Friday, January 23, 2015

Five Little Piggies

Those of you who watch The Simpsons may remember an episode where Homer took a second job to pay for his daughter Lisa's pony (a birthday present). Having slept right through my alarm twice this week, I'm starting to feel a bit like Homer in that episode. In my case, however, the second job *is* a pony (well... 3 horses, 5 cows, 17 sheep... you get the picture).  Unlike Lisa, I refuse to give it up.

A significant part of my day is devoted to poop. Not my own, mind you (I don't have the time for that anyway), but rather that of our cows, who fill a few wheelbarrows with the stuff every day. To keep myself entertained during this twice-daily Scoopin' O' the Poopin', I've adapted a few songs. I have my own version of James Brown's "SexMachine", and Lennon's "Imagine". My versions just replace the appropriate nouns with situation-appropriate fecally-oriented words.

The barn project -- the same one I expected to be finished last March -- has gone on a tad longer than expected.  The hay lofts are filled with snow rather than hay this winter. We finally let the perennially absent original contractor go and hired another Amish contractor we've had good experiences with before. He was able to get some more siding up before having to go back to another previously scheduled project, and has more coming from his brother's mill. For now, the local pigeons really enjoy the open "perches with a roof" configuration.

I feel a bit like a toddler imitating his parents as I work next to the barn crew, but I'm having fun. My project is a tool shed for all our garden implements. I'd initially envisioned something more the size of a closet until Rachel suggested that bigger would be better. Sensing an opportunity to make use of the timber framing knowledge gathered from my class last spring, I set to work cutting down some of our many dying red pines (Inhofe is right -- climate change has benefits!), which have slowly become the frame of our new shed.

The only sawn lumber thus far is in the roof, and all came from trees cut when we were making room for the new barn.  The foundation is made of partially buried boulders. The roofing is steel siding salvaged from the moved barn as well. Being contrary as I am, I decided to make the rafters the old way, using pegged mortise & tenon joints without a ridge pole.

Henry helped out with the roof as well. It's pretty neat seeing him go from nailing random scraps of lumber together to doing truly useful tasks -- and doing them well to boot!

This last weekend we saw our pigs off to freezerland. Our usual on-farm butcher (a vietnam vet getting up in years) was out of commission, as was a backup butcher, forcing us to bring them in ourselves. In anticipation of this, I parked our pickup in their pen a week in advance.  We loaded their feeder in the back and constructed a ramp for them to reach it. After learning that hogs are terrified of heights exceeding 6 inches or anything which could be construed as slippery (like a gently sloping ramp), I managed to make something they would use.

When their fateful day arrived, we had trouble getting them all in the truck at once. Attempting to keep some of them in the truck while we lured the others in only made matters worse, as they freaked out, shoved us aside (a 300lb hog is very strong!) and bolted back down the ramp. Eventually we managed to get two of the five loaded and made it to the processor with them. After consulting with the butcher, I decided that my best option would be to dispatch the remaining three at home for delivery in a somewhat less animated state.

Though I've always been present at slaughter time, it's the first time I've had to kill our own hogs. It's just a .22 shot to the brain followed immediately by slitting their throat to bleed them out. I don't think I enjoyed it any more than the hogs did, but I do feel better about doing it myself. I've long felt that everyone eating meat should participate in butchering. Hiding the reality of meat production really cheapens the lives of the animals that we rely upon, as does hiding them out of sight in hog barns.

Clover (our border collie) has been quite distraught over fact that her "Piggy TV" was suddenly dropped from the airwaves, and regularly checks their pen to see if they've returned. We grew quite attached to this year's batch, and feel immense gratitude that we were able to know them during their brief lives, despite their demonic squealing and leg biting (or were those love bites?).

Friday, January 16, 2015

Home of the Free (to experiment on)

If you live and eat in the US, you and your family are part of the experiment. No sign-up was necessary, as your free pass is one of the many benefits of life here in the land of the free. In fact, we pay for the privilege of becoming lab-rats, first for the experimental food and then for the extortion-priced healthcare. The results of the experiment are in full view everywhere we go whether we see them in the shoppers at the local grocery, at work, or in the mirror.

People often have trouble connecting the conditions they see with the experiment they've been part of, but the link remains. Strangely enough, lung tumors don't show up on x-rays in the shape of a Marlboro logo.  Thunder thighs and oversized guts don't often have "Coca-Cola" logos on them either.  But, given the right information, most reasonable people can make the link.

Experiment #1:  Plastics

No matter what you eat, if you bought it, chances are it's packaged in plastic. Even if it's in a tin or aluminum can, it's packaged in plastic (modern cans all use plastic lining material). Long thought to be wonderfully "inert", we've since learned that this isn't the case.

From the NY Times article linked below, regarding the mice on the left: "They’re genetically the same, raised in the same lab and given the same food and chance to exercise. Yet the bottom one is svelte, while the other looks like, well, an American.

The only difference is that the top one was exposed at birth to just one part per billion of an endocrine-disrupting chemical."

The most widely known contaminant is BPA (bisphenol-a), which gained widespread recognition as one of the components of polycarbonate water bottles. There's plenty of reason for concern here. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, meaning that your body has receptors which capture it and react to it at extremely low levels, as our body does with hormones we produce ourselves.  In fact, you don't even need to be directly exposed to any BPA at all in order to experience the effects it's been linked to (obesity, autism, diabetes, etc). It has trans-generational effects lasting as long as three generations.

Lucky me, I've got this stuff in my teeth, as does most anyone with composite fillings.  Are mercury amalgam fillings any better? Yet another reason not to eat the concentrated sugars and starches of the modern industrial diet, which are what typically cause cavities.

BPA, as it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg. One study tested a wide variety of "food safe" plastics, discovering that 95% of them were leaching compounds also thought to be endocrine disruptors, but which are less well known. This includes plastics and can-liners which are now being touted as "BPA free".

It also turns out that phthalates -- chemicals often used to soften plastics used in soda bottles -- are directly linked with insulin resistance and the development of diabetes.  Drink pop from a can and a bottle (one in each hand, of course), and you're likely participating in all 3 of the experiments I've listed here today. What's not to like about going blind and having your digits and limbs amputated, while going bankrupt for the privilege?

Yet another reason to grow your own, or at the very least avoid packaged and processed foods.  Go for the glass jars or bottles when you can.

Experiment #2:  Pesticides

Back in 1962, Rachel Carson published her now famous book, "Silent Spring".  This woke a lot of us lab-rats up to one of the experiments they'd been subjected to, resulting in a ban on DDT in 1972. Unfortunately for us, this pesticide is quite long lived, and still remains the most common contaminant found in the mud of many lakes and streams. It's still used in countries like China (but, hey, what isn't?) where we get a lot of our food here in the US. (hint: avoid anything made with apple juice concentrate that's not explicitly US sourced)

A Washington State University researcher recently discovered that DDT also has trans generational effects, just like BPA.  It makes people fat, though not from direct exposure.  The effects are noted primarily in those whose great-grandparents were exposed to it.  They're apparently even greater than the effects of the above noted BPA.

As I noted earlier, "Roundup" -- which is sprayed on the vast majority of all corn and soy in the US, among other crops, is now being implicated in the dramatic rise in autism. But you don't eat corn and soy, you say?  Au contraire!

I've railed on enough already about my favorite pesticide -- Atrazine. Suffice to say that I've met a lot of breast cancer patients here in the corn belt.

Experiment #3:  High Fructose Corn Syrup

Judging by the carts piled high with suitcases and 2-liter bottles of pop at my local grocery store, it seems to be a hot commodity. Judging by the physique of the people pushing (or, oftentimes, riding on) these carts, that may not be such a good thing. Yes, like most industrially produced food, pop is cheap. Aside from the benzene, BPA, mercury, and phthalates it contains, it has yet another problem. The high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten pop (and ketchup, cookies, and a whole host of other foods from companies you should avoid) triggers insulin resistance.

Michael Pollan noted in one of is books, if you've ever seen something advertised, chances are you shouldn't be eating it. That's just a start, but I'd say that's excellent advice!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Who's to Blame?

Back in 2007, while selling our former home/sailboat, one of the prospective buyers and I got to talking about farming. His brother was raising organic beef on a ranch somewhere out west, and was apparently having a tough time of it. The other ranchers in the area -- all conventional -- saw his organic methods as an indictment of their own, and treated him accordingly.

Though I haven't met any that seemed at all hostile, I often wonder if some of the surrounding farmers -- anyone who knows a bit about our small farm -- think the same of us. Perhaps others assume that I look down upon conventional farmers because of their methods.

As a former commercial forester, I've been one of the "bad guys" myself. People expressed their contempt for our company in various ways, whether that meant writing letters to the editor, sending us damning email, or slashing tires on our pickups at the local gas station. I was directly involved in everything from dousing the Cascade foothills with herbicides, to clearcutting, to helping with salmon-stream destroying logging roads. I chose forestry as a profession not because I was a proponent of any of these activities, but in part because I thought I might be able to lessen some of their impacts.  I'd suspect that many farmers see themselves in the same position.

Farmers are typically independent business owners rather than employees, but they don't have much more latitude in their decision making than I did as a forester. Both foresters and farmers are working within the confines of a system that's been set up for them, with relatively lax bounds when it comes to practices with negative impacts. Those bounds are set in part by an unconcerned and ignorant public that grows less connected to the natural world by the day. Increasingly, they're also set by the large corporations that seek greater profit margins, using lobbyists and campaign "donations" to further degrade the regulatory environment.  They even write the laws themselves!

In the anything goes environment that dominates agriculture nowadays, those with the least moral fortitude set the standard for profitability. The rest of the farmers who must compete with them must also emulate them or they'll drive themselves out of business. A public that purchases anything based on price alone drives the standards ever lower, punishing the rare farmer who might dare to forego the benefits of Atrazine or Roundup.

Americans, not surprisingly, spend less of their income on food than people in any other country.  We also spend more than anyone else on healthcare.  Coincidence?

People who have educated themselves and make the attempt to improve matters by purchasing organic or directly from responsible farmers still harbor price expectations based upon the prevalent industrial methods. The minority of farmers who cater to this expanding market typically find that the higher prices they can command still don't justify the additional expenses of responsible production methods. Thus the organic farmer with a second job.

Our personal and environmental health aren't just a concern for hairy sandal-wearing hippies, either. Even the pentagon brass is concerned.  Perhaps they just need to consider the formation of a new Rascal Brigade?  Just imagine if we had to mobilize our country as we did for WWII.  Can you see them trying to make their way to the summit of Iwo Jima?   Maybe an upgrade would be in order, for the special forces at least.

So who is to blame for the fact that our food and water are now loaded with harmful and often peristent chemicals?  Who's to blame for the well documented drop in soil health and nutritional quality of the food it produces?  Who's to blame for 50% cancer rates, diabetes rates trending to hit 30% in my son's generation, and 30% obesity rates?

It's the family buying groceries with an ever shrinking budget, and little concern for how their food was produced. It's the grocer who stocks them with concern only for salability and shelf-life. It's the doctor who treat cancers, never speaking out against the cause of his patient's ills. It's the industrial food processors and their executives, hoping to climb the corporate ladder to a bigger McMansion and nicer car. It's the regular people who invest in the food processors, demanding only shareholder return in hopes of a comfortable retirement. It's the bankers who finance such companies while turning a blind eye to their effects. It's a corporately funded media that doesn't dare to inform the public and thus risk their valuable advertising dollars. It's the farmer who dares not read anything beyond the MSDS on the pesticides they use, for fear of learning how his wife got her breast cancer or his son developed autism. Everyone is to blame, and everyone needs to try a little harder, perhaps even taking some risk to make the world a better place.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Jevon's Paradox also works in reverse

Though always plagued by negative publicity after they collapse, Ponzi schemes work out quite well for the early participants. If you can get in (and out!) early enough, you're set.

My grandparents generation was likely the first in all of human history to experience retirement on a large scale. My parent's generation looks to be alright for the moment, though their whole story has not yet been written.

My generation, and those that follow, not only lack this opportunity, but will be paying for the collapsing scheme in terms of a failing planet. Though most have not yet consciously embraced this fact, I think we've all sensed it at some level.  Witness three recent movies to hit the box office -- Interstellar, Snowpiercer, and Mockingjay. Contrast those with the movies we used to explore our future as I was growing up, like 2001, or Star Wars.

Jevon's Paradox, for those unfamiliar with the concept, essentially states that energy use actually *increases* as efficiency improves. Jevon noted this effect with the early steam engines of his day. Increased efficiency lowers the cost of operation, thereby increasing demand.

Living as we do in the techno-utopia of the 21st century USA (cough, cough), we're constantly bombarded by stories of increasing efficiency, whether it's cars, electronics, or streamlined manufacturing. It's enough to make us think that the rise of efficiency is a one-way street, but we'd be wrong.

As Gail Tverberg notes on her excellent blog, a number of sectors in the global economy are suffering from significant *decreases* in efficiency. Of greatest note is the energy sector, where almost all recently utilized reserves have a much lower EROEI than those of the 20th century, whether that's fracked gas and oil, tar sands, ultra-deepwater oil, or mountaintop removal for coal extraction.

As efficiency decreases, prices rise, which can lead to demand collapse. She believes this is what's currently happening in the oil sector. Other critical sectors of the economy are in similar straits, whether that's healthcare, mining, education, or fresh water supply.

When these sectors of the economy -- and the other sectors which rely upon them -- were doing well, investing in public corporations made some sense, at least among the majority who are willing to ignore the clinically psychopathic behavior that characterizes most large public corporations. As Upton Sinclair once noted, "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it."   Just replace the word "salary" with "retirement".

When efficiency in critical economic sectors is on the decline, the whole industrial economy has the brakes applied, calling for extreme (if temporary) measures such as quantitative easing. These band-aids can't really solve the problem, but only delay the inevitable. The denial they help foster ultimately makes the problems worse.

When investment no longer makes sense, retirement moves from the realm of possibility back to its traditional home in the world of fantasy. The sooner people realize that fact, the better prepared they'll be, and the less they'll lose to failing investments.

The Snowden Story

If he is in fact a real person whose story has been accurately portrayed, I think Edward Snowden is to be commended, at least for the intent of his warning if not its ultimate effect. However, I'm by no means convinced that either assumption is accurate.

The amount of media coverage on Snowden and the NSA's spying revelations was sky-high. In our corporately coordinated media, that means his story conveyed an important message that was meant to be told. Yes, much of the coverage was to demonize him and call him a traitor, but that's just a vehicle for delivering the core message. Regardless of whether you consider him a traitor or a patriot, you've received the message.

That message -- that all US citizens are being spied upon and monitored by "our" government -- is important to someone. It's important to people who benefit from the current power structure in this country, and want to preserve it for their own benefit.

Such a message is important for maintaining the sense of isolation among any would-be revolutionaries. If you can convince them they're being spied upon, communications cease -- even if you're not actually monitoring them at all. Without communication, nobody realizes how many other people share their views, making the momentum necessary for a revolution impossible to build.

Why do you tell someone that they're being spied upon, instead of simply spying upon them in secret? You do so to stifle the communication between any groups that would challenge the current power structure. It's a form of intimidation.  I'm inclined to think that the NSA's actual ability to successfully sort through the billions of daily communications they supposedly monitor is much more limited than we've been lead to believe.

Recent revelations of government torture -- which also received widespread media coverage --  have nothing to do with intelligence gathering, though the argument is always framed as such. People being tortured will say anything (usually inaccurate) to stop the torture, as John McCain once noted from his experience.  Advertising your willingness to torture people is simply another form of intimidation -- in this case the intimidation is again directed at US citizens.

Combined with other messages of government torture, extraordinary rendition, or the treatment of whistle blowers, few people would be willing to risk being caught, and thus will never speak their mind. People that don't speak their mind never become revolutionaries. It's the same model that was successfully deployed in the former East Germany, where I visited relatives back in 1985.

Why would the US government (calling it "our" government no longer works for me) have a sudden interest in suppressing any subversive or revolutionary communications? Nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty any more than we can predict the exact weather details for a year in advance of any given day. However, it is quite possible to predict general trends with respectable accuracy, with weather or with human populations.  Governments pay attention to these forecasts the way farmers scrutinize weather forecasts.

I once worked with a programmer who had been involved in such modelling for various governments around the world. His company was in high demand, as they took all the data they could gather (resource trends, population dynamics, agricultural output, etc), plugged it into their modeling software, and used it to identify various trends and risks. He was doing this in the late 1970's for Iran, among other countries.

I'd be willing to bet that such modeling has grown dramatically more sophisticated since then. Similar modeling predicted many of the "Arab Spring" revolutions. Based on my understanding of energy resource availability, I'd be willing to bet that it shows some significant upheaval coming to the US in the near future as well.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Land of the Lemmings

In 1993, I took a summer job as a park ranger for the city of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. My days consisted of touring the many small parks, checking restrooms for vandalism, and suggesting that park patrons keep their vicious labs and retrievers on leash, lest someone be injured by their opportunistic licking and dangerously wagging tails.

The parks department provided me with a bright orange Chevy S-10 sporting a leaky head-gasket and AM radio, which made Rush Limbaugh my best choice among limited listening options. Though not generally inclined towards Rush's view of the world, I often found myself agreeing with him despite his pompous radio persona. Relating this fact to a girlfriend a few years later, I thought she might find it amusing. It made her cry instead.

In the years that followed, my horizons broadened, and the internet came into its own as a media source. I found plenty of fault in the opinions I'd been sold by Mr. Limbaugh. Though I frequently have reason to doubt this assessment, I like to think of myself as relatively bright and open minded. It was quite clear, however, that I'd fallen for propaganda just like the lemming-folk I enjoy making fun of.

Whenever we hear a story repeated over and over with little refutation, there's a good chance we'll believe it. We're herd animals at heart, and neither logic nor reason are required to convince us of anything. Tell us that our peers already believe something, and we'll likely accept it without question. That's why Fox News loves the term "some people say..." so much.

With families typically uprooting themselves once every 5 years, and with both parents now working where one job once sufficed, we have ever less time for real social interaction. Television increasingly fills the void, with the average American now staring at the TV for 4.5 hours a day. TV tells us what our peers think, and thus shapes our worldview. It's far more effective than any of us would like to believe.

Though it can only be attributed to pure coincidence, during this period of growth in TV time, Americans have become increasingly convinced that 1) We need to buy all the cool stuff that everyone else already owns, and 2) Nothing which has the potential to impact next quarter's corporate earnings reports is worthy of our concern. Waning public concern for our life support systems (a.k.a. "the environment") comes to mind.

The end result of these two highly effective messages has been mad race to catch up to our television peers, going into crushing levels of debt to do so. The second message has cleared the way for the destruction of our country and planet, as we cheer the horde of frackers turning us into "Saudi America" while permanently poisoning our groundwater and atmosphere in ways that were illegal a few short years ago. Drill baby, drill.

Long viewed as the best way to "get something for free", advertising is the culprit here. That free television and radio programming costs us plenty, or it would never be worth it for the advertisers to spend their money in the first place. It's a rare occasion that any media outlet is willing to risk bankruptcy by offending an advertiser. That fact alone is what makes our dominant media untrustworthy, and it's why they've led us astray.  You'll even see some ads that aren't really about selling *anything*, but rather have been created simply to foster a compliant media.

The web is filled with bloggers who work for nothing. In most cases, they're simply parroting things they've heard elsewhere (not that I have ever been guilty of such an offense...), but there are many original sources. Most do not suffer from the censuring influence nor financial gains of advertising.

Though many have come to doubt Google's "don't be evil" motto with good reason (like cooperating with the NSA and Chinese censors), Google has done something wonderful, particularly if their model spreads. Google ads, because they are assigned by computers, sever the relationship between advertiser and media outlet. This simple fact allows media sources to receive funding and not have to censor their work for fear of losing their funding. While this offers no guarantee of integrity, it certainly removes one of the greatest impediments to it.

Books, because they've long been supported by readers rather than advertisers, can be a great source of untainted information, at least for those whose attention span hasn't slipped below the 60 second threshold (felt the urge to check your smartphone lately?).

Can your TV, and you'll find that your view of the world changes. You'll actually have the time to read books (4.5 hours a day on average!), or perhaps even have the time to reclaim some of the important and rewarding skills that will again be quite important in the years to come.  It's almost like getting out of a prison when you didn't even realize you'd been locked up.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Our rightful place in the world

Anyone who's visited our farm and knows a bit about my philosophy is likely to assume that I think the answer to our ills is for everyone to assume an 18th century farming lifestyle.  That's not really the case.  I'm much worse than that!

The answer to our ills, in my rarely humble opinion, is to return to our rightful role in the biosphere -- the same one we've been in for 99.9% of our existence, and the only role which is truly sustainable over the long term.  I'm thinking of the ecological niche such as that which the Native Americans thrived in for 10,000 years.  They -- as well as my own European ancestors if we travel back in time a few thousand years -- lived within their means, utilizing only the energy that was directly available from the sun.

Everything about us says that this is how we should be living. The further we venture from this historical niche, the worse our physical and mental health becomes. 20% of the US is on anti-psychotic medications, with the CDC saying that mental health is trending to become the leading root cause of death by 2020.  10% of the population currently has diabetes, and my son's generation is expected to develop it at the rate of 1 in 3.  A third of us are already obese.  Cancer rates are at 50% in the US, and it's now the leading cause of death in China.   Do you think we have a problem?  These are not diseases we can "fix" with modern medicine.  Don't get me started on the asinine "Race for the Cure".

Examinations of pre-industrial societies (and pre-agricultural in particular) suggest that each of these diseases were all but unheard of.   Over at The Hipcrime Vocab you can read a much better analysis than I can create, where the author did a 5 part series on "The Longevity Deception".   His suggestion that hunter gatherers lived longer than we did (even if our life in calendar years is greater), is an eye opener for anyone who has subscribed to Thomas Hobbe's widely accepted take on pre-industrial life.

As it is now, we've burned a lot of bridges.  The conventional wisdom of the 20th century said we'd never need them again.  That's why you'll see cars in my driveway, and why I'm not living in a bark hut and wearing buckskin as most of my ancestors likely did.  It'll take us a while to get back to this ideal, but it's the only road that leads to a future.