Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Peak Unsustainability?

This is one hell of a moment in history.

It's interesting in how the forum is going along, and the level of keen interest that's been generated even in one short week. I really sense, and I'm sure a lot of you do too, that we're living through a unique, even epic time. There's still a lot of confusion and denial out there floating around, and the fear of what's ahead explains a great deal of all that, perhaps even excuses a bit of it. No matter, what's coming is coming and rather than debate it's time to prepare.

The synchronicity of the moment is so shockingly unlikely on one hand--and so obviously predictable on the other that one cannot help but be a bit bewildered. We're seeing something I guess I'll call Peak Unsustainability for lack of a better term. Isn't it more than a little crazy that the housing market would collapse, primarily because people overbought, assuming an obviously unsustainable level of asset appreciation would continue forever? At the same time, they bought huge vehicles, assuming an obviously unsustainable supply of near freebee fuels would pour out forever? At the same time banks decided that they could carry a seemingly unlimited amount of debt on their books, assuming that they'd be able to float an obviously unsustainable amount of leverage forever? At the same time, of course, agricultural regions around the world begin to suffer a permanent drought, brought on by soil loss and the destruction of aquifers--and policies and practice that seem to by and large assume you could pump water at whatever rate you wanted to out of that well, in an obviously unsustainable manner--forever? The list goes on and on and on--in fact, one finds few individuals, or industries, or nations even, that haven't completely ignored their "balance sheet" and haven't run up completely unservicable debts not only in the realm of finance, but against our ecosystems, our croplands, our climate, even the integrity of our communities, institutions and personal relationships--the wealth and common good and even good will and trust has been completely looted. And to make matters worse? All of this wealth was squandered--tossed away on idle entertainments for the mega wealthy, trinkets for the rest of us, and, oh, I guess we got a couple of sex flicks out of Paris Hilton. . .

Obviously, key to to the lack of sustainability in the past was the complete neglect and even willful evasion on the part of most everyone in keeping good books. The amount of credit received either from bad loans or squandering natural resources was vast, but by and large kept in those mysterious "off balance sheet" assessments that now need to get valued. . .and so the response? Attempt to keep the party going by trying to squeeze even more blood out of that wrung out turnip. . .print money and expand the economy! Growth! As if this policy isn't obviously unsustainable and will only drag us deeper into the hole--but certainly patent unsustainability hasn't restrained anyone in the past, and it looks at this point that pumping that well will continue with bigger and bigger pumps until only dust comes out. . .

We have a lot to learn from this tendency. First, we must personally keep a rigorous accounting of our own practices. It's going to matter. Not only is unsustainable practice unsustainable, it's about to become rapidly and increasingly unaffordable, and as such no longer an elective for most. This will be a very big change in how things are done, oh boy--especially as we wind down a whole lot of people are going to find that they were sold out.

And they aren't going to be happy about all that.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Any of you ever actually catch a banshee by the tail before?. . .

It happens, sometimes.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sustainability vs. Self-reliance.

Let's not confuse the two, as it can lead to sloppy thinking and bad planning.

Let's take the case example--one familiar to me--of preparing a sailing vessel for a voyage. That sailing vessel, it is obvious, needs to be self-reliant. Even a week at sea will shake out a great number of possible problems that must be within the means of the vessel and crew to deal with without outside aid. Both Homesteads and Seasteads need to have the capacity to operate in a self-reliant manner much, if not the majority of the time. Certainly in the context of ocean sailing many of the dangers one may face are pretty transparent and obvious. With homesteading ashore, at least in the context of recent history--many of the dangers are much less well understood. There is a fixation with many with growing food--but as with Seasteading--one can quickly find out that food self-reliance is the easiest thing to achieve. It's the first step, and a critical step, and must be achieved, but there's a hell of a lot else to think about as well.

While Self-Reliance is certainly a value to be sought after--sustainability requires a community. Certainly the more self-reliant one is, the less often one will need to call on the services of the community that one cannot provide for oneself--but it is unrealistic to think that one is going to provide everything. You will need sail cloth, cordage, chain--and while it's possible to consider or fantisize about providing all of those things for yourself--it's a lot more efficent to allow someone in a community that has far more interest in weaving cloth or spinning fiber to take on that task rather than dinking away at it yourself. At the very least, someday, somewhere, you're going to get sick--and unless there's someone to bail you out, your self-reliance will come to an end.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Forum is Booming!

Thanks for the interest. I'm certainly open to any suggestions in how to improve and or make it more useful. . .

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Food Forest


Here is an interesting video I was just introduced to. It's pretty interesting and is very similar to what I'm working through here. Interesting to see even many of the same plants. It's worth a look.

Here's a picture of my place booming along:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


A thought last night as the quiet rains fell on the hapu'u, and I beside the cheery woodstove with a glass of wine and the Les Paul. A comfortably sore back from planting but a full belly. A lot of the world seemed a long long way away.

We must remember--the secret ingredient that unfailingly is able to convert despair into beauty--heroism.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

One meal per square foot?

Well, not quite, unless perhaps I toss in the bird.

Seriously though, I'm really coming along on this whole thing.

The U'ala Piko sweet potatoes I can attest conservatively produce at .5 lb per square foot per year. I've 1500 square feet of those and plan to double that here in the next couple of months. The potatoes alone will give me 100% food self-sufficiency and double as a very effective cover crop. I've written about this in detail before. As well, any extra or culls can easily be put into ethanol production with relatively high yields. The U'ala is a basic and reliable survival crop that with a years efforts can bring most any homestead in the area into near sustainable status.

They're good eats too. 

You'll note above the sweet trick I'm giving away--the corrugated PVC roofing made into 12 foot hot houses. Perfect solution for my area building greenhouse space--bug, slug, vog and chicken proof for a 1 buck a square foot. I grow perfect greens in these and it makes my previously difficult crops flawlessly successful. It would be impossible to greenhouse for less money. Besides, you're growing in real soil so the flavor--and nutrition is much higher than anything one could possibly produce in a hydroponic situation. Here I am again, giving away a million dollar idea. . .ah well, what the hell. Beets, carrots, and spinich in those in the pictures, and the herb garden on the left. 

God, I can grow some honking big sweet potatoes up here. . .that sucker in my hand must weigh 4 lbs.

Here's an interesting read. . .


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Oh yeah, the easy way the sailor cooks Taro.

Throw it whole in a pressure cooker and nuke it.  1 hour.  Take it out and peel it. You can't fail. Be careful not to overdo it. . .use it like you would any other starch at that point or just eat it.

Never trust the candidate that big money supports.

It's about damn time someone starts asking this question:

As well as a whole lot others, like what the hell Tim Geitner or Holder or any of these other scamsters that are doing in this whole supposed administration of change? All Obama has done thus far, except for some token crap to keep progressives convinced that they haven't been suckered, is to take Bush's economic policy and push it twice as much.

As well, get ready for the "bailout" of Madoff's investors that he rams down our throats. . .I saw this coming months ago. . .

Peak Food: growing taro as a basic staple.

It would be next to impossible to find a basic staple as effective for the small homestead as taro. It is no mystery as to why the ancient Hawaiians and others throughout the Pacific revered it so highly--what is a bit of a mystery is why in modern times taro production and consumption has been much diminished. I expect the main issue is that few anymore cook "slow food" sorts of things, and a great deal of misinformation about "toxins" in the plant has discouraged others from even giving it a try. It's hardly any big deal--and any Hawaiian homestead is incomplete without at least a few of these plants.

I grow a number of different varieties here on the shoulder of the Volcano, but mostly I focus on table taros as opposed to poi taros. Yes, there is a difference--in flavor, in consistency, in the amound of "bite" in the raw corm and all the rest. It's important to discover not only what grows best in ones area but also what style is best suited to the usages you expect from the plant. As I use the taro personally as a basic starch in most everything, the firmer table taros are what I focus on, although many do very well.

In the climate I have, most varieties go from very small 'oha to maturity in perhaps 13 months. I find due to the moisture it's often best to harvest small to avoid disease and root rot, but all in all I haven't had much trouble with any of that. Most of the types I grow produce perhaps 6 'oha through their growth cycle, so you can get a bit of an estimate of how long it takes to get a sustainable taro patch up and running. You had better expect 2 years to really be functional. Don't expect to run out and just purchase a bunch of plants. While many farmers are generous indeed with their plants--it's important to realize that they're a valuable gift that you just wouldn't want to toss away to anyone. You'll figure out why. . .as well, you don't want plants from just anyone as it's very easy to import a disease that will destroy your efforts forever. Be aware, there are pitfalls in this as in anything, and the plant is so important to sustainable success here you don't want to make any big errors.

All in all the plant is easy to grow if you give it good practice and sensitive attention.

Please be considerate. These plants are very emotionally valuable to some here, including this atheist. Think like you're planting crucifixes, and your taro patch is a temple of sorts. Don't be some pinhead hippy stoner about the whole thing, so in touch with yourself you're about to get twitchy, ahem, or elsewise. Don't pretend you know what it means to the Hawaiians--you don't. Understand what it means to you, which may rapidly become every bit as valid. Respect a plant that embodies hope. As magical as the plant is, you'd have damn insensitive not to get it. Of course, if you're that brain dead, you'll never be able to grow it, either.

There are people out there more knowledgable than I, for sure, when it comes to this sort of thing that you'll find to get you started if you look. I don't know of anyone else on the island that is growing at my altitude, however, so perhaps there is something to (re)contribute here to the lore. Historically they did, but no longer. At this point I don't really have any huli to give away, as I just replanted, but within the year should be at my goal of 1000 or so plants and will be in a better spot to be helpful to others. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Peak Food: the obvious strategy

So, in light of this, it doesn't take a lot of insight to figure out that increased food prices, and increased taxation, even outside of the context of price inflation and stagnant wages--growing one's own food is starting to make a hell of a lot of sense. Even at this point it's starting to make real economic sense, and especially for couples the model of one wage earner and one gardener is very attractive. The garden produces implicit untaxable(so far) income and it's disproportionally valuable. Clearly it will only become more so.

So, what to plant? I think the mistake that I see most often is that people get all fired up about planting tomatoes and herbs and the like, which is good--but not at the cost of neglecting staples. Many assume that major staple foods like rice and wheat will be available if expensive but garden crops like the above will not. This is not what history suggests: Actually the basic staples are the first thing to go. Again, we've already seen this with rice, and to some degree both corn and wheat. In the age we live in, these common and traded commodites are also much more vulnerable to market manipulation--whereas other crops are not. This is a risk as well. Also, we face competion from the biofuels market for things to eat--this as well has caused a great deal of price pressure on basic staple crops. I do not see any of these trends easing any time soon.

The great difficulty is that the majority of staples are difficult to grow in a garden setting. They tend to be best cultivated in large land holdings and with mechanized cultivation methods. Growing wheat in a small home garden is a near pointless exercise and a waste of space. While one can grow beans, or chickpeas, or even corn and potatoes--and certainly I grow a lot of sweet potatoes--yields beyond what basic subsistance requires are often difficult to come by. Few options exist, and careful research is bound to be important. Ask, what is it that you're going to eat every day? It's not going to be lettuce. What will be the backbone of your homestead?

Peak Food: the economics of eating.

Let's make a few assumptions to preface the conversation and put it in the context of sensible simplicity--meaning efficiency, right?

Let's look at the average individual in round terms at the moment--and the food issue.

This person makes 20000 - 25000 dollars a year at the prevailing wages of 10 to 12 dollars an hour.

This person eats 3 meals a day. Of course they eat out all the time at McDisgustings and the rest--but assuming they might cook on occasion--it's very easy to assume a food budget of 20 dollars a day if one isn't surviving on complete poverty food. Dry goods across the board at the moment will cost most of 2 dollars a lb--adjusting back and forth for calorie density--and those who have provisioned for "voyages" or elsewise will recognize that 3 lbs per day of dry food in the mix is very sensible. If you're going to throw in anything remotely healthy like a vegetable or two adding a couple of bucks a meal is easy, and if one isn't sedentary throwing a bit of meat in there can easily add another couple bucks.

At 20 dollars a day in food it costs over 10000 dollars a year in earnings. Remember this poor bugger is paying a dollar of taxes on every 3 of earnings. A 20 dollar a day habit will eat 30 bucks of wages a day--and you eat 7 days a week while working 5.

So, let's assume the price of food across the board doubles. Rice did last spring, at least, and this isn't really very radical a notion.

Can the average American worker withstand a 40 dollars a day food budget? Consider as well that it costs 60 dollars of wages to earn that 40 after taxes--obviously not, as you've ate your wages completely and then some. If we assume this person again pays 500 dollars a month in rent, 100 bucks a month in utilities, and nothing at all on cigarettes--honestly, a doubling of food costs is something that simply cannot be borne. In fact, the situation gets very rapidly into the case that it simply doesn't pay to go to work--as it will cost one more in expenses to get there and feed oneself than the prevailing wage pays.

The point of this post is to observe that the median wage earner in this country is so pinched in terms of monthly income that there simply isn't the extra money to overcome large food price increases. So don't think that hardship will be isolated to the remote deserts of Africa. . .

Peak Food:

It's getting timely to insert this term into our collective jargon as the reality is right around the corner. It looks very possible to me that this summer will herald the arrival of the first of the global famines, as we crush up against the inescapable fact of our unsustainability. Sooner than I would have expected, certainly, but we've learned a great deal in the last few years about how the supply/demand relationship is more sensitive and inelastic than one might have thought, and how small changes in availability can create large cost spikes and bubbles, especially in a world with commodity speculation and the ETF's. We saw a quite the bubble in rice prices last year and spot shortages, and we can well expect to see the same this summer. 

The day in which a 50 lb sack of rice was cheaper than a 50 lb sack of potting soil is gone forever.

We'll look into this issue in a bit more depth in the next couple of posts. If we use the motif of "preparing for a voyage"--as it isn't far off reality--we'll have a better sense of what sustainability really means in a practical manner. The issue is likely to be very practical.

It was a little over two years ago that I stood in a Costco in Los Angeles a bit agast at the flies of consumerism crawling over the shit--and I happened to see a pre-packaged tray of sushi in the fridge case. Fraiser River Sockeye! the package screamed, Bleck, I thought to myself, in a Costco in L.A.? but my eye caught the words(product of China). A closer look was warranted at this point.  Can you imagine that there was a moment in history in which things were so cheap that you could catch a fish in Canada, freeze it, fly it to China to have people cut it up and make sushi out of it, pack it in into wonky little 30 piece trays, fly it back across the Pacific Ocean once again to Los Angeles, and the whole thing can be bought for 12 bucks, including the half of the entire product which won't be bought by anyone and be pitched in the trash? God, I wish I had taken a picture of that. . .

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Waena--putting the "perma" back in permaculture

One understands "waena" gardening when one understands that the skill involved is understanding each plant and cultivating it in a near natural state in a place that it flourishes. Most agriculture techniques or even permaculture techniques attempt to modify the local environment to suit the plant. Of course borders on each of these concepts become vague and blurred but--there is a big difference between walking out on ones property, finding a spot X, knowing that plant Y will grow in plant X, and planting plant Y--rather than attempting to cultivate plant Y on site X and using a cat to hammer the land into condition to do so. 

As James Lovelock often points out, one of the things that's difficult about the modern "eco progressive" movement in general is that by and large the majority of its proponents are middle to upper class urbanites. While they may be very educated about ecological issues in a theoretical sense, they are often very disattached from the realities and practical issues of a non-recreational life in harmony with the land. Just a little. One large and very well promoted permaculture project right down town Los Angeles comes to mind--while an amazing example of fine gardening--a farm kid would immediately ask how on earth one pays the mortagage on a square block of prime real estate worth 2000 bucks a square foot with bok choy. He may also ask where in this permaculture project one gets the water--to which the trendily dressed vegan anarchal-feminist will point to the pipe, of course, dummy.

So what's special about waena? Not a great deal. It's another type of subsistance lifestyle(that's what they used to call permaculture before grant money was invented) that many of our ancestors lived. Subsistence lifestyles are by nature "sustainable" or people die. Plenty have died and still do and more will yet. This is one of those realities and practical issues of a non-recreational life in harmony with the land. But, as subsistence goes, waena is a particularly good style of a particularly fine climate, and the crops it relies on are particularly fine and reliable. As well, Hawaii is only a 100 or so years removed from this kind of lifestyle being commonplace, as opposed to perhaps 500 in Europe, so the idea of working within a natural state and the means of doing so aren't so lost or alien. Since any sort of better or survivable future will require a restoration of as much of the natural state as we can--pressing new land into service for agriculture, even permaculture, is simply not a tenable option.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Waena III

So what are the risks of waena farming, or the downsides? Few, really, especially in an uncorrupted ecosystem. A previous cleared area, especially one cleared and neglected, will require a great deal of time and effort to weed and remove invasives and grasses, but within the forest itself simply removing the false staghorn, by mulching and controlled burning historically--and immediate planting with taro or u'ala one will get good results. Since the forest encourages small patches in multiple zonal habitats, the likelyhood of pest infestation or weed introduction is limited simply by isolation. In a day with new bugs and viruses all the time not having all one's eggs in one basket is pretty sensible!

For weed control I use the u'ala sweet potatoe (piko) as a perpetual cover crop. Bare ground will rapidly become infested with something, so one may as well infest it with sweet potatoes! The sweet potato at least in my area seems to be of very little interest to many insects, and seems to work well as a border barrier as well protecting more vulnerable produce. The single biggest mistake one can make is to open a garden plot without any immediate usage. It will rapidly become infested and the work involved will be radically increased. If you're foolish enough to clear and let the guava get going, you're going to be duly rewarded for your neglect.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Waena II

So let's look at the primary advantages of this technique. Pictures tomorrow maybe, if I feel like it.

For Hawaii, or any rain forest climate, certainly having multiple dry and wet zones where both upland and wetland plants can be cultivated is a huge advantage. Since taro is the backbone of the Pacific one would have to be nuts not to grow it, in fact I'd go so far than you have to be nuts not to give it a try if it's even remotely possible. You can hardly get a more perfect staple, and the plant is near magical in its loveliness anyway--something I can't say for, well, perhaps barley, which makes me sneeze just thinking about it. Since with taro the low holes and muddy spots are already spoken for, with a sustainable yield potential of possibly 2 lbs a square foot-- the rest of sustainability is easy. Taro is especially valuable because it's labor intensive, but labor intensive for everyone. There are no effective mechanical harvesters, and everyone is in the same position--for a market crop it makes a lot of sense. I focus on high end table taros, not poi taros, because they historically have grown better in my areas than anywhere else, and look like they still do. It's worth looking into. 

Man, I can grow taro that comes out of the ground and tastes like a twice baked potato straight up, with the sour cream and butter built in. Thanks, Jerry! Some of that and a couple cups of kava and I'd need precious little else. . .

These muck holes in the rainforest are generally so rich and anerobic than near nothing can live in them. They are unutilized space in the native forest as even the plants more or less used to the area will die of root rot. Not taro. Planted with taro, in this sense, per acre, the bioresperation of CO2 is markedly increased--the native forest is unimpacted, but the yield is maximized by perhaps even a factor of 2. Too good to be true? Well, we'll think about that tomorrow. There are things to think about.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Waena farming in Puna, Hawaii.

The term "waena" stems from the Hawaiian term "waele" meaning "to clear of grass." In a cultural context waena style farming is an ancient practice of farming in an agriforestry setting. Historically it was most practiced in Kona, Ka'u, and Puna, but in the last century many of these techniques have been lost and the upland farms have been abandoned for lower level elevation properties and techniques. In some way my project here is rediscovering the wheel, but the the need is timely. Much of the valuable lower altitude agricultural land has foolishly been lost to development and a fair bit of the farms still in operation are somewhat vulnerable to drought and introduced pests. These issues do not face the prospective higher altitude farmer who works in harmony with the forest, and as far as I can see this may be one of the most valuable techniques for the would be homesteader/permaculturist in any mid to high altitude tropical environment.

My acreage here near Volcano is in a natural state, with virgin forest and a good deal of natural topography. There are many peaks and ridges and holes to be found, with a vertical relief of perhaps 10 feet. Obviously many zones that require sensitivity the needs of various plants to flourish and it is easy to make mistakes. The major food staples of taro and sweet potatoes do very well here indeed--and to have one's nutritional needs covered with reliablity is more than many can hope for.

The main advantage, however, is this--you don't screw up the ecosystem. There is no clearing or machinery involved, and if one were to cease production within a decade, for certain, the site would return to a natural state. This is no small thing and far more responsible and low impact than many "green" concepts out there. Of course yields are not as high, hypothetically, as they might be with a cleared lot and flat ground--but neither are the infrastructure needs. The vast majority of fertility and composts come from the site itself in a proven sustainable manner--the ohia trees are excellent soil builders--and with careful culling of limbs, thining, and utilization of biochar the whole makes for an uniquely viable system.