Practical electric vehicles for ordinary people—just one of many changes in recent years.
If you haven’t noticed, things are changing out there.
I titled the letter to the editor that I wrote last month “A Call for Perspective“, and in it I argued that we all need to take a wider view on issues such as renewable energy, so that as we go forward we can head in directions that make long-term sense for the planet. Well, the other week I was working with a student on renewable energy topics, and it occurred to me that we also need to keep things in perspective as we look backwards. When we do, we notice that there has been a tremendous amount of change in the last four or five years, and much of it is positive.
So, without turning this into a huge long post, let me just point out some changes, in no particular order. In the last few years, solar and wind generation have each more than doubled, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Solar prices have dropped by half, (and will likely continue to drop), PV cell efficiencies have gone up, and wind power is now one of the cheapest ways for utilities in many parts of the country to add capacity. Continue reading →
Wind turbines in Denmark. The nation has strong government support for wind power, and at times generates over 100% of its electricity from wind.
(Note: This is my letter to the editor that was printed in the Addison Independent this week, though they changed the title from my original above. Several of you have asked for an electronic copy or link, so here it is.)
For the last few years I have been carefully following the debate about Vermont’s solar and wind development. There have been many valid points brought up by both advocates and opponents, and there seems to be a consensus opinion forming that revolves around a middle ground of sorts. Most Vermonters do agree that we need to transition toward a renewable-energy economy, but also that common-sense guidelines should be developed with regard to the approval and siting of wind turbines, solar arrays, and their distribution networks. I do sometimes wonder, however, if the body politic is occasionally losing sight of the forest for the trees, especially when I see the tiniest of details about specific projects being debated in various public forums.
In light of this, let me attempt to bring us all back a step. In the last several centuries, we humans have benefited tremendously from the use of fossil fuels; the power they contain has underpinned most of the world’s development and wealth creation. This energy source has also enabled human populations to mushroom, and, despite a gradual slowdown, world population is still increasing by about a million people every four days. The pressures that 7 billion-plus humans are putting on the planet are beginning to break it, as oceans acidify, the planet warms, wildlife habitats shrink, soil washes away, species vanish, pollution accumulates, and sea levels rise. Though the problems are many and disparate, a good portion of them are related to the use of fossil fuels, because using them has in some ways been a bargain with the devil. Despite the benefits that these fuels have given to mankind, we now better understand that they have dangers as well, and realize that burning them is not without cost, particularly with regard to CO2 emissions. Despite efficiency improvements across the board, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are still climbing steadily, and have now passed 400-parts-per-million—higher than any time in the last four million years. Worse, these higher levels hold a hidden danger, as atmospheric CO2 is quite stable, and continues to cause warming for centuries. This warming of the planet is also likely to exacerbate all of the other problems that we humans are causing, and many of them could become mutually reinforcing, or even spiral out of control in future decades. Mankind has unknowingly, and then knowingly, been playing a very dangerous game.
An old photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.
I’ve heard the exact same argument three or four times in the last few days, in what seems like a strange coincidence. To wit, “because my part is small, it doesn’t matter”. I heard an economist on NPR the other day discussing a potential carbon tax in Vermont, and he was saying that Vermont is so small compared to the rest of the world that cutting our emissions would have no measurable effect, so we should just skip the tax. Then I saw the argument in one of the Wait But Why posts, where the author discusses the cruelty of factory farming, but admits that he still eats meat from factory farms, even though he knows that “if everyone thought that way nothing would ever change”. Then there was David Brooks’ article about climate change yesterday, where he discounted a nationwide carbon tax in the U.S., on the grounds that it would have no measurable effect worldwide (which probably isn’t true).
These statements are actually difficult to counter, because they are related to what economists call the “free-rider problem”. Namely, that if someone else pays a price, and you can skip the price and yet still get the service, then it is in your rational interest to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most sustainability issues, not acting is also a prescription for failure. Continue reading →
I’ve been studying and learning and thinking for many years, trying to figure out how we can solve this environmental dilemma that we humans find ourselves in. And I’m not completely sure about the following, but—more and more I’m realizing that the workable path forward is likely to be a variation of what we’re doing now, and not some drastic departure or major paradigm shift. When you look at the big picture, we humans are not as far off the track as some fear.
That statement might cause some hand-wringing in some quarters, and it does seem a bit counter-intuitive when you see the immense damage that is being done to the planet. BUT, here’s my thinking—to fix it, we don’t need revolutionary changes, we need evolutionary ones. To explain, here are four things we don’t need—Continue reading →
It all comes down to… you. And me. And other individuals.
Here’s why individual action matters—because it’s ALL individual action. It’s individual action, and only individual action, that will solve our problems. Here’s what I mean by that—National Geographic’s current issue focuses on climate change, and in their article “How to Fix It”, they have sections for actions that individuals can take, and then more sections about actions that businesses, cities, nations, and the world can take, as if there’s “us”, and then other entities beyond “us”. But it’s all “us”, when you really look at it.
Their first section on individual action is clear enough; we can all make changes. And, those changes can be dramatic—our family has made changes to our house and transportation systems that are saving about 3,000 gallons of fossil fuel a year, compared to the lifestyle that we were living ten years ago. We can all reduce consumption, and invest in efficiency, and vote with our dollars with regard to what we choose to purchase, and vote with our ballots for political leaders who are committed to moving us along in a better direction, and educate ourselves, and refocus our lives in meaningful directions. Continue reading →
Earth, photographed from the Apollo 4 mission, 1967. Much has changed down there in the decades since.
It’s my birthday. I’m 48. And 48 years ago it was 1967, and looking back to that time can give us some perspective on the human trajectory, because trust me, it wasn’t all that long ago, and much has changed. When I was born, there were 3.4 billion people on the planet. Today there are over 7.3 billion, and the numbers are still climbing (though, thankfully, slowing down just a bit, but still projected to climb for the remainder of this century). That’s 3,900 million more people on the planet, since I was born not all that long ago. 3,900 million more people that need to eat, and have clothes, and clean water, and a roof over their heads.
And, what’s out-paced even population growth is the growth of the world economy. In 1967 world per-capita GDP was about $2,000. Today it’s over $7,000. So, if my math is right, while population has more than doubled since I was born, the economy is now something like seven times larger. Seven times. In general, that’s seven times more roads, ports, planes, energy use, steel and concrete production, and consumption of all kinds.
Here’s what this mass of humanity looks like today, from the International Space Station–
As you can see from the video, there are an awful lot of us now. These two things, population growth and economic growth, have brought us where we are today, where the ecology of the planet is under tremendous pressure. Half of the world’s forests are gone. Nearly 40% of all arable land is being used for agriculture. The oceans are under siege, from acidification caused by fossil fuel use, to pollution and dead zones and overfishing. Animal life worldwide is finding itself squeezed. All of this, in addition to human-caused climate change. Continue reading →
“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”
No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.
l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—
— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…
— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.
— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).
— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is 5gyres.org; there is a lot of material on their website.)
Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.
So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.
Plastic-free—possible but difficult?
I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…
Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
According to several scientific sources, 2014 was the warmest year on record. The planet, and the oceans, are continuing to warm. The world’s oceans are also rising, and are getting more acidic. Along with a host of other problems, we humans aren’t on a great track, to say the least. But, I’ve seen some glimmers of progress lately, signs that we might be beginning to turn the tide. As an example, consider these two recent articles in The Economist, which each contain some bits of good news—
First, world CO2 emissions did not increase last year, (“CO2 and the Climate: Flatlining“) despite growth in the world economy. This is the first time this has ever happened, and was due to efficiency improvements and to increases in renewable-energy generation. So for all of you out there that have changed some light bulbs to LED ones, or acquired more fuel efficient cars (or electric vehicles), or added solar panels, or purchased renewable power from your electric company, or weatherized your house, or participated in these efforts politically, or grown more of your own food, my hat is off to you. Good job; all of these efforts, large and small, by governments and by individuals, are starting to register.
The second article (“Coal Mining: In the Depths“) is about how worldwide political and economic winds are turning against the coal industry. According to the article, the Dow Jones coal index has fallen by 76% in the last six years, 2/3 of planned coal-fired power plants worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or scrapped, and a strong divestment movement is occurring due to concerns of coal’s role in climate change and health risks.
To put these pieces of news in perspective, consider this—just two years ago I was writing posts where I was discussing how worldwide CO2 emissions were accelerating, and how 1,200 new coal-fired power plants were planned. Neither of those facts is true anymore; these are real changes.
Now, neither of these glimmers of progress is nearly enough, we have much more to do. CO2 in the atmosphere will stay potent for many decades, and total accumulations are still headed upward with no perceptible slowdown. Total coal consumption is still slowly rising, despite the pressures the industry faces. But the type of news I began with is what we should expect to see as things start to change. For years I’ve used the analogy that the task we’re involved in is akin to pushing with our hands on the side of a ship like the Titanic, while it is alongside a dock. We’ve all been pushing, for years, and the ship is finally starting to move. Momentum is gathering. Economies are shifting. Attitudes are changing. So, take a tiny bit of satisfaction from news like this, and then keep on pushing. Your efforts are working.
Chestnut trees, likely photographed in the 1870’s. These tremendous forests are gone, but it’s within humanity’s power to bring them back. Imagine this photo in color, and imagine what it must have looked like above these men.
Here’s an idea for you, one that I’ve seen or heard repeatedly recently—the idea that “sustainability” isn’t an adequate goal, but rather that we need to go beyond just sustaining our degraded world, and strive instead for restoration. Now, this is a bit of semantics which rests on just how narrowly we define “sustainability”, but regardless, it’s a valid thought. And, something I saw in that video I posted the other day of a talk by Mark Shepard really brought this home. In what is likely to be the longest quote I’ve ever included, let me write it out here. First, he put up a photograph that he had taken, of a soybean field before harvest. That image was quite similar to this one—
A field of soy—not the way the land used to be.
And this is what he said about it—
“This is a soybean field. Yes, it happens to be a genetically modified soybean field. I am standing, however, right in front of a plaque, looking out over this area here. . . [The plaque is about how,] during the Jefferson administration, before the Louisiana Purchase, they took a bunch of surveyors. . . and told them to go west in a straight line, and carry this steel measuring chain, and every six miles to stop, and record what they saw. This is somewhere in east south-central Ohio, and here, [where this plaque is], the team reported that they had just come out of old growth forest, out of these hills [behind them]. . . [They reported that the forest] was American chestnut, eight to ten feet in diameter, so close together that they had a hard time getting their horses through. As an understory weed, underneath these giant chestnuts, were sugar maples, with three and four-foot diameter trunks, that had no branches until sixty feet up in the air. Imagine sugar maples—the biggest sugar maples you’ve ever seen—as an understory shrub. Amazing. Well, then they come out into this opening, and they were like, ‘Oh, my goodness’. There were scattered . . . three to five gigantic oak trees per acre in this opening, and the list of animal species was a “who’s who” of wild kingdom North America. Mountain lions hanging out in the trees, deer and birds. . . [the mountain lions] had so much to eat, that none of other animals were afraid. There were bison and grizzly bear and brown bear, all east of the Mississippi. There were elk, ground birds in huge flocks, and one of the things that was most noticeable, was that the grasses, in this grassland that they went through, were over the heads of their horses. . . These were real human beings who came out of this old-growth forest, and into this clearing, and really did see this. And that was some of the allure that brought people down the Ohio River valley, this incredibly abundant, fertile, heartland of America in the Midwest. . .”
And, then… they proceeded to cut it all down and start plowing, which degraded the soil, continually, until today.
But, I think, if we all put our minds to it, that, as challenging as our environmental problems are, that they can be overcome. The technology exists. We can quit destroying the planet, we can safeguard natural species, we can let paradise regrow. In fact, with regard to the American chestnut, groups like the American Chestnut Foundation are working very hard to develop chestnuts that have genetic resistance to the blight that has killed billions of these trees.
Later in the same talk I quoted above, Mark Shepard mentions that we often think that someone else will fix our environmental problems; that someone else will provide a solution. “They” will fix it. But, and I agree with him—there is no “they”. There is only us. You, and me, and other people that understand. It is up to us, to understand, and to act. It’s time to get to work.
Let’s plant more of these, and let them grow…
Chestnut forest image: Forest History Society.
Soybean field: “Soybeans at Harvest”, by the United Soybean Board, Flickr Creative Commons.
“Permaculture needs to be based on reality… that’s real design, vs. play design. We need to get real…” —Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture.
Rich, fertile, soil, full of life—the foundation of nearly everything.
I was talking to a friend about soil yesterday, and describing that industrial-ag, soil-destruction sequence that I was discussing in my last post. He was really following along with me, and then, after much discussion, asked the question—“So what do we do about it?” Well, that part is complicated. And here’s where we get to the permaculture part, because permaculture is really at the exact other end of the spectrum from that industrial cornfield.
An example—if you take a piece of land, and manage the flows of water across it, and plant it with a wide variety of plants, and quit tilling the soil, and make sure that nutrients aren’t leaving the system, then that system will become progressively richer, more fertile, and more full of life. Life begets life. If left alone, nature will do much of this on its own. But, and here’s the “a-ha” moment that Bill Mollison had a half century ago that led him to develop what we call permaculture today—with just the right interactions, humans can accelerate this process. And, with proper design choices, the system can be made to provide abundantly for people, at the same time it grows richer and more diverse. From these ideas came Bill Mollison’s three ethics of permaculture—earth care, people care, and the return of surplus to the system. By the way, a trailer for a new film about the subject—
Now, I won’t try to explain all of permaculture here (though the trailer above actually gives a pretty good overview), but suffice it to say that permaculture methods can indeed be used to create little Gardens of Eden. The systems can vary in size, from small urban balconies, to homesteads with enough acreage to approach food self-sufficiency, to larger farms run by many people. The dream of the permaculture community is for these paradigms to become the norm, and for the human presence on the planet to become regenerative, healing the planet and all the life on it. Permaculturists typically seem to envision a reduced-energy future, with reduced consumption, much fewer material goods, but with a richer and more meaningful existence.
And, it is at this point in the train-of-thought that I begin to grimace just a bit, because the narrative begins to break down. For those of you that have been with me for a while, you’ll recognize the issue right away, because I’ve written about it repeatedly, from the very beginning. In short, we can’t all be self-sufficient (see post, “The Amish Question“). We can, with lots of work and plenty of knowledge, and if we happen to have land, approach food self-sufficiency. But we can’t be self-sufficient in clothing, and metals, and electronics, and solar panels, and PVC pipes, or electric fence chargers, or window glass, or any of the thousand others things that go into a food-self-sufficient homestead, not to mention medical care and education and government. Now, some of us can approach food self-sufficiency, and that’s good for the planet. The more permaculture yards and homesteads and farms we have, the better (see my post, “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“). But we can’t all spend our lives on permaculture homesteads, we still need doctors and teachers and researchers and people making clothing and shoes and steel, etc. And, those people will likely live in or near cities. City-dwellers can grow some of their food in urban balconies and street medians and empty lots, but this production won’t come close to feeding the urban population. Cities, as they have throughout history, will depend on the countryside around them. Food will flow in, and wastes will flow out (and, in the future, renewable energy will also be made in “the country”, and flow in).
So, it follows logically that we will therefore need farms that can produce food. And they can’t be like today’s industrial farms, because these methods are ruining the soil. What we need is for the ideas of permaculture to be scaled-up, and for the labor productivity of permaculture to be increased. Humans with hoes and wheelbarrows are usually lucky to feed themselves; we need mechanized farming operations that can feed many times more people than it took to produce the food. Fortunately we have some moves in that direction, moves that answer my friend’s question of “So what do we do about it?”.
I can best illustrate this, I think, with a series of videos. The first of these— “The Difference in Tilled and No-till Soils”. If you’re in a hurry, fast forward to 3:30, though what you’ll see will be amazing enough that you’ll want to back it up and get the details.
So, a dramatic demonstration of what tilling does to the soil. Now, here’s a video about the “no-till” part, where farmers sow cover crops, and then “terminate” them just prior to planting their cash crops–
These methods are much better than tilling, BUT, if you didn’t catch it, these farmers are still using glyphosate (“RoundUp”) to accomplish the “termination” part; to kill the cover crop prior to planting the main crop. But, there are other ways to do this—cover crops can be crimped or rolled, they can be mowed, or they can be grazed. Here’s the next step in my series, a farmer named Gabe Brown, from North Dakota, who has become something of a guru in the world of those concerned about soil.
Now, I don’t think Gabe Brown thinks of himself as a “permaculturist”, but he’s getting pretty close whether he realizes it or not. Nearly all of the elements are here—diversity, design systems that imitate nature, earth care, return of surplus. But he’s a large-scale farmer and rancher, and he farms for a living. Now, Gabe Brown mostly uses grazing to terminate his cover crops, but he also still uses some glyphosate (in another video he discusses how how is trying to quit using herbicides altogether, but still uses some, what he described as “one pass every few seasons”). Nevertheless, his system is amazing, and could, and should, be widely implemented. (Among other things, it could eliminate the confinement feeding of beef, and all the environmental damage that flows, literally, from that industry). So, is it possible to farm like this, and completely eliminate the use of glyphosate? It is indeed, and it is being called “pasture-cropping”. It was developed in Australia by a farmer named Colin Seis. Watch him tell his story—
Here we are approaching a system that is natural, holistic, diverse, and can be accomplished without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Again, very close to permaculture.
One last video here, a farmer I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard (post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“), who actually does refer to himself as a permaculturist. This one is long, but really explains the entire ball of wax—
So, to sum up—cover crops, mob grazing, plant and animal diversity, care of the soil, pasture-cropping, silvopasture, alley-cropping, regenerative systems, all on a larger scale. These are all being done today, for profit; these aren’t homesteaders trying to approach self-sufficiency. In the words of Mark Shepard, these farmers are “getting real”, and that’s the real promise of permaculture.
Earthworm image credit: “20071017_123755” by yama_hokkaido, Flickr Creative Commons.