Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Stuff that lasts

Walk into any store, here in Ireland or in America, and you are quickly overwhelmed by consumer choice, by the thousands of products screaming for attention. Almost all these products, though -- shoes, CDs, deodorants, toys -- have one thing in common: they break quickly and are meant to be thrown away and replaced. All of them will become less replaceable as they cost more to make in Third-World factories and transport around a planet.

One solution -- the one mentioned in the mainstream media -- is to get more energy some other way and use it more efficiently, by replacing our technology with more advanced technology. The proposed solutions, however, are generally hypothetical (clean coal) or rare (electric cars, solar panels). I would love to see solar panels on every roof, rings of wind turbines around small towns, and electric rail systems linking towns together, and we still might be able to get there. But even in the West their use has not come close to a critical mass, and we certainly do not have the natural resources to cover the world with them. Moreover, all these things eventually break, and to my knowledge, no one has ever built a solar-powered solar-panel factory.

Another choice is to learn the old skills of life before fossil fuels, and I'd like to see everyone learn how to rein and bridle, keep bees, create hedgerows and build with cob. But the fossil fuels and the modern world will not disappear tomorrow, or completely. Most of us are better off making this long journey to a simpler life one step at a time, without completely abandoning the advantages of modern technology. (Re: Me and you, sitting here, at our computers)

One practical approach is to buy durable goods and learn how to use them, even if only in case of emergency. Ironically, this often means re-adopting "obsolete" technology that was more common fifty or a hundred years ago.

Take the straight razor. It costs much more initially than a plastic disposable razor, and using it requires some practice, but properly maintained it can last indefinitely. A razor bought today could be passed to children decades from now, when no new plastic can be made except through smelting Barbie dolls and other rubbish.

John Michael Greer, in his blog The Archdruid Report ( uses the example of slide rules. Once people have becoem proficient at using them, they can calculate almost as fast as a person with a calaulator. I am told that some of the calculations for the first space launches were done with slide rules, and that the first astronauts landed on the moon carrying some. Less than thirty years ago the dictionary entry for “computer” was a person who computed with a slide rule. Yet most people my age – in their thirties – have never used or even seen one.

We plan to buy a grain grinder soon, and such devices can also be used to create spices – something so cheap and little-used today that we underestimate how important they can be when preserving or cooking food, or how far away they grow.

Wind-up clocks are surprisingly difficult to find where I live, except for decorative facsimiles that actually require batteries. Like straight razors or grinders, they must be purchased by mail order and are expensive, as their main market seems to be aficionados.

Bicycles are an amazing invention and famous example of sustainable transportation, and can be maintained and repaired. Like clocks or acoustic instruments, however, they require some industry to create – with the additional necessity of at least some globalized trade to create rubber tires. Also, most bicyclists I know are urban, and tend to take for granted the presence of well-maintained paved roads.

Washboards and wringers would allow clothes to be cleaned without electricity and dried quickly, yet I have yet to find any, as they are too old for stores and too mundane for antiques dealers.

Even with devices that require electricity, simpler is often better. A vinyl album can be played with a cactus needle if the real one breaks, and even if there is no electricity, one might be able to hook it up to pedals.

In some cases -- musical instruments, pottery wheels - the knowledge and techniques are more important than the items themselves. Take, for example, knitting. The first references to knitting were in the Renaissance, but there is no reason to believe that Stone Age people could not have knitted. As far as we know, they did not – the technique had not been invented.

All these items cover the middle ground between the microchip society we live in today and the desperate society that we might see if everything collapsed tomorrow, and can bridge the Depression that may likely have begun yesterday. They give off zero carbon emissions, often have replaceable parts, and can often be patched or repaired in a way that an Ipod cannot.

Most of these items, though, require at least some industrial society – even solar ovens made with a box and foil. We forget how recently aluminium foil was an exotic and rare commodity – well into the industrial age, the U.S. government almost covered the newly-built Washington Monument with shiny foil to show what a wealthy country we were.

I don’t anticipate the industry to create these things vanishing in my lifetime -- and hopefully not ever -- but we will need decades to rebuild the local factories that used to be the centrepiece of most mid—sized towns. When I reported on small towns in Missouri and Kansas, most towns seemed to have an abandoned factory, the former center of the economy there. When I saw these communities decades later, however, the buildings had at best been converted into apartments and at worst into a meth distribution centre. We desperately need entrepreneurs to invest, not in anticipated technological breakthroughs, but in restoring a single shoe factory to America.

Better yet, someone could build the first solar-powered solar panel factory in the world. For all the technology we have around us, it would be our first true investment, rather than living off a prehistoric credit card.

PHOTO: The road outside my office in Dublin. Teenagers drive the horse buggies all around the neighbourhood, offering rides to tourists.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Wild Food

For millions of years all food was wild, gathered from under trees, off leaves and out of streams, and even after people began to slowly shift to farming they gathered the edibles around them.

Nettles are not only one of the most common plants in Ireland, they are extremely nutritious – high in protein, iron and vitamins. It is versatile, and can be made into a cooked green, soup, tea, pudding, put into pancakes or scrambled eggs, even home-made beer. For those who have never tried them, they have a slight fishy flavour from their high levels of iodine, and go well with seafood.

Nettles are best as shoots picked in spring, but I am not picky, and will eat them even in summer, picking them from the field next door and making them into soup for lunch at my office the next day.

Dandelions are also nutritious, and in Europe are grown as salad. Gardeners often wrap the leaves together in a cloth, which blanches out the colour and eases the bitterness.

When you see an Irish field in summer, it will often be covered in purple clovers, yellow cowslips and white daisies – all flowers that can be eaten raw as salad greens. (If you want to try any of these, do make sure you know what they look like, to know that yellow flower is an edible cowslip and not a poisonous buttercup.)

Cowslips can also be made into wine, as can elderflowers – we have bottles of both on our shelves. In fact, many plants can be made into wine or beer with the addition of water, sugar and yeast – fermenting roots like parsnips made the original “root beer.”

There are many more local plants that I have read about but not yet tried – goosefoot is ubiquitous around here, for example, but everyone assures me its taste relegates it to the “desperate” category.

Many nut trees grow in Ireland -- hazel, chestnuts, beech and walnuts. Acorns can be made edible by leaching them for a day or two in water – either a running stream or water that is changed twice a day.

Most older people here seem to possess such knowledge, and perhaps every Druid and Neanderthal before them. Now such resources are almost forgotten, and would go unused even in a crisis unless we retain and spread the knowledge.

Of course, our nation does not rise and fall with nettles, but this is one of thousands of skills we have lost. And while somebody, somewhere has scientific knowledge Druids and Neanderthals could not imagine – say, to build wind turbines or solar panels – how many of us have this knowledge, or even a rudimentary grasp of science?

Famines might seem distant tragedies to us right now, with supermarkets around every corner, and let’s hope it stays that way. But I also live on a lush island teeming with food and surrounded by fishing waters, that saw the most famous famine in history. If such times ever come again, we will need to see, not just boarded-up stores, but the metric tonnes of food all around us.

(Upper photo: Beara, Cork. Lower photo: our land at Killina)

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Great News

For the last two years I have worked with a group called FADA, helping prepare villages here for peak oil and climate change, and I’m pretty proud of what we have done. And now the latest news: We have helped make the nearby town of Kildare into the world’s latest Transition Town.

First, let me praise this group. It has existed less than two years, has had little money and no more than a dozen people at any time, sometimes we have invested more time in FADA than in our day jobs, and have asked patience from our families. Some projects have required us to stand in the cold Irish rain for hours, or sit through tedious meetings in rented rooms, or argue with decent people. But this group has made things happen.

It doesn’t always seem like it – just as rapid-fire news chronologies often feel slow when they happen, as background noise amid the obligations of mundane life, so do movements often feel like they are barely moving. Then we look back and realize that in two years we have:

• Organized an Energy Fair that drew thousands of people;

• Spoke to 300 teenagers about the Long Emergency at the area theatre;

• Created a mobile gardening unit to turn residents’ lawns into vegetable gardens;

• Published a weekly column on peak oil and climate change for the local newspaper;

• Persuaded the CEO of the county’s largest industry, Newbridge Silverware, to invest 250,000 euros in changing his business to bio-fuels and solar power;

• Brought Catholic and Protestant churches together endorse a common campaign against climate change;

• Appeared on numerous radio and television interviews in English and Irish, including co-appearing with Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins;

• Spoke from the pulpit of area churches for Lent;

• Hosted a talk on peak oil by Irish television personality Eddie Hobbs;

• Drew Irish television host Duncan Stewart to speak at an event;

• Organized workshops for students on how they will deal with the coming changes;

• Helped create a local gardening allotment and Farmers’ Market;

• Brought local teens together to create a FADA Og, or Young People’s FADA;

• Moderated political debates between candidates of several parties;

• Spun off a business that audits local homes for energy efficiency.

If this sounds like some serious bragging, keep in mind most of it wasn’t me personally. I wrote most of the columns and gave the local talks, somebody else spoke from the pulpits and spoke to the factory CEO, still others started FADA Og.

Some of these projects were disappointments – the Eddie Hobbs event, held on a dark rainy night, drew only a fraction of the people we had hoped for, and most of the auditorium was empty seats. The lot we hoped could become a community garden turned out to be weeds growing thickly through toxic tarpaper, and could not be used. But some went well, and now FADA – the name is a play on words in Irish, a word meaning “slow down” and an acronym for “Fuinneamh An DĂșchais Againn,” or “Our Strength is Here in Our Native Place” -- has helped Kildare become an official Transition Town.

Transition Towns are also a new movement, begun in Kinsale, County Cork, of communities that acknowledge peak oil and work to wean themseves off fossil fuels. To officially qualify as a Transition Town, members of a community must meet with existing groups and local officials, talk to other towns already on their way, and start projects to make the area more self-sufficient and resilient. Then, these groups must draught a plan to make them largely independent of fossil fuels over the next 20 years or so.

The movement began with a few activists in 2005, and only three years later almost a hundred towns in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Chile have met the stringent criteria to be declared official Transition Towns. Many more communities, including some in Mexico, Israel, Argentina, India and Brazil, are working to qualify.

The path to independence will vary from one community to another, but such towns will typically work to create area gardens and food production for when food becomes even more expensive; promote local sources of clean energy; promote local composting instead of centralized rubbish disposal, and draw a growing proportion of the community into the efforts.

In some towns, residents interviewed local pensioners to learn how things were done before fossil fuels were cheap – where the townspeople’s food came from, how people traveled, and how goods were transported. Most Transition Towns have their own web pages sharing their stories, and many local efforts have been made into videos on YouTube.

While Kinsale was the start of the movement, it remained the only Irish town to join until Kildare qualified earlier this year. Transition Towns have been especially popular in England – so much so that they were featured recently in the long-running BBC soap opera The Archers.

Some people, when they first hear about peak oil and climate change, flirt with the idea of moving to the country and trying to live self-sufficiently. Country life, however, requires a long list of skills, tools and experience, and most of us are ill-equipped to suddenly move to an isolated area and start from scratch. Eco-villages have the advantage of community, but they too have sometimes tried to build an infrastructure from scratch, and have required modern urbanites to plunge into a very different life.

Transitions are easier when taken slowly, with a plan, and as a group, whenever possible. Our challenge is not to act as though everything has broken down when it hasn’t -- we have electricity, running water, heat, public transportation and even broadband -- but to understand that some of these things might have problems in the future, and prepare for it now, together. Transition Towns are dealing with peak oil by starting where they are.

I remember a scene from a very good newspaper article about a soldier’s funeral, in which the reporter describes the small, personal details of the assembled grieving family. Then, as the family prepares to leave the white cross, the father slowly looks around, in tears, and sees hundreds of white crosses spreading into the distance in all directions.

In the same way, I thought about the course of the last two years of our lives, and about the millions of uncelebrated people in towns around the world that have had the same frustrations and tiny victories, and how they moved, and moved, and moved, until they were a movement. The largest movement that has ever existed. And I don’t feel alone.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Recalcitrant Fairy

My four-year-old often has trouble getting to sleep these days, and pads downstairs once or twice before finally succumbing. My wife sometimes persuades her to return peacefully by telling her about the Sleep Fairy, who sprinkles fairy dust on children's eyelids and makes them heavy.

This only carries so much weight, though -- the other night she came down annoyed, and slowly announced, "The Sleep Fairy has disappointed me."