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(DV) Bliss: Grassroots Responses to Peak Oil







Grasshoppers, Oxen, & Coconuts
Grassroots Responses to Peak Oil
by Shepherd Bliss
January 26, 2006

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“Grasshoppers and Non-Violent Communication (NVC) are the top two responses to Peak Oil I recommend,” responded Ano. “Oxen would be my first choice,” piped up Mango Jon -- a thin and vital 73 years old. 


I had just invited these two farmers to speak at a Peak Oil public gathering at a local permaculture community in a native Hawaiian ‘ohia forest. We will host a speaker from the activist Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) group in Northern California. Ann Weller will lead a discussion about how to prepare for running out of the petroleum that drives industrial, automobile-dependent civilizations.


We had been drinking kava and relaxing at the Maku’u Farmers’ Market alongside a forest on the Hawai’i Island on a warm, wet mid-January Sunday morning. We gathered at Nio’s coconut stand, where a group gets together weekly to hang out and gab. Nio is from the small Pacific island nation of Tonga and inspires friendly, animated conversation, which the community-creating kava helps to evoke. 


"One advantage of oxen," added another farmer, Craig Owen, who lives off the Red Road in Lower Puna, " is that when your car dies, as mine just did, you have to deal with it. When your oxen die, you just eat them." Mango Jon’s face turned sour and he noted, "The meat would be pretty tough." 


Ano-eating grasshoppers is an example of one of the many survival foods to which humans may turn after the energy descent. Mango Jon's advocacy of oxen represents a form of muscle energy -- humans and animals working together -- that once was commonly employed, is still used by some, and to which others will return in post-carbon societies. 


People will eat things and do things they may not have imagined eating or doing. Some will adapt better to the consequences of energy descent than others, even turning them into opportunities. Some are already preparing for lives that will change as the petroleum supply dwindles. 


This essay was intended to be serious, but with a lighter touch than most writing on Peak Oil. Perhaps we can develop more creative writing about oil descent and even Peak Oil humor. With its own unique ways of talking story and local humor, perhaps Hawaii’s contribution to the growing global discussion and activism around oil depletion will include looking at them with some island humor. 




One way to prepare is to imagine food beyond the supermarket and transportation beyond the car. Consider the specific foods available in the local area: survey potential food sources and identify the most nutritious ones and the times they are available. For example, around my hometown in semi-rural Sonoma County, Northern California, there is an abundant supply of various kinds of wild berries from June into August or so. From August into autumn different varieties of apples ripen at different times. During the winter, miner’s lettuce shows up wild, so-called because it was eaten by California miners. 


"The best way to train oxen," Mango Jon continued, drawing on experiences in Costa Rica, "is to yoke them at an early age. That way they get used to each other and learn how to move in step with one another. I can get my crops a long way in a day with oxen." Moving in step with each other -- which includes building community -- seems like a good post-carbon strategy. 


I had this image of huge beasts with long, pointed horns, but Mango Jon explained that they can be dehorned. "Oxen are any castrated steer that are yoked together to work," added Mango Jon. Cattle, buffalo, bison, yaks or any bovines used as a draft animals are oxen. 


"In India we have what we call bullock carts for transportation," my friend Nidhi Chabora commented in another conversation about grasshoppers and oxen. "Wherever rice is grown, you have oxen. We still till the fields with buffalo in India. My brother refused to mechanize our family farm. He wants to keep providing workers a livelihood." From her current home overlooking the renewing Pacific Ocean with its abundant energy, Chabora added, "Peak Oil is an opportunity to heal the Earth. In the old days there was more of a consideration of how we impact the Earth. Now it is consume, consume, consume."


Some local Peak Oil groups have already studied the use of oxen. Ann Weller of Willits Economic LocaLization (WELL) in Northern California writes, "One of our energy experts has done the math and it is far better to get a lightweight electric tractor and use solar to charge it than to feed oxen and use the manpower required to care for them, in terms of an energy tradeoff. Of course, not much relationship can be built with a tractor." 


However, whole systems designer John Schinnerer of Hawaiian Paradise Park, said, “I wonder if these calculations take into consideration that animals are self-reproducing and can be largely self-maintaining, and that once the industrial production and distribution system no longer functions adequately the tractor will be unrepairable when it eventually breaks down? And how about the complete embedded energy of manufacturing such a tractor in the first place?" 


As the oil supply declines, humans will need to secure modes of transportation that are not petroleum-dependent. We will walk more and employ non-motorized vehicles like bicycles. We will rely more on the use of four-legged animals, such as horses, donkeys, and mules. One sees a growing number of llamas in Northern California. The dairy farm next to my Sonoma County farm has draft horses. They mow the grass and are useful during storms when heavy machinery would sink into the mud. 


With Peak Oil, life is likely to become less industrial/mechanized/globalized, and more basic, simple, organic, and local. 




Ano is a creative wild crafter of foods. He is one of the premier coconut palm climbers on the island. The taller coconut palms can be as high as a many-storied building, so only a few are willing, agile and skilled enough to climb that high and successfully harvest the coconuts without falling or otherwise getting hurt. Watching Ano climb bare-foot up a tall coconut tree is one of many delightful tropical pleasures here on the Big Island. 


Coconut oil may not be as useful as petroleum, but it was once used to make light, as whale oil was, and could be so used again. Coconut oil is renewable and plentiful in the tropics. Coconuts grow well near warm oceans, which provide that other marvelous renewable energy source -- waves -- which are being harnessed in Scotland and elsewhere as current and future alternatives to our dwindling petroleum supply. 


Ano had mentioned both grasshoppers and Non-Violent Communication as responses to Peak Oil. As a former college professor of communications, I agree with Ano that the system called Non-Violent Communication can be helpful for dealing with oil descent. NVC is based on expressing one’s needs and trying to respond to the needs of others. As oil extraction declines, we will have lots of needs that are not satisfied by petroleum and its multiple products. 


Since I know about NVC, but little about eating grasshoppers, I asked Ano why he recommended grasshoppers. "Grasshoppers are a good survival food," Ano noted. He has apparently already taken to eating them. "It’s best to let your grass grow high first, which means the grasshopper population will grow. Then you grab them and pop them in your mouth." Craig and Ano engaged in a serious discussion about different ways of catching grasshoppers.  


Sebastopol Mayor Larry Robinson added in an email, “My mother told me that the way she and her friends caught grasshoppers when she was growing up in China was to swirl a stick in a spider's sticky web and use that to both catch the grasshopper and to quickly roast it over a fire; she said that they are much better roasted.” 


I tried to join in with my ideas of how best to catch grasshoppers, which employed the use of a hand-held tool. But since they are tropical farmers and my background is farming in cold Northern California, I quickly saw the wisdom of their ideas and the futility of my own. I went back to listening while sipping bitter kava and sweet coconut milk. 


"At the Terra Madre gathering in Italy of some 5000 Slow Food advocates from 110 countries in 2004 grasshoppers were served by some of the chefs," commented Michael Dimock, recently visiting Hawai’i from Sonoma County. Some snails are also highly edible, which the French prepare with a tasty sauce as escargot. I must admit that I have not yet eaten grasshoppers, but I do remember enjoying escargot at a fancy French restaurant. 


“In Washington State we have slug-eating contests,” added an artist, Patricia Hoban, who is moving to the Big Island from there. “If you put enough garlic on most anything, you can eat it,” contended her husband, Yen Chin, a chef and residential energy conservation expert. “How gross” I thought, thinking about eating slugs and grasshoppers. Yet that is precisely how some of our ancestors survived. 


Raw food is a traditional cuisine growing in popularity here in Hawai’i and elsewhere. In addition to vegetarians, we have fruitarians here on the island who survive mainly from the abundant supply of wild tropical fruits. As Peak Oil unfolds and cooking with electricity and natural gas declines, raw foods are likely to get even more popular. Raw fish, popular among the many Japanese here, can help balance the acidic, sugary fruit, as can seeds and nuts. More gathering and hunting are likely to return as our petroleum supply lessens. 


Mango Jon used to live near my Sonoma County farm. He is one of the many to come to this more primitive island to prepare for an uncertain future. He now lives in a jungle close to Kalapana, the village that one of the many volcanic eruptions of Kilauea obliterated in 1990. The most recent Planet of Apes was made on Jon’s place. I kid you not. 


You might think that Mango Jon grows mangoes because of his name. But he really mainly grows noni, a canoe crop brought over by the original Polynesians and used as a juice for medicinal purposes. Noni smells and tastes pretty bad, but it has multiple medicinal uses. The oil crash will radically change our supply of synthetic medicines and the health care industry, returning us to some pre-industrial practices, such as more use of medicinal plants. Many of us will re-learn the lore of plants and their many uses. 


Noni is also a "famine crop," because most people would not want to eat the fruit itself unless there were a famine. It is not as tasty as pineapple, rolinia, papaya, and the other tropical fruits that have become part of my own backyard supply of food here. I grow two canoe crops -- noni and kava, the later being a bitter root crop that makes a relaxing mood-changing drink. Noni and kava only grow well close to the ocean, according to local wisdom. We have lost much of that wisdom as industrialism has separated us from the Earth and inclined us toward machines and away from plants, animals, and even people. 


Maybe I’ll ask Mango Jon how he got his name, next time I see him at the farmers’ market. He may not have a phone; Craig doesn’t. Many people here don’t have phones, which don’t reach everywhere on the island. They use what is called "the coconut express," which can be a good form of communication. Coconuts tend to spread in the tropics. Important information can spread rapidly and directly from person-to-person, even without telephones and the internet. Phones and the internet may not be as plentiful after the energy descent. I’ve heard that less than half the world has a personal phone. Imagine that, especially those of you who have a home phone, work phone, cell phone and dedicated computer phone line.  


"Coconut sprouts are another good survival food," Ano added. He harvests thousands of coconuts a year, so his place on Noni Farm Road is full of coconut sprouts. One could live on sprouts for a long time, according to the flexible, robust Ano. 


"The coconut palm is the most useful plant of the tropics," asserts the book "Hawaiian Organic Growing Guide" by Shunyam Nirav. "Probably more uses are made of it than any other plant known to humanity," the book contends. Coconut uses include food, ornamentation, baskets, hats, furniture, mats, cabinets, roof thatching, buttons, buckles, brooms, hula rattles. 


I learned a lot from the brief, Sunday morning exchange at the farmers’ market and the thinking and conversations that it stimulated. The best responses to Peak Oil will be grassroots and local, local, local. They will depend upon the unique watersheds and ecosystems within which each of us dwell. On this island of 150,000 people, where I live most of the year, it is not hard to imagine my friends eating grasshoppers and yoking up some castrated cattle. The Parker Ranch here is actually bigger than any ranch on the continental United States, so there are lots of cattle -- potential oxen. 


A Japanese reader of a draft of this article, Michico Spring, responded as follows, “I relate to lots of things in your story. Being in the city of Osaka, I haven't driven here at all. I've been walking everywhere! My parents cook most of their things from scratch and eat very humbly -- mainly vegetables and rice and some fish (no grasshopper here!) I found synchronicity with your article.”  


It is more difficult to imagine my Northern California friends eating grasshoppers and driving oxen -- even the farmers. But many of my Big Island friends are already off the grid, use rain catchments for their water supply, and grow much of their own food. They will certainly be ahead of the curve likely to hit big city dwellers and people used to privilege. We also have lots of water here, like 150" a year. Living in warm climates with plenty of water and the means to grow one’s own food makes lots of sense as a way to prepare for Peak Oil, whereas living in big cities with tall air-conditioned buildings in water-scarce areas may not be so wise. 


As a visiting European recently said, “You Americans live in a bubble, which will soon break.” 


Shepherd Bliss divides his time between the Big Island, where he writes for the Hawai’i Island Journal, and Northern California, where he owns Kokopelli Farm. He can be reached at: sb3@pon.net.

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* Wal-Mart Under Attack
* “The Mother We All Long For”: On Cindy Sheehan’s New Book

* Wall Street Journal Advice on Global Warming: A Perspective from the Island of Hawai’i
* Time Magazine Finally Covers Peak Oil
* Water and Wind as Dance Partners and the Warming Globe
* Chevron, Peak Oil, and China
* Volcanoes, Oil, and Prophets
* Celebrating the Holidays During our Dark Age
* Michael Moore’s Flaming Thunderbolt