Of Coal Stoves and Goat Herders: Getting Out of the Vicious Circle

Energy Bulletin ran this excellent piece from the New York Times on a crisis facing Mongolian Goat Herders who are attempting to deal with unstable world markets, climate change and overgrazing. I was fascinated by the clear way that the author of the piece lays out the vicious circle that they've entered into, and I was struck by how useful an example it is of the kind of ecological vicious circle that we face all the time:

To compensate for low prices, herders have been increasing supply by breeding more goats -- a classic vicious circle. Mongolia's goat population is now approaching 20 million, the highest ever recorded.

Environmentalists and social scientists say this is destroying biodiversity and pastureland, and undermining herding livelihoods. But goats are hardier than other livestock, breed faster and can survive on sparser resources: so, the more the land is degraded, the more herders are driven to switch from cows, camels or other less destructive herds -- another vicious circle.

Mixed into the problem is climate change. According to Erdene-Ochir Badarch, environment officer of the World Bank, rainfall on the Mongolian steppe has become increasingly erratic, resulting in the disappearance of 600 Mongolian rivers and 700 lakes. This too may be a chicken-and-egg problem. Increasing aridity and loss of plant species may itself be contributing to the dwindling rains.

In a study funded by the World Bank, Dennis Sheehy, a rancher from Oregon with a doctorate in range management, last year measured two of Mongolia's four major ecological zones -- desert and forest steppe -- to determine changes in the composition of species compared with an earlier study made in 1997.

Mr. Sheehy found a 34 percent loss in plant species in the Gobi Desert and about a 30 percent loss in Mongolia's forest steppe.

"Two conditions have created the loss in species: the proportion of goats in the herd in the last 10 to 12 years, and the areas are becoming increasingly arid," Mr. Sheehy said. "The plant species that had disappeared were most palatable to all livestock, but especially to goats," he added. "There are too many of them."

Besides climate change and overgrazing, in part pushed by dependence on world markets and by a shift away from government supports of traditional livelihoods. This being the New York Times Business section, their assumption is that the solution to the problem is better marketing, and more dependence on the world market, but ignoring that part of the discussion ;-), I find this very ordinary vicious circle to be a lovely metaphor for the very ordinary vicious circles we're entering into.

Consider a simple one - the question of what to do about heat in cold places like the one I live in. Right now the majority of US households are heated by natural gas or coal fired electricity, with a minority (including mine, if we use our central heating which we rarely do) heated by oil. Almost all of the oil heated areas are in the Northeast - for some reason gas pipelines simply weren't built out to rural areas of New England and other northeastern states. So while nationally the percentage of people using heating oil is only about 8%, it is nearly half in some New England states. 3 out of 4 people using fuel oil for heat live where I do.

In 2008, when oil prices skyrocketed to 148 dollars a barrel, how to stay warm was the single biggest discussion point all over my region. Not only are we more dependent on fuel oil than anyone else in the US, but our housing stock is older, and often poorly insulated, and, of course, it gets cold. It was not unusual for me to get four or five emails a day from people afraid of freezing to death in their homes during a bitter winter. Governors in New England states declared states of emergency. The "heat or eat" crisis that emerges in cold climates where already struggling families skip meals because an ever larger percentage of their income goes to heating made people worry about real hunger emerging in the US. Fortunately for all immediate concerns (unfortunately in some ways for long term issues), the price of oil crashed in the fall of 2008, before the heating season, and most people were able to keep warm.

But what's most interesting about this brush with crisis is that the two most logical solutions for rural dwellers outside the gas lines emerged - and both of them are vicious circle solutions. The first is the classic woodstove, a common sight in rural parts of the Northeast. Almost everyone out here has one, at least for backup or supplemental heat - and it makes a lot of sense to have one. Not only is a fire a cozy and wonderful thing, but power outages are common in cold places that get heavy ice and snow accumulation. Localized heating - where you warm one or two rooms, rather than the whole house can be really useful as well.

But the key to all these woodstoves is that they operate as secondary heat sources. It is the replacement of wood heat with oil and natural gas that has permitted the great Eastern Forests to be one of the single largest unified biomes in the world - to create corridors that allow Moose to come from Maine to Boston or coyotes from the Adirondacks to New York City. All that forestation is a product primarily of fossil fuel usage. More people, particularly people trained to expect a uniformly warm house, using wood will be an ecological disaster for the northeast - from colonization on, a vastly smaller population totally deforested the Northeast due to farming and wood consumption, and until 100 years ago, most of the great Eastern forest didn't exist. Wood heat is great - but its greatness depends on a small number of people, many of them deeply ecologically aware, or using it as a supplement - being wood heaters.

The other alternative that emerged was coal. Now I grew up in a less enlightened age with one of the last coal stoves in existence - my parents purchased an old house with little insulation and with no heat at all in most of the house. The most inexpensive, reliable option in our outer suburb of Boston was a coal stove, and thus, my parents warmed our house that way for many years. I hadn't even seen one in a decade or more, but last year, when the fear of cold began to pervade households, my local Agway hung out a banner that read "we sell coal!" and local dealers began advertising the merits of coal stoves.

They were many virtues - coal stoves are cheaper than wood stoves, and for people without woodlots, coal is often cheaper than wood. It gives out more heat, and can be stored more easily than wood. For a dweller in a poor city in Maine or New York, the coal stove offered more than even the woodstove - a reliable and cheap source of heat to replace oil.

Why not simply reinsulate, and do with less heat? But for most of us, reinsulation is a more expensive project than replacing one winter's heating fuel with a cheaper one. The people most worried about this are the ones who always struggle to pay the heating bills anyway - and they will have to pay those bills one way or another. Investing money in reinsulation projects *and* in heating fuel isn't possible. Some may have qualified for subsidized insulation programs through state subsidies or LIHEAP, but the demand for those exceeded the supply wildly.

The logical outcome of an oil price crisis in the Northeast *ought* to have been the use of less fuel. And in some ways, it almost certainly would have been. Middle class households would have cut their heat back part of the way, reducing overall consumption. Businesses struggling with the bottom line but able to afford heat would have done the same. Some people who had used oil rather than natural gas from habit, or having an oil-fired furnace, rather than lack of gas lines, converted to cleaner burning natural gas. Some people with the money who had been saying their really should insulate did.

But reduced consumption in one area doesn't equal reduced consumption or emissions overall, and that's the problem. Some people of my aquaintance who might have insulated didn't - because they had to use that money to buy a wood or coal stove and install it. Other people converted to electric space heaters - that mostly use coal fired electricity. Other folk had already committed to their old method of heating at high locked in rates and couldn't afford to go back and change their mind and insulate or switch to other methods because the money was already gone for oil. The most affected states tried to help, but they and their municipalities were also struggling with high oil prices.

The reality is that oil prices fell fast enough that in the end, it is hard to tell what the longer term effects would be - but I saw enough of them to believe that in a world of consistently high oil prices - and the economic costs of those prices, we'd see a higher rate of emissions from winter heating, not lower, along with deforestation. Millions of personal coal stoves are a potential disaster for all of us - and yet they are logical outcome of individual choices and enormous pressures that make adaptation in situ, mid-crisis, very, very difficult.

The same is true of the crisis of the Mongolian herders - there is probably a better solution than more goats and more reliance on fickle world markets for a luxury fiber, but it is almost impossible to begin offering them. How does a herder struggling with low fiber prices get the money to change his stock and practices? Given climate change and overgrazing and desertification, what animals will even do well for him?

You can imagine how this vicious circle will be mirrored in millions of ways by the collective crisis we face - the concatenation of climate change, resource depletion and their economic costs. Hotter temperatures mean more air conditioners, which, because of their direct and indirect polluting effects, means more bad air, which means more asthma and other lung ailments, which means more dependence on air conditioners which means more pressure on the electric grid and more emissions and an endless and disastrous set of outcomes.

Volatile food and energy prices mean less money for "luxury" foods like local and organic. Less money for those things means fewer small farmers sending out CSA baskets. Fewer small farmers means more reliance on industrial agriculture or on industrial organic, which means more emissions and more soil depletion and desertification and dead zones and warming climates means more dependence on irrigation, which means more fossil water depletion, all of which makes the ultimate denoument all that much worse, as irrigated areas lose their water and viability to climate change induced drought, while small farmers that might have supplied regions have already been driven out of business by economic crises.

I've often heard people wonder, with Jared Diamond, what the last person, cutting down the last tree on Easter Island thought while he was doing it. My guess is this - "I have no choice." The reality of vicious circles is this - once you are in one, it is very hard to get out. The infrastructure to get you out may not exist - or if it does, you can no more get ahold of it than you can fly.

John Michael Greer, with whom I have some disagreements on climate change, but far fewer about the overall picture of things, has been writing a series on the inevitability of failure His latest argues that in many of our most pressing problems, all roads lead to failure, and I think this is pretty much correct. The question is what kind of failure, and on what scale. There is no real "success" here, measured in the way most of us want to measure success, as a problem conquered or avoided. He writes about another viscious circle:

In a society that relies on rapidly expanding production of resources, on the other hand, this can be evaded for a time. The first two-thirds of the 20th century thus saw an explosion of factions that spanned the entire upper half of the American class structure, from the ultrarich to unionized labor. The result was a vast number of people who all expected to get financial benefits from the government. Yet the end of America's real economic expansion in the 1970s meant that these demands had to be paid out of a dwindling supply of real wealth.

One result has been a drastic narrowing of the options available to politicians. A great many simple and necessary reforms that could be enacted without harm to anyone - for example, putting a means test on social security pensions - are completely off the table, because nobody can put together a governing coalition without the support of groups that oppose such measures. Equally, a great many ghastly policies - for example, deliberately inflating financial bubbles - have become political necessities, because they allow governments to get away with the pretense of paying off their supporters. Meanwhile any sector of society not organized enough to defend its interests can basically count on being thrown to the wolves.

The rising spiral of crises that threaten the survival of industrial society might be expected to trump such matters. The problem here, of course, is that prophecies of imminent doomsday have been standard political theater in American public life for more than a century, and most people in politics have long since stopped listening to them. There are plenty of people in politics who still remember, for example, the widespread insistence that the energy crisis of the 1970s was supposed to be permanent; the fact that there were plenty of less shrill predictions that have proven to be much more accurate in retrospect is nothing like as memorable.

Behind all of this lies the central political fact of the limits to growth: the reduction of First World nations to a Third World lifestyle that will be the inevitable result of any transition to a postpetroleum world, whether that transition is deliberate or unplanned. Metaphors about elephants in living rooms don't begin to touch the political explosiveness of this fact, or the degree to which people at every point on the political spectrum have tried to pretend that it just isn't so. Still, set aside delusions about miraculous new energy sources that show up basically because we want them to, and it's impossible to evade.

Let's walk through the logic. The most reasonable estimates suggest that, given a crash program and the best foreseeable technologies, renewable sources can probably provide the United States with around 15% of the energy it currently gets from fossil fuels. Since every good and service in the economy is the product of energy, it's a very rough but functional approximation to say that in a green economy, every American will have to get by on the equivalent of 15% of his or her current income. Take a moment to work through the consequences in your own life; if you made $50,000 in 2009, for example, imagine having to live on $7,500 in 2010. That's quite a respectable income by Third World standards, but it won't support the kind of lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans, across the political spectrum, believe is theirs by right.

The numbers may not be precise, but it doesn't really matter - we're talking about a lot less. And with that reduction in wealth comes a reduction in one's ability to adapt - a person dealing with a radical reduction in wealth can't imagine large infrastructure investments, and their town or state or nation can only perform them if they can borrow money to make up for a rapidly declining tax revenue. On a lesser scale (although not as much less as most people think) this is is precisely what is happening to all of us - our ambitions are being scaled back and we are being shoehorned into a vicious circle. As I have written for many years, the most likely consequence of our ecological predicament is not Mad Max or apocalyptic scenarios, but a decilne into what I call, riffing on Freud, Ordinary Human Poverty - the reality of lowered ambitions and greater struggles, of hard choices between things that all seem necessary.

Succeeding, then, is measured not in "how well we avoid inconvenience or difficulty" but in "finding solutions that are adequate and that don't make things worse." This is difficult, because essentially it requires that we ask people to choose between two short term solutions - the first offers less inconvenience, less immediate struggle, and seems more like what's gone before, as well as having a low initial investment. This is the coal stove solution, or the wood stove to heat your whole house, or "breed more goats." The second seems harder, and may seem to have a higher initial investment. It is more radically different, and thus seems speculative. Its only advantage is that it offers long term solutions - that is, you get less upfront, but more in the long term, and you do less harm.

The long term solutions that work are the ones that are low enough in cost to be viable for most people, offer enough longevity for a people of declining wealth to pass down something to their children and grandchildren, and don't make things worse. They are mostly powered by human beings, by solar energy (either in the form of small solar panels, or more often, powered by food or biomass on a very small scale), and most of them require collective self-regulation and a degree of willingness to defer wants and change parameters.

There are ways, in some measure, out of the vicious circle. They involve hardship for people already facing unaccustomed hardship, and they involve radical changes in narrative - because the first myth of hardship is that the end is always just around the corner. Convincing people it may go on a while is difficult, perhaps the hardest part. Convincing the herders that they are better off paying the price now, while doing what is possible to mitigate that price with food supports and agricultural assistance would be difficult - but might be possible if people can see that the consequences for their children will be greater than for themselves.

Convincing modern Americans that they will have to endure austerity measures, that they may have to go back to older ways - to one or two warm rooms, rather than a whole heated house, to the bicycle rather than the car or to shared, rather than private ownership won't be easy. Other battles may not even be possible - that is, it may not be possible to discuss what standard of medical care will realistically be available to everyone, or what standard of support for elders, until there is no choice, until we're fairly far down into the spiral of the vicious circle. This has huge disadvantages - most notably everyone's desperation to simply invest in some kind of ground to stand on, rather than make long-term choices. But it may be true.

Interim choices - breeding more goats to eat what vegetation there is, or choosing the coal stove or the large wood stove that heats the whole house - have consequences. Sometime they make it easier for us to transition - sometimes they make it possible for us to smooth over our shift. The Prius may make it easier to get to work until we can find a house nearer jobs. But they have costs too - they often make things worse. They delay the inevitable, and make the crash harder. Paying for the transitional solution and its consequences can leave us vulnerable when even the transitional options fail.

Moving sooner to the longer term and more complex solutions - a new more locally appropriate and adaptable pastoralism that isn't dependent on a single product, a smaller, more efficient radiant heat source with high mass, better insulation, a different relationship to heating and a greater degree of communalism is tougher. It requires that you let go of the dream of normalcy. It requires that you fight off the overwhelming gravity of the vicious circle. It requires new ways of thinking and probably help from other people. But it is as close as you can get to success in a predicament that has no win scenario.


More like this

Once again it comes down to the "convincing." Spending time with family over the holidays is a reminder of how unconvinced people are about our transitioning economy, world. Although some acceptance of our choices is encouraging. My MIL bought my husband and I 3 homesteading books (!), one I already had so am gifting, and 2 we had been wanting. I try to continue my "downgrade propaganda" as often as I can, with discussions on sanitation and my super low gas bill;) We are fortunate to have the money to make real changes now, insulation, solar attic fans, windows, fruit trees, bushes and gardens. I "am" trying to buffer the blow a bit, but every decision is made with a power down future in mind.

I was feeling tender about having spent a couple days looking for a used woodstove. We met a guy who's spending $600/month on oil. We spend about 90 on gas, but keep it pretty low. He was impressed by 62/52, but doubted we made toilet visits during the night. My husband said we wait until I have a hot flash, and we don't sleep in the nude. We also have a down comforter and two twenty-five pound dogs. And night caps. It was fun to talk about this with younger people. And I love seeing my reluctant husband shyly bragging about our low energy usage. We celebrate spring the first time we take our socks off for bedsports.
We see a wood stove as backup for heat and cooking in emergencies. We lose power a lot--had thought it a neighborhood quirk, but talking to sellers on craigslist suggests that it's common.

A very thoughtful post, lots to chew on. I watch my neighbor, who can't afford to repair her natural gas furnace, run electric space heaters in her leaky, underinsulated 1950s era ranch house. She doesn't yet own the house and even if she did, she can hardly afford insulation. She really can't afford the electric heat either, but at least that expense is drawn out relative to the cost to fix the furnace. Plus there are organizations that offer help with electric and other utility bills, but none that will help her with paying the cost of the furnace repair.

In St. Louis, where I live, heating with coal stoves caused so much pollution during the first third of the 20th century that St. Louis became the first city in the U.S. to pass a smoke control law (in 1940), requiring only cleaner-burning coal to be used and forcing people to either mechanize the coal-delivery system to their stoves or else get another type of heating system. The result is that almost no one here burns coal - at least right now. Most people use natural gas. Natural gas is already a factor of 4 higher in price than it was in 1990. Not sure how much higher it can go before people here find themselves in the vicious circle.

What do you know about the homemade rocket-style thermal mass heaters? I'm told they are cheap to build and you can heat well on much less wood, in some cases perhaps only the amount that you can find as deadfall. It takes some skill to design one that will burn at maximum efficiency and draft properly, but plans are available. Here there's a time and skill investment rather than a high financial investment, and judging by the popularity (or lack thereof) of rocket mass heaters in my neighborhood, that's just as much of a deterrent to adoption.

" All that forestation is a product primarily of fossil fuel usage. More people, particularly people trained to expect a uniformly warm house, using wood will be an ecological disaster for the northeast - from colonization on, a vastly smaller population totally deforested the Northeast due to farming and wood consumption"

Not historically accurate; which worries me about other observations here. The deforestation had little to do with wood heat; and much to do with- railroads. Which burned wood for a long time; and were laid on wooden ties.

And iron rails. Which were smelted with- wood, for a long time; particularly for first generation industrial installations; before coal fired locomotives were able to move coal around.

Also- when land was/is cleared for agriculture- is the wood used? Hell no. It's piled and burned, to get rid of it.

Add that all up and indeed you have human caused deforestation. The forests came back because the vastly more productive soils of the Midwest became available (due to rails)- leading to NE farms being abandoned.

It really takes very little wood to heat a sensible house- there is less than no reason to think increased wood heating will cause "deforestation"; rather the opposite, really.

Certainly true for me; we've planted 90 some acres of corn and bean fields to woody crops; and we're drowning- literally- in excess woody biomass. Rather desperately need a way to utilize it and keep it under control.

I'm saving up to replace our wood stove with one of the new, fancy ones that's supposed to be so much more efficient. I don't know all the details yet, but I believe it's supposed to massively cut down on emissions as well as on the amount of wood we'll burn. Counting those pennies....

The Northeast was more than 80% deforested by 1830, before the railroads became a major factor, according to _Agriculture in the Antebellum North_. Was it all because of wood heat - no - as I said *farming* and wood heat. But wood heat was a factor - according to the records I've seen the average house burned 10 cords a year - your comment about a reasonably built house is pretty accurate, but that doesn't describe the houses built in the Northeast during most of the first two centuries after colonization ;-).

Most of the deforestation was agricultural, of course. But I don't think that a substantive part of the 100 million people living in the east can burn wood without massive deforestation - sure, there's plenty of places with more wood than anyone can use - my own property has only 19 forested acres, and we could burn all we want. But most of the Northeast doesn't have enough wood to support a large wood burning population without an impact on the extant forest.


But wood heat was a factor - according to the records I've seen the average house burned 10 cords a year

This is approximately correct for New England. I live in a 300 year old farmhouse, which was not insulated when I bought it. Or, shall I say, the only insulation it had was original to the house: a lot of thermal mass from the timber framing, stone chimney stacks, and plaster/lath construction, but not a stitch of 20th century fiber or foam. It did have a modern, relatively new and not-completely-inefficient oil furnace. After getting the first oil bill, and attempting to offset the cost by use of the fireplaces, we got approval from the local historical society to insulate properly as long as it all looks authentic enough from the road.

Ten cords of *hardwood*, not pine, sounds about right. We went through a cord of oak per month and still got a $7000 oil bill the first winter. We weren't cooking with it, just having a fire in the fireplace maybe every other evening November - March, so if we had required a cooking fire daily, yeah. Ten. And we would have frozen our butts off, because even with the oil heat there was frost on the insides of windows that first winter.

Applying the concept of supply and demand to life on the planet, nature has zero demand for people, a fair degree of tolerance, but no demand whatsoever. From a business perspective, based on the laws of the marketplace, even one person is an oversupply,
Trying to operate the planet like it's a business is a really bad idea.

By vasio n. martianin (not verified) on 28 Dec 2009 #permalink

Love to hear more about "more efficient radiant heat source with high mass"

Burning wood in a fireplace or an old wodd stove is indeed a very inefficient way to heat a house. Nevertheless,there are modern, extremely efficient stoves and furnaces using of course logs, but alos wood pellets or wood "scraps". These stoves and furnaces allow you to use renewable ressources in a very ecofriendly way. Wood pellets can be made from pinewodd and not hardwood, and they are often made from scraps.
I live in the French Alps (Temp can go down to -20°C, 32°F is commonplace in the winter). My home's insulation is not bad, even if it dates back to 1980. All I use is a pellet stove for heat. I go through 2.5 tons of pellets per year, for a grand total of about 800 Euros.
I do think that using wood as a heating fuel has a great future, but only if we consider new, efficient stoves.

By Mountainmums (not verified) on 29 Dec 2009 #permalink

Don't get me wrong - I'm actually for more use of wood - judiciously, thoughtfully, carefully. My concern is that if people take the same attitudes and expectations they've had about wood heat and try and duplicate them in their existing homes, we're likely to see a major problem.

Kelly - as far as I know there are two major forms of mass stove - the expensive, beautiful masonry stoves common in northern Europe and the cheap, ugly homemade rocket mass stove. The problem with the former is the enormous cost of putting one in - we were quoted more than 15K with the floor reinforcement. Rocket mass stoves are cheap but functional, but do require some expertise to make work.


Thanks for the info, Sharon. I did a wiki search for the items and found a lot of links. I think the the cob bench idea is one that can be worked on. The heat exchangers don't need to be so ugly. Cast iron might be a better choice than used oil drums for beauty, eh?

having grown up in northern Europe, i can confirm that the fancy woodstoves once used there were never meant as retrofits into existing structures. the houses were built around those piles of masonry, you never had the stoves plunked in later on.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 29 Dec 2009 #permalink

Sharon- well, hell, I can't get away with ANYthing with you. :-)

Ok, I confess, I didn't look it up- I took my assumptions from Thoreau, who makes a big deal out of railroads. Mea culpa; youa righta.

"your comment about a reasonably built house is pretty accurate, but that doesn't describe the houses built in the Northeast during most of the first two centuries after colonization "

True again. Another idiotic assumption of mine- that humans would build sensible houses. The ones back then were idiotic- no insulation, etc. Ones today little better, generally.

But "sensible" IS possible, and not even difficult. Mostly you have to get over "Slash and Burn Accounting". Ie., normal accounting. Earth shelter comes out as too expensive to afford- unless you look at it from the 30-40 year perspective. Then it's cheap cheap cheap.

We Usacos still live on this continent like we're not intending to stay here. We expect to make/steal our bundle; then move someplace better immediately. So we build houses that are disposable, and intended only to keep rain off, if it's not too heavy. Utilizing local environs for heat stability is not on the list.

A reasonably earth sheltered home can heat with a tiny amount of wood. And- I think heating apartment buildings with wood could be extremely efficient. IF the building was intended to function that way.

Ok, I'm a dreamer. :-)

Convincing modern Americans that they will have to endure austerity measures, that they may have to go back to older ways - to one or two warm rooms, rather than a whole heated house, to the bicycle rather than the car or to shared, rather than private ownership won't be easy.

Actually, will be nigh onto impossible. Especially for the for really affluent Americans living in their McMansions. They just aren't going to do it, until there's no choice.

I just came back from a nice holiday visit with mom, who lives in an assisted living home. Who's going to tell all the nursing homes (my brother lives in one) and assisted living homes that they need to turn the temps to 62/52, or just heat "one or two" rooms? I don't think that's going to work.

What I really want to know is, what's my target date? I mean, what date should I have in mind as the time past when I should expect that life is just going to be too miserable, mean, and nasty to be worth? Inquiring minds want to have their plans in order. Because I don't think the cities are going to make it, and there just isn't enough land out there for all of us to go off onto and become good sturdy farming folk even if we wanted to and knew how to. And frankly, I don't see myself coming out as a winner in any set of resource wars!

Zuska- I have experience at cooperative work camps and establishing low-resource-using vegetarian cooperative homes. You can come live with us. If you are interested, I should like to know- do you prefer llamas or yaks?

What you really need is some clever and responsible local bankers. People who have lived a long time in old houses tend to have low mortages so lending them money to pay for more insulation is low risk, and the lower heating cost pay for the interest of the new loan. Then the bank lends money to the companies that have to expand to cater to the increased demand for insulation and earn some money in that end too.

Hi Zuska - First of all, I hope the transition went well - that sort of thing is incredibly tough. Eric and I took care of his grandparents for the last years of their lives and all those decisions are really difficult. My sympathies.

Secondly, nursing homes and assisted living homes are sort of an interesting case, because they already do a lot of the energy reduction that people would have to - sure, they are warm. But most people have tiny apartments or one room to themselves, rather than the 850 square feet per person that the average American has (up from 250 in 1950). They share a lot of resources, don't eat a huge amount of meat, and are not out there driving and shopping. Assisted living is probably a pretty good example of a method of energy reduction. In any rational society, assisted living, whether for the elderly or adult disabled would be something that you could support without cutting resource use too dramatically. Whether we'll be a rational society is doubtful - in the US you always screw the poor, elderly and disabled first. But that doesn't mean that's *necessary* - just likely.

I agree that people will not cut back their usage unless they have to, but there are different definitions of have to - one of the facts I find most fascinating is that people really liked rationing during WWII - so much so that they were concerned it was lifted too soon and wanted it reinstated after the war into 1946. The reason wasn't that people loved using less sugar or not driving as much - it was that they were overwhelmingly concerned with fairness, and they liked rationing because it ensured them a fair share. They also liked feeling engaged by a collective project - the idea that they were partners in the war when they turned down their thermostats was satisfying to people, according to the record. So if you construct the rationale well enough (the war in Iraq would be a great example of a constructed rationale, in this case, climate change doesn't require lying, although it would require good agitprop to construct the rationale, and yes, I'm Machiavellian about this) I think you could sell austerity.

As for your last question, I have to admit, it isn't a subject I've given much thought. My kids are young (under 4-9), and they will require me and my husband to live - period - if at all possible. Even after they are grown, my eldest is severely disabled, and he'll need me, so it just isn't a choice for me, no matter what happens.

I also don't think there's a good answer to be had - all historical events are perceived differently by different people. When things get too awful for you will be psychologically different for you than others, but it will also be materially different. In any historic event there are the people who are comparatively insulated by luck, wealth or other factors, and those who suffer early. We can bet on some of who each category will be, but there's a lot of variation within groups.

Moreover, I think Mad Max is unlikely - I think barring solar storms, mega caldera eruptions and asteroid strikes, which I tend not to worry about ;-), the most likely scenarios are gradual declines. I also don't think you can say that the cities won't survive.

There will be some cities that I think have little future - the hottest and dryest southwestern cities, those that really only exist because of modern amenities - Vegas, for example. But consider New York City - I doubt it will support 8 million people, and I suspect its boundaries will be changed by rising sea levels, but cities of 1 million have existed for thousands of years, long before industrialization. New York was once a major port and still could be, and while its agricultural land is heavily built up, it also has the conduit of the Hudson/Mohawk to transport agricultural products to it.

Does that mean living in NYC will always be equally fun? No, I don't think so - but I don't think it is going to disappear in your lifetime or mine. I think it and most of the cities that existed and thrived before the industrial revolution probably have a future - I think Buffalo and Chicago and Toledo and Portland all have real futures, if not the same ones we've imagined. One thing that I think has helped me envision such a future is Dmitry Orlov's wonderful (and very funny) book _ReInventing Collapse_ - if you haven't read it, you might. It is a comparison of the Soviet collapse the projected US one - and it offers some helpful ways of thinking about this. He's also got a lot of material online at various sites, including his blog www.cluborlov.blogspot.com - and again, he's always laugh-out-loud-funny.

Assuming that you are not presently depressed or looking for an excuse to commit suicide (and since you are the awesome Zuska, I certainly hope not, since I love to read your stuff), what I'd do if this is your biggest worry is take care of it. I can't honestly advise someone to kill themselves (particularly someone so cool) but if you can trust yourself not to use them in a moment of depression, find the means, and take care of it. I know a number of people who have done this, and it is a relief to them. So get the script or buy a gun or get a friendly chemist to help you out in your preferred mechanism. Then lock it away somewhere no one will get it, and forget about it.

Then, you can focus on the interesting stuff, which is the question of how to go forward as best you can and put off as long as possible the day at which you think life's not worth living. Because I suspect there's a lot to be done there. I think there's a lot to be done to make cities more liveable, and if you dream of the country peasant life, well, there's that too! Just because everyone can't doesn't mean you can't - but you also don't have to. The reality is that we need peasants in cities (the average 3rd world city produces about 1/4 of its produce and meat within the city limits) and the suburbs as well to make this suck as little as possible for those of us who can't plan on getting out.



Sharon, thank you for that extremely thoughtful and detailed answer. I will look into that book. No, I am not depressed, except about the future. I've got mom to look after for now, in any case, and two cats who need fed and expect me to scoop their litter box daily, too, so there's that.

If only I could figure out a way to keep the deer out my yard, I might be more inclined to take up vegetable gardening. The way my property is laid out, deer fences just aren't feasible, and without them, they'll just eat stuff as fast as I can grow it. So, I just take my money and reusable bags to the farmer's market each week - and Philadelphia Winter Harvest when the farmer's market shuts down at the end of November.

Becca, I think yaks. I just like the way the name sounds.

Deer suck when you want to garden. Assuming that you are not inclined to take up deer hunting through your windows ;-) or that the local municipality would frown on it, I'd say the best option is a territorial dog (not an attack dog, just one who doesn't believe in deer in it's yard). But then again, not everyone has to grow food - there's plenty of other work to do and farmers like me are really grateful for people who buy their stuff!


This a great post with excellant insight. The truth is that most Americans are not going to accept the inevitable changes in our life style until their noses are rubbed in it. They are going to keep demanding benefits and services from governments that can't afford to pay for them. To keep buying votes with services the governments will keep taxing the few viable business until they put them out of business. The Federal government will try to keep it's system afloat by borrowing money until there is none to borrow and by printing money until it creates hyper inflation. Those sensible steps necessary to create an orderly simplification of our lifestyle and to create a sustainable world will never be taken. Try and get elected by telling people that they can't have a large house with cheap central heat or that they can't drive from the suburbs to the city 30 miles away anymore. That is a plan for electoral defeat. By the time people accept the changes coming we will be necessary we will all be too broke to make the changes in any organized manner. The suffering will be immense. Polyanna utopian plans are a waste of time. I used to believe in them, but have come to realize that people today are driven by their own self interest and not by idealism. The individual most be prepared to take care of themselves while they still have a chance. Sharon is right about woodheat. I live in Maine which has some of the greatest forest in the country. We have one county covered in forest which is bigger than New Hampshire. Wood Pellets are the hot new heat source hear. They figure with all of our forest we might be able to heat 25% of the homes in the state with wood pellets. I wonder how many homes the forests of Nebraska can heat?

By Scott Nurse (not verified) on 04 Jan 2010 #permalink

There is nothing harder than getting people to give something up if it makes their lives a little easier. Until they have to give it up, then they find out that it really wasn't that big a deal.

People need to realise they need to give up 10% now, or carry on for a bit and have to lose 40% right when they can't afford it.

Socks and pj's will be worn for at least another 2 months probably.

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

We've been working on insulating our 1930 "cape-cottage-hodge-podge" here on the coast of Maine for a couple of years. It is slow going when none of the low cost methods work due to walls blowing out. My first words of advice to everyone is that the cheapest fix is to minimize air leakage. It is unlikely that you would be able to stop enough of the air leaking to create a hazard but you should use common sense and check combustion safety at a minimum. There are lots of folks running around with blower doors these days who can help you out for fairly cheap. Stop the air leaking and hold on to the heat longer. Insulate the attic and the basement first. Pick the outside walls of the rooms you need in the winter and do those next. If possible supper insulate a couple contiguous rooms that you can use as a heat bunker if necessary. We're heating 50% of the house this winter with 3 cords of firewood in two decent stoves. We use a large stove on the first floor and a little stove in the basement. The basement stove is helpful when the temps drop below 20 F outside. We do not heat the upstairs bedroom for the adults. Our little boys room is fairly well insulated at the top of the stairs so he's comfy all the time. We were wool or at least keep it handy. Right now it's 23 out and 73 in the dinning room (which is also the office in the winter!). Both stoves are going. The relative humidity is about 45%...this helps. We too are looking at putting in a mass heater with a large bake oven in the basement and a smaller bake oven on the first floor with a cook surface as well. We think we'll supply a bunch of the labor and hope to get it done for under $10,000...of course we don't have 10K but we're going to see how creative we can get...we figure the mass heater will be around for a couple of hundred years and will be a big gift to our children and grand children who we assume will live in this house...stay warmâ¦even if you shut half the house downâ¦it makes for less house work!

By David Whitten (not verified) on 07 Jan 2010 #permalink