Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Garlic, Chainsaws, and Victory Gardens

The uncontrolled simplification of a complex system is rarely a welcome event for those people whose lives depend on the system in question. That’s one way to summarize the impact of the waves of trouble rolling up against the sand castles we are pleased to call the world’s modern industrial nations. Exactly how the interaction between sand and tide will work out is anyone’s guess at this point; the forces that undergird that collision have filled the pages of this blog for a year and a half now; here, and for the next few posts, I want to talk a bit about what can be done to deal with the consequences.

That requires, first of all, recognizing what can’t be done. Plenty of people have argued that the only valid response to the rising spiral of crisis faced by industrial civilization is to build a completely new civilization from the ground up on more idealistic lines. Even if that latter phrase wasn’t a guarantee of disaster – if there’s one lesson history teaches, it’s that human societies are organic growths, and trying to invent one to fit some abstract idea of goodness is as foredoomed as trying to make an ecosystem do what human beings want – we no longer have time for grand schemes of that sort. To shift metaphors, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water’s coming in, it’s a bit too late to suggest that it should be rebuilt from the keel up according to some new scheme of naval engineering.

An even larger number of people have argued with equal zeal that the only valid response to the predicament of our time is to save the existing order of things, with whatever modest improvements the person in question happens to fancy, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. They might be right, too, if saving the existing order of things was possible, but it’s not. A global civilization that is utterly dependent for its survival on ever-expanding supplies of cheap abundant energy and a stable planetary biosphere is simply not going to make it in a world of ever-contracting supplies of scarce and expensive energy and a planetary biosphere that the civilization’s own activities are pushing into radical instability. Again, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water’s coming in, it’s not helpful to insist that the only option is to keep steaming toward a distant port.

What that leaves, to borrow a useful term from one of the most insightful books of the last round of energy crises, is muddling through. Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality has fallen into the limbo our cultural memory reserves for failed prophecies; neither he nor, to be fair to him, anybody else in the sustainability movement of the Seventies had any idea that the collective response of most industrial nations to the approach of the limits to growth would turn out to be a thirty-year vacation from sanity in which short-term political gimmicks and the wildly extravagant drawdown of irreplaceable resources would be widely mistaken for permanent solutions.

That put paid to Johnson’s hope that simple, day by day adjustments to dwindling energy and resource supplies would cushion the transition from an economy of abundance to one of frugality. His strategy, though, still has some things going for it that no other available approach can match: It can still be applied this late in the game; if it’s done with enough enthusiasm or desperation, and with a clear sense of the nature of our predicament, it could still get a fair number of us through the mess ahead; and it certainly offers better odds than sitting on our hands and waiting for the ship to sink, which under one pretense or another is the other option open to us right now.

A strategy of muddling doesn’t lend itself to nice neat checklists of what to do and what to try, and so I won’t presume to offer a step-by-step plan. Still, showing one way to muddle, or to begin muddling, and outlining some of the implications of that choice, can bridge the gap between abstraction and action, and suggest ways that those who are about to muddle might approach the task – and of course there’s always the chance that the example might be applicable to some of the people who read it. With this in mind, I want to talk about victory gardens.

The victory garden as a social response to crisis was an invention of the twentieth century. Much before then, it would have been a waste of time to encourage civilians in time of war to dig up their back yards and put in vegetable gardens, because nearly everybody who had a back yard already had a kitchen garden in it. That was originally why houses had back yards; the household economy, which produced much of the goods and services used by people in pre-petroleum Europe and America, didn’t stop at the four walls of a house; garden beds, cold frames, and henhouses in urban back yards kept pantries full, while no self-respecting farm wife would have done without the vegetable garden out back and the dozen or so fruit trees close by the farmhouse.

Those useful habits only went into decline when rail transportation and the commercialization of urban food supplies gave birth to the modern city in the course of the nineteenth century. When 1914 came around and Europe blundered into the carnage of the First World War, the entire system had to be reinvented from scratch in many urban areas, since the transport networks that brought fresh food to the cities in peacetime had other things to do, and importing food from overseas became problematic for all the combatants in a time of naval blockades and unrestricted submarine warfare. The lessons learned from that experience became a standard part of military planning thereafter, and when the Second World War came, well-organized victory garden programs shifted into high gear, helping to take the hard edges off food rationing. It’s a measure of their success that despite the massive mismatch between Britain’s wartime population and its capacity to grow food, and the equally massive challenge of getting food imports through a gauntlet of U-boats, food shortages in Britain never reached the level of actual famine.

In the Seventies, in turn, the same thing happened on a smaller scale without government action; all over the industrial world, people who were worried about the future started digging victory gardens in their back yards, and books offering advice on backyard gardening became steady sellers. (Some of those are still in print today.) These days, sales figures in the home garden industry reliably jolt upwards whenever the economy turns south or something else sends fears about the future upwards; for many people, planting a victory garden has become a nearly instinctive response to troubled times.

It’s fashionable in some circles to dismiss this sort of thing as an irrelevance, but such analyses miss the point of the phenomenon. The reason that the victory garden has become a fixture of our collective response to trouble is that it engages one of the core features of the predicament individuals and families face in the twilight of the industrial age, the disconnection of the money economy from the actual production of goods and services – in the terms we’ve used here repeatedly, the gap between the tertiary economy on the one hand, and the primary and secondary economies on the other.

Right now, the current theoretical value of all the paper wealth in the world – counting everything from dollar bills in wallets to derivatives of derivatives of derivatives of fraudulent mortgage loans in bank vaults – is several orders of magnitude greater than the current value of all the actual goods and services in the world. Almost all of that paper wealth consists of debt in one form or another, and the mismatch between the scale of the debt and the much smaller scale of the global economy’s assets means exactly the same thing that the same mismatch would mean to a household: imminent bankruptcy. That can take place in two ways – either most of the debt will lose all its value by way of default, or all of the debt will lose most of its value by way of hyperinflation – or, more likely, by a ragged combination of the two, affecting different regions and economic sectors at different times.

What that implies for the not too distant future is that any economic activity that depends on money will face drastic uncertainties, instabilities, and risks. People use money because it gives them a way to exchange their labor for goods and services, and because it allows them to store value in a relatively stable and secure form. Both these, in turn, depend on the assumption that a dollar has the same value as any other dollar, and will have roughly the same value tomorrow that it does today.

The mismatch between money and the rest of economic life throws all these assumptions into question. Right now there are a great many dollars in the global economy that are no longer worth the same as any other dollar. Consider the trillions of dollars’ worth of essentially worthless real estate loans on the balance sheets of banks around the world. Governments allow banks to treat these as assets, but unless governments agree to take them, they can’t be exchanged for anything else, because nobody in his right mind would buy them for more than a tiny fraction of their theoretical value. Those dollars have the same sort of weird half-existence that horror fiction assigns to zombies and vampires; they’re undead money, lurking in the shadowy crypts of Goldman Sachs like so many brides of Dracula, because the broad daylight of the market would kill them at once.

It’s been popular for some years, since the sheer amount of undead money stalking the midnight streets of the world’s financial centers became impossible to ignore, to suggest that the entire system will come to a messy end soon in some fiscal equivalent of a zombie apocalypse movie. Still, the world’s governments are doing everything in their not inconsiderable power to keep that from happening. Letting banks meet capital requirements with technically worthless securities is only one of the maneuvers that government regulators around the world allow without blinking. Driving this spectacular lapse of fiscal probity, of course, is the awkward fact that governments – to say nothing of large majorities of the voters who elect them – have been propping up budgets for years with their own zombie hordes of undead money.

Underlying this awkward fact is the reality that the only response to the current economic crisis most governments can imagine involves churning out yet more undead money, in the form of an almost unimaginable torrent of debt; the only response most voters can imagine, in turn, involves finding yet more ways to spend more money than they happen to earn. So we’re all in this together; everybody insists that the walking corpses in the basement are fine upstanding citizens, and we all pretend not to notice that more and more people are having their necks bitten or their brains devoured.

As long as most people continue to play along, it’s entirely possible that things could stumble along this way for quite a while, with stock market crashes, sovereign debt crises, and corporate bankruptcies quickly covered up by further outpourings of unpayable debt. The problem for individuals and families, though, is that all this makes money increasingly difficult to use as a medium of exchange or a store of wealth. If hyperinflation turns out to be the mode of fiscal implosion du jour, it becomes annoying to have to sprint to the grocery store with your paycheck before the price of milk rises above $1 million a gallon; if we get deflationary contraction instead, business failures and plummeting wages make getting any paycheck at all increasingly challenging; in either case your pension, your savings, and the money you pour down the rathole of health insurance are as good as lost.

This is where victory gardens come in, because the value you get from a backyard garden differs from the value you get from your job or your savings in a crucial way: money doesn’t mediate between your labor and the results. If you save your own seeds, use your own muscles, and fertilize the soil with compost you make from kitchen and garden waste – and many gardeners do these things, of course – the only money your gardening requires of you is whatever you spend on beer after a hard day’s work. The vegetables that help feed your family are produced by the primary economy of sun and soil and the secondary economy of sweat; the tertiary economy has been cut out of the loop.

Now it will doubtless be objected that nobody can grow all the food for a family in an ordinary back yard, so the rest of the food remains hostage to the tertiary economy. This is more or less true, but it’s less important than it looks. Even in a really thumping depression, very few people have no access to money at all; the problem is much more often one of not having enough money to get everything you need by way of the tertiary economy. An effective response usually involves putting those things that can be done without money outside the reach of the tertiary economy, and prioritizing whatever money can be had for those uses that require it.

You’re not likely to be able to grow field crops in your back yard, for example, but grains, dried beans, and the like can be bought in bulk very cheaply. What can’t be bought cheaply, and in a time of financial chaos may not be for sale at all, are exactly the things you can most effectively grow in a backyard garden, the vegetables, vine and shrub fruits, eggs, chicken and rabbit meat, and the like that provide the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you can’t get from fifty pound sacks of rice and beans. Those are the sorts of things people a century and a half ago produced in their kitchen gardens, along with medicinal herbs to treat illnesses and maybe a few dye plants for homespun fabric; those are the sorts of things that make sense to grow at home in a world where the economy won’t support the kind of abundance most people in the industrial world take for granted today.

It will also doubtless be objected that even if you reduce the amount of money you need for food, you still need money for other things, and so a victory garden isn’t an answer. This is true enough, if your definition of an answer requires that it simultaneously solves every aspect of the mess in which the predicament of industrial society has landed us. Still, one of the key points I’ve tried to make in this blog is that waiting for the one perfect answer to come around is a refined version of doing nothing while the water rises. Muddling requires many small adjustments rather than one grand plan: planting a victory garden in the back yard is one adjustment to the impact of a dysfunctional money economy on the far from minor issue of getting food on the table; other impacts will require other adjustments.

A third objection I expect to hear that not everybody can plant a victory garden in the back yard. A good many people don’t have back yards these days, and some of those who do are forbidden by restrictive covenants from using their yards as anything but props for their home’s largely imaginary resale value. (Will someone please explain to me why so many Americans, who claim to value freedom, willingly submit to the petty tyranny of planned developments and neighborhood associations? Brezhnev’s Russia placed fewer restrictions on people’s choices than many neighborhood covenants do.) The crucial point here is that a victory garden is simply an example of the way that people have muddled through hard times in the past, and might well muddle through the impending round of hard times in the future. If you can’t grow a garden in your backyard, see if there’s a neighborhood P-Patch program that will let garden somewhere else, or look for something else that will let you meet some of your own needs with your own labor without letting money get in the way.

That latter, of course, is the central point of this example. At a time when the tertiary economy is undergoing the first stages of an uncontrolled and challenging simplification, if you can disconnect something you need from the tertiary economy, you’ve insulated a part of your life from at least some of the impacts of the chaotic resolution of the mismatch between limitless paper wealth and the limited real wealth available to our species on this very finite planet. What garlic is to vampires and a well-fueled chainsaw is to zombies, being able to do things yourself, with the skills and resources you have on hand, is to the undead money lurching en masse through today’s economy; next week, we’ll replace the garlic with a mallet and a stake.


Sixbears said...

You start gardening you just might start liking the household economy. Next thing you know you are putting up a solar water heater and a PV panel. Oh No! Where could this lead?

Why, you could start to think that getting rewarded for your labor doesn't require money at all. Something to think about while sipping that homemade wine.

What could happen next? Play an instrument and provide your own entertainment?

Share and barter with the neighbors?

Start to watch out for each other?

With that attitude, before you know it, you'll be able to live on so little money you don't pay taxes.

Then how will government pay for "services?" Well, it seems like at that point there'll be less services needed or wanted.

One of the cool things about the home garden is that is teaches a whole new mindset -a more self reliant and independent mindset. Change the way people think and then the world changes -one backyard at a time.

Bill Pulliam said...

In 2002 when I first moved here, few people had vegetable gardens and almost nobody had chickens -- and this is a rural area, where half the people have one of only three choices of last name and everyone has an aunt or grandmother who grew up in the house I now own. In reality most people lived suburban lives with big lawns and long commutes. The feed store closed in 2003 because there were not enough livestock left in the county to keep it in business. But shortly after that, things began a slow turnaround. Now gardens are once again ubiquitous, my roosters have neighbors in both directions to challenge in vocal competitions, and there are four stores to chose between when the critters get hungry. At the top of the hill, three adjacent residential lots have been bought up, consolidated, and converted into a pastured poultry + free range egg farm and family feed store. When fuel prices soared and financial markets tanked a few years ago, the Mall*Wart could hardly keep up with the demand for plants, seeds, and canning supplies.

This is all happening by "muddling through." People get worried, some suffer real hardships and setbacks, everyone sees it happening to someone nearby even if they themselves have remained fortunate, and they do something. The economy does not change because planners and dreamers and policy experts say it will. It changes in millions of conversations over millions of kitchen tables, each household unit figuring out what they think they oughta do, looking at what the neighbors are doing, listening to their own sources, coming to their own decisions, and revisiting the whole process as often as they feel is necessary.

Roboslob said...

Rob Hopkins vs The Apocalypse

I the People said...

I'm tempted to leave nothing but a heartfelt but vacuous endorsement of this article. And indeed, I shall give in to the temptation.

Glenn said...

Shoot JMG, it took me until almost the end to realize the reference to garlic and chainsaws was horror movie humour.
Ironically, the first thing we were self-sufficient in was garlic. We give away wreaths of it at yule.
And chainsaws; well, that's how I'll be getting next winter's heating fuel in during the next couple of weeks.
And no, I don't burn zombies... Sheesh!



that is some consistent inspiration.

John Powers said...

I love that you mention Warren Johnson's "Muddling Towards Frugality." Back in the day I received quite a bit of good natured ribbing when I would mention the book: "You would like a book about muddling!" Thanks for making a plain case for muddling as an appropriate response to the predicament we are in.

sofistek said...

"A global civilization that is utterly dependent for its survival on ever-expanding supplies of cheap abundant energy and a stable planetary biosphere is simply not going to make it"

True enough, but it's not just energy supplies that need to keep expanding, it is resources of all kinds (though energy is a proxy for other resource consumption). Also, even a civilization that isn't expanding its consumption of resources will hit the buffers, if any of the resources are consumed at a rate that is above the renewal rate of those resources.

x2fer said...

To start this week's comments off on a depressing note...

Our community just voted down a small tax increase which would continue funding of our county's Extension service -- the service that "extends" the latest academic knowledge into the community on topics such as best agricultural practices, composting, and food preservation.

In difficult and uncertain economic times it's hard to fault people for not wanting to voluntarily increase their tax load, but in exchange for avoiding a $5-10/year (limited to 5 years) tax increase, it's looking likely that many of the programs that could disengage us from the money economy (Master Gardeners, Composters & Food Preservers, among others) will be cancelled.

Presumably, those of us interested in those topics will figure out some way to keep them alive, but the job will be that much more difficult for now...

MisterMoose said...

I'm fairly new here (having been lurking silently for a while). My wife and I have started growing many of our own vegetables and herbs in both our front and back yards, where I've built several self-watering containers, raised beds with cold frames, etc. We've been getting roughly 2 - 3 crops per year out of each plot. It's not enough to feed ourselves (yet), but the education has been worth it. Compost bins? Worms? Been there, done that. And the hard work actually is more fun than going to the gym...

Since we've started this endeavor we've met more of our neighbors than in the years before we started gardening. Usually it starts out when someone drives by and asks, "Are those tomatoes?" One thing inevitably leads to another, and it turns out that a very large number of the people around here have the same idea, and are starting to grow at least some of their own food.

Only a few will come out and say why they are doing this at first, but it soon becomes apparent that we are all worried about just how unsustainable our whole system is. The other thing that lots of our neighbors are doing is stocking up on guns and ammo, you know, just in case...

Over on there is a lot of discussion about various "end of the world as we know it" scenarios, and how to repel the "golden horde" of hungry refugees trying to escape from the major population centers. I don't think things will get THAT bad (at least I hope they don't), but it is obvious that our current system really is unsustainable, and some kind of very unpleasant crash is going to happen sooner or later. All we can do is try to prepare as best we can and ride out the hard times for as long as possible.

With any luck, our children will end up on a small, self-sufficient farmstead and pay taxes to the local warlord in the form of home-grown herbs and horses for the local mounted militia. We also know how to make gunpowder (the original formula), and electric-generating wind turbines (out of used 55-gal drums and alternators from junked cars).

A lot depends on what level of technology we can maintain after fossil fuels become more expensive, and the exact nature of the collapse of civilization as we knew it (and how many weapons of mass destruction get used during the collapse).

So, feudalism sounds okay to me, as long as we retain at least some of the scientific knowledge that has enabled us to increase our lifespans (we may go back to something resembling the middle ages, but unless there's a major nuclear war or similar disaster we're not going to lose the ability to generate electricity with wind turbines, or mine coal for our steam engines, or make paper and ink, or penicillin.

We have many friends who are science fiction fans or members of the SCA. Half of them want to live a hundred years from now, while the other half would just as soon go back a couple centuries. Almost no one really likes our life in the here and now. Life may be easy now, but it's too complex. I suspect that a good number of people would gladly trade that for a life that is hard but simple (I know, I know... in the middle ages most of us would have been landless serfs, so be careful what you wish for). Do any of the rest of you harbor similar thoughts?

Karen said...

There is nothing that I can add to your analysis other than to say that I am working on implementing ways to disengage from the tertiary economy as much as is possible based on my individual circumstances.

I look forward to your upcoming posts.

Kevin said...

I'm eager to hear about the mallet and stake. Don't want to wind up like Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

So far about the most attractive option you've mentioned for activities in the secondary economy (with the possible exception of astrology) is brewing beer: which sounds like a sure fire winner, for Beer does more than Milton can / To justify God's ways to man.

...human societies are organic growths, and trying to invent one to fit some abstract idea of goodness is as foredoomed as trying to make an ecosystem do what human beings want...

This can be taken as a rather devastating critique of Plato's The Republic, not to mention all the subsequent works modeled upon it. I expect you'll probably remember as I don't who wrote that no utopia was ever devised from which a sane man would not escape if he could.

Danby said...

Love the Zombie Money concept. It's a great image and a very apt metaphor.

One telling fact about the current crisis, the FDIC is refusing to shut down insolvent banks. Under the statues as written, as soon as a bank fails to meet it's capital requirements, the FDIC is supposed to step in, take it over, and sell the assets. The depositors get a new bank that is fiscally solvent, and the FDIC only has to pay out a tiny bit, usually 1-2% of the total on deposit.

But with the new rules. the banks no longer have to value their capital assets at market value (the old mark-to-market rule). Instead, they can keep them on the books at face value, until they, in fact, completely fail.So the FDIC can't take over the bank until the damage is much greater. The typical bank closed by FDIC these days represents a cost to the FDIC of 40-50% of the total of deposits. This adds up to hundreds of billions so far, hundreds of billions more than FDIC has ever had. So far they've managed with loans from the US Treasury.

But Treasury funds must be borrowed from somewhere. and if that source of funds ever dries up, say goodbye to any money you have in an account.
Strangely, this is the first year in a long time that we have not had a garden. Too many other things, too urgent and too exhausting to devote any energy to a garden this year.

One good strategy for getting food is what I call foraging. If you look in a great many suburban and even urban front yards, you will see a 30 or 40 or 60 year-old fruit tree or two. Identify which owners do not use the fruit, and when harvest time comes around, offer to clean up the fruit for them. A great many will say no, for fear of liability, but some will say yes. And even windfalls make great cider. Other places, like RR right-of-ways, road sides, river banks, foreclosed properties, green belts, and odd undeveloped corners of housing developments will often have fruit trees as well. When we lived in Olympia, we put up 150 quarts of applesauce and dozens of quarts of plums, cherries and pears from such foraged fruit. Even today, with acreage to use, it makes no sense to plant blackberries, since the RR right-of-way a few hundred feet away is literally covered with them. Three years ago I put up enough jam that it still hasn't run out.

skintnick said...

Personally I have been moving in this direction somewhat subconciously for many years and in more directed fashion recently, trying to create a family home and community which is somewhat resilient to the impending financial shocks. And I'm trying to persuade my wife to abandon her savings in equities for a more practical and secure investment such as a solar water heating system. But my question is, what happens to the debts of ordinary people when TSHTF? Will the banks, utility companies & other corporations to which we are "indebted" be in a position to continue calling in payments? You have advised in previous posts that readers should reduce their level of personal debt (that is easier said than done!) and it seems to me that an alternative strategy is simply to hold out in the expectation of those financial institutions being unable to call in the loans, i.e. what is the downside of the type of crash you talk about involving widespead loan defaults? How would you expect ordinary people to be affected?

Jason said...

'Undead money', instant classic. lol

Stoneleigh over at Automatic Earth is convinced it'll be deflation and is advising everyone to keep large amounts of cash in mattresses. Your thoughts?

As for gardens, I'd imagined most of your readers were onto that already.

LS said...

JMG said: "if it’s done with enough enthusiasm or desperation, and with a clear sense of the nature of our predicament, it could still get a fair number of us through the mess ahead"

This sober sentence presages possibly the most terrifying experience that any of us will ever live through. To think that just some of us "muddling through" is the best that we can do says nothing good about us as a species and a society. But, given my experiences of dealing with people and with our local government I think that it is wholly accurate.

It is virtually impossible to disconnect from the economy in this day and age. There are always bills to pay, even if they are just land taxes. It is ironic that to really disconnect, what you need is lots of money. I expect you can see the irony.

So muddling through it is, with the full expectation that not everyone will survive and that things won't ever be the same and will certainly be a lot harder.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been thinking and reading about methane production. I can see a clear path to improving the land in our area (by removing the pervasive weed species on farm land and in the bush) and using the waste to create fertiliser and a renewable energy source that could be used to power modest vehicles, provide refrigeration, generate electricity, cook and other things that we can't readily get from low grade energy sources like the sun. It could easily be done with simple tools and a net positive energy return (in my area at least).

You could only provide modest resources though for a fraction of the local population (and this is not a densely populated area).

But if you want to do it for any significant number of people right now it requires that you engage with the economy (with all of its attendant risks and problems). If you leave it until things start to fail then it may not even be possible.

So once again we are left with muddling through. I will probably build my own modest system and leave it at that, because doing anything more means fighting the very, very strong current of a society that is too stupid, or two scared to face the consequences of its actions.

We Muddled through. It seems like a fitting epitaph for the long history of humanity.

Joy said...

"see if there’s a neighborhood P-Patch program"

Maybe only for those of us in New Zealand, but the unintentional humour of that line is hilarious. Down here, "P" is the local term for the drug Americans call "meth". Indeed, for those suffering from economic stress, turning their household economies to "P" production is a popular option. I suppose all of South Auckland could be described as a "P-Patch"

autonomyacres said...

Right on! I realize that this blog preaches to the choir, but for people new to peak oil and what the post-oil world will have in store for us, these are the kinds of posts we need. Inspiration and motivation for what regular people can do! Thanks again! And dig up those lawns!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Chainsaws are probably quite handy for dealing with all manner of zombies. Maybe not the zombies in John Carpenter's remake of the classic George Romero film "Dawn of the Dead" though. That film scared me. Not much stopped the fast moving zombies, even the credits at the end showed the futility of trying to run.

Mind you chainsaws are pretty handy tools when you are up in a forest. Not many people realise how much and how quickly you can get through cutting tasks with them. Chainsaws haven't been around that long really and they are an awesome bit of engineering. Forestry work before this involved two man cross cut saws, planks high off the ground, mallets, chocks and axes. Hard work and we're surrounded by hardwood trees, not softwoods like you find in the Northern Hemisphere.

I've worked with businesses for the past two decades. Early on I used to personally take on board their problems (which were mostly of their own making) and work hard at trying to provide solutions and support the existing arrangements. After a few years and much stress I worked out that this approach was pretty much a waste of time. The best answer is that sometimes things have to fail completely before real change can occur. The difficulty is surviving any such change and ensuring that you are around to assist the now willing participants to engage in some sort of future. This is probably one of the key strengths in the Druid movement (which I am not a member of) and this blog.

Victory gardens are an awesome idea. Food = Oil and Oil = Food. There is no getting around this weakness in our system. The extraction, transport and application of superphosphates is a disaster waiting to happen as both oil and superphosphates are nearing or at their peak (superphosphates are predicted to peak in the next decade or so). Our entire food supply relies on both of these products and as they peak, so to will the price of food. There are no replacement products waiting in the wings for either of these two.

I'd encourage anyone to start planting fruit trees as they can take between 5 and 10 years to produce fruit. Vegetables with the right soil and conditions can produce results in two months or more which is not much good if you are hungry. Keep the seed too and propagate it!

I'd also encourage anyone to build up the organic matter in their soil through composts and mulches as these are fairly abundant at present and also fairly cheap as they are viewed in general as a waste product, which they are not.

The really good outcome from smaller scale farming is that you get the opportunity to close and/or improve the nutrient cycle which is currently very broken in Western societies.

Production of fruit and vegetables can be analogous to a rechargeable battery. The soil represents the battery and the organic nutrients that are applied increase the level of charge in that battery. Sending meat, fruit and vegetables away from the area that they are produced in draws down on the charge of the battery. Eventually if you send off more produce than what you bring in or create (green manures etc) then the battery gets run down and there are diminishing returns. Superphosphates are like a quick recharge except that it is short term, requires more product every year and you more or less damage the battery structure so that each year you get diminishing returns. Not a good basis for our industrial food production system.

When you drink a coffee where the beans have come from Indonesia and the milk from New Zealand, you are actually consuming nutrients from that country and exporting them to wherever they end up. Probably somewhere in your local sewerage system which they are not much use to anyone...

Good luck!

Pops said...

I distilled my own 5 rules for preparing for peak oil to this:

Don't Buy
Don't Borrow
Don't Specialize
Don't Starve
Don't Depend

I've been practicing these more or less all my life but needed to put them into serious use the last couple of years as one of my main sources of income dwindled (luckily I Don't Specialize) But our place is paid, our garden and pastures are prolific and most of our infrastructure is our own - except this luxury.

Life is so good in these times you can even live well on the crumbs at the edge of the rich world.

RLT said...

Sir ... I hope that you have given full concideration to gathering all of these wonderful posts into a book, and if so, sooner rather than later. I would like to hold your collected wisdom in my hand, while using it as a teaching tool for my grandchildren.

Blessing on your gardening efforts, after a slow begining we are well started here in Virginia.

Brad K. said...


". . .please explain to me why so many Americans, who claim to value freedom, willingly submit to the petty tyranny of planned developments and neighborhood associations". Been there, done that.

The issue is status symbolism. The restrictions are acceptable, because they keep the "riffraff" out. You create an illusion of affluence and power, by creating a place where there are no poor, or other undesirables. Part of the allure is property values, of course, but also a personal identification with the neighborhood (I hesitate to use the word "community", though that often develops, too). The homeowners association is an outgrowth of the "exclusive" country club.

About the victory gardens - I just picked up a library copy of "The New Square Foot Garden". Sharon Astyk recommended this with about a half-dozen other great books for new gardeners. SFG is kind of exciting to read, and seems to make sense. It relies on compost and sensible practices, rather than a heavy reliance on (unsustainable) fertilizers and pesticides.

I have to confess ignorance, though - what were you referring to as "shrub and vine fruits". I know I bought a bunch of grapes for a (hot) afternoon snack the other day - and spent more than for lunch. I live in a mostly-farming area, and I understand grapes, especially are intolerant of 2,4 D applied within a mile or more. Think "100 feet away, 240 acres across the road, three articulated tractors to work the field all in one go" industrial-type farming.

And do you think we need to look at other old-craft revivals, like goose-grease for lubricants (besides the corks on the clarinet joints) and sheep for the "lawn"? I tried making salt-pork last month. So far, so good - none of my neighbors, nor my mother (84) had ever done it. Now if I can figure out how to store it, then cook it. . .

Justin Kase said...

Yes, the ship hit an iceberg, or several, and will eventually sink. The ship has few usable lifeboats, a rescue is unlikely, and some ships officers are forcing passengers to 'walk the plank'! Most passengers are unaware or in denial. Some of the passengers see their predicament and are busy cobbling together makeshift rafts with what they can scrounge from the ship, knowing whatever they build in the unknown time available must carry them to a distant shore.
I like to think i'm one of the aware passengers with a rickety raft that left the ship early.
The gardens are in and the canning jars are clean. The woodpile is growing as i clear a new field for livestock. Spring chickens are hatching, and geese are keeping the lawn short. Have surplus maple syrup and eggs to trade for some things. Next year, with luck, will have our own milk and meat.
On the other hand, noone here has a "real job", the property taxes are still going up, despite decreasing land values, and must be paid with money.

Smitty said...

Posts like this are what makes this blog an absolute must-read. I look forward to your next post, as always. Hope your own garden is coming up well!

Candee said...

Great post. Another way people can grow some vegetables is container gardening. Greens for example grow well this way. And worm composting can be done indoors. It really has very little odor except for when the bin is opened. (Really, Really? yes Really ;-) )

dragonfly said...

JMG - another fine post.

Having been aware of the limits to growth for several years now, I have been making changes to my life over time. One of the most humbling has been my attempt to grow vegetables in my back yard. To say I failed miserably in my first year is an understatement. It was a failure in the sense that the only thing that the garden produce that first year was a few tomatos. It was, however, a complete success when measured against the stick of things learned.

This year, with new knowledge and the optimism spring can bring, I am doing much better. I have a thriving garden, blackberry plants, and some hops (for my home brewing endeavors).

Home brewing is something I took up after reading your book The Long Decent. Working in technology for a large organization, I realized that I had few skills of value outside the industrial economy. You mentioned home brewing in the book. I started and never looked back. For that, I will be forever greatful to you. As the saying goes - "Give a man a beer and he'll waste an hour. Teach a man to brew, and he'll waste a lifetime" :)


dave said...

My problem with your iceberg analogy, JMG, is that this is not why the ship is sinking. That is due to the directors of the banking system syphoning sea into all the little ships, enabling the big ships and gulls to profit from whatever floats out. Of course, if there are icebergs about, any ships low in the water are more likely to hit them.

Having lived through WWII I'm all in favour of your "victory gardens", but IMHO it is much more realistic, to prioritise sorting out the banking system, than to imagine we will be safe from the environmental destruction it is still promoting if we bury our heads in the soil of our personal kitchen gardens.

It is not as if we don't know how to sort out the banks. The medievals banned usury; in the early 20th century Gesell showed how to make money unattractive and Keynes, how to control it; James Robertson and others showed c.2000 how the current problems can be largely resolved if Governments simply take back their responsibility for creating money, which crooked bankers long ago usurped. (For the US slant on this see The Money Masters video). With a new government in the UK committed to investigating banking, work on a draft Bill based on the latter proposal has just been made public, see

Ariel55 said...

Dear AR, I didn't read the new post yet (Time!). I still have an issue with *Danby* over the last one. I shall return!

Ariel55 said...

Dear *Danby*, I have printed off your objections. Have a little faith--evidence is starting to roll in.Best regards.

Cathy McGuire said...

Yes – another wonderful post! And although it might seem you are “preaching to the choir” with this post, as a relatively recent reader, I can assure you that newcomers are finding the site and appreciate the basics! Thanks for the mention of “Muddling..” I will have to check that one out. And undead money is a great concept – I’m appalled at how comfortable most people have gotten about debt in just this last generation – my grandparents refused to fall victim to it; my parents were ashamed… but this generation almost seems proud. Another example of how “doublespeak” has convinced some that black is white?

I confess it feels good to read about others who share my dislike/suspicion of the “overhead” and disconnect this culture has built up. I’ve been interested in getting back to the simple connection of food/shelter/basic living for probably 30 years, though I’ve only really gotten close these last three. I wonder if this “second wave” of backyard gardening has started to include some of those who don’t have a natural affinity (I’ve loved gardening since I was a child, and probably most of those on this site have, too). I can’t seem to say anything to get through to my suburbanite friends, but my actions (my blooming garden, my slower, nature-based lifestyle) seem to be causing them some envy, and some thought of copying me… that’s wonderful! And once this chicken coop is done (it’s got 4 walls & a roof – just the hen door needed! Yeah!), I will have even more of the natural cycle working. I am learning to save seeds (a really excellent lesson in paying attention to detail) and have begun to feel like my life is more of a whole.

One idea I had, building on the victory gardens, that might become a niche job: designing flexible weather-modifiers. I’m staring out at yet another day of rain in the Willamette Valley, as neighbors tell me this is “unusually wet & chilly” (for the 3rd year running!) and my veggies struggle to get enough warmth and dry. But just after I tuck plastic “rooms” around the most fragile, a couple of 70 degree sunny days come by and threaten to fry the protected plants. My point is, with global warming (global “weirding”) it could be a profitable job to design something to help backyard gardeners cope with the sudden shifts in weather (I fear for the field farmers, but that’s another post.)

Another niche job would be retrofitting apartment houses with the ability to grow food – either balcony & roof gardens, or somehow attached vertically to walls around windows (outside) such that they could be tended from inside… anything to allow more people to access food.

Also, in the suggestion to plant fruit trees, don’t overlook bushes – I have boysenberries, raspberries and some blueberries along w/my apples – they start producing fairly quickly, and I’ve canned many jars.

@x2fer: I saw that news item in the Register Guard (I live a hour north of that area) and was appalled! How could your region (of all places!!) drop the extension service? That was very worrisome, and yet it brought home to me the dysfunctional pattern of modern “services”: move the expertise under “one roof” for efficiency (ie: put all your eggs in one basket) and then, as it grows, add more expensive bureaucracy until it finally collapses. That has happened in more areas of society recently, and brings home (to me) the fact that sharing expertise among neighbors doesn’t require any of that overhead (true, you aren’t protected by insurance; you haven’t done background checks)… but our Western culture’s desire for “efficiency” blinds us to the actual advantages of informal training.

Don Plummer said...

"Will someone please explain to me why so many Americans, who claim to value freedom, willingly submit to the petty tyranny of planned developments and neighborhood associations?"

No kidding! Americans pride themselves on individuality, yet they're conformists when it comes to landscaping. Just think of the peer pressure to keep one's yard in lawn and kill off all those pesky dandelions with nasty, toxic stuff (rather than eat them? No way!).

In our neighborhood, we're allowed to have a fence, but only around the back yard. The front yard has to be kept fence-free, presumably for "curb appeal" purposes. And the fence in the back has to be wooden; forget about a chain link or other type of fence.

I'm really tempted to grow a hedge around the front yard just to find out what would happen. I could say very truthfully that it isn't a fence; it's shrubbery.

pgrass101 said...

My wife and I were talking this morning about skills for odd jobs that we could develop for the future, when my 60 mile daily commute is no longer a viable option. This was because that we realize the impossibility of growing all of our own food on our small household plot and we would need further income to supply use with basic necessities. We discussed some occupations that were common 60-100 years ago that are extinct now that will be needed when our disposable economy dies. These included door to door knife and tool sharpeners, repair men for electronic devices, people who can sew and mend (this wasn’t an occupation per say but now this skill is rare in our society) clothing to name a few.
While we would like to relocate to a small farm in Vermont of New Hampshire we are preparing to live where we are in case the move appears to be impossible or our opportunity to move comes too late. It is ironic that we live in a town that was founded for and anchored by a textile mill for over 160 years. The mill closed in 2006 and is being torn down now, but in 10 more years it would be profitable again as the outsourcing of production comes to an end.

John said...

Wonderful post!

It reminded me of a remark my wife made as we were turning over our garden last weekend - "I wish this garden was twice as big as it is." Maybe it's time to make that happen.

Another thing to note; the work itself is so much more satisfying than corporate/office work. When I finish a day at the office I often feel as if I've been rolled over by the system. When I work on my homestead I feel tired but satisfied in a way that's hard to describe. Likewise, when I look at the two winter's worth of firewood I have drying in the barn I get a sense of wealth that I never get from looking at my bank statement. Perhaps because the firewood is real wealth and will keep me warm next winter no matter what the energy markets do, while my bank statement represents increasingly fuzzy, nebulous wealth.

Incidentally, as a result of your post last week I've decided to embark on a new career as a feudal lord. Know where I can find any peasants?

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I'm delighted to hear that people in your neck of the woods are getting smart about the future. If that's a more general trend, I'll sleep better at nights.

Sixbears, "one backyard at a time" is a great slogan.

Roboslob, thanks for the link.

I, thank you!

Glenn, I sometimes wonder if Ben Bernanke would rear back in horror a la Christoper Lee if a garlic clove was waved in his face. Ironically, it was about fifteen minutes after I posted that I realized that a better title for this post would have been "Night of the Living Fed."

Purity, thank you.

John, keep on muddling! Johnson's book has been a source of inspiration and ideas for me since I first got a copy back in the very early 1980s.

Sofistek, true, but energy's the gateway resource; if you have enough of it, you can extract the rest from even very sparse ores, while if you don't have enough, if doesn't matter how many other resources you have.

x2fer, organize the Master Gardeners, Composters, and Food Preservers as a volunteer organization with modest annual membership fees. It's going to come to that sooner or later -- most state and local governments are effectively bankrupt, and that's not going to get any better -- and acting now will help blaze a trail that other communities can follow.

Karen, thank you. That's good to hear.

Moose, good for you. There's not going to be a horde, by the way; the cities will be where the jobs are as long as there are jobs anywhere, and as things get tight you'll see migration toward the cities, not away from them, just as happened in the former Soviet Union when it had its collapse.

Kevin, get brewing! Anybody who can brew good beer can expect to be revered as a minor deity in the far future. As for utopias, one of the very first articles I ever published was a piece in the now-defunct esoteric annual Alexandria critiquing the entire concept of utopia; that's been a consistent theme in my writing all along.

Danby, foraging is good! Many people who plant fruit trees never get around to doing anything with the fruit, and blackberries -- well, they're not as universal here in the Appalachians as they are in the Pacific Northwest, but I don't expect to lack them any time soon.

Skintnick, heck of a good question. That's one of those things that depends on moment-by-moment politics, and is impossible to predict. My guess is that getting your debts cleared up is still the safest approach.

Nick said...

Besides a step towards disconnecting from the money economy a victory garden offers at least these additional benefits:
*the reconnection to food with taste;
*the reconnection to food with nutrients;
* reconnection to the real world.

Thanks for the continuing reality based analysis.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, current policies are certainly pushing things toward deflation and credit collapse rather than hyperinflation, but all it takes is a decision to spin the presses to push things the other way. The US is already quietly monetizing its own debt by buying its own bonds; if that takes off, we could move toward hyperinflation within a couple of years.

LS, good. Methane's a viable option; check into the very simple and effective methane digester designs that were worked up in the early 1970s. Livestock farms make it especially easy, and you can always compost the remaining sludge and use it as a first-rate soil amendment.

Joy, now that's funny. "P-Patch" over here is a name for plots of land owned by cities, which aren't needed or wanted for development, and are turned into garden space and leased for a nominal fee to gardeners.

Autonomy, mine's well on the way to being dug up!

Cherokee, I'm going to talk about compost and organic matter quite a bit in a future post. Also fruit trees!

Pops, a good set of classic rules. Most people used to live by them; most people in the future will have to learn the same thing.

RLT, this blog is basically where I put first drafts of sections for whatever peak oil/sustainability book I'm working on. These posts on economics will be revised and expanded into a book to be called The Wealth of Nature, which will be published by New Society in 2011.

Brad, shrub and vine fruits include anything with the word "-berry" on the end of its name, along with grapes and currants.

Justin, there are lots of ways to get a small amount of money without having a job in the usual sense of the word. Especially while the internet is in working order, it's usually possible to find some good or service to sell to other people; that's one way to keep the tax bill paid.

Smitty, it's doing very well! We're already getting lettuce and radishes, and the peas, beans, onions, corn, and carrots are coming along very well. Tomatoes will be going in shortly, and by fall the cold frames will be in place, too.

Candee, true enough!

Red Neck Girl said...

I so want a garden but I currently live in an apartment, that's why I intend to start a boarding stable! Horse manure does wonders for the soil, introducing both organic matter and other nutrients most often depleted in modern agricultural practices. Healthy horses contribute at a rate of forty pounds a day, including urine! Most of that largesse will be spread out on pastures but some of it will be composted for gardening as long as I can assure myself it hasn't got the new weed killer Monsanto has devised for pastures and hayfields sprayed on it. (Warning, the stuff has been known to kill gardens even after going through the horse and composting for a year! And of course, Monsanto denies this happening.)

I read in a lot of these replies where people want to enrich their soil and I'd like to suggest an ancient S. American technique. Introduce charcoal into your soil. DO NOT buy commercial charcoal meant for your grill! Pile slash from tree cuttings up to 3" in diameter in a windrow in the area you want to enrich and light it off. Let it burn until the smoke becomes clean then smother it with soil as it completes the process to charcoal. Then and only then put the fire out completely. Afterward plow or dig the charcoal into your soil.

The charcoal regulates the absorption from top dressings and your own amendments into the soil and at the same time provides a home for what is normally short lived organisms from compost piles that are very beneficial for your garden.

You do not have to do this every year. Indeed, the S. A. tribe that practiced this technique died out over 500 years ago during the time of the conquest of the Americas from plague brought by the conquistadors without ever seeing a white man. Their plots of land are as fertile today as if they were farmed by them just last year! You can see if Mother Earth News has the article on their website, otherwise it was published last spring, (and I can't find my copy)!

Once on the land I plan on enriching as many of my pastures as I can in this matter. Healthy soil needs less water to grow anything and here even in the Pac. NW we need water just as much as anywhere else in the West.

FernWise said...

When we moved into this house three years ago we promptly planted grapes and blueberries. Life being uncertain we didn't know if we'd be living here to enjoy any of the fruit - but the odds are that SOMEONE will.

Over the years I've build up about 400 square feet of veggie garden out of what used to be clay-based lawn. It's provided all our greens this spring, some summer crops are just planted with more slated for later this summer. IF we remain here, they'll get planted.

But that 'if' keeps getting larger. The landlord - who was incredulous when I said we weren't buying a house because housing was going to crash - has lost this house and the one he lives in to foreclosure. We have tried to contact the bank repeatedly to see about paying rent and staying put (we have a home-based software business, and moving disrupts income) but the bank keeps ignoring us, but haven't asked us to move.

I guess we're squatters with the banks full knowledge and tacit permission.

The more scared I get, the more I clear lawn space and plant veggies. Everything except the garden is pretty surreal.

aangel said...

A reprint of Johnson's book is available for pre-order at Amazon:

It will be (re)published July 2010.

Ariel55 said...

Sigh. Thanks, John. I'm working the garden, changing the way I eat, spending less time on "ain't it awful", and do believe you have successfully "transitioned" me to the sanity of the next phase. I'm actually looking forward to the "mallot and stake". Someone has suggested that the old order of things can't come down fast enough to suit. :) Best wishes!

John Michael Greer said...

Dragonfly, that's very good to hear. Growing hops is likely to become a necessity for home brewers -- there have been serious hops shortages in recent years. Still, a good glass of beer makes even the most apocalyptic times go a little more smoothly.

Dave, I know it's very comforting to blame the bankers (or some other collection of scapegoats) for the predicament of industrial society. It's easy, too, because the finance industry in most industrial nations these days is fantastically corrupt. Still, blaming them for the mess we're in is like blaming the crooked dealer in the ship's casino, who's cheating the passengers at cards, for causing the ship to sink.

Also -- er, what exactly do you propose to do to overturn what is, after all, one of the largest concentrations of economic power in the history of the planet? It's all very well to insist that governments ought to do this, that, and the other; how do you propose to make them do so?

Ariel, by all means.

Cathy, I've thought for a long time that those people who are good at organic gardening and can teach their skills to others are going to do very well in the hard times we're facing.

Don, plant your shrubbery. Still -- what on earth possessed you to move into a neighborhood that had that kind of nonsensical restrictions? When my wife and I went house shopping last year, one of the first things we told our realtor was "no neighborhood associations, no restrictive covenants, none of that nonsense." He had no trouble finding us a lovely, cheap house where we can do exactly as we like with the yard.

Pgrass, excellent. You're thinking in the right terms.

John, becoming a feudal lord is simple. It's not easy, but it's simple. You spend several hours each day training in hand-to-hand combat, equip yourself with arms, armor, and a horse, and recruit and train a band of likely lads who will serve as your men-at-arms. Then, when somebody invades the land that will become your demesne, you put them to the sword. The local farmers decide, or are convinced by your men-at-arms, that being under your protection is worth a share of the food they grow and some labor in the off season to build you a castle. That's how it's done; that's how it's been done in the twilight years of every civilization.

John Michael Greer said...

Nick, very true.

Girl, get that stable going! You and John should talk; he's going to need horses for his future career as a feudal lord, and so will his men-at-arms. ;-)

Fern, what's your state's laws concerning squatter's rights? In Washington state, seven years of "open and notorious" residence and the property's yours. You might also, if you have the money to spare, talk to a lawyer; it might be possible to do something that way.

Aangel, that's excellent news!

Ariel, one mallet and stake coming up. I'll try not to make next week's post a remake of The Fearless Vampire Killers, though.

hapibeli said...

Hello Brad K. Try sea berries, paw paws, kiwis, gogi berries, currants, pineapple guavas. Better yet, if I may JMG, "" in Oregon and checkout their lists of shrubs, etc..

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Put them to the sword, eh? Not the firing squad? I guess it will be hard for the feudal lords to really rise until most of the stockpiles of factory-made bullets run out... Otherwise it just takes one skilled sniper in a well-placed location to put an end to the lord and most of his/her goon squad. Of course, that ignores the political side, where a skilled lord convinces his/her serfs to willingly acquiesce to the feudal system in exchange for real or perceived benefits. Still, it's gonna be pretty unstable until the masses run out of ammo.

By the way, I have to confess a side effect of your writing process. Since I've been privy to the first drafts and participated in their critical discussion and analysis, I haven't actually felt the need to buy the finished books! Bad, bad, I know... but a peril of the internet.

sofistek said...

"true, but energy's the gateway resource; if you have enough of it, you can extract the rest from even very sparse ores, while if you don't have enough, if doesn't matter how many other resources you have"

I'm not disagreeing with you, John. However, at very low ore concentrations or in very challenging geologies and geographies, it will become impossible to increase, or even maintain, rates of resource extraction, even if available energy is increasing (unless we start talking about ridiculous energy increments such as fictitiously available to the Krell on the "Forbidden Planet", Altair).

I just want to broaden the definition of sustainable so that critics don't get the idea that if, for example, fusion problems were suddenly cracked, we'd be able to continue our consumptive ways for another few millennia, or for ever.

Ariel55 said...

Dear AR-- I relish author Jerry Baker's "Giant Book of Garden Solutions". He advocates feeding the soil with things like tea, cola, beer and ammonia. What a hoot!

pfh said...

It concerns me that so many people think there are minor efforts that will solve major problems.

The way I read our culture at present is that 89% want to return to the past when there were no complications of natural limits, so we can go back to multiplying our use of the earth as usual, and 9% want to return to the past so we can live simply in self-reliant communities. Then maybe, the other 2% are an odd assortment of people confused by believing the 98% could discover some other idea.

If you think of nature as a social system, then either way of returning to the past is possible, just by marketing it. If you think of nature as a continuous process of accumulative physical change, noting similar to returning to the past can happen. The future is always built on the compost heap of its past, and our compost heap today is totally unlike that of any other past.

I do believe in making the best of whatever situation arises, but I think the loss of complexity in our system would NOT be relieved by people trying to be self-sufficient. I think it could well be catastrophic. The reason is nearly every mark of our present civilization is dependent on societal complexity.

We need the whole system of un-self-reliant parts working together, and, are systematically increasing our overhead costs of all kinds while depleting our affordable resources. On systematic trends like those there is a natural point of vanishing returns for the system as a whole.

I have two good short posts on my blog from 5/18, one on this question, whether "small is beautiful" would be. The other is on how to improve the design of community currencies so they are both stable and economically efficient enough to use for a diverse whole economy...

Don Plummer said...

John, you're always talking up the value of learning to brew beer, and I certainly agree with you. However, you never mention the craft of wine making. I think that the ability to ferment good wine is likely also to land one in the minor deity class. And wine isn't just for drinking--it also has antiseptic properties (think of the biblical story of the Good Samaritan).

I'm beginning to draft a series on local food and local wine for our part of North America for my blog soon.

Don Plummer said...

"Still -- what on earth possessed you to move into a neighborhood that had that kind of nonsensical restrictions?"

Well, we weren't thinking of the Long Descent 12 years ago when we bought the place. :-)

I had just taken a new job in Columbus as a technical writing consultant and my wife and I liked the layout of the house. We weren't concerned about deed restrictions at the time. If we were doing it now, things would be different, of course.

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, you certainly may! My tastes tend toward more common fruits -- blackberries, raspberries, and the like -- but if pineapple guavas are your preferred fruit, get 'em planted.

Bill, er, that comment was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek, thus the medieval terminology. We're maybe two to four centuries from the point when a classic feudalism will start coming together.

Sofistek, granted. I tend to stress energy because it's harder to make believe that the laws of thermodynamics are going to be suspended for our benefit, but the limits to growth impact all resources, of course.

Ariel, thanks for the reference!

Phil, that argument assumes that the current system can hold together. I find that increasingly unlikely, and if things are going to come unstuck anyway, those people who are prepared to deal with radical simplification are going to be in much better shape during the long ragged collapse we're facing.

Don, chalk it up to my family's working class background, but I'm much more fond of beer than of wine. Still, you're quite right -- in those areas where wine grapes will grow (a zone which will likely expand quite a bit with global warming), making good wine is another valuable skill.

As for restrictive covenants, to heck with the Long Descent; I wouldn't buy a house with those kinds of restrictions if fusion power worked for pennies a megawatt and the future was bright and rosy forever! I'd be growing a vegetable garden even if it was just a hobby, and I have a constitutional (in several senses of the word) dislike to giving neighbors the right to tell me what I can do with my yard.

Bill Pulliam said...

About Wine vs. Beer -- it's only among urbanites that this is a class distinction. And in a lot of places it has kind of turned upside down; most of the urban middle class home fermentors I know make beer (or mead), most of the country people I know make wine. Poor country folk have been making their own wines from anything and everything under the sun for century upon century. Passable wine is actually easier to make at home than beer, and when it fails often what you have is vinegar that can still be used in the kitchen. Even when it works it tends to be far on the dry side; I finally learned the deep dark secret of professional wine makers that the only way they make sweet wines is to ultrafilter the finished wine to get rid of the yeast then dump a bunch of sugar in it! Which leads to the big "But"...

Most "country wine" recipes call for a LOT of added sugar. This is not generally something that it is easy for a homesteader to grow and process for themselves. You can use homegrown substitutes like sorghum or honey, but those take a fair amount of work to produce. But sugar is the only ingredient you will likely have to buy; you can get by with a pinch of bread yeast or even take your chances with the natural wild yeasts that live on the fruit. Elderflowers are a well-known source for a fairly reliable wild yeast around here; in fact you can make a mildly alcoholic cross between "Mountain Dew" and champagne with elderflowers, lemon juice, sugar or honey, and a few weeks of fermentation time.

Bill Pulliam said...

More specifically to the main theme here, and your last comment that you'd be doing this anyway, to heck with the long descent. There's a common thread amongst neopagans, greenies, neo- and paleohippies, etc. to express great reverence for the idea of nature, but not be on such familiar terms with the reality of nature. If I hear one more "nature-worshiper" complain about rain I'll scream (actually, I have screamed that scream SOOO many times...). We had a small but lively discussion last weekend (in the rain...) about essentially the idea of connecting to the whole (gaia, nature, the interconnected global ecosystem, chose your terminology) via connection to place. So many of these "nature-focused" people couldn't tell you what trees grown in their front yard, when the apples blossom, or whether they live in or near a floodplain. Gardening is one part of this connecting to place; and since all places are interconnected when you connect to one you connect to all.

I had never heard the term "peak oil" before I started rearranging life so as to be more directly connected with my food chain (and hydrologic cycle). I have been gardening ever since I had a plot of dirt to do it in. As I detailed in the post linked in the sidebar of my own blog, it had to do with chickens and potatoes, not global petroleum production. Of course, the choices I made with that goal also happen to put me in a better position if the global transportation and agricultural systems begin to falter from petroleum shortages; but that's not the prime motivator.

Brad K. said...


I suspect a moderated form of feudalism would rely more on lawyers than armed henchmen. Then, as now, the force that kept feudalism going was the interchange of leadership, marketing, risk management, and . . protecting serfs from interference by outside authorities. I see no reason to think that force would be necessary, or prudent, to establish or maintain a modern feudal arrangement. Force might be applied to assure security of the area held, or to address breaches of the peace. And, against tyranny, uprisings, yada, yada.

We aren't that far from the days of widespread sharecropping, one version of feudalism and something that might be considered. Say you have a farmer with a section of ground, 640 acres per each square mile section, that decides to go all feudal. Assume free and clear ownership of the land, but a realization that between Monsanto seed corn prices, lack of credit available at the bank, and a dirt-cheap sale at the local mobile home lot, said land owner decides he/she is really, really angry with the US government and the IRS. So.

Mr. F divides his property into 10 acre parcels. He hires a gaggle of high schoolers to build fences, move in a mobile home on each lot, rig out with water and sewer, maybe every 5th lot is divided into a store, stable, and craft shop and extra homes. Then lets folk know - they can live on his place, "Mr. F's Place" if they agree to perform an average of 4 hours of work for Mr. F, if they abstain from personal debt, maintain the condition of their assigned lot. The work for Mr. F could be raising crops, working at a craft, etc. And register with the IRS as dependents of Mr. F.

And you have feudalism. An overlord, with responsibilities to higher government, shielding pledged folk from interference. All within the current legal structure, and ready to weather the economic decline. Think community stables, at least at first, as new owners learn horsemanship and other agrarian arts. There would be room for merchants, for storing and distributing food for Mr. F and excess from gardens for the henchpeople. Maybe work out other arrangements for craftspeople, servants, etc. Mr. F could provide some hand tools for gardens to start, and assist with materials to build fences and outbuildings for tenants as time goes by.

A beer brewer would be good, but think, too, that there was a lot of reliance on taverns and inns. Every community has to have a way to extract assets from passersby - selling food, drink, and lodging is one of the many honorable ways.

Another older tradition was oral historian and storyteller, if there is a difference. Another is the putting to rhyme and song the events of the day - bardic or minstrel style. Long after the charge is gone for the MP3 player, a lowly recorder, guitar, piano, or accordion will still recall the days of Weird Al Yankovic, Julie Brown, Bob Wills, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Ringo Starr, Robert Palmer, Lawrence Welk, and Debbie Harry.

Andrew said...

Hi All

I'm currently interning at an organic market garden farm (North East of Toronto, Canada). We are growing mostly vegetables for a few local markets and a CSA program (Community Shared/Supported Agriculture) that services about 75 household in Toronto (an hour or so drive away). I hope to do the same on my family farm beginning next year. However, as more people start vegetable gardening in their yards, I think that a small market garden farm should look into, or a least gain experience, with growing grains, potatoes, and other crops that don't lend themselves well to small backyard plots.

And just a quick thought for or those in urban areas without a backyard or access to a community garden plot. I can't give a link to a specific example, but I have heard of a number of people in urban areas vegetable farming on other peoples yards in exchange for some of the produce. I think this would be a good way to get access to land especially as the population ages and some folks can no longer garden for themselves. I'm sure they'd be happy the food and the company.

Andrew /|\

Danby said...

I like to believe I have quite a lot of faith

Re: adverse possession aka squatters rights. As JMG says, one can in many places, including Washington State, you can gain possession of a piece of property by simply living there. This was originally part of English common law. The purpose is to prevent the heir of some previous owner showing up and suing for title based on a claim so old that it is impossible to adjudicate. Originally the period was based on the reign of the king. A claim from more than 2 kings previous (more or less) was disallowed. Think of it as a statue of limitations for real estate title claims.
In modern use, it's most often invoked in property line disputes. One of my teachers in high school was sued by their neighbor when he found that their house was 6 feet over the property line. Their defense was adverse possession, in that they had lived in that house for 12 years and it was to late to try to make them move it.

The terms and specifics vary between jurisdictions. Try looking up your state's statue of limitations for more information. Typically it requires having actual possession of the property, in an open and obvious manner, to the exclusion of the actual land owner. In some places, the squatter must be notorious, that is the legal owner of the property is must know, or the knowledge of the matter must be so common that he ought to know.
The exclusivity clause means that if you are paying rent, or otherwise staying there at the permission of the legal owner, you do not qualify for adverse possession. Essentially you must be trespassing. So if you expect the bank to ignore you for another 5 or 7 or 10 years (whatever it is in your area), then the way to establish adverse possession is to stop paying rent. But see an attorney first.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

It says at Amazon that Warren Johnson's book Muddling Toward Frugality will be published in a revised edition on July 27, 2010.

pfh said...

John, You say "Phil, that argument assumes that the current system can hold together." That's not my position really. I pointed out the clear necessary physical causes for our whole system approaching a perfect impasse over 30 years ago.

What I'm "assuming" is that like many many other kinds of natural systems caught with a systematic growth process approaching a hazard of coming apart at its limits, we could make the jump to a new form. I think we could copy the key parts of what a spring shoot does at the end of its seed energy. It's much the same thing an infant in the womb does at the end of it's welcome inside it's mother.

They "get the signal". They respond by letting go of their growth imperative. That switches them from looking for ways to complicate their needs to simplifying them. Converting a global system from complicating its needs to simplifying them is perhaps audacious, OK, but the model is there and it's the actual practical thing to do. There does seem to be a fairly clear impasse for anything else, at least.

Haven't we always wondered what technique nature used to make complex things simple? We see it all the time, making it one of the most common physical phenomena anyone observes. Because it appears to work by things changing their own internal rules as they go, people may have not been interested in it. It doesn't follow deterministic rules, but opportunistic ones, so our search for the prior rules for it always comes up empty. To me, that itself is solid scientific evidence that asking our standard question for how it works is asking the wrong question.

I do agree with you, though, about "people who are prepared to deal with radical simplification are going to be in much better shape". The first rule of being prepared for change, though, is paying attention and being creative in discovering what your options are for connecting with others in new ways. That means noticing what other things in your environment are doing, that you might never have noticed before. So I'd add "smelling the new roses" wherever they might be coming from, in addition to trying you hand at growing new varieties yourself.

So, if the rule is to find new ones, perhaps that starts with finding how to turn off what makes growth imperative, and then looking for new rules of the road that are going to fit together. We'll never be self-sufficient, or outgrow our need for complementary differences, I believe.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Also in print: Catton's Overshoot.

Roboslob said...

No problem. I thought the contrast was intense - especially around the one minute twenty second mark.

My garden's growing great here in the Northeast! Our first year trying. Just gotta defend against the deer and their ticks. And hopefully "they" keep the shelves stocked at Stop & Shop!!

tristan said...

Wait... I don't get it. What does this have to do with brains?



Houyhnhnm said...

"Will someone please explain to me why so many Americans, who claim to value freedom, willingly submit to the petty tyranny of planned developments and neighborhood associations?"

I second Don Plummer's remarks.

I'm lucky enough to live in a state that's fought back. Colorado House Bill 1270 took effect August 6, 2008. According to KUSA, this allows "homeowners living in covenant controlled communities . . . to install energy saving devises such as evaporative coolers, wind-electric generators and clothes lines." The catch, of course, is that these must "meet home owner association aesthetic guidelines." Generally though, this just means the clotheslines need to be retractable.

It's a start, but I still hate HOAs.

Red Neck Girl--

I can vouch for the merit of horse manure. Thirty years of horse manure has turned the worst acre of our property, once a barren expanse of soggy clay, into a bright green field with timothy and clover. Of course, we indeed dump rather than compost our horse manure, so now I need to borrow a cow or other non-equid to graze and cleanse it by digesting all the strongyle eggs that undoubtedly lurk on the timothy stalks.

Luckily, we have neighbors who'll be glad to work out an exchange-a-critter program with us.

Our ten family, extremely non-HOA neighborhood is unusual even in Colorado. Each of the ten properties has irrigation water rights but not in a big enough chunk for us to get a dam in the ditch when the big farms are irrigating. So we work together ordering water as if we were a hundred acre farm not a collection of 5 to 20 acre parcels. Coordinating and lining up for our day or half day of a several day run has made for solid neighborly relations.

Having a practical reliance on one another--what a concept!


Patz said...

Here in Vancouver B.C. we've just come through the 'old world' experience of putting on the Winter Olympic Games, so you wouldn't really expect the following:

City Council just passed a bylaw allowing residents to raise up to 4 chickens in their backyards. There has been lots of snipping from the local media and jokes at city council's expense but it's popular with the people. And last year city hall devoted half of it's lawn space to a community vegetable garden and has promoted the idea around the city.

Vancouver will shortly begin a city-wide composting program where people can put out their organic food scraps and the city will collect it, compost it and make it available free for people's gardens.

The mayor has discussed these initiatives in terms of food security again drawing laughs from the media but support from citizens.

There is an interesting small business going on in one of our neighborhoods. An entrepreneur has made a deal with several backyard 'farmers' to take their excess produce and run a neighborhood (farmers') market.

Vancouver is spending almost a third of its roads budget of $80 million on bike routes and dedicated bike lanes through the city.

You would almost think they have an idea of what's coming. If they do they're going about it smartly. If they raised alarms they'd be hounded out of office.

I have for some time believed that the only level of government that might help in the coming collapse is municipal. We'll see!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi pfh,

I'm unsure as to whether you came up with a meaningful point and/or argument. However, I think you underestimate the power that the status quo wields in peoples lives. Most people are very unlikely to make changes in their lives and/or behaviour unless they absolutely have no choice. Being able to make a jump to a new state is going to be a very unlikely prospect for those who currently exercise political and economic power at present. They will certainly use any and all tools at their disposal to ensure that this is not achieved.

Good luck!

Don Plummer said...

We don't have to wait for the climate to change to be able to grow wine grapes. The areas where wine grapes may successfully be grown has been expanding because of breeding efforts. The University of Minnesota, for example, has been crossing wine grapes with native strains that can survive temperatures of -40. Wine grapes are currently being grown successfully in such unlikely places as Nebraska, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

Regarding restrictive covenants, I think we can safely ignore most of them in our neighborhood. We don't have anyone policing the neighborhood looking out for violations, so someone would have to complain before anything would be done. Our next door neighbor, for example, has a backyard fence that doesn't conform. But nobody is complaining and I certainly won't be. If any of my neighbors don't like my dandelion-infested lawn, none have said anything to me. I've got my victory garden in the back; our neighbors across the street also have a vegetable patch. I will be planting raspberries and, yes, grapes, soon.

I would plant that hedge around the front yard--I'm just rebellious enough to do it--except that my wife probably wouldn't let me!

You are right about the class distinctions regarding wine and beer. I like both, and I try to patronize the local brewers as well as local wines.

The need to add sugar to make wine from most fruits is the big reason grapes have always been the preferred fruit for wine. Of all fruits, only grapes are capable of developing the level of sugar needed to ferment a stable wine. Grapes also have more moderate acid levels; other fruits have to be manipulated (usually by adding water and, of course, more sugar) to reduce their acidity.
(Partial disclaimer: not all native North American grape varieties, cultivated mostly in the eastern part of the continent, are capable of developing the requisite sugar/acid balance for wine and have to be treated the same as other fruits.)

One of the things I want to write about is how in Europe, it's the local wine that is most highly prized. This is because the local wine, coming from the same combination of soil and sun as the local food, is most perfectly matched to the local cuisine. Here, of course, we haven't really developed much in the way of local cuisines; most of our cuisines are imported. For that and other reasons I hope to discuss, we, especially in the eastern parts of North America, have a tendency to prefer the exotic wines and ignore the local wines.

Jim Brewster said...

I live in the southern suburbs of Baltimore, which lies, like so many suburban areas in the USA, on some of the best and flattest land to be found. Since buying our house, I have been on a steady campaign, albeit somewhat slowed by work and parental duties, to replace my front lawn with organic vegetable beds. (The backyard is too shady and full of roots.)

Fortunately I have no HOA, and my neighbors are cool. And my oldest son is interested out of the simple and natural curiosity over "what Dad's doing," and now, at 3, he is old enough to be helful.

Unfortunately my lot is not big enough for livestock, or I'd trade my lawnmower for a milk cow in a heartbeat. I think it's a tragedy that so much of suburbia is given over to chemically-supported grass and sterile landscaping, and not being used to grow food, build soil, and enhance local biodiversity.

William said...

Right now in the Midwest, commercially-controlled fields are being planted. Dry, dead fields, bare of any life, the soil killed with petro-chemicals, the great planting machines kicking up so much polluted dust the valleys look shrouded in fog. Polluting the soil, air and water - all things biological - in preparation for row after militaristic row of a genetically modified grass derived from Zea mays, protected with the full force of Government by among other things, Intellectual Property Law. Industry, funneling the energy and vitality of the land, of the community, out of this valley in the form of corn kernels, to be transformed into the likes of High Fructose Corn Syrup, to enslave a species, Homo sapien sapien, to invigorate a Market that primarily benefits a few already exceedingly wealthy people.

The most radical thing a man can do these days is grow his own food.

William Hunter Duncan

The Official Blog said...


There was an excellent program on BBC2 a few months ago about the collapse of Detroit's car making industry and along with it large swathes of Detroit's neighbourhoods.

What was interesting, and only lightly touched upon at the end of the programme, was the amount of land in these suburbs being turned back into farming and gardening plots.

One wonders if this is the gap in the economy to be exploited by large multi-naitonals? I think Kraft are involved in making headway into this are...

An article here:

Mulligan Stew said...

Muddling Toward Frugality will be reissued July 2010.

swchenkinphd said...

Thank you for your kinds words of encouragement. An avid reader of your blog for 18 months, I decided to transform my .45 acre suburban lot into a minifarm. Miraculously, I live in such an old neighborhood, there were no ordinances against farm animals.

The fencing of the back third of the yard was the most challenging task. I did it myself. My two new MiniLaMancha goats are happily ensconced there, and the neighbors better not complain as they are far less noisy than a leaf blower.

An experiment with rooftop gardens led to a beehive, sun hungry herb, and flowers, watered with a drip irrigation system, on the porch room roof (it also inspired my son to plant a container garden on top of his row home in Philadelphia- he gave me fresh lettuce for Mother's Day).

A Drexel University student whose parents are farmers in Arkansas was so starved for working in the dirt, he help me design and plant 8 raised beds of vegetables and herbs.

Working full time and managing to finish the project was admittedly a feat. 8 hours a day of hard labor on the weekend was challenging for a sixty year old. I got used to it.

If I run out of money, I look forward to goat milk, cheese, honey, mead, and lots of fresh and canned veggies to supplement my 50 lb bags of beans and rice.

I suspect that the mead will be a popular item for bartering (my thanks to Dmitry Orlov for that inspiration).

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Re last week's post: Unfortunately, when I think of the middle ages, I think of Afghanistan.

But muddling, especially through gardening, I get! Here are some good berry bushes: Aronia spp. (red and black chokeberry), Amelanchier spp. (serviceberry). And a good nut bush: Corylus americana (American filbert).

All you food gardeners: I urge everyone to plant a pollinator/beneficial insect patch of wildflowers native to your area along with, among, or beside your fruits and vegetables. What's good for the bees is good for us.

Not to brag about my family, but my brother brews an excellent oatmeal stout and passible mead.

Andrew Brown said...

I'm entirely new to the blog, so you're not preaching entirely to the choir. As an anthropologist who did his fieldwork in Kazakhstan in 94-96, when the economic system had basically broken down for most people - I could have titled my dissertation, Muddling Through in Almaty. Although urban Kazakhstanis had never quite left the Victory Garden behind (since things were never as secure there as here), it was striking how diverse were the ways that people managed to cobble together enough resources to keep a household going and keep the wolves at bay. (Not literal wolves, of course, though local officials and their brethren mafiosi did a good imitation.)

Now I'm going to have to process some of this on my own blog . . . .

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, it may be a regional thing. In the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up, wine was strictly a middle class affectation, while the working class, rural as well as urban, treated beer as one of the four basic food groups.

Brad, if it depends on lawyers and the force of contract law, it's not feudalism, it's a somewhat exotic rental agreement. I think it was in the fourteenth century that one of the major French barons was told that he had to produce paperwork justifying his ownership of some large chunk of property. The "charter" he flung down on the table was an ancient sword. That's the foundation of feudalism; the same scene might have taken place in Tokugawa Japan, or any other late feudal society.

Andrew, that's an excellent idea.

Danby, thanks for the details!

Phil, whether we're in a position to jump to a novel form of social organization is an interesting question. My sense is that that's not a productive way of looking at our situation. Rather, we're at a fairly well defined point in a known historical process, the decline and fall of a civilization; the growth imperative that industrial civilization shares with many others leads, not to some new achievement, but to disintegration and contraction. Either way, though, learning to handle sudden simplification is a useful skill!

Charley, I hadn't heard about Overshoot -- that's splendid news. Of all the books on the limits to growth, that's the best.

Roboslob, good for you! If you're in an area where hunting is legal, I can suggest a very tasty way to deal with your deer problem...

Tristan, better make sure that chain saw is fueled up.

Houyhnhnm, the ham radio lobby is busy trying to get a Federal law passed that will exempt ham radio antennas from the control of HOAs, for the sake of emergency communications. Maybe the tide has finally turned.

Patz, that's excellent news! You're right that municipal governments have a better chance of getting a clue than most others -- and it's good to hear of one that's starting to do something useful.

Don, that's interesting. Here in the Alleghenies, a lot of people grow Concord grapes; I don't know whether those are any good for wine. Of course the local homebrew of choice is still best made with a copper still!

Jim, if you want livestock, how about chickens and/or rabbits? Those are the classic cottage protein sources, and they thrive in very modest spaces.

William, right now in other parts of the midwest, people are planting their own gardens. That's the part of spring I like to remember!

Official, Detroit and a couple of other rust belt cities are rapidly moving to the forefront of sensible responses to the future.

Swchenkin, that's very good to hear! The return of the urban microfarm is one of the most important trends right now. Good for you for helping to point the way to your neighbors and friends.

Adrian, agreed. Keeping pollinators happy and alive is going to be a crucial issue in the decades ahead. I'm partial to bumblebee boxes and orchard mason bee blocks.

Andrew, have you consider writing up a detailed essay on how people in Almaty dealt with economic collapse? My guess is the folks on Energy Bulletin would be delighted to host it.

MisterMoose said...

Several of our neighbors have chickens and goats (little Nubians - they are SO cute...), and there is a community garden associated with one of the local cafes. We all have to put fencing up around our gardens to keep out the javelinas (wild pigs), and build "bathtubs" of wire mesh underneath our raised beds to deter the gophers who have built a huge network of tunnels under the whole neighborhood (we call 'em the Viet Cong).

Cathy McGuire: go for it. My initial efforts at building cold frames and removable row covers for my own garden beds has resulted in the beginnings of a cash-only side job building these structures for other people. They are very simple: PVC pipe plus wire mesh plus shade cloth for summer or clear plastic sheeting for winter. My wife is pimping me out to all the little old widows in the neighborhood to work on their gardens (they call me Manuel, as in manuel labor...).

BTW, my wife works for a local stock broker. Recently they were on a conference call with one of their investment houses in New York. After listening to investment advice from the "gurus"
(mostly along the lines of things to avoid, like municipal bonds and commercial real estate), somebody asked, "So, what are you guys on Wall Street investing in for yourselves, personally? Gold?"

After what my wife described as a pregnant pause, one of the Wall Street guys, a prominent hedge fund manager, said, "We're buying arable farm land as far away from the city as possible."

Well, on that note, have a nice day!

Can you say "survival retreat?" I knew you could. We immediately went to our local gun store and bought another couple boxes of ammo. My wife is now agitating to buy a couple acres of arable farmland with a water supply and a defensible perimeter, preferably at the end of a dirt road away from the main highways. This cannot end well...

M. Francis Heins said...


Could the large chunk of the hops crop being grown in the NW be connected to the regional beer vs wine in re "class" up here? And the large chunk of land devoted to the production of over-priced wine?

Either way, it is certainly true. In the 4th Street bars in Olympia, the wine bottles gather dust as the cans of PBR fly into the recycle bin and the empty kegs of local brew fill the alleyways.

My experience in other places is that urbanites (which is almost everybody in the U.S. today, no matter how far away from city center they live) split as hoity-toity for wine, common folk for beer, while true rural folk split as homemade-whatever for the common folk and shopmade-whatever for the "upper crust".

Plum wine is certainly easier to make than semi-decent beer (at least for my humble self ;)).

The discussion of HOAs is confusing to me.

I thought that whatever "covenants" or "associations" people were getting into could still be altered through the democratic process? That's the way it was in the surburb I grew up in, at least, and I vaguely remember it being said to be a "Home Owner's Association". Maybe the fact that it was one of the earliest "Master-Planned Communities" comes into play here.

My impression of the main problem with the surburban HOAs has been that it is the same "citizenship gap" that plagues the rest of society in the U.S. today. The classic example of which is 6 out of 10 people in a tavern or at a backyard barbeque being vocally against some city ordinance when if they would just do the exact same complaining in City Hall the ordinance would die on the vine.

As for the hedge in question I say, plant it.

Classic protest action, in my book = make the bastards STOP ya!

Looking forward to "The Wealth of Nature" (GREAT title BTW).

pfh said...

Has anyone asked "if we run out of money" as 'swchenkinphd' suggested, and then can "look forward to goat milk, cheese, honey, mead,..etc.) if feeding ourselves would be all we'd need? How would the rest of the world operate, that needs computers replaced every 3-5 years, with all the parts coming from the other side of the earth, for example.

Where would the computers come from without businesses making a profit to stay in business and attract investors? Without a big energy economy would we still have phones even? If our extraordinary range of specialized knowledge communities don't have much of a purpose anymore, is there any reason to think modern knowledge would be maintained and passed on?

pfh said...

Jonn, in saying "Phil, whether we're in a position to jump to a novel form of social organization is an interesting question. My sense is that that's not a productive way of looking at our situation. Rather, we're at a fairly well defined point in a known historical process, the decline and fall of a civilization;" it seems you're describing its as conceptual changes rather than physical change. Lots of times, me to, people fall into the habit of describing the world as if it worked by theories instead of by complex systems.

Complexity is about how nature gets vast assemblies of disconnected parts, independently making complementary contributions everywhere at once, so as to behave simply as a whole. It's inexplicable , really, because it does not work by anything like outside pushes and pulls.

We find the most common things of nature inexplicable because our explanations need to resolve into deterministic relations between categories. Physics can't even figure out what a fluid is yet, for example, but we drink water...

What I'm talking about is a change of form that is relatively easy to do, but impossible to reduce to a mental model, just like every other complex thing made simple we rely on all the time. Just ask yourself, how does your foot know not to exhaust its capacity to deliver energy to your movement on every step? If you can answer that you can keep the global economy from collapsing in a way that erases our culture.

Apple Jack Creek said...

@ John (commenter above who mentioned the difference between office work and gardening) – I have had similar experiences. I worked in corporate-IT with a woman who said to me one day: “They told us that mucking out chicken coops and chopping wood and hauling water and cooking on a woodstove was drudgery. They were wrong. That’s not drudgery … THIS is!” I actually posted a whole set of thoughts on that at my blog
last week.

@the Archdruid – this particular bit really caught my attention: if you can disconnect something you need from the tertiary economy, you’ve insulated a part of your life from at least some of the impacts of the chaotic resolution of the mismatch between limitless paper wealth and the limited real wealth available to our species on this very finite planet. That’s the perfect one-sentence explanation for why we do what we do: big garden, free-range chickens, grass-fed sheep and a house cow on our 6 acres in the country – plus full time jobs in town, to pay for the infrastructure needed to make this actually work when we don’t have steady incomes. Living with one foot in each world is hard, but it’s the only way to cushion the fall, I think.

Red Neck Girl said...

Houyhnhnm said;
"Red Neck Girl--

I can vouch for the merit of horse manure. Thirty years of horse manure has turned the worst acre of our property, once a barren expanse of soggy clay, into a bright green field with timothy and clover. Of course, we indeed dump rather than compost our horse manure, so now I need to borrow a cow or other non-equid to graze and cleanse it by digesting all the strongyle eggs that undoubtedly lurk on the timothy stalks.

Luckily, we have neighbors who'll be glad to work out an exchange-a-critter program with us."

It was my understanding that a hard freeze kills equine parasite eggs on plants and in the ground. Of course if you wanted to produce your own milk you could get a couple of goats or a Dexter house cow, about half the size of a regular cow with half the milk production, to graze that acre.

You also mentioned using draft horse quarter horse crosses as a good possibility for sale or trade. I intend to look for some Wisecamp type Quarter horses possibly over in Elko Nev. at the Cowboy Poetry event. That's also when ranchers bring their extra horses in for a sale. Having owned a Wisecamp gelding when I was young and dumb I can tell you they show strong signs of the Percheron stud in their line from foundation. My gelding had a six foot girth and forearms bigger than most men's thighs plus they really like to work cows! He was only about 15 hands tall, (60 inches at the shoulder) and an easy keeper to boot! If push comes to shove I'd like to use a stud out of the Badger line of horses, I like their looks as well and it would blend well with the Wisecamp lines.

Honestly, it might be easier to find a unicorn but I'm going to try.

Jim Brewster said...

JMG, I've looked into chickens. Unfortunately our county code is pretty clear. If I had an acre I could keep up to 32 chickens, but on my 1/3 acre lot I can have exactly 0. I could probably get away with a couple "pet" rabbits, but since there's a vegetarian in the house I don't think that will be much use. She could probably accept culling a few hens as part of managing a laying flock, but...

Meanwhile I can have up to 9 cats. Go figger.

Jason said...

Andrew: I have heard of a number of people in urban areas vegetable farming on other peoples yards in exchange for some of the produce.

JMG: that's an excellent idea.

Glad you think so JMG; I can provide specific examples (UK ones anyhow) since this is another idea Transition Towns has been onto for a while.


The original in Totnes

Or High Wycombe

Or Exmouth

... etc.

Don Plummer said...

"Here in the Alleghenies, a lot of people grow Concord grapes; I don't know whether those are any good for wine."

Concord is the most popular of the native North American grape varieties in cultivation. It's believed to be pure Vitis labrusca, and it has a very strong flavor (the "grape flavor" of grape jelly and Welch's grape juice). It makes a poor dry wine, (it needs to be ameliorated with sugar and water) but some folks like sweetened Concord wine (Think kosher wines like Mogen David and Manischewitz--they're mostly Concord). There are many better choices that would be very easy to grow in your location.

If I lived in your area, I'd be looking for a south- or east-facing slope above the Potomac with good air circulation to grow them.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

With all the talk about gardens & home brewing beer, wine & spirits, I'm surprised growing marijuana hasn't come up. Certainly would provide motivation to take up gardening. Bet it would be great for trade to the Visigoths;-) And Monsanto is unlikely to corral the seed trade...

Perhaps alcohol abuse treatment might also be a power-down trade to consider;-)

For the chain saw crowd, suggest you get a good drag saw, axe, splitting maul, wedges and mallet. And learn how to use 'em and keep 'em sharp. Makes killing trees a bit more human scale. Back when I lived in Orygun, my girlfriend and I were a sight to see ripping through clear cut trash with our drag saw.

I also use a scythe for some mowing - more great exercise to whip a person into shape.

Muddling? After the Navy, I developed a "life compass" to help guide me through. Got me out of the hot rod & empire world, encouraged a vasectomy, energy efficient lifestyle, gardening and such. Not exactly a plan, and certainly not utopian.

True believers among us who slavishly adhere to their scriptures & manifestos give a bad name to planning, I guess. When we built our home here in NoFla, we copped a Forest Service plan for an easy-to-build small home. What got built was the same size but different in most other respects from the plan (building inspectors were willing to accept "field changes").

Life has pretty much worked out the same way. We've lived the life we wanted with adequate resources and with adventures, time for civic responsibilities and community. Some tough times, of course, yet good times mostly.

Hope all is going GREAT with yall!


Wordek said...


“human societies are organic growths, and trying to invent one to fit some abstract idea of goodness is as foredoomed as trying to make an ecosystem do what human beings want”

Foredoomed probably.. But dont write off invented societies so fast. When they crash and burn that provides some of the lessons that guide the rest of us away from making the same dumb mistakes.
Just try not to join one yourself -unless you have some really good ideas- In which case keep us posted-if they let you.

Hi pfh
“we could make the jump to a new form.”

Im sure plenty of jumps to new forms will happen but I reckon most will look like an octopus thats jumped out of its tank. However if anyone can get a new form up and tapdancing, I sir will be the first to salute them.... and shake their tentacles.

LynnHarding said...

Loved this post and read all of the comments carefully. When I started my own large garden in the 1970's I was torn between the advice of Rodale and Crockett. To use diazinon on the radishes or not? I decided to go the organic route and I think it turned out to be the right choice.
My daughter has a victory garden in a nice suburb outside of Boston. This garden area has been in use for decades. Some people use pesticides, some don't, some clean up their gardens, some don't. As a result the pressure from pests and fungi is quite overwhelming.
As a result the gardeners tempted to go to the local oh-so-green garden center and buy some sort of spray. This is really scary because many of those sprays contain a neoniticinoid substance, such as "imidicloprid" that has been banned in France and is suspected of being highly toxic to pollinators. It is notably less toxic to humans than the stuff that Jim Crockett recommended 30 years ago on public tv (lindane,) but it really sterilizes the soil that it touches. Everything dies, including worms.
I worry that, as my neighbors plow up their lawns and try to grow food for the first time they will begin to spray this stuff around. There are no warnings on the labels and garden supply clerks are clueless. Also, the manufacturer is Bayer Crop Science so you can imagine the resistance to any warnings.
Please, victory gardeners, help to spread the word so that we can retain our honeybees and native pollinators! There are many good sites online that discuss non-toxic solutions to the problems that you are likely to encounter as a victory gardener.

Steve said...

I have been pursuing this path for the last several years. Harvesting your own produce provides spiritual as well as nutritional rewards. Recently, while pulling carrots I was struck by the beauty and mystery of photosynethsis turning dirt into a carrot into a human being into a blog.

May your voice long ring through the fog.

ezab said...

Two useful books, both by Steve Solomon:

Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades: The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times

The first book is written specifically for the maritime Northwest, and I see we have bloggers from that region. It also includes detailed pages on each vegetable, and I think that information would be useful nationwide. I rely on these books all the time. (There might be one or two points where I don't agree with him, just as I don’t always agree with JMG.)

Solomon recommends mixing your own inexpensive "complete organic fertilizer" from ingredients such as seed meal, kelp, and two kinds of lime. I mix a large batch and use it throughout the year with everything I plant.... good nutrition for plants solves potential problems before they start.

PanIdaho said...

FYI: Concord grapes...

Yes, they make very good wine, if you like the heavier, sweeter kosher style, traditionally made with Concords. (We do, and we have a lovely bottled batch of it aging further in the storeroom as we speak.) Concord grapes are also rich in the resveratrol that is so much in the news these days - I believe they are considered one of the premier sources for this substance. You can steam juice Concord grapes and immediately bottle and boiling water bath can the juice for drinking as juice later, and I have also made a very nice vinegar with the juice as well. I'm planning to try an aged, balsamic type vinegar this fall when we get our new crop in. And, the seedless varieties of Concord also make wonderfully tasty raisins. :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Moose, you're better off networking with your neighbors and building the foundations for a community economy -- and, if it comes to that, collective defense. An isolated farmstead off by itself is a tempting target for raiders.

Francis, you may be right -- the Pacific Northwest grows world-class hops (though its wineries are pretty good, too). As for HOAs, the problem is that most people haven't yet grasped that their houses have no resale value worth speaking of, and are still clutching at the fantasy of pulling cash out of their homes to dodge the poverty that I think most of us know is coming. Anything that threatens that fantasy gets voted down in a hurry.

Phil, nah, it's not a matter of conceptual change, simply of the best available descriptor for a process rooted in the physical but embracing social, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. As for the global economy, it's already collapsing, and in conjunction with the end of the age of cheap energy and the massive impact of the limits to growth, it's eventually going to take computers and most of the rest of contemporary technology with it. That's my take, at least, and the question I'm trying to explore at this point is what can be done to save as much as possible from the long ragged descent that will land our great-grandchildren in the coming dark age. The whole system costs of maintaining computer technology keep them off the list; I'd like to see the scientific method, for example, get on it.

Apple Jack, that's certainly one way to do it. I'd encourage you to look at shifting down to one income as soon as circumstances permit, so that the other member of the couple can start working full time on the land.

Girl, definitely look for a unicorn! Breed it with your mares, and I promise you you'll have the most unique line of horses around. ;-)

Jim, as you network with other people who are getting into home gardening and food production, consider lobbying the county to allow up to 4 hens on a small lot. That's not uncommon, and you may be able to get a revision of the county regulations.

Jason, it's also happening outside of the Transition Towns movement, of course.

Don, that's worth knowing. Our home is on a hill overlooking the Potomac with southern and western exposure and plenty of fresh air; we may try planting some.

Edde, for obvious reasons, I don't encourage people to engage in illegal activities. I don't use that stuff myself, either, so it wouldn't be of much use to me.

Wordek, the problem there is that the number one lesson taught by planned societies is that planned societies are a bad idea, and I think we've had as many examples as we need!

Lynn, very well put. If you have to resort to sprays of any kind, even allegedly green ones, you're doing something wrong; I use very mild soap sprays at most, and have never had to go beyond that, because I put a lot of effort into building the soil, companion planting, and other chemical-free preventive measures. Poisons are never a good solution!

Steve, excellent. The more people pay attention to miracles of that kind, the better.

Ezab, thanks for the suggestions! I've found Solomon's books a mixed bag, but I know a lot of people who swear by him.

Panidaho, this is good to know. Thank you!

PanIdaho said...

On the household economy and such...

One of the reasons I also believe the household economy is worth nurturing and reviving is the "products" of the household economy are often superior in many ways to those available in the public marketplace. For example, food is generally much fresher and has fewer unpronounceable ingredients in it, and is likely to be healthier for people to eat. Clothing produced at home may not be deemed "high fashion" but it is generally sturdier and lasts longer, if not for the reason that it is likely to be made with more durable materials and a greater attention to construction and finishing, but also because the person wearing it knows intimately how much labor went into creating it and as a result will often take better care of it!

So I believe that while the products of the household economy on the surface may appear "less efficient" than those available in the global corporate marketplace, they often are made from locally obtained materials, are generally constructed to last longer and, in the end, may in fact be a far sight MORE sustainable and "efficient" than something mass produced and designed from the get-go for a short term of service and fast obsolescence and replacement.

Don Plummer said...

Try some table grapes too. Reliance is a luscious seedless grape bred for the eastern US. Himrod is another tasty seedless one. There are many more.

pasttense said...

Unless you enjoy the gardening experience I question this advice. In the years ahead all kinds of products will be more difficult and expensive to obtain (because of peak oil and peak other commodities, breakdown of supply chains over long distances...) yet JMG is suggesting we concern ourselves with one set of products which will not (locally grown vegetables).

Cathy McGuire said...

Well, maybe some of this is finally hitting the mainstream - I just found a good article at Times Online:

"Waste not, Want not - here comes the new austerity"

Be sure to read the comments, to get an idea of how "the average Brit" views such things... :-)

BTW - I'm w/o running water for two days... the well pump broke and I dont' have the skills with motors to fix it (nor do I want to pay "weekend rates")... but I'm taking the opportunity to get the well guy to look into a hand pump backup option! And I'm doing fine w/o running water...

Wordek said...

The comment about marijuana made me think …. sloooowly...... about something else.
Leaving aside for a moment the “hey man its labrador” aspect perhaps it would be useful to give consideration to the future need for plant fibre?
If you have some space to experiment and can find what grows well in your area out of flax, jute, kenaf, hemp, ramie, rattan etc, those efforts may provide your kids with the industrial basis for their future “feudal overlordship” in your district.. Then you can sit back and age gracefully - or disgracefully if it turns out to be hemp.

My Leige.. the peasants are revolting!
Oh no! Thats a real bummer man. Why dont they just like... chill?
Its the jute my lord... They say its very hard to light.....

Houyhnhnm said...

Red Neck Girl said, "It was my understanding that a hard freeze kills equine parasite eggs on plants and in the ground."

After submitting, I realized I'd typed "eggs." I meant stage three strongyle larvae. They overwinter just fine.

Since ZERO new horse wormers are in the pharma pipeline and resistance to ivermectin is rising, the old answer of rotating pastures between host specific grazing species is fashionable once again. In other words, horse owners are on the cutting edge of industrial decline!

As to the rest, please click on my name and email me. That way we won't clutter this list with horse stuff.


spottedwolf said...

Haven't been here in awhile. Dirk told me you'd shifted gears to more pragmatic related subjects. I live with one of the green thumb goddess' the planet seems to breed.That said and considering the pros and cons of climate, location, weather etc...I'd say you are on the button. Now if I can just get her to plant much more food since I don't fancy eating a lot of flowers.

I think in-town hunting may become an interesting past-time as well and a format on learning anew...old hide and seek techniques....from the authorities might generate some interest.

Water for gardens may become a real trade commodity too.

I am still listening to every possible aspect from religious faith to total anarchy concerning the economy. Our government is hiding one fact after another from us much as others are across the globe so many still do not realize what is happening and even some of the more astute observers in my small band of minions are still thinking they should hoard the paper stuff until bad times blow over.

Personally I'm considering hoarding all manner of feminine products and Charmin TP to use for I think this will bring the highest values across the board.

Good to read you again John...

Gary said...

I remember reading Muddling Toward Frugality many years ago, and it sort of exemplifies my approach to the world. I look at muddling as the "practice" we need to get it right. None of us know how we are going to make the needed changes in the years ahead, but nothing is going to happen if we don't make a stab at what we think we need to do. So rather than stand paralyzed by gigabytes of conflicting information - you get out there, plant the garden and learn by practice.

Wordek said...

Hi Houyhnhnm

“rotating pastures between host specific grazing species is fashionable once again”

I dont know that it ever fell out of favour unless you were farming intensively. Its certainly standard practice on sheep'n'beef units. Also adding an active and resting rotation helps as well. 70 or 80 days rest will mean that a lot of parasites will go through the freeliving part of their lifecycle without finding new host to reinfect. It also allows the pasture to grow longer so stock are less likely to pick up a parasite when you open it back up for grazing. Of course I'm not a horsey person so ignore me if this doesnt apply

I see papaya, carrot, garlic and wormwood being touted as lungworm prevention for cattle
Maybe experiment with adding some of these to our “jute” ;) plantations. Another sideline industry for the descent. I wonder if there are horse specific remedys that would make the grade?

Symple said...

Does anyone have a guesstimate about the time line and scenario description of the post oil world?

It seems to me that the scenario portrayed is one of, those with self sufficient local communities will survive while the rest of the world starves and in northern climates freeze.

Again I ask, what will be the role of guns and defense in that world. And…how will those who are in those survival communities cope psychologically watching those around them, and those around the world, including friends and family members starve to death and freeze?

Can you suggest where else I could ask this rather large question?


Twilight said...

Yes, I like this. I've been rapidly becoming aware of the issues we face, from environmental damage and peak oil to our social and political crisis, for quite a few years now, but still the best preparations I've been able to achieve are but muddling along. I'll keep at it, knowing that it's likely my preparations will be inadequate, and the advice to disconnect from the tertiary economy is a good guide.

Still, the reality is that how any individual fares in the coming chaos will be largely dictated by random chance. Therefore the best preparation you can make is the mental one - to watch and understand and be ready adapt with as much grace as you can. No one actually survives anyway.

I like the local farmers market trend around here, as it can easily be adapted to a barter system that bypasses the tertiary economy. It's good to get this established as soon as possible, ans it needs to be physically close enough that people will be able to access the markets.

PanIdaho said...

pasttense: most of us are not lucky enough to live in an area that is totally self sufficient in fresh vegetables and fruits. For us, these things may well become luxuries once the costs of transporting them from other areas rises significantly. So growing our own IS a really good idea. If it is not a good idea for you, then I suggest you spend your energy and time looking into other things. No one ever said this was a one-size fits all solution - we are talking about "muddling," after all...s

John Michael Greer said...

Panidaho, that's certainly been my experience. It's hard to make a good comparison between homemade and store bought products when the former are almost always of vastly better quality than the latter!

Don, thank you!

Pasttense, the vast majority of vegetables sold in the US are shipped hundreds or thousands of miles from where they're grown. Furthermore, being able to produce a significant fraction of your own food supply is never a luxury!

Cathy, thanks for the link -- and be sure to get that hand pump. I've lived without running water, and it's not a big deal -- but you do need access to water one way or the other, of course.

Wordek, you can get good cordage out of many plant sources -- but you're quite right that knowing how to do that, and having some source handy, will be important down the road.

Wolf, welcome back! Charmin is a good idea; one of our aces in the hole is that my spouse makes excellent homemade soap. Not so little things like that will go a long way.

Gary, exactly. All the plans and enthusiastic discussion in the world are not as valuable as half an hour spent actually doing the work and learning from it.

Symple, I gather you haven't been reading this blog long. I've been pointing out for years that the standard survivalist scenario -- everything falls apart, and then the faceless urban hordes show up for target practice -- is a Hollywood fantasy, as improbable as the equivalent fantasy of business as usual forever.

Based on -- well, dozens of factors I've hashed over in past posts -- we face a long, slow, uneven decline lasting one to three centuries, ending in a dark age. If you live in America, the worst you're ever likely to experience in this lifetime is about equivalent to the full impact of the Great Depression in central Europe. That's not exactly a minor issue -- the full impact of the Great Depression in central Europe included starvation, war, and genocide, among other things -- but you'll notice that it didn't include a total collapse of civilization and the usual fantasy of blazing away on full auto at zombie hordes, etc.

Twilight, exactly -- farmers markets are hugely important. They're the beta test model of the food distribution system of the not too distant future.

Panidaho, exactly. Thank you.

John Michael Greer said...

Hawlkeye (offlist), it amazes me how many people don't seem to realize that the internet is a public forum, and advocating illegal activities in a public forum can have direct personal consequences. Maybe three to five years in Club Fed is part of your plan for the future, but I think most of my readers would find it very inconvenient. "Nuf said.

Wordek said...

I remember growing up in a time when hay was baled using sisal twine. Then at a certain point all the contractors started using synthetics. Well instantly you had to start wearing gloves because the twine cut int your hands and you had to be careful not to let any loose when feeding the hay as the cattle would eat it and it could (legend says) clog their digestive system.... But hey (hay?) its cheaper.

“Wordek, you can get good cordage out of many plant sources”
Yeah the reason I added the (admittedly not comprehensive list) of plants was that with regards to the human aspect of utilising a plant, as you imply, its not just the plant, but the plant+technology unit that matters, and these are already widely exploited and understood sources. And important secondary uses should be well researched also. For instance New Zealand flax is also used as a medicine and (for the feudalists) can be woven into battle armour or used to bullet proof your fort. It grows in swamps so, anyone got a swamp they arent using?

I wont be using it though... My fort is made of sofa cushions. ;)

Tony said...

So ... 30 years after people stopped subscribing to Mother Earth and Whole Earth Catalog ... all the content and discussion of those times ... victory gardens, grow-your-own, windmills ... is our solution today?

This is rich. We could have had all those things in place already. If we had wanted them, we'd have them. I guess it was easier to buy into the illusion of The Dream.

So, I'm going to propose the reality of what America will do: it'll start to make the right motions, while it hopes and waits for Daddy to tell it what to do. Again. Only this time, 50% of what we called freedom will be permanently lost. There won't be any bargaining chips this time: we'll gladly do what we're told.

What a sorry mess.

Edde said...

Good morning John Michael,

I certainly agree that one ought not advocate activities that are illegal. However medical marijuana is legal in 13 states, including the one you most recently left, and legalization will be voted upon in another dozen or so states this upcoming election season.

Also, we may see the citizens in California elect to fully legalize, regulate and tax marijuana this year.

And as current financial crisis deepens, its likely other states will look closely at the costs of the "war on drugs" which has so miserably failed to stem drug abuse but pays to incarcerate perhaps 40% of its inmate population for non-violent drug "crimes." And the benefits of taxing a regulated substance like tobacco and alcohol.

All for a drug that is no more dangerous than currently legal drugs including those prescribed by doctors.

Since I live in a state where marijuana is illegal, I do NOT advocate that it be grown. However, to comment on the benefits of legalization and growing marijuana at home where it IS legal, is still not illegal here.

Best regards,

RPC said...

SpottedWolf, if your gardening goddess insists on raising flowers, I'd suggest putting in beehives. Honey (and mead) would be great for barter, and Gaia knows the honeybees could use some help! I'll second you on the feminine products and toilet paper; I understand they were essentially currency in NO after Katrina.

Symple, the problem is that noone knows! If the U.S. for instance decides to shut off every Gulf well with a busted blowout preventer, gas could be $5 per gallon by June. OTOH, if Iraq's plans for crude oil production come to fruition, it may be business as usual through the teens. We all have to make our best guesses (and backup plans!).

Robert C. Guy said...

I always enjoy reading your posts and their attendant conversations. I found it interesting today to read "[Farmer's markets are] the beta test model of the food distribution system of the not too distant future." When just last night I was watching with my mother the second episode of the old documentary "The Silk Road" on that interesting trade route of the ancient east. The part came to mind where they are passing through one of the villages that still exists, set up in an oasis along the route, and they showed an image of a broad road where carts hitched to camels were being loaded and a big ugly truck was coming slowly down the road up to them. They show a quiet scene of the place and mention 'It is mid-day so the only sound heard is children playing because all of the adults are asleep during the hottest portion of the day' and also show a scene of children helping to load a cart to near overflowing with enormous cabbage (which they mention the constant hard work that goes into keeping them growing there) then they show the scene which sticks out in my mind at this moment; the market. It is rows and rows of farmer's carts laden with their produce which they sold as they pleased. I believe that farmer's markets may be beta-testing their Return to the long destitute desert-like social ecosystem of the so called 'modern' nations but in those places where they were not driven out to help the rich become richer some of them have stood for literally thousands of years and are hardly as a whole in beta testing. Please forgive the length of my comment but as I work as a programmer (quite by astronomical chance rather than design of my own), and I enjoy the open source and Unix approaches to what I do (I'm the only person on my team who does), I would like to draw a parallel: to say that a farmer's market is an idea to be beta tested in our society may be true in the way that Vim, Emacs, Open-Office, php, python, Apache, or even the old Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister (PERL: after ten years of use in the *nix world made available to people who wanted to employ the resource but were trapped in windows as the environment to do so) had to be beta-tested for their ports made compatible with microsoft's environment.

PanIdaho said...

@Wordek, re: local fiber

That's a good point, imo. Much, if not most, of the textiles consumed in this country, for example, are being fabricated overseas. Sometimes it's just the fiber from the US that is sent overseas for milling and weaving into fabric, but as far as I know, very little of what goes into our clothing is being produced stateside anymore. Check the labels on most of what you wear and you'll probably be surprised. Shoes, too. If (when) overseas shipping and trade breaks down, we're likely going to have a problem keeping folks properly clothed and shod after a while, especially since much of what is available in the stores is of such poor quality and utility these days.

Around here, there are two sources of fiber that I know of - wool, and wild flax. For this reason a couple of years ago I taught myself to spin on a drop spindle. I got to the point where I could spin fine laceweight yarn on it, and for a drop spindle spinner I was actually pretty quick with it - but since drop spindle spinning isn't a fast process by any means that still meant very little yarn was actually piling up in my future projects stash. However, this year for my graduation present I was given a lovely reconditioned Louet spinning wheel by my loving and astute family. :-) Now my production of good quality woolen yarns has probably quintupled, and I'm actually able to start thinking about making larger projects than just a pair of socks now and then. Good tools are very important.

Flax is next on my list of fibers to learn, but it's a more complicated process for both preparing the fiber for spinning (it has to "ret" for a fair bit of time to get the softer vegetable matter to release the tougher fibers from its matrix) and spinning (for good smooth yarn it needs to be spun wet, I understand.) So there will be a brand new learning curve there as well. But on the upside, I can also try making some good old-fashioned "linsey-woolsy" at some point.

Then there will at some point be rugs and such to try, once I get or make a loom... It's lucky for me that my family is very understanding of my eccentricities. ;-)

Steve said...

Re: sharecropping in neighbors' yards - I do that. It's pretty straightforward, and it's been great for me as a renter. I found a friendly neighbor with a weedy back yard, asked if I could grow veggies. After a year, they hired me to put in an edible forest garden in their front yard, and the veggie garden is bigger and better than ever. I can grow what I want, when I want, and they pick what they like for their table. This year I got a straight job, so the garden's full of taters, onions, garlic, paste tomatoes, leeks, brassicas for freezing, and carrots and parsnips to dig up in winter.

On that note, off to the beds to get in my tomatoes. Thanks for a great post, JMG; the undead money concept has become an instant hit around here!

ezab said...

Saving your own seeds is easy for some vegetables, more difficult for others. For example, peas are self-pollinators, so if you allow the best pods to dry, you have seeds you can use for next year’s crop.

On the other hand, carrots are pollinated by bees, so they could cross breed with wild plants in the same family ... this sounds like a more challenging project (something that one person might learn to do, and then share/trade with neighbors.)

For a downloadable booklet with detailed, reliable information on saving your own seeds, go to:

By the way, these folks also sell some very interesting varieties of seeds:

Rita said...

If you are going to plant hops be sure to put them where you will want them for the foreseeable future. They are very difficult to root out. My grandmother told me only pigs could manage to get all the roots. The harvest is very labor intensive; when hops were a major crop in Kent whole families would travel from London for the harvest. Something to consider in choosing potential market crops.

My grandmother was a determined gardener. When she lived in an upstairs apt. in Glendale, CA she actually built up planting beds on the concrete sidewalk in addition to using containers.

She was raised in the Ozarks in a family so poor they got one pair of shoes for school that had to last a year, even if their feet grew. Your description of post collapse Christmas reminded me of her descriptions of receiving only some store bought candy, walnuts and the rare treat of an orange in her stocking.

Will Heather said...

Re neihborhood covenants: I live in an association that has them and I'll point out that there is always a process for changing the rules (usually, you have to talk a a majority of a quorum to vote in favor). The other is that rules lose their force if they are not observed and not enforced. Contrary to our rules people leave cars parked on the streets, long term, and have campers and large boats visible in the driveway. We've begun growing vegetables, French-style, meaning that they are tucked in among the ornamental plantings with no push-back at all. When you think about the force of rules, recall the fact that Massachusetts still has a Puritan-era law on the books outlawing fornication. It's the law, but no one wants to enforce it, it would be impossible to enforce, so its effect is zero.

Joel said...

Incidentally, as Glenn and Wordek mentioned, garlic is also pretty good against economic collapse: lots of calories per square-foot-month, pest resistant, keeps well, stands up to cold weather, improves the palatability of cheap staples, is a useful herbal remedy (especially against the ailments associated with stress)...

I wonder if part of why garlic found its place in our vampire myths, is its capacity to undermine the power of the exploitative elites which seem to form the basis of vampires. I know a lot of it also has to do with folk spirituality, of course, but myths often have practical ideas folded in with the symbolic ones.

John Michael Greer said...

Wordek, that's a great example of how fossil fuels have scrambled our priorities.

Tony, that's about the size of it. If we'd built on the beginnings of the 1970s, we'd be most of the way to sustainability now. Instead, we're most of the way to history's dumpster. Whether or not America waits for somebody to tell it what to do, my suggestion is that those of us who have some idea ought to get a move on.

Edde, while that's true, I don't see a lot of point in dragging the discussion into an unrelated hot button topic.

RPC, even if Iraq manages to come through on its (wildly inflated) promises, the rate of decline in existing fields is high enough that we're still facing a bunch of trouble.

Panidaho, if you haven't done so already, check into what your local First Nations used to use for cordage. Nettles, for example, make excellent fiber, and so do many other plants most people would never think to use.

Robert, an interesting expansion of the metaphor! Of course you're right; the only reason farmers markets need beta testing is that most of us are still relearning how to use them.

Steve, that's great to hear! Keep that garlic growing; you never know when a vampire derivative might come stalking the midnight streets... ;-)

Ezab, thanks for the links! Of course saving seeds is a skill that needs to be learnt, one of many for the subsistence gardener.

Rita, your grandmother would recognize our future. The generations that still remember the way things used to be are a previous resource.

Will, that seems to vary from one association to another. I've heard from people who basically have run into one brick wall after another, facing rules that are strictly enforced and a majority of HOA members who are completely unwilling to budge.

Joel, plants of the allium genus -- onions, garlic, chives, leeks, etc. -- have a reputation all over the world for driving off hostile spirits. It's an interesting question where that common belief comes from.

Don Plummer said...

"Panidaho, if you haven't done so already, check into what your local First Nations used to use for cordage."

Great advice. Here's another example. An alternate name for dogbane is Indian hemp. This alternate name is even reflected in the species name, Apocynum cannabinum. I don't know anything about the history of its use, but there must be a reason for that name. It is very common in meadows and fields around here.

Pamela Grundy said...

We've been going through this downsizing/muddling process for about five years now--more as a matter of necessity than idealism--but when I bring it up people tend to react as you say. Lots of folks seem to want a single unified 'solution', but there might not be one! I like what you have to say here, because it fits my own experience.

We installed a multifuel stove a couple of years ago when we could no longer afford our oil furnace, and it works fine and costs a fraction of what we once spent for heat. We have a garden and add a fruit tree every year. We sold all our vehicles and got a Honda Insight. We walk more, buy local and second hand, and we keep cutting back on electricity. Each change seems scary at first but once we make it then after a bit it begins to feel normal.

Now people up here are clamoring for the right to keep chickens. This tickles me. As soon as the local government gets over themselves I expect we'll have some of those too. Sometimes the only way to change things is to just change what you can, change what's right in front of your nose. It cracks me up when people say, "That can't work!" and here we are doing it. I think the macro focus makes it all scarier than it has to be.

Thanks. :)

ezab said...

Symple asks:
“How will those who are in those survival communities cope psychologically watching those around them, and those around the world, including friends and family members starve to death and freeze?”

I’ve been wondering the same thing. People will cope in various ways. Some will help friends and neighbors, within limits. Some will block out what’s happening in other parts of the world.

For example, right now malaria kills about a million people a year, mostly children in Africa, and most of us in other parts of the world don’t think about that very often.

Perhaps a few people will help others without any limits.

Human beings have coped with difficult times in previous centuries, and they’ve coped in many different ways. During the Depression, farmers’ wives gave food to traveling hobos. During a famine in Russia, Tolstoy and his family organized soup kitchens in twenty villages. Because our lives now are so secure, we’ve lost the cultural memory of possible ways to behave in hard times, but no doubt we will figure it out.

Emily Hahn lived in Hong Kong as an enemy alien during World War II. Afterwards she wrote two good books about her experiences, “China to Me” and “Hong Kong Holiday.” They include stories about how she and her daughter survived those times. These books, and others like them, are useful windows onto other times and places. I read her stories, and wonder how I would have coped.

Houyhnhnm said...


Your comments on pasture rotation and pasture rest were most appropriate.

Unfortunately, in my experience, only a rare handful of horse owners are even are aware of pasture rotation. Most of those who know came by the information because they also have other grazing species.

I know of no effective natural treatments for equine parasites, and I've checked out every one I've heard of. Some are downright dangerous.


Jane said...

This is all interesting to read, and I understand what people are doing.
I do grow all of our vegetables now... on a part of my acre in a small town.
The problem that I can see is the difficulty of growing enough calories per person. I live in a grain growing area and I buy local grain, but to grow enough is hard when you have to compete with the cockatoos and feral birds around here. Potatoes are easier... in terms of both effort and area for the number of calories produced. The difficulty is that as the climate is changing, in my neck of the woods it is necessary to grow potatoes in winter rather than summer (less light, which is a problem) but much more rain (and potatoes need plenty of water.) I think that green vegetables, beets and carrots are wonderful, but they don't necessarily produce enough calories for all of us... I'm glad that I have an extra 5kg that is a buffer against the lack of calories that I expect one of these days.

skintnick said...

Do you think the ideas of Kenneth Boulding about changing from a linear economy to a circular economy have any promise (even this late in the day) of steering us clear of collapse? An author called James Greyson has been working to expand and popularise these ideas recently & I hope you I think it's worthwhile putting this information on your blog.

ezab said...

About getting rid of lawns:
In the fall I put down a layer or two of corrugated cardboard, topped with about a foot of leaves. In the spring, no more lawn, lots of earthworms. (If you try this, first pull the plastic tape off the cardboard boxes.)

About bee-friendly plants:
I like borage, because it self-sows from year to year, and at the same time it stays in a reasonable area. I grow lavender for many reasons, but one of them is the way it attracts bees. By the way, there are many varieties of lavender, and the larger varieties get REALLY BIG after a few years.

About garlic: Territorial seed offers more than 25 varieties.

About flax: in addition to being a well-known source of fiber, freshly ground flax seeds are one of the few plant-based sources of omega 3 fatty acids (good for your heart.) I wonder whether one variety might be suitable for both uses....

Cathy McGuire said...

I think it’s interesting that a nuclear energy CEO just confirmed what JMG has been saying:

“I just don’t think nuclear has a chance in a pure marketplace without a carbon price,” Rowe said last week in Washington, D.C., in a speech hosted by Resources for the Future, a think tank focused on cost-benefit analysis in environmental policy.

…And although new nuclear plants are costly, Congress in 2008 approved $18.5 billion in federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants. Those guarantees are seen as essential for the industry to obtain financing, especially given the risk that projects may not make their way through the lengthy approval process.

From a National Geographic interview

mtnmulerider said...

Very enjoyable post. Wonderful comments. For those of you new to the ideas of large yields in a small area try this website to see just how productive a small space can be (disclaimer: I am in no way personally part of the P2F group, just an admirer)

MisterMoose said...


We live in a small city in north central Arizona (your papers, please!) with a decent climate and growing season, but not nearly enough water. The only precipitation we get is some rain and snow in winter, and some significant rains during the local monsoon season, usually in July. State law actually prohibits communities from building reservoirs to trap this rainfall during the monsoon, as all the water eventually flows down to Phoenix, and it is all spoken for. As the local saying goes: Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting. There is an aquifer a couple hundred feet down, but it's been slowly going down as population has grown, and we are currently in a battle with the Salt River Project over a proposal to drill new wells that could affect the flow of one of the few rivers around here that actually flows all year long.

Sustainable for the long term? Not even close, unless the population goes back down to what it was when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday lived here. If the grid goes down for more than a few weeks, a couple million people in the southwest will discover that most of what used to be northern Mexico really is uninhabitable without air conditioning, and the Mexicans can have it back.

But, having said that, with well water we have lots of farms with greenhouses (with shade cloth to protect against too much sun), and even a small photovoltaic power plant run by the local power company. The whole community is situated away from the major cities, with only a few easily-defensible chokepoints in or out of town, so if peak oil and deindustrialization really happen the way you predict, the community will survive (although at a much reduced size).

So, we'll just stay here for a while longer and encourage as many of our neighbors as possible to grow their own gardens, but in the long run we'll probably want to head back east where water actually falls out of the sky.

Speaking of back east, how's Western Maryland working out so far? I used to live in Baltimore and remember driving through there many times. It is beautiful, isn't it?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

As well as the fruit trees please don't forget cider and spirits as I think they are much quicker and easier to make than beer! I once visited a rice wine distillery in the back blocks of Laos and was suitably impressed for such a low tech operation and it seems pretty easy to duplicate.

As to beer (and bread etc.) I read an article on making your own yeast from the wild yeasts found locally about half a year ago or so and was thinking of trying this myself soon.

You are absolutely right about the hungry hoards during any societal melt down. Unlike the Hollywood scenarios which leave quite an impression in the mind, they all head to the cities in search of employment. The rural areas will be poor, actually very poor so there's not all that much for others to prey on other than food and fuel (which is uneconomical to take anyway). Around here historically the bushrangers used to prey on the gold transports anyway. I'll track down a story I read a few years back about what actually happened during the Great Depression to those that travelled from the cities to around these parts over the next few days and post a precis of it here.

Perhaps it is naive, but I must confess that much of the comments about people arming themselves up over in the US makes me feel kind of unsettled.

Anyway Good luck!

Jim Brewster said...


As JMG points out, sacks of grain and beans will probably still be inexpensive. You also might look into other tubers besides the Andean potato. Sweet potatoes, yams, taro, manioc, all are starchy tubers that grow in warm climates. Winter squashes or pumpkins are also high in starch and calories. Cowpeas and pigeon peas are good warm weather legumes. If you're in a warm enough climate, consider coconuts or oil palms for very nutritious fats.

SustainHumanity said...

I am all about gardening, and I have a big one myself, but as others have said you all are going to have a very hard time feeding yourselves with local gardens even if they are large and numerous.

Why is livestock rarely mentioned here? And the importance of pastureland? As in the not-too-distant past, in the future it'll probably be those who control the prime pastureland to raise local/regional meat, milk, leather, etc who have a lot of the power.

You can get A LOT more concentrated calories and necessary fats from meat/milk when opposed to vegetables and fruits, though it takes more land. But then again, livestock raising often isn't as intensive in many cases as constant and endless gardening.

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics,

Until the current administration, many Americans forgot their US history regarding our Constitution.

The original colonies that formed the United States refused to ratify (agree to) the Constitution without the "Bill of Rights". The first ten amendments include guarantees empowering state sovereignty, even in the case of a federal government becoming tyrannical.

The second amendment, the right to bear arms, was intended to prevent the federal government from disarming the states. That is, the states, the citizens, would always have the weapons - just not the legal use of them - to overthrow the government if that was needed as a last resort. That is, it is against the law for me to take up arms against my government, while at the same time it is illegal for the government to remove my ability to do so. This is but one more of the checks-and-balances that has kept the government sorta honest over the years.

When you read of Americans "arming up" - keep in mind the recent FBI crime reports. Several states in the last five years have passed laws allowing citizens to get a permit, and carry a concealed weapon. The FBI reports that in those states crime has gone down. Not just because "bad guys" are getting shot up left and right - that isn't happening. The mere presence or possibility of weapons deters some criminals, sometimes. One of our Senators recently proposed banning guns of any kind in airports. I personally emailed one of the Senators from my state, and requested an amendment: In any public or business place that bans weapons, require the following be posted - "Warning, entering Disarmed Victim Zone. Risk of mass shootings is greater in Disarmed Victim Zones." Imagine that at my local school yard. (Mass shootings historically only occur where weapons are banned - so much for gun control for protecting the innocent, or deterring the wicked.)

Today many Americans are recognizing that tyranny and corruption flourish in an unbalanced atmosphere of power - when one side is "armed" with economic or weapon or organizational power, there is more likelihood of abuse. Thus, there is a lot of attention being paid to gun control by people that, in my opinion, should know better. The weapons most Americans are accumulating are receiving more press today, and more politicians are trying to win more votes by making an issue of that - when there isn't much change from historical patterns of weapon ownership. Well, at least until this administration announced an unyielding attempt to disarm the citizenry. They weren't kidding.

I read with concern about South Africa, raiding citizens with registered firearms (they had the list of addresses to get started with), criminalizing unregistered firearms, and confiscating everything they can. This could happen anywhere firearms, firearm owners, or firearm purchases are registered - as in America. It is easy to assume that since that last administration wasn't too corrupt or inept, that this one won't be, nor will the next.

I think the presence of firearms helps to protect America from foreign invasion, helps keep violent crime in check, and helps keep the government honest. The current "fad" of flaunting weapons in the face of this administration is mere social intercourse - a refusal to accept intimidation that violates the law and our rights. If the administration had declared cats to be a national problem, and they intended to do away with private possession of cats - the protesters would be carrying cat leashes and cat carriers.

Then, of course, there are the survivalists worried about the coming zombie apocalypse (zombie: euphemism for attacker armed with weapons or numbers).

Brad K. said...

@ SustainHumanity,

I am finding the arguments compelling, about how energy-intensive, and water-intensive, most livestock is today. There are marginal lands that cannot be usefully used in grains - hillsides, poor ground, etc. - that goats or sheep can make good use of, and some cows. Some livestock like chickens, rabbits, and other small livestock can be raised mostly on waste and scraps, including compost. I have seen horse operations that use a hog or two to "turn" their compost heap. The Nordeens' biointensive efforts in Pennsylvania uses a three-pen system with chickens to pick over the accumulating material, followed by a pig in the full bin, while they use the emptying bin for fertilizer. Sharon Astyk at Casaubon's Book touches on frugal livestock raising, occasionally. The 19th century “10 Acres Enough” posits, “No man should try to farm more than he can adequately manure.”

And yet today's American meat industry for chicken, beef, and pork, suffers from the same monoculture, industrial approach that risks grain availability at the end of the era of cheap energy. Artificial Insemination has tied "development" of highly productive - read "specialized, single purpose" - Holstein-type dairy cows to a dangerously restricted gene pool. Yes, the cows providing today's milk for most producers turn out a lot of milk for the feed. But they require a lot of energy expensive and drug enhanced practices to maintain.
Many hogs today are raised in confinement buildings (unlike Dad's pasture-fed hogs). Maintaining the atmosphere, water, managing the manure, and preparing all the (grains!) feed for the hogs is very energy intensive. Lose power for a few days, and I cannot imagine all the hogs will survive.

Chickens raised two or even eighty at a time with a bit of grass (or pony droppings) to root through is a very different proposition from 2,000 to 100,000 birds in a big building, consuming tons of feed a day, requiring factories to process in a timely fashion, and lots of oil burned transporting feed, birds, and meat. Any part of the process that gets large - takes bunches of oil. Threaten the price or availability of oil (as in peak oil), and the equation comes apart.
Manure from industrial livestock farming is legitimately considered toxic waste. The best approach I have heard of is the million dollar hog effluvia farm process for composting and generating electricity from the generated methane. In Arizona I watched a (remote) site that composted maybe 20 to 50 semi-loads of manure at a time. They used an irrigation ditch to provide the water needed, and tractors to do the turning - oil at work, again.

Livestock in historical niches will be viable. But in modern farm-sized feedlots, or large flocks, you need cheap transportation and consume lots and lots of grains. And oil.

Consider how much garden or field you want to work by hand to produce the beets or hay or grain to feed livestock, if energy prices make operating and maintaining tractors (parts, lubricants, etc.) and other farm equipment problematic.
Cities running out of water will soon be raising questions - how many cows drinking 10-40 gallons of water per day can we afford? Nations with hungry people will be asking, how many cows and hogs can we feed three to fifteen pounds of grain a day? People wanting clean water will be asking, how many acres, and trucks, can we afford to disperse the tons of manure the modern "commercial animal farm operation" (CAFO, in USDA terms) generates?

That is why you do see livestock mentioned with gardens all the time. Look for "four chickens", "a few rabbits", "took the (2 or 3) goats in the car to have them bred." Did you know pigeons for eating are selling at $40-70/pair?

joanhello said...

To Red Neck Girl: Joel Salatin, in many places but most availably (if that's a word) in the interview with him that Michael Pollan included in The Omnivore's Dilemma, solved the parasite egg problem by following his cattle with chickens, bringing the birds in on the third day after the cattle leave, when the bugs are freshly hatched and in the worm stage. He says it mimics the way nature always provides a species of bird to follow herds of wild ruminants and clean up after them. Pollan reported that it made for very tasty chicken eggs.

To Houyhnhnm: the trouble with pharmaceutical wormers is that after a while the parasites become resistant to them. These pharmaceuticals also tend to come through in the manure, making it sub-optimal for compost and fertilizer because the stuff kills the soil-building worms, too. However, there's this weed. Our ancestors named it wormwood. It breaks down in compost, and the parasites haven't developed resistance to it in the 3,000 years of its recorded use.

Jen said...

Um, never mind my last post. I have a bad habit of slipping into mass-movement mode - if only I hadn't studied Advertising in college. What a waste! I just get so bummed when I see my smart friends playing FarmVille and FrontierVille. But not my problem, I have too much to learn to worry about that now.
Here's what I do now - it's pretty easy and doesn't drain time from actually doing something real. I take pictures of my garden and post it to facebook. And then my friends respond by talking about their gardens or by posting their own pictures. I took a picture of a grilled pizza done in an outdoor oven, and some friends responded by posting pictures of their grilled pizzas. My neighbor planted flowers on her deck, I planted tomatoes. I saw flowers and thought "I need flowers too, I have nothing good for the bees." Then she planted tomatoes and I gave her some of my leftover seedlings, so now she has even more tomatoes. My neighbor on the other side saw my tomatoes and started talking about the tomatoes his dad grew. I started talking to my hairdresser about my wheat grinder, and he started talking to me about the world of home coffee roasting.
I have to repeat to myself - must focus on learning and practicing what I learn. The communication and cross-pollination about it happens naturally and at the right time, no need to build a movement. :)