, their lives and health will be all the more precious.

NOT SITTING ON TOP OF MAJOR ENERGY RESOURCES. The next few decades are going present reasons to try and extract the last drops out of old oil wells, coal out of areas previously deemed too populated or dangerous to touch, etc... I do not want to be on top or very near any major energy source - natural gas, uranium, coal or oil. The toxic, environmentally disruptive nature of extraction of all sorts means that my own basic goals of reasonable security, minimal medical interventions, food self-reliance, can be utterly destroyed by one nearby mountaintop removal or uranium extraction. These projects contaminate water tables and streams, generate toxic air, noise and water pollution and generally make life miserable for the people around them. They are the price of our insatiable desire for energy.

So if the words "old coal mine" or "natural gas well" appear anywhere on your proposed property or near it, run like heck, unless you own every single mineral right and are sure that there is no other way to get at them (that no one can dig the coal from the next property over). Frankly, I don't even want to be the same region as most such enterprises – they don’t just pollute the immediate area, but air and water for miles around. The Supreme Court's recent removal of restrictions on eminent domain means that I would be very, very cautious even if I did own all the rights to minerals on my land. I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that my New England ancestors were probably right - the best land out there may be the land that nobody really wants too badly.

LOCAL FOOD SECURITY in a place where you can eat a diet you like, and where the region can mostly feed itself. I think we will find as we live and eat more locally that our diets change - sometimes dramatically. Most people who live regionally eat a few staple foods every single day. They have other special foods, but if we live regionally, we will eat regionally, as most human beings have through most of history, our cuisine will become localized as well. This is not a bad thing – people travel all over the world to experience local cuisines and their specialties.

When you are picking a spot, you probably should pick a place where you like the food, since food is a factor in quality of life. If you are "from" tortillas, and chilies, the potatoes, baked beans and fish of the Northeast may not be all that appealing to you. You can cook almost anything almost anywhere, with variations, but your kids will, to some degree, end up adapting to the culture and you will have to make do with what grows.You also should probably think hard about where your food is coming from. That doesn't mean that we all absolutely have to live in regions that can be self-supporting, but it is a matter of rational bet-hedging.

If you live in the I-95 corridor of the US, say in New York City, your 100 mile diet will run into the hundred mile diets of the heavily populated suburbs of Westchester, Long Island, Northern New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. You'll also run into the 100 mile foodsheds of Albany, Stamford, New Haven, Hartford, Newark, Trenton, etc...Etc... - all large cities with large populations. That is, there is simply no meaningful way that these regions can be fully food self-sufficient - their food is going to have to come from less populated areas.Now this in itself doesn't mean that everyone has to leave these areas - but you do need to have a local system for food, water and energy that can be sustained in the long term - it isn't enough just to say "oh, great, we'll get our food from nearby” – make sure you know that it is possible. You want to choose places that have a land around them, and the potential to produce a great deal of food.

NEAR THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE - the times that are coming are going to make us depend on one another more than we have. If there are people in the world who have your back, who love you, who you care about, be near them. Transportation is getting expensive, and all of us are going to need all the help we can get. This factor, in the end, may trump everything else.

A corollary of this would be “near people you like” – that is, if we are indeed entering into a less energy intensive and more localized world, your life is going to be shaped by your neighbors and immediate community. So pick a place where you feel comfortable – not necessarily where everyone is like you, but where it seems like community might be created.

Ok, next time, should you chuck it all and move to the country? Live in the city where the public transport is good?


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Shameless Self-Promotion

I was thrilled to see the idea of 50-100 million farmers percolating down into the mainstream in this article:

"Without some miraculous new energy source, muscle power could soon again be a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels for growing food. Blunt economic pragmatism seems set to out-shout nostalgia in the call to put more farmers on the land.

Just how many more farmers would it take to cure farming's fossil fuel habit? Lots, according to farmer and writer Sharon Astyk and "Oil Depletion Protocol" author Richard Heinberg, both leading activists for facing up to life after world oil production peaks.

They estimate that without cheap fossil fuels, we would need 50 million new farmers. That's one farmer for every two households in theUnited States, 25 times more than there are now.

This isn't a move-to-the-boonies-or-starve ultimatum. In fact, many people are ideally positioned to become farmers right where they are-- it's the silver lining to suburban sprawl."

It isn't just the idea of millions of new farmers, either - in the past few weeks I've been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and an AP reporter about life changes due to climate change and peak oil. Although this is still a part of a "weird" subculture, that's the first step to ideas being accepted - getting them out there at all.

Meanwhile, as long as I'm engaged in shameless self-promotion, I'll be giving a free class on the basics of food storage at 3pm on Saturday February 16, at my friend Joy Heckman's bulk foods shop, The Olde Corner Store, 133 Factory, Gallupville, NY 12073. I'll include materials on what a month or year's food supply looks like, how to find local, sustainably produced sources, how to store it, how to cook with storable foods, etc... Everyone is welcome!

BTW, I'm considering offering this class online at some point, if there's interest, so let me know if you think that would be worthwhile.



Garden Dreaming

Whole family is down sick, so the several longer essays I've been working on are on the back burner while I wash sheets and tend cranky little people. My own retreat when things are in crisis is to the perfect spring garden of my imagination - especially valuable after several days of pouring rain (and our roof needs replacing) and then a giant ice storm.

My roof may leak, the children whine and I'm not feeling so hot myself, but in my head, it is spring, and I'm sitting on a mulched pathway, transplanting delicate baby seedlings into the garden bed. In my imagination it is warm, and sunny, and smells of earth and herbs.

And I get to fantasize about new things - what will the wolfberries taste like fresh? How much skirret do I want? And of course, my garden will be plenty - no running out of strawberry jam in January next year, this year's strawberries will burst off the vine and into the jars all by themselves.

And, of course, there seed catalogs to "help" me envision it. Lush, perfect plants in world without weeds in color saturated photos - of coures my herb garden will look just like that, with the orange calendulas, the purple sage and the chive blossoms harmonizing.

It won't be like that, not quite, although it will be wonderful, but a girl can dream. What are you dreaming about?


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

52 Weeks Down - Week 36 - Change Your Aspirations

Can we take it as a given that the earth can't support 8 billion middle class people who want cars and air conditioning? If we can't, then you might look at Jeff Vail's latest post on Jevon's paradox and the new Tata Nano , but I'm not sure it really needs to be articulated. There are some techno-optimists out there who think that energy and money are the only things that we need to all be rich, but the truth is that all economic output is polluting, and all economic output draws down natural resources to one degree or another. You can refine the degree, but growth eats it up.

So starting from that position, we have, as I see it, three choices. The first is to repress the aspirations of those who wish to join us in the middle class. There are two problems with this. The first is that we can't - our economic power days are over, and we can't control the growth of other economies. In fact, right now, other economies largely control us. The second being that even if we could, this would be both wrong and politically unpalatable. That is, growth capitalism has long told everyone that they can be rich, and thus allowed a majority of the populace to believe, however falsely, that opportunity simply hadn't knocked for the vast number of poor people. That is, economics erases intentionality and a whole host of truths, and tells us that we're doing our very best to make poor people richer. A change over to a dynamic in which we had to openly admit that we want to exploit the poor and make them poorer so that we can get richer would be politically difficult - ignoring, of course, the moral issue. This also makes for all sorts of good excuses for people to blow things up.

The second choice, and the one that we presently seem set on, is the creation of a different middle class, from the wealth of the old middle class. That is, we can gradually (or not very gradually) impoverish the old rich, and replace them with new rich from what was the poorer world. Several studies have suggested that in fact much of China's growth has come at the expense of America's working class. This has the advantage of greater equity, but isn't very much fun for the former rich (us) and comes with political consequences, and probably military ones as well, since the former rich still hold on to a lot of big guns.

The third choice is this - we come up with a new set of aspirations. That is, we find something compelling to hope and dream about that everyone in the world pretty much can have. And we teach our children to aspire to that goal, and offer it up to the world as we have offered the dream of affluence, and hope to G-d it takes hold.

What could that be? I know a very elderly woman whose daughter told me that her mother had once told her that what she hoped would be said about her on her death was "She never said anything unkind to anyone, and she welcomed everyone who came to her door." And it made me think about what the aspirations of prior generations have been. It isn't that our eulogies are sufficient to address this, but they provide a way of getting at the essence of what we want to accomplish.

That is, it was common for prior generations to be content that they had never taken a handout, put money in the bank each year, and tithed some of their income. Or to take pride in having worked every day of their lives, to have earned and received respect, to have been able to do business on their handshake and sense of honor, to have always had food on the table for their children and clothes on their back, and to grow to be good men and women.

To an extent, these past ambitions may be overstated - the romanticization of the past is always a danger. But we all know people, mostly much older people, for whom these really sufficient goals. Our own goals are often much more ambitious, and thus much harder to balance. And I suspect most of our aspirations are harder to achieve - that is, we much less often achieve them than if we'd aspired to smaller things.

There was an obituary here of an older man a few years ago. It read, "He never missed a milking or a (Quaker) meeting in 60 years. He never borrowed money, but lent or gave what he had. He died in the house and the bed he was born in, tended by his children, who loved him, and received, we believe, by his God." Aspiration indeed.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Without Slaves:Jeffersonian Agrarianism and the Question of Slavery

Writing a book called _A Nation of Farmers_ and arguing for Jeffersonian democracy brings you, sooner or later, bang hard up against the question of slavery. And it is not possible to address that question either by eliding the problem of slavery, as many of Jefferson's advocates do, or by claiming, as many anti-agrarians do, that Jefferson's slave holding makes the whole question of agrarian society so irrevocably tainted that it cannot be useful to us any longer. That is, Aaron's and my opinion is that the only answer we can come up with is to go towards this vexed question full steam ahead.

Jefferson made quite a number of statements arguing that independent farmers were the best candidates for democracy. He claimed in "Notes on the State of Virginia," "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of god, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. " Speaking slightly less effusively, he went on to say in a 1785 letter to John Jay, "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to its liberty & interests by the most lasting bands."

His opposition to Alexander Hamilton's plan to create large state supported financial institutions and move towards industrialization represents one of the great philosophical battles at the founding of our nation. Henry Cabot Lodge famously called it the founding debate of our society. And it would be easy for agrarians to see Hamilton, and Hamiltonianism as the bad guy - that is, Hamilton supported the notion of concentrating wealth in the hands of an elite, and moving the nation towards trade and manufacturing.

But the undercurrent of their debate, less popularly considered, was slavery. Hamilton was an abolitionist who regularly attended New York Abolition Society meetings. He believed that manufacturing was the only alternative to an agrarian slave society - wage labor, he felt, would end slavery. Jefferson, of course, was a plantation owner and slave holder. That he was ambivalent about slavery and at times worked for its overturn does not erase that at times, he also supported it, and he had no desire, to see, as Hamilton did, African-Americans working alongside white people in independent agriculture or factories. Jefferson imagined that freed slaves would be sent to Africa or Haiti, rather than they would grow independently alongside white people.

Roger Kennedy, in his Book _Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause_ argues that in fact, Jefferson's agrarianism struggled with two conflicting impulses, and ultimately operated to reinforce slavery in our society. Jefferson's agrarianism, he argues, wasn't quite what it seemed to be. While independent, largely self-sufficient farmers with good educations and a great deal of civic engagement were a norm in the North, the South was largely divided between white, wealthy plantation owners, and small backwoods farmers, mostly illiterate, who Jefferson regarded with a great deal of distaste. When Jefferson claimed, for example, "Ours are the only farmers who have read Homer" he was not, in fact, referring to the Southern Scots-Irish self-sufficient farmers of his region, but to Northern farmers (who had a 100% literacy rate in the Colonial period by some accounts, higher than it would ever be again), or plantation owners.

Kennedy makes a compelling case that Jefferson's vision of agrarianism, which included the slave plantations, enabled westward expansion, and the subjugation of the Native population - he does a fascinating analysis of the rate at which plantation owners destroyed their soils, almost three times the rate of non-slave holding southern farmers and five times the rate of Northern farmers, and argues that Jefferson's rhetoric, and the Louisiana Purchase, were predicated on a notion of ever expanding slavery, and the depletion of the soil.

This is a compelling critique, and to Kennedy's enormous credit, it is a nuanced critique. He does not claim that Jefferson cynically manipulated the plantation owner vote, so much as argue that Jefferson both believed in the notion of independent farmers and was unable to bring about the society he imagined.

Here, I think, is the beginnings, not of a rehabilitation of Jefferson, but of a way of thinking about agrarianism and slavery. Because it would be foolish to argue, as Thom Hartmann does in his book _What Would Jefferson Do?_, that Jefferson figures largely as a helpless opponent to slavery. Hartmann, whose arguments are otherwise well taken seems to belong to the category of Jeffersonian advocates who rehabilitate him by only looking at the anti-slavery writings. But to do so is to ignore the fact that Jefferson's legacy to us was more than just his principled objections - it was his practices.

That is, to find a way towards Jeffersonianism, we must not erase slavery, but face it. One of Hartmann's own arguments, however, directs us usefully to the urgent larger question. That is, Hartmann argues that instead of eliminating slavery, the US merely moved it elsewhere. I think Hartmann is wrong to use this argument to defend Jefferson. He says,

"Yet how many of us would willingly free our slaves? I'm typing these words on a computer containing many parts made in countries where laborers are held with less freedom and in conditions worse than those of Jefferson's slaves." Hartmann has a point, but also recognizes that this is a rationalization - Jefferson did more than simply hold slaves, he enabled slavery on a large, public scale. This argument does not work as a defense of Jefferson.

But it does give us a useful direction to point our own analysis at - that is, if we are to imagine, as Hamilton did, as many anti-agrarians have since, that the debate between industrialization and agrarianism can come down to the question of slavery, we need to ask, how good has industrial society been at freeing its slaves. That is, do we have fewer slaves right now than we did in an agrarian society? How many slaves are there in the world today?

When you add up the numbers, the results are surprising. At present, according to the UN, the world has 27 million literal slaves - that is, people who are presently held as slaves, owned as objects, and treated like them. Add to that 218 million child laborers, which UNICEF documents are almost always forced laborers. Then add 100 million adult women prostitutes (the child prostitutes are included in the previous number) who according to the UN committees on human trafficking can be said to lack control over their lives, bodies and earnings, and the minimum of 400 million poor workers who live in conditions of effective slavery, either in debt to the company store or given a choice between starvation and working in unsafe, dangerous conditions for virtually no money, and we end up with between half and 2/3 of a billion people on this planet in slavery, or effective slavery. That means that one out of every 10 to 13 people on the earth is enslaved or as near as to make no difference.

This figure is almost certainly too low, however - these are estimates, and low estimates in many cases. For example, at least 300 million women worldwide engage in prositution of one sort or another throughout the world, and it stretches the imagination to conceive that the 200 million that the UN does not consider to be effectively enslaved are all fully willing participants who simply chose prostitution as their career. Nor does this figure include involuntary military conscripts all over the globe, many of whom (including a substantial number of children), are used for forced labor or cannon fodder in conflicts all over the world. In _The Age of Extremes_ Eric Hobsbawn estimates that there are more than 200 million involuntary conscripts at any given time, worldwide.

The child labor figures are hotly disputed - for example, the International Textile, Garment and Leather Worker's Union estimates that 250 million children, more than half under the age of 14, are at work in clothing and textile manufacture alone (Naomi Klein, _No Logo_). Since these constitute only about half of the UNICEF figures, that would raise the estimate up dramatically, towards one billion people in slavery, at least 1/3 of them children. Far more than half are female - because women are often poorer than men, less well educated and more likely to be encumbered by children, they are diproportionately likely to end up in sweatshops, domestic service, or in the sex trade from lack of other options.

Some may protest that those adults who are not literally enslaved shouldn't be included here. For example, adult sweatshop workers. I'll conceed that their conditions aren't quite the same as slavery. But res ipsa loquitor - that is, the thing speaks for itself. This is testimony taken from a single sneaker plant (producing Nikes and Adidas in 1998 in El Salvador,

"...12 hour days in hot, unventilated conditions. Workers are given backless wooden benches from which to work. Cushions are not allowed. Supervision is brutal, with constant verbal abuse aganist those who do not keep up the required pace, physical violence and sexual harassment. Permission is required to drink water or use the batrhoom. The drinking water is not purified and comes from the cistern into which the toilet empties. No toilet paper is available and the toilets are filthy. Male supervisors come into the women's toilets regularly to harass the women back to work. Talking is not allowed. Workers leaving the plant are subject to humiliating body searches. Workers are expected to work when they are sick. One or two days pay is deducted for any visit to the clinic. Women are made to undergo monthly pregnancy tests which they have to pay for themselves. Pregnant workers are fired instantly. In some plants superivisors give depo-provera contraceptive injections to women who are told they are getting anti-tetanus jabs." ("Labour" by Mark O'Brien in _Anti-Capitalism_ ed. Bircham, Charlton)

Both effective and literal slaves have little control of their own lives. They are subject, in the literal sense of the word, to the whims of their masters. They experience physical violence, control of the full range of their lives including sexual activity. They are subject to degradation and told that they deserve their conditions. They are not free to leave or to stop their work, and often do their work under the terror their families will be harmed, or that their children will starve to death.

As historian Kenneth Stampp, writing of American slavery points out, "the predominant and overpowering the majority of slaves was neither love nor hate, but fear." (Stampp, _The Peculiar Institution_). Those who live in constant fear of their bosses or masters are always slaves.

And who are they enslaved to? Well, directly speaking, they are enslaved to pimps, factory owners, industrial farmers, large companies, mining corporations, private entrepreneurs, local warlords, private slaveholders in countries that largely turn a blind eye to this sort of thing (including our own - there have been a number of high profile liberations of effectively enslaved immigrants in domestic service, garment factories and agriculture in the US, and that's almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg).

But, of course, the economy moves up the chain - who motivates these slave owners to enslave people? Sometimes human beings are the only thing there is left to traffic in. Sometimes slaves merely serve the evils of their immediate society. For example, the nation of Mauritius outlawed slavery only last year.

But often, their work and its proceeds moves up the economic food chain, and the people who profit are us.. That is, the appetites of people rich enough to travel around the world seeking out prostitutes (there are many of these trips advertised in the US and other rich nations for business people and men who can't have sex with children as easily here), the appetites of people who want cheap coffee and bananas, the appetites of people who want cheap t shirts, diamonds, energy and oriental rugs.

That is, most of the work we enslave people to do is work that the rich world directly or indirectly benefits from. Our cheap bananas come from the Ecuadorian plantation where whole families, including children, are so indebted to the "company store" that they can never hope to do anything else. And you and I eat their bananas. We wear the fancy sneakers, put the diamonds on our fingers, burn the Nigerian oil in our cars, decorate our homes with the labor of small children. We do not benefit from every slave, and responsibility exists all down the line, but it is also true that the economic function of slavery is to make masters rich.

Still, we might overall say we're doing pretty well with abolitionism, if we compare ourselves to the past. After all, the best guess is that maybe 1 in 10 people are enslaved, but in Ancient Athens, it was almost 1-1, and in the American south, in most plantation regions, slaves outnumbered free white people by between 2-1 and 10-1.But if you look at the society as a whole, Ancient Greece at the height of its slaveholding was about 4 free people to every slave and the US in 1850 had about 2.5 million slaves and just over 23 million people (Meltzer, _Slavery: A World History_. That is, in 1850, America as a whole had about the same percentage of slaves that we have right now worldwide.

If we recall that much of Northern Industrialism profited from slavery, turning cotton into cloth in the mills of Massachusetts, for example, the percentages are surprisingly similar. That is, the basis of rich society rests, roughly speaking, on the backs of about the same number of slaves that 19th century American wealth did. We're doing better than ancient Greece, but that's not saying much. We've not so much abolished slavery as offshored it, as Hartmann rightly observes.

So one answer to the question of whether agrarianism is irretrievably bound up in slavery would be to say yes - but no more so than industrialism. Both are slave societies. In one, we see our slaves, in another, we hide them, so that we can feel righteous, and not be confronted with their suffering.

Looked at in this like Jeffersonian agrarianism is no better - and no worse - than industrialism, which of course, depends on colonialism and enslaved labor. So the question becomes, how would we get out of slavery altogether, in either system - that is, which system can best be adapted to be truly slave free?

There's one kind of slavery we haven't included, but probably should, our energy slaves.
These slaves aren't people, of course, although they too come with a moral freight that we might want to consider, as millions of our slaves in the poor world, besides their horrible lives, now are in increased danger of death because of our warming the planet.

Equally importantly, fossil fuels have enabled most rich world denizens to live their lives as though they have slaves - not just far away slaves making their clothing and growing their coffee, but in the house slaves to do things like wash their dishes, carry them places they want to go, and cook their food. I'm not sure if James Kunstler coined the term "energy slaves" but it is a useful way of thinking about our lives now - that denizens of the rich world are living like slaveowners of prior days, dependent on fossil fuels and a good bit of globalized distance to seperate us from the ugly name.

It is certainly true that we shouldn't look on energy slaves with the same degree of horror we look on human slavery. But it is also the case that we might look on a lifestyle that requires human slaves and the equivalent amount of non-renewable energy with the same repugnance one might look at the lives of southern plantation owners. Because when the non-renewable energy runs out, we'll have created a generation of people who lack the essential skills, the physical fitness and the mindset to do their own work. The future of people trained only to be masters is not bright - either they remain rich, and do evil by enslaving more people to compensate for their diminishing resources (think what we're doing to the Iraqi people to get their oil), or they do quite badly indeed when they first have to pick up the work they have so long avoided.

Because, of course, the work that isn't easily mechanized, the work we can no longer afford to fuel - the manufacture of clothing is notoriously part of this - is still done by people. If we estimate, as Kunstler does in _The Long Emergency_ that the average rich world denizen uses fossil energy as the equivalent of 40 or more human laborers, and then add in the 1 in 10 actual slaves, it turns out that the world is actually using a much higher percentage of human labor or human equivalent labor without actually paying the real price for it - that is, without paying a fair and living wage, or the full, unexternalized costs of our fossil fueled "slaves." It also means that we have more slaves than anyone in history, broadly construed.

Now there's an obvious connection between slavery and fossil fuels, and a number of wise people have pointed out that it is no accident that the abolitionist movements of the 19th century arose at precisel y the same time as industrialization - just as machinery began to reduce the sheer numbers of bodies required to make and do things, it became possible in many senses to really imagine a society without slaves. The dualism we Americans all learned about in high school, the industrial north vs. the slave owning, agricultural south only tells part of the story.

Which brings me, of course, to the real question. Is it possible for human beings to imagine a society in which no one is enslaved to anyone else and we also don't burn fossil fuels? In which human beings cannot be commodified? Is it possible to imagine a low-input world in which there are no slaves? To some degree, of course, we can build renewable energies that allow us (and in an ideal world, more of the world's populace) to retain some of our energy slaves. But the larger issue of abolitionism must take center stage as we do this - that is, it is not enough to say "when we have all the power we need, we'll free our slaves" because, of course, that day never comes. The only choice is the choice of abolitionism itself, to acknowledge that it will cost us something to give up such a profoundly immoral structure, and that we will do it anyway, because it is right.

Last year at the Community Solutions Conference, someone asked me about the dangers of going back to a slave society in the absence of fossil fuels, and the question has haunted me since. I said then that we were still a slave society, and that we had to undo both evils - both fix the broken infrastructure in a society that can't imagine life without infinite cheap energy and also eliminate our slaves. But my answer has struck me as woefully insufficient ever since. How, after all, do we disengage from slavery? How do we face a future with less energy that doesn't lead to a permanent, huge, underclass of people, on whom a few people's wealth depends entirely? Because in that situation, the rich must always fear the poor, and have every incentive to reduce them to slavery.

Neither capitalism (which institutionalizes the disparities that encourage slavery and depends on reducing the value of human labor and resources, ideally to nil) nor communism (which outright controls humans and their labor) can provide us with an economic model. Fortunately, these are hardly our only choices. But it should remind us that the traditional dichotomy between these two "poles" and discourse in which there is nothing between or beyond Marx and Smith is a false one, designed to distract us with only a few choices. That both our "choices" lead to the enslavement of peoples should, I think, be sufficient to dismiss them.

Gandhi's Swaraj or "self-rule" movement offers one piece of the puzzle for a life without slavery. The notion that self-rule contained elements of political, economic and social theory meant that the system did not compartmentalize labor in ways that enabled slavery. It is a difficult system, because it places enormous faith in the independent good will of individuals, for, as Gandhi put it, "In such a state (where swaraj is achieved) everyone is his own ruler. He rules himself in such a manner that he is never a hindrance to his neighbour" - and yet, all deeply democractic systems depend on precisely that faith, that trust that ordinary people can and should hold in their hands the most essential details of our lives. It is Utopian, of course, but in the best sense. As Gandhi himself said, "It may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore not worth a single thought... Let India live for the true picture, though never realizable in its completeness. We must have a proper picture of what we want before we can have something approaching it"

The idea that democracy can be separated out from the way we earn our livings or treat our soils is false, and Jefferson was right articulating this. The idea that we can also seperate out our agrarian ideology from its history of racism and slavery is also false - we cannot erase the inconvenient parts of our history, or minimize them. But what we can do is create our own sort of Swaraj, and take the complex legacy of our agrarianism, and make it into something else.

How might this come about? Well, a nation made up not of plantation owners, but of true small farmers might be able to do so. A distributist model, a la Chesterton, in which most of the land is held by very small farmers, is a potential beginning. And in fact, we have already done much of the inconvenient work of chopping up land and putting small houses on it - we call it suburbia, and most suburban lots come with a piece of land, perhaps not quite sufficient to sustain a family, but often enough to render them independent of a host of created needs, and able, because of that independence, to make their choices based not on their fears and dependencies on corporate entities, but from a dispassionate consideration of what is best for the society as a whole. Small suburban farmers cannot need slaves - their land is too small to require them. Intensive agricultural techniques mean that small lots can come close to supporting a family, or do so entire. It isn't necessary to take seriously the distributist's focus on biological family units here - we can create these "family" structures in other ways, and imagine cooperative ownerships that work in concert with distributism.

The question, of course, is how larger agriculture will be enacted. Reallocation of fossil fuels means that we are unlikely to require literal slaves to produce our food for a long time, during which our job is to create such a loathing for notion of holding either immediate or distant slaves that we would no more consider it than we would consider eating human flesh.

As for the rest - the simple fact is that industrial agriculture depends on our willingness to buy its products. The ethanol boom depends on our willingness and dependence on gas. Industrial corporate farms depend on our willingness to buy their products. Stuart Staniford has recently demonstrated that industrial agriculture will remain profitable under the current model long into the future, and that it is likely to starve millions or even billions of people in the biofuels rush. All of which is best answered that markets alone are only as powerful as the people who accept their parameters. Industrial agriculture could remain powerful - unless we do not allow it to be. And then, the question becomes only what should take its place.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Adapting Our Farms and Gardens to Climate Change

When I worry about climate change, I often think first about human consequences. But the line between human losses and nature’s losses is pretty fine – literally a tree falling in the forest question. That is, if the sugar maples that turn my region into a blaze of red, the hemlocks that overshadow my creek disappear, who loses me or natures? The only answer is “yes.”
My own guess is this – if it is not already too late to avoid many of the worst effects of climate change, it shortly will be, and if we do not act quickly, our losses will grow each year. I see no signs of quick action. I hope for them, of course, and work for them, but there comes a point at which we all need to turn to the problem of mitigation.

If climate change is happening, if we will see our gardens move south steadily, that brings us a host of challenges. The first is that we will need to find ways to feed ourselves in our new climates. For some, this may not be difficult. For others, moving into a hotter, desert like world, it may be very, very painful.

But the land we husband can do more than simply feed us – it can soften the blows of climate change, help bring new and valuable species into regions just becoming able to support them, or on the contrary, help breed and adapt new varieties of old residents of our areas, so that they not lost to us. They can provide wildlife habitat for new and old species, and even microclimates, in which things being chased to extinction can survive. To an extent, we can even hold back raging floods and deserts with our hands.

Does that sound too extreme? It is, nonetheless, true. That is, one of the most remarkable examples of what small scale husbandry can do is shown by Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which has planted more than 30 million trees in Kenya, a nation deforested by a combination of colonialism and poor management. As deserts encroached, Maathai demonstrated the only way to keep them back was to create oases of trees, producing food, drawing up water, cooling people and making areas livable. The trees were planted, almost all by poor women, most of them desperately poor, who carry water to their trees each day by hand, because they know that the way to fight the desert is trees. My friend Kate worked for a while with the Green Belt Activists, and she said that in Kenya, trees are powerful – they free up labor for women who no longer have to walk miles for firewood, and provide food and security. But most of all, the trees create life – it is possible to live in a place shaded and lush with green, in a way it is not for most of us in the desert.

How many of us live in places where topsoil washes away, where rising temperatures are reducing water? We need a worldwide Green Belt movement, bringing suitable, food and wood producing trees to the driest and hottest places. That is the beginning of our gardens – the planting of the trees that will make them possible, that carry water from the deepest places, repair and hold soil, and create places we can live.

We will have to choose our trees carefully, especially in the hottest and driest places, but we must plant them – and if necessary, carry water the way the women of Kenya do. One tree that more of us ought to consider is Moringa, a naturalized shrubby tree that has several highly drought tolerant strains, but will grow as a die-back perennial as far north as Atlanta. The leaves are enormously nutritious, a single tablespoon of dried moringa containing 100 % of the Vitamin A, 14% of the protein, 40% of the calcium and 23% of the iron needed by a small child. The fresh leaves are rich in Vitamin C as well. The seeds make a high quality cooking oil, and the pods can be cooked and eaten like green beans.

Water is likely to be a huge issue all over the world. One of the things we can do to deal with this crisis is grow our own – although that requires irrigation water, Gary Nabhan of Native Seed/Search, in his book _Coming Home to Eat_ documents that generally speaking, homegrown produce, even in drought regions, uses up less water than produce trucked in from distant places. In many cases, the sheer cost of refrigerating produce means that it uses more water even within the dry region than it does if you grow your own. We must see water shifted to home agriculture when possible. But we also must minimize water use wherever possible, choosing annual and perennial food crops that can handle heat and drought, and growing them in appropriate ways, using greywater, rainwater, and water-thrifty growing techniques.

As we choose our perennial species, we must make decisions. Do we push our zonal limits, moving north plants from southern places that are newly able to survive here? This can be important work, enabling us to replace species as they are lost, and also providing food and habitat for birds and wildlife that move northwards faster than trees and plants can. It does come with some risks – new species can naturalize more swiftly and aggressively than we would like them to.

But human beings have perturbed the climate and transformed the world unwittingly, making mistake after mistake in our rearrangement of nature. We cannot wash our hands of the work and say “it is too complex for me – best not mess with it” – we’ve already messed with it, now our project is to use every power we have – mind, imagination, passion, strong backs – to do the imperfect best we can to shape our future. We will undoubtedly make wrong choices and do harm – but better we try as wisely as we can to fix what is broken than we go on choosing without thought or care.

And so we begin to push our limits. I have recently added the hardiest of the hardy bamboos to my yard, and we shall see whether it becomes a pest, or if it even survives. But the sheer usefulness of bamboo makes me think that the choice is worth the risk. And if it does not survive this time, perhaps in a year or two, it will. Although I hold little hope of it attracting pandas, it may yet serve other purposes for our native wildlife. My Maypop survived its first winter here – as far as I know, it is the only maypop in my region of rural upstate New York. But perhaps, if it survives and fruits, someday the seeds will grow in someone else’s garden, and on again.

You see wild teasel growing all over the place here – its spiny heads are unmistakable. It is hard to imagine that this pesky weed was once a major crop in my area – used to brush down the nap of woven cloth in the cloth mills of Lowell, MA, farmers once grew acres of teasel – now it is a wild thing, unloved, untended. And it shows just how quickly crops can change – what will New Yorkers grow, for example, when olive oil is too expensive to import from California and Italy? My own guess is oilseed pumpkins that once filled fields in Germany. I plant them now, not because I think the days of oil pressing pumpkin seeds are coming quickly, but so that I will have seeds to share – and for their delicious pumpkin seeds.

We can also to a degree stem the tide of loss of beloved species. In my region, the two trees I first mentioned, the glorious Sugar Maple and the cooling hemlock, are both projected to disappear from my region this century. In the desert southwest, the pinion pines are disappearing, and one report suggests that someday, Redwood national forest will have no redwoods in it.

But although species are lost, they rarely disappear entirely. Despite the depredations of Dutch elm disease, in my region you sometimes see that beautiful vase like shape in the middle of an old field, a tree that lived even though the rest did not. The American chestnut, that two centuries ago filled half the eastern forests, is gone – but there are a few left that grow up from stumps and even produce the occasional nut before dying back. It is these hardy, partially resistant specimens that offer hope to plant breeders that we might bring back the Chestnuts and the Elms.

But that work isn’t the work of professional plant breeders alone. All of us who own even a tiny postage stamp of a yard can get to know our trees, watch them and the ones around them. Perhaps your maples or pinion pines will show signs of withstanding warmer temperatures, or resistance to new diseases moving northwards. Perhaps if in the autumn, you take a garden bed and plant some seeds, you will give birth to the next generation of familiar plants.
Backyard plant breeding sounds hard, but it is as simple as this – when an annual or perennial crop is grown in your place, a host of information and slight adaptations are created to your conditions. The children of this plant will have a taste of those adaptations in their blood – study after study has found that the plant children of first generation transplants uniformly do better adapt more easily to a climate. That is, if you grow a heat loving squash like “Seminole” in your borderline too cool climate, and mature only one fruit, the next year the seeds of that fruit will be better able to handle your cool soil and nights, and perhaps you will get two, or three, and the next generation still better.

This works with both annual and perennial crops – seed saving is not just a way to save money or preserve genetic diversity, but a way of increasing yields, and often, increasing the nutritional value of a crop, for as plants respond to stress, they lose nutrients. A plant adapted to your region, soil, climate will have more energy to create beautiful, healthy, nutritious edible parts.
Soil saving can mitigate the harm of climate change – rich soils, high in organic matter, over time can store as much carbon as a similarly sized forest, and pasture animals as well. If we were to transform the millions of acres of lawn to high humus pasture, or rich garden soil, we could soften the blow of climate change a great deal. The process of cover cropping, adding manures and nurturing a piece of land may not just help us adapt – it may limit the amount of adaptation we have to do.

What about wildlife? We are destroying our species so thoroughly – a third or more by mid-century that we must give them a hand. Whether we manage 10 acres or a 20 x 20 yard, we can plant diverse species, and protect endangered wild plants at the margins of our gardens. We can work to attract wildlife, and to meet its needs for food, water, shelter, places to reproduce. We can watch for new species, and changes in habit, and strive to adapt to them.
One garden among a row of postage stamp lawns seems like it can do nothing to stem the loss of wildlife, but you’d be surprised. Thousands of insect and animal species can live in a single yard, and hundreds more may visit on their way somewhere else. Your milkweed may be the difference between monarchs next year, your wild places the one that the bumblebees rely upon. And moreover, your influence doesn’t lie only on the ground, but on what you start in your neighborhood – the neighbor you persuade to leave a little space for the bumblebee.

Farmers might consider bringing back their hedgerows, even using British style “laid” hedges as livestock fencing. In those hedgerows we can provide habitat, animal feed, and also wood and food for ourselves. Mixing traditional regional species with those who might adapt, we can create integrated plant colonies, or Permaculture style “guilds” that may adaptively work together, enabling the plants as whole to do better than any isolated specimen.

In some places, the robins never leave at all for the winter, but here they still do, and every year I record the first time they return. This year it was January 27th, the first time I have ever seen them here in January. The first year it was mid-February. They lay earlier, too, and the ones that return each year to the nest in the old chicken house on our property sometimes lose their babies to cold. Last year, I started going out in the evening, once the parents were on their nests, and simply shutting the door to the chicken house, rising early in the morning and opening it. Last year, the first batch of babies survived.

It might be wisest to have our gardens do a little of each thing – bring in some new crops and push our regional limits, particularly when such crops might fill a void, such as pumpkin seeds in a vegetable fat poor region, or leguminous trees that can be interplanted with annual crops to feed the soil and respire moisture into the air. But also, we can protect and preserve what we have, watering a little, if we have it to spare, to enable the old crops to hang on a little longer, to find the ones that might survive.

As my own home gets warmer and wetter, it is a challenge to figure out what my new norms are. It is warming in the spring, but I’m not planting any earlier most years, because the rains are so heavy that it isn’t possible. In anticipation of a time when I might truly need the food I can produce in April here, I am building some beds, with gravel at their base, designed to dry out even in the wet times. With a little protection, I hope that fresh greens and perhaps rhubarb will produce soon enough to bring the spring season home a little earlier, and to stretch the winter food reserves.

The changes in the spring flooding season also mean that it is more important than ever to keep topsoil from eroding and the banks of my creek stemmed with trees. My own security from flooding depends on not losing soil, and on keeping my ground intact. Near the ocean, this may mean finding salt tolerant marsh and reed plants to hold back soil, or in heavy wet soils, finding root crops, like cattails, that can take the place of less wet tolerant foods in our diets.

n hot, dry places, the whole system of agriculture may have to change to a Permaculture/vegeculture model. That is, field scale cultivation may not be possible as things get dryer and hotter – in many drought stricken parts of Kenya, the only places to grow gardens are under the shade of leafy oases. That means returning to traditional African models of agriculture, that integrated small, intermittent patches of root crops with perennial tree and vine crops (more on this here: When Europeans came to Africa, at first they could not understand how Africans fed themselves from their tiny gardens, but soon they realized that they cultivated the forest.

We too will probably have to cultivate our forests, and change the shape of our food cultures and food production. That is, climate change won’t just change our gardens, but our diets as well. It may be necessary to give up the hope of summer salads in hotter places, and accept that summer is a time for other foods, or to give more priority to cool weather cultivation for staple crops.

Here, our growing seasons seems to lengthen on the autumn end – 3 out of the six falls I’ve spent here, we’ve had a frost more than 10 days after our traditional frost date. My neighbors with a hoophouse had fresh tomatoes and peppers until Thanksgiving last year. So I need to plant better fall gardens, and wait longer before taking out winter stores – if I can be growing crops into early December, I should be.

There is no single process of adaptation – every region will have to deal with its own projections, and the specific ecology of a place and time. And as quickly as we determine what we should do, we will probably have to change it again – for climate change moves forward, whether we like it or not. But the preservation, sustenance and recreation of a piece of land is good work, and necessary work. The starting point is beginning to look hard at the realities of the problem, and anticipate what our landscapes may look like, and what it might need and enable.