Sunday, November 21, 2010
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, "See who is in there with you and celebrate. . .
We are the ones we have been waiting for."
The concept is enigmatic, but with the current energetics shift underway, also very appropriate for discussion. The term was coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962), and he suggests that they occur when scientists encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. Take quantum mechanics (QM), for example, which is a branch of theoretical physics that doesn't conform to Newtonian principles. Whether or not QM ever amounts to anything more than a fascinating rumination, it does indeed represent a paradigm shift. A new physical construct had to be developed to explain the behavior of the quantum world.
So let's apply the concept to peak oil and our future as a species here on Earth. What would constitute a legitimate paradigm shift in this case? As with most questions of this nature, it is instructive to first further refine the implications of a paradigm shift, and then to define just what exactly our current/previous one is or was.
The paradigm, in Kuhn's view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. Take for example the idea of slavery. In the 18th century it was considered "liberal" to oppose slavery, whereas in the 21st century it is considered barbaric not to. This is a pretty big deal. The idea that one human has the right to capture and enslave another, by whatever means necessary, for his own energetic benefit is not just outmoded, it's inconceivable to most modern industrial humans. This constitutes a major shift in worldview, and by extension, a paradigm shift. But was it a genuine paradigm shift, or merely a new moral high-ground gladly settled on by people who had mastered better techniques for energy exploitation? I think it's curious that the immense energetic value of oil was discovered in the 1850s, just before the great debate over slavery was settled the following decade. To extrapolate that line of logic back a bit farther, did the areas of the U.S. and Britain that produced coal, another immense form of fossil energy, also produce anti-slavery sentiment? If coal was mined in the south instead of the north, might the Civil War have been pressed on the Yankees by southern liberators? Is it easier to give up the energetic advantage of human slavery when there is a technological replacement that is free of the fear and loathing that must've registered in every slaveholders mind? And not only a replacement, but a superior technology to boot! Too easy.
So we're forced to re-evaluate our perception of a legitimate paradigm shift concerning human slavery, and replace it with the less-gratifying concept that we merely found an exponentially better way to enslave energy for our desires. The game-changing energy derived from coal and then oil made it easy. Slavery became an obsolete technology. At least in the first world. The question of whether we will return to slavery in an energy descent world immediately comes to mind. And while I'd like to think that we have truly outgrown such atrocities in the last century and a half, the logical answer to me is yes, of course we will. When it is energetically advantageous to do so.
Moreover, did we really ever leave it behind? Don't we still exist in a world where covert slavery is acceptable, so long as it's not the classical whipped and chained Africans on the southern cotton plantation image before us? I can't count how many times Americans, when confronted with the sweat shop labor argument, have offered an explanation to the effect of "well, at least we're providing them with jobs!" Right, like several millennia of exquisite Chinese civilization depended on them making plastic toys for us. Is five bucks and a bowl of rice a day really any different from slavery? The ugly truth of it is that buying cheap goods made in the third world condones the modern day version of slavery. And it's "over there" because the practice would never fly within our borders. We're too guilty to look it in the eye. Slavery didn't disappear, we just outsourced it and moved on to something better.
So if we're starting to question the existence of genuine paradigm shifts in the thought patterns of industrial culture, what might we expect to constitute a legitimate one? The Aquarian New Age movement might have the answer, right? I mean, paradigm shifting is their piece de resistance, isn't it? So let's take a look then. What does the New Age offer us?
As I understand them, the tenets of the New Age are as follows:
1)Monism - All is One. Dr. Bronner's favorite. Everything and everyone is interrelated and interdependent.
2)Pantheism - All is god. Every living and non-living object in the universe contains within it a spark of the divine.
3)If all is one and all is god, then we are god. Therefore all of humanity is ignorant of its own divinity, and a major goal of the New Age movement is to discover that divinity.
4)We discover our own divinity through a change in consciousness.
5)Reincarnation - we achieve our divine potential through a series of lives spent bettering ourselves.
6)Moral relativism - all religions are true, and there are many paths to god.
Some of these concepts seem so self-evident that only the most myopic religious fundamentalists could argue. For instance, the idea that we are all interrelated and interconnected is, from an ecological point of view, practically set in stone. I might also offer that pantheism could just as easily be described as "none is god" as it is "all is god." If we are all interrelated and interconnected, then each and every facet of the whole plays a crucial role, but certainly doesn't require divinity. This is easy enough to visualize as mineral deposits contributing their elements to biological systems that function with said elements as limiting factors to growth. For example, without the phosphates trickling down the watershed from the surrounding rocky hillsides, the plants that support the food chain couldn't flourish. Likewise, without healthy plant communities, the resident animals wouldn't survive for very long. To promote an animal consumer like Homo sapiens to a position of ordained stewardship is to not understand much about food chains. Without the primary producers and decomposers our reign as king would be short indeed. It's just as accurate to consider fungal decomposers the stewards of the system, ordained or otherwise. We'd be up to our necks in detritus pretty quickly without their tireless breakdown of recalcitrant organic molecules. But a mycocentric view of the system is no more appropriate than a human-centered one. All system functions are equally important - producer, consumer, decomposer; therefore either all are god, or none are god, but all are the same for sure.
Number 3 in the list represents my main argument against the idea that New Age philosophy represents a legitimate paradigm shift. If we are all becoming gods, or slowly waking up to the idea that we always have been, then we are still riding an expansionary train of thought. According to this reasoning it seems logical to add a fourth way of being to the old "savagery, barbary, civilization" progressivist party line: deism. Where we transcend the corporeal toil of our lowly position as animals within Earth's biosphere. From barbarian to citizen to demi-god, expanding all the way. Where's the paradigm shift?
Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for increased self-awareness and spiritual betterment, but just as coal and oil gave us a way to disdain our lowly status as slave-holders without actually having to endure a real shift in worldview, New Age philosophy continues that logical course by allowing us to disdain our lowly position as mere humans, confined by physical and natural law. This is merely the next geometric expansion of a 10,000 year old march through increasing abundance.
But increasing abundance can't last forever. What goes up must come down. Now that we've shined the light of reason on some of the past and future misconceptions about what constitutes a genuine game-changing paradigm shift, we're left with the increasingly irritating question of what one truly is!
Into that question steps the answer we're all here to discuss: global energy peak. When oil production peaked in 2006 (according to the International Energy Agency, not just some peak oil doomers) those of us in the expansionary first world were confronted with our first view of a new way of being. Permanent energy descent and economic contraction, a more or less perpetual bear. Going back to the definition that opened the essay, contraction will present science, and everyone else on the growth track, an increasing number of anomalies that can't be explained by the previously accepted worldview. Nature behaves quite differently in a contractionary phase than it does in an expansionary one. The mother of all paradigm shifts lies before us, and I, as well as many of my readers, are just starting to come to grips with the gravity of the situation. Talking about comprehensive worldview shifts, energy descent will demand bottoms-up revolutions in every facet of our existence, from agriculture to politics, and religion to gender relations. Food chains will grow steadily shorter. Biodiversity will increase, perhaps even sparking an evolutionary flowering event. And relationships among the players in that contracting system will become more cooperative. Fighting over expanding energy resources made sense, and was actually ecologically adaptive, in our growth paradigm, but energy descent will reset the table on every matter we think we understand. With less to fight over, we will begin to understand that our strength lies in ever more local and cooperative arrangements, and, counter to the segregation and specialization of growth, the humble generalist will inherit the earth.
It's a truly fascinating time to be alive! Dangerous or not, I wouldn't trade it for any other period of history.
Monday, November 8, 2010
But back to potatoes first.
What a beautiful plant the potato is to see growing in your garden! It's an obvious member of the Solanaceae family, the nightshades, with a flower reminiscent of an eggplant's. Some tomatoes, like the Brandywine, are commonly dubbed "potato leaved" varieties, and that makes plenty of sense once you see these babies growing. But where tomatoes and eggplants play their cards out in the open, harvesting potatoes is far more like opening presents on Christmas morning! Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. There are few joys in the garden like turning up a pile of hidden spuds at the end of the potato season. One pound of seed potatoes yields roughly 10 pounds of calorie-dense, protein-dense tubers that can keep all winter in the root cellar (or in the ground if you prefer!). Matter of fact, potatoes produce more calories per acre than any other crop. And if you've grown them yourself, you'll know why it's worth the effort! And all you have to do to repeat the joy of growing potatoes next year is set aside a bucket of the small ones to plant the following spring. No reason to ever buy that variety again.
But make sure you rotate their location in the garden. Pest pressure can be nightmarish in the potato patch. Leaving them in the same place year after year is a sure recipe for pest build-up and reduced yield. The picture above shows my potato patch, the lush leafy green ring dotted with white and pink flowers, in Washington two years ago. Had I stayed in this garden, the patch would have been moved out to the next ring the following season. Potatoes also tend to revert back to their wild form after staying in the ground for a few years, becoming woody and less palatable. If not, they would easily be the undisputed number one crop on Earth!
Saturday, November 6, 2010
"Interesting thought Tripp, but what makes you think that a world with a lot less energy would necessarily devolve into decentralized tribalism?"
And here is my response:
Here's why: because according to widely accepted anthropological findings, about 150 people is the maximum number of folks any one person can keep up with - names, occupation, family relations, etc. At this level, which is basically the tribal level, societies are self-regulating. That is, everyone knows everyone, and is therefore accountable to everyone. It is in one man's interest not to kill another man because he would be found out and dealt with accordingly. You can't get away with much at the tribal level of organization.
Let's think of this as a comparison of food chains, tribes representing the shortest food chain that we are likely to see in such a highly populated world. Band organization is probably distant history for the most part.
So in that tribe of less than 150 people, there is no need for policemen, lawyers, judges, or even a chief, no kleptocrats whatsoever actually. Everyone is involved in acquiring food, even the "big man." Which is not a hereditary title, but conveyed solely on the merit of personal character. In ecological terms, kleptocrats represent parasites on the production system. That is, they are not directly involved in food production, and so have to be fed by the labors of other members of society. Ostensibly in return for a service of equal or greater value. Ostensibly.
Which takes us to the chiefdom level of societal organization. Because there are now roughly several thousand citizens at this level of political organization, they can't possibly know and respect everyone in the society, so 3rd-party arbitrators need to be employed - the police, lawyers, and so forth. Another layer of organization, another link in the food chain, but this time it's a new apex consumer class preying on the producing class below, and, because of typical and quantifiable energy loss to metabolic inefficiencies, every link up the food chain requires not an arithmetic expansion, but something closer to a logarithmic expansion of energy. Think about the preponderance of claims of inefficiency in the larger, more complex governments of the world. They're absolutely legitimate, and absolutely natural, according to energetics laws.
On top of this, new heights of political organization always demand monument building to solidify and consolidate their power, organized group projects like temples, monuments, and state houses. The impressive moai of Easter Island come immediately to mind. The chief is now typically ordained by the local deity, and the title passed on through hereditary title, thus creating a permanent entitled class above the producing masses. Another logarithmic expansion of energy flow up the food chain.
Without burdening the reader further with a discussion of state or even empire level organization, one can see quite plainly that increasingly-larger political organizations require exponentially more energy to maintain. (Think trial, appellate, and supreme court systems, with their level upon level of production capacity-draining kleptocrats.)
With the knowledge we have of peak oil, and understanding as we do that energy will now become increasingly difficult to capture, what sense does it make to assume that we won't enter some sort of balkanization process, slowly heading back through state, chiefdom, and on down to tribal level political organization?
Again, who knows about the timeframes here. I don't have a crystal ball in my pocket, more's the pity. But I understand ecosystem energetics fairly well, and I'm fairly certain that dwindling energy resources will remove apex predators from the food chain (something to celebrate in my opinion - think about the Bernie Madoffs of the world), in human societies just as in more classically natural populations. Because the most effective way to cut pork is by removing the head first. Which is why it never happens to any significant degree in complex political cultures; why on earth would I knowingly allow my underlings to dispatch me?? Besides the awful effects of DDT, this is one of the main reasons why birds of prey suffered from human expansion. They were apex predators who had their food chains undermined or usurped by us.
As a logical extension of this argument, one could almost assume that the greater a society's monument building is, the longer the food chain supporting it, and the more energetically unstable it is. That's why I don't worry too much about "the Chinese takeover" in a global energy descent context. Has there ever been a more monument-obsessed culture than the Chinese?
So yeah, I feel pretty confident that my macro perception of our trajectory is fairly well informed. Micro? Hard to say. But I think it's fair to assume that saving the planet (and thereby ourselves) relies on our getting small and getting local as quickly as we can. Because every link in the food chain that we remove cuts energy use logarithmically too. Which is why this might take a while. But me, I'm just ready to get back to something a lot less complicated. Some of us are simply skipping the hassle of organizing and reorganizing repeatedly, and instead, actively engaging neo-tribalism, and giving the uber-high-energy complex political organization we're all too familiar with a miss. Because we understand that our future depends on it, and we have the stones to act on that knowledge now.
I'm not sure "devolve" is the right word, but it would certainly be counter to the trends of the last ten millenia.
Friday, November 5, 2010
I hopped in the car early this morning to run get some baby cereal and bananas, and saw the mess. Figures, I thought. What the hell? They pulled the face off of our old and busted CD player, screwing up the console around it, but couldn't manage to get the business part out. Or didn't bother once they saw what it was. We don't care about stereos; you'd think the overflowing garden right beside the car, and the age of the car itself, might suggest that. I guess I'll just leave the doors open from now on. I'd rather lose Ella's booster seat than a window! Trunk was ajar too, but apparently they didn't like the contents of my urban farm vehicle's trunk either: soil probe, work boots, battery charger, mattock, definitely no amps or subwoofers.
Funny thing is, I didn't really care all that much. I didn't feel victimized, or stalked, or even unlucky. Things like cars mean less and less to me these days. I almost wish we could just be done with the whole car thing, and crap like this just reinforces that desire. But we're not ready to get stuck in this neighborhood, so we better hang onto it for a little while longer.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Trash can half full of soaked wheat straw. Half a bale fits in these 30 gallon models, so I do 2 cans at a time. I stuffed eight 5-gallon buckets with a soaked 40 lb bale of straw.
Keep layering straw and grain spawn every 3-ish inches. Pack it tight! Be better if it was chopped; you could get more in there. Sawdust works too I think. I'll try some sawdust next round, since there's a cabinet maker nearby with a dumpster full of sawdust free for the taking.
Next bale on to soak. These cans are really heavy when they're full of water, so I put them in the blueberry patch (very young blueberries still) before I filled them, thinking they might benefit from the tannic water after the straw has soaked. Old-and-busted in the background is slowly coughing up its parts for poultry/rabbit coops and tractors, and goat sheds. I'm hoping it's gone by spring, and since it was a boat garage in a former life, I'll grow a crop of sunflowers and mustard greens to accumulate heavy metals from the site. Maybe an oyster mushroom crop too. Oyster mushrooms can actually digest petroleum derivatives and metabolize heavy metals. Some say that they digest environmental toxins so completely that you could eat them after bioremediation! Not sure I'm that hungry yet.This afternoon Ella and I installed 5 worm towers in the sweet potato bed. You can see the large white PVC pipe sticking out, 2 in this view. As you can see, peppers and tomatoes are still going strong here in the zone 8 piedmont/coastal plain ecotone! We're testing these out with some leftover plumbing pipe in this one bed to see if they're worth using on a larger scale, and to make sure the plastic behaves. They're full of holes below ground level, and the idea is that the worms will come in to dine on compost we throw in there, down to 16" deep, and then leave their juicy castings all over the bed, tilling and fertilizing Nature's way. Not a lot of natural precedent for rototillers in a temperate climate. All of my annuals grow in double reach beds done Emilia Hazelip style.
Close-up of one of the worm towers filled to ground level with weeds and compost. Leave the really heavy stuff out as worms aren't much for eating banana and orange peels, and don't particularly care for aliums either. They love coffee grounds and tea though! The post-hole-diggers found some small and unexpected sweet potatoes maybe a foot deep, so I have a lot of hope that next season will produce a lot of them. Doesn't my sand look nice after a season's love??
New fire pit back near the livestock paddock. Woke up to a cool drizzly morning today and just thought we were going to need a hot fire. It was perfect.
Also started work on the central chicken coop of my rotational paddock system today. My 2 Americauna pullets are looking on eagerly. Woo-hoo!! Thirty-six square foot mansion. How spacious!
Their eggs are prized by French chefs and 007! Brought this breeding trio of French standard Black Copper Marans home last night. They're the ones that lay the dark chocolate brown eggs. Supposed to be the best quality egg available. We take our food very seriously around here! Oh, and my 2 crazy guineas seem to have taken a shine to ol' Chaucer.
Well there you go - a tour around Small Batch circa November 3rd, 2010. Hope you enjoyed it!