Sunday, 24 June 2012

Corrected times for talks

Correction on the talk at Macalester Friday the 13th of July - it's at 6 pm. Here is the information again:

I've been writing less lately because I've been preparing a trip to the USA, my first one in three years, and posting will be light for the next several weeks during our trip.

I'll be visiting family in Missouri in early July, and have been invited to speak to Occupy St. Louis at 7 pm on July 4, at Legacy Books & Cafe, off Delmar & Union in the city.

Then The Girl and I journey to Minnesota to see old friends, and I will be giving a lecture at Macalester College two nights in a row -- Friday, July 13 at 6 pm, and Saturday, July 14 at 7 pm.

The lectures, held in the Weyerhauser Boardroom, will be on "O'Sterity: How the Irish thrived in desperate times." The talks will focus on the problems we face in the coming decades -- peak oil, climate change and economic collapse, all summed up as the "Long Emergency" -- and how we can deal with them using the skills and knowledge of traditional cultures.

Ireland, I point out, makes a good example: when my wife was growing up here in the 1970s, it was poorer than many Third-World countries, and not everyone had electricity or indoor plumbing. Yet statistics show people were better-educated, safer, healthier and happier -- at least from survey responses -- than Americans today. If we can piece apart why, I argue, we can help Americans and other modern people thrive during the difficult times ahead.

I've also been invited to speak on Andy Driscoll's "Truth to Tell" radio programme at 9 a.m. on July 16. The programme can be heard in the Twin Cities area.

If you're interested in peak oil, homesteading, ecology, distributism, or any of the other subjects we talk about here, feel free to come, or let your friends know.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Drive easy

If someone discovered the equivalent of a few more Saudi Arabias tomorrow, only free, pundits would hail the find as the biggest news story of the year. It would make screaming headlines in tomorrow’s paper. The same should be true if someone discovered a free way to cut a large chunk of consumption, which amounts to the same thing in oil use and better for climate change.

We can do just that: stretch our oil use, decrease our involvement in the Middle East, reduce climate change, dramatically lower the number of traffic deaths, extend the life of our cars and increase neighbourhood safety all at once. It’s called driving slowly.

Strangely, though, this simple method gets very little attention, and the reduction of the 55-mile-an-hour limit in the USA was unpopular and short-lived. Most drivers assume they not only can, but should hurtle towards their destination at dangerous speeds that devour fuel and money – not only at the high speed limit, but 9.5 miles over it. But the higher your speed, beyond a certain point, the more fuel you use per distance travelled.

As Kris DeDecker described in Low-Tech magazine, “[a]ir resistance (drag) increases with the square of speed, and therefore the power needed to push an object through air increases with the cube of the velocity … If a car cruising on the highway at 80 km/h requires 30 kilowatts to overcome air drag, that same car will require 240 kilowatts at a speed of 160 km/h … Thus, a vehicle needs eight times the engine power to reach twice the speed. In principle, this means that fuel consumption will increase fourfold (not eightfold, because the faster vehicle exerts the power only over half the time).”

In other words, travelling half as fast could save you up to 75 percent in fuel costs. Since 60 percent of the world’s oil is used for transportation, if everyone cut their speed in half tomorrow, this would reduce world oil consumption by about 45 percent. Obviously this is theoretical and everyone won’t act at once, but it reminds us that the simplest solutions are often the best.

 Such a simple equation inevitably has many complications, but none that are fatal to the basic idea. DeDecker does note that today’s cars are unfortunately designed to be maximally efficient at higher speeds, which reduces the 75-percent figure somewhat unless the engines are adjusted – and, in fact, most automotive sources say the best speed is between 50 and 80 km/hr (35-55 miles/hr). It also doesn’t allow for urban congestion and frequent stops – although slower speeds would discourage the unnecessary trips that cause congestion, and make bicycles and taking public transportation a more cost-effective option.

To spread this message, Minnesota farmer Fulton Hanson is promoting an international “Drive Easy” campaign and a web site, Hanson, a longtime community activist and grandfather, has been speaking and writing about his campaign for several years, selling stickers and car magnets through his site.

The campaign has been endorsed by the Orion Grassroots Network, Congregations Caring for Creation, Global Warming 101, Alliance for Sustainability and the Sierra Club. As Hanson says, “It’s not the only answer to climate chaos and the oil crisis, of course, but it’s a first step that everyone can do -- now, easily, with no new technology or training. We already have the grand solutions; we need to get more people to take those first steps.”

Driving more slowly would also save many lives. Researchers at the University of Adelaide found that, for every five miles of speed above 60 km/hour (40 miles/hour), the risk of a fatal accident doubles. A car travelling at 65 km/hour was twice as likely to be in a fatal car crash than one travelling at 60 km/hour. A car driving 70 km/hour is four times more likely, and so on. Driving more slowly allows you more reaction time, your car more braking time, the other car or pedestrian more reaction time and so on.

But maybe 75 percent, or whatever figure you can achieve by driving slowly, is not enough – maybe you demand an additional 500-percent increase in efficiency on top of that. There is a way to do that as well: add four more passengers to your car. Most cars on the road are bizarrely empty, but even a fully-loaded Hummer harms the world far less than a one-man Prius.

Much of the peak oil discussion focuses on ever-more-ambitious technology: how we can use better equipment next time, drill in the Arctic, squeeze oil from rock or farm it from algae. Give us a dilemma of this size, and our thoughts instantly turn to the expensive, the destructive and hypothetical – the qualities that got us here in the first place. We pay far too little attention to the most needed and immediately feasible solutions: the simple, the modest and the slow.

 Drive Easy campaign: “The age of speed: how to reduce global fuel consumption by 75 percent,”
Low-Tech Magazine
 “Fatal Impact – the Physics of Speeding Cars,” Australian Academy of Science.
Originally published in June 2010 in the Kildare Nationalist newspaper. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Store in Mountshannon

This is the village where my wife grew up, where an overgrown petrol station has become a pottery store.

Sunday, 10 June 2012


Living on an island, the Irish have always been a nation of travellers, and during the boom some of my co-workers flew to Majorca and Cyprus as frequently and casually as their parents travelled to Dublin. Now that money has become lean again, however, many are finding travel far too expensive to do frequently. 

My family never had any money, and never took holidays, so I never travelled growing up. I took one plane ride with my grandmother when I was seven, to Cleveland, as far as I ever travelled in the USA, and that’s all – I’d never seen another country. In adulthood, however, I tried to rectify that, eventually moving to Ireland. I’ve still never seen the East or West coast of the USA, but I have no particular desire to. What I have found, however, are several ways to travel cheaply. 

One of them is the business trip -- my job paid for me to go to London three times in the last year, and each time I stayed on extra days to see the sights. My employer had to pay for a return ticket anyway so it made no difference to them, and each time I got to see London for several days, I ticked more items off my “bucket list.”

If your job doesn’t send you abroad, however, some airlines offer standby tickets, which allow you to take a flight as soon as a passenger misses their flight. If you don’t work full-time, you might try being hired as a courier, to accompany a package to a destination, and see if a company will pay for most of your plane service. 

When you want to stay in another country, hostels are usually the best place to sleep. Most of them are as comfortable and clean as any hotel, but a hotel room might cost you a few hundred euros a night, while a hostel can cost you ten to fifty. They differ from conventional hotels in that they often do not offer single rooms, with the private showers, televisions and maids that most hotel-goers have come to expect. Instead, most hostels require visitors to sleep in rooms with several other people, but this is not as difficult as it might sound; most hostel guests respect the privacy and sleeping habits of others and, as they are spending the day working or having fun, use their rooms only for sleeping. 

Hostels also offer the chance to mingle with other guests in a way that hotels do not. Since most people in hostels use their rooms only for sleeping, and spend their time at the hostel sitting in common rooms, hostel guests have the opportunity to chat with others if they choose. Hostel guests also tend to be young and adventurous, often backpackers or other casual travellers, and come from all over the world. When I stay at a hostel, I soon have enjoyable conversations with people from Russia, Australia, Africa and many other parts of the world – all with stories to tell. 

You might think that seeing a foreign city would be expensive, and every city is different. In many cities, though, the most amazing sites are the statues, buildings, rivers, bridges and public parks, and those are almost always free. 

Many other great entertainments, however, are surprisingly inexpensive. Musical plays are in great demand right now, so their tickets run into the hundreds of euros, but amazing plays starring world-famous actors can have very cheap seats. I saw a play starring Keira Knightley and other well-known movie stars for about 30 euros, little more than a movie ticket with popcorn these days. 

Travelling around a strange city can often be part of the adventure, and while most cities charge more than they should for public transportation, most also offer the opportunity to pay one charge for a whole day or week. The London Underground, for example, charges the equivalent of 8.50 euros to ride all day, but that takes one anywhere in the city for half the price of a short taxi ride.  

Finally, eating in another city or country doesn’t have to be expensive either. We tend to pay more for food when we are hungry, intuitively enough, and take less time to enjoy the food. If you want to eat cheaply and enjoy your food as much as possible, therefore, buy cheap, healthy snacks at a grocery store. Snack on fennel or apples as you walk or ride from one attraction to the next, and keep yourself from getting too hungry and impulsively buying food, and you will truly be able to enjoy the restaurants you do visit. 

I was almost thirty years old before I got a passport, and while there's never much money to go around, I want to make sure I travel while it's as cheap as it is now. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Tree in County Clare

Some trees here, and some stone walls, have stood for centuries, and sometimes they grow into each other.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Life with Girl

Usually I get home from work and spend an hour or two reading, playing games and going over lessons, and then spend the weekends taking her to museums or the forest. We went camping for the first time a few weeks ago, and she can’t wait to go back into those deep woods again.

 This week, however, I’ve been busy every night building our chicken coop, and every time I get a little farther something happens to slow me down – rain, hail, dry rot, me stepping on a nail and having to drive myself to the emergency room.

Yes, a nail. I wanted to use the pile of old lumber left behind by my late father-in-law to save money on lumber or a finished coop, and learned that, after you have inspected each piece of lumber for protruding nails, you then assume you missed one.

The Girl is excited about getting the chickens, though, just as she is about the beehive I bought yesterday, with the money I saved using the lumber with the protruding nails. Bees, too, have been a long time coming for us – I took a course in beekeeping three years ago and have been saving up for a hive ever since. While my suit can be rolled up for her use, she wants a Girl-sized one, and her piggy bank now has a note taped to it in a child’s scrawl: “bee suit savings account.” Every day she puts a few more coins in, knowing only that it will take her a few steps closer.

I had to explain that, while we will have the box, the bees themselves will not arrive anytime soon. The crash here created a swift revival of the self-sufficient skills that were briefly forgotten during the Celtic Tiger, and while the local beekeeping courses brought 20 or so people a year in the prosperous decade, I took it with 70 of our neighbours. Thus we sit in a long list of people waiting for the next swarm, and the bees do not hurry for our economic fortunes.

Such a busy schedule, however, means I owe The Girl some time, so today we took the bus to Dublin and see our favourite science galleries, Viking exhibits and the Dublin Natural History Museum – the last one locals affectionately call “The Dead Zoo.” We managed to hit all of them in a single afternoon, with a lot of running down city streets to get from one to the other before they closed.

We needed to run more than we had expected, for as our bus driver explained to us in weary tones, Dublin city officials apparently thought it was a great idea to commission stock-car racing in the middle of the city. Not just any city, but a city where everything is claustrophobically close, the streets narrow and winding. And large chunks of the city were blocked off, the screech of Formula One cars causing babies to scream and adults to cover their ears for miles around.

“If I ever find the people who did this," The Girl swore, "I will shake my fists at them!”


The Girl and I are preparing to come to the USA for our first visit in years, and I put out messages to friends and family in the Tea Party, Green Party, distributist organisations and various churches and dioceses, asking if they would be interested in having me speak. I can happily say that I have been invited by Occupy St. Louis to speak at their Fourth of July event at 7 pm at Legacy Books & Cafe, near the corner of Delmar and Union in the city. Anyone who lives in the area is welcome and listen to me and a few other speakers -- I don't know who, yet -- talk about how people can become less reliant on the mainstream economy.

I was also supposed to speak at the Walker Methodist Church in Minneapolis, but tragically, the day after I talked to them the church burned to the ground. No one was hurt, but it was a blow to the community, and to me. I don't know yet where or if I'm speaking in Minnesota, but I will keep readers posted.

Top photo: The Girl in the bee suit. Bottom photo: The Girl on a bridge over the River Liffey in Dublin.