Friday, August 31, 2007
I really liked Dale's essay a great deal. I admit, I've had exactly the same thought about the bees and cell phones - I think it is a compelling example of just how addicted to our comforts we are, because I think Dale is right that few of us would have voluntarily given up our cell phones simply to keep our food supply coming. Our "have to" is too close and "food" is simply too abstract in this society.
That may be the single reason that we most need to begin growing food. Not because we might starve (although that seems a serious and compelling rationale to me), but because unless we reconnect our brains and bodies with natural cycles like the food cycle, we'll never be able to recognize our collective technological death drive for what it is. And yes, I know that writing this on the computer is a great irony - and one I have to start dealing with. Here's my essay on that:
The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged, Either
Ned Ludd kinda had a point, no?
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
My personal favorite thing about it, however, was not the writing or the subject matter, but the subtitle, which (on my copy), included the phrase "Transitioning gracefully from the Age of Excess to the Era of Modesty." I admit, I was struck by the sheer aptness of the phrase "era of modesty" to what we're coming to. Now I gather that in the process of revision, the subtitle was changed to something else, but I keep thinking about the term he coined, both because it is great piece of phrasing, but also because it manages in three words to invoke a great transition in political and social thinking. It should be no surprise that Heinberg is ahead of the curve again, of course, but I am impressed by the way the very title invoked not just an era of more modest usage, but also social, sexual and cultural modesty, subjects that, if they are discussed at all, tend to be thought of as discussions to be had on the "right" rather than throughout the political spectrum. With that one word, "modesty" Heinberg manages to invoke a confluence of left and right. I admit, I'm impressed, and sorry the term doesn't appear on the actual book (I wonder if Heinberg will let me steal it for mine ;-)).
Now the peak oil movement has been called the "liberal left behind" movement - the apocalypse of the left. Of course, it is no such thing, and never has been. Former Bush energy czar Matthew Simmons is no leftist radical, Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett never dated Abbie Hoffman and the US Army is not, as far as I know, handing out "Free Mumia" buttons with its rifles. And yet all are among the first to recognize the immanence of peak oil. While it is true we've got our share of aging hippies, we're also flush with survivalists, Petroleum geologists, investment bankers and other bastions of the right and center. And this is all to the good - the end of cheap oil is not a political fact, it is a simple, practical reality. The same is true within the climate change movement - we are all moving rapidly to the recognition that no matter what your political position, the hard, scientific truths about sea level rise, aquifer depletion and drought really don't care whether you prefer Bill O'Reilly, Thom Hartmann or Stephen Colbert.
But it is insufficient to say that these issues cross party lines, because what they actually do is destroy party and political lines, and the divisions we've carefully worked out to decide who is "left" and who is "right." Now it is worth noting that these have always been artificial distinctions for most real people. I've been very kindly called "a voice of the left" and I take some pride in that designation - I value the history of leftism, including my own family's history, going back to the early twentieth century union movement and through my parents. But "left" has never been more than a shorthand for my positions on some issues - and had we drawn the circles other ways, I might have spoken, at times for other constituencies, even, perhaps, for some segments of the much dreaded "other side." All of which is simply proof, that, while it isn't true that we're all exactly the same under the skin, neither designation is sufficient to describe most people's political and ethical thinking. Most of us are political hybrids.
Where, for example, did one put the leftist nun putting her life on the line for economic reform in Latin America - and equally passionate about ending abortion? Where does my passionately pro-drug legalization, harsher sentencing police officer neighbor go? How about the gun-toting, anti-tax radical environmentalist I know? The disabled neighborhood activist who opposes abortion and euthanasia because she sees it as the genocide of the disabled? My neighbor who believes that his sons have an absolute obligation to defend their country - and that their government has an absolute obligation to stop the war? My pro-public education, feminist, Orthodox friends who believe that modest women cover their hair - on the protest lines? My conservative, fundamentalist neighbors who believe that Jesus demands devout Christians hold no private property and resist corporate power? Where would you put me? Feminist, pro-social justice, anti-growth capitalist - and yes, pro-private property (in some senses), pro-modesty, pro-personal responsiblity farmgirl who used to help her father make bullets? The reality is that most people are more complicated than our current designations will describe.
The last decade or so has blurred things further. Which party again is the big government, tax and spend one? Which party is the party of genocide, the Dems who killed half a million children in Iraq with the embargo or the Republicans who killed half a million civilians in Iraq with the war? Now it is the left who is screaming in horror about the dangers of big government (and some of the right is screaming along with them). Where were the feminist voices of anger about sexual harrassment so evident during the Clarence Thomas hearings when the democratic president was in the hot seat? The conventional political lines are shifting.
And at the same time that this shift is happening, those of us who forsee the coming crisis have to make major internal political shifts as well. For example, in _The Upside of Down_, Tomas Homer-Dixon observes that to deal with all of the coming crises, we'd have enact,
"...a global society that I've come to call 'Holland times ten," with vastly more sophisticated, pervasive and expensive rules and regulatory institutions than anything the Dutch live with today. Do we really want such a future for ourselves and our children?"
Homer-Dixon, not exactly a right winger, recognizes the simple reality that a vastly more repressive beaurocracy might actually be worse than the collapse. He observes, following Joseph Tainter, that institutions created to deal with crisis invariably stick forever, leaving us laden with ever more oppressive layers of government. What is remarkable about Homer-Dixon's book is that it, like Heinberg's title, shakes off conventional left/right thinking and simply allows the data to lead him to a conclusion that is neither. I'm not sure I agree with Homer-Dixon, but I find him a particularly creative example of the ways in which these problems shake up our traditional assumptions.
The same could be said of Rod Dreher's book, _Crunchy Cons_. Dreher too is motivated by the honest recognition that the current realities, including peak oil (which he describes) and the environmental crisis have changed things. He tries very hard to slip all the good stuff under the rubric of conservativism, for example, arguing that traditional social welfare programs that support families are conservative. I'm not convinced he succeeds, but he does one of the most remarkable analyses I've imagined, and his work has real power among conservatives who haven't fitted into the exact mold around them. I know many of these people, and I believe that generally speaking, Dreher is one of the first people to seriously reconsider, in a popular and accessible way, how to reconfigure politics to deal with the future.
What is disappointing in Dreher, of course, is his longstanding allegience to the politics of balkanization. That is, instead of seeking a middle ground, he wants to shove environmentalist, agrarian conservatives into Republicanism. Personally, I think he'd be better off abandoning that territory and seeking a new one. The reality is that for most of the people who work in these issues, left and right stop becoming fully explicatory categories. Heinberg himself writes about the problem of doing so in _Powerdown_ where he discusses his preference for anarchism and minimal government, while arguing simultaneously that no societal powerdown can occur without a large, invasive government structure. And that it cannot succeed without that large structure eventually voluntarily handing out power to smaller, localized units of power. This represents a remarkably hybridized vision of government - personally, I don't necessarily believe it to be right, but again Heinberg has allowed the realities of the system to override his personal political preferences and at least to imagine how we might enact the changes required.
Like Homer-Dixon's rejection of large government structures and Dreher's rejection of unfettered capitalism, Richard Heinberg's call for modesty, at least to me, raises some fascinating questions. One of the most fascinating is why it is that the word "modesty" so powerfully invokes sexual modesty, almost overriding the notion of modest desires, expectations and practices outside the realm of sexuality. I admit, my personal theory about why we have abandoned all other senses of modesty along with traditional sexual modesty is this - modesty of all kinds is, to a large degree, about choosing not to be looked at. Both sexual modesty and economic modesty reject the external gaze of others, saying "don't focus on me." Historically speaking, many of the rules of sexual modesty have been applied to women, with the assumption that the burden of rejecting the gaze must lie upon women, because it is their sexuality that draws the eye. Feminism rightly rejected the idea that men should not be required to limit and control their own gazes and desires. But it also rejected the notion that there should be limits on the power of the gaze - popular feminism focused on the notion of the powerful female "I" at the center. But a world of people walking around trying to draw gazes and be powerful creates a superficial culture, intent on "self-expression" in a visual sense - the house, the clothing, the car, the membership. That there might be power in not being at the center of the gaze itself, that modesty might also carry power was overlooked.
This is because feminism's rejection of the origins of modesty also happened to coincide with the largest capitalist expansion in history. Feminism was as successful as it was, precisely because it served the goals of capitalism (I've written about this in more detail before here: ) And growth capitalism is, far more than feminism, about the rejection of the notion of modesty. That is, if all of us are not constantly calling out "look at me" there is no market for designer clothing, fancy decorations to make our house an expression of our "self," fancy cars to express our wealth.
In a culture that rejects modesty of all kinds, that demands the gaze rest upon us, that validates the notion that the "I" is at the center of the "eye" all the time, markets flourish. In a culture that values modesty of all sorts - that rejects the gaze, the notion that the self is at the center of everything, there is no place for endless growth. Thus, the notion that the culture of modesty was bad, because it derived from the sexual repression of women was wrong - what was bad was the notion that women were "drawing" male gazes, and thus had to regulate their bodies, rather than expecting men to regulate themselves. But the actual assumptions of both sexual modesty (as it applies to both men and women), and economic and cultural modesty is simpler. It is "My worth is not in what is visible. I am one among others, I am not the center of everything." We threw the baby out with the bathwater. It is true that one can read "don't make me the center of things" as "I am powerless" or as a form of silencing. But it is also true that modesty can represent that power of self-deferral, the placement of others before the self. Undoubtably, one can have too much of that. Equally indubitably, in western society, we don't have too much of that sort of self-abnegation - far from it.
At the risk of alienating people on both the left and the right who read this blog, and ending up with absolutely no readers at all, I'm going to observe that none of the problems we are facing can be fixed from the right or the left, or even through discussion of things in those terms. And speaking to the left, to which I have a longer and deeper alliegence, there are things that we really ought to reconsider. Here are some of the places where I think leftists might want to look to the right to find, if not common ground, some useful tools.
1. I believe passionately in the importance of personal responsibility, and of fair accounting for one's choices. I do not mean by this that one's situation is wholly a product of one's personal choices, and thus tough patooties if you were born poor. What I mean is that each of us needs to take greater responsibility for our present, societal circumstances than we do. I often hear people lamenting the power of corporations - as though that power does not derive from our dependency and willingness to give them cash. Walmart isn't powerful because they are an evil corporation - they are powerful because they have great stinking wads of money and those wads came from you and me. Stop buying their crap and guess what - Walmart won't be powerful. I also hear many voices call for public policy solutions, when what they really mean is that they want the government to take care of peak oil and climate change for them, without being personally inconvenienced. Again, this is a failure of personal responsiblity, because if we tell governments that what we want is solutions without personal sacrifice, we will get only inadequate solutions, that will fail us and the next generation.
I believe that everyone has a degree of personal responsibility, and that the level of responsibility is increased by every advantage given to you. Were you born into a family that loved you? Guess what - you got a present, or a gift from G-d, and you owe a little more than someone who was beaten daily or neglected. Did you get a decent education? There's another level of responsibility - if you were either lucky enough to get a good education at good schools with teachers who cared about you, or you were born smart enough to be an autodidact and compensate for the inadequacies of what was given to you, bow down to diety or thank your lucky stars, and get your ass in gear because you owe a little more than those who didn't. And so it goes.
Full scale, straight out, honest accounting of responsibility is important. That means that yes, people are responsible for what they do and do not do, the choices they make. And those who shape the choices other people can make, or don't shoulder a greater degree of responsibility in privelege are also responsible.
One of my professors, when I was complaining about some terrible personal situation I was enduring, once pointed out to me that most of the great deeds of human history were performed by people who were having really bad days and extenuating personal situations. That's not to say no one ever has an excuse for anything, but the more excuses we make for ourselves, the more we say "well, I deserve just a little extra because..." (and who doesn't), the less likely we are to have any extra for the quiet people who have learned to expect nothing and who truly need our hand up.
Ultimately, we need to be held responsible for our choices. The Peter Parker system should apply here - with great power, should come great responsibility. The better off you are, the more you need to take full responsibility for your actions - to stop asking for tax breaks and accomodations. But this goes all the way down.
2. I sure as heck don't expect the government to save me in a crisis. Ok, I'm going to tell the truth. I don't understand why it is that people in Florida don't have any bottled water or boards for their windows, and are standing in line for it the day before the hurricane. For cripes sake, you live in Florida! The same is true with people who are unprepared for blackouts during winter storms in up near me, or earth quakes in CA. I'll grant you, one of the better uses for government is to get the helicopters up and make sure people don't die of typhus after the disaster, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Look, we all watched the footage of Hurricane Katrina, and it confirmed what everyone on the right has been saying for generations - our present government isn't going to save our asses in a crisis. Now there are good and useful reasons to want to try and get what government does better than anyone else done right by them, and I'm all for that. Agitate for change - yes. Because there are always going to be people who can't protect themselves and situations we can't prepare for.
But ultimately a certain degree of self-sufficiency is merely common sense. Now there are people who may not be able to afford extra food or blankets, or a way out of a dying city - and we need to help those people. But it would be really helpful if you aren't one of those people, if you aren't elderly or disabled or desperately poor, if you'd get your act together and be prepared to meet your own damned needs for most predictable situations, so that you won't clog the system.
3. I don't want to see power centralized any more than strictly necessary anymore. Ok, let's be honest - this used to be the big old left/right debate - social welfare or not, big government or little government. It is no longer a right left issue. The current administration has a bigger government than the last one, with more debt and beaurocracy, and now the dems are calling for restraint. No one has a monopoly on this one.
And let's be honest, whether you hate the Clintons or the Bushes (or both equally), every single one of us can see exactly why we want to decentralize power, and exactly why we should be getting rid of political dynasties and the system that locates private armies and our own right to justice in the hands of any one person.
In fact, both peak oil and climate change require, absolutely mandate a reduction of scale of government - just as conservatives have been calling for. Yes, we also need to expand some central projects - but the general movement has to be towards local sovreignty and local power and resources being kept in the communities.
4. We're going to have to develop better family relationships and a strong focus on family units, and ASAP. I'm not talking about getting into people's bedrooms here, I'm talking about getting people to take care of aging parents, disabled family members, to stop whining about "what about *myyyyyy needs* and to start thinking a bit more of other people. Those of us who had ordinarily fucked up families (as opposed to transcendently so) are going to have to start getting along again, and recognize that biological and chosen family are going to be much more important in our lives for a long, long time. And we're going to start having to value and honor the work of caring for others - instead of acting like helping grandma to the bathroom or breastfeeding your kid is a pain in the ass to be shoved off on other people, we have to start realizing that this *is* the point - the reason we're here. To be of use. To do good work. To care for others.
We're also going to have to parent better, and stop telling our kids how special and perfect and wonderful they are, and tell them to get their asses out from in front of the tv and get to work helping out. Instead of telling Jimmy and Jenny that the best thing they can do is to get good SAT scores and go to Tae Kwon Do, tell them the truth - that you want them to grow up to be good and righteous people, who care about others, are hard workers, honorable and generous.
5. If you harbor any lingering prejudices about blue collar work with your hands, get over them now. It is not, in any sense of the word, more noble to be a tax lawyer than a plumber, and it doesn't mean you are smarter. If you call the middle of the country "flyover states" cut it out now - you won't be flying much of anywhere anyway, and they grow your dinner. They might get pissed off and stop growing it.
The reality is that most comparatively well off, well educated people have been doing things that aren't very useful and are soon going to stop being done. Most of the people we have been told we are smarter then are actually doing good and useful work - feeding people dinner, keeping houses running, building things, making things, growing food. It is likely that we have been so firmly told we are smarter simply because it was a good way to avoid pointing out that we are, as my husband likes to put it, "the surplus population."
And if you think all religous people are the same, and religion is the cause of all problems, and religious people are idiots - ok with me, but shut up about it. As we're less and less able to control our future, more and more people are going to be praying in their foxholes, maybe even you. Get over it, and stop feeling superior.
And if you reject religion, don't want to see it flourish, but aren't working to provide community support, care for the sick and dying, festivals of celebration and release, and a way to think about why the world is so screwed up, expect to fail. Don't blame it on religion - blame it on the fact that you aren't very good and doing the things that religion does very well for many of us.
6. We're going to have to start talking about sex differently, and say a hard word for many of us to swallow - "Don't." I'm not talking about today's rather ineffective forms of abstinence education - I'm talking about the unpleasant reality that poverty means less health care, which means more STDs, less access to reliable birth control, more teenage pregnancy, more complications, more AIDS. I'm going to be blunt - unless we completely change our government's attitudes on these subjects, we're going to enter into a society where the ability to mitigate the dangers of sex are radically reduced - a society which for many resembles the pre-pill society.
Ignoring the moral issues, let's be practical. Birth control is expensive - a really reliable set up requires a woman to have regular medical check ups and access to pricey medicines. Condoms are expensive to your average poor teenager. Heck, they are expensive for my budget. Abortion is really expensive. A truly reliable system for young people requires a form of birth control for the woman and a condom for the man - pricey, and hard to come by if you don't live near a drugstore - which thousands of us don't.
Now the ideal for some people might be to use government to make all these things available and free, and to place no restrictions on sexual practices, age at onset, etc... But the reality is that our present system is as much a product of cheap energy as everything else - if we don't want to rely on a universal system to keep our actual kids from getting pregnant or diseases, we have no choice but to change the way we think about sexuality. If we want to ensure that AIDS in the US doesn't come to mirror AIDS in Africa, we need to be very careful about what we teach our children about sex.
We have become a society in which personal restraint is unimaginable, and abstinence education will always fail as long as a small minority is struggling against a society that calls every form of sexual restraint repression. But we need to think and talk about this - even though most of us who grew up in the age of birth control aren't exactly the poster-children for such restraint. But we can't afford to have our kids get pregnant earlier and earlier, to have outbreaks of diseases we can't afford to treat, to create an expanding underclass of children born to other children. So we're going to have utter the words "no" "don't" "wait." And we need to talk about how we can get there - talk to the people who were there all along.
7. We need a new sense of personal freedom, one in which limits in the form of things like honor, self-discipline, modesty, courtesy, and public order are perceived not as acts of repression, but as structure in which culture can bloom. The notion that there are things we should not and ought not do is likely to be a painful one to those who spent their youth practicing iconclasm and smashing idols. The notion that we should follow our bliss, support our own self-esteem and do what feels best to us has to be replaced with the notion that we should regulate our desires, limit our choices and do what is best for the community.
Our culture has grown to reject hypocrisy as the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy in the popular (rather than the moral) sense, of course, is defined as doing things that you don't believe in/expressing feeling you don't have for the sake of the community. But, of course, communities run on just such self-restraint, and in tighter knit, more strongly bound communities, how you feel about things may not matter that much all the time. It may be that what you do, how you treat others, and how you regulate your own feelings and intentions is more important to your own survival and success than the following of one's bliss.
In my religion, we believe that feeling follows form. Instead of the Christian (and popular secular) notion that what is in your heart will lead you, instead we believe that you do the right thing, and that practice in doing the right thing will lead you to be able to feel the right way doing it. That is, when your failing mother needs help, you care for her because it is the right thing to do, to honor your parents, and in doing so, you open up the possibility that you will do it purely from love. But unless you do the work itself, you have few opportunities to change your feelings and develop that sense of love. I personally believe that a shift from relying on how you feel to what you do is necessary to success on the community level.
Again, capitalism has enthusiastically supported the notion that we should follow our hearts all the time - just as it has rejected modesty of ambition, of lifestyle, of desire. Because if you believe that your feelings are authentic, immutable, and natural - that is, that you feel the way you do about X for some fundamental reason of self, then there is no reason to limit one's desires. But if you believe that one's desires are shaped by your actions, if you believe that, for example, you might come to feel love (I do not claim this is inevitable, by the way, merely possible. Nor do I claim that everyone should love their mothers - not all mothers are even possibly lovable), where there was none before, if you were to care for your mother, spend time with her, know her better by virtue of helping her, you open up the possibility that our instinctive feelings are not necessarily our most reliable guide.
There are more, but now that I've traumatized everyone on the left, eliminated all readership and gotten my book contract revoked ;-), I'll stop for the moment.
Now does this mean I've gone right on everything? Nope. I still believe that sex is one of those things that is none of my business, I'm still pro choice, pro-reallocation of wealth and regulation of markets and rabidly environmentalist. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can disagree on these issues and agree on others. Perhaps we can put a few of them to the side, and get together some of the time, fight tomorrow and talk today. And perhaps, just perhaps, we can find a way to talk from less fixed positions than right, left and center. And I'm going to email Richard Heinberg and tell him how much I liked his original subtitle ;-).
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
These may be the last years of the Polar Bear, the Great Apes, the Elephants, and those, of course, are the poster children for extinction. But we will probably miss as much or more, in our own way, the native British bumblebee, the spearfish, or the dozens of South American tree frogs. Some of these creatures we will not grieve because we will never have known they existed. Others we will miss, but we won't be able to identify what we miss - we'll miss the beauty of the wild animals gone extinct, but our children will remember them only as story creatures, the dinosaurs of their days. What name will we put on "the quality of loss that one generation feels for something that seems imaginary to another?" I'm sure some language has a word for this, but ours, as yet, does not. Or perhaps we'll miss them when we suddenly need them. We'll miss the wild plant that might have provided the only cure for a newly developing epidemic. We'll miss the landrace species of potatoes that would have prevented worldwide crop loss from a new disease. We'll miss the old breed of cows that would have allowed the current Jerseys and Holsteins to live through a new infectious disease. We'll long for the seeds of the past, the wild plant that would have meant enough vitamin A in our diets and sight for our grandchild. We'll miss the species that would have provided for another species that would have enabled the pollinators to survive and provide us with fruit. Novelists will coin words and create a poetics of the loss of things we never really knew we had, and thus, did not value.
The reality is that we don't fully grasp how much we depend on other species - for example, some species support as many as 200 other species by pollinating the right plants, providing food for others, etc... We don't grasp how vulnerable we are to a worldwide plague, or blight, as our crop varieties get narrower and narrower. We don't fully grasp how vulnerable *we* are to the loss of our ecosystem. Because, if we understood it, we'd have to stop - even if the price of stopping were high. How much easier to ride gaily towards extinction - whose extinction, we shall not know until we know.
It may be too late for some species - the black rhino, for example, has already probably fallen below the number required for long term survival. But before we keen our song of mourning, perhaps each of us should ask whether we've done everything we possibly can to ensure the survival of our own share of the world's diversity. Because, after all, all of us have a little bit of control over the world around us - maybe just a very small amount, perhaps enough to save one breed of plant, one meter of wild space, one single species. But, as they say in my own faith, he who has saved a single life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. Now that was spoken of human lives, but it may be that some portion of the whole world depends on your personal commitment to diversity.
First, there are seeds. Even if you only grow in windowboxes, or a tiny garden plot, you can save some varieties of seed. And if you take up a variety of seed that isn't one of the most common (you can get many of them by joining Seed Savers Exchange at www.seedsaver.org, or join a local seed saver's group) ones, you may well be preserving a food plant that would otherwise go extinct. The best estimates suggest that over the last 200 years, between 50 and 80% of the known domesticated varieties of common vegetables were lost, including their precious genetic material, and their adaptation to local coniditions. The potato, the pea, the squash you grow in your garden may be the last in the whole world, and the seeds you save the only ones that can keep it going, or perhaps you will adapt a new variety to the conditions you and others most need.
Because, of course, seed saving and plant breeding are the same process in some cases. The farmer who selects her best plants, best adapted to her soils and conditions, is creating genetic material slightly different from the material that you started with. Your "Hopi Blue Jade" corn, grown in your own soils, in your own climate for a few years will be appreciably, notably and genetically different than the Hopi Blue Jade someone across the country or the world has adapted to their place. It may have resistance to different diseases, a greater cold or heat tolerance, an ability to adapt to particular types of soil.
We breed seeds when we consciously select and choose our best, as well as when we set out to create something new. Each act of seed saving is an act of creation, of selection, the transformation of something that is continually, eternally becoming, a selection shaded by time and climate and soil and water, but also human intention, wisdom and commitment to the future.
One of the most important things we can do, then, is preserve old varieties and also breed new ones, whether by formal plant breeding or by wise selection of plants to save seed from. The best books on these subjects are Suzanne Ashworth's _Seed to Seed_ and Carol Deppe's wonderful book _Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties_. Even if you've never imagined yourself as a plant breeder, Deppe's book is well worth a read for a deeper understanding of plant genetics and selection.
The more we grow out old and uncommon, forgotten and lost varieties, the greater the degree of genetic variation we preserve. There are seed banks, of course, to preserve them, but the best way to keep seeds alive is to grow them, eat their products and plant them again.
We also should grow as great a variety of crops and as many kinds of each crop as we can. Some of us in very small gardens will not be able to grow a large variety of anything, but those of us with space should hedge our bets, growing more than one kind of each thing whenever possible. There will be some accidental genetic crossing, but that isn't necessarily bad - while we want to preserve old varieties, reasonable care can allow us to grow multiples. And the simple fact is that if we ever have to rely on the products of our garden for our food, we are safest with a wide variety of plants and animals in our lives.
So, for example, it is easy to grow many varieties of beans and peas without worrying about crossing. Tomatoes can be spaced apart a small amount. Even that difficult cross-pollinator corn can be grown by time sequencing in many climates - two or three sequential crops can be grown and the seed saved.
The reason for this is twofold - to keep as many varieties as possible alive, but also to keep your garden going, and your belly full, even if you have an attack of pests or diseases, flood or drought. You may not live in a tepary bean climate, but that unusually dry year, it might be the only one that produces well. My Purple Peruvian potatoes never fail me, no matter what the weather, even if I prefer Green Mountain as a staple.
Besides growing multiple varieties within a species, growing a range of crops makes a huge difference. I'm fond of the phrase "belt and braces" - that is, as much duplication of purpose as humanly possible. Redundancy is your protection. So besides your potatoes and wheat, add some Amaranth, Corn and Buckwheat. Besides your apples, try Medlars or Mulberries. Add groundnuts and jerusalem artichokes to go with your peanuts and sweet potatoes.
And don't just get fixated on food - a good garden needs wild places, to increase diversity as well. Even a tiny yard can have a patch of multi-purpose attractive insectiary plants - dill and cilantro gone to seed, along with bee balm, echinacea and hyssop and some tall grass or wildflowers to provide a place for ground nesting birds and wild pollinators to live. Or perhaps you can leave that dead tree standing to provide nests, or some brush piled up near your compost to make a home for birds.
Instead of having your local park mowed every other day at great expense and with great exhaust, perhaps consider campaigning to let the grass grow longer, to plant a meadow or simply leave some areas wild. Perhaps you can get your city to let you turn a vacant lot into a wildlife garden or bird sanctuary, a seed saver's garden or orchard. Perhaps you can convince them not to build that access road that takes out so much wildlife, to preserve those wetlands, to keep what diversity is left going. But don't forget the overarching issue - we've lost so many environmental battles by focusing on the animal we want to preserve, not the larger issue of human impacts. Wearing your Wildlife Federation t-shirt while driving to the mall and home to your McMansion is missing the point.
What about animals? Oddly, I sometimes hear the argument that domesticated animals don't "count" in the diversity game. And if we had to choose between domesticated animals and wildlife, we probably should choose the wildlife. But most of the endangered and landrace species of domestic animal are the answer to the terrible environmental impact of today's industrial livestock breeds. The Icelandic sheep, bred to winter on four bales of hay and the fat on her back, and still bear a healthy lamb in Iceland's difficult winters is a far better answer to our desire for good protein than either infinite fields of GMO soybeans or feedlot cows. Pasture is generally the most diverse ecosystem on a farm, with more wildlife than cultivated fields that get run over by heavy equipment. Animals that can primarily or solely grass, and are adapted to climates where it is difficult to raise crops or till soil are the logical things to raise on prairie lands that turn to desert when they are tilled or on hilly, rocky, cold wet ground like the northeast. We can produce much needed food, fiber and manure on soils, while still leaving them open to use by as much wildlife as possible.
The reality is that the preservation of genetic diversity is one of the most important and urgent projects we have. We need as many species, wild and tame, of as many plants and animals as possible. The more we cultivate them, preserve them, save their seed, spread them around, even guerilla plant them into uncovered soil, the better the chance that we and our children will have a world to grow up in.
As you are designing your land use, as you are working within your neighborhoods and community, remember the watchwords - diversify, diversify, diversify. It is as if you have saved the whole world.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
All of which is not an argument for staying off your bike. What I am saying is that if I can do it, most of you can too. You do not have to be in shape (biking is actually easier on your body that walking), or look cool in spandex, and they make bike seats and are comfy for those of us who have, ummm...back. In fact, there's a bike for everyone, even the imperfect.
Now why should you get a bike? Well, first of all, it is without question the most fun way to travel. There's something about speeding along on a bike that immediately returns you to childhood. Now I don't recommend you return so far that you, like my husband, try riding down a street no-hands, with your eyes closed (hit a parked car) or like me, tried popping a really big curb (knocked out two teeth, needed complicated dental surgery). The great thing about being a grownup on a bike is that (probably) you aren't an idiot anymore. It is a taste of childhood without the necessity of doing regular stupid things ;-).
It is also the most efficient way to travel, bar none. A human being on a bike uses their energy more efficiently than a walker, a driver, someone on a train. It is good for your health, good for the environment, and a good bike is infinitely cheaper than a car. Most people's cars will set them back 3K this year in taxes, maintenence and repairs, not to mention the gas, which is more. I've bought good bikes for $20, and got them in good road condition for another $20, but optimally, you might want to pay a bit more. Even if you buy a really nice bike, you are way ahead.
Now if you haven't been on a bike in 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, you will remember how to ride, but it isn't quite like getting back to being a teenager. As I say, a comfy seat is good, and you might want a bit more stability than you did as a kid. If you have a bad back, you will want a good seat, or perhaps a recumbent. And it takes some time to get your body up to long bike commutes. But the reality is that many of us may not have anything in easy walking distance, but do have shopping, a job, public transportation or family in biking distance. And every trip you don't need a car for saves you money.
For older folks, the disabled and those hauling heavy loads up mountains, electric assist, or even fully electrified bikes are available. For people worried about falling and stability, there are three wheeled trikes, and some of them come with child seats behind them. My family is looking into adult trikes with two double seats. I recently heard someone describe a bike with wheelchair attachment in which an able bodied person could convey his wheelchair bound spouse around. There are trailers for small children, and tandem and side hitch arrangements for kids who can do some but not all of their own biking. Bikes are a technology whose limit is still being plumbed, and there really is a bike for almost everyone.
We're working on teaching the kids to ride. We're hoping eventually Eli, who doesn't have traffic safety skills will be able to be tandem hitched to Eric or me, and pedal along while we handle the driving. Eventually, I envision a family of four teenage boys, my husband, with their poky mother trailing behind yelling "wait up!" It is a nice image.
Like everything, if you've gotten out of the habit, you start slow, and work your way up. My goal is to run local errands entirely by bike. Given that we live fairly far away from nearly everything, that's a bit difficult, but we're working on it. I'm not quite there yet -we're still figuring out if we can afford to build double trikes so that when we have to or want to take the kids with us, we can all go by bike. But the reality is that pedal power is the way to go, both to save money and the planet. Oh, and it is good for me, and my slowly shrinking behind as well ;-).
The only reason I could possibly ever make any comments at all about the markets is that if you were to ask me, a Wall Street analyst and a Baboon to predict, beyond the level of common sense advice, what the market will do, we'd all have about an equal chance of being right. It turns out that almost all human beings suck and anticipation. Personally, given the choice between a market analyst who believes that growth can go on forever, and me, who doesn't understand how we got this far without exploding, I'd let the baboon pick.
What I do think I want to invest in, if we ever have the spare cash, is my neighbors. I'd love to see my neighbors start their own businesses manufacturing things that now come only from far away, or see young couples able to get farmland and start producing food. I don't know what, if anything, it would ever return to me. Maybe all the hoes I can ever use (the two I have were both bought at least 40 years old and seem set to go another couple of decades, so that isn't many) or a few peppers in season. Or maybe just better neighbors and more local security. I've been mulling over ways that my neighbors and I might do this - ways we might, as many immigrant communities have, invest in one another, providing interest free, or minimal interest capital loans to get started producing what we need.
For those with enough wealth to be investing in the stock market (I do not refer here to those who have minimal control over things like state pensions), I would recommend investing as much as possible locally. Many of the things you are "investing" have historically been the territory of philanthropy, but I think we all know better. This is called "covering your own ass" in a world where poverty is likely to be our norms. So I'd invest, say, in local free clinics, food pantries and poverty support programs. If you want a modest, but real return, try investing in reasonably price rental properties, making it possible for blue-collar people to live in your town and pay their rent and still have food. Invest in small scale manufacturers and combine with friends to form scholarship funds to send young people to colleges and help them learn useful things. Invest, that is, in the possibility of a real future, and your own place in it. I can't ensure that the returns will be anything impressive. On the other hand, neither can anyone else.
Look, I don't have any answers here. I know you want to retire, I understand that you need to provide for the future. Me too. All of us are tied into the economic system in ways that we can't quite extricate from, and all of us are standing, one foot in, one foot out, waiting to see what happens. All I can tell you is this. Here is what I am doing. Don't listen to my advice. And if you have to pick, take the baboon - I hear he's got a system.
New posts coming, I promise. In the meantime, I'm catching up on a whole host of things. Here's a link to an old one to tide you over. This was one of the most fun posts I've ever written. At the time I wrote it, I was a knitting novice and a new sock knitter. But I still think it is important - the reality is that socks are the one thing you'll always need more of. And even if it doesn't become an emergency, homemade socks are way nicer than boughten.
Monday, August 20, 2007
I should have listened. But a year later, when Grandma wanted to get my children a big gift for Chanukah, she proposed a train set, complete with table. My husband and I were excited - we had forgotten the lesson above. They could set up whole villages, we thought! It would be welcoming, exciting for any child who comes to visit. The kids would spend hours playing with it! And they did, for a little while. But half the time, they were racing the trains over the floors, or making up stories about the trains crossing bridges - not the premade wooden bridges that came with the set, but blocks. It turned out that the person who spent the most time playing with the trains, setting them up and arranging them "just so" was my husband. The kids didn't care about just so - they just wanted to play train. The box it came in, the table, the track and the accessories make clutter in my house. And what my kids really wanted - four little two inch wooden trains - could have provided the same amount of pleasure for 1/100th the waste. With a little practice, Daddy could have made them.
The thing was, the people who wanted the toys were us. Oh, the kids envied their neighbors the train set and loved to play with it when we went over there. But their wanting was innocent - they weren't supposed to notice that the neighbor kids only played with the trains when the guests were excited about them. And, of course, the trains themselves were the more wonderful and fascinating for living at someone else's house. It was Daddy and Mommy and Grandma and Grandpa who wanted the children to have the trains. We had a fantasy of what pleasure the trains would give. We had a dream of providing them with something wonderful. And how often is that true about the toys we give our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews? How often is it that we want to give them, more than the children themselves really want the toys?
If you are like a lot of parents, the last few weeks you've been going through your kids' toyboxes and either throwing things out or heaving a sigh of relief when you find that you don't have any lead contaminated toys. If you haven't done it, or kept track of all the increasing number of recalls, here are some places to check;
We got off easy - we don't own any of the relevant toys. But, of course, that doesn't mean there are no lead contaminated older toys in our house. And while we've already purged pthalates, we know that they aren't the only endocrine disrupting plastics out there. http://www.nypirg.org/consumer/2002/phthalates.html. For those of us who want our kids to grow up healthy and safe, this is troubling stuff.
Now a lot of people are made at Chinese toy manufacturers. How, we ask in outrage, could they do this to our kids. May I suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, such anger is misplaced. Here's the thing. All of the relevant toys were cheap plastic crap, manufactured in a developing country, with lax standards on environmental, child and worker safety. They were being manufactured in a comparatively unregulated economy by people making tiny wages, often in poor working conditions on a contract given to the lowest bidder. The average action figure that retails for 10.99 was actually cost far less than a dollar to produce. And every single parent and grandparent who bought one *KNEW THIS* or could have if they stopped to think for 2 seconds about where the toys came from. We either didn't bother to think, or we trusted that other people, far away and with no incentive would care more about our kids than we care about theirs.
I'm not blaming anyone here - I'm as guilty as anyone of this. I buy my toys at yard sales, but it was just luck that got us off the hook. But that's the reality - we buy cheap toys without thinking about it. And because we think our kids need a million toys, we need them to be cheap. That way everyone who knows them can afford
to buy them a ton of stuff for Christmas, their birthdays, and whenever Grandpa comes to visit. They can have gift bags at every birthday party, a toy in every Happy Meal, a bunch of cheap crap for every occasion. And they can have toyboxes full, closets full, houses that look like stores full of things.
Meanwhile, the people who make the toys often didn't have many growing up. And for all the lead paint on Elmo's face is dangerous for our kids, it is worse for them. They are the ones who work 12 hours a day with lead paint - many of them young women at the beginning of their reproductive years. Cheap toys aren't just bad for our kids, they are bad all around. The factories emit greenhouse gasses that warm the planet, and use up limited supplies of petroleum for what - for a toy that will be broken in a matter of days or hours because the toy itself is made of cheap materials and the child has so many toys she cannot fully understand the need to preserve them.
What's the solution? Fewer toys. Many fewer, and better ones. Toys made of natural materials, that are demonstrably nontoxic. Toys you make yourself, or toys your children make. Toys made from non-dangerous recycled things. But most of all, fewer of them. Not fifty dolls, but four. Not 100 stuffed animals, but 10, or 5 or 2. A set of blocks. Some scarves and old clothes for dress up. Pots and pans and empty cans and boxes for playing store. A blackboard and chalk. Some crayons and the backs of paper. A few balls. A bat. A glove. A few games. Lots of books. Perhaps one big thing - a dollhouse or a battle cruiser or some trains and track. Legos. But not everything under the sun, not even if it is educational. Nothing with batteries, as little made of plastic as possible. Nothing cheap - we have to pay the people who make them enough to live on and have a powerful incentive to keep our kids safe. Better fewer toys then more cheap ones. And greater generosity on our part, so that those who can't afford to pay well for toys can still have some good ones, that won't poison them or deplete their future.
I have a doll that my grandmother bought when I was a little girl. It was my favorite through my whole childhood, so much so that "Big One" went through 3 cloth bodies, each one replaced when they wore out by mother or grandmother. My youngest sister loved her too - by the time she got her the doll was bald, with only a fuzz of her remaining hair, and had permanent gouges in her cheeks. My sister loved the doll for her childhood. After she was done with it, my mother cleaned it up, replaced her body again and dressed the doll in the dress I wore home from the hospital when I was born. For a decade and more, she sat on shelf in my closet, until, one day, I brought her down and showed her to my youngest son. To him, she is "baby" and he holds her as he nurses to sleep each night. And she accompanies him to his bed each night. I suspect that I will have to replace "Baby's" body again - and I wouldn't be surprised if someday, my son sits over a needle the thread and does so for one of his children.
And if we're honest about our motivations for giving our children toys, I think we'll find that this is what we're seeking - the child inside us who loved a particular toy, or a few particular toys, and felt powerfully about them. We give our kids toys because we want them to have that magical and imaginary space in their lives with a toy that feels real to them. So we give and give and hope that the next one will be the one. But the reality is that it is more likely that we will create magical experiences for our children and grandchildren if they have fewer toys, rather than more. If they have more incentive to imagine and thus don't have a toy to fill every imaginary gap. If they receive things that last and last and outlast their own youth, and are still there to look at fondly as they grow up.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Ok, it isn't the apocalypse, but whenever I point out to people that to a large degree hard times means consolidating housing, living with family and friends and taking in refugees you happen to be related to (by biology or friendship), I get a great deal of resistance. I suspect some of us are better prepared to deal with purple-haired mutants invading our neighborhoods than we are prepared to deal with the basic reality that hard times often look like your brother in law, his kids and spouse sleeping on your living room couch for three years. And I get the frequent impression many of us would rather face the mutants, given the choice.
The coming decades bring with them a whole host of reasons why the old system of everyone in their vast houses, isolated from one another, will probably not be able to continue. The first reason is simple demographics. The aging baby boomers will increasingly require help getting along, and the cost of that care will increasingly be shifted onto a smaller working population, particularly since most boomers have comparatively little saved for retirement (The average personal savings was just over $10,000 as of 2004). Most of their wealth is in housing at this stage, and that wealth could easily evaporate entirely during the course of a recession.
Meanwhile the cost of providing elder support will quickly overwhelm existing structures. The annual cost of alzheimers care alone for the baby boomers will consume 98% of Medicare's entire present annual budget, according to this month's Harper's Index. That leaves virtually no money for anything else. While we will certainly expand the amount we pay into the system, it is also true that Medicare will probably get stingier and more limited over time, the nursing homes they will pay for will be worse, the resources fewer. Assisted living is generally purchased with one's house - again, a very unstable resource, and people who live longer than their resources are evicted from assisted living, either into nursing homes or onto families. The simple reality is that more and more of us will be taking in our parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles - or we will be passing their care and needs off onto increasingly strained and inadequate resources. I know many of us find our relatives annoying, or unlikeable (and yes, I know some people genuinely have reasons not to be able to be around their families), but you'd have to dislike a family member quite a lot to voluntarily pass them off to a bad nursing home - I worked in nursing homes for years, and know just how bad that could be.
The next factor would be climate change. For almost half a milion people, Hurricane Katrina was an experience in shared housing, among other things, and we can expect similar disasters to increase in frequency. The simple reality is that as more and more disasters wrought by climate change occur, and more and more people are dislocated, they will seek out family and friends to provide either transitional or permanent housing. As Thomas Homer-Dixon put it in _The Upside of Down_, "this won't be the last time we walk out of our cities." And, of course, in just this decade we've seen people walking out of NYC twice (Sept. 11 and the 2004 blackout), attempting to walk out of New Orleans and being turned back by their own military pointing guns at them (Hurricane Katrina), and we will see it again...and probably again and again. Where will the denizens of Las Vegas go as the water dries up (a recent article suggests that this could be within this decade)? Or the residents of Miami, as their fresh water is replaced by sea water? Where will the victims of the next disaster go? Or rather, let us not say "they" - let us say "we." Because while all of us are not equally vulnerable, any one of us is a potential victim of flood and fire, hurricane and tornado, earthquake and tsunami. We will go to our family, to our friends - and that is as it should be. And those of us who are the hosts and those of us who are the victims will share the common problem of living together in a society of people increasingly unaccustomed to doing so.
Next there's economic crisis and peak oil. I speak of these two together because it is virtually impossible to seperate out their effects. As energy prices rise, the economic consequences will increase, and as economic consequences expand, energy availability becomes smaller. The simplest reality is that we are presently on the verge of a recession - I daily get an inbox full of news about financial matters, and while at first it was cutting edge sources who were predicting recession (them and Greenspan), now almost everyone is doing so. Whether this is a short term problem or the beginning of a hole we can't dig ourselves out of, I don't claim to know, but there is no question that the consequences of both mean greater poverty, more foreclosures, more choices between paying the rent and buying food for the kids, more trouble finding the money to get to work from far away, more need for Grandma or brother to do daycare, because you can't afford the sitter, more houses that require not just two income earners to pay the mortgage but three.
As energy prices rise and availability falls, some housing will be simply untenable - if you are too far away for resources, if you bought expensive, energy inefficient housing at the peak of the market, if you can no longer heat or cool your house, you may need to leave it. I've written before about how to keep your house here: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2007/05/how-to-keep-your-house.html. But if you can't, and can't buy a replacement house, the next step is to share housing with someone. As interest rates rise, more and more people will lose their houses entirely, and while the government may again provide us with Hoovervilles, most people will prefer to live with friends and family. And less and less able to make ends meet, the unnatural subdivisions that are our lives will consolidate again, and living with your aunt and cousin will be, if difficult, better than the alternatives.
The forces driving us out of our houses and into consolidation are about to become powerful, but we've also been driven by powerful forces encouraging us *not* to live together. I think this is a really important point. It is important to remember how deeply our own sense of privacy, like everything else about is is shaped not in isolation by our inner selves, but by outside forces - particularly the marketplace, and the social mores it creates. That is, one of the reasons for the housing boom is that we've been consistently told we need bigger houses, more space, and that we shouldn't live together. American culture is unusually solitary, with a heavy emphasis on individualism, privacy and not sharing things - and it is no accident that these tend to be characteristics that the growth economy encourages. If we don't share much, we need more things. If we believe it would be an intolerable burden upon our privacy to share space with a family member, we will buy or rent seperate housing. The only way the present housing boom, which some economists estimate may have resulted in the manufacture of more than 750,000 more homes than the market will support could work was with a combination of population growth, but also cultural pressure to move into ever bigger houses, in ever smaller family units.
I am not saying your relatives and friends aren't awful and annoying and impossible to live with (some of mine are - but I'm certain that none of the awful ones are the relatives who read this blog ;-). I'm not saying that need for privacy isn't real. But the reality is that to some degree our terrifically acute need for isolation from one another is neither natural or personal, but culturally created by our economy and the needs of our marketplace. Some of us won't be able to live with our parents or siblings, for real and serious reasons. But they can live with friends, or more distant family. There are few, if any of us, who cannot accomodate others when the need arises.
Pat Murphy over at The Community Solution observes that over a 50 year period, we went from averaging 250 square feet per person to almost 800. And we also grew our housing stock per person. Where a family might once have moved in with parents to save money, rented longer or taken in a lodger, now they live in seperate, privately mortgaged homes from comparatively early on. Elders who might have moved in with a sister or friend after widowing now have their own seperate homes. The number of families with second homes also rose dramatically - now comfort was a giant home where Mom and Dad each had their own office, plus their shared bedroom, the kids each had their own bedroom, hypothetical guests also had their own space, and everyone had their own bathrooms. And, if living together in spaces where you need never see one another was too stressful, you could get away from it (them) all at a beach house.
I've written before about the tremendous economic costs of moving all if the services traditional provided by family resources out of the home and into the marketplace here:http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/11/husbanding-resources.html. I think it is important to remember the collective individual price we pay for our solitary habits. Now this is the money that fueled the boom, of course, but it is also money that you are not saving for retirement, putting towards your credit card bill, or simply not needing to earn. Instead of families sharing resources, everyone strugggles to pay for all their own needs in the marketplace. I've written before about the personal economic costs, but I'd also like to point out that this has psychological costs as well - we begin to naturalize isolation from one another, and the possibility of crossing those boundaries and sharing space becomes unthinkable, terrifying.
We saw this when my husband and I bought this house with my husband's grandparents. The responses of Eric's grandparents and their friends of their own age, accustomed to such family consolidation was uniformly positive. But the reaction of many of our family members and our parent's generation was naked horror that we would do such a thing. We were too newly married, we were told, it would take away time we needed for our children, we would find it too hard, we would have to give up all our privacy. When I mentioned this disparity, I was told by several people "well, of course, *they'd* like the arrangement" - implying that all the benefits of the arrangement fell on the side of Eric's grandparents. But that simply wasn't true - we benefitted in a whole host of ways, from the financial (they helped us buy the farm) to the practical (I could run out and leave the baby with Grandma for a few minutes) to the emotional (I had supportive, loving company at home during the day, my children had an intensely loving relationship with their beloved great-grandparents).Now I don't mean to suggest it was always idyllic (it wasn't, and some times it was damned hard, such as during the periods right before and after their deaths), and I freely acknowledge that grandparents are often easier than parents and siblings, and long-planned and prepared for arrangements are easier than those suddenly thrust upon us. But I like to think that there are some strategies we might use to make this easier, and that for most of us, it won't be as bad as we thought. If I can prevent a single axe murder, fratricide or poisoning within our extended families, I will consider my time on this essay well spent ;-). So here are my rules for advance planning for living with family - biological or chosen.
Rule #1 - Plan, plan, plan, especially for those who can anticipate a need for help.
We spent several *years* negotiating things with Eric's grandparents, settling details, building an addition. We could have done things more quickly, but the time was well used in helping them adapt to the transition (transitions are tough for all of us, but especially children, the elderly and the sick), and our one regret was that we didn't discuss it with them sooner, since before the precipitating event that caused us to broach the subject with them, my husband and I had talked for some years about what we would do when they could no longer live on their own.
If you have elderly or disabled family members, or if you are an older or disabled person, start talking now with your family about what the long term future might look like. If someone is likely to come to live with you (or you with them), my personal opinion is that it is vastly easier to make the change if you do it before a crisis comes. I'm not saying that healthy 50 year olds should give up independence, just that the worst time to do this (and it is only going to get worse with rising energy costs and less transport available) is when someone is in the hospital after a fall, after the sudden death of a spouse, etc... It is terrifically hard for people to give up their privacy or face the reality that they can't manage on their own, but I believe that it is always better to do this before you really can't manage - that a crisis relocation is bound to be difficult for everyone. And if you can't move in together in advance of the crisis, at least make long term plans, negotiate intentions and rules. Knowing what is going to happen can be tremendously comforting - and not just for the elderly, disabled and vulnerable. Helping kids realize "If we can't live here because Daddy lost his job, we could always live with Aunti Lucy and Uncle David" can be a big relief for anxieties they can't fully express.
Opening this subject can be particularly difficult for the person who may require care - outside of societies where the expectation still exists that you will care for your elderly family members, it is very hard to initiate this discussion. Which is another reason why you might consider consolidating housing while you are still in good health - because instead of saying "Ok, will you take care of me" you can offer something in exchange - help with the mortgage and the grandchildren, a chance for your sister to take a trip while you care for the dogs, etc... Everyone on earth can contribute something to a household, no matter how elderly, ill or disabled - Eric's grandmother could rock a baby like nobody's business, even when she couldn't chase a toddler. Eric's grandfather was at the end of his life, but he could and did still tell stories to my sons that were infinitely valuable to us. Figure out what you have to offer, and offer it. Even if you aren't prepared to move in together yet, you might begin to arrange your life to suit such a set up - moving nearer family, or buying a house that could readily be adapted to sharing.
And this need not be a traditional "young people with older people" arrangement - two older widows might move in together, or siblings might consolidate housing to provide mutual support. A disabled woman might bring in a roommate with another complementary disability, or an able bodied college student who can help out in exchange for reduced rent. An older widower with a house on some land might bestow the property and housing after his death on a younger couple who want to farm the land, and will allow him to stay in his house. But I would argue that the best thing you can do is think in advance about what your choices are.
I strongly recommend intergenerational living even for people who don't *have* to do it - I think it tends to combine the best of several possible worlds for everyone. Wealth is heavily concentrated in our society among people in their forties and above, while vigor and energy, hardly limited to younger people, tend to be abundant among people in their 20s and 30s. I think the lives of children are enormously enriched by growing up with older people in their lives. Right now, there are millions of seniors who are wondering what they will do, and whose dream is to live comfortably in their own homes. There are also millions of young people who long for a little land - a small farm or even a good sized suburban yard, and a chance to get ahead. These two groups have every reason to combine their interests and their futures. I recognize that this potentially comes with some difficulties as well, and there is potential for abuse on both sides, but the rewards are so great that I'd hope that others would consider it.
My personal feeling is that the best way to start discussions about these issues is to be upfront and honest. We have been accustomed to a society in which older people are expected to deal with their aging themselves until a crisis point is reached. This system will no longer work (it didn't work that well to begin with), and adapting will have challenges. The best way to go into this is for everyone to benefit in some way - to recognize that this is not simply an experience of burden for one, and extra work for another, but part of a natural cycle of relationships that the younger person will then enact later themselves.
Rule #2 - Even when you can't anticipate, plan, plan, plan!
While some of our consolidations can be anticipated, there are plenty of reasons why people who expect consolidation might not be able to make changes now, and reasons why many, probably most of our housing arrangements will be brought on suddenly. Whether a private crisis like a job loss, fire or foreclosure causes our problems or whether whole regions are on the move, many of us should anticipate family coming to us suddenly, unpredictably, and we should anticipate the same for ourselves. In some cases, people might only have minutes to get out, or they may arrive having endured terrible trauma, ill, injured or otherwise in bad shape. But there are still ways we can prepare to deal with all this.
Each of us should plan in two ways. First, we should imagine the situation with ourselves as refugees of some crisis and requiring the help of family. The second is that we should imagine ourselves as hosts, and prepare for an influx. If we've been preparing for peak oil and climate change, many of us may be more likely to end up as the hosts, but it is really important to remember that all sorts of things can happen, and, as Robert Burns said, "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley." If things can gang aft agley, they will ;-)
So start looking around you and imagining scenarios. Start thinking - what would you need if a large number of family members arrived suddenly on your doorstep? Or where would you go if a forest fire or a chemical leak required you to leave your house in minutes? Do you know where vital personal documents are? Do you have bug-out bags - that is a backpack or other kit full of basic items - toothbrush, change of clothes, food, water, a supply of needed medications and maps so that if it takes a day or more to get where you are going you'll be ok? Do you have stored, stabilized gasoline, enough to get you there without stops - remember, during both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, gas was largely unavailable. Do you have enough food to feed family in a crisis? Basic medical supplies so that you can treat minor problems like muscle injuries, mild dehydration, etc... at home if emergency rooms are overflowing? Are you set up for babies, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, disabled or medically fragile?
Think about the people you know. Who could you go to? There are some people who we all know would welcome us without question, but if there are questions, perhaps it would be wise to ask them ahead of time. Begin with "In the event of a natural disaster, would it be ok if Mom and I came here?" Find out whether you can bring your pets or livestock. If not, what will you do with/for them? Think about who might see your home as a potential refuge, and what issues might they have. Can you bring this up with them, perhaps in a non-threatening way, by saying "since Hurricane Katrina, I've been thinking it might be useful to have a plan for an emergency..." The more you think ahead on these issues, the better off you will be.
One of the few virtues of the events of the last few years is that all of us have seen a concrete example of what can happen. The uses of things like stored food and emergency transportation plans are no longer the province of survivalists. All of us need to make these preparations and plans.
Rule #3 - Issue invitations and write it down
One thing I've done is write a letter (which I have yet to mail - this essay is a good kick in the pants) to people I love and care for, inviting them to come here if they ever need to, and offering them information I think they might need. This would include back road and highway directions (remember, if there is a large scale evacuation, main routes are likely to be packed), suggestions for what to bring and what not to, how to handle pets and additional family and friends (remember, the people you love best also have other people they love best and may not want to leave behind), and a *gentle* explanation of what kind of situation they might find ("...we may have up to X number of additional people, so you can expect to...") and any really important rules. Personally, I do not think that this letter is the time to articulate your expectations of other people, for several reasons. First of all, you don't know what circumstances people will arrive in, and second of all, if they really need you, you don't want family and friends to be reluctant to come to you. The idea is to have your sister in law come to you before the children are suffering from malnutrition, not after. Yes, at some point, you'll have to iterate some rules. But you might as well wait until they are here - if your BIL arrives with a broken leg and your 92 year old mother, your rules about how many hours a day everyone has to work to eat might not apply right away anyhow. Be flexible!
The same questions you are answering in the letter should be answered by you for anywhere you might go. How would you get there in an emergency? What would you bring? What would you do with pets or livestock? What kind of facilities might you find? Assuming that you didn't have to leave in a rush, with only the things in your bug out bag, what might be useful to bring? You might want to designate one or two possible central family members as not only meeting locations, but people to collect messages - remember, after the hurricanes, how long people struggled to find one another.
Crises don't always occur when we're all at home together. Make plans now for how you would gather together - who would get the children at school, or stay behind to pack things up? If you were evacuated suddenly, where would you go? Who would you meet? How might you connect? If things get suddenly dangerous, you should have a plan, for example, for gathering children from school or spouses from jobs, who gets who and where you meet up in the end. Have backup communications plans - cell phones might not work, the internet connection might be down. Leaving message with a centrally located family member, or even one out of the country might make sense.
Rule #4 - Think hard about who you are planning for, and prepare accordingly.
To some degree, you may not know. A sudden crisis might leave an old college roommate on your doorstep, when you thought he was in Punjab. But most of us can guess who is likely to need us. Those who are aging or medically fragile. The family members who live closest to the edge financially. The family and friends who live close to coasts, natural disaster prone areas, or in regions already in crisis. The family who don't have a lot of other supports. People in densely populated, resources stressed urban areas. People near potential military and terrorist targets.
Now let me be clear - everyone is at risk of something, as far as I know. If you live near the Pacific Coast, you've got tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes, in the southwest, drought and hurricanes at the Gulf. Gulf Coast, we all know about. West Central - drought, flood and blizzards. Southeast, heatwaves, drought, hurricanes, ice storms, floods. Midwest earthquakes (the biggest earthquake in US history was centered around Missouri), tornadoes, floods and blizzards. Northeast blizzards, ice storms, floods and Godzilla getting lose from New York ;-). Plus, there are potential human created disasters everywhere. No one gets off free, although Akron is probably less likely to be a terrorist target than Washington DC, and Caribou Maine is comparatively low on Volcanoes.
I'm going to guess that many of us can expect more people than we think if there's a large scale disaster. It is common for us to say "Oh, My mother, my brother and his wife, and my aunt and cousin." But remember, these people also have family *they* can't leave behind. Your brother's wife has an aging mother, and a divorced sister with three kids. She can no more leave them behind in a disaster than you could leave your sister - and if they don't have any better options, they'll be coming to you. After all, you are * family * And realistically, most of us will probably be the only ones in our own families who are prepared. Everyone knows this. So even if your second cousin only sees you at weddings and funerals, he may be thinking of you as his contingency plan. And heck, if this cousin has a well stocked place in a comparatively safe area, you might be thinking of him.
In a large scale, long term crisis, you may have to limit who you can take in. In the short term, we can all endure a few nights crammed on the floor together. And frankly, if the stakes are high enough and you care enough about the people involved, you can live that way a very long time. But if there are other alternatives, you may at some point have to say no to people. Think hard about this one. Think hard about what the price they'll pay is, and what the stakes are for you. In novels, you always can tell when the food is going to run out - that is, you can sit there and do the math and say 'nope, sorry, we can't take care of you." But in real life, the situation isn't always static - if you give your last crust to a hungry child, you might starve your own. Or there might be a little more for your kids tomorrow, and you might save a life. The world isn't black and white, and neither is real life. My personal preference is generally to err on the side of offering care and protection to as many people as possible.
Now I often hear people who have been preparing for peak oil for a while say that they won't take anyone in, because, after all, they told their families and they didn't bother preparing themselves. For most people, I think that is, to be blunt, simple posturing. That is, you may say now, "Uncle George and Aunt Lydia and my college roommate Steve will pay for laughing at me about peak oil." But unless you are a much tougher person than most people are, when Uncle George and Aunt Lydia, Steve, his wife Ki, and his daughter need a place at 2 am, you'll be opening the door up wide. Because sometimes things are more important than being petty. And even if you don't think you can feed them forever, you may also be able to provide a period of rest, a temporary solution, while you begin to think ahead. So I'd lose the "nobody but the wife and me" bullhockey right away, and start planning.
Rule #5 - Shop Now
Now not everyone will be able to do this, and we haven't yet, but my basic feeling is that the ideal situation for most people would be enough stored food for double the numbers in your family for two years. Now don't panic when you hear that - you may think I'm nuts, that having six months worth of basic foods for your family even now seems beyond you. And I understand that. Remember, I'm not there yet either. Food for 12 for 2 years is a A LOT of food, and storing and managing that much food is work. It also costs money to accumulate it. We do it by buying a little extra every time we go to the coop or bulk store. 25 lbs of black beans or 50 of whole wheat really don't cost that much, and are well worth it for the security they provide. During the fall, we buy extra potatoes and onions and grow extra as well, and store them. We can give them to the food pantry if we don't use them - in fact, one of the most important reasons we store food is that it allows us to be generous, to give away to charity even when things are tight for us. And for those of us who may have to rely on others, it can either delay the time of consolidation of housing by cutting down on our need to buy food after a job loss or other crisis, or at least it can allow us to arrive with something in hand.
At a minimum, I would plan on six months worth of food for your family, and a lot of practice making meals out of that food. The sudden arrival of five or ten hungry, desperate and now poor family members will make the wisdom of having a large supply of basic staples around.
If you haven't begun thinking about food storage at all, I'd start with Alan Hagan's _Prudent Food Storage FAQ_, one of the very best resources on this. Alan comments here, and has done an amazing job on this http://www.survival-center.com/foodfaq/. My own personal minimum list of foods to store is this. The above assumes that you are buying most of your food at a grocery store or coop, in small quantities. There are plans that use fewer items, and plans that use more and different ones, but this is my own personal suggestion. You don't need all of these things, and you should adapt to your own family's preferences, but if I had to store only a few items, but didn't have to go for absolute minimums, I'd choose these.
Canned Pumpkin (1 can per person, per week)
Canned Tunafish (enough for 1 can per person per week)
Alfalfa seeds for sprouting
Canned mustard greens
cider vinegar (unpasteurized)
iodized salt (very important!)
From this very basic mix of foods, you can make quite a few tasty meals. Beans and rice, with a salad of sprouts and dried cranberries. You could make bread (sourdough), and add a little tenderness and nutrition with canned pumpkin, and have that for breakfast. Or have it for lunch in a peanut butter and honey sandwich. With a few spices, you could make a great chili with two beans and tomatoes, and serve it with cornbread and mustard greens. You can make pasta and serve it with tomato sauce and olive oil, or make a cold rice salad with rice, greens, cold cooked beans, sprouts, olive oil and vinegar. You get the point. In fact, I actually think it is better, whenever possible, to store local foods - what is grown near you, but if you had to work only with a few supermarket options, these would be my choices.
Mostly, the rule is store what you eat, and eat what you store. That means learning to eat and use basic food that can be stored dry, dehydrated or canned - cooking from staples like grains, beans, etc... If you don't eat this way, you should - here are some cookbook suggestions for how to learn: http://casaubonsbook.blogspot.com/2006/09/some-of-my-favorite-cookbooks-for-low.html
I do store two things that I don't usually eat. The first is canned shortening. The reason I do this is that it lasts forever and is cheap. The reason I don't eat it is that transfats are unbelievably awful for you. My feeling is that shortening is a survival food only - but other oils are good for a much shorter time. The other thing I store is infant formula. Every couple of years I buy a 1 year supply of the cheapest possible generic infant formula. I do this because I've seen and heard of too many cases where in a crisis, either a mother was seperated from her infant, or died, or lost her milk or something, and formula is one of those things that can't be had for love or money in an emergency. I'm a breastfeeding Mom myself, and I don't have a baby who requires either formula or breastmilk, but I store infant formula just in case - so that no woman I know should ever be desperate for something to feed her infant. The best option, obviously, would be wet nursing. But if that's not possible, an emergency supply is better than nothing. A few months before the formula expires, I donate the whole shebang to the local food pantry (which is usually pathetically grateful, because they desperately need formula), and buy another year's supply. I consider it a hedge against a certain evil.
Beyond food, I pick up extra bedding whenever I can, especially blankets at yard sales. Living in upstate NY, and recognizing that if times were hard, we might not be able to provide much heat, storing extra blankets just makes sense. I also have bought a few older futons, in good condition. They can be folded up and stored in a closet to be used if necessary for extra beds. My (crazy-huge) house can currently sleep 10 additional people (beyond us) on beds, plus we have two cribs. But when I was a kid, and my mother ran a daycare, she made up pallets for napping children to sleep on out of old carpet remnents, and so I save these, on the theory that children and younger adults could eventually be kicked onto the carpet, so to speak, if things got really tight.
I believe strongly in having enough dishes, but then again, I love to have people over and cook for a crowd. You can obviously eat in shifts, but yard sales are again a great source of some cheap dishes to stick in a box somewhere. Same with silverwear. A couple of spare sweatshirts and sweatpants in different sizes, if you can afford them, will give people who never had a chance to get anything out of their homes something to wear. Extra soap, toothbrushes and toilet paper will be useful as well. If there are children in your extended family, but none in your home, you might also at yard sales pick up a few ten cent children's books and toys to put in the same box - it will be much easier for traumatized, exhausted children to do something other than dismember your house and scream if you have a few appropriate things for them - some blocks, a ball, a copy of Harry Potter...whatever.
In terms of medical supplies, first of all, get a good first aid book and read it now. One of the most important things you can do is know when you need a doctor. But if the emergency rooms are closed, or flooded with patients (or water), or you can't get there, you need to be able to take care of an emergency yourself. Learn CPR, including infant and child, and learn how to tend basic injuries and get along without making things worse. Keep a stack of bandages, peroxide or alchohol, painkillers, and other basics in your house.
Also be ready to leave the house in an emergency. Have a "bug out bag" with light food (dehydrated food, ramen, food bars), a couple of blankets, some water, a change of clothes, baby supplies for babies, basic hygeine items, a few toys and books for older kids, an emergency medical kit and some basic tools (pocket knife, waterproof matches, rope), flashlight (either with extra batteries or a hand charged one), phone numbers, contact information, cell phone and manual phone charger, maps of your area and anywhere you might be going, and photocopies of id and important documents. Mine personally includes a disk of important pictures of my kids.
You should have one bag for each person, and that includes kids. Even if they only carry a few of their most precious things, they can participate in putting the bag together, and you can practice getting out of the house and grabbing it in an emergency. Store extra blankets, water, and a larger first aid kit in your car. Keep stabilized extra gas in your garage so that you can get where you need to go even if the pumps aren't running. Just in case leaving an area by car is infeasible, you might also wish to have bicycles to help you get out of an area quickly. This might be particularly important for urban dwellers - many cities, such as Manhattan, have no realistic evacuation plan. The reality is that it is simply impossible to get that many people out of a small space in less than four days. So a bicycle gives you a real advantage if you need to travel quickly and over long distance, but can't rely on public transport or a car being available or usable.
Even if these supplies are never of any use to you, they can always be resold at yard sales, donated to charity or made use of yourself over time. Given that we are in an inflationary cycle, things you buy now will likely serve you better than waiting, so if you can, plan ahead.
Rule #6 - Get your head in order.
Now that we're through the logistics of physical prep, there's mental prep. One of the first things we all need to do is take a few deep breaths and relax our preconceived notions about what this will be like. Some of us may be anticipating family members moving in with a great deal of enthusiasm, but others with considerably less. But whatever we're thinking (and obviously a positive attitude is preferrable to a bad one), we should try and let some of our expectations go, and face things as they come.
The reality is that if we're the hosts, the people coming to live with us may be coming enthusiastically, or miserably. They may be arriving after lots of planning and fun negotiations, or after incredible trauma and horror. They may drive us crazy because they are like that, or because they are depressed, suffering from illnesses or post-traumatic stress disorder. They may feel like failures because they lost their house or couldn't keep their family safe, or they may feel like this is the change they need. And this may turn out to be terrible, or it might be much better than any of us ever expected. And if we're the guests, we may be coming feeling terrible, ashamed. Or we may be hoping for a better future, but unsure of our place with new rules, new family, new arrangements. We won't know until it happens.
For me, the most important things to remember (and I didn't always remember them when Eric's grandparents were alive - something I regret) is that the people whose home you are, or who are home to you (home is the place, when you go there, they have to take you in) are the people who share, for all their imperfections, ties that matter, that are worthy of honor and respect. No matter how maddening they are, no matter how frustrated you are, no matter how difficult moving in together is, no matter how close the quarters or stressful the situation, these people are your tribe. It is in some ways easy not to love and appreciate the people who are always there, especially when you sometimes wish they would be elsewhere, but it is also worth noting that the world is not full of people who will share their homes with you, add water to the soup so your husband can eat, rock your child through a nightmare to let you sleep, give you the coat from their backs and the bread from their table, and say, in a thousand words and gestures, "you are one of us."
The more we can go into this possibility with the recognition that it is fraught, it is difficult, and it is *possible* the better off we'll be. By all means let us joke and compare notes about this awful relative and that one. But remember, the jokes are just jokes - they are part of being a family (biological and non) - but at the root, underneath the joke, there is a good deal more. Don't forget what's at the root.
I will write much more about this subject, the daily realities of living together in a future post, whenever I get to it (not this week - I'm out of town). I have much more to say about privacy, and accomodation, and practical ways we might get along.