Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Story of What Could Be

It won't be easy. (source)
I wrote this originally back on July 4. Though most of us have forgotten about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon and the catastrophic and seemingly endless oil spill that resulted, the legacy remains, and will continue to remain, for decades. This story is about what that legacy could be, if we wanted it badly enough.

In the beginning, there was an oil spill. The worst spill in the history of spills. The worst spill imaginable. Unlike past spills, this one came  from a bottomless cup: the Earth. During the worst of it -- and every day seemed the worst -- the people of the world sometimes felt the Earth was bleeding out every last drop of oil. A wound, that's what it was. Not a spill, but a wound -- an arterial cut so deep we sometimes felt the Earth itself would die. Or that we would die. We wished for death -- of ourselves, of the other, of the person responsible--

--But this isn't that story. This is not a story of death, nor murder, but of redemption. This is a story of healing. It begins with anger, rage, pain, despair, it is true, but that is only the beginning.

So we have a wound, a deep wound. It was -- and is -- a terrible thing. No one would wish for this wound, for any reason. But it woke us up to the fact that it was and is but one wound among many. It stood up alongside the raping of the forests, the poisoning of the atmosphere, the destruction of the top soil and the desertification of our souls as but one of the great crimes of Man. This wound was simply so large it finally could not be ignored, as much as we would have liked to.

It woke us up; and, like dreamers rudely awakened, we sat as in a daze, gazing at our works -- and a terrible fear grew. We had destroyed the Gulf, bled it dry. Nothing could be done, we thought. In our despair, we imagined an endless welling up of oil. We were not far wrong. Oh, these were bad times.

--Yet, I spoke of redemption earlier, and healing. Can you see it? It is germinating -- right there, in the fear and despair. Some might tell you that nothing good can come of such things, but they have this to say for them: they begin the process, the necessary process, of stripping away illusions. At first, in our fear, we tried many things. Anything we could think of to staunch the flow of oil. "Top hats", "top kills", "junk shots", giant hoses and centrifuges to vacuum it up. Meaningless to you, I know, but to us, briefly, they were everything: we placed all our hopes in these strange techniques, these magics. They all failed. When they failed, as they must have, we tried blame. We blamed the corporatists most involved in the catastrophe. We blamed the bureaucrats who let it happen and the politicians who failed in their sworn duties. All this was right, and just -- partly. In the end, we couldn't help ourselves, we continued to point fingers, pointing on and on till none were left to be singled out but we ourselves. Who purchased the oil so drilled? In plastics, pesticides, pseudo-foods, dish detergents, children's toys, gasoline for our mammoth cars and heating oil for our gargantuan, far-away homes, our make-believe castles. We purchased the oil, bought with blood and destroyed livelihoods and crippled ecologies. We burned it and poisoned the air and acidified the waters. We came to understand that, even without the endless spill, the oceans were under such aggressive assault they had mere decades left, anyway. We came to realize that we, that we were the ones. We caused the spill.

Many shook their heads, they denied, they fought, they justified... but eventually all that fell away. When the visible poison swept through the Florida Keys and on to the Atlantic, nothing sufficed. Justifications could not stand before that endless spill. It stopped mouths and quelled hearts. There was silence, but for the tide; silence, but for the weeping.


From that silence sprang a new resolve. We came to know that our only path forward must begin with a realization -- an acknowledgment -- of failure, the utter and absolute failure of modern industrial civilization to protect and preserve the foundation of all things -- the land, sea and air. That path continued with the deep determination to restore and repair. We had lost all possibilities for happiness, for happiness depends on happenstance, on chance, on good fortune, and those were nowhere more to be found. But we did find joy, the unfathomable, ineffable joy that comes from good work righteously pursued. Our work to restore the Earth -- and our proper places in it -- required almost all the energies of humankind. We began with the Gulf. As you know, children, that work continues, two and more generations removed from the final cut that woke us up. Many more it will continue -- but it progresses. We believe that one day it will be restored, and work tirelessly for that day.

Though that work took (and is taking) longer than we had initially hoped, we no longer sought the counsel of despair, and instead put our hands and minds and spirits to work elsewhere, everywhere -- repairing, restoring. What else was there to do? Nothing. But there was nothing else we wanted to do. We rebuilt the soil, planted trees, cleaned the streams, the rivers, the estuaries -- all water became sacred to us again. ...We left. That was the most important thing, in many ways. We left places we never should have been in the first place, and shrunk our right places that had grown too large. The cities became comprehensible again and the countryside had stewards again, and in between -- wilderness.

Couldn't resist.
The work goes on, and will continue forever. What is to be done with the toxic waste, the radioactive poisons? Nothing but to guard forever. Sufficient cause to continue to exist. What is to be done about the upended mountains? Nothing, but to wait for the Earth to shrug her great shoulders. More than sufficient cause to continue to watch and protect. The cleared forests? We plant trees wherever we can, always with great consideration for their placement in relation to others... but we know it will be many generations -- hundreds if not thousands of years -- before they can truly restore themselves. We certainly cannot do that, yet we can help, we can speed the process.

This, as you know, is our joy. It is our reason. Our Great Purpose: the Restoration. What else is there? Nothing. What else could we want? Nothing.

Go now, children, play; an old man needs his rest.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Both Damned and Saved; or, The Inner Transition

I hope not. (source)
There are many types of transition we must go through to reach the better world we all believe -- or want to believe -- is out there. I consistently return to the conclusion that the most important, most fundamental transition, is the internal (psychological) one. Using less energy, walking and bicycling instead of driving, eating locally and more efficiently (i.e., having a higher vegetable/meat ratio), reducing waste, and composting (etc.) are all important, yet they're all insufficient. Completely. Even all together, they will not even come close to sufficing in the face of everything we know is happening in the world. To me, the true value in these actions lies not in the actions themselves, but in the mindsets or worldviews these actions help to foster. Riding a bicycle, while valuable as a money-saving, pollution-avoiding and health-promoting endeavor, to me finds its true worth in re-introducing us to the joy of using our own bodies and the beauty of the changing seasons -- and to the understanding that the fundamental crime of driving a motorized vehicle is its quiet theft of these experiences from us. It's theft, in essence, of our humanity.

When you know the joy of bicycling, the inner tranquility that a healthy diet promotes, the satisfaction of a near-empty garbage can, you begin to realize how unnecessary are so many modern "conveniences". Not just unnecessary, but actively obstructionist towards a fulfilling life. And that is when Transition becomes truly possible.

Part of the transition is facing up to very difficult facts. In an ideal world, we would have no urgency and could simply amble along the road towards a better world for the simple fact we saw it as a better world. But in the world as it is, we must, in fact, run towards this better world because the one we're leaving behind is crumbling, and threatening to take us with it. I speak, of course, of the twin drivers of the Transition Towns Movement: peak oil and climate change (with a dash of economic crisis thrown in for fun).

This particular post derives much of its motivation from two forces: a speech by Mari Margil of the PA-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) on the harsh reality of the state of the global biosphere, as well as a recent special issue of the Royal Society (the world's first scientific body) on the effects of a mere 4°C (7.2°F) of global warming, which could happen as early as 2060. As a practicing planner with an undergrad degree in math and physics, I am well aware of (a) the stark scientific case for why we're all (almost) screwed and (b) the pathetic political case for why (almost) nothing can be done about it. In a fit of depression, I wrote a short, sarcasm-rich version of this post which I have since deleted. I had made the cardinal sin of forgetting to look at things holistically -- looking only at our collapsing biosphere, I had forgotten about peak oil! You see, most of the worst-case scenarios with respect to climate change and global ocean death require something called "business-as-usual" emissions, which rely on a business-as-usual economy. Thank God for peak oil! Without growing oil consumption, the economy can't grow, and without a growing economy, emissions can't grow -- and, in fact, the prime likelihood is for some deepening economic depression that leads to global economic decline if not outright collapse; in this tangled web we call the global economy, the collapse of one major player can only lead to the collapse, sooner or later, of all the others. So we're saved! By collapse. But maybe there are other options....

It is fitting that we should be both damned and saved by our profligate use of polluting fossil fuels, particularly oil. But the extent to which we are saved rather than damned depends utterly on our willingness to make smart decisions now, while other options remain, rather than wait for the unsympathetic laws of physics to decide for us. It is a guarantee that we will not like the ways in which Mother Nature unilaterally restores the natural balance of things. I would like to believe she'd prefer us as active partners in that restoration, rather than passive victims of our own malign neglect. I know I would.

We have fallen under the influence of the strange conception that "sustainable" means "what I'm doing now, but better", where "better" means "more." What we're doing now -- collectively -- is the problem. What we desire is inconspicuous, painless incrementalism, where what we need is radical transformation. 4°C warming by 2060 -- that's a death sentence for the human race. And the fact that the only politically feasible option we have for averting that cataclysm is political collapse points to the extreme level of dysfunction we have reached as a people.

So what are the other options? I return to where I began with the imperative of the internal transition. The major problem is our expectations for the future, which are out of all sync with reality. They are also all out of sync with ourselves -- our hidden humanity. We've allowed ourselves (collectively) to be lulled into false notions of how the world is. The extent to which we are saved rather than damned depends on our ability to make this internal transition, to deny what we think we know and accept the truths of the world as it is. All else follows.

Transition Lancaster Newsletter #51, with much interesting news.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fabulously Fridgeless Was, Indeed

Kick it to the curb!
I'll have photos soon, but I just wanted to take a moment and thank everyone who attended our first-ever Fabulously Fridgeless event with Jonathan Colon. I think I can speak for all in attendance when I say: truly, truly fabulous. What a fun night.

We made tortillas from scratch just using flour, water, kale and herbs. They were simply delicious with a sprinkling of honey, sea salt, steamed collards and crisp greens --- all fresh, all local (the salt was from Maine).

Then we made squash gnocchi, also from scratch, using a roasted neck pumpkin, flour and herbs, made extra-delicious by a just-made stock from the vegetable scraps, crisped kale, Northeast sunflower seed oil, and more of that Maine sea salt.

Jonathan also took a moment (just a moment) and showed us all how to make fresh pasta. The ease and speed with which he prepared fresh food for thirteen people was truly a joy to behold.

Topped off with a few glasses of wine (some local, some not), we enjoyed the good company till late into the evening.

Given the success of the evening, Jonathan and I are interested in doing this again, possibly on a regular basis. If you're interested, let me know by emailing me at TransitionLancaster(at)gmail(dot)com.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Small is Sustainable
I had this epiphany while on a walk a few weeks ago, but have been too busy till now to write it down. It is dovetailing with my renewed appreciation for planning, which is, by nature, an incremental art. I was pondering the ever-unfolding economic collapse, and arrived at the conclusion that having limited resources might actually increase the odds of making "sustainable"* decisions.
This is a point easiest to explain by counter-example (if "small is sustainable", then is large unsustainable?). Consider the national highway system. It took (and is taking) the federal government hundreds of billions of dollars to build and maintain that monstrosity. Only a large, centralized body with access to vast resources (and apparently untapped reserves of hubris) could have conceived of something like that, let alone have built it. And the building of it is one of the many drivers that has set our nation, literally, on the road to ruin.

*I am uninterested, at this time, in defining the word "sustainable."

So: small is sustainable. With limited resources, one is forced to be creative, resourceful... small. If a mistake is made, terrifying amounts of wealth are not extinguished thereby; it remains a mistake, rather than a catastrophe: one is free to learn and try again. If one succeeds, then others, also of limited means, may learn of that good practice, adapt it to their particular circumstances, and try it themselves. Their success -- or failure -- contributes to the breadth and depth of our collective well of wisdom.

Many small groups experimenting is much better than one centralized entity pooling resources from a large area and rolling the dice. I would not suggest it is never advisable to pool resources, but I am asserting that this ought to be the exception rather than the rule. And just because I'm a hopeless romantic who loves lost causes, here's one exception: universal, single-payer healthcare. This would support small solutions by granting working people and entrepreneurs the freedom to try and fail and move on if and when they choose; there would no longer be a need to stay in a job out of fear of losing all-important health coverage. This enables small enterprise in another way: it lifts the burden of one of the heaviest costs of business, which is caring for employees' health. This is but one example of risk management which, in general, is a sector that benefits from the pooling together of large groups.

Smallness is resilient. The failure of one does not precipitate the failure of another; to the contrary, it may stimulate their improvement by the example of what not to do. Further, the failed, having committed relatively few resources, and presumably surrounded by non-failures, may recover with less delay. Smallness also, by nature, is less interdependent (and more, but not completely, independent). Smallness can't draw on limitless territories for natural and human capital: it must make do with what is close at hand. This contributes to the diversity of experimental solution-finding, but also limits the small's vulnerability to drawn-out resource chains. Consider our situation today, when, by a hilariously perverse (perversely hilarious?) turn of events, the Pentagon finds itself reliant on Chinese rare-earths for key components to its "advanced" weapons systems. Not so "advanced" when they rely on the goodwill of a creditor and powerful economic competitor, eh? Smallness doesn't have that problem... and not least because it probably wouldn't be in the habit of dropping "smart" bombs on some faraway desert to secure the oil it doesn't need.

So, smallness is resilient. But what about the case of systemic failure? This would most likely be the result of neglecting the advice above and tending too far in the direction of centralization of resources and power. As this seems to be where we're trending, however, the question may be worth essaying an answer: in the case of systemic failure, save what's worth saving, discard what's not, and start again. It wouldn't be the first time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lancaster County Burn Ban

I've been meaning to post something on this for weeks -- ever since I first heard it might happen earlier this month, in fact -- and now I'm just going to post something abbreviated before I lose my inspiration totally.

So here's the question: did anyone else, upon hearing of a county-wide burn ban, think to themselves "is this due to global warming?" If you did, you're not alone, although you might be forgiven for thinking so, because there was literally no mention of such a possibility on any of the local news sources I pay attention to, including WITF/NPR and the Lancaster News. (In fact, as an aside, I never hear "global warming" or "climate change" mentioned in connection with strange weather events from these sources.)

For global warming aficionados -- and aren't we all, really? -- this might strike one as rather absurd. You have the hottest year on record, on top of the hottest decade on record, on top of two other previously record-breaking decades, and no one in the media seems to think to themselves "huh. I wonder if this drought which has led to a rash of fires is in any way related to global warming and the extreme weather events it portends?" Now, I don't actually expect a reporter to use a word like "portends", but leave me and my diction alone, ok?

Below is a great image I lifted off the Climate Progress blog. It shows the difference in temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit, between the actual maximum temperature (for the day) and the average maximum temperature, on July 6. You'll notice that, in Central PA, this was apparently in the 12-16 degree range. That's rather a lot. As NASA has pointed out, this is what global warming looks like. We can throw out all the old averages because they're based on a different climate -- the climate of Earth. We live on Eaarth, now. And in Lancaster, that apparently means months with very little rain, higher probability of fires that burn farm fields (and food) and homes... and burn bans.

Weather Underground offers this “plot of the difference between maximum temperature (the high for the day) and average maximum temperature in degrees F for July 6″ (source)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Renting a Home

Is your mortgage underwater? (source)
 I'd like in this post to address what's turned out to be a topic of major importance. As many of you are probably aware, from reading or listening to or watching the news, home purchases are way down. Many mortgages are underwater. The housing bubble is collapsing as we speak (I say "collapsing" instead of "collapsed" because many of the commentators I read believe it's still got a ways to go). These trends affect many of us personally, in addition to being powerful macroeconomic drivers.

For decades, the federal government has pushed homeownership as a means of growing the economy. This despite the fact that, as of 2000 (the last published US Census), in Pennsylvania alone there was a glut of 500,000 homes. In other words, the commonwealth had 500,000 unoccupied residences, probably many of those in urban cores. For the nation as a whole, that number was 10.4 million. Also according to the 2000 Census, 13.6 million housing units were built between 1990 and 2000... apparently 10.4 million in excess of what the nation actually needed.

In other words, our economic growth, at least from 1990 on, insofar as it was built on housing and homeownership, was phantom growth. We chopped down endless acres of forests, poured endless of acres of concrete, put up endlessly hideous square feet of vinyl siding... so that well over 10 million homes could sit empty. What were we thinking?

But that's not what I want to write about today. Taking all the foregoing as necessary background, how do we move forward? If we accept as fact that home values have much further down to go (and how can they not, with such a glut on the market?), what sensible person, not already a homeowner, would make the decision to enter those ranks? For the first time in decades, it seems, it is not financially rational to purchase a home: you are practically guaranteed to lose money (on the other hand, if you have the cash to purchase one outright, you might prefer to do so for the security of tenure you'll be granting yourself).

I think the way forward is to return to renting as the major mode of home occupation. There are many benefits to renting, from increased mobility (less debt and no need to find a buyer before moving), to fewer maintenance costs, even to the ability of the savvy renter to negotiate lower monthly payments in return for services rendered (e.g., mowing the lawn). Many people think of renting as "temporary", as some sort of phase between living with one's parents and finally "growing up" and "owning" a home. I put owning in quotation marks because I think its arguable whether you or your bank really own the home you purportedly purchased. You might say you own it, but wait till you've lost your job and your unemployment runs out: that knock on the front door is the sheriff. At least, with renting, ownership is unambiguous: it's definitely not you (though it also might not be the landlord).

Renting need not be a phase. According to Time Magazine (9/6/2010), while the rate of homeownership in the US is 68%, the rate in Switzerland, e.g., is only 35%. And just 110 years ago, in the US, the rate was only 47%. This rate was only pushed up to its current high levels through proactive government efforts. Again according to Time, the idea of the 30-year mortgage was invented by the federal government in 1928, as a way of making homeownership affordable to more people; and, even then, it required the creation of a government entity, The Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) to buy the mortgages off the books of the banks.

I guess what I'm saying is that it is much more likely that homeownership is the phase, and renting the norm. To return to the title of this piece, what do I mean by "renting a home"? Well, if renting is the norm and not homeownership, shouldn't we stop thinking of renting as a way to store our butts when we're not at work, but rather think of renting as renting a home? I think so. It's a shame that many municipalities zone renters out of the best neighborhoods on the rationale that they'll bring property values down. There may have been some logic to that in the past, when our cultural zeitgeist told renters there was no point in improving their residences since "they got nothing out of it". I think that's an idea due for throwing into the dustbin of history. I say again: it's time to think of renting as renting a home. Of course it makes sense to improve your home, whether you own it or rent it. Do you want to live somewhere uncomfortable, or antagonistic to your sense of self or aesthetics? No, and who would? And if you say "but you're just improving the place for your landlord", I might reply that I'd rather improve a home for a person than for a bank.

I'll close with a case study, as it were. My wife and I, as I'm sure some of you may have guessed by now, rent a home. It's on a lovely block in west Lancaster. We have great neighbors (some of whom also rent), a backyard, almost enough space to suit our needs, and the (mental) freedom to improve our home. Here are some of the things we've done to our apartment: turned the backyard into an extensive vegetable and flower garden; built a fence between the yard and the alley, and a gate between the yard and the street; installed ceiling fans in every room (much preferred over AC); painted the walls a pleasanter shade than white; installed racks for hanging vegetables, pots, and coats; and other miscellaneous things.

Pretty good list, right? I'll tell you the secret of how we did it. Actually, two secrets. First, we recognized that there's no way we could afford to own a home, and we didn't want to; this made it easy for us to leave that bit of cultural baggage behind and see our "dwelling unit," as planners say, as a home. Second, we have carefully cultivated a relationship with our landlord. This began as early as 18 months ago, when we were looking around for a place to live. One of our criteria for a good place was "a good landlord." I think that's a key goal for anyone looking to rent a home. If you've got a jerk for a landlord, move. If you meet a jerk of a landlord, but otherwise like the place, understand you'll probably be leaving when the lease runs out in a year; if you're looking to live somewhere longer than a year (say, in a home), then take the time to find a good landlord.

Once you have your good landlord, start cultivating that relationship. Before you even sign a lease, ask if he minds if you plant a garden. Ask who mows the lawn, and can you do it? Often (s)he'll be happy to let you mow, and pay you to boot. We get paid $10 per mow. Little things like this form the basis of a solid relationship, such that, when you eventually ask him to shell out $80 for a ceiling fan, on the proviso that you install it yourself (very easy, and saving a good chunk of money on labor), there's a good possibility of him saying yes. If there's hesitation, don't hesitate, yourself, to make the argument that, when you eventually move out (if you ever intend to), you've just improved the value of the place, at practically no cost. I've found this to be a strong argument. We've also convinced our landlord to pay for paint (and it helped we went to the Habitat Re-store to buy it, allowing us to paint our entire apartment for under $50). When your landlord knows you care enough not to waste his or her money, you've made that relationship stronger, and eased the way for future improvements you might like to do.

Rent your home! (source)
Finally, given the state of the national and global economy, you might be worried about the security of your employment. What happens if you lose your job and find rent difficult to make? This is a tough one. Dmitry Orlov has suggested, on his blog and in his book, Reinventing Collapse, that it is imperative for renters to "de-monetize" their relationship with their landlord. I've take the first tentative steps down that path by helping my landlord with basic home maintenance, for free. I don't mean to say I did that out of cold calculation; rather, I did what felt natural in a growing, mutually-beneficial relationship, but in may also help in the "Orlovian" sense, if I may be allowed to coin a term.

So, go forth! Rent a home. And don't feel like you're in some sort of pre-buying holding pattern. Being a renter may very well be your permanent condition, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Collapse or Descent?

I am writing this from the comfort of Chestnut Hill Café, on the corner of Chestnut and Pine Streets in Lancaster. Not the most vegan-friendly establishment, in terms of food offerings, but they brew a mean coffee and graciously let me abuse their internet for hours on end. Good people.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. First, to share some critically important information. Second, to reflect on how that information can inform our actions here in Lancaster.

The Ecological Footprint, or I = PAT

World ecological footprint, 1960-2005, and beyond.
On the left is a graphic representation of the global ecological footprint from 1960 to 2005, with a "projection" to 2050. I put "projection" in quotation marks because this sort of thing shows as clearly as possible the perils of projecting that E.F. Schumacher talked about in Small is Beautiful. But I'll get to that in a moment. First, what is an "ecological [or eco-] footprint"? The basic equation is relatively famous: I = PAT, where I is Impact, P is Population, A is Affluence, and T is Technology. So, Impact equals Population (world pop is closing in on 7 billion as I write this) times Affluence times Technology.

You can estimate your personal eco-footprint at a website like this one*. And then, for the sake of simplicity, you can imagine the global eco-footprint to be the sum of all our individual footprints. Feel free to share the results from your personal calculations in the comments section below. When I calculated mine, using the above site, I got around three Earths. That means that, if every human lived like I did, we would need three Earths to sustainably support our population. Yeah, that sucks. I used to be at 1.5. You'd think being a vegan bus & bike commuter who almost never buys anything new would get you some eco cred, but not enough, it seems.

*Different sites produce different results. Feel free to use another if you don't like this one.

The human population now has an eco-footprint of around 1.4 Earths. The average eco-footprint for an American citizen, in 2006, was 5.3 Earths. We are, in other words, in deep shit, and digging deeper every day.

Carrying Capacity and Overshoot

In systems theory and ecology, the technical term is carrying capacity. The definition is fairly straightforward, and if you don't already know it, you can probably intuit it. Basically, every ecosystem (defined as a biological community and its physical context) has a carrying capacity. In the context of humanity, a typical measure is the amount of arable land available for cultivation (i.e., how much food can we grow?), but also includes measures of capacity to absorb pollutants, stability of the climate, availability of potable water, etc. Notice no mention of money or other economic indicators. This is a strictly physical measure. Money and economic well-being come later, after we have secured the basic necessities of survival and physical well-being. One might also be inclined to include indicators of spiritual well-being, but that's a discussion for another time.

This concept of carrying capacity, like the ecological footprint, can be expanded from an individual or ecosystem basis all the way up to the whole planet.

Once one has estimated a region's carrying capacity, one simply compares that to the analogous estimate for its inhabitants' eco-footprints, and asks the question: are we living within our means, or are we in overshoot? I've made the case that we are in overshoot, and I don't think you'll find a serious thinker anywhere who would disagree with that assessment. Most people, either unaware of this concept or unaware of its implications, assume things can continue as they have (for the past few generations) indefinitely.

Well, I'm here to tell you the implications, if you don't already know. There is really just one response a natural system has when it has gone into overshoot, and that is collapse. To be more specific, population collapse. Where once there were thousands, or millions, now there are not.

As intelligent, reflective beings, you might be inclined to say that we have other options. To the extent those options involve shiny new technologies that solve all our problems without creating new ones, I'd say you're wrong. The reasons why could and do occupy voluminous libraries and sites easily accessible online, and I encourage the intrepid reader to check some of them out (check links on right-hand side).

To the extent you believe we have other options because of our capacity to adapt intelligently, rather than our capacity to live in self-denial, I think you're right.

Collapse or Managed Descent?

Back to that graphic. It depicts our current state of overshoot at around 1.4 Earths. It then projects two possible future trends. One has overshoot expanding ruthlessly above 2.0 Earths. This line I've labeled "Pure Fantasy" because it is. That trajectory is absolutely catastrophic, as anyone with a pulse can attest to today, in the summer of 2010. The world's economies are collapsing, the climate is boiling, species are being driven to extinction at a rapidly accelerating rate, clean water is running out everywhere, the ocean is turning toxic, acidic, and anoxic and, frankly, we are simply running out of the resources we need to keep pushing that destructive envelope.

The other projection takes us back below the thin red line of our carrying capacity. There are two points I want to make about that before continuing. The first is that I may have misled you somewhat earlier, in that I didn't state that "carrying capacity" isn't some well-defined number, but rather one that fluctuates according to circumstances. In fact, it is possible for that number to rise (if, for example, we began to rebuild topsoil, that might improve our ability to raise crops). However, it is much more likely, and has in reality been the case, that the global carrying capacity has been declining for decades. For example, in the US, as measured in hectares per capita, our biocapacity has declined from around 8 in 1961 to just over 4 in 2006. This is possible because of the increasing productivity of agricultural lands, thanks to massive use of fossil fuels, and also because of importation from abroad (eroding other nation's carrying capacities in the process).

The second point is that the graphic above assumes that humans have harnessed the entire Earth (or Eaarth) to their needs and desires, leaving nothing for other species, except insofar as they are useful to us; that seems like a pretty bleak future. I would, however, argue that taking the road of "managed descent" makes that ethos impossible. The two (living within our means and yet exploiting the entire Eaarth for our own desires) seem to me mutually incompatible futures. I think managed descent absolutely requires a change of mind that makes that level of exploitation inconceivable.

So those are our choices: collapse or managed descent.

Managed Descent?

Managed descent is a deliberate, intelligent, scaling back. If we return to our equation I = PAT, we can see clearly that, if the elements of environmental impact are Population, Affluence, and Technology, then we have three clear areas of intervention. We need to reduce population. And I'm not talking about over in Africa. I mean right here, in the US, in Pennsylvania, in Lancaster. Over 20 years, the situation in the Chesapeake Bay has gotten worse and worse, and this despite improved regulations and improved agricultural practices and improved storm and wastewater management. When your "per capitas" go down, but your "capitas" are always going up, your impact still goes up. So, we need to reduce population.

We need to reduce affluence. It is simply a fact that more affluent individuals have more negative impacts. Those big homes take big energies to heat and cool and power. Those flashy flatscreen TVs take a whole lot of energy. That big lawn takes lots of gas to mow (not to mention the natural gas-based fertilizer it takes to make green, and the oil-based chemicals it takes to keep the weeds down). Before anyone freaks out, think seriously about your level of happiness in the current state. Do you need the big bills, the big taxes for those massive highways, the big headaches from working too many hours to enjoy a shrunken-down life? I love what Thoreau wrote in Walden: that it would take him more time to earn the money to pay for a carriage ride somewhere than it would take to simply walk there. In that simple idea lies real wisdom.

Finally, we need to change our technologies. I'll give a small-scale example and a large-scale one. In your life, chances are you can bike -- or even walk -- more than you do. Let's say you typically drive to a grocery store two miles away. At 12mph, you can bike there in just about 10 minutes. Driving it would take you about 6 minutes (assuming you don't have a superhighway directly connecting your driveway to the store). So, for the cost of 4 minutes, you've gotten some exercise, you've learned your neighborhood better, you've breathed some fresh air, you haven't wasted any gasoline, you've kept wear-and-tear down on your car, and you've avoided putting any pollution into the atmosphere. Good job!

Now, imagine you own a factory. You could take out a loan for a million dollars and buy the latest robotic machinery to churn our your widgets, or you could pay a couple of guys a living wage ($10 or so an hour in Lancaster, or so I hear) to do the same thing. With real unemployment over 18%, doesn't it sound ridiculous to buy "labor-saving devices"? The labor's right there, idle, worried about losing his or her home, going hungry, and living in a tent city.

This Island Lancaster

I encourage my readers (all three of them) to think about Lancaster (or wherever you live). What is its carrying capacity? Is that capacity declining or improving with time? If it's not improving, how can you help it improve?

Now think about your personal eco-footprint. What is it? If it's over 1.0, and it almost certainly is, what can you do to shrink it? Is it time you became a locavore? Do you commute far to work? Can you move closer to where you work, or work closer to where you live? Can you bike or walk or take the bus there instead of driving? Can you downsize your home? Shrink your heating and electric bills? Toss the TV, because it wastes energy and feeds you misinformation anyway? My wife and I have no TV and consistently have an electric bill under $20.

You can't downsize your family, but maybe you can adopt instead of having more children. If you want a large family, consider joining a community group (like Transition Lancaster!) and making them your adopted family.

Do you believe these things will actually improve your quality of life? I do.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Support Lancaster's Library System


If there's one thing we'll need in the turbulent times ahead -- and there are many -- a robust library system has to be near the top of the list.

And yet, according to the Lancaster Intel/New Era, Governor Rendell and the Pennsylvania legislature have proposed cuts of 9.1% ($193,515) next year, after cuts around 20% ($500,000) this year. I've been told by a director of one of the region's library's that the long-term trend is for zero state funding. Do you think your local library can survive without state support?

Just one more perversity of this Second Great Depression that libraries, which are needed most in down times, appear to be one of the politically easiest line items to chop. It's always easy to cut services that are primarily used by the less well-off. Oh well.

My recommendation? Use the library. The more it's used, the more we show we need it, and the harder it will be to cut if off entirely. Write a letter to the editor. Call your local municipality, whether it's the City of Lancaster, or your local Borough or Township office: tell them you support the library, and expect them to pick up the state's slack; and after you've called, take the time to go to a Council/Supervisors/Commissioners meeting and tell them what you think, too. Make it hard for them to cut their support of the local library. Tell them it's shameful to have a library, like Elizabethtown's, be forced to shut for a week just to save the budget; or, like Lancaster City's, to be constantly shortening hours and cutting staff.

Support your library! You're going to need it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Visions of the Future

A vision is an important thing to have. If you don't know what you're working for, you'll often find you don't like what you've built with all your labor. And even if you do know what you're working for, you may find the product not to your liking, which shows that it's not just a vision, but the right vision, that is important.

Another important point about visions is that, just because you have one, doesn't mean it's guaranteed to come about. This is a really important point, so I'm going to emphasize it: just because you want something, doesn't mean you're going to get it. I find this kind of semi-magical thinking at all levels of society, from individuals who believe a change of consciousness is imminent -- or immanent, if you will -- and that *poof* just like that, next Tuesday we'll all be sipping organic chai wondering what all the fuss was about last Monday.

As an example of that level of thinking at the highest levels of government, I present the following chart (let us call it "Figure 1"):

Figure 1. Magical Thinking at Upper Levels of Government. (source)

In 2009, the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), a department of the US Department of Energy (DoE), projected world demand for petroleum at around 105 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2030 (up from below 90mbd in 2008). They also projected all known and expected petroleum extraction projects to decline to around 40mbd -- a disjunction of over 60mbd, or the output of six Saudi Arabias. Now, any sane person would look at that information and say "oh, that's interesting. Maybe it's time to transition off petroleum before it transitions off us?" However, the EIA, a very clever agency, simply filled in the gap with "Unidentified Projects." You see, it is simply impossible for some people to imagine a world in which growth in oil production did not match growth in (nominal) oil demand. They matched their internal reality to their "vision for the future." That's magical thinking in the worst way (trying to influence physical reality with positive thinking and only positive thinking), and it's a mistake.

Similarly, if I presented to you a vision for a transitioned Lancaster, in which we were not dependent on oil, where the air was clean, where noise and light pollution were gone (and I could see the night sky again!), with full employment and a (mostly) localized economy that was insulated against violent hiccups from abroad, and then simply asserted that because I have this vision, and maybe you do, too, it's simply bound to happen, you would see that for the lunacy it was. However, that does not negate the value of the vision. It simply says the vision isn't enough.

My purpose in this post is two-fold. First, to present the beginnings of a vision for a better, relocalized Lancaster economy; and second, to sketch out some of the steps and preconditions that might help in realizing that better future.

A Vision for 2020

First, it's just "a" vision, not "the" vision. I'm just one guy, thinking aloud. Feel free to chime in with some comments.

I'd like to see a carless, or mostly carless future. I admit to a strong bias against cars: I think they're obnoxious and dangerous, in many ways; I think they are inimical to urban life and demeaning to life generally. Now, I'd like this transition to a carless future to be a matter of choice rather than necessity, but I suspect it will be the latter. Peak oil -- barring even more massive government intrusion into, and subsidies of, the oil markets (imagine that) -- will make gasoline and diesel ever more expensive. As Figure 1 above shows, we're already falling off the oil cliff into the relatively uncharted waters of terminally declining net energy per capita. This will necessitate radical changes in how we live our lives; most immediately and obviously, this will mean transportation, of ourselves and our food, will become ever more expensive. A nice side-effect will be cleaner air than any of us have breathed in Lancaster for a long time, if ever. I think the quiet will prove an unexpected boon, as well.

I mentioned the increasing expense of transporting food. It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which buying Chinese garlic from Giant (e.g.) doesn't become impossible; it's already insane: making it economically impossible would be a nice way to put a stop to the practice. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem, read this article, published by the Daily Mail in the UK, titled "Nine Meals from Anarchy." It does an excellent job of relaying the extent to which our globalized food system is dependent on (dwindling and dangerous) supplies of petroleum. And then read these articles about the 2008 trucker strike in Spain and this one about the very recent trucker strike in Greece, each of which seriously threatened those two nations' economies, not to mention bringing real hardship to the people those economies nominally serve. Since we clearly can't rely on state or national action to avert this looming catastrophe, my vision for Lancaster's future has us producing all the staple food we eat here in the county. Before you interject: "but don't you know Lancaster has the best soil in the world and is a national breadbasket -- no problem!", let's look at some of the facts. According to the 2007 US Agricultural Census, produced by the US Department of Agriculture, out of 303,222 acres of harvested cropland in Lancaster County, only 6,019 acres (less than 2%) produced vegetables for human consumption. The vast majority (over 90%) of the rest are fed to animals, the vast majority of which are then trucked out of here on a plume of diesel smoke. Also according to the Ag Census, less than 1.25% (or about 6,250) of the county's population (around 500,000 people) self-identified as a farmer.

These statistics point to two major issues: (1) our farming is largely devoted to commodity crops and animal production; and (2) our farmers absolutely require vast inputs of petroleum and petroleum by-products to produce those crops and animals.* This latter point is made more clear when one considers that, in 1840, the first year of the Ag Census, around 69% of the nation's population was in farming. Those massive productivity gains made over the past 170 years are the direct result of industrialization, which is directly the result of massive inputs of fossil fuels.

*even if you imagined we could maintain that ratio of animal production to vegetable production, do you really think a healthy diet would consist of 98% meat and 2% veggies?

So, back to my vision for Lancaster's food supply. I envision us producing enough food to supply our population with adequate nutrition and calories, with modest imports of luxury, non-staple foodstuffs. I envision that this food is produced by a vastly increased population of farmers, both rural and urban. Another of the pleasant and unexpected spin-off effects of peak oil, therefore, is that farmers, no longer able to rely on imported, terrorism-supporting (and watershed and climate-destroying) fossil fuels, will be forced to "re-labor", if you will, food production. There, just solved the employment problem.

In addition to labor, the new (old) farm will need a new (actually, quite old) source of fertilizer. It just so happens that Lancaster County, and Lancaster City in particular, has a HUGE supply of potential fertilizer, but one which we currently foolishly flush away into the Conestoga River, and from there to the Chesapeake Bay, where it is presents a seemingly intractable nutrient pollution problem. You ever wonder how we could have something so ridiculous-sounding as "nutrient pollution"? That's your ancient Earthly self speaking up. It's only modern (wo)man that has such a farcical problem. Let me sketch out to you our current system:

Step 1: Pour petroleum and natural gas on farm fields, which have been degraded by centuries of mining them of all their valuable nutrients; and raising food thereby.
Step 2: Eat that food.
Step 3: Urinate and defecate into drinking water, whose potability has taken a tremendous amount of human toil and (yet more) fossil energy to produce.
Step 4: Flush that fouled water into the nearest body of flowing water, fouling it as well.
Step 5: Waive as it bobs merrily out to sea.
Step 6: Repeat until every ocean is full of anoxic (oxygen-depleted) dead zones and every formerly-productive agricultural field is only able to be kept so by the exponentially increasing application of artificial (petro- and natural gas-based) fertilizer.

Is it just me, or is that asinine?

So, here's another part of my vision, which will simultaneously solve the problem of where to get fertilizer once oil and natural gas are out of the question, the problem of the dying Chesapeake Bay (not to mention the unswimmable and drinkinkable Conestoga), and save a whole lot of energy and money to boot! One word: humanure. Well, maybe two words: composted humanure. I'll just let that mentally digest for a while as I move on....

So, we've looked at transportation (which includes a vision for a clean and quiet atmosphere), food, employment, wastewater, and natural fertilizer. That may be a good stopping point for today.

Oh, and I promised one other thing in this post: a discussion of steps and preconditions that might be necessary to see this vision come to fruition. That's actually rather simple. Another two words: accept reality. To elaborate (just a little), we need, as citizens of this county, to give up our personal visions of a future of endless material abundance, forget about what we always thought we were promised as 20th- and 21st-century Americans, and get down to Eaarth. I believe that a better world is possible, but I don't believe it is inevitable. The odds are rather stacked against it, frankly. But if we can shed our illusions and embrace the new Eaarth, we may yet achieve the grandly simply goals outlined by the Founders in our Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and happiness are still possible. But a right that is ignored, or passed up for a flatscreen television, is hardly worthy of the name, is it?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Why (almost) totally ignoring national politics is the only sane course

I pay just enough attention to the national scene to know why not to pay any more than that. Here's a case in point, as reported by the LA Times:
Driven by increasing anger at Democratic policies and by recent Supreme Court decisions unshackling corporate contributions, business and conservative groups are preparing a flood of campaign money to try to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest collection point for corporate contributions, has increased its spending for the congressional election in November from $35 million in 2008 to a projected $75 million this year. Officials say it may go even higher.

The chamber has been joined by new conservative fundraising organizations — such as American Crossroads, affiliated with Republican strategist Karl Rove — that have committed to raising tens of millions of dollars. One report circulating among Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill last week estimated that more than $300 million has been budgeted for the campaign by a group of 15 conservative tax-exempt organizations.

"A commitment of $300 million from just 15 organizations is a huge amount, putting them in record territory for groups on the right or left," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. "With control of Congress hanging in the balance, this kind of spending could have a major impact." The money's power is magnified because it will be concentrated in a relatively small number of swing states and districts. Of the 435 House and 37 Senate seats at issue in November, about 100 House seats and 18 in the Senate are considered competitive.[..]

Two recent Supreme Court decisions have encouraged corporate and union participation in political advertising campaigns. This year, the court decided in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions could spend directly on elections, overturning a century of laws limiting such spending.

Chamber of Commerce officials say a more significant ruling was the 2007 decision in Federal Election Commission vs. Wisconsin Right to Life that lifted the ban on political issue advertising close to an election, allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on these ads at the last minute. The rulings have given all sides powerful tools to influence the outcome of elections.

Business leaders see high stakes in the midterm election. They were concerned about the sweeping healthcare overhaul passed this year and a far-reaching bill passed last month to establish greater federal monitoring and regulation of the financial system. Energy firms are particularly concerned about how Democratic-dominated Washington will regulate their businesses after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scott Talbott of the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group for major financial firms, said banks and investment houses were participating in fundraising and lobbying at an unprecedented pace, partly because of concern over thousands of pages of new regulations that will be written to implement the laws, as well as who will be picked to head new government entities, such as the consumer protection agency for banking and securities.

President Obama's sagging approval ratings, which have dropped to 44% in some polls, have created an opportunity that could allow Republicans to gain control of the House and cut into the Democrats' majority in the Senate.
What's clear from the above, if it wasn't already blindingly obvious, is that we've got the best democracy™ money can buy, where it's one dollar, one vote. For those of us with any political sentiments whatsoever, we are basically left with two choices: try to raise more funny-money than our political competitors (and that amount is apparently doubling or more ever two years, which is the definition of exponential growth), or give up on national politics altogether and spend our time more productively. E.g., building skills and knowledge (and relationships with those who have complimentary skills and knowledge) that are useful on planet Eaarth. And doing it all locally.

The politicians, corporatists, and talking heads, having had no education in the physical sciences, are locked into a paradigm wherein it is believed that the global economy, located as it is in three physical dimensions of space and one of time, can grow infinitely -- into apparently non-physical dimensions. They're so sick in the head that they refer to the entirely expected condition of GDP contraction as "negative growth." I prefer to think of it as reality asserting itself. We've got just one planet, and acting like we have more than that is what's turned the Earth into the Eaarth. If we keep on this track much longer, we may as well begin calling it Mars Junior.

Friday, July 30, 2010

An Eaarthly Civilization

Welcome to An Eaarthly Civilization. In this inaugural post, I suppose I should give a little explanation. What do I mean by a title like that? Well, I'll get to that. First, I want to let you know that I'm writing from Lancaster County, PA. I intend to write about the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and economic collapse -- basically, what it means to be well past the limits to growth -- and their impacts on my home. I will also write about efforts now underway to build resilience in the face of these impacts. In doing so, I will make repeated references to national and global trends, but always with an eye towards the impact of those trends on Lancaster County. However, that will only represent a portion of the postings you'll find on this blog. Many more will be about specific, Lancaster-centric goings-on. This is a very new sort of project for me. I've been a writer in one capacity or other for most of my life, but never have I attempted to produce a blog -- an ongoing, persistent account of the world as I see it. Well, nevertheless. I hope you enjoy it, and find value in it. I should also mention that I am a co-founder of Transition Lancaster (TL), which is part of an international movement to transition off our deadly addiction to fossil fuels, which is becoming ever more urgent. You can reach me, in my capacity as a member of TL's Initiating Group, through TransitionLancaster(at)gmail(dot)com. Without further ado... Anyone who has read Bill McKibben's Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, knows we're in for a tough ride. The old Earth we all grew up on -- the Earth that humanity itself grew up on -- is gone. It has been replaced by Eaarth (you've got to let your inner-Schwarzenegger out to pronounce that correctly). The details of this new Eaarth are one thing this blog will be exploring -- primarily as they relate to Lancaster, but also as they affect the broader planet we all call home. You see, despite the fact that, on average, we're living as if we've got another planet to move to once this one's all used up (and despite physicist Stephen Hawking's declaration that we need to colonize a new one fast to avert inevitable extinction), I think it's fair to say that Earth -- or Eaarth -- is the only planet we've got, and the only one we're ever likely to have, so we had better get used to the rules around here. One of those rules is: don't shit where you sleep. Now, we think we're following that rule when we take a dump in a pot of drinking water and flush it directly into the Conestoga River, but the cascading effects of that action prove we're fooling ourselves. For example, the Conestoga drains in the Susquehanna, which drains into the Chesapeake Bay, which now has the full force of the EPA behind its cleanup. I have it on fairly good authority that the EPA takes it none too kindly that we have the habit (in Lancaster City) of dumping around one billion gallons of raw sewage into the Conestoga every year. You shouldn't, either. Another example of shitting where you sleep is our nasty habit of converting ancient decayed plant matter (fossil fuels) into carbon dioxide, among other things. We treat the atmosphere as a trash dump, and one of the consequences is a rapidly warming planet. According to a recent report of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the effects of that warming is that 1/3 of all counties in the US are likely to face increasing drought and water shortages in the years ahead. Lancaster County is expected to face "high risk" of water shortages. Good thing we're crapping in that water. One last note before I end this first post. I just read about a new study in the journal Nature, in which it has been learned that, since 1950, phytoplankton in the oceans have declined 40%. For anyone that knows anything about the global ecosystem -- the biosphere -- a decline of 40% in phytoplankton is, frankly, terrifying. The whole marine food chain -- which means most of the terrestrial food chain, too -- is dependent on phytoplankton. This is in addition to the increasing acidification of the oceans, the projected collapse of every major fish species by 2050 and, of course, lest we forget, or recent forays in disposing of oil and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico. I strayed a bit beyond where I intended to go with this first post. But I'm trying to make the point that civilization itself is about to undergo a radical change, whether we like it or not. The reason for that is that the most basic thing that civilization -- and we, as people -- depend upon is the stability of the biosphere. Since modern, industrial civilization has specialized in nothing so much as undermining that stability, change is surely afoot. In this blog, I will explore those changes, what they portend, how we can adapt, and what may still be done to avert the worst of the impending calamities that hang over our heads like the sword of Damocles.