A place where one woman has gathered resources and information to help her family survive in an uncertain future; together with occasional personal musings.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


cienceDaily (Oct. 19, 2010) — The United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades, according to a new study by National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) scientist Aiguo Dai. The detailed analysis concludes that warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.

Using an ensemble of 22 computer climate models and a comprehensive index of drought conditions, as well as analyses of previously published studies, the paper finds most of the Western Hemisphere, along with large parts of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, may be at threat of extreme drought this century.

In contrast, higher-latitude regions from Alaska to Scandinavia are likely to become more moist.

Dai cautioned that the findings are based on the best current projections of greenhouse gas emissions. What actually happens in coming decades will depend on many factors, including actual future emissions of greenhouse gases as well as natural climate cycles such as El NiƱo.

The new findings appear as part of a longer review article inWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor.

"We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community," Dai says. "If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous."

While regional climate projections are less certain than those for the globe as a whole, Dai's study indicates that most of the western two-thirds of the United States will be significantly drier by the 2030s. Large parts of the nation may face an increasing risk of extreme drought during the century.

Other countries and continents that could face significant drying include:

  • Much of Latin America, including large sections of Mexico and Brazil
  • Regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, which could become especially dry
  • Large parts of Southwest Asia
  • Most of Africa and Australia, with particularly dry conditions in regions of Africa
  • Southeast Asia, including parts of China and neighboring countries

The study also finds that drought risk can be expected to decrease this century across much of Northern Europe, Russia, Canada, and Alaska, as well as some areas in the Southern Hemisphere. However, the globe's land areas should be drier overall.

"The increased wetness over the northern, sparsely populated high latitudes can't match the drying over the more densely populated temperate and tropical areas," Dai says.

A climate change expert not associated with the study, Richard Seager of Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, adds:

"As Dai emphasizes here, vast swaths of the subtropics and the midlatitude continents face a future with drier soils and less surface water as a result of reducing rainfall and increasing evaporation driven by a warming atmosphere. The term 'global warming' does not do justice to the climatic changes the world will experience in coming decades. Some of the worst disruptions we face will involve water, not just temperature."

A portrait of worsening drought

Previous climate studies have indicated that global warming will probably alter precipitation patterns as the subtropics expand. The 2007 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that subtropical areas will likely have precipitation declines, with high-latitude areas getting more precipitation.

In addition, previous studies by Dai have indicated that climate change may already be having a drying effect on parts of the world. In a much-cited 2004 study, he and colleagues found that the percentage of Earth's land area stricken by serious drought more than doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Last year, he headed up a research team that found that some of the world's major rivers are losing water.

In his new study, Dai turned from rain and snow amounts to drought itself, and posed a basic question: how will climate change affect future droughts? If rainfall runs short by a given amount, it may or may not produce drought conditions, depending on how warm it is, how quickly the moisture evaporates, and other factors.

Droughts are complex events that can be associated with significantly reduced precipitation, dry soils that fail to sustain crops, and reduced levels in reservoirs and other bodies of water that can imperil drinking supplies. A common measure called the Palmer Drought Severity Index classifies the strength of a drought by tracking precipitation and evaporation over time and comparing them to the usual variability one would expect at a given location.

Dai turned to results from the 22 computer models used by the IPCC in its 2007 report to gather projections about temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind speed, and Earth's radiative balance, based on current projections of greenhouse gas emissions. He then fed the information into the Palmer model to calculate the PDSI index. A reading of +0.5 to -0.5 on the index indicates normal conditions, while a reading at or below -4 indicates extreme drought. The most index ranges from +10 to -10 for current climate conditions, although readings below -6 are exceedingly rare, even during short periods of time in small areas.

By the 2030s, the results indicated that some regions in the United States and overseas could experience particularly severe conditions, with average decadal readings potentially dropping to -4 to -6 in much of the central and western United States as well as several regions overseas, and -8 or lower in parts of the Mediterranean. By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.

Dai cautions that global climate models remain inconsistent in capturing precipitation changes and other atmospheric factors, especially at the regional scale. However, the 2007 IPCC models were in stronger agreement on high- and low-latitude precipitation than those used in previous reports, says Dai.

There are also uncertainties in how well the Palmer index captures the range of conditions that future climate may produce. The index could be overestimating drought intensity in the more extreme cases, says Dai. On the other hand, the index may be underestimating the loss of soil moisture should rain and snow fall in shorter, heavier bursts and run off more quickly. Such precipitation trends have already been diagnosed in the United States and several other areas over recent years, says Dai.

"The fact that the current drought index may not work for the 21st century climate is itself a troubling sign," Dai says.

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Monday, October 18, 2010

backyard ecology (the archdruid report)

Animals I: Birds, Bats, and Bumblebees
I should probably send Rob Hopkins a thank you note. I’m not at all sure he meant to draw attention to the Green Wizards project just as the forum at http://www.greenwizards.org went live, but that’s the way it turned out, and the results have gone past my most improbable hopes. Measures of forum activity I’d hoped to pass in six months have been shouldered aside in six days, and the forum staff are scrambling to deal with a far more lively online community than any of us expected this soon.

To all those who have participated in the Green Wizards forum so far, I certainly owe a hearty thanks, and to judge from comments fielded there and elsewhere, the best way to express it is to plunge onward into the next phase of green wizardry and start handing out more practical information. That’s the agenda for this week, certainly, and the subject under discussion ought to be dear to the hearts of prospective green wizards. By the time you’ve finished with this week’s work, you may not be able to call spirits from the vasty deep as Glendower claimed to do, but you’ll be able to call helpful critters from the surrounding ecosystems to help maintain the balance of your garden – and yes, to forestall Hotspur’s gibe, they will indeed come when you do call them, if you do it in the right way.

Let’s start with basic concepts. A garden is an ecosystem managed in such a way that human beings get to eat a significant fraction of the net primary production of the plants that grow there. Net primary production? That’s the amount of energy each year that the plants in a given ecosystem take in from the Sun and store in the form of sugars and other compounds that can be eaten by some other living thing. Everything other than plants in any ecosystem gets its fuel from the net primary production of that ecosystem, or of another ecosystem that feeds energy into it.

You’re not going to get anything close to a majority of the net primary production of your garden onto your dinner table, by the way, and it’s a mistake to try; if you do, you’ll starve other living things that depend on a share of net primary production to keep their own dinner tables stocked, and you need these other living things in order to have a healthy and productive garden. (Ignoring this latter point is one of the critical errors of today’s industrial agriculture.) Your goal instead is to make sure that as much of the net primary production diverted from your table as possible goes to living things that earn their keep by doing something for your benefit.

Here’s an example. A certain amount of each year’s net primary production from your garden goes to feed earthworms. Any gardener with the brains the gods gave geese won’t grudge them their share, because earthworms break down organic matter into forms plants can use, and they improve the texture and drainage of soil as they do it. Charles Darwin – yes, that Charles Darwin – wrote a brilliant and too often neglected book on the role of earthworms in the creation of topsoil; what he found, to drastically simplify a classic piece of ecological research, is that earthworms are topsoil-making machines, and the more you’ve got, the better your soil and the higher your crop yields will tend to be.

Now the logical conclusion to all this, at least according to the logic of modern industrial society, is that gardeners ought to run out and buy earthworms by the carload. As it happens, this is rarely a good idea. There are bound to be some earthworms in your soil, and since earthworms are hermaphroditic and fertile most of the time, there’s generally no shortage of baby earthworms starting out on their slimy and subterranean lives. The question, if you’ve got a worm shortage, is why so few of them grow up to become the big pink nightcrawlers that haunt fishermen’s dreams.

This is where another of the fundamental principles of ecology comes into play. Liebig’s law, named after the 19th century German agricultural botanist Justus von Liebig, has the interesting distinction of being at one and the same time one of the most consistently valid principles of ecology and one of the most consistently rejected concepts in modern economics. The short form of the law is that for any organism, whatever necessary resource is in shortest supply puts an upper bound on the carrying capacity of the environment for that organism.

To understand how this works, imagine a plant growing in your garden. That plant has a variety of needs – water, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, an assortment of trace elements, and so on. If the soil is short of any one of them, it doesn’t matter if all the others are abundant; the nutrient in short supply will determine how well that plant can grow in that garden. Readers familiar with the rhetoric of today’s economists will recall the claim that if humanity runs out of one resource, we can always replace it with another; this claim amounts to insisting that Liebig’s law doesn’t apply to human beings – though it’s a rare economist who knows enough about nature to recognize that.

There are good reasons to think that the economists who make this claim are dead wrong, but that’s a topic for another time. The point that needs making here is that all the living things in your garden are subject to Liebig’s law, and if you want more of some particular organism in your garden, the way to get it is to find out what the resource in shortest supply is, and provide it. With earthworms, most often, it’s the sheer amount of organic matter in the soil that’s the limiting factor, and the more organic matter you put into the soil – by hoeing in compost, using mulches, planting green manures, or what have you – the more infant earthworms will mature to massive pink nightcrawlerhood and get to work improving your garden soil.

The same rule governs all the other useful critters you might want to attract to your garden. Bats are an example too rarely considered by organic gardeners. Why so many people fear and dislike bats is beyond me; any animal that can eat its body weight in mosquitoes in a single night, after all, should be a welcome guest wherever it goes. Still, the benefits bats bring to the garden outweigh the simple pleasure of not being eaten alive by the insect world’s answer to Count Dracula. Many of the grubs that cause serious damage to food crops – the corn borer, the apple maggot, and more – are the larva of night-flying moths, and night-flying moths are prime bat food.

The limiting resource for bats, nearly always, is daytime shelter during the non-hibernating months, and so one very easy way to bring bats to your garden is to build or buy a bat house and set it in an appropriate place. Both the house and its placement require a certain degree of care – bats, like nearly all other animals, are particular about their homes – but their preferences are well known and the resources given at the end of this post will provide you with the information you need.

Get a proper bat house in place, and in most cases you can count on a crew of bats finding it and taking up residence in a fairly short time, and thereafter any problems you may be having with moth larvae will become a good deal less severe. You’ll also be doing a good turn for the bats themselves; recently, a fungal disease called white nose syndrome has caused high death rates in many North American bats, and ensuring plenty of housing and habitat for the survivors will help bat populations survive the epidemic and recover quickly once it begins to pass off.

Birds are the day shift to bats’ night shift, and some varieties of birds are well worth attracting to your garden as well. Swallows, swifts, and martins – a closely related group of birds with tapering, pointed wings and a prodigious appetite for insects – are a classic example. Until the advent of chemical agriculture, farmers across North America went out of their way to encourage barn swallows to set up housekeeping in and around their farms, because swallows do exactly what their name suggests to a great many daytime insects that make life difficult for crops. Like bats and most species of birds, swallows and their relatives are particular about their homes; here, though, this is a double advantage, because homes well suited to swallows are uninviting to starlings and other birds that damage crops.

Another set of living things your garden needs is pollinators. The collapse of honeybee populations over much of the industrial world has been all over the news over the last few years, and for good reason. Without pollination by insects, many food crops don’t produce or reproduce, and honeybees have long been the primary pollinators of most commercially grown fruits and vegetables, with hives being trucked from farm to farm over hundreds of miles in season.

Exactly what is causing Colony Collapse Disorder is uncertain as yet, though some evidence points to a class of recently introduced pesticides – neonicotinoids such as imidacloprid – which are highly toxic to bees and can build up in a hive’s honey supply to lethal levels. Until the issue gets sorted out, making sure that your garden has backup pollinators in place is crucial. Domesticated honeybees are one option, but beekeeping is not a project for everyone; another, far less demanding option is to increase the population of local species of wild bees.

Spend some time outdoors watching flowering plants and you’ll quickly discover just how diverse a range of insects can play the pollination game. Many of them are bees of one kind or another, for there are thousands of kinds of bees, each with its own lifestyle and preferences. Very few of them have the complex social structure and hive life of the honeybee, and even fewer of them have a sting painful to human beings. Most are solitary, harmless, and short-lived, hatching in the spring and mating almost immediately, after which the males die and the females spend the rest of their lives laying eggs in burrows of one kind or another; each egg will hatch out the next spring as a bee of the next generation.

The orchard mason bee is one variety of solitary bee that has become a popular pollinator in some areas, especially where fruit trees are grown. The limiting factor for orchard mason bees is nesting sites for the females to lay their eggs, and this can be provided with a simple wooden block drilled with a lot of 5/16" holes. Nesting blocks for several other species with similar life patterns can also be made or bought; again, the resource section at the end of the post gives details.

Another common wild bee with a somewhat more complex life pattern is the familiar bumblebee, large and furry, that can be found visiting flowers through the summer months in most of North America. There are many species of bumblebees; all of them dwell in small underground hives which they build in abandoned burrows, and they have queens who live for several years and workers who live only one. The limiting factor in their case is not homes, but homes safe from predators such as field mice, who like to dig down into hives and eat the larvae.

The way to make Liebig’s law work in bumblebees’ favor is to take a small wooden box full of cotton wool, and with a short piece of old garden hose extending from a hole in the side maybe six inches. Bury the box in the ground in a secure, fairly dry place, so that the end of the hose just pokes out of the ground. Once a newly hatched queen finds it – which rarely takes more than a single spring – you’ll have a bumblebee hive full of pollinators who will do their duty for your garden and the wild plants around it as well.

All pollinators need something in flower to feed on for the entire period they are active, which for orchard mason bees extends from March to the end of May in most areas, and for bumblebees, depending on the species, can run from sometime in the late spring well into autumn. The absence of flowering plants can be a limiting factor for all kinds of bees, and if the area around your garden is short on flowers at some point in the season, a flowering shrub or two to fill in the gaps is a good investment. We have a buddleia in our front yard that serves as lunch counter for a dizzying array of daytime insects, including nearly a dozen species of wild bees; your local ecosystem will have appropriate shrubs that will fill the same role.

The same principle can be applied in many other ways. Just as you can encourage a species by figuring out what resource it needs is in shortest supply and providing that resource, in other words, you can limit an unwelcome species by figuring out its resource needs, and doing your best to make sure that one of those needs is as scarce as possible. As you work with your garden, and learn more about the complex ecosystem that an organic garden develops around it, pay attention to places where a little careful tinkering with variables can increase the population of something you want, and decrease the population of something you don’t want. It’s not so clumsy or random as a pesticide, as Obi-Wan might have put it: an elegant method of the more ecologically sane age toward which, willy-nilly, the pressures of the present are forcing us.


Net primary production and Liebig’s law are covered in most college textbooks of ecology, and if you’ve got one of those, it may be worth your while to read back through the sections discussing these two concepts.

For earthworms, Charles Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms remains the classic study, and readers who can handle the leisurely pace and extensive vocabulary of an earlier age of scientific writing shouldn’t miss it.

For bats, Merlin Tuttle’s America’s Neighborhood Bats is a good introduction, and Bat Conservation Interrnational provides extensive resources for bat house construction and other details of living around bats. For useful birds such as swallows, swifts, and martins, your local chapter of the Audubon Society can get you information about the species that are local to your area and their nesting requirements.

For bees, two books by Brian L. Griffin, The Orchard Mason Bee and Humblebee Bumblebee, are good primers with plenty of detailed information; they are written from a Pacific Northwest perspective, however, and some of their advice may need adjustment in different climates.

There's Nothing to Eat (Pantry Management)!

From my main blog: New to farm life:

Most of us with teenage children are probably used to them sauntering into the kitchen (at 11:30 saturday morning), opening a cupboard or the fridge, and moaning "there's never anything to eat around here!" As parents, we look into the fridge and see that in fact, it isn't bare at all. To adult eyes, it looks full of food.

In my house, I hear this all the time. Not just from my kids and husband, but from family and friends when they come over. Actually, what I hear is "How can you have so much food and nothing to eat?" Obviously, there's a difference between teenagers and other adults, who can in fact cook. The teenager probably means you are out of his favorite cereal and he considers it a hardship to have to eat his second favorite cereal. Grownups mean there is nothing to eat without having to take inventory of the pantry, sit down and consult a recipe book, and then spend an hour cooking.

Many of us are trying - for reasons ranging from simple thrift to religious encouragement to fears about the Zombiepocalypse - to build up some food storage. There are any number of reasons to have storable food on hand. But here's the thing - unless you are into MREs, stored food isn't generally amenable to quick snacking. For the most part, food storage is going to consist of dry goods like rice and beans, flour and sugar and salt; canned goods (home canned or store bought); and for those of us with a chest freezer, meat and other frozen goods. Generally speaking, heat-and-eat processed foods are not big on the home food storage list. They are too expensive.

Speaking of expense - even those of us who aren't into storing food may choose simple, unprocessed foods as a matter of economy. A homemade meal of - oh, say, chicken and vegetable curry with basmati rice and lentil dal is only about one tenth the price of the same meal bought in frozen form from Costco or Trader Joe's.

And some of us just like to cook, the old fashioned way. I admit, I am kind of a stick in the mud (I don't, for example, own a microwave) but I was highly amused when I was trolling the aisles of Trader Joe's and saw vacuum packed, fully cooked rice. What? People find boiling rice too challenging these days? Really?

Now, I have sympathy for people looking for a quick snack in my house. I am fairly far over to the crunchy granola side of the spectrum. Someone peeking into my cupboard is a lot more likely to find a home canned jar of pickled beets than they are a box of toaster pastries. In the freezer, it's going to be haunch of goat instead of frozen pizza. And my fridge is pretty much a solid wall of weird home farm products distinguishable only to me. I really don't expect anyone else to be able to tell the goat milk from the yogurt from the jar of clean white rendered lard. Six kinds of homemade cheese. Many of the things in there are pretty off-putting: someone recently threw away my ziploc bag of sourdough starter. I'm sad - it was from a 75 year old strain. But I can see why someone who didn't know what it was would throw it out. Then there's the kim chee sitting out on the counter, in it's second week of fermentation.

I don't mean to suggest we are purists - quite often there IS a frozen pizza in the freezer or some boxed mac n' cheese in the pantry. We have instant oatmeal for school mornings. My husband is prone to impulse purchases of Lucky Charms and Flamin' Hot Cheetos. But it's true more often than not that if you want to eat something beyond a bowl of yogurt with honey or an apple with cheese, you're going to have to cook. I happen to love cooking, but even the most enthusiastic chef gets tired of making two or three meals a day from scratch. Nobody wants every meal to be a marathon gourmet session. Preparing quick, easy, and relatively healthy meals from scratch without tiring yourself out is largely a matter of having a good pantry. I'm going to lay out for you my personal bare-bones pantry - the hardworking rotation that gets called upon over and over week after week. Most of these items are also food storage items; of course at any given time you will have fresh local fruits and veggies depending on the season and the produce of your own garden.

I tend to break up my pantry into a few categories. The most important is "staples." That is, the backbone starch that will be the bulk of calories in most meals. Here I am only listing those that are quick(20 minutes or less) and easy to prepare -

- white rice
- red lentils
- bulgar wheat (the base for tabouli. It needs no cooking at all, just soaking in very hot water)
- potatoes
- quinoa
- pasta (hooray for pasta!)
- canned beans of all descriptions
- corn tortillas

Choose your "staple" first - it more than anything else determines the character of the meal. You can use the same protein and seasonings with different staples and have totally different meals. The next category is "proteins." Again, only the quick and easy are listed here. A whole chicken is a great protein, but it's not what you want when your kids are whining that they are about to die from starvation. Most of these come in cans.

- tuna (love this! If you eat a lot of tuna, choose chunk light for the lower mercury content. If you eat a little, go for solid white albacore)
- canned chicken breast
- sardines (not anchovies - those come later in the flavorings section)
- canned shrimp
- canned clams
- small cuts of beef or pork for the freezer. Small thin cut pork chops or thin cuts of beef like skirt steak can be removed from the freezer and cooked without thawing.
- tofu. I like the shelf-stable extra-firm for cubing and pan frying.
- canned beans. These are both a starch and a protein.
- cheese

Before we move on to flavorings, pick a starch and a protein. It could be potatoes and cheese. Or pasta and tuna. Quinoa and tofu. Okay - moving on - the last category is flavorings. These are the bottles and jars that clutter up the back of the fridge. Stuff like chutney, ketchup, salad dressings, mustard, etc. Also I am including a few fresh items that I try to always have on hand. Here are the ones that I absolutely can't live without (in no particular order):

- olives. I buy those giant jars of kalamata olives at Costco, and we go through them, too.
- mustard
- capers
- lemons and limes
- garlic
- chiles, both fresh and dried
- parsley
- good quality soy sauce
- selection of oils, including sesame and something like walnut or hazelnut
- fresh ginger root
- cilantro
- hot sauce
- selection of vinegars
- a good selection of spices - all the basics like cinnamon and cloves and cumin, fennel, allspice, thyme, oregano, etc plus good quality blends like curry powder and harissa

Okay. Now we have some choices to make. We have the skeleton of the meal - starch and protein. Sometimes that choice will suggest your flavorings. For example, if we picked pasta and tuna, to me that cries out for a nice Italian treatment. Grab a pan, pour in some olive oil and saute some chopped garlic, olives, capers, and red pepper flakes. Pour over the pasta and tuna, then shower with minced parsley. Hit it with a shot of lemon juice and BOOM, there's supper.

If we chose potatoes and cheese, we might go in a couple of different ways. My family likes Mexican flavored fried potatoes, which would mean something like sliced chilies, garlic, cumin seed, and cilantro. But maybe we want kind of a European thing. Maybe fry your potatoes with onion, green cabbage, fennel seed, caraway, and finish with a little mustard and black pepper. Or, make a potato gratin. Thinly slice potatoes and layer in a lasagna pan with onions and a vegetable like fennel bulb, beets, or parsnips. Cover with cheese and pour over light cream to cover. Bake at 350 until browned and bubbly. I'm just making shit up, here.

Quinoa and tofu might suggest a far-east treatment. While the quinoa simmers, pan fry the tofu cubes in a little sesame oil along with garlic, green onions, hot red pepper flakes, ginger, and some kind of veggie - chopped kale or spinach sounds good. Toss with the quinoa and add soy sauce to taste. Maybe some lime juice or a shot of rice wine vinegar.

It helps to know which flavorings go together - the Mediterranean grouping, for example, of olives, capers, olive oil, anchovies, lemon, parsley, oregano, thyme, mild peppers... or the chinese soy, ginger, garlic, and chile.... the Mexican garlic, cumin, chile, lime, and allspice.... these blends are easy to get the hang of with just a little reading. I suggest the excellent "world of the east vegetarian cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey for all eastern hemisphere cuisines and Sherri Lukins (sp?) "All Around the World Cookbook" as a great, fun to read resource.

Have fun in the kitchen!

Friday, October 8, 2010

In a nutshell...

John Michael Greer's presentation was entitled "The End of Investments". This is a topic that he has covered in one of his Archdruid Reports. Looking back at history, especially the decline of the Roman Empire, he predicts that the concept of investments will not be one that long survives in the world of long decline. Going beyond the concept that what we call economic growth will not be possible in a post peak world, so that much of we consider wealth will turn out be illusions, there is also possibility that the nice yellowish metal that is so popular right now ($1329.60/oz right now!) may not turn out be as useful as one may think. A pile of loot attracts looters as he put it. A historical example is the stockpiles of Roman gold coins that are found on a regular basis in England. Nearby is almost always the ruin of a post-Roman villa that was certainly sacked in search of those coins. Investment in things that can't be looted or are not so alluring like tools, friendships and ties to one's community might be a better bet.

Leave it to the Archdruid to propose an idea that makes even hard-core Peak Oilers uncomfortable. Later in the day I was speaking to a financial blogger who has done wonderful work on the implications of peak oil. I asked him what he thought of Greer's talk. There was an awkward silence. Then he asked "What do you think...?"

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Practical Advice


It was just like a fairy tale, only not. The princess, in her academic tower, meets a super-smart prince (the astrophysicist), and they fall in love and go about seeking the perfect palace of ivory to do their very important work. The princess writes about dark things - our long history of demographic and ecological crisis, and how they may play out again, but this is just a job. Except that she gets kissed by one big ugly frog - the realization that our way of life can't go on. So she drags the prince (who keeps rolling his eyes and asking whether someone else can't do some of this) off to try and establish a way of life with a future, using a fair share of the world's resources. So now she's up to her knees in chickens and laundry, milking goats, making jam and splitting wood, while also writing books and this blog about food, energy, climate change and whatever else strikes her fancy. And except for the fact that the planet is still getting warmer and the oil is still peaking, she's actually living happily ever after.


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Triaging Your Adapting in Place Situation

Category: Adapting in Place
Posted on: October 5, 2010 12:47 PM, by Sharon Astyk

This post ran a year and half ago at The Oil Drum, but I thought it was worth re-running, as I begin my new Adapting in Place class (still two spots if anyone wants them - email jewishfarmer@gmail.com - and no, it isn't too late!). How do you even get started thinking about how to prepare for a lower energy and less stable climate future?


The first question to ask is whether we should take in-place Adaptation seriously at all. Shouldn't we, ideally, try and choose the best possible place to deal with the coming crisis? Some analysts suggest we will have to have vast population migrations out of suburbia, say, to more densely packed and walkable cities, while others propose re-ruralization. My suspicion is that both of these will probably occur to some degree - but that the progression will be intermittent, not very well organized. And plenty of people will stay in place, either in their homes and apartments, or will settle in property known to them, owned or rented by family or close friends.

Why will they stay? Well, for millions of people who own a home, but aren't in immediate danger of foreclosure, the option of selling, even if they are not "underwater" is problematic - with home sales at historic lows, most of us will be staying put, if we don't lose or abandon our properties. They can't afford to change jobs, because they will lose seniority and potentially get the axe. They can't afford the additional costs of moving, buying a new property or paying first, last and security.

And if they do move? Some of us will migrate, but a lot of us have compelling reasons to live where we do - community, culture, and family. What most of us will probably do in dire circumstances is simply consolidate resources with people we can trust - we'll take in boarders or move in with family or friends. In tough times, we are likely to need family and community more - thus staying close to elderly parents or grandparents who can help with childcare while parents look for work becomes more urgent.

Some of us may also decide where we are is the right place - it isn't just a matter of not being able to move, but of believing that we are best in places we know. The time for the radical changes required by picking up and moving and starting over may have been a few years ago. More familiar projects may be wiser and better for many of us.

Another force pushing us to stay put, as I wrote in my book _Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front_, one of the most powerful strategies for mitigation is likely to be a move into the informal economy. Teodor Shanin, founder of Peasant Economics has observed that the formal economy (the one most but not all Americans operate in) makes use of only ¼ of all the world's workers. Most economic activity takes place in the informal economy, and the informal economy generally expands in response to contraction by the formal economy. In an essay in "New Scientist" Shanin writes,

"The concept emerged in Africa 25 years ago. Researchers began to notice that there was no economic explanation for how the majority of the population survived. They didn't own land. They didn't seem to have any assets. According to conventional economics, they should have died of hunger long ago, but they survived. To understand this, researchers looked at how these people actually lived, rather than at economic models . They found that their way of life was completely the opposite of how a human being in industrial society survives. They didn't have a job, pension, steady place to work or regular flow of income. Families held a range of occupations from farming and selling in the market to doing odd jobs or handicrafts. Their aim was survival rather than maximization of profit. Rather than earn wages, labor was used within family." (archive.newscientist.com/secure/article/article.jsp?rp=1&id=mg1 (article is behind a paywall))

Similar informal economies have emerged in undergoing collapse or economic crisis in Russia, Argentina, and elsewhere, and there is really no reason to believe that the informal economy - which includes domestic labor, cottage industry, illegal activity, under the table businesses, and family economics will not expand here . These economic activities generally make use of family, local, household resources and needs - the soil your home sits on, the wood on your woodlot, providing services to neighbors, making use of household space to operate a business. Where homes have been a major economic drain, they have the potential, for those not over-leveraged, to become a source of income.

It seems likely then that some people whose homes have been or can be made valuable to them - by improving soil, the starting of cottage industries, strong social, familial and community ties, and local economic initiatives will have strong incentives to stay in place. We may see the common pattern of Global South employment in which some family members are sent where formal jobs are available to work, while most of the family remains together. With more people per household, mortgage and property costs may become manageable, while the benefits of family and community are increased by our lack of fossil fuels.

Triaging Your Situation

This does not mean that everyone can or should stay in place. Those who bought homes with ARMs, or at the peak of the market, those already in financial trouble, or without community and family ties may wish or need to relocate. But I still anticipate that at least in the short term, a large number of people all over the world will respond to the present crisis by remaining in their present homes or in a place they have existing ties.

So it is worth asking - what are the first steps if you've decided to remain your home, with all its imperfections and disadvantages (and its perfections and advantages - remember, there is no perfect place)? Your goal is to be able to handle what is thrown at you, crises economic, energetic, ecological or political - or all of the above. And the first step, as always, is triage - setting priorities.

First Steps

We all need to get ready to deal with the kind of short term crisis that affects almost everyone sooner or later. Given the fragility of our systems, more and more of these disruptions are likely. Thus, our first project is a medium range systems problem - something that can be caused by ice storms, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, geopolitical crisis, blackout... you name it. We need to be ready to get along for a few weeks to a month in a very messed up short term situation. This is useful even if what we face is a very messed up long term situation.

That means moving first to get basic needs met. Thus, we concentrate on first tier solutions. The qualities that these first tier solutions must have are these

1. They keep you alive and healthy.

2. They are simple, accessible and not too expensive - since everyone needs these

You need a reserve of food, and a way to cook it without power, lots of warm clothing and blankets if cold is a potential problem, and sufficient water and ways to keep cool if heat is the issue. You need stored water and a backup source of water. You will want some basic lighting and a way to manage toileting and hygiene issues, clean bodies and clothes. You need away to keep aware of events and communicate with family and community.

Other than the food, medications and water, the emergency measures could be quite cheap, because they don't have to be comfortable and pleasant - for a few weeks, you can winter camp in your house, for a few weeks you can pee in a bucket, for a few weeks you can do laundry infrequently in another plastic bucket, light your evening with your headlamp and rechargeable batteries, communicate with your neighbors by trekking out to knocked together neighborhood bulletin board. That is, you can be uncomfortable and/or inconvenienced for the short term, in most cases. That doesn't mean all the short term solutions are unpleasant - in fact, sometimes you'll be surprised by how minor the inconvenience is, but the most important thing is that you have a way of meeting those needs, not that it be the perfect method.

For those who can't tolerate much discomfort or inconvenience, because of health problems, age, disability or simple intolerance, then you will need to move up a little in the list to the next steps, the long term solutions to these problems. That is, you may need solar panels, expensive equipment or a generator, which come with attendant costs. But for most of us, the first-tier inconvenient but survivable solutions get us part of the way there, and many of them could be used longer if we had no choice.

But we all know that short term isn't everything. What happens if we can't afford electricity or gas anymore? What happens if we're suddenly in the Long Emergency, not the short one? The preparations you've made for a short term crisis will get old really fast - but most of them will still serve you. That is, you will not like lighting your house with only a headlamp and two flashlights, and you will not like going to bed when it gets dark in December in the north, but you can do it if you have no choice. Some of us may already have second tier solutions in place - we might have a wringer washer already and not need the plastic buckets. Still, I recommend that you have the equipment or ability to use these minimal backup solutions, if only so you can teach others in your community.

Going Further

The next level of preparations are partly about survival, but more about creating a life you can live with in the long term. If you have money, these are easy changes to make. If you don't have money, it will take time, and saving and scavenging to manage these systems - and you may be stuck with the original, inexpensive backups at times. Only you can decide what you can afford, have time to do, and what portion of your resources you can devote to improving your comfort and giving you more time - but my own observation is that these accommodations increase rapidly in value in tough situations.

This is where you begin going step by step through the systems you depend on, figuring out what you can do to allow you to live decently and comfortably. Step by step, you start replacing, adding or converting to sustainable systems that will serve you in the absence of existing infrastructure. My own belief is that while renewable energy systems are an excellent supplemental second tier system, your primary systems should operate a technological level you are like to be able to support even in the worst-case scenarios you think likely.

That is, even someone with a solar system large enough to run their washing machine should have a bucket at a minimum, and might want a small pressure washer. Even someone with a generator for their well pump might want a manual pump on their well or rain cachement. Someone with a chainsaw still needs an axe and bucksaw. The reason for this is that things break, supply lines can be disrupted, replacement parts may not be available. Redundancy is healthy - and can be essential. And if you must choose between the solar panels and manual well pump, my own feeling is that you should prioritize a system you can manage, repair and fully understand, whichever that is.

For those without much money, it is much easier to convert permanently to the alternatives in many cases, than it is to maintain both "normal" and "backup" systems. That is, it is hard, if you are poor, to afford solar lanterns - unless, of course, you use them as a lighting source and save money on your electric bill. Sometimes if things seem to costly, the problem may be that you are imagining them as a backup, not a conversion to a new way of life. You may prefer the old way, but if you are serious enough about your concern for the future, converting early isn't the end of the world - our family has made this choice a number of times, in fact.

Some of the choices are easy and cheap - turning your lawn into a landscape of edibles can be quite inexpensive, if you can get slips and starts and divisions from people and buy plants and seeds from your cooperative extension. Converting to a composting toilet is inexpensive and can save you a lot of money on your water bill. Switching to eating out of your food storage can save a lot on your food budget. Sometimes you can do things on the cheap if you have time - but if you have neither time nor money, things get difficult, so you need to prioritize.

The Order and Ethics of Things

There are two good ways to prioritize, and honestly it makes sense to do both simultaneously. Prioritize by urgency, and by availability. Generally, you should concentrate on the things that will matter to your happiness and comfort the most - for a family with two kids in diapers, this might be not having to do laundry in a bucket, for someone who is always cold, a good heat source. But don't also forget (and this is a great chore to delegate to elderly relatives, friends who want to barter or teenagers) to keep an eye on craigslist, freecycle, garage sales and to talk about what you are trying to do with others, so you can take advantage of opportunities. Try and have a list of all the stuff you'd like to do, so that when that old handwasher or treadle sewing machine shows up, you can cross that off your priority list.

While you are finding comfortable ways to keep cool, refrigerate food, keep safe, go to the bathroom and the rest, we can also begin thinking about the long term sustainability and community implications of these projects. That is, if you are going to burn wood, you need to be planting trees and harvesting carefully. You are just as vulnerable to diseases caused by human waste disposal problems as your neighbors - even if you don't contribute to them, you may get sick when you water supply is contaminated. So after you deal with your own water system, share your knowledge. Renewable and lasting systems are central. If your private solutions are likely to contribute to the long term problems, pick different solutions.

In peasant economics, we find that most wealth accumulated by families is passed down through generations. Thus, as Shanin observes, a bicycle for a family may be expected to last until the family's father is too old to ride it and the daughter can take over. Land and property are passed down, and mostly stewarded - they are not they not disposed of lightly, because they imply an obligation to future generations who are not expected to have enough wealth to replace what we are careless with now. It would behoove most of us, as we make our adaptation plans, to ensure that our strategies serve not just our present, but our future - if our adaptations destroy future capacities to warm, feed, slake thirst, protect other people, perhaps we need to find new adaptation strategies.

Finally, you should practice. That doesn't just mean trying the solar battery charger once, or making sure you know how to cook on your woodstove - try living with these systems routinely, and turning off the ones you've depended on up until now. Consider a test run, when you turn everything off in the winter for a week, or where you live only on your stored and garden food for a month - these tests will tell you really basic things you need to know, and show you the holes in your system while you still have a chance to plug them.

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    "crises economic, energetic, ecological or political"

    Not to show too much levity, but this reminds me of "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" ... :)

    On the other hand, maybe we need all the levity we can get.

    Posted by: T | October 5, 2010 3:46 PM