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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Have less, give more, be happy

Bit of a repost.

The garden is almost at rest. it's hosting two dozen chickens and ducks. What will left to rake together into beds is surprisingly little. Fortunately they also manure in place, because they, by choice, spend all their daylight hours there. 

It dawned on me, looking at this scene, that we have met an important goal here. The rains this week will come to about four inches, yet there is no lake out there. The organic matter and the increased capillary capacity from expanding worm populations have given even this much water somewhere to go. There's now very little runoff, even when the garden is this bare.

Happy dance!

It took nineteen years and many, many wheelbarrow loads of straw, hay, leaves, grass clippings and barn bedding to get to this point.

But this also leads to sobering thoughts.

You get from anything pretty much whatever is there to begin with plus whatever you add. Whatever you add comes from somewhere else (and may well be contaminated). It's a round planet. Whatever you take in, it's not where it was before. If it was someone else's then either with or without their permission their lands have been diminished to enrich yours.

We at Stony Run habitually gather whatever is freely offered to the extent of our ability, and we pay for the straw, but it's very clear that nothing comes from nowhere. We like to say that urban culture too easily forgets that everything ultimately comes from farming, but that idea has inherent flaws.

It's the oil (and coal) we're forgetting, not the farming, for farming without inputs is like musical chairs. To make it "pay" on an industrial scale -- competitively, with apparently inescapable middlemen -- so as to allow us to bloom from a relatively feedable one billion or so to seven billion plus and eating, we have felt it necessary to inject into the farms tremendous quantities of energy and artificial fertilizers dug from the finite planet beneath our feet. We now do this on a scale grand enough to heat the globe, even if we did not drive everywhere.

Talk about unsustainability! Soil degradation alone will teach us the error of our ways. And now the extra heat roiling about in the oceans and thin blanket of air overhead is adding to the uncertainty of farming. It's January, and the dirt in our garden smells like May. Flowers are blooming, and robins chirp and flutter in the budding apple trees. Tough to figure out how to farm when it's snow one week and a "heat wave" the next, all winter long.

There was much debate in the blogosphere concerning whether the "housing" crash of 2008, and hence our current Great Depression, was brought on by debt or by peak oil. The argument for debt runs: "Multiple claims on every loaned dollar (or whatever is your local currency) cannot be sustained, for it is only one dollar (same as for its collateral, which must ultimately be a physical asset). Sooner or later the debt must unwind till there is one holder, the creditor with the most power. That is what we see here." The argument for peak oil is: "Sooner or later demand for oil outpaces economically feasible pumping, and the price rises to the point at which it is uneconomical to run industry and transportation. That is what we see here."

Well, I think both are right. Which, when you think about it, puts me in the oil camp, but, hey --  it's a round planet. Everything is connected.

How we get "multiple claims" on a dollar is by making promises as to our future productivity so as to get someone to hand us that dollar in the first place, in the expectation that, at a future date, we'll hand them that dollar back with some extra change, which we'll have earned by means of that productivity. Business loans, student loans, car loans and mortgages -- the "multiple claims" come in when your creditor in turn borrows money based on, not their anticipated productivity -- they aren't farmers, miners, loggers or fishermen, after all -- but yours. If you are a primary producer, you have to make enough to cover not only your taxesmortgage, groceries, car payment, student loans, insurance, medical bills, heating, light, trash disposal, entertainment, furniture, and espresso but theirs as well.

Strikes me as a fragile system. An economy should have productivity as its wide base and organizing capacity as its smaller apex; here we seem to have a huge managerial apparatus (not "big government" alone but increasingly "big business" and especially "big finance" with "big government" as its yea-saying servant) riding upon a smallish and perhaps decreasing productivity base. The pyramid is inverted and ready to topple over.

Increase the costs (or decrease the income) at one or more points to individuals and families at the "bottom" and their capacity to service debt diminishes. With nearly everyone at or near the break-even point, sensitivity to such changes is very high -- and can suddenly dissipate the expectations of our creditors, who now comprise practically the entire establishment.

It's common, over on the right, where many of the "sound bite" memes are manufactured and propagated by supranational corporations and giant financials, to blame taxes when this happens. Their solution is to roll back taxes (on mostly them, not so much on the productive sector, commonly known as labor, by the way). Governments do have many pet projects (though over time, more and more of these serve the apex, and not the base, of the pyramid) and so are protective of their revenue stream. Certainly they should be held accountable as to how much they need and what they want to spend it on -- should the U.S., for example, really spend almost more on the military than all other nations on the surface of the globe combined? But the cost change that most seems to strike at the heart of the productive -- the laborer -- is at the pump.

This tends to catch the left quite as flat-footed as the right. The leftie feels virtuous to go out and demonstrate against greed in the financial sector, and I would argue that, indeed, it's rather curious that we even have a financial sector -- since it consists of loans made by the rich to the rich upon the impossible collateral that my productivity will always increase so that where there was once a dollar for me and two dollars for them, some day there will be a dollar for me and twelve dollars for them.

But I have a prior interest.

In country after country, beginning with those that have no oil in the ground, but wish to drive cars, like Greece, and spreading to those that have some oil but wish to drive more cars than they have oil, like Egypt, the productive citizenry slowly find they are being priced out of the available transportation infrastructure. A crash comes when suddenly the price of Archie Bunker's tankful of gas to get to work next week means that some other obligation cannot be met.

Let the price of gasoline (and, in proportion, the other liquid fuels) advance from, in the U.S., with its artificially depressed prices through international bullying, $3.50 to $4.00 and hang there long enough, and the day comes that Archie cannot get down to the docks to drive that forklift. There are cascading effects. Ships lose their margin, trucking companies lose their margin, airlines lose their margin, gate receipts fall at national parks, restaurants lose customers, and the dollars promised to the rich by the rich begin to vanish, to their consternation. So they begin "letting people go" -- adding to the spiral.

Ultimately this scenario includes the farmer with a three hundred thousand dollar tractor (five percent paid for) and nothing to run it with, as well as no money for artificial fertilizer, the requisite Monsanto seeds, and the pesticides s/he is required by Monsanto to buy and use with those seeds. Perhaps the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have been supporting small, diversified farms after all, yes?

No wonder it suddenly seems so reasonable to invade countries that have, or share borders with, pools of black gold beneath their sands, and piss upon their dead.

At the bottom of the bottom of the productive pyramid as it now stands is oil -- with coal -- along with schemes intended to replicate the paleochemical miracle, such as nuclear, with its frightful under-the-table costs and even more frightful potential health and even survival costs -- not that the fossil fuels don't have these. The coal, for example, as nuclear apologists love to say, releases far more radioactivity per unit of energy used than nuclear. Yes -- though that equation can change in less than a second, and devastatingly so. Never happens, say they. Just did, say I. Again. But back to our rant.

People in general (with help from draft animals -- this has its own ethical implications, I know), their skills, and some judicious use of fire, levers, the wheel, the sail, and so on -- were once primary producers, and this has shifted increasingly onto complex machines, up to and including computers and fiber-optic networks, which are presupposed in our world, as we now know it, by highly intensive application of fossil fuels and split atoms -- labor substitutes. We may say these made it possible to give up slavery, but, oh, my, terrible thoughts we're skipping over, there! Let's say what we gave up was whatever we conceived as drudgery. Not that there isn't still plenty of it. But everyone seems to want someone that speaks some other language to do the bulk of it, and cheaply -- ergo, a form of slavery. But I think that might be a digression, though it's related.

So ... the (post-steam) fossil fuel based industrial economy was designed for somewhere around twenty-cents-a-gallon-gasoline (and diesel equivalent) transportation. Yes, that's in 1920s dollars -- though I remember once paying twenty-nine in 1968. Assume that we've only used up 10% of the stuff (I think it's closer to 50). Even so, it's getting tougher to get at, and the people we want it from are using more and more of it for themselves. The cost will rise. We're about to price ourselves out of a civilization.

At the bottom of the bottom of the real pyramid -- past the energy-source intermediaries -- is food, clean water, clean air, adequate shelter, sufficient clothing -- and also at that bottom is any livelihood so engaged with these as to be what can, without equivocation, be called an "honest living." Or as Buddha put it, "right livelihood," one of the eight prerequisites for spiritual attainment. Or if you prefer it without any religious coloration, we can say: Right livelihood is ethical livelihood. There is no right livelihood where the work creates injustice or dispenses poisons indiscriminately.

Acknowledging that, so far as we can tell, "sustainability" is at present only a disastrous meme if it includes the self-contradictory notion of "sustainable growth" -- "growth" being understood as loans made by the rich to the rich on the predicated productivity of, not so much people, as oil, coal, and nuclear (the three great slaves of our impertinent empire of comfort, each run by computers and machinery in lieu of people) -- let's see what would be the pillars of an actually "sustainable" economy on a round and finite planet.
  1. We would protect the soil. We would grow land-based foods and fibers in such a way that one hundred years, or one hundred thousand years from now, other things being equal, such as the absence of a forced climate inimical to agriculture, the land would be as productive as it is today, or better; enough to feed everyone equitably. This would require reduction in petrochemical (and, incidentally, radionuclide) inputs across the board, and an increase in physical labor -- expanding the "bottom" of the productivity pyramid. Factory farmed meats? You must be joking.
  2. We would protect fresh water sources. This would require reduction in petrochemical and radionuclide inputs across the board, resulting in an expansion at the bottom of the productivity pyramid. Mercury-based gold mining? Uranium mining? Mountaintop removal? Tar sands? Fracking? Urban, field and forest petrochemical runoff and accumulated irrigation salts? Effluent? Factory farmed meats? Clearcutting in steep, fragile watersheds? You must be joking ...
  3. We would would protect the oceans. Runoff from the land and fallout of assorted acids, petrochemical pollutants, soots and radionuclides, the byproducts of our schemes to get much and give little, along with the heat convected into the waters from air laced with excess heat-trapping gases and particulates (more than ninety percent goes into the oceans), plus blithe overfishing, plus the accumulating leakage of crude oil from widespread and poorly regulated drilling, adds up to a simple disaster for all concerned. Once large fisheries easily supported many a fishing village that is now abandoned, shrinking the productivity pyramid; in place of those villages we now have enormous trawlers and factory ships, dragging the seas and the seafloors for whatever might fall into their nets -- and the harvest drops even as the ships grow in size and have, for the sake of the bottom line, more and more mechanization and smaller and smaller crews. Envision: in the night, the roaming, hungry trawlers pass a brilliantly lit, titanic polystyrene cruise ship, furtively dumping hundreds of tons of waste overboard. Right livelihood, indeed.
  4. We would protect the air. The ball on which we live is tiny -- only about 7900 miles in diameter. Most people cannot comfortably work and breathe (some would die) above fifteen thousand feet. This is the thin, fragile and irreplaceable medium of our daily lives, and into it we pump the wastes of numerous coal, oil, and gas fired power plants, more than a billion cars, trucks, locomotives, airplanes, and tractors, more than a billion buildings, and more than ninety varieties of alpha- and beta- emitting radionuclides from hundreds of aging and leaking uranium- and plutonium-fueled steam turbines. We have relegated the work of our hands to machines and in so doing made the air increasingly poisonous to ourselves and every living thing. Suppose you were to shut an idling Prius into a garage with yourself -- does that seem safe to you? What about a bigger room? House-sized -- feel safe now? Still dangerous? How about a McMansion? Still creeped out? Well, let's build (in our imagination) a hermetically sealed geodesic dome over your house and your neighbors' and run the car. Would they not feel a bit threatened by your behavior? What has just happened to that "God-given right" to own such a thing and drive it wherever we please? Like the health of the soil, the aquifers, lakes and rivers, the oceans, the forests, plants, and animals (including, alas for the views of many, humans) the health of the air is a commons.
Given the crimes against the commons enumerated above, by themselves, the financials, heinous as they are, are only a part of our current and coming troubles; too many of the rest of us share, or are convinced of the necessity of, the overarching necessity for our elaborate "labor-saving" apparatus -- on which financials feed, and which they also feed by their incessant making of loans upon impossible promises. Attacking such a tree at its roots may make sense compared to flailing at its leaves and branches, but we also are its leaves and branches. Its fall would not go unnoticed.

Am I not writing this on one of these very machines from the comfort of a modern (if relatively modest) home? So, in the interest of at least token acknowledgment of Buddha's insistence on the primacy of right livelihood, I won't advocate the complete Luddite agenda -- so easily one kind of worldburning substitutes for another.

But I will suggest that the right -- shall we say, spiritual -- practice for these times is that of letting go.

That's going to come across pretty silly if you're already poor, or just becoming one of the nouveau poor. But I've been there, dears dumpster dived for lunches back in the day, and I'm talking in this post to people who maybe think they're gonna get through this next period and come out at the other end still suburban, new car, white collar, insured, and polite. 'K?

So. Knowing the hidden cost, in cancers, in broken lives, in inequities, in ruined lands and waters and air, and the making of interminable wars, of avarice, of greed, in a word, of covetousness (Exodus 20:17) -- consider doing, each day, with a little less of what "they" want you to have or be doing, and a little more resilience.

So ... ready to fight the good fight? to #occupy a little bit of leaf somewhere on your own branch of the tree, to, perhaps stumblingly, but with "right intention," do more good and less harm than hitherto?

 If you like, call it a hobby when your friends question your sanity. Works for me ...

You may have your own checklist, and perhaps you'll share it with me? In the meanwhile, here's mine in its present form:

Debt. If you possibly can, get out of it and don't get back in. Double payments are worth more to you than eating out or going to the movies or the game. To do the debt game, you need to know you can outproduce the cost and the insurance on the cost. That mental picture of how you can do this? Doesn't include having an auto accident in which you lose the use of both legs, yes? If you're with a bank or a loan shark, move the money and/or the debt to the credit union. Then double those payments. You've just occupied Wall Street.

Car. Stay home more. Combine necessary trips. 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 over fifty miles per gallon, and this is more significant to your kids' future than the prestige that big one gets you. Buy used. Get more passengers, and carpool. Be a passenger. Leave the car home and ride the bus, the train, the Railcar, the subway, the ferry, the monorail, the light rail, the taxi, or the bicycle. Or just walk. No intercity rail? No light rail? No bike lanes? No sidewalk, no trail? Write and call the local planners and city administrators; lobby relentlessly. Push hybrid; push electric. Sell the effing thing. Or give it to the Goodwill or St. Vincent's. While you're at it, sell (or give to a nonprofit that has a need for it) the motor home, the motorboat, the plane, the skimobile, the jet ski, the go cart, and the dirt bike. You don't need them; if you do find you actually need one once in a while, don't buy, rent. Telecommute. Lobby for staggered work shifts to reduce congestion. Ask for a shorter work week, then spend the long weekends, the holidays, and the vacations working in the garden!

Home. Why have a big one when a well-planned small one will do? Insulate all around, seal, turn the heat down a bit, put on a sweater and a lap blanket, get rid of the air conditioner and plant fruiting or nut-bearing shade trees on the south side and a windbreak of evergreens on the north side. If there's room, raise your own firewood. Discover water conservation and, where possible, greywater. Consider all-edible landscaping. Paint it, roof and all, white for reflectivity and reduced heat gain. Make things out of rocks or used bricks instead of concrete. Use non-toxic agents and eschew inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. Become an expert Dumpster diver. Use hand tools. Hang out wash. No time? Turn off the television, you'll have more time. Look for low-wattage entertainment. Try romance. Instead of diamonds and skyview restaurant dinners, try being a good listener. Learn an acoustic instrument. Sing. Tell stories.  Read. For lighting, go with bringing sunlight through a skylight, or lower-wattage fluorescent, or LEDs. Switch things off.  Go to bed earlier. Paint the interior walls white or use white materials; you won't need as many watts. Replace the hot water heater, refrigerator and the freezer if they predate the energy-saving models. Or learn how to do without them. Use solar hot water. go off-grid. Get solar power. Install a ground cloth in the crawl space. Sort, reuse, sew, mend, reskill, repair, repurpose, recycle, compost. Haunt Craigslist and the thrift shop. For the furnishings, when possible find, accept hand-me-downs, make your own or hire or buy locally made. Learn to cook. Cook from scratch. Make your kitchen your favored hangout, and keep it simple. Tear up the lawn and put in cover crops, fruit and nut trees, and fruiting perennials, on a plan that will prevent your having to buy a new gasoline lawnmower when the present one gives out. Avoid plastic. Avoid products which must come thousands of miles to you, are poorly made, or both.

"Prep." People tend to avoid thinking about this. Don't. Sometimes the power goes off. Sometimes there is a flood or fire or tornado or hurricane or a home invasion. We're under a flood watch as I write this, and I have experienced all of the above. I've learned the hard way that what happens, happens and it may be up to me to dig out sometimes. Here's where you may actually get to shop your way to resilience; but don't forget curbs, hand-me-downs, freebies, and Craigslist. Invest in a generator, store water, store non-freezer food; if there is an electric well learn how to get at the water. Store some stabilized gasoline, safely. Store candles, kerosene, have lamps, have LED lamps and flashlights and spare batteries; if you don't have a wood stove consider having a small rocket stove and/or solar cooker, or a propane two-burner and a full tank. Have "trail" food, waterproof matches, flashlight, whistle, Mylar "space" blanket, GPS, compass, maps, spare woolen socks, poncho, hat, gloves, N95 masks, folding knife or Leatherman style tool, fifty feet of clothesline or "paracord" rope, toilet paper if you will, sunglasses in case of snow, duct tape, and a medical kit reflecting your preferences in a backpack for each of you, along with a small tent or large tarp or both, gallons of water, an axe, a shovel, and a bucket in the trunk of your car, with a small rocket stove and cooking pot. To make sure of your own list for these things, envision sitting by the roadside in any weather for a week and no one comes to help you. Also: keep your cell phone, not just a land line, in your lockable bedroom and train everyone how to leave the house in any emergency and rendezvous at a collection point, even in the dark. If you believe in defending yourself, take the NRA course at a minimum, then shop and train accordingly. This paragraph is not intended to alarm you, it wants you to think this: if the neighborhood were all of a sudden on its own and held a meeting to find out its assets and liabilities, would I be an asset or a liability?" Do what you can to be an asset to your community and not a liability. The axe, shovel and bucket in the car may help others. See Sharon Astyk's essay on 100 things to do -- many of which focus on community needs.

Community. Get out and meet people. Dance. Meditate. Volunteer at the library or the park or the food bank or the hospital or the shelter. Have a block party or an apple squeezing. Go to your local Transition Initiative meeting. Don't have one? Start one. Go to your local food co-op, or start one, or join or start a food club or a community garden in a vacant lot. Support urban farming. Be a smallholder. Get an allotment. Go to your local seed/plant exchange, or start one. Go to your local tool exchange, or start one. Go to your local farmer's market, or start one. Or your local fiber arts get-together. Or quilting. If yours is a very conservative community that is afraid of these things, try the Grange or the Neighborhood Watch or the Church Social. People who know you will be more likely to help you after a fire or flood, and you will be more able to help them. Get this poster and put it up everywhere. If anyone cries "Socialism" just say "So are stop signs." Download and print out things you think your community may need to know, from such places as here and here.

Food. Cigarettes? I won't even tell you, you know better. Drink less commercial alcohol and more water (from the well or the tap, if safe enough). Again, learn to cook and cook from scratch. Know your dry beans, lentils, split peas, and rice. Skip HFCS. Make your own beverages (learn to brew and make good wines). Prefer filtration over buying bottled. Eat less meat and more fiber. Eat less prepared/processed food and more fresh produce. Eat local. Meet your local farmers and chat. Discover cast iron. Use double boilers and steamers and avoid frying. Try solar cooking. 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. Build a food club around organic wholesale. Find out what "organic" is first, if you don't know, and don't depend on the television and/or industrially-sponsored labeling to tell you. Dehydrate.Ferment. Patronize local organic cooperatives, merchants and farmers. Raise your own food. Discover the Permaculture way. Avoid those patented hybrid and/or genetically modified foods and seeds/plants/foods from large corporations; patronize farmers, merchants and cooperatives providing heirloom varieties -- locally when you can. Discover foraging. Use hand tools. Eschew toxic agents, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides. Avoid plastic. Landscape with edibles. Garden organically. Plant vegetables and fruit and nut trees. Even garden, if need be, in a window box, halved water bottles strung up in a window, or containers on the balcony. Collect seed, start plants, learn propagation and grafting, how to brew and make wine, handle a scythe, build a compost heap. Preserve your own produce. No time? We already talked about that. If it's from out of area: who works there, how much do they make, what are their working conditions, who owns what, and what did it cost to get that banana or cup of coffee across the oceans to you?

Clothes. Buy less frequently, go for longer lasting, and think cotton and wool and natural dyes. "Polyester" should become an embarrassing word in your wardrobe, along with expensive labels. Frequent the thrift stores. Appreciate hand-me-downs. When possible, make your own or buy locally or cooperatively made, and find the age of workers overseas, their wages, hours and working conditions before supporting the big factories.

Health care. If you are renting yourself to the avaricious in exchange for a false security, or taking their advice generally on what to consume (a word that contains its own criticism), you are likely to help make yourself and everyone sick. Enter upon the adventure of figuring out how to live, accepting the risks attendant upon a simplified, clean and thereby increasingly just life. If that kills you, well, were you going to live forever? All things in moderation (except perhaps cigarettes -- just dump those), eat less, eat better, drink clean water, sleep more, build your immunity, be aware of safety issues in your surroundings, don't overheat the house in winter or overcool it in summer, use non-toxic cleaners and agents, stay away from the telly, the couch and the junk foods, walk, bike, paddle, do things yourself, stay out of debt, be wary of the promises made by pharmaceutical corporations, find health care professionals who understandprevention and can help you plan your activities accordingly.

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. There are large hidden costs in both of you working outside the home. 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, give some attention to your friends and neighbors. If you're in the mining, manufacture, distribution, transportation, sales, advertising, or application of depletionary items, from autos to herbicides, re-career as soon as you feasibly can. Think small. Make something useful for yourself, your friends, family or neighbors, or if necessary for sale or barter or work with someone making something useful. Think owner-operator, partnership, cooperative, non-profit, employee-owned enterprise before heading out to sell yourself to the omnivorous giants. Small farmers in particular can hardly go wrong here. We're not talking communism, just common accountability -- ok, communalism; there's a big difference and we need not go into hysterics. It's all tribes. Even Wall Street is a tribe. You like big tribes? The commons is, or should be, the biggest tribe. And, because what goes around always comes around on a smallish globular planet, your greatest loyalty should be to the commons and never to those who would enclose it. If democracy is your thing (I like it too), think about this: on private property there is no democracy. It occurs only in public spaces -- the commons.

You can get a whole lot of quality living done sitting out front and waving hello to passersby, or just pausing, while putting up tomatoes, to watch the golden-hued rays of the sun creep warmly across the kitchen. If you know someone who is not in a position to enjoy even these simple things, consider making a gift to them of your time.

It is in your ability to have less, give more, and yet be happier that you will exceed the worth of all that either personal or corporate avarice can ever bring you.


“If greed were not the master of modern man--ably assisted by envy--how could it be that the frenzy of economism does not abate as higher "standards of living" are attained, and that it is precisely the richest societies which pursue their economic advantage with the greatest ruthlessness? How could we explain the almost universal refusal on the part of the rulers of the rich societies--where organized along private enterprise or collective enterprise lines--to work towards the humanisation of work?" -- E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful.

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Stony Run Farm: Life on One Acre

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