Sunday, March 25, 2007

Green light- Slow Down.

Gimme the answers quick!

If you've been to a sustainable stuff meeting, that's kind of the underlying mood. Man, we've gotta do something NOW, or we're all going to die!

I understand the urge, and I even think it's mostly a positive thing. But it can far too easily lead us into New! Improved! disasters. This is true both for society, and for all of our own small personal choices. Sell the car! Sounds brave, bold, and fierce- but I'd think a long time, and maybe just park it for 2 months without selling, before actually doing it. It could be catastrophic for you, personally. We still have to live in this world. This one.

A sad, and disastrous, example we're struggling with right now: Ethanol - made from - food.

From the BBC, for a sort of outside opinion:

Biofuels Make Food Expensive

I realize I may immediately antagonize a lot of green folk here- but making fuel from food was always a bad idea. A few of us actually said so, right out loud. Nobody wanted to hear it.

At this point, even the people running huge distilleries and cranking out the subsidized ethanol profits admit, as quietly as possible, that ethanol from corn will not ever make any significant difference in our fuel supply.

Why do they admit it? Somebody finally did the math. How complicated was the math? No calculus required- if you ever got a B on a math exam in the 6th grade, you could have done these calculations. X amount of corn can be made into Y amount of ethanol; with Z amount of land available. If all the corn was used for fuel ethanol, it might supply a small fraction of US automotive fuel use. Leaving nothing for the chickens, pigs, etc - and the farmers who raise them. (Basic practice in this blog- I do not have time to dig out all the references for you- if you doubt something I say here, google it immediately- and don't bug me if I'm off by a couple of degrees.)

For years the few people doing arithmetic on corn were focused on "can you get more energy out of ethanol than you put in?" I'm not getting into that here- they're still fighting about it, and clearly the answer is "not much, if any".

The point here: that was not the only question we should have been asking, if we wanted to make sensible choices.

Now, the "push" for ethanol has gotten so far ahead of common sense that the folks in Iowa may have to IMPORT corn - NEXT YEAR- if they want to feed any pigs and chickens. (Not going to get into meat questions right now.)

The real farmers, as usual, are caught in a trap. They've been losing money growing corn for decades. Really. Little by little, the loans with the bank for production have gotten bigger and bigger. They can look prosperous- but usually, the bank owns most of the farm by now. The scoffers among you are saying "oh bosh, if it were that bad, there would be bankrupt farmers all over the place." There are. And suicides, and broken families. Look it up.

So the survivors are quietly desperate to make a few pennies, some day, so they can actually dream about getting out of debt. Ethanol looks like salvation. So they tend to get quite huffy if you say "well, but... wait a minute here..." Then you get painted as a farmer hater. And they quit listening. Or thinking. Very human.

But in reality, we're now spending a lot of resources and effort to develop what we know is ultimately a dead end. The apologists now say "Yes, but it's a useful bridge to better sustainability!"

Yes, but. Wouldn't it have been better to pick a non-dead end technology, and put all those resources into that direction? I think so. And the argument "we've got to take action now!" is one that often shuts down discussion.

Greenies are human too- and quite capable of hearing only what we want to. "Hey, I've got this figured out, quit bugging me about it!"

I am a scientist by training. One of the basic tenets is - never quit doubting; never quit thinking; never quit looking; even when you're 95% sure you know an answer.

Are you struggling with questions about how to live green? Should I give up my toilet paper? Should I sell my car?

My very first advice - take a deep breath, and slow down. You don't have to make these decisions instantly - in fact it will probably be far better if you don't.

Think about it. Close your eyes, and see yourself 5 years from now- doing or not doing. If you think, "maybe I could..." then- give it a try. Often you can get family members to go along if you do set a time limit on the experiment, like the Yw/oTP folks are doing. "Look, we'll try this for 2 months and then talk about it, ok?"

All the pieces have to fit together. And it just takes time to get there.


Anonymous said...

Yes, and you didnt mention mining the soil and farmers the birth defects and cancer farmers have experienced in fouling their own ground water.

In the North of Chile there is a desert with almost no rainfall with a surface encrusted with salt. Our own environment looks just as opaque and inhospitable to most of us who cant imagine life without our grocery store and gas station umbilical cord.
Yet, one tree can grow in that desert called the tamarungo which absorbs water from ocean mists which go into their root system and then the soil. The water is then re-absorbed with nutrients! It provides fabulous fodder for goats, sheep, and cattle like alfalfa and creates a positive nitrogen balance in the soil. Plantations are now being planted of it.

Similarly, few people know the deep, red berry growing in sprigs on bushes along highways in colonies known as sumac is edible. (Its the white one in the woods that is not.) Indians used to consume it for gum or respiratory problems. its extremely high in Vitamin C and makes an excellent lemonade by crushing the extremely seedy berries in a bowl with cold water or tea. With a mehu lissa--series of pans on a heat source (I used my wood maple syrup cooker)--i have made a deep red delcious sumac-apple juice. The water in the bottom pan boils leaching out the juice of the quartered apples and sumac into a third pan. The caution is out there to use discretion if susceptible to kidney stones, but i went through 50 qts of great juice in a year without a problem.

Robbyn said...

I agree with you about not hopping onto the panic track, which to me is riddled with its own brand of opportunists, or perhaps a tinge of fear-mongering. The best decisions are not made emotionally out of fear, but peacefully heading a better direction, and learning along the way. We're trying to do that. I'm already weary of the wild-eyed panickers and their gospel of fright. I do agree that each individual is going to have to become educated and make the best choices for THEM. Otherwise, it's some alternate religion.

I found it interesting in this month's Organic Gardening magazine that they pointed out that native grasses rather than corn are far superior bio-fuel sources, for much less cost. Not that I want to see the Frankenproducers trying to "manage" native grasses as a "crop"...but to re-focus on existing resources that can be raised and harvested without pesticides, while replenishing our depleted soils...well that thought does my heart good. I just don't have a lot of faith at this point that we can re-wire the public's blind acceptance of "modern farming" techniques (quick-fix chemicals and huge monopolies and dependence on govt subsidies) all that quickly, UNLESS the public themselves are willing to THEMSELVES make changes in their own lives.

You should have heard the scorn in the voice of the county official I spoke with on the phone about wanting to keep 2 chickens as "pets" in the privacy of my own backyard. She likely eats a bit of chicken weekly, but told me NO people in residential areas should be permitted to keep those "nasty creatures near people." So if I keep "those nasty creatures" in my own backyard (hens, not roosters), even behind high fencing for invisibility from neighbors, I'm breaking the law.

This is legislated dependence on a processed lifestyle. It chafes. I can see how it is hard for the average joe on the street to have any understanding aside from the pre-programmed and very constant barrage of The Institution. And it disincludes any other sort of mainstream, making originality and THINKING be perceived as odd....or...a threat.

Ooops this turned into a bit of a soapbox, sorry!

Anonymous said...

the whole ethanol thrust was mounted by dwayne andreas, of archer daniels midlands, who had some factories that were idle during some part of the year, and he thought making ethanol would be something for them to do in the off season. he pretty much owns scores of congressmen and senators, yadda yadda.