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Saturday, December 28, 2002

Consider the alternative

Populations of any species explode when the limiting resource becomes, in effect, unlimited. More phosphorus in a lake, more algae. There's an exponential increase, then when the limit of the phophorus is reached, the algae suffers a catastrophic crash.

It's the same for civilizations. Ours craves energy and has discovered that the most economical (under rather carefully engineered circumstances) form of energy is petroleum.

Petroleum is due to run out soon.

On that, see the June 2004 National Geographic, "The End of Cheap Oil,'" pp. 80-109. If you read nothing else this year, read that, and especially study the chart on pp. 90-91. After that you'll understand pretty much everything that's being said, and carefully not said, on cable news channels: about politics, prices, stocks, warfare, terrorism, all of it. There's little chance of our escaping the future foretold in the article without global change in our habits and intentions.

How do you think that's going to go?

THIS year, Christmas fell into what around here is called a "blue hole," that is, it was a sunny day, producing shirt-sleeve weather which I felt I might as well enjoy as not. For awhile, sitting on a bench in the sun, with the row of Douglas firs to my back, was pretty enchanting, at least as long as the tea lasted. But, as often happens, the beauty of the view consisted in part in knowing what things ought to be done. The guests hadn't arrived yet, and I had done my indoors part in preparing for them, so I set down my cup and wandered up to the barn. Lots of hay here, full of the stuff that hay fills up with when it is called "bedding." Time to get that down to the garden. I went for the wheelbarrow, found its tire flat, rooted around in the garage for a tire pump, found one, pumped up the tire, collected a hay fork, and mucked out the barn. This made nine wheelbarrow loads. These I meant to spread over the north garden, but it was still bristling with tomato cages, like a miniature set covered with electrical transmission towers, waiting for the guy in the monster suit. So I played my part, ripping towers out of the earth, smashing old tomatoes underfoot like so many miniature-set autos, and waving dead tomato vines like uprooted miniature-set trees. I improvised a few lines: "Arrhh! Rrggghh!!" Swinging the props round my head, I turned toward the driveway...

...and there stood the first arrivals of the guests, slightly bug-eyed.

I do enjoy putting the gardens to bed for the winter, though. There are hoses to be drained and rolled up, tomato cages to stack and file away, tools to organize, pots to sort, disposing of those too badly cracked to save another year, and passing Canada geese to be listened to as they go over their itinerary for the trip south. The flower beds I have taken to simply mowing and covering with leaves. All our perennials seem to know how to deal with the mulch, and come back in fine shape, especially the daisies, while the annuals seem to like best starting out in pots and being transplanted right through the mulch, with better results in June than in May. The warmth in our soil comes late and stays late.

This year the warmth has stayed very late indeed. The grass is growing, and smells of spring when cut. The daisies have sent up several December blooms, and the Garden Lady's nasturtiums, calendulas, and miniature hollyhocks have done the same. We still have cosmos, though these are finally on their way out. I have gone round to check the lilacs and the trees, and the filberts are perilously close to bud-break. The green spikes of elephant garlic, which I usually see in February, are already a foot high. There are flies, and bees, and the air is full of songbird noises such as one might hear on a June morning. So much warmth is lovely but it is also disturbing.

El Nino? Global warming? A few years ago the creek went almost a hundred feet wide, hauling tons of my soil away to the Pacific, and shifting my well-house on its foundations. Several people in our area died that night in mudslides. This, too, I'm told, was a sign of global warming, a type of immense storm front known as the "Pineapple Express," rolling up from the waters off Hawaii, dumping six, seven, eight inches of rain at a time in various canyons of the Cascade Range, overwhelming the might and pride of the region's vast network of flood-control dams and levees as though there were nothing there.

Global warming, I've read somewhere, doesn't especially produce hot, sunny summers. It produces cloud cover, an increase in precipitation, an increase in wind, and records: record tornadoes, record hurricanes, record blizzards: spikes of hot and cold, fast and slow, all over the record books and the insurance company ledgers.

News anchors will rehearse the "the most" this, and "the biggest" that. And the most and the biggest of anything to do with weather will get our attention when we're out in it, or even when it comes knocking at our door.

I once tenanted a house built of oak, half-timbered in the Tudor style. A storm came in the night and threw a two-hundred-year-old oak tree against that house, oak bone against bones of oak. The house stood the blow, and the tree rolled down the steep pitch of the roof's edge, shredding slates and pitching them over a quarter of an acre.

I awoke in time to see an enormous branch punch through the bedroom window, pass within inches of my face, and withdraw again as suddenly as it had come, leaving the empty window to fill with night and a moaning wind. If we are causing an increase in events of this kind, it's time to seriously consider our actions.

It's my understanding that while climate swings are unavoidable, there is evidence that the current one, if not caused by human activity, is influenced by it. The principal ingredient of that influence is the increase in what are called greenhouse gases, and the major component of these is carbon in the form of carbon dioxide: one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms per molecule, to the tune of millions of tons of these molecules in the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide is in fact a principal ingredient of life; plants have to have it, in order get hold of their primary building block, which is carbon. They throw away the oxygen, which is how we animals get our free oxygen molecules to breathe. When plants die and rot, or when they burn, which is a normal and frequent event in nature, they release nearly all their carbon back into the atmosphere, so one might ask: how is it that carbon dioxide is a problem? How can there be too much of it if all the plants are returning it to the atmosphere all the time anyway, in a natural cycle?

A way to understand the problem is to use a banking metaphor. We make a certain amount of money a year, and we spend most of it to maintain our lifestyle.

We have a checking account.

All the money in the checking account will be spent eventually; but there must be a minimum balance today or we'll start bouncing checks.

Perhaps we also have a savings account, and we use its funds to cover our checks, to prevent our overdrafts from ruining our credit.

If we've been abusing the checking account's minimum balance, and If we use up the money in the savings account, we won't be able to support our current lifestyle.

Where the carbon went is into limestone and fossil fuels.

At the bottoms of the seas and peat bogs of the world, for perhaps billions of years, carbon has been taken out of circulation that would ordinarily have been exhaled into the atmosphere in the normal rot cycle. Most of this went into the limestone, but a lot of it is crude oil and natural gas, a buried and compressed soup of molecules with long names, nearly all of which contain carbon atoms. There are billions of tons of carbon in this savings account.

Our checking account of energy is sunshine and the flows of energy that are directly the product of sunshine: wind, water, wood, animals, farms, gardens, alcohol, natural rubber, hydrogen.

Our savings account is the stuff from beneath the earth: coal, diesel, fuel oil, gasoline, synthetic lubricants, synthetic rubbers, and plastics: vinyl, polyethylene, nylon, polyurethane.

We spend this account at a furious rate, because we cannot live as we wish to live on our income from the sun. There are too many of us, with our real needs, and of us there are too many with artificially induced needs.

We are perhaps at a point where bankruptcy is inevitable; where our tenure on earth has become untenable and we will soon be forced to give up the lease.

Other tenants will come: perhaps the cockroaches, and perhaps this will be a good thing.

But I do love my children, and I feel I should have something to offer them. This is not about their holiday wish list, it's about seeking to stabilize my finances, my planetary-bank-account finances, on their behalf. I wish to offer them a tenable hold on our lease.

I well understand this is a project fraught with hypocrisy.

I'm a middle-class American, and Americans, less than two percent of the world's people, are producing over forty per cent of the drain on the savings account. I'm going to drive in to work tomorrow, and there will be only one of me in the car. Circumstances have dictated this.

But, there are things that can be done, small gestures which, multiplied by millions of slightly changed lives, will slow the pace at which we're running toward bankruptcy, and give our children a bit nore time for making more satisfactory changes. None of this need involve chaining yourself to a tree and screaming at some poor logger; just a few things here and there to keep the kids alive, on the off chance that there's more to this universe with people in it than without. Now, you've heard all this before, but let's just go down the checklist one more time:

First, consider the automobile. What's the mileage? Carry more gas (petrol to some of us) at a time, to prevent evaporation loss, get regular tune-ups, check the tire inflation. Trade down in size to better mileage: there are vehicles that do fifty miles per gallon, and this is more significant to your kids' future than the prestige that big one gets you. Get more passengers, and carpool. Be a passenger. Leave the car home and ride the bus, the train, the subway, the ferry, the monorail, the light rail, the taxi, or the bicycle. No light rail? No bike lanes? Write and call the local planners and city fathers; lobby relentlessly. Push hybrid; push electric. Sell the $*#!!! thing. While you're at it, sell the motor home, the motorboat, the plane, the skimobile, the jet ski, the go cart, and the dirt bike. You don't need 'em; if you do find you need one once in a while, don't buy, rent. Telecommute. Lobby for a shorter work week, then spend the long weekends, the holidays, and the vacations at home (working in the garden!).

Second, consider the home. Why have a big one when a well-planned small one will do? Insulate, turn the heat down a bit, put on a sweater and a lap blanket, get rid of the air conditioner and plant shade trees on the south side and a windbreak on the north side. Make things out of rocks or used bricks instead of concrete. Use hand tools. No time? Turn off the television, you'll have more time. Look for low-wattage entertainment. Try romance. Romance can be cheap; instead of diamonds and skyview restaurant dinners, try being a good listener. For music, play an acoustic instrument. Read. Read E. F. Schumacher. Reread E. F Schumacher. For lighting, go with sunlight through a skylight, or low-wattage fluorescent. Paint the walls white; you won't need as many watts. Replace the hot water heater, refrigerator and the freezer if they predate the energy-saving models. Install a ground cloth in the crawl space. Sort, reuse, sew, mend, repair, recycle, compost. For the furnishings, when possible make your own or buy locally made. Tear up the lawn and put in ground cover, fruit and nut trees, and fruiting perennials, on a schedule that will prevent your having to buy a new gasoline lawnmower when the present one gives out.

Third, consider the food. Cigarettes? I won't even tell you, you know better. Drink less alcohol and more water. Eat less meat and more fiber. Eat less prepared food and more fresh produce. Cook less, check out raw. Use double boilers and steamers and avoid frying. Don't send out for pizza; pizza sends for you, and what it wants from your arteries you should want to keep. Audrey Hepburn said the most effective diet is to share your food with the poor. Clean out the cabinets and put the stuff in the food drive bin. Find out who's offering organic produce in your area. Find out if what they're offering is really organic. Find out what "organic" is first, if you don't know, and don't depend on the television to tell you. Patronize local organic cooperatives, merchants and farmers. Raise your own food. Avoid those patented hybrid seeds from large corporations; patronize farmers, merchants and cooperatives providing heirloom varieties. Use hand tools. Garden organically. Plant fruit and nut trees. Preserve your own produce. No time? We already talked about that.

Fourth, look at your clothes. Buy less frequently, go for longer lasting, and think cotton and wool and natural dyes. Most clothing now comes directly from the planetary savings account, and "polyester" should become an embarrassing word in your wardrobe. When possible, make your own or buy locally made.

Fifth, think about your work. Are you working to get your kids out of planetary debt or deeper into it? What are your living expenses? If you're a couple, consider cutting those expenses until only one of you has to work or both of you can work half time. Give the earned time to increased quality of life for the children, or, if you've wisely refrained from contributing to the disastrous population curve, to your friends and neighbors. If you're in the mining, manufacture, distribution, transportation, sales, advertising, or application of planetary-savings-account items, from autos to herbicides, re-career as soon as you feasibly can. Think small. We're not talking communism here, just common accountability, with the following: the outlawing of for-profit corporations, with retention of nonprofits, cooperatives, partnerships and sole ownerships as the only legal entities for commerce, would all by itself go a long way to fixing the drain on your kids' planetary savings. Think about that when you're looking for work. Or looking to buy, for that matter. Or about to vote.

Sixth, and I'll stop here, what about that vote? If you don't have the vote, be careful who might be reading this over your shoulder, and start working on what it will take to get the vote. For this, your life will not be too cheap a sacrifice for your childrens' future. If you have the vote, think about what you're allowed to vote on. Is it just big political party versus big political party? Or nuclear versus solar? Roads versus light rail? Agribusiness versus sustainable farming? Clear cuts versus forest maintenance? Or to put it more simply, corporate greed versus life? If your vote can't access reality, if it isn't patching the holes in the planetary savings account, change that. Campaign finance reform will be the least of your worries. Get the vote, keep the vote, use the vote; get the real issues up for a vote; inform the electorate. Perhaps you won't see results on this in your lifetime. But consider the alternative.

Whew! OK, I know, I haven't done maybe a hundredth of that stuff. But I chip away at it here and there. I'm aware, particularly and painfully, of the cost of the infrastructure that maintains the glorified suburb that in my neighborhood passes for country. It takes six times as much of the planetary savings account to establish a rural home as it does for a comparable urban row house. I've elected to be a creature of privilege, and I don't care to look too deeply into what the mirror says about that. But in some things I can give back something of what I have taken. One way is to learn from the past, to gain pre-fossil-fuels skills, and to apply them, redesigning this acre of the landscape to produce food, shade, and windbreak in ways that do more good and less harm than was done here previously, and to share the knowledge gained, as best I can, with others who also care to learn.

Edited 2005, hence the anachronistic NG citation.

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