Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Haitians Eat Dirt, Cars Eat Corn

I often say that the worst excesses of the rich world are actually less ethical problems than grammatical problems. I say this for effect, of course, because they are deeply ethical problems. But a part of the difficulty is our articulation of the difficulty. Consider this story, about Haitian people who cannot afford even the most basic staple foods are literally eating dirt:;_ylt=At.SCYedMcllZmKLaFqaJqBw24cA

"When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day," Charlene said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the slim 6 pounds 3 ounces he weighed at birth."


"I'm hoping one day I'll have enough food to eat, so I can stop eating these," she said. "I know it's not good for me."

Now this simple fact is that the rich world is doing this to this woman. Our society, and the people in it. There is no doubt about it - the rise in food prices is closely tied to biofuels, used by rich people to feed corn and soybeans to their cars, rather than to people, and by meat consumption.

It is also true that virtually no one in the rich world, as we struggle to deal with our own political and personal strategies, chooses to phrase this relationship in a grammatically correct way. That is, we say things like "I have to go do this thing or that thing - I have to commute long distances, because that's where my job is, or I have to go bring my kids to visit their grandkids, or I have to go get a dress for the wedding." And all of these facts are absolutely true as far as it goes - that is, often our society doesn't give us a lot of choices.

But what we never say is "I have to commute to my job, so those people in Haiti have to eat dirt" or "I have to make sure my kids spend time with their grandparents, so some Bangladeshi farmers have to drown." That is, we leave out the second clause in our sentences. And that's because we couldn't live with ourselves if we articulated the whole of our statements.

Now whenever I say these things, I royally piss people off, because they don't want to hear this. No one wants to think that they are responsible for harm to others. We don't intend it, we don't want to be, we want badly for us just to be able to go about the basics of our own lives without doing harm to others. We want this so badly that we change the structure of our sentences so that we don't even have to think about the full consequences of our actions.

On the same point, no one much likes the conclusion that we may already have pushed the climate and other natural resources so far that we may not have a lot of good options for fixing it - we may have to live a very, very different kind of lifestyle. We dislike it so badly that we're willing to do all kinds of twisting and turning to avoid teh conclusion that we may not be able to have most of the things we want.

I've spent a lot of time coming to these conclusions, and they no longer freak me out - too much. But that's not the same thing as saying I like them. That is, I've gotten pretty good at reducing my emissions, and using less energy, but what I really want is for the projected reality to be just about the level that makes me comfortable - that is, I want us to be able to do a renewable build out that has enough energy and is used in particular ways so that I can do my happy little low energy thing and feel good about it. That is, I want pretty much what everyone else wants - I want to go along living my life without worrying about whether I'm doing harm, or I have to push myself to a scary, different place. And I want that really, really badly.

I really have to watch myself, because I find myself doing what most of us do - twisting the facts around to support the conclusions I personally feel like I can live with. But the truth is, that's not what the evidence says. That is, the climate writers who say "oh, if we just do this massive infrastructure project..." are wrong - most of those massive infrastructure projects can't possibly be supported while stabilizing the climate - most of them will push us over the top. And it isn't just that biofuels are a bad idea - it is the idea that we're all going to get to have personal transport is a bad idea. But, of course, we want it to be true. We want there to be a way out - most of us don't demand that it would be easy, just bearable. And if it isn't, if the news is really bad, we respond to it by getting angry at the person who is saying it, or saying, "Oh, well, it is hopeless."

But it isn't hopeless. It is just that what we have to do is enormously hard and painful. And that's maybe not fair. And we have every right to be angry and frustrated - just as long as we don't allow ourselves to forget, however much we would want to, that other people are eating dirt. That is, our anger and frustration is legitimate, but as hard as this is on us, we cannot ask other people to pay a far higher price. Period.

All it takes to know that is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of that woman in Haiti. Imagine you haven't had any food in three days, you've never had enough food, that all you and your child will have eat today is a cookie made of shortening and dirt. And ask yourself, is what I am being asked to do so very hard? Is it so hard that I can ask that woman to bear a little more of my burden? I do not diminish the challenges of finding a way, but this woman in Haiti is the beginnings of a vast, vast and evil tragedy created by us. Just as the farmer in Bangladesh who said, as his farm and only sources of food were washed away under him, "I have been told this problem is caused by electricity, but I swear, I have never had even a single lightbulb."

The burden of these problems will be borne anyway. There is no longer time to imagine that someone will not suffer. The question is whether we will take up our share of the suffering, and find a way to change the things we "have to" do, so that others, who might, if we bothered to ask, say that they "have to" eat and "have to" live get a chance to do those things.

We need to stop the biofuels boom, and working on that means working at every level - we need to tell political candidates what we care about, and speak and write, and also drive less, and not buy ethanol. We need to stop climate change at every level - that means voting and running for election ourselves, or writing, or calling or marching - and also cutting our own emissions.

Because otherwise, we become cannibals. We are feeding other people's lives to our cars, devouring the world's poor. And it doesn't stop there - as we warm the planet and draw down biological resources, we are eating our own children. It must stop.

The article notes that the price of the good dirt is going up. Now there's a metaphor - when we reduce the world's poor to eating dirt, and eat the next generation's topsoil, what will be left?


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Cure is Worse Than the Disease: Can We Afford a Build Out?

I'm sure people are getting sick of me responding to Stuart Staniford all the time - "Does she read anything else?!?" you all must be thinking, but if you'll bear with me one more time, the reason I do it is because even when Staniford annoys me, he's usually a little bit right, or at least pointing in an interesting direction. In this case, Staniford has offered me a tool to try and analyze something that I've intuitively suspected was true for a long time. In Staniford's latest post, he tries to come up with a unified energy plan for how to fix the world's environmental problems. My own take on the post is that his postulates, including unending growth as the earth is depleted, simply don't hold up. But that's not what interests me.

What I've been wondering for a while is whether, in fact, we actually can build out renewable energies and create other large scale industrial solutions, without tipping the planet over into a climate disaster. That is, one of the questions that has been bugging is this - do those who postulate our going on based on a massive build out of our infrastructure risk destroying more than they create? Is, in fact, relocalization the only remaining viable option?

Now I'm biased in favor of relocalizing, as we all know. That is, my bias stems from the sense that I believe for a host of moral as well as empirical reasons, that relocalization would improve our society. But it is hard for me to determine whether my bias is a chicken or an egg thing - that is, I have long believed, without doing the math carefully, that the odds were good that another layer of complexity and build out is not feasible and would be destructive. That is, I believe relocalization is a good thing, but part of the reason I believe it is because I believe it may be the only choice that prevents a climate disaster.

These are, I think, important questions to ask. Joseph Tainter, in _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ observes that collapses come precisely because we keep layering on new, more complex, more energy and resource intensive solutions to the problems that our old solutions created. At some point, the sheer weight overturns the edifice, and things come tumbling dow. Staniford's post, with its proposition of a global energy grid - or really any other worldwide techno-fix, is a heavy weight of complexity. If it worked, if it actually reduced emissions and gave us nearly unlimited, cheap energy that could be equally distributed, that would be great. The problem, of course, is that that's unlikely, and ahistorical. That is, most of the problems we have now are *caused* by our technological solutions to other problems - and the problems we're creating are generally worse than the things they were fixing. Trying to forsee whether any solution is actually going to create a greater problem than it fixes is, I think a basic necessity to avoid making more of the same mistakes.

Now to figure this out, we need some kind of metric, and Staniford has thoughtfully provided me with one in his article Most importantly, he's provided me with useful parameters - a model for a global transition off of fossil fuels, the cost of doing so, and the time frame. While I personally find the likelihood of global solar grid very, very tiny, this is a useful set of parameters for the purposes of this discussion. We will imagine things go just as Staniford describes in his highly optimized scenario - although it is worth noting that
Staniford's scenario is probably most valuable because it isn't totally out of scale with other proposed scenarios, including world wide nuclear, or Monbiot's retrofit described in _Heat_ to which he does not seem to give a monetary cost figure.

First the time frame - Staniford imagines that a global renewable grid could be online by 2025. The nature of a global grid means that renewables and nuclear grow reasonably quickly, but most of the major gains are seen at the end of the project in the 2020s as the project comes online. Now I grew up around the Big Dig in Boston, which came in years and billions over budget, so I admit to some skepticism on this point, as well as on the technical feasibility, the economics, the political will and just about every other point, but again, for the sake of argument, we'll put the global solar electric grid online 2025, and able to meet all our energy needs worldwide.

Next, Staniford helpfully provides a cost. He estimates 400 trillion dollars. Again, I restrain my skepticism on the economy required to make this possible and the likelihood that the cost would come in so low, and accept his terms. This cost estimate makes it possible to figure out the carbon implications of such a project. Professor Charles Hall, of Syracuse University calculates that every dollar spent produces about 1/2 lb of carbon. Now this is an older study, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has actually estimated this higher, saying that a dollar produces more carbon than that, but in the interest of giving Staniford the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to choose the more conservative figure. Which means that Staniford's project is going to produce 100 billon tonnes of carbon over a bit under years. I think if anything, I'm estimating low - remember, this is an average, consolidating numbers of low carbon activities like spending a dollar on a book and high emission ones. The process of building a global grid, including the mining of materials, placement of underground lines, etc... is likely to run on the high side of the emissions spectrum, but again, we'll give Staniford the benefit of the doubt. So 100 billion tons over 17 years - oh, let's call it 20 and imagine that Staniford manages to completely absorb the last couple of years of production energy into his solar grid before it is finalized. Again, let's make it easy for Staniford.

That means an average production of 5 billion tonnes of carbon per year. That's on top of (at first at least, this will ge a little more complicated shortly) the 8 billion tons of carbon we are expected to emit this year. So this project will nearly double worldwide emissions, until the grid comes online. And while we'll see some benefits initially, the nature of a worldwide grid is that most of the power gets tranmitted to far away places, and to make it work on a world scale, the whole project has to be up and running. You could imagine this working a number of ways, with local regions connected first, so we'll need to figure out a way to amortize the rising value of renewables over time, but I think it is reasonable to say that most of the reduction in carbon production will happen at the very end of the project.

Staniford imagines that until 2015, fossil fuel use will remain more or less flat. That is, growth in renewables and economic troubles will keep us from producing any more fossil fuels than we do now. Now Staniford knows this is inadequate to deal with global warming, but presumably believes that getting to a world in which we have all the energy we want with no carbon is worth it.

I'm actually going to back up and reduce Staniford's parameters here, and argue that we cut 25% of worldwide emissions - the maximum I think any of us can imagine happening while maintaining an economy that could support the capital needs of such a mammoth project. Again, one of the parameters is that we have to assume this is feasible, that economic constraints, war, etc... are not factors.But again, I'm going to give Staniford an additional 25% of leeway, claiming that we cut our emissions back to 6 billion tons of carbon each year. *And* I'm going to give him a 25% across the board cut in emissions for the amortized benefit of the big renewable system as it comes online - that is, I'm going to say that over the years between 2015 and 2025, the growing solar grid is able to take on 1/4 of the total emissions produced by the world right now, before it gets them all. This is not quite accurate - a better model would be a percentage growth, but when I set that, it comes out to roughly the same thing. And I'm going to buy Staniford's assumption that when the grid comes on, we'll have all the energy we want, and won't use fossil fuels for anything or make any more greenhouse gasses, other than the occasional animal fart ;-). Again, that's ridiculous, but we'll accept the claim, because I want to show how problematic this is even under the best of scenarios.

So until 2015, we produce 6 billion tons of carbon ourselves per year, and another 5 billion building out the new system - that is, we nearly double our emissions. And from 2015 to 2025, when all our emissions magically disappear in the new system, we produce 5 billion in new infrastructure production and 4 billion, because the new system is picking up a significant percentage. So from now to 2015, we average 11 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, and until 2025, we average 9 billion. After that, human emissions magically disappear, and the atmosphere begins to right itself. How does that correspond with the science about what we need to do.

After all, we talk a lot about critical numbers - 50% or 80% of emissions by 2050 or some other date. What does the science suggest? Well, some of the most cutting edge science suggests that we need to make cuts of more than 90% *within this decade* - that is, James Hansen, for example, suggests a 90% cut within 10 years, and argues that our increasing knowledge of climate sensitivity requires us to keep emissions at the carbon equivalent level of 350ppm - that is, a level we passed somewhere in the 1980s. The present carbon equivalent levels are at 469, according to the latest IPCC report. That is, we're already way past our limits, and we have to make dramatic cuts to get back within them as fast as possible. But although this is my own view, and seems to be reinforced by data coming in about sea level rise and arctic melt, perhaps we're being unfair to Staniford.

That said, however, the speed at which we do this is undoubtably an important element of our calculations. For example, the British Meteorological Office estimates that by 2030, the earth's ability to absorb carbon will drop by 1/3. Right now, the biosphere can absorb about 4 billion tons of carbon and caronb equivalents annually. By 2030, the warming planet and feedback loops will drop this to 2.7 billion, and the drop continues as long as the world warms, the ocean acidifies, etc... So the longer we wait to make dramatic carbon reductions, the greater those reductions would have to be. A recent study in _Geophysical Research Letters_ showed that in fact, even with a 90% reduction by 2050, the 2 degree threshold was broken - the only scenario in which the tipping point was not reached was with a 100% reduction in industrial emissions. (Andrew J. Weaver et al, 6th October 2007. "Long term climate implications of 2050 emission reduction targets." Geophysical Research Letters).

So what's a more conservative approach? Well, the IPCC is fairly conservative, perhaps even absurdly so. So let's take their figures, even though the 2007 IPCC report has been shown repeatedly to have badly underestimated the severity of global warming - for example, the arctic ice melt is 70 years ahead of its estimates. But let's use the IPCC numbers, in the interest of accomodating Staniford, despite the growing consensus (including the self-assessment of IPCC members) that the IPCC figures are too conservative:

A recent IPCC table different temperatures linked to different emissions levels. It shows that avoiding the critical 2 degree threshold (which actually is by no means a certain avoidance of disaster) requires us to limit total emissions by 2030 to 15% of 2000 levels. With a growing population, that means a 93% cut for the US, an 85% cut for Europe, etc... But in a footnote to the same paragraph, the IPCC notes that it has not taken into account the reduced ability of the planet to absorb carbon as the planet warms, or any of the feedback cycles mentioned above. So this is very likely too low a number. One paper recently argued that 18% of all warming at present is attributable to feedback loops, and that that number is rising rapidly. But what does that mean in tons of carbon?

Regardless, in Staniford's scenario, we finally hit targets for cuts around the early 2020s, having put an addition 100 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, while making fairly significant inroads (again, inroads I postulate, Staniford does not) into carbon emissions in general.

Is that enough to fix the planet? As Fred Pearce notes in _With Speed and Violence_, the critical point in billions of tons of atmospheric carbon seems to be about 935 billion tons, equaivalent to 450 ppm. That means 55 billion tons of carbon are left to us. We put 8 billion into the atmosphere each year, and 40% is now absorbed, although that number is declining annually. But with the growth created by a massive build out, we reach that number well before 2020 - pushing us past the 2 degree threshold, and holding us there long enough for it to be really scary.

So here we have a puzzle - what happens if you raise global emissions levels radically with the goal of eventually essentially eliminating them - that is, can we do that - do a massive build out and then let the earth heal itself? Do we have time for just one more carbon binge?This is a hard question to answer, but the odds are excellent that the answer is no. For example, Australian scientist Wenju Cai estimates that if we stopped making emissions right now, it would take 600 years to get the planet back to where it once was.

Once the feedback loop cycle gets ahold of us (and it is not clear that it hasn't already), we can't stop it simply by reducing emissions. Because the warming we do now is something we'll pay the price for for centuries, we have to be more careful, sooner.

But the returns are so great, some would argue! Even if we push past 2 degrees, into a tipping point, we'll still get no carbon emissions in the future and all the free energy we want. We can fix all the problems then, or at least mitigate them, keep economic growth going steadily. Wouldn't that be worth it?

Well, it depends on what price you are willing to pay. Here are the consequences we're dealing with. In the Sahel, food production will drop by half by 2020, while population doubles. Rice production, the staple grain of 2/3 of the world begins to fall as temperatures rise, reaching a 40% decline by the middle of the century, as population rises to 9 billion. That means half the population ends up under water stress:, and the amount of irrigated farmland (which presently produces almost 1/3 of the world's grain) that can no longer be irrigated is likely drop from 17% to 2%, according to Monbiot's _Heat_.

The Stern review estimates half a billion permanent refugees, including residents of major US coastal cities. But UN estimates have suggested that up to 1.5 billion refugees could be an outcome. And, of course, a whole host of wars. The present conflict in the Sudan is already connnected to climate change - a whole host of additional wars are a likely consequence. All of this has an enormous effect, not only on the misery level of the world, but on its economic activity.

Sir Nicholas Stern's report on the costs of climate change estimates that the total cost of unchecked global warming to be greater than the combined costs of all 20th century wars and the Great Depression combined, a literally unprecedented economic burden. How much of that would be mitigated by a late-term reduction in emissions is not clear, however, all evidence is that the climate is more, rather than less sensitive than we expect. It is not possible to know what the consequences would be, but the science suggests "mostly bad."

So would it be worth it? All the energy we want, but war, drought, thirst, hunger, refugeeism, and the destruction of much of the world (I have not included the loss of biodiversity or anything related to it, although that has costs, and many of them for us), all to get the energy we want, so we can keep lifestyles roughly the same in the west.

\But what are our choices? Well, this option would probably be better than any business as usual scenario, in which we face peak oil by converting to coal. So if we postulate, as people often do (Monbiot does this too) that the only choices are "blow the limits" or "do nothing" - that radical change in our way of life is impossible, that people will "never" agree to lower their standard of living, this probably looks comparatively good.

But, of course, assertions about what the populace will tolerate are always offered in the absence of the real choices. That is, it is very unlikely that our general populace will ever choose voluntary self-limitation instead of, say, going on happily as usual. But if Staniford can imagine that he gets to be emporer of the world, we can also imagine a group of political leaders who are compelled by the evidence and by grassroots people pointing out their lies, to offer up the real choices - that is either we cut emissions radically and fast, or we accept that we lose Miami and most of the Southwest, the one to sea level rises and the other to drought, that we can expect to spend an endless depression, because we will have to spend an increasing quantity of our GDP to mitigate costs. That is, people can be asked to choose between real options, not hypotheticals.And that is when relocalization rears its head again.

Here is where carbon rationing leads us back to a mixed local and agrarian society, more or less inevitably. Because everyone trying to live in this society, as we have it, without a massive energy build out is in for hell. On the other hand, a smaller scale, heavily adapted society with lower energy requirements, and a number of cultural returns, including "rituals of non-consumption" described by historian Timothy Breen, small scale agricultural, more meaningful work and stronger social ties does offer something in return.

In order for relocalization to be feasible, we would have to also imagine that it could meet some basic requirements. That is, it would have to provide a decent standard of living, feed the population, and alot energy to high value things like health care and education. Those are big parameters, but ones that I think relocalization can meet, without destroying the planet. Againm the case for relocalization, when we play out all the implications, must be better than the case for any other model. Fortunately, this does not seem to be hard.

Now it is perhaps unfair of me to not do a similar calculation of the energy costs of relocalization. This is a difficult exercise, because it is a highly fungible exercise. That is, a relocalized, low energy strategy for dealing with the cold can be the reinsulation of a whole house in a cosmetically pleasing way, complete with new windows and passive solar energy, at extremely high cost, or it can be the moving of a woodstove into one room of a cold house, the practice of hauling water from outside rather than using indoor pipes which would then freeze, and everyone dressing warmly and hanging out by the stove. That said, however, I'll attempt to do so in a later post - and to demonstrate that we could still feed, clothe and shelter the population. I'll also at some point try and figure out what amount of energy we probably can produce from renewables without causing a disaster - because relocalization does not necessarily mean us all going back to living in mud huts, as we know.

More soon,


52 Weeks Down - Week 34 - Vote Your Conscience - And Tell Everyone Why!

My formal apologies to readers in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa etc... for running this column on the late side for you. I used to live on the NH/MA border, and my assumption is that anyone who gets to vote early has to work hard not to be a tremendously educated voter - the candidates basically stand in your yard yelling at you until you agree ;-). But as most of the nation heads to the polls for super-Tuesday, it is worth thinking a little about voting.

I know a lot of discontented people who feel crappy and powerless, disheartened and angry at a system that regularly disempowers them and seems to be heading towards fascism. And I know a lot of people who accept the "participate by not participating" notion. But unfortunately, not voting doesn't operate like boycotting commercial products - that is, there's no evidence at all that I can find that not participating makes us more powerful. And while it is absolutely reasonable to be angry about our crappy choices, that doesn't mean that we can say "oh, I don't want to vote for the lesser of two evils" - we have only to look at the last eight years to know that the difference between "kind of evil" and "Gets drunk regularly with Satan" is pretty huge.

Your vote won't make a legitimate third or fourth party in the US. It won't get you a candidate who will enact radical environmental changes, in likelihood - although it will certainly get you something better than what we have unless you vote for Romney or Guiliani ;-). If you live in my state and vote democrat, already sold to Hillary Clinton, your chance of getting, say, Oprah elected in a write in campaign are ridiculously low.

But there is something you can do if you vote that makes an enormous difference. Tell people how you make your choice and what issues matter most to you. I got polled last week, and when I told the pollster that my first concern wasn't even on her list - it was climate change and energy policy she said, "Oh, I've started getting that. I think they may even make that a choice on the next poll." And the impact *there* is potentially greater than we think. Take a look at this post of Greenpa's: discussing the changes in public perception of global warming issues. Obviously, they are slow and too slow - but they are coming. And the hope of the next president, whoever he or she is, doing anything about it depend on the perception that we care, that we're willing to do what's necessary.

If you have a candidate you care about, that's a great reason to vote - I hope you do. If you don't have one you care about, vote for the lesser of two evils. And if you are struggling somehow to figure out what that is, vote anyway, and hang around after and get polled, or talk to the news people. Answer the phone when those polling places call. Write it on your blog - you can still say "the process sucks" while saying "and I'm trying to make a difference anyway."

Recently someone argued with me that none of the little things we do make a very big difference. That is, someone hanging their laundry or composting their scraps is just a tiny drop in a very big bucket. For some of us (some of us live in swing states), voting is like composting, a little drop in the bucket - but the net effect of each drop, and moving others to understand what we are doing, is filling the bucket, however slowly.

Happy voting!


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Is it Really Tough to Be a Guy in Hard Times? - Speculations on the Biology of Limits

As I wrote in my latest post over at, I've been thinking about the likelihood of collapse lately. And one of the things that struck me is that nearly all the source material I've ever looked at on what a crisis looks like suggests that it is really, really tough to be a man in a changing society, particularly a middle aged man - in fact, that it is so tough that sometimes they die of it, or very nearly.

For example in the recent essay "Survival in Times of Uncertainty: Growing Up in Russia in the 1990s", the author observes,

"Personal survival and the survival of the family depended on a right mix of flexibility, on one hand, and staying true to oneself on theother. The more invested people were in their job-related identitiesand past achievements, the worse it was for them. In general, women fared better than men. The elderly were in trouble. When it came to the world view adjustment, the middle-age men were hit hardest; too many were paralyzed with all the changes and were content to sit around in their cold and empty engineering or accounting offices, drinking tea or stronger drinks and swearing at the government. Oftentimes it was their wives who buckled down and traveled the railroad with the striped coffers in hand."

Dmitry Orlov makes much the same point in his essay "Post Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century," observing that women did better than men, and middle aged, career oriented men worst of all. The high rates of alcoholism and mortality are mentioned in both cases, with Russian men still averaging a lifespan 12 years shorter than Russian women.

This is a theme that shows up around other areas. A while back, Rob Hopkins had a very widely discussed post, "Is Peak Oil Pessimism A Generation of Men Coming To Realize How Useless They Are?" in it, Hopkins argued that some of the doomerism in the peak oil movement (and its male dominated character) is based on the sheer shock men face when they realize that their whole lives have been focused on things that may not be there in the longer term. This post was widely discussed in the community, and seemed to touch a nerve.

In Jeane Westin's book _Making Do: How Women Survived the '30s_, she notes that a recurring theme in her interviews was the husband who just couldn't handle the job loss and loss of his role as provider. Women, she argues, seem to do better. One woman, "Pauline" notes: "My husband was ready to roll over and die, but the kids still had to eat, and so I didn't have the choice."

The final quote I'll offer on this theme comes from Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen's _The Subsistence Perspective_. In it, Mies talks about going to speak at a conference where she was the token woman. In response to an MIT scientist's claim that we are all doomed to ecological collapse, Mies notes that the same predictions were made at the end of the Roman empire, and that her father used to grow potatoes on the old Roman road that fell apart at that "end of the world." She goes on to speak of a strain of apocalyptic thought she observes, particularly in scientists (and mostly but not exclusively male ones) who, at the end of their careers, begin to fear for the state of society. They are, she says,

"...those prominent male scientists who, at the end of their lives, are horrified when they look at themselves and their works, and when they realise that the God to whom they have devoted tehir whole life - scientific progress - is a Moloch who eats his children. Some of these men then convert from a Saul to a Paul. But they rarely give up the whole megalomania of the project of modern science. If they can't solve humanity's problems by almight science and technology then at aleast the catastrophe has to be total and all-encompassing. Note even a single blade of grass is allowed to grow on the ruins of their deeds." (Mies, 25-26)

Obviously, there are limits to the utility of any generalization on gender, and I'm covering territory already discussed. Nor am I claiming in any sense that either this will be easy on women or that all men are like those described by Mies. What I'm interested in (perhaps because I'm married to a man rapidly approaching middle age and care very much about other ones) is why a changing society should be so very difficult for men to adapt to. Is this as true now as it was in the Soviet Union, the 30s, and as Rob Hopkins implies it is now?

Or perhaps it might be better to ask the question another way - what makes it easier for women? My own personal theory is this - women are better able to adapt in large part because we have fewer choices about this. This is a deeply essentialist argument, but I'm not sure that makes it less true. That is, even among the most career minded women I know, there's the simple biological reality of our reproductive system to remind us how powerless we are. As my friend George Franklin once observes, "there's nothing fair about pregnancy and childbirth" and that's true - but even among women who don't have children, there is, I think a constant awareness of the possibility of getting pregnant. Perhaps the celibate and post-menopausal childless are free of such anxieties, and thus can establish strong professional identities without ambiguity, but I couldn't find enough of a sample size among my acquaintance to establish such a fact.

The truth is that it is a big old wrench to spend your youth training and establishing yourself in a career, allow it shape your identity and your place in your society, only to have that completely overturned. The thing is, most of the women I know who have children have already been through that giant wrench - and most of those who don't and are young enough to still be fertile know they could be.

Rob Hopkins ties the difficulty of the transition to the lack of skills that contemporary men have - but contemporary women are in the same boat. Does that mean we're going to be as lost as the Soviet men? Is Rob right, is this change going to be hardest on young to middle aged guys? I love a whole bunch of them, and I don't want to see them die young, like Russian men have.

Most of my female (and a few of my male) peers are a lot like me - overeducated, middle class, married, partnered with kids or were when they got knocked up (with a few single mothers by choice thrown in) and aren't now, and elaborately trained for some professional career. And most of those with kids (and a good number without) aren't doing what they thought they'd be doing in their 20s. In fact, it is something of a joke among us - we call it the mid-30s "What do I want to be when the children grow up" crisis.

I've changed the names to protect the innocent, but there's Miriam, who managed to keep her career as an engineer through her second child, only to quit when a colleague kept sexually harassing her while she was pumping breastmilk. Now she teaches math at a public school and has "teacher's hours," while her partner Shannon, who didn't give birth gets the engineering promotion. Or there's Mela, who was in Medical School until she accidentally got pregnant by her boyfriend. She's going to go back when her daughter is in kindergarten...unless she has another baby, since she's worried that otherwise, she will be entering what she calls the "amnio years" of reduced fertility by the time she can take time out to have another child - and she thinks that might matter more to her than the career. Samantha doesn't have kids yet - but she wants them, and she just gave up her high powered academic career that required her to live in another state from her husband and see him only two weekends a month. Amy used to be an IT professional, and now she works part time from home, after a lengthy struggle with various bad childcare providers - her younger son goes to school this year, and she's thinking about going back, but not sure how her years out of the workplace will function, and doesn't know what to do about summers. Binjan quit her job as a research chemist after her first child was born - she couldn't do the work with toxic substances she'd been doing, and the only option open to her was effectively a demotion. She's taken a much lower-level job, well below her qualifications, that allows her to work near home. Laura and Paul agreed that she'd stay home while she was breastfeeding, and then he'd take his turn afterwards, but now that her child is weaned, she's not getting offers that match his - she notes that her fellow physicists treat time off to bear and raise a kid kind of like she'd skipped out to go to a bowling convention. Kate did her Ph.d, her post-doc, put up with sexual harrassment, an advisor her treated her pregnancy as a personal betrayal and finally gave up when her boss told her that she'd be expected to work 10 hour days for six straight months while she was nursing an infant. Now she edits academic papers from home. Carly has a farm now and teaches online courses at night while her husband Jack, who she met as the two new hires in their academic dapartment, still goes off to commute. They tried keeping Carly at work, but when their daughter Jenna announced to Grandma, "Mommy is my Mommy at bedtime and Lisa (the daycare provider) is my Mommy all the other times" Carly gave it up. She calls it wimpiness - but points out that as long as there aren't many male daycare providers, Daddy's never going to have to deal with a "day Daddy."

Now there are men in this paradigm to - the one wonderful social change of my generation is that the guys aren't sticking the women with all the responsibilities. But no matter how principled you are about sharing equally, society doesn't make that easy. That is, every man in the families above would be willing to consider it being him who took the time off, or made the change - but when the babies are little, he can't nurse them. He's not the one who spends a couple of months puking and another couple waddling. If someone is going to take time off, it just makes sense for it to be the one with the boobs a lot of the time.

In our own case, I was always more ambitious than Eric was. In fact, our early deal was that Eric, who was more flexible, would follow the banner of my academic career, since I cared much more about success than he did. But then his jobs paid more, and gave better benefits, and reproduction and nursing took up a lot of time, and without really planning it, I became yet another woman, wondering what I was going to be when I grew up (turns out a writer ;-)). It may yet turn out that we shift things around - but we're a long, long way from my making enough to support the household, and we'd need universal healthcare or for writers to start getting insurance. Not going to happen soon.

I do know men who have take the burden - Jim works 4 days a week, six hours a day supporting Karen's high powered, tenure track job, and raising their 3 adopted daughters - but Karen readily admits that she didn't have to take maternity leave. Raj quit altogether, and takes care of his two boys and his sister-in-law's daughter while his wife, Jasu pushes her limits as an urban reporter. Mick and Linnie did the switch - she stayed home for three years and two babies, and the moment she weaned the second, Mick quit his job as an editor and started doing a bit of work in the evenings, while caring for the boys. But these cases are exceptional, a growing number of families where the men are both willing and able to shift their identities and the jobs and culture and able to support women in this.

That is, my own observation is that women who have kids pretty much have no choice but to get over the notion that their careers are their identity in a way that many men don't have to. We've already gone through a radical transformation - the transformation between the identity we were prepared to have and the identity that we actually got. More men have done this in my generation than in the past, but I still think that this happens less frequently to men than women.

I also think that the men I know who have taken a bigger part in parenting and the transition than their fathers and grandfathers did are probably better prepared for a shift - I live among committed, passionate fathers, who do an awful lot of their childcare and domestic work, often on top of physically, intellectually or otherwise strenuous jobs. That is, I don't know a lot of men who haven't had to shift their identities in some deep way from "Consultant" to "Consultant/Daddy." My hope is that that means the 30 something men I hang out with will handle the shift in their identities better than their fathers would have. But there's still something different, I think, in what most of them seem to experience in fatherhood - that is, fatherhood adds a dimension, but in many cases, doesn't subtract anything.

Women I know, in contrast, have already slammed hard into the wall of limitations - or they've watched their mothers, sisters, girlfriends in the world around them do it. We've confronted the reality that all the technology in the world can only change our biology so much - the minute we have sex, we come crashing up against the danger of pregnancy, and *everything* changing. I've never met a woman, no matter how reliable her birth control, who hasn't had a pregnancy scare or three, a moment when she realizes how *not* in control of her life she could be. For those who actually do get pregnant, do have children, even those who keep the same jobs and work through the experience, there are subtle changes in career culture in many cases. If there aren't, it is usually because a husband bears those burdens - or because they can afford lots and lots of paid help. For those who were the primary nurturers (and that goes with a strong commitment to nursing in many cases - I know women who went back to work at 6 weeks and pumped until a child was 18 months, but I know more women who couldn't pull that off, and if they had the means, often preferred to nurse, even if it cost the income and career, rather than formula feed - poor women generally just have no choice but to move to formula if their bodies won't handle pumping, or their workplace doesn't support it), often they describe the first few months or year of motherhood as a loss, or a drowning, a massive shock. It isn't that they don't love parenthood - they do. But the change in who you are is such a vast shock that it is hard to negotiate it smoothly.

I wonder if the shift in identity that women face in adulthood is something like what men face in a changing economy and society. That is, we came bang up against the reality of limits early on, and for all that we live in a society that encourages us to pretend there are no biological differences between women and men, even young girls know that isn't true - that there really is only so much a commitment to egalitarianism can do to balance the reality of biological limits. I know my decision to have a child at 27, rather than waiting until I had my Ph.d and tenure (as I was advised by a number of people) was shaped by having watched my mother's friends who waited into their middle 30s or even 40s, and their experience of infertility. Even as a teenager, I knew that the notion that I had all the choices was false/

The truth is that while technology can do some things, it can't carry a baby for you, and motherhood has at its roots for most women (there are high tech exceptions on both ends) a purely biological sex at one end, a whole lot of squatting and pushing at the other. I wonder, then, if the idea that there are biological limits, or that our identity must shift in response to changing situations, aren't ones that many women have already had no choice but to confront?

What does this mean for men? My own feeling is that men of my own generation are going to have, in general, advantages over the middle aged men of the Soviet 1990s, or the men of the 1930s - our culture's shifts to more common ground may turn out to be a survival strategy for men. That is, even if they've never done it, most men of my acquaintance have at least some level of preparedness to shift roles, and have had to connect with biological limits in their wives' bodies, perhaps not as directly as the wives, but nonetheless. They may love their work, they may be good at it, but most men I know have a level of flexibility that I think will serve them well. Across class, race, religion and cultural lines, they've been forced to change their own roles in the public world simply by having children or wanting them - because they know that the women in their lives aren't going to be able to do it alone. I can't imagine any father I know rolling over when his kids needed to be fed - if he was no longer making the money to do so, he'd be out there growing the food.

Still, I also think that it may be important for men now to start putting a foot in the informal economy, to start finding identity in their families or their off book work, or in anything than the career they trained for. As Hopkins observes, they don't necessarily have the skill set for a low energy future, and that part is scary, and less scary if you begin to acquire one. It may be the integration of skill set and flexibility that makes them capable of handling the change.

When we got married, I was 26, Eric was 28. I told him that after we'd been married for 75 years, we could renegotiate the deal, and if he wanted to consider seeing other people, we'd talk about it then. But I made him swear to give me 75 years. I think of my role in pestering him into learning new skills and planning for a future on our land as an investment in that deal - if he hits the wall of limits, I want to be there to be reassuring, to be behind him saying, "Look, you may not be an astrophysicist any more, but you are still a star gazer with a bit of dirt, a loving family and a damned fine ass. So you will not be moping around waiting for the world to start up again, or dropping dead of a coronary and leaving me alone with all these children. Have a hoe - you still have 65 years of undifferentiated hell until you are rid of me." I recommend this approach to all the man loving women and men in my audience ;-).


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Changes or "Just What the World Needed, Another Blog!"

For a while now I've been putting off dealing with a couple of competing issues. The first one is the fact that as this blog has progressed from "Sharon, ranting vaguely to empty space" to "Sharon, ranting vaguely to a bunch of people too kind to tell her to shut up," there has been more than little dissatisfaction voiced with my blog, particularly the title.

That is, when I speak, and people have to introduce me, they can't pronounce it. When they send links, they can't spell it. And perhaps the most common single email query I get is "who the hell is Casaubon?!" The next most common is "What the hell does George Eliot have to do with Peak Oil."

And it is hard to spell. It is hard to pronounce, and as much as, in my role as a former English teacher, I feel like I should tell everyone that they have read _Middlemarch_ it isn't my favorite novel either - if I'm going to bug people to go read novels, I'll pick one that's considerably more fun.

You see, Casaubon is the old man who Dorothea Brooke, heroine of Middlemarch, marries because she wants to do something important. Casaubon is writing a great book, a book that will reveal universal truths, that he calls "The Key to All Mythologies," and she imagines that she will be part of a work of genius. Unfortunately, Casaubon turns out to be a complete fool, and his project is a work of ego.

Now my old Professor, John Burt, used to say that his young female students want to be Dorothea Brooke, and his male ones want to be Stephen Daedalus. Frankly, I always thought Dorothea was a twit, and would much rather be Stephen Daedalus myself. But what I always worried about becoming was old Casaubon - allowing my ego, and what I want to be true, to alter my thinking a bit too much. Thus, the name "Casaubon's Book" was a reminder about my own tendency towards hubris. Essentially, I named it this so to remind myself not to be too big a fool.

If you've been paying attention, the name hasn't checked me that much - I still have a bit too much hubris, and I'm still working my way through a host of thoughts on how all the pieces of our societal crisis - ecological, psychological, economic, democratic - go together. But I like to think that maybe I'm a little less arrogant for the reminder.

Several people, with my new professional interests at heart, however, have gently suggested that a different title would be in order. And one person I pay a lot of attention to has suggested it not so gently "Sharon, that title sucks - change it" was about the size of it.

At the same time, a bunch of other changes have been occurring. One is that writing two books in 14 months and running a CSA is not something I can do - not and do all the other things I'd like to accomplish with it. Time is at a premium, and right at the moment, writing is taking up a lot of it - as are kids, food preservation, homeschooling, speaking engagements, and all the new agricultural projects we're taking up. Something had to give, and reluctantly, we're letting the CSA go. Instead, we're working on subsistence agriculture, more pasture farming, farmer's market sales, and hoping to turn the farm into a site for teaching subsistence gardening and other related skills. We have an enormous old house, and it has occurred to us that maybe what might make sense is to use some of that space to help others adapt.

Because of that, I'm also working on finding some other sources of income. Like all of us, I'm stuck in an economy growing unstable, a bit worried about the spousal job that provides most of our family's income and benefits, and I'm under some pressure to spend more time on remunerative activities, other than the purely fun stuff, like blogging. I am faced with a choice - cut back on the blog and spend the time doing things people pay me for, or make money on the blog.

But the thing is, I'm not thrilled with my choices. You see, one of the things I like about this blog is that it has been ad free, commercial free, technorati free - heck, I don't even have a hit counter, which frees me from worrying about my traffic. This blog, for me, has been about good conversations with interesting people. I want to keep that - and my reminder not to get too presumptuous. And since I am compromising with something I'm at best ambivalent about (most advertising), I want people who would rather read my stuff without ads to have the option.

So I've started another blog This one will have almost all of the same content as Casaubon's book, along with more links, cool stuff, my speaking engagements, maybe even pictures (if I ever learn how to put them up) and perhaps even a hit counter (ibid). It will also have (fairly subtle) ads at the bottom, will accept direct sponsorship, and will have a store offering books and other useful things. It will also have a couple of posts a month that don't appear here (Casaubon's book will have at least one post appear here exclusively each month as well).

For people who don't want ads or book sales, you can read almost the same stuff right here, in perpetuity. If you aren't bothered, or want to buy books on sustainability, energy issue and other recommendations from me, or think that the new colors, the news feed and the links are worth putting up with it, check out my new site. I'll also be making some updates to this one, but since I'm the original techno-moron (think your elderly great-aunt who asks you to come program her remote control for her), be patient with me. You don't want to know how long it took, or how much help it required to get up and running - really.

Anyway, that's the news here. New blog. Same rants. New day.



How Big is a Farm? Who is a Farmer?

Well, the game of post-riposte is winding down over at TOD, 400+ comments, etc... on my response to Stuart Staniford (his original essay linked at the top of mine or in my last post), complete with Staniford's response to me, and back again.... Fun and all, but back to work. Although if you'd like a nice, short post on the subject, check out Dmitry Orlov's comments on the subject:

One of the problems in this discussion is the question of "how big is a farm?" That is, when we talk about "farmers" who are we actually talking about? What's "agriculture", and what's "gardening?" Where does "homesteading" "smallholding" "horticulture" and "subsistence farming" fall in the mess? BoysMom was helpful enough to ask about that in comments, and I thought it had been long enough since I covered this topic that it would be worth discussing it here. Is part of the problem of discussing "relocalization" that our definitions of "farmer" vary so widely that we're talking past each other?

Personally, I have a strong opinion on this subject (gee, could you have guessed?) I think (and yes, all the real farmers yell at me, and I don't entirely blame them), that "farmer" should be the umbrella term for remunerative food production. That is, I think you are a farmer if you grow food for sale, for barter or as a large portion of your own personal economy - that is, I think we call them "subsistence farmers" for a reason. If farming either provides a significant part of your income.

My criteria for this is simple - we don't live in isolation - the word "farmer" should mean something across national and cultural boundaries. That is, a "farmer" in India, and a "farmer" in Canada should be able to recognize one another as fellow creatures with a shared profession, and art. As we are speaking now, the word "farmer" as it is used in the rich world erases the vast majority of world farmers out of the language, and that shouldn't be acceptable to us. As important, it gives us a mistaken sense of what agriculture actually is- even what agriculture was. In the 1940s, a large amount of victory garden literature spoke of "garden farms" - that is, home gardens that operated, like farms, to both supply the subsistence needs of the family and to serve the large public interest by freeing up food to be sent overseas.

That is, it isn't that long even in North American history that a "farmer" has been a guy with a thousand acres. And in the rest of the world, it may never work that way:

As you'll note from the first paragraph, even the experts have a hard time with the naming problem - and so they just call them "farmers." (My computer does not permit me to use PDFs, and for some reason I can't copy text from the html format, so I'm afraid you'll just have to look back). That is, the World Bank and the UN FAO have essentially deemed as farmers anyone who calls themselves a farmer, sells food, or subsists primarily on their own food. The distinction they make is "small farmer" vs. "large farmer" - but all of them are farmers.

Right now, the majority of the world's farms are small farms. The average farm size in Africa and Asia is 1.6 hectares (for those who are accustomed to acreage measurements, a hectare is about 2.5 acres - thus, the average farm size in Africa and Asia would be a bit under 4 acres). This means that there are a whole lot of farms much smaller than 4 acres. 95% of all farms in many parts of the former Soviet Unions are under 1 hectare, and that they provide the majority of all agricultural production, a total of 52% of all food eaten in the region.

The US, as of the last Ag Census, contained 66,ooo+ small farms under 2 hectares. Which just goes to support Kiashu's well taken point here:, that about half of the world's food already comes from small farms. Add to that Helena Norberg-Hodge's observation that *2 Billion* people live almost entirely on subsistence agriculture that is low input and largely organic (because they can't afford not to be), and we can see that agricultural norms are simply different than what we Americans and Canadians think of.

The claim that large farmer are essential to produce grain turns out also to be false - in India, 40% of all food grains are produced by small farmers in parcels under 2 hectares, and not totally dissimilar data is found in other developing nations. It may well be more efficient to produce grain in more centralized areas, by some definitions (the distinction here between efficiency of land and efficiency of labor would apply in some cases), but for those who immediately leap to the conclusion that we'd never have any grain if we didn't have big farms, this is a useful observation.

But aren't all small farmers poor? In a 2004 analysis for the _Handbook of Agricultural Economics_, Eastwood, Lipton and Newell observe that in developing nations, small farmers tend to be disproportionately taxed, while in developed nations, they tend not to receive the benefits of agricultural subsidies. That is, small farmers tend to get the worst of both worlds, with both poor and rich nations tending to disadvantage them economically. That's not to say that the economic disadvantages of agriculture as we do it now (which apply to most North American and European farmers except during ethanol booms) don't make farming a difficult choice - but it does suggest that just as agricultural policy has driven farmers in the US out of business for decades, agricultural policy is also working in many cases to impoverish farmers in the poor world. FAO agriculture economists Binswanger, Deinenger and Feder, for example, conclude that generally speaking larger farms in the poor world are dramatically less efficient than smaller, family farms, but that policies favor them so strongly as to elide much of this difference. That is, in both the rich and the poor world, we work very hard to keep our small farmers poor. It is interesting to try and imagine what a systematic set of agricultural policies that supported small scale, diversified agriculture would do to the present equation of poverty and size.

Interestingly, it seems that in both south Asia and the former Soviet Union, the trend that economic development generally creates towards larger farms seems not to be the case - that is, the Handbook of Agricultural Economics cited above notes that as of 2004, neither Russia nor south Asia seems to be following the pattern of getting bigger as they get richer. In Russia, the authors speculate, it may be because of the powerful impact of the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union, where consumers now associate small farms with food security. In Asia and parts of Latin America (Brazil and Argentina have steadily increased farm size, while smaller nations have declined, implying that averages are not as much to the point here as the articulation of two seperate trends), where farm sizes actually seem to have declined in the later part of the 20th century.

So what should we take from all this data? First, that small farms are normal, and that the majority of the world's farmers are small farmers of less than 5 acres. That is, it is hard to claim that someone farming a comparatively small piece of land is not a farmer, if they constitute a majority - in fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to call many large scale farmers (as some prefer) "agribusinessmen" and leave the term farmer to the majority. In addition, in many, many nations there are substantial numbers of farms that are pretty much the same size as a suburban lot. The people who farm them are farmers. The average Bangladeshi farms half a hectare. In Barbados, the average piece of land is 1.6 hectares. In China, 0.67 hectares, in India 1.34 hectares. Lebanon 1.2, Japan, 1.2, Egypt 0.95. And of course, averages mean that many, many of these farms are quite a bit tinier.

So it must be that farming isn't about land size. Even in the US this can be true - in her glorious book _The Earth Knows My Name:Food, Culture and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic America_, Patricia Klindienst notes that there is no clear boundary between those who call themselves "farmers" and those who call themselves "gardeners" - some of the gardens are bigger than the farms, in fact. That is, even in America, there are thousands of small farms, being worked by thousands of small farmers, and size doesn't seem to be the defining factor.

So perhaps what matters is what you are doing on your land, not how big it is. How should we narrow this one down - the tax purposes model is, I think, insufficient to offer us an overarching definition that crosses borders from the rich world to the poor (I once read that in at least one US state, one way to be a farm for tax purposes is to own a cow - period, and in that state (which one I've forgotten) there are a number of people keeping cows in their garages, buying their hay, and accepting a tax write off, but this may be purely anecdotal).

One obvious way to distinguish between farmers and gardeners would be by economic remuneration - that is, if you sell farm products, you are a farmer. But this model effectively removes from the language the millions, perhaps even billions of subsistence farmers who sell little or nothing off their land. These people live their lives as farmers, with all the benefits and disadvantages that applies - we cannot erase them from the language. In most cases, they are taxed in their countries as farmers.

Such subsistence farmers exist in the rich world as well - there are not a huge number of subsistence farmers these days, but they do exist, and I know a few. They grow their own food, cut their own wood, hunt, and work off the farm or sell enough to pay the land taxes. One of my neighbors, Paul, is a subsistence farmer, living from his half acre garden, two deer a year, a couple of wild turkeys and enough work as a substitute teacher to pay for taxes and beer. He jokes that he works as a teacher 5 days a month, and grows and hunts food the other 25, but when the government asks him what he does, he's a teacher!

We cannot say that having a non-agricultural job is a criteria for ceasing to call someone a farmer either - according to the USDA, 71% of all US farmers of all sizes have either an off season, or off farm income, or a household member who provides an off farm income. In _Ending Hunger In Our Lifetime_ ed Runge, Senauer et al notes that this is true of many poor world farmers as well - not quite 80% also do seasonal or off farm work, or have a household member who does so. The numbers are oddly similar. In fact, Peter Rosset in _Food is Different_ tracks the ways that farmers subsidize consumers and their own agricultural practices, and notes that in general, farmers subsidize cheap food more than governments do - that is, because farming is not merely a job but a culture and a way of life, farmers will do almost anything to keep their land - including sending family members off the land to allow those who farm to growing corn or rice or beans at low prices. See:

A farmer is not someone who never does any work off the farm, then. She is not someone (btw, "he" is a "she" - the majority of the world's farmers are women - and many poor nations have long traditions of agriculture and land ownership in women's hands) who owns a lot of land, or necessarily sells much or any food in the market place.

So what does distinguish farmers from gardeners? Not much. Perhaps we should think about the distinction linguistically. "Gardener" derives from a the french, and means "an enclosed space" - that is, its linguistic focus is on limitations. A "garden" linguistically speaking, is seperated from the space around it by cultivation.

"Farm" and "farmer" on the other hand come from the same root as "to form" and imply creation. The oldest English forms of the word, going back to Beowulf and the Domesday book, also meant "a banquet or feast" - that is, farms and farmers are linguistically tied to bountifulness, to eating, to abudance and plenty, and also to the power of creation - by implication to the power that created "terra firma" - that is, the linguistic implication is that farming is acting in G-d's image, creating plenty.

My own take, is that as valuable as the word "gardener" is, the kind of agriculture we're trying to create is more appropriately described as "farming" than as gardening - that is, a truly sustainable agriculture happens not in boundaries, but across them. Is a permaculture garden a bounded space, or do its lines blur into the trees and wildlands around it? Is an agriculture designed to create mixed use pasture for wildlife and farmed animals about its fences, or about what can pass through them? Is a family living in part on what they grow and what they forage and harvest from untended spaces in their town or city tending a garden, or farming their community? It isn't that gardening isn't a good word, it is that I think farming is a better one.

All of the other terms offer some kind of subset of the above. It isn't that I have any objection to someone calling themselves a smallholder, a gardener, a homesteader or an edible landscaper, it is merely that there exists an umbrella term that serves, not just because it is accurate, but because it describes so well what we must become.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What I Was Doing When I Wasn't Writing This Blog

Something of a dearth of posts this week so far. So let's see... first I was goofing off with college friends, and then I was reading Stuart Staniford's latest impressive analysis, where he takes a shot across the bow of relocalization and the idea that local agriculture is going to feed us here: Then I was writing a 15 page rebuttal that will appear today or tomorrow on The Oil Drum. And then I was required to play 4 consecutive games of chess with chess obsessed Simon, talk to my visiting mother, put various children to bed and deal with my own sleep deprivation. Today is DH's day to put his work life in order, and I'll be tending little people, hanging laundry, making food and reading _Owl Babies_ 150 times or so.

All of which is a long way of saying I've been neglecting the blog for other things. If you are dying for some stuff to read, I'm sure Staniford's piece, plus the 400ish comments over at TOD will keep you entertained! I'll be back for real tomorrow.


Friday, January 18, 2008

The Home Front: Let's End the Individual vs. Political Action Debate

Over at Colin's NoImpactMan site, there's been an interesting spate of posts on the value of individual action vs. political action:,, (there more on his site). I think Colin's attempt to assert the value of both is important, but I admit, I don't think this is quite the right way to frame this debate. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this issue lately, because I wrote a whole chapter of _Depletion and Abundance_ about it - mostly about how whenever we enter a time of real crisis, those distinctions disappear - that is, everything we do - what we eat and how we work, how we travel and how we fight - all those things operate in the service of larger societal goals. So I had to ask myself - why is it that it matters whether we waste food and energy during time of war, and not the rest of the time?

But of course, that's the wrong question - it isn't that war or other crisis makes what we do in our kitchens matter as much as what we do in the voting booth, a the protest or in public service - it is that in the heightened awareness of crisis we recognize something that is always true - that the line between "individual" and "public" is very, very fine. It is true there are things done in the dark of night in our own rooms that have no political context whatsoever (at least according to most folks on the left - there are other ways of thinking about it out there), but most of our individual choices involve public, political engagement. The distinction between "individual" and "political" is largely artificial, a remnant of the cultural legacy of older ideas about public and private. Thus, if I make a donation to a political candidate, that's a "political" act. And if I go shopping at a store, and the store uses some of the money I give them to make a donation to a political candidate, that's "individual" - but not because one has political implications and the other does not, but because those are the categories we are accustomed to sorting things into. Virtually all human acts both involve "individual" choice and "political" context.

"Individual" acts are generally quite collective in any given society - and especially so in a media-driven consumer culture. What may look to our habits like private choice is driven by a whole host of public resources, energies and moneys, often with strong political interests - the shape of our economy is a political concern. Thus, for example, our "individual" food choices over the last fifty years have been shaped by "private" corporations operating in public through media, subsidized by public policy. The fact that 'Coke or Pepsi" is a choice, that it is deemed a meaningful one, and that "clean water" isn't one is all in play when we go make our "individual" choice between sodas that taste like highly sugared battery acid.

Any discussions of "individual vs. political" choices ultimately must include gender. Think about how many of the "individual" choices so often demeaned by some environmentalists (among them Monbiot, Schellenberger, Romm, etc...) who say they can't make a difference were traditionally "women's work" - from things that are tied to shopping or not shopping(and since women make or influence 90% of all purchases, including traditionally male-associated things like tools and cars, this remains fairly accurate), cooking rather than buying fast food, domestic life (turning off lights and down heat, gardening), frugality and "making do" etc... It isn't that men don't do these things - they absolutely do - but they are associated culturally with women. And the public realm, and political action, is both dominated by men and associated with them, going back to the 19th century and before. And that absolutely shapes our diminution of their value.

Historically, the distinction between "public" and "private" is strongly gendered - women, and most of the acts above, are associated with the private. In the most extreme versions of this, women had no public existence at all separate from father or husband legally speaking in many cultures. In the 19th century, when the mythos of "the angel in the house" had its maximum currency, it was common to say that women's names should appear in the newspaper 3 times - at birth, marriage and death - that is, that women should have no public or civil existence. Of course, even in the most repressive Victorian times this rule was as much disobeyed as obeyed, but the legacy of the thought that it created lives with us.

Over the last 50 years, since the end of World War II, we have had the greatest movement in history out of the private, domestic "sphere" and into the "public" realm. And it is no accident that this move has coincided with wild growth in the US and other rich world nation's energy consumption. The workforce nearly doubled, creating use for twice as many cars, twice as many jobs. Women, no longer cooking and cleaning hired out for those jobs - expending money and energy creating new low wage work for the poor, who also stopped cooking for their kids as the cost of living rose. Now that women had their own money, the bought stuff.

Do not mistake me - I am a feminist and I do not hold women any more responsible for the environmental destruction our new wealth created than men - there were many feminist voices that advocated not the outsourcing of domestic labor to corporations and poorer, non white people, but shared labor in the home. However, I find the demeaning of women's traditional work, and by implication the women who did it then and the women and men (mostly poor and non-white) who often do it for us now, offensive and destructive.

What I am claiming is this - that the women's movement as it happened, was seized upon by the growth capitalist economy, and perverted into something ecologically destructive. In fact, this is more about feminism's lack of power to overcome the dominant culture than its alliance with it. But the history of personal energy use cannot be separated from the history of feminism, it stands as material proof of the claim that individual actions when taken within a society are enormously powerful *and* the sheer destructiveness of moving 60% of all women into the workforce (without a simultaneous reduction in male workers) was in part a function of the artificial public/private; individual/political distinction. That is, the things that we call "individual" and imagine don't much matter, are the remnants of a culture that demeans "women's work" even after most women stopped doing that work.

By this last point, I mean to say that the habit of concealing "private" acts under the notion that they are individual and thus without political context, which growth capitalism does anytime war or other crisis doesn't intercede, is part of the reason we permitted this enormous destruction. Our habits of thinking led us to demean "women's work" as low impact, low importance things that couldn't possibly matter. Maria Mies in _The Subsistence Perspective_ calls this the "housewifization" of women's labor - that is, it is systematically removed, by capitalism, to a "private" and invisible sphere, no longer measured or considered to contribute to the economy as a whole. Such labor is described as drudgery, mindless, numbing (which is just how Betty Friedan described it, for example), unskilled, lower class. This simultaneously presents women who can avoid it a powerful cultural incentive to go do important "public" work, and also essentially erases those "individual acts" from the culture. We come to assume that anything that is so demeaned, dismissed, unmeasured, undervalued, done by people held in contempt by the society as whole couldn't possibly be powerful enough, say, to influence the whole climate or to drive us to an energy peak sooner than expected.

It is not that I deny the influence of larger issues, or the need for political actions in their purest form. Nor am I claiming that women's roles are the origin or whole cause of climate change and peak oil - far from it. What I am arguing instead is that our emphasis on this distinction is not based on any inherently meaningful division, and that our habit of dividing actions into individual and political ones is more destructive than it is productive. We cling to it not because it illuminates some useful truth, but because it is habit leftover from another world, encouraged by precisely the forces that got us into this trouble to begin with.

Instead of wasting time on this artificial distinction, we need to begin recognizing the sheer political and social power of choices we've deemed "individual" and also think about how this distinction has led even many activists to misunderstand power relationships, and how to make an impact. For example, a recent survey of "Green" consumers suggest that many people focus on relatively minor impact actions (cloth bags for example), but drive and fly more than people who do not identify with environmental causes. Such a study is obviously biased by class issues, and yet, the "green consumer" movement already shows deep problems, as people are unable to distinguish between meaningful actions and relatively meaningless ones. An integrated understanding of our actions would, for example, prevent many people hopefully from, for example, publicly supporting new farm policies while sending cash donations to ConAg, Kelloggs and Altria who oppose them, in the form of supermarket groceries.

Moreover, it would spare environmentalists a sparring point, a distracting debate that sets us at each other, trying to undermine each other's proposed solutions, as well as saving us all time. Not to mention, that as more and more men and women take up the demeaned category of domestic, "housewifized" labor out of necessity and desire, it might shake some of the cultural negativity from that work. If we stop sneering at cooking and gardening as just another "individual" choice, utterly separate from our "political" work (which we have to do too), we might make a real dent in all of the parts of the equation.

It is always a lie to say that "individual" choices don't matter, but it is especially a lie to say that during a time of crisis, and we are in one now. In wartime, there are two fronts - the war front and the home front, and both are essential to success. The soldiers cannot fight without sufficient food and other resources, the families cannot continue to grow and cook food, to conserve and live without the soldier's protection (ok, let's just pretend that we're talking about some of the less moronic wars, just for rhetorical purposes ;-). In this conflict, there is no far away enemy - as Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." And there is no divided front - no need to separate husbands and wives, parents and children, loved ones from one another - in fact, we can't afford a two front war when facing the twin difficulties of climate change and peak oil - we need everybody working together on the Home Front.

Nor can we afford to stick to outdated debates about whether "individual" or "political" action are required. Virtually all acts are political, in the sense of collective. Yes, if you hide the fact that you are hanging your laundry in your basement, there is no political context. But if you hang your laundry out in front of your house (or talk about your basement drying rack), you are saying to your neighbors, and those who pass by "this is not ugly or shameful, this is important." The next step is talking to the neighbors, a political act - that, by the way is the next step in politics too - talking. The step after that is the zoning commission and then perhaps a seat on the zoning board. But there is no point at which this is a purely individual act. Nor is there a purely political one - we all know by now that how you get to the protest sends a message as surely as your being there.

What we need is not separate spheres, but INTEGRITY - that is, the *integration* of the multiple parts of our lives. It is, of course, more difficult than advertising that one kind of work is meaningful and the rest isn't, but it is also more effective, more moral, and more likely to lead to success on the new Home Front.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Making the Case for Self-Sacrifice


Here dead we lie

Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
-A E Housman

Let me begin by noting that most of what I’ve done to live more sustainably has been enormously pleasurable, not that stressful, and has generally led to a happier, more relaxed, healthier, better quality of life. I think it is fair to say that most people who make major cuts in their energy usage find such quality of life benefits as more time together, more exercise, better, healthier food and fewer toxics in their lives to be enormously positive.

But it would be complete and utter bullshit for me to suggest that cutting back our energy usage by the percentage necessary is always painless, convenient, comfortable. Sometimes it is inconvenient, and occasionally it sucks. Sometimes it means being hot or cold, or not eating what you want to eat, it means turning down things you’d like to do, or not going places you’d like to go. It means missing family instead of travelling a lot, doing more things by hand even when you don’t want to, getting on that bike or out to take the bus on the cold, wet day. That is, sometimes it means real and meaningful sacrifice. And being an early adapter to the necessities of global warming and peak oil means that you don’t even have the comfort of everyone else being stuck with the same strictures.

I say this because I think It is intellectually dishonest to speak only of the positives of the lifestyle changes we’re engaged in. And I say this because I’m an ordinarily selfish person who sometimes just doesn’t wanna do it, and I know others feel this way. But I also mention this because I think that if we’re ever going to achieve a critical mass (which we may not – but we have to try) to people committed to remediating the problems we face, we’re going to need a whole host of persuasive techniques.

That is, we’re going to have to tell all the truths – persuade people with visions of better lives and also scare them with the reality of the cost. And we’re going to have to find a way to sell self-sacrifice – because minimizing the cost will make people feel we’re lying to them. We have to convince people that the price is worth the prize.

That last one has been a hard nut to crack - a lot of people feel we should never mention sacrifice, or ever give anyone the impression that they will have to do anything hard, or given anything up. But there is no possible way that we can make the necessary environmental cuts without sacrifice - 90% or more over 10 years is a big deal, and some of it will hurt - period.
There are thousands of people who really don't want to hear that part - they think that if we just elect the right leader or we just do the right thing we can make everything easy and place all the burden magically on someone else. But we can't. 90% means 90% across the board. That doesn't mean that it can't be made better and easier, but it does mean that this will cost us.

How do we make that idea palatable? Personally, I think denying the need for self-sacrifice is a huge mistake, and so is apologizing for it, or minimizing it. I think the absolute opposite strategy is called for - we have to make it a challenge, an honor, a gift to do this. That is, of course, how we have gotten people to make sacrifices and endure hardship before - whether giving their lives in wartime or climbing big mountains - we've emphasized how exciting the challenge is, and how lucky they are to participate, how doing so makes them exceptional and heroic. The more we tell people that sacrifices won't be required, the more we make them nervous about the very idea. I think we should be telling people that they shoud feel privileged and honored to make this sacrifice. Does that sound totally nuts? Bear with me for a moment.

During most of human history, we’ve had a policy of the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children. War is the most compelling example – in wartime, the policy and diplomatic failures of old men and women are visited on their children and grandchildren, who put their bodies in front of bullets to protect a “way of life” or simply the lives of those too old, too young or too wealthy to make similar sacrifices. Young men and women die for us (and for stupid false causes, but for today we will speak of actual necessities) – to keep us secure. Sometimes this is even genuinely necessary. But every single time, the children pay for the sins of their fathers and mothers, often to the tune that this is a noble sacrifice, an honor to serve their nation. Dulce et decorum est.

And this isn’t limited to soldiers – children are the victims of every war, failure of social policy, and inequity we create. Children constitute the largest single group of poor people in the world. Many wars have child civilian mortality rates that vastly exceed the number of soldiers who suffer and die. During America’s embargo on Iraq, up to half a million children died. Children pay the price for our limitations in every conceivable way – they go hungry, they die of preventable diseases, they are cold, they suffer in utter disproportion. We always make our children pay the price.

Global warming and peak oil represent just one more passing of the buck. There are plenty of victims of climate change already all over the world – from the 60,000 that the World Health Organization reports die of climate change related disease every year to the victims of hurricanes and floods everywhere. But the real victims will come among those who are children today as they grow up (or don't), and their children. Those are the vast majority of the 1.5 billion people who may be made refugees by 2050, the 3 billion who will lack adequate drinking water, the 1 billion potential deaths from climate change by mid-century. Some of them will be far away children, the ones we say we care about – but don’t always.

And some of them will be our own children and grandchildren - those of the people reading this on computers mostly in the rich world. It is impossible that such vast disasters could fail to harm even the most carefully protected children of the Global North – they too will suffer natural disaster after natural disaster. They too may be made refugees, run out of safe drinking water, know hunger, cold, heat and loss. Some of them too may die from this. And if this does not shake most of us down to our cores, that’s only because we’re kidding ourselves.

The reality is that the climate is changing here too. We depend on fossil fuels too. And we’ve already proved we’re willing to send young men and women off to die in pointless resource wars – in a decade, when my boys are of age, they may come for my sons, for your daughters, in the name of the latest great, tragic war. They are coming now for other people’s beloved sons and daughters.

But as terrible as climate change and peak oil are, they also represent an enormous opportunity – for us to change the pattern of placing the burden of our failures on our children. They represent a chance for we parents and grandparents to bear the worst of the burden ourselves, to take it off the backs of those who love, and carry it on our own shoulders. It is in our power to soften the blow, to minimize the harm. It is in our power to do what parents are supposed to do for their children – shield them from harm.

We tell them we love them. We tell ourselves we’d do anything to protect them. Well, time to put our money where our mouths are. Because if we were to rapidly (over the next 5-10 years) cut back emissions by 90% and more, we could actually prevent the worst depredations of climate change. We could put energy aside for future generations so that they could have necessities like antibiotics and heat and light – not perhaps as much as we’ve had, but some.

I do not claim that doing so will always be easy or pleasant. Some of it truly will be enjoyable, will make us happier. Some things will improve our lives. And some things will be hard and painful. There will be real losses, real personal suffering and inconvenience. It will hurt us to do with less. It will sometimes be cold, sometimes be sad. It will often be damned hard work, an enormous challenge for us. We will lose things we loved and give up pleasures we’ll miss. It will involve real self-sacrifice.

But that sacrifice is an honor, a privilege that every parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or any person who loves a child or cares for future generations should take up with gratitude that it has been given to us to spare our beloved children some suffering, that this time, the fathers and mothers can take responsibility for their own sins. We have been granted a rare gift – the hope of taking responsibility for our actions, and the actions of our own parents and grandparents. Instead of passing the buck, it can stop here, with us.

We do hard things all the time for far lower stakes - we run marathons to see if we can. We climb moutains to prove something to ourselves. We fast for religious convictions, we push ourselves to the limits to meet a deadline or to win a competition. Now we have the chance to push ourselves to our limits for the thing that we say we care about more than anything else - the lives of our children. How can we do less for them than we do for a medal?

And if we succeed, we will spare not only the lives and futures of the next generation and those that follow, but we will also spare ourselves. Because as hard as it must be for a young man, barely 18, to pick up his gun and march away to die in a war, it is equally hard for a father to watch him march away. As difficult as it will be for our grown children to watch their own sons and daughters weep because they are always hungry, it will be as bad for their grandparents who know that in their lives, they threw away enough food to have fed those children. As hard as it is to make sacrifices ourselves, if we truly love our children, it will be harder to watch them have no choice but to make worse ones.

I will not pretend that I always like giving up air travel, or getting up in a cold house in the winter. I will not pretend that sometimes I don’t want to go somewhere, and can’t, or don’t feel like I miss out on pleasures I once had. I will say that generally speaking, the net gains are far greater than the losses, but I cannot claim that I never feel my losses. I won’t claim that sometimes I wish that prior generations to my own had taken up the burden (and yes, I know some of them tried, and I honor them for that) when it was lighter, when we could have made fewer sacrifices, when it would have been easier. All of those emotions are real, and I do not deny them - I merely suggest that they can exist and still be overridden by our deep commitment to preserving the future at any cost.

But if previous generations passed the buck, it is our right, our gift, our obligation, our privilege, our responsibility, our honor to do better, to stop the buck here, now. It is a gift to be able to spare future generations the price of our folly- a gift beyond price. We should be grateful.


The Climate Bad News - and How to be a Hero

Well, more data on climate - all of it rotten. First, here's the thing I couldn't give you yesterday on 2007 warming trends - look carefully at the graphs.

And second, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is showing much more melting than had been anticipated. Yet again, the data is becoming outdated as fast as it comes in - not by new projections, but by new, concrete reality. That should be worrisome.

"Rignot said the tonnage of yearly ice loss in Antarctica is approaching that of Greenland, where ice sheets are known to be melting rapidly in some parts and where ancient glaciers have been in retreat. He said the change in Antarctica could become considerably more dramatic because the continent's western shelf, an expanse of ice and snow roughly the size of Texas, is largely below sea level and has broad and flat expanses of ice that could move quickly. Much of Greenland's ice flows through relatively narrow valleys in mountainous terrain, which slows its motion.

The new finding comes days after the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the group's next report should look at the "frightening" possibility that ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica could melt rapidly at the same time.

"Both Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheet are huge bodies of ice and snow, which are sitting on land," said Rajendra Pachauri, chief of the IPCC, the United Nations' scientific advisory group. "If, through a process of melting, they collapse and are submerged in the sea, then we really are talking about sea-level rises of several meters." (A meter is about a yard.) Last year, the IPCC tentatively estimated that sea levels would rise by eight inches to two feet by the end of the century, assuming no melting in West Antarctica."

Finally, I liked this essay a lot. The "Bystander Effect" is a real phenomenon - and it is hard to say "I'm the best person to act" - but it is also necessary. Perfect understanding is not required, commitment is.

"So, on the train, the boy was loudly identifying this as a true emergency, his mother physically demonstrating the urgency of the matter. Still everyone sat there, mouths open. Half of them had cell phones clipped on their belts, but not one of them was dialing 911. No one was running to get the conductor. Remember this fact; although we feel safer in a crowd, that's actually where humans are most incapacitated. The bigger the crowd, the stronger the effect.

In some of the later Bystander-Effect experiments, the subjects have blood pressure cuffs on and what they say is recorded. Their pulse races, their blood pressure rises. They mutter, 'shit,' and 'holy hell.' From their reactions it's clear they recognize what's happening as an emergency and feel great urgency about it. Still, they stand there, frozen.

Right now everyone understands something truly horrible is happening to the planet's climate. The heat waves and forest fires, the floods and droughts. But there's six billion of us now.

Quite the Bystander Effect. So we stay in our seats filling out forms, working dutifully, trying to ignore the smoke swirling thicker around us. We mutter under our breath, our hearts race, while we wonder why no one else is doing anything.

With the people on the train watching the woman convulse, each of them glanced around and believed everyone else must be sitting still for a good reason. Perhaps the others had some inside knowledge, that this was a movie being filmed or a scam being tried or that the kid was just playing some sort of mean joke.

Each person also thought, if this were real, then surely with 40 other people here, there should be someone who knew how to deal with seizures. There must be someone competent, with professional training and a medical vocabulary. Each person assumed, 'I should be the last person to help. I don't know dinky about seizures.'

Thinking this way, a whole group of adults will passively watch a child screaming for someone to help his mother.

And thinking this way is also how we can bustle about our normal lives, feeling increasingly uneasy about the shifting climate, but assuming it couldn't be as bad as it seems because surely then everyone would be marching in the street about it. And if it were real, then there must be someone better than us at getting others to demonstrate against it. We don't know dinky about activism."

I think it is easy to get hung up on endless debates about whether personal action or political action are more important, etc...etc... Such debates are pointless - the two are deeply interconnected. Few of our personal choices don't reverbate in the public world - our shopping is voting with our dollars. Our voting is shaped by our personal experiences. I don't know many people who follow this news who aren't simultaneously working publically and privately. What we need is integration of both spheres.

But more than that, we need to shake off the sense of paralysis that says that the right people are coming along to fix this in time. The right people are the ones who are here now.