Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Did You Know ...?

I'm fascinated by history. It's not so much that I think we can learn from history and avoid the same mistakes, but that it's fascinating to kind of step outside of the picture and start noticing the trends.

I've been doing the twenty-first equivalent of clipping news articles for the past two years (i.e. printing articles from online news sources and keeping them in a notebook), and the similarities to the 1920s and 1930s are stark. Worse, though, is the repetitive nature of the headlines. One month we're coming out of the Recession and the next there are massive job losses. In 2008 the headlines were "Oil over $80 per barrel!", which promised to devastate an already teetering economy, and, yet, today the price per barrel is $86, but no one seems worried.

The problem is that we seem to have such short memories, and we're so easily distracted. Sunday evening, due to a very intense storm, thousands of Mainers were without electricity. Some may still be. I was speaking with another homeschooling parent yesterday, who had lost power during the storm, and saying that we had oil lamps and "stuff" so that when the power goes out, for us, it's no big deal. And, I didn't say, in so many words, but the reason we have all of these things is because the power grid is unreliable. Her response was just about what I've come to expect, and basically it was something like knowing that she and her family should do some preparing, but .... This time the power was out for a few hours. A few years ago, we lost power for a few days. In 1998 there were a lot of Mainers who lost power for a couple of weeks.

I'm not making this stuff up just to scare you. (Sh)It happens, and the question is, do we learn from our mistakes, or do we keep reinforcing Einstein's definition of insanity.

In 1945 President Roosevelt warned that we had become a nation dependent on oil. It was he who pioneered our foreign policy based on oil, and he who first began negotiating with the Princes of the House of Saud of the Arabian peninsula (in the Islamic country we know as Saudi Arabia).

He was the first to warn us that we were growing too dependent on oil.

And we didn't listen in 1945, because we were too distracted and in a state of ecstasy after having just "won" World War II.

He hasn't been the last to express concern.

Nixon warned us in his 1974 State of the Union Address that we were in the midst of an energy crisis.

We didn't listen.

His successor, Gerald Ford, told us that we needed to achieve "energy independence."

And a few years later, the much maligned James Earl "Jimmy" Carter warned us that we were heading down a slippery slope with regard to our dependence on oil, and because he was the first US President to tell us, without mincing words, that we needed to wake up and smell the gas fumes, because they might not be around much longer, his whole Presidency was deemed a dismal failure. He told us what we didn't want, but very much needed, to hear. He even went so far as to install a solar hot water system on the White House, in an attempt to be a leader and show us what is possible, to lead the way down the path of energy dependence by, not just speaking the words, but doing the deeds.

And, even Reagan, who failed to take the same leadership stance as Carter (and actually removed the solar hot water system Carter had had installed - boo!), spoke the need to gain independence from our addiction to foreign oil.

Both of the Bush oil Barons and Clinton, whose Presidency they bookended, reiterated the message of the need to decrease our dependence on foreign oil. And, like Carter, Bush the Second (sort of) led by example in building his off-the-grid ranch in Crawford, Texas (although it wasn't terribly well-publicized, and he, apparently, didn't do it as an example to the rest of America, but in response to what he knew was happening and in hopes that he could mitigate the ill-effects of resource depletion for himself and his family).

And, now, once again, we're being told by our current President that we need to stop depending on foreign oil.

I had a very interesting conversation with a family member a few days ago. He asked about my book, which is about ways to lower one's energy dependence based on the supposition that we have twenty-one days to prepare for a single TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) event that will destroy the "grid", and our conversation took some interesting twists and turns as we discussed current events and possible solutions.

I, of course, don't believe there is a single magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, and what I mean is that I don't believe that any one of the proposed energy-generating solutions will take the place of oil and allow us to continue living the way we are living.

For me, the key is that we can not continue living the way we are living, and if we hope to retain some modicum of our modern lives, we will need to voluntarily change how we live, because voluntarily making those changes is so much easier and so much more rewarding than having those changes forced on us by a world with finite resources that are quickly being gobbled up by our PacMan mentality. We can make changes to how we live now and learn to really appreciate how fortunate we are, or we can wait until the sh*t truly hits the fan and get caught up in the whirlwind of resource grabbing that will inevitably ensue. At that point, it will be a scramble to see who can live the longest, and a lot of people are going to lose.

For the past four decades every single President has warned us that we needed to stop our dependence on foreign oil.

And we have, yet, to listen.

In his show this past summer, Jon Stewart provided us a short history lesson. As Jon quips, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me eight times ...."



  1. Indeed. I hope this post, or something like it, is a preface to your book.

    I think the presidents say the words because they have to, but only Jimmy C was brave enough to actually back up the rhetoric with action — which, of course, is why he got trashed. Cheney the Dick said our way of life was "non-negotiable." I doubt he meant it that way, but he could just as easily have meant that people understand the need for change but they don't want to disrupt their own lives to make that change. If anything, people might way "we're going to get an electric car. Eventually." That old punchline "now you've gone from preachin' to meddlin'!" applies.

    Personally, I still think things will progress more or less as I wrote in FAR Future, but some of it's happening out of order. :-) When oil prices spiked past $140/bbl in 2008, I kind of felt that the price wasn't sustainable — it rose too fast, and people reacted. But it's creeping up now, and I don't know if a slow rise will trigger the same reaction.

  2. FARf - I agree with you about Jimmy Carter's stance on the energy crisis. I think he really and truly believed that we needed to start taking steps toward energy independence, and people just didn't want to hear it - still don't, in fact. One time I was talking with this young person who believed that "something" was going down and that we were headed toward a pretty dismal future, but rather than preparing or making lifestyle changes had decided to buy just one more toy, believing that it was too late for him to do anything but "make hay while the sun shines." I wonder how many more people believe that way.

    I'm with you, though. I think we're going to be heading down this road for awhile longer - another year or two - and then, people are really going to get sick of it and then it's going to get really ugly, but it won't happen overnight or in twenty-one days, and I think we still have time, and we'll even have plenty of warning before *it* actually does happen. I mean, like wars don't just start up overnight. There's a lot of talk and negotiating and threatening and cajoling before the first shot is fired.

    The Preface is "something like it." I tend to be rather like a broken record sometimes ;).

  3. Very well articulated and thought provoking post. I know I am guilty of putting things off, thinking I still have plenty of time to "get my butt in gear".

    Optimism or denial?

  4. Carla - I think it's never too late (or too early) to start making changes. Getting yourself and family ready in the event that you lose power for an extended period is a good start. Ask the question "How would I [fill in blank] if I didn't have any electricity?" and then answer it for yourself. Each little thing you do will make you feel a little safer, a little less dependent and a little more empowered. It's a good feeling ;).

  5. I've decided to try building a flushless urinal. The principle is fairly simple — pour veg oil in a trap and that's pretty much it. It could be used for camping (or in my non-plumbed studio) or in the bathroom now. Fewer flushes means water's available for other things… and it can be diverted into the greywater system. Not to mention that it doesn't require electricity to run the water pump.

    Nibbling around the edges, or maybe I'm just… never mind. :)

  6. FARf - Okay ... I'm intrigued. So, what happens? How do you dispose of the ... er ... liquid?

    I've heard of using the bucket method. A 10:1 ratio of water:urine can be dumped in the garden as a very nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

  7. Well, I've seen online that most of them get hooked straight into the drain lines, as they're used almost exclusively in commercial/retail settings now. The nearby outlet maul uses them, and those were the first I've seen.

    As for me, I'm thinking about setting up a rain barrel to catch/control outflow in the current greywater system, and just drain the outflow into that. In the studio, I figure a bucket will be fine. I thought the ratio was 5:1, but I might be misremembering.

  8. FARf - Interesting. I don't have much experience with urinals ;). As for the ratio - could be that I think it needs to be diluted more, and I'm mistaken. I'm still working on my eww factor ;).

  9. About twenty minutes after I read your post, I got a tweet that there is a huge storm in Minnesota that has cut power to thousands of homes ( A snow emergency has been declared.

    We rent, and as understanding and permissive as our landlord is, I don't think he would allow us to install a wood stove yet (I'll ask him next year when he's a little more familiar with us - we've only been renting from him since July). And of course I've got to convince my husband first! But we do have gas heat and a gas stove, plus tons of baking supplies, so if we loose electricity in Illinois in winter, I have a way to keep at least one room of the house warm. I also made a lot of candles after the last power outage - those will come in handy.

    It's scary - I know I am prepared for short-term emergencies, but long term? I don't know that we would make it.

    On a completely separate note, I wanted to mention shopping at thrift and garage sales. There is a new danger that a lot of people aren't thinking about. In my local thrift store, they have signs posted warning customers that the items they have may have come from bedbug-infested homes. They provided a flier outlining ways to treat the used clothing before use, to kill any bug that might be on it. It's a scary thought, the idea that I might accidentally bring in bedbugs because I bought some cute looking skirt at a thrift store!

  10. Patricialynn - I think you'd probably surprise yourself at how well you could adapt :).

    Thanks for the heads' up about the bedbugs. I love shopping at thrift stores, but the thought of bringing home hitchhikers ... shudder!

  11. I get the same kind of shudders at the thought of bedbugs. My husband is a paramedic in the Chicago area, and he's already had to attend one patient with bedbug like sores...we didn't take any chances, those clothes were washed in hot water the moment he got home...and so was he!


  12. Oh - almost forgot. You don't have to post this publicly if you don't want to, but I found a blog that I think would interest you. It just went through a week where they author compared the German Weimar Republic to modern-day economics in the US - frightening reading. That week just started earlier this week - here's the link:

  13. Thanks for the link patricialynn. I decided to publish it for everyone else to see, because I think there are some pretty stark similarities, and even if we choose not to act, we should be, at least, aware of the possibilities.

    Some people think the most horrific events of the Nazi era rule are already starting to happen here in the US. My neighbor talks to me about gulags, which are, essentially, concentration camps for political prisoners, and the most recent conspiracy theory I've heard involves Fusion Centers (here's a link with a bit more info:

    Seems someone "blessed" us with the hope that we would all live in interesting times :).