Back again, with much to say

It’s been a while since I wrote anything. In fact for the last few years, I even let the domain name expire. But that changed about a month ago.

I was at a baby shower where I met a young man from Japan who is here studying sustainability in design. I found him to be intelligent, well spoken, and thoughtful. Although his program has a grounding in the “sexy” elements of “green design,” he understood very quickly when I spoke up about “deep sustainability.” I was inspired by his openness to new ideas.

The more I talked, the more I realized that I’m still very passionate about deep sustainability. I have a lot to share. And also that there aren’t enough voices talking coherently on this critical topic.

Since my last post, some years ago, I’ve traveled to some interesting places, including rural Japan, and seen firsthand examples of the practices of deep sustainability. I’d like to write about that.

And incidentally, while on a flight I enjoyed a fictional Japanese movie called Survival Family about the power going out–for a long time–in all of Japan.

In fact Puerto Rico is going through this experience right now. San Francisco and the “Peninsula” are pretty close to an island if all of the bridges were to close due to a large earthquake. We could have our own Puerto Rico experience. I will be writing about that.

Although my energies are currently focused in other areas, I continue to hold passion for deep sustainability, and I look to spend more time getting hands on, and of course, writing.

If you’re reading, let me know. It’d be nice to know that there is an audience, although I’ll write either way.

Why “new” cultures have had a strong few hundred years, and why they’ve got a built-in sunset clause

We were at an Afghan restaurant tonight and it occurred to me that the cuisine we were eating could all probably be sourced in Afghanistan. Nothing needed to come from around the world, and furthermore I bet the recipes have been around for a long time.

In contrast, what passes for modern day “new” culture is sourced from around the world, and has very few years on it. That naturally begs the question as to why the “new” cultures is in such a dominant position now, and what one might expect going forward.

I think one of the keys is to look at a culture’s capacity to deal with certain types of change. A relatively old culture has a stability to it that speaks to sustainability. However I speculate that with such stability also comes less flexibility, and less capacity to change as the situation changes.

With the unlocking of fossil fuels–first coal, then oil and natural gas–there was a sudden, huge, unprecedented change in the availability of energy per capita in the world. Of course it wasn’t evenly distributed however it was available, more and more, in an initially positive feedback loop that extracted–and used–more and more energy. And with Jeavons paradox, greater efficiency led to even greater use, not less use.

Given a seemingly endless supply of energy, a culture that has little history can be extremely nimble in taking advantage of new opportunities. The old, time-tested cultures will be suspicious of the new flood of energy, and the things it brings, and as a result will be marginalized. Although in the long game, being able to live sustainably off the land and not fluidly using non-renewable “bonanza” fuels might make sense, in the short game, it seems crazy. Why forgo heat, comfort, plentiful food, and endless “recreation?” It really depends on one’s sense of time frame.

The old cultures may be strict, they may be inflexible, they may be “boring” by comparison, but damn it they last. Sure, they evolve over time, as a part of nature, but they don’t suddenly go in a totally different direction.

It’s interesting to look at the case of Japan, in how it did and didn’t change after opening up in the Meiji era, and also after World War II. In Japan you have a very old culture, very much based on the land. On the one hand, when Japan opened up to foreign ideas, technology, and visitors, many outward changes happened. Also with World War II, a lot of things changed on the surface in Japan. But I’d argue that under the covers, much of the culture is as it has been for a long time. The traditional foods are still there, and still popular, and many people still actively care about where their food comes from.

Having said that, for now Japan seems to continue careening ever further away from its sustainable roots. And now with an economic strategy of printing huge amounts of money, Japan will either have pulled off an amazing economic comeback, or will be the proverbial “moose in search of a windshield” and go down in a ball of economic flames.

Consider the old analogy of the grain car which tips over mid-route, and spills grain on the side of the tracks. Now expand this analogy to include two types of rats, those that adapt quickly, and those which do not. The rats which adapt quickly will readily eat the excess grain, gain weight, and multiply rapidly. In the short run, as measured by numbers and territory, these “new school” rats would seem to be on top of the world, and doing well.

In contrast, the “old school” rats would continue to eat what they’ve always eaten, and be to some extent pushed aside by the “new school rats.” They’d seem to be on the losing side of things, and in danger of being out-competed and eventually dying out. However they still know how to live off what the land can provide.

And as long as the grain lasts, the “new school” rats will seem to be doing really well. But when the grain runs out–and once it starts to run out it’ll be totally gone fairly quickly–then the game changes.

The old school rats have lived within their sustainable means and, assuming that the environment hasn’t been too badly trashed, can bounce back. However the new school rats have forgotten how to forage, and are so dependent on the sudden bonanza of grains, that they die off.

The question is, can we choose which kind of rat we want to be? And is there any benefit to being an “old school rat” if you are surrounded by the “new school” type that will eat all of your carefully preserved resources? Food for thought.

Learnings from this year’s county disaster preparedness day

So I live in earthquake country. To my west I have the San Andreas fault, and across the bay there is the Hayward fault. Furthermore I live on land that is built on “bay mud” in a poorly built 1960 4-plex. Thus it behooves me to be prepared for a major earthquake.

I’ve been doing my research on this, and trying to figure out what to have ready, and to be honest it’s not easy. You’d think it would be, but it’s not. Part of the reason is that the official earthquake preparation manuals assume that the “cavalry” will ride in within, oh, two or three days. Yeah right. We’re surrounded by water on three sides, and the only road in here has lots of ancient overpasses. Oh, and the nearby airport is basically below sea level. Thus I think it’s a safe bet to say that we really ought to prepare to “dig in” for a couple of weeks, maybe longer.

Thus having done the reading that I could on my own, I set out to the county fair with a list of questions to ask. It turned out to be a very fruitful morning–many of the experts I was looking to find were all in one place, some by design, and some not.

This is overwhelming. Where do I start?

Pound for pound, this is the best preparation general preparation guide I’ve seen, available free online and as a PDF download.

No, really, how long should I be prepared to stick it out?

The people in the know are all saying at least two weeks. And frankly, after watching what happened with Hurricane Katrina, this doesn’t sound far fetched at all.

Where’s a good reunion spot? 

People I talked with had done a lot of preparation, and so they felt that their home would be a good spot, since they have the supplies to ride things out.

Will the land underneath me LIQUEFY in an earthquake?

Roughly speaking, soil liquefaction is where the shaking of an earthquake causes the ground to become like quicksand. You can imagine what happens to a house when the ground liquefies beneath it.

I ran into a soil scientist who lives less than a mile from me, on the same bay mud!, and he said that bay mud in fact DOES NOT liquefy. And so although we’ll have lots of swaying, we won’t have the ground liquefying beneath us. So that is very good to know.

Having said that, if I cruise on over to the USGS website, they say we’re in a high risk liquefaction zone:

So I don’t know what to think. Maybe I’m an optimist, and I want to believe the soil engineer I talked with?

Will the natural gas be turned off at a central location?

The short answer, for the peninsula, is NO. From what I understood, from someone who works in the industry but not exactly on this issue, is that there are trunk lines along 101 and 280. And then there are many branches. Furthermore the supply is form a combination of storage facilities and piping right from “the source.”

So as it stands now, there’s no good way to “turn the gas off for the neighborhood,” from what I understand. Apparently there is an effort to make valves that can close automatically in an emergency. Right now at best it’d be techs in trucks driving out and turning things “by hand.” And that in parts of San Francisco, for instance the Marina (which reliably is on fire in a decent shaker) there are such shut-offs that work on a more local basis.

The net of it is that you’d better know how to turn off the gas to your place, and to your neighbor’s places too. The caveat is that you don’t want to do this unless it’s clear that it’s the thing to do. Just because we get a magnitude 5 sway, don’t run outside and turn everyone’s gas off! But if it’s clear that the shizzle has indeed hit the fizzle, do what needs to be done.

I’ve got power lines going through my backyard. What do I do if they go down?

I spoke with the nicest guy, Ted Honey, a retired lineman who does safety trainings now. Here’s what I remember him saying; verify everything for your own safety:

  • stay 25 to 30 feet away from downed power lines
  • [and here’s the kicker] even if the central electricity is off, a downed line can hold a charge for quite some time. So even if the power is out, you can still get killed by a downed power line.
  • the techs have various ways to go out and test a line to see if its still got charge, but they have special equipment and they know what they’re doing
  • if you have trees that are growing close to the distribution lines, PGE will come out and trim them for free
  • although they won’t trim trees that are growing close to the line that comes into your house, they WILL at no charge disconnect it for one day so your (licensed and insured) tree trimmer can trim them safely.

As an aside, I finally understand now why birds don’t get fried from standing on a power line. The short answer is that they are in the air (not grounded) and that they are only touching ONE line and not multiple. A large enough bird that extended its wings to touch two lines would be toast.

Could a tsunami be a danger to us?

So, moving right along, how about a tsunami? Although we’re not on the coast, we are on water that eventually connects to the ocean. And given that a tsunami is a big surge of water, couldn’t that cause a problem?

There was a guy from Carmel who works in some official tsunami capacity, and he mentioned that although the 2011 Japan earthquake did send waves here and through the Golden Gate, those waves pretty much went north east, in the Sacramento direction, and not around the bend and down the bay. So I’m thinking we’re OK.

The other factor is that where I live there are sluice gates separating the “lagoon” from the bay, and so those gates provide a certain capacity to isolate the water level of the lagoon from that of the bay.

Where is the bigger picture plan for the county?

I’m generally pretty good at finding things on the internet, but I just couldn’t find this for my county. As luck would have it, the county sheriff’s office had a table right next to the soil engineer, and so when I asked them, they knew. If you are interested, for San Mateo county it’s here:

and apparently it’ll be updated soon.

What should I put in my first aid kit?

The clever–and accurate–answer is things that you (or someone around you) knows how to use. So buying the fanciest kit available may not be worth it.

Probably the best answer is to take a first aid course, and ask your instructors what should be in your kit.

Here’s one take:

WHAT are the hazards in my area?

Here’s a pretty nifty website which lets you zoom in on a location and see what might happen:


If earthquake preparedness is a stretch, peak oil preparedness is a pipe dream

I’ve spent some years thinking about–and preparing for–how I see our world changing in the coming decades. Some months ago, while doing my personal quarterly planning, I realized that I’d missed something big–huge in fact. I’d missed my preparation for the NOW in terms of earthquake preparedness.

I can speculate about how trends in availability of fossil fuels, and net return on energy, are changing the world. And it’s just that–a big guess. But the reality of earthquakes in California and the Pacific Northwest is far from speculative. It’s geology. From what I’ve been reading, in the 1000 year view it’s very predictable that these areas get BIG earthquakes (I’m talking 9+ magnitude) every few hundred years give or take. So it IS going to happen, we just don’t know when. And it’ll be a big deal when it does happen.

The funny thing is that in spite of that degree of science and certainty (there aren’t any earthquake deniers that I’ve heard of), getting people to take earthquake preparedness seriously is like pulling teeth! And we’re not talking “change your profession, learn to grow food,” we’re talking “buy some emergency kits, strap down your furniture, and make a reunion plan.” Not rocket science, but also not particularly common, either, if you ask around.

Thus it shouldn’t shock me too much that there is just so little interest in looking seriously at energy trends and saying “what does this mean, and what should I do about it?” To really embrace those questions takes a lot of abstraction, imagination, and courage. It is the few who are really looking at this, and it is a tremendously unpopular topic, other than amongst these few.

My instinct, in part informed by the late Ed Friedman, is to work with the willing and the capable who are energized by these questions, rather than trying to “convince,” “change,” or “bring along” the reluctant. I bet this is by far the highest probability way to move things forward–to work with the willing.

The Bigger Picture in 8 Points

From Dark-Mountain; they nailed the predicament we’re in. Although the energy issues aren’t explicitly mentioned, I see them showing up in several of these points.

A related NYT times article, It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine.


‘We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’

  1. We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.
  2. We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.
  3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.
  4. We will reassert the role of storytelling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.
  5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.
  6. We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.
  7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.
  8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

Resources for pondering a de-industrialized future

Here is a list of top-notch resources. I can heartily recommend any of these–it just depends on what you’re in the mood for.


5-part fictional short story; 50 (?) years into the future. Greer wrote this to give color to 5 key factors he sees driving the future, and what happens. Read the bottom post on the page first.’s+story&max-results=20&by-date=true <>


Fiction book, set ~50 (?) years in the future. Very well constructed scenarios; thought-provoking. Has a sequel, too, which is also good.


USSR collapse, first-hand account. They had a number of things going for them–that we don’t–that softened the blow. If you plan well ahead, there are concrete actions you can take.



Argentina economic collapse, first-hand account. He advises preparing in a number of ways, now while it’s easy and relatively economical. This isn’t theoretical–he actually went through this.



BBC series about a family living for several months in a very old house in London, 1900 style. They spend a lot of time doing certain everyday things that we take for granted because various technologies do them for us.

PBS series about 3 families living like pioneers in Montana in the 1800s, over a summer. Fascinating to see what goes well, what doesn’t.

History Channel series on what would happen if people suddenly left the cities. Fascinating to see how quickly infrastructure crumbles. The best episodes include scenes of real life towns that have been abandoned. As the money runs dry for routine maintenance, cities get vulnerable and bad things happen.

Different roads to trashing the environment

Does this LOOK sustainable?

A gentleman I met here in the Costa Rican countryside told me he was 1 of 14 children in his family. He isn’t the first I’ve met; this isn’t uncommon in rural areas. Obviously it wasn’t his choice to be in a family of 14 kids, however it starkly points out one of the inherent challenges in the preservation of nature, if not for tourists then at least for the locals themselves. It leads to me to wonder about human beings as consumptive machines, no different from any animal, ready to procreate as much as possible, and consume as much of the environment as possible.

An interesting counter argument can be made, to point out that if the average rural Costa Rican consumes 1/7th of the resources of the average American (which is in the ballpark based on these statistics), then having 14 kids in Costa Rica is like having 2 kids in the United States.

The thing is that neither of these scenarios is sustainable now. Furthermore the growth curves look completely different. For the resource hog American case, those 2 children would have another 2 children, and give or take would roughly sustain their numbers. Energy hogs, yes, but with less growth.

In the 14 children scenario, carried out to another 14 children for each of the 14, would result in 196 grandchildren, and 2,744 great grandchildren. Try to picture that for a moment, 2,744 great grandchildren! Ah but you’re saying “This isn’t realistic! They won’t all have that many kids!”

OK so let’s look at this with each couple having “only” 6 children. That results in 36 grandchildren and 216 great grandchildren. So the land that was originally going to support two people is now somehow supposed to support 258 people, after the parents pass away. (Yes I know this isn’t apples to apples math; if someone can suggest an easy way to look at the math over time, I’m all ears.)

So what ends up happening? Obviously the children, the grandchildren will need to set out in search of lands and jobs. When you are hungry, wild forest looks really attractive as a place to cut down trees and start growing. Failing that, animals, endangered or not, look like a good option when you’re hungry.

If you’re really hungry, this looks like food

While walking along a coastal trail to a remote beach, I met a guy who has a turtle hatchery, and is doing his best to help as many turtle eggs as possible hatch, so that the turtle population can get reestablished.

However one of the challenges he’s up against, frankly, is hungry people who go out and take hundreds of turtle eggs at a time in order to eat. I get it, “why should a local go hungry so that I as a tourist, coming from my resource hogging country, can feel good that the local population of cute endangered turtles is recovering?” Frankly if it were me, and I couldn’t find other ways to eat, I’d probably be eating turtle eggs too.

But what I *would* do differently is that I wouldn’t go and have 14 kids, or 6 kids, or even 3 kids, frankly. I think 1 is about right, and 2 is possible, but it seems clear to me that the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth was overshot a few decades ago. Right now we’re using up the richness of fossil fuels, and the leeway of the environment, to make up the difference. But it’s not going to last. Having less kids and using less resources is critical.

This topic gets me really curious as to why the largest religions in the worlds are so heavily against birth control, and so heavily in favor of big families. I’ll do some digging and let you know what I find.