Saturday, March 28, 2009

While the Sap is Boiling

Making maple syrup takes a very long time ... which is why most people are willing to pay $18 per quart ... or instead of real maple syrup, willing to buy the sugar water Aunt Jemima syrup for $1.50 per bottle.

Not us.

I'm not a fan of pancakes for the most part, but I find them less replusive with real maple syrup, and maple syrup is a good sweetner in other recipes. So, we make our own.

And while the sap was boiling, and we were waiting for it to reach the syrup stage so that we could go to bed, I decided to watch a Netflix movie. I chose, for my viewing pleasure (not!), the film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, and, of course, the film validated my very anti-Wal-Mart stance.

Last September, I was having some very interesting "conversations" in my comments section, and some of those ended up as blog posts. My last (re)post was one of those.

This one, originally published on September 17, 2008 was also one.

It was orginally titled:

Let's Talk About Con-Ser-Va-Tion

And from the look of it, one of my readers took issue with my insistence that the only way to mitigate our economic crisis, Peak Oil, and climate change is to use less - or to "conserve", if you prefer. I answered the points the commenter made to rebuke my assertions about "conservation" being the best choice.

In the six months since it was originally posted, things have worsened considerably, and many people are now doing what I suggested - using less - because they have no choice.

So, without further ado ... the post ...

Question: If your house has a growing crack in the frame, do you tear it down?

Answer: No. I fix it. I fix it using quality materials so that it doesn't break again in the very near future. Tearing it down is exactly the opposite of the "conserving" attitude I advocate. Tearing it down would follow the attitude that everything is disposable and nothing need be repaired that has gotten our country into the economic mess that we're in. Planned obsolescence has been the driving force of our economy for the past several decades. Make something cheaply so that it costs very little and so that it will break so that people will buy more.

I believe that's a very poor foundation for one's economy, because at some point, people will wake up and go, "Huh? Do I really need another whizzi-gidget? I mean, I never really like the whizzi-gidgets I've gotten in the past, and they always break. Maybe I can live without it." That's what's happening, and I don't see it as a bad thing. Buy what you need, use what you buy, and eschew the rest.

Point: We need to restore our economy.

I'm not sure *we* can restore our economy, and I'm not sure ....

Well, I'm not sure what that means, exactly. What part of the "economy" is it that we wish to "restore"? The part where everyone owns fourteen whizzi-gidgets, thirteen of which don't work, and none of which are even manufactured in the US? The part where the "good-paying", manufacturing jobs are outsourced overseas, because the company owners can't afford to pay Americans to make the whizzi-gidgets for the price Wal-Mart is willing to pay? Or the part where the best job in town is actually AT Wal-Mart, and many of the whizzi-gidgets for sale there are too expensive for the employees to even purchase?

I guess my problem with this is that I'm not sure who is benefitting from the sale of the whizzi-gidget. Certainly not the retail cashier, who might make minimum wage. Probably not the truck driver who delivers it to the store. Probably not the guy who unloads it at the docks when it arrives on the container ships. Maybe not even the sailors who travel across the ocean with it. Who, then? The Chinese teenager who sits in a factory for ten hours a day fitting the plastic parts together? Sure, they all have jobs, but shouldn't there be more to life than just working so that we can afford another whizzi-gidget?

There was a time when people did meaningful work for an honest day's wages. That's the "economy" I would like to restore. I think it's wrong to pay the lowest price we can find for something, just because it's the lowest price. I think it's wrong to pay less than something is worth, because someone somewhere in the world is willing to work for next to nothing just so I can have it.

When I made my cloth feminine hygiene products, it took me about a half hour to make each one. If I worked for the Federal minimum wage, each one would cost, in labor alone, $3. For one cycle, the average woman would need at least six, and that's assuming she launders them each time she changes her pad. The initial outlay, would then, be $18 - for just cutting the material and sewing all the pieces together. That doesn't even include the cost of materials, etc. Sure, they don't break, you don't throw them away, and you can use them over and over, but in our "throw away" economy, with "disposables" costing only $6 for TWENTY-FOUR napkins, who's going to pay $18 for just SIX?

If the solution to "restore the economy" means making everything so cheap (per price and per quality) that everyone has three, then I say, please don't restore the economy. Let it die, like it should, and we can be like the Phoenix and raise a "new economy" out of the ashes of the old. Yes, it will be painful and messy as we crash and burn, but it's going to happen whether we accept it or not, and instead of trying to revive the scorched bird, we could build something different, something that is based on something real and tangible rather than on empty promises of some "better place" to be had if only we believe enough and work hard enough.

It's time to pop the fantasy bubble and see the world for what it really is. Some people wear fancy clothes and some people don't. That's life. Our current economy has only made more clear the line between those who have the good clothes, and those who buy cheap imitations (every three months) from places like Wal-Mart.

If we could use our resources more wisely (and here I mean "personal" resources), then, maybe, we could afford to buy one or two of the "better quality" item. But instead, I know some people whose car barely passed inspection this year, but instead of saving for a new car (which they probably need for employment purposes as there is no mass transit system in place here), there's a 32" plasma television delivery and a satellite dish installation.

Unfortunately, I don't believe these people are acting differently than most Americans would in their situation.

Point: We can not all move to small farms and support ourselves.

True. We can not all move to small farms, and at this point, probably none of us can. I am, in no way, advocating we all move to the middle of nowhere and "live off the land." First, there isn't enough land, and second, most of us wouldn't survive the first winter.

Not too long ago, I wrote an entire series of posts discussing why we should not abandon our suburban homes (let's start here), but rather, turn our quarter acres into mini subsistence farms. It is possible to grow some portion of one's food on a very small piece of land, even in Maine. I'm growing/raising about 10% of what my family eats. I know that's not much, and if we had to depend on just what I grew here, either I would get really good really fast, or we'd be very hungry. But at the present time, I'm still only using about 25% of my yard for food production (including animal enclosures), and there is still a lot more I can do, but haven't been able to do, yet. I also have only recently planted a lot of the perennials (like asparagus, rhubarb, apples, and raspberries) that have not, yet, started to produce.

I also forage. This year we picked wild blueberries and blackberries. Deus Ex Machina has taken up bow-hunting and our woods are flush with deer. The other day, he walked outside and saw a flock of two dozen hen turkeys waddling down the road (it's not turkey season, yet).

Small space and urban subsistence gardening is nothing new or unique to my situation. There are even people who garden on condo decks. As for the "support ourselves" part, I'm not sure we can NOT do that, though we haven't, yet, tried. There is a family in California who actually do support themselves on less land than I have. They're gardeners, primarily, but they also have a couple of side businesses, including selling eggs.

Presently, Deus Ex Machina works at a regular, wage-earning (soul-sucking) corporate job. I am self-employed, and I work out of my home. There are a lot of income-stream possibilities for us that are not regular, wage-earning (soul-sucking) corporate jobs. We might have to stop eating take-out every week, and we might need to start rationing our electricity, or something, but we could live quite comfortably on about half what we bring in (less if I get a little less lazy with my garden ... and if we get a couple of goats for milk and cheese :).

I do not believe that any of us can step entirely outside of the money economy at this time, and fully "support" ourselves, but I do believe that we could all learn to live with very little need for money, if we were willing to reevaluate what we define as a "need" and what we define as a "want."

I realize the point was probably about being completely self-sufficient and not needing money at all, but as I pointed out several months ago, no one is truly self-sufficient and even people who live on a small farm, providing most of their basic needs, depend on others for a good deal of the supplies and services they use. Even in our pre-industrial societies when people lived mostly agrarian lifestyles, even then, farmers depended on the townsfolk for certain items they had neither the time nor the skill to produce.

Point: You would find yourself working as slaves.

Well ... we kind of are, right now. Aren't we? We're slaves to the money economy, because we've all accrued this incredible debt trying to get all of these THINGS. Even those of us who are debt-free are indentured to the money economy, because most of us don't have a clue as to how to "support" ourselves without access to Wal-Mart. I submit that the only way to free ourselves is to stop buying so much stuff, limit our purchases to those things we truly NEED, reduce the amount of gasoline we consume by using alternative transportation, reduce the amount of electricity we use by turning things off and not using appliances where lower energy alternatives are available (like clothes lines instead of dryers), reduce the amount of water we use ....

For those things that we must pay to have, we need to limit how much we use. That's what I mean by conserving. I mean, 'WE' individuals (not the government telling us, but by choice) need to reduce our consumption, until we've reduced our personal debt, and only then, can we be free, as citizens and not slaves to a diseased economy.

High prices for goods and services are only an issue if one believes one can not live without it, but I submit that people lived wonderful lives without a lot of the luxuries we take for granted (like flush toilets and tumble clothes dryers) for decades, even as we moved into industrialization. In fact, even today, there are millions of people living all over the world in all sorts of "modern-esque" communities where they need very little of our American gadgetry to live highly satisfying lives.

I lived in Germany for more than a year without a car to drive (although I did have friends with cars and hitched a ride to some places with them - but mostly, I walked), and I didn't suffer (in fact, I was in incredible shape). The price of a gallon of gasoline in Germany at that time (in the early 1990s) was $5. We're just now getting close to that price here, and now, in Germany, gasoline costs even more.

When I was in college, I didn't have a car for the first two years, and I walked every where I went. I didn't have a choice. I don't recall suffering greatly (except when it was raining or snowing, but I survived without any noticeable scars :).

The concern I'm hearing, however, is that the economy will suffer irreparably if everyone did as I am doing, and I disagree. If we cut our personal spending to those things that we truly need, we would have more available cash to spend on those things. If I'm not buying a 32" plasma television, then I can (eventually) afford a new car, when I need one, and if I'm not paying $100 a month for HDTV with TiVo, then I can afford gasoline for my car. Nobody needs television, and yet, nearly EVERY SINGLE American home I know has at least one, more often than not two, and I'm the only person I know who doesn't have digital cable television. We don't need a cellphone AND a land-line, but I know many, many people who have both, and often have these family plans where everyone in the family has his/her own cellphone, PLUS the home phone.


I didn't have a cellphone when I was growing up, and somehow I managed to make it to adulthood. There have been several times in my life when I didn't have a personal phone, not a cellphone or a "home" phone, and I used a payphone, or *gasp* I wrote letters.

If one lives in Maine, one does not NEED air conditioning. In the eleven years I have lived in this house, there was one day (one out of over 4000 days) that was hot enough that I sought out an air conditioned place. If I had been smart at that time, I would have found a better way to deal with the heat. If we, any of us, in any place in the world, needed air conditioning or an inside temperature above 65° in the winter to survive, the human race would be extinct.

Of course, if we stop using all of these modern services and buying all of the whizzi-gidgets, there may, well, be massive layoffs (not at all like the 25,000 projected layoffs by 2011 at Hewlett-Packard ... *or the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been lost since this was written last September* ... no, not like that at all ... ).

But if we immersed ourselves in a need-based economy with an emphasis on "repair and reuse" rather than on "replace", a whole new set of jobs would open up. We'd need lots of repair people. We might see a resurgence of small manufacturing facilities for certain goods - quality goods made without lead paint or planned obsolescence. We'd certainly see lots of smaller, specialty retail operations opening.

Point: If you think this cancer of a government will leave you alone if you leave it alone you should talk to Randy Weaver or the survivors from Waco.

And here's where you kind of lost me ;).

I don't get the correlation between my desire to be self-sufficient and either Weaver or the Branch Davidians.

FYI: Contrary to the impression I may have inadvertently given, I am for very small government with the principle responsibility of the Federal government being the maintaining of the Armed Forces, foreign diplomacy, and the building and maintaining of a national transit system. I think everything else should be governed at the state or local level, including social welfare programs and education. But that's a whole other discussion.


  1. I so agree with this post. I have never been a shopper.....I was always the nut, the one hurting the economy. Well, the economy went in the toilet despite all the shoppers. Sending all our jobs oversees was the start of it, and Walmart began that process, forcing vendors to continue lowering prices. They HAD to move jobs oversees to meet those low prices. Well, duh, if after all those jobs move overseas, no one has the money to purchase the crap.
    Buy less, buy quality, take care of yourself and help your neighbors.
    Thanks for a great post!

  2. That bit about being a slave to the economy? Well said. I'm working double the hours I used to as a corporate slave and making a pittance but I'm happy. That's enough for me because happiness is priceless.

  3. Great post - very inspiring. Thank you!

  4. Good post all in all. Could you tell us more about that maple syrup production?