Friday, November 4, 2011

Another Tragedy of the Commons

The original phrase Tragedy of the Commons was based on a paper by Garrett Hardin. The idea is that when people use resources from a common area, there's nothing to keep each person from maximizing their own takings, until the resource and area are degraded and everyone loses. As humans, we don't seem to be able to manage resources in the long run without a rush to depletion.

As Garrett Hardin acknowledged later, we have historical knowledge of many well-managed commons that continued for many hundreds of years without depletion. But it takes a community, firm rules and penalties, and close attention. Shaming was pretty effective then. During the Middle Ages, commons were, well, "common", in such realms as woodlots, pasture for animals, and forests for collection of mushrooms and other wild foods and herbs. It was only when the aristocracy decided they could make more money selling the wood and using the resultant land for sheep rather than human needs that commons became "uncommon".

Commons appears now in a modern variant, the homeowners association, which may be well or poorly managed, but the principle is the same. The modern tragedy is the commons of the ocean, where factory ships are crashing one fish stock after another. We're eating lower and lower in the oceanic food chain, because we've nearly killed off all of our favorite fish. This is a particularly hard harvest to manage, because the only "owner" of the ocean is all of humanity, and it's hard to assess the status of fish populations. Shaming certainly doesn't work in this situation. The fishing regulations have no teeth and are generally ignored.

It is especially tragic in that once a fish species has been removed from its habitat, the habitat closes around it, with other species occupying its niche. Example: the codfish. Codfish will never recover. They were so thick 400 years ago that fishermen said you could almost walk on the codfish in the water. Now there's no way it can insert itself back into the North Atlantic.

The exception to fish species destruction that I know about is the wild salmon fishery in Alaska, very carefully managed and pretty much honored, since there still IS a wild salmon fishery in Alaska.

I read an excellent article recently about Wal-Mart's problems. Their same-store sales are flat to declining over the last eight quarters. Wal-Mart the Latest Victim of Global Labor Arbitrage. I got to thinking that this is an example of the Tragedy of the Commons.

The Unspoken Rules of Labor

American industry really got going in the 20th century. After WWII, the U.S. was the top manufacturing nation on the planet. How the mighty have fallen! Now almost all manufacturing jobs have been offshored to places with cheaper labor, much cheaper labor. During the heyday of U.S. manufacturing, there were two unspoken rules for labor.

1. If you did your job well and showed loyalty to your employer, you would have a job for life, barring unexpected catastrophes. Your employer showed loyalty to you.

2. If you worked hard in this economy, you would make enough money to support your family and buy the products of this economy. Note that up until the 1970s, this was generally ONE wage-earner per family. Henry Ford doubled the wages of his factory labor back in the 1920s, so that they would have enough money to buy the Model T they were assembling.

What goes around comes around, in other words. Manufacturers didn't try to abuse, lay off, and short-change their workers, since it was their workers as a population that kept the cash registers ringing with their purchases.

So how is this a commons? What is the resource of this commons? It's Purchasing Power. Manufacturers put purchasing power into the commons by paying living wages. Workers used the purchasing power to buy whatever they needed for themselves and their families.

Wal-Mart formed its business model with very cheap products and very low labor costs due to low wages and no benefits except for managers. This means, of course, that the government IS paying for health benefits for Wal-Mart employees, and often food stamps as well. So we're all subsidizing Wal-Mart's cheap labor.

And Wal-Mart violates both of the unspoken rules, but in particular the second rule. Almost all goods sold in Wal-Mart are imported, most from China. The purchasing power that you spend there goes only minimally back into the common pool of U.S. purchasing power, through the low wages of the employees. Most goes to foreign companies and into the pockets of workers and managers in China or Bangladesh.

This doesn't matter so much when manufacturing, jobs and wages are strong in the U.S. It's just a little bite, even if Wal-Mart is a huge entity. They get the free ride by short-cutting the system. But plenty of other companies noticed that they could also cut their labor costs significantly by off-shoring. This means laying off most of their U.S. workers.

There is very little manufacturing being done in the U.S. these days. I used to try to avoid items with "Made in China" on them. It has become impossible. The latest I saw was "Hecho in China", perhaps an attempt to hide the origin by using Spanish? The manufacturing jobs that were plentiful in the U.S. in the 1950s are gone now. Are those jobs coming back? Just think about it.

If you are a CEO, and you have no notion of the commons, and your outlook is no further than the next quarter's earnings, are you going to hire a $40k U.S. worker, or a $4k Chinese worker? Easy answer. It doesn't matter if corporate taxes are reduced; it doesn't matter if your personal taxes as CEO are reduced, it doesn't matter if your wages go up by 50% per year, you aren't going to hire U.S. workers when you can hire cheap foreign labor.

It doesn't matter if the President is Democrat, or Republican, or Tea Party, or Socialist, or Green. It doesn't matter who controls Congress.

U.S. companies have broken both employment rules. The very concept of loyalty to employees is antiquated, almost laughable. For a few years, the companies expected loyalty, but did not give it. Now they don't even expect it. But the worst fault is breaking the expectation that working wages will provide a living. Just who do they think will buy their goods? The workers they just laid off? The workers who they hired at half the wages of their previous workers? The workers in China? (no, they buy Chinese goods).

It is a Tragedy of the Commons. A few companies could get away with it, relying on the rest to keep pulling the load and filling up the Purchasing Power commons. When they are nearly all trying to cheat the system, the system stops working.

What Would It Take to Bring the Jobs Back?

How could we get meaningful jobs in the U.S. again? Here are some possibilities:

1. The cost of transportation goes so high due to peak oil that it overcomes the wage differential between U.S. and foreign workers. But if that happens, we're in a world of hurt in other ways.

2. Wages in the U.S. descend to par with third world countries. In other words, $4k per year per family, or perhaps $10k. All workers are below the poverty line, except for management. I don't think we're prepared to go through the pain of that.

3. Corporations finally see the light: oh, if nobody has a job, nobody is going to buy from us. That's a fantasy. Even a few cheaters with cheap foreign goods will put a stop to that, as their profit margin increases relative to the good citizens. Apparently the reward of doing the right thing is laughable compared to the reward of making a fortune.

4. Tax rules are changed, rewarding companies for using U.S. labor and punishing them for using foreign labor. Tariffs are a blunt instrument for accomplishing this, and generally cause reprisals from those tariffed-against. But taxation rules can accomplish this. And it is well within our power. We'll have to listen to the tantrums of the CEOs. But since the rules MUST MUST MUST apply to all companies equally, they'll decide at some point to live within the rules rather than scream about them.

The OTHER Problem--Automation

I've always felt uneasy reading the rah-rah "jobs of the future" articles, where everybody in the labor pool needs to learn to develop software and snazzy computer graphics and games. It's not going to happen. Not everybody has those kind of skills. And there are not very many of that kind of jobs even if by some miracle you created 60 million experts in that field. There is NOTHING WRONG with making things. Supervising a bunch of robots isn't much fun, and there aren't very many jobs left in a fully-automated factory. Actually making something with hands and tools is rewarding.

We've been focused on the wrong kind of efficiency. We've focused on saving labor, and saving money on labor, by off-shoring and automating. Now we have a huge oversupply of labor in the U.S. with nothing to do. The wheels of economic growth are grinding to a halt. The pool of purchasing power, the commons, gets smaller day by day.

We need less automation, and more actual work to do. We need more loggers and fewer logging machines, more factory workers and fewer robots, more customer service people and fewer automated
phone trees, more Americans answering the service calls and fewer Pakistanis. Our fields and orchards need more care from humans, and fewer herbicides, insecticides, and artificial fertilizers sprayed on from expensive equipment by a few bored operators.

So the next time you hear about restoring growth by short-term projects on roads or bridges, or American consumers putting themselves farther into debt to buy cheap foreign goods, just think. With two changes: reduced automation, on-shoring American jobs, we can bring back employment. Without those two changes, no amount of government spending and private debt will bring back the jobs.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Local Food and Weight Loss, Part 2

I first brought up this subject in Part 1.

Stephen Guyenet at Whole Health Source has an 8-article series on food rewards and obesity. As he points out, and it is important to stress, food reward is not the ONLY cause of obesity. There are a number of lifestyle factors, such as stress, sleep status, and exercise. Plenty of genetic and epigenetic influences (the genes your folks gave you, and what you have done with them). And developmental factors such as your childhood nutrition, and your mother's nutritional status when you were in the womb. But food reward is one which has changed markedly in the last thirty years, over exactly the timeframe that food reward through restaurant food, fast food, and junk food has skyrocketed.

So what's wrong with something tasting good? As humans, we're hardwired to seek out sources of sugar/starch, salt, and fat, and consume them when available. Availability was pretty scarce in the olden times (really olden) when our ancestors hunted animals that were mostly lean, and collected foods that were very rarely sweet. Modern fruits are just bags of sugar compared to wild fruits: compare a sweet apple and a crab apple. Salt was rare unless you lived on the seacoast.

Now, we live in a caveman's dream: sugary, fatty, salty foods available at every turn, three meals and innumerable snacks per day. Very high reward factors here, lots of happy dopamine on offer. Modern foods are also engineered to have highly-rewarding textures and flavors. We like crunchy and melty, especially in combination. Grilled cheese sandwich? M&Ms? This highly-rewarding food doesn't need much chewing; just a few lovely bites and down it goes.

So what's wrong with something tasting good? When it tastes TOO good, it overcomes your body's natural tendency for homeostasis (your fat set-point). Your body has several mechanisms for keeping your weight stable over the decades of your life. Good thing you don't have to take care of this matter yourself: even 10 calories daily more than your body needs would put on the pounds over the years. Even using a gram scale and counting every step would not allow you to control your input to this exactitude.

Leptin is a very important player in this arena, although discovered only recently, and there are many things that researchers don't know yet about how it works. But as a practical matter, numerous studies have shown that you can fatten rats quickly by giving them supermarket food: cookies, crackers, chocolate, etc.

Think of the foods that you just can't leave alone. Oatmeal among them? That's plain oatmeal, no salt, no sugar, no funny flavors? I didn't think so. Make a list of the foods that are very hard for you to resist. Probably chocolate, ice cream, chips and crackers, pizza; maybe soda, maybe particular fast food sandwiches; maybe chips and salsa. Each person's list is a little different, but there are big commonalities: fat, sugar/starch, salt.

In fact, if you are concerned about your weight, make that list now. Try for a list of ten foods or food categories that give you the most trouble. Write it on a 3x5 card and stick it to your frig.

Although these foods are highly addictive to you, you always have an opportunity to say no to them. That's before you get into the argument with yourself: I deserve this, I've been working so hard. Once you start the argument, it's hard not to eat the food because that means saying that you do NOT deserve this, and nobody wants to hear that. Not having them in the house is a good first step. Control the source. Not going to the restaurant that layers sugar on fat on salt on sugar on fat and adds the big flavors.

I have a secret for you. If you can stay away from these foods for a few weeks, they will lose most of their power over you. Try sugar: really stay away, not even a teaspoon, no fruit juice (just flavored sugar), no soda, no sugar in your coffee or tea, no ice cream, cookies, etc. And if you are a really hard case, no artificial sweeteners which can keep that craving alive. Strangely, after a few weeks, you won't crave it. Other foods start to taste sweet to you. Your tastebuds recover from their sugar surfeit. So the pain of giving up these "rewarding" foods is limited to a few tough weeks.

If you want to try this, here are five steps to take (thanks to Stephen Guyenet). I wouldn't rush into Level 5. Start with Level 1. That will be enough challenge to start with. See how it goes. Then maybe Level 2.

Level 1: the low-hanging fruit. Avoid your addictive foods, sugar, candy, pizza, baked goods. Minimize calorie-containing beverages, such as soda, juice, and sweet alcoholic drinks (wine or milk is OK). And don't snack. Snacks are for children.

Level 1 will almost certainly stop your weight gain, and probably turn it around.

Level 2: In addition to Level 1, eliminate packaged processed foods. Minimize restaurant meals, and when you do eat out, choose simple foods (not the layered loaded sugar-fat-salt bombs). Avoid seed oils (corn, canola, soy, sunflower, and safflower). Olive oil is OK. Try to cook most of your foods at home, from simple ingredients.

If this is not enough to start you losing weight and losing cravings, take it to the next level.

Level 3: In addition to Levels 1 and 2, make your cooking even simpler. Don't add fat to your foods. If the food has fat, like meat, that's OK. Don't butter your vegetables. Reduce your grain consumption, especially foods made of flour such as bread. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are recommended instead, but don't use butter or sour cream. If you want fat, such as butter, eat it separately, away from meals (preferably unsalted).

I can see the eyes rolling on this one. "Why would I eat a baked potato if I didn't get to put butter, sour cream and salt on it?" Aha!

If you have successfully settled yourself at each of the above levels for a period of time, and want to go farther, here are the last two.

Level 4: (yes there's more) Eat single foods. The end of cuisine, right? No vegetable medleys. No herbs and spices on the food. Broccoli. Ground beef. Baked potato. There you go. Don't salt your food. Do have some salt separately, 1/2 tsp in a glass of water once a day. Salt is necessary for life. Cook food by gentle methods: no deep frying, no sauteeing in oil, no grilling. Roast at low temperatures, simmer or boil. Don't drink any calorie-containing beverages. Only eat foods that taste good when you are hungry; avoid foods you would snack on if you weren't hungry and they were available.

Level 5: Eat just three foods, simply cooked. One kind of meat or protein food, one kind of starch, one kind of green vegetable. NOTE: Don't do this longer than a couple of weeks. Get bored with them. You'll eat less, and only enough for your body's needs. Eat your three foods at each meal.

So there you go. Some things to try. Traditional diets (of local foods) generally have one staple starch, one or a few staple meats, seasonal vegetables in varying quantities. These simple diets sometimes have a staple condiment that they use to add flavor to their bland food. We'll talk about traditional and local foods in the next segment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Taking Over the World

No, not the Republicrats. The Cucumbers!

It's a great season for cucumbers in Colorado. I stopped at the store buying vinegar and a bunch of flowering dill, and the clerk said: "Got a lot of cucumbers?" Now, clerks at the store almost NEVER make a comment on what you buy, so this was noteworthy. Yes, I said. I suppose you have lots of customers with cucumbers this year, and he laughed and said Yes.

My single hill of golden zucchini is outdoing itself. But the cucumbers are a force of nature! I planted two hills, each with a cage to climb on. They climbed the cage, took over the neighboring bed, and started running across the lawn.

Cucumber fruits have an amazing ability to hide, in there with the leaves and stems. So some of them have gotten away from me. I planted Double Yield from Seed Savers Exchange. Nice for pickling when smaller, nice for salads even when quite large, with a mild flavor. But I've got some real honkers that have yellow coloring, far past salad or even pickle stage. I've got a recipe for that!

So here goes. Recipes for summer's bounty.

Easy Cucumber Salad

one moderate-sized cucumber per person, 5 or 6 per bowl for a potluck

Peel the cucumbers and cut off the stem end. Cut in half lengthwise and slice. Sprinkle with salt, to taste, 1/4 tsp or more per cuke. Cut up scallions, one per cuke, and add to bowl. If you have dried dill on hand, sprinkle some of that on too, maybe 1/4 tsp per cuke or more. Fresh dill is nice instead, if you have it.

Let sit for a few minutes, then stir in sour cream (the real stuff, not the fatfree imitation). I like Kalona sour cream, but Daisy is good too. For a small bowl, maybe 1/4 cup, for a large bowl maybe 1/2 cup. To your own taste. Stir some in, stir well to coat the cukes, then see if it needs more.

If you have only oldish tough cukes to use, remove the seeds before slicing. Tender young cukes are OK with their seeds.

Lactofermented Cucumbers

For more information on lactofermentation, see the paper I wrote listed on the side panel.

You'll want medium-sized young cukes for this. MUST be organic, preferably fresh from your garden. Have available dill flowers, garlic cloves, small onions, good quality sea salt or RealSalt. Also non-chlorinated water (lucky us, we have wonderful well water).

I do all my pickles in glass canning jars, quart or half-gallon. Easier than using a crock. It also allows you to put up a jar whenever the cucumbers make a few; you're not committed to having pounds and pounds available.

Cut the cucumbers into pieces, or if they're small and very young, you can leave them whole. Put into your jar, interspersing 1 small quartered onion per quart (or 2 per half-gallon) and a few dill flowers. Peel garlic cloves and add to the jar, maybe 2-3 per quart. For "kosher" dills, add one hot dried pepper per quart. Pack in the cuke pieces up to the neck of the jar.

Make your brine: for a quart jar, warm 2 cups non-chlorinated water with 1 tablespoon good sea salt, stir until salt dissolves. Let cool. For a half-gallon, use 4 cups water, 2 tablespoons salt. When brine is cool, pour over cukes. That should just about fill your jar. If you need more, prepare it in the proportion of 3/4 tsp salt per cup water.

Place two-piece lid on the jar, screw on but not too tight (gases have to escape). Place jar on a saucer, then put at the back of your counter away from the light. Let it sit and think to itself for about a week. Open the jar, and with a clean spoon sample the brine. It should have a nice sour taste to it. If it's not quite to your taste, let it go another day and sample again. If it turns funny colors, grows fur, or has a bad smell, toss it out untasted. (I've never had that happen to cucumber pickles.)

When it's done, put jar in your frig. It fills out its flavor in another few weeks of storage. The pickles will keep a good long time in the frig, kept from freezing, maybe until next season, if you can keep the family out of them.

Golden Zucchini Pickle

I just put this up today. Carefully cobbled together from a couple of recipes in the Ball Blue Book of Canning (a must-have). I sampled the small amount that wouldn't fit in my jars, and it was very good. Makes 9-10 half-pint jars. if you're unfamiliar with the process of waterbath canning, be sure to get the Blue Book and refer to it.

4 lbs yellow zucchini (you could use green instead), tender, fresh, small to moderate sized, no baseball-bat garden escapees, Wash, and cut into chunks 1/2 to 1" on a side. If they're very little, you can slice them into rounds. No need to peel.

2 cups peeled onions, cut into small wedges or chunks

The rest of the ingredients:
2 cups sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon good salt (sea salt, or pickling salt)
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
1 teaspoon dried powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
dried chili peppers, medium-hot, torn into pieces (I used two small Catarina chiles) to taste (or omit)

Open 10 clean half-pint jars, put rings and jars in your waterbath canner in water to cover. Start it toward the boil. Put 10 new canning lids into a small saucepan, covered with water, and bring to a boil, then keep at a low simmer.

Now you have time to prepare your veggies.

Put the "rest of the ingredients" into a 4-quart pan, and bring to a boil. Put zucchini and onion in, stir occasionally, bring to boil. Cover, let cook for 10-12 minutes, until tender but not mushy.

Fish jars out of the hot water. Fill with veggies, distributing veggies and juice evenly between the jars. It's easier with a canning funnel. You may have a little left over. Each jar should be filled to about 1/2" of the top. Now use tongs or a magnetic tool to remove the lids from the hot water. Be sure the rim is clean, then put lid on, tighten the ring (not TOO tight). Using your dandy canning-jar tool (special rubber-coated tongs especially made for jars), place the jars into the hot water. The water should cover them by an inch or more.

Bring the water back to a full rolling boil, cover. Then set the timer for 10 minutes. If you live in Colorado, make it 12 minutes (higher elevation means lower boiling temperature). Set burner temperature enough to keep it boiling, but not so high the water jumps out of the pan.

When done, use the canning-jar tool and get the jars out of the water. Put on the counter and wait for the -ping- to tell you they are sealed. The lid will be slightly depressed. If an hour or two goes by and a jar hasn't sealed, put it in the frig and use fresh.

Golden Age Cucumber Dish

That's the Golden Age for cucumbers, the big honkers you didn't notice, that have a strong yellow cast to their tough skins. My friend's favorite dish with old cukes.

4 big old yellowing cucumbers, fresh. Peel. Cut in half and scoop out the seeds, then cut into half-moon slices

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

1 pepper, bell pepper, Anaheim, or mild frying pepper, seeded and cut small

butter or olive oil

chicken broth or water

dried or fresh dill

salt and pepper to taste

sour cream

Melt butter or oil in the pan, saute the cucumber and onion pieces for a few minutes. Add a little broth or water, cover, and simmer until tender (won't take long). Add salt and pepper to taste, and dill. Garnish with dollops of sour cream.

You could add bits of leftover meat to this dish. Or you could thicken it with a little cornstarch or wheat flour mixed with water.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Local Food and Weight Loss, Part 1

I haven't posted for a long time, I know. I've been working on educating myself in the economics of what's happening in our country and the world. Although I have a fairly good understanding now, I don't think I can add much to the writings of some really brilliant people on this subject:

and others.

Now to the Local Food issue

On the food front, I've been more-or-less paleo or primal for a while, and carb-cycling. This doesn't work quite as well as it did. I've noticed that any diet you are on for a while seems to stop working as well; you figure out how to game the system, and your body figures out how to extract the most calories out of what you give it.

Vegetarian eating made me sickly and fat, and it was during a spell of low-fat vegetarian eating that I became overtly celiac (gluten intolerant). This was a life-changing event. Since then I don't do so well on any grains on a regular basis. This pushed me out of the Standard American Diet (SAD) and onto a whole new path.

However, replacing wheat-based cookies, breads, cakes, pies, etc. with their gluten-free equivalents is not conducive to weight loss. In fact, you can gain weight JUST as easily on GF goodies.

At times over the last three years, I've been very good at avoiding any processed (and certainly non-local) goodies. Our "real food", daily meals, are probably 80-90% local. But sometimes I've gotten into addictive eating of non-local snacks. Bad me!

I have discovered a fascinating new dietary concept that I want to share with you. Last year I read the book "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler. Look here for more information.

I recommend it highly. It is very well researched, with reports of numerous studies. The theme is the addictive nature of fat, sugar, and salt, and how food processors and restaurants make the most of it. Hyperpalatable food, such as snack cakes, chips, candy, etc., makes lab rats fat faster than any kind of rat chow. This is handy since the obese rat is an important research subject. Unfortunately, we're all lab rats now, with the ready availability of super-tasty, "loaded" foods.

The information I learned from the book about addictive foods was the breakthrough to my losing 45 lbs in 2010. Funny thing about addictive foods; if you can just stay away from them completely for a few weeks, they lose their hold on you. Sugar? Meh (provided you haven't had ANY for a few weeks).

This concept works perfectly with local foods. Very few of us live next to an Oreo factory. And even then, the ingredients of the cookies aren't grown near us. To the extent that you can remove packaged processed foods from your diet, and avoid eating at fast food establishments, you have a definite advantage in losing weight.

In my next post, I'll get into a little more detail. Stephen Guyenet on Whole Health Source has written an 8-section series on "Food Rewards, a dominant factor in obesity", if you can't wait that long. And I'll talk a bit about Seth Roberts and his theories about metabolic set-points.

Then I'll discuss some traditional cultures and their food choices, and how well it works in with both local food choices, and low-reward or simple eating.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

We Don't Like It

People who first started to get concerned about the climate made a fundamental mistake by calling this concern "global warming". It sounds so benign, to those of us who have cold winters. Warmer climates, less harsh winters, growing tomatoes in Canada, what's not to like? Maybe the Sahara would get even drier, if possible, but we're far away.

Next the term "climate change" became popular. Well, the climate changes some all the time, so it becomes ambiguous. The Earth has undergone numerous ice ages and hot, humid times. It begs the do-nothing response that says the climate changes by itself--nothing to do with me. Or, as seen recently in our local paper, Almighty God is in charge of the climate and it doesn't matter a hoot how many billion gallons of petroleum we burn.

From an on-the-ground, local perspective, events like cold winters, ice storms, floods, heat waves, droughts, and tornadoes are ambiguous if you are looking either for evidence of warming, or evidence that we're not warming. Ambiguity coupled with expense or change equals no action. As humans we don't do well with ambiguity, or with predicaments that require a perspective of decades or more, and we particularly do not do well with sudden change. We don't like it.

Average temperatures are rising in the oceans, and in the high latitudes (northern and southern) in particular. This is a scientific fact. Note that it does NOT mean that every little corner of the world is a degree or two hotter all the time. What it does mean is that there is more energy in the atmosphere (due to the increased heat), which causes more severe and unpredictable weather. So, more blizzards, more ice storms, more floods, more tornadoes, more hurricanes, more droughts. China is presently suffering from a severe drought AND severe flooding at the same time. After a decade-long drought in Australia, one large area was inundated with rains and flooding. We can give this process a name: Climate Instability. Instability--now that's something we don't like.

We've had about 10,000 years of friendly and stable climatic conditions, following the last ice age. It's been a really pleasant interglacial, one of the most climatically-stable periods in the last million years. It happened to coincide with the growth in human populations from maybe 100,000 to our present 7 billion.

Long-term climate changes are driven by numerous interlocking natural cycles. Some of these are known to science, and certainly some are not. We know that the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat in the atmosphere. This is not "rocket science", as the saying goes. Without the natural carbon dioxide and methane produced by volcanism, the Earth would be uninhabitably cold. We don't know how much of our present-day climate instability is due to the emissions of our industrial age, and how much is due to natural cycles. But this is our planet, and our life, and the lives of our children that we're talking about. Wouldn't it be prudent to take some steps for their future, even if it means some sacrifices on our part. Maybe some delayed gratification, maybe some frugality. Oh, we don't like that.

Climate instability is only one of the factors that are extremely unsettling in today's world. The continued availability of cheap energy is very much in question. As Peak Oil has moved from the fringes into center stage, we're starting to ask questions. How will I get around if the price of gasoline continues to rise? Just how many of the material objects in our daily lives are based on petroleum? (And you'd be shocked at how many there are.) How can we continue to feed the human race without the petrochemical-based pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, and the tractors and the diesel to power them, and the factories, and the semitrailer trucks, and the supermarket? And how will I put bread on the table without the supermarket?

The supermarket model is in big trouble in the not-too-distant future. Tremendously long supply lines, bringing food from every corner of the world, some of it shipped by air, and all of it eventually by truck. Just-in-time distribution means that the stores have only a few days supply of food. Warehouse space and management is expensive, and profit margins are small. But this entire amazing complicated business depends on stability: weather stability, fuel availability at reasonable and predictable prices, consistent prices of raw materials and processed foods, ready availability of irrigation water to grow the food. And that's just what we won't have in our near future: stability.

It's stressful dealing with instability; much easier to a) blow it off, b) blame it on whichever political party we don't belong to, c) blame it on the corporations, or the liberals, or the illegal immigrants, or the rich, or the poor, d) tell ourselves sweet bedtime tales of how technology will save us, e) hope for the end of the world before it gets too bad. Instability: WDLI

We happen to be on the Earth at just the time that everything is happening: resources running short, water running short, population ever-rising, with ever-rising expectations. Technology changing faster and faster. Bubble after financial bubble (chances are the next one will involve food). Persistent and intractable unemployment. Debt in the form of financial derivatives worth thirty times the entire annual productive output of the Earth. This is not going to be pretty.

We're at the teetery top end of the "perpetual-growth" economy. We'll have to find a new way to live. We'll have to find ways to reduce complexity in our governments, in our economy, and in our daily lives. We'll have to find methods of farming and manufacture that use less petrochemical energy and more human energy (powered by food; food powered by the sun). We'll have to stop fooling ourselves that a magician in a laboratory, in a factory, in a bank, or in the White House, will be able to pull rabbits out of a hat and let us live on in the dream world.

Somehow we'll have to get our feet on the ground, stop wishful thinking, start planning. Somehow we'll have to prepare for sudden changes, unpredictable weather, kinds of work that we're not accustomed to. We'll have to gain some practical daily skills. Somehow we need to insulate ourselves as best we can from the madness of the present-day economy (hint: start by paying off your OWN debt). While everything is still working (more or less), we need to get a robust local food system. Wherever you live, you should start working on this.

You can learn a lot by just paying attention, and not fooling yourself. The signs are all around us. Now if we could just get our elected officials to stop fooling themselves and us....

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Enough is Enough (or is it?)

Human society is based on the stories we tell ourselves. They don't have to be true, just true enough to keep us feeling confident that we have not lost our way. We are in a strange situation now. The stories we have been telling ourselves for a hundred years, three or four generations(!) are wrong. Not just wrong, but dangerous to the future of our civilization.

The story is spoken in a variety of ways: We can have perpetual economic growth; we need and can have ever-increasing amounts of energy; there are no limits; innovation will solve all our problems (and not cause any new ones); any resources we run short of we can substitute with other things; we really don't need other lifeforms on the planet except for those we like to eat; the planet has an endless capacity to handle our wastes.

Side stories: We need high-tech, high-fossil-fuel agricultural techniques in order to feed the ever-growing human population. We need increased population to help take care of the elderly. Consumption is the most important part of our economy.

Well, get a grip on yourself. Every single one of these statements is wrong. It's a hundred years of self-delusion based upon finding an incredible 500-million year legacy of sunshine, nicely distilled into portable fuels. We have now run through half of that legacy; 250 million years of sunshine energy in one huge orgy of consumption. (Peak Oil is an agreed-upon fact from all sides of the political spectrum; the only difference of opinion now is whether it was in 2005, or is a decade or two ahead of us.)

We can't have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet. If you seriously think about this for a little while, it will become perfectly obvious. There's only one Earth that we live on. It's big, but not infinite.

We can't have ever-increasing amounts of energy. And it doesn't matter if we **NEED** them or not, they just aren't there. It really doesn't matter if you draw a graph showing the world's need for energy heading up and to the right at an ever-increasing clip. Can't happen. Nohow.

Yes, there are limits. Everything we see in life shows us limits, down to how many pancakes we can eat; how many hours we can stay awake; how fast we can run. How many codfish we can catch. How many cattle can graze one field before the vegetation is gone.

Innovation will not solve all our problems. For every gift we get from innovation, we get a grab-bag of problems. Consider the automobile. Automobiles need fuel, they need roads, they spit out pollution, they run over people, they allow people to live far from their work or shopping. They need loads of money to support with purchase, fuel, repairs, etc.

We are running out of every physical resource. Uranium, coal, copper, rare earths, phosphorus, fresh water, and on and on. But the most basic of these is cheap energy. There's energy out there, but it isn't cheap any more. Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) is the key concept to master. If it takes a gallon of petroleum to create a gallon of ethanol, what's the point? (Careful research shows that the actual rate of return from corn-based ethanol is only about 1.3:1, which is pretty much of a wash considering that ethanol has less energy per gallon than gasoline. It's just a way to make some people richer, and some other people hungry.)

We need a reasonably-intact ecosystem on this planet. We depend on the planet for every bite of food that we eat, either from the soil or the oceans. We depend on the planet for the air we breathe, for the water we need. We depend on the planet and myriad other lifeforms to soak up and detoxify the waste from our consumption. Yes, we can eat, breathe, drink water, have shelter and clothing, but we don't need closets bursting with cheap t-shirts.

Conventional agriculture is too wasteful to continue. Before long, conventional agriculture with its huge use of fossil fuels will be far too expensive. We'll have to go back to sane and rational farming techniques, with more people working the land, fewer chemicals, more skill, less debt, more local food, less food importations. Strawberries in winter? If you live in California, maybe....

We need fewer people on the planet, to make room for the rest of its inhabitants. In the kindest way, we need to gradually downsize the human population, which shot up on exactly the same trajectory as the use of fossil fuels. If we don't handle this in the kindest way, by having fewer children, the Four Horsemen will take care of this matter for us. Famine, War, Disease and Pestilence will do it, as they have so many times in the past.

Economic wealth does not come from spending. There's a reason why they call it "real estate". Land is real. Resources in the land or grown on the land are real. Value added by human skill and work is one level removed from real assets. Value added by financial manipulations...., oh wait, there is no value added by that.

We need to relearn the older stories. The important things of life: love, family, community, learning, wonder, strength of purpose, health, happiness. The beautiful planet. You can add to this list. We need to internalize the concept of Enough. The last hundred years have been about more, more, more, more, more. Strangely, if what you want is More, there is never Enough. Once you have the basics that you need, more money and more stuff does not make you happier.

I am planning a few more posts, talking more about Enough and what it might mean for our daily lives. It's really not that scary, once you get over that first big hurdle of finding that the economic story of More can't possibly be true.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Climate Politics and Pixie Dust

I recently read the book The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke Jr. Although he makes some interesting points, I cannot recommend the book.

The interesting points first:

  • Climate is not the same thing as Weather. Weather changes, by definition. This year is not just like last year. We know how to predict the weather, and we have some understanding of how reliable those predictions are. Climate is a long-term concept, and knowledge about climate is riddled with uncertainty. It takes decades to figure out if the climate is changing, and that has almost nothing to do with whether we had a cold winter last year. We have no reliable way to predict the climate.

  • The reason we can't predict the climate is it's too complicated and we don't know enough. There are many more factors than just carbon dioxide. There are a multitude of other greenhouse gases, including plain old water vapor. The influence of aerosols such as carbon particles or dust is very poorly understood. The influence of human-caused changes in land use, such as irrigation, clear-cutting forests, cities and hard surfaces replacing land, are very poorly understood.

  • Nature has some feedback cycles both positive and negative that will play in the future climate, and we don't understand them either. Pielke doesn't really mention any of these, but some of them are the impact of permafrost melting releasing methane, clathrates in the oceans which have a tremendous potential to release methane if the ocean warms enough, and the loss of glaciers particularly in Asia leading to loss of irrigated agriculture. And there are larger cycles that we barely even have names for, such as the Bond cycle that apparently occurs on approximately 1500-year intervals (and yes, we are on the cusp of one).

  • Pielke believes that there is enough consensus in the public that we could do something about climate change, and gives as evidence that the Montreal protocol for protecting the ozone layer was passed with less public support than we have now for alleviating climate change. But the kicker for him is what he calls the Iron Law of Climate Policy: people are okay with working on the climate as long as it does not impede economic growth in any way.

Here is where his argument starts to go off the tracks. It's all very well to have an Iron Law that people won't support anything that impedes economic growth. But never in the entire book does he mention that perpetual economic growth on a finite planet just does not make the least sense. We have ample signs around us now that we are reaching the limits of the resources that the Earth can provide for us. It isn't just Peak Oil, it's peak phosphorus, peak rare earth elements, peak copper, peak coal (not that far down the road if coal use increases).

  • Another point from the book, which I think deserves a little independent verification, is that both sides in the climate change political wars are guilty of exaggerating their positions, using fear-mongering tactics, ad hominem attacks, egregiously misquoting published research, or just plain ignoring it. An example Pielke has been associated with is the claim that climate change is already causing far worse weather-related catastrophes, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. A careful study on his part showed that most if not all of the increased losses to weather catastrophes can be accounted for by increased population and increased development in vulnerable places. However, in the years since this book was written, there is overwhelming evidence that climate change IS causing more severe weather. Warmer water and air means more energy in the system, leading to more severe storms. And the recent change in weather patterns due to Arctic ice melt has already started to cause major weather changes.

  • There is no doubt in his mind and in the mind of most thoughtful people that humans are having an effect on climate, both by land-use and by emissions. Human behavior is not the only factor that affects climate, another statement that most thoughtful people agree with. And finally, climate changes from whatever source are unlikely to make life on Earth better for humankind. We've really had it pretty good in the 10-12,000 years since the last Ice Age. Almost any change would make our lives more difficult.

The last chapter of the book is where the pixie dust comes in. Since according to his Iron Law people won't support climate change remedies that interfere in any way with growth, and it would be prudent to reduce the human-caused effects on climate, we would seem to be in a predicament. Pielke also points out that almost a quarter of the population of the world does not have electrical power, and that these people deserve ample energy as much as the rest of us. This leads him to conclude that energy is too expensive now, rather than too cheap, and we need a huge amount more energy now, and even more in the future. Nice, cheap, non-polluting energy that will make us wonder why we would even want to burn that old smelly, polluting, high-carbon petroleum any more. This is the answer to de-carbonizing the planet, right? Ample supplies of dirt-cheap and non-polluting energy. So cheap that we can use all we want; so clean that we can de-carbonize the atmosphere just by using it.

So, where do you get this marvelous energy? A few hundred billion dollars of research ought to do it, according to him. Just stop and think for a moment. Do you think if a vastly superior source of energy, far cheaper than petroleum, is out there just waiting for us, that the hundreds of billions of research money already spent would not have found it? Would Exxon keep going to the effort of pumping and piping and shipping petroleum if a few research projects would uncover this marvelous new and practically unlimited source? Can we repeal the laws of thermodynamics?

The author does not hazard a guess as to what this new source might be, just limitless faith in the ability of science to find it. I'm not an energy expert, researcher, or engineer. If you want more details on these things, there are numerous posts on The Oil Drum that can fill you in.

Concentrated sources of energy are very rare. We had our one-time legacy from 500 million years of sunshine falling on the Earth and we've run through roughly half of it now, in a little over a hundred years. Our current energy paycheck on the planet comes from sunlight, a wonderful but diffuse source. It takes a big front-load of resources to tap this energy, some in the form of rare earth elements that are becoming scarce (and are mostly in China, if you want to know). Solar panels do not last forever.

Fusion power is still a chimera; it's been "nearly ready" for more than thirty years. Nuclear power has many hazards and huge front-load costs, while uranium ores are rapidly declining in quality.

Corn-based ethanol is just a flim-flam. Energy return on energy invested for corn ethanol has been carefully estimated at about 1.34:1, barely more than break-even; some researchers believe you get less energy from ethanol than the petroleum energy that was put into growing the corn, transporting it, fermenting, distilling, and purifying it, then transporting it to the gas station. We can't keep our economy running with that kind of energy source. Cellulosic ethanol has the same problem of inadequate returns on energy invested. Used french-fry oil? Enough for a handful of eco-warriors, but not enough for all of us even if we quadrupled our french-fry consumption.

Coal is a very dirty fuel, and very costly if you wanted to clean it up, and the supply won't last long if we boost our usage tremendously. Natural gas? Yes, it's cleaner than other forms, and cheaper right now, but has the same limitations on supply going into the future. This can't be the marvelous energy source that is clean and practically unlimited. Do you have any ideas? Maybe we could tap all that dark energy that is supposed to be out there in the vast vacuums of outer space?

I think pixie dust is the only solution that fits the requirements. Wave a few hundred billion dollars of research money over the problem, and presto, it's solved.

NOTE: I've had more time to think about the book and the author, and I think I was much too easy on him. His book strained at gnats, elevating small quibbles to earth-shaking discoveries. Much of the climate-change-denier rhetoric is being directly funded by corporations that have a vested interest in business as usual, from the blinkered viewpoint of their next quarterly economic reports. We need a serious approach to this subject, not a series of nitpicking jibes followed by pixie-dust "solutions".

Of course, our author had painted himself very thoroughly into a corner toward the end of the book. He had admitted that human activities ARE involved in climate change. And his iron-clad rule of climate policy--nothing that interferes with economic growth--played the part of handcuffs in determining any realistic kind of solution. What's left? It has been extremely well documented that no kind of alternative energy can possibly fulfill even the present world energy demand (see almost anything written by Richard Heinberg for details; here's one: Searching for a Miracle.

Friday, March 11, 2011

I Love my Dutch Oven

DH got me a beautiful red 3-qt Lodge Logic dutch oven for Valentine's Day. It goes from stovetop to oven (NOT THE MICROWAVE) perfectly happily. It is the greatest way to cook a plump local chicken. Here goes:

Oven Casserole Chicken
3-4 lb fryer or roaster chicken, preferably organic and free-range
salt and pepper to taste (1/2 to 1 tsp salt)
2 tbs olive oil or butter for browning
1 small onion, peeled and cut

Rub chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil or butter on medium on stovetop. Put the chicken in breast-side down and brown for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, turn chicken over in pan. Sprinkle onion around chicken. Put lid on pan and put into oven at 300 degrees. After 30 minutes, reduce heat to 275 degrees, and bake another 1 1/2 hours.

If you don't have a casserole or dutch oven that will go from burner to oven, brown the chicken in a skillet, then put in a oven-safe casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid, and proceed to bake it the same way.

Oven Chicken Repeat
Save all the bones from above, including the carcass and any pan juices that are left. Put it all in your dutch oven or casserole. Bring to boil about 1.5 to 2 quarts of water, pour over bones, and add another 1 tsp or so of salt. Clap the lid back on, put casserole back in oven at 300 degrees, and bake for 2 hours. You will get a wonderful flavorful broth (if you started with a good quality chicken). Remove bones, pick off any promising little bits of meat, and strain the broth.


Next, what to do with the broth? If you still have a butternut squash on hand, try this soup.

Passato di Zucca
Cut in half one 2-lb butternut squash. You can save the seeds and roast them. Turn squash cut-side down on a cookie sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes. For the seeds, put in a pie pan with a little olive oil and salt and also roast them at 300 degrees for 45 minutes. These two can go alongside the dutch oven full of chicken bones and broth, conveniently.

In a 2-quart pan, melt 2 tbs butter and saute 1 largish onion chopped until soft. Scoop the cooked squash out of the shell and add. Now add 3 cups of your dandy chicken broth and cook about 5 minutes. Let cool a bit, turn into a blender and puree. Return to pan, check for salt, add a dash of nutmeg and pepper, and add more chicken broth if it is too thick. Garnish with sour cream or yogurt if desired.


A bowl of the above soup was part of my lunch today.

My winter squash has kept beautifully this year. It was a long fall, and the squash got well matured out in the field before harvest. I keep them in a coolish room out of the sun, maybe in the 50s most winter days. I recently cooked my last pumpkin of the season (made pumpkin pudding--yum!). This soup took my last butternut squash. I have a couple of acorn squash left. Usually pumpkins aren't very happy after the first of the year.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Pikelets--such fun!

Pikelets are fun pancakes, one-dish meals that are nutritious and quick to fix.

These recipes are gluten free, dairy free, and rice free

Basic recipe

1 egg
2 tbs tapioca starch
2 tbs split green pea flour
2 tbs coconut flour
dash salt

Beat well, adding enough water to make a medium pancake batter. Cook in a 10" skillet with at least 1 tsp butter or other fat. Pour into one big cake, cook at medium heat until the bottom is well set, then flip and cook more briefly on the other side, until the pancake feels resilient when you tap your finger on it. One serving.

To help you get a sense of how much liquid to add, if you do not have enough liquid the batter won't spread over the pan. If you have too much, it will just take significantly longer to cook.

Note: you can make your own split pea and blackeyed pea flour with a grain mill. You could also do yellow split pea. I would definitely NOT grind up more significant beans and cook them in a pancake like this. For example, kidney beans have a very bad lectin in them which is only neutralized by soaking and long cooking. You could grind up your own pintos and garbanzos, but you should be using them in baking or long-cooking dishes.

Common to all variations: 1 egg, 2 tbsp tapioca starch, dash salt

Variation 1: use blackeyed pea flour instead of green pea

Variation 2: use 4 tbs blackeyed pea flour and omit the coconut flour

Variation 3: chop one piece bacon, fry gently to drive out the fat, then pour the pancake over it. You could use this with any of the other variations.

Variation 4: saute a little sliced onion or scallions in skillet, either with the bacon, or by itself with butter or other fat, before pouring the batter over it.

Variation 5: instead of the coconut flour and water, use about 1/2 cup pureed pumpkin. If the batter is too thick, you can add a little water. You can add some spices to this one.

Variation 6: put a few pieces of kim chee into the batter, and use kim chee juice for part of the liquid. If it's homemade kim chee with lots of juice, just use that. Kim Chee pancake! delicious. I like this best with 2 tbs tapioca and 4 tbs black-eyed pea flour.

Variation 7: like #6, but use sauerkraut and its juice in place of the kim chee

Variation 8: egg foo young. Use 2 eggs, 2 tbs tapioca starch, 1 tsp tamari, enough water for a fairly runny batter. In your big skillet heat some oil or fat, saute a little sliced onion and sliced mushrooms until wilted. Then add 1 cup fresh bean sprouts, saute and stir until sprouts start to wilt. Pour the egg mixture over the veggies, tipping the pan to get the egg mixture to the edges. Cook at medium heat until the bottom is set, then flip and cook more briefly on the other side.

Variation 9: use garfava flour (commercial), either 2 tbs (with coconut and tapioca) or 4 tbs (with just tapioca). This would be nice with curry-type spices. Garfava flour is steam-cooked before grinding, so it is safe to use in a cake like this where the batter might not be well cooked.

Variation 10: use coconut flour and apple juice for the liquid. Heat 1 tbsp butter in skillet, add 1/2 to 1 apple cored and cut into 1/4" slices. Saute the apple briefly till it starts to get soft, then pour the batter over. You can add apple-pie type spices to this. This is more of a sweet cake than savory.

Variation 11: if you have several kinds of leftover veggies, chop them into small pieces, 1/2 to 1 cup. Saute briefly before pouring basic pancake batter over. Carrots, peas, mushrooms, cabbage, or cooked greens, whatever you have.

Variation 12: Use tapioca and blackeyed pea flours. Add 1/2 cup cooked corn and 2 Tbsp salsa or chopped green chiles. Add water as needed for a medium batter and cook.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Austerity fatigue?

It seems that many people have gotten tired of cutting back, living within their means, paying off their debts. The word in the retail establishments was that it was a good Christmas. People get tired of doing without, whether they can afford it or not.

Let's think this one through.

IF you have a good secure job (you're absolutely positive that you will not be laid off)....

Whoa! Let's stop here. Is there anyone in this country that can say that about their job without fooling themselves? Even if you work for yourself, can you be that sure that next year your business will be humming along? Even if you're on Social Security, can you say for sure that you will not have your benefits cut? There are some legislators in Washington that are just dying to cut your benefits.

Start again:

IF you have a good secure income, and you have your debt well in control...

Whoa! Is your house paid off? If not, is it underwater (financially-speaking)? 41% of mortgaged homes in the Denver area are underwater. (Of course if it's actually under water, you've got other problems that we won't discuss here.)

Is your car (cars?) paid off?

Do you pay your credit card bill off every month? Is your income high enough to pay your credit card bill down every month? If not, you've got to be losing ground; your credit cards are in control, or you could say your spending is in control of you, rather than vice versa.

If you are a two-income household, could you pay all your bills if one of you lost their job? Could you pay off that car? Could you pay off your credit card bills? Would you have to walk away from your mortgage?

Start again:

IF you have a good secure income, and you truly do have your debts either paid off or well in control, and you are investing in your retirement.....

Whoa! What retirement? You have to work until you die because you can't afford to retire? There are precious few jobs that will let you work until you're elderly, significantly past 65. You may find that as you get older, you don't have quite the energy you did as a youngster. There are plenty of elderly people who do have lots of energy, excellent health, all their marbles, and valuable experience to bring to their employment, so I'm not down on the elderly. But are you sure you will be one of those super-energized, irresistible older workers who are immune to layoffs and ill health? Even then, plenty of older people will tell you how difficult it is to find any position at all, even entry-level, if you're over 55.

So maybe you should try to sock a little away if you are still employed. If you leave work anywhere near the usual age, your nest egg has to keep you fed and housed for at least an average 15-20 years, and possibly up to 30, 40 or more.

Start again:

IF you have a good secure job, your debts under control, and your retirement accounts in good order, are you prepared for economic hurricanes that could come down the pike at us? Another run-up in gas and diesel prices? (It'll probably happen this year. Look at what's happening in the Middle East!) Food costs going up when diesel goes up? A big unexpected medical bill? Utility costs rising significantly?

But you deserve that luxury... your child deserves that expensive toy she has her heart set on... You can't say no to her, or to your spouse, or to yourself? If not now, then when?

The future looks a little grim right now. Nobody's doing very well except the banks. They're sitting on piles of cash, carefully not loaning it. Unemployment is still stubbornly high and will probably remain so for five years at least. Real estate prices have farther to fall, until the huge backlog of repossessed property is cleared.

But spending is fun! spending is necessary! Think it through: what kind of spending?

There's spending for consumer trash, filling up your already-overfilled house. It's easy to buy too much cheap stuff from China and other countries. It just ends up to be a disposal problem when you get tired of it, it breaks, it goes out of style, it goes the way of all such trash. This doesn't look like a very good idea.

Then there's spending for useful stuff: Stocking up on food staples now, before the price goes up. Improving the insulation of your house to save on utility bills later. Paying off your debt so you'll be flexible in the future. Choosing your luxuries carefully: good value for the money, classic style, long-lasting or repairable, something you're thrilled to have that will make you happy to see it in three years or three decades. Educating yourself or family members; this includes classes in philosophy, tai chi, knitting, tennis, mathematics, great books, electronics repair, woodworking.... the list is endless.

Spending on good quality food, and learning to cook it properly. (Another opportunity for a class, right?) This will pay off in health and happiness and knowledge. Learning is one thing that never goes out of fashion. You can have a better life without spending more money and getting more stuff. You only have to get your head back from the advertisers, and take control again.