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The haybox factor

Like any other movement in contemporary society, the peak oil scene now and again has to take time away from addressing the challenges that have brought it into being in order to sort out its own internal vagaries. One timely example was the fluttering in several different dovecotes following longtime peak oil stalwart Matt Savinar’s decision to shut down his forum and news blog, in order to refocus his energies on a new career as an astrologer.

It’s a curious detail of sociology that people who hold one set of beliefs that are stigmatized by society – those people who hope to become respectable one of these days, at least – tend to distance themselves reflexively from those who hold unrelated but equally stigmatized beliefs. In most corners of American society today, the reality of hard ecological limits has about the same cachet as the ancient belief that events here on earth are foreshadowed by changes in the circling heavens. Actually, that understates the case. Plenty of people who regularly sneak glances at newspaper horoscope columns are quick to reject any suggestion that the march of progress could be stopped in its tracks by nature’s callous refusal to provide us with as much cheap concentrated energy as we happen to want. Thus it’s no surprise that most of the responses to Savinar’s announcement were negative.

Still, Savinar may have the last laugh. An article in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal discussed the way that old-fashioned Southern conjure – also known as rootwork or hoodoo, the traditional magic of African-American folk culture – has become a growth industry while the rest of the economy is circling the drain. While the New Age movement is very much a creature of prosperous times, old-fashioned occultism has always tended to swim against the current of the business cycle, prospering in hard times and finding fewer takers when the economy booms. If the current economic unraveling has the usual effects, Savinar may just have made an exceptionally smart career move.

At the same time, there’s more to the matter than one person pursuing a marketable skill in whose relevance and efficacy, by the way, he wholeheartedly believes. Just prior to the shutdown of the “Life After The Oil Crash” forum, Savinar posted a series of increasingly irritated comments about the number of people on it whose obsessive concern about the prospect of a catastrophic future stopped well short of doing anything to prepare for it. I know the feeling; this blog and the Green Wizards forum have attracted a lot of people who are actually doing something about their future, but I’ve had plenty of run-ins elsewhere with people who apparently believe that (a) insisting that some technology they’re doing nothing to develop or deploy will bail us out of our predicament, (b) displaying their doombat machismo by imagining a future more godawful than anybody else’s, or (c) finding somebody to blame and showing Jung a thing or two about how to project the shadow, are useful responses to the end of the industrial age.

Unproductive as these habits may be, there’s an understandable logic behind them, and behind all the attempts to paint the future in glowing colors of one sort or another – be those colors the syrupy hues of a Thomas Kinkade cottage painting or the purer if less comforting tones of a thermonuclear fireball. All of these portraits are ways not to think about the future that’s actually bearing down on us, a future that might best be summed up by pointing out that nearly all of us here in America will be poor – not "can’t afford the latest Xbox this month" poor, by the way, but "may not be able to put food on the table" poor – for the rest of our lives.

Yes, it really is as simple as that. White’s Law defines energy per capita as the basic measurement of economic development; as energy per capita declines, the economy contracts, and its capacity to support individuals at any level above the starvation line contracts as well. All the social, political, and military fireworks that punctuate the curve of decline unfold from that inescapable equation, as those who can no longer support themselves by supporting the system turn to catabolizing the system as a matter of sheer survival. Just now the turn to catabolism is happening in a shamefaced, surreptitious way: thieves stripping empty homes for copper and aluminum, banks cashing in their futures to buy short-term cash flow, cities quietly announcing that this or that set of essential services will no longer be available. Later rounds of catabolism may be a good deal more direct; each new round of news stories about the struggles between warlords beyond America’s fortified southern frontier makes me think of the proud border chieftains of an earlier age: Alaric, Hengist, Genseric, Attila.

Such reflections may make the green wizardry I’ve been discussing in recent posts seem pointless, but that pointlessness is an illusion. If the great driving force behind a future of disintegration and chaos is the simple inability of a failing society to provide even the most basic subsistence for the bulk of its people, anything that will allow those people to make other arrangements for their subsistence offers a way to cushion the decline. With that in mind, I want to talk about a simple, resilient technology that helps solve several of the most serious problems that poor people face now and the rest of us will be facing shortly. It was common – in fact, heavily promoted – all over the industrial world a century ago, and you’ve probably never heard of it.

Let’s start with the problem: cooking fuel. According to a recent news story, archeologists have found out that our sturdy cousins the Neanderthals routinely ate cooked vegetables, and cooked meat has been a hominid staple since the days of Homo erectus. Pace today’s raw food diet promoters, most foodstuffs are safer to eat and easier to digest when they’ve been subjected to heat, which is why every human culture everywhere on earth cooks most meals. The one drawback is that the heat has to come from somewhere, and usually that involves burning some kind of fuel; anywhere outside today’s industrial world, fuel doesn’t come cheap, and in most poor countries the struggle to find enough fuel to cook with is a major economic burden, not to mention a driving force behind deforestation and other ecological crises.

The obvious response, if you happen to think the way people in the modern industrial world think, is to deal with fuel shortages by finding and burning more fuel. That’s exactly the thinking that got us into our current predicament, though, so it’s worth looking at other options. To do that, we need to start with the thermodynamics of cooking itself.

Imagine, then, a saucepan on the stove cooking rice. It’s a metal container with a heat source under it, and inside it are two cups of water and a cup of grass seeds – that’s "rice" to you and me; the goal of the operation is to get enough heat and moisture into the grass seeds that your digestive system can get at the starches, sugars, B vitamins, and other nutritious things inside them. So far, so good, but this is where a familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics comes in handy, because there’s a prodigious waste of energy going on.

Trace the energy along its route and you can watch the waste happen. The energy at the heat source is highly concentrated; it flows, with some losses, into the metal saucepan; some of it flows through the pan to the water and rice, where it does the job of cooking, but a great deal of the heat gets into the sides and lid of the pan; some of it comes directly through the substance of the pan, some of it comes indirectly through the water and rice, but one way or another a great deal of the energy in your cooking fuel is being used to warm the surrounding air. This is all the more wasteful in that your rice doesn’t need a huge amount of heat once the water’s been brought to a boil; a very gentle simmer is more than enough, but to produce that gentle simmer a lot of fuel gets burnt and a lot of heat wasted.

Here’s an experiment for you to try. Get a cork mat larger than the bottom of the saucepan you use to cook rice, and a tea cozy. What’s a tea cozy? An insulated cover for a teapot, designed to keep the tea in the pot good and hot while you work your way down from the first relatively pallid cups off the top to the stuff with the color and consistency of road tar down at the very bottom. The kind of tea cozy you want has a slit in one side for the handle of the teapot, and one opposite it for the spout, and it needs to be large enough to pop over the saucepan with the saucepan’s handle sticking out through one of the slits; the more insulation it has, the better..

Got it? Okay, get your pot of rice started; when the water has reached a good fierce boil and you’ve put the rice in, cover the saucepan tightly, take it off the heat, put it on the cork mat and pop the tea cozy over it. Leave it for a little longer than you would normally keep it on the stove, and then serve; if you’ve followed the instructions, you should have perfectly cooked rice with a fraction of the fuel consumption you’d otherwise have had.

If you’ve done the experiment, you’ve just learned the principle behind the fireless cooker. In America, those were often called "hayboxes," because that’s what the old-fashioned version was – a wooden box stuffed full of hay in such a way that there was a space for a pot in the middle, and a pillow of cotton ticking stuffed with more hay that went over the top. A hundred years ago, though, you could get elegant models from department stores that had porcelain-coated steel cases, rock wool insulation, and easy-to-clean metal liners with pots sized to fit; the best models had soapstone disks you could stick in the oven during the day’s baking, then drop into the fireless cooker, put a pot of soup or stew on top, and have it piping hot for dinner six hours later.

I’ve never seen an old-fashioned fireless cooker; my guess is that here in America, at least, most of them were turned in during the big scrap metal drives in the Second World War. They were apparently still in use in some corners of Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, Still, the technology is simple enough that even the least capable home craftsperson can put one together in an hour or two. My spouse and I have two of them, a portable version in a wooden box and a rather less portable version built into a piece of furniture; both of them were built using a slightly improved version of the basic haybox design with polyester quilt batting for the insulation and cotton ticking covering the batting to keep it clean. Doubtless the design could be improved, but the portable one holds heat well enough that a pot of Scotch oats, brought to a boil on an open fire and tucked into the cooker before going to bed, serves up piping hot oatmeal the next morning.

Fireless cookers will not save the world. They aren’t even a complete solution to the problem of finding adequate cooking fuel, though they make a good many other responses more viable by sharply cutting the amount of heat that has to be provided from some other source. In the jargon of the peak oil scene, they aren’t silver bullets, or even silver BBs; they’re simply a useful bit of appropriate tech that can be put to work in order to make an impoverished future a little easier to live with. There are many other things that can be put to work in the same way.

Come to think of it, that’s basically what human culture is – a bag of tricks, not unlike Felix the Cat’s, suited to the needs and possibilities of a particular suite of human ecologies. The culture we’ve grown up with was adapted to an environment in which, for most people in the industrial world, the big question was how to make the most use of cheap abundant fossil fuels. The culture our great-grandchildren will grow up with, in turn, will be adapted to an environment in which the big question will be how to manage a healthy and graceful existence on a very sparse resource base. Fireless cookers might well become a part of that culture of the not too distant future, particularly if enough green wizards check out the possibilities in haybox technology here and now.


Far and away the best book written on fireless cookers so far is Heidi Kirschner’s Fireless Cookery. Published by a small press in 1981, it’s long out of print; some small press could do a lot worse than hunt up the current copyright holder, get the rights, and put it back on the bookshelves.

I understand that Girl Scout handbooks from before 1950 or thereabouts have instructions for making a haybox, and might be worth consulting; there are also chapters on the technology in some American cookbooks from the first decade or so of the twentieth century.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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