Friday, October 31, 2008

Falling off a cliff

The Financial Times has reported that the International Energy Agency's study of the 400 largest oil fields will reveal that "Without extra investment to raise production, the natural annual rate of output decline is 9.1 per cent." (Of course, this conclusion comes without ever mentioning those wacko peak-oil theorists. )

The 9.1% is a biggie. But the "without extra investment" is also a biggie. In the current financial climate, virtually NOBODY is getting loans. Not even to produce food or oil, the basic necessities of life in our economy.

If this is true.... if we have peaked and are beginning to decline .... if, in a year or 2 years, we are producing 9% less than this year.... we're in for it. I don't think that a year or two would be enough time for people to adjust to the new lower-energy reality, especially after the body-blows from the current financial crisis. Falling wages. Lost jobs. Forgotten retirement plans.

But we can hope, and this news can help inspire us to redouble our own efforts while inviting others to start theirs.

Excuse me while I go make my latest To Do list. It's going to be a long one.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What will they inherit?

A little over one hundred years ago, humanity won the lottery.

Or, more accurately, we found a fossil fuel lottery buried under the Earth and proceeded to extract and burn it with reckless abandon. The energy we obtained from this lottery allowed us to shatter all population records (going from 1 to 6.7+ billion people) by drenching our harvests with fertilizers and pesticides, let us make gasoline-fueled transport popular and affordable, and transformed our homes with unheard-of electrical conveniences.

Here we are, a century later, beginning to notice that we have become completely and utterly dependent on a lottery payment that is now declining.

In another hundred years, in true Hubbert bell-curve fashion, we may be producing only the amount of oil and fossil fuels that we did one hundred years ago. We will have spent the bulk of our geological lottery. And after all the processing, and burning, is over, what will we have left of enduring value to our great-great grandchildren? Will they think the burden of clean-up was worth what they inherited? What will be left of our massive infrastructure build out and production/consumption economy?

To get a glimpse of what our world might look like as we have less and less energy, money and materials to maintain our crumbling infrastructure, take a look at The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, describes how the world would transform if all of humanity suddenly disappeared. I fear, and hope, that parts of the transformation will occur quite similarly as we just don't have enough resources to pave the roads, clean up after the nuclear disposals, and rebuild after tornadoes, hurricanes, and other disasters.

Nature reclaims her domain, plants and animals return to their ecosystems, and rivers begin to run clear. Meanwhile, dams burst from lack of maintenance, radioactive waste seeps into the groundwater, skyscrapers eventually fall, and plastics persist into the next millennium.

But after peak oil, we will still be here to maintain our works. The question is, can we choose wisely what to maintain as energy becomes less and less available? Can we choose to keep the best inventions, information, and achievements and let the insignificant things, which may seem so important now, slip away? Let the skyscrapers fall, but keep antibiotics? Let the highways crumble, but preserve our knowledge and literature in libraries? How will we decide what is truly worth maintaining for a thousand years?

Or will we piss the rest of the lottery away in a vain attempt to keep the Happy-Motoring lifestyle and economy on life-support, and leave nothing of value to our great-grandchildren?

What would YOU choose to bequeath to the next generations?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Who will foot the bill?

Opening shot: Restaurant kitchen

WAITER in a tuxedo is filling a huge tray with plates of lobster, steak, chicken, and fish dishes. We follow WAITER out the kitchen double doors into the noisy chaos of the dining room.

Shot: Table

MAN and WOMAN are drinking their third bottle of champagne. MAN is smoking cigar as WAITER brings tray to table and other WAITERS appear to light something on fire. Flambé!

Shot: Close up of mouths

Graphic shots of chewing, gulping, juice running down chins.

Pan to: Two children sit at the table quietly watching their parents eat and drink and smoke. BOY, 6, and GIRL, 4, have a glass of water set in front of them.

Shot: Table

WAITER appears with another huge tray, this time filled with desserts, while other WAITERS take away the plates of half-eaten dinner. WAITER presents the tab to MAN with a flourish. MAN waves off tab and nods towards BOY. WAITER sets tab in front of BOY. BOY stares down at bill.

Shot: Parking lot

MAN and WOMAN stagger towards large tank-like vehicle, opening with a remote beeper. MAN loosens tie. WOMAN kicks off high heels and carries them. WOMAN turns to blow kiss to CHILDREN standing at door. WAITER holds his hands on CHILDREN's shoulders. Tank peels out, as WAITER turns CHILDREN to go back in the kitchen. Fade to black screen.


It's wrong to ask our kids to pay our bills.

Picture of planet EARTH appears, spinning. Montage of ice crashing into the oceans, deserts cracking open the earth, burning forests, oil spilling into the ocean, fish gasping for breath, faster and faster. Black again.


Global warming is changing the planet.

What are you doing to stop it?

Last shot: Restaurant kitchen

(From behind) A row of children, including BOY and GIRL, are standing on chairs in front of the many restaurant sinks as they start washing the mountain of dishes left behind by their parents.
Note from Hausfrau: Does anyone know any filmmakers? I wish someone would make this commercial!

Top 7 Reasons to buy used goods

According to TerraChoice, an environmental marketing company, the Six Sins of Greenwashing are pervasive in corporate marketing. TerraChoice reviewed the "green" claims of 1,018 products and found that only ONE was true to it's claim - that is, it did not commit one of the greenwashing sins of No Proof, Vagueness, Irrelevance, Fibbing, Lesser of Two Evils, or Hidden Trade Off. All of the products except for one made claims that were false or misleading.

So I ask you, are you sick of greenwashing? Sick of corporations turning environmentalism into a fashion statement? Tired of advertisements that imply you can consume all you want - because it's "green"? Disgusted with being told there is one easy answer to pollution, climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction - and that's to buy one more thing?

I sure as h&*l am! I say, withdraw your support from the corporate greenwashers and don't buy their crap! Of course, I'm not talking about organic food or toiletries. But if you do need to buy a consumer good, remember that buying USED is the most environmental choice you can make in almost all cases. If you're preparing for peak oil, you might want to practice buying used goods- they might be all that's available in a post-peak economy. So here are my top reasons to buy used - used clothes, books, furniture, decorations, electronics, kitchen items, bedding, kid gear, and toys.

  1. Used products are less expensive. Buying anything used (except antiques) is less expensive than the new alternative, sometimes up to 90% cheaper, but generally at least 50% cheaper. Your dollar will go farther if you buy used, and maybe you will be able to afford buying local organic food or more Peak Oil supplies. So you can (pick one): save twice the money, or buy twice the stuff.

  2. Used products don't require new resources. Every manufactured product is responsible for a certain amount of resources consumed - from farming cotton, clearcutting forests, mining for metals, or pumping out oil. The production of new books and furniture require trees to be cut down (95% of books are made from virgin paper). Anything made of plastic is produced from oil pumped from the Earth. The metals in cell phones, jewelry, computers, all must be scraped out of the planet, with horrible environmental consequences. Luckily, there's an alternative - used items don't require any new resources to be consumed.

  3. Used products don't generate pollution. The growing and producing of stuff pumps a lot of pollution into the environment - including toxic chemicals, pesticides, and carbon emissions. For example, a new cotton T-shirt is responsible for 1/3 pound of pesticides dumped into the cotton fields. A new mid-sized car is responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.

  4. Used products don't require energy to create. The farming, harvesting, manufacturing, and shipping of a new product requires quite a bit of energy from electricity (usually from natural gas or coal) and from oil (from running the vehicles used in farming, harvesting, shipping). This is called "embodied energy". Used goods don't require any energy, except perhaps the gas required for you to drive over to the guy from Craigslist's house. The folks at Riot 4 Austerity, who sponsor a 90% energy and consumption reduction challenge, deem used goods to "count" as only 10% of their purchase price, and even better, donated goods from charity stores count as only 0%.

  5. Used products don't have packaging. When you buy almost any new product, it comes with some kind of packaging - plastic hard casing, shrink wrap, cardboard box, styrofoam pellets, etc. The packaging materials, along with the actual product, use energy and resources to create. It can be really difficult to find a way to recycle all that packaging, or even more annoying, to have to throw it away. When you buy used from your local thrift shop, Craigslist, or get a hand-me-down from a friend, you don't have any packaging to deal with.

  6. Buying used supports good causes and the local economy. Buying from a neighbor keeps your money in the neighborhood, not headed off to Wal-Mart headquarters. Buying from a thrift supports whatever cause they support - literacy, the disabled, the sick, the blind, the poor. Most used stores, even if they are on the Internet, are small mom-and-pop shops, not corporate behemoths. And if you buy it used, you are quite likely keeping it from rotting in a landfill.

  7. Buying used lets you avoid trying to figure out all the mumbo-jumbo greenwashing claims. Now that green is fashionable, you can buy $290 organic jeans! You can buy organic, fair-trade, natural, recycled everything - for a price. But is it really organic? Who says? By what standard? Is there even a standard? Oh, really, it's recycled? But what percentage, is that just the package or also the product, is it post-consumer content or just post-industrial, and is it also recyclable? Was it made with sodium laureth sulfate, parabens or pthalates? It's enough to make you tear your hair out trying to research how to buy every item greenly. Fuggedaboutit - buy used. That way, you definitely won't be a corporate patsy.

So do I practice what I preach? I looked around my house to see if I do. I came to the conclusion that although I do make an effort to buy used, I definitely have room for improvement. I decided that about 90% of our furniture is used, and about 90% of our clothes, baby toys and baby gear were gifts, hand-me-downs, or thrift purchases. But plenty, plenty of other stuff we bought brand spankin' new.

I don't feel bad about buying new appliances if they are more energy efficient, or books if it will help support the author. Still, there are other things that I could have tried a little harder to find used (such as this lamp sitting on my desk). So how could I improve my purchasing habits to buy more used items?

I think the main thing I need to do is plan ahead. If I make lists of things that I will need, and I have time to plan, then I can start checking out Craigslist or Freecycle, ask friends and family if they have any old "X"s they need to get rid of, troll garage sales and thrifts, attend big consignment sales, or ask for a used product for a birthday or Christmas gift. If I need to buy it right away, there's no time for that - it's off to the big box store. And then I won't be able to get any of the benefits of buying used.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Zero waste - to go, please

If you have ever tried to decrease the waste in your life, you may have noticed how hard it is to reduce the amount of trash that you throw away. It's hard at home, but even harder if you go out and about - fast food and nice restaurants, grocery stores, public restrooms, and coffee shops all rely on cheap "disposable" packaging, utensils, and napkins that will most likely end up in an incinerator or landfill for a thousand years to come.

Not only does this ubiquitous trash clog up our landscapes and kill wildlife, the trash must first be created, using unseen tons of oil (for plastic), paper (from felled trees), and energy (carbon emissions!!). All for something used and thrown away in half an hour.

I recently ran across the idea for a Zero Waste Travel Kit in the Charleston City Paper, which sponsored a 2-week "Zero Waste Challenge". The idea of the Kit is to help people reduce their waste when they are out in public.

Recommended items in the Kit are:

•Refillable drink bottle and coffee mug
•Plate, bowl and utensils
•Cloth napkin
•Personal hand towel
•Reusable plastic container for leftovers/bulk items at store
•Mesh bag for produce
•Cloth grocery bags

I saw a couple of ladies use this idea at a recent Plan C meeting here in Oklahoma City. The meeting featured a potluck lunch made with locally made foods, but still - disposable plates and cups! I've noticed in the past that this is common even at environmental conferences - reducing waste just seems like an afterthought to the organizers, but it makes a big symbolic impression on the conference participants.

Anyway, many of the Plan C attendees (including myself), had brought refillable coffee mugs and water bottles, but one pair of ladies had gone the extra mile and brought their own plates, utensils and napkins for lunch. Now why didn't I think of that!

So today, I put together my Zero Waste Travel Kits (an ambitious name, I admit!).

The first kit will reside in my son's diaper bag - but would fit equally well in a mid-sized purse -and includes a small cloth bag and a hand towel. The hand towel is for drying off after washing your hands in public restrooms. Sweet! No more wasting energy with air blowers or killing trees with paper hand towels. Also - it won't matter if the restroom is OUT of hand towels, since you will have your own. The cloth bag is for all those times when you happen to need a few things from the store, but don't have your regular cloth bags with you.

The second kit will be in a bag in my car, (although maybe I should put it in my husband's car), and will have plates, silverware, Tupperware bowls, a reusable "To-go" box for taking home leftovers, coffee mug, cups, and napkins. It would also be good to have a rag to wipe down the plates and a Ziploc to put the rag/napkins in.

This kit is focused on reducing the restaurant trash you generate. Lots of fast food places always fix the meal with disposables. You can ask them to fix your food on the plate you've brought instead. OK, so maybe you look like the OCD guy from As Good As It Gets, but so what. Secondly, most restaurants give you To-Go boxes for your leftover food. Instead, just load up your leftovers in your own To-Go box - and no one even needs to know the difference. And finally, I bet you can guess what the coffee mug is for :).

You could also use this kit at whatever meetings, potlucks, environmental and peak oil conferences you may be attending. In fact, I call on all meeting and conference organizers to ask your attendees to bring their own ZW Kits (if you are not already using renewables, of course). Or - you could always sell a ZWK at the beginning of the conference with your logo emblazoned all over everything.

The third kit is just our set of 4 giant cloth bags, which we leave hanging by our garage door so we always remember them as we leave to get groceries. The cloth bags are stuffed with all our plastic bags that we get our produce in, which we re-use over and over - although some people buy/make special mesh bags, which is probably a better idea. If we had a Whole Foods or other place where we could get bulk items, we would include reusable containers in this kit as well.

I found all the items to make these ZWKs already laying around my house in about half an hour this morning. My husband may not appreciate my liberation of the 2 orange plates, but hopefully he just won't notice, and everything else was expendable. So, total cost for me: $0. If you don't have extra bags/plates/Tupperware/utensils/etc, they can be obtained cheap from garage sales or thrift shops.

Bon appetit!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bait and switch

I've found that there's no substitute for experience in gardening. Gardening books and websites provide ideas, guidance, and rules-of-thumb; local gardeners offer tried and true wisdom and climate-specific information, but there's just no way to learn except to DO.

For example, I had a little problem with squash bugs this season.

As soon as I saw the hideous nymphs crawling around my zuchinni, I ran inside and Googled them. Ahh! To my relief, I found that they were just squash bugs. Squash bugs, according to the several extension services websites that I read, are not a serious problem during the "late season".

Squash bug nymphs on zuchinni


These little devils devoured my zuchinni, moved to my buttercup squash and destroyed it, then, after a heroic effort, killed my gigantic pumpkin vines, and finally withered away my cucumbers. Not a serious problem, my hindquarters. Hmmmph.

Towards the end of the pumpkin destruction, I came up with a little game I like to call "Kill the %$^# squash bugs". Here's how it works: Set out a bait (I found pumpkins work great). Set up a trap (a bucket of soapy water). Then, periodically, like twice a day, pick up the pumpkin, hold it over the trap, and brush them into the soapy water to drown.

Pumpkin bait

Soapy water death trap

Simple, and satisfying. Although it was too late for this year, I hope that I reduced the population of squash bugs who will try to kill my cucurbits next year. I've also resolved to only plant zukes in my front yard next year, to escape the s.b. scourge. Of course, what would have been more satisfying would have been to kill the eggs as soon as I saw them on the zuchinni leaves, and never had any problem at all. But we'll have to save that for another year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why don't people garden?

Those of us who garden have many reasons for doing so. Flavor, a little independence from the destructive industrial food system, reducing our climate emissions via our "food miles", the pleasure of walking out to gather organic ingredients for the evening meal, the satisfaction of growing things that can't be found in the store, a love of nurturing plants and spending time outdoors.

Those who don't garden have just as many reasons. If we are trying to get family and friends to start a garden, it might help us understand why they resist.

  1. There is no need. In the minds of most people, the grocery store provides an adequate, cheap, convenient variety of semi-nutritious food. Produce is available year round and foods are conveniently packaged and storable, without further effort beyond buying them, taking them home and putting them in the fridge/pantry. Possible answer: Here's where you have to do the real convincing. If you've already gotten them buying organic and local, you're probably halfway there. Tell them the reasons why YOU garden. Home grown produce is more nutritious and tasty, has less impact on the environment, and you know where it came from. Tell them: it's worth the effort!

  2. They don't know how. Most people in my generation grew up without a garden, or without doing any gardening ourselves. Without practice, growing food is a complicated affair, with different requirements and schedules for all the various fruits and vegetables. It can seem overwhelming to learn everything. Possible answer: Help them start their garden! Give freely of your knowledge, skill and advice. Take time to actually show them how to do things. Don't condescend, but then again don't assume they know the things you consider obvious. An inspirational book, like Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and a how-to book, like The Vegetable Gardener's Bible, could go a long way.

  3. Gardening requires time. There is a serious start up time for getting the tools and supplies, creating the raised beds and preparing the soil. Then there is the planting of seeds and transplants, mulching, weeding, watering, and harvesting, and storing of the produce. It's definitely a time investment. Possible answer: Start small. Start with a little 4 x 4 area and one fruit tree and expand every year. Start with food that you like that grows easily in your climate. Mulch, to cut down on time spent watering and weeding.

  4. Gardens aren't always pretty. Sure, a well- designed and well-tended garden can be beautiful. On the other hand, a tomato plant destroyed by aphids falling over in it's oh-so-inadequate cage... not so beautiful. Bare ground prepared for seeds, not always the most gorgeous sight. And my garden overgrown with 7 foot lamb's quarters and a fierce infestation of squash bugs - so not lovely. Possible answer: Find a garden site near the house so you can give your garden the proper attention. And again, start small so you can keep up with weeding. Interplanting flowers (like marigolds) with the vegetables keeps the garden bright and cheery, and many vegetables, like Swiss chard, and even purple-podded green beans, are attractive.

  5. Gardening takes money. I'm sure that a good, experienced gardener can save money on produce. But beginners, after buying compost, timbers for raised beds, fertilizer, tools, seeds, straw for mulch - they might actually lose money in the first year at least. Possible answer: Help your friend find the cheap way. Municipal compost systems, backyard compost, mulching with free newspaper and leaves, splitting seed costs, buying tools from garage sales, getting gardening gifts from you :) - these can all cut down on costs. Also, gardening probably DOES save a significant amount of money if you buy organic food. And you know, if you look at it as a hobby, gardening is pretty cheap.

  6. Gardening requires a sunny, protected area with decent soil. If you want to grow many vegetables, you have to have a house with a sunny plot of land - at least more land than people living in apartments, condos, or in wooded areas. Possible answer: Well, truthfully this is a pretty big obstacle, but there are ways around it. Container gardens in "self-watering containers" can grow quite a bit of food. There are urban community gardens in many areas. And hey - you could start them out by exchanging labor in your garden for some of your produce. Then maybe they could start a garden at their neighbor's house, with the same deal.
  7. Gardening requires a level of physical fitness. So, digging raised beds is not for the faint of heart. Even routine garden maintenance takes some effort. We all know about the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, and our aging population. We certainly don't want Grandma having a heart attack digging out the weeds! Possible answer: If someone is only partly out of shape, they could start a fitness and stretching program this winter to get ready for spring. Certain chores can be outsourced (such as the original bed preparation). If someone is elderly or disabled, but they want a garden, maybe they could make an arrangement like the above - offer a 50/50 split of produce grown in their sunny good soil in exchange for some help during the gardening season.
  8. Gardening is frustrating. Sometimes it seems like a constant battle to keep out the weeds, protect your plants from squirrels, and kill off the squash bugs. You might feel a little despair when you discover that some sort of disease has destroyed the grapevine. And it's disappointing to find that the carrots came out pretty puny - nothing like the ones you buy in the store! Why put up with the hassle when the grocery store is always available? Possible answer: Another tough one. You have to believe in gardening to get through the frustrations. You have to have faith that the garden will look better and produce more - NEXT year. And there are ways to deal with the most common problems. Mulch can really help with the weeds. Bird netting is great for protecting seedlings and tomatoes from birds and squirrels. And squash bugs? Well, I'll let you know the answer when I figure it out. Maybe you folks can share your tips here?? :)

As food prices rise, I bet gardening will become more attractive, but it's probably best to get started ASAP - before the need is dire. So help your friends and family start gardens! If you start convincing them now, they could be ready to get started by spring.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Nuclear island

When I was 7 or 8, I read a book called Brother in the Land, which was about 3 siblings who survive a nuclear war in England, only to have to deal with nuclear fallout and the Purple People Eaters (obligatory post-nuclear cannibals). Scared the s^%t out of my little preadolescent self. I then figured out that nuclear war was not just fiction but potential reality (and real reality for anyone living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki).

Well, what's a 7 year old to do about such things? I promptly retreated into fantasy by creating my Nuclear Island (after reading Swiss Family Robinson). This was the island that my family and friends would retreat to in the event of a nuclear holocaust, where we would be safe and protected. It would have a handy protective shield around it (think Starship Enterprise) to keep out the nuclear fallout and automatically filter the rain.

I made lists of people who could come to the Island. I usually limited them to 100 people, which was about all the people I knew in the world. To help me fall asleep, I made mental lists of people who would be invited. Much more helpful than counting sheep. Comforting.

I also drew a great map of the Island. I made a neighborhood, with little houses for everyone and a street that only connected the houses. What else was essential for my Island? Well, obviously a library, and maybe a bookstore too. I think I put in a Big Splash water park (Why not? It's my Island). But what makes me laugh now is the fact that I put a GROCERY STORE on the island.

Where food comes from

As a 7 year old, I had no concept of how food came into existence. From my perspective, food came from the grocery store. Where did it come from before the grocery store? Well, that wasn't ever a question that occured to me. I mean, my family did have a garden. But that grew tomatoes. Everything else came from the grocery store. Even if I thought about it, I wouldn't know how ice cream or pasta was "grown" and then manufactured.

So folks, this is what we're dealing with. Those of us in the permaculture/peak oil/climate change/foodie mini-subculture sometimes forget about the wider group of people out there. There are literally millions of people in America who don't cook for themselves (beyond packaged or frozen entrees), much less grow any of their food. People who don't know that apples grow on trees and potatoes come from the ground. People who don't know that meat is made from animals. Their knowledge comes from our failing public schools and from television, neither of which discuss much about food except that it's making us all fat.

So when we talk about the People of America growing their own food, or even just their own fruits and vegetables, understand we're talking about people who are going to need A LOT of support. People are going to need to know what soil and seeds are. How to use a shovel and a hoe. What and when and where and how to plant. What types of fruits and vegetables will grow in their climate. How to weed and mulch and water. How to protect from bugs and other critters. How to harvest and preserve and process and cook and bake. Literally everything, starting with the fact that food is grown from plants or taken from animals.

Oops! I almost forgot: How to stretch before gardening so you don't throw out your back on the first day of spring. Very important.

Growing food in a garden, in my experience, is not easy. Maybe some things are easy, depending on your climate. But it takes several years to figure out the basics, build soil, make some mistakes and learn some lessons, and get some understanding of what grows well where you are. And what makes it hard is that everything grows differently! Carrots don't grow like tomatoes, which don't grow like apples, which don't grow like spinach. Surprise, surprise. :) Basically, the average person just can't grow all of their fruits and vegetables, no matter how hard they try, in the first year or two of gardening.

So put that idea in the back of your mind and let it sit there for awhile. I will be, as I try to figure out how we're going to go from a system where about 2% of the people grow all of the food for everybody, using tractors and combines and industrial-sized everything, to a system where a lot more people will have to grow at least some of their own food.

In 1840, 69% of the American population was counted as part of the farm labor force. In 1990, it was 2.6%. That's an enormously huge change, and we're going to need lots of somebodies showing everyone else the way if we're going to reverse course.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Community Centers

When times get tight, people bond together. And if we think ahead, we can create the pieces of an infrastructure that is more community-oriented than the very individualistic, profit-oriented places that we live today. For example, community centers could be a way to help each ourselves and our neighborhoods and cities maintain a decent standard of living as the energy begins to drain out of our system.

A good community center, along with a community kitchen, would provide vital services to members that families could no longer afford to have at their homes. This would be especially key in a future where electricity and gasoline were rationed, exorbitantly expensive or unreliable. So what key services could a community center offer, if it had an off-grid solar panel system?

Medical Needs

  • A propane refrigerator for insulin and other vital medications such as anesthesia

Safety and Security

  • A weather alert system (if one was not otherwise functioning - vital in Oklahoma City)
  • Security alert system via sirens or even low-tech noisemakers like gongs
  • Communications via CB radio


  • Computers for research
  • Networks such as Bright Neighbor to find resources right in the neighborhood
  • An information library (books, articles, videos)
  • A printer and copy machine for spreading key information via pamphlets and flyers


  • Entertainment nights with movies and music
A community center, with off-grid solar panels and functioning dependable electricity, could keep a neighborhood population functioning at a much higher level, with great physical and mental health benefits. How could we create such a place?

Think differently. A community center doesn't have to LOOK like a community center, with basketball courts or pool tables, or like a clubhouse in a gated neighborhood. Many different options are available. A community center could even have a different official purpose until it needed to change, or it could be designated as a community center right off the bat. The vital thing, in my mind, is that the center have an off-grid electrical system.

A "community center" could be a library, where multiple computers, office equipment and information resources already exist. It could simply be a glorified shed at somebody's house with a computer, printer, propane fridge and solar panels. (Some people already use this type of extra building as a home office set up right outside their house).

It could belong to a group, or it could belong to the government, or even an individual - if it could be repurposed when it becomes necessary. So what are some ideas to consider, if you want to help increase the resilience of your community in a future of declining and unreliable resources?
  1. Update existing community centers. Schools, churches, libraries, and neighborhood clubhouses often have (or function as) community centers. These places, that have the advantages of an existing building with a community purpose, usually have much of the equipment that would be needed. Upgrades would likely consist of simply adding solar panels or propane fridges that would function during electrical blackouts. These upgrades could be funded by the host organization via community petition, fundraisers, or a local good Samaritan. Funding might even be available in community grants or in existing budgets.
  2. Repurpose an existing building. In some places, abandoned or foreclosed houses may become extremely common. A house right inside your neighborhood could be repurposed as a community center, if it had enough space and the proper infrastructure. These houses could possibly be picked up "cheap" at an auction and retrofitted with solar electricity. Buildings could be purchased by community or neighborhood organizations, foundations, or by an individual with deep pockets. Or families could pool their resources to purchase one - although this would require a certain level of trust and cooperation. Get creative! Individuals within your neighborhood might like to rent a "home office" right down the block. That could pay a good portion of the mortgage.
  3. Start from scratch. A community center could be custom built to fit your needs. This might be the the most expensive (if done conventionally) or cheap (if it is built by volunteers with local building materials like straw bale or cob or even just a modular shed). This could be an ongoing community project but would need a dedicated organizer to work with suppliers, contractors, and volunteers.
So there are many options for organizations or groups of dedicated people to form a community center, or even for a single individual to lay the groundwork for an existing community center to get the necessary upgrades. And if we are going to create this kind of potentially life and lifestyle saving resource, we better do it soon. While there's still things like solar panels and money left. Not to be alarmist, but a fast crash, whether due to declining energy or finances, is possible and becoming more likely every week that we ignore our predicament.

Does anyone else have suggestions for how to accomplish the (budget) creation of this type of place? Does anyone have suggestions for other vital equipment or functions to include in a community center?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bright Neighbor

What's a common mantra of peak oil preparers, climate change activists, and environmentalists? Go local, go local, go local. But until now, there have been few tools to help us do so. We don't know our neighbors. The food and consumer goods in our stores come from thousands of miles away. And the places we live are hard to get around by walking or biking.

So as we try to re-localize, how do we find what we need? How do we collaborate when we don't know who's who? How do we garden when we don't know how? How do we buy local when all we see on the streets are big-box stores? It's kind of a difficult slog sometimes, isn't it?

Help is here! Bright Neighbor is an online tool designed for cities or towns to help their residents weather the peak oil and financial storms currently brewing. It helps citizens connect, share and barter items, rides, and knowledge. By facilitating community involvement and local networking, this tool can help increase the liveability and sustainability of our cities.

Bright Neighbor is the brainchild of Randy White, a key member of the Portland Peak Oil Task Force. As usual, Portland is in the vanguard of sustainability and environmentalism. Part of the Portland peak oil plan is the Portland Bright Neighbor site, where residents can:

  • Find local businesses and resources
  • Meet local people with the same interests
  • Swap and share items, goods, and services
  • Search for and offer rides and car-shares
  • Find community events and news

I first read about this site at Lawns to Gardens, and I contacted Randy White to find out more. He called me back within 5 minutes and gave me a guided online tour of the Portland Bright Neighbor site (available to community members only - otherwise I would link it here). Simply impressive! Although I have only seen the tool for 20 minutes, the potential of this thing is HUGE.

I mean, how many grain mills does a neighborhood need - couldn't we share one? And wouldn't it be great if people knew where the local water wells were in an emergency? And wouldn't it be nice to be able to find the Master Gardeners in your neighborhood to ask about the best plant varieties? To find a local business that sells what you want? Even find a local homebrewing or quilting group?

Bright Neighbor has great interactive maps where you can find all things locally. For example, food. Search on food, and you can see a map of the local farmer's markets, urban gardens, even find the publicly available fruit and nut trees. It also has great lists of people. Click on edible landscaping, and you can find people in your area with the same interest. (Community members use an online alias, with their information hidden, until they chose to "trust" another person and show them their information. )

To put it another way, Bright Neighbor is to going local as is to buying books.

Caveat time. I know I seem a little excited. So please note that I haven't used this tool, I've only seen an online demonstration. It's still in beta, it's still a new technology, and I don't know if Bright Neighbor has "bugs" or issues, and how the people using it like it. But from what I saw, it's very easy to use, safe and secure, and COOL. And if you know me, you know the Hausfrau doesn't get excited over just any old technology. (Just the Global Sun Oven :))

I tell you, it gives me hope. Now, Bright Neighbor has been deployed in 5 locations already, and this company is ready to help your city get started. Randy White, the founder, is on a mission to help this country prepare to live sustainably, city by city, town by town.

The base cost of the Bright Neighbor online tool starts at $5000 (depends on the size of the town or neighborhood and other technical factors - so the price could be higher for your city), which is a drop in the bucket in most city budgets. Think like this: What is the cost of each person preparing for peak oil individually, versus the cost of everyone working together? Working as a community, we can achieve so much more. And this tool, I believe, could be a major key to working together.

If you are interested in getting your community ready for peak oil and living sustainably, this tool should really be a part of your community preparation strategy. So talk to your town and neighborhood leaders and city planners. Tell them about Bright Neighbor. Check it out. It's been designed so that cities and towns can have a city site up and running in a short amount of time, and the tool grows organically as people join and share their knowledge. But remember, like any community tool, it's only as good as the community members who join it.

Say it with me, people! There is help to GO LOCAL. And it's name is Bright Neighbor!

Now if I can just find someone to talk to in Oklahoma City government....

Monday, October 6, 2008

Weekend roundup

In spite of the impending financial doom, which I am increasingly worried about, I had a GREAT weekend! What made it so great, you might wonder. Did I go to Malibu? Did I have a date with Jake Gyllenhaal? Did I win 200 million dollars in the lottery?

No, no, sadly no. Instead.... (dramatic pause).....I got stuff done! Yes, I worry a lot, I have dark pictures in my head about potential horrors to come, and I would like to strangle those people who are making it all worse. But instead, I just got a few things done. And these small accomplishments ease my mind and unclench my stomach, no matter how small my actions may be in the scheme of things.

First, there was a neighborhood garage sale. I picked up more clothes for the small boy, a pair of jeans for me ($2) and a large well made woven basket for $3.

Then, we visited the grocery store and topped off the storage foods with oats (enough for 2 1/2 people to eat 5 days per week for 3 months), pasta (enough to eat twice a week for 3 months) and applesauce (would last about a month or so). I put all the pasta in a bucket for storage but um, I forgot to get a lid. Put that on the To Do list.

I think I should note here that I had a conversation with a new acquantaince recently that focused on stocking up on canned goods - and SHE started it! In my book, that means TS could HTF any day now. So folks, the drill is over. If you don't have some food, get some. You never know what could happen - hurricanes, ice storms, trucker strikes, and gas shortages have already become a stark, harsh, reality for many people. Put it under your bed, behind the books in the bookcase, or at the top of your closet if there's no room in the kitchen. And if you eat what you store/store what you eat, no skin off your back, right? You're just saving yourself money as prices rise.

Where was I? Ok, next, the green beans that I planted August 15th started coming in, so I harvested a few handfuls of those. They are purple pods, so cute to pick and easy to see in the foliage. The Red Burgundy okra, basil, banana/bell/ jalapeno/poblano peppers, and cherry tomatoes also continue to yield. Now, I will probably not be getting enough to be able to can the green beans, but there should be enough to eat green organic veggies for weeks.

Then, I got over my reluctance and set up my Global Sun Oven, in all it's reflective glory, in the FRONT YARD, where the sun is best at this time of year. I set it up within view of the front door and large picture window to deter any potential solar thieves. The GSO did not get stolen, and no one stopped to accuse us of ruining the neighborhood with our solar appliance. We roasted a butternut and acorn squash and made mushroom-stuffed squash for dinner.

I also dehydrated some OK Food Co-op pears with my Nesco dehydrator. For some reason I thought it would take a lot of time. Since I decided I could live with skin-on pear chips, it did not! So easy! Luckily, I remembered the dehydrator was still outside (after I had already gotten in bed) and snuck out to bring it back in the house (without disturbing hubby) before the rainstorm this morning. I would mention all the pesto I made, but strictly speaking that was last weekend, so it would be cheating :).

I ordered some books as a birthday present to myself. Well, yes. SIX books. Sharon Astyk's book Depletion and Abundance; the Archdruid's book The Long Descent; Rob Hopkin's Transition Handbook; also The Solar Food Dryer, The Ball Book of Home Preserving (I don't like the book Putting Food By at all), and The Vegetable Gardener's Bible (I have many specialty gardening books and permaculture books but no basic gardening books! Now if only it were written for gardening in the South....).

And finally, the best part - rearranging the furniture. We didn't spend a penny- and my house is completely 100% improved. I cannot tell you how excited this makes me, but I will try anyway. Now I can have friends over without awkward glances at the bed bizarrely placed in the living room! I can actually hang out and read in the living room, because there are couches in there! And I am now willing to clean the place since I can use it. So, so, so excited. It just goes to show that sometimes you just need to look around at what you already have, and put it to better use. Yippeeeee!

So, although the market seems to be disappearing in all it's hallucinated wealth, I feel ok, at least until I realize there will be no retirement for my generation, which is also probably going to be the least of our problems. How was your weekend?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Front yard gardening / Edible Landscaping

I have a dilemma: the sunniest part of my fairly small property is in the front yard. The pecan trees shade most of the backyard, only allowing for about 150 sq ft of garden in the back. So, should I cut down a pecan tree or use the front yard for part of my food garden? I've decided I can't bear to cut down a tree, so front yard gardening it is.

In order to fit in with the general suburban schema, and because I have a home office, my front yard garden has got to look good. That means large square raised bed gardening won't work for me (at least right now). Instead, we killed about 20% of our front lawn and planted a regular perennial border, which I am partially converting to edibles.

So this post is for people who want to add some edibles and vegetables to the front yard, but are not quite ready to go whole enchilada and destroy the whole lawn. (Note: I'm in zone 7, with hot and humid summers, and several periods of 2 -3 weeks without rain.) Here are some possibilities if you are trying to integrate the look of your front yard with the rest of the neighborhood:

  1. Nut trees - In my area, that means pecans. Upside: they are good shade trees, and provide good monounsaturated fat for the diet. Downside: eventually they will cast shade over the whole front yard, and sometimes they will only crop every few years. Also, they have to be shelled. PITA!
  2. Fruit trees - In the average sized front yard, you can fit several dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit trees. Peaches, plums and pears are most common in my area, and they are very pretty in bloom and during fruiting! You do have to thin the fruit, clean up after the fruit, and keep in mind that most fruit trees need 2 different kinds in order to properly pollinate. We have 2 peach trees, and people always comment on them during fruiting season.

  3. Culinary Herbs - Many cooking herbs are attractive, and several smell quite yummy. They are also fairly easy to grow if you are just starting to garden. Rosemary, purple sage, thyme, mint (must be contained in a pot), lemon balm (not so attractive in the late summer), oregano, and chives are good candidates. I have planted all these herbs in my backyard (what was I thinking??), but I'm happy to report they would look just as good in the front.
  4. Medicinal herbs - A lot of these herbs masquerade as flowers. No one needs to know the difference :)! Echinacea, yarrow, feverfew, lavender, hops vines, and chamomile are all attractive, and many will also supply bees with pollen (Save the bees!). I am notoriously efficient at killing lavender though.

  5. Fruit shrubs and vines and groundcovers - I haven't tried these, but blueberries are supposed to be just as ornamental as any regular yard shrub. Grapes can also be very ornamental (if not infested with some kind of gall, like mine). If you can get strawberries established, they have pretty flowers, and of course, fruit. For ideas, I like to visit Raintree Nursery and Burnt Ridge Nursery.
  6. Attractive vegetables - I think that Swiss Chard, okra, and peppers are all attractive plants. We have a banana pepper and two bell peppers planted right by the front door, and most people don't even notice that they are there. They've done really well, too!

Next year I plan to add zuchinni to the front yard (I like the yellow blooms), to avoid the dreaded squash bugs in the back, and expand my pepper planting to 6 peppers. I'd also like to have a bean teepee. EVENTUALLY, I want to convert at least half the front yard to edibles. But that will require some co-operation from my wonderful yet reluctant husband :).

One other technique that helps me integrate my edibles into the front yard is to have a focal point. I have two Knock-Out (TM) roses that bloom in every season but winter. They really catch the eye and distract onlookers from the other plants.

So, what has worked well for you other gardeners planting edibles and vegetables in your front yards? Has anyone commented on or complimented your veggies?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Vitamins in Your Lawn

Wait! Do you KNOW how much nutrition is in that green vegetable you were about to kill? That's right, I'm talking about those weeds with the cheerful yellow flowers that homeowners love to hate - dandelions. According to the USDA Bulletin #8 "Composition of foods", dandelions rank in the top four most nutritious green vegetables. In fact, just one cup of that dandelion has:
  • 147 mg of calcium
  • 244 mg of potassium
  • 203 mg of Vitamin K
  • 19% of daily recommended allowance for iron & 28% of the DRA for Vitamin C
  • Over 10,000 IUs of Vitamin A! (Third richest of all foods after cod liver oil and beef liver!)

(Source: Jonny Bowden's 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth)

Furthermore, dandelions are:

  • Free

  • Easy to grow :)

  • One of the first vegetables to appear in the spring, and again in the fall

So why waste this incredible source of nutrition, shown to be great at detoxifying the liver and increasing bile flow? Why spray nasty herbicides to get rid of a valuable vegetable? Instead, you could (carefully wash the leaves and then) throw the leaves in your mixed green salad, put it in your minestrone or omelet, and juice it up with some lemon and apples. AND you can treat the root like a carrot - put it in stir fries, soups, or sautee it up with some garlic and onions.

OK - so I admit there is a reason not to eat it. Some dandelion leaves taste pretty bitter. In fact, to prepare for this post, I sauteed up a batch with olive oil and lemon - and couldn't finish it all. Too bitter! But, then, this morning I juiced a cup of dandelion leaves with a sprig of mint, 1/2 a lemon, and an apple - and yum! The bitterness gave the juice a nice edge. I plan to use the leaves in small portions, as part of bigger meals. It seems they are so incredibly nutritious that even a little bit is beneficial (sort of like parsley).

But wait! Don't kill that purslane either! Also treated as a weed by confused lawn-owners, purslane has the highest omega-3 concentration of any green leafy vegetable. Also 90 mg of calcium, 561 mg of potassium, and 2,000 IUs of vitamin A in a cup. Full disclosure: I haven't tried purslane yet.

Hey, I'm a novice gardener, and I like a plant that grows easy, propogates itself, and has few diseases or pests to bother it. And in case I'm ever down to wheat berries and rice in my food storage, I know where to get my vitamins - from my lawn.