Wednesday, December 29, 2010
It’s a curious detail of sociology that people who hold one set of beliefs that are stigmatized by society – those people who hope to become respectable one of these days, at least – tend to distance themselves reflexively from those who hold unrelated but equally stigmatized beliefs. In most corners of American society today, the reality of hard ecological limits has about the same cachet as the ancient belief that events here on earth are foreshadowed by changes in the circling heavens. Actually, that understates the case. Plenty of people who regularly sneak glances at newspaper horoscope columns are quick to reject any suggestion that the march of progress could be stopped in its tracks by nature’s callous refusal to provide us with as much cheap concentrated energy as we happen to want. Thus it’s no surprise that most of the responses to Savinar’s announcement were negative.
Still, Savinar may have the last laugh. An article in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal discussed the way that old-fashioned Southern conjure – also known as rootwork or hoodoo, the traditional magic of African-American folk culture – has become a growth industry while the rest of the economy is circling the drain. While the New Age movement is very much a creature of prosperous times, old-fashioned occultism has always tended to swim against the current of the business cycle, prospering in hard times and finding fewer takers when the economy booms. If the current economic unraveling has the usual effects, Savinar may just have made an exceptionally smart career move.
At the same time, there’s more to the matter than one person pursuing a marketable skill in whose relevance and efficacy, by the way, he wholeheartedly believes. Just prior to the shutdown of the “Life After The Oil Crash” forum, Savinar posted a series of increasingly irritated comments about the number of people on it whose obsessive concern about the prospect of a catastrophic future stopped well short of doing anything to prepare for it. I know the feeling; this blog and the Green Wizards forum have attracted a lot of people who are actually doing something about their future, but I’ve had plenty of run-ins elsewhere with people who apparently believe that (a) insisting that some technology they’re doing nothing to develop or deploy will bail us out of our predicament, (b) displaying their doombat machismo by imagining a future more godawful than anybody else’s, or (c) finding somebody to blame and showing Jung a thing or two about how to project the shadow, are useful responses to the end of the industrial age.
Unproductive as these habits may be, there’s an understandable logic behind them, and behind all the attempts to paint the future in glowing colors of one sort or another – be those colors the syrupy hues of a Thomas Kinkade cottage painting or the purer if less comforting tones of a thermonuclear fireball. All of these portraits are ways not to think about the future that’s actually bearing down on us, a future that might best be summed up by pointing out that nearly all of us here in America will be poor – not "can’t afford the latest Xbox this month" poor, by the way, but "may not be able to put food on the table" poor – for the rest of our lives.
Yes, it really is as simple as that. White’s Law defines energy per capita as the basic measurement of economic development; as energy per capita declines, the economy contracts, and its capacity to support individuals at any level above the starvation line contracts as well. All the social, political, and military fireworks that punctuate the curve of decline unfold from that inescapable equation, as those who can no longer support themselves by supporting the system turn to catabolizing the system as a matter of sheer survival. Just now the turn to catabolism is happening in a shamefaced, surreptitious way: thieves stripping empty homes for copper and aluminum, banks cashing in their futures to buy short-term cash flow, cities quietly announcing that this or that set of essential services will no longer be available. Later rounds of catabolism may be a good deal more direct; each new round of news stories about the struggles between warlords beyond America’s fortified southern frontier makes me think of the proud border chieftains of an earlier age: Alaric, Hengist, Genseric, Attila.
Such reflections may make the green wizardry I’ve been discussing in recent posts seem pointless, but that pointlessness is an illusion. If the great driving force behind a future of disintegration and chaos is the simple inability of a failing society to provide even the most basic subsistence for the bulk of its people, anything that will allow those people to make other arrangements for their subsistence offers a way to cushion the decline. With that in mind, I want to talk about a simple, resilient technology that helps solve several of the most serious problems that poor people face now and the rest of us will be facing shortly. It was common – in fact, heavily promoted – all over the industrial world a century ago, and you’ve probably never heard of it.
Let’s start with the problem: cooking fuel. According to a recent news story, archeologists have found out that our sturdy cousins the Neanderthals routinely ate cooked vegetables, and cooked meat has been a hominid staple since the days of Homo erectus. Pace today’s raw food diet promoters, most foodstuffs are safer to eat and easier to digest when they’ve been subjected to heat, which is why every human culture everywhere on earth cooks most meals. The one drawback is that the heat has to come from somewhere, and usually that involves burning some kind of fuel; anywhere outside today’s industrial world, fuel doesn’t come cheap, and in most poor countries the struggle to find enough fuel to cook with is a major economic burden, not to mention a driving force behind deforestation and other ecological crises.
The obvious response, if you happen to think the way people in the modern industrial world think, is to deal with fuel shortages by finding and burning more fuel. That’s exactly the thinking that got us into our current predicament, though, so it’s worth looking at other options. To do that, we need to start with the thermodynamics of cooking itself.
Imagine, then, a saucepan on the stove cooking rice. It’s a metal container with a heat source under it, and inside it are two cups of water and a cup of grass seeds – that’s "rice" to you and me; the goal of the operation is to get enough heat and moisture into the grass seeds that your digestive system can get at the starches, sugars, B vitamins, and other nutritious things inside them. So far, so good, but this is where a familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics comes in handy, because there’s a prodigious waste of energy going on.
Trace the energy along its route and you can watch the waste happen. The energy at the heat source is highly concentrated; it flows, with some losses, into the metal saucepan; some of it flows through the pan to the water and rice, where it does the job of cooking, but a great deal of the heat gets into the sides and lid of the pan; some of it comes directly through the substance of the pan, some of it comes indirectly through the water and rice, but one way or another a great deal of the energy in your cooking fuel is being used to warm the surrounding air. This is all the more wasteful in that your rice doesn’t need a huge amount of heat once the water’s been brought to a boil; a very gentle simmer is more than enough, but to produce that gentle simmer a lot of fuel gets burnt and a lot of heat wasted.
Here’s an experiment for you to try. Get a cork mat larger than the bottom of the saucepan you use to cook rice, and a tea cozy. What’s a tea cozy? An insulated cover for a teapot, designed to keep the tea in the pot good and hot while you work your way down from the first relatively pallid cups off the top to the stuff with the color and consistency of road tar down at the very bottom. The kind of tea cozy you want has a slit in one side for the handle of the teapot, and one opposite it for the spout, and it needs to be large enough to pop over the saucepan with the saucepan’s handle sticking out through one of the slits; the more insulation it has, the better..
Got it? Okay, get your pot of rice started; when the water has reached a good fierce boil and you’ve put the rice in, cover the saucepan tightly, take it off the heat, put it on the cork mat and pop the tea cozy over it. Leave it for a little longer than you would normally keep it on the stove, and then serve; if you’ve followed the instructions, you should have perfectly cooked rice with a fraction of the fuel consumption you’d otherwise have had.
If you’ve done the experiment, you’ve just learned the principle behind the fireless cooker. In America, those were often called "hayboxes," because that’s what the old-fashioned version was – a wooden box stuffed full of hay in such a way that there was a space for a pot in the middle, and a pillow of cotton ticking stuffed with more hay that went over the top. A hundred years ago, though, you could get elegant models from department stores that had porcelain-coated steel cases, rock wool insulation, and easy-to-clean metal liners with pots sized to fit; the best models had soapstone disks you could stick in the oven during the day’s baking, then drop into the fireless cooker, put a pot of soup or stew on top, and have it piping hot for dinner six hours later.
I’ve never seen an old-fashioned fireless cooker; my guess is that here in America, at least, most of them were turned in during the big scrap metal drives in the Second World War. They were apparently still in use in some corners of Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, Still, the technology is simple enough that even the least capable home craftsperson can put one together in an hour or two. My spouse and I have two of them, a portable version in a wooden box and a rather less portable version built into a piece of furniture; both of them were built using a slightly improved version of the basic haybox design with polyester quilt batting for the insulation and cotton ticking covering the batting to keep it clean. Doubtless the design could be improved, but the portable one holds heat well enough that a pot of Scotch oats, brought to a boil on an open fire and tucked into the cooker before going to bed, serves up piping hot oatmeal the next morning.
Fireless cookers will not save the world. They aren’t even a complete solution to the problem of finding adequate cooking fuel, though they make a good many other responses more viable by sharply cutting the amount of heat that has to be provided from some other source. In the jargon of the peak oil scene, they aren’t silver bullets, or even silver BBs; they’re simply a useful bit of appropriate tech that can be put to work in order to make an impoverished future a little easier to live with. There are many other things that can be put to work in the same way.
Come to think of it, that’s basically what human culture is – a bag of tricks, not unlike Felix the Cat’s, suited to the needs and possibilities of a particular suite of human ecologies. The culture we’ve grown up with was adapted to an environment in which, for most people in the industrial world, the big question was how to make the most use of cheap abundant fossil fuels. The culture our great-grandchildren will grow up with, in turn, will be adapted to an environment in which the big question will be how to manage a healthy and graceful existence on a very sparse resource base. Fireless cookers might well become a part of that culture of the not too distant future, particularly if enough green wizards check out the possibilities in haybox technology here and now.
Far and away the best book written on fireless cookers so far is Heidi Kirschner’s Fireless Cookery. Published by a small press in 1981, it’s long out of print; some small press could do a lot worse than hunt up the current copyright holder, get the rights, and put it back on the bookshelves.
I understand that Girl Scout handbooks from before 1950 or thereabouts have instructions for making a haybox, and might be worth consulting; there are also chapters on the technology in some American cookbooks from the first decade or so of the twentieth century.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
No, I’m not going to join in the all-but-shooting war over the portrayal of women in James Howard Kunstler’s latest peak oil novel, The Witch of Hebron – not yet, anyway, though I do plan on reviewing the book down the road a bit. I don’t propose to discuss the role of firearms and organized violence in preparing for the arrival of deindustrial society just now, either, and despite the entreaties of several of my regular readers – I’ll leave their motivations an open question – I don’t intend to talk about whether or not hemp is the wonder plant that will save us from peak oil. I plan instead on addressing an American obsession, one that has baffled, annoyed, and amused foreigners and tied the brains of Americans in square knots since colonial times and shows no sign of letting up any time soon.
That is to say, it’s time to talk about food.
That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that I’m going to speak out either for or against any of the current crop of fad diets, or for that matter any of their countless equivalents from the past. Fad diets are a fact of life in America, and there’s an interesting reason for that: changing your diet makes you feel better. It actually doesn’t matter how you change your diet. There’s a guy who made headlines on the bottom-feeder end of the media not long ago by doing a diet consisting entirely of junk food, and who lost fifteen pounds and feels much better since he started that diet; there’s another guy who ate nothing but potatoes for thirty days and had his health improve noticeably. Based on my observations, the effect of taking up a new fad diet lasts for six to eight months on average, and then you end up feeling pretty much the way you did before. Those among us who start a new fad diet every January, and drift out of it sometime later in the year, may actually have the right idea.
Still, that’s not a way of thinking that Americans find congenial, and the reasons for this reach back, I’m convinced, to our nation’s Puritan heritage. Puritanism has been usefully defined as the profound and inescapable fear that somebody, somewhere is having a good time, but it also has a very distinctive relationship to the concept of evil. Evil, to a Puritan, is a concrete reality capable of precise physical location; it lurks around you, ready to jump out at you from the shadows at any moment; but if you can identify it, hate it, and cast it out, then you’re good and you go to Heaven.
This is essentially the way most Americans think about food. Each of the fad diets in circulation these days identifies some particular component of food as Satan incarnate, and insists that if you hate it loudly enough and cast it out of your diet, then you’re good and you go to whatever secular equivalent of heaven contemporary fashion happens to be offering at the moment. (A century ago Americans dieted to gain weight; now they diet to lose weight; doubtless the pendulum will swing back the other way in due time, and people will once again panic over being too thin.) Whether the Satan in your diet of choice is meat, fat, carbohydrate, salt, sugar, too much cholesterol, not enough cholesterol, the wrong kind of cholesterol, or what have you, there’s some street corner preacher ready to urge you to renounce your dietary sins and get right with Good Digestion.
Druidry doesn’t tend to foster street corner preachers, though, and the wars between contending fad diets don’t really have that much to offer the Green Wizard project with which the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report is mostly concerned. No, I want to talk about something a good deal more basic: the awkward fact that the food you can produce in your backyard garden, or acquire in any other way likely in a deindustrializing world, does not magically appear in the forms that most Americans are used to consuming. A nation used to eating factory-breaded chicken tenders and JoJos to go is going to face some interesting traumas when food once again consists of live chickens, raw turnips, and fifty-pound sacks of dry navy beans.
It’s easy as well as entertaining to poke fun at America along these lines, but the difficulties involved are very real. A very large fraction of today’s Americans, provided with a plucked chicken, a market basket of fresh vegetables, and that fifty-pound sack of navy beans, would be completely at a loss if asked to convert them into something tasty and nourishing to eat. The torrent of cheap fossil fuel energy that has so completely transformed the rest of life in the industrial world has worked overtime on America’s food system, and this isn’t just a matter of how many miles a meal has traveled – how many factories has it and its ingredients passed through on the way to your plate?
As the age of cheap energy winds down, it will stop being economically viable to process food in huge centralized facilities and then to ship it hundreds of miles in refrigerated trucks to far-flung stores for just-in-time distribution to commuters shopping for dinner on their drive home from work. As that stops being economically viable, those people who know how to produce good meals by some less energy-intensive method will be a lot better off than those who don’t. Most people who have had any significant contact with the concept of peak oil will admit this, but all too often a curious thing happens next; they sigh, and talk wistfully about how nice it would be if they had the vast amounts of spare time and the demanding technical skills that cooking meals from scratch requires, but they don’t, of course, so it’s chicken tenders for dinner again.
You may be thinking something similar, dear reader. You may be thinking that it’s all very well to praise home-cooked meals produced from raw materials, but cooking that way is a very time-consuming process, not to mention one that involves a vast amount of hard work. You’ve seen the gyrations that actors in chef hats go through in cooking programs on TV, you’ve glanced over the forbidding pages full of exotic ingredients and bizarre processes that make today’s gourmet cookbooks read like so many tomes of dire enchantment out of bad fantasy fiction, you’ve seen racks of women’s magazines that treat elaborate timewasting exercises disguised as cooking instructions as a goal every family ought to emulate, and you’ve unconsciously absorbed the legacy of most of a century of saturation advertising meant to convince you that cooking things for yourself from scratch is an exercise in the worst sort of protracted drudgery, and probably gives you radioactive halitosis and ring around the collar to boot, so you really ought to give it up and go buy whatever nice product the nice man from the nice company is trying to sell you.
If all this has convinced you that you don’t have time to cook, dear reader, you have been had.
Maybe it’s that my grandfather retired after twenty years in the Aberdeen, WA fire department with a reputation as the best firehouse cook in Grays Harbor County; maybe it’s because my stepmother, who taught me how to cook, grew up eating the Tokyo working class equivalent of down home cooking in the years during and after the Second World War; or maybe it’s because when I left home and settled into my first tiny apartment, two rooms, shared bath, the two cookbooks I had to get me started were the original edition of Tassajara Cooking and The New Cookbook for Poor Poets – whatever the reason, the programming somehow failed to rub off on me. I’ve always believed in cooking from raw materials; I’ve always believed that making a good meal should take no more of my time – that is, no more time in which I actually have to do something, as distinct from any amount of time the food spends cooking off by itself – than the fifteen minutes or so it takes me to eat the result; and I’ve never encountered the least difficulty reconciling those two beliefs.
In other words, by the time you’ve gotten off the freeway on the way home from work, fought your way through congested surface streets to the grocery store, found a parking place, done the breast stroke through the crowds between you and the deli counter, caught the attention of a clerk, waited for your order of chicken tenders and Jo-Jos to be heaped into a couple of plastic containers, stood in line again to check out, escaped from the parking lot, fought your way back through those same congested surface streets, and staggered home, I’ve cooked a homemade meal from scratch and am setting it out on the table. Now of course the plum glaze on the pork chops was put up in an orgy of canning two years ago, the vegetable bean soup took ten minutes of knife work and eight hours in a fireless cooker over the weekend and is being parcelled out of the fridge a couple of bowls at a time, and it took me a couple of minutes this morning to pick the makings of the salad out of the cold frame, but if we count an appropriate fraction of those activities in my time, then we probably also need to count the half hour or so you had to work to pay for the difference between the cost of your dinner and the cost of mine.
All this is meant to suggest that there’s an entire world of cooking that has nothing to do with elaborate gourmet dishes, on the one hand, or takeout food and plastic packages on the other. A great deal of today’s cultural dialogue about food has done its level best to obscure that fact. I have a soft spot for the current “Slow Food” movement, but the very choice of that movement’s name points out that it’s unlikely ever to be anything more than an affectation of the leisured well-to-do. People who work all day, whether at a job or at home, don’t generally have time for slow food, and it doesn’t do them any good at all to reinforce a set of assumptions that insist that the only alternative to slow food is the prefabricated industrial product that passes these days for fast food.
What’s needed, really, is the revival of the sort of cooking that working class people used to do for themselves back in the days before cheap energy made the current food system possible: good food cooked in a way that doesn’t place unreasonable demands on the time or energy of people who have many other things to do. The phrase “down home cooking” can be translated into pretty much every language on Earth, and refers to different raw materials and recipes in almost every one of them, so I don’t propose to get into specifics here; you, dear reader, probably have a fair idea of the kinds of food you like to eat, and that rather than random suggestions from archdruids should be your guide. De gustibus non disputandum est; which is to say that in food choices, above all else, dissensus rules.
In place of a specific resource list, then, I’d like to recommend those of my readers who are pursuing the green wizardry project to take a look at the resources for down home recipes they have available to them, perhaps in their families, perhaps in their communities, perhaps through other channels. The recipes to look for aren’t the fancy ones you’ll find in glossy recent cookbooks that are meant to gaze scornfully down from the bookshelf and overawe the guests; the recipes you want, rather, are the ones that Grandma Mildred used to make when it was just her and Grandpa George sitting down to dinner on a Monday night when the rest of the work week was still ahead, the ones that old Uncle Benny remembers from his days in the fire department or the merchant marine, or the ones that an elderly lady in the church your great-grandmother attended wrote out longhand in blue ink to give to your great-grandmother as a wedding gift. You might find them in old mimeographed Grange cookbooks with spiral bindings, or stuffed in the back of the recipe box you got from somebody in the family and never really sorted through, or – well, you get the idea. See what you can find.
One way or another, the sort of cooking I’ve discussed here will stage a comeback in the age after petroleum. The huge industrial infrastructure that undergirds today’s food system is not going to survive the end of the energy surpluses that created it, and when it unravels – perhaps slowly, perhaps in one vast JoJodammerung, a Twilight of the Chicken Tenders on a Wagnerian scale – people are still going to need to eat. The more people there are who have taken the time to learn the not unduly difficult skills of producing good food quickly, cheaply, and easily, the more time and energy will be available to tackle the many other challenges that we’re going to face as the age of cheap energy stumbles toward its end.
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
In the teeth of this stinging vote of no confidence from the bond market, the Obama administration and its Republican allies in Congress – chew on that concept for a moment – are pushing through another round of spending increases and tax cuts that the government doesn’t have the money to pay for. The ratings agency Moody’s has warned that if the current spending bill is passed, it will have to consider downgrading the once-sacrosanct AAA rating on US government debt. Exactly how the endgame is going to be played is still anybody’s guess – runaway stagflation, a hyperinflationary currency collapse, and a flat-out default by the US government on its gargantuan public debt are all possible – but there’s no way that it’s going to end well.
All this makes the topic of this week’s post particularly timely. Across the industrial world, people have come to assume that they ought to be able to buy ripe strawberries in December and fresh oysters in May, and more generally food in vast quantity and variety on demand, irrespective of season. That assumption relies on using wildly extravagant amounts of energy to ship and process foodstuffs, and that by itself renders the eating habits of the recent past an arrangement without a future, but these same habits also depend on a baroque global financial system founded on the US dollar. As that comes unraveled, an old necessity most of our grandmothers grew up with – home processing and storage of seasonal foods – will become necessary once again, at least for those who don’t find scurvy and other dietary deficiency diseases to their taste.
Food storage is a subject that calls up strong and often contradictory emotions, and sometimes inspires actions that don’t necessarily make much sense. Rumors are flying just now in some corners of the peak oil community, for example, that the sales freeze-dried food has spiked so sharply in recent months that suppliers are unable to keep up with the demand. This may well be true, but if so, it shows a certain lack of common sense; unless you plan on living out of a backpack during a financial crash – and this is arguably not a good idea – there are many better and cheaper ways to make sure you have some food put by to cope with breaks in the supply chain.
Nor is food storage really about stashing food in a cellar in order to ride out a crisis. A century ago, nearly everybody in America processed food at home for storage if they could possibly do so, for reasons much more down to earth than expectations of catastrophe. They did it primarily because the foods available year round in a temperate climate typically don’t provide a balanced diet, much less an inviting one. Absent the energy and financial systems that make it look reasonable to fly fresh food from around the world to stock supermarkets in the United States throughout the year, good sources of vitamin C are mostly to be had in the summer and fall, meat tends to show up in a lump at slaughtering time in October and November, and so on; if you want these things the rest of the year, and you don’t have a functioning industrial economy to take care of that matter for you, you learn how to prepare foods for storage in season, and keep them safely stored until wanted later on.
The ways that this can be done, interestingly enough, make a very good lesson in practical ecology. To keep food in edible condition, you have to engage in what ecologists call competitive exclusion – that is, you have to prevent other living things from eating it before you do. Your main competitors are bacteria and other microorganisms, and you exclude them by changing the habitat provided by the food until it no longer provides the competition with the resources it needs to survive.
You can do that by changing just about every ecological variable you can think of. You can make food too cold for bacteria to survive; that’s freezing. You can make food too hot, and keep it enclosed in a container that won’t let the bacteria back in when the food cools down; that’s canning. You can make food too dry; that’s drying. You can change the chemical balance of food to make it indigestible to bacteria, but not to you; that’s salting, brining, smoking, corning, and pickling, among other things. You can get sneaky and keep food alive, so that its own immune system will prevent bacteria from getting a foothold; that’s root cellaring, and a variety of other tricks commonly used with cold-hardy vegetables. Alternatively, you can get even sneakier and beat the bacteria to the punch by deliberately infecting food with a microorganism of your choice, which will crowd out other microbes and change the food in ways that will leave it in edible condition for you; that’s fermentation.
Which of these is the best option? Wrong question. Depending on where you are, what foodstuffs and other resources you have to hand, and how long you expect it to take for various parts of the current order of things to come unraveled, almost any mix of options might be a good choice. It will almost certainly have to be a mix, since no one preservation method works best for everything, and in many cases there’s one or another method that’s the best or only option.
It’s also wise to have a mix, because methods of preserving food differ among themselves in another way: some are much more functional in a time of energy shortages than others. If your food storage plans revolve around having a working freezer, you had better hope that the electricity remains on in the area where you live, or you need to make sure you have a backup that will function over the long term – and no, a diesel generator in the basement and a tank of fuel doesn’t count, not after the first few weeks of fuel shortage. That doesn’t mean that blanching and freezing some of your homegrown garden produce is a bad idea; it means you need to have something in place to power the freezer well before the brownouts start to happen, or you need to be prepared to shift to another preservation method in a hurry, or both.
This points to a second good lesson in practical ecology that can be learned from food storage, though this one’s a lesson in practical human ecology. Technologies – all technologies, everywhere – vary in their dependence on larger systems. When comparing two technologies that do the same thing, the impact of their relative dependence on different systems needs to be included in the comparison; if technology A and B both provide a given service, and technology A is cheaper, easier, and more effective than technology B under ordinary conditions, technology B can still be the wiser choice if technology A is wholly dependent on an unstable system while technology B lacks that vulnerability.
This much should be obvious, though all too often it isn’t. It’s embarrassing, in point of fact, to see how often a brittle, complex and vulnerable technology dependent on highly questionable systems is touted as “more efficient” than some simpler, more reliable and more independent equivalent, simply because the former works somewhat better on those occasions when it can be made to work at all. Just as you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you can instantly name three ways to misuse it and three things it can’t do at all, it’s a waste of time and resources to buy into any technology unless you have a pretty good idea in advance of its vulnerabilities and the ways it tends to fail.
This sort of thinking can and should be applied throughout the green wizardry we’ve been discussing in the last five months or so of posts, but food storage is a very good place to start. Let’s say you’ve decided to blanch and freeze some of the vegetables from your backyard garden. That can be a good choice, at least if you can expect your electricity supply to remain stable for the next year or two; still, you owe it to yourself and your freezer bags of Romano beans to take a moment to work out the downside. What are the main sources of electricity in your service area, and how will they be affected by likely changes in fossil fuel prices over the next couple of years? How does electricity get to you from the grid, and is that connection vulnerable? When does your service area tend to suffer blackouts, and how long do they tend to last? Are there ways you can keep a freezer powered for the duration of a longer than average blackout? Does one of those ways seem like a sensible investment, or would it be smarter to shift to a less vulnerable method of storage?
More complexities slip in when you remember that there’s often more than one way to power the same process. You can dry food, for example, in an electric dehydrator, but in any climate that isn’t too humid, you can also dry food in a solar dehydrator. This is basically a black box with small holes in the top and bottom, covered with fine mesh to keep out insects, and trays of screen-door screening stretched on wooden frames inside, with the food spaced on the trays to allow air circulation. The sun heats the box, air flows in through the bottom and carries moisture away through the top, and the food dries with no other source of power. When you’ve got adequate and reliable electricity, an electric dehydrator is more convenient and reliable; when you have reason to think that electricity will be expensive, intermittent, or not available at all, the solar dehydrator is usually the better plan.
In many cases like this last, though, the best option of all is to have and use both – the more convenient and reliable technology while you’re still on the learning curve and the larger system that supports it is still there; the more resilient and independent system in a small way all along, so that you learn its quirks and can shift over to it full time once the more complex technology becomes nonfunctional. In the same way, it can make a good deal of sense to blanch and freeze garden produce while you’re still learning your way around using home-dried foods, or to can your pickles in a hot water bath while you’re still getting the knack of older pickling methods that don’t require airtight containers.
In a time of faltering energy supplies – not to mention the spectacular self-destruction of national finances – this sort of thinking can be applied very broadly indeed. The strategy of a staged disconnection from failing technologies, made on the basis of local conditions and personal, family, and community needs, offers a pragmatic alternative to the forced choice between total dependence on a crumbling industrial system, on the one hand, or the usually unreachable ideal of complete personal or community independence on the other. The backyard-garden methods discussed in earlier posts are founded on that strategy, and most of the energy conservation and homescale renewable energy production methods that will be central to the first few months’ worth of posts next year rely on it as well.
There’s a reason for this ubiquity: the strategy of staged disconnection is the constructive alternative to catabolic collapse. A society in catabolic collapse, running short of necessary resources, cannibalizes its own productive assets to replace resource flows, and ends up consuming itself. The strategy of staged disconnection is not catabolic but metabolic; it taps into existing resource flows before shortages become severe, and uses them to bridge the gap between existing systems that are likely to fail and enduring systems that have not yet been built. At the same time, if it’s done right, it doesn’t draw heavily enough on existing systems to cause them to fail before they have to.
That’s what could have happened if the industrial world had pursued the promising initiatives of the 1970s, instead of taking a thirty-year vacation from reality that cost us the chance of a smooth transition to a sustainable future. On the collective scale, that’s water under the bridge at this point, but it can still be done on the smaller scale of individuals, families, and communities.
Food preservation and storage are among the few subsets of green wizardry where old information can land you in a world of hurt. If you intend to take up canning, in particular, you need up-to-date information; for example, the relative proportions of sugar and acid in today’s tomato varieties, as compared to those fifty years ago, are so different that recipes that were safe then can land you with botulism poisoning, i.e., quite possibly dead, if you use them today. Your county extension service can point you toward accurate information on safe canning, and so can the current edition of the Ball Blue Book.
Not all methods of food preservation are as volatile as canning. Though it’s always wise to check for updated information, some of the classics are still well worth reading. My library includes Mike and Nancy Bubel’s Root Cellaring, Grace Firth’s Stillroom Cookery, Phyllis Hobson’s Making and Using Dried Foods, Carol Hupping’s Stocking Up III, and Stanley Schuler and Elizabeth Meriwether Schuler’s Preserving the Fruits of the Earth.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
This is not to say that all these reorientations are well advised. Sharon Astyk, for example, has proposed aligning the peak oil movement with climate activism; in the abstract, this is a logical idea, but in the real world it’s an invitation to disaster. The climate change movement has science solidly on its side, to be sure, but it’s proven hopelessly inept in dealing with the decidedly unscientific worlds of public relations and politics; climate activists have time and again allowed their opponents to define the terms of the debate, and relied on the prestige of science to make their case at a time when that prestige, already at a low ebb, is continuing to wane. Their opponents have not exactly been slow to take advantage of these missteps.
At this point we’re thus probably going to have to wait for the first major climate catastrophe to hit the industrial world before any of the world’s major polluting nations will be willing to change their ways. Aligning peak oil with the failing climate activism movement won’t change that, but will make it easier for the political establishments of the world’s nations to ignore peak oil for another few years; worse still, it might teach peak oil activists the same bad habits that have scuppered what was once a formidable climate activism movement, and produce similar results a second time around.
Rather more disturbing is Michael Brownlee’s recent manifesto calling for a new "Deep Transition" movement unique to the United States. Now of course the label "deep," when applied to any set of ideas, is a not very subtle way of calling the competition shallow, but there’s more going on here that that bit of one-upsmanship. Those of my readers who are familiar with the current flutter in alternative dovecotes around the rollover of the Mayan calendar in 2012 may notice a recognizable flavor in Brownlee’s prose; from the hammering on apocalyptic imagery to the sweeping vagueness of its proposed response – not omitting references to "the Sacred," that convenient catchall for the religious irreligiosity of our age – there’s nothing in it that would be out of place in the writings of yet another millennarian New Age sect.
Regular readers of this blog are aware that I have serious doubts about the Transition movement, but it has at least an even chance of doing some good as the industrial world stumbles through the opening decades of its decline and fall. Those mass movements for collective redemption that sociologists call "revitalization movements" are another matter, for the only thing that exceeds their emotional appeal in times of collective crisis is their futility in practice. Rob Hopkins’ measured response to Brownlee’s manifesto made the same point in a typically understated way; it’s to be hoped that people involved in Transition here in the US will listen.
I’m glad to say, though, that not all the reorientations under way are as misdirected as the ones I’ve just cited. A much more promising example is under way at The Oil Drum, which seems to be waking up to the fact that it’s become the de facto go-to place for quality peak oil information, and is adjusting its public presence in response. I find it particularly interesting to watch that adjustment in action, because one of the things the TOD community appears to be distancing itself from is me.
Witness the discussion in the Drumbeat comments a week ago, where a number of TOD regulars weighed in at some length about their discomfort with the phrase "green wizard." That’s exactly the sort of thinking TOD needs right now. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, during which it provided what was quite literally the world’s best media coverage of the crisis and response, the Drum has a reputation to maintain and a global audience to address. I would not be the least surprised if ten years from now, the premier peak oil journal in print – the sort of peer-reviewed quarterly that every serious thinker in the field has to have on his or her bookshelf – is published by the nonprofit that runs TOD, and draws some of its best authors from the stable of bloggers that currently keeps TOD stocked with cutting-edge analyses and up-to-date information.
That isn’t the kind of project that would benefit from being associated with an archdruid who promotes green wizardry. Still, as one of the participants in the discussion pointed out, neither my audience nor my strategy are the same as theirs. A viable movement responding to the crisis of peak oil needs its sober websites packed with facts and figures, phrased and presented in terms both acceptable and compelling to the political and business elites who wield so much influence nowadays; still, that’s not the only thing it needs. It also needs a broad penumbra of individuals and small groups who are willing to explore those possibilities that don’t happen to appeal to men in business suits. The benefits that respectability brings to The Oil Drum would be wasted there; what’s needed, rather, is a willingness to pursue options outside the fashionable ideas of the moment. In a trajectory of that kind, a desire for respectability is a hindrance, and the wry embrace of an identity society as a whole rejects – for example, "wizard" – has quite commonly helped.
I’m pretty much restricted to such an approach, as it happens. It still surprises me how many people think I use the term "archdruid" as some sort of marketing gimmick, when it’s not exactly a secret that Archdruid is my job title, as head of one of the several dozen organizations that emerged from the 18th century revival of Druid nature spirituality. I try to wear my religion lightly in contexts where it’s not specifically relevant, such as this one, but it doesn’t take much searching on the internet to figure out that some of the beliefs I hold are not going to qualify me for respectability any time in this age of the world. The fact that The Archdruid Report was originally started with the intention of talking about peak oil and the future of industrial society to other members of the Druid community just adds spice to the resulting stew.
Still, a strategy of dissensus – the deliberate pursuit of radically different and even contradictory possibilities – is not simply a counsel of convenience for those who don’t have any other choice. If we’re to meet the crises ahead with even the smallest hope of something other than total failure, the options that need to be explored cannot be limited to those that the current political and business elites – the people whose decisions by and large got us into this mess, remember – happen to find acceptable. The resources that those elites can bring to bear are important, and need to be directed into anything that can be made acceptable to them – the rebuilding of the US rail system comes to mind as a very good start – but the options that can be made acceptable to today’s elites will only contain a small fraction of the options that need to be put to work.
That assertion doesn’t require belief in any deliberate conspiratorial intention on the part of those elites, by the way. The elites that mostly run today’s industrial societies, like their equivalents in every other human society, have a deeply conservative streak under whatever surface layer of fashionable radicalism may be popular at any given time. They have the positions of influence that they do because they have the educations, hold the opinions, and think the thoughts that their peers, and more particularly the immediately prior generation of their peers, considered suitable to their roles. In a society that’s more or less sustainable, this is a powerful source of stability; in one that’s stumbled into an unsustainable human ecology, these same pressures for elite conformity can make it next to impossible for anyone in charge to think about the world in any way other than the one that’s making disaster inevitable.
This is where dissensus and the deliberate encouragement of the eccentric, the improbable and the rejected come into their own. We are far past the point at which an organized, society-wide program to deal with the crisis of industrial civilization is possible – as the Hirsch report pointed out five years ago, that had to start twenty years before the peak of petroleum production, which puts that hope a good quarter century into the realm of might-have-beens – and even if the option still existed, the political will to make it happen simply isn’t there. That means that aiming for flexible ad hoc responses cobbled together out of whatever resources come to hand is probably the best option we’ve got. Focusing on those possibilities that can be done on a shoestring, and maximizing the total number of these that get tested in the immediate future, is therefore a crucially important strategy right now. Even if most of those efforts fail, this approach will likely yield the largest number of useful options to mitigate the crisis in the short run and manage some degree of recovery later on.
This logic has at least one implication that probably won’t sit well with many of my readers: that people should be encouraged to pursue projects that, according to the best current evidence, have little apparent chance of succeeding. That’s a necessary consequence of a dissensus-based approach, though; as Charles Fort used to say, "It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made." The one caveat that has to be added, though, is that anyone advocating any such project actually needs to be doing something about it.
The Bussard fusion reactor makes a good example. It’s a modest variation on the Farnsworth fusor, an interesting laboratory curiosity dating from the 1950s;. It’s fairly consistently proven able to fuse small numbers of hydrogen nuclei into helium, but there’s no good reason to think it can produce anything like as much energy as it uses up. For several years now the Bussard reactor has nonetheless been cited over and over again by people on internet forums as a reason not to worry about peak oil – that is, to use a terminology suggested in an earlier post, as a lullaby.
Still, there are a modest number of people – according to recent media reports, around a dozen – who have built Bussard-style devices in their basements and achieved nuclear fusion, confirmed by neutron detectors. None of them are producing net positive energy at this point, or anything close to it. Still, I have the utmost respect for these people; they’re putting their money, as well as their time and energy, where their mouths are. If there’s any chance that Bussard was right, this is how we’ll find out.
The flip side of this is simple enough: if people want to come to a peak oil blog (or anywhere else, for that matter) and insist that the Bussard reactor is going to save us all, the appropriate response is, "Are you building one?" If they are, well and good; if they’re chipping in as much as they can afford to help cover the expenses of someone who’s building one, that will pass; otherwise, they’re singing lullabies and may be disregarded.
The same principle can be applied to any other proposed response to the crisis of industrial society. If it’s viable as a basement-workshop project, then anybody who intends to promote it online or elsewhere had better be building one. If it’s too large, complex, and expensive for a basement workshop, it’s probably going to be too large, complex, and expensive for a civilization caught in the jaws of fossil fuel depletion, climate instability, and economic unraveling. There are some exceptions – again, the rebuilding of America’s rail system comes to mind – but in that case there are still ways to contribute, at least to the extent of the cost of a round trip ticket now and then.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve limited my focus in these posts on green wizardry to things that I do myself, or have done in the past and am gearing up to do in the future as soon as funds and time permit. The kind of SUV environmentalism that waxes rhapsodic about all the things everybody else ought to do for the environment, while doing few or none of them, is not a viable response to the crisis of our time. I’m willing to open my mouth about energy conservation and organic gardening, appropriate tech and antique tech, doing without and doing with less, because these are things that I do myself; I’d hardly offer myself as any kind of paragon of virtue – there’s much more that I could be doing – but I’m not going to advocate what I’m not willing to do.
On the other hand, if somebody’s actually out there putting some proposed response to the test, they ought to be given the benefit of the doubt, not to mention the respect due to anybody who’s trying to live up to their aspirations. I would extend that rule very far. The biodynamic agriculture devised most of a century ago by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner, for example, combines quite a few very sensible steps – Steiner’s the place where modern organic gardening got the idea of raised beds, for example – with some things, such as planting by astrological influences, that most people reject out of hand these days. I know people who use Steiner’s methods, and they seem to get good results; if planting by the stars and mixing weird herbal concoctions into their compost helps them grow organic food crops and keep people fed during the times to come, more power to ‘em.
In the weeks to come these posts will be transitioning from food, the first of three themes in the Green Wizard project, to heat, which is the second. While that’s happening, though, I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to my readers, and especially to those of them who are working with green wizardry: choose something improbable that you think might just offer a possible response to any of the aspects of the crisis of industrial society, and get to work on it. If that involves piecing together a Farnsworth fusor in the basement, good; if it involves learning planting by the Moon, good; if it involves – well, whatever it involves, if it appeals to you, get on with it. Don’t leave it to someone else; do it yourself, because that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
Passion can’t be legislated, and the sort of passion that led, for example, Gregor Mendel to spend years crossing pea plants to tease out the secrets of heredity is what we need right now. At worst, you’ll be able to draw a line under an unhelpful approach so that resources can go elsewhere; at best you may just provide the world with some small but valuable piece of the puzzle of survival. If we’re to reach the future’s further shores with any of the more useful legacies of the last three centuries intact, that willingness to take personal responsibility for making things happen is one of the things we need most right now.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
With all this bad news rattling away like old-fashioned musketry, it can be hard to look beyond the headlines and grasp the broader picture, but that’s something well worth doing just now, especially for those of us who have put in some years in the peak oil scene or, for that matter, any of the other movements that have had the unwelcome job of pointing out that infinite growth on a finite planet is a daydream for fools. What the broader picture shows, when all the short-term vagaries, the rhetoric and the yelling are all stripped away, is something as simple as it is stunning: we were right all along, and the rest of the world is slowly, with maximum reluctance, being forced to grapple with that fact.
We’ve come a very long way since the peak oil movement began to take shape just over a decade ago. In those days, those of us who were concerned with petroleum depletion were basically a handful of heretics howling in the wilderness, at a time when serious books on energy by major academic presses routinely missed the obvious fact that fossil fuels would run short long before they ran out. The suggestion that oil production might be limited by geological factors was dismissed derisively by people straight across the political spectrum; if the price of oil ever actually rose above the rock-bottom levels it then occupied, the conventional wisdom went, the law of supply and demand would infallibly bring new production online and force the price back down.
Then, of course, the price of oil began to go up, and production didn’t respond. All the considerable resources of political and financial rhetoric have been worked overtime to gloss over that extremely awkward fact, but the fact remains: petroleum prices are now at levels that were unthinkably high only a few years ago, the bountiful new production the conventional wisdom foresaw has not happened, and dozens of alternative resources that would supposedly be viable once oil cost $30 a barrel, or $50, or $80 are still nowhere in sight. Last week the IEA, the international organization that tracks energy supplies and predicts their future trajectory, quietly admitted that conventional petroleum production had peaked in 2006, and ratcheted down their projections of future energy supplies yet again.
The mainstream media responded as usual with a flurry of pieces insisting, essentially, that we do too have plenty of fuel, nyah nyah nyah! I’m not sure if anyone was fooled, though. There’s a famous quote of Gandhi’s: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” We’re well past the stage of being ignored, and the few voices still laughing at peak oil are sounding very hollow and forced these days; the fighting is still going on, but that last stage is starting to look more and more like a near term probability.
All this raises an interesting conundrum for the peak oil movement. Of the risks run by any movement that seeks to upend the status quo, the most commonly underestimated are the dangers of success. Plenty of movements that have triumphed over every adversity have faltered or even imploded when adversity gave way to achievement. There are plenty of ways that this can happen, but I suspect the one most likely to beset the peak oil movement will arrive when the movers and shakers of the world’s industrial nations turn to the more respectable members of the movement and say, “Okay, you’ve made your point. So what do we do about it?”
I suspect that this challenge has been on the minds of a number of people in the peak oil scene of late. Several peak oil-related organizations and websites are pretty clearly shifting their focus from arguing for the reality and imminence of peak oil—the necessary focus of the last decade—to advocating and lobbying for some set of responses to the end of the age of cheap energy. A number of other people in the peak oil scene, most of them less organizationally connected, have reacted against this trend in one way or another. Which side is right? Both of them, of course.
The most common source of trouble when a social movement succeeds in entering the collective conversation of politics is the lack of any constructive plan. That’s not going to be an issue here; we’ve got plenty of people proposing plenty of plans, covering the whole gamut of possibility from the sensible to the delusional. No, the problem that the peak oil movement is most likely to face is the one that comes when a movement, having gotten access to the halls of power, lowers its sights to target only that set of goals it can reach consensus on, and thinks it can get from whichever subset of the political class is currently in charge.
That’s a fatal mistake, in two mutually reinforcing ways. First, it allows the subset of the political class that’s currently in charge to turn the movement into a wholly owned subsidiary, by giving just enough scraps to the movement to keep it hankering for more, while dangling the whole package just out of reach before the movement’s eager eyes. That’s how the Democrats turned the environmental movement (among others) into one of their captive constituencies, for example, and it’s also how the Republicans turned gun owners (among others) into one of their captive constituencies – and you’ll notice that neither movement, nor any of the other movements thus co-opted, have ever managed to get more than a few token scraps of its shopping list out of the process.
The second difficulty is the natural result of the first. Once a movement is turned into a wholly owned subsidiary of one end of the political class, it can count on losing any chance of getting anything once the other end of the political class gets into power, as will inevitably happen. The result is an elegant good cop-bad cop routine; each party can reliably panic its captive constituencies every four years by saying, in effect, “Well, granted, we haven’t done a thing for you in years, but think of how much worse it will be if those awful (fill in the blank)s get into power!” Those who swallow this line can count on watching their movement sink into a kind of political zombiehood in which, whatever its official goals, the only real function remaining to it is to get out the vote for one or the other set of mutually interchangeable candidates come Election Day.
Combine these two difficulties and you get the graveyard that’s swallowed most movements for change in America in the last half century. The peak oil movement could end up as just another tombstone in that cemetery if it doesn’t scent the trap and avoid it.
It’s not that hard to avoid it, either. The key is dissensus: that is, making sure that the movement doesn’t focus on a single set of readily achievable demands, but rather has several competing agendas, with at least some elements in each agenda that ignore the conventional wisdom about political possibility and shoot for the moon. For best results, there should be one detailed agenda, with its own pressure groups and lobbying organizations to back it, that focuses on government regulation and big federal projects, to appeal to the Democrats; there should be another equally detailed agenda, backed by a different set of pressure groups and lobbying organizations, that focuses on market-based approaches and voluntary community groups such as churches, to appeal to the Republicans; and there should be a third agenda that horrifies the entire political class, but has persuasive arguments and vocal supporters and thus can’t simply be ignored.
The point of these competing agendas is that they turn the good cop-bad cop routine against the political class itself. Democrats who want to get votes by pushing a peak oil platform have a set of proposals they can support, with plenty more to come when those are in place; Republicans who want to do the same thing have a different set that they can support, and again, there are more projects to hand once those get going; and then there are those wackos out on the fringe with their extreme proposals, who are always ready, willing and able to frighten Democrats and Republicans alike into backing some peak oil agenda because, after all, if they don’t do something, the wackos might get a foothold.
When subjected to this treatment, the political class typically loses track of the fact that the question has stopped being “should we do something about the issue?” and becomes “what should we do about the issue?” Instead of being manipulated by the political class, in other words, the peak oil movement needs to roll up its sleeves and do some manipulating of its own. It’s been done before by plenty of other movements and it will be done again by many more, and the peak oil movement has enough internal diversity to pull it off with panache.
Regular readers may be wondering where among these three options I see the Green Wizards project. The answer, of course, is that it’s a fourth option – the option that works outside the political process, and aims for those projects that can best be pursued at a grassroots level by individuals and small local groups. If it catches on, as it appears to be doing just at the moment, it becomes the flywheel providing stability for the whole process; government programs come and go, one might say, but backyard gardens endure – which is one reason why we’ve still got a viable organic gardening movement thirty years after the alternative scene that launched it crashed into ruin. Furthermore, if green wizardry really catches on, it could become large enough to count as a noticeable voting bloc – in which case we might yet witness the delicious spectacle of politicians pandering to the green wizard vote by supporting expanded tax credits for home insulation and more state funding for Master Composter programs.
Does this seem improbable? All of it happened here in America during the last round of energy crises, from 1972 through 1981. During those years the environmental lobby in Washington DC, not yet reduced to its present condition of servitude, pushed energy conservation legislation aimed at both sides of the Congressional aisle; there were plenty of advocates for federal programs, but there was also a thriving subculture of appropriate-tech entrepreneurs arguing for a market-based response to the energy crisis; there were plenty of people out on the Ecotopian fringe who did a fine job of scaring politicians into more moderate projects; and of course there was a very large movement of ordinary people who spent their off hours growing vegetable gardens and caulking their windows to save energy.
Now it’s only fair to say that a repeat of that experience will not save the world, or the United States, from the consequences of the quarter century of malign neglect that occupied the time we might have spent getting ready for peak oil. It is very late in the day; as the Hirsch Report pointed out five years ago – ironically, right around the time global oil production peaked – adapting to peak oil without drastic social disruptions requires major changes to begin twenty years before the peak. We missed that chance, and so there are going to be drastic social disruptions. The question is whether there are things that can be done to make their impact less devastating and their long-term consequences less severe – to cushion, in effect, these opening phases of the Long Descent.
I think there are. Some of those things, it’s fair to say, are best done by individuals following Ernest Thompson Seton’s excellent slogan - “where you are, with what you have, right now” - and of course this is what the Green Wizard project is meant to encourage. The backyard gardens, well-insulated homes, simple alternative energy projects and handmade crafts that helped hundreds of thousands of families navigate the stagflation and soaring prices of the Seventies are likely to turn out just as well suited to help an equal or larger number dodge the worst effects of the economic turmoil and spiking food and energy costs that bid fair to define much of our immediate future. There are things that local, state, and national governments can do to encourage these things, to be sure, but we don’t have the time to wait around for them to get to it.
Are there other things that can be done by changes in public policy? Of course, and with luck and a great deal of hard work, some of those changes may be put in place in time to matter. To name only one example, a shift in federal policy that redirected money from highway and airport construction and put it to work laying rails and expanding rolling stock, in an effort to restore America’s railways to some semblance of their former effectiveness as a transport system, could have significant positive benefits for decades to come. It’s worth pursuing this and other steps in the political sphere. Still, the reference to hard work is not there for decoration; any such step, even the most positive, will do nobody any good at all, as long as nobody does anything to make it happen aside from chatting enthusiastically about it on the internet.
As peak oil moves steadily into the mainstream, in other words, the peak oil movement will increasingly be called upon to put up or shut up. That doesn’t mean that everyone ought to support some consensus view or other of practical responses to peak oil; as I pointed out earlier, that’s a sucker’s move, one that would leave the peak oil movement hopelessly vulnerable to the usual maneuvers of the political classes. It doesn’t mean that everyone ought to support engagement with the political system at all. It does mean that whoever you are, and whatever your take on the proper response to peak oil happens to be, it’s time to do something about it.
That may involve planting a backyard garden and weatherstripping your doors and windows, along the lines discussed in the last six months of posts here; it may involve taking an active role in lobbying your Congresscritters and their state and local equivalents; it may involve building some exotic-looking device in your basement – we’ll be talking more about that next week – or it may involve something else again. The one thing it can’t involve, not without complete hypocrisy, is sitting on your backside and convincing yourself that somebody else is going to do whatever it is for you. In the wake of victory, we no longer have that luxury. Instead, the peak oil movement has a window of opportunity, and it’s time for us to use it.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
First, and to my mind the most crucial, is the need for dissensus. It’s impossible to know in advance what particular set of tools and skills will be the one best suited to squeak past the mess taking shape around us – and by this I mean to include both the short-term mess defined by the implosion of America’s debt economy and its overseas equivalents, and the long-term and even more daunting mess defined by the head-on collision between a civilization and technostructure predicated on limitless expansion and the hard limits of a finite planet. Green wizardry, as I’ve already discussed here, is only one option, and even within green wizardry there needs to be plenty of room for different paths, new inventions, local traditions, and a good helping of outright eccentricity.
Those of my readers who took me up on last week’s challenge and sat down with a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and a tall beverage of choice already have some sense of the importance of variation in evolution; that’s what provides the raw material that gets sorted out by natural selection. There’s no shortage of natural selection piling up for us in the not too distant future, that’s for sure, but it’s up to us to provide the variation. That’s part of what’s behind my recommendation that aspiring green wizards haunt used book stores and go digging for obscure pieces of information, and it’s also part of the reason why I’ve focused almost monomaniacally on a very specific version of backyard food gardening – the version that evolved in the 1970s energy crises – when there are many other options out there. The logic here is straightforward: a pretty fair fraction of green wizards who didn’t grow up during that decade are bound to get irritated by the deliberately annoying Seventies-centric approach, and that irritation will send them looking for other options.
Another important reason, though, was brought home to me by a book that arrived on my doorstep not too long ago. I’m not going to name the author, the publisher, or even the subject matter, because it could have been any of a hundred books; these days they’re as interchangeable, as forgettable, and as inescapable as American politicians at election time. I’m not sure why it was mailed to me, as it came unannounced; I have to assume that since I blog about the crisis of industrial society, and this book claims to offer a solution to that crisis, the author or the publisher’s marketing department decided that I probably ought to know about it.
You already know the kind of book I’m discussing. It begins with several chapters of potted history that combines an overheated version of the mess we’re in – slanted, naturally, toward those aspects of the mess that the proposed solution is supposed to solve – and an equally colorful account of the prehistory of the solution that traces it back to an exotic and currently fashionable source. It goes on to talk about the proposed solution with the kind of overhyped enthusiasm and rose-tinted assumptions more often associated with the press releases of small tech startups that will be bankrupt within the year. It spares a brief chapter or two to mention criticisms directed at the proposed solution in order to dismiss them out of hand, and then finishes up with a vision of the glorious Utopian future that awaits once the Party’s latest five year plan – er, excuse me, once the proposed solution gets the universal acceptance and ample funding the author hopes to attract.
What isn’t in books of this kind is as important, and as worth mentioning, as what is in them. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the limits of the proposed solution – what dimensions of the crisis of industrial civilization it can’t solve, which bioregions or human societies can’t use it effectively, what resource requirements, environmental effect, or economic factors place constraints on its use, and so on. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the downside of the proposed solution – what burdens it will place on already stressed resource supplies, ecosystems, or economies. Equally, you won’t find meaningful comparisons between the proposed solution and other ways of accomplishing the same thing. Since there are always limits, costs, and alternatives, and a reasoned approach to any kind of decision needs to take these three things into account, their exclusion from such books is not exactly a minor point.
Still, there’s another factor left out in the sort of book I’m discussing: there’s nothing the reader is supposed to do in response. Until recently, if you picked up a book that took some current crisis, painted it in the most apocalyptic terms available, then trotted out some solution dolled up in glowing colors for your approbation, you could safely bet any sum you like to name that the final chapters would try to sell the reader on a product to buy, a service to pay for, a movement to join, or something similar. That sort of snake oil sales pitch is as old as the hills of Iowa and twice as corny, but at least it’s relatively straightforward.
The books I have in mind are anything but straightforward. Like the sales pitches just mentioned, they work overtime making whatever crisis concerns their authors look as dire as possible, and gild their proposed solutions with a glitter of infallibility as glorious as anything a carnival pitchman ever claimed for Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil, but they’re not written to sell. It finally occurred to me, while reading the example mentioned earlier in this essay, what their actual purpose is: they’re written to soothe.
This sort of lullaby literature is very popular just now. Shorter pieces humming the same tunes can be found all through what passes for news media in America these days. The New York Times is particularly fond of such things; my adopted kid sister Sharon Astyk neatly eviscerated one example from that source in a recent blog post, but it’s a safe bet that neither the author nor the intended audience of the piece will notice. They are paying attention to something else.
Especially but not only in America, an awareness is spreading through the crawlspaces of society that the current round of troubles might not just be a speedbump on the road to the shiny future our society’s myths promise us. The sense that something has truly, deeply, desperately gone wrong, right down at the core of the world we’ve created for ourselves, has made itself the background to most of the collective conversations that define our culture. The popularity of soothing narratives about the future just now is, if anything, a marker for just how pervasive that background has become; it’s only when fears are inescapable that efforts at mass reassurance find a market.
Still, there’s another dimension to all this, and it bears directly on the Green Wizards project. One of the things that makes our predicament so difficult for so many people to face just now, and especially for so many Americans, is that every available option for the future includes the certainty of massive impoverishment. The five per cent of us who live in the United States have gotten used to living on a quarter of the world’s energy supply and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. Even if the world wasn’t facing the rapid depletion of its readily accessible fossil fuel reserves, the equally rapid depletion of many other nonrenewable resources essential to the economy, a global climate tipping toward critical instabilities, a dizzying array of local, regional, and global ecological shifts, and the inevitable feedback loops and synergistic effects these changes are going to cause – and of course the world is facing all these things, and will be facing more of them with every passing year – even if these things weren’t happening, the arrangements that provide Americans with so huge a share of the world’s resources are not going to last much longer.
Those arrangements were the product of a particular set of historical conditions. A century ago, those conditions didn’t exist; back then, it was Britain that received a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, as the beneficiary of an imperial system that directly ruled a quarter of the world’s land surface and also dominated the world’s oceans and, by that fact, most of its international trade. America in those days was a rising power, to be sure, but wasn’t even close to the world’s biggest economy; it had to shelter its industries from the impact of the British colossus by exactly the sort of trade barriers the Chinese are using against us today. (Yes, British economists criticized the US in much the same terms our economists now use to denounce the Chinese; we didn’t listen and neither will they.)
It didn’t take a hundred years for the British empire to be replaced by ours, and it won’t take a hundred years for ours to be replaced by someone else’s. Since we can’t rely on the unusual historical circumstances that allowed Britain to maintain a few shreds of its imperial dignity and some of its privileged economic standing – they were basically able to rent their island out to the American military as an unusually large aircraft carrier conveniently anchored right off the shores of Europe; we don’t have that geopolitical advantage – the aftermath of the American empire is almost certain to be much more like the aftermath of most other empires: economic collapse, massive political dislocations, and a long period of turmoil and contraction until the bottom is reached and recovery can finally start to take shape. The global empire that preceded Britain’s, the Spanish Empire, may provide a more accurate model: that empire imploded in the early nineteenth century in the wake of Britain’s rise to global power, and it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that Spain finally managed to pull itself out of the long nightmare of impoverishment and political chaos that followed.
Again, this is what we would be able to expect if the global economy was entirely based on sustainable resources and the global ecology wasn’t redefining itself in the face of a couple of centuries of fossil fuel-powered abuse. Factor in the impact of energy and resource depletion, climate change, and environmental instability, and the very high likelihood of an increasingly desperate and violent scramble for remaining resources on the way down, and the effects of the end of American empire are likely to be more drastic than anything we’ve seen in the western world since the fall of Rome.
I suspect most Americans these days know this, or at least sense it. These days, when I give a talk on the future to an audience outside the peak oil community, I can begin it like this – “Remember all those scientists a few decades back who warned that if we didn’t make some drastic changes in the very near future, we’d be in deep trouble in the early twenty-first century? Well, guess what.” – and far more often than not, nobody argues. Some of them, at least to judge by the comments and questions I field, are already beginning to try to fit their minds around a future in which nearly all of us are desperately poor by today’s standards; many more are hoping that the worst of it will miss them somehow, or that they’ll be lucky enough to die before it hits – I’ve had people, not all of them elderly, express this latter hope to me in so many words.
Even among those who insist that it won’t happen – those who claim that the center of the Earth really is full of limitless oceans of oil, or that holding hands in a circle and singing “Kum Ba Ya” is a viable strategy for an age of imperial decline and global overshoot, or that the Rapture or the Singularity or 2012 or some other deus ex machina will annihilate history and save them from the future – I have to question how many people actually believe what they claim to believe. I know far too many people who insist the world will end in 2012, for example, who are still putting money into their retirement accounts, and it’s been an open secret for the last decade that the vast majority of people who like to imagine living in a lifeboat ecovillage have not been willing to lift a finger or spend a dime to bring such a project into being.
I’d like to suggest that this is because daydreams about nonexistent lifeboat ecovillages and planet-ending catastrophes two years from now that weren’t actually predicted by the ancient Mayans at all share a common purpose, one that’s also shared by abiotic oil, fusion power, and a dime store’s worth of other lullabies disguised as solutions. Their purpose is to give people something more pleasant to think about than the future that’s breathing down our necks. Yes, planet-ending catastrophes are more pleasant to think about than a couple of centuries of ragged decline, impoverishment, and population loss; if we all get blown to kingdom come in one vast fireball, at least it’s over quickly, and you can probably get some consolation in the few seconds before you’re vaporized by reminding yourself that, after all, it wasn’t your fault.
The irony here, and it’s a rich one, is that potentially workable projects can be turned into lullabies just as effectively as the most dubious daydream. I’m not exactly a fan of the lifeboat ecovillage concept, but it’s always possible that one or more of the handful of voluntary communities that have adopted this role might turn out to have had the right idea all along; it’s the ones that haven’t been built, will never be built, and function primarily as lullaby fodder that are guaranteed to be useless. Equally, some of the other approaches that have become the focus of soothing pronouncements that the solution has been found might actually do some good – and in some cases, quite a bit of good – if they’re treated as projects needing immediate hard work by anyone who wants to see them happen, rather than as props for the fantasy that somebody else is going to do everything that’s necessary.
Green wizardry is vulnerable to exactly the same process. That’s one reason why I don’t intend to present a nice neat all-encompassing plan for saving the world in these essays, or the book for which they form the very rough initial draft. Green wizardry can’t save the world, if by “saving the world” is meant finding some way to allow Americans to keep on living some semblance of a lifestyle that requires a third of the world’s economic activity to support it; but it won’t even accomplish those modest but useful tasks that it could potentially do if it gets treated primarily as raw material for lullabies.
We don’t have time for lullabies. With the United States government openly covering its debts by printing money, food and commodity prices spiking, the number of permanently unemployed people soaring across the industrial world, and China cutting deals with its other major trading partners to price goods and handle exchanges in yuan and local currencies rather than dollars, we face a high risk of serious discontinuities in the relatively near future. That’s why I hope to goad those people already involved in the Green Wizards project to get going; it may be winter here in the northern hemisphere, but that’s a good time to plan those garden beds, order seeds, keep the compost going, and put some tools on the list of holiday presents.
Next week’s post will push the envelope a bit further by talking about the value of some bits of the old appropriate tech toolkit that have been consigned to the fringes. In the meantime, I’d encourage any of my readers who might have been using these posts as lullaby fodder to think again. If you’re going to be desperately poor by today’s standards, and you are, you might as well learn how to handle that with a certain amount of skill, and maybe even a bit of grace. Knowing how to grow some of your own food, keep your home comfortable with minimal energy inputs, and do the other things green wizards can do will help with that; listening to lullabies won’t.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
I’ve come to think we’re in the middle of such a process right now. Recent headlines note events that most people would have considered cataclysmic not that long ago. The price of oil is bouncing along above $80 a barrel, the International Energy Agency has now admitted that peak oil happened in 2006, the United States is openly covering its debts by means of the printing press, and agricultural commodity prices have jolted upwards to unprecedented levels under the paired pressures of an increasingly unstable climate and a disintegrating global economic system, just for starters.
If I’d presented a scenario for 2010 ten years ago that included these details, most people who read it would have dismissed me as a wild-eyed prophet of doom. Yet here we are, and most of us in America, at least, are paying more attention to the upcoming holidays than we are to the accelerating dissolution of the only world most of us have known, and the rapid approach of a future that a great many of us will find very unwelcome indeed.
Still, this is normal. The human mind does not readily grasp the perspectives of deep time; it takes a fair amount of study and practice to get to that inner state where the mind slips free from the tyranny of daily life and grasps time on the grand scale. That inner state has been an option for a very long time; Mayan itz’atob, to name only one example from the past, were perfectly able to apply their knowledge of observational astronomy to time here on earth, and imagine a past that reached back over quite impressive periods and a future that stretches for millennia beyond the 2012 bak’tun-rollover that’s attracting so much undeserved attention these days. I doubt that such perspectives were easy to achieve then; they certainly aren’t easy for most people now; but they’re crucial for this week’s post, which focuses on one way that green wizards can take part in the process of evolution.
I use that word with a great deal of trepidation. There may be other concepts that have been as heavily frosted with myth, misunderstanding, ideological static and sheer unadulterated drivel, but just at the moment I can’t think of one. Our culture’s obsession with a Utopian future has turned Darwin’s simple and elegant insight into a shuttlecock batted back and forth by a flurry of ineptly handled intellectual rackets; believers in progress equate it with their notion of a future of infinite improvement, believers in apocalypse treat it as a flat denial of their faith in a future where everyone who disagrees with them will be roadkill on history’s highway, and a great many people who don’t manage to fall into either camp seem to have lost track of the fact that it means much of anything at all.
My favorite example is still the woman who put up her hand at the end of a talk of mine in a small and very liberal Left Coast town and said, “But don’t you think that children are so much more evolved than adults?” It took a few baffled questions on my part to figure out that by “evolved” she meant “nice,” from which I gathered she hadn’t spent much time around children lately. When I suggested that she might consider reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species before using the word “evolution” again, she looked horrified and asked, “Do I have to?”
Evidently so. In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to ask my readers – especially those engaged in the Green Wizards project – to follow the same advice. Darwin was a more than capable writer; his The Voyage of the Beagle counts as one of the classics of travel literature; his scientific works are written in a more discursive and formal style than their modern equivalents, and this can take a bit of getting used to, at least for people – the majority these days, one gathers – who don’t usually read books older than they are. Still, The Origin of Species is not an intolerably long book. It can be read in a few evenings, and it’s worth investing that much time to watch the foundation of today’s life sciences being built by one of the modern world’s great minds.
Now it’s true, of course, that some of the details of Darwin’s theory have had to be changed since his time, as more evidence has come in. This doesn’t make The Origin of Species any less worth reading. There’s much to be learned, in fact, by treating the theory of evolution as an example of the process it describes: the intellectual mutation set in motion by Darwin’s work spawned a flurry of variations, which were then sorted out by the selective pressures of further research. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the same process can be traced all through intellectual history – one piece of evidence among many that evolution, in something like the sense Darwin gave the word, is a basic property of all complex systems.
One of those complex systems is the one we’ve been discussing in the last dozen or so posts, the backyard organic food garden. One of the first and most crucial things to keep in mind about that system is that it’s an ecosystem like any other; like many ecosystems, it’s primarily shaped by the actions of a single species, which in this case happens to be yours. This last point is sometimes exaggerated into the claim that a garden is somehow separate from Nature or wholly subject to human will, which is nonsense; that might be the case if you were growing your plants in a sterile growth medium sealed off from the rest of the world – a bad idea under almost any conditions, and particularly so in an age of diminishing energy and resource availability.
A more useful way to think of a garden, rather, is to compare it to those East African forests that are primarily shaped by the presence and activities of elephants, say, or the tallgrass prairies in North America that took their basic ecological beat from the pounding hooves of the buffalo. No boundary separates such ecosystems from the rest of Nature; countless other organisms evolve ways to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the dominant species, which coevolves in turn to benefit from, or at least not get clobbered by, the other species in the ecosystem. It’s not the only way to run an ecosystem – there are plenty of ecosystems that have no single dominant species – but it’s tolerably common, and very often highly successful.
That’s what a garden is, when it’s worked in harmony with local environments and natural cycles; there’s nothing uniquely human about it at all. The one wild card is that human beings have pushed the trick of transmitting behavior by learning rather than instinct about as far as it can go, and a lot of our behaviors – in and out of gardens – thus can change far faster than the glacial pace of natural selection would permit. That’s our great strength as a species, and it’s also our greatest weakness; what it means in practice is that, on the downside, we can never be sure how well our learned behaviors are suited to the demands of our environment, and on the upside, if we pay attention to nature we can pick up useful behaviors in a tiny fraction of the time it would take for those same behaviors to get established as instinct by natural selection.
That’s also what a garden is or, rather, what gardening is. Human beings have been a dominant species in most environments since we spread out of Africa most of a million years ago; despite fashionable claims to the contrary, successful hunter-gatherer societies manage their environments, using fire and many other methods to encourage natural food production and discourage competition by other living things. What marked the shift from hunter-gatherer to tribal horticultural economies was not a change from blissful dependence on Nature’s bounty to brutal manipulation of the Earth, but rather a shift from one mode of ecological management to another, more sophisticated one. The key to the latter wasn’t planting things where they don’t grow naturally – archeological evidence shows that this was already being done in the Paleolithic – but taking a conscious role in the process of coevolution mentioned above. Instead of taking seeds from wild plants and scattering them in new places, as many hunter-gatherer cultures do, they began selecting seeds that had desirable properties and breeding new varieties of plants for their own uses.
Does that sound daunting? If you save the seeds of your own vegetables and replant them in your garden, you’re already doing it. Those seeds that don’t thrive well enough in your garden’s conditions to produce plants healthy enough to set seed themselves are being removed from the gene pool in the usual way; if you’ve got the sense the gods gave geese, you’re saving seeds from the healthiest and most productive plants, too, which means you’ve become an agent of natural selection, tilting the playing field in true Darwinian fashion in favor of the most viable variations.
It really is as simple as that. As I mentioned in last week’s post, saving seeds can be a good deal more complicated than it looks at first glance. Breeding new varieties of plants, by contrast, is a good deal less complicated than it looks; once you’ve worked out the details of saving seeds, all you need to do is pay attention, and you’re on your way. You aren’t going to create a new species, since you don’t have a million years or so to work on it, but you can certainly contribute to the genetic diversity and regional appropriateness of the species you’ve got.
This can be done equally well with perennial plants, and it can also be done with animals. Each of these have wrinkles of their own. Breeding perennials is generally a slow process, though this depends on the plant in question – when you plant an asparagus crown, for example, you normally have to wait for the third season thereafter to harvest asparagus spears and find out how they taste, so breeding a better asparagus is not a project to attempt in a hurry. Animals – at least the small and edible kind that make sense in a backyard garden – breed annually, and so developing your own breed is very much an option; you’ll need to learn something about genetics, but since most of your rabbits are going onto the menu before they breed anyway, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to select the traits you want to develop and exclude (and serve up for dinner) the ones you don’t.
If you decide to pursue this end of green wizardry at anything beyond the simplest level, The Origin of Species will become one of your better resources. Here as elsewhere in the Green Wizards project, the key to success is to figure out the way Nature does things, and copy her shamelessly. Just as, among human beings, imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, I’ve come to think that when dealing with Nature, imitation may just be the sincerest form of reverence; put another way, it’s by learning Nature’s ways and adopting them as a basis for our own that we become better able to benefit ourselves and the biosphere at once.
The only worthwhile book I know on breeding your own vegetable varieties is Carol Deppe’s classic book, which sensibly enough is titled Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Information on developing varieties of trees, vines, and other perennials can also be found in the more comprehensive books on individual crops, and those who are interested in breeding animals will find the information they need in books covering individual species. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species begins with a thoughtful chapter on the variations of domesticated species, and while it’s not a practical manual for the breeder, the principles Darwin sketches out in this book ought to be kept in mind by any green wizard.