Archive for the ‘john michael greer’ Tag
When I was young, I killed a possum. It’s my earliest memory of killing an animal. That’s not surprising, as I don’t have many instances of killing animals to remember. I loved animals as a child. I still love animals. I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, and while that doesn’t appeal to me nearly so much these days, I love the fact that I get to work with animals on a regular basis. Sheep, cows, chickens, pigs . . . I honestly enjoy being around them, feeding them, interacting with them—even when they go and muck me up, as they so often do.
But years ago, I killed a possum. Well, I think I did, anyway. I was somewhere around ten years old and I did it in service of another animal: our dog, Buster. He must have been chasing the possum, because it had clamped down hard on Buster’s lower lip and had no intention of letting go. Buster was in pain and very unhappy about the situation. My older brother and I found the howling, snarling tangle in our back yard, at night, my flashlight illuminating the pained scene. My brother grabbed his pellet gun, a rifle loaded with pointed lead pellets. I put it against the side of the possum’s head. I didn’t want to kill the animal, but I didn’t know how else to get it off Buster. I loved animals; this was a big deal for me. But I’ve always had this background belief, too, that there are just things you sometimes have to do, and it felt in that moment like something I had to do. I can’t recall ever believing the world to truly be a clean and neat place, even if I’ve often wanted it to be so.
I pulled the trigger. I killed an animal.
In hindsight, maybe I didn’t. The possum let go of Buster and, in my memory, it’s confirmed as dead. But looking back, I wonder if the little air rifle really would have killed the creature, even from a point blank head shot. Or maybe I wounded it but didn’t kill it. Hopefully not; I’d rather not the possum have died slow and painful from a messy infection. At this point, it’s long settled. And in a way, it doesn’t necessarily matter if I’m remembering the event correctly. What I remember is the echo, and it’s the echo that shapes my thoughts today. It’s the echo of that first killing that frames what I have to say today.
— ∞ —
I can’t recall any vivid killing of other animals in the years that followed. The only real exception is that I went fishing a few times and, in my success, killed a handful of fish. But killing fish has never bothered me that much; I certainly recognize them as living creatures, but their alienness—that lack of mammality—render them less sympathetic for me. I feel a slight regret at taking them out of their world, ending their life, but not a significant one. Not in a way that particularly resonates, except in one particular example that I still need to write about one of these future days. (Stay tuned.)
At the age of sixteen, I became a vegetarian. I was influenced by others around me at the time, but it also felt right. And a couple strange visions preceded the decision. Who am I to argue with visions? Regardless of where they came from, the message seemed clear enough to me and I felt I should heed it. My vegetarian status stuck for twelve years, relatively easily, and then it left. I suppose I debated the decision a bit, but looking back, it seemed to happen as easily as the initial decision to quit eating meat. No visions preceded it this time—just some reading and reflection. But, again, my needed course of action seemed clear.
That decision arose from the beginnings of a shift in my perspective on death. I began to see a greater complexity around the moral question of killing other creatures. I think I also began to have a better understanding of how much death I inflicted anyway, whether or not I ate meat—and even within the act of not eating meat. (Grains, beans, fake meat—there’s death in these, too, of plants and often wild animals and, of course, innumerable creatures at a much smaller scale.) But I still thought mostly of the visible, of the animals I would eat or not, and I grew sympathetic to the idea that the way these animals were raised and slaughtered was more important than whether they were raised or slaughter. I thought, if they were raised well and in natural environments, if they were respected and considered, if the farmers who raised them did it with care and consideration, then that was what mattered most. All creatures die. All of us die. Death began to seem to me secondary. What led up to the death? How was the life?
— ∞ —
I’ve twice now participated in a chicken slaughter at the farm down the road. Most recently, about a month and a half ago. I killed chickens. I killed ducks. The ducks were a touch more challenging—they’re cuter. That might sound flip, but it’s true. I can’t think of any other reason I should have felt worse killing the ducks than the chickens, except perhaps because I like ducks a bit more. I’m pretty certain it’s because they’re cuter.
I didn’t want to go the first time. I did, but I didn’t. I felt it was an experience I needed, but the idea of actually killing the chickens unnerved me. I went anyway, and—this may sound odd to some of my readers—I loved the experience. The killing quickly became easy. I don’t mean light, or inconsequential, but easy. We all started laughing, joking, breaking apart the stress. It felt communal and shared. Intense and elemental.
The second time, this year, was not as good. Perhaps the vibe was different owing to the different people involved, or maybe the heightened stress of my first time created a release and subsequent high that I didn’t get this time. Still, I enjoyed the process and it seemed almost natural, simple. This time I focused more on the cleaning and gutting of the chickens. I didn’t do that at all my first year and wanted to get some experience with that, so I would feel capable of completing the entire process on my own. And while I’m no expert at this point, I do think now that I could go out, slaughter and clean a chicken without too much trouble. That’s satisfying.
It’s interesting, though, how quickly I went from being unnerved to . . . well, maybe not cavalier about the process, but okay with it. Okay with the entire situation. Satisfied to have gained a valuable skill. Just one more task.
— ∞ —
In a blog post from early in 2012, The Myth of the Machine, John Michael Greer wrote about philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships. In Greer’s summary, “I-It” relationships are “those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects,” while “I-Thou” relationships are “those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice.” According to Greer, the relationships that humans engage in (with all manner of other humans, creatures, items and objects) fall along a continuum between these two points.
It’s in these concepts of relationship and interaction that I have started to see my work with animals. Animals are not objects; they’re creatures, “subjects with their own inner lives,” in Greer’s words. They make decisions, have personalities, react to my behavior and the behavior of other animals and humans. They have desires and fears, wants and needs. I don’t know exactly what it is to be them, to be in their minds, or if the inner expression of their desires and fears are at all similar to our own, but they are there. You can see it in their behavior. Hell, sometimes I see it in their eyes.
I particularly remember one moment.
It was brief and small, this moment. I was at one of the farms I work for, outside, in the cold and wet winter, standing in the muck of sheep and cows up by the barns. One of the ewes was heading out for the field, starting to pass me. Brian—one of the farm’s owners and, also, blind—wanted me to grab and hold onto the ewe so he could inspect her. I can’t remember why; maybe he wanted to check her udder, or maybe something else. But I was to hold onto her so he could do his work and so I grabbed at her before she could get past me and out into the fields.
She didn’t want to be grabbed. She didn’t want to be held. She wanted out on the grass. And so as I attempted to grab her, digging my fingers into her thick fleece, she sped up, pulled away, steeled herself. I held tighter and tried to gain my footing. She pulled harder, bucked a bit, started to run forward. I half ran, half grabbed, and in that moment she was not a creature, not a being, just an object and an impediment to me doing what I needed to do. “I-Thou” turned to “I-It,” if only for the briefest moment. And then she fell. I pushed. I don’t know exactly how it all happened and I certainly did not intend to knock her over, but our balance and my grabbing and pulling and pushing and her pulling all conspired to knock her over, right onto her side, deep in the muck, legs flinging up a moment into the air and her head twisting toward me, eyes looking up at me while I looked down at her. Locking eyes with her, her gaze was one of betrayed. One of hurt.
I might be the one putting that in her eyes. I don’t know. Maybe she was just annoyed, or confused, or frightened. But in that moment, I saw betrayal in her eyes, and I felt terrible. It wasn’t even that big a deal. She ended up in the muck, knocked over, and I’m sure that was not pleasant. But, so far as I know, I didn’t injure her. And she got back to her feet and continued out to the pasture. The day commenced. Brian’s inspection would have to wait.
But that moment sticks with me. I felt terrible. And upon understanding the concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou,” I began to understand why I felt terrible. In that moment, when I wanted her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she became an object to me rather than a creature. I inadvertently harmed her—even if it was a small harm, and even if accidental—and it came out of my frustration and my inability, in that brief frustration, to continue to treat her as a creature rather than as an object.
These are the moments that stay with me. These are the moments that echo.
— ∞ —
Recently, at another farm I work for, the local butcher came out with their mobile slaughtering unit to butcher three lambs and a ewe. The lambs were ready for customers and scheduled. The ewe was a different matter. Something happened to her. Her back two legs stopped working. We didn’t know why. She was older, and maybe the ram had too vigorously taken after her. Maybe something else happened, perhaps internally. Maybe a stroke. It’s tough to say; you can’t grill them about their symptoms. Regardless, she couldn’t walk. She could only sit upright, her front two legs propped on the ground and holding her front half up, her back end sitting. It was odd and sad.
So the farm owners scheduled her for slaughter. The day the butcher came out, two of us lifted her and carried her outside. We set her down and she sat there, front legs propped in front of her, head up, looking around. She couldn’t move. She just sat there, out of necessity. And then the worker quietly said, “Goodbye, girl,” and shot her in the head. She toppled over.
I’ve driven lambs to the slaughter, delivered them to the place of their death. This was the first one I actually saw killed. It was hard. I’ll admit that. Far harder than the chickens, or the ducks. Even considering the fact that I wasn’t the one killing her.
But throughout the process, she remained thou to me. And, so far as I could tell, she fit into that category, to some degree or another, for all people involved. The man who shot her did it . . . casually, I suppose you might say. But not cruelly or dismissively. He had plenty of experience—this was a common action for him—but I didn’t get the sense he didn’t recognize that it mattered.
That’s the key for me these days. Sometimes I kill animals, and sometimes I’m involved in the process of killing animals. That’s okay with me. But I don’t want to lose the thou. I don’t want to forget that these are creatures. I don’t want to turn them into objects, into its. I don’t want them to become to me nothing more than impediments or frustrations. I don’t think killing animals is inherently wrong, but I do think that consistently doing it thoughtlessly and carelessly is dangerous. That’s not a path I want to walk.
— ∞ —
Killing that possum echos and resonates. Those first chickens and ducks—I think I’ll remember that forever. And I don’t imagine I’ll ever lose the image of that ewe being shot in the head—the slight jerk, the settling limpness, the topple. But I feel worse about that ewe I accidentally shoved over into the muck. It doesn’t seem to make much objective sense, except that the transition to object is the sense. If they die a thou, and the death is sensical, then I can be okay with it. If it matters, if the context fits, I can be okay with it. It’s when they die an it, when they’ve been stripped of their creatureliness, that I can hardly abide it. That sort of death I have a hard time seeing as anything other than a betrayal, and that’s the path I want to avoid taking.
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.
— ∞ —
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.
Today, I worked at many jobs. I woke early in the morning, in a freezing cold yurt under a pile of bedding, and allowed the alarm clock on my cell phone to ring multiple times. Eventually–knowing I needed breakfast, and knowing I needed to conduct the day’s business–I eased my way out of the warmth of my bed and into the extreme chill of the morning air, pulling on yesterday’s Carhartts (belt still threaded through its loops) and a fleece and an extra pair of thick socks, then walking–cold, stiff–to the main house both for breakfast and its small, lingering warmth from the previous night’s fire.
I ate a pair of duck eggs from the farm, bacon and toast not from the farm. I made coffee and filled my thermos with it. I attempted to wake up. Before leaving the house, as the sky finally began to lighten, I opened the duck and chicken houses, welcoming them to the cold world. The birds seemed largely unperturbed by the chilly weather: the chickens cautiously wandered outside in typical fashion and the ducks went straight for their
pond plastic kiddy pool, though the coating of ice delayed their entry into its waters. Meanwhile, I drove to the farm down the road. There, the farm’s owners and I loaded six lambs into the back of their canopied truck and, shortly thereafter, I drove off with them–and with one of the farm’s owners, Brian, riding shotgun.
We were driving about two hours to a small butcher. Today was to be those lambs’ final day. As it turned out, it could easily have been Brian’s and my final day, as well. About half an hour into our drive, at perhaps 60 mph or a bit less, I lost control of the truck on a patch of ice on Highway 26, the main route between the Oregon coast and Portland. We spun 180 degrees and I have little idea of what I did during that spin. It was fast and slow–a bizarre meditation. I know I hit the brakes at one point and I think I let off them not long after, some small voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t hit the brakes. I don’t know which way I turned the wheel, if any. If I had moved quicker, with more certainty, with greater skill, perhaps I could have avoided the full spin and danger of that moment. But what little I did or did not do ended up not mattering. We simply spun around in a half circle, the tires squealing, the truck out of control and sliding out of our lane, into the lane of oncoming traffic, toward a hill side. I remember thinking, don’t flip over.
We didn’t flip over. No oncoming traffic hit us, either, as we had the good fortune of there being no oncoming traffic. We came to a stop in the left lane of the opposite direction of traffic. Having completed a bit over a half circle, we faced approximately in the right direction. I noted no traffic coming in either direction and I tried to start the car, which had died. It was still in drive and thus didn’t start, though I hadn’t yet recovered my wits enough to realize that. I knew we needed to get out of the road, to make sure we hadn’t lived through this spin only to get plastered seconds later by traffic coming around the bend a short way behind us. I let my foot off the brake and we coasted forward, which happened to be down the hill, and I guided the truck over to the side of the road.
Brian and I caught our breaths. We tried to calm our adrenaline and talked a moment about what had happened. At most, a minute had passed.
On the shoulder of the road, facing the wrong direction, I put the truck in park, engaged the parking brake and then checked on the lambs. They seemed fine–all upright and oddly calm. I can’t imagine they had enjoyed the ride, but who’s to say? I know not the mind of a sheep. Returning to the cab of the truck, Brian and I decompressed a bit more and then I awaited a full clearing of traffic to maneuver my way back out onto the highway. We had survived. We still had work to do. So back on the road we went–this time at a slower speed and with the four wheel drive engaged.
We made it to the butcher almost two hours later, due in part to my slower, steadier pace. There, we unloaded the lambs, picked up some stored cuts of beef, hit a nearby farm supply store to buy poultry feed and then headed into Portland. We met up with a chef and sold him twenty pounds of beef brisket. We ate at Burgerville–a local fast food chain that prides itself on using many local and seasonal ingredients and engaging in sustainability initiatives (see my previous post for related thoughts)–gassed up the truck and headed home.
After the trip back, I used the remaining hour of daylight to feed the awfully hungry ducks and chickens back on my home farm and then went down to the lower field, where I inspected some damage to the hoop house from a previous storm and replaced the blown-off row covering on our overwintering beets and carrots. I returned up top to the main property, closed up the ducks and chickens in the waning daylight, then brought firewood into the main house, fired up the stove, sat down with a beer, and promptly became distracted by the writing of this blog post.
Which brings me to now. So why did I just regal you with tales of my day? First, I wanted to write about the more exciting moment of spinning out of control on the highway. Second, I wanted to note a thought I had earlier this evening, when I was walking down to the lower field, which was that if I had died in the Great December Spin-out, and the six lambs in the back had happened to not only survive the wreck but break free of the back of the truck and escape into the woods, I would like to think that–should I have some form of post-life consciousness enough to note this exciting development–I would be supremely pleased, despite my own death. For all the misery we’ve heaped on the animal world as humans, why shouldn’t they get the last laugh now and again?
Finally, though, I couldn’t help but place my day today in the context of something I read last night. I’m currently reading The Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer, a masterful peak oil writer and Druid. In this book, he writes about the future he foresees for industrial civilization, which is one of contraction and collapse. He believes, as I do, that we are running out of fossil fuels and that, in the last three hundred years or so, we have built an industrial economy that now guides the world but can’t run on anything other than fossil fuels–which means that we’re in for some rough times ahead. There is far more detail to this story and I would recommend the book for anyone interested, even if you’re familiar with peak oil theories and have read other books about the subject. Greer takes an approach that I find unique and only 78 pages into The Ecotechnic Future, I find myself fascinated and extremely engaged by all the possibilities and theories he throws out in the text–many of which I likely will write more about on this blog in the future.
Anyway, Greer believes that in the not-too-distant future, we will all find ourselves living with much less (energy, stuff and stimulation) and scrambling to make our way in a new world. He writes, at the end of one chapter, that “Most of us will learn what it means to go hungry, to work at many jobs, to watch paper wealth become worthless and to see established institutions go to pieces around us.” Today seemed to me to be a small glimpse of that future reality. While I certainly did not go hungry (I ate as a glutton, though not in any way other than normal in this country) and my money still means something, I worked many jobs. I worked here at the farm I live on, I worked at the farm down the road, and all that work was varied and piecemeal–a lamb driven to the butcher here, some frozen meat sold there, a duck fed here, a row of beets covered there. I also simply lived meaningfully–bringing in firewood to provide heat and cooking, burrowing deep under my covers on a very cold morning. I also had small moments of joyful clarity–not just the very long seconds of spinning out of control and wondering if I was about to die, but also the moment when multiple small icicles slipped out of the hose along with icy cold water while I refilled the duck’s water jug. True, I drove far more than will be feasible in the future and ate fast food and drank both homemade and purchased coffee–also unlikely future activities–but I lived today a life that seems to hold something of a framework that will be quite relevant in the future. There will be exposure to the actual local climate, not just controlled environments. There will be close interactions with a variety of animals–many of which will be feeding us in some way. There will be both mundane and enlivening chores. There will be direct engagement in the production of heat, not just the turning of a switch. There will be moments when you will suddenly realize you might die, much sooner than you think, which Greer also notes in the sentence right before the one I quoted. There will be moments of wonder at the world around you and its beauty, both despite and because of its challenges. There will not be air conditioned or over-heated offices, nor will there be many highly-specialized careers. Most of us will again become generalists, and our work will be about providing basic needs.
I feel like I glimpsed all that today, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Of course, the future will be harder, but there is an undeniable joy in the immediacy of such a life–and that joyful immediacy will be more common even as the discomfort and challenge is more present. I enjoyed the variety of my day, the direct engagement of it, and the sense at the end that I had lived honestly, had even almost died, but had not just trudged and–other than at a certain literal moment–had not just drifted.
Today I worked at many jobs. Today I lived a future life.