Making the Community Better...(a guest post...)

A while back, when I first started to post about Peak Oil over on my old blog, Ianqui was one of the first people to discuss and think about it with me (along with the venerable HO, of course...) without thinking I was silly. She's posted some on peak oil over on her blog and has posted in the comments here a few times as well.

Tonight, she's put together a post along the lines of another area I would like to take this blog every once in a while: things to think about regarding community and personal development in preparation for peak oil. This post is a nice beginning to going down that road. These are small things she talks about, but imagine if everyone did them for a week...or a month...

In a post a couple of days back, one of my main points was that norms, attitudes, and behaviors have to change, whether by choice or by force. Sure, it may be too late to make a huge difference, but is it too late to soften the blow?

So, without further ado, here's Ianqui...

I first learned about Peak Oil through Prof Goose's original posts on his personal blog. Then I started reading the super-alarmist websites, like Life After the Oil Crash, and then James Howard Kunstler's Rolling Stone article, among others. But I found myself a little less fascinated by the dry facts of why this is happening, and more interested in reading about what's going to happen to us. More importantly, I realized I personally can't do much to force open the government's eyes, but I can do little things that maybe will make my community better, and my own life easier later on.

This stuff is nothing new, but I'm hoping that by posting it here on TOD, other people will take it seriously too. If you already know, you can send this to other people who may not. We can't practically move to Vermont and start organic farming, nor can we all buy a Prius. But there are easy, painless things that will hopefully be a start. Here you go.

1. Buy organic.

Most commercial fertilizers are made of oil, pure and simple. According to this article by Bruce Thompson (of Running on Empty), 4% of the US energy budget is used to grow food, and 10-13% 'is needed to put it on our plates'. When oil runs out, we're going to have to look for other ways of producing enough food for the country. Fortunately, organic farmers already know how to do this.

If you're interested, you can find the USDA standards for organic production and handling here. For example, for fertilizers, farmers must use composted plant and animal materials, not synthetic fertilizers. To control weeds and bugs, farmers may develop habitats for natural enemies of the pests or use non-synthetic traps or repellents.

I realize that buying organic can be expensive, so you may want to take it one product at a time. However, I've found that quite a lot of organic foods, especially processed things like cereal or tomato sauce, are often cheaper than their conventional counterparts. (I mean it--compare the price of Kashi cereals to Total Corn Flakes, for example.) Perhaps you can't buy all of your veggies at Whole Foods, but perhaps you have a farmer's market near you. Local farmers may not always use organic standards, but in this case, you're supporting a small-scale farmer who has important knowledge that will need to be passed down.

If you're interested in more ambitious measures, consider becoming vegetarian. As Thompson points out:

  • Bread, 1 Kg = 6 miles = is one slice per 422 yards; equivalent to human doing heavy labor 1 hour

  • Beef, 1 Kg = consumed by driving 76.2 miles; equivalent to human doing heavy labor 300 hr.

  • Canned corn = consumed by driving 5.4 miles; equivalent to human doing heavy labor 20 hr.

1 kg of beef requires 15x more energy than eating canned corn! Thompson (and others) also notes that any quantity of grain will feed 5x as many people as if it were used to feed livestock and then comsumed by humans as meat.

2. Reduce waste by refusing packaging when possible.

About 2 months ago, I decided to stop accepting plastic bags at grocery stores. This is a truly easy thing to do, especially if you drive to your shopping locations. Carry around cloth or canvas bags. You can leave them in your car, or grab them on the way out of the home or the office. If you come home with 5 bags of groceries, in most cases you're really getting 10 bags, since people usually double-bag. Cloth bags are sturdier, and bigger. And if you're putting it in your car anyway, it shouldn't be a problem. This should go not just for grocery stores, but for Target, Wal-Mart, CVS, etc. Some stores, like Whole Foods, even give you 5 cents back for every bag you bring in.

Buy in bulk from bins when possible. Places will often let you bring your own plastic or glass containers to fill, and will deduct the weight of the container if you ask them to weigh it first. Same goes for salad bars. Likewise, carry around a set of silverware, or leave it in your office. You don't need to throw out plasticware every day. A sturdy plastic cup in your office is better than taking a cup from the dispenser next to the water cooler.

3. Drive the speed limit and inflate your tires properly.

Seriously. This is an extremely difficult one for me to advocate for, since I always hated driving slower than 75. (Now I don't really drive since I live in NYC, but that's beside the point.) You all know that driving the speed limit saves oil, but you may not know specifically why.

Assuming you're driving on the highway (since all bets are off in stop-and-go traffic), your gas consumption is related to your road load. Road load is calculated by factoring in several components, such as the rolling resistance of tires, friction in different parts of the car (like the brake pads or wheel bearings), the power of various pumps in the car, and aspects that affect aerodynamic drag. The important part is that if you increase your speed, the power required to keep the car running increases exponentially. Furthermore, since the factors contributing to road load are related to the shape and size of the car, it turns out that smaller, more aerodynamic vehicles (like cars) get better mileage at higher speeds, whereas larger vehicles get better mileage at lower speeds. By higher speeds, though, they really mean somewhere in the "sweet spot" of 40-60mph.

Also, don't forget to inflate your tires. According to Consumer Reports, more energy is needed to make underinflated tires roll. Furthermore, if the tire is underinflated by as little as 2 psi, it will cause a 1% increase in fuel consumption.

One last thought. Though people might try to argue that the cars made today are more fuel efficient, the truth seems to be that there are a lot of SUVs out there too, and by virtue of their size, it cannot be the case that they're most efficient at 70-80mph.

For more information on your particular car, you may want to check out At least parts of it, like this section on Oil Dependence and Energy Security, seem to be fairly realistic.

In short, there are many small things you can do to start the ball rolling. If we (as a nation, ideally) can just prolong the plateau by cutting out our most frivolous uses of oil-based products, we'll have many more years to enjoy the industrial lifestyle that we're accustomed to.

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HO, Thanks for your suggestions. Good points. Another is to keep the theormostat down. Here in Chicago it is nice to finally get the temperature to the point where we can warm to house up to 70 from our ususal winter 64 degrees.

Suggestion: can you write about why the "super-alarmist websites" are over the edge. I find them to be very pursuasive and would like to think they are wrong.

Great post Ianqui. Other thoughts: I would encourage others to buy their food locally. Many (if not all?) cities have a farmer's market where fresh produce is brought in when in season. It is 99% of the time locally grown and brought in by the very farmers who grew it. Your local supermarket may in some cases be stocking their shelves with lettuce from California (I am on the east coast) rather than from farmer Brown's down the road. Talk about saving some oil in that transaction. I can't give up my steaks yet though!

Also remember that American's use their air conditioning in the car alot more than the government calculates, and spends many more hours idling in traffic or even in the driveway. Try not to over use your AC, and turn off the car when not in motion. That should help with gas too.

Why not go just a tad farther?

Organic raised bed gardening, with the right crops, can be done in the average suburban backyard very efficiently. Canning will let you store what you grow, and involves the whopping purchases of a pressure cooker and jars.

I have four 8'x4' beds behind my garage (squashes, tomatoes, cabbages, spinach, peppers, lots of different beans, melons, etc.) and I have swapped my conventional beds for additional vegetable beds on the sunny sides of my home. I have cut down elm and oak trees, replacing them with a fig, pear, apple, pecan, pomegranite, avocado and mulberry trees. These give shade as well as food. Instead of growing useless, expensive, non-native shrubs - put in something you can use. And where you want hedges or other shrubs, use the native varieties - they require almost no water, fertilizer, usually no insecticides, and less work.

Use climbing beans and run them on arbors over your sidewalk - I did this years ago, and now several of my neighbors have climbed on after eating the fresh home-grown stuff from my yard.

Yard too small? Ask your city council to allow gardening on municipal lands. It actually lets them reduce their maintenance costs, and this alone can sell the idea if you have several people. Just make sure it looks nice and you will probably have others wanting to join you.

Get some people together and ask your city to plant native fruit trees instead of foreign ornamentals on municipal lands. Force them to use native ornamentals at least, which reduces costs over foreign plants.

With your city, it's all about money and keeping their power - use this as your leverage. All you need to do is show up with 20-30 people and they will listen, and probably do what you want. Municipal government is actually responsive in most places.

Ask your landlord if you can do it (garden..)on the rooftop in pots if you live in an apartment building.

Cannot afford a Prius? Then for a little weekend sweat and between $6000/$11,000, you can convert almost any small car to 100% electric. And it doesn't have to be a crappy ride - 150 miles range and 100+ mph top speed, zero gas, zero emissions, nearly zero upkeep. Buy an old VW, Porsche, small pickup, etc. and convert it.

If your city will let you, get an old golf cart, swap the batteries out for new, and use this to run to the local stores instead of your car. Suggest this to the city as a way to reduce their operating costs for maintenance vehicles.

Get off your butt and bicycle where you can - it's better for everything; you, environment, gas consumption, traffic, parking, etc.

And finally, get your neighbors involved. I cannot tell you how empowering it is to show up at a city council meeting in a group. Every political mind goes nuts; "What the heck do these guys want? What did we do wrong? What is it I don't know about?" As long as you go back and follow up on your activism, they will do what you want. If you read into the record how your proposal will save them money and benefit the people and the environment, you have them by the short hairs. They will do what you want, because you left them only one PC option!

Probably one way to know that a foodstuff has a big "energy component" is that, like beef, it is getting expensive.

For what it's worth, twenty five pounds of flour is like $5 at the local smart & final, and my bread machine consumes 0.37kwh per cycle ... probably a pretty energy efficient route.

J--great comments. NYC does have community gardening plots, although I have to say I'm a little wary about gardening in NYC. I have a friend who is an environmental engineer who does air quality checks, and she once found that the outside air had lower quality than the office suite above a printing press. She herself won't grow tomatoes on her balcony.

Yosemite Sam--sorry, I'm not sure I can help you there. They are alarmist, but that doesn't mean they're wrong. I obviously found them persuasive too, or else I wouldn't have gotten so involved in all of this. Right now I'm reading The Long Emergency (the book), and it's just adding to my personal sense of panic.

I'm with ianqui here. I have known about a lot of what we are facing for years, because I love to read, and I follow my nose.

But it is very different when you see some of these former predictions appearing in MSM as todays facts. The governments deafening silence to the general population with respect to all of this is unnerving.

Housing bubble, inflation, global warming, WTO/globalism, falsified data from the Treasury Department (of all places), unknown Carribean fund people buying our debt (the Feds themselves or narcodollars?), everybody else NOT buying our debt, the creation of 1/2 trillion of new money in May alone, potential GSE insolvency, Account 990N, US gulags (Gitmo, Graib) etc., et al, and on! Oh, and Peak Oil!

Couple this with the civil-rights-killing Patriot Act, Homeland Security thugs, DOD anthrax appearing VIA MAIL mail on the day the Patriot Act was voted in... the list of bad things and unbelievable concidences is just too very long. From my POV the government has been active in getting setup to handle civil disobedience. This implies they already acknowledge the coming disasters, and maybe are trying to time them for personal profit and power. The next logic jump is even more frightening.

Sphincter factor 9.5...and why I have several plans...

It looks like the death spiral is a sure bet at some point unless someone starts spending some serious money now to avoid it. Once the oil supply available to the U.S. starts actually declining, I suspect that most capital and energy will be devoted to keeping things from totally falling apart, and there will not be much available to improve things. I read that you should think Russia in the 90's when their economy collapsed. Unfortunately there would not be any rescue by oil production.

Getting some serious infrastructure spending looks like a bad bet considering that the U.S. won't even upgrade its electrical grid after having a collapse two years ago.

Let me just throw this in there--it's likely that GWB isn't doing anything because he's a dominionist, and he already thinks the world is going to end sometime soon (for different reasons), so why plan for the future?

Remember, this is the man who responded, when asked how history will view him, ‘History, we don’t know. We’ll all be dead.’

Gods, ianqui, next you'll tell me he is a big fan of those "Left Behind" books...

People have give big lists in this comment thread of our problems ... but no one mentioned the war, and it's "resource component."

In another blog I said it was the camel at the table that no one ta™3™™about.

Pfft. don't know happened there, it should have said (its, not it's) and:

the camel at the table that no one talks about.

odo - that war too. Yep.

slight (harumph) drain on our capital, annihilation of any international good will, huge drain on families without mothers and fathers, drawing our weapons stockpile down to near zero and thrashing the equipment into unusable junk, and then there are those who have been killed, who can never be of them may have had the answer to oil, but we will never know.

If you read the foreign press editorials, most other countries believe we are about to get what's been coming to us for a long time.

Wonder what the death throes of a bald eagle are like?

Well, I think it's time for some TEOTWAWKI betting!

Anybody give me odds that the popping sound of our housing bubble will slow the economy enough to reduce oil demand by 10%?

J--I wish that were true. But no way.

I'd put my bet on $3+ at the gas pump this summer. I think people are going to start to learn the joys of local vacations (Coney Island, anyone?)


Well, I guess it beats Jersey!

Well, the benefit of staying near home, and riding my bike more, is that I can beat they gym-rats, ten years younger than me, up the hill ... the bad news is I better take it easy on my knee, starting to feel a little loose.

Re: TEOTWAWKI betting - my personal favorite for the U.S. getting taken down by unforseen is that the U.S. refuses to extradite Luis Posada to Venezuela to stand trial, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez retaliates by stopping oil exports to the U.S.

The international oil market would not be much affected overall (particularly if Venezuela redirects its exports elsewhere) but the supply disruption to the U.S., while temporary, would be substantial and could cause a lot of economic chaos.

For my more conventional bet on TEOTWAWKI, I'd say whichever winter we run short of heating oil - either this one, or if we are lucky, the following winter.