Category Archives: Conservation

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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Forest Garden Update

IMG_2131This is the second food forest which is just 60 feet from my front door. Trees and bushes planted thus far: 1 peach, 2 plums, 2 red currants, 2 black currants, and 2 gooseberries. Also planted a few native bee balm. Next spring I’ll be expanding it with an apple and a couple paw paws as well as perennial and annuals such as Good King Henry, chives, and nasturtiums.

I’ve just about finished putting in a path using various half rotted logs and branches for the border. For the bottom of the path I’m using big chunks and strips of bark that I’ve been gathering from downed trees as well as the wood I’m chopping up for firewood. Bark does not burn too well so I think using it as a pathway is a much better use. Not only will it decay and add organic matter to the soil but the lizards and frogs love to eat the insects that the bark attracts… you can never have too many lizards and frogs!!

The outdoor shower you see in the back right corner will be moved soon and we’ll be putting in an arbor with hardy kiwi, grapes, and wisteria, possibly a few other vines as well.

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Garden and Harvest Update

I’ve been enjoying a continuous stream of tomatoes, yellow squash, lettuce, arugula and cucumbers since early August. I’ve also had a few zucchini but not nearly as many as I would have liked. The same goes for bell peppers… I’ve gotten a few of those, maybe 10 or so but not as many as I would hope for. I’ve also been getting a good bit of basil for pesto and will be drying some too. Today I harvested black-eye peas, probably a half pound or so. My first attempt with those and a bit of an experiment planted very late so I’m very happy to get a crop. Next year I’ll definitely be planting them again but in much greater number and much earlier. I’ve also harvesting a small handful of potatoes, also an experiment. Many, many more of those will be planted next year.

I’ve also been foraging a couple of handfuls of kinda ripe Autumn Olive berries and eating them fresh every day for the past week. They are getting sweeter and are probably about ripe now… very tastey indeed! I may try to harvest a bucket of them for preserves or maybe pancake syrup.

Comfrey!!! I was disappointed that the packet of seeds (12 or so seeds) I planted only produced one plant but that one plant did very well this summer. A couple weeks back I harvested about half the leaves and put them in a bucket of water which yielded a nice, stinky bucket of tea which I’ve just applied to the remaining garden plants. Waiting to let it go to seed and then will harvest the remaining leaves. I’ll definitely be putting in comfrey clusters around the kitchen garden and forest gardens. A great plant!!

I’d have to say that I’m fairly happy with the garden given the lack of prep time and lateness of planting. I’m very happy with the results of the straw/cardboard sheet mulching. I should have a great compost pile (or 2 or 3) this fall and lots of leaves left over for more sheet mulching. Combined with the addition of chickens and many more comfrey plants next year I think we’re on our way to improved soil fertility.

Gas/oil used? Not much. We used the tiller for maybe 20 minutes and against my better judgement. I thought it would help us get the soil quickly loosened up for the tomatoes. Lots of rocks! I’ve never used a tiller until this year and I’ve confirmed that as a good decision. I finished the job by hand with a pitch fork and was much happier with the results. All future garden space will be prepared in advance using sheet mulch.

Cardboard and straw certainly require energy to obtain and the straw costs money. Most trips to get those ingredients involved the need to get other supplies as well so at least they were not special trips. Next year I’d like to try replacing all or part of the straw layer with leaves though I I’m not sure how well that will work out. Leaves are not so neat and tend to move around. I may use leaves as the bulk of cover and then a much thinner layer of straw on top just to tidy it up and keep the leaves in place. We’ll see.

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Food Forests

Currants and GooseberriesAs the summer has begins to move into fall I continue to learn about forest gardening, permaculture, and ecological gardening. Reading a variety of books and websites as well as hands on work in our own gardens, I’m developing a much better understanding of these ideas. I’m no newbie to gardening and have been doing so for the past 20 years, but there’s no doubt that in these past few months I’ve learned a great deal not only about permaculture design but also about the natural processes and systems that our design is meant to mimic.

The folks over at Edible Forest Gardens offer this somewhat philosophical description of Forest Gardening:

As Masanobu Fukuoka once said, ‘The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.’ How we garden reflects our worldview. The ultimate goal of forest gardening is not only the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of new ways of seeing, of thinking, and of acting in the world. Forest gardening gives us a visceral experience of ecology in action, teaching us how the planet works and changing our self-perceptions. Forest gardening helps us take our rightful place as part of nature doing nature’s work, rather than as separate entities intervening in and dominating the natural world.

The author of Gaia’s Garden,Toby Hemenway, has this fantastic description of the encounter of western observers of the original food forests:

Until the late 20th century, western anthropologists studying both ancient and current tropical cultures viewed equatorial agriculture as primitive and inefficient. Archeologists thought the methods were incapable of supporting many people, and so believed Central and South America before Columbus—outside of the major civilizations like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca—held only small, scattered villages. Modern anthropologists scouted tropical settlements for crop fields—the supposed hallmark of a sophisticated culture—and, noting them largely absent, pronounced the societies ‘hunter gatherer, with primitive agriculture.’ How ironic that these scientists were making their disdainful judgements while shaded by brilliantly complex food forests crammed with several hundred carefully tended species of multifunctional plants, a system perfectly adapted to permanent settlement in the tropics. It just looks like jungle to the naive eye.

The managed forests of the Huastec Maya in northeastern Mexico are packed with up to 300 plant species, including 81 species for food, 33 for construction materials, 200 with medicinal value, and 65 with other uses (the numbers add up to more than 300 since these are multifunctional plants). In these forests, Maya farmers often create different subpatches that concentrate specific guilds of domestic species (such as coffee guilds) amid a background of natives. And all the while, they are tucking small gardens of bananas, chiles, manioc, and other edibles into any clearings. The managed-forest stage may last for 10 to 30 years. Then the cycle begins anew. Since the whole process is rotational, any given area will hold swiddens and fallows at all different phases. This complexity would understandably delude a cornfield-programmed anthropologist into thinking he was looking at raw jungle.

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I finally have a chainsaw that works thanks to a my dad who has loaned me his. It really works. It does not stop running every 2 minutes and with a sharp blade/chain it cuts through logs like soft butter.

Anybody that knows me or anyone who has read this blog for awhile knows how I feel about peak oil and climate change. People that know me personally also know just how much I detest the unnecessary use of gas, especially in lawnmowers, weed eaters, air blowers, etc. These machines are loud, stinky and unnecessarily used to impose order where order is not meant to be. But let me tell you about the chainsaw.

Yes, the chainsaw is also loud, stinky, and equally as polluting. But it is one gas-powered tool I will use because it is a smarter use of the fuel and unlike the others listed above, it serves a very real purpose: winter survival. While the other devices are about trying to force nature into something it is not, aesthetically ordered and neatly groomed, the chainsaw is a tool that will help me keep warm in the winter.

I’ve never used them much because I’ve always had other sources of heat. I’ve never been very fond of them because I do love trees and would rather they be planted and left standing rather than cut. We need more trees on our planet, not less. That said, I do understand that sometimes they do need to be cut down and sometimes they are blown down and need to be moved. In both cases one possible use of a downed tree is to cut it up for firewood. Yes it is possible to use a hand saw and I actually have used one quite a bit this summer for smaller branches. But for cutting through tree trunks a chainsaw is orders of magnitude faster and it is one of the very few times I have thought to use such a tool because I think it is a much wiser use of the energy.

My goal here is to build a homestead based upon the principles of permaculture which, greatly simplified, means a life which is sustainable. There’s no room in such a life for the wasteful use of resources. All of my gardening is done with hand tools, most of it is no-dig. Any area that I determine must be cleared of grass is cleared via sheet mulching or hand tools and a gass-less reel mower. My point is that the use of gas-powered tools is the exception to the rule and is a last resort.

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Growing into tomorrow

Over the years I’ve spent countless hours reading, learning and speculating about the future of humanity and the planet we call earth. In my first years of college in 1988-1990 I first started learning about the human rights movement, alternative agriculture, and the budding american Green movement. I founded a Green local in my college town, Kirksville, MO and I began to identify myself as an activist. Between my time away from family as well as this fundamental shift in my identity I began to notice a crack which became a gulf in how I related to my fellow humans and they to me.

Looking back I’ve come to realize that the “activist” is actually a strange phenomena. In a participatory democracy, there would not be a need for “activists” which are really just citizens which are involved in the community process of self-government. In a participatory democracy all citizens are active. The republic that we have today is, of course, a far, far cry from a real democracy. To suggest that it is democratic is to twist and pervert the word to such a degree that it no longer resembles its original meaning. (It was never a participatory democracy at all, but a republic that was supposedly controlled by citizens via representatives via “democratic” elections. But really, the differences, while important, are another topic for another time.)

Over the years (most notably beginning after WWII and the rise of suburbia) the people of United States have been taught that life is about the American Dream. It is about being happy which comes with certain material possessions as well as a neatly defined nuclear family of husband, wife, and kids. Of course the American Dream is open-ended and the list of material possessions grows and grows and is never completed. In accepting the American Dream as our way of life we gave up citizenship and became consumers who were no longer concerned with the serious responsibilities of being involved in government. In allowing ourselves be redefined we gave up power to those who did the redefining: the wealthy upper-class which controlled corporate capitalism and the state.

The role of “activist” came about because there are still citizens that strive to be actively engaged. I’ve come to realize that the disdain and outright hostility that I’ve faced as an activist is a fairly common experience and is related, at least in part, to the psychological and life investments made by the majority of people in the U.S. People went along for the ride. They were offered a way of life and they took it. They may not have even realized what was happening. My parents are a good example. They were a product of their socialization and they accepted what was put before them as the normal way of life. The development of suburbia and a shift to consumerism were the next steps to be taken after the Great Depression and the emergence of the U.S. as a world power after WWII. My parents got their jobs, bought their car and home then started having children. They moved, kept their jobs, bought another car and continued to raise their kids. They invested their lifetimes in this way of life. They believed in this way of life. My two siblings followed suit with their own families, jobs, homes, cars, pools and kids.

Imagine the emotional response of having that way of life criticized. By definition an activist (active citizen) is critical and vocal. The role of the citizen is to strive towards informed and ethical decision making for the community good. It is an unfortunate fact that to be an active citizen in our society often leads to separation from the majority in thought and behavior in part because we are often considered to be “judgmental” which, of course, we are. We do “judge” in the sense that we form opinions and conclusions regarding the everyday life around us. Being an active citizen is a never ending process of responsibility which leaves no stone unturned. It means looking at how we get things done: transport, growing of food, production of material goods, etc. and making determinations of how those actions and systems are working or not working.

In the 20 or so years that I’ve considered myself an active citizen I have consistently been met with resistance. Most people are not open to the idea that their way of life requires the suffering of others. It’s not comfortable or convenient because it implies a sense of guilt about both the system and the people who are a part of it. If a way of life is implicitly unfair and unsustainable and we willingly participate in it what does that say about us?

With the arrival of peak oil, climate change, and serious economic crisis all at the same time, many people are seeing the cracks in the way of life that they have taken as a given. As the cracks begin to expand and the system crumbles the whole gamut of emotional and mental states will run its course through the “consumers” of this nation. I suspect that anger, fear and confusion will dominate. The process is already well under way and if we’re lucky it will continue to unwind slowly. If that is the case then perhaps panic and violence will give way to community-based movements of cooperation. I don’t hold out much hope for this. The shift in our way of life is going to be monumental. Every aspect of how we live is about to change as the cultural, political and ecological repercussions of the past 60+ years step onto the stage. Perhaps the two most significant differences between the Great Depression of the last century and this “Long Emergency” (as James Kunstler refers to it) are the planet’s population of 6.5 billion people and dwindling fossil fuel resources.

Eleutheros of the excellent blog How Many Miles from Babylon describes it as a
shift in paradigm :

Facing the realities of our immediate future calls for a shift in the paradigm, a shift in thinking, a shift in the mindset.

We are mentally conditioned to think that we would be happier, more comfortable, in a larger over heated and over cooled house. We think prepackaged food is vastly easier to prepare. We think a food processor is a hundred times easier than a knife. Of course this farmstead is on the lunatic fringe. We have experimented with cutting all the firewood we need for heating and cooling with hand tools. It’s some more work, to be sure, but not much. Yet in the imagination of the uninitiated, a chainsaw is many hundreds of times less work.

On this farmstead 85% of our food involves zero food-miles and almost all the rest is bought bulk, we use very little electricity and no commercial gas or other fuels. We wear used clothing. We drive bottom feeder vehicles and those only very rarely. Yet how much do we impact global energy and resource use? None, negligible at any rate. The random motion of molecules accounts for more fuel savings that we do in the scheme of things. What we represent is not some quantified amount of energy and resources saved, but rather a complete paradigm shift from the consumerist world.

I’ve said many times before that I think it is far too late to stop what is coming. It is a done deal. The question is how will we handle ourselves as this amazing shift in our way of life occurs. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we learn and share the skills necessary for survival? Will we step out of our air-conditioned lives and do the work that is now required? Billions of people on planet earth deal directly with survival issues every single day. They know hunger, thirst, extreme cold and heat… for them, survival is not a reality television show but a fact of everyday life.

When fossil fuel based agriculture fails and the shelves remain empty will we eat the drywall of our over-sized homes or will we learn to grow and preserve food the way our ancestors did? I wonder how many people have a basic understanding of how to garden and preserve food? How many have actually tried it and thus have an awareness of how much can actually be grown on any given amount of land or how much time is required? What about growing from seeds and saving seeds for the next season? Will they have access to gasoline and a tiller to prepare the soil or will they double dig by hand or sheet mulch with cardboard? Do they know about squash bugs or japanese beetles? What will they do about water during times of drought? Will a nation of people used to consuming fast food and microwaveable box dinners even know what to do with the vegetables that they’ve grown? How long will it take them to learn to enjoy real, whole and healthy food?

As individual people we have a lot of growing to do. As individuals that inhabit rural roads or streets in towns and cities, we’ll need to develop better relationships with neighbors which can then be grown into communities.

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Living without an air conditioner and the end of the world

I wrote the other day about not using a refrigerator as a part of my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint. I’d mentioned that if we in the U.S. are going to lower our our carbon footprint to a level which is equitable and closer to sustainable that we would need to lower our emissions by about 90%. Ninety. Percent. That is a drastic reduction. Ponder it for a moment. Hell, ponder it for the rest of the day if you’d like.

I came across that particular percentage will reading through this post by DJ at the excellent blog, Asymptotic Life:

Listening to Radio West yesterday, I heard a guest make an interesting point: if we tell poor people around the globe that they can’t live the way we do, we’re trying to prevent global warming by forcing people to continue to live in poverty. That is, for most of us, morally unacceptable.

Our current attitude seems to be that we can afford to buy all that energy and emit that CO2, and “they” can’t. Too bad, but bully for us…

What would it look like to create an equitable and sustainable per-capita CO2 emissions policy? Assuming everyone emitted the same amount of CO2, how much could we all emit without frying the planet (and all of us with it)?

Let’s assume that, to keep CO2 concentrations low enough to avoid catastrophe, we limit CO2 concentration to 350 ppm— down from today’s 385 ppm. That means cutting CO2 emissions by 50% of their current levels. At 2004 levels, the world generated 27 billion metric tons of CO2— more than 20% of that by the U.S. alone. That means we’d need to reduce to about 13.5 million metric tons worldwide.

The world population is currently 6.8 billion people. That means each person would be allowed to emit 2 tons of CO2 per year. For 88 countries in the world, that’s a step up— more than they currently produce per capita. But for we priviledged few in the U.S., that means cutting our per capita emissions (currently over 20 tons per person per year) by 90%.

One of the largest energy hogs in any household is the air conditioner. Others at the top of the list are whole house forced air heating systems, hot water heaters, refrigerators, freezers, and plasma tvs. In addition to not having a refrigerator I’ve decided I will not use an A/C. I do have a small window A/C but only run it at the request of visiting guests. When it is just me and Talula we get hot, damn hot. We cool off with lots of water, we slow down and sit in the shade. We’ll survive just like many of other billions of humans who survive everyday in hot climates with no A/C. It’s not easy, not fun (well, actually swimming is fun), not comfortable but it is possible.

Before I move on let me quote another of DJ’s excellent posts, What Two Tons Means to Me:

Last week, I calculated that a sustainable and equitable rate of CO2 emissions would be about 2 tons per person per year.  Currently, the U.S. emits just over 20 tons of CO2 per person annually.  Of this, according to EPA, 20% (4 tons) is caused by household energy use and about 27% (5.5 tons) is caused by four-wheeled passenger vehicles.  The remainder, about 11 tons, is generated by the economy on our behalf, including manufacturing, agriculture, cement and steel production, and transportation of goods both for us and for export.

Let’s assume that DJ’s figures are correct. Even with my limited use of electricity I am averaging 25 Kwh a week, about 100 a month. That’s for one person in a small cabin of 192 square feet. On a typical day I use: 1 compact fluorescent light, a ceiling fan, a window fan, and a laptop computer. Other appliances that draw power on occasion: water well pump, battery charger, external hard drive, computer speakers, and phone charger. That’s it and it still adds up to 100 Kwh a month. The average U.S. household uses just under 900 Kwh a month, just in electricity. Imagine the difficulty of cutting that by 60-80%!

Want to try something interesting? Take a weekend and power down everything in your house. Go through room by room and unplug everything on Friday evening. Over dinner discuss the adventure and what it means. Experience Friday night and Saturday without power. Use the time to discuss and evaluate your needs. Define the difference between needs and wants, needs and comforts. Make an effort to understand your needs and usage as they relate to the needs and usage of the vast majority of families around the planet that use far less. Sunday morning or afternoon begin the process of slowly and thoughtfully plugging things back in based Saturday’s discussion.

Remember, we’re not even considering the carbon that is emitted by personal transportation, emissions that would need to be cut by 80% or more. Then there are carbon emissions related to consumption of food and consumer goods.

This is why the governmental “solutions” put forth by congress and presidents (or the current crop of presidential candidates) are a sad joke. These folks are not even CLOSE to realistic. The same goes for the myriad “100 things you can do to save the planet lists” that we see put forth by media and mainstream environmental groups. Sure, we should all do the easy things that are on those lists but the reality is that if we are serious about slowing climate change we are going to have to make drastic changes to the way we live. I’m all for it, I think we absolutely should go all out. I think we should sacrifice, should do whatever it takes. But my guess is that most folks would laugh at the idea. Frankly, I don’t think that today’s Americans have the strength of character the task requires. We’ve been far too spoiled for far too long.

When it comes down to it most folks in western “civilized” nations will only change when it is forced on them when resources are no longer available at prices they can afford. We’re already seeing that people are driving less in the U.S. now that gas is averaging $4/gallon, imagine gas at $6, $7, or $8 a gallon. Imagine utility rates doubling or tripling. Those things are coming sooner than later and I for one welcome them. Yes, they will bring hardship and suffering and around the world billions are already suffering as they are already effected by price increases. Regardless of what reality is about to force upon us, it is probably too late in terms of the climate. What we have set in motion will not be easily undone, most likely we will hardly slow the process at all.

Michael Stipe said it best: It’s the end of the world as we know it.

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The great eggsperiment

I’ve mentioned before that a part of our plan here is to have chickens which are, of course, an essential ingredient in almost any permaculture design. Not only do they provide eggs and meat (not for me!), but also manure, warmth for plants in an attached greenhouse, feathers, and they help weed/till the garden as they eat insects and food wastes. In short, chickens rock. I cannot wait to get our coop built and the chickens moved in. For now I’ll content myself with eggs which are raised by someone else in their backyard. What’s great about home raised eggs is that I can request that they not be washed. You may not know this but eggs have a protective layer which keeps them perfectly edible for up to three weeks without being refrigerated. Neat, eh? This is especially important for me because I do not have, or plan to get, a refrigerator. Let me explain.

One of the primary principles of permaculture is earth care which means, in part, reducing our carbon footprint. For those of us in the U.S. this means a drastic reduction of about 90% (I’ll discuss that figure in another entry to be posted soon) if we are to have an equal share with the rest of our fellow humans. In addition to earth care there is of course the added reality of peak oil/coal/energy (peak everything really but that’s also another post for another day!).

What this means for me in my day-to-day life is that I have made a choice to not have the typical electrical appliances that most people in the U.S. take for granted as necessary for life. This brings me back to the refrigerator. Because I don’t a refrigerator I have to adapt, I have to think differently about how I use and store food. I have to make sure that the eggs I get have not been washed so that I can keep them at everyday temperatures. I no longer drink soy milk which I only really used as a creamer for coffee. Also, no cheese which I don’t miss much since I rarely ate it. It means that I have to be careful when I cook so that I’m not cooking too much. If I do have left overs I can usually keep them in a small cooler with a bit of very cold well water and eat them the next day with no ill effects.

I’ve been living without a refrigerator for nearly two months and I’m still very healthy. It has required a few modifications to my diet but nothing drastic. It’s just one step towards a smaller carbon footprint and a way of life that will likely be a fact for most of us in a future with fewer fossil fuel resources.

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