Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Tincture (and a bit more) of Green

Portland, Oregon has earned a reputation as a “green” city, a city that is progressive with regard to environmental and sustainability issues. Whether that reputation is entirely deserved is a matter of debate; there are still lots of people in this town who are pushing development for the sake of “growth,” as well as the usual suspects driving SUV's everywhere and throwing tantrums whenever pedestrians or cyclists impede their journey.

Yet Portland has many things going for it, things that are hard to find in other American cities. The City of Portland Bureau of Transportation is one such asset. They have a very respectable bicycle transit outreach and promotion program. In addition, they have developed a useful and functional web of bike paths and designated “bike-friendly” streets. It is thus possible to get to many workplaces, stores, libraries and other important destinations entirely by bike. They also provide bike and walking maps to anyone who wants them.

And they conduct educational outreaches to bicyclists to make bike commuting safer. One such outreach, shown in the picture below, took place a few weeks ago after an accident on the Hawthorne Bridge involving two cyclists.

Such outreaches are both necessary and welcome. To my fellow cyclists I say, let's listen to some words of wisdom from the Bureau of Transportation. Be safe and courteous when cycling, especially on mixed-use paths like those on the Hawthorne Bridge. We all know how impatient and pushy many car drivers can be. Let's not ride the way we see some people drive. On a mixed-use path, slow down – a few seconds' delay won't kill you. And use a bell to warn pedestrians that you're coming up behind them. (At the outreach pictured above, the City handed out free bells.)

One other thing about the Bureau: every last Friday of the month, they team up with local bike shops to host a commuters' breakfast on the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge. Not only do they feed you, but if you're a cyclist, they'll even do a mechanical check of your bike for free.

The City also has a Bureau of Environmental Services that does many things, including providing resources for brownfield remediation. And there is the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which hosts all sorts of classes on sustainable living and building. One series of classes is on building “cob” (earthen) houses. I missed the first class in the series, and I may be out of town on business during the second class, so I am kicking myself. Ah, how frustrating! Hopefully, the classes will be held again in the near future. I am thinking hard about using rammed earth to make my house more snug before this next winter. If anyone out there has any experience with or knowledge of earth construction, feel free to leave a comment. I also invite residents of other cities to tell some of the things being done by your city government or volunteer groups to make your place a little more “green.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Brownfield Remediation For Urban Homesteaders

Urban homesteading is a very valuable skill set for the times we now face. One of the most important aspects of urban homesteading is for city dwellers to learn to grow their own food. A unique challenge of growing food in an urban or suburban environment is dealing with pre-existing pollution or contamination of an urban garden site. Such sites are known as “brownfields” as opposed to uncontaminated virgin lands called “greenfields.” Brownfields are common in urban areas and we must learn to deal with them, because as the existing “official” food economy deteriorates, we won't be able to just keep going to the store rather face this challenge. Knowing how to garden successfully on brownfields may soon mean the difference between surviving and starving.

Our Endangered “Official” Food System

The food production and distribution system that now exists in the industrial world is becoming increasingly endangered. This system depends on the concentration of control of vast amounts of farmland, labor, machinery, storehouses, distribution facilities and farm “inputs” in the hands of a few large corporations. These corporations distribute food through a vast global network of supply chains that lead to points of sale at local supermarkets. The whole system depends heavily on artificial means of forcing increased production from the ground that is farmed – means such as mechanized farming, pesticides, fertilizers and long-haul transport. All of these artificial means depend on fossil fuels and the cheap credit that a fossil-fueled economy provides.

Now that fossil fuels are becoming scarce, the entire system is beginning to break down. During the last oil price spike, the prices of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides also spiked. During the economic collapse that occurred afterward, lines of credit to farmers were wiped out, just as lines of credit for other businesses also dried up. Farmers have come to depend on credit in order to buy the seeds, fertilizers and other amendments, and machinery for each year's harvest. The reduction in availability of credit is causing farmers to cut back on planting. Several news reports predicted in 2008 that this could result in decreased harvests in 2009, leading to price spikes for food, and possible shortages.

This story will play itself out repeatedly and with ever-increasing severity as oil becomes scarcer and the official economy continues to deteriorate as a result. Under such circumstances, city dwellers will need to farm whatever pieces of ground they can get their hands on. Telling such people that it's safer to get their food from the store is a non-starter. Yet it is important to know how to garden safely in urban soils, and how to deal with contamination. In this post, I will focus mainly on dealing with lead contamination. Future posts may delve into how to deal with other kinds of contamination.

Dealing with lead contamination is a multi-pronged strategy consisting of the following elements: appropriate plants, separation techniques, and remediation tools.

Appropriate Plants

All plants accumulate lead to some extent; however, not all plants concentrate accumulated lead in their edible parts. A study performed by the Argonne National Laboratory examined lead accumulation in edible parts of food plants, the results of which showed that lead generally does not concentrate in the “fruit” of fruiting edible plants. These plants include things like fruit trees, corn, cucumbers, peppers, squash, tomatoes, watermelon and zucchini. Therefore, when dealing with heavily contaminated soils (soils that test over 400 parts per million for lead) that cannot be remediated due to cost or lack of access to resources, plants such as these should be cultivated, along with legumes such as beans and peas. Quite a lot of plants can be safely harvested and eaten, even when grown in heavily contaminated soils.

Once the fruiting parts of these plants are harvested, the crop should be washed thoroughly before use. Some sources recommend washing with both water and detergent. Afterward, these crops are quite safe for human consumption. However, it is generally not safe to eat root vegetables, leafy greens or herbs grown in soil contaminated to 400 parts per million or above. Safe utilization of these vegetables requires appropriate separation techniques.

Separation Techniques

When raising root vegetables and other crops susceptible to lead contamination, it is essential to keep these vegetables away from the source of contamination. Therefore, when gardening on a contaminated site, one must not plant these vegetables directly in the soil. Instead, raised beds or containers should be used. Clean soil should be placed in the beds or containers, and the soil should be monitored every season to insure that it does not become contaminated by windblown dust from adjacent contaminated areas. Wind-caused cross-contamination can also be reduced by planting a cover crop of grass in areas of bare dirt to immobilize the soil, as well as by mulch or weed tarps.

Suitable containers for container gardening are easy to come by, free of charge. One can find used five-gallon food-grade plastic buckets at many restaurants and supermarkets. Empty plastic detergent buckets are also good. As far as raised beds, some sources recommend placing a semi-permeable barrier at the bottom of the bed to separate the contaminated soil from the new clean soil added to the bed. The beds must be deep enough that any root vegetables grown in them will not contact the contaminated soil underneath even when they have grown to their full extent.

Gardening in raised beds or containers limits the size of the harvest available to an urban household. In order have the freedom to grow anything anywhere at any time on an urban homestead, soil remediation techniques must be employed where contamination exists.

Remediation Tools

Techniques of remediation of lead contamination have been studied extensively by non-profit urban gardening groups, non-governmental organizations (NGO's), universities and researchers affiliated with the governments of the United States and several other nations. Interest in lead remediation has risen as governments and others have come to grips with some of the negative effects of massive industrialization. The techniques studied have varied in complexity, reliance on advanced technology and cost, with the governments of First World nations tending to favor study of the most costly and complex techniques. These techniques include things like soil removal and replacement, soil washing, electrokinetic methods, and other costly remedies.

Such techniques are beyond the reach of most residents of the Third World, as well as most poor and middle-class people in the First World. I will therefore focus mainly on those techniques which have been studied for use in poor settings by people of limited means.

First, there are techniques of binding lead in soil to reduce its bioavailability to plants. One method, studied in China and in the U.S., involves adding rock phosphate and/or phosphate fertilizers to contaminated soil. The phosphates bind to the lead to form insoluble lead phosphate compounds that are not taken up by plants. Another method is simply to add compost to contaminated soil, as the organic compounds in the compost accomplish the same goal of immobilizing and binding lead in soil.

Then there is phytoremediation, which consists of growing plants that are known lead accumulators in order to reduce the total concentration of lead in soil. Some phytoremediation strategies promise a reduction of 100 parts per million per growing season. Reduction of soil lead levels to an acceptable range by this technique takes from two to over five years. It should be viewed as part of a long-range strategy for healing urban areas.

Final Thoughts: The Correct Way To Assess Contamination Risks

This week's post is a follow-up to my earlier post, “The Chicken That Laid Leaden Eggs, And Other Horror Stories.” In this week's post, I seek to drive home an additional point that I may not have made in the earlier post. That point is the fact that urban homesteading, and particularly urban agriculture, have a disruptive effect on the official global food system, because they result in people breaking free of that system. Therefore it is no surprise that the masters of that system might find it advantageous to try to arouse fear of potential “dangers” of urban food gardening, in order to keep people dependent on the official system.

A recent case in point involves keeping urban chickens for the purpose of eating their eggs. An article appeared in a local newspaper warning urban chicken-keepers of the danger of eating eggs from chickens that have ingested lead-based paint from older buildings. That concern is valid, yet the article went on to imply that because of the ubiquitousness of lead in urban environments, it is largely unsafe for people to raise chickens for food in the city. While the article caused many people to get their property and their children tested for lead contamination, these people then concluded that if there were elevated lead levels on their property and elevated blood lead levels in their children, it had to be due to the children eating eggs from contaminated urban chickens.

Now I believe that the writer of the news article had the best interests of readers at heart. Yet the conclusion of that article and the conclusions drawn by some of its readers seem like “fuzzy” logic to me. I think that before we start blaming urban chickens for childhood lead poisoning, we need to conduct some rigorous experiments, including measuring the lead content of random samples of store-bought eggs, double-blind experiments in which blood lead levels of urban gardeners/chicken keepers are measured against levels of non-gardening urban dwellers, and tissue/egg lead levels of chickens who do not ingest lead paint chips, yet are raised in urban environments. Only after such experiments are performed will we be able to blame or exonerate urban chicken-keeping as a source of lead poisoning. In the meantime, I'm still working on my coop. My plan is to get some chicks in July.

As to the problem of reclaiming brownfields for urban agriculture, I applaud all who are tackling this problem – including the solitary backyard tinkerers doing homegrown research. In finding solutions, you are proving yourselves to be true heroes and heroines.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The "Small Stones" Of Adaptation

The focus of this blog, The Well Run Dry, is Peak Oil and the related issues that accompany it – climate change, other resource peaks and economic collapse. My blog is partly a diary of the day-to-day experience of this multifaceted predicament. Yet I also try to provide some in-depth analysis of these issues, as well as helpful strategies of adaptation. One disclaimer: I do not consider myself to be an expert by any means. I woke up to these issues – truly woke up – at the start of 2007, long after more well-known writers and thinkers had begun studying these issues. Consider me to be just another man on the street, yet a man who likes to tinker.

One thing many readers may have noticed over the last few months is that I have been talking about very small-scale, low-tech strategies of adapting to economic collapse – things like bicycle transportation, small-scale manufacturing, backyard gardening, and building resilient neighborhoods. My particular focus on resilient neighborhoods has dealt with present, obvious threats to neighborhood stability, threats that would negatively impact quality of life even without Peak Oil and the other emergent crises we face. Some may question what these things have to do with adapting to crises such as Peak Oil and climate change. Others may question the effectiveness of such low-level strategies in dealing with these issues. Some may say, “Why don't you formulate some grand policy proposals that society could implement? Why don't you come up with a technological solution?” I will now explain why I have chosen to focus on low-level strategies and local responses to these issues, and will try to make some sense of my recent posts.

First, let me tell you what I believe. I believe that global oil production peaked in 2005, and that the oil price spike of 2008 is the evidence that oil production has been falling since then. My belief is based mainly on the Oil Report of the Energy Watch Group of Germany which was published in October 2007. I also believe that the official global economy is experiencing a number of other resource peaks right about now, including peaks in such raw materials as copper and molybdenum. In this I can speak from personal experience because I work for a company that has a number of industrial clients.

Because the supplies of many raw materials have peaked and are now declining, the global economy has begun to collapse. There are fewer and fewer new sources of supply for these raw materials, and existing stores are being depleted. Therefore I don't think there is anything we can do to avert the continued shrinkage of the global economy. We must adapt to a lifestyle of living on less. Living in a way that is truly “sustainable” over the long haul means living much more simply than Americans and citizens of the First World are accustomed to.

This fact is something that we must accept if we are to begin successfully adapting to the world in which we now find ourselves. This is true both of individuals and of larger social units – families, circles of friends, neighborhoods, communities and nations. To the extent that anyone or any group fails to accept this new reality, to that extent that individual or group will fail to adapt successfully.

Yet our modern society has become addicted to the constant getting of more “stuff” – thus the insistence on growing the “consumer” economy. Moreover, the growth of that economy is for the primary benefit of the masters of that economy – the rich owners, officers and executives of corporations and the heads of governments who serve those corporations. They especially are addicted to the constant getting of “more.” (It is rumored that when John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money is enough, he replied, “Just a little bit more.”) These rich masters are the drivers and preservers of our present economy, and they are doing all they can to preserve the present economic arrangements even as these arrangements begin to fall apart.

We are a society of addicts run by an elite consisting of mega-addicts. Our present way of life is unsustainable, not only because we are running out of resources, but because our way of life is destroying the earth. Successful adaptation to our situation requires that we admit this to ourselves, just as substance abuse addicts are often told, “Get honest or die!” Yet when faced with the ultimatum to get honest, our society in general and our leaders and rich men in particular have resisted at all costs.

Consider the presidency of George W. Bush, who in concert with oil companies and automakers chose to start a stupid and illegal war rather than promote mass transit and other conservation measures in the U.S. Consider how he and the Republican-dominated Congress enacted laws designed to make it easier for the rich to prey on the poor. Consider how he turned Federal scientific agencies into climate change deniers. Consider who started our present round of Wall Street bailouts. But if one wants to believe that the Democrats are any better, one must ask how much has actually changed since Bush left office. The bailouts of the rich keep coming, as well as attempts to enact laws that would force average Americans to continue to rely on a breaking system.

A top-down, strategic, societal strategy of adaptation to Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse would require that the leaders and those with power and wealth use it selflessly for the common good. Yet the evidence clearly shows that this is not happening – even though our collective window of opportunity for large-scale societal adaptation is shrinking. This is why I haven't written some essay for President Obama, why I no longer believe in writing my congressman, and why I am not really interested in formulating some large-scale policy that will never be implemented.

Nor am I very enthused about supposed “high-tech” solutions to our predicament. First, I don't believe that many of these solutions have much chance of working. Secondly, I am somewhat fearful of the unintended consequences that would arise if some of them did work. Now this is a personal opinion of mine, and intellectual honesty requires that it be tested in order to be considered valid – something I intend to explore in future posts. But I must say that I tend to agree with bloggers like Jeff Vail in his description of the unintended consequences and problems caused by the pursuit of ever-more complex technological fixes for the problems caused by technological advancement. I also tend to agree with those who mention the extreme technical challenges involved in implementing some of the proposed solutions to our present energy crisis. (For a good example of a description of these challenges, see Kiashu's humorous essay, “Solar power... in SPAAAACE!” at his blog, Green With A Gun.)

My focus is therefore on personal strategies of adaptation, because I believe that while the evidence is clear that many of our leaders would rather die than get honest, there are yet individuals out in the world who would rather live instead. And while we peasants have very little chance of directly influencing our leaders, there are things we can do as individuals and as neighborhoods to adapt to our new reality.

Those things include building alternatives to the failing systems of the official economy, as well as strengthening the communities in which we live. I can't fix the industrial food system, but I can grow potatoes (mine are coming up quite well now). I can't persuade the nation to fix its passenger rail system, but I can buy a Surly Long-Haul Trucker and use it for basic transportation. I can't repair the culture of my country, but I can repair the culture of my neighborhood. I can't force the mainstream media to tell the truth, but I can blog about the things I see, hear and know. Therefore I will continue to cover the small-scale adaptations that are within the reach of individuals without a lot of money or power, because I think these things will play an unexpectedly important role in our society's adaptation to our present times.

Two other things: first, I want to thank some long-time commenters for their readership and encouragement. In particular, I want to mention Kiashu, whom I mentioned earlier, as well as SoapBoxTech, author of the blog of the same name (, gaiasdaugter, author of the blog Homesteading on a Sandbar ( and of course, Stormchild, author of Gale Warnings which is listed on my blog under “Other Wells.”

Secondly, I see that the New York Times has published an article talking about the dangers to urban food gardeners from lead soil contamination. This is an interesting development, which I almost half expected. As more people start to decouple from relying on the failing system of industrial food production, it is to be expected that the rich owners of agribusiness will influence media outlets to write stories telling people that backyard gardens are potentially dangerous. This sort of story is what I tried to refute in my post titled, “The Chicken That Laid Leaden Eggs, And Other Horror Stories.” There is one other thing I expect, and that is that there will be many other bloggers writing pieces about remediation strategies for gardeners with lead-contaminated soil. I imagine that many of these bloggers will make the same points I made in my original piece. That piece was rather long, and I intend to write a more summary post later this week describing strategies for gardening in contaminated soil. (Who knows, someone might beat me to it... ;) )

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ecomotion Movin' On...

I regret to inform you of the passing of a uniquely Portland business with a uniquely Portland flavor. No, it isn't one of our unique locally-owned bookstores, nor is it one of our unique bicycle shops, shops that are light-years ahead of the rest of the nation when it comes to really “getting” the concept of the bike as basic transportation. Rather, it's Ecomotion, a seller of electric vehicles that is now going out of business.

I used to pass Ecomotion's showroom many times on the way to work as I rode my bike down Sandy Boulevard in the early morning en route to the bus stop on the other side of the river. The sight of the place provoked much curiosity and many questions in my mind, the chief of which was, “Who's buying these things, anyway?” My curiosity was again aroused when I saw the “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” signs on the windows a couple of months ago. These signs appeared at a time during which many observers were noticing the links between the collapse of the economy and the drying up of investment in “green” technologies. This was also less than six months after gasoline and oil prices fell to levels not seen in over four years.

I try to never pass up a good story. I also wondered whether economic collapse and the collapse of oil prices had anything to do with Ecomotion's demise, and I decided to find out. It took several tries, but I was at last able to secure time for a short, rapid-fire interview with the manager one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago. The interview took place as the employees were liquidating the furniture and fixtures. Below are my questions (in bold type), and his answers.

Why did Ecomotion fail? Ecomotion is an authorized dealer for ZAP Electric Vehicles. Gas prices were over $4 a gallon during much of last year. This drove demand for alternatives such as electric cars to such an extent that Ecomotion sold out all its inventory in June. They therefore ordered many new vehicles, but ZAP's manufacturing base was in China. Unfortunately, their China supply line was slow to deliver, so their new vehicles didn't arrive until October 2008. By then gas prices were under $2 a gallon, causing electric vehicle sales to drop off a cliff. In the early months of 2009, the owner of Ecomotion decided to call it quits. The ZAP vehicles are not suitable for highway speeds – not quite right yet – nor do they possess a range of at least 100 miles, which many consider the minimum range for an electric car to act as a practical alternative to cars driven by internal combustion.

There are other, smaller ZAP dealers that are a bit more successful, due to their ability to cheaply modify the vehicles for increased range and speed. Ecomotion did not have the staff for these modifications. Also, they had leased a large building with the goal of becoming the largest electric vehicle (EV) emporium in the United States. But the large building made for high overhead costs.

Regarding our present economic and energy challenges, what advice do you have for our nation? If we're seriously going to invest in alternatives to gasoline-powered cars, let's do it right. So much of what we try in the name of “alternatives” seems deliberately wrong and designed to fail. A case in point: A couple of Pacific Northwest utilities have begun installing charging stations for EV's in the Portland metro area. But the chargers are supplied at 110 volts and require 8 hours to deliver a full recharge. A Chinese company named BYD is supposedly developing a “dual mode” car that will go 100 miles before recharge, as well as a charging station that can accept three levels of input voltage, and can charge a car in 15 minutes. The local utilities don't seem interested in looking into such chargers.

How do you feel about your experience with trying to sell electric cars? Is there a bit of frustration at how it all turned out? There's definitely frustration, but also a sense of accomplishment at having played a role in trying to make the world a better place. The frustration is the main thing. Why the frustration? Ecomotion was promised many things by ZAP, things that didn't happen, such as an electric SUV with a 300-mile range. The staff at Ecomotion feel a bit like they've been hung out to dry.

What will the American energy and transportation scene look like in the next 18 months? Not much will change. We'll still be relying primarily on gas-powered cars. If we want to see a real change, what's needed is a change in how we drive as well as dedicated EV car lanes, due to the limits on speed and power of EV's.

Do Americans need to change what they want? Should we learn to want less? No. The problem does not lie in what we want. Most Americans would be happy with a mid sized sedan that was electric, so we wouldn't have to send our kids to fight for oil.

* * *

With that last question, the interview was over. As I did further research on Ecomotion and on ZAP cars, I found a few troubling trends that seemed typical of some players in the EV industry. First, Ecomotion is hardly the first ZAP car dealer to go out of business (or get “ZAPPED”). The failure of ZAP dealers is actually rather common, and has a lot less to do with our broader economic troubles than with the way the company is run. A recent article in Wired Magazine described how the company attracts potential investors with promises of “cutting-edge” new electric vehicles that are so good that they will practically sell themselves. The problem is that these vehicles are always “just around the corner” – they never actually show up. The ZAP vehicles that actually make it to dealer showrooms are clunky, poorly made and extremely limited in power and range (think 17 to 20 miles on a charge). There is also the shady nature of the agreements dealers are required to sign in order to sell ZAP cars. (If one reads the Wired magazine account, one gets the impression that the chief executives of ZAP are sociopaths.)

There seems to be a trend among some in the EV industry of promising unbelievable cars with performance too good to be true, and coming to your doorstep one day very soon. In addition to ZAP, BYD, the Chinese company mentioned earlier, has also been promising “environmentally-friendly” cars with all the power and luxury of gasoline-powered cars. Yet their promised vehicles don't always arrive as promised. One model that actually exists, the FD3M, is touted as having an all-electric range of 60 miles and a top speed of 93 miles per hour. But at least one source states that the 60-mile all-electric range only holds true if the car is driven at less than 30 miles an hour. BYD (short for Build Your Dreams) claims to have sold several dozen of these cars, yet the car itself won't be mass-produced until 2010.

The biggest problem with the EV industry extends beyond the industry to our society in general. EV's are slower and more limited in performance than gasoline-powered cars. This is a fact of life that's not likely to change anytime soon, and we must face this fact. If you're going to rely on an EV as primary transportation, you'll have to change your lifestyle. Period. Even if this situation changes, EV's are not the environmental panacea that their promoters claim. They still require fossil fuels to run, because our electricity is generated by plants that run on fossil fuels. Steam turboalternators of the kind found in a coal or natural gas-fired generating plant produce electricity at a final efficiency very similar to the efficiency of any other heat engine – including gasoline and diesel engines. Then there are the transmission losses arising from sending the electricity from its source to its point of use. In this regard, EV's don't really solve anything. If we try to run EV's entirely on renewable and sustainable sources of energy, we will have to settle for a lot less than what we've been used to with gasoline and diesel engines.

This – learning to settle for less – is actually the key to successful adaptation to the times now upon us. Yet this is something that our society fights tooth and nail. So we wish and long for some techno-breakthrough that will allow us to live guilt-free in the luxury and ease to which we have become accustomed. One of my acquaintances always talks about how in driving his Prius, he's doing his part to save the planet and adapt to scarcity. The very way he pronounces the word is almost reverential – “driving a Prius.” He thoroughly rejects the notion that he might have to radically downsize his life very soon. He is typical of Americans who say, “I am getting fat because I eat ten pounds of French fries every day. But I have a solution: scientifically engineered low-fat French fries!”

Our unwillingness to consider living on less, and our longing for technological solutions to scarcity issues makes many of us suckers for hyped supercars and other things that will allow us to “save the earth” while maintaining our extravagant lifestyles. But reining in our lifestyles is the best thing we can do right now – we don't have to “send our kids off to fight for oil,” nor do we need some cutting-edge electric car breakthrough.

For Further Reading:

Friday, May 8, 2009

Breaking Neighborhoods For Fun And Profit

(Warning: this post is long.) The masters of the official economy are threatened by self-sufficient, resilient neighborhoods and communities, as these communities don't make a good “growth market” for the products produced by the official economy. People who own their own land and homes outright, who don't have to pay a mortgage, who grow their own food, who provide for their own needs, who live frugally – such people threaten the profit motive of the big growth capitalists. These growth capitalists cannot easily take advantage of people as long as people are self-reliant.

In order therefore to insure “growth,” corporatists must break self-sufficient, resilient neighborhoods and communities. It is only when such social units are broken and the means of self-reliance are taken away that corporatists can make a prey out of the people who comprise such neighborhoods and communities. It is only when fully-paid houses and profitable locally-owned business are wiped out that large developers and big-box stores can continue their expansion. By breaking perfectly good things these corporatists can sell more newly-manufactured things to replace the things that were broken, and they sell the new things at greatly inflated prices.

One of the tools of this breakage is the abuse of eminent domain. “Eminent domain” is defined in Wikipedia as “...the inherent power of the state to seize a citizen's private property, expropriate property, or seize a citizen's rights in property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner's consent.” This power has always existed in the United States, being part of the common law inherited from England. However, the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment restricts the Federal government's taking of land to that which is taken for expressly public use.

While the Federal government has always been limited in the purposes for which it could seize or restrict land use, the states were under no such limitation until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1896, the Supreme Court held that the eminent domain provisions of the Fifth Amendment were incorporated into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and were now binding on the states. That meant that the states were prohibited from seizing anyone's property unless that seizure was for a clearly public use, such as a public road or dock or harbor.

That is the concept of eminent domain that most Americans have in their minds today, and it was taught to us from grade-school civics classes and onward. Yet most Americans don't know that this definition is seriously out of date, and has been since before many of us were born. As early as 1954, as cities across the nation struggled to “reduce blight” within their environs, the Supreme Court ruled that the District of Columbia could seize “blighted” properties within designated “slum” areas and transfer these properties to private developers for the purpose of “urban renewal.” This set a precedent for other cities, which engaged in wholesale condemnation and seizure of properties within areas of designated urban blight. These areas were inhabited disproportionately by poor and minority residents, who were displaced and severely disrupted by the seizure of their homes, and who were unable to afford the new dwellings and amenities constructed in these zones as part of “urban renewal.”

This Supreme Court decision allowed cities to redefine taking private property for public use as “taking private property for the public good.” This became the justification for cities seizing homes and other real estate and transferring these properties to other private parties because of some perceived “public benefit” arising from the transfer. This decision kicked off a wave of such seizures, most of which occurred in poor, minority communities targeted for “gentrification” and “urban renewal” by city planners. Homes were seized and razed to make way for expensive condos and upscale shops, among other things. In the state of Kansas, 150 homes were condemned to make way for a racetrack. In Michigan in 1981, the state Supreme Court allowed the demolition of over 1000 homes and 600 businesses in the city of Poletown to make room for a new General Motors plant, in order to serve the “public purpose” of providing jobs and economic growth. The property rights group Institute for Justice found 10,000 cases from 1998 to 2002 of local governments in 41 states using or threatening to use eminent domain to transfer homes and properties from one private owner to another.

One key thing that happened from 1954 onward was that as poor and minority neighborhoods were broken up and redeveloped, cities and powerful business franchises began to seize ever more mainstream houses and neighborhoods – including homes that were increasingly owned by non-minority, educated middle class residents. Many of these people had the financial means to fight the seizure of their property or the declaration of their property or neighborhoods as “blighted.” And fight they did. One notable fight (which unfortunately was lost) was Kelo versus City Of New London, a case between a group of neighborhood residents (including resident Suzanne Kelo, after whom the case was named) and the City of New London, Connecticut, which used eminent domain to seize the homes of these residents in order to transfer the underlying land to a developer for a dollar a year. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that if an economic project creates new jobs, increases tax and other city revenues, and revitalizes a “depressed” (even if not blighted) urban area, then it qualifies as a public use. When the Kelo neighborhood residents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, it ruled 5-4 against them. (Interestingly, this decision was supported by all four of the justices appointed by President Clinton, who supposedly “felt our pain” and was supposed to be for the little guy.)

The Kelo ruling caused quite a backlash and outcry in the U.S., and several states passed laws or ratified changes in their constitution to forbid the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another. However, eminent domain abuse is still alive and is doing quite well even today. A particular case that comes to mind is the City of Fullerton, California.

In the early part of this decade, the neighborhoods near the Fullerton train station were mainly comprised of small older homes typically inhabited by renters. Most of the residents were Hispanic and working-class. But around 2003, that area was targeted for redevelopment as part of the City Council's plan to turn the downtown area into an entertainment/upscale living magnet. Most of the old homes were torn down and replaced by very expensive “townhomes” and loft condo's. Many of the older downtown antique and specialty businesses were replaced by bars and nightclubs. (In fact, I believe the City managed to cram over 40 bars into the space of a few city blocks! Talk about taking a hit to the Solari index!)

I saw the transition as it took place, because there was a time when I had to catch the Metrolink train in Fullerton to get to work. I read of the toll the transition was taking on the non-alcohol-serving downtown businesses and nearby neighborhoods who had to endure the antics of drunken visitors on weekends. I saw increasing numbers of homeless people “from every kindred, tongue and tribe” hanging out at the Starbucks on Harbor Boulevard in hopes of receiving some help from charitable passers-by. I must admit with shame that at the time, I never connected the dots between Fullerton's “redevelopment” and some of the things I was seeing, nor did I question how the City had managed to get hold of the redeveloped land.

Now it seems that this bit of redevelopment was not enough for the City. According to the Fullerton Observer, the City Council was scheduled to vote on the 5th of May on whether to expand the City's redevelopment area by 1,165 acres, thus placing nearly 25 percent of the entire city under its redevelopment agency and its expanded powers to use eminent domain, divert property taxes and subsidize development. (I wonder how the vote went.) Included in this area are properties which do not meet strict definitions of “blight,” as well as several well-known and highly successful niche small businesses like Bob Marriott's Fly Fishing Store. (I almost stopped in there several times when I was living in So. Cal.) By the way, it seems that the City's redevelopment agency is now coming up with some creative definitions of “blight.”

Eminent domain and the threat of redevelopment are used to displace people whose homes are paid for, whose homes are older and thus not subject to high property taxes, and who are in some cases accused of “overcrowding,” as stated by Fullerton Mayor Don Bankhead. Eminent domain and the threat of redevelopment are some of the methods of choice for cities which seek to grow their tax revenues. It is not surprising that the incidence of eminent domain abuse rose with the recent real estate and construction bubbles in the American economy.

But the abuse of eminent domain is a direct threat to the building of households, neighborhoods and communities that are resilient in the face of the social shocks now arising from Peak Oil, climate change and economic collapse. For the building of such resilience and of alternative safety nets depends on having a stable and guaranteed place to live. The threat of foreclosure and the worry of indebtedness are already enough of a destabilizing force without the threat of some municipality taking property from its citizens in order to increase its tax revenues or satisfy some big business. The problem of eminent domain abuse must therefore be forcefully addressed by residents of neighborhoods and communities that seek to become resilient. Otherwise, why create a permaculture garden in your backyard or form a neighborhood barter network if you and your neighbors are at constant risk of being thrown out of your homes? Why take in displaced relatives if doing so will expose your home to seizure on account of “overcrowding”?

One last note: Some members of the “libertarian” camp have jumped on the “Down With Eminent Domain!” bandwagon. But they have a devious agenda: they seek to define “eminent domain abuse” as the placing of any restriction on land use by any government agency. According to this definition, restrictions on land use arising from environmental protection concerns would be classed as “eminent domain abuse.” I thoroughly disagree with such a definition. In my opinion, it is bogus and childish. I firmly believe that to the extent that people legitimately own property at all, they must realize that they “own” it only as a trust and stewardship, and that their use of their land affects others even when those others don't live on the same land. Therefore I thought Oregon's Measure 37 was a huge mistake, as it allowed a bunch of greedy landowners and developers an opportunity to try to turn Oregon into another Southern California – strip malls, freeways and housing tracts from one end to the other. I was glad when Measure 49 passed. (In fact, I voted for it.) I also support environmentally responsible restrictions on land use.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Report From The Front Lines - Involuntary Part-Time

There is a recent article on Canadian unemployment in the Canadian paper Globe and Mail, titled, “Why The Real Picture May Be Worse.” (Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall.) One of the article's major points is that those who keep government statistics on unemployment in Canada are defining their terms so narrowly that they skip counting significant numbers of people who have been impacted by the loss of jobs arising from the current depression – er, I mean, “recession.”

The Canadian government applies more than one definition of “employment” when measuring the labor market. The narrowest definition of unemployment, known as R1, is used to generate the official unemployment rate, which now stands at 8 percent. But there is a broader measure, known as R8, which takes into account many groups of people not counted according to R1. R8 includes those who are underemployed, those who have given up on looking for work, those who have been placed on involuntary furlough by their employers and who are waiting to be called back, and those whose hours have been reduced without their consent, and who are thus “involuntary part-timers.” While the R1 rate has been pegged at 8 percent, the R8 measure now stands at 12.4 percent. According to Benjamin Tal, economist at CIBC World Markets, “Real unemployment is rising much faster than the official rate.” Involuntary part-time employment is one of the fast-growing sectors of the underemployment measured by the Canadian R8 statistic, and those placed on involuntary part-time schedules may find that they have trouble collecting unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs altogether.

There was one very interesting quote from the article. Mr. Philip Cross, chief economist at Statscan, stated that the growth of involuntary part-time work in Canada pales in comparison to the United States. According to Mr. Cross, “Full-time work is disappearing extremely fast in the United States.”

That statement matches what I've been seeing with my own eyes lately. Whereas the MAX line and the buses were full of commuters several months ago, there are days now when they are quite sparsely populated. Some familiar commuter faces are showing up very infrequently now. On the way home, the bus has been almost empty a couple of times this week. At my office, there are several people who are just taking one day at a time – as long as they have work and a billable charge number, they show up. When the work runs out, they go home, not wanting to be caught without work by the “grim reaper.”

Several coworkers have been placed on involuntary leave, including my coworker friend with whom I hosted our first brown bag lunch discussion on neighborhood resilience. He let me know on Monday that he was asked to stay home until work in his department picked up. As he told me about it, he talked of taking some time off to re-connect with life. I should have been a better listener; instead, I was full of talk of economic collapse and suggestions for what to do.

On the MAX a few weeks ago I ran into another co-worker who had been farmed out from our office to provide site support engineering services at a client facility. He informed me that the client firm is closing that particular facility fairly soon, due to the economic situation. On a morning bus ride that same week, a lady acquaintance announced to several of us that that week would be her last on the bus. She worked at a bookstore, and they had cut her back to only ten hours per week, so she could no longer afford to work for them.

The wryest workplace moment came for me during that same week, when another co-worker went to the supply room to get some “white-out.” When she couldn't find any, she was told to look in the desks of the people who have been furloughed. (We're trying hard to cut costs.) Four of us sit next to each other, including this lady, and sometimes we joke about being Bolsheviks.

All these things have taken place against a backdrop of a steadily rising stock market and talk of the beginnings of a “recovery” by the media's talking heads. Yet they haven't noticed that as the economy seemingly begins its exertions again, the price of oil is also rising – like a fever in a sick man as he rises from bed and begins to exert himself, before he has fully recovered. I wonder how long it will be before resource scarcities and price spikes knock our economy back onto its sickbed? I'm thinking it may be only a matter of months. The media talks of recovery. Is that because in April, we “only” lost around 491,000 jobs, as opposed to seven or eight hundred thousand? Anyway, gas is now over $2.61 a gallon for premium at some area stations.

As for me, I still have work – at least for the next month or two. In my backyard, the snow peas and fava beans are doing quite well. The corn is starting to come up, the oats seem established, and even the carrots and potatoes are starting to sprout. I can also see the beginnings of sunflower plants. It's good to enjoy good things while they last.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Real Reasons For Frugality

Frugality has often been in the news over the last several months. Sometimes it is described in faintly negative tones by the mainstream media, who portray savers as a hindrance to the recovery of our economy. Then there are blogs whose authors try to make money from the frugality trend by offering financial advice and financial planning services. There are also people who define frugality as scoring the best deals on all the stuff being offered by our consumer economy. One peculiar article, titled, “America's New Frugality,” was published by Forbes Magazine in February of this year. It describes strategies “investors” can use to get at the savings of ordinary people who are now turning frugal. Some of their recommendations include investing in saving-and-loan institutions or bargain retailers like, since that's where the supposedly “frugal” people are now putting their money. (Source:

These attempts to “monetize” frugality would be really funny if the stakes weren't so high and the consequences weren't so tragic. Frugality should actually be viewed as a righteous response to scarcity, a choice to live gracefully with less. In fact, frugality is defined as “economy in the use of resources,” according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. As we see how scarce those resources have actually become, we begin to see the real reasons for frugality.

That scarcity is what I want to address in this post. But I must warn you that for many readers, what I am about to say will seem like very bad news. So you may want to sit down (if you're not already). Put on some appropriate mood music, if you think you need it. If you can't think of any, let me suggest Turn To Stone by Joe Walsh. The version he has on his album, You Can't Argue With A Sick Mind, seems appropriately doomful.

Let's start by talking about the last four years. During this time the world saw crude oil prices shoot up from slightly over $30 a barrel to nearly $150 a barrel. The once-hot and ever-climbing real estate market crashed under an avalanche of foreclosures. Prices for food and motor fuel skyrocketed to unsustainable levels and people found themselves unable to pay for these things. The prices of raw manufacturing materials such as metals rose to such levels that thieves were stealing not only residential wiring and plumbing fixtures, but even manhole covers in some cities.

Many who reported on these things treated them as isolated events that seemed to happen without any good reason. But the proper way to view these events is as symptoms of a deeper underlying problem, signs of Something Terribly Wrong underneath. Something's terribly wrong with our present society, our present economy, our present economic arrangements.

Our modern global economy is based on debt and requires continuous growth to function properly. It is based on debt in the sense that the banks who control our money supply loan money into existence. Their expectation is that this money will be paid back with interest, which means that they expect that borrowers will grow ever more prosperous as time passes, and will thus be able to pay off their interest-bearing loans. But for borrowers to grow more prosperous, their individual “net worth” must continually increase. This means either that their wages must continually rise or that some other asset (like a house or a 401K) held by borrowers must continually increase in value.

The other side of a debt-based economy is that many of the things needed by individuals and businesses are so expensive that they can usually be bought only on credit, that is, by taking out a loan. This is true of large businesses like airlines, who borrow money to buy new jetliners, and for ordinary people, most of whom don't have the resources to pay cash for a house or car or expensive medical treatments. As long as the economy is expanding, these borrowers can reasonably expect to be able to repay their loans with interest.

An expanding economy depends on an expanding base of resources. When a resource vital to an industry becomes scarce, its price shoots up and the products made by that industry become more expensive – or scarce. Then it becomes impossible to grow that particular industry unless a substitute resource is found to replace the resource that is now scarce. Our problem is that a large number of resources have now become scarce. Peak Oil is the name for one such resource constraint we are now facing. But there are other resources that are running out – everything from inorganic phosphate fertilizers to industrial metal ores to coal, and much more. There are no substitutes for these resources. And we are using up renewable resources like fish, trees and arable land at a rate far faster than they can be renewed. A shrinking resource base means the end of the growth economy.

Not only have we hit resource constraints, but the earth can no longer safely absorb all of the wastes generated by our global industrial economy. It is now all but certain that manmade air pollutants are causing potentially terminal climate change, that it is being felt now in many parts of the world, and that within a few years we may all be feeling it. The ozone layer of our atmosphere is still being destroyed by manmade chemicals. There are now huge islands of plastic trash floating in our oceans. The pollution of our oceans is endangering the phytoplankton from which half of our oxygen is derived, as well as destroying fisheries. The destruction of our world by our industrial economy means the end of the growth economy.

All of these symptoms are behind the present economic collapse. For instance, the skyrocketing prices of basic necessities from 2005 to 2008 made it impossible for many debtors to pay off their loans, and made it impossible for markets to attract large numbers of new consumers. The crop failures caused by climate change-induced drought are a big reason why some food grains got expensive. These resource constraints and destructive consequences of our industrial system are not going away, no matter how many governments offer “stimulus packages.” The long-term direction of our economy is therefore downward.

Most of us must therefore give up dreaming of getting rich. It has been a popular dream, especially in America, but the truth is that there is no longer enough of the “official” economy left for any significant number of us to achieve that dream. Those who pursue the dream of getting ever-more stuff will hit the wall of resource constraints or of environmental damage. The pie is shrinking. The well has run dry.

Some may ask then about the present time in which many things have started to get cheaper again, like gasoline. This is not due to our finding new resource supplies, but due to the removal of buyers from the market due to economic collapse. The number of people who can qualify for a loan is shrinking; therefore, house prices are falling. The number of people out of work is increasing; therefore, fewer people are driving and gas prices are down. But oil production, to name one resource, is still falling because old oil reservoirs are still being depleted, and oil scarcity is about to make a reappearance. Any attempt to “revive” the economy will run up against the same resource scarcities that caused the present collapse. I would not view this as a good time to go into debt or run out and buy a new big truck or SUV. I have seen a few drivers of these new vehicles lately, some of whom still have the dealer tags on their vehicles, and I can only say that their actions seem dumber than a bag full of rocks.

Frugality is thus the wise, righteous and realistic response to our present times, a learning to live gracefully on less and a learning to live for something other than money and material advancement. It is not a way of getting rich! If anyone is thinking of frugality as a means of socking money away for later investment in some get-rich scheme, I've got one bit of advice: Fahgetaboudit. Those days are over, probably for good. I suggest, instead, that we view frugality as one strategy in a portfolio of strategies for preserving that good which can be salvaged out of this present difficult time, to hand it down to future generations. These are strategies well worth exploring, and there are some very excellent writers tackling these topics. Some of these writers are listed under my heading, “Other Wells,” on this blog.

For Further Reading: