Friday, March 8, 2013

Why I Use Toilet Paper

On the surface, the answer is trite and obvious, and this may seem like a strange topic, especially for a blog concerned with the "big picture".  The timing may be puzzling, too, unless you follow The Archdruid Report, where his did discuss sewer districts recently.  The point he was making was about forming local associations to deal with local problems.  I and several others made the point that dealing with your own waste is best done at an individual or household level.  The problem, of course, is when your neighbors refuse to properly deal with their own waste and try to pass it along to you.  This, then, becomes a management of the commons issue, which was the post John Michael Greer put up three weeks before.

Back to the issue at hand, there are several arguments against using toilet paper.  From the prepper/survivalist crowd, you hear that toilet paper is an industrial product which will not be available after a major collapse, so you might as well get used to it now.  Environmentalists say that it is very resource intensive for something that just gets used once and disposed of.  Some who have switched to rinsing say they like the results better.  These are good arguments and I agree in principle that at some point I will need to switch.

So why haven't I?  First and foremost, I live in town connected to a sewer system which I am obligated to pay for and to which I can only attach approved plumbing fixtures.  Mullein might make great cowboy toilet paper, but I don't dare flush it.  Health codes do limit my choices too, although composting toilets are an option. Of course, for composting toilets, toilet paper is a good source of the carbon needed to keep odors down. From the collapse standpoint, a weakness of bidets is that they require a supply of fresh water under pressure. And if you use a washcloth, you need to have a means of washing it.  So, you really have to consider your sewage system if you decide to stop using toilet paper.

But there is a much, much larger issue, one that you probably intuitively grasped at the very beginning of this article.  Toilet paper is just one small piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing for the future.  It is relatively cheap, especially if you can get it on sale, and especially because it can have a very long shelf life.  Not only does it take time to set up a system that does not use toilet paper, it takes time to maintain it.  On the flip side, you can save some money.  What each person has to do is evaluate where to invest his or her time to get the best payback.  For me, for now, toilet paper is not the answer.

We must manage our time and choose our priorities as we make the Long Ascent.

Friday, February 22, 2013

What Are You Living For?

Bug: Place your projectile weapon on the ground.
Edgar: You can have my gun, when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.
Bug: Your proposal is acceptable. 

-- From Men In Black

In response to the recent mass shootings, President Obama proposed 23 Executive Orders to limit gun ownership, New York passed a new gun control law, and many new laws have been proposed.  The response has been dramatic: gun sales have gone through the roof, sheriffs are vowing to refuse to enforce the law, and some are proclaiming a second American Revolution if people from the Federal government come to take their guns.  The majority of Americans, though, are horrified at the thought, if they think of it at all.  "Nothing is worth dying for" is a popular sentiment.

Charles Rangel has once again reintroduced legislation to reinstate the draft.  His point, as it has been since he started in 2003, is that war is a terrible thing and if military service were involuntary we might not go to war so quickly.  That is a fine sentiment, especially when the wars were already unpopular under George W. Bush.  Today, however, that could backfire, as people are starting to think it a good idea to replace war-weary troops, especially since record numbers are dying from suicide.

I'm sure there are many reasons why this is happening.  I would like to highlight something James Howard Kunstler pointed out years ago in The Geography of Nowhere: we have transformed our neighborhoods into sterile places that we don't care about.  Once the four lane highways and the strip malls and the big box stores and the skyscrapers come in, every place starts looking like every other.

So, to go back, people say "Nothing is worth dying for", but, would you really want it said of you, "S/He died for nothing"?  Everyone has to die sometime.  Ideally it would come after a long, happy life, but that is not always possible.  The worst is a slow, painful, pointless death.  What makes an early death tolerable is if it is meaningful, if it serves a purpose.  It should be a purpose that the person dying felt was worth dying for.  And if you know what is worth dying for, you know what you are living for.

The Long Ascent will be very difficult.  Only those who know what they are living for will want to make the trip.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Ascender's Creed

I am not a Prepper.

I am not a Survivalist.



I will not worry about every possible hazard we could face.

I will focus on the future I want to create.

I will steadfastly work towards achieving that future.

I will only worry about the things I can control and leave the rest up to higher powers.

I will follow the principle of ensuring that every function is covered by multiple elements and every element has multiple functions and trust in the resiliency of the system.


I believe that entering such a future is purely a matter of choice, collectively and individually.

I believe that we can choose those futures at any time up to the point of extinction.

I believe that the sooner we choose such a future, the easier the transition will be, the more people will be able to make the transition, and the more comfortable and prosperous that future will be.

I call it The Long Ascent because in the end we will only choose one, but at this point there are many paths open.  Where do you want to go?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tools vs. Machines

I'd like to expand one idea I alluded to in the Death of Tyranny, that the Industrial Age was brought about by making mechanical slaves.  In my language of patterns, the difference between a tool and a machine is that a tool helps you do something while a machine does it for you.  The distinction isn't always clear cut; in between scythes and lawn-mowing robots, you have the options of reel mowers, push mowers, self-propelled mowers, riding lawn mowers, and lawn tractors (not to mention cows, sheep, rabbits, ducks, etc.) for getting your grass trimmed.  While there are important philosophical reasons not to even have machines as slaves (especially Cylons), today I am more concerned with the practical side.

One rumor I have heard from the very early days of industrial automation (circa the 1950s), they had to make a choice between analog and digital robots.  Analog robots were cheaper to produce, easier to maintain, worked faster, required less power, were far easier to modify, and did much more precise work.  Digital robots only had a single advantage: they didn't require an full-time operator.  In other words, analog robots were tools, digital robots were machines.  I think we all know which choice they made.

Nor is this question just a matter of history.  I love what Marcin Jakubowski is trying to do over at Factor-E Farm.  I truly wish him the best of luck in completing his Global Village Construction Set.  Honestly I think what he is doing there is the best chance of maintaining a high level of technology as we move off Hubbert's Mesa.  I just hope he has the time to complete it.  If you look at his Compressed Earth Block Press, you will clearly see it is a machine.  Just give it power and dirt and it will spit out blocks for you.  Contrast that with the Auram CSEB Press.  It is completely human powered.  There are no fancy hydraulics or gears or belts to break down.  It is basically just a box with a giant lever.  The GVCS Press will clearly win on a per person or per machine basis over the Auram one.  But there is much less that can go wrong with the Auram.

On the Long Ascent, machines can be useful, but good tools are essential.

Friday, October 5, 2012

An End to Literacy

You may be surprised to see this topic in this blog.  If you are a long time reader, you have rightly come to expect basically uplifting posts about possible positive futures.  On the face of it, this topic can seem quite discouraging.

Let me first state, I am talking about an end to literacy, or more exactly, one possible end.  This is not like the death of tyranny, where the outcome is like that for cancer that has metastasized; the question is not whether the cancer will live, the question is whether it will kill the patient in its process of dying.  Nor am I talking about the complete extinction of literacy; like calligraphy after the invention of the printing press, writing may go from a major industry to a rare hobby.

Nor do I view literacy as a bad thing, or even as a needless luxury.  Tripp Tibbetts wrote a good post on the role of books in the preservation of knowledge; the Leibowitz Society is an excellent if infrequent blog on that general topic.  What made literacy so special was it allowed the transmission of knowledge from one person to another without being in the same place and time.  As energy availability declines, the second part may grow greatly in value.  It is quite conceivable certain knowledge will be forgotten only to be learned again from books.  Not having to travel to meet in the same place is also an important consideration; after all, everyone reading this blog probably is literate.  If this was a podcast, I couldn't be quite as certain.

Therein lies the key.  Knowledge no longer needs to be printed to be transmitted.  Videos are more complex than books and are more likely to decline with the availability of energy.  Once books are made and distributed, using them takes little energy, at least during daylight hours, but the costs of production and distribution are not trivial, and they are subject to mildew.  However, while audiobooks require much more storage space than ebooks, they are much smaller than regular books, and earpieces are much smaller, simpler, and more resilient and energy efficient than screens.  As long as we retain the technology to crystallize the abundant earth of silicon and print circuits on it, we should be able to continue make audiobooks.

On the Long Ascent, your MP3 player might just be your library, too.
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Friday, September 28, 2012

The Forgotten Sister

Remember the HMHS Britannic?  If not I'm not surprised, very few people have even heard of her.  She was the slightly larger sister to the Titanic, a name which is familiar to most, especially after the film by James Cameron.  The third ship in the White Star line, the Olympic, had a long career, but the Britannic was sunk in its first year of service -- not quite as spectacularly short as the Titanic's, but still quite short.

Why then is one a tragedy of epic proportions and the other a minor footnote in the annals of World War I?  Because every single person was able to get off the Britannic.  Now, 30 unfortunate souls in 2 lifeboats did die when their crafts were caught in the propellers, but there were 1036 survivors.  They had redesigned the craft so that there were more than enough lifeboats for everyone: 48 lifeboats capable of carrying 75 people each, or 3600 total.  They even designed it so that all the lifeboats could be launched from one side of the ship, in case the ship was leaning to one side.

What was the real difference?  What made the sinking of the Titanic a tragedy and not merely an accident was the faith that it was "unsinkable".  Once the shipbuilders realized that their design could sink, it wasn't too hard to make the ship survivable.  They did also add a double hull, a standard in still in use today, but while they work great for icebergs and rocks, torpedoes and mines pretty much ignore them.

This blog is not about history, however, and this is not just an interesting anecdote.  We stand at the same juncture, and this time billions of lives are at stake, not thousands.  Others will tell you we face a dark future ahead, and to be honest, that is likely to be true.  But all that really stands in our way is our faith that our civilization cannot collapse.  We still have the capability to make a smooth transition, but it requires people to stop thinking we can keep going as we have.

We all can make the Long Ascent if we choose to.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Death of Tyranny

One year ago today I started this blog.  The choice of a date was purely a coincidence. Originally I intended it to use it as an entry in John Michael Greer's contest for short stories depicting a future of declining energy usage.  However, I am not much of a fiction writer, but I do love writing essays, and for decades I've been crafting a vision in my head of a possible positive future with greatly reduced resource usage.  I've slowly been revealing bits and pieces to you during this past year.  Since today is a special day I wanted to share a special piece

Aaron Copland wrote a wonderful piece of music called "A Lincoln Portrait".  No matter what you think of his actions, Lincoln did have a powerful way with words.  My favorite quote is from the middle of the piece, from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of October 15, 1858:
When standing erect he was six feet four inches tall, and this is what he said.
He said: "It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says 'you toil and work and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.
Brandon Smith wrote an excellent article a couple weeks back on Alt-Market entitled "How to Defeat Tyranny".  Very importantly, he did not entitle it "How to Defeat a Tyrant".  That is fairly easy.  We have witnessed it at least twice in the past decade, in Iraq and Libya.  But if you just get rid of one man another will frequently take his place. (My apologies to any other female dictators out there, but tyrants do tend to generally be men.)  What Brandon talks about is defeating the spirit of tyranny.  As such it is very much a spiritual striving, a crusade or jihad in the best senses of the words.  As Lincoln said, if you want to force anyone to do your bidding so that you may benefit at his or her expense, you have a tyrannical spirit inside yourself. 

Neither Lincoln nor Brandon Smith went far enough, though.  They can be excused for only facing the most immediate struggles.  However, that is not what this blog is about.  One of the most important themes Daniel Quinn has in his classic book Ishmael is the story of the Takers and the Leavers.  I don't want to go too far into that now, but the Takers are about, as Paul Wheaton so colorfully puts it, "making Mother Nature your personal bitch."   The Leavers try to change things as little as possible.  What Quinn misses is that there are two antonyms to "take".  Not only do you have "take it or leave it", you have "give and take".  So in addition to Leavers and Takers, you can have Givers.  If you can manage to give back more than you take, there are no limits.

This brings us back to the tyrannical spirit.  People are beginning to understand now that ethics does not just apply to how you treat other people.  If you just take from Nature without ever giving back, you still have the same tyrannical spirit.  IT DOES NOT WORK.  IT HAS NEVER WORKED.  IT WILL NEVER WORK.  The difficulty is that the problems accumulate over generations.  Unless you have the correct perspective, you may think it is working, like someone falling out of a building saying "See? I'm not dead!" as he passes every floor.  Nature only has so much to give.

I just want to say here that I am saying this not as someone who has won the war over that tyrannical spirit within myself, over even as one who wins more battles than he loses.  I just know that it is a fight that needs to be fought, and while I may frequently need to pick my battles, I always keep fighting.

Victor Hugo said, "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come."  I say there is nothing so dangerous as an idea whose time is about to pass.  It is time for the very idea of tyranny to die.  The thought that you can get something without giving something back must be extinguished.  And it will be, whether it takes the deaths of 7 people or 7 billion.  Like drawing money out of a bank account, if you take it out faster than you earn interest, it doesn't matter how large it was to begin with, eventually you must go broke.  Nor does it matter how many #10 cans you store or how many cases of ammo you cache.

So what is the opposite of tyranny? Husbandry.  From the bacteria in our guts and the fungi on our skin to the food webs in the rain forests and the oceans, we must care for all forms of life, helping them so that they may in turn help us.  This is the only way we can survive.  This is the way we will thrive.  This is the Long Ascent.