Thursday, January 31, 2008

Are You a Survivalist Eco-Freak?

Based on some checklist I ran across on the Internet recently, I am a certifiable survivalist eco-freak. Solar panels - check. Composting toilet - check. Rainwater collection - check. Efficient light bulbs - check. Doing all my own maintenance - check. Three months of food - check. So I thought I'd check in with my readers, and see how eco-freaky they are, and whether they aspire to greater eco-freakiness.

My eco-freak leanings are all motivated by the fact that I live on a boat. And the top reasons I live on a boat are:

1. It's a cheap way to live
2. It's a cheap way to travel
3. I like sailing

You see, the eco-freak survivalist motivation doesn't make the short list. Even looking at the specific components, their choice is motivated by something other than the eco-survivalist ethos. The solar panels are cheaper to run and quieter than a generator set. The efficient light bulbs are a must because the solar panels are not that powerful. The composting toilet is more convenient because it doesn't require regular pump-outs while living at anchor or at the dock. The food stockpile is because it is cheaper to buy in bulk. Doing my own maintenance is, again, cheaper than paying for labor. The rainwater collection system? Well, the cockpit awning drains onto the cabin top, and the cabin top scupper is right next to the water tank fill.

"So what's it like living on a boat?" people inevitably ask. Well, it's cozy, if not to say cramped, but really quite comfortable. Everything is within easy reach, and there is never any wandering from room to room in search of things. On the other hand, to cut down on clutter, everything has to be stored in lockers, and getting at any given item often requires extensive disassembly and reassembly of locker contents: it's sequential access, not random access. It is also a lot of work, because the combination of salty, moist air and constant motion causes everything on a boat to wear out faster than it would normally.

"But what's it really like?" Well, I could spin a yarn or two, in which I battle gales and fog single-handed, but let's skip that for now. There is excitement to be had, without even leaving the dock. A few nights ago was one such exciting episode. It had been blowing off the ocean quite hard all day, straight into the harbor. Eventually, a swell built up, which bounced off a shore on the other side of the river from our marina, right into the marina, and straight off our dock. By sunset we were bouncing up and down and doing figure-eights, snubbing at the dock lines. By 3 a.m. the wind clocked around (winds tend to shift clockwise in the northern hemisphere) and started pushing us onto the dock. I was awakened by the jolt. The boat was hitting the dock, so got up, got dressed, and went outside to take a look.

The boat was still bouncing around on the swell, but now it was also rubbing up against the dock. Once in a while, some combination of wind gusts from one side and wave action from the other would cause the boat to miss both of the fenders that were hanging off its side, and hit the dock. Thump! Since on the other side of our dock lies a stretch of open water, I did not have the choice of running lines to windward. The remaining good choice was having the boat chew away at the fenders. I stood on the dock for quite some time, observing and gradually repositioning the fenders for optimum protection. (It never ceases to amaze me that I can push seven tons of boat away from the dock, against the wind, with one foot.) It worked. I went back to bed, and slept through until dawn.

The next day dawned mild, windless and calm, with this annoyingly innocent way Nature often has immediately following a storm, as if looking at you and saying: "My goodness! What did you do last night?" There is probably a new spot of "dock rash" on the side of the boat, but I haven't even bothered to look for it yet. I try not to worry about cosmetics - to a point. I am not about to repaint the topsides flat black and start using old tires for fenders, because the neighbors at the marina might take an exception to that. It might label me as some additional sort of freak.

As far as being a survivalist sort of eco-freak, I might yet join their ranks some day. I have thoughts of hauling the boat out, putting it up on a couple of acres of land, and farming that land while continuing to live on the boat. (It has a flat bottom, and sits nice and level on some pressure-treated 4x4's.) But until that happens, I would prefer to be considered just someone living on a boat.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mind the Ruins

Lists of things worth saving from collapse and destruction can be made arbitrarily long: the wetlands, the symphony orchestra, the public library, the public transportation system, the solar sewage treatment plant... the list can go on and on. Saving something generally means preserving it in some intact, functional state, and often involves some fund-raising activities, and political lobbying to secure the much-needed funds. But in the US there is one category that never makes the list, and it is the most important one: ruins. Without much help from anyone, ruins can tell us of our history as a species. Every year millions of people flock to the Roman Forum, the Parthenon, the ruined medieval abbeys, cathedrals and castles, the pyramids at Giza, Cholula, and Chichen-Itza, and the temples at Angkor Wat.

We need not worry about some of the more spectacular sites, such as the Mall in Washington, DC. Barring some very large and unfortunate explosions, the Capitol, the White House, and other buildings surrounding the Mall will some day make a very impressive set of ruins, to rival the ruins of other imperial fora. The Manhattan skyline will make a most stunning set of ruins to be sure. Their glass envelopes long gone, the skeletons of skyscrapers will provide nesting sites for a myriad seabirds.

But some care may need to be taken if we are to preserve the ruins of all the run-down but interesting and quirky buildings that are being knocked down in many US cities, to be replaced with faceless, temporary, relentlessly utilitarian structures, whose ruins will be of no interest to posterity. The choice need not be between finding a new use for an old building and knocking it down: a better choice is to let it mellow, along with the rest of the country.

Economic collapse should make historical preservation more or less automatic, because the resources to knock down old buildings and to put up new ones will be scarce. The historical district of Charleston, South Carolina is an excellent example of just such a happy accident, which inadvertently preserved what is perhaps the most beautiful and architecturally cohesive urban landscape in North America. The combination of antebellum prosperity, fueled by slave, indigo, rice and cotton trades, followed by a lasting depression, caused Charleston to freeze in time. Although the intervening years saw much misery, looking at it now, it is hard to conceive of a happier outcome.

It is relatively cheap to take care of a ruin, and even the poorest of countries can sometimes find the resources to clear away the debris of a collapsed roof, put up some timbers to buttress a leaning wall, spread some cement atop crumbling masonry, plant some grass inside the open space enclosed by the perimeter walls, and prune back trees that might topple an otherwise sound piece of ruin. During a more prosperous spell, a bit of effort might restore a ruin to its former glory - for a time.

Even in their natural, entirely neglected state, ruins are, in fact, useful: they can provide a picturesque spot for a picnic, an instructive site for a school outing, a refuge for wildlife, a source of employment for tourist guides, and a place for archaeologists to dig around. A good ruin right in the center of a busy city is a poignant memento mori for the hurried people who rush about it. Should any of them find an empty slot in their schedules to be still for a moment, they could gain a precious bit of perspective by gazing at a ruin, thinking, sic transit gloria mundi.

These might be good points to bring up at a public meeting convened to discuss plans for knocking down yet another derelict old building.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

On The Fallacy of Reversibility

A recent article by Stuart Staniford on The Oil Drum makes two arguments: first, that industrial societies cannot evolve toward a pre-industrial state, and second, that peak oil will be good for agribusiness. Therefore, he concludes, efforts to re-localize food production are misguided. Sharon Astyk then published this rejoinder in which she critiques Staniford's coning of the term "reversalism" to describe what he sees as a fallacy perpetuated by those who speak in favor of relocalizing agricultural production. Stuart's article has pretty pictures, while Sharon's has a pleasant prose style. They are both quite long, while this post (you should be happy to learn) is quite short.

Now, we should concede Stuart's point about reversibility: complex societies have demonstrated minimal ability to evolve toward a lower level of complexity at a lower level of resource expenditure. Instead, they collapse. Jarred Diamond's book, Collapse, is full of examples of that. So, it will be a different society (or, more accurately, different societies) than this one that will be growing most of its food locally. Activists who advocate relocalization should feel free to gloss over this difference, of course, when speaking to groups of people who wish to survive social and economic collapse, or, for that matter, who just want to eat tasty food that they've grown themselves. The results of their efforts within the scope of this society are likely to be quite circumscribed, because most behaviors that will be adaptive after the collapse (such as growing your own food) would often be maladaptive under current economic conditions. I argue a similar point in this article on the feasibility of promoting sail-based transportation.

And this takes us to Stuart's second point. He argues that Peak Oil will cause high energy prices, which will cause high food prices, which will mean huge profits for agribusinesses, so forget about relocalization. He is assuming implicitly that there will be enough energy to keep the system going, but it will just be a bit more expensive. He writes:

Clearly, farmers making money like that will not be selling out to hordes of the urban poor trying to go back to the land, nor will they need to employ them. Instead, the farmers will simply outbid the urban poor for the energy required to operate the farms...

I agree completely, but why focus just on the urban poor? Why not throw in the suburban poor as well - all of those hapless suburbanites currently being foreclosed out of their suddenly worthless "little cabins in the woods"? Then again, why not throw in everyone else? These ever-higher food and energy prices, coupled with rising unemployment and stagnant wages, is inflation, and it will make most Americans poor. Supposing them to be politically powerless, they would be relatively easy to "simply outbid." But, in their distress, they will probably pose an ever larger security problem, requiring an ever more invasive police state and an ever-larger prison-industrial complex to keep them down.

Now, let's look at it from the point of view of the rich farmers, who will be about the only ones left with the wherewithal to pay the high taxes needed to support the police state and the prisons. Wouldn't it be cheaper for them to just dole out bits of land and let people grow their own food, should they be so inclined?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lines in the Sand

About a week ago I took a bike ride to a place called "Southern Lumber" to pick up a couple of sticks of white oak I am using to build a new dodger onto my boat. We've been living aboard in Charleston, South Carolina, to get away from Boston winter weather, which makes living on a boat quite miserable this time of year. Southern Lumber is up King street, in the wastelands and badlands that lie north of the city. A few blocks past Calhoun Street the gentility and architectural splendor of antebellum Charleston stops rather abruptly, turning into a run-down clapboard ghetto. A few miles of bad pavement later even that peters out into a wasteland of highway, rail track and industrial shacks, among which sit the silos of Southern Lumber.

The fellow behind the counter knew all there is to know about lumber, even to the point of knowing the important distinction between red and white oak as it applies to boatbuilding. But when the time came for him to write down my name on the sales slip, he bogged down:
Clearly, my last name was not one of the ones that he was familiar with, so I handed him my Massachusetts driver's license, and said:
"Just copy it from this."
He looked at my license, and said: "What country is this from."
"Same one, I hope."
"Well, if it's north of the Mason-Dixon line, then it's a whole different country, you know," he stated grandly, unwittingly segueing into a speech I had already prepared for just such an occasion.

"Have you heard of Global Warming?"
"Yessuh!" he said, scoring a point for South Carolina public education.
"Well, due to Global Warming, the Mason-Dixon line is moving further and further north every year. It now runs through New Jersey. In another decade or two, it will be running through New England."
He didn't buy it, and neither should you. Amusing to think about, though...

Imagine: Christian rock piped in on the Acela high speed train between New York and Boston... civic and community leaders in the Five Boroughs attending a prayer breakfast, praying unto someone called "J-Zeus" (a pagan rapper-god, judging from the name)... Bostonians finding themselves at the meat counter in a Piggly Wiggly supermarket surprised to see gigantic cuts of meat labeled "Boston Butt"... the traditional northern second person plural pronoun "Youse" becoming edged out in favor of the southern "Y'all."

But is it really so fanciful to think of the old Mason-Dixon line picking up from N 39º 43' 20" where it has sat for almost two and a half centuries and walking north? After all, other supposedly fixed boundaries appear to be on the move. The US-Mexican border appears to be shifting north, with the entire southern tier of the US turning into a Spanish-speaking zone. The US-Canadian border seems to have jumped north as well: during the Vietnam war, Americans who had a problem with risking their lives for nothing could flee north, but now soldiers and National Guardsmen who have issues with being called up for yet another tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan need to look further afield to find a safe haven.

In other parts of the world, the border between Russia and China seems to be slowly dissolving, with more and more Chinese nationals to be found north of it. To compensate, Russia's northern border has recently made a great leap northward, and now encompasses the north pole. (Anyone who doubts this fact can take a trip in a submarine and look at the Russian flag planted on the sea floor.) This is an example of politics racing ahead of nature. With respect to most other lines that are creeping north as the climate warms up, politics is the laggard. But is it not all, in the end, just a matter of time?

As the tropics turn into a belt of lifeless, sun-baked rocks and sand blown about by hurricanes, populations, both animal and human, will be forced to shift north, and fine political lines, like the various North American borders, will turn out to be of little consequence. In the end, you may not know what country you are from, but it may not matter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

C-Realm Interview

I recently gave an interview to KMO of C-Realm (again), in which I read an extended excerpt from my forthcoming book on the subject of food. Please have a listen.

Sail transport: where theory meets reality

Some of my musings on the subject of sail-based transportation, published on

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Who's More Fucked in 2008? US or FSU

I don't like to make predictions, mostly because they often come true, and since what I generally tend to predict is collapse, that usually turns out to be not such a good thing.

There are exceptions: a couple of years ago I wrote about asset stripping (dismantling vacant houses in abandoned exurbs and suburbs) and squatting in vacant houses owned by absentee landlords as the approaching wave of the future. Apparently, that's all the rage already, and that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. Don't mail that mortgage check! Who cares if you get foreclosed - you can live free next door! Better yet, work out a deal where you live in a place rent-free legitimately, to make sure nothing bad happens to it (like, say, asset stripping).

Luckily, it turns out that this year the folks behind have done the predicting for me. These are the visionary individuals who have wisely abandoned the wretched old USA in favor of shiny new Russia, and are, it would seem, having a grand time of it. They deliver a plateful of predictions about Russia and the US, carefully premasticated for American consumption.

Here are some highlights:

Oligarchs Snap Up Dollar-Cheap Celebrities

In 2007, The Moscow Times reported that star-struck Russian oligarchs are so flush with petro-rubles that one even hired actress Gweneth Paltrow to sit in a cage during a holiday party. In 2008, as the dollar continues to collapse and Russia grows wealthier, oligarch Alisher Usmanov rents out Red Square and hires John McCain to work the party's coat check. Not to be outdone, oligarch-silovik Igor Sechin rents out Gorky Park, and hires the entire U.S. Supreme Court to sit in a makeshift nine-cage zoo, designed by Zurab Tsereteli, so that partygoers can look and point at the justices, and feed them ice cream and delicious dark Russian chocolates.

American Southwest dies harder

Even as the American southwest continues its rapid descent into uninhabitable wasteland because of rising temperatures and water and electricity shortages, the construction boom doesn't let up. McMansions and casinos continue mushrooming around Phoenix and Las Vegas in 2008, even as the worst-ever drought there turns the golf courses yellow. Like fingernails growing on a corpse, development communities expand but lie empty in the desert. Americans blame illegal immigrants for causing the drought, and burn all the golf courses and empty gated communities to the ground rather than see them sold off to Mexicans looking to take advantage of the cheap dollar and cheaper real estate.

Read the rest of their predictions here.