Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Save Some for the Kids

Ten or twenty years ago, I often saw bumper stickers on the backs of huge motorhomes on the highway: "We're Spending our Children's Inheritance". This, I think, was supposed to be cute. Now the $90,000 motorhomes are sitting forlornly with For Sale signs, worth a small fraction of their purchase price. The former vacationers? Who knows? Some of them have run completely through their children's inheritance, and are wondering how they can make payments on their own house. The formerly-cute statement is somewhat chilling.

But in a larger sense, that is what we are doing as a community, as a nation, and even as a world. We were gifted with a finite but huge inheritance from Mother Earth in the form of petroleum. In a little over a hundred years, we have squandered about half of it. (That's what Peak Oil means: half of it is gone--the easier half.)
The other half of that petroleum we leave for not just our heirs, but all succeeding generations of humans. And we're not showing significant signs of slowing down our consumption for the purposes of saving some for future generations.

At the beginning of the 20th century, we had a world endowed with ice caps and glaciers, pure air, an Aral Sea. Nature had put a lot of the carbon away safely in the petroleum, in the coal, in the limestone, in the permafrost, in the frozen clathrates in the ocean, in the forests that covered a significant portion of the globe. In the process of claiming our inheritance and that of our descendants, we're cranking that carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

Two hundred years ago the oceans were packed full of beautiful lifeforms, in a highly complex web of life based on plankton. We found that many of these lifeforms were tasty or otherwise useful. The incredible bounty of the oceans made it seem that we could keep pulling out fish and shellfish forever, as much as we wanted, and not even have an effect. Unfortunately, the 20th century factory ships depleted most of the fish stocks, and pollution from land-based activities is causing major dead zones in most estuaries. Plankton is said to be down by 70% over levels earlier in the last century. Another inheritance taken from our kids, and their kids, for generations.

Bringing it closer to home, here in Larimer County we're busily engaged in paving over good farmland, putting up yet more retail space, or developing yet more subdivisions far from the city centers. The only thing that has slowed this process down is the real estate meltdown, not any consideration for preserving the land so that future generations can have food. Our priorities are cock-eyed. Do we need more McMansions, or do we need food? Your choice. As petroleum gets more expensive, importing food from every other country in the world becomes more expensive, and industrial-style farming becomes less cost-effective.

In the economy, we're rolling up a Mt Everest of debt for succeeding generations to cope with, or not, as the case may be. Greed doesn't look so "good" these days as it did in the 90s. The U.S. has been living so far beyond their means, drawing down the inflated equity of their homes, spending their way into their own mountains of debt, that the rest of the world which has been selling us all this stuff is sinking too, now that we're tapped out.

I don't have the answers to these enormous problems. This is too big for one person to have the answers. We all need to be thinking about ways to preserve the wealth and bounty of the natural world for our grandkids, their grandkids, and on into the future. One of the best compliments you can give for someone who died is that he or she made the world a better place than they found it. The generations now on the Earth (us) need to be thinking about how we can make the world a better place, individually and in communities.

We know that the future won't look like the 20th century, and we know that it certainly won't look like the breathless extrapolations common in 20th century science fiction: everybody with their own little copter to get around, colonies on Mars, endless supplies of everything, endless wealth for every inhabitant of the planet.

It's a shock to realize that the supply of everything on Earth is NOT infinite. As you spend some time thinking about it, you go down through layers and levels of thinking. Petroleum scarce? plastics scarce. Then you can think about how our lives are surrounded and supported by plastics. Petroleum scarce? we're not going to be buzzing off to Europe or Australia every year on vacation; maybe we won't be able to see far-flung family members very often, or ever. Natural gas scarce? How do we heat our homes? How do we generate electricity? That opens up another thousand questions. But putting our heads firmly in the sand won't solve the problems, and leaving it for "future generations", i.e. our grandkids, to solve shows a total lack of character and integrity on our part.

So I'm sending this question out into the community: What can we do to "save some for our kids"? What I'd like to save for my grandchildren's children:

* A HEALTHY OCEAN. Let's clean up the plastic waste now, and take steps to ensure that no new plastic waste goes into the ocean. Let's stop overfishing NOW, not in decades to come when the fish are gone. And I don't believe you can have a healthy ocean without the humans controlling their greenhouse gas emissions.
A FEW THINGS YOU CAN DO: Stop buying fish! Cut down on your plastic consumption. Work hard to prevent pollution from entering the rivers and the oceans.

* HEALTHY SMALL FARMS. This means healthy topsoil and lots of small working farms, and lots of farmers; farms in every locality growing food for their neighbors. We have overshot with the principle that "efficiency" means less human labor and more use of fossil energy, fossil water (aquifers) and agricultural poisons. The most productive farmland in the world is in the form of individual small plots, carefully tended. We have land to do that, in our own backyards, in our public areas, on our schoolgrounds. We just need the will to do it.
A FEW THINGS YOU CAN DO: Plant a Victory Garden. Support local farms by buying their produce. Work with government entities to protect and expand small farms, and get farms in the hands of young people who want to farm.

* AN INDUSTRIAL BASE in the U.S. This means jobs, where people actually make things and add value. Retail sales and services are the branches and leaves of the tree of the economy. We've cut our tree down at the roots (by outsourcing practically all real manufacturing), and it's just taking a little time for all those unsupported branches and leaves to fall, but fall they will. Have you tried to buy a kitchen brush lately? All from China. Not some but all; every one. Trying to buy American-made goods is an exercise in frustration.
A FEW THINGS YOU CAN DO: Look for American-made goods, and complain to your store if none are available. Support re-skilling, both personal and industrial; this means that you learn some skills such as knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, home repair, etc., and support for vocational training for young people (and older, too, for that matter).

* A SOLVENT NATION, STATE, CITY, AND FAMILY. When I think about this subject, the Oxygen Mask analogy comes to mind: Put on your own mask before you help others with theirs. The first thing we all need to do is balance our own household budgets, and live within our means. The CEO of 3M Co., George Buckley, said recently: "...the first responsibility we have as the leaders of companies is to make sure that we ensure the health and survival of our own companies first, not necessarily other people's companies, or, for that matter, the whole U.S. economy." When households, and companies, live within their means, they have a chance of accumulating some assets which can be put to work building factories, making jobs, and improving the community. When our nation stops trying to be a world empire, and becomes a fiscally conservative and responsible world citizen, all the countries in the world will benefit, including ourselves. But the transition will be painful, and we have to expect that.
A FEW THINGS YOU CAN DO: Live within your means! Buy less, pay down debt, bring your material expectations back in line with reality. Choose frugality instead of excess. Choose sensible investments (which can be many things besides stocks or mutual funds) that pay back long-term in reduced energy use, and increased benefits to our communities. Help your local governmental entities in finding ways to balance their budgets too. Let your congressmen/women know how you feel.

I get discouraged sometimes, but I have not lost hope. I think our kids and grandkids can have a good life. It won't look like what we imagined, and it will be worse in some ways, but it can also be better in some ways. I can foresee them getting off the rat race that we're on at the beginning of the 21st century, figuring out what's important in their lives (besides material goods), and having the pleasure of making things that are real, useful, and beautiful.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Some Winter Recipes

I'm making a determined effort to use my stored foods. It's really not a problem with the tomato sauce, and the delicious nectarines in light honey syrup. We're also using the jars of lactofermented sauerkraut, green beans, and cucumbers I made last summer. I think I'll need to make more of them next year. The beans taste especially nice in winter salads, cut small.

Winter Salad

Make a bed of cut-up or torn winter greens. Escarole is particularly nice in the winter, with that little touch of bitterness. You can use a little slivered radicchio for color. Napa cabbage, sliced fine, is also good. And we get sugarhat chicory from our CSA, though you probably won't find it in a store, another lovely slightly-bitter winter green.

Decorate with some sliced carrots, and ripe olives. If you have them on hand, add chopped lactofermented green beans or cucumbers. Or some lactofermented beets. Regular pickles can be used too, as long as they are not too sweet.

To make a chef salad, cut up roast turkey breast and cooked local sausage into small pieces, and sprinkle across the top. A few small pieces of local cheese add a nice touch.

Make a simple salad dressing of olive or sunflower oil, and vinegar or lactofermented pickle juice. Shake and pour over. Ratio: about 2/3 oil to 1/3 vinegar for flavor.

Put Up Or Shut Up Stew
The following makes about 4 servings, and makes a quick hearty meal.
Feel free to substitute.

1 pound local grassfed ground beef
a little cooking oil or lard
one medium local onion, peeled and chopped
1 pint home-canned tomato sauce
1/2 cup home-dried green beans, or 1 cup home-frozen green beans
1/2 cup home-dried bell peppers, or 1 cup fresh chopped peppers
1 cup peeled winter squash such as butternut, in smallish pieces
1 tablespoon good-quality chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
salt and pepper to taste

Brown the ground beef in the oil with the onion. Then add the remaining ingredients, and bring to simmer. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the squash cubes are tender.

Serving suggestions:
--Top with lactofermented salsa (or other salsa).
--For low-carb meal: serve as is in a bowl.
--Serve on a bed of something you have prepared: rice, millet, quinoa, pasta, ??
--Roll up in a wrap.
--Sprinkle with grated cheese if desired.

Risotto with Pumpkin and Radicchio
Something to do with pumpkin besides pie (not that there's anything wrong with pie....)

1 cup peeled pumpkin, seeds removed (and toasted separately) and cut small
1/2 cup chopped radicchio
1 cup short-grain white rice (arborio is best, but sushi rice will also do the job; I'm not a risotto snob)
1 smallish onion, peeled and diced fine
2 tbs olive oil
3 tbs butter
3 cups chicken broth, kept hot
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Head the olive oil and 2 tbs butter in a pan, add onion and saute until soft. Add pumpkin cubes and 1/2 cup broth, simmer 5 minutes. Add rice, salt and pepper, stir for a few minutes. As the rice absorbs the broth, keep stirring and adding another 1/4 cup of broth. After about 10 minutes, add the radicchio. Continue stirring and adding broth. When all the broth is added, stir in the remaining tbs of butter and the parmesan. Continue to stir for another 2 minutes or so.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Living Within Our Means

Slightly off-topic for local foods, but too important to let slide. This is a distressing time in this country. The problems we as a nation have gotten ourselves into, from decades of overspending, waste and greed, are not going to vanish quickly.

I get the sense that many Americans are finally waking up from a fantasy: that there would always be MORE MORE MORE. More spending, based on more borrowing. The piper would never have to be paid. The important thing was getting the McMansion, the new cars, closetsful of clothes to put in all those double walk-in closets, and all the latest consumer electronics. So many of us have been living far beyond our means, floating on a pink cloud of credit that is evaporating and raining down pink slips all over the country.

Well, the fact is that in the long run, you must live within your means. This is true for individuals, families, cities, states, and the nation. When you've loaded up on credit and owe a lot of money, living within your means becomes even more painful. Not only do you have to cut your "standard of living" (whatever that means), but you have to cut down even further to pay off the debt you loaded up on.

We can't expect the government to bail everybody out, and we can't expect the government to take the lead on bringing us back to fiscal good sense--what used to be called "conservative" fiscal management before "conservative" came to mean tax cuts and huge increases in debt and a pointless and expensive war. I'm holding out for the original meaning of conservative as someone who conserves, something we can be proud to count among our personal qualities. If we want the government to change, we need to model that change in our own lives. We need to lead, and they will follow.

This fall, we've already seen major changes indicating that people are waking up from the fantasy and watching their spending. Some people have stopped using credit cards, which make it just too easy to buy. You have to think about your spending when you fork over dollars or write a check.

Here are some other ideas for living within our means.

1. (and only too obvious) Just stop buying the frills; no more retail therapy. Spending more than you can afford is not really fun in the long run. Spending more than you can afford on your kids is not doing them a favor. They need a stable home, with electricity and heat, and food on the table. They need these things way more than they "need" the latest gadget or toy, or the latest style in clothes.

2. (Another obvious one) Pay off your credit card balances, especially the high-interest balances. You do have to balance this with your other needs, such as the mortgage.

3. Put something aside. This means money in an insured savings account, even if it is a small amount. If your credit is toast, your cards are full, and your house isn't functioning as an ATM any more, you have all the more need for emergency money. It's up to your individual circumstance whether you pay off credit or put money in savings or both, but I suggest both. It's also wise to start storing some food, foods that your family will eat, healthy foods. It's easier to face uncertain times with a full pantry and a full belly.

4. Stop watching commercial TV. You and your kids are exposed to dozens or hundreds of very skillfully crafted advertisements every day. People with advanced degrees in psychology and sociology are hard at work designing ads that are just too good to resist. It's all part of the process of separating you from your money. For TV addicts, this will not be easy. For harried parents tired of the endless nagging for junk food and the latest toys, it may be a relief.

5. Have a talk with your partner. You and your partner need to be on the same page with the budget. If you are in the habit of managing all the finances yourself, you need to share the information and power with your wife or husband. If you have kids, the kids need to know something about what's happening. Don't scare them to death, and don't expect them to follow advanced economic theories, but kids need to know the situation. You will probably be surprised at the support you will receive, once the initial screaming is over.

6. Make a budget, and keep track of your spending. (I'm sure some of you already do this--more power to you!) If you are doing your first budget, you won't necessarily get it right the first time. Keep track of how the spending lines up with your predictions, and learn how to make it work. Everything counts--the big expenses and the nickel-and-dimers.

7. Reasonable places to spend your money--if you have some, have some savings, and have paid off your credit card balances.
* Food storage, and well-chosen household items that will enhance your ability to store food and cook for your family.
* Home improvements that will save on your utility bills in the future. This includes such high-return items as better insulation, weatherstripping, and insulating shades; fireplace inserts, perhaps skylights that bring more light into your home and provide ventilation in hot weather.
* Good quality American-made goods. Just say no to useless plastic junk made overseas. Don't squander your money, but there are times you need to buy something. Buy something that will last. Buy something made locally if you can--support your neighbors and your community. Failing that, try to buy American. I realize only too well that is not always possible. Wherever it is made, be sure to buy something that will serve you well and last a while.

8. Patronize locally-owned stores and restaurants. Stay out of the big box stores as much as you can; their profit runs off to other states or countries, and doesn't stay around here helping our community.

9. Learn to do things for yourselves. This is called "Re-Skilling". Our grandparents and their grandparents knew how to do things: Cook. Bake bread. Make yogurt, cheese, butter. Preserve food. Brew beer. Make liqueurs, wines, jellies, jams, sauces. Sew. Mend clothes. Mend shoes. Tend a vegetable garden and orchard. Knit, crochet, embroider, weave. Make simple furniture. Make music: play piano or other instruments, sing. Make baskets, candles, lamps. Render lard. Raise chickens, rabbits, or other animals. Make herbal teas and medicines. Treat simple health problems at home.

The more skills you have in your family, the less you need to pay other people to do these simple things for you. You can become more resilient to hard times by being able to fend for yourselves.
This is especially true if one family member loses his or her job. He or she can make the most out of the situation by learning new skills, and spending time supporting the work of the home. Yes, men can cook and clean, and women can fix a wobbly chair or mow the lawn, so don't be too hung up on gender roles. In hard times, we need everybody to do what they can.

10. Build community. This means your neighbors, your next-door neighbors, your street, your neighborhood, your community. I have read many blogs and articles recently saying that times are going to be tough, and the American people are self-indulgent and helpless and will just roll in a heap if they can't get their big-screen TVs and lattes. I don't believe it.

We haven't stepped up to these challenges because.... We Haven't Been Asked. When our president told us that the most important thing we could do for the country was to keep spending, too many of us believed him. And here we are in 2008, a debtor nation, the biggest in the world.

When columnists say that 70% of the national economy is retail purchases, it makes me feel queasy. That's a sign of how long the road is ahead of us. What organization or family can keep going for long when 70% of their effort is spent just SPENDING? A nation's wealth is based on raw materials and on the things that its citizens make. What are these columnists thinking? If only we can continue to spend money we don't have and can't borrow, that we can avoid recession?

We have a lot of resources in this country, and I mean more than oil, gas, minerals, and good farmland. We have the diverse, resilient, industrious, generous American people. Some of us are a little rusty, some have lost their way, but I have faith that as a community, and a nation of communities, we can tackle these problems and come out of them stronger.