Friday, 28 November 2008
My daughter, for her part, did not enjoy the 100-kmh winds and sideways pelting rain, and we cut our walk short to see it from this distance over hot chocolate.
Tuesday, 25 November 2008
Here in Ireland, it rarely snows or even drops below freezing, but winter brings a different kind of challenge -- it is damp, which adds to the chill just as humidity adds to the heat. It is also a time of darkness -- Ireland is only several hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, so this time of year we are looking at seven or eight hours of daylight.
I don't know what winter is like where you are. If you live in California, perhaps (I've never been there myself) it's not much of a change. But for most people, it is the time when one's health and mood darkens -- especially with this year's news. Certainly most of the commonly-suggested baby steps to self-reliance -- gardening, bicycling, picnics - are summer activities.
We can, though, make the most of winter, use its forced quarters and laagering-up to clean, read, organize and prepare for the coming year.
Winter is the ideal time to harvest or buy root vegetables -- not just potatoes, but rutabagas, celeriac, kohlrabi, beetroots, Swedes, turnips, parsnips and carrots. If you think you don’t like them, try them another way – for example, I discovered I like celeriac finely shaved in the grater, as one would do with parmesan cheese, and mixed with a spicy salad dressing.
Many root vegetables can be left in the ground all winter here – World War II Victory Gardeners used to store potatoes by simply piling them up and shoveling some earth and straw on top of them, with a pipe at the top for ventilation. Most root vegetablees don’t require refrigeration – you can store carrots, for example, in boxes of sand. If you have not grown your own, don’t worry – they are often cheapest at the store this time of year, and can be stored in the same way.
As children must sit in school during the few hours of winter daylight, some teachers may be looking for the occasional field trip. If you farm, build or know other crafts, perhaps you could arrange to host a day out for students. People in my group, FADA, plan to push highschool students this year into several projects -- to interview elderly residents about what life was like before the oil boom, to test their houses for energy-efficiency, and others.
Alternately, this is a good chance to learn new skills that you think people might need in a low-energy future – knitting, cooking, carpentry, pottery and playing musical instruments are good places to start. Remember, knitting is not just for women, and carpentry not just for men.
Watch over your health in the winter – eat lots of vegetables, take lots of Vitamin C and keep clean. Watch out also for the elderly in your area, who may find this time of year difficult, especially with the economy and rising heating costs. Check on them reguarly, and consider organizing your neighbours to do so.
Most of all, the winter months are a chance to read and learn. Try reading books to your children, and read to each other. Visit your local library with your children. Try not to just scan, as we are accustomed to doing in this data-saturated age. Read.
Don’t worry if you don’t get around to doing all of these things – I’m not doing all of them myself. There are dozens of little things we can all do, and not all of them will be applicable for everyone’s life. But take advantage of wthe season while it lasts, and try to prepare for what might be a historical winter ahead.
Top photo: the road by our land in Killina. Bottom photo: Our village's only snowfall last year.
Saturday, 22 November 2008
One of the strangest things about Ireland, to my American eyes, is the ubiquitous presence of ruins --- not well-maintained tourist attractions or Disney facsimiles, but crumbling walls everywhere, ignored by the locals. My guess is that many of them are protected, and they would cost money to tear down in any case, but many are also dangerous and must be fenced off. Near where we live, there is an old church and graveyard which is tightly walled in, surrounded by roads and a supermarket.
If we have not torn such ruins down in this time of abundant energy to do so, we will be even less likely to tear down our massive floodings of asphalt, overpasses and malls that exist today. It is easy to imagine many new uses for them -- tramways (streetcar lines) out of highways, planting boxes out of car parks (parking lots) and of course, gardens out of yards.
Many of these new structures have flat roofs, which would seem perfect for roof gardens. On the other hand, the roofs will leak eventually, so perhaps constructing water collectors on top is a better idea. Or to build polytunnels -- plastic greenhouses -- on top of every middle school and mall and accomplish several tasks at once -- collecting runoff, growwing crops and keeping rain from destroying the building.
Inevitably, though, our buildings will end up as ruins themselves, although perhaps more dangerous than traditional stone-and-mortar structures. Ours will have shards of metal and plastic to watch out for, and the plastics might also emit poison gas. They would, however, last for hundreds or thousands of years, along with the bathroom tiles. Perhaps they could be put to some new use, like waterproof roofing.
I wonder if our ruins will be as beautiful.
Thursday, 20 November 2008
A small news item slipped by everyone unnoticed in the final days of the U.S. election, when attention was focused elsewhere. The highly respected International Energy Agency, a longtime sceptic of peak oil, has just released their annual World Energy Outlook -- and it is far grimmer than anything they have predicted so far.
An early report of the long-awaited study, leaked by Britain ’s Financial Times newspaper, stated that if new oil fields do not come online soon, world oil supplies will drop at a rate of 9.1 percent per year. And while the numbers for the full report are less steep, they still predict that:
we estimate that the average observed decline rate worldwide is 6.7%. Were that rate applied to 2007 crude oil production the annual loss of output would be 4.7mmbpd.
A good analysis of the report can be found at the Oil Drum, here, and here.
If that doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind how exponential growth works. When you see a straight line on a graph, it is usually arithmetic growth – 2, 3, 4, 5. Do this fifty times and you get 50. A curved line on a graph is more likely to be geometric, or exponential, growth – 2, 4, 8, 16. Do this 50 times and you get 1.1 quadrillion, or more than one million million.
As Dr. Albert Bartlett of the University of Colorado puts it, people often misunderstand exponential growth. If a headline read that crime was increasing at a rate of seven percent per year, most people would not be alarmed – seven percent sounds very modest. If the same headline said crime had doubled in the last ten years, people would feel in danger. Yet seven percent per year means doubling every ten years.
Exponential growth is behind most of our global problems. Burning fossil fuels would not be much of a problem if we had stopped at 1930s levels, but our consumption has increased exponentially, sweeping upwards on the graph. Climate change would not be an issue if our emissions had stabilized early, or our population, or any other issue. But all these are increasing exponentially, so we have shut out the possibility of slipping casually into a better world.
The same is true of reductions. A drop of 6.7 percent per year is a loss of 30 percent of world liquid fuel in five years. The effect on the economy is likely to be far greater, for energy is the real basis for wealth, and all the stock options, derivatives and alphabet soup of arcane alchemy are pure abstraction. I don't mean they won't have real effects -- we are trying to get a mortgage right now -- but we understand that most of what we calll "the economy" is a large head of froth, balanced delicately on the "beer" -- the energy supply. The recent shocks have all been blobs of foam disappearing from the world's financial computers, as everyone comes to realize how little of it was ever real. If the small supply of real wealth were to fall, the effects would be much greater.
Let's say the number again: 30 percent in five years. The last 25 percent drop was the Great Depression.
If this is true, it means we need to make our homes, our towns and our island much more self-reliant, and fast. It might be a good idea to stock up a few months’ supply of food, or fill old plastic bottles with water and keep them for emergencies. We as a country would be well-advised to restore local factories that would make essential goods like shoes, clothes and medical equipment. We need wind, solar power and other types of clean energy. We need electric rails powered by wind and solar, or we might not have transportation.
If we want to preserve the massive amounts of human knowledge that has been created on the Internet, we need to have solar-and-wind –powered server farms, and plans in place to run emergency Internet outlets in each small town.
Of course, even this urgent report is not as dire as most of the prophets of the peak oil movement, who have been right so far. The IEA report, based on excerpts, seem to think that we will make up some of the difference by developing existing fields, and perhaps we will. But that would only give us a less-steep exponential downward curve.
It is also possible that all of this is overblown, but so far the Greens have been right about everything -- and if you are ready for an emergency and there is none, what have you lost? Better to be prepared in case things go south -- as they will at some point.
As I said at the end of my speech in Kildare, let us try to live our lives like the firefighters I sometimes see relaxing on the station lawn; savouring the day, but prepared for an emergency.
Wednesday, 19 November 2008
Tonight, though, I surprised her halfway to Grandma's room, frozen in mid-tiptoe.
"I'm sorry Papa," she said contritely. "I couldn't resist."
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Saturday, 8 November 2008
People complain about the world, but we also take for granted the thousands of courtesies and jobs well done that allow us to ddo so much complaining. We simply trust that the mechanic fixed the brakes properly, that the lights will go on when we flip the switch, that the letter will be delivered. We depend on hundreds of people like Robertson every day, and we need to stop sometimes and remember them.
Power man turns out the light
In 1948, an 18-year-old named Cliff Robertson joined the Columbia Water and Light District as a meter reader, earning 75 cents an hour. Yesterday, about 170 employees and friends gathered at the Heuchan Building to wish Robertson, 71, farewell on the day of his retirement.
Columbia utility distribution manager Cliff Robertson, right, laughs yesterday as former co-worker Fred George recounts an anecdote at Robertson’s retirement party. Robertson leaves after 52½ years as a city employee, the second-longest tenure ever. "He’s like my second dad," said George, who worked 22 years with Robertson.
For every gag gift Robertson received, for every employee who wanted to thank him, the crowd erupted in a roar of applause. One man noted that almost everyone present had been hired by the longtime electrical distribution director, Columbia’s second-longest employee on record.
"He’s one of those people behind the scenes that you never hear about, quietly making sure you have power," Water and Light director Dick Malon said.
Robertson was in charge of about 75 workers at the Municipal Power Plant. "And he’s had a real knack for hiring good employees," Malon said. "He’s like a father figure to many of the people here."
Robertson worked his way through the ranks, becoming a lineman in 1954, a foreman in 1958 and a supervisor in 1969. Since 1972, he has been responsible for overseeing operation and maintenance of the city’s electrical distribution system.
Water and Light spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz said Robertson received the City of Columbia No. 1 Club award 17 times. It recognizes workers who miss one shift or none in a year.
"When your electricity is off because of storms, he takes care of it," city manager Ray Beck said, adding Robertson lent him valuable knowledge and experience when Beck was acting director of Water and Light. "And as you can see, he’s made a lot of friends."
In 52½ years, Robertson has seen the city grow six-fold, from 14,000 when he started reading meters to 84,000 now. "We grow with it," Robertson said. "As each new subdivision came in, we helped build it, so sometimes we forget how big it’s gotten."
Robertson said only Ace Coleman has worked more years for the city than he has. Coleman worked with the electric utility from 1919 to 1972, one year longer than Robertson.
Fred George, who worked under Robertson 22 years and is now retired himself, said Robertson loyally defended his employees to city officials. One morning Robertson was arguing on behalf of his workers, George said, "and they told him at 10 a.m. that if he came back again to their office, they’d fire him. He was back in those offices at 1 p.m."
George also remembered Robertson visiting him at the hospital. "He gave me a pep talk in the hospital and got me to come back to work," George said. "Your immediate supervisor you might never see. But anybody was in the hospital, he’d go to see them."
Robertson said he could have retired several years ago, but "we got some great employees here."
Thursday, 6 November 2008
... every four years, I find myself deeply disturbed by the fact that the office of chief executive of the national public goods administration agency is in fact, according to most people’s sense of things, the highest peak, the top of the heap. And the quadrennial reflex of vesting in a single powerful man so much hope for the future seems to me a truly depressing failure to internalize the spirit of American democracy. Last night’s celebratory catharsis was a long time coming. We needed it. But, frankly, I hope never to see again streets thronging with people chanting the victorious leader’s name.
The government of the state is profoundly important. And I think American voters picked a competent, decent, and sober executive officer. But this is not, headline writers, Barack Obama’s America. He is not your leader, any more than the mayor of your town is your leader. We are free people. We lead ourselves. He is set to be a high-ranking public administrator. Sure, there is romance in fame. But romance in politics is dangerous, misplaced, and beneath intelligent people. Were we more fully civilized, we would tolerate the yearnings projected on our leaders. Our tribal nature is not so easily escaped, after all. But we would try to escape it. We would discourage and condemn as irresponsible a romantic politics that tells us that if we all come together and want it hard enough, we’ll get it. We would spot the dangerous fallacy in condemning as “cynicism” all serious attempts to critically evaluate the content of political hopes.
Full article here. While we're on the subject, can the U.S. media stop referring to the president, all contexts, as "our commander-in-chief?" If you are on active duty in the U.S. military, he is your commander-in-chief. The rest of us have no such thing, any more than we have a sergeant.
Wednesday, 5 November 2008
Tonight my daughter asked me to play for a while before I put her to bed, and she made up stories for us to act out. She had me play the part of the spoon (just go with it, okay?) who hated frogs, and shooed Mr. Frog away.
Then (as she told the story), mosquitoes started to fly around and pester Spoon, who ran around trying to brush them all away. Then he remembered that frogs eat mosquitoes, apologized to Mr. Frog and invited him back.
Spoon was not bothered by mosquitoes anymore, and was never mean to Frog again, because he realized that we need frogs.
I wish more people understood what my four-year-old understands.
Photo: My daughter deep in the Donadea woods.
Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Monday, 3 November 2008
A few days ago, my old hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published a commentary I wrote about the election. Here is a sample:
As the resident American accent in the pub, I have to field a lot of
questions about the latest election news. I disappoint people by telling them
that not only am I not following the campaign trail, but I've also done
everything I can do avoid it.
It's not that I don't care. It's that my vote took a few days of research,
not two years of hearing gossip. Before I mailed the absentee ballot, I made a
list of the issues I care about and compared them to Obama's and McCain's
campaign contribution and voting records — not the coverage, the records
themselves — and calculated my choice.
I write about peak oil, for example, and want to see the United States
restore its electric rail system, so the candidate that made some meager noises
in that direction got some meager points on my list. Period. I don't care about
their race, their reproductive plumbing, their flamboyant piety or from what
wacky character they are six degrees removed. I don't care about the teacup
scandals that crawl across the bottom-screen news feed or the hall-of-mirrors
news coverage of the coverage of the coverage. I don't want to know.
Many Americans seem to believe that democracy looks like the Super Bowl, a
New Top Model, an American Idol, the Oscars or an apocalyptic smackdown. In
reality, it simply should be a job interview, and you are the employer.
Full article here.
Sunday, 2 November 2008
Children enjoyed the theatre, mask-making, Punch and Judy shows, drumming, music and workshops on how to make rain containers and wormeries. Young people in their teens and twenties put on independent films they had made in and about the area. Older people could enjoy workshops on self-sufficiency, basketry and weaving, as well as several talks on peak oil, transition towns, local food, emergency preparation and reviving traditional community.
We also hosted booths from several other groups in the area, including the Kildare Steiner school, Future Forests and the South Kildare Beekeepers – the last of which I talked to a long time, in preparation for the bees we hope to cultivate (herd? host?) on our land next year.
There were a few things I might have done differently. I had hoped to record the talks and put them on YouTube, but the quality is too poor – next time we need to not schedule the mass drumming next door to the speeches. Also I was busy washing dishes and completely missed the student theatre presentation in the next room -- a short play they wrote about what a post-fossil-fuel world might be like, based on a talk I gave to them last month. I still have no idea what it was like.
Still, it was a great success. We get discouraged by the burning usual of life, and it seems as though nothing we do makes a difference. And then we remember the hundreds of people who came to an event like this, and all they heard and learned. And all the peak oil speakers – say, me – learned about beekeeping, and all the weavers learned about composting, and all the schoolteachers at the Steiner School learned about all these things. Sorry to gush, but days like this are what make the rest of life worthwhile. Days like this are how it begins.