The Call, Column 66 – Acting on Climate Change

26 02 2017

(February 26, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Acting on Climate Change

 

This is the 21st century, and the science is beyond settled. Climate change is happening, it’s our fault, and we need to stop it. This is no longer up for debate. In the last two columns about this, I discussed the science of how climate change works, and gave you an idea of the grand scheme of society-level actions that need to occur in order to solve it.

Today, we’re going to narrow focus down to the radical individual action that is required of each of us, in order to prevent the disastrous effects of climate change and usher in an age of environmental sustainability.

Action on the individual/familial level. There are a variety of ways that we, as individuals, can reduce our carbon footprints and contribute to the remediation of climate change.

Energy efficiency is the first that comes to mind. It may seem mundane, but reducing our demand for energy not only literally prevents some of the carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere that otherwise would, but also eases the strain on our fossil-fuel-dominated energy sector, giving renewable energy sources an economic foothold to take over.

Change your light bulbs to LEDs as soon as you can get to Job Lot or Walgreens. National Grid heavily subsidizes LED light bulbs in our area, to the point where the difference in cost between them and incandescents (and even CFLs) can be made up by the electricity bill savings after a few months of use; that isn’t even counting the fact that LEDs last like 23 years, compared to incandescents’ 8 months. This change alone would reduce a normal household’s electricity consumption by almost 10%!

There are companies, like RISE Engineering, that you can bring in to do a free energy efficiency audit on your home. They determine if you are losing heat through your windows or air leaks or inadequately-insulated walls, and more generally look at your energy usage to find ways you can save. And then, they give you access to heavily discounted solutions.

It sounds cliché, but you can do a lot by simply paying attention to your energy usage, and working to reduce it. Turn off lights and electronic devices (like computers and TVs) when not in use. Lower your thermostat’s temperature (or turn off your air conditioner) when you aren’t home. Walk and bike and take public transportation wherever you can. In short, behave as if energy is a precious, limited commodity…because until we move to fully-renewable energy, it absolutely is.

The food we eat can also be a huge source of carbon emissions – or, if we source it right, it can actually remove carbon dioxide from the air. The basic idea is to eat foods that require as little fossil fuel input, and as little soil tillage, as possible, while encouraging perennial planting that sinks carbon dioxide into the soil.

Grains and legumes are the basis of non-sustainability in agriculture, as is anything that relies on them – like grain-fed animals. They uniquely require large amounts of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, and other fossil fuel inputs in the form of large farm machinery (to till, plant, spray, and harvest), not to mention the carbon dioxide released into the air during tillage. This immense release of greenhouse gas is to the tune of 10 units (i.e. Calories) of fossil fuel energy for each 1 unit of food energy produced!

The effect is exacerbated when livestock are fed mostly grains and legumes, especially ruminants like cows, which convert grains to meat less efficiently than other livestock (because they are supposed to eat grass!).

So what does this mean for our individual food choices? As urban farmers, I don’t need to tell you the benefits of growing your own. Generally speaking, growing your own anything is better for the environment than buying it as a product of conventional agriculture. It requires less fuel to transport and store, it takes basically no fossil fuel inputs (unless you have a backyard tractor you aren’t telling me about), and in the case of chickens, a portion of their conventionally grain-based diet is instead made up of pasture plants and insects.

Beyond that, sourcing food from the local foodshed, irrespective of growing methods, generally reduces carbon outputs from transportation; and buying from truly sustainable and/or organic farms means that artificial (carbon-based) fertilizers were not used, and the overall environmental impact is minimized. When it comes to meat, grass fed is a must whenever it is natural to the animal (cows, goats, sheep…any ruminant), and pasture- or forest-raised for any other animal (poultry, pigs) so their diet is maximally supplemented with foods other than grains. Extra points if you get these from the local foodshed, to reduce transportation outputs.

Finally, each time a piece of food is wasted, all of the carbon emissions associated with growing it were emitted for naught. We are all guilty of it – forgetting about something in the fridge, or in the pantry, and only finding it once it’s past its prime. By keeping animals (like chickens) that are perfectly willing to eat foods that are unpalatable for us but still “edible”, we can reduce the damage by a pretty big factor. But we should all practice better management to avoid food waste in general.

On a slightly higher grade of individual action, we all have the power to literally supplant dirty energy sources with clean ones. The easiest way to do this is to pay a little more for electricity to guarantee that it comes from 100% renewable sources. For National Grid, this is called the GreenUp program (https://www9.nationalgridus.com/narragansett/home/energychoice/4_greenup_provider.asp). I only just discovered this, but will immediately be signing up for it. For a normal household’s energy use, $14 more per month means that 100% of your electricity comes from renewable resources!

In addition, a radically-active household can supplant the fossil fuels burned in their name by having renewable energy systems installed – whether that be solar panels on their roof to provide electricity, an electric car in their driveway, or passive solar heating to heat their water and home. This is a greater commitment of time and effort than paying the above, but it can actually cost less – renewable energy installers often have pricing structures available that allow you to pay off the loan for the system with no more than your electricity or heating bill would have been; this, on top of the subsidies available from the state and federal government for these types of systems.

Action on the community level. They say that change starts at home, and it’s certainly true in this case. If every person in the Western world woke up tomorrow and decided to implement the changes above, climate change would be solved. But we know that isn’t going to happen. The costs associated with these actions, the accessibility of renewable food and energy resources, the time to implement these changes, and knowledge about what to do are all reasonable roadblocks that make radical individual action difficult on a wide scale. There is also the nagging problem of science denial, which plagues a fraction of people in basically no other country but our own.

It is incredibly important to do as much of the above as possible, because the ultimate goal is for it to be the norm if we wish to solve climate change. With that said, solving the problem in an acceptable timeframe means using the government for what it’s for: protecting the common welfare, the valuable things (like environmental health!) that aren’t naturally protected by markets or individual action.

I promise, I will write more about this in the future as specific possibilities arise (I’m really running for that state-level carbon tax I wrote about last time!). But for right now, there are a few things you can do at the community level to foster change.

Call your representatives! Let them know you support comprehensive climate change legislation (cap and trade and a carbon tax), divesting from fossil fuels, and investing in renewable energy projects and sustainable agriculture. And when these types of projects are discussed at planning and zoning and city council meetings, be there to offer support.

Attend the March for Science (https://www.marchforscience.com/) on Earth Day, April 22nd. One of the central goals of this nationwide march is for action on climate change. By a happy accident, I had already planned a trip to Washington, DC for that weekend, so I will be attending the main movement. But I expect them to hold marches in Providence and Boston, so stay tuned for your opportunity to participate.

The last bit of advice I have seems minor, but I think it could stand to be the most powerful. We have to educate people. Our children. Our families. Our friends. We have to tell people that climate change is happening, that it’s because of fossil fuels, and that there are ways we can solve it together. Dispel the myths spread by politicians who don’t understand the science and industries who have a financial gain in denial. The time to act is now.

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 65 – The Time to Act is Now!

12 02 2017

(February 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Time to Act is Now!

Back in December, I wrote a short column describing the basic scientific reasoning behind the fact of global climate change. The gist was this: human activity has thus far released unprecedented amounts of fossil greenhouse gases; this has raised the atmospheric concentration of those gases; they, in turn, are increasing the average global temperature; and within the next century, this warming will result in an ecologically dangerous situation, and a general threat to our comfortable existence on this planet. 1) Climate change IS happening, 2) it’s OUR fault, and 3) the outcome will NOT be fun. But there is a fourth piece to this, and that’s what today’s column is about.

4) We. Need. To. Act. On. Climate. Change. We need to act right now, on every level of action that exists – individual, familial, community, municipality, state, federal, international. Some elements of this action are achievable as individuals, and some by forming relationships with our representatives. But others are much grander, and will take a lot more work by the people smart enough to recognize the problem, passionate enough to want to help, and with adequate means to do so. Those aspects still need to be stated loud and clear, and this column is as good a place as any (or better). So don’t fret when “enact an international climate treaty” isn’t a reasonable thing to put on your monthly to-do list. As a community, a country, a world, and individuals, we will get it done. And here’s precisely how we do it.

We need to stop investing in climate change. Loads of taxpayer and shareholder capital are being irresponsibly dumped in order to prop up a dying energy system; a system based in the exploitation of finite, dwindling fossil fuel resources and the resulting destruction of the local and global environments. Oil and gas pipelines are being built as I write this, by private companies with embarrassing endorsement by our federal government. This infrastructure not only damages local environments, trespasses on protected lands, and poisons people, but encourages the use of the resources that cause climate change and therefore threatens our future.

Not only are private companies literally investing in fossil fuel infrastructure with the government’s blessing, though. The government itself is investing your hard-earned money into causing climate change. Fossil fuels are literally subsidized, of course. But environmentally-destructive projects are approved and endorsed by the government. And the might of the American military is also used – read: soldiers’ lives are sacrificed unnecessarily – to secure steady streams of fossil fuel resources from countries that don’t like us. This direct and indirect subsidization makes fossil fuels appear to be cheaper than they actually are, and keep us as far as possible from feeling financial pressure to adapt to alternative sources of energy.

We need to stop denying science, and start sharing it. This is the 21st century, and the science is beyond settled. Climate change is happening, it’s our fault, and we need to stop it. This is no longer up for debate, especially when the only debate comes from deniers whose logical reasoning is that they own the oil fields or pipelines. As smart, passionate urban farmers, it is our job to make these facts abundantly clear, and expose unscientific climate change denial for what it is: cleverly disguised corporate interest.

Now, I would be lying if I said that the federal government is generally a good source for scientific information. But their climate page (https://tinyurl.com/WHclimatechange) is a good starting point. Also, the scientists at the EPA, the National Park Service, and NASA regularly share information about the latest climate science via their Twitter and Facebook accounts. Their twitter accounts can be found at https://tinyurl.com/jl3y4lz, https://tinyurl.com/zhnopeu, and https://tinyurl.com/jeg2nqj, respectively. It is incredibly important, both on the subject of climate change and elsewhere, that information is allowed to flow, unrestricted, between the scientific community and the public. In all countries but fascist regimes like North Korea, the internet is uncensored and allows this to happen.

We need to regulate carbon emissions. This one probably won’t make me any friends, but the future of our planet requires that some form of regulation be placed on carbon emissions. The basic idea is this: the greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels (and also clear cutting forests, tilling the land for grain and legume monocropping, and raising animals in feedlots) cause short- and long-term environmental damage. But because there is little regulation on this, that damage is charged to the people, the environment, and the future without needing to be accounted for by the company causing the damage (in economics, this is called a “negative externality”). By implementing a regulation structure, the government (as a representative of the people, the environment, and the future) can “internalize” this negative externality, forcing fossil fuel companies to factor the damage they cause to our climate into their business model.

There have been some ingenious ideas proposed for these much-needed regulations. The first is called Cap and Trade. This is a regulatory structure on the federal level, which basically makes the “right to pollute” into a commodity, whose amount decreases over time. The federal government starts out by limiting the total amount of carbon dioxide pollution that can be released (the “cap”) by the fossil fuel and other related industries, and creates pollution credits, which are essentially commodities that allow the holder to release x-amount of fossil carbon dioxide for one year. These credits are doled out to the applicable companies, and the companies are allowed to buy and sell credits (the “trade”) over the course of the year. This enables companies that make efforts to reduce their carbon pollution – by supplanting fossil fuel power plants with renewable ones, by planting forests, by adopting more efficient technologies or developing better processes – to benefit from this by selling their rights to pollute that they no longer need. Each year, the government ratchets down the total amount of credits (so each company has, say, 98% of the previous year’s credits), and the process continues. This cap and trade system forces the dirtiest, most polluting companies to shut their doors, and indirectly provides a huge incentive for the development and implementation of renewable energies and non-carbon-intensive processes.

Another, much simpler-to-understand solution is a carbon tax. This can be done on a state or even municipal level, and is therefore much more likely to come to fruition in the near future than any action on the federal level. Essentially, any fuel that releases fossil carbon dioxide is subject to a tax on its value, levied on the company that sells it (the gas station, power plant, or electricity distributor). In most versions, the collected tax money is used to fund renewable energy and given directly back to the taxpayers. This is the case with the carbon tax proposed by RI Representative Aaron Regunberg. Studies indicate that his bill’s tax structure would REDUCE energy expenses for the average RI taxpayer (https://tinyurl.com/RIcarbontax), all while disincentivizing further use of fossil fuels and therefore promoting the use of alternative energies.

We need to fund climate science and subsidize renewable, clean energy sources. This, of course, is the direct result of a carbon tax structure, like the one discussed above. But as a nation, we need to continue to fund research into climate change and renewable energies – allowing scientific organizations like NASA, the EPA, NREL, etc to do their jobs. Because…

Eventually – sooner than we realize – we need to stop using fossil fuels. Every action item in this column points in that direction. Sometime, probably within the next century – but hopefully sooner – and by some economic or environmental pressure – but hopefully before we have no other option – we will no longer use fossil fuels for energy. That is a good thing, a necessary thing. It is the last page in the history book of our exploitive energy economy; the happily-ever-after written long before you or I were born, the moment that a human being burned their first lump of coal. This period in human history can’t last forever; it never could.

It’s going to take action on your part, and on my part, and on our leaders’ parts. It won’t consume our lives, but it’s something we’re going to have to care about. It’s something I hope we already do care about. Next column, we will talk about how to do that.

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 64 – It Happens in Iceland

29 01 2017

(January 29, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

It Happens In Iceland

Last time, I started to tell you about my trip to the geological masterpiece that is the country of Iceland. I described the geysers and glaciers, volcanoes and black sand beaches, and the waterfalls. The country’s natural beauty is reason enough to talk and write about it, but what I found there inspired me on a much deeper level.

As I started to discuss, the country prides itself on local, sustainable agricultural production. They raise 90% of their own animal products – grass-fed, of course – and 80% of the vegetables that they eat the most, in geothermally-heated greenhouses. All this in part because of a government that has implemented policies that encourage sustainable production, and discourage imports of inferior-quality foods (read: American feedlot meat). As a point of example, the McDonald’s restaurants in the country were forced to close in 2009, because the company’s policy of sourcing its low-quality meat from American, grain-based feedlots instead of Iceland’s local product was against Icelandic law. Iceland kicked out the offender and replaced it with a local chain called “Metro”, effectively rejecting the overtly unsustainable American system and proudly substituting their own.

Because of the weather there, grain is very difficult and resource-intensive to grow, which is part of the reason that they graze their cows and sheep on pasture. They also eat a diet very similar to the one that I follow and have advocated for – plenty of grass-fed red meat and dairy, seafood, vegetables, and some eggs, with very little grains, legumes, sugars, and seed oils. As a result, the population has one of the highest lifespans in the world, with one of the greatest number of people over 100 years of age and an overall low incidence of chronic disease.

Their zeal for self-sufficiency goes way beyond food, as we quickly found out. The country’s freshwater comes from natural, renewable sources – glacial runoff for much of the cold water, and naturally-hot geothermal water for the hot. And they pride themselves on not only a healthful and renewable public water supply, but on being able to drink from almost any natural body of water without fear of contamination.

Their energy sector is no different. Other than gasoline for their cars, Iceland is very nearly self-sufficient in its energy production. Nearly all of their electricity comes from hydropower plants and geothermal generation, and all of their heat energy is geothermal. In fact, geothermal energy is so plentiful in the country, that they freely use it to heat the sidewalks in busy areas so ice does not build up.

Even within the bigger city of Reykjavik, the people have an intimate, affectionate understanding of their country’s food, fuel, and water production systems. It is clear that the Icelandic people take pride in their local products, which is one of their greatest motivators to work towards sustainable self-sufficiency.

Beyond that, though, is their passion for environmental protection and ecological preservation and growth. I described last time how there are not many trees in Iceland. This isn’t because there aren’t any species of trees that are capable of growing there, but with the year-round cool/cold weather, short growing season, and minimal biological exchange with any other landmasses, it’s not easy for forest ecosystems to get a foothold. The people have taken this as a challenge. Experimenting by planting trees is a hobby of many, and a form of volunteering for many others (sponsored, of course, by the government). Their passion for ecological health has actually allowed quite a few stands of evergreens to flourish throughout the country.

The reason, I think, that the Icelandic people are so passionate about environmental health is because they are painfully aware of the effects of global climate change. During our visit to the Solheimajökull glacier, our tour guide explained, in a somber tone, how it was receding…a predictable but very worrying effect of global climate change. Glaciers cover about 11% of the island, and are an important part of the ecological balance – not to mention a primary source of fresh water – in the country. Being an island nation, their ecosystem is particularly fragile, and I worry that increasing global temperatures will throw it completely out of whack. And I think they know it too, which is one of the reasons they care so much about renewable energies.

It’s fitting that, in the 2014 film “Noah”, the last scene where the family wakes up in a post-flood paradise was filmed on a black sand beach in Iceland. The country – from its geological marvels and ecological beauty, to its local and sustainable food, fuel, and water systems, to its kind, pleasant, conscientious people – is like paradise.

They are an almost arctic, island nation, that has nonetheless gotten very close to complete self-sufficiency in renewable energy, renewable agriculture, and renewable water. There are the environmental motivations, of course, and economic ones. But I think that obsession goes a little deeper. The people can see the whole production process laid out before them. They understand raw materials – seafood, pasture grass, fresh water, geothermal heat – to be the products of their environment; and they understand that the “away” where you throw garbage is also another word for “their environment”.

They have no choice but to view economic production as circular, to recognize that, no matter what we do, the environment is the only actual sink, and the only actual source, of every material and good that we use. Production is not linear; it is circular. And by finding renewable, infinitely-sustainable sources, the people of Iceland are able to manage the whole circle in a way that is good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

The thing is, we are not Iceland. We don’t have plentiful geothermal energy and uncontaminated waters; we don’t have a government remotely interested in investing in sustainable self-sufficiency, and we aren’t forced to work towards self-sufficiency at any level, because government-subsidized agriculture, trade, and warfare make it appear that resources are plentiful and inexhaustible. But they aren’t. You know that, and I know that, even if our government no longer does.

So maybe we should try to be like Iceland. We have access to plentiful sources of renewable energy – solar, wind, hydropower, and truly sustainable biofuels; we have a small but rapidly expanding sustainable agriculture sector; we have the financial resources to clean up public water supplies and improve our production systems. We may not live on an isolated island nation, but we – as humans – live on a spaceship Earth. This planet is a closed system, driven only by the light from the sun, and we have no choice but to implement production systems similar to Iceland’s if we hope for the Earth to continue to support life.

While we were on a tour of the Southern Coast of the island, our guide Julia was describing a geological process, concluding with, “It doesn’t happen very often in the world, but it happens in Iceland.” The scope of her comment was narrow, but it really punctuated the thoughts that I had had throughout the trip.

Every environmental, and agricultural, and energy-related issue that I care about – and I think you care about too – has a solution. These solutions aren’t always easy, but if we work together, they are achievable. Do you want to know how I know that for sure? While it may not happen in the rest of the world, it already happens in Iceland.

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 63 – The Land of Ice and Fire

15 01 2017

(January 15, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Land of Ice and Fire

iceland-faxi-waterfall

Faxi (Vatnsleysufoss) Waterfall, Southern Iceland

One week ago, I got back from what, I am now convinced, is the most geologically interesting place in the world. If you’d asked me six months ago where I want to travel in my life, I doubt Iceland would have made the list. But sometime last August, my sister decided that seeing the Northern Lights from the small, almost arctic European country was on her bucket list. She asked if I wanted to go sometime in the coming winter, and I promptly objected. I had big plans – albeit, pretty vague ones – for my vacation time, and it didn’t involve going to a country I knew next to nothing about.

But we are related, and we are Greek, so needless to say she didn’t let up. She sent me picture after picture of the Northern Lights, of course, but also of the extensive list of geological marvels that fill the terrain of the small island nation. And I started doing some research of my own, recalling tidbits I had heart about the culture’s sustainable-meat-based cuisine, their environmental awareness, and their reliance on renewable energies. And so, maybe three weeks later, and much to my surprise, our tickets were booked for the first week of the New Year. But it took until a few days before our trip, while we attempting to plan our itinerary, for me to get really pumped about the journey. And Iceland did not disappoint.

Let me tap the brakes for a second. This isn’t a travel column, and though I’d like nothing more, I’m not writing a Guide to Traveling to Iceland.

Rather, I’m writing this because I went to Iceland looking for natural beauty; and I found not only that, but a people, culture, and government so passionate about every issue and practice that we discuss in this column – sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency, renewable energy, environmental protection, ecological preservation – that if we all approached life the same way they do, our environmental and agricultural (and probably political) problems would be solved.

First and foremost, the natural, geological beauty of the country is utterly astounding. You can’t drive for five minutes on a road without coming upon something – some river, or rock formation, or farm, or waterfall – that makes you want to stop. Because neither of us had ever been there, we took a couple of guided bus tours. With them, we saw the immense, thundering waterfalls, Gullfoss, Skógafoss, Faxi (Vatnsleysufoss) and Seljalandsfoss, the latter of which grants the wish of any traveler brave enough to venture behind it. We visited the hissing, boiling geothermal area, site of the Strokkur Geyser and the neighboring (currently inactive) Geysir from which the English word originates. We walked on the picturesque, black-sand beaches of Vík and Reynisfjara, with the unforgiving waves of the North Atlantic (almost Arctic) sea on one side, and the looming, volcanic caves of crystallized lava columns on the other.

We walked along the edge of the Keriđ Crater Lake, and stood in the shadow of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, whose eruption shut down most of Europe’s air traffic in 2010. We made the trek to the immense Solheimajökull Glacier, 600 meters (over 1/3 of a mile) at its tallest, and amid a valley of volcanic ash.  And, much to our unbelievable luck, we saw what was described as the best showing of the Northern Lights the guides had seen that season, in skies that not five minutes before, had been the overcast remnants of the day’s snowstorm. These sights are just the beginning, the major landmarks within one day’s driving distance from Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik. The country is a naturalist’s dream, but not only for the geology.

Other than a redwood forest in the East, there are few trees in Iceland. The major flora is wild grasses and low-lying shrubbery. And because of its relatively harsh climate, the natural fauna of the country is limited to a few wild species – reindeer, minxes, mice, rabbits, and arctic foxes – along with the country’s farm animals. Most of these species have been introduced relatively recently, either by natural accident (crossing over a land-bridge) or with travelers.

One of the aspects of the country’s culture that really struck me was their passion for resource self-sufficiency. The government has actually – dare I say it – implemented policies to promote self-sufficiency in food, water, and energy. They levy a tariff on foreign imports of low-quality (think: American feedlot) meat and dairy, so the country raises something like 90% of the animals it consumes. And of course, with fishing as their main industry behind tourism, they keep themselves in seafood as well.

They are also incredibly proud of their produce. Geothermal greenhouses allow them to grow around 80% of their tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, the vegetables consumed most in the country. The farmers seem to make a sport of their craft, having taken on the challenge of growing more exotic plants like wasabi and bananas – yes, bananas – in their greenhouses.

Having finally hashed out this column on paper, I realize how much I need to say about this amazing country, this dream of urban farmers and environmentalists everywhere. I’ll end today’s column here, and we will pick up next time with more on their agriculture, energy, and environmental relations. Until then, as they say in Iceland, “Bless!”

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 62 – “What’s Here That’s Worth Saving?”

15 01 2017

(January 1, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“What’s Here That’s Worth Saving?”

Earlier in the fall, I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by my biggest icon, Wendell Berry, along with his daughter Mary Berry and his friend and colleague Wes Jackson. It was put on by the Schumacher Center for New Economics together with the Berry Center and the Land Institute, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. The conversation was originally supposed to focus on their concept of a sustainable, 50-year Farm Bill, but quickly broadened to the long list of topics about which the three panelists – and the entire audience – are passionate. I want to give you some highlights from the talk.

As you probably know from reading this column, Wendell Berry is a writer and poet, environmental activist, philosopher, and farmer in Kentucky. He has written dozens of books of essays, advocating for true, long-term sustainability and agrarianism, and critiquing various aspects of human society as it relates to the environment, the poor, the Divine, and our future, and even more books of poetry and fiction about the agrarian lifestyle.

Wes Jackson is a geneticist and botanist, and a writer, and is a close friend of Berry’s. He is the founder and head of the Land Institute in Kansas, an organization dedicated to the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices, in part through the development of perennials. Like Berry, he is an avid environmental activist, and writes about the principle of ecological context, and the future of sustainable agriculture.

Mary Berry is Wendell’s daughter, and the Founder and Executive Director of the Berry Center in Kentucky. In their own words, the organization is “established for the purpose of bringing focus, knowledge and cohesiveness to the work of changing our ruinous industrial agriculture system into a system and culture that uses nature as the standard, accepts no permanent damage to the ecosphere, and takes into consideration human health in local communities.” She was the moderator of the discussion.

Before the talk even began, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana Rodgers. In her own words, she is a “real-food nutritionist” and dietician, a writer, and a sustainability advocate, and a leader in the Paleo movement; she also hosts the Sustainable Dish Podcast. Her work has been a pretty big part of my own health and sustainability journey, so it was awesome to be able to talk with her before and after the event about the themes in Berry’s and Jackson’s work, and how they relate to on-the-ground sustainable agricultural practices and the guiding principles of the Paleo Diet. I would definitely recommend checking out her website, http://sustainabledish.com/.

The talk lasted for a little over an hour, and was followed by an hour of Q&A. The topics of discussion ranged pretty widely, but focused on the intersection between human health, equitable and inclusive economics, environmental sustainability, and agriculture. You can watch the entire talk on the Schumacher Center’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxnEDVyCjyY&feature=youtu.be), but I’ll highlight and explore some of the points that really stood out to me here.

Wendell Berry prefaced the discussion with a question, to be asked when considering any place: “What’s here that’s worth saving?” This may not seem like much, but it speaks to an element of both Berry’s and Jackson’s philosophies. The idea goes that an intimate understanding of the ecological and sociological characteristics of a place is the basis upon which decisions should be made in regards to the place – about what plants, animals, fuels, and fiber to farm, how to best help the people, and how the place should fit into its wider context.

A little later, Berry gave a figurative warning about the irreversibility of pollution and environmental damage, that “in nature, there’s no court of appeals. So what’s gone down the river is gone.” When, for the sake of unlimited economic growth, we release toxic pollutants into the environment, churn out excessive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, create poverty and sociological damage, and literally expose the topsoil and allow it to runoff into waterways, we are harming the Earth and the people in ways that cannot be directly undone. Effective environmental cleanup aside, the best solution we have in most cases, is to stop doing the bad thing! Stop using fossil fuels, stop dumping pollutants into rivers, stop farming unsustainably. Nature will fix it in her time, but the repairing process may not be that comfortable for the species that caused the damage in the first place.

At one point, Wes Jackson led the discussion to one of my most sought-after topics. Phrased perfectly, he said that, “starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture, we became a species out of context.” This powerful idea can be used as a motivator for studying, in Sir Albert Howard words, “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man as one great subject”. The start of agriculture, and with it human civilization, was the indirect source of most of the problems we face today. It was the cause of a great many good things, too – science, art, medicine, philosophy – so we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But Jackson’s implication is that that new way of interacting with our world, brought on by our shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture, allowed us to develop biologically, economically, and sociologically independent from the checks and balances provided by nature.

War, poverty, ignorance and hatred, nationalism, environmental degradation, our declining health as a species; these are all the result of our conventional agricultural outlook, and the economics that have arisen from it. Our transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic humans 10,000 years ago put us out of a Natural context, turning us from wild beings to industrial objects.

Our world is in trouble. Our species is in trouble. That much is obvious. But this talk gave me some hope that solutions might be found. Concern for the environment, for poverty, and for agricultural sustainability have grown in recent years, thanks in no small part to the work being done by Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.

As we transition into the year 2017, we have to work harder than ever to solve the problems that we have caused. I have faith that solutions will be found, though; and I think the first place to check is the pages of their books.

I wish you all a happy, healthy, sustainable Near Year!

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 56 – The Right and Wrong Way to Do Biofuels

13 11 2016

(September 25, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

The Right and Wrong Way to Do Biofuels

In today’s installment of Renewable Energy 101, we’ll talk about some of my personal favorite energy technologies (I may have said that about every technology we’ve discussed). These are energy sources that come right from the Earth, and are some of the coolest, most democratic sources, accessible to anyone who cares to implement them. Enter: biofuels.

As promoted by the US Federal government, biofuels are not a good idea. They have sunk large amounts of research time and tax dollars into corn-ethanol biofuels, wherein heavily-subsidized commodity corn is turned into a sugar-rich syrup, and from there into ethanol, which can be burned. That’s great and all, but the majority of commodity corn is grown using a lot of fossil fuels, between the pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, storage, and transportation. Estimates have it that one Calorie – a unit of energy, both in food and other situations – of “corn energy” requires around TEN CALORIES of fossil fuel energy to produce. When you look at the full lifecycle carbon emissions of that gallon of ethanol mixed into your gasoline, the picture you get is much bleaker. From seed-to-sparkplug, that gallon of ethanol created something like 10 times as much carbon dioxide as would have been created by just burning the gas. That’s hardly a win for the environment. No matter how good it makes us feel that we aren’t burning gas directly.

(This mockery of the name of environmental sustainability is only possible because of how much money the federal government invests in order to keep commodity crops cheap. By subsidizing commodity field corn heavily enough over the past few decades, the market has been flooded, and its wholesale price is next to nothing. This gives our population the illusion that we, in the United States, are incapable of suffering food shortages; but it has made farmers dependent on the federal subsidies to make a living and filled our diets with a rather unhealthy crop. That also answers the question: Why are grains at the base of the food pyramid? What’s more, this unholy subsidization hides the true costs, both in dollars and environmental destruction, of the products of commodity corn. Hence, biofuels are made to seem like a sustainable, financially-viable idea!)

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk real biofuels. First off, what exactly are they? As you know, plants and photosynthetic microorganisms capture the energy from the sunlight, and turn it into energy-rich chemicals like fats, carbohydrates, proteins, and fibers, which are sometimes eaten by other organisms, like animals. A “biofuel” is the general term for one of many different setups which allow us to turn this not-directly-useful chemical energy, stored in plants, bacteria, algae, and even things like animal waste – into useful forms, like heat, electricity, and substances that can be easily burned.

As you can probably guess, the biofuels that are actually in line with the goals of environmental sustainability do not come from corn, for the most part. Rather, they come from either 1) an organic waste stream – manure, yard waste, or agricultural byproducts; or 2) something grown for this particular purpose, whose lifecycle emissions are very low.

The most basic example of biofuel is probably the oldest human utilization of stored energy, other than by eating things: burning wood! Trees store a lot of energy in their long fiber molecules. Using this type of “biofuel” is as simple as burning logs in your fire pit or fireplace, extracting renewable solar energy from the contained fibers and using it to heat your house or, if you’re the next-level homesteader that I aspire to be, even to cook your food.

There are certain problems associated with wood-burning, but they aren’t inherent to it. First off, yes, it is absolutely a renewable resource if done correctly. A tree takes in x pounds of carbon dioxide during its lifetime, and burning it releases no more than x pounds of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This is over a very short overall lifecycle (unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide that’s been sequestered for millions of years), meaning that it has no net effect on global warming. But the full assessment of its sustainability comes down to how it’s farmed.

It is imperative that, as ecologically-conscious human beings, we maintain and grow our Earth’s environmentally- and economically-valuable forestland. It is customary in Western nations to clear-cut forests, logging all of the trees and destroying the entire forest ecosystem, and giving the land 20 or 30 years to grow back before cutting again. That’s ridiculous. Instead, we can log forests at a rate defined by what’s called the “Maximum Sustainable Yield” – take a fraction of the trees every few months or every year, focusing on the dead, dying, and diseased. In any forest area, there is a specific rate of extraction – a number of trees harvested per month or per year – that maximizes the speed at which the forest produces usable wood. By harvesting at this rate, and taking the trees that, while perfectly usable for firewood (or lumber), contribute very little to the ecosystem, we make the forests better instead of worse. That is a sustainable harvest of a renewable source of energy.

The next type of biofuel that I want to talk about is biodiesel. Without getting into too much detail, there is a specific chemical process which turns oils – typically, used frying oils from restaurants or those extracted from algae – into hydrocarbon fuels that very closely resemble petroleum. This biodiesel can then be burned in much the same way as gas.

This is an example of a renewable biofuel energy that taps into a waste stream. By using frying oil, which is no longer valuable as food, and would otherwise just be dumped in a landfill, the biodiesel process reclaims a dense source of stored energy. But even this isn’t truly sustainable, because restaurants rely on oils extracted from soybeans, canola seeds, or corn, which all have huge carbon footprints. With that said, it is still a disruption to the waste stream and, depending on how you look at it, does create energy without using any additional resources. As long as restaurants continue frying food in gallons of oil, this type of biodiesel has its place in the renewable energy arena.

One special type of biodiesel is that made with algae oil. You see, there are certain types of algae – both wild species and the products of human breeding – which contain large amounts of long-chain fats. Like frying oil, these fats can be converted to biodiesel and used as a combustible energy resource. But algae can be grown nearly anywhere there is sunlight, is more efficient than plants at capturing solar energy, and is very easy to grow using 100% sustainable methods. It is even relatively simple to set up a system of clear tanks (i.e. plastic water bottles), and raise biodiesel-quality algae along a sunny exterior wall of your house!

Algae biofuels are an infant concept, but they’re picking up speed. And while some species can be used for biodiesel production because of their high fat content, there is promising research being done on algae with vastly different chemical composition, used instead for direct combustion or in other chemical reaction processes that yield usable energy.

Finally, we’ve gotten to anaerobic, or “methane” digestion. From a very high level, an anaerobic digester is a single tank, or set of 2 or 3 tanks in series, which convert a slurry of organic materials – animal manure, yard waste, agricultural byproducts – into carbon-neutral natural gas. That’s a pretty awesome idea!

This is done by taking advantage of a long list of chemical reactions, that already occur in nature but are catalyzed by a variety of bacteria. These bacteria can turn fiber, fat, carbohydrate, and protein molecules into methane, a purified form of natural gas which, like I described about wood above, adds no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The process is called anaerobic digestion because the tanks are maintained as low-oxygen (“anaerobic”) environments, and the methane they produce can be burned just as natural gas is, to heat homes or drive electricity-producing turbines.

I believe this to be one of the most useful renewable energy technologies within its own niche, because it doesn’t require a lot of special equipment (there are countless stories of conservation-minded individuals building methane digesters in their backyards), and can take such a wide variety of inputs that it is hugely effective at interrupting the organic waste stream. And guess what? As I write this, two digesters are being built in Rhode Island!

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 53 – Power From the Sun

12 11 2016

(August 14, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Power From the Sun

Solar energy is hands down my favorite renewable energy. I find a simple beauty – not to mention the efficiency – in capturing the sun’s energy directly from the source. What’s more, solar energy systems need few moving parts, they are scalable from a single panel or residential rooftop to a large-scale solar farm, and have a really cool look to them that increases the value and curb appeal of a home.

Today, we’ll talk about the technologies that have been developed to directly capture solar energy – solar photovoltaic and solar thermal. I’ll give you a briefer on the science, and then discuss the current state of implementation and ways that we, as urban farmers, can get involved. Let’s begin!

What we call “light” – or more generally, electromagnetic radiation – is really a stream of little, condensed packets of wave energy called “photons”, which exist as particles in only the loosest definition of the word, but still contain lots of energy. The amount that a particular photon contains is inversely proportional to its wavelength, meaning that ultraviolet radiation contains more energy than visible light, which itself contains more than infrared radiation.

The sun outputs a very specific spectrum of light, which is a combination of visible (the rainbow) and non-visible (infrared, x-rays, ultraviolet, etc). That energy spreads away from the sun in all directions, and a small fraction of it gets directed at half of the outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere (depending on the time of day). Some of this is filtered and dispersed by the atmosphere, and when all is said and done, roughly 1000 watts hit a one square meter area of ground in direct sunlight. Remember, a “watt” is a measure of the speed of energy transfer or usage, and your phone uses probably 3 or 4 watts while it is on. That 1000 watts/square meter is quite a lot!

The question we’ve been asking ourselves for thousands of years is: how do we make use of that energy? Agriculture was our species’ first big answer to that question, when we figured out how to deliberately capture the sun’s energy in a chemical form (“Calories”) that we could use to fuel our bodies, feed our animals, and heat our homes.

We’ve developed a variety of different technologies since that time, which have culminated with the two centrally important methods for capturing solar energy that I mentioned above: solar photovoltaic and solar thermal.

What’s known collectively as “solar thermal” is really a group of different technologies and building methods, unified by the underlying goal of capturing sunlight as usable heat energy. This idea is as old as human society, and is really easy to see in day-to-day life: leave a bottle of water out in the sun for a few minutes and observe the change in its temperature (don’t drink it after); or take note of which rooms in your house are the warmest when all heaters and air conditioners are shut off (hint: it’s the rooms with exterior walls with direct exposure to the sun).

There are a couple of basic types of solar thermal technology that are used all around the world. Solar architecture takes advantage of that “south-facing-room” effect, designing buildings that more effectively absorb the sun’s warmth in the winter, and do not absorb it in the summer. The knowledge that underlies this is as old as construction, but has recently made a comeback in the developed world.

Concentrated solar thermal is an up-and-coming technology, which utilizes mirrors and lenses in a variety of geometries. These concentrate sunlight into super-heated steam, which is most often used to drive a turbine and produce electricity. These require large areas and lots of direct sunlight, which makes them good candidates for desert development.

And of course, there is solar hot water. This is one I’ve mentioned before, when I visited Greece back in summer of 2014 and made note of the fact that nearly every house has a system of this type on its roof. This technology captures the sun’s energy by running water through a specially-designed (though easily made-at-home), dark-colored collector panel. The water heats up, and is stored for use throughout the day, either in a boiler or a separate tank that is often part of the standalone unit. These systems are hugely effective at producing large amounts of very hot water, which in turn is an effective way to store heat. There is a similar type of system that uses air instead, and which sometimes takes advantage of the way that air expands when it heats up.

Solar photovoltaic is a much more complex – but also more versatile – technology, which turns sunlight into electricity. Solar cells are thin sheets, usually made of silicon with small amounts of other elements deliberately added in, that turn light particles from the sun (photons) into electric current. When solar cells are connected together correctly, and then through output wires to some other electric circuitry, they form what are commonly known as solar panels.

Solar photovoltaic panels are the sleek, dark blue fixtures that I’ve been delighted to see popping up on houses in our area. The commercially-available ones are around 20% efficient – a similar fuel efficiency to the gasoline engine in your car – which means that, with an accompanying bank of batteries (so the energy can be stored) or a connection to the electric grid (so it can be sold back when it isn’t being used), the rooftop of a typical residence can supply 100% of that house’s electricity needs!

There are very few solar hot water fixtures in the United States, but I’ve started to see quite a few photovoltaic arrays on roofs in our area, and know of huge solar farms (fields of panels) that have been, or are being, built as I write this. We are  pretty far behind the energy-conscious folk of Europe, but the next few decades will be exciting as the solar industry in the United States grows by leaps and bounds. So what can we, as urban farmers, do to participate?

Passive solar architecture is probably the easiest way that we can take advantage of this amazing renewable resource. At its base, it’s as simple as knowing which curtains or blinds to open – and which to keep closed – depending on the season and outside temperature. There are retrofits that can be done to your house – adding insulation, changing your windows, sealing points where it’s open to the outside air – that increase its overall energy efficiency, partly by taking advantage of passive solar architectural design. And of course, if you’re in the process of building a new house, you’ll reap huge dividends by incorporating passive solar architecture into the design!

Solar thermal systems are another really good way for urban farmers to take advantage of free solar energy. They require a little more overhead – either having to buy the panel and water tank or building the system yourself, and then installing it – but when done right, they are capable of providing hot water even in the dead of a New England winter. There is a lot of information on the internet about building or buying these systems, and I encourage you to check it out.

And then, there are solar panels. It is my view that every new house should have solar panels installed on the roof – that’s how promising I think they are. There are quite a few companies that you can contract to install solar panels on your roof, which will allow you to pay them back simply by using the money you would otherwise have spent on your electric bill. In this way, your personal solar array is paid off in less than a decade (and is fully-functional for at least 25 years), without having any additional outlay of money. There are a variety of different financing programs, and

Climate change is one of the most serious threats that we face as a species, and solar energy is and will continue to play a pivotal role in solving it. These types of renewable energy systems really are one of the most democratized solutions to climate change. For a small investment of time and money, almost anyone can take advantage of this free, plentiful energy source, powering their lives while keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

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.