Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thoughts On Not Needing The Money

The ongoing collapse of our global, “official” economy means that increasing numbers of us are going to be cut off from our present livelihood, just as many of us have already been cut off. According to a recent Washington Post article, some economists are saying that the U.S. economy shrank by 6 percent during the last quarter of 2008. (Source: Those of us who still have jobs and rely on them should have a plan for restructuring our lives so that we can survive without a job (or at least the jobs we now have). Now I can hear some readers saying “Duh! You should have started thinking about such things long before now!” Let me assure such people that I have indeed been thinking about such things for the last several months, though I am nowhere near as prepared as I'd like to be.

But I've also been reading blogs and other writings from others who are thinking of how to survive and thrive without a job. It's natural for many minds to gravitate toward this subject, when one considers that most workers are debt slaves, which leads to becoming wage slaves of corporations. Because these corporate masters put the profit motive above all else, most employees find themselves under some form of constant daily stress from antagonistic or uncomfortable elements of their day-to-day work environment. This stress gives rise to the oft-expressed wish to break away from corporate slave-drivers, yet the debt load carried by many workers prevents them from doing so, and indeed keeps them in a constant state of terror over the prospect of losing their jobs.

As I just said, the stress and fear of debt/wage slavery is fertile ground for thoughts of escape. These thoughts are sometimes expressed in songs, like “Big Boss Man,” “Maggie's Farm,” “Five O'Clock World,” and “A Hard Day's Night,” from the 1960's, or Paul McCartney's “I've Had Enough!” from a later time. But they are also expressed in plans, and the plans all seem to run along one particular track, as follows: One day an employee faces the implications of the fact that most of his “possessions” are only his to enjoy on credit, and that his employer knows that he “needs the money,” and is therefore likely to submit to any conditions imposed on him. The employee naturally does not like this, and longs for escape. To him, escape means “financial security,” which in turn means having all that he could ever need or want without ever again having to worry about how to pay for it.

Those who advise such an employee regarding financial security tell him that the road to that security consists of getting as much money as he can, maximizing his claim on the official economy as much as possible, in order to claim as much as possible of the resources produced by that economy. So our employee may embark on strategies suggested by the media, who hold up examples of people who got rich quick by doing nothing more than showing up on a TV game show, or who struck it rich as singers, cartoonists (like Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert), or freelance writers. Or he may go out every week and buy Lotto or Powerball tickets from 7-11 or Plaid Pantry or Circle K. Or he might try to generate secondary income streams by trying to make money from the Internet, as in starting a “financial planning” website and marketing his own advice. Goodness gracious, he might even take up “frugality,” with the goal of putting aside a little money every week for the purpose of “reinvesting” it in some supposedly wealth-producing part of the economy.

But if the global, official economy is in fact collapsing, and if this collapse is due to the appearance of fundamental, structural ecologic, environmental and resource limits to growth, then such a strategy is profoundly wrong. If the economy is collapsing for the reasons I just stated, then trying to achieve “financial security” by maximizing one's claim on that economy through getting lots of money is as misguided as trying to buy a penthouse office in a skyscraper that is crashing to the ground.

Therefore when I think about learning to live without a job, I am not thinking about trying to become “independently wealthy” in the usual sense. This isn't about money. But it is about readjusting one's life so that one no longer depends on a breaking system. One thing that a person discovers in that readjustment is that a man can't really escape the need to work. As the Good Book says, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat,” and, “...that you make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands...” There is also this: “Let our people also learn to maintain good works (more literally, “honest occupations”) for necessary uses, that they may not be unfruitful.” (Titus 3:14 and other Scriptures, World English Bible.) Work has formative and redemptive value, as long as it's not carried out under conditions of enslavement. But living without a job, as many jobs are currently defined, means being able to find your own work and reap the fruits of your own labor without having to rely on some huge corporate employer for these things.

If we are going to find our own work, many of us will need to develop entirely different skills – skills that are essential to life, rather than merely optional. In a deindustrializing, shrinking economy, most of us will find that we can live without personal life coaches, yoga teachers, baristas, auto detailers, financial consultants, plasma-screen TV salesmen and cable service providers, time management experts, and so forth. But if you can set broken bones, fix infected teeth, create a business that makes bicycle parts, build a rammed-earth house, design a safe (and it had better be safe!) sewage-recycling/composting system, teach basic academic subjects, make secondhand machinery from recycled parts, or do other vital or extremely useful things, you'll have a very large amount of work to do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Where Does The 40 Percent Come From?

It is widely reported by several reputable sources that the United States contains five percent of the world's population, yet consumes 25 percent of the world's energy. According to the book Science And Technology in World History by McClellan and Dorn, in 1998 the U.S. consumed 40 percent of the world's oil, and in 2002, the U.S. consumed 25 percent of the world's electricity. And according to the book Globalization or Empire? by Jan Nederveen Pieterse, the U.S. spends 40 percent of the world's total military spending. If one digs a little, one can find statistics that show that the U.S. consumes a grossly disproportionate share of many of the world's resources. As a result, there are more cars than registered drivers in this country, there are more shopping malls than high schools, and 66.7 percent of Americans are overweight, with over half of these now being classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as obese. (Source:

We are a nation that is busy pigging out and chowing down the American way, with no guilt or qualms over our conspicuous consumption, yet few people ask, “Where does the 40 percent come from? Or where does the 25 percent come from? If we only comprise five percent of the world's population, how is it that we get to consume so much of the world's resources? How did we get our hands on them? And what is happening to the people in the rest of the world? What do they get to consume?”

These are hard questions of the sort that are not encouraged by the masters of empire, lest consciences should be awakened. If the questions are addressed at all, the wrong answers are given. But if most Americans knew the conditions and arrangements under which such generous helpings of the world's wealth were delivered to them, many of them would never again get a peaceful night's sleep – at least, not if they had consciences that were in any way functional. For the answers to those questions have everything to do with lies, conquests, murders, unjust military adventures, crooked contracts, exploitative trade treaties and the support of corrupt, stooge foreign governments whose leaders sell out their own citizens for profit. And the mainstream media in this country do not report on these things. Do you want to see how American excesses of consumption affect citizens of Third World countries? Do you want to see the conditions under which many of these people are forced to live? You won't find much coverage of these stories in papers like the Oregonian or Wall Street Journal or Orange County Register or USA Today.

Too many of us are like my mental picture of a child of the First World living at the turn of the 20th century in a large house in Africa or India, a child with all the material possessions that money could buy, who looks out his window every day at the poor native children in the street without ever asking why those children are poor and unhappy. But as for me, I'd like to know where the 40 percent comes from, and how we get it.

And it looks like there are a few people who are willing to tell the answer to anyone who is willing to listen. I am thinking particularly of a few noteworthy moviemakers who have chronicled the rape of the Niger Delta in Africa by multinational oil companies. One of their projects is Poison Fire, a movie made by Lars Johansson and others. This movie details how multinational oil companies turned the Niger Delta into an environmental and ecological disaster in order to satisfy the First World's thirst for oil. You can find out more about it at

There is also Sweet Crude (, a film directed by Sandy Cioffi, which also documents the human cost of oil extraction in Nigeria – a cost about which the American and European mainstream media are loudly silent.

Watch these movies – if you dare.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Small-Scale Manufacturing

The global, “official” economy of our modern society is breaking apart. The signs seem to indicate that the breakup is rapidly accelerating. Those who have been trained to rely wholly on that system are increasingly finding themselves in trouble, as the system is now increasingly unable to provide its two staple products – jobs (with income), and goods for consumption – to those who rely on it. Yet there is still a need for meaningful work in the making of the things necessary for everyday life. This post will introduce the role of small-scale manufacturing and industry in restoring our ability to take care of ourselves. This is an especially urgent topic for citizens of the United States, which allowed its manufacturing base to be decimated over the last few decades in the name of globalism.

The Breaking Supply Chain

The availability of goods to the typical “consumers” in industrial economies depends on a long and winding chain of supply. Over the years, the links of the chain have increasingly been held together by easy credit. Here is how it worked: business owners over the years stopped using their own savings to pay for the operation and expansion of their businesses. Instead, they took out loans to cover the costs of acquisition of new equipment, office/warehouse/industrial space, raw materials, vehicle fleets and so forth. The assumption was that they would make payments on their loans with the revenue generated by the use of the goods they bought on credit. For instance, a printing business might borrow money for paper, presses, computers, and related supplies, intending to pay the loan with some of the revenue generated by the use of these materials in the printing business.

This also extended to such things as farming, including large-scale agribusiness. Growers took out loans for seed, mechanized farm equipment and “inputs” such as fertilizer and pesticides, with the intention of making payments on those loans with some of the money received from harvesting and selling their products. And it extended to those who sold finished goods, who purchased these goods from suppliers by means of “letters of credit” issued by lending banks, and who planned to pay back these letters of credit through the commission they earned by selling the finished goods – goods such as textiles, machines, bulk cargoes, cars, tools, consumer electronics, and so on. In fact, the hugeness of the scale of economic activity for the last several years has been due to the easy and widespread availability of credit. The scale of economic activity would have been much smaller, if businesses in the official economy had been required to conduct their activities solely on the basis of their earnings and savings.

But the present economic crisis has put an end to easy credit, not only for individuals, but for businesses. Consumers, cut off from credit and hampered by stagnant wages, are not consuming anymore – at least, not like they used to. This is endangering all the other members of the supply chain, such as manufacturers who are no longer to make payments on the loans they received for their equipment, as well as retailers who bought the inventories of their stores on credit and find that they can no longer sell their merchandise like they used to. Farmers are curbing their planting due to lack of credit. Even shippers are hurting, since fewer people are hiring their ships, trucks and planes to send merchandise from producers to retailers. This is illustrated in a recent Times news article, “Commerce Becalmed Over Letters Of Credit (Source:”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the supply chain is breaking. The links closest to the average consumer – the retail store chains – are the most obvious sign. Circuit City, Mervyn's, Linens 'N' Things, KB Toys and Sharper Image are some of the casualties. The United States has allowed itself to become a place where people get the things they need for daily life from stores which sell products made thousands of miles away. Few people here can make the things they need anymore. But now the stores are disappearing. Retailers can no longer secure the credit to buy things made thousands of miles away. Therefore, shipping traffic has almost evaporated. Many extractors of raw materials and manufacturers of finished goods are shutting down. Some analysts estimate that within the next year or two, many things that are taken for granted in the United States may no longer be readily available – either because they are not to be found in stores, or because there are no longer stores that sell these things, or because the foreign makers of these things are demanding a much steeper price for the things made. Some of these things are things that are useful and valuable in our transition to a low-energy future – things ranging from hand tools to bicycle parts.

The Revival Of Small-Scale Industry

It is quite probable that the United States is facing an impending cutoff of many foreign-made goods, due to the worsening credit crisis. This will not only involve such luxuries as consumer electronics, but very basic tools and means of transportation, as well as other necessities. How will we obtain these necessary tools in a deindustrialized nation, a nation whose natural resource base has been largely depleted?

I believe that the answer is twofold. First, we in this country will have to get used to the idea of living with less. Second, we will have to raise up local (or hyperlocal), small-scale industries and manufacturing in order to produce the basic, necessary things we will need. The types of small-scale industries will be quite varied, as the needs of citizens in each locality will be varied; yet there are certain characteristics which will be desirable in all small-scale industries, such as:

  • The ability to produce finished goods from salvaged and recycled materials

  • The ability to make things without exposing workers to health risks

  • The ability to start business with limited financial capital and small (or no) loans

  • The ability to make things without polluting the environs in which the industries are located

  • The ability to make things using limited inputs of raw resources, energy, and technologically complex processes and machinery

It would be a mistake for anyone reading this to think of small-scale industries as the “next big business opportunity,” a way to cash in on a get-rich dream during an age of declining energy availability. Rather, as one Kenyan said during an interview on small-scale manufacturing, “Anyone who can be able to provide the basic necessities to his family ought to consider himself successful.” The goal is not profit maximization, but creating security for oneself, one's family, and one's community.

The Third World Pioneers

Much of the work done in starting, running, analyzing, and formulating policy regarding small-scale industries has been done by the citizens of the Third World, who for years have relied on these industries for a large portion of their gross domestic product. Several countries have created formal government ministries to promote and measure the progress of their indigenous small-scale enterprises. Among these are the government of India, which created the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (formerly the Ministry of Agro and Rural Industries, and the Ministry of Small Scale Industries), and which has entered into agreements with several other countries, including Tunisia, Mexico, Rwanda, and Romania to further the development of small-scale enterprises. Small-scale industries have been extensively studied in Kenya, where researchers have suggested ways to integrate these industries symbiotically into the official Kenyan economy, providing the owners of small-scale enterprises with needed government favor and aid.

Small-scale industries in the Third World have arisen due to a combination of factors, including the existence of a long tradition of craft laborers who were present before the invasion of Third World cultures by the West, as well as the desire of many Westerners and some Third World citizens to “help” the Third World climb out of a supposedly backward existence into Western prosperity. Small-scale enterprises in the Third World have been hurt, however, by globalization, trade liberalization, and free-market policies forced on Third World governments by First World institutions. In addition, the large-scale industrialization of the Third World has been hampered by the exploitation of Third World energy and mineral resources by First World nations.

But now, as the availability of all sorts of natural resources worldwide peaks and begins to decline, the large-scale methods and technologies of the First World are becoming increasingly untenable, and the small-scale approach implemented by Third World citizens is becoming ever-more relevant. This small-scale approach may be the key to the United States quickly regaining its ability to provide basic tools and goods for itself. I shall examine the implementation of small-scale industries in specific countries in a later post.

Additional Sources:

Regarding Shipping:

Regarding Retail And Agriculture:

Regarding Small-Scale Industries:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The War On Frugality

The present energy and economic crises in the world have caused the return of a long-forgotten culture of frugality in the United States and other First World nations. The return of this culture is due to a grassroots movement among ordinary, everyday citizens who don't have many resources and who are tired of being taken for everything they've got by large corporate masters. This culture of frugality is gaining such strength and spreading so rapidly that voices in the mainstream media are now starting to comment on it, as seen in the following articles:

It might seem to be a good sign that a movement toward sensibility and living within one's means is getting the attention of national media. Yet we must remember that the national media are owned, by and large, by powerful, rich corporatist masters with a vested interest in reviving and growing the “official” economy, which is first and foremost a consumer economy run by big business. Living within one's means, getting out of debt and turning one's back on consumerism is not good for business or for the official economy.

It is therefore no surprise that the masters of our economy have begun to attack this movement toward frugality and simple living. The attack has come in various forms, including media articles which talk about the damage done to the economy by people who refuse to rush out and buy things. Here are some samples:

  • Return to D.I.Y Ethic Erodes Service Businesses,” New York Times, 16 January 2009, The Times article contains this amazing quote: “All of these consumers could praise themselves for their newfound frugality in the midst of an economic downturn. But ever step they take toward self-reliance – each shrub they prune themselves, each cupcake they bake from scratch – hurts the people and small businesses that have long provided these services professionally.”

  • Hard-Hit Families Finally Start Saving, Aggravating Nation's Economic Woes,” Wall Street Journal, 6 January 2009, Again, here's an amazing quote: “Americans, fresh off a decadeslong (sic) buying spree, are finally saving more and spending less – just as the economy needs their dollars the most.”

  • For those who live in the United Kingdom, there's this: “This Recession Demands That We Employ Logic And Spend Our Way Out Of It,” UK Telegraph, 13 January 2009,

  • Don't Be Frugal To Follow Recession Chic,” Marketplace, 17 December 2008, This is an archived radio show featuring Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank. One more amazing quote, from the show's introduction: “It's natural to want to penny-pinch when in a recession, but if you're not at risk of financial struggle, you may not need to cut back. Commentator Will Wilkinson says if you can, you should keep on spending.”

Here is rich irony! We are suffering an ecological and economic disaster caused by the decision by the masters of the global economy to hoodwink ordinary citizens and their governments to live beyond their means for as long as possible. These masters created an economy that is built on debt and that runs on credit and that devours anyone who can't make his payments on time. That economy has begun to crash, leaving millions of bloodied victims in the aftermath of its fall. These victims have been turned into the prey of the rich masters of this economy. Now that we ordinary people are seeing all of these things come to pass, we are trying to protect ourselves from being jacked any further by getting out of debt, living within our means and learning to be self-reliant. And you mean to tell me that the spokesmen for the rich are trying to make us feel guilty for this?!

But it gets even better. Not only are the masters of our official economy trying to talk us common people out of frugality, but they are even enlisting the help of the government to punish and frustrate frugal living. Cases in point:

  • The Times of England recently published an editorial titled, “Punish Savers And Make Them Spend Money (,” full of policy recommendations for the governments of the United States and Great Britain. One such suggestion is as follows: “Instead of reducing taxes on interest payments, the Government could tax all bank deposits and other risk-free savings. This would create a negative risk-free interest rate, encouraging savers either to invest in property, shares and other productive assets – or simply to save less and consume more.”

  • The United States Government has passed a law, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, that will require all thrift stores to test all toys and clothes sold for children for contamination by lead or lead-based paint, starting in February 2009. (Source:,0,2083247.story) The testing is designed to be so expensive that thrift stores – thrift stores! – will be forced to stop selling secondhand children's clothes and toys because they will not be able to afford the tests. This law will also drive the makers of handcrafted toys and handmade clothes out of business, as well as shutting down other cottage industries. You'll just have to go to Mervyn's or Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us instead. After many people protested, the Consumer Product Safety Commission modified its proposed enforcement of the law to grant thrift stores a temporary reprieve, but the law is still on the books.

Note: This law is typical of recent legislation and executive orders passed or enacted by the Federal Government. Other examples include the National Animal Identification System, proposed ostensibly to “keep the nation's food supply safe from terrorists,” whose real effect is to drive small livestock farmers out of business. There are also the cumbersome FDA regulations recently enacted for small slaughterhouses, regulations that are so expensive to obey that only big agribusinesses can comply. The funny thing about these laws is that they don't protect us from contamination via products sold by big businesses with lots of money.

Make no mistake. Frugality is one tool by which ordinary, rank-and-file people can become self-reliant and can free themselves from exploitation by a corporatist system controlled by the rich. The rich masters of our present system understand this, and will do everything they can to wage war against the frugal and the self-reliant. But we're on to them. Do these things make you mad? Then let your congressman know that you've got his number.

I leave you with the following quote from the novel The Likeness, by Tana French. I read the quote for the first time on the Schneier on Security website. Here it is:

“Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power -- governments, employers -- exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient -- not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you're doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you've persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you've indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who -- either because they're heroically brave, or because they're insane, or because they know themselves to be safe -- are free from fear.”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Report On The Portland "Fix-It Fair," January 2009

I have a number of things to talk about, and they are all somewhat unrelated from each other, so I will be publishing three short posts over the next few days. Tonight's post is the first of the series.

Last weekend, I attended a “Fix-It Fair” sponsored by the City of Portland, Oregon's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. According to the City website, the Fix-It Fairs are “ events designed to save you money and connect you to resources. They are held on 3 Saturday mornings during the winter (November - February) from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., at various locations around the City of Portland.” The goal of these fairs is to teach residents how to spend less and stay healthy while conserving natural resources, all by the use of environmentally responsible techniques.

I learned of the Fix-It Fair via a mailer sent out by the City to all the homes in my neighborhood. I was intrigued by the impressive list of classes offered during the fair, as well as the fact that the whole thing was free, with free lunches provided. The classes started at 9 AM and lasted 45 minutes each, but I didn't manage to arrive until a little after 10 (I had stayed up too late the night before, doing things like blogging ;-) ). Since there were 40 minutes until the next class, I visited the exhibition tables and talked to a few staffers while snapping some pictures.

I was impressed by the number of volunteers and nonprofit organizations who had exhibition tables. These exhibitors had literature and displays which informed and instructed visitors on a number of topics, such as:

  • How to clean a house without harsh artificial chemicals

  • How to reduce stormwater runoff by garden design and disconnecting rain gutter downspouts

  • How to transition from meat-based diets to vegetarianism

  • How to weatherize a home to save energy

  • How to compost

  • How to choose a reputable home construction contractor

  • as well as opportunities to volunteer to help meet neighborhood needs via the Oregon Food Bank and Friends of Trees, among other groups.

One of the most intriguing tables I saw was sponsored by a the ReBuilding Center (, a group that teaches environmentally responsible building and structure demolition. They also demolish structures in such a way that most of the disassembled materials can be reused, and they stockpile these materials in warehouses that are open to the public. There was also a table sponsored by Growing Gardens (, one of my favorite nonprofit groups, which holds classes on food gardening and helps plant food gardens in economically challenged neighborhoods.

At last, 11 AM rolled around, and I went in to a “Home Weatherization” class taught by a staffer from the Community Energy Project ( The class featured some very basic, yet valuable tips on how to reduce heat loss from windows, doorways and even receptacle and light switch openings in the walls of a home. At the end, each of us was given a free weatherization kit good for one or two windows of a house.

Once the class ended, I went out to the main exhibition hall in search of lunch, only to find that over a hundred people had thought of the same thing and the lunch line was barely moving. Disappointed, I tightened my belt and gritted my teeth and went to the next class on my list, a class on building raised beds in your yard in order to grow vegetables. This class too was very informative, as the presenter taught the various methods of preparing soil for vegetable planting. His favorite method was, of course, sheet mulching – a technique which is also my favorite. In addition, he gave us some facts concerning his own food garden (he has around 40 fruit and nut trees, either as dwarf trees or on espaliers), and the total cultivated area of his garden is 6000 square feet. He devised an interesting equation to illustrate his gardening philosophy:

NS + HI = AS ↕ HM

where, NS stands for natural systems

HI stands for human intervention

AS stands for altered systems

and HM stands for human maintenance.

His point was that in order to be a successful gardener with the least effort, one should alter natural systems as little as possible; otherwise, the amount of human maintenance would go up.

After his class ended, I went back again to the exhibition hall in search of lunch, but by this time the lunches were all gone. (This is one of the few bad things I could say about the event.) So I tightened my belt a little more and gritted my teeth a little harder, and attended the final class on my list, a class titled, “Emergencies – Beyond the First 72 Hours.” This class was well worth the minor inconvenience of an empty stomach, as I found it to be the most interesting of all the classes.

The instructor informed us that government offices such as FEMA typically promote having enough supplies to survive the first 72 hours of an emergency. The 72 hours, however, is a baseline estimate of the time between the onset of a disaster and the start of government help. This means that people in a disaster in the U.S. might have to be able to hold out much longer than 72 hours. The key to surviving the first 72 hours is to have adequate stored water, food, sanitary means and appropriate shelter.

But the instructor said that the key to surviving after that period is sustainability, which he defined as the ability to supply oneself with the basic necessities for the long term. The measures of sustainability must be integrated now into daily activities now, so that they are not foreign to people when disaster strikes. The instructor talked of the need for individuals, neighborhoods and families to come together and draft plans for long-term survivability, including making timelines for the activities needed for people to stay in place after a disaster, as well as finding space and finances for stored supplies. He also mentioned that businesses who practiced good disaster planning found that every dollar spent on preparation saved 7 dollars in response.

He went on to talk about long-term food storage, even mentioning the extremely helpful articles found on Captain Dave's website (, as well as the importance of learning to garden for food and the need to use heirloom, non-hybrid seeds in gardening. There were times when his food security advice seemed to be right out of Casaubon's Book! All in all, it was a very informative class (as I said, well worth a skipped lunch), and at the end, the instructor said that he is available to visit neighborhoods and present a somewhat longer and more in-depth class to anyone who is interested. I think I'll take him up on his offer.

Below are some pictures from the fair. Enjoy! For those who live in Portland, the next fair will be on Saturday, 7 February 2009.

P.S., This fair is not the product of some special virtue or intelligence confined only to Portland. Any community can do such things as this. All it takes is a network of volunteers willing to look realistically at the world we live in and the times we are now facing, and to begin to learn and teach the skills needed for coping with such a world and such times. This is what it means to build a safety net of alternative systems. Build the network. Be a volunteer.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Distasteful Truth

In my post, “Appropriate Technology and The Art Of Being Poor,” I pointed out the role of “appropriate” technologies in addressing the energy, economic and environmental problems the world is now facing. These problems have been caused by large-scale expansion of Western industrialization and Western, hyper-capitalist economies. My point was that the technological solutions being devised for use in the Third World tend to be simple and cheap, and do not require lots of resources. But simple, low-tech solutions are frequently overlooked when policy-makers and technologists in the First World try to devise “appropriate technologies” for First World problems.

This is because we in the First World, and especially in America, can't get used to the idea that we need to live more simply. “Simple living is for poor people!” – or so say many. Too many of us still believe that we are entitled to a high-tech lifestyle, replete with all the things anyone might want, and that if that lifestyle is threatened by environmental or energy crises, at least we deserve the best, most high-tech solution to such a problem. Too many of us can't swallow the distasteful truth that we have become a poorer nation and a poorer world, and that we're going to have to start learning to live decently as poor people.

I saw a couple of examples of this over the last several days. First, the State of California recently decided to undertake construction of a high-speed rail line running from San Diego through Sacramento and San Francisco. This initiative began as a proposition written by the state government and approved by California voters during the last election. The post-election statement from the California High-Speed Rail Authority reads as follows:

History will remember this night, when Californians demanded a new transportation system for California's 21st century travel needs. Thanks to tonight’s vote, a state-of-the-art, new transportation choice will link every major city in the state and move people and products like never before. The citizens of California have put the 21st century golden spike in the ground with a clear affirmation of high-speed trains.”

Notice the words, “state-of-the-art.” The statement goes on to say more about technological advance, job growth and economic stimulation due to the high-speed rail project. (You can read the whole thing here:

The only problem is that the California High Speed Rail Authority may be running out of money. Their budget for the current fiscal year was to be financed partly by the sale of state bonds. But because of the present economic crisis and the state's existing debt, nobody's buying the bonds. (Source: In fact, if you look at the High Speed Rail website, you'll learn that the entire $9.95 billion project is to be funded by the sale of bonds.

An economy faced with declining resource availability can't easily expand its debt load, yet this is what California is trying to do in order to obtain the finest rail line that money can buy. Now I have nothing against high-speed rail – but I don't think they can afford it. I have a better suggestion.

I used to work at a company that sent me from Southern California to San Jose on a few occasions. I hate flying, so I took Amtrak. (This was right around the time I started bicycle commuting.) From the Fullerton station to the San Jose Diridon station, the trip took 12 hours. In order to make it to my afternoon meeting in San Jose on time, I had to be at the Fullerton station at midnight, catch an Amtrak bus, ride to some place out in farm country (don't ask me where, I usually was quite foggy-headed by then), and catch a train to San Luis Obispo. Then I caught another bus which arrived in San Jose around noon. Now that I have moved, if I want to go from Portland to Los Angeles via Amtrak, it takes 29 hours.

Yet these trains can and do travel at over 80 miles an hour already. If we simply fixed the train system we've already got, a person could go from Los Angeles to San Jose or Sacramento in five or six hours, or could go from Los Angeles to Portland in thirteen hours. Fixing what we have would save money and is easily achievable, whereas the shiny and new, though sexy, is unattainable. But our leaders refuse to get this.

There is another psychological problem with simple, cheap, low-resource appropriate technology. High-tech, complex solutions requiring lots of capital are usually the province of First World scientists and corporations. But simple, resource-light, cheap low-tech technologies can be devised by anyone who is observant and can think logically. This means that low-tech appropriate technologies can be devised by citizens of Third World countries. This another thing that many in the First World find very hard to swallow.

A case in point is the pot-in-pot refrigerator (or Zeer, in Arabic). It was invented by Mohammed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher, in 1995, and is a very simple device consisting simply of a clay pot placed within a larger clay pot with wet sand between the pots and a wet cloth on top. Mr, Bah Abba was awarded a Rolex Laureate prize in 2000 for his invention, which is able to preserve fresh vegetables for up to three weeks at a temperature of around 15 degrees C. (Sources:,,

Fast forward to 2009 and you may find a recent surprising news article about “an amazing solar-powered fridge invented by (a) British student in a potting shed (that) helps poverty-stricken Africans.” (Source: Upon reading the article, one quickly discovers that this “amazing invention” is nothing more than a variation on Mr. Bah Abba's “pot-in-pot” refrigerator, with practically the same performance! According to the Daily Mail article cited above, this girl's invention is “now improving the lives of thousands of poverty-stricken Africans” who evidently were not clever enough to come up with such a device on their own, and who just happened to be rescued by benevolent European masters with their incredible scientific insights. It must just be a coincidence that the girl came up with the idea for her invention while working on a school project in her grandfather's potting shed. By the way, no mention is made of Mr. Bah Abba in the article. Also note that this girl's invention requires a specially machined metal cylinder, while the original pot-in-pot is...just two clay pots!

This failure to accept our coming poverty and to properly acknowledge the inventiveness and ideas of the global South and of the Third World is going to cost many people in the First World dearly as resource constraints increasingly deprive the First World of its technological edge, and the hubris of the First World causes many people to labor at reinventing wheels that were available all along to anyone with an ounce of humility.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Appropriate Home Technologies

It is time now to consider appropriate technologies to help households adjust to declining availability of energy and rising energy cost. We will begin by examining the forms and purposes of energy use in modern households.

Houses need energy in order to accomplish a few basic tasks: lighting, heating (or cooling, as the case may be), cooking, doing chores and occupying the minds of those who live in them. Throughout most of history, lighting, heating and cooking were accomplished by burning things or by using sunlight (at least for lighting and heating). The need for cooking was sometimes reduced by innovative low-tech food processing and fermentation techniques (things like sun-drying meats and fruit and preservation techniques such as pickling). Doing chores required only time, skill and elbow grease. And people kept their minds occupied by building friendships, having conversations and practicing folk culture.

The Industrial Revolution changed this arrangement. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, heating and cooking continued to be done by burning things, although the instruments of burning became ever-more refined. There was a switch in the things being burned also, from wood to coal to oil to natural gas. Many of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution were “labor-saving devices” which harnessed newly-discovered energy sources to automatically and mechanically do many of the chores that used to require human time, skill and elbow grease. The widespread harnessing of electricity caused a change in the way humans lighted their dwellings, as well as the way they kept their minds occupied. The uses of new forms of energy continually grew, because humankind kept finding ever-greater stores of these new energy sources. Eventually, the most advanced societies became almost wholly dependent on these new sources of energy and the machines that harnessed them.

A particularly noteworthy form of energy is electric energy. The creation of electric energy requires the conversion of other forms of energy (solar energy, wind, nuclear energy, chemical energy in fossil fuels, kinetic energy of falling water) into electricity. Yet once the conversion has been made, electric energy is the most flexible form of energy available to modern man. It can be converted to any other form of energy, i.e., light, heat, cooling, motive power or even nuclear energy (assuming that one has a very powerful source of electric energy and a very powerful particle accelerator). Because electricity is so flexibly used, it has assumed a key role in the running of modern advanced nations, and one measure of the advanced state of the First World is the measure of how much electricity is generated and used in the First World.

But in this time of economic trouble and declining energy resources, the availability of electric energy is in danger. As has already been stated, the transmission of electricity depends on the conversion of other forms of energy into electric energy. This process is never 100 percent efficient, and most electric power plants use some fossil fuel energy source in order to supply the energy for electric power generation. We know that oil is becoming scarcer, as well as natural gas, and even coal reserves are declining in size and quality of fuel. The same can be said for the uranium and thorium used in nuclear power plants.

There is an additional difficulty, especially true in the United States. Our electric power grid is getting quite old and unreliable, and parts of it are very heavily loaded. System events like an arcing fault or ice accumulation on a medium or high-voltage line can have serious cascading effects that take large parts of the power grid out of service. Arcing faults can easily be caused by severe weather or wildlife (squirrels and birds can wind up costing a lot of people a lot of money!).

So what does this have to do with the modern house? The modern home depends on electricity for the majority of its functions. Without electricity, many of the functions performed in a modern house simply cease. Therefore, appropriate technologies for a post-Peak household consist of those devices and techniques that don't require electricity.

Let's consider my house, for instance. It is small mass-produced tract house built a couple of years after the Korean War. As is typical of many houses in the Pacific Northwest, it is mostly electric. I have an electric stove/oven and a microwave, an electric water heater, an electric garbage disposer, and of course all the lights are electric. One of the previous owners installed a new gas furnace within the last ten years, and that is the only gas appliance in the house – yet it has an electric fan motor and is electronically controlled. (It's also in the attic, so it blows warm air down from the ceiling diffusers. The only problem is that we all know that warm air tends to rise. So unless I'm standing under a diffuser, I feel cold.) My washer, dryer and refrigerator are electric. If I had lost power a few weeks ago when the whole city was snowed in, I would have had to leave my house and stay elsewhere until power was restored.

The post-Peak challenge for this house is to find a way to replace all the functions that are now handled by electricity. This is not only a good goal for coping with a post-Peak world, but for coping with an extended power outage caused by any other event. Here are some questions I need to answer:

  • How can I wake up in the mornings without an electric alarm clock?

  • How do I cook food and keep food from spoiling?

  • How can I wash and dry clothes? I have a clothesline, but what do I do during the rainy, wet, cold Pacific Northwest winters?

  • How can I stay in touch with others who are far away?

  • What do I do for lighting after dark?

  • How do I keep my mind occupied without an iPod, stereo or TV? (I think I've got that one solved ;) )

  • How do I stay warm in the winter without relying on a furnace that uses electricity?

  • How do I keep the house from getting moldy during the winter?

Such questions as these will become increasingly important as our electric power infrastructure wears out and we are faced with the possibility that as a nation, we may not be able to afford its continued upkeep. I will be tackling these questions from time to time in future posts, and I will let you all know what I come up with.

In the meantime, I want to mention a blog post along these lines, titled, “Inexpensive Ways To Stay Warm This Winter,” from David's My Two Dollars blog ( Also, this weekend I will be attending a series of classes on sustainable living hosted by the City of Portland. Among the topics they will discuss are “Home Weatherization,” “Cutting Your Energy Bill,” and “Principles of a Healthy Home.” I may snap a few pictures and give a summary of the event in my next post.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Digital Television and Frugal Entertainment

Those who watch television regularly probably know that the United States recently passed a law requiring all television broadcast networks to stop broadcasting analog television signals as of 17 February 2009, and to broadcast only digital television (DTV) signals. The U.S. has also mandated that as of 1 March 2009, manufacturers of television sets can only manufacture sets containing DTV tuners. Older analog TV sets will not be able to receive or display shows broadcast by DTV networks, meaning that those who own analog sets and refuse to buy newer DTV's will no longer be able to watch television.

According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the switch to DTV is a good thing, because it will give us all an enhanced viewing experience, as stated on their DTV website:

"Digital Television (DTV) is an advanced broadcasting technology that will transform your television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality. It can also offer multiple programming choices, called multicasting, and interactive capabilities.

Converting to DTV also will free up parts of the scarce and valuable broadcast spectrum. Those portions of the spectrum can then be used for other important services, such as public and safety services (police and fire departments, emergency rescue), and advanced wireless services."

Manufacturers of consumer electronics have devised digital-to-analog converter boxes that owners of analog TV sets can purchase in order to continue watching shows without buying a new DTV. However, these boxes cost between $45 and $70. The Federal government had been issuing $40 coupons to offset the cost of these converter boxes, but the Feds seem to have run out of coupons (imagine that!), so that those without coupons must pay the full price. Also, there is at least one report that these converters don't work so well (See “Technology – Not Picture-Perfect, Houston Chronicle, 5 January 2009,

On the other hand, if you want to just buy a new DTV (also known as HDTV), you will have to spend between $999 and $3597 at Paul's TV (He's the king of big screen) in Orange County, California. Or if you go with Best Buy, you can get a TV for anywhere between $109 and $3999. But I have a better idea.

It should be obvious by now that the sole purpose of American television is to hoodwink and hypnotize people into buying worthless, unnecessary things at grossly inflated prices. Not only are we being sold a bill of consumer “goods,” but we are being sold a point of view and a mindset that renders us incapable of critical thinking, that turns us into prey and that makes us into easy targets for the large, rich powerful predators who feed on us. Since this is the case, losing the ability to watch television isn't a bad thing.

It should also be obvious that the sole purpose of the recently passed DTV law was to force working-class Americans to spend money they don't have.

So here's my frugal tip for the week: don't buy a DTV converter box. And don't buy a new DTV or HDTV set. When the 17th of February rolls around, just take your analog set out to the dumpster. Get a hobby instead. Or learn a new skill. Or read books that force you to think. Or get some friends and do something meaningful and constructive. Or if you're a kid, go outside and play. Learn to play a musical instrument, to write, or to draw pictures - and make your own culture. After a few months of real life, you'll hardly miss television.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Appropriate Technology And The Art Of Being Poor

I'd like to take a few moments to discuss a concept I first encountered several months ago – the concept of “appropriate technology.” Understanding this concept is a key to navigating our way through the times now upon us – times of climate change, post-Peak Oil and economic difficulty.

Appropriate technology is the maturing offspring of a related concept, “intermediate technology,” first devised by British economist E.F. Schumacher. He formulated this concept as he watched the harmful effects of imposing Western-style economics and large-scale, capital-intensive industrialization on local economies and cultures in the developing world. These Western economic and technological schemes were imposed on the nations of the Third World by powerful Western governments and by well-meaning but misguided Western charities and non-governmental organizations (NGO's), with devastating results that included the loss of self-sufficiency for members of local cultures, the resulting spread of poverty, and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the richest citizens of developing countries. In addition, the poor majority of these countries could not afford to use the capital-intensive technologies being introduced to these countries. (As an example, even now, in a country like China, there are 56.97 million cars, but over a billion people, meaning that only one out of every eighteen people owns a car.)

As an economist, Schumacher believed that his mission was to help create a higher standard of living for people in developing nations, yet he saw the limitations of Western high-tech economic practices. His “intermediate” solution was to provide or devise means and technologies which would be more advanced than indigenous methods currently in use, yet simpler and more affordable to implement by Third World citizens than those of the modern West, technologies which would benefit their users without doing violence to their way of life.

Schumacher's “intermediate technology” has given rise to the distinct, yet related concept of “appropriate technology.” Yet appropriate technology is seen in two rather different ways, depending on whether those who study and seek to implement appropriate technology are working in a Third World or a First World context. This is seen in how appropriate technology is defined in these two contexts, as noted in a Wikipedia article on the subject:

Appropriate technology (AT) is technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community it is intended for. With these goals in mind, AT typically requires fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment compared to industrialized practices.

“In developing nations, the term is usually used to describe simple technologies suitable for use in developing nations or less developed rural areas of industrialized nations. This form of appropriate technology usually prefers labor-intensive solutions over capital-intensive ones, although labor-saving devices are also used where this does not mean high capital or maintenance cost. In practice, appropriate technology is often something described as using the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location. In industrialized nations, the term appropriate technology takes a different meaning, often referring to engineering that takes special consideration of its social and environmental ramifications.”

Note the difference between these two definitions. In plain English, those who speak of appropriate technologies as applied to developing nations are talking about techniques and tools that achieve a desired goal while being simple and cheap, and that don't require a lot of resources. In the rich industrialized world, “appropriate technology” means engineering that produces tools and products that have a positive social and environmental impact. Now it is quite true that tools developed for use in the Third World, under the “appropriate technology” paradigm used in a Third World context, will also have a positive social and environmental impact when used by citizens of the First World – precisely because they are simple and cheap and they don't use a lot of resources. Yet simple, low-tech solutions are frequently overlooked when policy-makers and technologists in the First World discuss the application of “appropriate technology” in a First World context.

Why is this so? I believe it is because we in the First World have gotten used to the idea of “progress” as ever-advancing technological development. And even though our technology has generated our current problems, we still believe that the solution to those problems lies in ever-advancing technology. But ever-increasing technological advancement requires an ever-expanding resource base and a society that is becoming ever-richer because of continual discoveries of new resources. Our trouble is that the resource base of the world is now contracting, having been very efficiently depleted by our global history of industrial “progress.” In short, we can no longer afford a society that depends on ever-expanding technological advancement of the sort to which we have become accustomed.

This fact seems very difficult for citizens of developed nations – especially those of the United States – to swallow. I think this is because the middle and upper classes of the U.S. have enjoyed lives of affluence for so long, and because of our long history as the “richest nation on earth” and our long track record of impressive technological achievements. The road we have taken has led to resource peaks, climate change and economic breakdown, yet we as a nation still think that the solution to these things lies in the further advancement of our technologically-driven way of life. We are as spoiled as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, and we can't seem to grasp the reality that we are not rich anymore and that we will have to seek simpler solutions to our problems.

This is seen in a multitude of ways in the present discussions about potential solutions to climate change and Peak Energy. One example that I want to discuss particularly is the American approach to sustainable building as exemplified in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Rating Systems for Building Construction devised by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

The USGBC is a non-profit trade organization founded in 1993 for the purpose of promoting sustainable building design and construction. It has used many tools for achieving this purpose, including education, publications and research; yet its primary method has been its LEED Green Building Rating System, developed in 2000. According to the USGBC, “The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.”

The LEED rating systems have been developed for a variety of projects, such as new construction, core-and-shell, tenant improvement, existing building retrofits, schools, health care facilities, and neighborhood development. Those architects, engineers and constructors who want to certify a project under the LEED rating systems must include certain design and construction features in order to earn points for the rating system under consideration. Certification levels range from “Certified” to “Silver” to “Gold,” and lastly, to “Platinum” as the highest rating. Participation in the rating system is entirely voluntary. A LEED certified building or construction project is supposed to save energy and resources, and to have a substantially reduced environmental impact compared to a similar non-certified project.

This is an admirable goal. Yet there is disturbing evidence that in many cases, pursuing LEED certification inflates the cost of building projects, discouraging project owners from pursuing LEED as they struggle to keep their projects within budget. A 2003 study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants stated that pursuing LEED certification could add up to eleven percent to a project's total construction cost. A General Services Administration (GSA) study calculated that LEED certification could add up to eight percent to a construction project's cost. Also, LEED-certified buildings are supposed to use up to 42 percent less energy than similar non-LEED buildings, yet there have been recent criticisms that LEED-certified buildings do not actually save significant amounts of energy and water.

I am familiar with a few LEED projects and I can see why these criticisms would be valid. In two of these projects, an architect partnered with a mechanical/electrical/plumbing/structural (MEPS) design team to produce a LEED certified building. The architectural firm spent the majority of the design budget alloted to the entire team, and set out to design an eye-catching architectural “statement” full of expensive materials and finishes, a design which almost completely ignored the laws of physics. Then the design was given to the MEPS team who was told to “make it work.” Of course, much of the MEPS team's effort was devoted to rectifying energy use problems caused by the architectural design and this added further cost to the projects. When the project owners saw the construction cost estimates, they naturally had second thoughts about paying for a “green” building.

Many practitioners of LEED are guilty of even more ridiculous errors, such as siting large building projects on virgin wilderness land, then excusing themselves for their environmental sin by trying to make their project “LEED certified.” There are people who design such oxymorons as a $29 million LEED-certified parking garage recently built in Santa Monica. There are also those who build new housing developments on formerly undeveloped land, yet who seek to use LEED certification to market their homes as “green housing.” There are even people who design and build LEED-Platinum rated McMansions, and who bless themselves afterward for the good they have supposedly done.

LEED is just one example of the typical American mindset that believes that believes we can find a “sustainable,” environmentally friendly way to enjoy ever-increasing technological power and complexity and ever-increasing consumption. In our drive to achieve the goal of “sustainable growth,” we therefore invest in technologies and strategies which actually run counter to our stated objective of sustainability. Instead of installing clotheslines, our households are taught by advertising to want the latest Energy Star appliances. Instead of building super-insulated “passive houses,” we buy furnaces and wood stoves. Instead of riding bicycles, we demand plug-in hybrid cars. Instead of learning to do without much electricity, we want 3 kilowatt PV systems on every home. But like Scarlett O'Hara at the end of the Civil War, we can no longer afford the finer things we have gotten used to.

It is time for us to admit that we're not rich anymore, and to begin to seek more affordable, elegantly simple solutions to our problems. Those who propose tech-intensive, expensive solutions must realize that their solutions will most likely not be implemented by a society that is rapidly becoming poorer. Embracing the “appropriate” technologies now being developed for the Third World would be truly – ah, appropriate.