Thursday, August 18, 2005

Climate change, global and regional

At the Portland Peak Oil meeting last night, we had a presenter from Portland's Office of Sustainable Development walk us through calculating our baseline of energy use and CO2 emissions. In the process, he happened to mention expected changes to our regional (Pacific Northwest) climate, as researched by the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group:

  • Amount of rainfall the same, but coming in short intense storms rather than drawn out
  • Summer dry spell will extend one month in each direction, for an extra two months total of drought
  • Spring will continue to come earlier and earlier each year
  • We'll see more days in the summer with intense heat, such as over 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • No snow in winters

It struck me that I dropped the ball big-time in designing Theressa's yard (and to some extent Leah's) without fully researching where our climate is likely to be headed. In the future I'll be paying more attention to plants that are drought tolerant and worrying less about cold hardiness, and focusing more on cooling houses in the summer rather than maximizing heat gain in the winter. Water catchment also becomes even more important.

Anyone preparing for the future challenges we're facing should find solid information on local climate change predictions and also try to figure out social implications. (Here we're very concerned about millions of Californians and other Southwesterners crowding into the Pacific Northwest). On the east coast for example, you'll want to pay really close attention to the possibility of the conveyer belt shutting down, staying up to date on the latest scientific predictions of how likely it is, and how much warning you might have if it begins (5 years? 1 year?)

Some troubling recent news on the global climate change front:

  1. Scientists have just discovered that an area of permafrost in Siberia the size of France and Germany combined is beginning to melt. Bottled up underneath the frozen peat bog is billions of tons of methane, which is 20x as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. This is potentially the tipping point of runaway global climate change, a point of no return, as the melting permafrost releases methane which increases the temperature which accelerates the melting and on into the positive feedback loop. It may already be too late to stop catastrophic climate change, and with this news it looks like if we do have any remaining window of opportunity it's closing faster than ever.
  2. The Amazon rainforest may be reaching a tipping point of its own, as its destruction has altered local climate patterns enough that the rainforest may start dying off on its own, even without active human destruction. In the bigger picture this is potentially another runaway global climate change trigger point, as the CO2 sequestered by the rainforest dwarfs our annual emissions. If the rainforest begins to self destruct, releasing more CO2 which increases climate problems which accelerate the rainforest's destruction, off we go again on the positive feedback loop. Presumably massive efforts to reforest the area (especially with the help of permaculture concepts) could stave off such a runaway process, but I'm not holding my breath on the western world ceasing its exploitation of the forests, let alone providing the resources needed to turn this situation around.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

10 days without fossil fuels

I'm fresh off my stint of experimental fossil-fuel-free living, and here's a report-back on what it involved. I'm adding footnotes throughout for certain products or concepts with URLs for more info.

My basic premise was to eliminate active use of fossil fuels, meaning no electricity, petroleum, or natural gas use. As this was an excercise in preparation for rising energy costs and potential disruption of energy supplies, I did not attempt the impossible feat of living without using anything made of fossil fuels or manufactured & transported by fossil fuel energy. Two other exceptions I made up front were:

  • Not limiting my food preservation activities (drying food in an electric dehydrator, since we don't have a solar dehydrator (1) constructed yet, and canning produce on a propane burner for which I have no good ideas for

  • Not avoiding meetings or places simply because they had lights on (Portland Peak Oil meetings, the library, etc)


This was easy for me, since I rarely need to go anywhere and already bike when I do venture out. (See exception under "Cheats" section.)

Washing Dishes / Bathing / Laundry

The house in which I live has the fascinating feature of a garden hose fully exposed to sun on the exterior south wall of the house, providing an easy way to kill any plants you dislike. The setup has the added benefit of providing water too hot for immersion of your hand. This became my source of hot water for bathing, laundry, and for washing dishes/canning jars/storage buckets/etc.

I took sponge baths which used about 1.5 gallons of hot water per bath (and I could probably further reduce that usage). In the words of my housemate, I "don't stink too much!" which I guess means the baths were a success.

I did laundry with the Wonder Wash pressure washer (2), a device I've had since last fall. You add hot water, detergent, and clothes, then screw the top down to create an airtight seal and manually rotate the laundry drum for about 2 minutes. The high pressure environment inside forces the water and detergent through the clothes. Water and detergent usage is minimal, and the clothes smell clean to me. It doesn't do well at removing stains; perhaps by applying special stain removal stuff I could take care of that too, but I've never cared about stains in my clothes so I haven't bothered to experiment with that.

Clothes of course were dried on a drying rack, outside.


I carried my bike front headlight in my pocket wherever I went, to use during the daytime in dark basements/garages, and to use at night as needed. The light's batteries were charged using a solar battery charger (3).

I tried unsuccessfully to get on a sleeping schedule of 10 PM - 7 AM, to make near maximum use of daylight hours while accomodating Portland Peak Oil meetings and other occasional night activities. I had a very hard time falling asleep each night, mostly due (I think) to environmental factors of an overheated bedroom with no shades on the west facing window and the window facing directly into a noisy neighborhood. Yesterday evening I finally wedged a towel across the window which did wonders for
blocking the evening sun and allowing me to close the window at bedtime to block out the noise. This should make it a lot easier to fall into a sensible sleep schedule minimizing the need to turn on lights.

Other Electricity

This barely warrants mention, but the wireless phone used by our household requires electricity, so with the blessing of Pete (Leah was out of town) I added an older non-electric phone.

I don't watch any TV and only the occasional movie, so it wasn't difficult to do without those. I do frequently listen to recorded music, and at times wished I could turn on the stereo while working on other things...but not so much that I ever got around to finding my portable CD player and solar charging a couple more batteries.

Going without computer use (mostly--see "Cheats" section below) was somewhat difficult, though also hugely relieving in some ways. I lose a *lot* of time to email and reading up on news which is really irrelevant since I already know that I need to spend my time learning as many useful skills as I can and getting as much sustainable infrastructure into place as I can. There were a few projects on which I was working where internet access would have been helpful, and I mostly just made sure I researched what I needed before I began the fossil fuel fast, or postponed the
projects rather than waste time muddling through them without the info I felt I needed. It helps that suddenly it looks like I'll be moving to a new place in a month or so, making the planting of seeds at my current location mostly pointless and eliminating the need for me to research details of every seed I had intended to plant.

Cooking / Food

This was absolutely the hardest aspect of the experiment for me, dependent as I am (and presumably as most of us are) on refrigeration and the ability to cook food at will with an electric or gas stove. Most of my diet is based on dumpster-dived (4) food which generally needs to be refrigerated to remain fresh for more than a couple of days, and I do not have a cool root cellar. I tried to manage temperatures by moving a few foods back and forth between the basement and the house as temperatures fluctuated through the day, but it was still too warm for optimum food storage.

I learned how to sprout seeds for raw consumption, doing a few batches of adzuki beans and one batch of wheat. These made good snacks on their own or additionns to salads, sandwiches, and meals of rice & beans.

I ate a lot of stale dumpster-dived bread (which works much better when rejuvinated with a little toasting) with Earth Balance (butter substitute which holds up reasonably well without refrigeration) and jars of preserves, fruit butters, and jams which I could eat through within 2-3 days. Some sandwiches consisted of Earth Balance, arugula, tomatoes, and whatever sprouts or solar cooked beans were on hand.

I built a parabolic solar reflector oven (5) for cooking. It worked great with the very first experiment, cooking nearly two cups of dried beans. I also had great success cooking rice and beans together. I experimented with other configurations to allow for easier cooking or larger batches and to find the optimum setup. This was a big help in allowing me to eat at least some cooked meals, and I think a much better option (when the sun is shining, at least) than cutting down trees to burn wood.

Since our community garden had no success in growing proper lettuce, I ate two weed salads comprised mostly of volunteer amaranths and dwarf mallow. Dumpster-dived tomatoes and/or sprouts and a good dosage of salad dressing helped make the salads palatable, but obviously not so desirable as to wean me away from dependence on stale bread and into healthier daily salads as I had originally envisioned. :/

Difficulties / Cheats

Three times I went online to deal with email/internet tasks requiring immediate attention, and each time was easily distracted by other emails, checking news, etc. It's a big challenge for me when online to focus on specific tasks and not waste time on other non-critical clicks. There's too much valuable info online for me to seriouly consider cutting myself off completely, but I need to find ways to keep myself focused and efficient so I can do the necessary research but then get back to the most important piece: action on the ground.

I did use a car once, to pick up a special order of beans from the food coop half a mile away. That could have been avoided with multiple trips on Theressa's bike, which is outfitted with a basket, or with a bike trailer, which I have not yet researched. For now I decided to just do the time-efficient thing and drive, knowing that a bike upgrade & bike trailer is high on the list of to-do projects.

I went out to eat several times and participated in two potlucks, all undermining the food portion of the experiment. (For one of the potlucks I brought a dish with beans cooked in the solar funnel, but corn steamed via propane and some ingredients which had been refrigerated.) I ate out so often not because I was actively avoiding figuring out something at home, but rather because of several invitations to go out. No matter the intention, it had a very real impact on my food situation and my diet
would have been even harder without those "cheats."

And of course there's the general issue of dependence on infrastructure based on cheap fossil fuels...the aluminum foil I bought at the store to make the solar funnel, the duct tape and super glue I bought to patch up my clothes drying rack, the black spray paint for the glass jars and pots used with the solar funnel, and the many items I already own but which have finite lifespans and may or may not be easily replaceable in the future. Lots to think about and plan for there...


This was an excellent experiment for me, and a great incentive to finally implement some of the projects I've had on my list, especially the solar funnel, learning to sprout seeds for consumption, learning to sponge bathe, and experimenting more with the laundry pressure washer (shelved since last fall, when I discovered it wasn't much fun to hand-wring water from clothes in 50 degree weather).

I did not do as well as I'd hoped in finding ways to eat enjoyable raw foods, as so far I'm not crazy about sprouts, and the salads I made weren't great. The solar cooking thing is wonderful, but has limited applicability most of the year in our cloudy Pacific Northwest climate. In general, food production, storage, and preparation, which are the most important pieces of sustainability, promise to be the hardest aspects for me to disentangle from dependency on modern appliances and fossil fuels. The rest of my life has already been largely pared down to the basics, but
it turns out that, no matter what, I still need to eat!

I intend to integrate many of the practices of the last 10 days into my regular life now, and to focus on the challenges (especially around food) and keep working on ways to reduce energy usage and dependency without feeling like I'm sacrificing my standard of living (or losing weight!) Perhaps by this time next year I'll be living fossil-fuel-free routinely in the summer, and ready to embark on the even larger challenge of going without fossil fuels through the winter!

(1) Solar Dehydrator: I'll start with the easiest design I've found, at

(2) Wonder Wash pressure washer: about $50 with shipping

(3) $15 Solar battery charger

I also recommend some way to check the charge on your rechargeable
batteries...I purchased the $15 Digital Battery Checker from the same
website to get free shipping on the two items, but I'm not too impressed
with it, as it requires a AAA battery to function and seems to have a hard
time sometimes making terminal contacts to display the charge.

(4) For more on the subject, read The Art & Science of Dumpster Diving
by John Hoffman

(5) Parabolic solar reflector: Easiest design I could find is at

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Peak Oil, March 02005 - my death

This post is the big one; this is where I'm focused now. As the timeline in the title indicates, Peak Oil isn't a campaign with a discrete ending point. Whether we know it or not, almost all humans are now entering the onset of Peak Oil. We'll almost certainly be coping with its effects for the rest of our lives, and for a few generations beyond.

In some ways I was already beginning down the Peak Oil preparation path a few months before March. Without Kucinich as the Democratic nominee for President, it was clear to me that people wanting to prepare for existing and looming environmental crises need to bring it down to small-scale local efforts. I didn't expect even Kucinich to "save us" top-down, but at least Kucinich as President would have set the stage for greater awareness of what's really happening and assisted people in their efforts to save themselves. The PUD campaign was part of that switch in focus, but Theressa and I also began thinking about a fundamental of life: food. Last summer we experimented with a tiny vegetable garden in Theressa's yard, and we got together with neighbors during autumn and winter to prepare a vacant lot for a community garden to be planted this year.

The November election was disappointing almost across the board from national to state level. Only local city results turned out well, which further drove home the importance of saving what we can while we can at a local level. Shortly after, I read neighbor Toby Hemenway's book Gaias's Garden, which applies permaculture principles to home-scale landscaping and gardening. I was fascinated by this introduction to permaculture and the integration possible between humans and their immediate environment, and especially by the potential to drastically reduce my environmental footprint even further while preparing for coming crises. Pretty soon I'd talked Theressa into turning her yard into a forest garden, with the goal of fruit and nut trees and shrubs, edible and herbaceous ground layer plants, vines to utilize vertical space, and root crops, all arranged in an ecological mesh to create a gorgeous and largely self-sustaining landscape with multiple useful outputs for humans and wildlife.

Shortly into the forest garden planning, I happened to read Paul Roberts' The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. I had come across the concept of Peak Oil during the Kucinich campaign, but this was the first time I really "got it," and boy did it turn my world upside down! I can't recommend too strongly that you devote a chunk of 2-3 hours to googling "peak oil" and reading what you find, perhaps starting with For those of you who already blew your spare 2-3 hours reading the recent story of my life, here's Peak Oil in a nutshell:

Just as the US extracted the most oil it would ever extract per year in 01970, the entire world is at, past, or very near to the point where it will extract less and less oil each year, instead of more and more. When the US peaked, it set us up for the oil shocks of the 70s, with economic recession and temporary shifts in lifestyles and consumption. We were ultimately bailed out by expanded imports from the rest of the world. Being a global peak this time, there is no "outside" from which to import oil, and there is no combination of "alternative energy" sources which will allow us to continue living the way we do now. Meanwhile, natural gas extraction has just peaked in North America, and the infrastructure is not even in place to allow the costly import of supplies from overseas, which means for the short term we have to make do with what we've got. For both natural gas and for oil, as demand continues to rise and supply continues to fall, prices will continue to skyrocket even neyond the quadrupling we've seen in the past few years.

Almost every human society around the world is to some extent organized on the premise of constantly increasing supplies of cheap energy, ie oil and natural gas. In the US, everything we do or use is based on these fossil fuels. This includes the obvious: transportation, home heating and cooling, and electricity generation. The more subtle dependencies are our consumer goods: clothing, electronics, plastics, pharmaceuticals. Our most basic needs are currently met with infrastructure based on cheap energy: housing, water supply and sewage treatment, and perhaps most critically, food. Across the US, our agricultural land has been paved over and most of what's left has been eroded and abused. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer of From the Wilderness puts it in "Eating Fossil Fuels", "Much of the soil in the Great Plains is little more than a sponge into which we must pour hydrocarbon-based fertilizers in order to produce crops."

The repercussions of Peak Oil are as widespread as our fossil fuel dependencies. The best case scenario is an ongoing national and eventually global recession, leading into an economic depression which never ends. That means the continued decay of our physical and social infrastructures, accelerating loss of jobs and capital, harder work and longer hours for those holding on to paying jobs, widespread bankruptcies and disruptions for millions of families with associated homelessness and poverty, power and control moving even more firmly into the hands of corporations and elites (to the point of a potential return to feudalism), inflation and higher costs for everything including basic commodities such as food, and generally making do with much less economic and material wealth. The ultimate result will have to be more localized economies and societies, producing most of what they consume at a bioregional level. Unfortunately, the skills and economic networks for functional local economies have been mostly destroyed, so there's a lot of relearning and rebuilding necessary. The best case scenario is reason enough to take stock of our lives and evaluate how we're going to weather the changes to come and what preparations we need to start making now.

The worst case scenarios are grimmer, since they involve the potentially rapid breakdown of one, many, or all of the systems on which we now depend. No one has ever built a globalized society as complex as what we have now, so we don't know what happens when the underpinning of cheap energy is gone. What happens if gas shortages, hoarding, price spikes, and worker strikes grind the shipping industry to a halt for as little as two weeks? Do you have enough food in your house and growing in your yard to feed your family once the supermarkets run out of their three day supply? What happens to cities when blackouts lasting days or weeks exhaust backup generator capacity and water can't be pumped to households while sewage treatment plants shut down? What happens as global climate change, spiking costs of chemical inputs and fuels, gasoline shortages, and unpredictable supply chains make industrial agriculture more volatile than ever? What happens when a collapse in yield can't be offset by importing food from thousands of miles away? What happens when millions of people can't get jobs to pay for whatever food there is? What happens when people can't afford to heat their homes through freezing winters, or when sudden natural gas shortages mean even the affluent just plain can't run their furnaces? What happens when blackouts shut down air conditioners in highly populated deserts like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles? What happens when a global population of 6.4 billion and growing, a more than threefold increase from the days before cheap energy, has neither that cheap energy as a crutch nor the skills to live from the land? These questions hint at where things could end up, and though apocalyptic nightmare is not inevitable, it's important to take all the possibilities seriously and keep an open mind while evaluating where we're headed and the importance of personal preparation for different Peak Oil scenarios.

So there's the gist of what I learned from Roberts' book and further research. Once I fully understood the nature of peak oil extraction, how close we are to that point, and the severe consequences, I had one of those rare perception shifts where the whole world looks permanently different. Since that short, intense burst of reading everything I could find, I've spent my time primarily on personal preparation, with some energy devoted to spreading the word and networking with others via Portland Peak Oil. My vision for now is to develop useful skills for a post-carbon world, centering around ecological food production and permaculture principles. I hope to build a physical "lifeboat" of food, shelter, and water for myself and whomever else joins me. Having learned necessary skills and having secured my own needs, I can make myself available as a resource for others in Portland as they react to Peak Oil, whether in advance or as the negative impacts hit. The safest thing for pure self preservation might be to find some rural land and do the homesteading thing, but I'm more interested in helping as many people as I can through the crisis ahead. I think that if any major US city can pull through Peak Oil in a civilized way, it's I'm digging in here.

With that vision, the forest garden for Theressa's yard took top priority this spring and summer, and we designed a layout including 15 fruit trees and dozens more shrubs and vines. I moved in to to Leah's house across the street from Theressa, joining Pete who had just moved from Los Angeles to escape Peak Oil and build a lifeboat somewhere more sustainable. Theressa, Pete and I planted the tree, shrub, and vine layers of Theressa's yard, and Pete and I also began planting Leah's yard. We began holding weekly Peak Oil neighborhood preparation meetings, but unfortunately we didn't hit a critical mass of enough people with enough spare time to get research and implementation of preparation steps really flowing.

One of the primary preparation recommendations from most Peak Oil thinkers is to get out of debt! Any kind of "soft crash" or controlled decline will probably favor corporations and the rich at the expense of middle and lower class folks. Debt is already a major lever of control over people's lives. The freer you are of it, the more options you'll have as the economy collapses. With that in mind, Theressa decided last month to sell the house she hadn't chosen in the first place, the legacy of her recently ended marriage. She's never been really happy where she is, and by selling now at the top of the housing bubble she can wipe her mortgage out and have cash left over. So my planning stage for the herbaceous and ground layers of her forest garden was interrupted; the next residents will have to plant the annual and perennial flowers, herbs, vegetables, ground covers, and so forth! It's a little disappointing to leave the work I've done, mostly because I know there's still so much for me to learn by observing what we've done so far and how it works out, but I'm OK with the change in plans. It makes a lot of sense for Theressa to get out of this trap, and I can keep learning anywhere I go. With luck, the new owners will allow me to come back from time to time and take a look at what's happening.

Theressa isn't entirely sure yet what her long term relocation plans are, but for now she and I are excited about moving in to the Portland Permaculture Institute (PPI) with Pam & Joe (we both knew Pam already from the Kucinich campaign!), Bob, Tony, and Michael. They have a 1.6 acre lot in the middle of Portland, and the community is focused on learning, practicing, and teaching permaculture. There's a general awareness of Peak Oil and Pam and Joe are specifically preparing for it, so it seems like a good place for us to learn more about permaculture, live in and learn from intentional community, and build a lifeboat with more people who share the same preparation vision. We'll be moving in by the end of October, assuming I'm accepted by the community members.

With Theressa's house going up for sale and my impending departure from Leah's yard (with no one committed to caring for further edible and ecological plantings), I decided to jump on a timely opportunity: an internship at Mossback Farm, a permaculture farm 40 miles out of Portland. I'll be spending about two months there learning as much as I can before moving into PPI and devoting myself to preparations there. It promises to be a very exciting experience; I'll write updates from there! The same can be said, really, for Peak stay tuned!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

PUD Campaign, June 02004-March 02005

By the time I got involved, the PUD campaign had been active for several months. It started as the Willamette Electric People's Utility District, an effort to create a publicly owned power utility in inner east Portland. For residents within the proposed district, this would replace their service by Portland General Electric (PGE), owned by Enron. The advantages to not having your power supplied by Enron are fairly obvious, but a previous county-wide effort to take control of the utility had been voted down in a campaign in which Enron and the other local private utility spent more than $3 million, 100 times the amount spent by the pro-PUD campaign. The lies backed by big money overcame common sense, but in inner east Portland where I live and where people are smarter about seeing through propaganda, 57% of voters favored the county-wide measure. So that's where the new, scaled-down campaign focused its efforts and outlined the proposed district.

The main reason I got involved with the campaign was the potential of the utility, in the hands of forward-thinking Portland residents, to implement serious conservation efforts and aggressively pursue renewable energy. At that point I hadn't really "gotten" Peal Oil yet, but I knew enough about energy to know that local control and local power generation are far superior to being at the mercy of giant corporations and power distribution over thousands of miles. An excellent bonus would be the creation of a stronger local economy via cheaper electric rates than PGE/Enron, and keeping more money here instead of siphoning it off to, say, Texas. Once the PUD had been established and proven to have lower rates and equal reliability, it could easily spread to bring in other areas of Portland, or act as a model for other neighborhoods to start their own PUDs, snowballing the local benefits.

As with the Kucinich campaign, I joined the PUD campaign to help with tech stuff, initially helping with a website redesign and implementing a web interface for the voter database. I adapted the Kucinich voter database and some of the canvassing list programs for PUD purposes, which worked well. As time went on, I got more involved in other aspects of the campaign, from tabling at street fairs to on-the-ground canvassing (ACK!) to writing fundraising letters and doing follow-up calls (ACK ACK!) to volunteer coordination (ACK ACK ACK!) As with the Kucinich campaign, pushing myself further into uncomfortable territory was difficult but possible with the worthy goal of establishing a PUD, and it helped me grow a bit too. Theressa had joined with the campaign as the same time I did, and focused her efforts on events and fundraising, helping with a reasonably profitable auction and almost single-handedly coordinating two successful pancake breakfasts. We worked together a lot, supporting each other in the different projects we'd taken on.

The campaign hit a major legal snag as PGE/Enron supporters filed a bogus lawsuit. Unfortunately, the defendent was Multnomah County, which had seemed resistant to the PUD from the start. Neither the county attorney nor the plaintiffs bothered to let us know that the court date was fast-tracked to one week after the filing, so the PGE/Enron lawyer showed up with his well-prepared, presumably eloquent arguments, the county attorney stood up and essentially said "We have no position on this matter," and the judge didn't hear from anyone who actually wanted to defend the PUD. We hired an attorney and tried to undo the damage but hit other legal blocks, ran out of volunteer energy, and went dormant as the City of Portland stepped up to actively implement its plan to purchase PGE from Enron and run the entire area (as opposed to just our small patch in inner east Portland).

As it stands now, Enron has refused an offer from the city which is higher than that they'd accepted from the Texas Pacific Group, another Texas rape-and-pillage corporation. (Fortunately, earlier this year the Oregon Puclic Utility Commission broke from their pattern of public neglect and blocked the sale which would have sucked $800 million to $1.2 billion from us in five years.) The last big hope is that the city will have the guts to condemn PGE's assets, which would be much uglier than an outright purchase. If that fails, the Central Portland PUD will be the only hope to salvage any of PGE.

It's been fascinating watching how fully corrupted our election system is even in Portland, and how badly the justice system failed even to uphold the letter of the law, let alone act for the good of the people. It was also educational, though disappointing, to see many of the same problems we experienced trying to generate and harness volunteer energy in the Kucinich campaign replicated in the PUD campaign. It again came down to a small handful of people trying to do almost everything, which is unsustainable and risks burnout. It's hard to say at this point whether or not the campaign was worth the energy I put into it; I certainly learned a lot, pushed myself into new territory, got to experience consensus decision making for the first time, and made some more good contacts with local people. However, with the PUD campaign stalled and city condemnation even more of an uphill battle, it's hard to feel that the energy and time was well spent, especially in contrast to the Kucinich campaign which. Although both campaigns failed in their primary objectives, it was much more fulfilling to pour everything I had into what I saw as literally the most important thing in the world...the question of how the electric power for 30,000 people will be generated and distributed is important but not quite in the same class! Live and learn.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Kucinich campaign, July 02003 - May 02004

Back around May 02003 I learned about Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich via's straw poll primary. It featured a page for each of the nine candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Each page included an opportunity for the candidate to write a letter/statement to voters, and the candidate's responses to a set of questions asked of each candidate. I read through all the candidate pages, and was starting to feel despair as all the answers ran together as vague political rhetoric and non-answers to the questions. But when I hit Kucinich's page, I was blown away by his sincerity and the fact that rather than attacking Bush he actually discussed root problems and how he would address them. Kucinich's policies made sense right across the board in light of the reading I'd been doing. Most importantly, Kucinich was the only candidate who clearly stated his support for some of the basic steps needed to address our environmental crises, while integrating that enviromental message into the rest of his platform in systematic big-picture thinking.

I actually did a good bit of work on the Kucinich campaign in Cincinnati before moving to Portland. I attended one Cincinnati meetup, and joined another fellow in handing out literature and talking to attendees at an IBEW picnic. For anyone who knows how shy I was (and to a large extent still am), that in itself tells you lot about how important the Kucinich campaign was to me! On a more familiar and comfortable front, I compiled excerpts from multiple interviews with Kucinich to create an audio CD giving a good overview of several of the points from his Ten Key Issues. I distributed a few CDs around Cincinnati, sent a copy to the national campaign (which supposedly was going to be given to the Dave Matthews Band, and may have played a part in Tim Reynolds' later support?), and brought it with me to Portland where we wound up distributing hundreds of copies.

In Portland, my first exposure to the local campaign was at a birthday party for Kucinich at the new office, on October 7. I dropped by, met some people, gave out some CDs and left a pile for the office to use, and signed up for a volunteer office shift and for the Cyberteam. I quickly wound up practically living in the office spending nearly all my waking hours on the website and other tech projects, such as implementing an events system, automated email sign-ups, and other dynamic features. Later on, in preparation for the WA state caucus I built a database for managing phone calls to voters. My favorite and most difficult project was the Dennis Jukebox, an interactive audio jukebox of Dennis speaking on various issues, which the user can arrange into a track list, download, and listen to or burn to CD. I was also drawn into many other tasks, including composing email newsletters for the local listserve, doing battle with national's volunteer database, managing the local volunteer database and training office volunteers to use it, publicizing events, moderating listserves, getting national's Oregon page updated, burning CDs, writing letters to the editor, helping out other office volunteers, answering phones, coordinating hand-letter writing to IA and NH, and so on.

By December and January, the toll of continued media suppression of Kucinich's campaign, still-dismal poll numbers, and not enough experienced coordinators had driven off many of the volunteers and much of the energy from the local campaign. We still had a small core steering committee and several regular office volunteers and other dependable volunteers, but not nearly enough people who could devote 20+ hours a week to organizing the local campaign and leading projects, let alone people with prior campaign experience or knowledge of what we should actually be doing! By default much of the work came to me, since I was around all the time and willing to do whatever needed doing. An office volunteer, Theressa, had also stepped up big-time to help me out. As time went on the two of us became the primary organizers and coordinators despite having little idea of what we should be doing. We also became close friends.

The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary in late January were dismal showings for Kucinich, and although he slowly gained momentum in succeeding states, to the point of winning 2nd place with 31% of the caucus vote in Hawaii, it wasn't enough to gain the necessary media attention. (The AP headline for Hawaii was to the effect of "Kerry wins first place, Edwards third place") After Super Tuesday on March 2nd, it was clear that Kucinich would not be able to catch up to Kerry.

My stash of Prozac which I'd built up before leaving Cincinnati had run out by now, and with the stress and disappointment of the early state results I slipped back into depression. Fortunately, I discovered that taking St. John's Wort and 5-HTP as natural supplements worked about as well as Prozac and did not require expensive prescriptions. The 5-HTP provides a precursor for serotonin to be built in the body, and the St. John's Wort is a serotonin uptake inhibitor, so that the serotonin floats around longer and is more effective. (I've since cut out the St. John's Wort and am just taking 5-HTP...with experimentation to find the proper diet with enough natural serotonin building blocks, I can hopefully eliminate even that!)

After Super Tuesday, resources were freed up from other states (especially California), so we began receiving boxes of supplies and national campaign attention for the first time. What began as a plan for a couple of interns and one national coordinator evolved into a huge national focus on the Oregon primary on May 18, with ultimately a dozen national staffers and 28 days spent in this state by Kucinich. The goal was to have a strong showing for Kucinich in Oregon and influence the platform of Kerry as the Democratic nominee.

I'd burnt myself out somewhat, and was much less enthusiastic about trying to minorly alter Kerry's platform vs electing a candidate who actually believed in fundamental change to our broken systems. But inertia, a desire to see it through, and continued respect for Kucinich led me to stay involved, finally able to revert to being the tech guy and leaving all the rest of the coordinaton and tasks to others. I also dropped down to working only 40-50 hours a week, which helped a lot.

In the end, Kucinich won 17% of Oregon's primary vote, enough for six delegates to the national convention. It was the highest percentage Kucinich got in any primary (which are very different from caucuses), and a good addition to the delegate count.

I learned a lot from the whole experience. Aside from further developing some of my tech skills, I figured out some big-picture lessons about campaigning. The primary splash of cold water was the realization that much or perhaps even most of the tech work I'd done had been a waste of time or at least poor allocation of my time. Not knowing anything about what's needed for a successful campaign, I'd focused on what I knew how to do: geeky tech things. Unfortunately, what we really needed locally were a volunteer coordinator, a full-blown canvassing operation, and other active outreach involving talking to people. Our local campaign could have impacted the election more heavily had we focused on Vancouver and SW Washington, going door to door and using other outreach methods to recruit Kucinich supporters for the early February caucus, where one person can have a huge impact. Simply having had more of us from Oregon showing up on Washington's caucus day and talking to caucus attendees about Kucinich could have made a big difference. By attending a caucus ourselves, Theressa and I gained Kucinich at least one extra delegate to the next caucus level. This realization, and the whole process of my stepping outside my comfort zone to take on tasks that needed doing, helped me grow a bit and become somewhat more comfortable interacting with people.

I learned that there are two kinds of volunteers: self-starters who will step up and take some action no matter what, and those who need a lot more management and time to be plugged into useful work by a coordinator. The second kind of volunteer fades away without careful attention, and since the local campaign didn't have a volunteer coordinator most of the time or clear projects with coordinators into which to plug volunteers, we lost a lot of potential help. So a big challenge in volunteer-based organizations seems to be getting the infrastructure in place and having people who can work with volunteers to make sure they're utilized and feel useful. And yet, what's really needed (in the Kucinich campaign and now in facing Peak Oil) is grassroots bottom-up networks of self-starters who can get exciting projects going without needing top-down management.

I wound up meeting a lot of neat people both locally and from the national campaign, since then staying in touch to some degree with several of them, and crossing paths with others as we've all dispersed to our own circles which naturally overlap here and there. The most significant person I met was Theressa, as we've developed a very close friendship / sort-of romantic relationship, and have been supporting each other on the PUD campaign and in Peak Oil preparations ever since.

With the Oregon primary over, I ended my active involvement with the Kucinich campaign, skipping the final handful of states with primaries, and deciding not to become a Kucinich delegate to the national convention in Boston. <soapbox>Democratic voters and caucusers had blindly followed the corporate media's spin on which candidate was most "electable" and thereby nominated the elite-chosen corporate candidate. The opportunity to turn things around at a national (and thus international) level was now lost. This meant that we'd pretty much missed out on our only chance to avert looming environmental catastrophe by taking the action that had been put off since the 01970s and for which only Kucinich was issuing a clear call. </soapbox> I saw no point in putting any more energy into national politics, so I turned my focus to a local campaign: the Willamette Electric People's Utility District, or WEPUD. More on that in my next post!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

What the heck has Norris been up to?

Since moving to Portland, I've been exceptionally remiss at keeping in touch with my friends and family. The next few posts will summarize what I've been doing in Portland, and hopefully I'll maintain ongoing posts from here on out so that people can check in on my blog if they're curious. I've also resolved to be more active in responding to emails I get from friends & family.

It occurs to me that many people might not even have the background to why I decided to leave Cincinnati for Portland. In short, in September 02002 on the way to the wedding of Cousin Doug & Ingrid, I read an ebook on the environmental state of the world. It woke me up to the fact that environmental problems, which had been a big concern to me as a kid, had only gotten much worse since my childhood, not better. For some reason this prompted me to begin doing what I'd wanted to make myself do for years: read nonfiction in many genres and exercise my mind more, much of it revolving around environmental issues.

A few months later, I finally figured out that I'd been clinically depressed for about 7 years, and Prozac (along with the groundwork of 1-2 years of trying to be more positive, bashing myself less, etc) brought me out of the depression. From the mix of learning what bad shape the world is in and renewed personal energy, I decided that it was time to leave my corporate tech support job where I'd been "treading water" in life figuring out what I really wanted to do.

I decided that I could be most effective in addressing the problems of the world while making a living by providing computer tech services to nonprofits, with a focus on building a client base of all environmental nonprofits. Cincinnati was clearly not the place to start my new career, as it's fairly backwards environmentally and socially, has relatively few nonprofits, and did not hold any special ties for me as I'd only lived there 4 years and had no connection or desire to improve it from the grassroots up.

Portland, Oregon had come up a lot in my readings, as the poster child for smart growth and a hotbed of environmental and social activism. I made up a detailed spreadsheet with a dozen or more cities and 20 factors (feasibility of going carfree, social climate, weather climate, proximity to friends and family, ultimate frisbee culture, live music scene, etc) and narrowed my choice down to Northampton MA, Boston MA, or Portland. I visited all three, but from the start my heart had been set on Portland, and the physical visit simply cemented my resolve to make this my new home.

I moved out in September 02003 and entered into a deep black abyss as far as most of my friends and family could tell. Here at last, the mystery is read on! Once I got situated in permanent housing (after a very hospitable welcome by Ben & Laura, who put me up for the first month or so), I've been focused full-time or over-time on three successive activities: 1) the Kucinich campaign (July 02003 - May 02004), the PUD campaign (June 02004 - March 02005), and now Peak Oil (March 02005 - my death). I'll be making one post per phase. Posts will be back-dated slightly (or a lot--the Peak Oil post was finished on October 7!) to make them the first posts in the blog.

If you'd like to keep up-to-date on what I'm doing, you can keep an eye on my blog at If you have an automatic blog tracker, you can subscribe to the "site feed" at Or you can just let me know that you'd like to get emails whenever I post to the blog, and I'll get something set up to make that happen.