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.