Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is the Future of Education in a Post-oil America?

A friend involved in preparing for the transition to post-peak-oil America here in Cascadia has been mulling over the future of education, a field where he spent the end of the his second formal career (before starting his third as a farmer). He writes the following, which I pose as a query to those following LOVESalem. Feel free to chime in with a comment to respond to all of this or just a little piece of it.
The following quandary, described for education, applies to all public services --- and it is what our Whatcom County peak oil task force has discussed ad nauseum, with no sign of any conclusion on any aspect. You're all knowledgeable about peak oil and its likely consequences, so you're uniquely qualified to think beyond the peak.

All public education, by definition, gets funding from the entire tax base. We've seen already what happens in an economic downturn like the one we're in now - that tax base shrinks, and the tax collectors at all levels (except the feds, who just keep printing money and bailing out rich folks and fantasizing about "return to a growth economy") have to - by law - balance their budget and either

1. raise taxes, and/or
2. cut services.

In our state, nobody yet has the courage to go after more taxes - and schools at all levels are cutting budgets - including K-20 layoffs for the first time in anyone's memory.

Given that every burp in the price and/or availability of oil has always been followed by recession, and given that peak oil now means we now face decades of higher and higher oil prices and less and less availability, it's reasonable to think we'll have an ever-deepening recession, and an ever-declining tax base (or alternatively, taxes approaching 100%). At some point pretty soon, rising taxes will generate an awesome tax revolt, so we'd best start thinking about how to re-structure all education, from K-20, assuming there will be continually declining funding for it.

My guess is that the first thing deans & principals will advocate for is reduction in red-tape requirements, and all the 'non-essential' add-ons from the last few decades could disappear in a few years in order to avoid laying off faculty.

But I imagine something far worse than surgical fat trimming for a few years --- I envision cuts over the next few decades of a factor of, say, two to five. Not percent - but funding cuts by 2 to 5 times - coming on gradually over the next 20-30 years. If that seems a likely, or even a possible, outcome - then wised-up educators & ex-educators like yourselves could make yourselves super-useful by developing the outlines of a completely new strategic plan for that future, complete with a transition strategy. I do not see this as an "opportunity" for change - rather it's an exercise to engage in out of desperation in the post-peak world we're likely to enter tomorrow --- with a world short of all essential resources and in a state of major population overshoot. Some questions to start with:
1. What things about the system need fixing, regardless of peak oil? You've all mentioned several of those things already.

2. What will a desperate population REALLY need to know for maximum survival and well-being (or, if you're a pessimist, for minimal die-off)?

3. How can we re-organize K-20 education to provide that knowledge and/or experience?

4. What are the physical constraints (i.e., our super-silly suburban living arrangements, with severe restrictions on getting around - and don't tell me mass transit, which also depends on the tax base & fuel)?

5. What are some other big questions to consider?
Several years ago I asked author and educator Richard Heinberg whether he'd thought about this for higher ed, and he gave a massive shrug of his virtual shoulders and said he'd thought of it but it was too big for him.

Collectively, educators need to begin addressing this issue, just as the medical profession is belatedly starting to do.

A very encouraging word -- growing food instead of lawns in the Willamette Valley!

An Oregon local foods movement finds opportunity in the economic crisis

. . . . Stalford and his wife, Willow Coberly, have begun a pioneering experiment on part of their 9,000-acre Willamette Valley spread.

The couple owns the first large conventional farm to join the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project, a movement to rebuild and re-localize the entire food system in Oregon's most productive farming region. Instead of focusing exclusively on expensive specialty foods — the fruits, meats and vegetables found at local farmers' markets and restaurants — the project aims to organically grow and locally sell the grains and beans that are the foundation of most diets. Eventually, project members hope that all the food consumed here will be local. And they say that the Willamette Valley's 900,000 acres of cropland are more than adequate to feed its 2.5 million residents, including Portland.

That conversion won't be easy . . . .

The seeds for the project were planted several years ago when farmer and food activist Harry MacCormack bought a bunch of beans and grains from the bulk bins in the Corvallis co-op and successfully grew many of them on his 15-acre organic farm. Further experiments and discussion eventually led MacCormack, Stalford, Coberly and others to found the Southern Willamette Valley Bean and Grain Project in January 2008. It has grown since: Participants now include other organic farmers, community activists, two food security groups, a USDA Farm Services director, an Extension horticulturalist and others. In 2008, MacCormack and five homestead-size farms grew nine varieties of beans and more than a dozen grains. Stalford and Coberly planted 100 acres of five types of beans, and produced a successful harvest of organic hard red wheat. And both Stalford and MacCormack were able to sell everything they grew. . . .

The transition hasn't been easy for Stalford, who has no experience with organic methods. "We're just shooting in the dark," he says. "We have no idea what we are doing." Coberly is more optimistic. True, the couple planted their beans too late last year, and some didn't ripen in time. But the red wheat and garbanzos did well and fetched excellent prices. Coberly has been pushing Stalford to explore sustainable farming practices. Swayed by the soil depletion and fertility losses he's seen over 40 years of farming, Stalford is rotating crops, composting crop waste, and reducing chemical use on his fields. Stalford says his neighbors tease him down at the coffee shop, but he's not giving up. This year, Stalford and Coberly are increasing their certified organic crop of red wheat and dry beans to 135 acres. They also plan to get an additional 360 acres certified for organic food production — a three-year process — and Stalford is considering planting 500 acres of beans in rotation with his grass seed.

The increased production, however, raises an infrastructure problem. Hummingbird Wholesale and the Corvallis co-op are committed to buying local beans and grains, but the storage and processing systems have to be rebuilt. Project organizers need businesses interested in developing storage, processing and distribution for local food. The Ten Rivers Food Web, a local food nonprofit that MacCormack helped found, recently purchased a portable seed cleaner. The group did a study examining the feasibility of local processing and has applied for more grant money to build a community processing facility. . . .

Despite the battered economy, demand for bulk organic foods is up, Tilt says. MacCormack says the main obstacles remain mind-set and infrastructure. And, he says, those are obstacles that can be overcome.

Stop unwanted phonebook dumping! Save a forest or two . . .

Urgent -- call or email your Oregon legislators and ask that they SUPPORT HB 3477 to STOP unwanted and wasteful phonebook distribution and make companies only give phonebooks to people who request them. This is a great and long overdue idea. (h/t to bojack for noticing this.)

To find your legislators.

US public health institutions start pondering peak oil

Hat tip to the ever-excellent "Energy Bulletin" site for this:

Insights pertaining to the public health implications of peak oil
became the focus for the remainder of the day. . . .

* Awareness: The public health community has barely begun to address peak oil; ignorance of the problem is today's norm; the health system takes for granted long-term resource availability, and has made minimal preparation for disruptions in supply.

* Scope: Peak oil has the potential to significantly disrupt each of the three essential pillars of sustainable well-being—economic, sociopolitical, and environmental

* Disruption Potential: Peak oil will have its public health impacts in the United States on a medical care system that is natural resource-intensive, cost-intensive, and neither encourages nor supports saving resources; peak oil will intensify known public health hazards, create new hazards, and impact the entire public health preparedness system.

* Regional Vulnerability: Especially in rural regions, delivery of health care is highly dependent on private vehicle transport to get health care providers to their centralized locations, to bring critically ill patients to service facilities, and to meet the clinical care and outpatient needs of widely dispersed populations.

* Trend: Public health services in the United States have already experienced increasing demands coupled with decreasing ability to meet them; fewer people can afford private health insurance; most officials surveyed expect further funding cuts ahead.

* Sector-specificity: The public health system is highly vulnerable because of its deep dependence upon oil for transport of patients and providers, for the disposable plastic supplies which are the foundation of modern antiseptic hygiene, as well as for energy-intensive hospital operations and for pharmaceutical feedstock.

* Limited Mitigation Options: Public health planners can undertake scenario planning, and set up hospital-level committees to make decisions about scarce medical supply allocations

* Scarce-resource Allocation: Peak oil can be expected increase the duration and severity of disaster events, and of post-event responses; public health officials are accustomed to planning for the allocation of scarce resources during emergencies, but have not yet factored peak oil into such planning.

* Triage: Peak oil disaster preparedness is inadequate or non-existent; there is a significant risk of a mental health "surge" overwhelming the minimal surplus capacity of hospital emergency departments; it is crucial that allocation of finite petroleum- based healthcare be perceived as fair to preserve trust and adherence to other policies (e.g., quarantines).

The series of conclusions above paints a picture of a nation under-prepared for the impact that peak oil will have on health. As Brian Schwartz of the Bloomberg School concluded, "It is probably now too late to mitigate all the threats." Yet the conference also provided grounds for encouragement. There was broad agreement, for example, with the CDC's Jeremy Hess that "Public health workers have a responsibility to let people know that peak oil is a very real and imminent public health issue." Peak oil education, he argued, must become part of the job of insuring public health. As this happens, the field's professionals will draw on their experience in framing threats
to health care in ways that reach the public effectively. They will also call on their expertise in allocating scarce resources through procedures that people can perceive as fair and transparent, and therefore oriented towards maintaining public trust and social cohesion. As Bloomberg's Stuart Chaitkin suggested, "What is needed is a global energy revolution with three platform planks: end denial; change behavior (retrofit, travel less, eat low on the food chain, develop a preventative healthcare system); and plan for likely shortages."

A Honey of an Idea

Keep bees. Two of the folks who showed up last night to demonstrate support for Chickens in the Yard brought their two darling young daughters and talked about how they were all (including the young girls) having fun keeping honeybees here in Salem -- an outstanding idea. They took a "Beekeeping 101" class at Chemeketa and, for just a few hundred dollars, got the gear and training they needed to get into beekeeping. Not only will they enjoy some home-produced honey, their fruit trees will thrive.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of pollinators like honeybees to humans
No pollinators = no food.

Simple as that.

Great news not so great after all -- staff proposes to make hens for the elites only

Well, here at LOVESalem we've never been one to bash government or to join the chorus who insist that government folks can't be trusted to run even something as simple as a two-car parade without screwing it up.

That's why it's so disconcerting to find how the proposed ordinance to allow some urban hens in Salem has been disfigured by the staff recommendation:
The city staff has recommended that chickens be allowed only on single-family residential lots larger than 10,000 square feet, or about 0.23 acres. No roosters would be allowed, and coops would have to be kept in back and side yards at least 20 feet from the property line.
In other words, in the close-in neighborhoods where hens were kept for decades without a problem, few homeowners will be allowed to have hens, because of the arbitrary lot-size and setback restriction. Thus, under this proposal, high-income McMansion owners in Sprawlville sections of South and West Salem will all be allowed to have hens, but many people in modest, working-class neighborhoods of NE Salem will not.

How about this? Instead of trying to micromanage urban hens, why doesn't Salem just go back to the status quo ante of 1970? There was no ban on hens then, and I can't find a single person who recalls a problem.

UPDATE: Here are the key items in the staff recommendation:
Staff's Recommendation – Staff has revised our original proposal somewhat. Here's what it currently says:
1. No roosters
2. Up to three hens allowed
3. Minimum lot size 10,000 square feet
4. Coops must be 20' away from any property line
5. Chickens must remain in an enclosure at all times (your yard is not an enclosure)
6. Chickens allowed as a special use in single family residential zones
7. Chickens must be maintained in a sanitary condition
Obviously 3 and 4 are the killers that basically make urban hens only possible for suburban sprawl development areas. The core of Salem, where chickens were allowed without incident until the 1970s, would be excluded.