Tag Archives: economic collapse

Growing In The Shade

Red sky in the morning . . .

“Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

Dear Reader:

The above quote is an old adage I learned as a child. Basically, it means that if there’s a red sunset you can expect clear, sunny skies the next day, but if you have a red sunrise, watch out for a gloomy day ahead. (click HERE for a scientific explanation.)

I say, with all the news we’ve had lately about oil prices, revolutions in the Middle East, mega earthquakes, nuclear power plant problems, our national debt ceiling about to be reached come May, and a stalemate over our Washington budget, we are seeing a red sky in the morning here on planet Earth. Will we heed the warning signs?

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard about Peak Oil yet? If you haven’t, I encourage you to find out about it as quickly as possible. The Post Carbon Institute has published a Peak Oil Primer (click HERE to read it)that will give you an overview of the issue. Basically, Peak Oil is the point in time when we have used up half of the original oil reserves in the world. If graphed on a bell curve, the extraction and production of oil would form a “peak” at this point, and from that point on extraction and production will become more difficult and less efficient over time. Another term for this is “energy resource depletion.” Or, as I like to call it, “running out of gas.”

You can also watch a few documentaries:
COLLAPSE with Michael Rupert (click HERE)
ENERGY CROSSROADS (click HERE to view the trailer)

These are just a few. I encourage you to explore and share what you find.

In essence, what these films (and the myriad books that are available–more on those in another post) tell us is that everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, in our current way of life depends on oil. Our food is grown with oil-based fertilizers applied by oil-run tractors that are manufactured using oil. Irrigation pumps to water the fields run on oil. All plastics are made with oil. Obviously, our transportation is mostly oil-fueled. We heat our homes and hot water with oil. Our clothing (and just about everything else in the stores) is shipped to us via a fleet of trucks that run on gasoline. Suburbia depends on the automobile to get its residents to and from work, school, stores, and hospitals. We have fewer and fewer walkable, liveable communities.

I am aware that this all sounds alarmist. It is. I am alarmed. The more I learn, the more I read the news, the more I think, the more alarmed I become. All my little projects here Outside the Box have been attempted because I believe the only way to make a difference in this alarming scenario is to go local. Even then, deep down, all this square-foot gardening/buying local milk/knitting socks feels more like child's play than a real answer to the disaster-waiting-to-happen. Unless everyone else begins to localize, too.

A couple years ago I tried to bring Peak Oil and its implications to the attention of my homeowner's association–asking that we begin to think about some changes to our bylaws that would allow us to become more sustainable and less dependent on oil and outside resources. Opening up the canopy to let in much-needed sunlight was my biggest plea. I said we needed to be able to learn to grow our own food in our own backyards, and and that takes eight hours of sunlight, minimum. I also said we could become more energy independent if we used solar technology to heat our homes and hot water, possibly even selling excess energy back to "the grid" and easing some of our home economies and off-setting increases in our association dues.

As you can imagine, nobody took this seriously. Maybe it was because I also mentioned raising goats.

I understand that some people moved here to "get back to nature." Our development was created as a vacation community, after all. I understand that people "up to camp" like the old, Maine pine trees swaying above the cottage while the sunlight sparkles on the lake. It is beautiful. I like it, too. I wish our way of life could continue on just the way it is now, driving outside the community to go to work and coming home to our nice houses and power boats and microwave ovens and the wind sighing through the pines while we sip our pre-dinner Merlot on the deck while the steak sizzles on the gas grill. It's a wonderful life.

I just don't happen to believe it's gonna last. Hopefully I'm wrong.

While we wait and see what the future holds, I'll keep on playing around with my projects. I can't do much about what other people chose or chose not to learn. To give up entirely would mean giving in to fear.

In the spirit of doing something even if it is a drop in the bucket, I am plunging ahead this year with more garden boxes. I am going to focus on vegetables and herbs that can be grown in the shade and hope to trade for some tomatoes and peppers and squashes from someone with a sunny garden spot. I’m also going to experiment with those Topsy Turvy planters . . . growing tomatoes upside down on iron hooks stuck into my septic field–the sunniest spot in my yard. I’m also contemplating growing a few tomatoes in large pots . . . on top of my septic tank, the area of my yard that remained mostly snow-free all winter despite record snowfalls due to the heat underneath the dirt.

If you have a shady area of your yard, if your entire yard is shady, and if you want to give gardening a try, HERE is a list of plants that will grow in 3-6 hours of sunlight. Compost heavily. Water regularly. Read the article about Peak Oil and share it with others. Good luck, and let us know how it turns out.

Like Memory

Wishing and Waiting

Another new poem. Hmmm. Has my muse decided to get off her chaise lounge? She must be fat and lazy after 13 years lolling about in her silk negligee, smoking her Gauloises cigarettes, and drinking all the good Champagne bottles down there in the cellar (see Stephen King’s thoughts on muses and their living arrangements in basements), but I dare not diss her. I wouldn’t want her to get angry at me and go back to bed for another decade.


Where are the heirs of the dignified farmers
of old; dirt and seed
pressed into the corrugated, molded soles
of steel-toed boots, earth beneath
fingernails, and round yellow callouses
on the palm of hands familiar
with the hoe and the rake and the gears
of heavy equipment out in the barn?

Where are the daughters of farmers wives,
jam bubbling and popping on the stove,
while a cheesecloth drips whey
into a bowl, dull tin biscuit cutter
with the ruffled edge pressed down
into the resilient dough on the board,
and the push of cold, soaked clothes
through wringer washing machines in the kitchen?

Have they passed now
into a forgotten time, never to return and leaving
behind dry, empty husks
like corn stalks shaking in an autumn wind?
Like chaff scattered and crushed
beneath a rough heel?

Or are the farmer and farmer’s wife sunk deep
into the skin? Hiding in the bones
and muscle, the very living cells, the twisted
ladder of DNA, coursing somehow in the veins,
vessels, holding onto knowledge
until a time when need ignites
some inherited, instinctual knowledge
of soil and seed and whey and sugar
boiled to sweet, viscous jam,
red and vital like blood,
like memory?

Quick Post–Invest In Yourself

Seed Heads for Winter Birds

Dear Reader:

I found a really good, simple, layman’s-terms explanation of the housing bubble. Here is the article. http://www.stock-market-investors.com/stock-investment-risk/the-subprime-mortgage-crisis-explained.html

My question is still this: How do we prevent such a thing from happening again? Maybe the answer is, we can’t.

As we head toward Thanksgiving Day, I’ll leave you with some thoughts. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. Take your pleasures where and when you can. Save for a rainy day. Be thankful for your blessings. Invest in community, in friendships, in knowledge, in healthy activities, in things that are important to you. Take a class. Learn something. Vow to eat a healthier diet. Cut back on the stuff that’s not so good for you. Exercise. Build muscles and stamina instead of a fat stock portfolio. Invest in yourself.

At least that’s how I’m looking at it today Outside the Box.

Mastering the Art of Procrastination

Dear Reader:

I should be a) folding laundry b) finishing the short story I started last week c) writing an article on Reiki I’ve been planning for over a month d) washing walls in preparation for new paint or e) at the very least finishing up the pinky-orange cotton socks in my craft pile. What am I doing instead? Drinking coffee and re-reading Julia Child’s autobiography MY LIFE IN FRANCE. My excuse is Monday’s book-club discussion, but really my reasons are less noble, for while sitting on my butt and reading about boeuf bourguignon I am mastering the art of something besides French cooking.

Call it the Art of Procrastination.

(If you would like to try an adaptation of the Julia Child boeuf bourguignon recipe, I’ve found one at RecipeZaar that looks quite good; however, I haven’t tested it yet so can’t vouch for the end result. Click HERE for the link. If you are inspired to “cook with Julia” and want to check out her book MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, click HERE.)

Clever procrastination takes a good pinch of self-delusion. For instance, when I’m feeling slothful, I can always turn on the computer and begin to compose a blog post. Then, when someone asks “What did you do today?,” I can truthfully say “Oh, I did some writing.”

Voila! The artistry of transforming Sloth into something approximating Industry!

Self-delusion only goes so far. Like sugar, the rush lasts for a little while and then fades. Conscience eats away at my composure (not to mention my leisure). I am forced to ask myself: Has blogging become nothing more for me than an elaborate justification for laziness?

I try to be as objective and honest in my assessment as possible and come up with a wishy-washy “yes and no.” Much of what I have attempted and accomplished in past fourteen months has been fodder for the blog. Knitting, sewing, gardening, researching, cooking, shopping, reading . . . the blog gives my preference for variety (rather than specialization) a raison d’etre. Hopefully, I am able to turn my obsessions, my preferences, my interests, my questions, my explorations into something informative and entertaining–something of value.

I also like to think that while being thus un-gainfully employed, I have created not only words on a light-screen but also some tangible objets. Like socks. Like yarn. Like bread. Like perennial gardens. Like arugula. While not of great economic value to my household, these things are useful, and so I really can’t consider them a complete waste of time.

Still, once in awhile it is good for me to take stock of my time-management skills . . . or lack of them. What have I actually produced lately? Is the time I spend producing things like socks, bread, and irises “worth” the end results? Am I basically wasting time? Should I be working for a corporate salary or an hourly wage? What (and who) does my work benefit? At the very least, am I mastering my chosen crafts so that my knowledge could some day be translated into gainful production or teaching or both?

I’ve been reading alot lately about the economy, of course: the arguments for and against deregulation, the wranglings in the Senate and House, the size of the federal deficit, the unemployment numbers, and the roller-coaster ride from Hades that is the daily stock market report. A general theme is emerging in my readings. More and more people seem to be questioning our decision as a country to outsource much of our production. Whether this is because a more general idea is taking shape in our collective American conscience or whether I am seeking therefore I am finding, many people are worried that our inability to feed, clothe, and shod ourselves will end up leading to a bleak economic future.

To that I offer this intellectual bon mot: Well, duh.

Take, for instance, this informative article entitled DISMANTLING AMERICA from Patrick J. Buchanan posted on the American Conservative site this past March. In the article, Buchanan writes, “Things that we once made in America — indeed, we made everything — we now buy from abroad with money that we borrow from abroad. Over this Lost Decade, 5.8 million manufacturing jobs, one of every three we had in Y2K, disappeared. That unprecedented job loss was partly made up by adding 1.9 million government workers.”

Dear Reader, we once made everything. Now we sit in government offices, pushing papers. Not even that. We file electronic documents. Buzz on the street is that our recent slight improvement in unemployment numbers can be attributed to those oh-so-very temporary US Census jobs.

Until we start making things again, creating them with our own hands, we will not have a truly strong and resilient (not to mention sustainable) economy. Reading Wendell Berry this week, I found myself agreeing with the agrarian philosopher on so many issues, but with none so strongly as this, that our quest to free ourselves from hard work has diminished us in many ways. In his essay “Think Little” Berry writes, “Our people have given up their independence in return for the cheap seductions and the shoddy merchandise of so-called ‘affluence.’ We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothe ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other . . .” (Think Little, Wendell Berry, THE ART OF THE COMMONPLACE, Shoemaker & Hoard, Emeryville, CA, 2002. pp.84.)

Although I make things with my own hands, I cannot honestly say I’m productive. Dabbling is not the same thing as mastering. A master craftsman knows all there is to know about her chosen profession. Housewives of yore were master craftswomen. They knew how to raise chickens, spin yarn, make soap, sew a shirt by hand, bake bread, biscuits, pies, and cakes, grow a kitchen garden big enough to feed the family, store food, save seeds, knit sweaters, darn socks, wash and dry laundry by hand, put up jam, milk the cow/goat/sheep, and provide basic medical care. Girls began their apprenticeship at an early age.

I was lucky to have a mom who baked bread and sewed and put up jam. I was lucky to have a dad who knew how to keep a garden growing all summer. My grandmother always had some handwork going–knitting or crocheting or tatting–when she wasn’t taking news photos or typing up her articles. My grandfather tended a large kitchen garden. But in general it was expected that I would be a careerist and not a farmer/housewife, a consumer and not a producer. Instead, I fell into the crevasse between the two. I swim in the limbo that is the life of a modern, stay-at-home mom. So I blog. Is it enough?

While working on her book, MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, Julia Child set herself a schedule of testing recipes and typing the manuscript even though she would have preferred exploring the nearby countryside. I am inspired to follow her example. I need to set specific goals. I need to create a schedule. I have mastered the Art of Procrastination. It remains to be seen if I can master the Art of Productivity.

Of Arugula & Lilacs

Dear Reader:

It is the time of arugula and lilacs–a juxtaposition of sweet, heady scent of flowers in the air and the cool, peppery tang of herb on the tongue. We seem to be bouncing between extremes of late. One week it is sunny and seventy-degrees, and the next week we are shivering in the a cloudy, forty-degree chill. One day the stock market is steadily climbing and jobs are added to the economy, and the next day we shake our heads as the Dow plunges a thousand points in a matter of minutes–a drop attributed to a computer “glitch” of all things. The Greek economy tanks, and then it is bailed out. People protest in the streets. Meanwhile, the grass grows, the dandelions turn to fluffballs, and we plant our cool-weather-loving peas and kale in hopes of a good crop in a month or so.

Here at “the cottage” I’m keeping myself occupied by scanning my favorite doom and gloom websites–Whiskey and Gunpowder and James Howard Kunstler’s peak oil/new urbanism blog–and cooking up a batch of homemade beef stock. Last fall, I picked up my beef order and stuck the large brown paper bags into the freezer. Once I found the hamburger bag and the steak bag, I didn’t bother to open the rest until a few weeks ago when I discovered, to my delight, soup bones. Soup bones! Could I learn to make my own beef stock? Why not!

This morning I cut up some onion, celery, and carrots and put them in the bottom of a stock pot with a couple of bay leaves, some peppercorns, and a sprinkling of dried parsley. I then roasted a meaty soup bone in a 400 degree oven for thirty minutes, pried the bone off the bottom of the roasting pan, and placed it in with the veggies.

Covering the whole mess with some water, I set the pot to simmering on the stove. My whole house smells divine. In a couple of hours, I will be able to strain the stock, skim the fat off the top, add some stew meat and potatoes and carrots and more celery and maybe a can of stewed tomatoes and have myself a fine evening meal.

Baby Arugula Thinnings

In the meantime, I moseyed out to the garden to have a look at my cool-weather crops–the arugula, claytonia, and mache beds. The arugula needed thinning, so I now have a nice bowl of baby greens to go in a salad this evening.

No matter how grim the news in the outside world, there is always something to celebrate and enjoy if you take the time to look around you. Lilacs, for instance. Arugula, for instance.

Coffee with a friend. A favorite book. A special meal. A short nap. A brisk walk. What pleasures have you enjoyed today . . . Outside the Box?

Money Talks

Handknit Felted Purse

Dear Reader:

I thought it was about time to talk a little bit about money. With the holiday shopping season upon us, it might be good to remind ourselves that money doesn’t a)grow on trees b)come cheap or c)come with no strings attached. In order to get money, you either have to earn it or borrow it. If you borrow it, you have to pay it back within a certain period of time and you have to pay extra in the form of interest. A basic rule of economics is that unless you like those nasty strings and expensive interest, you shouldn’t spend more than you earn. We Americans have trouble with that concept apparently, both at the personal and the national level. It’s no secret. We are in serious debt.

The National Debt
When Bill Clinton left office in January 2000, we had managed to balance the federal budget. Oh, we still had debt, but we were no longer adding to that debt. After 9/11, however, our spending increased as we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, our revenues in the form of taxes were decreased–three tax cuts were initiated even as we were increasing our military and other spending. This fiscal policy greatly increased our debt. According to the Department of Treasury, Bureau of Public Debt, on January 1, 2000 the national debt was 5.7 trillion dollars. By 2008 it had ballooned to 9.2 trillion dollars. This was during the “reign” of a supposed fiscal conservative!

Personal Debt
It’s hard to point fingers at our leaders when we are just as guilty when it comes to our own fiscal responsibility. According to Credit.com, Americans now have a revolving debt balance total of $972,494,000. While some statistics put the average credit card holder in debt of upwards of $8,000, this particular website claims that the median balance is $2,200 which really doesn’t sound all that bad. What it tells me is that if we simply bought less stuff, we could easily pay off our credit cards debt and then–gasp–maybe even begin to save some money. If we don’t begin to be fiscally responsible individually AND as a country, we are going to be in big trouble in the coming decades. Let’s talk about why.

An Informative Documentary
This morning, I watched a documentary film called I.O.U.S.A. Slanted neither to the left or right politically, this excellent film directed by Patrick Creadon explained how our country’s budgets have changed over time, the amount of debt we have taken on and when, what a balanced budget really means, how federal debt relates to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), why and how so much of our debt is owned by foreign countries (Japan, China, etc.), how the trade deficit impacts the monetary supply, the difference between fiscal policy and monetary policy, how much debt we really are in (when you count in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits we will begin paying out as the Baby Boomers reach retirement age), and more. Click HERE to go the the I.O.U.S.A. website where you can view a 30-minute version of the film and find stats and other information of interest.

So, how did we get into this fiscal mess? Looking back at history, it seems that most of our debt has been incurred during times of war. Wars cost money. Lots of money. The War for Independence put our fledgling nation into debt right off the bat. We managed to pay down that debt. Then the Civil War plunged us into debt. We paid that down, too. World Wars I and II were huge money-suckers. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing us hundreds of billions of dollars.

Wars are not the only debt-producers, however. In the 1930’s we spent our way out of the Great Depression by instituting social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Until now, these programs have actually brought in more revenue than we’ve spent, making the fiscal deficit appear smaller than it really is. According to a treasury website, today’s debt is $11,991,506,876,413.07. But this figure does not include the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid dollars we actually used to help balance the budget rather than saved for when the Baby Boomers retire. According to the writers of I.O.U.S.A. if we added in the entire debt owed in 2008, the amount would be $53,000,000,000!

Stop Paying for . . . what?
Some of us believe that simply ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will allow us to balance our budget, but the war is only 4.7% of our budget spending. Some of us believe that getting rid of earmarks and “pork-barrel” spending will solve the problem, but that only accounts for 1.27% of the budget. To see a pie chart of the 2009 budget, click here.

According to this chart, much of our budget is taken up by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment/welfare, and interest on the national debt. If you are my age (forty-ish) or younger, you probably don’t expect to ever see Social Security or Medicare benefits, but the generations ahead of us certainly do expect to keep on getting their benefits. Unemployment benefits have been pretty important for Americans who have lost their jobs to outsourcing and the scaling back of businesses due to the housing bubble in our economy. The interest owed on our debt in probably non-negotiable. Every year as our deficit increases, our debt increases, and that pesky interest obligation will take up a bigger chunk of our pie. And just imagine what the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid portions will look like when the Boomers start retiring in earnest.

What about revenues, you ask? We must be bringing something in. Yes, you are right. Revenues come in to the federal budget through taxation–and don’t we all just love taxes? But even with what some consider a huge tax burden, the expenditures in our budget outweigh the revenues by billions of dollars. Revenues for 2009 were estimated at 2.7 trillion while expenditures were estimated at 3.1 trillion, according to stats provided by the U.S. Government printing office and posted on Wikipedia. (click here for the site.)

An Informative Book
So, if expenditures are so much greater than revenue, where does the government get the funds to cover the costs? By borrowing. The government sells bonds–more and more often to foreign governments like China–or exchanges bonds for money to be issued by the Federal Reserve. I’ve been reading about the latter in a very compelling book entitled THE WEB OF DEBT researched and written by Ellen Hodgson Brown, J.D. Click HERE to read an excerpt and learn more about the book.

Did you know the Federal Reserve Bank is not owned by the U.S. Government? I didn’t. The Fed is an independent privately-owned corporation which creates and issues money at the government’s request. The government does the printing, but the bank issues the money on credit–with interest that must be paid back. There are twelve regional Federal Reserve banks which are owned by a bunch of commercial banks. Each of these twelve regional banks own a percentage of stock in the Federal Reserve System. At the time of the books printing, New York was the largest of these and held 53%–the commercial banks that owned this New York Fed Reserve bank were Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan, and Citibank. (WEB OF DEBT, page 127.)

In any case, the U.S. government (hence, we taxpayers) asks the Federal Reserve Bank to create money that will enter the economy. The creation of money is regulated by the Fed, not the government. The government does appoint the chairperson (for many years this was Alan Greenspan) whose job it is to run the Federal Reserve System and to set the interest rates. The money the U.S. government borrows, is to be paid back, with interest, to the Federal Reserve Bank. The commercial banks who own stocks in the Fed, profit. The stockholders of the commercial banks as well as the executives of these banks, profit in the form of stock increases and bonuses. Wealth, in the form of interest, thus flows from the taxpayer to the banks to the investors in those banks. Your taxes are funneled toward rich investors via national borrowing. When those investors are foreign countries–say, China–our taxes help enrich a foreign nation whose political system may be in direct opposition to our own. This is to say nothing about our trade deficit with said countries. Isn’t this interesting?

(I’m thinking that at least with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Unemployment, and Welfare at least the money goes back to Americans. If we’d just buy American-made goods, we’d keep our money right here at home where it belongs. But that’s just my opinion.)

I am only about a third of the way into this book. As I learn more, I will pass along the information, but you don’t need to take it from me. Read the book yourself. Watch the movie. Search our other sources of information. A bi-partisan group called the Concord Coalition fights hard for fiscal responsibility. Check out their website HERE.

Stop Fighting Each Other
One thing I am taking away from all this research is that all of us–liberal and conservative alike–are being used by big money, big government, and big business. I believe we are being played against one another, like pit bulls put into a ring to fight it out while the handlers profit. A pit bull only wants to eat and sleep and live his doggy life. He is forced into a fight because someone else controls him, someone who is attempting to profit off him. The “enemy” pit bull wants the same things and is put into the same position. In the end, neither the progressive nor the conservative dog wins. Each comes away bruised, ripped, and bleeding . . . or dead. Meanwhile, the handlers collect the wagers and go home smiling.

By pitting “Libertarians” against “Progressives”, the big money interests can wheel-and-deal in the shadows while we are focused on ripping and tearing into each other. We fight about government regulation, income taxes, welfare, healthcare reform, the wars on terror, drugs, and illegal immigration while all the while the bankers and the power-mongers quietly gather vast amounts of money and influence. At least, that’s how I’m beginning to see things here . . . Outside the Box.

Getting The Lead Out

Dear Reader:

I was going to write about homemade, non-toxic cleaning products today, but my housekeeping aversion seems to be seeping like chemical solvent run-off into my virtual blogworld . . . I don’t even feel like WRITING about cleaning!

Lucky for me, then, that Yahoo posted an Associated Press story on ammunition shortages here in the good old U.S.A., and I was saved from waxing poetic about non-toxic tiolet-bowl cleaner. In “America Armed, But Guns Not Necessarily Loaded”, AP reporter Mary Foster writes that supplies of ammunition are running low, manufacturers can’t keep up with demand, and even Wal-Mart has imposed quotas on the amount of ammo a person can buy at one time.

Americans are on an bullet-buying spree. My question is . . . why?

What are we so afraid of that we are laying in a home supply of weaponry and ammuntion that could satisfy the requirements of a military outpost? Are we overreacting to some half-perceived, shadowy threat looming in the near future? Has paranoia overtaken good old common sense? Or are there some legitimate reasons for stocking up on lead . . . and rifles . . . and handguns?

The munitions grab appears to be at least partially politically motivated. According to the AP article, sales of guns and ammunition spike whenever a Democrat is elected to office. Democrats are seen by the pro-gun contingent as a grave threat to our Constitutional right to bear arms.

In general, the more liberal politicians in our society do tend to be in favor of stronger gun-control laws as means of keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals. Allied with and lobbied by citizen organizations like the Brady Campaign’s Million Mom March, these lawmakers believe that stronger regulations, background checks, and banning of certain types of weapons will keep us safer.

The “pro-gun” organizations and lobbiests and conservative politicians counter that gun-control laws only manage to keep guns out of the hands of the law-abiding citizens . . . not the hands of the criminals.

The National Rifle Association has created a slick bit of propaganda entitled “GunBanObama.” The NRA states that “Barack Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history.” Click HERE to link to the NRA page. At 4 million members, the NRA is a powerful and influential organization whose aim is to protect citizens’ right to bear arms. Though non-partisan, the NRA’s stance on gun control issues tends to appeal to the more conservative members of our society just as the Brady Campaign appeals to the more liberal.

Our country is divided on the issue, and both sides are more than able to provide compelling arguments and statistics to defend their stance. Both sides have valid points. It’s always been my contention that when in doubt, err on the side of the greatest freedom for the individual and the least interference by big government. However, when people fail to act–or act responsibly–then government must step in. Are we at that kind of crossroads in our society today? I’m not sure. Nobody is sure. And that is the problem.

So, what has President Obama actually said regarding gun laws? In an interview in 2008 when he was running for office, Obama said, “I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’ve got a tradition of handgun ownership and gun ownership generally. And a lot of law-abiding citizens use it for hunting, for sportsmanship, and for protecting their families. We also have a violence on the streets that is the result of illegal handgun usage. And so I think there is nothing wrong with a community saying we are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets. And cracking down on the various loopholes that exist in terms of background checks for children, the mentally ill. We can have reasonable, thoughtful gun control measure that I think respect the Second Amendment and people’s traditions.” (http://www.ontheissues.org/Archive/2008_Politico_Gun_Control.htm)

Sounds reasonable to me. However, what politicians say and what politicians do are often very different things altogether. It is not surprising, then, that 2nd Amendment activists, deer hunters, gun collectors and the like are concerned–perhaps rightfully so–about what legislation a liberal-leaning President might sign in the years ahead. They figure they better get their guns and ammo while the getting is good. Hence, more sales.

Four million NRA members is not insignificant, but even those numbers of people worried about anti-gun legislation cannot account for the serious decrease in ammunition supply. According to another AP story, this one found on FoxNews, some police departments are having a difficult time finding ammunition for training. This is a direct result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where the military uses up tons of ammunition in their fight against the insurgent and terrorist forces in those countries. Does a lack of adequate training lead to a less effective police force? Does a less effective police force lead to more criminal activity? Does heightened criminal activity lead to citizen insecurity? Does citizen insecurity lead to an increase in handgun and bullet sales?

Perhaps average citizens are right to be worried. A year ago, our economy imploded, and while “experts” tell us we are now out of recession, unemployment is creeping up toward ten percent–something we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. People are worried about their jobs, worried about being able to pay their mortages, worried about putting food on the table and paying the pharmacist and holding onto their retirement funds.

Fringe groups are sputtering about the crash of civilization. Some of the previously-hidden weak spots in our society, such as our dependence on cheap, easy to procure oil energy, have been exposed. Survivalists and self-sufficiency experts advocate the stockpiling of ammunition and weapons along with water-purification systems, canned foods, and emergency first-aid supplies in preparation for the coming Apolcalypse. In a worst-case scenario, complete societal collapse would happen quickly, leading to chaos and anarchy. I suppose in that case, a bunch of rounds and some weapons in good working order would be helpful. I’m hoping for a slower, gentler return to a lower-energy world. I haven’t bought myself a gun. Yet.

The thing is, in many communities, crime is already on the rise. We had a rash of breaking and entering in our neighborhood over the summer and again last week. Twice the sheriff’s department parked in our driveway and asked us to keep an eye out for suspects. Since I work at home and come and go in an erratic pattern, our home has been spared so far, but I’m feeling less secure about going away on overnight trips. I’m even more worried about someone breaking in while I’m home and vulnerable. I resent having to worry about this and empathize with those who feel safer with a trusty weapon near at hand.

America was born with the smell of gunpowder in her nostrils. In 1776, Patriots (colonists, not linebackers) grabbed their firearms, banded into militias, formed an army, and took on the Redcoats. Later, the image of the mountain man, coonskin cap on his head and rifle cradled securely in his arm, took root in the American cultural consciousness. Decades of American children have played “cowboys and Indians” and “cops and robbers” all the while conjuring the shiny gun (or sharpened arrow) as part of the imaginative play. Gunfights at the Wild West Saloon or the O.K. Corral or the Prohibition Speakeasy made for exciting pulp fiction stories and cinema magic. Later, television brought us detective and police shows like Hawaii Five-O, Magnum PI, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, and today’s numerous CSI’s. Rap music, too, glorifies the gun. Thus, guns are intricately woven into the cultural tapestry here in America.

It’s no wonder, then, that when the going gets tough, Americans go for the lead. We were suckled on it. But is it the only way? Is it the best way? Might there be better solutions to the issues facing us?

I don’t know. I’d like to think that we could get to know our neighbors and form crime watch groups. I’d like to think that we would watch out for each other, share what we have with those who need it rather than wait for them to become desperate enough to steal from us. I’d like to think we could wean ourselves from dependence on a giant, convoluted, impersonal economy and embrace, instead, a human-scale economy based on local production and consumption of goods and services. I’d like to see local agriculture take root again, so we are not enslaved to a fuel-dependent food system. I’d like to see our community bonds strengthened by the ties of local work and local play, so that criminal elements find themselves in an inhospitable environment–not looking down the barrel of one lone homeowner’s gun but rather at the collective defenses of an entire community.

But that’s just me. What do you think?

Short Post: Listen to Program #2–Small Towns and Cities

I’m not a big one for podcasts, but stumbled onto James Howard Kunstler’s online radio program the other day and recommend it for anyone who is interested in the future of our cities, town, and rural areas. (Click on the green link and the page should come up. Scroll down and you’ll see a black podcast player with a list of episodes.)

James Kunstler is a journalist/novelist who has spent the past few decades observing and commenting on what he calls the “Happy Motoring” Suburban American life. Kunstler is funny, articulate, and I believe dead on when it comes to the future of our society. To get you started, I recommend scrolling down to the #2 program on the site–“Small Towns and Cities.”

Thinking . . . Small?

Smart Car

Smart Car

Dear Reader:

Most of us were brought up to “think big.” We were encouraged to strive for the best grades, the best position on the basketball team, an acceptance letter from the biggest and best university, the most prestigious job with a big company, big paychecks and bigger raises, and “trading up” from starter home to McMansion. As adults, we compare ourselves to our neighbors and friends to see who has the larger diamond engagement ring, the nicer SUV, the most professional landscaping, and the better clothing labels. We feel cheated and depressed when someone has more than we do. We are brainwashed to want more, no matter how much we already have, and we are never really satisfied.

We are told this is the American Way.

Has “thinking big” worked for us? Sure. We’ve made huge strides in medicine and science. We’ve enjoyed a high standard of living. We’ve reveled in great personal freedom. Has all this made us happy? Sort of.

Science Daily reported a story on the relatively new “Map of Happiness” created by Adrian White, a social psychologist at the University of Leicester. White used data from UNESCO, the CIA, and other sources to rank countries according to self-reported happiness and satisfaction with life. The results showed that happiness seems to be related to three primary factors: health, wealth, and access to education. The United States ranked 23rd. Denmark ranked 1st. Canada ranked 10th. Great Britain came in at 41.

I guess we aren’t doing too bad.

When it comes right down to it, money does make you happier . . . up to a point. David R. Francis reports on the following conclusions from a study by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald for the National Bureau for Economic Research (http://www.nber.org/digest/jan06/w11416.html):

1. For a person, money does buy a reasonable amount of happiness. But it is useful to keep this in perspective. Very loosely, for the typical individual, a doubling of salary makes a lot less difference than life events like marriage.

2. Nations as a whole, at least in the West, do not seem to get happier as they get richer.

3. Happiness is U-shaped in age – that is, it falls off for a while, then stabilizes, and rises later in life. Women report higher well-being than men. Two of the biggest negatives in life are unemployment and divorce. More educated people report higher levels of happiness, even after taking account of income.

4. At least in industrial countries such as France, Britain, and Australia, the structure of a happiness equation looks the same.

5. There is adaptation. Good and bad life events wear off – at least partially – as people get used to them.

6. Comparisons matter a great deal. Reported well being depends on a person’s wage relative to an average or “comparison” wage. Wage inequality depresses reported happiness in a region or nation. But the effect is not large.

According to these analyses, some wealth is necessary for happiness. The countries with the greater wealth tended to be higher on the happiness scale, though not in direct proportion. Money provides for basic necessities like shelter, food, and clothing. Money buys us greater autonomy in lifestyle choices. It is important to remember that health and access to education were also important factors. So, a country with less money than the U.S. can raise the happiness level of its citizens by providing health care and education, even if it doesn’t raise the overall GDP of the country. These factors probably launched Denmark to spot #1. Here in America, we’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a great abundance of wealth. It’s made us pretty happy.

So what happens when the money runs out? Are we doomed to unhappiness?

The economy is still staggering from the housing market bubble of 2008. Looking ahead, we see that energy costs are bound to go up. Workers have been laid off, people are losing their houses and their health insurance. It seems entirely possible that for the first time in our history, the younger generations will have less than the ones which came before. The question is, can we still be happy, even with less? If happiness is somewhat dependent on comparisons, could we learn to compare factors other than wealth?

By thinking small, could we actually live big?

It isn’t as if this is a new concept. Henry David Thoreau experimented with voluntary simplicity. In Walden, he wrote:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”–Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

At Walden Pond, Thoreau chose to live in a small cabin and to write about his experiences. Today, some enterprising architects are also thinking small when it comes to housing.

One of my favorite websites to visit is the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I first heard about it from my friend, Jenny, and I’ve been intrigued ever since. These houses are truly tiny–65 to 837 square feet. Take a look at them here. The smallest of them can be built on wheels and parked like an RV. They are engineered down to fractions of inches so that the spaces are marvelously functional. The architect/builder Jay Shafer, lives in an 89 square foot house with built-in shelves, a sleeping loft, a bathroom that IS the shower, and even a small, propane fireplace!

Jay says, “The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.”

A luxury!

The tiny Tumbleweed Houses are cheaper to build or buy, are cheaper to heat, and they are mobile–all of which means greater autonomy and security for the owner.

Speaking of mobility, do we really need large automobiles to make us feel successful and happy? Legroom is a concern for many of us Americans. We are big people and seem to be getting bigger all the time. According to a study found in the American Center for Disease Control, men and women have gained 24 pounds on average since 1960 and have grown an extra inch in height. For those of us who are on the smaller side, however, a small car might be just as satisfying as a big, awkward SUV. Take the SmartCar, for example. It can fit into tight parking spaces, gets 46.3 miles per gallon in the city and 68.9 miles per gallon on the highway, and it’s cute!

Of course, if you live in the city, you could probably save yourself many headaches by not owning a car at all. Fewer headaches equals greater happiness in my book.

Unfortunately, I live out in the country. One of my goals for the summer is to try riding my bicycle to the grocery store in town rather than driving the red behemoth Ford F-150 I’ve been driving ever since my 1992 Escort became scrap metal this winter. If you happen to be driving toward the market, I’ll be the geek with the day-glo orange flag on the back of my bike. Please observe the speed limit, and for God’s sake, stay off your cell phone while you drive!

Perhaps the key to happiness is being more aware of what makes us truly happy. If our basic needs–shelter, food, clothing, education, and healthcare–are met, what’s to stop us from being happy with less stuff, smaller houses, and more fuel-efficient cars? Perhaps if we stopped comparing ourselves to our neighbors, we’d be happier with what we already have instead of feeling somehow “lesser.” Take a moment to think about what truly makes you happy . . . not just for the short term but over time. I bet it isn’t your house or your car.

I feel fortunate to live here in the United States where my basic needs are met and then some. As the economy slows and energy costs rise, we will need to continue to be thankful for those basics and perhaps learn to do with fewer of the extras that in the end, are really nothing more than notches on a measuring stick. Like Thoreau, we can perhaps try to live more deliberately. Like Jay Shafer, we can learn to enjoy the luxury of a simpler, slower lifestyle. In the future, thinking small may be the key to living large.

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Socks

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Sock

Peak(oil)-A-Boo Sock

Dear Reader:

So the strawberry jam didn’t happen as planned last week. We’ve had rain, and when it wasn’t raining, I was volunteering somewhere or going to a school function or a homeowner’s association meeting. Though I do not earn a paycheck these days, I find my life full of good and useful work. I reshelve books at the elementary school and public libraries here in town. I serve on the Community Garden Committee in my homeowner’s association. I cook the meals, wash the dishes, clean the laundry, drive the child to bus and appointments, organize social events for the family, keep up with a couple online/offline mother’s groups, and attend and work at Parent/Teacher Club events. This year I even donated a knit handbag to the Historical Society penny auction. I’ve been a Girl Scout leader, a class mother, and a chaperone on many a field trip, but, alas, my income tax return showed a big fat zero next to my name in the earnings column. As far as the U.S. governement is concerned, my work doesn’t count.

Since I’m past my thirties, I don’t much care anymore what people (or IRS accountants) think about my earnings-challenged lifestyle. Much. It’s only when someone asks me at a party or upon introduction “So, what do you do?” that I feel a little bit inadequate–if not as a human being, then as a party guest. It’s something to do with the way the conversation comes to an abrupt and embarrassing dead-end when I tell them I’m a stay-at-home mom and library volunteer. I suspect this is a lower and middle-class problem. If I were planning $500 a seat fundraisers instead of pricing used items at the school tag sale, I’d probably generate a little more interest. If I were an heiress–or the wife of a gadzillionaire–I’d doubtless be much more interesting even if I never opened my mouth all night long. Money, as we all know, talks.

In any case, not having inherited a fortune or married Bill Gates, I’ve learned to quickly turn the conversation back toward the person next to me by saying in my sweetest voice, “Anyway, enough about me. What do YOU do?” The relief is evident. The party goes on.

When it comes to volunteering, I’m heartened by Sharon Astyk’s 2009 book, DEPLETION AND ABUNDANCE.

In her book, Astyk spends a chapter talking about the “informal economy” and how more and more Americans may find themselves moving into a lifestyle more like, well, mine. Where I am practicing voluntary depletion, however, many others could be forced into an economically-challenged situation by the global realities of a Peak Oil world. Astyk, concerned about the large “footprint” of the average American, decided to cut her use of energy by something like 90%–and she challenged others to do the same. Her blog Casaubon’s Book follows her continuing adventures in voluntary simplicity.

If Sharon Astyk, with her PhD in literature, can be content staying home, raising children and livestock while continuing to work on her writing projects (which includes her respected blog and published books), then so can I–minus the livestock.

Instead of raising chickens or goats, I knit, since that is unlikely to disturb the neighbors or get me in trouble with the homeowner’s association. This week I tried my hand at sock-making . . . pedicure socks in particular. These socks are useful when you want to wear a pair of flip-flops or thong-style sandals and show off your pretty pedicure. In the spring or fall, you could wear these to the spa and put them on right before the polish is applied, saving your feet from the chill and your polish from getting smeared. (I don’t know what you do about polish-smearing in the winter.) I’ve had exactly one professional pedicure in my life, but something about these socks appealed to me. I used up a lone skein of yarn that had been sitting in my knitting basket for a couple of years and spent a few challenging hours learning how to turn heels.

One sock came out floppier than the other. I ran out of yarn on the second sock and had to bind it off with a scrap of different yarn. However, I learned a new pattern and have started a second pair–in cotton this time–using another skein of yarn leftover from an earlier project. If you’d like to try these yourself, the pattern can be found on Knitty.com. These cute pedicure socks will make fun gifts for the nieces and friends in the coming year, so I intend to make a slew of them out of my leftover yarn–saving money and reducing my cabon footprint at the same time.

When it suits its purpose, even the U.S. government has been known to advocate voluntary simplicity. During WWII, when raw materials and food were needed for the war effort, propaganda campaigns created posters and slogans advocating reduction in consumption.
Use It Up Poster 1943 (I found this poster image at Texas Star Books. The poster sells for $195. Enough said.

Back then, our government told us it was patriotic to use and buy less. What a difference from today when our government tells us that the patriotic thing to do is spend, spend, spend. Ironic, eh? This seeming paradox of spending ourselves out of economic disaster makes sense only when you consider that capitalism is based on growth. When you invest your money, you expect to get that money back plus interest, right? Let’s say you invest in a company that makes . . . socks. The company has to sell enough socks to to pay your money back to you, plus the interest, plus cover all the costs of doing business–payroll, raw materials, energy inputs, insurance, etc. If you want to get your money back with interest, then, you have to hope that everyone goes out and buys scads of socks this quarter.

This is, of course, a simplification of a very complex system, but the root of capitalism is growth. We’ve been encouraged to spend, not save. We’ve been bullied into playing the stock market, working more hours than we should, buying more than we need, using more natural resources than is wise, buying oversized cars and mega-sized houses, changing fashion styles every season–all so the economy would grow. Now, I won’t go into who REALLY wins in this particular game, but it isn’t you and me. We were promised a nice, fat retirement if we put our money into 401K’s and IRA’s rather than paying off our credit cards at the end of the month. Now the house of cards has fallen, the housing market scam has collapsed, our investments have taken a dive, and guess what? If we haven’t reached peak oil production yet, we soon will, and then the fun will really start. Our economy runs on oil–cheap oil–and when the yields start to go down and the prices start to go up, growth will slow even further.

At least, this is what the Peak Oil activists and experts tell us. They could be wrong. I encourage you to research for yourself.

You would think I’d be depressed, believing as I do that our hyper-driven, mega-pixel, high-definition, overabundant life is in jeapardy. I do have my moments, of course, but I also see some good things ahead in a lower-carbon world. More time spent with family and friends. Less concern over being “in-style.” More nutritious, locally-grown food. Vibrant, local communities. Craftmanship instead of crappy goods produced in an overseas sweatshop. Live entertainment rather than electronically-delivered entertainment.

I, for one, would be just as happy to write on a piece of paper instead of a laptop.

The point I’m trying to make is that voluntary reduction in energy and other resources is preferable to an involuntary crash of our entire system. This is Sharon Astyk’s point, as well. Though some of us may be more naturally geared toward a use-it-up, wear-it-out lifestyle (my mother despairs of my ever having matching furniture), we can all find some small ways to make do with what we have rather than going out to the mall for something new. Instead of paying the ridiculous costs of a movie-theater ticket, play charades with your family . . . or if you’re really ambitious, organize a community theater production. Instead of buying a new pair of sandals, make do with the five or six pairs taking up room in your closet. Sew a new set of buttons on your shirt instead of throwing it away. Take a stay-cation instead of a vacation. Visit your local consignment shop. Consider bartering rather than buying. Visit the library rather than Borders. Learn to brew homemade beer (this would be a fun activity for spouses to work on together). Pick up a couple of needles, unravel an old sweater, and ask a friend to teach you how to knit. Go for a walk after dinner instead of plunking down in front of the advertisement delivery system . . . errr, television.

Take a first step toward energy and economic independence.

Do you have some good tips on how to reduce, re-use, or recycle? Drop me a line . . . Outside the Box.