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

10 06 2018

(June 10, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

Further Thoughts on Saving the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements




The Call, Column 96 – How to Save the World

27 05 2018

(May 27, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

How to Save the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 95 – The Mysteries of Nature

13 05 2018

(May 13, 2018)

The Urban Farmer

The Mysteries of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Call, Column 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.





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.