These Times of Declining EROEI

May 19, 2012


The garden is in. I planted the last of the summer vegetables on Monday and, as it looks to be another hot, dry summer, I planted the corn, beans and squash in two big mounds – the three sisters of Indian legend. I did this, of course, in hopes the squash will provide ground cover to hold moisture in the soil for the corn and beans – and the okra I planted at the other end of the patch – and the beans will provide the nitrogen for the corn. Then I planted some melons next to the peppers and tomatoes in hopes the melons will provide some ground cover for them. When the lettuce, spinach and radishes have gone to seed, I’ll start a fall crop of them and add some more beets and carrots.

We’ll see how that turns out. For as long as I’ve been gardening here, I’ve considered my gardens a series of experiments – looking toward impending climate change, energy depletion and, now, old age. Because, it seems to me, all of these involve negative changes in EROEI – the energy returned on energy invested. This means I’m going to have to be cleverer in the way I use those declining returns, whether it involves the upheavals of changing weather patterns, the rising costs of fossil fuels or the slowing down of my own body as I age.

Like most doomers, I no longer believe I can affect the way we use those declining returns on a worldwide or even a national level. (That is why we call ourselves doomers, after all.) So, I look for ideas to affect them on a personal and, perhaps, more local level and write this blog hoping to share some of those ideas with you.

And, as I said last week, my own aging process as I try to maintain home and garden, seems as good a metaphor for the aging Empire and its determination to maintain a presence around the world as any other I can think of. Fortunately, I’ve learned – which the Empire has not – I can’t maintain business as usual, as I and the world around me changes.

I’m adapting. It’s a balancing act, decreasing my energy use, trying to use it more wisely as the local weather begins to bend with climate change and utility prices fluctuate. As I’ve said here before, the house was built in 1900, a little before the transition from oil lamps and wood heat to electric and gas around here. I’m trying to use that to my advantage.

Even though I tolerate heat less than I used to, rather than turn on the air condition with the first hot afternoon, I open the windows, use the fan, wet a washcloth to mop my face and arms and find I can do quite well without the air conditioner.

The cleaning and laundry get done less often and in smaller chunks of time and that’s all right. I’m the only one living upstairs, here, so I can set my own pace. I do what I can on my own to maintain the overall health of the house and pay others to do what I can’t while I have the money to do it.

I get outside earlier in the day, while it’s cooler and the garden is still in shade from the old walnut tree as the sun rises. I use my long handled hoe to turn the soil and weed between the rows rather than power tools. It’s easier to keep my balance, good exercise and the only energy I use is mine. I still get down on my hands and knees to plant or do the close weeding – though getting back up is more ungainly than it used to be. As with the household chores, I do these things in smaller chunks of time and rest more, in between.

My yard is large enough that I can expand the garden and collect more rain water, put in a few laying hens and, as they say around here, make do or do without as times get tougher. I don’t have ten acres and a mule, nor do I need them. I’m not thirty anymore; I’m one aging woman striving to make my own way, work with my neighbors where I can, help others when I can while enjoying the process as much as I can. My plan is to do that as long as I can and when I can’t anymore, die with as much dignity and as little trouble to myself and others as I can.

I don’t mind that. I don’t fret a lot over it. And, so far, I rather enjoy it. We humans were around for a long time without much more than our wits and our own energy, before we managed to outwit ourselves so badly. Each of us have to find our own plan for these tough times and that’s my plan. My guess is, it’s as good a plan as any in these times of declining EROEI.

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20 Responses to These Times of Declining EROEI

  1. paul says:

    Your feelings and actions perfectly embody and mirror my own.
    This piece is all that needs to be said really, because, as you point out, we can no longer affect anything apart from our own little bit of the world.
    Stay peaceful and happy for as long as you can.

    • theozarker says:

      Hi Paul, I think the thing I’m realizing as I get older is that our own little bit of the world is all any of us have, no matter how powerful we think we are. It’s like we’re all pebbles dropped into a pond and in the ripples that go out, who can tell which pebble caused which following action on the whole of the pond. And if the universe is one big pond … well, there you have it. 😀

  2. glaucustheplanner says:

    Congratulations on completing the planting of your garden, Ozarker! It sounds like you have a pretty good-sized spread. My wife and I do our bit, though it sounds much more modest than your effort. One of the drawbacks of living in the big city I guess…

    ERoEI… a subject I’ve always felt intuitively, and long before I had a term I could assign to it. I’m disappointed by how rarely others seem to pick it up, regardless of its obvious application to everyday life. Oh well. I’ll be here to explain it to them if they ever want to hear it.

    It helps to assume a Stoic attitude about these things as we enter the threshold of a less-exuberant age.


    • theozarker says:

      Hi glaucus. Actually my spread is (what used to be a standard) 50’x100′ lot, which I suppose seems pretty large compared to bigger cities where all the houses look sort of crammed together to me – LOL. My garden is about 10’x15′, which is about what I can handle these days. But when the weather is right, it gets enough rain (and I cross my eyes and stick out my tongue in the right direction,) it produces fresh veggies all summer, enough to store for most winters and leaves some to take to the food bank here.
      I agree with you about EROEI. It drives me crazy to hear all the pumped up news about “the glut of new energy” here, since none of them seem to take the EROEI of the stuff into account.
      Don’t be too stoic. Gotta have a little fun on the way down the tubes. 😀

  3. graveday says:

    Well, Linda, even though the garden may not be producing a ton, there is much here to chew on. As far as leaving with dignity, I think any gardener has no worries there, as we know we will have left some part of the earth better than we found it.
    And as far as energy and getting older, even in a short summer season, if you have suffered from the time you plant to the time you reap so that you are weaker, the harvest offsets that. It’s a win all the way around on the energy spectrum.
    Even if the plants all die, there is still the energy you put into the soil, and that stays until someone or something sensible comes along to utilize it. Maybe a beetle, heh.

    • theozarker says:

      Hey Grave, I don’t know about you, but just the return on mental energy is a pretty good bargain in gardening. I never feel more mentally alive than when I put in some time in the garden – achy legs and all. (Though I’d prefer all the plants don’t die – heheh.) Since the house will be his when I shove off this mortal coil, maybe my son will take up gardening then. If not, I’ll gladly leave it the the beetles and worms. They’ve taken pretty good care of it, so far.

  4. When you’re old, thoughts of death take emotion,
    So species extinction commotion
    Doesn’t cause much more stress:
    Though a vaster egress,
    You’re used to the basic notion.

  5. graveday says:

    Ben might leave one beetle-browed, but he sure can worm his way into the gist of things in five lines. High five, Ben.

  6. Linda, and grave, I’m glad that you could finally figure it out, but yeah, I couldn’t edit or remove it once it was up. A somewhat improved version is on my blog, but I really fell short this time, and with something that’s been on my mind, plus the perfect place to put it. Oh well, you never know how they’ll turn out when you start haha! 😀

    • theozarker says:

      LOL, Ben, I thought the one on your blog was a little different. Don’t make me no never mind. They’re all like a sip of sparkling water to me – they get the giggle going while giving me something to think about. Thank you.

  7. simon says:

    Dr Al Bartlett says the biggest failure of the human race is its inability to understand the Exponential Formula.

    I wonder though, when did we unlearn EROEI? Maybe we lost it with the advent of synthesized fertilizers and pesticides? Seems to me every farmer must have viscerally known it for it determined how big his family would be and how much was left for a nest egg after feeding himself. I take it that those who didn’t know EROEI risked starvation, and if they survived to the next growing season, quickly became intimate with it.

    Perhaps it was the many factors brought about the onset of WWI that took away that individual knowledge of EROEI most carried with them. WWI saw the mechanization of warfare where so many of those connected to the land were lost. Afterwards, the industrialization/commoditization of everything by the same means that mechanized warfare is likely to have prevented the new generation to learn EROEI as well as those before; nor learned how much more viable and long lasting and dignified is living within its means.

    Every species — from germs in a wine vat, to elks on isolated islands, to the Sumerians, Anasazis and now us seem to come all for a chance to try and outwit EROEI.
    Brewers and archeologists show how all are humbled. Except the ants that have learned to engage and dance with it.

    • theozarker says:

      Hi Simon, it really doesn’t matter to nature whether we’re yeast or humans, does it? We either learn those lessons or face die-back or extinction as Dr. Bartlett so wisely pointed out.

  8. When you’re old, you see the end lurk,
    But you try not to go too berserk;
    It’s similar, perhaps
    To social collapse:
    Every day something new doesn’t work.

  9. Man Who’ll Never Return

    A corpse with cremation burn
    Never comes back from the urn;
    With extinction in mind,
    It might be opined
    He’s like man, who’ll never return.

  10. graveday says:

    Ben does it again and again.
    He writes words with his pen
    That burn into your brain.
    You won’t go insane,
    But for more you’ll have a yen.

  11. VaMom says:

    Hi Linda. I do enjoy your blog … so full of empathy and common sense. I am starting my first garden this year … I have no land so it is all out on my deck in planters that need constant watering. But if you lined up the rectangular planters properly, you can imagine having a 7′ by 3′ plot. The silly part of it for city gardeners is that one must haul dirt and manure home from the store … 🙂 Anyway, wish me luck as I have so much to learn. And thanks for your thoughtful and interesting posts.

    • theozarker says:

      Hi Mom. Nice to hear from you again. Sounds like you’ve got a good start with your garden. I started with three earth boxes out on my side porch when I first moved to this house. You might look into starting a small vermiculture operation in a shady spot on your deck (if you have a shady spot) or start a small compost container. I have one that I throw my garden scraps, table scraps, coffee/tea grounds, dryer lint and, here, of course, grass clippings and leaves from the yard. I’ll bet you could make enough compost each year to refill your containers or at least cut way back on what you have to buy. (Give the containers a good scrubbing with soap and water each year when you empty them.) This site – – has links to lots of articles on vermiculture and composting that might give you some ideas. Whatever you do, consider it a learning experience and (especially) HAVE FUN.

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