Thursday, January 11, 2018

The future ain't what it used to be


Yesterday evening, after dinner, I headed out into the dark to feed the horses. I was overwhelmed by a rush of love and sadness. Working with these magnificent beasts, and the associated feelings of mutual respect and symbiosis, has been one of my greatest joys. Yet, I feel like I no longer have reason to continue it.

The world I'd hoped to build with them is not to be. The farm I'd hoped might one day provide a meager income has proven itself not to be capable of such. Even in a post economic collapse world where basic necessities are of greater value, I don't see the farm working.

I've lost much of the purpose behind my homesteading endeavors of the last decade. Though I still see some value in everything we've done, I no longer feel compelled to grow or raise our own food, tan my own leather, construct my own outbuildings, farm with horses, or learn the various skills that we've lost as an increasingly industrially-dependent populace.

Jake sending some of his special air freshener my way.


You're thinking, "Aha - I told you so!  Nobody ever likes to do that much work!  We knew you'd come around sooner or later".

It is a *lot* of work, no doubt.  It's an overwhelming amount of work, if you consider that the "make it yourself" approach will typically require an effort easily an order of magnitude greater than the conventional sit in your cubicle for 40 hours a week and use your paycheck to buy it approach.

But that's not why I've given up.

"Well then... maybe you're just feeling your age."

While I am older, that's not it, either.

"Scared by the horse injury?"

No, it started well before that.

"Midlife crisis?"

Perhaps.

Though there are multiple reasons, one stands out much larger than the rest. It's not belly up just yet, but our life support systems are failing, and will collapse much sooner than I'd anticipated. We've dumped so much CO2 into the atmosphere that the earth is now emitting half again as much as humans are, as various systems die (forests dry out and/or burn) or change state (permafrost melts and emits methane). This means that we're still on the same doomed track even if we were to eliminate all anthropogenic emissions (which is about as likely as Donald Trump suddenly becoming a genuinely good person).

The farm, the homesteading skills, and the life I was trying to build were in large part an attempt to survive or thrive in an economic collapse. Environmental collapse, on the other hand, is not something that can be prepared for.

Since about age eight, I've been obsessively fascinated by environmental issues. A decade ago, our environment looked like a plane slowly losing altitude. Now the wings have come off and it's spiraling downwards. If humans last beyond mid-century, I'd be surprised. Exxon's scientists have advised the company executives that they should expect 5 degrees C by mid-century, whereas scientists have long questioned whether 2 degrees is survivable. Some scientists now suggest our future will be less than a decade. While I like to think they're wrong, each day brings news that they're closer to the mark.

Wherever you look nowadays, you'll see a failure of stability. The jet-stream, which dictates weather patterns at our temperate latitudes, no longer runs perpetually to the east as it did when I was born. It now meanders north and south far more than ever before. This is why our idiot-in-chief tweeted that "We could use a little bit of that global warming" as the eastern US set record cold temperatures. Do you think anyone mentioned to him that Alaska was warmer than Florida at the time?

When a patient receives a terminal diagnosis from their doctor, it's never a good thing. It's a point at which some people simply wither away. Others, if they're able, take such a diagnosis as an impetus to do what they've always wanted to do, and not to put it off for the tomorrow that they know will never be.

Considering my diagnosis, I'm hoping to be one of the latter, as our world still has much to offer even in its diminished state. For me, that's the return of a dream I'd long held, but put off in favor of the homesteading endeavor when economic failure was the leading contender in our apocalyptic contest.

I'd like to sail again, and fill the remainder of my life with experiences (both good and bad, no doubt) worth remembering. Will I make it? Will I give it up again as economic malaise pulls ahead?  It's tough to make predictions -- especially about the future!

My last sail on our old boat -- photo taken by a passing sailboater who asked for my email address so he could send it to me.







Wednesday, October 25, 2017

D'oh!


I'd always figured that the dangers involved with driving a wagon around the local country roads would have something to do with another car or truck.  Perhaps Bobby would swerve into traffic upon seeing a wolf (rocks sometimes look like crouching wolves) at the side of the road, or a cellphone addled driver would cross the centerline and activate the wagon's airbag system.  For these sorts of potential risks, I was ever vigilant.

As it turns out, however, no third party was necessary. 

A couple weeks ago, I harnessed Bobby for a morning drive, as I've done so many times before.  This time, however, I failed to clip one of the holdback straps on the shafts of the wagon.  These straps, attached to the britchen on the horse's harness, keep the wagon from bumping into the horse on the downhills. 

Heading down the slight hill of our driveway, I quickly noticed my error, at which point the wagon rolled forward and bumped Bobby's hindquarters.  He responded as most any horse would to an unexpected slap in his nether region, hopped up and kicked back with both hooves, which struck me squarely in the chest as I sat in the wagon's seat.  So not only do the holdback straps keep the wagon from bumping into the horse;  they also keep the driver out of kicking range, as I discovered.

Aside from thinking "that really hurt!", I was mostly consumed with the idea of getting Bobby calmed down, and was contemplating whether or not I should continue with the drive.  I remember driving past the neighbor's house with these thoughts, and then the record function of my memory ceased to function.

I woke up a few minutes later, lying face-down in the back of the wagon. At first all seemed nice and comfortable as I came out of a pleasant dream I don't remember.  As I opened my eyes, I realized where I was, and that something bad had just happened. Bobby was driving nicely up the hill just to the west of our house, staying in his own lane and doing very well as a fully-autonomous vehicle for the first time. 

I climbed back into the seat, picked up the lines, and turned back for home, still a little dazed.  Just before we again reached the neighbor's house, I noticed my hat lying at the side of the road, smeared in mud.  Hmmmm... 

I reached up to touch my head and perhaps confirm that the hat I saw was my own, to feel a bunch of mud and gravel on the back of my scalp.  How did that get there?

Reconstructing the un-recorded events through forensic analysis, it appears as if Bobby's kick briefly stopped my heart and caused me to pass out, with me falling off the wagon shortly after my memory blacked out.  How I got back into the wagon before waking up, I'll never know.  I'm hoping to be wearing a camera next time I get kicked like this, so I'll be able to see what actually happened.  Perhaps I'll hire a stunt-double to ride in the wagon during the kicking part though. 

All things considered, I suppose I'm pretty lucky to still be around to type this.  My diagnosis at the hospital was a myocardial contusion (bruised heart) and an inferior fracture of the patella (a chip out of my kneecap).  No broken ribs or sternum, which amazed me.  My ribcage is pretty sore, and made simply getting out of bed a major achievement, as I couldn't sit up normally or prop myself up on my elbows at first. 

I've got to wear a leg brace for a few more weeks, and can't do much in the way of heavy lifting (I had to discover this through trial and error, of course), but it looks as if there'll be no permanent damage.

Rachel and Henry have picked up all the heavier farm chores for the time being, with me filling in to do milking on the one cow who didn't have a young calf. 

So yeah, horses can be quite dangerous!  The safest thing, in the short term at least, is to stay at home in front of your television. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Pony For Lockheed Martin

I thought this article was worth reading, particularly for anyone who is of the opinion that Bernie Sanders was prone to making unfunded promises, which Clinton mocked as "ponies".  The bottom line?  Congress just passed a defense spending increase of 80 billion - the same amount it would've taken to make all 4 year public universities tuition free.  For this, we got nothing more than an increased threat of nuclear Armageddon and more dead citizens around the globe.  Feel like a sucker yet?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A decade of homesteading, and the decade to come

One of homesteading's many perils.
Alright, so it's not quite a full decade, yet.  We're a few months shy of our 10 year homesteading anniversary, but I'm close enough. A homesteading year is much longer than a regular year anyway. Qualified or not, I have a few observations to make.

Back in the fall of 2007, the world looked quite different than it does now. We were living in a nice older neighborhood of Bellingham, WA. I'd been reading everything I could find on peak oil, and the predictions made in that genre definitely appeared to be coming to fruition.

The stock market was swooning ever lower, businesses were going bankrupt, the price of oil was shooting for the moon, and climate change was starting to rear its ugly head, though not so much as it has today. Though we lived in a wonderfully walkable community and often went for weeks without using a car, I knew we were vulnerable, and I didn't like it. Nearly all of our food was grown elsewhere, our home was heated with natural gas, and our water came from a large and complex municipal system. If things continued to go badly, I knew we'd soon have to resort to cooking the neighbors for dinner over a smoldering fire of garbage while shivering in the rain, in a future something like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. When we finally pulled the trigger and made the move to Michigan, things were looking even worse.

That's not to say that fear was the primary motivating factor to our move though. I'd long felt that something was missing from my cubicle-centered life, something which I felt all the more when hearing my father tell stories of life on my great-grandparent's farm in southern Illinois. Theirs was in many ways a farm like the one you might see featured on the label of a milk or egg carton. They worked it with mules, milked a few cows, raised a few hogs, and survived. They were poor, but I gathered that they were satisfied with their existence in ways that I was not.

I had developed a vague notion that I'd like to emulate their lives, but that seemed like a distant possibility in a world where farmers regularly till 5,000 acres with tractors that cost more than my mortgaged home. Not only would it be financially impossible to move into this, but I was in no way interested in emulating the business of the modern, chemically dependent mode of farming.

After a 9 month bout with a crappy immune system involving multiple doctors, failing antibiotics, and scary diagnoses, I developed a newfound interest in nutrition. The more I learned about the "food" purchased in grocery stores, the more I became convinced that raising our own food was the way to go.

Some friends of ours had a small homestead farm on the outskirts of town. A few cows, a few sheep, hogs, chickens, and a nice big garden. It didn't provide a living as it had for my great-grandparents, but it sure looked more appealing than my cubicle and house in town. If regular jobs failed, as was looking quite likely at the time, they would still be eating real food. Their farm's smoked bacon sounded better than the polyethylene smoked fillet-o-neighbor I saw in my urban future.

So for the last decade now, I've been working on this dream. I milk cows every day, almost continuously since the end of 2008. We heat and cook exclusively with wood, and are not reliant upon fracked gas as we would be in Bellingham. I can continue to cut firewood even without gas for the chainsaw, though I don't relish the prospect. We get water from our own well, and can do so by hand if the power goes out (which is pretty common here). I can make many of my own tools or repair much of our equipment on my blacksmithing forge. I've tanned my own leather and learned to make shoes, if the need should arise. I can shear our sheep, and Rachel can turn the wool into socks or a sweater, all without the need for any electricity or purchased inputs. We grow the majority of our own food using horses and musclepower, and I've no doubt that we could grow everything we'd need if the grocery store were to go unstocked for any reason. My health is much improved, and our son's diet is reflected in his great health, even if he didn't like the "100% farm-food" liver & onions with spinach salad we had for dinner last night.

So with all these goals achieved, we should be sitting pretty come hell or high water, right?  Well... no, not really. As one Amish man said to a friend a while back, "If there was some sort of economic collapse, us Amish might last a couple weeks longer than you English". Despite our accomplishments, I'm feeling decidedly Amish in that respect. Yeah, we've got a little more breathing room than we did in our former lives, but I'm not foolish enough to think that we've achieved complete independence. I'm not so sure there ever has been such a thing, come to think of it. A community might become self sufficient, but not an individual or a family. Because our community is in no way self sufficient, neither are we.

I suspect our homesteading friends -- the ones who played a big role in inspiring our move -- had similar thoughts. They've since left their farm and moved into our old neighborhood in town. A few years ago this would've horrified me. Now, I think I understand it.

So is homesteading pointless? Is there no value to improving your level of self sufficiency? No, I don't see it that way. There is a cost, however, and I'm not 100% convinced that the benefits outweigh it.

Gains in efficiency always come at the cost of resilience. The $500,000 turbo-diesel John Deere that can plant an acre of corn in a minute is *way* more efficient than the two-row 1910 era horse drawn planter that I use. But, at the same time, the tractor is fully reliant upon a massively complex system of finance, petro-chemical extraction and refinement and transport, spare parts, mining, and other systems too numerous to list out.  Any one of those systems failing will render it inoperable.

The flip side of this equation -- and the homesteader's curse -- is that self sufficiency and resilience come at the cost of efficiency. In the example of my corn planter, it will take me a half day to plant what the big tractor can do in a minute, even though I can do it without diesel, financing for the tractor, or a whole host of other inputs. This same pattern persists for just about everything that a homesteader does. It takes me about 2 hours each morning and evening to milk (and feed, and clean up after) our three cows, whereas the industrial rotary milking parlor can milk 300 cows per hour. A sweater like one that Rachel might take a few weeks to complete (if she worked non-stop) can probably be purchased for $100 somewhere else. So it goes until you soon find yourself with plenty more to do and no more time to do it.

Taken to its ultimate extreme of providing everything for your family (i.e. the one most aspiring homesteaders dream of), homesteading will ultimately use up all of your time, and then some. You'll eat better, you'll have far more pride in the things you've produced than the ones you've purchased, and you might very well be the envy of your neighbors. You'll be toned and tanned, and you'll be a haggard mess, forever haunted by neglected tasks that refuse to go away.

Suffice it to say that attempts to market the products of homesteading rarely make any actual money, because they're always competing with some industrially (and efficiently) produced alternative. To make actual money, of the sort that might pay off a homestead or cover health insurance, you'll need to return to the soul-sucking industrial economy. While I can think of a number of homesteaders who market their goods, I can't think of any who generate a decent hourly rate with this activity.

So is peak oil dead? Is climate change a concern only for the distant future? No, I don't think so, in either case. I'm quite convinced that we'll see a failure of global energy supplies within a decade. We're already seeing the climate go nuts, with all the hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, and disappearing polar ice-caps to prove it. The skills we've built over the last decade are all valuable in the event of an industrial collapse. If industrial collapse were the only problem, we'd be all set -- for a few weeks anyway.

While industrial collapse is inevitable, it seems for the moment to be on the slow boat. Ecological collapse, however, is already well underway and accelerating. I see no real attempts being made to avert it, if such a thing is still possible at this stage. Those who read the IPCC scenarios can see the writing on the wall. Their "survivable" scenarios -- the ones in which we might maintain < 2.5 degrees of global temperature rise -- all incorporate the future deployment of technology that doesn't yet exist. It's also important to keep in mind that the IPCC is heavily influenced by industrial countries like the US and China, to the point where IPCC scientists are forbidden from including important feedback loops in their models, like the methane currently erupting from the arctic which will render any emission reductions moot (if we had any such reductions). To sum it up, IPCC projections are impossibly conservative (and at this point have a proven track record as such), and basically say that magic is our only means of survival.

In looking back upon our decade of homesteading, I'm proud of our accomplishments. We've made some significant improvements in our personal resilience, our diets, our health, and our environmental impact. Just the process of continued learning is incredibly rewarding in and of itself. But, the world in which those things have value is fast disappearing.

I imagine myself standing on a railroad track, with two trains coming at me -- one being industrial collapse and one being ecological collapse. The former I can deal with, by learning to again live like my pre-industrial ancestors. The latter I cannot. At the moment, it appears as if ecological collapse will arrive first. If this is in fact the case, we're effectively in hospice, where making the most of our last days is undoubtedly of greater value than preparing for days which we will never see.

What will the next decade bring? Is it better to party on the deck of the Titanic or to scramble for a homesteading lifeboat? It's still tough to say for sure, but I'm thinking a party may be in order.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bookworm

Henry cutting a mortise for the new wood shed, from pines harvested on the farm.  Most of our red pines have died within the last 5 years -- which certainly has nothing to do with climate change.
Using my newly purchased smartphone (yes, undoubtedly manufactured in a factory with "suicide nets", using rare-earths mined by child slave labor, and powered by fracked gas and Fukushimas-to-be... I know...), I've found that daily chore time is a great time to listen to books. That's 4-5 hours a day that I'm picking up in-depth information that I would otherwise be oblivious to, turning me into a hardcore pseudo-bookworm. It doesn't take long to devour a book at this rate.

Audible.com has allowed me to have yet another free trial (I think this is the third one now?), but I'm otherwise relegated to the limited selection of audiobooks offered through our library. The benefit of the library service is that such a limited selection forced me to venture outside my usual genres by about the 2nd book, even into the realm of fiction. Orwell's 1984 seemed like a good pick, and felt uncomfortably familiar in this age of perpetual war and surveillance. My new smartphone should help the NSA keep tabs on me .  Always good to know I'm doing my part!

On Audible, I selected two books which I've really enjoyed:  Don't Even Think About It:  Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and John Michael Greer's Dark Age America.

The first book really just crystallized some thoughts and observations I'd previously had -- namely that the more real climate change becomes, the less most people are able to deal with it. The author pointed to surveys conducted among victims of hurricane Sandy and Katrina, which found that such people became far less likely to "believe" in climate change than they were before these pivotal events.

This provides the perfect explanation for the attitude expressed by the mayor of Tangier island in Virginia, recently made famous by a phone call from President Trump. Despite clear and obvious shrinkage of his island (which will disappear completely in 50 years, according to the Army Corps of Engineers), he's convinced that there's no climate change. Considering that much of my family has been blanketed by the smoke from unprecedented wildfires burning in BC (not long after smoke from fires in Washington a few years ago), I'm wondering how they'll fare...

John Michael Greer's book is actually quite optimistic about our future despite the seemingly ominous title. Greer, who predicted Trump's presidency well before most anyone else thought it might be a possibility, seems to have a knack for evaluating situations rivaled by very few (if any) that I've come across. The fact that I agree with the vast majority of his assessment of our future doesn't hurt my opinion of him either.

He sees the end of industrial civilization not as a cataclysmic event to be feared so much as the continuation of a civilizational cycle, much like the end of the Egyptian, Greek, or Roman empires. He envisions us returning to a lower energy lifestyle as a matter of necessity rather than by choice, but suggests that to "collapse early and beat the rush" is a good idea. He sees our population crashing dramatically over this century, not so much through mass famine or cataclysmic events but rather through small and incremental rises in the death rate.

Many of us are prone to binary thinking (i.e. the environment will be "just fine!", or "we're all gonna die tomorrow!") with little in between. Greer points out that history rarely follows such paths, but usually muddles through somewhere in between.

In one example, he mentions that most of us know about 100 people, more or less. Currently, one of those people per year might pass away annually. If that rises to a rate 3 people each year, we'd see a 95% population loss by the end of the century. Thus, seemingly catastrophic changes are achieved via barely noticeable changes -- a recurring theme through the book.

Though I know he's aware of them, I'm not sure he gives full credit to the climate feedback loops that we already appear to have triggered. I don't think most people are scared of a two degree climate change, because they don't understand that two degrees is enough to trigger the feedbacks which quickly push the atmosphere to eight degrees (which involves unsurvivable changes).  Even the 1.5 degree change we've already hit seems to be doing the trick in that regard.
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All in all we've had a pretty good summer so far.  I can't remember the last time we topped 90 degrees, though there were a few days earlier in the season.  We're a little light on rainfall, but it's been enough to keep our hay growing well if not our pastures.  Our orchard, planted in the spring of '09, is finally coming to maturity, and is absolutely loaded this year.  I fear I'll get tired of pressing apples. If my blog becomes even more loopy, you can blame all the hard cider I'll be drinking.

We've been working on a woodshed -- to replace the one we built a few years back and which was immediately repurposed into our blacksmithing shed and sugar shack (for maple syrup). Though he's not particularly interested in the project, I've put Henry to work on it as well, and he's doing a good job.  

We had a new calf born this week, and the one born earlier in the year (now about 13 weeks old) is quite fascinated with the new, if wobbly, playmate. Both have an especially strong interest in the barn cats, and are fun to watch as they explore their world while I'm working in the barn.  




Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Seth Rich's murder -- a demonstration of democracy no more

Just in case anyone out there still harbors any illusions of the United States as a freedom loving democracy, full of liberty and justice for all...

Let's have a look at what happens to someone who challenges the current control structure by revealing their illegal collusion against actual democracy.

The whole "Russia hacked our election!" nonsense is little more than a ruse to divert our attention from the perpetrators who did in fact hack our election.  Anyone who repeats this meme instantly loses any credibility I may have once attributed to them.

How about the opinion of a past president, whom even those who may disagree with his political stance aren't likely to challenge his integrity.

I could go on and on about Manning, Snowden, and a whole host of other less famous people whom our corporate media likes to sweep under the rug.

How do we challenge such a structure? The same structure responsible for bleeding most of the US citizenry dry through various debt scams (healthcare, education, real estate).  The same structure bleeding the citizenry dry through the "Hey look! A TERRORIST!" scams, whereupon they tax us to death in order feed the military industrial complex that they benefit from.  The same structure that is currently destroying our global future in order to suck more wealth from each of us a few years longer.

We join together, conservatives and liberals alike, putting aside our lesser differences to defeat our common foe. Fighting the corporate corruption that's been consuming our government over the last few decades is quite literally a matter of life and death.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Business as Virtue?

The world is filled with people who evaluate any activity as a possible business opportunity. Can it be done at a profit?  If so, how much can be made? Can I invest in it?

We see them on TV, hear them on radio, and are subject to their advertising at every turn. They comprise the majority of our government and corporate management, with our president as a perfect example.

The Amish have a very different view. They view excessive profit as a sin. When dealing with an Amish business, the owner often asks me "Is that too much?" after they hand over the bill, which is invariably modest. Has your hospital or university ever posed that question? Should they?

Our culture's acceptance of a desire to extract wealth from each other is in fact a disease, one born of a society that's increasingly crowded, anonymous, and individually focused. Business is by no means a disease in and of itself, but the view of business purely as a means of extracting wealth from our neighbors is. Not long ago, engaging in business was a means to contribute to the well being of our neighbors, with the generation of wealth as a secondary benefit.

Before the age of industrialization or even before agrarian society, people lived in small groups, typically under 150 people. Look at any indigenous society, and you'll find one where people performed a wide variety of tasks necessary to the group's survival.  Such tribes function essentially as extended family, where everyone wishes to remain part of the tribe (exile from the tribe typically amounted to a death sentence), and thus hopes to do their best in support of their tribe. There was no anonymity to hide behind. Anyone who made it their goal to extract inordinate wealth from their peers simply didn't get to stick around too long. Among the indians of the Pacific Northwest with their potlatch culture, the goal was to give away as much wealth as possible.

Even as societies become agrarian and grow into small villages, this same dynamic remains. Small businesses served only their immediate communities as a matter of practicality, and thus knew their customers personally. I suspect that most felt a sense of duty and connection within their community and acted accordingly. Anyone believed to be gouging their customers or producing an inferior product would soon find their lives made difficult by the other members of the community that they themselves depended upon.

As cities have grown to sizes such as those made possible by today's fossil energy use, the cloak of anonymity has gone from a rarity to the norm, where business owners likely serve customers on the other side of the globe whom they will never meet, and whom they care very little about. Today's businesses have grown to the point where personal integrity and virtue no longer drive their decision making. Most are driven primarily by the desire to extract the maximum amount of wealth from their clientele as possible. (This is in fact a legal requirement for publicly held corporations!) The greater their haul, the more we're encouraged to endorse their feast through investment.

Driving this dynamic even further is the idea that the only way to become truly wealthy, or just to retire, is to invest in such corporations and thus encourage their behavior. Gambling, usury, speculation, and the like were once taboos for good reason, as we're now discovering. Most were at one time illegal as well, because they destroy societies. They're currently destroying our life support systems, which is undoubtedly even worse than merely destroying our societal fabric.

As I see it, the morality, character, and ethical factors driving business decisions are in fact inversely related to the size of the business. Monopolies that now dominate the globe are by enlarge the greatest evils we've ever encountered. They may be the hand that feeds us, but they're by no means our only option.