Tuesday, January 15, 2019

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love John Bolton

Our Savior?
Those of you who know me and my political views will, upon seeing the title of this entry, assume it to be irony. While there may have been a slight smirk on my face when I wrote it, I can assure you that this is not an ironic title. There is, in fact, a good reason to support the views of people like our national security advisor, our former secretary of statepro-apocalypse megachurch pastors, neocon diplomats, or similarly minded folks. Sometimes people are right for all the wrong reasons, or wrong for all the right reasons. Still more people, it would appear, are just plain confused.

I've never met Mr. Bolton, and I don't know his motivations. However, I do regularly read about his expressed opinions, which I've always found abhorrent until now. From what I can tell, he's of the opinion that projecting US military might around the world (primarily for the benefit of our corporate interests) is almost always the right thing to do, regardless of the cost in lives, reputation, or precious "taxpayer dollars". This article here is one that appears to be representative of his latest thoughts.

So how exactly did I fall in love with Mr. Bolton?  Allow me to explain...

Depending upon where we set the "baseline" temperature for measuring climate change, we're now at about 1.5 degrees C above the pre-industrial global temperature, a feat achieved by cranking our atmospheric CO2 from 280 up to the present 413ppm.  Our current global temperature is also being *reduced* by the effects of global dimming -- that being the shading effects of jet contrails and particulates from fires and industrial activity around the world.  After 9/11, when air traffic over the US was halted, a 1.1 degree (C) rise in temperature was observed, due to the loss of the shade from contrails alone. Considering that industrial activity -- and air travel in particular -- must stop if we're to have a fighting chance of controlling our carbon emissions, you could conclude that our measured 1.5 degree increase is actually 2.6 degrees as soon as we get our affairs in order.

It's long been argued that a two degree (C) rise in temperature is the absolute limit for continued human existence. It's not that two degrees itself is the problem, however. The problem is that two degrees is a "tipping point", beyond which various feedback loops kick in to create uncontrolled temperature increases that would soon kill most complex forms of life.  NASA scientist James Hansen thinks two degrees is well above the safe limit for triggering the feedback loops which we will be unable to control. Based upon the feedback loops we're already seeing triggered at 1.5 degrees (like this or this or this one), I'd have to say he's correct.

To sum it up, we're already losing control at 1.5 degrees, and we've already got a minimum of 2.6 degrees baked into our future. Things aren't looking good, to say the least. Suffice it to say that we need to stop all fossil fuel extraction asap, and additionally find new ways to sequester carbon, pronto!

Considering these facts, I'm sure everyone is completely on-board with eliminating the use of fossil fuels. We'll park our cars permanently, and walk to work (assuming our job can exist without fossil fuel use).  We'll stop heating our homes and businesses. We'll give up fossil fueled electricity, stop maintaining roads with asphalt or concrete, and never again use anything made with metals mined/smelted/transported with fossil fuels. We'll no longer run diesel tractors, semi trucks, or shop at grocery stores supplied by these devices.

Does this sound likely? No, I don't think so either. It should be clear by now that we're never going to voluntarily skip down the one remaining path that *might* not end in human extinction.

But alas, this is no reason for despair.  There are other ways to get there!

If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that the global economy started to stumble a bit around 1980, when per-capita energy peaked. The economic outlook stumbled a bit harder shortly after conventional (i.e. affordable) oil production peaked around 2006.  Within the last few years, we've witnessed what now appear to be peaks in the production of coal, concrete, diesel fuel, and quite possibly global GDP.  Chinese industrial production is sputtering, and stock markets are again swooning in ways reminiscent of 2007/2008.

Industrial civilization, it would seem, is growing weak and frail, as energy sources become more difficult to extract.  It's having trouble growing, which means that it will soon have trouble servicing the debt that has filled in as life-support for countries around the globe over the last few decades.  Just a push is all it needs to go over the edge from which it cannot possibly recover.

That push, it turns out, is where John Bolton comes in.

As I see it, our choices amount to 1) maintenance of the status quo for as long as possible -- which results in a 100% chance of human extinction, or 2) the immediate cessation of industrial activity, which may give us a 5% chance of continued survival if we're lucky. A 5% chance isn't a great option, but it certainly looks like our best option. At this late stage in the survival game, we'll probably also require some sort of divine intervention for survival to remain a possibility.  Maybe a few super-volcano eruptions combined with a dramatic loss of solar activity can tip global temps back into the safety zone, perhaps with the aid of space-unicorns sprinkling us all with magic rainbow fairy dust.

When resources grow scarce as they are now doing globally, humans have a long established habit of fighting over them. Thus, Bolton's warmongering ways are probably all but inevitable, and appear to be the most likely route to reaching option 2 (i.e. 5% chance of survival).  If Johnny gets his gun, of course, there could be some unpleasant side effects, but maybe the magic rainbow fairy dust will neutralize those. We can never say for certain exactly what the future holds for us, so don't knock the unicorn possibility, eh?

I suspect that some of you may remain unconvinced of John Bolton's great merits despite my detailed argument in support of them.  If that's the case, I have only this to offer...

Pause from your daily grind, and take the time to stop and smell the roses which still surround us.  They won't be blooming here forever.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Taking Stock

It turns out that I'm not alone in thinking that the chance for human survival within this century is slim.  Even the idiot in chief, as an excuse to pander to industrial interests, has cited the fact that we're looking at a 7 degree rise by the end of the century... which means nothing matters anymore, and means that we can get rid of all those pesky environmental regulations. That is more or less what's already happening now here in the US. Brazil's new president-elect has declared his intent to raze what remains of the Amazon rainforest. Instead of a valiant final effort to save ourselves, we go collectively bonkers, flying off the cliff with the pedal to the metal, Thelma & Louise style.

At least one family member has cited our impending doom as reason to no longer take any shame in jetsetting around the world. Then again, I'm not sure they felt any shame or avoided flying back when it would've really been helpful. The do-nothing default wins yet again.

If the future is a football game, and human survival the home-team, we're down 49-0, with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter.  In theory, we could still win the game and get to see our kids lead full and enjoyable lives, but our chances grow slimmer by the second.

Room with a ewe:  Our flock cleans up in the orchard & garden while
 Leo the ram fervently examines them all for signs of heat. His preferred
testing method is, of course, tinkle-tasting.
If you live around Puget Sound, your summer air quality is now worse than Beijing's, due to the local forests going up in smoke, now an annual event.

If you regularly escape to the Cascades as I once did, you see the shrinking glaciers and burned forests first hand, while trying not to damage your lungs in the smoke.

If you live in Australia, you've watched your magical great barrier reef die, most of it in the last two years. Europe has seen unprecedented fires as well, both north and south. If you live on the gulf or east coast, you've seen unprecedented hurricanes roar through at rates and intensities never before seen. Ditto for the hyperactive western pacific, where category 5 super-typhoons are now a dime a dozen (6 of them for 2018).

Here in the Midwest and New England, summers have become hellish, forcing everyone indoors to crank the AC, ultimately making the problem worse. While we may be able to escape, the natural world upon which we rely cannot.

The UN / IPCC's latest report, upon evaluating the latest scientific studies, says we meet with civilization destroying disaster by 2030 if we don't make a dramatic course change. Keep in mind that the IPCC has long history of understating trends and forecasts, as a result of industrialized countries like the US, China, and India exerting undue influence on their reports in hopes of continuing with business as usual.

It should by this point be clear to anyone with an IQ north of 50 that things aren't looking good for us. Does that mean it's time throw in the towel?  Should we just stop swimming against the current and mindlessly drift wherever it takes us?  Good question. I don't have an answer for everyone, but I plan to continue swimming, even if my efforts are woefully inadequate.

As Chris Hedges has been saying in his recent speaking tour (which I highly recommend watching), "We fight not because we will win, but because it's right, and because it gives our lives meaning."  He's referring more to the fight against corporate fascism that now dominates the US and much of the world, but it's really the same thing as fighting to preserve humanity.

Does it give my life meaning to eschew the tractor or car and use the horses instead? Does it give my life meaning to avoid air travel, and thus miss my grandmother's funeral in California? It's clear to me at this stage that the effects of such efforts will be drowned in the tsunami of our fossil fueled existence, so "giving my life meaning" is really the sole reason for doing what I hope is still the right thing.

If there's a bright side to all this knowledge, it's that it has intensified my appreciation for all the beauty still alive in the world.

Monday, September 24, 2018

21% Dumber by 2100

As it turns out, rising CO2 isn't just an issue of climate change or ocean acidification.

High CO2 levels, as it turns out, make us dumb. Those in urban areas (where higher CO2 levels are typical) and those spending a lot of time indoors get it the worst. At 1,000ppm, human cognitive ability drops by 21%. We're on track to have 1,000ppm globally, by 2100. Indoor air often exceeds 2,000ppm.  Check it out.

While I'm on the subject of laughing dumbing gas, it turns out that time spent in a car or near traffic has a similar effect, from low level carbon monoxide exposure in addition to the CO2.

Cars: a dumb idea that make us dumber.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Domestication of the Wolf

My favorite all-time movie was released by Disney when I was eleven years old, in 1983.  As the only movie I feel compelled to watch again and again every few years, Never Cry Wolf, always teaches me something new each time I watch it.

The story line in a nutshell is that Mr. Mowatt, a biologist, is hired by the Canadian government to prove that massive declines in the caribou herds are due to wolf predation, thus providing a justification for an expansion of their wolf eradication program. Through observation and interactions with the local natives, he discovers that the herd's problem is not wolf predation but rather a disease outbreak -- one which is being mitigated by the wolves, who hunt down the sick and weakened animals and help prevent further spread of the disease.

While the basic wildlife biology lesson in the movie is a worthwhile one, I'd never thought about how it might apply to my own species until recently.

We like to pretend that we're different from other animals; not subject to the same laws that govern all other living organisms. The course of humanity over the last century has certainly given us plenty of reason to embrace this idea.

We have several "wolves" that have plagued us since time immemorial.  Famine and disease are at the front of the pack. When they fail to cull our herd, war is usually right behind them. There are many lesser wolves which torment us, yet help to keep us healthy either individually or as a species. The physical effort involved in feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves is one we've scared off, to the point that obesity runs rampant. In our effort to ward off the disease wolf, we've sanitized our environments to the point that our immune systems have gone haywire, manifesting in numerous autoimmune disorders and severe allergies.  In fact, most every wolf we've managed to ward off has left us with unintentional consequences which are ultimately worse than those were were first trying to avoid.

In an effort to ward off the Wolf of Economic Malaise in the face of energy and resource decline, we're now amassing ever growing piles of debt on a global basis. This wolf feeds on debt, which will make him far more ferocious when he returns. Debt is little more than a promise to pay at some future point, and the more debt there is, the more likely this promise will be broken.

The Famine Wolf has been kept at bay for so long that few in the industrialized world have any memory of it. The development of the Haber-Bosch process, which allows us to artificially fix atmospheric nitrogen for use in fertilizer and vastly improve agricultural yields, gave famine a near-fatal blow. When it was developed at roughly the time my grandparents were born, the world's population had reached 2 billion. Various inventions have dealt other serious blows, from the McCormick Reaper to tractors using internal combustion engines and the modern combine. Though it came at a cost in the nutritional quality of our food, the development of hybrid crops also greatly expanded production.

The Disease Wolf was beaten off in large part through scientific knowledge of microorganisms, such as the work of Louis Pasteur. The development of antibiotics and vaccines dealt another great blow, and greatly reduced childhood mortality. By the time my parents were born in the mid 20th century, the world population had crept up to 2.5 billion.

Shortly before I was born, Norman Borlaug took another swing at the Famine Wolf with his development of dwarf wheat varieties. He's credited with averting a massive famine in India, whose population has now nearly tripled in the time elapsed. He knew, however, that he hadn't scared it off for good, and warned that we should use the time he gave us wisely.

The War Wolf has also been scared off, in much of the world anyway. The development of nuclear weapons have kept it at bay for several decades now, though it's by no means a certainty that they can continue to keep it away indefinitely. As our population continues to climb and resource conflict intensifies, this wolf grows ever more menacing.

I frequently see conservative media pointing the finger at Thomas Malthus, exclaiming how very wrong he was about the future, simply because his schedule for the arrival of the famine wolf was off. They seem to think that our ability to scare this wolf off for a few years is the same thing as killing it.

Every time we scare off of yet another wolf, our population grows. The 2 billion people in my grandparents' childhood world have now exploded to 7.5 billion in my world.  It's apparent that the wolves are never killed, but are scared off into the forest, where they grow ever more hungry the longer they're kept away.

The story of perpetual progress we like to tell each other is not one that ends happily ever after.  Human societies have always grown as they scared off the wolves, and collapsed as the unintended consequences arose. Such was certainly the case with Greece and Rome, which overshot their resource base just as we're now doing. Now that our society and the overshoot of our resource base is global, collapse threatens to also go global. Just as the caribou need wolves to regulate their population, humans need the wolves we've fought away for so long.

So am I advocating for the abandonment of scientific knowledge? No, not really. Promoting ignorance doesn't seem like a good idea in any case. I do think, however, that we should try to domesticate our wolves by regulating ourselves as they once did. As difficult as that may be, it's far better than the alternatives we're now facing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Late Summer

No more tarps on the wood pile!
The starlings and blackbirds gather in flocks of ever increasing size these days, moving in magically synchronized clouds between our cricket-rich pastures and our barnyard oaks, where their constant singing livens up the mornings. Hummingbirds chase each other around the row of zinnias in the aging garden while goldfinches inspect the sagging sunflower heads. Mowing the orchard last week, I dodged a milkweed plant and noticed two monarch caterpillars happily munching away as I passed by. I accidentally hit our smaller pawpaw tree (the one which pollinated our first-ever pawpaws on the larger tree) with the mower.  Hopefully the stump can re-sprout!

It's been hot this summer. In the past we'd always been able to keep the house comfortable by opening the windows to let in the cool night air and closing them as the heat of the day began. Huge maples shade the house, and we were always able to keep it at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside air this way. This year, however, the night time lows haven't been living up to their name, and made that technique unworkable. So now I sit in a room with the AC blasting away, doing something I'd prided myself on doing without, and increasing my dependence upon the grid. Today is supposed to hit 89 degrees, but the humidity is forecast to put the heat index at over 95 degrees.  The horses don't stand panting with their tongues out as the cows would be, but they're covered with sweat as they stand in the barn to avoid the torment of monster sized horseflies.  We're both thankful that the weather hasn't allowed us to put up any hay recently.

For all the heat, I would normally expect our pastures to be brown and crispy as with most years in August when I reluctantly feed out the hay we've just put up. This year, however, we've had rain, and lots of it. I've been scanning the forecasts for a weather window to cut our hay, and haven't seen one for a month now. Without the cows to feed, I think we may actually be self sufficient in hay for the first time. Assuming I'm able to eventually cut what remains in the field, that is.  As an added bonus to all the rain, we've had a bumper crop of chanterelles and chicken of the woods mushrooms this year.

My health is much improved from earlier in the year, enabling me to catch up on delayed projects like the wood shed. It's essentially finished now, aside from some doors I need to put up before the snow flies. My best guess is now that the flu triggered a leaky gut, which lead to extreme food sensitivity and created the reactive arthritis symptoms. That's the problem I've been treating anyway, and I'm making slow but measured improvement. The "swollen thyroid", as I learned from a belated visit to the overbooked endocrinologist, isn't actually my thyroid, but is rather a thyroglossal cyst, and is basically just an annoying benign lump that will be most likely be surgically removed.

Sighting in a bow or rifle has been a neglected task since we moved here.  Shooting the bow meant putting out a few straw bales, trying to prop them up so they don't fall over, and then hauling them back to the barn (or more likely, letting them stay out in the rain to get ruined).  For the guns, I've been shooting into an old garbage can filled with wood chips and sand.  Both made for poor backstops, so I finally got around to setting up something a little more permanent.  Both are set up with locust posts and a tin roof made from barn leftovers. The archery backstop is basically a frame to hold and protect three straw bales. The rifle backstop is a wooden box filled with sand and lined with rubber to keep the sand from spilling out after shots put holes in the wood. I even thought to bury cobble sized stones every 10 yards down range as distance markers so that I won't have to pace out distances every time I shoot.

In the interest of getting things done without manufactured or purchased inputs, I decided that I wanted to learn how to make my own ink and write with a quill pen.  Fortunately, I live in a location where three essential ingredients are found:  turkeys, black walnuts, and cherry trees. Turkey flight feathers provide nice strong quills, black walnut husks make an excellent ink, and gum gathered from the trunk of cherry trees (when they're attacked by insects) thickens the ink.

Results thus far have been mixed, but I still enjoy working at it. The quills need to be soaked and then hardened in hot sand and cut just right, with the nib split so that the ink wicks all the way to the tip. The ink needs to be just the right viscosity, which is thicker than that used with metal nibs.  Sometimes it goes very well, and other times I have trouble getting enough ink on the quill without having it spill out, so I've been starting the freshly dipped quill on a piece of scrap paper until the ink flow seems about right.  Writing left-handed with a "hook" is a much greater impediment with this type of writing than it is with a ball-point pen, as I have to take great pains to ensure I don't smear the ink with my hand following the quill.

Whereas finding a turkey feather in the woods was a mild curiosity before, I now get quite excited about it. I don't think they'll really wear out so fast once I've got everything figured out, but at this stage I've been going through quite a few as I try different cutting techniques for shaping the nib.


I see that Back-stabbed Bernie has come up with a new bill to do wonderful things. I don't really expect congress to do much with it, but taxing employers for the social subsidies claimed by their underpaid employees sounds to me like an *excellent* idea. Wal-Mart is known for providing food-stamp applications to their new hires, because it knows they'll qualify on the wages they'll be making, thereby getting you and I to subsidize the Walton heirs. Yes, many businesses will likely fail if such a law is passed (oh no! No fast-food joints and less industrialized agriculture!? The horror!), but if they can't stand on their own two feet, they weren't really viable businesses now, were they?  Seems like a perfect way to Make America Great Again.

Monday, July 9, 2018


I don't have anything particularly insightful or entertaining with this update, unfortunately. Prepare yourself for some rambling contemplation. I suppose this blog is as much a tool for collecting and analyzing my own thoughts as much as anything else.

As I alluded to last fall, I've lost the drive which had propelled me for the last decade, namely my concern for climate change and what it's capable of. My hope to encourage and be part of changes which might assure some chance of a survivable biosphere no longer exists. It's become increasingly apparent that the cavalry isn't coming, and is in fact riding at full gallop in the wrong direction, to the cheering of millions of television imbibing, red-hatted Americans. The enemy is no longer pounding at the front gate, but has been invited inside the castle by people who are hoping for just a few more years of what they've come to view as "normal". God help us.

I've spent the last decade doing my imperfect best to preserve a future worth living, and have in fact risked my life to do so, as became quite apparent last fall. In the meantime, I've encountered very few who are similarly motivated, and untold numbers who prefer to ignore our problems. When you're surrounded by people who live only for the day, perhaps it's best to join them since their collective actions make our shared future quite questionable.  I still find it disheartening that most people cheer what I consider personal failures (I finally bought an AC unit, after a decade without), and bemoan the few stands I've managed to maintain (such as abstaining from air travel).

Hey, the climate has always changed, so changing it ourselves is nothing to worry about, eh? Do you think anyone has ever mentioned to these folks that significant climate change is what drives most extinction events (such as the one now in play)? Those who hold this sort of half-baked opinion also seem to often hold the idea that "technology will save us!".

If we're going to solve this problem with the same tools that created it, we'd better get crackin'!  Half the great-barrier reef died within the last two years. Sea life is in dramatic decline everywhere, as is terrestrial life.  Melt rates in the antarctic have tripled in the last decade. If technology "saves" us, what will be left when that finally happens? I suspect that David Buckel probably had a better grasp on this reality than most of us are willing to accept at this stage.

While I no longer feel driven to do much of anything these days, I do still have some long held interests, one of which has grown a bit now that I have some cow-free time on my hands.

I've long been fascinated with the mountain-man/fur-trade culture of the early 1800s. I remember being absolutely enthralled by the Grizzly Adams TV series, which came out when I was 5 years old. I read every biography from the period I could find in my elementary school library. Around age 10, my grandmother gifted me a copy of Mountain Man Crafts and Skills, and I was soon reproducing many of the projects it details. I used the information I gathered there to tan every hide from every deer I've ever shot, all of which I've kept for that "someday" inspired project. This interest subsided and took a back-seat to mountaineering, sailing, and farming, but always flickered somewhere in the back of my mind.

Now that I find myself in Michigan, where mountaineering and sailing aren't weekend possibilities (particularly when you have a farm and thus have no such thing as a weekend), this interest has risen again to the forefront. The purchase of a Pennsylvania style flintlock long-rifle gave it a focus I'd previously lacked.

Thus far, I've made much of what I need to go with the rifle, and had a blast doing it. The list to-date includes a powder horn, bullet flask, a turn-screw (that's the period name for a screwdriver), a shooting bag, shooting box, flint wallet, moccasins, casting my own round-balls, a powder measure, a hand-sewn shirt done to an 18th century pattern, and probably more that I've forgotten. One of the things I love about this is that plastic is strictly verboten.

I'm still not exactly sure where this is going. Some people take up re-enactment of specific events or eras, while others learn as much as possible about a particular individual from history and try to emulate them at living history events. Still others just like to play dress-up and do their own thing in the woods. At the moment, the latter sounds good to me, but who knows where this will go.  "Historical Trekking" -- using only equipment from the fur trade era -- sounds especially interesting to me, until I think of sleeping without a tent or sleeping bag while surrounded by clouds of mosquitoes.

Getting the flu back at the end of March precipitated a long chain of health events that continue to plague me, and have re-acquainted me with the shortcomings of our increasingly pathetic healthcare system in this country. Private, for profit health insurance and the pay-to-play political system that keeps it alive is a plague, and any politician who supports this status quo is effectively devoted to screwing each and every one of us for personal gain, imho.

The flu started a sinus infection.  Then my thyroid began to swell, followed shortly by a swollen knee (which I first assumed was related to my injury last fall), and then half of the other joints in my body (other knee, foot, wrist, jaw, hip...).  Doctors have thus far been useful only in what we've been able to rule out.

Over the last month, I've started the ultra-restrictive auto-immune diet with Rachel's assistance, which has cleared up some of the joint issues, but the knee and thyroid swelling remain. Lyme disease appears to be the most likely and least desirable culprit, though my test results aren't back yet, and the testing is plagued with a 50% false negative rate. While there's very little "normal" food I can eat (no grains, eggs, soy, nuts, dairy, legumes, nightshades, etc), I have made two pleasant discoveries.  Plantains -- when pureed into a dough -- can make a sort of flat bread which is delicious. Coconut manna, though expensive, is *fantastic*! I think I could eat a $10 jar of that every day.

Though the recent findings in France weren't positive, the bird life around our farm seems to be especially rich this year. Our maturing orchard attracts lots of birds, as does the osage-orange hedgerow and the trees around our home/garden/barn area. Song sparrows have taken up residence in the hedgerow.

In the absence of cows, I haven't kept up with mowing or grazing the pastures, so the meadowlarks which usually stop here briefly in the spring (they like to nest in tall grass) have stayed. We've got orioles hanging around with their especially beautiful songs. We're regaled every morning by a nearby house-wren, as well as something I'd previously referred to as an R2-D2 bird because of their never-ending song filled with pops, squeaks and whistles. One of our barn cats provided a specimen for me on the patio one day, so now I've positively identified the R2-D2 bird as a cat bird.  A chickadee has taken up residence in a hollowed out fencepost, and regularly sings to us as we walk past.  As with most years, we've always got a healthy population of tree and barn swallows. These continually swoop around the horses and I as we're working the hayfields, catching the insects we stir up. Bluebirds are around as always, and we have been regularly seeing a huge pileated woodpecker as well.


I came across a movie lately, which is both incredibly beautiful and heart wrenching at the same time. I hope you'll watch it not because you want to be saddened, but because you're strong enough to face reality and change the small part of it that you control. That's all anybody can ask of you. It's something to think about next time you're faced with the choice of purchasing anything made of or packaged in plastic. Here's a link to the trailer, and a link to the entire movie as well (which is entirely free).

While we typically assume that our plastic refuse doesn't cause a problem in the local landfill, we're not thinking far enough. Even with the best intentions, the plastic we use eventually makes its way into the natural world where it causes problems. A recent wind storm turned the forest immediately downwind of our local landfill into a plastic-bag wonderland. In poorer countries (10 asian rivers are thought to supply most of the plastic in the world's oceans), there is no such thing as garbage collection. For most pacific islanders (including those in US territories), garbage disposal still involves placing it on the beach at low tide. When hurricanes rip through the Caribbean, all the damaged plastic (i.e. fiberglass) boats are rounded up and simply dumped in deeper water, to say nothing of the terrestrial sources which end up in the same place after such unavoidable events.

My neighbors here throughout rural Michigan burn it, thereby contaminating the soil and waterways with dioxin (which you may be familiar with from the effects of agent orange) which will likely last for centuries if not millennia. Guess who's growing your food and doing this at the same time? 

 I watched untold quantities of plastic washed into Puget Sound as the Skagit river flooded homes and farms in the 90's. After every 4th of July, I picked it up by the bucket-full from spent fireworks that littered the beach along Puget Sound, where I worked as a junior park ranger in my teens. Events such as tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes  release it into the ocean.  I suspect that wars are much the same. 

A walk along any river here in Michigan will reveal quantities of plastic  -- all destined for the Atlantic. Farm fields all around us simply plow it into their soil, because trash blown in from the roadside is too much work to pick up.  I find it in purchased hay. Even the wearing of synthetic clothes -- which release micro sized plastic particles into waterways with each washing (these regularly pass through water treatment plants) -- is a significant problem. Plastic particles, known to release endocrine-disrupting compounds, are now so common that they're found inside the flesh of fish and anything that eats them, and are even shown to be penetrating the brain/blood barrier and causing behavioral problems. When we've fully demonstrated to ourselves that we cannot handle a particular technology (whether that's plastics or nuclear energy), it's time to give it up. Are you pulling your load?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Revelations in Cutting Edge Lighting Technology

One of our beeswax candles made with stearic acid, showing a typical amount of dripping. Double this for a beeswax/tallow candle, and triple it for pure beeswax.
A few years back, the book Lights Out opened my eyes to the side effects of ubiquitous electric lighting. Much like any other animal or plant, the human body is quite sensitive to photo-period, which in large part controls the hormones that run our bodies. The ability to sleep, control your appetite, and even your immune function (particularly with relation to cancer) are all dependent upon the amount and type of lighting your body detects. With abundant electric light, televisions, computer monitors, and smartphones, there's little wonder why so many Americans are overweight, sleep deprived, diabetic, riddled with cancer, or beset with depression. Other factors undoubtedly play a role, but light clearly influences us in ways most have never considered.

Electric everything relies upon a grid fueled by fracked gas, mountaintop-removal coal, uranium (ever wonder why Trump was so hot to get rid of Bear's Ears Monument?), and a host of other nasties. Suffice it to say that electricity production has contaminated much of the planet now to the point where the biosphere is crumbling before our eyes, and our best chance for survival depends on getting rid of it wherever we can.

As the book explains, it's not necessary to sleep for 12 hours a day because you can't have electric lights on all the time, but it is important to average at least 9.5 hours of very low or no light. It's quite possible to exist on dimmer light than we're used to, and it benefits us considerably when we do.

My own lighting goals are 1) can be fueled from a homestead without purchased inputs, 2) provides usable quantities of light, 3) doesn't stink up the home or significantly damage the indoor air quality.

A center-draft, round-wick Rayo lamp
Oil lamps work well in the absence of electricity, but require significant quantities of kerosene (a fossil fuel), and give off quite a bit of heat (not always a plus). Their indoor emissions are also pretty nasty, and the kerosene is constantly evaporating into the home even when they're not in use. Their flame has a tendency to grow as they warm up, requiring constant supervision to adjust the wick during this period unless you want a house filled with soot.

With that said, in a non-electric environment, oil lamps do have a place. They can give off quite a bit of light, particularly the Aladdin mantle lamps (which are equivalent to a 30 watt bulb). The downside to these is that the light can be quite harsh, and the mantles are slightly radioactive, as well as being fragile and short lived.

Oil lamps do have some benefits over electric lights. Their light is typically much dimmer, and thus provides the benefits noted above. An overlooked benefit is that they're fairly expensive to operate. The downside to greater efficiency (as noted in Jevon's Paradox) means there's an upside to lower efficiency, which is clearly the case with this lighting option. You'll find that you keep one oil lamp burning with you as you move from room to room, instead of leaving multiple lights going throughout the house, and may very well use less energy as a result.

My preference in oil lamps is for the standard round-wick center-draft lamps of the sort historically produced by Bradley and Hubbard or Rayo. These produce plenty of light, with a softer appearance than the mantle lamps, and are cheaper and easier to maintain and keep well tuned.

Candles, though now relegated to purely decorative or "mood" uses nowadays in
Aladdin lamp with the chimney removed. It uses a burner nearly identical to the Rayo but with the addition of a mantle for increased light
most homes, deserve a second look. Though it's a significant change for anyone accustomed to electric lighting, the 13 lumens from a single candle can sufficiently light a room (particularly if the walls are painted white). It's enough to read by when placed close to your book, and doesn't appear to be enough to delay your sleep or encourage a late night snack.

I'm not a fan of paraffin candles, as paraffin is a coal derivative and thus has little to recommend it over oil lamps. I have a similar opinion of soy candles, which are effectively a product of Monsanto and Exxon. A homestead with a few beehives, however, can supply a significant amount of beeswax.  It makes an excellent lighting fuel, smells great, and is also useful for everything from treating leather to lubricating black-powder rifle patches.

Pure beeswax candles, as we've discovered, do have some shortcomings. Beeswax has a relatively low melting point, which causes the candles to dribble and make a mess. This melting can be reduced through addition of tallow in a 50/50 mix, but there will still be significant dripping. The addition of a small amount of stearic acid (as used in commercial candles) considerably reduces the dripping. It's relatively inexpensive and not much is needed, but it must be purchased. So far as I can tell, it cannot be easily produced at home, and I haven't found any substitutes.

Though we have yet to make our own wicks, I do think it would be relatively simple with the use of flax (aka linen), which we've grown in our garden. I see some candles are now sold with a wooden wick, which would also be worth experimenting with.

Our tin candle mold
We make our own candles in a mold, which seems much easier and faster than dipping them. Old style tin molds are readily available, and work well with a little practice. You'll find people recommending various sprays for helping to release the candles from the mold, but we've found something much simpler and cheaper that works better. Just take hot water from your tea-kettle and pour it over the outside of the mold. The candles will all but fall right out on their own.

So candles can be messy, which is why I've found that antique candle-holders with a wide-dish base are perfect for collecting melted wax (which can be melted down into new candles). My favorite type has a knob on the side which makes removing the old candle stump a simple task. With these, you just wait until the candle has burned down far enough to warm the metal base (usually brass), at which point the candle stump slides up easily and is replaced with a fresh candle. These bases all seem to be antique, from the era when candles were standard equipment in any home.  They're all over Ebay.

Back in the day when I was an involuntary churchgoer, I remember seeing metal "caps" on the top of some of the candles. Just another way for the church to impress the peasants with fancy finery, I thought. I was wrong! These metal caps are called "candle followers", and do serve a useful purpose. They're quite effective at controlling drips, as it turns out. On our beeswax-stearic acid candles, they've completely eliminated dripping. I haven't tested it yet, but I suspect that they may even work with pure beeswax candles, or even beeswax/tallow candles, which would both eliminate the need for stearic acid as well as allow us to significantly extend our beeswax supplies (tallow is easy to produce if you have any sheep, deer, or cows to butcher).

The one shortcoming of candles which remained is that of snuffing. The typical user nowadays just blows out a candle, which leaves a smoldering wick that gives off smoke for a minute, filling a room with stinky partially burned hydrocarbons. Blow a little too hard and you'll spray wax all over too.

Bell style snuffer
Another thing I remember from church is the bell-type candle snuffer on a stick. I bought a small version of that, which eliminates the need to blow a candle out. It worked to put out the flame, but the candle still smoldered. I wasn't impressed.

Scissor style snuffer
Next in line was one of the scissor-type snuffers, often referred to as a wick trimmer.  This worked much better, and did in fact eliminate the smoldering. The downside was that it got waxy, and needs a place to be stored where it won't get wax on everything. Eventually, it needs to be cleaned up. These aren't sharpened as scissors are;  they merely squeeze the wick between the dull blades and push any crumbly end into the cavity atop one of the blades.

My favorite candle holder, with the cone-type snuffer that stores on the handle, also showing one of our candle followers.  Note the lack of drips!
Finally, I think I've found the best candle snuffer, which came with (not surprisingly) on a pair of antique push-up candle holders purchased on Ebay for $8 each. This little cone-type snuffer is similar to the bell-on-a-stick snuffer I tried earlier, but with one important difference -- you can leave it on top of the candle. This allows it to not only snuff the flame, but to contain the smoke from any smoldering wick. It's just as effective as the scissor type snuffer, but is less prone to wax-buildup and easier to store. When it does get a little wax built up on the inside, just hold it over the candle flame for a few seconds and it'll drip out into the candle.

For future experiments, we'll try making up some pure beeswax candles and see if the follower eliminates drips on those. Another thing I'd like to try is a "rush light". These are relatively fast burning (about 15 minutes), made by soaking the foamy-pith of a rush stem with tallow. While I suspect that a candle is still nicer, they seem as if they would be easier to make, particularly if you don't have beeswax.