Peak Oil News: 04/01/2009 - 05/01/2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Angels

Willamette Week Online

Happy Earth Day! Bet you’re not as committed to “sustainable living” as these 22 Portlanders.

By Adrienne So

It’s 9 am on a Thursday, and the thermostat in my 1999 Volkswagen Bug registers 36 degrees. If I were going to work, I’d be shivering inside my parka and heels.

But this April morning, I’m snugly layered in thermals, flannel and fleece.

I lace my boots around two pairs of hiking socks as I get out of my car. Then I sling my pack on my back and start down the broad, winding trail toward Tryon Life Community Farm, where boots and flannels are pretty much everyday attire.

I’m here at the edge of Tryon Creek State Park in Southwest Portland to visit the 7-acre farm, a nonprofit that offers youth programs in the summer and holds other events year-round. I want to learn what life is like for the farm’s residential worker collective, known as Cedar Moon—16 adults and six children ages 3 to 9 who live in two buildings directly off a long, pothole-speckled driveway.

Approached by car, the two buildings appear low-slung and nondescript, nestled under layers of verdant foliage. Ten residents live in one building, which has single rooms for them as well as a rec room and kitchen for the community. The other 12 live in a second building, which has been quartered into mini-apartments, complete with tiny kitchenettes.

Descending the wood-chip-carpeted trail into the farm, however, reveals a collection of small structures—a sauna, an outdoor stage, a composting toilet (don’t worry; it doesn’t smell) and something called the “T-Whale,” where residents sip tea in the summer—clustered around an open pavilion, next to the skeleton of a huge outdoor kitchen that’s under construction.

Elsewhere, partially shrouded by a gigantic blooming star magnolia, tidy trails wind through gardens, where bees buzz, chickens scratch and an occasional volunteer hoes the beds. Beyond the gardens, a pair of dog-sized sheep in a wire pen demand to have their chins scratched. A flock of 20 chickens fusses. Farther down the trail, there’s a barn for goats, which shriek like children when hungry. On the farm, the sound of minivans whooshing by on Southwest Boones Ferry Road vanishes behind the the surrounding trees.

Each adult in this little piece of heaven pays for rent and food, most with money from their day jobs in Portland. They also share chores, like cooking, cleaning and tending community gardens, which grow everything from staples like leeks to rarer fare like exotic Asian greens.

Taken separately, each part of this setup is unlikely to turn heads. Many students and professionals live in shared housing. And many farms have residential workers.

Conspicuously absent, however, are commercial motives or convenience. People don’t live at Cedar Moon because they answered a Craigslist ad. Moving here is akin to taking a second job, one in which your roommates are your best friends and also your co-workers.

It’s an ancient idea, but one so modest it’s practically un-American—that with effort, you can live with less, and be happier and healthier at the same time.

In the face of so much going awry on the planet—ice caps are melting, irreversible climate change is looming, and buying compact fluorescent light bulbs doesn’t feel so empowering anymore—coming here is like the beginning of a religious conversion. There’s got to be a better way to mark Earth Day each April than holding hands and singing songs.

Brenna Bell, co-president of TLC Farm’s board of directors and spokeswoman for the farm and collective, says I’m not the only one with a sneaking suspicion that a better way can be found on the farm.

“The intersection of economic and environmental crises has led to more people actively questioning how they live their lives,” says Bell, a 34-year-old environmental lawyer with slim glasses and coveralls over a hugely pregnant belly (her first daughter was born four years ago with a midwife’s help in a maple grove on the farm, and Bell hopes to re-create that experience with this child when it’s born in June).

Hmm. Is going off the grid indeed a workable model? To answer these questions, the community graciously allowed me to hang around for a few days. Here is what I learned about what the farm residents call their “intentional living” lifestyle:

Intentional living is sharing.

Before John Brush—a lean 33-year-old with a goatee and glasses—came to the farm five years ago, he worked in youth social services. Now he is a mediation and organizational consultant, as well as one of the farm’s prominent resident nerds.

Brush says sharing is something most people learned in kindergarten and soon forgot. Sharing is the key to why the farm and collective works: By splitting up chores and food, residents can save both time and money.

Chad Dermann, who manages a farmers market in Portland, buys food for the community.

By buying in bulk and eating organic produce residents grow themselves, Dermann says they can serve meals more cheaply.

Residents also save money on child care. New mothers on the farm can go back to work as teachers, lawyers or accountants, while their children dig for worms or pick nettles under the watchful eyes of other farm residents.

The shared expertise of these 16 adults also means never having to go to a computer store or bike-repair shop again. Someone is bound to know how to troubleshoot a computer bug or change a flat.

And shared resources let the community slash its carbon footprint. None of the buildings has central heating, and the residents operate only one kitchen and one washer and dryer.

But here’s what no one can admit without feeling like a horrible person: Sharing is hard, psychologically as well as logistically. In order to maintain large common areas, personal space is sacrificed.

Bell estimates each farm resident has an average of 265 square feet of personal space, less than one-third the national average of about 845 square feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Navigating the farm’s common spaces requires exceptional conflict management skills, and conflict can range anywhere from annoying to agonizing.

For example, 22 people—including toddlers—place a huge burden on one washing machine. “People weren’t putting other people’s loads into the dryer in winter,” Bell says. “So, we created a series of signs indicating whether something should be spun-dried. And we set up specific mornings that were diaper-priority times.”

Relationship skills are just that—skills. You must learn them.

Resident Jenny Leis—a small, sprightly woman with thick gray hair and an animated face—has a habit of occasionally wiggling her fingers at me, a sort of small-scale jazz hands. I incorrectly attribute this finger-wiggling to a past life as a concert pianist. “Oh, whoops,” she says. “That’s how we signify agreement in meetings without disturbing your flow. Like, ‘I agree!’” she sings, wiggling her fingers once more.

I do not think I will pick up this habit.

Another point about sharing: The farm is within the urban growth boundary to provide an accessible demonstration of sustainable living. Before being accepted into the collective, community members must acknowledge their willingness to teach any outsider the intricacies of everyday life at the farm. That means even more communication. I consider myself a voluble person. But if talking were baseball, I am barely a decent community-league pitcher compared to these folks, who could pitch Game 7 in the World Series of Talk.

After the goats have been milked and the chickens tended at 8:30 Saturday morning, one of these teaching sessions starts when volunteers begin arriving for the weekly work party to renovate the barn, part of which is slated to become a public space and office. I take my turn sifting clay and sand for plaster, while Brush explains earthen building techniques. It involves electron strength. I think.

I then head straight to Leis’ farm tour, which today has about a dozen visitors—a mixture of students, curious older women, and one visitor from a similar community in Oaxaca, Mexico. Then there’s a mushroom workshop and a wild foraging expedition, and more talking, more demonstrating and more learning. By 5 pm on Saturday, I am a beaten woman. I can’t process another word.

But as exhausting as the constant sharing and learning and communicating is, the benefits are worth the effort. As much as my cynical, dried-up heart would like for me to stop talking RIGHT NOW, I do conclude after my three-day stay that caring for the earth means first caring about each other.

Here’s an example: Earlier in my visit, I helped Bernhard Bach prepare dinner on a Thursday afternoon. A barrel-chested, stern-looking German man, Bach didn’t fit the profile of a typical farm resident, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s with an academic background in sustainability. Bach is 49 and works as a nurse in Portland. While I peeled and cut up Jerusalem artichokes, he chopped and sautéed leeks we had dug up from the garden.

I asked what had drawn him to the community a year and a half ago. “I went through de-WAHRS,” he said.

“The wars?” I asked. “You were in the military?”

“No, de-WAHRS. You know, after marriage.”

“Oh, divorce!”

“It’s different in Germany,” he said. “In a small village, you can’t escape everyone’s expectations. It’s difficult for you to become better than people expect you to be. Here in America, you can become anything you want to be. I believed in that, and I liked it.... Then my wife left me after 20 years.

“I was alone, and I realized this American way of life is not everything I expected it to be,’’ he continued. “I started looking for a village. I came here and volunteered a few times, and I liked it. When I applied, you know, I was not expecting to get in. Everyone here is so young. But I did, and I was glad.”

Most other residents had a similar story as to what attracted them. Yes, all had a common interest in sustainability. But most were aching for human connection in a world that is becoming increasingly devoid of it.

“Most people come home to their separate apartments after work, turn on a movie, go on the Internet, and don’t speak to anyone for the rest of the day,” says Brush. “City life can be isolating. We want to support people in making communities, without telling them what to do.”

It’s one solution to the “tragedy of the commons,” the theory that when individuals act in their own self-interest, they will destroy a common resource that is in everyone’s best interest to protect. It is now possible to add to that statement after visiting the farm: Individuals will continue to act in their own self-interest, unless they’re friends. The less connection we have to our resources, the less interest we have in protecting them—and by extension, each other.

Intentional living is holistic.

At first, “intentional living” looks like “intentional chaos.” On Thursday at 9:30 am, I can’t find a single student, let alone anything that looks like a classroom at the Mother Earth School, where I’m scheduled to help with the two dozen or so children who come here for classes five days a week. Finally, Bell catches me heading toward the barn and the farm’s three goats—I am obsessed with the goats—and shoos me uphill.

Another resident, Kelly Hogan, has allowed me to observe the year-round Waldorf-based kindergarten and preschool where the 3- to 6-year-olds eat, learn and play. All profits from the school, which charges $360 a month for tuition, go toward the TLC nonprofit.

Up on the hill, a “yome” (combination yurt and geodesic dome) huddles under the cover of trees. One of the teachers, Trent Price, tends a fire under a pot of water. Another, April Blair, assembles a grain mill on a picnic table. Inside the yome, Elena Wood, another teacher, is cutting vegetables at a table set with some of the tiniest cutting boards I have ever seen. The children arrive with vegetables to make their own midmorning snack—vegetable soup with dumplings.

The holistic part for the schoolchildren—and the full-time farm residents as well—is summed up in the phrase “plerk,” a word used by Blair and others to describe how play and work merge.

“I was tired of having my work and my downtime and my values out of sync with each other,” Brush says, regarding the farm’s adoption of plerk.

Tending a fire and collecting nettles are indeed more entertaining and educational than the coloring books I remember from kindergarten, though during the day we must rescue one girl from the advances of an ornery rooster and another from a blackberry bramble. We eat the soup and dumplings and wash our hands in a basin. Then we listen to a story in front of the honeybee hive before tromping off for free play in the woods.

Growing up on the farm means renouncing boundaries. Grinding a mill is more fun than recess, and learning about trilliums in a story is both entertaining and educational. School isn’t dreary work and useless play. It’s just...plerk. For the rest of my stay, I repeatedly talk about plerk, just because I like the way the word sounds.

Later, Bonsai Matt—a 34-year-old landscaper and gardener with thick black dreads—unconsciously illustrates the benefits of plerk. I find out he used to snowboard and rock-climb for fun. “Why did you stop?” I ask.

He gestures broadly at the vista before us—the greenhouse, the garden, the blackberry brambles and the adorable sheep pair. “I had enough to do here,” he says. “I just stopped thinking about it.”

Intentional living is questioning.

On Friday morning, I sit with Bell on the porch swing on the deck behind the community building, waiting to join Bonsai Matt in the garden. Two of the collective’s children climb onto Bell’s lap, and one carefully arranges my arms around a bald doll. Later, after I’ve started raking rows in the garden, Bonsai calls me to help him water the lettuces in the greenhouse. I follow him on his examination of the beds. While a lot of people like working in the kitchen gardens, Bonsai has a kind of de facto authority, just by virtue of knowing more than most about plants.

To me, the garden beds are about as indecipherable as The New York Times to a blind person. Every few minutes, Bonsai kneels down to pluck and hand me another bunch of fresh, succulent greenery. “This is lovage,” he says. Or, “You want some chives?” Pretty soon, I’ve taken a more active role in my own feeding. “What’s that?” I say. “Can I eat that?”

“Well, that’s a weed,” Bonsai says. He picks something else. “This is the most delicious thing in our garden,” he says, and hands me four or five wide, 3-inch-long leaves. When I chew them, a bright, sunshiny taste fills my mouth. “That’s lemon sorrel,” he says. “The tart taste comes from oxalic acid.”

Questioning everything is a key point of living intentionally. And, not coincidentally, a lot of people on the farm identify themselves as scientists, like Brush, who blows my mind by trying to explain the van der Waals forces between molecules.

“No one ever thinks about most things,” Bonsai says. “It’s like when someone asks, ‘How are you?’ Most people just say, ‘I’m good,’ and move on. Very few people take the time to say, ‘This is what’s going on in my life, and this is how I feel about it.’

“A lot of what’s wrong in the world,” he continues after a few minutes, “could be solved if people were more open, honest and humble.”

That’s definitely the approach at the farm. But constant questioning can be a humiliating, exhausting process. When you’re surrounded by relentlessly inquisitive minds, your basic assumptions are constantly being upended.

“Why do you like fashion?” Leis asks me later that day. We had spent the afternoon unloading salvaged wood for the sauna, and now we’re having tea sweetened with honey and goat’s milk.

I start to answer, then pause. Then start to answer, and stop again. “I don’t really know,” I say. “I’ve never asked myself that question.”

“When it seems that you can’t make sustainable choices, I like to break down the question,” Leis responds. “Is it because you like new things? Is it the primping? You can do that with handmade beauty products. Lena makes all sorts of natural shampoos. You should ask her about it.”

While I’m trying to break down why I like shopping (I like pretty things. Are flowers pretty?), I think back to earlier that morning. Before I went up to the community kitchen for lunch, I asked Bonsai for one simple tip to be more sustainable in everyday life. Without hesitation, he said, “Pee on your plants.”

“I always thought pee killed plants,” I say.

“Nope,” he says. “When diluted by rain, it’s some of the best fertilizer out there. And do you know how much water we waste by flushing all that fertilizer away? It’s crazy, once you think about it.”

Maybe it is crazy. When contemplating a multiple-member commune hidden in the woods, it’s terrifyingly easy to reduce the concept—and the residents—to a bunch of delusional pinko commies and trustafarians.

Certainly their anti-technology, (mostly) anti-convenience stance doesn’t help. No one wants to feel like a bad person because they occasionally enjoy the many fruits of modernization, like Popeye’s buttermilk biscuits or Netflix.

But if there was anything weird or strange about life on the farm, it was how utterly strange it wasn’t. Cooking in common and shared child care are hardly revolutionary innovations. Life on the farm was surprisingly familiar, a return to a way of life that vanished after the Industrial Revolution. Technological advances in the 20th century brought a lot of positive change—vaccines and clean drinking water come to mind—but a lot of social alienation and environmental destruction as well.

Standing under the blooming star magnolia, with the taste of fresh goat’s milk lingering in my mouth, the exigencies of modern life—with student loans and the like—seemed very far away. It was hard not to fantasize about setting up a similarly idyllic arrangement. Maybe on the coast. My boyfriend and I would live with several other friends and share childcare, cooking and gardening duties, but also have a widescreen television and a wireless Internet connection.

Leis has a routine greeting for strangers like me. “Congratulations!” she says whenever she starts a tour; most curious visitors come because they want to change something about their lives, and making the decision to do so is the hardest step.

When I got home, I started researching supper clubs to integrate more sharing into my life. But only after a hot shower, takeout pizza and Quantum of Solace in my blissfully empty apartment, of course.

TLC Farms organizes grassroots efforts for legislation promoting sustainability. One bill would make it easier to reuse graywater, or water already used for laundry or bathing. A measure to make graywater use legal in Oregon has passed the state House and is currently in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

Three years after Cedar Moon began, eight of its original 14 inhabitants still live on the farm. One original member who left is Matt Gordon. A 29-year-old musician, Gordon says he returned last September to Northeast Portland to be nearer to the bands he plays and practices with. “It was a hard decision,” he says.

Brush estimates each farm resident has a carbon footprint of about 0.06 tons a year, compared with the average Portlander’s load, which varies from 2.1 to 3.2 tons.

April 22 marks the 39th Earth Day. The first Earth Day, coincidentally, marked the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin.

Earth Day Special: Energy and Food in a World of Limited Natural Resources

The world is running out of oil and the evidence is mounting. The term most commonly used in the discussions surrounding first the ceiling in oil discoveries and now more recently the ceiling of oil production is Peak Oil. Peak Oil since the mid 1950s has been argued as theory but their are more convincing arguments than just $4 a gallon gasoline (last summer) that support what should now be deemed as fact. The chances of finding another large oil reserve fall dramatically each day. Another fact that augments this point is that the largest reserves should be the easiest to find and still a major discovery hasn’t happened since Prudhoe Bay in 1969, 40 years ago. Not finding more oil would be well and fine if we simply didn’t use it at all but that’s currently not the case.

A shortlist of items made from oil (not just energy inputs or transportation inputs) include computer chips, dishwashing liquid, insecticides, antiseptics, tires, clothing, food preservatives, disposable diapers, vitamin capsules, fertilizers, water pipes, artificial limbs, aspirin and many other applications. It would be easy to substitute our energy gained from oil and oil based transportation as wind and solar come onto the grid. Unfortunately though the loss of the petroleum based household items and agricultural fertilizer (that is essential to higher crop yields) could significantly change the way we live.

Amazingly many have pointed to technological advances and rightly so. It becomes tough science though as most of the technological breakthroughs in the past have occurred thanks to petroleum. One solution that has been raised has been using biochemicals as replacements to existing petroleum products. I think many of us have seen corn-based plastics in cups and even corn-based fuels for ethanol but this only works as long as agricultural output remains high. This brings us to our problem. By using food as plastics and without the aid of petroleum-based fertilizers we still need a lot more oil to sustain consumption or we need to change our way of life.

One of the world’s foremost thinkers on this subject, Jay Forrester, actually created a systems dynamics model on resource depletion and its effects on population. A popular book “Limits to Growth” published in 1972 outlines the changes. The figure included in the link below is the original limits-to-growth model. It charts resources, births (b), services (s), population, pollution, deaths, food, and industrial output. While it is important to look at any future predictions with a little skepticism it is also clear that if we don’t make any more major discoveries in oil we must fundamentally change the way we get energy and how we use our resources.

With the suggestion of this model and the daily reduction in oil production, Richard Heinberg, an outspoken Peak Oil expert, sees no other way to tackle this problem other than a reinstatement of a communal agricultural society in the next 20 to 30 years. This would represent a drastic shift from our current vocational allocation of 1% to farming. But their still remain questions regarding one of the few factors under human control, our behavior. If we can cut back on consumption of natural resources, mainly those tied to oil, we may be able to ween ourselves off of what has been our economical life-blood and find other solutions. Is it realistic though for a generation and a people to change their entire system of life? While it could go as far as every family having a victory garden, it is the capitalist in me that calls out for a third way.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse, Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, 2006.

Fifty Million Farmers

Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil, Charles Hall and John Day, American Scientist, May-June 2009.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thirsty Hybrid And Electric Cars Could Triple Demands On Scarce Water Resources

Eco-minded drivers in drought-prone states take note: A new study concludes that producing electricity for hybrid and fully electric vehicles could sharply increase water consumption in the United States.

In the study, Carey W. King and Michael E. Webber note that policy makers often neglect the impact that fleets of hybrid and electric vehicles could have on already-scarce water resources. They calculated water usage, consumption, and withdrawal during petroleum refining and electricity generation in the United States.

Each mile driven with electricity consumes about three times more water (0.32 versus 0.07-0.14 gallons per mile) than with gasoline, the study found.

"This is not to say that the negative impacts on water resources make such a shift undesirable," King and Webber emphasized. "Rather this increase in water usage presents a significant potential impact on regional water resources and should be considered when planning for a plugged-in automotive economy."

The article, "The Water Intensity of the Plugged-In Automotive Economy" is scheduled for the June 1 issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Peak Oil Crisis: Priorities

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple

In the next few years, most of us are going to have to make many important decisions that will profoundly affect the rest of our lives. How soon these decisions come will depend on one's individual circumstances.

If you are one of the millions who have lost their jobs or homes in the last year then you already know that something is happening. Returning to the way we have lived for the last 100 years simply is not in the cards. The world is entering a great paradigm shift and our place in it will be markedly different 10 or 20 years from now. The most alarming thing to remember is that 95 percent of us have not discovered that major changes are underway and are waiting for economic recovery and new jobs to open up.

A professor out in California just published a paper concluding that the current economic downturn was caused as much by the $147 oil we saw last summer as it was by the bursting of the housing and credit bubbles. It doesn't much matter if he is right or not. What is important, however, is that hardly a day goes by without another major oil production project being delayed or cancelled due to low prices. The death spiral for the oil age has begun.

The U.S. is currently losing about 600,000 jobs a month. If we did the bookkeeping a bit more honestly, to account for the discouraged or those forced into part-time work, the real total is probably closer to 1 million a month. This hemorrhage may slow for a time when our trillion dollar stimulus catches hold, but there is nothing out there to suggest that spending borrowed or printed money for a year or two is going to turn anything around. The trends all suggest that unemployment is going to continue rising and that social unrest is not very far away.

Someday, many years or decades from now, all this is going to stabilize. Just what the world will look like is impossible to forecast. Will there still be 6.7 billion of us around or will the world's population have declined from deteriorating climate conditions and a lack of food. The only thing for sure is that there is going to be a lot less fossil fuel around to do the heavy work for us.

The last 100 years, particularly the last 50, have been a magic time. The exploitation of fossil fuels has given mankind an era of incredible riches and, for many, unprecedented freedoms to pursue whatever they choose. Now that time is over and humanity is going to have to reprioritize to the basics of life -- food, warmth, shelter, health care, sanitation, and security.

If the oil age had come and gone in a few decades mankind would not have had the opportunity to reorganize our lifestyles so dramatically from the way we lived in the 19th century, but it is too late now. Recent estimates say that nearly half of the world's population now lives in urban areas where they are dependent on others for food. In America, only three percent of us are left on farms to feed the other 97 percent. This is going to be a real problem for if there is anything we really need to do every day, it is to eat.

With shrinking amounts of increasingly expensive fossil fuels, the American way of agriculture is going to be severely tested. Throw in some climate change and our food producers are going to have trouble keeping up with the demand. Many are worried about depleted soils, and the vast amounts of energy required to grow, store, process, and transfer food raised thousands of miles from the consumer. Then there is the growing problem of paying for food when one does not have a job. For the last 100 years the cost of food was a decreasing part of the average American's budget. That is starting to reverse and it will not be long before the discretionary spending that many have enjoyed in recent decades dwindles as more of our incomes go for the essentials of life.

Much food in America currently is being paid for by unsecured credit cards in the hands of people who will never be able to pay. The banks have already reduced the number of open cards from a high of 483 million last July to 400 million. This number will continue to shrink as delinquencies soar and the banks realize they will never be paid back. As with food, the same sort of problems are arising with health care, and housing. Sanitation and public safety, being largely a responsibility of government rather than individuals is, safe for the minute, but governments are facing growing problems. If, as seems likely, government takes on increasing burdens of feeding and housing people, some new form of social contract is going to have to be worked out.

We are already hearing the opening sounds of what may be the greatest political debate of the 21st Century - how do we get out of this mess. On one side are those who continue to believe that free markets, tax cuts, and offshore drilling, will return things to normal. The other side recognizes the magnitude of the challenge we face, but so far have not publically connected the dots.

This great debate will continue in the Congress, state houses, and local board rooms for a long while as the balance teeters between maxims of the 20th century and realities of the 21st. The break will come with social unrest. It has been a long time since mobs took to American streets in protest. Although common in other parts of the world, one has to look back to the 1960's to find serious social unrest in the US.

This time riots will be for food and jobs rather than for civil rights and against the draft. The unrest will change everything. Governments will realize that changing times require changing institutions and new priorities. The mix between capitalism and government involvement in the economy is going to change for there no way that our current institutions and economic arrangements are going to get us through the next 40 years.