Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Year End Evaluation

2009 was a tough year for many people. The impact of foreclosures, unemployment, wage cuts, and retirement losses were just the first unhappy glimpse of the results of building our way of life around unsustainable and unstable market forces. Luckily, my husband has kept his job, although I have taken a 20% "pay cut" due to a downturn in my business.

Time to see how I did on my 2009 goals. Supposedly, writing down goals and making them public makes them more likely to be achieved. Hmm....

1. Save $XX thousand by end of year.

Year End: NO, due to paying for the 2007 Prius and kitchen remodel.

2. Pay down mortgage by $XX thousand by end of year.

Year End: Yes, as scheduled.

3. Grow garden for spring, summer, and fall and plant blackberries and kiwis in the spring. Preserve the harvest as much as possible by canning, drying.

Year End: The garden grew, although it was upset by the drought in early summer. It did bounce back a bit when the rains returned. This year I am really trying to look for "heat tolerant" and "drought tolerant" varieties. The blackberries lived, the male kiwi died a slow death, and we got a first small crop of apples. Hopefully next year we will be able to harvest blackberries.

We did preserve the peach harvest by canning, drying and freezing, made pesto (I find homemade pesto much superior to store-bought), and stored garlic and butternut squashes, which are still holding up nicely. We didn't get enough tomatoes, beans or okra to store this year.

4. Renovate kitchen to allow two people to cook in the kitchen at the same time, add storage space, and increase ease of cleaning.

Year End: Yes! I now have more than 1.25 contiguous feet of countertop! And DH even got a cubby for his home brew supplies. This project required months of mess and many weekends of priming, painting, tiling, and grouting, but now that it is 97% done it seems completely worth it.

5. Replace old carpet with wood flooring in kitchen, dining room, and front room.

Year End: Due to the length and expense of the kitchen remodel, this has been postponed to next year.

6. Fitness. Walk - every day if warm enough. Yoga - twice a week. Lifting weights - once a week.

Year End: Abject failure. Although I did walk regularly and did yoga about twice a month.

7. Start Riot 4 Austerity in 1 or 2 categories.

Year End: We pursued a reduction in gasoline by purchasing a Prius, which was one of the few options available to us considering the almost-total lack of public transport, sidewalks, crosswalks, or bike trails, and without a desire to stop seeing family that live on the South side of OKC and in Tulsa. I doubt that we got a 90% reduction, and since I fell off the wagon with the receipts, I'll have to guess at a 40% reduction (going from an average of 28 mpg to 51 mpg) on the car we use 75% of the time. Maybe I'll keep the receipts in January to compare to the "average" American use.

8. Continue preparing for Peak Oil.

Year End: Most of my energy this year was taken up with Transition Town OKC, trying to catalyze the community to create a more resilient and sustainable system to meet the challenges of peak oil and climate change. MAN, this takes a lot of time and effort. Between writing and running a website, going to training, going to meetings, giving presentations and speeches, manning events, and writing brochures and newsletters, TTOKC ate up 5 - 20 hours of my time per week (depending on the week). And I know my TTOKC co-chair spent just as much, if not more, time working on this project.

Next year, we will continue TTOKC and try to inspire smaller, more localized efforts, such as Transition Neighborhoods. I hope that this will be the level at which real change is effected - although TTOKC is necessary for city-wide coordination and focus. Next year will also be a return to focusing on home preparation for my family.

All in all, I feel good about the year, although it always seems that I never accomplish enough. How did you do on your 2009 goals? Were you derailed by economic forces? Or did you manage to make progress?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Not so subtle gift ideas

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 (not so subtly) 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, collapse of financial stability, 10% unemployment rate), we've just been picking up a few things here and there. We thought you might like this - "

Oil lamp
CFL lantern or BOGO light
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
Beer brewing kit
Canning jars and lids
Dutch Oven
Cast iron skillet
Sub-zero sleeping bags
Everlasting firestarter

Strategy #3: For the Bibliophiles

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

Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins
Just in Case by Kathy Harrison
The Long Emergency by James Howard Kuntsler
The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg
Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov
Depletion and Abundance, by Sharon Astyk
The Vegetable Gardeners' Bible by Ed Smith
Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

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/fridge/buried underground) until you need it"

Global Sun Oven
Camp stove + propane
2 weeks supply of water (and Tang)
Wood cookstove
Cord of wood
20 buckets of rice, beans, oats, and sugar
Gold bullion
When Technology Fails, by Matthew Stein
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.

PS: Yes, this IS a repost from last year! Any suggestions of your own?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Enjoying the holidays despite it all

Over the last ten years, Christmas seems to have become a ridiculous caricature; filled with too much sugar, too many presents, too much unneeded debt for too little satisfaction. The malls are decorated even before Thanksgiving, and the traffic jams leading to these consumer cesspalaces spawn migraines and ulcers along with mountains of trash and e-waste. Instead of joy, we get obligation and stress; instead of cheer, we develop road rage, panic attacks and ten extra pounds.

But I love Christmas despite it all. I have too many happy memories from my childhood of making ornaments, decorating the Christmas tree, singing carols, eating fudge, watching the Grinch that Stole Christmas, and poring through catalogs to find gifts for my family on my low, low budget. I loved to lay under the tree at night and just stare up at the multi-colored lights, which sadly seem to have gone out of style. Strangely, I don't remember receiving any particular Christmas presents, except for our mutt Rusty and the ubiquitous book store gift card, which I always treasured.

These fond memories are what I hope to create for my son. Memories of spending time together in creative ways, laughing and singing and cooking. Doing, instead of getting. Of course, we hope our son will enjoy his presents. Perhaps he will cherish each one even more as budgets grow tighter and the gifts, fewer. I certainly think gifts of the last decade seem lavishly, even disgustingly, excessive.

Don't worry - the Hausfrau has not gone soft. I can still see the four Horsemen approaching. Some are riding already, the others are mounting up. Economic meltdown, dwindling resources, environmental overload and social breakdown have not gone away and seem to be consolidating their hold on the planet as each day slips by. And as usual, I try my best to prepare.

But for now, I am grateful for what I have and I'm enjoying the holiday season, day by day and breath by breath. Every twinkling light, every cheesy card, every hearty holiday wish. Perhaps because of my doomy hyper-awareness, I sometimes tend to treasure experiences as if they may be my last.

So here's a holiday wish for you, readers. May all of you be safe, warm and well-fed. May you create meaningful memories that will tide you through darker times. May you laugh at the ridiculous excess we see all around us, cherish your friendships and hold on to your darlings, and remember the true meaning of Christmas - whatever that is to you. So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Food choices

In the past year, a variety of food-related documentaries have been released - Food Inc, Fresh, Killer at Large, King Corn, and so on. Some, such as Fresh, focus more on potential solutions - organic food, local growers, Farmer's Markets, community gardens, CSA's, and of course everyone's favorite, Polyface Farms with Joel Salatin. Other movies focus on the health problems of the system or the effects on farmers. Many of these documentaries may not have come to your local Blockbuster or movie theater, but most are available at Netflix - some of them even available to watch instantly on your computer!

My husband and I finally watched Food, Inc. over the weekend. I was moved by this one, which provided a good overview of the effects of our "cheap" food system and had a special focus on the e.coli outbreaks that are part of the low-regulated, feedlot, poor animal health conditions, high-speed processing aspect of our food system, and which kill children around the country every year. I have actually taken a tour of a meat-processing plant (industry terminology for slaughterhouse) and the movie brought back some unpleasant memories of striding through ankle-deep blood.

I have been a pescetarian since 2001/2002 - eating no beef, pork or poultry, but still eating dairy, eggs and fish. The transition was easier than I thought, since I like pasta, potato dishes, stews, soups, salads, bean dishes, and curries, which can all be made without meat. Every time I watch one of these documentaries I am glad I made that choice! Trust me, my eating choices are nowhere near perfect (whatever that means!!), but I do avoid industrial meat.

After watching Food, Inc., we have decided to try to order a side of grass-fed beef, raised without grains, steroids, hormones, antibiotics or animal protein additives. Sources such as Jonny Bowden (nutritionist of 150 Healthiest Foods fame) and Mother Earth News have touted the health, safety and environmental benefits of grass-fed, pastured beef.

I have visited one of our local ranchers, Rose Ranch, and can avow that their cattle were, indeed, hanging around outside chewing their cud, looking bovinely happy. Rose Ranch offers packaged, freezer-ready portions at $6.95/lb, with a $100 deposit per side required. A side weighs in at about 140-160 pounds.

Although I don't intend to eat the meat, I feel that this is a way to support a local rancher by buying their local, humanely raised beef for my family members and friends who are going to be eating beef anyway. I'm not sure when we can get the beef because I am not sure when they are processing next, but if you are interested in ordering your own, you can contact Don or Vicki Rose at drose AT roseranchjones DOT com. There are also a few other grass-fed beef options available on the website.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Giveaway winner

MN_Homesteader / Devin, you are the winner as chose by the Random Number Generator at! Congrats!

Please comment me your address and book choice (Transition Handbook, Simply in Season or Independence Days) by end of day of the 9th, or I will choose again. Comments are on "moderate" and so your address will not be published.

Thanks to everyone for participating! Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

'Tis the season....

For a giveaway! Leave a comment here if you are interested in winning either:

Simply in Season - my favorite seasonal cookbook


Rob Hopkin's The Transition Handbook


Independence Days - Sharon Astyk's latest

Pick one! I will check back on December 7th and select a winner from the comments (probably out of a hat). Sorry - can't ship internationally, just within the U.S.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Peak Oil Prep Strategies

Time for a quick poll: Who's doing what?

A. Urban gardening and community

"I live near family in a reasonably priced or paid-off home, with a stable job. I think where I am is my best bet, although I might have an emergency plan to "bug out" if needed. I am increasing the energy efficiency of my house, and maybe adding solar panels or maybe just some solar battery chargers. I have a good-sized garden, and support my local foodshed by buying from farmer's markets, CSA or Co-op. I have a high- efficiency vehicle like a hybrid, or I could bike or walk to where I need to be. I have stocked food storage of several months, as well as trying to meet needs off-grid if needed (warm bedding, Sun Ovens, wood stove, etc.). I am working with neighborhood or civic groups to build local community and resiliency.

My weak spot is widespread rioting or other urban unrest. In that case I might be toast."

B. Back to the land

"I have started a farm with the goal of being mostly self-sufficient, although this whole farming thing is a little new to me. I've got a large garden and some livestock in a place that might be well out of the way, or maybe fairly close to urban centers so I can get food to market. Rainwater cisterns, root cellars, compost toilets, perhaps even an underground or earth-sheltered home. I'm installing a wood stove, wind turbine, solar panels, even biogas. I hope to be the refuge of last resort for my more-clueless relatives. I may or may not be paying serious attention to security - don't try me!"

C. Amassing wealth

"I think the main repercussions of peak oil and our unsustainable financial system are going to be economic. People who have secure paid-off houses, a good job, cash on hand, offshore accounts, gold and silver, wise investments, and five hundred pounds of MRE's just-in-case, are going to have it made in the shade. I plan to not lift a finger in the near future since everyone else will be unemployed and I will be able to employ maids, chefs, gardeners, and anyone else for close to nothing. Bow down before me ye wretched serfs!"

D. Guerrilla prep

"I am highly mobile with few possessions or attachments. I possess highly-honed wilderness skills, a tent and sleeping bag, rifle (insert specific name and model here), motorcycle/boat/hiking boots, cash and gold. I am unencumbered by illness or disability, pregnant wife, infants, or the elderly. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of edible weeds and know 42 ways to start a fire. Eventually I may settle down, but I can leave at a moment's notice if trouble brews. See ya!"

E. Nothing - I have never used oil or electricity so what's new?

"My parents were hippies or Amish and we never had any use for these new-fangled gadgets. I can make my own clothes from cotton from my fields, fish and hunt, garden and farm, make my own cheese, sauerkraut, yogurt and beer, and can preserve hundreds of quarts of tomatoes and pickles a day on a wood stove while managing my flock of nine children.

We might use a little electricity or oil here and there, but the community I live in is filled with people with similar skills and the ability to laugh at hardship. Although my Internet business selling hand-knitted goods at may shut down, I probably will not even notice when oil hits $250."

F. Nothing - no need to prepare.

"What's all the fuss? Sure, oil may go up in price, but human ingenuity will create alternatives to the amazingly unprecedented energy-dense liquid oil inheritance of 100 million years without any inconvenience to ME. Or the government will intervene and solve the problem, just like they did with that economic thing-a-ma-bob. Surely nothing can change all that much. After all, history is a long uninterrupted chain of progress into a better and brighter future."

G. Some other strategy, perhaps you wish to enlighten us?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

ReEnergize Summit

I'm leading a workshop on "Community Engagement: The Transition Town Model" at the ReEnergize Oklahoma Summit this Saturday at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Here's my handout for the Summit (the non-illustrated version), basically a quick explanation of Transition Towns.


Community Engagement: The Transition Town model

Transition Initiatives focus on increasing the sustainability and resiliency of a community in order to prepare for the challenge of climate change and the inevitable worldwide decline in oil production. Transition Towns work as a community catalyst: helping citizens envision and create a more fulfilling, healthy and satisfying way of life while using less energy and fewer resources.

The Transition Town model is inclusive (non-partisan), proactive and positive, and non-prescriptive. The model uses creativity, playfulness and empowerment to encourage people to participate in the work of creating resiliency - the ability to withstand systemic shocks while still maintaining basic functionality. One key strategy in creating resiliency is re-localization, which can have many tangible benefits to a community and appeals to people across a broad political spectrum.

The “12 Steps” of the Transition model aren’t necessarily a linear progression, but more of a general order. The steps can overlap and iterate, and are designed to be flexible so that any Transition Initiative group can use what works best for their locale. The 12 Steps (which are described in detail in Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook) are:

1. Form an Initiating Group
2. Raise awareness of the key issues
3. Lay the foundations by networking with existing groups
4. Great Unleashing
5. Form groups focusing on various ways to build sustainable, resilient communities
6. Use “Open Space” to engage and empower the community
7. Develop visible practical manifestations
8. Facilitate the Great Re-Skilling
9. Build a bridge to local government
10. Honor the elders
11. Let it go where it wants to
12. Create an Energy Descent / Energy Transition plan

The Transition Town framework incorporates many different kinds of activities that can engage people who have various stages of knowledge about the environmental and energy issues, as well as differing levels of psychological readiness for change. These activities emphasize empowerment and working together, and include visioning, educating, celebrating, building, learning skills, working with community institutions, and planning.

If you are interested in using the Transition Town model, we recommend reading The Transition Handbook, by Rob Hopkins, as there are key differences between the Transition Town process and other, perhaps more familiar, forms of outreach and engagement. Transition Town OKC will offer “Training for Transition,” which will teach participants how to start their own Initiative, in March 2010. Stay posted for updates and events, or sign up for our newsletter, on our website

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Transition Neighborhoods

The Transition Town movement was founded on "towns" as a scale of community where people know each other, see each contribution as important, and can hold each other accountable for their actions. The TT premise is that a community of this size can re-design their own localized and low-energy economy and agriculture into a more healthy and fulfilling way of life. As people take up the concepts of peak oil and climate change, and establish a proactive and positive response to energy descent, they can spread these ideas virally to their neighbors, families, churches, and schools in their community.

Oklahoma City, as a city of more than half a million people, does not exist at that scale. So how do we translate the model?

One approach that Transition Town OKC is trying is the "Transition Neighborhood." Neighborhoods in our area are frequently sized about 5,000 people, approximately the same size as a town and obviously composed of people living in the same geographical area. Unlike towns, neighborhoods are not set up as autonomous operating units with control over laws, and with their own set of businesses and utilities. However, neighborhoods often have associations or HOAs that do have influence over some aspects of neighborhood life.

We believe that a lot can be accomplished at a neighborhood scale, such as:

  • Encouraging and coordinating the building of gardens and orchards

  • Encouraging energy efficiency by giving tours of energy efficient or "sustainable" homes

  • Encouraging energy efficient home improvements by promoting financial support programs to residents (such as via federal and community stimulus grants)

  • Facilitating re-skilling groups and workshops for gardening, biking, sun oven cooking, knitting, poultry, bees, etc.

  • Spreading information about energy descent, transition towns, "going local," sustainability and resiliency through neighborhood newsletters and blogs

  • Establishing emergency and communication plans

  • Creating bartering or service networks and tool cooperatives

  • Encouraging emergency preparedness, including food and water storage

  • Planting fruit and nut trees in public areas; establishing a community garden or CSA

  • Facilitating "Transition Together" groups of people who support each other as they prepare for the energy descent

  • Mobilizing and lobbying for pro-resiliency and pro-sustainability changes such as bike and walking paths/sidewalks, crosswalks, bus shelters and bus stops, and appropriate zoning laws
  • Facilitating more carpooling, sharing, bartering, and using local materials by encouraging networking within the neighborhood, so people know each other and what they need/have
We are in the very early stages of this approach. We just completed the first round of strategizing and brainstorming and we held our first event to share the idea of the Transition Neighborhood with neighborhood and sustainability leaders. We hope that neighborhood leaders will take up the idea and pursue the Transition 12-step model of sustainability and resiliency - starting with at least one "model" Transition Neighborhood.

We don't know if this approach will work, but we are planting seeds to see if they sprout. At the very least, we hope to inform core groups of people in neighborhoods throughout the city who will be able to respond intelligently and appropriately as we progress through energy descent and possible energy shocks. In a more hopeful scenario, Transition Neighborhoods will grow and flourish in response to increasing energy prices and economic problems, helping their residents adapt to changing circumstances in sustainable and resilient ways, eventually forming Energy Descent Action Plans and pressuring the City to do the same.

I hope my neighborhood will be one of the first in OKC to start on this journey!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Top 10 Euphemisms for Peak Oil

Occasionally, you just need to avoid saying Peak Oil. In some company, it's tantamount to betrayal, in others, too much like a fart at the dinner table. Nothing stinks so much as the truth, right? Other people believe peak oil is the realm of cults and conspiracy theorists, and as such, if you want to discuss it without an auto-reflex of denial on the part of your communication partner, you have to use some other terms.

In some company, peak oil is taken as a given and therefore, there's no need to discuss it - just the repercussions. And finally, if you are writing brochures, websites or a book about the peak oil predicament, sometimes you just want to use a few different phrases, instead of the same one in every single sentence. From the vague to the technical to a few indirect references, here are some euphemisms to let you talk about PO without actually mentioning the term, should you ever need to do so.


Use this one when you you are among peak oil friends and need a little dark humor. We all know what happens after production starts crashing. Not the end of the world - just the end of the world as we know it.

9. End of cheap-and-easy-to-extract oil

Too many times, when you say peak oil, people hear "the end of oil," and start having flashbacks to all the times they've heard THAT one before. No, no, you say - just the end of reasonably priced oil that we can get to.

8. Oil dependency and depletion

Alliteration! I like this phrase because it includes the word "dependency." This euphemism is a good way to describe peak oil if you want to start by discussing how we eat, drink, shop and drive oil. After people understand how much they use it, sometimes the implications of the "depletion" half of the term become fairly obvious.


Another inside joke for peak oil followers. As in, "after Cantarell crashes and Mexico stops exporting oil, we'll really see TSHTF" (the s^%t hit the fan).

6. Our energy challenge

Here's the wonderfully vague approximation of peak oil that we have chosen to use in many of our Transition Town OKC marketing materials. Non-specific enough for you? Or does it sound too much like a game show?

5. Oil demand destruction

A way to sneak in some economics phraseology. "Demand destruction" means "you can't afford it any more, so too bad if you wanted to go to work or buy food or heat your house with it."

4. Energy transition

Energy decline is probably more accurate, but let's face it, declines are downers! We'll have a transition instead. The only thing I don't like about this one is that people may start believing that we are "transitioning" to a world of equal amounts of cheap and disposable energy - just produced by solar, wind, ethanol, biodiesel, etc. The transition I'm thinking of involves a lot more efficiency, curtailment, and complete systems redesign than just replacing our oil use with the so-called alternatives, which don't have nearly the same energy density as oil.

3. Global peak and decline in oil production

OK, seriously, this one basically says "peak oil." Still, you manage to avoid putting the two key words together.

2. Foreign oil dependency

The ultimate for communicating with people who have conspiracy theories of their own. As in "Those damn furreners who want to keep our oil under their soil."

1. Elimination of spare petroleum production capacity

MMMMMM, deliciously technical. Another way to say, "we're close to being oh-so screwed." I believe I found this one in Oil 101 - kudos to author Morgan Downey for pages of peak oil discussion without ever once mentioning the actual phrase peak oil.

Here's a nice quote from Mr. Downey: "Even in the most extreme optimistic scenario, conventional oil production will cease to exist well before the end of the century - a fact even the most optimistic oil company agrees with."

Any way you say it, peak oil is a serious topic. No reason not to have a little fun with it now and then, though, is there?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hausfrau goes a tilin'

The floors of our kitchen, laundry room and mud room were previously covered with vinyl flooring and builder's special carpet, which looked horrible after only four years of use. So we had 160 feet of space just begging us to cover it in some decent flooring. We couldn't ignore it any longer, even with a recession at hand. We decided it was time to strap on the knee pads and latex gloves, find the oldest clothes in the closet, and get a tilin'!
New kitchen tile, before grouting

We chose porcelain tile because it seemed to be the best choice for this area. Tile is durable (sometimes lasting centuries), low-maintenance, hard-wearing, invulnerable to moisture, doesn't require a vacuum to clean, and comes in a wide variety of colors. We also considered wood, cork, and bamboo, but decided those options weren't wise with a toddler who likes to pour his own drinks plus a dishwasher and washer (which has already flooded our laundry room once). Hopefully this tile will last us the next 30 or 40 years without having to refinish or repair it. We retained half a case of tiles in the unlikely event that we need to replace a few that ever get damaged.
The best way to save on a tile project: DIY. Tiling may seem intimidating, and true, you can mess it up pretty badly if you don't take care, but if you are careful and plan ahead, you can get a beautiful result at 60 - 80% less than the cost of paying a tile installer, and without the hassle of trying to find someone who will return your phone calls. We have made minor mistakes on some of our tiling jobs (including this one), but often these mistakes can be fixed, covered or minimized.
If you are going to tile an area yourself, my advice is to get a detailed how-to manual and spend quite a bit of time planning how the tile is going to lay out on the floor or wall. The time you spend up-front on planning will more than pay you back later in time you don't have to spend cutting tiles or on regrets that you have a whole wall of 3/4 inch wide tiles.
My husband and I make a pretty good team: he pulls up the old floor, I lay down the mortar and tiles, he measures and cuts tiles and mixes the mortar and grout, and I lay down and clean up the grout. The floor we just tiled was our largest project to date. It took two days of scraping up the old floor, two and a half days of planning and tiling, and one day of grouting - spread over a few weeks. Cost of porcelain tile flooring, mortar and grout: about $400. Cost savings for tiling labor at $6 per square foot: $960. Add that to the cost we saved on demolition and we saved a pretty penny.
Yes, that's me

Of course, that does not include the price of a very vital tool: the tile saw. Usually, my inclination is to try to "make do" with the cheaper option, but I tell you in this case it's a fool's choice! From experience (three floors, a backsplash, a tub surround, and bathroom walls), I can tell you that it is very difficult to do a really good job on almost any kind of tiling project without a tile saw. The tile saw allows more precise cuts, angled cuts, inlaid cuts, and cuts stone as well - making it very useful. If you can't borrow, rent or buy a tile saw, I'm not sure it's worth trying to DIY tile.

We bought a $200 tile saw in conjunction with our in-laws three years ago and we have since used it for five tiling projects between our two families. We also plan to retile our bathrooms in the next two years, since the person who flipped our house decided to put carpet in the bathrooms. Not a very sanitary choice! So we are really getting our money's worth of our $100 investment.
I count myself blessed to have gotten out of this project alive. Unfortunately for my suffering husband, I purchased the wrong batch of tile to bring home. I had selected one tile, taken it home to check it out, and called it good. But once I bought the whole lot, my husband and I brought it all home, and I laid out four or five of the various patterned tiles... I could see that it was much too yellow. So my husband had to haul approximately 680 pounds of tile back to the store. Sorry, lumbar vertabrae!
So, yes, my shoulders and neck and forearm and knees and back ache. My fingers are a little raw from cleaning up the grout. We spent $400 and five days of work. Our kitchen was a mess for quite a long time. But is it worth it to have a floor in our kitchen and laundry room that is easily cleaned, will look good forever, doesn't show dirt, and is virtually indestructible? Is it worth it to have a floor that won't need replacing in ten years - when the cost might be ten times as much? For us, the answer is YES!

Another of our recent DIY tile projects

Quick tip: a staggered "brick" pattern is much more forgiving (harder to see your mistakes) than a straight grid pattern. Take it from me! Quick tip 2 - pick up a bunch of old buckets from your local bakery before you start. You'll need them for mixing mortar (aka thinset) and grout. No reason to waste good used buckets! And finally, of course, never put down white tiles or white grout on your floor. But I bet you knew that already.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Party time, excellent

Throughout the vast majority of human history, humans have co-habited in a constant flux of interdependence. Humans need each other for a variety of reasons, from the eminently practical to the simply companionable, from hunting to babysitting, from love to duty and loyalty. It's a rare human that can do everything for him or herself, and rarer indeed for someone to want to.

But over the last hundred years, we have tried to turn the concept of community from the rock-solid and ever-present foundation of our lives into a quaint volunteer project for teenagers padding their resumes. Now, many of us wouldn't even think of borrowing sugar from our neighbors or watching their kids, because all these activities and services have become part of the formal consumer economy, enabling us to "simplify" our relationships and believe that we depend on no one but ourselves. We've become a society of people who in many cases, think that asking a favor makes us weak. In addition, we've become so mobile a society that many of us move so often that we never even get to know our neighbors.

Of course, this bizarre turn of events was only made possible by a flush of cheap oil.

So as we enter the twilight of cheap, addictive energy, one of our chief achievements will be to resurrect the community. But how does one do that? How do we turn around a culture that celebrates the self and independence to such excess, that sneers at people who need each other, as we are sure to do in a future of energy decline? One way to begin is by starting with some of the favorite aspects of community - the fun stuff.

Celebrations, festivals, and events have always been important features of communities. Poker tournaments, parties, Christmas caroling, sewing bees, sporting games, and seed & book swaps were all common before manufactured entertainment began to dominate our lives. Community festivities serve many key functions to create the ties that bind. For example, they help us:

  • Get to know the people in our community and what they need or can offer

  • Relieve stress / create fun and joy

  • Mark the seasons and the passage of time

  • Spend time productively rather than destructively (teenagers!!)
Organizing community events in an expensive energy environment, when driving and paid entertainment become less available, could become a critically important service. When people begin to feel as if their futures have been stolen and their expectations destroyed by economic and energy constraints, when they see their world get smaller by the day, when they can no longer afford the distractions and addictions that have kept them sane - they can come together or fall apart. Bonding as a community in productive and fun ways can help them come together.

So if you are trying to build a community, you could start by helping your community bond. People need to get to know the members of a community before they feel a part of it. People need to trust each other, eat together, work together, before they can start getting to the nitty-gritty of preparing for peak oil.

Trust is key when you are trying to transition to a way of life that is based on borrowing, sharing, bartering and working together rathering than simply buying, buying, buying. Knowing each other, knowing that they are both important and accountable to the community, gives each member a reason to participate in the re-building of the institutions and cultural customs that could get us through some (literally) darker times.

So throw a party! Have a potluck! Start some neighborhood traditions around the holidays. Create a book club. Knowing your community members will be the foundation for any future peak oil preparation projects you want to begin, so start building trust and relationships now. They will serve you well as times get harder.

Has anyone started building a community, whether neighborhood, intentional community or otherwise, who wants to share tips?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Coop Ale Works

Tuesday, I had the opportunity to visit Coop Ale in Oklahoma City as a part of Sustainable OKC's Green Drinks happy hour. Coop offered free samples of four of their beers, a tour of the microbrewery, and a discussion of the sustainable practices that they use. I sampled their Oktoberfest beer and found it to be mighty tasty.

Coop is 100% wind powered through a program with OG&E - the same program that I use. Obviously, this does not mean they are directly wind powered, but it does support the development and expansion of wind power. They have designed their process to reduce water waste and to re-use water where possible. They also use ultra-high efficiency water heaters.

One fun way that the owners of Coop Ale reduce waste is to have local farmers pick up their spent grains in large tubs. Ron Ferrell uses the barley to feed his chickens, and reports that his chickens love the stuff, preferring it to commercial chicken feed. He calculates that Coop leftovers are 30% protein. I was also happy to hear from the owner that they purchased all of their kegs from already-used sources - so no stainless steel had to be created to hold their beer (yet).

A number of local and chain eateries and bars carry the Coop beers, including the 51st St Speakeasy, Iron Starr BBQ, Coach's, Tap Werks, Musashi's, VZD's, and Sage. Apparently, a free iPhone ap is available to help you locate the nearest Coop establishment. Although Coop doesn't sell in bottles yet (because businesses are buying up all of the beer that they can produce in kegs), the public can get kegs of beer from some local liquor stores.
So if you're not already brewing your own, support a local microbrewery that is on a sustainble path by pouring a frosty Coop Horny Toad, Native Amber, DNR or Gran Sport Porter next time you're in OKC!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Indoor wasteland

My husband works for a large retail firm, at their headquarters, which also happens to be the location of their distribution and warehousing center.

Today, he took a tour of their new warehouse, which is, he told me, approximately the size of 20 football fields put together. Right now, it's completely empty since it has only recently been completed and is now awaiting massive influxes of imported goods. My husband described the warehouse as "the size of the one at the end of Indiana Jones. You almost can't even see the other end of it."

My husband reported that touring the warehouse started to depress him. A very abnormal state of mind for my level-hearted hubby! He said, "I started to think about the frog you found buried in your garden yesterday, living 8 inches underground. The land the warehouse covered - it used to be an ecosystem. How many frogs and animals were destroyed by being covered with concrete?" A heart-wrenching thought, if you let it get to you.

I had a similar reaction as he was talking about the warehouse, but my reaction concerned energy. What kind of insane amount of energy will it take to produce and ship these tchotchkes and kitsches from all around the world? What kind of use is that for our ancient sunlight, when we should be preserving needed energy for future generations, using it to transition to a sustainable future, frugally deciding the best and highest use for that spectacular inheritance of oil?

Instead, we just waste that precious gift, or curse, or both, in a gluttony of consumption.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

20 low-energy entertainment activities

What to do for fun when driving and / or electricity become expensive or intermittently available? It may seem like a silly question - I mean, aren't we all just going to be hanging on for dear life? But if you've ever been through a long blackout, you'll know that boredom can set in pretty quick, unless you are already used to entertaining yourself without the benefit of a computer, Internet, television, movies, shopping, going somewhere in a car, or video games.

Sure, maybe farming, cooking and mending will take up all our time, along with washing dishes and clothes by hand ;). But during those slow times.... what then? Here's a few ideas to pass the time:

20. Sing your favorite songs - show tunes, Christmas carols or drinking songs.

19. Play poker / spades /hearts / Texas hold'em with friends.

18. Read books from the library or purchased from garage sales / thrift stores.

17. Play piano, guitar, drums, or your favorite instrument.

16. Practice yoga or tai-chi.

15. Go on walks or nature hikes.

14. Work cross-word puzzles / Sudoku.

13. Play board games like chess, checkers, Monopoly, Taboo, or Catchphrase.

12. Play solitaire.

11. Toss a baseball/football/basketball around.

10. Play hackey-sack.

9. Bike around town.

8. Read or tell stories to your children.

7. Work jigsaw puzzles.

6. Putter in the garden / peruse gardening catalogs.

5. Crafting / knitting / carving from reclaimed materials.

4. Write songs or poetry.

3. Sex. (I hear you can even do this one in the dark!)

2. Trade massages / foot rubs.

1. Conversations and potlucks with friends, family and neighbors.

And there are so many more! Your favorite way to spend time without gasoline or electricity?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Commercials I hate

I don't hate all commercials. Some are informative or funny. There was a silly one about oxen and dachsunds a few years back that still makes me smile. But some just totally get my goat!

Last night I was talking to my hubby while he watched a baseball game, and I noticed this awful commercial. Two men are sitting on a fence watching their friend being chased by a bull while he screams for help. Neither of them wants to go help him because they are too absorbed by their (no doubt exquisitely delicious) Taco Bell nachos. "Not it," they say back and forth as their friend gets gored by the bull. Ha, ha.

I mean, obviously this is supposed to be funny, right? But what's funny about it? Funny to watch your friend get almost killed? Funny because you value $1.99 food-like product more than a person? I really don't get it.

Another commercial I hate - from several years ago. A woman is taking a picture of her husband sitting on their new car. "A little further," she keeps prompting him, over and over, until he falls off the car and she smiles, "Perfect" and snaps the picture of just the car. URRRGH! Yes, let's all remember what's important in life - the inanimate object that doesn't love you back.

I hope I don't sound too curmudgeonly, but the values that these supposedly funny commercials are promoting are just insidiously degrading. Basically, "I got mine and I don't care about you." And of course, those are just two relatively light examples - I'm not even getting into political advertisements (change the channel), pharmaceutical ads (sickening) or car ads (ridiculous!).

How about you - any particular commercials that just make you retch?

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I saw the first person (besides myself) using a cloth grocery bag in OKC at Buy For Less on Saturday. Not as impressive as the Farmer's Market, where cloth bags are de rigeur. Still, it gives me hope for Oklahoma.

The OSU-OKC Farmer's Market still has tons of fresh produce! Pak choy, sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, green beans, okra. Kind of a reflection of my own garden - a bit of this, a bit of that. The old still producing (tomatoes and okra) and the new growing (pak choy, mustard greens, kale, onions).

Getting ready for more Transition Town work. I'm presenting to the Sierra Club on Thursday, and our big initiative (Transition Neighborhoods) will open with a bang! on Nov. 7th as we party down with the neighborhood leaders and invite them to join the Transition movement.


Read Richard Heinberg's Blackout last week. Essentially, he explains that coal reserves are not nearly as extensive as we believe, and that coal will be peaking - most likely in 2025 - 2035. He reviews five recently published studies of coal reserves, and analyzes that peak oil in the 2010 - 2020 timeframe will spur countries to attempt coal-to-liquids.

2025 sounds like a long way away.... until I think that my son will still be under 20 at that point, and will have his whole life ahead of him. The subtitle of the book is "The Last Energy Crisis," and I agree. If we haven't found a way to transition by then, with conservation, curtailment, system redesign, relocalization, and alternative energy, then.... fill in the blank.


Bottled our first pumpkin brew Sunday. 54 bottles of MMMMM. Can't wait!


Read Nick Reding's Methland yesterday. Add meth to the list of agribusiness sins; joining the consolidation of farms, ruthless cruelty to animals, persecution of independent farmers, pollution of water, overproduction of food packaging, obesity and all the health problems that go along with it. Mr. Reding traces the roots of the meth scourge and destruction of much of Midwest small town life to the consolidation of all our farms and ranches into a few vertically integrated, cost externalizing machines we call Cargill, IBP, ConAgra, Monsanto.

The things that meth addicts do to themselves, their kids, and the environment is downright scary. The thought of not being able to produce dopamine - to not be able to enjoy a meal, or a drink, or spending time with my family, or reading a book - without meth, is incredibly saddening.


Soup season is here. Chilis and chowders and stews, oh my! My favorite: one pot dishes. Easy to make, easy to clean up, easy to stick to whole and hopefully local ingredients - potatoes and vegetables and beans. I love fall!

Although I haven't been doing spectacularly on my Riot for Austerity this year, I have been buying $10 - 20 worth of goods from the Farmer's Market every week on top of my the produce I get from my own garden. So that's something.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Free Money! Really!

OK, now that I've got your attention, I actually do have some free money to help allocate.

I've somehow gotten the honor and opportunity to help advise how Oklahoma City will spend $5.4 million in federal funds on Energy Efficiency and Conservation. There are seven focus areas that we will be preparing strategies for:
1. Building Management and Energy Conservation
2. Transportation and Land Use
3. City Fleet Management
4. Economic Development
5. Environmental Conservation
6. Waste Management; and
7. Advocacy and Outreach

I'm serving as a temporary replacement for the woman who actually serves on this committee, and I know that she's already recommended reserving some money to create an Energy Transition Plan as we come off our fossil fuel high. Brilliant woman!

The money can be used for such diverse activities as building codes and energy audits, energy distribution tech like distributed generation and CHP, material conservation programs, renewable energy on government buildings, energy efficiency programs for gov't buildings, land use policies and transportation programs, and financial incentive programs for energy efficiency improvements.

The Dept of Energy (our sugar daddy in this situation) encourages us to prioritize programs that:
  • Leverage other public and private resources,
  • Enhance workforce development,
  • Last beyond the funding period, and
  • Promote energy market transformations such as low-cost loans, energy savings performance contracting, advanced building codes, retrofit incentives and policies, and transporation programs and policies.
  • That's a mouthful.
So my question is, as I formulate and refine some strategies: how to best spend this money not just to reduce total energy use / carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency, but also in an effort to increase resiliency, to improve our collective health (OKC is one of the most unhealthy cities in the country), and improve our chances of thriving through the energy descent? Is that too much to ask?

So do you have any innovative ideas, or deceptively simple but devastatingly effective strategies? Bring them on for me to consider and pass along to the PTB! Thanks in advance!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Big Necessity - Part 2

Ah, still with me, are you? The second half of The Big Necessity is slightly less amusing, but no less rewarding a read. Rose George continues her epic trek through the urban jungles of sanitation, treatment facilities, and even discusses the future of human waste. Sit down, dear readers, and please finish your sandwich before we begin.

The next chapter in the book, Battle of Biosolids, hit close to home. While plenty of the book is spent overseas, in cities and countries where sanitation is pitifully underfunded or non-existant, this chapter deals with our waste treatment centers here in America. In short: what do we do with the sludge that remains when we treat our sewage?

Sludge, if it only containing treated human excrement, would be a good fertilizer. However, sludge contains much, much more - thousands of chemicals such as PCBs, phthalates, dioxins, various carcinogens, hospital and funeral waste with pathogens such as SARS, TB, and hepatitis. Until recently, treated (or raw) sewage was often simply discharged into the nearest convenient body of water. However, once that practice was outlawed, the question remained of what to do with the leftover sewage.

The most convenient option turned out to be spreading it on fields, as has been done the world over since ancient times. Without, however, the pharmaceutical / chemical stew. The thought of this stuff being spread on fields that grow my crops is a bit, nay - MORE than a bit, disturbing, especially since some of these chemicals have shown to be persistant. And naturally, some other people feel the same; Rose George spends some time with these anti-"biosolids" (aka toxic sludge) activists, many of whom have sickened and are dying after living near fields treated with the questionable stuff.

The next two chapters deal further with the sanitation problems in the huge cities, villages, and slums in India and Africa. The author profiles several businessman and public interest groups who are trying to decrease disease and bring better sanitation to the people, as well as the different approaches they are taking. One thought-provoking method is a non-confrontational survey. Here's how it works: the survey taker tours a village and stops smack in the middle of the part of the village where everyone goes to do their daily sanitation business (get the picture?).

Of course, the villagers don't want a guest hanging out in their defecation zone, surrounded by piles of crap! But the survey taker insists on standing there and asking - how many people live here? and proceeding from there to calculate how many tons of human crap get dumped in that spot in a year. The surveyor goes on to wonder where does all that crap go? (animals, into the water, picked up on feet and spread around the village, spread by flies, etc.) Apparently, this breaks the barrier that most people have erected in their minds to get used to this situation as normal and people suddenly become extremely motivated to create a better sanitation setup. Self-motivation - the best kind!

And finally the chapter entitled "The End," where Ms. George covers current trends in sanitation, including sustainability, re-using wastewater as drinking water (sometimes by discreetly pumping it BACK into the aquifer and then withdrawing it as tap water), and dealing with pharmaceutical residues.

She also discusses "leapfrogging" the energy and water-sucking First-World sanitation designs to create something less resource intensive in the rest of the world. At this point, I would have liked to see a bit more info on the energy usage and resiliency for our current American/European systems. Since they are rated on a yearly basis in the "D" range - what is going to keep them from falling apart as we proceed down the energy slope? Only massive influxes of investment and concrete, apparently.

The Big Necessity - an interesting, humorous and sometimes sad book overall. I was left wanting more information - as in, how are we going to maintain this crumbling sewage and water infrastructure without cheap inputs of oil, water, and materials? How will we replace these systems as parts begin to fail in some locations, and what will we replace them with?

I can't fault Ms. George for not addressing these problems, though, as no one else seems to have the answers either. I think we'd better start thinking now - because sanitation is one thing the community (not individuals alone) must address; and sanitation can make or break the health of a community. Over the years of the long emergency, as pipes naturally break, floods overflow, and well - s#%t happens, we will need to develop temporary or permanent alternatives for those cities and towns that don't have funds to keep up their systems properly. Flies travel, and infections can quickly morph into epidemics. We all have a stake in keeping things clean.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Where do we get our oil?

The U.S. produces 4.9 million barrels of oil per day and imports 9.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, with an additional 3.1 million barrels of other petroleum products per day for a net total import of 11.1 million barrels of petroleum per day (Source: EIA) - about 57% -69% of our petroleum use (percentages vary depending on source).

Where is it all coming from (2008 totals)?

Canada ranks first at 2.5 MMBO/D
Saudi Arabia is second at 1.5 MMBO/D
Mexico is third with 1.3 MMBO/D
Venezuela is fourth with 1.2 MMBO/D
Nigeria ranks fifth at 988 thousand BO/D

Next are Iraq, Algeria, Angola, and Russia.

It's nice we have such good friends! Unfortunately, one of our friends has a little problem - their oil supply appears to have peaked and is falling faster than a nasty curveball. Alas, this country gets nearly 40% of their government's national budget from their oil revenues, which are falling at such a quick rate they have to revise estimates downward almost monthly.

What is this country? Why, it's Mexico, our neighbor to the South. Their exports for the first half of 2009 fell 14.8% compared to the first half of 2008 (according to the Oil and Gas Journal), caused mainly by the collapse of the Cantarell oil field, which also happens to be the third largest oil field in the world. Hmm... output from our third highest source of oil imports is declining at a rate of almost 15% per year?

Yes, indeed, and according to the Mexican Secretary of Energy Mexico (via report from Clifford J. Wirth) is projected to stop exporting petroleum entirely by 2015. Being as resilient and non-oil dependent as we are, I imagine that losing 10% of our oil imports will cause us no issues. Surely 1.3 million barrels of oil a day can be found just lying around somewhere!

I also suppose that eliminating 40% of Mexico's budget will cause no civil unrest, searches for alternate sources of income (cocaine? marijuana? opium?), gang activity, or waves of economic refugees. After all, Mexico has never had such problems before...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A fate worse than death

I sometimes think that I left my lucrative career at Deloitte because I was scheduled to give a speech to the NRA (National Restaurant Association) in Las Vegas. It was very convenient how I resigned only a few weeks before I actually gave the speech. My stomach acid content improved remarkably after that.

Being in Transition Town has definitely been pushing my comfort zones and broadening my skill horizons. Over the past four or five months, my Co-Chair and I have given many tag team talks with our nifty PowerPoint presentation. Where one stops, the other picks up. In between talking, we have time to plan our next bit and therefore, little content is missed, although our enthusiasm often carries us over our alloted timeframe.

But today... today I had to dip my toe in the brave new world of panel speaking. The forum, which was titled Clean Energy and the Community, was sponsored by the American Lung Association. The panelists were myself, a representative from the Sierra Club, a physician specializing in lung disorders (lung cancer, COPD, emphysema, asthma), and of course, a manager from Chesapeake Energy.

I say "of course" because I'm not sure I've ever seen a public event in Oklahoma City that didn't somehow have Chesapeake as a sponsor. Anyway, my fellow panelist actually seemed very supportive of our transition efforts, despite the fact that our goal is to transition away from a fossil fuel based economy. I imagine he knows that there will be enough business for Chesapeake for decades to come, regardless of what we do... and they are positioning Cheseapeake as a friend of clean energy and a supporter of green initiatives. Well enough - TTOKC isn't an adversarial, us vs. them type of organization anyway. We are all about cooperation and inclusiveness, to the point of ludicrosity.

When I was approached to serve on the panel I was told there would be about 200 people at the event. Heck, how can I pass that kind of opportunity up?? But the reality was about 25 people were there. Fortunately one person from TTOKC and one person from the Oklahoma Sustainability Network were there, so there were a few friendly faces in the audience.

I was slated to speak last, but ended up having to speak first, a position that I despise with a fierceness bordering on mania. I somehow got through the 10 minute speech, noticing that I skipped several of my best bits and phrases, but managing to include the key pieces of info, including our Neighborhood Bash we're sponsoring in two months. After the panel was over, two of the audience members and one fellow panelist complimented my humble effort, but gotta take that with a grain of salt. After all, who's going to come up and say, "Wow, you really crashed and burned, lady!"

I shouldn't tell you this, but I wrote four drafts of the speech and practiced for three hours. I also read a book on public speaking and got a haircut. Originally I was going to lead with "Hi, my name is X and I have a problem - I'm addicted to oil." Attention getting, right? But I chickened out - so maybe next time.

This time I chose the more innocuous but still fairly entertaining "If you ever watch Bear Grylls, you'll learn that a human can go three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three minutes without air" (a reference to our sponsor the ALA). And then I mentioned the fact that we have a long way to go to clean up our air pollution, considering that all Oklahoma counties recieved a grade of "D" or "F" in the last ALA report card on ozone pollution. BTW, I have to say that it was nice to partner with a health organization in this way - they are very supportive of clean energy, even if I was talking more about the human energy of communities rather than the technology type of clean energy.

The best part of the whole ordeal (which I mean in the best possible way - thanks ALA for inviting us!) was spending time afterwards chatting with the other panelists, particularly the Sierra Club lobbyist, who had a lot of interesting things to say. There was also free wine and brownies at the reception. Perhaps I do prefer public speaking to death.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Swamp world

Once upon a time, long long ago, there lived a race of lizard-like creatures on a swamp world that revolved around a nearby star. This world was hot, wet, steaming and green. Much of it was sea, but the land that existed was mostly covered in marshes or swamps or tropical forests. The lizard creatures dominated in every aspect - the sea, the land, the sky. There were many different kinds of reptiles, ranging from quick and sleek to huge and powerful, but all were tough and suited to the swampy climate.

They had ruled the planet for millions of years. It seemed that the planet had been especially created for them to dominate it, with their lizard skins, their powerful bodies, and their wrenching jaws. The lizard creatures could never imagine a time when they would not be the supreme creature on Swamp World.

But then something happened. The lizard creatures didn't comprehend the change, but over time Swamp World became less.... well, swampy. Was it that asteroid? Was it the locking up of vast amounts of carbon deep in the earth's crust? Did the Earth's poles change? The reptiles didn't know, but nevertheless they were severely impacted by the changes.

Temperatures cooled and the seas receded as the oceans were locked up in ice caps at the poles. Despite all their power, their toughness, their ubiquitous presence, the lizards began to die out. Many survived - but mostly only the small reptiles. The largest ones could not adapt to this new world where they no longer dominated, this world that no longer suited them so perfectly.

As the climate cooled, other species were able to compete with the lizards. They filled the gaps that the reptiles once had monopolized. The world now was much more hospitable to their smaller bodies, opposable thumbs, social and communication skills, and tool-making abilities.

And now, swamp world is no longer recognizeable. It became a beautiful planet with a variety of climates - icy poles, wind-swept tundras, breathtaking mountains, gorgeous coral reefs, temperate forests, tropical paradises. We have no memory of that long distant past, when the world was an inhospitable place for us, where we would have been only a tiny snack for those lizard kings.

But just as long ago, the climate changed and eliminated much of the habitat of the reptiles, reducing them from the dominant life-form to a much smaller creature living in the niches of the planet, our climate is mutating once again; growing warmer and wetter, melting ice caps and swelling tides, with ever more violent and unpredictable weather.

Who knows what will emerge to take advantage of this new climate, this new planet being birthed before our very eyes?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Apple o' my eye

My first apple harvest! In 2006, I planted two semi-dwarf trees in our backyard - an Enterprise and a Liberty. Unfortunately, although I selected a pretty good site, I didn't do a great job of planting the trees. I blame the fact that I ordered eight saplings and had to plant them all in the same day. I'm not sure which tree is which, and one of them is leaning about 30 degrees North. Despite the neglect, I harvested six lovely apples this year, all that was left after the birds and squirrels got (more than) their fair share.

I selected apple trees to plant because the fruit can be stored without processing (in cold storage) and because supposedly it is one of the more pest-resistant fruits in Oklahoma (peaches and plums get infested with buggies - still edible, but I have to discard about 30% of every peach). The Liberty and Enterprise apple varieties are disease resistant and were also recommended by the OSU extension fact sheet.

My husband, two-year old son and I shared two apples today and, may I say, they were some of the most delicious apples I have ever eaten. The funny thing is that they would never be picked up in a grocery store because they have all sorts of funny little warts and growths and things that would put off your average suburban shopper. Nevertheless, my fears that I had gotten a shoddy deal from Burnt Ridge Nursery were put to rest with the first bites.

Coincidentally, I've been reading about apples in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire. He describes the apple as THE key fruit in settler America. To the settlers, the apple symbolized not only civilization, but also sweetness and sociability. Sweetness because sugar and honey were not all that common on the frontier (cane sugar often was shunned for it's association with plantation slavery), so apples were the sweetest edible item a settler could usually hope to encounter (and afford), and sociability because many, if not most, of the apples were transformed into that lovely drink, hard cider. Versatile!
Unfortunately, like many of the other of our food crops, the genetic diversity of the apple is dwindling. According to Pollan, most of the apples we eat today, including favorites like Fuji and Gala, are simply crosses of only five of the sweetest and most consistent apples - Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, McIntosh, and Cox's Orange Pippin. Thousands of apple varieties, slowly (or not so slowly!) being reduced to only five! So if you plan to plant an apple tree, you might consider something different or particularly suited to your area.

As the trees grow larger, I hope to keep more of the harvest, both from sheer numerical growth of apple yield and from figuring out some way to protect the fruits. Over the last few years we have not bothered protecting our two peach trees from four-legged and flighty friends, as there are too many peaches for us to even harvest. I hope the same will be true of our apple harvest, but if not there are several ways that I have read to protect the apples: 1. Drape the tree with netting, 2. Hang reflective bird deterrants and 3. Bag each apple individually.

How are your backyard orchards growing? Any suggestions for the best ways you've protected your apple harvest?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Painting holiday

32 doors, 13 drawer fronts and 19 drawers to prime and paint. See you in a few days!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Friday Fun Time

Are you looking for a time-sucking, computer-hogging activity completely unrelated to peak oil? You are? Well, I have one for you. Let me introduce you to the

Sherwin Williams Color Visualizer

which is designed to let you see how different colors will look on your wall, ceiling, and trim. Theoretically, it could save you some painting time and keep you from wasting a whole bunch of little paint samples. In reality, it sucks you into a color-combining addiction and takes up a lot of computer memory. Did I mention it's fun if you like to play with color?


Monday, August 24, 2009

The Big Necessity

We in the Westernized world tend to take our toilets for granted, because we want to take them for granted. We flush our "waste" away and never give it a second thought, never considering what life was like before indoor plumbing and sewage treatment plants, never considering what life is like for the 2.6 billion people who don't have access to any sanitation at all - no toilet, no latrine, no outhouse, no nothing. While clean water gets plenty of attention, the main source of waterborne disease gets none. It just ain't sexy. Umm, to say the least.


Rose George approaches this topic by alternating humor and seriousness, and sometimes sorrow. She's not afraid to get her feet wet, criss-crossing the globe and diving into dark spots for her research. She visits the extensive sewer systems of New York City and London, meets with weary sanitation activists around the world, tours the high-tech toilet manufacturing plants of Japan, and reports on the indignities of the Untouchables of India, who are still being forced to collect human waste with their bare hands.

The Big Necessity weaves a fascinating story of sanitation, a story many people don't know that they need to hear. Sanitation is a pillar of modern society, the foundation for public health, the savior of millions of lives. In developing countries, diarrhea (virtually always caused by lack of sanitation) is the largest hurdle a child needs to overcome to make it to their fifth birthday. 2.2 million people, usually children, die of diarrhea - more than AIDS, TB or malaria. But diarrhea is only the beginning. There's also cholera and cryptosporidium, and numerous other "waterborne" diseases (meaning water contaminated by sewage) which kill as well.

In the first chapter, "In the Sewers," we find that even though citizens of the Western world are saved from these deadly diseases by our sewer infrastructures and basic hygiene measures, our sewage systems are crumbling and filled to capacity. Our sewers are often easily overwhelmed by a few inches of rain, when they begin to discharge the raw sewage into the nearest handy body of water. In New York City alone, the weekly toll of polluted discharge is 500 million gallons. Per week. So even with our thousands of miles of sewer lines and our millions of toilets, we still haven't figured out what to do with sewage.

The most disturbing part of this chapter was not the tour of the sewers but the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the United States wastewater infrastructure a D-minus in 2005, and the EPA estimates that 50 percent of our nations sewer pipes will be in poor or very poor condition by 2020. Something to think about next time you're on the pot.

The next chapter, the Robo-Toilet revolution, was frankly hilarious. Apparently the Japanese have the most advanced toilets in the world - heated seats, programmable to your specific habits, computerized, with retractable bidet nozzles. This chapter alone is worth reading the book. I giggled my way through the discussion of how persistent Japanese engineers isolated the precise location of the average anus (necessary in order to know where to position the bidet water nozzle). In fact, I'm giggling right now.

"2.6 Billion" dives into the plight of the under-developed world, a plight made all the problematic because it can't be mentioned in polite society. But for aid workers, public health organizations and governments working to decrease mortality, sanitation is a key project. Trying to provide clean water without stopping a major source of pollution and disease is a losing proposition.

Lack of proper sanitation is even a serious impediment to education - many schools have nonexistant, limited, or unclean facilities - meaning that children simply have to leave the school for the nearest bar just to use the bathroom, and many girls stop going to school once they reach the age of menstruation. I'll leave the descriptions for those of you who read the book. They are an eye-opener.

The chapter on biogas units in China may be of interest to you if you are looking for a "clean" renewable energy source. The Chinese have really been the leaders in this technology, which uses the gas products from human and livestock waste to power lights and cooking fires. Hey, turns out it's useful for something - maybe it's not just "waste" to be sent away as fast as possible, but a source of energy. If I had a pig or two, I might be in the market for one of those units.

So far, this book has been alternately fascinating, disturbing, infuriating, and full of adventures and interesting statistics. If you haven't started reading The Big Necessity yet, I hope the information above will spur you to action, because one of the main achievements of this book is to make the unmentionable, mentionable. We are not going to solve the sustainability issues of our world by turning up our noses at the most basic aspects of human life, so let's just open our eyes and take a look at the facts. Stay tuned for the second half....

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Locked In

There's an article today in the Wall Street Journal that to me, drives home a sad point for many in the college generation: You're going to be deep in debt. And without rising wages and a strong job market, debt is a stone that will drag many young people into years of taking whatever job will pay the debt servicing.

College costs have gone way up since I was in college ten years ago. I see these kids graduating with a B.A. degree in something with no particular demand (history, English, art, literature, etc., correct me if I'm wrong here) with $50,000, $100,000, $150,000 in debt and I just wonder, "WHAT are you thinking?"

I think part of the problem is the basic educational assumption of our time:
1. Middle class kids must go to college.
2. They should follow their dream (going to the best college they get into and majoring in their favorite subject, regardless of whether there is a market for it or not).
3. They can pay back the money later (without figuring out what it's going to cost them first because of course they are going to have a successful career).

This attitude, which is so pervasive that it's hard to even question it, may have been fine when college costs were reasonable and could be paid back in ten years, when incomes seemed to be rising, when peak oil was just a glimmer in Colin Campbell's eyes. But now I think it may be time to challenge this fundamental assumption.

It's not that I don't want kids to follow their dreams. Getting a job doing something you hate can be soul-sucking drudgery. On the other hand, being forced to take whatever job you can find because there is no demand for your skills and you owe $50,000 - 100,000 to a variety of government and private lenders, debts which can never be discharged, even in bankruptcy.... that's soul-sucking drudgery for twenty years. Drudgery that, with one late payment, can easily lead to a mountain of fees and rising interest rates and ultimately despair.

I just wish these kids had someone to educate them in basic financial literacy. Someone to tell them what one school vs. another is going to cost them. What kind of wages or salary they can expect when they get out. What their monthly payments are going to be when they graduate, and how that will relate to their salary. Maybe even (gasp!) the facts about peak oil. Just the basic facts. Then they can make an educated decision.

Surveys have shown for years that college graduates make more money. But what about junior college and public school vs. private school graduates? What's the difference in their salaries? What about the trade schools? What about the salary of a college graduate MINUS their debt payment - how does that compare? Some people may think junior college or trade schools or a public college are below them - but they should take another hard look at the financial consequences of their decisions.

Because the choices that kids make at 18, choices they make when they are still so young, hopeful, and naive, will still, in many cases, be following them at 28, 38 and even 48 years old. The choices they make at 18 can determine whether they can afford to buy a home, change jobs if they hate their first, go back to school, stay home with their kids. It may even determine whether their parents can retire at 62 or if they have to wait until 72.

So if you have a close relationship with a high school student, you may want to make sure they know basic financial information. Debt is no longer a matter that can be taken lightly, without serious discussion about the numbers, our assumptions, and the future. Debt incurred at 18 can affect the rest of the lives of the college generation, and they deserve to know the facts.

Monday, August 17, 2009

From 48 to 76

If you ask the average Joe or Jane how we have so radically improved our life expectancy during the 20th century, the answer is likely to be "medicine." Most people believe that our doctors have become so skilled at treating infections and disease, and our medications so advanced, that they have been responsible for prolonging our average life expectancy from 48 to 76 years of age.

Life expectancy 1900 - 1997

But that is a misperception. Public health professionals, unlike most of the rest of us, understand that the underlying foundation of our life expectancy advance is the invention of electricity, which allowed for a step-change improvement in our sanitation. Electricity allowed us to design, implement and maintain energy-intensive systems such as water treatment systems, sewage plants, refrigeration systems for our food distribution and storage, and widespread vaccination manufacture and distribution. (Of course, medications such as antibiotics, anesthesia and painkillers have contributed as well, but not nearly to the same extent.)

In countries where proper sanitation is not available, millions of children still die of diarrhea, often before they are two years old. In countries with proper sanitation, such tragedy is decades gone, and we enjoy the ability to never think about our sanitation situation as we go about our daily business.

So if modern urban sanitation is dependent on electricity, how is electricity dependent on oil? As a direct source of electricity, oil is in the distinct minority. It is the source for diesel power generators the world over, for backup generators, and for a very small number of large power-plants. It is dwarfed by the number and capacity of power plants run on coal and natural gas.

Yet oil still affects power production in many ways. For one, the machinery that mines coal runs on oil; the trains and ships that transport coal run on oil. The workers that keep electricity flowing get to work in oil-powered cars and trucks. Oil-based transportation is needed to maintain and repair the power lines that criss-cross our cities and our country. Replacement parts for the electrical infrastructure are shipped in trucks. And let's not even mention the financial relationship of commodities such as oil, natural gas and coal that are traded on an open market. My conclusion is that any kind of prolonged oil disruption would be very likely to affect the flow of power, although less in areas running on natural gas than those running on coal.

Peak oil is inevitable. An extended oil disruption (or "oil shock") is not necessarily inevitable, but it is a significant enough risk that we should plan for it. Because how long will the sanitation systems that have increased our lifespans be able to function with an unreliable power grid? And how we will we maintain them as oil prices become more volatile and expensive, while city and county budgets are slashed? What sanitation alternatives that use less energy could we deploy on a widespread, urbanized basis?

I am planning a series of two or three posts about The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters, by Rose George, in the near future. If anyone wants to read along, it's an extremely interesting and sometimes hilarious look at sanitation around the world, along with a discussion of some of the problems facing us.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

From the geniuses at the Heritage Foundation

The red line is domestic oil production, the blue is foreign oil imports, the green is oil imports from OPEC.

The text reads:
Federal limitations on domestic oil production have contributed to a steady decline in US production since 1985. By 1994, the United States was importing more than its total domestic production. Restricting supply raises prices and unnecessarily contributes to US reliance on foreign oil imports.

And peak oil analysts get called conspiracy theorists!!

Seriously though, I can see how someone could fall for this BS, especially if they already hate the government. But wait! A steady decline since 1985?? Wasn't that RONALD REAGAN's term in office? That liberal environmentalist do-gooder. He must be the cause of all our problems.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sun Oven saves the day

The Sun Oven is a versatile tool. It can bake banana bread, roast a butternut squash, cook a lasagna or quiche, and turn brown rice into moist perfection. Normally, I appreciate it for the way it keeps my house cool in the summer and for it's zero carbon emissions.

But lately, it's been doing more than that. It's been saving my bacon.

I currently have no functioning kitchen sink, dishwasher, cooktop, or oven. Because my family is in the middle of a remodel in which we are doing half the work (general contracting, prepping cabinets for paint, painting, and tiling), it's proceeding slowly. Despite the remodel, we are still living and cooking at home. But how to make a variety of healthy meals without a cooktop or oven? The answer is: the Global Sun Oven.

I've been able to use it on almost every sunny day that we plan to eat at home, and what a blessing that is! About two-thirds of the days have been sunny since our remodel began, and I've re-discovered the variety of things that the Sun Oven can cook:

- Rice for rice and bean salads, burritos, a good side for anything
- Chili, stews, soups
- Quiche and cheese -and-egg dishes
- Beans
- Potatoes (baked or cut up for potato salad)
- Roasted vegetables / ratatouille

Of course, it's cloudy today. Looks like we may have hummus sandwiches for dinner!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Quick Guide to Peak Oil

A one-page simple explanation of peak oil, hitting just the highlights. Kind of dry, but definitely not hyperbolic. The back page normally has a graph of oil discoveries by decade, and a graph of energy sources with a breakout of renewable sources from the Energy Information Adminstration, but Blogspot is being finicky today and does not want to upload my graphs.


Why is oil so important?
Forty percent of our energy comes from oil. Our entire economy and way of life run on oil, including the vast majority of transportation fuels, fuel for agricultural machinery, raw materials for plastics, chemicals and roads, and heating oil to heat our homes.

How is oil so different from other sources of energy?
Unlike electricity, which can be generated from many different sources, oil is virtually our only transportation fuel. Oil has an incredible return on energy - just one unit of energy is required to extract and refine 20 to 30 units of oil (1:30 ratio). Compare this to corn ethanol, which has an energy return ratio of 1:2-3 (90 to 95 percent less net energy than oil). Additionally, petroleum can easily be shipped all around the world (unlike natural gas or energy from wind).

What is peak oil?
Every oil field reaches a point where the production rate starts to decline, like a bell curve. Oil continues to be produced, but less and less comes out every year. Countries that produce oil experience the same phenomenon, when oil production can no longer be increased and starts to decline. For example, oil production in the U.S. peaked in 1970-71. We are not “running out of oil”; however, we are getting close to the point where we have used half of the world’s oil, which means we are running out of the easy-to-find and cheap-to-produce oil. The term “peak oil” refers to the point at which we can no longer grow world oil production.

As oil gets more expensive, won’t we just find more oil?
Oil must be discovered before it can be extracted. World oil discovery peaked in the 1960s and has been declining in recent years. Experts estimate that we are now consuming six barrels of oil for every one we find. We will continue to find more oil - but the oil we find tends to be difficult, expensive to produce, the finds are much, much smaller, and the process of producing oil is environmentally destructive and often located in places that are hostile to the United States. The U.S. has to import more than 60 percent of the oil that we use.

When will world oil production peak?
Estimates vary, but estimates from independent petroleum geologists tend to cluster around 2008 - 2015. Several government reports, including the Hirsch Report, and the 2008 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), conclude that peak oil will occur before 2020-2030, and they also conclude the world needs to begin preparing for the peak in world oil production at least 10 -20 years in advance.

What are some likely effects of declining oil supplies after world oil production peaks?
Our economy and financial model are based on the idea that we can, and should, grow our economy forever. Without a cheap and expanding supply of oil, this will be difficult to accomplish. Most analysts predict recession/depressions and volatility of oil prices as the hallmarks of reaching the peak of world oil production and traversing the downward slope after the peak.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Sister city

A lady from Transition Houston called me yesterday and I got the opportunity to chat with a woman whose city is on a similar path as ours. Houston and Oklahoma City have many of the same characteristics: conservative, oil and gas industry-dominated, huge sprawling metroplexes, and so it was a very interesting discussion.

It seems that Transitions Houston and OKC are working with some of the same challenges as well. For instance:
- How do we phrase and present the issues to a resistant population?
- How do we discuss what may seem like 'liberal' ideas to conservative people?
- How do we emphasize the positive while not minimizing the urgency and scale of the negative? - How do we focus our efforts, especially where there is so much geographic space?
- How do we appear credible and legitimate?
- How to engage other groups already working on related issues?

One thing that Transition Houston is doing is encouraging neighborhood initiatives. This kind of hyper-local organizing is something that I think will be very valuable for Oklahoma City. Neighborhood initiatives were one of the discussion groups that we had during our recent retreat, and we are going to refine the idea more during our next meeting - and hopefully get to some action soon ;).

I'm glad that I got the chance to talk with Transition Houston and I hope to keep in touch. As our groups make progress, it will be interesting to compare notes and share ideas. I believe Transition Town is a very grand experiment, where we need to continually try new things, see what works, and improve and refine our efforts. It's great to have a sister city for the journey!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Innovative urban agrarians

This is an exciting time for local food. Over the last fifty years, our farmers have been convinced, via government encouragement, regulations, and corporate manipulation, to get big or get out. Most got out. The remaining got big, and the rest of the holdouts now can't even make a living farming, instead usually relying on government subsidies and off-farm income to make ends meet. Locally produced food became a very niche market in the form of CSA's, Farmer's Markets, and some cooperatives.
But local food (even though threatened by such insanity as HR 2749!!) is making a comeback. Many farmers, gardeners and ranchers have gotten creative, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, whose stories, and others, have been told in such books as Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, The Omnivore's Dilemma, A Nation of Farmers, and new movies like Fresh and Food, Inc. One of our local Oklahoma City innovators is named Matt Burch of the Urban Agrarian. He's not a farmer himself, but instead he's a facilitator, bringing together Oklahoma farmers and Oklahoma restaurants and cooks.

The Urban Agrarian brings local food to our OKC area markets in several different ways. Matt works with about 40 local restaurants, including Coach House, to supply some of their in-season vegetables. He also operates aVeggie Van on biodiesel made of waste oil - obtained from these same restaurants! The Veggie Van, which is kind of like a traveling farmer's market, can be found at the SE corner of NW 23rd and Hudson, across from Cheevers, on Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.

Having missed the OSU Farmer's Market on Saturday, I got the chance to visit the Veggie Van on Sunday. It's nice to have options so that if you don't make one Farmer's Market, another is available on a different day. When I arrived at the Veggie Van, they were offering fresh zucchini and yellow squash, several different peppers, luscious tomatoes, garlic, cantaloupes, blueberries, a variety of freshly-baked goods and canned jams from Earth Elements, free-range eggs, and more. Matt reported he will also soon be carrying local cheese from Hardesty Farms.

Matt Burch and Jassen Smoot

Earth Elements display at the Veggie Van

If you don't catch the Urban Agrarian on Sundays, Matt is one of the few people offering local produce at the infamous Edmond "Farmer's" market, and also one of three vendors at the brand-new Department of Health farmer's market on Tuesdays from 3 - 6 pm. This variety in market channels is one thing that we may see more and more of as people seek to diversify away from only having one source of income (namely, a corporate or government job).

Another innovative agrarian in our area is Ron Ferrell, who builds raised bed gardens with a ready-to-plant combination of straw bales for the edges, composted horse manure for the soil, and cardboard to smother the grass/weeds. As he says, just add seeds and water! This is great for people who don't have the energy, time, resources, or physical strength to start a garden, but who are easily able to plant seeds and transplants once a garden is built. I also love the very deep rich soil this must create - great for any root or nitrogen-hungry veggie.

Instant garden

Americans love innovation... it's just that we've been innovating in all the wrong ways for the last fifty years. Moving further and further away from sustainability and resilience, we've managed to become completely dependent on just a tiny number of companies that control everything from our seeds, to our animals in gigantic confined operations, to our grains that are the feedstock for almost everything in our grocery stores. All run on massive inputs of chemicals, oil, and cruelty.

Now is the time to innovate our way out of this unhealthy dependency. It's not enough to "go back" to the way our ancestors did things - they lived in very different times and circumstances, and although we've made massive mistakes since then, we've also developed and discovered great information resources and technologies. We have to use the wisdom of our forefathers, along with the wisdom of the native people who knew this land so well before we invaded, but also the new innovations and ideas we've gained since then.
We are going to need more and more of these creative agrarian people to re-build a food system so lacking in nutrition and flavor that we douse everything with fat, fried and high-fructose funk just to get it down our throats. We need innovation at every level of the process. Along with farmers and ranchers, we need seed savers, transplant sellers, backyard chicken wranglers, cooks who can work with whole ingredients of in-season foods, and local food brokers.

You can contribute to that renaissance. As I was leaving the Veggie Van, I joked that I should have brought some of my Mom's banana peppers. She has so many she doesn't know what to do with them all. Matt said to bring it on - he buys from small gardeners, too. That's good to hear... maybe he'll take some of my lemon balm and chocolate mint?