Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Do Less

In most respects, "green" energy is no better than the fossil energy it replaces, and serves primarily as a fossil fuel extender. As with the smoker who opts for light cigarettes, or the horribly misguided popularity of diet soda, the easiest solution is rarely the right solution.

Now that faith in the Cornucopia of Technology (what cool toy will Apple make for us next?) has moved into first place as the #1 global religion, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that so many people are convinced technology will solve the very problems it's created (climate change and peak oil / energy depletion come to mind). Never mind the fact that all of this technology rests upon a crumbling pedestal of fossil energy.

A recent case in point is the much touted new Tesla "Powerwall" home battery. It's a lithium-ion battery, with a 7 or 10 kWh capacity, the latter of which will be selling for $3500. Maybe Tesla has made a dramatic improvement in the lifespan of lithium ion batteries, but I doubt it (they promise a 10 year warranty -- which is about the expected lifespan of a well treated lead-acid battery).

The larger 10kWh battery (with 1/3rd the capacity to run the typical 30kWh household's daily consumption) is roughly equivalent in capacity to 3.3 8D series deep-cycle lead-acid batteries, which I see retailing for $330 apiece. But, because lead-acid batteries don't last well when regularly drawn below 50%, you'll want to double the number of conventional batteries for equivalence, so that's 6.6 batteries. You can't buy .6 batteries, so we'll round up to 7. Total cost for 7 - 8D batteries is $2,310, vs $3500 for the Tesla battery. The Tesla battery will be smaller and lighter. That's a big deal in a car, but not so much in a house. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I fail to see the breakthrough here.

Though people seem to be figuring this out as their sales wane, electric cars aren't really any more environmentally friendly than their gasoline counterparts. "Clean burning natural gas", if you include the environmental costs and emissions of the full life cycle, isn't really any better than coal. Then there's nuclear energy, which we can't afford to get rid of (and will be decreasingly able to get rid of as energy depletion bites ever further into our economies). Did I mention contamination that lasts longer than human civilization has been in existence? I suspect that there are some folks in Tokyo who might take issue with its green image.  Have you read about the latest greatest source of CO2 emissions (accounting for about 30% of all human caused emissions)?  It's the draining of peat bogs in Indonesia for oil-palm plantations to meet the demand for "green" biodiesel.

No matter where you peek behind the curtain on green energy, you find problems which reveal it to be the wrong answer for offering a chance at continued human survival.

The problem is, to a large extent, that we opened the pandora's box of fossil energy, fell in love with all it had to offer, and are now willing to commit mass murder in order to keep it. We've insisted that we could reproduce without limits, fly anywhere on a whim, build homes as big as we like, and fill them with manufactured goods shipped from around the world. As it turns out, we've made what currently looks to be a fatal mistake.

The answer is not "green" energy any more than it is "light" cigarettes.  The answer is to reset our expectations. Mother nature and her pesky laws of thermodynamics will take care of our numbers issue in her own less-pleasant ways, because we refused to do it ourselves. Those who remain, if any, will certainly appreciate us making their world a little less bad by making ourselves a little less harmful. That means doing less than we've become accustomed to. Travel should be within walking or perhaps biking distance, not across continents or oceans. Food should (for a million different reasons) be produced (or preferably foraged) locally, by ourselves and our neighbors, as should our modest homes, clothing and tools. I think you'll find that the life we're returning toas a matter of necessity is in many ways much better than the one which we're all clinging to now.  I know that my movements in this direction would suggest exactly that.

When the future we're headed towards turns out not to include us or anything we value, it's probably a good idea to return to the past that does.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Not-so-chocolate Easter Bunny

The cows are out on pasture as of this week, and seem to be enjoying themselves.  I love walking out to meet them in the pasture at first light, with all the birds belting out their morning greetings.  I made my way to the far end of the pasture this morning without finding the cows, and assumed they'd gone to play wild-cow-of-the-wilderness in the small patch of woods they have access to. After searching for them with my headlamp to no avail, I completed a loop around the rest of the pasture, checking the corners where I might have missed them on my way out in the dim light.  Coming full circle, I found them already waiting for me back at the barnyard.  We have sneaky stealth cows, as it turns out.

While milking Penelope, I could hear a bunch of rustling straw in the main loafing area of the barn, which I assumed to be "Ninja" Fritz (our 4 week old calf) tearing around in circles and kicking at imagined foes. Then I heard the screaming, and went to investigate. Burrito the cat had scored herself a baby rabbit and was relentlessly torturing it.

Apparently not hungry enough, Burrito left the bunny to an eager Coon. She's the three-legged cat who became that way while hiding in the tall hay as the horses walked past with the sickle mower one day. Coon carried her prize over to the milking area and made it scream some more before getting down to the crunchy business of eating the cute creature in front of me, starting (as usual) with the delicious head.

In between the screams and crunching, my thoughts turned as they often do to things I've read lately. There's a super El-Nino developing off of our west coast, which is dramatically increasing the die-off of ocean life that depends upon plankton (just about everything, that is). On the plus side, it's also expected to break the 4 year drought in California. On the down side, it's likely to trigger a drought where we live.

Climate change isn't something we might get to experience a few decades from now. It's here, now.  I find it terrifying, and even more terrifying is the complacency and outright denial that grows worse as we watch it wreaking havoc. The same things are happening in Syria, Sao Palo, YemenIran, Ukraine, and California really. It's not just that we're warming, or drying, or seeing unprecedented floods and storms. The problem is that we're losing the stability that has made life possible. We're losing the stability required for agriculture, for forests, and for every living thing.

The drought our farm experienced in 2012 was nothing like the 4 years of drought currently being endured by much of California, but that one year alone cost us several thousand dollars, quickly making the farm a losing proposition. The risk of a similar event in any given year is rising, which turns any farm into a losing bet. Farmers don't just "fail to make a profit" when there's a drought. They lose money, and lots of it. Most are spending hundreds of dollars per acre, every year, for seeds and fuel, and perhaps irrigation. If a crop fails, that's all lost. It doesn't need to fail every year. I'll bet once every third or fourth year would be enough to destroy most farming enterprises and render grocery store shelves bare. After pouring our heart and soul into our own farm for several years now, the thought of it losing viability is gut wrenching.

Look outside your house, and I'll bet you see trees, which are in many ways the lungs of the planet. That makes them just as important as our own lungs. Trees need stability as much as we do.  If the growing conditions that made a forest cease to be reliable, the forest dies. With the rate of change we're seeing, forests won't just move northwards, as many expect. By the time a more southerly species is able to establish, changing conditions will likely kill it too.

A lot of folks are looking to permaculture as the type of agriculture which we should move towards. In a destabilized climate, however, the longer lived species required for permaculture won't do any better (and will likely fare worse) than the annuals that currently comprise the bulk of our agriculture.

But, for now, our farm in spring is beautiful. The breaking buds look like a light green mist settling on the trees. The lambs are bouncing on all fours and chasing chickens that wander past. Our pastures are green and lush, and the cows are fat and happy. For that, I'm thankful.