Thursday, March 26, 2009

the utility-free, no um carbon-free, or maybe make that the fossil fuel-free weekend

UPDATE: The weekend was a success- or at least I think so. ;-) I turned off the water and the electricity early Saturday morning and turned everything back on Monday morning- 48 hours of no electricity, running water or natural gas. I'll share the details in a new post soon.

Perhaps I should just call this post, "the idea my wife really doesn't like." That would be more like it. ;-)

Many of us have experienced the short term loss of one or more of the fossil fuel based resources we have come to take for granted in this country. Electricity blackouts have happened to almost everyone during a bad storm. Some of us have been without a car while ours was being repaired or without water for a few hours while work was done on a mainline. Well this weekend my family is going to voluntarily turn off all of our utilities. Yes we're going to turn off the electricity at the breaker box. We're going to turn off the water at the street. We're not going to turn off the natural gas line. I'm not even sure how to do that but we're not going to use the stove or the hot water heater (since we won't have running water) and we're not going to drive anywhere either. Basically we're going to try not to use fossil fuels and we're going to do all this on purpose.

I've been called crazy before so that's not really the problem. The problem, or the list of problems I should say starts with the fact that my family is suppose to take a potluck dish to a party Saturday night and it looks likely to rain on our solar oven idea. The plan right now is to take a crock pot over early and use their electricity. Yes I know that sounds like cheating and I can't wait to hear what our party hosts will say.

We have other problems too. Hot showers are nice- real nice- too nice and while I can explain, academically, the need for cold showers this weekend to my wife (not that she'll be excited by the prospect mind you) it'll be much tougher to explain the cold bath to my 3 year old and my 1 year old will scream bloody murder. I'm thinking maybe our kids could go two days without bathing.

And what about basketball. For those off you who don't live in the southeast I bet y'all thought that Christianity was King in these parts. Well you've never been to the March Madness Church of the South. Here's a question. Is it cheating if I listen to a basketball game on the radio if I use rechargeable batteries and have them ready before sundown on Friday?

If all this sounds like torture, that isn't the point. Really it's not. This is an experiment, a lesson event, a learning experience for our family. We're careful about not wasting resources but we want to know (OK mostly I want to know) what it's like to go without all this stuff even if it's just for a little while. What will we miss the most? What seems really important that we could probably do without more often? Does turning off any of this make us feel better, make us closer as a family or just make us mad and insane. What would be the hardest part of having the utilities turned off?

And that last question is a real one for many more families in the US as financial troubles lead to an increasing number of households unable to pay their utility bills. In this video financial adviser Ray Martin offers suggestions to help keep your utilities on but what happens when that's not possible; when paying the rent or the mortgage and for food means not being able to pay for electricity. That is what's happening to an increasing number of Americans. My family is not in that position right now and I hope we won't ever be in that position but why not spend a weekend in a controlled experiment to better understand what we would do, what is possible and where our vulnerabilities are were we ever to face utilities being turned off for financial reasons or otherwise.

Obviously I won't be able to respond to comments or share this experience with readers until Monday morning because, I'll be without electricity until then. If you'd like to join in feel free to turn off your utilities and park your car as well. Just be sure to stay safe and do this as a way to better understand your needs and vulnerabilities not just as a way to annoy your kids and frustrate your wife.

thoughts on making change in our own lives

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. - W. Edwards Deming

I sent out a few emails after the 2006 midterm election, to get a response from friends of mine who are peak oil aware. Democrats took control of the United States House of Representatives as well as the Senate but I don't think them any more capable of addressing the issues of energy and environment currently facing the American dream than the Republicans who formerly held control. We are about to awaken from our slumber to the cold realities of recently dismissed phenomenon like physical limits and laws of nature. When I sent out my impromptu poll I was curious as to whether any of those concerned about the converging calamities associated with a consumer-based society believed that the recent swing of the political pendulum would have any effect on the readiness of America to weather the coming storm. The results were all but unanimous.

I am an optimist by nature, not out of belief but by practice. I have been told time and again what was and was not possible regarding my future. Sometimes I wanted more than others thought was possible and on many occasions I have been pleasantly pleased at my ability to exceed their expectations. So grew my idea about an ability that exceeds human expectation without forgetting that there are reasonable limits to achievement. In other words I find human beings often underestimate their own abilities while simultaneously overestimating the aptitudes of tools. We are at once ready to believe that we are doomed because we can’t personally change and prepared to be saved by some unknown outside force. Sounds to me a lot like religion.

Those whom I polled saw little hope that reasonable action would be taken in the United States concerning the coming global peak in oil production and the following energy decent- from a governmental standpoint that is. This point emerged: Do not count on the American Democrats to save the day. I could not help but have expected such an answer. U.S. Baby Boomers might turn out to be the most destructive generation in all of human history, but their failure to properly govern democratically, that is their susceptibility to big business as a corruptive influence, has my generation turning up its nose at even an unexpected Democratic victory in the shadow of Hubbert’s Peak. And who can blame them? However, and this is very important, that does not entitle us to adopt an attitude of defeat.

Many conventional environmentalists work from a place of anger. They are angry that others have dirtied their air and their water. They are angry that the government has allowed this to happen. There are a dramatic number of cases of childhood asthma attributed to power plant emissions. Our drinking water is full of toxins and hormones known to harm the health of countless Americans each year. The specific issue that jangled my anger was mercury levels in big fish so strong that when my wife was pregnant she was advised not to eat tuna. Industrial America made it unsafe for her to do so. Yes, that’s enough to make anyone angry. From all of this anger comes an offensive to stop the pollution through active means. Derrick Jensen writing in Endgame Vol. I The Problem with Civilization calls for the active dismantling of industrial civilization. His arguments about fighting back and forcefully creating change are an sell well to those who believe their clean air and fresh water have been taken from them. Many Americans are awake enough to see the extreme degradation of our environment as a direct consequence of our consumptive way of life. Even if they stop short of working to bring down civilization, these concerned individuals are willing and ready to fight back on behalf of Mother Nature. But I'm not sure that strategy will work. It over looks the fact that no one can force anyone to do anything. You can't hold a gun to your head and force them to recycle. People can not be forced to believe in something and unless they believe in something, they can’t commit to the changes necessary to change their own behavior.

I think we need a new imagining our relationship with the environment. Most people view their lives as their turn on the dance floor. They see themselves as having inherited the Earth from their parents and feel free to do with it as they please. Some have argued the opposite, that we are borrowing the Earth from our children. What we do they will have to deal with. This difference in perspective separates the takers from the leavers. Daniel Quinn writing in Ishmael, describes the human race as being made up of two groups; those who take what they can and those who leave as much as possible. Obviously those who are actively involved in polluting our planet are in the former group. They see themselves as free to do as they please and to take what they want regardless of the consequences left for future generations. I argue though that they are human and as such can not be forced to do anything otherwise.

The focus must first be on us. After all, we are the ones using the electricity created by industrial power plants. Each of us is responsible for the products and services we buy and use. Our support of the system is to blame for the destructive nature of the American consumer culture. I agree with those who say that corporations have used psychological strategies through advertising to convince Americans to adopt consumptive lifestyles. The odd reality is though that even after we wake up from the spell of such strategies most of us continue to consume and in doing so prop up a system of destruction and pollution. I am not advocating that those of us who understand how horribly damaging our way of life has become should into the woods and abandon all we have come to know. Such a cold turkey response to the habit of industrial civilization will probably not last long or end badly and will most certainly alienate us from friends and family. I am advocating for a change in focus for those of us lucky enough to understand the great poisoning that has taken place and who want to beat it back.

We must change ourselves. We must change our habits. We must slowly drop out of consumer culture. We must remove our support of corporate monsters and return our support of local businesses. Forcing others to change won’t work but making real change happen in our own lives will. If you don’t support the production of nuclear waste and your electricity comes from a nuclear power plant, find a way to change that; not by protesting in front of the plant but by making your own power or, as my friend Sharon is doing in her kitchen, do away with your need for electrical power. Your first reponse might be to think that idea is crazy but it’s not. It’s the easiest, most effective way to make a difference. You won’t change the nuclear power plant people. You could dedicate countless hours of time to legal battles with those folks and the people doing that work are courageous but there is a job for the rest of us. Those of us who use nuclear power you could walk away from their toxic waste and take our financial support with us. We could reduce the amount of energy we use, trying to eliminate it all together.

At this point I might be losing you because some obvious, classic questions come out of this line of thinking. Sticking with the nuclear power plant example, the question is, “How do you make your own power or do away with the need for electricity?” There isn’t just one answer to this question. Start with evaluating how much electricity you use. Next work to reduce that amount. Don’t give into the idea that the change must be instant. The inability to acheive perfection is an often given excuse for a lack of effort. It might take years to achieve your goals in their entirety but that journey could start today. Perhaps you can produce your own solar or wind generated electricity. Before you scoff at the cost, do some investigation. Check into price, review government programs that offer financial incentives. Look into grants, build our own wind turbine, build a gigantic hamster wheel for your over active dog- my point is that in these efforts you will find, if you work hard enough, the solution to your problem. It lies within you, not as blame to be placed on others. If you start down this road to change I will guess that as you free yourself from the nuclear power plant that others will be eager to learn more about what you did. Maybe you just started cooking in a solar oven. I bet other people will find that fascinating. There will be other people who will want this change as well and your help in making that change, not by storming the gates of the power plant but by removing your dependence on such a source of electricity and then helping others to do the same.

Perhaps you're thinking that there are those who will never change. I understand your concern and I agree that there are those who will resist change with great force. The vast majority of people however will not. Most people are in the habit of following the lead of others. It’s not necessary for those of us trying to make change to convince everyone we’re right. We only have to become a small force of change, maybe 10 or 12% of the population. That number of people doing things differently, making a difference not on the picket lines but in our own lives, will be enough to help fuel a revolution of change across our country. Not a change in political parties but a true change in the attitudes and actions of Americans.

When discussing change there seems to be two typical responses concerning how and why change happens. The first is that the government mandates it and the second is that the invisible hand of Adam Smith makes it economically more attractive. Most people will use these responses as the only reasons for why things do or do not change. These people fail to recognize how defeatist this attitude is. These people have given up on their own freedom of choice and the freedom of others in their society. Of course there are other reasons for making or not making change. In fact for most of the really important decisions we make in our lives, don't require the permission of Congress or rely on rational financial sense. We don't get married to a certain someone for either of those reasons, we don't have children for those reasons, we don’t eat healthy foods for those reasons and I am going to assume that my friends like me because the President asked them to or because they gain economic benefit from me.

Have we completely lost the ability to make our own decisions as a society about what is best without the help of the government or the market? Societies have historically made decisions about common items for the benefit of community and not because of the government or economics. I reject the idea that reasonable responses to problems are possible only if it's affordable or if we're told we legally have to. I am a freer man than anyone who would argue otherwise. At the heart making changes is to understand just how pwerful we are to make such changes in our own lives.

We have great power over those who derive their wealth through the complex systems that force us into dependent relationships. If we step out of their systems of enslavement we can again do for ourselves what they want to make money providing to us. It’s been said before that growing our own food is one of the most radical acts we can perform. As I learn to grow my own food I see how true this really is. I am becoming less dependant on Archer Daniels Midland and other such Agriculatural corporations. ADM is at the heart of industrial agriculture; a practice that is stripping away topsoil that took millions of years to create. It is using non-renewable resources to pesticide poison our foods and creates oceanic kill zones where sea life can’t live. It is irresponsible and destructive and every time I plant a potato I am supporting less of this legacy, this terrible bequest we are leaving to our children. I’m not going to protest at the front doors of ADM, I’m just going to quietly flip them the bird while I work in my garden. Already my neighbors are interested.

There are other simple ways in which we can once again take command of our own needs. Harvesting and recycling water, building clever homes from local, renewable materials. Harnessing the energy of the sun in direct ways; all of these are techniques that have fallen out of favor because of briefly available fossil fuel energy. These behaviors seem strange because during the last four or five decades citizens of the United States have been living in a manner that disregards ecological consciousness. Cyclic systems were abandoned for linear ones in which oil and other fossil fuels were put in at the beginning, products were used in the middle and in the end the waste was buried in the ground. Our recent lives haven’t been dependant on natural cycles so we haven’t paid them any attention. What a long winded way of saying that these aren’t radical new ideas, they’re the wisdom of our mothers and fathers; the ways of doing things that worked well for thousands of years.

We need to go back and retrieve wisdom and use it to move forward. In it lies the key to our future. With it we can step out of corporate dependence and without throwing a punch or filing a lawsuit we can whisper to those who would destroy my daughters' planet, “Go away, we don’t need you.” I can’t say I’m not pleased that the Republican stranglehold on our federal government has come to an end. It is the result I was hoping for. A sense of anxiety in me has receded following Election Day. But almost instantly that anxiety was replaced with a sense of fear. What if this legislative body doesn’t do any better? What happens when it becomes obvious that Barack Obama can't save us. It’s time to stop placing our bets on others and recognize in ourselves the possibility of something hard for ours to conceive- a society of just rule and inclusion; a system of operation that allows human beings to carry on with an experiment that hopefully becomes more benign, more compassionate and more responsive to the ecological systems that hold ultimate veto over our existence.

riding a bike

"i used to fantasize about living in a healthier place, one where i could ride my bike, for example. then, one day, i started riding my bike. now, without having fled or escaped to anywhere, i live in a place where i can ride my bike."
– heretic fig

In 2007 I gave up my car commute and started biking. Yes I burn less carbon, yes I use less oil and yes I'm in better shape, but the reason I've stuck with it is that riding to work is so much fun. I'm going to go over some bike basics for those of you thinking about spending less time in your car. By the way you'll save quite a bit of money if you're able to give up your car.

I started at my local bike shop (LBS). I had done my own reserach online and thought I knew what I need but I turned out to be wrong. My LBS owner helped me put together a great setup tailored to my commute. I mostly ride a Trek 7.6 hybrid pictured at the end of this post. I strongly suggest that if you're interested in a bicycle as your main means of transportation you should get to know the people at your LBS. Their knowledge is very valuable.

But there are some things you can consider before talking to someone locally about what might work best for you.

Riding positions. Bicycle geometry is a somewhat complicated topic. Your needs will vary depending on the size and shape of your body, the distance you plan to ride on a regular basis and what you plan to carry. For instance my commuter cycle has a straight bar like a mountain bike. This means I ride in an upright position. I see cars and they see me. I usually only ride 10 miles or so at a time so this position doesn't get to tiresome. On longer trips it does. I switch to a road bike with drop bars and a geometric configuration that is better suited to longer distances. (See pictures at the end of this post.)

Lights. I have two headlights and two taillights. All are capable of producing a stream of light or a flashing light. I have two of each because I never want to leave home after dark and find out the batteries are dead on my only headlight. Plus two lights are brighter than one. I have rechargeable batteries and check them regularly. You might thin kyou'll only be riding during the day but inevitably you'll end up out after dark or caught in a rain shower. Lights will help you ride more sfaely.

A Helmet. Of course in terms of safety you'll want to wear a helmet. I've gotten so used to leaving the house with a helmet that I often grab it even when I'm planning to take my car. Of course I don't actually wear it when I'm driving. ;-) Helmet = Good.

I have on 700 X 38 tires on my commuter cycle. They are wide enough to be stable if I have to leave a paved surface but they are made for traveling quickly over pavement. You can also get 27" tires with all sorts of tread types from smooth to very stubby for off road biking. Somewhere in between you're likely to find a tire that's right for where you plan to ride. There are lots of options. Ask you LBS people.

A Way To Carry Stuff . I have a friend who is fond of saying, "Cycling is just recreation unless you can carry stuff." This is key because if you're riding to work or to school or to go shopping, you're going to need a way to take stuff with you and back again. Rear and front mounted racks can carry bags for goods or people. My commuter cycle has a rack that is compatible with my two year old daughter's bike carrier and also with the pair of saddle bags called panniers. In them I carry my lunch, a change of clothes and anything else I need. For bigger stuff, or bigger people I switch to my xtracycle.

It can carry up to 200 lbs. I a child on it and still have room for groceries.

I have several bike locks. I keep one on my bike at all times. you never know when you're going to want to stop and you'll need to be able to leave your bike safely by itself.

A Tube Replacement Kit. This also stays with me on all rides. With precautions, tube punctures can be minimized but every once in a while I have a flat. A spare tube, the tools to install it and a way to inflate the tube have me up and running again in no time. To prevent flats consider a tire liner.

Toe Clips or Clipless pedals. Using these will help myou better leverage the full power of your legs. It helps me get to work and back faster. They aren't for everyone and they take some getting used to but for many people this will help you get around easier and faster.

A Water Bottle Cage. Stay hydrated.

Fenders and rain gear. By hydrated I meant on the inside not on the outside. If you are going to ride in the rain (and everyone will eventually;-) I suggest fenders and waterproof clothes.

A Computer. OK this isn't necessary butI admit I like to see how fast I'm going, how far I've ridden and to track my progress as a cyclist.

Extras. There are plenty of add-ons that you might find very useful for your bike set up. I have bar ends with built-in rear view mirrors on my commuter. The bar ends are a great way to change hand postions during longer rides and seem to help me get better leverage on hills. I seldom flip out the rear view mirrors but I do use them occasionally, especially in more urban environments. You might find that bell for alerting pedestrians or special seat make your ride more enjoyable.

Again depending on where and how often you plan to ride and what you need to carry with you your particular bicycle needs will will vary. That's why I recommend visiting your local bike shop to help get you started. For most of us using a bicycle for many of our daily trips really is possible and I urge people to give it a try. You might wind up addicted like me.

My commuter cycle gets me around town.
1) Straight Bar for riding in an upright position

2) Head Light

3) Tail Light

4) Helmet

5) 700 X 38 Road Tires

6) A rack with panniers on it

7) A bike lock in the panniers

8) A tube replacement kit in the panniers

9) Clipless Pedals

10) Water Bottle Cage

11) Computer

12) Bar ends with fold-in review mirrors

Not my bike but the same model I use for distances of 15+ miles

Saturday, March 21, 2009

outlaw chickens given notice

UPDATE: I appreciate all the attention this has garnered. On April 21st a small group of citizens will be proposing a text amendment to the Planning and Zoning Commission of the City of Concord. Hopefully this will bring the girls one step closer to legalization. In the meantime they're being moved to a secure, undisclosed location.

The big stinker is that the the price tag for the text amendment is $400. We're raising funds locally but the date of the hearing is fast approaching and the money is due soon. Anyone who wants to help can click on the Donate button in the right side column of this blog. The money will be used to offset the cost of making it legal for *everyone* to keep a few hens on their property inside the city limits of Concord.

Click for more information about the Concord Chicken Club or send me an email at: aaron at henandharvest dot com.


Friday, March 20, 2009

white house lawn to include new garden

From the NYT,
On Friday, Michelle Obama will begin digging up a patch of White House lawn to plant a vegetable garden, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden in World War II. There will be no beets (the president doesn’t like them) but arugula will make the cut.

While the organic garden will provide food for the first family’s meals and formal dinners, its most important role, Mrs. Obama said, will be to educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at time when obesity has become a national concern.

In an interview in her office, Mrs. Obama said, “My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.”

Twenty-three fifth graders from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington will help her dig up the soil for the 1,100-square-foot plot in a spot visible to passers-by on E Street. (It’s just below the Obama girls’ swing set.) Students from the school, which has had a garden since 2001, will also help plant, harvest and cook the vegetables, berries and herbs.

Almost the entire Obama family, including the president, will pull weeds, “whether they like it or not,” Mrs. Obama said laughing.

Read the entire NYT article

Related links:

Farmer in Chief

Eat the View

Thursday, March 19, 2009

self defense

If you think you'll ever be threatened by physical violence (and odds are many of us will) and you've never hit another person you probably should. I don't mean that you should punch the next person that walks by or that you should take up inflicting physical violence as a hobby but I believe everyone should know how to defend himself or herself. And part of that process means getting comfortable with your body and with the other weapons that might make up your self defense strategy.

I suggest learning how to use your body to defend yourself in the same manner I suggest that people who own a gun should learn how to handle it. The human body can be used as a very effective weapon of self defense. You don't need to master any particular form of martial arts to be able to defend yourself but just as with a gun you do need to learn techniques and practice them to increase the likelihood that you'll be able to defend yourself safely and effectively if attacked.

It seems that whenever I talk to other people about defending themselves with their own body specific situations tend to come. "Well what if someone surprises you in a dark alley or a small band of thieves with knives breaks into your home in the middle of the night?" I think I can keep from getting overly mystic and still suggest that learning the art of self defense is a journey, not simply information you can download from the Web. In my opinion everyone should take self defense classes but you're not going to learn how to successfully defend yourself from that band of knife-wielding thieves during week one. It's a process.

Most introductory self defense classes will start by teaching you ways you can begin to use your body to defend yourself as well as weapons you can carry to handle situations you are not yet able to deal with using only your body. For instances, it's fairly easy to learn how to break another person's nose. A properly thrown punch will do the trick even if the attacker is a big man and the person being attacked is a small woman. The great things about a broken nose (or even a bloodied nose) from a self defense standpoint is that it floods the face with blood and tears. Even an enraged attacker (and the big man with a broken nose is going to be angry) won't be unable to see well enough afterwards, let alone operate through the initial pain to be able to chase down the small woman who threw the punch.

*HOWEVER*, the very important question to everyone, including all of the small women who are reading this post is, can you successfully throw that punch? This is where self defense training is useful, not just as a way to learn how to throw that punch (and what to do if you fail to land it on target or with sufficient force) but also what weapon might be appropriate to carry if you are not in fact certain you could throw that punch.

This is especially important to people who have disabilities or for other reasons are not able to physically defend themselves. Learning how to defend yourself isn't just about learning the proper technique or weapon to handle particular situations but rather it's like outfitting a toolbox with all the tools necessary to reliably handle any task that might come up. And it will be specific to each person and their individual needs.

The great thing about this approach is that once you stock your self defense toolbox with a particular tool, you will be able to pull it out at any time in the future and use it. At the risk of taking the metaphor to far it is possible to lose tools, to forget a significant part of a particular self defense strategy but if you properly learn to throw a punch or handle pepper spray it's likely to be an experience there for you to call on if the need arises in the future.

Some tools, like screwdrivers are a useful when taking on any number of tasks. Learning how to throw a punch and how it feels to land it or learning how to responsibly carry and use pepper spray are nice screwdrivers to have in your toolbox. Other more specialized tools like learning how to handle nunchucks are useful but in fewer situations and the consequences of using them improperly could mean greater bodily harm to yourself or others. If you throw a punch incorrectly (the thumb stays outside the fingers when making a fist) you could break your own hand. If you don't properly carry or know how to use your pepper spray you could wind up disabling yourself. This necessity of training is especially true of guns where improper storage or handling could likely lead to death. It's best to start with simple techniques and with strategies that you can safely control and work your way up to more rigorous forms of training and weapons that can do greater harm.

Training to be able to defend yourself with your own body also has other great benefits. Tai Chi is a martial art practiced primarily for health benefits. It's wonderful exercise along with the endorphin release that accompanies any physical activity. It and other forms of physical self defense training will also help you develop balance, flexibility, strength and reflexes. These are useful in situations in which you need to defend yourself but they are also useful in everyday life.

I also don't want to disqualify weapons including guns as effective means of self defense. They can be properly used not only as tools of self defense but also for fun (target practice, shooting skeet) or as a way to hunt for food. Guns are like any human tool, only as useful and as dangerous as the hands in which they're held. I suggest everyone concerned with their own self defense start by training those hands and learning the skills of fighting back with your body. It's training you hope never to need but cold prove priceless if violence threatens you in the future.

Actionable Items:

1. Sign up for a basic self defense class that bills itself as a broad education in what's available.

2. Use this opportunity to explore a self defense system you've always been interested in like Boxing, Kickboxing, Tai Kwan Do, Kung Fu, Goju Ryu, Karate, Judo, Jujutsu, or Aikido.

3. Take up training with a particular weapon like pepper spray, the bow, nunchucks, knives, or a gun.

4. Get a friend, spouse or partner to take a class and train with you. Practice safely on each other.

5. Remember that physical violence is dangerous and that when faced with a confrontation you almost always you have other options. Talking, walking or running out of a dangerous situation are all thought of as cowardly in our culture but they are actually very intelligent choices.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

growing new ways of learning

Calling for one third of the US population to begin participation in agriculture paints a picture unlike what most Americans have envisioned for their future. In fact explicitly calling for 100 million new farmers in the US played somewhat awkwardly to those willing to listen to such a striking strategy over the past few years. We all love farmers and the idea of having more of them, embedded in a plan to return America to its agriculture roots, is a sensible idea in light of all we’ve lost and all we’re facing. But to many, especially those suffering from a serious case of what James Kunstler calls, the psychology of previous investment, such a plan just hasn’t seemed reasonable or realistic until recently.

However the idea that we need more people doing the work of growing food is gaining traction. I spent time yesterday with soil specialist Ron Danise who told me that at a recent seminar he helped put on, a US Senator from South Carolina showed up with that state’s Commissioner of Agriculture and said SC wanted, “thousands of new 20 acre farms.” That sounds like support to me.

About the project of reimagining American agriculture, Post Carbon Institute Fellow Jason Bradford recently said, “…spending too much time trying to circumscribe the problem may delay us moving towards appropriate responses. I believe the broad vision of what needs to be done already exists—food that is more local, organic, produced, processed and distributed by renewable energy systems, and using cultivation methods that put the soil health first.” It seems logical that we need to get the work of, as author Michael Pollan describes it, “resolarizing the American farm.”

I believe that the time to begin this work in earnest is here and I think getting our hands dirty at this stage is particularly important because the transitional strategies we choose will ultimately affect the resulting agricultural system we wind up with.

Gene Logsdon said in an interview, “Information dose not make one successful at farming and gardening. Experience does. We have been led to believe that a college degree brings success; not having a degree brings failure. That is so stupid. …the degree does not bring success. Love and bullheadedness bring success, especially in food production.” What systems and organizations might be useful in helping us transition to more sustainable system of agriculture? What strategies can help us get our hands dirty and give us the experience needed to grow more food? How might we best go about fostering love and bullheadedness? These are the questions of how we should proceed with transitional strategies aimed at remaking agriculture.

It’s true that resources like access to land, equipment and capital and the mentorship of experienced farmers are more easily shared with coordinated efforts that bring to bear the assets of existing organizations. For example NC State is collaborating with the Orange County Cooperative Extension Center and the Economic Development Commission on the farm incubator program PLANT (People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow) at the W.C. Breeze Family Farm Agricultural Extension & Research Center. Now there’s a mouthful.

Closer to home I graduate this Thursday evening from a class I’ve been taking to become a Participating Farmer in the new Farm Incubator program in Cabarrus County, NC. This program is like PLANT and others all across the country aimed at helping gardeners make the leap to market farming. Is gives participants access to resources they need like land and offers help with everything from shared equipment to classes on production and marketing. I’m learning skills like how to construct a greenhouse and build soil fertility but also I’ve had help putting together a business plan. With the assistance of this program I’ll be running a CSA program this summer as well as documenting the Farm Incubator process in a new book I’m calling Hatched.

It seems reasonable that the Farm Incubator model can serve as a useful transitional strategy aimed at creating a more sustainable system of agriculture but we need other strategies as well. Writing about the project of growing a 100 million new farmers in the US, Bradford says, “not only is the absolute number very large compared to today, but given the age of the current crop of farmers it implies that a rapid education of youth will be required to keep bread on the table.” We need more gardening and farming in schools with programs like The Edible Schoolyard program pioneered by Alice Waters. Bradford is himself doing some excellent work with schoolyard farming and farm start up which he chronicles in How to Start a Farm With No Land and Little Money. One of my favorite models centered around an educational institution is the olive oil production project at UC Davis where olives from trees on the university campus were derided as a nuisance before that school began harvesting the fruit and pressing it into oil for sale.

An examples I’m more familiar with is Will Hooker who, along with and others, has been teaching permaculture out of the Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State for nearly two decades. Four year institutions certainly have the resources to help with the changes we’re facing. However these institutions can be reluctant to change quickly enough to address the critical needs facing agriculture today; especially those who are funded by agricultural corporations who stand to profit from a continuation of the status quo for as long as that is possible. The result could be that more inflexible organizations like large universities unable to stay relevant and effective in a world where adaptivity and flexibility are need to draw the new breath necessary to rapidly transform our agricultural system.

On the other hand schools like Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, NC have been practicing and teaching sustainable agriculture for more than a decade. Without all the trappings of a large university they are unable to meet the needs of tens of thousands of students a year but remain more adept at meeting the local needs of students in a community that has become a hotbed for sustainable research and development in part because of this very useful school.

There is no doubt we need programs for helping huge industrial farms scale back without going bankrupt or causing severe disruptions to our food supply. As a society, we have spent decades degrading rural life and farm culture. We will desperately need the knowledge embodied in the farmers who have managed to stay in business, often by working on the farm as well as doing the work of growing our food. Not only do we owe it to them to help big farmers make the transition to a more sustainable model, it’s likely we won’t be able to feed ourselves without their help. What would programs designed to help foster this change look like?

An of course individuals are likely to begin learning on their own and sharing what they learn. David Holmgren, talking about this process of planning for the future says,

“One of the things I think a lot of urban planners miss is that they assume that any future framework will be driven by public policy and forward planning and design, whereas I think given the speed with which we are approaching this energy descent world and the paucity of any serious consideration, planning or even awareness of it, we have to take as part of the equation that the adoptive strategies to it will happen just organically, incrementally by people just doing things in response to immediate conditions.”

In our book, A Nation of Farmers, Sharon Asyk and I call on the rich iconography of the Victory Garden movement. We suggest, as many others have, a reinvigoration of the VG idea not in an effort to battle others abroad but in the effort to fight hunger here at home, a battle waged on the home front against all the ills of industrial agriculture. We both believe that home food production is an important component of the bullseye diet, the attempt to eat as locally as possible. It may be here in the myriad laboratories of backyard and frontyard gardens all across the country that we see the work of reinvigorating agriculture take root. Programs for harnessing this experimentation and its innovation that help share knowledge and experience with others and scale it up where appropriate- marrying those with old resources to those with new ides- might mean new cultural vehicles of education going forward.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

sea change?

Someone asked me the other day if I see signs that a sea change is in fact underway in the US. I said I am looking for two things to suggest we might be starting such a change. The first is repeated challenges by mainstream voices to the assumption that we can or should revive an economic system based on growth. I didn't expect such a challenge to come from _The World is Flat_ author and NYT columnist Thomas Friedman. I remember reading that book thinking he had yet to connect all the dots. Looks like he's starting to.
Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”
Read the whole thing here.

The second is a level of frustration with the current paradigm spilling over from the public and their blogosphere into mainstream media. John Stewart's complete dismantling of Jim Cramer the other night certainly fits the bill. If you haven't watched it I would burn 15 minutes and check it out. It's likely to end up as one of those markers used to signal the end of an era looking back. Mainstream newz coverage, when they have covered the Stewart/Cramer interview, has tended to talk about how 'they' got the economic story wrong over the past few years wrong, meaning CNBC or anyone else. I have yet to hear any mainstream source of newz take responsibility and talk about how 'we' got it wrong. So reality has yet to sink in but Stewart has tapped into something and he likely knows it. As others have said, how interesting that it took a fake news show to really get to the heart of the matter.

I'm not suggesting pigs are sprouting wings, just that I'll have to be more careful about what I suggest are harbingers of change. Or I'll have to admit that the religious worship of growth progress might be missing more members going forward.

the concord chicken club

Local readers here's information about the possibility of a change in the law that is suppose to prevent us from keeping chickens inside the city limits.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

strategies for staying cool

As I turned the corner and walked into the garden I could clearly hear it running. The greenhouse fan was blowing full force. The weather was suppose to be unseasonably warm this second week of March but I was still surprised by the mid 80 degree temperatures we received. I was happy that the fan in the greenhouse was set to automatically kick on. If not we might have cooked our vegetable starts. So begins the wild warm weather of spring and summer in the southeast.

North Carolina is a difficult region to design for because its basic climate conditions are split so evenly between too hot for human comfort 42% of the time and too cold 46% of the time. It's only Goldilocks for 12% of the year. However as a long time resident of NC I can attest to the fact that too hot is much more of a problem than too cold. I'm guessing my friend Sharon in central New York isn't too worried about her greenhouse overheating on this particular week in March. ;-) Too cold in NC means low 20s which is more of an annoyance to those living in the Northeast while it's almost guaranteed to be over 100 degree with a relative humidity level of 85% for at least a few days out of the summer. 90+ degrees and humid is a regular occurrence for many of us in the sunshine belt.

So for those of us who live in warm climates let's talk briefly about how to stay cool before it gets too hot. Never mind those from colder climates who will make fun of us. We have shorts on today and our frost free date is right around the corner!

1. Acclimatize. Most people living in the US today are accustom to spending almost all of their time within a narrow range of temperature between 68 and 72 degrees. Dare I say we have become a nation of weather whiners, complaining if the thermostat reads anything outside of our narrowly bound range of comfort. The human body is capable of remaining comfortable throughout a much wide range of temperatures. The key is to transition your body's comfort level transition. As it gets hotter outside throughout the spring, let the temperature in your house warm up. We play A/C chicken, trying to see how long we can go without turning on our air conditioning. Usually we can get well into June. By that point we are no longer uncomfortable with temperatures in the upper 70s or low 80s.

2. Take your clothes off. I have a friend from Nebraska who is fond of saying, "If you're cold put on a sweater, if you're hot take off your shoes." It seems almost intuitive that the easiest way to warm up in the winter is to put on more clothes and of course the opposite is true in the heat of the summer. It might be against your office dress code to show up in a bikini but shedding the layers will definitely keep you cooler; especially exposing those extremities. Remember you radiate more heat from your head, arms and legs so try to keep them uncovered if you're out of direct sunlight. Which leads to number three.

3. Stay out of direct sunlight. This is true as true for individual bodies as it is for interior spaces throughout homes and offices. If your body is going to be exposed to direct sunlight it makes sense to wear light-coloured, breathable clothing that keeps direct sun off of your skin and won't absorb lots of heat.

Window treatments used to reduce heat lose in the winter in colder climates have their southern cousin in strategies to reflect direct sunlight from interior spaces in the summer in hotter climates. At my home we use white, 2" wood blinds to reflect direct sunlight. If we're home during the day we adjust the angle of the blinds so we can still see outside and have indirect light throughout our house but without receiving all the heat from direct sunlight. If we leave we close the blinds to reflect even more heat. Awnings work well too.

Proper overhang length is a great strategy for allowing winter sun in and keeping summer sun out.

Of course there's more than one kind of overhang.

Deciduous trees offer a seasonal shade option. In the winter they have no leaves and allow in wanted sunlight and its heat. In the summer their leaves reflect the hot sunshine. Such trees are best placed on the south or southwestern side of a structure.

Just be sure to plant the tree close enough to the home to take advantage of this strategy.

It's also worth noting that any work that can be done in the shade should be saved for the middle of the day. Work in the full sun in the early morning and early evening.

4. Stay wet. Nothing will cool you off like a evaporation! The phase change from liquid water to vapor requires a lot of energy. Wetting my hair for instances is one strategy I use to stay cool when I am working in the sun. There are mechanical strategies for doing this. Their effectiveness will depend on your climate.

5. Use the temperature swings. In many warmer climates the temperature is still much cooler as night. If your interior spaces are loading up with heat during the day, do your best to exchange this hot air for cooler air during the night. Depending on the humidity level it might make more sense to draw in cooler air from outside as oppose to trying to cool even hotter air trapped inside your home.

6. Seal and Insulate. If you are able to bring in cool air at night or if you're using a mechanical system to shill your interior air you'll want to keep that air from being warmed by outside air during the day. This means sealing air leaks so that mechanical systems aren't pulling hot air from outside through air leaks in your building envelope. You don't want to seal you structure air tight. That would be like living in a plastic bag and would invite mold and other problems. There are guidelines on how air tight your home should be but unless it was built by exceptional craftsmen it's likely that you're no where near the level of air tightness you could safely achieve. You can check this using a blower door test. The overhead attic door is usually the biggest air leak by the way. After you've sealed air leaks insulate to further reduce heat gain.

7. Bring on the wind. Moving air will help not only to take advantage of temperature swings during cooler, nighttime temperatures but the movement of air over your body will help with evaporative cooling. We have ceiling fans in most rooms, especially bedrooms and box fans for use in certain windows on certain nights. Be sure to properly care for your fan by checking it out each season and lubricating it and your fan investment will last for years.

Here's an old strategy for moving air without electricity. It's called a heat chimney or cooling tower.

Those huge wrap around porches and tall plantation houses of the deep south start to make sense from a passive cooling standpoint with this strategy in mind. The modern version might look something like this diagrammatically speaking.

8. Take it easy. Southerns aren't slow because we're lazy, we're just keeping cool! Rest or do light work during the middle of the day. there's no reason to add heat to the equation by being in a hurry. It also makes sense to move more energy intensive activities outside like cooking or drying clothes.

9. Mooch coolth. If you're trying to stay cool but you don't want to turn down the thermostat try taking in a movie. The theater is likely to be very cool. Or visit the library, a museum or some other building that is temperature control and can give you some relief from the heat. The natural version of this is the forest. It's going to be much cooler in the woods than it is in your front yard. Take advantage.

10. Look after each other. There is no reasons why people should die from heat stroke or exhaustion. Be sure to take care of people especially susceptible to the heat like children and the elderly. This is the responsibility of all of us who are healthy and better able to regulate the temperature of our own bodies.

I'll leave yo with a document (pdf warning) that describes some of these strategies in more detail. Stay cool!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

plans to go camping

Those of you who enjoy recreational camping are probably familiar with the ritual of packing up all the gear you’ll need for a camping trip. Perhaps some of you keep a list to help the process of packing go faster and more smoothly and to keep you from making mistakes that might prove disastrous like forgetting to bring the matches.

Most of the items on your camping preparedness list probably help to meet one of eight basic human needs:

Health Care
Other Tools

For instance, campers will need to carry enough water for each member of the group or some way to purify water. Food is another necessity as is some sort of tent or other shelter to keep the campers warm and dry. It’s likely that the group will need a form of energy to cook their meals and they’ll need basic first aid equipment since the campers won’t have easy access to professional emergency medical responders. Campers would also be wise to carry at least one cell phone as a way to call for help in case of a more serious emergency and they’ll need a way to get around, even if it’s just a sturdy pair of boots and a backpack for hauling all this gear through the woods.

The guys I regularly camp with would probably include other items on the list of camping necessities like a shovel, a bottle of whisky, a deck of cards and a sharp knife. I’ll lump this last group into a category called “Other Tools.” Embodied within this category is a debate about which of these is a necessity and which is more of a luxury. For now let’s just suggest that there are other very helpful tools that humans need on a camping trip.

In many ways, planning for a future in which change will be constant and less energy and fewer resources will be available is like planning a camping trip. A decline in the availability of petroleum and other fossil fuels will mean less energy available to most of us in the future. This fact will bring on its own set of unexpected changes even while climate change provides another source for surprise. Meeting basic human needs becomes a more complex problem when other dynamics such as finance, time and politics are factored in against a backdrop of rapid change and unfamiliar situations. This might be the kind of camping trip Hollywood makes movies about.

It is impossible however to plan for such a camping trip while keeping all of this in mind. For sure the need to stay flexible should be considered but there are too many possible problems to account for them all. You can’t take a backpack big enough to weather every possible storm. That’s why we make a list of items to pack. It’s helpful to step back and revisit the list when preparing for a camping trip and in much the same way it is helpful to revisit the list of categories that describe basic human needs when making decisions about how to plan for your future during the era of energy descent, resource depletion and climate change. So let’s examine each category and consider our own needs in terms of how much we use in our daily lives and what sort of resources are available to us at this point in time.

1. Water. Healthy human beings need to drink between ½ and 1 gallon of water per day depending on the level of exertion. Add more for cooking and basic hygiene and daily water use could easily exceed 40 gallons of water per person. In the US the average is about 80 to 100 gallons per person per day. There are many ways to calculate this but what’s important for you is to understand how much water your family currently uses and how much is available in your area.

Those of you who draw municipal water will have a monthly bill you can use to calculate the amount your household uses on an average day. Those of you with your own well may find this calculation more difficult. It’s important though to have an idea about how much water you’re using. Here’s a calculator that will help.

Now take a look at how much water is available in your area. Here’s a list of monthly and yearly rainfall totals for cities all over the US.

This site is easier to use and also lists average temperature highs and lows. It doesn’t list annual totals though just monthly totals.

Of course rain is not the only indicator of the amount of water available. Are there streams or rivers near by? Do you know the condition of the groundwater in your area? How many people are drawing from these streams and rivers or from the ground water in your area? Water is an essential human need and a better understanding of how much you have and how much you need is important.

2. Food. The USDA estimates an average daily intake of about 2000 calories. This varies widely though depending on age, sex, and level of physical activity. How much do you eat each day? How much food does your family eat? You can save receipts from food purchases or better yet, keep records of your meals and use that as a way to gauge how much you eat.

For starters here’s a food calculator.

Here’s another.

It’s important to remember though that food storage is a complicated topic. Rather than use the estimates suggested by these calculators it would be better to understand how your family actually eats when examining your needs.

Then take a look at how much food of that food comes from your yard? Your neighborhood? Your greater community? How about your region or your state? Obviously the closer to home the more control you have over a particular source of food. It’s unlikely any of us will be eating totally out of our gardens in the future. What is the local food scene like where you live? Do you see local eating as a possibility for your family?

3. Shelter. I’m guessing you sleep in your house most every night. It’s obviously one of your most important needs. This particular need is pretty complex though. It’s probably easy for you to ascertain whether or not your house keeps the rain from falling on your head. But there are more multifaceted questions like how well your house keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Are there issues that will need to be addressed in the near or mid term like roof replacement, plumbing or electrical work? How about the exterior? Are there flooding and drainage issues? Windows? Insulation? How air tight is your home? In what condition is the mechanical system that heats and cools your home and bring fresh air indoors? Are there other unique features that warrant attention?

And the big one, do you own it? If you have a mortgage you don’t really own it. You are entitled to stay in your home only so long as you keep paying your mortgage. Is that likely to be the case? I know that’s a big question but some of the projects you might entertain will be worth it in the short term and others will only be worth it if you plan to stay in the house for a long time and can afford to do so in the future.

4. Energy. OK generally speaking energy use can be divided into three categories. A) Electricity B) Home heating and cooking C) Transportation. We’re going to address C as it’s own category later on. To gauge your use of electricity open up your monthly utility bill. For a better understanding of how you probably use energy take a ook at this website.

Here are a couple of examples.

If you really want a clear picture of your use by appliance I recommend a kill-a-watt. It’s a device that will tell you exactly how much electricity each appliance in your home is using. You can buy one online for less than $20

The next question to ask yourself is where does you electricity come from? The cost of generating electricity is very likely to increase in the future as fossil fuel resources are depleted and some sort of carbon tax or cap and trade system is put in place. What would happen if the cost of your electricity doubled? Triple? Went up by a factor of 10?

Home heating and cooking energy will differ from one household to another. What is most important is to understand how much heating oil or natural gas or electricity or how much wood you use to accomplish these task and where that resource comes from. Those of you dependent on heating oil to stay warm in Maine will use this information differently from those who burn wood in cook stove in Alabama. I haven’t included home cooling here because for almost all of us that’s a function of electricity but it’s important for those in the southern portion of the US to understand what it takes to keep our homes cool in terms of energy use.

5. Health Care. What are your health care needs? The answer will obviously be different for men and women and people of different ages. And of course there will likely be unforeseen health care issues in the future for all of us. At this point in time though what are your specific needs? How well can you meet them yourself? What resources are available in your community? We all tend to think of the nearest doctor’s office but are there other options- a friend who is a nurse or a midwife, an herbalist who might offer alternatives to the medications you use, a retired dentists who lives on your block.

Remember this is the part of the discussion where we’re making a list of our needs and a list of the resources that might help meet those needs. You’re not likely to invite your neighbor the retired dentist to go camping with you just in case you get a tooth ache but knowing he’s there and having him on your list of resources is an important step in the process of planning for your future in a changing world. So list out all your health care needs, including medications and then list all the local resources you can think of.

6. Communication. Now we’re getting into the grey. Some people might argue that communication isn’t necessarily a basic human need. In a certain sense that’s true. If you can meet all your other needs adequately on your own you don’t technically need to communication with others. However as I mentioned before, it’s handy to have a cell phone on your camping trip in case anything goes really wrong. Cell phones will probably continue to prove useful in certain circumstances in the near future but do you also have a land line phone in your home? Is it the cordless kind whose battery will one day wear out? Who about a CB radio for emergencies or a short wave radio? How about just a regular Am radio for news during a blackout. Can you crank it for power or does it also run on batteries? Can you charge those batteries using solar power? How reliant are you on email? How about correspondence over snail mail? The point here is that you want to be able to communicate with people and you want overlapping system for doing so that are available in a variety of circumstances.

7. Transportation. Take stock of your transportation needs and your resources. 97% of transportation worldwide is powered by petroleum. How much transporting of yourself and your family do you do on a regular basis? How energy efficient is your form of transportation. That is, how much fuel do you use? This is a critical number to know. What resources are available to you? Can you walk? Bike? Take a bus or a train? Ride a horse? Again at this stage we’re simply taking note of the amount transporting we do and the amount of energy we use doing it. Then we’re making a list of the options available to us.

8. Other Tools. OK this one is really ambiguous. What might make sense is for you to list the tools and appliances you rely upon. In most cases there are many tools that do the same job. For instance you might rely on a refrigerator to keep your food from going bad. Other options you might rely upon when planning for the future include root cellaring, canning, freezing, smaller refrigerators or refrigeration systems that run using other energy sources, etc. The idea here is to become aware of all the tools you use and would need to take camping or do without if you were going camping for a really long time.

While you’re making your camping list of your needs and the items available to you, resist the urge to make projections at this stage. The extent to which energy descent, resource depletion and climate change affect your life and manner and the timeframe in which you feel those effects is impossible to accurately predict. We can make some basic assumptions but this is mostly about reviewing where you are, what you need and what you have available at this time. Actually I think that with the proper preparations any individual, family or community stands a pretty good chance not just of surviving the coming changes but thriving in a new era.