Category Archives: Wealth Inequality

Not So Far Off Course

Much is possible with our current systems.

Much is possible with our current systems.

Guess what?

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

Sweatshops: Free Trade or Modern-day Slavery?

The bodies of two workers after the collapse of a sweatshop factory in Savar, Bangladesh, in 2013.

The bodies of two workers after the collapse of a sweatshop factory in Savar, Bangladesh, in 2013, where over a thousand workers were killed.

 Co-written with Joseph Bruhl

When it comes to understanding globalism and free trade, I think the world has gone crazy. I’ve written many times about the need to be informed consumers, and the power of our vote when we use our dollars to make sustainable, values-based purchases. But when it comes to many basic goods and services provided through a global economy, it’s hard to know what to think. In a complex and interconnected world, real solutions defy simple rhetoric. On the left, writers criticize the status quo and ignore basic economic truths while proffering unworkable alternatives. On the right, lovers-of-the-market can’t get beyond the basic dogma of “free trade benefits both parties.” In the middle, we find ordinary, common sense. The market provides powerful tools that lift millions to a better life. But, the market also carries tremendous risk of exacerbating inequality and deepening the misery of millions. As consumers, we must remain clear-eyed about the benefits and dangers of the market, and ensure that our dollars leverage the power of the market while minimizing its risks.

In China, anti-suicide nets surround factory dormitories. In Bangladesh, thousands of dead lie entombed in collapsed factories. In Indonesia, workers suffer as they sew our clothes for pennies an hour, while local industries in Jamaica are decimated by unfair competition. All of this tells us that something is amiss. Continue reading

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Rider Park, Lycoming County, PA.

Rider Park, Lycoming County, PA.

After my last post, I feel the need to take a stronger stand against wealth inequality. Though I have no doubt that it “matters”, there are plenty of arguments, some from noted economists, that the world can continue on in this unequal fashion just fine, and there are even some that claim that inequality is actually a wonderful thing (and just as many that say it can’t, and isn’t). But, in the midst of trying to determine which of these arguments have merit, an article that a friend recommended made me realize that I’m not thinking nearly big enough, and, like the saying goes, I haven’t been seeing the forest for the trees.

The article is a scholarly one, by David W. Kidner of Nottingham Trent University in the UK, entitled “Industrialism and the Fragmentation of Temporal Structure”. If you want to tackle the original, then click on the PDF button on this page. However, I’ll try to condense some of his ideas here, at the risk of oversimplifying, and at the risk of melding some of my ideas with his.

Kidner’s key idea is, perhaps, that industrialism has profoundly changed the world, AND has changed how we think about the world. We have become part of the industrial system, and if we aren’t careful, our solutions to environmental problems will come from within this industrial mindset. But if industrialism itself is antithetical to nature, as it gives every appearance of being, then such solutions may well be false. So how does industrialism change how we think? Partly, according to Kidner, by altering our sense of time in ways that cause us to focus too much on the immediate. Things that came before, or things that will follow after, are increasingly eclipsed by an abnormal focus on the present. This is combined with a modern habit of seeing “nature” as a static state; a snapshot in present time. The reality is far more complex, however—the natural world is not a single state, but rather a pattern that plays out over time. Nature can’t be understood at a fixed moment; such an attempt is too reductionist. As Kidner puts it, “…fragmentation sucks the meaning out of the world”. If we are to truly see the natural world, then we must step back, not just spatially, but temporally. When we do this, we see a great continuum, where the past, present, and future are all one “thing”; one process; one pattern.

And, when we get to this point, we can begin to see how destructive industrialism has been. Industrialized humans, by ignoring the past and the future, are completely disrupting these patterns in time. In fact, Kidner asserts that the consequences of our current actions far exceed our ability to predict their future effects. We are in effect smashing things that are far, far removed from us in time, and in ways that we are unable to understand. As he puts it, we are “colonizing the future”. A related effect of this reduced temporal view is that we tend to see nature as it was earlier in our own lifetimes as the norm, when that state could have already been far degraded. But many of these degradations, while nearly instantaneous in geologic time, move just slowly enough in terms of human perception as to render them barely noticeable (for a discussion of this see my post, “Global Warming for the Skeptical“). Only by training ourselves to see things from a temporal distance can we begin to see both the destruction that humans have caused, and the changes that today’s actions will cause; one lifetime’s worth of personal experience just isn’t encompassing enough to see the patterns. Global warming, the buildup of toxic chemicals, mountaintop removal mining, the loss of topsoil, desertification, nuclear waste, the wholesale alteration of land and sea, the mushrooming of human populations, extinctions—with some temporal distance it becomes clear that these are all occurring very, very quickly, and that we are at risk of permanently destroying the earth’s natural systems. (A perfect example of all of this short-term thinking—the article about sea-level rise in Florida in the current National Geographic Magazine, which mentions how developers and politicians are purposefully using 50-year projections rather than 100-year ones, because the latter show enough sea-level rise to render huge parts of Florida uninhabitable.)

So much for the Everglades. Florida with one meter of sea-level rise, an amount predicted to occur well before 2100.

So much for the Everglades. NASA image of Florida with one meter of sea-level rise, an amount predicted to occur well before 2100.

Realizing how constrained we are in our thinking is important, because if we try and deal with our problems from within an industrial viewpoint that focuses nearly exclusively on present states, one that ignores patterns in time, then we get answers that are invalid. We must have the courage to step outside of our viewpoints that are colored by our industrial experiences, even if we can’t see how solutions will work within the context of our current political or cultural realities. To not do so is to become captive to our current myopic view, and will result in limited answers that fail to “get out of the box”, so to speak.

So, to get back to where I started, this was the thought that made me realized that my efforts to decide how to argue against global wealth inequality is an example of what Kidner is discussing, Continue reading

“Staggering” Inequality


A film about young Americans trying to live at the world poverty line of $1 a day. It is well worth watching, and is available on Netflix.

“Simply staggering”. That’s how Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam, referred to global wealth inequality this past week. And the numbers are indeed staggering. Among the figures recently compiled—the richest 1% now own 48% of the world’s wealth, and will soon own more than half, and the richest 80 people in the world own more than the entire bottom half of the world’s population combined. Just to copy how I saw someone describe this yesterday, “Yes, that’s 80:3,500,000,000”. Then I watched the film “Living on One Dollar”, in which four college students from the U.S. move to Guatemala and attempt to live at the international poverty line of $1 a day (recently raised to $1.25), and it is just so very clear that the tiniest amounts of aid, if delivered effectively, could completely change the lives of people worldwide who are stuck in vicious cycles of poverty, who are unable to properly feed their children, who lack access to clean water or medical care, and who are unable to afford education. The amount I might spend on a snack on the way home from work could easily double a poor family’s income for a day.

But, let’s back up and look at this disparity, as how we got here isn’t as difficult to understand as some might think. First, the things that cause inequality within wealthy nations are slightly different from the things that cause inequality between the world’s nations. In terms of the United States, for example, you may have seen the YouTube video that went viral the other year–

While shocking, you don’t need Leftist conspiracy theories to explain how things ended up this way in wealthy countries. People who are bright and hardworking and get an education have a great deal to offer the market economy, and they are generally rewarded for it with high salaries. And, these people with high salaries spend a great deal less, proportionally, on food and clothes and the other necessities of life, than the less fortunate do. So, with a little willpower, they can save and invest chunks of their incomes, and, over time, grow wealthy. They can fund their children’s educations, they can use their money and influence to maintain the political situations that enable them to build wealth, and they can pass on their estates to their children due to low inheritance taxes. They can also use their social and political connections to help their children get into the best schools, and to subsequently help them find lucrative employment, all of which keep the wealthy wealthy. It isn’t a great mystery. (And in an odd coincidence, this week’s cover story in The Economist, “America’s New Aristocracy”  is all about how the wealthy are more and more able to ensure that their children also become wealthy).

At the other end of the spectrum, those with less to offer the market economy find themselves competing both with technology, which can ever more efficiently do low-skill jobs, and with foreign workers, who will do those jobs for less pay. With these forces depressing both wages and employment levels, people at the bottom find it ever more difficult to get ahead, as it often takes their entire incomes just to stay even. Their children fall victim to a huge array of pitfalls, and more often than not end up impoverished themselves.

Ford robots- cropped

Modern economies require fewer low-skilled workers, as automated systems become more and more capable. This trend will likely continue.

And while Inequality in the US is extreme, the fact is that inequality by world standards is even worse. The reasons for this are a bit different, but are also not difficult to understand. Wealthy nations have learned to create wealth, and that wealth makes it easier to create ever more wealth, in a virtuous cycle. Poor nations, by contrast, often have problems that derail wealth creation, and find themselves actually going backwards. I wrote about this in my post “Wealth 101“; I’ll copy two paragraphs here– Continue reading

The Economic Taproot of Consumerism


The Cambridge Galleria—about as non-Minimalism as one can get; a three-story temple to Consumerism.

(Note— I’ve written this post, but I’m not sure exactly what to think of it. This subject of how-much-advertising-is-too-much is one that cries out for nuance. I think I’ll go ahead and post it as food for thought; feel free to chime in with your two cents, sometimes there’s real wisdom in group-think.)


I always tell people, when they ask about our off-grid house, that “we live like normal people”. We cook, eat, sleep, work, wear clothes, drive cars, pay bills, etc., pretty much like everybody else. But maybe we don’t live like normal people. We recently took a short family vacation to the Boston area for four days, and my sudden exposure to other people’s “normal” was a bit of a shock.

First of all, we’re about one fast charger short of being able to easily take one of the Leafs to Boston (anyone listening, Lebanon, NH?), so we rented a gas-mobile. It was a Nissan Sentra, and it got really good mileage, over 40 mpg according to the readout. But, I haven’t had to pump gas into a car for well over a year, so that alone was something new.

And, this is probably true for anyone, but it’s hard to “live sustainably” while out of town. We ate lunch at the Boston Science Museum the first day, and the mountain of trash we generated was just shocking; probably more trash than we generate in days here at home. Plastic-ware, paper cups and bowls, lids, foam plates, napkins, little salt and pepper packets, ketchup containers… A good portion of it could have been composted or recycled, but alas, there were no bins for either. Our hotel had complementary breakfasts that were also served on disposable-ware, so that same trash scene got repeated every morning as well, and then other days while out for lunch. Worse, we twice brought food that we couldn’t finish at a restaurant back to the hotel in take-home containers, but there was no refrigerator in the room, so both times that too ended up in the trash. Then there were the paper cups in the room, the daily washing and drying of all the sheets and towels, and the running of the AC because there was no good way to open the windows. All told, we were “consuming” at way, way higher rates than we normally do.

Now, all of that above-mentioned consumption and waste was mostly a function of sustainable systems not being in place. But, when we went to the Galleria mall in Cambridge, I was once again struck by how there is a whole other class of consumption out there. The Galleria contains a hundred stores or more, glitzy signs and ads, seemingly almost completely centered around fashion, appearance, or the latest gadgets. A veritable Temple of Consumerism; shoes for women who probably already have closets full, clothes that will likely only get worn a few times, high-priced sportswear with all the desirable designer labels. Some of the women shopping, judging from their appearance, would rank fashion and cosmetics as a driving force in their lives. The whole place just gave me an overwhelming sense of shocking superficiality, of uselessness, of waste. And most of those purchased items, in their specialty packaging, were being carried around in largish plastic or paper bags emblazoned with yet more designer logos, with both packaging and bags soon to go into the trash after their few minutes of use, where they would be transported still more before being buried in some landfill by fossil-fuel burning machines.

Then, back at the hotel, we were treated to the latest in cable TV; channel after channel of high-definition distraction, our modern day “opiate of the masses”. In fact, every single restaurant we went to, for four days, also had a television prominently blaring. Every single one, even the nice ones, and the hotel breakfast area as well. Inane “news” reporting, hyped up and rather ridiculous game shows, reality-style fix the house shows, morning shows, the list went on.

But, there’s a common thread between the TV and the mall. In 1904, J.A. Hobson wrote “The Economic Taproot of Imperialism”. Well, I believe what we have today could be called “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism”. The TV shows are evaluated and re-evaluated by the networks, to see which ones get the biggest share of the viewing audience. If a show (or the news) doesn’t “perform”, it gets replaced. The result is that every show, on every channel, is expressly designed to hold people’s attention (and it works; try having a meaningful conversation with your family while a TV is on nearby). And the purpose of attracting this audience? To sell advertisements, in the form of commercials, which play for huge chunks of every broadcast hour. And, the commercials themselves, created by America’s 300-billion-dollar ad industry, are scientifically designed and focus-group tested to ensure their own effectiveness at holding people’s attention. They are all finely tuned to convince people that they need this product, that food, this image, that vehicle. They are also finely tuned to convince people that what they already have isn’t good enough, so that those people have to go to… the mall. They have to go to the mall to shop, to replace, to keep up with the moving target of fashion, all carefully crafted by the puppet-masters in the looming skyscrapers above. Thus, the Galleria. (And this isn’t a new idea, Herbert Marcuse discussed this exact topic in his 1969 book “An Essay on Liberation”. A short and insightful excerpt—“…The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man, which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form…”)(Good short overview of his book here.)

Marcuse bookAnd to pay for all this consumption, for all that stuff and the big houses to store it in, people work, forty hours a week or more.

Then, in Boston, there were the many, many disadvantaged people we walked past every single day, waiting on buses and living in the poorer parts of town, who would clearly be unable to shop for much of anything at the Galleria.

So, waste and uselessness on one end of the spectrum, and privation on the other. It sometimes makes me wonder about our system.

Anyway, the above is a bit of a rant, but it seems that this media/consumption cycle isn’t in any way helpful in moving our systems and social structures toward some semblance of sustainability. I realize there’s a middle ground in terms of how to think about this topic—the market system creates the wealth and choices we all enjoy, name brands and advertising convey information that serve some useful purposes, and I enjoy a funny TV show just as much as the next guy. I also realize that human nature drives much of this; biology causes us to attempt to exhibit our evolutionary fitness and status with our clothes and belongings, and we all have hardwired conceptions of beauty that the fashion and cosmetic industries tap into. But, just as we have to use some self-control when eating, because evolution wires us to enjoy eating salt, fats, and sugars, we all need to use some self-control in the media and consumption arenas.

So, if you want to be part of the solutions, it might be good to turn off that TV, and give some thought about what the root motivations are that drive your purchases. And for me, the next time we go on a vacation like this, I might want to throw a recycling tub into the car. After all, why be normal?

veggie grill

Hanging out with George this evening, grilling garden veggies. Simple pleasures, and much less consumption than in the big city.

Top and bottom images: Me

Third-Best Option

“Recycling is better—I won’t write “good”—for the environment…Placing a box or can in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem….if that realization leaves you feeling bad, there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.” — Adam Minter, in “Junkyard Planet”.

JunkyardPlanet cover

If Adam Minter has a main point in his fascinating new book, it might be this—recycling isn’t a free lunch. While better than putting material in landfills, there are costs associated with recycling that can’t be ignored. And if he has a second major point, it is probably that the huge, billion-dollar global scrap trade is driven nearly entirely by market forces. You can put your newspapers or plastic bottles into a recycling bin, but if market conditions aren’t such that profits can be made, then that material will often wind up in a landfill. And, in a tremendous number of cases, it is conditions in China, and other developing countries, that allow those profits to be made.

Along the way, he has some truly amazing stories. As the son of a scrapyard operator, and a journalist for trade magazines in this field, he seems highly-qualified to tell these tales, and his stories about what happens to our trash and recycling are fascinating. A very-short version of some salient and interesting points—In 1970, there were 40 million abandoned cars in the U.S., so many that President Nixon referred to the problem in one of his speeches. Despite all the recoverable metal in old cars, they just can’t be melted whole. For one reason of many, even 1% copper melted with steel will ruin the properties of the steel. So, they had to be disassembled and sorted prior to being melted, and in the U.S. it just didn’t pay to do so. Then, about 1970 machines were invented that shredded cars, which turned them into fist-sized or smaller chunks, whereupon magnets could pull out the steel. Suddenly it became profitable to recycle old cars, but it took until 2008 to clear the backlog. Likewise with electric motors—for decades in the U.S. it wasn’t economical to repair them, and it also didn’t pay to take them apart for recycling, so they piled up in scrapyards by the millions (or were landfilled).

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

Then, everything began to change with the advent of the truly global economy of the 1990s, and the rise of China as a manufacturing power. All of the shipping containers that brought goods from China to the U.S., and the ships that brought them, had to return to Asia for their next loads. Since they had to make the trip anyway, shipping rates from the U.S. to China were (and are) extremely cheap, in many cases much cheaper than moving material between cities in the U.S. Suddenly, scrap began to flow to China, to be recycled with low-cost labor and used as raw materials for goods that would end up back in the U.S. Labor rates were low enough in China that it also paid to sort all of the material from shredded cars that wasn’t steel (SNF in the parlance, for “Shredded Non-Ferrous”), in addition to repairing or disassembling old electric motors. The same economics held true for other recyclable materials as well, and according to Minter, 46 million tons of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastics are exported to China and other developing countries every year.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Other points that I found extremely interesting—whereas materials are sorted by hand in China, some U.S. companies have invented automated lines to sort materials such as SNF. One way they do it—by making water heavy enough (with the addition of salts) that aluminum floats. That’s pretty amazing. And who knew that used Christmas tree lights are exported to China by the 2,000-lb. bale, or that industries exist in China to remove insulation from scrap wire of all sizes, whereupon both the metals and the plastics are reused? Who knew that recycled electronics are disassembled by hand and their computer chips reused across Asia, in everything from scrolling signs to toys, or that just one city in China recovers 6.5 tons of gold, per year, from e-waste? I’ll stop here, but the book is chock full of such material and insights.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

But, back to the bent of this particular blog, I see two big takeaways from this fascinating book. One– as Minter writes repeatedly, recycling is the third-best option. Reducing consumption is best, and reusing (and repairing) is second-best. Only then comes recycling. Minter describes the pollution caused by recycling in places like China, where acids, solvents, and caustic solutions are dumped on the ground or in rivers, and where electronics of all types are sometimes burned to recover metals. Because of this, Minter writes, recycling is a “morally complicated act”, and an act that isn’t a “get-out-of-jail-free” card that offsets the consumption of wealthier societies. In some instances material can be recycled in a more environmentally friendly manner in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, but, paradoxically, the hand-sorting methods used in poorer nations actually recover more usable material per ton of scrap. Continue reading

Never as Simple as it Seems

Inefficient cooking fires for 500 million--- a tough problem to solve.

Inefficient and unhealthy cooking fires are used by 500 million people around the world— it’s a tough problem to solve.

In my last post, I discussed (among other things) the fascinating potential benefits of highly-efficient micro-gasification stoves, and the potential agricultural and climate benefits of using the char they produce as a soil amendment. There seems to be tremendous promise in the basic idea—around the world, 500 million of the world’s poorest people cook on inefficient stoves that burn biomass, usually wood or charcoal, and they often cook on them indoors, which creates horrible indoor-air quality and related health problems. The new stoves are relatively cheap, and they are efficient, burning 40-50% less fuel than a traditional “three rocks and a pot” cooking setup. They can also burn a wide variety of biomass, including agricultural wastes and dung. This could reduce pressure on forests, and could reduce or eliminate traditional charcoal production, which is highly polluting. The stoves also release dramatically fewer harmful particulates and other emissions into the air.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a Philips, fan-assisted micro-gasification stove 2009.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a fan-assisted micro-gasification stove, in 2009. Such stoves could help save the world?

The good news doesn’t seem to stop here—the stoves produce charcoal that can be applied to gardens or agricultural land as “biochar”, which improves water and nutrient retention, improves the workability of soils, and improves yields. AND, the carbon in biochar is in a chemical form that is “recalcitrant”, and therefore stays in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years, which effectively removes it from the carbon cycle, which, if practiced by millions upon millions of people, could reduce atmospheric carbon and help ameliorate global warming.

What’s not to love? But despite the fact that improved, inexpensive cookstoves have been around for decades, and have been supported by groups such as the United Nations, the Global Alliance for Clean Stoves, WorldStove, and the World Health Organization, they haven’t fully caught on in the developing world. The biochar addition to this whole idea is a newer one, and groups that promote it appear to encountering glitches as they try to implement a biochar system, despite its promise. It’s a case, it seems, of things never being quite as simple as they seem at first glance.

This can be seen in an interesting study of the effectiveness of one such program to help poorer families in Cambodia and India adopt both the new stoves and the use of biochar—“Biochar Stoves: An Innovation Studies Perspective“. Written by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, it tracked the use of several different stove designs in a variety of real-world contexts in 2010 and 2011, and studied many aspects of the improved-stove and biochar ideas. As it turns out, in the real world a wide variety of obstacles prevented the stoves from quite fulfilling their potential. The study is over seventy pages long, but here are some of the salient points—

— Not all the stoves make char. Some, like the TLUD (Top-Lit Up-Draft) stoves, make char, but have to be stopped at the right time, or the char combusts completely into ash. To get the char, they either have to be quenched with water or dumped out at the right time in the burning process. Both methods appear to be cumbersome in the real world, as one might imagine. Of all of the stoves, the Anila designs, in which biomass is loaded into an outer ring where it pyrolizes, made the most char. But, the Anila stoves work even if you skip the step of loading the outer ring, and it seems many families did skip this step, probably because they didn’t see the value in burning extra wood just to make char.

— When char was produced, it wasn’t always applied to the soil as biochar. Char (charcoal) is a valuable product in the developing world; something that can be burned or sold. Many families did just that, and burned the char in charcoal stoves, or sold it to others for that purpose. To take something that was worth money and till it into the soil, despite promised benefits, didn’t seem to always catch on. Some argue that this is exactly why we need to put a price on sequestering carbon, to bring market forces to bear on this issue, but others, such as Biofuelwatch, argue that this is exactly the danger we should fear—a world where the burning up of trees becomes profitable. In a world of shrinking forests, I can’t exactly say that I feel that the fears of Biofuelwatch are misplaced. It’s a tricky issue.

— There were cultural obstacles. The new stoves didn’t always fit into the cultural regimes that governed cooking and gender roles. Sometimes this was due to how the fuel was obtained, other times it was something as simple as the height of the stove. For cultures where cooking is done from a squatting position, some of the stoves were just too tall (many designs work better with a short stack on top of them, which increases the chimney effect). This one surprised me, it’s one of those unexpected items one wouldn’t normally anticipate.

— The “energy ladder” often means that the whole idea of a biomass stove that produces char has limited appeal. This one also surprised me, but made perfect sense once I thought about it. Here’s a chart from the World Health Organization—

The "Energy Ladder"

The bottom line here is that what many of the families REALLY wanted was a propane or natural gas stove. And once families have them, they have no real desire to “revert” to a stove that burns biomass, even if the biomass stoves were cheaper or could produce other benefits.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don't produce any char.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don’t produce any char.

— The biochar stoves were often harder to cook on. Though the stoves may be more efficient than other improved stoves (like rocket-stoves), they are fueled in batches, at the beginning of a cooking cycle, which makes them more difficult to use. In addition, the study found that it is difficult to increase or decrease the heat on most of the biochar stove designs, which is something a rocket stove can do well.

— The use of biochar was effective as a soil amendment, but not overwhelmingly so. The explanation for this doesn’t seem to be in this particular study, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, biochar needs to be “loaded up” with nutrients before it is applied to fields, because it is so absorptive that it actually will capture nutrients from the soil if applied directly to the soil in quantity. This biochar preparation can be done, for example, by adding the char to organic materials as they compost, and then adding the compost to agricultural soils. The study found improved yields from the methods that were employed, but not in all cases, and they conclude that more study needs to be done.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action. This stove is promoted by the organization Cookstoves for Africa.

All of this is a bit sobering, and might be a reminder that just because something sounds like a good idea, that it doesn’t mean that it’s workable. There are still plenty of solutions to all of these stove-related problems, such as the pelletization of grass crops for fuel, or improved stove designs, or more education and research about the benefits of biochar. But what I really wonder is whether the whole effort is a Band-aid, when we might be needing a tourniquet. The average poor person in the developing world has something like 1/20th of the climate impact of someone in the United States or the industrialized world (good Tom Murphy post, “The Real Population Problem“). Americans and other citizens of the wealthy world can (and do) choose to eat lots of meat, drive big vehicles, power up their hot-tubs, and run their air conditioners, and the consequences of these actions dwarf those of the world’s poor trying to cook a meal.

It seems we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Top image credit and Energy Ladder graphic: World Health Organization,
Tanzanian woman image: Frank van der Vleeten, Creative Commons at
Rocket stove image: David Mellis, Creative Commons at
Istovu image: Cookstoves for Africa, Creative Commons at

Hang On, Indeed

Lordy, Lordy. I was just getting my head wrapped around the nuclear question, but before I could write about it the whole deal about the role of small-scale ag came up. So, I’m just getting my head wrapped around that, but before I could write about it, THIS comes up—

Economist coverAn entire special section in The Economist, with endearing cover image and catchy title, about how humans need to grow the economy, in order to save the planet.

Arg. I’m not sure where to begin with this, because my gut feeling is that they’re wrong, or, at a minimum, that the argument needs to be much more nuanced than they present it. But, without days and days to dig into it, I’m not sure I can write with surety. (Not that I’m ever completely sure about anything, as the multiple-stage morphings of my last post  attest to.)

But, a few off-the-cuff thoughts—

First, the articles say that global warming might be one of the more serious threat that species face, along with habitat destruction. Unfortunately, economic growth is tied almost in lockstep with energy growth (see post “A Matter of Limits“). And, despite tremendous gains in renewable capacity in recent years, humans are still using ever more fossil fuel. To paraphrase Bryan Walsh from Time, humans are losing the race to decarbonize. So, if those two things are true, then we need to be very, very careful about issuing blank checks for more economic growth. Burning ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuel just isn’t an answer. (NOTE April 2016– in the years since I wrote this, we have begun to decouple fossil fuel use from economic growth. We aren’t out of the woods yet by any measure, but we’re doing better….)

The articles also give, fairly I think, a great deal of credit to the environmental movement for recent gains. Calls for habitat protection, sustainability, conservation, and the like have moved governments and NGOs alike to enact many changes that have been beneficial. In fact, the entire collection of articles is upbeat in tone, and they urge humanity onward to more economic growth.

But, GDP can be a pretty blunt measure, counting as it does McMansions and Hummers in the rich world right along with better roads and communications for poor African nations. All growth is not equal. There is no doubt that economic growth can help many of the world’s poorest lead dramatically better lives, and there’s no doubt that the very poor trash their environments (as Mr. X never tires of pointing out to me, concern for the environment is the luxury of wealthy nations). But, more urban sprawl and planet-trashing consumption in the rich world is NOT part of the answer, and I’m afraid that a quick read of this section of the magazine by most will do more harm than good, as many will take it as a blank check for more business-as-usual.

In the end, we need to keep and continue all those changes that environmental movements have achieved in rich and poor countries alike, but go easy on these prescriptions for unfettered growth. Rich nations have indeed done some good things with regard to the environment and biodiversity, but they have, and continue to, exact a huge environmental toll, much of it in faraway and poor places. The global warming impact of the wealthy world is also huge—the average American uses something like 40 times the energy that the average person from the world’s poorer nations uses. Even with lower overall population numbers, the consumption in rich nations is at the root of many of the world’s environmental problems.

We aren’t decoupled, and all actions have consequences. Continuing to mushroom the human footprint and impact, if we aren’t careful, is going to have the biggest consequence of all.

A Matter of Limits

I’ve written repeatedly about the incredible, almost staggering amount of energy in fossil fuels. Here’s why this is a problem—watch this amazing few minutes of video about how economic growth has lifted the world from sickness and poverty since the industrial revolution–

Wonderful, right? Hans Rosling is optimistic, and ends by excitedly saying “…everyone can make it to this healthy, wealthy world.” But, play this similar animated graph about world carbon emissions during that same time period, at Hans Rosling’s Gapminder site. In case you didn’t notice, they track together nearly exactly (and just look at China’s emissions on the rise toward the end—that’s the energy use that is powering China’s growth). Most readers probably know this already, but in case you haven’t thought about it recently—what our economy does, and is very good at, is turning energy into stuff. And, nearly all of our energy comes from fossil fuels. So, without exaggerating much at all, we turn fossil fuels into food, into belongings, into transportation and lifestyle. It is fossil fuels, nearly completely, that have powered humanity upward in the first video.

But herein lies the problem—though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet. So, thus the conundrum. We need economic growth to continue to lift the poorest billions out of poverty. BUT, the growth comes from energy, and the energy comes from fossil fuels, and we have to quit burning them so that we don’t commit planetary suicide. Continue reading

A Middle Ground for Agriculture


I read that book I mentioned the other day, (post: “My Feminine Side“) ; it was really good—funny, honest, poignant. I was laughing so much reading parts of it that my kids were looking at me funny. rurally screwed(And she writes a blog, at The book was a great read; an exploration of those questions we all ask ourselves about our lives. And, many aspects of the author’s story were almost freakily similar to mine and my wife’s—I was the guy with the pickup from the west (Texas, in my case), who was mechanically inclined and could fix anything, and an officer in the military, she was the one getting letters from Iraq with little stick figures on them and wondering what to do with her life while I was deployed, etc, etc. But the part that pertains to sustainability is the author’s experience moving to a rural place and raising chickens. We, too, moved to a rural place and raised chickens. And in our case, turkeys as well. We too built the mobile yard coop that turned out heavier than expected, we too used the electric mesh fences, we too have killed and gutted and dressed the birds, and gathered and washed and sold the eggs. So, I knew exactly where she was coming from. And when she talked about barely breaking even, I knew what she was talking about. Continue reading