Archive for October, 2011

Reflection on a Real Hero’s Questions

October 4, 2011

I have blogged for years because I’ve seen the value of working in public in solving problems. However, I have seldom received helpful comments in my blog. Recently, I got some thought provoking questions and I’m appreciative for the opportunity to reflect.

I believe two things: (1) Peak oil has been reached and (2) human caused climate change is happening. Which means, (1) 20th century ideas of how the world works (powered by petroleum) must be adapted to new ways of living, powered by new energy sources and (2) to prevent the worst impacts of climate change the world needs to act quickly to reduce CO2 production. In Muddling Toward Frugality (1982), Warren Johnson argues that American democracy is best able to make change by slowly “muddling” (with all its contradictions) and that the need for sudden changes threatens democracy. Johnson urges us to start the transition to a new energy and consumption future decades ago. I understand muddling to require taking the time to ask questions, examine assumptions, try experiments and move forward in the fits and starts that opportunity presents. Muddling comes with contradictions inherent in its imperfect process.

When we bought our current house in 1993 I didn’t know about peak oil and global climate change or the term “Smart Growth”. I was attracted to a 1914 farmhouse on a funny shaped parcel of land, part of it zoned “Residential Office,” a commercial designation, and part zoned R2.

The Peterson Barn Guesthouse is a cruck frame barn that I built on the RO zoned lot next to our house. In the 1500’s England was experiencing sufficient deforestation that building with crooked wood became common. I wanted to experiment with that response to resource scarcity, because I knew the modern response is to chip up small and crooked trees and glue them back together. I also planted a stand of cherry, oak and walnut so that my grandchildren would have beautiful timbers when it comes time to replace the Guesthouse.

At the time, I did not realize that by building the Guesthouse I was using Smart Growth principles of increasing the building density on our lot or creating a live-work situation in a B&B next to our house.

Back in the 90’s I discovered that my wife and I owned a lot equal in size to the world’s per capita allotment of arable land. That fact made me think that my lot should be able to raise all my food (at least on average) and I had a responsibility to make my share of land productive. That has been an elusive goal. We now have a large garden, I’m good at growing garlic and potatoes, and learning about tomatoes, grapes, cherries. Because our lot is hilly I planted apple and plum orchards (the peach didn’t work, the pears are fickle). But it turns out that managing the harvest and getting it stored for winter, is even harder than getting it grown. I’m still experimenting with how to organize and prioritize my life to preserve the harvest.

Around 2005 a friend made us a generous offer to partner on a Priest Lake cabin. She would provide the land, I would build a cabin, we’d own it 50-50. Around that time I read Kunsler’s The Long Emergency and concluded that it was a mistake to invest in that project — the deal was based on assumptions about oil and climate that I no longer believed.

Muddling is not a smooth process, situations and events shift its timing and direction. In my case, various plans to green our house and the barn were put on hold when WSU discontinued my position in December 2010. But that change gave me other opportunities to examine how I live and to try new experiments. I didn’t drive much when I was working, I took the bus to WSU, but I was never conscious of how or when I used the car. To become aware, I decided to ride my bicycle much more, and challenged myself to use only one tank of gas per month. I learned it is an easy challenge as long as I stay in town, but our week of family vacation to a friend’s cabin at Priest Lake blew my fuel budget for several months. We could live with less fuel, but as a family we are still muddling with the lifestyle change of not “getting away.”

Unemployment has given me the time to continue my experiments with low-tech cooking, building a new mud oven and a solar oven and tinkering forward toward a solar hot water system. Our Avista bills show that using a clothes line is saving energy, but in muddling fashion, its easier to hang a few barn sheets and towels than to switch my family over to hanging our clothes on the line.

A community’s muddling is not evenly practiced by all its members for many reasons, and I’ve come to believe that what is important is a good public discussion and even a healthy tension that leads to good questions about how we are moving forward. When Mayor Chaney appointed me to me to Moscow’s Planning and Zoning Commission I saw it as a chance to help that muddling process, moving the city toward future development that would be better suited to life without the petroleum and automobile use we’ve known. One of the opportunities for the City that I think is important is the abandoned railroad and industrial area located between downtown and the UI Campus. Around 1900 the City chose to use that land for railroads and grain industries, a choice that served it well for many years. But now that land is vacant and we get to make a choice for the next 100 years. I’ve explored how to create a mixed use development on that site, with higher density residential, live-work and commercial development but the economy and my lack of personal resources make it hard to see how to get started.

Shelley Bennett has argued that Eastside Marketplace is a neighborhood commercial center. I agree and spent time just after she bought the Mall helping her getting people to a community meeting to share visions for what is needed there. I never really thought about a food desert, but being able to walk to a grocery and several restaurants ensures I don’t live in one. Living close to Eastside is a demonstration of what I think are Smart Growth principles. Where Shelley and I disagree is I don’t think the neighborhood character of Eastside is enhanced by a regional shopping facility such as the Super Walmart proposed in 2005. The scale of that development seems to be to be poor planning in the context of what I believe about peak oil and climate change. Its not the way I think the City should commit its land for the next 100 years. It seems to me it would be wiser (as a UI student proposed at the time) to add mixed use residential to the SE of the Eastside and increase the number of people who can walk or bicycle to Eastside’s neighborhood shopping.

A conversation with Darin Saul at UI’s Sustainability Center got me thinking about the role of technology enabled communications. Historically, communication for collaboration in the marketplace was managed internal to large corporations. They set prices, decided when and what to buy and sell. What I realized from Darin is that the Internet and mobile technologies are keys to new forms of market collaboration. Perhaps these tools can lead to new means of market-making where small producers can meet the needs of a diverse array of consumers.

As we transition away from petroleum I don’t think we will go back to the horse and buggy used by the builders of my house — we will leave petroleum with science and technology and communications tools that we’ve developed for a future we are still inventing.

Back in June I wrote this summary of my thinking about what to do now about climate change. I think it is a description of my own muddling: grab the low hanging fruit, try to avoid locking in the wrong long-term choices, and resurrect old knowledge and methods to test how they might apply today. Inherent in that will be contradictions, things that ideally would be changed, but practically aren’t changeable now. I reconcile those contradictions by hoping we are always asking good questions and challenging old assumptions.

Building my first solar oven

October 1, 2011

I celebrated the Fall Equinox by building and testing my first solar oven. One of those projects I’d been thinking about all summer and the waning sun motivated.

It was a project made of scraps. I had the plywood box from a WSU Auction. The 1/2 inch reflective insulation was left from building garage doors on Peterson Barn Guesthouse. It took a little practice to recover my (ca. High School) glass cutting skills, but they allowed me to re-use a piece of glass from a defunct cold frame.

The lid still needs a reflective treatment and a means to prop it at an angle to reflect into the box. As it was, I got 3 cups of beans and water to 135F from 11AM till 3PM. Needed another hour simmering on the stove to finish cooking them.

I needed to rotate the box to track the sun. To reduce that need, I want to think about wings that will bounce light from the side — ultimately having a bit of a light funnel.