Saturday, December 3, 2011

Not Talking With Idiots

"...every national academy of science on the planet, every major scientific body, and 97% of the world's climatologists all agree that climate change is happening, and is caused by humans."

"That's not true."

"Yes, it is."

"No it's not."


When you can't even agree on verifiable facts, how can you have a conversation? Well, too bad for the Tea Partiers, but they're now in the minority. 83% of Americans believe the Earth is warming. Of course, they don't have to believe it — they just have to step outside their air conditioned SUVs and it's plain as the shorts they're wearing in November.

By the way, I could provide links to verify the assertions made at top, but why would I waste my time? Either you've got five senses you trust, or ascribe to a truthier understanding of events. Or maybe I should say subscribe, since you (if you're a denier) are likely downloading your views straight from Fox "News."


You know the worst part of that conversation? The blind woman vomiting up her denials wasn't even a legitimate part of it. She interjected just enough BS, though, to completely derail the discussion I was having with my companions. And now I'm blogging about it, for chrissakes.

Here's what the conversation was supposed to be about — what it was literally scheduled to be about — the intersection of urban planning and pressing global issues like climate change and peak oil. As the new guy, my coworkers wanted to know what I thought. What an opportunity! Too bad it was wasted by an ignoramus. I almost wrote "cavewoman", but I think a cave dweller would have been less ideologically-driven to deny the input of her senses and basic thinking processes.

I'll have to follow this post up with a some uninterrupted thoughts on planning and climate change/peak oil.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Peace amid Violence

The fifth in my series of excerpts from Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, following on Gain and Loss. This one struck me due to its seeming Stoicism. That school of philosophy always had some appeal for me. Zen ideas have taken slightly deeper root lately, now that I practice Danzan Ryu Jujitsu, a Japanese (by way of Hawai'i) martial art.

142. Peace Amid Violence

Zen Master Shantang fled to Yunmen hermitage along with Ministry president Han Zicang, Zen Master Wanan, and one or two other Zen adepts, to avoid the violence of a civil war in the early 1130's. Mr. Han asked Wanan, "Recently I heard you were captured by soldiers of the rebel leader Li Cheng. How did you contrive to escape?"
     Wanan said, "I had been captured and bound, and starved and froze for days on end, until I thought to myself that I would surely die. Then it happened that there was a snowfall so heavy that it buried the building and caused the walls of the rooms where we were held to collapse. That night over a hundred people were lucky enough to escape."
     Mr. Hand said, "At the time you were captured, how did you handle it?"
     Wanan did not reply. Mr. Han asked him again, pressing him for an answer.
     Wanan said, "How is this even enough to talk about? People like us study the Way: we take right for sustenance and have only death. What is there to fear?"
     Mr. Han nodded at this.
     So we know that our predecessors had immutable will, even in the midst of mortal calamity and trouble in the world.
Collection of the True Herdsman

I think I send this out to all the die-hard activists out there — the Way is hard, and at the end is only death. Accepting this will actually make us more effective, and better people.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Gain and Loss

The fourth in my series of excerpts from Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, following on Too Late, Don't Rush and Being in the World Without Misery. I just love the timeless quality of these stories.

69. Gain and Loss

Lingyuan said to the Confucian sage Cheng Yi:
     Calamity can produce fortune, fortune can produce calamity. This is because when one is in situations of disaster and danger, one is earnest in taking thought for safety, and when one is deeply immersed in seeking out order, one is capable of seriousness and discretion — therefore good fortune is born, and it is fitting.
     When fortune produces calamity, it is because when living in tranquility people indulge their greed and laziness, and are mostly scornful and arrogant — therefore calamity is born.
     A sage said, "Having many difficulties perfects the will; having no difficulties ruins the being."
     Gain is the edge of loss, loss is the heart of gain. Therefore blessings cannot visit over and over again, one cannot always hope for gain. When you are in a fortunate situation and so consider calamity, then that fortune can be preserved; when you see gain and consider loss, then that gain will surely arrive.
     Therefore a superior person is one who when safe does not forget danger, and who in times of order does not forget about disorder.
a scroll

This is the primordial Transition story. What is he saying? In calamity — the failure of industrial society, as exemplified by peak oil, climate change, and the systemic economic crisis — is born fortune. Transitioners are those "deeply immersed in seeking out order", and by being so we plant the seed from which good fortune might arise.
     Our society has been brought to this stage by several generations of economic growth and a growing middle class, and many were falsely led to believe this new and unique condition would last indefinitely. They are the apathetic — those without difficulties, who lived in tranquil times, indulged their greed and laziness, and who remain scornful and arrogant. They heap calamity upon themselves, and others.
     The superior person does not forget danger, does not neglect the possibility of calamity — and therefore secures good fortune. That is who we must be.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Too Late

The third in my series of excerpts from Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, following on Don't Rush and Being in the World Without Misery. I should think the relevance is clear.

65. Too Late

Lingyuan said to the astronomer Huang:
     In ancient times someone said, "If there is fire at the bottom of a pile of brush on top of which you are reclining, as long as the fire has not reached you, you are sure it is safe."
     This truly describes the workings of safety and danger, the principle of life and death. It is as clear as the sun in the sky, it does not admit of the slightest deviation.
     People usually stay in their accustomed situations, rarely reflecting on the calamities of life and death. One day something will come up that they cannot fathom, and then they will sit down and beat their breasts, but all will be helpless to come to the rescue.
a hanging scroll

Some commentary:
Once again, the proof is in this 1,000 year-old document: the human condition is eternal. Since we're not likely to change that, aside from selling our genes to Monsanto (new human condition: "mmm, GE soylent green is soooo tasty...."), we need to learn to work with it. From a community activism perspective, this might mean helping people to feel the urgency of something that seems, prima facie, to be a far-off concern. This doesn't mean scaring people. It probably means agitating them, though. Helping them to see the reality of their present condition, which in most cases is pretty awful, despite the fact that they'd prefer to live in denial.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Don't Rush

The second in my excerpts from Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership. The essential lesson in this passage is quite clear: don't rush anything you would like to last. This is a recurring theme throughout the text, and in fact echoes (though from a different angle) the previous excerpt, Being in the World Without Misery.

51. Don't Rush

Ying Shaowu said to Master Zhenjing Wen:
      Whatever is rushed to maturity will surely break down early. Whatever is accomplished in a hurry will surely be easily destroyed. What is done without making consideration for the long run, and is hastily finished, is not of a far-reaching and great character.
     Now sky and earth are most miraculous, but still it is only after three years and two intercalary months that they complete their accomplishment and fulfil their transformations. How much the more so for the miracle of the Great Way — how could it be easily mastered? It is essential to build up achievement and accumulate virtue. Therefore it is said, "When you want to be quick, you don't succeed; act carefully and you won't miss."
     A beautiful accomplishment takes a long time, ultimately involving lifelong consideration. A sage said, "Keep it with faith, practice it with keenness, perfect it with faithfulness — then though the task be great, you will surely succeed."
Lingyuan's Remnants

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Being in the World Without Misery

I've been reading a book titled Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, which a friend gave me when he moved away. From the introduction, the book "is a collection of political, social, and psychological teachings of Chinese Zen adepts of the Song dynasty, from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries." I've found it a rewarding read. Over the next week or two, I'll be posting selected passages from the translation that I've found particularly striking.

40. Being in the World Without Misery

Huitang said:
     What has been long neglected cannot be restored immediately.
     Ills that have been accumulating for a long time cannot be cleared away immediately.
     One cannot enjoy oneself forever.
     Human emotions cannot be just right.
     Calamity cannot be avoided by trying to run away from it.
     Anyone working as a teacher who has realized these five things can be in the world without misery.
letter to Master Xiang

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Actively Participating

An urban garden. Having a local, self-sustaining food system is just one aspect of Transition. (source)
"Transition is a challenge to be an active participant in the unfolding of our collective future."
What is Transition? We start out by asking people to see the world as it exists, rather than as they'd like it to exist. Then we invite them to imagine the best possible future, for the whole community, within that reality. Third, we challenge them to figure out how to get there. And finally, we say: go there, it's up to you.

What's actually occurring in most of the world is exactly the opposite. Most of us are fed a media diet of the world as they — or someone, anyway — wants it to be, rather than as it is. Then, there is no vision for their future, but rather a passive and thought-destroying extrapolation of present perceived trends. The only challenge we are expected to face is surviving the daily grind with enough cash or credit left over to buy the latest iToys, whose only purpose is to provide a distraction from the soul-crushing weight of the meanness and meaninglessness of most of modern life. And, finally, we are not encouraged to go anywhere or do anything. Life is "a ride," which we are "along for." We are told to "enjoy it", "it" presumably being allowing someone or something else to control, determine and direct the greater course of our Earthly existence.

It is pathetic and sad what we've come to accept; and the corollary is that, as playthings of the power elite, our only remaining "freedom" is the freedom to be thrown away, just like Woody and his gang, when we're all used up or out-grown. It is no wonder so many of us are apathetic, even in the face of the most Earth-shaking changes ever to occur in human history. This is the necessary result of the triumphant marriage of our disposable culture with the "ownership society."

So these are our choices: to passively accept our lot as throwaway commodities with no more ultimate value than our precious electronica, or step up, as adults, to the challenge of collectively determining the course of our future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Psychology of Unemployment

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress (source)
One of the worst impacts of the new economy is the psychological impacts that permanent unemployment is having on individuals. Feelings of valuelessness, depression, disillusionment....

People need to know that, when they can't find employment, this is not a reflection on themselves personally. The Age of Growth is over; the Age of Contraction has begun. Jobs simply do not exist in the numbers they would have to to support greater employment.

Of course, work still needs to be done: just don't expect to be compensated for it in the traditional manner. This will remain a problem for as long as we rely on elements of the system — landlords, banks, grocery stores — that still require traditional remuneration for their services. This predicament points to a possible way forward, which is to take strides to limit one's exposure to the orthodox system, thus limiting one's requirements for money.

But that's a digression. The main point is that you should not take it personally if you can't find work. For one thing, you are not alone — in Pennsylvania, in May, payroll surveys estimated that 14,000 people were laid off or fired. The official unemployment rate also dropped by one-tenth of one percent, which is interesting. We've entered a bizarro realm where more people can be unemployed while the "unemployment" rate yet falls. This is thanks to statistical manipulations (in place for a few decades) that won't count you as part of the labor force if you've given up looking for work (12,000 people were kicked out of the labor force in May) — or count you as "employed" even if your new job is part-time and pays half or less what you once made.

I think it's a damn shame that highly-skilled, -talented, and -educated people should be made to feel like shit because our unsustainable, perpetual-bubble economy is hemorrhaging  jobs as it deflates. It's even worse that they were sold a bogus bill of goods when they (we) were still in high school: that school debt was "good debt", that digging ourselves into this financial hole was a good thing because it meant we'd make way more than if we didn't. They didn't bother to tell us that what this really meant was that we'd have to make way more than if we didn't go to college, because that would be the only way to fill in the gaping chasm that would become of our finances for the foreseeable future. It'll be interesting to see what happens when the College Bubble collapses.

Final word: this unemployment situation is permanent. It will get worse. Learn to make the best of it. You may as well default on your debt now, too, because you're never going to be able to pay it back, anyway. Best to get rid of it now, before they've reinstated debtors' prisons.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Planning for a Future That Will Not Exist


I was flipping through my journal earlier, and came across the following entry from January 4, 2007:
My critique of planning is this: it is no good at preparing for the uncertain future. It takes current events and extrapolates. And extrapolation is taking the crazy-curved line of our past reality and making it seem straight — then projecting that false history into the future. The problem with planning is that it doesn't plan for anything interesting! At best it assumes that the next 30 years will be like the past 30 — only better. Who's planning for global eco-collapse? Global warming? The collapse of national and global economic systems, global and national food networks? Who's planning for peak oil? Who's planning for our transition into an entirely new Earth? Who is planning for a graceful exit for us?
For those that don't know, I am employed as a professional planner for local government. I wrote this during winter break before my final semester at grad school. I earned my Master of Science in Urban & Regional Planning in August 2007. Four years later, this critique still holds. Most planners have no idea what's actually happening in the world. They have no clue of the gravity of our collective situation. They still plan by projecting the past into the future. Worse, they assume the past few years are but a blip, an outlier that will be quickly forgotten once "the recovery" takes hold. If they had a longer perspective, they might realize that it's not just the past four years, but actually the past 60 (post-war) or past 150 (since the first oil well was drilled) years that are the true outliers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I saw Saturn and Messier 13, the famous Hercules Globular Cluster, from my backyard tonight.
The heart of Hercules Globular Cluster;
Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA (source)
About what Saturn looked like through my 6" scope. (source)
Next step: somehow eliminate all the light pollution in my backyard.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Advertising a Bad Idea

I realized that trying to allow Google to post ads on this blog, so I could make a few cents a month, was a bad idea when I saw ads for making money on Marcellus Shale gas.

The result of a Google image search for "bad idea." Google may be evil, but  it's got a great image search!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Our Most Endangered River

According to a new report by America's Rivers, the Susquehanna River is the most endangered river in the United States. They clarify that this doesn't mean it's the most polluted river, but that they consider it to be at a turning point due to the issue of hydraulic fracturing -- "fracking" or "fracing" -- which threatens to poison the water supplies of millions of people in the Commonwealth.

Rivers aren't dumping grounds for everything we wish was "someplace else", though we do use them that way. They are the living heart of our landscape.

Reposted below.

Natural Gas Development Putting Clean Water at Risk for Millions of People

Location: New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland
One of the longest rivers in America, the Susquehanna River provides over half of the freshwater to the Chesapeake Bay and drinking water to millions of people. Communities and businesses depend on the river for drinking water, commerce, hydropower generation, and recreational boating. Now this resource is at risk of contamination.

The Threat

The Susquehanna River and its tributaries flow over the Marcellus Shale region, a rock formation underlying much of New York and Pennsylvania, containing reserves of natural gas. The rush to develop natural gas has come without consideration of the impacts to clean water, rivers, and the health of these communities.

The threat of contamination is high. As part of the hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” process to extract natural gas, massive amounts of water are withdrawn from rivers and streams. The water is then mixed with sand and toxic chemicals and pumped underground to fracture the shale under extreme pressure. A portion of that highly toxic, highly saline, and potentially radioactive wastewater will return to the surface, and requires specialized treatment, but at this time, only a limited number of wastewater treatment facilities have the capacity to handle it.

Already, spills from trucks hauling wastewater, leaks from lined fluid holding pits, and cracked well casings have contaminated private water wells. The potential for future environmental and public health catastrophes along the Susquehanna will only increase, considering the number of new wells projected and the amount of toxic wastewater produced.

What Must Be Done

While Pennsylvania and New York have been working to improve clean water safeguards for natural gas development, they fall short of adequately protecting the water supply for millions of Americans. It is the responsibility of these states, along with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), to analyze all of the potential cumulative impacts that could result from natural gas extraction, and ensure proper regulations are in place and capable of being enforced before development is allowed to continue.

Pennsylvania, New York, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission need to announce a complete moratorium on water withdrawals and hydraulic fracturing until there are comprehensive regulations in place for natural gas development or they will put public health and drinking water at risk.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Monsanto's Assault on Agriculture

h/t bnet

This information is so important that I'm re-posting it in full. Does anyone know what percentage of Lancaster farmers use Monsanto seed, and how much Roundup (glyphosate) is used here? I suspect quite a lot.

Back in January, a noted plant scientist who spent much of his career at Purdue University sent a letter to the USDA informing the agency that he’d discovered a mysterious new disease-causing organism in Monsanto’s (MON) genetically engineered Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. Now, that scientist — Don Huber — has written a follow-up letter to the USDA and appears in a videotaped interview where he presents an even scarier picture of the damage he claims Monsanto’s herbicide chemical glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup) is doing to both plants and the animals who eat them.

In the 20-minute interview, which was conducted by Food Democracy Now’s Dave Murphy, Huber makes a strong case for his own credibility, appearing as a droll, erudite Midwestern scientist with deep connections to corn and soybean growers and livestock farmers. Although Huber’s findings have not yet been verified by outside scientists or published in a peer reviewed journal, the severity of his claims is such that the USDA ought to give them immediate attention.

It’s not the genes, it’s the herbicide

Huber’s issue is not with genetic engineering per se, but with the huge amounts of glyphosate (185 million pounds in 2007) in herbicide now used on America’s farms. Use of glyphosate has soared thanks to widespread use of Monsanto’s soy and corn seeds, which are genetically modified to survive its effects.

The problem with glyphosate, Huber says, is that it effectively “gives a plant AIDS,” weakening its defenses and making it more susceptible to pathogens, such as the one his team discovered. The scientists have taken to calling the bug “the electron microscope (EM) organism,” since it can only be seen with an electron microscope.

A big part of the problem, Huber says, lies with the way glyphosate prevents plants from absorbing vital nutrients, particularly the mineral manganese. In the Food Democracy interview, Huber says some studies have shown that Roundup Ready soybeans and corn have up to 50% less manganese than conventional varieties. Huber claims that the double whammy of weakened defenses and the new EM organism have contributed to “unexplained epidemics” of disease on farms — sudden death syndrome of soybean crops and Goss’ wilt on corn.

The problem in pictures

Here are photos he included with his follow-up letter, which was also sent to EU and UK officials at their request, showing dead or dying Roundup Ready corn and RR soybeans planted side by side with their thriving non-GE brethren:

Huber says the same thing has happened in animals. He’s heard from cattle farmers who are struggling because they’re experiencing a 15% infertility rate and 35% rate of spontaneous abortions among their herds. When the farmers switch to non-GE soy and corn for feed, the problems decline dramatically. Huber has talked to other animal vets who’ve experienced high death rates and have found that their GE-fed animals are severely deficient in manganese.

And whenever Huber has worked with vets to analyze tissue samples from GE-fed animals that were inexplicably sick or had fertility problems, the tests always come back positive for the EM organism.

It’s anecdotal, not data — but it’s still scary

Of course, all this is merely anecdotal. Whether it can be scientifically proven that farm animals are suffering because they’re eating Roundup Ready soy and corn is another story. But since GE food crops are such a fundamentally new part of agriculture (first planted in 1996) and Huber’s account — if accurate — spells disaster for American agriculture, it’s worth finding out what’s going on before allowing more of Monsanto’s RR crops onto the market.

But that’s not what the USDA did. A week and a half after Huber had his letter hand delivered to secretary Tom Vilsack, the agency gave the greenlight for Roundup Ready alfalfa. Huber was deeply disappointed:
I would have hoped that there would have been a delay and the resources allocated to answer the questions, to verify that we’re not going to further increase the severity of this organism…. Can we afford to just open the floodgates wide open before we have the answers. What’s the urgency?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Climate Change Deniers Same as "Birthers"

h/t USA Today,, and the National Academies

Too good not to use.
From the USA Today editorial:
Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the "birthers," who continue to challenge President Obama's American citizenship — a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence.

From the study:
WASHINGTON — Warning that the risk of dangerous climate change impacts is growing with every ton of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, a National Research Council committee today reiterated the pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts. The nation's options for responding to the risks posed by climate change are analyzed in a new report and the final volume in America's Climate Choices, a series of studies requested by Congress. The committee that authored the report included not only renowned scientists and engineers but also economists, business leaders, an ex-governor, a former congressman, and other policy experts.

Rainy Days in May

I'd like to propose a a new metric by which to measure extreme rain events: the number of times the sewer backs up into my basement in any given month. Usually this number equals 0. This month, May 2011, this number equals 2 (so far).

Last night, with up to 2" of rain falling in an hour and a half in Lancaster City, the sewer main that runs through my basement backed up -- again -- and filled it with about 8" of brackish water.

Figure 1. Note the firehose-like quality of the water gushing into my basement.

And here I thought I was clever building heavy duty shelves after the last sewer overflow. I know the water hit the 8" mark because my lowest shelf weighed in at exactly 7.5". 8" of water can really float some stuff, let me tell you....

Hopefully, this time, there will be no actual sewage. Crossing my fingers as the water recedes.

UPDATE: Someone just brought to my attention a column by Jack Brubaker ("The Scribbler") headlined "Lancaster built on a wolf-infested swamp?", in which the Scribbler says that yes, in fact, downtown Lancaster City was once a wolf-infested swamp. Explains a lot, doesn't it? They drained the swamp and cut down all the trees in order to expand the city way back in 1745. Quoting from the column:

"But central Lancaster remained filled with a considerable amount of water. Substantial streams ran down Queen and Water streets. Springs proliferated; some of them are still flowing."

Yeah, through my basement!

I humbly suggest that filling in wetlands (what they used to call "land reclamation", as if the wetland snuck in in the dark of the night) is a really bad idea. Flooding basements with sewage is the least of it. This bad idea points to the root cause of our troubles with water these days: we think we can control it, when ultimately it has much more to say about the nature of our existence than we have to say about its. This is why filling in wetlands is "land reclamation," why modern human settlements are built like shields rather than sponges, why we cover up streams and springs rather than accepting them as an ineluctable feature of the landscape, and why we mix our effluent (human [shit], non-human animal [shit] and industrial [toxic waste]) with water, rather than recycling it, as the rest of nature does.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

More Drilling?

As our illustrious President continues to call for more drilling, including the streamlining of drilling permits in Alaska and areas of the Gulf that had been under a temporary drilling moratorium, the obvious question (other than "wtf?!") to us Lancastrians is "what does this mean for us?"

I am, of course, not implying that nothing matters outside our rather arbitrary political boundaries. But, you know -- what's it mean locally?

Well, first, it means we can't count on any President, whether they've got an '-R' or a '-D' after their names, to have a responsible energy policy. The best they can do is rehash old ways of hoovering up our limited resources and depositing them into the hands of a tiny elite. Oh well.

It means oil & gas prices will continue to go up, since no amount of domestic drilling will put even the tiniest downward pressure on prices. This also means food prices will go up, since the price of food is intimately linked to the price of oil.


For those who are paying attention, energy and food inflation makes up over half of total price inflation these days.

Since Lancaster is not a net producer of oil (even counting all those gallons of used fryer oil you're putting in your diesel-powered VW -- you know who you are!), this means we will continue to be at the mercy of the oil-producing world... that is, so long as we rely on a far-away political elite to decide our destiny. Time for us to choose our own fate. Continue to play the zero sum geo-political oil game, or Transition consciously to a better way? A local way?

So far as energy goes, we have two options vis-à-vis our crippling oil addiction: (1) we can conserve, conserve, conserve; and (2) we can transition to harnessing local energy supplies.

I'd be interested in your ideas on how we can achieve each. This is what Transition is all about!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Vindicating Climate Science... again

The first rule of vindicating climate science is you do not talk about vindicating climate science

A ClimateProgress repost. Mostly I just love any reference to Fight Club.
UK Government:  “It is a primary concern to the Government that the evidence base for policies is robust. Where this evidence base is questioned, it is right that allegations are properly assessed and scrutinised. After two independent reviews, and two reviews by the Science and Technology Committee, we find no evidence to question the scientific basis of human influence on the climate….
“Evidence from multiple disciplines and sources strongly indicates that climate change, driven by human activities, poses real risks for our future. This evidence is comprehensively captured in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and in more recent analyses including from the US National Research Council of the National Academies. It is also clear from an almost continuous body of publications in the academic literature that the evidence for human induced climate change continues to grow….”
You won’t find much U.S. media coverage of the official UK “Government Response” to “The Reviews into the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit’s E-mails” by the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons.
I think that is because:
  1. It re-re-re-re-vindicates climate scientists, and since the media glossed over the first three vindications, why start now?
  2. It didn’t involve a wedding.
... read the rest...

Weekly Roundup

Weekly roundup of all the articles that have been littering my web browser (Firefox 4, of course) the past week or so....

City Schools to Host Local Produce Markets

Good job, Harry! Our very own Harry Edwards, city resident and organic farmer in the New Holland area, first to step up.

Raspberries, cantaloupes, arugula, artichokes and peppers are coming to the parking lots of city schools this summer.
Farmers will be selling fresh produce in neighborhoods that don't have easy access to it, in a push to promote healthy eating here.
Lancaster city, Lancaster General Health and Lighten Up Lancaster have joined forces on the project.
The project was sparked last year when Washington Elementary School, on South Ann Street, asked a farmer to sell produce to students' families. Neighborhood residents started showing up to buy the fruits and vegetables.
Local health officials saw a need, saying parts of the city are "food deserts," areas devoid of supermarkets and affordable, fresh foods.
Renewables Can Outstrip Demand

While the cost to do this may be $12.3 trillion over 20 years, the cost of not doing anything is tremendously higher. One estimate of the cost to "adapt" (read: "suffer") is over $1.2 quadrillion. Spend now, spend less.

Wind and solar power are among six renewable energy options that have the potential to outstrip total world energy needs and may grow as much as 20-fold over the next four decades, a draft United Nations report said.
Geothermal, biomass, solar, wind, hydropower and electricity from the ocean’s waves and tides could more than meet the global energy needs for power, heating and transport based on 2008 demand, according to the study by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.
In practice, less than 2.5 percent of that potential will be used, the panel said, basing the finding on four scenarios out of 164 examined in the UN’s biggest assessment of alternative energy. A shift to low-carbon energy will require a global investment of as much as $12.3 trillion by 2030, it said.
Wherefore the Cost of Power?

US electricity prices are low by world standards. One reason? We reward people for wasting energy. Elsewhere, the price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) increases the more you use. Here it drops. Other nations also tax energy more, and then use the money to implement smart policies, such as increasing efficiency and fostering renewable energy supply. Here? We subsidize the dirtiest fuels at six times the rate of clean energy.

We often talk about electric rates as if the only thing that goes into determining them is the power source.  In some sense, this is right:  If a utility’s power costs go up, and nothing else changes, the price they charge consumers will likely eventually go up.
But, this understanding doesn’t fully appreciate the role of rate design in determining what the rate will be.  When utilities – and utility regulators – design an electricity rate, they make numerous decisions that impact the price that consumers will ultimately pay, regardless of power source.  Ignoring these other decisions can lead to lazy thinking about rate impacts, which can ultimately lead to poor decision making.

The Transition US Daily

A new online paper sponsored by Transition US.

China to Exploit Shale Gas

Ouch. There goes the water supply of over a billion people? I find it pretty interesting that they're estimating 30 years' worth of shale gas in the US alone, as if that somehow means we don't need to think about energy policy for that period of time. 30 years is not that long. And in the meanwhile, of course, we'll have trashed our water supplies, our forests, and the atmosphere. And note the paragraph about exporting US shale gas. Energy independence what?

Global reserves of shale gas.
YUANBA, China, April 20 (Reuters) - China has spent tens of billions of dollars buying into energy resources from Africa to Latin America to slake the unquenched thirst for fuel from its growing industry and burgeoning cities.
But China may have more energy riches under its own soil than policy makers in the world's second-largest economy ever dared imagine.
Just over a year ago, Beijing awakened to a technology revolution that has unlocked massive reserves of gas trapped within shale rock formations in the United States.
Once deemed too costly to extract, shale gas has turned around U.S. dependence on foreign gas imports. Just a few years ago, the United States was building scores of expensive facilities to import liquefied natural gas (LNG), looking at booming long-term demand forecasts and wondering which countries would supply the huge volume of imports it needed.
Instead, the United States is turning import facilities into export terminals, because its shale gas reserves are estimated to be big enough to meet domestic demand for 30 years. This is an American dream that China wants to emulate.
"America's shale gas production alone has exceeded that of total Chinese gas output. That gives us a lot of confidence," said Zhang Dawei, deputy director of the Strategic Research Centre for Oil and Gas in the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR).
China's confidence has been bolstered by a new report of its estimated reserves of shale gas, which shows them to be, by far, the largest in the world.
The U.S. Energy Information Agency in a report last month estimates China holds 36.1 trillion cubic metres (1,275 trillion cubic feet) of technically recoverable shale gas reserves -- significantly higher than the 24.4 tcm (862 trillion cubic feet) in the United States, which has the second-most.
Industry estimates in China peg shale gas resources slightly lower -- but still huge -- at 26 trillion cubic metres (tcm), although they have yet to give their own forecasts of how much of that is recoverable.
Maryland to Sue Chesapeake Energy for PA Fracking Blowout

On April 19, a natural gas hydrofracturing well owned by Chesapeake Energy in Bradford County, PA suffered a blowout.  It spewed “thousands and thousands of gallons of frack fluid over containment walls, through fields, personal property and farms, even where cattle continue to graze.” Brad Johnson has the story of the aftermath.
The spill drained into the Susquehanna River watershed, which feeds Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. Maryland’s Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler now “plans to sue the company for violating federal anti-pollution laws” including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA), as a press release issued yesterday explains:
On April 19, thousands of gallons of fracking fluids were released from a well owned and operated by Chesapeake Energy into Towanda Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River, which supplies 45% of the fresh water in the Chesapeake Bay. In his letter, Attorney General Gansler notified the company that at the close of the required 90-day notice period, the State intends to file a citizen suit and seek injunctive relief and civil penalties under RCRA for solid or hazardous waste contamination of soils and ground waters, and the surface waters and sediments of Towanda Creek and the Susquehanna River. The State also intends to seek injunctive relief and civil penalties under the CWA for violation of the CWA’s prohibition on unpermitted pollution to waters of the United States.
“Companies cannot expose citizens to dangerous chemicals that pose serious health risks to the environment and to public health,” said Gansler in the press release. “We are using all resources available to hold Chesapeake Energy accountable for its actions.”
Wake Up! The Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever
So says Jeremy Grantham, self-described "die-hard contrarian" and hedge fund manager

Summary of the Summary
The world is using up its natural resources at an alarming rate, and this has caused a permanent shift in their value.  We all need to adjust our behavior to this new environment. It would help if we did it quickly.
  • Until about 1800, our species had no safety margin and lived, like other animals, up to the limit of the food supply, ebbing and fl owing in population.
  • From about 1800 on the use of hydrocarbons allowed for an explosion in energy use, in food supply, and, through the creation of surpluses, a dramatic increase in wealth and scientifi c progress.
  • Since 1800, the population has surged from 800 million to 7 billion, on its way to an estimated 8 billion, at minimum.
  • The rise in population, the ten-fold increase in wealth in developed countries, and the current explosive growth in developing countries have eaten rapidly into our fi nite resources of hydrocarbons and metals, fertilizer, available land, and water.
  • Now, despite a massive increase in fertilizer use, the growth in crop yields per acre has declined from 3.5% in the 1960s to 1.2% today. There is little productive new land to bring on and, as people get richer, they eat more grain-intensive meat. Because the population continues to grow at over 1%, there is little safety margin.
  • The problems of compounding growth in the face of fi nite resources are not easily understood by optimistic, short-term-oriented, and relatively innumerate humans (especially the political variety).
  • The fact is that no compound growth is sustainable. If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash. We must substitute qualitative growth for quantitative growth.
  • But Mrs. Market is helping, and right now she is sending us the Mother of all price signals. The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70%. From 2002 until now, this entire decline was erased by a bigger price surge than occurred during World War II.
  • Statistically, most commodities are now so far away from their former downward trend that it makes it very probable that the old trend has changed – that there is in fact a Paradigm Shift – perhaps the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.
  • Climate change is associated with weather instability, but the last year was exceptionally bad. Near term it will surely get less bad.
[JR:  Well, it may get less bad, but not "surely." This year is pretty extreme already and 2012 could be as bad or worse than 2010, according to Hansen here.]
  • Excellent long-term investment opportunities in resources and resource efficiency are compromised by the high chance of an improvement in weather next year and by the possibility that China may stumble.
  • From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives. This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies. There is little time to waste.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Birthday Climate Update

Does it mean anything that my first climate update is on my birthday? Probably not. 29 today! That means, like I told my mom earlier, this is my last year before I'm officially old. May as well make the best of it ;-)

h/t for most of this.

Triage: US Army Corps of Engineers Floods 130,000ac of Farmland, Saves Small Town

These sort of decisions will be made increasingly more frequently.
The Army Corps exploded the Birds Point levee near Wyatt, Mo., after nightfall Monday, potentially sacrificing 130,000 acres of rich farmland and about 100 homes in Missouri to spare the town of Cairo, Ill., with its 2,800 residents, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
But even as the Corps carried out its bid to save the city, floodwaters were rising downriver, including in Memphis, Tenn. And the breach in the Birds Point levee wasn’t expected to ease those flooding concerns.
Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, who made the decision to blast, said it was a heart-wrenching but necessary move.
The fact that the Army Corps is intentionally causing 1/3 of billion dollars in damage is stark evidence of just how serious this flood is. The Birds Point levee has been demolished only once before, during the 1937 flood.

Defending the Atmosphere

Starting on May 4, young people in the United States and several other countries will file petitions and lawsuits in an effort to force public officials into protecting us all from climate change.

The international legal intervention – the sponsors call it guerrilla law – is believed to be the first of its kind. It is being organized by Our Children’s Trust in Eugene, Oregon. It’s part of a broader campaign that will include “iMatter” marches by young people around the world May 7-14, the brainchild of 16-year-old Alec Loorz of California.

Behind these demonstrations and legal actions is a principle that goes back to Roman law: the “public trust doctrine”. The doctrine holds that government officials are “trustees of the commons” with a fiduciary responsibility to protect critical natural resources on behalf of present and future generations. Attorneys working on the campaign will ask the courts to rule that the atmosphere is one of those critical resources.

More concretely, the lawsuits will ask that public officials be required to create plans to return atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, the level scientists such as NASA’s Jim Hansen say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

The court action is meant to empower young people who have the most to lose from climate change but are too young to vote. Loorz explains it this way:
Young people will be affected most by decisions that are made today and yet we can’t vote and we don’t have money to compete with lobbyists. We do, however, have the moral authority and the legal right to insist that our future be protected.
Global Sea Level to Rise At Least 3.05.2 feet by 2100

That's enough to make refugees out of several million people on the East Coast alone (Boston, NYC, Philly, Miami, etc.). I'd also consider that a minimum, not a maximum.
A major new multi-country scientific assessment of the Arctic has concluded that on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, we face 3 to 5 feet of sea level rise — far greater than the 2007 IPCC warned of.  This is fully consistent with several recent studies (see “Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100“).
Growing Dust Bowl in Midwest Worse Than in 1930s

For those who think the impacts of climate change are in the future, you are sorely mistaken. Quoting from a recent (and terrible) New York Times piece:
While tornadoes and floods have ravaged the South and the Midwest, the remote western edge of the Oklahoma Panhandle is quietly enduring a weather calamity of its own: its longest drought on record, even worse than the Dust Bowl, when incessant winds scooped up the soil into billowing black clouds and rolled it through this town like bowling balls.

With a drought continuing to punish much of the Great Plains, this one stands out. Boise (rhymes with voice) City has gone 222 consecutive days through Tuesday with less than a quarter-inch of rainfall in any single day, said Gary McManus, a state climatologist. That is the longest such dry spell here since note-keeping began in 1908.
This is just the beginning, sad to say.

The Dust Bowl itself maintained a severity of around -3, though it briefly spiked to -6. (source)

Corbett's Pet Frackers

Thanks for this go to PennLive, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Clean Water Action Pennsylvania.

According to a recent report by Clean Water Action Pennsylvania and an analysis of violations from the Department of Environmental Protection, eight of the drilling companies with representatives on the Pennsylvania governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission were cited with environmental violations last year. The companies represented on the governor’s commission accounted for 42 percent of all drilling violations last year — 514 out of a total 1,227.

Those companies also donated more than $790,000 to Corbett's campaign.

When you cross-reference the list for violators and campaign-contributors, you find that every one that meets those two criteria is on the Governor's Pet Frackers Commission -- I mean, the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

One member of the Commission, Acting Secretary of Community and Economic Development C. Alan Walker, has a track record of environmental problems at mines operated by three of his companies in Clearfield and Centre counties.

Mr. Walker was the first cabinet member Mr. Corbett selected. In the governor's budget plan, he also was given the unusual authority to place permit applications on the fast track when job creation is involved.

The DEP's then-secretary David E. Hess had this to say about Mr. Walker back in 2002, in reference to an injunction forcing him to pay for environmental cleanup from his mines:

"We have to take strong action against some folks who just don't get it when it comes to fulfilling their environmental obligations. And that's exactly what happened this week to a mine operator who told us he wasn't going to spend a dime treating over 173 million gallons of polluted mine water," Mr. Hess wrote. "It's unfortunate with all the discussion nationally about corporate irresponsibility that we have a homegrown environmental example right here in Pennsylvania."

I think possibly Governor Corbett just doesn't get it.

Friday, April 29, 2011

What is Transition?

If I were given just one word to describe Transition, what would it be?


Relocalization is the antithesis of globalization, which means it is the sine qua non of democracy. It is an essential precondition for democracy. It is also a deliberately buoyant response to the tripartite challenge that is peak oil / climate change / financial collapse. Relocalizers say "hey, more of the same probably won't work. Let's try something different. Let's disengage from this global clusterf@#k and chart our own course." Thanks to James Howard Kuntsler, by the way, for that wonderfully descriptive word. I tried hard to think of another, equally eloquent descriptor -- and failed.

If I were given two words to describe Transition, what would the second one be?


Resilience builds on relocalization. It qualifies it. It says that simply getting back to here isn't quite enough. It acknowledges directly that this isn't going to be a Sunday walk in the park. This Transition business is serious. Just as in Maslow's hierarchy of needs self-actualization comes after physiological and safety needs like food, water, shelter, security, in Transition we can't expect to maintain or improve our quality of life if we don't secure those basic needs that are under direct and concerted assault by peak oil, climate change, and slow-motion financial collapse. We know it must be possible to build resilience to these threats because these threats have faces -- ours. Peak oil is a fundamentally human phenomenon because (though the amount of oil is determined by geology) we have a choice in how we respond to it. There's nothing inherent in the laws of nature that humankind bury its head in the sand upon being confronted with the entirely prosaic fact that a non-renewable resource will eventually be exhausted. We could acknowledge it as a fact and then move on. Climate change is a fundamentally human phenomenon because the present bout of it is a direct and completely predictable result of evaporating billions of tons of ancient carbon into the atmosphere in what amounts to the blink of an eye. We've known for well over a hundred years that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas. And financial collapse? Despite mainstream economists' protestations to the contrary, economics as a science is a far cry from, say, geology, physics or chemistry. It has much more in common with sociology or political science than anything. This means it is a fundamentally human problem and, thus, amenable to human intervention. Screw the invisible hand.

Finally, if I had a third word with which to describe Transition? What would it be? This is the easiest:


Relocalization and resilience are necessary but not, as they say, sufficient conditions for saving our buts from the many-horned dilemma that is today's world. The final, and ultimately most necessary condition, is restoration. Even though I referred to climate change as an inherently human phenomenon, there will come a point, if it hasn't already, that the train set in motion by human hands will stop responding to those hands and start listening to higher-order beings: gravity, for example. And thermodynamics. Try getting into an argument, with thermodynamics, over who should be conducting the train: we'll see who wins.

At the risk of sounding terribly cheesy, we need to restore our connection with our planet, with the Earth. Against all reason, we've come to believe that we live outside of nature. Anyone paying attention can see the daily examples to the contrary, supplied by our apparently contrarian universe. We were able to believe, for a short while, in our invincibility, thanks to the discovery of seemingly endless free energy in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. That was a blessing for some and a curse for most. Now we've got to deal with the consequences. We need to restore our planet's damaged life-support systems.

It is my belief that, doing so, we will find new purpose and new fulfilment. I believe there is no other way. This is what Transition means to me.

Oh, by the way -- there are a few other 'R'-words out there that I might use, but I'll leave them to your imaginations ;-)

The Fundamental Problem

I just came across this video of Thomas Linzey, of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which is an amazing organization that has, for example, helped Ecuador institute the rights of nature right into the fabric of their national constitution. In this series of four videos, Linzey gives a powerful speech describing the roots of our present-day problems. You might be surprised to hear what he has to say.

CELDF is also very active in Pennsylvania. They recently helped the City of Pittsburgh assert local rights against a state legal framework that left them with little authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing of natural gas. Well, with CELDF's help, Pittsburgh has banned fracking within city limits.

A Transition

Most of you who read this probably know I also maintain a weekly e-newsletter for Transition Lancaster. One of the major features of that newsletter is the collation of what I consider to be Transition-related news and opinion from around the state, nation and world. Typical categories include climate change, peak oil and other energy-related news, economic and financial news, updates on hydro-fracking the Marcellus Shale here in PA, food, land-use, and more.

As much as I enjoy forwarding on news in that fashion -- and I do -- it's become, at times, a bit of a burden. Also, I'm not convinced it's the most effective way to do it, or even the best use of my time.

I have concluded that my single over-riding goal for the near-term is bringing more people into the local Transition movement. Transition Towns are sprouting up all over this region, like wildflowers after a Spring rain. There's a Transition Lancaster, a Transition Harrisburg, a young Transition York, a Transition Town Media (PA's first official TT), a nascent Transition Ambler, a Transition Philly, and more.... Transition is clearly an idea catching on, and for good reason. However, we here in Transition Lancaster need to be doing a better job helping more people to become actively involved, to know what that means, and to see the benefits to them personally.

I intend to refocus the weekly newsletter around that goal. I also want to make better use of this blog. Right now, at a post a month, it's really really underutilized. As an experiment, I'm going to start treating this as my "news" feed, rather than the newsletter. I'll also be publishing the occasional original essay, such as City of Trees. In fact, I have one germinating in my brain right now called City of Bikes, and another, called The Recycled City. You might think you know what those titles mean, but you just wait ;-)

Well, let's give it a shot, shall we?

Friday, April 1, 2011

City of Trees

This is the first in a new series I'm calling Lancaster 2030. In it, we'll be taking a look back on Lancaster from a vantage point 20 years in the future. What will Lancaster be like? How did it get to be this way (in 2030)? It's impossible to know for sure, but one thing is certain: "you've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." Let's figure out where we're going, then aim to get there.

Lancaster City (PA) -- Hard to believe, but not even 20 years ago, Queen Street was twice as wide -- twice as much asphalt! I almost didn't believe it myself, but the old satellite photos are not to be denied.

Now, as we all know, Queen Street is dominated by the verdant and beautiful -- and invaluable -- Queen Forest Corridor, which itself is part of the much larger Lancaster Urban Forest Reserve. Well, that's what the planners call it, anyway. To the rest of us, who've grown up with it, tended it, walked in it, ate from it, heated our homes from it and studied in it, it's just another part of our home, our beloved Lancaster.

This is the first in a series of retrospectives on the evolution of Lancaster since the Great Transition began nearly 20 years ago. In this inaugural report, we'll look at what many consider to be the foundation of Lancaster's Renaissance -- our very own Queen's Forest.

Some history
In the Spring of 2012, the second oil shock in four years hit hard. While, in 2008, the price of oil ran up to US$147 per barrel, the 2012 price was much more muted -- not even US$130. However, with the US economy still limping through a half-hearted -- and much disputed -- recovery from the "Great Recession," and many nations around the world experiencing cascading economic crises (what commentators today call "the death throes of the infinite growth paradigm"), even a muted oil shock was a big enough straw to finally break the camel's back. Economic activity came to a screeching halt nearly everywhere. Many were declaring it a second Great Depression.

Paradoxically, this moment proved a liberating one for many older American cities, particularly Lancaster, with its access to high-quality farmland, fresh water, and relative immunity (unlike the old coastal cities of New York, Miami and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia) from sea-level rise (though we have had our share of coastal refugees). Although the price of gasoline had dropped back below US$2, it turned out that most couldn't afford the gas at any price (and with hardly anyone buying gas, there was simply no incentive to invest in new oil infrastructure, exacerbating the problem). We were a city unemployed, and if what little money available wasn't going to food, it was going to housing and other necessities.

The boom in home gardening, which began after the 2008 financial collapse, really picked up in 2012, til it seemed like nearly everyone was growing food in any sunlit corner of the Earth they could find. Community gardens, such as at County Park and some School District property, really began to take off, particularly among renters.

Late in 2012, Mayor Gray took a decisive step when he imposed a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Though decried by the banks, this action was very popular and has been credited with averting  a new homeless crisis and preserving the burgeoning spirit of solidarity among the citizens of Lancaster.

Studies from that time show that many had less leisure time than before, yet since they were now working from home, they were reporting higher levels of satisfaction.

A brutal winter
The winter of 2012-'13 proved a devastating one. Though 2012 was, worldwide, the hottest year (yet) on record, one of the counter-intuitive effects of global climate change was that winter temperatures could be as extreme as summer temperatures. In the Northeast, the immediate cause was the disruption of Arctic weather patterns which resulted in occasional spikes of frigid Arctic air lashing southwards, coating the land in ice and snow for months on end. Compounding this was that many could no longer afford the natural gas or oil they needed to warm their homes. It was a crisis. Riots very nearly broke out at one point when, during one very cold morning after an even colder night, over a dozen sick and elderly people were found dead in their homes. The cause? Exposure.

The people were demanding action, but what could anyone do? It later came out that city staff, along with several non-profits worked feverishly throughout the winter months on a plan to save the city. "Those were some cold meetings," said one staffer, in an interview a decade later. "Even the city couldn't afford much heat and, besides, we all felt strongly we had to share the pain with the vast majority of Lancastrians, or live as hypocrites."

The Queen's Forest Working Group, or simply the Group, as they came to be known, had realized something many had yet come to accept: times had changed, and the traffic that was would never return. The city simply had too many miles of useless roadways. With most people now walking or bicycling, the streets were now eerily quiet -- and eerily empty. Recognizing the changed shape of the world, the Group hatched an ambitious plan: they would tear up half the city's roads.

And they'd begin with Queen Street.

Though brutal, the Winter of '12-'13 was mercifully short, with Spring coming a full two weeks early. This was the Group's cue. They quickly unleashed over three thousand residents in a massive public works project -- tearing up twenty feet of road down the entire length of Queen Street, from just north of the bridge over the Conestoga to the train station in the north. Many workers were paid in food, which the city and county had begun to accept in lieu of the old US dollars for property taxes. Many more, though, joined in for the sheer joy of tearing up the macadam, and the satisfaction of doing something with their hands for the greater good. The city then used a substantial portion of its ration of diesel fuel to haul in nearly 30,000 cubic yards of top soil, compost and mulch. And then they began to plant trees.

A forest born and a city reborn
Half-planned, half-wild, Queen's Forest became an icon for a city reborn. The plan was for the forest, stewarded by a corps of trained permaculturists, to provide food, fuel, stormwater management, cool air in the increasingly hot summers, wildlife habitat and a salve for a city in deep need of healing.

In just a few years' time, the planners and foresters expected the new Queen's Forest (the core of a planned city-wide system) to provide a substantial portion of the city's heating needs through a combination of a new centralized boiler system and the production of synthetic gas, or syngas, from sustainably charring biomass from the forest. The syngas would be a nearly 1:1 replacement for the now hard-to-get natural gas.

The next few years were tough, but the spirit of self-help and community action cultivated in those early days proved resilient.

Amazing how much a simple idea can change things, isn't it?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Should We Do?

Soil-building is one of the answers.
There will be no great leader, this time.

Many have commented that a mass mobilization, on the scale of World War II, is what we need, right now, to prepare for peak oil and preserve a habitable climate and biosphere. There are a number of logical and practical issues with this notion.

First, no one in a position to be a leader -- say, the President, a member of Congress, a Governor, a respected (hah) national news correspondent -- has shown either (a) any understanding of the magnitude of the crises we face or (b) any inclination to be an actual leader on these issues. Instead, we get nonsensical screeds on American "exceptionalism," which I must put in quotation marks due to the fact of its not being either a word or a remotely coherent idea.

Second, the analysis of some very intelligent and thoughtful people (see, e.g., the Hirsch Report) has shown that we would need a WWII-scale mobilization twenty years in advance of oil peaking to successfully avert a peak oil-based global economic and political collapse. Since peak crude oil was five years ago, in 2006, and we are now at the final edge of the "undulating plateau" of oil production, this opportunity was lost nearly 25 years ago.

Third, we have already left the geologic epoch known as the Holocene (from holos = whole, and cene = new; thus: wholly new), which began about 11,700 years ago, and during which we had the steady, stable climate which permitted human civilization to develop for the first time on Earth (anatomically modern Homo sapiens first appeared over 200,000 years ago, and behaviorally-modern humans first appeared about 50,000 years ago). The Holocene is over; we have now entered what geologist call the Anthropocene (from anthropo = human), an epoch characterized by the global extent and impact of human activities on the Earth. This new epoch will be distinguished by (among other things) an increasingly chaotic climatic system, leading to regional and possibly global food shortages, the inundation of human settlements by rising flood waters, continent-sized Dust Bowls in North America and elsewhere, tens or hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, political and economic collapse, regional unrest, disruptions in the shipment of vital materials (such as food, energy, minerals), etc.

As an aside, I will note that part of the reason for this chaotic climate change is that we have already blown past the global carbon budget by at least 40, if not 90, parts per million (ppm). Present concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere stand at about 390ppm. For at least the past 400,000 years, those levels never went much over 300ppm, and the current rate of increase (2ppm / year) is about 10,000 times the natural rate. Just as with our oil addiction, we have missed our deadline for keeping atmospheric carbon at safe levels by over 20 years.

In other words, in almost ever sense, we have overshot. Too many people consuming too many resources dumping too much pollution and waste into a finite global ecosystem. Every year in which we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere, just as every year in which we fail to ween ourselves off of our oil and lifestyle addiction, is another year in which are digging our own collective grave.

Cheerful, huh?

As I said above, and for the reasons already outlined (plus many more besides), don't expect any person purporting to represent that entity known as the United States (or most any other "nation-state") to take any proactive steps on these issues. Don't expect anyone to exhort you, or your neighbors, to take up any great national cause that might effectively meet these foolishly self-imposed threats. You've got no one but yourself, as hard as that sounds. At most, you've got your immediate geographic community; hopefully, that community is organizing, as Lancaster is, around a Transition movement that recognizes the present importance of these issues, and is seeking ways to meet them positively.

So, you've read the above and you agree on the three following propositions: (1) we are in for some hard times ahead, (2) no one is going to help us but ourselves and maybe our friends, and (3) we need to start working now. So what do we actually do?

The bottom pyramid doesn't look terribly stable, does it?
There are very few things I know for sure on this subject, but thanks to some pretty clear statistics this is one of them: start growing your own food. As I showed in a presentation on October 24, 2009 (the Global Day of Action and Eastern Market's first annual Green Fest), the United States has a woefully inadequate supply of farmers right now. Over 170 years ago, in 1840, before the advent of industrialism and widespread use of fossil fuels, the world had a basically solar-powered economy. The sun shown, grass and trees grew, and humans and animals ate food that had been cultivated with human and animal labor in a basically (though not entirely) closed-loop system whose driving energy source was the sun. At that time, 69% of the population of the USA, or 11.7 million people (out of 17 million), was directly involved in farming. In 2008, nationally, that percentage was below 0.62%, or 1.9 out of 304 million. In other words, we had more farmers in 1840 than we have now. Since it is pretty clear to most observers that this extraordinary feat has been made possibly by basically free energy, in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, it becomes clear that one of the pressing needs we will feel as that free energy disappears is for more farmers -- and farm animals -- to directly work the land.

As a supporting statistic, I will note that, for every one calorie of food you consume, approximately 10 calories of fossil fuel-based energy (primarily oil and natural gas) was required as an input. Or, to put it another way, Americans consume, on average, about 400 gallons of gasoline-equivalent annually to produce our food. It also turns out that a barrel of oil is worth about 11.3 person-years of labor. The amount of energy we shovel into the US food system is thus equivalent to about 33 billion person-years of labor (or nearly 5x the population of Earth -- just to feed the USA). If that sounds like a lot, you're right.

Left: nutrient-poor oxisol. Right: an oxisol transformed into fertile terra preta using biochar. (source)

All is not lost! The first step in solving your problem, as they say, is recognizing that you have one. Well, we can check that step off the list. Step two is knowing where you need to get. Well, I would say, in the context of this post, "where we need to get" is a place that has a sustainable food supply, which means we need more farmers working the land directly with the help of domesticated animals and very little, if any, fossil fuels. This will mean, among other things, much smaller farms; but that's ok and even good, because it has been shown that small farms produce more food per acre than large farms. We also need to reduce and then stop emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and then move to start taking carbon out of the atmosphere (to get from 390ppm CO2 to under 350ppm). Well, damn! Our idea of de-urbanizing and putting more people back on the land as farmers will also help with that as well, as it has been shown that good stewardship of the land and husbandry of animals can actually build topsoil, which means that small farms could actually become carbon sinks rather than carbon sources (topsoil is a reservoir of carbon), especially if they make use of biochar. Might we actually see a return to a stable climate? Well, not in your lifetime, but maybe in your grandchildren's. We need to take the long view on this one. After all, it has taken well over a century to utterly erode the Earth's life-support systems, and it'll probably take much longer than that to restore them. And restoration ought to be our mission.

How likely is all this? Not very, if you're waiting for someone on high to tell you to do it. Doubly unlikely, if you think you can sit idly by doing what you've always done while waiting for your neighbor to take care of all the hard work. Nevertheless, it is possible. If step one is recognizing the problem, and step two is having a vision for the future, then step three is getting there (or maybe having a plan for getting there, followed by getting there, if you are a planner like me).

So how will we get there? What will you do? I look forward to your thoughts.