Category Archives: Water Issues

Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“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”

plastic trash

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…

garbology book— 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.

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?

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 zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable 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.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.

 

The Promise of Permaculture, Part One

In a post the other week, I mused about where soil fertility comes from. In fact, what I was really wondering was, “where does the soil itself come from?” I suppose I knew the basics, but I’ve gotten a firmer grasp on it, and it’s pretty amazing. The very short version—physical processes like wind and water and glaciation grind or wear down base rock into sands and silts, and then when living things take root there, they put roots down. These roots harbor and foster myriad soil life, from bacteria and fungi to nematodes and earthworms. This soil life actually extracts minerals from the tiny particles of rock. Then a symbiosis begins, where the plants provide the soil life with sugars exuded from their roots, formed by photosynthesis, and the soil life in turn provides the plants with minerals and nitrogen. Then, when the plants (and the soil life, for that matter) die, still more bacteria and fungi decompose the remains and recycle the carbon and nutrients right back into the soil. The more green things that are growing on top, the more soil-building is happening below. Over time, such a system just gets richer, and more fertile, unless outside forces break the cycle. A beautiful film on the subject, “Symphony of Soil”; is available on Vimeo. Here’s the trailer—

The film costs a few dollars to rent, but it’s well worth it.

If you want to see a great example of how this soil creation works in real life, check out another film, “An Oasis in the American Desert”, where Geoff Lawton visits a swale system installed in the middle of the Arizona desert in the 1930s as part of one of the New Deal programs. It’s nearly unbelievable. It’s not in this shorter clip, but in the full version he digs down with his hands and pulls up soil that appears to rival what you could find in Iowa. AND—other than building the large swale that has captured water runoff, humans didn’t do anything at all to create this soil; nature created it without any human intervention, in eighty years, out of desert gravel and sand.

Now, the more one understands where soil comes from, and how it underpins nearly all life on earth, and certainly the existence of humankind, the more destructive, or even suicidal, our current agricultural methods appear. We are used to thinking of industries like mining and fishing as “extractive”, but a great many agriculture techniques are just as extractive. We grow many crops at the expense of the soil, and we use that soil up. Nearly all Industrial agriculture fall into this category, but so do the subsistence farming methods of many of the world’s poor.

As an example, take a typical industrial cornfield in the US. Everything that happens here is a disaster for the soil. The field is usually first sprayed with glyphosate in the spring, (“Roundup” or the like) which kills every living plant on it (here in Vermont, I’ve seen them spray as many as three times in the spring, before the soil is finally warm enough to plant corn). All those soil organisms, if not killed outright by the glyphosate, start to die when the plants above them quit growing, and quit exuding sugars. Then comes the plowing. The soil structure is pulverized, and the fungi hyphae that move minerals and sugars through the soil are physically cut and disrupted. The plowing also introduces large amounts of oxygen into the soil, and the soil carbon begans to “burn up” into CO2, which is released into the air. No plants are present to replace the carbon in the system, so the carbon content of the soil drops. As it drops, the soil can’t hold and retain as much water. At this point, thoroughly disrupted and devoid of plant life, the soil is wide open for erosion, from wind and water.

erosion

Water erosion of plowed farmland in the Red River Basin. Once plowed, such erosion under “conventional” agriculture is virtually unavoidable.

Because soils with reduced carbon content can absorb and hold dramatically less water (the carbon, or humus, acts like a sponge), the water runs off far more readily, and takes soil with it. Then, also because the soils hold less water, they dry faster, and once dry the wind takes yet more soil away.

Eventually the field is planted, usually with GMO seeds that allow yet more applications of glyphosate (just as a clarification, I don’t necessarily hold that GMO plants, by themselves, are horrible things. But in the case of GMO plants that resist glyphosate, they enable a form of farming that is quite destructive). The soil, lacking much of the life that gave it its original fertility, now needs to be dosed with fertilizers, which are nearly always derived from petrochemicals, as are the pesticides that are also applied. So, throughout the season, the soil endures the likes of anhydrous ammonia and Atrazine. The chemicals make it nearly impossible for soil biology to thrive, and the once-living soil begins to revert to “dirt”. Then, once the corn is harvested, the fields are bare yet again, and will stay that way until the next season.

Once land has been through this cycle a few times, its fertility begins to drop, and the crops become naturally weaker. At this point a truly vicious cycle ensues, with the crops needing ever more fertilizer and chemical supports, which is more and more destructive to the remaining soil biology. Over time, more and more carbon is lost, which contributes to global warming, and makes the soils ever more erodable. As the soils become more erodible, not only does more soil end up choking rivers and streams, but more chemicals go with it, and aquatic life suffers as well. In the US, the entire process is a disaster, from the soil in a Midwest cornfield, all the way to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the runoff of chemicals and fertilizer. And as the soil disappears, inch by inch by inch, the future of humans on the planet gets puts into greater and greater jeopardy.

So, what to do? We do have some options, and as you can tell from the title, they have something to do with permaculture. I’ll discuss those next time, in “Part Two”.

 Erosion image credit: USDA, by Keith Weston.

Et Tu, Time?

Yes, it's still disappearing.

Yes, it’s still disappearing.

Really, Time Magazine? As if the section in The Economist wasn’t enough, I open up Time magazine last night, and see a great big “60%” in their “Briefing” section (Sept. 23 edition), with this text underneath (along with clip-art of a shivering penguin)—

” [60%] Increase in ice-covered ocean water since last year, leading some scientists to believe that the planet is actually undergoing ‘global cooling’.”

It took a whole twenty seconds online to figure out the story behind this, but apparently Time doesn’t have that kind of time. A whole host of articles (all written a week or more before the Time edition), with telling headlines, from reputable sources, spell out the details. Just a few of them—

No, The World Isn’t Cooling“, by Phil Plait on Slate.

With Climate Science Like This, Who Needs Fiction? – Discover Magazine.

Arctic Sea Ice Delusions Strike the Mail on Sunday and Telegraph – The Guardian.

Apparently a notable climate denier named David Rose wrote the original deeply-flawed piece in the Mail, a conservative British tabloid, and it was then picked up by the Telegraph, and from there by various outlets in the U.S. But I’m deeply disappointed in Time; they should be embarrassed by this lapse. If commentators the world over figured it out within days, I just don’t see why they couldn’t have figured it out in a week.

Image credit: muola / 123RF Stock Photo

Oh My

fukushima

Mr. X has taken me roundly to task for my Vermont Yankee post. He has some strong points, and suggests that my entire line of thought, throughout my posts, is in danger of contradicting itself. I think he’s wrong, but I’m going to have to do some thinking in order to explain why.

In the meantime, I turn on the computer this morning and see a shocking article on CNN written by an international nuclear consultant, “Why Fukushima is Worse Than You Think“. Oh my, indeed.

I haven’t followed the Fukushima story particularly closely, but my rough understanding of the incident before I read the article was this—after the tsunami the reactors lost power, which caused the cores to begin to overheat, and TEPCO eventually, at great risk to some workers, was able to pump water onto the cores to stabilize them, power was eventually restored to the area and total meltdown was avoided, but the water had become radioactive and had run into the basements, and had to be pumped into temporary holding tanks. Meanwhile, airborne releases of radioactivity did waft over hundreds of square miles, but mandatory evacuations kept most of the population there from being exposed. The incident caused no deaths, and recent reports have shown that radiation exposure to the Japanese population was minimal.

Indeed, everyone seems to discuss Fukushima in the past tense, as in this passage from a Time Magazine article, “According to a recent U.N. report, there will likely be no detectable health impacts from the radiation released by the Fukushima meltdown. The  biggest catastrophe in nuclear power since Chernobyl has turned out less catastrophic than it seemed.”

Well, apparently we haven’t been following this closely enough. If the CNN article is to be believed, and it certainly appears to have been written by someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, Fukushima is far from over. The pumping of the cooling water has never stopped, and highly radioactive water still runs through the melted cores and into the basements at a rate of 400 tons a day. It is pumped from there to temporary tanks on-site, which currently store 400,000 tons of water. Some of the tanks and hoses leak, and hundreds of tons of radioactive water have soaked into the ground or run into the Pacific. No one can enter the reactors because the radiation is lethal, no one knows how far the containment was breached, and if they stop pumping the water the spent fuel would heat up and ignite, causing a release of radiation “dozens of times worse than Chernobyl.” Worse, I get the impression that no one quite knows how to fix it, and the author of the article is calling for an international crisis team to be assembled.

So, I’ll do some thinking about the “hard path” I outlined in the Vermont Yankee post, but this only reinforces my gut feeling that I’d rather live a simpler life powered by clean wind and solar, than an extravagant one powered at the risk of disasters like Fukushima.

In the balance, a better option.

In the balance, a better option.

9 Sept 13- Clarification— Apparently part of the 400 tons of water that accrues each day comes from groundwater flowing into the basements, where it mixes with the radioactive water that is already there, which is what the “ice wall” that has been in the news is designed to stop. The reactor cores themselves have been in “cold shutdown” since Dec. 2011, and part of the delay seems to be a normal multi-year pause before decommissioning begins, to allow radiation levels in the cores to stabilize. However, water must be maintained in the reactors cores and the spent fuel pools, and apparently some of the containments still leak into the basement. How much of the 400 tons a day comes from which source I can’t seem to figure out, but either way it’s a mess.

Image credit: swisshippo / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: tonarinokeroro / 123RF Stock Photo

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Massachusetts wind resource map.

Massachusetts wind resource map.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Opponents of the wind turbines in Lowell, VT, led by groups like Energize Vermont, say that Vermont ridges are far too precious to have wind turbines put on them. There are MUCH better places, according to them, and they whip out maps like the one above. “What could be better than this?”, they say. Huge areas offshore with mean wind speeds above 8 meters/second, all within easy undersea-cable reach of major cities like Boston. All readily doable with off-the-shelf technology. So, save the pristine mountains, and just put the turbines where they make more sense, miles from shore in some of the windiest places in America. I agree that they should be there (along with turbines in Vermont)—I think we need ALL the wind turbines (see post “The Magic-Wand Question“), and putting turbines off-shore seems like a no-brainer.

Well, not so fast. As you may have heard, many people there (and more than a few of them quite-wealthy property owners in Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, and Nantucket) don’t want the towers, either, even if they’re five miles offshore. The main project being proposed, a 454-megawatt installation called Cape Wind, has been trying to overcome regulatory hurdles and legal opposition for over a decade (great Huffington Post article about the project). The good news—it’s nearly fully funded and has indeed managed to clear most of the hurdles, though at great cost, and the project is still pushing forward. I won’t wade into the details of the mess around this, but it’s enough of a circus that two books and at least one feature film have been made about the struggle. Watch this trailer for “Cape Spin” below; it’ll give you a sense of what I’m talking about—

This opposition is clearly a huge case of Not-In-My-Backyard, as even the likes of Robert Kennedy Jr., an ardent opponent of Appalachian mountaintop removal mining and supporter of the Coal River Wind project in West Virginia, opposes Cape Wind. Not incidentally, the towers would be visible on the horizon from the Kennedy compound.

Then, in New Hampshire, people have lined up left and right to support a moratorium on wind development, because they don’t want any project in their “backyard”. (The measure was recently defeated, and wind development will go forward).

Meanwhile, in the midst of much inaction, the real devastation, like the removal on entire mountains in Appalachia for the coal that powers our intransigent lifestyles, continues.

Oh, for a bit of perspective; we might be fiddling while Rome burns.

 Image Credit: Mass.gov

An Important Piece of the Puzzle

“[The planting of crops that are annuals] destroys topsoil. Period.” –Mark Shepard, in “Restoration Agriculture”.

Replacement needed.

Replacement method needed.

I think I’ve found it, and I’m excited—an important missing piece to my mental image of where we are trying to get to. It relates to agriculture, and a problem that has confounded me for a while; years even. I touched on it last month in “One Tough Row: Agriculture“, with its lead photograph of soil erosion. To wit—I can imagine how to wave that magic wand around (yesterday’s post) and fix a lot of problems, but I’m not sure how to fix agriculture. How in the world do we make agriculture sustainable? How do we solve the fertilizer problem? How do we solve the erosion problems? How do we solve the pest-control problems, and how do we power future farm equipment without fossil fuel? How do we fix this system where it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to create every usable calorie of food? How do we solve the problem of diminishing groundwater? Of the cruelty, inhumane treatment, and disastrous environmental effects of factory farming? Of agriculture-related water pollution? The lack of bio-diversity? The crowding out of wildlife?

I’ve had some clues, some inkling of the direction to move in. I read about Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia in “An Omnivore’s Dilemma”, by Michael Pollan, and my wife and I visited his farm a few years ago. He uses a form of polyculture—rotational grazing of livestock in a leader-follower system, and it enables him to raise beautiful beef cattle that are entirely grass-fed, eggs, chickens for meat (the chicken I had that day from his farm was the best I’ve ever had), and pastured pork in a symbiotic, harmonious system that out-produces neighboring farms by several-fold, uses no chemicals or pesticides, and rebuilds the soil from what Joel described as a “worn-out hill farm” with protruding rocks and barely enough grass to mow, to what it is today—one of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever seen, with rich soil and verdant grass.

Other clues—reports of farmers in Asia doing similar things with rotations of geese and ducks through rice paddies, with fish in the mix. A book just out by Judith Schwartz (interview here), “Cows Save the Planet”, about soil building through rotational grazing. Recent emails with a farmer in North Hero, Vermont, about soil-building through a combination of grazing livestock, subsoil plowing, and foliar feeds.

But there were holes in all of these. Grass-fed beef and fresh eggs are great, and healthy pasture is wonderful, but we need cereal crops to feed the world, or at least something like them. We need that massive production of carbohydrates, and of fats and oils, to help provide the energy for human life. And with polyculture in general, we have efficiency problems; as farmers step away from specialization, efficiency and productivity drop, and they have to know more and more about a huge number of subjects.

restoration ag coverBut then, last week at SolarFest, I attended a workshop by a young farmer named Josh Brill, entitled “Savanna and Forest Farms of the Future”. He is farming with a form of permaculture, and this system has the potential to solve every single one of the problems I listed above, and could even help reverse global warming. It could almost literally save the planet. His talk was fascinating, and it turns out that most of what he does and was discussing comes from the work of a farmer in Wisconsin named Mark Shepard, who has written a book called “Restoration Agriculture”. So I read the book. It’s important.

It’s also too much, perhaps, to capture in a single blog post, but let me try to impart the basics. To begin, take a look at the image at the top of this post of a field being disced. This is a form of how humans have done agriculture for 10,000 years—removing all other vegetation in order to plant seeds for annual crops. After you realize that there is a better way, however, the activity in this image starts to look like the agricultural equivalent of mountaintop-removal mining. We remove every living thing, and obliterate entire ecosystems, to prepare these large fields. Then, the wind blows away the bare soil, or the rain comes and washes it away. Then the planting begins, along with all of the problems I started this post with.

The “better way” is a form of permaculture using long-lived, perennial crops Continue reading

One Tough Row: Agriculture

Not my fields but this looks familiar.

Soil erosion.

I called my very first post “A Tough Row to Hoe”. Unfortunately, we’ve got more than one tough row; we’ve got a whole passel of them. A big one is perhaps how to solve the energy and greenhouse gasses equation. Another might be population growth and the related problem of habitat destruction. A third tough row might just be agriculture. This has been on my mind this past week, as here in Vermont we’ve had about ten days of nearly constant rain. Oddly enough, we really needed it before it started. But, just like the old saying, “When it rains it pours”, we may have gotten too much, too fast. Just prior to the rain, the farm I lease my fields to had spent a great deal of time turning fifty or so acres from corn production into grass, and had just finished seeding. Unfortunately, the rains have been heavy enough that a disturbing amount of that finely-harrowed topsoil has been washed either down the hills or right off the edge of the fields and into the streams and ditches. And the truly unfortunate part—there is nothing uncommon or new about this; I see it all the time, as I drive around. And I’ve seen a related problem in other parts of the country with wind blowing soil away. Soil can be created or built, but it’s a slow process, and it’s self-evident that current farming practices are far from “sustainable”. Worse, as the world adds that million more mouths every three days, the pressure on the land will only increase. Not growing food isn’t an option. (We might be able to grow less by changing our eating habits with regard to meat, and our energy habits with regard to ethanol, but those are topics for separate posts.)

The soil conservation issue is just one of a host that are centered around agriculture; there are pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer water runoff issues, there’s groundwater contamination, there’s the decreasing amount of organic materials in soils as they are treated with chemical fertilizers and constantly tilled. There’s the frightening drop in groundwater levels worldwide, due to agricultural irrigation. Then there’s other problems caused by irrigation, such as the salinization of soils.

Then, there’s the problem of how to power farm equipment without using fossil fuels. Batteries and electric motors work fairly well for some applications, but there are no 350-horsepower electric John Deere tractors out there, and there’s not going to be for a good long time, if I had to guess.

There are glimmers of hope. First, a controversial one—GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops. Like nuclear power, I might have to put GMOs into the “I don’t love it but it might be necessary” category. If perennial grains could be developed, or rust-resistant wheat, or rice that can grow with much less paddy-flooding, or crops that are drought tolerant or tolerant of saline soils, etc, then they might be a necessary part of the solution to feeding the worlds’ teeming billions. The Monsanto’s of the world can go too far at times, but the difference between what they do and what plant breeders have done for millennia is mostly (but not completely) a matter of degree.

Another glimmer of hope might be “permaculture”. A Vermonter in Waitsfield has just published a book about his experiences; I’ll have to read it. Their website is at this link- http://www.wholesystemsdesign.com/resilient-farm-homestead-book/ . The author, Ben Falk, could probably provide a great deal of insight into the issues in this post; I might ask him if he would consider contributing a short guest post.

Proper grazing and poly-culture might be part of the solution. I’ve been to Joel Saladin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia (the farm mentioned in Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma), and seen his approach to solving some of these problems, as he combines agricultural efforts in innovative ways, for example, integrating rotational grazing with poultry production. I’ve read about similar approaches in Asia with rice production and ducks. There currently seems to be some substantial controversy about how much carbon could be removed from the atmosphere by improving soils instead of letting them degrade, but two things are clear—1) Some amount, and perhaps a sizable amount, of carbon can definitely be captured and stored in improved soils, and 2), it’s not going to matter what that rate is if we don’t quit cranking carbon into the air at ever-faster rates. I saw a page online today of a counter spinning, representing tons of CO2 released into the air. The ones, tens, and hundreds digits were almost a blur. What we’re doing to the atmosphere is probably madness, and we just don’t appreciate the magnitude of it yet.

So, I’m not sure I have any good answers for this one. My feeling is that it’s something that’s going to be solved, like nearly everything else, a little piece at a time. Agriculture might be something that needs to be more labor intensive in the future, which would go against the general trends in productivity. We can buy organic. We can support Fair Trade. We can buy local, so that we can see where our food comes from, and support farmers who try and use sustainable practices. We can participate in CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and perhaps be involved in its production. We can grow a good deal of food in gardens (during WWII about 40% of all U.S. produce was grown in “Victory Gardens”), and such efforts can double as quality family time, outdoor time, and exercise, along with providing truly fresh and delicious food. (In the last ten days of rain, I saw zero runoff from my mulched garden beds). We can plant nut and fruit trees.

And we can all pay attention, and maybe find more answers together.

Image credit: funniefarm5 / 123RF Stock Photo

Mr. X on Lawn Care

lawn sprinkler

Ha, Mr. X acually seems to (almost) agree with me fully about my “Leave it a Lawn” post. Somewhat unusual. To celebrate, I’ll actually “let him speak” today, because his reply has a certain humor that will be lost if I paraphrase. So, Mr. X on lawns, in his own words–

“Speaking as a standard subdivision dweller with a well-tended, good-looking lawn, I can say without reservation that lawns are, well ….. stupid.  At the moment it would be difficult for me to think of a more futile, wasteful exercise than maintaining an attractive lawn.  The beautiful lawn has something for everyone to hate; wasted time, wasted money, wasted water, all with a strong dose of pollution thrown in.  Really, beyond weekly mowing, and possibly trimming, a lawn shouldn’t be such a resource-sucker in our lives.  But yet we spend untold time, dollars, and petrochemicals trying to defeat Darwin in our backyards.  We can’t be satisfied with the naturally hearty, drought resistant green things that automatically populate our yards.  No, we feel the need to make weak, loser species of plants flourish on our patches of dirt.  And to do this we have to supply them with copious amounts of a very precious resource (the stuff we drink), and then try to fight off regular nature with all manner of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.  Now, I personally feel that well-engineered (to degrade rapidly) pesticides and insecticides are an important — if unfortunate — and necessary part of feeding the world.  But that’s on a farm that produces a very important product, i.e., our sustenance.  So, putting them on a lawn?  Come on — exactly what part of humanity are we helping by making sure the Kentucky Bluegrass defeats the dreaded Chickweed?  One need only look at Las Vegas — home to some of the finest lawns in the world and also a rapidly disappearing water supply — to understand the absurdity.  Now, having said all that, my spouse and neighbors don’t exactly share my views — the Bluegrass must triumph — so a middle ground is necessary that keeps me married and not booted out of the neighborhood.  So here’s what I do — skip all pesticides, they just kill the earthworms and don’t help the lawn in any way that I can tell.  Don’t bag the grass — wastes time and effort and the lawn is better with it.  For fertilizer, I sparingly apply dried, bagged wastewater treatment biosolids (dried bacteria/sludge).  Admittedly, it doesn’t work quite as well as the engineered petroleum-based fertilizers, but it works well enough.  And I don’t water — even the wussy Bluegrass seems to have a good dormant/regrowth cycle.  Now, the interesting thing is that my closest neighbors seem to be following us — we have a decent-looking lawn without constantly spraying it with something (water or chemicals) and we don’t bag, so I see more of that around us.  But we’re still a long way from accepting a “weed lawn.”  Gotta start somewhere.  Just say “no” (slowly) to lawns.”    -Mr. X.

So, I have to say that I like the part about the neighbors following suit; changing cultural expectations is on my “to blog” list.

Image credit: mrtwister / 123RF Stock Photo

Leave it a Lawn

rain and cars

I was discussing the other day how buying an electric vehicle (EV) is “low-hanging fruit” with regard to making changes. Well, another piece of low-hanging fruit might be as close as our front doors—our lawns. Which are related to water-quality, which is also related to… EV’s, in a great big circle.

To back up a bit, the center of this particular story has to do with where storm water goes when it rains. Fifty years ago cities regularly built their wastewater treatment systems so that storm water from their streets would flow into their wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). These were called “Combined Sewer” systems. The reasons were obvious—all the oil and chemicals, and trash, for that matter, that ended up on the streets would get filtered and treated before it was dumped back into rivers and streams (or the ocean, in coastal areas). But, when all things were taken into account, these systems had more drawbacks than positives, because the volume of water that flows into them during heavy rains results in what water engineers refer to as CSO, or Combined System Overflow—the system can’t treat the water fast enough, and it all just flushes straight through into the environment—the storm water and the sewage.

So cities have avoided this combined design, and very few or none have been built in the last 40 years (Only about a quarter of US cities have combined systems today, and most of those are trying to move away from this process). Which is good, because they can do a much better job treating sewage without dealing with storm water. BUT—the downside is that in the vast majority of places all across the U.S. (I’m not sure how Europe does it), anything on the street, or that washes into the street, goes directly into the environment when it rains.

Now, let’s go somewhere else for a second—the Gulf of Mexico. Where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf, and up and down the coast in Texas and Louisiana, are huge areas where oxygen levels are so low that fish and other marine life have a very hard time surviving, if they can survive at all. It’s called the “Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone,” and can affect as many as 7,000 sq. miles of water (it’s worse in the summer). And the dead one is caused by, mainly, fertilizer runoff. So, this is all a topic for another day, but the short version—almost 2 million pounds of potassium and nitrogen fertilizers wash into the Gulf of Mexico each year. (And the same problem exists in coastal areas worldwide, but the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is one of the worst).

NASA image of polluted runoff at Mississippi River delta

NASA image of polluted runoff at Mississippi River delta

Which brings us back to lawns. When you look at it per unit of area, Americans put 40 times more chemicals on their lawns than U.S. farmers put on their fields. And when it rains, those chemicals and fertilizers, the second they hit pavement at the edge of a lawn (or drainage of any sort), are sluiced into the environment in a flash. And that 2 million pounds of fertilizer in the Mississippi River? A full ten percent of it comes from lawns and gardens (and my guess would be that the “garden” part of that figure is probably relatively small).

In the end, all those pretty lawns across America—they’re pretty disastrous in the big scheme of things. If you have a lawn—please quit spending your money buying bags and bags of “Weed and Feed” and such, and then dumping those chemicals straight into the outdoors. For that matter, quit bagging your clippings—if you quit taking the nutrients off of the lawn, you wouldn’t have to be trying to put them back with chemical fertilizers. If you just can’t stand not to bag your clippings, then start a good compost pile and spread the completed compost back on the yard. Upon reflection here, lawns are definitely some “low-hanging fruit”. We could save time, and we could save money, and we could use that saved money to redirect demand in some positive way, and we could help the bees, and we could have a huge effect on water quality, and we could help the shrimp, and the crabs, and the fish, all by “leaving it a lawn”.

And those EV’s? Well, they don’t drip oil onto streets, because they don’t have engines, or transmissions. Just like our environment, the solutions tie together in a great big web.

 Opening image credit: inganielsen / 123RF Stock Photo

A Matter of Perception

dandelion field

Time for a simpler post. Try this—dandelions are beautiful. They make pretty yellow flowers that bees depend on at certain points in the early spring, and the entire plant is edible. This business of spreading herbicides on every other lawn all across American to kill dandelions and the “wrong” kinds of grass is just patently ridiculous. It kills the grass, and the bees, and then washes into streams where it kills the fish, frogs and amphibians. Speaking of completely wasted money, effort, and wealth… Speaking of sending the wrong kind of demand signals to the market… Buying these products and then willfully spreading them around in the environment, on purpose, for no real gain, is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Nissan Leaf update—The Nissan dealerships seem to be sold out for the moment. I guess that’s good news for the planet in the big picture. My wife met a guy in town who was driving one, and he seemed to love it. The dealer in Burlington expects to have more in a few weeks, and I’ll go look at them then.

I love these images from 123RF, some of them are so beautiful that the image alone could suffice as a post. Keeps us reminded of what we’re trying to protect. (Completely unsolicited endorsement).

 Image credit: fyletto / 123RF Stock Photo