I recently had a social media conversation about Universal Basic Income, and I would like to expand on it here.

I think a UBI may greatly increase our environmental impact—and produce only a more equitable arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

The conversation arose when I was asked to explain my reaction to the subtitle of Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. 

Bregman posted a very interesting article adapted from his book, called Why do the poor make such poor decisions? If you have read my posts on Compassionate Systems, you will find Bregman’s article in alignment.

I have not read the book, so maybe he does a bait and switch after the subtitle—but if he really does support “Universal Income…and a 15-Hour Workweek” I think that shows Bregman does not understand sustainability. 

I have been tentatively participating in discussions about UBI for a couple of years now. There is an odd assortment of people promoting basic income—pragmatists, business people, and radicals on both right and left, and it is really having a moment thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I haven’t liked the smell of basic income but the various ideas have not coalesced into anything coherent enough to respond to, so I haven’t written more than the occasional comments until now, when I was asked to explain myself further.

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So how will we pay for a Universal Basic Income? The image above is from Time Magazine—can we really have a life of reading books while idly picking dollars off The Magic Money Tree?

Indeed, an article in Forbes tells us how we will pay for the Green New Deal ‘Isn’t a thing’. The only question raised is about inflation.

If the plan is just to comprehensively tax the rich and give their money to the not-rich, then all we are doing is redistributing the profits from killing the planet. 

As I said, I think it is much worse than that, I think a UBI may kill the planet faster.

It all stems from a near universal confusion about what money is.

Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool. 

John Michael Greer introduced me to “E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods”.

Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers. 

But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer. 

Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature. 

Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.

Now, various corporate greenwashers, shills, and green tech promoters want to “decouple” our economy from environmental impact—but again, this is just ignorance of the difference between money and wealth. It is impossible. When we “share experiences” we do so in real buildings built and operated with the wealth of nature and labour. When we share a meal with friends, we consume food that came from the earth and was cooked by labour in kitchen that came from the earth powered by energy that came from the earth. We go to a concert in a hall built from the earth, powered by the earth, and drink beer from the earth. 

Yes, we can reduce the amount of impact our consumption has, but decoupling is just marketing. There is literally nothing you have ever touched or consumed that did not originate in nature. Furthermore, there is a floor of consumption below which people cannot go, or they die of starvation or exposure. You can’t decouple that. 

So wealth comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature. People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour. In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.

Now, I support extremely radical taxation, but I hope I am being clear that taxation simply distributes the profit from killing ecosystems and exploiting people in a more or less equitable fashion.

This puts the conservative in conservatism. Whenever we talk about universal healthcare, increased social programs, hospitals in small towns or highways to remote towns, building a subway, recycling—whatever—we must ask what wealth are we going to extract from nature to make this possible? Asking how we will pay for something is not a question about debt and government bonds and inflation.

Daniel Quinn makes this clear in his incendiary essay The New Renaissance.

It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion. But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day – in addition to all the food we produce in the ordinary way. We need the biomass of those 200 species to maintain this biomass, the biomass that is in us. And when we’ve gobbled up those species, they’re gone. Extinct. Vanished forever.

Those 200 species . . . why exactly are they becoming extinct? Are they just running out of air or water or space or what? No, those 200 species are becoming extinct because they have something we need. We need their biomass. We need the living stuff they’re made of. We need their biomass in order to maintain our biomass. Here’s how it works. Go down to Brazil, find yourself a hunk of rain forest, and cut it down or burn it down. Now bring in a herd of cows to pasture there. Or plant potatoes or pineapples or lima beans. All the biomass that was formerly tied up in the birds, insects, and mammals living in that hunk of rain forest is now going into cows, potatoes, pineapples, or lima beans–which is to say into food for us.

We need to make 200 species extinct every day in order to maintain the biomass of six billion people. It’s not an accident. It’s not an oversight. It’s not a bit of carelessness on our part. In order to maintain our population of six billion, we need the biomass of 200 species a day. We are literally turning 200 species a day into human tissue.

If this were something that was going to stop next week or next month, that would be okay. But the unfortunate fact is that it’s not. It’s something that’s going to go on happening every day, day after day after day–and that’s what makes it unsustainable, by definition. That kind of cataclysmic destruction cannot be sustained.

We’re like people living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we need 200 bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs, knock 200 bricks out of the walls below and bring them back upstairs for our own use. Every day. . . . Every day we go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls that are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks a year, year after year after year.

I hope it’s evident that this is not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building. One day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and the penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.

Making 200 species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to maintain a living community. Even if we’re in some sense at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top won’t help us. We’ll come down along with all the rest.

So, I have yet to see a UBI proposal that addresses sustainability—the extraction of wealth from nature. I will be happy to cash my UBI paycheque—for the few years our culture might have left in a wildly damaged ecosystem—but UBI is just a band-aid on a sucking chest wound of living beyond planetary limits. 

We will live within limits—either we choose to do so, or nature will force us to do so.

The 15 hour work weeks might be a bit better? Like I said, I haven’t read Rutger’s book, so I don’t know what the proposal is and my critique may be way off base. But typically arguments like these are something like, “If we stopped letting billionaires squirrel wealth away in the bank, we would all only need to work 15 hours a week.”

I think this could actually cause enormous ecological damage.

Again billionaires don’t squirrel away wealth—or at least only a very small share. They are billionaires—they possess over one billion dollars—because they have not converted the money into wealth extracted from nature. Yes, they have more yachts and houses and diamonds than the rest of us, but what they squirrel away is money. Most of their riches are actually just numbers “invested” in a computer. 

If you distribute those numbers to the rest of us, we will actually turn them into wealth—into salmon we eat and trees we cut. This is a feature of localism—spending money locally keeps it cycling in the local economy, being spent over and over and over again on the real wealth extracted from nature and labour.

So redistributing wealth from the tertiary economy—from the stock market and billionaire’s bank accounts—will radically increase environmental impact. It will turn numbers in a spreadsheet into species on the extinct list.

The first time I put that into words I felt like vomiting—and I still get queasy thinking about it. 

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I have yet to see any proposal for UBI or shorter work weeks that starts from the question of what the ecosystem can sustainably provide—but here is a good starting point. 

Human population was fairly stable for a thousand years at about a quarter of a billion people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation?

One thing and one thing only has allowed for the exponential growth in population, and this is burning fossil fuels. 

“But knowledge!!” people will say. Yes, knowledge matters. And I think useful knowledge could likely lift that population ceiling to half a billion people, or maybe even one whole billion human beings. But that is all. 

Here is a searing paragraph from Greer’s eulogy for William Catton, who wrote Overshoot. 

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

So knowledge is not enough. We still need resources, and especially, we need the primary resource, energy. If we want to do much at all we need highly concentrated energy. 

“But solar!!” people will say. “Windmills!!”

Neither of these is a concentrated source of energy.

We built this modern, globalized economy with oil that had an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 100:1—we had to burn one barrel of oil to gain 100 barrels. One gallon of gas contains the energy of weeks of human labour, so that gave us a massive surplus of energy. 

We are now down around 30:1 EROEI for fossil fuels—and the world we built for 100:1 doesn’t work so well. 

Solar and wind are 10:1, maybe 15:1. Some of them are less than 1:1–in other words, it takes more energy to manufacture the solar panel than it will ever generate in its lifetime. 

Here is another problem. 

You can’t make solar panels with solar energy. There is essentially no solar heavy industry—mining, refining and manufacturing. The concentrated energy carried fossil fuels is required in those industries. 

But can’t we just electrify manufacturing? No, because we can’t get the energy concentrations. 

So when we say we want wind farms, we are saying we want to keep changing the climate so we can mine and refine the resources and manufacture the parts.

And then of course, there are resource constraints. Being practical people, we dug up the easiest and richest resources first. This means the resources we have left are poor. Some analysts think that even if we could get over the social barriers and the financial barriers, there are not physically enough resources left in the ground for a transition to a renewable society. 

If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, the fox starves to death. 

So, the world we can have with renewable energy is not this world. We simply won’t have the concentrated energy supply.

Therefore a world of 15 hour workweeks is a fantasy. Ask subsistence farmers how many hours they spend working and I think you will find it is a lot more than 15. 

Put another way, when we talk about 15 hour weeks or the UBI, what we are saying is we want to continue destroying ecosystems and changing the climate. We want to keep destabilizing our life support system. That is how we have built an economy that we think is rich enough to distribute more equitably.

One way or another, our future lies in what is able to be sustained, and that likely involves the work of subsistence we have seen in most of human history, human and animal-powered pastoralism and agriculture for a much smaller population base. 

Not a universal income or a 15 hour work week.

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Tips for making (firm) yogourt.

Yogourt is a traditional way of preserving milk and enhancing nutrition–and by making it I have avoided also making a literal wall of empty plastic yogourt containers. I have been making yogourt for many years now, and I think I finally understand it well enough to be able to laugh at my mistakes. So this is going to be a pile of trivia, some links, some science, and a summary of my current method.

How about we laugh first? Or skip straight to the instructions if you like.

Back in the day, I could not get my yogourt to be as firm as I would like so I started adding powdered milk. By increasing the milk solids, I did get firmer yogourt.

This is stretching my memory of the chain of events, but I think I then had the bright idea that I could make yogourt entirely from powdered milk, which would allow me to buy a bulk sack of dried milk and save money.

I also used to not pasteurize my milk, reasoning the bottling plant or the drying plant had already done that. This saved me a lot of electricity, and also eliminated the fussiest parts of yogourt-making, getting the right temperature at each step. Knowing what I do about food poisoning in the industrial food system, I am horrified I published this and I dearly hope nobody died after following my instructions.

But I understand fermentation a lot better now, google has more stuff in it, and also, we saw Sandor Katz speak.

Firm yogourt

Heat the milk up, and hold it at temperature for a period of time.

After years of googling and silliness with powdered milk I finally came across a paper on industrial yogourt production that talked about denaturing whey proteins by heating the milk to a temperature and holding it for a set time. Hotter is a shorter time, and cooler is a longer time. 

“The temperature/time combinations for the batch heat treatments that are commonly used in the yogurt industry include 85°C for 30 min or 90-95°C for 5 min”

This step may be adequately met in the traditional scalding stage, which may be why many people make good yogourt without knowing this info–whereas my newfangled low-temperature-powdered-milk yogourt was never very firm.

Here is a very readable article which has an interesting temperature method. They mention the scientists Lee and Lucey, which, if you google them, you will find a ton of papers on yogourt science, including the quote about temperature above.

If you want thick Greek-style yogourt, you can leave the yogourt in a fine mesh strainer so some of the whey drips out.

Reusing yogourt as a starter

The next mystery of yogourt is that when you make a batch using grocery store yogourt as the starter, it always seems to poop out after about a half dozen lifecycles. We saw Sandor Katz, Fermenting Guru, speak, and he said that is simply a consequence of commercial cultures.

And when you think of it, of course that makes sense. Our ancestors in yogourt-eating societies did not have labs and sterile workspaces to replicate and freeze-dry cultures. So either it was being refreshed from the environment, or the culture itself did not weaken after a few lifecycles. Katz says the latter. Some heritage cultures reproduce indefinitely, and some have additional properties favoured by different cultures, like the challengingly-textured Finnish Viili, or “ropy yogourt”.

I find I usually go out of town, or clean out the yogourt jar and eat my starter, or have some other life event interrupt me before my starter loses performance so I like to keep a few pouches of Yogourmet around. Yogourmet is a common starter culture available in better health food stores, often in the refrigeration section. I would expect you would find it in “ethnic” stores as well, like Greek, and maybe Indian. It comes in a box with several pouches of freeze-dried culture.

Heating tips

The basic rule is to heat milk slowly and cool it quickly. This prevents burnt flavours, and reduces the chances of pathogens infecting the milk as it cools. At this stage, milk is warm, wet, and full of protein, so it is a bacterial playground. Ice or cool baths might be used in cheesemaking, but for yogourt I just wait until it has cooled down naturally. The milk will be inoculated with billions of acid-producing bacteria that create an inhospitable environment for spoilage causing bacteria.

I have fermented yogourt in all sorts of ways. I have a giant Korean cooking thermos–a thermal cooker–which does a great job, I have wrapped blankets around pots, I have tried a crockpot, I have made a giant bain-marie, some people use a sous-vide. I had a two litre electric yogourt maker–the multiple tiny pots do not suit our eating style–and it worked great until it died.

But the best by far is our current house, which has an old gas stove with a pilot light.  It holds a wonderful incubating temperature inside the oven, so after I have inoculated the milk, I just put the pot inside the oven and walk away.

Lastly, here is an amazingly useful tool for making yogourt and cheese. This thermometer’s alarm will sound for both High and Low temperature settings, so it will tell you when your milk is hot enough, and then it will tell you when your milk has cooled enough for inoculation. This just saves a ton of fussing and allows me to do other things without boiling over or forgetting milk until it is too cold.

How to make (firm) yogourt

I typically make two litres of yogourt at a time, as it keeps nicely.

Over low to medium heat, warm milk to 95°Celsius (205°F) and hold it there for five minutes.

Let the milk cool to 45°C (115°F), then inoculate it with a starter. For starter, use one pouch of Yogourmet or a couple of teaspoons of yogourt per litre of milk, and whisk thoroughly or blend with a stick blender. If you are using a heritage culture, experiment.

Incubate the inoculated milk in stainless steel or glass container at 45°C for four hours. Incubating yogourt for a longer time makes it more acid, not more firm. I like sharp yogourt, so I often make my yogourt at night and take it out of the warm oven in the morning.

Congratulations! You have made yogourt–just chill and enjoy. I use it most in smoothies, and as a sour cream substitute for perogies. I love to drink Lassi, with cardomom and rosewater. And labneh is seriously easy and wondrously delicious.

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The Life and Death of Bun-bun.

There has been some heartfelt times around the urban homestead recently. Our doe rabbit Apple had stopped producing reliable litters of kits, and so for the first time we put one of our breeding rabbits on the dinner table.

I have some precedents in my childhood, particularly when Abby the Goat finally got too old. Abby was a great goat, a good mother, a productive milker, and a lovely person to be around. She was so old, by the time my family killed her, that she was sure to be tough as an old boot, and so we turned every bit of her into Ground Goat. Many the dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce came with a fond remembrance of Abby and a story of living with her.

So, I have some precedent, but I had never killed one of my own breeding animals.

Killing Apple was hard.

We tried a new kill method and that was excellent so Apple truly died as peacefully as you could imagine, literally with a mouthful of clover.

To fill Apple’s spot we bought Lucia, a piebald doe—what the rabbit breeders call a broken colouration.

Lucia came bred, which is maybe good or maybe bad because we still don’t know if our buck Apollo is part of the problem. Lucia is not so used to human contact and charges quite a bit. But she has quickly learned that the green deliciousness we bring is not to be feared.

And then Lucia kindled—a litter of one small kit.

So it begins.

I guess someone who “produces” rabbits would have other litters they could introduce little Bun-bun to, so it would be warmed by the cuddle puddle of cuteness.

Or perhaps someone who produces rabbits would have just snapped Bun-bun’s neck and tossed it on the shit that accumulates under the cages in a production barn.

Carmen brought Bun-bun in at night, and tucked it in a nest of Lucia’s belly hair and straw, so it would survive the chill. In the morning, she took it outside to nurse.

I say it because after several days of this, Bun-bun died, and we never sexed it to know if it was male or female.

We tried to keep it alive, knowing a single kit would usually die. Next time we will try something else.

 

Bun-bun’s death occasions a lot of thought.

There was only one end for Bun-bun, and that was an untimely demise—though untimely is difficult to define, since in the wild Bun-bun may have died at birth or within days. Rabbits have many kits for a reason. If Bun-bun matured enough to venture outside the den there are eagles and hawks, dogs and cats. Foxes? Weasels? Mink? I don’t know. But like I say, rabbits have many kits for a reason.

On our homestead, Bun-bun would have spent four months being moved to fresh grass every day. It would have snacked on blackberry canes and carrot tops, as well as any dandelions we pulled from the garden. Bun-bun would have torn around on those powerful and delicious hind legs, frolicking in sunshine and reclining in rain—droplets beading on its fur.

Would it grow to be piebald like Lucia?

Anyhow. Four months, and then we would have put Bun-bun in our stew pot, probably in the Portuguese style. We would have scraped Bun-bun’s hide and tanned it to gift, or to work into something lovely.

Should I be sad? I am. As Stephen Jenkinson says, “You don’t have to like death, but you do have to befriend it.” I never like it, and I am tearing up and congesting as I read over these words.

Bun-bun would die regardless—by hypothermia or predator or the stew pot or just old age. But I am sad that Bun-bun never knew the taste of fresh clover, or the warmth of sunshine or the joy of leaping.

So, Bun-bun got a tiny shroud of organic cotton. I dug Bun-bun a grave many times deeper than its little body, and laid it carefully on soft sand. Carmen poured it a final meal of milk and sang laments in her ancestor’s language for its short life. I filled the grave in, taking care to pack the soil so Bun-bun would not be dishonoured with soil sinking in an unseemly way. And then we laid rocks in a careful pattern, with big rocks at the cardinal directions and one particular rock in the middle which was just about the same size as Bun-bun itself, though much heavier than that poor, cold little body.

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Addendum:

I wrote this post a few months ago, and in our rabbitry some things have changed and some have remained the same.

After Bun-bun died we mated Lucia and Apollo and Lucia bore a litter of six lovely kits. These kits are practically a high-school genetics class, showing the combinations of their black father and piebald mother—one black, one white, three piebald…and one very beautiful light silver.

A couple of weeks after their birth, I found this gorgeous silver bunny dead and stiff out in the run.

So a little more about rabbits…

A few weeks after breeding, we give our doe a nest box and a pile of straw. As she gets close to kindling she begins tearing around with mouthfuls of straw, like a comical moustache. She builds a straw burrow in the box, and as she gets very close to kindling, she pulls the softest hairs from her belly to line the nest. Born blind and hairless but for a light down, this nest keeps the litter warm until they can walk.

The doe will jump into the nest box once or twice a day to nurse the kits. Unfortunately, sometimes a kit will stay latched on the doe’s nipple when she jumps out. Rabbits do not have the instinct to pick the kit up and put it back, so if the kit is too young to find its own way back, it will likely die.

As did this fine silver kit, carried away from the warmth of its litter mates.

As fate would have it, I found it after the Trick or Treaters had all gone home on Hallowe’en.

We were tired, but it was obvious to me that there was no better time to return this little kit to the soil than when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. So I dug another deep grave near the ash Carmen calls her Grandmother Tree. We wrapped the kit in a clean square of organic cotton from an old sheet that has now provided the shroud for several animals. We sang and drank whiskey.

And then, out of the darkness—Christmas Carols.

I guess a group of people had costumed themselves as carollers, and were singing for their candy. It was eerie and wonderful and hair-raising; I feel quite sure that little silver one was carried safely across.

So, there has been more tears than tastiness in our back yard, but that is how it sometimes must be. I have written a bit about this before, and I frequently struggle to put my feelings into words.

I think if we would like to be “sustainable”, if we would like to find our harmonious place in the order of things, we need to spend a lot more time intimate with the life and death of our kin, both human, and more than human. Raising rabbits is not our dominant source of protein, and it likely costs more in feed than it contributes to the grocery budget. But it very much makes me human.

 

 

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“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.

 

Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.

 

To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.

 

There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicaments we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?

 

The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.

 

Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”

 

 

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Trees are green, right? And green is good, right? So trees must be good, right?

How could trees be bad for the environment?

Many of us have a sense that we are not on the right path; in our bones we feel the damage we do to this planet really does matter.
And often we cling overzealously to charismatic symbols like trees and honeybees, and lose sight of the place of the symbols within the system.

Cities are trying to respond to increasing environmental pressures. For example, to reduce dependence on agricultural breadbaskets at risk of climate change-induced droughts, cities are promoting local and urban agriculture. To reduce use of climate-changing fossil fuels, cities are promoting renewable energy. These efforts are distinctly urgent as we head for 410 ppm of atmospheric CO2—remember that 350 ppm gives only a reasonable chance of maintaining a climate conducive to advanced civilization.

And trees throw shade on those efforts.

We need a Right to Light.

There is historical precedent here, and various jurisdictions have Right to Light legislation—usually used to make sure a new building does not shade your windows and turn you into a shivering ball of moss—but cities that want to be leaders need to make sure solar panels and gardens have as many rights as condo towers.

Sunshine is the renewable energy that is delivered right to your house every day, right to your vegetable patch and your solar hot water collector. Before electricity turned every building into a faceless box, architects designed both for daylighting and ventilation. Well-insulated buildings can get a great proportion of their heat and light from sunshine coming in the windows.

Unless you have a great big tree in front of you.

Street trees are more than just comforting tokens; a dense green canopy that helps us forget the moonscape clearcuts that supply us with paper and lumber. Trees do a lot for our cities; they slow and clean stormwater, they remove air pollutants, they look nice and appeal to our old evolutionary psychology, to name just a few. Urban trees should be seen as infrastructure alongside the pipes in the ground and the roads we ride on.

But the City of Victoria, where I live, protects certain native species and all very large trees—unless of course you want to put in a driveway, or build an addition on your house. You have no rights if you want to cut trees shading your solar collectors or vegetable patch, but if you want a place to park your Hummer, let the chips fly.

The City of Vancouver plans to plant 150,000 new trees, but unless a systems perspective is incorporated, they are planting 150,000 new problems and a forest of lost opportunities.

Here is how I think our urban tree system should work:

Trees are important habitat for myriad species. They look nice, and humans are hardwired to feel better, and perhaps be healthier when they can see trees. In cities they have the important job of shading asphalt to reduce the urban heat island effect. Trees can also provide tons—or on the scale of a city, tens of thousands of tons—of fruit and nuts. This would mean jobs for urban orchardists, food processors, farmer’s markets and foresters. It would also increase urban resilience to disasters by enhancing food security, and reduce the ecological impact of food transport.

And they can do all that on the south side of the street.

Let’s keep it simple by imagining a street that runs east-west. Trees planted near the sidewalk on the south side of the street will shade the blacktop, but not the garden on the north side of the street. Not the solar hot water collectors, not the windows that brighten life, not the photovoltaic panels, just the blacktop.

That is our infrastructure working for us.

This does not mean we will have fewer trees, it just means we will incorporate our Right to Light into urban design. It means we will not plant trees where they will block light and preclude energy harvesting with plants or panels for decades to come.

So, as infrastructure, when trees no longer serve the city they should be dug up, dynamited, moved or replaced. We don’t remains slavishly loyal to our old pipes and our leaking sewers. We don’t worry about hurting the feelings of our bridges and sidewalks. When our trees are preventing us from accomplishing other goals—goals much more important than a new parking spot—then it is time for them to move.

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Data wormhole for those who enjoy such things:

In Canada’s ‘Household Sector’ about 40% of our energy is burned by our cars and 60% is burned by our homes. 60% of that 60% is used for heating our homes and water. So about a third of our total personal energy use is just heating.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/envi41a-eng.htm

Of the third of our energy use that goes to heating, about 60% is fossil fuels.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/prim72-eng.htm

-Of the 40% share of electricity, 40% of that actually comes from burning coal and and natural gas. The remaining 60% is hydro and nuclear. And nuclear is not renewable. So actually, a large proportion of the energy that keeps the lights on and keeps us warm is non-renewable.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/prim72-eng.htm

And here is a proposal for a solar hot water system that notes trees are blocking some of the insolation.

http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/SpaceHeating/SolarHeatProjectIn%20Virginia.pdf

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