Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hartmann should know better

Thom Hartmann’s stated aim in Rebooting the American Dream is to, “bring back a strong middle class and restore America to stability and prosperity without endangering future generations.” He ought to know better, and I’m certain he does.

Though he never defines the term, Hartmann’s idea of the American Dream seems to be straight out of the post World War II era, a period of unprecedented production, expansion and consumerism. Almost anyone with any gumption whatsoever qualified for a job with benefits and a pension; a house in the suburbs; two cars; a color TV, and nearly every imaginable gimcrack and geegaw his or her little heart was persuaded to desire.

That era effectively died about 1973, when America’s oil production hit its peak. Though the fiesta of consumerism has gone on for another 40 years, it has been financed by financial shenanigans; booms and busts; outright looting; non-stop wars; and various other diversions such as Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, and Nascar.

There will be no resurrection.

Peak Oil, to put it bluntly, puts the kibosh on the whole concept of economic growth as we’ve known it for about 300 years. Hartmann knows this. He wrote The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, way back in 1998, so he is hardly unaware of the phenomenon of Peak Oil, the maximum worldwide production of petroleum. It occurred in America about 1973 and worldwide in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency, so from now on until forever, we’ll be chasing diminishing supplies of oil with our insatiable demand; and we’ll have to do it in places that are massively hostile to us. At an oil price of about $80 a barrel, economic growth ceases, and we’re there now.

Ronald Reagan, or at least his advisors, knew of Peak Oil and its ultimate implications for a society based on neverending growth, fueled by abundant, cheap oil. So did Presidents Bush, Bush, Clinton and Cheney. Carter certainly knew it, hence his doctrine declaring the Middle East a theater of strategic importance to America. For all we know, Nixon understood Peak Oil, too.

The corporate oligarchy and uberwealthy kleptocrats behind both political parties and the presidency have engaged in an orgy of self-aggrandizement, knowing that the petro-industrial train was heading for a brick wall. America’s transition from self-sufficiency to import dependency in oil is the most significant reason behind the economic “devastation of 30 years of Reaganomics.” It isn’t a big secret, except to our willfully ignorant fellow citizens.

Yet Hartmann seems maddeningly oblivious to even the more obvious implications of Peak Oil. There’s not even an index entry for it. Even if it were desirable, which it’s not, we’re not going to “recover the industrial base we’ve lost.” An American Dream of outrageous energy consumption per person is no longer possible under any circumstances, Hartmann’s 11 Steps (12 being taken) notwithstanding.

If there were a shred of honesty in the political arena, which there isn’t, we’d be told to dig in, plant Victory Gardens, relocalize as many facets of production (craft, cottage and manufacturing) as possible, and virtualize everything else. Hartmann doesn’t deliver this message, either.

But it’s not that his ideas are, per se, bad. Hartmann is a serial entrepreneur and progressive author and talk radio host. He’s built businesses, put people to work, created value where there was none. He’d like to see an America like the post-WWII one he grew up in – made in America by Americans for Americans. He wants to reverse “the ‘free trade/flat earth’ idiocy” of the past 40 years. What Hartmann doesn’t say is that globalization is already a dinosaur. The 7,000-mile WalMart pipeline and the 3,000-mile salad are both artifacts of an era that’s rapidly passing.

The steps Hartmann suggests are worthwhile to take. But even if they are implemented, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hades of their success in restoring the American Dream. I suspect Hartmann agrees.

The nation needs to be saved from the corporate oligarchs … absolutely. We need to educate ourselves and reward initiative and get basic medical care for everybody and abolish corporate personhood (see Hartmann’s excellent book, Unequal Protection). But we can’t count on the federal government for any of it. For better or worse, that bloated, all-intrusive Washington welfare state bureaucracy is another artifact of the upside of Hubbert’s Peak, where we could always do more of everything because we had the energetic capacity to do it.

No more. We have to do it ourselves.

You want to bring jobs home? Stop buying anything made outside the United States. Period. Buy local; make it yourself, or do without. If you must have an item that’s only made overseas, buy a used one so the money stays here. Stop exporting your dollars.

You want a healthier society? Stop eating crap and do some physical work. The overwhelming majority of medical problems are diet- and lifestyle-related, and the same companies that make you sick are profiting from treating the sickness.

You want to level the playing field with the corporations? Work to amend the Constitution, as Hartmann suggests, and nullify at the state level all unconstitutional acts of the federal government … now there’s a fertile field.

Fortunately, we still do have the US Constitution, written during and for a time of small, self-reliant communities and individuals, deeply mistrustful of self-serving power, whether in the form of the state or the corporation. The Constitution empowers us to take back control of our lives, and still remain a nation, strong where it counts.

Hartmann wants to do good things, but they won’t get us anywhere close to where he thinks they will; and he wants to do them on a scale that’s more a part of the problem than it is part of the solution; and I don’t think he trusts the language and vision of the Constitution, or the power of an aroused citizenry, to see us through the dark forest we’re heading into. Too bad.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No help for off-gridders

The back cover of Nick Rosen’s Off the Grid says the book is “essential reading for anyone who’s ever thought about going off the grid.” It’s not.

Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of anecdotes loosely hung together around the theme of utility-less living. I doubt that anybody in Off the Grid would have read, or benefited from, this book before they unplugged. What fails to come across in this featherweight book is the seriousness of the times and of the people whose response to today’s USA is, in part, to move off-grid.

This is supposed to be a layman’s guide based on the author’s conversations with various off-gridders met while he toured the US. Rosen seems a pleasant enough fellow, and the book reads like the collected scraps of a paid vacation, which it surely was. It skips around a lot, as the subjects – I’d hesitate to call them interviewees – are all over the place geographically, and they pop up seemingly at random. In the end, I wondered more how Rosen arranged, and afforded, all that travel, than I did about how or why folks live as they do.

Trouble is, people living off the grid, or contemplating it, already have the resources, and the support networks they need; they’re only a Google away. In these golden days of the information era, the survivalists have survivalist sites; the homeschoolers and the religious have places to congregate; pot-growers don’t Bogart their intel; enviros have Real Goods; and even the nomadic car dwellers have groups, such as the enormously busy Van Dwellers Yahoo Group, for advice and support. I’ll give out a shout here to “Hobo Stripper,” who successfully parlayed a web site written from her van while making her living as an itinerant sex worker, into an off-grid Alaskan retreat she now owns and calls home.

Off-gridders owe more to Stewart Brand, still living on his tugboat, and The Whole Earth Catalog, than they do to any other single source. Yet they don’t rate a mention in Off the Grid. Now there was a book that deserved the paper it was [ecologically] printed on. The Catalog, “Access to Tools,” sparked the off-grid, back to the land movement 40 years ago. Those myriad sparks of knowledge – including the Internet – still glow all around us, informing us and lighting our way.

Rosen does nothing to add to the conversation(s) the Catalog started, either by compiling source information or digging out obscure but useful sites. There are no notes, no bibliography, no index.

He clearly hasn’t done his homework when it comes to the political side of off-grid living, either. Perhaps it’s his British perspective, but on this side of the Atlantic, it’s easy to understand how intelligent, well-read, conscientious individuals are – at best – deeply distrustful of their government. I’m certainly no expert in any of the many government lies, conspiracies, and cover-ups of the past 60 years – my lifetime – nor do I want or need to be. But I’ve seen enough to understand that our government is essentially malign in many important aspects.

For example, it’s bizarre that Rosen only “vaguely remembered” a conversation with Larry Silverstein, owner of the World Trade Center, and recipient of something like $750 million in insurance money, about the rationale behind the pre-arranged, controlled demolition of Building 7 on 9/11 (p.268). And because this is not just some historical footnote to many people, including his subject of the moment, Allan Weisbecker, Rosen dismisses him – and them – as paranoid kooks in his chapter entitled “Fear.”

As for Peak Oil, Rosen betrays a lack of understanding that disserves both his subjects and the reading public. He makes an error of fact by mis-defining Peak Oil as “the point in history at which the amount of oil consumed each year exceeds the amount of new oil found each year” (p.273). Consumption has outpaced discovery for many years. Peak Oil is when worldwide oil production reaches its highest possible point, ever and for all time. It’s a basic, but critical distinction. According to the International Energy Agency, that point occurred in 2006, in line with what many others have predicted.

It’s important for this book because Peak Oil means that the whole 150-year era of petro-industrial growth – of which the grid is a big part – is over. The grid is almost certainly on its way out, whether through irreparable infrastructure deterioration, terrorism, copper- and aluminum “mining” vandalism, fuel shortages, financial shenanigans, or some mix of the above.

Rosen addresses none of this and condescends toward those of his subjects who take politics and energy seriously. It’s not just that there’s bad scholarship here, though there’s that, it’s that there’s no indication of any critical thinking or reading.

There’s no help here for people who are already off-grid and want to get better at it. Nor is there enough intellectual meat to help concerned readers make informed decisions about their place on- or off-grid.

If you must read Off the Grid, at least take it out of the library, as I did. And spend your hard-earned cash elsewhere – like on your utility bill.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy 80th b'day, Adam Purple

Adam Purple, an old friend and mentor, turned 80 recently, and the following post is my belated letter of congratulations to him. He is the creator of the Garden of Eden (NYC),, and a pioneer in urban homesteading and off-grid living. 

Dear Adam,

I hope this finds you and finds you well. Congratulations, belatedly, on your 80th birthday. I’m sorry I missed it; but then again, I’m sorry I missed your 79th, and 78th, and 77th, and, well, you get the idea. I’ve missed having you as a regular part of my life for a long time, and regret the loss. It’s just not enough to be on the receiving end of your email blasts; sitting around the woodstove smoking a joint and waiting for the tofu stew to cook is so far superior as to render the comparison ludicrous. Please send your recipe.

Eighty years on Planet Earth is a long time for anyone, I would think especially for one who’s so far away from his home on Uranus. But as your birthday comes at the end of the year in question, you’ve already done the time, so you might as well enjoy the party. I hope you had one.

Out here in New Mexico, we’re getting into rhythms that I suspect are similar to those of the Missouri farm of your youth, and not too different from life at the Garden of Eden. I’m getting into the swing of managing a wood furnace; ours is an early 20th century model from the Holland Furnace Co. of Michigan. It’s a big old monster that was either brought into the basement in pieces or the house was built around it.

It’s an octopus, with five heat ducts, two returns, and a chimney, and even at 6:30 on a four-degree F. morning, the house is in the mid-50s, if I’ve done my job properly. We don’t heat the second bedroom or the bath or the upstairs, ‘cause we don’t use ‘em much, but the layout of kitchen/dr/lr/br works fine for us. With nine-foot ceilings (8-1/2 … I just measured), there’s plenty of room.

I’m cutting up the deadwood piled around the ranch, and I suspect I’ll have to buy one more cord of wood before the winter’s out. I’ll buy as many as we can afford, if the price is right, and it’s on my list to check out the landfill when I get a vehicle. It’s lovely outside in the afternoon with the sun shining and the temp in the 40s, and it’s no problem staying warm. All the cats, except the oldest … and our Beagle, Lady … come out to help and wear their little cat asses out.

I’m planning my first garden here, and trying not to get too carried away, mentally or financially. We collect rainwater, and I hope to collect more, to supplement the 18 inches this area receives. I’m also working on swales and whatever else I can think of to trap and sink water. We have a lovely spring and pond, but I haven’t got an easy method of getting water from it to the gardens above. It’s a couple hundred yards away from the house, which is a bit far to haul buckets for an old American white-eyes unused to such work.

We also have deeded access to the Canadian River, in the amount of three acre feet, which would make for plentiful irrigation, if I went that route, but it’s a money thing, plus I don’t know what I’d do with all that water, plus I’m a bit uneasy about taking water from the river, on ethical grounds. We’ll see.

Meantime, my current thinking is to manage the place for bees, with lots of plantings and, initially, a couple of hives, built on the top-bar method. I have a set of plans for a top-bar hive, based on Golden Mean proportions, and I’m looking forward to my first build. The top-bar beekeeping method is said to be simpler and easier on the bees, and I’m all for that. As I learn what I’m doing, I may well be able to conservatively harvest 75 pounds of honey from each hive, and as it’s selling for $5 or so a pound, the economics, as well as the ecology, are good. If I can feed them enough, which means planting enough for them, I’d like as many hives as possible … 20 … 50 … 100?

Other than that, I plan Three Sisters plantings of dryland varieties, alternating with strips of alfalfa for nitrogen fixation and rainwater retention, on the large fenced yard; a small orchard and nut-tree plantings in the same area; and a medicine wheel of herbs in our front yard, facing the Sangre de Cristo mountains to our west. And chickens, a few layers of some endangered breed; no butchering, just pets with benefits.

At any rate, this is long enough for today. I’m going to post this letter on my new blog,, which I hope you’ll check out. If you’d like to take the train, it comes as close to us as Raton, where Andi works, and we’d love to have you here. The time for us to see each other again grows shorter; a visit would gladden my heart. Happy Birthday!