Wednesday, May 27, 2009
- Gasoline prices fluctuate between $6-9 per gallon. Some cities/towns have instituted gasoline rationing to ensure that ambulances, police vehicles, and key workers can get to work.
- Electricity prices have increased by 300% and blackouts are common. When power goes down due to storms, damaged lines, it sometimes takes weeks to repair.
- Food from industrial agriculture has become extremely expensive.
- The "economy" and the "government" are struggling to transform to meet the basic needs of the citizens. Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment payments have disappeared.
What would a day in that life look like?
In June, we wake up at 5 am when the sun rises. It's important to get our outside work done before the heat of the day. Since we can't afford A/C, we try to take siestas, or at least not move much, from 11 to 3. The ceiling fans help, and we've found that our bodies are getting used to the absence of climate control. I've seen a lot of lovely sunrises in the past few years from getting up at the crack of dawn.
I weed and water our back and front yard gardens, take care of our three chickens, and collect a few eggs, some greens, scallions and cherry tomatoes for a family omelet. The milk has already been delivered this morning, so we can have some milk as well. The garden has been growing larger every year, and we now get 80% of our fruits, vegetables, herbs, and eggs from our property. A few times a year, when the persimmons or kiwis ripen, we have enough produce to sell at the market.
I cook the omelet on our electric range, glad that the electricity is on today. We have a small solar powered electricity system, which reduces costs, but since we don't have a battery system it only works when the whole grid is on. Coal has become so expensive to transport from Wyoming, wind and solar are the cheaper options for generating electricity now. Of course, like most people we have outdoor wood fired stoves, camp cook stoves and a Sun Oven, but some things are just easier and faster to cook on the electric range, especially when I'm hungry in the morning. Since the electricity is on, I plan to run a few loads of laundry in the washing machine today.
I note that we are out of cheese and trust that the neighborhood Farmer's Market has some today. Farmer's Markets have sprung up all across the city as people try to make some extra money with their backyards, and since most people only travel to the "grocery store" once a month now, for staples. Our small Suggs Park Farmer's Market is in the parking lot of a former office park just a few blocks away, but there is also a larger market in the parking lot of Penn Square Mall, which is just a few blocks further.
It's hubby's day to work from home. His programming job at a major retail chain has been cut back to three days a week, and one of those days he telecommutes. Since he only works 24 hours a week, we no longer qualify for the full-time benefits, but his salary is still enough to pay the bills. The loss of health insurance benefits really worries me - especially for my son. We have savings in the case of an accident, and we pay for regular dental care, but there's no way we could pay to treat the worst diseases if they were to strike. Transition Town OKC is still working on a network of Mutual Aid societies, local health and accident insurance plans managed as non-profits by people we know and trust. The pilot plan looks promising, but so far we haven't managed to get one up and running here in our neighborhood.
The laptop my husband uses for work only draws a small amount of electricity, so I don't mind the drain on our solar power. Tomorrow he will be helping me work at our Transition Suggs Park Co-Op farm, which is on the site of the former Monroe elementary playground and Smitty Park, with grazing for goats all along the medians and public spaces where there are still lawns. We work there for four hours once a week in exchange for daily fresh milk, corn, and dried beans. The work is strenuous, but fun when there's a group of us. Sometimes we deliver the milk, sometimes we hoe the corn patch. It's always something different.
Now that the school year has been trimmed due to budget cuts, my son is out of school from May to August, as well as from December to February (when heating and cooling costs are highest). Since he is eight, he spends part of the day helping us around the house and garden, part of the day at the neighborhood rec center, and part of the day exploring and having fun with his friends. Next year he is considering starting a business as a bike messenger / delivery boy around the neighborhood.
I want to head to the Farmer's Market before it gets too hot out. First, I check with a few elderly neighbors to see what I can pick up for them, then I walk a few blocks to see if my sister in law wants to take the trip with me. We were lucky enough to help my husband's sister's family move up near us when gas hit $5 a gallon. Their house is smaller than their old one, but here in our neighborhood they are within walking distance of a library, Farmer's market, a scavenging shop, and we have a rec center for the kids. Also, Chesapeake has a hybrid corp-bus that runs in this area, which takes my brother in law to work.
On the way to the Farmer's market we see several friends and stop to chat. We're usually not in a hurry these days, and talking to friends is one of our best entertainments. It sounds like there is a block party being planned for the Fourth of July - we're invited to come and bring some of our home-brew. My husband is well-known in the neighborhood for his tasty Flat Tire and Plush Porter beer. He usually brews once a week, on his Mondays off, and we trade out the beer for various services and goods that we need. We've considered going into business, but brewery licenses are pretty pricey, so we just use the beer for bartering. And partying.
Our friends also want to discuss some Transition Suggs Park business. Since six years ago, when TSP was founded, we have made some great improvements in the quality of life of our residents. It was a little slow-going at first; we mainly just encouraged emergency preparedness and gardening and tried to raise awareness about the peak oil situation. However, since the city cut services, and with unemployment at record highs (except for oil and gas workers) we have had to work together to try to meet our needs. We managed to salvage a lot of the city services by hyper-localizing them - we now have police and firefighters and mini-medi-clinics right here in our neighborhood.
As we walk over to the farmer's market, I marvel at how clean the air smells. We have to cross Northwest Expressway, but the cars are only going 25 mph, which is the new city speed limit, and there are few cars now on the road. There are even speed bumps on the crosswalk. The neighborhood put the speed bumps in after that moron ran over the third grader on her bike.
We can hear the Penn Square Farmer's Market four blocks away - sounds like they have a band playing today. PSFM is one of the best Farmer's Markets in the city, if I do say so myself. We have added ten new producers in the last year and we now are able to meet most of our food needs within a thirty mile radius except for a few commodities and luxury items - like wheat, salt, and coffee.
The trip takes much longer than it would have in the days when we were just shopping. But the Farmer's Market is a place to exchange information, schedule activities with friends, and arrange barters - not just to buy food. There is always someone who needs help or wants to tell you about their new business or who has a great idea for a community project. The problem is trying to get out of there in less than two hours! People still use the Internet to buy and sell things locally, but it's even better to buy and sell from someone you actually know. A lot of people can't afford Internet or computers anyway.
Ah, home. I put the perishables in the underground storage room that we built a few years ago to replace our fridge. We weren't able to make the transition to the "root cellar" storage until we found a local source of daily milk and got our chickens, but once that happened it was fairly easy. We still have a small chest freezer that we use to store some food, but it uses way less energy than a fridge.
It's only eleven am, but I need to put the bread out in the Sun Oven to make sure I have enough time to cook the bread and dinner as well. Cooking with the Sun Oven isn't any harder than a cooktop, but it does take more advance planning, and of course sun. I'll put the bread in now, and dinner in a few hours. There are a few clouds out, so I cross my fingers. Then I take a nap.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Lucky for us, a training is occurring right around the corner - in Albuquerque, NM, on June 13th and 14th. A mere eight hour drive away, Albuquerque may be hot in June but the training should be worth the roasting. We will be carpooling in a Prius, so hopefully the carbon footprint for our trip shouldn't be too large.
Here are the details for anyone interested in attending. I highly encourage you to, if you are in the area and at all interested in sustainability, grassroots movements, climate change, peak oil, or transition towns. Surely one of these floats your boat?
Transition Training Information:
The Transition Training will be at the historic Hubble House in the South Valley of Albuquerque on June 13-14, 2009.
We are so lucky that Alaistair Lough, from Portland, Maine, one of the first Transition Trainers in the US is going to be with us. He was trained by Rob Hopkins and has conducted numerous workshops. He and his wife Pat, are a part of the Transtion Initiating Group in Portland. Alaistair is a Ph.D. hydrologist, a permaculturalist and also one of the Pachamama Alliance facilitators.
Venue & logistics: Sat - Sun, June 13-14, 2009 at the Hubble House (Rio Bravo Exit off I-25). The Hubble House is an old adobe Trading Post, beautifully rennovated, adjacent to luxerious open land, an acequia, garden, farm etc. We will provide some tasty food and snacks from our foodshed and have potluck lunches outside.
The program is 9am - 5pm with an hour for lunch. We could have an evening activity.
Who should come: Individuals and community leaders who are already involved in Transition, and those who want to take the movement (personally and organizationally) to a deeper level.
What is the program like: It is rich, compelling and inspiring.
The Scenarios - Mad Max; Technology Fix, Green Revolution, Disaster
Peak Oil, Climate Change, Fair Share (demystifying them) exercises
The A to C of Transition (still evolving)
Permaculture and transition
Vision - the Post-Carbon World
The 12 Ingredients, (or Steps) of Transition
The Process : Awareness, Initiating Groups, Projects, Energy Descent Plan
Oil Addiction - the mirror of societal, personal addiction
Heart & Soul
Healing and Local Initiatives
The Energy Descent - (better said, Sustainability) Plan
What is the outcome/result:
Grounding about the Transition movement
Startling awareness about Peak Oil & Climate Change
Knowing what other communities are doing.
Seeing the continuim, and realizing your next steps
Getting the program, agenda and all exercises on ppt.s, CD and hardcopy
Huge connections with people across New Mexico - begin to network, statewide
Communicating what needs to be done
Becoming a part of an Initiative
Developing resilience and re-localizing
Starting to create the Energy Descent Plan (Sustainability Plan)
Getting filled with enthusiam and do-ability
What is the cost?
$225. If we have 30 people, we can break even. More than that, we can offer partial scholarships. By Tuesday, 26 May, please send $100 deposit (or the whole $225) to the Village Design Institute, 805 Walter Street, Albuquerque, NM 87102.
Melanie Rubin, 505-261-3214, firstname.lastname@example.org
Maggie Seeley and Zaida Amaral
(505) 268-3339 (505) 410-4611
Zaida Amaral is an Environmental Architect, Feng Shui Master and Community Builder. She is a Co-Founder of Cunha Eco Village in Brazil and the Director of EcoVillage Design Southwest in Albuquerque. She is a drummer, dancer, Mother of a 4-year old daughter and a passionate, international activist. Zaida took her graduate work at Findhorn Foundation in Scotland and is one of 21 US Transition Trainers.
Maggie Seeley is an organizational consultant who specializes in using the Triple Bottom Line (people, profit and the planet) with individual, organizational, business and community decision making. She is fortunate to have worked in China, Nigeria, India, Uganda, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Maggie teaches Sustainability Studies at the University of New Mexico, is a water activist, Transition Trainer and a Buddhist.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
- Ground into whole wheat flour to make breads, pancakes, muffins, pizza crusts
- Cooked and incorporated into pilafs, stews, chilis, veggie burgers
- Cooked, sweetened and eaten as a breakfast cereal or grainy dessert
- Sprouted to make more of the nutrients available and to have a "live" food
- Mashed and made into beer
As some of you know, my usual response to serious doomy news is to buy wheat berries. I'm lucky to have a great source available from the OK Food Co-op. They are available already dried, cleaned, frozen for a week (to kill any larvae) and packaged in plastic buckets. Yay - little to no work involved! The only extra thing is the special Gamma Seal lid I purchased so I wouldn't teach my son lots of four-letter words as I tried to remove the horribly inconvenient lid that came with the bucket. Yes, it's worth $8. Trust me.
We recently installed our Country Living Grain Mill in our tile countertop. We had to bolt it down since the mill is completely made of metal and thus very heavy. This is a temporary measure since we plan to replace the countertops soon, but for now we have a stable place to grind flour.
I finally got around to cooking wheat berries for the first time yesterday. You can soak them overnight, like beans, to reduce the cooking time - otherwise they take about 1.5 hours to cook on the stovetop. Maybe this is why no one cooks them anymore??
I cooked the berries in the Sun Oven by adding 3 1/2 cups of water to one cup of wheat berries in a dark pot with a dark lid. I left them in the GSO for about 3 hours (just to make sure). The wheat berries were destined for a chili I found in 366 Delicious Ways to Cook Rice, Beans and Grains, which has several wheat berry recipes. I also found this handy "Cooking with Food Storage" pamphlet with some wheat berry recipes from Utah State Extension service. Half of the cooked wheat berries went in glassware in the fridge for some later use. The other half was placed with the chili ingredients in the pot, stirred and cooked for a few more hours. The Sun Oven kept it warm until dinner.The chili was super yummy. I have heard wheat berries described as tasting "like cartilage", but they added a nice chewy, slightly nutty texture to the chili. The chili was also great because I was able to let it cook in the sun oven for four or five hours, blending the flavors up nicely. My husband was pleased with the results, although my toddler said "too spicy." Less chipotle chile next time.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Along with freedom and progress, efficiency rounds out the triad of America's most treasured ideals. We like things to be "efficient," without really knowing what it means. Americans tend to use the term efficiency as a code word for getting things done cheaply and conveniently. Take agriculture, for example. It certainly is an achievement to churn out food at prices that are far less than historical averages (by percentage of family budget spent on food). That frees up a lot of money for people to spend on other things - clothes, travel, books, furniture, whatever your desire might be.
But what makes efficiency? Is it clever management? The "productivity" of human resources? Economies of scale? Centralization? Better information and computer systems? The competition of markets? Business people give credit to these innovations, and all of these changes may contribute incrementally to the cheapness of our food, but these are just icing on the cake. The real underpinning of what we think of as efficiency is cheap energy - especially cheap oil.
Farms here in America have been consolidating for over 50 years. The average size of a "farm" is now 459 acres. They are managed with the aid of GPS systems, barns of tractors, and miles of irrigation systems. The farms of today have replaced people, armed with knowledge of local conditions and crop varieties and supported by rainfall and rich topsoil, with machines fueled by gasoline and regular applications of chemicals created from fossil fuels.
Efficiency, in other words, means replacing energy from humans and animals and plants with the incredibly cheap, concentrated energy found in oil. It does not mean less waste (at least when measured in BTUs). Americans pride ourselves on our innovations, but we did not in fact create better, less wasteful farming systems - we just found ways to pour as much of this cheap energy into our farms as possible, without considering how long the resource would remain cheap.
Small farms are actually more productive and efficient than large farms. They produce more per acre. However, while fuel is inexpensive, small farms cannot achieve the massive economies of scale enabled by the replacement of people with gigantic tractors and chemicals. Since a gallon of oil can replace the energy of hundreds of hours of human labor, at a fraction of the cost, it makes a whole lot of economic sense to use it in place of people.
Replacing man (and horse) with machines may seem efficient, but it is not the efficiency of nature, which uses every particle of matter and energy and creates no waste. It is the economic efficiency of man, which inevitably generates pollution and destruction because the costs are not borne by the user, but by nature and by the community at large. What we call efficiency is simply the conversion of a fossil fuel inheritance millions of years in the making into cheap fuel and food for a few generations.
What we call "efficiency" is actually the height of inefficiency. The foundation of modern agriculture is mostly just the addition of more energy to the system, and any fool can do that. Our current food systems are only made possible by massive wastefulness, ruination of natural systems, and unbridled use of our inheritance of fossil fuels. These are the costs that our economic accounting does not take into account.
How efficient will it be to manage a 1,000 acre farm when production of oil begins to decline? How efficient will it be to ship lettuce 1,500 miles when gas costs $6 a gallon? How efficient will it be to use 20 calories of fossil fuels to create one calorie of food? What will we be left with when the age of oil begins to wane? Eroded topsoil, depleted aquifers, and the loss of the valuable farming knowledge of entire generations of Americans.
Here in Oklahoma, we are lucky to have small farmers still holding on to their farms and activists dedicated to reviving our local, sustainable and organic foodsheds. We have the Oklahoma Food Co-operative, an Extension Service supportive of sustainable agriculture, Community Supported Agriculture shares, and several local farmer's markets. Many of the people living here have memories of farms, of growing gardens and raising animals, and many continue to grow fruits and vegetables regardless of whether they live in the country or city. Here we are not that far away from our food.
As the price of fuel rises, the myth of efficiency will be exposed. We can choose to recognize that our ideal was an illusion, and rebuild our local food systems and economies now, or we can choose to be a deer in the headlights as the price of food rockets along with the price of fuel. We can use real design innovations, like permaculture and integrated pest management, which rely on careful observation and knowledge of the ecology, instead of the application of chemicals. We don't know when high gas prices will return, but oil has already demonstrated an ample capacity for volatility. Let's prepare now, so that we won't have to pay later.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Rule #1 of solar cooking: You need sun.
Nevertheless, we perservered and continued to the park for the chilly Roundup. The Sierra Club had organized a wonderful event, with so many interesting mini-classes it was hard to choose. They had lined up hikes, demonstrations, displays, and speeches on a variety of topics - local food, "Leave No Trace" hiking, nature walks, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, lasagna gardening, star-gazing, and a fire-starting demonstration. Not to mention, of course, solar cooking!
I liked that the Sierra Club "walked the talk" with their gathering. They recycled all the plastic that was used, and dinner and lunch were both made with local food. They had vegetarian options at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I noticed the coffee was fair-trade. Bravo to the Sierra Club! I have attended many an environmental conference or training that was far less sustainable.
3:00 pm rolled around, and the heavens seemed to clear up - just for my demonstration. The sun was shining, and I rushed to set up the Sun Oven. I brought out my flyers, my cookware, my Cooking with Sunshine book, and the ingredients for my demonstration dish. The GSO began to heat up, and I whipped up some cornbread for the demo. Curious people gathered around to examine my gizmo and ask questions. Several people wanted to know if I was selling the ovens. No, I'm just a crazy gal who likes to cook with the sun.
Alas, the sun did not last. The GSO heated up to about 250 F in the 20 minutes the sun was shining, but then, as the clouds returned, it slowly began to lose heat. The cornbread continued to cook, but never finished baking before the heat in the GSO dipped to 150 degrees a few hours later and I gave up on it. But in the meantime, there were several people who gathered around to hear my little speech.
My talk focused on a few key areas: who, what, how, when, where, and why of solar cooking. I started by emphasizing the benefits of solar cooking, which can be different to different people. For example, some might like to have it at an off-grid campsite or cabin, while others want to use it to prepare for the oil armaggedon :), and still others want a reasonably-priced way to use solar energy and reduce their carbon footprint.
In places where people traditionally cook with wood, or three-stone cookfires (i.e. Africa, Haiti, etc), the Sun Oven reduces the particulate pollution from the fires, reduces the time and expense of gathering wood, and is a safer option when little children are around. The main reason I like the Sun Oven is because it keeps my kitchen from heating up in the summer. I hate to set my Geothermal cooling system up to fight the oven or cooktop - the Geo will surely use if the temperature is over 100 F outside.
I'm amazed that this is still such an unrecognized technology. It's fairly cheap compared to solar PV, works well, is portable, and is also good for a backup cooking. It cooks fish, chicken, banana bread, cornbread, beans, chili, lasagna, casseroles, etc. I hope as people like Ed Begley, Jr. and Cody Lunkin continue to promote the sun ovens, they will become more popular in places like OKC, Utah, Nevada, Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado - anywhere where they can be used for about two-thirds of the year (at least from April to November), and where cooling a house can be very expensive. Of course, I hope the sun oven becomes even more popular than that.
I think part of the problem is that people think - oh, I can make my own for free with just cardboard and aluminum foil! Yeah, you can, but it's probably going to take awhile to get up to cooking temperatures, and what you can cook is pretty limited because the temperature won't get as high, and your food will take a lot longer to cook, and the homemade solar cooker probably will fall apart fairly quickly. So people end up disappointed and lose interest. Now, I'm all for "DIY" but I want something that's going to be reliable and cook pretty much like a conventional oven - not something that I just use once a year. I've seen some very cool DIY solar cookers online, but unfortunately the creators of the coolest one I've seen reported that it's so complicated to make that they don't even post the plans on the web. Well, that's useful.
The how of solar cooking is easy to describe, but takes practice to perfect. The key is to have a secure, not-too-windy, sunny place to cook between 10 am and 5 pm (in the summer). Luckily, Oklahoma City gets plenty of sun, and at the 35 N latitude, we have around 200 "prime solar cooking" days. As my husband and I learned the first few times we used the GSO, it is very important to have pots with BLACK LIDS (except when cooking bread or bakery items). It's also nice to have a few bricks to stablize the GSO in the case that your area has the same gale-force winds that we do.
As a bonus, I got to describe the Villager Sun Oven, which is a huge solar cooker designed for large scale cooking (orphanages, bakeries, etc), which can bake several hundred loaves of bread in a day, and which can save the wood from 150 trees in a year. One of these days, it will be mine! Bwa ha ha ha.
Anyway, although the cooking demo was kind of a bust (what do you expect on a day with 20 minutes of sun?), I met a lot of cool people and got to talk about my favorite subjects - peak oil, solar cooking, and Transition Town OKC. And guess what? There was also wine.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Our group, Transition Town OKC, already has several slogans, such as "The community approach to the energy challenge," and "Building stronger and more resilient communities," which kind of hint at the problem, but don't directly address it - because it would take too long, or on the flipside, be too blunt (publicity problem). We test-marketed "Working together to survive the energy apocalypse," but it didn't play so well.
One issue is that we can't assume that the public knows anything. During our tabling we ran into a woman who didn't realize that plastic was a recent invention. She asked, "What did they do before Tupperware?" While she may be an extreme example, most people don't realize a lot of simple information - because they have never been informed, and because they have never stopped to question the fundamental assumptions that drive our economy (infinite growth is possible and desirable). We have to start from scratch when dealing with the public, not because they are stupid, but because they have never examined the basic realities of their life.
So I decided to break down what we needed to communicate into it's components. I came up with six:
1. Our society is incredibly dependent on cheap energy, especially oil.
2. Oil supplies are finite.
3. At some point, probably soon, we will reach maximum production of oil supplies and then oil production will start to decline.
4. This decline will cause major disruptions to our agriculture, economy, financial systems, and way of life.
5. We need to create stronger and more resilient communities to face this challenge.
6. With creativity and hard work, we can build ways of life that are actually preferable to our anxiety-ridden, unhealthy, inequal, ecology-destroying status quo.
Trying to fit all of these concepts into a table display, a conversation, a soundbite, or a slogan, is difficult. It's not that hard to fit into a pamphlet or a website or a PowerPoint presentation, but we need a quick, one or two sentence way to explain who we are and what we are doing. This means that a lot of the nuances, and even some important information (like "we may have already reached peak oil") is lost.
On top of that, we need ways to answer the most common questions. It's best to do that pro-actively, because otherwise people tend to walk off in denial by comforting themselves with the thought that ethanol, or wind, or solar, or electric cars, or nuclear fusion, whatever technology comes to mind, is going to make it possible to keep existing in our current way of life.
What we're trying to balance is brevity and understandability with complexity, urgency and comprehensiveness. What we gain on one aspect, usually we have to give up on another, and I haven't yet come up with the perfect combination. One example we practiced was something like this:
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Energy released the Hirsch report, which
analyzed world oil production. Their conclusion was that oil production would start declining soon, probably within the next ten years, which would cause a lot of problems for us because we depend on oil so much. We need to build stronger, more local communities so that we can face this problem.
This explanation relies on a government report (authoritative source), takes three sentences (fairly brief), explains most of the peak oil problem (comprehensive). However, it lacks urgency (no specific timing), and may not be easy for people to understand (without a background understanding how much oil we use, what we use it for, how much we import, etc.). This explanation is also pretty light on the "solution" side of the thing. I mean, how the heck are local communities going to help the problem? It may not be very obvious. Not to mention the fact that it completely leaves out the climate change aspect of the problem.
Do you have an elevator speech of two or three sentences that you use to explain the energy problem - or do you go into a detailed explanation, or avoid talking about it entirely?