Thursday, December 27, 2007

in came the meow

Last night I went to the back door to lock it before going to bed. I noticed a cat we care for huddling just outside of the door. We call this small, salt and pepper cat MeowMeow or sometimes we call her Ms. Meow or on occasion, The Meow. You might think there is nothing remarkable about an outdoor cat wanting inside on a relatively cold winter night, but you don’t know The Meow. She has lived with us for almost six years without ever coming inside.

Several years ago my wife and I moved to this small town in Southeastern America. We rented an apartment while we looked for a house to call our own. Almost immediately we met The Meow. She was painfully unmistakable. Fur covered only one quarter of her body. The rest was pink, raw skin covered with the scabs of bug bites. Her tail too was furless except for an odd tuft at the tip. This miserable looking feline was significantly underweight. Her bare skin was so taut you could trace the outline of her intestine as it snaked back and forth across her stomach. Her back left leg stuck out at an odd angle forcing her to walk with a slight limp. She was starving and happy to have the food we offered although initially her mood was less than appreciative. We learned quickly that this cat was distrustful of everyone and that she seemed as mean as a snake.

But we continued to feed her and soon trapped her in a cage so I could take her to the vet. Tests revealed no major health problems except malnutrition and the rash of scabs to go along with her less than playful attitude. The limp was from a previous injury- probably hit by a car. I paid for the shots necessary to vaccinate this cat and address her skin condition. I took her home.

She continued to show up for meals and a few months later when we moved to our new house, we trapped her again and took her with us. She accepted her new home but only the outdoor part. She wouldn’t come inside to save her life. She was putting on weight and fur and was beginning to allow us to come close to her. We were slowly getting used to her and she was slowly getting used to us. Still extremely distrustful of humans, she was even more unhappy about our other cats. When we got a puppy almost a year later, she promptly bloodied his curious nose twice before he learned to respect The Meow. I also learned that lesson the hard way. Several times I thought The Meow was ready for me to hold her. She was not. To call this cat fiercely independent would be to redefine the term understatement. I can show you the scars.

Which is why I was so surprised to see her at the back door last night wanting to come inside. She scurried through the doorway and incredulously made her way up onto the living room couch. We left her to sleep there because no one really wants to argue with The Meow.

Truthfully this cat has softened as she’s aged. She lets me pick her up now. She will let other people pet her; even rolling over on her back sometimes so I can rub her belly. I can’t say I have ever seen her play with a loose string or any other such cat toy. The intoxication of catnip is apparently lost on her as well. But she will purr when she’s petted and she will now share space with our other cats. The dog still keeps his distance but even her attitude towards him is much more accepting. People who meet her for the first time think she is sweet which I guess it’s fair to say she has become.

Or maybe she always was. Maybe it was covered over with a scab of pain. I never held her seemingly harsh temperament against The Meow. To have seen this pitiful creature starving and in pain on my doorstep, fearful and truly pathetic, touched me in a way that made great acceptance on my part possible. I learned something from her about giving care. I learned that to care for something when almost no one else notices the need is deeply rewarding.

I believe that we are in one manner of speaking, living a pitiful way of life on whole here in America. At the risk of seeming uncelebratory during this the holiday season, I am struck again and with renewed strength at just how much we’ve lost in an effort to fulfill our every material desire. I lament this time each year how much of our efforts of life in America revolve around getting more stuff than we need. While we are physically fatter than ever before (and yet malnourished to some extent) we seem mentally, emotionally & spiritually starving. I hear people everywhere talking about “focusing on what really matters,” but then they inevitably ask any child within earshot what he or she is getting from Santa. I am not immune from this holiday sense of compulsory consumption. And that is the point I guess, that I feel this sense of sorrow when I look out and see our culture in such truly bad shape. It’s pervasive and almost inescapable, especially if our friends and family are also confined to this system of living. What good would it do for me to leave and find a place where people matter if I had to leave behind the people who matter to me?

It’s tough to swim against the current. I do not fault those who have taken the bait and settled for this a way of life based upon consumption. But I also feel responsible, as someone in this system who has glimpsed an alternative, to share my thoughts about our loss of focus on each other and on the wider world around us. I’m planning to spend some time during the first of the year envisioning what might be possible as others decide to come in out of the cold as I believe they soon will. This way of life, based on infinite growth in a finite system cannot continue much longer. Already plenty of others are waking up to this reality. Some changes happen fast and others happen more slowly. Predicting what will happen in the future and how quickly change will come is a difficult, perhaps impossible job. But we can help to steer our nation back towards a happy society of stronger self sufficiency coupled with healthy interdependency by being flexible and being ready and being willing to change; that and answering a few questions to frame the work of imagining another way of life.

1. Why is change necessary and therefore possible?

2. Where should we go and what will it look like when we get there?

3. How can we start the journey and what can we expect in transition?

4. Who will join us?

A toast as the New Year approaches: May the year of Two Thousand and Eight offer a chance at change and may it be kind to all of those who work to transform this world into a more thoughtful and caring place.

Best Wishes,


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

more food stamps and more grocery stores?

I was absolutely incensed when I read this article. It explains how people living in rural America have unhealthy diets BECAUSE THERE AREN’T ENOUGH GROCERY STORES!

This is the real world of eating and nutrition in the rural United States. Forget plucking an apple from a tree, or an egg from under a chicken. "The stereotype is everyone in rural America lives on a farm, which is far from the truth," says Jim Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). New research from the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health shows just how unhealthy the country life can be. The study, which examined food-shopping options in Orangeburg County (1,106 square miles, population 91,500), found a dearth of supermarkets and grocery stores.

Of course it’s true that in every part of the country- rural and urban areas- we have lost our connection with what we eat. And many people no longer grow any of what makes it onto their dining room tables. So logically one would expect the article to recommend a reconnection to the local farm fields that could feed us and offer the idea of stronger self sufficiency through some home grown produce- planting that apple tree or raising that chicken. Nope. The answer apparently is more grocery stores and more food stamps.

Nutritionists and anti-hunger activists know what rural Americans should eat. In an ideal world, says Weill, more people would take advantage of nutrition and financial education programs, like those offered by the USDA, that teach consumers how to make a food budget and use recipes. The 2007 Farm Bill would in­crease food stamp access and benefits and allocate an additional $2.75 billion over 10 years to buy fruits and vegetables for the USDA's nutrition assistance programs…

I have no problem with offering help to people who need it. In fact I think as human beings we have a moral obligation to do so. But help should involve more than passing out food stamps. It should involve teaching people how to grow more of their own food and cook with whole ingredients. It should include a farm bill that actually supports the small scale, sustainable agriculture that could offer healthy food to rural and urban communities across our nation. Pick you simile- treating the problem of unhealthy eating in rural America by building more grocery stores and handing out more food stamps is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. It is completely ass backward.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

change ain't sexy

The past few weeks have been very busy for me. In addition to my normal activities- work, family life, harvesting the bagged leaves of my neighborhood- I attend a one day soil regeneration seminar and a 2 day ULI seminar on sustainable community design. Both of these events were remarkably informative and I'd go so far as to say inspirational. I love to learn and synthesis seemingly unrelated bits of information into programs that facilitate change. You might even call it a hobby. But one particular event of recent weeks has been much more rewarding. We had our house reinsulated. It would probably be more accurate to say we had it insulated as much of it had no insulation at all.

Now you might think that's pretty strange, that someone convinced we're embarking on worldwide energy descent would have, up until now, lived in a poorly insulated house. To which I would respond that it's been on the list to do, but the list is long and the budget is far from unlimited. The real deal though is that my wife and I have been planning to build our own home for several years. Since day one of my architectural education at university I've dreamed of building my own home. In recent years I study alternative construction methods and fell in love with strawbale building. I read books, took classes and even worked on a few such structures. My wife and I were investigating a land purchase and organizing a few folks to help with the permitting process. But the situation has changed. The peak in global oil production is imminent and the effects of climate change are more rapidly headed our way. I've become convinced that with more than 90 million homes already in existence here in America, what we need is less building new and more making due. Several people have tried to convince me that I could be more useful to my fellow citizens by offering an example of effective strategies for 'Sheltering In Place,' and I'm starting to believe them.

But there's an equally compelling reason. My wife is expecting our second child in March and our daughter is almost 2 years old. At such a young age she can already pick up a hammer and swing it quite effectively but hasn't yet learn that hammers are not meant for the destruction of anything with reach. The idea of my family building a new home during the next 12 months could very well be the uproarious inspiration for a new TV reality show. I'm not sure if we'd find it funny though.

I have not yet thrown out the idea of building our own home. I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons and I think we need more people using it to serve as examples. I'd like to be one of them in the future. But for now it looks like we are staying put and that means more closely examining our current conditions and making reasonable adjustments. Sounds prudent right? Well here's the thing, it's not at all sexy.

Over the past two weeks I've spent three days with a crew who are adding insulation to our home. When they first arrived they hooked up a blower door to our home and pressurized the whole structure to get a sense of how air tight our home was. The answer was not very. That part was fun to watch but then came hours of action like caulking and sealing and weather stripping. The real work took a long time and was not my idea of fun. Another contractor used an infrared camera to find out where the big heat leaks were located. This too was pretty neat. But then it was back to the grindstone. The flooring in the attic had to be removed and then insulation was blown up there. The crawlspace below our home had to be cleaned, plastic sheeting laid below and insulation strapped to the underside of the floor joists. The best part, I say with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, was when the crew cut 2" holes in all our exterior walls ever 20" or so and blew insulation into each cavity. It was necessary. It will make for a much more energy efficient home. We are doing our part! And yet the work itself was mundane. Some of it was boring and some of it was uncomfortable. 3 days of regular old work. And the mess!

In contrast my time spent at the soil seminar was great as was my sustainable community design seminar. But neither of those actually accomplished anything tangible. They were useful experiences. The knowledge I came away with will certainly come in handy, but neither accomplished as much actual change as did my 3 days of insulation. Part of what I've been sensing in the community of people who are interested in issues of energy and the environment is that many are ready to move on from the arena of talk into the arena of action. It's fine and good to talk about peak oil and climate change and track the progress of these occurrences. That is important work for some to do. But for most of us, responding to the converging calamities of the 21st century should be more about getting dirty and less about talking about getting dirty.

Having said that, I did film the whole transformation of my home- about 5 hours of raw footage which will be edited into a video and uploaded onto the Internet some time early next year. Hopefully it will help inspire other people to begin making similar changes. There's no reason to stop sharing our progress with other people. In fact I think we have an obligation to do so. But as much as possible I think we need to get to work; not online but in our own homes and in our own communities. There is much to actually do.

Monday, December 03, 2007

pandora's pantry

From Pandora's Pantry, by John Robbins,

Because so much Roundup is used on Roundup Ready crops, the residue levels in the harvested crops greatly exceed what until very recently was the allowable legal limit. For the technology to be commercially viable, the FDA had to triple the residues of Roundup’s active ingredients that can remain on the crop.(24) Many scientists have protested that permitting increased residues to enable a company’s success reflects an attitude in which corporate interests are given higher priority than public safety, but the increased levels have remained in force.

Advertisements and glossy brochures, seeking to convince farmers to plant Roundup Ready seeds, speak proudly of “clean fields”—clean in this usage meaning enormous fields with nothing growing in them but soybeans or corn or cotton or canola. This is intended as a selling point, and many farmers go for it, but it is an odd use of the word. The fields are actually so chemicalized that they are virtually sterile, and they bear no resemblance whatsoever to a healthy, flourishing, and biodiverse ecosystem. The soil, relatively void of decaying plant matter, and often impoverished of the worms, insects, and bacteria that feed off it, becomes completely dependent on chemical fertilizers.

Ironically, we’re spraying our fields and food with a toxic substance to make use of a sophisticated technology that is largely unnecessary. There are simpler mechanical ways to deal with weeds, including no-till farming, mulching, and companion cropping. But of course, none of these Earth-friendly methods can be patented and sold for profit, and none fit with massive mono-cultures and reliance on chemicals, so they hold no interest for Monsanto and the other agricultural chemical companies that dominate the business of genetic engineering.(25)

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

just some stuff

I’ve got a few posts half written and an exciting insulation project going on at home so in the meantime I thought I’d share a couple of interesting reads.

The Big Sleep

by Graham Robb

In September, at the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Sarkozy proposed "un New Deal écologique et économique," but without explaining how economic growth can be reconciled with conservation. If he is serious about saving the planet, and if he wants to reassure the unions that workers will still have time with their families, he should consider introducing tax incentives for hibernation. The long-term benefits of reduced energy consumption would counterbalance the economic loss. There has never been a better time to stay in bed.

Until the 20th century, few people needed money. Apart from salt and iron, everything could be paid for in kind. Economic activity was more a means of making the time pass than of making money, which might explain why one of the few winter industries in the Alps was clock-making. Tinkering with tiny mechanisms made time pass less slowly, and the clocks themselves proved that it was indeed passing.

You’d barely know it from the press coverage here in the US but France is seeing a wave of violence as President Sarkozy tries to convince the French people that spending more time working and less time with family and friends is good for anybody but the corporatocracy. So it’s interesting to read that apparently the French used to just sleep through the winter.

Looking down from the peak

by Carlos Guerra

This one goes in the “maybe those peak oil people weren’t so crazy after all.” We have to enjoi these while we can because before we know it everyone will be saying, “Of course we’ve peaked in global oil production. It is, after all, a non-renewable resource- Duh!”

Yet another factor is the growing acceptance of theories that, globally, we are approaching the peak of oil production, after which it will decline and become pricier, theories that, until recently, were dismissed as alarmist bunk.

Mainstream media still ends its articles about peak with some sort of forced skepticism and/or misplace hope in continuing business as usual, perhaps because they make their money selling ads for stuff we’re told to buy and then throw away. And consumer culture sponsors have had so much soma that they can’t bring themselves to even imagine that this is all on the way out, but there are hints that this news is about to break.

Chinese tiger has nothing in tank

by Rowan Callick

Maybe you’re too young to remember what the oil shocks of the 70’s looked like. I am. We’ll here’s the updated 21st century version- a sneak peak at what happens when oil dependant societies run low on oil. In China,

A truck driver named Li told the Chuncheng Evening News he had been stranded at the Stone Tiger Gate petrol station for three days after searching for fuel in other places, but failing. Another driver, at Geiju city, said a job that would have taken one day in the past, now took three: one on the road, two queuing for fuel.

Nine days ago, a truck driver was reported to have been stabbed to death in central Anhui province after a row about queuing. A few days earlier, at Ezhou in Hubei province, 100,000 people were stranded, unable to get to work, because city buses had run out of fuel.

Of course China’s fuel distribution system is sub par compared to that of the US but it’s important to remember that per capita, we use a lot more oil than they do. I am reminded of the fact that during the brief fuel shortage (if you can even call it that) in my area following Hurricane Katrina, a coworker of mine actually witnessed a fist fight at a gas station. Like I’ve said before, I am not nearly as afraid of the physical implications of peak oil as I am afraid of the reactions of Joe & Jane Public who still say I’m crazy if I talk about peak oil. He & She are going to be pissed.

Also this week Diane Rehm covered what she called, “Oil Production Forecasts” on her radio show on Monday. She did use the term ‘peak oil’ and she did have Matt Simmons (god bless him) on her show along with the standard economists, to talk about the future of oil production. Hers is a national broadcast radio show on NPR that reaches about 1.5 million listeners.

Lastly I’ll recommend a bit of audio. If you are interested in the stuff I write about, I urge you to take a little time to investigate the way money works in our country. Research the "Federal" Reserve. Research the lack of any law that says you must pay income tax (it's actually unconstitutional to tax income the way the gov't does). Research the history of central banks and their involvement in initiating the Revolutionary War. I bet you’ll be amazed to learn (chuckle) if you don’t already know that our monetary system is a complete fraud. It would take much more typing for me to explain but let me suffice by saying that what seems like a perfectly normal system of dollars and cents to you and I, the average American, is actually a contrived system of wage slavery. I could use prettier language but let’s call it a spade. One suggestion for research on this topic: read or listen or watch everything you research on 'how money works' a few times. Unless you’re familiar with this stuff it’ll take repetition for you to understand what’s really going on. In other words, don’t expect to get it the very first time. But who knows, there’s a good chance you’re smarter than me. If you don’t want to listen to the audio try,

Slide Shows

Some Video

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Earlier this month, avid local cyclist Mark Ortiz was stuck by a motorist while riding his bike. I shared his story here and the local newspaper covered it here. Mark was quite an inspiration in my move away from the automobile. He is recovering at an excellent pace despite multiple fractures to his back, ribs, wrist and pelvis. He remains hospitalized but doctors say it's very likely he'll make a full recovery.

That road to recovery however will be long. To help cover the costs of his medical care the local community has scheduled a bicycle ride in his honor for this coming Friday, November 23 at 10am in downtown Concord, North Carolina. Mark was 15 miles shy of riding 10,000 miles in 2007. We plan to ride those last 15 for him. Come and join us if you can. Many of my readers live too far away to actively participate in such a local event. I do not advertise at this site and tend not to ask for donations. However if you are moved to help Mark please feel free to sponsor me on this ride to help with his recovery. Any donation can be sent to:

Mark Ortiz
c/o Silvers/Newton
280 Post Oak Ave SW
Concord, NC 28025

You can follow Mark's progress here. I'll update on the event early next week.

Friday, November 16, 2007

bike tires and backyard pineapples

A curious occurrence developed earlier this week. It started out on my bike ride home from work Monday afternoon and shortly there after cut a tire. More precisely the outer layer peel back in a certain spot and started to flap against the frame each time the tire went round. FLAP, FLAP, FLAP. Not wanting to strand myself on my ride to work the following morning, I took the back up bike. Now the bicycle I regularly use to commute to work is pretty fast. It’s not a road bike but a hybrid that puts me in an upright position but has a road bike-like frame and more importantly, road bike-like high pressure tires. This is part of the reason it’s so fast. And while I don’t race to and from work, it’s a 10 mile ride each way. I don’t mind riding 40 minutes each morning and again each afternoon, but that’s enough time on the bike. I like getting home with some time left in the day to see my family, eat before dark (most of the year) and maybe get something done before bed. I like my fast bike. So it was with a little dread that I pulled out the back up bike, a heavy mountain bike with wider, slower tires. I had not ridden it much since the purchasing my new one.

I should stop here and tell you that there are a few hazards on my bike commute. Of course there are the cars, but I manage them as best I can. There are also a few spots where the pavement is bad. Also there are a few intersections where gravel and debris collect in certain spots. On my fast bike, these spots are dangerous because my fast, thin tires don’t do well with sand, dirt, or broken pavement. The few times I’ve been forced off the road or through the debris I have very nearly fallen. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world, but who wants a banged up bike and a few weeks spent with scabs on his elbows? Here’s the thing though, when I rode my mountain bike to work I felt much safer. The broken pavement was no big deal and I quickly found I could float through the debris at intersections without any trouble. My mountain bike ride to work was not as fast as usual but I could see the looming choice ahead. Would I go back to my fast tires or settle for slower, more stable fat ones?

Friday is the day I run errands so a trip to the bike shop would have to wait. For the rest of the week I rode my mountain bike to work. I grew increasingly unhappy about the upcoming choice about having to choose between speed or safety. I kept going over my choice, weighing the pros and the cons of each. Would I get back on the fast bike or would I stay on the safe bike? But then, in a moment of clarity, I realized a very important fact about this choice. It was fictional. It was completely of my own making. There was not a choice between fast and safe. I had made it up.

When I got to the bike shop I talked it over with shop’s sage like owner of 30 years. (This man knows a ton about bikes and maybe more about bread and the steel of Japanese swords) I showed him the tire and he deemed it defective. But then I explained my realization to him in this way. I guessed that are many types of tires to choose from; that my mountain bike had come with wide, knobby tires and my hybrid bike with thin, smooth tires but that there were probably many options in between. He replied that my guess was only a partial insight into the world of bicycle tire choices. Then he got out the book. There are in fact, myriad tire choices for my bicycle. A decision to go with a fast tire or a safe tire was a grand over simplification of what was available. We settled on a tire that is 10 mm wider than my original fast tire. It does have a smooth surface for speed over pavement but the sidewalls have knobs so that as the tire moves through debris the knobs stabilize the bike. It has a reflective component built into the side walls as well as a titanium interior that resists punctures to a greater degree than normal tires. The description in the book said they were sturdy tires made for long distance riding on a variety of surfaces- just what I needed.

The owner of my bike shop is peak oil aware; has been for quite a while. When asked about the short term implications he says, with a sarcastic smile, that it’ll be good for his business. In the long run he says we’ll probably end up riding steel bikes with hard tires at speeds much slower than I aspire to. This is my way of saying that I understand my new tires aren’t the answer to post peak oil bike riding. Titanium is not an especially common metal and my new tires are undoubtedly manufactured in an energy intensive manner in a factory probably outside of the USA. Bicycle tires choices will probably peak soon after oil. But in the meantime I will ride on these news tires and I use them here as an example of the flawed way in which we often think about change.

Very often we think in terms of having something or having to give it up. Or we thinking of have one thing or having another. In reality though these are self prescribed parameters. And the truth is they limit us but automatically excluding a whole range of other possibilities.

Take pineapples for instance. It’s a safe bet that no pineapple I have ever eaten was grown in the continental US. Most of them came from Hawaii. Flying fruit half way around the world requires a lot of fossil fuel energy and burning that stuff causes the emission of greenhouse gasses. It stands to reasons that eating pineapples isn’t something I will be doing much of in the post peak era. And it also stands to reasons that it is something that I shouldn’t be doing in a world that is warming at an alarming rate. So it seems reasonable to decide that pineapples are off my menu forever. Period. End of story. Sad but true. No more pineapples. But this is another false choice.

I have a few different types of compost piles. One of them is an old upright metal basket for kitchen items that are very thick or woody and will take a long time to break down. They do break down, but the basket keeps them out of the piles that do break down quickly so I don’t add big stuff back into the soil the following year. One item that goes into this basket is pineapple tops. You know, the leaves and the inedible cap of the pineapple. A few weeks ago I noticed a curious site. Unlike the rest of the brown withered stuff in the basket, a pineapple top that had been in the basket for months was surprisingly green. Upon, further investigation I discover it was growing roots into the decomposed contents of the basket. A few days later I mentioned what was going to a friend and he said, “Oh yes, my grandmother used to grow pineapples.” My friend Chad went on to tell me the story of how his grandmother grew them in North Carolina when she was younger. North Carolina, as you are probably aware, has a climate that is not like Hawaii at all. It freezes in NC and growing pineapples sounds impossible. The process and his story goes something like this.

After enjoying a delicious pineapple shipped more than 6000 miles from Hawaii Chad’s grandmother would remove the crown of leaves from the rest of pineapple and place it in a glass of water. She would replace the water if it got discolored but would otherwise wait until the crown put out roots. Then she would place it in a pot and water it frequently. In the spring, summer and fall she would place it on her porch. In the winter she would bring it inside and set it on a sunny windowsill. After about a year the pineapple would need to be replanted. After another year or maybe just a bit sooner, it would fruit and produce a pineapple for her. Here’s a question for you, which one do you think tasted better? No I’m not talking about the pesticides sprayed on commercially grown pineapples or the fact that they are picked and shipped before they’re rip so they can make such a long journey across the U.S. I’m talking about the return on investment, the satisfaction his Grandmother most have gotten out of growing her own pineapple. I doubt she did it because she knew how much pollution is produced flying pineapples from Hawaii to North Carolina. I doubt she did it because of peak oil. Even during some of our recessionary financial cycles the occasional holiday pineapple wasn’t too expensive for almost any American family. I imagine she did it simply because she could and because she enjoyed the process of taking what was leftover and making it into something new again. It’s possible that with a greenhouse and a bit of planning that someone in NC could grow more than a few pineapples locally. I’ve read about Citrus growers in Nebraska. Perhaps the energy needs to keep such operations running in terms of fossil fuels isn’t the most responsible way of using them. In North Carolina though it doesn’t take much to keep a greenhouse from freezing. Strawbale walls that slowly decompose during the course of the winter or keeping poultry inside will do the trick.

Hopefully the planet will never warm to the point where we can live off of pineapples alone in North Carolina but that doesn’t mean the end of eating them because of a return to eating locally. It just means that they will be more work, more special, more celebrated as a way of expanding our table not through the continued use of fossil fuels but by returning to the idea of what is probable, what is possible and what the a human being can accomplish if she really puts her mind to it.

The point of retelling Chad’s story is not to undermine the idea of the Bullseye Diet; the idea of eating closer to home. But we humans thrive on challenge. I do not want the return to local, seasonal eating to be viewed as a negative. It will have its challenges as several generations of Americans who grew up without a connection to that which they eat have to begin again to connect with the systems that nourish us. In doing so we should strive to see this revision as a series of possibilities complete with the notion of pushing the boundaries of what is agriculturally possible in our areas. We do not, we must not see these choices in terms of simply doing with or doing without; of choosing one way or another. There is a range of post peak agricultural possibilities just as there is a range of bicycle tire options. Exploring our options will be one of the great thrills of living in an era of change.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

america searchs for ron paul

Let me make this clear. Supporting Ron Paul for President of the US in '08 is not my first choice. I would like to see a viable third party candidate run free from all corporate sponsorship. But short of that, it looks like Ron Paul is the best candidate this country could get.

I say that even though I disagree with quite a few of his political positions. He wants to turn the abortion issue over to individual states which I think is pretty much like doing away with the Supreme Court's decision in Roe V Wade. He has no problem with individual citizens owning automatic weapons and he is weak on the environment. BUT he wants to abolish the Federal Reserve, which means he understands how money really works in this country. He also wants to abolish the IRS and has a foreign policy of nonintervention. He voted against the Iraq war and opposes the US occupation of Iraq. Of all the candidates he seems to me to be the only one who is truly his own man. And most importantly, he's raising money the grassroots way.

On the 5th of November 2007, with a reference to the movie V for Vendetta, Ron Paul raised over 4 million dollars in 24 hours from over 30,000 contributors. That's less than $200 per contributor on average. It's also the Republican primary single day fund raising record. That is how you fund a Popular election campaign.

But I would never have written this post about Ron Paul if I had not stumbled onto another set of interesting numbers. I googled Ron Paul today to check on his current fund raising total and when I did, I noticed an enormous number of results from my search; over 50,000,000. So I began to wonder how many results would show up from similar searches of the other candidates and this is what I discovered.

But when I looked at the top three search results I noticed that all of them had very common names that might have skewed the results so I used quotation marks on a follow up search to try and make it more specific. Then I got this.

Ron Paul has not gotten substantial coverage in the mainstream media. He had to fight his way into a Republican debate in SC and is still considered by the talking heads of television to be a very marginal candidate. But I don't think there is any doubt that people out on the Internet are looking for more information about Ron Paul.

He has already raised 8 million dollars. He says he only needs $12 million by December 31, 2007 to win in IA, NH, MI, SC, & NV. We shall see.

I don't think traditional media understands the power of the Internet. I don't think the corporate powers who have sponsored previous elections understand the fund raising implications of the Internet. I think the potiential for a real change is possible because citizens who have been looking for an answer to the corrupt system of government in place in the the US are finding answers to their problems. They're searching them out on Google.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Oh, It's here.

For years, I’ve been talking about the coming peak in global oil extraction and postulating about what the aftereffects would look like. My wife once referred to that phase of American history as “the end of the world,” in a mockingly sarcastic toning. It’s become our running joke. The end of the world is coming we say. When in actuality it’s already here. Without any fanfare, without an official welcome, the post peak oil crash is on us.

And I bring this up not to be a Gloomy Gus but because this is really productive way to look at life in America in 2007. As long as we think that the future will be bad, we won’t get to the real work of making the present better. We must beginning doing it now and this shift in thinking has been enormously helpful to me and my decision making process. But maybe you don’t agree. Maybe you think that the escalator of material affluence is still going up. So let me stop and frame it for you.

Peak oil has come and gone.

The German-based Energy Watch Group will release its study in London today saying that global oil production peaked in 2006 - much earlier than most experts had expected.

The cost of gasoline is up 50% from four years ago and the government is doing something about it. It’s sending our children to die fighting over what’s left. There is virtually no other plan coming out of our government to address arguably the single largest event in human history.

I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows -- the Iraq war is largely about oil. –Former Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan

And when they get home they get poor medical care and a disproportionate number end up on the streets. Happy Veteran’s Day!

Veterans make up one in four homeless people in the United States,

The cost of food is up while more than 10% of our population doesn’t get enough to eat.

How unhappy we’ve become.

Depression strikes about 17 million American adults each year--more than cancer, AIDS, or coronary heart disease--according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). An estimated 15 percent of chronic depression cases end in suicide.

The US has more people locked up than any other developed nation in the world.

While 1 out of every 142 Americans is now actually in prison, 1 out of every 32 of us is either in prison or on parole from prison, according to yet another report on Americans behaving badly from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In a related story, King, er, President Bush can now imprison any American and hold him or her forever without a day in court.

The president has now succeeded where no one has before. He’s managed to kill the writ of habeas corpus.

The U.S. government is spying on its consumers, er, citizens.

In an interview yesterday, [a former employee] alleged that the NSA set up a system that vacuumed up Internet and phone-call data from ordinary Americans with the cooperation of AT&T .

But it’s this one that really convinced me. From our Deputy Director of National Intelligence,

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people's private communications and financial information.

That is fascism plain and simple.

We can’t continue to talk about the coming of ‘the end of the world’ because it’s here. I like how Ran Prieur recently put it.

[T]he crash is not close -- we are in the crash. This is what the crash looks like -- not roving gangs storming your house to steal canned food, but trains breaking down and roofs leaking and unemployed people moving in with family and employed people cynically going through the motions. Ten thousand little breakdowns, and adjustments to breakdowns, will slowly build up until you find yourself eating dandelions and sorting out your pre-1982 pennies to sell the copper.

But on the surface it doesn’t look like we’re there yet. “Reality is a problem for the ruling class,” says Michael Parenti, and because of this, because of the reality of our situation: the pollution of our drinking water, the massive loss of topsoil, the devastation of our environment, the peaking of oil production, the warming of our planet and climate changes that are advancing at a rate much faster than even pessimistic scientists once thought, war, hunger, disease treated with sky rocketing health care costs- this is the reality of life in the year 2007 in America. But because this isn’t good for business instead we get circus.

Once I more fully recognized that the crash is already here, something interesting happened. Quite a lot of the fear went away. A good bit of anxiety went with it. It’s much less worse than anticipated. Also I’ve become even more serious about change but at a different speed. I talked in a previous post about ending my sprint and beginning my marathon. I now recognize that the shift in speed was part of a grander realization, the realization that we’re in it now. The crash has arrived and now we’re going to have to get on with living in it. Life apparently doesn’t stop for ‘the end of the world.’

Friday, November 09, 2007


Inspiration is in the hospital. I went to see him last night. On Tuesday evening Inspiration was riding home on his bicycle when a driver, I’ll call him Cowardice, hit Inspiration from behind with his car. Now inspiration pays his taxes. He has his right to the road just the same as Cowardice, but Cowardice didn’t think so, didn’t even think of Inspiration as a human. Cowardice didn’t stop to help, didn’t call in an anonymous request for help. Cowardice left Inspiration to die in a ditch. Over an hour and a half passed before an EMT, let’s call him Heroism, noticed the mangled bicycle of Inspiration and stopped and started to help.

Inspiration is alive and it looks as if he’ll stay that way. His back is broken in three places, his pelvis is cracked along with 4 ribs. He was hit so hard his tongue is purple and pretty he is not. But his spirit is intact, his sense of humor is undamaged. Cars can’t kill those it seems. He told me he was struck just 15 miles short of riding his 10,000th mile in 2000 & 7. It’s a lot of math I know. It’s a long way to ride. This is why I call him Inspiration because he is part of the reason I ride, an example of how any human can get around without an automobile.

When I used to drive to work in the big city, I would see Inspiration all along an extended stretch of my commute. On the weekends I might spot him clear across the county as I sped from one place to another in my car. This man was a mystery to me with his low slung saddlebags front and back and his flickering lights and steady pace. A thin, gentleman of 58 years, he seemed unenslaved to the auto and I envied him ever time I passed. When I finally decided to regain control over my own oil addiction, it was Inspiration who was willing to talk to me and share stories of how, where, what and most of all why. “Why ride,” you might ask, “Why not,” was the Inspirational answer and off I went.

Without family in the area it was up to Hope to help Inspiration. Of course Kindness tagged along too. Generosity, Bigheartedness, and Faith have pledged to lend a hand. It might be months, many many months before Inspiration is out on the streets again, riding his way to everywhere and anywhere on a bike and in good health. And that will be just living up to his name. Thank you Inspiration and please get well soon.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

off and up out

"Sit, be still, and listen for you are drunk and we are at the edge of the roof." - Rumi, Sufi mystic

My friend Jared once asked me if I secretly desired the destruction of industrialization and the failure of the automotive way of life. That was years ago and I have yet to give him a straight answer. In an effort to remain consistent, nor will I today. In fact I'm planning to dodge his question in part because I think it will soon be moot. My crystal ball is in the shop but as I look out into the world, especially the world according to most mainstream economists, I see trouble up ahead. There is still plenty of bread and circus but the bread is getting more expensive and the batteries of the circus are running low. I think others might notice soon too. By the way, if you like well polished blog posts or inspirational direction on what to do, this offering might disappoint you. If you like reading the rambling thoughts of others as they deal with the issues of our era you might just enjoi the following.

We here in the U.S. have adopted a way of life that cannot be sustained, regardless of what some will say. The neoconservatives have had their chance to play last-man-standing and it hasn't worked. The U.S. is beginning to feel the pinch of peak oil and will soon have to deal with the peak of all sorts of other resources. Then the changes of climate created by global warming will further disrupt what many have come to regard as normal- more, bigger, faster. The latter half of my life will be about doing with less, smaller and slower. The model of industrialization based on growth capitalism is cracking under the strain of resource depletion and peak happiness and it is going to fail. I doubt it will happen in a spectacular flash of the moment, nor will it take decades to settle in; somewhere in between. I am not especially excited about it. I am not actively calling for the dismantling of this way of life because I imagine it could be quite a rough ride at times. But I must admit I am not answering his question- ‘Do I want it happen’- in large part because it does not matter. It is headed our way.

The last few weeks have felt different from the former f
ew years in regards to the issues of energy and those who are following them closely. As we approach the record cost of a barrel of oil, perhaps the collective American psyche is catching on. Or perhaps the smoke in the theater is getting easier to smell. But there’s been a change in the behavior of those who have been aware for awhile of what is going on. Once upon a time the debate was about whether or not the theory of peak oil was correct. Proven accurate, the talk turned to possible dates of peak oil. Oil extraction, in the form of total liquids, peaked in July of 2006 and unexpected depletion rates in countries like Mexico, (third largest supplier of crude to the US) coupled with unforeseen national hoarding tendencies mean we are very unlikely to ever eclipse that production peak. The era of oil, and with it the era of abundant energy, is now in decline. Throughout the rubbernecking of the peak oil incident there has been a running discussion of what could and should and would be done. Debates like, ‘Move to the country vs. stay in the city’ or ‘We are doomed vs. we’ll be fine.’ I have enjoid the conversation. But I’ve noticed that while there are a whole host of newcomers ready to talk about the peak oil and its repercussions, many of those whom I have gotten to know are quietly stepping off center stage. Many are becoming increasingly convinced that “they” aren’t going to show up to save us with alternatives. Others have become too busy with making real changes in their own life to spend great gobs of time writing about the change. I am set to become one of them.

I have been sprinting. I entered this race several years ago without knowing the distance- just started running. But in retrospect my pace has been awful. It is way too fast. This has allowed me to learn lots and help others do the same, but it has also alienated me from some of my family and friends who aren't receiving the same sort of advances warnings my antennae are picking. It's funny to be able to talk about peak oil in conversation now; to be able to express ideas that might have been considered crazy just a few years ago but are now treated as a bit odd but perhaps prudent. But my previous pace is still unsustainable. I cannot continue to sprint. I am moving far too quickly to be able to properly address all of the aspects of life, including enjoiment.

I am a distance running and so I know the difference between running real fast for a few minutes and stretching out the experience over the long haul. At the end of a good long run I can remember much about what I experienced. I feel engaged, alive and thoughtful. In life, sprinting is sometimes necessary but does not come with the same sort of rewards. When I'm finished a sprint I'm just glad to be done. I don't want my life to be like that, to just be happy when it is over. So it is with conscious effort that I am stopping my sprint and resting briefly before starting off on another sort of a run. My friend Sharon struck at it exactly when she described it as The Marathon.

I had my little "enough" moment two weeks ago, I apparently wasn't alone. That is, a number of the people dealing with these issues seem to be struggling a little with their own confrontation with reality… for so long there has been the hope that if we just worked fast enough and hard enough we could avoid the worst consequences of our inaction. And even though I know better, some small part of my mind had hoped that if I just worked hard enough now, I could fix what was broken, and come to a moment at which things are "ok" again. On every conscious level, I knew that was wrong, but denial is a happy space in your head…

Of course we cannot fix it. We are just going to have to live in it and deal with the change. We must set the past appropriately. My marathon will continue to include posting here at powering down. This is where I work out my thoughts on what is happening and what I think about it. But I will not be offering much; maybe a couple of postings a month. I am planning to contribute a few overdue book and movie reviews for Groovy Green. But the bulk of my writing will be dedicated to a book I am working on. I need to focus on this the most important offering I have to make to the greater response of our nation to peak oil and climate change. I hope to be mostly done before the arrival of my second child in March of next year and the subsequent planting of a spring garden. At my paying job I am laboring to retool the idea of development and exploring how existing communities might retrofit their neighborhoods for the lower energy era. At home we are engaging in renovations to both increase our quality of life and address the issues I know will soon be knocking at our door. To finish out this update I am including recommended reading of other people I find interesting and useful. Or you can cruise the the 'Sites of Interest' in my sidebar. I am also offering a few charts and links to back up my claim that the near future will not be like the recent past. I wish you all the best.

Energy Bulletin - energy info clearing house

The Oil Drum - energy info clearing house

The Raw Story – news

Cryptogon – important stories you might have missed

Urban Survival – economic news in the know

The Archdruid Report – the big picture

Casaubon’s Book - the big picture by the woman

James Howard Kunstler – weekly biting response to these issues

Jeff Vail – energy and more

Ran Prieur – smart thinking about lots of stuff

Warning: None off the following is a recommendation to buy, sell or hold any financial instrument.

the price of oil (with an update)

the price of gasoline in my area last month

up and away with food prices

the U.S. dollar

Mortgage means 'Death Pledge' in French

what we owe

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

movie of a lifetime

Pretend, for a moment that we're in a very crowded theater watching a movie. But, the movie is incredibly good - best and most exciting movie we have ever seen. Drama, excitement, and periodically, people in the audience are actually getting rich. This is NOT the kind of movie you want to leave before the surprise ending you can see building. It's many movies on many screens, all playing in a sensory overloading way. Still, there's a wisp of smoke in the air…

-George Ure

My early education concerning peak energy and climate change centered on learning facts. The world consumes X million barrels of oil or X parts per million of some such greenhouse gas is likely to lead to an X increase in global temperature. Most of it was scary to someone who had grown up thinking in linear terms, someone who had been told by almost everyone that tomorrow would a lot like today only things will be better because everything will be bigger, work faster and be more widely available. Let’s just say I wasn’t reading Limits to Growth in high school. When I was little I did wonder how humans could continue to break the laws of nature so recklessly. But like many other Americans I chalked it up to human intelligence.

Now having spent years reading and writing, listening and talking, learning and teaching others about a whole host of topics that range from urban agriculture to bike culture, a curious thing has happened. I've recognized that no matter how hard I try I will not be entirely ready to leave this consumer culture, no matter what happens, until it more fully collapses. That is, it will never completely end. That doesn't really explain what I'm trying to say. Here let me have another go.

My preparation for what I believe is in store for Industrial Civilization (a steady overall decline with a few quick drops thrown in for excitement) eventually led me back to my old idea of convergence. The idea of a self converging personality nearly drove me crazy in my first year at university. I left the nest and struggled heartily with who I was supposed to be; as if there was a perfect person if only I could become him. But after wrestling with this for quite some time I discovered life for me wasn't going to be about converging at all. It wasn't about becoming a 6' - 2" architect with a wife, 2 kids and that perfect picket fence people are always talking about. It was in fact the opposite. Life was about diverging, about expanding not contracting. I like to learn and do new things and try different experiences. So much so that to try and contain myself, even if that containment is centered around a prudent response to a fundamental change in our way of life here in America, just doesn't work.

It's not acceptable for me to respond to peak oil and climate change by creating a new model of just exactly what I should be and then focusing most or all of my energy on becoming that model, a 6' -2" urban farming bicycle rider who doesn't eat meat. It's not that farming or riding a bike or being a vegetarian are bad things in and of themselves. But I think recently I slipped back into a mode of preparation that excludes not only some time wasting activities I used to do for fun but also has strained my relationships with other people who haven't been willing to make change quite as rapidly as I have. I built a mold and then I worked to press myself into that mold as quickly as possible. My direction of change is already proving itself prudent. But my method of change, not so much. To some extent it has depressed me out of my formerly cheerful wandering ways and this I lament.

I once sent a friend a message by carefully cracking open willow oak acorns (think very small) and putting into each one of them a tiny piece of paper and then supergluing the nut back together so it appeared unopened. One letter of the alphabet went into each of about a dozen acorns which were mailed to my friend who eventually figured it out, opened them up and pieced together a completely different message than the one I had intended. In a strange coincidence the new message meant almost the same thing as the originally message had intended one. But I don't send special messages in acorns anymore. In fact I don't collect acorns in the fall as often as I have been known to in the past. No goofing off when peak oil is just around the corner!

Now there's wasting time and then there's wasting time. I'm not going back to watching Wheel of Fortune on weekday evenings. But I think what I've discovered is that what's most important about addressing energy descent and climate change is a change of mind. That might sound a bit cliché but it really is true. What I've learned by adopting new skills and more knowledge is that being open to change- actually inviting it in for dinner and a conversation when it knocks on the door- is the key to being able to handle that change. We can handle a world with less energy. We can handle a world with some fluctuations in climate. Some challenges are going to be difficult. I'm not going all Pollyanna on you but it seems like the most difficult part for most people is accepting that things are changing.
We have peaked in oil production and largely wrecked our biosphere but we mustn't shrug from the challenge of change, and it must happen first in our minds if it's going to happen at all.

That’s all good and well I can hear you saying. It sounds easy but I know it is not. I will even assume that some of you reading this will not bring yourselves to initiate the changes of a lower energy lifestyle until you are forced into that change by situation. And I feel bad for you because in the end, the changes won't be nearly as bad as anticipated. Like a math test or breaking up with a love interest, the worst part is the dread leading up to it.

Take for instance this riding-my-bike change I’ve made. It isn’t a pain in the ass. It's actually great. If little green women arrive tomorrow from the planet Xervzeron and offer us a source of unlimited energy that can fuel our fleet of automobiles with no damage to the environment what so ever I will still ride my bike to work next week because it is just more fun than driving a car. Alright I might drive on rainy days in January but my point stands. Biking is just better than driving. We've adopted some really silly habits as a result of cheap energy and breaking them, like breaking any habit, can be difficult. But it starts with the idea that you can change, that it is possible. The hard part is deciding to decide.

I am very fearful of what will happen when it suddenly becomes apparent to most people that the theater is in fact on fire. The metaphoric run for the exits could get ugly. In a way it already has. Those in power in this country understand that our way of life is based on oil and have sent our armed forces (and a lot of other hired guns) to try and keep control over the last great quantity of oil. But I'm talking here about the reaction of Average Joe and Average Jane America when they find out that they can't drive huge cars and eat grapes from Chile in December and that suddenly they're poor because their country’s economy has imploded. And I think that will happen. The most noticeable effect of energy descent early on (and then a little later climate change) will be economic implosion. Our economy is after all based on expansion and will not work well as resource availability contracts. But as contraction is forced upon us in terms of material goods and all the resources needed to create them, we have the opportunity to reverse our thinking; to allow our minds to imagine again other possibilities. We can choose to expand our minds even as our economy contracts.

Which is a long winded way of saying that I think I need to broaden my plan to include not just one strategy but more of an idea of flexibility. It’s a balancing act because I don't want to spend time on activities that will be useless in a few years but inherent in that statement is the idea that I know what will happen in a few years. I have an idea of what will happen. I think I have a better idea than those folks who think a few years from now will look like today only things will be better because everything will be bigger, work faster and be more widely available. I now understand a crucial idea left out of my early education- limits. But I don't know exactly what the future will look like so how can I say exactly what I should be doing as those limits show up?

Instead I’m developing parallel strategies that will keep me flexible. One will hedge against a collapse of the dollar and severe and rapid changes to American society just in case that happens. This translates into activities like putting more food away and saving money outside of the formal banking system. Another strategy though will focus on fun and happy changes that are just better for me like riding a bike and cooking with whole ingredients. And yet another will focus on enjoing life as it exists now. This might include driving a car on a date with my wife where we eat food even though we don’t know where it came from. Later we might see a movie made about all that is American in the very first part of the 21st century. It is important for me to strengthen my relationships with people in my life who are significant to me even if they have yet to commit to some of the other changes I am making. And even if I am hoping they will make more change soon. This will mean keeping one foot in the mainstream world even as I prepare for something different. And that’s ok, it’s important until the future revels itself a little more fully.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm trying to view my response in more broad terms now because I can't be sure of what will actually happen. It seems prudence to blend making change, having fun and taking up the challenges of being ready if more serious disaster descends.

To end this afternoon’s ramble I’d like to return to the idea of the movie mentioned at the beginning of this story; the fascinating show that keeps most Americans mesmerized and completely oblivious to that ‘faint wisp of smoke in the air.’ When I was younger I used to attend movies by myself. On one particular evening while at University I went to see a late night movie and sat through almost all of it. I don’t remember the name of the film but it wasn’t particularly good. I had a lot on my mind and was having trouble paying attention. So, near the end I simply got up and walked out of the theater. It was a brisk, fall night and I remember the cool air and sudden rush at being outside in the dark and in the silent grassy courtyard next to the school theater. I sat down on a bench and was alone with my thoughts. Everyone else was watching the last of the show. And then after 20 minutes or so, with my nose now pink from the cold, people started to trickle out of the building. They emerged from the movie and I was no longer by myself outside. For the life of me I can’t remember what I was thinking after I abandoned the movie but I remember the shock of getting out; the images gone, the sounds gone, the peacefulness of loneliness and the loneliness of loneliness. And when the movie was finished and I was no longer alone, I remember being happy it was over.