Monthly Archives: November 2008

Understanding the Greater Depression

Want to get a better foundational understanding of the Greater Depression that we have now entered? Here are a few blogs I’d suggest you read every day or at least a few times a week.

Sites which focus on the economic system specifically:
Chris Martenson
The Automatic Earth
The Market Ticker

Sites which discuss a broader range of issues (peak oil, self reliance, homesteading, climate change, suburbia…) related to the current collapse and what will follow:
Casaubon’s Book
The Archdruid Report
Club Orlov
James Kunstler

Here’s a little sample from November 7 post from
The Automatic Earth: Debt Rattle: Hocus Focus:

Obama’s chief of staff is a former Freddie Mac board member and fervent supporter of the invasion of Iraq. Many of the ‘experts’ are, or have been, Goldman and Citigroup execs. These people like the power and the money they have gathered while driving the economy into the ground. They’re not going to give that up just to build a financial system that would better serve the people. They’ll build one that best serves them.

Sure, some loose ends will be tweaked, but mostly they’ll spend the nation into a depression by attempting to salvage corporations that would have long since died if it were not for America’s 21st century version of Mussolini’s corporate fascism, and the unlimited access to the public trough it provides.

The broke man in the street will be broker, until he’s broken, until he lives in the street, his last hard earned penny squeezed from his hands and dumped into banks, insurers and carmakers that have zero chance of ever turning a profit again.

The taxpayer will be taxed, and will be forced to pay until (s)he can pay no more, if need be at the barrel of a gun, until (s)he no longer has a job, a home, dignity or a future. And then the growth machine will spit her out. Whoever can’t produce or consume is a write-off.

We’ve spent too much, and now we’re broke. Let’s spend more, and lots more, ‘cause then we will be whole again. Double or nothing, it’s all we know.

The dice will come up nothing.

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Climate change, global depression and consumption

Apparently there is talk that Al Gore might be head of the EPA in the Obama administration and just over a week ago Gore wrote up a dream list which was published in the New York Times.

One of my current favorite authors, Sharon Astyk, in her post A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change wonders why there is no mention of lowering consumption. This is something I’ve written about before. Earlier this year I wrote that, in fact, a global economic recession was exactly what was needed as a way of forcing the lowering of consumption and thus a lowering of climate impact. From Sharon’s blog:

Quick – what’s not on this list?  I bet you noticed, too – there’s no mention of consumption, either as an economic issue or at the personal level. Rather like coming out of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ we’re left with the message that there’s nothing for us to do other than lobby our fearless leaders.

What’s wrong with that?  Addressing climate change manifestly requires policy solutions – but again we see ourselves trapped in the false dichotomy I discuss in _Depletion and Abundance_ between public and private.  There is no question in the world that consumption is a policy issue – 70% of our economy depends on consumer spending and personal consumption.  Yet again we are being told that ‘personal action’ is something you do in the dark that makes no difference, while the really important stuff happens at the government tables.

In fact, in reality, we know differently. At US government tables we’ve seen exactly 0 major policy shifts so far – yes, we had the worst president imaginable, but that doesn’t change the fact that under Clinton, when Gore was vice-president, we saw the same zippo.  At the same time, as consumers have slowed their spending, we’ve seen projections of world oil use fall dramatically – for the first time in decades, we are expecting an actual contraction in the use of oil.  Earlier this year, actual driving miles fell dramatically – as much as 6% year over year.  Now these things were in reaction to high prices – but they were consumption decisions made by private households that in the aggregate made more real difference in the impact of our emissions than all the treaties we’ve violated or refused to sign.

The assumption, of course, is that we make changes for economic reasons, but that we’d never make them for ecological reasons.  My answer to that is simply this – no one has tried asking Americans to make major shifts in their lifestyle for the good of their country and their ecology in 30 years.  We assume we know that this would never succeed – in practice, we don’t have the slightest idea what would happen. 

Consumption is not simply accidentally left off the table by people who underestimate its power or prefer only to focus on legislation, it is left off because thinking about consumption undermines some of the presumptions of wholly technical and policy solutions. In fact, if we addressed consumption, we might have to change our basic assumptions about what we can accomplish.

 Think about Gore’s list above in relation to consumption.  The first thing, of course, that jumps out at you is the claim we have to bail out the car companies, even though, as Deutsche Bank announced, GM is worth nothing – its stock is worth absolutely nothing.  Think about that one for a second, and consider what has to underly our presumptions that we should bail out a car company – underlying it is the assumption that we will all be buying cars again fairly soon – shiny new electric ones. 

That is, underlying the assumptions of a Gore-style New Deal is the idea that we can do temporary bail outs because our consumption is going to go back up – only this time we’ll be consuming green products, including our electric cars.  There are several problems with this – the obvious one being that it isn’t clear what will fund our ability to buy these new cars in the coming years.  The assumption is that the new green jobs will do so – and perhaps that’s true, but there’s a ‘turtles all the way down’ quality to this analysis – the new deal will give us the ability to make these shifts, and the money will then only be spent for good (despite the fact that historically, the more we spend, the more we consume)….I’m not convinced anyone knows how that might happen.

Sharon offers many details in her thought provoking analysis of the energy input vs return in the massive renewable energy program that the Gore approach entails. I encourage you toread her post in it’s entirety.

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Homesteading Self-reliance

Thanks to the folks at Irreguar Times for their mention of our permaculture project. Something I wanted to respond to was this excellent point:

Most of us will choose not to move to the woods like Denny (and given the size of our population, most of us can’t), but we can try to apply his lessons wherever we are in the world and in our life course as we brace for the human impact of a looming economic catastrophe. I encourage you to read his account and ask yourself what you can do.

For those that will not or cannot move into a rural area there is plenty they can do in an urban or suburban setting. In fact, most of what we are doing is on less than an acre. The main limitation for those on a smaller bit of land would be the number of fruit trees but even a few of those can be planted.

house2.jpgBack in 1998 I helped co-found the deCleyre Co-op in Memphis, TN and the intent was almost identical. We wanted to create an example of, and resource for, those interested in living sustainably and cooperatively in an urban setting. We dug up our front yard and planted a vegetable garden, raspberries, and blueberries. We also put in two small ponds and many native plants for habitat.

We typically housed 6-9 folks who participated in a weekly house meeting and several shared meals a week. We also sponsored monthly community potlucks, workshops, study groups, and more. Living in a co-op lowers monthly living costs dramatically and provides a sense of connection, comfort, and security. I would not hesitate to recommend this kind of living, especially in the greater depression we are now entering. The importance of pooled resources, skills, and the comfort of community cannot be overstated in times such as these.

Even if you choose to live in a more traditional setting, practically any home or apartment provides the opportunity to grow food. Any south facing area with full sun or light shade, even an apartment with a balcony, can be place to grow food. With good design using both horizontal and vertical space it is often possible to grow more food than you may realize.

Another aspect of simple and efficient living is the wise use of money. Don’t waste it dining out!! During spring and summer months it is often possible to buy fresh produce at farmers markets for much less than grocery store prices. If you come upon a good deal buy extra and learn how to can it for later use. Many foods can also be easily dehydrated using a home made solar dehydrator made for less than $10. For many just learning how to cook at home is the starting point. Very healthy meals are easy to make and will save you both time and money. A meal for 2-4 people can be made for $2-4 and often takes less than 30 minutes. Compare that to a fast-food or regular restaurant meal that will cost $5-30 and requires time to drive to and wait for the meal which will likely be less healthy than what you make at home.

My suggestion is to stock up on 4-6 months (more if you are able) worth of canned goods and learn how to use them. With times as they are food prices are going up constantly so a nice supply of food bought today at $500 will likely cost $600 just a couple months from now. The same food purchased six months later may have gone up to $700, possibly much more. Given the state of the economy and the growing possibility of a dollar collapse investing in non-perishable food with a shelf life of 2-4 years may be the best investment you can make. If the economy stabilizes (it won’t) then you have not wasted a penny because the food is there ready to cook.

Here’s a sample of what I have stocked (1 person):
Mixed Veggies 50 cans
Corn 30 cans
Green beans 30 cans
Peaches 15 cans
Pinto beans 20 cans
Garbonzo beans 20 cans
Crushed tomatoes 20 cans (28 oz)
Diced tomatoes 20 cans (28 oz)
4-6 boxes macaroni (48 oz)
6-8 boxes spaghetti (48 oz)
1-2 5 lb bag bread flour
1-2 5 lb bag whole wheat flour
5-8 48 oz tub of rolled oats
5-10 lbs of brown rice
10-15 lbs of various beans, dry: black, black-eye pea, garbonzo, etc.
several pounds sugar and brown sugar
several tubs of salt
1-2 gallons canola oil
LOTS of onions and garlic
10 lbs of regular and sweet potatoes
5-10 lbs of apples

I only have to go shopping once, maybe twice a month to replace used stock rotating the old to the front. I buy as much as I can afford each trip to limit my time in the store which is a place I prefer not to be. Now that the garden is better established I’m hoping to can much more of my food supply in the future.

The above list can fairly easily be cooked, often with little to no prep time. Breakfast of rolled oats with sugar and cinnamon can be made in 1-2 minutes three to four times a week. I alternate that with eggs and fried potatoes which takes 30 minutes or so. A tub of rolled oats is $2.75 to $3 so a big bowl of that with sugar and cinnamon is a pretty cheap breakfast at about twenty cents. Pancakes with a bit of fruit topping are also pretty cheap and healthy if you mix in a bit of whole wheat flour, maybe some nuts too.

For other meals I usually make soup, beans and rice, or pasta. Red sauce is easy. Start with a sautéed onion and garlic then add a large can of crushed tomatoes, 2-3 tablespoons of sugar, salt to taste, basil and oregano and you have a yummy red sauce. In the summer months sautéed yellow squash, zucchini, or eggplant with your onions for added nutrition and yumminess. Soup is very easy to make using a can or two of mixed veggies, potatoes, onion, garlic mixed in with crushed tomatoes and macaroni. Use whatever cheap veggies you can get at the farmers market to supplement the canned veggies. A nice fall variation of the above tomato-based soup uses pumpkin instead of tomato. Cut up and cube a pumpkin and boil for 30 minutes. Blend the cooked cubes and use that as a base rather than the tomato. Add in coconut milk, cinnamon, salt, curry and cayenne pepper for a super tasty and spicy soup. One medium pumpkin makes a pretty large pot of soup. You can bake the seeds on a cookie sheet or low heat on a covered frying pan with a bit of oil and season salt for a snack.

Soup, pasta, beans and rice… all these are fairly easy dishes to experiment with. Try different seasonings and mixtures or get recipes… I generally prefer to make up my own.

My favorite sites for learning the skills necessary for homesteading and self-reliance:
Sharon Astyk
Homegrown Evolution
Rachel’s Tiny Farm
Red State Green

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Living with a wood burning stove

Woodburning stove!Now that it has gotten colder I’ve started to use the wood burning stove a bit. My general rule of thumb is to only use it when I must which means nights at or below 40 followed by days with a high of 55 or less. If I can I’d rather not use it and just bundle up with extra layers thus saving the wood for another day and minimizing my carbon output. But, on the days that I do use it I have to say that it is a real pleasure! There’s nothing like the blended smell of a wood burning stove and coffee or fried potatoes or home made bread. In such a small space (my cabin is 192 square feet) the aroma of cooking food blends perfectly with that of burning wood. There is also the great benefit of having a warm surface to warm up left over food or coffee without using the propane.

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