Archive for the ‘peak oil’ Tag
It happens often. A large job waits for me, and for a moment it seems almost impossible. Or, if not impossible, at least quite daunting and far more than I want to tackle. It might be planning and planting the garden, or clearing a fence line overgrown with blackberry, or simply completing some new task I’m unfamiliar with. In that moment, the doubts creep in. It feels like too much. It feels too hard. It’s overwhelming. I’m not of the personality that tends to thrive on these challenges; faced with such tasks, I often want to go sit on a sunny patio with a good beer or curl up inside with a good book. I am a creature of comfort. I can’t deny this.
Sometimes I do this. I ignore the job in front of me, the unwanted but necessary work. When I do this, I’m almost always poorer for it. The temporary comfort of ignoring the necessity gives way eventually to the consequences of an important job undone. Turning your back on reality does not make it go away. It only adds to the ferocity of its eventual return.
How many ways this is applicable. I have two jobs—not at all hard—that I’ve been avoiding today. One is the writing of a post for this blog. The other is going over to my previous place of residence and dealing with the piles of recyclables that I need to sort and take to the local recycling center. Neither of these tasks has yet to be completed. Outside, it has been raining throughout the day, often heavy. And so I’ve found myself inside, drinking coffee, reading a report on the shale bubble, reading a post on The Automatic Earth about building out renewables, conversing with my roommates, avoiding the nagging reminder in the back of my mind that there are jobs to be done. This is not a good response to my reality, to my present, to my future. It’s a small failure—not helpful, but not disastrous, either.
Yet there’s no reason not to tackle the jobs. The blog post can be written—it’s just that no idea is grabbing me by the throat, demanding my attention. I have plenty of ideas, though, that have been waiting for months to be written. Nothing is stopping me but my own small avoidance. And the recycling, as well, is not such a big deal, but it does need to be done. Others are waiting for me to complete this task. It’s another small failure, this time at a community level. It doesn’t help.
— ∞ —
Last night, John Michael Greer argued that the shale bubble is on the verge of popping, and that it could mean another round of harsh economic realities for us in the near future. He wrote of a bubble-and-bust economic trend to be carried out over the foreseeable future and all the complications of dealing with our current and future circumstances that will entail. We face a troubled present, and more troubled future, consisting of constricting energy resources, a dysfunctional economy, and the hard realities of contraction. There are a number of responses we could take—none of which would solve the problem, granted, but could help soften the predicament—but due to our inability, as a culture and society, to face up to the truth of what’s taking place, we will not be able to marshal the action and resources to carry out those responses. As such, our likely response as a society to the future is one in which we “evolve through crisis, not through proactive change,” as Dennis Meadows noted in an interview in Der Spiegel. We are not planning a sane response to our future; we can’t even agree on the foundations of a sane response. Counting on centralized action at this point would be disastrous.
Luckily, we’re not at the mercy of centralized action. Every one of us holds the ability to change our lives. This ability is not complete or unencumbered, granted, but we can challenge societal norms, opt out from excess modes of living, and begin the hard and necessary work of scaling back our lives to a level more appropriate for a contracting economy and deindustrializing world. We can engage the household economy. We can learn to garden, to raise and care for livestock, to cook from scratch. We can take up coppicing, experiment with biochar, build rocket stoves, teach ourselves the ecological principles that more and more will assert themselves in the day-to-day reality of our lives. We can expose ourselves to the outside climate, scale back our need for climate control, learn to live with heat and cold in ways that don’t involve a thermostat and piped in fuel. We can remember what it is to be human, to live in communities, to build democracies, and we can get down to the hard work of implementing again those realities and complex human interactions. We can insulate our homes, put on sweaters, sit in the shade of a tree on a hot summer day. We can bike to work, walk to the store, take the train rather than the plane, ride the bus, either across town or across the state, or just stay home. We can begin to cut out our wasteful habits and tendencies—unnecessary entertainments and distractions, that cable bill, that Netflix account, high speed internet, video games, Blu-Rays. We can turn off the television. We can replace vacuous pop culture with meaningful work, useful hobbies, sustaining activities. We can, in other words, get out of the game.
That’s a small list of the things we can do, today or tomorrow or early next week—but soon, damn it. It’s not time to just think about these changes, philosophize about them, talk in abstract ways about them. It’s time to do them. Every day is important. Every day puts us closer to the next crisis and a form of evolution that is chaotic and messy and painful. Every day spent changing our lives in response to the crisis before it happens is another step toward a more humane response to the challenges of the future, hopefully a bit less chaotic and messy and painful. And every action we take to help soften our own personal blow, we put ourselves in a better position to help our community—which in a lovely feedback loop, may very well help to further soften the personal blow of the hard times here now, and the worse ones coming.
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But this means work. It’s inevitable. It’s unavoidable, no matter how good we are at avoiding it. Thinking about the popping of the shale gas bubble, perhaps another recession like in 2008, or perhaps something worse, can be frightening and paralyzing. It seems so big—it is big. It’s challenging. It’s overwhelming. And the more dependent we are on the overarching system, the more vulnerable we are, the more challenging and hopeless it might seem. But allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by that challenge, that sense of hopelessness, that fear—it’s pointless. It doesn’t help us. Avoiding it does not eliminate the predicament. Busying ourselves with other, unproductive tasks does not better our future.
It’s a cliche, but it’s the getting to work that usually is the hardest. It’s that initial engagement that can so easily stop us. But once we begin the process, it can snowball from there. Not always, of course—sometimes there are challenges, missteps, moments of depression and despair that temporarily halt our progress. But again, we have to press forward and continue on, to not allow ourselves to lose out to that sense of impossibility.
The antidote to fear is good work. Never forget that. It’s one of the most important truths we have right now.
— ∞ —
When you get into the thick of the work, when it begins to click, the world starts to fall into place. Everything hums. It’s exhilarating. The progress begins to build upon itself, each step forward suddenly seeming a bit longer and a bit more sure, a bit more emphatic. The final accomplishment begins to come into view, and in view of that accomplishment, many more seem possible. This is another positive feedback loop, and it’s one of the most important ones for the troubled times ahead.
Today I can grow a garden, raise livestock, make bread and butter and yogurt and homemade sodas, cook from scratch, suffer the cold, weather the heat, and thrive on physical work. Not too many years ago, I either couldn’t or cared not to do all those things. But those skills and that knowledge did not come at once. It was a long procession—a procession that continues to this day. It was filled with leaps forward and fallings back. It was filled with triumph, with exhilaration, and with uncountable moments in which it all felt impossible, in which I questioned every decision I had made. It involved depression and doubt. And it involved resolve and certainty.
But all my successes ultimately came about through work. It came about through engagement, through tentative first steps, through a process of discovery. And all of it involved initial doubts and fears, often times overwhelming. As I said, I am a creature of comfort. Some people thrive off new challenges and the opportunity to master unknown skills. I don’t, at least not instinctively. That’s not my psychology. I hate to appear incompetent. I hate to admit I don’t know what I’m doing. I like comfort and routine and ease. But despite all these traits, I’ve managed to dramatically change my life and learn an array of new skills over the preceding five years—and every year, I learn a vast amount more. Granted, there’s still a vast amount I don’t know—I’m still incredibly ignorant about so much—but I’m in a far more resilient place than I was just a few years ago.
I worry about what might happen with the shale gas bubble, or with some other sort of dramatic economic trouble. I suspect another shock to the system is coming soon, perhaps later this year or next. It seems a bit too quiet and our economic foundation is far too rickety and rotten. My worry, though, is more about my family and friends, and my community, than myself. I think I’m a bit insulated. I know I can live on a small amount of money—relatively speaking—and could cut back even more if necessary. I suspect my work is mostly safe from economic shocks, at least up to a point. (I could be wrong about that, of course. The economy is a tricky, complex, interrelated system.) I have skills. I have potential fall back plans. Nothing is guaranteed, but I don’t expect the next economic shocks to wipe me out.
That small sense of security is, again, the result of the work I’ve done over recent years. It’s a result not of centralized action, but of personal action. It’s a result of the ways in which I’ve changed my life, changed my expectations, built my skills, built my resiliency, and engaged my community. It’s about me getting down to the business of saving my own ass—with an irreplaceable number of assists from my local community, of course!—and accepting the trade offs that that entails. I don’t mean this to sound self-congratulatory; my sense of security could be a complete illusion, or the next troubles could be far worse than I expect. I only mean to advocate for a course of action that I suspect could benefit every person who reads this.
— ∞ —
The future is one of crises. I write that with complete confidence. Our ways of living, in the developed world, are brittle at best. They are temporary. They are perched upon the ricketiest of foundations, and they are going to come down bit by bit, in a slow overall crumble punctuated by the occasional dramatic collapse.
But our lives are not entirely at the mercy of the broader societal crises that are an inevitable piece of our future. We can take action now to insulate ourselves a bit against those crises. We can choose to evolve proactively at the individual and community level. In doing so, we can make the future a tiny bit better. We can have our own small impact.
It’s not a panacea. It’s not a grand fix. It’s just our small piece, our little bit of action. It’s those first steps in the face of an intractable and overwhelming predicament. But it’s necessary, because there’s nothing else to do, unless we’re content to lay down and die. We could turn our back on the future and pretend its challenges aren’t real, but that would be a terrible mistake. It already promises a great enough ferocity; let us please not make it worse. Begin the work today. Start tackling those problems. If you haven’t taken the first steps, take them today. If you have, but you’ve faltered, get back to work. And if you’re cruising right along, continue that hard and necessary process.
I expect no centralized solutions. But every day, even in the midst of the crises, the individual solutions and responses are there for the taking, in every person’s own life. That’s the hope. That’s the antidote.
An entry in How To Be Poor
In the previous entry in this series, The Reductionist Trap, I wrote about a possible diet I could eat that would seem to be sustainable and practical, given my circumstances and the broader world at large. As I noted in that post, I believe such a diet could be resilient, both in the world as it is today and, quite possibly, in the world as I expect it to exist over the coming years—that is, with reduced available energy and resources and lower purchasing power for most involved. In today’s post, I want to speak in greater depth about resiliency, raise the issue of margins, and make an argument for how these concepts can help guide how we structure our lives for a future sporting greater material poverty.
Resiliency is defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and John Michael Greer— in a post about resiliency that I’ve referenced before, in this blog’s longest, but by no means best, entry—defines it as “the opposite of efficiency.” He goes on to write that, “What makes a system resilient is the presence of unused resources, and these are inefficient by definition. A bridge is resilient, for example, if it contains a good deal more steel and concrete than is actually needed to support its normal maximum load; that way, when some outside factor such as a hurricane puts unexpected stresses on the bridge, the previously unnecessary structural strength of all that extra steel and concrete comes into play, and keeps the bridge from falling down.”
If I’m correct in the belief that the future is going to sport a good deal less energy and resources—a good deal less wealth for most all of us, in other words—than resiliency is exactly what we need. That future is going to be rife with misfortune and change, a series of shocks to the industrial system, and an altered landscape—figuratively and literally—on which we’ll have to make our livings. Jobs will be lost, incomes will drop, food will become more expensive and scarce. Blackouts are more common, and that trend will continue as power companies cannibalize their existing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be surprised if rural areas started deelectrifying within the next half century. Road systems will degrade, bridges will collapse or be shut down due to safety concerns, and driving will become less viable in a wide variety of ways. America is in the early stages of decline and faces a rough future in which the general state is one of contraction—thus, the list of these changes could go on and on. Suffice it to say, though, the future is going to be much more rough than the recent past.
To imagine this future in simpler terms, let’s consider a piece of lined notebook paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. But let’s change it a bit from a standard piece of notebook paper. This one has two inch margins on either side, leaving just four and a half inches of writing area in the middle. Not much room in the core, right? In fact, barely more than in the margins. The core of this paper is industrial society as we expect it to function, complete with high technology and massive energy usage, the waste of natural resources, and the assumption of perpetual growth. Draw a line straight down the middle, top of the paper to bottom, straight as an arrow. That might be something like the Wal-Mart ordering system and supply chain—one of the more efficient structures in today’s industrial society, within the confines of how we define efficiency. There’s little waste in the sense that products are ordered just in time, from centralized factories, arriving via centralized transport systems, all maximized as much as possible within a computerized system. There are wastes, granted, but they’re wastes that we by and large ignore within the context of our industrial assumptions and economic organization.
There’s little resiliency to this system. A disruption in the transportation, or in the ability of the factories to function, or in the supply chains that feed the factories, or in the computer system that does the ordering, or in any other number of the system’s numerous points of functioning could lead to empty shelves and lost profit. But so long as everything functions according to plan, the shelves stay full and the profits stay high. On our hypothetical piece of paper, a straight line unimpeded is the supply chain functioning properly, and the line ends in massive profits. But this line can only follow one way to that destination, and it’s straight as an arrow. Put anything in its way—any disruption to the system, in other words—and it stops. It can’t go around. It has no ability to bend, to curve, to find a different way. It only knows the one.
Now, any number of systems reliant on the functioning of the industrial economy can be drawn within the core of this piece of paper. Some must stay straight and will stop if they hit any blockade. Others are more resilient and thus can veer around a bit. They’re capable of twisting and turning and finding new ways. But even these are bound by the margins. Those are lines they simply cannot cross, and so they’re left with four and a half inches of wiggle room, and a couple of wide and wild, two inch stretches on either side that can’t be entered without the system falling to pieces. That’s because these margins don’t function under the rules of industrial society. Fossil fuels are lacking or nonexistent in these margins, there’s no perpetual growth, waste doesn’t exist and energy usage per capita is low. High technology functions poorly or is absent altogether. Sun and air and water flow through these margins, but not reserved masses of millions of years of condensed carbon. Labor is provided by humans and animals rather than machines. Food is provided by soil rather than oil and natural gas. The margins do not function as the core does.
Consider, still further, that the margins are widening a bit each year. Accordingly, the core is shrinking—and, accordingly, the available paths for systems and processes dependent on industrial society is shrinking. Every year the margins grow closer, offering a place to live but under the condition of adapting to new rules, new ways of living, new forms of personal and social organization. Within time, these margins are going to squeeze out the core and leave all those people, communities, economies, businesses, machines, and so on that depend absolutely on a functioning industrial society with no place to live. At that point, they’ll be forced to either survive in the margins or perish.
If we’re to face the future in a coherent and resilient manner, we’re going to have to broaden the ways in which we can function in this world. We’re going to have to learn to live in the margins. That may not mean living entirely in the margins today or tomorrow, but we have to take our first tentative steps into them and begin the long and challenging process of learning the new ways of living that they require. We’re going to have to veer into them at times, familiarize ourselves with the marginal world, and continually increase our comfort there. If we don’t do that, we’re going to be in a heap of trouble as the core continues to shrink and crowds more and more of us out of an industrial economy based on perpetual growth and increased consumption, and into a contracting economy that demands a dramatic scaling back of our lives.
To engage these margins, we’ll need to change our behavior. But to do that, we need first to change our ways of thinking. Many of us have been taught to live in a world of growth, a world of industrialism, a world of massive available resources and energy. Trying to live differently without first changing the way we think is only going to serve to compound an already challenging situation. This is why, in the previous post, I wrote about the need to move away from the sort of reductionist thinking that is employed and common in the industrial world—the core of the paper—and toward a systems thinking that is rooted in the natural functions of ecosystems. The margins, after all, are wild. They’re rooted not in machine control and the brute force application of massive amounts of energy, but in the elegant and complex functioning of ecosystems. To make our way in them, we’re going to have to learn to think as the margins function, thus providing us the tools to tease out the full implications of our actions—to see the rippling effects of the way we live and to understand what underlying systems support or don’t support those ways of living.
As an example, let’s consider a wood stove. One has existed in each of the three places I’ve lived out here on the Oregon coast. It was the source of heat in the yurt I lived in when I first came here in 2011, an option in the old farm house I lived in last year—which also had available the horror that is electric wall heaters—and an option in my current residence, in addition to an electric furnace. Despite the presence of that electric furnace, the wood stove is far and away the primary source of heat in this house. A good question, though, is whether or not it should be.
One way we could consider this question is through a simple, reductionist lens of trying to suss out exactly how much energy is used by the wood stove versus how much by the electric furnace, looking at efficiency ratings of the actual devices, the efficiency rate of conversion of wood and electricity to heat, or perhaps try to determine the cost of a cord of wood in comparison to the cost of an equivalent amount of heat via electricity. Perhaps we might broaden out this reductionist perspective by crunching all these numbers to the best of our ability and then evaluating all of them in conjunction to try to come up with a final determination. We may even bring in yet more variables, such as the cost of the electric furnace versus the wood stove, the amount of energy used in their manufacture, and so on. All of this is good information to consider, but it’s only a small piece of the whole system consideration of how to heat your home, and it takes only the dimmest account of resiliency.
What if we instead evaluated the two methods in terms of resiliency, in terms of how straight must be the line that leads to heat? If we do that, then we’re talking about a whole host of other considerations. The electric furnace, for instance, deals in a mighty straight line laid down within the core of our hypothetical piece of paper. To create heat, it needs a steady flow of electricity, and that electricity needs to flow at a certain level. As currently designed, our electric furnace would pull that electricity from the centralized energy grid. If the flow of electricity stops, the heat stops. Period. If there’s a blackout, the heat stops. Period. If the bill for that electricity becomes too expensive to pay, the heat eventually stops. Period. If we get far enough into contraction and decline that our rural area completely loses access to centralized, grid electricity, then the heat stops. Again, period. And even if we wanted to attempt to replace the grid-sourced electricity with renewable electricity produced on site, it’s not likely we could do that. An electric furnace needs a heck of a lot of electricity, in heavy bursts. I don’t see any way we could cobble together any combination of solar PVs, small wind turbines, and micro hydro generators—and the necessary battery rack—to make that happen. Not for heat on demand. Especially in the winter out here, which is when we need the heat and when the sun isn’t shining. (There’s an important connection there, we should note.) In other words, our electric furnace needs the centralized industrial economy and the electric grid it provides to produce heat.
Now let’s consider the wood stove. Here we find that the line is not nearly so straight, and even is capable of veering into the margins. Unlike the electric furnace, the wood stove can work with a variety of different types of fuel. First and foremost is wood, of course, but it could produce heat from many different combustible materials. Even if we were to stay with wood, though, the ways that wood can be acquired is far more varied than the electric furnace, which needs to be hooked up to a centralized electric grid to work. Wood can be acquired in ways that are highly dependent on the industrial economy and ways that are far less dependent on it. Depending on where you live, it could even be acquired without help of the industrial economy. Scrap wood can be harvested from the forest floor. A series of sturdy hand tools combined with human (and perhaps animal) labor can take a tree and fell, split, chop, and stack it into a winter’s worth of heating. For us in particular, out here on the Oregon coast, access to consistent and reliable electricity is almost certainly going to go away before access to locally grown wood.
Furthermore, a bit of systems thinking leads us to other advantages of the wood stove. As a concentrated source of heat, it not only can be used for heating the home, but for cooking food—and it can do both those things at the same time, with the same heat. Even those wood stoves not made explicitly for cooking provide a hot surface. If you have a cast iron pan and that surface is big enough to balance it on, you can cook food. Still further beyond that, modifying your wood stove to include some kind of wetback system could provide hot water, to boot, providing you three critical functions for the price of one. In the world of permaculture, this is called “stacking functions” and it’s a way of making the most out of your resources that’s rooted in ecological and systems thinking. The beauty of a wood stove is that—in the simplicity of its design and its lack of high technology, which tends to focus on single tasks—it’s capable of supporting multiple functions. An electric furnace, on the other hand, simply can’t heat your water or cook your food. It’s designed only to heat a house, and it goes about that in a very particular way.
In fact, considering the heating device itself is also a good exercise in systems thinking. Our electric furnace is a single-trick pony, designed to be hooked up to an electric grid, a duct system, and a thermostat. Take any of those pieces away and its functioning is either reduced or eliminated. I know of no way to modify it to do other tasks at the same time as its heating the house (though perhaps that can be done and I just don’t know about it!) As well, the electric furnace is dependent on the continued functioning of the heating coil and the blower, or else it simply won’t function properly. If one of these breaks down, the furnace must be repaired or replaced, and that likely will require parts out of an industrialized supply chain. A wood stove, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more sturdy device. It is, first and foremost, a heavy metal box. It’s not dependent on a number of moving parts, nor is it dependent on a duct system (outside of the chimney) or on a thermostat, outside of the predilections of whichever human is charged with starting a fire. It is a sturdy device, likely to last longer than the electric furnace, and certain repairs may be possible without resort to a long distance supply chain. Its heat can more easily be localized if you want to maximize your fuel by heating less space. Closed doors make for a better barrier than closed air vents, after all. In the starkest of situations, you’re likely to have a bit better a time cozying up to a wood stove than to a HVAC vent. (Not to mention, it makes for a more romantic, or haunting, image.)
In short, the wood stove can take a multitude of different paths to the final goal of heat, and can even provide multiple functions upon achieving that goal. The electric furnace knows one path, and its final goal is limited in scope, as well. As such, the wood stove—for many people—is much more resilient a technology for a deindustrializing future than an electric furnace.
This isn’t to say the wood stove is a perfect solution, even for those of us who live surrounded by forests. For starters, those forests can go away fast. The number of clear cuts out here are already too numerous to count and, as we go through the long and harsh process of deindustrialization, there’s good reason to think that quite a bit of rural land could easily be stripped nearly bare by desperate individuals, desperate communities, and desperate governments. It doesn’t have to happen that way, but it might. So even for those of us living amongst the trees, firewood could eventually become more challenging to gain hold of. Furthermore, a good supply of firewood involves quite a lot of labor—either done by humans, animals, machines running on fossil fuels, or some combination of those. A future in which chain saws and diesel-powered splitters are more scarce—either with less of these actual tools around or less access to the fuel to run them—is going to mean that putting away a winter’s worth of wood heating is going to be a challenging task. Particularly for those who are older, in poorer health, or simply not used to hard physical labor. But they’re not insurmountable, and a good community—and good relations with that community—could go a long way toward getting over that hump.
Similarly, the electric furnace could prove to have more worth in certain situations, such as in an urban environment. While I still wouldn’t want to count on it for the long term, there could easily be a day a few decades down the road when a city dweller still has access to the centralized electric grid but couldn’t easily get firewood, while a rural dweller might be able to come across a good supply of firewood fairly easily but has lost any connection to a centralized electric grid. In this case, the city dweller is obviously better off with the electric furnace than a wood stove and the rural dweller vice versa. This comes back to one of the basic tenants behind systems thinking: that it has to be rooted in the local context, not in theory. Systems thinking is about dealing with the world as it is. As such, my above example about wood stoves is relevant for me, in my rural home, and likely relevant for a good number of Americans—but it isn’t relevant for all. Each person has to engage their own local context—their community, their ecosystem, their personal reality—to come to the most resilient way forward.
A final moment of reflection on this post, though—and particularly that last paragraph—will reveal an important truth. All this talk of wood stoves and electric furnaces is rooted in a basic idea that’s very much a product of industrial and reductionist thinking, which is the idea of bending the world to our will. But one inconvenient reality of the future is that we’re going to have much less control over our world than we’re used to today. We’re going to be making do with what we have far more than we’re used to. The margins are wild, and they’re going to demand more from us than we’re going to be able to demand from them. Learning to live well within and accept that reality is a key part of learning to live in the margins, and I’ll delve into that in the next entry in How To Be Poor.
An entry in How To Be Poor
One of the primary troubles with living well in a time of peak oil and deindustrialization is the tendency in our society to think in reductionist patterns rather than within the context of whole systems. Reductionist patterns of thinking have often—though certainly not always—served well within the context of industrialization and, as such, they’ve become one of the more dominant tendencies of our time. When faced with problems or predicaments, we often devolve into arguing over the details in an attempt to build a perfect response to the problem at hand. Seeing a list of troubled variables, we focus on them one by one (or simply focus on one of them at the expense of all the others) and attempt to mold said variable more to our liking. But in doing this, we too often ignore the effects such moldings will have on the other variables affected within the system and it’s there that we run into trouble.
As a prime example, let’s consider the question of how to eat well in a world with diminishing energy and resources, fraught with economic contraction and ecological destruction. Some years ago, I took a college class in sustainability and, to this day, I remember particularly some of the discussion around what sort of diet we may be able to provide the population in a world seriously lacking in fossil fuels and more focused on sustainability. The problem was defined largely as thus: we will need to feed somewhere between seven and nine billion people without destroying the environment and with reduced energy availability, so how shall we do that? The solution, as it turns out, was a textbook response in reductionist thinking.
The solution proffered, in vague and general terms, was that the world’s population would have to shift to eating mostly a plant-based diet. Prime farmland would be used for growing staple grains for human consumption, rather than animal consumption, and the eating of animal protein would drop dramatically. It would not be eliminated, though. Certain range lands that would prove inadequate for growing staple crops or fresh vegetables—due to poor soil and a lack of water—could be used as grazing lands for cattle. That would be the main source of meat for the world’s hungry mouths, and it would come more in the form of ground beef than steaks, because the range lands wouldn’t provide for nice, juicy cuts. (Yes, I specifically remember that point being made, which even at the time seemed strange to me.)
You can clearly see the reductionist thinking behind this solution. It boils down to a few variables: the number of mouths to feed, the amount of land available for farming, and how we might maximize that land to provide a certain number of calories per mouth. That was the entirety of the approach to the question of how to feed the world. It took an entire planet, reduced the uncountable number of ecosystems down to one large number accounting for the world’s arable acreage, and started making calorie calculations of staple grains, perhaps of mixed-crop rotations. You can see this sort of reductionist pattern in other approaches to sustainability issues. There’s no shortage of people concerned about fossil fuel energy who will comment on the amount of solar energy that falls on this planet in any given day, the conversion efficiency of the latest solar panel technology, and from there whip up a quick calculation to note how many acres of the world’s land we simple need to cover in solar panels to start generating all our electrical needs from the sun. If you really want to get fancy, you can throw in climate variables, ideal sitings of the aforementioned solar panels, and so on.
This is reductionism run amok and it’s a particularly unhelpful way to grapple with our future. The simple reality is that being a reductionist in the deindustrializing future is not going to pay the same sorts of dividends as it has in the industrialized past. Going forward, we’re going to be losing our access to the sort of energy and resource reserves that have allowed us to consistently approach our problems with reductionist methods, and that reality is going to leave us more at the mercy of whole systems than we have been. Or, more specifically, we’ll continue to be at the mercy of whole systems, as we always have been, but our ability to create problems one variable at a time is going to go away.
That last sentence might be a bit obtuse, so let me better explain. In Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay, “Solving for Pattern,” [pdf] he notes that attempts to solve problems on a variable by variable basis tend to cause “a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution—as, in agriculture, industrial solutions to the problem of production have invariably caused problems of maintenance, conservation, economics, community health, etc., etc.” (p. 135 in The Gift of Good Land.) For instance, in attempts to create better economies of scale for raising livestock, an industrial solution has been to take cattle off pasture and put them in feed lots. Setting aside the question of whether or not this was a “problem” that needed solving (that set aside answer, by the way, is “no”) this caused a number of new problems. Placed in a confined environment, fed a diet unnaturally heavy on grain, and left too often to mill about in massive amounts of their own manure, the cattle begin to experience poor health. With a reductionist focus on the problem of poor health, divorced from considerations of changing the root cause of it, the reductionist solution was to provide steady doses of antibiotics to the cattle. This creates a host of new problems—increased costs for the farmer, the eventual evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes, and so on—which are then either ignored or dealt with in the same reductionist manner, which then creates still new problems. And, of course, that’s just one path of problems. There’s a number of other paths meandering off from the decision to confine cattle, from the problem of waste disposal, the need for imported feed, the heavy environmental costs of ignoring the land’s carrying capacity, the overproduction of meat, the declining health value of the resultant meat, the abuse of animals, the centralization of agricultural production, the resulting economic impacts, and yet more. It spirals out everywhere—confined animal feeding operations lead to industrial-scale slaughterhouses that horrifically abuse both animals and humans, an industrial form of grain production arises to feed the CAFOs, which abuses and degrades the land, which in turn abuses and degrades farmers, which in turn abuses and degrades rural communities and economies, which in turn abuses and degrades urban communities and economies. In our blind focus on variables, we tend to degrade and oftentimes destroy the entire system.
Yet, as Berry argues in his essay, there are more elegant ways of solving our problems, and those tend to be rooted in whole systems thinking. He notes that such solutions that take into account the health of a system, rather than focusing exclusively on independent variables, cause “a ramifying series of solutions—as when meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm” (p. 137.) In solving for pattern—engaging in whole systems thinking, in other words—one often can discover solutions that nestle within one another, increasing the strength of the entire system and restoring much of its health. If there is a problem of poor health with animals in a CAFO, then perhaps eliminating the CAFO and returning the animals to pasture is a holistic response to the problem rather than in attempting to control the illness without confronting the source of the illness. In returning the animals to pasture, we will necessarily have to reduce the number of animals to the point that the land’s carrying capacity is not exceeded. In scaling back the number of animals being raised for meat, we help to reduce the problem of over-consumption of meat and offer opportunities for more balanced ways of eating. In doing so, we are reducing the impact on the environment and the ecological destruction that so easily arises from CAFOs. Further, we decentralize our agricultural system, providing the opportunity for more people to make a living farming, which then provides for the reemergence of healthy rural economies and communities, which then benefits the health of urban economies and communities.
This is not the end of the story, though, and neither are those final few sentences a resolution to the issue of eating sustainably. Let’s go back to the reductionist solutions proffered to the question of how to feed the world’s population. It seems to make sense that if the world’s population subsisted on a diet lower on the food chain, then less energy will be required to feed the world. And indeed, you can consistently find arguments in support of vegetarianism as an appropriate response to ecological destruction and unsustainable ways of living. We are reminded again and again that eating animals is eating higher on the food chain and that, therefore, every calorie taken in is necessarily the result of a greater number of calories of energy expended than if we had taken in a calorie of plant food.
I obviously don’t dispute the simple fact that one calorie of animal protein is the result of multiple calories of plant protein. It follows that to eat the calorie of plant protein requires less calories taken out of the system as a whole. That’s logical enough, and just because it’s rooted in a certain reductionism doesn’t make it untrue. (Reductionism does have its uses, after all.) However, how one plant or one animal calorie gets to my mouth is dependent on a wide variety of variables, so each calorie is not made the same. The whole system of food arriving in my stomach contains a number of variables beyond simply what segment of the food chain it came from.
In this sense, the question of diet has to be considered in a whole systems context, rather than a reductionist context. I already argued this point to a degree in an earlier post in this series, There are No Vegetarians in a Famine, but if we’re going to grapple honestly with the question of what’s the most sustainable and coherent way to eat, it’s going to involve a lot of consideration of personal context, local landscape, and the local ecology. How does killing and eating a local wild animals compare to eating locally raised beef that lived on pasture? How do those options compare to beef from the industrial agriculture system? And how does all that compare to eating organic staple grains from a monoculture operation in California or Canada or the Midwest? What about conventional staple grains? Or how about an array of locally grown, organic vegetables? An intensive organic vegetable operation, a permaculture homestead, a mixed-crop and animal rotational system? The question of which of these foods or methods of production are most sustainable are rooted in locality and each individual person, as is the question of the health and satisfaction of a particular diet.
The trouble with using reductionist thinking to come up with a solution of staple grains and range land beef is that it presupposes a number of other variables that may or may not be viable in a deindustrializing future. The number of calories of energy it takes to produce a calorie of beef is usually calculated based on industrial agriculture rooted in the feed lot system. How does that compare to small, local farms utilizing a rotational grazing system and not feeding their cattle grain? The number of calories necessary to produce a calorie of soy or corn or oat or wheat is dependent on the way those plants were grown, what seed was used, what pesticides and fertilizers were or were not used, where it was grown, where it’s being consumed, and perhaps even on whether or not a person feels more satiated on an equivalent number of calories of grain versus meat or any other type of food (assuming the person in question has options, which is not an assumption that can be blithely made in a deindustrializing future.) Most of these examinations of the most sustainable ways to eat are rooted in assumptions of industrial agriculture, as well as in assumptions that we can just pick and choose our diet without concern for our local realities. All of those are also assumptions that cannot be blithely made in a deindustrializing future. We don’t know if the future will allow us centralized forms of agriculture that can create a somewhat consistent diet for the world at large. I would argue that it won’t. A sustainable diet in the future may boil down to what’s produced locally, and that will vary widely if local production is rooted in natural systems, on-site recycling of nutrients and no or little more energy than is provided by the sun that falls on the land. In such a system, you’re a lot more likely to find systems of food production that utilize a mix of locally-appropriate annual and perennial crops along with various types of livestock. That’s one of our better approximations of a natural ecosystem, and the natural ecosystem is the model that we’re going to have to use if excess energy becomes scarce.
This brings me to a question I’ve been considering of late, which is how I might eat locally and sustainably, with the least amount of money. It’s a question rooted in my attempts at voluntary poverty, my concern for the health of our world, and my desire for a graceful and sustainable future. The best solution I can come up with is not one that’s overly concerned about the food chain, but one that’s overly concerned with my particular context. It seems to me that the best way I could eat would be a diet that focused primarily on locally-grown, organic vegetables, berries and fruit, both from my own garden and from local, small-scale farms; pasture-raised meat from the two small farms I currently work as a farm hand for; my local source of raw milk, which I can also make butter, yogurt, and cheese from; chicken and duck eggs from local sources; some organic staple grains from the local grocery, including wheat from which I can bake my own bread; and some trade at the farmers market for other items, such as honey, fruit, cheese, and perhaps some baked goods. My diet already is partially made up of these particulars, but I have yet to embrace it completely.
The benefits of this diet are multiple. For starters, it’s enjoyable and healthy. It’s a diet I would and do take pleasure in. It strikes me as sustainable in the sense that it is focused mostly on food grown and raised within a radius of 15 miles of where I live, and it’s food raised well, food the production of which I know intimately. It’s whole food, and thus it eliminates much of the cost in energy, resources and money of processing, and greatly reduces packaging. It’s also resilient in that most of it is not as reliant on long supply chains as the food in the grocery store is (though there is still reliance—all the local farms I know of use at least some inputs, though nothing like what industrial agriculture uses.) It strengthens the community by supporting local farms and farmers and it even strengthens my own work, as two of those local farms employ me. Relatedly, I can reduce my need for cash by gaining a good amount of that food via work-trade or other forms of trade. Furthermore, this diet solidifies relationships, care, and good work. It is inherently of my context, completely unique to me. I think that’s important.
I’m not saying this is the perfect diet. And there may be a diet available to me that overall uses less energy and is a bit kinder to the environment, in certain ways. But this strikes me as a uniquely good diet for me, rooted in the consideration of the entire system in which I live and from which I gain my sustenance. Furthermore, this strikes me as a particularly resilient diet in the face of an uncertain future, and that’s of the utmost importance. Perhaps just as importantly, this is a diet that works with and largely accepts my local limitations, rather than resorting to the blunt attempts at control that so often underlie reductionist thinking.
In fact, the resilience of this diet, the idea of resiliency in general, the folly of strained attempts at control in a deindustrializing future, and the necessities for engagement with community are all important considerations of both reductionism and whole systems thinking—as well as voluntary poverty and any response to a post-peak oil world—and those are the topics about which I’ll be writing in the next entry in How To Be Poor.
I lived in the White Mountains of Arizona throughout my sixteenth year. My mother owned a coffee shop there, in the small town of Pinetop. Visiting one summer, I fell in love with the area and decided to move there and help her run the coffee shop while attending the local high school.
The town we lived in was only a few miles away from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. One night we drove into that reservation to meet up with a friend of my mother’s who taught there, to watch a ceremonial dance performance by members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. The three of us were white and upon arriving and settling into some bleacher seats in the small open air theater, I found myself face to face with an experience that, so far as I could remember, had never really happened to me before: being a conspicuous minority. Looking around the audience, I saw no one else who was white. The seats were filled with Native Americans.
Of course, no one took particular notice of us, but I still found myself with a very heightened awareness of the color of my skin and it was a new experience. By the time I had become aware of race and ethnicity, I lived in Vancouver, Washington, which is a mighty white town. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which is a mighty white region. I happily lived my life amongst a super majority of white people and never had to take particular notice of the color of my skin since I was surrounded by other people who took no particular notice of the color of my skin.
That moment among an audience of Apaches, watching a ceremonial performance, briefly punctured my bubble of privilege. For perhaps the first time, I couldn’t simply take advantage of the idea that white was the norm. I briefly lost the privilege of my skin color being the standard. This was a moment of importance because, it has to be said, there is an emotional security—not to mention a literal security—in being part of the majority, whatever that majority is, and in losing that security for a short time, I became better aware of it. The privilege of being in the majority is that your ordinariness protects you. You take advantage of the lack of deviance. You don’t have to constantly question how others will react to you, whether or not you will be the victim of violence, if you will be shunned or condemned, ridiculed, looked down upon or distrusted. It’s a lovely way to live your life, but it’s not a loveliness that’s extended to everyone.
Of course, this claim to the majority can manifest in a multitude of ways: the color of your skin, your religious beliefs, gender, behavior, the ability to recognize and perpetuate cultural markers, material belongings, adherence to cultural worldviews, and so on. Likely all of us belong in some ways and don’t in others. But these forms of majority adherence vary, as does their importance and the protection afforded by them. The color of your skin has a greater impact on how you’re treated in this society than whether or not you’re excited about Super Bowl XLVII, for instance. Yet, while every American varies in their claims to majorities and minorities, there’s one protection, or privilege, afforded to every one of them. That’s the privilege of empire.
All of us Americans live in the world’s current empire, and that simple fact brings a host of benefits, no matter who you are. It provides potential access to a per capita share of the world’s energy and resources far and above any other country. The United States uses about a quarter of the world’s energy and a third of the world’s resources, with only a twentieth of the world’s population. But in addition to that access to energy and resources—which is variable across the population as a whole—our status as the world’s empire provides every American a sense of security that we take advantage of daily. As the currently undisputed leader of the world, we have a certain faith that no other nation would dare try to invade us, that no nation would conduct a bombing campaign against us if we behaved in some manner they didn’t appreciate, that we mostly control the process at NATO and the UN, that organizations such as the WTO, World Bank, and IMF will safeguard our economic and political interests, and that we may act militarily with impunity throughout the world without threat of dire consequences. Granted, there are moments when these assumptions are tested—every empire has it’s moments of weakness, after all—but they by and large are truths that we take for granted.
We don’t live in fear of an imminent land invasion of our country. We don’t worry that if we upset another country with our economic actions, they’ll drum up some reason to invade, bomb, or sanction us. We aren’t forced to hand over our country’s energy and resources on another country’s terms. We aren’t under constant threat of regime change or coups funded and driven by another country’s actions. We’re not, ultimately, at the whim of a world power, with a sense that the wrong move could have drastic and destructive consequences. That is an immense privilege, and it’s something that all Americans are blessed with.
I’m 32 years old. I didn’t live through the Cold War or the Cuban Missile Crisis. I realize there have been times when some of these assumptions weren’t so assumed in this country—when we really did live in fear of another world power. But currently, and for the last few decades, this has been a country that has seemed safe from the rest of the world. We haven’t seemed immune, granted, from the occasional dastardly deed, but no one’s been cowering in a corner over an imminent invasion. Even those who might have been drastically worried about terrorist attacks would be more concerned about isolated incidents, not the total invasion and overthrow of our country. We have had the privilege of feeling safer in our land than perhaps any other country on this planet, and that sense of safety is a direct byproduct of the American empire.
I honestly don’t remember the first time I seriously imagined the idea of the United States being militarily invaded and the government overthrown by another country. I suspect I first considered it in my teens. I do have this sense of having been shocked by the idea, though. It was a moment of allowing myself the full impact of a taboo, of an impossibility. And the shock came not from any surprise that I could imagine such a scenario, but from the idea that it could happen to us. That it could happen to me. That my protective bubble could be burst. That I might be subject to the whims of another nation, to the whims of the rest of the world, rather than controlling my own destiny.
Throughout my remembered life, the dominance of America on the world stage has been a given. I’ve taken it for granted that we are safe from military invasion, from bombings, from the vagaries of other world leaders. I’ve taken it for granted that we are the ones in a position of power, and often times I never even thought about that position. It was just the natural state of being and not even something to be considered beyond that.
I imagine many Americans feel the same way, or have during long stretches of their lives. In fact, I think our national response to the 9/11 attacks confirms that. Eleven years on, I’ve lost most of the sense of raw emotion and near-disbelief that the immediate aftermath of that attack engendered in me, but I remember how stunned I was, how stunned we all were. Someone had attacked us. On our soil. Someone had dared to punch back, to bloody our mouth. No, it wasn’t a full-scale invasion, it wasn’t the overthrow of our government, it wasn’t the downfall of the American empire, though perhaps we’ll eventually look back on it as one of the important steps down that path. But it was an affront to our sense of national security, to our sense of invulnerability. We freaked the fuck out as a country. I remember talking to people who demanded we bomb Afghanistan into nothing. I remember the solemn assertions from a variety of national figures—political and otherwise—that we would hunt down and kill the people who had done this. I remember yet more dramatic and crazed claims. I remember the glazed looks of disbelief. I worked at Fred Meyer at the time, in the electronics department, and I was closing the night of September 11th. All the TVs were on and, of course, they all sported coverage of the attack and its aftermath. Throughout the night, there would at any one time be at least a few shoppers standing in front of the TVs, their eyes a bit glazed, just taking in what had occurred. We talked about it a bit. All of it seemed to come down to this sense of disbelief and, underneath that, a profound anger.
I bet a number of people saw Jon Stewart’s monologue on The Daily Show shortly after the 9/11 attacks. I recommend watching it above, even if you’ve already seen it. I still find it a remarkable speech; it overwhelmed me when it first aired. It’s powerful, raw, restrained and hopeful. There’s an anger in it, yes, but it’s quiet—far more quiet than most people’s anger during that time. It’s hard to watch, too, as Stewart is consistently overcome by emotion. It’s eloquent and heartening. But more than all that, it over and over again is an incantation. Stewart assures us during his speech that the American empire still stands, that we’re still the world’s good. “That’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open. It’s the difference between free and . . . burdened,” he says, invoking the freedoms of speech we live with here in America and contrasting it with the attackers and their assumed beliefs. Toward the end of the speech, he assures us, “We’ve already won. They can’t–it’s, it’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.” And he closes on an incantation of imagery, noting that the view from his apartment, once the World Trade Towers, is now the Statue of Liberty. It’s intensely poetic—and it’s a final assurance, as well. America stands. Our safety stands. This too shall pass.
We all needed that at the time, and I think it’s why his speech is so enduring and was so celebrated when it first aired. Plenty of people assured us, but a number of them did it less eloquently, in far more crass terms. Many appealed to claims of power, of the certainty that we would destroy our opponents. But Stewart instead evoked our national myths with an eloquence and certainty. He justified our lost sense of security and promised its return. And at the time, reeling from a sudden sense of vulnerability and the emotional sting of having been proclaimed wrong and evil—even if we denied it vehemently—we needed nothing more than the return of our sense of security and the assurance that we deserved that security.
One of the most rejected ideas in our society is the idea that we’re vulnerable. We reject it as an empire would, certain in our power over the rest of the world. We reject it in the way we live, insisting that we can carry on forever as we do today, that the American way of life is non-negotiable. We reject the idea that we’re vulnerable to the natural systems that sustain us or that we have any need or responsibility to limit the way we impact them. We reject that there are any limits whatsoever for us that can’t be overcome with technology and ingenuity, which is ultimately a rejection of any sense of vulnerability. I can’t help but think that this refusal to accept limitation and vulnerability is rooted in good part in our empire and the sense of security and invulnerability it so often affords us. It’s an unthinking rejection, borne not of coherent thought and consideration but in the inability and unwillingness to imagine a world that we can’t conform to our desires.
And yet, we are vulnerable. We are beholden to limits. We can’t always make the world conform to our desires, despite illusions to the contrary. I believe the American empire is on its way out. I won’t venture to put an exact time line on its final gasps, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it sometime in the next forty years, which will hopefully be within my lifetime. I wonder, though, how we’ll react as a people when it does happen. September 11th provided us with a multitude of inspiring, human moments, but it also provided us with a certain sort of national insanity that continues to echo today. That wasn’t the collapse of the American empire; it was just a flesh wound, a surprisingly bloody lip. What happens when a new nation rises to be the world super power? What happens when our sense of security is gone forever, when the perks of empire dry up and are diverted to the new emperor, when we have to come to terms with a dramatically different and much more impoverished way of living?
I’m not a fan of the American empire, but I can’t deny that I’m a fan of its benefits. I appreciate the access to energy and resources, the sense of security it affords, all the ways it makes my life easier and more comfortable. I would like to think I would give it up tomorrow if offered the opportunity, but I don’t know for sure if that’s true. I do believe, though, that we’ve reached the point at which it makes more sense for us to walk away from our empire rather than try to maintain it. The returns are diminishing and the collapse of our empire is likely to drag us down into a worse future than we might have if we were to turn away from it now and start building a society that can run on more realistic energy and resource flows, at a level of complexity we could better maintain.
But would I give it up? I’m attempting to live a life of voluntary poverty, to reduce my dependence on a system that I believe is destructive and destined to fall apart. I’m attempting to better make my own living, to better engage in my local community, to increase my resiliency by decreasing my needs. But if our empire were to go away tomorrow, it would be a major loss. I’m still not prepared, and I likely won’t ever be. I want to say that I would give it up, that I would turn my back and walk away from a system beneficial to me personally but destructive to so many others, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reduction in standard of living worries me, yes, but it might be the loss of security that frightens me the most. John Michael Greer wrote a five-part narrative about one way the American empire might end. It involved military defeat, the United States walking right up to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and the ultimate break up of the Union. It disturbed me, I have to admit, to imagine in such stark terms a complete and utter loss of our security, of our seeming invulnerability on the world stage. What would it be to live in one of the countries at the mercy of our empire? What would it be to have your future so dependent on the whims of an empire and its people?
I can’t imagine.
And that’s the point. That’s the privilege of empire, and it’s a privilege all of us Americans would do well to start reconsidering and deconstructing.
This morning, I read a diary about guns at Daily Kos. For those who are unaware, Daily Kos is a liberal political blog focused on electing Democrats, and while there’s a range of thought on a variety of issues there—as well as some very smart people in the community—you primarily find orthodox liberal and Democratic views. As will likely surprise no one, gun control is very much supported at the site, though there also is a significant and vocal contingency of gun rights advocates there. The arguments over the issue are heated, even there on a site where most all the participants find themselves in much closer political agreement than within the country as a whole. Indeed, for many people there, the issue seems one of life and death—and no doubt it literally is considered that for a number of the participants.
Of course, you can see similar extremes of argument over a number of issues at the site, as you can at most any political blog of any stripe. Political discussion in this country is at a fever pitch of emotion and rhetoric and distinctly lacking, more often than not, in substance and rationality. The particular issue of gun control here isn’t so much important to what I want to say in this post, though, as is the form of political argument that makes these issues into life or death—into extremely charged outbursts of emotion. As I’ve recently written, there was a time when I engaged in similar outbursts and found myself absolutely vexed by the politics of this nation. I read and posted at Daily Kos and a number of other liberal blogs. I closely followed political news and happenings. I champed at the bit for a better world with more progressive policies in place in this nation and a contingent of Democrats holding the Presidency and majorities in Congress. To a large degree, I lived and died based on the whims of the political narratives, on my hopes and fears over various policy decisions and, even more so, on electoral outcomes.
I look back on those times with a certain bemusement. I don’t necessarily regret them—I had to go through all that to get to where I am today—but I don’t look at them fondly, either. I’m happy to be past that point in my life, because my extreme investment in this nation’s politics was rooted in deeper issues and thought patterns that I’ve had to abandon in more recent times to begin to live a life that actually makes me happy, and which I believe to actually be productive and beneficial to the community, as well. I’m thinking in particular of two myths that I believed in wholeheartedly and one resultant thought habit that I engaged in continually within the context of politics (and still engage in too often today.)
The myths are those of progress and apocalypse, and they’ve been written about extensively by John Michael Greer at The Archdruid Report. In the aforelinked post, Greer summarizes these two myths well, stating that “[b]elievers in progress argue that industrial civilization is better than any other in history, and its present difficulties will be solved if we just put enough money into scientific research, or get government out of the way of industry, or whatever else their single story presents as the solution to all problems. Believers in apocalypse argue that industrial civilization is worse than any other in history, and its present difficulties will end in a sudden catastrophe that will destroy it and usher in whatever better world their single story promises them — a better world in which they will inevitably have the privileged place denied them in this one.” Greer goes on to note that both of these myths are ultimately myths of Utopia. With the myth of progress, Utopia is brought about by the continuing progress of humanity while in the myth of apocalypse, Utopia is the ultimate result of the destruction of the currently wicked world, which conveniently kills off all the people the believer in apocalypse dislikes and leaves behind only like minded people who band together to create a utopian society out of the old world’s ashes.
My time within the world of politics was a result of my belief in both these myths. Initially, it was my belief in progress that largely drove my involvement. I saw the world as a beautiful place and our society as potentially a great one. But I also saw trouble: environmental devastation, discrimination and bigotry, a rigged economy and corrupt political system. I believed these problems could be solved via the election of the correct politicians and the application of proper legislative policy, but I believed they could also become worse with the wrong policies and politicians. In that sense, the myth of apocalypse played it’s role, as well. Initially during my time in politics, I had great faith in the future and believed it would be a better time, but I still saw the possibility for a much worse outcome with the wrong people in power. Thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.
Over time, I began to transition from a favoring of the myth of progress to the myth of apocalypse. As I read about peak oil, climate change and ecosystem destruction, I saw a dark future ahead if we did not make dramatic changes in the way we lived. I wanted a ful fledged response to these crises, complete with a Manhattan Project-type response rooted in a full transition to renewable energies and a complete move away from fossil fuels. I saw this as imperative and, thus, I agonized over our political scene and became emotionally entangled in the political process.
Due to my belief in these two myths, I fell into a habit of thought that is common in our society: that of binary thinking. In the aforelinked post—again written by John Michael Greer, within a series of posts that eventually turned into his brilliant book on magic and peak oil, The Blood of the Earth—Greer notes that humans “normally think in binaries—that is, polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites. That habit is universal and automatic enough that it’s most likely hardwired into our brains, and there’s good reason why it should be. Most of the snap decisions our primate ancestors had to make on the African savannah are most efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: food/nonfood, predator/nonpredator, and so on.” Continuing on, he raises one of the main problems with binary thinking, which is that it leaves no room for middle ground. Within the context of determining if something is food, that’s not a problem. But it’s very problematic when we’re trying to deal with complex issues or attempting to tease out a variety of possible responses to a problem, all of which may have their own levels of efficacy. We have to break out of our binary thought patterns if we’re to approach these problems well.
However, during my times of obsession with politics, it was these exact binary thought patterns coupled with my belief in the myths of both progress and apocalypse that caused me so much trouble. I believed in liberal and progressive ideals, so I saw Democratic politicians that expressed a belief in the same ideals as good and Republican politicians that disagreed with many of these ideals—or interpreted them differently—as bad. I didn’t make honest assessments of any of these politicians, for the most part, but instead fell into binary thinking patterns that layered emotional charges over those little “- D”s and “- R”s. What were those emotional charges? Well, they were progress and apocalypse. I saw the Democrats as leading toward progress and Utopia and the Republicans as leading toward the apocalypse.
Let’s go back to the gun control issue. In 2010, there were 30,470 firearm-related deaths. A bit under two thirds of those were suicides and the rest homicides. Now imagine that you support new gun control laws. If you fall into binary thinking, you’re going to see new gun control laws as being capable of saving the lives of thousands of people and preventing horrific tragedies like the Newtown shooting. A lack of new gun control laws means another 11,000 or so gun murders this year and perhaps another Newtown-like tragedy. This is literally a life and death issue. Gun control laws equal 11,000 people alive while no gun control laws equal 11,000 people dead.
Now spread this form of thinking across all political issues and suddenly you have the difference between progress and apocalypse. The complexity of these issues gets lost and the reality of the world does, as well. It becomes a battle between two myths, expressed in binary thinking that manifests itself in the taking of political sides. This is why I lived and died on these issues for a number of years during my time with politics. In my mind, this was an epic struggle for a bright future of progress and joy versus a dark and dystopic future of destruction and pain, of human misery. No, I didn’t always imagine it in such stark terms, but every policy decision was a step down one road or another and so they all felt so very monumental.
You can see this in the gun control debate. You have a number of people wanting more laws with the belief that it will greatly reduce gun deaths. But it’s not just about reducing gun deaths—it’s about the continued human progress that so many have come to accept as natural and inevitable. That’s what many people advocating for new gun control laws really are looking for. Then you have those on the other side that believe that new gun control laws will result in the confiscation of all weapons and the rule of a tyrannical government—in some major steps toward apocalypse, in other words. But neither outcome is likely. Progress is not inevitable and our immediate future suggests a distinct lack of it in many areas (though at least the possibility of progress in other areas, such as in deriving real meaning in our lives from human-scale living.) And a few new gun control laws are not a path to a tyrannical dictatorship. No one is proposing confiscating already-existing guns.
But it’s not about the actual outcomes of these policy decisions. It’s about the myths. It’s about Progress and Apocalypse. It’s about Utopia, and how we get there (because of course we’re going to get there, some way or another, right?) That’s what it was about for me when I was down in the muck of the political world and I can’t help but suspect that’s how it is for a number (though not all) of people who visit political blogs of all stripes. The emotionally-charged reactions and arguments that seem to suggest that every policy decision is a struggle to the death confirms as much. After all, at the end of the day, a few new mild gun control laws aren’t going to change the fact that we have a massive number of guns in this country already. It’s not going to change the underlying societal and cultural dynamics that produce our culture’s significant levels of violence. It’s not going to outlaw and confiscate all guns or mark the rise of a new American dictatorship. It’s not going to eliminate gun deaths.
No, any new gun control laws will do what most all of our policies do these days: futz around the edges, with predictably mild results. All of the few policy decisions you’ll see currently coming out of the American political system are completely unwilling to deal with the multitude of very real and big problems we face today. They won’t deal with our economic system’s dependence on the decayed undergirdings of cheap energy and perpetual growth, and the system’s resultant disintegration. They won’t deal with our atrophying culture and collective loss of faith in societal institutions. They won’t deal with the inability of our economic system to provide its citizens with honest work rooted in the necessities of life. They won’t deal with the collapse of the American empire and all the chaos and disruption that will create as we all find ourselves dealing with the resultant, significant decrease in wealth and security. They won’t deal with anything but appearances, with the hope that insubstantial tweaks to the same old system will pacify the public until the next election ramps up—which should be just around the corner.
In other words, the American political system of today is about running in place—and tearing your hair out while doing it. It’s a special kind of torture to place your most compelling hopes and fears upon the vagaries of our President and Congress. I say that from too much personal experience. This is not a system that has any interest in tackling our problems or in being honest with its electorate. It’s a system interested in perpetuating itself, first and foremost, and then putting on a particular sort of theatre for the common folk in the hopes that they won’t get too restless—or that their restlessness will be conveniently channeled into roughly equal, competing narratives that take the entirety of Congress itself out of the cross hairs.
And this is where the power of letting go comes in. Yes, it’s true that I still sometimes get caught up in the theatre. For the most part, though, I’ve tuned out the nonsense coming out of Washington D.C. and have instead focused on something that I can control and through which I can make some meaningful, if small, change: my own life. In letting go of politics and all the binary thinking it helps produce, I’ve allowed myself to get off the treadmill of disempowerment that is our political system and instead focused in on making changes within my own life, of doing honest work, and attempting to craft something of my own future. And I’ve never been happier. It’s challenging at times, of course, and moments of frustration and alienation are common, but I have a significant amount more of honest living in my day to day life than I did in the past.
Since I started farming in 2009, I’ve paid less and less attention to politics, and it’s been incredibly liberating. As I’ve introduce good work into my life, I’ve felt less need to outsource my future to others—politicians, primarily—and to live and die by their corrupt whims. In the last few years, I’ve mostly divested myself of the myths of progress and apocalypse, though they still make their appearances now and again. That, too, has been vastly liberating. I’ve come to better see the course of humanity’s history not as any sort of linear procession but as more cyclical, and even beyond that as more tumultuous. The passing of time is not a great narrative leading to a final ending but instead just a continual unfolding of the messiness and beauty and heartbreaking intensity of life. We are today at a time, with all its particularities, and tomorrow we’ll be at a different time, and further on at yet a different time. It’s not about a destination, it’s just this continual unfolding. And that’s good, because it’s thrilling and heartening and horrific, this life. It’s enchanting and astounding, overwhelming in all the best and worst ways. It’s a ridiculous blessing, being able to be here. And it’s a calling, too, to do good and honest work, to make our lives into something meaningful and lifting, to be human and embrace the insanity of it and to not let ourselves be guided by others or to be led sleepwalking through our existence, always waiting for someone else to make our lives into what we hope or fear they might be. That’s a slavery, a condemnation, and to instead take on our own lives and turn them toward the future we hope for—and to then continually deal with the future we actually get—is a liberation. It’s an empowerment, an honest freedom, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
An entry in The Household Economy
A few months back, I read a Sharon Astyk post in which she wrote about a new cookbook of sorts, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. In the book, Reese engages in a wide variety of food-centered homesteading activities, like making butter and baking bread, making her own prosciutto and camembert. As she tries these different tasks, she documents the process and makes recommendations for which to take the time to do yourself and which to go on purchasing from others, trying to figure out where one’s limited time is best invested.
I haven’t read the book but found the concept fascinating. About the same time I read about the book, I found myself thinking about this series of posts on homesteading, The Household Economy, and how exactly I wanted to approach the writing of it. While I’ve made clear that the intent of the series is to focus on the various ways in which I engage my own household economy in pursuit of my broader goals of voluntary poverty, self-reliance and a modest life built on minimal money and energy, I wondered in what exact way it made sense for me to write about these activities. A series of posts as little more than step-by-step guides didn’t seem logical to me, mainly for the reason that such guides already are abundant on the internet for most of the activities I’ll be engaging in. Indeed, many of my activities will be carried out with the help of online guides, as well as with certain books I own. Simply duplicating that information makes little sense.
These considerations at some point dovetailed with thoughts about Reese’s book and the idea of making the bread but simply buying the butter, assuming you didn’t have time to do both. Since I had surmised butter-making would be one of my regular homesteading activities this year, I wondered if the effort really made sense. The difference in taste between store bought butter and homemade butter did seem somewhat negligible and making butter—while not particularly hard—was a bit of a messy affair, and did require quite a bit of cream (at least to create the supply of butter I tend to use, with it standing in as my cooking fat most of the time.) Perhaps making my own butter didn’t make sense, after all.
Despite these uncertainties, I made my own butter anyway. I wanted to at least try it, if nothing else. The first time I made it was with cream bought at a co-op in Portland, from a small scale Oregon dairy. The process proved extremely simple, though I did make a mess of a number of dishes and it did require a bit more time than I expected. But despite the clean up, I wanted to make butter again.
Time passed before that happened, but I finally made a new batch of butter a few weeks ago. The cream for this butter came from my weekly supply of raw milk, skimmed off the top after sitting in the fridge for a few days. For some reason—perhaps due to some difference created during the pasteurization or perhaps because the skimmed cream was a lower fat content than the store bought cream—the process of making the butter took longer. However, since the agitation was done in a food processor, that proved to be the most minimal of inconveniences. It was more a curious occurrence than a problem.
The final product was quite tasty and I enjoyed eating the butter smeared on bread. I couldn’t say it was an order of magnitude better than store bought butter, though. Better, yes, but not to the same degree as, say, eating fresh baked bread right from the oven in comparison to bread from the store. Furthermore, for my gallon or so of raw milk, I skimmed off a little over a pint of cream and ended up with around a quarter pound of butter. The next week’s process proved more successful, with a better skimming of about a pint and a half and around six ounces of butter, but I still realized that it takes a lot of milk to produce a modest amount of butter.
I considered all these factors as I debated with myself as to whether or not to make butter regularly. The more I thought about it, the more variables I considered, until I finally managed to turn my consideration of butter into something of a philosophy of homesteading to be used for this series of posts. The philosophy is rooted in many of the same themes and considerations that have been and will continue permeating my How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, as well as the thoughts and ideas behind this blog in general. As such, the major underlying tenets that I’ll be using for this series are that I’ll be taking into account my own personal context, I’ll be looking to educate and demystify with these posts, and I’ll be focusing on patterns and systems. All of those tenets need further explanation, so if you don’t mind, I’ll now break out the bold.
The matter of butter illuminates this tenet well. I’m already receiving a gallon of raw milk each week. Raw milk, for those who may not be familiar with it, is simply milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. My milk comes from a local farm, it has a fat content higher than whole milk in the store, and it’s delicious. It comes in a steel milk pail that I return each week and which has a wide mouth lid on it. That means that each week, I can bring home my milk and leave it alone for a few days in the fridge until a good amount of the cream rises to the top, then I can skim off that cream and use it to make butter.
Already receiving that milk is my context—with that context being that I already have available to me a weekly source of high quality, locally-produced cream and it even comes in a container that makes it easy for me to skim off and separate that cream. Since I have that source available to me, it makes sense that I make use of it to provide myself with butter. If I didn’t have this available to me, then making my own butter at home might involve simply going to the store and buying cream, bringing it home and then using that to make my own butter. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m not really creating the benefit of cutting out the middle man since I’m still buying the cream from the store, I’m probably not creating butter much different than what I could buy at the store, and I’m probably spending more money on it. What I’m doing instead, to a large degree, is simply introducing an extra step into my life for minimal benefit.
Now, that doesn’t mean it might not be a great step to introduce. If I simply really enjoy the process of making the butter, than that’s great. Homesteading is fun outside of moral, ethical or financial concerns, without question. But while that fun is going to be present in this series, I also am intent on rooting it in context, in what makes sense, in the sort of activities that my life already is arranged for. I want to take into account my context and work within that context, rather than creating habits without concern for the rest of my life.
In fact, this strikes me as the root of many of our problems in our society, and it contributes greatly to the unsustainability of our lives. I’ve written about this before and will write about it again, but it’s the fact that we don’t take into account our context and our personal situation when making so many of our decisions that brings us trouble. While personal debt, for instance, can arise out of situations out of our control, a good portion of it arises out of decisions made while ignoring our context, our personal reality. I know that has been the case for me before and there’s no question that our society and economy encourages this type of behavior. Our economy, in fact, is based on debt and expansion, regardless of the availability of resources for that expansion.
If we find ourselves with so much stuff that our living space is overflowing, we too often look for a bigger living space rather than getting rid of some of our stuff. We consistently, in this society and economy, default to bigger and more expensive, to growth and physical abundance, when we could just as easily default to smaller, more limited, constrained, and cheap (in the monetary sense, not the quality sense.) We’ve lost touch with thrift and have dismissed the idea of limits. When we have a problem, we as often as not look for solutions rooted in technology, energy and money rather than in solutions rooted in limitation and behavioral change. We look at the life we want and then do whatever we can to try to gain it, often to our detriment. We rarely look for the best life we are capable of having and then achieve it within the limits of our reality.
I don’t want to engage in every cool sounding homesteading activity just for the sake of doing it. I want it to arise naturally out of basic needs and my life’s circumstances. I want to make my butter not just because it’s fun—which, again, is a legitimate piece of this—but more importantly because it makes sense within the realities of my life. It flows from my circumstance and maximizes my resources. As such, it feeds my current goals rather than working against them. That’s important.
Education and Demystification
One of the critical goals that I think can be achieved through homesteading is the slow build of skills and knowledge used to make one’s own living. Every time we find ourselves purchasing something we need at the store, provided by someone whom we likely don’t know or care about and who doesn’t know or care about us, we make ourselves vulnerable. We reduce the sovereignty we have over ourselves and our livelihood, and we endanger our family and community. We put ourselves at the mercy of others—most often, at the mercy of massive and amoral corporations and too-often-corrupt bureaucracies. Meanwhile, these same corporations and bureaucracies are finding their supporting infrastructure weakened and at risk of collapse. The necessary resources for these massive entities are becoming more limited, more scarce, and in many cases are nearing full scale disappearance. Our state of dependence is an incredible danger, a huge vulnerability for most of us.
I’ve written plenty of times here on this blog about our need to reduce that state of dependence. Dramatically reducing the money, energy and resources we need is a big piece of limiting that dependence. Learning how to make, produce, or trade for many of our necessities is another huge piece and that’s the piece that I’ll be most focused on with this series. To successfully provide ourselves many of our own needs, though, we need a range of skills and education that many of us simply don’t have anymore. In just a few generations, we’ve lost a massive amount of knowledge and ability and now we need to relearn it as a culture as quickly as possible.
Assisting that need will be another tenet of this series. I want my posts not just to be how-to guides, but to attempt to break down the underlying ideas and theories that make these homesteading activities beneficial and even revolutionary. For instance, to understand why making butter makes sense for me, I need to know what butter is and where it comes from. Sure, I can decide that I want to make butter, look up a how-to guide on the internet, then go buy some cream and do the deed. But there’s still a dependency in that. If I instead have a more complete knowledge that tells me that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water; that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes; that the cream comes from milk; that cream will rise to the top of non-homogenized milk if left alone for a certain length of time; and that the cream can then be skimmed off the top of the milk with a ladle; well, if I know all these things and others, then I have the sort of knowledge that allows me to parse my own context and recognize that with my weekly supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, I also potentially have a weekly supply of cream, which I can then use to make butter.
Now, this may be known knowledge for a good number of people, but some out there don’t know it. But even if someone knows about butter, perhaps they don’t know anything about an enzyme cleaner, or why it is very effective at getting rid of certain stains and smells, or why it has many benefits over chemical cleaners, or how you make it at home, or the connection between why it gets rid of, say, the lingering smell of cat urine and why you can make it at home with some brown sugar and fruit trimmings. (Yes, I’ll be writing about this in a future post.) If you have all that knowledge, though, then you can begin to see and derive the sorts of patterns that effective homesteading make use of.
Patterns and Systems
Which brings me to the third tenet of these posts, which will be the exploration of patterns and systems. Let’s engage in one final consideration of my butter-making to better understand this.
If I want to reduce my energy consumption, save money, maximize my resources and better build my own self-sufficiency, I should absolutely make butter utilizing the gallon of milk I already get every week. The milk already exists. A good amount of cream already exists in that milk. I can bring the milk home, wait a couple days, skim the cream, and then make butter. In doing so, I’ve eliminated the need to buy at least some of my butter, if perhaps not all. That’s less butter that needs to be made by machines, brought to me by way of industrial farming. I’m eliminating one of my life’s inputs and I’m not creating a new one at all—I’m actually just more effectively utilizing another one. I’m reducing the fat content of my milk, granted, but I’m already operating at a calorie surplus. I can transfer that fat to the form of butter, cut out the imported butter, and not need extra calories to make that up. I’ve just saved money and energy by making my own butter from an already existing resource and reduced my consumption. In so doing, I’ve taken another step toward my goals of voluntary poverty, have created greater self-reliance, and am helping build a stronger community and local economy. That right there is the pattern of my behavior. But there’s a systemic piece to this, too, that I want to elaborate on.
If I’m anticipating a future in which large corporations and industrialism become less tenable and more expensive, and if I’m therefore looking to adjust my life so that it better fits into a local way of living—rooted in trade and barter, covenantal relationships and the sort of products and tools that can be made on a small scale, in a world of constrained energy and resources—well, then, my making butter fits that far better than my buying it. In such a world, there will almost certainly be a local dairy able to provide me a pail of raw milk each week. In such a world, there’s an excellent chance I could even barter or trade for that milk if I should need to, especially with the farming and ranching skills I’ve been developing. In such a world, I can just as easily skim the cream from my milk and I can even agitate it to make the butter without electricity if I should need to, transitioning from my food processor to a hand cranked mixer or just shaking the cream in a jar. Making butter at home currently uses some electricity, just by way of how I make it. But it doesn’t have to. There’s flexibility there and the adjustment could be made relatively easy if it needed to.
That sort of flexibility and resiliency doesn’t exist for the store bought butter. The butter in the store comes out of industrial systems, dependent on industrial-grade energy and resource feeds. They’re dependent on all the supporting infrastructure that comes with our industrial economy—all the infrastructure that would be very vulnerable in an energy- and resource-constrained world. That butter at the store is going to be much harder to barter or trade for, as well, if I should find myself short on money at some point. Nothing about that shelf of butter in the store makes much sense in a future beset by constraints on industrialism and it would be much harder to convert said shelf of butter to a low-energy way of life than it would be for me to switch from an electric food processor to a hand mixer or jar while making my butter. The systems I see us having to deal with in the future are going to be much different than the ones we deal with today. Making my butter at home fits that future system far, far better than buying my butter at the store.
Wendell Berry wrote an excellent essay some decades ago titled “Solving For Pattern” (PDF). In it, Berry writes, “A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts within the body.” Making my own butter seems like just such a good solution. It acts within the larger pattern, reducing my energy and resource usage while making use of already-existing resources and behavior, and further enhancing my life’s resiliency by increasing the flexibility with which I may react to the future. This small homesteading activity fits within the broader patterns—both existing and desired—of my life. It’s the exact sort of homesteading activity that I’ll be writing about in this series.
My hope is that by following the above principles, I’ll create a series that will prove a bit more holistic and informative than simply producing a number of how-to guides. While I still intend to include step-by-step instructions for these various homesteading activities, they’ll come after I provide the context of what I’m doing and how it fits into my goals. In this way, I hope this series will, more than anything, reinforce the idea of homesteading and a patterned approach to it that will prove beneficial in the sort of constrained future I think we face—or at least will prove beneficial for those looking to live their lives a bit more modestly, whether or not they think such modesty will turn into a necessity.
As should by now seem befitting, the first project I’ll be writing about is homemade raw butter. That will be the next post, arriving soon.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
In my previous entry in the How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty, I argued that many people’s dietary choices reveal the sort of luxury we have available to us today in industrialized nations. By choosing what we eat from a wide variety of foods, without regard to the limitations and constraints inherent to our local landscape and personal circumstances, we often provide ourselves a diet possible only in an industrialized world swimming in cheap energy and resources. Our context is utterly unlike that of most all others throughout human history.
In making that argument, I suggested that how we eat may be as or more important than what we eat. It’s a mark of luxury that the specific foods we eat can be mulled and considered and decided upon, rather than being dictated to us by a strict set of circumstances. If, instead, those circumstances dictated our food, what we eat would not so much be the question and we might instead focus on how we eat, with that determination providing us the method of building meaning into our diets. Creating a set of moral and ethical codes around the how of eating rather than the what of eating makes more sense in a world facing serious energy and resource constraints.
Still, we don’t yet face that world, though it certainly seems in the process of asserting itself. For those of us attempting to eat well, we face instead the question of what to eat, which is an important question. I wrote in that last entry that “I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.” I think that line could come across as flippant, disavowing the importance and implications of what we eat, and that’s not at all how I want to treat the subject. No, I think what we eat is very important. As a simple matter of very specific circumstances dating back millions of years, we find ourselves in a period of human history in which those of us living in industrialized nations can choose to eat almost anything we want, regardless of the time of year or where that food is capable of being grown, raised, processed or produced. That reality places a significant burden on us to attempt to eat well. Since we don’t find ourselves restricted by our local context, I believe we’re left with the responsibility to do our best to eat in a way that is nondestructive. We should eat foods that serve well our bodies, the land, animals, farmers, our environment, other humans and the soil. Our eating should not worsen the state of the world. Ideally, it should nourish it.
And yet, that’s not how we tend to eat. Most of us eat in ways that worsen the world; that exploit farmers and animals; that destroy land bases, soil and waterways; that are built upon suffering and cruelty; that impoverish other human beings; that degrade our bodies; and that serve to further sever our connection to the world around us. We often eat fast, dirty, and thoughtless. We fail in our moral responsibility—often we fail to engage that responsibility at all.
There’s nothing surprising about that. There was a very perceptive quote from Bruce Friedrich that I first read in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. In arguing for vegetarianism, Friedrich asks, “What does it say that the leaders of the ‘ethical meat’ charge, like my friends Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan and even the Niman Ranch farmers, regularly pull money out of their pockets and send it off to the factory farms? To me, it says that the ‘ethical carnivore’ is a failed idea; even the most prominent advocates don’t do it full-time. I have met countless people who were moved by Eric’s and Michael’s arguments, but none of them now eat exclusively Niman-type meat. They are either vegetarians or they continue to eat at least some factory-farmed animals.” While I’m not impressed by some of the things Friedrich says before that quote, I find this particular observation to be spot on. As I’ve noted, I started eating meat again after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma with the idea that I would eat good meat. While I follow through on that ideal a good percentage of the time, I still find myself getting the occasional hamburger at a bar that comes out of the Sysco supply chain or buying bacon from New Seasons—which is much better than Smithfield, but far from a small, local, humane ideal. The reason I fail at times is a combination of availability, convenience, and lack of will power. If I’m at a bar and I’m drinking, I’m hungry, and it’s on the menu, I’m going to order that hamburger, even if it’s not grass fed and from a local rancher. I fully understand the implications, but I give myself a pass and dig in. It’s an available moral failing and I take it.
Most people do much the same thing, either part of the time or all of the time. We don’t tend to eat with our brains but with our heart and stomach. We give in to desires—this is one of the reasons there’s a number of massive and profitable industries built around food and diet. Food is something we think about, obsess over, attach moral implications to, satisfy emotional urges with, and which provides us the very sustenance of our lives. It’s a relationship rooted in messiness and complication and the industrial world we’ve built around us has only served to complicate that already complex relationship by vastly opening the choices before us—and vastly increasing the moral implications of what we do decide to eat. The food we normally would eat has become far more corrupted via poor farming practices and the food we normally wouldn’t have available to us now is available and serves to tempt us in ways it never could before. These realities have imbued the question of what we eat with moral implications that it never had before, and as such has shifted our concerns more firmly toward the question of what rather than how.
This isn’t a good thing. While I love having the easy access to sugar and animal products, coffee, chocolate, fruits that would never grow here, ginger and coconut milk, and so many other foods that I wouldn’t eat if not for our industrialized world, I can’t endorse this availability. It’s distorted our ways of eating and skewed them toward destructive ends. It makes every meal fraught with moral and ethical considerations, often turning those meals into exhausting acts full of self-doubt and worry. Recent neurological research, as outlined in a New York Times article, suggests that as we make decisions, we deplete our will power. We become less able to make good decisions until we’ve restored that ability to our brain, which is tied to glucose levels. In other words, our decisions around food are particularly likely to be based in irrational thinking as we often crave sugar as a way to restore our decision-making abilities. But even aside from food, the need to make constant decisions saps our will power over time and degrades our ability to keep ourselves firmly within self-established limits.
In other words, deciding how to eat well is not a simple matter of rational thought, education, or strong morals. All of those things have their effect, but they’re part of a much more broad and complicated act of decision-making that is tied as well into brain chemistry, sugar levels, genetic predispositions and emotional signals. So while it’s important to acknowledge the moral importance of eating well in a world awash with bad food, expecting moral implications to lead to good eating amongst the world’s population is a fool’s game. There may be the rare person out there who is capable of eating at all times within a strict moral code, but the vast majority of us are not going to manage such an impressive feat. We’re going to make decisions that are not going to be good for the world—sometimes purposefully and sometimes not.
I recently read William Catton’s Overshoot and the final paragraph of chapter ten has been haunting me. Catton writes, “Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.” Our behavior, in other words, has been perfectly natural. If we see humans as simply another species on this planet, as I do, then we can see how we would make these poor decisions. We can understand why we would eat foods available to us even if those foods increased misery throughout the world. We can see how we would crank the heat even if we knew we could put on a sweater instead, and even if we knew that heat comes from fossil fuels that pollute the world and that are quickly being drawn down. We can recognize that we are animals, not perfect moral beings, and that we will as often as not choose the route of comfort and convenience and satisfaction, even when we intellectually understand the long-term downfalls of those choices.
So while, yes, I think we have a moral responsibility to eat well—much as I believe we have a moral responsibility to live and work well—I don’t think we can undertake such lives via morals alone. Our morality is only so strong and is only one piece of a tangled web of emotion and physicality, genetics and desire, social and cultural norms, and so many more variables. Attempting to engage all of those variables and always still make the right choice is an exercise doomed to failure, and one that will exhaust and break us in the process.
What we need instead is a life of limitation. We need less choices, fewer options, more constraints. A life lived more local and constricted by context would help to absolve us of many of the decisions and options that globalization and industrialism has foisted upon us. Such a life would necessarily be of a smaller scale, rooted in the local land and intimate knowledge, rather than resources that can come from anywhere in the world and through the debased, standardized knowledge of industrial systems. Such a life would limit our impact on the world not by forcing us to choose each time to limit our impact, but by limiting our ability to make such impacts.
This, again, gets at the absurdity of the challenge of voluntary poverty, as I wrote about in Our Distorted View. It shouldn’t be hard to live poor, but it is when you have money and so many options to live otherwise. If we’re constantly facing that temptation and constantly having to make the decision to live a modest life in the face of the ability to do otherwise, we’re quickly going to exhaust ourselves and make poor decisions. So to live a life of voluntary poverty, we need to build limitations and constraints into our lives.
Living here in an off-the-grid homestead has provided all kinds of lessons in that reality. We heat the buildings via wood stoves, which require more work than the simple flipping of a switch or turn of a dial. That leads to less heat, as the effort to produce that heat discourages unnecessary usage. Our hot water also comes from a wood stove, as well as solar hot water panels. That teaches us to pay attention to the weather and to limit our showers. There simply isn’t always hot water without some work, so none of us showers every day—which is unnecessary anyway. We have electricity via solar PV panels and a microhydro generator, but not an abundance of electricity. Generally we can run what we need to, but we’re not powering big screen TVs or using electric heaters or blow driers and we can’t run, say, the electric tea kettle and the hot plate at the same time. We further can only run devices that use small amounts of electricity (such as CFL bulbs) on a continual basis and run high-power devices in short burst. That’s fine—I quickly grew used to these limitations and they hardly impede my life. But it’s a different reality from being hooked up to the electric grid and having essentially unlimited power at your disposal.
These limitations are ingrained into life here and they quickly slip into the background, barely worth thinking about. As a part of life, they do an excellent job of limiting energy and resource usage while providing, at worst, a bit of inconvenience—and often not even that. I live a good life here, possibly better than I have anywhere else, and likely with less energy usage than I’ve used anywhere else.
That, to me, is the goal of voluntary poverty. Finding that way to live that uses less energy and resources while still providing a good life. It’s not the easiest goal in the world, but it certainly is a possibility. Yet, it has to involve the creation of limits and constraints—a context of living that naturally leads to a downsized life. As I prepare to move to a new situation, I’m going to find myself back on the grid, with more living space and constant hot water and changed circumstances that are likely to lead to me using more energy and resources. Leaving behind this off-the-grid homestead, I’m going to have to craft the context of my life to introduce some of the constraints that my current home featured by default. If I don’t do that, I’ll live larger than I want to live, too often making the easy decisions when they present themselves to me. I’ll be able to heat at the flick of a switch, to shower any time I want, to cook by turning a nob rather than stoking a wood stove. How will I deal with those conveniences? How will I stop myself from slipping too easily back into something more akin to a middle class American lifestyle?
These are some of the questions I’ll be writing about as this series continues. It will be a challenge, but I expect it to be a good one. I hope, as well, that my attempts to live in a home more closely approximating the standard American set up will help me to provide more useful information to my readers. Most of us don’t live on off-the-grid homesteads and so the constraints we need are ones we will have to put into place ourselves, as often as not. That creation of our context is going to be a main focus of this series. To lay the groundwork, I’ll be writing soon about the home I’m moving into and the decisions and tradeoffs that led me to this living situation. Those decisions were rooted in constraint, as well, and will help to illuminate some of the frames of mind we’re going to have to dispose of if we’re to live well in a poorer future.