The Call, Column 99 – A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

10 07 2018

(July 8, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Radiant Green Speck of Hope

The universe is estimated to be about 15 billion years old. The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The first bacterial life appeared around 3.8 billion years ago, the first animal life around 540 million years ago, and the first human-like primates just a couple of million years ago.

Only 200,000 years ago did the first modern humans evolve, and only around 10,000 years ago did they begin agriculture, and form civilization. And in that short 10,000 years, this species has recorded history, developed math, science, art, and philosophy, and made huge strides in physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology, so much so that we can accurately be called, in the words of the late cosmologist Carl Sagan, “a way for the universe to know itself”.

And in that short 10,000 years, that species has expanded to a population of 7 billion, covering the entire planet, and exhausting stores of natural resources – fossil fuels, fossil water, fossil topsoil, and even (as I’ve termed it) “fossil atmosphere” – that took the Earth its entire  lifetime to create.

And we’ve done all of this, and created massive technological development which has, among other things, now extended our lifespans beyond what they were prior to starting agriculture, largely using borrowed resources and borrowed time; we’ve done all of this by working our Earth, our land, and fellow members of our species to the point of near exhaustion, so much so that we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond maybe 100 years.

Depending on whom you ask, we owe our entire existence either to the random formation of complex systems during the expansion and cooling of the universe, or to the deterministic sequence of events following the big bang, or to an intelligently overseen creation process.

Whichever of these you believe, we know for certain that the universe began as a single point of light, progressed towards the development of sentient life, and currently harbors beings which are capable of performing science, creating art, experiencing love and sorrow and anxiety, sustaining their own existence indefinitely into the future, and destroying themselves completely in the span of no more than a few days. That’s pretty flipping important.

You are pretty flipping important. You are part of the greatest story ever told – maybe the only story ever told – which has been told for 15 billion years, and is told continuously by the spin of electrons, the making and breaking of chemical bonds, the replication of DNA, the existence of biological life, and the joys and sorrows experienced by every one of the nearly 7 billion human beings that live on this planet.

You are part of the most important experiment in the history of all of existence. A planet-wide…no, a cosmos-wide creation process, wherein by some (we might call it “divine”) mystery, the material world was made able to look back on itself, and experience itself, and know itself. You are the universe, you are the Earth, and your brain is somehow able to understand these things of which it is a part…and worry about them.

And therein lies the rub. The human brain is arguably the first material thing, in the history of all of existence, that is capable of perceiving itself and the Earth and universe of which it is a tiny part, and knowing how to change these things, and having moral and ethical and intellectual and spiritual motivations to try and cause changes. Human beings possess the knowledge of good and evil, and the further we drift from our elemental roots as animals, as hunter-gatherers, we seem destined as a collective group to choose evil.

You are given one Earthly life, and as far as you or I or anyone else knows, every single iota of meaning that can and will ever be attached to your consciousness and free agency and very existence is defined by the things that you use that life to do.

As far as any of us know, we on the surface of this planet are the sole instance of biological life that is, ever was, and ever will be in existence in the universe. Somehow, the material world is able to create and sustain life – big sacks of chemicals, that themselves are capable of love, compassion, goodness, intelligence, and hope. Whether you believe this happened by random accident, or deterministic materialism, or theological design, and whether you believe that this existence has meaning or not, and if so, whether that meaning is intrinsic or made-up, doesn’t really matter in terms of how it affects your basic conduct.

You are part of the most advanced species of the most complex type of chemical system, living on the most intricate planetary surface in the known universe. This may be it: our sole opportunity to get it right, to understand and maintain and preserve and sustainably expand biological life – human life. We may not get another shot, and as I said above, you live at a particularly important moment in history, where we can no longer be certain of our continued existence on this planet beyond 100 years.

We have decisions to make, big ones, and maybe tough ones. Decisions about the collective sacrifice of some of our freedoms – the freedom to be bad, the freedom to take advantage of other people, the freedom to exploit natural resources and destroy natural commons which do not belong to us as individuals, the freedom to act solely and boldly in defense of individual prosperity at the expense of collective prosperity – in order to protect our species as a whole.

We must make those decisions in order to ensure that human greed, 7 billion times over, doesn’t rob the universe of this only known instance of life.

What we do now, matters. And what we don’t do also matters. If we ignore the degradation of topsoil, if we ignore the depletion of freshwater, if we ignore the cries of children in cages and disadvantaged people around the world, if we ignore the destruction of natural landscapes to make way for further development, if we ignore the melting ice caps and warming atmosphere – we have only ourselves to blame when we can no longer take for granted the planet we call home.

We are a way for the universe to know itself. We are a way for the Earth to know itself. We are a way for the topsoil, and water, the air, and the single-celled prokaryotic organisms from which all life originated – to know themselves. And we know that we are collectively choosing to destroy it all.

Environmentalism, conservation, “woke-ness” – these are no longer fringe choices. They are no longer political beliefs (as if they ever should have been). They are moral imperatives. We have no right to destroy this which does not belong to us, and we know enough that we have no excuse to let it happen. We are educated enough, capable enough, and obliged enough to fix the problems we have caused.

Let’s start acting like it.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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The Call, Column 97 – Further Thoughts on Saving the World

10 06 2018

(June 10, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Further Thoughts on Saving the World

I almost hyperventilated this morning. In my 25 years, that’s never (almost) happened as much as in the past couple of months.

You see, I was tending to my chickens outside, and realized how out-of-control my raspberry and blackberry patch has become – sprawling, un-pruned, and way-too-infected by weeds for my liking. And that realization spawned another, bitter thought: how comparatively little time I’ve given to my garden this year. There are so many things that I want to do in my garden, so many things that I “need” to do, but I’ve been so busy with other obligations that I haven’t yet been able to give it the attention it deserves and requires. And then, the heavy breathing began…

Why am I telling you this? In my last column, I waxed poetic on the virtues of saving the world. “Saving the World”…really? The point of that column was to try to deal with some of the anxiety that we as woke urban farmers will absolutely feel while trying to both contribute positively to the collective (environmental) good, and also enjoy our own lives…after first, of course, doing those mundane things required to keep ourselves alive. I never pretended to be an expert, but the two weeks since I wrote that have made it abundantly clear how my personal exploration of this topic is both incredibly important to my wellbeing, and ironically, woefully infantile. And also how important that exploration probably is to all of you.

So today, I want to talk about sustainability efforts as expressed by two distinct types of actions: individual/lifestyle changes on the one hand, and collective/legislative/political/community-wide changes on the other. I will preface this discussion with my view that both have a place in our society and each of our lives, but I think we need a lot more nuance in how we talk about, approach, and allocate time to these efforts.

What are the individual changes I’m talking about? These are things like switching to LEDs and other energy efficiency retrofits in your own home, buying sustainably-grown food, turning off lights and water when not in use, recycling, composting, gardening, refraining from creating plastic waste, etc. You get the picture.

They are the sustainability-oriented actions which make us feel the most accomplished – they require the most effort and time, produce the most tangible results, and make us feel more intimately connected with the systems we wish to change for the better. And relative to the 350 million people in the United States, and the 7 billion people in the world, these actions in isolation produce basically no positive effect towards our species’ move to sustainability…Ouch, bet you didn’t see that coming.

What about the collective changes? These are actions in the political and societal realm – lobbying for legislation, voting and otherwise working towards the election of environmental leaders, protesting, contributing to environmental lobbying and action groups, urban farming on a wider community scale, and volunteering. These actions likely produce the most positive change for the time/money/effort spent, but with the exception of volunteering, there is often no concrete, tangible outcome to celebrate. And so effort towards collective change can often leave us feeling empty or unaccomplished. Double “ouch”.

So what are we to do? How should we allocate our time on individual versus collective change, and how can we derive meaning from both? And what does that have to do with my unkempt raspberry bushes? Glad you asked.

The topic of this column was inspired by a couple of different things: an article that I encountered a few weeks ago, about the best solutions to climate change; a couple of very deep conversations with my close friend; and, naturally, a Facebook post about food waste and “sustainability-shaming”. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as of late, and it has actually sort of shifted and fine-tuned my views.

One initial comment, from that Facebook post: “sustainability-shaming”, valuing someone’s commitment to sustainability based on how well they recycle and efficiency-retrofit their home – is ineffective, classist, and ignorant of the actual problem. Climate change and environmental degradation are industry-level problems. You, reading this, did not cause climate change. Your neighbor, who works two jobs and doesn’t always have time to separate her recyclables, did not create the landfill. And your grandfather, who uses an entire bag of salt every time it snows, is not causing soil degradation.

Environmental problems are structural problems, largely perpetuated by the fossil fuel and other industries who stand to gain from (to quote that same friend from above) “internalizing profits and externalizing losses”. The fossil fuel industry’s business model relies on freely polluting the global environment – with particulates, NOx and SOx pollutants, and of course, fossil carbon dioxide – while making money off of you, a necessary consumer of energy who likely cannot reasonably produce it yourself. You, and your neighbor, and your grandfather were simply born into, and more-or-less have to participate in, this incredibly damaging economy. Be wary of anyone who frames environmental issues on the individual scale, because the very industries causing the problems stand to gain by making us blame each other.

Now, our approaches to change-making – the use of our time, money, and personal energy on things beyond our individual happiness – are influenced by two very different motivations. The first is efficiency: which actions produce the most positive change for each dollar, minute, or unit of psychological wear-and-tear they consume? The second is gratification: which actions make us feel most accomplished, give us the best “warm, fuzzy feeling” inside, and satisfy our deep desire for tangible outcomes as the result of our expenditure of money, time, and effort?

Ultimately, it is your personal values, socioeconomic situation, and mental/emotional/spiritual state that should inform how much you weigh each of these motivations, in deciding how to spend your “saving the world” resources. If you are already burned out – from trying to save the world or anything else – it may be better to focus on more actions that produce gratification (individual-level changes) to help alleviate that. If you are just starting out, or find yourself with more than enough time and energy, it may be better to focus on more efficient actions (collective changes). But most of us lie somewhere in between.

In fact, I made a pretty remarkable realization while writing the above: if your goal is to maximize the positive effect you have on the world, it may actually be necessary to divide your time between effective collective action, and gratifying individual action. Wait, what?

I think it may be something like a bell curve, where the extreme left side is hyper-focus on collective action, resulting from the efficiency motivation, and the extreme right is hyper-focus on individual action, resulting from the gratification motivation (any correlation to the political left and right is completely unintentional). Let me explain why.

If you hyper-focus on only efficient actions, especially ones that don’t produce adequate levels of personal gratification, you will probably burn yourself out. So while that next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional drive might be most efficiently spent at another protest or legislative hearing…if doing so then means you then have to sit in your car for an hour, screaming and swearing about how imbecilic certain politicians can be and how climate change is going to be our species’ downfall and we aren’t doing enough about it (definitely not speaking from personal experience or anything)…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect. Alternatively, while the next hour or dollar or ounce of emotional energy might be most meaningfully spent watching Food, Inc with your vegan club for the 16th time…you aren’t really maximizing your positive effect.

Do you see my point? The truest, most effective way to save the world lies somewhere in the middle of that bell curve. Spend enough time on efficient, collective action to produce results that you often won’t see, but enough time on gratifying, individual action to motivate you to keep trying. I firmly believe that there is a balance that each of us can strike, which will keep us happily saving the world for the rest of our lives.

So that brings us full circle, right back to this morning’s almost-panic-attack. Do you want to know why my berry patch has become so unkempt? Because I have spent a HUGE amount of time in the past few months on collective action, towards climate change and other issues that are important to me. Judging by the fact that a few weeds (like many other things these days) had the effect of making me want to flee into the woods and live as a hermit…I think, maybe, I’m not doing enough of those gratifying, less-efficient actions, like sitting and watching my chickens fight each other over a worm for half an hour. If that’s what it takes to be willing to get up tomorrow and engage again in the political realm, then maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 96 – How to Save the World

27 05 2018

(May 27, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

How to Save the World

There is something that most of you probably don’t know about me: I am an amateur painter. It started almost two years ago, when I signed up for a painting class at Michaels, at my mom’s suggestion. The second my brush hit the canvas, I fell in love.

I loved the subtleness of the techniques; I loved how I could convey feeling and emotion simultaneous to physical imagery through just the bristles of a paintbrush; I loved the power that I felt, being able to turn tubes of paint into art; and I loved how all of this combined, allowing me communicate so deeply with anyone who might see my finished work, even long after I’m dead.

This new passion, made on the coattails of my prior discovery that spoken and written words had value beyond just communicating facts, quickly formed the basis of my newfound appreciation for the power of art in all of its manifestations.

I have gone to these classes pretty regularly in the time since, and have painted a lot on my own. Then, sometime in mid-April, I found out that the instructor who taught me everything I know would be giving her last class.

This was sad, of course, but I was excited for Sylvia, since the decision was made as the result of some good changes in her life. And for our last, celebratory class, she decided we would do something a little different – painting on wooden signs, instead of canvas. I distinctly remember how important the decision felt, about what I should paint…I sat there for at least 10 minutes just thinking, while the others had already started fleshing out designs. And finally, I decided on a simple phrase, “Save the World”.

Now, it’s probably obvious to you that I spend a fair bit of my time working on various projects with the loose, underlying intention of fostering positive change in the world. But that moment, making the decision about what to paint and meditating over the idea as I actually painted it, was the first time I was able to really conceptualize this basic motivation of mine, the driving force that has increasingly compelled my passions and decision-making in the past couple of years.

I was very happy with the final product (depicted), and decided to give it as an “Earth Day present” to my friend Joe, with whom I share a lot of similar philosophies, motivations, and involvement in world-changing activities. But I also replicated it and hung a copy in my room, above my bed.

I have to say, this simple sign is hands down the most thought-provoking, emotionally-fulfilling thing I’ve ever made. The emotional basis for this sentiment has been swirling around the dark, deep ether of my mind for at least the last nine months, and it took this artistic expression of this nominally simple phrase to make me understand how truly, principally important it is to me to…Save. The. World.

That’s kind of an unrealistic request of oneself, don’t you think? It harkens back to this quote that I really identify with, by E. B. White:  “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one [heck] of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

And now, after 500 words of introduction, we’ve finally arrived at the main purpose of this column. How do we balance doing 1) the things we need to do, in order to keep ourselves alive, with 2) the things we want to do in order to seek fulfillment and happiness in life, with 3) any additional efforts to solve problems bigger than the confines of our own lives…to “save the world”, or at least to try? And how do we “try to save the world” at all?

I’ll be honest with you, this is still something I’m figuring out myself. So let’s first deal with those activities that we need to do in order to live. I’m the absolute last person to succumb to the flawed, boomer-era definition of that list – it certainly does not include manicuring our lawns, watching any TV, any form of conspicuous consumption (new cars or otherwise), or climbing the corporate ladder.

Rather, our basic survival is predicated on having access to adequate food, water, shelter, (arguably) clothing, energy, physical movement, and community. Barring exceptional circumstances, this list translates into a modern life in which we: work, in order to buy those things and create financial stability; perform minimal life-maintenance tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and bill-paying; exercise; and maintain basic social relationships. Other than the last one, I firmly argue that we must minimize the amount of our limited time on Earth – not to mention our emotional and spiritual energy – used to perform these activities, at least in such a way that we can still gain most of the benefits of them. (Read the poem “Dust if you Must”, if you want a tear-jerking reason to believe what I’ve just written)

So, good: we’ve gotten that out of the way and can talk about more important things. Once we’ve done the minimum necessary to keep ourselves alive, how do we balance seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning, with putting in effort to try to save the world?

I don’t know. You don’t know. No politician, or doctor, or mechanic, or pastor really knows. But our life experiences, and the experiences of others, can help us to try to figure that out. First, let’s talk about what these activities actually are.

“Seeking happiness, fulfillment, and meaning” is pretty subjective. For me, those activities include spending quality time with my friends and family, traveling, spending time outside, being part of the process of producing my own food, reading, writing, painting and other forms of art, listening to music, building things, learning about and discussing ideas, engaging in progressive activism, and my theology. For you, the list may be completely different, but it’s a good thing to be explicitly aware of it for yourself.

On the other hand, there exists a good, if not incredibly generic definition of what it means to “try to save the world”. There are many well-defined problems in the world – environmental degradation, institutional discrimination and racism, systemic poverty and income inequality, excessive war, human rights violations, the existence of oppressive political regimes…the list could go on and on, and I would argue that most or all of this stems from fundamental flaws in the political and economic systems that we’ve allowed to control our societies. There is also the vague problem of general unhappiness, discontentedness, anxiety, and lack-of-fulfillment experienced by many of the people on Earth. (See how I just brought that full-circle?)

“Saving the world” can take the form of 1) uncovering and making known the problems which exist; 2) seriously discussing solutions; 3) working towards fixing the problems; 4) working towards putting in place systems which prevent these and other problems from arising again; and 5) creating things which add to the general richness and meaningfulness of peoples’ lives (to address that last problem above).

Journalism, getting involved in politics, making art of any form, protesting, lobbying for good legislation, community organization and involvement, conscious decision-making, any profession where you help people directly, engaging in sustainable production (full-scale and urban farming for example), philosophy, protecting wild spaces, volunteering, turning your thoughts and prayers into action, sourcing your food and other products from sustainable production models, being a good person…these are all examples of actions we can take to help save the world.

For a second, try to consider your personal list of things which bring you happiness, fulfillment, and meaning. It’s pretty likely that some of them overlap with this list of world-saving actions, huh? I know quite a few of mine do…and that isn’t an accident.

My recommendation, for balancing personal contentment with saving the world: find things that do both! I’ve taken to calling this “stacking”, and truly I’ll tell you, it has made me a lot more productive as a person. My work with political campaigns and organizations is both personally fulfilling (I am energized by public speaking and the social capital gotten from this involvement) and also helps to improve the world. Spending time outside, working in my garden or with my chickens, brings me an elemental happiness…and also contributes to the sustainable production of the food I eat. The creation of my paintings is emotionally fulfilling…and each of the (thus far, few) instances where I give one to someone, it is a form of solution #5 above.

Some other recommendations: For activities which cannot be “stacked”, you have to make a personal assessment of the relative values of enjoying yourself versus saving the world, and divide up your time accordingly; focus some of your effort on making positive change as part of a group, since it is generally easier than doing so as an individual; recognize that certain save-the-world activities are more effective towards the ends that you personally value than others, and choose appropriately.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 95 – The Mysteries of Nature

13 05 2018

(May 13, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

The Mysteries of Nature

Today’s column is a little different than my normal ones. It was inspired by an interesting series of events, starting around the time that I got back from my trip two weeks ago (I went to London and Paris with my friends).

If you remember back a few months, to my column about the human circadian rhythm, I mentioned that I’ve suffered a bit from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Well, between the winter, not spending too much time outside in the early spring, and being under circadian-disrupting blue lights all day, every week day, the SAD sort of persisted a little longer than I would have liked this year.

That is until I got back from my trip. The weather had finally broken, and I could feel my soul singing – at the feeling of the warm sun, at the circadian-realignment, and at the blossoming of the natural world around me. I kid you not, when I say that it felt like I woke up from a particularly unpleasant, 3-month sleep.

That was the week of April 30th. Fast-forward to last Sunday, when I went to a May Day festival in Tiverton that my friend was taking part in. Now, you can probably guess that the leftist/union undertones make May Day quite an appealing holiday for me. But beyond that, the naturalistic, (dare-I-explicitly-say-it) Pagan elements of the festival really lit up my soul as well. I could feel the intimate, spiritual connection that the people there had with Nature, and I could feel that connection in my own right.

And then, there was work this past week. After having been away for just 8 days, I was stunned upon returning, at how quickly all of my favorite early-season perennials had made their appearance. So this past Monday, I decided to cut some of my grandfather’s abundant, many-years-old, perennial spearmint, and bring into work. This was partly in celebration of spring, partly in personal continuation of the May Day festival, and entirely because I’m a (paleo) granola-crunching hippy that likes to make sure everyone around me knows of my unabashed, enthusiastically un-Western affinity for the natural world.

When my friend liked the mint and took a couple of stalks for his own desk, I decided that I would make it “a thing”. So Tuesday, I brought in lemon balm; Wednesday, oregano; Thursday I forgot; and Friday, lilac and wisteria flowers. It was pretty invigorating, to have those good smells, and something green and living sitting in front of me all day. And equally as thought-provoking, was watching the once-living plants slowly wilt over the course of the day, knowing that their ultimate destination was the compost pile, and all of the potential for rebirth that exists there.

I realized that my week-long custom was reminiscent of the original, pre-Christian one that we now call the Christmas tree. Pagans would take in trees and other plant material during the winter, both to keep the (natural) plant energy alive and in the process reinvigorate their homes.

So, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this…

I’ve recently become very interested in some of the less-scientifically-rigorous, difficult-to-prove ideas that people use to explain the world around them. Things like personality tests and classifications, the horoscope and other facets of astrology, and “spiritual connections”, both interpersonal and between human beings and the natural world.

I’ve always had some sense of, and respect for these beliefs, but over the past year I’ve really started paying attention to how seemingly effective they are at describing the world around us. I’ll likely be tarred-and-feathered both by my Christian friends and my science-minded friends for saying this: but, I’ve basically decided to be open to – and even embrace – the possibility that certain ideas can be used as accurate descriptors of the world around us, even if there isn’t science to support them, and they are not directly the teaching of the biblical writings, and the Son of God, that I very much do still follow.

Now, in between imaginary bricks getting launched at my head for publishing the last two paragraphs, I want to try to justify all of this from the very (in my view) convincing perspective of biological- and environmental-consciousness.

Nature is very, very, very, very complex. It is the one thing shared by every human being, every living creature, every religion, and every recognized scientific fact that has ever existed…and yet there is still so much that we don’t know about it. And here, I mean both “nature”, as in the entire universe, and “nature” as in the ecosystem on planet Earth. (The shear, not-fully-understood complexity of Earth’s ecosystem is why I have and will always argue against our ability to effectively, sustainably colonize another planet, at least in the long-term. We will probably never know enough about how the ecosystem works, and how our bodies depend on interfacing with it, to recreate it correctly…which is all the more reason to STOP DESTROYING THE ONLY PLANET WE HAVE.)

Whether you view the natural world as the product of fully-knowable, naturalistic, cosmological processes, or as a divinely-created and –maintained mystery, or (as I would passionately argue) both at the same time…you need to recognize that not everything you know or believe about it is everything that there is to know or believe.

That last statement is absolutely, unabashedly true, in the case of every single “you” who is or ever could read this column…including the one writing it. And that is the basic foundation that allows for the newfound openness to less-than-obviously-supportable ideas that I professed earlier on.

A study, performed a few years ago, found a distinct increase in mental calmness when participants were exposed to views of natural landscapes, as opposed to views of artificial (built) ones. Do we know why that is? Nope. Does that make it any less true…? Does the fact that we do not know the specific visual and neurological processes by which a natural setting is interpreted as safe, and the evolutionary reasons for that…or the fact that the Bible doesn’t (explicitly) say anywhere that our highest mental peace is achieved in nature…does any of that make it any less true?

Does the experience of basically every human being on this planet mean nothing, simply because neither of the two most accepted methods by which we come to understand the world around us can produce internally-consistent justification for that experience? Nope. Nope. Nopety-nope.

See what I mean? If we go back to the circadian rhythm discussion, I’ll reiterate the fact that our brains – and the entire biosphere – literally align themselves to the flipping solar system, for God’s sake! We don’t understand much of how that works, or the extent to which is affects us and every living thing on Earth…but it’s real. And from a practical perspective, if I see n=1 anecdotal evidence that some negative health effect is related to circadian dysrhythmia, and seems to be alleviated by more exposure to the sun, then that’s what I’m going to do…even if no neurology textbook and no verse of scripture tells me to.

As far we know, we are part of the most complex bit of chemistry-magic that has ever existed in the Universe. So when some piece of commonly-held wisdom, or some observation by someone other than a scientist or priest seems to accurately describe something in Nature, including and especially when that belief lends itself to the idea that there is some inherent spiritual, neurological, cosmological, energetic, divine,…natural connection between all human beings, and between human beings and the ecosystem and universe in which they exist…I’m now, more than ever, inclined to believe it.

And speaking of Earth being the only home human beings can and will ever have, global climate change is still a thing that needs to be fixed by the people that caused it. This coming Tuesday, May 15th, around 4pm, the House Finance Committee will be holding a public hearing on the Energize RI bill, one of the most effective ways to fight climate change that we have. The hearing is in the State House, Room 35. I encourage you all to come, and testify if you feel up to it. Email me for more information.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 94 – A Gardener’s Worst Nightmare

16 04 2018

(April 15, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

A Gardener’s Worst Nightmare

Gardening is going to get a whole lot more difficult in the years to come. Nope, not because there’ll necessarily be more woodchucks. I don’t foresee a shortage of seeds or plant starts, or any particularly nasty new plant virus. And if every garden supply center is planning to stop selling shovels and rakes, no one told me.

No, probably the biggest overall threat that we, urban farmers, will face to effective garden-growing is (drum-roll please) climate change.

It’s real, it’s our fault, it’s an overall threat to our well-being, and we need to do something about it…but we aren’t doing that fast enough.

And at this point, all action that we take on climate change will be to reverse the changes that have already taken place, and avoid more catastrophic atmospheric warming and related events in the coming decades and centuries. We are already seeing the effects of climate change around the globe – the ice caps are receding, ancient and new pathogens are spreading in territorial coverage, species are becoming threatened and extinct, and…the seasons are no longer dependable.

And that’s our kicking-off point for this column. There are many effects of climate change that are very relevant to urban farmers (not to mention full-scale farmers), and may threaten our ability to grow effectively. I want to discuss these impacts, and give some idea of how we might adapt to them while still in the process of transitioning away from climate-change-causing fossil fuels and towards the inevitable sustainable future.

The most prominent threat, of course, is the changing of weather patterns. I’m sure that you, like I, have noticed that the real beginning of winter – frozen mornings, consistently cold temperatures, regular snow – is creeping later and later in the year…as is the real beginning of spring. This has left us (in New England) with warm Novembers and cold Aprils, and wildly unpredictable Decembers and Mays.

Gone are the days when we could reliably assume that the first frost would happen within a week of October 15th, and the last around May 20th (in Southern New England). The agricultural zones are even shifting, as the frost line moves northward…who knows how long we will even be in Zone 6b?

This all makes it very hard to plan our gardens. When do we start our seeds indoors, if we don’t even know the appropriate month for their plant-out date? And when can we even be sure that we’ve had the last frost, since that May 20th approximation is not nearly as accurate as it was 30 years ago?

And, though the first and last frost dates are changing, the amount of sunlight we receive isn’t. We already have a short-ish growing season in Southern New England, which means we rely heavily on that growing season coinciding with the longest days and highest amounts of sunlight in the year. Well, May is typically a lot sunnier than November…if we lose growing time at the beginning to gain it at the end, our gardens will suffer no matter what we do.

This is a huge problem. I’m not sure I can confidently recommend a solution to adapt your gardening strategies, other than being as attentive as possible and selecting varieties that are able to mature in a shorter time, or with less sunlight. Also (and this one doesn’t come naturally to me at all), we may have to be more risky in our initial plant-out and final harvest. We will have to have more plants than needed, plant them out in late May, and pray there isn’t another frost lest we have to replace whatever dies…and come October, leave some of the less-than-optimally-ripe stuff on the vine later than normal, in hopes that it can mature before we get a hard frost.

Unfortunately, this is not foolproof. Three or four years ago, basically every farm in the state of Rhode Island lost its peach crop for the year because of this seasonal shifting. A short period of warm weather in early February of that year “tricked” the peach trees into budding out early, and a subsequent deep freeze in late February killed it all. Many trees died, and those that didn’t bore little to no fruit that year.

One of the other effects of climate change, that I’m sure you have noticed, is an increasing incidence of precipitation in high-precipitation areas. This translates to more snow in our area during the winter, which (despite uneducated claims of this nature), absolutely doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening.

As the atmospheric temperature warms, water is more easily evaporated from the oceans and other bodies of water, resulting in more frequent and substantial precipitation. The atmospheric temperature has increased by a couple of degrees, and is set to increase by a couple more in the coming decades, which means our winters still do, and always will dip into freezing temperatures…and presto-chang-o, we get lots more snow as a result! This has meant that it’s harder to plant early-season crops like spinach, since the snow covers the soil later, and threatens the health of tender seedlings. This weekend’s nice weather aside, this fact has delayed me from doing much early-season stuff in my garden this year…and I really don’t have a good solution to offer.

Despite having more snow, the progression of climate change has meant that the soil freezes a lot less – and for a much shorter time – during the winter. Our winters now consist of alternating days of frigid temperatures, with less-cold or even above-freezing temperatures, which means the soil doesn’t freeze for a few months, and to the same depth, that it used to. This has meant that topsoil-borne diseases are more able to survive the winter, resulting in a more pathogenic start to the growing season.

Your best bet to prevent this from being much of a problem is to mulch, mulch, and mulch again! If soil doesn’t get splashed up onto the leaves of your plants, it significantly reduces the risk of them catching many soil-borne diseases. This doesn’t prevent every effect of the above problem, but it’s a start. I spread a thick layer of straw on my garden last weekend, which I’m hoping will be enough.

Finally, the variability in the weather in early-to-mid spring results in less native plant growth, less early-season berries, and less worms and soil insects. That is a HUGE problem since, well, nature relies on biodiversity.

But for gardeners in specific, that means that birds, woodchucks, and other “pests” do not have a reliable food supply early in the season. Well, no reliable supply…except whatever you’ve taken care to grow in your garden. I don’t even have a solution to this for a world without climate change. It’s a problem we just have to live with, I guess.

I hope you may be able to use some of this information. But even more, I hope it has helped you to internalize the pressing issue of global, human-caused climate change. Our gardens are in trouble. Our world is in trouble. We are in trouble. We have to adapt to what’s already happened, but also take action to stop further change, and ultimately reverse what has happened altogether. And we have to do it now. Shoot me an email if you want to find out how.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 93 – It’s Time to Energize Rhode Island!

1 04 2018

(April 1, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

It’s Time to Energize Rhode Island!

I just wanted to give you all a quick update on some exciting stuff happening in our small but forward-thinking state.

This past Wednesday, I testified in front of the Rhode Island Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, along with dozens of others, in favor of the Energize Rhode Island bill.

This bill would form a basic carbon dioxide pricing structure in Rhode Island. That means that for any fossil fuel product sold in Rhode Island, a tax would be levied on the company selling it, based on the carbon dioxide that it would output when burned – this includes gas, heating oil, natural gas, and coal- and natural-gas-derived electricity. The revenue collected from this tax will then be split up, with some of it being reinvested in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure in our state, and the rest being returned directly to Rhode Island consumers and businesses as a rebate, to counteract the small increase in fossil fuel costs that will result from the tax. I will explain more about the awesome effects of this legislation below, but feel free to go to https://www.energizeri.org/about-the-bill.html for more information about the bill.

This experience of testifying at the State House was exceptionally gratifying for me. For one, the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture really, really knows their stuff. I can’t say that enough. They all demonstrated an extensive knowledge on climate change and other environmental issues, and were very vocal in their concerns for the future of our environment, state, and people. Unlike many politicians, they have worked together, both with each other and with the organizations and businesses that have a stake in this legislation, to craft the best CO2 pricing structure they can.

Also, I actually feel pretty confident that this bill may pass this year…after four years of growing in popularity but ultimately not becoming state law. This committee seems very ready to pass the bill, after which it will go to the House and Senate Finance Committees, then the general assembly. There is so much citizen and business support, it seems entirely within the realm of possibility that it will become law in 2018.

But all in all, I think the most gratifying thing was the fact that all of us in the room (short of a few corporate lobbyists who probably didn’t actually personally care) were on the same page, talking on the same level. When I sat at the committee’s table to give my testimony (yes, they actually encouraged us to do that), it felt like I was engaging in this big, 50-person discussion about the future of our planet and state and people. They were actually listening to us – they were actually listening to me, and I to them – and sharing in our concern for the health of the global environment. That was really powerful, and I was very impressed at the Senators that gave me (and probably most others in that room) that feeling…of actually caring.

So now, I want to try to motivate why this law is so important. Like I did for the committee, I will come at this primarily from my perspective as an engineer. This type of legislation is the best way to reduce carbon emissions, while catalyzing the shift towards renewable energies and sustainable infrastructure, and still providing for the wellbeing of taxpayers and small businesses.

Companies – and specifically fossil-fuel companies – make decisions based on the bottom line. But as it stands, they are allowed to abuse our common resource – the global atmosphere – for free. This is called a “negative externality” to their business model, an expense of doing business that, without government protections, they do not have to account for in their financial balance sheets.

Legislation like the Energize RI Act takes the necessary step of internalizing this negative externality, preventing societal freeloading, and removing the unfair advantage being given to producers of polluting, fossil fuel energies but not to those of clean, renewable ones…it simply ensures that environmental harm can’t be caused for free!

And what’s more, this bill will create additional market potential for renewable energy technologies, allowing businesses more freedom to invest early in the energy sources that will power our future. The implementation of this law will drive a huge, necessary shift towards renewable energy by simply allowing businesses to feel the true economic benefits and drawbacks of the energy sources that they decide to sell or use in producing electricity.

So in that way, this legislation is actually very good for small businesses in the State of Rhode Island. It creates a more level playing field, internalizing all costs and benefits associated with an energy-producers’ business decisions, and creates opportunities for energy-related projects that may not otherwise arise.

And of course, this legislation is good for the environment and the people. In (hopefully) passing this, the State Legislature will be helping to grow the renewable energy economy well before scarcity and environmental destruction force us to abandon fossil fuels and find alternatives. They are ushering in a future of plentiful, non-polluting energy sources that could conceivably power human society forever.

When this passes, we will be a national leader on this front. And I don’t know about you, but I am really energized by that thought!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.





The Call, Column 92 – Some Updates on Environmental Happenings in Rhode Island

18 03 2018

(March 18, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Some Updates on Environmental Happenings in Rhode Island

We live in exciting times, and an exciting place! Rhode Island is quickly becoming one of the national leaders in environmental action and legislation. This year, our State Legislature is considering a couple of really cool bills, all with the aim of preventing runaway climate change, and ushering in the era of renewable energies and sustainability. In the past few weeks, I have gone to a few events associated with this legislation (and more generally, environmental protection) and today, I wanted to give you a quick update on these happenings.

A few weeks ago, I went to a protest in Providence, organized by Save the Bay, Climate Action RI, and a few other local environmental groups, to oppose opening up Rhode Island’s coastline to offshore drilling. This was in response to a recent push by the federal government, to convince/force many of the coastal states to do this.

The risks from this move are obvious and pressing: oil spills and destruction of the fragile ecosystem of the coastline, absolutely. But even more pressing is the prospect of further, high-impact, binding investments in a dying fossil fuel infrastructure, making it that much more difficult to excise dirty fossil fuel energies and shift towards environmentally-neutral renewables.

The protest was magical! We began at the State House, where a press conference was being held by some of the pro-environmental state legislators, and marched down to the Providence Marriott, where the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was holding an “informational session” intended to convince Rhode Island residents to support opening up our coastlines to the oil companies. After protesting street-side for some time, we went into the conference room at the Marriott, where BOEM was holding their indoctrination session (I mean, “informational session”).

In there, the 200 or so protesters formed (what I came to learn was a) human loudspeaker, wherein we took turns standing on a soapbox and giving short speeches, which were then echoed by everyone in the room. The purpose of this was to “take over” the conference room, and get our point across to the federal and state representatives that were there…and I think we did just that! I, being the super-extrovert that I am, of course took the opportunity to give an ad lib speech.

As a result of that protest, I joined Climate Action RI, the local branch of 350.org, whose basic goal is to end the use of fossil fuels, prevent climate change, and usher in the era of renewable energies and sustainable technologies. It’s an exciting group to be a part of, so if you’re interested in getting involved, their website is http://world.350.org/rhodeisland/.

Next up is the Carbon Pricing legislation in the State House. The action for this bill hasn’t really started yet, so I’ll just tell you about it quickly. Carbon Pricing, which we’ve discussed before in this column, is a basic tax on carbon-dioxide-emitting, fossil fuel products, levied on the distributors of these products and 1) reinvested in renewable energy infrastructure and 2) returned to the taxpayers as tax breaks. The intention of this legislation is to “internalize the externalities” – to actually create a financial incentive NOT to pollute the shared environment with fossil carbon dioxide, thereby financially incentivizing the move to climate-friendly energy sources.

The widespread adoption of this type of bill is absolutely imperative towards the goal of preventing runaway climate change. Rhode Island seems to be close to passing it, and it seems to have a lot of support in the state legislature. I have gotten involved with the group that is promoting this bill. If you want more information, or want to get involved, shoot me an email.

Finally, I want to tell you about a piece of legislation that I only a learned of a few days ago: the Global Warming Solutions Act. As it stands, Rhode Island has codified targets for the reduction in statewide greenhouse gas emissions, and the implementation of renewable energy technologies. But these targets are pretty vague, and there is no regulatory framework put in place to make sure they happen.

This bill would change that! A group of forward-thinking representatives are trying to pass a bill that creates concrete targets for GHG emissions over the next few decades, actual steps towards making those goals reality, and a regulatory framework that ensures their implementation.

This is HUGE! I spoke at a House subcommittee hearing the other day, in favor of the bill (naturally), and it seemed that the subcommittee is looking favorably on it. Like the Carbon Pricing bill (which is very complementary to this one), the work has only just begun towards the passage of this Global Warming Solutions Act. If you want to get involved, again, shoot me an email.

Climate change is happening, it’s our fault, and we need to fix it. That much is clear. But taking it further, as an engineer, I cannot overstate the importance of setting clear targets, formulating paths to meet those targets, and putting in place regulatory mechanisms to make sure we act appropriately…if we actually want to get anything done. Climate change is the most pressing existential threat that we face as a species and a global community, so I am deeply heartened to see this type of action being taken in our state. Stay tuned!

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.