Jun 292011

Klayton comments: “So is a Prepper a subset of Collapsitarians?  Are Transitionalists always Preppers?  I need a breakdown of the hierarchy of terms and belief systems in this general movement to know how to self-identify.  Would that be a possible posting for this rainy day on Lummi, Randy?”

My wife is normally the one who asks me all manner of questions that she thinks I can answer which is why my X-Man name is “Google”  denoting the special informational powers that I possess. So, if I don’t know the answer, I just make crap up.

A Collapsitarian (a word I claim to have coined) aka a Doom and Gloomer is someone like Chris Martenson or Mike Ruppert or James Kunstler or Gerald Celente who think collapse in pretty much inevitable but aren’t exactly sure of the time frame. They recommend getting out of Dodge with a load of gold and silver and probably raising chickens.

A Transitionalist is someone who subscribes to the Transition Town concept of Rob Hopkins who believe we need to scale back and learn how to live with less and more locally because of Peak Oil and Climate Change, concepts they totally accept without challenge. The Transitionalist is optimistic because they feel that living local is better than living large. They are big on working together, have lots of meetings, and advocate turning parking lots into community gardens.

A Prepper is someone like Sharon Astyk who thinks we ought to be ready (prepared) and know how garden, preserve food, sew, etc. They tend to spend most of their time blogging and making podcasts. As a result their gardens are a bit on the weedy side.

Then, of course, you forgot the Survivalist, epitomized by James Rawles and maybe even Doc Shillington. To be a real survivalist you have to have a retreat, probably in the wilds of Montana or Idaho. You need an escape plan (to get to your retreat), caches of fuel and supplies, a reliable four wheel drive vehicle to get you there and weapons to fight off pirates and such which means that at your off-the-grid retreat you must have clear fields of fire.

I self-identify as a prepper who has moments of doom and gloom while hoping for the kumbaya of transition and who has reasonably clear fields of fire.

Jun 272011

Now that I’ve had a whiff of summer I’m not too enthused about pounding away on a laptop so blogging will be intermittent. If the world looks like it may be coming to an end perhaps someone will ride over on their bike and let me know. I’ll be in the garden. If you can’t find me there, check the hammock.

Jun 252011

I didn’t know that in January of each year two thirds of the nation’s honeybee hives are trucked to the central valley of California to pollinate the almonds. Bees from all over the nation and even some foreign ports are mixed together in the almond groves, a mono-crop so mono that there is nothing but bare dirt beneath the trees to make it easier to harvest the financial bonanza that is the almond.

Almond trees (or ‘ammands’ as my grandfather pronounced it) were rare when we first started visiting my grandparents’ poorly named Green Acres Ranch in Livingston, California in the late forties. Then, it was alfalfa and peaches and a few grapes as the Gallos were just starting to build their empire. Now, it is square miles of almonds, a crop that just seems to get more profitable each year. Literally millions of bees are required to pollinate this crop. If an almond grower relies on wind and native pollinators they can depend on 40 lbs per acre. If the grower imports bees the yield increases to more than 2400 lbs per acre. Beekeepers earn $140-$210 per rented hive. Almonds, in fact, provide whatever profit a beekeeper expects to make for his year. The wealthy almond grower and struggling beekeeper are in a symbiotic relationship as important as the mutualism experienced by the bee and her keepers.

The Beekeeper’s Lament is a well-researched and very readable. The lament is that a beekeeper is often more like an undertaker, dealing with collapsing hives, starving bees, strange viruses and parasitic critters that make the beekeeper miserable. Hannah Nordhaus tells the story of the bee and the beekeeper using a fellow named John Miller as her focus. Miller has been a beekeeper most of his life and comes from a long line of beekeepers. His is a big operation with thousands of hives which he moves from his place in Northern California to the almond fields of central California, to Eastern Washington for apple blossoms, to North Dakota for the summer nectar flow, then to Idaho where the bees are put in what amounts to storage for the winter. North Dakota is so bereft of strong backed workers that he and other beekeepers have to import summer help from South Africa. These commercial bees are being moved all the time, stacked on pallets and packed onto trucks. It’s no wonder that they get sick and die. They resemble indentured servants or even slave labor and yet they have worked out a deal with beekeepers to take care of them, to feed them in the winter, to medicate them, to provide shelter and natural sustenance, and to re-queen their hives.

Still, the impression one comes away with on reading this book is one of dead bees. Often thirty percent of hives are lost and populations have to be rebuilt. There’s always some problem: varroa mites, nosema virus or Colony Collapse. Dead bees. The beekeeper’s lament.

Beekeepers love bees and that probably accounts for the resilience of both beekeepers and the honeybee. Nevertheless, the honeybee seems to be in critical condition. In 1923 Rudolf Steiner predicted the honeybee would be extinct in 80-100 years He is on the verge of being right. Research, not surprisingly funded by almond growers, is working toward a scientific, perhaps a genetic, solution. But that involves messing with mother nature. From the viewpoint of the layman it seems like monoculture has to be a part of the problem. Agriculture as big business with large acreage of monocrops is clearly unnatural and part of the problem. The beelots described in the book remind one of cattle feedlots.

The Beekeeper’s Lament tells the story of the commercial beekeeper and his relationship to monoculture with interesting detail on the history of the bee, its genetics, the process of commercial beekeeping, the queen raising business, bee stings, bee diseases and CCD. All things considered, reading it made me sad. I can connect with the lamentation. My bees are doing poorly.

Jun 232011

Charles Marohn of the New Urban Network has written a five part article with the thesis that suburbia is unsustainable and has developed from government’s belief that continued growth is inevitable. Financing suburban development with additional infrastructure cost ultimately leads to maintenance costs that can’t be sustained.

“In the great American experiment of suburbanization following World War II, we redirected our county’s extensive resources into a living arrangement unseen at any point in human history. We abandoned thousands of years of history, knowledge and tradition in building cities and towns in order to try this new — and completely untested — approach…With the automobile offering the promise of mobility for all, it was seemingly within our grasp for each American family to one day live the life of European royalty, complete with a country estate outfitted with all the modern trappings. America’s ascendancy and absolutely financial domination worldwide made this dream appear possible. We likely never stopped to think it through.”

The maintenance of the suburban ideal requires continued growth.

“If cities are not raising enough revenue to repair and replace their infrastructure, the system cannot sustain itself.”

Following WWII, “We redirected our capital and productive capacities to building suburban America and created the greatest economic advancement the world had ever seen. It was a very painful transition, especially for our major cities.”

He goes on to make this important point: “Our national economy is “all in” on the suburban experiment. We cannot sustain the trajectory we are on, but we’ve gone too far down the path to turn back. None of our dominant political ideologies can solve this problem. In fact, there is no solution.”

If we try to relate this all to Lummi Island we see that our island, in the first half of the century was more or less sustainable. Following WWII and into the twenty-first century the island became a suburb of Bellingham/Ferndale. The ferry crisis has given us a heads up on what other suburbs around the country will learn later—that a suburb is not a convenient place to live. it’s too far from work, too far from school, too far from medical help and too far from supplies.

Cheap gasoline and the private passenger auto gave people the opportunity to live hours from work. Simultaneously, housing became our primary industry and the number one investment of most people. We could live where we wanted and make money doing it through appreciation of real estate. Now with housing values dropping (the writer in this link argues that they will drop 90-95% ) a house is no longer an investment—just a place to live.

So, how does that affect the island? Long term, and probably short term as well, (based on anecdotal reports of people who are planning to leave) the demographic of islanders will change. It is not a suitable place for a daily commuter to live. (Right now, a couple commuting to separate locations each in a car will pay $400+ a month in ferry fees in addition to gas and maintenance on their autos. At a 25% tax rate you’d have to earn around $7000 as a couple to pay your ferry fares). That’s a significant premium to pay for the privilege of living on an island/suburb.

If the ferry schedule is significantly reduced this will add to the stress level of commuters and others who currently enjoy our virtual bridge. Retirees, weekenders, telecommuters, farmers and others not required to leave the island frequently will continue to be comfortable here.

According to Mr. Marohn, the country is going to experience a big shakeup as suburbanites discover that the suburbs no longer work for them and governments likewise recognize that the infrastructure to support suburbs costs more than they can afford.

At that point, suburbia’s belief that they are entitled to service won’t make any difference.

Jun 202011

Guest Post by Mike Skehan

This question occurred to me, while sitting on a stump at the Curry Orchard, peering over the waving grass fields, “Just how many people could Lummi Island feed on a sustainable basis?”  We’ve got a ton of gardens on the island, and they all seem to produce lots of veggies, so this should be no sweat to plant a few more beans and potatoes to feed the rest of us.

A few keystrokes later, and the Internet provided me with most of what I needed. Walter Haugen, a local farmer, produced a variety of crops and was curious enough to log everything for a whole year. That’s an effort by itself counting all the labor, harvest quantities and fuel consumed.

It worked out to something like one acre could feed about 2-1/2 to 5 people, depending on crops, weather and how good a farmer you are.  I took the lower number and dumbed it down to 2 people per acre based on my own experience of planting gardens for the last couple of years, and not having much to brag about.  To put it another way, an acre should produce enough to support the farmer and one other person in the beginning.  Now were getting somewhere!

Let’s say there are 1,000 people on Lummi.  All we need to do is find 500 acres of bare, cultivatable land, with good sun, slope and available water.  That shouldn’t be too difficult.  Back to the computer.

Satellites whiz overhead daily measuring all number of things.  Several are dedicated to looking at vegetation types, land cover, man-made improvements, wetlands and more.

So with a bit of time looking over the map, a pretty good idea of the island topography itself and doing some measuring, I came up with roughly 500 acres of land that could be plowed and farmed for food.  The cows, sheep and llamas won’t be too happy, but they probably provided dinner if half of us needed to drop our hammers and pens for a rake and a hoe.  That should support about 500 farmers doing the work, and 500 to start doing everything else.   As soil gets more productive and farmers get smarter, my 2:1 ratio should climb to 5:1, allowing more of us to build the houses, cook the food, teach the kids, catch the fish and do all the other chores that never seem to get done.

If this little scenario makes any point at all, then consider the fact that us Islanders will be inviting our family members to ‘shelter in place’ with us, and the population could soar to several thousand nearly overnight.  More food for thought!

Jun 172011

It’s been awhile since we’ve reviewed the news about how things are reaching a breaking point. (Spoiler alert—not good reading for anticollapsitarians)

There’s rioting in China.

Lots of the rich Chinese are leaving China which is driving a mini-housing boom in Vancouver. Perhaps the Chinese will return to Lummi Island. There’s some good deals here.

There’s rioting in Greece too.   Is the US in worse shape than Greece? This guy thinks so.

Famous investor Jim Rogers says US heading towards a financial crisis worse than 2008.

Denial of Peak Oil becomes more dangerous every day.

Maybe Bellis Fair won’t be quite so busy in the future and maybe you will be able to find a parking place at the airport.

One of our leading collapsitarians says it’s coming.

Glad I’m already retired because it doesn’t look good for the next few generations. Wait. I might have spoken too soon.

We’re pretty lucky we don’t live under a volcano.

Things are going down, not up.

Collapsitarian spokesman gives his weekly address.

The great Roubini says the world economy is facing the perfect storm.

Cancer cures are being suppressed  (film viewable free until June 20).

On the bright side, So You Think You Can Dance is shaping up as the greatest season ever.

Jun 152011

I realize it’s foolish to discuss such things as religion, politics and how to cook beans. Medicine is another topic that is nearly sacrosanct.

Brian G. called me with an interesting idea. He suggested that interested parties pick a date of 1-3 days and practice going without such things as electricity and a car and see how things go. I think this idea has merit. We could practice going without lots of things. Some things, however, need to be practiced over a longer period of time.

When Nicole Foss spoke the other night she mentioned a couple of times that she believed there would be a breakdown in the medical insurance system as private companies found it difficult to make money selling medical insurance due to inflated costs of modern medical practice.

Thus, it might worthwhile to practice going without some of the medical service we are used to. Linda and I learned to do this during a period of time  when we were not insurable (about six years) due to her long illness (documented here). When you don’t have insurance you look at medicine in an entirely different way. You don’t go to a doctor unless it is really something important because it is “out of pocket.”

In the olden days we didn’t go to the doctor so much. I recall only a handful of visits during my childhood and often these were for a sports physical. I don’t believe we had medical insurance then. We caught measles, mumps, pink eye and had our tonsils out. There weren’t too many pills. Of course, the food was generally better, less contaminated, not so junky and we were outside more. People were healthier and generally more fit. (My mom has a video of the history of Everett. In part of the video the entire student body of Everett High School, circa 1955, parades by the camera. The most shocking thing about this segment is that everyone is lean. Whatever happened to lean?)

Continue reading »

Jun 132011

Our son has been lobbying hard against the planned coal transshipment operation in Ferndale and managed to get an op ed published this morning by the Seattle Times:

The cherry pit: Bellingham area as a gateway of coal to China

Guest columnist Noble Smith argues against a proposal to allow a terminal near Bellingham to serve as a shipping point for China-bound coal.

By Noble Smith

Special to The Times

Read the whole thing by clicking this link


Jun 102011

Those of us who get fired up about such things as Transition can become a bit disappointed when others aren’t as enthusiastic. It’s hard to get things changed on a broad basis. For one reason we have a limited pool of doers, folks who are shovel ready. People are busy with other things. They have other priorities. Not everything we would like to do will get done. But, we have to do what we can do and take satisfaction in that and even celebrate our failures.

Take the time to watch this very amusing film from Hay-on-Wye Transition (Wales). The filmmaker captures the essence of the problem we face in trying to move things along. (21 minutes and 46 seconds).

Jun 082011

It’s always interesting and thought provoking to read a knowledgeable person’s predictions for the future. Investment advisor Doug Casey takes a crack at it here http://www.safehaven.com/article/21244/our-economic-future-from-best-to-worst-case and offers three possible scenarios for what might happen over the next twenty years. Surprisingly, he is generally optimistic although he believes the world is in for hard times. His suggestions for what to do are more investment oriented than realistic for most people but the scenarios he lines out should cause even the casual observer to stop and think. (H/T to Bert for the link).

Jun 052011

There’s been an interesting discussion going in the comments section to the last post (Collapse) about the pros and cons of equipment sharing. It’s an important issue because it is uneconomic and unsustainable for each person on the island to be fully equipped. On the other hand, there are all kinds of problems with equipment sharing, partnerships and co-ops.

I hate to raise the ugly specter of insurance. But having spent my working career as an underwriter and then a broker, co-owning certain kinds of equipment in our litigious society is problematic. For example, let’s assume a group of people wish to buy a pickup truck together. It will be very difficult for the group to find a company who will insure it for multiple owners. Without getting into a detailed discussion of underwriting philosophy, a multi-owner licensed vehicle is an outlier. It is the square peg that doesn’t fit through the round whole of the underwriting template.

As a result, if a group wishes to own a truck the truck needs to be titled to one person who is the legal owner, pays the license, insures it, etc. The others become permissive users and to be safe and to avoid charges of misrepresentation by the insurance company the other drivers should be submitted as occasional drivers so their driving records can be looked at. If there is an accident involving anyone, the accident is charged to the account of the legal owner whose insurance can be put into jeopardy.

Life gets simpler as we move down the equipment chain. Share a hammer. Not a big problem. Share a boat. A bit more difficult. It’s not that sharing can’t be accomplished. It’s just harder than it looks.

A formal equipment co-op as Wynne suggested to start this discussion is very possible. As long as we still live in an environment where someone can drop a lawsuit on you I would not be interested unless it was formally organized and backed by proper insurance. Klayton summed it up nicely with this paragraph: “But it seems it might be a good solution to have these sharing relationships evolve within a small group of people that have already developed a trusting relationship outside of the cooperative agreement. To just open it up to anyone would require complicated rules, accounting, co-op bylaws, etc. Which might work here on the island, but it would take some effort to set up and run. If someone is interested, possibly they could make a small income by managing a co-op with things like a tractor, shovels, ladders, and the like.”

Ed resorted to Shakespeare’s wisdom to describe the point of view that retards sharing:

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

Everyone has had a bad experience loaning something out. I recall Wynne commenting to an earlier post on tools that she had certain tools she would never loan to anyone. I feel the same way.

Although a co-op, co-ownership can work an easier idea is the Time Bank which we’ve briefly discussed before. Nicole mentioned this in her talk on Thursday. It is method of sharing based on an exchange of skills. And it is always one hour for one hour. An hour of medical doctor time is worth the same in a time bank as an hour of tractor time. An hour of sewing instruction is worth the same as an hour of chain sawing. No money changes hands. Too bad we don’t have one of those Island Fellows to help us start a time bank.

(Full disclosure: we are partners in a bunch of stuff—pickup, boat, brushcutter, trailer and more. You can make it work. But it’s tricky).

Jun 032011

At the Grange last evening Nicole Foss of the Automatic Earth left us all a bit breathless with her connecting of the dots of energy and economics with a short side trip to Fukishima and the disaster that is affecting Japan. Energy drives economics and we are running perilously short of cheap energy. This will move our economic situation toward collapse as the bubbles of housing and commodities and the heavy weight of debt take money out of the system and cause it to seize up.

Trying to put all this information (a 90 minute talk followed by another 90 minutes of Q and A) is almost more than even a well-informed human can process. For virtually all of us the Great Depression is of the history books. We’ve heard the stories but with the prosperity of the last seventy years, prosperity lubricated with cheap energy, the tales Great Depression made little impact. It’s hard for us to conceive of wide-spread shortages, lack of purchasing power, massive unemployment, systemic bank failures and dried up credit. For me and even more so for the following generations our attitude was more in line with Mastercard’s “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

What we are facing is similar to Colony Collapse Disorder, the affliction that faces the honey bee. Last week three of us new beekeepers on the island got a demonstration of how quickly bad things can happen. That is, how quickly bad things seem to happen because there is often a slow prelude to a crisis but then we reach a tipping point and we see collapse.

On May 26 I did my first close inspection of the hive lifting up the top bars to check the comb and see what was going on. Everything looked good. Lots of nice comb. Tons of bees.

Healthy looking comb

The next day was cold and rainy. Bad bee weather. I noted there wasn’t much, if any flying. Then following day there was no flying at all and when we opened the hive to look we found a huge pile of dead bees, perhaps more than half the population of the hive.

Cleaning dead bees from the hive

The remaining bees were lethargic and inactive. Now here’s the amazing thing: we quickly checked the other two hives which are a mile and a half and two miles away and discovered half the bees in those hives were dead as well. Collapsed on the same day. All of us are grossly inexpert but we decided to start feeding the bees again (we had been feeding earlier but they had quit taking the feed during the big leaf maple nectar flow). Clearly they were starving.

Now the hives are on life support. We wonder if we have a critical mass of bees who are able to get the job done. We hope that we have the right demographic as the bee’s life cycle is short and a hive needs a mixture of age groups to function properly.

The bees are flying again and seem busy in the hive. But life will not be as easy for them with their resources so depleted. They are also kind of angry and very aggressive when we open the hive each evening to change the sugar water. Who can blame them? Collapse is upsetting.

The experience with the bees helps me to process the information that Nicole dropped on us. It wasn’t exactly news to me as I’ve been reading her site and others like it for the last many years. She is instrumental in the decisions we’ve made during that time period: moving to Lummi Island to hive with a strong community, getting out of debt, starting a garden, storing some food, collecting rainwater, relearning old skills, accumulating tools and other necessities and trying to convince others to do the same.

There was a nice sized group assembled to hear Ms Foss. Perhaps eighty people. I will estimate that thirty of them were over from Bellingham. Transition Whatcom folks. It would have been helpful if there had been thirty more from the island to hear this message because I suspect, for the most part, that Nicole was preaching to the choir. However, we need a well-informed choir to provide some leadership as we get nearer to collapse.