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.

Advertisements




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 67 – “Adventurous Agrarians: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel”

12 03 2017

(March 12, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“Adventurous Agrarians”: Why Every Human Should Grow Food and Also Travel

 

What values do you use to drive your decision-making? Do you have an overarching worldview – a religion, environmental ethic, scientific mindset, political philosophy, or even a business-based set of ideals – that influences you on a daily basis? And maybe, do you have more than just one, and have to weigh them against each other when making decisions?
Today’s column is going to be a little different than normal. Rather than exploring an environmental or agricultural topic, we’re going to delve into two of the basic worldviews that help me, personally, to make decisions; worldviews that, I believe, many of my fellow urban farmers are also guided by. These philosophies exist simultaneously in my mind and, at different times, help to guide my decisions. But they don’t always appear to be consistent with each other…and today, I want us to figure out how we might make them so.
On the one hand, I would guess that almost every urban farmer, myself happily included, is an agrarian. We love the small-scale and local production model, the pastoral idyll, and distinct but closely-related philosophies like minimalism and conscious consumption. This is a mindset of slow-living, of love and intimate knowledge of your ecological place and your home, and the faith that the local landscape is capable of providing us with everything our bodies and minds and souls need. This is the philosophy of Wendell Berry, and of anyone who defines themselves as “a homesteader”.
But on the other hand, based in my personal experience, I think a lot of us possess that “jolly wanderer” type of mindset as well. That zest-for-life, which makes us want to travel the world and see far off places and people. The desire for new, varied experiences and adventures, and a love for nature and the environment that makes us want to soak in as much of this pale blue dot as we can, while we’re still here. Millennials sort of universally share this mindset, but so does anyone who finds value even in just being outdoors.
It is my style to constantly challenge my own beliefs, mostly in my mind, in order to test their validity. I figure that any logical person probably does the same. And with that, comes the desire to have a self-consistent set of beliefs and worldviews so I can never rightfully be called a hypocrite.
At first glance, these two worldviews – the “agrarian” and the “traveler” – are diametrically opposed; they are inconsistent, and so far, it has been kind of hard for me to accept their shared residence in my mind. I feel like many of you have the same problem. Which is why I am asking today’s question: how do we reconcile these seemingly competing worldviews? Are the world-traveler and the student of Wendell Berry really at odds, or might they be two sides of the same coin?
Having not yet explored either philosophy deeply enough, this apparent inconsistency is made obvious by my sleeping pattern – or lack thereof. Depending on my mood any given day, I either go to bed and wake up nice and early, because “that’s what a farmer would do, since there are cows to be milked and morning chores to do” (I do not have cows), or I insist to my friends that we stay out late and paint the town red, because we have to live life to the fullest. You can’t get much more contradictory than that.
Again, with a very basic understanding of both philosophies, there are some noticeable incompatibilities: agrarianism is a very community-based, selfless ideal, while the adventurer is more individualistic; agrarianism is associated with certain conservative principles, and is common amongst rural people, while adventurism, often with progressivism and the big city; the adventurer seems willing to use resources in order to gain experiences, while agrarianism concerns itself more with resource conservation; the agrarian extols the virtues of making roots and long-term connections to the local place, while the adventurer sees the whole world as home.
Right now, you are probably thinking: how can one person passionately hold both of these views? After writing that list, I’ll admit I’m thinking the same thing. But I have a 500 word outline of reasons why we can, so let’s see if we can’t answer that question together.
First off, I’ll say that I don’t think these two outlooks come from the same place in our minds or souls. I have come to believe that they were engrained into our DNA – and even, if we look hard enough, some ancient elements of our species’ culture – by our own evolutionary history on Earth.
We were hunter-gatherers for 2.6 million years prior to the start of agriculture: we lived in nature; we spent much of our day in recreation and play; our tribal communities, though small, were probably stronger than they have been since; and we moved around a lot, experiencing and reveling in the great big world around us. It’s funny, how that sounds a lot like the jolly traveler mindset put into perfect practice.
And then, we started agriculture 10 or 15 thousand years ago. Though not our best decision, it brought with it a slew of new experiences. For the first time, we settled down; we tied the idea of community not only to our tribe of people, but to a geographical location, a place; we as agriculturalists traded our ancestors’ lifelong quest for new, wild sources of food, water, energy, and shelter, for the deliberate production of our own (and the smart ones put up emergency stores and extracted at sustainable rates); we developed a cultural connection to the animals, plants, and geographic character of the lands we called home. That agrarian mindset is the same that exists, to this day, in the writings of people like Wendell Berry.
I think it’d be straightforward to make the argument that our time spent as hunter-gatherers encoded the traveler ethic into our DNA, while our time as agriculturalists left us with a penchant for agrarianism. And this might be exactly why the two modern philosophies don’t seem obviously consistent – they are two distinct elements of our genetics, our psychology, and our culture. But just because they come from our adaptations to different lifestyles, doesn’t necessarily make them inconsistent.
To embrace agrarianism, or adventurism, or both, is to reject the worst elements of modern, Western, industrial life. Both of these worldviews reject the idea that a day in meaningful life is to wake up, go to the gym, go to work, come home, watch TV, and sleep. In fact, both worldviews are based in the idea of living a meaningful, fulfilling life!
They even prescribe similar definitions of what “a meaningful life” entails. Both reject the obsession with passive consumption and material goods that defines modern, western life. They embrace the vivacious elements of our species’ behavior – creation, recreation, love and kinship, appreciation of the natural world, and love of good food; and both worldviews value experiences over things, in full recognition of the fact that new experiences literally create more vivid imprints on our memories than repetitive ones. (Don’t believe me? Recall your last vacation, or camping trip, or the last time you spent time in your garden. Good, now tell me what you did at work on the Tuesday following that experience, or what you ate for dinner the following Thursday. See what I mean?).
Where agrarianism makes you hyper-focused on the ebbs and flows of your chosen place – the first sign of robins in the spring, the last warm day of summer, and the flowering of your favorite fruit tree are the “new experiences” that drive your life – the traveler ethic lets you connect to a variety of places like this, with less intimacy but more variety than agrarianism.
Both philosophies are based in an appreciation of nature, and also of the best aspects of humanity. As a traveler, you are exploring the world, going to see the natural wonders and the good, wholesome things that can be produced by human society. And the same is true of agrarianism, though you lean more towards being a producer and protector and preserver of those things.
My immediate motivation to write this column was actually that I will be leaving on a trip to Italy next week, after writing to you on the real and present dangers of climate change.
Now, I will be purchasing carbon offset credits for this and all future flights (which effectively negate my portion of the flight’s environmental impact). But still, I was bothered by the apparent inconsistency in being an agrarian soul who has recently found a love for travel and adventure. This column has given me a lot of peace in that regard. I’d love for you to email me with your thoughts, so see if it did the same for you.

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 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.





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.