Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Running the Wrong Way

Bonneyville Mill near Bristol, IN.   Built in the 1830's and still operating
Engineers and inventors the world over are hunting for the holy grail of clean carbon-free energy that will "save the world".  Hardly a week goes by when I don't read about some amazing new technological development which will revolutionize the way we generate energy and allow us to continue our happy motoring habits without guilt.

Everyone assumes that all will be well if we can find a source of carbon free energy.  Never mind that we had carbon free (or neutral) energy for thousands of years, and did just fine with it.   For reasons I can't fathom, it seems as if we're wanting a *new* source of energy that doesn't exist yet (and probably never will).

Or, perhaps we should focus on increasing our efficiency?   What about that 100mpg car?   Installing CFL lightbulbs?   A high efficiency furnace, or a newer, more energy efficient refrigerator?  Never mind that a more efficient device becomes a cheaper device to operate -- thus *increasing* our energy demand.  How many times have you decided that it was okay to leave a light on, justifying the action because it's an efficient cfl instead of an energy sucking incandescent?

I've advocated for many of these solutions myself at one point or another.  I've been wrong on many if not most of them.   The fact of the matter is that we don't need more energy, nor should we strive to meet our current energy wants.   If our goal is to ensure the survival of the human race, we need *less* energy, not more!

Carbon emissions -- and their unfortunate side effects, aren't the only problem excessive energy has brought us.   Like pouring a bag of sugar into a vat of yeast, too much energy is exactly what has enabled the continuing explosion of the human population.   It's enabled our vacuuming of the ocean, leveling of the rainforests, blowing up mountains for coal, plowing of the prairies, and thousands of other activities which threaten the life support systems we rely upon.  What happens to an overextended yeast population once all the sugar is used up?

Instead of exploring new ways to render large portions of the globe uninhabitable with nuclear energy, perhaps we should focus on resetting our expectations.   Maybe the scope of our travels should return to historical norms.   Instead of worrying about the efficiency of our lights or air conditioners, we should worry about the fact that we "need" them at all.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

A deal which sounds too good to be true...

You've seen it before, if you follow the news.   Under the guise of "helping" them, president Clinton negotiated trade policies with Haiti which flooded their country with cheap subsidized rice from the US, for which he later apologized as if he had been innocent to the end result of such a deal.   While I'm sure there was some initial relief at the influx of food, the Hatian farmers were unable to compete, and are now out of business.   They're slowly losing the expertise to provide for themselves while they have developed a dependence upon our highly efficient (and thus vulnerable) and industrialized agriculture.

We've done the same thing with Mexico, using NAFTA to flood their markets with cheap subsidized corn, thus destroying their farmers.  Many of them had little choice but to starve or emigrate to the US as illegal aliens. The longer their farmers remain out of business, the more expertise they lose.

This same pattern has repeated itself throughout the world.   At the behest of the large corporations which own it, our government pushes our products into foreign markets, destroying their agriculture and engendering a dependence upon us while destroying their local expertise.  When the foreign country rejects our products as France did, we look for ways to punish them.

The problem isn't limited to people in foreign lands though.   You and I are just like the Haitians.  Every time we opt for the cheap industrial alternative (whether food, clothing, energy, or transportation), we lose the local expertise we once had in providing these goods and services for ourselves.  The gains in efficiency always come at a cost in resilience, lost knowledge, and greater dependency.

A great example of this is the field corn we grow on our farm.   Last year we produced perhaps 25 bushels on our half-acre field.  It took several days to spread manure, plow, disc, harrow, plant, cultivate, and harvest this crop.   At $12 per bushel (organic prices), the end value of our efforts is worth about $300.   If I figure an optimistically low 40 hours of labor involved, and subtract costs, we earned perhaps $5/hr.

A rational person would quickly realize this poor return on investment, and instead shell out the cash for organic, open pollinated corn (if they could find it). That person would be the little piggy who saved on the house of straw just as the wolf is starting to huff and puff..  Why?   Because they're still completely reliant upon a food system that is fully dependent upon fossil fuels -- which are, as I write this, becoming decreasingly viable to extract (not to mention their climate-altering side effects).   If the time comes when the complex industrial food system collapses, they will not have the expertise required to feed themselves or their families.   What do you think that knowledge is worth?

China has done something similar to us as a country.   Our manufacturing sector has been giddy with the prospect of utilizing their cheap labor in lieu of our own.  All they ask for in return is our expertise.   As we become increasingly reliant upon their manufacturing, our knowledge begins to disappear, and we become completely dependent upon them.  Should we rejoice at the cheap consumer goods that enable us to save money (or just buy more stuff), or should we be concerned about our new dependency?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Finding Time

We didn't get around to shearing our ewes before lambing season this year, but the lambs don't seem to mind too much.

Our non-winter has been an odd one -- hopefully not a harbinger of winters to come.  We've been waiting for the right moment to tap our maple trees, when the daytime highs first climb above freezing -- usually in late February.   This year, however, we haven't had a solid week where they remained below freezing, much less a few months of this weather.   We finally put our taps in this morning, and they are all flowing well.   Looks like we could've tapped them about a week ago had we been prepared for it.

I've always had an interest in woodworking, and did a lot of carving while I was growing up, first making toys for friends and myself (swords are very popular with eight year old boys) and then carving figures as Christmas presents for my grandparents.  I've never owned the larger and more expensive power tools for more serious woodworking though, and don't see a whole lot of reason to purchase them now anyway.

Traditional woodworking, however (sans power tools) appeals to me immensely.   A friend of mine is quite knowledgeable about it, and my father suggested that I watch "The Woodright's Shop" on PBS.  I didn't imagine it was the same show I remember seeing a few times while I was growing up, but it is.   It's been running for 30 years now -- a very impressive run!   After dinner we've been picking out a few episodes here and there which I've really enjoyed.

We picked up a pile of black walnut for a song at an auction last spring, which has been tantalizing me ever since.   Made thus far is a milking stool.  Next?   Maybe a medicine cabinet, or....?   Now if only I could find the time to actually complete one of these projects...

As an aspiring blacksmith, I've come to the realization that I can make many of the simple woodworking tools which I don't already have.   I've made a "hook knife" used in spoon carving, as well as a large froe for riving (splitting) planks, allowing me to make smaller lumber without a sawmill.   I'll probably attempt a bowl-adze here sometime soon, but am not sure my skills are up to snuff just yet.

Doing things "the hard way" has a number of benefits, whether learning new skills, avoiding the use of fossil fuels, or gaining a bit of pride and self sufficiency.  Sometimes I think I'm piling a little too much on myself, and other times (such as after watching this video) I'm disgusted that I'm not doing it enough.  So in that vein of thought, I came up with the idea to cut some lumber (white oaks purchased from a landowner across the street from us) which I'm planning to load and haul with our horses to a friend's mill, a little over a mile away.

I know the theory behind loading logs on to a wagon using horses.  This weekend I'll get to see how well I can make it work.   I'm still using a chainsaw (thank you Alberta Tar Sands!), and the mill uses gas as well, but there will be no fossil fuel use beyond that.  No skidders, logging trucks, or kilns.  I'd *really* like to take the logs to a water powered mill, but the two former sites near our farm have been long since abandoned.   Maybe someday I'll get to help rebuild them.

Divesting yourself of the suicidal tendencies inherent in our industrial society isn't easy.   I'm not even sure it's possible with all the bridges we've burned and the knowledge we've lost, but I am certain that it's important to try.   I, for one, would like to see my son have a chance of living on an intact planet.   If we all continue with business as usual, that's not going to happen.

Time is one of the most important -- and scarce -- factors in doing things the right way.   Riding your bike vs. taking the car.   Growing and preparing a meal using your own fuel rather than going to a restaurant or grocery store.   Teaching your kids vs. dumping them at a daycare or school.   Time is of primary importance.

For most families, both parents hold jobs outside the home, often both full-time.   As a result of time constraints we don't even have the option of doing things the right way.   I'm beginning to think that this is a package deal;  doing things the right way may very well require removing yourself from the security of full time jobs, and in many cases taking an effective vow of poverty.   Is it better to remain part of the machine that will kill you and everyone you love, but provide for your immediate comfort and convenience?