The Call, Column 90 – Flip the Switch on Renewable Energies

11 02 2018

(February 11, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Flip the Switch on Renewable Energies

            Climate change is scientific fact. It is predominantly caused by excess carbon dioxide, which has been released by industrial activity – the use of fossil fuels – over the last century and a half. And it will have far-reaching effects, which will make life on Earth, for us and many other species, very uncomfortable.

These are all true statements, so we don’t need any further qualifiers. And today, I want to talk about a very important, timely issue that stems from the above.

In the past, we’ve discussed the science of climate change, and the science of renewable energy technologies. We’ve talked about the actions required by individuals, collective societies, and the whole world, in order to fix this problem that we have caused.

So today, I think it’s worth talking about the two most basic actions that must be taken by our federal government in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

The first is to stop subsidizing environmentally-damaging fuel sources.

These primarily include coal, oil, and natural gas; also, the process required to manufacture artificial fertilizer uses natural gas, and releases carbon dioxide from it is if it were being burned. So in our economic production system as it exists, our electricity, our cars, our heat, and our food all contribute directly to harmful climate change.

The government subsidizes environmentally-damaging sources of energy: directly, of course; but also indirectly, by abusing their control of our military, in order to strong-arm oil-producing countries and guarantee a flow of cheap petroleum to our shores. This puts our brave men and women in uniform into unnecessary danger, and artificially drives down the price of oil, making it appear limitless. In many ways, this is even worse than a direct subsidy.

This all needs to stop. We need to stop artificially propping-up industries and technologies – coal, oil, natural gas, industrial agriculture – that literally and figuratively strip-mine our Earth, that would otherwise be barely economically feasible, and that are literally causing our planet’s atmosphere to become less inhabitable…all for the sake of what, money?

Try to think about this from the perspective of another end good – let’s say paper. Imagine if the government, in order to prevent America’s paper from being made out of sustainably-logged wood from within our borders, occupied (say) Greece in order to drive down the price of (say) papyrus, though it would make lower-quality paper. This would be an obvious misstep, right?

The second step is to encourage and subsidize renewable energies and sustainable technologies.

Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energies should absolutely be subsidized by the government. Some state governments, like Rhode Island’s, tend to be pretty good at this. But as a whole, the federal government has really lost the momentum that it was building up until recently.

We need to subsidize research in the up-and-coming aspects of renewable energy, like battery technologies and carbon-neutral biofuels. We need to subsidize companies that would like to build solar farms, wind farms, anaerobic digesters, electric cars, low-footprint hydropower generators, and everything in between (including alternatives to industrial agriculture, which is a whole other monster). We need to subsidize residential and corporate energy-efficiency programs, distributed generation systems, electric vehicle charging stations, and the updates to our electric grid that are necessary for a green energy future.

These things don’t actually cost very much. But it is absolutely imperative that we invest in them, to further the scientific research and technological implementation that are necessary at this point. It is much more important that, battery banks and solar panels and wind turbines, for example, be installed on as many well-oriented properties as possible in our country, than it is that they are made in the United States. That is why, though it should be our goal to be able to manufacture renewable energy systems cost-effectively here at home, it doesn’t make any sense at all to levy import tariffs on companies that manufacture them outside the U.S…because all that does is make it harder to actually generate clean energy here!

To take that analogy from earlier a little further: now let’s say that the government levies tariffs on imports of foreign-grown, sustainably-logged wood, under the guise of protecting American loggers. Well, when combined with the other interventionist policies that drive down the price of papyrus, this really leaves the wood-to-paper economy dead in the water. That’s absurd!

The basic reason that these two primary actions – stop subsidizing dirty fuels, start subsidizing clean ones – are so important, is because the free market cannot select for this type of progress otherwise.

On the supply side, government subsidization of fossil fuels makes them appear cheaper, more plentiful, and easier-to-obtain than they actually are, which artificially signals the market to take advantage of them.

On the demand side, consumers’ perception of fossil fuels is completely out-of-whack. Because gas prices are relatively stable, electricity is dirt-cheap, and because we seem to have an unlimited supply of energy, many people see no reason to opt for cleaner sources of energy even when given the opportunity.

The free market fails to provide for the true collective good when it comes to sustainable energy. Correcting for that is one of the founding purposes of our government. The greatest common welfare is achieved when we get all of our energy from renewable, environmentally-friendly, inexhaustible sources. The market will not allow this to happen in general, but especially not while it is bamboozled by government subsidies in the lower-collective-good option. Therefore, we have to change our tune…and sooner, rather than later.

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 89 – It’s 2pm: Do You Know Where the Sun Is?

28 01 2018

(January 28, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

It’s 2pm: Do You Know Where the Sun Is?

Two columns ago, we talked about the “passive solar clock”, the fact that many of the things happening on Earth’s surface are driven by the amount of sunlight received. This creates a sort of weather clock, which varies periodically over the course of one day and one year.

Last column, we moved on to the idea of the “active solar clock”, the ability of certain things on Earth – namely animals, plants, fungi, and some microorganisms – to keep track of the Sun’s position over the day and the year, and adjust their behavior accordingly. This is called the circadian rhythm. It is a feature of so many organisms, from fungi to chickens to human beings; and drive behavior like (more obviously) sleep and wake cycles, hormone levels, and reproductive capacity, but also (less obviously) mood and metabolic health.

Today, let’s expand on this last concept. I want you to fully understand how important the circadian rhythm is – including your own – and the possible side-effects of circadian dysregulation, when an organism’s brain (or whatever regulates its circadian clock) can no longer accurately discern the time of day and year.

So last time, we discussed some examples of how organisms are able to use their circadian rhythms to regulate biological things. I want to make one side note here: in general, though my language kind of indicates otherwise, it isn’t organisms making the conscious choice to use their brain’s record of solar time of day and year to do things. Rather, it is their brain (or whatever) automatically regulating lots of biological mechanisms and processes according to its record of solar time.

There are some very obvious examples of this in the natural world. Plants use a series of biochemical reactions to maintain a circadian rhythm, which they use to “know” when to flower, set seed, and go dormant for the winter. Most animals reproduce best in the spring and summer, which is why birds’ nests are filled with eggs in the spring, baby deer and turkeys emerge sometime during the warm season, and even chickens take a break in their egg-laying during the winter. Much of the life in the soil goes dormant during the winter. Almost everything – including plants – sleeps at night and is awake during the day, with the curious exception of nocturnal animals. In general, animals tend to store fat more easily in the fall, and have more difficulty shedding it in the winter. This is an adaption that helps to prevent starvation during lean months…not that that fact makes me feel any better about the numbers on the scale as of late. But all of this is driven by the circadian rhythm, and therefore by sunlight!

Looking specifically at human beings, this is regulated by the human brain. It uses a combination of neuron activity, electrical charges, and hormones to accomplish this intricate timekeeping endeavor. For example, your brain produces melatonin when it believes bedtime is approaching, and cortisol when it believes it is time to get up; these are respectively responsible for feelings of sleepiness at night and wakefulness in the morning. That’s a pretty powerful hormonal drive, huh?

So what is circadian dysregulation? I’m glad you asked! Your brain has a central clock that it tries to maintain on a roughly 24-hour cycle and another roughly 365-day cycle, based on 1) the brightness of sunlight you’re exposed to; 2) the spectrum of that sunlight (more blue light indicates morning and noon, while more red/yellow light indicates evening), and 3) possibly, the position of the sun in the sky. If you go outside, and those data points match the time of day and year that your brain thinks it is, that’s a positive feedback which reinforces your circadian clock; if they don’t match, that is negative feedback, which forces your brain to readjust. Again, how cool is that?

But there are some very widespread behaviors that can actively throw off this regulation…and nighttime exposure to blue light is probably the most significant. When you look at basically any electronic screen, or even at certain light bulbs (some fluorescents and LEDs, unfortunately), the exorbitant level of blue light in their spectrum tricks your brain into thinking that it is morning/noontime. This is the reason that, for many people, staring at their phone right before bed can jolt them awake or make them less tired, even if they were ready to fall asleep right before.

But the problem is much broader. We live in a society where it is perfectly possible – even considered normal – to not see the sun most days each week, for a few months of the year. If you work in an office, it is entirely possible that during the winter, you will go to work while the sun is rising, and leave after it sets…and spend the entire day under (bluish) fluorescent lights, staring at a (bluish) computer screen, without seeing the sun at all. The shortest day of the year was just a few weeks ago, so this problem is particularly relevant right now.

On top of this, we look at a lot of brightly-lit screens at night, we generally don’t get as much sleep as we should, and we rely on coffee to keep us awake. With all of these biologically-abnormal stimuli, it’s no wonder that circadian dysregulation is rampant in the West! But what does it look like, for a human being’s circadian rhythm to be misaligned?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is one of the most relevant manifestations of circadian dysregulation. Some peoples’ brains seem to be more reliant than others on exposure to sunlight, in order to keep their circadian rhythm aligned. During the winter, inadequate exposure to sunlight can lead to this form of acute depression, which (at least in my experience) creates feelings of bitterness, hopelessness, and resentment. The exact hormonal mechanism isn’t quite understood yet, but the link between SAD and exposure to adequate sunlight for circadian alignment is obvious.

Another common manifestation of (probably) circadian dysregulation is metabolic disease (i.e. obesity). There is far less scientific evidence linking these two, but early studies (and lots of anecdotal evidence) have shown correlation between circadian dysregulation and metabolic dysregulation, and causation between circadian dysregulation and hormonal problems…and the relationship between metabolic health and hormonal health is indisputable. This is one connection for which I’m anxiously awaiting on more concrete science.

There are things you can do to prevent the worst effects of circadian dysregulation. Avoid looking at screens and other blue-containing light sources when it’s dark outside. If this isn’t possible, invest in a pair of blue-blocking/amber-tinted glasses, which filter out most of the blue light, and as a result prevent much of the negative effect on your circadian alignment. I have a pair that cost me $10, so if you want recommendations, just shoot me an email.

Try to get adequate sleep. I know how hard this is in modern society, and my personal demon is the shear amount of interesting things I could be doing at 10 pm and midnight and 2 am, instead of sleeping…but join me in trying to sleep at least 7 hours each night (the optimal amount varies by person), because it helps to fine-tune and properly-align the melatonin and cortisol spikes that drive sleepiness and wakefulness. Also, keep in mind that coffee helps to create an artificial increase in cortisol. This is probably fine earlier in the day, but cortisol should be very, very low at night as melatonin and sleepiness start to kick in. This means coffee in the afternoon and night = no bueno.

Finally, and this is probably the most important recommendation (alongside reducing blue light at night): get some sunlight each and every day! Last winter, which the first one of my life where I was working fulltime instead of either in school or on Christmas break, I suffered a little SAD. It took me a few weeks to realize what it was. But as soon as I did, I began taking 15 minute walks most days, during my breaks or lunch at work, and the symptoms almost immediately evaporated. When I began feeling inklings of it late this past November, I took that same action and haven’t really felt it since.

Now like I mentioned earlier, the effects of circadian dysregulation on metabolic health are much more indirect and ill-defined, so it would be harder to relate the solution of that back to taking daily walks outside. But if the disappearance of my SAD symptoms is any indication of the effect of more sunlight exposure on proper circadian alignment, I have no doubt believing that this is great for long-term metabolic health as well. (Side note: I am not a psychiatrist. I am not a doctor. This is a solution which worked for me, for a specific type of acute depression that is very well-linked to sun exposure, and more likely in someone of my genetic/geological origin. If you are suffering depression symptoms of unknown cause, I urge you to seek medical help.)

Ending on a bit more of a lighter note, there is another aspect of this that I have been giving some thought to, and wanted to share. There are some…“less scientific”, shall we say…topics that may potentially be linked to the human circadian rhythm.

The first is the possibility of a greater conscious awareness of the circadian clock, beyond its background (hormonal and other biological) effects. I tend to believe that other animals – whose circadian rhythms aren’t boggled by blue lights, sub-optimal sleep, coffee and alcohol, and spending all day in climate- and light-controlled boxes – may be more consciously aware of what solar time it is, and deliberately perform actions or adjust their behavior accordingly. Do you know how, if you find yourself in a random place and the sun is not too far above the horizon, you can sort of “intuitively tell” whether it’s sunset or sunrise? Also, do you ever have those mornings where there is something very important that you need to be up for, and your brain seems to wake you up shortly before your alarm? I feel that these may be manifestations of this phenomenon – something that other animals use all the time, like when my chickens obviously know that nighttime is approaching even before dusk.

The second is astrology. I don’t actually subscribe much to it, but there have been some cases, in my experience, that the solar horoscope accurately describes behavior. If there is any underlying scientific reason at all, that the time of year that one was born may affect their behavior, I think it is probably due to circadian effects. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that there may be subtle differences in the way a mother’s body forms and nurtures an unborn baby, depending on the time of year that this is happening, because of hormones or expected availability of resources or whatever…and that this could somehow affect the baby’s long-term behaviors. Additionally, the initial circadian alignment that a newborn baby’s brain has to perform shortly after birth, and the information about the time of day and year that its life began, could conceivably affect the formation of its brain and therefore behavior as well.

This is all speculation and “thinking out loud” so-to-speak, but those are my final thoughts.

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 88 – Keep the Sun in Mind

14 01 2018

(January 14, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

Keep the Sun in Mind

Last time, we started talking about this idea of the Sun as the Earth’s “passive clock”. Each place on Earth typically gets more sunlight (read: solar energy) during the day and less at night, and more sunlight during the summer and less during the winter. This is because of the Earth’s rotation about its own axis – which forms the 24-hour, daily “clock” – and because of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun – which forms the 365-day, yearly “clock”. This predictable, periodic ebb and flow in solar energy over the course of each day and each year influences basically every aspect of the climate and Earth’s geochemical cycles, especially the hydrological cycle.

I want to make a quick aside about my terminology before we continue. I’m using the word “passive” in a similar way to how it is used in engineering. The aspects of the Earth-Sun spatial relationship that form the clock I’ve described are just that…“passive”. Nothing on the Earth is making a decision, or anything like that, to heat up the air during the summer, or increase precipitation during the winter and spring. These happen because the Earth is the passive recipient of solar energy, and its geochemical cycles are driven directly by the ebbs and flows in this energy, and all of this correlates with the periodic clock of the day and the year. The Earth responds to the changes in solar energy because it is a passive relationship – because that’s just how its atmospheric and surface chemistry works.

In stark contrast, there exists something called an “active” relationship. In engineering, a thing’s behavior is active when it is able to make decisions about how to behave, based on some sort of “knowledge” of something else. If some aspect of the Earth were somehow able to adjust its behavior in response to the daily or yearly solar clock, it would be actively-controlled. That sounds odd, right? No part of the Earth is able to actively control its behavior based on the perceived position of the Sun, right? The “active solar clock” doesn’t exist, right?

It actually does! This type of control exists in a lot of different organisms on Earth, which are able to align their internal clock to the active solar clock – the perceived, relative position of the Sun, as it changes over the course of the day and the year – and make deliberate adjustments to their behavior based on this. Plants, fungi, some bacteria, and of course, animals (including human beings) have biological mechanisms within themselves that are able to keep track of the position of the Sun over time, and use – use, not just passively respond to – that information to maintain a regular, predictable time-base, upon which to shape their characteristics and behavior accordingly. How unbelievably cool is that?!

This process is called “the Circadian Rhythm”, and getting you all to geek out about it, as much as I am right now, is what prompted these two columns in the first place. If the discussion last time focused on the cosmological, physical, and chemical aspects of the solar clock, then today’s will be the biological and…shall we say, “computational” aspects.

Bacteria, fungi, and plants maintain their circadian rhythms using complex processes, wherein hormones and other chemicals are produced and consumed in their body tissue. They need to know when nighttime is coming, or when the seasons are changing, in order to affect various aspects of their reproduction, nutrient intake and assimilation, “sleep” cycles, and all sorts of other behaviors. This is arguably more impressive than animals’ circadian rhythms, because 1) it was evolved much earlier in these more primitive organisms, and 2) is done successfully without a central nervous system…without a real brain to regulate the process, like more highly-evolved animals have at their disposal.

But for the sake of maximum wow-factor, I want to limit the rest of the column to the animal (and mostly, mammal) circadian rhythm, which is easily the most interesting. Forgive the impending excited rant, but I want to make sure you understand how awesome this really is.

Our (mammals’) brains use actively-controlled chemical reactions, well-placed sodium and potassium ions, and cellular biology to maintain an internal clock that is synchronized with our eyes’ perception of the Sun’s position in the sky! This internal clock arose via evolution like two billion years ago, and forms an incredibly intricate feedback loop between us and our environment, which can be maintained even if the information about the Sun’s position is cut off for some period of time, which all takes place in the background of our logical and emotional thought, judgment, and free will.

It was optimized over time to both drive the performance of certain behaviors – feeding, breathing, sleeping, reproduction, etc – as a function of time, and also somehow utilize these behaviors to help keep the clock in sync. Our brains are able to do this by making chemicals and eating them, and storing it all with tiny bits of electricity!

This system is so finely tuned that it could be used to calculate the actual length of a solar day and solar year (which are a little longer than 24 hours and 365 days, respectively) better than human math and inventions could, up until relatively recently in our history. If you think about it one way, the very understanding of “time” and its passage is reliant on our circadian rhythms, and this understanding underwrote the invention of a mechanical clock. Rocks and algae didn’t invent timekeeping devices, because they don’t actually know what “time” is.

We only do, and were only able to, because our brains can somehow use melatonin and cortisol, our eyes’ light receptors, nerve endings and body temperature, and metal ions and neurons to keep track of and predict where the Sun is in the sky, even when it’s cloudy or nighttime. I hope you agree with me, when I say that this might be the coolest thing about biological life that I’ve ever heard.

So here’s a basic explanation of how this works. As an embryo, your genes were used to construct your central nervous system with the implicit expectation that there was a clock that needed to be maintained, and an as-of-yet unrevealed master clock with which it needed to synchronize. Your mom’s womb probably helped with this, and created an initial synchronization even though you couldn’t yet see the Sun. But shortly after birth, your brain used the photoreceptors in your eyes to start keeping track of the Sun – its brightness, its position, and the relative amounts of different colors of light – as well as things like air temperature, to gain an intuitive, neurological understanding of the periodic motion of the Sun, and aligned that happily-awaiting internal clock that your brain was constructed with, exactly to it. And using hormones and ions and electrical signals, it has endeavored and (mostly) succeeded to maintain this clock to this very day.

You get tired at night and awake in the morning, you sleep more during the winter and less during the summer, you get hungry and thirsty and even get the urge to use the restroom at certain times, your hormone levels fluctuate…all according to this clock. Even chickens lay far fewer eggs during the winter, because their brains understand it as a sub-optimal time to be reproducing and slow that biological process down as a result.

And, in my amateur understanding, how well each of these processes are able to be performed at the expected optimal time, gives feedback to your brain that further helps to entrain your circadian clock. When your brain thinks that it is sunrise, and spikes your cortisol to wake you up, there are cues that it looks for to check whether this assumption was right…and adjusts your circadian rhythm accordingly.

It is incredibly important that your brain is able to maintain this circadian rhythm, lest it not be prepared for stressors that may challenge your wellbeing. It has been proposed that obesity and some cancers are at least partially caused, or triggered, by “circadian dysrhythmia” – the mismatch between your brain’s internal clock, and the actual time of day and year.

Circadian dysrhythmia is not a biologically-normal state, and is actually caused by the way we live in modern, Western society. Bright, blue lights at night – from phones, TVs, and other screens, as well as some light bulbs – trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime; not sleeping enough and being woken up by an alarm, drinking too much coffee and messing with our cortisol levels, spending literally all day in a climate- and light-controlled building…all of these habits create the circadian dysrhythmia with which our species has found itself plagued.

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 87 – That Big Clock in the Sky

4 01 2018

(December 31, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

That Big Clock in the Sky

Imagine that you’re sitting alone in a kitchen with a leaky faucet. The water drips, drips, drip, in a steady and predictable rhythm, and it’s basically the only sound you hear.

There is a certain type of person – myself proudly included – who would slowly start tapping their fingers together with the dripping. Do you know what I mean? In this situation, I always find myself absentmindedly tapping my fingers, or hitting my knee, or clicking my tongue, aligning my own noise to that of each drip of water; or, to the clicking of the turn signal in my car, or the backup signal of a garbage truck, or any similar sound.

Right now, you’re probably wondering what I’m getting at. I know this was a weird lead in, but let me try to peak your interest. This type of activity is a good example of what we in the technical world call “clock synchronization”. A periodic ticking – whether the drumming of your fingers, or the second-hand on a walk clock, or even the digital clock signal inside basically every computer and electronic device you’ve encountered – is made to align with the rhythmic ticking of some other, “master clock”.

A human making noise in sync with a leaky faucet is probably just some psychological compulsion or whatever. But when it’s done in the technological world, it’s with an important purpose. Electronic devices synchronize their internal clocks to some master clock, whether over the internet, or a closed-circuit interconnection, or a radio signal, or something like that, because their behavior needs to be driven by some “standard” time-base. Your MP3 player needs to play Ke$ha’s, “TiK ToK”, at the correct speed, so it actually fits in the 215 seconds that are expected. Your phone needs to know the time of day, every day, so it can switch to night/day mode, monitor for notifications, and all sorts of other behavior. And your favorite clock – whether the digital alarm clock by your bedside, which uses the regular pulses that come from the electric grid to keep time, or the analog wall clock in your kitchen, which relies on finely-tuned gears and regular human adjustment – simply needs to display and maintain the actual time of day (and oftentimes the date), because the daily rotation of the Earth on its own axis, and its yearly rotation around the Sun, are the basic time-base for human society.

And with that last example, we’ve finally arrived at the main point of today’s column: the position of the Sun relative to the Earth

And it is in this last example that we’ve finally arrived at the main point of today’s column: the Sun is Earth’s “master clock”, and its position (relative to the Earth) is the steady, predictable ticking to which basically everything on the surface of our planet aligns itself.

I can’t overstate how cool that fact is. This “solar clock” was essential in the development of basically everything on the surface of our planet.

This was primarily due to energy. In the course of one 24-hour “day” – that is, one full rotation of the Earth its own axis – a location’s “daytime” in when the Earth is rotated so it has a direct line of sight to the Sun, and “nighttime” is when it does not. This correlates to solar energy delivery, with a lot of it being dumped into that area during the day, and very little at night, which is why day is generally warmer than night.

And over the course of one 365-day “year” – one full rotation of the Earth around the Sun – a location’s “summer” is when the Earth is tilted towards the Sun for the most time each day relative to other days in the year, and its “winter” is when the Earth is tilted away from the Sun for the most time each day. This also correlates to solar energy delivery, with the most energy being dumped into that area during the summer, and the least during the winter – hence why summer is generally warmer, and winter generally colder.

This regular variation in the amount of solar energy that hits Earth, over the course of one day and one year, is responsible for so much of the behavior we see in Earth’s environment. The temperature of the air, water, and soil is, of course, driven by the ebbs and flows of solar energy. The same is true of air pressure, humidity, and even the amounts of certain other gases in the atmosphere.

The entire hydrological cycle is driven by solar energy, as we’ve discussed in past columns. Evaporation is faster with higher environmental temperatures and more direct sunlight; condensation (the water turning into clouds) requires lower temperatures; the type of precipitation (snow versus rain versus hair) that forms, and the amount that falls, also has to do with atmospheric conditions like pressure and temperature.

To varying degrees, every biogeochemical cycle is driven by the delivery of solar energy, and therefore ebbs and flows over the day and the year. These, and all of the other examples above, I will call the “passive solar clock”. These are effects in our environment (and even, in some cases, in biological organisms) that happen because of the amount of solar energy reaching Earth, and change based on the periodic changes in that energy.

I call this the “passive” clock to distinguish it from (what I think is) the much more interesting “active solar clock”: information about where the Earth is in its daily and yearly rotation, based on the Sun’s position in the sky and other indicators. Many biological organisms are able to use knowledge of this active solar clock to maintain their own time-base, synchronized with the Sun, and shape their characteristics and behavior accordingly.

If what we’ve discussed today can be described as the cosmological, physical, and chemical aspects of the Sun as Earth’s master clock, then next week’s column will be the biological and…let’s say…“computational” aspects. That is largely more interesting in my opinion, and can shed a lot of light (see what I did there?) on the way things behave in our environment. I can’t wait!

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 86 – ‘Do Not Store Up Treasures Upon the Earth’

12 12 2017

(December 10, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

‘Do Not Store Up Treasures Upon The Earth’

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some serious cleaning. I’ve purged everything from clothes to extra project materials, from electronic equipment to the always-present “knick-knacks” – objects that tend not to be particularly useful, yet that I somehow can’t bring myself to part with.

This process has forced me to face the staggering amount of stuff that I have acquired and held onto in my short 25 years, much of it just in the past few. I’ve always fancied myself a bit of an anti-consumerist; and while I still hold that view more strongly than ever before, and act on it in certain, distinct ways (I do not conspicuously consume expensive things, on principle), purging my belongings has made me aware of more than a bit of personal hypocrisy.

So, what’s the best way to flesh out these difficult, uncomfortable concepts? You know, those aspects of our society that are damaging to the environment, our health, and our happiness, but are practiced by even the preachiest of critics, like yours truly? Discuss it in a public forum for all to read, of course!

And in light of the Christmas season being upon us once again, I think it’s an appropriate time to take a good, critical look at “the consumption of large amounts of stuff” as a normal operating mode for us in the Global West. Let’s go!

As with everything else, my first impulse is to look at this issue in the context of our transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists, 10,000 years ago…and low and behold, that seems to provide us with some answers.

Prior to the start of agriculture, most human beings were basically nomads. We did not have permanent structures to live in or store our belongings; and anything we wanted to keep, we had to carry along with us as we moved around in search for food. That limited our stock of personal belongings to necessities – tools, short-term food storage, clothing, etc – and sentimental items deemed important enough to bear the burden of carrying.

But, like in so many other ways, the start of agriculture created a paradigm shift in our habits, as they related to accumulating goods. Agrarianism allowed human populations to settle down in one place, build permanent residences and other structures, and benefit from the implicit security that comes from a self-contained community. At base, this foundational shift to agriculture meant that we required vastly more tools, building materials, and food storage implements than while we were hunter-gatherers.

But it also gave a new meaning to the ideas of ownership and property. No longer was “my property” limited to whatever I could carry on my back. The start of agriculture, and civilization to boot, meant that a nice swatch of land, a house, a fenced paddock, some fields, and everything contained within were all “my property”. And with those, every tool, building, material, fiber, fuel, food, and feed required to maintain them.

And with the formation of civilization came the division of labor. This allowed craftspeople and artisans of all sorts to work off of the farm, creating goods that weren’t essential for survival, but which made life easier and more enjoyable. Modern-type economies arose from this, and people began to acquire and accumulate goods as they continue to do this day.

I believe it was this type of post-agrarian consumption pattern to which Jesus was referring in Matthew 6:19, when He said, “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.’”

By that time, two millennia ago, the imperative to consume non-food goods was already ingrained in our collective psychology. It was motivated both by the understandable desire to provide for long-term need and security, and the much less noble one of wealth accumulation and fostering economic status.

And so it went. We were agrarians 10,000 years, up until sometime in the 1800s when human beings moved, en masse, off the farm and into the cities, to work in factories and industrial jobs. We lost the values implicit in agrarianism, which at minimum, grounded us by keeping us intimately aware of the primary production systems that yielded consumable goods (food and otherwise). We entered the 1900s and then the new millennium, our culture continued to shift. And now, the innate, animalistic, psychological imperative of seeking security through the acquisition and accumulation of goods is manifested in hoarding, conspicuous consumption of overpriced cars and property, and the behaviors which lead to television shows like Storage Wars. Oh boy…my oversized book collection is starting to look a little more innocent.

My question, like always is: what effect does this phenomenon have on our health, our happiness, and our local and global environments? Great, I’m glad you (I) asked.

The last part is the easiest to answer. Consumption of goods requires production of goods and (in most cases), disposal of waste. The disposal of solid waste is bad for the local environment, presenting the challenge of building landfills without poisoning the soil, water, and air. But solid waste isn’t the only output of excessive consumption. Our use of fossil fuels releases unprecedented amounts of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerated human-caused climate change and wreaking havoc on the global environment. What’s more, as evidenced by the exploitive, industrial production systems built around agriculture, forestry, mining, fossil fuel acquisition, and processing, production is pretty bad for the environment, too.

Beyond the environmental effects, though, excessive acquisition and consumption of non-essential goods clearly takes a toll on human health and happiness…on a society-wide scale, and also an individual one.

It goes without saying that there are negative public health effects that stem from the pollution, associated with the global production system. And the goods which tend to be marketed to people – because they are the most profitable – seem to be sort of unhealthy to consume (sugary and processed foods, objects of vice, expensive goods made for the purpose of defining socioeconomic status).

But there is also an implicit stress associated with the over-acquisition and over-accumulation of goods…something that I can attest to from personal experience. Like a lot of people, I do best when the scope of my immediate environment, the set of all things that I have to keep control over, is minimized. The more things I have to remember to clean and maintain, to organize, to read, to delegate, and to “do” in general, the more stressed I become. By purging a fair number of my belongings, cleaning up my living space and organizing my projects into a system that I will hopefully maintain with little effort, I can feel this stress lifted.

I think this is true in general for people. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, and were up until recently in our biological history. The scope of our environment was small: it was our nomadic tribe, our small number of transportable belongings, and the immediate locality in which we were searching for food. So while there is a comforting and perfectly justifiable security that comes with owning more – food, tools, fuel, textiles, books, art – than we need for immediate survival, I have come to believe that there is an implicit stress, a strain on our brains’ ability to process its environment, in owning more items than we can ever properly use.

This holiday season, all I’m asking is that we keep our overall consumption habits in mind. There is nothing wrong with buying things, especially not to show our love for others or improve the quality of our lives. But by taking simple actions – like recycling, like minimizing energy consumption, like buying high-quality goods from producers that provide for laborer and environmental health, like recognizing that experiences often bring more happiness than physical goods – I think in our consumption, we can help to produce a better world.

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 78 – The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

21 08 2017

(August 13, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

The Problem of Industrial Agriculture

So, while I was writing my last column, it occurred to me that many of my readers may be new, either to my column or the subject of sustainable agriculture, and might not be fully aware of the issues that exist with industrial agriculture as it is currently practiced. Before moving deeper into our ideological quest for the ideal sustainable, self-sufficient homestead, I think it’d be great to give you all a little briefer (or just a reminder) on the woes of industrial agriculture. Queue the foreboding music and the lightening!

To start: what is industrial agriculture? This column is not about the small-scale family farm. It is not about the sustainably-managed vegetable operations. It is not about the pastured cattle or poultry or hogs. It is not about the integrated-livestock-and-plant operations, the small orchards, the pick-your-own-whatever farms, or the local apiaries. With the notable exception of one farming empire that wields quite a bit of political clout, this isn’t really about any farm in Rhode Island, or most places in New England (because we’re just that awesome).
This column is about industrial agriculture. Make that “Industrial Agriculture”, with the capital letters designating it as a namable, diagnosable, and most importantly, treatable disease of society. It is about the 5000 contiguous acres of corn, the 12,000 chickens kept in battery cages, the intensive, undocumented-labor-exploiting vegetable operations. Industrial Agriculture is what happens when food is treated as a mere commodity, and the land as a factory, from which as much of that commodity must be produced as possible, with as little expense and human intervention as possible. It is what happens when the government subsidizes productivity at the expense of quality, and the people demand that cost be minimized at the expense of their own health.

It is what happens, in short, when too few people in our country experience anything to do with agriculture (except, of course, its final product); when too few know remotely enough make responsible choices.

And what does that look like? I’m so, so glad you asked.

Carbon dioxide. Lots of it. Between farm equipment, cold storage, processing, and shipping and distribution, Industrial Agriculture uses huge amounts of fossil fuels. Natural gas is even used to manufacture artificial fertilizers; a chemical reaction called the Haber-Bosch Process turns methane into ammonia, releasing carbon dioxide as if it were burned. Not to mention, the large-scale tillage that must be done in order to satisfy our country’s addiction to high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils, forces the soil to off-gas huge amounts of carbon dioxide. All-in-all, Industrial Agriculture is responsible for a double-digit-percentage of the climate-changing carbon dioxide released by our species.

The socio-economic issues associated with Industrial Agriculture shouldn’t be diminished, either. Products, both animal- and plant-based, are considered commodities. This makes them subject to global price fluctuations, which harms not only farmers in the U.S./West, but abroad. The federal government subsidizes certain crops – wheat, corn, soy – in such a way that farmers are forced to continually increase yields, planting “hedgerow-to-hedgerow” at risk of not remaining solvent. This subsidy program and these crops form the basis of our unhealthy food industry (more on this later). And because of the number of steps between the farmer and the end-user’s corn chips, soda, or white bread, the farmer ends up getting paid only a few cents out of every dollar spent at the grocery store. Not to mention, undocumented workers are taken advantage of by industrial farms, paid grossly less than the minimum wage, given no benefits, and made to work long, laborious hours doing jobs that most Americans wouldn’t dream of wanting.

The growing practices of Industrial crops leave much to be desired, and leave even more that can’t be washed off, in the way of chemical residues. The land is forced to conform to a rigid set of industrial standards, not the least of which is monoculture – where thousands of contiguous acres are planted to the same crop – and leaving the soil bare. These issues bring about insect pest and weed problems, for which toxic pesticides and herbicides are sprayed liberally on our food. And to boot, minimally-tested, questionably-safe, and only marginally-effective genetically engineered seed is used in place of open-pollinated.

Over-tillage, lack of groundcover, and a slew of other bad land-management habits result in huge amounts of topsoil washing off into the ocean – causing an environmental nightmare in its own right. The soil loses its natural water-retention capabilities, so more is used in irrigation. And artificial fertilizers are used as a band-aid for the loss of fertility, replacing the naturally-fixed nitrogen so that plants can still grow, but never able to replenish the beneficial microbes, organic pH buffers, biological residues, and that golden humus responsible for the continued existence of life on this planet.

On Industrial animal farms, the conditions are even worse. Instead of being fed from the pastures and forests on which they evolved, animals are fed largely unnatural diets, consisting of the commodity crops above and, in many cases, the waste products of industrial food processing (a nice way to say, “garbage”). They are generally treated horribly, concentrated in very tight quarters and denied the ability to perform their natural behaviors.

These diets and lifestyles make them sick, with pretty nasty strains of E. coli, salmonella, and the like, which risk tainting the food. They are treated with antibiotics – both because of these diseases, and also because antibiotics make animals gain weight (think about that, next time you’re prescribed one for a virus) – and those antibiotics definitely taint the food, no question about it. And the manure they produce is…let’s say…not the same, high-quality compost material you’d get from a local farm. Tainted with antibiotics and harmful pathogens, and present in such high concentrations, it becomes an environmental nuisance. Instead of nourishing the ground, it poisons it.

And all of this is to say nothing of the effects of Industrial Agriculture on human health. I’ve written pretty extensively about this in the past, but the huge subsidies given to grain and soy operations means that these are the things that are grown, and these are the things fed to us in as many ways possible, including (unnaturally) through ruminant animals. A processed-food- and grain-based diet, deplete of vegetables and pasture-raised meat (the basic foods not subsidized by industrial agriculture) is the cause of chronic disease, hands down.

So…bad for the land, bad for the creatures being grown and raised, bad for the farmers, and bad for the consumers. Can you see why I feel the way I do about Industrial Agriculture?

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 73 – “A Species Out of Context”

4 06 2017

(June 4, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“A Species Out of Context”

Last fall, I ventured way out to Western Mass, to attend a talk given Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. I wrote a column about this in January, reposted on my blog in case you’re interested in reading more detail.

One of the most inspiring ideas that I took away from this conversation, was something that Wes Jackson said on the topic of agriculture. “Starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture,” he explained, “we became a species out of context.”

A species out of context. A vague form of this idea has been the basis for my understanding of the world for many years, long before attending that talk. But Wes Jackson put it into words more effectively than I ever could have, and helped me to understand it as one of the underlying reasons for many of the things we do and experience.

Most broadly, this idea perfectly characterizes our species’ overall negative interactions with our environment. Each and every harmful aspect of industrial agriculture – the artificial soil fertility, the toxins sprayed into the environment, the horrible conditions of factory animal farms, the treatment of laborers, the vast amounts of energy being wasted – is best described as a deviation from ecologically-appropriate farming methods, as food production “out of context”.

Beyond just agriculture, this characterization is true of any and every damaging interaction we have with the natural world; from we in the developed world causing dangerous climate change by using fossil fuels for energy to releasing pollutants into the air, water, and soil, and dumping massive amounts of garbage into landfills to clear cutting forests; every case of pollution and ecological destruction is just a big sign that we forgot how to live in relative harmony with our environment.

Jackson’s description of “a species out of context” is intriguing from a biological standpoint as well. This is the basic principle behind the Paleo diet, which I have followed for over two years (and suggest that you should, too). It is the idea that our evolutionary development as a species was driven by our natural context over many millions of years, and that the start of agriculture removed us from that context.

Our diets, our movements, our sleep patterns, our stress triggers, and even our communities and cultures, began to adhere to a set of rules written by our human society, rather than those implicit in the natural world. The start of agriculture changed the way we interface with the environment, each other, and our own minds, and introduced a whole plethora of health woes – some might argue, most of the chronic diseases we experience as a species.

Finally, we are “a species out of context” in the ways that we, as individuals, live our day-to-day lives and interact with our culture and society, our “human world”. We spend nearly all of our time in large, climate-controlled boxes (houses, cars, workplaces, stores), and the things that we experience and consume are pretty much all human-made. It is culturally standard to live by the words of Sheldon Cooper’s character on The Big Bang Theory (the irony of quoting a TV show is not lost on me): “If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?”

And that, my friends, brings us to my true motivation for writing this column. You see, as has been the case with countless other of my columns, I think exploring this idea together could help us deal with a little problem in our lives; one I started noticing in myself a few weeks ago.

The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture, and the subsequent start of civilization, shifted the context of a human life from a completely natural environment to an almost completely artificial one.

As hunter-gatherers, we ate from nature; we procreated in nature; we lived and experienced only natural surroundings. The sound of the birds singing, the visuals of green plant life, the scents of soil and flowers and animals, the feelings of the rain and wind and sun and snow – for better and worse, these were our bodies’ biological context. And they were our minds’ sensory context, too. Whatever we were doing at any given time, be it hunting, gathering, building fires, recreating, sleeping – it was in the context of a natural environment. From an evolutionary standpoint, the world around us, the landscape and “space” that our species should passively consume as we go about living our lives, is supposed to be a natural one. We are supposed to live in the wild.

But now, it isn’t. And we don’t. For the first time in a very lengthy human history, agriculture – civilization – has resulted in a world where, in complete defiance of what is natural to our bodies and minds, the “surroundings” that we passively consume as we live our lives is the built environment; it is completely artificial, controlled by our own species.

It’s difficult to make a scientific argument as to why exactly this is not a good thing. The closest we can come is to measure our emotional response to built versus natural environments. A team at Exeter University in the UK did just that (https://tinyurl.com/y8xb5ccf), measuring brain activity in response to urban (effectively artificial) environments versus rural (effectively natural) ones. They found that human brains responded much more calmly and meditatively to natural environments, including dull ones, and exhibited an alarming delay in response time (indicating more arduous processing) to built environments, including visually appealing ones. Our brains are much more at ease with nature as the passive backdrop to our lives. Who would have expected that?

Beyond this, though, I think anecdotal evidence may be enough to prove to ourselves that what I’m suggesting is true. I have two personal stories that might get the ball rolling.

I first had the idea for this column while sitting on the bank of the Blackstone River, in Cold Spring Park. It began while I was driving home from an evening out with friends a few weeks ago. The sunset was so beautiful, but all I had on my mind was my to-do list once I got home. And then, I just stopped the car on the side of the road and watched the sky in awe. And when I got home, instead of doing the things on that list, I walked around my neighborhood to get the best view of the sky, and ultimately ended up on the bank of the Blackstone River. I sat there for an hour, listening to a few clips of Wendell Berry reading his poetry, but mostly just taking in the sounds, smells, and sights of nature, and watching the sun’s light disappear behind the horizon.

This experience was so…deliberate. I was controlling precisely nothing about the environment, other than allowing my mind to be present, to passively consume my natural context. This improved my mood immensely in the days following, and it’s something I’ve done a few times since.

My second anecdote is a more regular occurrence. When I get to my (standing) desk at work each morning, I have a mental checklist of things to do – changing my calendar, updating my planner, checking emails, etc. I work “inward”, towards my computer, in a subconscious attempt to minimize the scope of artificial things over which my mind has to exert control. By condensing the things I need to do to a limited physical and therefore mental space, and allowing the rest of my environment to just…Be, without my intervention…my mind is calmer.

What all of this means, I think, is that in order to be most happy, we need to limit the scope of the things that we control to the smallest size practical, and surround ourselves as much as possible with nature as our life’s context. As we in the West live our lives right now, this is very much not the case. We live almost completely in artificial environments, passively consuming built things instead of natural ones. There would be measurable benefits to changing the way we do things.

This is true on an individual scale, where even the smallest actions – opening the windows of your house or car or office, to let in the breeze, and the sounds and smells of outside; eating meals outside whenever possible; spending time in nature instead of watching TV – bring notably more peace.

And it is true on a societal scale. Now, it’s not practical or desirable to take this idea to its extreme and reject all of civilization. Architecture and other elements of the built environment are important, valuable human achievements, and agriculture is necessary since there are too many of us to be true hunter-gatherers. But we can use this awareness to effectively change our context, to the advantage of our mental and physical health.

On a societal scale, we must use the built environment insofar as it is beneficial to us – for safety and shelter, for community-building recreation, for art – and make sure much of the rest of our time is spent in a natural context. We must restructure our agriculture to operate more in line with nature, taking advantage of the environment’s inherent productive potential and allowing wild things to coexist alongside our cultivated things.

And as individuals, we must allow our interaction with the environment – our sensory perception of our surroundings and the minimal level of control we exert on them – to be in line with what our Paleolithic ancestors would have experienced. Go barefoot as often as possible; eat a Paleo-style diet comprised mostly of vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, and nuts; get as much bare skin sun exposure as possible every day (without allowing yourself to burn); exercise with short bursts of cardio and longer sessions of muscle-building; let your eyes see the sun in the  morning and midday, and minimize artificial light at night (or wear a pair of blue-blocking glasses); spend as much time as you can, outside, away from technological stimuli.

We are hunter-gatherers in every respect but behavior, and our minds are hardwired to exist in the context of nature. As I said in my favorite column about a year ago: “We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.” So what are you waiting for? Get outside and be free.

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.