Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, December 22, 2012

First Blue, Then Green, Then Black

I really love this memory device of Darren Doherty's.  "First blue, then green, then black."  It means first slow the (blue) water moving across your landscape down, infiltrate it, then the (green) plants will be a lot happier, which will in turn create more (black) carbon in your production soils, initiating a positive feedback loop that steadily improves the land under our care.  It gives water its proper due as the most important component of our food production systems, and doesn't subscribe to the idiotic "infinite supply" nonsense that so permeates and defines American thought.  Once that running water has been taught how to walk, it creates soils over the following years that make a constant and recurring supply of it (more water that is) less necessary.  THAT is likely to be one of the future's most serious limiting factors.  Electrical service to pump deep wells in the rural hinterlands of this country may not be as much of a given in the not-too-distant future, not to mention that region after region is suffering from dry wells and the question of paying big money to dig deeper.  Deeper wells, in turn, require more energy to pump the water to the surface than their shallower forebears.  The sort of positive feedback loop we really don't want, especially just now.  The ever-deeper well option then, logically, doesn't have much of a future.

Instead, the thinking people of the industrial world gather together in their virtual cathedrals to discuss saner options than pumping ever-more of a precious and vanishing resource to water crops growing in declining soils (that is, soils with, among other problems, compromised water-holding capacity).  The last two posts here at Small Batch are my little contribution to that discussion, and, put into practice, are slowly and steadily improving soil quality, and therefore our soil's ability to retain moisture, around the ol' homestead.  This post, in sequence, is about learning to manage organic plant growth to our benefit.  The "then green" part.  It's a very brief discussion of the soil food web, and how to work with it.

There are of course more comprehensive treatments of the subject, and I highly encourage everyone interested in the garden (or in life for that matter!) to read Lowenfels and Lewis's book "Teaming With Microbes," for a more thorough discussion of the topic.  I just reread it a couple of weeks ago and it was well worth revisiting.  In a tiny little nutshell:

Plants are in charge of the soil food web, but they depend on the activities of various soil microbes for their nourishment.  Thousands of species of bacteria and fungi permeate every crevice of healthy soils, billions of them in one teaspoon, and live in conjunction with plant roots in the rhizosphere.  Plants have the ability to attract the bacteria and fungi they want with the production of specific root exudates - carbohydrates mostly - that they trade with the microbes for minerals and water.  I'll give you some yummy sugar if you bring me the phosphorus and potassium I need to build flowers and fruit.  And this has been an effective partnership for eons!  Just look at the nearest forest.  It didn't require one drop of fertilizer or pesticide to attain its current stature, just the ceaseless exchange of water and nutrients with its soil-dwelling symbionts.  It's an economy of complex exhange beyond human imagination.

Bacteria and fungi alone can't make the system work, though.  When a bacterium or fungal strand consumes the nutrients needed by plants, the nutrients are "immobilized."  That is, they are not available to the plant partner.  The opposite of immobilized is "mineralized," and it's what happens when the bacteria and fungi in question die or are consumed by larger organisms - namely protozoa and nematodes.  Remember those amoeba and paramecium from high school biology?  These also live in the rhizosphere and make their living feasting on bacteria and fungi.  Their waste products, in turn, release, or mineralize, the nutrients the plants need.  And they release them right around the roots, in the thin rhizosphere, right where the plants want them.

Commercial fertilizers, by contrast, soak the soil with water-soluble minerals that occasionally find their intended target, the root, via sheer volume.  The rest enters the water cycle where it does plenty of unintended damage.  Another problem with inorganic fertilizers is that they are salts.  Ever poured salt on a slug?  Salts make the soil environment a lot less inviting to the myriad nutrient cyclers, from earthworms and beetles (and slugs!) all the way down to the tiny bacteria.  Without worms, beetles, nematodes, and protozoa around to cycle nutrients, the gardener has to take on the massive amount of work they do himself, and the fitness of the system enters a terminal decline.  All nitrogen is not the same.

And the kind of nitrogen plants want is the next part of the story.  As soils mature from bare beach to interior old growth, the soil becomes increasingly dominated by fungi.  The overall number of bacteria remains relatively constant, from pioneer weed lot to redwood forest, but the volume and organization of fungi becomes ever more dominant along the successional road.  Naturally, certain plants prefer one microbial dominance over the other.


This is the first little flush of blue oyster mushrooms on that oak we inoculated back in May with the wedge technique.
 
Here's the rule:  the more perennial the plant, the more it wants fungally-dominated soils.  Makes sense, right?  Old growth, trees, fungi.  And the shorter lived the plant, the more it prefers bacterially-dominated soils.  Bacteria deliver their nitrogen in nitrate form, the sort of nitrogen preferred by beans, tomatoes, and marigolds.  Conversely, fungi release nitrogen in ammonium form, the form of nitrogen preferred by perennials and trees.  Broccoli seedlings aren't interested in ammonium nitrogen, and apple trees aren't interested in nitrates.  And they foster relationships with the right blend of soil microbes to get the type of nitrogen, and other nutrients, they prefer.

So we want soils dominated by bacteria in the annual garden, and soils dominated by fungi in the orchard.  How do we get that?  Here's the next rule: in order to promote bacterial dominance we feed the soil food web things that bacteria are best adapted to eat.  Bacteria are miniscule, and accordingly, they want their food to be easy to get into.  Feed the bacteria with composts, mulches, and teas that are green, wet, and fine.  Give them grass clippings, and compost made from "green" materials like kitchen scraps, even cereal straws are considered "green," but the finer the material is chopped the more accessible it is to bacteria.  By contrast, fungi thrive on organic material that is coarse, dry, and brown.  Feed fungi brown leaves, sticks, wood chips, etc, make them coarse, and lay them on the surface of the soil.  Bacteria have a harder time accessing coarse material on the surface.  Therefore, another way to promote bacterial dominance is to lightly chop the organic matter you're feeding them into the top couple of inches of soil.  In this way the same mulch material can be used to create bacterial or fungal dominance, with only the form and delivery of the material altered.

Do not, however, confuse this recommendation with tillage.  Tilling the soil, while it does shred fungal networks and encourage the bacterial dominance preferred by vegetables, shreds everything else too - soil structure, earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, on and on.  In other words, tillage damages soil.  Stop tilling.  Don't buy that roto-tiller you want for Christmas.  Put that money back in your pocket or do something constructive with it.  Tilling isn't constructive, it's destructive.  And we'll talk more about cultivation and how to apply more of the soil food web strategies in the next post.

First blue, then green.  Next is black, and black is what we're really after in the garden.
Cheers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Think Like a Watershed

In the 1940s and 50s, Australian P. A. Yeomans developed a system of water and carbon capture for his farm west of Sydney to combat the unpredictable rainfall regime common to that part of New South Wales.  He called this system '"Keyline Design," and went on to write several books on the subject.

From the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia:
"Influenced by the likes of prominent organic agriculture figures in Andre Voison, Friend Sykes, Newman Turner & Louis Bromfield (among many others!) Yeomans has been attributed with being the 1st person to accelerate soil formation through the stacking of methods, overturning the myth that it took 1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil. Yeomans proclaimed that "…the landman’s job is not so much to conserve soil as it is to develop soil, to improve his soil and to make it more fertile than it ever was…". "

Mr. Yeomans thought like a watershed, and developed a suceessful business portfolio based on his ideas that has never been matched in diversity, not in the field of permaculture, nor in the field of agriculture itself!  For broadacre applications, Yeomans is a go-to source of life-changing information, as is his student and torch-bearer Darren Doherty.  But for the purposes of this article, we will scale his ideas back to the home organic gardening level.

One of the primary concepts espoused by Yeomans, and one of his primary diversions from the Army Corps of Engineers dogma of the time, was the idea that yes, Nature wants to collect and channel water downslope into larger and larger bodies of water, moving that water off of the landscape quickly, but that we, as land managers, would be better served by holding it up high on the slope and moving it away from the drainage line, along what Mr. Yeomans termed the "keyline," and its parallels.  In order to do this, our water-harvesting contours must be slightly angled downslope away from the drainage line and back across the dry slope, rewatering the entire production area.  How many times have we seen dry pastures with lush green drainage lines?  This is the pattern we want to alter.  Spread out and retained on the slope, this thin green drain line becomes incredibly productive acreage.  And we can do the same thing in the garden.


The central bed in this photo of my garden is what has become of the two beds I built for summer veggies back in May.  I had a nice crop of tomatoes, peppers, basil, and sweet potatoes, the latter sweet potatoes working their normal magic on the soil's structure and tilth.  In 5 months, a flat of sweet potato slips turned a mound of hard, rocky, clay soil into beautiful, friable topsoil, and yielded about a bushel of storage food.


But I wanted to really get control of the waterflow on this "winter" side of the garden - the north half of the clearing that gets more sun during the low sun-angle months - so I decided to turn those first two beds into a high hugelkultur for raspberries.


A "hugelkultur" is a raised mound filled with half-rotten logs, weeds, debris, and in this case, charcoal from the wood stove (or "biochar" as it has been branded, presumably to improve its appeal).  So between the two freshly-harvested summer veggie rows I piled rotting logs from the forest, the leftover summer crop detritus, and a bunch of charcoal I had saved from the stove.  For anyone who doesn't know about the benefits of charcoal in the garden, a lot of research has been done on the subject in the last decade, spurred by the recognition of patches of fertile soil in the Amazon basin captured on satellite images.  These dark patches, or "terra preta," as they were dubbed, were the remnants of old tribal settlements along the Amazon river that had maintained their fertility for centuries!  Apparently any bit of charcoal is loaded with pits and cracks that catch and retain moisture, and serve as cation exchange sites for plant roots and their associated mycorrhizal fungi.  The increased cation exchange capacity is largely responsible for the increased fertility, and the persistence of that charcoal in the soil had kept those areas of terra preta significantly more fertile than the surrounding landscape for 500 years or more!  And in a rain forest ecosystem!  Sold!! 

So I now include charcoal in as many planting areas as I can manage, stacking yet another function on the task of wood-burning for heat, cooking, and wash water.  The cost, both in dollar terms and in energy spent on the task, of burning wood for heat is thereby diminished by another factor in the process.  When fertility in the garden increases as a by-product, the regular chore of cutting and chopping firewood becomes much easier to bear.  Ashes also get composted in the humanure pile to "sweeten" the pine shaving-dominated carbon bank that tends to turn out compost too acidic for the garden.  Another stacked function.  The more our productivity is linked and looped toward a closed system the less like "work" it seems.


Pull soil up from the downslope bed over the debris, and then down from the upslope bed, plant it (in this case with gangly raspberries from a too-shaded area of the food forest), spread compost around the plants, and add a thick layer of mulch.  Raspberries typically grow roots only to about 18 inches deep, which is about how high this mound is, and like to have a reliably moist footing.  The spongy rotting logs and biochar of the hugelkultur should keep them watered, nourished, and happy for many years.  AND, such a tall sponge up high in the garden should go a long way toward capturing every drop of water and scrap of fertility available.  I intend to do something similar on the "summer" side of the garden next year, after I've had a chance to see how this structure performs, and how the raspberries take to it. 

As David Homgren says, always be leery of great master plans.  Develop a site incrementally, organically, as you figure out what works and what doesn't.  It does absolutely no good to build and plant this great big beautiful garden only to find out that this crop doesn't like its neighbor, or that this other variety doesn't like your soil.  Or, as some well-meaning permies found in New Guinea, that their water-harvesting contour swales in that high rainfall climate super-saturated the mountainside and caused devastating landslides.  They thought they were teaching the natives some clever tricks compared to their "primitive" water-shedding methods, only to end up looking like idiots.  Don't end up looking like an idiot.  Work patiently, and at a human scale, even if people make fun of you for "not getting enough accomplished."  The permaculture literature is adamant about this approach, and advocates a "grow by chunking" strategy that duplicates what works, with variations for micro-site variability, and discards what doesn't.  Take your time, so that you don't have to spend twice as much of it later.


Here is a good example of what I mean.  To the left of my developing low-tunnel you can see the regular undulating pattern of raised beds, overgrown by grass and pioneer species.  My neighbor Kathy, bless her efforts, had this great master plan in her mind to build all these raised beds and grow tons of food.  She must have spent weeks and weeks piling all that soil up with her shovel, planting huge gardens in the beds, and an obscene amount of water to keep them moist enough to grow anything!  Raised beds oriented up and down a slope are good for one thing: shedding water quickly downhill.  And they are very good at it, as well as washing precious topsoil down with the rain.  My task for our garden then is to reorient the layout into a keyline configuration, harvesting rain and nutrients across the slope, moving them gently outward, away from the drainage line. 


Increased moisture better nourishes the soil's microbes, invertebrates, and fungi, and saturates the rotting logs and charcoal, and, coupled with ample carbon biomass on the surface initiates a topsoil-creating positive feedback loop in the garden.  With a level of maintenance that decreases year after year, the stacked keyline swales of our developing garden will retain moisture very effectively high on the slope, building soil structure and tilth, multiplying the beneficial microbial and fungal soil community, which in turn builds more stable humic substances necessary for optimum plant health.  Healthy, organically-grown plants are able to feed their mycorrhizal partners more increasingly nutritious root exudates - sugars in the first years, then proteins, then more and more high-energy fats as the soil improves.  Healthy mycchorizal symbionts, in turn, are then capable of expanding their reach (hundreds of yards away from the garden!), shuttling more water and mineral nutrients back to their favorite florae in those deep raised beds, and converting underlying bedrock into soil humus.  Which of course, as I wrote last time, increases the soil's ability to hold water and facilitate cation exchange, creating bigger, healthier plants, capable of fighting their own battles without human intervention, adding more mulch to the soil in the process, more nitrogen and more carbon, more water holding capacity, etc.  A mere one percent increase in soil organic carbon increases the soil's ability to retain water by 100,000 gallons per acre!  (Yes, it was worth saying again!)  And healthy organic soil under permanent mulch coverage managed with a no-till regime contributes about 80,000 lbs of microbial corpses per acre per annum, and another 10,000 lbs of worm castings just as gravy!  Doesn't take too long to increase the soil organic carbon content by 1% at that rate.

P. A. Yeomans was right.  Under knowledgeable stewardship, it doesn't take 1000 years to build an inch of topsoil.  I've done it in, oh, one growing season.  By thinking like a watershed, capturing those all-important drops of rain, leaves, dust, etc, we can all do it.  It isn't magic, but it sure does feel like it when you help it happen.

Happy gardening.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Teaching Running Water How To Walk

I'm urban farm-sitting, up late at my uncle Andrew's dining table - this is my uncle Andrew who is 6 years younger than me, my dad's youngest brother, and he and I grew up more like brothers than anything like an uncle/nephew relationship, so in true Southern style, let's call him my "brother-uncle" - late in the evening after a fun but financially dismal farmer's market deep in the heart of Atlanta.  We had a potluck Thanksgiving dinner with the market community, and over some really good food I got to know a few people better that I'd been meaning to get to know better for a while now. 

I'm actually kind of amazed at how common something akin to the worldview expressed on my blog is among that crowd, for starters.  The percentage of farmers marketeers aware of energy descent and its implications is far higher than it is in the average population.  Nearly everyone there is expecting things to change radically in the not-too-distant future, and I'm talking scenarios like the end of the automobile age, currency collapse, and the like.  Some have a "bail bag," or something similar, set aside, if not a well-armed, well-stocked bunker, or "doomstead," as I've heard them colorfully called.  An emerging friendship with a guy about my age exposed a bag full of MREs, matches, silver coins, and a couple hundred rounds of shotgun shells...to be ready to go, just in case. 

You may already be wondering, what does this have to do with teaching running water how to walk?  Bear with me just a moment if you will.

We spent a significant portion of our time inspecting and admiring the various forms of lighting and heating devices on display at the after-hours, and after dark, outdoor potluck dinner tonight, and talking about ways to keep closed living space more comfortable with wood stoves.  People who actually face, and smart people who understand that they might soon be facing, these sorts of new challenges tend to do that sort of thing apparently; heating a dwelling without fossil fuels takes up a significant portion of one's time after all.  But yesterday our heat-activated, wood stove-mounted fan from Lehman's arrived, so I had something special to add to the conversation.  It runs on a tiny dynamo, the current created by the temperature differential between the hot solid base and the cooler aerial radiator, or that's my take at least, and it spreads the heat nicely around our little tent house, giving us an extra 5-10 degrees of warmth I'd estimate, based on the first night's use anyway.  We need to see how it performs on a really cold night before I crow about it too much, but I'm hopeful; Mrs. Small Batch Garden and I were outside the covers at times last night, shedding PJs, with outdoor temps in the low 40s.  That used to at least merit the top sheet and comforter, if not the goose down.  Not bad for a $150, virtually indestructible device.  At full speed - the hotter the stove is the faster the fan spins - it moves 150 cubic feet of air per minute, which means, theoretically, that every bit of air in our 2400 cubic foot "yurt" crosses the wood stove every 16 minutes.  I pencilled that out in my head while I was lying awake and too warm on the comforter at 2 am this morning; makes it easier for my brain to understand.  The 150 cfm figure doesn't tell me anything.  But that kind of "valuable information," shared in the middle of the night, annoys the Missus to no end.

Speaking of getting to know people better that I'd been meaning to get to know better for a while now, I met an internet friend in person a couple of weeks  ago - a fellow who calls himself "ProgressOrConserve" on the peak oil sites.  I can't help but call him "Sam Elliott," because that's pretty much who he sounds like on the phone.  I always want to ask him what's for dinner.  Beef would be my guess.  Maybe some roadhouse food.  Nice guy though.  After three and a half years of online conversation, he and his wife, Mrs. POC, came to visit us at Small Batch, 40-ish miles west of their 5 acre homestead, just a good day's horse ride if it comes to it.  The meeting had been too long coming.  They actually offered us the use of some old family land and a farmhouse in need of "some work" outside of Athens, GA, earlier this year, before we ever met.  A lot of old family land, so we thought hard about it.  Big livestock systems were on the table.  In the end we chose full ownership, and I think the right place, and I think Mr. and Mrs. Elliott agreed.  They loved Small Batch.  During their visit we had the 10 second tour of the "house" (yep, nice tent, bro!;), and a more protracted tour of the land and my rough designs for it.

A transitional phase mountain forest moving toward a climax system dominated by white oak, red oak, and white pine.  The co-dominant Virginia Pine population is steadily dying out as succession moves the system toward maturity.

By my estimation our property was clear-cut 50-60 years ago.  Fast-growing Virginia pine colonized the denuded landscape fairly quickly thereafter, following a shrubby pioneer seral stage dominated by dog fennel, fleabane, broomgrass, and blackberries.  That's the dominant suite of plants I'm clearing from my neighbor's overgrown garden plot right now, including seedling Virginia pine, so I'm simply extrapolating that onto my adjacent acreage half a century ago.  On most of the property the red and white oak nursed to health and height underneath the Virginia pine is overgrowing, shading out, and killing its benefactor.  The nurse pines are all coming down, one way or another, so dealing with this literal windfall of pine biomass appropriately is the first big ecological question to be dealt with here.  Do it right and the system benefits mightily, and my gut says to lay as much as possible of it down on contour across the landscape to slow runoff and promote infiltration, deteriorating into organic topsoil over time.  We're creating "Polish swales," as Rocky Mountain permaculturalist Jerome Osentowski calls them, on top of hard rocky soil instead of dug into it, that are inexpensive, nourishing, and great for water retention. 

Penny Livingston-Stark calls these sorts of techniques "teaching running water how to walk."

Slowing water down as it makes its way toward the creek - retaining its potential energy higher in the landscape, moistening the soil more thoroughly, and getting more uses out of the water before it runs offsite - these should be primary goals for the mountain forest gardener.

Darren Doherty's mnemonic device for this primacy in permaculture, agroforestry, and keyline design is "first blue, then green, then black," meaning slow the water down and infiltrate it (the blue), then the plants will grow better (the green), and then more soil carbon will be produced (the black), creating a positive feedback loop that creates richer and healthier soil, and therefore plant and then animal communities, every year.  It's a regenerative, procreative, circular process instead of a linear, and ultimately destructive one, like modern conventional agribusiness tends to use.  And, just as putting our new fan's 150 cfm capacity into terms of how often the air crosses the stove helped me get a clearer mental grasp of what was being accomplished, (despite the missus's midnight indifference), having a grasp of real world numbers to clarify the benefits behind "first blue" is useful.  A mere one percent increase in soil organic carbon (OC) content increases that soil's water holding capacity by 100,000 gallons per acre!   This sort of OC increase is easy to achieve in one season when water is held up higher on the landscape and forced to infiltrate the soil, instead of running across it.  Moister soil of course promotes happier, lusher plantings that grow faster and produce more biomass that drops onto the soil surface, increasing soil OC again for the next season, which in turn retains more water in the soil, and...you get the idea.  Positive feedback loop.  By simply teaching running water how to walk, we enrich our food production systems passively and continuously.

This is the same view to the south as the photo above, just pulled back a little farther, showing the beginnings of my borrowed "Polish swaling" process.  This contour pathway holds hundreds of gallons of water up higher on the landscape, promoting infiltration instead of runoff.   This process will be repeated and improved upon across the whole property.  Note the two tall stumps astride the path - Virginia pines that have been dropped and used to retain the slope right around them.
I'll post a picture of the vegetable garden next time - I haven't got a good one today and I'm not at home to fetch one - but I've been doing similar things there.  This month I converted the first two summer French Intensive beds into one large raspberry hugelkultur at the top of the garden.  This big raised "mound culture," in Austrian permaculture guru Sepp Holzer's jargon, containing piles of half rotten logs and charcoal (biochar) within it, will go a long way towards arresting and infiltrating many thousands of gallons of rainwater that would have otherwise run off along the primary drainage line.  In Australian P. A. Yeomans' concept of keyline design, contours are not built to be exactly level, but rather sloped slightly away from the drainage line, rewatering the whole of the slope in question instead of collecting the water in ever-larger channels in the typical veining drainage pattern found in nature.  We live at the very top of our little watershed and our efforts at terraforming so far have placed an emphasis on stopping water flow right at the peak.  Subsequently, the whole landscape below benefits from that retained potential energy.  As cheap abundant fossil energy stocks play out, becoming more familiar with natural energy flows, and how to control and use them, will be increasingly important.  Controlling water flow passively for our benefit is perhaps the number one priority for organic systems in an energy descent scenario.  (More on this in an upcoming post called "Keep Your Eye On That Brass Ring.")

The upslope side of our little tent cabin, adjacent to the first apple/herb planting.
You can't quite make it out in this shot, but the top left edge of the photo is also the top of the eastern slope of the geographic saddle on which we live.  Our first gardens around the house start right at the edge of the gravel road that runs squarely on top of the saddle between us and our lovely nieghbor, and are mulched heavily.  I've since laid several yards of oak mulch over the wheat straw, and it retains runoff water very effectively, right at the top of the watershed.  It takes a whopper of a storm to see any water at all running out from under the mulch along the back edge of this orchard area.  Also not quite visible up to the left are a few logs I cut from a troubling pine tree dropped back in late spring (you can see the stump at the end of the fence); the herbs and fruit trees just below them are doing much better than the ones in areas without logs, lending credence to the idea of using the nurse pine crop in this way.

The stretch of field fencing provides a little protection and supports a few varieties of muscadine that I intend to graft together to make a living fence, maybe Spring '14.  Once it's well-established I think the wire support fencing can come out.  Never seen a living fence I didn't like!  And when the walk from the workshop - currently our house - to the compost area involves admiring this kind of biological architecture, and a handful of sweet native grapes, how much less like work will it seem?

We could spend a week on this topic, and get into some really encouraging strategies and statistics, although I think you'd probably rather do it with Darren Doherty and/or Penny Livingston-Stark.  I did, a few Halloweens ago in Aromas, CA, and it was very worth it.  Update photos of these developing areas will of course be featured in future posts.

First blue, then green, then black.  I think we can use that as a metaphor for adapting to the emerging realities of energy descent in general, as well.  In learning how to move from having dense fossil energy do everything for us to doing most of it with our own brains and muscles, and a fair amount of it not at all, I think it's above all important to move slowly.  Let the descent process infiltrate and fertilize your worldview.  What's most important? 

Think like a watershed. 

First blue.  Adjust your own oxygen mask first.  Learn how to mimic Nature's most fundamental successes and the rest starts to cascade automatically.  That's the hardest part for fast-paced Americans, I think.

We don't need to plan for every eventuality; what we need is a mental toolkit with new guidelines for navigating strange waters in the years ahead.  So far permaculture has come in pretty handy for that.

Don't panic.
Tripp out.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

ROBAMNEY 2012!

It seems the less time I get at the computer the more I want to say.  I hope it isn't always that way.  I hope I have enough computer time left in me to get what I want to say written down.  And I hope I have the good sense to print this stuff out on paper every so often, just in case I want to entertain myself with a reread one day, sitting under a big apple tree that I planted half a century earlier.  I had two other posts simmering in my head - one was a bit about powering down at a (socio)ecologically-adaptive rate, and the other a mildly-humorous lesson in permaculture zone and sector analysis - but, considering the timing, I thought I might take a jab at politics one more time real quick first.

No pictures today, I'm rushing head-long into cultural critic mode, so if you're not in the mood for novel, and I think enlightening, approaches to reorganizing history, cultural evolution, and a formal recognition of the "lumpenprole" as a political class, you might just skip it.  Anyone still with me at this point, let's go; I think you'll enjoy this.

From Wikipedia:

Arnold Toynbee argues that "self-determining" civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not due to racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalizations. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate.

He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another. In 1939 Toynbee wrote, "The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order... now confronts our Modern Western society." He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities": those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow.


It is this mimesis, this mimicry of heroes, that drives and solidifies any given culture.  When a young girl claims to be a Disney princess she is engaging in mimesis, a not-altogether-make-believe mimicry that defines her future expectations based on cultural convention.  But adults do it too, all the time.  Toynbee suggests that our culture, Western Christian Civilization, was birthed around 1000 CE in western Europe and spread throughout the world by the European diaspora of nations in North America and Australasia.  Where his analysis departs from typical historical analysis is that it doesn't consider cultural genesis, growth, decay, and death from the perspective of political or economic order, but rather from the perspective of a uniting worldview.  In other words, we are less "United States" or "representative democracy" than we are "Western Christian."  Toynbee identifies (precariously, I'll admit) 23 distinct cultures over the course of human history, each with its own unique worldview - Islamic, Hindu, Mexican, Eastern Orthodox, Hellenic, Persian, Egyptian, Sinic, etc, etc - along with a few abortive civilizations (e.g. Scandanavian, Syrian) and a handful of arrested civilizations (e.g. Polynesian, Eskimo).  The name of the hip-hop group 'Arrested Development' illustrates this idea nicely: a big chunk of the long term development of black western African culture was "arrested" when it was kidnapped by Western Civilization during the slave trade, something to which, understandably, the historically-literate black leadership does its best to return its people's attention. 

I've also heard our Western Christian culture called "Faustian," though I'm not at all sure who it was that made the deal with the devil.

This so-called Creative Minority inspires a large following out of the stagnation and decay of the previous culture - just as Christianity and Judaism collected global followings from the ruins of the Roman Empire - and, after generations of mimesis, solidifies into the Dominant Minority that controls the political and cultural discussion within that society.  Again from Wikipedia:

[Toynbee] argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the physical environment, over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority," which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority" (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). [Obamacare?]  He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

It is largely this phenomenon that drives politics in the West today, and the idea that inspired the title of this post.  "Republican" and "Democrat" are terms that identify slightly different people of basically identical cultural persuasions.  Neither party is even talking about the real challenges we face in Election 2012, much less "adequately addressing" them.  In my opinion this is at least partially due to career politicians; the mere mention of our "non-negotiable" way of life within the context of constraining physical limits to that non-negotiability would be political suicide.  On the other hand, a Georgia farmer, who has spent his life with his nose to the wind, and serving a brief two year stretch in the Senate in DC at the urging of his neighbors, would be far more likely to bring up hard issues since his future is waiting for him back on the farm in Georgia, and not in the possibilities of a cabinet position with the next administration.  This is likely one of the most dangerous factors in our current predicament, and one of the biggest reasons why paying attention to the "official story" can be hazardous to your health.

Contrary to the acquiescence in the first italicized sentence above, the decay of our particular culture - which has really become the Western Christian Petro-Culture over the last few centuries - is being compounded by physical limits to our culture's resource and energy base, its operations budget.  Limits like peak phosphorus, peak fresh water, peak oil, peak everything that has come to define us as a society.  Many people think that advanced technology - in farming, information sharing, natural disaster mitigation, etc - is an asset in our particular case; in reality it is likely to be our Achilles heel, and a factor that makes our demise so much more "interesting" than the ones before us.  Still, even without this (massive) extenuating circumstance, the deterioration of Western Civilization is already well underway, and for exactly the reason Toynbee outlines.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. Toynbee writes:
"First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."
Toynbee developed his concept of an "internal proletariat" and an "external proletariat" to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization.[3] During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an "internal proletariat" may form a "universal church" which survives the civilization's demise.[4]

The "universal state" Toynbee refers to contains both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as any and all of their cohorts and appointees, and if one of them tries to get uppity and bring up politically-awkward subjects, like peak oil and total and permanent energy contraction, he will be dealt with swiftly, I can promise you.  That will be the guy you want to vote for.  I am not suggesting conspiracy; I am merely suggesting that the ruling political class has inbred to the point of unrecognized dogmatic behavior, or "stifled political creativity within the existing social order."  Which is totally understandable after a thousand years...

The "internal proletariat," or, as an online acquaintance who calls himself 'Bustin J' more colorfully terms "the lumpenprole," has been on the rise since at least the economic crisis of the 1890s, when Toynbee was beginning his analysis, but has swelled significantly since the manufacturing job sell-off of the 1970s which created the Rust Belt, and is picking up steam at an accelerating pace since peak economy in 2007.  The "external proletariat" includes just about everyone who isn't a member of the industrial world, and probably plenty who are, including most of the enormous Chinese population enslaved in American sweatshops for the past few decades.  As the operations budget of the industrial world continues to disintegrate, the internal proletariat will make common cause with the external, and the death spiral of Western Civilization will become genuinely irreversible.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism" within the body politic. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses of the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.

Toynbee's thoughts here are easy enough to see in our current situation.  "Idealization of the past" accounts for the TEA party, and all the rest of the flag-waving jingoistic nostalgia that permeates our country today.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard local business owners say something to the effect of "I wish things would just go back to the way they were."  Business owners be warned: adapt to emerging ecological realities or perish.  "Idealization of the future" accounts for the preponderance of "green tech" folks out there, pining for a day when we can zip around the world in millions (billions?) of electric cars and planes, free from the guilt of burning fossil fuels to run our economy.  Which is of course a malanalyzed zeitgeist pipe dream.  Want to have a smaller automobile impact on the environment?  Drive less.  And detachment?  Sports.  New technologies.  Pop music.  Remind me who Jennifer Aniston is married to again?  Nah, never mind.  It'll be someone else tomorrow.  And finally, transcendence?  Vanishingly rare in our world.  The relatively tiny permaculture, natural building, economic relocalization, and appropriate tech movements are about all that come to mind.

Lest anyone find the idea of permaculture as an emerging "church" too heretical, even within Toynbee's definition, I would invite you to compare the garden variety (hehe) permacultural life with the teachings of the Bible.  Every permaculture site on planet Earth is a corrolary of both the Garden of Eden and Noah's ark, and its inhabitants more ethical, in objective terms, than just about any religeuse I've ever run into.  Just about any;)  Blind faith and church attendence alone don't make a person ethical.  To my mind, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the combined emerging "ecotechnic" package might fit Toynbee's concept of a "universal church" rising from the ashes of Western Civilization.  Whether that emerging "creative minority" contains within it the teachings of the Christian church or not will, like everything in permaculture, be site specific!  There is certainly nothing in the teachings of permaculture to prevent it, and I know plenty of permies who possess a religious bent.

However, one belief structure that might be more ubiquitous in the permacultural community is the understanding that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is offering anything of value to the most important discussions of our age.  And on that note I confess that, in a week or so, I will only be voting for new leadership up to the governor's office, which I expect to have an actual impact on my life for some time to come yet.  We can no longer afford an imperial government, whether that government understands that reality or not; and asking career politicians to comprehend their own demise is probably a bit of a stretch anyway.  Like Amendment One on Georgia's ballot, what's the point of voting in favor of things we can't afford??  Boycott has always been a more powerful strategy.

And it's not like the lumpenprole of 20-some-odd human civilizations have ever asked the dominant minority's permission to be inspired by novel ideas...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pot au Feu - Winter is Approaching

Check out the new wide plank pine floor we laid in September.  It feels so much better underfoot than the old 2x6 decking ever did.  A lot warmer too...oh, and fewer scorpions paying us a visit through the cracks in the floor.
We moved to the lower Appalachian bioregion to escape the hot summers of south and middle Georgia.  This was our second summer without air conditioning, and the mountain climate made it a lot more tolerable than it was in Tifton last year.  We had a four-day stretch in late June with 100+ temps, rare for this region, which made AC-free living a bit miserable, but then, did I mention it was only four days?  Besides, my mother came for a visit at just the right time, bless her soul, and kept the children at the hotel with her.  We basically took those four days off, ate, drank, and watched TV in the air-co, and cooled our heels in the hotel pool.  Other than that, days were warm and busy, and nights quite pleasant.  It was the rare dawn that didn't have us all under the comforter.

But it IS the mountains, and cooler summers are generally followed by cooler winters, so when September rolled around we knew it was time to start preparing the tent for winter.  Closing up the floor and installing the wood stove were the first items on our to-do list.

First we moved the east side of the house to the west side, rolled out an overlapping layer of red rosin paper, then laid a 3/4 inch thick, 10" wide pine plank floor sourced from our bioregion. 


Then we slid everything back to the east side and did the same for the west half.  Thank you sister Julie for your assistance on this day!  What a mess!

Next we laid a tile hearth and installed a small cast-iron wood stove.  You can see that I've lined it with fire brick on the stove floor to add some thermal mass and make it a little cooler underneath.

With the house in disarray, we ate out too much during these 4 days, but as these baskets show, the garden and forest kept offering their bounty nonetheless.  In the right basket is about 3 pounds of September chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius and C. lateritius) and another pound of hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum).  We ate what we could and sold the rest at the farmers market for $10/pint, about $30/lb.

About this time we also ran out of the lard stash we brought north with us, so it was time to render another round.  This is fat from pastured pork produced by Mountain Valley Farm, which is less than 8 miles from our place.  Even this good stuff is very cheap; I think we paid 40 cents a pound maybe, bartered for our herbal products.

In September we also got our rabbit operation moving again.  The old triplex tractor is no longer sad and vacant.  We have three New Zealands, two does - Clover and Helena Handbasket, who has partially lop "helicopter" ears, as my dad calls them - and a buck named Br'er Fox in Socks, after a couple of favorite children's stories.  Fox chewed his way out one day and picked up a tick that paralyzed his back legs, but a steady regimen of comfrey, self-heal, yarrow, and sassafras has him on the mend.  I think we're just about ready to breed now.
And ready to add some delicious rabbit meat to that pot au feu the title alludes to!  It's been chilly the last few days, and we've been transitioning to cooking on the wood stove inside full time.  The process of cooking a meal from start to finish on wood is slow, very slow, but it doesn't need to be watched all that closely - nothing ever burns - and the taste!!  My god, the food is incredible.  "Pot au feu", for those who don't know, is a traditional French dish, usually based on a cut of beef that requires extended cooking.  What makes it stand out is the fact that it is usually left on the stove and added to for several days, developing a complexity of flavor that peaks around the 3rd or 4th day.  Our first pot au feu is on the stove now, based on some local apple-wood-smoked beef kielbasa we got from Riverview Farms, instead of beef roast.  We started with the "holy trinity" - onions, carrots, and celery - in butter, then added the sausage about an hour later, then chicken stock from the pantry another hour later, along with barley and navy beans.  Another three-ish hours and that new pine floor was covered with the drool of four desperately hungry slow food junkies.  What an aroma!  And taste to match. 

In our admittedly limited experience, extended cooking in cast iron over fire tends to pull a dash of flavor from every meal previously cooked in that vessel.  The night before we started the pot au feu, we slow-cooked (as if there were a choice;) sweet peppers, onions, and Italian sausage for dinner.  We swore we could taste hints of French toast, bacon, chanterelles, and grilled tomato, basil, and cheddar sandwiches, all combining to make an amazing, close-your-eyes-and-moan kind of dish.  We gave up the microwave 4 years ago, then the toaster, the electric range this past spring, and now my wife is talking about down-grading the propane stove to bathwater- and dishwater-heating duty only. 

Won't wood be hot for summer cooking, dear?  We'll figure it out, she says...and I believe her.  And the best part is, she's really into this wood stove cooking, taking on a significant portion of the fire tending in the process.  Which I'm totally OK with;o)

Yeah, we sure are missing all those modern conveniences!  Wow, we should have done this sooner.   Wood stove cooking will be a permanent fixture in our household from now on, whatever happens to the world around us, and open hearth cooking is no doubt on the horizon, once we have a nice big fireplace with wrought-iron boom, in some future kitchen.

Soon on the list for our home comfort is the possibility of excavating under the tent platform and loading up 10-20 yards of wood chip mulch in the 16'x20' space below.  I'm thinking that if we enclose the deck with some sort of skirt, buried slightly in the soil below, around the mass of composting forest waste, that the heat of decomposition might be able to keep that new pine floor toasty warm, and reduce our need for constant fire in the fall and spring.

My wife is obviously questioning the need to go to all that trouble...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

No Country For Energy Descent

They say that a prophet is never loved in his own country.  Taken to its logical conclusion, that must mean that he's despised by his own family.  I am not a prophet - no Galileo in these halls - but I am doing my best to pay attention to and practice the advice of the real prophets, folks like John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, and Dmitry Orlov.  Oh, and that guy Kunstler, too.  He's a rabble rouser, and my participation in his comments section has always been as a permacultural voice of reason and patience.  As it turns out, however, simply giving credence to the (ostensibly false) prophets is enough to get you tarred and feathered, at least by the people who are supposed to love you the most.

I had a day like that on Sunday.  I worked my normal farmers market in Grant Park (Atlanta) until 2 pm or so, then retired to what has very happily become a Sunday lunch ritual with my paternal grandmother and her husband of 30+ years.  For anonymity's sake, let's call him Jow, pronounced just like Joe, but different of course. 

So I walked into the house after the market, and he pounced - no hello, no how'd it go, just "do you know what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is?" 

"What is it?" I asked, fishing for a numerical value in the 13,000-14,000 range, potentially a little lower if all was going right. 

"It's a measure of the economy's strength, and it's driven by consumption," was the response.  If I'm not mistaken I think it was followed by the term 'dumbass'. 

"No, I meant what is the Dow Jones' value that has gotten you so worked up?"

"Seven hundred," he responded.

Now for those of us who actually keep up with these things, that was intense news.  I don't believe that "the Dow" is  anything more than a mechanism for making ordinary people think that they are important, or at least informed, to keep them invested, that it actually represents something meaningful to "Joe Six-pack."  Or to Joe beach-house-owner for that matter.   That's where they get you.  They make you think that since you own a handful of properties and equities the Dow DOES mean something to you, even if it doesn't to lowly Joe Six-pack (who is obviously a desperate alcoholic and despotic child abuser).  And for the moment it might.  Play it for what it's worth.  You don't owe "them" anything.  Take what you can.  It's the American way after all.  (Tongue planted firmly in cheek.)

"Seven hundred?" I asked, dumbfounded.  "That IS news.  Tell me more."

"It's people like you, 21st century hippies, that unplug from the economy that are bringing it down."

"Really?  So I'm a dumb-ass AND omnipotent?" I replied snarkily.

I won't bore you with the rest of the "discussion."  It basically boiled down to "they will fix it, while ideologues like you fiddle while Rome burns."

Fiddle while Rome burns?  You think it's easy to live the way we do?  Every simple action of our day-to-day life takes 4 times as long (at least) as it did with cheap fossil fuels at our disposal.  I'd be glad to trade places with you, and let you show me how to play that fiddle.  But then, you didn't leave us that option, did you?  Not that I'm blaming you.  Roles reversed, we would have done the same thing to you.  Unknowingly, of course, just like you did.  It's no one's fault.  Energy drives activity for humans, just like it does for yeasts, oaks, and rhinos.  And there is nothing Obama, or Romney, or Ron Paul can do about it.  The solutions they are banking on are aimed at sustaining the unsustainable, even Mr. Paul's.  The other two are just corporate derivatives.  Maybe Obamacare would have worked in 1930, financially if not socially, when we were getting a 100:1 return on our energy investment, and could subsidize such foolishness, but in 2012, when global oil returns are in the neighborhood of 15:1, this idea is obtuse at best.  Can't afford "health" insurance?  No problem, we'll just fine you more money you can't afford until you can.  Makes sense, right?

Never mind that I make my living making, selling, and promoting the kind of accessible, democratic medicine that the people have used for oh, 100,000 years or so.  The kind of medicine that will sustain our species for the rest of its tenure on Earth after toxic industrial medicine is long gone.  The kind of medicine that poses such a threat to swollen, over-cooked allopathic medicine that the latter feels like it needs to formally demonize such harmless constituents as comfrey and sassafrass, prohibiting the future from knowing effective, non-toxic skin and bone repair, oh, and real root beer taste.  Surely lab-created corporate substitutes are just as good.  (Tongue, cheek, yes?)

Good.  Western medicine has its place.  They do triage like no other.  Surgery?  Check!  We got that.  But health?  Nah.  Eighty percent or so of the problems for which we prescribe drugs could be handled with the whole plants that are still, to this day, largely the basis of the overly-specialized industrial medicine in question.  When pills are given credence where greens are not, something has gone terribly wrong. When we promote televised opinions over first-hand observation of the world around us, calling people ignorant for not watching the boob tube more closely, we have officially lost our marbles.  That's what this year (and Sunday afternoon in particular) has been like for me.  And everyone is saying these things!  Even the smart people.  That's how I know things are in a dismal state of affairs.  There is very little first-hand thought anymore, even among the intelligent classes.  Even among those who pretend to not pay attention to the mainstream.  Make a comment at any blog on my list and I'll probably be able to tell you if you watch TV or not...and it won't be because you sound so much more informed than the ones who don't, I'm afraid.

Show me prescient systems thinking and you'll be showing me someone who's most likely not watching TV, not reading the newspaper, and not praying for the stock market to recover.  You'll be showing me someone who is probably trying to find their way back to the Garden, where humans belong.  But talking about it with people who think they're informed because they watch TV and read Consumer Reports is a very bad idea...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Business Opportunities With Small Batch Garden

Small Batch Garden’s Anticipated Crop Needs for 2013


Eyebright Elixir has been one of our most promising products this season!

Small Batch Garden is a north Georgia herbal health and household products company that is run on permaculture principles, and with a steady eye toward relocalizing economies.  Toward that end we are looking for bioregional producers of the bulk herbs we use regularly, top bar beeswax, and to help establish a bioregional essential oils distillery.  Below is listed our anticipated needs for the 2013 season, and the prices we are willing to pay for those products.  I have also included the price we are currently paying for the products from Oregon, to demonstrate our commitment to supporting more sustainable local production.  All herbs must be dried and processed to market quality.  Please contact Tripp or Jessica Tibbetts at 706-273-1752 or trippticket@gmail.com.

Dry bulk herb (est need)             Current price ($/lb)          2013 price ($/lb)

Lavender flowers (10-25 lbs)      17                                           25

Calendula flowers (10-25 lbs)     23                                           30      

Chamomile flowers (10-25 lbs)  10                                           15

Comfrey leaf (10-25 lbs)              10                                           15

Peppermint  leaf (10-15 lbs)       10                                           15

Eyebright (5-10 lbs)                      14                                           20

Goldenseal (5-10 lbs)                  18                                           30

Raspberry Leaf (5-10 lbs)           8                                              10

Cornflowers (5-10 lbs)                40                                           50

Rose Hips (5-10 lbs)                    8                                              12

 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Business in Contractionary Times


We humans did just fine before the Industrial Revolution, whether we were members of an agricultural, horticultural, or foraging society.  The move to agriculture from foraging or horticulture wasn’t, and still isn’t, a self-evidently desirable adaptation.  Many people, even today, know all about farming and choose not to join the movement.  The Kung! bush people of Africa, when asked why they don’t adopt farming practices, famously reply “why should we farm when there are so many mongongo nuts?”  And they have a good point.  Why toil from sun-up to sun-down to produce a surplus of a few high-calorie crops when you can eat a wide variety of foods offered freely by Nature? (And please don’t say to have more free time!) It’s been estimated, from prehistoric midden analysis, that the Cherokee people, indigenous to the southeastern United States where I live, utilized over 200 plant species regularly in their diet.  By contrast, the modern farming world derives 2/3 of its calories from just 3 crops: rice, corn, and wheat, with rice feeding fully half of humanity.  Efficient, considering our energetic reality at the moment, but about as far from resilient as we can get (think Irish potato famine). 

We tend to think that farming brought an end to hunger, but famine was unknown before agriculture.  Consider a diet based on over 200 species of plants, plus the occasional animal meat, insects, and a variety of wild mushrooms: how could one possibly go hungry with so many options??  No, it’s highly unlikely that foragers had access to as many gross calories as we do today, but nutrient density in their food was probably far superior to ours, and obesity was largely absent, as was the tooth decay I mentioned in an earlier post.  Foragers were healthy, nearly across the board I would wager, trim, fit, and with the absence of social hierarchy, probably a lot more relaxed than we are.  By contrast, Americans are pudgy, pasty, and neurotic.  Yes, let’s definitely keep doing this…
The way I see it agriculture relies on expansion.  Expansion of land use, expansion of markets, expansion of population, and expansion of the money supply.  Let me point out that the expansion of the money supply is the only one of these that can continue indefinitely (theoretically), and that’s because the money we’re talking about isn’t actual wealth, it’s fiat currency.  It doesn’t have any stand-alone value.  If it were backed by gold, or silver, or mongongo nuts, there would be hard limits to it as well.  But there is only so much land on offer, so many markets to infiltrate, and so many humans that the Earth can support.  If a commodity or process is declared “infinite,” or virtually so, one can almost bet that the limits to that commodity or process are near at hand.  If there were really still plenty, no one would be talking about the vast quantities remaining.  Ever heard anyone mention “peak sand?”  Why not?  We use it to make glass every day.

Agriculture is the embodiment of growth.  It has had a successful 10,000 year run, from (largely accidental) inception to (teeth gnashing) breaking point, and has been the most influential movement ever known in Earth’s history.  But expansion and growth are over now.  In a recent post we talked about the serious decline in EROEI figures for our favorite energy technologies over the past 80 years, and we now know that the time has come for us to slowly divorce ourselves from fossil fuels in favor of higher returns (like from firewood!).  That’s just what biological populations do.  Continuing to use an energy source whose EROEI is less than half that of a stone-age technology like firewood suggests to me that the industrial world has been officially, and in every other way, mentally enslaved by fossil fuels.  The divorce is unlikely to be pretty, or easy.  But the divorce must proceed nonetheless.  It WILL proceed, too, whether we like it or not, at least at globally-meaningful levels. 
In order to maximize our transition potential – potential that will hopefully be redirected into more useful strategies once we “fess up to the guvnah” about our situation – we will employ a host of other technologies as their EROEIs become more competitive with oil.  What we thinking people must do to help guide this process in the least wasteful way is boycott green-washed false starts, like ethanol and nuclear, and throw our support behind energy transitions that might actually be useful to us, like new hydro projects (away from the migration routes of diadramous fish naturally) and wind power, where applicable.  The EROEI for photovoltaic solar, spiffy as it is, is so low that it should only be employed in small amounts, and only where there is no better option.  At Small Batch we have a whole 11.8 watts of PV solar employed to drive a box fan, and we’ll probably never have much more than that.  Not that we weren’t thinking about it at one point, but we know better now.  Acquiescing to hard facts, and adapting our thought patterns to the new data, will be critical as we proceed within an energy descent context.  In other words, behavioral innovation is the most useful new technology in our arsenal.  Anti-climactic as that might be…

With this new worldview we should be able to outline some useful patterns for approaching business activity and the making of “money” for our sustenance.  We hit on it two posts back, but I’ll work through this facet of life in a bit more detail this week.  And I’ll start by making the suggestion that we need to change the way we think about “money” itself.  “Income” is a very natural word.  Ecosystems themselves make income, in the form of various earth energies like sunlight and wind, water moving through and across the landscape, inorganic nutrients eroding downhill, and animal manures collecting in the leaf litter.  A healthy ecosystem has no qualms about taking energy and nutrients from a weaker one, but it doesn’t involve “money” in the process.  In a non-expansionary future, money is likely to follow highly nonsensical patterns, cause a lot of anguish, and delude lots of people.  Getting used to thinking about income as something largely separate from “money” might be a useful new perspective to gain.
Real income, by contrast, is something almost anyone can increase at any time.  Land or access to land, fertility/biomass, water retention structures, trees and plants in general, medicinal herbs, education, etc, can all be thought of as real, money-independent income.  And most Americans, at this point, are still so blind to this idea that they will happily bag up their wealth and set it on the curb for you to pick up in the fall.  I can’t help but chuckle every time I take a shipment of biomass like wood chips, leaves, grass clippings, manure, straw, and spoiled hay, free of charge, from some dupe who thinks he’s dumping his “trash” on me.  It’s hilarious really.  Land is probably the hardest of these to come by, but land in the U.S. right now is fairly cheap – it’s hard to say if the value of land will start increasing again – and there is generally plenty of excess energy in the typical American household economy being used for non-essentials that could be redirected into something more important during critical times.  This is that time.  Trees, herbs, fruiting plants, education, water retention, etc, can generally be acquired at will.  I’m always happy to give away, or sell cheaply, comfrey starts, strawberry daughters, and scion wood.  Find people doing these things and you’ll find inexpensive starts for your own project.

From a larger business perspective, the industries that run our daily life are quite large at this point, generally interstate outfits, if not international.  That's what works best when energy is basically too cheap to meter.  But, coupled with declining real incomes, today's energy costs are starting to hit people hard already, and "local" is perhaps the biggest buzz word to hit the market in decades.  You can see it everywhere, from tiny upstarts like Small Batch Garden to large multi-national corporations, the word local is making a come-back.

 
In our case, we are paralleling the local organic food model with local organic simple medicines and household products.  Think of us as a tiny Burt's Bees.  We make herbal bugspray, linen waters, lip balm, skin and muscle creams, an eye health oil rub, and will soon be offering bulk herbs and teas, essential oils, and old homestead liquid soaps made from rainwater and wood ash.  It's what my wife and I love doing.  And I believe that the business world in general is opening up graciously to relocalizing businesses.  Working in the farmers market and festival scene, I'm seeing new local versions of cured meat companies, dairies, doughnuts, orchards, bakeries, honey, print stock, sewn goods, mobile wood-fired pizza, popsicles, plants, handmade pots, and organic soil conditioners, etc, etc, just waiting to take hold in a more local economy.
 
I see the business world as wide-open right now, if one can muddle through the uncertain transition.  A part-time job doing something crappy, that famous "underemployment" sector of the economy so popular just now, might be just enough to support a budding local business of your own design as we head into the economic transition from huge structures to small.  Family support is an extra special bonus in that endeavor, and one we've been fortunate enough to have access to as well. 
 
I don't want to pretend that we are over the hump and in a position to be giving financial advice.  We're not.  But Small Batch is growing steadily, slipping into retail outlet after retail outlet, seeing bigger profits at farmers markets every month, and expanding our product offerings organically, incrementally, as we have the time and money.  I think this is due to having a trained eye on where the world is headed.  But whatever it is you enjoy doing, or are at least good at doing, will probably be open to a more local version in the years ahead.  Just because Coca-Cola is who they are doesn't mean that a decent living couldn't be made making and selling soft drinks at local markets, and Coca-Cola's success in the growth world does not guarantee them success in the contractionary one.  Matter of fact, the psychology of previous investment is likely to get in the way of mammoth organizations like that soon.  Businesses like your tiny soft drink company and Small Batch Garden are like the little proto-mammals scurrying around the feet of the dinosaurs as the giant asteroid cruises in, largely unnoticed (both the asteroid and the proto-mammals).  Now is probably not a good time to be a dinosaur.
 
And consensus is not something we should be concerned about just now either.  Natural selection is driven by having a wide variety of options from which to choose.  Some options are adaptive, some are not, but we won't know which is which until they've been tried.  Even Nature doesn't know yet.  Consensus is useful during periods of constance, like the constant energetic reality we've all known for the past century or so, but once that driver of consistency no longer applies, we need options more than anything else.  Right now we need the nuts to try something different, even if it's only for difference's sake.  It certainly helps to have some knowledge about how the future may go - we can pretty much rest assured that energy will be harder to come by from here on out - and, with careful consideration, that knowledge will help us know where to turn for an income.  The lower energy future will be one of necessities - food, water, medicine, shelter, as well as art and entertainment of some sort, but I believe these needs can still form a rich cloth of existence around us, especially if we apply our remaining fossil fuel-derived affluence to the task of relocalizing our activity to a smaller scale.
 
They say that for every two jobs WalMart brings to a community three are lost.  Perhaps it would be good to keep that idea in mind as we lament the decline of globalism.  We haven't found Utopia in fossil fueled excess, so we are probably unlikely to find it in the day-to-day grind of energy descent, but as far as work goes, there should be no shortage in a more local future.
 
Cheers, friends.
Tripp out.