I’m back: A quick review of the past few years

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I’ve been reading back over some of my old posts recently and have really enjoyed hearing from ‘my younger self’. Life has been busy these last few years and unfortunately I haven’t had the time or inclination to blog. We started a family nearly two years ago, with the arrival of our son Caelym. Between full-time work and raising a small human, I haven’t had the brain space for much else and I feel like I’ve lost a lot of the ‘old me’. I’ve been sucked back into the system, but now I really want to change that and reconnect with some of those values that were really important to me 3-4 years ago.

In January 2010 I wrote a post on Self sufficiency, independence and lifestyle planning  in which outlined new ways to be more self-reliant by making improvements to my level of self-sufficiency and decreasing my dependence on the system. In October 2010 I updated my goals in a post on Self-Sufficiency and Resilience – Plans upon Returning to Australia. Reading back over these posts has been illuminating. In some cases I have made great progress against my goals, in other instances I’ve gone backwards.

Let’s have a look.

1. Getting off the Economic Grid

I’m really happy with the progress we have made against this goal. The mortgages have been paid off since 2010 and we’ve since put our effort into saving as much cash as we can. We’ve been mostly living on one income since the arrival of our littlest human, but we are still pretty happy with what we’ve managed to achieve. We sometimes second guess our decision to hold our savings in cash, because the interest rates are quite low and we’ve been programmed all our life to buy shares or houses as the way to wealth. However, we still believe there is a large downside risks with shares and property, so for now cash is king for us.

Brendan has officially exited the rat race. He now shares his time between the most important job in the world (raising a good human aka Caelym), working on a couple of alternate income streams and adding to his skill set. That’s one of us who has escaped. Now we just need to work on a plan for me too, but for the moment I’ll continue to use my job to build up our cash buffer.

2. Reducing Energy Dependence

We are so happy with the decision we’ve made to rent a detached townhouse just a 15 minute walk to the city centre. We can walk to shops and cafes and rarely need to get in the car which means we can do without a second vehicle. My daily commute to work is about 4km each way and although I had grand plans to commute by bicycle, the extreme cold for six months of the year has been a big barrier for me. I mostly use the car, but am trying to use the bus more. We’ve recently bought a bike seat for Caelym, so now Brendan can venture further afield during the day, rather than just relying on walking.

Our home is centrally heated with natural gas, but we do find that heating expenses are the largest energy expense we have. Our house seems to leak hot air and we need to do a better job of sealing it. Our first winter in the house we kept the thermostat at 15 degrees and just put on more clothes, but with a baby in the house we’ve had to increase the internal temperature to 18 degrees. It’s amazing how much those extra three degrees costs each year.

3. Improving Food and Water Security

I must admit, I’m not as happy with our progress on this goal. We do have a compost pile and a small vegetable and fruit patch in our courtyard, but we are yet to master winter crops. It is certainly a lot more difficult to grow food here than in was in California. Although the garden hasn’t been hugely productive, I do love that Caelym gets to see food grow and ripen. He loves to pick and eat strawberries (our most successful crop) straight from the plant and waits patiently for the strawberries to ripen. Most of the time we beat the local possums to the fruit. Now that we have a bit more time on our hands we want to try harder to grow something through winter this year.

We’ve also become very slack when it comes to stockpiling some food and water for emergencies. There are few natural disasters likely to impact us here so we haven’t been as conscientious about our preparedness plans. This might be something we need to revisit.

4. Building Community

Again, I don’t feel like we’ve done as well on this goal. For various reasons, we’ve actually found ourselves quite isolated for the first 18 months of Caelym’s life. I feel like we are coming out of that now and we do know a lot of our neighbours and have some friends that we catch up with on occasion.  We don’t really get involved in the community very often but we do feel the desire to find ways to start living a bit more closely to our values.

Now that I’ve had a look back at the goals I had set myself in 2010, I really feel the desire to start mapping out the next few years. We have reached a significant milestone in terms of our economic independence and we need to work out what’s next. More to come I’m sure.

If you are still reading, please leave a comment. I’d love to know if anyone is still out there :)

Photo by: Jef Safi

 

What’s Really Up With This Business in Libya?

It seems like the world has turned upside down since the beginning of the year. I’m trying to make sense of it all, so I plan to spend a bit of time over the next few weeks discussing the big events; what may have led to them and what might be the outcome. First up….let’s talk about Libya.

When the West decided to intervene in Libya my first thought was, “Of course…Libya has oil”. After all, plenty of humanitarian crises are occurring in other parts of the world and yet they are left alone to sort their own problems out. Oil makes Libya a special case.

However, from politicians and talking heads on TV I was hearing that this was not about oil, because Libya only has about two per cent of the world’s oil production. They claim that they were going into Libya because they had learned their lesson in the 90’s and didn’t want another Kosovo on their hands. Two percent is supposedly nothing in the global oil supply….a mere blip, which the global economy could care less about.

And yet, Libya is a big deal. Why is it that a potential loss of only two per cent of the world’s oil production is cause for expending huge amounts of money launching air strikes against Col Gaddafi’s regime? (With warheads containing depleted uranium no less…. but that’s a whole other story)

When we look at the percentage of European oil imports that come from Libya, the story becomes a lot clearer. More than half a dozen European nations rely on Libyan oil for more than 10 per cent of their oil imports. This then is one obvious reason for the West’s intervention in Libya. Industrialised economies cannot afford to lose access to 10-23 per cent of their oil imports.

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But given the relatively small quantity of oil passing from Libya to North America, why is the US so heavily involved? Is it just a matter of the US helping out its NATO allies or is there more to this than meets the eye?

Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, former assistant secretary of US Treasury provides some insight on the revolution in Libya in a recent interview. He states:

In my opinion, what this is about is to eliminate China from the Mediterranean.  China has extensive energy investments and construction investments in Libya.  They are looking to Africa as a future energy source.

The US is countering this by organizing the United States African Command (USAC), which Qaddafi refused to join.

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In my opinion, what is going on is comparable to what the US and Britain did to Japan in the 1930s. When they cut Japan off from oil, from rubber, from minerals like ore; that was the origin of World War II in the pacific. And now the Americans and the British are doing the same thing to China.

The geopolitics of oil is a very interesting subject and occurs very much outside of the spotlight of the mainstream media. It is my opinion that the great world powers are fully aware of the oil shortages upon our doorstep and are manoeuvering to control access to the remaining deposits of conventional oil. What concerns me is how this might play out. What we are now seeing in Libya could be the beginnings of the 21st century’s first great war.

The other interesting story surrounding Libyan oil is that Saudi Arabia pledged to raise production to offset the decline from Libya, and yet Saudi Arabian production remains flat. Could this be an indication that the kingdom actually no longer has the spare capacity to meet the global demand for oil? From the Daily Reckoning:

For better or worse, most of the “spare capacity” burden falls on Saudi Arabia. Saudi princes claim to be able to goose production from 9 million barrels a day to 12 at the drop of a hat.

Never mind that they’ve never done anything like that before, even when oil ran up from $25 to $147 a barrel between 2003-08. The official line – and, therefore, the oil market – still believes it’s true.

Bottom line: “Saudi Arabia can’t make the shortfall from Libyan supplies,” says commodities investing legend and Vancouver veteran Jim Rogers. “They’ve said in the past that they can increase production, but they can’t.”

To me, this is just one more indication that we are very close to, or past the peak in global oil production. If a loss of two per cent of the world’s oil supply cannot be made up by OPEC’s ‘swing producer’, and is cause for military posturing, then surely we are in a desperate place indeed.

What we hear from the media is that this latest run up in prices at the fuel pump is simply a result of speculators and freaked out investors, coupled with typical Easter long weekend price hikes. What they are missing is that the end of cheap oil is here. We have now entered a world of highly volatile liquid fuel prices, and just about anything could happen. Oil production can no longer keep pace with demand and desperate times call for desperate measures. Hold onto your hats, we could be in for a wild ride.

Reverse Culture Shock

It’s been a long time since I posted on this here blog, but it’s now time to get back into it.

I’ve now relocated and settled back in to Canberra, Australia after a wonderful three years living and working in Southern California. I’ll be honest and say that I did suffer quite a bit of reverse culture shock; the feeling that I no longer fit into my home country. We had been warned by fellow ex-pats to be prepared to experience reverse culture shock, but I guess you can’t fully prepare for how it really might feel.

Nobody Cares About Your Travels

OK…maybe I’m being a little harsh to say that nobody cares, but my experience is that most people will listen superficially for only a short time before losing interest. At first this was hard, but now we just keep our experiences to ourselves unless someone specifically asks. One of my saviours has been talking to people who have also been ex-pats. They understand what it feels like to return ‘home’ and are actually interested in the experiences we had overseas.

Normality Hits Hard

For the first couple of weeks back in Australia we were excited to see family and friends, eat all our favourite foods, sit in our favourite cafes and see kangaroos again. However after about two weeks the ‘normality’ of Australia began to hit us hard. When we moved to America, everyday tasks were interesting (although sometimes extremely frustrating) simply because they were different. Even though some things had changed in the three years we were away, Australian supermarkets still stocked all the same foods, the cars on the road were still familiar and the Aussie slang which was a shock when we arrived home began to sink back in. 

People Just Don’t Understand Us

Most noticeably, we came home with many new opinions about things. Our minds had been opened while away and we came back seeing Australia and the world in general, in a totally different way. Unfortunately for us, people back here still think the same way they always have, so we have had a difficult time trying to find common ground. For the last few months we have felt very isolated because we couldn’t fit our new beliefs and knowledge into our old lives. However we are now starting to find ways to mesh the two together and are starting to feel more comfortable.

It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I have started feeling comfortable with my life back in Australia. Our house is mostly unpacked, we have caught up with all of our immediate family members, I have settled into my new job and actually think I know what’s going on and have received a couple of exciting opportunities which I’ll tell you more about soon.

Despite the uncomfortable transition, it’s good to be home.

Image by: Garry

Fire Alarms

Brendan and I are well trained to respond to fire alarms. I won’t speak for Brendan, but my experience started in earnest during my four years at University. I shared a building with 47 other people, and my building was directly adjacent to many others just like it. During exam time, we inevitably had people up at all hours studying and making toast….or rather burning toast. This resulted in spending many hours in the parking lot wrapped in a doona (comforter) and waiting for the fire department to arrive and declare the building safe.

Years later, Brendan and I were backpacking through Tasmania, Australia and one night our Devonport Hostel caught on fire. We evacuated, waited a few hours until the fire was contained and then slept in a room reeking of smoke. Obviously we moved on the next morning, but a few days later we saw in the news that the same hostel had caught fire again and this time, people had died.

A few nights ago in Sarlat, France we were awoken at 1am to a shrieking fire alarm. We quickly got up, dressed, grabbed our essential belongings and headed out into the street. One other hotel guest was outside in the freezing cold with us. No fire department turned up. No hotel manager. Just us…and one other guy. After about ten minutes the alarm switched off, we all looked at each other, shrugged shoulders and went back to bed.

We’ve learnt from experience that although 99% of fire alarms are nothing to worry about, every now and then, responding appropriately could save your life. This evening, after a decent sized carafe of good French ‘vin blanc’ I’m being a little introspective. I realise that I approach life the same way I approach fire alarms. If I see warning signs I respond, even if it means that 99% of the time it was for nothing. Surviving that 1% is the key.

Photo by: L.C. Nottaasen

Paris, France

I’m currently in Paris, France. It’s cold, but at least it isn’t snowing. We’ve been enjoying beautiful blue skies and gorgeous soft winter light; just perfect for photos.

It’s been 13 years since I was last here, although I can’t honestly remember the city much from that trip. Back then I was a student on a very tight budget and the Aussie dollar was terrible. I remember eating a lot of McDonalds that trip. This time, the Aussie dollar is good and it’s croissants, crepes and plenty of good coffee.

The city is not as crowded as I remember. Perhaps the weather is keeping people away or everyone’s too broke to travel. Or maybe it’s just that I’m more used to big cities and I try to avoid the tourist traps as much as possible. Either way, it’s been really quite pleasant. After being constantly disappointed by American cities (with a few exceptions), it’s nice to re-discover a city with a long and interesting history, beautiful architecture, a great sense of fashion and fabulous food on every block.

Paris also feels very safe. We were out until nearly midnight last night (darn jetlag!) and even though it was a Sunday night, there were plenty of people in sidewalk cafes or out strolling the cobblestone streets.

The transportation here is also a far cry from American or Australian city transportation. The metro is fast, efficient and extremely extensive. Wherever we found ourselves in the city these last few days, we never seemed to be more than a few blocks from a metro station. The stations themselves are clean and the trains come through every few minutes like clockwork. I can see why the metro strikes would completely disrupt the ability of the city to function.

There is also very little parking space, so the personal vehicles are mostly very small cars (think smart cars) or scooters. They zip around very handily and fit into the tiniest spaces. It’s a world apart from the monster trucks and equivalent parking spaces we’ve been used to in California. They also have this fantastic new Vélib’ bike rental system with stations scattered all over the city. Although we like cycling I honestly couldn’t see myself weaving in and out of traffic like the locals do. You’d need nerves of steel to try it!

Tomorrow we start our three week journey through France and Italy. Although I’ve enjoyed la cite, I’m looking forward to visiting the countryside and some of France’s smaller towns.

USA: So Long and Thanks For All the Fish

Tomorrow we get on a plane and leave the USA. For the last few weeks we’ve alternated between frantically finalising our life here and reminiscing about our favourite and least-favourite experiences here. It’s a bitter-sweet feeling leaving a country that has been home for three years. We are excited about ‘going home’ to the culture we grew up in, to see family and friends and to eat all those foods we’ve been missing. But we are also sad to leave new friends and a country that has opened our eyes and broadened our horizons.

I don’t think the fact that we are leaving for good it has fully hit us yet. As with moving over here from Australia in 2007, I expect we’ll experience some level of reverse culture shock once we get home. There are a lot of differences between these cultures and I expect I’ve become rather accustomed to the US way of doing things. Returning to Australia will no doubt highlight those differences more than I can remember at the moment.

Anyway, we are returning to Australia via ‘the long way round’ (i.e. via Europe). I hope we don’t experience too many delays with the crazy snow storms or protests against Europe’s austerity programs. If we do, I guess we’ll have stories to tell. That is the joy of travelling.

I hope to update this blog with some of my travel tales along the way, but until then I’ll leave you with a photo of Zoe dog enjoying her morning walk before she left the US last week. She’s now residing in Australian quarantine until we get home.

Black Friday = America’s Running of the Bulls

On the day after Thanksgiving each year, Americans partake in a strange pastime where they line up for hours (or even days) in order to be one of the first to rush into a store and snap up all the supposed bargains on offer. I have a very hard time understanding the allure of this type of madness, but then I’m not much of a consumer. In America land, consumerism is a national sport and Black Friday is the equivalent of the Super Bowl. This is one aspect of the American culture that I will not miss at all.

The following video offers a glimpse of the frenzy. Someone likened the scene to what you would see in starving, third world nations when the food convoy arrives. I’d advise you to turn down the volume before you watch this clip. For some reason it’s pretty loud.

The French are Planning a Run on the Banks

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We’ve all seen the protests against austerity measures that are happening all over Europe. The French seem to be particularly passionate about protesting against the Government and big banks who they see as having caused the financial crisis. The country known for it’s bloody and violent revolution at the end of the 18th century now looks set to try and start another, with a run on the banks.

The idea seems to have spawned from a recent interview in which former Manchester United star, Eric Cantona, recommended a run on the cash reserves of the world’s banks. (watch the interview at the bottom of the page).

We don’t pick up weapons to kill people to start the revolution. The revolution is really easy to do these days. What’s the system? The system is built on the power of the banks. So it must be destroyed through the banks. This means that the three million people with their placards on the streets, they go to the bank and they withdraw their money and the banks collapse. Three million, 10 million people, and the banks collapse and there is no real threat. A real revolution. ~ Eric Cantona

Cantona’s call to action has inspired a new political movement, first in France and now spreading virally around the world. The French-based movement – StopBanque – has taken up the campaign for a massive coordinated withdrawal of money from banks on 7 December 2010. Their facebook page indicates that already people in 24 countries are supporting the movement.

Are you prepared?

If this movement continues to build momentum and spreads to all the continents of the world where people are upset with bank bailouts and indebted governments, this bank run may be enough for the governments to declare a ‘bank holiday‘. Remember, banks only have a very small fraction of cash on hand and if enough people withdraw their money on 7 Dec 2010, it will not be long until the banks are forced to close their doors to avoid further withdrawals.

If this movement gets REALLY big, it could well bring down the banking system when banks find their balance sheets out of kilter as their deposits disappear. I think this is unlikely. Governments would step in before it got that bad, but the likely result would be an extended bank holiday until the threat subsides.

Of course, all of this might result in nothing at all. My point is: if the banks close their doors for a day or more, if your ATM and credit cards stop working, will you have enough cash on hand to go about your business? Would it be worth getting some out in advance….just in case?

Self-Sufficiency and Resilience – Plans upon Returning to Australia

 

Back in January of this year I wrote a post about Self Sufficiency, Independence and Lifestyle Planning . In it, I explained how I wanted to become less reliant on the current industrial system and to take more control of my own life. I’ve achieved a lot since then, but knowing that we were moving back to Australia in less than a year meant that I put off some changes. Now that we are only about 10 weeks away from returning home, I thought it would be worthwhile revisiting that post; to envisage what I want our new lifestyle to look like and to outline some goals for the next few years.

1. Getting off the Economic Grid

In 2010 I finally paid off the last of my mortgages. Now that I’m no longer paying any interest, my cashflow is healthy and I’m saving a large percentage of my after-tax income. Knowing that we have to buy a car and appliances when we get back, my priority now is to save for those big-ticket items. The last thing I want to do is go into debt to buy depreciating assets.

Upon return to Australia, my income drops but Brendan will be back at work so it should even out. We don’t relish the thought of both being back to full-time work, but at least in the short-term we see that it is necessary. We both have secure jobs for the moment, so we plan to use this opportunity to save like crazy. Comparative to the rest of the world, the Australian economy looks reasonably healthy at present. But in this globally connected world I can see that a number of potential crises could impact Australia quite heavily within the decade. I still think the biggest risks come from the Australian Housing Bubble and the reliance of the Australian economy on China. I anticipate that any crisis in the European and American economies (looking more and more likely) will result in rapidly rising interest rates in Australia. Australian homeowners are already struggling with their mortgages while the cash rate is 4.5%. How will they cope if it increases to 9%? 

Holding cash in an economic environment like this just makes so much sense to me. We are using the current ‘recovery’ to prepare for the hard times we predict will come as the global debt bubble unravels.

2. Reducing Energy Dependence

Cheap energy will not last forever and my family and friends in Australia are already seeing rising prices, especially on the electricity bill. There are a few lifestyle decisions we’ve made which should help us to reduce our energy dependence once we are back in Australia.

Firstly, we are renting a detached townhouse just a 15 minute walk to the city centre. It has any excellent walk score which was really important to me. My daily commute to work will be about 4km each way, so I’ll easily be able to do that by bicycle and Brendan will be able to do the same to his work. By carefully choosing where we wanted to live we can reduce our dependence on a car. We will still buy one car, but I anticipate that it will remain in the garage for much of the time. Removing the requirement to buy a second car also saves us a lot of money.

In selecting what car to buy, we have been referring to the Green Vehicle Guide. It’s an excellent website which rates Australian vehicles based on greenhouse and air pollution emissions. It also provides statistics on how much fuel each vehicle consumes. We are very keen to find a fuel efficient, second-hand car.

We’ll also be using the Government’s energy rating guide when shopping for energy-efficient appliances. Our new home is centrally heated with natural gas and we are hoping that the smaller size will reduce our heating expenses. Otherwise, we plan to rug up in order to avoid using too much energy to heat our living space.

3. Improving Food and Water Security

My first priority once we’ve settled into our new home it to begin stockpiling some food and water for emergencies. Knowing that we can sit out a short distruption to services is very comforting. I would never want to put myself in the position where I had to rush off to the shops in a time of emergency to stock up on food and water. It also makes good economic sense to stock up on more than you need. Food is increasing in cost faster than just about any investment right now and certainly faster than the rate of inflation. When things are on sale, we’ll simply stock up and we’ll buy in bulk every six months or so.

I’ve already identified a food co-op not too far from my house where we can buy bulk-goods without all the packaging you get in the supermarket. It also looks like they stock fresh fruit and vegetables.

We don’t have a lot of room for it, but we intend growing some of our own food. The courtyard we have is not very big, but we’ve been surprised how much we’ve been able to grow in our small courtyard in California. Of course, the climate in California is much more condusive to growing food all year round than Canberra, but I’m sure we’ll learn as we go along.

4. Building Community

It’s important to me to get involved in the community when we get home. We feel like we’ve been in limbo for the last three years, but once we are back in Australia I hope we feel a bit more settled. We already have a lot of friends in Canberra, but I’m very keen to meet more like-minded people as well.

I’m especially excited about checking out SEE-change, the local Canberra community for creating a sustainable future.

I finally feel like things are falling into place. I’m now at the point where I can visualise our new life back in Australia and I’m even starting to get a little excited about the move.

Photo by : jef safi