Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

The Pace of Change is Just Too Much

I read my local ‘day-old’ newspapers the other day and learned about the closing of The Guelph Mercury (in Ontario) and the “Nanaimo” Daily News (in British Columbia). These are newspapers that for more than 100 years provided local residents with independent news and editorial about issues of importance and relevance to them. The Mercury’s readership had dropped from 22,000 to 9,000 and they could no longer afford to print and publish it.

This follows a trend throughout North America of our traditional news organizations laying off staff and reducing service as they struggle to remain profitable. I love reading a local, hard copy, printed newspaper, but I don’t buy them. I just read out of date copies I salvage from friends and family. So apparently I’m not helping the cause. The one thing I’m not doing is getting my ‘news’ on-line. If I can’t find a newspaper I’m just as happy to be on a news blackout. Michelle would prefer a permanent news blackout for me, as it would result in way fewer ‘rants’.

So in the space of what, 10 years, we’re seeing the whole news providing model turned upside down. I know some people have switched to get their news on-line, but in most cases traditional news organizations have had trouble “monetizing” or making money from their on-line efforts. It’s tough to charge for something if there’s the perception that you can get it for ‘free’ somewhere else. Whether it’s as good remains a highly debatable issue.

When you start looking at “disruptive technologies”, things that radically change an existing way of doing things, you have to kind of wonder. Capitalism is ‘creative destruction’, which tears things down and builds new things, and we’ve all benefited from that. But now things seem to be happening at a faster pace than ever before, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Everything just seems a little out of whack for me right now.

Economies apparently are ‘hanging in there’, but oil is ridiculously cheap. If we hit ‘peak conventional oil’ in 2005 as the IEA said we did in 2005, how is it possible that the very life-blood of the world economy can be so inexpensive? Something’s not right here.

I mentioned in a recent blog about the perception from someone who took our workshop here that most of us didn’t use the internet for banking a decade ago. And now, many of us have shifted everything on-line. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to use a large financial institution and not do everything on-line. Banks seem intent on punishing luddites like me who like to have a ‘passbook’. I say it’s because I like to have an ‘audit trail’ of my transactions, but really it’s just something that started when I had a paper route when I was 10 and got excited every time I made a deposit and my bank book got updated. Man, not only will kids today not be able to get a passbook updated, there probably isn’t a local paper for them to deliver anyway!

Let me be the first to acknowledge that this just sounds like a rant from an old, first world male about how everything ‘was better in my time.’ I DID walk a mile out to the road in my subdivision to get the school bus. I DID ride my bike 12 miles to high school some days, without a helmet, on roads without paved shoulders. The fact that I made it past adolescence seems like a miracle some days. I understand that ‘nostalgia’ can get you longing for the old days. Heck, I long for the days when I could cut firewood in the bush all day a decade ago, and not wake up with my hands clenched in a permanent arthritic curl from the chainsaw and axe handle.

But I believe the pace of change today is unprecedented and unhealthy. I think our basic gravitational grounding is becoming unglued and it’s difficult to stay balanced. There is no one to blame, it’s just how humanity has chosen to evolve. The problem is now that those who want it to slow down, who want more balance have trouble getting there. The system requires 110% focus and devotion, and if you want to get off the train, it seems there aren’t any doors for you to jump out. Oh, and the windows are locked.

As we continue to discuss sources of income here at Sunflower Farm, I just keep coming back to growing food. It just seems to be an amazing, low tech, simple way to eek out a living. Big farmers spend the winter attending shows and training seminars on the latest technology from seeds to planters. They are awesome and I am grateful to them for growing most of our food. I spent the winter cutting firewood and organizing my tool shed, which ends up in a jumbled heap of disorganization by the end of each growing season. At some point I end up stepping on a rake that had been thrown in at an impossible angle, with the resulting blow to my unprotected head, which rapidly declining reflexes don’t allow me to prevent. I mean really, can I be that stupid? I’m just grateful to see what a great NFL color commentator Troy Aiken is, even after his numerous concussions. It gives me hope that I’ll be coherent several years (or months) from now.

If you enjoy this blog you have Michelle to thank. If it had been left to me I’m sure it would have been abandoned long ago. With the number of different platforms we have used, and the number of times each one of those has gone through a major upgrade which has forced a complete relearning of the basics, I just would have walked away. I remember selling computers in 1985 and finding that customers who came into the store inevitably had more expertise than me on their particular product, because I was trying to stay current on the 5,000 products in our line. I started my own electronic publishing business in 1987 and stayed on top of the software that I used for the better part of 3 decades. But I am now advancing towards simplicity in every way I can. Whether society as a whole chooses to follow me voluntarily or otherwise remains to be seen.

Each day I grow closer to unplugging from ‘the matrix’. Shovels and hoes don’t crash. You plant seeds. You water them. You weed them. They nourish you. They don’t need upgrading to the latest version for them to work on your current browser. Then you read books when the sun goes down.

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And now some reminders from Michelle! Don’t forget to sign up for our spring workshop. The date is Saturday, May 7th and we still have some spots left. Or, if you can’t come to our workshop but appreciate the work that goes into this blog and the costs associated with it, feel free to leave a tip in the jar at the top righthand side of this page. Your donations are very much appreciated! And Jasper thanks you too!

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Shorting the Whole System

I am amazed with the interest in the movie “The Big Short” among people I know. I was in fact amazed that someone thought the book was worth making into a movie. Clearly their hunch paid off because it seems to be doing quite well.

 

I loved the book. I had caught bits and pieces of the story of these traders since 2008 but Michael Lewis put it all together in a digestible form. It is brilliant.

If you’re not familiar with ‘shorting,’ it refers to the practice of betting against a stock or market, or perhaps betting that something will fall in value, as opposed to what most of us do when we buy stocks, which is to hope they go up. The traders in the movie were responsible for other people’s money and well in advance of the crash of 2008 they started to ‘short,’ or bet against the market.

In hindsight this sounds all pretty basic. Well, yea, obviously, why wouldn’t you bet against it … it was obvious it was going to correct in a big way. Well, it was to some people, but not the majority of people, including many of the people who had money invested in their funds, it was not. The years before the crash saw a huge run up in stock markets that looked like it was never going to end. So these traders took a lot of abuse from people who were watching other people make a whack of money in other funds. Or at least this is my recollection since I read the book years ago.

So they were pariahs for a long time, until they weren’t…at least to the people who stuck with them. Then they made a movie about them, after a book.

I was thinking about this concept in preparation for our upcoming workshop.  Many of the things I recommend would appear to go against conventional wisdom. Why would you heat that way, it’s not that convenient? Why would you bother doing that, isn’t that growing and storing food thing you do a whack of work?  Yup, I get it. It’s all a lot of work and a stupid idea … until it’s not. And then it’s going to look quite brilliant that you took these precautions.

I feel like with many of the things we do with a ‘preparation’ mindset, we are really missing the mainstream boat. We are ‘shorting’ the mainstream. A lot of this has to do with us realizing that the constant pursuit of money just leads to spending it, which isn’t the best thing generally for the planet. So from that perspective we feel good about it. From a prepping standpoint though I just think a lot of what we do makes a lot of sense.

I talk about this in my books and it’s the concept that nothing I recommend really has that big a downside. Investing in a solar hot water system is only going to save you money in the long run. Sure, it’s cheaper and easier to just keep using fossil fuels in the short run as you might right now, but having your own independent hot water system removes one more expense from your budget, which is a good thing, and reduces your impact on the planet (if you care), and makes you that much more resilient to a disruption in the extremely complex, capital intensive structure which delivers that fossil fuel to your home.

All the things we talk about are based on participation in the whole capitalist economic model. The types of food you purchase to put away and many of the things we recommend are based on being able to purchase these items now. We live in a time of extreme plenty. But ultimately, you are going to the effort to do these things in a bet that there may be some interruption to that big complex machine that could be fairly disruptive to your well being. You’re shorting the system.

The great thing about my direction … let’s call it ‘the little short’… is that you probably won’t have people yelling at you to change your course and keep on the whole “make money/buy stuff/have to keep working to buy more stuff’ treadmill. Most people would like to remove themselves from that economic model if they could, I just show you some techniques to speed up the process. And to be more resilient should things go a little sideways.

We’ve changed the date of our spring workshop to Saturday, March 23rd. Be sure to register as soon as possible so that we can reserve a spot for you. Come and learn how to short the whole big picture thing!

LINK for information and to register for the workshop here

 

Stop Making Sense

I think Stop Making Sense was the Talking Heads album with “Once In a Lifetime” about a dazed and confused guy, which is how I feel after spending a weekend in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and more specifically at The Survival Expo (August 8 & 9).

The GTA is like this death star monstrosity of humanity that keeps growing and expanding by the day. It’s where I left to move to the middle of no-where and after 17 years away it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to go back. Oh sure, I have a grandson there now, so there will be more trips, but I’m beginning to find the madness of a big city overwhelming. The traffic and pace of life is horrific, and how people behave in it often surprises me.

I’m also left to analyze “The Survival Expo” itself which was great. It wasn’t what you’d expect; at least it wasn’t what I had expected. The attendees seemed to be people who just wanted to make themselves less dependent on essential infrastructure. Both of my ‘off-grid’ workshops were full and many of the 100+ people who came to them, along with many others, stopped by my booth to discuss their plans.

We had made posters of the covers of our books, “The Sensible Prepper” and “Little House Off The Grid.” Little House Off the Grid features an aerial photo of our house taken by our neighbor Mike while he flew overhead in a helicopter. Mother Earth News always uses this photo when they post our off-grid story and I can’t tell you how many people stood at my table at Survival Expo and said, “That’s what I want to do!” You know sometimes it’s really nice to hear that. Especially in the middle of the summer heat when the weeds are winning the war in the garden. I can never be reminded enough that I’m ‘livin’ the dream.”

While there were guns and ammo dealers and potential customers, there was a real cross section of people I didn’t expect to see. I spoke to 4 doctors who were getting started on their path to independence. That made me take pause.

As so often is the case in my life multiple themes converged and I had just started reading a book by Michael Lewis called ‘Boomerang, Travels in the New Third World.” It’s his take on the economic collapse and a really great perspective on what went on in Iceland and Ireland and Greece and Germany. I kept reading stuff and saying “Yes, that’s exactly what I thought was going on.” It really seems amazing the mass delusion from 2000 to 2008 when people across the world thought this easy money bubble and growing wealth based on money for nothing would never end.

It didn’t end well and the only way we got out of the mess was by printing a whack of money. Magic money. “Quantitative Easing” we called it so it sounded more official. But it was still money for nothing. And now we’ve used up that trick and there’s really nothing left in the arsenal. So what do we do next time?

I asked a lot of the people who stopped at my table what had brought them to the show and many talked about this low level of anxiety they had that something was up. Something was amiss. The inflated stock market was artificial. Something was about to happen, like there was a glitch in the matrix.

Which brings me to my final intersecting and seemingly unrelated theme, which was “The Matrix”, the movie by the Wackowskis whose latest endeavor is “Sense 8” on Netflix. I won’t try and explain the series, but the opening theme is fabulous. It has that House of Card’s coolness factor with great music and fast changing images.

Every time I watch it I think of what a marvelous and diverse place this earth is. I think of how amazing the variety of geography and humanity is. And then I start thinking about how when I was born in 1959 the planet had 3 billion people. And then in 2000 the planet had 6 billion people. The population doubled in 4 decades. And now it’s 7 billion plus.

And this gets me thinking that’s an awful lot of people added in an awfully short amount of time. Each one of those individuals needs to be fed and kept warm and employed and there are just billions of transactions and interactions everyday. And there’s no template for the whole thing because we’ve never had this many people before. Not even close. Which begs the question, how can we possibly keep this all organized in any logical, smooth running way? Which was the other response I got when I asked people why they were at the expo. They would say things like, “Well with all the stuff you see going on in the world right now makes you kind of think that maybe we can’t keep a lid on it much longer.” I certainly hope they’re wrong, but I respect their point of view.

Which makes me wonder if someone has this all figured out, how it might all play out, and if governments might be thinking that things could conceivably go off the rails at some point and that they need a plan to deal with it. Heavens knows the American military seems to be awfully concerned about climate change and the wars that could erupt because of food shortages and water shortages and a myriad of other potential results from a warming planet.

And so I was pleased to be able to provide these individuals with a framework for a path they may want to take to have a “Plan B” for some of these scenarios. I’ve spent a lot of time working through the process here at Sunflower Farm and I think we’ve got it down fairly well. And when I suggested that they purchase my book, “The Sensible Prepper,” I had no problem, after listening to their concerns, suggesting it might we worth the investment on their part. I am, after all, a salesman. You don’t have to live off the grid to have a strategy for an unknown future. We know there will be turbulence. Heck, there’s often turbulence with just a couple of us interacting … ramp that up to 7+ billion and what else could you possibly expect?

I believe you should just put a lot of love out there into the universe and towards all the other travelers on spaceship earth as we navigate an exciting, challenging future. And have a “Plan B”.

 

Here are the links to the books I mentioned;

Best Workshop Results … EVER

We had our spring workshop at the end of April and it was awesome. I find that I enjoy these workshops more and more. It’s not that I ever didn’t enjoy them; it’s just that as we refine the workshop I spend less time worrying about getting through everything and more time getting to know the cool people who come to them.

This spring we had international guests! They came from Baltimore, which is quite a hike from our place and it was very flattering. It’s also fun for us Canadians to have Americans at events like these so we can give measurements in metric to trick them … “No, I said 17 kilometers an hour not miles!” or gloat about how having our Thanksgiving in October is just so much better than having it at the end of November only 4 weeks before Christmas. Like come on, who thought that up?

I really like having lunch and asking our guests to introduce themselves and share their background and why they came (if they feel like it). Dave, our international guest, mentioned that he works for Agora Financial, a financial publisher that I have used as a resource for years. It was cool because Dave had spotted some of Agora’s books on my bookshelf. One of the principals in Agora is Bill Bonner whose books I have enjoyed and in fact I quoted in my book “Thriving During Challenging Times.” I remember specifically emailing them to ask permission because it was a fairly long quote, but one that I thought was quite brilliant.

I think it sums up how I feel about fiat currency and where we might be headed in the future. I’m hoping Mr. Bonner won’t mind if I quote it again here. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to read his book, “Empire of Dept.” http://agorafinancial.com/about/our-books/

Once people were able to create money at virtually no expense, no one ever resisted doing it to excess. No paper currency has ever held its value for very long. Most are ruined within a few years. Some take longer.”

Some paper currencies are destroyed almost absentmindedly. Others are ruined intentionally. But all go away eventually. By contrast, every gold coin that was ever struck is still valuable today, most have more real value than when they first came out of the mine. – William Bonner. Empire of Debt.

It is a simple and brilliant concept. If it speaks to you, you may want to become more familiar with Agora’s books and services. It is hard for many people to accept this concept that those paper dollars that are no longer backed by gold could one day lose their value, dramatically. But history has shown us that this is always the case. And hence, my emphasis on hard assets in my books, along with precious metals.

While Dave from Baltimore was up here at Sunflower Farm, the event leading all the newscasts was the rioting in Baltimore, not far from his home, as it turned out.

Dave is the editor of Agora’s “5 Minute Forecast,” which I’ve been reading for many years. http://agorafinancial.com/publication/5min/ It was like having a rock star at Sunflower Farm! A financial rock star!

Dave wrote about coming to the workshop a few days later. That was even cooler!

http://agorafinancial.com/2015/04/27/a-surreal-feeling-of-helplessness/

It was quite amazing because there was a whole new group of people exposed to our website and our books. And when I see how accurate Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin have been in some of their commentary about how things unfold financially over the years, I think it’s a really good idea for our readers to be familiar with their information.

In the meantime, Michelle and I got to meet some more great people. They got to discover that living off the grid today is well, pretty normal. Indoor plumbing including flushing toilets! Television. A fridge and freezer. High speed internet. Pretty typical for a North American home. Oh, but no electricity bill. But really, who doesn’t love their electricity bill?

If you are interested in attending our next workshop visit http://www.cammather.com/off-grid-retreat/upcoming-workshops-at-sunflower-farm/october-24-2015 for more details and to register.

Here’s a link to the book I mentioned;

 

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Special thanks to our thoughtful and generous readers A.M.S. and G.B. for their recent donations and to R.H. for his monthly contribution to the tip jar!

 

 

THE Workshop you NEED to Attend!

I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken about some of my former illustrious and numerous careers, especially in sales. I sold advertising in my uncle’s used farm equipment paper, radio advertising in Peterborough, television advertising in Kingston, computers in Hamilton, desktop publishing systems in Toronto, and then my own business in Burlington & Tamworth for 25 years. So hold onto your seat, ‘cause this is gonna get ugly!’ Because I want to fill up our spring workshop early. We sold out our fall one and it helps us to get a spring strategy the sooner it’s booked. Soo… long inhale… here goes…

So, this is… THE BEST WORKSHOP…. EVER! No, it really is. No exaggeration. No hyperbole. This is a fact. You can look it up.

We call it “The Hands-On, Solar Powered, Off-Grid, Personal Independence and Resilience, All You Can Grow, Ready for Rough Times Workshop” and that doesn’t even begin to explain how totally awesome it is.

It started many years ago as an offshoot of the renewable energy workshops I was giving at colleges. I focused on energy in the morning, then expanded on the independence theme in the afternoon to talk about food production and storage, transportation, water, alternative forms of monetary exchange … that sort of thing.

Eventually I began calling it “Thriving During Challenging Times” and one time at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton a few years back we had 75 people attend the workshop.

In those days it was all PowerPoints, and there were probably 300 photos in it, but I don’t always think that has the same impact. So we decided, hey, if we really want people to see how this is done, and know that you can really do this, then we need to have them come to the house to show them.

Now we’ve been offering it here for a number of years and every one gets progressively better. I appreciate the first people who came and we have used their feedback to continuously improve it. At the beginning I used some of my PowerPoint slides to set the stage for ‘why’ you may want to become more independent and resilient. I quickly noticed that people would start dozing off as early as 9:30 am during the PowerPoint presentation, and duh, they were here already, so obviously they got the “why” thing.

And now every time I present my workshop I further refine it so that people are just getting the essentials. You know how when you used to write essays in school the more you reread it, the more extraneous stuff you could take out and make it shorter? Well that’s what I’ve been able to do and so now there is less to absorb, just the essentials. I have lots more information if people want it, but I won’t put it out there if it just puts extra pressure on everyone’s brain synapses … because at 55 I now realize there’s only so much ‘stuff’ you can file up there. Now the daylong workshop consists of visiting various areas of our house while I explain the how’s and whys of our various systems and then allowing time for people to ask questions that are directly related to their own situation. I stay on message and answer quickly and if I think I haven’t got them what they want, I revisit it with them at lunch or during the breaks. ‘No one leaves with questions unanswered’ is my mantra.

You learn only the essential stuff and not some esoteric, theoretical concept you see on a screen, you see ‘IT.” You see what a kilowatt of photovoltaic panels looks like and what sort of lifestyle you can live depending on how many hours of sun you receive. You see what an acre and a half of cultivated gardens looks like and how much food it can produce. You see what’s involved with backyard chickens and what you need for a proper root cellar.

Michelle prepares wonderful food and people really seem to love sitting down for lunch at our dining room table and having a chance to talk to everyone else. I love meeting all these cool people. It’s a blast. It’s fantastic! I love these days! I’m totally pumped when they’re over!

This year our spring workshop will take place on Saturday, April 25. The cost for the whole day, which includes coffee breaks and lunch, is $120/per person. This includes two of our books, one of which will be “The Sensible Prepper,” hot off the press. We’re 2 ½ hours from Toronto, less than 2 hours from Ottawa, less than 6 hours from Boston and less than 11 hours from New York City. So there’s no excuse to miss it. Book a plane. Book a train. Fill up your gas tank. It’s an incredible value! The knowledge is priceless! Bring your parents … bring your adult children … bring your neighbor … tell your co-workers, tell your baseball team, let your homesteader wannabe group know about it, put it on your local bulletin board, post it on your Facebook page. It’s a really big deal! It’s that awesome!

Thanks for listening. If I have any blog readers left two days from now I’ll be shocked!

 For more information click here. To sign up for this workshop, email michelle at gmail dot com.

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The Price of Oil is Scary

So have you noticed the price of oil lately? Pretty great eh? Cheap gas! Yee ha!gaspistol

I think not. I don’t think this is a good thing. I guess I’m a glass-half-empty kind of guy but I think something is amiss and I don’t think it’s going to end well.

A barrel of oil has stayed above $100/barrel for quite a while now. Then last summer it started this crazy nosedive to its current level of about $50. And it frankly just doesn’t make any sense to me, on so many levels.

First off, it is just such an amazing commodity; it shouldn’t be this cheap. The potential energy in a barrel of oil is mind-boggling. Three tablespoons of oil is the equivalent of a human working manually for 8 hours. If you spent your whole life toiling in the fields (which I lovingly do every summer) your whole life’s energy expenditure would be equivalent to 3 barrels of oil. 3 barrels. So if the world is burning through 80+ million barrels of oil everyday, you can appreciate just how much work that fossil fuel is accomplishing for us.

Now some (like me) would argue that much of it is wasted commuting long distances or flying to exotic places. Some would argue (like me) that we have to burn less of the stuff because when you use a liquid hydrocarbon like this, it releases sequestered carbon from under the ground into the atmosphere, and on a large scale that’s not a good thing. Some organizations like 350.org or even the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggest that if we want to have any hope of stopping the planet from warming more than 2°C we basically need to leave three-quarters of the known fossil fuel reserves that energy companies have on their balance sheets, in the ground.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with cheap oil. Some countries seem to be pumping it likes there’s no tomorrow, to generate cash, and this stuff is too precious to sell at a discount.petrol-pump-icon

There are lots of great theories as to why the price has collapsed the way it has. One is that countries are trying to punish Russia, which relies heavily on oil revenue, for it’s incursion into the Ukraine. I tend to take the more classic economic perspective and that is that demand is simply not there. The media loves to remind us of how great the economy is doing and why we should be so confident and get out there and run those credit cards up making ourselves happy. But I don’t things are as rosy as we’re being told. And I think the plummeting price of oil is the proof.

There is a hard cold reality of cheap oil and that is that many North American producers are no longer profitable. Fracked shale oil and Alberta tar sands oil are really expensive to get at. At $120/barrel there is an economic incentive to do this. At $60/barrel, well, not so much. And some of these investments we’re talking about are long term. So if you take drill rigs out of the fields and scale back investment in looking for new supplies, eventually you’ll have a drop in supply, which should bring the price back up. But I don’t think you can replace lost supply that quickly which means a huge price spike later on. More pain after the short-term gain we’re experiencing.

In a perfect world the price of oil would have just kept going up indefinitely. This would destroy demand and get consumers to switch to alternatives, many of which use free energy, like the sun and wind. A high price of oil is good for the environment. But economics being what it is, this whole supply and demand thing doesn’t seem to fit with an ever-increasing price of a commodity. Sooner or later the bubble bursts and prices come back down to earth. And customers shopping for new cars see cheap gas and buy big honking’ vehicles that will be on the road for 15 or 20 years. (These same consumers will be on the nightly news when gas goes back up in price complaining at the cost of filling up their inefficient vehicles!)

I may be out in left field on this one; in fact I’m sure I am. I simply can’t understand how such an abrupt price drop in oil can be a good thing over the long haul. Something’s up. I just can’t get my head around exactly what that is. But I don’t think it’s a good thing. Or, quoting the title of my friend Joe Ollman’s book “This will all end in tears.”

 

Cam and The Shoe Factory

Recently I was in a shoe factory. Well, it used to be a shoe factory. Now it is a coffee shop and gallery.

We needed to meet with our partners in our book publishing business, Bill and Lorraine. We meet in Perth, which is a midpoint between our two homes. Perth is a quaint small town in Eastern Ontario that used to be a very busy manufacturing town, located on the Tay River, which feeds into the Rideau Canal. Sometimes we meet at the Code Mill, which is a restored cotton mill, which now houses a coffee shop. On this particular day we met at the Factory Grind coffee shop. It’s located in the Old Perth Shoe Factory building. They used to make, yes, you guessed it, shoes at this factory.

We sat on these nice big couches in front of a fireplace. OK, it was an electric fireplace. The walls are decorated with art from local artists and are available for purchase. While Michelle was getting her coffee and I was guarding her laptop, I was looking at one of the big paintings that were for sale. And I was thinking about the reality of the former Perth Shoe Factory. (https://sites.google.com/site/theoldperthshoefactory/history)

I had recently been looking through our old photo album and looking at pictures of myself in public school. And I was thinking about how everyone in the photo was wearing leather shoes. And how the shoes would probably have been made in Canada. And they were well made. They would have been passed down from one kid to another in a family. I don’t believe this is the case very often anymore with our petroleum-based shoes. And I was thinking about how 50 years ago our clothes were also probably made in North America. And some of our parents might have been employed in the manufacture of the stuff we were wearing.

Cam in his leather shoes, front row, 3rd from left

Cam in his leather shoes, front row, 3rd from left

And there I was in a coffee shop, in a factory that used to make shoes, that now serves coffee. And sells art. And I was thinking, what is it we do today? What do we make? How do we earn all this income that allows us to outsource all of our manufacturing to other countries?

Now don’t me wrong. I understand capitalism. I have worked in business since I was 15, so 35+ years. I’ve owned my own business for more than 25 years. I get it. I understand specializing and economies of scale. I guess I also understand about moving production to where costs are the lowest, although I’m not sure I accept this as a sound principle anymore. There is something about all this “free trade” that I find deeply unsettling. I’m sure it has a lot to do with my profound belief that we have passed peak oil, and that there is a fundamental flaw on relying on someone 10,000 miles away to keep you clothed. Especially with stuff that’s made of the stuff we’re running out of.

And now, we sit around, and drink coffee. Perth is close to Canada’s capital city of Ottawa and there seems to be a lot of retired people living there. Many worked for the government. And now we have a service-based economy. People provide services. We write code. We push paper around. We work in retail complexes that amalgamate stuff made a long way away, from the cheapest source they can find. And everyone spends his or her time in pursuit of this stuff. And coffee. In Ontario, our manufacturing sector has been hit really hard since the economic collapse in 2008. It was having a hard time prior to that. Michelle’s Dad spent his working life at Stelco – The Steel Company of Canada, which once had 12,000 employees. Now, when they’re not closed, they have about 700.

I am not an economist. Economists seem to think this new service-based economy is great. We add value. We process information. Moving pixels on a computer is the new shoe manufacturing. Only there’s no glue and nails required! It’s so much more glamorous. Now I’m sure you can get custom designed shoes, made just for you, in the color you like. And there’s an “app” to order them. And we wrote that app!

I don’t think this is a good thing though. I think it’s better to make “stuff.” Canadians are notorious for shipping our raw materials like trees to other places to have them made into “stuff” like furniture.

ABC News has been running “Made in America” segments for a while. They started by going into peoples’ homes and taking out everything that wasn’t made in America. Basically the people were left with an empty house. Then they began highlighting an American manufacturer that still makes things people can buy.

I am not suggesting that I am not part of the problem. I like cheap stuff. I am amazed at how cheap stuff has become. Sometimes I don’t even bother to pay attention to where stuff is made. I think this started about a decade ago when I decided to treat myself to new skates. I had been using used ones forever and decided at my age and skating on crappy pond ice I should finally get some proper ankle support. This is when I discovered that you couldn’t buy Canadian made skates. You can buy skates from a Canadian company, but they are made in places like Malaysia, or Indonesia. Do people in those countries spend a lot of time skating? I’ll bet not. And yet, they make our skates. I’m sure the manufacturer claimed that competition forced them to seek out the lowest cost place to make skates.

And yet, I’ll bet if you put a “Made in Canada” or “Made in America” sticker on the box, Canadians would be willing to pay a premium. We have nothing against people in other countries, but just want to buy skates from our neighbors who make them. Whenever my car needs new tires, I make a point of buying “Goodyear” brand tires because we have a Goodyear plant nearby that employs many of my neighbours.

I think many things could transpire to move more of our manufacturing back to North America. I think it will be a good thing.

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Every Day I Am Forced to Add Another Name …

….to the List of People Who P*ss Me Off!

Years ago, Michelle gave me a Calvin and Hobbes T-shirt with this quote and apparently, it’s timeless. Because contrary to the popular perception that I’m a sweet, people-loving, Buddhist type who sits in his forest sending out positive vibrations, even here in paradise there are times when people are able to annoy me. Rick Mercer, a popular Canadian comedian who is well known for his rants, just wrote about the health benefits of ranting (http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/09/21/why-i-rant/), so please indulge me as I share some of my pet peeves.

  • When we’re walking our dog Jasper, even though there are rarely cars on our road, when people do pass not only do they not slow down from their 80-km/hour speed, or even take their foot off the accelerator for a minute as they pass, they don’t even shift to the other side of the road. “Hey moron, in case you didn’t notice, you haven’t passed a car in 20 minutes, so you really could give us a few feet of clearance!” I’d like to start walking with a spike strip to throw down in front of these cars but then I’d just have to pick up the pieces after their tires blow.
  • When there are long lines at cash registers and a cashier opens a new cash and says, “Can I help someone over here?” rather than asking one of the people who has obviously been in a line for a while if they’d like to come over. Inevitably the person at the end of the line who hasn’t had to wait any time at all rushes over to be first in line at the new cash. Luckily I rarely shop, but this seems to happen way too often. If I shopped more often there’d be a lot of abandoned merchandise dropped in a pile when some ignorant cashier pulls this stunt and I happily left.
  • Canadians who spend $40 (at least!) on gas to drive to shop in the U.S. even though our dollar is basically at par. Really? You save that much money? How about we start deducting these shopping trips and adding them to your hospital visits because really, how do you think we pay for universal healthcare?
  • Politicians who spend years in opposition criticizing a government for abuses of power, and then are even worse when they finally get elected. Have you no pride? Or backbone? Don’t you stand for anything?
  • Cars that fly past me on the highway, where I’m usually in the slow lane, then jump back into the slow lane ahead of me to exit the highway, slamming on their brakes because they hit the deceleration lane going 140 kms/hour. Really? It never occurred to you to pull in behind me and start decelerating before you hit the off ramp? Gasoline is WAY to cheap when I see how common this is.
  • The moron who dumps his garbage in the ditch near my house every Monday on his way to work after a weekend at his hunt camp. Someday I will hear your vehicle slow down and I will get your license plate and there is a $25,000 fine for dumping garbage on our road. So wouldn’t it just be easier to take and put it out at your curb in the city… FOR FREE!
  • When you read one of those editorial space fillers in newspapers under the heading of “Tips for saving money on fuel” when gas prices spike (Oh, which is ‘always’ with peak oil) and they suggest “Removing anything heavy from your car that isn’t necessary, because this cuts down on fuel economy.” You mean like the tires or the engine? How about this? Rather than buying a 6,000-pound F150 why not buy a 2,000-pound Honda Fit and you can load it up with lead bars and still get infinitely better fuel economy. Because ultimately fuel economy is a function of vehicle weight, so that cross-over SUV that gets “Best in Class” mileage, gets best in a class of vehicles that get bad fuel economy, no matter how many library books you take out of the back seat.
  • Those new hand dryers in public washrooms that dry your hands quickly, but also cause permanent hearing loss because they’re louder than a 747 jet engine. Hey, try this, save the electricity, wipe your hands on your pants, or wave them back and forth as you leave the washroom, like I do. You’ll look like you’re having a great time and they’ll be dry before you get to the lineup for coffee.
  • Those “get out of personal debt” TV shows where they help people come up with a budget to get out of debt, and claim that “After 18 months of following our budget your debt will be paid off and then you can invest and you’ll have $1.5 million when you retire!” What? First off, those people will hit the nearest shopping centre the minute the film crew leaves, and even if they did manage to save some money, the investment income forecasts must assume about a 12% Return on Investment! The last time I heard someone offering or guaranteeing that was Bernie Madoff. How’d that turn out?
  • The proliferation for drugs that seem to provide negligible benefit to society, that are so mercilessly advertised on TV. There’s one for “dry mouth syndrome.” So, do you take that with water? And don’t you think just maybe drinking a glass of water MIGHT HELP YOUR DRY MOUTH SYNDROME? Or the one for “restless leg syndrome that I see advertised on TV… Let me get this straight? Your legs get restless sitting in front of the TV for hours on end? Maybe you need to get out of your darn LaZ-boy and go for a walk. Or the endless barrage of drugs aimed at men to help in the “relationship” department. What is so romantic about his and her claw foot bathtubs, whether they are in the forest or on a beach?
  • And this one is from Michelle …. Husbands who monopolize the TV channel changer to avoid commercials and end up forgetting to go back to the original show and cause their wives to miss their favourite programs….

Thanks for listening.

Y2K, Meet Climate Change

By Cam  Mather

I started selling computers in 1982, just as microcomputers came on the market, hence my ability to secure employment there. I had sold radio advertising, learned the difference between an 8088 and 8086 processor and bluffed my way into a job.

When the Apple Macintosh came out in 1984 I was smitten and my charming wife, who had a good job as a teacher, bought one for us under the “Own a Mac” program. Apple always had the best promotions, like “Test Drive a Mac” where you could just take one home for a night or weekend to check it out. The folks at Apple knew that once you’d had a Mac in your house it would be hard to give it back!

In 1984 I was aware of Y2K. Apple used this as a selling feature. No one thought much about it, but it was at the back of my mind. Come on, it was 16 years away, who worries about that in the business world? In the early 1990s I read warnings about it periodically in computer and trade magazines but again, it was largely being ignored. It wasn’t until 2000 was a few years away that it became a crisis of epic proportions.

As I recall, all the computer code that had been written assumed that the date would be 19XX. Assuming that the 19 would be a constant, computer programmers really just used those last two digits for all their code (or something along these lines). The powers that be in the business and government world had decided that it was inconsequential to bother to add the time and cost to acknowledge that the year 2000 might actually arrive. And as it got closer our society became more and more dependent on technology from power stations to oil refineries to washing machines.

If companies had started changing their code early on, say whenever they introduced a major upgrade to their software or hardware, it wouldn’t have been that big a deal. But humans don’t work that way. That would have cost money. And really, don’t worry; be happy, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If they had started early it would have cost millions of dollars, but short-term oriented organizations preferred to put that money in to their bottom lines and hence their pockets.

So instead we left it until the last minute and it cost us billions of dollars. It became a really big deal. Since the lights stayed on in Times Square as 1999 became 2000, everyone assumed that everything had gone just fine. It didn’t. There were numerous problems, we just didn’t hear about them. I know an electrician from the Canadian military who helped me work on our generator once. He had been involved with keeping the power on in an area of Ottawa that was designed to be the head of military and government operations should we have some of the problems that were predicted. All their equipment was Y2K compliant and ready to go, and at the stroke of midnight the block went dark. I certainly never heard about it on the news, but I also know the person who told me was not prone to exaggeration.

And today we have this climate change thing. Back in 1989 I stood in front of Burlington City Council recommending some tough measures in their Official Plan and they were unmoved. I used information from climate scientists who had modeled weather patterns that resembled some of the big storms we’ve been experiencing, like Super Storm Sandy. “Mr. Mather you sound like Chicken Little, go back to the Sustainable Development Committee and leave us alone.”

If we had started to take aggressive action on carbon emissions 20 years ago we would be in a much better situation than we are in today. If we had taxed carbon, we’d all be living in more efficient homes and driving less, in more efficient cars. We’d be flying less. We wouldn’t be burning coal. And many of us would be heating with geothermal.

But now we’ve got this royal mess.

I’m reading a book right now called “Hell and High Water” by Joseph Romm. He was one of Clinton’s advisors on climate. In it he talks about how scientists are usually pretty low key. They write articles in peer reviewed publications, but they haven’t historically sought the limelight. In fact, it’s frowned upon in the scientific community. Remember Carl “billions and billions” Sagan? Apparently they wouldn’t even let him into the National Academy of Scientists. That’ll teach him for being on Johnny Carson.

So what’s happening today? Well a lot of scientists are getting very vocal. They’ve decided this issue is too important to stay quiet. They were wrong. They underestimated the intensity and rate of climate change and now they know we have to do something quickly. Something radical.

I remember reading about James Hansen from NASA who for years fought being muzzled by the Bush administration. He kept putting the data out there. He vowed he’d never write a book, but then he wrote “Storms of my Grandchildren” because he is so worried. I haven’t read it yet because you can’t buy Prozac over the counter yet. I’m finding there is no amount of chocolate and Dr. Pepper that can help you get through these books.

Climate Scientist Bill McKibben helped create “350.org.” We’re at 390 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere on our way to climate purgatory and he and others advocate that we need to throttle that number back to 350 ppm. Twenty years ago he was advocating we take the simple easy steps. Now he’s suggesting we really have to pump up the volume on this.

Here’s the overview of his “Do the Math” campaign. http://vimeo.com/53979295

Michelle and I know from the comments on this blog that our readers understand this and are taking personal action. I just wish we could get some of “The Powers That Be” to smarten up and take this seriously, really seriously. I just can’t understand how a government would stand by and watch a devastating drought, unprecedented heat waves, catastrophic wild fires and cataclysmic superstorms causing billions of dollars in damage (not to mention the loss of life) and not take action. Our elected politicians are like deer caught in headlights and we all know how that ends.

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Note from Michelle – Welcome to our new subscribers, who recently found us through Mother Earth News. We hope you aren’t turned off by the doom and gloom of this post – you’ll find that our blog is a wonderful blend of serious posts and humorous ones. We’re here to encourage our readers to live more sustainable lives and our topics are wide ranging.

For the next month or so, we’ll be posting 3 times a week. Cam has been on a bit of a writing tear and so I have a backlog of posts to edit and publish. Be sure to stay tuned….

Christmas “Creep”

By Cam Mather

Back when I lived in suburbia I drank coffee from a chain of Canadian donut stores called “Tim Horton’s,” named after the hockey player who started them. They’re in the U.S. now but they’re called “Tim Horton’s Café and Bake Shop.” Well “La de da!” Even all those years ago (15 or so) I always took my own re-usable cup, and a reusable container for my donuts. I ate a fair number of donuts back in those days because I cycled everywhere. At least that was my excuse. Each summer Tim’s had a contest called “Roll Up The Rim To Win” in which you rolled back the paper lip of your disposable coffee cup to see if you had won a prize. I, of course, was on the phone daily to the public relations and marketing departments of Tim Horton’s trying to explain to them how their contest punished people for doing the correct thing for the environment, but they never got it. If I complained to the donut shop employees they would offer me an empty paper cup to play the game, and they didn’t seem to realize that it kind of defeated the purpose of bringing a reusable mug in the first place!

When they first began this contest it ran during the summer months. I think the idea behind it was to encourage coffee sales that would otherwise drop off in the summer, because people don’t have the same desire for hot beverages during warm weather. But then they kept kind of creeping back the timing of the contest, first starting it in June, then May, and so on until it probably starts in January now, when it’s cold, and PEOPLE DRINK COFFEE ANYWAY! Sometimes capitalism inspires bizarre behavior.

And now we have the unstoppable “Christmas Creep” which is really getting out of hand. But we have to have it, you know. For retailers Christmas is the make or break time, they HAVE to increase sales, they MUST have a successful holiday season or really, the entire economy comes off the rails. And with 70% of the U.S. now centered on buying “stuff,” I suppose it would be hard to argue with this logic. Except on behalf of the planet, that is.

The reality is though that it’s just getting silly. It seems like American retailers always waited until Thanksgiving before letting loose on the whole Christmas mayhem. But then retailers started advertising Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving. This crept up and up and now the Christmas stuff is up in stores before the Halloween stuff is down.

Black Friday used to start, that’s right, on the Friday after Thanksgiving. But then retailers had to compete so they started opening their doors earlier and earlier … 5 am … 3am … midnight! So let me get this straight. You want your employees to have a super traditional family dinner and then head into work at 9 pm to get the store ready so they can work all night? Really? Does that sound fair to you? Does it sound logical?

And of course this year we crossed the rubicon into “Grey Thursday” and some retailers opened ON Thanksgiving, which means they’ll all to do it next year which means that all Americans will miss out on the nice family day because they’ll have to shop on Thanksgiving. Really, it’s just getting stupid. Why not skip Thanksgiving all together and move Black Friday to Wednesday so everyone can have Thursday off, LIKE WE USED TO?

When our daughters were young children we had a rule in the house that there was no Christmas stuff until December 1st. No decorations. No special Christmas mugs. And no Christmas music! This rule was sternly enforced. If someone was caught humming a Christmas ditty I quickly shut him or her down. And then I’d start singing another infectious song to try and distract them.

Because you know what? You have great songs with lyrics like “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” which I wholeheartedly agree with. But if you start celebrating it in October, it lasts two months, or almost 20% of the year and if it lasts 20% then it’s really NOT the most wonderful time of the year, it’s just a prolonged overhyped unspecial deadzone of vile commercial hypermadness.

We had our Santa Claus Parade in Tamworth this past weekend. Other communities had theirs a month ago. Really, you want your kids hyped about Santa coming for 8 weeks? What are you thinking? I walked along with a local group that I am a member of called the GrassRoots Growers. I dressed up as a farmer (not much of a stretch for me) and I carried a hoe. I wanted to carry a pitchfork but decided that it may not be considered politically correct to carry a pitchfork in public. I believe that it’s important in small towns to have many citizens in possession of pitchforks. They are integral to threatening the mayor or authorities when … you suspect aliens have landed and are living amongst you, or it’s rumored that zombies are marching towards town and you think the authorities are just denying it until it’s too late. Pitchforks and flaming torches, they just go hand in hand. Perhaps not appropriate for a Santa Claus Parade, though.

Santa-Claus-parade-2012

I toyed with carrying a placard with a slogan Michelle suggested, “If you ate today, Kiss a Farmer,” but again, I didn’t want to do anything that might be perceived as political. Parade organizers said we weren’t supposed to throw candy from floats this year. Next year I’m recommending that kids come wearing protective eye gear and we start the tradition again.

When I got home I put up our oh-so-awesome LED Lights, EVERYWHERE! It’s like a used car lot here now! I got our Christmas mug collection out and put our regular mugs away. Now I look forward to every cup of tea and my one coffee in the morning, because they are in totally awesomely special red and green mugs! Now I can start playing Handel’s Messiah… but only in the morning, and only every 3rd or 4th day. Luckily I work alone so I can sing to my heart’s content with no harassment from the cheap seats.

Next weekend I’ll bring in our artificial tree, which we bought about 25 years ago, on sale after Christmas, and which is still in remarkably great shape. We’ll decorate it (or to be honest, Michelle will decorate it). Yes, we have 150 acres and many coniferous trees that might do the trick, but they haven’t been pruned and frankly I get tired of the sap and needles that fall off. And as we’ve more added bookshelves to the living room the space available for the tree is reduced every year. I’ll bring in lots of pine branches that make the house smell great.

Retailers be damned. I will spend no more on Christmas this year than last, regardless of how early you start advertising. In fact, our awesome daughters don’t mind the great scores Michelle often makes at secondhand stores, so retailers don’t really see much business from us at all. We spend less and less every year.

And it will be a short season, and it will be the most wonderful time of the year. Just as long as we can get past that whole December 21st Winter Solstice End of the World thing. If we get past that, it’ll be awesome.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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