Public meeting on backyard chickens

Chickens in chicken-wire enclosure
Sustainable chickens

There’s a letter to the editor in today’s News-Gazette from Clarence Surma advocating for legalizing backyard chickens in Champaign.

In addition, he’s announcing a public meeting on the topic at the Champaign County Farm Bureau on June 2nd at 6:30 PM.

I would have liked to provide some useful links, but the News-Gazette doesn’t seem to have letters to the editor available on-line, Clarence Surma doesn’t seem to have any web presence at all, and I couldn’t find any mention of the meeting on the Farm Bureau’s website. So, not much to link to. I’ve got email in to the Farm Bureau asking for details, and will update here I find learn any more.

If anybody has any links, I hope they’ll share in the comments or by email to me.

Nuclear power, terrorism, and accepting baseline risks

People are bad at comparing risks, and people like to point this out by making comparisons to risks that people tolerate on a daily basis. For example, pointing out that many more people die in car accidents than are killed by terrorists, or pointing out that providing electricity by burning coal kills and injures more people than providing electricity by fissioning uranium.

At one level, I find these arguments compelling. I find it preposterous that we spend so much money on homeland security. That money would be much better spent (in terms of lives saved per dollar) on traffic safety, or probably a lot of other things. I gather, based on the fact that people keep pointing this out without producing any visible change in funding priorities, that most people don’t find this a compelling argument.

I’ve always wondered about that, and perhaps I’ve figured out why in the “coal versus nuclear” argument, which I don’t find compelling.

Plenty of people die to provide us with power from coal. Miners die from accidents. People die in road accidents moving coal from the mine to the power plant. Workers die in ordinary industrial accidents at power plants. People die from respiratory problems caused by or exacerbated by pollution from burning coal. People die in severe weather—which is becoming more common, probably because of global warming.

Except for that last, this is our baseline status. We know the costs and risks, and we accept them. Some people work to improve things—better mine safety, better level crossings for trains, lower emissions from coal burning—but the baseline is accepted. Importantly, an individual can do a lot to reduce his or her risk, such as by not making a career in coal mining, by exercising due care at rail crossings, and by living some place with clean air (and not smoking).

With nuclear power, things are different. The baseline status is safer. Deaths in uranium mining are very small, because the volume of uranium ore needed is so small compared to the volume of coal. Deaths from industrial accidents are small, because the number of workers is small (and, perhaps, because some additional attention is paid to safety at a nuclear plant for reasons having to do with greater regulation and particular concerns about public perceptions of safety). Deaths caused by the release of radiation are very, very small, because we go to vast effort and expense to avoid them.

But although the baseline status is relatively safe, the contingent risks are huge. The problems that led to the catastrophe we’re seeing now at the Fukushima Daiichi plants are replicated all over the world. It’s not just plants built on fault lines and plants built places where tsunamis can occur. It’s things like redundant safety systems that aren’t really redundant. Most especially, it’s committing to providing active safety over a period that’s much longer than human institutions reliably persist.

On the former issue, I have an oddly relevant memory. As a boy I attended public hearings in Kalamazoo on the licensing of the nuclear power plant at Palisades. At one hearing, a lawyer opposing licensing pointed out that a line carrying backup power for the plant ran through the same conduit as a line carrying the regular power. In some clever showmanship, he snapped a pencil in two to illustrate the fact that this produced a common point of failure. Learning that the backup generators at Fukushima were in basements where they would be lost in a tsunami produced an odd echo of that memory.

The latter issue is really more to the point. We are relying on corporations to actively manage the safety of these plants and the spent fuel—corporations that will cease to exist if the cost of this management burden ever grows to the point that it consumes the corporation’s profits.

I think the degree to which these safety issues needed to be actively managed has surprised a lot of people. I’ve many times heard people suggest that managing nuclear waste was no big deal—just put the stuff in a concrete vault and put a fence around it with signs saying “If you come in here you’ll probably die.” I always knew that was dumb, but I was mostly worried about people deliberately coming in to use the waste to make dirty bombs and the like. I didn’t quite realize to what an extent the spent fuel rods depended on a whole complex system of cooling equipment to keep them from bursting into flame and spreading radioactive smoke and steam wherever the wind blew.

So that, I think, is why we accept coal power and think of nuclear as dangerous. We could give up coal power anytime we, as a society, decided that the cost was too high. If we were willing to cut way back on air conditioning, electric lighting, and all the other things we run with electricity, we could just quit the whole thing. The only dangers left behind would be some moderately dangerous holes in the ground, some toxic heaps of ash, and the pollutants that are already in the air. With nuclear power that’s very much not true. We could give up nuclear power today and we’d be on the hook for decades of active management of the high-level waste and generations of (mostly passive) management of the low-level waste.

I think maybe the issue with risks from terrorism is the same. People know what the trade-offs are for driving. If we, as a society, decided to give up driving, we could cut deaths from road accidents almost to zero. But terrorism isn’t like that. There’s nothing we could give up to prevent terrorism, and the contingent risks are huge. An endless stream of terrorist acts that killed tens, hundreds, or thousands of people seems very different from the many other activities that we engage in that cost tens, hundreds, or thousands of lives.

It’s a bummer about nuclear power, though. It would be cool if a network of high-speed electric trains could provide transportation in a post-peak oil world, and I’d begun to think it might be a reasonable alternative. A mere twenty-five years with no major nuclear accidents was enough to make nuclear power start seeming pretty safe again. This is a good reminder that it really isn’t—and that we need to think carefully about the difference between accepting risks for ourselves now, and accepting risks for everyone stretching off into the future.

[Update 2011-03-23: There’s a lot of  misinformation about whether very low doses of radiation are harmful. Here’s a paper with a survey of what we actually know about the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation (from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).]

Finding your self-sufficient sweet spot

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

 

 

[This article originally appeared as a guest post on Self Reliance Exchange, but that site no longer exists and the successor site doesn’t seem to be using my post. Rather than just let the article disappear, I figured I’d post it here.]

Fabric on loom
Fabric on Loom

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

My wife spins and weaves. I have a beautiful sweater that she hand knit from hand spun yarn. It’s wonderful—and it’s comforting to know that my household is not only self-sufficient in woolens, we produce a surplus that we can sell or trade. But the fact is you can buy a perfectly good sweater at Wal-Mart for less than the cost of the yarn to knit it.

If you try to be genuinely self-sufficient—in the sense of producing through your own labor everything your household uses, like a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer—you’re going to be poor. Your neighbor who works at a job for wages or a salary is going to be better off by almost every measure.

Oh, his factory-made microwave meals won’t be as good as home-cooked food from your garden and his furniture from Ikea won’t be as good as what you make in your wood shop. But he’ll have so much more! In the time it takes you just to build a kiln he’ll earn enough money to buy a thirty piece set of Corelle ware. Unless he’s only making minimum wage, he’ll probably have enough left over to buy an iPod—and you’ll never be able to make your own iPod from sand and vegetable oil.

That’s why we have trade. If everybody specializes in one or a few things, and then trades with others for what they need, everybody can be better off. It raises your standard of living, but it means that you can’t be self-sufficient.

There are still many reasons to do for yourself. You can make exactly what you want, instead of having to make do with whatever happens to be available on the market. You can use superior materials, and take them from the environment in a sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry that the stuff you use was made in a sweatshop by children or prisoners or slaves. You aren’t dependent on the continued smooth functioning of the vast global economy. But you can’t be self-sufficient in very many things—even if you had the skills and the tools and the land, you’d quickly run out of time.

So, we find ourselves trying to figure out where we belong on the continuum between actual self-sufficiency and ordinary self-reliance. How do you find the sweet spot? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Focus on necessities. It’s a lot more important to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and housing than it is to be self-sufficient in tennis rackets and rollerblades.
  2. Focus on capabilities. Instead of trying to fill your pantry by hunting and fishing, do enough to maintain and improve your skills—and then start developing your next capability.
  3. Focus on what’s practical. It’s really hard to be self-sufficient in window glass and impossible to be self-sufficient in digital watches. Don’t waste your time.

Start with the few things where homemade actually is cheaper, like gardening. Then move on to things that can be done as a hobby—and that you’d enjoy doing as a hobby. Don’t let point #1 above (necessities) keep you from developing self-sufficiency in something that’s fun and interesting just because it’s not important. It may not be important to be self-sufficient in beer, but the equipment is cheap, brewing is a pretty easy skill to acquire, and the result is better than what you can buy.

Finally, remember that there’s a vast range between being “self” sufficient and being dependent on a global supply chain. It’s almost as good as self-sufficiency to source things from your neighbors. Short of that, it’s still an improvement to source things closer rather than farther—your home town, your region, your state, your country.

Once you set your priorities, don’t hesitate to go with the cheapest option for things that don’t make the cut.  That frees up money that you can use on the important underpinnings of self-sufficiency—things like land and tools in particular, but also things like books, training classes, materials to practice with, and so on.

Then you’re in your sweet spot.

Who are the middle class?

As someone who’s written quite a bit about what’s a decent standard of living, I was intrigued by the post on the growing global middle class that Tobias Buckell just linked to in his post the exploding middle class to come. Toby includes a graph from the source article that shows a rapidly shrinking population of poor people, squeezed by modest growth in the rich combined with surging growth in the middle class.

I quickly clicked through to the source article, to see what their definition of “middle class” was, which turned out to be daily spending of between $10 and $100 per person.

Now, in a sense, that’s pretty reasonable. For a family of two that would multiply out to annual expenses between $7,300 and $73,000. At the low end there’s considerable overlap between “middle class” and “poverty” (the US Census Bureau has $13,991 as the poverty threshold for a family of two), but I think that’s fair: From a global perspective, just barely in poverty in the US probably counts as middle class.

But I know, from my own experience writing about our rising standard of living, that people have very strong feelings about these sorts of things. Would a couple getting by on $14,000 a year in the United States feel middle class? Some would. Some people, especially rural folks living a subsistence lifestyle, feel very strongly that they’re not poor, despite a money income below the official poverty threshold. But I don’t think that will be a typical response.

I wrote an article called “Our High, High Standard of Living,” that made the case that, just like in the 1950s, a working man could still support a family with just one income—as long as they lived at a 1950s standard of living. Full-time work at minimum wage would bring in just over $15,000 a year—not only solidly in “the middle class,” but comfortably above the poverty threshold. And yet, many commenters on that article suggested that it would be utterly impossible to support a family on that income.

My sense is that it would only be possible to live a middle-class lifestyle on $14,000 to $15,000 per year under very specific (very lucky) circumstances. At a minimum, you’d have to live in an inexpensive part of the country and you’d have to find unusually cheap housing close enough to where you worked that you wouldn’t need a car. You’d also have to be young and healthy. (My wife and I would qualify as part of the global middle class just on our health insurance spending. But if we had no money for food or a place to live, we wouldn’t feel very prosperous.)

I think this order-of-magnitude spending range for “the middle class” is also at the heart of Toby’s deeper issue—whether or not a rising middle class is good for the planet.

If we see surging growth in households moving out of poverty into the lower end of this range—able to spend $7,000 to $14,000 a year ($10 to $20 per day per person)—we’re likely to see some positive effects. People with that sort of income are in a position to say no to the most pernicious efforts to turn their neighborhoods into dumping grounds for toxic waste, to insist on some level of protection for nearby natural areas, and so on. But if we see surging growth in households moving into the upper reaches of middle class—able to spend $70,000 a year or more—I think we’re in big trouble.

Those people are going to want cars.

Optimal city size

Is there an optimal city size? A lot of it comes down to personal preference, of course. If you want to go to the symphony, you need to live in (or near) a city big enough to support a symphony orchestra.

Putting mere preference aside, though, there are some things that ought to be more generally applicable. I remember back in the late 1970s, playing with some data my dad found that reported a bunch of metrics for all the villages, towns, and cities in Michigan.

My dad had hypothesized that there was considerable benefit to the earliest stages of growth (when a town got big enough to move from a volunteer fire department to a professional one, big enough to move from wells and septic tanks to a municipal water and sewer system), but that further growth beyond that stage came with costs that outweighed the benefits.

The data I looked at did show some support for my dad’s position, but I found it hard to make a good case with just the Michigan data. There was only one big city (Detroit), which was something of a special case even then, and only has become more so. I produced some graphs that seemed to show reasonably linear improvements in various metrics of “goodness” as cities grew, on which Detroit appeared to be an outlier—gaining less-than-linear benefit from its growth. I wrote a brief report of my analysis for an economics class, but didn’t have time to delve any deeper.

Just in the past few days, though, I saw the New York Times magazine article “A Physicist Solves the City,” reporting on the work of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt to produce a model that describes urban performance as a function of population. Very briefly, they have found that both good things (GDP, income, patents) and bad things (traffic, crime) grow super-linearly with population growth: Increase the population by 100% and you get a 115% increase in most of the measurable aspects of urban life.

I looked at West and Bettencourt’s article in the magazine NatureA unified theory of urban living” (article is behind a pay wall), which lays out the case in a little more detail, and offers some references. It shows a graph of crime, GDP, income, and patents versus city population. The log/log graph does look strikingly linear (suggesting a super-linear relationship). However, the data come from just US 360 metropolitan areas. That suggests (assuming that they’re working with the largest US cities), that the authors have excluded cities with populations below about 100,000 people. (The 360th largest metropolitan statistical area from the 2000 census was Ocean City, NJ, with a population of 102,326.)

So, this work doesn’t really test my dad’s hypothesis. I’d be really interested to see what the similar curves look like for smaller metropolitan areas. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that growing your population from 1,000 to 10,000 produced rather more than a 15% boost over linear growth.

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

Recycling for apartment dwellers

Recycling Bin
Recycling Bin

To me, recycling is kind of a declaration of failure. It’s a statement that that I needed something so badly that I couldn’t just do without it, nor make do with something I already had, and yet didn’t need it so badly that it made sense to buy an item of enduring value—something I’d keep, rather than tossing into the recycling.

Champaign-Urbana, though, is very much a recycling kind of place. Locals in both communities have long had curb-side recycling—but only people who live in houses. For some insane reason, there was no easy way for people in apartments to recycle. (There was a “recycling center,” but it wasn’t satisfactory—it was 3.6 miles away, and really only accessible by car. You could get there by bus, but it took an hour—and you still had to cover a mile of the distance on foot.)

The story, as I understand it, was that apartment dwellers weren’t the sort to take to recycling: They were too lazy, too uninvolved, too low-class. Only house dwellers were the sort of upright people who cared enough about their environment and community.

It’s a story that pisses me off, because apartment living is much more sustainable than vast suburbs of detached homes. To simply dismiss people like me (who chose to live in an apartment on the grounds of simplicity, frugality, and energy efficiency) over an offensive stereotype of apartment dwellers is annoying.

Far more annoying, though, would be to have that stereotype vindicated by my neighbor’s behavior. And the opportunity to find out has arrived here in Champaign. A few weeks ago, recycle bins appeared next to our big dumpsters (sealed shut with a strip of tape asking us not to dump recyclables until Thanksgiving). We all got fliers asking us to feed the thing.

So far, I haven’t seen much use by other residents. We don’t use it a lot, because we don’t produce much recyclable waste, but we have started separating our cans, bottles, paper, and cardboard from the food waste. But even if our neighbors are quite conscientious about reducing and reusing, I’d expect to see more recyclables than I do.

It’s not looking good for team simple-living. Let’s hope it’s just some combination of newness and holiday craziness—that by early next year, my neighbors will be recycling up a storm.

I really don’t want the stereotype of the disengaged apartment dweller to be true.

[Updated 2011-03-11: Once the recycling bins had been in place for a couple of weeks, my neighbors started doing a much better job of putting the recyclables into the recycling. Phew.]

Making doom funny

In my review of Dmitry Orlov’s book Reinventing Collapse, I talk a bit about how everyone says that the book is funny, but no one ever quotes the funny bits. There’s a reason: The humor sneaks up on you, building on previous bits. All the really funny bits are only funny if you’ve read up to them.

For those of you who want to read something really funny about peak oil, but were unconvinced that such humor was worth shelling out the cost of a book (or taking the time to read it), there is now an alternative: Dmitry Orlov’s latest article at Culture Change, Peak Oil is History.

Once again, it’s tough to quote a sentence or a paragraph that’s funny, but that’s okay: Just click on over and read the article. It’s free, and it’s much shorter than a book.

Whether you’re one of the people who understood peak oil some years ago or one of the people who just figured it out, Orlov wants to make sure that you understand that the reality of life on the declining side of the oil production curve won’t look like the mathematically smooth logistic function that’s usually displayed. Rather, it will look something like the front side of the curve, with spikes and dips that map to wars and recessions and other catastrophes. Further, he wants to make sure that you know those little jerks up and down—especially the jerks down—matter to you.

It would be theoretically possible to ride the downward curve of oil production in a fashion that would look like the reverse of riding it up. In fact, if we’d spent the thirty years since Jimmy Carter warned that our “intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation” preparing to do so—improving our rail infrastructure, switching to wind and solar energy, and generally becoming much more efficient—we’d be in a position to do that pretty comfortably.

In practice, though, things are going to suck.

Things will, however, suck rather differently than people expect—which is Orlov’s point. People expect that the rich will go on much as they have, while the poor will get squeezed by high prices—and there will be plenty of that. But after laying out the reasons why it won’t work that way, Orlov concludes by saying, “it becomes difficult to imagine that global oil production could gently waft down from lofty heights in a graceful smooth and continuous curve spanning decades. Rather, the picture that presents itself is one of stepwise declines happening in more and more places, and eventually encompassing the entire planet.” A stepwise decline that quickly results in even rich people having “no access to transportation fuels and severely restricted transportation options.”

Orlov makes doom just about as funny as possible, perhaps even a little funnier.

What renewable energy really looks like

Tobias Buckell just posted about Portugal’s push into renewable energy. He links to an article claiming that 45% of Portugal’s grid electricity now comes from renewable sources, and that they’ve managed this with just a 15% increase in electricity costs. Making the (somewhat unlikely) assumption that one could get another 45% increase for another 15% increase in price, he suggests that it would be totally worth it:

I’d take a 30% hike for energy independence and no money being sent to terrorists in a fucking heart beat.

Frankly, I would too. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a lot more than that. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it would cost a lot more than that—more than most people would pay.

First of all, Portugal was already paying about twice what we pay in the US for electricity. The 15% bump was on top of that. Second, Portugal had substantial untapped sources of hydro power. The US doesn’t.

Either of those, I expect, would doom the project. The first makes it unaffordable—I’d be willing to pay 30% over double what I’m paying now for electricity, but I doubt if very many other people would. The second makes it impossible—we have a lot of untapped wind power, but that comes and goes. Use of wind power will grow, but even with a much better grid (to distribute power from where the wind is blowing to where people are using it), you need something more reliable for baseline power.

But neither of those is the real problem, which is that the US uses three times as much electricity per person than Portugal does. (13646 kWH  versus 4663 kWH per capita in 2005, data from the World Bank.) If you look at the historical per capita energy use in each country, you can see that both countries have shown steady growth—but Portugal is only up to about where the US was in the early 1960s. (And, sadly, following right in our footsteps.)

So, to shoot for the Portugal model we’d have to:

  1. Cut our energy use by two-thirds,
  2. Double the price (plus 30%), and
  3. Either invest vast additional sums in the grid (perhaps $100 billion) or accept brownouts when the wind wasn’t blowing.

Again, I’m totally up for that. My electricity consumption is probably already two-thirds below the US average. My typical electric bill runs just about $30; I’m sure I could stretch my budget to cover $70 if the payoff was no more carbon in the air and no more sending buckets of cash to people who hate us.

But based on the way people actually behave, I’m forced to assume that most people would rather burn the planet and fund terrorists than turn off the AC, downsize the car, and pay up for organic, locally grown food.