Reflection on a Real Hero’s Questions

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.

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5 Responses to “Reflection on a Real Hero’s Questions”

  1. nilspeterson Says:

    Muddling may not be good enough, see http://www.grist.org/climate-change/2011-12-05-the-brutal-logic-of-climate-change

    “The longer we wait to start shrinking emissions, the faster we’ll have to shrink them to stay under budget.

    [graphic visualization in original]

    As you can see, if we delay the global emissions peak until 2025, we pretty much have to drop off a cliff afterwards to avoid 2 degrees C. Short of a meteor strike that shuts down industrial civilization, that’s unlikely.

    Just to give you a sense of scale: The only thing that’s ever [caused emission to decline more than] 1 percent a year is, in the words of the Stern Report, “recession or upheaval.” The total collapse of the USSR knocked 5 percent off its emissions. So 10 percent a year is like … well, it’s not like anything in the history of human civilization.

    This, then, is the brutal logic of climate change: With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.

  2. SC Spaeth Says:

    Nils:
    This sounds like the ultimate wicked problem. I thought of you when I recalled the criteria you recommend for comments to your blog and read this description of issue mapping:

    “Critical thinking made visible.”
    http://cognexus.org/issue_mapping_webinar_series.htm#what_is_issue_mapping__1

    Conklin and his institute use this material to market their series of learning experiences but I suspect that we could create a more-focused P2PU learning opportunity.

  3. Real Hero Says:

    1. So by your logic then there should be no problem with people owning modest middle class houses on 1/8 to 1/2 acre lots? Or for that matter it would be at least intellectually justified for some one to own 2 or 3 large houses so long as they have a back yard garden and energy.
    2. What is the economic efficiency of assuming that people will sustain themselves off of back yard gardens and their own casual labor? Although I am not one to discount such things as having some utility their marginal utility relative the fact that modern, complex industrialize society with its division of labor and services is probably far more efficient. Granted it is one thing to have hobbies but it seems as if such elements in society that are proponents of these things are merely promoting their preferences. Which incidentally, much of this strikes me as being in the same vein as the 1960’s back to the earth types who then sold out to become CEOs and soccer moms, complete with Mc Mansions and SUVs.
    3. With regards to commerce, who are you dictate what I buy? Who are you to have any authority to conclude that certain products should be taxed or not bought at all? I see a lot analysis regarding why for instance wal-mart is so evil or why this or that product should or should not be bought. Although I am not one disregard evidence, unfortunately the world is a rather strange and complicated place with many unintended consequences and many hidden factors. For instance, is organic food really something that has any meaningful disposition to it? From what I have seen in reality it is more of a lifestyle brand for a certain segment of the population. Of course tell that to someone who like such and you will see how quickly something that is fundamentally subjective become an objective reality. Also, I think you have to look at motives. For instance with the buy local rhetoric and things like the food coop. How much of such is either based upon the desire of a certain group to create an exclusive identity for itself? Also, along those lines how much of such rhetoric is really a facade to conceal the motives of local business owners (many of whom could care less about sustainability) to keep out competitors? Ultimately, I think it would be wise to ask what likely happen if such elements got everything they wanted. My guess is that the poor would be much hungrier than they are now. Of course that begs the question: “Is it better to eat of the winco and walmart or is it to starve”
    4. Although I agree with you that petroleum is not the fuel of the future and that we need to seriously look into alternatives, I think what underlies a lot of the rhetoric of such things, especially climate change, is a class based elitism similar to what you find with conservatives and their rhetoric of “austerity” when it comes to things like government problems and wages. In particular if you look at the rhetoric of climate change you find at best a serious of vague doomsday scenarios that speak little to anything tangible in terms of public policy. These predictions are great for motivating policies to “force people to live with less”, that is except for the upper middle class whites that push them. However, when you look at a lot of these proposed policies, what they really get down to is the desire of one element of society to control another. For the purposes of illustration consider the following thought experiment. Lets assume that there was an inexpensive, sustainable replacement for petroleum, lets call it ecofuel. Lets also say ecofuel was newly developed and was being widely adopted. Now this is just a guess however I would venture to say that the same element of society that protests walmart, shops at the coop and is very concerned about sprawl would likely foRm some type of group to protest the spread of ecofuel or in the least promote massive taxes on it to mitigate the massive environmental harm that their “statistics” say such fuel will have one society. These people would be very emotional and no doubt sincerely believe what they are doing is right. There in lies the rub. To assume what defines these issues is not rooted in the desire of one group to promote its interests as an objective reality is a fundamental error. Also an error for that matter to assume you have some type of monopoly on truth. Inevitably, the world will not be as you or I want it, nor for that matter should it ever be.

  4. nilspeterson Says:

    I just learned about a 2007 report commissioned by the Portland City Council looking at the impacts of Peal Oil on the city. http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=42894

    There are many interesting quotes, this one is striking in its implications for changing land use and the potential impacts on the disadvantaged.

    “In the long term, one of the responses to increasing costs and difficulties in transportation will be a spatial realignment of people and businesses. The question is whether it will happen quickly enough to minimize disruptions from peak oil. In addition, without public guidance or intervention, some of these realignments may leave vulnerable and marginalized populations worse off.”

  5. Real Hero Says:

    I find it ironic that you invoke global warming as a justification for smart growth. Of course it highlights the structure of your thinking perfectly. You cite a vaguely defined and understood issue (climate change) as a justification for unilateral and extreme action (highly restrictive planning). Strangely this is no different that a right winger or religious fundamentalist invoking the national debt or the impending apocalypse as an excuse to promote what ever self serving and reactionary policies they see fit. Of course the justification is only superficial, such actions can only be legitimately be judged by the totality of the actor’s behaviors. My guess is that much like the preacher advocating fire and brimstone, all the while living in sin, the policy objectives of such a way of thinking have more to do with advancing a parochial and NIMBYish agenda than anything else. Of course you might just sell off the trappings of your lifestyle and try to live righteously, which in your instance would include living in trailer on minimum wage while working at Wal-Mart, however I doubt it. . .

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