Friday, August 19, 2011

The Problem is the Solution -- Permaculture as a whole-life approach

In previous posts we have explored some of the tools that I use to work toward that better life.  While I certainly appreciate everything that I have learned from many of the podcasts that I have listened to and websites I have read over the past several years, I often walk away from them with the feeling that the people behind them know so much more about what they're doing than I do, because they never talk about their mistakes.

Rest assured, I have made plenty of mistakes in my life, and I never want any of my readers to operate under the assumption that I don't make mistakes.  I've made a ton of them, I continue to make them, and once I learned to not live in fear of those mistakes and instead embrace them as a learning opportunity, I found them to be a valuable tool on my journey toward that better life.  In that spirit, this post is going to explore the process by which I came to where I am now, and how I learned to embrace the problems I encountered as potential solutions to my want for a better life.

The "Anti-Approach"

My views in adolescence and young adulthood were generally formed by what I was against, as opposed to the things that I wanted.  An outlook founded in negativity like that plays both the victim and the crutch -- you don't take an active role in a lot of things, and the innate unfairness of the imperfect world offered excuses for that failure to take that active role.  This passiveness meant I didn't spend enough time  developing my own skills and abilities -- whether those skills or abilities were concerned with my workaday life or something else. 

It was this demand that an imperfect world be set right and made fair that led me into the world of left-wing political activism.  I jumped right in with a movement whose name probably fit my outlook better than any other -- the "anti-globalization" movement.  While I still believe that there are many injustices that exist in the world, now I also know that they can only be fixed from the ground-up as individuals and members of our communities.  Back then I thought that only if we got the right policies installed from above, all of our problems as a society (and, admittedly, an individual) would melt away.

About nine to ten years ago I stumbled upon the topic of peak oil, and like many people who stumble upon that topic, suddenly felt like my entire world was turning upside down.  Where before I was passive, now I became impulsive.  I set about to change just about every aspect of my life in response to the overwhelming sense of foreboding that peak oil (and often with predictable results).  I changed my career track and went back to full-time college studies to become a history teacher.  My wife and I sold our condo and bought a house at the peak of the real estate bubble (though at least we had the sense to get a fixed term with 20% down).  Within two years I was struggling to find full-time teaching work, we were underwater on a house that hung around our neck like a millstone, and my marriage was suffering under the strain.  Like I said earlier -- predictable results.

Falling back into old habits was too easy at this point.  I blamed the unfairness of the world for my troubles, and this blame in turn absolved me from action.  Except this time, there was no economic boom and opportunities did not fall in my lap as they once had.  This was difficult for me to deal with, stuck as I was in those old habits -- but eventually (and with the unbelievable support of my wonderful wife) I was able to break most of them.  One of the biggest keys in this transformation was permaculture.  It's ethical system provides a blueprint not just for how to produce your food, but how to live your life.

The Problem is the Solution

If I had been able to keep a full-time teaching position, I likely would never have opened to the amazing changes that can happen through permaculture and the "active living" model it demands from you.  Permaculture teaches us that the world has bounty, and that by just taking responsibility for the earth, ourselves, our children and our neighbors, we can discover this bounty.  Even someone with as negative an outlook as me cannot help but feel positive when looking at things from a permaculture perspective.  Life may be even more grossly unfair than before, things may in many ways be looking down, but I still can't help but feel content with where I am right now and confident that I'm developing the tools to lead me to that better life.

One example of this outlook is the way I view the 3-hour (or more) round trip commute I have every day to New York City.  While part of my plan is to have employment that allows me to be more available to my children and wife and a long commute doesn't accomplish that, it does give me valuable time alone for thinking and learning.  I take a little mp3 player with me in the car and listen to podcasts about topics I'm interested in -- permaculture, homesteading, economics and finance, food preparation, history and social trends.  This time alone every day had the potential to be a positive -- it was no longer a negative to be resented.

Another example is the way I view my job itself.  I count myself extremely fortunate to have found employment in times that are difficult for so many.  At the same time, my job is not something that I'm required to get fulfillment from.  It's something that I trade my time for in order to get money.  In the world we live in (regardless of what it looks on the other side of our numerous unfolding crises) money can help solve a lot of problems and the more that I can do to pay down debt, save, and invest in household production and resiliency, the more I'm taking responsibility for the earth, myself and my family.

I feel a definite sense of responsibility to my job.  I also have a sense of responsibility to my family.  I know which one is the greater responsibility, which helps me to set limits on demands to my time.  I don't apologize for not being able to stay late without notice (except in the event of a real emergency), nor do I feel guilty about using my vacation time.  The funny thing is that none of these traits hurt me in the work world -- they help me to stay grounded and sane instead of burning out.  More importantly I'm able to spend those precious, fleeting moments with my kids while they grow up -- a few more now, a lot more as part of my better life.


My point in this post is this: if an underachiever like me can make such sweeping and positive changes toward creating that better life, then surely you can too.  I still make just as many mistakes as before -- if not more -- except for now they're a lot more part of the observation process.  I learn from them.  I move on and apply them without guilt.  Or at least I try on that last part, and have been getting better the more that I've tried.  Living by permaculture is not a complicated method to follow, but it is difficult, and increases in difficulty the further you get away from it.

Don't stay away from applying permaculture to your life.  Start applying it now.  If you're patient, you can see a marked difference in both your motivation to have a better life but also the way you actually live.  I know I have!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Getting the Skills to Pay the Bills (or avoid them altogether)

In the last post on this blog, we looked at the core concepts of Your Money or Your Life, and how they help to transform your relationship with money.  Like the system of permaculture, YMOYL is an ethical system that is based on some core values.  In fact, the values of permaculture and YMOYL can almost completely overlap each other.  Both are concerned with wise use of surplus, especially -- after all, financial independence is next-to-impossible without accumulating some level of financial surplus.

In this post we're going to delve a little deeper into how to accumulate that financial surplus, focusing on the subject of skills.  I have become convinced that gaining a true measure of independence is dependent upon developing a broad set of skills that increase your self-reliance while decreasing your reliance on outside products and service providers -- and the money that you have to trade your time for in order to pay them.

Defining "Skills"

There are some pretty significant economic benefits to skills that we will delve into a little bit later.  First, I would like us to just get a solid definition along with some basic examples.  A skill is any kind of knowledge or training that enables you to become a producer instead of a consumer.  So far on this blog, we have delved into three important skills for any self-reliant homesteader: gardening, cooking and food preservation.  By integrating these three skills into one system -- growing fresh heirloom tomatoes and herbs; processing and cooking my own tomato sauce with basil, oregano and garlic; and canning that sauce in order to put it up on my basement shelves for the winter -- I have helped to make my household more self-reliant.  (Did I mention that I also compost the seeds and skins left from the tomatoes, "closing the loop" by turning my "waste" into valuable compost for next year's garden?)

Some other skills that I've picked up over the years include: basic bicycle repair and maintenance, changing the oil in my own automobile, basic carpentry, and map reading / navigation.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, and some of the skills listed may seem rather rudimentary (such as changing my own automobile oil), but they are all important because they help to increase my own self-reliance, while simultaneously reducing my reliance on outside people and systems to provide those services for me.  My skills at basic carpentry and electrical installation literally saved our family thousands of dollars when we remodeled our house shortly after we closed on it and moved in.

More than just saving money

Skills save us money in the immediate term, but their benefits go far beyond that.  One of the benefits of broadening our skill set as opposed to purchasing items and services with money (that we trade our life energy for), is that by learning a skill you often learn a process for doing something.  What differentiates processes from products is that often time the former cost very little to get, and once you have them they don't go away and no one can take them away from you.  Products and outside services, on the other hand, must be continually replenished after they are used up.  The most common means of replenishment is to exchange money (in reality, life energy) for them.

Looking at our skills through this lens provided by YMOYL (money = life energy) is very useful for putting this into perspective.  For example, many friends and members of my family (more on my wife's side) express amazement at how I am able to find the time to maintain my garden.  And I will admit that all of my home food production activities and processing take some serious time.  However, I also know that I seriously cut our home food bill through these activities, creating a greater financial surplus for investment.  Eating fresh, wholesome food raised without chemical fertilizer or pesticides increases our family's health.  In the long run, the garden actually saves me time, because it contributes toward my long-term goal of financial independence.  In another few years, when I have reached the point at which I can step away from having to work for someone else and truly live the life that I want, many (if not all) of the people who don't see how I can find the time to garden will still be stuck on the same hamster wheel of exchanging their life energy for money to pay for the products and services they need and want.

Another benefit of developing skills is the opportunity for self-employment.  For example, part of my longer-term plan is to develop a small business line where I help people to establish home vegetable gardens or even maintain them throughout the season.  One example of this kind of business is Suburban Farming Company, LLC in the Philadelphia, PA area.  Another kind of business along these lines I have read about (sorry, no link immediately available on this one) is where people essentially run a farm through developing sizable gardens at the homes of those who want fresh produce but either can't or don't want to deal with the work, and then take the surplus for market sale.  While neither of these models likely provide enough income to support a household by themselves, the skills I have developed in permaculture and gardening nevertheless provide opportunities for some income along these lines.


Developing and broadening our skill set helps save money not by necessarily increasing our income (at least in the short run), but by avoiding expenses altogether by relying on ourselves.  Skills are something that, once we get them, stay with us for life and cannot be taken away.  They help us move along that path to self-reliance instead of reliance on people and systems we cannot control.  I urge all of you to take a look at the skills that you have and figure out how you can use them to increase your own freedom and self-reliance.  Also, use skills as a means of increasing community with those around you by sharing them with your neighbors -- and maybe picking some up from them in the exchange.

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts on this post in the comments below.  And, if you like this kind of thing, please forward it along to your friends.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Your Money and Your Life" -- Permaculture for Your Finances

Now that I've covered some of the basics of my gardening and food processing methods, it's time to turn to the subject of home finances.  Financial well-being is just as key to my drive toward self-reliant freedom and community living as gardening is, perhaps even more so.  But with the overwhelming number of financial self-help gurus out there like Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman and Robert Kiyosaki, to name only a few, finding an approach that works can seem daunting.  Now, I'm not going to say that you should definitely go with one method over all others -- the most important thing is to look at as many different sources as possible and find what works best for you, and then stick with it.  For me, though, there is one book on home finances that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (abbreviated from here on as YMOYL).

YMOYL, like many practical financial self-help manuals out there, emphasizes the elimination of debt as a central concept of financial well-being.  The end goal is something the authors call "Financial Independence," or "FI" for short.  What sets it apart is that it actually affects a wholesale transformation of the way that you view money in your life -- kind of like a form of financial permaculture.   By changing the way that you view money on the most basic and profound level, you free yourself from being controlled by it and instead controlling the way that it affects you.  Central to this transformation is the concept of "life energy".

Life Energy -- the core of YMOYL

Here's how it works.  The "big view" of money -- like looking down on earth from a spaceship many miles above the earth, as Robin and Dominguez describe it -- is that it is just another force in the world that ebbs and flows, much like the tides of the ocean.  You have periods in your life where more money flows in, and others where more flows out.  No matter what, it is always moving, changing hands.  In the realm of personal finance, there is not some finite amount of money that will ever flow into your life.

But you are born with one substance in finite supply: time.  No matter what, each and every one of us is born with a finite amount of time in our life, an account that will never replenish, but instead will just be drawn upon until emptied.  When comparing and contrasting these two resources, which then should have a greater sense of urgency -- the one that can ebb and flow over time, or the one that moves linearly toward a definitive end?  When placed in those terms, the answer should be clear.  Time is the resource that we should treat with more care and concern.

That's all well and good as a philosophical concept, but how do you put it into practice?  We all have bills to pay after all, and time doesn't exactly pay the bills.  Or does it?  Joe Dominguez came up with a way to show that it did -- and it is this simple but profound changing of our vantage point that is the basis to the entire YMOYL program.  When we go to our jobs or engage in paid employment, we are exchanging our time -- our life energy, as it were -- for money.

Let me say that again to re-emphasize the importance of it.  When we go to work for pay, we are exchanging our life energy for money.

Dominguez even came up with a way of measuring this life energy.  You start with the net amount of pay you receive, after all taxes are taken out.  Then, total up the amount of money you spend on things related to your job -- gas and tolls for commuting, work clothes that you wouldn't otherwise get, lunches out at work, dinners out because you're too tired to cook when you come home, entertainment and recreation costs to "decompress" from the work day, etc.  Don't hold anything back, and when you're done, take that number and subtract it from your net pay.  This is your real income.

Then, total up the amount of time you spend directly on your job and also related to your job.  Include your daily commute time, time you spend shopping for work-related clothes and gear, recreation time to relax after work, etc.  This is the real time you spend on your job.  Then, take your real income and divide that by your real time, and the result is your real hourly wage.  If you are honest about this activity, then you will end up with a real hourly wage that is far below what you thought you were being paid.  This represents the amount of money that you actually receive in exchange for your life energy.

As an example, at the time I figured this out last year my hourly rate as an engineer was over $40 per hour.  When I figured out my real hourly wage, after my significant commuting expenses and 3 hour daily round-trip were taken into account, I ended up with a real hourly wage of around $11.50!

So now that we have this figure, what do we do with it?

The Process

Since money is something that we simply exchange our life energy for, and our life energy is our most precious and finite resource, then it stands to reason that we should be very conscious about how we use our money.  Dominguez has another simple approach to maximize our consciousness about money: you track every cent that comes in and out of your life.  Yes, he meant that literally -- every single cent.  Just think about it as running your household finances in the same way that you would manage a business.  If you keep sloppy books and lose track of money regularly chances are that your business won't do too well.  Conversely, if you keep meticulous track of inflows and outflows, you better your chances at success.

Instead of binding yourself to a strict budget, like many other plans (such as Dave Ramsey's) do, YMOYL actually works in a kind of "reverse budget" process.  You take all of those expenses that you have recorded for the month, and divide them into the appropriate budget categories.  Then, you have a clear picture of how much you are really spending and what you're spending it on.  Be prepared for some surprises here -- a daily $5 latte habit that doesn't seem like much day-to-day takes on new significance when you find that it really costs you over $100 per month.  But no matter what, when you go through this exercise don't allow yourself to feel guilty.  The goal is to gain a clear assessment of your finances, not to make emotional judgments about them.

Now we get to the point where the real transformation takes place.  You take your real hourly wage, and divide it into the dollar figure that you arrived at for each spending category.  The number you get as a result is the number of hours of life energy that each one of those categories costs you for the month.  Instead of looking at your expenses in terms of money, you see them in terms of a much more important resource -- the finite amount of time that you have on this earth.  As I have moved along this path, I even found myself judging possible purchases in terms of whether that expenditure is worth the amount of life energy I have to devote toward it.  The impact of this change in perspective is that your spending diminishes naturally.  You don't have to feel like you're confining your spending by a budget straitjacket -- something that often turns out to be as successful as a crash diet.  Instead, you're looking at your expenditures through the lens of whether or not they bring you a measure of fulfillment equal to or greater than the amount of your life energy that you devote toward acquiring it.

Now, you move to the point at which you make judgments on your expenditures -- but it is a value-based judgment, not an emotional one.  YMOYL provides three questions to guide you in this process:

     1. Did I receive fulfillment, satisfaction and value in proportion to life energy spent?
     2. Is this expenditure of life energy in alignment with my values and life purpose?
     3. How might this expenditure change if I didn’t have to work for a living?

Analyze each expense category with each question individually.  If you could receive more fulfillment by spending more in any category according to that question, mark it with a +.  If you are where you want to be, mark it with a 0.  If you could achieve more fulfillment by reducing that expenditure, mark a -.  This exercise is not about guilt, it's about honesty -- honesty in the pursuit of finding that better life, one that brings you personal fulfillment.


This is only an introduction to YMOYL, but I think it's important to focus on the way that it can transform your relationship with money.  Instead of viewing it as a source of stress, you can see it for what it is -- a medium of exchange to be used in ways of your choosing to achieve personal fulfillment and financial freedom.  This is the reason that I call YMOYL "financial permaculture" -- it guides you to work in concert with systems that already exist rather than fighting against them, instead looking for ways to make those systems work more efficiently in your favor.

Specifics on how to get those systems to work in your favor, as well as the remainder of the YMOYL approach, are the topic of other posts to come.  Now at least your have the basic building blocks (as well as the link to the YMOYL website, above) to start on your own journey toward that better life!

As always, I invite you to share your thoughts on this post or approaches toward personal finance and home economics that work for you.  And if you find that you find some value in it, pass it along to your friends.