Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pros and Cons of the Ecopeasant Lifestyle

It’s obvious that the economy will eventually have to be redefined. The entire concept of money has been so degraded, the current currencies will have to be discarded. One thing we can know with absolute certainty: after the “redefinition” the common people will have become serfs, while the plutocrats will be the new feudal aristocracy. So much for that democracy nonsense!

My strategy for the past 40 years has been to become what I call an “ecopeasant.” Keep a low profile, be as self-contained as possible, and depend on the Earth – not the economy – for my livelihood. This doesn’t mean I’ve been any good at it, but at least my attention has been concentrated in this direction for all these years. I’ve continually asked myself the question, “If I could spend all the money I need to on infrastructure, would it be possible to ‘get out from under?’” I still don’t have a definitive answer, but I’ve certainly learned a few basic realities about self-sufficiency. Ideally, one would be self-sufficient in the basic necessities of life – shelter, food, warmth, clothing, etc. Let’s break this down and see where it leads us.

Starting at the beginning: The nomadic option is always possible, but in our modern world, nomads are entirely dependent on money. Once those monthly checks stop coming, then what? Non-nomads are faced with the same question: If one chooses to remain in one spot, what’s going to happen once those monthly checks stop coming? Will the rabble band together and repudiate all mortgage debt, or will they allow themselves to be picked off one by one, as they are now doing? There’s no way to know for sure. The only sure bet is to own one’s abode free and clear, in which case your only required expense is the annual property tax. An annual property tax payment will be a lot less than 12 monthly mortgage or rent payments. And, post-crash, free-and-clear property owners will find themselves part of the de facto aristocracy, imagine that!

Shelter means a house. A house, to truly be considered a shelter, must keep out the wind (walls) and rain (roof). This means caulking all doors and windows, installing insulated double-glass windows wherever possible, and in general optimizing one’s shelter to withstand the elements. A hailproof steel roof is always advisable as the weather becomes more extreme.

Probably the easiest improvement beyond that is solar heat. It’s easy to heat both air and water with no fossil fuel inputs. The fact that mainstream America has been so resistant to this obvious concept for the past 40 years is evidence of its decadence and downright stupidity. Fortunately, it is easy to construct solar heaters for your home using only basic carpentry skills, as long as your house has a southern exposure. A solar water heater requires only basic plumbing skills as well as carpentry.

In many parts of the country, property owners have access to trees that can be harvested for firewood. My understanding is that such a short-term cycle (trees to CO2 back to trees) doesn’t impact the climate in the same way that dredging all that buried carbon (coal and oil) out of the ground and burning it. If one’s woodlot is sequestering more carbon each year – through tree growth – than one is releasing through burning firewood, then one can remain carbon-neutral. An airtight heater that will hold a fire all night long is an excellent investment for anybody with access to firewood. The firewood option doesn’t work too well in cities, though. Too many people burning wood in too small an area wreaks havoc on air quality.

Turning to food: Many people blithely speak about feeding themselves out of their gardens. People who say this have obviously never tried food self-sufficiency. Sure, a garden is an excellent source of high-quality vegetables, and eating a lot of vegetables will add measurably to your health. But most people need to eat some protein as well. Animals have always been a favored source of protein. Plants sources have traditionally been grains, legumes, and seeds, all of which require a lot of space, and a lot of work to produce.

I lived in the Ozarks in the early 70s. (Sobering thought: that was closer to the Great Depression than to today.) Many old-time Depression survivors were still living there. You could always tell them because they had huge gardens, obviously plowed with a tractor every spring. They canned enormous amounts of food every summer. They had animals as well – a flock of chickens, and maybe a milk cow, and a pig to eat the garbage. These people worked very hard for their food, and their children, for the most part, got jobs in town and shopped at the supermarket.

In the future, as oil gets scarcer, agriculture will be forced to focus more on human food than animal food, and the human food of choice will be grains, legumes, and seeds. Vegetables are more effectively grown right at home.

In the future there will no longer be a “steady state” reality that humans can adapt to. There will be no more stable platform underfoot. The sand will be continually shifting. Temperatures will be rising, sea levels will be rising, glaciers and snowpacks will disappear, there will be far less protein from the oceans (until people learn how to eat jellyfish). There will be much more social unrest than we’ve become used to. Instability will become the new norm.

As owner/operator of an ecopeasant microfarm since 1970, I can say that the most obvious advantages are:

* No rent or mortgage, only that annual property tax payment.
* Unlimited firewood.
* The health benefits of eating out of a garden.
* Intangible factors such as a close relationship with stars, weather, garden, orchard, wildlife, the cycles of the seasons.

Transportation has to be the major disadvantage. No matter how hard I rack my brain, no solution presents itself. For long-distance travel (in my case, 20 miles each way) when I’m frequently hauling large loads (hundreds of pounds every week to Farmer’s Market, for starters), there’s no alternative to the automobile and its bastard cousin, the pickup truck.

I’m good for about 1000 words at a session. These aren’t finished essays, just thinking out loud. But it’s good writing practice. Let’s wrap this up:

Fundamentally, there’s no gentle solution to our human predicament. There are way too many people, and the developed world – America in particular – produces way too much pollution. Here’s the “New Earth” we can expect: no polar caps, no rainforests, oceans acid and dead, poison everywhere. I suspect that the ecopeasant lifestyle – or any other alternative – will be temporary at best. Ultimately, I live this way because I enjoy it. Obviously the great mass of Americans are going to ride the Titanic until they’re dumped into the sea and are forced to swim, in which case many of them will drown. The time to be promoting “alternatives” was the 70s, when it could have made a difference, and when many young people were eager to try something different. “Living in harmony with the Earth and each other” is still a great concept, however, and I continue to write about it because it’s such a pleasant indulgence.