I’m housesitting in Alaska, and my return to a place where Mother Nature is in charge once again motivates me to express myself. The front yard of this house is a beautiful rock garden which is low maintenance, and fertilizer and pesticide-free. But the real front yard for this house is the back yard, which backs to 780 square miles of Chugach State Park and its pristine wilderness. That view is grounding, reminding me of what the world looked like before the fossil-fueled growth of the past two centuries. Can we return to that view after the fossil fuels are gone, with clear
air, drinkable water, and an intact food chain? Do we just throw up our hands and accept die-off? Or do we actively work towards a more balanced society? Who’s going to do that and how do we start? This post is about prosaic lawn reform as a symbol of change and personal responsibility for the environment, but first I’m going to wander in synthesis through the threads of current events, to pull that theme together.
After enduring a medical issue, Jessica Njaa became increasingly interested in researching how food affects health, and the environmental aspect of food choices. She is an Honors student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Environment & Society.
Most Americans are suffering from SAD– the Standard American Diet. This diet consists of highly processed, mass-produced foods grown with unsustainable practices. Processed foods generally have lowered nutritional quality and are usually not organic. Eating such foods increases the risk of a multitude of health problems. The diet is not sustainable, with a large footprint and energy basis. We are beginning to understand as a society that we have a major impact on the environment, and are using energy and fossil fuels in an unsustainable way. So what are the solutions? We have the power to make the change by Going LOW!
It wasn’t supposed to be like this—we all expected so much more of everything. When everything has always gotten bigger, better, and faster ever since we could remember, or our fathers’ fathers could remember, then we expected things to keep getting bigger, better, and faster, because that expectation had been baked into not only our own perceptions about how the world works, but also our culture. It was our expectations that led to our downfall, as we never imagined anything different. Continue reading The great migration
The role of this website is to interpret emergy science and ideas surrounding descent for a broader audience. At the Emergy conference this week, the increasing problem of environmental pollution and human waste was a recurring theme, as was the difficulty of environmental stewardship and low-energy living while nested within an industrial society at the larger scale. With thoughts from the prior post about the primary importance of developing a balance between nature and society, my immediate thoughts turn to what we can do personally. Continue reading Fitting into nature–or not
Anchorage in general is in a sulk. Three or nine inches of snow fell yesterday and today, depending on where you live in the Anchorage bowl. This snowfall gives Anchorage a new record for the longest snow season on record, 232 days long. Bike to Work Day on Friday was rainy and then snowy. The Nenana Ice Classic, Alaska’s biggest guessing game on when the ice goes out in the spring on the Tanana, was the latest breakup in recorded history. Gardeners are frustrated, and even the skiers are tired of winter. We seem to be experiencing a cooling trend for Alaska due to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and changes in the winter ice patterns–more in the Bering Sea and less in the Arctic. Alex DeMarban at Alaska Dispatch summarizes the study: Continue reading Going Local
An article on the difficulty of building truly green buildings and recent discussions about the healthcare system triggered thoughts about a major transition problem that is occurring over and over again—the problem of a complex hierarchy that demands feeding with extra energy. Previous posts about the added complexity that digitization brings are pertinent here, but this post is about the general problem of how we respond to limits by adding complexity, and what it might take to remove complexity at the top of the hierarchy without collapse. Continue reading Adding and removing complexity
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” ― T.S. Eliot
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”― Mahatma Gandhi
“I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.”― John Locke
“I am not imposed upon by fine words; I can see what actions mean.”― George Eliot
By Mary Logan
For those of us who live in countries where we use many fossil fuels, we have been shielded from the consequences of living badly. But that age is ending. Now that the Mayan Baktun 13 calendar has passed, we begin the era of the Gaian calendar. We “will eventually have to reduce either our populations or our living standards (emergy use) by 80 to 90 percent” (Odum & Odum, 2001, p. 170). And as the years go by, adaptation will become harder and harder, as the surplus energy available for the tasks wanes. There are policies for a prosperous way down, but I know that when I mention the word policy to my students, their eyes glaze over. Since we are approaching the new year and a new era, I will approach the idea of personal action by framing actions in the form of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins. Our capitalist culture values growth and wealth above all. It is time to reset our values as we start down in descent. This is a challenge to those of you who are still sitting on your hands when it comes to sustainable, local living. What are you waiting for? Consider Gandhi’s 7 Sins; how many of these are you guilty of, and how can your form personal resolutions that reframe these sins in descent? Continue reading Starting down: seven deadly sins
No, that’s not the cry of a spoiled child. It’s food, calling to you!
Anyone can grow, gather, or make a lot of their own food. We do it on four fronts – we garden, we catch a lot of fish, we raise chickens, and we make some of our favorite foods from scratch. What have we learned along the way? Continue reading Make Me!
Folks in the Anchorage bowl woke Wednesday morning to widespread power outages, trees down, traffic lights out, and closed schools and businesses. An early September winter storm created hurricane force winds. The power at the house was out for about eight hours, and we have a tree down in the yard. Much of Anchorage is in the same boat. Score one for Mother Nature in man’s apparent battle for control over nature. Fortunately this power outage came in early September and not the dead of winter, serving as a good consciousness-raising event and needs assessment for future power outages. So this post is both pragmatic and fanciful, covering personal, pragmatic issues related to sudden loss of complexity events and some “what if” questions about the future of digitization. I’m typing this during brownouts and occasional triggers of the generator, which got its first real test last night. We are near a trunk line, with underground power, so our power came back quickly. But close neighbors are not so lucky. Today is woodcutting day, for us and our friends, whether we need the wood or not. So this post may ramble a bit, like my thoughts, between the impacts of events at the larger scale like windstorms and regional blackouts, and personal preparation at the local scale. Continue reading Digital snow days
This post is about how gender roles might change in descent. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, but Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article this month in The Atlantic instigated this post. Ms. Slaughter makes the point that women cannot keep up with the demands of work and home in the current American culture, even with the many adjuncts that the hierarchy created by fossil fuels provides, such as day care and fast food. Slaughter states, “Going forward, women would do well to frame work-family balance in terms of the broader social and economic issues that affect both women and men.” But Ms. Slaughter fails to recognize an even more pressing issue going forward. All of us will need to work cooperatively to become more self-sufficient as we restructure of our culture post fossil fuels, which requires more time at home, making the juggling all the harder if we refuse to give something up. And women are not good at giving things up, as evidenced by our current quandary of too many roles to play. As Ms. Slaughter found, I have finally found a way to live that is true to myself, rather than the expectations of others, expectations reflecting corporate values. Taking back control by working less was positive in many ways. This is my story, but you can find broader coverage of this topic and the header poster in a Fall 2011 issue of Yes Magazine. And I see that Sharon Astyk is on a similar wavelength about gender roles; maybe it is the dog days of summer that refocuses our thoughts on family. This post is a bit shorter, because I have lots of questions and no answers, and I’m interested in hearing what others think. Continue reading Gender roles and descent
So what do we do now? At what point does one realize that his or her paradigm isn’t working anymore, and give up and walk out on empire? How do we start walking, and where do we go? Here are some quotes from notable people who are choosing to turn at the crossroads and walk away from empire and then to talk about the transition. These quotes highlight some of their answers to the question of “what now?” Continue reading Walking out on empire
Doughnuts–alternative fuel for your next vacation?
By Todd & Mary Logan & Dawn Groth
“Don’t tell me you rode those bicycles all the way out here!” said the folks from Atlanta.
And so began an amusing lunchtime conversation with the vacationing couple from Atlanta. Mary, Dawn, and I were filling our stomachs, resting our legs, and enjoying a spectacular view of the Kuskulana River bridge at milepost 17 on the McCarthy road. We had each pedaled out of our driveways in Anchorage on bikes six days before and had ridden 280 miles since leaving home.
The folks from Atlanta were enjoying their first visit to Alaska. They were at this remote place in their rental car only because they were traveling with friends who had been up to Alaska several times before who were looking for something different – a trip to McCarthy and the Kennicott mines. We each traded a few stories of neat things we had seen or done so far, and we shared some smoked salmon. But the couple kept returning to the idea that what we were doing was super-human and unbelievable. They were younger than us, and lamented that they should be doing more biking themselves and leading a more active lifestyle. They would arrive in McCarthy in a couple of hours, while it would take us another day to arrive. We encountered them two days later in McCarthy at the McCarthy Lodge. We were on the deck eating a celebratory dinner of curried rice with local duck eggs, and up they drove up in a shuttle. We yelled to them, “Don’t tell me you drove all of the way here in your car!” Later they offered us shots; we demurred, as “nothing good ever came from a night of shots!” The theme for our trip reflected the common refrain from Anchoragites regarding the long distance to McCarthy; “McCarthy–too far to drive, but we can bike there!” Continue reading Doughnuts–alternative fuel for your next vacation?
A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. –Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968
Spring has sprung. Everybody has babies; the humans, the moose, the chickens, and the robins. The starts and seeds are in the ground, the earthboxes are watered, the new chicks are in the coop, the woodsheds are full, and Toby, Darcy, and friends are minding the place. Now that the chores are done, it’s time to enjoy some slow travel as we take off to explore some of south-central Alaska. Three of us are headed to McCarthy on bikes, and then we’ll loop around to Valdez, hop the ferry across Prince William Sound and hitch a ride through the Whittier tunnel, and then head back to Anchorage again, 550 miles.
Previous bike tours around Alaska have included the “haul road” which connects Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay, and a trip to Nome (the header picture is from Nome). Both of those trips were supported by jet or car travel to our starting point; this time we’ll start and end at the house on our bikes. We’re going light; luckily there’s an iPhone app for WordPress to support blogging needs, but we’ll have to see about the connections.
Do you want to live more efficiently and reap the benefits of a closer community? Cooperative living is a great strategy for getting and staying out of debt while building community, resilience and security in a tenuous economy. But it requires a change in attitudes, and a return to more communal ways of living. You don’t necessarily need to relocate into a brand new cohousing situation; there are a range of options. While we live in a close-but-separate multi-family dwelling, by design and by chance, we’ve achieved some important cohousing benefits – shared space and sense of community. So here’s our cooperative living story, as told from the perspective of both top floor and bottom floor residents–I’m going to refer to the people who live with us as our nearest neighbors, as we don’t really think of them as tenants, but as friends. Living together with extended family is nothing new, but here in Anchorage, we are often far from family, and friends are the family we choose for ourselves (Edna Buchanan). Continue reading Cooperative Living
We put away many kinds of violence that we would act out in the natural world beyond the city; in order to inhabit cities we put away actions…Inside these cities we need writers, we need artists, like myself…Nietzsche said, ‘we have art so that we do not die of reality.’–Ray Bradbury
Ever since the beginning of man’s oral history, our cultures have taught lessons, stored memories, and guided group values through stories. Stories are a safety valve, and the linchpin of civilization, according to Bradbury. Whether it is transmitting the virtues of hard work through Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the good fortune tale of Cinderella (as told by Vonnegut) or the Inuit legend about Raven the trickster, allegories, fables, and campfire stories have been passed on from generation to generation, using elements of truth, disbelief, myths, allegories, and wisdom to pass on important cultural knowledge. I’ve recently encountered stories with an Alaskan theme of opposing sides–environmentalist vs. resource extractor–told at three different scales of global, national, and local scales. These stories serve as excellent reflections on how we relate as people within nature and what we need to relocate in terms of connecting with nature and with our community. I will share them below in my own crude attempts at storytelling. Continue reading Connecting with Community through Storytelling
Alaska has a long and interesting history of agriculture, including a government-sponsored relocation of 200 Midwest farm families in 1935 to establish the Matanuska Valley Colony near present-day Palmer. Today a modest number of commercial agricultural operations are successfully operating around the state. Nonetheless, commercial agriculture, even when combined with subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering, supplies less than 5 percent of the food consumed by the 720,000 residents of the state.
In recent years home vegetable gardening has seen rapid growth in popularity nationwide. The local foods movement and a growing interest in sustainable and self-sufficient living have at least in part fueled this interest. In the Anchorage area, ornamental and vegetable gardening is popular. Our long summer days are a big plus. Our short growing season and naturally cool air and soil temperatures are our biggest challenges. Anchorage gardeners typically reserve Memorial Day weekend to plant most vegetables outdoors. We enjoy harvests from mid-summer until the hard frosts and first snows of mid-October bring the outdoor gardening season to a close.
At our Anchorage home we have had a successful vegetable garden for several years. Leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and Swiss chard do well here. Root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and turnips also thrive in our long days and cool soils at 61°North. However, if you lust for a good tomato, cucumber, or pepper, regardless of season, you must create more conducive growing conditions or accept the imported fare that spends weeks traveling from farm to market.
Happy he who far from business, like the primitive are of mortals, cultivates with his own oxen the fields of his fathers, free from all anxieties of gain. –Horace
In Sweden, cows and oxen are part of our whole culture’s foundation. The first letter of our alphabet, A, is an upturned symbol of a yoked oxen’s head. In contrast to the limited number of draft horses in Sweden, we have close to 1.6 million cattle. Most are dairy breeds, but we have meat breeds that were once also developed as draft animals. The use of oxen as draft animals was originally necessary when the cows were too small and friskier; only those who could not afford the oxen had to make do with cows or with hand tillage without draft help. With only 300 million draft animals in the world, hand tillage is extensive. Agriculture on several continents is mostly unmechanized.
Two recent changes have caused expansion of mechanization to slow, even in our country. Right now, the greatest credit bubble ever is bursting, which affects investments, jobs and paying ability. We and the world should focus our attention on the idea that economic growth is a passing stage.
The author Gunnar Lindstedt has said that we must have a million farmers in Sweden in ten years, which would be a little more than 1 out of 9 of our population. He argues that waning oil extraction necessitates less mechanization and more farmers. In addition, the decline of world exports of fossil fuels is even faster than the decline of extraction. Already now the world exports less than a third of all extracted fossil fuels (Energy Export Databrowser). Also, in this system, our net energy is getting too low so that it becomes difficult to keep our complex society running. In addition, the ability to borrow money for further energy production and the necessary maintenance of necessary infrastructure in the fossil fuel system is largely disappearing. This transition may be almost complete in a few years and make it necessary to mobilize what we can in renewable resources.
Over the past century, the cattle and oxen of the western world have become larger. A hundred years ago an ox was considered to be big enough for ploughing if it weighed about 600 kg. Now, the standard weight of an ox is easily double that. My biggest cow, a Hereford, weighs about 1000 kg. I recently heard of a Holstein cow that weighed 1190 kg. before slaughtering. Thus, it is possible to get better efficiency by using our larger cows as draft animals rather than historically-sized oxen, and still get an acceptable tensile strength for ploughing.
Dairy Breeds and Herefords have a quiet temperament. Their large udders, however, can be injured in work. Using the cows during their dry period for ploughing work is advantageous. It trains the animals, reduces their fat cover and make them easier to breed. Combining dairy breeds with Herefords would yield smaller udders, and the most basic taming and training to drive could be done in one day. The book Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide (Drew Conroy, 1999) is a rather good handbook on the topic of training. But I use the scandinavian traditional way of steering each animal by an ear with the reins attached to the horns.
For me the point in using strong cows instead of oxen is that they can be multipurpose and thus outcompete the oxen in terms of efficiency. They are strong, can provide meat and also provide milk and calves, which oxen cannot do. Therefore they are cheaper to keep. Then we can replace the oxen in Horace’s poem above with cows.
Agricultural Ecologist & Laboratory
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