My dad was born in 1954, the year the American Civil Rights Movement grew legs. He tells me of a time in his childhood in Georgia, yes Georgia, when whites and blacks were both subconsciously moving toward a social environment of mutual respect and equal rights. Organically. Incrementally. Together, pulling out the roots and thorns of a very weedy history.
Then the federal government decided to make up everyone's mind for them and cram what was until then a very promising organic process of racial conciliation down everyone's throat. Needless to say, race relations have not improved much all these years later. What might have been...
In the 1960s and 70s, among all the promising moves America was making toward a lower impact way of life, organic agriculture was feeling its way into the hearts of eco-conscious growers and diners. It was a heady time of promising innovation, and the spirit of organic agriculture was strong and growing.
Then in 2002 the U.S. government adopted the federal organic standards that produced the round green and white label so familiar to us today...And then and there the spirit of the organic movement died.
I don't think I'm being too harsh when I say that. Once a set of standards was set down on paper, farmers and market gardeners searching for bigger profits immediately started looking for ways to get around them. And they've done so quite effectively.
That's what official standards do. They're like household rules when you're growing up. They set the bar in a place that does what all bars do: make the people affected by them want to figure out how get around them. And "organic" agriculture is no exception.
Today, an apple can be considered "organic" despite having over 200 approved spray chemicals applied to the crop. Is that consistent with the spirit of organic? Not to me it's not. What I want to see in my organic produce is a grower bent on using as few chemicals as possible. I want to see organic materials - compost, manures, cover crops, mulch, and so forth - used in the process of building soil that produces fruits and veggies that are superior to the other options because the grower is creating a local environment that fosters unusually healthy plants. I don't want to pay twice as much for a pear just because it has a fancy sticker on it.
In other words, I don't want a federal agency to tell me that, say, copper sulfate is an approved organic anti-fungal spray chemical. I want to talk to the gal that grew that pear about her cultivation methods. If, at the end of that conversation, I decide I'm good with her methods, whether they include copper sulfate or not, then that should be good enough.
And it is. That's precisely how I go about finding good food these days. I don't have a whole lot of respect left for the organic label. Since 2002 it's meant less every year.
I'll get to the Green New Deal in just a minute, but I want to lay a foundation and speak to my credentials for commentary on the matter first.
My history gives me a somewhat more qualified opinion on the matters in question than your garden variety armchair analyst. I've lived in the trenches of the lower impact ambition for over a decade now. After a few years of relatively moderate retooling, in May of 2012 my family and I took a major plunge and moved into a 20x16 wall tent on land we own in the north Georgia woods, without power or plumbing. We cooked on propane outside in summer and wood indoors in winter. We caught rainwater for domestic use, and returned our graywater to the garden where we grew vegetables, fruit, herbs, mushrooms...You get the idea. Hippies.
But as you can imagine, living in a tent got old. In May of 2014 we built a small cabin from local wood on the deck we built for the tent. Still no plumbing or electricity, but a major step up in comfort! In January of 2017 we added a 400W solar power system for a little juice - just enough for lighting, tool batteries, and a small clothes washer, nothing like what most Americans deem "necessary."
And then in February of 2019 we made the most radical swing to date. We bought a 1940s Craftsman house in the middle of downtown Ellijay, GA, the town we've been living near since 2012, and moved our family and business into what seems like an opulent palace to us.
Well, for several reasons. For one, no matter what we did at the rural homestead, no matter how far out on the radical fringe we lived for the last 7 years, precious few people ever benefited from it. We lived at the end of a quiet road 8 miles from the town center, and most of our influence came from this blog's earlier ramblings, and the crazy stories told to friends and customers over our farmers market table. But most of what we were doing was largely invisible.
Second, our view of what others were doing was somewhat limited. In town I can take the dogs out for a 20 minute walk in any direction and check out what a hundred different neighbors are up to. You should see the big cheese on my face when I pass the remnants of a side-yard garden from last year, or see the iconic two-toned pink blossoms of peach trees popping out of the background. There's a full-blown central American milpa two blocks east of my front door! Makes my heart happy to see such things. I got very little of that out in the sticks.
Third, we were still driving a lot. No matter what good we did at home our lives still required near-daily driving, 15 miles round trip minimum. And let's be honest with ourselves here, if we want to take our efforts to live lighter to another level, burning less gas is a good way to go about it.
So we moved to town to live an example others could actually see, to expose our hearts to edifying behaviors on the part of others, and to cut our driving impact to the quick. Oh, and both our growing children and business were pushing our little cabin's carrying capacity. It was time to adapt and this is how we chose do it.
Though in no way have we turned our backs on our ethics. A new and bigger house doesn't have to mean a larger impact. What are the big four domestic power hogs?
1) HVAC systems
2) Batch water heaters
4) Clothes dryers
1) Our heat comes from a gas furnace, which we keep set very low (62 F). We will be adding wood heat soon too, hopefully before next winter if we can afford it, hopefully an outdoor wood furnace. It's hard to heat with wood and not make a negative impact on indoor air quality; maybe this is the answer. AC will only be turned on in desperate situations, and then set high, mostly for drying out the indoor air here in the humid South. Though admittedly, even that will be a great luxury after 10 years of just dealing with it.
2) Here's our biggest current impact. We inherited an electric batch water heater with the house and can't afford to do anything about that at the moment. We are heading for an on-demand inline gas water heater ASAP, with a passive solar heater upstream as soon as we can manage the thing. For now though, we just have to grin and bear this one. Thankfully we use less water than just about anyone I know...
3) During our move we had a new gas line run to the kitchen and bought a used gas stove. Much better than the 220 outlet waiting there for an electric model. One of our guiding principles regarding the use of electricity is to avoid any device that resists the flow of electricity to create heat. Like electric batch water heaters, an electric oven is pretty high on the list of such technologies. We will still do most of our summer cooking outside though. It's a backwards habit to cook inside in the summer and rely on air conditioning to keep the house comfy.
4) We don't have a clothes dryer. Just a washer. We have 2 drying racks straddling heat vents in the house, and hang the laundry outside whenever it's sunny enough.
Basic stuff, but all of these things are REAL and USEFUL adaptations to the predicament of our age. Worrying about what sort of light bulbs to use when you're chilling in the air conditioning is as pointless as worrying about cow farts when you fly and drive everywhere. We've learned how to relate to the technologies that can make us or break us through our first-hand experience over the last decade, and also how to spot nonsense. (Hint: cow farts are nonsense.) And contrary to popular belief, conservation isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. I'm amazed at how often someone will spot my Android and suddenly turn on me, accusing me of being a poser, as if chopping wood and carrying water every day mean nothing. Come live my life for a week and see if you still think it's just posturing!
Every little change you make is worthwhile. Don't ever let yourself be derailed by cynical ass-hats trying to cut you down so they can feel taller. They speak only from a position of cowardice and weakness of character. They don't have the cajones to do even what you're doing, so their reaction is to make it seem like you're not doing anything of consequence either.
And therein lies one of my fundamental issues with AOC's proposal...
First, she obviously buys the all-or-nothing rhetoric hook, line, and sinker, and that's nothing more than a recipe for frustration and eventual failure. Period, full stop, end of sentence. Everyone gets tired of making sacrifices constantly. My wife and I call it "poverty fatigue," and it's overtaken us plenty of times on our journey. Go do something frivolous and then get back to it. Or as author John Michael Greer says, Do whatever thou must to keep from wilting! Because that will happen. And on a national scale you're just asking for a national crisis. Baby steps are the only viable kind.
Second, the only eco-conscious building is one that's already built, just like the only eco-conscious car is a used one. Parked in the driveway. We make impacts every day just by being alive. The best we can hope for is to hold them to a minimum. The idea of tearing down every structure in the USA and rebuilding it to current LEED certification standards (there's that damn word again, eh?) shows a profound lack of systems perspective (not to mention a desperate need for control). Can you imagine a larger and more unnecessary environmental impact than razing trillions of dollars worth of our built environment to the ground so we can rebuild it all according to some Johnny Pencil-Pusher's current notion of what is right and good?? What happens when that notion changes a decade or three down the road? Are we going to do it all over again?
There is plenty we can do to improve the situation of our existing built environment, and those things are in fact being done by millions of people already. Insulating, caulking, installing storm windows, replacing worn out materials with better, more durable alternatives. You should see how many new metal roofs are going up in the area around our new house. And wood stoves were the American appliance of the year in 2018! Then there are all the procreative activities like gardening, planting fruit and nuts, keeping laying hens, even raising some meat in small city spaces. Poultry companies are swamped with demand for chicks these days. Rainwater tanks are being installed everywhere - despite the fact that they're illegal in most jurisdictions - sometimes given out by local governments! People are setting their thermostats higher in summer and lower in winter, putting on more clothes instead, MAKING those clothes. It's really encouraging! What sort of person can't see these changes happening all around them?? This is how adaptation is done, folks. Just like eating an elephant, it's done one bite at a time, by individuals, families, and businesses. Top-down solutions are worse than useless.
But one of the biggest issues is that it CAN'T BE DONE! Never mind that it shouldn't be done, it can't be done. We sit here today in the richest country on Earth, surrounded by a level of opulence unimaginable to most of the humans that have ever been born, but what most of us miss, day after day, is that the quality of our energy has declined so sharply over the last century or so that the very existence of any industrial way of life is teetering on the very edge of extinction. Not humanity, not nature, just industrial civilization. And she wants to just tear it down and rebuild it all. Sheer lunacy. So out of touch with the real world that it embarrasses me. Is this the best we got?
It's wrong to think we're heading for trouble as a nation - trouble from climate change, sea level rise, energy shortages, overpopulation, and so forth. We're not heading for that, we're already there. We're in it now. And if you don't see it count yourself among the lucky (and sheltered). We are already facing predicaments that are turning our way of life on its head. There are already millions of Americans one missing paycheck away from homelessness and destitution. All the good energy is long gone. Solar? Wind? Geothermal? None of them can prove an EROEI (energy return on energy invested) any higher than what we're getting from dwindling fossil fuels, and at this point that ain't much...
Why do you think we are 22 TRILLION in debt as a nation? Because we are accustomed to living a life that our energy base can no longer afford.
And all the handwaving about novel technologies coming down the pike? Please. Enough of the vaporware. Do we really think that nobody's thought of these things before? How arrogant and historically-illiterate can we be? Have we not been trying to get a sustained cold fusion reaction going for, like, half a century or so already? Spent many billions of dollars on the attempt? And even if we did, would it actually be economical to power anything from it? If we achieved the ideal of energy "too cheap to meter" how long do you think the planet would remain habitable? Our predicament isn't just about energy supply you know...
Technically-feasible and economically-viable are very different things, and I encourage anyone who is conflating the two to rethink a vote in favor of a plan that guarantees swifter failure than what is already approaching at a fair clip.
What my seven years in the woods taught me is that life goes on without the trappings of industrial culture, that it can still be time very well spent. Most of human history would agree with me. And I agree with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez; we have a helluva situation on our hands, one that requires radical change. But the change she's talking about is suicidal. Not to mention impossible. Ill-advised. Oblivious...
There's a reason we put age limits on positions of power. It's called wisdom. And AOC is showing her shocking lack thereof.