Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Innovation Over Convention No Matter What That Means

Tilling is a terrible thing to do to the soil, but even I will do it when the circumstances demand it.

Someone who I consider to be "a good online friend" sent me a note recently, gently chastising me for considering trading in our recently-gifted but problematic pickup truck, and old fuel-efficient Camry, for a larger farm truck. I told her that we were using the change to push our behavioral innovation forward by demanding a cut in our number of trips to town to compensate for the difference in fuel efficiency. There's only so much room in the budget for fuel, and we aren't about to start cutting elsewhere to compensate. We now drive the 6-10 miles one-way almost daily, sipping gasoline in the Toyota at a very meager rate, filling up maybe every other week, but this new truck we're eyeballing is a Ford F-350 diesel 4x4 crew cab. It's a monster! No doubt about it. The thought of driving something like that makes my liberal skin crawl.

What my friend didn't put her finger on right away, despite her ample tendencies toward systems thinking, and what I didn't pin down right away either (but felt), was the concept that the planet is now 4 solid years deep into a robust contractionary phase. Trading my Camry for a useful farm vehicle wasn't going to change that. It was only going to make my life easier. Her response carried the implication that I should be setting the bar for my readers, and while I whole-heartedly agree with that, it's not exactly how Nature works. And that was what was subconsciously stuck in my craw. So let me explain.

David Holmgren, in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, talks about how competition is a normal part of our experience, and that, like individuals competing for calories or mates, ecosystems themselves compete for available energy, unconcerned with the general fitness of adjacent systems. There's no equal opportunity ecology, and a robust, adaptive ecology will always mine and retain energy from less adaptive, less fit systems nearby, whether that energy is in the form of organic matter, minerals, water, or whatever. This is the natural ebb and flow of ecology.

With this giant truck I could move my whole family, livestock, firewood, lumber, biomass, coolers full of produce, and go anywhere on the farm, road or not. By selling the small 4 cylinder we would cut insurance and maintenance costs in half, and benefit mentally from having only one vehicle to worry about. Yes, it gets barely half the gas mileage, on a good day with a tail wind, but in a quest to live a slower, more local life, it also encourages us to prepare better, to be better planners. It forces our hand to consolidate trips to town, and raises our awareness a notch about loose, high-energy and largely unnecessary, movement. The truck is also a diesel, so it uses the same fuel the rest of the farm fleet uses, and is more adaptive to homemade fuels in an uncertain future. The four-wheel-drive feature is priceless in a rural scenario.

When we were urban farmers we would have never considered such a switch. But we are very much rural producers now, or rapidly on our way to being such, and living in the sticks has its demands. With a vehicle like this one, I can imagine being able to make my own fuel from low-energy perennial biomass, using it sparingly of course, and travel on highly-deteriorated roads for a long time to come. I could never do that with the Camry; the ground clearance in that car is miserable. I don't expect a Mad Max, Heinbergian last man standing type of future, but I do think that those with the ability to move around at least a little bit in their region will be a boon to society. At least during the transitional generation(s). Surely we will learn to live without motor vehicles eventually, but I've been driving for 20 some odd years now, and have grown somewhat accustomed to it! Just like I've grown somewhat accustomed to eating, and I am going to fairly extreme lengths to ensure that I and my family will be able to do so in the future, come what may. I respect food now far more than I ever did before I started growing it, and I don't see why driving a useful vehicle should be any different.

I'm looking forward to the day when a gallon of gasoline is appreciated for what it actually is: about a week's worth of hard human labor. Where that mental break comes, at what price per gallon, is anyone's guess, but according to my friend in Burgundy who prompted this post it isn't at $6, much less at $3.25. We have a long way to go before we stop driving. I want to appreciate and utilize oil for the amazing tool for work that it is, not burn it flippantly cruising the strip. And two gallons of fuel in the truck will accomplish far more useful work than one gallon in the car. Way more than double.

Besides, it's the roads I'm more concerned about than the ability of the people to afford to drive. We will drive our cars and trucks till the bitter end, no doubt, it's just who we are, but as taxing authorities steadily hemorrhage revenues, road conditions will steadily deteriorate. This isn't conjecture; it's already happening. Just drive between Nashville, TN, and Spokane, WA, like I did a year ago, and see what you think. I-90 across the Idaho panhandle is in shambles (with reportedly zero money in the 2010 budget for repairs to boot), and almost the entire balance, excepting perhaps the wealthy stretch between Butte and Billings, MT, is not far behind. Do it in a large truck, the kind that drives the U.S. economy, and it is punishing.

But all this aside, the primary point of this rant is that we are past peak exploitation now, and there's nothing we can do to change that. (Sing it with me!) When I buy a large useful truck to accomodate what's becoming a successful and adaptive life, you can rest assured that more than enough other people are downgrading their energy use to compensate for that increase. The net movement is contractionary, and will be for a long time. It's as natural to acquire energy (let's say a big truck that can transport food and fertility) as it is to produce offspring; and it's equivalent to the example above about the fit ecosystem mining energy from the less robust neighboring system. As natural as it gets. I can't sell carbon-negative grass-fed beef without moving around thousands of pounds of meat at least once or twice a year. I can't heat a house with wood, instead of coal or gas, if I can't get firewood from the forest to my house. And I won't be of any use to less fortunate passers-by stuck in the mud (what used to be a good hard road) of a summer deluge with a car that can't even get out of the driveway.

My friend in France was right to point out options to this decision. But in the end, the EMERGY analysis, per the late University of Florida ecology professor Howard T. Odum, of the situation supports this decision. What we can accomplish with this truck represents a net reduction of household energy use. We're back to that full environmental accounting business we talk about occasionally around here, and it pencils out in favor of the gas-guzzling truck this time. Although I do want to thank Laura for forcing me to do the math!

Adaptive behavior is its own reward, and sometimes it pops up in unusual places. Don't be afraid of the unconventional, even when it puts you at odds with your ideological peers. After 450 years of success in one of the most unforgiving human environments on Earth, the Greenland Norse vikings starved to death, surrounded by fish so thick they must've been able to walk across the fjords on their backs in season, just because of a cultural taboo against eating fish. Imagine the pleasant surprise that rebel who chose to eat those salmon would've discovered if he had decided that living was more important than fitting in. Now more than ever, we can't afford to let convention dictate innovation.

Cheers, my friends.


  1. Amen. We always talk about sustainability here in NA while China and India voraciously enter first world consumerism. Your footprint aint shit. Liberal guilt sucks too. Youre doing more good than 50 million carbon offsets with your educational blogs and permie ethics. Enjoy the truck. Now you are a bona fide Georgian. Welcome aboard!!!

  2. Hehehe, changed my driver's license too for the first time since I left Florida. Now that I'm back home, the roots are sinking deep and fast. Down with liberal guilt!

    Good to see you, Ande.

  3. great video list. using poultry to break pest cycles. check!

    I really am coming to see you guys. that goat is dying to be photographed and immortalized in a painting.

  4. Very interesting post.

    I've recently come to a similar set of conclusions.

    I've been trying so hard to conserve, conserve, conserve, which I'm sure is noble.

    But then suddenly it hit me that I need to do what I'm good at - even if it's in a field that can lean toward consumption - because I need to figure out a way to gain additional funds so I can get out of the mainstream and stop working for "The Man" and dancing to his tune, and get prepared for what the future has to offer all of us.

  5. Andrea, I tend to think of what you're talking about as fitting into the "appropriate tech" column. Most permaculturalists are fine with using energy temporarily at unsustainable levels, so long as the end result is a procreative system that can be maintained by human power.

    For example, if I use a diesel-burning bulldozer to build a pond so that my livestock have a natural water source in perpetuity, then I can STOP using coal-fired electricity to pump water out of the ground. Power goes out, my cows still have water. And my grandchildren's grandchildren's cows still have water too, a century and a half after the lights go out.

    I think that's a far better use of diesel fuel than for building a strip mall.

  6. Wait, though. Why are you tilling?

    You explained the truck, but not the tilling.

  7. That was just intended to throw people who know me off balance! Probably should've come back to it though.

    Wage, one thing tilling actually does accomplish is breaking up the fungal domination in soil. Which raises pH. Which is more amenable to growing vegetables. It will be the only time I ever do it. And it's bermuda sod we're talking about here. Next year they will be big beautiful no-till double reach beds, a la Tripp's normal gardening style.

    Funny part is, we're not getting the truck after all...