Ackerman and McPherson dialog: Practical paths to a post-carbon lifestyle


Tea and sympathy with Sherry Ackerman and Guy McPherson. Photo: Laurel Fan via Flickr.

The following dialog is a continuation of one started by Drs. Sherry Ackerman and Guy McPherson a few weeks ago on Transition Voice.

In that discussion, Ackerman and McPherson laid out some philosophical considerations about the need for a transition to more locally-based economies of human scale along with a deeper reverence for and consideration of the natural world that we share with plants, animals and other natural forms.

In the following discussion, they talk very practically — pragmatically — about how to get there, laying out some of the nuts-and-bolts of preparing for a post-carbon lifestyle.

Going lo-fi

ACKERMAN: Guy, you and I are both essentially philosophers. Nevertheless, we’re not just philosophers. We’ve each invested an incredible amount of energy into putting our hands to the till and living the nuts-and-bolts of post-carbon lifestyles.

When I think about that, in terms of my own life, I recognize how far from “the mainstream” my lifestyle has deviated with respect to housing, energy needs, food, health and money. I’d like to share some of those things with our readers. It’s probably too much, though, to bite off all of those topics at one time. Which one would you like to begin with this time?

McPHERSON: First off, Sherry, thanks for initiating and continuing this conversation. You’re allowing me to re-visit, and perhaps even sharpen, some ideas buried well back in the recesses of my mind.

Also, I’d like to acknowledge that we’ve enjoyed enormous privilege based on our time and country of birth. Each of us is given an opportunity to make a life, and a living, with a focus on the mind as well as the body. Our entitlement allows us to live outside the mainstream. We’ve chosen non-traditional paths, and those paths are not open to everybody in the world (or even in the industrialized world). I try hard to appreciate this life, to not take it for granted, and I know you do, too.

All that aside, my writing and speaking tends to focus on four attributes underlying our ability to thrive as individuals:

  1. Access to clean water.
  2. Access to healthy food.
  3. The ability to maintain body temperature.
  4. And development and maintenance of a decent human community

I assume — perhaps incorrectly — that good health will follow. I think there’s considerable overlap between my list and yours, and I’d like to start with the first item on my list: clear water.

As with the other attributes, there exists a strong interaction between the needs of individuals and the needs of communities (human and otherwise). Nature keeps cleaning the water despite this culture’s ongoing attempts to pollute it. There are many books to be written on this topic alone, but here I’m trying to focus on pragmatism (which has the advantage of brevity).

On this 2.7 acres I occupy with a few other humans, we draw (extract) the shallow groundwater via two solar pumps and an old-fashioned hand pump. This water originates in the large watershed in the adjacent designated wilderness area and culminates in the free-flowing river I see out my window.

The water we draw from twenty feet below ground is cleaned by the soil before we extract it. In addition, we harvest rainwater off two roofs: the 17-year-old mobile home, and the newer straw-bale house. We use this harvested rainwater in the gardens and orchard.

If all these systems fail, we will use water in manner similar to the original humans in this area: We’ll haul it a few hundred yards from the river. So far, we’re able to rely on technology to make our lives easier than those of our predecessors.

ACKERMAN: At the dawn of Western Civilization , Thales of Miletus posited that the origin of all matter was water. He was onto something —  water is the single one thing that sustains life.

Sentient beings can go days — even weeks — without food or sunlight, but will fail very quickly without water. Water is something that, as Americans, we’ve taken for granted, when, actually, it’s the most important thing around which we should plan.

Water is, of course, the next oil. The ratio between available potable water resources and human population is disturbing.

Water was the first thing that I secured when I developed my property here in California. I implemented a preliminary Permaculturedesign and have been improving it as I go along.I have two, high capacity fresh water wells. The one that serves our house is solar powered and supplies the water for my gardens and household. I also have a creek on my property that runs continuously. Even though I’m currently a vegetarian, the creek is stocked with trout–and I will fish if other food sources become scarce.

The creek also supports a very healthy growth of watercress which I harvest and use in green juices and salads, as well as a stand of cattails from which I wildcraft edible pollen.

Around the edges of the creek, it’s marshy year-round — a result of underground streams. I have fruit trees, berries, mints and rosehips growing in this area — and Nature takes care of the watering chore for me!

Although Mount Shasta has, historically, had an abundance of water, we are very conservative with our use. Climate change has altered the amount of annual snowfall significantly and we depend upon the snowpack to keep the aquifers healthy.

This winter, for example, we’ve had very little precipitation, which is extremely unusual for the Cascades. This winter drought is of great concern to people in the area.

McPHERSON: Considering the primacy of water, it’s only natural we both spent quite a bit of time securing our supplies of clean water.

I’d like to move the conversation in the direction of energy, recognizing there’s an interaction between water and energy: At the level of society, tremendous amounts of energy are used to secure clean water, and tremendous amounts of water are used to deliver electricity to the outlets at home. Similarly, where I live, we employ photovoltaic solar arrays to pull water out of the ground and then to deliver it through the taps.

We have four solar arrays on this property. Two correspond directly to solar pumps that fill large cisterns. The 3.15-Kw solar array atop the straw-bale house pushes water through the taps as well as providing electricity for the house and the nearby outdoor kitchen. Finally, a small PV solar system powers germination heating pads and a lighting system in one of our greenhouses.

We view electricity as a luxury, not a necessity. After all, we got along fine without electricity during the first couple millions years of the human experience.

We also view electricity as a community resource. When the grid fails in this area, the electricity generated by our PV solar systems will be offered to members of our community for powering devices such as circular saws, drills, grinding mills, and blenders. Even now, we use solar ovens for cooking, scythes for cutting, and the conventional solar-powered clothes dryer (i.e., clothesline).

ACKERMAN: I chuckled when you said that you viewed electricity as a luxury, not a necessity. Me too! But, when I say this to most people, they look at me as if I’m from another planet. Mostly because, I think, most people are still very “plugged in” — to TVs and other home entertainment devices, convenience appliances and lots of household gadgetry.

Like you, we run our home on solar power. We currently average about 11 kwh/day of use, compared to the American average of 35 kwh/day/household.

We use solar showers, solar dehydrators for food preservation and a solar oven. In the winter, I cook on a woodstove.

We use an old school push mower for light mowing needs and cut grass for our horses with a hand scythe. I do all of my errands on bicycle, often peddling 8-10 miles/day. We wash our clothes by hand and line dry them in the sun. We shovel the bulk of our snow (and we get a lot!) by hand.

And, what we don’t do is as important as what we do.

The big one is that we don’t have a TV. By age 65, the average American will have spent 9 years glued to the tube. Instead, we’ve spent those nine years reading, playing our musical instruments, in conversations, knitting and crocheting, and enjoying slow food together.

All of this results in radically reduced dependence upon electricity, gasoline, and other non-renewable resources. And, it deepens our connection with one another. Modern industrialized lifestyles have negated relationship. A life, on the other hand, that is less dependent upon energy-intensive conveniences not only allows for, but requires, connection, relationship and community.

McPHERSON: There’s no television here, either. And that’s a very good thing, as you allude, particularly with regard to our sense of human community.

Individually, we thrive when our communities thrive and we suffer when our communities suffer. So we spend a lot of time working with our neighbors and contributing to a local economy based on gifts and barter.

We’re quite fortunate with respect to the human community here: Among our neighbors there’s a long history of love for this place, respect for self-reliance, and appreciation for alternative views. The latter extends well beyond mere tolerance, and these three threads tie us together in a profoundly positive manner.

I’m fortunate to have stumbled into this strong sense of community, which arose before I arrived. I contribute as I can by taking a long view rooted in empathy. As Plato wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

ACKERMAN: I was raised in a totally dysfunctional affluent American family. The upshot of which was that, from early on, I really wanted authentic relationships and community. My family of origin had money and stuff, but no heart connection. We were alienated beings rumbling around in an oversized, conspicuously affluent building (I have reservations about calling it a home) who had no real sense of familial relatedness. Even as a child, I knew something was dreadfully wrong.

So, when it was time for me to make my own adult home, I struck out for Vermont. Those tiny, rural villages really turned me on. I lived there, on a back-to-the-earth farm for 22 years. My heart opened, I learned to really love. When my children grew up and headed off to College, I decided to move to a slightly warmer climate. After lots of research, I settled on Mount Shasta, California.

Mount Shasta appealed to me on several levels. The population is small (pop. 3682) and most people know each other. It’s rural. It’s mountainous. It has four seasons. It has clean air and water. And, it still only has a weekly newspaper — you have to love that!

With a current unemployment rate of 18.6%, it’s extremely economically depressed, but, instead of contributing to despair, this has actually increased area resilience.

Shasta Commons, our area Transition Movement, is booming. We’ve initiated so many networks to help people in the area with things such as fruit gleaning, tree pruning, trader’s coops, seed banks, time banks, gift circles, wild-crafting, study groups on sacred economics, emergency preparedness, freecycling and community gardens. And, all as gifts to the community, free for participating members. We’ve put a lot of structures in place to function as a gift community as we navigate the collapse.

One of the most interesting things happening here, in terms of community, is an agreement between Shasta Commons and our local Tea Party organization to put aside our political divergences and work together on issues of local sustainability. This has really brought area people together — beyond our political personas — as fellow human beings who need food, water and housing.

McPHERSON: A decent human community such as yours makes everything so much easier than it otherwise would be.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad tasks associated with developing a durable set of living arrangements, but relying on others helps a lot. Our neighbors have provided abundant advice about gardening, caring for trees in the orchard, raising chickens and ducks for eggs, and raising goats for milk.

And, on the topic of food, it’s important to note the absurd inefficiency of the US industrial agricultural model. Whereas that model requires several acres to feed each person, high-intensity organic gardening can feed several people from each acre.

Although I knew nothing about construction or gardening when I started this project a few years ago, I built a greenhouse and a few cold frames (also known as hot boxes), which allow us to grow food during winter. We have bees to assist with pollination and, in the future, perhaps some honey and beeswax.

To prepare food, we use an old-fashioned wood stove for canning and cooking, and also a homemade solar food dehydrator and solar ovens. We make hard cheeses from goat milk to facilitate protein consumption throughout the year. We try to add something new every year, and this year we’re raising heirloom turkeys along with more gardens. In addition, we’re working with a colleague to develop and construct a solar ice maker.

ACKERMAN: It’s fun, isn’t it? Strangely, so many people envision living sustainably as some sort of hardship, but you and I, obviously, don’t see it that way at all.

I love growing our own food. And, I also love the health benefits involved with knowing that I’m not ingesting copious amounts of hazardous chemicals and GMOs.

I also feel that gardening and caring for livestock are spiritually enlivening. We use mantras in our vegetable gardens and have meditation benches positioned near them so that the growing plants receive the advantage of our spiritual practices. I got turned onto this idea back in the seventies when Peter Tompkins and Christopher Byrd wrote The Secret Life of Plants.

I have a lot of people tell me that they can’t garden because they don’t have enough land. This is a misconception that traces its origins to having been propagandized that food production requires massive land tracts. This simply isn’t true. With some gardening expertise, good soil and compost, and intensive organic methods, a quarter-acre will feed 5 -7 people.

We make our own compost from horse and chicken manure, as well as green material from the gardens and property cleanup.

And, we sprout! We grow 6-8 varieties of sprouts inside. It’s so easy and takes very little space. In the winter, our sprouts and micro-greens serve as fresh salad goods. They are little powerhouses of cost-effective nutrition. And, the sprouting seeds store indefinitely if kept cool and dry.

We keep a few laying hens for eggs and are adding beehives to our project  this year to assist in pollination. Recent reports about colony collapse disorder have motivated us to want to make sure that bees have a safe-haven for reproduction and proliferation.

We’re also active wildcrafters and sponsor workshops in the community to teach others how to do this safely and sensibly. “Seeing the world as a garden” is so empowering; it reconnects us with earlier peoples and cultures. And, the practical implications are limitless. We had, for example, an intern last year who went on to Big City, USA after leaving here. When she arrived there, things were not as they had been promised and she was forced to spend a few days “on the street.” Her knowledge of wildcrafting put her in good stead and she was able to eat healthy greens until her situation was satisfactorily resolved.

McPHERSON: Between a decent human community and pragmatic knowledge, it’s easy to imagine a simple and happy life. In fact, we’re living it here in the desert. And if it’s possible for relatively unskilled people working together to achieve that goal in this arid, dusty location, I suspect people can make it work just about anywhere.

We haven’t discussed shelter, but I think that’s relatively straightforward. I occupy a well-insulated straw-bale duplex (the two living accommodations are divided by a breezeway). Passive solar heat is augmented with the occasional fire in the wood stove. Daily temperature fluctuations can be more than 50 F, which enables us to control indoor temperature by opening and closing windows and doors.

We haven’t discussed health or money, either. Many people with whom I speak are quite concerned about maintaining the current set of living arrangements because they are concerned about medical care. Conversely, I tend to think modern medicine generally applies a salve on the wounds created by industrial civilization. I’m in far better health than I was a few years ago when I spent my time chasing electrons across a computer screen.

My views on fiat currency can be expressed in a few words: Without money, we’ll all be rich.

ACKERMAN: We have, actually, quite a bit more to discuss about housing, health and money. And, the last two, I think, are inversely related to one another (and I have quite a bit to say about this!).

How would you feel, Guy, about continuing this conversation over another cup of tea (wildcrafted herb tea, of course) in a few weeks?

–Transition Voice
with Sherry L. Ackerman, PhD. and Guy McPherson

You might also enjoy


  1. lucien deforge says

    you might be able to go and pillage and cause mayhem to this type of life style…but if you dont want to live it…you will fail and fall by the wayside as here..thank you both for sharing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *