Simple Living Archive


The End of Cheap Oil: An Opportunity to Create a Better World

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Here at Chelsea Green we spend half our time worrying about what’s going to happen when the resources our society depends upon become so scarce we can’t afford them anymore…and the other half getting excited about the unreal opportunity that kind of scarcity represents! Authors like Rob Hopkins of the Transition movement are favorites because of their realistic optimism. Blogger Christine over at 350 or Bust feels the same way. From a recent post:

As a species with the creativity, adaptability and opposable thumbs that enabled us to create an Oil Age in the first place, we can be pretty certain that there will be life beyond it. Similarly, we may be able to prevent the worst excesses of climate change, and indeed the measures needed would almost certainly make the world a far better place. However, the point is that the world and our lifestyles will look very different from the present. It is worth remembering that it takes a lot of cheap energy to maintain the levels of social inequality we see today, the levels of obesity, the record levels of indebtedness, the high levels of car use and alienating urban landscapes. Only a culture awash with cheap oil could become de-skilled on the monumental scale that we have, to the extent that some young people I have met are lucky to emerge from cutting a slice of bread with all their fingers intact. It is no exaggeration to say that we in the West are the single most useless generation (in terms of practical skills) to which this planet has ever played host. However, the first step to the creation of a localized, low-energy-abundant future is actually visioning its possibility.”

So writes Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition movement and author of “The Transition Handbook: from oil dependency to local resilience.” I’m halfway through this inspiring and practical book about how to embrace climate change and peak oil as the impetus to creating a better, healthier, more community-oriented way of being on this planet. The changes that Hopkins is talking about are not simple changes, like deciding to recycle; they are significant changes in thinking and in “business as usual”. But as he (and many others) point out, inevitable and profound changes are ahead, whether we are prepared for them or not. What Hopkins, and the Transition Movement, do is to provide a roadmap for navigating those changes. As Hopkins writes:

I do not have a crystal ball. I don’t know how the twin crises of peak oil and climate change will unfold – nobody does. I don’t know the exact date of peak oil, and again, nobody does. Similarly, I don’t know if and when we will exceed the 2 degree climate threshold, and what will happen if we do.

What I am certain of is that we are going to see extraordinary levels of change in every aspect of our lives. Indeed we have to see extraordinary levels of change if we are to navigate our societies away from dependence on cheap oil in such a way that they will be able to retain their social and ecological coherence and stabillity, and also live in a world with a relatively stable climate. In terms of looking forward, many people have set out different scenarios for what the future might hold. I have trawled through a lots of these for insights as to how life beyond the peak might be.

 Read the rest of Christine’s thoughts here.

Rob has written a new book for the Transition community, The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times, which hits our shelves this October. Check it out!

The Transition Movement – Preparing for a World After Peak Oil

Monday, July 18th, 2011

The article  below appeared originally online at ThomasNet News about The Transition Movement.  Make sure to check out Rob Hopkins’ – co-founder of the Transition Network – book The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience.

 

How will the world function if fossil fuels become scarcer and their consumption becomes increasingly regulated to fight climate change? How will people live with less oil? What will communities be like?

The advocates of a social movement called Transition think the world is now entering just such an environment of oil-scarcity. Transition organizers think the time is ripe to create new systems to make communities more locally self-sufficient and less dependent on long-range transportation, a globalized economy, non-renewable energy, and industries that damage the environment.

According toTransition Network, a support body for the movement based in Totnes, Dover, UK, the number of official Transition Initiatives worldwide has grown during about the past five years to 374 as of this writing (mid-2011). Most initiatives are operating in Europe (particularly the UK), North America, and Australia. (Photo: Local foods, Transition Town High Wycombe. Credit: VidyaRangayyan)

Local transition groups take on a range of activities, from simple projects such as workshops teaching people to grow their own food or arranging clothing swaps, to more complex undertakings, such as developing a local currency or devising a long-term community transition plan called an Energy Descent Action Plan, a road-map toward local energy independence (see Totnes’ example here).

The concepts of peak oil, climate change, and permaculture are critical to an understanding of the deeper motivations of the Transition Movement. Widespread concerns about climate change have been discussed extensively in the public forum (for an overview of public attitudes, see our story “Does the Public Really Believe Humans Are Causing Climate Change?”  However, peak oil and permaculture are less well understood, so let me explain those ideas.

 

Peak Oil: Are We on the Downward Slope?

Peak oil refers to the point of maximum worldwide extraction of petroleum, which would be followed by an environment of increasing scarcity and cost. Some researchers think the world has already reached that point, some think it will come in the near future, and some critics say it will take a long time or might never come at all. (Photo: Offshore oil platform. Credit: “Mike” Michael L. Baird)

Many observers think peak oil could result in large-scale economic disruption. Dire predictions abound. While admittedly speculative, the 2010 “United States Joint Forces Command Joint Operating Environment” (JOE) report warns in its section on peak oil that

 

A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment.

For an entertaining and accessible explanation of peak oil, integrated with a frightening overview of economics, see Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course.”

The Transition movement asks, What does peak oil mean for people’s lifestyles and local communities? What changes does it require, and what can individuals and communities do now to prepare for and cope with a world of declining oil?

In an interview with Global Public Media in 2007 (audio interview here), Andrew McNamara, then newly-appointed Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change, and Innovation in Queensland, Australia, gave his thinking about the appropriate response to oil depletion, sounding very much like a Transition advocate:

There’s no question whatsoever that community-driven local solutions will be essential. That’s where government will certainly have a role to play in assisting and encouraging local networks, who can assist with local supplies of food and fuel and water and jobs and the things we need from shops. It was one of my contentions in the first speech I made on this issue in February of 2005… that we will see a relocalization of the way in which we live that will remind us of not last century, but the one before that. And that’s not a bad thing. Undoubtedly one of the cheaper responses that will be very effective is promoting local consumption, local production, local distribution.

In a 2008 video, Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network and Transition Town Totnes, says peak oil makes populations very vulnerable. As an example, during a 2000 lorry-drivers’ strike in the UK, he says, “we were about two days away from a food crisis in this country. It became clear that we’ve dismantled a lot of the resilience that has underpinned our food system up until now and replaced it with very fragile and long supply chains.”

Transition helps to restore that resilience, Hopkins asserts:

Resilience is an idea which emerges from the study of ecology, which is that a system, whether it be an ecosystem, a community or a town, when it experiences a shock from the outside, it doesn’t just fall to pieces. It has built into it the ability to adapt and change to its new circumstances.

Hopkins describes a Transition initiative as “a process which acts as a catalyst within a community to get people to explore themselves, [to respond] to peak oil and climate change,” helping community members “develop a really attractive, enticing vision of how the town could be beyond its current dependence on oil and fossil fuels.”

Permaculture: Designing Sustainable Human Habitats

Permaculture is a methodology for designing sustainable human habitats, modeling them after natural ecosystems. The permaculture model emphasizes a move away from industrial agriculture toward a small-scale, diversified, and localized system of food production. In “The Essence of Permaculture,” David Holmgren, one of the originators of the concept, defines permaculture as

Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organize themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.

(Photo: Permaculture project, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Credit:planet a.)

More precisely, though, Holmgren sees permaculture as “the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organizing framework” to implement that vision, so that

… permaculture is not the landscape, or even the skills of organic gardening, sustainable farming, energy efficient building or eco-village development as such, but it can be used to design, establish, manage, and improve these and all other efforts made by individuals, households, and communities towards a sustainable future.

The Transition movement grew in part from Rob Hopkins’ permaculture teaching activities. On his Transition Culture blog, Hopkins writes that a key tool for success in Transition is “the ability to embed good design thinking” in the effort. He believes that “permaculture design offers the clearest and most practical tool for doing so.” Thus permaculture design should underpin the thinking and planning behind a Transition project and any hands-on activities. He cautions that

Although many people associate permaculture design purely with local food initiatives, it ought to be seen as central to the larger process of strategic thinking which the initiative is building up to.

Hopkins likens permaculture to a glue, “a ‘design glue’ if you like, which is used to stick together all the elements that will make up a truly sustainable and resilient culture.” He continues,

If you think of the ingredients that such a culture will depend on, such as local food production, energy generation, skillful management of water, meaningful employment as well as many other elements, what permaculture brings is the ability to assemble those things in the most skillful and beneficial way possible. It has also been described by someone else far more succinct than me as “the art of maximizing beneficial relationships.”

Hopkins thinks that “having at least one person in a Transition group who is steeped in permaculture can make a huge difference to the group… Make sure that some members of your core group have done a Permaculture Design course, and try, where possible, to weave permaculture training and principles through the work of your Transition group.”

Transition Town Totnes, started in 2005, is one of the oldest and most developed Transition efforts. The organization supports nine groups organized along such themes as Building and Housing, Business and Livelihoods, Energy, Food, and Transport. Nearly 40 projects are underway in Totnes, many focused on food, housing, and energy. As an example, one project aims to make Totnes the “Nut Tree Capital of Britain,” says Hopkins in the video mentioned previously. A project group is “planting nut trees within the urban fabric of the town, both as an awareness-raising issue and as a food security project.” (Photo: Permaculture Herb Spiral. Credit:Samuel Mann)

Join an Online Conversation with Transition Co-Founder Rob Hopkins

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Join Rob Hopkins for a conversation on Monday, July 18th. Rob needs no introduction, but if you are new to the concept of ‘Transition,’ then this is a great opportunity to learn from the source of this important movement to build community resilience in the face of major societal challenges confronting usfrom climate change and shrinking supplies of affordable, clean energy. Rob is the author of The Transition Handbook and co-founder of the Transition Network. Join us for this special event!

 

Monday, July 18,  - 11:00am - 12:15pm EST

Please register online, and mark your calendar.

 

Rob Hopkins is the originator of the Transition concept and co-founder of the Transition Network. He spent many years teaching permaculture and cob building, mostly when living in Ireland. Now based in the UK town of Totnes, he is a member of Transition Town Totnes, works part time for Transition Network, publishes www.transitionculture.org, is author of the ‘Transition Handbook’ and generally spends far too much time thinking about Transition stuff. He is also a Trustee of the Soil Association, the UK organization campaigning for planet-friendly food and farming.

 

We’re delighted that Richard Heinberg, author and Senior Fellow-in-Residence at Post Carbon Institute, will be hosting this call.

 

 

 

Most of us avoid thinking about what happens when oil runs out (or becomes prohibitively expensive), but The Transition Handbook shows how the inevitable and profound changes ahead can have a positive outcome.These changes can lead to the rebirth of local communities that will grow more of their own food, generate their own power, and build their own houses using local materials. If your town is not a transition town, this upbeat guide offers you the tools for starting the process.

 

Rob’s newest book  – The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times – is coming out soon and available for preorder.

VIDEO: Rob Hopkins Recipes for Resilience

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

The following video appeared on the Post Carbon Institute website featuring Rob Hopkins.

Post Carbon Fellow Rob Hopkins explains how doing transition is like baking a cake. The author of the now best selling Transition Handbook gives an update on this now global movement. There are hundreds of transition initiatives in 30 countries, all redesigning a lower-energy future.

To see the original post go here: http://www.postcarbon.org/video/367604-rob-hopkins-recipes-for-resilience

New Summer Releases On Sale

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

It is officially summer! In celebration of sunnny days, afternoons in the garden, and curling up to a book in the sun, we are putting all our new releases on sale for 25% off.

 

Check out the collection below: 

 

 

 

Just off the presses, Slow Gardening offers a practical yet philosophical approach to gardeningone that will help you slow down, take stock of your yard, and follow your own creative whimsy in the garden. Slow Gardening will inspire you slip into the rhythm of the seasons, take it easy, and get more enjoyment out of your garden, all at the same time.

 

In  Alone and Invisible No More, physician Allan S. Teel, MD, describes a community-and technology-based approach to overhauling our eldercare system. Based on his own efforts to create humane, affordable alternatives in Maine, Teel’s program harnesses both staff and volunteers to help people remain in their homes and communities. It offers assistance with everyday challenges and highlights technology to keep older people connected to each other and their families and stay safe.
Don’t like spending money in garden centers? Think you can make it yourself for a fraction of the price or find a cheaper option? In, Grow Your Food for Free, Dave Hamilton shows you how. By recycling and reusing materials creatively and making the most of what you have, you can gather all you need to grow your food on a budget. From money-saving tips for every season to step-by-step instructions with easy-to-follow diagrams, this how to book is a must-have for everyone.

 

Permaculture is much more than organic gardening. Arguably, it is one of Australia’s greatest intellectual exports, having helped people worldwide to design ecologically sustainable strategies for their homes, gardens, farms, and communities. Permaculture Pioneers charts a history of the first three decades of permaculture through the personal stories of Australian permaculturists. It invites each of us, permaculturists or not, to embrace our power in designing our world out of the best in ourselves, for the benefit of the whole earth community.

 

Seed Savers Exchange, the nation’s premier nonprofit seed-saving organization, began humbly as a simple exchange of seeds among passionate gardeners who sought to preserve the rich gardening heritage their ancestors had brought to this country.  In Gathering, Ott Whealy’s down-to-earth narrative traces her fascinating journey from Oregon to Kansas to Missouri and then back home to Iowa. Her heartwarming story captures what is best in the American spirit: the ability to dream and, through hard work and perseverance, inspire others to contribute their efforts to a cause.

 

A Taste of Tagore  illustrates the writing of Rabindranath Tagore, India’s first Nobel Laureate, are contemplations in our daily lives. These extracts are taken from his many writings about the environment, education, the arts, politics, travel, and humanism. The book is divided into Poetry, Prose, and Prayers. Evident in these writings, Tagore’s lifestyle embraced simplicity, moderation in consumption, the practice of arts in daily life, cohesion and harmony between religions, cultures, and countries. A Taste of Tagore brings to the reader the diversity, depth, and spirituality of his writings in one book.
Emergency Sandbag Shelter is not only a comprehensive “how-to” manual for use in disaster response, but will also be of interest to anyone who wants to build their own simple, cost effective and low-impact structures.  Now for the first time, this book is made available to people around the world by its inventor, award-winning architect Nader Khalili (1932-2008), who dedicated his life to teaching others how to build shelter for humanity.This book, with over 700 photos and illustrations, shows how to use sandbags and barbed wire, the materials of war, for peaceful purposes as the new invention known as Superadobe or earth-bag, which can shelter millions of people around the globe as a temporary as well as permanent housing solution.

 

If you’ve never opened a seed packet before and want to grow your food but don’t know where or when to start, this book is for you. With advice for the new gardener, covering everything from how to plant seeds, when to pull up the carrot, and how to harvest potatoes, How to Grow Your Food will guide you–whether you have a balcony, bare concrete, a patio, or a larger patch of ground
Winter and early spring require a different kind of gardening than the summer months; not a lot grows at this time, but a well-planned plot may nonetheless be quite full. Through winter, soil is cool and transforms the plot into a large outdoor larder where many vegetables keep healthy and alive, ready for harvesting when needed. How to Grow Winter Vegetables explains how to have plenty of both stored and fresh vegetables to eat during the lean winter months.

 

E.F. Schumacher was a key figure in the development of environmentalism in the 20th century, and has left an enduring legacy. A profound thinker who was admired by Keynes, Beveridge and Cripps, he was for many years economic adviser to the Coal Board, and later put his ideas into practice by setting up the Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action) and becoming involved with the Soil Association. He was the inspiration for many other organizations that continue to this day, including the New Economics Foundation and Schumacher College.

 

 

Transition Towns – Where Innovation Takes Place At A Certain Pace

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

The article  below appeared originally online at  Forbes by Haydn Shaughnessy about the Transition Movement. Make sure to check out The Transition Companion: Making Your Community More Resilient in Uncertain Times.

What really drives changes in people’s lives? When I wrote about innovation policy challenges yesterday I noted how important towns and cities are in forging the new economy. Places are extraordinary compounds of activity and while some of the big ideas that emerge at conferences like TED arise in traditional academic/big company  culture, ideas about towns are more down and dirty. The Peak Oil movement, for example, was born in a small and remote town in Ireland – Ballydehob.Re:Thinking Innovation is about trying to break the habit of seeing just one trajectory for change and to look at what’s actually happening or should happen given the changing attitudes and life chances of millions of people. So I want to come back to Transition Towns – now called Transition Network. It began with modest aspirations – can we change the relationship between towns, cities and the 2 – 5 mile band of agriculture around them?

In the world of slow baked transformation Transition Towns is a rallying point. There are now 90 TN initiatives in the USA, 360 around the world, and a swathe of Mullers - groups mulling over how to make a difference to their locality, with increasing exposure in the major media outlets – but here’s the real surprise. Transition Towns began in the backwoods of Ireland, not far down the road from the modest two bedroomed home of Peak Oil founder, Colin Campbell. This is how transition pioneer Rob Hopkins describes his approach:

How might our response to peak oil and climate change look more like a party than a protest march?

Transition Towns are only one example of a wider movement that at its heart is about reclaiming control over the physical side of our lives – take a look here for the New York Times coverage of urban agriculture. And this exceptional project involving Levis – the jeans makers – and the town of Braddock, Pa, surely an example that will soon rank alongside Manor, Texas as a case study of what can be done differently. See also Europe and China’s social innovation parks. What they have in common is a start-up culture that is little different from what we see in the Valley. People want to change the world around them and it is contagious. We ignore this start-up culture at our peril.

Perhaps yesterday I wrote clumsily about the virtual aspects of the new town:

Towns and cities are so much the most important aspect of how we grow, how we innovate, what we do and where we go – their importance is reflected by the way commerce is headed: Towards Local. Google Places, Four Square, Facebook Deals, location-based services. Innovation is street-based,with  neighborhood car sharing and neighborhood kitchens.

The reality is people taking charge and reshaping towns and cities, sometimes one field at a time. Not in enough places as yet of course but this transformation is taking place at a certain pace. A decade ago it would have seemed like an alternative movement, a new era fad, one of those escape to the country interludes that come along to punctuate city living and the enterprise rat race. The reality is though that Hopkins has pinpointed an essential element of a future economy – making the land and the town work together differently – and it seems to coincide with new attitudes, a trend towards more differentiated lifestyles, a desire to be in charge of how we define ourselves instead of following fashions, a decline in the value of ownership. Something new in the small town is definitely cooking. And in the 21st century there’s the other obvious difference – those initiatives are all known to each other and can emulate successes quickly. It’s not just a transition idyll or a social media group but a real working network. Now, can we wrap a policy innovation around that?

Read the original article here>>

Shannon Hayes: Finding Love – Is It Different for Radical Homemakers?

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Writing for The Atlantic last summer, Sandra Tsing Loh explored Radical Homemakers, and honed in on one paragraph in the book’s acknowledgments, calling it “one of the most startling paragraphs in modern feminist writing:”

Thanks, most especially, are owed to [my husband,] Bob. He keeps the girls quiet every morning while I work. He brings breakfast to my desk and keeps my coffee cup full so that I don’t have to be interrupted. He sits with me for hours, reviewing ideas, challenging concepts, helping me to interpret research. He listens to the radio, tracks news stories and reads magazines, finding bits of information that contribute to my research. He sells books at every lecture, does all my PowerPoints for me, chooses and irons my clothes, packs my suitcase, washes my dishes, does the laundry, edits every one of my books and articles and claims to love my cooking. He cherishes me, makes me laugh, and fills my life with friendship, joy, humor, and unconditional love.

Seeing this, Loh concluded,“That’s what the new radical feminism depends on—a guy named Bob (who can presumably also do leatherwork and butcher hogs)!”

I laughed until my sides hurt, then put the article aside.

But the subject kept coming up. What about that guy named Bob? Are there any more like him available? And what about all the Radical Homemakers profiled in the book—how can people like them be found? The subject comes up in private conversations following lectures and workshops; it’s broached in private emails requesting that I post a “personals” section on radicalhomemakers.com; it’s even in letters asking me to help someone effectively word their online singles information to screen for fellow radical homemakers. One man, wearing his heart on his sleeve, bravely posted a personal ad under the “connect” section at radicalhomemakers.com.

I feel clueless trying to respond to this need. Bob and I met and courted in the last century, for goodness sake … heck, in the last millennium.

Before that, though, in my college days, I went through a lot of men. I had a couple of steady boyfriends, and then a very long line of men whom I dated without making any commitments.

Perhaps this sounds strange, but my family and community encouraged this. When I was a teenager, my aunt talked to me about dating: making eye contact, engaging in conversation. My mother talked to me about my safety, how to make my expectations clear, how to detect and escape unsafe situations. Ruth, the elderly farm matron up the road, told me to make sure whoever I got involved with knew how to work—not in an office, but real work, like splitting firewood, shoveling snow, tossing hay bales. And then everyone encouraged me to get out there and meet as many men as possible, shaking their heads in frustration if I lingered on any one of them too long. As a result, I amassed a string of “suitors.” They wrote me poems, sent flowers and hand-written letters, helped me turn over the garden, and shoveled snow for Ruth. I didn’t fall in love with any of them.

My father joked that he’d never have grandchildren. To set him at ease I quipped, “Don’t worry. When I’m ready I’ll just go order one from L.L.Bean. Then if I don’t like him, I can take him back.” Little did I know that I would take a trip to Maine a few years later, walk into L.L.Bean, see a guy selling binoculars and talking about birds, and fall madly in love right there in the retail store.

There was no online dating. At first, there wasn’t even email. I scored my first date with Bob by sending a letter about birding, through the U.S. Postal Service, to the store. I hoped that someone would find him and give it to him. He picked up the cue and wrote back, asking me out if ever I was in town again. I made sure I was, and the rest is history.

That was 15 years ago. Looking it all over, it seems so … antiquated. I don’t think stories like that happen anymore. It would be easy for me to adopt some high ground on this—to accuse today’s single Americans of being lazy about making personal connections without the aid of a computer; to argue that, in a few short years, we’ve allowed online dating services to kill the art of flirting and courtship in our culture.

But it would be so unfair. I’m no longer playing the field, and I get to live in this little nirvana with my perfect husband (though no, Sandra, he doesn’t work leather), blissfully unaware of how the game is played these days. Finding and meeting people, even with the aid of computer dating, seems increasingly technical and frustrating, particularly for the single radical homemakers in our country, who, while they may visit a few topical websites on areas that interest them, tend to sign off promptly and live most of their days in fresh air and sunshine, away from the computer. In general, they don’t text. They don’t tweet. They talk.

I scoffed at the idea of a radical homemakers dating site when it was first suggested, but I guess I can see the point. Maybe there is already something like this out there—some site that screens for people who want to live in harmony with the earth, who honor family, community and social justice as governing principles in their daily choices. If anyone knows about it, please post it here so that others can find it. Maybe, until something better pops up, more people should post their “personal ad” on the radical homemakers site. I would imagine it would be a relief to have some sort of screening based on radical homemakers’ ideals. There could be an understanding that a person isn’t going to be judged by their earning potential, clothing labels, how perky their breasts are, what they drive, or whether they have six-pack abs; that there would be nothing strange about meeting for the first time in the café of a local food coop, rather than Starbucks; that a date isn’t going to run screaming if they find out you keep worms under your kitchen sink, have vegetables rotting in jars on your counter, or use glad rags or diva cups.

I need to acknowledge that, just because flirting and letters in the mail worked for garnering dates 15 years ago, things are different. Maybe the dating culture I knew has gone the way of the courtship candle. But I don’t think that the role of family and community assisting in creating partnerships need be forgotten. And while I never thought I’d say this, I suppose that includes the online community, too.

Happy Valentines’ day, everyone. I wish you love and companionship, in whatever way it suits you best.

Read the original article at Yes! Magazine.

Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers, available now.

Best of 2010: NY Times Magazine Meets Radical Homemakers

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Note: This week we’re highlighting the most popular stories on our website for 2010. Happy Holidays, and enjoy!

What does raising chickens in your backyard have to do with feminism? Everything. say the radical homemakers, a new breed of women (and men) who reject society’s impulse to box them in with binary definitions like breadwinner/housewife. They grow much of their own food, mend their own clothes, and, most importantly, are part of a supportive community of sustainability-minded individuals who refuse to be mindless consumers. They’re back-to-the-landers writ small, and somehow they’re making it work.

From the New York Times magazine:

Four women I know—none of whom know one another—are building chicken coops in their backyards. It goes without saying that they already raise organic produce: my town, Berkeley, Calif., is the Vatican of locavorism, the high church of Alice Waters. Kitchen gardens are as much a given here as indoor plumbing. But chickens? That ups the ante. Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird.

All of these gals—these chicks with chicks—are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper. “Prior to this, I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,” says Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed-livestock farmer in upstate New York and author of “Radical Homemakers,” a manifesto for “tomato-canning feminists,” which was published last month.

Hayes pointed out that the original “problem that had no name” was as much spiritual as economic: a malaise that overtook middle-class housewives trapped in a life of schlepping and shopping. A generation and many lawsuits later, some women found meaning and power through paid employment. Others merely found a new source of alienation. What to do? The wages of housewifery had not changed—an increased risk of depression, a niggling purposelessness, economic dependence on your husband—only now, bearing them was considered a “choice”: if you felt stuck, it was your own fault. What’s more, though today’s soccer moms may argue, quite rightly, that caretaking is undervalued in a society that measures success by a paycheck, their role is made possible by the size of their husband’s. In that way, they’ve been more of a pendulum swing than true game changers.

Enter the chicken coop.

Read the whole article here.
Related Articles:

Shannon Hayes’s book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, is available now.

Shannon Hayes: How to Transform Your Household

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

The following post written by Radical Homemakers author Shannon Hayes appeared originally on the Yes! Magazine website.

OK, not everyone is in a position to quit their job to spend more time at home. And not everyone wants to. That doesn’t mean that the household can’t shift toward increasing production and decreasing consumption. The transition can start with simple things, like hanging out the laundry or planting a garden. For those people who need or want to push further into the realm of living on a single income or less, here are a few secrets for survival we’ve learned on the family farm:

Get out of the cash economy
Sometimes a direct barter—“your bushel of potatoes for my ground beef”—works. But we don’t always have something the other party needs. At those times, gifting may be the best answer. Gifts are often returned along an unexpected path. Last summer I canned beets and green beans for my folks—of course, for no charge. In the process, I discovered that my solar hot water system wasn’t working. I called a neighbor and asked him to look at it. He fixed it, free. We have a facility that a butcher uses to process chickens for local farmers. On chicken processing days, Bob, Mom, and Dad help out, at no charge. At the end of the summer, the neighbor who fixed our hot water wanted to get his chickens processed. He got them done, no charge. Mom and Dad got a winter’s supply of veggies. Bob and I got a repaired hot water system. The butcher had a place to do his work, and the neighbor got his chickens processed.

Be interdependent
It would be handy sometimes to have our own tractor and tiller. But it seems foolish for us to own that equipment when we can borrow from my parents. It’s cheaper to borrow and lend money, tools, time, and resources among family, friends, and neighbors and abandon the idea that it’s shameful to rely on each other, rather than a credit card, paycheck, or bank.

Invest in your home
One of the most solid investments Bob and I have discovered is spending to lower expenses. Examples are better windows, more insulation, solar hot water, photovoltaic panels, or even just a really big kettle for canning.

Tolerate imperfect relationships
Living on reduced incomes may require more family members living under one roof, husbands and wives spending more time together, or greater reliance on friends and neighbors who may stand in for family. The families depicted on television, in movies, and in advertisements show dysfunction as the norm—with an antidote of further fragmentation of the family and community. That gets expensive. While no one should tolerate an abusive relationship, learning to accept or navigate the quirks of family and friends will keep the home stable and facilitate the sharing of resources.

Read the original article at Yes!

Shannon Hayes is the author of, most recently, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.

Q&A with Philip Ackerman-Leist: Up Tunket Road

Friday, September 24th, 2010

For seven years Philip Ackerman-Leist and his wife, Erin, lived without electricity or running water in an old cabin in the beautiful but remote hills of western New England. As they slowly forged their farm and homestead, Philip and Erin embraced the joys of simple living while also acknowledging its frustrations and complexities. In his inspiring book, Up Tunket Road, Ackerman-Leist shares those adventures, foibles, and epiphanies.

Chelsea Green Publishing: The title of your new book, Up Tunket Road, is a bit of a play on words. Where is Tunket Road and how did you get there?

Philip Ackerman-Leist: Yes, “Tunket” is a curious word—an old word with an unclear origin. But it does appear in old texts as a mild epithet, a toned-down curse word that replaces a somewhat stronger word. The classic example seems to be “What in the Tunket?!” Essentially, “What in the hell?!” A book of old Vermont place names that I found several years after settling into our homestead actually used the example, “Why in the Tunket would he want to live there?” The irony, I guess, is quite clear.

As for how we ended up there, it’s pretty much what I would tell my students not to do when looking for a job or a piece of land. I took a job with no contract and I found a piece of land by following my gut more than my head. My wife, Erin, and I came to Vermont at the invitation of my old friend, Tom Benson, who was the new president of Green Mountain College and was in the midst of transforming the college into his vision of an “environmental liberal arts college.” I came to build a college farm and a sustainable agriculture curriculum. I didn’t realize how controversial an idea that was until I’d arrived. Erin and I decided that regardless of how things worked out at the college, we’d found a captivating region to settle down in, so we decided to choose a place that would work for us no matter whether my vision for a college farm came to fruition or not.

When I talk to my students about finding a piece of land where they can farm or homestead, I always suggest that they look long and hard, comparing real estate values and options, checking soils maps, and visiting parcels in different seasons, if possible. But I just got up one day and decided it was time to find a piece of land. I left Erin and her mom that morning and said I was going to go find a place to live. They laughed and let me go my merry way. But I actually found it within hours of setting out. In fact, our place up Tunket Road was the first real estate ad that I circled in the local flyer that morning. And, at less than $40,000, it was the only place we could afford that had some semblance of an inhabitable building on it!

CGP: The book opens with a scene of you in a classroom at Green Mountain College asking your students what it means to homestead. And you revisit that question throughout the book. Following your 13-year experience building a homestead in Vermont with your wife, Erin, what conclusions have you come to about what it means to homestead in the 21st century?

P-AL: Well, it ain’t what it was for Thoreau, or even for the Nearings—even though there are valuable vestiges of both in our cultural assumptions about why one should embark on such an adventure. It’s still about not only searching for a meaningful existence, but also carefully crafting it. It’s still about wanting to be connected to the natural world. And it’s still about pushing against the status quo in a relatively quiet manner. But some things strike me as very different in the 21st century.

For starters, we’re much more distant—chronologically and often geographically—from homesteading traditions. Our culture is quickly casting aside basic skills and invaluable parts of our human inheritance. For example, as we rely on industry to produce our food, clothing, furniture, and even our entertainment, we lose the skills we need to produce those things for ourselves. As that happens, we also lose other valuable things that go along with those skills: heirloom vegetables with niches and stories, old tools that make ecological sense, livestock breeds that offer hope for sane and humane animal agriculture, ways of looking at the forest for sustenance, ways of learning that involve patience and humility instead of credits and certifications, a waning work ethic, and even an innate sense of satisfaction of what we’ve accomplished at the end of any given day.

But perhaps the most distinct thing about homesteading in the 21st century is the fact that we face an unprecedented swarm of interrelated ecological crises…and I’m neither a pessimist nor a conspiracy theorist. I’m just someone who cares about how we treat our collective ecological inheritance and each other. It’s not simply the scale of these crises that makes homesteading in the 21st century so different from previous eras—rather, it’s the fact that homesteaders can no longer afford to be reclusive individualists. In essence, ecology—the science that we love to tout—has smoked us out of our holes and hermitages. We’re all in this quandary together, and the idea of retreating instead of stepping out and up is no longer viable in my view. If we believe that we have ideas and lifestyles relevant to countering our current ecological and social crises, then we need to step out of the shadows and offer what we can to help find solutions. If we’re good ecologists, then we can no longer pretend that we’re somehow separate from the problems. We’re part of the problem, but we can also be at the vanguard of the solutions. That said, we also need to be humble and recognize that there’s a lot more to learn once we engage public processes toward change—not just about process and leverage and open-minded persistence, but also about the interdisciplinary complexity of the problems we’re trying to tackle.

CGP: You’ve also lived in very different regions from Vermont (the South Tirol in Europe, North Carolina). How much is homesteading a localized thing, based on the specifics of place? Are there any universal principles you’ve discovered that seem to apply to any setting?

PA-L: Homesteading, when it’s rooted in place, is probably serving one of its most important functions in our modern world: preserving cultural traditions and conserving a region’s resources, ranging from specific livestock breeds developed and adapted to the region’s ecological niche to stewarding the land out of deep respect and humility. Homesteads harbor native knowledge through living practices. But homesteads are also sites of experimentation—living laboratories, in some ways—places where homesteaders try to wed the parts of a place’s history that still make sense with new ideas and technologies that help us confront our current ecological and social challenges.

That said, there are plenty of homesteading principles and practices that seem to transcend place: a focus on growing healthy food, generating renewable energy, living lightly (not living-lite), balancing independence with interdependence, and making conscious technological choices. In some ways, it’s more about intent than it is about place.

CGP: As a professor, you’re very much a part of the academic world and yet this book is also about the education you received outside the classroom from some old-time Vermonters. What was the most valuable lesson you learned and who taught it to you?

PA-L: It’s a toss up, I guess. Living in Vermont is an ongoing experience in weather extremes. You go from minus twenty degrees one day to unfathomable mud a few weeks later. And when I say mud, I mean mud—mud that will trap a truck or a cow in ways you’d never imagine. Our dairy farmer neighbor, Donald, taught me an important lesson that I don’t think he ever quite articulated—I’ve just watched Donald and his family live it. Mud, snow, rain, drought, mechanical failures—all of the things that can seem insurmountable at any given moment—eventually you work your way through all of them. Sometimes it’s a matter of just waiting it out, knowing that things will work themselves out before too long, and other times you just have to work like hell to fix the problem with a balance of brains and brawn.

And then there was Carl, who deservedly earned his own chapter in the book. Carl was dogged in his determination to make sure that I got to know the people and the terrain that we academics don’t always pay enough attention to unless it’s through a survey, a piece of literature, or some sort of spatial analysis. Academics tend to be very comfortable in confronting local people and places in abstract ways, but we don’t always do such a good job at building relationships with our neighbors and our local terrain—and Carl knew that. He felt like anything I did—whether it was on my homestead, in the classroom, or on the nascent college farm—had to done with the wisdom, lore, and backdrop of the people and places surrounding the college.

In the end, I owe most of my success as a teacher in Vermont to Donald’s quiet lessons and Carl’s famous “Monday night tours” through the region to get me educated and up to snuff.

CGP: You and Erin have faced and surmounted some incredible (and incredibly funny) challenges. What was the biggest challenge?

PA-L: Probably the biggest challenge was building two barns and then a house in the face of winter. Inevitably, with each of those big building projects, winter loomed, even in June…just the thought of how to get any building to the point of being roofed and enclosed before winter was on my mind at the beginning of the summer. There are days you can forget about it and relax, but there’d better not be too many of those days, or you’re gonna end up in trouble come late fall. The epitome of that was the Thanksgiving following the summer that we built the frame of the house.

Erin’s family was here with us, and we had that weekend to get all of the windows and doors installed. As fate would have it, there was also a huge storm that blew in at the same time. So not only were we facing gale-force winds while installing all of those glass-laden wind foils, but the incessant driving rain causing severe flooding that then created a breach in the dam of our new pond. Erin’s folks were troopers on all counts, half of them helping to get the windows and doors installed with sleet flying through the openings while the rest of them were helping to levee the pond and dig out the spillway. Sometimes I wonder why anyone ever returns for a visit…

CGP: What has brought you the greatest joy up Tunket Road?

PA-L: Probably any number of evening meals with family and friends after a long day’s work—or sometimes a long day of play, although the two often seem to go hand-in-hand. Nothing rivals the fellowship that follows a good hard day of tangible work.

Clearing out my email inbox gives me very little satisfaction. But clearing rocks or brush from a pasture or even cleaning out the chicken house every few months—those jobs I find deeply gratifying…and particularly fun when done with friends and our kids. There’s nothing that brings me deeper contentment than watching our children find ways to amuse themselves either by helping or by playing on the periphery of a job. The kids learn about work while they teach me about the spontaneity of discovery.

CGP: You suggest in the end that homesteading is more of a state of mind than anything else. The popular vision of going “back to the land” is still very attractive to some people. But is it just as possible to make a homestead in the suburbs, or even in a city?

PA-L: Absolutely. In fact, it’s vital that we readjust our cultural understandings and expectations of what homesteading is and where it can take place. When we look at the demographic shifts throughout the world—more people now living in cities than in rural areas, a burgeoning global population, and increased fragmentation of our landscapes—we have to begin to reassess our cultural assumptions about what homesteading is. Is it about a close association with nature? Sure it is. But that close association can come in many different forms, and I think that we need to open up the homesteading tradition so that others can join in.

One can lead a life closely linked to the seasons in any environment. Think of the power and pleasure that comes from container gardening—maxing out the ecological potential of a balcony or a backyard patio to produce food. That kind of experience can be as intimate and rich as much of what I do here in the backwoods of Vermont. In fact, one can make the argument that such a life might have a smaller ecological footprint than mine. The key is what we do and why—not where.

Actually, I think that suburban and urban homesteaders have a lot of things to teach people like me!

Philip Ackerman-Leist is the author of Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader, available now.


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