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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Distributed Capability

When your garden is too wet to work in, and you are between indoor projects, just run down to the park and pull Scotch broom. For now.

Risa hasn't been able to do much besides harass invasive plants down by the river, or run out to the writing shed to work on her "blovel." On Monday she went to see her electrologist, get a blood draw done at the clinic (part of her annual checkup) and buy some plants and tools. Combining trips was a very good idea, as the short journey consumed eight dollars' worth of gasoline.

The truck is hungry today, and this morning she strategized aloud about the fuel situation:

"I know the BP is closer; but I'm put out with them. I think I'll throw the last lawnmower gas into the truck and go over to Sequential for a fillup, and take all the cans with me. I've got some stabilizer and can put some in each can; that matters more with all the regular at ten percent corn whiskey now. At least Sequential gets all theirs from in-state sources."

"I'm sorry about that truck; I know you wouldn't have chosen one that big." (As American pickups go, it's the second smallest size.)

"Or an automatic. But we couldn't turn down a freebie."

Nothing hurries the future toward us like gasoline. If the price rises to four dollars again, Risa will be effectively grounded, except to go get increasingly costly straw and chicken feed. She'd replace the chicken feed with homegrown feed if she could, but the gardening is limited by available water supplies, even with the two wells, and by the increasingly uncooperative weather.

There's more energy in the atmosphere. This seems to move air currents farther north and farther south, as when a river digs farther into its bends during a flood. Heat waves and cold snaps are more sudden, and continually catch our weather mavens off guard. So we are having hot Februaries, really hot Augusts, strong winds, extra cold Decembers, cold Aprils: a jumble. In May it can be 28F at night and rise to 77F during our days. Officially we're in a drought, and the reservoirs are having trouble filling, yet cloudbursts are sogging the soil and swelling the creeks. Germination, growth, fruit set, and harvest are all affected.

So we fall back on accumulated food supplies for ourselves, including grains shipped for our own consumption from South Dakota, which we could conceivably have to share with the poultry. If we were truly isolated, we'd have to cut down the flock.

There are so many birds at Stony Run because Beloved has egg customers in town. She works there. On the outside chance that the much-welcomed eggs will help with her "public relations," for networking purposes in case the money for employment dries up, we raise surplus eggs and try to at least break even on them. But it does result in hidden food miles. Eggs are only truly local if you can maintain them on a local diet. Stony Run isn't quite there.

Everyone else around here is on much the same footing. Big-box stores, grocery stores, agricultural co-ops and feed stores receive constant deliveries, from trucks and trains, of out-of-state feedstock, grain, seed, supplements, medications, tools, electronics, all made from, mined with, grown with, packed or assembled with, or shipped on, coal, natural gas, and petroleum, or with electricity, only a small percentage of which comes from hydroelectric, wind, and the like, even here, in the land of big hydro and big wind.

And petroleum, the weakest link in that chain, is currently in use at four times the rate that it's being found. That's why we're dinking around looking for the stuff at depths which confound our understanding of physical limitations.

The first place that you or I notice the strain is at the pump, putting a little extra stress on our doctor visits and shopping. But it's everywhere; when the planes, trains, ships and trucks run into trouble at the pump, so do factories and farms.

Little farms like ours feel it. How much more so the ones owned and fed entirely by industrial oligarchies? Oligarchies whose whole aim appears to be the destruction of distributed capability, in a scheme of domination which runs almost entirely on fossil fuels (with, perhaps, fission)?

The phrase "distributed capability," which Risa likes to think she has coined, is related to a concept of Fritz Schumacher's, which he called the Principle of Subsidiary Function. John Michael Greer paraphrases Schumacher's rule thus: "the most effective arrangement to perform any function whatsoever will always assign that function to the smallest and most local unit that can actually perform it."

With distributed capability as a goal informing our actions, we can delegate to the states that which the federation does inefficiently; to counties that which a state does inefficiently; to municipalities and unincorporated communities that which a county does inefficiently; and to neighborhoods that which a city does inefficiently. "But wait!" say the oligarchists, through lobbyists, commercials, and media spinmeisters. "That's exactly backwards. We enclosed the commons in order to introduce economies of scale."

Yes; that's true. Which is why it rings true in media and think-tank pronouncements. But only in the presence of surplus energy. Once demand exceeds supply (and it will), the Schumacher will be on the other footing.

Sorry, yes, that was bad, couldn't resist.

Adoption of distributed capability is what happened at the end of the Roman Empire. As the continent-wide infrastructure collapsed, local communities reverted to local agriculture, local manufacture, and local building materials, with as little reliance as possible upon trade, and local defense as well, with the size of the independent political unit somewhat determined by the time it took to bring the harvest (and the harvesters), when necessary, to safety within the fortress. If your farm was too far from the fortress, you and your grain fell into the hands of the invader.

And there we have the Middle Ages; with all its cruelty it was a time when the ideal farm depended very little upon trade of any kind; almost all the skills and supplies and labor were found on-site, and this was rightly seen as maximizing security and minimizing risk through smallest-possible-unit resiliency.

Think of this: the county in which Risa lives is thought of as resource-rich: wood, water, and agricultural lands are abundant. But if outside supplies fell to a trickle through some persistent disaster, the present state of local agriculture, even if brought to the fullest possible productivity (i.e., abandoning the ever-popular grass-seed industry), could at best feed fifteen percent of the people that live here. Think of the likely implications!

Meanwhile, a county that can feed sixteen percent of its citizens rather than fifteen may have taken a step in a useful direction. A difficult step, with corporations and corporate-supported politicians shouting continually in its ear to go in the other direction, but not an impossible step. A sudden sharp rise in the number of farmer's markets could be an indicator.

At Stony Run, thought about distributed capability runs in several channels, most of them household-level. Mobility remains a concern, as we are too far from services, on which we are dependent, to give up gasoline. So we buy lots of it and store some, stabilized, as a hedge against interrupted supply or soaring cost. Food for ourselves and our stock, and for family and friends in a pinch, we buy ahead and grow what we can, trying not to depend too much on the freezer. Our water, fetched by an electric pump, is vulnerable to interrupted service and so we have put in a hand pump and are looking out for rain barrels. Our house, old and cranky, is being slowly retrofitted for resiliency against cold and heat and other stresses. We make an effort to grow our own heating fuel, though there is not much land for this at present, and we use and maintain, to the extent possible for us, a range of good hand tools.

Of course, all this is a bit moot for the Stony Runners as we are around sixty. Should the "middle ages" come, it will find Stony Run so nearly unprepared as anyone else as will make no measurable difference -- for one thing, by no stretch of the imagination will it ever be a "fortress."

But Risa thinks, rightly or wrongly, that there might be something "measurably" ethical about the effort. When developing a distributed capability, a society must begin somewhere. So why not here? The skills that will be needed can be taught. So she writes.

And when inspiration fails her, there is always the park. She can take out her frustrations on the encroaching Scotch broom. For now.

An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth -- in short, materialism -- does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited. -- Fritz Schumacher


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