[A-List] Two Lessons in Practical Ecology

Bill Totten shimogamo at ashisuto.co.jp
Thu Dec 23 02:38:25 MST 2010

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (December 15 2010)

These days, the news coming out of America's political and financial
centers evokes the same sort of horrified fascination that draws onlookers
to the scene of any other catastrophe. Investors spooked by the Fed's
willingness to pay for deficit spending by printing money are backing away
from US debt, and the interest the US government has to pay on its bonds
has accordingly gone up, gaining a full percentage point in the last month
and putting pressure on other interest rates across the board.

In the teeth of this stinging vote of no confidence from the bond market,
the Obama administration and its Republican allies in Congress - chew on
that concept for a moment - are pushing through another round of spending
increases and tax cuts that the government doesn't have the money to pay
for. The ratings agency Moody's has warned that if the current spending
bill is passed, it will have to consider downgrading the once-sacrosanct
AAA rating on US government debt. Exactly how the endgame is going to be
played is still anybody's guess - runaway stagflation, a hyperinflationary
currency collapse, and a flat-out default by the US government on its
gargantuan public debt are all possible - but there's no way that it's
going to end well.

All this makes the topic of this week's post particularly timely. Across
the industrial world, people have come to assume that they ought to be
able to buy ripe strawberries in December and fresh oysters in May, and
more generally food in vast quantity and variety on demand, irrespective
of season. That assumption relies on using wildly extravagant amounts of
energy to ship and process foodstuffs, and that by itself renders the
eating habits of the recent past an arrangement without a future, but
these same habits also depend on a baroque global financial system founded
on the US dollar. As that comes unraveled, an old necessity most of our
grandmothers grew up with - home processing and storage of seasonal foods
- will become necessary once again, at least for those who don't find
scurvy and other dietary deficiency diseases to their taste.

Food storage is a subject that calls up strong and often contradictory
emotions, and sometimes inspires actions that don't necessarily make much
sense. Rumors are flying just now in some corners of the peak oil
community, for example, that the sales freeze-dried food has spiked so
sharply in recent months that suppliers are unable to keep up with the
demand. This may well be true, but if so, it shows a certain lack of
common sense; unless you plan on living out of a backpack during a
financial crash - and this is arguably not a good idea - there are many
better and cheaper ways to make sure you have some food put by to cope
with breaks in the supply chain.

Nor is food storage really about stashing food in a cellar in order to
ride out a crisis. A century ago, nearly everybody in America processed
food at home for storage if they could possibly do so, for reasons much
more down to earth than expectations of catastrophe. They did it primarily
because the foods available year round in a temperate climate typically
don't provide a balanced diet, much less an inviting one. Absent the
energy and financial systems that make it look reasonable to fly fresh
food from around the world to stock supermarkets in the United States
throughout the year, good sources of vitamin C are mostly to be had in the
summer and fall, meat tends to show up in a lump at slaughtering time in
October and November, and so on; if you want these things the rest of the
year, and you don't have a functioning industrial economy to take care of
that matter for you, you learn how to prepare foods for storage in season,
and keep them safely stored until wanted later on.

The ways that this can be done, interestingly enough, make a very good
lesson in practical ecology. To keep food in edible condition, you have to
engage in what ecologists call competitive exclusion - that is, you have
to prevent other living things from eating it before you do. Your main
competitors are bacteria and other microorganisms, and you exclude them by
changing the habitat provided by the food until it no longer provides the
competition with the resources it needs to survive.

You can do that by changing just about every ecological variable you can
think of. You can make food too cold for bacteria to survive; that's
freezing. You can make food too hot, and keep it enclosed in a container
that won't let the bacteria back in when the food cools down; that's
canning. You can make food too dry; that's drying. You can change the
chemical balance of food to make it indigestible to bacteria, but not to
you; that's salting, brining, smoking, corning, and pickling, among other
things. You can get sneaky and keep food alive, so that its own immune
system will prevent bacteria from getting a foothold; that's root
cellaring, and a variety of other tricks commonly used with cold-hardy
vegetables. Alternatively, you can get even sneakier and beat the bacteria
to the punch by deliberately infecting food with a microorganism of your
choice, which will crowd out other microbes and change the food in ways
that will leave it in edible condition for you; that's fermentation.

Which of these is the best option? Wrong question. Depending on where you
are, what foodstuffs and other resources you have to hand, and how long
you expect it to take for various parts of the current order of things to
come unraveled, almost any mix of options might be a good choice. It will
almost certainly have to be a mix, since no one preservation method works
best for everything, and in many cases there's one or another method
that's the best or only option.

It's also wise to have a mix, because methods of preserving food differ
among themselves in another way: some are much more functional in a time
of energy shortages than others. If your food storage plans revolve around
having a working freezer, you had better hope that the electricity remains
on in the area where you live, or you need to make sure you have a backup
that will function over the long term - and no, a diesel generator in the
basement and a tank of fuel doesn't count, not after the first few weeks
of fuel shortage. That doesn't mean that blanching and freezing some of
your homegrown garden produce is a bad idea; it means you need to have
something in place to power the freezer well before the brownouts start to
happen, or you need to be prepared to shift to another preservation method
in a hurry, or both.

This points to a second good lesson in practical ecology that can be
learned from food storage, though this one's a lesson in practical human
ecology. Technologies - all technologies, everywhere - vary in their
dependence on larger systems. When comparing two technologies that do the
same thing, the impact of their relative dependence on different systems
needs to be included in the comparison; if technology A and B both provide
a given service, and technology A is cheaper, easier, and more effective
than technology B under ordinary conditions, technology B can still be the
wiser choice if technology A is wholly dependent on an unstable system
while technology B lacks that vulnerability.

This much should be obvious, though all too often it isn't. It's
embarrassing, in point of fact, to see how often a brittle, complex and
vulnerable technology dependent on highly questionable systems is touted
as "more efficient" than some simpler, more reliable and more independent
equivalent, simply because the former works somewhat better on those
occasions when it can be made to work at all. Just as you don't actually
know how to use a tool until you can instantly name three ways to misuse
it and three things it can't do at all, it's a waste of time and resources
to buy into any technology unless you have a pretty good idea in advance
of its vulnerabilities and the ways it tends to fail.

This sort of thinking can and should be applied throughout the green
wizardry we've been discussing in the last five months or so of posts, but
food storage is a very good place to start. Let's say you've decided to
blanch and freeze some of the vegetables from your backyard garden. That
can be a good choice, at least if you can expect your electricity supply
to remain stable for the next year or two; still, you owe it to yourself
and your freezer bags of Romano beans to take a moment to work out the
downside. What are the main sources of electricity in your service area,
and how will they be affected by likely changes in fossil fuel prices over
the next couple of years? How does electricity get to you from the grid,
and is that connection vulnerable? When does your service area tend to
suffer blackouts, and how long do they tend to last? Are there ways you
can keep a freezer powered for the duration of a longer than average
blackout? Does one of those ways seem like a sensible investment, or would
it be smarter to shift to a less vulnerable method of storage?

More complexities slip in when you remember that there's often more than
one way to power the same process. You can dry food, for example, in an
electric dehydrator, but in any climate that isn't too humid, you can also
dry food in a solar dehydrator. This is basically a black box with small
holes in the top and bottom, covered with fine mesh to keep out insects,
and trays of screen-door screening stretched on wooden frames inside, with
the food spaced on the trays to allow air circulation. The sun heats the
box, air flows in through the bottom and carries moisture away through the
top, and the food dries with no other source of power. When you've got
adequate and reliable electricity, an electric dehydrator is more
convenient and reliable; when you have reason to think that electricity
will be expensive, intermittent, or not available at all, the solar
dehydrator is usually the better plan.

In many cases like this last, though, the best option of all is to have
and use both - the more convenient and reliable technology while you're
still on the learning curve and the larger system that supports it is
still there; the more resilient and independent system in a small way all
along, so that you learn its quirks and can shift over to it full time
once the more complex technology becomes nonfunctional. In the same way,
it can make a good deal of sense to blanch and freeze garden produce while
you're still learning your way around using home-dried foods, or to can
your pickles in a hot water bath while you're still getting the knack of
older pickling methods that don't require airtight containers.

In a time of faltering energy supplies - not to mention the spectacular
self-destruction of national finances - this sort of thinking can be
applied very broadly indeed. The strategy of a staged disconnection from
failing technologies, made on the basis of local conditions and personal,
family, and community needs, offers a pragmatic alternative to the forced
choice between total dependence on a crumbling industrial system, on the
one hand, or the usually unreachable ideal of complete personal or
community independence on the other. The backyard-garden methods discussed
in earlier posts are founded on that strategy, and most of the energy
conservation and homescale renewable energy production methods that will
be central to the first few months' worth of posts next year rely on it as

There's a reason for this ubiquity: the strategy of staged disconnection
is the constructive alternative to catabolic collapse. A society in
catabolic collapse, running short of necessary resources, cannibalizes its
own productive assets to replace resource flows, and ends up consuming
itself. The strategy of staged disconnection is not catabolic but
metabolic; it taps into existing resource flows before shortages become
severe, and uses them to bridge the gap between existing systems that are
likely to fail and enduring systems that have not yet been built. At the
same time, if it's done right, it doesn't draw heavily enough on existing
systems to cause them to fail before they have to.

That's what could have happened if the industrial world had pursued the
promising initiatives of the 1970s, instead of taking a thirty-year
vacation from reality that cost us the chance of a smooth transition to a
sustainable future. On the collective scale, that's water under the bridge
at this point, but it can still be done on the smaller scale of
individuals, families, and communities.


Food preservation and storage are among the few subsets of green wizardry
where old information can land you in a world of hurt. If you intend to
take up canning, in particular, you need up-to-date information; for
example, the relative proportions of sugar and acid in today's tomato
varieties, as compared to those fifty years ago, are so different that
recipes that were safe then can land you with botulism poisoning, that is,
quite possibly dead, if you use them today. Your county extension service
can point you toward accurate information on safe canning, and so can the
current edition of the Ball Blue Book.

Not all methods of food preservation are as volatile as canning. Though
it's always wise to check for updated information, some of the classics
are still well worth reading. My library includes Mike and Nancy Bubel's
Root Cellaring, Grace Firth's Stillroom Cookery, Phyllis Hobson's Making
and Using Dried Foods, Carol Hupping's Stocking Up III, and Stanley
Schuler and Elizabeth Meriwether Schuler's Preserving the Fruits of the


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids
in America {1} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of
subjects, including The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the
Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World
(2009), and the forthcoming The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival
Mattered. He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in
the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star's Reach,
his blog/novel of the deindustrial future {2}. Set four centuries after
the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative
fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our
descendants tomorrow.


{1} http://www.aoda.org/

{2} http://starsreach.blogspot.com/



More information about the A-List mailing list