Monday, September 20, 2010

A Regional Magazine Article

An article in the "Lake Country Journal" September 2010.
Neighbor: Simple Living

By Tenlee Lund

“Sustainable” and “renewable” are more than just words to John Weber. A man who lives his beliefs, Weber has actually “walked the walk.”

For thirty years he lived “off the grid,” meaning his home was not connected to an electric utility. Since he was then living near Long Prairie, that meant facing not only daily tasks, but cold winters and hot summers without the convenience of power-on-demand. He pumped his own water and split his own wood for cooking and heating. Most of the electricity he consumed was generated on his own property via the sun and wind.

This was the culmination of a “back to the land” odyssey that began in the late 1960s, triggered by a return to his hometown of Hialeah, Florida.

“When I was growing up there was literally acreage between Hialeah and Miami,” says Weber. “I used to camp in a place that, when I came back on leave from the service, was a shopping center that was bigger than the city of Long Prairie. I thought, ‘Where did everything go? What happened?’

“In 1968, after I had finished a degree in anthropology, I remember looking at the Miami skyline and thinking, ‘This is not the way humans were meant to live and it will not succeed.’ It was an instinct kind of thing.”

Now, after more than forty years of dedicated study, Weber, an anthropologist and licensed psychologist, believes the key factor affecting the human condition is energy—its cost, production, and consumption.

Humans evolved from hunters and gatherers through the agricultural and industrial revolutions. “The major source of energy before the industrial revolution was animal power—horses, oxen, llamas—and humans.” Although he doesn’t advocate turning the clock back centuries, he does believe we can live at a much more sustainable level.

In fact, he’s convinced we are going to have to.

He cites historical data that shows the growth of the human population paralleling the use of fossil fuels—and the fact that current statistics indicate we’ve passed the planet’s peak oil production. As oil production declines and alternative energy sources struggle to fill the gap, Weber foresees global calamity.

“We are facing the biggest dilemma, the broadest dilemma, that humanity has ever faced because, without oil, we can’t keep six billion people going on this planet.”

And, although he supports wind and solar as transitional energy sources, he said they are not renewable because they require non-renewable elements for energy generation and storage.

“An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. But the wind generator and the solar panels are not renewable. It’s incredibly important to understand this because there is this hope being created of continuing ‘business as usual’ and the status quo, and that absolutely cannot be.”

Weber’s main concern is for food, followed by heat in a climate like Lake Country’s. “Food is very serious because we probably only have a thirty-day supply of food and people aren’t prepared. We don’t live like we used to live. If you go back 150 years, people had a larder, they canned food.”

Weber and his partner, Kathy Wagner, have a root cellar. They are building another one that will serve as an old-fashioned icehouse. Their goal is to store enough food to sustain them for a year.

They now live in a modern home near Longville that includes digital clocks and two computers—along with some noticeable differences. Their electrical power is supplemented by grid-tied solar panels, keeping their daily usage at less than three kilowatt hours, instead of the twenty consumed by a typical household. They can also go completely off-grid if necessary.

“If I had to, we could be sustainable within a week. It wouldn’t be fun, but we could do it,” says Weber. They can cook and heat with wood and pump their own water. They also own a forty-acre farm, designed to operate off-grid, where they’ve planted an orchard, blueberry patch, and truck garden. Water can be pumped using a unique bicycle rig instead of “by hand,” and the house incorporates passive-solar heating.

In the 1970s, Weber taught a class on simple living, challenging his students with this assignment: For one week, “as you walk through your world, everything you touch, ask yourself, ‘How much energy is used to create it? Where does it come from? Do I need it? Can I make it myself?’”

Today he teaches an equally challenging seminar, “Let’s Talk Energy,” through Northland Community Schools in Remer.

“I want people to start thinking,” he says. “I’m saying that the world you know will not exist and the change could be overnight, given what goes on in the economy. If we’re going to survive we’ve got to think it out. In order to do that you’ve got to get the mindset that ‘business as usual’ cannot go on.

“We live so ‘high on the hog’ in this country, we’re actually in worse shape than some of the undeveloped countries, because they know how to live without energy. We don’t.”

However, we may soon need to learn. And a talk with John Weber is a good place to start.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fall of Tomorrow

This is a piece I wrote for a novel entitled The Fall of Tomorrow that takes place in 2022.


September 29, 2022

Dear Shirley,

Hope this letter finds you. Okay poor joke. We have to laugh at the way things are these days. Or we . . . .
To start over, hope all is well with you. Things here seem okay. Yet when you look back six months things are changed, always downhill. The idiots at Channel 5 are still hyping like they did ten years ago. Remember how we use to make fun of it. Now, it is so sad. Like their smiles and words could bring it all back.
Hear tell, the side roads into the city can hardly be driven by the trucks. There were a few days when it was hard to get flour. My garden is just about done but feel lucky to get what I did out of it. The rain was so poor late in the season. It is crazy the way things have changed. Wet, wet, wet in the Spring and that hard drying the rest of the season. Got enough with some luck to make through the winter.
Closed off the upstairs. Moved the bed down into the living room with the help of Mr. Solsom next door. He’s younger than I am by a few years but working at that factory, smelling those fumes has made it hard on him. I am surprise we were able to get in down with it and us in one piece.
With the upstairs closed off and the little wood heater, I should be real cozy this year. I hope there’s no interruption in the gas this winter like last winter. I can cook on the wood heater but can’t bake anything when that happens.
How’s the water down your way. They had us boiling ours in July. Some old manure tank up river collapsed for want of repairs. There was an unpleasant smell to it but boiling made it safe. What a bother. I wonder how many of those holding tanks there are that will give way.
Can you remember when they use to have all those turkeys in big sheds, one on top of the other? Always reminded me of those big cities in Asia. Well, the plagues took care of those big cities. I count my blessings that it was so light up here.
What confusion. People didn’t know which way to go. If you have no oil do you go south to avoid the winter and freezing. Of course, the temperatures down there were unbearable in the summer. By the time they figure that out they didn’t have the energy to move. Yes, literally and figuratively.
The oak is dead.
Bill loved that oak. I remember the day we planted it 50 years ago like it was yesterday.
“This oak will grow and be beautiful just like us,” he had said. You know how he was. He use to love rake the leaves this time of year. Said it was a sign of more to come.
Have you had any more of those terrible sand storms. For a few weeks this summer I thought the wind would never stop blowing. Had to cover the garden at night with whatever I could find to keep the moisture. Hard enough to water each plant by hand. I really miss the sprinkler. Just turn it on and leave it. These changes are so sad.
I hate that the oak is dead. I wish it could have waited until after me. Losing Bill was so tough. Forty seven years together. He just couldn’t weather that damn flu. I’m afraid one of those winds will take the tree down. Lost one of the branches during that blow this summer. Will have to use it for heat this winter. I know I should be thankful that the oak is still giving to me. But it just hurts.
How are your grandchildren? I know it is tough to lose Sammy and Tommy to the flu. I was so sorry for you. Are the other three doing okay? What a world we have given them. Could you have imagined all those years ago that this is how it would be? What dreams we had. That little child down the block, well, I guess she isn’t so little anymore, is doing fine. It is strange about children. They just adapt don’t they. Not as easy for us old birds.
In many ways I am glad that Bill and I never could have children. For so many years that was so sad for us. But now, well, it certainly isn’t getting any easier out there.
Did I tell you about the snakes? I know you are use to them but we never had anything like that up here. Only garter snakes and they are harmless. Well, the heat changed all that. They just slithered right up here following the temperature. Now I have to watch were I walk and be real careful in the garden.
I wish the oak could have moved like the snakes. Did I tell you it was dead.