February 26, 2010

Thoreau's Beans: Let Them Work Their Magic On Your Stomach and Soul

When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, The Bean-Field (1854)

Thoreau, patron saint of bean growers, wrote lovingly of his seven miles of beans even though they demanded his constant labour and careful attention. Thoreau eventually admits that his beans and the soil gave him strength, like Antaeus who only had superhuman powers while in contact with Gaia, his mother (and ours).

Beans are magic. Jack knew that. What he may not of known is that they are also one of the most diverse and nutritious food sources in this universe. The lowly legume, legendary in status, has earned mentions in sources as diverse as The Bible and Blazing Saddles.

Many varieties of legumes, the earliest food crop cultivated, were domesticated 7 000 years ago in Central and South America by native peoples. Spain thought gold was the important commodity of this area, but in actuality it is the 40,000 varieties of beans that represent their true, enduring wealth.

This humble and healthy food, often shunned because of associations with poverty and the hardships of the Great Depression (the last one, not the one we are currently experiencing), is indeed a gift from the gods of frugality. They are cheap, simple nutrition. So much so that when the going gets tough, the tough grab bags of beans and rice and head for the hills. You don't need much more, whether you live in a cave, or a house.

Take a look at all beans have to offer nutritionally:

No other food comes close to beans in providing protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, potassium and soluble fiber together in high amounts. Beans are a key ingredient in a healthy diet of all ages:

  • High in complex carbohydrates
  • High in protein
  • High in dietary fiber
  • High in folate
  • Low in fat
  • Low in sodium
  • Cholesterol-free
  • Rich in vitamins and minerals

The calorie content of one cup of cooked beans is equal to one cup of cooked rice, pasta, or a 7-ounce baked potato. Yet beans are substantially higher in dietary fiber. Beans are very low in sodium and offer many of the same nutrients as meat, but without the fat and cholesterol. They also provide more nutrients than a serving of oatmeal or oat bran.

Per capita consumption of beans is 3.4 kg/7.5lbs.


Beans are underused in the average diet, most people preferring the more expensive, and less healthy, protein alternative known as meat. There are 1.5 billion bovine units alone on this planet. They are walking/belching/farting leather bags of expensive, fat-marbled protein that are trashing our land, air and water, and eating a huge portion of the grain the world produces.

North American meat consumption is 123 kg/270 lbs per capita. If each American reduced his or her meat consumption by only 5 percent, roughly equivalent to eating one less dish of meat each weak, 7.5 million tons of grain would be saved, enough to feed 25 million people-roughly the number estimated to go hungry in the U.S. each day. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1626

Colin Campbell, author of "The China Study", states, "We're basically a vegetarian species and should be eating a wide variety of plant foods and minimizing our intake of animal foods." A healthier state of affairs based on such a diet would see per capita consumption of beans at 123kg/270 lbs, and per capita consumption of meat around 3.4kg/7.5lbs. If Campbell is right, we currently have it backwards.

Colin Beavan, taking a different perspective in "No Impact Man", says, "Cattle raising turns out to be one of the top two or three contributors to the worst environmental problems around the planet at every level - from global to local."

Eating less meat, or no meat at all, is one of the most environmentally and socially responsible things one can do, rivaled in impact only by driving less or not at all. If you eat meat look for locally raised, grass-fed organic meat, often available at farmers markets.

Not eating meat can lower your personal carbon footprint by up to 1/4. That doesn't mean that you can drive 25% more if you become a vegetarian! Beans may not solve your transportation problems, but they can definitely help with reducing meat consumption.

There are lots of reasons to eat less meat, but fear not. Beans are waiting to fill in, and they promote good health, which is not something you are likely to hear about bacon, sausage or burgers.

Beans can form a central part of any diet. Include soybeans, lentils, and garbanzo beans (chickpeas), and peas. For maximum frugality, purchase beans dry and when on sale (when possible). Once you get used to preparing dry beans it becomes less of a hassle as you take their re-hydration into account in your cookery schedule. Cooked beans can be successfully frozen for quicker use later.

All beans come to us unprocessed and directly from the fields, and should therefore be picked through and rinsed before cooking. I have found the occasional bean-shaped clump of dirt while cleaning beans. Soaking overnight reduces cooking time, and some say it makes them more digestible and less prone to cause flatulence. I cook beans three cups dried at a time in my slow cooker (on low it takes about 8 hours).

Bean Measurements:

1 part dry beans equals:
  • 3 parts cooked beans

1 pound dry beans equals:
  • 2 cups dry beans, before cooking
  • 6 cups beans, after cooking
  • 4 15-ounce cans of beans

Favourite dishes around here are refried beans, baked beans, Jamacian rice, complimentary pie, black beans and rice, and bean-based veggie burgers.

Beans are a tasty wonder food. Try replacing one meat-based meal a week, to start, with a bean-based one.

Go ahead. Throw a few handfuls in a pot. See what happens. Let them work their magic on your pocketbook and your health. Thoreau loved 'em - you will, too.

February 18, 2010

A Few Have Too Much, Many Have Too Little - You Can Help

"There can be no peace as long as there is grinding poverty, social injustice, inequality, oppression, environmental degradation, and as long as the weak and small continue to be trodden by the mighty and powerful."

- 14th Dalai Lama

Some countries have too much money. Some countries don't have enough. Both are detrimental. The current gap between the rich and the poor is a bubble about to pop. How long can the richest 20% of the planet's people consume 76.6% of the world's resources while the poorest 20% consume a meagre 1.5%? This situation spawns poverty, despair, and terrorism.

The good news is that this was an improvement over 1995 when the richest 20% consumed 88% of the world's resources. Some one must pay for the rich lifestyles we live in industrialized, wasteful, consumer-oriented countries. Currently, the poor and the environment are paying our way, but this is likely to change soon. We are reaching several critical points, peak oil and climate change being two. More importantly, people are beginning to hop off the money train after finding it was not all it was cracked up to be.

You may wonder how one could have too much money. Our cultural credo is you can't have too much money, or fame, or thinness, or toys. It is wrong. Witness the Toilet Paper Abundance Syndrome, which I will use to illustrate my point.

When you have a closet full of toilet paper, a TP glut if you will, your tendency will be to use say, 7 to 25 or more squares. But make that the last roll of TP in the house and you will find that 3 to 5 squares may suffice.

When we have too much money we indulge in senseless waste, often as a way to feel and show our wealth. It is an evolutionary thing, so understandable, but now we know better. I would like to think our higher-order brain is in charge, not our emotions and base instincts. No, the conspicuous consumption beast is dead (2008 RIP), and you can help put the final nails in the lid the coffin.

How? By how you live. Waste not, want not. Don't make the environment and the poor pay for your extravagant lifestyle. Consume less. Save money. Share some of it. Use resources carefully - they are precious. Make demands of your politicians, and tell them you want a more equitable, sustainable community, and world.

Civil rights came about because the people demanded it. Universal suffrage happened because the people demanded it. When the people band together to right wrongs amazing things can happen. A better world is evolving, but ongoing improvement must continue to come from the people. We have the power.

A few have too much, and many have too little. You can help. Let us live simple, sustainable lives so that others may live at all. Let us mourn the consumeristic, planet-killing beast and move on. We already know what to do, and we have more than enough money. All we need is the will, and that begins within each one of us.

February 13, 2010

Investing Without Wealth Or Calamity: The Finances Of Enough

"Investing should be more like watching paint dry or watching grass grow. If you want excitement, take $800 and go to Las Vegas." - Paul Samuelson

Individuals lucky enough to have a bit of savings are asking hard questions about their money after the 2008 financial collapse wiped out trillions of dollars of personal net worth. There is a move toward post-traumatic stress investing; a cautious, less greedy way of investing in order to avoid the kind of trouble we have seen lately. Such an approach will avoid extreme wealth as well as extreme calamity, both of which are unbalanced ways to live and best avoided.

It is a good time to be returning to a concept of 'enough'. Good-bye get rich quick risky business, hello slow and certain. My financial goal is not to get the highest return and damn the consequences. At one time people were satisfied with a modest return on investment. Any more would have been considered immoral at best, and illegal at worst.

Therefore, my No Extreme Wealth/No Calamity strategy focuses on:
  1. Reducing the potential for financial calamity. Higher risk investments pay higher returns, usually, but can also experience higher losses.
  2. Investments that improve global social and environmental health. I want to know that my money is supporting solutions rather then enabling problems, even if the 'dirty' investments pay a better return. Are my hands clean?

The following information, from David Trahair, agrees with a low risk strategy. In "Buy GICs. Only GICs." in The Globe and Mail, September, 2009, he points out the following average annual rates of return:

S&P/TSX Composite Total Return Index

  • 10 years to August 31, 2009 - 9.41%
  • 20 years to August 31, 2009 - 8.86%
  • 30 years to August 31, 2009 - 10.76%
  • 40 years to August 31, 2009 - 9.77%
  • 50 years to August 31, 2009 - 9.80%


  • 10 years to August 31, 2009 - 3.35%
  • 20 years to August 31, 2009 - 5.11%
  • 30 years to August 31, 2009 - 7.28%
  • 40 years to August 31, 2009 - 7.71%
  • 50 years to August 31, 2009 - 7.35%

The Wall Street Journal seems to agree about the reality of stock market investing these days. They reported that the first decade of the 2000s was the worst ever for American stock market investing.
"Investors would have been better off investing in pretty much anything else, from bonds to gold or even just stuffing money under a mattress. Since the end of 1999, stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange have lost an average of 0.5% a year thanks to the twin bear markets this decade."
Stuffing money under a mattress? Now there is an investment strategy that I can both understand and support. One will not experience riches, but one will avoid calamity. Without riches and calamity there is less potential for trouble. And trouble is something many people have been experiencing lately.

The returns of a low risk strategy may be lower, but you have to also factor in the ease of GICs, and the peace of mind you have when you step off the stock market roller coaster. You will not get rich, but you will also not lose 50% of your personal wealth over the course of several days in the event of another near-death experience for capitalism. Free market troubles are not close to being over yet.

For me a guaranteed, small interest rate is preferable to a large unearned gain that is harmful to all, and has the potential for massive losses.

No wealth, no calamity, no trouble. This works for me.

February 9, 2010

Emergency Preparedness: Surviving In Tough Times

5 year map of earthquake epicentres in SW British Columbia/Pacific NW

Here on the west coast of North America being prepared for an emergency, say a 7.5 earthquake, has a very good chance of saving your life. This week 600 000 people on the east coast have been without power for days after the worst winter storm in decades. More snow is forecast for today. At times like these, having a plan and ready supplies can make the difference between a memorable experience and discomfort, injury, and possibly death.

Our longest period without power since being on the coast was in December of 2006. At that time we experienced the most powerful winter storm in these parts since the 1960s. There was a lot of rain, but far worse were the gale force winds. The roof blew off the building next door and 20 residents had to be evacuated in the middle of the night.

Besides missing some siding, our building rode out the storm. But it was a rough ride in our third floor unit fearing the shrieking winds would blow our windows in. Lying in our shaking bed trying to sleep that night we could feel that the whole wood-frame building was shuddering with the gusts. We were without power and heat for almost five days after the storm.

Emergency preparedness focuses on independence, self-reliance, and community robustness, qualities that we have largely abandoned in recent decades. As we have gained wealth we have chosen to pay others to provide us with everything we need. But our supply chains are notoriously fragile and entirely dependent on a disappearing fossil fuels. In an emergency it will not matter how much money you have. What you will need is an emergency plan and supplies so you can rely on yourself.

Relying on self-interested corporations and governments is a recipe for disaster in itself. They don't so much want to help us as exploit us for their own purposes. As soon as we become unprofitable, or vote for a different party, they will move on, leaving us to fend for ourselves (like we used to, and will again). We must be able to care for ourselves for a minimum of 3 days in the event of a disaster, and perhaps much longer if capitalism experiences a USSR-style collapse, which still seems to be a distinct possibility.

Speaking of collapse, in 2008 when the so-called good times came to a crashing halt, I noticed the effects in my local grocery store. Half the time it looked like there had just been a food riot. Shelves of staples like flour were near empty and disheveled. Most grocery stores would empty out in 3 days or less after a catastrophic event. I thought about that while scrounging for food, and it was a pretty scary thought; I felt very vulnerable. Perhaps it was coincidence, but conditions have improved along with the stock market since then.

Over the past few years we have improved our personal preparedness. The goals are consistent with our trend toward a simpler, more stable, secure, independent life. I am no survivalist, but I do want to be prepared, and being ready for emergencies gets me closer to my ultimate goal which is to live in as sustainable a way as possible. I can do without being preyed on by a system that benefits from our dependence and ignorance.

There is a lot of good information out there to help you implement your own emergency plan and help you attain some level of independence. Preparedness expert, Kathy Harrison, wrote Just In Case: How To Be Self-Sufficient When The Unexpected Happens to help individuals and families plan for unplanned events. It more or less covers everything you need to know to begin to take care of yourself and your loved ones. Harrison implores us, for our own good, to be prepared for the endless list of potential emergencies. She convinced me.

There are also very good resources on line, and available in your community. Often local programs focus on the risks appropriate to your area. At the library, on-line, or at city hall look for information on emergency preparedness, living off grid, simple living, or preppers. Look up 'survivalists' if you want to go hard core. All will assist you in increasing your ability to care for yourself when others can't or won't.

These are the basic beginning steps Linda and I have taken so far:
  • stored water to last two people a week with minimal rations (1L/person/day), plus chemical water treatment to prepare additional water if needed
  • two grab bags with warm clothing, food, water, tent, sleeping bags, multi-tool and other supplies
  • a single-burner white gas stove for cooking, with extra gas
  • a set of sturdy footwear by bed to prevent cuts from broken glass and debris
  • identified safe places in our home (in doorways), as well as in the area (higher ground out of the tsunami zone)
  • have handy flashlights, candles, crank-powered radio
  • lashed down heavy objects to stabilize them in the event of the inevitable Big One
  • stored food to last a few weeks
It is easy to deny the essential nature of emergency preparedness. No one likes to think of the ground shifting violently around them whether from earthquakes or financial collapse. I am relying less on the fragile consumer system and am learning to take care of myself. Increasing self-sufficiency pays dividends whether in response to local natural disasters or global economic turmoil.

I feel safer and more secure knowing I am prepared for another economic collapse, or a once every 500 year earthquake. I don't know about you, but the images of Haiti would have spurred me into action if I had not already started. Don't wait. Your life, and the lives of your loved ones could literally depend on it. Plus it feels very good to know you are prepared and able to care for one's self and family.

Here's to a safe, secure and simple life.

February 5, 2010

Fix It Because You Can

Ever since I was a kid I have loved taking things apart. I love it even more when they go back together again. If you have a few basic tools and curiosity it is amazing the things that can be done. If you aren't handy, with patience you can learn at least a few skills that will take you far and save you money.

My brother gave me an answering machine in 1995. It's not digital and makes clunking sounds as it faithfully does its work year after year. We thought about replacing it with a silent digital model, but in Frugalville, if it is not irreparably broken it doesn't get replaced.

Lately the recording mechanism started to get a little distorted. My outgoing message was not sounding like me any more, and listening to incoming messages was like deciphering backwards masking on a Beatles album.

Time to grab the tools and rip it apart, then hope I don't pull a Humpty Dumpty. Even if I did, fifteen years of faithful service for a used piece of electronics makes it fully eligible for retirement in a nice museum somewhere.

I snapped on the latex gloves, grabbed my tools and opened the patient. Since I did not study electronics anatomy, it all looked like indecipherable guts to my untrained eyes. I went for the heart of the matter and took a look at the motor drive, something I did recognize. Sure enough the drive belt was stretched beyond usefulness causing the devil in the machine sound effects.

From my Drawer of Potentially Useful Things I drew several sizes of rubber bands. After snapping Linda with one, I proceeded to choose just the right size to make a new belt drive and stretched it into place. Then I stitched the patient up and hooked it up to a power source.

It worked. Ya, I could replace it for less than $20 dollars, but now I don't have to. The rubber band was free.

We live in a world in which powerful interests profit from having us believe that we can not do things for ourselves, and we must rely on them - for a price. The fact is, we are capable of doing much more than we think. The solutions are often free, and fun. We can build, repair, create, and enjoy ourselves while saving resources and money.

February 3, 2010

Are Pirates Plundering Your On-line Personal Information?

It used to be that you only had to worry about petty thieves combing your on-line presence for sensitive information. Now professional plunderers are getting into the act, and lenders may be poking around. Who is looking at your tweets and Facebook friend choices, and what are they doing with this information?

How lenders and collection agencies use your social networking information has been in the news recently, making one think about how our on-line information can be misused. The pirates are on the horizon, and they want your information and your doubloons.

These purveyors of legal loansharking are sailing a sea of data provided by us, sometimes unwittingly. They are looking to gain a profitable advantage, whether by tailor-making advertising just for you, or by providing information about you and your choices to someone who wants something from you. I am not alright with either one of these uses of my data.

What exactly are they looking for in this piratical cruise through your on-line life? Writing about frugality and cutting up credit cards, using cash only for all purchases, or closing your bank account and burying your treasure? If so, I can kiss my credit card goodbye. Good riddance, I say.

Those sailing under the Jolly Roger, international flag of pirates, do not have anything I want - I do not agree to their outrageous terms. In the moonlight you can see they are the walking dead, and they don't even adhere to the Pirate Code. Credit card interest rates of up to 20% is an obvious unfair distribution of booty, for example, which contravenes the code of proper plunderers.

The good news is that we do have some control over how our personal information is shared on social networking sites. If you are a member of one or more, now is a good time to check your profile and settings to ensure you are getting the privacy you are comfortable with and deserve.

You can choose to say no to web sites that refuse to protect your information to your satisfaction. We can also choose to say no to those who wish to engage us in debt slavery aboard the Royal Fortune (Black Bart's ship). I would rather walk the plank and take my chance with the real sharks.

And if you do bury your doubloons in a treasure chest (or coffee tin) in the back yard, 30 paces from the oak tree, remember to draw a map.