31 December 2008

You say "collapse" like it's a bad thing

Over the holidays I had occasion to discuss the state of the world with members of my family. I found it very difficult to contribute to this conversation because of my family's rules of engagement, which I suspect are similar to other people's family rules.
  1. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. If one has facts to back up said opinion, one should keep them to oneself lest an unfair advantage be gained over one without facts.
  2. The only acceptable response to any sentence which could reasonably have been uttered in 1973 or 1999 is to chuckle and say, “we've heard that before, haven't we?”.
  3. It is bad form to raise an issue unless its obvious solution does not require personal sacrifice and can be implemented by a mediocre government with no net tax increase.
  4. “We're fucked.”, no matter how delicately phrased, will make people feel bad, so, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.
Where I differ from my family, and I suspect most North Americans, is that I am not particularly interested in solutions to the problem of the economy. As much as I enjoy the freedom of mobility a car provides, or the buzz of a new electronic gadget, I am not committed to preserving a society based on burning huge quantities of fossil fuels and consuming shiploads of cheap stuff from China. I've said before that we'd all be better off if the richest billion or two of us were a lot poorer, and since almost none of us are willing to voluntarily give up wealth, having governments pour trillions of dollars into the black hole of economic collapse seems a fine way to ensure widespread wealth destruction. If oil sands development slows down, or car sales dry up, or demand for uranium drops, the planet wins a reprieve from the onslaught of civilization. No government policy could better protect the environment.

In case you were thinking of adopting this position, I must caution you, it will not make you popular. Your mental health will be questioned and you will be accused of sucking the joy out of life. You might not want to speak it out loud in polite company.

So here's to continued interesting times in 2009.

21 December 2008

Shortest day

Today at 0704 EST we in the northern hemisphere reached our farthest tilt away from the sun. We'll pause here for three days and then we'll move ever so slightly back towards the sun. The sun will rise higher and higher in the sky for the next six months. Although officially we're only on the first day of winter, this day is definitely the turning point for me. In a few weeks the days will be noticeably longer and even though the weather will still be cold and snowy the light will be stronger and spring will just around the corner.

Meanwhile, I'll enjoy my seed catalogues.

18 December 2008

Fun with Mollie and Muddi

We were graced with the presence of some celebrity dogs today. The famous Mollie and Muddi of Mollie and Muddi: A Sleep-over Story (available at The Miller's Tale in Almonte) came to visit. We have a family soft spot for Border Collies, so we were sad to see them go (and the folks they came with, too).

17 December 2008

Reverse psychology

Yes, I've been into the flyers again. There are plenty of enticing deals, but I'm going to pass on this one.

16 December 2008

Redefining success

I've been going through a bit of a Russian phase lately. I just finished reading Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov and I recently watched a beautiful little movie called Roads to Koktebel. In Reinventing Collapse, the author compares the collapse of the Soviet Union (which he witnessed first hand) with his observations and predictions for the collapse of the American empire. He suggests that Russians were reasonably well prepared for huge economic disruption because of the non-commodified nature of housing and transit and generally low expectations. Vegetable gardens were ubiquitous and life could be carried on without much cash. The film follows a father and son as they travel from Moscow to Koktebel in Crimea with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a willingness to perform manual labour and very modest requirements for survival. These two have fallen on hard times, even by Russian standards, but they nicely illustrate the sufferance described in the book.

Dmitry Orlov makes the case that economic and therefore societal collapse in the US is inevitable given the non negotiable effects of peak oil and will follow the pattern exhibited by all failed empires, most recently the Soviet Union. He then goes on to explain how, because of the commercialization of every aspect of life, Americans are woefully unprepared for life in a post-peak and post-money world. As a Canadian I know he's not speaking directly to me, but we're so directly inside the sphere of influence of the US that we will not likely escape the full impact of American decline. His advice is to start learning now how to live with little or no money. And don't worry too much about wealth accumulation as money will become worthless and other forms of wealth become burdensome.

Um. That's no help. Learn to live without much money. Mr. Orlov rightly points out that to live without much money now requires one to be very much on the fringes of society - the kind of person you wouldn't bring home to meet your parents. But if you are such a person you may be very well placed to thrive in a post-collapse world. And by thrive, he means maintaining your sanity and experiencing a measure of happiness, not having a lot of material possessions. I find this line of thinking downright refreshing compared to the competitive "how to profit from the crash" kind of advice found in many places. And while I'm not ready to give up too many comforts for an unencumbered life riding the rails, perhaps after my recent Russian immersion I'll be ready to loosen my grip on useless things and notions of security with a little less difficulty when required.

10 December 2008

Just looking

I came across Money and the Crisis of Civilization a couple of days ago, and I've found myself going back to it a couple of times. It's a simple explanation of why the current economic system cannot be sustainable and offers an unconventional approach for dealing with it. One sentence in particular resonates with me: In the meantime, anything we do to protect some natural or social resource from conversion into money will both hasten the collapse and mitigate its severity. The thrust of the article is that we'd all be better off if we were poorer rather than richer. I've been saying the same thing myself, though not nearly as directly. I've been feeling ambivalent about the collapse of industrial civilization because I had been operating under the assumption that people will get hurt in the decline. But what this article puts into perspective for me is that people will suffer if things continue the way they are. And of course I knew that already, but I'm giving myself permission to resume my civilization death watch as an interested observer of historic transition rather than fearful victim. After all, if I'm going for a ride, I might as well pay attention and have a good look around.

09 December 2008

Feeder report

7 dark eyed juncos
1 white throated sparrow
11 chickadees
5 goldfinches
3 blue jays
1 white breasted nuthatch
9 mourning doves
2 hairy woodpecker
3 cardinals
6 American tree sparrows
1 downy woodpecker
1 red breasted nuthatch
4 purple finches
2 voles
2 red squirrels
1 grey squirrel (black)
and counting...

06 December 2008

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

I've decided to give up on my civilization death watch for a while. Much smarter people than me have been describing in agonizing detail the collapse of the financial system, the depletion of oil reserves, the inevitability of climate change and other environmental horrors and the rise of religious fundamentalism. Every newspaper carries page after page of news stories confirming the decline of industrial civilization and the natural world that sustains it. The destruction of the natural world to enrich a small minority of the world's population breaks my heart, but the loss of the system which allows this to be so – not so much.

Most people can figure out that if you have a civilization based on the destruction of the natural world eventually you're going to run out of nature and that's the end of your civilization. This has happened over and over throughout history. The difference today is that our industrial civilization has expanded to include close to 7 billion people, the entire landmass of the planet, all the oceans and even beyond the thin layer of atmosphere to outer space. I'd say we've pretty much run out of nature.

I have no patience for the proponents of “sustainable” anything unless they really mean it. Given that to be truly sustainable we'd have to have about 10 planet Earths at our disposal or a tenth of the population consuming the same or the entire population consuming a tenth of what we're consuming now I don't think most “sustainable development” folks really mean it. I'm also losing patience with the lightbulb changing crowd. You can't argue with efficiency, but these incremental, no standard of living change required changes are insignificant.

I think most people understand the utter uselessness of technological solutions and incremental changes to solve the problem of ecological limits whether consciously or not. A few years ago George W. Bush bought a 98,000 acre ranch in Paraguay– even he knows what's going on. The rest of us intuitively understand that the structural changes required to stop the destruction of our air, water, topsoil, forests and oceans would be countered by state violence. If that sounds extreme, try preventing a uranium mine from going ahead, or stop a piece of farmland from being lost forever to housing. See how long it is before you're talking to a representative of the government who happens to be wearing a kevlar vest and gun. And if you're really serious about protecting that piece of ground, well – you're going to jail or worse. So most people don't even consider it and even disapprove of those who do.

Instead of the death watch, I'm going to try, to the extent possible, to disentangle myself and my family from the worst of civilization while increasing our connections to the natural world and the people in our lives. It won't change a thing, but I'll feel better.

02 December 2008

Taking the cure Part 2 - the labyrinth

The sun came out this afternoon long enough to entice me out to the labyrinth. It's flooded in places and there was a thin layer of ice on the water which is way fun to break through. I love walking the labyrinth in any weather, but particularly when there's a few inches of water on the pathway. Rubber boots required.

Taking the cure Part 1 - the birdfeeder

This picture is about as good quality as the average bigfoot photo, but I assure you the black blur at the top is a squirrel. He leaped out of a tree and quite dramatically overshot the birdfeeder, unlike his buddy who has mastered the launch and landing.

Mondays and Tuesdays are my FeederWatch count days. I record the largest number of individuals of each variety of bird that I see in the vicinity of the feeder over the course of the two days. I find this a very peaceful activity, although activity may be a strong word to describe what is essentially sitting and staring out the window.

This feeder watching provides a strong and necessary counterpoint to thinking about events in the civilized world. I really only have space in my mind for half a dozen or so human constructed crises but I have no chickadee limit.

01 December 2008

30 November 2008

November word cloud

created at TagCrowd.com

I had a pretty grumpy November if my posts for the month are any indication. This happens every year when the days get short and the weather nasty. This year, I've had time to write and thus share my dark thoughts, whereas in years past I suffered through them mostly alone. Some of my readers have indicated that they don't really appreciate my generosity. Now that we're within spitting distance of the solstice and my brain chemistry finally feels like it has adjusted to the darkness, I'll try to rant a little less. Unlesssomethingreallypissesmeoff.

Happy Birthday to my favourite guy!

28 November 2008

The original, unexpurgated Debt Rattle intro

Check out The Automatic Earth today. The following piece, (minus the snarky bits) is the intro for the daily Debt Rattle. Yep, written by yours truly.
In Canada, we're already fully recovered from our Thanksgiving festivities. We wisely take a long weekend in early October to gather with family to give thanks. The weather is often very fine and the fall foliage spectacular, allowing us to escape the usual family drama with a lovely walk outdoors. If all goes well we end the weekend with a vague sense of wellbeing (if only because the family has finally gone) and the fixings for some great sandwiches. The day after Canadian Thanksgiving is called Dieting Tuesday.

And so it is that I have no practical experience of Black Friday, the day after American Thanksgiving when door-crasher specials and deep discounts entice Americans into malls to start the Christmas shopping season. Wikipedia tells me that the term Black Friday was originally used by traffic cops and bus drivers in Philadelphia because of the headaches caused by the traffic jams downtown. Only later was it used as a moniker for the day on which retailers became profitable. Neither of these definitions is what jumps to my mind when I hear the term - rather I think of the devastation caused by the mining of minerals and the production of plastic, the poor working conditions of the assemblers, the pollution caused by shipping, the energy consumed in operating the gadgets and the future landfills overflowing with toxins all as a result of the frantic consuming of the world's wealthiest people.

As we enter the sputtering last days of late capitalism, the messages from the powers that be become more and more absurd. Drill! Buy! Bail! These are the panicky cries of the masters of an unravelling economic system based on exponential growth. The Canadian prime minister promised that in an effort to stimulate the economy he will open up uranium resources to foreign companies (presumably to rip it out of the ground faster) and relax environmental regulations for oil exploration and development in the Arctic. Canadians have been hearing this type of nonsense for so long we elected him instead of running him out of town. Corporations fill our mailboxes with advertising porn enticing us to spend spend spend. And generally, as good citizens of capitalist countries, we do. We consume to the limit of our incomes and often a good deal more. We listen to politicians explaining how the only solution is to give our grandchildren's money to bloated half-dead corporations and we mutter but we don't mutiny.

According to the bleating heads, now is a good time to buy a brand new V8 Dodge Charger. Chrysler is offering employee pricing and a major Canadian bank (the soundest banks in the world we're told) will provide 0% financing for 84 months. I'm astonished at the absurdity of this. It makes sense for Chrysler to try to unload these ugly, impractical symbols of excess, and that is where the sense ends. Even if I was a middle aged guy who hasn't achieved closure on some high school trauma and I thought owning one of these powerful gas guzzlers would make me whole, I would surely think twice about dropping my hard earned after-tax dollars on a car made by a near-bankrupt company notorious for producing unreliable vehicles. If I could, through denial or Prozac, get over that hurdle, I could probably also be convinced to avail myself of the opportunity to be indebted to RBC for the next seven years. If I was a loan officer at the bank though, I would automatically deny any applicant for a seven year loan on a Dodge Charger by simple virtue of the fact that to even consider such a thing is indicative of such poor judgment I wouldn't take the risk. Perhaps if I was a loan officer who happens to read TAE from time to time, I might take into consideration that the value of this car might rise from zero to something in year 3 or so of the loan as it is pressed into service as shelter for our unfortunate mid-life crisis and what's left of his family.

We just held a party using our children's cheap fuel, deep topsoil, abundant forests and clean water behaving like crack addicts frantically sampling every white speck, looking for more nature to keep the party going. We let ourselves be abused and lied to by governments and corporations because we didn't want to acknowledge that our way of life couldn't be sustained. And so we find ourselves still in the bar, minutes from closing time. We know the lights will come on and in the greenish glare, even in our impaired state, we'll recognize the ugly truth that we've wasted a lot of time and resources, hurt a lot of people and there's not a chance in hell of spending the rest of the night with someone remotely attractive. And even if we could afford the gas for our new Dodge Charger, we're too drunk to drive it home.

27 November 2008

Neoliberal weasels run amok

I usually rant about the state of the world in general without offering too much in the way of specifics. Not today. Today I'm specifically pissed at the prime minister, the minister of finance and whatever weasels they're keeping as advisors. It appears the bunch of them have just passed with flying colours Milton Friedman's Disaster Capitalism 101 course which he teaches by distance education from hell.

The current economic situation has given them the perfect opportunity to practice some of what they've learned. Jim Flaherty outlined the plan today. Firstly he cancelled federal funding for political parties. After all, 90 cents for every citizen of the country is an outrageous sum for an effective opposition. Second, he suspended the right of federal civil servants to strike for two years. That's because one should never pass on an opportunity to take away workers' rights. Pay equity settlements will now have to be negotiated in contract bargaining rather than through the Human Rights Commission to avoid "double pay equity" payments. Jim says we taxpayers have paid too much money to those angry women already. The government is granting an extension to the deadline for corporations to fully fund their pension plans. Those workers can be so annoying with all their bleating for pensions, and this will provide a little relief. The icing on this cake is the plan to sell government assets. This is well timed to ensure that the corporations who buy them spend as little as possible.

Read The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein if you haven't done so already to see what's going on here. The government is using the excuse of a financial crisis to kick the legs out from under workers while offering no meaningful assistance to anyone. Publicly owned assets will be practically donated to the private sector. And the party is just beginning.

24 November 2008

Forgive me...

There was a lot of advertising porn around the house this weekend and the entire family dove into it with gusto. It seems retailers have cranked up the heat to extract every possible penny from folks, and part of the strategy is sending out colourful flyers with tempting deal after tempting deal. I've had an eye out for a new camera ever since mine died in Norway this summer. I've been using M's perfectly decent camera, but the new ones still call out to me. They have beautiful colours and gazillions of pixels and image stabilization and big screens and they're thin and I need one.

After spending some time with the flyers, I realized I also need a GPS unit. That was a bit of a surprise to me, as I have been in a car with a GPS precisely once. I'm not sure how I missed knowing how much I needed one up til now, but I do. And I need a waffle maker. And an espresso machine and one of those denim work jackets they're selling at Lee Valley Tools. And if I don't get some LED Christmas lights I'll burst.

And seed catalogue season is just around the corner.

20 November 2008

Abandon magical thinking, all ye who enter here

Hope has taken a huge shit kicking in my mental space lately. I just finished watching Children of Men, a brutal but not inconceivable look at the near future. This after reading A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright and watching a talk by Derrick Jensen. Oh, and Joe Bageant's blog does some serious hope bashing, too. And that doesn't include the evening news.

I see my current lack of hope as acceptance, rather than despair. A significant ratcheting down of expectations based on what I see as overwhelming evidence of generalized collapse. Someone (Dan Gardner, if you must know) suggested I should read some optimistic stuff to counterbalance the negative. I couldn't actually find anything credible so I left it at that, but it reminded me that conventional thinking seems to be that the truth lies somewhere in the middle ground, but the location of said reasonable place is entirely dependent on where you put the ends. Just because I'm asking for a million dollar salary, it doesn't mean that 500k is reasonable.

Wishful thinking has been legitimized to the point that people can have serious conversations about the "law" of attraction and otherwise intelligent people look at reams of evidence that points to we're fucked and cling to the hope that some technological solution will cure our problems. We're encouraged to replace our old stuff with new stuff to minimize our impact, but we mustn't say out loud that there are too many people consuming way too much and the whole thing is a house of cards that shouldn't be propped up anyway.

Lest anyone worry about my mental state, I assure you I'm fine. It's a beautiful day, the birds are flitting around the feeder just outside the window, and I brew a fine cup of coffee. I'm warm and safe and so is my family, and that's good enough. No delusions required.

18 November 2008

This might pinch a little

Anyone who has read more than a few of my blog posts knows that I have a tendency to rant about over-consumption and the end of the world as we know it. I've just had my thermostat-lowering, paper-recycling, organic world view shaken up, once again, by Derrick Jensen. He's written a graphic novel with Stephanie McMillan called As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial. They basically advocate dismantling our entire industrial civilization, using whatever means possible. Last year, I read Endgame Volume 2, which if you make it through, will have you feeling guilty for not blowing up dams. The premise of both of these books is that as humans we have no right to destroy the livelihood of wild creatures for our own financial gain. He doesn't mean we should consume a little less and minimize our impact, he means we should cease and desist destroying the environment.

One thing that comes to mind is that our corporate civilization seems to be collapsing under the weight of its own excess without any help at all from one-eyed terrorist bunnies planting dynamite (read the book). Maybe that's not so bad. One thing's for certain. If you read Derrick Jensen, you'll never look at the status quo the same way again.

16 November 2008

What's going on for dummies

Stoneleigh from The Automatic Earth has posted a comment on Garth Turner's blog that sums up our current financial situation in the simplest terms possible. I've quoted the whole thing here so you don't have to search for it. Once you've read this a few times, you'll understand a whole lot more than your financial advisor or real estate agent will tell you.

A 1930s style depression is not impossible by any means. If governments could avoid a depression merely by printing money, then one would never have happened. Unfortunately, depressions do happen, because ‘money printing’ (monetizing debt) doesn’t cause inflation (ie an increase in the effective money supply) during a hurricane of credit destruction. Traditional money supply measures don’t capture the full picture.

Credit functions as a money equivalent during the expansion phase, but loses the quality of ‘moneyness’ once expansion morphs into contraction. As the vast majority of the effective money supply is currently credit, the collapse of credit will crash the money supply. As is already happening, ‘printing’ merely send money into a giant black hole of credit destruction, thanks to the hoarding mentality that has taken hold amongst banks due to the collapse of trust. Banks know what toxic waste they hold in their own vaults, and certainly aren’t going to trust their colleagues who almost certainly hold the same.

Attempts to stimulate interbank lending are failing miserably, because you can’t ‘print’ trust. Once a deleveraging event has begun, it will proceed to its natural conclusion - the point where the (small amount of) remaining debt is acceptably collateralized to the (few) remaining creditors. All governments can do is to make it worse in the meantime.

We are still in the very early stages of the deleveraging process, where toxic ‘assets’ are being shielded from the harsh light of day, so to speak. Eventually, there will be a mark-to-market event, however hard governments and central bankers try to avoid one, and that will precipitate a firesale of assets at pennies on the dollar.

Such an event cannot be avoided, at least partially due to the creation of perverse incentives in the derivatives market. For instance, allowing a third party to take out a credit default swap against a company they do not own is analogous to allowing me to take out fire insurance on your home, thereby giving me an incentive to burn it down for profit. We have yet to see the ‘burning down for profit’ phase, but it is coming, and when it does, the scale of counterparty risk in the CDS market will also be revealed. A large percentage of companies will not be able to collect on winning bets, and will therefore not be able to pay out on losing ones in turn. This will turn into a cascade event in a $62 trillion market, the effect of which will dwarf the credit destruction we’ve seen so far.

This event is truly global - thanks to the tight coupling in global financial markets, contagion inevitably spreads. The use of derivatives intended to mitigate risk has in fact led to systemic risk. There’s a reason why Warren Buffet refers to derivatives as financial weapons of mass destruction.

If you follow the global media, rather than just the blinkered North American version, you will see how many countries are already teetering on the brink as a result of the credit crunch. Check out Iceland, or Pakistan, the Ukraine, Spain, the UK, Ireland, much of eastern Europe and many more. Many of those countries had far worse housing bubbles than the US and have much further to fall as a result. To imagine Canada to be immune from such a conflagration is simply fanciful. Our real estate excesses have been less extreme, but our banking system is vulnerable, and our export economy will take an enormous hit.

Have you noticed the extent to which shipping is collapsing worldwide? Check out the Baltic Dry index for a leading indicator of the effect of the credit crunch on the real economy. The letters of credit that used to be routine are no longer available, so goods do not move. We live in a just-in-time economy and the paralysis of shipping will eventually lead to empty shelves.

This crisis is very much larger than merely real estate. Liquidity, the supply of which ultimately depends on trust, is the lubricant in the economic engine. Without a sufficient supply, that engine will seize up, just as it did in the 1930s. With no means to connect buyers and sellers, people can starve amid plenty, as they did then. In the 1930s both resources and real skills were plentiful, expectations were nowhere near so inflated and we had none of the structural dependencies on cheap energy and credit that we have now. Without cheap energy and cheap credit, our highly complex socioeconomic system cannot function. A long and painful readjustment is not just likely, but inevitable.

How to avoid Harperville

Have a listen to this episode of the NPR radio show This American Life. There's an eye opening segment of Studs Terkel talking to people who lived through the depression in the US. It sounds pretty grim until one of the interviewees talks of being taken to see a huge shanty town where people lived in old cars and fruit crates cobbled together. Then you see just how much worse it could get. But this is not much different than how millions of people currently live in the slums of the cities of the third world.

So why do most of us, who depend on wages or retirement benefits to feed ourselves, feel so immune from this kind of poverty? It may turn out that our jobs, retirement funds and the promises the government has been making to us over the last fifty years about using our money to ensure we don't ever have to live in dire poverty aren't worth much anymore. The federal governments of the world's wealthiest countries have decided to test the laws of thermodynamics by throwing money at big corporations to encourage economic growth in an environment of diminishing energy production. Since we know the economists were not paying attention in high school physics class (that's why they studied economics in university), the rest of us can just watch while they learn this lesson first hand. Of course, they haven't finished learning that the money from nothing trick was a Ponzi scheme, so this physics lesson is going to get quite expensive.

If so, we should all probably start living as though we could face hard times, too. Learning to live with less money and using less energy are two of the biggest things I can think of. Having a well-stocked pantry could allow you to ride out a short term crisis and keep you out of lines at supermarkets. And pay attention to what's going on. Remember that conventional wisdom has a habit of shifting suddenly, and while it used to seem sensible to take on mortgages, student loans and lines of credit to finance a middle class life, these things could seem as imprudent as a payday loan if the deflationary spiral continues much longer.

Really though, even if the economy was roaring ahead and we were all flush with money, if we were thinking about our neighbours in the global south, or our grandkids, we'd still be trying to live smaller, simpler lives. After all, how much economic growth can the planet take?

14 November 2008

Bloomin' heck!

A couple of years ago, we received this Thanksgiving cactus as a gift. Ever since, it has bloomed twice a year in spite of the minimal care it has received. The flowers are so large and vivid, they hardly seem real.

12 November 2008

Time for the annual Christmas rant

I wish Christmas was like Thanksgiving. A holiday with very little baggage. Of course, there are some people who get hung up on whether it's a Christian holiday or a pagan harvest festival and whether those things are good or bad, but for most of us, it's an opportunity to share a nice meal with family and be grateful, if only that the turkey is not too dry this year. In Canada, we wisely celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October which tends to be the peak of autumn colour and is often a lovely mild day. We enjoy a long weekend, maybe take a drive in the country and that's it. Unless you count planning and buying groceries for a big meal, there isn't much preparation required. There are no parties with people at work, no gift buying, no Santa lie to perpetuate with kids, no chocolate, no stockings, no dead trees, no light displays, no wrapping, no expectations, no cards, no political correctness, no advertising, no credit card hangover, no concerts, and no pressure to buy anything. It's basically even optional, with no explanation required if you choose to opt out (except to your mother, and even she will get over it).
Thanksgiving has such a nice small footprint compared to Christmas. The food tends to be locally grown (or could easily be, with a little awareness) and other than the travel, celebrating Thanksgiving doesn't much change your environmental impact. Christmas is another story. Last year I figured out that the amount of money I budgeted for Christmas gifts for my more-than-adequately-possessioned family was more than what 15% of the world's population earns in an entire year. I get the same feeling when I see the tons of gold, red and green plastic crap in every retail outlet as I do when I see farmland destroyed for more McMansions or yet another big box mall.
Every year I rant about Christmas, every year I get accused of being a grinch, every year I reluctantly participate to appease others' expectations (not least of which are my own child's) and every year I grit my teeth until the “holiday season” is over. I expect this year to be no different. I will, however, happily mark the longest night with a warming beverage, lest anyone think me too Puritan.

11 November 2008

Lacto-fermented ginger beer...really

I've been raising this ginger bug on the counter for the past while. Every day I feed it some grated ginger and a bit of sugar. After a week or so, it starts bubbling and becomes the basis for a batch of ginger beer. The ginger beer is dry, a little fizzy, and very gingery. Delicious! Oh, and did I mention, loaded with lactobacilli, those friendly little organisms that keep your digestive system working?

I followed the recipe from Wild Fermentation, the book, but there's a similar recipe here.

06 November 2008

It's not easy being green

I've written before on some ideas from the book Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel. In it, he prescribes a solution to the problem that we're using up considerably more of the world's resources than is sustainable. There are two main issues: first, there are too many people in the world, and second, some of those people are using way more than their share. He gives the example of billions of people in line at an all-you-can-eat buffet, where everything is pretty much picked over by the time the first billion have gone through. His solution is a radical downscaling in consumption (for the developed world) and population. Lest we get smug about those poor people and their large families, he reminds us that reducing population in the developed world would have a greater impact on overall consumption than reducing population in the developing world because of our much larger footprint.

What exactly are we talking about? Well, according to Jim, the planet can support about one billion people consuming about a quarter of what the average North American consumes today. Since no one is advocating any kind of mass die off, the only sensible way to reduce population is to stop having so many kids. Mathematically, this is surprisingly easy: if everyone alive today limited themselves to one child or less, the world's population would be one billion in a hundred years. Practically – well, it ain't gonna happen. For arguments sake let's suppose we were on the path to a billion people, now, how could we consume a quarter of what we do now? Well, it's simple but it's not easy. We would simply own a quarter of what we own, use a quarter of the electricity, live in a one quarter size house, drive a quarter of the distance, eat a quarter of the food, do a quarter of the things, and generally live a much smaller life than we do now. A simpler way of visualizing all of this is to imagine living on $5000 a year, roughly a quarter of what the average North American lives on.

What would that look like? Well, for the purposes of this exercise, I'm not going to count income taxes or government or employer provided benefits which are deducted from a paycheck, even though they represent consumption, just because it's way too complicated. So let's assume we have $5000 cash money for each member of our 3 person family. We're up to $15000 for the year or $1250 per month. The good news is that we'll have no expenses associated with owning, maintaining or operating a car. The bad news is we'll have no car. Living car-free is possible, but we'll have to be careful about where we choose to live. It will have to be close to work, shopping, recreation and public transit, so we won't get to take advantage of cheaper rents in more rural areas. I think we could budget no more than $600 for rent. A quick check of the rentals available in our nearest urban area finds nothing other than single rooms in private homes available at that price but there are a couple of townhouses in the $1100 range, so we'll share a 3 bedroom townhouse with someone else. Sharing a home will allow us to share the electricity and heating costs as well: so total housing costs will be about $650 per month. That's shelter taken care of - on to food: I spend over $600 per month on groceries, but I am prone to buying luxury items like fresh vegetables and coffee. With our global justice budget, no more than $400 per month can be allocated to food. This includes groceries, restaurant meals and alcoholic beverages. If each of us takes the bus 5 trips a month, at $4 per round trip, our monthly transportation cost is $60. The remaining $140 per month can be spent anyway we choose on clothing, recreation, toilet paper, haircuts, laundry, music lessons, telephone, internet service, bank service charges, tenants insurance, library fines, dentists or charitable donations.

Well, this isn't so bad. We're warm, dry, safe and fed and still better off than 85% of the world's population. But living like this would be difficult and stressful. A bout of strep throat could force a decision about whether to buy medicine or groceries. This budget obviously has no room for debt repayment, higher education or much in the way of “stuff”. On the other hand, 2 adults working 2 days a week at $10 per hour could earn all the money required. So there could be plenty of time. Time that could be spent trading music lessons for haircuts, reading, tending a garden or visiting with friends.

Keep in mind that this “simple life” is only sustainable with one billion people on the planet. With close to a billion people already living like this or better, and the remaining 6 billion or so aspiring to, the ability of the planet to support us all is going to be severely tested. You see how overwhelmingly large this problem is. As long as the capitalist religion is being preached from every government, academic and corporate pulpit and people are urged to spend out of patriotism and procreate for the New Jerusalem we're just not going to make any progress. We're told that the American way of life is not negotiable. We're told we can reduce our global footprint by changing lightbulbs, not lifestyles. Don't believe it.

05 November 2008

Good choice

How refreshing. We woke up this morning to find our American neighbours had done the right thing in electing Barack Obama. It's like the first day of school, with clean notebooks and possibilities. We know it won't last - it never does - but we can enjoy it for a while. In contrast, in Canada we've just elected a leader with all the charisma of the vice-principal who really wanted to be an actuary. Even knowing that disappointment is inevitable, I'm a little jealous.

04 November 2008

Eating like birds

We're signed up with Project Feederwatch this year. We'll record all the birds we see at our feeders during the winter. We often have half a dozen different varieties of birds as well as red and black squirrels, chipmunks and the occasional cat at any given time. We seem to have deterred the raccoons by coating the feeder pole in vaseline, which they really really do not like on their paws.

01 November 2008

Clear skies tonight

The picture doesn't do justice to the beautiful view out our back windows tonight. The sky was as clear as it gets here, and the crescent moon and Venus were stunning. Our view was greatly expanded today, as well, due to the removal of some cedars that were blocking the midday sun.

29 October 2008

Talking to kids about the end of the world as we know it

A disclaimer: I would not take parenting advice from me if I were you. The object of my parenting efforts for the last 12 years is not a typical child and the results are not yet in.

I spent my childhood in Kingston, Ontario, known as the limestone city. Because of its geology, even though it was on Lake Ontario, there were no good beaches. But there was an artificial sand beach. This beach was on property owned by DuPont, adjacent to the nylon carpet fibre plant. Only plant employees and their families could use this beach, so it was an exciting thing to be invited by a friend to go swimming at DuPont. I felt very privileged to be allowed access to such a place. The actual experience did not quite live up to my expectations, however – the sand portion of the beach was crowded with people and the water, while not suffering from overcrowding, had a disturbing number of dead fish floating in the yellow foam that covered much of the surface. The sand did not extend into the water so the bottom consisted of green slime covered rocks. The one positive feature of the water was that it was not nearly as cold as Lake Ontario water normally is.

It took a few years for my critical thinking skills to develop to the point where I could override the neighbourhood adults’ cheerful acceptance of the DuPont beach and figure out for myself that allowing children to swim within spitting distance of a factory outflow isn’t good. Even allowing for misremembered details. I suppose the moms on the beach were comfortable with the situation because, after all, this beach was provided as a benefit of employment by the DuPont company. One word: sheeple.

If I was presented with the opportunity to bring my daughter to the DuPont beach of the seventies, today, I would not allow her to swim in the polluted water even if everyone else was doing it, and I would explain to her exactly why (of course, she’d very likely have figured it out completely on her own). The idea that a large corporation could be so indifferent to human health would of course be disturbing. But no less true for that. So what about the myriad other inconvenient truths out there? How do you handle those without damaging the fragile mental health of your offspring? Especially when it appears that everyone else is blissfully splashing around in the murky water.

Now, before I get to that, let me remind you that this is a problem of privilege. People have been dealing with difficult, dangerous, and demoralizing situations throughout history and across the planet and parents have figured out how to handle it with their kids. In North America in the last fifty years, parents have not had to exercise this muscle very much, except perhaps to break the bad news that Tickle Me Elmo is on backorder at Wal-Mart. Oh, and there was the Cold War. Perhaps as a kid I was incurious, but I don’t remember discussing “mutually assured destruction” with my parents. I know I was aware of the concept, but it seemed like a vague, if pretty serious, threat. I think I mentally filed it in the same spot as the religious concepts which I was assured by adults were true but couldn’t possibly be. (I had a Calvinist education so in addition to the usual virgin birth and resurrection absurdities, my salvation was contingent on having memorized the Heidelberg Catechism which includes the old favourite: Whence knowest thou thy misery?) Maybe years of the minister preaching (with no regard for my mental health) hell’s inevitability given my moral weaknesses inoculated me against feeling too much anxiety over mere nuclear annihilation.

But I digress; any parents who have followed me this far are not in possession of children with this kind of training. Our kids are going to be disappointed to learn that civilization is as doomed as that goldfish prize they won at the cheesy Wal-Mart parking lot fair. But not too many parents are willing to sit their kids down and inform them that if they survive to adulthood without resorting to cannibalism, they’re still going to be faced with certain unpleasantness, what with the stone age conditions and lack of internet. And most parents are not willing to connect the dots of financial collapse, climate change, peak oil, food insecurity, globalization and runaway consumption and arrive at that picture for themselves either. I try to gently explain things as they come up but just as there’s no point in telling a two year old if he hasn’t asked, that the meat in his hamburger comes from the same kind of animal as the moo moo cow in his favourite book, it’s hard to avoid when the same child at four demands to know the details. Young kids are good at accepting difficult truths – they don’t have much choice. I would suggest that long term, more damage is done to children by feeding unrealistic expectations and feelings of entitlement than knowing about global inequality. And teaching a kid to make her own decisions about whether to swim near the factory outflow regardless of what everyone else is doing will make for a healthier life. I’ve long felt that the best antidote to general anxiety is telling yourself that no matter what happens, you can and will just deal with it. It may not be a bad idea to remind kids of that from time to time as well. Of course, kids take their emotional cues from the adults in their life and keeping calm in the face of world events is the best, if challenging at times, thing to do. After all, if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

26 October 2008

And a partridge in a pear tree...

Actually, there were three of these ruffed grouse in the crabapple tree outside the second floor windows today. They looked a little awkward walking on the narrow branches to reach the apples, but there were no mishaps.

25 October 2008

Idle riot

Since I retired, almost four months ago, I’ve often been asked what I do all day. After I respond with the perfectly true answer “whatever I want”, there’s usually silence and I’m forced to come up with some concrete examples of how I spend my days. I feel a little like I did at work when composing my weekly activity report.

The truth is, due to a quirk of personality, I’m perfectly content to be rather than to do. I think I reasonably capably handle most of the cooking, cleaning, planning, budgeting and all the rest required to keep the household running smoothly, but beyond that, most of what I do cannot actually be detected by the human eye. You might see me sitting in front of the computer occasionally typing, wandering in the woods, sitting in a chair with a book, or standing in the garden.

I’m not working on money-making schemes, planning to run for office, fantasizing about trips to the Caribbean, or inventing perpetual motion machines. I do not spend time trying to figure out how to improve my career, or have a nicer house, or achieve something great.

What I am doing, is committing an act of rebellion. I’m rebelling against societal norms in which being busy is being good. Where idleness is regarded with suspicion and fear. Where goals should be measurable and results count. I’m a rebel without a cause or a daytimer. One of my pleasures is walking the labyrinth on our property. Unlike a maze, which presents the walker with choices and dead ends, the labyrinth guides you to the centre, and then back out. You end where you started. You went nowhere. Hopefully you enjoyed the walk, because it was the journey, not the end that was the point.

22 October 2008

Finding myself on the wrong side of the peasant revolt

Most Canadians have some passing familiarity with the classic “Roughing It in the Bush” by Susanna Moodie. If you haven’t actually read it, you are likely aware of the gist of the memoir which documents the travails of a British upper class family who emigrate to Upper Canada in the 1830s. They were educated, but basically moneyless due to Mr. Moodie’s unfortunate status as a younger son. Mrs. Moodie complains throughout the book about the indignities of being forced to live in almost the same conditions as the working class Irish, the difficulty in finding good help, and how ill prepared they were to actually perform the endless backbreaking work required of pioneers.

My first inclination, on reading this book, was to feel smugly superior to her. Because there’s something satisfying about witnessing rich people getting knocked down a peg. Susanna’s big problem is that she was educated to believe that she was entitled to a life of relative comfort while not actually having the resources to do so.

Things are a little different now. We’ve educated the rich to keep their voices down when complaining about saucy servants. But who are the rich? Most of us don’t have to climb too far up the family tree to find very modest circumstances - but most of us possess a car and at least one bathroom, not to mention feelings of entitlement - so globally speaking, we are rich. But here’s the catch: we’re the younger son kind of rich. The kind that have all the expectations but not the inheritance. Unfortunately, our inheritance is tied up in the stock market and locked up in tar sands and tethered to the biodiversity of the planet. Our financial resources have vaporized as the last bubble has burst, we’ve squandered our supplies of cheap energy and we’re losing uncountable species every day.

No one pities the rich when they’re revealed to be skint. The population of the planet has far exceeded its capacity to provide a rich existence for everyone. In the not too distant future, some of us may well find that our expectations can no longer be met and the rest of the world is not feeling sorry for us. So if I’m ever faced with an angry mob of impoverished world citizens, I won’t look over my shoulder for the investment banker escaping in his BMW, because the target is just as likely to be me.

17 October 2008

Dear me

This morning we were graced with the presence of this beautiful deer and her two young. They stayed in the yard long enough for us to thoroughly admire them.

Later, when I went out to the garden, I saw what they had been up to. They ate the carrot tops, all the swiss chard and this beautiful Chinese cabbage I'd been keeping my eye on for supper.

Luckily, most of the garden is under row covers right now, and they haven't figured out how to get under those. A deer fence is now on the to do list for spring.

16 October 2008

Fun with fermentation

I made some sauerkraut yesterday using a recipe from Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, a book about traditional food preservation methods. There is a recipe for 70 cabbages in a wooden barrel but I thought I'd try the recipe for 1 cabbage in jars first. Lactic fermentation has beneficial effects on food's nutritional value and digestibility not to mention the bacteria that make the cabbage really alive.

The lactic microbial organisms convert the vegetable's natural sugars into lactic acid which causes the environment to become too acidic for the nasty organisms to multiply. Considering the process involves simply submerging vegetables in a brine, it's a remarkable method of storing vegetables for long periods of time without using a lot of energy.

I enjoy commercial sauerkraut but it is generally pasteurized and sometimes contains preservatives, which completely negates any health advantage. I hope my homemade sauerkraut is palatable, because I really love the idea of it.

Another great resource for making sauerkraut and other fermented foods is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, who calls himself a fermentation fetishist, and appears to know what he's talking about. The next batch I make will probably be this recipe, from his web site.

09 October 2008

Election Party Game

Play the Toronto Star's Election Party Game and see if you actually support who you think you support. Now, if only the Bloc was running a candidate in Carleton - Mississippi Mills.

08 October 2008

September word cloud

The Toronto Star is publishing these clouds of political candidate's speeches. Barf. I went to the TagCrowd site and entered the text from my September posts. I tried entering the blog url, but that didn't seem to work, so I did some cut and paste.

This is pretty self indulgent stuff, but I really like it. It seems to capture my blog entries fairly well. It's a good thing I don't have a dynamically updated word cloud on my forehead.

29 September 2008

A little close for comfort

At the risk of sounding a complete crank and darnit, being wrong about what's going on in the world, I'm going to come out of the doom closet. Oh, you already knew I was a doomer? Well, this is going to be easy then. It's the end of the world as we know it. Let me rephrase that: it's the end of the world as we've known it for the past fifty or sixty years. My generation has up til now, only experienced relative prosperity and security, but my grandparents lived through world wars, financial collapse, pre-antibiotic healthcare, and life without a government safety net. I think we're headed in the same direction, but without the benefit of generally low expectations. Perhaps the current financial crisis will forestall the coming climate, population and energy crises for a time, but that will be small consolation for those of us young enough and lucky enough to have avoided the insecurity that has been the fate of most of humanity for most of history. And a woefully unprepared bunch we are.

I went to school when home economics was being phased out of the curriculum. Those of us headed for higher education wouldn't have considered taking it even if it had been offered. Traditional women's work was of such low value you didn't need to learn it in school. Besides, with our careers we'd have money, so we didn't need to worry about preparing food or mending clothes or cleaning our houses. Luckily, globalization came along, and with all our stuff now made by underpaid children in developing countries, we could be thrifty by buying stuff. Conservation would help the environment and our wallets. We could buy a Prius and a programmable thermostat and save the world. Most of us run our lives and families and homes with steady injections of cash not skills.

It is unfashionable, unless you're a Mormon or a survivalist, to prepare for the worst. Culturally, we are chronically optimistic that, as in the adage you don't need to outrun the bear, you only need to outrun your buddy, nothing too terrible could happen to me and mine because we're not at the bottom. The blog world is becoming populated with people who reject this idea of immunity and are starting to prepare for the worst. And some of them are not cranks. From what I can tell, most of them are American, and the kind of American who does not believe in any kind of divine American superiority. In other words, the kind of American we Canadians aren't afraid of.

What I'm leading up to is that I think we all need to prepare for hard times. Mentally as well as physically. Check out this: Casaubon's Book and this: Justice Desserts for examples of what other people are doing. I'm just starting to come around to this idea myself and I'll post more on the topic as time goes on.

Ok, my rant is over.

26 September 2008

Getting political

My vote will serve only to enhance the funding of whatever party I vote for, because it sure won't elect anyone - living in a Conservative stronghold riding as I am. For other people, though, go to Vote for Environment to find out how best to strategically vote. I wish the "anyone but Harper" candidates in the critical ridings would get together and decide who should drop out of the race to make it easy for voters. But that's not going to happen. So be strategic. Or stay home and have a glass of wine.

22 September 2008

Simple summer

This was a pretty big summer for our family. I started off with a bang by quitting my job. Then we moved out to the country. Madeleine officially started "homeschooling". We built the first garden beds and started growing salad greens.

So how's it all working out? Well, we should have done it a lot sooner. The thing about not having a job is that it's a lot less work. Madeleine and I have pretty much dropped out of civilized society and we're both loving it. Luc's still working for the man, but I think life is easier for him, too. You'd have to ask him personally, but there's a lot less stress and more fun in the house and that can't be bad.

21 September 2008

Personal farming

These folks have the most amazing business. Your Backyard Farmer is a company in Portland, OR that creates, plants, maintains and harvests food gardens in its customers' backyards. They very cleverly overcame a huge barrier to getting into the organic farming business because they don't require any land of their own. This is one for the cool business idea folder. If I had one.

20 September 2008


I think this is quite a good video, but I kind of like despair as entertainment.

18 September 2008

Not quite food self-sufficiency

I tend to be a little unimpressed with people's proud blog photos of their garden produce, but this is different - these are my radishes.

17 September 2008

13 September 2008

Garden update

The garden has now grown to 9 raised beds. Four of the beds are now planted with salad greens, mostly. One of the beds is reserved for garlic. I picked up a whole bunch of Music and Red Russian garlic from the Carp Farmer's Market this morning. I'm hoping to still have enough to plant by October, but given the amount of garlic that is consumed in our house, that's not a certainty. Luckily, the market will still be running for a while yet.

We picked up some Highland Blue cheese from Back Forty Artisan Cheese while we were at the market. Now that's cheese. It's made from raw ewe's milk and tastes like the earth. In a good way. This food is deeply satisfying to my inner rebel. All that fat and bacteria and flavour couldn't possibly come out of an industrial food factory.

05 September 2008

Turkey trot

This handsome family of wild turkeys took a stroll by the house this morning. We're at the limit of their range, but the population has been steadily increasing over the past few years due to a release program a few years ago. I'm not in favour of introducing animals into areas where they aren't native, especially if their survival is at risk in severe weather and the main reason is to provide hunters something to shoot at, but I always like to see wild turkeys.

02 September 2008

Not back to school

I heard the school bus stopping for the neighbour kid at 7:30 this morning and took another sip of coffee and gazed out the window at the birds. Madeleine slept, blissfully unaware of the drama taking place next door. A very pleasant start to the new unschool year.


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