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!

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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.

-Rob

Rosa Sat.

Like everyone else, I am passing this quote on from NPR today as it moved me on my commute home.  While the meaning can not possibly be as poignant for me as to those in the articles, I still fervently beleive it is true for my children, and all American Children as well:

Rosa sat,

So Martin could walk.

Martin walked so Obama could run.

Obama is running,

so our children can fly.

This campaign will live long in history – thank you to all that are playing a part in it. 

May we finish strong.

Be the Change.  

VOTE!

Woodbury County, Iowa: Organic Mecca

I have passed on numerous intersting business models for smal scale agriculture, typically in Urban settings.  And while getting more farming infrastructure in our cities is critical, equally as important is saving the rural, family farms of our country.    While here in Jefferson County, WI we have enacted some very strong land use laws to restrict sprawl ( you only get one or to “splits” per property) it is really a bandaid that is not addressing the root problem.  The average farmer is at or near retirement age, many (if not most) of their children are moving to cities for better prospects, and while there is a rising tide of young, enthusiastic would-be farmers (myself included) the start-up costs of even a small farm are often insurmountable.  I figure to start a small 5 acre farm w/equipment in the county I live in would costs at least $350,000 (fixer upper) and net me less than my current job while doubling my mortgage.  Should I want to grow organic commodity crops like wheat or hay, or start a dairy on much large acreage (even a small scale 100 acre farm) the cost gets up to $750,000+ with a run down house and 30 year old equipment, but the economic prospects are not much better than a small, intensive vegetable operation.  This is completely untenable -trust me I check the listings weekly, and have crunched the numbers ad nauseum.

But there are areas of light: the Pacific NW, the coastal regions of Maine, Viroqua County WI, and oddly enough  Woodbury County, Iowa.  Woodbury Organics has produced a short video on You Tube as a marketing tool to get the word out for the incredible efforts they are doing in their county.  When I found it, 5 months after it was posted, it had only 310 views.  Watch it, rate it, and add a brief comment…there efforts need WAY more recognition.  Also, check out their Letter to the Public on their site.     Here is a short list of the great things they are doing as an organization and/or have gotten enacted in their County -the first two blew me away:

  • 3 year 100% property tax refund for conventional land being converted to organic to offset loss in revenue while in transition
  • Low/Zero interest loans availible to new farmers -including (I still can’t believe this) 5 years with no payments so when us greenhorns lose the first several harvests as we’re educated in the School of Experience we don’t lose the farm… literally.  When I did a quick search I could find only one farm still for sale in this county… compared to the current trends that is incredible.
  • Cold Storage available in their warehouse
  • Active and extensive marketing support extending even to Whole Foods 200 miles away including a special local “brand” logo for food produced within 100 miles of Souix City, the larges close urban market.
  • Classes, seminars, and the critical support of knowing you are not an organic island in a Monsanto Sea
  • Vibrant Farmers Market and a supportive local food community

Add all this up and you can easily see why the County won a Sustainable Community Award this past October in a nationwide contest.   These are not  Crunchy Urbane Post Modern Hippies.  These are  rural folks in a county where the average farmer is 70, and they are fighting like hell to keep their county alive.   Makes you proud to be an American, which is reason enough to watch the video.

Be the Change!

-Rob

The $120,000 Gap

Paul Hawken has me thinking again about the undeniable link between social justice issues and environmental issues. Together I call them Sustainability issues, as one without the other is impossible. So I’d like to bring a discussion that I have frequently at work to the blogosphere-and it seems have a lot of “hitting power” in making people think.

It usually goes something like this: most Americans think they are “middle class”, but while the extremes of poverty/welfare on one side and the millionaires on the other seem well defined, the middle is awash with layers of wealth. Much of my team, like much of middle America lives in 2 income families. We are able to pay a wage that most consider the low end of living: about $40k annually, or about $20/hr. If you had a dual income family at this level you have $80k annual family income. Here in WI that gets you a decent home in a suburb, two new(ish) cars, and the ability to go out once in a while and put your kids through college with some help or loans. It is a good, satisfying life with moments of monetary concern.

To counter point that, much of more urban America is making significantly more. True their education levels are higher, housing rates are higher, yada, yada, but thier income levels more than make up for it. For simplicity’s sake let’s call their income family income level $200,000. Many dual income families of college education are making at or significantly over this.

Now for discussions sake lets take a brief minute to compare the two. Now granted, housing rates vary wildly from rural to urban settings, but the price of a Camry or a gallon of milk or gas does not. The difference between the two is $120,000. That also works out to $10,000 per month of gross income. Let that sink in for a moment and you suddenly realize how people can afford $50k beemers, 24′ ski boats, and 6000lb SUV’s… and put gas in all of them.

In our family we do budgeting by week, so lets break it down again. To keep the math simple, lets say $10k/mo is $2500 a week. Sweet Jesus! That one week would pay my mortgage, both car payments and most of my monthly grocery and utility bills. And the $200k family still has $7500 left per month to play with. Again, these numbers are only the difference in excess of the $80k families income.  Frankly it is hard to wrap my head around.

The point of the discussion is to lend some perspective on how Congress and The Street can continue to say that “everything is fine”. The policy and decision makers are making far beyond the $200k family- they have no concept of the impact of doubling college tuition rates, tripling gas prices, or the cost of corn meal going up 150%. It simply has no impact on them except maybe getting the 330c instead of the 330x BMW. But, of course, if you are making less than the $80k family gas at $4/gln might mean the difference between getting to work or new clothes for your kids in the fall. This is not hyperbole, it is reality for millions in America, let alone the rest of the world.

The kicker is that most people at the $200k level talk about themselves as Middle Class Americans. And they are, since they are between the uber rich and the uber poor. But the cold, hard truth of our age is that the working poor level is creeping up very close to what my parents would have thought of as Middle Class incomes due to the rising inflation of our times driven by out of control consumption and depleting global resource levels. In other words The Funnel of Peak Resource is closing.

This reality, whether they are willing to admit it or not, is what I believe is driving the Change push from the Middle in this years election. The lower Middle Class knows they are getting screwed and they are (finally) getting pissed.

Something has to change in our thinking, and soon, for us to be able to create the Future that I want for my children

Be The Change!

-Rob

And Now for Something Completely Different…

Explicit Politics doesn’t rear its head here much, but its Caucus season, so what the hell. My beloved wife, Eco Mama, put our reaction to the Caucus last night much more eloquently than I would.

More than anything I want a candidate that will take a stab at the establishment. Like millions of others, Real Change is my Big Issue. And John Edwards has convinced me that he will do that more than any other front runner. The long and short is we really only have 3-4 choices, and very soon we will have only 1-2. Our system is flawed, but for now at least, it is what we have.

Even more than the relatively strong showing for the Change Candidates, I was truly encouraged by the massive turnout in frigid Iowa to debate politics with strangers for several hours on a weeknight. Maybe, just maybe, people are starting to care!

Be the Change.

-Rob

Starfish and Moral Imperatives

In a recent post, Ed over at The Slow Cook brought my attention back to an issue that most of us have know to be brewing as soon as we starting to do the math of the Great Ethanol Push. Basically there really isn’t enough farm land now for the world population, despite the arguments to the contrary, and converting ever increasing amounts of crop land to put fuel in Excursions is an idea bound to send someone to Hell

The “Crime Against humanity” comment was a month ago, and the FAO started backpedaling within days, but now the  truth is out. The poorest of the poor are much, much worse off thanks to Bush’s ill conceived push to use corn and wheat to make fuel to greenwash GM’s Hummers rather than make hard descions (some call it “leadership”) and push for efficiency and Real Change.

In the mean time, our soft drinks and McBurgers will go up some in price, but millions will find it even harder to feed their children. Triage appears to be beginning, and the debate about local food production is rapidly becoming less academic in the face of Moral Imperatives.

Even in my darkest moments, I never thought it would cause huge impacts within the first year after Bush stated that Ethanol was our Savior. Suddenly my debate between which of the plots I am considering on using for my market garden seems incredibly arrogant. Here I am with enough access, resources, and leisure time to debate where I want to grow my surplus food.

The mission is now changing. If I can get enough helpers, it will now be about how much we can grow in the county. Not on my one 1/4 acre, but on dozens. Every pound of food we produce locally makes a difference. This was a 5 year goal. It just got bumped.

One of the favorite stories I tell my children seems appropriate:

Once upon a time, a boy found starfish washed up on the beach after a big storm. He began throwing them back into the ocean, one by one. His grandfather told him that there were too many, that he could never make a difference. The boy calmly threw another into the ocean and said, “I made a difference for that one.”

I can’t save the world… but I can try. Always for me, the best antidote to despair is action. Food Banks here in America are also going empty. Hunger is hunger.

Be the Change.

-Rob

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