All posts by PB Floyd

Humor is our Tool to address climate change

By PB Floyd

Fossil Fools day — Wednesday, April 1 — is your chance to put climate change back on the agenda by organizing and participating in creative, decentralized, inspired protests, blockades, street theater and organized pranks on the fossil fuel industry. With all the media hype about the world economic collapse, it can be hard to remember that something more important than banks and auto companies is at grave risk — the planet’s ecological balance is on the line. Politicians are rushing to spend trillions of dollars to restore profits and economic growth, but pitifully little is being done to break the human addiction to fossil fuels. Thousands of people will rise up with simultaneous actions on April 1 to try to re-focus attention on the real global crisis.

Pull a prank that packs a punch

Actions using non-traditional, funny-yet-in-your-face tactics like the ones held on fossil fools day are particularly effective because they are decentralized and diverse. In 2008 there were about 150 actions on four continents. Just a few folks can organize a modest action with funny signs, disguises, and gags like folks in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a group of clowns invaded supermarkets to try to locate the elusive Scottish banana to point out the absurdity of using fossil fuels to fly food to Scotland in the middle of winter. In Berkeley last year, a handful of us had a bike parade to gas stations which required hardly any organizing, time or money, but which was really effective in making people stop and think about fossil fuel consumption. Better organized folks tried more disruptive actions like the numerous blockades of coal-fired power plants last year.

Fossil fools day is a do-it-yourself opportunity — you don’t have to join some big structure or have a lot of fancy credentials — you can just gather your friends and get to it. In a world exhausted by boring, soulless protest rituals that are easily ignored, humor is a powerful weapon. Big corporations may control the media and the government, but saying something in a funny or unusual way can break through the static, complacency and hopelessness. Especially at this time of disruption and yearning for change, grassroots actions are essential and may be unusually effective.

Fossil Fools actions in 2009 are likely to focus on the numerous false solutions being offered by various corporate interests and politicians and the inadequate response offered by world governments who proclaim they are concerned by climate change, including the incoming Obama Administration. It is instructive to compare the timid, gradual response to climate change with the massive and rapid response to the economic crisis. No politician is suggesting it is too expensive to help banks, nor are any suggesting a target of reducing the recession 20 percent by 2030. But that is precisely the bullshit you hear about global warming.

Why is every politician united around taking aggressive action on the economy while they dither about the environment? Everyone knows the economy will eventually come back — it is called the business cycle for a reason. The same can’t be said about climate change. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased from 280 to 380 parts per million since fossil fuel combustion began in the industrial revolution in the 1800s — C02 levels are now higher than they has been for 750,000 of years (Jonathan, 2006.) Without dramatic action, these gases will continue to accumulate, causing mass species extinctions as well as human famine, social dislocation and suffering. Green house gas emissions continue to climb dramatically, despite the last few years of rhetorical concern and despite all the greenwashing advertising campaigns and claims by ski resorts that they are carbon neutral.

No matter which ecosystem or creature fills you with awe and a sense of the meaning of your own existence — the silent redwood groves, the polar bear, the coral reefs, glaciers or the rainforest — they are at grave risk if people keep burning fossil fuels as usual. Climate change is the real global crisis.

Climate Feedback Loops

There is growing evidence that global warming is already triggering climatic feedback loop effects that will cause climate change faster than projected purely from human emissions of greenhouse gasses. For instance, as temperatures warm, permafrost in the Arctic is melting at alarming rates, releasing millions of tons of methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than the carbon dioxide released when humans burn fossil fuels. Another example of a feedback loop is how warming reduces Arctic ice exposing more dark colored water to absorb sunlight, with less white ice that reflects the light, thus trapping even more heat and speeding up climate change.

At a certain point, these feedback loops may gain such momentum that even if humans dramatically cut their emissions of greenhouse gases in a few decades, climate change will continue to increase. Scientists call this the tipping point — the point where natural feedback loops propel climate change out of human control. No one knows when the tipping point will be reached — or whether it has already been reached — but the need to avoid reaching it means cutting greenhouse gas emissions now, not in 2050 or at some long-off date, is crucial.

The real goal isn’t to cut emissions to 1990 levels (ala the Kyoto Protocol) or some artificial target — the goal is zero human emissions now. That means entirely replacing our industrial culture’s dependence on fossil fuels. In the USA, about 40 percent of emissions are generated to generate electricity, and another 40 percent are for transportation fuel. Cutting these emissions requires a much more dramatic shift than screwing in a light bulb or driving a Prius — the point of consumption. The key is shifting the supply side — replacing oil, gas and coal as fuels in the first place.

While Obama is giving lip service to addressing climate change, his proposals are pathetically timid — a few billion dollars, inadequate targets and slow timetables. He is pushing a number of false solutions to climate change — “alternative” technologies like “clean” coal, nuclear, and biofuels that are either unproven, cause other forms of ecological damage, won’t reduce over-all emissions, or all of the above. With climate change already causing ecological damage, there isn’t time to waste on dead-end false solutions.

The Clean Coal Myth

Obama’s constant discussion of clean coal merits special criticism. His campaign literature stated: “Develop and Deploy Clean Coal Technology . . . An Obama administration will provide incentives to accelerate private sector investment in commercial scale zero-carbon coal facilities. In order to maximize the speed with which we advance this critical technology, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will instruct DOE [Department of Energy] to enter into public private partnerships to develop 5 ‘first-of-a-kind’ commercial scale coal-fired plants with carbon capture and sequestration.”

The problem is, there is no such thing as clean coal — it is a marketing gimmick created by the coal industry. The reason coal is an attractive fuel is that it is extremely cheap to mine and burn. The reason Obama discusses clean coal is because the coal industry is immensely powerful and the USA has a huge supply of coal. But the inconvenient truth is that coal has to be phased out as a fuel source if humans are to avoid climate change. Coal is by far the dirtiest of the fossil fuels in terms of C02 emitted per unit of energy.

The idea behind clean coal technology is that the C02 released when coal is burned could be captured and then stored underground — so called carbon capture and sequestration. The problem is, no one has figured out a way to capture carbon economically on the scale at which coal is burned — millions of tons. Capturing the carbon dioxide generated from burning coal is extremely complex and expensive. Even if you could capture all the carbon inexpensively enough to make it feasible (which appears highly unlikely), getting rid of the immense volume of gas so that it wouldn’t leak back into the atmosphere or pollute underground water sources is a problem.

In 2008, the US Department of Energy withdrew funding from FutureGen, a 275-megawatt coal fired power plant that was to have captured all of the CO2 emitted from burning coal, because of higher than expected costs. The public-private partnership, which never begin construction, is hoping to get a new chance at life under the Obama administration.

By the time you spend all the extra money to build new coal burning plants and develop infrastructure to get rid of the carbon dioxide underground, electricity from coal is no longer so cheap. It could end up being more expensive than solar or wind, which are increasingly price competitive with fossil fueled electricity already.

This says nothing of the other dirty aspects of mining coal. Increasingly, USA coal is strip mined or mined using mountaintop removal methods, both of which obliterate the environment in the process. The recent spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic fly ash from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee is just a tiny example of the vast scale of pollution associated with the coal industry. Fly ash is what is left after you burn coal — the spill at Kingston covered 400 acres and flowed into the Clinch and Tennessee Rivers.

The coal industry is using the theoretical possibility that coal could someday be burned without emitting disastrous amounts of C02 as an excuse to avoid limitations on the coal industry now. While discussion goes on, millions of tons of coal are being burned — none of it in a clean fashion. Hundreds of new coal fired power plants — none of them clean — are being built around the world. This is to say nothing of new mines and trans-national shipping facilities. Did you know that the USA exported 59 million tons of coal in 2008 according to the Energy Information Administration? All of this investment in coal will only make it harder to phase out coal as it becomes increasingly clear that clean coal is a cruel myth. Meanwhile, money and time that could be invested in clean technologies like solar and wind NOW continued to be poured into coal.

Direct Action Gets the Goods

Public awareness of climate change has been building for years, but the scope of the technological, political and economic response — as opposed to the rhetorical response — has remained minimal. Some people are experiencing crisis fatigue, figuring, “We’re already doomed, it is too late to do anything, we may as well not worry about it and have fun while human societies last. . . ” Although no one knows how dramatically the environment has already been damaged, grassroots action to address the problem at this moment is still crucial. Concluding we’re already fucked will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our action is worth it if there is even a chance to avert climate/ecological disaster.

While the economic collapse has taken the focus off global warming and the hype around the incoming Obama administration has allowed Obama to get away with a timid, vague plan, both of these factors may create special opportunities for grassroots action on climate change right now to be effective. Just like a lot of new infrastructure was built during the Great Depression to create jobs, the recession could be a great time to convert the fossil fueled economy to wind and solar power. Going beyond business as usual and standard band-aid solutions — like bailing out an auto industry that has resisted alternatives to fossil fuels since the oil shocks in the early 1970s — will require grassroots pressure and organizing. Obama is sexy but cautious and mainstream — he isn’t moving to make the kind of historic changes that are required.

Which is where actions like fossil fools day come in. Fossil Fools day comes out of the direct action, grassroots, radical environmental movement. Real dramatic change — replacing a worn-out, unsustainable way of life with something entirely new — won’t come from politicians, big business, or Hollywood movies. It will take radical vision — understanding new ways of living that are more humanistic, more fun, more gentle, localized and small-scale, and thus more in-tune with the cycles of life. We need new thinking to transition away from the fossil fueled “use it once and throw away” mentality we have all grown up with. Radical change requires disruption of the agenda of those in charge, not just asking for a seat at the table or going along for the ride. Change will come when the status quo can no longer continue.

In 2008, fossil fools day actions “spanned the full spectrum from the simply subversive to the downright disruptive: office occupations, banner drops, street theater, Big Carbon blockades, city center parades, spoof product launches, subvertising, leaflets, lock-downs,” according to Rising Tide North America. “Oil, gas, coal and aviation were all targeted. Fossil fuel extraction, production, financing, PR and greenwash all felt the jester’s wrath.” Since every aspect of our lives — from our food to our housing, to our jobs, to our transport to the way cities are designed — are related to the fossil fuel addiction, every neighborhood has appropriate targets.

Disruptive actions raise the economic cost of the fossil fuel lifestyle — this is one of the only languages the corporate political structure understands. Fossil fuels dominate our lives because they are efficient in the short term — they make things seem easy and instant by exporting the costs and harms to where they can’t be seen, or to the future. Fossil Fools day aims to expose this false ease and efficiency by connecting the harm to fossil fueled machines and ways of life. The point isn’t to impose guilt — often the mark of ill-calculated, careless activist efforts that divide us from those who can be our allies. Rather, clever pranks can put a smile on all of our faces, because ultimately we’re all dependent on fossil fuels, and we all have to abandon them together.

In Berkeley, those of us who did a bike parade last year have been thinking of ways to expose the greenwash and fake alternatives associated with the huge biofuel research industry at the University of California, Berkeley funded by oil-giant BP. What will you do in your town? Think zany, beautiful and for yourself. If no one has ever tried it before, that may be the best possible option. The joke is yours to make April 1.

For more info, updates, and ideas, check out fossilfoolsday.org. Or in Berkeley, email us at Berkeleyfossilfools@riseup.net.

Alternatives to Panic – Bringing to life a new wolrd from the ashes of the old economy

The deepening economic recession is beginning to cause a lot of stress and insecurity for people who are losing jobs, facing piles of bills they can’t pay, and dealing with losing houses and other material things they spent years working to obtain. Even for those of us who are still working and still have enough money to get by, there is a sense of uncertainty — will it all come crashing down next month?

If you’re critical of the system, you have to be suspicious of the level of hype and the narrowing of the discourse surrounding the recession, even while you feel concern for people at the short end of the economic stick. The fact that the recession is causing such mass suffering reveals the failures of the capitalist system — its mal-distribution of resources, its inequality, and its focus on production and growth divorced from human needs or happiness. Mainstream politicians want to “fix” capitalism so we can return to a state of steady economic growth. But capitalism is broken when it is growing — we don’t want to return to business as usual. How can we use this period of economic collapse to move farther away from capitalism, rather than allowing its problems to hijack our lives?

Perhaps there are ways in which the recession can be a creative time for the human energy that would have gone into the fast-moving economic machine to go in different directions: to the community rather than selfishness, to social change rather than the status quo, to living outside the system now rather than trying to live up to its pre-set goals of property accumulation, status and the future.

The recession can help us see the absurdity of the capitalist system that is better hidden when business is booming. It can provide time to wonder whether our lives during the good times were really making us happy, or whether all that frantic activity was ultimately meaningless. If so, what would a more meaningful existence look like? Can we build alternative economic structures that last beyond the recession and build opportunities for cooperation outside of the capitalist machine?

The Invisible Hand

Recessions are not really malfunctions of the capitalist system — they are a fundamental part of it. The history of capitalism features an inevitable business cycle of boom and bust. Pro-capitalists who hope to perfect capitalism so it can exist without recessions don’t understand the way their economic system works. Conversely, radicals who predict the demise of capitalism each time the stock market falls aren’t studying history carefully enough, either. This recession — like all the other recessions and depressions before it — will not on its own spell the end of capitalism. That doesn’t mean that recessions can’t be used by radicals against capitalism — just that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking capitalism will end itself. It needs our help.

It is instructive to see the politicians and business owners — from Bush to Obama and from China to Russia to Germany to the USA — united in their powerlessness over the economic system itself. The recession makes it clear that people don’t control the economy — the economy controls people. Just as the economy controls what you can do for work, what you can buy, and how you live, the system controls the actions of the politicians and the business managers who supposedly are in charge.

This is precisely backwards from how an economic system should be. A reasonable system would serve people — giving them the things that they need, responding to their collective decisions, and balancing human interests and environmental concerns. Capitalism, to the contrary, by its very nature manipulates and constrains people — forcing humans to adjust to the system’s imperatives — while destroying the natural environment. Capitalism silences the self-determination of the population, while selecting a lucky few to hold somewhat more power to act within its artificial constraints.

Recessions are moments when the system’s intense productive energies turn in on itself — economic activity and growth fall off precisely because economic activity and growth have produced too much stuff to be purchased and consumed by those who have money. Note that the capitalist system can run out of consumers even while many people don’t have enough — capitalism only serves those with money, not necessarily those in need. As purchases fall below production, economic activity contracts, throwing people out of work, who then themselves must cut consumption because they no longer have money, leading to a downward spiral of decreasing consumption and production.

Capitalism’s own perverse logic requires economic inequality and scarcity of resources for huge numbers of people. Competition acts to depress wages for workers — with a desperate unemployed “reserve army of labor” totally without work and therefore without money to get what they need. And yet the system simultaneously needs to find consumers with money to purchase the goods it creates. The system ping-pongs back and forth between temporarily solving the problem by bringing new consumers, resources and methods on-line, only to hit a crisis point as its internal logic plays itself out.

This painful oscillation between boom and bust, competition and income stratification nonetheless overall produces limitless economic growth, i.e. greater and greater human transformation of natural resources into processed forms for use by human beings. This is determined by the internal logic of the system — each individual or company must expand production, efficiency and wealth or lose out to another individual or company which is better at playing the game.

The most crucial flaw in capitalism is not the boom and bust cycle, but its limitless growth, because capitalism exists on a planet with finite resources. While this problem hasn’t been very noticeable until recently, it is likely to eclipse the pain of income stratification and the boom and bust cycle as the key reason why capitalism cannot continue on its present course. Environmental crises like global warming, over-fishing of the oceans, deforestation, soil depletion and loss of species are not really scientific or technological failures. They are the new face of economic crisis in which the economy destroys the earth faster than it can regenerate itself.

Discrediting the rat race

Because the recession makes visible the ways in which the market economy doesn’t serve people’s needs, it can be a good time to nurture opposition to the capitalist system on a political and philosophical level. In good times, the economy is less visible — people get so busy buying and selling that they don’t have much energy left for critique. When the economy goes wrong, people have extra time to question why things are the way they are.

Radicals can seek to move the discussion beyond shallow media hyped fear about job loss, bank collapse and stock market decline and the need to get “back to normal.” We can question whether all this industrial production and consumption — which causes so much ecological damage — is really making us happy in the first place. A lot of what people are expected to consume — fast food, the newest gizmo, suburban homes — is superficial junk. A lot of the economy’s energy is used to market consumption for its own sake.

When times are “good” people are on a treadmill — seeking the next new thing. But when they get there, they feel empty until they start grabbing for something else. It is all about the pursuit, and not the enjoyment, awareness or appreciation of the destination. There is no now, only desire for some future experience that will trigger satisfaction. But to keep the cycle moving and the economy growing, you never actually get there. As the economy gets more efficient and productive, we’ve seen a speedup in the process — people develop a short attention span and seek more consumer stimuli every day.

Recessions can help break the cycle and provide a path off the psychic treadmill. Right now, millions of people are re-thinking their consumption and trying to adjust to living with less. While the mainstream sees this as unfortunate and painful, there are other ways to understanding living with less. If all the stuff and speed of the boom times left us feeling unfulfilled, was it really worth all the overtime, deforestation, carbon emissions and sweatshops? Or could there be another way?

Getting off the grid

Cooperation, sharing, and doing stuff ourselves are the opposite of competition, each for themselves, and depending on an industrial economy for all our material needs. During recessions, the system offers forms of assistance designed to disempower people and make them more dependent on the system — welfare, unemployment insurance, charity.

What if people organized to build alternative economic structures to help us get through the recession, and off the system for good even after the recession is over with? This could mean cooperating to help each other rather than buying and selling services, re-learning how to make our own goods and grow some of our own food, and realizing that a lot of the stuff we have been consuming is not really all that important to our happiness in the first place. When you’re involved in creating what you use, the idea of consuming for its own sake no longer makes sense. The system is all about marketing and creating new needs — when you step off the system, you reclaim your internal sense of what you want and really need. Of course ultimately you can’t really reclaim your life without getting rid of capitalism once and for all.

In the end, the boom and bust economic cycle distracts from more fundamental questions. The real issue is not whether stocks are up or down. Perhaps we don’t want the economy to bounce back to frantic levels of growth — tearing up the earth in pursuit of more stuff, more technology, more hours spent at a job, less opportunities to do stuff for ourselves — and less satisfaction and space to engage with our lives. Since the capitalist economy doesn’t really supply many people’s needs even in the good times, maybe we need to find ways to meet human needs other than the very limited form of economic growth embodied by capitalism. When everyone is furiously building sterile condos and making pre-packaged “home cooked meals” in a plastic bag, we’re creating a lonely and sad world. We seek human satisfaction and ecological balance with a healthy planet, not gross domestic product. When we are faced with living with less, we may find that we can regain our inter-connection with others, with the planet and with ourselves.

A Harvest of Infoshops

The recent police raid on the Long Haul Infoshop in Berkeley (Slingshot’s home base) points out how important radical community spaces, alternative libraries, bike kitchens and infoshops are. The cops figured that the best way to go after a leaderless, informal scene was to go after its leaderless, informal meeting space. Luckily, the cops can take our computers but they can’t destroy our community and they can’t scare us off.

Alternative spaces that operate outside of the mainstream economy are dangerous to the smooth operation of the corporate-capitalist machine that is killing the earth. From these spaces, we can discuss more than the newest tv shows and organize activities more significant than retro-bowling leagues. These physical spaces represent the practical expression of our dreams for how life could be different. Organized cooperatively rather than by bosses and operated to promote creativity, freedom and autonomy instead of profit and conformity, alternative spaces are vital for building a new society.

As soon as we sent the 2009 Slingshot organizer to the printing press, people started sending us information on more spaces we should include. Oops — Too Late! While we were making the organizer we tried to contact everyone listed in the 2008 edition — so we hope the organizer list is pretty accurate. We’re now doing better about updating our on-line radical contact list, which contains extra listings not included in the paper organizer (like email addresses and website links.) Check out

slingshot.tao.ca. Here are some new spaces and updates.

Franklin House – St. Charles, MO

They are a collective house with an infoshop, show venue, community garden, free bike resource, art space and an “oasis in small town middle America.” Check them out at 320 Tompkins Ave., St. Charles, MO 63301, 636-493-1239 franklinhousecollective@gmail.com

Fargo-Moorhead Community Bicycle Workshop – Fargo, ND

They are a non-profit bike shop committed to reclamation of bikes and education, as well as building community. Visit 1303 1st Ave N, Fargo, ND 58102, 701-478-4021 fmbikeworkshop.org

Tantra Coffeehouse – San Marcos, TX

They are a coffeehouse and community center with live music and an art venue. Open Sun-Fri: 7am-midnight and Saturday Sat 7am-1am. Visit at 217 W. Hopkins St. San Marcos, TX 78666 512-558-2233 www.myspace.com/tantracoffee

Everybody Reads – Lansing, MI

A community bookstore and neighborhood resource center that hosts various events. 2019 E. Michigan Avenue- Lansing, MI 48912 517 346-9900, becauseeverybodyreads.com

Bon Vivant Artspace – Buffalo, NY

A new art space and music venue. 1862 Hertel Avenue Buffalo, NY 14216.

Black Sheep Book – Montpelier, VT

They’ve moved into a new storefront space right on the main street of town that is more visible and bigger allowing events with up to 30 people. Send them some books, zines or donations to help them with this expansion. 5 State Street, Montpelier, Vermont 05602 (802) 225-8906, http://www.blacksheepbooks.org

Casal Popular de Castelló – Spain

A radical social center. Carrer d’Amunt 167, 12001 Castelló de la Plana, South Catalonia, casalpopular@moviments.net

Ste. Emilie SkillShare – Montreal, Canada

A radical do it yourself art studio with a zine library/distro, silkscreen shop, photo darkroom, sewing machines and button maker that hosts workshops and events. Open Saturdays. 3942 Ste. Emilie (corner of St. Augustin, metro Place St. Henri), Montreal QC H4C 2A1 514-933-2573 (messages), steemilieskillshare.com / mtlskillshare@gmail.com

Mistakes in the 2009 Organizer. . .

• Oops – after publishing their name in the 2009 organizer we got mail back from the Radish Infoshop at 818 W. College St Springfield, MO 65806 marked “return to sender,- attempted – not known” – either they have moved or ceased to exist.

• We also got a letter mailed to New World Resource Center at 1300 N. Western Ave. in Chicago returned in the mail.

• Due to space considerations, we didn’t list some places. The Junto Library in Winnipeg, Canada DOES exist – 91 Albert St.

• We weren’t sure whether Little Sisters in Vancouver, BC, Canada was still around or not – we didn’t list them but someone says “they’re still there.”

• We listed the Women’s Agenda for Change in Phnom Penh, Cambodia but have since gotten word that they are in transition and they may not be in a good place to receive visitors. They may dissolve in mid-2009.

• Here are some places in Halifax, Nova Scotia that you may want to visit if you’re in town– we got this info too late to include in the 2009 Organizer: • Halifax Coalition Against Poverty • Just Us! Cafe (Spring Garden or Barrington locations) • The Grainery Food Coop. They also have a Food Not Bombs in Halifax.

Beyond Capitalist Food Production: How and why I made a solar fruit dryer

This past summer, I built a solar fruit drier to preserve fruit that my housemates and I gathered from neighbors’ yards. The solar drier helps close the circle on my personal campaign to step off the fossil fuel powered food system by re-learning how people used to get their food before the industrial age. I’ve learned that growing or gathering my own food for free — even in an urban environment — is not only possible, it is deeply enjoyable and very educational. When you connect with your own food, you learn about alternative ways to measure time — guided by the sun and the seasons, not clocks and human make-believe. You learn to talk to your neighbors and find ways to cooperate with them, rather than just trying to stay out of each other’s way. You learn about distributing food outside the capitalist market system. And you learn a lot of very tangible do-it-yourself skills. This article provides simple plans for building your own solar fruit drier, and describes why you might want to.

The way we currently live and eat — in a very complex, high-tech, corporate food production and distribution systems totally dependent on fossil fuels — is killing the earth with global warming, soil depletion, ocean dead-zones and poisons. These systems subjugate people to the needs of the market and concentrate power in a few hands while removing most of us from any understanding of how things work. We lack a real voice in deciding how the economy is operated.

How is it that “low-tech” people 100 years ago could grow their own food and live in balance with the earth, but modern people with all our development and learning can’t seem to do the simplest human things — like eating — without damaging our only home’s life support systems?

How is it that with such a high “standard of living” due to all of this industrialization, people are so sad, so lost, so confused, so addicted, so unhealthy? The high-tech modern world hasn’t brought us happiness or meaningful engaged lives equal to the resources it consumes, the cultures it destroys, and the people it dominates. Could it be that most people’s actual level of satisfaction, humanity and engagement was higher before we had all these fancy industrial toys?

I don’t know but I can say that I’ve found a measure of connectedness, meaning, beauty, and calm as I’ve re-joined life’s web as an active participant — rather than merely as a consumer — by growing, gathering, processing, distributing and enjoying home-grown food. This is slow food on the cheap — do-it-yourself slowness, not just another food fad offering expensive products for you to buy after a long day at work.

So back to the solar fruit drier. The main type of food I’ve been able to gather in the Bay Area is fruit. As described in previous Slingshot articles, if you look around your neighborhood, you start to notice lots of fruit trees that aren’t getting harvested — the fruit is just falling on the ground. If you knock on the door, your neighbors are often happy to let you harvest their tree, and you’re building community in the process.

But what you learn as soon as you start gathering fruit is that the biggest problem is having way too much all at once. What to do? Going beyond capitalist ideas of ownership is a good first step — figure out how you can give away the fruit you just gathered. Get on your bike and ride around to friends, infoshops, farmers markets — I like to give free food out at Critical Mass Bike rides. At the end of the day, you’ll still have more than you need, and that is where preserving food comes in.

Drying food is the oldest method of preserving food because it is the easiest. In some climates, you can simply cut up fruit you harvest, spread it out in the sun, and it will dry. But this has a few problems which is why I built a low-tech (but still nifty) indirect/pass-through fruit drier. If you dry fruit right out in the sun, the sun’s rays bleach out some of the vitamins and nutrients in the food. You may have problems with bugs or other critters. If it rains, you’re in trouble. Before this summer, my housemates and I used an electric powered fruit drier that worked well, but I didn’t like the connection with a huge fossil/nuclear powered electricity grid.

I got the basic design for my drier from two excellent articles written by Dennis Scanlin published in Home Power Magazine (#57 and 69) and I made some modifications described here. I built the solar drier to sit on part of the (south facing) front steps of my house. It is built in two parts that unhook for winter storage; the solar collector and the drying box where you put the fruit. (See diagram.)

The idea is that the sun shines on the solar collector (an insulated box with plexiglas on top) and heats piece of black metal window screen inside. The screen gets very hot. Cool air flows into an opening at the bottom of the collector and as it circulates up through the hot window screen, it gets hot. The hot air rises and pulls more cool air into the bottom of the collector creating a steady flow of air upward through the system.

At the top of the collector box, the hot air enters the drying box. It is just an insulated box with a door at the back. You build wood frames and stretch fiberglass window screen over them on which you lay sliced fruit. At the top of the box, there are adjustable vents allowing hot air to escape. If you close the vents, the box will get hotter and if you open them more, the box will get cooler. During the day, hot air moves from the bottom of the box to the top vents, drying the fruit inside.

On an average day, temperatures in the box are 140 – 150 degrees, which is great for drying fruit. If the temperature gets hotter than 150 degrees, it can deplete vitamins from the fruit, so you have to open the vents on top more.

I made the drier mostly from scrap lumber and a $5 scrap of plexiglas from a local recycled building material center (Urban Ore.) I had to spend about $30 on the two types of window screen and a piece of rigid foam insulation that I moved from the lumberyard to my house via bike trailer. The best black metal window screen is from New York Wire. I used old bike inner tubes cut in half to seal around the door on the drier box and between the solar collector box and the piece of plexiglas. The Scanlin article suggested using a special type of solar collector glass but I think anything clear (and cheap) will work just fine. The only error I made building the whole thing was using some duct tape to hold the rigid insulation together inside the drying box. Oops — the drier gets way too hot for duct tape!

The best part of this project is figuring out how to use it. When my housemates and I used the electric fruit drier, you could put the fruit in to dry anytime you wanted. You just flipped a switch and it worked — the fossil fuel use, capitalist labor, eco-destroying technology and centralized economic power all neatly hidden. This, by the way, is the real problem with modern technology — it hides what is really going on and makes things that are actually really, really complex and ecologically troublesome look “easy” and quick to the end user. There is nothing easy for the environment or human workers about using electricity or other forms of technology that tie your daily life to the death-machine.

But I digress. To use a solar fruit drier, you have to fit your schedule around the sun. This is a surprisingly difficult psychological shift. Modern people hate having to adjust their schedule to the earth or the sun. We have been socialized to want instant gratification and to be insulated from how things are. Using a solar drier means you have to wake up a half hour early and cut fruit to put in the drier before work, rather than doing it at night, because the fruit will get all brown and mushy if you cut it and leave it overnight waiting for the next day’s sun.

In the cool and often foggy bay area climate, I’ve found that it usually takes a day and a half to dry fruit and that it dries unevenly. After the first day, I go through the fruit and pick out whatever has dried (usually smaller pieces.) The more uniformly you can slice the fruit, the better. Cutting up fruit to dry it meshes well with using home grown organic fruit since there are always a lot of pieces of fruit with worms or other defects that need to be cut up to be used. I usually grade the fruit when I harvest it — “eating” fruit with no defects goes in the fruit bowl and wormy fruit gets dried.

This year I harvested, moved by bike, and solar dried apples, pears, peaches, apricots, tomatoes, plums and pluots (a cross between plums and apricots).

It isn’t often in the modern world that you get to eat a truly fossil fuel free food product. By fossil fuel free food, I mean food that is grown, harvested, transported, processed, and distributed without burning fossil fuels. For me, that also means food that isn’t bought or sold because the market economy is so soaked in oil. Once capitalism gets a hold of an alternative good or service like organic food, for instance, the real spirit is lost and producers just aim to meet the minimum standard of some legal definition. It is so ironic to think of people buying organic tv dinners at Whole Foods, the world’s biggest and most centralized health food corporation, or buying organic milk shipped from a feedlot in Colorado. Organic?

We need to go beyond the organic label or even farmers’ markets by re-connecting with the food we eat. I recently heard that a study found that the fossil fuel consumed per unit of food by farmers markets was actually more than industrial food because of economies of scale, i.e. lots of pickup trucks going short distances vs. a big semi moving more food longer distances, but for less fuel per unit. I don’t know if this is true — I volunteer at an organic farm that sells at the Berkeley farmers’ market and I’m convinced that the food they raise is better on many levels (psychic, land use, ecological) than Safeway.

To get out of the ecological collapse human society is currently creating, we have to re-think everything. That means re-claiming ancient ways of preserving our food with the sun, not fossil fuels. And it means recognizing that food is what connects us to the earth and to other species, — it isn’t just another business. We are animals on an abundant earth and we are part of the food chain. Gathering, hunting and growing food is an essential human — and an essentially humanizing — act.

Live Small – Economic growth expands into world mess

Living small — it is the opposite of living large — the opposite of always wanting more. For people in developed countries with access to incredible material abundance, living small means using less resources, less space, and having less stuff than we perhaps could have. It can mean practicing voluntary simplicity that emphasizes free time, community, engagement, meaningfulness, stillness, beauty and love — not necessarily achievement, status and constant activity.

For me, the idea of living small in particular means figuring out what enough is and taking joy from having enough, rather than chasing my tail hoping I’ll someday be happy if I just have a little more. Enough doesn’t just refer to money or things — figuring out enough goes for everything humans do from work to play to love to stimulation. Figuring out what is enough and achieving satisfaction with it is hard but can be a key to achieving a sense of meaning on a personal level. If you’re always seeking more, you’ll never get to the pot of gold and you’ll always feel a sense of dissatisfaction.

Enough is a crucial concept not just on an individual level, but on a social, economic and environmental level. Our individual psychology and values are structured by social and economic factors, and in turn they can structure social and economic relations. Living small isn’t just about lifestyle politics isolated from the struggle to change systems that structure the world and that are beyond the control of individuals. Experiments in living small can help inform the types of psychological, social and economic transformations that are possible and necessary for our world.

Economic growth

Humans have built economic and industrial structures that depend on constant, permanent economic growth and expansion. Along with those systems and in particular capitalism go cultural norms that expect constant and permanent expansion — people expect their lives to be better than their parents lives and people expect to get more as they get older and move through life.

Increasingly, the built-in automatic expansion of our economy has begun to run up against the reality of a finite planet. There is only so much land, only so many fish, only so much forest, only so much air, only so much water.

When each individual on Earth uses more and more resources each year, eventually you run into scarcity — not just because of unequal distribution of resources which has been the main cause of scarcity in class societies, but because there aren’t sufficient ecological resources to go around. The current run-up in food prices are associated with increasing global wealth on a finite planet — more people who can afford to eat meat and drive cars burning biofuels are putting pressure on a finite supply of agricultural land, driving up prices. The rich consume as much as they like — without regard to what may be enough — and the global poor go hungry.

The term “sustainable” gets thrown around a lot these days — what does it mean? For a system to be sustainable, it must be able to continue whatever it is doing indefinitely. Forever. That means that each element in the system has to balance with all the others. In a natural system that means that precisely the amount of food or other resources needed by each creature has to be created by some other creature or by the sun or Earth each year without destroying the ecosystem’s ability to create those same resources the next season. Using a sustainable amount of a resource is like spending interest earned on a savings account — but leaving the principle in the account. If one withdraws more money than the interest earnings, one decreases the principle in the account — which decrease the next year’s interest earnings, and eventually will lead to an empty bank account.

Our current system is not sustainable because it must — by its own internal logic — grow every year. The forces of competition continuously increase efficiency and production by requiring each company to constantly grow, reduce costs, increase production, increase sales, or succumb to another firm that is more efficient at doing those things.

The system includes no mechanism for determining what is enough and thus limiting growth, and in fact many people are employed to make sure that nothing is ever enough. The advertising industry and ever evolving consumer products exist to constantly create new needs and satisfy them. Things that hadn’t even been imagined or that were considered luxuries fifty years ago are considered necessities now — bottled water, ipods, etc. There are legions of economists to calculate each year’s economic growth and figure out how the economy can continue to grow, but no profession or academic specialty or government department specifically devoted to understanding what is enough.

The world economy grows about four percent per year compounded in each future year, forming an exponential curve that gradually goes up more and more steeply. (See figure.) Generally, economic activity and thus economic growth measures the extent to which humans transform nature — by extracting raw resources like food, trees, oil and by processing those resources into manufactured goods.

Economic growth is generally considered a good thing according to a capitalist value system. When there is less economic growth (as now in the current recession) that is cause for concern.

However, in a finite ecological system, a constant exponential growth of resource use is a grave cause for concern, not a good thing at all. For example, if you have cancer, you don’t want to hear that the cancer has a constant four percent growth rate, because that means that eventually, the cancer will demand so much of your body’s resources that it will kill you.

Live Small

I go through this long (and perhaps boring) exposition of the incompatibility of capitalist growth with ecological sustainability because if growth cannot continue indefinitely, then developing the concept of enough and living small is crucial in order to avoid ecological disaster. Capitalism as a system won’t impose limits on itself — only people and our values and sense of meaning can steer and limit the voracious machine.

Grappling with the concept of enough — living small rather than living large — means struggling against very powerful personal, social and economic impulses, which all tend to be intertwined and support each other to cause individuals to constantly want more.

Although as a practical matter I’ve been living small one way or another for most of my adult life — avoiding the worst of the work rat-race, having a small room in a shared house, not having a car — I’ve recently been having a mid-life crisis and feeling psychologically uncomfortable with my life. Not so much the material aspects but the choices that I’ve made that emphasize simplicity also mean that I’ve given up the potential for some types of status or achievement. I’m keenly aware that by this age, I expected to be doing more important stuff — in essence to be living larger. I’ve made my choice hoping that achieving a meaningful life would have more to do with my engagement, experiences and human connections than with money or status.

This crisis has been confusing but also has been helping me think through my own deep assumptions about what is enough and how I get meaning out of my life. Living in this society that worships unending growth, it is very hard not to internalize those goals on a personal level even if one understands that socially and ecologically, they are unsustainable and dangerous.

Life stages

Part of the feeling might be from the personal trajectory our lives take. There is an appropriate time for growth both on a personal level and for a human economic system. For an individual, when one is a child you need to grow, learn and focus on achievement. In your 20s and 30s, you have not yet achieved stability — a place to live, a way to earn a living — and you need to focus on growth to achieve these things. If you’re lucky enough not to be mired in poverty, the concept of enough becomes crucial at some point. Once you’ve achieved what you really need to live, if you’re not careful you’ll just continue growing your status, workload, and material possessions beyond what you need — beyond enough.

You’ll do so because, having struggled when you were younger, you’ll be in the habit of emphasizing further growth. And you’ll continue uncontrolled growth because the social/economic system of capitalism worships growth as its only value — no one bothers to discuss what is enough because it is assumed that growth can go on forever and that if you’re not growing, you’re irrelevant. The system assumes that what is enough now won’t be enough later.

On a personal level, you internalize this dynamic and come to expect that every year you’ll have a better job, a bigger house, more expensive vacations and recreational activities, etc. There are few role models for people who have decided to step off the growth path because they had achieved enough and found meaning from life as it is, rather than from chasing growth. These personal psychological dynamics are caused by the capitalist system but they also serve to cause it — consumers are always anxious to consume more and managers always want to grow their companies bigger so they’ll achieve more status.

A similar historical dynamic seems to apply to human societies. At a certain point in history, when a society lacks a stable source of food, adequate housing and warm clothing, economic growth makes sense because the society hasn’t achieved enough under any reasonable understanding of what enough might be. As economic growth proceeds, societies reach enough but continue growing because of the self-executing economic system they have devised. Rather, they change their definition of what is really enough, societies increase it along with economic growth.

Since humans live on a finite Earth, we have to both personally and socially grapple with the concept of enough and change our desires so we can live at a stable level once enough has been achieved. We have to figure out how to feel a sense of satisfaction and meaning from stability, rather than always seeking satisfaction and meaning from growth.

On a personal level, one may spend 10-20 years developing one’s career, fixing up housing, and developing talents only to reach mid-life and have to transition away from a growth-focused sense of meaning and over to a different kind of meaning. For me, after years of working as hard as I could and being busy most of the time, it has been jarring to realize that having achieved enough, I now get to sit back a little bit more, read a few more books, go for longer bike rides, and spend more time tending the garden, and less time building it. Or as my friend Terri noted, “maybe when you reach middle age you should be more like a plant ‘going to seed’ — not coincidentally a derogatory term in our culture. You concentrate wisdom and energy to be passed on to the next generation.”

Dialogue on Enough

On a social or economic level, grappling with enough and then trying to stop economic growth and enjoy stability has to start with discussion. Capitalism has its own logic to supply easy, mechanical answers to what work people will do, what buildings will be built, what products will be created and what resources used — so people are let off the hook from having to engage in uncomfortable discussions. The problem is that these easy answers have no ultimate meaning — capitalism creates a world disconnected from human happiness or environmental sustainability.

In trying to answer what is enough, at least two factors can guide us. First, you have enough when people can meet basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, etc. These are relative and change based on history and culture — there is a lot of room for disagreement. What is necessary for one person or group of people is luxury for another. What is important isn’t necessarily to have a single, ultimate answer but to engage constantly and vigorously in discussion.

While developed countries need to look at what is enough, it is important to realize how many people on Earth don’t currently have enough material resources. At least billions of people lack even minimal resources such as enough food, clean water, basic health care, adequate shelter, etc. This is to say nothing of resources necessary for self expression, education, communication — all resources that every human on Earth should have access to in order to achieve enough in the first place. The developed countries need to struggle with enough in part because our over-consumption makes it impossible for many people on Earth to have enough.

Second, enough has to be linked to some sense of the resources that humans can take from the Earth in a sustainable fashion. This is also a highly debatable point. The standard capitalist response to the argument that there cannot be unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is that economic growth can solve ecological problems — as a society gets richer because of economic growth, it can adopt cleaner technologies which permit a higher standard of living while using less ecological resources and creating less ecologically damaging waste products. For instance a rich society can replace scarce resources like trees with recycled paper or hemp.

These arguments are suspect since, at least so far, more growth has caused more ecological damage, not less. Some resources actually are limited — for example, no matter how you can substitute different resources, the total acreage on Earth remains the same. But to the extent these arguments are correct for some particular examples, perhaps the best response is to embrace growth of these technologies — not all growth is bad, just unlimited, unthinking growth.

Society can incorporate technically sustainable innovations into the concept of enough. For example, if some goods can be created more sustainably, then the ever-changing idea of what is enough can reflect that. In other words, if solar or wind or other renewables turn out to permit certain standards of living, that is great — let’s see the proof first rather than hoping, in a utopian fashion, that generalized, unlimited growth in all new technology will save us some day in the future. We can be very suspicious when corporations say that by buying more — re-usable bags, hybrid cars, etc. — you are saving the planet.

For privileged people in developed countries, enough may be considerably less than the resources to which people have already become accustomed. This raises especially difficult questions — no one wants to voluntarily give up what they grew up with. Perhaps part of the answer is in shifting values and understanding the tradeoffs human beings make. Part of having material things or status above what is enough may be having less than enough of other things that are undervalued or not considered at all — time, freedom, stillness, meaning, sanity, beauty, unspoiled natural areas, engaging work, vibrant community. Capitalist value systems only take money and status seriously, but human beings have much more diverse and complex needs and aspirations. In considering enough, we are challenged to look carefully at the tradeoffs we’ve been making thoughtlessly — the ways we’ve conformed to economic value systems that may be meaningless.

This may all sound uncomfortably mushy — values and a discussion of the concept of enough seem a mighty soft counter-force to the cold hard steel of global capitalism. In a society focused on capitalism, science, and rationality, we may feel ashamed to apply values — distinguishing between “right and wrong” or “better or worse” — because these concepts seem weak and “un-scientific.” What gives anyone the right to say what is right and wrong? You can’t prove it. You risk engaging in guilt politics asserting your own values against someone else’s.

In fact, human values and judgment are more crucial now than ever before. Capitalism can create growth, but it can’t answer the question of why it is growing. Determining enough requires debate — no one gets to impose their values on others — but a discussion is vastly preferable to obeying mechanical answers spit out by a inhuman economic system. This discussion can lead to the practice of real politics — not politics as traditionally imagined — but a process whereby discussion leads to some level of collective consensus and action based on arguments that transcend purely mechanical thinking and attempt to get at what it means to live meaningfully and sustainably.

Customize your bike – think outside the same old frame

I love bikes and I want everyone to experience the joy, freedom as well as ecological and health benefits of bicycles. Over the years, I’ve realized that the standard bicycle designs aren’t comfortable for me — they make biking harder than it has to be and sometimes they’ve caused me pain. So I’ve gradually customized, rebuilt and re-designed my bike to overcome these problems. Through this 15 year process, I’ve finally come up with what (at least for me) is the “perfect bicycle.” It isn’t an expensive bike — you can do this stuff with cheap or old bikes. Last summer I biked 4,000 miles across the USA on this bike — I was comfortable the whole way and finished the trip fast, in only 50 days. Of course, everyone is different so all of these suggestions might not work for you. But if you’re riding a bike that you haven’t customized, if you’re experiencing pain while biking, or if biking seems hard to you, you may want to try some of these suggestions and see if they help.

1. Raise your handle bars

Most of the bikes sold in stores are designed for racing even though most people use their bikes for pleasure riding or just getting around town. That means that the handle bars on most bikes are so low that the rider is crouched over when touching the handle bars. This is supposedly good because the rider has less wind-resistance this way. The problem is, this posture is ridiculously uncomfortable and unnatural if you’re just trying to get around on your bike. When you’re bent over like this, your head is looking at the ground unless you twist your neck backwards to look ahead. Your lungs are crunched up so they can’t expand fully so you can’t breathe easily. A lot of weight rests on your wrists and arms and hands which can cause strain. Your back is bent funny which can hurt your back.

So you see a lot of riders with low handles bars trying to avoid these problems by sitting straight up and either not touching the handle bars at all or just touching them lightly with one finger. I wondered what would happen if I just put tall handle bars on the bike so I could easily hold onto the handle bars while at the same time sitting up straight.

My first bike tour with tall handlebars — 700 miles from Eugene, Oregon to San Francisco — was in 1995. Since then I’ve happily biked with tall handlebars almost every day, including many thousands of miles touring and around town biking. I’ve never felt like I wanted to be more aerodynamic — after all, you can always crouch down if you need to once you have tall handlebars. What you find out is that you never feel the need to do so.

It is easy to make this transition. You can buy tall handlebars at most bike stores. If they don’t have any, ask them to order them — my favorite brand for steel bars is Wald. Sometimes they’re called “ape hangers” — they look like bars for a chopper motorcycle. You want the bars to be tall enough so that you can sit straight up in the seat — that means about 6-10 inches on most bikes. You can achieve some rise by installing a really tall stem on your bike, but it is easier and cheaper to just buy funny bars.

Once you put on the new bars, you’ll have to lengthen the brake and gear cables that were attached to your older handle bars, and you may have to buy new brake levers and shifters if you had “drop” handlebars. Many bike stores sell used brake levers and shifters for $5-$10. I usually save the longer cables from the back brake and derailer and use them for the front brake and derailer — that means you have to buy two new cables and maybe 10 feet of brake and derailer housing. The whole transition takes about an hour and will cost $30 or so if you do the work yourself.

2. Get a noseless seat

The problem with regular bicycle seats — even fancy ones with holes cut out of them — is that much of your body’s weight rests on a part of the body that doesn’t carry weight in any other human activity, and is thus not evolved to carry weight. This area between your genitals and your anus is called the perineum. In theory, when you ride you’re supposed to put your weight on your “sit-bones” and avoid putting pressure on this area. In reality, it is hard to avoid putting any pressure on the perineum — if you don’t pay attention, you quickly slide on the seat and put pressure there.

For years, I would get sore and sometimes numb in my genitals if I biked a lot. I tried lots of different seats to try to make this better — I figured some discomfort was normal and just a necessary part of biking as much as I do. But getting a sore butt doesn’t have to be part of biking if you get a noseless seat. The one I rode on my 4,000 miles cross-USA trip was a $30 Easyseat from Hobson seats. Not only didn’t I have even the slightest bit of pain on that long bike ride, but I was able to bike without thinking about my ass at all.

It turns out that humans have a major blood vessel and nerves that run along the perineum. That there is some evidence that when regular bike seats compress this area, men can experience loss of erectile function. This area is also sensitive for women. Some bicyclists deny that bike seats can cause sexual dysfunction and claim that people who have problems are just sitting wrong or that the benefits of exercises and increased heart health cancel out any problems caused by damage to the perineum.

By using a nose-less seat, you don’t have to choose — you can keep the heart health, avoid numbness and (possible) damage, and in any case avoid pain. I can’t say for certain that I lost sexual function because of injuries caused by regular bike seats. I can say that for whatever reason, I noticed an improvement in function after I switched to the Easyseat. And in any case, avoiding pain and numbness are rewards enough.

A noseless seat takes getting used to and doesn’t seem to work well if you’re crouched over because you have low handlebars. So if you want to try an Easyseat, you have to raise your handlebars first. When you put on the noseless seat, you’ll feel a bit less stable for the first 2-4 weeks — sort of a sensation of always sliding forward off the seat — and then suddenly you’ll feel just fine and notice no loss of stability or control. With an Easyseat, you’re holding more of your weight on your legs — which eventually feels very natural since you’re used to holding up your weight on your legs when you’re walking. For stability, you balance with your hands. At first I was worried I would strain my wrists because of this feeling, but since you’re using your hands for balance, not to support your weight, it doesn’t seem to be a problem after you get used to it.

When you first install the seat, you have to experiment with how far it is tilted forward — too much and you slide off, too little and the backs of your legs hit the seat when you peddle. But when you get it right, it is an amazing feeling of freedom and comfort. It makes you wonder what the world would look like if kids started out riding on a noseless seat — they would get used to it when they learned to ride a bike so it would never feel strange. It is unfortunate that you can’t currently buy a bike with an Easyseat pre-installed.

3. Adjust your seat height

The main thing to look out for is whether your seat height is correct — your knee should be just slightly bent on the down stroke. Riding with the seat too low means you lose power and you’ll hurt your knee. Even though this is an easy thing to get right — for many bikes you don’t even need a tool to adjust your seat height — this is the most common problem I see when I’m out biking around. I want to tackle people I see riding by with absurdly low seats and adjust it correctly.

4. Get some gears & learn to use ‘em

If you were driving a car, would you start out from a stop sign in fifth gear? Would you try to go down the freeway in first gear? Would you buy a car that only had one gear? Would you treat your only set of knees worse than you treat a disposable car?

Gears for bikes make biking easier — you can go up hills without working too hard or go fast on a flat stretch of road. You don’t need fancy gears although it is great to have a “granny” gear — a very small third chain ring on the front derailer that can make going up even the steepest hill easy. The goal with gears is to keep the number of times you turn over the peddles per minute — your cadence — about even at all times. That means you start in a low gear and shift up as you speed up. If you hit a hill, you shift down.

I mention this not just because people don’t use gears they have, but because fixed gear bikes are getting so popular. If riding a fixie is fun for you, then go for it. But for the average cyclist, for moving groceries and riding over a lifetime protecting your knees, gears are pretty reasonable.

5. Put on a bike rack and take off your backpack

Bikes are ideal to carry around loads — from groceries to books to kids. Let the bike — not your spine — carry the load. You can cheaply install a bike rack and use removable panniers (cloth bike bags) or you can install a basket or a milk crate and put your backpack in there. Carrying a backpack on your back while you’re biking, rather than putting the bag on the bike makes biking harder and can hurt you. When you carry a backpack, the weight is carried on your spine, your ass, your legs and arms, straining all of them. Your skin under the backpack can’t breathe and gets sweaty. Yuck. The bike doesn’t notice when you put weight on it, so let it carry that stuff for you.

In my next article for “advanced” bike maniacs, I’ll discuss bike trailers for hauling cement, lumber, manure, sound systems, etc.

6. Pump up your tires!

Riding on under-inflated tires increases friction, making biking slower and more difficult, and means you’ll get more flat tires. It is so easy to properly inflate your tires and it makes a massive difference.

7. Decorate & add noise makers

Okay, this won’t make it physically easier to bike, but it will make it feel easier because you’ll be surrounded by a joyful, great looking ride. A bell or horn isn’t just for using when a driver cuts you off — its primary use is for spontaneous ringing because you feel fantastic. You can also greet other cyclists this way and spread the joy. They’ll wonder “do I know her . . .?” You can decorate your bike with stickers, paint, fake fur, flags, plastic or real flowers, shiny stuff, toys, stuffed animals, lights, etc. etc.

Let a thousand bicycles bloom!

In my experiments of trying different bike designs, bike stores have been pretty unhelpful and dismissive, telling me things I was trying wouldn’t work or would be uncomfortable — when they had never actually tried them. Experimenting with different bike designs like a mad scientist is a great metaphor for playing with different ways to live our lives in general. Not everyone needs a racing bike or a mountain bike — and not everyone needs to live in the suburbs or to be a train hopping punk kid, either. We shouldn’t have to conform our lives to the few sizes and shapes manufactured in a factory — we can build own lives — and our own bikes — to fit our own unique shape, size and uses.

Fossil Foolery – global warming is not a joke

April first was fossil fools day around the world — thousands of people participated in de-centralized direct actions and protests for a sustainable world and against foolish emissions of green house gas from burning fossil fuels. Such emissions are causing global climate change with potentially disastrous consequences to natural ecosystems and human cultures alike. There were creative and humorous protests against coal mines, coal fired power plants, banks that invest in the fossil fuel industry, government offices, gas stations and a wide variety of other targets across the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. A few of us threw together a protest in Berkeley.

Fossil fools day pointed out the absurdity of trying to address the massive dependence on non-sustainable fossil fuels by asking people to merely screw in a few new lightbulbs and otherwise continue shopping as usual. The massive threat of global climate change has to be met with a massive response. Governments and corporations won’t address the problem in time because to do so would threaten short-term profits. Mobilization, direct action, and grassroots revolt against all the fossil fools is crucial.

Anatomy of an action: the Berkeley incident

Last issue in Slingshot we published a call to action for fossil fools day. Would we, ourselves, heed the call? Less than a week before April 1, someone sent out an email wondering if we shouldn’t get together with some friends and protest at a gas station. A little discussion followed and a call went out to the Berkeley critical mass email list calling people to meet at 5 on fossil fools day to bicycle around and visit local fossil fool industries.

It was all chaotic, improvised, unplanned and yet focused — sometimes funny and light-hearted and sometimes intense. We rode on major streets tangling rush hour traffic holding signs like “cars kill polar bears” and “burning fossil fuels is not a joke.” A few of us were dressed like soldiers, some others held Viking swords — black flags were duct taped to bicycles.

We went to a number of gas stations and lightly fucked shit up, applying stickers to gas pumps, duct taping gas nozzles to the pumps and re-arranging the price signs so that gas that cost $3.49 before we arrived cost $9.43 when we left. At three car dealerships, bikes rode through the showrooms scattering shoppers and glitter. We rode through downtown slowing traffic and calling out on a bullhorn “don’t worry, you can keep driving and shopping — there’s no problem – April fools!”

In pulling together micro-actions like the Berkeley ride, the key is maximizing impact and disruption while minimizing bureaucratic, organizational deadweight — keeping the time and energy spent on meetings and preparation very low. The Berkeley action tied up traffic and disrupted business as usual at numerous targets for two hours. It required almost no time, money or structure to pull off.

What did we hope to accomplish? Actions like ours help raise the cost of fossil fuel addiction. Under the logic of capitalist economics — which structure corporate, government and individual decisions — fossil fuels are extremely cheap and easy solutions to many problems because the cost of using fossil fuels doesn’t include the cost of so-called “externalities” — the term economists give to costs not captured by the market. (This is true even as gas pushes $4 a gallon.) So when you buy a gallon of gasoline or throw your clothes in the dryer on a sunny day — or when the whole civilization is built on fossil fueled transport, agriculture and electricity — the cost doesn’t include the cost of global warming. Thus, using fossil fuels seems “rational”, efficient, easy, labor-saving and cheap — as long as you only look at the short-term, which is all the current economy can comprehend.

But the Earth is finite and long-term — we can’t simply find a new planet if we ruin the climate on this one. Frequently, fossil fools accuse bicyclists or environmental activists of being unrealistic or even utopian when we suggest a quick transition to a fossil free, zero emissions world. In fact, it is utopian to suggest that humans can continue to burn fossil fuels without threatening our very survival.

On April 1, it wasn’t faster or easier to jump in a car to get around. Our goal can’t be to impose guilt against drivers — a lot of us drive from time to time and guilt doesn’t work — it only raises defensiveness to change. And yet disruption — subtracting the ease, raising the costs, increasing uncertainty — can be part of internalizing the real costs of fossil fuels.

Social change doesn’t come from above — well-funded campaigns, Hollywood movies, cautious government programs. Social change comes from below — riots, strikes, mass movements — when the status quo can no longer continue. The world is in the early stage of a historic transition away from fossil fuels and regular people and our actions are part of this change. Our actions can provide models for a different, more joyful, engaged, sustainable world. May we can ride with a smile on our face, a smile in our heart and each year more folks on bikes surrounding us.

Fossil fools day around the world

By world standards, the Berkeley action was tiny. If you’re taking action to move away from fossil foolery, you are not alone! Here’s a tiny sample of actions:

• In Edinburgh, Scotland, a group of clowns invaded two supermarkets to try to locate the elusive Scottish banana. They urged other shoppers to see if they could find any produce in the store from Scotland to point out the absurdity of using fossil fuels to fly food to Scotland in the middle of winter.

• At the Cliffside coal plant in North Carolina, 8 people locked themselves to bulldozers at a Duke Energy Corp coal-fired power plant to stop construction of a new 800-megawatt plant, resulting in their arrest.

• In Madison, Wisconsin, the above-ground fossil fools celebration was a critical mass bike ride and demonstration in front of the local Hummer dealership. In a more controversial middle-of-the-night action, persons unknown indiscriminately let the air out of the tires of all the cars on three university-area streets — hitting several dozen cars including many economy-sized cars in the bike-friendly neighborhood. They left notes that read, “Happy fossil fools day.”

• In Durban, South Africa, residents protested the Engen refinery with flower wreaths.

• In Leamington Spa, England, about 50 people demonstration against a proposed Shopping center. “There were fairy outfits, a polar bear, 3 jesters, 2 people dressed as death with oil drips, and more face painting. We had 4 banners, several placards and we handed out 4 different kinds of leaflets. There were two musicians playing a fossil fool’s song written specially for the event. There were 4 people on bikes, and one bike and trailer with kids in. There were decorated umbrellas, and helium balloons with fossil Fool’s day written on. Nothing like this ever happens in Leamington. We passed a flower stall and the owner was so supportive he gave us 5 or 6 free bunches of flowers.”

• In Portland, Oregon, the Greenwash Guerrillas went after Portland’s Climate Trust, one of the new breed of climate off-set companies that allows people to “offset” their actual greenhouse gas emissions by paying the Climate Trust money to supposedly avoid emissions by someone else. This sneaky idea is increasingly popular with privileged people who want to continue their polluting life-styles unchanged, but not feel so bad about it. In Portland, the Greenwash Guerrillas took to the street to sell infidelity off-set credits. These Cheat Neutral credits allow people in monogamous relationships to cheat on their partners, but then offset the cheating by paying single people not to have sex. Just like carbon credits — no more guilt! April fools!

Portland activists also dropped a four-story banner off the downtown Burnside Bridge protesting a proposed Liquefied Natural Gas project. (See Slingshot Issue #95 about LNG.)

• In Boston, four activists were arrested after locking down to a Bank of America to protest coal financing. In New York City, the Billionaires for Dirty Energy blockaded Citibank on similar grounds, leading to two arrests.

• A number of actions involved curious apologies from corporations or public figures. In Norwich, UK, a Norwich Union (insurance) company official announced that “The company has realized that investing £6.1 billion worth of insurance premiums in BP, Shell and other major oil, coal and car companies is unsustainable in the current climate. I’m sure our shareholders will agree with me that protecting our common future is certainly more important than protecting our bottom line.” The company distributed 50 Norwich Union ‘Apology Sandbags’ in view of recent climate change-related floods in England.

• Protesters blockaded access roads to the Aberthaw power station (UK) which emitted 7.4 million tons of carbon dioxide last year.

• In Hastings, UK, The Jesters of Hastings challenged Ronald McDonald to a Showdown! The Jesters won after McDonalds forfeited!

• In Bacton in Norfolk, UK 19 people were arrested after blocking for 4 hours the main access road to the UK’s largest off-shore gas terminal, which handles 40% of the UK’s gas supply.

For more info or for the 2009 action, check fossilfoolsday.org.

Beyond protest

Folks around the world are preparing for diverse, decentralized, absurdist direct actions on Leap Day — Friday, February 29, 2008 — taking seriously the call to use our extra day to smash capitalism, patriarchy and the state. In the Bay Area, Leap Day Action Night will start at critical mass at 6 p.m. in Justin Herman Plaza near Embarcadero BART in San Francisco. The bikes will ride round and round — where the action happens — and what oppressive institutions it targets — no one will know . . . until the water balloons filled with lube begin to fly and the clowns playing flaming brass instruments arrive.

People around the world have been talking with their friends, forming affinity groups and preparing to disrupt business as usual. Leap day is an extra day — a blank slate waiting to be transformed into a spontaneous, inspirational rebellion against the corporations and institutions that are destroying the earth and transforming the amazing experience of being alive into a drag filled with rent, stupid jobs, boring suburbs and polluted freeways.

Every four years in the USA brings another ridiculous Election Year when the system tries to channel everyone’s growing dissatisfaction with the ways we’re getting screwed into a spectacular distraction. Candidates all promise *Change* and the media plays dramatic music while endlessly trumpeting the election process circus to convince you that if only you vote for the right person, if only you buy the right product, if only you drive the right car or starve yourself so you have the right body, everything will be okay, afte rall. And somehow everyone forgets the betrayal of the last election year — forgets that the media and corporations and politicians offering the change are the same ones who created the whole mess in the first place. And the real issues — why is everyone working to make these jokers richer and richer and why are the forests and rivers we used to play in when we were young getting torn up to build another parking lot for another fucking Wal-Mart? — no one talks about the real issues during election year.

Luckily, every four years also brings Leap Day Action Night! Leap day offers an opportunity to go beyond protest — merely decrying what we’re against — and focus on living life in a positive, creative, loving, cooperative, sustainable fashion without domination of others or the earth.

Leap Day Action is not being organized by anyone and yet it will happen in cities and towns everywhere because — without asking permission and without boring meetings, email lists or moldy coalitions — people will act on leap day. At night. The key is a wild brainstorm to figure out what we haven’t tried yet — because all the stuff we’ve been trying hasn’t worked yet. What tactics are too risky or too laughable? Those are precisely the ones that just might be the key to a memorable leap day.

Life can be transformed from dull and ordinary at the most unexpected moments. The January critical mass bike ride in Berkeley was proceeding normally — no cops around, no edgy anger in the air — when suddenly, someone noticed a huge hole in the chainlink fence between the frontage road we were riding on and the 10 lane wide Interstate 80 Freeway. Suddenly, the hum drum of the predictable shattered and bikes were streaming onto the freeway — how many lanes could we shut down? One lane . . . two lanes . . . three lanes. Cars swerving, horns honking. And then we rode, bike lights blinking. And 5 minutes later, we were taking an exit and escaping into the dark — still no police, no tickets — just a brief vision of liberation and resistance!

On LD8, our lives will shift from talking about freedom and liberation to living chaos in real time — getting back to the roots of rebellion instead of running our activist efforts like we’re trying to replicate the computerized, bureaucratic structures of “the man”!

How do you want to spend your Friday Night? What props and costumes and maps of targets and flyers describing a new world will you bring along? In the Bay Area, meet us at San Francisco critical mass bike ride. Everywhere else, organize your own leap day. Leap for it!

Check www.leapdayaction.org for info. To get free 17 X 23 inch Leap Day Action Night posters with a space to write your event, email leapdayaction@gmail.com or write LD8, c/o Slingshot, 3124 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94705.

In the San Francisco Bay Area: gather at San Francisco critical mass bike ride (Justin Herman Plaza near Embarcadero BART 6 pm) and ride with the mass to the undisclosed location of a leap day action starting at about 8 p.m. Bring costumes, decorations, refreshments, drinks, games, musical instruments, art supplies, dancing shoes, fliers, gossip, your friends, sports equipment, skateboards, puppets, stilts, frisbees, unicycles, toys, pogo sticks, juggling clubs, funny hats, skipping ropes, kites, banners and your dreams & desires for a different reality. Think the unthinkable – demand the impossible! Use your extra day to smash capitalism, patriarchy and the state.

Oil in the Bay

When a cargo ship ran into the San Francisco Bay Bridge November 7, spilling 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel oil into the bay, millions of Bay Area residents who love the bay ecosystem reacted with immediate horror. If you live in the Bay Area, you feel strangely connected with nature through your proximity to the remaining natural aspects of the bay — the shore, the birds living there, plants on the rocks, some fish — even while you dwell in a densely populated urban area covered in concrete. Hearing about an oil spill or industrial pollution in the bay feels personal.

In the wake of the oil spill, everyone expected some kind of dramatic Response — massive efforts to clean up the oil and save wildlife. In these situations, you figure the government is going to Do Something. But recalling government bungling of the response to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it quickly became obvious that the government was the problem, not the solution, in the wake of the oil spill.

The oil spill was on Tuesday. Government officials immediately sealed off access to beaches for miles and miles around the bay and warned citizens not to go there. On Saturday after the spill, I happened to bike down to the Berkeley Marina — figuring I wouldn’t be able to get near the water — but I decided I wanted to get as close as I could to see what an oil spill looked like. I figured I would see officials out cleaning the oil and I might see some dead or dying birds.

When I got there, there were signs posted saying that the beach was “closed” but lots of people on the beach by the bike path that goes along Interstate-80 between the Berkeley marina and Emeryville. I didn’t see any oil on the beach from the bike path and I didn’t see any cops around so I walked down to the water.

I had never seen an oil spill before. In fact, there was oil all over the beach and rocks but not a constant sheet – it was in globs between 1/2 an inch across and up to 6 inches across. I didn’t see much oil in the water itself. The oil was black and the consistency of tar. Some was on the sand and some was on the rocks.

I realized that about half of the other people on the beach were cleaning up the oil. At first I figured they were government workers or “official” volunteers but I quickly realized that they had just been drawn to the water to clean up without any official approval or organization. They had plastic bags, kitty litter scraper shovels, rubber gloves and buckets. It wasn’t one group — just a collective, un-organized, individual need to do something. I hadn’t intended to do any cleanup but I immediately realized I wanted to pitch in and so I asked someone who was already cleaning what I should do. He explained how it worked. I found some plastic bags and started picking up oil.

It turns out that when the oil globs are on the sand, you can just roll them up in the sand and put them in your bag without getting it on your hands at all. When it had gotten on the rocks, it looked almost impossible to get off — I left that to others with better technology. I picked up maybe 5 lbs. of oil globs from the sand (plus some other trash) in just a few minutes. With the number of people on that particular beach, it looked like we would get pretty much all the oil on the sand, but none of the oil on the rocks. Most of the shore in that area only has rocks — no sand.

It was really a horrible scene — seeing the beach so dirty and realizing how nasty the oil was and that the entire edge of the bay might look like that for miles — but I found the outpouring of un-organized public energy inspiring. When I biked a mile north to the Berkeley Marina, the police had sealed off the area and were telling the many would-be volunteers who had spontaneously showed up to go home and not go near the oil. I only saw one person in an orange vest doing any clean up there — this is over a vast area. There were tons of cars and trucks with supervisors and bureaucrats, plus lots of cops. That was in contrast to dozens of people actually cleaning the other beach (which wasn’t protected by the police.) I later got an email from a friend saying that 1,000 volunteers showed up to an event in Marin county where people were told to go to volunteer but the authorities were so overwhelmed that they told everyone to go home.

So the reality was that tons of regular people wanted to do something and there was clearly a lot of work to be done, but the government was doing everything it could to stand in their way.

Why did the government spend so much time and energy working to prevent people from dealing with the oil spill while the government wasn’t spending any energy actually cleaning up the spill? Because the government’s main interest is in control of the population — enforcing passivity and preventing spontaneous, independent citizen organization to deal with problems. If people are permitted to organize and solve problems themselves, they’ll realize they don’t need the government or the corporations that control the government. The government’s first job is to justify its own existence.

The government’s eventual response, many days after the initial spill and after they had prevented the public from dealing with the spill themselves, was to bring in corporate clean-up crews — Mexican-American workers, probably poorly paid, doing the same type of work I saw people doing on the beach spontaneously and independently.

The government kept emphasizing how dangerous the oil was and how regular people had to stay away from it for health reasons. Sure the oil was nasty — but how many nasty chemicals (like your average gas station which millions of people visit every day) does the government try to convince us are no big deal?

After the spill, the mainstream press was filled with expressions of outrage blaming the ship operators or its crew for the disaster. But all of this missed the real causes of the spill. Global capitalism involves massive ship traffic around the world to sustain consumerism and enrich corporate interests. Inevitably, oil spills happen with all this commerce. The oil spill — from the government/corporate point of view — is really an acceptable, ecological cost of doing business. Oil spills can’t be viewed as isolated disasters, but must be viewed as another symptom of the capitalist assault on earth to bring a few people in developed areas more acres of plastic crap, along with global warming, deforestation, etc.

Seeing people spontaneously out on the beach self-organizing the clean-up shows that people could get together on a larger scale — to address the root problems. When will we get together to build local economies so we don’t need ships crossing the oceans to bring corporate crap? When will we get together to find energy sources that aren’t toxic and oil based? When will we organize structures to replace the control and management of the government with participation, cooperation, and direct, un-mediated engagement with our lives?

Tanya Ciszewski – 1958-2007

Tanya Ciszewski, an early Slingshot collective member from the 1980s, animal rights activist and sensitive, compassionate person, died October 18. She was 48.

I don’t know much about Tanya’s life before I met her around the time Slingshot started publishing in 1988. She was finishing up her undergraduate degree at Berkeley and taking a good, long time to do it. She and I, along with Ian and K, became best friends within the activist scene at Berkeley. We all worked on Slingshot — writing articles, doing layout, handing out papers, and going to meetings. The four of us were always together during those years. We were part of an affinity group we joking called “people with jobs” because of the critics at protests who would yell “why don’t you get a job?” We all had jobs. I can’t remember precisely which actions Tanya and I went to jail for in those days because the emphasis was on the group and the action. There was a lot of hugging, a lot of talking and laughing and a great sense of engagement.

It is hard to pick out which articles Tanya wrote for Slingshot because no one signed most of the articles in those days — not even with pseudonyms. She was focused on animal rights — she was vegan and wore no leather. She was amazingly compassionate towards everyone and wouldn’t preach at you or act self-righteous. When Slingshot was publishing its first Disorientation issue, she ended up siding with a troubled individual who was disrupting the meetings because she always sided with the underdog, even if they were a pain in the ass. Tanya would refuse to kill ants if they were in her kitchen or mosquitoes if they were flying around her in the woods.

In many ways, Tanya was too sensitive and compassionate for this harsh, modern, capitalist world. She was often a frustrating friend because she would spend her rent money taking a stray cat to the vet. I would dread that we would meet a sick animal when I hung out with her because she was so aware of pain around her — physical or emotional, human or animal — that she couldn’t walk past: she would stop what she was doing to help. Tanya could be extremely stubborn and fierce. She mostly lived in poverty because she refused to work jobs that contributed to oppression in any way. That meant she mostly worked low-paying caretaking jobs. Tanya felt most comfortable caring for animals and people who needed help: sick people, the elderly and children.

One of her finest activist moments was when she and a group of animal rights activists occupied a 140 foot tall construction crane that was building the Northwest Animal Facility at UC Berkeley — an underground animal research lab where animal experimentation could be carried out completely hidden from animal rights advocates. She and the others climbed the massive crane in the middle of the night with backpacks of food and water, barricading the trap door at the top so they couldn’t be arrested or removed. Then they unfurled a banner and sat atop the crane, demanding an end to construction. They lasted a week atop the crane before they ran out of supplies and surrendered to police. A ground support crew gathered across Oxford street near Hearst with loud speakers and signs and you could drop by to say hi to Tanya over the loudspeaker. I’m pretty sure Tanya was afraid of heights. Her passion and commitment to ending suffering gave her super-human courage and determination in that action and at many other protests and actions. Tanya was generally mellow but she could be fierce when it came to fighting for animals or the oppressed.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Tanya was pregnant while she occupied the crane. She had a home birth on December 7, 1989. Aside from her activism, my main impression of Tanya is her incredible devotion to her daughter Leila who she raised as a single parent. Tanya never had money and struggled heroically to give Leila an amazing, alternative, loving upbringing. Leila started college at UC Santa Cruz just a few weeks before her mother’s death.

Everyone who knew Tanya will miss her sensitive, caring presence. We write obituaries to say goodbye to those we love, but also to share clues we’ve learned from others about what is meaningful in life. Tanya lived her life caring deeply about other people, animals and the earth and putting her body on the line to fight for what mattered. She didn’t let the American empire distract her with money or power, but instead concentrated on relationships and life.