Kunstler on Suburbia- Dang Sucka.

As part of my commitment to doubling down and getting real about rebuilding Suburbia into something that is livable I stumbled across this talk by James Kunstler of Long Emergency fame, which I am finally getting around to reading.  Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Though he spends the majority of the talk beating the shit out of Suburban and current Urban planning, he is a gifted speaker and refuses to pull punches.  The shit is real.  Get busy.

Be the Change.


Oh, How the Mind Wanders

Today I got a wicked good workout on a landscaping job.  I bid it out at 5 hours of labor and I was to mulch two large areas.   The areas worked out to about 11 Cu yards of material for good coverage which is two short loads with B.A.R.T. (Big Ass Red Truck).  Dropped the kids off at school and emptied my municipal site of chips – about 7 yards.  They were wet for the 2” of rains and heavy as hell.  Also, the bed on B.A.R.T. is about 44” up so that is a hefty throw.  Took a solid hour of throwing chips with a manure fork (.5 cu ft a throw) with a few breaks to push the chips deeper into the bed.  Then it was off to the job site.  I had forgot my mulch barrow at the farm which has a 10 cu ft payload and dual wheels – for reasons I don’t understand I choose not to get it and use my rock barrow with its 5 cu ft metal barrow.  Those of you good with quick math now realize that  I just doubled my trips, but I wasn’t real keen on a 25 mile detour in a 7 mpg truck.   I literally thought “it’ll be a good workout” ad its not THAT far.  Got to the site and realized my memory had played tricks on me – the gardens were 75 and 125 yards from the driveway.  Oi.

The long and short of the story is that 11 cu yards is about 300 cu ft.  That is 60 trips in my little wheel barrow.  200 yards per trip for 60 trips is just shy of 7 miles of walking.  11 cu yards of wet chips weighs in at about 6000#’s.  Did I mention that the gardens were all down (thank goodness!) a hill with a 20’ drop?  I climbed 1200’ of elevation to boot.

Truth be told I had a great time – good honest work.  Very little thought – this was grunt work so my mind could wander and I was able to sweat out a lot of good ideas (as well as the math in this post) whilst I was literally sweating out liters of water.

The job took about 5.5 hours, but prolly would have shaved an hour with the mulch barrow.  5.5 hours of fairly intense work – I figure about 450-500 cal an hour based on my heart rate and sweat levels compared to the gym.  5.5 hours.  JESUS!  That’s almost 3000 calories!  Methinks that 6” Veggie Delight at Subway didn’t cut it and that also explains why I hit a “wall” at hour 4.5.  Jared should give me a call if he REALLY wants to lose weight!

3000 calories.  That got me thinking.  When we plan average caloric intake like the USDA says on the cereal boxes, we figure –at most– 2500 calories.  Even if I am rounding up a bit, that is a crap ton of energy I burned and given I kept working when I got home, it is entirely possible I hit 4000 calories today.  Energy I need to eat again.    Many of us have seen the caloric needs of a person touted in attempts to calculate how much acreage is needed to grow enough food to feed a person for a year.  I’ve seen figures ranging from 750,000 to about 900,000 calories per person per year.  In only a few cases (pretty sure John Jeavons mentions it) have I seen the author take into account that the caloric needs of someone farming (or insert physical trade of choice here) by hand has significantly higher caloric needs.  Sitting in a cubicle all day and watching my daily allotment of TV, I have proven I will gain weight at 1800 calories.  If I had to grow all my own food, or more likely enough for several families of 4, I will be burning significantly more calories and will likely need more land.  12 people at 850k equates to 10,200,000 calories.  If we are all burning 3000+ the land needs go up by 30% as we’ll need closer to 1,100,000 calories annually.

This is why I have stressed repeatedly on this blog the need to learn to efficiently grow calorie crops without inputs.  An acre of potatoes will produce at least 40,000#’ if well managed.  Potatoes have about 20 calories per ounce.  That works out to about 13,000,000 calories per acre.  Of course man can’t life on spuds alone, but that is enough to feed 12 hungry sustainable farmers.  A 5 acre farm set up to rotate cucurbits/corn/beans, onions/greens/brassicas/roots, and solanaceae (1 acre each) combined with fruiting hedgerows, and an acre in cover crop rotationally grazed by chickens could support the caloric and nutrition needs of 30+ people.  The eggs from the chickens alone would add about 4,000,000 calories per year (230 hens, 200 eggs per year, 85 calories an egg), so that 30ish person figure is likely fair even without running the math on the winter squash (20,000#’s), onions (15,000#) and hedgerows.  Plus you could add a cow or some goats to the pasture with no loss of eggs and we are running mono crop rather than permaculture design in most acres so we are wasting solar energy – but that is another post!

There are 470,000,000 acres of arable land in the US.  True, many of those depend heavily on irrigation so lets run it at 300,000,000 acres.  Divide by 5 acres and multiply by 30 people. 1.8 billion people.  Add in the Ukraine, Europe, Brazil, India and China and we *can* feed the world – we need about 1.5-2 billion acres, but its gonna be close and distribution is gonna be hell to get our surpluses to India and China not to mention that Africa is already a mess.

Plus we need to build soils like crazy as the only fertilizer in 50 years will be manure and compost.  Oi.  Maybe next time I’ll bring an iPod to keep my thoughts from rambling…

Build soils.

Be the Change!


Lets Get Real

There has been ALOT of buzz about the Peak Oil Guardian Article today.  And with good reason.  For years we, on the “lunatic fringe” have been crying from the roof tops that the sky is falling.  And now, the US Joint Forces, is saying the exact same things we have been.  HA!  We were right!  Now who’s the lunatic sucka! But then, within seconds – IT hits.  OMG – I’m right.  THEY’RE right.  Oh.My.God.  …2011 oil surplus is gone.  Um, that is 8 months from now! 2015 the world is 10 million barrels short.  A DAY.  In 2008 the US used 19.5 million brls/day.  Aw, shit.

Oh, but it gets so much better.  I hate reading reports of reports, so I spent 5 minutes tracking down the original Joint Forces Report to learn more.  The data they are basing their predictions on is the IEA World Outlook.  So lets look at that for a minute:

Right.  See the light blue – that is our current oil production.  It drops like a rock.  Not good for Business as Usual.  So if I am reading this right, the IEA says, well what if we put like a bajillion more drills into the current reserves?  That gets you the dark blue block- pulling the oil faster, not adding more oil.   This is wicked expensive, and won’t really happen any time soon.  Why not?  Because it didn’t happen at $150/brl oil so there is no way in hell its going to happen at $87/brl oil.   But the beauty thing?  The billions of infrastucture in drilling only gets us flat for a year, and then 10 million barrels –per day– short by 2015.  4.5 years.   Ah but what about the red, gold and green splotches?  Notice the lines through them?  I translate that as IEA speak for “good fucking luck” or “Cheney made us put that in to stop world panic”.

But back to that JOE report I linked to.  The JOE report is the Joint Operating Environment report and sets out to paint a backdrop for strategic planning for the next 25 years.  Its the military so they spend the first half dozen pages talking about honor and history and manifest destiny with the obligatory quotes from Ancient Greece.  But then they get into a sober frank telling of the Big Issues of the coming decades.  Their conclusions should scare the shit out of each one of us.  5 of the Top 1o will sound very familiar to readers of this blog:

  • The Economy
  • Oil Scarity
  • Climate Change
  • Water Scarcity
  • Food supplies.

Are Rob Hopkins, Richard Heinberg, and David Holmgren working for the Joint Chiefs?  Remember that this is based on the largest and best funded intelligence gathering entity on the planet.   Let me state this again – at the highest levels our military views oil, water, climate change and food as strategic issues. Let that sink in for a good long minute.

But as I read through this I was struck by the same thing I almost always am (except when I read the 3 authors above).  While the JOE report talks about Oil scarcity by 2015, and 40% of the world being thirsty by 2030 and millions of people under water by 2030 they don’t connect the dots.  What they don’t get is that we will be out of oil, thirsty, under water, hungry AND broke.  At the same time.

4 years ago I started this blog to document our attempts to be more sustainable.  Buying organic.  Installing CFL’s.  Driving a hybrid.   I read and read and my concern deepened so I started growing more food.  And working on energy projects.  I began to question if these were problems to be solved or if, as John Michael Greer stresses in The Long Descent that these issues were now predicaments to be reacted to.   I guess I have answered that question for myself.  We saw the effects of $4 gasoline.  Ironically, the recession bought us “time” by reducing oil consumption.  We are now seeing the economy resurge.  But it will smack into the energy reality before the end of the year  or so and we will see economic growth sputter again.  But this time we will have less capacity – no more stimulous and unemployment will still be 10%+ so we will likely fall farther and take longer to rebound.

Problem or Predicament, we have our design criteria.  Water, energy, “money”, and food will all be scarcer in the future, and likely the near future.  Our solutions and preparations will be as diverse as we are – and rightly so.  But they must focus on being 3 things:

  • Local
  • Resilient
  • Regenerative

I am scared shitless about how fast we have crossed the tipping points and how even those of us who have been working so hard aren’t ready.   Greer nailed it – this will be a LONG emergency sparked with respites, like the one we are in now, where things feel good and we can get our feet under us.  But we will get thrown again, and all the uncertainty and fear that we all felt last year will return only to recover again, but to a lower level of “prosperity”.

There is much to do.

Be the Change.


900,000 GW Hours

Editor’s note: This post is not an upbeat snippet about potatoes or optimistic take on community activism.  Rather, it about some of the numerical realities of Peak Oil… and its DARK.

There are lots of good reasons that I should not be reading The Oil Drum immediately before bed.  One of them happens to be that it typically reduces my actual sleep time by 20% as I say awake trying to wrap my head around staggering statistics and their import.  Today, unfortunately, is a great example.  I can’t sleep – its the same feeling you have when you hear something go bump in the night, only I am having a hard time saying “oh, …its nothing”.

Jeffvail has a new post in tonight that is a first installment in his attempt to put some hard numbers behind the “we’ll just switch to renewables” plan that is common on the Left and in DC these days. I won’t get into retyping his post, reading it yourself is much preferred.  Instead I will leave you with the one morsel that will be keeping me up tonight.  Jeff is using nice round numbers, and siding optimistically more often than not, but his goal is to see what it will take to simply offset the energy lost from the declining availability of oil as we slide down the far side of Hubbert’s Peak by converting to renewables.  Jeff puts that figure at about 5% attrition as a round number which has historical precedent, and then converts the current Oil  use in the world into BTU’s for lack of a better unit, and then finally converts that into electricity as that is what renewables are good at.  The result of offsetting 5% of our current annual oil use with elecricity?  900,000 GW hours.  

Lets put that into a measurement that we are used to seeing on our monthly bills: KWH.  900,000,000,000 KWH.  Frankly that is a number too big to even comprehend – the incredilbe energy density of oil, on top of the almost incomprehensible amount of it we use every day is one of the reasons it is hard to get your noodle around.  So I tried to convert it into how many gasifiers we would need to build to make that much electricity since we can make 40,000 KWH each.  Yep LOTS better – we only need to build 2.25 billion gasifiers and cut down 3.5 milllion square miles of willow coppice annually to power them.  And that is only to replace what we are losing each year, i.e. we have to build that many EACH YEAR just to maintain our energy status quo.  That also means we will need to build 1000% more PV and Wind generators than we did in 2008 (the current record holder) and then do it EVERY year, for the next 40-50 years.  Considering the best PV is only getting 15 watts per sq ft that is an amazing amount of area to cover.

Conservation and efficiency gains you ask?  We can only pray that it offset the dual demographic pressures of rising population and the desire of the Third World to drive an F-150 to eat a Big Mac for lunch every day, and I didn’t even get into EROEI, front loading the carbon emissions to retool our society, or the fact that there simply may not be enough copper left to wire the generators that we will need.  Something to think about next time you see that cheery bumper sticker about “The Answer is blowing in the wind…” or “The Answer Comes up Every Morning”.   PV and especially wind generation will certainly have a huge role to play in our future, likely the same critical role as they did to electrify the farms of great grandparents; I am rapidly becoming convinced that Energy DESCENT is the reality – and that the Status Quo is already living History.

Its times like this that I feel like Saul on the Road to Damascus, but when the scales fall from my eyes I find myself looking in vain for a Saviour to make it All Better, and instead end up staring into the Cold Hard Face of Reality.

This shit is BIG… and I obviously need to go to bed.


Energy Descent Musings

One of the results of my forced furlough from hands on participation in Saving the World is that for the first time in, (gulp!) 6 months I am reading non-fiction again.   At my normal state of non-winter activity I am asleep within 5 minutes of hitting bed, and I find it difficult to sit and read for 30 minutes at any other time when there are so many “Useful Things” to be doing.  But Fate has had Her say, so I a reading again.  For some reason, attending the MREA Energy Fair this year inspired me to purchase 3 books on Energy Descent (I think Peak Oil is too limiting a phrase).   As my reading time is (usually) limited this time of year I went to some authors that have earned my respect to get the most bang for my buck: David Holmgren (co-Founder of Permaculture), John Michael Greer (Current ArchDruid of North America [seriously] and author of the thought provoking ArchDruid Report), and Richard Heinberg (a leading voice in Peak Oil)

First up was Holmgren’s Future Scenarios.  Its a quick read at 120 small pages, but as Holmgren compares the likelihood of 4 possible futures (Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Stewards, and Lifeboats) one can’t help but notice how much darker his thinking has gotten in the 7 years since Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.  It is very sobering to see one of your heroes lose some of their optimism.      I just finished Greer’s The Long Descent, which is the first book I have read from the Peak Oil canon.   I also have Heinberg’s Power Down, in the queue.  But honestly, I think I need a breather from Doom and Gloom; I gave my son an impromptu bedtime lecture this weekend in the need for Self Reliance in his lifetime as we will have to do more for ourselves that we do now just to survive.  He’s 7… good parenting, Rob.

Regardless, Truth has a way of resonating and I’m all aquiver.  Here is where my thinking is post reading.   Taking Greer and Homlgren together in such a short timeframe I find myself with some thought inducing take-aways with most of the Doom and Gloom edited out:

  • The Dual Crisis of Climate Change / Peak Oil have switched from “Problems” to be solved to Predicaments to be reacted to.  We had our chance in the 1970’s, Reagan shat on that and stole the future from our children.   This is not a call to “bunker up” in the woods, but rather a call to adjust out thinking and ensure our planning scenarios are set against the correct  reality without deluding ourselves that it will “all work out”. 
  •  Holmgren makes a convincing argument that some governments will squander our finite resources in a futile attempt to maintain the Status Quo.  How many times did we hear Cheney/Bush proclaim that the “American Way of Life will Survive”?  Cheney gets Peak Oil, he is just prefers dooming us all like Reagan did to buy us another few decades of decadence.  Other governments will “get it” and divert resources to more sustainable means of energy production.  The EU has made some faltering attempts towards this.  More likely regional and local governments could be persuaded to do more.  Get Involved.
  • Community is Key.  Look around your town through the lens of Energy Descent.  Best case scenario you need 2000 sq ft to feed a person a very meager vegetarian diet for a year in North America using John Jeavons  Bio-Intensive methods.  Towns over 500,000 will struggle due to the logitical realities of transporting food sans oil – we can grow enough food to feed America, we just can’t transport it without fossil fuels given our current demographic reality.  Suburbs are not much better off – services are too far apart for human scale transportation.  My town of 1200 is a mess too.  As a bedroom community, everyone here is used to getting everything they need from OUTSIDE the community – we have no cultural aspects (this is HUGE), no grocery store, no hardware store, etc.  Towns that have changed little in the past 100 years will do better, as will towns used to being fairly self reliant.
  • Prepare now.  No, that doesn’t mean start your own religion and build a bunker.  It means the sooner we each start to embrace the realities of Energy Descent, the less impactful it will be to our lives.  Honestly assess your life: how will you feed your family, heat your home, and earn a living with drastically less energy to rely on?  Learn a craft that will be useful as we Descend,  manage your life to cut your energy use in half or more (this will likely mean moving or switching jobs), talk to your neighbors, go to the farmers market, grow some of your own food, figure out how to heat your home without natural gas, learn to repair things, buy durable hand tools,  plant fruit trees, join a church or community group, and learn basic health care and first aid.

Reality is a bitch, but if we can avoid the darker parts of the descent, we just may find that our lives are more meaningful as we (re)learn to act with purpose and rely on our selves once again.

Be the Change.


The Future must be MADE

I love Monday’s.  They, like all my days, start before sunrise.  But on the weekends (I work Tues-Fri) I prepare the day for my family: coffee, tea, hot breakfast, etc.  I try to give myself a 30 minute cushion before the bussle of the day hits with the young’ins and their boundless energy.  It is a good time.  Then they are off to school and Mia and I often get several hours to ourselves – at least a few hours to recharge our relationship with time just for us – at a coffee shop, at home, or shopping in Madison.  Today was the latter, which also involved us seeing a banker about funding the New Revolution before all the money’s gone (more on that later –I hope!).  The afternoons are more focused, with a standing invitation to our Community Supported Energy group for workdays at the farm.  And that is the subject of today’s post as we ramp up on our second Gen 2 gasifier, so I headed North.

The weather is warming, which allows for outdoor work and more workstations to happen at once.  I pull as far into the drive as my low slung VW Golf will let me after the 8″ snow this weekend and am amazed at the scale of work laid out before me.  Opening the door, I am met with a cacophony of productive noise: my buddy that runs the sewer utility is hard at a sheet of steel with a saber saw cutting out burn plates.  After a hearty back slap, I go into the greenhouse/workshop to see “Brother Dick” working hard at a section of salvaged pipe with an angle grinder kicking up an impressive amount of dust as he clears it of corrosion.  Ourimg_7265 electronics expert is giving a piece of 6″ steel pipe the old “what for” with our 14″ cut off saw and spraying the area in a slightly concerning display of sparks in the process.  Further in, the farm owner is hard at a propane tank we cut in half last week as he welds on various braces and legs… I love the smell of welding rods in the afternoon!   There is enough active testosterone in the room to power a Hummvee – you can almost hear Tim  the Tool Man laughing wryly somewhere in the distance.  I pull the farmer off the tank long enough for him to point me at some steel that was cut earlier and he chucks me a big az Milwaukee Drill meaningfully.  My job awaits…

As we stare down the future that we are desperately trying to envision for our children there is so much to do. This blog has changed mightily in its 3 years.  It started as a journal of our struggles to live lighter here in HOA Middle America.  In that regard I guess it is still the same, but my answers to those struggles certainly have altered.  3 years ago I was focused on using our .4 acres to showcase “Green” living.  Cutting waste streams, native landscaping, and reducing energy by buying new appliances, changing lightbulbs, etc while growing some organic veggies for our kids to eat.  Pretty sure there is even a post in there about where to buy organic clothes.  But the whole time I was reading: Permaculture, Natural Capitalism, Sustainable Ag, Smart Growth, and success stories like Small is Possible and dozens more. The more I read, the more inspiring options I saw.  And  then I started hitting books like David Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles, books on Peak Oil and others like James Martin’s The Meaning of the 21st Century.  Books that inspired me; books that scared the hell out of me.  I watched the Crash Course and read all 600 pages of David Blume’s Alcohol can be a Gas.  My answers to the Big Problems morphed as I became more fully aware of how awesomely BIG those problems truly are.  I still reduce energy, but now I am more focused on making it.  I am less concerned about promoting “green” energy, than I am about finding ways to link energy/food/economic systems into processes that are carbon negative, yet produce surpluses of both fuel and food while actually building fertility.   I went from native landscaping to edible landscaping to permaculture designs that need no inputs and create surpluses at every turn.  But back to my “hairy man” fest.

Here we are, 5 men that may or may not have much in common.  Our ages span almost 5 decades from youngest to eldest.  Our interests and specialties range from treating sewage sludge to designing remotely operated underwater vehicles to draft horses to organic agriculture.  But we are all linked by our heartfelt belief that the current path we are on is all effed up and that we need a better future.  But more than that, we are committed that this future must be MADE. There is no waiting around for Obama or Hydrogen or Kyoto II.  If those things work that will be awesome, but for me –for us– the best way to predict the future is to help create it.  Literally in this case.  We are turning hundreds of pounds of salvage steel into gasifiers as we work to perfect our systems.   I am looking at buying 8 acres of agricultural wasteland on the edge of town to make this crap happen.   We are a group of “do-ers” and we are getting busy.  And so are thousands of others across this nation.  If you are busy doing the Good Work – I thank you on behalf of my children.  If not, there is much to do and we need more people doing it.

We’ve had bumper stickers on our cars for years.  It is time to put the slogans into practice.   Hand me that drill, I’ve got work to do.

Be the Change.



I’ve got a pretty eclectic music taste, but it is highly dependent on my mood.  Much of January I was listening to alot of George Winston and William Ackerman.  The first waves of the New Economy were coming to bear on the shores of My World.  Cutting the hours of my team and being unable to give them Real Answers to the poignant questions of “How long?” and “How Deep?” threw me into a Big Think.  When I think, I need instrumentals – Winston’s “Summer” got me through most of my level 400 Philosophy classes.  But the Big Think is passing for a bit.

Now as the world begins to awake from Winter’s Rest I can feel my psyche ache for action.  I spent a few weeks turned very deeply inside, and now that the strength has gathered it is time for action.  First off, I can hardly stand to have a book in my hands – a sure sign that my brain is full and its time to Get Busy.  Next Ackerman is no longer a go to – in the last week Non Point, Clutch, Breaking Benjamin, Rage, and Soundgarden have been almost constant companions.  Hell yes, its time to get busy!

Seeds are ordered -double the spuds of LY-, but  the energy within needs more than farming for release and that leads to energy projects in abandon.  This weekend will see me  beginning to learn to weld as I build what will likely be a butt ugly, but functional stand for holding drums of grease for drying over a syngas flame.  Plans are being drawn up for the Tilapia/BioDiesel/Gasifier Greenhouse-a-workshop.  I have every intention of making Biodiesel by April or sooner, and hopefully have built my own gasifier by then to literally fuel my future projects.

The future is getting to be as Real as we have always thought it would be.  In my world- that is about 27 months too early.   So much of my life is moving from the armchair to reality -and I am struggling to keep up.  I spent much of the past month freaking out at how quickly Change was Coming – and how unprepared I was (granted I have REALLY high expectations for preparedness).  Now its time to start filling in those gaps.  

I see myself spending less time on getting other people “on board” and more time finding dirt in the nails solutions to the Big Questions: low energy/capital solutions to Food/Energy/Employment.  If the past 6 months is any predictor of the future – assuming We have Real Answers, getting people on board will not be a problem.  I’ve got focus, now the challenge is metering out the execution to prevent fatigue and collapse -making it through The Funnel will be a marathon, not  a sprint.

Be the Change


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