Thursday, August 27, 2009

honey, peak oil means recycling our own urine

I’ve made the joke several times that losing my salaried job was really the only way I could take up full time farming and stay married. Its one thing to come home and say, “Honey I quit my job and I’m going to become a farmer.” It’s quite another to come home and say, “Honey I got laid off but don’t worry, I’ve got another job in mind- farming!” Sharon Astyk has written a really great piece for those of you who have partners that are giving farming a go. You can read it here.

In a broader sense though making changes in our lives in response to a changing world means making those changes in the context of family and friends. I was talking to a recent high school graduate who understands the way the world is changing in a way that seems to escape most of the rest of American. Listening to her talk I found myself jealous of her freedom. She doesn’t have the commitments or responsibilities that many of us older folks have. She isn’t married, no kids, no mortgage, not even a dog. She has deferred college entrance for a year to spend time working on the sorts of projects that I think will come to the forefront of American life during the next decade in response to resources depletion, energy descent and climate change. And because of her situation she can throw herself into them head first. She can leap without looking.

For many of us it is the fear of change that holds us back but for those of us who live with the responsibilities and commitments of existing relationships like marriage or fatherhood, the fear of change is amplified by the concern of meeting the needs of our family and friends.

And I’m not just talking here about physical and fiscal needs although that is a concern. I’m dealing with those two in a serious way. My transition into farming isn’t exactly paying the bills at the moment. There is a learning curve involved with any new career. This isn’t exclusive to those of us who are making a radical career change with the post-peak carbon era in mind. All across the US, people are being laid off and coming up with all sorts of more conventional ideas about how to make money to support their families. But when new lifestyle ideas wander a certain distance off the beaten path, they invite skepticism or even criticism from family and friends. This can add a degree of stress to family life and social circles. You should see the reactions I get at dinner parties when I mention the fact that I’m a farmer. ;-)

I’m not one to spend an enormous amount of time concerning myself with the way others perceive me but still I admit to struggling at times with the choices I’m making; especially when the skepticism and criticism comes from those I love and trust. My wife is both very supportive and generally skeptical of wild ideas. Her support tends to quiet her skepticism but at times even she asks me how all this is going to turn out. “Will we be ok,” she’ll ask to which I can’t promise an answer. I don’t know what will happen any more than anybody else who hasn’t got a crystal ball. I believe that because I have a greater awareness of the big picture problems we’re facing I am better equipped to navigate the coming changes in the way of life here in the United States but awareness is no guarantee of success and so I have to say, “I hope so.”

Uncertainty seems to compel people to cling even tighter to that with which they are familiar. This makes change more difficult. It also means that coming to grips with need for change in my own mind isn’t enough to sail smoothly in a new direction. The idea that change is necessary and possible must be shared by those who inhabit the ships of our lives and are by default bound in the direction in which we are headed as a family. It isn’t easy to foster that idea or even a greater awareness of the problems we face in those I love but having made a few mistakes I thought I’d share them that others might avoid making them or perhaps mike make them less badly.

1. Go easy on gloom and doom. I remember announcing to my wife several years ago, having come to an understanding of peak oil, that I had discovered the world as we knew it was coming to an end. Not a smart move. What I was begin to understand concerning resource depletion was in fact important but I could have shared the news in a more, um, easily digestible way. I could have gone out to eat with my wife and told her about my concern with our unsustainable use of oil as a part of our overall dinner conversation. I could have asked if she wanted to watch a documentary like “The End of Suburbia” or given her a copy of the book _The Party’s Over_. The same is true of extended family and friends. Try not to overwhelm them on the first try.

2. Ask for feedback. Unless your crystal ball is firing on all cylinders it might just be possible that your partner/family/friends might have insights or ideas that could be useful. Even if you are in fact way ahead in terms of coming to grips with these changes or making plans for the future it will help to get buy-in from your family and friends if you fully include them in the evaluation and decision making processes. Decrees will not work.

3. Pay attention to what’s important to others. My wife was fully supportive of my intention to stop driving and start riding a bike. She was very supportive. It turned out that I could have made her very happy by in return investing in a new deck for our home. She wasn’t suggesting it from the standpoint of being able to spend more time outdoors in our warm climate when the house gets hot or making our home an even more enjoyable place that might reduce the need to go somewhere for a vacation. These are reasonable strategies even through the lens of response to energy descent and economic hardship. But investing in something that was important to her might have helped her to feel included in the decision-making process about how we shape our home. (By the way the deck goes in this winter)

4. Don’t turn to destructive coping devices. There was a period of time when I drank too much because I felt overwhelmed about what’s going on in the world. This isn’t a problem for me now but turning to an escape mechanism like alcohol will only make the situation worse. Trust me.

5. Have some fun. Ultimately many of the changes associated with resource depletion, energy descent and climate change will lead to a healthier, happier world. I’m not rosy-eyed enough to think that the transition won’t be difficult at times or that the future will be nothing but bliss but there advantages to a lifestyle of lower energy use. Share these positive aspects of change by painting an encouraging picture about what lies ahead. You’re much more likely to get the people you love to head with you in that direction.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

camping as a way to plan for change

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.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

strategies for staying cool :: a repost

This is a repost from earlier this year on low energy 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, August 06, 2009

just how fast should we be making change?

I tend to make changes more rapidly than my wife. It's not that she's always right and jumping in with both feet is always a bad idea. Sometimes I am more successful at making changes if I make them more rapidly because I begin to enjoy the benefits of change more rapidly than if I'd taken the "baby steps" approach. This was certainly true when I started riding a bike as my primary means of around town transportation. I quickly became addicted to the exercise and the fresh air and the wonderful rush of endorphins. I'm not sure I would have stuck with it if I'd only started out riding a little each week. Instead I started riding to work everyday. I went from zero miles per week to 120 miles per week- big change and I did it really fast.

But there is a back story to this change that I want to share not only to please my wife but because making big life changes and making them quickly isn't always the best strategy.

First of all, different people are comfortable with different paces of change. One of the biggest challenges I've had in adapting my life and my family for resource depletion, energy descent and climate changes has been marital. I might be comfortable making big changes rapidly but my wife is not and this has caused us considerable friction. There was a point at which we weren't sure we were going to make it. That point has pasted but I know now that I have to adjust the speed of my families adaptation so that it is comfortable for everyone involved.

I love my wife and I want to stay married to her and that means factoring in the speed at which she is comfortable making changes. This doesn't mean that we're not acting with haste in some circumstances. I don't think we have decades to make some of these changes. Sometimes big, rapid change is called for and my wife sees the need to go along with them sometimes. But we communicate now not only about what to do but when and how fast to adapt and this is key to success for more than one reason.

The old saying that 'haste makes waste' has truth to it and we really don't have time to waste. Slowing down and making some of these changes more gradually might be best in certain circumstances. And getting it right the first time might mean moving more slowly. As people discover that the future is going to be very different from the past and that we're probably in for some rough times ahead there's a tendency to to say, "OH CRAP! We have to grow more of our own food, insulate the house, learn to shoot a gun, begin making our own soap, etc. and we have to start doing it all right now because the world might come to a screeching halt tomorrow!!!" This happened to me.

I remember years ago when the true implications of peak oil set in; I mean the actual afternoon when it really hit me. I was on my way to visit friends and I stopped to eat at Taco Bell and I remember thinking, "This might be the last time I ever eat fast food because industrial agriculture might stop working this evening and the trucks might stop rolling into town tomorrow." And of course they didn't and Taco Bell still exists even if I don't eat there any more for other reasons ;-) I was overwhelmed though and I began to cast about for ways to adapt.

And what was one of my first attempted adaptations? I started collecting waste vegetable oil and learned how to brew biodiesel. I didn't have a vehicle that ran on diesel. This was one of several inconvenient flaws in my hastily made plan, but I charged ahead and soon had upwards of fifty gallons of waste vegetable oil in my crowded garage. In fact, I still have a considerable amount of it in my garage and talk about a sore spot with my wife. It turns out that the plan to begin brewing biodiesel wasn't my best alternative option for transportation. A bicycle was. Yup, it was much easier to outfit a bike and start riding. I had been in too much of a hurry to make change and I initially made the wrong one. I annoyed my wife and I wasted time.

I can think of at least one more reason we might want to make some of our adaptations more slow and that is motivation. When I talk to people with big peak oil preparation plans they tend to have something in common, they are motivated by fear. This is not unjustified. We are facing some pretty daunting challenges. I still get scared on a regular basis. But here's the thing about fear. It's a really good short term motivator.

If you find yourself face to face with a tiger fear tells your body, run like hell! And this is a good thing because it keeps us from getting eaten by tigers, if we can run fast. But fear is a pretty crappy long term motivator. In _A Nation of Farmers_ Sharon and I talk about this. We refer to the fact that even when people are told by a doctor that they must make a particular life change or they will die, only 10% of people are able to make that change and stick with it for a year. We do need to act with haste but fear alone will not be a consistent motivator for the duration of time it will take your family to adapt. We must develop other motivations for making these changes and the great news is there are plenty of them.

If any of you are in panic mode about making post carbon adaptations as quickly as possible because you are afraid of what we're facing, I do suggest you slow down a bit and catch your breath. We need to act quickly but there are some pitfalls we would do well to avoid.

The fear alone won't carry you through. And I suggest you slow down, just a bit because if you don't you might make some poor choices. And it's important, I now believe, that you pay attention to the speed at which your loved ones can make the important changes necessary to adapt to the situation we're entering into. If you don't you could end up with fifty gallons of truly wasted vegetable oil in your garage because of a hastily made plan that severely annoys your wife. I've been there and I'm just trying to be helpful.


change ain't sexy

Originally posted in December 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

getting somewhere with design

"Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being proceeded by a period of worry and depression.” John Harvey-Jones

While it’s certain possible to over intellectualize the process of design, it’s also just as likely that doing without think can lead to failure. Brainstorming about garden design is easy enough for most people. Many of us can conjure up images of gardens or at least thumb through online images of chicken tractors and victory gardens and dream about doing that in our own yards. The difficult task seems to be translating these visions into successful projects- taking information and putting it to work; the result of which will be the experience you will need to be successful in the long run.

As a place to start we’re going to discuss the process of design needed to organize the gardening/farming efforts of entire property. The first step is the brainstorming mentioned above. It helps to get an idea of what you want out of your outdoor efforts. To that end we used a questionnaire to organize your Needs & Wants. The second step is to take a Site Inventory of your property. The next step is to begin deciding what might go where. Of course this is the part that requires an understanding of how garden and growing food works.

At this point let me put you at ease by suggesting that you are definitely going to make some mistakes. Don’t let a fear of failure paralyze you at this point. Maybe you don’t feel like you have enough knowledge to know where the chicken coop should go or if a particular spot will be sunny enough for your vegetable garden. The best you can do is to read and ask questions of knowledge people regarding these issues. At some point though you’re going to have to make a decision and get at it. One thing of which I am certain is that if you do not move forward with your gardening project, you will never eat food from it.

So now is the time, right or wrong, to begin making decisions about what is going where. Bubble in your decisions on a copy of your Base Plan, the plan you came up with as an inventory your property. All your Needs & Wants should be represented graphically on this Bubble Plan. It is going to change as you share it with people and they offer constructive criticism. It’s going to change as your Needs & Wants change. It’s going o change as your budget dictates and for a whole host of other reasons but at least for now you need to have a starting point from which to begin- a point from which to begin the actual change. This Bubble Plan will offer you something else as well. It will help you organize and further design the individual areas or sites of your property.

Say for instance you have designated your front yard as the primary place for your vegetable garden. At this point you have a large bubble encircling the front yard with the words, “Veggies Go Here,” written across that bubble. Once you’ve finished bubbling your entire property you can revisit the front yard bubble and begin to refine its design. Ask yourself, What does that garden space actually look like? Where are the paths? How wide are they? Where does the tall stuff like corn go so as not to shade out the short stuff? Do you need water beyond what rains? If so where will it come from? Will the hose reach? How many tomatoes will you grow? Peppers? Kohlrabi? Do you need a fence? Once you’ve established an over all plan for your property you can drill down into the design of these specific sites without feeling overwhelmed. This strategy breaks the design process into a Master Plan for the overall property and Site Plans for individual sites throughout your property. Your Master Plan is just a refined Bubble Plan. Here, let’s draw it. If you haven’t figured this out I’m more of a visual person.

It’s important to remember that Design is not a noun, not in this context at least. Design is a verb and refers to an ongoing process. A Plan (Bubble or Site or Master) is the noun, the product of the design process. The arrows that loop back to the beginning of this diagram represent the fact that both the needs & wants and the site conditions relevant to a particular garden or farm project will constantly change. It’s alright to stop along the way and consider a Master Plan or a particular Site Plan to be “finished” so that you don’t go crazy with constantly redesigning your property. But recognize that over time your Plans will change while the process of design will continue.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

still think american imperialism doesn't fund your experience?

Then just what are you experiencing?

From Floyd Norris writing for the NYT,
One area where that can be seen is shipments of durable goods produced by American companies. The rate of such shipments fell by more than 20 percent during this recession, and would have declined further were it not for increased production of weapons.

In no previous downturn since 1958, when the figures began being recorded, had the decline been as much as 14 percent.

The drop is all the more remarkable because such shipments rose at a relatively restrained rate in the preceding period of economic growth, particularly when military sales were excluded.
read the whole article here.

more from raw story here.

more from mish.