Panhandle Hooks and Transition Lessons

The upper Midwest just got clobbered by a doozy of a Panhandle Hook dumping plenty of snow followed by some serious winds gusting to 50mph (80kph).  I work the weekends, so I had the pleasure of driving through all this at 4am this morning.  Now the signs were clear – NOAA has been preaching this storm all week – heavy snow, bitter temps, massive winds.  Its gonna be brutal.   The troopers are adamant – no travel unless you have to.  Again and Again the mantra is clear – be prepared, be careful, take precautions.

I have almost no choice – I have a job to do and a team to lead, but I know the drill.  I own an AWD Subaru.  I mount dedicated snow tires.  I leave with plenty of time, wearing enough fleece line gore tex and merino wool that I could have walked the 20 miles to work if I had to.  And in case I do need to, I put snow shoes, flashlights and some food in the car.  My wife hands me some water as I walk out the door.  I fill the gas tank and put a heavy winter camping sleeping bad in the car in case I bin it and it takes a while for help to arrive.  Heck, I’ve taken performance driving classes and raced cars in my past; I know the limits of my abilities and my vehicle.  I am not self sufficient, but I am prepared for the reasonable issues that I may face.  I will be in a bad way if I wrap my Forester around a tree, so I drive slow to ensure that never happens.  But if I ditch it or get caught in a drift I will be fine for a day or two which is 4x longer than I will need to be.  I have added a significant amount of resiliency and self reliance to my treacherous commute.

While gassing up, I see 3 different cars pull up and people run into the store wearing track pants and sneakers or flats and a dress.   I went to school in South Dakota…  weather will kill you dead in minutes out there in winter and people like this would literally get talked to for endangering themselves and others by their lack of preparedness (in South Dakota you have to pay for your own rescue if you are dumb enough to get into trouble in a winter storm).  On the commute home the drifting was intense as the Alberta air was blowing down in full force.  The roads were clear when blocked by woods, but hit a field and the drifts were very real, and the roads glare ice.  The troopers knew this and had gotten sick enough of pulling people out all damn day that they towed out a 12′ tall flashing neon sign telling people to SLOW DOWN: HAZARDOUS DRIFTING ahead.    Sure enough – it got BAD about .5 miles later.  I lifted off the throttle, hit the hazard lights, and slowed to 30mph.  Then, predictably, three cars blew by me 1…2…3….  the first hit the drift, braked and of course started to spin on the ice as the weight lifted off the rear of the vehicle.  Of course the next two did the same and they all hit the ditch 1… 2… 3…

I pulled over and ensured that they were all ok and were able to call for a tow and then I drove on struck again by how surprised each of them were- one even muttering “what happened?”  The signs were there –literally– and they failed to heed them.   The conditions changed, but they failed to adjust their paradigm.

There are many lessons here.  In any population there is naturally a wide array of risk aversion levels.  In herbivores it is a classic tug of war between bolting at the first sign of a predator and wasting precious energy, or waiting a bit longer saving energy and perhaps even taking a few more bites of grass. Too risk averse and you can’t compete as you gradually become weaker and less able to produce.  Not risk averse enough and, well, you get eaten.   Mammoths in North America had evolved to regard anything smaller than a short faced bear as too small to be a threat.  But when the Clovis people arrived – massing 1/4 of a bear so of course no threat at all– they were summarily wiped out in mere centuries.    I was raised in an environment that valued preparedness.  I have often thought that one could draw a loose, but fairly accurate, line through male society along the line of Those That Carry Pocket Knives and Those That Do Not.   Go to any birthday party and when the stubborn ribbon hits, there is always one or two people there that quickly reach into their pocket to produce a small tool to do the job.

I come from a long line of knife carriers and this year my son will get his first knife – a right of passage indeed– and in a few years his younger sister will too.  There are also those who went to Boy Scouts (Be Prepared!) and those who did not.  The trappings really don’t matter a lick – the key point is that there are those of us that want to be READY to handle, well whatever “it” is.  We are a bit more conservative, a bit more thoughtful, and a bit more diligent.  We are also rarely going to be reckless and will miss out on situations that favor immediate response and action without forethought.  We make shitty venture capitalists but are great in a plane crash.

I suspect that many of the readers of this blog, many of The Choir in the Energy Descent Age, are “knife carriers”.  We are heading the NOAA forecast.  We put the snow boots and blankets in the car.   We see the troopers signs and slow down.  In the coming decades we will also likely be the ones able to pull over, walk down into the ditch and rap on the window with a friendly “You OK in there?!”  I salute you.

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!


Damn Good Boots

My version of Being the Change necessitates damn good boots.

For me, saving the world (or surviving it?) means I need Damn Good Boots.  These boots were a gift from a very good friend.  That friend has served two tours in Iraq, and may serve one more in Afganistan before he’s done.  These boots have seen the desert and the Hell of War.  I am very sure I do not want to know all they have seen.  Now, they stop rotary plow blades when I misstep in exhaustion, and have saved my ankles more times than I can count when jumping over goose fencing or dropping plate steel when welding on the gasifier.  I wear these boots with pride.  And I wear them with purpose.  We too are serving our country, though no one ordered us to.

At heart I am a “direct actionist”.  I see problems, and I take action.  That action *might* be doing research, but in cases like reading the JOE report, the RSCH portion lasts for a day, then my version of fight or flight kicks in and I Get Busy.  Much of this blog has been the results of that tendency.  For me the best antidote for despair is action.  I need to DO something.  When life gives me lemons, I build a gasifier to power a refrigerator to cool the lemonade.

We are facing some monumental problems.   Oil is going to get wicked expensive soon, I believe we have already crossed tipping points in climate change that will make 3-4 degrees impossible to avoid, and our population as a planet will hit 8 billion before we have any chance to turn it around.  More mouths, no more cheap energy, and unpredictable weather.  That is a crazy tough backdrop for designing a transitional civilization model.

My answers are not easy.  They involve building efficiency loops into biologically linked systems to turn waste into vegetables, animal protein, fertilizers, space heating, electricity and transportable fuels such as methane and ethanol.   Let me say this again – these answers are not easy. Look at the picture at the top of the page – those are $20 leather gloves with the palms worn out; they are less than 6 months old.  I work 8 hours a day, 4 days a week on Being the Change, then come home to read and write and learn about how to do it better the next day.  There are thousands like me.  And we need hundreds of thousands more.

My parent’s generation were activists – the marched and rallied and boycotted.  Our generation needs to be actionists.  No one is going to legislate these problems away – Congress is a quagmire.  And while government will have an absolutely vital role to play, they need to know WHAT to do.  I applied for Stimulus funding in 2009.  We never officially got turned down – in fact we made it through 4 hurdles before getting parked.   What my boots and I are doing is building my version of one of the solutions.  I want to build a Proof of Concept; to take all these ideas off the goddamn drawing board and show what can truly be done on 5 acres.  And then make it scaleable up and down so that it can be repeated all over this country so that we can heal the land while supporting our families.  And that is going to take a shit ton of work.

None of my heroes wore suits and none of my heroes were executives. But they all got busy Being the Change.  Its not only ok to be geeky and to get your hands dirty – its the only way.  Look at Thoreau.  Look at Holmgren.  Shepard, Salatin, Fukuoka.  Hard work isn’t enough; nor is theory.  The solutions are in applied theory.  Being the Change means doing it.  There is SO MUCH that needs to be done: slow money, cooperative business structures, joint capital ownership,  regional / local distribution networks, district biomass heating, changing school curriculums to reflect reality, getting healthy again, and so many more.  It makes ones head whirl.  I am just one man and I have chosen my path.  There are so many others.

We need you.  My kids need you.

Strap on your boots.

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.


New Year Revolutions

Sure I got my resolutions: exercise more, spend more quality time with my family, do more with less.  Those will  have an immense impact on my life and those I love the most. But in this post, I am really interested in starting some New Year Revolutions – things that work on a more macro level. If you are reading this blog, you get that we have some Big Problems and fate has placed our generation as the one to deal with them.  2010 is a critical year – shit for the next decade they will ALL be critical.  Action without purpose is wasted motion, so here are some Revolutions I want to be a part of.


The things that I need to maintain quality of life are made and controlled by people whom I do not know and do not know me.  My banker is a corporation.  My grocer is a chain.  My energy is provided by god knows who.  That disconnect equates to a loss of control.  I give thousands of dollars a year in interest to a corporate bank that cares nothing for me other than my credit score and my income statement -meaning they will turn on me in an instant.  Worse yet, they take that money and use it to fund things that are directly opposed to my value structure.  My local grocer sells products based exclusively on profit margins with little regard for impacts to community or ecology.  I believe in a future that is better than that. Here are my revolutions:

  • Move my Money As much as possible I will seek to shift the power of my money to those that share my value structure.  To fund my commercial enterprises I will seek out Slow Money investors so that the profits of my labor profit those that share my values.  For better or worse, money is power and I want more control about whom I am empowering and who are empowering me.
  • Vote with my dollars. We already do this alot, but convenience still rules the roost too often.  Whether its vending machines at work or Culver’s on road trips far too much of my money supports a future I don’t believe in.  Polyface Farms recently threw out the challenge that if every American abstained from Fast Food for a week it would shut down every CAFO in the country – we fund the current system and to that degree share in its evils.  I want more of my money to promote companies that share my vision for the future and whenever possible are from people I know.
  • Food There is simply too little food grown locally, and almost none stored commercially for local consumption.  Low Input storage of food crops and promoting the local growth of calorie crops is the next Battle to be won in Slow Food.  Romaines and micro greens are great and necessary, but rutabagas and onions in February are where the war will be won.
  • Energy. Dear god do we have a long ways to go here.  The technologies are known and some progress is being made on electricity with wind and PV becoming more accessible.  But liquid fuels are what our built environment is designed for and there is literally nowhere in my entire county where I can buy biodiesel or locally produced ethanol.  That is scary as hell.  Energy production will be a part of every commercial venture I am a part of going forward.


In many cases the skills to accomplish the goals above simply do not exist locally – either because no one has tried it or we have forgotten how.  One Straw is very much about myself and thousands of others working to fill this gap ourselves and even more importantly network and communicate with others to help it go viral.  We can’t do it all.  I will never be a community banker and I am only a passable welder.  But I can grow a potato on a rock.  Here are my Reskilling Revolutions:

  • Teach Others Doing something new, vital, and innovative is great and necessary, but to teach others to do the same is divine.  “Teach a man to fish…” From Gardening 101, to building Hoop Houses, to vermicomposting, to making gasifiers and converting cars to electric it is vital to get more people skilled in the Good Work.  Workshops, webinars, tours, and presentations.  Get ‘r done.
  • Learn Something You can get only so much from books.  At some point you need a mentor.  Teaching others is critically important, but just as important is finding those that know more than you and learning from them so the oral traditions don’t die.  The critical skills like how to hold a hoe, when a jam is thick enough, or how to lay a welding bead simply cannot be taught in books.  When you learn something from someone a little bit of magic is created; some people call it respect.

Rebuilding Community

There is far too much work to be done – one person can’t do it all… not even the incredibly Stalwart Do-ers that read this blog.  I often lose track of this one in my nose down action oreintated pragmatism. Epic Fail. It takes a village, people! There is a growing trend of “ruggedly individual” survivalists, or “preppers”.  A rather terrifying mix of ammunition, gardening, hoarding, and fundamentalist psuedo-religion and half baked patriotism.  And I cannot state too emphatically that it is not a solution to the coming calamity.  News flash psychos – there will ALWAYS be someone with a bigger gun to come and take your tomatoes.  If you are really afraid of the Mad Max scenario being the future, then take a cue from the movie and work to be the community building the refinery and smuggling out the gasoline on the buses.  They had children; they had hope. That said, far too many of us don’t know the names of our neighbors, no one carols anymore, and there are not nearly enough potlucks.  Rebuilding community Revolutions:

  • Join Something.  PTA, Theatre Group, Knitting circle.  Run for local office.  Start a reading group.  If it gives you the ability to say “Hello!” to more people at the post office then it qualifies.  This is so very important.
  • Share Something There are always too many zucchini!  Give some Christmas cookies to your neighbors -guess what, next year they will bake some for you.  Car Pool – who wouldn’t rather chat with a person rather than a dashboard about the story on Morning Edition?  Design shared space into your future – I intend to have cooperative space in the hoop house for energy projects from people I haven’t even met yet.  1+1=3
  • Eat Something Churches and our grandparents understood that since time began the simple act of breaking bread together solidifies community.  If you get together with others put food into the schedule and bring a dish to pass.  Eating creates a space of idleness – a time when it is expected to talk about family, local issues, hopes, and dreams.  A time to get to know people.  The real business always gets done in the hallways after the meeting and is based on trust relationships.   Saving the world is no different.

It all comes down to Resiliency.   When the chips are down, we really have very little idea exactly what the next decade will bring.  But, to put it mildly, I strongly suspect the weather will continue to get weirder, fuel more expensive, and “the economy” more uncertain.   The best way to handle such an uncertain, and likely difficult scenario, is to take the power back from those we have sold it to over the past 5 decades.  At this point I want to have my food, goods, and energy come from those I know and trust and live a life more connected to those around me.  It will be less convenient, it will “cost more”, and it will involve more labor on my part.  But we have sold our future for convenience for far to long and I demand more for my children.

Its time for a Revolution.

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.



May 23, 2009,  8pm and Intermission at Wisconsin Fashion week where my 30 something wife is making a stand for Real Beauty against the insurgent tide of all but 2 dimensional (literally) teen-something “beauties” that have come to define what it means to be pretty in America.  She is stomping the runway against all odds through incredible skill, vit and vim and I am damn proud of her.  And yes, its hot to be married to a model. For me, sitting in the Fashion Show was interesting to say the least.  Pretty sure I was the only potato farmer there…    Now, placed on a bench on the sidewalk of State Street and People Watching.  Just amazing to see the world passing by and I am waxing philosophical.  Go figure. 


State street is so vibrant, so unlike the subdivision where I live.  So many people; so easy to go all existential… what are they doing, where are they going.  Who do they love what are they thinking about?  Diversity everywhere with swallows and nighthawks to boot.


Country living – is it an escape or a quest?  Am I running from something or towards something?  Times like this I really wonder as the city certainly has its allure.  I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago – and never felt at home.  The competion, the sameness for mile after mile after mile.  Going to school out in the plains – Nebraska and South Dakota literally opened me to new horizons and the vastness and the cleansing emptiness of Nature.  Wisconsin brought what I thought to be a compromise.  For a year we lived right smack in the middle of down town Milwaukee – but it was nothing like this.  Where we now reside.. in a small bedroom community of 1200 on the freeway with no infrasctuture other than its HOA’s and Outlet Mall will likely never feel like “home”; there is simply not enough there.  Should the free way cease to exist the town would shrink to nothingness again.  There is no purpose; no community.  


At the farm, I do feel more connected, but the communion is more with Gaia than my fellow sapiens.  The earth is so alive there as to create an almost visceral reaction – the vibrancy fills your nostrils, your mouth, perhaps even your soul.  Bringing life from the soil is less a matter of coaxing than of daming; an attempt to hold back the bounty of the  Earth so as to get only what is needed/wanted rather than the profuseness that Nature desires.   


But the farm is not my home either – at least not yet.  And truth be told, I am not convinced it will be.  The farm entails so many finalities.  Livestock ends most travel, affordable land removes us from most to all of human contact as we get further and further away from civilization.  And removing ourselves that far – is that sustainable?  We  cannot create *everything* we need on the farm, and post oil is we are 40 miles from a population center is that workable?  With whom will we barter and share labor?  With whom will I drink my home brew?  What village will help raise my children? That desicon is a bit off, but it is not a forgone conclusion despite me soul’s yearning to bring forth bounties from the Earth.


Here on State Street I know that the denisty is not sustainable either – too many people even in this lightly populated metropolis for the solar energy falling in its square mileage to produce enough calories.  But I think that this may be closer to the sustainable ideal than a 20 acre oasis an hours drive from here.  I look around and see the collee youth, the educated culturata, the hedonists and know that much will change in the coming years – the years that my children will grow to witness.  As the Flobots say – we are the architects of our Last Stand.  The key to that battle, as any military strategist will tell you, is in choosing your ground.  I have many of the tools and am learning the skills – the choice looming now before me is to where I sink my own roots.   


Much thought on this in the coming years.


Be the Change.


Blooming Where You’re Planted

new-house-029Several Years ago we moved into our current home saying “We’ll move to a rural home in a few years…”  

Our current home is on the freeway- literally: this picture was taken with me leaning on our back fence… which is owned by the D.O.T. Follow the link for the backstory on that.  Our land was a farm field before we moved in – so in every sense of the phrase: we are urban sprawl.  The rich Wisconsin topsoil was mined and replaced with quarry pilings as backfill.  In this dead denuded landscape I found the inspiration to Be The Change.  I intended to spend the years that we had in this home building the skills I needed to become a small scale farmer, and just maybe adding something meaningful to the growing body of knowledge on small scale agriculture and (sub)urban farming. tour-resizeBy the third season, we had taken our soil from the above apocalyptic scene where not even dandelions would grow, to gardens producing 500#’s of produce annually.  We had packed enough design and beauty into the landscape that we were literally holding tours.

We had always intended to move – in fact 2009 was the the planned exodus.  I have learned most of the skills that I need to start a small farm, but the economy is not playing ball.  Due to the fall of our home’s value and the simultaneous ratcheting up of loan requirements, it will be 2-3 more years until we have the down money for our Someday House.  There are certainly some bright spots – Matt commented that one of his friends sold his home on craigslist due primarily to his descriptions of their edible landscape.  That is certainly encouraging, but for now we need to hunker down and Bloom Where We’re Planted.

Goals for this year at the Home Garden:

  • Declare War on Quack – it will be pushed back into the lawn and methodically eradicated by oversowing Dutch White Clover which is the only thing I have found that will outcompete it.  I am spending too much time disturbing my permaculture beds rooting out rhizomes.  
  • Fertility – the fruit trees have lanquised in the poor soil.  Time for some serious uppening!  Major 2′ deep sheet mulching projects are planned .
  • Function – many of the guilds are haphazard right now.  I plan on revisiting them to stack in more functions to reduce our grocery bill and add to our produce sales.
  • Beauty – the backyard is a Hot Tranny Mess of paths, half finished beds and conflicting design patterns as I have sought to try out the theories from whatever book I had just read.  It needs to be redesigned from a master plan level to repurpose current work and add direction to future efforts.  
  • Trees –  we have not planted many Apex Trees due to our planning on leaving soon.  I am not sure that will be an option if the bottom continues to drop out, so Hybrid Chestnuts and other fast growing yet functional trees are on the docket as well as more mid story trees like Black Locust and Cherry to begin to add a canopy.


While we loathe the freeway and still dream of acreage, the house is nice and the gardens a source of pride.   The work we are doing here is meaningful as we work to demonstrate the possibilities in the suburbs and with the partnerships we have formed I have access to all the additional land I need to satisfy my farming itch.  

This year is already incredibly busy and I have already bitten off more than I can chew, but the work is pleasant and needed; my problems are High Level.  The goal will be to continue to refine my ability to focus and define what  is most critical to increase my ability to do more with the resources I have at my disposal.  Growing 2000#’s of food sustainably in a suburban backyard is still a huge goal, and so is the Market Gardens and our side business of ecological landscaping.  Finding ways to accomplish my personal goals without sacrificing my family life or paying job will be an ongoing struggle as I fight burnout.  Taking time to look at those first pictures of the property and comparing them to the bounty we have now is always refreshing.  We have done many things well in a short time.

Be the Change.


Food as Revolution

I keep a sticker on my laptop that reads “Eat like you give a Damn.”  That sticker sums it all up succinctly for me: if you are willing to put it in your mouth, you better give it some thought.  We are, literally, what we eat after all.   Course yesterday at the table my 5 year old and I had this exchange: “Daddy?”  “Yes Dear?” “What does *damn* mean?”  As we don’t believe in Hell that was a fun conversation, but it ended well.

Today was the kickoff for the farming season for me.  I pulled the Grillo out of the storage center, was pleased it fired on the third pull, loaded it up in the trailer behind the Golf and headed North to the market garden with some hand tools and an ounce of Spinach seed from Fed-Co.   The weather was perfect – about 37 degrees, but bright and clear enough that I would be shedding my sweatshirt as soon as I got moving in the field.  I had the stereo on as I drove.  Music is important to me – I use it to mold, augment, or stifle my emotional state at most times; unless I am in for a Big Think I am typically listening to something.  One would think that heading into such a bucolic scene I would be listening to George Winston’s Spring or at least something introspective or calm like the Shins, Ben Harper or the Be Good Tanyas.  Nope.  I was deep into Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against with some FloBots thrown in for good measure.  I was Calm Like a Bomb and itching for a Fight.

Rather than melding my spirit with the rhythms of the Earth I had the very real feeling like I was preparing for a Revolution – the Carharts, boots and gloves I had donned were my uniform as a frontline insurgent in the Fight for the Future; my Grillo and DeWitt hoe the weapons of the New War.  This was not a communion – it was battle.  

Of course I was not at odds with Nature -She’s my greatest Ally and raison pour l’existence.  But each of the 2000 seeds I sowed this morning were a statement that I want tomorrow to be different than today.  With those seeds I palpably stated that I want to bring into existence 50#’s of sustainably grown food that would not have been there without my labors.  I planted those seeds because I Give a Damn, to sell and barter to people that Give a Damn.  

And it is a routine that I and thousands of others will repeat every weekend for keep-fightingthe next 24 weeks.  I will break it up with tours and workshops to help the Movement gain more momentum.  I will blog about it to help others learn and to keep the discussion going.  I will learn from others and refine my techniques so that we can reliably produce surpluses of food with little to no non local inputs and support local markets sustainably.  Together we will win.

As made famous in the Battle of Seattle:

Your fist is the size of your heart – keep loving, keep fighting.


Be the Change.


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