Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Jevon's Paradox also works in reverse

Though always plagued by negative publicity after they collapse, Ponzi schemes work out quite well for the early participants. If you can get in (and out!) early enough, you're set.

My grandparents generation was likely the first in all of human history to experience retirement on a large scale. My parent's generation looks to be alright for the moment, though their whole story has not yet been written.

My generation, and those that follow, not only lack this opportunity, but will be paying for the collapsing scheme in terms of a failing planet. Though most have not yet consciously embraced this fact, I think we've all sensed it at some level.  Witness three recent movies to hit the box office -- Interstellar, Snowpiercer, and Mockingjay. Contrast those with the movies we used to explore our future as I was growing up, like 2001, or Star Wars.

Jevon's Paradox, for those unfamiliar with the concept, essentially states that energy use actually *increases* as efficiency improves. Jevon noted this effect with the early steam engines of his day. Increased efficiency lowers the cost of operation, thereby increasing demand.

Living as we do in the techno-utopia of the 21st century USA (cough, cough), we're constantly bombarded by stories of increasing efficiency, whether it's cars, electronics, or streamlined manufacturing. It's enough to make us think that the rise of efficiency is a one-way street, but we'd be wrong.

As Gail Tverberg notes on her excellent blog, a number of sectors in the global economy are suffering from significant *decreases* in efficiency. Of greatest note is the energy sector, where almost all recently utilized reserves have a much lower EROEI than those of the 20th century, whether that's fracked gas and oil, tar sands, ultra-deepwater oil, or mountaintop removal for coal extraction.

As efficiency decreases, prices rise, which can lead to demand collapse. She believes this is what's currently happening in the oil sector. Other critical sectors of the economy are in similar straits, whether that's healthcare, mining, education, or fresh water supply.

When these sectors of the economy -- and the other sectors which rely upon them -- were doing well, investing in public corporations made some sense, at least among the majority who are willing to ignore the clinically psychopathic behavior that characterizes most large public corporations. As Upton Sinclair once noted, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it."   Just replace the word "salary" with "retirement".

When efficiency in critical economic sectors is on the decline, the whole industrial economy has the brakes applied, calling for extreme (if temporary) measures such as quantitative easing. These band-aids can't really solve the problem, but only delay the inevitable. The denial they help foster ultimately makes the problems worse.

When investment no longer makes sense, retirement moves from the realm of possibility back to its traditional home in the world of fantasy. The sooner people realize that fact, the better prepared they'll be, and the less they'll lose to failing investments.

The Snowden Story

If he is in fact a real person whose story has been accurately portrayed, I think Edward Snowden is to be commended, at least for the intent of his warning if not its ultimate effect. However, I'm by no means convinced that either assumption is accurate.

The amount of media coverage on Snowden and the NSA's spying revelations was sky-high. In our corporately coordinated media, that means his story conveyed an important message that was meant to be told. Yes, much of the coverage was to demonize him and call him a traitor, but that's just a vehicle for delivering the core message. Regardless of whether you consider him a traitor or a patriot, you've received the message.

That message -- that all US citizens are being spied upon and monitored by "our" government -- is important to someone. It's important to people who benefit from the current power structure in this country, and want to preserve it for their own benefit.

Such a message is important for maintaining the sense of isolation among any would-be revolutionaries. If you can convince them they're being spied upon, communications cease -- even if you're not actually monitoring them at all. Without communication, nobody realizes how many other people share their views, making the momentum necessary for a revolution impossible to build.

Why do you tell someone that they're being spied upon, instead of simply spying upon them in secret? You do so to stifle the communication between any groups that would challenge the current power structure. It's a form of intimidation.  I'm inclined to think that the NSA's actual ability to successfully sort through the billions of daily communications they supposedly monitor is much more limited than we've been lead to believe.

Recent revelations of government torture -- which also received widespread media coverage --  have nothing to do with intelligence gathering, though the argument is always framed as such. People being tortured will say anything (usually inaccurate) to stop the torture, as John McCain once noted from his experience.  Advertising your willingness to torture people is simply another form of intimidation -- in this case the intimidation is again directed at US citizens.

Combined with other messages of government torture, extraordinary rendition, or the treatment of whistle blowers, few people would be willing to risk being caught, and thus will never speak their mind. People that don't speak their mind never become revolutionaries. It's the same model that was successfully deployed in the former East Germany, where I visited relatives back in 1985.

Why would the US government (calling it "our" government no longer works for me) have a sudden interest in suppressing any subversive or revolutionary communications? Nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty any more than we can predict the exact weather details for a year in advance of any given day. However, it is quite possible to predict general trends with respectable accuracy, with weather or with human populations.  Governments pay attention to these forecasts the way farmers scrutinize weather forecasts.

I once worked with a programmer who had been involved in such modelling for various governments around the world. His company was in high demand, as they took all the data they could gather (resource trends, population dynamics, agricultural output, etc), plugged it into their modeling software, and used it to identify various trends and risks. He was doing this in the late 1970's for Iran, among other countries.

I'd be willing to bet that such modeling has grown dramatically more sophisticated since then. Similar modeling predicted many of the "Arab Spring" revolutions. Based on my understanding of energy resource availability, I'd be willing to bet that it shows some significant upheaval coming to the US in the near future as well.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Land of the Lemmings

In 1993, I took a summer job as a park ranger for the city of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. My days consisted of touring the many small parks, checking restrooms for vandalism, and suggesting that park patrons keep their vicious labs and retrievers on leash, lest someone be injured by their opportunistic licking and dangerously wagging tails.

The parks department provided me with a bright orange Chevy S-10 sporting a leaky head-gasket and AM radio, which made Rush Limbaugh my best choice among limited listening options. Though not generally inclined towards Rush's view of the world, I often found myself agreeing with him despite his pompous radio persona. Relating this fact to a girlfriend a few years later, I thought she might find it amusing. It made her cry instead.

In the years that followed, my horizons broadened, and the internet came into its own as a media source. I found plenty of fault in the opinions I'd been sold by Mr. Limbaugh. Though I frequently have reason to doubt this assessment, I like to think of myself as relatively bright and open minded. It was quite clear, however, that I'd fallen for propaganda just like the lemming-folk I enjoy making fun of.

Whenever we hear a story repeated over and over with little refutation, there's a good chance we'll believe it. We're herd animals at heart, and neither logic nor reason are required to convince us of anything. Tell us that our peers already believe something, and we'll likely accept it without question. That's why Fox News loves the term "some people say..." so much.

With families typically uprooting themselves once every 5 years, and with both parents now working where one job once sufficed, we have ever less time for real social interaction. Television increasingly fills the void, with the average American now staring at the TV for 4.5 hours a day. TV tells us what our peers think, and thus shapes our worldview. It's far more effective than any of us would like to believe.

Though it can only be attributed to pure coincidence, during this period of growth in TV time, Americans have become increasingly convinced that 1) We need to buy all the cool stuff that everyone else already owns, and 2) Nothing which has the potential to impact next quarter's corporate earnings reports is worthy of our concern. Waning public concern for our life support systems (a.k.a. "the environment") comes to mind.

The end result of these two highly effective messages has been mad race to catch up to our television peers, going into crushing levels of debt to do so. The second message has cleared the way for the destruction of our country and planet, as we cheer the horde of frackers turning us into "Saudi America" while permanently poisoning our groundwater and atmosphere in ways that were illegal a few short years ago. Drill baby, drill.

Long viewed as the best way to "get something for free", advertising is the culprit here. That free television and radio programming costs us plenty, or it would never be worth it for the advertisers to spend their money in the first place. It's a rare occasion that any media outlet is willing to risk bankruptcy by offending an advertiser. That fact alone is what makes our dominant media untrustworthy, and it's why they've led us astray.  You'll even see some ads that aren't really about selling *anything*, but rather have been created simply to foster a compliant media.

The web is filled with bloggers who work for nothing. In most cases, they're simply parroting things they've heard elsewhere (not that I have ever been guilty of such an offense...), but there are many original sources. Most do not suffer from the censuring influence nor financial gains of advertising.

Though many have come to doubt Google's "don't be evil" motto with good reason (like cooperating with the NSA and Chinese censors), Google has done something wonderful, particularly if their model spreads. Google ads, because they are assigned by computers, sever the relationship between advertiser and media outlet. This simple fact allows media sources to receive funding and not have to censor their work for fear of losing their funding. While this offers no guarantee of integrity, it certainly removes one of the greatest impediments to it.

Books, because they've long been supported by readers rather than advertisers, can be a great source of untainted information, at least for those whose attention span hasn't slipped below the 60 second threshold (felt the urge to check your smartphone lately?).

Can your TV, and you'll find that your view of the world changes. You'll actually have the time to read books (4.5 hours a day on average!), or perhaps even have the time to reclaim some of the important and rewarding skills that will again be quite important in the years to come.  It's almost like getting out of a prison when you didn't even realize you'd been locked up.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our rightful place in the world

Anyone who's visited our farm and knows a bit about my philosophy is likely to assume that I think the answer to our ills is for everyone to assume an 18th century farming lifestyle.  That's not really the case.  I'm much worse than that!

The answer to our ills, in my rarely humble opinion, is to return to our rightful role in the biosphere -- the same one we've been in for 99.9% of our existence, and the only role which is truly sustainable over the long term.  I'm thinking of the ecological niche such as that which the Native Americans thrived in for 10,000 years.  They -- as well as my own European ancestors if we travel back in time a few thousand years -- lived within their means, utilizing only the energy that was directly available from the sun.

Everything about us says that this is how we should be living. The further we venture from this historical niche, the worse our physical and mental health becomes. 20% of the US is on anti-psychotic medications, with the CDC saying that mental health is trending to become the leading root cause of death by 2020.  10% of the population currently has diabetes, and my son's generation is expected to develop it at the rate of 1 in 3.  A third of us are already obese.  Cancer rates are at 50% in the US, and it's now the leading cause of death in China.   Do you think we have a problem?  These are not diseases we can "fix" with modern medicine.  Don't get me started on the asinine "Race for the Cure".

Examinations of pre-industrial societies (and pre-agricultural in particular) suggest that each of these diseases were all but unheard of.   Over at The Hipcrime Vocab you can read a much better analysis than I can create, where the author did a 5 part series on "The Longevity Deception".   His suggestion that hunter gatherers lived longer than we did (even if our life in calendar years is greater), is an eye opener for anyone who has subscribed to Thomas Hobbe's widely accepted take on pre-industrial life.

As it is now, we've burned a lot of bridges.  The conventional wisdom of the 20th century said we'd never need them again.  That's why you'll see cars in my driveway, and why I'm not living in a bark hut and wearing buckskin as most of my ancestors likely did.  It'll take us a while to get back to this ideal, but it's the only road that leads to a future.

Whistling past the gas station

Visiting the gas station to fill up my car these days, I'm smiling just a little more than most at the wonderfully low prices.

Ever since I first learned of it in elementary school, I've long clung to the idea that humanity as a whole would eventually recognize the threat that climate change poses, and take some corrective actions. Back then, I was somewhat comforted by the predictions that we wouldn't see big changes until near the end of my expected lifetime, but it's apparent now that we can chalk that up to science's inherent conservatism.

Though we might like to think otherwise, there is no captain standing on the bridge of the SS Humanity. Like most systems on the planet, our course is determined at the individual level, with political leadership serving primarily as a figurehead.

Look anywhere on the planet, and you'll see individuals with very real needs (perceived or otherwise), nearly all of which are most easily met with the application of fossil fuels.  Whether it's food, heat, a trip to Disneyland or a an emergency trip to the hospital, fossil fuels make it possible.  That's how I know that we'll never allow any notions of virtue (such as keeping the planet habitable by reducing our CO2 emissions) get in the way.

We've already dumped enough carbon into the atmosphere to guarantee that the next several centuries will take human survivors on the wildest roller coaster ride imaginable. It's quite likely that nobody will survive it, but there is some hope on the horizon, known as the Triangle of Doom.  Steve Ludlum's "Economic Undertow" blog gives the details.  We could argue about the positioning of his lines, and timeframe when they intersect, but I think his overall take is absolutely correct.

If we're to take his interpretation of the situation at face value, it all starts to hit the fan around 2016. He's actually not alone in this prediction. The Pentagon and the German Bundeswehr came to similar conclusions. Though nobody can see this as a good thing, it certainly beats the current course for self annihilation we're on.

The short of it is that the fossil fuel lifeblood of a globalized economy is gyrating wildly in price, creating an economic wrecking ball.  Swinging to the high side, various fuel intensive industries (i.e. just about *everything* nowadays) take a hit. Swinging to the low side, the all-important fossil fuel industry takes it in the shorts (as is now the case).  A few more swings, and damaged industries on both the supply and demand side start falling by the wayside, leading to an accelerated de-industrialization.

So the next time you see the price of oil (or gas, or your electric bill, or...) head for the stratosphere, or drop through the floor, you can take comfort in the idea that it may be our kid's best hope for a future.

Crazy on the outside, fearful on the inside.

A little while back, I read an account of a government official who was tasked with warning people who lived downstream of a dam in danger of imminent collapse. In what might come as a surprise to most, the people who lived furthest from the dam were the most receptive to his warning. Those living immediately below the dam -- with the least ability to reach safe ground in time -- generally dismissed him.

I think I see a nearly identical dynamic developing here in the US these days. A decade or two ago, it wasn't uncommon to hear conservative politicians in the US speak of climate change as a real problem which must be addressed. Nowadays, as the future we've wrought is starting to reveal itself, their story has changed. I've seen everything from "What climate change?", to "It's a natural process", to "It's a good thing!".

I suspect the politicians espousing such explanations are heavily influenced by campaign bribes -- whoops! -- I mean donors with a vested interest in killing us all as a matter of personal gain (Koch brothers, anyone?). That, however, doesn't explain the fact that a large portion of their constituency have eagerly fallen hook-line-and-sinker for such shifting explanations.

A lot of us look at these people and wonder if the newly discovered "stupid virus" is taking an increasing toll on our populace. At the 44% infection rate found by the researchers who discovered it, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Could it simply be the end result of the demise of science education in public schools?  Mercury contamination of the food supply?

I'd like to suggest yet another theory, that the conservative "climate deniers" are spot on in their take of the situation, if not their lack of suggested solutions.

Those on the more liberal end of the spectrum are full of fairy-tale unicorn and rainbow visions of a green economy where we all charge our plug-in electric cars with wind and solar energy (all of which is manufactured using... fossil fuels, cough, cough!).   We wonder why the knuckle dragging GOP can't figure it out, but the fact of the matter is that their understanding of the situation is likely one step ahead of us.

This short article in Scientific American offers some key insight.  As the article explains, conservatives are motivated by fear far more than their liberal counterparts, who relish the novelty of living in new ways ("I'll just recycle and eat local!")  that they hope will solve our problems.

Like the people living in the shadow of the collapsing dam, conservatives know full well that that ignoring a seemingly insurmountable threat may very well be the best way to deal with it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


I see this handsome fellow staring at me quite often these days, and it tells me something.  I'm inclined to suspect that the US oil industry (fracking companies in particular) may be in trouble.   Any time someone advertises for investors, it's pretty clear they don't think they've got a good investment, or they'd be investing in it themselves.   This type of ad just started appearing within the last year or so, at a time when energy companies are starting to lose their shirts, as explained by the EIA chart below. Coincidence?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bake bread to stay clean, walk further, and get more cheese!

To most anyone living in the US today, I'm sure my title seems about as nonsensical as they come.  I can assure you, however, that these activities are all closely linked and dependent upon each other. I suspect that the people who built our house (circa 1870) could have easily recognized the links.

In today's consumer driven world, all we need to know anymore is how to earn money.  To our detriment, we've forgotten most everything else over the course of the last few generations as industrialization took hold. Anything bad resulting from our consumer purchases is hidden from view. So long as the money keeps flowing, all is well. Well... at least all appears well so long as you're not a "pessimist" who dares to peek behind the curtain too often.  We'd all be much happier if nobody looked back there anyway, right?

Baking bread?  But wait a minute you say...  David goes to the ER so they can unplug his swollen esophagus with an endoscope when he eats bread!  (yes, I have developed a very unfortunate allergic reaction to wheat).   As it turns out, Rachel's new spelt-flour sourdough causes no problems for me.  I'm not sure whether the difference is in the avoidance of our adulterated modern wheat or the fermentation involved in making sourdough, but I can eat it with no ill effects. Sourdough fermentation is another example of traditional methods having long forgotten benefits.

The all important ash drawer!
To be truthful though, it's not really bread that you have to bake to stay clean or walk further.  You could cook a roast, or fry scrambled eggs, or heat up some water for your daily dose of addictive drugs coffee.  All that matters is that you do your cooking (or heating) with wood, which produces ash.  But wood is so dirty and inconvenient, right? Perhaps, but it's much better than the alternative, or its side effects.

Tallow soap curing
Stay Clean!

So how does wood ash help you to stay clean? Aside from industrially produced methods, soaking it in water is the best way to make lye, which when combined with tallow or other fats makes soap. Not just for yourself, but for laundry or dishes as well.  As an added benefit, you'll realize that you no longer have to donate so much plastic to your local landfill when you make your own soap, or grow your own food.

Walk further!

The lye made by dissolving wood ash isn't just good for soap though. If you want to walk somewhere, you'll need shoes, and if you're going to have shoes, you need leather. Wood ash lye is also the best way to dehair hides for turning them into leather. You needed to butcher a cow for the tallow to make the soap anyway (or maybe even for hamburgers?), so you already had a hide to tan for leather .

Our stash of black-oak bark
Once you've soaked your hide in wood-ash solution for a few days until the hair falls out, you've got rawhide.  It's useful stuff -- you can boil it down to make glue, or form it into lightweight storage boxes as many of the native Americans did.   It's a lot like plastic, but without the ocean destroying side effects.

Partially tanned cowhide in oak bark tanning solution
But... perhaps you'd like your hide fully tanned into leather, so you can make shoes, belts, or harnesses for your horses (or yourself, now that Sears is no longer carrying those). As it turns out, baking your bread helps there as well.   If you're burning oak in your stove,  you have everything you need.  Strip the bark off an oak tree in the spring, and it'll come off in big sheets. Grind it up by smashing the bark with a hammer (this part makes me long for a good fossil-fueled cheater method, like using a wood chipper), soak it in a barrel full of water, and voila! You have leather tanning solution.  Soak your dehaired hides in this for a few months and you have leather. No chromium sulfate or other nasty tanning chemicals are necessary, thus negating the need to have other countries do your leather tanning and absorb the environmental costs of doing it the "modern way".

Eat more cheese!

Rachel's delicious smoked Gouda
Wood ash is the the original potash used on farms for supplying potassium (Nitrogen, Phosporous and Potassium -- often referred to as NPK -- are the most commonly lacking nutrients in agricultural soils). Potash is an important ammendment for growing alfalfa, which happens to be the most important hay crop for dairy cattle, from which you can make your cheese!

I think it's incredibly cool the way the real world is so interconnected.  Our ancestors figured out a lot of interesting stuff, and as the fossil fueled world starts to wane, we'll all do well to learn more of it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

If you knew...

If you knew that the future of the planet and the lives of billions of people and untold creatures depended upon your actions, how would you live your life?  What would you do or perhaps not do?

The fact of the matter is that the future of the world does depend upon each of our actions.   The way we eat, work, play, and raise our families is critical for all generations to follow.  As it is now, we're failing.  

The warming arctic ocean is releasing massive new quantities of methane (a "super" greenhouse gas) as clathrates on the seabed begin to melt.

Sailors transiting the Pacific now say that "The Ocean is Broken", as the abundance of marine life of only 10 years ago has all but disappeared.  

Our life support systems are failing.  If we love life, and want others to have the same chance, it's time to take responsibility and reshuffle our priorities.  Change is no longer optional.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nuclear Nuttiness

Though I'm not sure he's fully learned the lesson yet, my 9 year old son Henry is certainly in the process of learning one of life's most important lessons:  Don't make a mess if you don't want to clean it up.

Unfortunately for all of us, a number of engineers and physicists over the last several decades never learned that lesson, and the mess they've created may well prove to be worst mess anyone will have to deal with.

Since its inception, nuclear power plants worldwide have operated on a "we'll figure it out later" principle when it comes to the nightmarish mess they've created with regards to waste disposal.  It should be quite clear to anyone who dares to look at the issue, that later is really never.  Aside from a new underground storage facility being constructed in Finland, I don't believe any country has successfully dealt with their waste problem.  This stuff remains dangerous for longer than human civilization has existed.

Post Fukushima, Germans decided once and for all to stop making the mess worse, and will have their plants shut down within the decade.  That's smart -- or perhaps just a sign of a functional democracy of the type that no longer exists in this country.

Being ahead of the curve as they are, the Germans are discovering that this is no small task. The costs are in the upper stratosphere, tens of billions of euros at the very least.  They do not plan to have their plants fully decommissioned until 2080, likely in an effort to stem the economic bleeding it will cause.

Incidentally, the IEA (optimistic as they've proven themselves to be) claims we have 50 years of recoverable global oil reserves. Apparently Germany plans to run the heavy equipment required for this decommissioning on fairy dust, at a time when their fuel starved industrial economy will (at the very best) be making its last whimpers.

The worst part of it is that Germany is still leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world, whose 400+ reactors will most likely become Fukushima re-enactors as the world's industrial economies slowly blink out and take the electrical grid (which the reactors need for cooling) with them.

We've already proven to the world that we cannot handle nuclear power when things go badly, even when we're at the height of our industrial capability.   How will we fare as our economic and physical capabilities are now waning?


Our mainstream (i.e. corporately financed) media seems to be awash in propaganda these days.

This wonderful little clip on the New York Times talks about carbon capture and sequestration -- a technology -- just like "clean coal" -- which really doesn't exist on anything beyond an experimental scale for very good reasons, primarily because 1) It's enormously expensive from an energy consumption perspective (and thus from an economic perspective), 2) It's only feasible where underground rocks, wells, or mines allow the injection of CO2, and 3)  If we were to use about 25% more fuel to try and do this, it's likely to leak back out of the ground and render our efforts useless.

I don't need to link to any article about how evil Putin and his fellow Russians are these days. Flip on any TV news station or just listen to "impartial" NPR, or anyone featuring President Obama's recent speech and you'll hear the same thing. Dmitry Orlov has a somewhat different (and likely more fact based) perspective that's worth a read. Never mind the undisputed fact that the US has been jockeying for control of Ukraine and its oil fields for quite some time, as evidenced by the intercepted phone call of Victoria Nuland, or the IMF loan requirement that Ukraine's new (US supported) government regain control of Crimea and it's energy resources.

Another wonderful example of propaganda is that of my US Representative, Fred Upton. Though once reputed to be quite moderate and reasonable, he appears to have more recently seen the light. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that light shines down from corporate interests in serious conflict with the continuation of life on our planet. His latest writeup on energy policy would suggest that he (or his campaign donors, rather) feels the need to open up any environmental regulations to create an "Architecture of Abundance" with regards to US energy sources. I suspect more Americans would already be familiar with this sort of "architecture" if those of us who were already intimately familiar with it weren't subject to gag orders as a result of gas-drilling company settlements like this one, or the one imposed on Pennsylvania doctors who find themselves treating those who know more about Fred's Architecture of Abundance than they ever wanted to.

Orlov once noted that the difference between Americans and Russians is that Russian propaganda was so bad that everybody knew it was propaganda, whereas American propaganda is good enough that most of the US population falls for it.  As always, if you need to know whose views any media source represents, just look at the advertising.  I'm inclined to think that our mainstream media is really more of a "money-stream media".

Summer thoughts

I can imagine one of my pre-civil war ancestors from North Carolina, raving about the wonders of human slave labor on their farm.  Their fine home, their well maintained fields and outbuildings, or perhaps the extra cash from their slaves' labor allowing a little extra finery in their store bought clothing.

I hear similar claims of awe nowadays from people praising the wonders of modern technology. From my own perspective, these claims also ring hollow, because I've had difficulty ignoring their ultimate costs. I'm not claiming any sort of abstinence from their use (I'm typing this on a Chinese built laptop, afterall), but I do make significant efforts to avoid it, certainly when the benefits are minimal.

So exactly what are the costs?  I'm not sure people know what I'm talking about, as most people I know have done an excellent job of ignoring them.

First, let's look at modern day slavery.   Own an Apple or HP product?   Guess who made it?   Still love it? Slavery doesn't have to be of the whips & chains variety to be slavery.   Modern day slavery maintains all of the benefits of human exploitation without the outward appearances of impropriety.

Not only are we exploiting these people directly, when we buy Chinese (or from India, or a dozen other countries with similar regulations), but we're trashing their environment. US companies don't love China just for the cheap labor, they love it for the complete lack of environmental regulations. Many Chinese with the cash (extracted no doubt through the exploitation of their countrymen) are now leaving the country, often opting for places like Vancouver or London. Their own country is trashed.   Eight year old girls get lung cancer there.  Much of their farmland is permanently contaminated, and the majority of their groundwater is no longer fit to drink. Yes, the Chinese economic miracle is a miracle alright. A society which flourished for millenia has trashed their country (and our planet) for millenia to come, and all this has been accomplished in a mere couple decades.

These costs aren't just born by the Chinese, of course. They were (and perhaps still are?) building new coal fired power plants to fuel their industrial revolution at the rate of one per week. That carbon is having some far reaching effects.

First of all, we all know the climate is changing.   Despite the seeming lull as a destabilized and mortally wounded Arctic bled cold air over the eastern US last winter, we're continually posting record global temperatures. We've just logged the hottest-ever May and June.

The carbon we're dumping into the atmosphere is mixing with our oceans, creating newly acidified environments which are already dissolving calcium shells. Oyster farms in Oregon and BC are seeing production fail as the pH of their seawater drops. While some farms have the ability to deal with this problem, we can be certain that wild stocks cannot.

With phytoplankton levels down 40% globally, this is not an isolated phenomenon. Like a child whacking a land-mine with a hammer, we're tinkering with the very base of the marine food chain, all so we can text our friends while speeding along the freeway in our Prius (or Escalade, as is quite popular here in Michigan) on our way to the air-conditioned office, or perhaps for something more important, like taking the kids to soccer practice. Then again, maybe our cars are more important than whales. Or fish. Or oxygen  (the oceans supply most of the oxygen we breathe).

Ditching the car is not an easy task. I understand, and I haven't yet done it myself. Participating in industrial society isn't just a matter of fun, but a matter of survival for most anyone with the means to read this blog. But with that said, there are some changes which are relatively harmless (such as avoiding vacations to far off destinations), and which would have huge benefits. Will we make them?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The tragedy of the commons that never was

Often used as a tool to explain the downfalls of communism (or socialism, or just about any system that Goldman Sachs executives feel threatened by), most of us have come across the story of the "Tragedy of the Commons" at one time or another.

As the story goes, the commons were a communal grazing land.   Say there are 10 villagers who graze their sheep on the commons.  Villager Joe (an early ancestor of Joe Six-Pack) comes to the crafty realization that he can make more money by grazing more sheep on the commons.  After sighting Joe cruising around the village in his shiny new Escalade, his fellow villagers quickly follow suit.  Before long, the commons are overgrazed to the point where they won't support any sheep at all.  Starvation and mayhem ensue.   Better to have left that commons in the caring hands of a private corporation, as it turns out.   Thank goodness we've dodged THAT bullet here in the good 'ol capitalist USA!

Told as it is to modern day Americans, this story seems quite logical and believable.  That's because modern day Americans have lost two important bits of knowledge that would've been common sense to Joe and his fellow villagers.

The first bit of knowledge is what it means to be part of a community.

The fact of the matter is that in a typical community where grazing of the commons was practiced (this was and is still quite common in many parts of the world), there was a real community.  People not only knew each other, they actually depended upon each other.  Nobody was anonymous.

If it became known that you were taking more than your fair share of the commons, you would likely discover that your neighbor was no longer interested in helping you put up your hay, or that the village shoemaker might have trouble fitting you into his schedule.   In a village where these people are your only options, that's a serious problem.   You don't have the option to just drive to the Wal-Mart in the next town.  Keeping your village relations in good standing wasn't just a matter of pride, but a matter of survival.

The second (though somewhat less important) bit of knowledge that most Americans lack is that of human labor capacity.  In our fleeting era of fossil fueled extravagance, the sky (or your cash reserve) is the limit to what one person might accomplish.   In the era of human powered everything that dominates the story of our existence, limits to human activity are much more pronounced.   The fact of the matter is that Villager Joe couldn't have cut any more hay (using a scythe and rake) to feed his sheep through the winter than anybody else could, thus ensuring that any thoughts on increasing his grazing herd would be fleeting at best.

So does this mean that I think socialism trumps capitalism?   The answer is yes.  But it's also no.  I think that most all societies, before the advent of the industrial era, functioned on a far more socialized basis, and functioned well, for hundreds or thousands of years.

With the advent of industrialization came the anonymity of life in large cities, easy transportation over long distances, and the collapse of real community.  Under these conditions, socialism fails spectacularly, but then again so does capitalism (checked the health of our planetary life support systems lately?).

The answer, as always, is de-industrialization.  The declining state of our fossil energy reserves ensure we're already headed in that direction, whether we like it or not.  If we arrive in denial, kicking and screaming, we're not likely to survive the landing.  If we acknowledge this and make preparations for a softer landing, we might survive the century.   Many are already convinced (and rightfully so, imho) that humans will be extinct by our own hands within a few decades.

The transition to a de-industrialized economy isn't made through some grand declaration by political leaders, or some "born again" event on the individual level.   It's made by each one of us a hundred times a day, in how we choose to spend our time and money.   How will you spend yours?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Mutton Mowers

I've long felt that the use of gasoline for the mowing of lawns will one day be widely seen as one of the most shameful ways to squander our limited energy sources, our atmosphere's capacity for carbon, and thus the lives of our children.

For most of my life, my family had a nearly 1 acre lawn which I despised mowing (though my disdain lessened somewhat with the arrival of a riding lawnmower), and for which I developed numerous creative ideas for avoiding.   My father didn't approve any of the ideas though, so mow it we did.

So it was that the purchase of our farm and the accompanying lawn came with a challenge.   Do we mow it like everybody else and thus fall into this same trap?   Do we mow it with our 14" wide antique push reel mower that can't handle any grass over 5 inches, or spend hours to mow it with scythes?   Let it go "natural" and make someone think our house has been abandoned?  Or, should I just let it go a month or two and then brush hog it with the tractor?  (which I'd already tried)

As it turns out, we had a better solution in hand -- mow it with sheep! (which, btw, is how the original lawns were maintained centuries ago, before they became a status symbol)   It just took a little time to implement.   Last summer, we fenced in the front of the yard.  We wanted it to look presentable yet still hold livestock, so went with a split rail fence supplemented with hi-tensile wire between the rails.  It's old growth cedar from British Columbia, stocked by the local Menard's Hardware.   Not the best solution, but the one that worked best with our limited time.  We do have enough sassafras that we could've made a similar fence from our own trees, but I wasn't able to spare the time for it.

This left our driveway as the remaining escape route to be filled, so we needed a gate.   Having admired a "Sussex farm gate" made on the Woodwright's Shop on PBS, and having some white oak on hand from trees we logged a couple years ago, I set to work over the winter.   The entire gate was made exclusively with hand tools, with all joints using mortise & tenon construction (side gate excepted).  Yes, it's slower, and yes, it's much more enjoyable and satisfying than working with power tools.  It's also a good idea to work on such skills before they become the only option, as the energy sources for our electric grid start to wane.  (Ha ha!  Just joking -- that will never actually happen.  Ever)

So with the gate completed, we just needed some appropriate hinges.   I thought this would be a great application for my burgeoning blacksmithing skills, but we found a pair of perfectly sized strap hinges at an antique shop for a good price, and those were put to use.  My smithing was needed only for the pintle hangers.

With the gate up, it also seemed like a good idea to put up the farm sign I'd long planned on, in case anyone looking for our farm expected to see a sign proclaiming its presence.

Everything made it into place before the grass started to get too long this year, so we set the sheep to work before any mower touched the lawn.  What's it like?

Well, just as you might imagine, it's pretty cool not to have to mow your lawn.  It's also neat to add an acre to our "pasture", as our flock of sheep has grown to nineteen or thereabouts with this year's lambs.  I'm still getting used to the mysterious "nom, nom, nom, grunt!" sounds that come in through our open windows in the wee hours of the morning though, along with the occasional "baaaa!".

Do they do a good job?  Yes, for the most part.  The trimming job around the base of trees, fences, and parked farm implements is much better than any human could accomplish.  They're also tackling the brush around our new barn site, which is a big plus.  There are a few things which get left;  a seed stalk here, or a less-than-tasty weed there, but many parts of the lawn look like a putting green when they're finished. 20 minutes of touch-up with a sharp scythe takes care of the small patches of overlooked ground.

The downside is that sheep aren't partial to just grass.   Lots of landscaping (roses, dogwood, mock orange, etc) are also quite tasty, and got unwanted trimming on the first mowing session.  For those we just put together a cage made of woven fence wire held up by old metal "T" posts, which seems to do the trick.  Most of our other landscaping plants, as it turns out, don't taste all that great.

I suppose the presence of turds in the lawn would be offensive to some, but sheep berries seem pretty innocuous to someone for whom cowpies have become an accepted hazard.  The fertilizing effect of animals on grass is also a great benefit, and seems to far exceed the effect of lawn clippings.

So is it the perfect solution?   Nope, but it's a good one, and far better than the gasoline lawn mower solution that most folks still cling to for the time being.   As an added bonus, Clover (our border collie) likes the fact that each window in our house now is now tuned to "sheep TV".

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Does honoring our past preserve our future?

Over the many millenia of our existence, humans have become adapted to a certain way of living.  When we follow that precedent, we're happy and healthy.   When we stray from it, our physical and mental health declines, and our society suffers.

The industrial revolution, driven as it has been by human wants and desires, would seem as if it should follow this pattern and enhance our lives.  It has certainly enhanced many aspects of them, but like everything in life, it came at a cost.  While it's allowed many of us a temporary reprieve from our old nemeses of disease and starvation, it has also deprived us of the meaningful existence we once had.

Two critical elements of the human experience were all but destroyed by the industrial revolution, and need to be reclaimed if we're to again be a healthy society with a bright future.

First and perhaps foremost, is community.  Humans did not travel large distances on a daily basis, but remained in a relatively small area, aside from seasonal migrations.  I would think that a "home range" with a radius of perhaps 10 miles would have been the norm.  The people you grew up with were the people you grew old with, fostering a familiarity with everyone in your limited range.

Studies I've seen suggest that people are most comfortable in groups of up to about 150 individuals.  Beyond that we have difficulty remembering faces and names. People become anonymous, and concern for the well being of anonymous people is much reduced. The sense of community diminishes the more we travel, and the more people we interact with on an impersonal basis.

It's the protection of this all-important community that has driven the Amish culture to eschew the ownership of cars and tractors.  It's at the core of their success as a culture, and has nothing to do with a rejection of modern technology as most Americans assume.  The use of buggies instead of cars limits the possible distance for any travel, forcing their community to remain physically close together.  The rejection of tractors for field work (some districts do allow them for barnyard and stationary tasks) has had a similar effect because it limits the amount of work which can be accomplished by a single farming family.  This, in turn, keeps farm sizes small, which in turn allows neighbors to remain near each other.

The second element which I think is critical to human health is the ability to directly meet the needs of our own existence.  Don't get me wrong;  people have always been social creatures, and nobody ever provided *all* of their own individual needs.  Until recently, however, we have been able to provide much of what we needed on our own, and those needs we couldn't meet ourselves were invariably met by others within our family or tribe who could meet them.  We are producers by nature, not consumers.

Our efforts were tangible and had direct effect, whether hunting and gathering or growing our own food, making our own shelter, clothing, medicine, or entertainment.  Why is it important that we have this close and direct connection with providing for our own needs?  Pride.  A sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Traits that have all but vanished in the consumer society.

Perhaps of even greater importance, is the fact that such activities tie us to the very foundation of life, and thus ensure a reverence for that which sustains us.  "Nature" isn't a place you visit, or Disneyland's competition for your next vacation.  It's your life support system.  The fact that most Americans value the economy more than the preservation of life support systems represented by nature is nothing short of asinine.

I suspect that millions of Chinese people are now discovering this truth the hard way, as their air is no longer breathable, their food contaminated, and their water undrinkable.  On the bright side, they do have the worlds fastest growing economy though, eh?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Industrial vs. Local

The industrialized food system that sustains us all is clearly an abomination to anyone who has bothered to educate themselves and scrutinize it.  Most that I know have not and will not do so, because knowing what's behind that curtain will force changes they aren't willing to make.  Its only real proponents are those who are using it to line their pockets at our expense. It's only "cheap" when you ignore the fact that it damages not only our health but threatens our very existence.  The farmers I've met who are a part of it are rarely enthusiasts, but rather cogs in the machine that they cannot separate themselves from.  Most know little of the chemicals they use (often not even their names, in fact, as much spraying is outsourced), and I suspect that's in large part due to a desire *not* to know.  They know full well that such knowledge might force them to end their use in order to maintain a clear conscience, and thus lead to financial ruin.

So what about the small "local" farms that are the darlings of any local/sustainable foodie?  Show me one, and I'll point out some fundamental shortfalls, many of which I'm intimately familiar with.  Almost without exception, they're purchased and/or sustained with an inheritance, the proceeds from a previous well-paid career, or a spouse who kept their "regular" job and family health insurance. Many work to promote the sustainability image while making significant short-cuts, whether that's the liberal use of diesel fueled equipment, the use of chemically grown feed for their pastured livestock, or poorly compensated intern labor.  The well known Joel Salatin scores a hit on nearly all of these (inherited farm, chemically grown feed, lots of diesel fuel, and loads of interns).

Doubling your food budget by going organic and/or local doesn't really cut it, as these farms are not truly viable even at their seemingly inflated prices. The fact of the matter is that producing food responsibly makes it just as expensive as it was historically, when people typically spent 40-50% of their income on food rather than the current 10-15%.  Historically, farmers (of which most were and will again be) had significant advantages as well.  A lower population made for a greater relative resource base, with consequently lower land costs. A pre-industrialized atmosphere made for greater climate stability and better odds of a successful crop.  The inter-generational accumulation of farming knowledge was unbroken as well, though perhaps the internet will fill some of that gap for us while it's still around.

It probably goes without saying, but a return to spending 50% of our income on de-industrialized food means big changes are in store.  That nice big house will be traded in for something more like the size of a typical garage, or will become a multiple family residence, or -- even more likely -- abandoned in favor of a location with enough land to grow food.  Forget about the car (or paved roads to drive it on), washing machines, retirement, or most anything that has arrived on the scene in the last 150 years.  Forget about the MRI for that head injury, or drugs for dealing with depression.  There'll be no stairmaster or gym membership, and no need for either. There'll be no closet full of plastic clothes from China, cell phones, nor TVs for whiling away your days and fomenting a desire for consumer goods (you'll be too busy anyway).  It'll be no panacea, but many of the changes will undoubtedly be big improvements over the status quo, probably making it a wash overall.

Can we return there?  Should we?  Do you think we really have a choice?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

So long, winter!

The snow is finally melted, and we're done with maple sugaring for the season.  The frogs are out, daffodils are blooming, pastures are greening up, peepers are going wild, the barn swallows are back, and the toads in our barnyard pond serenade me with their impersonation of a Jetson's car while I milk in the morning.  Spring is nice.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Worth Watching

A few months back, Robin Wood blogged about a BBC series in which he was featured, called the"Tudor Monastery Farm".  It looked very interesting, but alas was not available in the US.   Since then, all of the episodes have appeared in full on Youtube.   There are 6 episodes each of the Tudor Monastery Farm, the Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Wartime Farm (notice a common theme here?).

Henry noted that the series is like a collection of our home videos (which is fairly accurate, especially the Victorian series), and seems to enjoy them as much as Rachel and I do.   We've learned quite a bit, and have been impressed with the detail that goes into each show as the historians recreate the practices of each period.  The progression of technology up through the industrial revolution (and especially before) is quite an eye opener, as are the differences with practices here in the US.  These will definitely be of interest to anyone with an interest in history, or the inkling that it might present a closer approximation of our post-oil future than Star Trek.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Your Farm

In conversations about environmentalism and the power of an individual to change the world, I often hear it noted that the good any one of us do is inevitably undone by the overwhelming tide of humanity, most of whom aren't so idealistically inclined.  We're all going to hell in a handbasket anyway, so why make our lives difficult on top of it all?  Damn the torpedoes!  Live life to the fullest, eh?  (imho, a purposefull life is much fuller than a guilt ridden free-for-all, but that's another discussion)

At other times, people relating to our farming adventures note that they can't just go and buy a farm to start doing what we're doing.  So how do they change the world for the better?

The way I see it, none of us are responsible for changing the world, and shouldn't lament that fact.  We are, however, responsible for our portion of it.  The fact of the matter is that we *all* have a farm, and much more.  There is a portion of the planet that we each own and control, based on how we live our lives.  Each of us has a farm, a forest, a mine, a patch of ocean, and a bit of each environment upon which our lives depend.

If we purchase grass-fed meats, the pastures on our farms pull a bit of carbon out of the atmosphere, and our future looks brighter.  If we stop for lunch at a Subway or Taco Bell, our farm dumps a big plume of carbon and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, our farm's weather goes nuts, and our patch of ocean turns into a dead zone when our nitrogen fertilizer runs into the sea.  The animals on our farm live very different lives based on how we eat.  How are your livestock faring these days?

Buy some "cheap" farmed shrimp, and our patch of formerly productive mangrove coastline gets bulldozed to put up a shrimp farm lagoon, destroying the life in your patch of ocean.  Buy the "expensive" wild caught shrimp (or none at all), and your mangroves remain a valuable nursery for sea life.  Everything is a trade-off; cheap goods usually have the most expensive long term costs.

My own farm has a sizeable patch of northern Alberta in it, and it looks like hell.   Literally.  It got a whole lot worse when I started commuting 300 miles a week last year.  I scraped off the boreal forest to get at the tar sands underneath, cooked them with fracked natural gas (sorry neighbors!), and dumped a big pile of carbon into the atmosphere -- and that's all before I even put any gasoline in my car.  The toxic tailing ponds I left regularly kill migratory waterfowl, and are leaching into my once pristine rivers and killing everything downwind and downstream.  I'm not happy about that, but I am proud to face the fact and not shy away from it.  My patch of the Gulf of Mexico doesn't look particularly good these days either, with a few emaciated corexit-contaminated dolphins washed up on the beach.  I've got work to do.

Just imagine what our whole world would be like if we each managed our farms as if we owned them.  We wouldn't have to change anyone but ourselves.


Throughout most of my life there have been a number of things which I never fully understood.  For instance: how does an entire nation, such as the 1930's Germany that my grandparents experienced, go completely nuts?  How does a majority decide that killing their neighbors (jews, homosexuals, capitalist "parasites", etc) is suddenly a-okay?

Or for a more recent example, how does a country supposedly attacked by Saudi-Muslim radicals flying planes into prominent buildings decide that the logical and appropriate response is to destroy one of Saudi Arabia's primary foes (Iraq)?

At the same time, how is it that people presented with a bombproof logical argument (such as anthropogenic climate change triggering the extinction of humanity) manage to completely ignore logic to their own detriment?   We are the "wise ape", aren't we?

I know -- I'm a little late to the game -- but I finally figured it out.  The answer was staring back at me from our barnyard.

All the domesticated animals there are naturally "social" animals.  Before domestication, they all lived in groups.  Group living enhances chances of individual survival, but requires a strong adherence to socialized thought.  Their decisions are primarily based not on individual thought, but on the behavior of the group. This is the very quality which makes them domesticable.  As social creatures ourselves, we're subject to the same thing -- the "groupthink" coined by Orwell.

I'm an excellent example myself.   I fully understand the logical argument, and know full well the likely consequences of my continued car use, my continued reliance upon the electrical grid, as well as all the other amenities of industrial society.   Though I've nibbled at the edges, I haven't rejected any of them.  Why?   Probably because I've yet to see any peers take the steps I should be taking.   I know that somewhere back in the deep recess of my consciousness, I've been waiting for that queue.

If you want to change society (for better or worse) -- you don't need to provide a solid argument.  You only need to convince people that their peers are in agreement with you.  Here in the US, you just need to run (or advertise on) a TV network.  In a country where people move once every 5 years, both parents typically work outside the home, and locate according to the whims of industry, community in the true sense is gone.  TV is the replacement.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Our Finite World

Gail Tverberg is an excellent analyst who wrote extensively for the now defunct "The Oil Drum" website.   As an actuary, she's a master of statistics and does a great job of cutting through the bs.   Her latest article, "Why a Finite World is a Problem" does a great job of detailing exactly why our industrial economy as we've known it cannot continue.   She focuses primarily on raw materials and energy, though her arguments clearly apply to the biosphere's capacity for pollution as well.  Definitely worth a read for anyone who is counting on retirement investments or the continuation of a 20th century type of world.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Going Rural

Among mainstream or green media, you can find a lot to support the opinion that urban life is the green choice.  There are undoubtedly some significant energy savings when you live in a multiple-family housing environment, and particularly if you can ditch the car.

If we're going to compare the typical rural family with the typical urban family of today, I think these stories are spot-on.  The picture changes significantly when we look at what's *possible* in both environments, however.  If we incorporate a forecast of future energy scenarios, the urban option takes on significant new shortcomings.

First of all, let's look back into history a bit. If we venture back before the time of the fossil-fueled industrial revolution, we'll find cities that would hardly qualify as such by today's standards. Why?  Because any concentration of people requires that all resources (food, fuel, construction materials, etc) be brought in from outside the city.  There are numerous instances throughout history of cities collapsing when the distance to their nearest fuel sources (firewood, typically) became too great.

When your transportation options are limited to your own two feet, animal power, or water transport, the area from which you can draw these resources shrinks dramatically -- probably no more than 10 miles for anything moved in significant quantity (though water transport would allow a greater range for high-value items that justify the additional expense).  If you're limited to drawing all of your goods from within a 10 mile radius, you'll find that supporting a large city, say of 100,000 or more, is nearly impossible.

Why is this important to consider today?   Our fossil fuel sources have now entered a decline which will be exponential in nature.  Like it or not, our history, in terms of energy supply, is going into reverse.  The ever-optimistic oil industry, in their attempt to retain investors, trumpets the fact that we still have a 54 year supply of oil, though their calculations do not incorporate what is likely to happen to us economically as the price of this energy rises ever higher, nor the fact that our planet would no longer be habitable if we burned it all. The fact that our Federal Reserve now has to inject $85 billion each month into our economy just to keep it on life support should tell us something of where our economy now sits, 6 years after hitting peak oil.  That 54 year supply is fully dependent upon our ability to pay for it.   Like the cities of old, we're watching our energy supply retreat over the horizon.

Our ability to pay for energy depends upon our economic condition, which in turn depends upon both our environment (climate change, anyone?) as well as the price of energy.  Also worthy of note is that the energy return on our oil supply here in the US has dropped from 100:1 to less than 10:1 in 80 years, with most of our newer sources even below 5:1. Chart that trend out for a few more years and tell me where it leads us. Suffice to say that there will always be loads of fossil fuels in the ground that are not worth digging up.

While urban living does offer significant efficiency advantages over rural living, it has an achilles heel which will become painfully apparent over the next decade, and which cannot be overcome. The problem is that urban energy requirements on the modern scale can only be met with fossil fuel sources, no matter how efficient their use is.  There is no way for Los Angeles or New York residents to return to burning firewood. The supply simply isn't available within economically transportable distance, and resulting air quality would make China's current problems look like a walk in the park.  Any attempted return to animal-based transportation in our oversized urban regions would fail for similar reasons.

So what about the renewable energy revolution and the high-tech green future?  Well...  It may have some limited application in our future, but suffice to say that much of it is hogwash when you look at net energy return.  The solar industry, when all inputs are considered, uses far more energy than actual solar output. Wind may be somewhat better, but I'd be willing to bet that most of it will disappear along with our fossil fuel sources as well.  At best, most of what's been presented to us as alternative energy is little more than the leveraged use of fossil fuels.

It is quite possible for a rural family to beat their urban counterparts in energy use.  The major difference in current energy use in urban vs. rural areas is that for transportation. There are tens of thousands of rural Amish and Mennonite families who do not use fossil fuels for their family transportation, but rather the "antiquated" horse and buggy, with many of them also making great use of bikes.  It always makes me smile when I see an Amish grandpa riding his bike to town, at an age when a lot of "English" Americans (as the Amish refer to the rest of us) can barely fit behind the wheel of the SUV they purchased to accommodate their super-sized physiques.

Keep in mind also that roads themselves require significant energy to maintain (which will soon be lacking).   The Amish of the 1800's rarely owned buggies, for the simple reason that most rural areas did not have suitable roads for them.  This is one area where downsized urban regions may maintain an edge, as paved roads were historically found only in towns.

The second energy advantage for urban residents is that of heating, though it's realized primarily through the use of multiple family dwellings.  The prudent rural resident wins here as well -- by heating with locally sourced wood.  Because wood is not a fossil fuel, the carbon emissions to not result in a net gain in biospheric carbon.  Keep your population density within traditional standards, and the smoke really isn't a problem either, particularly with newer recirculating stove designs.

Last but not least, it's important to remember that most energy use is industrial, not personal.  It's not the gasoline burned in the car you shouldn't drive, but the coal that was used to smelt the steel. It's not the natural gas used to heat your apartment, but the coal burned to create the concrete it's constructed with, and the diesel used to transport the building materials.  The rural resident has a distinct advantage here as well, as they have the option to provide for their own food, clothing, construction materials or household goods sourced from local materials, all of which can be (and was historically) accomplished sans fossil fuels.

So while the typical rural resident of today is in fact less green than their urban counterpart, a rural location offers far greater flexibility -- which can, should, and will be used as a matter of necessity. Probably the greatest shortcoming of rural life at this point in time is that of employment (which I should note, is also a product of the industrial revolution).