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A couple of our Ferraris fueling up

A couple of our Ferraris fueling up

Before they started fracking the heck out of the landscape, humanity was expected to run out of oil around mid-century. Sometime around 2010 we reached the peak of conventional oil production, leaving about 40 years of oil in the ground. Assuming a constant rate of decline, in 20 years (2030), we will have used up three quarters of the total amount of the stuff.

Yes, I know all these numbers are pretty variable. But five or ten years either way won’t change the speedily approaching outcome. Twenty odd years ago, the price of oil was $20 a barrel. Today it is over $100. What do you suppose it will be twenty years hence?

Which begs the question, without cheap fuel for all the machines around Smiling House, what are we going to do? Here are a few problems we face and what we’ve come up with for solutions.

Lawn Mowing

In the city, when someone replaces their lawn with no-maintenance rocks and mulch, they say they’ve zeroed their yard. We’ve been looking at the lawn around the house – which we keep mown both for aesthetics and to keep the mosquitoes at bay – and thinking of alternate solutions. Push mower? Gravel? Goats? So far, we have it in the back of our minds to use our horses and cows. It requires some additional fencing, but I think that’s the ultimate answer. We wouldn’t keep the critters there permanently, but it doesn’t take them long to mow a lawn. We can’t install those fences today because we need room in our yard to move Smiling House onto its new foundation. But I think that’s the answer.

Snow Plowing

Nora took the bull by the horns with this problem. We have a medium sized driveway, maybe three or four hundred feet. Of course, if there’s no oil (or no money for oil), we won’t really care whether we can get our car out. We’ll have horses to ride.

But in the interim, trying to be citizens with a conscience, how do we do a low-carbon plow of our driveway? With Nora’s love of animals, her answer was quick. We’ll use oxen.

I’ll let her write about using her cows as draft animals. The gist of our experience is this. For her first time training cows, she wanted something that wasn’t so big or intimidating as a giant-assed steer. So she bought two half-sized Dexter cows. Next came a training DVD and a local ironsmith made her a custom yoke. The rest was history.

It is surprisingly easy to train a cow to pull. Stop, go, left, right. It’s pretty much all you need. I make molasses cookies for our hoofed beasts and horses and cows will do anything for them. We still haven’t fully solved the problem of what our cows are going to pull to plow the snow. But we do know from YouTube videos that we have several options.

Food

As you probably know, our entire modern food chain requires oil and gas. From the farm where tractors and combines need them to run and crops need them for fertilizer, to the grocery stores, where everything needs to be trucked in, we are entirely dependent on fossil fuels.

Nora works in the field of food security. She knows how fragile machine is behind the grocery counter. What do we do without fossil fuels?

The answer for us is pretty simple. Produce our own. Of course, with 12 acres, experience in gardening and raising animals, it’s easy for us to say. But I know we’re not alone and that’s the main reason we have this website – to share our transition from city to country, from dependency to independence.

I always say, if you want to give up using fossil fuels for a task, be prepared to use your time and muscles for it. Oil is our slave, doing what we, or our horses or human slaves used to do. If you want to eat with a truly low carbon footprint, get ready for a tiring day. But hey, you can also get ready for some seriously tasty food and a ridiculous amount of personal satisfaction.

Heat

This one is fairly obvious. Where we live, the temperature can be in the minus 20s for weeks or even months at a time. The snow can cover the ground for six months or more out of the year. We get fuel for our furnace from natural gas and electricity from coal-fired power plants. Needless to say, we have a huge incentive to get off those two grids ASAP.

We’ve been looking at two solutions in detail: wood-burning stoves and geo-thermal heat. And because geo-thermal doesn’t heat a house very quickly during a sudden drop in temperature, it looks like we’re going to have to use both.

Right now, we have a conventional, gas-powered chain saw, but I have no problem switching to an ax and saw in the future. We’re also letting a portion of our meadow and hay field grow back into trees. Yes, we need the hay for our cows. But we have skilled hunters in our family, so we’re more concerned with staying warm than having steak for dinner.

When we finally get Smiling House onto its new foundation and start to restore it, we want to keep the style pretty much the same, so big south windows for solar heat is out. Instead, we want great insulation and heat from under the earth. I know that geothermal installations are expensive. But even little things, like pre-heating the fresh-air intake for the house using ground heat, will make a huge difference. And yes, I’ve thought of running lines under our manure and compost heaps.

Geo-thermal is the ideal for us. But if the economy or politics happen go south quickly, we have our wood stove.

Plastics

The world is filled with things that will not exist because of price or rarity in twenty or thirty years. Things that we are completely dependent on now, but that are built into the fabric of stuff our lives depend on. Why buy vinyl windows for Smiling House and not be able to fix or replace them? What about plumbing pipe, cutlery handles, drawer glides?

I always say, instead of buying stuff that can never be replaced, I’d rather buy the tools and learn the skills to build my own.

Not to go off on a rant (I’ll save that for another time) but that is my biggest beef about solar panels. They are cheap now and will last ten years. In ten years you will probably be able replace them. But given the declining availability of cheap oil, a worsening economy and the chance a climate change storm will blow them into the next county, what are you going to do in twenty years?

Transportation

When oil becomes even more expensive and the economy which depends on it declines in lock-step, I really don’t see a lot of private vehicles on future highways, electric or otherwise. Public transportation will surely see a resurgence. Trains and ships will replace most air travel and I’m thankful we can walk to the local train station from Smiling House.

Do I see the general population returning to horse and buggy days? Perhaps. Personally, we have horses. We know how to ride and train them and are surrounded by neighbors who are equally capable. I’m more than happy to go to town on my horse, summer or winter. And if I’m in the mood, there’s a bicycle in my shed just waiting to be ridden.

Not wax rhapsodic on some idyllic future of homegrown food, friendly neighbors and kindly animals, but I am looking forward to a reparation the social damage done by cheap energy and global thinking. I was just talking to our neighbors the other day about how few kids came around at Halloween. I blamed it squarely on the fact that in cities and acreage communities no one knows their neighbors, so why bring your costumed children to see them? In a future without oil, there will be no choice but to think locally. And thank goodness for that.