...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fish, Oil, and Trees: The Productivity Ratio

Here in the Pacific Northwest, there is, like in most communities, a dichotomy between “jobs” and “the environment.” Ours in particular revolves around forests, demonstrated by the decades-old debate between loggers and tree-huggers. I've lived in the most liberal, most urbane parts of the Puget Sound's big cities, wearing sandals with socks and all. I've also lived in rural Washington communities (still do) just a hop skip and a jump away from some of our finest lumber mills. In fact, the community in which I live now is economically dominated by two major lumber mills, and so I'm used to seeing the bumper sticker that reads “Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Where to Begin -- Cereal Boxes?

I try hard to be "green" as the popular phrase puts it.  I live off-grid, grow vegetables and raise chickens, and try very hard to avoid driving unnecessarily and especially flying.  It seems like a natural way of life for me, but I know its not for all people.  It's hard, I know, to unlearn all that we have been taught and to live differently.  I was thinking back on it this morning, and I realized that it all began with cereal boxes.

When I was a kid, one of the few rituals I truly enjoyed was breakfast.  I would choose my daily dose of nutrient-blast, fortified with 10 essential vitamins and minerals, from the few that my Mom would deem acceptable amongst all the fare offered by the likes of the Kellog or General Mills corporations.  And I would sit at the table, quietly chewing my precious meal, splashed with some of that wonderful pasteurized, homogenized, Vitamin D milk, and I would read the cereal box.  Sometimes there were special prizes inside, or even on the outside like the time I got a 45 rpm record of the Jackson Five singing A-B-C on the back of the box.  I would read all parts of the box on different days, often taking in the latest sales-pitch propaganda from the aforementioned cereal companies, and sometimes even getting desperate enough to actually read the ingredients and nutritional information, provided according to the prescription of the US Food and Drug Administration.  To this day, I wonder if these cereals more aptly apply to the "food" part of this agency's purpose or the "drug" part. 

But somewhere along the line, it hit me:  what are these cereal boxes for?  To hold the cereal?  Well, no, the cereal is actually contained in a plastic bag within the box.  And now that I've been eating bulk and non-boxed cereals for a number of years, I know that my suspicions about the integrity of the packaging having nothing to do with the cereal box were well-founded.  Bagged cereals don't crumble to dust just because they are not boxed.  No, I realized some time ago that the only true purpose of these boxes is to advertise, to help brainwash the kids and adults who buy the cereal how important and nutritious and, well, fun it is to buy and eat cereal as a way of life.   That may not be a terrible thing, or at least one we can ignore just like those awful commercials that interrupted my favorite TV programs as a kid like The Brady Bunch or Emergency!  But these boxes are not just inconveniences we can ignore: they are made from trees.  Trees killed so that those who sell cereal can sell more cereal.  So even though I loved my cereal, and I confess that I still do, I swore off cereals that came packaged in individual boxes some fifteen or twenty years ago.  It didn't happen all at once, but I gradually came to not buy boxed cereals at all, and in the process discovered that bagged and bulk cereals are generally much healthier than those that come in boxes, and, further still, that pre-made cereals themselves are not very healthy at all.  What I read on the boxes as a child were all lies. 

That was probably my first step, the first time I made a conscious decision to do something different for reasons that were not directly related to my personal self-interest.  And it was, as such, perhaps tone of the smartest things I've ever done.  When I talk to people now about making a shift away from self-centered consumerism, I suggest that they find one thing, one relatively simple thing, to do differently.  Today.  Then we'll see what happens tomorrow.   

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Glimpses of the Future?

I wrote the other day about conservation -- how we industrialized peoples, people living in developed countries like the US -- need to cut our resource use in half and then in half again before we can begin to imagine creating a sustainable economy.  This is a challenge that quite possibly dwarfs all other challenges we've had before.  You can make comparisons to the Apollo mission, World War Two, or the Great Depression, but I doubt if any of that compares to what we would need to do.  And this challenge requires both individual and collective action.  We must all learn to live differently, and we must also restructure our economy and society.  Half-hearted "reforms" simply will not do -- we need to change our foundations.

So I am a student in this regard -- learning what I can learn about how to live differently, for living differently is something that will be required of all of us and something that will be necessary when our economy breaks down as we try to build a new one.  The main thing I've been learning for the past two years living "off the grid" and without full-time employment is how much I need to learn.  Today I want to share a few random thoughts about things I've been learning, particularly things that seem to contribute to the developed world's disproportionate exploitation of nature.

  1. Showers are over-rated.  I realize now that I can live quite comfortably more like the majority of people in this world by not taking a shower every day.  I'm quite comfortable with two of three a week.  I often hear people talk about installing low-flow shower heads and taking shorter showers and the like, and these are indeed good ideas.  But not enough.  In fact, I think we should stop automatically including showers or bathtubs in every new house we build, and instead build bath houses that could be shared by every five or ten households.  One thing I've learned by not having a shower available to me whenever I want is that a good shower is an amazingly welcome thing.  So maybe I should re-phrase my earlier sentence to say showers are under rated!
  2. Mechanical refrigeration is largely unnecessary.  One of the most insane things we do in the modern world is heat our big houses all winter long and in the middle of our warm house put a metal box that we then cool to a temperature that might naturally be occurring outside or in the basement or in some other close proximity.  I only use mechanical refrigeration during the hottest summer months, and have found that most food keeps quite well even outside the very narrow temperature range that all the food safety experts say we must follow.  Sometimes food does go bad more quickly, but the chickens don't seem to mind!
  3. There is, I have to say, beauty in the quiet beauty of a less mechanical existence.  To not always hear the constant din of the refrigerator, the buzz of electric lights, and the frequent interruptions of nature's quiet bliss by various electrical appliances makes for a very good life.  Many everyday chores are much more difficult and time-consuming when we use less power, such as cooking or laundry, but devoting more time to these simple tasks (simple when you begin to get used to them) prohibits excessive time utilizing electric appliances such as computers or TV, or engaging in any number of other things we do when we get "bored."  It's a new way of life -- or perhaps a very old one.  And it might well turn out to be, at the same time, the life of the future.  At least I hope so.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Seventeen Million Honeybees

The ecologist and the philosopher meet at the question: What is 'natural'?  And upon considering this question, also come to the question: Is 'natural' always good, everything else bad?  After all, human beings are a part and product of nature, so doesn't it follow that everything human beings create is inherently natural?  And if the ecologist and philosopher agree that 'natural' is good, then doesn't that mean that Ayn Rand was right after all, that all human activity, including those that don't seem to be virtuous on the surface, are, in fact, good?  Maybe we should all quit complaining and simply celebrate all we have achieved and renew our efforts to do more.

I read in Acres USA of an "accident" on Interstate 35 in Minnesota in May which involved a semitrailer.  This particular accident might not have made any news nor ever come into my consciousness had it not been for the rather unique cargo of this truck.  It contained about seven thousand honeybee hives and an estimated seventeen million honeybees.  That's right -- seventeen million bees on one truck.  Apparently, the bees were rather pissed at the whole situation, and began swarming around the scene of the accident, which I imagine made for less than optimal working conditions for the responders who's job it was to clean up.  So the bees were doused with fire hoses in an effort to scatter them away from what was left of their homes.

Seventeen million bees on one truck.  Yes, that is a rather unique cargo and challenge for an accident, but neither the cargo itself nor the accident are unique.  Truth is, there are literally thousands of "accidents" on our highways every year, many involving trucks carrying various loads of "natural" (i.e. man-made and glorious) cargo.  And the presence of some seventeen million honeybees on one truck is, unfortunately, not an unheard-of load for one of the thousands of fifty-three foot long boxes that careen across this country at sixty-some miles an hour every day.  And while it is not unheard-of, and while I am not in this precise moment going to attempt to define what is natural and what is not, I am going to go out on a limb and say that containing seventeen million honeybees in one box and sending that box hundreds or thousands of miles across the country on highways crowded with lots of other metal boxes of various sizes all going this way and that at sixty-plus miles per hour is definitely not natural.  At least not to the bees.

Bees are, naturally, territorial creatures -- they establish themselves in a hive and workers go out and about to what is probably to them distant lands, searching for nectar to bring back home.  And in the process of doing this, these "distant lands" become part of the their territory.  In this sense, they are not too different from us humans, in an evolutionary sense.  That can pretty much describe how humanity has lived for most of our several million years of existence, until perhaps the last two or three hundred.   Somewhere along the line, we abandoned our "natural" way of being for something different.  One consequence of our adapting this new, non-natural way of living was that on one day last month seventeen million honeybees were suddenly and "accidentally" shaken from their homes in a completely foreign place and then sprayed with water until they "dispersed."  Another consequence is that every year millions upon millions of bees are transported thousands of miles away from their own territories to perform a service for us humans, each time having to reacquaint themselves with their new environments.  Scientists aren't sure, but many suspect that this is a rather stressful experience for bees, and living with this kind of stress may be one reason that so many bee colonies are disappearing.

I write this reflection so that we may consider one important indicator in attempting to answer those questions about what is natural and what is good.  That indicator is scale.  Humans have invented a world in which everything, they believe, must grow, must become big; and have at the same time lost some of our capacity to appreciate how nature's scales are often different than our own.  Yes, we know there are insect colonies in nature that number into the millions of creatures, and we know that there are animals that routinely migrate thousands of miles.  But the scale of our honeybee commerce is anything but natural, and may ultimately cause the collapse of a part of nature on which we depend.  When we ask what is natural, and by implication at least a hint of what is good, we should consider scale.  We should seek to live and tinker within the bounds of what is natural, that is, what was common before and outside the onslaught of human industrialization.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

War is the Problem, Not the Answer

I couldn't help but cheer as I began reading Robert Scheer's new post on truthdig today.  Yes, President Obama's attempt to label our response to the oil leak in the Gulf as "war" is pure poppycock at the very least, part of the same problem that led to the leak at worst.  Hearing Obama's insane analogy reminded me that we, this nation, has little to depend on other than our self-perceived military prowess.  In the end, it is the only thing we can count on.  So we talk about a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terror, and now, silliest of all, a war on oil leaking out from it's natural place of being through a hole drilled in the ocean floor in our attempt to seize it for ourselves.  Scheer is correct in implying that it was war that created this leak, and war and the mentality it evokes will not end it and will virtually guarantee that it will happen again.

My only wish is that Mr. Scheer's thinking on the subject had not devolved into his own little war-like mentality as he takes sides in a political dichotomy that is supporting more war and more war-like thinking.  The problem, Mr. Scheer, is not simply "deregulation" or "unfettered pursuit of corporate profits."  The problem is an open-ended, growth-oriented  economy, supported by both major political parties, that seeks to exploit and provide material comfort for more and more people at a level beyond that which is natural or sustainable.  This is why even so-called "liberal" politicians like Obama will approve new offshore drilling, new nuclear power plants, and new military bases and weapons with only some vague reassurances that such enterprises are "safe."  But they are not, they never will be.  It is like trying to find a way to wage war that is safe.

The alternative?  Let us renounce violence and instead work to find ways to live and support ourselves that work in harmony with nature, not against it.  Both Capitalism and Socialism, when operated as a means to support the industrial, war-like lifestyle, fail in this regard.  

Likewise, his clarion call for development of "renewable energy sources" is, as yet another call for an all-out, war-like affront, certain for failure and far worse.  We are not going to solve these problems with the same thinking and processes that created them.  Yes, we need to develop and encourage renewable energy, but it is never going to come anywhere near filling our current demand.  Before we go down that road we need to take seriously the conservation challenge: first, we need to cut our per capita energy use in half; then we need to cut it in half again.  Then we can start making a dent in what remains with clean, non-exploitive renewable energy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Two Stories: Immigrants in America

The oil continues to bleed into the Gulf of Mexico from this great injury to the ocean floor that was intended to be benign. As I've been despairing the past month hearing about the gulf oil gusher, I've been feeling far greater despair and anger over the fact that the state of Arizona has passed legislation, the infamous SB1070, that takes the unprecedented step of enlisting state law enforcement resources to seek out and either imprison or deport those who have come to this nation without obtaining a permission slip. I feel greater despair and anger over this because it is another example of our culture accepting that which should not be accepted; considering normal that which is anything but. SB1070 is an expression of a fundamental brokenness of a culture and her people, the culture that I have to call mine.