Wednesday, December 30, 2009

From the Ground Up: Creating a Year-Round Sustainable Food System

When we think about our basic needs, creating a secure year-round food supply rises to the top. While our Federal Government supplied billions of dollars to support the crumbling financial system and auto industry, we see a much more critical need to direct funds to help Americans grow food close to where they live. We see American food security as a critical need that requires our best thinkers and attention. to bring back farming close to where we live and to make food production economically viable. 

As you may know, most of your food currently travels thousands of miles to reach your local market. With increasing oil prices coupled with unpredictable and more intense weather patterns draught and crop failure may become more common. It may not be that far in the future when one goes to the grocery store to see more expensive food items and empty spaces on the shelves.

Over the next two weeks we will be preparing a grant to submit to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This new USDA Planning Grant is designed to fund special events to bring together diverse groups of experts to help solve a regional or national problem. We are focusing on assembling a group of individuals with expertise in solar greenhouse design and manufacturing, renewable energy production, compost manufacturing, seed production, urban agriculture, agricultural economy, and land planning and zoning.  Our goal is to convene a focused gathering in 2010 to develop a plan for national implementation to create an economically viable and biologically secure year-round urban food growing and distribution system.

As many of you know, we are experienced meeting planners, having put together over a dozen regional and national meetings for the cohousing industry since 1992.
We have already contacted a number of national experts in the areas mentioned above who have agreed to participate if we are awarded the grant to focus on solutions for year round urban farming.

Since this USDA planning grant is based on matching funds, the USDA will match dollar for dollar actual funds raised or presenters contributing their time as an in-kind donation. Matching funds need to be in place at the time of the grant submittal by January 14, 2010. We welcome your input on individuals, companies and organizations you think would wish to participate in this meeting either as a presenter or as a donor. If you have ideas, please contact us as soon as possible. We will continue to post updated material about the USDA Planning Grant on our website.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

5 Tips for Prepairing for Peak Oil

Preparing for peak oil is just common sense.

By Sami Grover Chapel Hill, NC, USA
sami grover photo
Sami Grover

Back when gas was expensive, and food prices were rising alarmingly, it seemed like everyone was talking about Peak Oil. But fast-forward to today and folks have conveniently forgotten how reliant our entire way of life is on the sticky black stuff (and how quickly it can all unravel if supplies start to dwindle). But recent murmurings from anonymous whistle blowers at the International Energy Agency suggest that global oil reserves may be lower than reported. Much lower.
Whether peak oil means, as many people argue, the end of civilization as we know it, or simply a painful and challenging reordering of the status quo, remains a matter of debate. But either way, it makes sense to prepare yourself. Even if peak oil remains decades away, many of the things you should do to prepare for peak oil and other calamities are also simply prudent common sense, not to mention a great way of cutting your carbon emissions. So here's a list of 5 ideas to get you started preparing for peak oil—apocalypse or not.

5 Steps to Start Preparing for Peak Oil

1. Start a Garden: From learning about permaculture to planting fruit and nut trees to starting a no-dig garden, learning to grow your own food, and making sure the infrastructure is in place to do so, can be a great way to insularte yourself from future shocks—be they environmental or economic. If you are seriously worried about coming instability, it makes sense to concentrate on fruit trees and perennials first—,once you've dug an asparagus bed or planted a pear tree, you'll be enjoying harvests for years to come.
2. Green Your Home: From insulating your roof to installing low energy light bulbs, everything you do to green your home will also put you in better stead if and when energy prices rise dramatically. And if you're a believer in more profound shocks from peak oil, why not look at generating some of your own power by installing solar panels?
3. Live Within Your Means: Learning to limit your spending is not always thought of as a green activity, but it is definitely wise if you want to become more resilient to economic or social disturbance. And buying less stuff means producing less pollution too, so it's a win-win for the planet and your finances, whether peak oil is around the corner or not.You may also want to look at cutting debt, or paying off that mortgage—recent events show just how fragile our economic system can be. You could even try living mortgage-free!
4. De-oil Your Transport: Along with food and housing, transportation is one of the most energy intensive activities in the average person's life, and unlike energy used in our homes, transportation energy is almost completely reliant on oil. So look at ways you can cut back on oil use— and try to think beyond the obvious. From biking to work to carpooling to taking mass transit, cutting your transportation footprint often saves you money too. And if you want to get really serious, you can work from home. Even driving more carefully will save you money on gas.
5. Campaign for Action: Cutting your personal oil consumption is commendable, but peak oil is a societal problem. So do what you can to educate your friends, to mobilize your community, and to call for action on a political level. Whether you are calling for stricter fuel economy standards or starting a community garden, collective action makes us all more resilient to coming challenges. Take a look at our guide on How to Green Your Community for more ideas.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Fueling the Modern Economy

Colin Cambell, a 40+ year petroleum geologist and the founder of the international Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), sums up the unique set of circumstances that leave us in a difficult situation when it come to the future of our energy systems.  He says,
When people think of fossils, they think of dinosaurs, which were huge over-specialized animals that failed to adapt to changed natural circumstances, proving less efficient than the simple limpet that has lived virtually unchanged since the Cambrian, 500 million years ago, happily clinging to its rocks. Fossil fuels have almost dinosaur attributes, having been formed but rarely in the geological past, which means they are subject to depletion. The production in any country, endowed with the resource, starts and ends, passing a peak in between when about half the resources has been taken. Oil is perhaps an extreme example, given that it has played such a critical part in fueling the modern economy.
This is up there with some of the most earthshaking perdigm shifts that have happened throughout human history. Imaging the impact of the "Theory" that the earth was round and it was us that circled the Sun and not the other way around. At this point in history we face the prospect that all of easy to get to and relatively inexpensive oil has been extracted. This fact, if proven to ultimately have been true, will have an effect on almost everything we have become dependent on to maintain our current societal arrangment. These are the challenges which come along once in a while, where civilizations either rise to the occasion or whither on the time line of human history.

I am betting on a rise.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Story of Oil

Native Americans for centuries have used oil as a medicine and for waterproofing of canoes as well other objects.

The first discovery of oil by Europeans from North America probably came in 1627 by a Franciscan missionary traveling near Cuba, New York. In 1821, William Hart drilled for and discovered gas at Fredonia, New York, near the shores of Lake Erie, making him the first to do so. A primitive pipeline was constructed from hollowed-out logs, and soon the entire main street was illuminated by natural gas.

On January 10, 1901, on a small hill in southeastern Texas, after drilling down to a depth of 1,020 feet, mud started bubbling back up the hole. Seconds later, the drill pipe shot out of the ground with great force. Then a noise like a cannon shot came from the hole, and mud came shooting out of the ground like a rocket. Within a few seconds, natural gas, then oil followed.

The first oil "gusher" - greenish-black in color, rose double the size of the drilling derrick, rising to a height of more than 150 feet. This was more oil than had ever been seen anywhere in the entire world. flowing at an initial rate of nearly 100,000 barrels per day. This amount, while small today, was at the time more oil than all of the other producing wells in the United States COMBINED!

Since that time, geologists have mapped over 95% of the earth's surface and have estimated that the "total" amount of oil that was in the ground is approximately 2,000,000,000,000 - two trillion barrels. That sound like a lot of oil, and it is. It is also unbelievable to consider, that in the last 100 years humanity has consumed about half of this oil - about 1 trillion barrels of oil.

So much of the debate today is weather we are going to run out of oil or if we have reached a peak in production and what effects that may have on our lifestyles. Let me be perfectly clear, humanity will NEVER run out of oil. There is lots more of it. The challenge facing us is that we have located and pumped out almost all of the easy to find oil.
We are at the end of the age of inexpensive oil.
The oil which remains is both very hard to reach and is of a much lower quality than what we have been pumping for the past 100 years. If people are willing to pay $7.00 a gallon for their gas it will be available but a lot of folks will not be able to afford to drive at that price. Oil priced at $200 or more per barrel will increase the cost of everything that uses oil in its production or transportation... and that covers almost everything these days.

We live in interesting times and from my perspective, it is only going to get much more interesting.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Decentralize Food as Well as Power

Now that the "official" unemployment figures are at least 10.2 percent, it seems like a great time to focus on what kind of recovery we can collectivly create. As I have posted a number of times on this blog, the chances of returning to a debt and consumpution fueled ecomony are pretty small.

San Francisco Fed President Dr. Yellen asked today how strong the upturn will be. With high unemployment and idle productive capacity, we will need a very strong rebound to put unemployed people back to work and get underutilized factories, offices, and stores humming again. Traditional demand will most probably grow at too slow a pace to support vigorous expansion in the traditional markets. So what are we to do instead?

I suggest we take a step back and see what areas we desperately need to grow and begin pouring stimulus funds in those directions instead of our habit of propping up industries which may be past their usefulness and do not support the creation of a lower-carbon and more sustainable society. The efforts by the Federal and many State governments to encourage a green economy could be a great start. Supporting renewable energy technologies and an infrastructure to support it is already receiving much attention and is gain traction. Another segment worth immediate attention is food production.

The move to decentralize our power generation system should be followed by the creation of thousands of smaller more localized farms. These can create tens of thousands of productive jobs, will help to increase local food security and improve the freshness of our food by bringing it closer to where it is consumed. A Colorado company is pioneering a concept they call Agriburbia which combines residential and commercial development with local food production. Growing vegetables and raising small farm animals close to home may turn out to be one of the most important steps we can make to begin to rehire people who have lost their jobs while building local resilience.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An Example of A Virtual Eco-Village

This 1-minute video was made by Rebecca Mangum to highlight the features of Etopia Island a 32-acre virtual ecovillage in Second Life. You may visit the community at any time by going to this link and downloading the Second Life viewer.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Christmas Like Grandma's...

Americans have the opportunity this Holiday Season to decide if the glass is half empty or half full. For the past several decades we have become use to this time of year as a time when we open up our pocketbooks and remove our credit cards, race around towns with throngs of other strangers, all scooping up item after item. The motivation stemming from that deeply ingrained guilt of times when you had nothing to give to those who might decide to give you something.

What would it be like this Gift Giving Season, if we were to give each other some time together, sharing stories, playing games, reviewing the challenges and success of the year. Deeper gifts for each other at this slowing time of year. Even many of the trees have released their protective leaves.

The current economic slowdown, which I deeply believe will be more the norm moving ahead, actually gives us time to be with each other, instead of buying stuff and taking all the time and energy to create or move around that stuff in the first place. This kind of behavioral shift, while continuing to cripple the economic engine of our consumer society, has the potential to remind us another slower and possibly more fulfilling way to live.  It was only 60-70 years ago, when our grandparents were young children, where the quality of life was quite high but much less consumptive then we have become accustomed to .

I am of the "glass-is-half-full" camp, so I see the possibilities of a happier and healthier future as we relearn how to enjoy ourselves without the need for endless mountains of stuff and free-flowing credit.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Exactly is Recovering?

The growing symphony of economic experts crying out that the recession is over, seems to be missing something very important. When seen through purely economic blinders a company with an improved balance sheet starts to look pretty good in this times. But I wonder what kind of improvement we are really seeing when that robust balance sheet comes as a result of slashed jobs, reduced inventories, and the shedding of unprofitable parts of their business?

Can we really consider a company to be doing well when it has decimated its workforce, scaled back its holdings, closed stores and plants, and slashed the wages and benefits of its remaining employees? There is something deeply wrong when we consider these measures to be the signs of improved health and recovery.

I see the excitement surrounding improved earnings and the current run-up in the stock market as a futile attempt to squeeze out the remaining profits before the economy resumes its downward slide.

My 2¢...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Some Thoughts from the International Energy Agency

Excerpted from a recently published report. This is our wake up call folks!

In 2008 the IEA for the first time projected a 50% drop in production from existing conventional oil fields by 2020.* This alarming figure was partly the result of the IEA’s first field-by-field analysis of a large number of oil fields. This fall in production coupled with projected increased demandfor oil is likely to result in a large gap between supply and
demand. Policy makers should note the underlying problem is that there will be a gap, the size of which will constantly vary depending on economic conditions. It is hard to overstate the significance of these warning signals, first raised in 2007, given the Agency’s previous misplaced confidence and assurances that oil supply could meet the world’s expanding demand.

Global Witness has focused its analysis on the work of the IEA, because, as it boasts, “Governments and industry from all across the globe have come to rely on… [its WEO
series and wider IEA commentary] to provide a consistent basis on which they can formulate policies and design business plans.” Established during the 1973-74 oil crisis to “co-ordinate measures in times of oil supply emergencies…,” it has become the leading global authority on energy issues, covering all major energy producing and consuming countries.

What is the scale of the problem? In November 2008, the IEA projected a 7m bpd gap by 2015, which equates to 7.7% of projected world demand by that year.‡ This gap
was estimated from the combined impacts of declining production from existing fields, long-term projections for increased global demand, and insufficient new production coming on stream to cope with this situation. The global recession has temporarily altered projections for global demand, but has not changed the underlying fundamental problems with increasing production. As the IEA put it, “… the gap now evident between what is currently being built and what will be needed to keep pace with demand is set to widen sharply after 2010. Around 7 mb/d [m bpd] of additional capacity (over and above that from all current projects) [Global Witness emphasis] needs to be brought on stream by 2015.” To appreciate the implication of a gap of this size from a national or regional perspective, see  A 50% projected drop in conventional oil production in just 11 years is truly astonishing. It represents a drop from
2008’s output of 74m bpd to just 37m bpd by 2020. The IEA project this steep rate of decline to begin almost immediately. To put this in context, the Agency also projects total world oil demand to reach 104m bpd by 2030.109 What is even more remarkable is that such a vast and imminent loss of conventional oil production has not caused wider comment. It should be making governments seriously question why the Agency, established in reaction to the 1973 oil crisis, appears until very recently to have missed the start of the next one.

Glimpses of an Emerging Economy

The recent economic changed has made it extremely obvious that an economy based 70% on consumption will need a serious rethinking. As our economy continues to contract, as I think it will for the next year or so, I expect to see a new framework for employment based on a lower level of consumption. I firmly believe that the "new normal" will look substantially different than the "previous normal."

The City of Berkeley Zero Waste Commission has provided a possible job creation framework by stating the following:
Reduce – Just use less. We are so use to thinking more is better that we have forgotten that using less is sometimes better.

Reuse - Stop throwing things away. So many items can be used again and again if not by you then by someone else.

Repair – Reclaim the lost art of fixing things. Many items just require a bit of effort to make them usable once again.

Rebuild – Complex items are well worth the effort and can end up better, stronger or more powerful that the earlier generation.

Refurbish – Sometimes it only takes a little sprucing up to be ready for use.

Refinish – Adding a new cover, color, or stain can make all the difference.

Resell – If it has value others may very well buy it from you. Ebay and others are growing rapidly!

Recycle - Send it back to be used again. Support your local recycling center.

Compost – Send it back to the earth – literally!
If this is not possible then the item should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.
By putting our creativity and economic power behind these eight activities, we can take substantial action towards developing work that is not only meaningful but can truly add to a sustainable economy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Up, Up and Away

4 Forces Driving Oil Prices Higher
by Sean Brodrick
Sean Brodrick
Oil prices pushed near the top of their recent range this week, and the usual suspects trotted out on the TV to tell us why this rally couldn't last. And on the face of it, their argument seems to make sense. It boils down to ...
1. Crude has been trapped in the same range since June.
2. U.S. oil demand is lackluster at best.
3. There is plenty of oil in storage.

That sounds pretty solid to me. So why, then, are oil prices trending higher? Look at this chart ...

weekly crude oil is hammering away at the overhead resistance
Indeed, I'll give you four solid reasons why crude oil is going higher — and I could give you a lot more. I think forces are in play that could send crude oil prices surging up to $92 or even $105. And that's a move worth playing!
I'll give you some trading ideas, as well. First, here is a triple-shot of bullish forces in oil.
Force #1: Global Demand Is Rising
To be sure, America is using less oil. The Energy Information Administration expects America's oil demand to fall by 330,000 barrels per day (bpd) in the fourth quarter from a year earlier. And oil refiners including Valero and Sunoco have shut plants to cope with a glut of fuel.
However, all gluts end. The EIA recently revised upward its estimate for U.S. oil consumption in 2010, expecting demand to increase by 320,000 bpd over 2009.
And demand is recovering faster elsewhere in the world. In fact, the International Energy Agency expects global oil demand to rise to 86.1 million bpd in 2010 from 84.6 million bpd in 2009.
And in its October Monthly Oil Market Report, OPEC jacked up its estimate of global oil demand for next year. "The risks to the forecast are seen on the upside," OPEC said in a statement. "Should the U.S. continue to show healthier oil demand levels, then world oil demand could increase by another 200,000 barrels per day before year's end."
OPEC expects the emerging markets will run rings around developed countries when it comes to oil demand growth. And international experts agree that there's one country in particular that will likely use a LOT more oil ...
Force #2: China Is Shifting Into Higher Gear
China's oil consumption doubled in the last decade, rising to 8 million barrels a day last year from 4.2 million barrels in 1998, according to BP Plc's Statistical Review. And that trend continues.
Chinese oil demand was revised upward to 8.17 million bpd for 2009 from a previous estimate of 8.08 million bpd, according to the International Energy Agency. Crude oil imports in January-August period went up 7.4% from earlier. And demand is accelerating. China's oil imports rose 18% in August.
Looking at next year, China's crude consumption is expected to increase 1.4 million barrels per day to 86.1 million, according to the IEA.
Even these raised estimates may not be high enough. China's car sales are booming — up 78% in September from a year earlier. Overall vehicle sales totaled 1.33 million units, while passenger car sales climbed 84% to 1.02 million units, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers reported.
So far this year, China has seen 9.66 million cars sold — far ahead of the U.S., which has seen auto sales of 7.85 million. What's more, most cars sold in China are first-time owners. In the U.S., most car sales are replacement vehicles.
So, those revved-up China auto sales mean much higher gasoline consumption and oil consumption.
Force #3: The Cheap Oil Is Going ... Going ...
Peak production is already receding in the rear view mirror for dozens of nations. World reserves are being depleted by about 4% a year, according to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil. That leaves the world margin of error far too small, and vulnerable to disruptions such as rebel attacks on pipelines or saber-rattling disputes in the Middle East.
As reserves of cheap oil run lower, competition for remaining assets becomes more frenzied. The global financial crisis barely slowed China down in its quest to outbid western oil companies for global assets. For example, ExxonMobil recently made a $4 billion offer for Ghana's Jubilee oil field. But then China National Oil Company opened its own talks with Ghana to make a rival bid for a stake in Jubilee.
The Jubilee field is estimated to hold 1.8 billion barrels of oil. According to the Energy Information Administration, the world's 15 largest oil producers delivered about 64 billion barrels per day in 2008.
Exxon's $4 billion bid would buy it a 23.5% stake in the Jubilee. According to some experts, oil would have to sell at $100 a barrel to make this stake profitable for Exxon.
Deflationists — people who argue that the big trend in prices going forward will be down, not up — would argue paying that kind of price for oil is just pig-bitin' crazy! So how crazy is it that China is willing to trump that bid? How high of an oil price is China planning on?
And Ghana is just the beginning. Chinese oil companies have announced plans to spend at least $16 billion to gain access to African energy assets.
Meanwhile, the big American oil companies, outbid by foreign competitors with deep pockets, are facing a future of steadily dwindling production. Let's keep the focus on ExxonMobil. It has been producing a little over 2.4 million barrels of oil a day for the last year and a half, its lowest rate of production over the last decade.
ExxonMobil Annual Forcast
In 2001, ExxonMobil's annual report predicted 3% annual production growth — the red line on the chart. Instead, it fell short of its production growth target. In 2006, it predicted it could hit 3% annual growth by 2011. That's the blue line on the chart. The dark line below the others is Exxon's actual production growth. Good luck hitting those targets, boys.
I'm not saying Exxon is a bad company. Many oil companies are running up against the limits of growth. This is something that is affecting the entire Western oil industry, and will probably eventually spark a resource war in the Arctic, as the U.S., Canada, Russia and other countries fight over oil and gas resources literally at the end of the Earth.
But that's a longer-term problem. Let's look at something that could send oil higher in a real hurry ...
Force #4: The Falling U.S. Dollar
This is the part that is difficult for me to write. Because when I write about the dollar, my spine tenses up, my fingers curl into fists, and I get a nearly uncontrollable urge to scream. And if that scream was articulate at all, it would go something like: "We're ... so ... screwed!"
Some facts ...
  • The budget deficit hit $1.4 trillion in 2009. It looks to go higher in 2010, and we could see budget deficits of well over a trillion dollars for years to come.
  • The U.S. Federal Debt is a ticking time bomb. It is now at $11.9 trillion, or $38,000 per person. That means if you have a family of four, your portion is $152,000 of pure debt.
  • The debt continues to increase. In fact, the U.S. government is moving closer to its $1.21 trillion debt ceiling. Congress will likely vote to raise the debt, taking us into uncharted territory. Congress has raised the U.S. debt ceiling by varying amounts 76 times since 1960. There is only one way to get rid of unsustainable levels of U.S. debt — inflation. And the prevailing U.S. policy is clear — we are going to inflate our way out of this (that is, devalue the dollar).
  • And here's exhibit A — a chart of the dollar ...
The U.S. dollar seems to be on a slippery slope.
While as American citizens and consumers we may hate this, it would at least be endurable if it is manageable. The problem is it may not be manageable.
Why? Well, when we create all this debt, we have to sell it to someone. The answer for years has been to sell it to foreigners, especially foreign central banks. But now they're wising up. Bloomberg recently reported that central banks are switching out of dollars and into euros and yen. The U.S. dollar makes up only 37% of new central bank foreign reserves, down from an average 63% since 1999.
If this trend away from the dollar increases, the slippery slide of the dollar could become a plunge — and give the dollar a haircut of between one-third and one-half very quickly.
Now if you were a big-pocketed investor, and you wanted to get some insurance against such a potential plunge, where would you put your money? You might use your rapidly depreciating greenbacks to buy hard assets — gold, silver, copper, tin — CRUDE OIL!
And beyond the usual suspects ... the banks, the big individual investors, the small-time speculators ... there is approximately $3 trillion in sovereign wealth funds — government controlled investment funds — and a lot of those governments are becoming more wary of dollars. Do you think they might be buying commodities, including oil? Heck, yeah!
So go back and look at that chart of oil I had at the top of the page. Considering all I've told you, what would you say the odds are of oil going to $92 a barrel or even $105?
I'd say the odds are better than average.

Yours for trading profits,

Friday, October 16, 2009

Totally Uncharted Territory

The news these days is sometime hard to hear. The trend is ever downward for so many. The mantra seems to be "we have never seen this before," and it is true for anyone less than 80 years old. What I find so interesting is the continual expectation that these challenges will eventually smooth out and we will get back to some semblance of order.

My intuition tells me something much different.

A recent column by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman said the following.

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese ...

We can’t do this anymore.

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.

What we are experience these days is nothing short of a re-structuring of what we have called normal for the past 60 to 80 years. We are now faced with an unprecedented combination of challenges including climate change, the end of inexpensive energy, and the unraveling of the economic fabric is crating a global situation we had NEVER experienced in our lifetimes, a culture changing perfect storm so to speak.

I firmly believe we will not "get back to normal" but that instead, we are in the early stages of moving to a new normal. As a species, we have had to make significant changes before so I am confident we have the ability to transition our culture to the next stage.

Deep, deep in our social and possibly genetic coding we know what to do. And we also know it takes great focus and perseverance. I do not assume it will be a smooth ride for everyone, transitions never are. But we have the opportunity to come through this with an American culture that is far more sustainable, reliant on the use of more local sources and having a high or higher overall quality of life.

We may very well consume far less stuff, but by refocusing ourselves towards those things that make live deeply rich and satisfying, we can replace what some may feel as "lost." These include a significant increase of interaction with people and the advantages of resilient and more self-reliant communities.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Have We Learned So Far?

Over the past two years we have been blogging about the variety of way that we are both leading ourselves astray as well as a variety of creative solution that might offer assistance as we navigate the economic and environmental rapids ahead.

So what have we learned in this time?

Less Can Be Better
Mainstream American culture has promoted the very-present advantages of "more." Super-size me please! But in a finite world we are being reminded that not only may more not be better but it can also be much worse. Our household has taken a long hard look at what we really need and deeply enjoy and have been able to reduce our overall consumption significantly. This includes things like eating out less and cooking creatively at home more often.

Pay Attention
Once we made using less a stated goal, we began paying more attention to things and that spurred on even more practices that just used less. Shorter showers, family baths, turning lights off, replacing burnt-out lights with energy-efficient bulbs, riding bikes and walking when it made sense, renting movies instead of going out, growing some of our own food are all steps we can do that when added together can make a significant difference. Especially when done by groups of people.

Increase Community
As residents in one of the countries 120 cohousing neighborhoods we already have a closer connection to our immediate neighbors. But in addition we made space in our home for two additional high school students who moved to our town to attend school. This increased community not only has a financial benefit but more important has added a rich and very positive dimension to our family. I suspect we will see a very noticeable rise in shared housing arrangements as the economy continues to contract over the next several years.

Do More Ourselves
Despite the impact on local jobs, people are doing more for themselves where a few years ago they would hire out. The do-it-yourself "industry" has been growing consistently over the past decade and there is little chance it will slow down. Financial reality is forcing people to do more for them selves and those they care for. Having a family member with a steady hand cut hair, mending your clothing instead sending it out, as I said before cooking at home instead of going out as often, growing food, herbs and raising small livestock like chickens, are all visible signs that we are doing more for ourselves. When you combine these lessons and be creative the impacts are even more powerful.

Be Creative
The conventional wisdom is to work work work so you can pay for all that you need and want. Today by re framing that a bit and saying what is it I need really and how can I get it, we can come up with a plethora of creative ideas. We have been exchanging with a local farmer. We help him get the word out about his urban farming program and he gives us fresh veggies all during the growing season. Or trading article writing with a local martial arts dojo in exchange for our kids getting training in personal defense. The high art of barter and trade is in full bloom and it can satisfy a growing number of our regular needs.

So suffice to say that despite the challenges surrounding us, there is much to be learned and re-learned as we carve out a path on this ever exciting journey together.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fix it? Now I am Really Confused.

I was reading recently about how the various futuristic pundits see how our current economic challenges will be evolving in the months a years to come. Many of these "knowledgeable" folks see the economic contraction we have been experiencing over the past year or so, continuing for at least a while longer. In addition, similar to a post of mine a few months ago, the ongoing promise that at some point in the not-too-distant future, things will "bottom out" and we will be back on the road to financial abundance. I just do not see much real evidence of this at this point in our collective journey.

I am starting to realize that many Americans are being shown a very powerful and perhaps life changing picture right now. For the vast majority of us we have only known the limitless abundance of a consumer culture, and we were convinced it would never need to slow down. But now it appears that the piper is calling and we are loathe to hear what he has to say. I read almost everyday that the economy is gaining strength and we are headed for a rebound. The fact that some Banks are showing profit is ludicrous to highlight since we recently gave them ten's of billions of dollars. And in case no one has noticed they have not been dolling it out very swiftly. It has to make their balance sheet look better!

So if all this economic activity is not filtering itself down to the common folk, what are we to expect? Well, I think it will be fair to say that we can expect to consume less in the years to come. We need some time to start paying off our debt and learning the joys of saving money for a change.

I predict that in the future,when that lawn mover, or drill, or God forbid the DVD player start acting up, instead of just tossing it away, we just might revert to that ancient tactic of fixing it. Huh? I realize this may make no sense to many of you so let me try to explain.

Not all that long ago say in the early 60's, I can clearly remember hanging out with my Dad in the garage which doubled as his personal workshop. We would spend hour after hour with one another while he worked on stuff. I also remember that a significant amount of his effort went into fixing things. In simplest terms it means that when some household or recreational item stopped working as planned, he would take it into his workshop, get out his bright lights and special glasses that made everything look really big, and actually take the object apart and try to see what was the problem. It was truly fascinating and I often emulated him by taking many of my toys apart just to see what was inside.

I remember vividly taking going with my Dad and a shoebox full of glass "tubes" down to the electronics store and plugging them into the tube tester. The ones that register BAD were replaced by new versions. Then we would drive back home, put them all back into their respective sockets, flip the switch, and watch the radio or TV or tape player come back to life. It was almost magical!

The coming years are going to give us the chance, if we take it, to learn both how to fix things as well as make more and more things that can be fixed. Since there is no way we can spend our way out of our predicament, I suspect we will be forced to re-learn how to make things that last and when necessary, fix them when they break.

And maybe, just maybe, we will get to spend a bit more time with one another around the workbench instead of blissed out in front of the 52 inch HD plasma screen that virtually no one knows how to fix.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Recreating Local Economies

With the growing expectation that abundant and inexpensive fossil fuels are quickly becoming a thing of the past, there is increasing talk about the need to recreate local economies. However, one of the largest challenges facing Americans, is that for almost anyone now alive, understanding exactly what that means is far from clear. We have grown up under the creation of global networks that bring us almost everything from baby bottles to toilet seats from across the globe. A growing circle of experts are sowing doubt about the feasibility of keeping 13,000 mile supply chains strong and financially competitive in the absence of inexpensive oil.

I do want to be clear that creating local economies which supply us with everything we need is both impossible and unnecessary. But shifting the current balance from 95% non-local to more like 75% local is worth the effort and would have a tremendous positive reduction on our usage of non-renewable liquid fuels like oil and natural gas.

The task of first re-imaging and then taking the necessary steps to implement a local economy, is both a necessary and imposing task. Because this is such an important topic these days, I feel a need to begin a series of posts which focus on how this kind of local economy would work and what would be the most critical elements to begin the process.

A concept of this magnitude needs a framework within which to help organize a coherent response. It feels obvious to me that I must lay out what elements are the most important and then drill down into each area over time. The areas I see as most critical include, food, energy, shelter, and clothing. By designing re-localized economies that can consistently provide us with these basics, I believe we can lay the foundation for resilient local economies.

Stay tuned...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Put GM to Good Use

Now that General Motors has successfully hidden under the protection of Chapter 11, closed thousands of its dealerships and laid off tens of thousands of it loyal employees, it is high time we make them accountable to their new owners - us! If the car companies have any future at all, it should be based on making products we urgently need - starting with public transit. Let the car era wind down gracefully. I project that the program to offer "cash for clunkers" will have a negligible effect on domestic car sales and even less impact on our national carbon emissions.

It is becoming ever clearer that the "Happy Motoring" era is over and we need to rapidly devote our remaining resources to re-localization, walkable communities, and public transit. It obviously requires a very drastic revision of our current collective self-image, of what we aspire to and who we are.

Instead of spending tens of billions of hard-to-justify dollars studying how to implement a high-speed railroad system, the most intelligent choice for us is to fix the existing passenger railroad lines and start cranking out ultra modern passenger cars that will be a joy to ride. We need to prioritize the highway maintenance agenda. Since we will not be able to afford to repave the whole existing system -- and let other nations meet our diminishing demand for cars in the USA.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Preparing for Coming Changes - LEARN

For those who understand where American's energy use is heading, here is a list five actions which will be necessary to help us prepare for the imminent decline of finite fossil fuels.

(L)OCALIZE agriculture, energy production, social services, essential manufacturing, etc. All will have to regress to a limited “twenty-mile radius” community. This will not be a choice. The inevitable curtailment of transportation fuel will reduce future travel. Intercity light rail will be impossible without energy.
(E)DUCATE yourself and others. We passed peak oil in late 2008. Natural gas, coal, and fissionable uranium are not far behind. Without ever-increasing energy, real growth, including a debt-based financial system based on future principal plus interest, cannot continue. Recognize the fallacies of bogus solutions like: “There’s plenty left”; “The scientists will save us”; “We can efficiency our way out of our dilemma (not if we don’t reduce consumption)”; “Biofuels, including waste, cellulosic ethanol, and grease will suffice” (at the expense of food). The honest facts must reach the public, the media, and decision-makers even in the midst of denial. Start with,,, etc.
(A)DAPT to a very limited solar-electric future as our only hope of perpetuating any semblance of the brief fossil-fuel age. This vision could be sustainable, clean, and far superior to our ancestor’s harsh existence. A solar-electric sequel could integrate with waning fossil fuels and all other energy sources such as limited hydro or geothermal into a modern electrically-based system and allow individuals to take control of their own production with PV. Also included are wind and concentrated solar.
(R)ATION all fossil fuels starting immediately with gasoline. This is the only way we can reduce consumption on a controlled basis without increasing price-competition and conflict over the remains. Rationing is probably our best chance to buy time for mitigation and give our kids a chance for the remnants of the party.
(N)EGATIVE population growth. This is the toughest and most critical issue. With peak oil we have passed peak growth. Our short cornucopia of excess resources (including fossil fuels and all natural resources) has ended. We have far too many people in the US and the world for a sustainable civilization. If we don’t get the correct facts out and convince people to begin negative population growth, mother nature will reduce population in her own cruel ways. See,, and others.
L.E.A.R.N. - We all need to understand and project this acronym.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Coming to a Yard Near You

The average plate of food travels over 1500 miles to get from the field to your plate. In the process it consumes copious amount of fossil fuels and ends up less than fresh the day it lands on your grocery store shelf.

What if there was a way to bring the growing of fresh fruits and vegetables closer to home? What if we were to take the dramatic step of moving the fields right into our own neighborhoods?

Consider Neighborhood Supported Agriculture.

By converting a small portion of the millions of acres of Kentucky Bluegrass that surround our homes with organic vegetable gardens and orchards we have the opportunity to greatly reduce our dependence on the fossil fuels required to plant, fertilize, harvest, process, pack and transport our food.

In Boulder, Colorado an innovative Neighborhood Supported Agriculture model is bringing local food production and distribution into urban settings. A 3 ½ year old urban farming project called Community Roots Farm was created by farmer Kipp Nash, who has successfully converted 13 front and back yards, and church lawns into vegetable gardens for neighbors and CSA shareholders, with surplus for the local Farmer’s Market and food for families in need - while creating increased community connections among neighbors at the same time.

This model which is being studied in order to help replicate it across the nation is at the forefront of the urban agriculture or locavore movement.

As the economic contraction continues and the cost of oil begin to go up again, the ability to eat locally produced organic food may become one of the most important aspects of sustainability.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Downside of Ecomomic Growth

With all the talk these days around increasing the flow of money, what would happen if our banks really did start lending in a big way next week?

The stalled economic engine of our country would begin rolling again, we would see a surge in loans to the construction industry, increases in production and (hopefully) sales of autos, large and small manufacturing, people would be called back to work and everything would be great again.

Well... there is one not-so-small problem with that scenario.

For those who have been following the roller coaster ride in the energy industry, you already know how close our current supply and demand is. Since the global economy started to significantly slow last fall, we have reduced our global consumption of oil by over 3 million barrels per day (bpd), to about 83 million bpd. This is about 2.4 million bpd less than in 2008 and the lowest level since 2004. A real reduction, but nothing like the collapse in demand we have been hearing about. On top of that the work to secure both additional sources of oil and investment in alternatives has almost come to a standstill. Billions of dollars of new projects have been delayed or cancelled completely and the oil services industry, those companies actually doing the exploration and drilling, has cut back almost 50% since last year.
According to the Rig Count industry website who follows the changing number of active oil and natural gas rigs:

The year-over-year oil exploration in the US is down 42.3 percent. Gas exploration is down 48.0 percent.
So if our economy begins to ramp up again it will not take long for our demand to outpace our supply. When that happens prices go up. Oil has already risen from a low of $35 per barrel to the low $50's while demand has been low. This cycle of economic activity causing higher energy prices is a relationship we have not seen in the past.

We simply do not have the option to just re-start our economy in the same fashion we have been doing for the past 100 years. We are being forced to re-structure our economy to be more resilient to these supply constraints while increasing our local self-sufficiency. This will result in reducing our dependence on massive amounts of energy from faraway countries in order to bring us our food, to heat our homes, and to manufacture the items we truly need for a high standard of living.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Future of the Auto Industry

As the administration looks for ways to help out the failing auto industry, I agree with Mr. Wipple quoted below, that this is the time to take an "out-of-the-box" look at the situation to see what makes the most sense as we move forward.

- Zev

The Peak Oil Crisis: Seize the Moment
by Tom Whipple
Earlier this week the Obama administration, now the effective owner of the U.S. automobile industry, put Detroit on notice that it has 30-60 days to come up with a believable plan to "restructure" itself or it goes into bankruptcy.
This action makes it a good time to step back and ponder just where America's industrial base is going. With $2 gasoline and some incentives, recession-wracked American consumers seem willing and able to absorb another 8 or 9 million new gasoline and diesel powered cars and trucks this year --- but does this make any sense? The "restructuring" plan seems to be one of trimming overhead, shutting some factories, abrogating labor agreements, and stiffing shareholders, bondholders and debtors to the point where the manufacturers might be able to limp along with a minimal infusion of taxpayer dollars.
This plan might be fine except for one glaring fallacy. In the next few years, oil prices are going up so high that ownership and use of the automobiles and trucks in their present form will be a totally uneconomic proposition. How many of the current flavor of cars and trucks is Detroit going to sell with gasoline at $10 a gallon or higher?
full story

Friday, March 20, 2009

While We Were Sleeping

As the current economic realities continue to unfold, it is critically important that Americans understand that what we are experiencing is a global interrelated challenge.

Over the past year or so, while America slept, China went on a shopping spree. According to the March 17th issue of the Washington Post,

Even as global financial flows have slowed sharply overall, China has dramatically stepped up its outbound investment. In 2008, its overseas mergers and acquisitions were worth $52.1 billion -- a record, according to the research firm Dealogic. In January and February of this year, Chinese companies invested $16.3 billion abroad, meaning that if the pace holds, the total for 2009 could be nearly double last year's.

On Feb. 12, China's state-owned metals giant Chinalco signed a $19.5 billion deal with Australia's Rio Tinto that will eventually double its stake in the world's second-largest mining company.

China is now actively in the process of insuring their future by buying up mineral and oils rights all across the planet. They are moving down the path of material abundance which we have been modeling for the past 30 years; and very little we say or do is going to change this anytime soon. The challenge for us is that with 1.3 billion people in China if they want to play the consumption game, that will put unimaginable stress on our ability to do the same.

Americans will be faced with the necessity of a different sort of future when it comes to energy. As these massive Asian countries lock up resources for their future, we will be forced to either fight them... which is not very realistic, or seriously begin to re-organize our energy demands so we are not as effected by these huge global shifts in control of resources.

If we can be successful in building the systems to provide for our needs much closer to home, we can help assure a less stressful transition from an oil dependent society to one with built-in resilience from the coming environmental and financial shocks.

For cities and states who enact legislation to encourage these changes, they will find themselves in a far better position than those who doggedly hold to the fading dream of ever growing economies full of more and more stuff.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Reading Anything Good Lately?

Over the past month or so I have found myself engrossed reading a number of very interesting books. While they are all quite different, they all fall under the overarching heading of resource depletion.

The first book, Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate by Pat Murphy, describes in great detail a wide variety of actions we can do as individuals and as communities to deal with the coming challenges posed by the twin issues of Peak Oil and Climate Change. This book is packed full of information and should be required reading for any serious student of resource trends.

The second book which I suspect will become one of my favorites of all time is World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler. This near-future fictional depiction of life after the end of the oil age is both touching and disturbing. Because it takes place in the not-to-distant future, the remnants of our overly consumerist society are still very present. His attention to detail brings the challenges and success for the characters right into our hearts.

The third book, and one that is receiving a great deal of coverage these days, is Jeff Rubin's Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. Jeff is the chief economist and chief strategist at CIBC World Markets and was one of the first economists to accurately predict soaring oil prices back in 2000 and is now one of the world’s most sought-after energy experts. Jeff clearly lays out his decades of experience and makes an extremely convincing argument why importing plastic toilet seats from China and caesar salads from across the continent, will be totally uneconomical in the not too distant future.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Time to End the 1500 Mile Ceasar Salad

"Food Miles" refer to the distance that your food has been transported between its source farm and where you buy it. Food miles are one measure of the amount of energy used to transport your food and the consequent pollutants released by that transport. Estimates vary but transport may account for 20% or more of the total energy use associated with the provision of a given food item. As such, Food Miles are a relatively simple statistic that can be used to demonstrate the ecological importance of local foods.
Seventeen percent of this nation’s petroleum consumption is dedicated to on-the-farm food production. Add on processing, packaging, refrigeration and transport of edibles and food takes a big bite out of affordable oil supplies and contributes to pollution. Domestic food as basic as lettuce we could grow in front yards most of the year, and green houses in winter, travels up to 3,000 miles from field to table. explains how this takes into effect greenhouse emissions.
Do food miles matter? | ES&T Online News: