Thursday, April 26, 2007

lawns to gardens

That last post was a bit depressing so thought I'd offer up something else. It's the latest video from Randy White. He runs Lawns to Gardens, a self described "blog about the energy crash." He talks about food a lot though and has a refreshing take on peak oil in my opinion. A warning to parents and teachers who use my site as a resource, there is profanity and the briefest 1/4 second of nudity in this video. Just so you know.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

mommy are we there yet?

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny," - James Madison.

I am no longer afraid of peak oil. I haven’t been for a while. By that I mean I’ve stopped being afraid of the physical ramifications of a global peak in oil production: driving less, eating locally, all the ways in which our world will change as less energy, not more, is available each year. In fact I think ultimately, our world will be a better places post peak. Too many human beings are obviously incapable of responsibly handling the enormous amount of power embodied in fossil fuels. Industrial society has chipped away our ability to learn responsibility and practice it in our own lives and in our communities. It hands a loaded gun (sometimes literally) to people with little or no understanding of its power. There’s a great line in the movie ‘Contact’ in which Jodie Foster’s character is chosen for the job of being the first person to meet with an alien race. She is asked by congress what one question she would most like to ask a more intelligent species. And she says (I must paraphrase I can’t find the exact line) How did you do it- How did you survive your technological adolescence? Embedded in that question is the problem we are watching unfold. Human beings have harnessed an incredible amount of energy and have developed monstrously dangerous ways of unleashing it for evil. We’ve done some good too, some of us have, but my point is that we are acting like a drunken bull in an antique china shop. We are absolutely wrecking this place and many of us don’t seem to care. Others refuse to believe it or at best, allow themselves to be mesmerized by American Idol and simply don’t know what’s going. So I think it will be a good thing when human beings begin to have less energy available to them. Overall and in the long run it will be a good thing.

I am not without fear though because in the short term we will have to deal with the awakening. All of those drunken bulls are going to start sobering up. Everyone busy watching American Idol will have to turn off the television and deal with the realities of our situation at some point. The response of those people scares the hell out of me. There are already wackos out there. There are already people who think environmentalists should be shot, but I think there could be a lot more problems associated with an awaken. People are going to be angry, they’re going to feel cheated and worse; they might feel powerless to deal with the situation. This last group is the most dangerous in my opinion because if a large number of the post peak oil population adopts an attitude of powerlessness peppered with a touch of anger, they’re likely to look for a leader or a set of leaders that promise to keep the cars running no matter what the cost.

An article I read yesterday in the Wall Street Journal was entitled “Fuel-Efficient Cars Dent States’ Road Budgets.” The article rightly pointed out that as cars get more fuel efficient, states will lose tax revenue generated at the pump because people will purchase less gasoline. This could lead to worsening conditions of road repair. The author failed to mention that many of the more fuel efficient vehicles are lighter and do much less damage than the real road wreckers, heavy trucks, but we all make mistakes. What I found interesting was how deeply ingrained the idea of more driving is in the average American mind. This article went on to rattle off some possible solutions already being tested in blahblahblah… No where did it mention that if few cars were on the roads then we would neither need to develop more fuel efficient vehicles, develop alternative fuels, build new roads or do lots of repair on the old ones. It’s as if the elephant in the room was hiding under the desk of this WSJ reporter. Maybe the cars are the problem. Maybe if we built our towns and our cities and our rural villages in ways that required fewer miles traveled in automoblies we could slip the bonds that most Americans don’t seem to notice their wearing.

Cars gave us freedom in a tangible way when they were developed. They still allow Americans a way to drive off into the sunset at a moments notice. But let’s be honest, they have come to enslave us. When you have to have something then it has great power over you and we’ve built America into a land that largely requires people to own cars, buy cars, maintain cars, insure cars and fuel cars. Add it up and this relationship has become a burden. Not to mention the ugly way in which we’ve paved over our once beautiful landscapes- both natural and man made- in favor of an environment suited to shiny metal boxes moving at high speeds. Bring me people who like to car commute. Show me those who like traffic congestion. Who among us enjoys spending tens of thousands of dollars each year just so we can participate in America? But we are unable to let go of the idea of the automobile as anything other than our best friend and savior, an indisputable part of living in this country. So instead of stepping back and actually investigating our problems holistically, we muddle along blindly towards the dead-end of an alley.

Right now that sort of thinking is failing to address the coming problems associated with peak oil. But in the future, as the situation becomes increasingly chaotic, I fear we will do more wrongheaded thinking, not less. What I am really afraid of is a period of time during when we give up that which is wonderful about us- our ability to cooperate, to care for each other and work together in a civil society to address the needs of the American people. What I fear is the day I wake up and hear that we've gone and put our fate in the hands of despots- leaders bent on irrational and unreasonable responses to our inevitable crash head first into a world with less energy. Up until now I’ve been writing this paragraph in the future tense. Perhaps a little editing is in order because we are already fighting an expensive (dollars and lives) war largely as a way to maintain access to oil. Our national leaders are already trying to scare us into accepting reduced liberties and increased domestic surveillance based on false reasoning. We already accept the fact that our security forces hold prisoners with without trials in undisclosed locations and treat them brutally. And all of this why, so we can keep our cars running? Please. What sort of leaders are these? Why they are not leaders at all. They are skilled politicians who have come to power in a system based on endless growth that requires increased amounts of energy. And they will stop at nothing to keep this train headed off the tracks. My biggest fear is that we have not yet seen the worst of what we will allow them to do for the sake of keeping our engines running. Can America avoid becoming a fascist state? Are we one already? I challenge you to read this article and then answer for yourself.

…most Americans do not realise that since September of last year - when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means… Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial.

only in pet food? hogwash!

Technically I'm a Pescetian, a person who doesn't eat meat from birds or mammals but does, on occasion, eat fish. When people learn that I don't eat three staples of an average American diet, chicken, beef and pork, they ask why. The truth is that there are several reasons.

I don't have a moral objection to trading respect for flesh but I do think the industrial meat cartels in this country treat animals horribly. This is evident by the change in terms regarding what they do. No longer do they raise animals, they grow meat or produce it, as if it doesn't come from living, breathing animals. I don't see it as morally wrong to eat meat but one of the reasons I don't do it is because modern meat "production in America is insanely inhumane and speaks directly to our disconnect from the real biological world. Perhaps if this system stops chopping off the beaks of chicks, hosting animals in incredibly unnatural conditions and spreading avian flu and I might rejoin the masses.

Another reason I don’t eat most meat is because of how incredibly wasteful most modern meat production has become. The grain needed to produce one feedlot steak dinner could feed seven vegetarians. 10% of Americans (30 million people) don’t have enough to eat each day. 24,000 people die world wide each day from starvation and starvation related illnesses. And yet we devote more than 70% of our corn and grain in this country to the production to feeding animals. It takes more than 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef under feedlot conditions. Some estimates that include water used for things like washing slaughtered beef blood down the drain are much higher. Animals raised in the U.S. produce more than 100 times the excrement of the entire population of humans on Earth. Much of it is not used as fertilizer but washed into our rivers and lakes. Producing one hamburger patty is equivalent, in fossil fuel use, to driving a small car 20 miles. And who could forget the tens of millions of acres of tropical rainforest that have been cleared so Ronald can sell you that burger cheap. Do not misunderstand me. Animals have their place in our lives and on our farms. And there are parts of our landscape that can’t not be farmed. Grazing animals here seems like a sensible way to utilize their ability to eat grass so that we can then acquire energy by eating them. But we ignore the wasteful and environmentally irresponsible way in which modern, industrial meat is produced at a price to our nation and our children.

You’d think that the unethical treatment of animals or the incredibly wasteful nature of industrial meat production might be reason enough to stop eating such meat. The main reason I don't do it however is because it's unhealthy. Of course it’s not unhealthy to eat some reasonable amounts of meat raised which are processed in a health manner, but eating meat from your standard grocery store is downright dangerous. Normally these meats contain all sorts of extras like growth hormones used to produce bigger animals faster. Antibiotics are pumped into them because unhealthy animals abound in the unnatural conditions in which they are raised. In addition to hormones and antibiotics anyone eating industrial meat is also probably eating sodium nitrate among other preservative. In the digestive tract it reacts with proteins to create N-nitrosamines. There are studies that link this chemical to cancer. The National Academy of Science is on record as saying we should all limit our exposure to nitrates as much as possible. But then again, they're just scientists. A forth addition to any diet that contains industrial meat is the pesticides used on grain crops fed to the animals. The National Residue Program conducted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service testing suggests that only between 1% and 6% of the time do people eating meat consume "volatile substances". That sounds safe. And then there's the processing of the meat which has nifty components like allowable fecal content and occasionally irradiation. With all of that going on it was an easy decision for me. I gave up most types of meat several years ago and while I might return to eating it one day, I will never again eat industrial meat; just like I will never try Russian roulette.

Really though this is just a long winded way for me to point out a new and interesting twist to the pet food containment story of late. Do you think the chemical that has been killing animals all over the country didn't make it into the human food stream as claimed by the government and food corporations? Do you want to bet on that?

Salvaged pet food contaminated with an industrial chemical was sent to hog farms in as many as six states, federal health officials said Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if any hogs that ate the tainted feed then entered the food supply for humans.

Hogs at a farm in California ate the contaminated products, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Officials were trying to determine whether hogs in New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Ohio also may have eaten the tainted food, the FSIS said. Hogs at some of the farms — it wasn’t immediately clear which — have been quarantined. link

Yup, it turns out meat from my very own state has been contaminated. Of course it’s been quarantined. I'm sure none of it will make its way into your grocery store because regulatory agencies catch 100% of these types of problems. Tell that to the guy who was killed last year when he ate spinach infected with E. coli or the hundreds of people who got sick after eating ConAgra peanut butter infected with Salmonella. And these are non-meat products. Raw flesh has a much higher potential to support dangerous bacterial and viral diseases.

This latest food problem however stems from a chemical, melamine, found in imported Chinese vegetable proteins.

The FDA also said it planned to begin testing a wide variety of vegetable proteins at firms that imported the ingredients to make everything from pizza dough to infant formula, and protein shakes to energy bars. The ingredient list includes wheat gluten, corn gluten, corn meal, soy protein and rice bran.

My guess is this stuff is going to start showing up everywhere. It’s a cheap way to get protein products to test higher in levels of protein. In other words it’s a way for food cartels to make more money by cheapening our food. Really though I see it as a symptom of a much larger problem; our growing disconnect from the food we eat and the farmers who raise it and the soil and the water and the other natural systems that support our lives. We can shut our eyes and eat McChicken sandwiches, we can gamble and bite down on plastic wrapped spinach and we can pray to God that our infants aren’t drinking contaminated formula. Or we could make change.

Politicians, Democrats and Republicans are falling all over themselves to suggest bailing out farmers who lost their crops to unseasonably cold weather this spring. What strikes me a silly is that none of them are linking these two problems. On one hand you have farmers in trouble because they grow only a small number of different sorts of crops and on the other you have an increasingly dysfunctional food processing system that is making people sick. The answer seems to be a relocalization of food and a diversification of local farmers. I love farmers and I feel for those affected by the Easter freeze, but continuing to subsidize monoculture while we turn over more of our nutritional sovereignty to companies who make us sick is foolish and dangerous. Farmers need more than a bailout check. They need rational policies that support their ability to feed people healthy food locally. They need a way to stay small and compete with food corporations that have hijacked our nation’s food supply. Throwing only money at them is an insult and it will only lead to more sick people and more farmers devastated by an increasingly volatile climate.

The recent revelation of yet another contamination of human food is just one item on a long list of the reasons my family is growing more of our own food and buying more of what we don’t raise from people we know. This change isn’t happening instantaneously but over time we’re relearning how to eat (and cook). It would be nice to see some politician publicize this type of thinking. Unlike ConAgra however, I can not afford to buy one. So for now I’ll share my experieasdfopes that it inspires others and we’ll all get to watch as AgriBizCorp sickens more Americans as it slowly crumbles under the weight of resource depletion, energy descent and the degradation of our soils and water.

Want real food? Local Harvest

Update 5.7.2007: The government says melamine levels in the hogs and chickens recently contaminated won't hurt humans who consume them, so the meat will most likely be processed into the human food system. Apparently a few weeks of study concerning an industrial chemical used to make plastics is plenty in order to deem it safe for us to eat. Of course the U.S. government is also setting a horrible precedent. They're basically telling China, "Put it in the food you export to us, no problem. We'll feed it to Mikey, he'll eat anything!"

Saturday, April 21, 2007

so you know about peak oil. now what?

People often ask me what they should do once they understand that a global peak in oil availability is right around the corner. I need a place to point them so here is a quick list of the top six steps I think make the most sense to focus on in light of what's headed our way. Even if you don't think peak oil is real, these aren't bad life changing suggestions in my humble opinion.

Step One. Get Educated. I'm not talking about going back to school or watching more Fox newz. I'm talking about diversifying your sources of knowledge and learning as much as you can about what's really going on in the world. Take the red pill, swallow it and enjoy the ride. The real world is nothing like the nightly newz. You can find a short list of helpful resources on the right side of this webpage but do your own investigation. And do not believe all of what anyone says. Me included. It's your only life. Don’t you want to know what's really going on?

Step Two. Get Out of Debt. Peak oil will inevitably mean a chaotic financial future. Ultimately we're talking about the end of economic growth. We do not have a substitute model up and running so the transition period is going to be rocky. The last thing you want is to owe someone else money. Cut up your credit cards. Terminate your cable subscription. Toss your cell phone. These are only a few of the luxuries we've come to view as necessities but they really aren't. Do not believe the myth that it's impossible to live cheaply in America these days. It just takes a commitment. I bet you'll be amazed at how good being debt free feels.

Step Three. Divorce Your Vehicle. Examine just how dependant your are on gasoline. If you drive more than 10 miles a day to meet your basic needs, make change. Transportation is especially dependant on petroleum and a shortage of liquid fossil fuels will express itself early on as really expensive prices at the pump. Dump your gas guzzler and replace it with more fuel efficient car. You don't have to violate Step Two to do this. My current car is a 1996 Nissan Sentra that regularly gets more than 30 miles to the gallon. I bought it 3 years ago on eBay for $900. It is possible you just have to be willing to trade status for prudence. Better yet, find a living arrangement that requires little or no dependency on an automobile for daily needs. All over the country there are communities where families can live within reasonable walking distance to school, shops and offices. Maybe try something insanely radical like riding a bike. It is after all, the most efficient form of human transportation ever invented.

Step Four. Grow Some Food. You don't need to try and grow ever calorie your family eats. That would be difficult if not impossible but you can plant some potatoes, tomatoes and beans. Towards the end of World War II, Americans were growing more than 40% of their vegetables in their own gardens. Time to rip up the lawn again. Not only will you be pleased with the flavor of your homegrown food, but you'll get some exercise and most importantly, you will transform yourself from a consumer into a producer. This might sound like a subtle distinction but it is incredibly empowering; the idea that you are in charge of your life, you don't just purchase it from other people. Growing some of your own food isn't difficult. Your ability to do so will improve with practice though so start today. Right now even.

Step Five. Get Rid of Your Television. This might sound silly to some. What does my television have to do with preparing for peak oil you might ask? The average American watches more than 3 hours of TV each day. Some estimate more. But even 3 hours daily equates to 21 hours a week. That's more than half an average work week. One of the most common complaints from people resistant to change is that they don't have time to learn a new way to live. That excuse factors in almost an entire day each week spent sitting in front of a box watching other people pretend to live lives you wish you could. Madness. Unplug your idiot box and take it to the curb today. Put a sign on it, "WORKS JUST FINE." It'll be gone in 15 minutes. And you will have given yourself an extra day, 21 hours each week, to learn a new way of life. I promise, 6 months from now you won't even miss it and you'll be well on your way towards living your own life.

Step Six. Feed Your Soul.
Change isn't easy. And the issues surrounding peak oil can be incredibly depressing. I didn't recognize this as I began to explore peak oil on my own several years ago. I got a good taste of depression and it wasn't at all yummy. Peak oil is not the end of the world. In fact, I think in the long run it'll be a good thing for us and our country. But the transition, any transition, can be jarring. Be sure to stay happy. Listen to music. Share with your family. Adopt a friend. Spend time in reverence whether it’s in a church, synagogue, mosque or the woods. Talk. Share. Laugh. Drink. Eat. Play. Enjoi your life in the ways that most make you happy. You are going to live through one of the most monumental events in human history, the peaking of global oil production. Don't close your eyes or hide away in fear. Embrace the time you've got and try and balance prudent preparation with enjoyment of life. Fear can be a motivator but is ultimately debilitating. Try and buffer against it.

Best wishes on your journey and good luck. I hope this advice proves helpful.

My friend Sharon has a couple of other lists- further steps you can take to prepare for peak oil. You can read them by clicking on the following links.

The Next 100 Things You Can Do To Get Ready For Peak Part I

The Next 100 Things You Can Do To Get Ready For Peak Part II

Friday, April 13, 2007

are we past peak knowledge?

In this essay I draw a distinction between facts, information, knowledge and wisdom. I use the term information to mean a collection of facts. I use the term knowledge to mean the absorption and consideration of, experimentation with, and refinement of information; essentially the path to wisdom. Or to work backwards, wisdom is the mastery of knowledge which is the assimilation of information which is a compilation of facts. It might seem unnecessary to distinguish these differences but I believe its one thing to collect facts, quite another to understand how they matter to each other and something entirely different to begin to really know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it; let alone why.

are we past peak knowledge?
by aaron newton

This past weekend my little corner of the world experienced the coldest temperature ever recorded in the month of April in our area- 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Now in North Carolina we’re used to light frost until the middle of this month, but those of us who garden tend to catch spring fever a bit early when we have warm weather in March. This year we did and so I played my part and planted a few early tomatoes before it was really safe to do so.

In anticipation of this past weekend’s hard freeze I devised a plan to try and keep them alive. After bundling up my six daring garden tomatoes, I went inside and retrieved 3 sturdy seedlings. I took them out to the compost pile I built just last weekend. And as if to sacrifice them to the chilly winter goddess about to breeze into town, I left them atop my mountain of leaves and grass clippings. I was curious; could I effectively harness the heat of decomposition? And what happened you asked? The answer is nothing. Those tomato seedlings sat out all night and were completely unharmed. This means that the temperature 12 inches above the compost pile remained at least 10 degrees warmer than the ambient air temperature. I bet it was much warmer than that. I knew the compost pile was hot but I didn’t think I could just leave tomato seedlings lying around on it with temperature approaching 20 degrees in the rest of the yard. So I learned something, and I can promise you it’s not the ultimate extent of what I will know once I really begin to grasp this useful tool of wasted compost heat.

In our era, facts abound. Information of all sorts seems available everywhere and at anytime. If we want to know about how hot a compost pile can get or what the weather will be like tonight, that information is available to us in a way that makes us feel special. We think of ourselves as having more knowledge at our fingertips than any other generation of humans who have ever lived. But I’m not so sure this is true. Because while we can quickly gather facts and information about simple processes like composting or approaching weather patterns, we seem devoid of knowledge about how to use what we know. This glut of information might actually keep us from recognizing the resources of real knowledge available to us today. We seem to turn instead to an endless stream of hollow distractions in an effort to reschedule our relationship with the real world- so much effort to postpone our date with reality. (Knock, knock, someone’s at the door.)

In an extreme example of just how much we think we know and how badly we want to share it, we have even created a comprehensive system of appliances, connecting cables (sometimes for transmitting light) and even a system of satellites orbiting in space, all for the purpose of sharing large quantities of information quickly. Never mind that the (Inter)net result is largely the ability to look at nudie photos or track rumors about political candidates.

And while we consider ourselves the keepers of more information than any human beings have ever possessed before, it might soon be too late to ask our elders for real knowledge or travel to visit with others who have accumulated great wisdom. In the near future we might find ourselves too busy bailing water from the boat to sagaciously consider where it is headed. The truth is we might be approaching (or might have already passed) peak knowledge- the waterfall after which we will be less able to fully understand what we know or think we know. Peak knowledge could be right around the bend. Best we look up now and examine the reality of just what it is we understand.

I. Passing Wisdom

A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.
-Robert Anson Heinlein

For centuries human beings had a close relationship will the land. Our survival depended on an understanding of the natural systems that provided for our needs and wants. Food production was the principal task of the majority of human beings until a little less than two centuries ago. Most people who wanted to eat needed to know how to grow and gather food. I’m not speaking simply of the task of putting seeds in the ground and later harvesting dinner. The information surrounding agriculture takes a long time to learn and synthesize into wisdom. Planting has to be done at the right time, soil fertility has to be maintained, water has to be captured and transported, and harvested food has to be stored. Did I mention the knowledge concerning how to cook with fresh, whole ingredients? And how about practice of harvesting directly from nature. Far from simply being able to recognize the difference between edible and poisonous wild fare, during the majority of human history, people knew what grew where in the woodlands surrounding their homes. When did the trees and bushes fruit and how were their offerings best prepared. What about living with animals or hunting them? Do you have any idea how to raise and care for chickens? How to kill them and remove their feathers? Hunting a deer sounds easy enough (without bullets that is) but I wouldn’t know where to begin if you asked me to dress the meat or smoke it for later use. The knowledge necessary to ensure human beings get fed is extensive. The process of competently integrating it all together into a fully functioning system that meets the needs of a family sounds downright daunting to us, but such was the knowledge of most humans for thousands of years until real recently.

Many of us have been taught that farmers are backward, stupid folk who have little to offer in the way of wisdom but nothing could be further from the truth. Skilled farmers (who have a history of eating from both the field and from the forest) have a vast depth of knowledge. They understand how to work with natural systems in order to glean from nature’s surplus that which humans need to survive and thrive. For more than half a century though we have replaced reliance on this wisdom with a dependency on cheap fossil fuel inputs, pouring oil on the land as a substitute for the knowledge of how to work with it. As a result we have largely ignored the task of learning from our elders that which we will desperately need to know as the oil begins to run out. The average farmer is just under 60 years of age. We are in real danger of saying good bye to the last generation of Americans in whom this knowledge still survives. In fact because there are so few people alive today who can pass out this knowledge, we are in great danger of losing it or at least its widespread distribution even if we begin right now to pay attention to that which we do not know. Will our elders pass and with them will we lose much more knowledge than we have gained? What good is an understanding of nanotechnology when you and your family are hungry?

II. No Real Knowledge

Men have become the tools of their tools.
-Henry David Thoreau

Do we really know more today than we did several generations ago? In a scene from his documentary ‘Super Size Me’, a movie about the dangers of fast food and school lunches in America, Morgan Spurlock asks a group of Washington, D.C. tourists standing outside the White House if they know the Pledge of Allegiance. They can’t say the whole pledge correctly. But when asked about the ingredients in a Big Mac, they rattled them off singing, “Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.” Watching this scene is disturbing because it typifies the tragic loss of knowledge we Americans have willingly undergone in recent history. This has happened not just because we have failed to respect and learn from what past generations knew (which we have done) but also because we’ve actively replaced learning sensible knowledge with watching infojunk. To say I am a harsh critic of television is putting it mildly. But my criticism comes from experience. Six years ago my wife and I gave up cable TV and two years ago we threw the idiot box out of our lives completely. After giving up the boobtube (funny how many degrading names we’ve given this appliance) we subsequently noticed several interesting consequences like recaptured hobby time, more engaged evening conversations and um… other activities. However one unintended and wonderful result has been the uncluttering of our minds. Free from the daily input of hours of mindless programming and countless television commercial (especially those political ads) we’ve actually had time to talk, read and think. Of course we have missed out on many attempts by ad agencies to brainwash us into thinking a hormone soaked meat paddy made from pesticide-fed cattle crammed into a factory farm, packaged in questionable conditions at one of our nation’s few meat processing facilities and served with tasteless vegetables between two slices of white bread is a good eatin’. But beyond sidestepping such propaganda I’ve noticed another positive development. Our new sources of information about the world range from intelligent conversation to books about interesting topics to walks in the woods near our home. We’ve moved from filling our minds with sound bites towards exploring the world around us. Even watching an hour long TV show about permaculture is no substitute for experimenting with ways to use hot compost piles to keep spring tomatoes warm. I believe the human mind is able to absorb and process and store information that compounds into wisdom. This is not done though by taking in hundreds of sound bites. It’s done through thoughtful engagement with the subject matter and is further refined through experimentation and conversation. These in-depth processes are given short shrift by the cursory explanations offered on television. Is it any wonder that in America our children have attention deficits? They are raised on a steady diet of TV shows that change ever thirty minutes and are peppered with propaganda teaching what to eat, what to wear and how to think. More television doesn’t mean more knowledge, it means less. It leaves no room for real knowledge.

III. Too Much Information

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

The Internet is not much better as a source of knowledge. “What a minute,” you say, “Didn’t you post this on the Internet?” True “The Web” can be a great source of information about everything from peak oil to building a Hugelkultur. But simply reading a How-To description or downloading images won’t provide a sensible understanding of how to actually build a Hugelkultur or why it works. The true knowledge of how it works only comes when such Internet information is put into action, tested, modified, refined, and stored in memory. All too often we use time on the Internet to keep up with the same sorts of sound bites that boom out of our televisions. And we forget that simply creating a vast network to share information is not the same as gaining more knowledge.

This system can also be used just as easily to transfer rumors or falsehoods. How many of us have been forwarded an email warning of the dangers of hypodermic needles at the gas pump or Nigerian business opportunities. How about the website that explains the Earth is only 6000 years old? But even when the content of certain emails or websites doesn’t contain out right lies or misinformation, it is still filtered first by those operating the site. Millions of Americans visit Matt Drudge’s website site each day. I know several who use it as their main source of newz. Many seem unaware of the fact that he picks mainly stories that support his particular political beliefs rather than more broadly and accurately pointing out the events of world news. Others argue U.S. main stream media doesn’t do a much better job. A quick spin around largely reputable websites outside of America will tell a different tale of the events happening on our globe. Yet these Drudge Report disciples believe that they are well informed because they read rewritten headlines, cherry picked articles by a rightwing gossipmonger. And let me be quick to say the same of those who get their newz strictly from The Huffington Report. Those who do so are inadequately informed about current events. Far more dangerous though is how sure they are of their worldly understanding.

Of course there’s also the oft pointed out fact that most of the top ten phrases searched for on Google contain the word “sex”. A friend of mine works for a company that makes and sells fiber optic cable used in the infrastructure of the Internet. He tells me he is well aware of the fact that his job is largely dependant on the pornography industry’s World Wide Web presence. There would be no heavy traffic on the information superhighway if the destinations accessible did not include many of lust and smut.

I think it is also important to point out that the wonderful world of computers could be made instantly useless by a widespread electrical blackout, a devastating virtual virus or large solar flares that could destroy large quantities of virtual knowledge in an instant. We rely on a technology that is at utterly dependant on cheap electricity transported over long distances, includes fragile, hard-to-build components and is subject to malicious attacks or government restrictions (just you wait, they are coming). How precarious this system seems when its weaknesses are examined and therefore how shaky our situation appears concerning all the knowledge we have tied up on our computers. What would you lose if it all suddenly went away?

Of course the Internet is a much more interactive source of information than that of television and it does have the capacity to teach basic ideas and share even complicated information between people all over the world. I believe it will prove an invaluable tool as human beings being to learn (or relearn) how to live in a world with fewer resources. It is however, more about information, the beginning of knowledge and understanding. It is a fabulous way to begin to learn, but it is no substitute for reading, or doing, or talking or taking classes or just watching the world around you.

IV. Far Fewer Teaching Travels

It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.
-Wendell Berry

I regret not having studied abroad while I was at university. My wife did and she and I have travel to Europe once for a vacation, but I missed out on the opportunity to actively learn from another place and another culture. Stretching back into history, people have been traipsing all over the world, bringing home with them knowledge and an understanding of how other people lived and worked and played. These experiences predate fossil fuel powered travel. Even if (or when) the airplanes no longer connect America easily to the outside world, I imagine there will still be people traveling to distant lands to see what in the world it all looks like out there. But the numbers of such face-to-face encounters will most probably decrease. Spending days, weeks or months to travel over sea by ship or over land by rail will limit the ability of people to quickly meet and share knowledge in person. Several years ago I traveled by car (thanks to cheap gas) from Charlotte, NC to The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee. There I spent the weekend learning hands-on about bamboo joinery, vegetarian cuisine, natural water purification systems and strawbale building. I met an architect whom later taught several strawbale workshops I attended closer to home. I have hopes to pay him in the future to travel to my area and help me to build my own home though such workshops. But travel for the physical exchange of knowledge will likely prove more difficult in an energy depleted future. Will we be able to share such comprehensive knowledge if we are limited in our contact to computers, letters and phones? As an aside, one of my biggest fears about the future is that we will lose the ability to understand people in other parts of the world because travel to distant locations will be difficult and happen less frequently. Will a decrease in knowledge about people far away bring back fear of unknown neighbors?

V. Burning the Books

Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.
-Ray Bradbury

There’s a saying- ‘It’s hard to learn by candle light.’ It refers to the idea that given a choice, is much easier to learn a new skill in a comfortable environment rather than in more difficult circumstances. Having access to information and time to develop the experience that underpins knowledge is a luxury that we take for granted. This is why childless, middle class twenty-somethings greatly out number poor, single mothers on the campuses of higher learning in our country. It’s not that poor, single mothers are incapable of learning and acquiring a degree, but they usually have many more responsibilities that keep them from being able to devote lots of time and energy to educational pursuits. Theirs is a life of making ends meet. Taking time out to focus on the future comes at the expense of meeting the needs of the present. We could find ourselves in this boat in the post carbon future. I can envision a world of more people slipping farther behind (some already are), having to work longer hours at more jobs to make ends meet. Such people will not have the necessary time to devote to learning new life skills. I only work four days a week in the formal economy and I share the responsibilities of caring for a one year old daughter with my stay-at-home wife and still I often find myself pressed to be able to learn as much as I would like. The sun sets too early and Monday comes to quick. I am trying to exit the formal economy entirely and enter into a more self sufficient way of meeting my family’s needs, and I am relatively lucky to have some time and money to focus on the task. Many other Americans will not be so lucky. They will find themselves saddled with financial burdens that require them to work more and the stress of such situations isn’t conducive to the uptake of new ideas; never mind the expense of paying for a 2 week long class on natural building techniques. I fear that in the future, instead of being able to spend time reading the books about how to transition away from the fossil fuel economy, many Americans will just be burning them to stay warm.

Will the last generation with a comprehensive understanding of natural systems die before we learn from them? Will we continue to stare blankly at the TV screen, wasting time while our future melts? Will we get lost on the information superhighway and envision e-relationships as a real substitute for sharing knowledge in our neighborhoods? Will we be stuck in place post peak petroleum, unable to travel to those who know what we really need to know? Will we too busy to stop and learn as change over whelms us with the job of staying afloat? Are we reaching the peak of American knowledge?

I fear so and I hope not.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

everything was beautiful and nothing hurt

“As I read the Book of Genesis, God didn't give Adam and Eve a whole planet. He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let's say 200 acres.” -KV

We all need people to look up to, to follow after; people from whom we might draw inspiration and perhaps, to do work in a similar spirit of, if we are so able or so lucky or both. Or maybe it’s enough just to say I’m happy to know certain people have lived lives with little concern for the way most people insist the world works. Maybe knowing that, helps keep me sane in a world I’m ever more convinced has gone mad. Yesterday Kurt Vonnegut died at his home in Manhattan at the age of 84.

If you’re curious about Mr. Vonnegut’s thoughts concerning our relationship with fossil fuels (that is the topic that I try and focus on here) Rolling Stone quotes him in an interview in 2006 saying,

I'm talking about us killing the planet as a life-support system with gasoline. What's going to happen is, very soon, we're going to run out of petroleum, and everything depends on petroleum. And there go the school buses. There go the fire engines. The food trucks will come to a halt. This is the end of the world. We've become far too dependent on hydrocarbons, and it's going to suddenly dry up. You talk about the gluttonous Roaring Twenties. That was nothing. We're crazy, going crazy, about petroleum. It's a drug like crack cocaine.

But to see him through such a small window does his life no justice. He wrote with reckless abandon, but not without purpose, about all sorts of things and sometimes seemingly about nothing at all. He and I shared a common hero, Mark Twain, of whom he once spoke saying, “Mark Twain, finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.” Vonnegut said in the RS interview last year, “Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?' That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now?”

Yes you can, and thank you for your life. You are already missed.

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'

-Kurt Vonnegut (Nov 11 1922 – Apr 11 2007)

Monday, April 09, 2007

look mom a luffa

People are fascinated by the idea of growing their own bathing instruments. I'm going to let the world watch as I grow my own sponge for 2008. Read the story here and purchase your seeds here. Guard cat sold separately.

Oh and I added some images of what's been growing on here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

fast composition

Enough with the politics and the cell phone stuff and the charts of gas prices in Charlotte, NC. It's spring, let's garden. Here we are cruising into April which means the annual spring cleaning of yards across America as people deal with the remaining fallen leaves of last autumn and mow down their lawns for the first time this year.

Of course you'd be better off turning those Lawns into Gardens (in my humble opinion) but if you must retain some turf, try a manual reel mower. They're cheap, use no fuel other than a little of your love handles, have no emissions, and are relatively easy to sharpen. I just sharpened mine so I'm not just tossing out web links here.

But if you or your neighbors do bag up all those leaves and grass clippings, consider this a prime time to start a compost pile. There's a more in-depth article on why and how to compost here, but if you're looking for a more simple explanation of how you can recycle your yard waste and create some great compost for your garden, here are some simple directions.

Step One: Gather leaves and grass clippings. You may have some from your own yard or you might notice neighbors hauling them out to the curb. I went a step further and found a pickup truck load of bagged leaves and grass clippings within a mile of my home last Sunday afternoon.

Step Two: Pile up your material, alternating between layers of leaves and layers of grass clippings. A good ratio of leaves to grass is about 25:1 so you'll want to add more leaves. You're hoping for a pile about 3' X 3' X 3'. [Warning, horribly over exposed photos coming up.]

Step Three: Add water. This is best accomplished as you layer your pile. You want enough water to saturate your material but not so much that you pile is sopping wet. That will keep out oxygen, killing the beneficial bacteria ready to work for you. You can add other stuff too like saw dust or kitchen scraps, but grass and leaves will make fine compost all by themselves.

Step Four: Wait. Your pile will heat up over the next few days. As it cools down (anywhere from 10 days to 3 weeks) turn the pile, which just means mixing it up to add more oxygen. This isn't absolutely necessary but it will speed up the process.

That's it. The pile will take more time still to completely break down into compost. How long will vary depending on the makeup of your pile and whether or not you turn it again. Be sure to add water if regular rain doesn't.

Feel good about keeping your yard waste out of the landfill and look forward to having compost to use in your summer and fall gardens.