Friday, April 22, 2016

The Big Lie

Growing up in the US, we've been presented with a package deal that involves a number of assumptions about how we can and should live.

A sampling of those assumptions:

1)  Owning and driving a car is a-okay.
2)  Heating your home with the cheapest and most convenient fuel (natural gas, propane, oil, etc) is absolutely alright (hey, who doesn't?).
3)  The only thing which should limit the size of your home or family is the amount of your salary.
4)  Air travel for work or pleasure is a-okay, and good to encourage among friends & family.
5)  Purchases of consumer goods should be limited only by the size of your bank account (or better yet, by the size of your credit limits).
6)  Whatever the task at hand, it can be made easier and more efficient with the use of electricity, gasoline, or diesel.
7)  Producing your own food is time consuming and not worth the effort.  Purchase your food on price, taste, and convenience considerations.  You needn't concern yourself with how it's grown or raised.  (Only weird people do that!)
8)  Your doctor (with the enthusiastic assistance of our altruistic pharmaceutical corporations) can fix any possible side effects of the above assumptions.  Car accidents, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness... you name it!
9)  "The Economy" is more important than "The Environment" (and you should vote accordingly, as do most Americans).
10)  Technology will fix the problems it makes.  If the technological fixes make worse problems, we'll use technology to fix those too.  If those fixes create still more problems...  Check out this "fix".  Yes, we're going there.  Things are going to be that bad.

Of course, rejecting any one of these assumptions is quite difficult without rejecting them all.  I understand that very well, because I've tried to reject most of them at one point or another.  Modern industrial society is a package deal, where getting rid of your car is likely to get rid of your employment, or where moving from a McMansion to a suitably sized abode is likely to bring a visit from the local building inspector, or perhaps Child Protective Services.  While we'd be fooling ourselves to think that we can avert catastrophic climate change at this point, fighting this system has never been more important.

In most of my blog entries, you'll note a recurring theme of "if we don't change soon, we suffer the consequences".   Well... we didn't change, and now the era of consequences has begun with a vengeance. The climate change rocket isn't just sitting on the launchpad while we debate its existence; we've recently achieved liftoff!  We've triggered the feedback loops we were warned of decades ago.  We've got an amazing front-row seat to watch while our world burns before us. Chances are we'll lose the ability to continue living. That won't seem like such a bad thing when the desire to continue living takes a serious beating as the beauty and joys of our world are extinguished. Was it all worth it?  Have you figured out how you'll justify your inaction to the youngest in your family when they inevitably ask?  Will you be able to look them in the eye and say (honestly) that you tried?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Should we leave the climate deniers alone?

There was a time when I was angry with climate deniers. I was convinced that most were stupid, or that those who clearly weren't stupid simply lacked any understanding of chemistry or physics. The anger was certainly warranted, though perhaps not so constructive. It's like being stuck in a lifeboat with another shipwreck survivor who insists on rowing further out to sea when land is already in sight. If only it were so simple! We could just clock them over the head with an oar and be done with their nonsense until we were safely back on shore.

I'm increasingly convinced that the people making such arguments do not in fact believe them, but are instead displaying a complete inability to handle the horrific implications of climate change (you know, like the death of *everyone*, for instance). For all practical purposes, excessive (and well warranted) fear has tripped their mind's "circuit breaker", making them not only unhelpful but actively pushing us towards the very thing they fear. It's no coincidence that most of the climate deniers have conservative personalities, whom a psychological study has shown have a much stronger fear response than those with liberal personalities.  Acknowledging the truth also means they'd have to make significant changes... which isn't easy with a conservative mindset.

The logic I'd long adhered to was that increasing evidence would eventually break through to them, and they would fall into line and begin to help. I'm now convinced that this will never happen. They will fight us at every turn, because they cannot handle the truth, and anyone who acknowledges the truth only makes their fear worse and their denial more adamant.

History is loaded with similar examples.  Author Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust to tell his story, made mention of a man who had escaped from a concentration camp and came back to warn the people in his village (most of whom later ended up in a similar camp). His story was so horrific that nobody believed him.  He was ostracized and ignored.  Could he have told it in a way that people would've listened to him?

I wish I knew of a good way to motivate such people without driving their circuit breaker even further into the off position. The only thing which comes to mind is the possibility of showing them the good world that could be had if we do the things necessary to save ourselves. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to paint the picture of that world in a convincing manner. The hour is late, and the task likely to fail, but I'd suggest we start rowing.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Change of Plans

Many of us have big plans for the future.  We're saving for a house, planning a family, retirement, or sending the kids to college, or perhaps planning the trip of a lifetime.  It may be time to rethink those plans, because our future isn't likely to be what we'd hoped for.  It's long past time to resize our consumption to that of our ancestors, if we're to have any descendants.

Remember a few years ago, when talk of a 2 degree C limit was bandied about in Copenhagen as the limit which cannot be crossed without triggering feedback loops that would set off a spiral of uncontrolled (and likely unsurvivable) changes to our planet? The same threshold which was cited by many scientists as being arbitrary and much too high, considering that we had already triggered numerous feedback loops? The same threshold which wasn't supposed to be a risk until mid-century?

Well...  NASA says we've just reached it, at least in the northern hemisphere (be sure to read the update at the bottom of the article). This hemisphere just happens to have the most potential feedback loops, whether that's increased albedo over an ice-free arctic, or shallow arctic seas with lots of clathrate deposits.

The changes are coming faster than anyone had anticipated just a few short years (or even months) ago. If you're not willing to make significant changes to your life, prepare yourself to say goodbye to everything and everyone you love. As is becoming increasingly clear, the choice between our cars (among other things) and our future is not one that we'll have to make a few decades from now.  It needs to be made now.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Nothing Much

Things have been a bit quiet here lately, as nothing much seems post-worthy these days. The farm goes on as always, with all the usual waves of birth and death that now seem commonplace. There's always more to build (smokehouse, corn crib, icehouse, workshop...), but the farm is starting to feel settled now, as if the big pieces of the puzzle have finally fallen in to place.

I'm often struck by various thoughts that initially seem to be worth sharing, but the enthusiasm fades as I remember that I've already written of them, or remember that people don't appreciate warnings about things they have no desire to change (not that this will stop me from trying!). Some seem to take pleasure in pointing out the many shortcomings and inconsistencies in those who attempt improvements, perhaps seeking justification for their own inaction. Others suggest we're all screwed regardless, so we can do whatever we like with no further consequence. I don't think either group has any idea of the near future that's now developing, enjoying an intentional ignorance that allows short-term comfort. Look away, and be happy!

I've been particularly struck lately by the nonchalance with which people still travel to faraway places on a whim. Their plans are invariably met with encouragement, when my own personal thoughts tend towards the idea that they have zero comprehension of what's already happening (the clathrate release in particular), and being made dramatically worse by their air travel. I keep these thoughts to myself though... most of the time (some family members haven't been so lucky).

The new barn is in regular use now, with the horses spending a good portion of their time in the new tie stalls. It's nice to be able to get them out of the weather without major reshuffling of the cows and sheep, and also nice to have better control of their individual hay consumption, as well as new hay lofts that ease the separation of the different types of hay. The new arrangement means we're capturing more manure -- both a plus for the pastures and a negative for backs already tired from too much forking.

The sheep are lambing again, which means I'm sneaking in to check the descent of testicles, castrate, and dock tails every few days. We have our first bottle-lamb, born to a mother who was sick for a week before and after her birth. Her sister didn't survive, but Lulu is coming around alright now, and regularly inspects my leg for hidden teats. Rachel assisted in the delivery of a monster lamb, born larger than others who are already 3 weeks old. I can't think of anything much cuter than a mob of lambs bouncing around as they like to do, with their exploratory nibbling on clothing, hair and fingers.

This winter's temperature has been all over the road, mostly on the high end. We're tapping our maples this weekend, though we could've tapped a month early in January as others did. We really didn't cool down at all until mid-January, and I don't think we've had continuous freezing temps for more than a couple weeks, if that.

With climate refugees streaming into a destabilizing Europe, a swooning global economy, and oceans now clearly dying in fundamental and irreversible ways, it feels as if many of my life's concerns are coming to a head, some a little sooner than expected. Each month now seems to set a new global temperature record, as does each year. I liked it better when such problems were still theoretical. Perhaps this is just what's needed to rally the masses into belated action. Then again, the opiates of beer, television, and electronic gadgetry should placate everyone for a while yet to come.

The new tool shed is finally enclosed, with a door or window filling the empty spaces in each wall. Trim and battens remain to be completed, but shouldn't take too long. It's already full of our gardening tools, potting bench, tanned (but unworked) cowhides, and empty beehives. I've done my best to keep a nice aesthetic about it without spending too much (total cost is still less than $300, mostly for siding and a purchased door).  There's something very pleasant about the complete absence of plastic or cheaply manufactured materials. Henry is campaigning for completion of the loft so he can live there. I could handle living in it myself, I think. The space would be comparable to our old live-aboard sailboat, which was great. Maybe someday, as maintenance on a "regular" sized house becomes impossible, I will.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Old Stuff

Like most everyone else, for most of my life I've been sold (and wholeheartedly bought) the idea that newer is better. Most of us still believe that the march of technology is generally a good thing. Sometimes, this idea is based on fact, and sometimes it's not. More often than not, this view is based on ignorance of older technologies, and is almost always supported by a willful ignorance of costs, or a disconnect that makes them difficult to quantify.  I suspect much of the "progress" we've made in recent years is driven more by the profit margin associated with newer goods than anything else.

One great example is that of the traditional straight-edge razor, contrasted with the modern disposable or electric. I've been using a straight-edge for a decade now, and expect that it will most likely last the rest of my life. I've found that I rarely cut myself with it, certainly far less than I ever did with a "safety" razor. Yes, it requires occasional stropping (taking perhaps a minute every other month) and sharpening (about 5 minutes every 6 months), but that's a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a new razor every month and then tossing is in the garbage. Unlike multi-blade safety razors, the blade is *incapable* of plugging, which is a big plus when shaving near a beard or when shaving off some multi-day stubble. Unlike electric razors, they actually work as advertised!

Standing in an antique shop once, I overheard a teenage boy looking at a straight edge razor in the display case, and asking his dad about them.  "Looks like a good way to cut yourself to pieces!" was the response. He'd obviously never used one. I decided to bite my tongue, and didn't enlighten them.

Bit brace
Yet another discovery is that of the old fashioned bit-brace. Folks that use the modern equivalent on a regular basis, the cordless electric drill, find that they have to replace them annually. The last one we used (one of the "good" brands) had a battery go bad within the first month, and the charger went belly up a couple months after that. When they're not broken, I find that their batteries are invariably uncharged or have lost their ability to hold a charge, whereas the bit brace's battery is always fully charged and hasn't failed me yet. You can also get new attachments for them which will hold any of the bits for driving screws.
Yankee push drill/screwdriver

For smaller jobs, either drilling or driving screws, the yankee push-drill makes an excellent companion to the bit brace, with all the same benefits.

American Scythe
The scythe is another excellent tool that was buried too soon by a public that's forever infatuated with anything motorized. I remember the first time I saw one in use by a groundskeeping crew at a zoo somewhere in Germany. It was fascinating to watch them mow around trees and fences, and the crew certainly didn't choose it because they were masochists. They chose it because it was the best tool for the job. Aside from the fact that they either give you cancer (2 cycle engine exhaust is nasty stuff!) and stink, or have an annoying cord to drag around, weed-eaters simply don't work all that well. A well sharpened scythe can run circles around them, and is far cheaper to purchase and operate as well as being far more pleasant. Yes, they need sharpening, but you'll spend less time with that than you will monkeying with the weed-whacker's string-feeder, cursing the motor for not starting, or wishing you'd been careful enough to not spill the gasoline all over your shoes when filling it.
European Scythes

American style scythes tend to be heavier than their lightweight European counterparts, and are often discounted by homesteaders as a result. They are, however, much more durable. I like to use mine for clearing heavier brush (it can cut small trees up to an inch in diameter), but prefer the European model for mowing grass or trimming around the yard.

Direct usefulness isn't the only measure we should be looking at when deciding what to use for any particular task, however. Everything has a cost well beyond what we paid for it at the store.

With a disposable razor, it's the extraction of petroleum for a plastic handle, burning coal to smelt the iron for the blades, and a greatly increased transport cost (both to the store and to the landfill) due to the large number of units required throughout a lifetime. Though the units required for the electric are fewer, the impact of each is much greater, particularly if it utilizes a battery. Ditto for the electric drill.  Ever seen China's special rare-earth-metals dumping grounds? Or how about their air? Chinese manufacturing isn't just cheap because of lower labor costs, it's cheap because they've decided to sacrifice their country (and planet) for present day prosperity. Their pollution doesn't stay in China, either.  Check out what we recently discovered in our west coast forests.

Older tools were made in and for a world where energy was more expensive and thus used more sparingly, which is exactly the world we're returning to whether we like it or not. It's the reason they were made to last, rather than to catch your eye with their bright colored plastic. Perhaps best of all is the satisfaction of holding a well worn tool that you can pass along to future generations instead of tossing in the garbage when you're done with it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Once your entire life is outsourced, you're dead.

The trend over the last century or two has certainly been one towards outsourcing. I'm not talking outsourcing in terms of corporations moving jobs offshore, but rather in terms of personal tasks -- the things we used to do before anyone knew what a job was. The vast majority of us have outsourced the production of our food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, childcare, education, and a myriad of other activities which our ancestors handled on a regular basis.

If there's one takeaway message that I picked up in my university economics courses, it's that this is a good thing. If Joe is an exceptionally good farmer, and Bill is an exceptionally good fisherman, then it's in everyone's interest for Joe to be the farmer and Bill to be the fisherman, each paying the other for their skills rather than doing everything themselves. This is the model of efficiency we've all been sold, and it makes sense from a narrow perspective. The expansion of this trend, combined with the widespread utilization of fossil fuels, is exactly what has made our industrial society the wealthiest in history. It's the reason we all own and use far more than we could ever expect to make if we made it all ourselves. The book, "The Toaster Project" is a perfect demonstration of this.

But, as always, there's more to the story. An increase in efficiency is always paid for with a decrease in resilience. In a village where Joe and Bill both farm and fish, the death of one doesn't appreciably impact the other. However, when tasks are divided, the death of either has a much greater impact, as one of their essential skills is lost.  Should we ever find ourselves in any of the major upheavals of the sort which fill history books, we'll find that a diversified skill set may be the very key to survival.

There's another, perhaps greater cost to our outsourced lives as well. When we specialize only in a particular skill or task (i.e. our "careers"), we experience less and less, to the point that once diverse and multi-faceted lives have become monotonous and repetitious. We're bored. Bored people tend to get fat, develop addictions, bad habits, and physical or mental illness. Anti-depressant use skyrockets, as do the side-effects we regularly hear about on the news.

Though purely economic reasoning would suggest otherwise, we can and should reclaim the experiences and skills we've given up. Monetary return is important in a world that still runs on money, but I'd suggest that it's far from the only issue of importance. The less we outsource, the more we live.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Early Morning

The shorter days have me out well before daylight now, even too early for the cows it seems. They're about as far from the barn as they can get, grazing down the last lush growth on our back hay field, surrounded by woods.  The quarter mile walk to collect them gives me some time to think, and enjoy my surroundings before heading off to my day in a cubicle.

With the scooping done in the barn, I head outside and turn off the headlamp. The world beyond its 20 foot beam opens up.  I'm always amazed at how easy it is to see at night, outside, without a light. The dim light of the moon offers up no colors. Everything appears in black & white, like an old movie. The crescent moon illuminates the broken clouds as they scoot eastward. I get brief glimpses of the stars, and of blinking jets heading east from Chicago. Though we're in the same part of Michigan, the experiences of the passengers are nothing like my own. I'm glad not to be one of them.

The rumble of trucks out on the highway is annoying, but grows weaker the further I walk. It's a little cool for them, but a few crickets still chirp half-heartedly from the osage fencerow we planted a few years back. A ways out, I can hear the neighbor's rooster.

An owl hoots in the woods on the other side of our pond. I stumble on an old dry pile of horse poo that feels like a lost pillow. A larvae glows at me like a star lost in the grass.  Reaching the hay field, I stop and listen, just in case the cows have wandered into the woods.  All I hear is an occasional acorn rattling down through the branches on its trip to the forest floor.

Eventually I find the cows, bedded down at the far edge of the hay field, chewing their cud. They enjoy a little scratching on the top of their heads and then get up to do what cows always do first when they get up. Tails lift and I step back to the safety zone. That stuff splatters much further than you'd think.

The cows don't share my interest in a speedy trip to the barn. They've got bellies to fill, and the tasty alfalfa-grass mix is too much to resist. They encourage me to be patient like themselves, but I resist. I work back and forth between them, prodding the laggards back into motion. Coyotes yip on the other side of the woods, where I've heard they have a den in the stone foundation of what was once a barn.

The cows pick up their pace once we're back on the regular pasture. Our barn comes back into view, with the lights shining out into the darkness through the open door and dirty windows. After a long drink at the stock tank, Maggie and Millie lead Fritz in through the main door. Penny insists on going through the side door (Penny's *special* door), as the others are likely to give her an unfriendly head-butt if she passes too close. She stops to lick one of the barn cats before putting her head through the stanchion, where she shovels aside the picked-over hay with her head.  My day's chores begin.