Apr 302010

Your Money or Your Life is a book that’s had a profound impact on many people. The book is all about how you decide to use your life energy; that money is, in fact, life energy. The book asks the question: “What are you trading your life energy for?”

While Greece, Portugal, Spain, the UK and the US of A are all buried in debt, individuals in this country are in no better shape. Personal debt is in line with national debt after a spending spree financed primarily by using one’s home as a bank. Now, the question will be how to pay it back. Or, if we can’t, what are the implications of default?

Governments can print money. Individuals cannot. So the Keynesian theory of spending yourself out of trouble doesn’t work for individuals. Frugality is the only real solution. Your Money or Your Life takes you through the steps, shows you how to analyze how you spend your life energy and shows you how to change.

This a potentially life changing book, one that makes a great gift for someone who seems to always be on the financial edge or who hates their job. It’s worth a detailed read. One way to sample it is through the blog discussion of a young fellow named Trent Hamm who discusses the book section by section as it relates to his own life and attempt to get his financial house in order.

I can relate to Trent from my days as a 30 mile (one way) a day commuter for nine years in my first real civilian job. I realized that commuting was a real cost of life energy and, finally, the commute motivated me to find something else. A few years later I was able to walk to work. Tim Hamm is also a commuter and puts a pencil to the cost coming to the realization that his commute plus the other costs of doing business (clothes, lunches, parking, etc.) reduce his true hourly wage considerably.

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Apr 292010

Slow Money is is an idea that encourages investment in local food production. What exactly does this mean? In Colorado, “Transition Colorado will spearhead a “10% Local Food Shift” campaign  to encourage local residents, restaurants and institutions to shift 10% of their food purchases to locally grown sources. The impact of this shift could be considerable. They estimate that if Boulder County citizens would purchase only 10% of the food they need for home use directly from county farmers, this would produce $37 million of new annual farm income in Boulder County — an amount equivalent to more than all of the 2007 farm sales in the county. And if 10% of their restaurant purchases were shifted to local food, that would add another $29 million annually into the local food economy.”

“Burlington (VT) economist Doug Hoffer estimated that if Vermont substituted local products for only 10% of the food imported to the state, it would result in $376 million in new economic output, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 jobs.”

I can’t find any statistics on Whatcom County but I’m going to take a wild guess that more than 95% of our food is shipped in from out of the area. (Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money Movement says that 99% of investment in food production is in factory farm type operations) Just take a walk through Safeway or even the Bellingham Food Co-op. Check the labels for where the food is produced. It virtually all comes from somewhere else. (In summer the produce section of the co-op will feature local food as will the farmer’s market).

The fact that our food comes from somewhere else is scary. It wouldn’t take much of an incident to empty our grocery store shelves. This in an area famous for agriculture (blueberries and raspberries). Clearly investing a portion of our assets in local food production makes a lot of sense. Increasing your family’s purchasing of local products would be significant and, in the long run, increase our food security.

Woody Tasch explains the investment problem—currently .1% (one tenth of one percent) of our resources are invested in local food around the country.

Apr 282010

Simply put, “Slow Food” is the opposite of “fast food.” In the purest form it is food from your own garden or food raised or caught in your neighborhood. Slow food is motivated by a desire for good health, a need to support the local economy,  a compulsion to protect the local environment or a realization that you want to serve your family the freshest and most flavorful food available.

“Slow Food is an idea, a way of living and a way of eating. It is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world that links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.”
The Slow Food Movement was started specifically to counteract fast food and to revitalize local food traditions.
It’s telling that McDonald’s represents “American food” to the world and probably explains the growing popularity of ethnic food in this country. We do have local food traditions. Sometimes they are just hard to ferret out as you drive down the commercial street that you will find in any American city of any size which features the Golden Arches, Arby’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Wendy’s, Subway, Taco Time, etc. etc. Is this what we want as our local food tradition?

There is local food everywhere but you won’t find it on franchise avenue. You have to dig around for the farmer’s market, food cooperatives, farm stands, or food festivals.

The island, of course, has obvious food traditions with all the seafood at hand and the ability to forage wild foods or glean from fruit trees in common areas. We have an unusually high percentage of vegetable gardens on the island (the Edible Garden Tour on July 18 will feature nearly twenty-five island vegetable gardens and there is easily another twenty-five not on the tour). As with the Slow Movement, the island also has a jump on Slow Food.

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Apr 272010

I’ve talked to many islanders who have experienced that reduction of stress as their car rolls off the Whatcom Chief and onto the island. After racing up the freeway, along Slater and down Haxton, trying to keep it at 35mph until Kwina, then giving it the gas to make sure of a spot on the boat, the calm feeling which results as we drive onto the Lummi Island dock is relaxing and pleasing to most of us. Things are noticeably quieter. There are fewer places to go. The pace is reduced. Life is slow.

We have two lives—an island life and a mainland life. One is fast; one is slow. (For many the mainland life is fast due to a desire to return as quickly as possible to the island). We have the advantage over most people by virtue of living here. We understand slow. We know that a trip to the Islander may not be a quick trip because we will see someone we know and have a chat. Same for the Post Office or the Library. On the island, errands are a chance to reconnect. We aren’t in a hurry. In town we try and make eight stops and be back for the two ten ferry.

Should we be surprised to learn there is an international movement to teach people to live more slowly, to reduce the pace, to reconnect? The main tenants of the movement (which started in Italy as a reaction to a proposed MacDonald’s restaurant) are to connect to food, place, people and life. There are many sub-headings of the slow movement: slow books, slow travel, slow schools. The main ones are slow money and slow food.

All of this plays directly into the idea of “transition.” If the Peak Everything people are correct, in the future we will have a slower life. Much more time on the island. Much less time on the mainland. Islanders are already getting practice for the slow life.

The ferry crisis should have been a wake up call to many. In my opinion, even with a new long term lease, the ferry is an iffy connection. Reduced income to government will be allocated to the strongest political interests. Oil prices may preclude daily or multiple weekly car trips to town. We will be forced to slow down. I think now is as good a time as any to decide whether you are an islander, or a mainlander who lives on an island.

Within the self-sufficiency/sustainability movement, many people have opted for urban over rural. Here’s a story by a fellow who moved to the country, found it lacking, and moved back to the city where he found some slow living.

Apr 262010

Mr. Frost famously wrote: “Home is a place where when you go there they have to take you in.” According this article in LiveScience multi-generation family living is increasing dramatically. If you wondered where all those people who are losing their houses to foreclosure are going, they are going home to live with their parents, with their children or with other relatives.

As part of transition thinking and planning consideration for housing additional family members ought to be considered. Some people get excited by this idea; others might dread the thought. Economic realities, however, may dictate that some of us double up.

We haven’t always had so much personal space and privacy as we do now. As a toddler in San Francisco I have vague memories of the row house that my parents and grandparents owned in the city. A narrow three story structure which was home to my parents, me and a younger brother, my grand parents, my great grandfather and two boarders.

On my dad’s folk’s farm were the grandparents and a widowed aunt and bachelor uncle.

Apparently our family has a thing for group living because in the 70’s my parents, my youngest brother and our family of four bought a big old house together, added my grandmother and middle brother and later my brother’s new bride and an African student to the household. It was mostly fun, very interesting and a great conversation piece in the community. So, I know it can be done even if it isn’t the ideal living arrangement for everyone.

So in your long range planning for Peak Everything, and keeping in mind that if we get into a SHTF environment that an island refuge will be highly attractive to many people, think about where you’ll stash those extra relatives or, conversely, cut off all communication now.

Apr 242010

When I was in Officer Training School I nearly won the Wing Speech Contest with a satirical shot at the military’s mania for abreviations. I concocted a talk about my fictitious assignment to AFAC—The Air Force Abreviations Command, an organization whose staff sat around coming up with cool sounding acronyms.

Had I been better schooled in English I would have known to name AFAC as the Air Force Acronym Command  for it is the acronym that makes a new name out of the first letter of word in a name. Since then, interesting acronyms catch my attention.

One of my favorites has to be JOE which sounds so unlike the publication it stands for — the Joint Operating Environment, the vision of the future published for the Department of Defense (and the public) by the United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM).  The JOE “…seeks to provide the Joint Force an intellectual foundation upon which we will construct the concepts to guide our future force development.”

The JOE is actually a quite readable document which can be found here and downloaded as a portable document format (PDF).  JOE writes about the nature of war, trends which will influence the world’s security such as demographics, energy, food, water and climate change. JOE then discusses the contextual challenges we face from various regions and countries. Finally, JOE states the implications for the joint forces and future “opportunities.”

Most interesting is that JOE buys into Peak Oil theory. “Assuming the most optimistic scenario for improved petroleum production through enhanced recovery means, the development of non-conventional oils (such as oil shales or tar sands) and new discoveries, petroleum production will be hard pressed to meet the expected future demand of 118 million barrels per day.” The supply of oil could slip below demand as early as 2015 (per their charts).

It’s worth skimming through the JOE just to experience the thinking of the brightest in our military. If you want another analysis you can check out Charles Hughes Smith take on the JOE  where he also explains why we will probably be in Iraq and Afganistan for a very long time.

The point, though, is Peak Oil is becoming mainstream thinking.

Apr 232010

At the far end of the spectrum of self-reliance and preparedness we find the survivalists. These are folks who are preparing for TEOTWAWKI—The End of the World As We Know It. The go to site on the web is Survival Blog run by J.W. Rawles who has written both fiction and non-fiction—How To Survive the End of the World as We Know It.

Survivalism is based on a fairly dark view of both the future and human nature. However, the way things are going so far in the Year of the Tiger survivalists may have a point. Practitioners of survivalism have a fairly clear vision of their ideal situation. They want to have an isolated retreat (Montana or Idaho are preferred), off the grid, with clear fields of fire. Since most of these people are still working in another location they want to be totally prepared to get where they are to where they want to be when TSHTF. This requires having a properly equipped vehicle, reserves of fuel, a “bug out” bag containing necessary items, clothing, food, water plus guns and ammo. At the retreat there will be a large pre-placed cache of food and weapons to allow them to survive after they arrive. The retreat will have a water source, space for a large garden and firewood. The survivalist will have a supply of gold and silver coins and an accumulation of goods for barter.

If you find the idea of Survivalism interesting or curious you can read The Precepts of Rawlsian Survivalist Philosophy for more detail.

Rawles certainly isn’t the only person taking a lead in the survivalist movement. Cody Lundin is another interesting fellow whose book When All Hell Breaks Loose has all sorts of interesting information on how to deal with a disaster such as “what to do with a dead body” and other subjects we don’t like to think about.

As with any other area of interest there is an entire industry built around “survival” offering books, DVD’s, dried foods, gardening equipment, camping gear, water purification, weapons and accessories, food grinders and on and on. Lots of great information available by Googling “survivalism.”

They may be wrong about the future; may find themselves living lonely lives in the wilds of Idaho trying to eat up the rest of that canned food. On the other hand they may be right that marauding bands of brigands will soon be trying to take our stuff.

It’s hard to feel like one needs to go as far as the survivalists. Sometimes it’s easier to believe that the future is out of our control and that we must have faith that all will work out.

Yet, as the wise man said, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.”

Apr 222010


There’s a magazine for everything. In the broad category of self-reliance and sustainability there are several, some of which offer free viewing of articles on line.

Backwoods Home Magazine has the basic stuff with articles on gardening, canning, animal husbandry. Backwoods Home has a definitely libertarian point of view. Their regular firearms columnist Massad Ayoob, an experience cop and firearms instructor, is always an interesting read. I’ve subscribed to this a couple of times and keep all the old copies stacked up like National Geographic.

Of course, we can’t forget the mother of all self-reliance magazines—Mother Earth News.  The fact that they are still around gives those of us who weren’t hippies a second chance (I’m still pretty pissed that I spent the best part of the sixties in the military and missed all the fun). A great idea from the current issue is a table top garden.  The magazine is a wonder and you can lose hours on a rainy day on their great website plus sign up for any number of free newsletters on gardening, or skills and projects, or health and environment.

Down to the Roots homesteading magazine tries to capture the spirit of homesteading whether you are on 100 acres or in an apartment. Homesteading, they say, is a state of mind. I’ve never seen a hard copy of this one but they have sample pages here to give you a feel for what they do.

Natural Life Magazine offers a free sample as a pdf download   They offer articles on gardening, green living, sustainable homes, frugal living, natural parenting, life learning and healthy living. This article on What’s Wrong with Peat Moss brought up some points that had not occurred to me.

Back Home Magazine “…is the magazine that delivers useful do-it-yourself information on sustainable, self-reliant living. … the authority for those interested in taking control of their own lives. The bi-monthly issues are packed with clear, practical information on mortgage-free building, solar and renewable energy, chemical-free gardening, wholesome cooking, home business, homeschooling, small livestock, vehicle and workshop projects, and family activities.”

Like I said, there’s a magazine for everything.

UPDATE:  Mother Earth News has a special. $10 for six issues.

Apr 212010

Economists look for indicators that will tell them where the economy is going. Some economists look at unusual indicators like how many cardboard boxes are being ordered, how many people are emerging from a subway station into a shopping district or how many Broadway tickets are sold.

My indicator that we are in trouble is that I’ve been asked by Friends of the Island Library to lead a workshop on beginning gardening on Saturday, April 24 at 10a.m. My qualification to this is that I have a rather large home garden which I attend to with Asperger’s-like focus. This does not mean I know what I’m doing. I consider the project an experiment that, so far, seems to be working resulting no doubt from the natural law that “things want to grow” and an obsessive need to hoe.

I have received tips and advice from the real gardeners on Lummi Island and have experimented with a variety of methods and techniques including biodynamics, compost tea, hugelkultur , straw bale, no till. But mostly I follow the advice of Steve Solomon in his two must-have books: Gardening When It Counts and Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. I’m also indebted to a well-known (in organic gardening circles) expert named Steve Diver (rhymes with river) who showed me a lot of his tricks at a workshop last year.

In addition I’m learning from one of the most knowledgeable people on soil science, Michael Astera who analyzed my garden soil and recommended amendments. My garden is participating in Michael’s High Brix project this year which I’ll get into in future posts.

We all have our little bag of tricks to doing anything where we have developed a modicum of “expertise.” It’s nice for gardeners to have a forum for sharing what they’ve learned. So that will be the theme of our workshop on April 24th at 10am (email me for address). I’m going to share a few things that I’ve learned directed at the beginning gardener. I’m going to make some potting mix and start a container garden, demonstrate how to make fertilizer, talk about ways to build a vegetable garden bed, recondition an old garden bed, plant some seeds and along the way discuss compost tea, tools and whatever else pops into my mind.

Also, since I apparently collect seeds as a hobby, I will have a lot of seed to give away. If you want some, bring some envelopes and something to write with.

Apr 202010

Have to confess that I’m shocked that a member of the mainstream media (ABC) has been airing in prime time a show about how badly we eat and how unhealthy it makes us. Jamie Oliver is a British chef, restaurant owner and social activist who is on a mission to change the way we eat. His great experiment is taking place in Huntington, West Virginia in the local school system where somehow he got permission to attempt to make changes to the school menu.

School food has been bad for a long time. It’s been fifty years since I escaped from the high school cafeteria but I still remember going for the hamburger line and grabbing a burger and a piece of lemon meringue pie every single day of my senior year. Nothing much has changed as the Huntington HS school students usually opt for a burger and a plate of fries or a piece of pizza.

Oliver makes a noodle dish with about five different kinds of veggies in it and the dietitian goes nuts because his menu doesn’t have enough vegetables. The burger and french fry routine does qualify. Like the old joke about ketchup qualifying as a vegetable.

The Washington Post’s TV critic has a cynical but mostly fair take on the show.  The fact remains that someone is trying to do something about America’s crappy diet and kudos to ABC for putting it on the air.

Apr 192010

Everyone likes the indispensable tool. A gardener only needs four or five: a shovel, a digging fork, a good hoe, a rake and a hori hori knife, loosely translated as “diggy diggy.” Invented in Japan the hori hori is the samurai sword of gardening. But where a high quality samurai sword might cost thousands, you can buy a hori hori knife for less than $30.

I had one for awhile before I began to use it, wondering what it might be good for. Turns out it’s good for almost everything. The hori hori  is useful in so many ways. It is perfect for digging dandelions and other weedy things, especially those  close to rocks or boards. The eight inch long blade slips right under them and lifts them out. I’ve use the knife to cut strawberry plants loose from their pots for repotting. Since I was saving some of the old potting soil I also broke up the old root tangles with the hori hori. Then I used the knife to make a furrow for seeds and again to cover the seeds with dirt.

One edge of the knife is sharpened but not sharp enough to cut you. It is sharp enough to cut open a bag of peat moss or potting soil. The other edge is serrated and you can use it like a saw. I needed some pieces of sod to fill some holes and the knife worked perfectly to saw out a rectangular piece and lever it out of the ground without busting the sod apart. The hori hori knife is strong.

You can dig perfect hole for transplants and use the concave side of the knife to lift seedlings out of a tray or pot. You can throw the hori hori at rabbits. You can pick up those big old slugs with it and give them a heave.

Several people recommend painting the handle a bright color to avoid the stress and depression which will result if you lose it.

If you are going to take one tool into the garden, hori hori is the one to grab.

Apr 172010

Since hearing about the collapse of the bee colonies on Vancouver Island where, as the above news report points out they lost 90% of their stock, I’ve been on the lookout for bees. So far, I’ve seen very few and am wondering if others on the island have seen more or fewer bees than last year. We need the bees not only for honey but for pollination as well.

I’d love to get into bee keeping and have it on my list but have made no movement so far toward that goal. I’m surprised that we don’t have a professional bee keeper here. My nephew in Portland climbed a tall tree and captured a wild swarm which I consider to be a wonderous achievement (both climbing a tall tree and catching the bees).

They are enjoying the fruit of the bee’s labor.

We need to find someone to teach us how to keep bees.