Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hardly Unemployed - A Look At Domestic Permaculture

We made an unexpected trip to south Georgia yesterday, the main purpose of which was to guide my brother and his wife to our old house in Macon for a look.  They recently moved back home from Iowa after some personal struggles that left them wanting to be closer to the moral support of more family.  Gathered in my little sister's tiny apartment over some ready-bake pizza - the 4 of us, the 3 of them, my sister's trio, and our mother, "Nana" to all the grandchildren - little sis piped up and proclaimed "well, we're all unemployed and homeless, I guess."  Got to tell you, my hackles rose to full attention pretty quickly.

My wife and I are not only landowners, but landowners (and taxpayers) in two different areas of Georgia, one of which we were in her tiny apartment to discuss the future of, and how that future might benefit some of the other people gathered there with us.  And that brings me, without further ado, to the first of several points I want to make about the potential for applying permaculture principles to the non-garden realm of our lives:

There is a big difference between living in an apartment, with its recurring rent, month-after-month, never accruing any sort of equity in the property; and using your money upfront to buy land and an inexpensive and rather temporary shelter, as we've chosen to do.  The first approach is guided by the general assumption that better days are on the way, if only I can find another high-paying job; the second is guided by the general assumption that better days are on the way, from here on out, week after week, because I am building those better days around me, on a permanent plot of private land, with my own hands.  Even if both options were funded by the matriarch of the clan, sitting there in the room with us last night, the mental perspective of the two options is radically different.

For convenience sake, let's call my sister's approach "the treadmill way," and my household's approach "the procreative way."

In the treadmill way there is a suite of recurring bills - for things like electricity, cable, haircuts, etc - that will never go away as long as this approach persists.  In the procreative way, the goal is to make recurring expenses disappear, and therefore free up your time for other goals.  My blog readers already know that we live without electricity and don't intend to add more than a tiny bit of solar and homemade micro-hydro back in as we go; we cut the cable, the umbilical cord of our culture, years ago; and, just to address the last of my examples, bought a decent set of clippers for haircuts a few years back so that we could cut the expense of recurring haircuts out completely, at least for the boys in the house.  Since we no longer have the AC power capacity for clipper cuts at home, those clippers go with me when I travel to places that do - like my sister's house for an unexpected visit.  My brother had just helped me trim my mop not two hours before the dinner in question.  No power or cable bill, or the even larger expenses that naturally occur when one lives an electrified, televised life, and no more cost for haircuts than a few drops of oil and a little maintenance on the clippers now and then to keep them clipping.  And maybe a dime's worth of juice.  It's not easier to do things with this approach, but the procreative way eliminates the need to make money for these expenses every month.

Regular readers of Small Batch also know that we make our living by making herbal health and household products.  For the moment the raw materials for our lotions and potions come from offsite, but that arrangement is under steady assault.  We have already moved the bulk of our herb production out of Oregon and into our own north Georgia bioregion (thank you Lane's End Homestead!), and will eventually be producing a lot more onsite, including, we hope, our packaging.  Our little business grew five-fold in 2012, and looks to at least double again in the new year, and with a lot fewer miles and hours spent on the road to boot.  Again, we're cutting recurring expenses out of the equation.  But hardly unemployed.

The main thrust of our herbalism, however, is the removal of ourselves from the expensive and extremely high-energy Western industrial medical system.  I would say that we can address 90% of our medical needs at home, by ourselves, without ever even starting the car.  My sister, by contrast, is constantly in and out of the doctor's office (with or without the insurance or money to pay for it somehow), and in constant possession of those little plastic amber bottles with the white labels that so many Americans seem to need at all times.  I'm guessing that none of that is terribly inexpensive, nor self-reproducing like herbs - the very definition of "procreative."  Permaculture principle: favor biological over technological solutions.  Stated another way, you can either grow and make your own medicine, or you can go to work to make the money (or insurance) to buy your medicine.  Choosing the former isn't any easier, technically, but it does eliminate the bulk of a big recurring expense, up to and including, from what I hear from multiple older family members, the entire need to work at all!

Lately we've been handwashing our laundry, with homemade laundry soap, and hanging it out to dry - a big investment of our time and energy, but only pennies from the pocket.  In the treadmill way one generally assumes that they need to own their own electric washing machine and dryer, or money to go to the laundry mat instead.  One of these options starts off expensive, and stays expensive, and the other gets less expensive with every wash.  The cost of the washtubs, clotheslines, and necessary tools is marginal, compared to private ownership of complex and breakdown-proned machinery, and further dilutes with each load of laundry.  One is a durable, low-tech, transparent technology, and the other can only be expected to keep you on the money treadmill, with nothing to pass on to your children in the end.  Did you know that George Washington's mother specifically addressed certain individual pieces of her household equipment in her will?  Does anyone have a cooking vessel that they respect that much today?

One of the other big household expenses is space and water heating.  Again, the two approaches offer radically different solutions to the problem.  From our procreative perspective, the lion's share of the expense is front-loaded, wrapped up in the cost of a chainsaw and woodstove.  Between the two we spent about $700 total, but our water and space heating costs are now entirely represented by our physical labor and some chainsaw maintenance.  A little gasoline and oil, a couple of files for sharpening chains (which are a highly infrequent expense themselves), and a yearly tune-up at the local service shop.  By contrast, the treadmill way, coupled with an electrified life, keeps its slaves at a job, making money to pay for what can be exorbitant heating bills.  I've heard family members lamenting $300, $400, even $500 monthly power bills during spells of cold weather.  Just for one month!  Absolute nonsense.  How is it more respectable to pay giant sums of money to keep a draughty house that you don't spend much time in (because you're at work making the required money) warm, than it is to warm and work out your body chopping firewood?  Short answer: it's not.  At least not in a sane society. 

An even more procreative way might be to design your house and water-heating system with a passive solar orientation and plenty of thermal mass built in to hold onto the heat of the sunshine striking it through the glass.  Cob and adobe structures usually work on this principle.  Another example of procreative productivity trumping mere treadmill activity.

One last point should finish off this argument, and it concerns addiction.  Most Americans are addicted to something.  Whether it's booze, tobacco, or other drugs, including prescription pharmaceuticals, television, video games, or whatever, it's all expensive, and it's all totally unnecessary.  We wake up to alarm clocks, go through the motions of our daily drudgery, then come home to a bottle of wine or a muscle relaxer to make the pain we've caused ourselves - physical, mental, spiritual - go away.  We drink coffee by the pot, and put a pinch of cancer-causing snuff in our lips to stay awake and give ourselves a little buzz, because we've destroyed our normal sleep patterns, or because our bodies spent half the night metabolizing the poisons we fed them the evening before.  One of the defining features of a treadmill is the lack of a destination.

Getting rid of these addictions is just another form of income.  The time we waste, the expense, the loss of sleep, costs us dearly.  The procreative approach pulls these wasted inputs out of those destructive cycles and reinvests them in more useful ways, freeing up time and money to focus on other strategies for a productive life.  Yet another of those positive feedback loops I so love to talk about.  To make a long story short, you can choose to go to work to make the money to pay for the needs of life, and all these other more questionable expenditures to ease the pain of that approach, or you can invest the time and energy in doing them yourself, which I often find to be enjoyable.  In the grand scheme of things, neither is probably easier than the other in the final tally, but one requires "a job" away from home, and the other doesn't.  Personally, I'd rather be at home, in the garden and with my family, but I'm hardly unemployed...

Tripp out.