Monday, April 30, 2007

Capitalism and its Discontents

Entertaining essay on the discursive impossibility of ever critiquing capitalism over at "Counterpunch." Definitely worth a read. Of course, we'd never say anything bad here about capitalism...Nah.

"We know that capitalism is not just the most sensible way to organize an economy but is now the only possible way to organize an economy. We know that dissenters to this conventional wisdom can, and should, be ignored. There's no longer even any need to persecute such heretics; they are obviously irrelevant.

How do we know all this? Because we are told so, relentlessly -- typically by those who have the most to gain from such a claim, most notably those in the business world and their functionaries and apologists in the schools, universities, mass media, and mainstream politics. Capitalism is not a choice, but rather simply is, like a state of nature.

Maybe not like a state of nature, but the state of nature. To contest capitalism these days is like arguing against the air that we breathe. Arguing against capitalism, we're told, is simply crazy.We are told, over and over, that capitalism is not just the system we have, but the only system we can ever have. Yet for many, something nags at us about such a claim. Could this really be the only option? We're told we shouldn't even think about such things. But we can't help thinking -- is this really the "end of history," in the sense that big thinkers have used that phrase to signal the final victory of global capitalism? If this is the end of history in that sense, we wonder, can the actual end of the planet far behind?"


Poetic Interlude

Ok, I must pause from my regularly scheduled rant to post Simon's first poem, as typed and spelled by the author. He made this up some weeks ago, and memorized it, and Isaiah now knows it too.

Yes, I know it is dorky to post your kids cute things on your blog for complete strangers, but I never claimed I wasn't a dork.

(Part of a collection Simon has modestly titled "great poem's for youg readers" - he says it has 100 poems in it, but so far I'm only aware of 3. Kind of like the elephant in the block of stone.)

i did not eat your ice cream

i did not eat your ice cream i did not drink your wine i did not swipe your pasta i did not wish to dine i did not rip your poster i did not brake your saw i did not give you a hair wash i did make it a law i did not mess up your kalimba i did not bang on your drum i did not do any
thing good bye i gess im done.

by simon

I shall return to my normal ranting tomorrow. For now, content by my five year old.



Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Limits of Responsibility: Revisiting Eichmann

My post about Eichmann and the applicability of the banality of evil argument to those who cause climate change was extremely controversial. I got a lot of comments and private emails that argued out with me in great detail. The discussion was overwhelmingly wise and respectful, and I learned a lot from it. I'm very grateful to those who took time to debate and discuss this subject, and I appreciate the degree to which you've improved my thinking. I think the subject who who is responsible, and how responsible, deserves more consideration than I gave it in my comparatively short and designed-to-provoke post, so I'm going to address some of the responses here. I'll be delighted if this causes more discussion. This is rather long, philosophical and wordy, as is my wont, so I'll forgive you if you go off and have a beer instead, though ;-).

The first argument that I encountered, that I think was absolutely on target is the claim that if everyone is Eichmann, no one is Eichmann. And, of course, that is absolutely true - there is no doubt of that. Kiashu, Michelle and others all persuasively argued this, and, of course, they are right. I actually never intended to imply that every person in the world was equally responsible, but neither did I clarify what I meant.

My error came in not defining who I was speaking of, and expressing myself more generally than I should have. It is obviously true that there are a large number of people in this country, probably the vast majority, who are completely unequipped to work their way through the network of complicated information to find out what the impact of their actions are. For those who do not understand, who are not equipped to understand, for those who have not the ability to sift through the disparate connections between their actions and their impact, or for those who are so caught up in other exigencies that they cannot, there is no question that they are not evil. They are acting, for the most part, inadvertantly. And in fact, I never intended to claim that every person was Eichmann. As Michelle points out, her 2 year old (and mine) are off the hook, as are a lot of other people. But maybe not all of them.

If we are to recognize categories of moral responsibility, we might divide us up into four such categories.

1. Those who do not know, and cannot know, and who thus act inadvertantly (the majority at this point)
2. Those who do not know, but could know and choose not to.
3. Those who do know, and do understand, but either choose not to act or to admit responsibility
4. Those who do know and do act.

I think it is important that we recognize that these are different categories, and their degree of complicity is different. Now let me first say that I have no real interest in trying to figure out who falls into what category - this is merely a way of thinking about the problem of responsibility.

For those who cost others their lives but do not know, and do not intend, and could not easily know, I would argue that they are not doing evil, but they are *responsible* for their actions. That is, they are obligated to try and compensate others for what they have done. That is, even if you inadvertantly cause harm to others, you still owe those others some debt - apology, reparations, comfort, aid. If you knock someone over by accident, you help them up, apologize, if you have broken their packages offer to replace it. The same is true of inadvertant harm you do others. That means that those who did not know are not feed from responsibility, but they are freed from the accusation of moral evil.

But what about the next two categories? They were the ones I was thinking of when I wrote my post about Eichmann in my living room. They are people like me - well educated, priveleged, comparatively well off, fortunate in many ways. They (we) read whatever the Very Important Paper is in their region, and take in a variety of news and information. They track their stocks and research their restaurants, travel destinations and medical conditions (I won't write we here because I don't have any stocks, don't travel and am healthy, but I'm not so very far away, either). These are usually the people who do the most harm in their society - they consume more energy that poorer people, they have more stuff, they spend more money, they (we) are the ones investing in the World Bank and keeping the growth economy moving.. They (we) tend to have all the skills and abilities necessary to know, and they have at least some exposure to the material - they look at the climate change headlines, consume the news, and they don't necessarily take it any further. Again, I am not tarring anyone here - this is how I began, and sometimes it is who I still am. I am still figuring out my own degree of complicity in the destruction of the world.

But are these people innocent? That is, if you know very generally that climate change is a threat, if you read the headlines and look at the stories, see the movie and watch the news, but choose not to devote any more intellectual energy to discovering what your role in this is, is that an accident or a choice? I would argue that it is a choice, and a disturbing one - the "if I choose not to know, I don't have to change." That is, these are people who choose not to offer the future of their own lives and their children's lives, and those of people elsewhere in the world the same attention that they give the latest film offerings, a new restaurant or an allergy medication. I would argue that there is a real and meaningful degree of will involved in this - an act of intention that says that their own responsibility can be obviated as long as they close their eyes as tightly as possible. This is wrong - IMHO, this falls in the category of at least criminal negligence. The question becomes - do we have any moral responsibility to ensure that we are not killing other people.

And that's a new question for us. The history of the 20th century was one of people being able to kill more and more at a distance, and more and more people being able to kill on scale none of us has ever fully grasped. Even now we don't understand what we can do in most cases. But with this increase of power has not come an increase of personal responsibility, or a willingness to bear that responsibility, and it has expanded our incentives to deny. My own belief is that unless people are held responsible for their denial, they will continue to close their eyes as the corpses pile up. Is this evil? I don't know, but for many philosophers, denial of the suffering of others is right at the border of moral evil. And to me, as we become more aware of peak oil and climate change, and more and more people develop the tools to understand what we are facing, this question will become more and more acute - are you relieved of your responsibility by maintaining plausible deniability? And what will we become if we allow that to excuse us?

Next come those who know, but deny responsibility, or do not act. Perhaps my largest difference with some of my critics is that I think this group, and the one preceeding it, are more significant than they do, and more numerous. There are many people out there who admit that global warming is a problem, but have not changed their lives, or believe that the responsibility lies with someone else. Now I will be the first to admit that changing your life and yourself is a process. I am not directing my criticism at those who are beginning, and seeking another move, but at people who do not admit that they are responsible to resist, as Arendt put it.

These are people who understand that the consequences of their actions are presently and will lead to harm to others - maybe even harm to themselves, but who don't act. They do this (and I understand this because I am one of them), from inertia, or fear, or the sense that it is hopeless to begin without leadership or without government initiative. Or they think their own reasons for what they do are justifiable - that is, "I'm a very busy person and I have to pay the mortgage." They tend to prefer not to express their justifications explicitly, because we all know "I have to pay the mortgage so people in Bangladesh have to die" is not going to cut it, so we leave unexpressed (and often unthought) the outcome of our action. It doesn't make anyone less dead, but it is more palatable. Christopher Buckley, in his novel _Thank You For Smoking_ calls this the "yuppie neuremberg defense" and I think that's pretty close to right.

I have done this. I do do this. I understand that it is frustrating to act when it seems hopeless, it is easier to rely on governments and others to take responsibility, and we do all have good reasons. But if I cannot end my sentence of justification with "And thus, it is perfectly reasonable that Vietnamese children starve to death because of me" and believe that, then I can't do it. Why? Because such reasoning is evil. Not just bad, but evil. To say my actions justify killing others for my convenience and comfort is evil. And it is not less evil if we choose not to say the words aloud. As Arendt points out, resistance is always an option. It may not get us the results we dream of. But sometimes that isn't the point - sometimes the point of resistance is that without it, we become something we do not wish to be.

My old friend George Franklin is one of the smartest people I know, and also has a much deeper and more subtle grasp of both philosophical and legal categories of responsibility than I do, and he argued ,

"By defining conduct as genocide that is not willfully aimed at exterminating races, you criminalize that conduct and create a Manichean situation--the elect and the damned, those who reduce emissions and those who, for one reason or another, don’t). The problem here is that if the damned are guilty, they deserve punishment. This thinking creates a slippery slope that may even lead to certain persons feeling justified in committing violent acts against those they perceive to be guilty of genocide. After all, wasn’t violent action justified against the Nazis? (Remember, Eichmann was executed.) Should we blow up the houses of persons who don’t recycle? I am exaggerating, of course, but remember that the red brigade and weather underground started from similar white/black premises. Hortatory rhetoric does what it’s supposed to do; it persuades people to take action. We can’t always know what form that action will eventually take."

I think George has raised some good issues. The first is that I should take a greater degree of responsibility for my own rhetoric, and be explicit about what it is (and is not) that I am calling people to do and not to do in response. So I will do so now.

I am calling people to do - nothing. Or rather, nothing, save to look at themselves. All I suggest we do is take a good, and close look in our mirrors. It is certainly not my job to single out the sinners and the saints - I'm not sure there any saints to find, and that kind of reasoning is more the purview of a different faith than mine. For me, this is about one's responsibility to be an ethical person, and I have enough trouble doing that for myself without sitting in judgement of others. But I would quote Ralph Waldo Emerson here on the subject of "Compensation,"

"The fallacy lay in the immense concession that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring the base estimate of the market of what constitutes manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will; and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood."

Emerson argues that we are punished now, not just in some future life, for the ill we do in the world. And I agree. We are punished by the kind of people we become - by the fact that when we look in our mirrors, if we have any great honesty, we see the things we deplore looking back. We are punished imperfectly by the responses of others - that is, those we sinned against judge us, and they devise their own punishments. We saw the two towers fall, and claimed that it was done because they hate our freedom - but, of course, Bin Laden and others told us why. They took their revenge, and we ours, and so on until the whole world perishes. And there are millions of people who will do the same - they will imperfectly render back the evil done to them, and bring more harm into the world. And someday, we will face our children, or our grandchildren, or if you believe in one, G-d, and we will be called accountable. What will our grandchildren say to us? What will they do when they know that we wrought this evil upon them. Will they accept our protest of innocence? Justice is not done once, but over and over again, imperfectly. Better that we not bring the imperfect hand of justice down upon ourselves. I do not wish to see this happen, and I think it is better to see the evil in ourselves and rout it out than to face whatever fraction and shape of justice we will see.

George also accuses me of "us and them" rhetoric. I don't think that's actually true. The first person plural was not an accident in my original message, and I do not exempt myself from responsibility for my own action and inaction. There is only "us" here, all with varying degrees of responsibility and exculpation. And no matter how carefully we mend our ways, there is no doubt that we will continue to do some harm. The world has progressed to the point that whatever we do impacts others, both negatively and positively. But that's not an excuse for not reducing that harm to its absolute minimum. It is true, however, that I am drawing a line in the sand - if you know, or can know, your obligation to resist doing harm is absolute.

Many people took me to task for my claim that intentionality isn't required to do evil. George pointed out that Eichmann intended the consequences he caused. Kiashu argued,

"Whether they should feel bad or not is irrelevant. Believing in Jewish ethics, I believe that only actions and results matter; if a bad person does something with good results for bad reasons, it's still got good results, so their motives are irrelevant - except insofar as they affect their future actions."

I agree that Eichmann did intend the consequences of his action, but one of the important points that Arendt makes is that he didn't much care (this may or may not actually have been true of Eichmann personally, but for the purposes of this discussion we'll accept Arendt's claim) what harm he did. Yes, he did his harm knowingly, but his interest and intention were not focused on what he accomplished, but on his own personal ends. I think there is more common ground here that either of my critics is inclined to admit. In this case, we may not intend our ends, but we share with Eichmann the condition of being mostly concerned with achieving our personal ends. The difference is that for those who could know or do know, they choose not to carefully consider the outcomes, an option Eichmann didn't have.

I would use a legal analogy - we do believe that intentionality matters in how we judge the crimes we commit. If for example, I stab my husband with a tuning fork in the heat of passion, others will judge me differently than if I take the tuning fork, and plot an elaborate scheme to murder him with it. But only up to a point. The act is still murder. At best, if I were to accidentally murder my husband (in some way I can't figure out) with a tuning fork, one might call that an accident, or at worst, criminally negligent homicide. But what would happen if I kept doing it, over and over and over again, and stream of tuning fork induced corpses appeared in my yard (ok, this is past silly)?

Intentionality matters in how we judge - but not enough to erase the stigma of evil. That is, the avoidable things we knowingly (or willfully unknowingly) do to others are still acts of murder. Our responsibility may be somewhat diminished - although each such act and each bit of knowledge we reject or ignore raises our responsibility. But is lack of intentionality enough to make what we do not evil? I tend to think not, although I'm open to debate here.
I do think Kiashu gets it wrong about Jewish Ethics. I take this fairly seriously, and I do realize that my prior post and my current one may well be committing the ethical error of failing to judge fairly. What I will say is that I am doing the best I can on this one, but I do recognize that it is a real concern.

But Kiashu's claim that motives are irrelevant is better support for my case than hers (his?). But more importantly, Jewish law is very clear, I think that we are responsible for what we *do not* do, at least as deeply as we are for what we do do, and that we bear moral responsibility for things we do by accident. I am no Talmudic Scholar of any sort, so I'm sure my arguments are open to dispute, but as I see it, the Talmud and Torah both support the notion that we are obligated to understand the consequences of our actions and also to make amends for them.

For example, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch says of the person who sins inadvertantly, speaking of Parsha Vayakira,

"A shogeg sins because of inadvertence or forgetfulness, i.e., because at the moment of sinning he is not attentive with body and soul to acting in accordance with the commandments and the Torah, because he is not, in the words of the prophet, "concerned (hared) about My word" (Is. 66:2). This lack of concern and rigorous attention to living according to the Torah and its commandments is the essence of the sin committed "unwittingly." Therein lies the "transgression" which comes in the wake of the "sin," as it is written, "of transgression, ... whatever their sins"[mipish'ehem lekhol hatatam] (Lev. 16:16)."

That is, we are obligated to keep up a reasonably high level of consciousness and self-awareness. The word "rigor" here, is, I think important. This, I think, supports the notion that we can hold some people at least to the standard of being obligated to know what the consequences of their actions are.

Moreover, the Jewish concept of repentence is relevant here. In order for us to repent from any sins we've committed (and harming others is undoubtably a sin), we must engage in four steps.

1. Acknowledge the wrongdoing (ha-karat hachet) - that is, we are obligated to understand fully what we have done. This involves speaking our failures aloud, without minimizing or lying. So we have no choice but to fully understand the consequences of our actions in order to be forgiven for them.

2. We must undo the damage and ask for forgiveness. This, of course, leads to the great problem of murder - because the victim cannot speak or give forgiveness (even if they wanted to), you can never be forgiven for killing others willfully. This would be, IMHO, a strong reason for those of us committed to Jewish ethics not to kill people. And how can we undo the damage of a warmed planet? We cannot. We can never be forgiven for that either.

3. We must ask G-d for forgiveness. Rabbi Telushkin notes in his _Code of Jewish Ethics_: "Even when vicimts of te most terrible crimes extend forgiveness to their
assailants, we cannot assume that, in the absence of sincere repentance, God forgives the criminals." (Telushkin, 166).

4. We must resolve not to sin this way again.

The simple fact is, IMHO, within Jewish Ethics there is no justification for defending actions based upon an incomplete understanding of their consequences. We are simply held to a higher standard than that. We *have* to know both what is right and whether what we've done has met that standard.

Squrrl asks if this isn't primarily about guilt. The answer is no, I don't think it is. Guilt is an emotion I don't have a lot of truck with - we tend to feel guilty about things that we don't intend to stop doing. "Oh, I really shouldn't eat this cookie...oh, I really shouldn't eat this next cookie." To me, this is a deeper issue - guilt doesn't do us any good. But responsibility, there's a different animal.

For me, the issue is never how you should feel about things, but about how you should act. But moral knowledge is the only tool we have to enable us to act well - when we choose our actions, there is a great deal at stake. And unless we understand that this will lead us in a particular direction, including making us into particular kinds of people, we cannot choose wisely. For me, the Eichmann analogy is useful not because it makes us feel bad, but because it helps me dissect the impact of my actions. The question is not "am I pure enough" but "am I doing the right thing." And when the answer is no, that means I have to change.

The one thing almost everyone who criticized me argued was that arguments like this are fundamentally alienating, that they turn off people we need to attract. And maybe that's true. I don't know if it is or isn't - I think, for example, most formal religions would not exist if some people didn't want to hear firm designations of right and wrong laid out. But the question that comes up for me is whether it even matters if this is alienating. To me, the relevant question is whether it is true or not. That is, if it is true that we are murdering people by our actions, and that we are doing so with some degree of understanding (or willful misunderstanding) of what we do, does it matter whether it alienates people to say so? Is it right not to say so? I don't know the answer to this. I do know that I personally believe we do more harm by giving tacit permission to leave the consequences of your actions unexamined than we do by alienating them. This is a judgement call, of course, and I may be wrong. But as more and more people come to understand the consequences of their actions, I believe we must make denial, or failure to participate a non-option for all those who could do so. If I've alienated you, my apologies. If you go away and stop trying because of me, I'm sorry. But I'm not sure that that loss is enough to make me leave the truth as I see it off the page. If nothing else, realize you are in good company - you'll hardly be the first person I've ever alienated, often for less good reasons ;-).

My doctoral dissertation was in part about Renaissance skepticism, which is roughly defined as the failure to recognize that other people are as real as you are. And of course, that's natural - Stanley Cavell in many of his books observes precisely how normal it is not to believe that other people's pain is like your pain, and their joy like yours, and not, deep in your gut, to believe that other people matter quite as much as you do. And this, I think, is the root of things here.
We are killing people, because we do not believe that they are fully real. We cannot grasp that the Pakistani mother who walks half a mile to scoop water for her child from a muddy ditch because the planet has warmed and her usual sources of water are gone, and who watches her children die from contaminated water is as real as we are, and loves her children and suffers as much as we. We cannot imagine that the native American people who see one loved one after another fall through the ice and die while hunting for food, and weep because their children are hungry are as real as you and I and our children. On some level, we have trouble even believing that our children are as real as we are - that some day their experience of insufficiency and poverty and fear will be as real as the fear we feel about change - and immeasurably greater.

There is no meaningful way to make others as viscerally real to ourselves as we are. If we have a good imagination, we can begin to try, but that's far to contingent a solution. The only means out of this problem is this - to grant other people their subjectivity and their reality regardless of how it *feels* to us - that is, to recognize what Rabbi Hillel said is the whole of the Torah "That which is hateful to you, do not do to the other." It doesn't matter whether we understand them, or love them or care about them at all. The only way we can recognize and accomodate and live together is this - if you would not want it done to you and yours, do not do it to another. And for that, we must look, and learn. We extend subjectivity to the other as a gift of one human being to one another - because even though you may not feel as real as I do to me, the basis of any possible connection - of courtesy, respect, love, or even simple extension of human dignity is this - that I grant the possibility that you are fully real.

Ok, this was long and heavy and most of you probably got bored and wandered off ;-).
On to something more fun. On Monday, just to prove that I also want to hold hands with those who want to change, I'm going to start the first of my 52 week lifestyle change posts. I'll offer 1 way per week to change your life to make it more sustainable, and hope that for those who have just begun (and those who might have missed one of these), doing something for a week will lead to doing it for a lifetime.



Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jevon's Paradox, Exponential Growth and Reallocation

Jeff Vail is one of the smartest people out there writing about peak oil. His focus is designing a sustainable future. I don't agree with everything he says, of course, but even when I disagree, I learn from him. He's got a fascinating article on the limits of conservation over at The Oil Drum here: Some good comments and discussion there as well. You can read more of his material over at I particularly recommend his material on EROEI - he's the person I go to if I have questions on this subject.

I was particularly engaged by this post, because I've argued in the past that Jevons' Paradox (explained over at Jeff's article) is, in fact, not inevitable, but to a large degree culturally constructed. Or rather, I think that Jevon's Paradox will always limit to some degree the return you get from conservation and culture change, but you can minimize its effect.

For example, Juliet Schor in her book, _The Overspent American_ documents that the better educated you are, the more you spend, the more indebted you are, and the less you save. Got a Ph.d? You probably are carrying significant credit card debt (over and above any student loans), have a whopping mortgage, a couple of car payments, etc... Now you also probably make (even if your Ph.d was in something comparatively useless like mine) more than the average bear. But you are spending even more than you make trying to gain status and establish yourself as authentically different from other people who are trying to gain status. Not that you call it that, of course - but that's how it operates.

Now the poorer you are, interestingly, the more likely you are to spend your money on necessities, of course, and the less likely you are to status buy. The most likely people to drop out of cultural status competitions, according to Schor, are poor African-Americans. They also have a higher savings rate for their income than average (important, since our national savings rate is now negative.) So a strategy, for example, that passed the benefits of conservation along to poorer, urban, African American people would see us return greater net benefits from conservation as a whole.

The poorer you are, the less energy you use. That is, you are more likely to take the bus, live in a densely populated neighborhood and walk places, and you buy less stuff, and more of it used. Thus, you might estimate that a dollar that comes back to a poor person in gas savings lose only 10% of its value in Jevon's Paradox, while one that came back to much richer person would lose up to 30%. These aren't exact figures, of course, but I think they are important, because they point up that a. the scope of Jevon's paradox is something that can be regulated by a number of things, including *who* gets the benefits of demand destruction and the cultural context they come from. If Jevon's Paradox isn't an absolute truth (or perhaps it is, but an extremely contingent absolute truth), than we can focus our energies in part on limiting its impact.

In fact, this reallocation could *reduce* some of the places where poorer people do consume more energy than richer ones - in food, for example, if people were enabled to work less and offered classes in cooking and its energy impact. Health care would almost certainly be a reduction - that is, more money in the hands of the poor would enable them to use doctors instead of emergency rooms, and to treat treatable illnesses before they became acute.

All of which is why I think that simple carbon taxation, with the proceeds in the hands of the government (which has no real incentives to curb its spending), even allocated, as Jeff suggests, to design and adaptation strategies, might be less useful than a system that engaged in wide scale reallocation of wealth - that is, a tradable rationing system. That is, everyone gets a flat amount of energy for the year (it could start at 2% less than our present usage, for example - this is what Richard Heinberg and Colin Campbell's Oil Depletion Protocol does), and those who are already below consumption levels make money. Now they will spend some of that money, of course, but if they like having more money (and people often do) they will also wish to retain their source of income - that is, they'd be forced to find lower impact ways of using their wealth.

And this would result in a large-scale net transfer of wealth to poorer people in the US. This is a growing class - 1 out of every 5 people in the US now lives on less than $7 per day, which in buying power is about equivalent to the third world's famous $2 per day income. Wealth inequality has grown steadily over the last decades, and now is as acute as it was right before the stock market crash of 1929. Economic disparity is part of the fuel for our consumption - the richer rich gets, the harder we run to try and keep up with whoever our Joneses are. Poorer people are accustomed mostly to keeping up with poorer people - and that makes a big difference in our sum ambitions, and the energy we use for them. Getting more cash to people whose dream is to drive to Waukeegan to visit the grandparents is more useful than getting more cash to people whose dream is to fly to the Carribean.

So we'd be transferring money to people who are a. most likely not have their basic needs met (and away from the people who most likely *do* have those needs met), b. who are likely to use it in the most energy efficient way possible and c. to the people most inclined to save. Because it turns out that while the poorest of the poor are unlikely to save, America's remaining savers are mostly concentrated in the lower middle class. And this is true all over the world - dirt poor farmers in rural China who live on less than $2 per day are likely to save up to 1/4 of their income - while Chinese urbanites save less than 1/10.

Part of this is the urgency of saving for the poor - poor people know there's no safety net under them. They know that if they don't have a reserve, any crisis can be a disaster. Moreover, they are more likely to have poor family members who need help in hard times because *they* don't have safety nets. A recent study showed that the poorer you are, the more willing you are to lend money to your family.

On the other hand. wealthy people a. often don't realize how urgent savings is, because no disaster has ever befallen them, b. they often get more credit extended to them, and thus are more indebted, and can't save because they have to service debt, and c. they often use credit as a fall back position - that is, if they lose a job, they plan to rely on credit, with the assumption that someday they will be rich again. Because credit is an enormous part of the whole growth problem, giving money back to rich people is not only problematic because they'll just spend it, but because they will spend *more* than what they get back, feeding their debt cycle. As a 2004 Harvard study showed, after receiving George Bush's stupid tax rebate, most Americans spent it. But the richer you are, the more likely you were to spend not just your rebate, but more than that, based on feeling richer. And the wealthier you were, the more extra you spent.

Now a wealth transfer would almost certainly encourage poorer people to spend more money. But because that wealth transfer would create strong incentives to have it continue (that is, if you make 5K a year by not using energy, you'd prefer to keep that money coming in), and thus to find the lowest possible energy intensive uses for wealth. And it would do that not only for the poor, but for everyone - that is, every single person would experience a strong incentive to decorrellate wealth from energy use. This would be the deepest benefit of a tradable rationing system - right now, money correllates pretty strongly with energy. Can we decouple them? I think we can - if people have more wealth when they use their money to buy, say, sustainably farmed food, handwoven clothing and other things - costly, but not to our energy budgets, those professions become economically feasible for a larger portion of the population.

I'm hesitant to overstate the case for tradable rationing, but I am wondering if such a model, something like the ODP, couldn't become the generative source of a new, more sustainable, non-growth based economy. And the backbone of that economy (more or less coincidentally) would be a vastly smaller disparity between rich and poor.

Minimizing the energy consequences of Jevon's paradox then, is in part a project of getting the economic returns into the right hands. That is, ensuring that the people who profit from whatever system we use are the people who both need the money the most, and who are least likely to waste it. We might find that efficiency matters more in a more equitable society - and that the interests of creating an low energy society mandates a greater degree of equality and fairer distribution of wealth. And redistribution itself might be the origin of something different - maybe even better.

Now the issue of political feasibility is a real one in the short term, which is why I think that raised energy taxes may be a shorter term necessity. Ultimately, who would want to see the power to ration resources held in the hands of the present government (or in many of the candidates currently vying to replace it - Hillary is saying she may want to invade Iran too - are you surprised)? That said, everyone raise their hand who thinks that a tax dividend on gas would go into redesigning a better future under the present government. And that is the real problem of top-down solutions.

I've got another post in the line about Eichmann in our living rooms, because I think it deserves some more analysis. After that, I've been mulling over our options if top down solutions remain unfeasible. I wonder - could we institute rationing without them? Surprisingly, the answer might be yes - but it would be hard. More on this soon.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Eichmann in our Living Rooms

In her most famous book, _Eichmann in Jerusalem_, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil." Eichmann, who enabled one of the greatest genocides of all time, did not act from personal hatred of Jews or Gypsies, or because he was overtly, inherently evil according to Arendt. He acted because he believed in following the law and doing his job well. He did evil, but was not evil - he simply absented his own moral responsbility, and did his job, regardless of its consequences, seeking promotion and to do well by the standards of his day. If that job meant killing millions of Jews, well...ah well.

What was important about Arendt's book is the notion that ordinary people, acting in ordinary ways could do vast evil. We tend to think of evil as psychopathic, recognizable, like a cartoon villain. Arendt pointed out that evil happens when ordinary people choose not to recognize the moral qualities of their actions.

It is a painful thing to recognize, as we must, that right now, Adolf Eichmann lives in our houses. He is us, and we are he. That is, the ordinary life that we are living right now is the cause of more harm than any Nazi ever committed. We are committing genocide all over the world by warming the planet. 1.5 billion people stand to lose their drinking water over the next century. Up to 2 billion risk famine. More than 2 billion will be displaced. We can expect 30 million to die of diseases that are gradually moving north. The people most at risk are mostly poor, many women, many non-white. Whole nations of people stand to be killed or turned into refugees. The Nazis managed to kill only 11 million people. We stand to make them look like pikers.

And we do it every day in our living rooms, in our cars, in our schools, at our jobs. Over the second half of the 20th century, there has been the gradual increase of the notion that beaurocrats, those who kill people with a pen and never have to dirty their hands are not less morally responsible, but more so. There is a special circle of hell for those who do not dirty their hands.

And for every one of us who deplores an Eichmann, ordering Jews to the gas chambers, or Clinton watching Iraqi children starve to death, or a Rumsfeld ordering torture, should look carefully at ourselves, and think about how we are different. We too are killing people. We are doing it every morning as we drink our coffee. We too are killing people when we get into our cars to go to work. We are killing people as we do our jobs. We wonder what we have done to deserve this government that we have. And the answer is this - we have the government we can expect. For those who wash their hands of the acts they are responsible for, there is a special circle of hell indeed.

What is the answer? The answer is to stop obeying the law, the custom, going on the way we are. Arendt pointed out that Eichmann missed the whole point of Kant - he thinks the law is good because it is the law. But the law (or the custom, or the way we live) is only good if it is good, and it is moral, and if each man and woman allows their conscience, their moral sensibility to do a true accounting and judge, and take real responsbility.

Arendt famously said that it was always possible to resist the pressure to do evil. She argued,

"...under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."

There is no excuse for us to fail to resist. We must reduce our emissions individually and as a nation. Whenever anyone says to you, "one person cannot make a difference" remember this - some day you will face your children, or G-d, or your own conscience. Being able to do that, and say "I fought back" may be the greatest legacy you can leave. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps we might also enable this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.

I do not wish to see Eichmann in my mirror.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

There's One Movement Now!

There's Only One Movement Now...

In honor of International Women's Day (you did remember International Women's Day, Right?), the IUCN has released an extensive report detailing exactly how awful climate change is going to be for women. How bad will it be? Really, really bad. That is, women are going to disproportionately endure the consequences of climate change - the hunger, the drought, the diseases, the economic burden, the poverty, because women make up a majority of the world's poor. And, of course, women are disproportionately under-represented among those people who make climate policy decisions, and poor women even more than rich ones.

There's a summary here at Mother Jones, and a link to the original PDF file. I really recommend you read it.

Now the thing that I'm probably best known for (and it is a pretty teeny bit of fame) is an essay I wrote last year entitled "Peak Oil Is a Women's Issue." I don't think I've ever written anything that got so much attention - among other things, it got reproduced on a DOE subsidized website right next to an article by Newt Gingerich - my face and Newt's put together (now there's a vision for you - Gah!).

And the reason this article was so famous wasn't because it was so revelatory - I was only pointing out the obvious. But a vast majority of people who read the article responded as though I was saying something really knew, because they'd never really thought about it before. Now we know (gee, could we have guessed) that climate change *and* peak oil are going to be a major 1-2 punch for women all over the world. They threaten not only to do us a great deal of harm, but to throw back gains in things like population stability. Women have fewer children when they know the children they do have are likely to survive to adulthood. Women who think war or poverty or disease or hunger may take away their sons and daughters keep having babies, because that's the only way they can be sure of having children live to adulthood. If we want to see the world's population level off and decline, we *MUST* see these issues as women's issues.

But not just women's issues. The days of there being all these balkanized little movements must end. Because Peak Oil and Climate Change are, obviously, issues for women - and for every man who has a reason to care about their mothers, their sisters, their friends, their lovers, their daughters - that is, all men. And Peak Oil and Climate Change are Men's issues - because who do we think will overwhelmingly be dragged off to fight our resource wars? Who will be killed by oil companies trying to get at the last drops in Africa? Who will go to jail for selling illicit things to support themselves and their families? Who resist and fight and be cut down with guns? Yes, the US does involve women in combat, and our daughters are at risk too, but men die of poverty and violence in ways that women often do not. And those men are our fathers, brothers, sons and lovers, friends and family.

And, if you think this is just a matter of gender, think again. Perhaps you've never cared much about the anti-racist struggle, or perhaps that's where you devote your energies. Well if you look, the poorest women and children and men in the world, the ones who die first of hunger and disease, the ones who first dragged off to die in foolish wars or put in jail, the ones who suffer the most and about whom we care the least are not white people. Climate change and Peak Oil will only make that worse. When I attended ASPO-Boston, a group of protestors flooded into the room - black and latino people from the urban city of Chelsea, one of the poorest and most polluted places in the country. Many of the powerful people sitting in the room at ASPO did not see themselves, instinctively, as on the same side as the protestors. We have to change that, and change that now. Peak Oil and Climate Change are as much about racism and institutionalized poverty as they are about ice cores and depletion rates. We should fix this because it is the right thing to do - but if not for that reason, then out of pure self-interest. Because what is done to the least of our brethren will be done to us tomorrow, when we are poor and our power is stripped from us. That's not the best reason to care about the way peak oil and climate change affect non-white people. But if you cannot do it for any other reason, remember, that at some point, all of us will be "other." Unless we take power and ensure that it is never acceptable to bargain away the lives of people who are poor and not powerful, our lives will be next.

There is only one movement now. Are you involved in the struggles for immigrants rights? Or for that matter for a sane and humane immigration policy? Well if you think that's a nasty situation now, imagine it as poverty rises and food grows shorter, as water struggles and desperation merge. As Mexico's oil fields, and thus political power and wealth decline, we're going to increasingly see that no border can keep everyone apart. And we're going to need our immigrants more than ever - people who in their own lands or here have worked in agriculture - because we need 50-100 million new farmers, and most Americans haven't got the faintest idea where potatoes come from. So let's start talking about land redistribution, and about humane border policies and dealing with the simple reality that hungry, impoverished people (who are in many cases hungry and impoverished because of our policies in their nation) will do whatever it takes. Again, if you can't think of any other reason to care, think that someday, you too might be willing to do whatever is needed to feed your family. Remember, the least of our brethren are *US* (to paraphrase Jesus).

Perhaps you are anti-globalization, pro labor or anti-free trade or just one of the millions of ordinary people on every side of the political spectrum who have noticed that despite all the claims, you aren't getting any richer - in fact, things are getting tougher every year. Well, there's no question that climate change and peak oil are going to drive globalization into the ground - we simply can't keep transporting things around the globe that we can perfectly well make where we are. The only question is whether we'll all be driven into the ground or not in the process - we need to localize our food and manufacturing, we need to rebuild local economies. These issues are inextricably linked with the future - climate change alone could eat up 20% of the *World's* GDP - and we are not acting fast enough.

Perhaps you've been a long-time environmentalist, always concerned with climate change, but you don't understand peak oil. Or perhaps you are worried about peak oil, but think climate change isn't definite yet. Time to get over those misconceptions. The two are going to intersect in painful ways - we have to start planning for a future that is both lower emission and simply lower in every other way. Let's be honest, there's no real difference. If your concern about peak oil is based on the science - on that actual study of the material that's out there, you know that the science of climate change is far less controversial, and far less debatable. That's not to say peak oil isn't real - just that I think you have to be kind of a nutcase to look at the evidence for peak oil and say, "yes, that makes sense to me, but I'm not buying climate change." And if you are any kind of environmentalist, you know that finite things run out - period. So who cares whether the peak is 2010 or 2005 or 2015 - we all know it isn't going to be a thousand years from now. Let's remediate together.

Saying there is only one movement now does not mean that things like the struggle for economic justice or civil rights is over - it just means that every single person who believes that there is hope for a decent future, and who has some investment in that future now shares the same basic goals. We must remediate and adapt to what is coming. We must deal with peak oil and climate change. We must get over our stupid prejudices and divisions and form a whole cloth movement of universal JUSTICE. Peak oil is about Justice. Climate Change is about Justice. They are about the most basic questions of human justice - who eats? Who lives? Who has water? Who decides? Who gets health care, and to have their kids live to grow up, who gets enslaved and impressed into military service? Who decides to let someone die, and who actually does the dying?

If any of this seems revelatory to you, if it has never before occurred to you that poor black women in Kenya or New Orleans are like you, and are the face of your future and your potential allies, time to wake up! If you've never thought of peasant farmers and people who are shot for trying to unionize in Ecuador as your brethren, people whose rights and needs should be a part of your focus, it is time to wake up. If you don't see the problem of immigration and the loss of manufacturing jobs for poor white people in the south as linked to each other and to you, wake up. If you don't recognize that Justice for everyone means justice for you, it is time to WAKE UP!

There are a lot more regular people than there are rich folks, politicians and corporate powers. So of course they want us to be balkanized, divided, debating. They want feminists to see poor southern white men as their enemy, instead of allies and victims of corporate greed. They want peak oil tarred as something only for "liberals" and climate change advocates to be "hippie environmentalists." They want churches to fight over whether or not to deal with climate change and Jews and Moslems to wonder if they have any common ground at all. Guess what - we do - and it is the simplest common ground in history. We want to live, to go on, to prosper, to have enough, to live in a just society, to have peace, and hope for the future. That depends on unity. Getting over our differences and finding common ground will be hard work. The only reason to do it is because it is so necessary. Those in power are terrified of ordinary people and their anger, their fear and their passion for justice. Of course they want as many ordinary people as possible fighting over things like gay marriage and Don Imus. Of course they don't care if poor people die, or go hungry - hungry people are too weak to fight, and dead people can't call out for justice.

Sooner or later we're all going to wake up and notice, because the future will be slapping us in the face. I vote sooner. I vote now. I vote today. I vote we scare the fuck out of them, and save the world.


Friday, April 20, 2007

If Fox News Admits We're Near the Peak...

So Fox publicized a recent Swedish story here:,2933,266764,00.html. What is most interesting to me is that they took the story from, whose headline was "Oil Could Peak Next Year" and changed it to reflect the outside numbers from Robelius's study. Everyone raise their hand who thinks that Fox did this because they didn't want to be accused of scaremongering or overstatement. The simple fact is that the Saudi and Mexican decline, OPEC cuts, and the overwhelming number of petroleum geologists are now all pointing at the same outcome - peak now, or 10 minutes from now or awfully soon.

In the same review at energy bulletin, is a reiteration from Robert Hirsch, the lead scientists on the DOE's report on mitigating peak oil, of the fact that we need at least 20 years to adapt. He says,

"Peak oil presents the world with a risk management problem of tremendous complexity and enormity. Prudent risk minimization requires the implementation of mitigation measures roughly 20 years before peaking, to avoid a very damaging world liquid fuels shortfall.2 Since it is uncertain when peaking will occur or whether it will be due to geological or investment constraints, the challenge is indeed vexing."

Now let me count on my fingers...are there 20 years before 2018? Nope, I don't think so. How about before 2005, the highest production point so far, and potentially the world's peak. And let us note that world natural gas is expected to peak in the next decade, and North American natural gas (you get what's on your continent for the most part), and a recent study suggests that coal will peak at 2025. The Hirsch report was based upon the assumption that we'd have a good bit of natural gas and coal at low prices to fall back on.

No matter how you figure it, we're in fairly serious trouble. The Fox article is still fixated on transportation, which is certainly an issue and tends to be the first thing people think of when they hear about peak oil. But in a sense, transportation is a meta problem - yes, transporting things and people around will be an issue. But it is the basics of life - the economy that runs on cheap energy, and the food that cheap energy and wealthy economy produce, etc..

The simple fact is that we're well short of time to fix this. So you do what you do when you can't fix everything. Triage. It is time to figure out what the essential elements of our lives are, and focus in on them.

Me, I'd pick food, shelter, and basic medical care instead of keeping the planes flying and the cars running, but no one elected me.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Getting used to my new weather patterns

Well, the creek spilled over a bit, but never made it to the house. The good thing about the flooded basement is that eventually, it being an old house with a stone foundation and a dirt floor, the water kind of goes away on its own. And the furnace now seems fine. Yay! Still, I'm not sad to see the hind end of this storm. I hear it is supposed to get sunny and 50ish this weekend - do I dare to plant my potatoes - *finally*?

To the extent that one can judge based on a rapidly changing environment, this does seem to be the climate my region has - very wet, wet springs and early summers that may be warmer, but don't necessarily mean a longer growing season on that end. But who knows - the old saying about New England weather, if you don't like it, wait 10 minutes, applies to climate change.

I hope you are all well - and I'm more than willing to consider mailing some rain off to any of you who need it.


Monday, April 16, 2007

G-d Willing and the Creek Don't...Uh Oh!

Well, we had 8 inches of heavy, wet snow yesterday, and today we've had another 5 inches of rain. There's a creek not 25 yards from our house, but the banks are high and there's no record of it flooding ever in the last 130 years. Even last year, when far larger bodies of water flooded, the creek stayed nicely below its banks.

Well, I don't have a tv, but creek watching is at least as exciting as any reality tv show. This morning, it breached its banks in my low pasture in the back - the house is a good ways up from it, but the pasture is now what I'm affectionately calling "Lake Woods." And we're about 6 inches from the banks up by the house. I'm wondering if I'll be evacuating later.

The husband and kids are still in NYC - I'm hoping I won't have to leave tonight and join neighbors on higher ground, but am glad that if I do, the only little things I'll have to round up are furry. And the furnace isn't working - the basement is flooded and the sump pump isn't working. We've got wood, but I'm not looking forward to that repair bill.

I miss my kids. I miss my husband, not only because I love him, but because I'd really like to have someone to split the joy of wading through the water to try and get the sump working with. I'm not having a good day.

And here I thought climate change was going to be fun... ;-P!

Cheers, and I hope you are all dry,


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Reverie Alone Won't Do: Preparing for a World Without Honeybees

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
-Emily Dickinson

I want to preface this by pointing out that I'm not a beekeeper (although this was supposed to be my first year - but I think I'll wait until we know a little more about the future of honeybees), or an expert on Colony Collapse Disorder. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that something really awful is happening to honeybees. If you haven't been watching the news about Colony Collapse Disorder, here are some links (and thanks to Roel again for providing them):

I'll also say that I don't intend this to be scaremongering - none of us know what effect this might have on our lives. The end of the honeybee has been predicted before, and it didn't happen then. But speaking pragmatically, I think it is generally better to know and prepare for the worst outcomes, and then be pleasantly surprised when they do not happen. I've not seen an essay yet anywhere that talks about how our local food systems might have to respond to CCD, so I've written one.

Now this may turn out to be something rapidly remedied. Or it may not be. In all likelihood, the honeybee will not go wholly extinct (and let us all pray that's true). But CCD has led to a loss of almost 1/3 of all hives in the US, and is now spreading across Europe. And if the worst case were to come true, we would all of us need to rapidly adapt to a significant change in our society and its food security. G-d willing, the much quoted line from Albert Einstein, that if the honeybee went extinct human beings would be extinct in four years is an exaggeration. So we pray. But as we all know, G-d and good fortune help those who help themselves. Even if we cannot prevent the decline of the honeybee, there are some ways to ensure that local food systems survive and continue - we hope. This post is concerned primarily with ways that we can each respond locally to CCD, and ensure stable food sytems.

First of all, it is important to know which crops are dependent on bee pollination. About 1/3 of all food crops, including a vast majority of fruits and nuts, most oilseeds, coconuts, honey (duh) and other foods are dependent upon honeybees. In addition to that first 1/3, another 1/3 of what we eat is indirectly affected by bee pollination - either because bees give better yields, as in the case of some partially self-pollinating fruiting plants, soybeans, sesame, cowpeas, mustard and cashews. Or they are dependent on bee pollination because our food is indirectly dependent on them. For example, the milk you drink, or the beef you eat are a product of pasture and hay plants like clovers and alfalfa. In Australia, just less than 1/2 of the total economic product of agriculture is subsidized for free by honeybees. Here, because we eat so much meat and milk, it is very slightly more. The good news is that almost all grain crops are self or wind pollinating, and thus don't depend on beans. Buckwheat is an exception, but since most people depend on wheat, corn and rice, rather than buckwheat, that's a good thing.

The bad news that the majority of our vitamin C, fat and protein crops depend, at least partially, on honey bee pollination, as do many of our fiber crops - wool (indirectly), along with cotton and flax. Fully one half of all the fats in the world come from oil plants at least partially benefitted by honeybee pollination, and in some cases entirely dependent on it. These crops include sunflowers, coconuts, palms, olives, peanuts, rape and sunflowers. And a majority of our protein crops depend either directly on pollination to some degree, or come from animals that eat pollinator-dependent crops. These include beans, soybeans, peas, peanuts, nuts and many hay crops. Virtually all fruits are bee dependent, and the few exceptions tend not to be less common in our diets, such as paw paws, which depend on wasps.

There are other crops, not so major, whose loss we would notice as well, and other consequences that aren't as obvious up front. Many flowers, and many medicinal herbs are bee dependent. Most legumes, used to build soil quality because they extract nitrogen from the air are to some degree bee dependent. Our ability to garden organically in a world of depleting fossil fuels depends on pollinators. The plants honeybees pollinate provide food and habitat for thousands of other species of insects, birds and animals. We can expect to see other extinctions follow if we lose the honeybee. And most of all, cross pollination and hybridity often increase the vigor of natural species. All of species diversity is threatened by the loss of honeybees.

Honeybees are not native to the Americas, and so most crops that were here before the pilgrims brought bees to the continent can be pollinated with native species. The difficulty with this is that many native species are in decline right now - some seriously endangered. So while squash and blueberries have potential native pollinators, our practices have reduced their numbers so that it may be very difficult at best to achieve decent pollination. One of the best things you can do to attract and protect native pollinators is to plant native gardens, with combinations of native plants. These are the ones that our pollinators evolved to attend to. You want regionally specific and appropriate plants - if you live in the Dakotas, your plant choices will be different than if you live in Florida.

What else can we do? As noted we can bring other pollinators to our gardens. Orchard Mason bees are one such option, but there are many others. You can order pollinating insects and get instructions for making homes for them here: They are sold out for this year, and it is too late to ship them, but consider ordering early for next year. They also have some excellent information about pollination, pollinators and fruit crops.

You can also make your garden as hospitable as possible to alternate pollinators, both native and non-native - there are thousands of other species of bug and bird that do at least some pollinating. Here are some suggestions for plants to grow and ways to make your garden species diverse: Some studies suggest that bumblebees may pollinate many of the same crops that honeybees do. The problem is that population densities of bumblebees are often much lower than honeybees.

One of the most important things you can do is discourage the use of pesticides in your neighborhood - we need all the pollinators we can get. You might consider putting together a fact sheet about CCD, pollination and food systems and passing it out to neighbors, to discourage them from spraying. I have no idea whether the rather sketchy connection between cell phones and bees has anything to it or not, but just on principle, you might consider cutting back on using yours, and discouraging your community from putting up more towers. Couldn't hurt.

Another important role - support research into CCD, limiting GMOs and your local beekeepers. The latter are suffering the most - encourage your state to offer subsidies. And remember, every bee we preserve is a hedge against hard times. It is not clear yet whether GMOs have anything to do with CCD, but whether or not it does, the precautionary principle alone would mark a compelling argument in favor of not putting our food supply at risk because of unproven technologies whose long term effects we do not know.

Ok, on to making sure you get some food even if the bees are not pollinating. One of the most basic things you can do is to rely primarily on species that *don't* require bee pollination. For staple foods, this would involve grains, potatoes and sweet potatoes - corn is wind pollinated, and while bees do visit potato blossoms, potatos are vegetatively propagated. I will be adding more of both crops to my gardens this year. If the worst were to happen, and we were to experience a major shortage of protein and fat crops, we will have to have more staple grain crops to compensate. I would also overplant leguminous crops - these are only partly dependent on pollination, so if you plant a lot of soybeans or peas or peanuts, you will get some harvest. These are important crops for us. It goes without saying that in hard times, such grains should go to feed people primarily, rather than animals.

On the subject of animals, it might make sense to consider raising animals that have evolved to handle flexible diets and lower inputs, even if the short term yields are lower. That is, it might make more sense to raise raise older breeds of chicken, for example, like the Dominique, which forage well and can adapt to and still lay even without high protein, soy-based feeds. If fats and proteins are in short supply, eggs will be extremely valuable. Icelandic and Soay sheep, and Dexter Cattle are among the other breeds that one might consider. Geese are an excellent resource - they live almost entirely on grasses, and produce high quality fats. This might be very important in difficult times. I don't claim to be an expert on any livestock, and I myself only have poultry (chickens, geese, ducks, we're adding turkeys this year). I would welcome more expert advice. One thing I would say is that if we have to rely on non-leguminous grasses and grass hay alone, we will probably be producing far fewer animals, and many of them may have lower body weights. Keeping animals through the winter will also be more difficult (not impossible - Europeans wintered animals on root crops for centuries). But planning for a lower meat diet would only be prudent.

Fruits are a harder nut to crack, so to speak. If you have a small enough number of trees or vines, you can hand pollinate - this is fairly easily done with a small paintbrush. But there are limits to how much hand pollination anyone can do. You might also want to invest in fruiting plants that don't require outside pollination. These plants will be labelled "self-pollinating" in your catalog. Among the fruits that are at least partially self-fertile (that is, they'll produce some fruit without insect pollination) are lingonberries, Blue Elder variety of elderberry, some raspberries and blackberries, red and white currants (but not black), highbush cranberry, serviceberries, Queen Cox Apple (the only self-fruitful one I've seen), Moonglow Pears, some peaches and peach/plum crosses, Stanley and Sprite Plums, Some sweet cherries and all tart cherries, Puget Gold Apricots, Quinces, Medlars, Paw Paws, Mulberries and Pomegranites. Almost none of these will pollinate nearly as well without bees, but they may get you a crop. It is also worth noting that you can get vitamin C from a variety of other sources that don't depend on insect pollination.

As far as I know, there are no nuts that aren't dependent on bees, and other major bee dependent crops include cucumbers, melons, and all squashes, as well as beans and legumes. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant produce much better with bees. Adapting to the absence of honeybees will probably involve a combination of hand pollination, changing our diets to live with far fewer of these crops, and finding alternate pollinators. I'm still figuring this one out myself. I strongly recommend that any and all of my readers begin working on adapting their diets, their garden practices and their planning to this - add self-fruitful fruiting plants, and grow flowers to attract beneficial insects. Change your recipes around to reduce your dependence on bee-pollinated foods. Experiment with hand pollination and seed saving. Start adapting your animals to different diets, and thinking in terms of how you will respond if the very worst case scenario occurred. Because if it did, we'd need all hands on deck, make sure that Albert Einstein was wrong.


Food Security and Relocalization

Rebecca sent me an email recently that raised an issue I've been thinking about for a while, and I wanted to quote her, because she expressed the problem so clearly,

"The issue is food security and food scarcity. We’ve had a lot of crop failures lately, in the nation and locally. The frost a few months ago took out much of California’s crops and the latest one wiped out a lot of the Midwest and the Southeast. The early estimates around here are that 90% of the peaches, early apples, plums, figs, strawberries, nuts, and winter wheat are gone for the year. As is much of the early spring wheat and corn plantings. Many of the other spring crops –peas, broccoli, radishes etc (including in my own garden) were damaged. We haven’t had a frost this late in years, even though the frost-free date is April 15. This one was really bad as well; three full nights of record lows. Furthermore, it was in the 60s here in February and all of March it barely dropped below 80, so everything started growing early. Spring’s been coming earlier every year, but this year was the earliest yet. (You and I both know the reason for that, though most of the area residents don’t believe it.) Anyhow, if the area had to rely on just local food, there’s a good chance we’d be facing serious food shortages later this year. And that’s the crux of the issue; the main objection I’ve heard to relocalization –save from one couple who thinks a tragedy is not being able to buy a bottle of their favorite fancy french wine ;-) –is the issue of food shortages. If you’re not connected to a longer supply chain and the crops fail, you’re in for a hard time. I thought maybe you might know how to address this."

I'm not 100% sure I know the best ways to address Rebecca's comments, but I'll take a stab at it, because I think it is deeply important subject. If we are to rely on our own food production and our own local food sources, we are most likely going to be more vulnerable to those supply failures. This is a real worry, and like Rebecca, I've encountered this concern - and I've had it for myself. Two years ago we lost most of our potato crop to flooding, along with several other major crops. It wasn't a big deal - I just drove over to the localmarket and bought 3 50lbs of potatoes from better drained land than I have. But what if it has been a regional issue, and there were no potatoes to be had?

I think it is helpful to dissect, at least a little, how the current system works. Right now, most hunger is caused by inability to pay. For example, in the US, there are 21 million people who are food insecure - that is, they don't know from one day to another whether they will eat. Those people are not hungry because there are food shortages in Milwaukee, they are hungry because even though the stores overflow with food. The same is true on a larger scale in many poor nations. In fact, we tend to think of poverty as the inability to buy food - thus equating, for example, self-sufficient farmers and hunter-gatherers who live on less than 2 dollars per day but produce most of their own food, with those who have no land, produce nothing, and cannot feed themselves and their families with that little money.

For example, economists recently argued that CAFTA will enrich Central American farmers - it will displace farmers from their land, but since CAFTA will lower the total price of food, that's considered a net gain. Of course, given the steady rise of food prices, I'm not sure how they calculate this, much less the difference between the value of owning land and having those resources to derive something from vs. the value of being a slum dweller who owns nothing, but hey - low food prices! In a world where food is rationed by ability to pay, regional crop failures are fairly meaningless for the rich - most Americans don't even realize they happen.

But a relocalized society, as Rebecca points out, would bring home the concrete realities of things like climate change, local weather conditions and environmental degradation. Rebecca doesn't say where she lives, but, for example, for the millions of people who have moved to the Southwest, things are going to get really hairy. It isn't at all clear to me that the driest parts of this nation, or Australia or other places enduring lasting drought due to climate change, are going to be able to feed themselves in the long term. People certainly would endure shortages of desired crops (like the fruiting plants that were harmed by the combination of an early warm spell and hard frosts), and individual regions might well become unable to feed themselves. So whatever system we have has to have built in systems of trade. Some of these problems may be altered by the relocation of populations, but it is easier to move food than people in many cases. What might be usefully different from the current system would be for communities to have an investment in each other's food security, thus protecting one another from volatility and inflationary food prices. I will talk more about this below.

For the third world, in many cases, the situation would be reversed - many of the poorest and hungriest places in the world are currently exporting food. South India, where hunger rates are rising among the poor, has replaced much of its coastal rice production with export crops like shrimp, and is a major exporter of primary staple foods including wheat and rice. Ethiopia, currently undergoing global warming linked drought, exported food all through the famine of the 1980s and continues to do so. Bangladesh, where the poorest 1/3 of the population eats only 1500 calories a day, grows enough rice on its densely packed land to give everyone two thousand calories, and enough other crops to ensure a balanced diet, and yet a considerable portion of that rice is exported.

So relying on a local system would reduce the likelihood of hunger for many people in the world, while increasing our own danger of famine. I'm tempted to let my answer stop here - to simply argue that it is time that the rich world bore some of the risks. I suspect that sounds callous, but we've been increasing people's risks of hunger for a long, long time, and perhaps doing what is best for the majority but less perfect for us would be the right thing. I think (and I'm not suggesting Rebecca has suggested any such thing) that our fear of localized potential hunger cannot be used to justify causing *real* hunger to people now.

Fidel Castro just issued a j'accuse statement, arguing that the rich world is perfectly willing to create famine among the poor people of the world in order to fuel our cars with ethanol, and he's right - heck, even Business Week Magazine, hardly a bastion of leftist dissent, admitted Castro had a point. Bringing home our food vulnerabilities might be an excellent object lesson for us, sadly. That is not to say that I wish famine on my nation, but there's an old Latin American prayer, one that begins, "For those who are hungry, may they have bread. And for those who are not hungry, may they know the hunger for justice." Some of us could use a little more of the other kind of hunger.

But I won't leave it at the notion that we should share, with the rest of the world, the same vulnerabilities that the poor do. Not because that's too harsh, but because it doesn't resolve the basic question of how we get to the point that every person in the world has food to eat. Nor have I any wish to condemn anyone, ever, to hunger. So along with relocalizing our gardens, we need local food security programs.

Now I'm not wholly committed to this model, but it is one of the possibilities that has occurred to me as I think about this issue. I'm sure some of you will have better ones. My proposition would be that local communities open food security centers, consisting of (ideally), a food pantry, a community kitchen for community canning and food storage, along with cooking classes, a cafeteria, and a food banking system and store.

How would this work? Let us imagine A, who is a farmer of 70 acres of mixed hay, oats, sheep, orchard and vegetables. He has a truck garden, sells locker lambs, hay, and grain, and runs a pick your own and a pumpkin patch in the fall. B lives on a 1/4 acre lot in this town, and grows a vegetable garden and has a few peach and pear trees.

A grows and puts up a lot of what he eats, or barters some of his things with neighbors who provide him with things like milk, honey, beer and strawberries. After he feeds himself and his family, he sells what he doesn't need. But let us say that this year was a very good one for everything but pumpkins. A has more apples than he can sell, had a great oat year, and a bumper crop of tomatoes. And since other people had good tomato years, the price isn't that high. So first, A puts up a lot of extra stuff. He puts some extra sacks of oats in his feed bin, just in case next year isn't so good, and he sun dries a ton of tomatoes, cans some up, and make a lot of applesauce. He makes enough apple and tomato products so that he's good for a couple of years. And then, he has a choice - he can sell his surpluses out of the community, if he can find a buyer (although prices have been going down since shipping costs have risen), or he can sell them at a slightly discounted rate to the local food bank.

The food bank will take his tomatoes and put them up in the community cannery. Some of the tomatoes will go fresh to the food pantry, others will go in the form of sauce made in the cannery to meet immediate food needs. This is supported by local taxes, and by a percentage of the profits the food bank makes. Some will go to the cafeteria, which serves simple, good meals made out of seasonal, local ingredients. The prices are fairly low, and the food is very fresh. Some of the food for the local schools is also produced here and transported over to them, and the school buys ingredients from the food bank as well. The cafeteria used to only be open once a day, for lunch, but demand has risen so much that it is available for dinner now too, and they are thinking of adding breakfast. The cafeteria is a semi-private enterprise - that is, a local chef was offered a very low rent and stable prices for local ingredients if she was willing to provide food using mostly those ingredients and at a comparatively small profit per item. The small rent helps defray costs in other areas. The community cannery is funded by the small fee charged for its use, by putting on cooking classes (focused on how to use local ingredients) and by the trading surplus.

When Farmer A sells his oats to the food bank, some are immediately put into the community reserve, which attempts to grow a reserve supply of locally produced food to last 6 months for every member of the community. The rest of it is added to a trading coop, which may hold the grain until prices rise, or sell it now, or may even barter it for a like quantity of grain from another region. The Coop markets shippable dry staples - grains, beans, dehydrated foods, herbs, spices, wool, other luxury items to similar trading coops. There are caps on prices for all such community coops - but that doesn't mean prices can't rise, just that they can't experience runaway inflation. Farmers are paid the present trading price for their goods (or they are free to trade them other ways - there are no quotas), which cannot fall below or rise above a particular price point for each good. If a profit is made, 5% of it returns to the farmer who initially sold their product at a stable lower price. The rest is put into the coop. Staples are either shifted to food stores, or sold at capped prices for the rest of the community during off seasons, when they won't be competing with local growers. That is, the community center sells tomato sauce in the winter, and oats in the summer when local people have the smallest stocks.
The elected board of the food bank includes several local farmers, as well as community members. The coop might also eventually start selling non-food items - soap, used clothing, locally made tools and woodworks.

Now what happens in a really bad year? Let us say that A loses half his lambs to disease, a late frost drops his apple harvest by 80%, and his oat crop is flattened by hail. This year he has only hay and a few vegetables to sell, and nothing but garlic to put up for his own use. Well, the good thing is that his personal storage is his first line - A still has tomatoes, applesauce, and oats. And since a lot of his customers also put up extra, most of them have those things too. But the whole town is falling short of its needs. Well, fortunately, we've got that food bank. Not only is there a 6 month supply of staple foods (and not only have we been offering food classes all along in cooking and eating those foods), but we've been trading all along with other communities, and can buy grain outside the community at capped prices, that make it affordable to local people. Why doesn't the market simply drive up prices? Well, because it is generally in everyone's interest to have stable food prices - because, given the environmentally volatile period we're in, you never know whether it will be you next.

In fact, the towns might go further than this, and create an expansion of the CSA system to the community level. That is, town X might forge a relationship with town Y in another region. In it, town X and town Y, one in a warm place, one not, might broker an agreement to each grow and subsidize some extra capacity for one another, and then split the proceeds down the middle if it is profitable year, and otherwise, sell directly to the other if there is a food shortage. The idea would be for their to be a formal relationship, and a mutual investment, that pays off when and if there is a significant crop shortage. The cost of transporting food from one place to another could be paid by the sale of the surplus capacity, and systems for emergency distribution set up using that mechanism.

One place to read more about possible models would be Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe's book _Hope's Edge_. In it, they describe a variety of possible solutions to the question of food security.

I have no doubt that my readers will take me to task on all sorts of fronts for this, and I also have no doubt there are probably better ways to manage these risks. Nor do I deny that none of these is a perfect system - an extended drought, seven lean years, all sorts of things could happen that would exceed any local and individual system, which is why I also think state and national reserves need to be expanded. In order to do that, we will almost certainly have to stop making biofuels. We need to be able to move food aid to places that have exhausted local resources - on the other hand, having local resources (most communities have none) could only improve things.

I don't think there is a solution that can resolve the basic vulnerability created by relocalization. At best, relocalizing food systems and creating food sovereignty can only mitigate, it cannot entirely eliminate it. What we can do is probably ensure that people avoid hunger, for the most part. But in an extended crisis, Americans would find themselves, like their poorer counterparts, relying on food aid, rather than going to shops and buying anything they want. I hope you will forgive me for thinking that this might also have some salutary consequences.

I'm not sure I have answered Rebecca's question. I'm not sure I can. Perhaps others have better answers.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Production, Consumption and Amish Economics

Out in the middle of nowhere, where we live, the shopping options aren't so great. There's a Wal-Mart (ick) about 20 minutes in one direction and a conventional grocery store 20 minutes in the other. If I don't mind driving 1/2 hour, I can get to a collection of ethnic grocers, and if I want to go 45 minutes, there's a food coop in downtown Albany. For other items, there's the Crossgates Mall in Albany, about 45 minutes away, but since I'd rather kiss John Yoo than go to a mall (ok, not quite - not unless I get to bite him), our clothing and material goods needs tend to be met (in years when we shop at all) by goodwill, yard sales and occasional online shopping.

But while official grocery stores aren't plentiful, we're fortunate, even out here, to have a number of reasonably good other options. The first is our own garden. Today we're having a late-season ice storm (just in case I was in denial that this is still the Northeast), and steady, cold temperatures have prevented me from doing any serious planting yet. But there's still spinach and kale to be had in the garden, and the first chives. We like those better than any supermarket alternative anyway - the cold weather gives them wonderful flavor.

And then there's what I call the "Localmarket" - the major farm stand in the next town over from us has expanded to sell locally raised milk, meat, eggs, soap, pottery and blankets, as well as the flowers, bedding plants, vegetables and fruit they grow themselves. We look forward to going there, simply because it is such a wonderful place to visit - a walk through the greenhouse inspires us to believe in spring, and a we invariably run into people we know, catch up on gossip, and chat up the owners while picking up local cabbage they grew last fall and cheddar cheese made from the milk of local Amish farmers.

In a small village between the Localmarket and me is a 19th century general store that has since been taken over by a friend and fellow homeschooler. She used to sell bulk goods out of her home, but they overflowed her kitchen, and now she sells organic flours, grains, beans, as well as goodies, her own home baked bread, local milk, and subs and slushees of distant vintage. I get the soybeans for my homemade tofu from the general store, the wheat we grind, the oats we eat for breakfast and dried apples when we run out of homemade ones.

Between the Localmarket and the Little Store on the Corner, we don't really need to shop at the supermarket (although we do buy some things there - bribes for the disabled oldest and the potty training three year old, for example), and we can make the occasional trip to the food coop and Asian market once every month or two. In fact, except in the dead of winter, we don't really need to shop that often at all - there are plenty of vegetables in the yard, and eggs in the henhouse. As long as we store some staples - beans, grains, seasonings - why shop? Dinner can always be had, and the food is always good.

A disturbing proportion of all travel involves shopping. Now one of the things we can all do to minimize our energy consumption is to live closer to shops and jobs, so that we can walk or bike for our daily needs. And in movements like the new urbanism, the idea that we should build stores into neighborhoods has a lot of play. The idea is that we should create officially mixed use neighborhoods, with stores built downstairs and residences above and next door. The pictures are always so pretty - they show lots of people out, walking, presumably shopping...
But wait - isn't part of what we have to do to stop buying so much stuff entirely? That is, I have no doubt that we'll still need nails and potting soil, books and beer, peas and sweaters, but how often do we have to buy these things? How much of our time and energy do we actually need/want to devote to shopping? And how much of our cultural life do we want to devote to consuming? And do we need to enable this by creating a lot of separate, official "shopping" spaces that have to be heated, and lighted, and maintained, and that implicitly encourage things like chain stores, which have the capital to rent, heat and light a separate building? Also, what aren’t we doing if we live in urban areas - now many of the nicest planned areas include plenty of greenspace, including community gardens. But is such concentrated planning sufficient to allow individuals to grow most of their own food, or are they tokens?

I just had an email exchange with NoImpact Man himself on this subject (btw, he was on the Colbert report this week - I haven't seen it yet, since I have no cable and no vcr, but a neighbor taped it and I will eventually), and he asked me whether it was realistic to expect urbanites to produce things. I think that’s a real question - that people without access to land and natural resources to nurture and use sustainably may only ever have the choice to support the production of others and reduce their consumption as much as possible. But I wonder sometimes whether we can convince the world to change based on what you can’t have, rather than what you can buy and make? I don’t claim to have an answer, but I do think that densely populated areas will run into these questions - and that while I applaud some visions of new urbanism (particularly those that don’t cost 300K a house), I think it may be that even a small patch of ground that is yours by right or tradition matters. But certainly, we could also do a great deal more production in urban centers than we do - most cities in Asia and Africa, for example, produce significant amounts of their food and often other goods as well.

Now if you live in an urban center, and in a small apartment like many New Yorkers or Parisians, you certainly will need to shop pretty regularly. Those 50 lb sacks of rolled oats don't fit so well in tiny galley kitchens, and there's only so much toilet paper you can put under the bed. And, of course, if you live in a place where commerce is the primary project of everyday life, your life is probably affected by that as well in assorted cultural ways. My father recently came to visit this side of the country, and before he came to visit me, he spent some time in NYC seeing friends and pursuing a research project. He noted to me that at the New York Public Library, in an institution whose central project is fundamentally anti-commercial, there is now a gift shop, so that if you need not merely borrow a copy of _Where the Wild Things Are_, you can buy it, and a giant stuffed Wild Thing to go along. It seems to me that the tendency to forget that there are barriers between commercial life and the rest of it may be more acute in places where you can't escape commerce, because that's what people do. But I don’t insist on the interpretation - because, after all, all of us consume like crazy no matter where we live.

And there's nothing inherently bad about daily shopping - although urban folks buy more meals out and ride on airplanes more than the rest of us, they often consume fewer resources in total than we do, because they don't necessarily have cars or large homes that they can stuff with stuff. In fact, being able to buy your daily bread means that you don't have to have a big old fridge, a lot of appliances, etc... I know quite a few New Yorkers who use their kitchens as places to story the coffee pot and not much else. In the net, this may be good, particularly if sustainable New Yorkers begin pressuring local restaurants and other facilities to use local, seasonal ingredients, to buy only sustainably produced meat, etc.... In many places, upscale restaurants are already in the vanguard of such movements - now we need to make it accessible to everyone, bringing local food to the local diner.

The only caveat I'd have is that in many cases, urban gentrification has meant that people who live in tightly packed cities have "shadow" footprints - that is, they don't need to use that much gas themselves, but they are in part responsible for the long commutes of the people who come into the city to serve their needs - the poor folks who live in the Bronx or the burbs who spend an hour on the subway or in cars every morning coming in to be nannies and doormen, delivery guys and cooks. If your small footprint depends on a lot of people who can't afford to live in your neighborhood being able to get there, you are responsible, in part, for those footprints too.

That is, when we calculate ecological footprints, we tend to think that everyone is wholly responsible for their own footprint - the suburbanite with the long commute who drives 45 minutes to her mall takes responsibility when she calculates her footprint. But let us say you live in a city that is increasingly wealthy, and the increasingly wealthy people who live in your neighborhood mostly work as stockbrokers and college professors, not as waiters and garbage men. Now is the guy who commutes an hour to haul your garbage, or the woman who comes down from her much poorer neighborhood (where there isn't any accessible farmer's market) to clean your toilets responsible for the whole of her ecological footprint? Or does some of the responsibility lie with the people who have made the neighborhood accessible only the rich - and thus dependent on long-haul poor people? There's a report in this week's Nation about how poor people in the suburbs now outnumber those in cities - as a direct consequence of the gentrification of cities. So you now see people who live in suburbs and old smaller cities who now drive long distances to serve the needs of people with comfy small ecological footprints in urban centers. And of course, those ecological footprints cost money - it costs those poor people money to haul into wealthy neighborhoods to go to work. As prices rise for things like gas and public transport, the benefits they get are cut back. The further away they live, the more of their own ability to provide for their needs they lose (because they haven’t time) and the less of their own money they take home. This is true as much in wealthy suburbs as cities, of course. But cities require a density of support workers greater than suburbs, so I’m focusing on them.

Now this may sound like I'm picking on city dwellers, and I don't intend to - we need city dwellers, because there isn't enough land in the world to have everyone have a big chunk of it. On the other hand, I do think that wherever you live, advocacy is going to be the name of the game - we need to rethink the places we live in. If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of dentists and architects and not a lot of nurses and cooks, you need to think about where your community's nurses and cooks will come from (or what our communities would look like without them), and about ways in which we might enable them to come live where we do. And some of us might have to decide that it is time to clean our own toilets and cook our own dinners, unless we're willing to make it possible for others to lower their footprints by living closer to their jobs (actually we should clean our toilets, cook our dinners and when we don‘t pay those who do that much better). I'm going to talk more, later in this essay, about advocacy and zoning, because I think these are going to be among our most important battles in the future.

For those of us who live in cities, large and small, and even good-sized towns with viable downtowns (increasingly unavailable), and work there too, the "walk-to-daily-shopping" model is entirely viable, and it has a long tradition. This is what one does in much of Europe - off one goes to the baker and the butcher, the cheese maker and the vegetable person, or the open market with its vendors. It is important to remember that in these little markets, the food is mostly only one remove away from its origin at most - the butcher probably slaughtered his meat himself, and knew the farmer who grew it, the farmer grew those melons herself, the fishmonger spent the morning picking over stock from local fisherman, the cheese maker sends her daughter. Note the absence of multinationals, the recognizability of origins, and the connection between seller and grower. And if you aren't inclined to take your bread and cheese and melon home and eat it, there's the local vendor, who will cook local fish and vegetables for you. Sometimes the cook is the one who grew the food, or perhaps he bought it this morning from the grower. And ideally, at every step you will be enriching not the people who own stock in Banana Republic or the dictator of some banana republic, but your neighbor who does the cooking, and the farmer who brought his wares down the river to you, and the baker who lives down the street - above her shop.

Unfortunately, a decreasing amount of urban development looks like this, and the only way to make it happen is to make it happen with a combination of rezoning, rent subsidies and rent control, local subsidies for local agriculture, food coops - that is, the only way to make it happen is with a heck of a lot of collective work. It means before you figure out what to have for dinner (or what to wear, or what to build or what to fix or whatever) you have to figure out where to get it and create the kind of conditions necessary to enable it. It is a bit of work (you probably will want something to eat while you are at it - it might take a while).

But what about the millions of people who live outside cities, who can't at present walk to anything? What about people who live in suburbia, or out in the country like me? You've all read Jim Kunstler telling us that suburbia is going to hell in a handbasket, and that the suburbs of the present will be the slums of the future. And as foreclosure rates rise, this may end up being true. But it doesn't necessarily have to be, and the answer is a combination of rezoning, advocacy and Amish Economics.

What do I mean by Amish Economics? Well Gene Logsdon has an essay in _Living at Nature's Pace_ about the economies build around Amish communities. In "A Horse Drawn Economy" Logsdon points out that his small, rural county in Ohio is home to a huge amount of business - much of it spurred by the Amish. Livestock auctions, small factories making cookstoves and horse-drawn equipment, farmstands and little quilt businesses. All of these spring up where the Amish go - because they patronize not the cheapest business, but members of their own community, and because others see benefits to patronizing them, they are profitable. And also because they don’t need to pay electric bills and large infrastructure utility bills, or even rent, since they usually work out of their homes and barns or buildings they build on their own properties, they keep most of the money the bring in.

I see that myself. We have two local Amish settlements. One is a bit of a ways away, where friends of ours live in the town of Palatine Bridge. It has a fairly sizable Amish community, and nearly every road you go down with a horse and buggy warning sign on it also has a sign that says "Jams and Jellies" "Baked Goods Saturday" "Bentwood Rockers" or "Harness Shop." At minimum, just about every farmstead has a day they bake for sale, and a sign that says fresh eggs. My guess - a rough count at best - is that there are between 100 and 200 Amish families, and that 1/2 of them have some kind of cottage industry. Not bad in a town that has never heard of a tourist (this is *not* Lancaster). Add to that the fact that cottage industries are kind of a thing out in the country anyhow, and there's a small but burgeoning economy, Amish and non, and a host of people who mostly take in local dollars, keep them local, and don’t give much of it back to National Grid, supermarkets or what have you. Even their property taxes are lower - the lack of wiring cuts down the value of the property as resale thing - which is ok, since they plan to live their, not flip it for a profit.

Now the Amish have recently begun moving to a small town much closer to us where we also have friends. First there was one family, and hardly had they moved in when the eggs and pies started selling. Now there are half a dozen, with a couple more houses going up. There's a man with a small sawmill, selling mostly to non-Amish neighbors, a guy who makes chicken coops and gazebos, one who sells draft horses, and two bakers - all in a town of less than 500 people that has only had Amish in it for about two years.

Now what's interesting about this is that these communities don't have any of the things that
New Urbanists deem necessary for life - you can't walk to shopping, there aren't a heck of a lot of stores nearby, and they don't build shops. At most, they build the occasional farmstand. But generally speaking, you go into people's houses, and buy your bread at their kitchen table, your quilts from their spare room, or pick up your rocker from the barn. And, of course, they farm, too. The place where they earn their livelihood is their home.

We've already built our suburbs and exurbs, and to a large degree, how well we do in the future is going to depend on how well we extract happiness from what we've got. So for those of us who don't have village shopping - should we be troubled? I don't think so, not if we're prepared to put Amish economics into place, and fight to rezone the suburbs. Some of this could happen in cities as well, and probably will, but it is tougher - space is tighter and zoning is stricter, and opening a blacksmith shop in your 16th floor apartment probably isn’t going to happen.

Now most of the houses people have been building out in the burbs are *big* - since 1950, our per capita square footage has tripled, from 293 square feet to 893 square feet. Now we if we used to get along just fine on a third of the space, that means we could do that again, while reserving some of our home space for things like cottage industries and telecommuting for them that can. Heck, we've got millions of garages, and cars don't need houses. We could easily turn them into small business spaces with minimal or no investment of resources - nothing more is needed than for you to move that old table into the garage in many cases. Or perhaps we could convert those garages, or the spare rooms we keep just in case someone comes to visit (couldn’t possibly kick the kids into sleeping bags so Grandma could have the bed, could we?) into space we could rent affordably, so that our neighborhoods could be a little more diverse, and the people who work in them now could afford to live there too.

Meanwhile, we've got all these yards - the average American house has close to 1/2 acre around it. You can grow an awful lot of food in that space - enough, if you both generalize and specialize, to grow most of your veggies and a crop to trade or sell. We've put in fancy gourmet kitchens, large enough for us to bake muffins for our neighbors or make enough lasagna to drop off next door. We have closets full of clothes that could be replaced with closets full of home canned goods, homespun yarn and buckets full of whole grains.

Suburbia is already designed to create small, walkable retail centers for shopping - it has the means of production (land), and the space to hold them (houses). And we, like the Amish, could look upon our homes as the places we produce things, and do our work. What we have to do, as in urban centers, is to rezone our land, and then to start thinking of our homes as the center of our economies. At home, we do the things that enable us not to need money (we cook from scratch, clean our own toilets, make things, make do, repair, live lightly), at home we do the things that enable us to make a little money for the taxes (whether telecommuting or making axes). Right now, our homes are places we spend our cash, and from which we extract cash - things to borrow against. But a sustainable future depends on us being able to own a place to live, and none of us want to end up the next Hoovervilles.

Like the Amish, we're going to have to need a lot less, and keep most of our money for ourselves. That might mean giving up electricity altogether, or certainly giving up a lot of our lovely powered appliances and toys. It might mean encouraging things that don't "raise the value" of our homes - but raise the quality of life in our homes, like adding low income or interstitial housing (my husband, btw, commenting on the fact that our local rich suburb has the houses marked by 4s, leaving plenty of numbers available for new homes in this densely packed burb, argues that they are planning for interstitial shantytowns, just in case ;-))

It will take some work (or a massive crisis) to get people to recognize that zoning as it exists now mostly operates to enforce a life that has to end. We need to accept that it is possible to have peace and joy with gardens instead of front lawns, shops in your neighbor's garage and chickens in the backyard. We will probably need to scrap a whole host of regulations, including, perhaps some involving the sale of food - while it may be that large scale food production should still take place in certified kitchens, there are things (bread, for example) with which it is almost impossible to poison anyone, and other things where one ought to have the opportunity to understand the risks and take your chances - there is no inherent reason why my neighbor's chicken soup is ok for me to eat when she brings it over if I'm sick, but not ok if I pay her a buck for a cup. We will need to get over our sue-happy culture, and start expecting that reasonably intelligent people can be expected to behave like grownups and deal if something accidentally goes wrong. Poop on your chicken eggs? Well, let me just wipe that off! Or you could go to the supermarket where they have the eggs that magically come from the special, never-poopin chickens...right. We all need to relax a little.

And we will need, in general, to buy things less often, which is where I started all of this, and why I've talked so much about food. Because we have to eat every day - that is, you either grow all your food, or you buy some of it, and you buy it fairly regularly, since you do it all the time. On the other hand, how often do we need to buy clothing? Or tools? Even food could be shopped for only occasionally if we had gardens and room to store things. And you don't have to have a big freezer or fridge, or even a freezer or fridge at all to do these things - there are other ways of putting things up, and if you mostly eat meat as a festival meal, when others have it, you will find you don't need more refrigeration than you can get by putting things overnight in a bucket of cool water.

Some of our shopping is for necessity. Some of it is just for habit - we shop for comfort, for fun, because there's nothing else to do. And the more that we rely on buying things as a way to meet needs, rather than making them or fixing them or doing without, the more we find shopping inevitable, and the more often there's nothing else of interest to do. That is, if you don't knit your socks or build your furniture or bake your bread, not only do you need to buy these things, but you have that much less interesting, meaningful and productive work in your life, and when you are thinking about what to do, shopping sounds better than staying home.

Once upon a time, areas too small to have their own in-place shopping center had a local market. Once a week or once every other week, people with something to sell came by and everyone did their marketing then. Once in a while, a festival market would happen - there would be a larger quantity of goods, many of them luxury items, or things that weren't usually available. We have that model already, in the modern farmer's market, and that is the other possible way of rehabilitating suburbia - instead of building the stores into the community, the stores come to you once in while, and when they do, you buy what you need, celebrate, enjoy, and wait until next time. And in the meantime, your mind and creativity are focused on making what you have last. That's good work.

Now I know that this will engender the protest from someone that no one has time to do these things - we can't have shopping on just one day per week, because, after all we wouldn't all be able to get our shopping done. And we can't start a cottage business, or fight to rezone because it is too time consuming - we have to do X or Y. And all of that is true, as far as it goes - we are busy. We are tired. Many of us don't have time to bake bread or knit sweaters. But as I keep doing, I'm going to ask - for those of us who are middle class and better, isn't baking the bread and knitting the sweaters, running the cottage business and growing the garden enough, along with extreme frugality and care, perhaps enough to let one member of a household focus on that work? Isn't this a way out of the whole rat race thing?

And for those who are too poor to have many options - well, again, those of us who aren't certainly need to do our share of enabling them to have better lives. And for those poor folk who do have a little spare time to write or argue or think, perhaps a good use of that time would be telling the rich folk around you that it is their insistence that you can't earn money from the land you own, and their ways of keeping your from owning that land that are part of the problem. I know we mostly haven't cared before. Who knows, maybe we can change that too.