Category Archives: Real Life Example

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:


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.

Living in the City vs. Living in the Country: A Discussion of GDP and Sustainability

A rural run to the super

I talked with a young man who is a native of Drake Bay, Costa Rica, about his experiences living in the big city, in San José. One of his remarks got me thinking. He pointed out that although he made more money in San José, he also spent more money. In fact he said that after working for a few years, all he had to show for it where his clothes and a computer.

Furthermore, he said that the common activities in San José all cost money. Fashion is a big deal, so if you want to fit in then you need to earn money to shop, to buy the clothing and shoes that everyone else has. And as for typical leisure activities, these included going out to watch a movie, and going out to eat with friends. Everything not only costs money, but is also counted as “economic activity” which contributes to “GDP” which is a key measure of a country’s “level of development.”

But then we got to talking about his life here, in a small, remote town on the coast of Costa Rica that’s accessible via 4×4 on one road that tends to wash out during the rainy season. There’s no mall here, there’s no movie theater, and the fashion trends here, such as going shirtless and shoeless, look little changed from when I was on the coast in Sámara, Costa Rica eight years ago studying Spanish. The local general stores mostly sell staples, and of the goods they are selling, what they have tends to be generic, or used, and in any case not that desirable. And so although this young man may make less money here, he’s actually putting more money away, while enjoying a higher quality of life. He likes to hike, and there’s an endless variety of amazing, free hikes to be had around here.

But also consider that all his activities here, and the lack of them, generate no measurable economic activity or GDP. From a sustainability perspective, it’s great, but economically it looks like backwards movement. There is a weird rich world perversion with “progress.” A lady on the same snorkeling tour I was on remarked that a large school of fish we’d just seen “seemed lost; they were just going in circles; they didn’t know where to go.” I replied “maybe they were just hanging out.” Coming back to economics, just hanging out can easily be a free activity, and thus one that creates no GDP and pays no salaries. Does that make it useless, or perhaps very useful?

Before tourism really arrived in Drake Bay about 12 years ago, people here grew their own food. Apparently kids who are 17 and older all know how to grow food, but the kids younger than that have no idea at all. Again—growing your own food—no GDP, but buying food that’s come from somewhere else, probably produced on a large farm by machines—that’s GDP, that’s “progress.”

I have this sense that as a society, we are that school of fish that’s going in circles, but unfortunately we’re not just hanging out. Rather we’re eating ourselves, little by little, in a vicious cycle away from living in harmony with nature, and further towards consuming nature, of which we are an undividable part.

What I ask myself is if I’m willing to part with the creature comforts, to work towards living in a profoundly more sustainable way, or if I’m bound to continue being yet one more set of jaws in the gnawing school of fish that is humanity.

Chinese rural farmers are a worry for centralized government control

The New York Times is running an interesting series of articles on how the Chinese government is working to accelerate urbanization, by moving rural farmers off of their land and into apartment blocks in new cities. The first one is titled Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push from From to City.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough and the edges, but independent. On the left we have a city-dwelling family, fully under government control.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough around the edges, but independent. On the left we have a polished-looking city family, fully under government control.

The stated intent of this move is to drive the Chinese economy and to improve the standard of living for rural Chinese. There are so many problems with this in terms of sustainability that I don’t even know where to start, although I’ll try anyhow.

The New York Times article points out several of the challenges that the residents themselves are facing, such as no jobs in these new cities, and no money to pay for the electricity in their fancy new apartments. And of course there’s a the very valid perspective that these are not really optional relocations, but rather something that the government is pushing people into. It’s enough to make me want to reread the US Constitution, especially the Fifth Amendment and the Second Amendment, especially now that we know that the US government outright lies to us, supposedly for our own protection. Thanks.

I see some serious problems with China’s plan:

This is about government gaining unhealthy power over people.

  • A city dweller needs the government badly, or they’ll starve.
  • A rural farmer who can feed themselves doesn’t need the government.

City people are rough on the environment.

  • A city dweller lives high on resources from “elsewhere” and is disconnected from the impact they’re having on the world.
  • A small plot rural farmer uses few resources to live (because they don’t have money to throw around) and takes care of their land so it keeps producing over the long haul.

City people survive on the whims of international trade.

  • A city dweller–and indeed a nation of city dwellers–is intimately tied to the fortunes of mass market farming operations that are often very far away.
  • A rural farmer doesn’t care about the whims of other countries, international spats, farming policy in far off continents. They just grow food locally, and set aside for lean years.

City living requires huge inputs of energy, that are already waning.

  • City dwellers live based on the flow of oil, gas, coal that fuels their unsustainable lifestyles. They are living in a way that will not be possible in a matter of decades.
  • Rural farmers know how to live based on what they have available, without needing these inputs. Having said that, recent years and creature comforts have likely made them somewhat reliant on fossil fuels however they are miles closer to knowing how to live with the land than a city person is.

Bottom line: the rural farmer, in spite of being less comfortable, controls their destiny, as long as the government stays the heck out of the way. The city dweller is a cog in a larger machine, in which they have very little say. No wonder the Chinese government wants a country of city people.

I can see why China would have a motivation to do away with small plot rural farmers. Looks to me like “Cultural Revolution Light, run in reverse.” I bet this road is also paved up and down with good intentions–too bad it’s a fully unsustainable path.

My favorite resources for post-fossil fuel living

I was recently at an inspiring “unconference” in the Bay Area on the topic of sustainability, and I met many fascinating people with good questions. From those conversations, I decided to put together a list of the resources that I’ve found the most relevant when thinking about what living in a world with dramatically less fossil fuel use.

My top 3 recommended resources

1. Here’s the book that “changed everything” for me around sustainability. It is well written, makes a lot of sense, and doesn’t preach. Greer pretty much lays out what he sees, and lets you decide what you think. A provoking concept here is “if technology doesn’t bail us out yet again, THEN what happens?”

2. This is a fascinating book on the Soviet Union’s collapse experience. Since it happened relatively recently, it’s a great way to consider “what might it look like here.” I couldn’t put this down once I started reading it, because it’s not speculation, it’s a recording of what happened. He does a wonderful job of showing how the USSR had several structural things going for it that softened the cushion of collapse. These include most housing being state owned (so nobody got evicted or foreclosed on) and all housing being mass transit accessible (so people could get around without cars). I highly recommend this book.

3. Here’s a collection of post-peak short stories that Greer edited. There’s a great variety of future visions in here, and all are well thought-out:

Fiction, albeit well thought-through and grounded

More resources


Running the numbers on electric car fuel savings

A neighbor recently asked me for my opinion on the potential cost savings of a fully electric car. I looked around on the Internet but wasn’t totally satisfied with what I found.

What I found was missing from popular media articles is the effective cost of electricity. In California we have tiered pricing, and so once you go over a certain level of electricity use (130% of a defined baseline that is currently 335 kWh) then you end up paying much more: 30 cents per kWh as opposed to 15 cents per kWh. Charging a car uses a lot of electricity, and so I wondered “what happens to your energy savings if you get pushed into the next pricing tier?”

Also I have a natural disdain for breathless hype, and lazy reports, especially when the math needed to put together real numbers is something that enthusiastic elementary school kids can readily do. So I busted out my grade school arithmetic and put together  this nifty spreadsheet:

XLS: Costs to run a gasoline vs. electric car in San Mateo

I decided to only compare fuel costs, and disregard differences in upfront purchase cost, maintenance costs, battery replacement costs and so on and just looked at what it costs to make the thing move. I *did* put in real numbers based on a variety of user reports, energy costs, and so on.

Here’s a summary of what I found:

If you commute 29 miles each way, 5 days a week, in a 2012 Chevy Volt, then your costs per mile come out as follows:

  • Chevy Volt on gasoline (at $4 a gallon): 10.8 cents per mile
  • Chevy Volt on battery, Heavy electrical use household: 6.8 cents per mile
  • Chevy Volt on battery, Efficient electrical use household: 3.6 cents per mile

So at least on the basis of fuel costs, it looks like there are decent savings to be had. Furthermore if you think that gasoline prices will continue marching upwards, faster than electricity costs, then those savings will grow over time.

Of course if you really want to “change the game” then move to a bike-able,  transit friendly community and drive much, much less. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.

Living like it’s 1899, in Greenwich England

The other day I was sitting down for coffee with a very knowledgeable person whom I met at a Transition Palo Alto book group meeting. We got to talking about how much we rely on technology, to the point that it’s become invisible to us. He recommended that I watch a couple of videos about TV shows where families are put in a setting of “yesteryear” and then we all get to experience what it was like.

One of the series he recommended was done by the BBC and is called The 1900 House. The producers found an old house near London built around 1900, and they found an adventurous family with four kids willing to live according to the time period, and off they went. It’s really well done.

What I remember most from the series is the challenges that the family had with hot water. At first the vintage wood burning stove wasn’t working well enough to heat water for baths. So not wanting to wash in agua ambiente Anglaise, they just didn’t take baths for a while. And then when the hot water did finally function, they were extremely excited. It made me realize how easy it is to take readily available hot water for granted. And of course for many people in the world, it’s not something they can count on at all.

Another place where hot water came into play was in washing clothes. The mother of the family (since dad was at work, remember this is 1900) talked a lot about how much hard work, and how much time, it took to do the laundry by hand. They had to heat large buckets of water with wood fires, and then do a lot of scrubbing and pressing. Plus the soaps that were available in that era were terrible. By the way, do you know how to make good laundry soap? Neither do I. So next time you see your washing machine, say a quiet thank you.

The water theme continues in the one thing that the family did that was against the rules of the experiment. Imagine after all of the commitment to the show, the knowledge that the cameras are running, what could possible lead mom and daughter to finally break down and go around the rules? Shampoo. Basically there weren’t any good shampoo solutions in 1900, and so after trying numerous home remedies to have more comfortable hair, they finally snapped and went to a local drugstore.

It brings to mind that if you grew up without a luxury like shampoo, you don’t know what you’re missing, but once you’ve had it and gotten used to it, it’s hard to go without. The ladder of convenience and comfort is much easier to climb up than it is to climb down.