Friday, December 27, 2013

We're Sick

As a society, we stopped producing food decades ago.  Most of our families left their farms to go join the urban masses sometime in the last century.  That's when our disease took hold.  While we still learn as kids that that the food we eat comes from farms, that's about as far as our understanding goes.  We've lost the knowledge and understanding of what makes a farm -- or anything in the natural world -- really work.  We don't care about something we don't understand.

When we see on the evening news that the US is wracked with (climate change induced) drought, we might think "that's too bad for those poor farmers".  We might even suffer a moment's consternation as we realize that food prices will be going up.  We have no fear of starvation though.  Food will still come from somewhere (from the store of course!).  We "know" but we no longer understand how important the natural world is, because we think we've left it behind.   We've got more important issues to occupy our thoughts, like Miley Cyrus' butt.

The fact is that we are a part of the natural world, in the same way that your big toe is part of you.  We cannot separate ourselves from it any more than your toe can cut himself free from a life in your stinky shoes to embark on a new life of leisure at some sandy tropical beach.  We think of nature as a separate entity;  something we may enjoy on weekends when we venture out from our man-made environs.  We don't need it anymore, so we're cutting ourselves loose, heading out into our brave new world.

If we truly understood ourselves to be a part of nature, we wouldn't just shrug our shoulders at the news that our oil addiction just killed the Gulf of Mexico, shortly before we go to visit the gas station yet again.  We wouldn't brush off news that endocrine-disrupting chemicals are now making their way out of fracked groundwater and into our drinking water, right before we fire up the furnace to keep our home warm and toasty with "clean burning" natural gas.

If we truly understood that nature's health is our health, anyone suggesting something as absurd as this or this would be treated like a knife wielding intruder smashing his way into our children's bedroom.  Why?   Because both of them will ultimately accomplish the same thing.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Last Nomads and the Culture of Fear

Please read this powerful and thought provoking article by permaculturist Toby Hemenway on our society vs. the nomadic societies we've destroyed.  His thoughts closely echo my own.

We also stopped at Little Bighorn on our move from Washington in 2008, and it struck me how recently this battle and the associated genocide had occurred.   The house we now live in was built before the battle, on land also taken from natives who treated it far more respectfully and appropriately than we have.

In a short 150 years, our "domesticated" masses have destroyed the freest people on the planet.  We're well on our way to destroying the possibility of anyone ever living in freedom again (I'll laugh at anyone who proclaims the US to be "The Land of the Free"), or living at all for that matter.

Those of us who accept the status quo, and who follow the default course that our society has laid out for us are guilty of the most heinous crimes imaginable, though most refuse to recognize it.   The worst evil imaginable is little more than the product of our own ignorance and complacency.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Turning Down the Volume

I've lately been listening to Mary Roach's book "Stiff" on my daily commute, a fascinating (and often stomach churning) book about all things cadaver-related.    One chapter covers the history of attempts to resuscitate cadavers and heads (freshly guillotined!).   The next moves to attempts by surgeons to transplant living heads (on animals thus far, though I'm not yet finished with the book).

One comment in particular caught my ear.   She mentions that people in sensory deprivation chambers invariably hallucinate and ultimately go mad (relating to the fact that a detached brain, if kept alive, would most likely suffer a degree of sensory deprivation with similar consequences).

Another book on my recent list (Pandora's Seed, by Spencer Wells) discusses the rise in mental health issues in modern society, to the point that mental health issues are expected to be the second leading cause of death in the US by 2020.

Could widespread sensory deprivation be the cause of our mental health issues?   Absolutely.

We already know that our immune systems "go mad" when they're deprived of frequent exposure to irritants and pathogens, resulting in a massive increase in allergies and autoimmune disorders, to the point that many children now risk sudden death from the exposure of a single drop of peanut oil or milk on their skin.  Researchers have discovered that Amish children, who frequently live on farms with livestock and often go barefoot in the summer (both likely sources of exposure to pathogenic bacteria), have very low allergy rates.  Coincidence?

So how are our lives like sensory deprivation chambers?   Consider the life of any human before the industrial revolution (or better yet, before the advent of agriculture), and contrast that with our daily lives now.   The pre-industrial human spent the majority of their time outdoors, directly experiencing everything from extreme temperatures to wind, rain, and all the weather that we nowadays just view from the comfort of our climate controlled car/home/workplace.

Their daily activities were highly varied.  They used their hands, not machines.  They hunted and gathered wide varieties of food (leading to better nutrition -- human stature dropped significantly once we became farmers), travelling through all sorts of terrain.  They built their own homes.  Schooled their own children.  They did everything that you and I now pay others to do for us, either directly or otherwise.  Nowadays, most of us repeatedly perform a single specialized task for which we receive money, typically performed within a climate controlled building while sitting still.  It's boring.

So to relieve the boredom, we go home, sit, and turn on the TV, computer, or game console.  We don't make our own entertainment, as pre-industrial man would've done.  We've outsourced damn near everything.

The net effect of trying to avoid physical work and make ourselves comfortable is that we've turned down the volume on life -- moving ever closer to the point of complete sensory deprivation.  The compartmentalization of our lives and careers has deprived us of varied and essential experiences. It's no wonder that both our bodies and minds are going nuts.

Get rid of the fossil fuels, and I suspect these ills of modern society will go with them.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Art and Beauty

As a decidedly left-brained type, I’d have to say I’d often had trouble relating to artists and their work.  So much art seems foolish and impractical, or a weak attempt to relive the glory-days of a high school art class.  The deeper meaning or message that others proclaim to see often appears like a case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to me. Despite this clear handicap, I’m drawn towards beauty, as most people are . Traditional societies have all integrated art into their lives in ways that seem both meaningful and appropriate. The tribes of the Pacific Northwest apparently had lots of time left over after finding things to eat. They took art to an amazing level, adorning everything from their houses and canoes to their clothing and household utensils. I think that much of my aversion to "art" is a result of the separation of art and functionality that has come about as a result of industrialized manufacture. Anything which can be made, can be sold at a lower cost if there’s no artistic input. In the rare cases where a good is manufactured with some artistic beauty, the beauty is cheapened when it was clearly created by a machine, and is exactly like to 500,000,000 other items which were made in the same factory.
Functional beauty can come in many forms. It doesn’t need to be the elaborate ornamentation of a victorian house or an Eastlake-era piece of furniture, though I’m fond of both. I’ve heard beauty described as “the elimination of the unnecessary”, which I like.
An old Herreshoff designed sailboat comes to mind as an embodiment of beauty without adornment.  Beauty is, as they say, "In the eye of the beholder".  

Some of my perception of beauty no doubt draws from an aversion to objects which use fossil fuels.

The modern Bayliner "Fly-Bridge" type power boat is about the aesthetic opposite of the Herreshoff in my opinion.  I delight in referring to these as "self dumpers", in reference to what is likely to happen as their typically overweight crew all migrate to the fly-bridge at the top of the boat, making it a little too top-heavy. But I digress...

In the pre-industrialized world, where most all goods were made by craftspeople, beauty was an important element of any trade. It differentiated your work from that of the competition. As industrialization wanes, I’m looking forward to seeing the return of art and beauty re-integrated into the items we make and use each day.

The Market Economy

I think I've found a new model for those who rail on about our draconian EPA (and thus garner loads of corporate campaign contributions along with the admiration of the Koch brothers).   It's a land where market forces rule, and externalized costs are not a concern for business.   The pursuit of wealth and industry is the pinnacle of societal achievement there.   Though we can't live there, we rush to support them in their efforts, and we are clearly the beneficiaries of their amazing work ethic.  Look for the "Made in..." label on the next item you buy at the store.   Just don't look behind the curtain.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Trap is Set

There's a reason I keep Dmitry Orlov on the blogroll to the right.  His most recent post on the "Sixth Stage of Collapse" is an excellent example, and expresses my current thoughts on our situation quite well.  Also quite prescient is the comment on Orlov's entry from Thomas Reis regarding the costs of decommissioning Germany's 28 nuclear plants (search for "Reis" once you're on Orlov's blog).  It's becoming ever more apparent that we have created a trap for ourselves from which we may not escape.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Food for Thought

Please read the following excerpt, written by someone you already know:

"A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on. For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. 

When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man's freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn't want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster than the walking man. But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man's freedom of locomotion. 

When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one's own pace one's movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. 

Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. 

Even the walker's freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop and wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway. (Note the important point we have illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)"

Another excerpt of his that I found quite interesting:

"The conservatives are fools:  They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can't make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society with out causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values."

He actually saves most of his vitriol for "Leftists" (which I find somewhat less interesting!), but much of which contains some element of truth. 

The author has an IQ of 167, was admitted to Harvard at 16, and completed his graduate work at the University of Michigan, where he received his PhD in Mathematics.  One of his professors noted, "It's not enough to say he was smart".  Another professor commenting on his thesis, noted, "I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 men in the country understood or appreciated it".   He was the youngest professor ever hired by UC Berkely, though he didn't remain there long.   Though you already know him, I would guess you've never written a word he wrote.

Both of these excerpts are taken from what you probably know of as "The Unibomber Manifesto", published by the NY Times and written by the now infamous Ted Kaczynski.  While I wouldn't condone his means of obtaining fame, there is clearly some unique insight in his writing, which I would encourage anyone to check out.  

According to his Wiki page, Ted's bombing campaign was inspired by destruction which he found unbearable.  In his words:

"The best place, to me, was the largest remnant of this plateau that dates from the tertiary age. It's kind of rolling country, not flat, and when you get to the edge of it you find these ravines that cut very steeply in to cliff-like drop-offs and there was even a waterfall there. It was about a two days hike from my cabin. That was the best spot until the summer of 1983. That summer there were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace. I went back to the plateau and when I got there I found they had put a road right through the middle of it... You just can't imagine how upset I was. It was from that point on I decided that, rather than trying to acquire further wilderness skills, I would work on getting back at the system. Revenge."

I've often found that whenever someone does something extraordinary (or extraordinarily bad, in this case), there's often more to the story.  Kaczynski's story is no exception.   A blog written by his brother notes that Ted was subjected to knowingly harmful psychological experiments during his time at Harvard (believed to have been initiated by the CIA), and offers some potential insight into the actions which landed him at the federal penitentiary with 8 life sentences.  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Making Things

I recently came across this excellent Ghandhi quote at John Neeman tools, a guild of Latvian craftsmen who appear to do wonderful work (and have a good website developer to boot!).

"Its a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have ceased to use their hands as hands. Nature has bestowed upon us this great gift which is our hands. If the craze for machinery methods continues, it is highly likely that a time will come when we shall be so incapacitated and weak that we shall begin to curse ourselves for having forgotten the use of the living machines given to us by God."

Though the cursing doesn't seem to have started just yet, I'm inclined to think that the time of Ghandhi's prediction has arrived.  How would we fare if the industrial machine were to grind to a halt for any one of a million different reasons?

Their video of damascus knife making is worth a view, as is their entire website.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Just Make It

Our parents oohed and ahhed over our paper, crayon, and glue creations, even if they only decorated the fridge for a week or two before getting tossed while we weren't looking.  For many of us, that’s the last time we experienced the sort of pride and satisfaction that comes with using our own two hands to make something.  It’s likely that our skills haven’t progressed much since then, and that's a shame.

Humans are happiest when attending to our own direct needs, but we’re also inherently lazy. Continually offered an increasing abundance of manufactured goods, we’re easily robbed of both the knowledge and desire to make anything for ourselves.  A quarter of us now have mental health problems.  10% of us are on anti-depressants.  Could our idled hands be a factor?

In a world where cheap, disposable, and quickly outdated consumer goods rule, it would seem as if there’s no longer a need to make anything.  The opportunity cost of the time spent making far exceeds the cost of just purchasing.  There’s no contest when our own wages (and value for time) are competing with those of someone at a sweatshop in China.  No longer the core of home life or an occupation, hand crafts are painted with the demeaning label of “hobby”;  i.e. something to be done after we “retire”, when there’s nothing good to watch on TV.

I suspect most of us have long forgotten the joy of making, compounded in no small part by the fact that we no longer know how to provide for ourselves.  Suckling at the teat of industry is comfortable enough that most people I know are incapable of contemplating the inevitable demise of this arrangement.  

Flip to any television news channel, and you won’t have to spend too much time waiting to hear the word consumer pounded into your psyche yet again.  That’s our job.  We’ve become the dumping ground for the industrial machine that has consumed us.

In light of these thoughts, we’ve been encouraging our 9 year old son to work with his hands as well as his mind.  He started simply -- flattening bottle caps with a hammer and pounding steel wire into odd shapes.  He then mastered origami, folding complex shapes that take hours to complete.  Lately he’s been making shell jewelry, and recently exclaimed that he “LOVES wood carving!".

Though we still save for his college education, I’d have to say that I don’t feel any great need to push him towards a university system that increasingly resembles an extortion racket.  In the world I see emerging, a university degree will not hold the same weight it did when I graduated, and will likely represent little more than time and money lost in perfecting skills of greater value.  

 Rachel has been fine-tuning her skills with fiber, doing everything from cleaning and processing wool to dyeing, spinning, knitting, felting, and weaving.  I probably enjoy wearing the clothes she makes almost as much as she enjoys making them.

When I can spare a few minutes from my passion for cow-squeezing, I’ve been trying to improve my knowledge of leather tanning, sewing,  blacksmithing, spoon carving, timber framing, bow making, and bowl making (both carved and turned).  I keep studying leatherwork as well, in hopes of learning to make shoes at some point.  Check out Robin Wood's website for someone who has done an excellent job of making his craft a career.  The video of him competing with an electric lathe is quite impressive.  

For now, the unfortunate fact is that I’m finding it much easier to acquire tools than to find the time to use them.  The rule of thumb I see tossed around is that it takes about 10,000 hours (about 5 years of full time work) before any craft is mastered.   Guess I've got some work ahead of me.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Disconnect

Some friends of ours were recently deciding on a new stove/furnace for heating their home, and much of the consensus was to go with gas.  It's cheap, so why not?   (never mind the fact that the only reason it's cheap right now is because investors ran to it as a potential safe haven after the stock market crash of a few years ago, producing a multitude of new wells which are losing gobs of money at current gas prices, but I digress...)

We all need to remember that each and every decision we make has consequences.  The enemy isn't Exxon, Chesapeake Energy, or Monsanto.  It's us, particularly the ways in which we choose to spend our money on seemingly innocent things.  The methods we use to heat our home, get to work, and the food we choose to feed our families all have dramatic consequences.  This cognitive dissonance allows us each to maintain a perfectly clean conscience while going about our daily lives in the ways to which we've become accustomed.

This excellent article should help to bridge that gap.  (this particular instance is fracking for oil, though plenty of similar stories abound for gas as well).

It's becoming increasingly clear that the corporations who provide for our needs are ready not only to go to the ends of the earth, but to the end of the earth.  Mountaintop removal, fracking for gas, tar sands, fracking for oil, and tight oil are all dramatically more harmful than their conventional counterparts (which were in and of themselves enough to destroy the biosphere).   How long will we continue to pay for it?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is probably one of the best journalists I've ever come across;  a former seminarian who has the best insight to religious and social issues I've seen, yet who manages to still see the big picture with regards to energy and environment.  You won't likely see this perspective anywhere else;  his latest column on Egypt, and its implications for us all, is definitely worth a read.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Rachel and Henry were BUSY this morning.   The orchard went nuts this year, with peaches leading the charge (this is just a partial harvest from one of our three peach trees, planted in 2009).  I can't quite understand why it's so difficult to find organic peaches in Michigan;  these have grown so well for us with relatively little input.   We've experienced much less pest damage with these than we have with our apples.

Just growing food is a lot of work;  the actual harvest and processing probably doubles the work.  Eating well is great, but there's definitely a cost to it.  Gardens aren't just for food though...

Sunday, August 4, 2013


Aside from a week in the mid 90's (while we were putting up our second cutting of hay, as dictated by this tradition of misery), this summer has been quite nice.  The pastures have stayed green, and I have yet to feed any hay.  The weather makes it easy to forget last year.  The heat isn't really gone though -- it's just toasting Europe and Asia this summer instead of us.

My day job makes farming difficult;  the extra hours of commuting effectively removed a day from my week.   I've cut way back on internet time (a good thing), but time is still tight, and I feel as if keeping my head above water with respect to our various farm duties is increasingly difficult.  The obvious answer seems to be to give up more of our farming endeavors, but they're the work I truly enjoy.  I still can't shake the notion that they may be all we have to fall back on when America finally has its Wile E. Coyote moment and looks down into the abyss.   It feels as if we're all in a game of musical chairs, but the music is playing much longer than I'd expected.   Sooner or later though, it's going to stop;  of that I'm quite certain...   I think.

We've been in need of a machine shed for all the equipment we've accumulated.   Much of it we're able to keep indoors, but it makes doing just about anything difficult, requiring the constant shuffling of equipment to make a work space or get to another piece of equipment.  Most of what we use hasn't been manufactured for decades, so it seems a good idea to keep it under cover, holding the rust at bay for as long as possible.

The cheap solution is the typical pole building, but I'm not particularly excited about erecting something with treated pine or "engineered" beams made of OSB that will do little more than serve as a constant reminder of how crappy our building materials have become while we continue to inflate the human bubble.  I'd much prefer to put up a real barn, but they're expensive.

A friend of mine moved a barn, an impressive timber-framed structure in the way of an airport expansion, for little more than the cost of a similarly sized pole-building.  I recently found a well maintained barn not too far from us, being offered for free, so we're trying to figure out if we could afford to move it to our place.   As time-poor as I've been lately, it seems crazy to start such a project, but hopefully we'll be able to afford to pay for most of the work.

The farmer who is offering the barn clearly appreciates what he has.  It was erected by his grandfather in 1877 -- and shows real pride of workmanship.  He showed us the hand carved plaque his grandfather made, marking the barn's year of construction.

However, he recognizes that it no longer fits the needs of someone who has no livestock and farms 4,000 acres (which is typical here in the midwest).   "It's the chemicals -- the ones they came out with after the war -- that changed everything." he says.  "Before that, everyone could make a living on 80 or 160 acres, but not anymore."

Living here in Michigan, surrounded by the toxic and lifeless corn and soy desert, it's easy to assume that the few farmers who remain in business (we have more people in prison than we have farmers here in the U.S.) are fully on-board with the industrialized, chemically dependent agriculture that they practice.

I'm discovering that this is rarely the case.  These farmers are effectively the "last man standing", being beaten into a corner by our mindless corporate system that does little but find new ways to externalize costs and direct cash flow to a handful of corporate coffers.  Our food is cheap, but we're paying for it in ways that most of us have yet to even begin to fathom.

One retired farmer even suggested that "We made a big mistake when we left horses for tractors".   Though I would agree, I was both surprised and heartened to hear it from him.  Perhaps our sanity isn't as far gone as I'd thought.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Fat, corruption, and killer sandwiches

Healthcare in the US is expensive.  There's little doubt in my mind that much of this cost is the result of corruption, born of our corporately dominated society, healthcare industry lobbying to congress (Medicare part D anyone?), pharmaceutical industry bribing of doctors, or a populace willing to look the other way because they want their health industry retirement investments to grow.

However, there is a much overlooked and often completely ignored aspect to our healthcare costs.   We're not healthy, and because we're surrounded by people in the same condition, we don't seem to have noticed our long descent.

Moving to the midwest from Washington state was a real eye opener for me.   It was, in effect, like time travel to an increasingly obese future.  Check out the animated CDC chart at the bottom of this page showing obesity rates by state in the US since 1985.  I remember standing in line at the grocery store one day shortly after we'd first arrived.   I could see roughly 30 people around me, and it struck me that each and every one was obese!

There are numerous reasons for this problem.   Midwesterners, as a rule, live in a somewhat harsher climate than those on the west coast where I formerly lived.   As a result, outdoor exercise is a bit less appealing.   Michigan is ground zero of the car culture, and much of the culture here seems to view walking as a cruel task to which no human should be subjected to.   "Sports" are for spectators only, unless they involve a jetski or some other motorized form of transport.   Most men here seem to aspire to the ownership of a Harley rather than to climb a mountain or do something which requires physical activity.

All exercise aside though there is a perhaps greater problem that is not limited to the midwest, and one which grows worse each year.

We eat crap.  Crappy food leads to crappy health, both directly through actual consumption and perhaps more importantly by creating a crappy planet.  Let's analyze the ubiquitous Subway sandwich (you know - the sandwich that made Jared skinny!) and see just how crappy our food is.   (the analysis is of course representative of most food consumed in the US, not just Subway's product).

First of all, you're probably expecting me to talk about bleached flour, excessive salt, dangerous preservatives, high cholesterol, or empty calories.  Those may all be true, but since you already know about them, we'll just take that as a given.

The sandwich has four primary components:  buns, meat, cheese, and veggies.   Each one is probably directly harmful for you to consume, but also harmful to you because you happen to be unfortunate enough to live on the planet where they're produced.  The folks that produce them are effectively forced to do it the "wrong" way because they're part of a centralized corporate system where doing otherwise is a sure prescription for going bankrupt.

For all practical purposes, the bulk of the sandwich comes from four crops:  corn, soy, wheat, and vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, etc -- which I'm grouping together because they're similarly grown).

Each of these crops likely involve the use of glyphosate (Monsanto's "Roundup").  All of the crops likely received glyphosate to kill weeds before the crop was planted, with the corn and soy receiving it as the crop grew, being that they're genetically modified for herbicide resistance.   The wheat can also be genetically modified, but is generally not.  Much of the US's wheat is grown for export to countries that are smarter than we are, and won't accept genetically modified crops (like Japan, which recently rejected US wheat shipments found to be contaminated with gmo wheat).   In fact, Monsanto recently petitioned the EPA to allow greater levels of glyphosate in our food, and was successful.

Glyphosate is designed to bond to chemicals required for the formation of an enzyme, which Monsanto famously touts as not existing in the human body.  That's only *half* true.   Our bodies don't directly need this enzyme, but the bacteria which are critical to our digestive and immune function DO require this enzyme, likely leading to many of the extreme allergies, autoimmune diseases, and nutritional deficiencies that result from damaged intestinal flora.

How important are your gut bacteria?   Much more so than I was ever aware.   Check out this recent eye opening article from Michael Pollan.  Their presence and diversity are directly responsible not just for digestion and nutrition, but also comprises the bulk of our immune systems, such that damaging them damages us.

Moving along back to our crops, it's safe to assume that each of them were fertilized with synthetic fertilizers, which are manufactured from natural gas (much of which is now fracked), which we've decided is more important than our groundwater.  The abundant nitrogen introduced in these fertilizers decays into nitrous oxide -- a potent greenhouse gas.   The nitrogen (and phosphate) fertilizers which are applied to midwest farms are now the primary cause of the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone", which has grown significantly over the last few decades.

This hardly bears saying, but I should also point out that the crops were invariably grown with diesel fueled tractors (more CO2 to the atmosphere), tilling soils that were once very high in organic matter which, when exposed to the atmosphere through regular tillage, oxidizes into CO2.   This destroy's the soils nutritional profile and drought tolerance, and is likely the single largest source of human caused CO2 emissions -- even exceeding our direct use of fossil fuels.

The wheat used in the buns is a new high-yielding dwarf variety, developed a few decades ago by Norman Borlaug during the "Green Revolution" (which has solved no problems that I'm aware of, but has created many).  It now contains a brand new protein in part of the gluten chain (gliadin), which is believed to be a likely culprit in the widespread emergence of gluten intolerance.  The same intolerance which sent me to the emergency room to the tune of several thousand dollars when my esophagus swelled from an allergic reaction.  The flip side of this is that much of the intolerance is likely a result of glyphosate use as well -- which as I just noted is also responsible for the decline in intestinal flora.  Antibiotic use also plays a likely role (as it likely did with my own gluten intolerance).

Let's move on to the corn and soy, which greatly dominate all farms here in the midwest.   These manifest in the sandwich's meat, or milk (for the cheese), for which they provide the livestock feed.  The corn was most likely also sprayed with Atrazine, a potent endocrine disruptor suspected of causing a number of different metabolic problems as well as breast and prostate cancer, and which is found in harmful levels in most midwest drinking water.   Strangely enough, it's banned for use in the home country of the manufacturer (Germany) and most of europe for precisely this reason.

So the corn and soy are animal feed, and are almost invariably fed to hogs, chickens, and cattle in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).   This is done because it's the cheapest way to raise livestock, at least so long as the diesel fuel keeps flowing.  There are a few downsides, aside from the obvious cruelty of crowded and unnatural conditions.   Concentrated populations of animals are highly susceptible to diseases, requiring the regular use of antibiotics, which leads to the antibiotic resistance that now regularly kills people in hospitals.  A friend of ours has a daughter who was nearly killed by a MRSA infection -- from a superficial scratch on her cheek.

Finally, we come to the veggies.   As a result of the requirement for near-perfect appearance, most vegetable crops in the US are subjected to heavy insecticide use, often being in the dangerous class of organo-phosphate pesticides.   Living in a rural area where such pesticides are often used results in an 80% increase in chances of developing parkinson's disease.  Workers in these fields (typically California or Florida) are regularly exposed to the pesticides, yielding horrible birth defects, as with the "Immokalee Three".  They've also been shown to end up in the bodies of people eating them at brain damaging levels, such as one study of Mercer Island (that's Bill Gate's neighborhood near Seattle) children showed.

So how do we solve these problems?   To sum it up, we need to de-industrialize our food system (and our entire society, but that's a topic for another day).  Remove the centralization.   Stop eating fast food (which as a matter of cost essentially *requires* the industrialized model).   Buy your food from small producers who (unlike large industrial producers) look you in the eye when they sell you a product, and who are more likely to have a conscience.   Buy meats and milk from animals that are pastured rather than fed chemically grown diets of grain.  Yes, it'll seem expensive, if you can ignore the externalized costs of the current system.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

In the movie series "The Terminator", a futuristic military computer network designed with the ability to learn, does exactly that.   The rate of learning grows exponentially to the point that it scares the human operators, who attempt to shut it down.  Sensing this as an attack, and humans as a primary threat, it launches a nuclear attack at Russia with the knowledge that this (and the imminent response) will alleviate the human threat.   Next, they unleash the shiny smiling robots to deal with the survivors...

I haven't noticed any mushroom clouds, nor have I been chased by any homicidal amalgam alloy robots  masquerading as police officers (well... not lately anyway), but I think we're now at the mercy of an entity which very much resembles Skynet.

As is often the case, the most insidious enemies aren't always the most obvious or the easiest to attack. In our case, they've fostered a dependence upon themselves which is at its worst in the "first world" industrialized countries.   Nobody wants to "bite the hand that feeds you", right?  Never mind the fact that we've lived just fine without them for 99.999% of our time on the planet.

Perhaps even worse is the fact that they've developed the ability to control our thoughts while making most of us think that we've arrived at our opinions independently.   In what amounts to a global case of stockholm syndrome, we actually like our captors.

We're all much more sheep-like than we like to admit.   Most of our opinions are arrived at through careful observation of our peers (actual or perceived) rather than through individual thinking.  This enemy tells us who our peers are and what "they" think.  Have you ever noticed the regular use of the term "some people say..."?  Advertising-supported media is their mouthpiece.  Look at the advertisers, and you'll see who controls your television programming and "news".

Just like Skynet, our invisible nemesis is attempting to exterminate us, as McKibben succinctly points out.  We'd be able to fight back if we could identify this fact, but most of us can't.   Our enemy is far too clever to allow that  -- and takes great pains to make sure we remain unaware.

Unlike Skynet, however, our enemy isn't really self aware.  Though comprised of actual humans, it more closely resembles a dumb robot.  At any given time, this Franken-monster is singularly focused on the maximization of shareholder returns for the next 90 day period, to the point that it engages in activities which are ultimately detrimental to its continued existence.   That would be a comforting flaw  if it weren't going to take us out first.

What's the best way to fight back, assuming you've successfully identified this enemy?  The first and most obvious (and most difficult) answer is to stop purchasing their products.    That means just about any manufactured good.   Gasoline.  Travel.  Cheap plastic crap from China.  Clothes made in places like this.  The best answer is often to go without.   Short of that, grow or make your own.   And if that's not possible, buy the expensive stuff made locally, or by the smallest company you can find.  As I said -- doing the right thing is never easy.  This will take more time and money than any of us have.  There will be compromise.

The next step?   Stop investing in your enemy.  Most folks I know are heavily invested in their own demise, whether through direct stock ownership or hidden in mutual funds in a 401k or IRA.  I know -- some of us are completely dependent upon investments for personal income, but at the very least, try to avoid investing in fossil fuel companies.  Not in control of your own pension fund investments?   Write them a letter.   They won't listen, but might if yours is one of thousands.   Get your city or university to divest, as many are now doing.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Farming gone bad

Back when we lived in Washington, we'd feel all smug when we were eating our own eggs from the backyard coop, maybe with a little cider we'd pressed from scavenged apples.

Nowadays the majority of our food at most meals is home grown.  "Farm food", as we call it, is not something to look forward to in Henry's mind.   However, there are exceptions.   These popcorn balls are entirely home-grown -- the popcorn, maple syrup, and butter.  Popped on homegrown fuel.  We even harvested our own salt, scraping it from the horses after a hard and sweaty day's work.  Okay -- maybe not the last part.  

Making our own junk food is fun.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


As of the last few weeks I'm back among the gainfully employed, and am no longer calculating how many wooden spoons I'd have to carve each day to avoid homelessness.  One of the many perks of my new 1.5 hour commute time is the fact that I have an hour and a half to listen to audio books.

The first book I chose is a NY Times bestseller  -- Confessions of an Economic Hitman.  The author worked as an economic forecaster working for the Chas T. Main company - a defunct consulting and engineering firm on the order of Halliburton or Bechtel (made famous for their excellent support of our soldiers in Iraq or their excellent service to the citizens of Paraguay).

The author details his marching orders -- to provide wildly optimistic economic forecasts for various countries which would only come to pass if Main's engineering projects (typically financed by entities such as the World Bank or the IMF) were put into motion.  The leaders of whichever country they were working in were invariably sold on the projects with threats, bribery, or the knowledge of what happened to peers who refused such deals.

The country receiving the loans for these projects invariably defaults, while the engineering firms waddle home with pockets full of cash.   I don't know how they manage to get such projects financed so often, but I suspect they have good lobbyists.

Leaders who refused the terms of such projects invariably met with untimely deaths after being vilified as communist dictators or defamed in some way.  Panama's Omar Torrijos knew full well what the consequences of his refusal would be, and accurately predicted the means of his own assasination.  Ecuador's Jaime Roldós Aguilera met a similar fate, despite maintaining a second decoy aircraft whenever he traveled.   Between that, and our similar involvement in installing Augusto Pinochet in Chile (what's not to like about dismembering people in a soccer stadium?), or installing the Shah in Iran, our government has been up to quite a few things over the last few decades which some of us might not approve of.

Have you ever wondered why it is that as 5% of the world's population, we're able to consume roughly 25% of the world's energy resources?   This sort of activity on our behalf is exactly what has enabled it. Well... either that or the fact that Americans are infinitely better than the people of other countries.  As the keepers of the world's reserve currency, we don't even need to worry about countries that go delinquent on their loans.  We just print a little more, while strong-arming the countries and getting favors like votes in the UN.  Sounds like the mafia, eh?

So does this make Americans evil?   Much of the world seems to think so, because they see our actions in their countries rather than the propaganda you and I see on TV about places we've never been.  I guess it all depends on your definition of evil.   As Americans, we all know full well that evil people are driven by diabolical motives, perhaps with a touch of insanity.  You know... like Lex Luthor or Batman's Joker.   We're not like that, so we're not evil, right?

I'd suggest that the evil as it's presented to us by Hollywood doesn't really exist.  I've never met anyone even remotely resembling the Hollywood definition of evil.

True evil, as I see it, is comprised mostly of two traits.   Greed and indifference.  Greed is a pretty natural trait.   We've all felt it at one time or another.  Most of the time, however, our greed is tempered by social pressures, or simply the knowledge that acting on impulses of greed tends to have negative consequences that exceed any benefits.  Indifference is the key enabler to greed.  As a country, few are more indifferent than the US.  Our knowledge of foreign geography, cultures, and languages is among the worst of any country.  It's much easier to be indifferent towards people you don't know or understand.  

Are Americans evil?  My ancestors kept slaves in North Carolina.  Though I'm sure they never considered themselves evil, many would consider slavery an evil pursuit.  I regularly indulge in exorbitant quantities of energy (by historical if not by contemporary American standards), which I know full well leaves a world like this or this to future generations, including my own family.  I don't like to think of myself as evil though.  Would my descendants agree?

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Perfect Human Trap?

Many folks I've met of the "boomer" generation don't seem to share the same sense of urgency about environmental and climate issues as the younger generations.  My father, for instance, often cites massive improvements made in the US over his lifetime, such as the fact that the Cuyahoga river no longer catches fire, or the fact that there is no longer a 20 mile long black cloud downwind of Gary, Indiana.  When an environmental problem became unbearably bad during his life, it was generally taken care of in one way or another, and I suspect that most members of his generation have been conditioned to think that we can take care of any problems after they occur.

The problem is that the issues we're now encountering are global in scope, and are fundamental risks to the very life support systems we require to survive.  We can't just move away from them until they're dealt with.  As they grow worse, our ability to deal with them decreases as we become more concerned with surviving the day instead of the decade or century.

While this is disconcerting enough on its own, there's an even bigger problem.  Our use of fossil fuels has doubled approximately every 20 years.  Roughly 75% of all the fossil fuel ever burned has been burned within the last 40 years.  It takes a minimum of 40 years for our carbon emissions to take effect, as a result of  the biosphere's thermal inertia (oceans in particular).  This means that we need to react 40 years before the changes take place if they are to be avoided!

Another complicating factor is the fact that the changes we make are not linear in nature.   Early on, most of our emissions were absorbed by the oceans or by plant life, but we've long since exceeded the absorptive capacity of the biosphere, as evidenced by the recent dramatic climbs in atmospheric carbon.  We've now triggered some massive feedback loops which will exacerbate our emissions even further.  Climate change has turned the Amazon rainforest -- a massive carbon sink -- into a carbon emitter, as drought and wildfire sweep through the formerly lush forest.  Changing climate zones mean that the forest outside your home will most likely be gone within 20 years (forests can handle slow change -- which isn't what we've triggered).   Carbon stored in the arctic refrigerator as soil organic matter in the permafrost, or as clathrates in the arctic ocean is now venting into the atmosphere at explosive rates.  Should we wait to see what happens?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Dairy

The attack came swiftly, while I was seated with my back turned.  The bull drove his horns into the small of my back and twisted, attempting to knock me over so that he could trample me and finish the job.  I braced myself to stay upright, away from his deadly hooves.  He relented for a few seconds before returning with renewed vigor, swinging his head from side to side and prancing about like a boxer in the ring.  I turned back to face him as he approached the second time.  He slowly drew close, sniffed my beard, wrapped his tongue around it and tried to pull it off (I suppose it looks a bit like hay), shortly before ambling away to lick one of our barn cats.  She loved the attention.

Fortunately for me, Gomer the bull is only eight weeks old and doesn't weigh very much.  His horns were about the size of a really big pimple before we burned off the buds. When he's not attacking me, he's a vicious killer of straw bales.  Juniper, his 350lb year-old accomplice (who does still have horns), is experiencing a renewed youth inspired by Gomer, and now attacks me regularly as well.   She's mostly looking for a good chin-scratching though.

We've thus far been using AI for our breeding.  That's AI as in Artificial Insemination -- we won't be using the other type of AI here (our farm is robot-free!).  Initially I had outsourced it, but finally took a course and have been doing it myself for a little over a year now.  Aside from the initial elation associated with sticking my arm up a cow's butt, I can't say I've been all that impressed with it.  We've had some successes, but not nearly what I'd hoped for.  So, when our cow Gertie gave birth to a bull calf, I decided that we might try something different.  If a bull isn't castrated, there is a window of perhaps 6 months during which he will be capable of breeding but not yet aggressive.

Jersey bulls have a reputation as the worst of the worst, though I've seen a few which were fairly docile.  I'm a little apprehensive of taking this route, but we're going to give it a try.  Chances are we'll butcher him as we would a steer at around two years of age, but hopefully will get some cows bred as part of the deal.  It's just like getting to "have your cake and eat it too", only a bull isn't typically covered in rich and creamy frosting.

Before I started kindergarten, two of my favorite books were Dr. Doolittle and Where the Wild Things Are.  I loved the idea of working together with animals, especially big ones.  Even if they were monsters.  Perhaps there's some epigenetic memory embedded in the recesses of my brain, of experiences had by my father or his parents back on my great-grandparent's farm.  Judging by my last name (Veale), the fascination with cows has spanned quite a few generations.

Though I would've at one time been horrified by the very thought of being tied to the daily dairy chores without end, there is a certain enjoyment that comes from a daily routine with these gentle beasts.  They're affectionate, playful (seen this video of our first cow?) creatures, with loads of personality.  It's easy to grow attached, and think of the cows as friends.

The downside to all this is that the primary purpose of a dairy is to produce milk.  When a cow doesn't respond to breeding, (as appears to be the case with two of my favorites), she ceases to produce milk.  She then becomes an enormously expensive pet, whose best use is to become hamburger.  It's tough to turn your friends into hamburger, but such is the life of a dairy farmer, I suppose.  I'm still holding out hope though... both Maggie and Josie skipped their last heat cycle.  Maybe they read my thoughts and decided they'd better get pregnant if they didn't want to visit freezerland.  I've got my fingers crossed!

Morning in the barn