There is a reason "ecology" and "economics" have the same root.

A small, Midwestern farmer rambles on about inevitable sustainability.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thinking about a Heritage Economy

The American Public Media show Marketplace Money usually drives me batty with inane fluff that seems to make people feel less personally responsible for their money and spending, and promotes unnecessary consumerism. For example, they did a story on a family that was foreclosed in Vegas and wanted to tear our hearts out with this quote:

We redid all the cupboards, put all new appliances in, redid the floor, everything in there is all brand new.

And now someone else was going to enjoy it. The purpose of the story was to make us feel badly for the family who redid their house and then couldn't afford to keep it. There was no mention of the idea...hey, maybe stick with the old appliances until you can legitimately afford new ones.

The show also did a "cute" story about how "there is only so much you can teach your kids" about consuming because some people just have genetic predispositions to shopping. (Bill still enjoys listening to the show on Saturday mornings, but I do my best to block it out, so these stories were both from 2010 and the links are no longer active, but my rageful, completely unbiased, summary exists at the link above.)

Marketplace Money did a show recently, though, that I found to be more insightful than everything I've heard in the last two years combined. It was a panel discussion on the topic "Are, we the people, to blame: Do we get the banks we deserve?" (Eliot Spitzer still made me yell at the computer, so I did get my standard marketplace weekend rise in blood pressure).

In a show about money, one of the panelists voluntarily brings up the environment (around 34:00). The question was about adjusting our expectations about growth and being satisfied with 1-2% growth instead of 3-4%. The CEO from the Royal Bank of Canada was asked if people would be ok with lowered expectations and his reply was "we have no choice. We are on a planet that is running out of resources."

And then a dude from Occupy ruins the whole thing...but for a minute, I was slightly shocked that the show was making sense to me.

I think of the sort of economy where we focus on working within our realistic means as a Heritage Economy - one that builds on the success of those that came before us and is also concerned about leaving something good for the future. It's the economy of happy grandparents rocking on their front porch, drinking lemonade and watching their grandkids running in the front yard, rather than the economy of over-groomed people rushing through a city while talking, texting and watching their kid's tuba recital on a smart phone.

The way I think of it, money is not a thing in itself. It is merely a tool for measuring resources. Nearly all of our planet's resources come from the sun. We are essentially a closed system and we receive a measured amount of energy from the sun each year. Among other things, this energy causes weather and makes the plants grow that feeds bugs, chickens, cows and us.

Millions of years ago, the energy that came from the sun allowed the growth of the algae and zooplankton that eventually turned into crude oil.

Because we live in an economy dependent on that oil, each year we are using more than one year's worth of energy. So, in 2011, we consumed much of the energy that came from the sun in 2011 and the energy that came from the sun many years ago and has since turned to oil. In a closed system, you can't consume more than you bring in for very long.

"We have no choice" but to live within the means of the resources we receive.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Urgency and Ease

Jared Diamond's Collapse is an optimistic book about human civilization. He's looked at the way societies have failed and told us how to avoid their fates. This article, Why We Cannot Save the World (found on the blog, How to Save the World) is the pessimist's - albeit the "joyful" pessimist's - view.

The author, Dave Pollard, uses philosophical ideas about human nature to looks at massive cultural changes throughout history and maps out why some succeed (Civil Rights movements, eradication of small pox) and why some fail (Nazi imperialism, combating climate change). He talks about these issues in relation to how urgent they are, and how easy they are to fix. For example, eradicating small pox had high urgency and, once a vaccine was discovered, it was relatively easy to fix. Therefore, it was possible go get people on board with the tasks needed to eliminate the disease. It was an achievable goal.

Addressing climate change, peak oil or unsustainable use of resources (all of which will require massive cultural changes) is the exact opposite. To most people - and therefore to "society" - these are low urgency issues. We have plenty of resources! Walmart still imports disposable, synthetic (oil) goods from China which line shelves of massive stores in nearly every town! As long as we can get gas for our cars, we'll believe there is an endless supply of oil, even as the price continues to rise.

These issues are also difficult to competently fix. Our entire food system, for example, is based on cheap, available oil. We can't change that without massive shifts in agriculture, grocery stores and individual eating habits. The American Dream says that each generation should "have more" than the one before. For a vast majority of people and businesses having and acquiring more "stuff" is a central goal in life. It's what our whole economy is based upon. You can't change that by electing an idealist President for four, or even eight years. It requires a massive shift in culture.

Because of this, Mr. Pollard believes it is impossible to enact effective measures to stop the coming collapse of the western, consumerist way of living (the end of life as we know it). He describes his epiphany as the lifting of a great weight off his shoulders. And then, he became a "joyful pessimist."
We cannot save the world. And suddenly I realized how precious this life and my time was, and how life that is not lived to the full every moment, presently, is no life at all, [...] That there is only here, and now. And that everything my culture had told me, taught me, was an unintended lie. 
There is a lot in this philosophy that I can relate to. Pollard was previously an activist, as was I when we lived for 5 years in Washington, DC. We both went from believing that we could save the world if everyone just knew that they were mucking it up, to realizing that the system would not change and deciding to live the rest of our lives how we wanted and letting other folks live how they wanted. 

We both struggled with the decision. I spent many weeks and months wondering where the line was between "tolerance" and "apathy." I wonder still if I just didn't try hard enough, and if I'm just being totally selfish with this farming thing. Am I strong for rejecting the unintended lie (Pollard is more generous than I am. Unintended? Or "Good for the Wealthy?") of an entire culture or am I pathetically weak because I just can't hack it in the real world?

Pollard struggles this way:
To many of my friends and (dwindling, disappointed) readers, and to some people I dearly love, this is not a revelation but a cop-out, a rationalization for laziness and inaction. Even if it seems impossible, they say, you have to try. You can’t give up. Without hope we can’t go on. 

But I’ve tried being the responsible pacifist, and the reformist. I don’t believe this gets us anywhere, for the reasons I’ve tried to explain above. I’ve tried being an activist, a resistance fighter. My heart isn’t in it — I can’t see taking the dreadful risk of being imprisoned or injured to try to stop the Tar Sands or factory farming when Jevons, and everything I have learned, tells me anything I accomplish will be undone, and more.
(emphasis mine)
He goes on to say that he could live naked in the woods, reducing his carbon footprint to nearly nothing, but someone would move into his old apartment and use all the oil he wasn't. This dramatic example is meant to explain something, I think, more than it is meant to be an actual option. It reminded me of many, many discussions in my household, as well as 2011 essay comparing humans to beer yeast. In this story, a "moral yeast" decides to cut down on his sugar eating, knowing that as he and his billions of yeasty neighbors eat sugar, they are simultaneously increasing their population and pooing out alcohol that will reach concentrations that will eventually kill them all. Of course, as home brewers know, it doesn't really matter if one yeast stops eating. His neighbor, or his cousin, or his landlord's lover, is just going to use up that sugar (or for humans: oil, trees, land...) and the alcohol level will still become deadly at pretty much the same rate as if he did enjoy the sugar.

It's a tough thing to realize.

Upon this realization, Pollard decided to focus his work and advocacy away from attempting to reform big systems, and instead "start to focus attention on adapting to and increasing our resilience in the face of, the cascading crises that will eventually (I think by century’s end) lead to civilizational collapse."

It's pretty pessimistic. I don't know that I'm there yet. I don't believe collapse is inevitable. I have certainly left the culture of unintended lies in many ways. When I left my job, I left the idea that a paycheck gave my life meaning...that consumer goods were a vital component of self-esteem...or that I could work within the system to create change. However, my husband still has a job. We still pay a mortgage and watch TV (through the internet). We buy wines from around the world and cellar them for the future. We save money for the future too.

We have a retirement account and a farm. We're working to be ready either way.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Collapse - Prologue, part II: A Roadmap

Jared Diamond is a BIG picture thinker. Experience in biology and anthropology allows him to see issues in a very global way. In looking at human societies that have succeeded or failed on 6 continents over thousands of years, Diamond distilled 5 contributing factors in understanding collapses - and they aren't just environmental.

1) Environmental Damage. Ok, the first one is environmental. You know, and I know...and even the most fervent anti-environment politicians know that humans impact our environment. We've all see oil soaked birds and post-nuclear wastelands. The only difference of opinion is how much humans impact the environment and what effect that impact really has. In collapsed societies, it turns out those questions (how much? what effect?) are key. Some areas of earth are naturally more resilient or more fragile depending on a whole host of factors like rainfall, climate, soil... This means human action in different environments has different consequences. Cutting down a single, slow-growing 1,000 year old redwood tree at a high elevation has a different impact than cutting down a stand of rapidly growing locust trees in Indiana.

2) Climate Change. "...a term that today we tend to associate with global warming caused by humans. In fact, climate may be hotter or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less variable between months or between years, because of changes in natural forces that drive climate and have nothing to do with humans." Before the phrase "global warming" crossed the lips of an unwashed hippy, changes in the sun's heat, volcanic eruptions and movement of continents created changes in climate that affected all life on earth.

3) Hostile Neighbors. Most human societies are and were within warring range of other societies. Military conquest doomed many societies (including Rome) and the ability to fend off attacks was an important consideration to survival.

4) Decreased Support from Friendly Neighbors. Most societies also have friendly trade partners that provide essential goods. If your trade partner is weakened or disappears, this affects your society too. Those who remember the 1973 oil embargo particularly understand this.

5) How Societies Respond to Problems. This is Diamond's most important factor. "Different societies respond differently to similar problems. For instance, problems of deforestation arose for many past societies, among which Highland New Guinea, Japan, Tikopia and Tonga developed successful forest management and continued to prosper, while Easter Island, Mangareva, and Norse Greenland failed to develop successful forest management and collapsed as a result."

In most cases of collapse these factors are intertwined. Rome, for example, fended off enemies and thrived for over 1,000 years. Why did invaders eventually succeed? Was Rome weakened by some internal economic, political, or environmental problem before it fell?

With this framework in mind, the rest of the book reviews modern and ancient collapses of diverse societies, including Easter Island, the Maya, Norse Greenland and the Anasazi of the American Southwest. Norse Greenland seems particularly fascinating as two societies inhabited one island for many years, facing all 5 pressures mentioned above with one society succeeding and the other failing.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Collapse - Prologue, part I: Relating

I started re-reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed after hearing a presidential candidate imply that we have to choose between helping the environment or helping people. I remember this sort of false choice from the 1980s when it was loggers vs. spotted owls, but I thought 30 years of costly experience (and Exxon Valdez, BP, mad cow disease, Katrina, Fukushima and Chernobyl, Bhopal...) convinced most people that good environmental policy was good economic policy.

With this thought banging around my head, I settled in to a chair on the porch of my 150 year old farm house as the remnants of Hurricane Issac brought some relief to one of the Midwest's worst (and most costly) droughts since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I was sitting on the porch because rain has been so infrequent in Indiana this summer that the sound of the droplets falling on my struggling garden was the most beautiful music I'd heard in ages.

While I sat there, a pair of adventurous / troublesome Dorking hens ventured in out out from under cover every so often to peck at the newly soggy ground and see if it was still raining. It was. It so gloriously was. Over two full inches when it was all done, two days later. The Dorking hens were born in March and were only just figuring out rain. After spending the first few weeks of their lives in a brooder box, they experienced less than 9 inches of rain from April through July - the driest those months have been since 1936.

I thought of the relevancy of my old farm house and my ancient breed of chicken as I read the Prologue of Collapse. (Julius Caesar ate Dorking chickens...most Americans eat Cornish Cross, a breed developed in the 1950s to grow quickly and profitably in intensively managed, large-input, oil-dependent factory farming environments.)

If you don't believe we are intimately connected to our ancestors, the entirety of this book will seem to be an irrelevant fairytale. A mystery for entertaining children. But, if you believe, like I do, that despite our computers and combines and fossil fuel economy, we are subject to the same forces of nature and laws of ecology that our ancestors were (the people who built my house and developed my breed of chickens), then Collapse is the most important lesson and the most valued guidebook we can possess.

Diamond drives home this belief in his very first story.

A few summers ago I visited two dairy farms, Huls Farm and Gardar Farm, which despite being located thousands of miles apart were still remarkably similar in their strengths and vulnerabilities.
He describes their similarities in size, product, economics, animal feed, management, and their prominence in their communities. He lays out their shared vulnerabilities including their distance from population centers increasing their transportation costs, the changing tastes of customers and that both farms "lay in districts economically marginal for dairying because their high northern latitudes mean a short summer growing season in which to produce pasture grass and hay."

The biggest different between the farms is that Huls Farm is currently operating in Montana and Gardar Farm was abandoned in Greenland 500 years ago when Norse Greenland society collapsed.

Here is the key bit - the really scary bit - you really need to believe to derive any usable value from Diamond's work.

Yet when Gardar Farm and Norse Greenland were at their peak, their decline seemed as inconceivable as does the decline of Huls Farm and the US today.
You have to believe that we are similiar enough to the people who lived before us that we can learn for their lives, their work, and their deaths.

In most subjects we believe this readily. NASA scientists that land robots on Mars are building off the work of Einstein, Galileo and Newton. Poets and artists are inspired by Shakespeare and Picasso. We know we can learn from their successes, but somehow we believe we are immune to their failures. As if having the ability to make computers and cell phones will keep us safe from all the vulnerabilities of past societies.

Diamond aptly and brilliantly seeks to challenge that comforting thought and the thing that makes his argument so believable is his moderation. He knows that collapsed societies are extremes and not inevitable. He points out successful societies to contrast with those that rapidly declined. He also alludes to modern day collapses that we hear about on the news: Somalia, Rwanda and the USSR.

Of course it's not true that all societies are doomed to collapse because of environmental damage: in the past some societies did while others didn't; the real question is why only some societies proved fragile, and what distinguished those that collapsed form those that didn't.

Our challenge is to look at those the examples Diamond has compiled for us and think critically and openly - with all the self-awareness we can muster - about which path we are on.

Monday, September 3, 2012

About me and this blog

I'm living the dream.

At 35, I left work to be a full-time small farmer on 8 relatively nice (if rather flat) acres in rural Indiana. My house is 150 years old and throughout those years the land has changed more than the building.

I have a great dog, a bunch of chickens and a lot of books. I don't have a TV or a cell phone or a newspaper subscription, or even a Facebook account. I find it joyful to avoid the meaningless right/left/liberal/conservative/democrat/republican/progressive/tea party squabbles that populate those places. It's September, 2012 and I have not seen a single Presidential campaign ad this year.

I hate voting. When I grew up in NY, elections were fantastic, hopeful days. When you voted in NY, you got to walk into the most amazing booth, pull a big red handle to close a curtain and hear a satisfying "click click click" as you flipped the levers under (over?) the names of your candidates. Then, you pulled the big red handle again which opened the curtain and cast your votes. I don't think NY has those machines any more, but they will forever remain a magical place in my head.

Voting in NY took place in many school buildings. In middle school we were allowed to cast pretend votes a few days before the election as they were setting up the machines. Ross Perot won by a landslide.

Now, I vote electronically in a church.

And by "vote" I mean that write in for all national, and many state offices. 2012 could be the year for the "Katniss Everdeen/Annie's Boobs" ticket.

What do I do with my time if I'm not worrying about some stupid thing some idiot said to some pompous talking head? How do I fill those disconnected hours that should be spent texting or playing Farmville?

I look at the clouds. Indiana has some great clouds.

I grow food. I preserve it.

I watch baby chickens following their mama around the field, pecking at new and exciting insects.

I sit quietly.

I think.

Before Indiana, and after NY, I lived in DC, working for advocacy organizations. My former employers were non-partisan social justice organizations, but everyone is DC is partisan. Blindly partisan. I moved to DC as an idealist and left a cynic.

I'm telling you this because, in this ridiculously divided country, it seems that we only want to listen to people who say things we agree with. And we only want to shout louder than the people on the other side. You're with me, or you are the spawn of Hitler and Satan.

All that stuff up there ^ is my attempt to be on the side of everyone. I live in the Midwest, but I used to live in NY. I have an old farm, but I moved here from a new highrise city apartment. I've read The Hunger Games and watched Community.

It seems to me we've had our fun breaking into two camps and pounding on each other. Now, I think we should try respectful discourse. This blog is my whispered prayer in the fury of that storm (see - I can even reference country music).

I encourage you to disagree with me. I love being politely and intelligently told I am wrong. I find it to be the best way to grow and learn.