Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Garden fever

Is it too early for garden fever? Actually, I don't have it just yet. I know I have garden fever when I feel like I will go mad if I don't go to the nursery this INSTANT and browse plants for several hours! It will actually be a few months before I am struck down by that oh-so-anticipated virus.

Still, I am looking ahead to spring by starting my garden plan. Fun, fun, fun! I have decided to plant two more perennials - blackberries and kiwis. I am going to plant two or three varieties of thornless erect blackberries. I chose thornless erect varieties to avoid trellising, to make weeding out the volunteers easier, and to make picking more enjoyable. No doubt there will be some sort of trade-off in yield or size or something, but it seems like it will be worth it. The local extension service recommends Navajo and Apache for our area.

I have not yet decided on the kiwis yet. I would have to trellis them, with a big strong trellis, and I'm not looking forward to that. There are two kinds I am considering - the regular fuzzy kind found in the grocery store (I believe they are hardy in my area) and the smaller, sweeter kind that are about the size of grapes. Any advice or recommendations on either?

I am also considering a persimmon and/or 2 semi-dwarf pears for the front yard strip between my neighbor's driveway and my own. The persimmon is supposed to be a very carefree plant, few diseases or pests. Haven't decided yet. I will probably order my blackberries and kiwis from Burnt Ridge Nursery or Raintree Nursery, and I should probably do so soon since planting time for perennials here is March.

I have gotten my Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog and my Territorial catalog, and I will try to limit my seed buying to those two companies, in the interest of minimizing seed shipping costs. The Baker Creek catalog is amazingly beautiful - almost like a magazine and much nicer than their website. I also like Horn Seed, my friendly local supplier just a mile away, and they have bulk items like potatoes, onion sets, transplants, and cover crops when I need them. I bought a Southern seed package from Baker Creek last year, so I actually have most of the seeds I need. My seed collection from the past three years, double bagged in plastic Ziplocs, is now taking up an entire fridge crisper.

This morning I drew out the borders of my (backyard) garden on graph paper for Spring and Summer versions of my garden plan. I decided what to plant based on successes of previous years - what grows and yields well, plus what we will eat and what seems worth it in our small garden (200 square feet?). Here's what made the cut:

  • Tomatoes, of course, about two regular plus a Cherry,
  • Green beans - bush - I was so impressed with the Royalty Purple variety from last year!
  • Green beans - pole - I swear I will make a decent bean teepee this time around,
  • Asian bean - Chinese noodle - they look so cool I have to try them,
  • Butternut squash (squash bug resistant!) on a trellis,
  • Onions to edge the garden, (supposed to be good companion plants),
  • Sunflowers,
  • Okra (Burgundy - they get to be 11 feet tall around here)
  • Parsley, basil and dill (the rest of the herbs are in a perennial section of the garden)
  • Sweet potatoes - new this year, but we eat a lot of them
  • Malabar spinach - I'm going to try it for summer salads

And in the front yard, I'm going to plant Bell and jalapeno peppers again - but more of them - and zucchini - to try to outwit the dreaded squash bugs that infested my back yard garden last year. Wish me luck!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Energy slaves

I went to Tulsa for a visit over the Christmas holidays, and while I was there I filled up my gas tank. The price for this amazingly energy-dense fuel was $1.39 a gallon. I filled up the rest of my tank for $12.60, and I figured that this was enough gas to get me from Oklahoma City to Tulsa and back to OKC again.


Can you imagine what it would cost if you had to pay someone to take you, and your family, and your luggage, in a train or a horse drawn buggy on this 200 mile round trip? What would it take to pay someone to push your car all that way? Can you imagine how long it would take if you had to bike that 200 mile trip, carrying your luggage and your kids?

When you run the calculations, we discover that there is enough energy in a gallon of gas (38,000 kilocalories) to be roughly equivalent to a human person working 500 hours. This is called an "energy slave". Since we use fossil fuels in so many ways, for transportation, for industry to make our consumer goods, for heating our homes and running our appliances, for agriculture to grow our food, etc.... it turns out that the average European uses the equivalent of 100 energy slaves to maintain their lifestyle.

Now that is really amazing. So consider again.... one gallon of gas is equivalent to a person working for 500 hours. And the average European (who uses about half the energy of an American) has the equivalent of 100 slaves working year round for their benefit. That is because fossil fuels are the most energy-dense and versatile material ever found. We have never found anything that can equal it. And production is peaking soon.

The thought that anyone believes we can technology tango our way out of this mess is ludicrous. The thought that solar + ethanol + wind + conservation is going to create some kind of lifestyle nearly approximating our current one is laughable. I'm surprised anyone can say it without blushing madly.

But really, we don't need to have the kind of lifestyle we have today to be happy, content, and engaged in our community. In fact, the kind of lifestyle we "enjoy" today creates a lot of barriers to being happy, content, and engaged. We can have a great life, although a very different one, with a whole lot less energy (decreasing from our current use by conservation, curtailment, and changing expectations of normal) - with solar and wind and wood to make up the declining fossil fuels.

The kicker is, we have to stop fighting blindly and open our eyes. We have to stop believing the Western way of life is the best way ever invented, and the only way to live. We have to give up the impossible dream of neverending fairytale GDP growth. We have to change many of our fundamental assumptions of how life SHOULD be lived and what the ideal life looks like.

We have to get used to the fact that normal life does not consist of having 200 energy slaves working all day long to make us comfortable and keep us happy and raise our status. It never has been normal, and it never will be normal. We just happened to be born during the most bizarre blip on the radar - the strangest time in millennium - when these habits and beliefs seemed to be simply average. But in truth, how we live today, what seems so average to us - is really living like kings. The richest kings that ever lived. The kind of kings that spent so much, that taxed their people so much, that they lost their heads.

We need to give up our crowns and our slaves and get back to living like regular people. If we don't do it voluntarily, don't worry - peak oil will do it for us. But it will be a lot less enjoyable process.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Industrial Strength Sun Oven

You might have noticed that I am a huge fan of the Global Sun Oven, which cooks, bakes and pasteurizes water using only solar energy. It sets up easily, heats up quickly, and cooks reliably, and I feel it's a must-have in any Peak Oil preparation closet. Just imagine my excitement when I discovered the Villager Sun Oven, an industrial strength and industrial size Sun Oven!

While the Global Sun Oven is designed for families of up to eight people, the Villager is designed to feed large groups of people, or to cook for a business. The Villager can bake several hundred loaves of bread a day or cook 1200 meal portions. The Villager has a built-in propane backup so that it can be used rain or shine, day or night. People use it across the world as their cooking energy source for bakeries, orphanages, schools, and refugee programs.

A Villager Sun Oven

Currently, 99% of the Villager Sun Ovens are deployed in developing countries, mostly where the people traditionally cook with wood, charcoal or animal dung. Cooking over a traditional "three-stone" cooking fire, the native women inhale the smoke from the equivalent of 2 - 3 packs of cigarettes a day. Their babies, usually strapped to their bodies, are also subjected to this pollution. More than 1.5 million African children under 5 die from respiratory diseases each year. Additionally, open fires are dangerous for children, who frequently fall into them.

Over 2 billion people in the world use wood or charcoal (made from wood) for cooking. 52% of trees cut in the world each year are burned for fuel, and 80% of that is for cooking. The black carbon soot generated from cooking fires also contributes to the famous brown cloud over Asia and deposits black soot in Arctic ice, reducing the ability of the ice to reflect the sun's rays back into space.

The Villager Sun Oven, which cooks with solar energy instead of using physical fuel, saves up to 150 tons of wood a year and keeps women and children from inhaling the smoke and pollution from cooking fires. The VSO also lasts for decades and provides local women a way to make a living.

I spoke with Paul Munsen, the President of Sun Ovens International, to ask about the potential for using the Villager Sun Oven in the United States. According to Mr. Munsen, there are only 2 Villagers that have been sold in the US - one to a caterer in Los Angeles, and one to a school in Miami.

Why, I wondered, are there so few here in the US? There are many areas with plentiful sunshine, and the Villager would be a fun visual attraction, a green twist on bakeries or restaurants, a way to keep the bakery cool in the summer, and a way to cut fuel and air conditioning bills. Even the cost, $10,500 (+ S&H), might not be a serious obstacle to a bakery or institution. Especially if the owner knew about Peak Oil!

The obstacle, according to Mr. Munsen, is local health departments. Although the Villager cooks food and bakes bread just as thoroughly as any other method, Health Department forms are not designed to account for technologies like the Sun Oven. The inspectors just don't have a way to document it or evaluate it. Additionally, many don't seem to get the concept of cooking with solar energy. So it becomes easier for the health department to refuse a permit than for them to work with the potential owner.

Perhaps that will change. According to the Mr. Munsen, sales of the Global Sun Oven are up 120% in 2007 and over 80% in 2008. Awareness of the benefits of solar cooking is increasing, both because of the interest in living a green lifestyle and the growing commitment to prepare for Peak Oil. Perhaps we'll see a tipping point soon where getting a permit for a Villager Sun Oven is no more difficult than that for a liquor license. It might help if your city already had a high-profile climate change commitment or post-carbon resolution ;).

Of course, as with anything, the Villager has some drawbacks. It weighs close to 1000 pounds, so it's large and heavy. It comes on a trailer that can be moved and adjusted to face the sun. Also, it's a valuable piece of equipment, so it should be placed in a secure location each night. And as with any Sun Oven, if the clouds come out, you'll have to cook with a backup system, which fortunately is built right in to the Villager.

Even at this cost (which may seem high, but is relatively low when amortized over the number of meals cooked per year), I think that these industrial-sized solar cookers could be a wonderful way to prevent urban deforestation, a great way to feed large groups of people in the event of an extended blackout, and an excellent way to meet the cooking needs of citizens who don't already own their own Sun Oven or EPA-efficient woodstove. And a FABULOUS post-peak business opportunity!

Take a look at the Villager Sun Oven and see if it fits in with your Peak Oil community preparation plan....

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stop calling Peak Oil a theory!

I recently rediscovered this wonderful introduction to Peak Oil by way of Green Blue Brown.

The author, Chris Martenson, makes an excellent point that "Peak Oil" is just a description of how oil production works. We can observe the data that shows that the extraction of oil from oil wells rises, peaks, and then declines over time. This is historic and observable fact. That is just how oil production works.

The same principle that works for oil wells, works for oil fields. The same for the aggregate of all oil fields in a country - the oil production from each country eventually peaks and goes into decline. For example, United States oil production peaked around 1970, at which point we had to make up for the decline by importing oil from other countries. We became dependent on oil exporters for the welfare of our economy, and they became dependent on us for massive revenues from the purchase of their oil.

Currently, the oil production from 33 of the largest 48 oil-producing countries has peaked. According to the recent and highly anticipated International Energy Agency report, oil production in fields which have passed their peak is falling at a rate of about 6.7% , when the decline is being carefully managed. When post-peak fields are not carefully managed, decline rates are at least 9%. That's every year, folks.

Another fact is that oil cannot be extracted before it is discovered. So when we see that oil discoveries peaked in 1964, we know that production of oil will peak at a later date.

Source: The Oil Drum

In order to just stay even with the oil we are currently producing, we have to find an amount equal to the amount we are losing every year from the oil fields in decline. That's a problem. For years now, we've only been finding 1 barrel of oil for every 6 that we consume. We've been using up the oil found back in the sixties and seventies for thirty to forty years now. And these huge oil fields, which supply so much of the world's oil, are starting to finally peak.

More oil will be discovered. But over the last 100 years, oil companies and oil-exporting countries have scoured the earth to discover oil. The easy oil has all been found, so the oil that has been discovered in recent years is usually in places that are difficult to get to (such as deepwater reserves), or in forms that are expensive and ecologically destructive to extract (tar sands, shale). The Super-Giant fields discovered back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies (Ghawar, Cantarell), and the smaller giants (North Sea, Alaskan North Slope), have not been replaced.

So far we've been talking facts, observable data points. Speculation enters the picture when we discuss the date at which global oil extraction peaks. Predictions range from July of 2008 (the current record - production has fallen since then) to more optimistic views from the IEA that a global peak will occur in 2020.

So that part is theoretical, but also pointless. It has become a waste of time to debate the exact date of peak oil. We know it is coming, soon, and we should start preparing as soon as possible. It will take many years to find ways to live in a lower energy world, when we have become addicted to oil in almost every way imaginable. Currently, there aren't even any net-positive-energy substitutes for oil as a liquid fuel.

Another speculation is the form of consequences from the energy descent. We don't know what will happen when peak oil occurs. We've seen what the observed decline rates are - at least 6.7% every year - but we don't know how the world will react to that decline.

How will demand for oil respond to a fall in supply? How will the price of food and gas respond to a global oil peak? Will there be resource wars? We don't know. However, we do know that our economy, transportation model, production and shipping of many millions of products, and agriculture are completely dependent on oil. It's obviously urgent that we begin looking for ways to mitigate the problem. It's time for the mainstream media to stop calling Peak Oil a theory and start reporting on the facts.

So the next time you hear someone say "Peak Oil Theory", let them know that it is no theory. The world's oil production will peak. We could hit the peak last July, or tomorrow, or in 2013, it doesn't really matter. What matters is how we prepare for the peak, and how we respond to it. What matters is if we try to keep business-as-usual going or if we admit that we will have to live in a world with limits. We've got a lot of decisions to make and a lot of work to do. We'd better think carefully, and then get busy.

Another option for shopping locally...

Still looking for beautiful, unique, local Christmas gifts? Check out Etsy.com for local crafters and artists. This site is a great place to purchase items made by small businesses in your area. There are some beautiful things on their website. I can hardly restrain myself!

Too bad I've already finished my Christmas shopping. Taking my own advice, I purchased six copies of Kathy Harrison's preparedness book Just In Case for friends and family. Don't worry, that's not the only thing they got!

I think used items are usually the most environmental choice. But sometimes, they just won't do, or you just can't find what you want! In that case, support your local businesses. And BTW, the Riot 4 Austerity does give credit for local and sustainably produced goods as 50% off the point value of consumer goods.

FYI, Homeschooler's Guide to the Galaxy also has an interesting story on Etsy today.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Preventing Deforested Moonscapes - Part III

In Part I, we established that peak oil, peak natural gas and the financial crisis (increasing poverty / utility cutoffs) will pressure Americans to use wood for heating and cooking fuel. Increased harvesting of trees and subsequent burning of the wood fuel will cause harmful particulate pollution, as well as deforestation of urban areas and forests.

Source: www.earth-cool.com

In Part II, we discussed small-scale, distributed technologies and techniques to decrease the use of wood fuel and increase the sustainability of urban tree and forest management. On the demand side, we should reduce the need for heating through insulation and weatherization, use solar heating and cooking, and use the most efficient wood-burning technologies/techniques. On the supply side, we should use pruning, selective harvesting and coppicing, we should start reforesting our cities and forests, and investigate alternative fuel crops.

In Part III, let's talk about how to actually prevent serious harmful pollution from burning wood, and deforestation from cutting down trees. How can we get the ideas, information, and technologies out to the public? How can we persuade governments to be ready to deal with this issue? As before, we won't be discussing how to roll out massive wind and PV farms. We'll still be focusing on smaller-scale, distributed options.

Insert caveat: This is not some "7-step Plan" that is going to solve all our problems. I hope that these ideas can help us mitigate the pollution, help our communities survive, and preserve our trees - at least in our corner of the world. I also hope to inspire your creativity and get you thinking about what would work best in your community.

1. Promote efficiency.

Older woodstoves waste up to 60% of the wood they burn, and fireplaces are much worse - up to 90% of the wood they burn is wasted. Fireplaces actually make a house colder by sucking warm air from the house up through the chimney, while only warming the area about 6 feet around the fire. Yet, newer wood stoves emit only 2 - 4 grams of smoke per hour, compared to 40 - 60 grams emitted by older stoves. Now, which kind of stove would you rather have your neighbors using?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency periodically sponsors a "Great Wood Stove Change Out" where rebates are offered for buying new EPA-certified stoves, if you trade in your old one to be destroyed. If you live in an area already polluted with particulates, you might be able to convince the EPA to promote a Change-Out in your area. Here's a How-to Guide for implementing a Change-Out program.

You could also ask your local environmental, air quality, or health organizations to sponsor some kind of similar initiative. You might also try to get a public health campaign discussing the dangers of particulate pollution from old wood stoves and fireplaces. There are also techniques to decrease pollution generated by the stove - such as burning only well-seasoned (at least 6 months dry) wood, and not "banking" a fire to burn overnight.

Other ways to decrease the need for heating include energy conservation measures, such as weatherizing and insulating buildings. You could encourage your city or state to sponsor programs to insulate and weatherize homes, or you could simply start and market your own business weatherizing buildings in your area. There are state and federal tax incentives to encourage insulating and making homes more efficient.

2. Design and create your own cooking and heating system.

What will you be using for cooking and heating after peak oil, or in the case of electricity disruptions? As one of the people in your area currently preparing for peak oil, your friends and neighbors may (eventually) use your preparations as a model for their own. Take a look at the way you cook and heat - would it be good or bad for your area if everyone cooked/heated the way you plan to?

Each climate will have different options that make sense for the inhabitants. The heating requirements of Zone 3 are very different from Zone 8. The most renewable options for heating are Passive Solar homes, passive solar panels, Masonry (aka Finnish or Russian) stoves, and woodstoves. The most renewable options for cooking are a combination of Sun Ovens, Hay Box cookers, Kelly Kettles, EPA-certified woodstoves, rocket stoves, and Earth Ovens.

Many homes in sunny areas would be able to depend almost fully on solar means of heating and cooking. In other areas, residents could reduce their wood burning by super-insulating their house, and using solar methods to the fullest extent possible. Of course, solar photovoltaics are also an option, albeit a more expensive one.

Whatever you choose, it will be an example and a model for others who will, eventually, look to you for guidance and information. Try to choose a method of heating and cooking that you would want everyone to follow.

Once you complete your plan, invite everyone over! Seriously. It is much more "real" and believable to see and feel and touch a solar heating panel, or a sun oven, and know that it is working. Your home can become a showplace for energy efficiency (insulation and weatherizing) and renewable technologies. Invite over the local green, sustainability, climate management, peak oil, energy efficiency and emergency management groups. Give tours to anyone who is interested. Put up a website of your home. Explain how it was done, and keep track of the costs (you have to anyway, to get the state and federal tax credits that are available.)

3. Help your community prepare for the long emergencies.

In a fast-crash scenario, when overwhelming change happens quickly, city, state and federal officials are likely to be unprepared. In a long-emergency scenario, the government will be overwhelmed by one crisis after another, with decreasing amounts of energy and resources year after year available to deal with them. Either way, the true scope of the peak oil problem is way beyond conventional wisdom, and most people will not recognize the massive upheavals that are coming.

A Resilient Communities task force can help your community by preparing an energy descent plan in advance. How would your city meet basic needs, such as transportation, water, food, cooking and heating, and health care, in a future where oil and electricity are becoming more scarce and expensive every year? At a critical time, when government and community groups are looking for guidance, and need help the most, the task force can step in and start making recommendations.

A Resilient Communities initiative could work with already existing sustainability, Transition Towns , Post Carbon Cities, and Relocalization efforts, as a component of their larger plan. The task force would look for other groups that have skills and abilities needed in a post-peak future, would point out how valuable they will be in the future, and ask them to prepare a Community Resilience plan, which the task force will then incorporate into the larger Plan.

4. Lay the groundwork.

Now that your Resilient Communities task force has created a Community Resilience plan, what are some ways you can prepare your city ahead of time to meet the heating and cooking needs of the citizens?

  • Emergency planning outreach. Get information out to as many groups, organizations, and people about the wisdom of storing 2 weeks or more of food and water (FEMA recommendations) and having non-electric ways to cook and heat. A good time to do this is within a month of a local or national emergency or publicized power outage.

  • Purchasing / making example technology. There's probably no way to purchase enough appropriate technologies (such as Sun Ovens and solar heating panels) to meet the needs of a city. However, it would be a good idea to purchase or make some of the technologies in advance, to serve as models and examples.

  • Manufacturing plan. Plan for large scale, local manufacture of helpful technologies that would provide heat or cooking energy. Which ones are best suited for your area? How many could you build? What would it take to manufacture these locally? What skills, tools, and materials would be needed? Who could make them? Where would you get the materials? What would it cost? How long would it take? How would you get the technology out to the people and explain how to use them?

  • Establish Safe Havens around the city. These locations would be available to house large numbers of people in the event that temperatures fell below a certain level. During a long emergency, they could also serve as central distribution points for information, technology (such as solar heaters), services (such as medical care) and food. These can be prepared in advance. They would have the efficient and solar technologies we've discussed incorporated into their buildings to operate in case of a long emergency, and as a model for experimentation and copying.

  • Prepare Community Kitchens, where people could bake or preserve their food with the most efficient technologies. Neighbors could share Sun Ovens, solar food dryers, Earth Ovens, and Rocket stoves, the most efficient EPA-certified woodstoves, or just regular cookstoves powered by photovoltaics, as well as the information and training to use these tools.

  • Develop easy to understand informational pamphlets explaining how to cook and heat without electricity. Focus on the benefits to the family, as well as their health and safety. The pamphlets could also explain how to create their own solar heating panels and solar cookers. These should be ready to mass produce and distribute. Here are some examples.
  • Create a tree preservation action plan. Proactively identify areas in your city that are likely to be targets for firewood harvesting. Create a plan that will protect these areas, while still providing sustainably harvested wood for the people. An action plan might include legal and physical protection for these areas, pruning, coppicing and selective harvesting methods, and re-planting efforts.

5. Start a Tree Planting Program.

Trees are valuable for so many reasons - but they will be even more valuable in the future. Best choices for a mass-tree planting program might be fruit and nut trees, trees that can take heavy pruning for firewood, large trees that will efficiently absorb pollution, and trees that can be coppiced. A food forest could be established as part of an urban community garden or to support your local food bank.

These programs don't have to necessarily cost a lot of money. You can rely on mostly volunteer work, donated seedlings, and encourage homeowners to plant on their own property. Start a million tree program like Los Angeles!

6. Start a peak oil preparation / energy descent business

In the next few years, interest will build in preparing for peak oil. Who is going to be there to help your neighbors prepare? Many people feel overwhelmed at the scale, number and complexity of skills that need to be learned. Many people don't have Do-It-Yourself skills, tools, energy or time. You would be doing them a big favor if you could pick up the slack by providing your expertise - even on a part time basis.

What types of business could help reduce pollution and prevent deforested moonscapes as the energy descent begins?

  • Woodstove installation (EPA-certified only, of course)
  • Providing educational programs - teaching people how to coppice and harvest wood sustainably, how to build appropriate solar tools, how to weatherize their homes
  • Local manufacture or re-sale of solar heating panels and sun ovens
  • Weatherization and insulation
  • Energy Auditor
  • Retrofitting homes to take advantage of passive solar principles
  • Installer of renewable energy systems - PV, solar heating, solar hot water
  • Food forest consultation (planning and planting fruit and nut trees, shrubs, vines, herbs)
  • Peak Oil preparation consultant (services ranging from food storage plans, gardening, food preservation, and how to cook and heat with less energy)
  • Tree pruning service/ Sustainable tree harvester / Firewood provider (using pruning, coppicing and selective harvesting methods)
  • Firewood Cooperative - managing forests sustainably and providing firewood to members

7. Join or start a Transition Town or Post-Carbon City movement

Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher, began the Transition Towns movement in Ireland to prepare communities for a much lower energy future. The TT movement has now spread around the world and into the United States. Rob believes in working towards solutions for Peak Oil and Climate Change as one problem, by decreasing our energy use as well as increasing resiliency in our local communities. Rob emphasizes envisioning and creating a hopeful future of energy descent - one which people can connect to and work towards, rather than shut down in denial from fear. Transition Towns are an inclusive, grass-roots movement, but they are targeted towards smaller "towns". The Transition Handbook is available to guide people interested in starting a Transition movement.

The Post-Carbon Cities movement focuses on raising awareness in local governments, gaining consensus on the need for action, and providing the tools to local government to create plans for a lower energy future. It is more government-oriented than the Transition Towns movement. The Post Carbon Cities Guidebook is available as a free abridged download, or as a book.

These two movements are currently the most accepted and comprehensive approaches for community energy descent. They provide one of our best current hopes for proactive preparation and awareness raising. If you join or start one of these groups, you can raise concerns about the move to wood fuel - the increased particulate pollution and problems caused by deforestation. You can spearhead efforts to mitigate these problems while still meeting the needs of your fellow citizens.

So, these are some ideas, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. What would you make a priority in your community? What would work best in your area? Do you have additional ideas?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

And the winner is....

Briel, congratulations! Please comment me your address (comment moderation is enabled) and I will send the Mother Earth News subscription there.

Thanks to everyone for participating.... happy holidays!

Oops, we already have a tree problem

Sad news. Our American urban tree population is in serious decline, and has been for several decades.

Source: 10 most magnificent trees in the world (Worth a look!)

Although several cities have started re-planting programs (Chicago & Los Angeles, for example), the trend of city tree cover has been steadily down. Tree cover in cities in Michigan and North Carolina are only 27% of what they once were, while Philadelphia and Chicago are only 16%. There are several reasons for the decline:
  • Sprawl. Cities and suburbs have expanded to accomodate growing population and appetite for larger houses with yards. Developers tend to mow down large, mature trees and later replant baby trees as accents for the houses.

  • Maturity. A large proportion of the trees were planted immediately after WWII, in a swell of optimism and civic pride. That was 60 years ago, and many trees are reaching their natural lifespan.

  • Tree injuries. Trees in urban areas are subjected to living with pavement over most of their root systems, mower injuries, and excavation and compactment of their roots. They also have to deal with greater pollution than their country counterparts. Urban trees are usually heavily stressed.

  • Attrition. Trees die from all sorts of reasons - weather, increased pest population, etc, and cities have tended to replant smaller, easier to maintain trees.

  • McMansions. Many consumers now prefer "no-lot line" and generally bigger houses, which don't leave room for the larger trees.

Urban trees are important for many reasons. They exhale oxygen, help prevent flooding and soil erosion, and provide shade and windbreaks. The shade keeps cities cooler. For example, in Atlanta, where 380,000 acres of trees were bulldozed over 25 years, the temperature in the city has risen 5 - 8 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the countryside. This heat island effect can have drastic impact on human health during heat waves, which may increase in severity with global warming.

Trees also absorb carbon dioxide and particulate pollution. Street trees reduce the level of particulates by up to 60%. Large trees can take several decades to mature, but when they do, they absorb 60-70 times as much pollution as small trees. If we cut down trees to provide wood for fuel, we are putting ourselves in double trouble: creating particulate pollution while also destroying the way to absorb that pollution.

So we are entering a period of energy decline, where there will be increasing incentives to cut down trees for cooking and heating fuel, and our urban tree cover is already at historic lows in many cities.

But don't give up hope. After all, if they can replant Kenya.....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Giveaway of Mother Earth News

Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog this year. I hope you have found something interesting or helpful here. I have certainly had fun writing the blog, and love reading your comments! I enjoy hearing your perspectives from different regions and countries, backgrounds and experiences.

As a small token of my thanks, (and while I am still working on Part III of the behemoth Preventing Deforested Moonscapes) this holiday season I am sponsoring my first GIVEAWAY!!

I'll be picking out one lucky winner of a year subscription to Mother Earth News magazine this Thursday evening (9 pm US Central time). So sign up in the comments if you're interested! And put a mention on your own blog if you'd like (not necessary, but appreciated).

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you all across the country and the world! I wish peace, joy and sustainability for us all this holiday season.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How to calculate your car's gas mileage

A process so simple and fast, even I can do it.

Step 1:
The next time you fill up your gas tank, reset the mileage counter on your car.

Step 2:
The time after that, make sure to fill up the tank all the way and then get the receipt for your gas. Note the number of gallons it took to fill up your car.

Step 3:
Divide number of miles on your mileage counter by the number of gallons you just filled up.

This is your gas mileage!

Example: Today, I filled up the tank on my 15 year old Geo Prizm, which is still kickin' it old school. Sure, it has a few (large) dents here and there. Sure, the overhead light doesn't work. Sure, sometimes the radio goes out when I drive over a speed bump. But....

The mileage counter read 201 miles today. It took 7 gallons to fill up my tank. This means I have an effective gas mileage of 28.7 mpg. Not bad for a 15 year old car.

I regularly check my gas mileage to make sure that the Prizm doesn't have a problem. I just have a habit of resetting my mileage every time I get gas, which makes this a very easy and quick process. Normally, the Prizm's mileage runs about 29-30 mpg, so I'm still in a tolerable range. If it fell too much, I would need to have the tires aired up, see if the air filters or spark plugs needed to be replaced, make sure to drive efficiently, and have the car checked out. Here's some tips for optimizing your mpg.

Try it!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Power vacuums

When a fast crash crisis hits, or the long emergency becomes obvious, your city officials may be clueless. What will they be thinking when oil reaches $300? What will they be doing when city revenue falls by 50%? When a third of the homes sit vacant and need to be maintained? When there is half the resources, but twice the need?

Despite the hard-line view some people hold that we'd all be better off without government, there are just some things that are better done by an organized group. Trash removing, water treatment, fire fighting, criminal catching, bridge maintaining, and street lighting are services we all benefit from - and would miss sorely if they were to decline or disappear. Eventually we may develop local, sustainable alternatives to these services. Until then, we pretty much need them.

In some past crises, people have banded together to tough it out. But not always. As Naomi Klein documents so clearly in her book Shock Doctrine, free-market forces often take advantage of emergencies to seize power, take control of formerly public assets, and begin a regime of "free-market" (profitable) tyranny. They prey on the weakness and vulnerability of people devastated by tragedy.

We can't count on our city officials, shell-shocked by events, to have the situation firmly in hand. They will be looking to the most authoritative voices for guidance. They will be looking for someone with a plan, someone to tell them what to do. In short, ripe for the picking.

So unless you want organized crime to take over your trash collection and police duties, and corporations to take possession of your water facilities and bridges, that someone better be US. That is, your local Resilient Communities group (Richard Heinberg's Peak Oil community solution approach).

Resilient Communities are founded on a disaster response/crisis management perspective. While Transistion Towns (like Boulder) and Post Carbon Cities work to change their cities here and now, Resilient Communities plan ahead for a crisis - which will surely come. Disasters may or may not look like a crisis. Obviously a massive ice storm, tornado, hurricane, regional electrical outage are crises, but a crisis can also be when your city wakes up to the fact that half the residents can no longer afford to get to work or feed themselves. A crisis can be when the local government wakes up to the fact that there will be no energy bailout - the cavalry's not coming - we're on our own.

Members of Resilient Communities identify critical functions that will need to be met in an emergency, important groups that will be able to help, and coordinate with the local disaster management agency to create a coherent plan to meet the basic needs of the citizenry after peak oil or other disaster.

Many city officials can be resistant to change and dubious about peak oil, especially when already overwhelmed by the impacts of the financial crisis. Their single minded goal (aside from keeping their jobs) tends to be economic growth, which is based on assumptions 100% opposite of the geological reality of peak oil. But disaster management is a hot topic in the last few years, and the logic of disaster response is hard to refute - and you're what, creating and coordinating a plan for FREE? You're a godsend! (BTW, consultants charge in the tens to hundreds of thousands to create these things - I should know :).

So step right up! You say you want to help your community, but it's too damn hard? You say you can't create change - your city officials and neighbors have their heads in the sand? You say it's too hard to fight the tide of grow, grow, grow and consume, consume, consume? You say it's too hard to tell your government and fellow citizens their way of life is over, kaput, finished, done for?

I'll tell you what - you might be right. If so, quit fighting and start planning. Get ready to step into the power vacuum and tell your city officials how to feed their people, get homes heated, and get people to their jobs. A crisis could be our one and only chance to direct our cities to a more sustainable and equitable future. As corporations have learned, crisis is opportunity. Don't let them take advantage of it. WE need to seize that day.

More to come on disaster management planning in a later post.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

'Tis the season?

We love Mom and Dad, but they just don't listen when we start talking about oil depletion. Somehow they just tune out the incoming TEOTWAWKI. Or maybe we haven't mentioned it - we wouldn't want to set off Dad's blood pressure alarm again. But now's our chance! Instead of getting another turkey baster for Ma, or some battery powered drill-saws for Pa, let's get them (secretly) prepared for the coming energy descent!

Yes, 'tis the season. It's the time of year we can sneak some Peak Oil Preparedness into the lives of our loved ones through our clever gift choices.

Strategy #1: Buzz Kill Emergency Preparedness

"Gee, ever since the (ice storm, tornado, Hurricane Ike, invasion of South Ossetia, trucker strike in Europe), we've just been picking up a few things here and there. We thought you might like this - "

Oil lamp
CFL lantern
First Aid Kit
Hand cranked emergency radio
Water filter
Camp stove + Coleman fuel or propane
Emergency kit for the car

Strategy #2: For the Hobbyists

"I remembered how you're so interested in (gardening, cooking, camping, surviving planetary ecological collapse). I knew you'd love it!"

Membership in local food Co-op
Share in Community Supported Agriculture (if they would use it :)
Gift certificate to Territorial Seeds, Seeds of Change, or Baker Creek Seeds
Semi-dwarf apple trees, to arrive in March
Watering can
Garden tools
Gardening When It Counts by Steve Solomon
The Vegetable Gardeners' Bible by Ed Smith
Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
Beer brewing kit
Canning jars and lids
Dutch Oven
Cast iron skillet
Nifty camping gear
Sub-zero sleeping bags
Everlasting firestarter

Strategy #3: For the Bibliophiles

"I thought this book looked interesting.... the lady at Borders recommended it ;)"

Just in Case by Kathy Harrison
The Long Emergency by James Howard Kuntsler
The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg
Peak Everything by Richard Heinberg
Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov
Depletion and Abundance, by Sharon Astyk

Strategy #4: For the Uber-Crunchy

"This should help you save the planet!"

Bike (or bike tires and repair kit)
Bike trailer (for the kiddos)
Solar battery/cellphone/iPod charger
Solar lantern
Subscripton to Mother Earth News
Bus pass

Strategy #5: When you've given up on subtlety

"OK Mom, just keep this in the closet until you need it"

Global Sun Oven
2 weeks supply of water (and Tang)
Wood cookstove
Cord of wood
20 buckets of rice, beans, oats, and sugar
Bar of gold bullion
When Technology Fails, by Matthew Stein
When All Hell Breaks Loose, by Cody Lundin
Coffee can of cash, to be buried in unspecified location
3 year's supply of seeds, freeze dried
Flak jacket

Or, you know, a donation to their charity of choice would also be nice.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Preventing Deforested Moonscapes - Pt II

In the United States, we long ago made a transition to an economy that met our heating and cooking needs by burning coal, natural gas, and oil, with a little hydropower thrown in to boot. In the first part of this series, I argue that after an oil peak, pressure will increase to cut trees to serve as fuel for heating and cooking fires, as well as to clear land for agriculture. Many other countries who have faced this pressure have become bleak places prone to soil erosion, mudslides, dust storms and finally, desertification.

One island: Haiti (left) and Dominican Republic (right)

To find sustainable solutions, we need to identify ways to use renewable resources at a rate which is slower than the resource can regenerate; as well as to use the resources in a way which does not produce more pollution than Nature and human health can safely absorb.

Part of a solution will probably be renewable sources of power, such as hydropower, solar, and wind - if they can be financed. But these renewables have important constraints, and take time, energy, and money to build, and I'm not going to address these technologies in this post. Instead, this post will focus on smaller scale, more distributed tools and techniques. I don't claim to be an expert on any of the ideas in this post, and I hope that people who are can contribute to the discussion in this context.

To effectively reduce both of the main problems resulting from extensive use of wood (deforestation and particulate pollution), we should address both the demand and supply for wood fuel. On the demand side we can focus on:

  • Reducing the need for heating fuel

  • Using non-fuel heating and cooking technologies

  • Using the most efficient ways of wood-based heating and cooking

1. Reducing need for heating energy
We can use many techniques to reduce the need to burn wood for heating. To reduce the need for heating, for example, we could consider:

  • Consolidating families from many to one house

  • Insulation

  • Weatherizing

  • Maximizing use of solar gain from windows during the day and covering them at night

  • Wearing layers of warm clothes

  • Using multiple blankets and comforters

  • Sleeping/congregating in one room/bed to maximize body heat

  • Hot water bottles

  • Blocking off parts of the house which don't need to be heated
  • Earth-sheltered homes or basements (although this would be difficult to retrofit to an existing home)

2. Solar Technologies

Solar technologies which don't burn fuel should be used whenever possible. I'm not talking about expensive photovoltaic systems, but technologies which directly turn the sun's energy into heat for cooking and heating. These would include solar ovens and cookers, passive solar heating, solar water heaters, solar heaters, and solar food dryers. Of course, the great advantage of these technologies is that they don't require any ongoing wood or fuel usage, and also produce no pollution. Therefore there are minimal, if any, negative health effects, no ongoing cost to operate, and no need to gather fuel.

The use of these technologies, which don't require the careful manufacture and rare materials that photovoltaic systems do, could go a long way toward reducing the pressure on our forests and urban trees. Some of these solar tools can even be improvised from scavenged materials and built ultra-locally.

In some of the sunniest climates, the use of these solar technologies could drastically reduce the need to use wood. For example, Sun Ovens International reports that the use of Sun Ovens can cut the need for cooking fuel by up to 70%. After personally using a Global Sun Oven since spring of this year, I believe I could use it to cook lunch and dinner on every sunny day between mid-April and mid-October, here in Oklahoma City. Of course, solar tools are more useful in sunnier regions, and often cannot be used very effectively on cloudy days.

3. Efficient heating and cooking

Fireplaces and open fires waste most of their heat and generate quite a bit of pollution. In fact, fireplaces might not properly be called a "heat source" since they suck warm air up the chimney. More efficient ways to use wood for heating and cooking might include Earth ovens, Masonry/Finnish heaters, Kelly Kettles, super-efficient EPA-certified wood stoves, and hay box cookers. Pellet stoves could be part of a solution, but they require a dependable source of the wood or corn pellets, and also require electricity to operate, so would require some kind of PV system or other on-site power generation.

Masonry, aka Finnish heaters, have a reported 90% combustion efficiency, compared to 10% efficiency for a standard fireplace or 60% for an average woodstove.

The mass of a brick or Earth oven retains the heat so that it can be used to cook multiple dishes throughout the day. A hay or box cooker insulates a pot which has been brought to boiling, so it can continue to cook without any additional fuel. A Kelly Kettle (aka Storm Kettle) can reportedly heat 2 pints of water for tea, coffee, broth, or water pasteurization with only a few twigs in 4 or 5 minutes. Even a simple mbaula (clay cook oven), if compared to an open cook-fire, can reduce the amount of wood burned by two-thirds.

An efficient, EPA-certified wood stove can heat water, cook food, and heat a house - all at once. Still, any kind of wood burning will generate particulate pollution, and the use of wood-burning stoves by hundreds of thousands of households within a city could spell disaster. While many people will not have a real choice, burning wood should be minimized in favor of solar technologies whenever possible.

Kelly / Storm Kettle

Efficiency is not only about technology, but also technique. Efficiency could mean a small business owner using an Earth oven to bake bread for the neighbors, instead of each household needing their own Earth oven. Or an efficient stove and a series of box cookers in one location per block - the stove could be used to bring the cookers to boil, one after the other, and then set in the box cookers. These techniques, which rely on community teamwork and cooperation, could also drastically cut fuel use.

Supply Side

Supply side (providing fuel) techniques and strategies don't prevent particulate pollution, but they can help reduce deforestation and the resulting ecological damage. On the supply side, we should consider these strategies:

  • Sustainable Harvesting

  • Reforesting

  • Alternative fuel crops

1. Sustainable Harvesting Techniques

To be sustainable, we cannot harvest wood any faster than it can regrow. The wood should also be harvested in a way to prevent destruction of ecosystems, soil erosion, and other results of methods such as clearcutting. This will have to be tailored to each forest, to each type of tree, and will therefore vary from region to region.

So first, let's use all the resources that are freely available. Limbs, twigs, and trees that have already fallen in urban areas should be USED as much as possible, instead of burned in open landfills or turned into landscaping mulch. Currently, municipal governments spend vast amounts of energy, labor and money hauling off unwanted "waste" wood from individual properties. How much better would it be if this resource could be used near the source, or redistributed locally?

Secondly, many trees and shrubs benefit from regular pruning, and re-grow their limbs within several years. Tree and shrub pruning, instead of tree harvesting, could be a way to provide firewood.

Coppicing is a method of forest management in which the same deciduous trees are harvested repeatedly. Because the root mass of the tree is preserved when the tree is cut, the tree will grow multiple sprouts that can shoot up to 4-15 feet in a year. Coppiced forests are usually managed by rotating through different sections, which leaves the trees in the other areas to grow and host various plants and animals. Coppicing actually prolongs the life of a tree. A properly coppiced tree may not die for centuries, during which time it will be harvested dozens of times. Therefore coppicing, combined with continuous tree planting to account for trees that die, is a virtually sustainable method of providing wood for heating and cooking.

Selective harvesting is a method of cutting selected single or groups of trees within a forest, to avoid the disruptive ecological effects of cutting down a wide swath of trees. It can be combined with coppicing to preserve a more natural forest setting.

2. Reforesting

Reforesting our cities and forests will serve several purposes. We can plant urban food forests filled with fruit and nut trees, which could provide local food security. Replanting trees can help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide shade and cooling in hot weather. Replanting will replace trees that have been harvested for fuel, and these trees, after several years, can then be pruned to provide wood fuel. On an economic level, reforestation would be an excellent "green" collar job.

3. Alternative fuel crops

After my first post, several people suggested alternatives to harvesting traditional forest trees. One, the Tree of Heaven, is an invasive species that grows like a weed, because it is. It's already present in 42 states, and would be a good candidate for coppicing (apparently it regrows very vigorously, and suckers). The problem is that invasive plants are a scourge, but in locations where this tree already exists, it might prove to be useful.

The second is hemp. For those that don't know, hemp is not marijuana, because the strain grown for fiber/fuel/etc. contains only .3% of the psychoactive THC, not enough for any kind of intoxicating effect. Hemp produces a lot of biomass, is extremely easy to grow, and has multiple (some claim infinite :) uses, including biodiesel. Frankly, I don't know much about the use of hemp for fuel. Any contributors out there who do?

Sounding the alarm

Using a wood stove can be a great strategy to prepare for peak oil, on an individual basis. When used on a mass scale, especially in urban areas, it could be devastating - to our health, to the health of our ecosystems, and to the climate.

Humans have needed energy to meet their cooking and heating needs for thousands of years, and that won't change any time soon, regardless of the availability or cost of electricity, natural gas, or heating oil. A few cold winters, combined with a poorer population and electrical blackouts, could result in a dramatic cut in our urban tree population or our forests.

So how do we meet our needs, while caring for the health of the planet and our neighbors?

A combination of the above mentioned technologies and techniques, if deployed promptly and properly, could address the deforestation and pollution issues, while also decreasing our use of fossil fuels - TODAY.

Ideally, we need to minimize our need to heat through insulation, weatherizing and clothing/blankets. Over time, our bodies would acclimate to lower temperatures. We would use solar technologies to heat our homes and cook our food on every sunny day. And for the remaining amount of wood-burning we might need to do, we would use sustainably harvested wood (pruned or coppiced) in the most efficient wood-burning technology possible.

But how do we get these ideas out to the public? How do we persuade citizens, governments, and communities to adopt these technologies and techniques? How could we push this information out to the public in an emergency or disaster?

More on this to come in Part III.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rationing ... to save the planet?

In case you missed it, there's a lively, yet respectful, debate going on between George Monbiot and Sharon Astyk. Basically, they agree on most of the facts regarding climate change, yet disagree on the solution. Mr. Monbiot argues that a massive, immediate, renewable energy buildout is the only way to save us, although he seems a little doubtful that it's possible and/or will result in the proper outcome. Sharon advocates a radical, immediate 50% reduction in energy usage and consumption, while also investing in aspects of the economy vital to our well-being, such as health care and education.

Sharon highlights rationing as an example of ways that people can be convinced to immediately reduce climate emissions. (Interestingly, Matt Simmons has also suggested gasoline rationing as a sensible solution, at least in case of emergencies.) Since American society has not experienced widespread rationing since World War II, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what rationing is actually like.

In 1942, the United States Food Rationing Program began. The Office of Price Administration froze prices on a wide set of goods, and each family was issued a "War Ration Book" to regulate items made scarce by the war. Items such as sugar, meat, butter, processed foods, fats, and oils were rationed, as well as clothing, shoes, gasoline, coffee, and tires, and other items.

Different items were rationed in different ways. Some items were distributed equally (sugar), some were distributed according to need (gasoline), others were sold only after demonstrated need (tires, cars).

Stickers were issued which regulated how much fuel you could purchase in any week. Half of all cars (designated "A") were only allowed 4 gallons of fuel per week and could not be driven for pleasure at all. "Essential" workers could be given up to 8 gallons, and truckers had an unlimited fuel supply. The speed limit - the Victory Speed - was set at 35 mph. Carpooling was encouraged.

The government encouraged compliance without complaint, and an effective propaganda program was launched that promoted patriotism, sacrifice for the greater good, and helping the men and women overseas. Propaganda, which included ads, radio programs and pamphlets, and educational programs which taught housewives how to plan meals within the rationing limits, were very effective. My favorite propaganda posters emphasize the importance of the homefront war effort. Victory Gardens eventually (reportedly) grew almost 40% of the nation's produce, and housewives preserved much of the harvest. Still, a black market evolved over time which supplied rationed items illegally, at a higher price.

In the United Kingdom, rationing during the two World Wars appears to have been stricter, as most of their food was imported, and one of Germany's main strategies was to starve Britain into submission. So food was limited - for example, a person in the UK could receive one egg, one ounce of cheese, three ounces of sugar, four ounces of ham, and two ounces of butter, per WEEK, along with other, non-rationed goods . Rationing in the UK also lasted longer. While America's rationing program ended in 1946, Britain's became even stricter after WWII ended, and Britain's program did not end until 1953 (sugar) and 1954 (meat).

With some exceptions, rationing during the wars appeared successful, although in Britain, it was very austere. There were real restrictions on the availability of goods - so the rationing and price controls ensured at least an appearance of fairness, and a basic diet for everyone. There was a black market, and certain people had "exceptions" (such as Congressmen), and there were ways for the rich to get around restrictions (for example, restaurant meals in Britain were not rationed). But on the whole, it worked.

So... back to our topic - climate change, and how best to save the planet. Help me think this out by commenting on my questions below:

Would a rationing system be a fair way to quickly reduce our carbon emissions?

Would a rationing system work unless there were real restrictions on the supply of goods?

Would a rationing system work in a country where a sizeable part of the population still does not "believe" in global warming?

What items should be rationed, and how could they be rationed? Gasoline? Cars? Food? Consumer goods?

Would you accept rationing? What would you NOT accept rationing for? Is there anything you would go to the black market for?

Would Americans comply with a rationing program for the good of everyone, the planet, as well as for themselves? If not, how could could they be persuaded?

If you don't think any kind of rationing would be accepted, what's your best alternative to cut emissions by 50% in the next 5 years?

Whew! Thanks in advance for your comments!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Preventing Deforested Moonscapes - Pt I

When electricity becomes too expensive, unreliable, or rationed, many people will very likely turn to wood to meet their heating and cooking needs. Before coal, oil, or natural gas, wood served as the predominant cooking and heating fuel for thousands of years. Wood can be obtained locally in many places, is familiar to most people, can be used with existing infrastructure such as fireplaces and woodstoves, and works during blackouts.
The available alternatives to wood will determine it's attractiveness as a heating and cooking fuel. People in my area, Oklahoma, often heat and cook with natural gas. In other areas of the country, such as the Northeast, heating oil is more prevalent (36% of households in 1997). So wood fuel could predominate in some areas of the country, where wood is common, or where electrical failures are more prevalent and other fuels are expensive or rare.
I've become more concerned with this issue as I notice that many respected peak oil awareness leaders are using wood stoves to personally prepare for a future with less fossil fuel energy. This strategy is valid and sensible for many reasons, and probably necessary in some parts of the country, but I think we should also examine the downside of using wood as a primary fuel source, and examine ways to mitigate the problems associated with burning wood. As the peak oil vanguard, we need to be very clear in what we advocate.
The Problem with Wood Fuel

Burning wood causes particulate pollution, which is directly related to medical problems such as asthma, cancer, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. According to the EPA, changing out 1 inefficient woodstove is equivalent to taking 7 diesel buses off the road. At least 75% of the 15 million of the woodstoves in America are inefficient and do not meet current health standards for preventing particulate pollution. Wood smoke also contains toxins such as dioxin, benzoene, and toluene.

Wood use in rural areas, in the middle of sustainably managed and privately owned forests and farms, is one thing. But if our urban residents have to rely on wood fuel, cities could become unbearable. If transport were limited, people would be forced to gather firewood wherever possible. City residents would be inclined to cut down trees on private property as well as in public parks, isolated wilderness areas - anywhere trees could be found.

Source: www.earth-cool.com

Widespread use of wood fuel could very well result in increased particulate pollution, asthma and allergy flares, health problems (especially for medically fragile people), loss of shade, increased ambient temperatures, eroded topsoil, duststorms, and barren, ugly cities.

And all this could happen within a generation of an energy peak, if not sooner.

Fragile Electrical Grid and Financial Crisis

Just as the peak oil community warns the world of the downside of the energy peak, other voices are warning that the electricity grid has become outdated and unreliable due to decades of underinvestment. As peak oil arrives and there is less energy available, and less money available, maintenance of the electrical grid will get pushed back - until a fire in a substation, or a key transformer fails, or what-have-you problem that causes another regional blackout. Many third world countries experience rolling blackouts, or periods when electricity is only available for certain parts of the day. We might not be too far behind.

The current financial crisis, and accompanying recession, also plays a part in the problem. As a larger part of the population becomes poor, utility cut-offs will drive more people to use wood for fuel. And wood stoves have also proven to be a popular strategy among many people preparing for peak oil - if you have some land, you can meet your own needs without the grid. Even if you don't, you can stock a cord of wood and be independent from the grid until you need to re-stock. But what seems to be a great strategy for independent living, when adopted on a mass scale, or inappropriate areas, could wreak havoc with our forests, our health, and our climate.

So even though oil isn't usually directly used for heating and cooking (except for heating oil, which is very common in the Northeast US), I believe that the advent of peak oil, combined with the financial crises currently underway, will contribute to a major shift, at least regionally, to using wood for cooking and heating. And the advent of peak natural gas, at a somewhat later date, will seal the deal.

History and Scope

If we estimate that the last time Americans used wood as the primary heating and cooking fuel was in 1900, there were about 76 million people in America, mostly a rural population - and the forests had already been degraded. The forests had been steadily destroyed ever since the arrival of the Europeans, to clear land for farming as well as for the use of the wood, and the forests have not recovered decades after wood ceased to be the main fuel source for the country.

There are currently over 300 million Americans (four times the number in 1900), mostly concentrated in urban areas, and the US population is projected to grow to 420 million by 2050. Not only would trees be needed to fuel our heating and cooking fires, but forests would also be cleared to make way for more domestic agriculture. Where is all that wood going to come from?

Many people have written about the importance of eating local, organic food. We also need to think ahead to a time of unreliable/expensive/rationed electricity and fossil fuels - when it becomes difficult to heat our homes and cook our food without burning wood. We haven't had this situation in American urban areas in two or three generations.

But if the electrical grid begins to fail, from lack of maintenance, from inability to obtain fuel sources, from disasters such as ice storms and hurricanes - we will return to such a time. If a significant portion of people become too poor to pay their electric and natural gas bills - we will return to such a time.

I hope our needs can someday be met with a reasonably priced, renewable, widely available power source. Wind power, hydropower, geothermal power, and solar power combined may come close, but they have a long, long way to go (they comprise less than 15% of US electricity generation, with hydropower as the vast majority) time is short, and there are limiting constraints to their effective capacities without some kind of power storage/battery system.

The grid may not begin to fail for a long time, if ever. People may try to rely on other sources of cooking and heating energy, such as propane, coal stoves, or charcoal grills. We may experience a revolutionary buildout of wind and solar power to run our electrical grid. Still, I think we should begin to think about the possibility of a massive increase in the use of wood for heating and cooking in many regions of the country. So how do we prevent our country, especially urban areas, from turning into treeless zones? How do we decrease the amount of particulate pollution, and the serious health problems that can come with it, that would result from a shift to wood?

Part II will discuss potential solutions to this problem.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Recent POPs

What's been going on around here, at the Hausfrau homestead? How have we been POPing? (POP = Peak Oil Preparing).
Hubby and I are storing 10 Butternuts in the Peak Oil Closet, which seems to be un-insulated, and runs about 5 - 10 degrees cooler in the winter. I've roasted 3 of them in the Sun Oven already - which works really well in the middle of the day even in November. So far we've made Butternut Bisque, Butternut Quesadillas, Stuffed Butternut, and Squash Squares (a bread like dessert).
I've thought of labeling each Butternut with a Sharpie, but we'll see if I need to bother, because so far they are storing really well. I'm very excited, since I've never tried this before, and it's a cheap, easy, no-energy way to store fresh vegetables.
I am also experimenting by keeping an 8 pound bag of potatoes in an ice chest in the garage. I need to keep tabs on it; if the potatoes store well out there I may transfer all my potatoes from the fridge. If it doesn't work well I will need to try to dig an earth sheltered home for the ice chest.
We bought 2 cans of dehydrated eggs from Honeyville Farms (equivalent to 170 eggs) for our food storage plan. Eventually I might like to have chickens, but we haven't gotten there yet. So, I figure, eggs would be a good addition to the plan. But I won't use them unless SHTF, or until their expiration date grows near, so I can't comment on how they taste.

Last weekend we processed the last of the tomatoes from the final harvest. We picked a bunch of green ones before the first frost back in October. They have been ripening, wrapped in newspapers, for the last few weeks. Works like a charm, although not quite as nice as vine-ripened tomatoes, still better than store bought, plus they are organic and only traveled 30 feet to the kitchen. I chopped them up and saved them in Ziplocs in the freezer. 2 cups per bag is about equivalent to a standard "can" of tomatoes - I processed 4 of these bags; I also stored a few 3-cup bags for larger dishes.

Before: Green tomatoes ripening in newspapers

After: The result

I'm still watering my tiny 4x4 winter garden. The garlic, Swiss Chard, kale, and carrots seem to be growing well. I didn't plant this patch until Sept. 15th, and so far the green caterpillar critters are not bothering these kale at all. Amazing, since they devasted the kohlrabi and kale I planted in August.

And the fun part - I went shopping. Another $35 bag sale at the Remarkable Shop, run by the Junior League, which supports literacy programs. I got a few items for my son, but mostly I went for myself. Here's what I got:
  • 4 pairs of jeans
  • 1 pr corduroys
  • 2 toddler sleepers
  • 1 turtleneck
  • 2 new-looking black sweatpants
  • 3 soft one-color shirts
  • 2 interesting blouses

So it averaged out to about $2 per item of clothing. After I got the booty home, I added up all the tags - for a total of $98!! I estimate retail price for all the items (everything really was in brand-new condition, except for 2 shirts) would have been over $300. Of course, I never would have bought all that stuff brand new. But I have worn several of the items already, and I can tell they will be a regular part of my wardrobe. And the best part - according to Riot rules, there's no points for charity purchases!

What are you doing that's new? What are you experimenting with?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alternative bag usage

I've been working on the same post for about a week now.... until I finish the behomoth, here's a story from last weekend:

My huband, son and I made our weekly trip to the grocery store. I had been saving bread and tortilla bags to use as produce bags, and now I've got my chance to use them for the first time.

As we approach the checkout line, my husband warns me, "Don't let them scan the tortilla bag".

The checkout lady gets the bag, and I tell her, "Those are sweet potatoes".

"Oh." (pause) "What happened to the tortillas?"

"We ate them." (pause) "Last week."

My husband dies of embarrasment as I giggle to myself during the rest of the checkout process, and all the way home, and the rest of the day. He says I can't use the tortilla bags again. I say that I can (but I'm marking through the code). What's your vote?

Friday, November 14, 2008

A sense of urgency

I usually strive to seem like a fairly calm and sane person, but inside I feel a serious sense of urgency. Not that I necessarily believe in either a "fast crash" or a "slow motion" scenario - I just believe that both are possible. And the results of a fast crash would be very ugly, so it's best to be prepared.

Lest you think that a "hard crash" scenario is completely unthinkable, chew on this: there are at least three vital chokepoints in the vast oil pumping, processing, shipping, refining, and transportation industry. These are: the Abqaiq processing plant, the Ras Tanura terminal in Saudi Arabia, and the narrow oil shipping sea lane Strait of Hormuz . If one or several of these were to shut down from an act of God or man, up to 18% of global supply could be interrupted, overnight.

If any one of these things happened, or a number of smaller things, we could wake up to find that oil is $400 a barrel (that estimate has no data behind it at all, btw). Trucks couldn't run. Grocery stores would be empty, in some places, within days. The economy would shut down almost completely.

Or we could dodge all these bullets, the system could prove resilient, our leaders could become enlightened. We could abandon our "American lifestyle is non-negotiable" approach to energy and get realistic. We might see a graceful transition to a lower-energy future. It might take years to see the effects of peak oil.

Or not. Oil could resume it's steady climb, marching past it's previous highs of $140 to achieve new records, year after year. We might see a slow, grinding, descent into poverty and despair. We might see food riots and the Greatest Depression. I just don't know.

So I don't know what will happen, but I think it's sensible to prepare for emergencies and start the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle. In addition to just the common sense of being prepared, I believe in the "Theory of Anyway" promoted by Sharon Astyk and others - the idea that many of the things we are doing to prepare for peak oil are things that we should do even if peak oil didn't exist - because we want to help the environment, because we want to achieve financial independence, we want better tasting and more nutritious food, and we want to leave our son a better world.

Because my sense of urgency is increasingly driven by my worry about the environment. Every day, species and habitats are disappearing forever. Every week, scientists unveil a new ecological danger - like the brown cloud floating over Asia, threatening food harvests, or the ocean acidifying, or the permafrost thawing. Every month, the state of the planet gets a little bit worse and the planet's temperature rises.

No matter how hard environmentalists work, how many programs we implement, we're fighting the tide, because the dominant paradigm remains the same. And while Nature may be resilient, she can't bring back the beauty of elephants or gorillas, once they become extinct.

So at the same time that I fear peak oil's effect on humanity, I also hope that it will soon force us to reduce our consumption, our energy use, our destruction of the planetary biosphere. It seems that nothing else, besides the current financial crisis, will.

On a personal note, I have posted my Peak Oil Goals 2009 in a prominent place in our kitchen, along with my Riot 4 Austerity envelopes for tracking expenses. Here's a picture:

You can see I decorated my goals with smiley faces, and my Riot envelopes with pictures of endangered animals (for motivation). If you are curious, my six strategies for peak oil are:
  1. Reduce dependence on electricity
  2. Reduce dependence on gasoline
  3. Store 6 months of food (I need to take a recent inventory - not sure what I've got!)
  4. Grow our own fruits, vegetables, and herbs
  5. Make our own food (yogurt, cheese, bread, etc.)
  6. Reduce dependence on formal economy

What are your goals and strategies? Do you have a sense of urgency?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Green cleaning tip of the month

Well, among the many chores I put off and put off and hey, is it November already? Time to clean the microwave!

Luckily, I have a handy little tip to help ease the chore.

Place 1/4 cup vinegar in microwave. Zap on high for 2 minutes (or more, depending on your microwave). The vinegar will evaporate, soaking the ceiling and walls. Let the vinegar soak in for a minute, then wipe down the walls, ceiling and floor of the microwave. All the little crusty bits will fall right off onto your cleaning rag!

Repeat, if needed.

Soak your cloth in vinegar for extra cleaning power, if needed.

OK, I shared mine. What's your favorite cleaning tip?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How to save $100,000

Riddle me this: How can you save $98,870 when buying a house?

The answer is: Using a 15 year mortgage instead of a 30 year mortgage.

In this particular scenario (obtained from Everbank), you purchase a $187,500 home, pay 20% down, and get a $150,000 loan with either a 30 year mortgage at 6% or a 15 year mortgage at 5.75%.

Terms of the 30 year mortgage:

  • Monthly payment of $900 (not including insurance and taxes)
  • Total payment of $323,722 in principal and interest
  • Total interest cost of $173,007

Terms of the 15 year mortgage:

  • Monthly payment of $1,245 (which is $345 more per month)
  • Total payment of $224,211
  • Total interest cost of $74,137
So for the 30 year mortgage, you pay $173,007 in interest, or with the 15 year mortgage you pay $74,137 in interest - a savings of $98,870!! And your home will be paid off 15 years sooner. Of course, the big catch is that you have to be able to afford the higher monthly payments.

Now, there are several arguments against taking a 15 year loan, or paying off your house early. These arguments include:

  • Your money would be better off invested in the stock market,
  • You miss out on some tax savings (if you itemize),
  • You can simply pay down the principal when you have extra cash, and
  • Your money is tied up in a non-liquid asset which might be difficult to sell.
Up until about a year ago, most financial planners projected a yearly stock market return of 8 - 12%. They compared that to a 6% return obtained by paying down your loan (or whatever the APY on your mortgage) and would tell you that you are clearly losing out. Over time, the financial planner tells you, you will actually make hundreds of thousands of dollars just by NOT paying off your house (and putting all your money in the stock market instead)!

This argument, combined with the mobility of the American populace, was extremely persuasive for the last twenty years. Why bother working to pay off a house when you are going to move in 4 years? Why pay down a 6% mortgage when you can get 12% in the stock market (or 20% in a good year)?

Now let's move to the present. Examine the argument that your money would be better off in the market. "Historically", if you look at specific periods of time, for example since 1950, the stock market does provide better average returns. But if you look at OTHER periods of time, the stock market was just another gambler's bet. In the last year, the S&P 500 has gone down about 35 - 40%. Add this to the fact that the average investor tends to buy high and sell low, and all those financial planner calculations start to look extremely fishy.

Now let's bring peak oil into the equation. Cheap fossil fuel energy is THE key that has enabled our economy to steadily expand for the last 100 years. Without that cheap fossil fuel energy (or miraculous alternative energy, yet to be discovered, which has an equivalent EROEI), the economy will not be able to grow. Over time, the economy will go through cycles of contraction and expansion, but the trend will be toward contraction - and the stock market can't grow if the economy is contracting. So I don't plan on guaranteed stock market gains of 8 - 12%.

There's another way to bring peak oil into the equation - what will you need in a life with less energy available? Is your money better spent paying down your mortgage early, or is it better spent on food storage and a new 90 mpg scooter? Is it better to have savings in cash - the more the better - or a paid off mortgage? Only you can decide.

My husband and I decided to go with a 15 year loan, because we plan to live in our home for many years, we want to have the security and peace of mind of a paid-off house, and we don't trust the stock market to grow at a steady rate. Another way to get most of the benefits of the 15-year loan would be to finance a normal 30 year mortgage, figure out what you would pay on a 15 year, and then pay that every month. Then, of course, you could always pay the lower number if you needed to.

We don't dedicate all our money to paying down our mortgage, because I also believe in having the flexibility of cash. We also do have some investments in the stock market, because you never know when the government might pour billions of dollars into the economy.... to prop up the stock market.

Whatever your situation, whatever your financial beliefs, and by the way you should not construe anything in this article as financial advice, make sure you understand all the financial implications of your mortgage before you sign on the dotted line!