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.

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 ( 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 ( 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.