Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pausing in the garden

As detailed in previous posts, the decline of oil production necessitates demand reduction.  In other words, we have to use less to avoid the price spiking.  Whether the impetus is geological restraints or the dangers of speculators causing problems while lining their own pockets is hardly relevant to the challenges ahead, oil consumption goes down one way or another.  Reducing demand by reducing income (allowing unemployment to stay high or even increase) may be politically unacceptable to say out loud, but the statistics say it is happening already.  As much as individuals might want to blame others based on whether they follow a red elephant or a blue donkey, the fact of the matter is that they too are subject to the mindless tides of history and the unassailable forces of resource depletion.

Unemployment numbers are apparently stable.  That is to say, the number of people falling between the cracks, no longer seeking work because they have given up looking, falling off the 99-week unemployment numbers, etc, is roughly equal to those losing jobs.  Two years without a job. As one poster in a forum said a while ago, “After 99 weeks you are no longer unemployed, you are a stay –at-home parent.”  This brings up an interesting point and highlights how things have changed over the last century.

Whatever happened to the household economy?  So few people have heard about it these days. Yet for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were intimately familiar with it.  It is recognition that a person staying at home and not entering the job market can make a major contribution to the household.

Since World War II, when “Rosie the Riveter” left the comfort of the kitchen and went out into the workplace while her husband battled on foreign soil, the idea that both adults in a home can work and still bring up a family has become common.  There is an impression today that a “stay-at-home” parent is not contributing that much.  Today that can be true.  A few decades ago it was a long way from the truth.
The household economy is more than getting kids to school, cleaning the house and then watching the shopping channel for most of the day.  It used to be normal for houses to have kitchen gardens.  Instead of a perfectly manicured lawn surrounded by pretty flowers and a picket fence, the average home of even a half-century ago had a garden that produced food and herbs for the family.  Even in the 1970’s, in my home town, almost the entire rear garden of our modest townhouse was dedicated to producing food.  Potatoes, carrots, string beans and peas were regular annual crops. Strawberries and raspberries grew in the corners.  I vividly remember, around the age of eight, helping my father put in a large solar greenhouse that allowed us to grow tomatoes and germinate the seeds a little earlier each year. 

Today most people outsource their food production.  I know that is not the normal term to use for going to a supermarket and picking up a bunch of microwaveable pre-processed packages of food, but essentially that is what we’ve done.  

Outsourcing began in your home and eventually spread to other areas of the economy.  Sure, there has always been some outsourcing of food production.  Not every home in history raised meat or even enough vegetables for everyone.  But the format of purchased food has changed significantly.  Potatoes that were once grown at home were replaced with store-bought potatoes from the local shop, which in turn spurred the economies of scale as supermarkets sent small grocers to the trash heap of history.  Real, fresh potatoes, with dirt still on them gave way to a myriad of pre-processed potatoes: tinned and peeled baby potatoes, washed bags of potatoes, frozen potatoes, pre-cut potatoes, bags of fries to be dropped into hot oil.  We even have fries with the oil impregnated into the surface so they will cook in the oven.  This outsourcing of the process of taking a vegetable out of the ground and making a meal out of it reached its apex with the powdered potato mix.  Just add boiling water, maybe some butter, and stir.

Growing food is not the only activity that used to be done inside the home but was outsourced after World War II.  Clothing is another item that became cheaper to buy than to make oneself.  I remember many of my sweaters and jumpers being knitted by my grandmother and later my mother. A bunch of ladies sitting and talking while knitting was not an uncommon sight.  Even blankets were often produced by hand.  Preserving food also used to be very common, with drying and canning a regular skill of previous generations.  Child care, a major contribution to the household that grandparents used to make – and loved doing so – has been replaced by nannies and day care centers.  Very few people repair items today. Instead, we throw those items away and replaced with the latest model from the shops.  

This outsourcing has grown the economy.  Having both adults in the typical household out in the workplace requires more money spent, which in turn increases the velocity of money moving through the economy.  With cheap oil, large agricultural businesses produce potatoes, corn, wheat -- any manner of foodstuffs -- far cheaper than at any time in history.  For every ten calories of oil energy used we can get one calorie of food delivered to our supermarket.

In recent years, with both people working and bringing in wages, the cost of food was not such an issue.  Food became cheap not because of economies of scale alone, but because of the advantages of petrochemical fertilizer and pest control.  In the same way as manufacturing jobs were undercut by factories in developing countries, the household economy was undercut by the subsidies of using oil in the production of food.  As money passed through the economy to pay for goods and services that used to be handled at home, the result was a growing economy, growing tax receipts and growing regulation. 

An entire bureaucracy has grown up around food, mainly geared to promoting large-scale farming controlled by corporations who can afford to make the correct level of campaign contributions necessary to ensure a free market for food is no longer tolerated. Under the guise of “health and safety” the FDA in the US is little more than a mercenary force hired out to the big agribusinesses to make sure nothing threatens the cartels of big producers.  Rules on making a living from producing food and selling that product are written in such a manner as to make cottage industries unprofitable.  Even when the rules are followed, small producers are harassed until they quit competing with the politically connected corporations.    It’s sold to the public as “health and safety” even while the majority of the food borne illnesses that afflict the US population each year come about from the unsavory conditions of giant factory farms.  Fines for breaking the rules are set high enough to put a small farm out of business yet low enough that it is cheaper for a factory farm to pay them than to make their processes sane and sanitary. 

With every activity outsourced from within the home to the marketplace, the economy grew as those services now required cash changing hands.   Without us realizing it, the world changed to one that required both adults in the typical household to be out working just to pay the bills.  For an economy based on debt to grow, more has to be produced each year.  Part of that growth is in the form of inflation.  Food and energy, two of the biggest costs of any household, are excluded from the CPI – the consumer Price Index – the standard measure of inflation.  Food prices in the UK went up 9.8% over the last year.  The US is seeing price increases two or three times the CPI.  So again this year, typical wages will not keep up with the price increases for necessities.  

As unemployment stays steady by virtue of a large number of people no longer counted among the unemployed, and as food prices rise, there is increasing pressure being put on the consumers.  Even without a so-called ‘credit crunch’ there would be a downward pressure on consumption, the heart of the American economy.

What does this have to do with Yellow Pages?  I’m glad you asked.  Yellow Pages do well when local communities do well.  When people are hurting, so are local businesses, and part of that pain is passed on to the service companies that help maintain a vibrant local marketplace. 

For the local business to return to a healthy turnover, people need more money in their pockets to spend.  Government and state debts make using tax cuts as a way of putting money in pockets very unlikely, the government being very reluctant to risk the inflation that would ensue.  Borrowers are, for the most part, reluctant to take on additional debt in the current economy, and credit is hard to come by as banks reduce their exposure to consumer bankruptcies.

A return to some of the principles of the household economy is one way forward for local communities.  Home gardening is one such aspect that could be of benefit both to the local people, the business community and the local Yellow Pages.  For a start, a community that can produce and preserve a portion of its own food is much more resilient to the vicissitudes of a disintegrating economy.  Stores typically have no more than three days worth of supplies in stock, and any number of disasters, natural or man-made, can interrupt deliveries.  People rarely keep long-term supplies of food and other essentials at home.  This is a concern for many people who follow the news in detail and are interested in the resiliency of our communities.  John Michael Greer’s “Green Wizards” project is a grass-roots movement to share knowledge of local gardening and to encourage food independence in the face of an uncertain future.

When I was a child, shopping was a weekly activity and in bad weather, bi-weekly.   The trip to the supermarket was for tinned items that were not grown locally, things such as fruit (like oranges and bananas) from exotic lands and those little luxuries we enjoyed, like tea and coffee.  Milk was delivered to the door each morning, along with yogurt or a variety of other dairy products.  We purchased meat from the local butcher’s shop, all locally raised and prepared. Entire carcasses of pigs and cows hung from hooks at the back of the shop, glimpsed though the open cold-room door from time to time.  Bread was baked locally - and cut while you waited.  Sound like a picture of the long-forgotten past?  This was a South Wales village in the 1980’s, struggling to cope with unemployment from mine closures and an official inflation rate over 15%.  These are skills that were commonly practiced in living memory even within the most affluent of western economies. 

Today, it’s unusual to go more than three days between visits to the supermarket.  As prices go up, the proportion of money going to grocery stores will increase at the expense of discretionary spending, further depressing the local economy.  A lot of that increased revenue on foodstuffs will flow to the big banks and hedge funds that have been speculating on the cost of commodities like corn and wheat, driving prices higher.

So the promotion of growing food at home can have multiple impacts on the local community.  Supermarkets and grocers would see a decline in trade as more people consume produce that is grown locally, but they are not exactly the biggest purchasers of Yellow Pages advertising.  By reducing the total cost of putting food on the table, people free up money for other discretionary spending. 

So how can Yellow Pages help?  Guides are a common feature of modern Yellow Pages that have a track record of delivering valid and valuable local information.  A local growing guide for fruits and vegetables could prove to be an excellent source of useful information for the would-be gardener. Since each directory is produced for a local community, the data and advice can easily be tailored to the local conditions.  Useful tips could include information like sunrise and sunset times; expected first and last frost; and estimated dates for sprouting, planting and harvesting. What grows well and at what time of the year?  How do you deal with local bugs?   How about a blank lined page where people can record planting days, estimated harvesting days, etc.?

Not all are blessed with a green thumb or a patch of land they can grow food on.  That opens up opportunities for Community Supported Agriculture, particularly those who have work-sharing arrangements, to advertise in the guide.  Gardening shops would also benefit from being able to purchase advertising in such a specialty section. Landscapers and gardeners who are willing to move outside the realm of lilies and lawns can develop a whole new line of income -- advising and even helping their clients grow some of their food.

A lot of people feel that the telephone book is an anachronism and serves no useful purpose.  Usage studies show this to be a false impression, promoted by online marketers who are competing for the advertising dollars.  Making the book more practical and useful for the consumer goes a long way to countering that image.  At the same time it creates opportunities for local business to advertise in a new guide section.  It would be nice, as I pause in my garden and think about the Yellow Pages, not to be thinking about what I can do to improve it but what it can do for me.   

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