Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nuclear Nuttiness

Though I'm not sure he's fully learned the lesson yet, my 9 year old son Henry is certainly in the process of learning one of life's most important lessons:  Don't make a mess if you don't want to clean it up.

Unfortunately for all of us, a number of engineers and physicists over the last several decades never learned that lesson, which may well prove to be worst mess anyone will have to deal with.

Since its inception, nuclear powerplants worldwide have operated on a "we'll figure it out later" principle when it comes to the nightmarish mess they've created with regards to waste disposal.  It should be quite clear to anyone who dares to look at the issue, that later is really never.  Aside from a new underground storage facility being constructed in Finland, I don't believe any country has successfully dealt with their waste problem.

Post Fukushima, Germans decided once and for all to stop making the mess worse, and will have their plants shut down within a decade.  That's smart -- or perhaps just a sign of a functional democracy of the type that no longer exists in this country.

Being ahead of the curve as they are, the Germans are discovering that this is no small task. The costs are in the upper stratosphere, tens of billions of euros at the very least.  They do not plan to have their plants fully decommissioned until 2080, likely in an effort to stem the economic costs.  Incidentally, the IEA (optimistic as they've proven themselves to be) claims we have 50 years of recoverable global oil reserves. Apparently Germany plans to run the heavy equipment required for this decommissioning on fairy dust, at a time when their fuel starved industrial economy will (at the very best) be making its last whimpers.

The worst part of it is that Germany is still leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world, whose 400+ reactors will most likely become Fukushima re-enactors as the world's industrial economies slowly blink out and take the electrical grid (which the reactors need for cooling) with them.



Propaganda

Our mainstream (i.e. corporately financed) media seems to be awash in propaganda these days.

This wonderful little clip on the New York Times talks about carbon capture and sequestration -- a technology -- just like "clean coal" -- which really doesn't exist on anything beyond an experimental scale for very good reasons, primarily because 1) It's enormously expensive from an energy consumption perspective (and thus from an economic perspective), 2) It's only feasible where underground rocks, wells, or mines allow the injection of CO2, and 3)  If we were to use about 25% more fuel to try and do this, it's likely to leak back out of the ground and render our efforts useless.

I don't need to link to any article about how evil Putin and his fellow Russians are these days. Flip on any TV news station or just listen to "impartial" NPR, or anyone featuring President Obama's recent speech and you'll hear the same thing. Dmitry Orlov has a somewhat different (and likely more fact based) perspective that's worth a read. Never mind the undisputed fact that the US has been jockeying for control of Ukraine and its oil fields for quite some time, as evidenced by the intercepted phone call of Victoria Nuland, or the IMF loan requirement that Ukraine's new (US supported) government regain control of Crimea and it's energy resources.

Another wonderful example of propaganda is that of my US Representative, Fred Upton. Though once reputed to be quite moderate and reasonable, he appears to have more recently seen the light. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that light shines down from corporate interests in serious conflict with the continuation of life on our planet. His latest writeup on energy policy would suggest that he (or his campaign donors, rather) feels the need to open up any environmental regulations to create an "Architecture of Abundance" with regards to US energy sources. I suspect more Americans would already be familiar with this sort of "architecture" if those of us who were already intimately familiar with it weren't subject to gag orders as a result of gas-drilling company settlements like this one, or the one imposed on Pennsylvania doctors who find themselves treating those who know more about Fred's Architecture of Abundance than they ever wanted to.

Orlov once noted that the difference between Americans and Russians is that Russian propaganda was so bad that everybody knew it was propaganda, whereas American propaganda is good enough that most of the US population falls for it.  As always, if you need to know whose views any media source represents, just look at the advertising.  I'm inclined to think that our mainstream media is really more of a "money-stream media".

Summer thoughts

I can imagine one of my pre-civil war ancestors from North Carolina, raving about the wonders of human slave labor on their farm.  Their fine home, their well maintained fields and outbuildings, or perhaps the extra cash from their slaves' labor allowing a little extra finery in their store bought clothing.

I hear similar claims of awe nowadays from people praising the wonders of modern technology. From my own perspective, these claims also ring hollow, because I've had difficulty ignoring their ultimate costs. I'm not claiming any sort of abstinence from their use (I'm typing this on a Chinese built laptop, afterall), but I do make significant efforts to avoid it, certainly when the benefits are minimal.

So exactly what are the costs?  I'm not sure people know what I'm talking about, as most people I know have done an excellent job of ignoring them.

First, let's look at modern day slavery.   Own an Apple or HP product?   Guess who made it?   Still love it? Slavery doesn't have to be of the whips & chains variety to be slavery.   Modern day slavery maintains all of the benefits of human exploitation without the outward appearances of impropriety.

Not only are we exploiting these people directly, when we buy Chinese (or from India, or a dozen other countries with similar regulations), but we're trashing their environment. US companies don't love China just for the cheap labor, they love it for the complete lack of environmental regulations. Many Chinese with the cash (extracted no doubt through the exploitation of their countrymen) are now leaving the country, often opting for places like Vancouver or London. Their own country is trashed.   Eight year old girls get lung cancer there.  Much of their farmland is permanently contaminated, and the majority of their groundwater is no longer fit to drink. Yes, the Chinese economic miracle is a miracle alright. A society which flourished for millenia has trashed their country (and our planet) for millenia to come, and all this has been accomplished in a mere couple decades.

These costs aren't just born by the Chinese, of course. They were (and perhaps still are?) building new coal fired power plants to fuel their industrial revolution at the rate of one per week. That carbon is having some far reaching effects.

First of all, we all know the climate is changing.   Despite the seeming lull as a destabilized and mortally wounded Arctic bled cold air over the eastern US last winter, we're continually posting record global temperatures. We've just logged the hottest-ever May and June.

The carbon we're dumping into the atmosphere is mixing with our oceans, creating newly acidified environments which are already dissolving calcium shells. Oyster farms in Oregon and BC are seeing production fail as the pH of their seawater drops. While some farms have the ability to deal with this problem, we can be certain that wild stocks cannot.

With phytoplankton levels down 40% globally, this is not an isolated phenomenon. Like a child whacking a land-mine with a hammer, we're tinkering with the very base of the marine food chain, all so we can text our friends while speeding along the freeway in our Prius (or Escalade, as is quite popular here in Michigan) on our way to the air-conditioned office, or perhaps for something more important, like taking the kids to soccer practice. Then again, maybe our cars are more important than whales. Or fish. Or oxygen  (the oceans supply most of the oxygen we breathe).

Ditching the car is not an easy task. I understand, and I haven't yet done it myself. Participating in industrial society isn't just a matter of fun, but a matter of survival for most anyone with the means to read this blog. But with that said, there are some changes which are relatively harmless (such as avoiding vacations to far off destinations), and which would have huge benefits. Will we make them?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The tragedy of the commons that never was

Often used as a tool to explain the downfalls of communism (or socialism, or just about any system that Goldman Sachs executives feel threatened by), most of us have come across the story of the "Tragedy of the Commons" at one time or another.

As the story goes, the commons were a communal grazing land.   Say there are 10 villagers who graze their sheep on the commons.  Villager Joe (an early ancestor of Joe Six-Pack) comes to the crafty realization that he can make more money by grazing more sheep on the commons.  After sighting Joe cruising around the village in his shiny new Escalade, his fellow villagers quickly follow suit.  Before long, the commons are overgrazed to the point where they won't support any sheep at all.  Starvation and mayhem ensue.   Better to have left that commons in the caring hands of a private corporation, as it turns out.   Thank goodness we've dodged THAT bullet here in the good 'ol capitalist USA!

Told as it is to modern day Americans, this story seems quite logical and believable.  That's because modern day Americans have lost two important bits of knowledge that would've been common sense to Joe and his fellow villagers.

The first bit of knowledge is what it means to be part of a community.

The fact of the matter is that in a typical community where grazing of the commons was practiced (this was and is still quite common in many parts of the world), there was a real community.  People not only knew each other, they actually depended upon each other.  Nobody was anonymous.

If it became known that you were taking more than your fair share of the commons, you would likely discover that your neighbor was no longer interested in helping you put up your hay, or that the village shoemaker might have trouble fitting you into his schedule.   In a village where these people are your only options, that's a serious problem.   You don't have the option to just drive to the Wal-Mart in the next town.  Keeping your village relations in good standing wasn't just a matter of pride, but a matter of survival.

The second (though somewhat less important) bit of knowledge that most Americans lack is that of human labor capacity.  In our fleeting era of fossil fueled extravagance, the sky (or your cash reserve) is the limit to what one person might accomplish.   In the era of human powered everything that dominates the story of our existence, limits to human activity are much more pronounced.   The fact of the matter is that Villager Joe couldn't have cut any more hay (using a scythe and rake) to feed his sheep through the winter than anybody else could, thus ensuring that any thoughts on increasing his grazing herd would be fleeting at best.

So does this mean that I think socialism trumps capitalism?   The answer is yes.  But it's also no.  I think that most all societies, before the advent of the industrial era, functioned on a far more socialized basis, and functioned well, for hundreds or thousands of years.

With the advent of industrialization came the anonymity of life in large cities, easy transportation over long distances, and the collapse of real community.  Under these conditions, socialism fails spectacularly, but then again so does capitalism (checked the health of our planetary life support systems lately?).

The answer, as always, is de-industrialization.  The declining state of our fossil energy reserves ensure we're already headed in that direction, whether we like it or not.  If we arrive in denial, kicking and screaming, we're not likely to survive the landing.  If we acknowledge this and make preparations for a softer landing, we might survive the century.   Many are already convinced (and rightfully so, imho) that humans will be extinct by our own hands within a few decades.

The transition to a de-industrialized economy isn't made through some grand declaration by political leaders, or some "born again" event on the individual level.   It's made by each one of us a hundred times a day, in how we choose to spend our time and money.   How will you spend yours?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Mutton Mowers

I've long felt that the use of gasoline for the mowing of lawns will one day be widely seen as one of the most shameful ways to squander our limited energy sources, our atmosphere's capacity for carbon, and thus the lives of our children.

For most of my life, my family had a nearly 1 acre lawn which I despised mowing (though my disdain lessened somewhat with the arrival of a riding lawnmower), and for which I developed numerous creative ideas for avoiding.   My father didn't approve any of the ideas though, so mow it we did.

So it was that the purchase of our farm and the accompanying lawn came with a challenge.   Do we mow it like everybody else and thus fall into this same trap?   Do we mow it with our 14" wide antique push reel mower that can't handle any grass over 5 inches, or spend hours to mow it with scythes?   Let it go "natural" and make someone think our house has been abandoned?  Or, should I just let it go a month or two and then brush hog it with the tractor?  (which I'd already tried)

As it turns out, we had a better solution in hand -- mow it with sheep! (which, btw, is how the original lawns were maintained centuries ago, before they became a status symbol)   It just took a little time to implement.   Last summer, we fenced in the front of the yard.  We wanted it to look presentable yet still hold livestock, so went with a split rail fence supplemented with hi-tensile wire between the rails.  It's old growth cedar from British Columbia, stocked by the local Menard's Hardware.   Not the best solution, but the one that worked best with our limited time.  We do have enough sassafras that we could've made a similar fence from our own trees, but I wasn't able to spare the time for it.

This left our driveway as the remaining escape route to be filled, so we needed a gate.   Having admired a "Sussex farm gate" made on the Woodwright's Shop on PBS, and having some white oak on hand from trees we logged a couple years ago, I set to work over the winter.   The entire gate was made exclusively with hand tools, with all joints using mortise & tenon construction (side gate excepted).  Yes, it's slower, and yes, it's much more enjoyable and satisfying than working with power tools.  It's also a good idea to work on such skills before they become the only option, as the energy sources for our electric grid start to wane.  (Ha ha!  Just joking -- that will never actually happen.  Ever)

So with the gate completed, we just needed some appropriate hinges.   I thought this would be a great application for my burgeoning blacksmithing skills, but we found a pair of perfectly sized strap hinges at an antique shop for a good price, and those were put to use.  My smithing was needed only for the pintle hangers.

With the gate up, it also seemed like a good idea to put up the farm sign I'd long planned on, in case anyone looking for our farm expected to see a sign proclaiming its presence.

Everything made it into place before the grass started to get too long this year, so we set the sheep to work before any mower touched the lawn.  What's it like?

Well, just as you might imagine, it's pretty cool not to have to mow your lawn.  It's also neat to add an acre to our "pasture", as our flock of sheep has grown to nineteen or thereabouts with this year's lambs.  I'm still getting used to the mysterious "nom, nom, nom, grunt!" sounds that come in through our open windows in the wee hours of the morning though, along with the occasional "baaaa!".

Do they do a good job?  Yes, for the most part.  The trimming job around the base of trees, fences, and parked farm implements is much better than any human could accomplish.  They're also tackling the brush around our new barn site, which is a big plus.  There are a few things which get left;  a seed stalk here, or a less-than-tasty weed there, but many parts of the lawn look like a putting green when they're finished. 20 minutes of touch-up with a sharp scythe takes care of the small patches of overlooked ground.

The downside is that sheep aren't partial to just grass.   Lots of landscaping (roses, dogwood, mock orange, etc) are also quite tasty, and got unwanted trimming on the first mowing session.  For those we just put together a cage made of woven fence wire held up by old metal "T" posts, which seems to do the trick.  Most of our other landscaping plants, as it turns out, don't taste all that great.

I suppose the presence of turds in the lawn would be offensive to some, but sheep berries seem pretty innocuous to someone for whom cowpies have become an accepted hazard.  The fertilizing effect of animals on grass is also a great benefit, and seems to far exceed the effect of lawn clippings.

So is it the perfect solution?   Nope, but it's a good one, and far better than the gasoline lawn mower solution that most folks still cling to for the time being.   As an added bonus, Clover (our border collie) likes the fact that each window in our house now is now tuned to "sheep TV".


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Does honoring our past preserve our future?

Over the many millenia of our existence, humans have become adapted to a certain way of living.  When we follow that precedent, we're happy and healthy.   When we stray from it, our physical and mental health declines, and our society suffers.

The industrial revolution, driven as it has been by human wants and desires, would seem as if it should follow this pattern and enhance our lives.  It has certainly enhanced many aspects of them, but like everything in life, it came at a cost.  While it's allowed many of us a temporary reprieve from our old nemeses of disease and starvation, it has also deprived us of the meaningful existence we once had.

Two critical elements of the human experience were all but destroyed by the industrial revolution, and need to be reclaimed if we're to again be a healthy society with a bright future.

First and perhaps foremost, is community.  Humans did not travel large distances on a daily basis, but remained in a relatively small area, aside from seasonal migrations.  I would think that a "home range" with a radius of perhaps 10 miles would have been the norm.  The people you grew up with were the people you grew old with, fostering a familiarity with everyone in your limited range.

Studies I've seen suggest that people are most comfortable in groups of up to about 150 individuals.  Beyond that we have difficulty remembering faces and names. People become anonymous, and concern for the well being of anonymous people is much reduced. The sense of community diminishes the more we travel, and the more people we interact with on an impersonal basis.

It's the protection of this all-important community that has driven the Amish culture to eschew the ownership of cars and tractors.  It's at the core of their success as a culture, and has nothing to do with a rejection of modern technology as most Americans assume.  The use of buggies instead of cars limits the possible distance for any travel, forcing their community to remain physically close together.  The rejection of tractors for field work (some districts do allow them for barnyard and stationary tasks) has had a similar effect because it limits the amount of work which can be accomplished by a single farming family.  This, in turn, keeps farm sizes small, which in turn allows neighbors to remain near each other.

The second element which I think is critical to human health is the ability to directly meet the needs of our own existence.  Don't get me wrong;  people have always been social creatures, and nobody ever provided *all* of their own individual needs.  Until recently, however, we have been able to provide much of what we needed on our own, and those needs we couldn't meet ourselves were invariably met by others within our family or tribe who could meet them.  We are producers by nature, not consumers.

Our efforts were tangible and had direct effect, whether hunting and gathering or growing our own food, making our own shelter, clothing, medicine, or entertainment.  Why is it important that we have this close and direct connection with providing for our own needs?  Pride.  A sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Traits that have all but vanished in the consumer society.

Perhaps of even greater importance, is the fact that such activities tie us to the very foundation of life, and thus ensure a reverence for that which sustains us.  "Nature" isn't a place you visit, or Disneyland's competition for your next vacation.  It's your life support system.  The fact that most Americans value the economy more than the preservation of life support systems represented by nature is nothing short of asinine.

I suspect that millions of Chinese people are now discovering this truth the hard way, as their air is no longer breathable, their food contaminated, and their water undrinkable.  On the bright side, they do have the worlds fastest growing economy though, eh?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Industrial vs. Local

The industrialized food system that sustains us all is clearly an abomination to anyone who has bothered to educate themselves and scrutinize it.  Most that I know have not and will not do so, because knowing what's behind that curtain will force changes they aren't willing to make.  Its only real proponents are those who are using it to line their pockets at our expense. It's only "cheap" when you ignore the fact that it damages not only our health but threatens our very existence.  The farmers I've met who are a part of it are rarely enthusiasts, but rather cogs in the machine that they cannot separate themselves from.  Most know little of the chemicals they use (often not even their names, in fact, as much spraying is outsourced), and I suspect that's in large part due to a desire *not* to know.  They know full well that such knowledge might force them to end their use in order to maintain a clear conscience, and thus lead to financial ruin.

So what about the small "local" farms that are the darlings of any local/sustainable foodie?  Show me one, and I'll point out some fundamental shortfalls, many of which I'm intimately familiar with.  Almost without exception, they're purchased and/or sustained with an inheritance, the proceeds from a previous well-paid career, or a spouse who kept their "regular" job and family health insurance. Many work to promote the sustainability image while making significant short-cuts, whether that's the liberal use of diesel fueled equipment, the use of chemically grown feed for their pastured livestock, or poorly compensated intern labor.  The well known Joel Salatin scores a hit on nearly all of these (inherited farm, chemically grown feed, lots of diesel fuel, and loads of interns).

Doubling your food budget by going organic and/or local doesn't really cut it, as these farms are not truly viable even at their seemingly inflated prices. The fact of the matter is that producing food responsibly makes it just as expensive as it was historically, when people typically spent 40-50% of their income on food rather than the current 10-15%.  Historically, farmers (of which most were and will again be) had significant advantages as well.  A lower population made for a greater relative resource base, with consequently lower land costs. A pre-industrialized atmosphere made for greater climate stability and better odds of a successful crop.  The inter-generational accumulation of farming knowledge was unbroken as well, though perhaps the internet will fill some of that gap for us while it's still around.

It probably goes without saying, but a return to spending 50% of our income on de-industrialized food means big changes are in store.  That nice big house will be traded in for something more like the size of a typical garage, or will become a multiple family residence, or -- even more likely -- abandoned in favor of a location with enough land to grow food.  Forget about the car (or paved roads to drive it on), washing machines, retirement, or most anything that has arrived on the scene in the last 150 years.  Forget about the MRI for that head injury, or drugs for dealing with depression.  There'll be no stairmaster or gym membership, and no need for either. There'll be no closet full of plastic clothes from China, cell phones, nor TVs for whiling away your days and fomenting a desire for consumer goods (you'll be too busy anyway).  It'll be no panacea, but many of the changes will undoubtedly be big improvements over the status quo, probably making it a wash overall.

Can we return there?  Should we?  Do you think we really have a choice?