Archive for September, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 23 - Big Changes, Little Changes

Sharon September 30th, 2007

In a couple of weeks, this series will have covered half a year. You’ve got 22 weekly changes you could make - but what we haven’t talked about is how to sort them all out, how to decide where to put your personal allotment of energy and carbon, what to do and what not to do. Up until now, I’ve mostly been focusing on the possibilities, but how do you decide whether to put limited time into hand-mowing your lawn or making pickles, to spend that dollar on cloth bags or on rechargeable batteries. In a perfect world, of course, we’d do all of it. But the reality is that particularly as we’re making behavioral changes, we have to pick and choose. Once putting the cloth bag into your purse and using the cloth diapers and hand mowing the lawn get to be normal, you’ll find you have more time for other changes.

If you wanted to organize your energy reductions, you might take two approaches. The first one is the “Pick the Low Hanging Fruit” plan. That is, you look and see what the easiest changes to make are. For example, you’ve been running to the library on Thursday and the grocery store on Friday. But suddenly, you realize you can combine those choices if you go to the other library branch, and do it on Friday - and without any major effort, you’ve cut out 9 miles of round trip driving. Or you suddenly realize that you’ve had the computer on all the time, but don’t use it on Mondays because you don’t have time - so you start disconnecting the computer on Sunday night and leaving it off until Tuesdays. The low hanging fruit is simply a matter of applying your mind to the obvious, and picking up things as they seem easiest.

Another way of approaching this to decide to make your cuts in your biggest expenditures. That is, you might look at where your energy usage is and see that your electric use is way above average. So you might concentrate on electric usage - removing some bulbs, replacing others with Compact Flourescent or LEDs, turning off your computer, cutting phantom loads, maybe saving up for a more efficient fridge. You could divide your energy consumption up into categories, much as we have over at the Riot for Austerity, and decide to focus on that.

One of my favorite ways of sorting these out is economically or temporally. If I’m trying to decide between two choices, I tend to prioritize those things that give me either the gift of time or money. And a large number of choices do. For example, in October, I will buy 10 bushels of local apples for 140 dollars. My local Walmart would sell me 10 bushels of apples for 400 dollars. No contest. My dryer would cost me about $100 per year to run. My clothesline and pins cost $4 - 6 years ago. Amortized annual cost is under .50 per year. Running our second car costs us more than a thousand dollars a year in taxes, maintenence and insurance - the second I figure out how to find an efficient commuting vehicle that will also hold six people, our van is out of hear.

Or there’s the pleasure sorting method - what gets you the most fun. I love to cook and hate to sew, and if I have to choose between a method of energy reduction that involves cooking something or sewing sometihng, let’s just say it isn’t always that much trouble. So while I make my own crackers, granola, popsicles and yogurt, I’m still buying my underwear and bras. It is on the list to do someday, though. I have the hope of getting rid of our van and going to a single car (as yet we have two, because one is an efficient commuting vehicle, but can’t fit all six of us, two dogs and a bale of hay, and the other is an inefficient vehicle that can fit the above) and a pair of expensive dutch bikes with big kid-carriers in front. This will eventually be an economical choice, but right now I mostly like it because the sheer pleasure of pedalling vastly exceeds driving.

However you approach it, the best trick is simply to do it. In many ways, it is the breaking of old habits, automatic consumption and assumption that is hard, more than the practices themselves.



The Water Fountain

Sharon September 28th, 2007

Like everyone in the rich world, I carry bottles of water with me everywhere I go. Were someone from the past to spot me, they’d be stunned by the sight of all the people, clearly headed on long treks into the uninhabited jungle, carrying water lest they die of dehydration. Because, after all, in historical terms, at least in the US, one carries a canteen or other source of water while camping or otherwise engaged in a trek to uncertain, undeveloped lands. In populated areas, folks 30 or 40 years ago, would have told a thirsty person - “wait until we get to the water fountain.”

You remember those water fountains, right? The things that meant you didn’t have to buy soda or haul a bottle around, you just waited until you passed the next one, and drank your fill. You remember playing the game of getting enough water up, or squirting your sister in the nose? I do. They were in public parks and by public restrooms, in town centers and everywhere you went. They obviated the need to purchase anything when you had such a simple, basic human concern as ordinary thirst. You could trust them to be there - if you whined “Daddy, I’m thirsty” - waiting for the next water fountain was reasonable, achievable, because they were always there.

And, of course, it was this very public-ness that was dangerous. Dangerous once because one’s lips might touch metal that had touched the lips of a person of another skin color. Then dangerous because one might get germs from them (never mind that most plastic water bottles involve drinking a big old slug of dioxin, which isn’t exactly good for you). After all, they are PUBLIC, and public is scary, because anyone can use it. Even poor people. Even icky people. Even people we would normally never actually share anything with. Thus, we magnify our fears of other people to avoid having to find public solutions. Or we simply get in the habit of privatizing everything, leaving the public sphere only to those who can’t afford to leave it - and thus allowing us to call this “the tragedy of the commons,” when, in fact, it is the tragedy of privatization and wealth and our rejection of both commons - and common ground with other people.

My youngest son, Asher, is in the full throes of toddlerhood right now, and when exhorted that he has to accomodate his brothers in some way, he tends to shout, “I don’t! I don’t share!!” And most of us don’t share very much either - we have decidedly toddlerish relationships to sharing. There are two problems with this. The first is the problem that it isn’t right to allow poor people to be screwed because we’re afraid to have to sit next to them on the bus, but we’ve already gone there. The real problem for the people who have most embraced private solutions is that when we’re unable to achieve and afford them, we find that we’ve trashed our infrastructure. That is, as we began carrying our water bottles around, we closed up and stopped maintaining our water fountains. And now that it turns out that the bottles are bad for us and the water in them contaminated, our options are a lot smaller.

The same is true of most peak oil and climate change preparations. I’ve been accused here of fatalism, because I don’t think we’re going to have money or resources to radically transform ourselves into a society powered by alternative energies, and I don’t think most of us are going to have the money to put tens of thousands of dollars into retrofitting our homes. But what I do think we could do is dramatically reinforce and recreate our public infrastructure, and to create public solutions to problems we now typically examine as private. We can live in homes that are dramatically stripped down, with low energy infrastructure, if we have access to a few powered public resources that we share with others.

That is, while I think it unlikely we will all be having solar powered pumps to bring up water from our private wells, there is no reason your town can put solar or hand powered pumps in central, public places to provide water in the event of a major outage. While most people will not have a perfectly retrofitted canning kitchen, there’s no reason our church and school kitchens can’t be transformed into public use. While we won’t all have cars, there’s no reason those of us who do can’t put many more people in them for most trips, a la the community solution’s smart jitney program. I may not be able to afford a solar system for my home, but my neighbors and I may be able to afford to solar retrofit a garage on our street that could be used as a schoolroom, a clinic for our local nurse practitioner, as a place for band practice and neighborhood parties.

It is easier to plan for ourselves. It is easier in many ways to carry our water bottle. It is easier not to talk to other people, it is easier not to need other people, or have to share and accomodate them. It is easier to pick the people you want to share with, to be exclusive rather than inclusive. There are all sorts of reasons not to think in public terms, and only, I think, two major ones to do so. First of all, if we are to break out of our isolation, we have to, and second, because we have no choice - privatized solutions are too costly, too exclusive, too limited. Anyone who goes into peak oil and climate change imagining you will be one of the rich and lucky who will always be able to afford your bottle of water is, I think, betting on winning the lottery.

I’ve written more about this here:


How Fast is Global Warming Happening?

Sharon September 27th, 2007

When I began writing _A Nation of Farmers_ last year, one of the first sections I completed was the introduction to the agricultural impact of climate change. I finished it in early March, and felt that I’d produced a fairly cutting-edge synthesis of the implications of Global Warming for food and agriculture - and about the power of food and agriculture to mediate global warming. Pleased that I’d written something useful and that at least one chapter of the book was finished, I sent it off to my publisher for their perusal and turned to other things. I could have just saved myself time and shoved it in the recycling bin, deleted it from my hard drive and taken a nap.

It wasn’t that wasn’t carefully researched or written, just that the data on climate change is coming in so fast right now that what I wrote this spring is now largely outdated. There are now further refinements, subsequent studies and new models to deal with. I subscribe to a number of news feeds, and people send me additional studies and items of interest. My husband, an astrophysicist who teaches environmental physics also tracks the same material. And what, overwhelmingly I’m seeing, and most scientists seem to be seeing, is that global warming is progressing far faster than anyone would ever have expected.

For example, as recently as this spring, the IPCC report was estimating that arctic ice might disappear in the summers as early as 2050, but more likely towards the very end of this century. Research by James Hansen and other scientists at NASA projected an ice free arctic as early as 2023 this year, which stunned the scientific community. In fact, however, this summer’s ice retreat was so dramatic, that in, fact, the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center is now suggesting that the arctic could be ice free as early as 2015, 8 years from now. In less than six months, we’ve jumped our predictions for a major tipping point factor up by a minimum of 30 years. That’s astonishing - and terrifying.

The IPCC’s assessment of when major climate induced famines may occur originally focused on 2050, but yesterday the IPCC released a study suggesting that all agricultural production in Africa may halve in 12 years. Given that Africa presently has millions of people struggling to feed themselves, we can only imagine how horrifying this may be. Or rather, we don’t have to imagine it - almost all of us will live to watch it. India, set to become the world’s most populous country, also stands to lose up to 40% of its agricultural production by mid-century.

A 1 meter sea-level rise, may submerge 1/3 of the nation of Bangladesh. According to James Hansen’s most recent studies at NASA, an ice-free arctic would virtually ensure we pass the critical 2 degree mark, setting in motion a sea level rise of up to 25 meters. A 1 meter rise could happen as early as 2019, 11 years from now, if sea level rises continue as predicted. Such a rise, incidentally, would do irreparable harm to American, Canadian, Australian and European coastal communities as well.

The IPCC report does not include the impact of tipping points on global warming for the most part - that is, it assumes that effects will proceed linearly, in a convenient, orderly fashion, rather than in the irregular way that nature usually does things. We have ample observational evidence, however, that things like ice melting don’t actually proceed linearly, but create feedback loops that accellerate the process. Thus, virtually every scientist whose work I have read, whose studies I’ve seen, or who I see interviewed makes exactly the same point - everything about climate change is happening much, much, much faster than anyone expected.

I’m married to a scientist, and generally speaking, scientists are carefully trained to equivocate - to say what they don’t know, and what the limitations on their knowledge are, to speak in terms of possibilities, rather than absolute truth. One of the most disturbing things about listening to scientists studying climate change, then, is the fear in the voices and words of people not accustomed to be fearful, and the sense that generally speaking, scientists are far more worried than most of us are. We can either believe they are worried because they are foolish, easily frightened and scaremongering, or we can believe they are afraid because they are seeing things they have never seen before with implications that are terrifying, and do not understand why the rest of us are so unafraid.

12,800 years ago, the Younger Dryas climate change occurred. It was the last great climactic shift of the great ice age, and is notable mostly because of its tremendous rapidity - in less 20 years, the world went from warm to cold, entering a 1300 year old ice age. In Maine, over a decade, average temperatures dropped by 28 degrees. But believe it or not, that’s not the disturbing bit of data. As Richard Alley, of Penn State University documents in his studies of Greenland ice cores, when the Younger Dryas ended, it did so even faster, within a decade. Fred Pearce quotes Alley as saying, “Most of that change looks like it happened in a single year. It could have been less, perhaps even a single season.”

The cause of these radical changes seem to have been all the bad guys of present climate change - melting ice, the ocean conveyor belt, releases from soil and water of stored methane and carbon - that is, the planet changed its entire climate in a matter of decades, or less than a decade or a season because of all the things we’re watching right now. And it looks like the first of the great potential tipping points is coming not in 50 years or 40, not when those of us writing now are dead or old and grey and our children grown with children of their own, but very soon, in the next years and decades.

The simple fact is that one of the things we do know is that climate change can happen with astonishing rapidity, and produce radical changes in planetary climate quite quickly. As we gain more and more evidence, one of the things that seems overwhelmingly true is that very little about this is smooth or linear.

Now insert humanity into this. Never before have we had the power to make such a huge change. For example, we could figure in the issue of global dimming alone. Earlier in this post I pointed out that Global Warming is being blamed for a 50% reduction in agricultural production in Africa, especially the Sahel, the subsaharan area many of us in the West associate so strongly with drought and famine. Atmospheric physicist Leon Rotstayn argues that in fact, the drought of the 1980s in the Sahel that led to the Ethiopian famine was probably due less to global warming than global dimming. Neither the IPCC report on climate nor their report on famine in Africa takes full account of global dimming.

Global dimming is an observed phenomenon about which there is comparatively little scientific controversy. It simply points out that atmospheric pollution caused by industrialization has reduced the amount of sunlight we’re receiving. And because sunlight striking water is the largest factor in evaporation rates, we are seeing reduced rates of evaporation. This evaporation fuels the monsoons that run across Africa and Asia providing much of the rainy season warming. Dr. Rotstayn argues that our pollution has damaged evaporation rates so much that the Sahel experienced drought and famine. The same, we are warned, could potentially occur in Asia, where billions of people depend on the monsoons for irrigation.

But here’s the thing. We know that atmospheric pollutions means that we are getting less sun than we would be without it. We must reduce atmospheric pollution of all kinds, lest we plunge up to 3 billion people into famine and drought, not to mention that millions of deaths from asthma, lung cancer and pollution related health consequences - up to 3 million people annually in China alone. But we also know that in the past, the amount of atmospheric carbon we have at present led to warming of up to six degrees. Right now, it has warmed the planet only 0.6 degrees. One of the most likely explanations for this is that we’re simply getting less sun, that a dimming planet has held back global warming. But if we stop polluting, if we do the things necessary to stop global warming, we are likely to reduce our atmospheric pollution as well, leading to a much more dramatic, sudden rise in temperatures.

The arctic sea ice and global dimming aren’t the only factors that could accellerate climate change. But they are two of the most urgent and immanent threats to us. None of this research takes peak oil into account. As we refine our understanding of the real and material limits of fossil fuels, trace metals and other resources, it becomes less and less likely that any long term solution involving a mass build-out of renewable energies is likely to occur. That is, we’re likely to find our solutions to global warming dramatically restricted by the availablility of energy and wealth. No one, with the exception of Richard Heinberg, has so far full grasped how short a time we have to remediate global warming - perhaps only a matter of a few years in which we are rich enough to begin the conversion of our infrastructure.

And, of course, the reality is that we all talk about 2 degrees and 440 or 450 or 480 ppm as though they are absolute limits, and we’ll all be just fine until we hit them. The truth is more complicated. Even if we were on track to reach the “limits” of atmospheric carbon, we have no certainty that they will help us avoid a tipping point - merely a likelihood, the estimates of models that even the scientists themselves admit are probably inadequate to deal with the fact that climate change is happening now, far faster and harder than anyone ever expected.

We cannot know exactly what will happen, but the fact that we cannot know things exactly doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything, or that we have no way of making any kind of rational choice. While Occam’s Razor, for example, is an imperfect logical tool, it also has real merit here - the fact that climate change seems on its own to be accellerating rapidly means that in our search for solutions, we should focus not only 30 or 50 year plans, but on doing as much as we can to ameliorate the harm we’ve done as rapidly as we can. Instead of focusing on CAFE standards and hope for technological breakthroughs, we are simply going to have to accept that having altered our world irrevocably, we have no choice but to live in that world - and thus, to ensure in any way we can, that the world remains livable for those who live today and those who will come after us.


Tummy Tea and Sympathy

Sharon September 25th, 2007

When my children complain of upset stomach, I offer them “tummy tea” a mixture of lemon balm, catnip, peppermint, chamomile and nettle that I make from herbs grown in my garden. I keep it in an old pickle jar, and the kids know to ask for it. They don’t seem to mind it unsweetened, and we drop an ice cube into the teacup to cool it down fast.

I admit, even though I’ve been studying herbal medicine in my spare time, even though I’ve read enough scientific studies to know that most of these herbs have both long history and a host of scientific studies to support their efficiacy, even though I know that many medicines are synthetics of natural herbs, I think I honestly thought that it was the comfort of the blanket on the lap, the excitement of drinking from a good tea cup and the warmth of the tea that seemed to “fix” everything so quickly, rather than the tea itself.

But Eric and I came home from an evening out with friends the other day, both of us feeling weighed down and unpleasant. The meal, made by our friends, was very different than our usual diet - heavy enough that it was bothering both of us. Eric took a shower, and I made myself a cup of tummy tea. I drank half of it, and was shocked to notice how quickly my stomach settled, feeling better from the very first swallow. I gave Eric the second half of my cup, not mentioning what it was, just saying that it warm him up, and he noticed the same thing - the moment the tea hit his stomach, he felt better.

This is hardly the first time herbal medicine has worked for me. I’ve treated mastitis successfully with garlic, my husband takes hawthorne for a minor heart irregularity, and ginger tea got me through my morning sickness. But when it works, I’m somehow surprised in a way I’m not when pharmaceuticals work. Despite this, I have quite as much experience with the failure of pharmaceuticals as I do with the failure of herbs - for example, narcotic pain relievers don’t relieve pain and do make me throw up, traditional medicines for indigestion tend merely to take awful, and I’ve long noticed that a swig of rum mixed with juice and honey is as good as any cough syrup or better. That’s not to say that I don’t see real and persistent value in some modern medicine, just that I find it interesting that I’ve been so well trained to expect to turn to pharmaceuticals that even though I know better, I can’t help a frisson of surprise that I could fix things simply myself.

And that, of course, is the great revelation of any kind of self-sufficiency. Not that we can do away entirely with the outside world, or would want to. Not that we should cast away all of modern medicine and everything we have achieved, but that in many cases (and one needs to use common sense here) we turn outside, rather than to ourselves, to nature, to the garden, simply out of habit and cultural training that tells us it would be dangerous to trust our own impressions too far. And yet, that ought to be the very first thing we trust.


52 Weeks Down - Week 22 - Stock Up…Locally

Sharon September 24th, 2007

Now’s the time for us notherners to be putting things by for winter, and as I’ve written before, I get kind of “squirrely” this time of year, wanting to gather up my nuts. But while we’re filling our pantries, let us prioritize locally grown, small farm products whenever possible. That way, we support our community’s farmers and agricultural infrastructure and reduce the emissions that our food produces in production.

Now is the time to plan ahead. Do you eat apples until the rhubarb and strawberries come around in spring? Well, you’ll be needing a few bushels at least (we buy 10, but we eat a *lot* of apples, and there are six of us). Instead of buying a big sack of sugar, how about local honey, or sorghum or maple syrup, depending on where you live. Instead of 50lbs of generic white beans, how about local tepary beans or black soy beans or Jacob’s Cattle. If you eat meat, consider local lamb, beef, fish or poultry. What about wine or beer? Pick your own berries to be made into a winter’s jams and pie fillings?

Explore your local options, and if you can’t find something locally, at least buy direct from farmers whenever possible. It is often possible to encourage local farmers to grow something you want if possible. I’m working on this right now - a local farmer I know about 15 miles from me grows grains for mixing animal feeds. I’m trying to persuade him now that I could help him expand his markets (he grows soybeans, wheat, barley, corn and oats) if he would consider planting some grains next year for human consumption with no spraying. Right now I’m getting my oats from over the border in Montreal and my soybeans and wheat from PA, and only corn l
really locally, and if hard times ever hit, I’ll feel happier if our region produces more of its own grains.

Instead of grains as your primary staple, consider potatoes and other root crops if they grow well in your region. And again, consider adapting your diet to a truly regional one - that is, focus on the crops that grow well naturally in your area, not the ones that require greenhouses or extensive irrigation. In many places, it is not yet too late to plant cold weather crops that will mature in winter or early spring, so that you can be less dependent on the supermarket.

Storing may not be necessary if you live in easy walking distance of a year-round farmer’s market or coop that pays farmers fairly, but for the rest of us, it cuts down on driving trips to get local food, it saves us money to buy in bulk and when availability is greatest, it puts more dollars into the pockets of local farmers and in the local community, and it enables us to have a personal security, more to donate to local charities, and a freedom from the supermarket.

A lot of this is mostly just planning - figuring out what you will want and need through the long winter, and getting it now, from farmers who will make a decent profit on your purchases, rather than from a supermarket chain where most of the money will be taken by middlemen, and where your food will travel countless miles, producing emissions all the way.

Where do you put all this food? For those with tiny spaces, under the bed is great for buckets of dried food or squash and pumpkins (which like to live where we do), a cooler or old fridge in an unheated garage or shed will keep potatoes and other roots, apples (don’t store them together if possible - apples speed up rot in most root crops), or even a closet with a small vent cut into the wall. Many basements will work. If you rent, consider asking a friend or neighbor nearby with more space or more options to store your food for you. If you buy meat, perhaps you can barter some for space in a freezer if you haven’t got one.

Stored food can also beautify. I collect glass mason jars, and store much of my immediately accessible foods in them, an idea I stole from my step-mother. The jars, on wooden shelves built into the kitchen, look lovely, and everyone who sees them comments on them. I also use old large metal popcorn tins to store grains - these are often available at yard sales for a quarter. Consider building something to store potatoes and onions. A pantry is a beautiful thing, and should be treated as such. A house kept cool in the winter will store much food quite well in the spaces people live in.


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