Archive for the ‘context’ Tag
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.
When I lived in Portland, I paid $10 for a gallon of milk.
This wasn’t store bought milk, of course, but raw milk. It came from a farm south of the city—a piece of land leased by two wonderful women, Karyn and Carissa, who kept a couple milking cows and a small flock of chickens. These two women deeply cared for their animals and treated them—as well as their customers—as part of their family. Initially, their milk came from a Jersey named Opal; later on, Kaycee, a Fleckvieh, joined the family. They both produced amazing milk, but I started with Opal and she always remained my favorite. Often I would find myself faced with a shelf full of half gallon Mason jars, each one labeled with a name—Opal or Kaycee—and the date of milking. Given the choice, I always snagged Opal jars. The richness of the milk was one of the reasons, as the milk’s fat content had been measured at close to six percent in one test. But affection played a role, too.
The first time I met Opal, I fell a bit in love. She was small—for a cow, anyway—and brown, had those long Jersey eyelashes, was calm and clean and on grass, looking the picture-perfect cow. I came near her and put my hand against her hide, spoke to her. Karyn and Carissa raved about how easy she was to milk, about her gentle demeanor. I could sense that gentle spirit when I met her and something about that moment—about putting my hand on her, seeing her eyes, knowing that this was the creature who provided me good food and nourishment—struck a deep chord.
Looking back, I think part of that was a small awakening of the agrarian in me. At that time, I had never farmed and had only started to learn more about food, to better understand what it could and could not be, to better understand the care that could be taken in growing and raising it or the destruction that could be wrought in the same process. It also was a moment of connection unfamiliar to me. Much of my life, I didn’t know where my food came from, though throughout much of my childhood we did have a large garden that I worked in. Still, I ate so much from the store and so much fast food and processed food. I grew up mostly in the suburbs and had never known farming, or ever been much interested in it. For a good portion of my life, food had been little more than a requirement and I had literally said numerous times that if I didn’t have to eat, I happily wouldn’t.
Now, I farm. I’ve worked on three vegetable farms and currently work for two farms that raise pastured animals for meat, one of which has a dairy component, as well. The presence of cows is routine for me these days. I’m much more familiar with the sight of them, their smell and feel, their sound and behavior. But I still love to see a Jersey and almost every time I do, I think of Opal and I think of her milk.
— ∞ —
As I already noted, Opal’s milk had a high fat content, at nearly twice the fat of whole milk bought at the store. Her milk was sometimes so rich and creamy and sweet from the good grass she ate, it felt and tasted almost like drinking ice cream. It may seem silly to wax poetic over milk—it’s just milk, after all, such a standard food. Except that’s the point. There was nothing standard about Opal’s milk in comparison to what you would buy at the store. The store milk couldn’t compare. It couldn’t begin to. The sweetness of Opal’s milk, the freshness, the lack of that subtle burnt flavor often imparted by pasteurization (which one generally needs to drink raw milk to begin to detect in pasteurized milk) the creaminess of it, the health and vitality—it was all there.
It had flavor, and that flavor changed over the course of the year. The changing grass—Opal’s fluctuating diet—effected the taste of the milk. It evolved, as well, as it sat in the fridge. Each day it grew a bit different in its taste as it would slowly work its way to the point of souring, which is a natural process in raw milk rather than the putrification that happens with pasteurized milk. Sour raw milk isn’t rotten; it’s changed. It’s going through the same sort of process that creates yogurt, though the result isn’t the same. But it still can be used once it sours and remains a healthy and living food.
As I became more familiar with raw milk, I began to understand how it offered a different experience than store bought milk. Raw milk was a real, non-standardized food that functioned within the same sort of systems and patterns that other living food does. It changed depending on its circumstances—the flavor and fat content altered by Opal’s diet and it’s taste and composition changing as the milk aged and the bacterial ecosystem within it grew and evolved (with that bacteria generally being of the beneficial kind, along the same lines as the critical microfauna found in the human digestive system.) Leave the milk alone for a few hours and the cream begins to rise to the top. Shake it and you’re back to having it dispersed within the milk.
This milk hadn’t been homogenized or standardized. It hadn’t had the flavor burnt out of it or its unique bacteria profile killed via pasteurization. It didn’t have an exact expiration date. In many ways, it didn’t have any expiration date, as its evolving stages lent itself to changing uses. It wasn’t a conglomeration of hundreds or thousands of different cows’ milk and it wasn’t untraceable or virtually untraceable by dint of it being the end result of a vast, complicated and confusing industrial dairy system. It was Opal’s milk. It came from a cow I had met and spoken to and touched, it had been milked by the hands of two women whom I knew and am friends with, it was the result of eaten grass from a pasture I had stood in. I knew exactly where it came from and how it had come to me.
— ∞ —
Getting Opal’s milk took a community. In fact, learning about Opal’s milk took a community.
I first learned of the availability of Opal’s milk via a homesteading group I participated in. Started by my friend Eric and his girlfriend, the group met once a month and covered a predetermined topic, taught by a few members from the group who already had knowledge of that activity or had been tasked with researching it and then presenting information to the group. I loved the group and learned quite a bit from it. As it happened, some of the members were interested in getting raw milk and Eric, via his work on an urban farm, had learned of Karyn and Carissa and the milk they had available.
Getting Opal’s milk was far different from going to the store. According to Oregon state law, you can only sell raw cow milk on the farm. There also is a restriction of only having two producing cows on the premises and advertising raw milk is illegal, so the only way for people to find out about it is via customer word of mouth. Due to these restrictions and because the farm was about a 35 mile drive from us, we needed to get together a group of people who could take turns driving to the farm each week to make the arrangement viable. We eventually cobbled together enough people so that, with each of us taking a turn, nobody would have to make the drive down to the farm more often than every eight or ten weeks.
All of this required communication and organization. We had an email list and a schedule worked out a couple months in advance. Everyone would sign up for a week and knew that on their day they would have to load up their car with coolers and ice packs, drive down to the farm, pick up the milk, bring it back, and store it in a central location in Portland where everyone would come to get their milk for the week. For the most part, everyone performed well. Every once in awhile some snafu would take place and there would be some frantic rearranging or a notice would go out that the milk was running late. In other words, our little community functioned as you would expect a community to function: mostly well, but with the occasional hiccup. Everyone took these hiccups in stride.
We had a shared goal, after all. In our small way, we were a community working for our own common good.
— ∞ —
Picking up the milk was not a chore. It was a visit and, in its own way, a small celebration.
On the appointed day, I would make the drive down to the farm and visit with Carissa. Sometimes I visited with Karyn, too, but she was often at her job as a dairy tester, so more often than not it was Carissa’s company I kept. The beautiful thing about Karyn and Carissa is that they seemed to love the visits and always treated them as one of the high points of their week. On arrival, I was almost always offered tea, with fresh raw cream of course available for it. It was not uncommon for there to be a snack, as well—cookies or brownies or something else delicious. Most important, though, was the conversation. I would arrive, come in, sit down and we would start to chat about the farm, the cows, whatever was happening in our lives. I spoke of my interest in farming, we talked about food issues, we sometimes talked a bit of politics or other news. We shared our observations on society. We chatted about gardening, about chickens, about the weather. The conversations were easy and a joy and they usually ended upon the realization that I had to get the coolers loaded up and the milk back before the official start of pickup time. They always seemed to end out of necessity rather than desire.
Sometimes we would go and visit the animals, saying a hello to Opal and Kaycee, walking in the pasture. I regularly saw the source of my food and always Opal looked happy and content, usually munching away on grass, often paired with Kaycee.
On one of my visits my friend Peter came along, as he was looking for a source of raw milk. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and spoke with Carissa at great length and with much enthusiasm about dairy farming, chatting about different breeds and the differences between the larger farm he grew up on and the very small operation Karyn and Carissa ran. We went out and visited Opal and Kaycee and Jazmine, a young calf. Jazmine came up to Peter and he put out a few fingers for her to suck and attempt to nurse on. She bucked against him so hard that he soon found his hand bleeding. Yet, as far as I could tell, he loved every moment of it, his enthusiasm boundless, the visit bringing back a multitude of memories from his childhood.
— ∞ —
The land Karyn and Carissa farmed was not their own, instead being leased. As time went on, they became less certain about their ability to stay on the land long term. That led to a period of transition in which they started to look for good homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine. They didn’t take them to the auction or sell them off to a high bidder. They researched and looked around and put out the word, visited farms and farmers, and patiently looked for the perfect fit. Giving up these members of their families wasn’t going to be easy and they certainly weren’t going to make it worse by sending them to less-than-perfect new homes.
Throughout this process, all of us who were getting milk or had gotten milk in the past from this family were sent email updates and given all the latest news. We were told what was happening and why it was happening, and given a window into the process of finding new homes from the cows who had so steadfastly fed us over the months and years.
As Karyn and Carissa found new homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine, they told us where they would be going and gave us updates on the transition. The new owners sent out emails as well, offering updates and providing those of us who wanted to stay with the cows we knew the opportunity to sign up to buy their milk from them. I didn’t sign up—not, of course, because I didn’t still want Opal’s milk, but because I was moving to the Oregon coast to begin work on my third farm. And yet, despite the fact that I didn’t sign up to receive milk, I still receive the occasional email update about Opal. When Opal calved a year ago, I received an announcement and a picture of her beautiful daughter. It brightened my day.
— ∞ —
I’ve seen someone, a skeptic of raw milk, wonder why on earth someone would pay $10 for a gallon of milk. Well, all of the above memories exist because of $10 a gallon milk.
Every time I received Opal’s milk, I knew where it came from. I knew who it came from. I knew Opal lived a good life. I knew what I was paying for: care and affection, love, good work, good food, community, friendship, authenticity and an overriding ethic that touched everyone involved. I paid to know that the milk I drank was the healthiest and tastiest milk I would ever drink. I paid $10 a gallon to know that I was supporting a farm that made the world better, that I was supporting farmers who bettered their community, that I was supporting an entirely different model rooted in a love and respect that the industrial model of farming can’t even comprehend, much less engage. I paid $10 a gallon to live and eat well. I paid $10 a gallon for connection and for a weekly joy that arrived steadfast and unerringly. I have drunk store bought milk uncountable times in my life and never did I know the cow it came from, the people who produced it, or how it came to me. Correspondingly, I never felt a real joy drinking that milk. But almost every single time I drank some of Opal’s milk, I felt an honest-to-god joy, a satisfaction I cherished.
Of course I would pay $10 a gallon for that. It’s not even a question. And I’ve never made much money. But I always found the money to pay extra for milk that was worth it—for a community that was worth it.
I wrote in my post on making butter about patterns and systems and it’s those exact patterns and systems that have led me numerous times in my life to happily pay more for Opal’s milk, for milk that’s rooted in my local community and provided to me via love and affection and the sort of good work that’s become rare in our industrial economy. Of course that’s worth the money. If anything’s worth buying—if anything’s worth supporting—it’s that.
Now I have a source of raw milk that’s less expensive. I have over a gallon of milk in my refrigerator right this moment. And I have very limited income. But if someone were to walk up to me right now with a gallon of Opal’s milk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10 for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to part with $10 for the chance to taste her milk again, to relive some of those memories she’s given to me, to remember the community that we all built around her milk and the amazing women who provided us with it.
If I can’t use what little money I have to help support and build these sorts of communities, what the hell good is it? This is why we’re here, folks. Someone asks why I would pay $10 for a gallon of milk? Community and affection is my answer. If we can’t be bothered to support those—even when it costs more, or it’s less convenient, a greater challenge—than we’re in dire straights, indeed. We have to think about and see the patterns. A gallon of milk is not a gallon of milk. A carrot is not a carrot. A human being is not a human being and a community not a community. They’re all dependent on context. They can be happy or miserable, healthy or diseased, abundant or denuded.
As Wendell Berry recently said, and E.M. Forster said before him, it all turns on affection. We can’t have a good world if we don’t love.
We can’t do this if we don’t care.
Opal’s baby girl, born about a year ago.
Other posts you may be interested in:
An entry in The Household Economy
I love butter. I grew up eating margarine, but those were dark days indeed and I try not to think about them now. Instead, I think about butter, and I eat it. I slather it on toast, on cornbread, on pancakes, on pretty much any sort of baked good. I love cooking eggs in it, sauteing onions with it, roasting potatoes in it. I love baking with it. It’s my main fat. Sure, I’ll use olive oil at times and occasionally something else but butter is my standby and I go through a decent amount of it. I hardly know what I’d do without butter.
This seems appropriate to me for a couple reasons. First of all, I feel right eating butter. Animal products as part of my diet just work for me. I feel better eating that way, more satisfied, more satiated, with greater energy. Something about the combination of my genetics, heritage, childhood diet, and so on comes together in that way. Second, I live in dairy country. I live right on the Tillamook county line in Oregon, home of Tillamook cheese and with a fine history of dairy farming stretching back many years. It’s a tradition that continues to this day and fits this land—and taking advantage of that local resource only makes sense.
In other words, my personal and local context fits butter. It doesn’t fit, say, olive oil. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a bottle of olive oil on my counter, but let’s just say the butter is in a more accessible location. It’s the old standby, after all.
I wrote about that context in my previous entry in The Household Economy. In that post, I used an overabundance of thought about butter to come to a philosophy of homesteading that hit on three main themes: context, education, and patterns. While other aspects will inform the homesteading adventures I’ll be writing about in this series—personal enjoyment and interest, for instance, is kind of a big one—those were the three tenets that I thought I would focus on in the hopes of making this series a bit more than just a number of how-to guides.
I already covered the relation of butter to the above tenets in the above-linked “Considering Butter,” but I’ll hit on the high points again. In terms of context—aside from the aforementioned relevancies of personal taste and local tradition—I receive a gallon of raw milk each week from a local dairy. The milk is delicious and healthy, the cows grass fed, and the milk’s fat content higher than whole milk from the store. Left alone for a couple days in my refrigerator, I can skim around a pint of cream off the top and use that as my base ingredient for making butter. I use an already-existing resource, bring a small bit of my living into my own household, and increase my personal resilience. It’s coherent.
In the sense of education, I noted that butter is a mix of butterfat, milk proteins and water and that it’s created by agitating cream so as to join together the molecules of butterfat by breaking down their surrounding membranes. That simple knowledge, combined with the knowledge that I can skim cream off the top of my own supply of raw and non-homogenized milk, allows me to see the context in which making my own butter makes quite a bit of sense for me. It’s basic knowledge, but even much of our most basic knowledge in regards to homesteading has been lost over the last couple centuries.
A steel pail full of fresh, raw milk, straight from grass fed cows. So delicious. I can’t tell you how happy this sight makes me, every time.
In terms of patterns, I noted the local abundance of quality dairy farming and the attendant access to raw milk and cream. If I want to live in a local context, then it only makes sense for me to gain access to locally-produced milk—either through money, barter, trade or gift—and then to use some of the cream from that milk to provide myself butter. It helps wean me from globalized supply chains and an industrial economy that I don’t believe is well-designed for the future and it increases my integration into the local community, as well. It works in patterns and systems, cycling in on itself and rippling its effects throughout my life. Something as small as butter can do so much.
This sense of pattern and reinforcement, in fact, is something I want to talk a bit more about. It exemplifies much of the ideal behind homesteading. Yes, there’s the intense satisfaction of making something with your own hands and providing for yourself, but it really goes beyond that. There’s little in going to the store and buying butter. Perhaps you’ll run into someone you know or make some small talk with the cashier. You’ll help to support a local business and likely will support some non-local businesses, as well. It’s not devoid of impact, but it doesn’t burrow you into your community in the way that making your own butter can.
In making highly efficient and focused, globalized supply chains, we’ve largely insulated the recipients of those supply chains from the ripple effects of their patronage. When I buy butter at the store, I often don’t know the dairies involved, the people who run them, the cows who are milked, what they eat, what the land looks like, how that butter was made, who made it, how they’re treated or where they live or if their work supports them well, and a thousand other bits of information that are intricately a piece of that one pound box of butter. But if I bring that into the household, I begin to better understand these ripple effects. For me, it’s particularly pronounced because I get the milk, and thus the cream, locally. I know the farmers who produce my cream, I know the cows whose bodies it comes from. I know what they eat. I’ve touched and talked to them. I’ve walked on the same land they walk on. I know whom I support and I much better understand the context and ramifications of my decision to drink milk and eat butter.
Skimming the cream off the top of the milk, which has been sitting undisturbed for a couple days.
My getting that milk integrates me more into my local community, building connections. My making butter thus does the same. However, beyond the local community and land, my making butter also informs my understanding of the natural patterns that butter has always been placed in under the best of circumstances. It helps root me in an entirely different way of thinking.
Buying butter at the store places me in the industrial economic context of making money at a job, spending that money at a store, and consuming what I spend. The connections are frayed and broken, or so spread through an intricate web of globalized commerce that I could never track down the ways in which they intersect, reflect and amplify each other. And that lack of knowledge, in my mind, is a huge piece of the broken world we live in now. We don’t understand our actions, we don’t understand the ramifications, and we find it increasingly hard to live our lives well when we don’t even know what our living does to the rest of the world. By bringing more and more of my economy into the household and rooting it in a local and personal context, I’m better able to gain a grasp on those ramifications, those intersections. I begin to understand how to better live my life. I begin to see the patterns.
The farmers raise the cows, who eat the grass in the pasture and the hay in the barn, who walk the fields much as the farmers do. I trade my own labor—or money from labor at another nearby farm—for the milk, which I take home in a steel pail. Already, by knowing well the place where my milk comes from and how I acquired it, I have a far more complete understanding of how I’m living my life. But it doesn’t stop there. I bring the milk home, skim the cream, and make the butter. Now I know the production of that butter and how it got to me. I also understand the process of making butter and begin to see why this was such an integral practice in times past, when cream was produced on the homestead and of course you would turn it into butter for other uses.
Furthermore, I know that after you make butter, you have the leftover buttermilk. Unlike with buying butter at the store, I get to keep that resource and, even better, I get to find out what happens with it. For me, what’s been happening with it is I’ve been using it in the baking of cornbread or the making of pancakes, and soon I’ll try baking some bread from it. The ripples from my butter continue to spread, informing my life and playing out in the days to come. The buttermilk goes into the cornbread, then the butter goes on the cornbread. These small patterns and systems emerge. One action leads to another, and before you know it you’re filling your life with good work and good food.
Suddenly, in this small ramekin of butter, I begin to find some semblance of being human. It sounds melodramatic, I know, and . . . well, it is. Yet, it also feels very true. Maybe I have too much of a sense of romanticism about the past, but the idea of having a small homestead and raising a cow, milking that cow, drinking that milk and turning it into other food such as cheese and yogurt and butter; using the byproducts of those activities to make still other kinds of food, some of which then recombine with the previous food; even taking the leftover milk from the cow and feeding it to other animals such as hogs or chickens, which then you eventually eat as well and turn into various other forms of food within the household; and all this providing you work that makes your living and provides your life meaning and satisfaction; that seems like a coherent human existence to me and one that provides ample opportunities to build and reinforce community, to live and work well, to understand and worship this world a bit more each day. The alternative industrial system that we’ve built and allowed to devour this older way of life doesn’t feel coherent to me at all. It feels empty and destructive, for the most part, and the pattern I most often see in it is degradation and alienation.
Maybe asking butter to build a community is asking a bit much. But the amazing thing is that it actually can help do that, even though it’s so small, this one dish of butter. One more reason I love it.
So let’s make some. Here are the steps.
Read the rest of this entry »
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.
An entry in the How To Be Poor series
To better understand the distorted viewpoint of our culture that I wrote about in the last post, I want to talk about food and diet. As I tend to reference my own experiences in these posts, I want to write initially about my own changing diet over the years.
I have spent a good portion of my life attempting to eat in a moral and ethical manner. This has boiled down, as often as not, to a focus on eating certain foods and not eating yet other foods. For sixteen years of my life, this approach underpinned my vegetarianism. I ate dairy and eggs during that time, but didn’t eat meat of any kind. I came to that diet while living in Arizona as a teenager and it was greatly influenced by the New Age community I found myself interacting with there. I became vegetarian largely for moral reasons and partly for health reasons (ironically, considering how poorly I ate as a vegetarian.) I even believed at times that eating meat would lower my body’s vibration level. Looking back, I feel a bit ridiculous about that.
As parenthetically noted, I didn’t eat well during my vegetarian days. Having never learned to cook much and rarely having anyone to cook for me, my diet tended toward prepared, processed and packaged foods. Boxed pasta mixes and frozen pizzas were staples and spaghetti made with jarred sauce constituted my primary culinary adventures. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I would think a diet of processed foods was a more ethical and healthy way of eating simply because it didn’t involve meat. That seems the very definition of blind reductionism, but it was a blindness I suffered.
Upon reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I began to warm to the idea of resuming my meat eating ways, but with a focus on eating sustainable and well raised meat. I eventually made that change and, not long after, discovered Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price school of dietary thought. I read Nina Planck’s Real Food. I found a source of raw milk and started consuming it with abandon. I experimented with fermenting veggies and soaking grains, though I never integrated those foods into my diet on a regular basis. Finally, a few years ago, I read The Vegetarian Myth and reached the peak of my infatuation with a diet focused on the eating of healthy animal fats and proteins. I found myself convinced by Lierre Keith’s book, which argued that the healthiest, most ethical and most sustainable dietary choice was eating a good amount of animal fat and protein from animals raised well, as well as a certain amount of fresh fruits and veggies and minimal grain.
In conjunction with my focus on well raised animal products, I also had started to farm. This lifestyle greatly improved my diet, significantly boosting my cooking skills and knowledge and providing me plenty of abundant, fresh vegetables with which to work. I became more familiar with making simple, sustaining meals—the sorts of meals I should have been eating during my vegetarian days. In tandem with the increased physical labor of farming, I felt healthier, dropped some unnecessary weight, and began to see the joys of a local and seasonal diet. Not that I ate such a diet exclusively, but I moved much closer. And that has continued up until this day. I probably ate better and more local and seasonal this last year than any other, with much help from the fantastic people I lived with and our communal meals.
With all these different changes in diet over the years, a common thread starting with my vegetarianism (and, really, before then—I remember calling McDonald’s as a child and asking them to stop using styrofoam for their packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents) was the idea that what I ate played a large role in my moral and ethical well being. I couldn’t help but feel that my diet was important—that I influenced the world, its health and happiness, through what I ate. Of course, that’s true. Our collective diet plays a massive role in how we live in this world. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking at this effect through the prism of what I ate rather than how I ate.
This perhaps shows itself most clearly through my vegetarianism. I boiled my moral decision down to meat and failed to look at any of the other implications of my diet. Later, when I became convinced by The Vegetarian Myth that eating animal protein and fruits and veggies was the way to go, I looked at it with something more of a holistic viewpoint—questioning what kind of an agriculture could truly be practiced sustainably and realizing the destructive aspects of monoculture grain production, even if done organically—but I still boiled it down to a set diet with rigid guidelines, creating an ideal and only then trying to figure out how I might meet that ideal locally.
Our society, furthermore, is filled with these ideals. There are thousands of books laying out rigid dietary guidelines that promise you the world: a healthy body, a better environment, long life, good sex, happiness, joy, moral satisfaction, so on and so forth. What these diets typically have in common is that they have all kinds of guidelines that they attempt to apply to everyone, with little to no regard for local circumstances, the climate you live in, your particular body, your childhood diet, your likes and dislikes, the kind of work you do, or what kind of agriculture exists locally. The assumption is that you can eat whatever you choose. And this is an assumption that can only exist in the context of massive luxury. It’s, in other words, one of the very distorted viewpoints of our society borne out of a globalized, industrial economy floating on the warm waters of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy.
Most of human history has not seen such luxury and personal diets formed accordingly. Most people have been constricted by their local agriculture or local wild foods, with minimal or no trade providing non-local foods. Most people, furthermore, have been limited by their own means of acquisition. Plenty of people have been subsistence farmers, eating largely food they have produced themselves and whatever they can acquire in trade using that same self-grown food. Others have eaten on a strict budget, unable to purchase a wide variety of luxury foods even if those foods have been available. It’s a unique circumstance in the history of humanity that we find ourselves in today, in which a significant portion of the populations of industrialized nations have access to food from across the world, throughout the year, and have enough money to buy most any of that food and thus craft whatever particular diet they should want.
This is where we need to make a sharp distinction between necessity and luxury. Necessity is having something to eat—having enough to eat. Luxury is being able to eat whatever diet you decide you prefer, whether that be for matter of taste, health or ethical concern. In a world in which luxury is taken for granted, the morality of eating easily can be transformed from how you eat—by the care you take in eating the foods that are available to you—to what you eat, with little regard for your local circumstances. If you’re living by necessity and therefore feeding yourself within a very limited range of available foods, then moral concerns about your diet have to skew more toward the “how” side of things. What are the traditions of eating? How do you relate those traditions to your larger moral framework? How do you go about acquiring your food? How much do you eat? What kind of thanks do you give for it? What care do you take in the eating of it, the growing and raising of it if you have any control over that? If you’re living in luxury, then it’s much easier to skew your moral concerns toward the “what” side of things. Am I eating grass fed meat? Am I not eating meat? Am I eating grains that are destroying the prairies? Am I eating organic produce? Is my food locally produced? I’m not saying these questions are irrelevant or unimportant, but they are often borne of luxury.
If you find yourself in a famine, chances are you’re going to eat whatever food becomes available to you. If you’re starving, it’s unlikely that moral convictions about not eating meat are going to keep you from eating some goat meat stew if someone should offer it to you. Furthermore, if you’re someone who can’t seem to comprehend the idea of eating grains and vegetables as the core of your diet, then you better change your opinion real quick if you find yourself in the midst of a famine because you’re a lot more likely to get your hands on a meal in that dietary realm than you are a juicy hamburger. Do you think that grain production is inherently destructive of natural ecosystems and that a diet of grass fed meats, eggs from pastured poultry, raw dairy and a smattering of fruits and vegetables grown in rotation on farms incorporating animals is the most sustainable diet? Well, you might not find any such diet available to you a few decades from now, when constricted fossil fuel supplies and an overcrowded planet have greatly increased hunger rates and—in the rough and rocky crash following our current overshoot—grain staples are far easier to come by than pastured meat. The above diet may be one of the more sustainable ones available to human beings—and I don’t know if that’s true or not—but that’s going to support perhaps a tenth or less of our current population. If a few decades from now our governments and local economies are struggling to feed seven or eight billion people on a planet no longer sporting the sort of fossil fuel supply that can support such a population, you’re far more likely to gain access to a ration of grains or potatoes than a nice grass fed steak.
What this comes down to is the necessary imposition of limits and constraints. Much of the challenge facing us in terms of a transition to a more sustainable—and thus, much more poor—way of living is the fact that we have access to this luxury. It’s no surprise, then, that we take advantage of it. That’s pretty standard behavior for any species. If we can eat most anything we desire, it’s not a shock that we’ll eat foods that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us and it’s not a surprise that in determining the moral ideals of our diet, we’ll tend more toward what we eat than how we eat it. That’s the foreseeable outcome of having access to this level of luxury and functioning within the context of the distorted viewpoint that luxury affords us. We make our choices by working from the context of having everything available to us and then trying to come up with an unconstrained perfection. If we were working outside of this odd level of luxury, we would instead be looking at what our limited resources were and then trying to make the best of what was available to us.
We can’t live outsized, overabundant lives if we don’t have an abundance of wealth available to us. In the future, we’re unlikely to have the sort of abundance available that we do today. This, as I’ve said many times, is one very good reason to attempt to start living on less, so that we adjust to this way of life and figure out some of the better ways to do it—how to make the best of what’s available to us—before we find ourselves thrust into that poorer way of life. But if we’re going to figure that out, we’re going to have to change our context. We’re going to have to try to see more clearly, to remove some of the distortion, and to reintroduce limits and constraints into our lives. We’re going to have to craft a different context for ourselves—one rooted more in poverty than wealth, in constrained resources rather than abundance. This idea, of crafting a new context, is going to be at the root of several of the forthcoming posts in this series. I’ll write more about it in the next entry.