Tuesday, November 18, 2014

5 Simple ways to reduce dependence on oil

I've been reading and listening to the Peak Oil Crowd for a very long time, but it's not just that I've been mislead by a group of doomsayers. I've also read reports by organizations, like, the Energy Commission and other reputable sources who talk about things like, the fact that worldwide oil reserves are decreasing.

One doesn't have to read those reports, however, to understand that our days of having an over abundance of this amazing stored energy are limited. Look at the great state of Texas and witness the vast numbers of dry oil wells. Witness the fact that our geologists found the Bakken Tar Sands in the Dakotas decades ago, but the cost of extracting oil from tar sands is too high to be profitable when oil is just gushing out of the ground and can be collected in mason jars.

There's no more oil gushing out of the ground and easily collected in anything that will hold a liquid. All of those vast reserves that made millionaires out of share-croppers and spawned such television classics as The Beverly Hillbillies and gave rise to the wish, "when I hit oil in my back yard", which was the yesteryear way of saying, "when I win the lottery", are used up now, burned up in our cars and consumed like candy on Halloween.


We can't get it back, and while the tar sands are providing a usable product, the extraction process is both more environmentally degrading and much more costly. In fact, in order for it to be profitable for the tar sands developers, the price of oil per barrel needs to stay around $60. The days of sub $1 per gallon for gasoline are very much long over, and in fact, if the tar sands developers have their way - which they will - the price for gasoline will go right back up to $3/gallon, $4/gallon or higher. As long as we are dependent on oil - either foreign or domestic sources - we will be at the mercy of those people who bring it to our door.

And the Keystone XL Pipeline will do nothing to reduce our cost for gasoline at the pump. The only ones who will benefit from the pipeline are the 50 people who will have full-time, permanent employment and the developers/owners of the tar sands operations - probably the same people. There will be, an estimated, 47,000 jobs available during the construction phase, after which, those 41,950 who aren't part of the group that gets to keep their jobs, will be out of work. Worse, communities through which the pipeline runs will have to provide support for the workers in the form of housing, retail outlets, education facilities, utilities, and other infrastructure. During the build-out, communities will grow exponentially, nearly overnight, as workers relocate to their new jobs, and almost as quickly all of the *new* put into place to support the increased population will be left to rot as the people move on.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I've lived in communities where finite resources were mined as if they would last forever, and where employment was always feast or famine - one has a job making $40,000 a year for three months, and then, the rest of the year, that person is on unemployment or other welfare benefits. The private companies do not cover the cost of those benefits. The community does. YOU do. Can we really afford to foist that Yo-Yo economy on those communities through which the pipeline will run?

Regardless of that, however, everyone knows that the oil supply is limited. We all know, and if we don't, we're being willfully ignorant of the facts of what oil is. There is a limited quantity, and when it's gone, it's gone ... kind of like my bank account balance. I can't spend what isn't there.

I am completely against the Keystone XL Pipeline, and not just because of the guaranteed environmental degradation. I'm against it, because it is simply one more Band-aid solution to a much greater problem. In proposing this pipeline, the proponents hope to continue this masquerade that our oil-centric lifestyle can simply continue indefinitely.

Or, they just don't care about the future, as long as their present is warm and cozy and they can keep driving wherever, whenever, they wish.

The Iroquois Nation followed the philosophy that what they did today would have a direct impact on seven generations into the future. Their actions were guided by this principle, and when they discussed building projects, they would keep that in mind.

How will this Keystone XL pipeline affect seven generations into the future? If we start with my generation, it might benefit us, the forty-somethings, by giving us a few more years of what James Kunstler calls "Happy Motoring." My children will see a very rapid decline in available resources (because we're already seeing it, now, if we're paying attention - and it's not just oil, but also water and arable land ... and even air, in some parts of the world). My grandchildren (and I already have four of them) might need to ride bicycles most places.

That's three generations, and while we will all, probably, more or less still be living much as we are, there will be less of everything, and there might be a lot more conflict over the fair division of what's there than we are seeing now. There are already resource wars being waged on the African continent, and while not (yet) violent, we are even having wars - of a sort - over water resources in the United States - and not just in the arid southwest.

Five generations from me, my grandchildren's grandchildren, will live in a very different world than we live in, and what we do today can make it much better, or much worse. It's up to us.

The first step is to reduce our dependence on finite resources, and perhaps funnel the use of those resources into something that will benefit the whole, rather than the few. Unfortunately, most of us average folks have very little control over what happens to those resources. We can't all change the world, but we can change our tiny piece of it, and one very simple start is to remodel our lives so that we use less.

Following are 5 steps for reducing our personal dependence on oil.

1. Grow more food. The agricultural industry uses an incredible amount of oil from use of petroleum-based fertilizers to needing to operate machinery to irrigating huge fields of monocrops. By having a garden, even a very small, container garden and composting kitchen wastes to build organic soil, we could eliminate half the fuel needed to operate these farms. Grow anything. It's easy, it's healthier, it's a lot of fun, and it's incredibly empowering.

Oh, and it increases one's food security, which is very comforting.

2. Drive less. The transportation industry here in the US (which also includes transportation of food and other goods from one corner of the continent to the other) accounts for more than 80% of the fuel we use in this country. Right now, Deus Ex Machina and I are sharing our one car between two drivers and five people. In the past, having two cars, meant that, if we just wanted to run to here or there, it was really easy and thoughtless. Having one car means our trips out need to be a lot more careful. We were able to cut back classes/events for our daughters to three days a week, which means that we have to take Deus Ex Machina to work on those days, but on the other days of the week, he takes our one car, and if we have to go somewhere, we have to walk or bike. We're still transitioning, but it's actually kind of exciting to figure out how to juggle our schedules to make it all work.

3. Buy Local . This goes with #2 above (and probably #1, too). By purchasing local goods - and I don't mean goods shipped to local vendors, but goods that are actually produced locally, we eliminate some portion of cost of transporting stuff. It may mean that we don't have as many choices, especially of food items (because certain things don't grow well in certain environments - folks down south will have fewer apples, and folks in the north won't have oranges - we'll all adjust), but really, not having oranges all year long, on a whim, is a very small sacrifice to make for my grandchildren's grandchildren.

4. Buy Less. Most of us have everything we will ever need for the rest of our lives with very few exceptions. Things do wear out and need to be replaced - even in the most sustainable traditions - but none of us need as much as we have. Especially this time of year, there is a huge temptation to purchase. more. stuff, but none of us need it. Instead of buying stuff, maybe we could make an effort to give memories in the form of experiences. Our local theater offers Flex Passes, which would make a wonderful gift. There are so many things people can do, instead of the things they can get, and I guarantee a ticket for some event the recipient loves is going to be a lot more cherished than another silk tie.

5. Reuse. We all have as much stuff as we will ever need, but too often we don't see the potential in an item we no longer feel has a use. The other day, I was preparing for a literature class I'm teaching. The pattern has been to discuss the book and do a project based on the book we read. In a recent book, the character's mother operated a small store where she sold handcrafted items made from repurposed or reused materials. For the project, I had the girls make friendship bracelets from an old pair of pajama pants I cut into strips. Just because they couldn't be pajama pants anymore doesn't mean they no longer had value.

Anything we can do to reduce our personal consumption is a step in the right direction, and the five actions above are really low-hanging fruit. There are dozens of other things one could do, that might take a bit more effort, to use less.

What's your favorite way to plan for the 7th Generation?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Sustainable Kitchen

I read this article on 13 Kitchen Rules You're Probably Breaking. Sometimes the articles, like this, are almost condescending in their very simplistic recommendations. Sometimes, I wonder, who still lives like that.

That, and also, it seems like they're really stretching to get in more "rules." Like, sometimes, it seems like they could combine rules. #11 and #12 could just be "Check appliance filters." #8 just seems like fear-mongering. The problem cited in the article with dish towels and dish sponges was pretty much the same.

Based on the assumption that people might, really, be making these mistakes and in an attempt to make the suggestions more eco-friendly, I decided to write my own version, but, unfortunately, I don't have 13 items. I only have 9.

Here are my Nine Tips for Avoiding Common Kitchen Mistakes and Making One's Kitchen more Eco-Friendly.

1. Don't have a dishwasher (while there is still a debate about water usage in hand washing versus machine washing, the fact is that dishwashers still use more electricity than hand washing, which makes the latter more eco-friendly in the long run).

2. Eggs, actually, don't belong anywhere in the refrigerator - at least 'fresh' eggs don't. Eggs have a natural coating when they come out of the chicken's oviduct that keeps bacteria from getting into the egg, and it's only by washing them that the bacteria gains access. A newly laid, unwashed egg, will stay fresh on the counter for three weeks.

3. Toss the sponge and use a washcloth for dishes and general cleaning in the kitchen. Knitted ones from leftover yarn or from repurposed old t-shirts are both eco-friendly and sustainable.

4. Knives and every other dish should be hand washed in warm, soapy water ... and, actually, some kitchen tools should never be put into soap - like wood cutting boards and cast iron cookware. Wood does not harbor bacteria, and as long as the food is scraped off (under hot running water), there's no danger of contamination (but for the squeamish, it might be worthwhile to have TWO cutting boards - one for meat products and one for foods that will be eaten raw). Soap degrades cast iron.

5. While dish towels may harbor bacteria and washing them frequently is a good idea, seeing bacteria as our enemy is foolhardy. The fact is that there is such a thing as good bacteria, and contrary to what this article would like us to believe, eliminating all bacteria from our lives is not possible, and probably not advisable. In fact, we want some. We can minimize the risks associate with bad bacteria by making some smart choices. Air drying dishes is a good start. And just say no to bleach. Just. say. no.

7. The debate over the best way to brew coffee proved manual coffee brewing techniques to be superior to automatic coffee brewing methods. As such, how to clean the coffee maker is somewhat moot, and plus, a coffee press using water heated on the woodstove is far more eco-friendly than even the most efficient method of automatic coffee maker. If you want a good cup of coffee, hand brew it. You'll never put water in that automatic drip coffee maker again. Guaranteed.

8. Fix the leaky faucet, because it leaks and it's wasteful. Is there really need for a different reason?

9. In the interest of being sustainable and eco-friendly, maybe NOT using cleaning products at all is a better solution. Vinegar and baking soda are multipurpose, eco-friendly, and safe cleaning/sanitizing solutions.

If you were going to write an article about errors people make in the kitchen, what would you add/omit?

Gathering In

Even though we've had one snow event (a few flurries and some very light accumulation on grassy surfaces, already gone), it's not truly winter until the ground freezes hard. There is still much to do and still time to do it ... but we have to hurry.

We're looking forward to this quiet, contemplative time ... and hoping that things slow down a bit.

What is your favorite "getting ready for winter" chore?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Around the Homestead

The kitty is very happy that we started to woodstove.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Firsts for 2014

My blog often serves as a kind of public journal (and, actually, that's exactly what it is, right? A web log), and so many times over the years, since I started this journal, both Deus Ex Machina and I will scour one or the other of our blogs for information like, when we tapped the maples, how the garden did, or when we had our first fire.

I won't remember this information, and so I put it here.

The "first" fire is usually the day that we fire up the woodstove for the season. We've had a couple of fires this fall, on days when the house was damp and chilly, like when we had several days in a row of sub-50° and rain. It wasn't cold enough to start filling up the wood box, though, and mostly we've been burning scraps, foraged wood, or getting rid of the plethora of junk mail or documents we no longer needed to keep, but that should not just be thrown in the garbage.

This year has been odd, though. Usually, we'll hold out starting our first fire until right around the first frost. It's usually right about then that we need the fire regularly, because once the temperature dips, it usually stays low, for the most part.

Our first below freezing night was just a few days ago, and it wasn't terribly low even then, but since it's been raining for a few days, we filled the wood box and started the woodstove, and it's been burning since. We'll probably keep it going until spring.

We had our first snow of the season on November 2.

It's supposed to get back up into the 50's next week, which is good ... because I still need to finish painting the trim on my house.

And then, Jack Frost can move in until March ... with no complaint from me.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

I'd Like Change for my Dollar

Most people who've read my blog for any length of time know that I'm a stay-at-home mom. Well, actually, I guess technically, I'm a work-at-home mom.

A dozen years ago we called ourselves WAHMs. Lots of books were written about us, and we were considered the fastest growing industry in the country. I was even quoted in The Entrepreneurial Parent: How to Earn Your Living and Still Enjoy Your Family, Your Work, Your Life, and for a time, I had an online bookstore with a niche focus on offering information, articles and low-cost books that focused on working from home. It was one of my many home-based entrepreneurial projects.

I was so determined to stay home with my children that I worked really hard to earn, at least, what I would have earned, minus expenses (like childcare, transportation, extra food, clothing etc.) if I had an outside-the-home job. For the most part, at least for the last ten years, I've had a pretty steady income working from home, but even if I didn't, I would still be here, because over the years, we've developed a certain standard of living that is only possible because I am home full-time.

The problem with being home full-time, however, is that society often has a fairly negative view of us SAHMs/WAHMs. I've personally experienced the insurance industry's opinion when we applied for life insurance. I've written about it before, and we were able to find an insurance company that didn't care about my income, but was more than willing to take our monthly premiums and insure me at an amount that actually reflects our need.

It's not just the insurance industry, however. Last week, our President gave a speech to a group of Rhode Island college students in which he espoused those very ideas - that legislation should be passed to allow women to be "full and equal participants" in the economy, i.e. that women should not be penalized for being mothers (maternity leave), that wages should be more even between the genders, and that "quality, affordable daycare" should be made available so that women can get out there and make money without worrying about whether their children are receiving good care.

What bothers me most about the speech is that, whether intentional or not, President Obama is espousing the exact same mistaken idea that the insurance agent expressed - mothers who choose to stay home are not as valuable to our society as mothers who work.

This morning I found this article, and from the first few paragraphs, I began nodding my head, and by the time I was finished, I was nearly giving myself whiplash.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

All of the things that the author of the article cites as being beneficial to her family, but also more.

Because I'm home full-time, we were able to explore alternative lifestyles, like suburban homesteading. I was able to learn skills I would never have thought needed to be learned if I were working full-time, or even if I wanted to know those skills, I would have had less time to work at them. Soap making? Yeah, right.

My being home also improves our personal economy, because we can heat with wood, which would not be possible if we were gone for ten hours a day, five days a week. We would not be hanging the laundry on the line. I would not be cooking, from scratch, five nights a week, and our daughter, who cooks, from scratch, the other two nights, would never have learned that skill.

All of that aside, the problem is not really about my need to defend myself, but rather this continuing battle between those who work and those who don't. Having someone as influential as the President of the United States saying that we need more programs for working mothers (so that women can be "full and equal participants" in the economy) just encourages the idea that non-wage earners are less valuable.

More of the same old rhetoric of "more money will make everyone happier" is tiresome. As a veteran stay-a-home/work-at-home Mom, I know the value of having parents be home with their children, of finding a true work/life balance, of finding meaning and value in one's life outside of the need to make more money.

My being home may well be a luxury, for both me and Deus Ex Machina, but maybe, instead of wasting time trying to force legislation that makes more workers, we should be focusing on encouraging one-income families in which one parent stays home full-time (and it doesn't have to be the "mom". Dads can be awesome stay-at-home parents, too!). Maybe the answer isn't to put six million children in day care this year, but rather to find a way to allow six million parents to be home with their children.

Here's the video of President Obama's speech in Rhode Island.

For the record, this post isn't a defense of SAHMs or a criticism of working mothers, but rather a commentary on the fact that by placing all of our emphasis on the need to work, we are stripping ourselves of our independence and choice. Independence isn't having a job, an apartment and a car, but rather the ability to meet one's own needs, and I would never have cultivated the skills necessary to be truly independent, if I had worked a full-time job and put my kids in daycare.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pumpkin is My Favorite Orange

This is the season of pumpkin, if you listen to advertisers. Everything is pumpkin. Go to a coffee shoppe and you can enjoy pumpkin muffins and coffee cake, and even pumpkin spice hot chocolate or coffee.

The other day I heard someone lament that there was no "pumpkin" in the pumpkin spice coffee from a popular national chain. Um, yeah, I'm huge fan of pumpkin, but, ew, not in my coffee. Further, they aren't advertising "pumpkin coffee." It's pumpkin spice, which means it's flavored to taste like our favorite pumpkin dish - pumpkin pie.

I told my daughter I could make her a pumpkin spice to go in her coffee at home - a little cinnamon, some ginger and a dash of nutmeg. If I'm feeling bold, I might sprinkle some cloves for a bit more kick.

It's not false advertising on their part, and the real criticism is not so much an absence of pumpkin, but rather the exorbitant calorie count when one includes all of the sugar, cream and whipped topping that accompanies that dessert in a cup pretending to be coffee.

I love pumpkin, but I'm not as enthusiastic about all of the pumpkin spice flavored things out there. Don't get me wrong. My favorite pie is pumpkin, especially if it's cold and has whipped cream on top. Yum!

But there are so many other ways to enjoy pumpkin, and I really love most of them as much as I like the pie ... and depending on the weather, maybe even more.

One of my favorite ways to enjoy pumpkin is in soup. I've recently discovered the spice, curry, and my favorite pumpkin soup would be curry pumpkin soup.

I also love pumpkin bread, especially canned. My daughters love it. The bread stays moist and fresh in the jars, and it travels well. It's become one of our favorite fall "fast foods" for those days when we're running from one class to another with errands in between.

I also like the cooked pumpkin, lightly mashed, drizzled with maple syrup and butter. Oh, my. It's a great side dish to spicy roast.

There are many ways we enjoy the pumpkin pulp, but we also value the seeds. Some of them, we'll save to plant next year, but most of them end up in the oven, roasted and eaten by the handful ... or tossed as a garnish on our pumpkin soup.

It's pumpkin season. What are you doing with this amazing fruit?

Easy Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Seeds from one pumpkin or squash (for us Hubbard squash and pumpkin are interchangeable in most recipes)
Olive oil
Salt to taste*

1. Clean seeds of all stringy pulp.
2. Allow seeds to dry, not completely, but just so that they aren't sopping wet. You can use a towel to hasten this step, spread thinly on a screen for a bit, or even put them in the oven on a very low temperature for a few minutes.
3. Toss seeds with olive oil and salt.
4. Spread in single layer on a cookie sheet.
5. Roast at 350° for ten to fifteen minutes or until the seeds are golden brown.
6. Enjoy!

*Other seasonings can be added for a sweet or spicy flavor. Our favorite is just salted and roasted, but occasionally, we'll add a dash of cayenne for a fun zing.