Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, August 29, 2011

Problem Is, I'm Uneconomic

See, the problem is, I'm unecomomic.  I don't like money.  I don't care if I make one red cent beyond the very modest expenses in my life.  And I will ultimately learn to do without even that meager requirment.  I don't have a "business plan."  I don't have a "marketing strategy."  I don't have any advice for anyone about ways to make money.  Nor do I want any of those things.  Which, to the western mind, means I'm useless. 

Not that that's a universal opinion, it's just the way the industrial consumer culture views things.  What I'm aiming to do is productive, in the realest sense of the word, but it's probably not profitable.  That's the bummer to the western capitalist.  He views worth through how busy he is, how much money he makes, how many projects he's got in the works, how full his calendar is.  More importantly, the western economic mind sees the greatest merit represented by the most money made for the least physical effort.  In fact, the ideal scenario for the western employee is to get paid without having to work.  "Investments" we usually call them, or every now and then, "lottery winnings."  Which meshes wonderfully, for a while, with the western employer's ideal of productivity without labor costs.  If it saves human labor, it's a good thing, right?  Sure, again, for a while.

Until the tool becomes the machine, the craftsman becomes the mechanic, the slave to the machine that has taken his skilled craft away from him, and reduced him to an unskilled cog in the process, someone who can be replaced more easily than he could have been before.  A rat that simply punches the bar for labor kibble.  There is no more pride in his work.  The human spirit is crushed, work becomes drudgery, something to be avoided, or at best, a sacrifice barely worth making in exchange for a paycheck.  Automation maximizes profits, minimizes human worth, and churns out more "product" to be consumed.  Not that those products inspire any admiration, or respect, far from it.  I mean, it's not as if an actual person made them.  There's no one to be offended if you don't keep it in good shape.  Matter of fact, according to western consumer philosophy, mistreating the "product" would be the most desirable outcome of all, since that means you'll be buying anther one soon.  So the production wheel keeps spinning, the mountain of trash keeps growing, and the work of industrial man grows more dysfunctional.  That's the western way.

Affluence in America is determined by how much you consume.  How much you spend.  How much you travel.  How full your calendar is.  And it isn't offset by flimsy "carbon credits," no matter how warm and fuzzy that would make us feel if it were true.  (Read my article on carbon crediting if you want to know why.)

So if not a consumer, who could you compare me to that might be a real producer instead?  What do we mean by "producer"?  A farmer perhaps?  Surely they produce things, right?  They produce enough to feed the U.S. and then some, don't they!  Sure they do, but, to make my trifecta of this point complete, industrial food production creates a net drain on global resources.  It's not a procreative process but a destructive one.  We're spending our capital, not our income.  Like I mentioned in the last post, and can't seem to say enough, even at our best every calorie of food that hits the American table required 5 calories of energy to get there.  That's a five-fold loss on our investement.  At best.  It's like spending $500 to make $100.  And that works, for a while, when there's lots and lots of cheap energy to burn, and so many places to hide the trash.  Sometimes that behavior is even praised in the most esteemed halls of academia on Earth.  For a while.

Somehow that's considered "economic," and if by economic you mean it makes lots of money for a few people for a short period of human history, you'd be right.  But if by "economic" you mean that these are the important transactions for long-term human well-being, you'd be dead wrong.  Turning trees into paper currency is a losing arrangement; toxifying oceans and smothering estuaries to create digital wealth is myopic; laying waste to continents' worth of topsoil in the name of economic progress is nothing short of suicidal. 

I don't want to call myself a "farmer".  An industrial era farmer is the epitome of efficiency, but the antithesis of resilience.  Every day, whether he knows it or not, he trades his bedrock for a matchstick tower.  He depends on cheap abundant energy to fuel his tractors, to fertilize his crops, to kill the weeds in the fields, and even more so to harvest, process, and ship his ingredients to the industrial value-adders in far away cities, who spend an enormous amount of energy themselves to get those products to the consuming public.  A five hundred percent energy loss is being pretty generous, all told.  I have no aspirations to be that guy.  I'm not a farmer.  I'm not a usurper.  I have no more interest in spending my children's natural capital than I do in acquring the money it's converted into.  I'm a gardener, a horticulturalist, and potentially I represent a net reduction of carbon within the system.  That's how I would define a "producer".  An actual producer, by definition, like an autotroph, a plant.  Although I know a few humans who are doing it.  Heroes.  People who should be winning major awards, people we should all be aspiring to emulate.  That's the ideal for me.  But farming, agriculture, as it is practiced today, is spending Earth's natural capital faster than any other industry.

And it's, almost by definition, a temporary arrangement.  Anyone who assumes that this equation can continue to function indefinitely is nuts.  But what about "green" energy, or "renewables"?  Sorry, no.  Solar panels have an enormous environmental price tag.  And although they do have the potential to ease the pain of transition from industrial culture to some low-energy sustainable future, the economic buoyancy to perpetuate that technology just wouldn't be around any more, after the first generation or two.  I use them, but I do so with the full understanding that I am in a privileged position, with the foresight to cash in on that option while it exists.  Even if we did master a "free," "too-cheap-to-meter," energy source, like nuclear or cold fusion, it would only do two things for us: 1) create more humans (all with very real, not-at-all-free, too-cheap-to-meter needs), and 2) increase consumption.  That's Jevon's Paradox.  Education is often invoked as the antidote to overpopulation, but educated masses are consuming masses.  Apparently you either have lots of children, or you have lots of "needs."  (Although you can have both!)  Jevon's Paradox is a real bitch, ain't it?  And it proves our animal nature.  We aren't enlightened above the other animals.  Clever, yes, extremely, but enlightened would indicate that we have the means to perpetuate our species' existense come what may.  Which we probably don't.  I have a feeling we're already way out into borrowed time, thanks to cheap oil. 

The only thing that would change either of those life-threatening problems is a wholesale change in what is considered "economic".  In other words, our view of economics is the most threatening thing to our long-term well-being.  The west would basically have to toss its entire economic theory out on its ears.  We would have to adopt a worldview that most honored the affluence achieved by the least consumption. It would depend on a lifestyle that kept us all a lot closer to home, living in a way that, if not steeped in mutual respect for the other life forms around us, at least understood that humans benefit from robust ecologies.  That dualistic perspective keeps us thinking that humans and broader nature can't both thrive.  That a certain amount of give and take is inevitable.  And foolishness keeps us thinking that we can live an utterly unsustainable lifestyle once we find "the right energy" for the job.  There's nothing wrong with a lower energy way of life.  It's been said that Americans could cut 80% of their energy use and not suffer any real reduction in standard of living.  It doesn't require new technologies, nor expensive rollout or retooling programs, it simply requires behavioral innovation.  It requires us to become a lot more aware of our actions.  It requires us to become genuinely responsible, no matter what others might think about us, or how it impacts our crammed calendars.

Problem is, it's always someone else's fault.  What I do, personally, isn't the real problem.  I'm a hard worker, I'm productive, I help people.  Which is likely all true, in a sense, but in the end, if our activities, however noble, require an unsustainable amount of energy to accomplish, then we are a net drain on the system.  We are compromising our children's future.  Stacks of paper currency don't create rain, nor do they build topsoil very effectively.  iPhones don't have an app for normalizing an unbalanced oceanic pH, nor one for bringing back the bluefin tuna.  When the desert encroaches on our formerly lush countrysides no amount of money will make it verdant again.  Only a radical change in the way we do business, an overhaul of our value system, a wholesale reversal of bad habits, and probably a whole lot fewer humans, will make any difference at all. 

There is no way to do it "economically."  Repairing the Earth isn't a growth industry.  Permaculture represents a radical new paradigm because it flies in the face of convention.  It trades profit for permanence.  It diffuses planetary wealth into a system that benefits all, not just a few, not just for a while.  It grasps the concept that humans benefit from robust ecologies, that Nature's gain is also our own.  Until energy future steering committees start discussing radical conservation measures, I'm not interested.  I'm not interested in how we're going to retool the dirty fossil fuel infrastructure with a clean green version, because there is no such thing.  If we have access to energy we use it.  That's as intractable a fact of Nature as there is.

Not using as much energy is the only pathway to sustainability.  When that concept guides the discussion then I'll participate.  But until then I remain, humbly, "uneconomic."

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Strangest Thing

The strangest thing occurred to me this evening. It was our first day back at the farm after 4 days at the beach – Orange Beach, a literal stone’s throw into Alabama from the western-most tip of the Florida panhandle, 315 miles and 6 hours from home – and we were enjoying some of the spoils of our journey for dinner. The four of us had a couple of fillets each of $85 worth of vermillion and lane snapper on our plates, $85 that was just my third of the friend price we paid for the pleasure.

Now, before we go any farther, I really ought to define the word “pleasure” as it applies to this situation: by “pleasure” I mean 3-5 foot seas driven by 15-20 knot winds, in a 22’ Mako center console, 20 miles from land.

I chucked. I admit it. I’m embarrassed, and I really can’t believe that I’m telling this story, but I definitely chucked. Twice. I was out of commission for three hours actually. The captain asked us both, my younger and very generous uncle Andrew and I, the day before our charter, if we were prone to seasickness.

“No,” we both replied. “I got seasick once, in college, when I was working on an 18’ bay boat in the Suwannee estuary, filtering plankton from seawater, working on the deck with my head hanging between my knees,” I added. That was god-awful, but come on, 18’ bay boat rocking on 5’ waves while I was trying to focus on something tedious below me. We’re fishing this time, eyes on the horizon, what could possibly go wrong?

“Just wondering,” our captain, JT, an old college friend of Andrew’s wife, chimed in, “wind’s supposed to be strong, and seas potentially heavy, according to NOAA.”

“We’ll be OK,” I tossed out quickly. And by OK I meant OK until I had battled a massive imaginary fish that actually turned out to be some structure on the sea floor, darted into by a fairly modest lesser amberjack. Problem was, I could feel the fish take the bait and run. It was strong, as jacks tend to be, and easily the biggest fish of the day. The seas were heaving, the boat was twirling, I actually had my arm wrapped around one of the T-top’s support poles to make sure I stayed IN the vessel. JT strapped a fighting belt around me, and Andrew cheered me on in my stupendous attempt to reel the boat into the salt water and down to the bottom, 110’ below, where my prize “fish” awaited.

“Damn, this thing’s killing me,” I finally admitted. The butt of my Star rod was cracking in the plastic holster of the fighting belt. Veins were no doubt popping out of my neck, and my left arm, the one holding the rod, was screaming for mercy. My muscles were trembling. I wanted to hand this fish off to the next guy, whoever he was, and rest for a minute. All the glory of fighting and landing the trophy fish of the day vanished under the weight of effort such tasks suddenly seemed to require.

“Are you sure you aren’t snagged on the bottom?” JT asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “That would be embarrassing, but the boat is moving around so much, and the seas are so insane I can’t really tell. I gain a little line and then lose it right back. Could be the bottom I guess, but I felt a fish take the bait.”

“Let me see that rod for a minute,” JT finally said to me. Oh thank god! I thought. Yes, please, take this damn thing and see what we’ve got. I handed it over without any protest whatsoever.

“Yeah, you’re on the bottom,” he said, after getting situated. He wandered around a little in the open bow and pulled the line in different directions with a gloved hand. It popped loose somehow, and he reeled it slowly to the surface, fighting something on the other end, but not exactly the Volkswagen I had been wrestling for the last 20 minutes or so. I slumped onto the padded seat in front of the console, feeling a bit silly, and really, really tired. The crushing seas were getting to me, and now I felt like I had spent a day’s worth of energy in 20 minutes of grappling with planet Earth. That’s a battle that humans will never, ever win; I know that as well as anyone. The irony of my ideology, applied to the current situation, settled heavily on my shoulders. I was beat. And Earth never even noticed. Five minutes rolled by. I had already seen the lesser amberjack landed and released, the line repaired, and rod stowed in the gunwale receiver.

I didn’t want another rod just yet, but I got one handed to me anyway. Ten minutes passed. Activity started to return to normal elsewhere on the boat, but I couldn’t move. I felt weak. I tried to drop a pair of small pinfish to the bottom, dragged by a 3 ounce sinker, mentally guiding it away from anything larger than your average bluegill. I figured no matter how tired I was I could handle your average bluegill, especially with the god dang tuna stick the skipper had just handed me, but there were no bluegills here, and we were hunting amberjack. “Reef donkeys,” he called them. Ostensibly because they pull like a stubborn jackass on the unfortunate soul connected to one of them by a length of unbreakable 80 lb test line. I wanted the line to be frail and dry rotted, not unbreakable. Actually, I’ve never wanted to NOT catch a fish so badly in all my life.

Fortunately (I thought at the time), a couple minutes later, the pinfish rig came back to the surface severely twisted. That’ll buy me a few more minutes, I thought, as I went to work untwisting the little baitfish from the egg sinker. But the focus required to untangle that mess had the same effect on me that filtering plankton in that 18’ bay boat in the Suwannee estuary had had. I tried to hold it back, tried to meditate on the horizon and think about the stability of my garden back home, but it came out anyway. The pear I brought with me from my grandfather’s tree, the water I had been drinking, whatever was in there came out. Admittedly it wasn’t much, but my stomach kept looking for things to get rid of, whether they were there or not. And it did it again about an hour later. Damn ice chips. Why would I put something so harsh in my poor stomach!?

And all the while that dragonfly cruised along beside us. I wanted to say something to that dragonfly, maybe ask him if there was anything he could do about the motion of the ocean, but I don’t speak dragonfly. I put my feet up on the cooler and half dozed in misery for the next two hours while the sea beat the stuffing out of our little boat, and the emerging sun scorched my belly and the white parts of my thighs that don’t usually see the light of day. I half remember JT and Andrew wondering aloud if maybe we shouldn’t cash it in, as a favor to me, but I didn’t want to, and I said so through the fog, giving the big thumbs up. No, no, I’m OK. It takes a lot of gas to get 20 miles out to sea in a small boat under those conditions, and I’ll be damned if I was going to be the reason it was wasted. Wretched or not.

The emerging sun carried some promise with it, though, and the winds started to ease up. As the winds died down the seas also mellowed out. I awoke to the fellas cranking on snapper at a new spot. At first I didn’t care. I still felt miserable, and those snapper were too small to get excited about. But as number 3, and then number 4, went into the ice, I started feeling like I should marshal my will back toward the task at hand. We had come to catch fish, and I meant to do just that before we called it a trip. The idea that this might be my last run off-shore was settling in. While JT was helping Andrew with a tangle I asked if he minded me taking his heavy Penn spinning outfit for a minute.

“Of course not, but let me put you back on the spot first,” he replied.

He steered back along his GPS route, back to the up-current end of the structure they were working. I steadied myself against the port edge of the captain’s bench and got my baits straightened out to drop when he gave the word. Finally they were sinking straight down into 113’ of blue water.

That dragonfly caught my eye again, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been flitting alongside the boat the whole time I had been out, quietly doing his part to stabilize my perspective.

BAM!! The bite took almost no time, and a minute or two later I was putting the biggest vermillion snapper of the day into the ice chest. I was back. Senses recovering, we added several more snapper and porgies, or “reef candy” as JT called them because they are so delicious and carry no size or bag limit restrictions, to the cooler, fishing steadily until the now-unwelcome “last drift” call came from the helm. Three “trash fish” released; time to go.

Now that you more fully understand the “pleasure” I spoke of earlier, and how small a fraction of the real cost that even that $85 I paid for 6 tiny snapper fillets was, we can return to the strange occurrence at the dinner table tonight. My toddling son, Oliver, hated it. Put a piece of that delicate treasure in his mouth, and promptly spit it right back out, making an ugly face. I ate his share of course; I can think of precious few things that compare to the delight of flaky white saltwater fish like snapper, and there was zero chance I was going to let that $14 fillet go to waste.

“He’s not my son,” I muttered. But then I remembered that this was going to be my last trip off-shore. There would probably be no more snapper on our table. There was no reason to coax the boy into liking it. Fine, more for me. I love it. I know what it took to acquire those little fillets. I understand this delicacy that only easy access to abundant cheap liquid energy can grant. And I understand that access to that abundant cheap liquid energy is fading quickly these days, which made the snapper even more valuable to my mind.

The amount of energy we spent acquiring that tiny bit of protein was obscene. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t take it back, even with the chucking, but the EROI was just stupid low. Blue water fishing has never been a common man’s game, even in the halcyon days of peak economy. I feel fortunate to have good friends who have at times felt inclined to take me off-shore with them. But I think this is it for me. I don’t want to be seasick again. I don’t want to be 20 miles off-shore in a 22’ boat again, with thunderstorms converging all around us. And if we had been in a big enough boat to make that ocean comfortable, we would have spent a lot more energy than we did to get that fish. It was already too much.

We farming humans have spent several thousand years turning our EROI upside down – and we’ve been doing so much faster since the dawn of industrial agriculture. Today, petroleum-based food production methods input upwards of 5 calories of energy into every calorie that reaches the American table. Off-shore fishing hovers around the upper end of the EROI absurdity, without a doubt, costing far more than 5 calories for every one delivered. WAY more. Without a GPS and depth-finder, it’s all just blue ocean with a lot of nondescript bottom. Without advanced weather tracking satellites, and cell phones that are just as advanced to receive that data, more people braving the seas we eventually bested that day would be toast. Without gas-burning engines, and relatively cheap gas to burn in them, day trips to fishing grounds off-shore would be impossible. All of these things, and myriad other unmentioned details, cost a bloody fortune in terms of energy. And in an energy descent context, this game will have fewer players every year from here on out. Good for the snapper; bad for the folks who make their living putting people on these beautiful fish.

So I sit here and enjoy my last bites of vermillion and lane snapper, and delicious little porgies from 113’ below a featureless seascape, impressed by the technology that made it possible, happy to have had the experience, and willing to add it to a growing list of things that just won’t work in a lower energy future. Thank you, Andrew and JT, for showing me one last good time engaged in an activity that has no hope of remaining viable in our energy descent world. As fun as it may be!

Oliver, never mind the snapper. See that cricket hopping through the mulch under the okra over there? Grab it and let’s see if we can catch us a tasty bluegill for dinner!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Manufacturing Descent

On more than one occasion I’ve heard people claim that they aren’t very good at negotiating favorable bartering transactions. Since I’m a pretty mild-mannered guy myself I can say that I’ve had the same issue. I’m just not an A-type, get-every-penny-you-can, hard-nosed trader. Some folks take a lot of pride in being those people, but I feel safe in saying that I will probably never be one of them. Somebody balks at my price and I tend to drop it without any further discussion. Even if I know it’s worth more than I’m asking.

But I’ve found a way around the need to be someone I don’t particularly want to be, and I thought I’d share it with you folks who would prefer to make more friends than money. But first, let’s discuss what trade and production were like for the last few hundred years.

In the rapid growth phase it was actually adaptive to waste energy in order to capture more energy. The energy wasted could always be reacquired because there was so much cheap abundant energy available, and the magnitude of that energy supply made even the handling and export of massive amounts of waste possible, an added cost that didn’t really have to be faced. For example, every calorie of food energy that arrives on the American table today required at least 5 calories of energy to get it there, and sometimes many more than that (about 80 per for off-season Chilean asparagus). And the disposal of the waste that food chain produces, both human waste and industrial, isn’t even accounted for in those numbers. Even without it, that’s a pretty sad return on our investment, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this equation is entirely unsustainable in the long view. But, our energy situation being what it was – which was rather like hitting the lottery in the case of the industrial world – this negative energy return was actually an acceptable way to do business in an era of fossil fuel-based excess, just like dropping fistfuls of hundred dollar bills would be if you had millions to spend before you died of a terminal illness.

In a more realistic future, which is, happily, where we find ourselves headed in August of 2011, this sort of inefficiency will never fly. Oh we’ll try everything we can think of, like GMOs and hydroponics, ethanol and electric vehicles, but in the end we’ll need to realize an actual net gain of energy from our activities, or Mother Nature will see to it that we don’t get another shot at it. This means that far more people will be in smaller scale versions of the food, fiber, and fuel production business – I have my estimation set at 80% within my lifetime (that’s 78% higher than today in roughly the next half century) – and that we will all be travelling a whole, whole lot less. As in, 40 miles with cargo might be a MAJOR hassle. Big claims, I know, but a culture that has arranged every detail of its affairs around optimal conditions at the peak of its energy supply, during a period of the fairest weather in the planet’s history, and then gone on to borrow everything the next 4 or 5 generations had to offer (or could have potentially benefitted from themselves), all the while assuming that cancerous growth rates were the normal mode of human existence, will find the bottom of the overshoot/collapse curve in a hurry, I’m afraid.

Dark tidings aside (and I highly doubt they’ll end up as dark as they sound initially to the industrial mind), in a world of declining energy availability, the key to success in all matters of trade and barter will lie in what I call the “perennialization of the swap.” Always trade for something that will last longer, or more importantly, something that can reproduce itself. In other words, procreative system elements. If you sell a pregnant doe rabbit and her cage for $50, you better darn well make sure that $50 is going into something even more productive than a pregnant mama bunny, and that’s tough to manage. Maybe a large water catchment vessel you found on sale, or a really good scythe. But a piece of unsolicited advice from ol’ Tripp: don’t sell pregnant doe rabbits. Don’t trade soap for bread. Don’t trade a year’s supply of medicinal cream for a month’s supply of honey. DO trade produce with a shelf life for art or freezer beef. Do trade mushroom logs for fruit trees. Or goats. Always aim to capture and store energy with your trade. That way you can relax a little in the “getting your full trade’s worth” department. Barter your bread for chicks, not concerning yourself with getting a favorable dollar value trade, and rest comfortably in the knowledge that the perishable bread you just traded away can now feed you consistently into the foreseeable future. That bread wouldn’t have lasted a week, and would have seriously declined in quality in just a day or two; but the chicks you now have will grow and lay eggs, and produce more chicks down the road. Well-managed you might just have that chicken thing taken care of forever. Not to mention another potential income stream from the sale of chicks and/or eggs. All from a little bread. Talk about multiplying the feast.

The permacultural barterer will always aim to “de-annualize” his holdings, always look to gain perennial structures in exchange for annual ones. (Decaying US dollars fit the “annual” description quite nicely!) Turn candles into pecan trees, and honey into hives, and you will never walk away from a deal feeling like you’ve been had.

The growth phase of human history was, paradoxically, responsible for creating an atmosphere of scarcity, and extreme competition – the drivers that fostered the emergence of the hard-nosed trader. All of which was totally natural because there was so much to fight over. In the contractionary future, when there is less to fight over every generation, we will slowly return to a life of cyclical abundance within Nature’s background rhythms (following an undoubtedly rocky period in transition), but in my humble opinion, “perennializing the trade” is how we will effectively manufacture descent.

On a separate note: my wife and I have decided we don’t want an internet connection at home any longer. We wish to return the internet to its proper place as a tool in our lives, and find that hard to accomplish when it’s always available to us. We disconnected almost two weeks ago and have already benefitted tremendously from that decision. After taking some wonderful vacation time in July, this is my first blog post broadcast from the local library. Just a warning that my comment responses might be a bit slower coming due to the nature of a shared community resource several miles away from home, but by all means, keep commenting. That’s my favorite part of blogging.