Sunday, April 29, 2007

Potty House Pics

We'll see how this works; I'm a bit uncertain because my blog "help" page illustrates a nice tool bar, with 5 choices on it; but when I open the thing, MY toolbar only has 2 thingies. Unnerving. One of them, however, IS the photo menu.

So - here is the THWASPCO seen from the south, as you walk to the door-

Most of the siding, and all the windows, are salvaged. The siding came from an old rural railroad station- one of the nasty chores waiting; I'm pretty sure that peeling paint is lead based. The windows came from our local middle school, when they put in thermopane.

Here it is seen from the north; on the lower side of the hill. You can see the block and rock work; and the pit doors, which I've never opened in 20 odd years. Looking up through the windows, you can also see the originally clear fiberglas roof. It's now seriously weathered; and supporting quite a lot of algae in the cracks. Not enough to worry about just yet, but it's obviously going to have to be replaced.

This is a view from inside looking out. It faces a wooded hillside, with essentially zero human traffic. Nervous folks can ask for a curtain, if necessary, but few do- it's just not likely.

The top is frame construction; the 2x4's though are actually 2" by 4" - cut with a chainsaw from oak or red elm, both very durable woods. The floor is white oak; originally cut with the chainsaw, but then milled into tongue and groove flooring, so it would seal moisture and bugs out. Cherry seats were just planed and ship-lapped, since the wood is very stable.

Hm. It looks like my attempt to get text and pics together is not entirely successful. I've tried to fix it a couple ways, without much luck; I'll try a different layout next time-

Friday, April 27, 2007

Poop, Glorious Poop.

I promised I'd get back to personal green living this next time; so that's what we'll do. I still intend to deal with comments on previous posts; just a bit short on time at the moment.

Today's topic; everybody's favorite - poop.

Aha. I see you grinning and giggling out there. There should be a zen koan about why we so consistently find bodily functions amusing. "What is the chance of one square wiping?" perhaps.

Our own solution here in the Big Woods is a good one- and different I guarantee from anything you've seen yet. And possibly even applicable in urban situations; not sure. And just for extra fun; the thing didn't work out the way I planned it; it works far, far better.

Remember that I'm a biologist, and my father taught sanitary engineering (among other types). And it's probably significant that at one point in my life, my brother and I used to sneak into the nearby sewage treatment plant; to play with the tadpoles in the settling tanks, and sometimes catch a ride on the "merry-go-round" sprinklers. (Highly illicit activities.)

When we needed to do something more serious about our sanitation here, I was already familiar with both basic theory and practical engineering, on several scales.

So, Spouse and I built the THWASPCO. You can actually pronounce that, if you try; mostly it's intended as humor. It stands for "Three Hole Wind And Solar Powered Composting Outhouse." Actually; we more frequently refer to it as "the Potty House" these days. Once you've got kids, it's probably inevitable. I did the design; she did most of the construction, in this case.

There is a reason for every single aspect of the design; all to fit our circumstances.

A) poor- no money for a big septic project
B) poor - no money to add a room to the Little House
C) House is in the woods- on shallow soil
D) under the soil is : karst limestone - disastrous for leaking sewage; would make any standard septic installation much more expensive.

I'll tell you the outcome right away- we've had visitors come and try the "facilities" with substantial trepidation; only to emerge and blurt - "This thing should be in Better Homes and Gardens!"

If I can figure out how to get photos into this blog thingy, maybe I'll post some here. To describe it only with words would be a long process, and probably not as effective.

Here's how it works; and how it was conceived.

It's built into the side of a hill. The pits are made of concrete block, waterproofed; and with doors opening out on the low side. Entry is from the top of the hill; you can't even see the pit doors.

I made a guess as to how much poop 4 people and occasional visitors would produce in a year; then provided 3 pits for 3 years. The idea was, we'd use one pit per year; then move to the next one; leaving the first one with 2 whole years for the contents to break down; so shoveling it out wouldn't have to be icky; or dangerous.

The roof is mostly clear fiberglas; and the south wall is mostly salvaged school bathroom windows- the very nubbly glass you can't see through. This was to provide HEAT; both for comfort in winter; and to evaporate water, which is one of the big big problems with any composting toilet.

The seats (made of cherry wood, cut from our trees) close over the pits quite tightly. When the lids are down, very little air from the pits can get up into the room. Thermodynamics is also made to work in our favor- the pits, being underground, are usually chilly; the room, being heated, is warm- air pressure tends to move air from the room into the pit - the pits are provided with a "stack"- an 18" airduct, topped with a whirly thing, that is supposed to pull wet air up out of the pit, and let it blow away. (We've got a fair amount of wind- but I confess, there are days when the wind is not blowing; in which case it may get a little stinky. Mostly, though, visitors are amazed at how little odor there is.)

It's in the woods, about 100' from the house. Since it's under deciduous trees, it's shaded a lot during the summer; has much more sun in the winter. That's good; it doesn't get wildly hot in summer, and there are screened vents that we open to let out excess heat. But being in the woods- it does get less wind than is optimum for the pit vent. That could be fixed in a number of ways; but actually, it's not a big enough problem for us to worry about it.

Those are the basics. One other thing- "boys" in particular are encouraged NOT to pee in the outhouse; but to go feed a bush or tree when possible. That does a lot to decrease the excess water problem; but the water will have to be monitored in other sites, with other people. And yes, we DO use toilet paper- where we are, anyway, most of it comes from renewable tree plantations, not old forests; so we're not much worried about it.

Here's the surprise: in more than 20 years of use- I've NEVER had to shovel a pit out. Never.

WHAT!? I hear you say. Yup. The first time I was getting ready to get out the shovel; at the beginning of year 4 - I opened the lid on pit 1 to see how big a problem it was going to be- and lo, and behold- pit 1 was almost empty. When we'd closed it, 2 full years before, it had been pretty full. I did, as a matter of sense, top the pit off with dead leaves, and tossed some earthworms in to boot, just as we were closing it for good; so I expected pretty good breakdown and composting action. But I didn't expect it to be GONE. I was flabbergasted.

Here's my explanation for the miracle. Poop is... what? Mostly bacteria, actually; the beneficial guys from our intestines, who've been helping us digest everything- which means mostly - cellulose - and water. We provide warm air currents, to pull out water, and decrease stinkyness. The air currents also provide oxygen.

Given two years- the stuff broke down all the way to water and carbon dioxide- and just blew away. No pollution for the water table. Not much methane, I think; because it's aerobic at all times; methane is usually a product of anaerobic processes. Methane in case you haven't heard, is about 20 times WORSE than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Same output as the longed-for hydrogen car.

Basically, the Potty House just completes the composting cycle, totally; in 2 years. That's what will happen to any compost, eventually; it's just a matter of how long it will take. In this case, this seems like a great solution to the problems to me. Sure, it would be nice to take that carbon and sequester it somehow; but the practicalities there are lousy. This is easy- clean, comfortable (mostly). It's nothing like the dark torture chambers remembered by many, on the contrary; light, airy, with a great (safe) view of the woods.

So. What did I leave out here?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Possibility.

I'm in favor of action. A very large part of why I'm not in a university. Pose a problem for them- and they will cheerfully host meetings; forever. Our government, in case you hadn't noticed, has adopted this method.

So when a good solid observation hits me, my tendency is to look for a way to turn it into a positive action; something actually feasible, in this world.

A serious shortcoming to my desire for action is the plain fact that people HATE to change. Whenever a major change is suggested, or demanded by circumstances, history is absolutely clear on what to expect- most folks will say a) it's not possible, and b) you're wrong, and c) I won't do it. History, however is also clear on another point- change IS possible, and does happen.

A little parable as an aside. Spouse (not Spice) taught piano for several years; often in the Little House, where I'd designed the floor specifically to hold the weight of her grandmother's upright. I got to hear a lot of lessons. I'm really NOT quick to draw conclusions about any observations; only after long repetition of this pattern did I admit it IS a pattern. And it still astonishes me. Universally- and I do mean universally; every time a piano student was presented with a new piece of music; one slightly more challenging than the last - their reaction was/is ALWAYS - "I can't do this. I CAN'T." And they seem to believe that. Each time. Segue to 2 weeks later- whatever aspect of that piece of music seemed impossible to them- is now second nature; they accomplish it and don't even notice they've done it. So they get a new piece of music to tackle; and the cycle starts over. "I can't do this. I CAN'T."

Eventually I experimented with a couple of the more accessible students- and pointed this out to them. It didn't really help. It now seems to me there may be a hardwired basic biological reaction here - amounting to "look, you're alive now; don't change what you're doing." The critical part being - "don't change."

The world we've now created requires extensive change. And we're really quite bad at change, as a species.

All this is supposed to make YOU the reader a little less likely to think "oh, that's just crazy talk" (thank you, Vanessa); and a little more likely to listen to the scheme below and think; "hm; that might be worth trying. How do we do it?"

Continuing from the last post- one of Friedman's incontrovertible truths was "He’s dead right. The market alone won’t work. Government’s job is to set high standards, let the market reach them and then raise the standards more."

This being at least a partial contradiction of his previous dogma "the only way ... — is by mobilizing free-market capitalism."

Part of what I pull out of that- along with some obvious truths available to us all - is that the "free market" is NOT working to help solve society's energy problems. And the "government standards" are not working either. Yet.

History is priceless for multiple reasons. Certainly it can show us past mistakes, and teach us not to do them again- Vietnam, for example. But it can also, less obviously, show us how we got into current messes; and consequently suggest ways to get out of them.

The way the world energy markets work at the moment is a big fat catastrophic mess. How did we get here?

Our energy economy didn't come into being until pretty recently- a couple hundred years for coal; less for oil and electricity. There are lots of records available to explain how the "market" grew up.

Here's the problem; as ALL our markets operate today-


I get a great deal of amusement out of every neophyte pundit "discovering" that "the cheapest power plant is the one you don't have to build." Cutting our consumption of energy is by far the cheapest, fastest, biggest, and lowest impact pathway to a non-toxic economy. And how many big businesses are focusing on energy conservation as their new path to profitability? Maybe it's not zero; but it's dang small. The great majority are busy figuring out fantasies where nobody has to give up anything, and their new "energy source" is amazingly clean, saves our SUVs, and, incidentally, the planet.


If we are going to survive- I think we have to get that statement inverted - to:


See, here is where your automatic pilot kicks in with - "you CAN'T do that." and "that's just crazy talk." :-)

But it isn't just crazy talk; because all the reasons that combined to make the markets this way - no longer hold true. We COULD invert it- and rather easily; because in fact most energy sales rates are already controlled by governments; not the free market. WE control them.

Let's just run through electricity- which of course is generated by coal and oil, etc. I'm going to toss out some "example" numbers- please don't comment here that your rates are different- of course they are. These are just approximations- but DO check out the relationships. They're accurate.

You have a home, owned or rented. You pay something like 6-8¢/kWh (kilowatt hour). There are lots of schemes out there for making costs reflect reality a little better- like cheaper "off peak" charges, etc. But they all still work the same way- the more, the cheaper.

Down the road from you is a Super WalMart. They run 24 hrs a day; all lights and refrigerators and freezers and TVs on.
They pay something like 3-5¢/kWh.

Further down the road is a steel mill. They melt metals- sometimes using electric blast furnaces. They pay 2-3 ¢/kWh.

Look it up- your rates are a matter of public record; usually available on the internet with little work searching.

There are at least three historical reasons for these kinds of rates.

1) In the early days of the electrical industry, there was no real power distribution system in existence- you had to build new powerlines for nearly every customer. Arguably; hooking up your house is about as expensive as hooking up WalMart. Arguably. Not in reality, of course- they need much heavier connections, which cost more. And the steel mill is off the charts, there; they have to have their own high-tension lines and substations.

2) In the early days of the electrical industry, there were no big customers already buying power. In order to extend the benefits of clean power to them, operations like the steel mill had to be seduced from coal- arguably, they wouldn't/couldn't change unless offered outrageously cheap power.

3) "Progress" clearly demanded we "grow the electrical industry" - all society would benefit from this new, convenient, clean, cheap, adaptable form of energy.

None of these reasons, I maintain, are at all sensible today; if they ever were. The truth behind why the steel mill pays so little contains the fact that they might, if not given really cheap rates, just build their own power plant. Can't have that.

The power distribution system is mostly "built", though in constant need of repair. At this point, clearly the needs of the large consumers put the most load on the power grid. They should pay more.

There is no shortage of large customers for electric power.

There is no benefit to society, or the world, from electric consumption, per se, being increased; quite the contrary.

What could work instead: electric rates for homes should start low- power for a "normal" amount of annual electric consumption should be very inexpensive.

Just for example- according to the US Dept. of Energy- average US household electricity consumption in 2001 was 10,656 kWh. DOE Power Consumption

We know perfectly well that few of us are as careful with energy as we could be. So let's set the bar a little lower; say the first 8,000 kWh per year should cost 3¢/kWh. Then the next 2,000 should cost 4¢. The next 2,000 -5¢. Then I'd make it steeper; because you're getting into stuff like - lights for your swimming pools; lights for your landscape, tv's in every room- costs that have nothing to do with survival; which is what we're talking about protecting here. So the next 2,000 should cost 8¢; and the next 2,000 should cost 12¢, and the next 2,000- 20¢. You get the idea.

This would give all homeowners a tangible incentive to pay attention to their power consumption. Would they cut back? Not a doubt in the world.

And, incidentally, it would protect the power companies' profits- which is a major concern here if such a change is to happen. They'll scream like stuck pigs if anybody suggests anything that would cut into their sacred profits. All the widows and orphans who own their stock would suffer and die of starvation, don'tcha know. There's no reason why they should. Power company income and profits can stay the same- they will just come to a larger extent from the biggest consumers; not the smallest.

And the steel mill? They don't have to go out of business. Rate changes can be phased in- so they have plenty of time to make adjustments in their operations. No reason it can't be done intelligently, and compassionately.

Sure- their product will then have to cost more. The fact is; it should, and MUST.

We have to get to a world where the actual energy expense for an item is PAID for in its cost. At the moment, our consumer product prices are fantasies; full of weird subsidies and leftover false pricing.

Quite a large part of this is psychological. The Board at the steel mill just never realizes how wasteful they are- power is so cheap they don't even think about it. If they get a little jolt here- they WILL think about it, I guarantee. Will they find ways to economize? Of course. And the potential gains for society are very large indeed- getting households to cut 10% of their power consumption would be nice. Getting the oil refineries and steel mills to cut 10% of THEIR power consumption would be ENORMOUS.

At the moment, they have no incentive to do so. None.

Could this be done? Oh, yeah. Not without a fight, for sure; but the power is already in the hands of citizen power rate boards, in most states. And we could even get the power companies on our side- by allowing their profits to rise just a tad, for every zillion kWh's conserved. That would be a real societal benefit.

My point here. Have you ever heard this idea discussed/suggested? I doubt it. So far as I know, I thought it up; though I'd not be at all surprised if others are thinking similar thoughts. Is it simple? Sure. I'd even say "obvious" - but then I've been thinking it for a year or more now. Doable? Yes. Worth discussing more widely? Yep. And not included in the "the ONLY way..." kinds of calculations. There are LOTS of ways.

It's another example of "we have not yet begun to think", and an example of an action- not a discussion - that is within our reach. Just writing about it all - and mouthing new catch phrases - doesn't cut it.

Friday, April 20, 2007


We finally managed to get a definitive diagnosis for Spice's ear-jaw pain. The bad news is it may be chronic. The good news is, we caught it very early, and might be able to keep it from getting worse. At least we're getting the right meds now.

At the moment Spice is rebounding from weeks and weeks of zombiehood- now I'm afraid she's going to blow a gasket, zooming around trying to "catch up".

I want to get back to Friedman's article for last Sunday's NYT Magazine, The Power of Green

If you haven't already, I'd suggest you read my post here from Sunday, "Muscular" Green; it will explain the conversation much better than any attempt to summarize. The comments are enlightening, too. Friedman's article got a huge amount of attention; it was #1 on the NYT "most emailed" list for 2 days; and stayed on the list somewhere until Thursday.

I was interested to discover that the major focus for this post was already on my list of topics: "the only way..." - I'd actually forgotten.

Friedman uses that phrase at least twice in his article:

"The only way we are going to get innovations that drive energy costs down to the China price — innovations in energy-saving appliances, lights and building materials and in non-CO2-emitting power plants and fuels — is by mobilizing free-market capitalism."

and "The only way to stimulate the scale of sustained investment in research and development of non-CO2 emitting power at the China price is if the developed countries, who can afford to do so, force their people to pay the full climate, economic and geopolitical costs of using gasoline and dirty coal."

I'm afraid I'm going to be a little rude here, but I just don't know any other way to say this- I've really come to believe that anyone who uses the phrase "the only way..." - has not truly thought about the problem they are discussing.

My basis for making that statement? All of history.

One of the basic problems in science is: how do you manage to think a thought; conceive an idea, that has never occurred to anyone else before?

It's extremely difficult to crack loose from all our training and cultural blindnesses; and see anything from a genuinely new perspective. But that is where all real "progress" comes from.

I've studied the history of innovation all my life; collecting stories on how breakthroughs occur. One of the lessons of history is; repeatedly - major breakthroughs in thought USUALLY come after a long stagnant period, where all the experts keep reciting:

"We completely understand this problem; we've studied it exhaustively; there is nothing more to discover."

People who say that- historically - are ALWAYS wrong. Isn't that astonishing? Always.

I now use that kind of statement as a warning signal - when I hit them in something I'm reading, it makes me look harder for logical errors.

Friedman goes on with this statement; another form of "the only way...":

"Summing up the problem, Immelt of G.E. said the big energy players are being asked 'to take a 15-minute market signal and make a 40-year decision and that just doesn’t work. ... The U.S. government should decide: What do we want to have happen? How much clean coal, how much nuclear and what is the most efficient way to incentivize people to get there?'
He’s dead right. The market alone won’t work. Government’s job is to set high standards, let the market reach them and then raise the standards more."

If you can decipher some to the Big Biz Speak- he's actually contradicting his first statement above - "mobilizing free-market capitalism", he now says, is not only "the only way", but will not be enough. Hm.

Very flat statements like this - besides tending to make readers think "gosh, this guy must really know his stuff" also tends to make the readers NOT think for themselves. It can be a kind of manipulative writing; " don't bother to think about this; I've already done the thinking for you." And please don't check my facts. It's a trap for the unwary reader- watch for those words.

Ok. So, what you're thinking right now is "Yeah? So far, you're not doing anything he wasn't- blather, blather. Show me."


Here's a HUGE problem in our attempt to move into a sustainable world; our "science" (HA!) of Economics is based on "money". They count it, print it, move it, "earn" it. Squeal loudly if take it away; and will defend to the death their right to make a "fair profit."

Our whole Western civilization has bought this concept- Friedman speaks the language fluently- China is adopting it as fast as it can go- and it's a deadly dangerous fantasy. IT HAS NO BASIS IN REALITY - the reality of ENGERY - costs, savings, benefits, etc.

For a very specific example-


That's a very good article on shrimp farming, in the USA. Some bright kids have built a commercial scale system that grows shrimp, indoors- with NO waste water outputs. Way cool.

But because of the unrealities of economics- most of the shrimp we eat in the USA comes from the other side of the freaking world. Where it is raised by workers paid next to nothing.

From the article: "With the competition from imported shrimp, it's virtually impossible to make a profit in shrimp farming," says Bob Rosenberry, editor and publisher of Shrimp News International. "People have been trying to grow shrimp in this country for 40 years, and to the best of my knowledge no farm has made a consistent profit over several years."

Now. What would you guess, energywise? SHOULD it be cheaper for a shrimp lover in Virginia to eat shrimp farmed in Virginia, or in Bangladesh? What would be the energy inputs- which is what REAL costs should/must be based on?

There's just no way that shipping FROZEN shrimp to the other side of the globe should be cheaper than eating unfrozen local.

BUT IT IS- because our "economics" and money systems are based on weird traditions; not realities. One of them being the "exchange" rate; where Bangladesh money is worth very little, and US money is worth a great deal. So a shrimp worker in the US gets paid $200/day; and a Bangladeshi maybe $200 a year.

That's what supports this insane waste of energy.

" Imports totaled more than 1.1 billion pounds last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau." Somebody should (you!) figure out the carbon/energy costs involved in a) freezing 1.1 billion pounds of shrimp; taken from very warm tropical waters; b) keeping them frozen before shipping; c) shipping 1.1 billion pounds of shrimp in freezer ships to the other side of the world; d) trucking them in freezer trucks to the other side of the continent, and e) HEATING 1.1 billion pounds of deep frozen shrimp to the cooking point. It'll be HUGE, I guarantee. The other aspect- the cheap shrimp from Asia price breakdown- how much of your dollar goes for oil- and how much to the laborers? My own guess- it'll be about 50% oil; 5% wages- 45% profit.

Hey, I'd love to make a profit myself, someday. A fair one. But this kind of thing is - insane. With the full literal force of that word.

Ok, gonna quit; this is getting long- but the next post will continue this line- with a specific suggestion for something we could DO to help shift energy costs into the real world. Actually doable, I guarantee.

Then back to personal green living, promise. Stick with me.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Screaming Headlines

It's as obvious as the screaming headlines. Really.

This is not the normal topic for this blog, but it does illustrate our ability as a culture to just NOT SEE what is right in front of us.

We're just astonishingly good at it.

Why do crazy people start shooting in schools? It's because of the SCREAMING HEADLINES.

These people are crazy, yes? Mostly they intend to die themselves. But they want to do it in a way that everybody notices.

So, we give them just what they want. ALL the media, from the slimiest to the allegedly most straight laced, are currently in an orgy of micro-analysis. WHAT WAS HIS NAME? Did he cut his toenails on Mondays?

It has nothing to do with whether guns are available or not; they'd use home made explosives, or gasoline, if they weren't.

NOWHERE, as far as I can tell, is there discussion about NOT GIVING THEM the immortality they crave.

The whole idea that "the public has a right to know" is just an astonishing piece of nonsense here.

As long as we keep throwing Immortal Demon parties, new crazies will continue to appear.

How about if we just print the news? Once?

"A psychotic killed several people in Virginia today. Everyone is very sad and quite unhappy about it."

Literally. Nothing else. No names, no life details- no justifications, no deifications. And nothing in the paper tomorrow.

Ok, now you know. Moving on.

In fact, we already control the news that gets out- for purposes of public safety. We don't publish the plans for the troops, so the enemy can be there waiting. This is sensible- and obvious.

It's the same same thing, folks. What continues to puzzle me is -why is NO ONE saying this? Not even the theoretically more intelligent journalist types. No one, so far as I know.

It's absolutely doable. Publish the truth "these guys do this because of the media" - then stop it; by law if common sense doesn't work. It's illegal to publish the name of a rape victim. Nobody screams it's an abridgement of our rights.

It will keep happening- until we stop rewarding the behavior. That simple.

There ARE parallels in the environmental world; we'll get to them. Plain human blindness is a problem.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Slowing, slightly.

Claudia's comment to the previous post - has the ring of well observed truth. And it meshes with my own experiences too.

I'm going to follow her advice, and mine- and Crunchy's; and slow down here just a bit. I've been shooting for a post every day; but in fact that may not be a good sustainable goal. I've felt a little pinched at times; and some of the readers are saying they'd like more time to digest as well.

I greatly appreciate RC's request NOT to slow down; but I think I have to. I DO have a whole world of other things I need to be doing, as well as this.

I'm in this for the long haul. Don't want to burn out- either me, or the readers. I'm going to shoot now for every second; or possibly every third day. I'll work on getting more blog functionality here, too; I know it's pretty basic right now.

I'll try to make sure the posts I do get out are substantive; no fillers; the other danger of pushing too hard.

Like this one. :-) This one is kind of enforced by our medical situation; too much time today waiting around for the doctors to call back- now we've got an appointment tomorrow at 7 AM, with the possible surgeon... so I'm likely to be out tomorrow, too.

Meanwhile- chew on what's here! If you haven't read the earlier posts, you might want to- I've already had several question/comments that were addressed there.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"Muscular" Green

It's not like we don't already have enough threads going here. Today, though, the NYT Magazine has got a long long article by Thomas Friedman. It's entitled

The Power of Green

and its basic theme is, "green" is coming fast as our new economic salvation.

Friedman is very articulate. Very knowledgeable. It's worth reading if you've got the time. And he's certainly making progress in understanding our quite desperate circumstances.

"But here’s the bad news: While green has hit Main Street — more Americans than ever now identify themselves as greens, or what I call “Geo-Greens” to differentiate their more muscular and strategic green ideology — green has not gone very far down Main Street. It certainly has not gone anywhere near the distance required to preserve our lifestyle. The dirty little secret is that we’re fooling ourselves. We in America talk like we’re already “the greenest generation,” as the business writer Dan Pink once called it. But here’s the really inconvenient truth: We have not even begun to be serious about the costs, the effort and the scale of change that will be required to shift our country, and eventually the world, to a largely emissions-free energy infrastructure over the next 50 years."

Very very true, all of it.

He still has an underlying assumption, though, that should bring any biologist/ecologist (me) or truly knowledgeable greeny (you) to a dead halt.

He still thinks it's quite reasonable to seek to "preserve our lifestyle" - hence the "more muscular" new green ideology that's being so successful in the idea marketplace. That would be Schwarzenegger's version- where Hummers are still fine, as long as they're powered by bio or hydrogen fuels.

It's been quite painful getting mainstream thought to THIS point. All of the problems associated with climate change were OBVIOUS, and KNOWN- 20 years ago. They really were. I'll let out a little secret here; I've been a speaker at international global warming conferences. My first one was in 1988. If anyone had truly been listening to the climate modelers - all of it was there, up to and including wars for water, and environmental refugees.

I guarantee it's going to be painful getting public opinion even further. But we have to.

Here's the hard hard fact that the "muscular" greenies are still denying:


We've had a brutal proof of that in the last decade, with the world-wide collapse of ocean fisheries. For hundreds of years, politicians, and fishermen, have insisted that the oceans are simply too big for any human activities to ever make a dent in them.

And for a hundred years, at least, scientists have been warning that this is not so- keep harvesting cod at the present rate, and the population will collapse.

Guess what? The Atlantic cod population has mostly collapsed- the same fisheries where the first Europeans reported schools of cod so dense you could WALK on them- are gone. GONE. Closed. Few fish; and no fishermen.

When the scientists made these predictions- the economists, and fishermen, overruled them. "No, no, you can't take our lifestyle!! You're going to ruin the economics of our towns!"

We're in the process of doing exactly the same thing now with- our ATMOSPHERE. And the business types are making exactly the same mistake. "no, no, you can't take our Hummers away! That's defeatist!"

Arnold- Thomas- you desperately need to go look at the empty oceans. And the empty fishing villages. And the idle boats.

That's the way to kill an industry- and all the lifestyles that went with it.

Your "lifestyle" - is the equivalent of strip-mining.

You cannot have your Earth- and eat it too.

You CANNOT put an unlimited number of middle class Americans into a LIMITED CONTAINER. Earth.

That's PHYSICS, for crying out loud- not sociology, not biology. Physics. Do you believe in gravity?

Gravity doesn't CARE whether you believe in it or not. If you step off a cliff; you will fall. Every time. Hence the empty ocean.

If you are really looking at the numbers- you have to fairly quickly come to understand that the lifestyle of most middle class folks in the 1st world is NEVER going to be possible to maintain- and certainly not to expand. It's been nice, and fun- but it's insanely unrealistic.

The changes we're looking at, if we are to survive in the long run- are still much more extensive than people want to face.

This is why the efforts of people like No Impact Man- and all the rest in this little world of ours, are so very important. It will be hugely useful to have SOMEONE, just down the block, who is quietly living a non-strip-mining life.

Little by little- as people come to understand- it will make all the difference to have an example to follow.

More on this article later.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

More Clotheslines; Poverty, and Compact Fluorescents

Another look today at the same NYT article by Kathleen Hughes generated the same reactions- "oh, I gotta talk about this..." I hope Ms. Hughes understands that I consider that a sign of good writing, and interesting topics, not that she didn't do her job!

Chapter 5 - "Meanwhile, my daughter lost interest after the first load, dashing my hope of recreating the happy times I spent hanging clothes with my own mother." I confess, I think a 13 year old girl is a little old to hope for quick conversion on a point like this. If you can't start subverting them at a younger age, you need to go into the project with the understanding that the interest is going to wane- and you will have to have something in mind as a way to re-ignite it. It CAN be done. In my case, I used a long discussion, and a commitment to the family's well-being. Then I was able to keep the learning going past the point where it was all "too hard", to the point where there was well-earned pride in new skills, and pride in a real contribution. It also didn't hurt that the parents were publicly pretty dang proud of the kids. (No, we weren't doing laundry.)

I think that all kids start out wanting one thing more than any other: to please their parents. If parents teach their children that there's no way to please them- the children will quit trying.

Chapter 6 - "For those in colder climates, going without a dryer can be a challenge. " This is mostly another example of lost knowledge. Clothes dry just fine at 10 below zero- but it does take them a little bit longer. You just factor that in, once you know. Actually, drying in good cold weather has a built in advantage- when the clothes are dry- you can SEE it. All of a sudden they'll start to move like cloth, instead of frozen boards. No need to keep going out to check on whether they're ready to come in or not! Modern convenience!

Chapter 7 - "In Hollywood movies, however, clotheslines often appear in scenes depicting dire poverty. ... That image could limit the comeback of the clothesline."

Not only the clothesline- MANY of the practices associated with green/sustainable lives seem to be heading "backwards", to the mainstream. That generally does mean towards lifestyles associated with the poor- those people who just can't afford the new technologies; a refrigerator; airconditioner, washer/dryer... And if you have an outhouse, and a big garden; well, there you are.

This is not trivial. It makes acceptance more difficult, and it can be hard on the kids, who have to keep explaining why they're not really poor.

Particularly when we ARE "poor", by standard cultural standards. Not a lot of money floating around when you don't work for a salary somewhere, and spend a lot of time on long term projects that might pay off- someday.

Shifting to green does mean taking more time to do simple chores. I frequently have difficulty getting some of my customers to understand - no, I really don't have time to wait on them right now- I've got to get firewood in. NOW. Before this rain system moves in. For most of the 1st world, heat comes out of a pipe- which you pay for by "work", for someone else. (Someone else, who is, of course, making an excellent profit from your labor for them... boy, are there ever chapters and chapters there!) Customers used to the "normal" arrangement can't comprehend what's going on when I turn them away- some get wildly offended. I've had more than one business "expert" assure me that "you can't do business that way!" I'm still here though. Not monetarily rich - but I've had many people, very successful in the normal world - look at my life and blurt out their envy for it. They wish they had the time to do things this way. There's a logical contradiction floating around in all this somewhere. :-)

Just be aware that there are concerns here; go into it with your eyes open. And be aware that the kids' understanding and awareness is subject to change with maturity. I know both my boys had times growing up when they felt "poor", and it wasn't particularly fun for them.

Now that they're grown, though, and out on their own; they tell me they DO understand that in fact they grew up really really rich. They had food, shelter, challenges, meaning, fun, family, and time. And they left the Little House feeling like citizens of the World, not our county, or state; because we did spend some time and money on travel; which I personally think is crucial. They were probably more widely traveled than any of their high school classmates.

We need to see how big, and beautiful, the world is; in order to grasp how important it is to keep it from wasting away

Chapter 8 - which actually came earlier in the article - "In the meantime, our electric bill has dropped to $576 in March from its high last summer, reflecting a series of efforts to cut energy. (That’s still too high, so we’re about to try fluorescent bulbs.)"

Ok - brace yourselves. I'm about to say something seriously NEGATIVE about Compact Fluorescent light bulbs. Sacrilege, in the current climate, I know- but I've got some serious POSSIBLE side effects to report. The good news is- it's not ALL CF bulbs; they don't have to be a disaster.

Have you ever heard the theory that one of the reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire was - lead poisoning? From all the lovely "plumbing" (latin for lead is "plumbum"), and cooking pots made of lead? Quite a few scholars take it very seriously, and personally I'm inclined to think there may well be a lot to it. It was the wealthy who could afford it- all the elite, decision makers. And they sure made a lot of bad decisions. You can find a good summary here:
Roman oops

Here's the thing- a friend pointed out this conversation to me recently; suggesting that SOME fluorescent lights, compact and regular, have a very strong peak in the blue light wavelengths. In particular; specifically those blue wavelengths that are KNOWN (hard science) to STOP internal melatonin production. Melatonin is the brain hormone that lets you sleep. If you're using a lot of the wrong kind of fluorescent lights- you may have no melatonin left, right when you want it.

Modern oops?

Read all the way down the comments.

Are you aware we (the USA) have an epidemic of insomnia on our hands? How many ads have you seen, TODAY, for drugs to help you sleep?

I was formally diagnosed as having a "sleep disorder". For years. And years. But you know what? I got rid of the fluorescents, after dark- and - I'm sleeping again. After checking this out.

My impression is that Hank Roberts is the guy who's actually put two and two together here- but his links are to academic researchers with full credentials, and as far as I can tell, the facts are straight. The academics are mostly talking about this realization as a possible way to reset internal clocks in "jet lag" situations- but the ramifications may be much broader.

What if all the greenies in the world are slowly going nuts from a lack of sleep? Wouldn't that be hilarious? :-)

He's got lots of details there. It's not that hard to find lights that don't have the blue spike problem; including Compact Fluorescents with a "warmer" spectrum profile.

If you're interested in trying this out, it's not hard - just turn your fluorescents off for a week, and use candles instead. It'll be fun. And document your sleep patterns.

You have to pay attention, though. For the first two days, Spice and I were looking at each other, saying - "so- did you sleep better, or not?" And the answer was... "well, I'm not sure. I was, um, asleep."

Friday, April 13, 2007


Yesterday saw a pile of current conversations that wound up freezing me in their headlines. Too many things to comment on!

No Impact Man was focusing on "work", or perhaps "chores"; and simultaneously this article on sun-dried laundry appeared in the NYT.

Hanging Out

Lots of overlap in the two, if you read carefully. I made a comment on NIM, so you can take a look there if you want. The NYT article really set me off; every other paragraph stimulating book-chapter long "amen, and furthermore" responses, in my head. I'll restrain myself, a little anyway.

Ms. Hughes launches her article with "AS a child, I helped my mother hang laundry in our backyard..."

Stopped me right there.

It makes a HUGE difference how you experience the world as a child. Truly vast. I really don't want to be a constant sourpuss - the Governator's "temperance preacher at a fraternity party" - but making the changes in lifestyle that the planet clearly needs may be next to impossible for many of today's children.

Raised in a world where they not only don't have to lift a finger, but where the whole world seems (to them) to be desperately concerned that they should be "getting" everything they "need"- it may be literally inconceivable to them that they should, must, change their self-absorbed lives. It's a great deal like asking someone raised as a good southern Baptist to suddenly convert to Hinduism. You're going to have trouble there.

The advantages of being raised in a sustainably oriented household are many; and not least of them is that true "need" is much easier to see, and understand. SOMEBODY does have to "take the compost out" - or it will stink, and breed flies, and everyone's life will be miserable. Somebody has to go get firewood from the pile, or the house will get cold. In a very short time, the child can see much further- if someone doesn't MAKE a firewood pile, the family will freeze- and die. Really.

There are two advantages to this. The child understands real need. Necessity - REAL necessity - is a concept most children from the 1st world have no real grasp of. We are now facing a world where necessity must be attended to, by all.

AND- the child learns, immediately, that he/she can HELP the family. They learn that what they do matters, and that they are truly a help, to their parents, and the family.

Feeling useful is unbelievably important. Personally, I'm convinced that its opposite; knowing you are useless, is the chief cause of alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, and suicide.

I'll state this here, for what may be the first time anywhere; as a behavioral scientist, I think it's possible the human primate has a "self destruct" function hardwired in. If you are truly useless to the tribe- then you are a threat to the survival of your relatives; and the best thing you can do for them might be - to self destruct. One way or another.

Ok, see what I mean about boggling? This is what the first line triggered. Dismal thoughts!

The upside is: living sustainably does provide multiple antidotes. This is not just my opinion; you can read about it in "Time, Soil, and Children—Conversations with the Second Generation of Sustainable Farm Families in Minnesota", a beautifully hopeful book by Beth Waterhouse.

Children raised with their eyes open - see. Hang on to that.

Chapter 2 came here; "That simple decision to hang a clothesline, however, catapults me into the laundry underground. Clotheslines are banned or restricted by many of the roughly 300,000 homeowners’ associations..."

Sigh. There are legal barriers to a lot of sustainable stuff- some of them based on health concerns, some of them based on nothing at all but a warped sense of propriety. Like green mowed lawns. Ok, maybe a couple chapters... I won't go there right now.

Chapter 3 - "Not only that. Heading outside to the clothesline and hanging each load takes about 7 minutes — 6 minutes and 30 seconds longer than it takes to stuff everything into the dryer."

Oh, no!! Not 6 minutes and 30 seconds!!! I've talked several times about "saving" time- and wasting it; sure I'll talk a lot more eventually.

Chapter 4 - "But the rope lines started to sag, allowing the sheets and heavy wet towels to drag in the dirt. The wooden clothespins soon became weathered and fell apart."

There's the other one I want to get into today. We've FORGOTTEN the technology and skills we need for many sustainable activities - like living without a household refrigerator, like using the sun to dry laundry, like living without endless just-turn-the-tap hot water.

If the writer had had her mother available- or the universally longed for Grandma - those mistakes would not have been made in the first place. The fact that the "store" labels this rope as "clothesline" means nothing at all. Several different kinds of rope will work, depending on different situations- but it's not a trivial choice. The job the rope has to do is quite a demanding one, and success requires considerable knowledge about the behaviors of different kinds of rope. (I'll toss out three factoids here; never try to use nylon; it stretches; polypropylene, it develops slivers; and, what I prefer for clothesline is plastic covered steel wire.)

Likewise with the clothespins. Some on the market are junk; but all of them should come in out of the rain when not in use. The sun eats everything. Grandma had a pin bag, that traveled along the line; pins went in, and out, at need, and the bag sheltered them from the weather when they weren't in use. My Grandma took the pin bag inside, between wash days.

This kind of lost information is extremely common; and it's going to be a problem as people try to recover what they see as "simple" practices from the past. They remember Grandma and Grandpa doing these things, and with the simpler eyes and expectations of childhood, they think all those chores were SIMPLE - because Gram and Gramps did them so easily.

They WEREN'T simple. They required quite a lot of training, knowledge, and learned skills. But getting folks to understand that can be quite difficult. And it's very discouraging for many people to attempt what Grandpa did so easily- and fail completely.

As we get further into the sustainable green world we must have, we need to regenerate also our genuine respect for the "elders" - and the priceless knowledge they have.

We need them. And we need to relearn what they know, before we lose them. SOMEBODY (not me!) needs to launch an "Urban Foxfire Book". Seriously. There are still Grams and Gramps about who remember living in an apartment with no refrigerator; even with an outhouse. No airconditioner. Limited electricity. No hot water. Etc. This would be an absolutely fabulous project for kids to undertake; just as the original Foxfire books were.

So? I'm looking at YOU.


There were more "chapters" this article kicked off for me, but I think we're approaching overload here, so we'll leave them for now.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


A bit of a shorty here, partly by way of explanation. I've missed a couple days, and in general I don't intend to. When I first got a computer in the house (1984, Macintosh 128K, powered by solar panels) - I kept a Pepys style daily journal- for 7 years, I think. Maybe 8. So I can. Health, of various kinds, was the reason I stopped.

Health was half the reason I missed a couple days here, not me, but... my Spice. I asked her if that was ok, she kinda looked at me sideways and said "well, it's better than Number Two." The plural of spouse ought to be spice, don't you think?

Spice has been suffering from some kind of weird and intractable ear pain, for over a month. Yesterday we took the whole day to go get a serious diagnosis. Not, as it turns out, the ear; but the jaw. sigh. Maybe looking at surgery if things don't improve soon.

Reason #2 has to do with sustainable living- and the weather. If you're actually living green, it does indeed make more of a difference what the weather is doing- you have to deal with it more inimately than if you're totally insulated by expensive technology. So- we got winter, and lots of messy snow, right now, and it kind of slows things down.

It IS, I assure you, a warm cozy feeling to be inside a house you built yourself- with your family- and the wind roaring- and the fire, from your own wood, keeping all warm. Lovely.

So. True confessions time- man, does it ever make you want to take a nice comfy nap.....

Heck we all deserve one, right? And the snow makes it nearly impossible to actually be out and about- gosh, I'm stuck here...

Ok, on to the kippers. The BBC has a fun study posted today on why men don't leave home so much these days.


Paragraph two: "and a fully-stocked fridge."

Kipper is a nifty new acronym; probably British in origin but I think destined for wide adaptation; "Kids In Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings."

Nice play on "nipper", and "kip"- and tasty but definitely smelly fish.

Once again, the refrigerator surfaces as very near the heart of a problematic development. And still, the most common response to my blindingly brilliant suggestion is some version of "I couldn't possibly", "unrealistic!", "my family would never let me!"

C'mon, guys. Think a little harder.

A) 100 years ago, they didn't exist. Pretty obviously, your ancestors did manage to reproduce without one.
2) Right now today- most of the people on the planet STILL do not have one, in 2007. Are they reproducing?
iii) I live in the USA - and I've done it for 30 years; so again, it can be done. And I just reproduced recently.

Please don't make me write the book! And now you have additional incentive, if you've got a little kipper hanging about - unplug that fully stocked fridge, and see if it makes a difference. :-)

Ok, nap time. Dinner- will involve meat- refrigerated quite nicely and with zero environmental cost, on the porch.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


Answers for Deanna, whose whole post is here: comment

I'd love to do my quotations here with margin insets; but I'm too lazy to figure out how; I'm on a Mac, and this setup is a little cranky about it.

>>So, it seems you really would like people to give up their refrigerators.

Well. I would really like people to think about it seriously. No pressure. The planet is running on "broil", but what the hay, no pressure. :-)

I would like to emphasize, or re-emphasize that I'm highly in favor of individual choice- and in favor of folks not being obnoxious about other people's choices. It's definitely not that I think all paths are equally good- but persecution is pretty well demonstrated to be a way to shut down conversation- as well as civilization.

>>I wanted to get your thoughts of the impact of that many thousands of refrigerators going into the waste stream?

I can't tell you how delighted I am to have thoughtful people reading here. You're quite right- somebody needs to think about the consequences.

>> if everyone is to give theirs up (let's say a government imposed requirement unless for medical necessity, etc.) there's no market for used fridges.

I can weasel out of this one; and don't really think it's weasely- certainly in the early days of any movement away from universal personal refrigerators, there will be TONS of folks who are not on the bandwagon- the market for used fridges should initially be quite good.

If the day should ever arrive where a government imposed rules- it should not be terribly difficult to "phase-out" the whole phenomenon. We should be able to see it coming. First thing would be to require inefficient fridges to go to the recycler immediately- which would mean there would be a considerable initial market for good used ones again. It would even make excellent environmental sense to ship them to country B, which is NOT partaking of this imagined government ban- then they won't have to build new ones; a gain in itself as you see below here-

>>So what happens to all those old and lightly used fridges? Well, the epa site claims that the following (more or less) happens to your old fridge:

Lots of recycling details there- good stuff. Yeah, it's a mess. Partly what seems to have made Deanna's ears perk up was the mention of the several Ozone Depleting materials that come out of fridges when they're trashed. Sure, that's not good.

>>Anyway, if that much ozone is getting blown into the atmosphere, is that good too?

I'm sure that's just a typo- you meant freon, or the equivalent. Here's the thing- all the fridges currently in existence WILL go through this trashing process eventually. So those consequences are already in the pipeline- there's really nothing we can do to stop them. In terms of the planet's time frame- fridges are short lived; the trash is their immediate future.

What we CAN do is prevent NEW fridges from being made- by decreasing the demand, now, quick, with a personal choice type movement. In case you haven't noticed, waiting for the Gummint to save our behinds is a losing proposition. The government follows US, in fact.

Every person who stops using a home refrigerator means one that will NOT be built, just down the road. And selling your good used one now means the demand for new will decrease- by TWO- now.

I'll toss out two other consequences I've considered; one good, one bad. There are more, to be sure, but these are substantial.

Good Consequence: The makers of refrigerators will be appalled and terrified if people start unplugging and selling their fridges. Really. I'll guarantee you, one of their first reactions will be to increase the efficiency, durability, and greenness of the machines they make. In fact they'll compete over it. Home fridges could be HUGELY more efficient. Lots of ways- like using vacuum for the insulation, instead of foam. Yup, vacuum is a bit more expensive. So is the more efficient motor. So? We're all of us going to have to get used to the idea that "clean" is not cheap.

What's killing us fast is the fact that CHEAP is FILTHY. We bloody can't AFFORD cheap, anymore. We need the best, most efficient- most durable goods we can imagine.

A real movement to unplug will put a LOT of pressure on; very fast. So- a bunch of people will quit using home fridges altogether- and the remainder will slowly shift to machines that are much greener. And lots of folks WILL find a place in-between; shifting from a huge fridge to a small one; or using one only 3 months of the year- there are lots of ways.

Horrible Consequence: somewhere, sometime, a small child will once again crawl into a turned-off fridge, become locked in, and suffocate. This already happens, every year. But if there are a lot more turned-off machines, the chances go up. And it will make a bunch of people very unhappy. Including me.

But it's not a reason not to unplug. It's a reason to THINK about what you're doing, and make sure the fridge is deactivated safely (take the door off, for crying out loud.)

If a Stradivarius plays in the wilderness...

Here is an experiment done by the Washington Post, published today.

They talked an internationally famous violinist into playing, incognito, at a Metro station- and recorded everything.


The writing, and the thinking, in the article are exceptional in my opinion- and the long article is worth taking the time to read.

It's relevant to the readers of this blog because it echoes exactly my second post;

Green light, Slow Down

and No Impact Man's recent parallels

Quieter Drummer

Any attempt to live "green" or "sustainable" by definition includes taking the time to think, and see- every day. It's partly the hurry that is killing us- we zip right past obvious disasters in the making, and explain we just don't have time to do anything about it anyway.

We have to. It's not a matter of philosophy anymore-

The hurry is killing us. No exaggeration; no hyperbole, no paranoia.

Killing us.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Not refrigerators

They tell me people have a short attention span these days- if it doesn't come in little sound bites, then they can't hear it.

Not that I believe that really - but I do think it's true that everyone hears things better if it's not hammered at them constantly. So, to take a little side trip from the refrigerator today, we just have to look at the headlines.

US & China Bully IPCC

Basically, those two old chums, the USA and China, went together to "soften" some of the language in the latest statement being released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change- you know, the one that's generated all the "billions will suffer" headlines in the last couple days.

You mean the reality is worse than they said?

Oh, yeah.

Decision making processes, individual, joint, societal- have always been a major interest of mine; I've studied them. We have a very serious problem as a planet- since we have no real planetary government, and the individual governments are generally equipped with the brains and morals of hyenas. (A hyena skull, just in case you've never held one, is made of massive dense bone; good anchors for muscles designed to crack bones for marrow; and a remarkably small brain case. It weighs like twice what a lion skull does. Yeah, yeah, I know, the Discovery Channel has discovered that hyenas are good mothers. Doesn't change much here.)

Have you heard this line recently- "Scientists expressed surprise that the climate changes they've been predicting are in fact showing up much faster, and with bigger amplitudes, than expected."?

It's a pretty easy statement to find.

IF ANYONE WERE PAYING ATTENTION to the deliberations (they're not, really) - NOBODY WOULD BE SURPRISED.

Because. Good scientists are, always, very careful not to "overstate" their findings. In the course of one calculation, what this means is they go through a process of estimating forces, quantities, etc. Do they overestimate? Never never- very bad for the reputation. You always pick a number that is "conservative." Take your best measurement - and ROUND DOWN. Ditto for the next number in the equation.

So what happens when you multiply a conservative estimate by a conservative estimate by a conservative estimate by a conservative estimate by a conservative estimate by a conservative estimate?

Mathematically speaking - YOU WILL GET AN ->UNDER<- ESTIMATE. Every time. And when you then add an underestimate from Study A, to an underestimate from Study B, to ...

Then; on top of it all - you have the bullies out there fighting to cover their own hyena behinds- forcing the language softer and softer.

You didn't want to know this; or hear this- but yeah; global warming is worse than anyone's been saying or admitting.

So go unplug your fridge now. :-)

Friday, April 6, 2007

Happiness is a warm house..

Unless it's August.

Almost wrote "a warm chain saw" - but that would probably be just a bit much for some of us.

Chain saw is fixed, bless the fixit guy. He had help from my 2 year old, who walked in with mama, looked the fixit guy dead in the eye and said "man fix chain chain please." The consequence of which is, a warm house, in a very cold windy woods. Which is a good thing.

Back to the refrigeration discussion; there have been several very good question/comments, all of which point in the right direction, so I'll cover them here. Full comments can be seen in the comments, oddly enough.

crunchy chicken said... 
>>I suppose we all rely on it merely for the convenience. <<

Mostly, anyway. There's no question some uses are entirely legitimate; especially medication. Diabetics must refrigerate their insulin, for example.

>>We don't eat much meat, if at all, so I suppose we could do without. But did I mention how convenient it was?<<

by golly, I think you did mention the convenience. :-)

But; is the convenience REAL, or just habitual? Remember that this was one of the selling points drummed into us to get us to buy fridges.

And- is convenient good for us? Mostly it means- hey, you don't have to think, and you don't have to walk.

This is a significant point here; doing without refrigeration is likely not a good idea for those unable to get out of the house on a daily basis; nor for those with memory problems. If you're going to unplug, it means you HAVE to think about what you're eating, today and tomorrow; and you have to be able to go get what you need without serious dislocations.

I have several friends who are authentically affected by Attention Deficit Disorder. It's no joke for them. Whether they could make do sensibly without a fridge would be a matter of their specific adaptations to the disease, and their personal preferences.

One thing I'd be unhappy to see would be a gestapo-style movement to pressure everyone in the 1st world to get rid of their fridges. Counterproductive, I think.

claudia said...
>>I lived in Latvia in 1993-94 (a few years after liberation from the USSR), staying with a family there who were managing more or less the way all Europeans had done 50 years before, during the post-WWII years. I was surprised by how little food they refrigerated and, at first, was sure I would come down with food poisoning...I never did get sick.<<

Here, again- doing without a fridge requires a little education, and a LOT of vigilance. You can't forget to simmer the soup; and if you do, you'd better be prepared to throw it out, without tasting.

There are multiple kinds of food poisoning; everyone's favorite that gives you 24 hours of constant up-chucking, and the kind that leaves you kind of dead.

The thing is, the deadly kind is really very uncommon. If you just follow normal hygiene practices, you will probably have less chance of deadly food poisoning in an unrefrigerated home than you have of getting- oh- salmonella poisoning from ConAgra peanutbutter. Or E. coli from spinach.

The folks pushing refrigeration of course make a big deal out of the "increased safety" associated with a good fridge. But they DON'T print a lot of headlines about the food poisoning that results from a good fridge - slowly going bad. So that, unnoticed by any, until the doctor asks how you got so sick, the average temperature inside the fridge slowly edges up, as it ages in various ways, until it's not really effectively slowing bacterial growth any more. That happens. And particularly when you are blindly relying on technology to solve your problems and do your thinking- you are unlikely to notice.

teri said...
>>I don't think it's wise to encourage folks to get rid of the fridge without encouraging food storage. Life without a fridge is simple when you have a pantry full of grains, legumes, dried and canned fruits and vegetables, even smoked and canned meats. I'd hate for anyone to depend on supermarkets always being stocked.<<

I understand what you're saying; but-

I'm mostly encouraging city dwellers to think hard about this. No question, out in the country, options are fewer, and driving in to town is a larger and more expensive chore.

But. In the city - in most cases, if supermarket A is not functional, then supermarket B, or C, will be. And - if a great many people were relying on them daily- I'll bet my shirt the number of small mom and pop supermarkets, more conveniently located, would increase.

And. Anyone living in the city is already betting the "city" will continue to "work". If the city STOPS working- fresh food may be the least of their problems, and you can live off the canned soup and pasta until the riots are over. Not a cheerful scenario, but worth thinking about seriously. And. If the city has stopped working- is your fridge going to be working, anyway? I doubt it. They're going to cut the electricity on day one.

And, yes- I WOULD encourage anyone doing without a fridge to keep non-perishables stocked, a little. Not to the "survivalist" point, but it's just kind of common sense- something we're trying to encourage here- when your favorite soup is on sale, buy 4 cans, instead of 2, and stash some. Etc. This should come kind of naturally with thinking about what you're eating on a daily basis.

vanessa said...
>>This is a very tempting idea, especially considering I don't have that much in my fridge, and even less in my freezer. But what about my soy milk? <<

Well, check the label- I'll bet a pint will keep nicely for 24 hours without the fridge. If you're stopping off at the store on the way home every day- it should be fairly easy to match your purchase to your consumption. Do they make powdered soy milk yet? :-)

>>And all my condiments? <<

In fact the great majority of them will keep weeks without trouble- I NEVER refrigerate mustard or ketchup- and I don't think I've ever had them spoil. Pickles- were INVENTED to survive non-refrigerated conditions. Anything with vinegar in it spoils very slowly, if at all- which is most condiments.

One thing that will NOT keep unrefrigerated, of course, is mayonnaise, which has egg in it. Of course, you could just make your own, when you really want it... oil and vinegar salad dressing is immune to spoilage, pretty much; but milk based dressings might be a problem.

>>And my margarine? <<

No worries! Real butter keeps unrefrigerated for weeks- and so will margarine. Sure, the label says "refrigerate" - but it's not so much because they're afraid it will go rancid- it's because if it gets just a little too warm, it'll liquify, and make a yucky mess, and make you mad at them.

>>And man, there's nothing like a cold beer in the middle of summer... <<

Aha! Thank you Vanessa! This brings up another pretty good argument for NOT having a fridge.

You're right- a cold beer (or whatever) in summer is lovely. But you know what? When it's RIGHT THERE, all the time- we really don't appreciate it all that much. In fact, I know a bunch of people who basically don't even NOTICE the cold beer they just automatically grab out of the fridge. Sure, they make all the appropriate noises "wow, this sure is great on a hot day" - but 2 seconds later- they've forgotten the whole thing. It's just too easy.

Granted I'm a cross-grained type of guy, but it really seems to me that the major benefit to having the cold beer right there in the fridge is... - you can easily drink 3 or 4 of them; since they're so handy; meaning you get fat, and spend money you really didn't intend to.

Now- I'm entirely in favor of a cold beer in summer. But let me give you a couple of alternative ways to enjoy one.

A) you buy ONE, already cold, at the market, using it to help keep the meat/butter cool on the trip home.

B) you sometimes buy some kind of frozen meat at the market- say a turkey breast or sausage, just for example; and when you get it home, you put a warm beer in the little cooler alongside it- the beer gets cold, the meat gets thawed so you can make dinner.

C) somewhere in your world, there's a naturally chilly place. Not necessarily 34°F - but say a creek or a pond, with a cool bottom; or a cellar. Take a walk- and retrieve a beer you put there yesterday. You get a little walk, and a cool beer. I guarantee you, a beer at 50°F on a 90°F day, is plenty cool enough. (no, you can't hide a six-pack - somebody will swipe it.)

D) There are also all the evaporative cooling processes, used in the warm places of the world for millenia. Hang a beer in the shade in a wet canvas bag for a couple hours- it'll get cool as the water evaporates.

All that sounds like it's mostly philosophy, not practical "energy saving" - but it's all connected.

>>I think I could maybe try this for spring and fall at least, when Canadian weather is cool, and stick some stuff out on my balcony.<<

You bet. That's exactly what we do. We actually have great refrigeration all winter- it's called "the porch". Total cost- a little attention, so the raccoons don't turn things inside out. When our fridge quits working- every year- we shift gears a little. Helps you notice the years, in fact.

Part of the lesson from all these comments/questions- doing without a fridge DOES mean you have to think. All the time. I have to admit I think that's a good idea. But it also means- I can see a couple of books worth of advice being printed, lots of it conflicting, for different circumstances. It should be fun to watch them develop.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


Reality can be a stinker- but we're pretty much stuck with it. It's a little more obvious when you're on your own in the woods-

Right this moment, my reality includes a winter coldsnap; following 80° weather- and a chainsaw that has chosen this moment to die on me. We need it right now both for firewood (running short) and spring chores. This means a trip to town, and begging the repair guy to take a look rightawayquick.

And, the cold snap means the sod road in to the greenhouse is frozen hard- for a few hours. Have to take advantage of that right now, too; need to carry a pallet load of soil in, trash out- and we won't be able to do it when the ground thaws. Thaw turns our sod into swamp for a week, every time it goes through the cycle. Recently, we've had more hard freeze-thaw cycles than the old timers here think is "normal". And I hate mud.

But ignoring reality will cost me bigtime later; so I try not to.

It's a microcosm for the planet- we're still ignoring reality- the world cannot afford to just waste so much energy; so many resources. But we're still busy pretending the world has no limits; just buy what you want.

The New York Times has a splendid example today:

Wild West Water

And so, I'm afraid, does the BBC-

Already Changing

Reality - people are already dying from global warming, and from our idiotic attempts to pretend we won't have to change anything substantial. By which I mean the USA fermenting our food into gasoline- for our SUVs and snowmobiles and jetskis - which has already caused food riots in Mexico; where the price of tortillas, the mainstay of the poor, has doubled.

Apparently I'm feeling grumpy today. Probably because I tried cutting firewood with a good sharp ax, since my chainsaw is busted- and discovered I'm totally not in shape to do that. And may never be again; the hard impact of the ax may be more jarring than my aging bones can really adapt to. Dang reality, anyway.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Back, sort of-

Meeting over, but body systems and family systems are still recovering from the dislocations, so I'm not quite "all there" yet.

So this will be a bit short. But, I do want to continue with the topic of "refrigerators". Eventually here, we'll have a summary post, that kind of clarifies the whole conversation.

I'm suggesting that folks living in first world cities should all get rid of their refrigerators. Today, if possible.

You don't need it. You can buy any perishable foodstuff you want, today.

You'll be healthier, and wealthier without it. You won't have stockpiles of treats available 24/7- you won't buy them and you won't eat them. The extra walking you do to buy the perishables going into the spaghetti tonight will help, too.

You won't be paying for the electricity to run it. And- most refrigerators are outrageously inefficient.

And- you have to pump their heat twice- once to get it out of the fridge; and often again to get it out of the house. Especially during a heat wave...

A basic fact about current refrigerator design: they're made to attract buyers; NOT to be efficient at keeping food.

All of which means- refrigerators and airconditioners are a HUGE part of the reason power companies build new power-plants- and why the power blacks out during heat waves. Everybody is getting into the fridge to get cold drinks- so the fridge runs more- so the airconditioner runs more- so the power grid can't supply the demand. Hey, we need more power generation.

This is all a by-product of the UNSTATED ASSUMPTION we all make- "if I buy a new machine- the power will be there to run it, and the new power won't cost enough to notice."

Time's up, for that assumption. We still design everything we use as if its power consumption was a very minor consideration.

Why does your new TV pull 100 watts of power? ONLY because to use the slightly better components they could have installed, so that it would pull 50 watts instead, would increase the initial cost of the TV by $30.

And the economists will always say, "Look, it would take you 10 years to get your $30 back just from the electricity you'd save; this isn't worth doing."

Except the electricity is ENORMOUSLY more expensive than the bill from the power company states. Cheap power is what's causing climate change- if we were honest, we'd add the cost of rebuilding New Orleans, and burying the dead there, into the electricity bills for the world.

And refrigerators are a key piece of the whole picture.

More coming.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Out, sort of

I'm spending several days doing a "meeting"; off the farm all day, though we're coming back to sleep. So I'm seriously short on time to post here. I promise I'll be back daily, after Monday-

Meanwhile- re the refrigerator- when food is so convenient, so universally available - do we NOTICE it?

Sometimes I think the answer is no. Want some ice cream? Right there. An hour later, can you remember what flavor it was?

If it's a less common, less easy, event- it has a much larger impact. You notice. You appreciate. In fact, you get a much larger "bang" for your buck.