Nuance, Thoughtfulness, and a Measured Approach

Taborri pic for presentations cropped slightly

I don’t wear a suit all that often; it took me a while to dig up a picture where I looked like a candidate…

Well, it’s official—I’m running for state office; there’s my grainy mug shot above. Local people have asked me to run for a position on the state legislature, and after initially rejecting the idea, I decided that I probably could be of service. I have the background and broad life experience required of a good legislator, and I should do my civic duty. It isn’t like I haven’t thought about these things—I’ve been thinking and writing about public policy for many years.

So, this blog has obviously focused mostly on sustainability, though in these pages are also political topics—musings on economic systems, markets, trade policies, taxes, and the like. Most of my underlying political philosophy is in here, in one place or another. The challenge, though, upon being elected, is that I would be helping to create policy that has real impacts, on real people, both for good and bad. With policy, the devil is nearly always in the details. There are often issues where there is broad general agreement, but where the nitty-gritty is extremely difficult to parse. In our state, the recent failure of a bill that would have legalized marijuana is a case in point—there seemed to be broad general agreement on the matter, but the House and Senate, and members within those bodies, were unable to reach agreement on the details of implementation. So it is and will be with positions that I’ve advocated here. Sure, we can all agree in a general sense that we need to move toward renewable power. But how, and how fast, and in what places? What other areas of policy would be affected by this path or that?

Then, there is the fact that there is much, much more that has to be done by government than to just work on environmental topics, and many of those pressing concerns are competing for the same pool of limited funds. The result is that serving in the legislature would require large measures of nuance and thoughtfulness, and in many cases, measured approaches that might work in the real world, but might also fail to fully satisfy anyone. But, it also seems like a fun and interesting challenge, and should the citizens here deem me fit to be elected, I will work hard to both be their voice, and to help provide leadership, direction, and vision as to where we are going as a state.

On the practical side, I will likely be putting a pause on writing new material here, perhaps until the election in November. I am certainly not stopping permanently, though, and rest assured that sustainability is and will remain something that I will continue to ponder. Without factoring in environmental issues, we have no long-term future.

Best,

tb

A Real-life, Solar-Powered Chain Saw

Another step away from fossil fuel...

Another step away from fossil fuel…

I took a risk, and I think it paid off. I have an electric car, and a cordless electric lawnmower, and fully-functional battery-powered construction tools. But a chain saw? I was pretty skeptical, but I was also intrigued by the potential advantages—push-button starting, light weight, not having to mess with gasoline mixes, no finicky carburetors to keep adjusted. So I spent some time watching YouTube videos of electric saws, and decided that one of the larger ones might indeed work as well as my Jonsered gas saws.

So I took bit of a gamble, and ordered one from Amazon. It’s an 80-volt, 18-inch Greenworks saw, and comes with a 2-amp-hour lithium-ion battery and a 30-minute quick charger. I also ordered a second battery. Three days ago the package showed up on the porch, and I have to say, I’m really impressed with it so far, so much so that I’ve already made arrangements to sell the gas saws.

Ok, before I go on,  it’s obviously only indirectly “solar powered”, because I charge the batteries at home from my net-zero solar set-up. But that was one of my goals– to further reduce my fossil-fuel use. When I charge them at home, they are indeed solar powered. But back to the saw—

Without this being a full-on power tool review, let me give you some of my have-used-it-for-three-days thoughts— Continue reading

No Perfect System—Yet

Mason jars---good for some things.

Jars—good for some things.

Ack! Two of my post ideas have come into conflict, which has resulted in some cognitive dissonance here in my quest for a better path forward. To wit—post idea #1, from a year ago, the posts “Plastic Trash and Whack-a-mole“, and then “Two Sides of the Very Same Coin“, where I was rather horrified at the damage that plastics are causing , and decided to look into not using plastics in the kitchen, and to also reduce the amounts of trash and recycling that we generate. The short version of a zero-plastic, zero-trash lifestyle—practice some Minimalism, store food in mason jars, shop with reusable bags, and buy things from the bulk and produce sections that aren’t packaged. This sounded like a thoughtful, more sustainable path forward.

But, much of this doesn’t mesh well with ideas from my recent explorations of self-sufficiency, packaging, and transportation, in the posts “Packaging, Transportation, and Doing it Yourself“, and “The Packaging and Transportation Part“. In those posts, I argue that we’re far more efficient, and therefore less wasteful, if we let specialization, productivity, and economies of scale work their magic. To do otherwise, as in trying to do everything yourself, for example, is inefficient, and therefore wasteful, and thus a faulty path forward.

And therein lies the rub. Continue reading

Making Sense of Economic Growth

When is a new road a good thing? Road building in Kenya.

Is a new road a good thing that will improve people’s lives, or is it environmental destruction in action? It is difficult to know using current economic measures. Road building in Kenya.

Here’s an abstract to help get us started today—though economic growth could wreck the planet, it is not necessarily going to do so. But it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between “good” growth and “bad” growth, in part because most indexes that we measure economic change with are too blunt. I’m going to suggest some alternatives here, which might bring some clarity to our understanding of economic growth, and which could help us navigate a path toward genuine prosperity.

 

Making Sense of Economic Growth

It is very common to read arguments about how dangerous economic growth is—how it is destroying the planet, how exponential growth can’t continue, and how it must be stopped. In fact, some environmentalists have long advocated various forms of “de-growth”. And yet, it is very clear that not all economic growth is bad. Growth and economic development will be critically necessary to bring poor nations out of poverty, and there are plenty of other examples of growth that simultaneously help people and help to protect the environment. On the other hand, there are certainly many cases where growth is indeed quite damaging.

 

Why Current Measures are Inadequate

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to judge good growth from bad growth, and this is partly because the ways in which we measure growth are somewhat flawed. Since the 1930’s, growth has been most commonly measured as growth in total production of goods and services, in the form of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. While never intended to be a measure of the overall social progress of a nation, it has been used as a proxy for that virtually since its inception (a good New York Times article about this: “The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P.“). Over the years, plenty of criticism has been directed toward GDP, as much of what it measures as positive growth is actually detrimental to society. Noted thinkers Frijof Capra and Hazel Henderson give a short summary of this argument in a report about qualitative growth

“Social costs, like those of accidents, wars, litigation, and health care, are added as positive contributions to the GDP, as are ‘defensive expenditures’ on mitigating pollution and similar externalities, and [yet] the undifferentiated growth of this crude quantitative index is considered to be the sign of a healthy economy…”

Another flaw of GDP is that it while it mostly ignores social costs, it completely ignores Continue reading

Me on TV

Ha, I’m famous! Ok, not really, but I did do an interview segment for the local community television show. It’s not my preferred form of delivery, I’d much rather write, but I suppose it turned out ok. So if you’re interested, here’s my balding head talking to the camera…

(I suspect this link might not stay linked to the right video—the frame below should be for “Middlebury Five-O, Today’s Guest: Taborri Bruhl”. I’ll try to keep an eye on it to keep it linked correctly.)

In other news, I think I’ve made some serious progress with regard to how we should think about economic growth. That post coming within a week…

 

Soil Erosion—A Crime Against Humanity?

 

Water has cut about 2-feet deep, right down the the hardpan.

Water has cut about two feet deep here, right down to the hardpan.

Take a look at these pictures of soil erosion that I took right here this week in relatively-progressive Vermont. I’ll just sprinkle them in liberally here…

8

Try running a plow over that stone. The more soil washes away, the close all of these stones are to the surface.

Try running a plow over that stone. The more soil that washes away, the thinner the topsoil becomes, and the closer these stones are to the surface.

7

It’s quite the string of pictures. These farmers plowed last fall, as they do every year. Since then it has rained enough times, and hard enough, to cause this. Tons and tons of fertile soil are GONE. Then, this coming year, I’m guessing these fields will get plowed (or disked) and harrowed again, and the remaining soil will be spread around so that these gullies are filled in, and… then the same erosion will happen again, a year from now. Year after year after year, more topsoil washing away. The loss will probably even accelerate— Continue reading

Imagine…

Wind power...

Wind power: more in store by 2050…

Times have changed. In years past when I gave talks about sustainable living I would spend considerable time, perhaps half of each presentation, trying to convince people that we do indeed have an environmental problem here on our green and blue marble.  Today, though, for better or for worse, most people don’t seem to need convincing. This could be because our problems are worse now, or it could be that there is an increased awareness and acceptance of the idea that we need to quit damaging the planet. Either way, what people could use today is some sort of hope that we can indeed do this thing; that we can surmount these huge challenges facing us. And, as I’ve written before, I’m more optimistic than I used to be. We have the tools and technology that we need; we don’t necessarily need new inventions or grand technological breakthroughs. What we do need, though, is a workable common vision of where we’re going.

So, let’s imagine where we could be by the year 2050, if we put our minds to it—even if no new technologies come along to help us. In no particular order, here are some things that we might see. Some of these will be more difficult than others to achieve; I’ll discuss some of the difficulties at the end.

(Click here to listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine” song—to me at least, it seems to set the appropriate mood.) Continue reading

Even RE Isn’t Free, and Other Thoughts

Beautiful berries---to ship or not to ship?

Beautiful berries—to ship or not to ship?

First, I just wanted to let everyone know that I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save” on a partially-completed post yesterday, and then had to quickly delete it, but not before the program sent out the “new post” notices. So, if you got a “new post” notice with a bad link in it, that’s why. Sorry,..

Second, some thoughts on the packaging post. Mr. X had a really important observation that deserves mention. He agreed with the underlying ideas about efficient production, and to paraphrase his comments, “It would be better to grow strawberries in California and ship them to Arizona in self-driving vehicles powered by renewable power, and to put solar generation in Arizona and ship the power to California via high-voltage-DC lines…” But he took issue with my statement that the $2 price on the vinegar in the store reflects its entire cost, and he is indeed correct. That $2 price does not take into account all the costs that companies push off onto third-parties, the “negative externalities”. Whether it’s global warming from fossil fuel use, or downstream effects from plastic pollution, or abuses of workers through unfair labor practices, the jug of vinegar has costs that might not be reflected in its price on the shelf. Though, even if those hidden costs doubled the store price of the vinegar, my underlying point would still hold (and he agreed)—efficient production would be the least wasteful and therefore the most sustainable, within reason.

Again, this is another case where we need to focus on actual problems, and in this case the problem would be negative externalities, and the best solution for those is… good government. But, I digress…

A few other thoughts here. With regard to trade, packaging, and shipping—common sense still applies. The only way to get fresh blackberries in January in the US is to buy ones that have been flown up from South America. Despite the richness created in our lives when we can have fresh berries in January, it probably isn’t worth the cost. Even if the plane was somehow powered by renewable power, we need to realize that even renewable power has a cost—dammed rivers, land given over to solar farms, etc. So although using renewable energy is a goal, we need to balance it with the goal of reduced consumption.

The high-carbon way to get the berries...

The high-carbon way to get the berries… A 747 cargo flight in Anchorage, Alaska.

Related, while I think it’s better to choose packaged items over trying to make everything at home, it’s still a perfectly valid goal to strive for reduced packaging. And some home production can indeed make sense. An example in my life— Continue reading

The Packaging and Transportation Part

Moving cargo by sea is remarkably efficient in terms of carbon emissions per ton.

Moving cargo by sea is remarkably efficient in terms of carbon emissions—as low as 10 grams per ton per kilometer.

In my last, I argued that it might be a more sustainable path for people to avoid striving for self-sufficiency, and to embrace trade and efficiency instead. I’m a bit uncomfortable with this conclusion (two posts that led to this are here and here), because the quest for efficiency, when coupled with market forces, can have severe downsides. If efficiency is the only goal, then production often ends up taking a toll on people, animals, or the environment. But despite these problems that need addressed, I’m quite certain that the underlying  premise is a correct one.  This, in turn, leads to yet another logical conclusion—the “packaging and transportation” part of that last discussion.

Just to recap, here’s the train o’ logic so far—trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency and productivity, which leads to the group being better off. Efforts toward self-sufficiency run counter to this, and are nearly always inherently less efficient. Since efficiency is, by definition, “not wasting time, effort, or materials”, then it follows that its opposite—inefficiency—is wasteful, and (other things being equal) that the efficient path would be the more sustainable one. To expand on this, let’s look at two other common “sustainable” trends that are perhaps as prevalent as trying to be self-sufficient— Continue reading

Packaging, Transportation, and Doing-It-Yourself

Making apple cider on a small scale. Just one of many, many things you can do "yourself".

Making apple cider on a small scale. Just one of many, many things a person can “do themselves”.

And, drum roll, I find myself having ANOTHER thought about how efficiency and productivity affect our vision of what a more sustainable future might look like. Here’s the deal—there seems to be a very strong tendency, among those who endeavor to envision how future sustainable cultures and societies might function, to admire and strive for self-sufficiency, and to push for doing more things ourselves. In fact, it seems to be a near-universal trend in the world of “sustainable” ideas. It isn’t a totally bad inclination; “doing-it-yourself” often results in much more varied and interesting day-to-day work, more well-roundedness in terms of skills and knowledge, and more resilience in the face of adverse economic times. BUT, there is a huge downside—self-sufficiency and do-it-yourself activities run counter to some of those fundamental economic laws I keep talking about, namely that all-important idea that I’ve discussed before, that trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency, which leads to productivity, which leads to the group being better off. And when you violate those laws often enough, you can easily end up with the opposite, where things are going downhill.

So, let me give you some examples of this. When I give it some thought, I realize that there are a lot of things I can do myself. A lot. Just to mention a few, let me see… I can make pasta from scratch, fell timber and mill my own wood flooring, do all the plumbing and electrical in my house, pull and rebuild automotive engines, bake bread, can tomatoes, grow all manner of produce, train my dogs, build a barn, design solar systems, raise chickens and eggs, keep bees and raise honey, make hummus, and who knows what else.

Beekeeping, in the "things I can do" category.

Beekeeping, in the “things I can do” category.

And, if I put my mind to it, there’s even more I’m sure I could learn to do, and/or would like to learn to do—graft fruit trees, make maple syrup, grind mustard seed to make mustard, butcher my own large animals, learn much more about permaculture and agriculture, get fluent in Spanish, sew my own clothes, spin my own thread, design websites, make yogurt, etc., etc., the list goes on. And there’s no end, ever, to how long this particular list might be.

BUT, there’s a problem. Continue reading