Saturday, January 7, 2017

Spending days and money

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives 
-- author Annie Dillard

I can't remember where now, but one of the blogs I frequent used this quote recently.  It made me think, something which I've been able to do a lot of lately.  It's easy to get caught up in our daily lives and end up going nowhere, so any goals we have need to be met through our daily actions.  They're not something to be saved for later, when things will be easier (which, quite often, is never).

Without the sort of job I've held for most of my adult life (40+ hours at a desk somewhere), I've found myself doing many of the things I want to do, spending my days as I would want to spend my life.

There are of course the daily tasks which never cease on the farm -- feeding, milking, watering, and scooping up after cows and horses, cutting/splitting/stacking firewood, etc, but now there's more. Those daily chores are in fact things I enjoy, even if scooping wheelbarrows full of poop doesn't sound like fun. You know that addictive endorphin response you get when you see a new email in your inbox or get a new "like" notification on Facebook?  I get the same thing when I find a big steaming cowpie nestled in the straw.

These tasks help me to achieve my life goals of better health for myself and those around me as well as reducing our environmental impact. I'm putting myself closer to life's essentials and am much less reliant on a destructive industrial system that is more primed for failure with each passing day. I'm fulfilling the dream of working with big monsters -- the dream that developed while my mom was reading books like Where the Wild Things Are or Dr. Doolittle to me as a toddler. Now the wild things are out in our barn, and some even have horns like the monsters in the first book (which they like me to scratch).  Others (Penelope the cow) like to express their affection by licking my beard with their goobery, cud-dripping tongues. Monsters can be a little annoying sometimes.

I like being out in the weather, even when it's 10 below, blowing, and snowing. Unlike sitting at a comfortable desk in a climate-controlled cubicle and looking longingly out the window, I'm alive. The good life isn't about achieving some leisurely, passive and risk-free existence of the sort promoted by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or the travel section of the New York Times. It's about making and doing things, and interacting with the world and its inhabitants. I don't like being a spectator.

When I initially quit my job in August, my idea was that I needed to jump into something lucrative like Donald Trump does (wood carving?) with a full-time dedication, or I was bound to fail and end up back in cubicle prison. Then again, the tech recruiters who keep calling haven't been following up much after seeing my latest resume. Might have something to do with quitting my last job cold turkey? I burned that bridge to keep my future self from getting scared and running back across it, and it seems to be working (thank you, former self! ... I think). Maybe I don't need to worry so much about returning to a cubicle so much as I need to figure out which bridge to live under.

Leatherwork: a dagger sheath
The problem is that I'm not sure there's any one thing that I really want to do 40 hours a week, non-stop. There are certainly lots of things I enjoy doing -- but anything gets boring if it's all you do. What I'd really like is to do a bit of everything. Farming, construction, remodeling, wood carving, blacksmithing, making things with leather (shoes?), tending to our bees, our orchard, logging, working with our horses, cutting firewood, and yes... scooping poop!
Blacksmithing: Henry's christmas present

Some friends have congratulated me for cutting the cord to the regular job, which I appreciate. At the same time though, I'm not yet convinced that congratulations are in order. While I've managed to escape the prison walls, the cops of fiscal responsibility and their bloodhounds are still hot on my trail.

So for now, I'm living my days the way I'd like to live my life.  I'm not sure how long it can last, but I'm enjoying it while I can.  Who knows, maybe I'll pull it off?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


A grain scoop for the horses, and the tools used to make it.

As I grew up and set a direction in life, having a purpose was not one of my criteria, and I suspect that's true for most of us. Many people seem to be happy to go about their daily lives with little thought to purpose or any sort of big picture, but I'm not blessed with such an attitude.

A purpose need not be grandiose, such as achieving world peace.  I've found that simply meeting the needs of my family in a direct and tangible manner works just fine.  It's a bonus if I can do that while making the world a better place for others at the same time.

I've been thinking a lot about purpose lately, in large part because I think it's the lack thereof that has been at the core of my dissatisfaction with my career of the last 18 years (programmer, data analyst, etc). Yeah, I worked and my employers paid me for it, but at the end of the day I rarely felt as if I had accomplished anything of significance or importance to anyone. My sense of purpose would've been no less if I had been paid to dig random holes and fill them back up again.  

In Sebastian Junger's excellent book Tribe, he describes the way soldiers discover a new sense of purpose when they become part of a unit, of watching out for each other, and perhaps (but not always) attacking a common enemy. These same soldiers, returning to our society after their service, frequently commit suicide as their sense of purpose is lost. In fact, a very large percentage being diagnosed with PTSD haven't even seen combat; the stress they're experiencing is really a loss of purpose.  

Starting our farm here in Michigan, developing a sense of purpose was not one of my goals, but it has in fact been one of the outcomes.  I know that the food we produce helps others, and I know that the way we produce it helps everyone on the planet.  

We had one mother who was unable to nurse her baby, and was rightfully concerned that her one month old was quickly losing weight no matter what formula or concoction she fed her. Only when the child started receiving raw milk from our dairy did she start to gain weight again. Other parents have related stories of children whose severe allergies disappeared when they were on our milk. Many have discovered that "lactose intolerant" family members could in fact consume our milk without ill effect (pasteurization is in fact what makes many people unable to tolerate milk).

I see the effects of our milk and home-grown food in our son, whose teeth are (unlike either of his parents) almost perfectly straight, uncrowded, and cavity free. Many of our customers have raised children on our milk, to similar good effect. I've found that I no longer battle chronic sinus infections, as the far superior nutrition offered by whole, raw milk is known to boost the immune system. I'm sure we have customers experiencing the same effect, but a lack of sickness never seems to be noteworthy.

Our farm no longer releases massive quantities of Nitrous Oxide (a super potent greenhouse gas released by chemical fertilizer), CO2, or contaminates our neighbor's groundwater with cancer causing pesticides, as it was undoubtedly doing before our tenure. That's a good thing, and it also feeds the sense of purpose.  

So all would seem great -- I've got a new found sense of purpose. But, as it turns out, I haven't yet figured out how to retain it while earning enough money to sustain ourselves, no matter how frugal we become.  

We've reached a point where it appears as if greater frugality becomes counterproductive. Replacing our refrigerator with an icebox (as I would like to have done when it died last week) would require the construction of an ice-house as well as additional time to cut, haul, store, and retrieve ice. Time available for earning cash would have become even more scarce, probably resulting in a greater net cost than the new refrigerator and associated electricity use. Should I be factoring in the costs of fracked natural gas or nuclear power -- which generates the electricity that runs the fridge -- and ruins lives both present and in the future? Absolutely. But the system is such that I feel forced to disregard it, as does most everyone else.

If you ever sense in my writing that I'm cheering the decline of industrialization, you're not imagining things.  This is but one of many reasons to do so.

So for now I have a new career, after quitting my data analyst position in August. Much like the farm, it comes with a good sense of purpose. I'm making useful (and beautiful, I think) goods for friends, family, and customers in an environmentally friendly manner. There's no fossil fueled commute where I have to dodge cell-phone addled drivers, and no sense that I'm a cog in an evil machine (a former pharmaceutical industry job comes to mind...).  I've got full autonomy to make everything as I see fit, with a forest of raw materials that grows much faster than I'll ever be able to wield a bowl adze or chisel.

For now my hand craft is limited to woodenware -- bowls, plates, spoons, scoops, etc, but I would like to expand to blacksmithed and leather goods if I can find demand for them.  Here's a link to my current Etsy store for any who are interested.

In other news, we've had the most amazing extended fall, with a faint suggestion of winter just now approaching in the first week of December.  The colors were of the sort that made me think "Wow!" every time I looked.  I've taken photos of it all before, but here a few I just couldn't resist.

Winged sumac at the edge of our pasture

Jake (far side) and Jasper, our new team of Belgians

View from the house past the greenhouse, new barn, garden toolshed, and firewood stack.

Timber-framed garden shed.  Not 100% finished, but getting close!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sometimes the answer is staring us in the face

There's an interesting article in the NY Times that's worth a read.  The article cites a recent study on the incidence of asthma, which is considerably lower within the Amish community than it is for the rest of us.  For those not familiar with it, asthma can be a big deal.  Rachel (my wife) has it, as have numerous friends.  One of my favorite teachers in junior high died from an asthma attack.  It's also expensive -- with the typical preventative inhaler now costing $225 for a month's dose.

The study essentially found that exposure to barnyard dust, bacteria, and allergens is providing the fodder that our immune systems need to function properly.  The Amish community cited is in Indiana, likely the one we often interact with. Though many if not most are now employed off-farm (in the RV industry for the most part), they still tend to have farms and all keep horses for transportation.  We regularly see young kids (as young as 5, I think) driving pony carts, and I've seen boys younger than 10 driving large teams of draft horses.

The authors of the study assume that their discovery could lead to therapies which could prevent asthma, but I'd like to suggest something much more reasonable, and something which could be implemented immediately for those with interest.  Go and live like the Amish.

Why take such drastic measures?  Well, first of all, they're not really drastic.  Perhaps most importantly, you'll solve a thousand other problems.  The Amish are by no means perfect, but they have a lot to teach us.

For example, if you were to "go live like the Amish", you solve the following problems (in addition to preventing asthma):

1)  Reduce car traffic along with associated fatalities (like the one which killed my good friend a few years back), CO2 emissions, and the whole toxic industrial mess that produces automobiles, whether coal mining, steel smelting, petro-chemical contamination, oil spills in the gulf, or contamination from fracked tight oil.

2)  "Going Amish" allows you to feed yourself without poisoning everyone else around you.  I've raved about industrial food problems before.  Google Atrazine, for a starter.  (Yes, when you're "Lovin' it!" at McDonalds or even the local grocery store, you're also killing people and contaminating the world.  Congratulations!)

3)  Not only do you get to eat healthier, more nutritious food, but you can cancel the gym membership.  Forget about being fat, because growing your own food is a *lot* of work. The diseases associated with our sedentary lifestyles will be much less likely to plague you (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc).  The best solution to our healthcare racket in this country is simply to not need it in the first place.

4)  We're a little late on this, but extracting yourself from the industrial food system allows you to do a better job of farming than the industrial system currently does, and reverse some of the CO2 that threatens to make asthma the least of our problems.  You can raise your animals on pasture instead of heavily sprayed GMO corn and soy (this is what surrounds us here in the midwest).  Pasture sequesters carbon.  Intensive cultivation of corn and soy releases carbon from the soil, ruining it for future generations and increasing reliance on inputs which won't be available much longer.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  Instead of trying to solve the endless array of problems that we've brought upon ourselves through industrialization, why not de-industrialize?  Anyone who has studied our energy situation knows full well that it's inevitable.  The only question is whether we do it willingly and in time to give ourselves a chance of survival as a species.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Dark Side

Most of what you'll read about farming these days is perhaps a little one-sided.  People like to share their victories, their bucolic photos, or their accomplishments, because those are all fun to share. That's what I like to share too, but perhaps it's good to take off the rose colored glasses once in a while and tell it like it is, or at least how it's been lately.

Before we started our grand rural adventure, a friend who was already down the homesteading road a ways related, "You'd think it'd get easier after a few years, when you've learned from your mistakes and gained more experience.  But it doesn't."  He was right.  Some things do get easier, but there's always a new pitfall to experience.  We've found a few of those this year.

Wherever there's life, there's death.  The nice scene of cows or sheep out on pasture hides the fact that most of these animals will eventually be butchered.  A loved pet invariably dies, and perhaps suffers. So it is with all animals. The more life there is, the more death and suffering. They're two sides of the same coin.

Much of this is to be expected by any aspiring farmer who knows full well that animals raised for meat must eventually be killed, but there's always the unexpected as well. You could easily work yourself into a tizzy trying to prepare for all the possible ailments depicted in the Merck Veterinary Manual, but chances are you'd never experience more than a minute fraction of what's listed there in a whole lifetime of farming.  Experience provides some perspective as to which ailments need to be guarded against, but there's always new and exciting ways to fall into the same traps.  The worst is to fall into traps you already know about. Here's a sampling of the pitfalls we've fallen into lately...

Fritz was one of our steer calves, slated for butcher this fall.  Playful, friendly, and (like all cows) expensive to feed through the winter.  One morning this spring, he failed to come back to the barn with the other cows for morning milking.  Figuring he had probably just fallen asleep and not noticed the herd leaving him (it wouldn't be the first time), I went to go check just to be sure.  I found him dead underneath a tree on the edge of the pasture, before I had to head (late) into work, wondering. It wasn't a good morning.  I really have no idea how or why he died, though my suspicion is something known as hardware disease.

Cows aren't too particular about what they swallow.  Nails, bits of wire, glass... just about anything to be found in the grass can be swallowed.  The usual method of avoiding this is to make the cow swallow a magnet, which remains in the cow's first stomach and captures any steel floating by, before it can do damage in the more vulnerable parts of the digestive tract.  I knew plenty about this, but had never given one to Fritz, thinking that he was unlikely to need it before heading off to freezer land.  I was wrong, apparently. Or perhaps I wasn't.

Later on this spring, our cow Penelope (Penny) had her first calf on our farm, a little bull calf we named Pancho. We've had one cow experience milk fever before, so I knew to avoid it by giving calcium supplements to the mother immediately after calving.  I wasn't able to find the tube of supplement I had stashed away the evening that she calved though, and figured I could look again in the morning and give it to her then.  It was late, I was tired, and the chance of her developing milk fever was slim.

In the morning I found Penny groaning on her side, half passed out from milk fever.  She had fallen over on Pancho and killed him.  I ran up to the house to get our emergency treatment -- an IV of calcium gluconate (which, of course, had expired).  Rachel called the vet while I tried to remember everything about setting up an emergency IV -- which is inserted into the cow's jugular vein.  The vet arrived just about the time that the IV had finished.  Penny wasn't fully perked up at that point, but an additional shot of dextrose (which the vet administered) did the trick.  One cow saved, one calf dead.  At least we'd have lots of milk.

A week after the milk fever episode, Penny didn't want to come back to the barn in the morning. When I finally goaded her into getting up, she remained hunch-backed, as if her stomach hurt. Thus my introduction to ketosis -- an apparently common malady among high producing cows who are also prone to milk fever.  It can also kill, but we managed to avoid that outcome.

Not all the animals that die on our farm are our own, or die by accident. With our broiler chickens being raised in a chicken tractor (that's a movable pen) out in the orchard, the raccoons had discovered that they could reach through the wire and grab the less-than-wary chicks.  I set up the live trap, and sure enough, caught the culprit.

In their efforts to escape they invariably tear up a surprising amount of grass and pull it into the cage with them. They also do a lot of pooping.  If you shoot them inside the cage, the headshot tends to make for a lot of bleeding, leaving a bloody, poopy mess that nobody wants to pick out of the wire. The cage is as long as my arm, so getting everything out means reaching in all the way, and getting up close and intimate with the mess.

With this in mind, I released the first raccoon to shoot *outside* the cage.  Thinking this would be simple, I was wrong.  He got away.  More chickens died the next night, as the trap sprung prematurely without an occupant.

I wasn't going to mess around anymore.  I shot the next one in the cage, bloody shitty mess be damned.  And the next.  And the next.  Raccoons, if you've never seen one up close, are really cute, and really smart. They growl at you. They look at you like they know exactly what's happening when you point a rifle between their eyes, point blank. Contrary to what Hollywood would suggest, a creature shot in the head doesn't just go limp right away.  They writhe, flail, squirm, and make you wonder if your shot was true.  I don't like shooting raccoons, and finally decided that the chickens were old and smart enough to stay away from the wire when they were around.  Fortunately, I was right.  I'm sure there are still plenty of raccoons around.

Sometimes my stupidity doesn't result in death, which is a nice break from the norm. Our first attempt at this year's 2nd hay cutting came to an abrupt halt through just such an event.  While cutting our main field with the horses, I stopped and got off to move some cut grass that had fallen the wrong way, into the path of the next pass where it would jam the mower. Though it always makes me nervous, there are times when you have to drop the lines on the horses and trust them to stay in place, like when you're opening a gate or hooking up a log to haul out of the woods.  The more you work with them, the more you have an idea of what is and isn't safe.  Experience tells you what's not safe, and on this day I gained more of that.

The horses, enjoying neither the heat nor the flies, decided they had a better place to go (the shade of the trees at the edge of the field).  I was too far away to sprint and grab the lines (and was already doubting the situation), and they weren't interested in obeying my repeated "Whoa!" as I ran after them anyway. They ran the mower into the fence, breaking one of the main castings and tearing off the cutter bar.

Fortunately, we're about 45 minutes away from one of the only shops in the country that specializes in these antique mowers.  Unfortunately,  you can't call ahead because it's Amish owned. That particular day was also the start of "Horse Progress Days", an annual event showcasing the latest in horse drawn equipment and techniques.  When I arrived at the shop, still well within business hours, I found a note saying they were closed for the duration of the event.  

Thinking fast, I remembered another shop that might have a few mower parts.  After milling about the open (but unstaffed shop) for way too long with some other customers, I learned that they had sold their mower parts to another shop nearby.  Still hoping that I could salvage the day, I drove to the other shop, only to find a note on the door saying they were also at Horse Progress Days.  

So... no more haying that week. We took it easy and went to Horse Progress Days.  I'd planned on going anyway, while the hay was drying.

The next week, we finished putting up our 2nd cutting, and all went well.  Everything was safely in the barn, and nothing was broken.  We stopped at a nearby auction that evening, leaving early but staying long enough that I was late to start the evening milking.  

After milking, I headed over to the horse barn to bring them in for the night, but found that they had managed to open the gate to the hog pen. They had lifted the lid off of the feeder, but the two drafts were in the back of the pen nibbling at brush. Bobby (our Standardbred) pulled his head out of the feeder to show me his feed-dusted lips, as if offering to share some of the tasty stuff with me.

I checked the feeder, decided that the horses hadn't eaten much, and would probably be fine.  It was too late to call the vet anyway, unless I wanted to get him out for an emergency call. I went to bed and forgot all about it until the next day, when Rachel mentioned that the horses hadn't eaten well. Bruce, she thought, might be favoring one of his front hooves.

The wheels in my head started turning (about 15 hours too late), and I thought that it might be prudent to call the vet, just in case the horses had in fact eaten enough feed to cause problems. Too much grain becomes toxic to them, causing their gut to release endotoxins that trigger a massive inflammation response in their hooves, which can in turn cause the bones inside the hoof to shift and render them permanently lame and unable to work.

I called the vet, who set aside some medication that should help if they had problems.  Rachel picked it up, and I had it with me when I went to check on them after coming home from work.  

The horses seemed quieter than usual when I arrived, but I figured that might just be the heat.  I thought they were fine until I tried to take them outside for water when Bruce simply refused to walk. Doc wasn't much better.  Bobby walked, but slowly.

That's when it occurred to me that we were in deep doo-doo, that I might very well have to put down three of the most wonderful creatures on our farm. The horses who whinny a greeting at me when they see me each day. The ones who run across the pasture for me to slap the big horsefly on their flanks.  The horses who reach around to give me love nibbles with their big soft lips when I scratch their withers for them. The same horses who run, jump, and fart with joy when I let them out on pasture. The horses for whom I feel immense and loving gratitude every time I lift off their harnesses. Because I'd been negligent, I might have to look them in the eye and put a bullet in their head.  This realization is not pleasant, and remains the most likely outcome.

In the time elapsed (about 12 days), there's been no gun fired, but we're not out of the woods yet. Bobby seems to have emerged with little more than the initial tummy ache.  Bruce can get around alright, but is a little slower than usual.  

Doc got hit hard.  He fell over in the barn one day, but was able to get back up with the help of an Amish crew who happened to be replacing our roof that day.  It took me a half hour to get him out of his stall and walk 20 feet.  He's improved to the point where he can walk better, but walks like a 90 year old arthritic, afraid to put his hooves back down at the end of each step.  I still hope for some recovery, but know it's a very remote possibility.

I could go on... about cows who refuse to breed back, adult cows who insist on nursing, calves who don't restrict their nursing to their own mothers, sheep who develop hoof infections, pastures gone bare in the drought, the heat, ammonia, and flies of the barn in mid-summer, electric fences covered in weeds that need trimming, or hooves that also need trimming (and whose owners don't let me near with trimmers), and other annoyances...

I'm sure there are those who will look at all this and say, "Duh!  You'd have to be an idiot to want to be a farmer!" (and I count my former self among them).  All this trouble, and with monetary compensation that would make minimum-wage sound like a god-send. There are still times when I see it that way and wonder why it is that we're doing all this stuff. However, I still think that it's better than the alternatives, for ourselves and for all the animals involved.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Religion, Anarchy, and Consumerism

I've recently seen a number of folks suggesting that the advent of Christianity was the start of our collective downfall, at least in the western world if not elsewhere. Though I've never been particularly enamored with it myself (considering myself an atheist since my early teens), I was dismissive of the idea that Christianity is to blame. Lately though, after a little more thought, I'm starting to see some truth in it.  It's not just a matter of Christianity's own dogma so as much as it is the destruction of the belief system Christianity replaced.

The bible speaks of dominion over nature, and thus fosters the attitude that now dominates the globe. While Christianity is not the sole religion at fault here, it's certainly a major player. I'm no theologian, but I suspect most other major religions of hierarchy have similar attributes. Nature is full of "resources" for us to use, to invest in, to deplete until they're gone. Anyone who rejects that notion is marginalized (or, in many places, shot).

Before the advent of Christianity, most of our own ancestors worshiped nature in one form or another, as do most indigenous groups.  It was really the spread of empire, such as that of Rome (ever wonder how the Roman-Catholic church got the first part of its name?), which drove out the pagan religions that dominated Europe. While the term "pagan" still has a derisive feel to it, I'd have to say I hold it in higher regard than that which replaced it.

A favorite blogger and author, John Michael Greer, is a druid. My first thought of a self proclaimed druid was someone who overdosed on Dungeons and Dragons at a young age, but the more I've learned, the more I've come to respect it. Worshiping that which our lives depend upon makes far more sense to me than worshiping a mysterious pre-packaged deity who (for some strange reason) only talks through popes, kings (divine right, anyone?), and other people who wish to control or extract wealth from us peasants.

If you're gullible enough to send a few bucks to the 700 club, they'll pray for you. If you'll submit to the hierarchy in this life (send your kids to fight in their wars, pay them your taxes, stay put in your mind-numbing job), you'll get your due in a magical land of make-believe they call "heaven".  Well... that comes after you're dead, of course.  Perhaps we should ask our bankers if they'll take mortgage payments after they die too?

With regards to worship and respect for nature, I'm often reminded of the little bit of native culture I've been exposed to, such as this quote attributed to Chief Seattle (Sealth).

"The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

Considering that many are now discussing the likelihood of near-term human extinction, I'd say this quote seems increasingly prescient as well as foreboding. Would we all be lemmings sprinting for the cliff edge if we had more (or any) respect for the natural world, or if we still recognized ourselves as a part of it?  I suspect that most of our pagan ancestors would view us as insane.

When someone is referred to as an anarchist, my first thought was of some 20's-ish guy in black throwing rocks or a molotov cocktail at police, generally causing mayhem or participating in a riot. My impression, though common, was wrong.  

Anarchy is simply the absence of hierarchy, and is the way humans have spent most of their time on this planet. Dmitry Orlov goes into great detail on the subject. Only in the last 5,000 years or so have many of us moved to the hierarchical structure of civilization, with it's attendant submission to "leaders" and typically imbued with a decidedly non-nature based religious order.  

As Sebastian Junger details in his latest (excellent) book, Tribe, many early American settlers defected from their hierarchical society in favor of the anarchy they found among the native Americans. Some noted with dismay that this societal defection was never towards their own society, but always towards the natives.  It even became so prevalent that laws were passed to discourage it. Settlers who were "rescued" from the natives often ran off to rejoin them and return to the society they preferred.

Early missionaries, in their attempts to subjugate through religious indoctrination, found that they were quite difficult to work with because they were generally happier than their European counterparts. They weren't used to following or issuing orders. The were likewise not interested in promises of a better life when they were already quite content with the one they had.

Tom Lewis, in his excellent blog series "The Days after Tomorrow", details much of this, and gives the following quote from Paul Le June, the father superior of all Jesuit missionaries in New France, in reference to his impression of the natives:
“... as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the devil to acquire wealth.”
Instilling material wants through the introduction of trade goods soon helped turn the tide, as the natives became consumers forever in need of some new manufactured good. Eventually they lost the knowledge and ability to provide for themselves, and thus became dependent consumers as you and I are today. Perhaps some of them have retained enough of their culture to lead us back out of the abyss we're spiraling into, if we're lucky.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Road Ahead

I'll start out with my take on the last decade, and what exactly has occurred. As always, the interaction of energy, finance, and environment are of primary importance. No single variable can be viewed in isolation, though that's typically what I see.

First of all, we are now past the peak in conventional global oil production (roughly 2006-2008 depending upon how it's defined) -- a key inflection point which will define our lives going forward. The US and Canada pretend to have dodged this bullet through the substitution of shale oil and tar sands, but it turns out that the engine of industry doesn't run so well on these energy sources. They're both exceptionally poor in terms of energy returns and have exceptionally high costs of production. It's kind of like living in Flint, discovering your water is full of lead, and deciding to water your garden with Evian instead of tap water. The problem seems to be solved until you max out your credit limit.

Both watering your garden with Evian and running an industrial economy on unconventional oil are technically feasible, but our finances can only handle it for so long. Perhaps more importantly, it's economically feasible only because large investment banks desperate for positive returns were willing to risk it despite the fact that it's a bad investment.

Are the banks stupid? Not at all! They know full well that any failures will be "socialized", just as they were with the housing bubble they built with liar-loans. They know full well that all of us will be on the hook for bailing out their "too big to fail" fannies. How will we pay? With "austerity" measures and further crumbling infrastructure. It will reach the point where we essentially get nothing in return for the taxes we pay.

Relatively few countries are willing to go through the trouble of fracking or tar sand extraction, and those who have are only dabbling in it rather than going whole-hog as we've done here. I'm quite convinced that our taxpayer-backed banks are the reason. This is why the US and Canada are the only real shining stars of energy production in the last decade. It's a facade that won't last, and one which is in fact already crumbling. Global oil production -- inclusive of all our unconventional nonsense -- is once again in decline. It's permanent and will accelerate in the years to come.

Energy and finance are inextricably linked. If you heard stories from your grandparents about how they grew up, chances are that you heard tales of "making do" with much less than we expect nowadays. That's precisely because we produced less energy than we do today. Energy *is* wealth, and a decline in energy production leads to a decline in wealth.

A case in point is a friend of ours, a now retired participant in the massive Teamster's Central States Pension Fund. Having already cut his promised benefit by about 40%, they recently proposed cutting the remaining benefit by 60% for all participants. The fund managers submitted this proposal to the US Treasury for approval, which rejected it on the grounds that it simply wasn't enough of a cut to save the pension.

This fund is far from the only pension in serious trouble, and I'd suspect is quite representative of most funds. As our energy supplies deplete and grow ever more expensive to produce, the economy stops growing. The system of debt and interest -- the very foundation of all retirement investments -- simply cannot be sustained in a zero growth economy. Thus, I don't expect retirement to remain a possibility for most of us. For reasons I'll explain below, this shouldn't be a problem for most people my age or younger.

Even "secure" savings held in banks are highly suspect. Banks are highly leveraged (especially so in Europe), and are themselves dependent upon economic growth (and debt this growth enables) for their very existence. In anticipation of problems to come, US laws were changed to allow for the "temporary" confiscation of savings in what is referred to as a bail in. This has already occurred with some European banks, but I don't expect it to remain on that side of the Atlantic.

Why aren't we in a depression right now?

I would argue that we are in fact in a depression, though that's not really the right word for it. The word "depression" implies a temporary condition from which we'll soon recover. Our condition is permanent and degenerative. The peak oil inflection point flipped the global economy from the growth phase to a contraction phase.

This condition has been ameliorated to some extent by central bank policies of quantitative easing, or essentially the printing of more money. Under pre-peak conditions, this would have lead to hyper inflation, but that is not the case anymore. Economic contraction leads to deflation, which is equally damaging. Quantitative easing policies have eased this trend, but now that banks have reached zero (or even negative) interest rates, we're at the end of the rope. I expect to see deflation take hold over the next few years in a big way. Prices of most things will drop, but they will become increasingly unaffordable as money grows ever more scarce.

Suffice it to say that we'll soon be telling our grandchildren stories of a wealthy past far exceeding their wildest dreams.


If energy and finance were the only things that mattered, I would expect our future to be a tolerable decline, perhaps with the end of this century looking something more like the early 1800s (based upon the energy production being roughly equal) in terms of relative wealth or the lack thereof. While it seems safe to assume that we could still be poor but retain some of today's technology, I'm not so sure about that. I think that the many systems upon which today's technology depend (such as the electric grid) will simply fail, leaving technology that resembles that of the pre-industrial era.

The downhill side of the energy depletion curve is steeper than the uphill side, the result of a phenomena referred to as the Seneca cliff. Decline is never as gradual nor as pleasant as economic ascent, as attempts to maintain decaying infrastructure left over from previous periods of greater wealth put a significant drag on economic activity.  I would expect wars to be quite common as countries fight for remaining resources, though the wars should decrease in scale as the energy required for large-scale global warfare would become impossible to secure.

Our future won't just be a story of protracted decline punctuated with frequent warfare, and environmental degradation is the reason. As was predicted by a computer modeling group at MIT about the time I was born, our environment will take a significant hit in coming decades. The "Limits to Growth" modelers didn't know of all the positive feedback loops we now know of, and their model thus ran for many decades into the future. Based upon what I've learned about these positive feedback loops, the model probably doesn't need to stretch more than 30 years out into the future.

Climate change is the star of the show here, and it's far more than the commonly portrayed increase in temperatures, rising sea levels, or the extinction of polar bears. Climate change is the means by which we are currently committing societal harakiri, though I can't say for certain which of the many side-effects will be the coup de grace.

Most people seem to assume a linear progression with climate change;  something that will give us plenty of warning before things get really bad. Unfortunately for all involved, the changes are definitely not linear, and are increasing exponentially as a result of feedback loops.

For an example of the exponential change we need to accustom ourselves to, let's suppose I put a handful of duckweed plants in a pond. Duckweed grows quickly, and can nearly double itself in a day.  Assuming that it takes 30 days for the duckweed to entirely cover the surface of the pond, when will be the duckweed cover half of the pond surface -- the point at which people are likely to say we have a problem? On day 29. Similarly for us, major events such as the "blue sea event" of an ice-free arctic (likely to occur this year), herald the fact that we are nearing the end of a viable biosphere.

The leading contender at the moment appears to be ocean stratification (which was very much in play during the recent El-Nino in the north Pacific) growing to the point where hydrogen-sulfide emitting bacteria dominate the anoxic sub-surface waters and emit this toxic gas in large quantities. It has played a role in many previous extinctions.

Professor Guy Mcpherson has documented dozens of positive feedback loops that are greatly multiplying the effects of our carbon emissions. He suggests we may all be extinct as early as 2020, and has fairly convincing evidence to back it up. I certainly hope he's wrong, but my own views have moved reluctantly in the direction of his over the last several years. My somewhat less educated guess gives us perhaps 20 years. There are probably some negative feedback loops which may ameliorate the effects of Guy's positive feedbacks, but none appear likely to overcome them.

Governments are increasingly discussing the necessity of geo-engineering. All the suggestions I've seen have serious negative side effects, are enormously expensive, and by no means guarantee a fix. They would likely be unaffordable in an era of economic expansion, much less the era of contraction we're tipping into. Most focus on addressing temperature but not CO2, and would buy us a little time at best.

So what's the value in this knowledge? Is this "useless intelligence" of the sort that drives people to depression and a feeling of disempowerment? I don't think so. While we're still here, we have the ability to improve our chances of survival, or at the very least we have the chance to delay what may now be inevitable. Either way, it should influence the decisions that define how we live our lives each day. If you're sacrificing aspects of your life today in hopes of reaping rewards 20 or 30 years from now, you may want to reconsider. Likewise, for those of us whose current lifestyle is pushing down hard on the climate change gas-pedal (a given here in the US), it's imperative that we reconsider what we've come to think of as "normal".

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Peeper's Puddle

It was an annoyance at first -- a low spot in the barnyard where water collected after a rain. The horses would mix it up into a muddy mess. Our ducks -- Peeper and Bean -- were the initial pond engineers that got it to hold water. I think their constant churning of the mud as they filter for insects caused it to stratify, with the silt and clay settling in a sealing layer that held in the water. It gained a degree of permanence, but was still just a puddle.

It was about five years ago now that I decided to help them out, digging first with a three-point scoop on the tractor and then some more with the horses using a slip-scraper. It held water, but was still pretty small at first, and summertime turned it into a tub of red or green algae, as it captured much of the barnyard effluent.

Mosquitoes laid their eggs there, but mosquito eating insects arrived in short order and kept them in check. Frogs, and especially toads, started to congregate there, mostly during spring mating season.

The toads have become so numerous that I have to be careful not to step on them after it rains, when herds of them can be roaming the yard. The pond is now the site of their annual spring orgy, where they sing all day and become so focused on making tadpoles that they don't mind me standing right over them. Curious about a writhing mass of something I could see in the water a few weeks back, I investigated to find four males all clinging to a dead female that they had probably drowned in their amorous enthusiasm.
Giant water bug

It didn't take too long for Henry to discover the pond and start seining it for signs of life with his butterfly net. He found all sorts of bugs and insects that I knew next to nothing about: giant venomous water-bugs (aka "the eastern toe-biter"), water-scorpions, giant diving beetles, backswimmers, boatmen, and a bunch of others too numerous to mention. Before long he had an aquarium of them in his room where we could watch them all eat each other.
water scorpion

Visiting geese
A few years ago, we were given two dozen Rouen ducks. Their constant nibbling really stirred up the mud and sealed the pond even more, to the point that the water is rarely more than a few inches below maximum height now.

It's big enough to skate on in the winter, and couldn't be a more convenient skating rink. Henry has
 made great use of it, playing hockey with a stick for a puck, and our border collie as the opposing team.

When the ice melted this spring, he made another interesting discovery. A bluegill we'd released into the pond last summer had apparently survived until the winter, despite the pond being perhaps 3' deep at the center. With a little more depth (and probably a bubbler) perhaps we could keep some there year round.

Birds are making great use of it now. We have a sandpiper or two who regularly visits to march endlessly around the shore while searching for bugs in the mud. Occasionally we get a few canada geese or mallards, and have even had herons and sandhill cranes visit a few times. Doves regularly come down for a drink, and starlings use it for their baths. Barn swallows use it to collect mud for their nests. They swoop through the air above it for hatching insects throughout the day, while bats take the night shift.

A number of painted turtles have taken up residence, and regularly sun themselves on the log we've placed in the water for them. There are snapping turtles as well, but they don't show themselves so often.

I have big plans for the pond. More digging to make it deeper, and perhaps introducing some cat-tails or other aquatic plants. I suspect that more places to hide or lay eggs would benefit many of the residents. Until I'm moved to do so, I'll just keep watching. It's some of the best entertainment around.