Thursday, May 29, 2008

Warming to peak oil and rising food costs

Many experts have figured that supplies of readily accessible oil will soon no longer be available. The cost of gasolene continues to rise without any relief in sight. There is a scramble to substitute bio-fuels, mostly ethanol derived from corn, which has diverted production away from food for human and animal consumption, thus driving up the price of grains. Along with global warming and its ensuing environmental effects, a crisis the magnitude of which the world has not known is imminent. Sure there have been natural disasters, drought, famine and the Black Death, but those have been localized. The inter-relatedness and pervasiveness of the current challenges have never before been encountered. All of modern life and technology is based on petroleum-derived energy. No one, from Dakar to Durham, will be untouched.

Slowly an environmental concern is beginning to seep into the awareness of the average consumer and we have seen responses ranging from driving less, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, demanding more green products, etc. The range of organic stuff available from mainstream outlets such as Walmart, Costco, Safeway and Giant has grown exponentially in the past few years. These are all steps in the right direction but represent what many critics have dubbed the greenwashing of commerce. The current and growing situation, whether tagged recession, market adjustment, global crisis or temporary hiccups, demands more immediate and drastic coordinated response than these tinkerings can provide.

One approach that suggests itself to my mind is permaculture, which i was pleasantly surprised to discover is being implemented on community-wide scales in Cuba and some British, Irish, Australian and US towns. These are being referred to as Transition Towns and a book about this movement will be released in the US in September.

The thinking behind permaculture is basically using what resources are at hand to design systems that are sustainable and site-appropriate, taking into consideration geography, climate, natural history and culture. Growing bananas in the most certifiably organic and sustainable way, then shipping them to a consumer 2000 miles away would not be permacultural. Growing bananas and other crops that would feed the local population and their immediate neighbors would.

This is not to promote a return to primitivism and pre-industrial subsistence, but would entail the application of leading edge green technology to tap into non-petroleum energy sources and feed populations sustainably. It will require a degree of voluntary simplicity on the part of residents of the developed world but this is the paradigmatic shift that is required if the future of humans is to be assured. It's not the earth that needs saving, it'll take care of itself; it's our own skins. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the world's peoples already live in involuntary simplicity, so the elite would only be reducing their exploitation of finite resources, their carbon footprint and toxic waste.

My garden at Mango Walk, Trelawny, Jamaica, circa 2000, after about 6 months work. Much of the yard is concrete as cement was mixed on the ground during construction; a patch of bare concrete can be seen in the mid-distance. Raised beds were built on top of this hard surface using newspaper and compost. Paths were determined by natural traffic flow and surfaced in left-over tile chips. Foreground left, rockery with bird bath made from top of oil drum, clothes lines and compost heap at right.

The first of the tomatoes from my garden, the sweetest i've ever tasted. The seedlings were left back from the previous tenant. I never had to buy tomatoes for the rest of the time i was there.


A confluence of factors have influenced me into thinking about acquiring my own home. I was granted permanent residence in the US a couple months ago and thought it might be good to put down some roots now that the spectre of being rudely shipped out is that much less likely. In the current housing crunch, the ads have very convincingly said i could be paying much less for a house than i'm paying for rent. Who would not want to save some money while building equity?

There are lots of properties on the market within striking distance of my resources, many very desirable or with great potential for fixing-up, and the number increases with each passing day as more folks go into foreclosure. The irony is that the financial institutions are also tightening up their criteria for lending in direct proportion to the sub-prime mortgage crash as i discovered on tentative attempts to secure the wherewithal. Having owned a home before, i did not think i needed to go that route again, but the opportunities offered by foreclosures seem too good to pass up -- and i love a bargain.

See NY Times article on the conversion of one renter into buyer.

Spring has brought a profusion of forms and colors as the plants regenerate themselves after a mild but seemingly unending winter. I note with envy and admiration the dooryard gardens i pass each day on walks through the city, though there are just as many that are unremarkable or unkempt and overgrown. Living in a fifth-floor efficiency, i have to make do with a few houseplants and herbs on the window sill. But i have my memories of gardens past.

Datura and pentas in my garden at Mango Walk, Trelawny, Jamaica, circa 2000. More intense pink peeping out on the left is the ground orchid spathoglottis plicata.

Though i'm fast approaching retirement age, i have no plans to ever retire, but i've had this idea of living in community ever since i read about and visited the Findhorn Community in Scotland some 30-odd years ago. They have demonstrated a wonderful way to live together and with nature, growing much of their own food organically and creating educational programs and various business enterprises to support the community and teach others their approach. I've visited a few communities in Virginia and New York but i haven't found one that calls me to join them.

The pull back to the soil, combined with the food and energy crises, global warming and my need for community are urging me to revisit a vision i documented for an intentional community in Jamaica, dust it off and recast it for my present urban situation.