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.


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.


Specialist v. Generalists

The coming generation will be forced to accept change on a scale that the past generation would find unthinkable.  Or perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be to say that they will be confronted by more “negative” change than we can comprehend.  Think back to the changes in the past 100 years with the rise of the petroleum based economy.  In barely 100 years we went from inventing the bicycle, to walking on the moon.  And after the 1960’s apex in transportational marvels, things really took off from a social, communication, and information side -many of which haven’t “peaked” yet.  Peak phenomena typically display similar curves on the rise and fall sides of their peak, the difference is that no one complains on the rising end of a housing bubble , but are staggered at the rate of falling home prices on the down side despite the fact that the rate of price change is roughly similar.    This is nothing new, just more poignant in the here and now.

I have written before of my call for “generalists”.  Our current society favors specialization to the degree at which we have lost competency in almost everything outside of our trained fields. But speciality build efficiency  not  resiliency.    There are insects that are hyper specialized to feed on only one plant, and they are able to do so with specific skills and tools that place them at significant evolutionary advantage.  But should that plant die off or have a bad hair day – the insect suffers just as mightily in the Bad Times as it flourished during the good.  Compare that to a more generalist insect that is able to feed on a myriad of hosts, but not nearly as efficiently as the specialists.  It will almost never out compete the specialist, but should even several of its food sources suffer it may go a bit hungry, but will continue to plod along as it has a broad pallet of choices.  The generalist is resilient to change.

I am seemingly hard wired as a generalist -so take that in mind with these recommendations.  In high school I dropped AP Chem to take auto and wood shop (my counselor was fit to be tied) since I figured I’d need those skills too. At the time I had little idea what I would need them for, but as they were important to generations past, it seemed a good idea to my young mind.  Even then I was fighting the specialization – the “career” track education of AP Calc/Physics/English seemed to be too onesidedly intellectual.  I had begun to read some philosophy in HS as well, and Aristotle’s Golden Mean resonated as did the inherent rebellion of Descartes “I think therefor I am”.  So while I learned to calculate force vectors in Physics, I applied them by swapping suspensions in my truck in auto shop.  In college I eschewed specialized degrees for a major in Philosophy and History;  I like to say I got a B.A. in “thinking”.  While studying I also worked in general construction to keep myself balanced.  Mon/Wed/Fri I would study Neitszche and the Russian kozaks, Tue/Thurs I was learning to frame, roof, side and wallboard homes.  The weekends were often for exploration – I put thousands of miles on my motorcycle on solo camping trips to the Black Hills where I taught myself to track elk and learned a Deep Love of the Land. The Hills are still my favorite place on Earth and where I hear Gaia clearest.

In the past 5 years, I have placed Re-Skilling high on my list.  I started with agriculture, and  I have learned much on growing food, building soil, and preserving the harvest.  In the past several years my reading about Peak Oil and a deeper understanding of how effed up our economic system is has sent me back into the mechanical side.  I am now actively giving myself an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering as I learn to work steel and copper with many of the same skills I learned in carpentry.  Welding, soldering, and lathe work are now vying for space in my free time with composting, wood working, and time in the fields.  That is one of the problems with generalization – one can’t do everything -but more on that later.

In many ways I am working towards fulfilling what I think I was semi consciously striving for all those years ago in High School – to become the gentleman Farmer; that Ideal from Plutarch to Jefferson of the thoughtful and self reliant agrarian citizen.  I think often of my Grandfathers – Wisconsin farmers who could weld, repair trucks, raise animals as well as barns, and reap surpluses from the soil with little technological help.   They were assets to their community and thrived or failed on their own pluck and knowhow. 

But enough with the navel gazing.  While I extol the virtues of generalism for its ability to weather a Storm.  There are certainly still causes for specialization; there will always be cause for us to follow our yearnings to do something well. Our little Community Supported Energy (CSE) club is a good example.  We have an electriconics specialist, we have the systems thinker/welder, and I have become the “farmer”.  On workdays, we can each run the grinder or saber saw, drill out sheet steel, or cut threads into rod.  We each understand the process enough to hold forth for 15 minutes with any visitor that arrives.  But when a focused task comes up – wiring the circuit for our automated auger, welding the Bio Char whisker in place, or someone asks a question on where the wood chips will come from we shift them to our “specialist”.   When we need to test the tar we produced to see how icky it is, we need to send it to someone with specialized equipment.  

There is certainly a place for specialists.  But I like to think of them as “spheres of influence (or interest)”.  My grandfather was a farmer, but he specialized in running a sawmill.  It was something that he was able to do better than his neighbors and he found a deep satisfaction in it.  This allowed him to have something to offer them – one of whom was a blacksmith, another whose wife was a seamstress.  The main difference between this idealized agrarian picture or even my CSE group and our current society is that each of us is generalized enough that we could do the job of the others, just not nearly as well or as efficiently.  Economies work on the basics of specialization – I can grow potatoes better than most of my friends, one of whom is a better mechanic than I am.  Because of our specialization it makes sense for us to trade services – I offer him potatoes for his time to put new brakes on my car.  Even more than the economic sense there is the fact that I would rather be picking potatoes than working on brakes.  And even if the services are of equal value (we were each equally proficient), this disparity of interest would be motive enough for some degree of specialization. 

With the coming of Power Down I truly believe we all need to increase our skill set – to find useful things that we enjoy doing and then to learn them well, but to also find useful things that we have no idea how to do and at least get competent with those skills too.  This is my vision of specialized generalists (say that 10x fast!), where we all know many of the skills needed in today’s world – from computer  programming to composting to bread baking to tomato growing to auto repair to monetary system design.  But more so, that we all have the pride of learning that we can do some of those things well enough to be considered proficient.  

I am idealistic enough to honestly believe that we each have something that we are able to do better than most other people.  For many, we may not have even found that thing yet.  But the coming Change will force our hand in becoming more resilient -more generalized- in many aspects of our lives.  I challenge each of us to honestly consider taking some time to learn new skills; to follow our yearnings and learn a skill that we can then use to the benefit of our families and neighbors when its needed.

Be the Change


Hearts and Thoughts

I have found it difficult to write of late.  Its not that nothing has happened –  my CSE group has met and maitained its momentum (virtually all of the original members returned for the second meeting), I attended a weekend long strategic planning meeting for Sustain Jefferson, and on top of the typical holiday madness associated with a retail based career I have upped my reading pace.  But neither am I overworked.  I am leaving much time for reflection, something I feel is uterly imperative in these unsettling times.  No, my lack of posting stems not from lack of time or material, but from either a reluctance to post inconclusive thoughts or, perhaps, a reluctance to actually put my fears into a more permanent form than ethereal thoughts.

One risk always associated with upping my time allotted to reading is the commensurate amount of effect it has on my psyche and thought patterns.  The past several winters have found me reading non-fiction/practical gardening/farming/soil science books with some “lighter” anecdotal/philosophical books from the likes of Gene Logsdon, David Holmgren, John Ikerd or Joel Salatin.   These are practical and inherently hopeful books that fill the dark days of winter to overflowing with the potentialities of the coming Spring.  But this year is different.   The Great Unsettling that occurred in August/September shook even the likes of Greensban, so I, being prone to doom and gloom, am by no means immune.  As many of the books that I am ripping through have introductions by Peak Oil pundit Richard Heinberg (of Power Down, and The Party’s Over fame) my mindset is sliding distinctly south of optimism of late.  And that is with me reading rather hopeful books like the Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook and the Transition Handbook.  When I combine the belief in Peak Events (Oil.Water.Soil.etc.) with Climate Change on top of the lack of Global Will to Change and then look into the eyes of my two young children after coming home from a day in Fortune 500 Land fielding questions of when (not if) my team’s hours will be cut… things are getting rather –real.

I’ve been sliding this way for several weeks, months if I am honest.  But it all came rushing into stark clarity while at the Sustain Jefferson retreat this weekend.  The board and “fire souls” of the group gathered that weekend are mature (most are 50% older than I), intelligent (engineers, public officials, educators), and practical people -well read , experienced, and willing to Work For Change.  These are people I look to for advice and have earned my respect.  Late in the afternoon on Day 2 soon after the formal planning had completed, a retired engineer posited the following question -how are we going to help our community weather the coming storm- failing economies with their rising social costs, the end of cheap energy and the strain it will place on non-resilient towns like ours, and the lack of social cohesion that will be necessary to negotiate the The Natural Step Resource Funnelclosing of The Funnel (right).  Hearing someone whom I think of as educated and level headed give public voice to my Dark Thoughts was extremely sobering to me.   So much so that I had to go for a long , cold hike to shake the  existential nausea that had overtaken me.   While the planning meeting accomplished an incredible amount of work in a short amount of time towards setting our organization on a more productive course, one of the real results is that I am personally more concerned than ever about what Change I will see in my lifetime.  

The difference is Tipping Points or Overshoot.  As recent as 6 months ago I felt we had time to work at the grassroots level to educate and inspire so that we could begin the urgent, but gradual change towards a more sustainable future.  CFL’s, hybrids, Victory Gardens – little things done by a growing number of people adding up to Real Change.  Now I am moving beyond that to Life Boats -what skills will we need to survive Overshoot.  Moving from adapting our lifestyles to something akin to survival.   Why?  Climate Change pundits often speak about Tipping Points -the abledo effect being one (when temps melt the arctic ice, which reflected much of the heat from the water, and the oceans begin to heat even faster); methane released from melting permafrost rapidly accelerating the Green House effect and the news of late is that the scientist are in awe at the rapidity of the current change -its making a mockery of their models.  My fear on the Peak Side is in Overshoot: when the we, in our hubris, “cross the streams” of the funnel – when resource use exceeds resource availability (finance, food, water, oil, soil) – we survive blindly for a time, only to come crashing to reality as the bubble bursts and we are forced live within our means not unlike overpopulated deer overbrowsing a habitat in the depth of a bitter winter.  The food riots of last year and the $140/brl  oil spurred Economic meltdown come to mind.

Like I said – dark.  Thus far I am still able to channel the malaise into energy to keep going.  To learn ways to produce energy from Biomass; to eck out literally tons of produce from suburban backyards; to produce liquid biofuels from waste products from permaculture farms… to build the tools that may (will?) be necessary to soften the landing of Overshoot.  Optimism and Hope are now, if it was ever doubted, very necessary skills to have in your urban homesteading tool box.  

May your hearts and thoughts stay positive and hopeful.

May you continue to Be the Change.


The Archdruid Report

A site that I had read some last year, but gotten away from was The Archdruid Report, authored by John Michael Greer… who also happens to be the Archdruid of the US. Druidism has changed alot over the millennia, it was effectively stamped out for several centuries, and, to my knowledge, its resurgence has no direct connection to the Druids of Old. But the principles are still intact: knowledge, balance, music, and Nature. As important, JMG is a significant scholar and accomplished writer, though I admit I am not overly drawn to his work on Monsters, Magic, etc.

On his blog he writes a weekly report that is typically well researched, lengthy, and typically sparks a significant degree of discussion. Topics very often hover around the coming challenges of the 21st Century, and possible Druidic responses to them.

The past two weeks he has written about agriculture, specially it current issues with declining oil resources and its the possible solutions drawing from its deep history of adaptations. Good stuff!

Links to his recent posts:

Agriculture: The Price of Transition

Agriculture: Closing the Circle


Gasifier Stove: IGNITION!

This past weekend the crew met again to assemble the disparate parts of our gasifier and do a trail run. Not only did no one blow up, but we succeeded in producing and burning hydrogen! If a bunch of chumps (ok we had 2 engineers)from WI can do this, there is hope for us in Energy Decline yet.

Look Ma: we turned wood chips into Hydrogen for $75 and 3 weekends!

Next steps will be adding something to actually use the hydrogen-either to power a tractor, or as a co-gen unit to produce heat/power for a structure. Aquaponics greenhouse anyone?


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