Monthly Archives: May 2019

6 posts

Black flies, Newts, and “The Biggest, Little Farm”

What do I love about New York City? No black flies. I’m scratching the welts received during a bout of gardening a couple of days ago but fear no more—at least, until I get back home. Meantime, honking and shouting, car alarms and sirens, and heat. I take on the façade of a true New Yorker and don’t leave my mother’s apartment. Rather, I step out only to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, from A to B usually requires a walk through Washington Square Park. As I wander through—looking ever so directed and purposeful, a slight frown, and don’t make eye contact—I watch pigeons, instead of chickens. Cooing instead of clucking. And no roos.

I have threatened my mother that some day I’m going to arrive with Schtude, our resident roo. Mom laughs nervously as I describe how we will diaper him and let him free range in the apartment. She would prefer a hen or two for their happy eggs. We agree to compromise. We will set him free in the park. He will strut his stuff for the pigeons, attack unwary passersby, crow his fabulousness . . . and his loneliness because he’ll be the only chicken in the vicinity that’s not been plucked. 

Thus, I haven’t brought him. The idea of Schtude being sad is too much to bear. He remains in New Hampshire with his 15 hens. And I, in New York, dodge humans, instead of black flies.

Meantime, at Darwin’s View, the hens take their daily morning constitutional around the perimeter of the garden. With Daisy, Splotches and Swallow in the lead, running and flapping with delight, the other hens take time to peck and poke, a harem accompanying the stately promenade of Schtude. Every time I look out my window to see the sun as it rises over the Wapack Trail, I smile. The chickens’ joy in life when they catch a bug, or ohmygoodnessit’sawormminemineminesquawkgulp brings me heart-warming happiness and hope. As do newts. 

Carl and I went for a walk earlier this week. While Carl foraged for mushrooms, I saved no less than twelve newts who had paused in their progress across the road. They had no idea what danger they were in, perhaps, not noticing their fellow, smushed Pleurodelinae. These efts, terrestrial and fully metamorphosed, are Eastern newt and exquisite. They exhibit the breathtaking complexity of nature. From their orange color to the fragile solidity of their bodies, they expose the essence of life, and its dogged persistence. 

As are so many other species, newts are threatened. Habitat loss, fragmentation and pollution. Several of their species are endangered. The Yunnan lake newt is extinct. But the ones I saved, that I picked up ever-so-gently and carried over to the side of the road to which they were headed? They are safe, right? They will live to enjoy the day, and breed. Right? Or did I, just by touching them, like Midas, kill?

Thus, hope is double-edged. Black flies might swarm but are there enough of them to feed all the birds? We seem to have far fewer barn swallows this year. Usually there are dozens of them flitting about, looking so natty in their blue and black tuxedos. This year? Four or five. And so I mourn the lack of black flies. 

Chickens, too. They bring me great joy, and great worry. Weasels. Hawks. Coyotes. John and Molly Chester of Apricot Lane farm would understand. They lost a lot of chickens in their film The Biggest Little Farm. It’s a wonderful, heart-wrenching film about taking dead dirt and transforming it into a sustainable, resilient, productive, biodiverse farm. One in which every animal plays a part in the web of life. Every species is there for a reason.

I rate it 5. I loved the film. I felt as if I’d learned something since we moved to Darwin’s View because, when they faced snails and maggots, I knew the answers to their problems before they did. NO! I’m not going to tell because it’s part of the drama. If I told, I’d spoil it. 

What broke my heart? The fact that life requires death. What enlivened it? They created their vision. John is a filmmaker and had his crew film everything that happened on the farm for seven years. The film shows the evolution of the farm. The building of the swales, and the very large pond. The fixing of the well. The buying and planting of 10,000 trees. The care for a lot of animals, not least six large, white guard dogs (who bore a remarkable resemblance to Enzo, the Maremma guard dog of our nine rental goats last year.) And a large farm crew of (young) people. Eventually, the farm found its feet and began to make money. But whew! How did they support it in the meantime? 

Maybe they got a subsidy from the government like the fossil fuel and nuclear industries do.

Whatever. They did it. Hard work, openness to learning, and love. They prove that it’s possible to change how we grow our food. Their farm is what all farms need to strive for: regenerative agriculture. That’s what we must do—transform our food infrastructure from Corporate, monoculture farms and factory farms to regenerative, no-till, biodiverse farms. Return to Mother Nature’s ways. She really does know best. 

How can we afford it? Remember the $10 million a minute? Move all the subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry and give it to the farmers, and the land. In seven years, deserts can be transformed into lush places that grow more food than the current framework, and don’t kill the planet in the process. On the contrary. We might have a chance. In fact, the real question is, how can we afford not to?

On Friday: Lead up to a Dirty, Little Secret.

Energy 105: In Defense of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels helped to create this country.⁠1 Coal, gas and oil enabled mind-boggling growth and progress, and improved the quality of life, (if not always the health), of humans, (if not nature). America, in a heyday of change and development, built up a culture, an infrastructure, a world that promised milk and honey, and required gushing and guzzling coal, gas, and oil.

When and why fossil fuels? Was it because after World War II, all those chemicals used to build bombs needed to be disposed of and, thus, were turned into fertilizers to be used against the nasty bugs in our soils and on our plants? Multinationals began selling petrochemicals⁠2 to farmers around the world, this being not so good for soil and small farmers but excellent for profits and growth. 

Or was it back a bit farther with Henry Ford’s invention of the automobile and the promotion of the American, Go-Westward-Young-Man way? 

Or back farther yet, with the laying down of the coal-driven rail system that connected east to west, north to south?

Whenever, why-ever, it was gas, oil and coal that drove our economy. Fossil fuels were cheap, abundant and available day and night. Thus, our government’s energy policy supported them. Which brings up the question—since we are talking about economics—how much money has gone to support the fossil fuel industry? And how far back should we go?

Shall we include the 19th century land grants to timber companies and the granting of corporate charters to coal and railroad companies, and past and present protective tariffs on imported coal? Or the more recent spending of the Department of Defense on “energy security”–war?–which, over three decades, has cost over seven trillion dollars?⁠3

Granted, numbers can be arranged. The EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculate that same cost to be zero, and therefore do not include national defense costs in the Fuel Economy Standards program. The result is an unacknowledged subsidy of $0.28 per gallon for petroleum products in the U.S..⁠4

Which brings us to two definitions that are significant in this brief study of the true cost of fossil fuels. We know the direct costs: utility bills. The price of gasoline at the gas station. But these numbers do not include the indirect costs, or externalities: Environmental damage. Health care costs that are a consequence of degraded water, air, and food. Wars for oil, and oil spill cleanup. Do we count those, include them in the cost of a gallon of gas? Can we afford that?

And then there are the subsidies, monies given out by a government to assist a business or industry to keep its prices competitive. Subsidies take public money away from other uses—like education and health care—and direct them elsewhere, in a very un-Adam Smithian⁠5 way, though, at times, even more invisibly than his invisible hand.⁠6 There are direct subsidies, and indirect ones: tax policy and giveaways; regulations, loans and price controls; federal funding for Research & Development, land, trees, and water; national security. 

Not including the past decades of government support of the original build of the coal and nuclear plants, and the road and railway systems, the oil/gas industry is currently 50% subsidized. In comparison, renewables get 20-30%, cord wood, zero; and nuclear energy 80% with the government, also known as taxpayers, paying for most of its insurance.

“When externalities are included, as in a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund, the unpaid costs of fossil fuels are upward of $5.3 trillion annually — which works out to a staggering $10 million per minute.”⁠7

Roads have been and still are being paved (literally) for the fossil fuel industry . . . but it’s too expensive to change, right? It must be, given that even after G20 country governments signed their much touted agreements, they have continued to subsidize the production of fossil fuels to the tune of $444 billion a year, thereby undermining any attempts to stop the solar flare we call climate change.⁠8

Oh heck, let’s call it what it is: climate chaos.

anImage_5.tiff

1 http://www.dblpartners.vc/documents/What-Would-Jefferson-Do-Final-Version.pdf?be761e

2 Petrochemical fertilizers are another name for the synthetic products because they are produced using large quantities of petroleum and other fossil fuels. Some common examples include ammonium nitrate, super phosphate and potassium sulfate; https://homeguides.sfgate.com/pro-cons-petrochemical-fertilizers-86254.html

3 “What would Jefferson Do?” by Nancy Pfund and Ben Healy, September 2011, page 28.

4 See http://secureenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Military-Cost-of-Defending-the-Global-Oil-Supply.-Sep.-18.-2018.pdf

5 Adam Smith is known as the father of capitalism.

6 This is Adam Smith’s theory that when people pursue their own self-interest, there are unintended consequences that benefit society as a whole.

7 http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/

8 http://priceofoil.org/2015/11/11/empty-promises-g20-subsidies-to-oil-gas-and-coal-production/

Off Grid? What’s That Mean?

Photo compliments of Carl

Different things to different people, for Carl and me, “off grid” means living in a normal house with flush toilets and showers but no dishwasher. The difference is, we get our power from the sun via solar panels, and have no wires connecting us to that inefficient, uneconomic thing called the national power grid. Thus the term “off grid”. On sunny, summer days, we get lots of power and try to think up ways to use it. The opposite of frugal. Because if we don’t use the power being generated by recharging our batteries, or doing laundry, or charging our electric vehicles, that power gets dumped into the ground. Shocking but true. Like running the faucet full blast while brushing one’s teeth. What a waste!

BUT! Just because we are off grid does not mean we are fossil fuel free. We have our solar array but, on days and weeks that the sun doesn’t shine, or does so minimally—think winter, or this soggy, white sock spring—we have our generator. It recharges our batteries that, in turn, run our electricity, and our back-up heating system when we go away and aren’t there to stoke the wood stove. Especially in winter, and when we have houseguests, (or did I mention this soggy, white sock spring?) we go over our electricity budget and our generator powers on. Representative of the devastation of pristine Canadian lands, and earthquakes in Oklahoma, Alabama and elsewhere, our generator destroys any vision of low carbon footprint that I might have held because it runs on propane, a.k.a. fracked gas. 

The fact is, there is little in our current life and infrastructure that the typical American can do to avoid fossil fuels and the consequent harm to the environment. Our buildings and transportation, agriculture and commercial industries, heating and cooling—all are based on coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy, with a smidgen of renewables tossed in. Are Carl and I delusional, thinking we might make a difference living off grid? Solar panels use precious resources. They take energy to produce and transport, and destroy the lands from whence they come. Ditto fancy electric vehicles. 

They are better than not. Our cars now run, for the most part, on the sun. And even if, and when, we charge them at a charging station? Where does that power come from? In New Hampshire, it’s likely nuclear. In Vermont, it’s more likely renewables. And so, ever on the edge of being precious, we make it a point to try to charge in Brattleboro. It takes on hour and twenty minutes to get a full charge. That’s enough time to walk to the co-op, shop, have a quick lunch, and walk back up that very steep hill, with groceries, but still—a full charge! Three hundred miles. We just have to plan, budget, and remember to plug in on sunny days. 

Carl and I are privileged to be early adopters. We are the guinea pigs of is-this-going-to-work? We are learning that good is better than perfect and that, even on cloudy days, our solar panels provide us with some power. We are learning to charge up the house batteries first, and then move on to the car batteries. Sometimes we use the 220 plug and, sometimes, the 110 because, even if we only charge during the day (because we’ll use up all our battery storage at night, otherwise) and even if the 110 only gives us 4-5 miles an hour, it’s something. We now know that every little bit helps, and that everyone might not be able to afford solar panels and electric vehicles but a lot of people out there make choices every day that make a difference. 

For example, Carl and I attended a NHSaves workshop and learned that, if you insulate your roof and take care of leaks in your basement, you’ll save a lot of the energy that you thought was going out the windows. Check out NHSaves.com. You’ll find all sorts of ways to spend money in order to save money. Rebates, energy audits and weatherization programs. And then there are all the actions you hear about that it’s just a matter of doing. Take that first step and walk or bike, instead of driving. (I know, easier in a city than the country, and so read on!) Eat a more plant-based diet. Compost. Reuse, repurpose, recycle. And call your representatives on the local, state and national level and demand the transition to a resilient and sustainable infrastructure because we have the technologies. We have only to use them. If we get our town, state and national government on board, it will be that much easier for more of us—and it is us, not them—to get off our fossil fuel addiction and find alternative ways of being. 

Energy 104: The Politics of Energy

Fossil fuels or renewables? Is energy access a right or a privilege? Is it a service or a commodity? Is the sourcing, development and distribution of energy a social justice issue? Do we celebrate if we’re old, and apologize to youth because we’ve screwed them? Who really is in charge and who’s paying attention? Who cares because the bottomline is how much is it going to cost? And what, exactly, do we mean by cost? 

Mind-bending but true, in our contemplation of energy, we need, too, to consider politics and economics. Because, however much we wring our hands and moan “what is to be done?”, the only relevant question in our capitalistic society is this: Is it cost effective to save the world? 

The answer is complicated. 

For example, some of us might wonder why coal remains the dirtiest-energy-but-onward-we-go. Historically, coal has been a primary form of electricity generation in the U.S. of A.⁠1. Only recently (2008) has natural gas surpassed it. Still, coal generates 30% of our electric power supply in the U.S.. It might be steadily heading down the path of obsolescence but, if it’s so terrible, why is it taking so long to go away? 

I’d like to say it’s compassion for all the people whose lives depend on that industry. Coal mining is their livelihood and has been for generations, if only because the corporations have set up a mono-culture and semi-servitude for the people who work those twelve hours shifts of backbreaking work deep in the bowels of the earth, mining coal so that thee and me can turn on our lights.⁠2 It might be polluting the air, soil and water, ravaging the earth’s contours, increasing carbon emissions, and causing major health issues (from cancers to pulmonary diseases to asthma, to death by accidents) but our coalminers need jobs. They need food. They need a roof over their heads. And, in a perfect world, health care, education and the ability to pursue their personal definition of happiness. If we kibosh the coal industry, what happens to all our coalminers, their families, their pension and retirement funds? Thus, prior to closing the mines, and leaving entire towns decimated, we are moving slowly, retraining our coalminers, providing them with alternative job options so they can support their families.

. . . No, we aren’t. We aren’t doing that. It’s not compassion. The reason coal is still in any way feasible, and therefore not going away, is because our tax dollars are subsidizing coal companies, some of which are publicly owned. It is incumbent on publicly owned companies to put their shareholders’ best interests (profits) ahead of things like the health and the best interests of their employees and/or the environment. More money, money, money. Not people. It’s the law.⁠3

Too, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is selling leases to tracts of publicly owned land to companies like Peabody and Arch Coal. Because coal is being supplanted in the U.S. by “cleaner” fuels, like fracked natural gas, the coal is to be shipped overseas to developing countries. When all that mineable coal is mined—destroying swathes of nature’s infrastructure—and then burned, it will contribute 3.9 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. In other words, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing coal companies who (sic) are profiting by mining publicly owned lands, degrading the environment and further accelerating climate change.⁠4 And we Americans don’t get the coal, nor its profits. And now that coal mining is “uneconomic”, those companies are asking for respite from their loan debts (royalty fees). And our government is giving it to them.⁠5 And, in the deal, taxpayers will be losing revenue, too, because this is public land.

And then there’s the infrastructure. The mines. The railroads. The retirement funds. It’s already there, dirty or not. We, taxpayers, helped to build it over the course of decades. It’s an integral part of our current energy infrastructure. Imagine the cost of starting over, basing our future on who knows what form of energy. We have to keep going on the path we are on because it’s too expensive to do otherwise. Right?

Energy, its production and distribution is complicated because it involves the environment, economics, politics and human lives. News these days simplifies things down to “them” and “us”. But remember the web—not www. but of life? We’re all us and all them. It is time to start understanding the true cost of our fossil-fueled path, include all the costs, in order to make an informed decision on our future. And we have to do this rather quickly. And. please, let’s not leave the coalminers behind. They, too, need to see a light at the end of this tunnel.

anImage_2.tiff

1 https://www.eesi.org/topics/fossil-fuels/description

2 Please take the time to read through this blog: https://thethoughtfulcoalminer.com

3 B Corps, on the other hand, “are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.” www.bcorporation.net

4 https://grist.org/coal/why-are-u-s-taxpayers-subsidizing-coal-mining/

5 http://www.digitaljournal.com/business/utah-coal-company-seeks-relief-from-federal-lease-payments/article/516932

This Is Not What I Intended.

What’s so interesting about these troubled times is how ignorable the whole “we are totally screwed” concept is in our daily lives. I write a post about OMG-we-have-got-to-do-something-immediately—and then go about my day. Sure, simmering in the background is fear. Depression. Anxiety. But hey! I have a broody hen to contend with. Her determined fluffiness and scolding, her throaty call for her nonexistent chicks, the life-giving heat of her body, the warmth of the eggs as I take them from beneath her, thereby stealing her life’s purpose. It is my human will against a chicken’s. Nature. Who do you think will win?

Do you agree that thinking about chickens is more pleasant than thinking about the demise of our earth? That’s probably why I suggested to Carl that we let Flopsie keep an egg or two. He pointed out our notorious roo to pullet hatch ratio (3 to 1). I considered his argument, and adapted mine. Thus, while picking up organic chicken pellets and pine shavings at Agway, and after staring lovingly into the large, silver-colored bucket full of peeps and quacks, I suggested we slip a couple of ducklings under Flopsie. Carl didn’t even pause to look. 

It’s not that he’s a brute. He only knows from experience that it might be springtime now but winter will be back and then, just as the temperatures plummet and the snow begins to fly, we will be out in the coop, jury-rigging a nice duck pond for the grown up ducks who would be producing—assuming ducks have a better boy to girl ratio than chickens—beautiful, big eggs, and a lot of slippery poo. 

Thus, I am the brute. Upon returning from Agway, I went out to the coop and pulled Flopsie off the nest. The egg she had been carefully tending was under her wing. It fell and broke, to both the hen’s and my heartache. She flapped and fluffed and squawked. Schude came running to her defense. I closed off the nesting boxes. Schtude attacked the horrid, two-legged creature who was defying the most natural of occurrences in a hen: mothering. And I claim to respect nature! He tossed his head in a vain attempt to get his feathery headdress out of his eyes, and returned his attentions to the distraught Flopsie, who wanted nothing to do with him. She wanted an egg.

It’s all about mourning, and the will to survive. My 16-year old cat Nora is a rail relative to her past plump self. She is deaf. She sleeps an inordinate amount of time, even for her. She yowls. But when I rush to her? She raises her fluffy tail, purrs her heartwarming purr, and leans against me to be petted. She is fine! She will live forever! I allow her to delude me because the option is too painful to consider. So, too, Mother Nature. No worries! Mother Nature can take care of herself.

Very true, and she is. She is heating up just like the human body when it has a virus. The heat kills, and then life, if there still is life, proceeds. That’s where we humans are miscalculating. If we, as a species, want to survive, we need a complete and immediate shift in perspective and action. We can do it. We need only the will.

That brings to my mind a fascinating book: Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom. In it, he studies the four issues that we, humans, fear: Death. Existential Isolation. Meaninglessness. And freedom a.k.a. responsibility and willing. . .. How terrifying a thought: to take responsibility for our past actions, and to will our future ones.

But this was so not what I was going to write about. Isn’t that just like life? We might have the best of intentions, and suddenly, here we are, wondering how the heck we are going to get ourselves out of this sticky situation. 

Maybe if everyone moved to the country, and learned how to grow their own food, and adopted chickens, and lived off-grid. Would that make the difference?

The short answer: no. Because part of the problem—and the answer to this conundrum called climate chaos—because that’s what’s coming if we don’t prepare—is that humans don’t come from a cookie cutter. We each have our own role to play. Carl and I are testing out the move-to-the-country-adopt-chickens-and-live-off-grid option. Will it make a difference? And what does it mean, off-grid living. 

But that is for next Tuesday. And this Friday? The Politics of Energy.

In the meantime, I’m going to call Governor Sununu’s office and see if he believes in things climate chaos yet. And that I hope he will support the climate and clean energy bills that are coming to his desk. And that I am going to hold him accountable for how he uses he veto pen in the next weeks.   603-271-2121

Update: I spoke to Rhonda. Note to self: Don’t start off with the question about belief and climate chaos. It’s too aggressive, and off-putting. Rhonda stopped listening, and the point is to be heard.

Energy 103: Demand Response and Solar Flares

The grid is an edgy basket to put all your eggs into, though we do, thanks to our ever burgeoning, bigger-is-better attitude and economy. We, Americans, need our power when we want it. Not only is that expensive, but it’s risky because the grid isn’t as elastic as it needs to be, given its uneconomic, inefficient infrastructure. (See ENERGY 102: Energy in the U.S. of A..) It’s wobbly, too.

One rule of thumb that is important to know: electricity supply and demand have to remain in balance or disruptions happen. In the U.S. of A., things usually chug along. The utility companies work to supply us with power, thereby responding to our demands. To keep those demands in check, the utility companies charge us more during peak times. Even so, on really hot days, or cold, demand surges and the utility companies have to juggle where to get enough power, at full throttle. This is like asking one’s great-grandfather to jump up from his leisurely breakfast table and run a marathon. The Grid is old and creaky. Power surges are a challenge. The recent deep freeze in the midwest being an excellent example. Utility companies had to plead with customers to turn down their thermostats. The Grid was having trouble meeting the demand. There was a very real possibility that the demand would outpace the response and the whole system would collapse. Especially after a fire broke out at a natural gas compressor station. Which it did do.

People turned down their thermostats. Still, some people lost power. Brr.

Far preferable a circumstance is a planned reaction. Just as we are learning about energy in order to choose how we will go forward, so the U.S. government developed a “National Action Plan on Demand Response”.⁠1 Demand response reduces or shifts energy demands at all levels of the grid, from electric system planners and operators to customers, so utilities can better juggle supply with demand, and lower the necessity of building more and expensive power generators. (Think coal plants and nuclear reactors.) Demand response programs offer customers the opportunity to lower the cost of their electricity by not using as much during peak times. The utilities send prompts to customers, or the equipment at the customers’ location, and they, in response, turn off their air conditioners and water heaters, and unplug their electric vehicles. The customer pays less. The utilities are better able to cover the electric demand without stressing the grid. The grid doesn’t collapse. Everyone is happy.

Grid collapse is an ugly scenario. The U.S. military considers it a national security issue, right up there with solar flares.

Solar flares, if you don’t know, are sudden eruptions of energy on the sun. Intense yellow, orange and red explosions of magnetic energy that, at times, break off and rocket into space. Sometimes those bounding balls of energy head toward earth. It takes eight minutes for them to reach us. And when they get here? They cause geomagnetic storms in the stratosphere above us. 

Solar flares won’t hurt us. Not directly. They do, however, have the potential to wreck havoc on the grid. The U.S. military is more worried about solar flares’ effects on the grid than a terrorist attack on the grid because there’s a 12 1/2 % chance that one will hit us and take out the entire grid for an extended period of time. And we won’t be able to fix the grid because all the fix-the-grid tools depend on the grid, and the communication system it runs, to work. Within two weeks of the grid going down, 1.3 million people could die due to hospitals being crippled without electricity, lack of clean water and food, withdrawal from cell phone access to Instagram, Twitter and your bank account. It would take out our economy. 

Energy is a national security issue. Think demand response. Think solar flares. Thus, it is important to understand how it all works: so we can know our options . . . and there are options.

Did you call your national representatives? Now try calling your state reps with the same message: You care about things climate, and that we need to start now to create a resilient infrastructure. Why wouldn’t we? Of which more in next week’s Friday post: The Politics of Energy.

anImage_2.tiff

1 https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/oeprod/DocumentsandMedia/FERC_NAPDR_-_final.pdf