Saturday, March 26, 2011


If you're like me, it seems that people are just shoveling shit into fans all over the world, these days. And avidly looking for more fans to shovel into, and bigger shovels. Faster and faster.

I find the ongoing disaster in Japan mesmerizing; a horror it is hard to look away from.


So; I'm going to share something with you; which illustrates- well, something.

Life goes on, maybe. Life can be good, maybe. Something, in any case, to hang on to, in the radioactive winds of climate change.

Here's the albatross:

Photo: Pete Leary; US Fish & Wildlife Service.

And here's the story. You're looking, there, at the oldest documented wild bird in the world. She is "Wisdom", a Laysan albatross; and she is known to be at least 60 years old - biologists have been watching her that long.

That's her chick. At 60. That was sufficiently astonishing news for the world to get her into the New York Times. It's certainly exceptional for any wild bird to live so very long; but it was really unknown that birds of that age were still capable of laying eggs- and raising chicks.

But they are. Pretty doggone cool.

Wisdom, and her chick, live on Midway Atoll; a very remote islet in the Pacific. Millions of seabirds nest there; it's a wildlife refuge now, littered of course with the reminders of World War II. The average elevation of the atoll is - 4 feet above sea level. Four.

The tsunami following the quake in Japan swept over Midway, very thoroughly. It was a catastrophe; enormous. The estimates are over 100,000 albatross chicks were killed; and 2,000 adults.


But that photo? Is from AFTER the tsunami. That's Wisdom. And that's her chick.

You know; I think I can live a long time on that.

Thanks. To Wisdom; and to the Fish & Wildlife folks. It's a big deal.

More Wisdom pics, if you need them.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Maybe, for you - it's time to unplug.

Unplug what? Unplug - everything.

Yes, that's a drastic suggestion; but if you aren't feeling drastic today, you never will.

Nuclear power - is a thing of the past. But it's not going to die an easy death; the nuke profiteers will fight for their profits; which come, please note, never from actual profits made selling energy; but from subsidies paid by taxpayers. They fight to the death. Literally. So long as the deaths are not their own, they are already writing about how happy they are to see a few people die for their nukes. "Everything is dangerous!" they now cry; after paying expert pontificators for decades to pound home the idea that nukes are "totally safe!"

They're not; they never were, and those who said so (me, quietly, Nicole Foss with vast expertise) have been ignored (at best).

And let me say this, too - I'm of the opinion that safe nuclear power might have been a possibility, at one time. But at the outset, engineers who pushed for greater intrinsic safety were ignored because safer designs were also more expensive, up front. As recently as last week- while pushing "third generation" nuclear reactors, the industry once again chose to ignore- and ridicule- engineers pointing out safety flaws.

What's going on in Japan right now is much, much worse than the mainstream media is saying it is. That's partly because the news coming out of Japan is being specifically toned down to slow panic, and because the media feels compelled to repeat bs like "The outer building was destroyed in the explosion, and the inner concrete secondary containment vessel has collapsed - but the primary steel reactor vessel inside was not damaged, and there is no serious danger to the public at this time."

What leaks out, in dribs and drabs, are little bits of information like "we've found cesium outside"... and "US helicopter pilots flying 60 miles away were contaminated with radioactive particulate matter"...

The only way to get cesium outside is if the core of the reactor has melted, and the core is leaking incredibly hot vaporized metal into the outside world. No, it's not Chernobyl- but that really shouldn't comfort anyone. It's not Three Mile Island, either, it's vastly worse. (By far the best whole-problem analysis I've seen is from Nicole Foss, here.)

Public reaction against nuclear power is going to be huge. The push to develop nuclear anyway, will also be huge- and very powerful. In case you haven't noticed- powerful people are currently increasingly convinced they can and should ignore public wishes, "for our own good".

So. You feel you don't want any new nuclear power plants built around you? What can you do about it?

Yeah, sure; write to your Congress people. Call them. Go to the demonstrations; carry a sign. As all the public employees in Wisconsin will tell you - they're not listening much.
Something you could do- that would actually force them to pay at least a tiny bit of attention to you- is unplug. Quit using their electricity. Stop.

Yes; you could. I can tell you that with a little credibility; because I did; more than 30 years ago- and actually; for exactly this reason; nuclear power (as it exists) is an incredibly bad idea. It was the 3rd post I made on this blog. And I'm not dead, I've raised 2 children entirely this way, one of whom has moved back with his PhD in engineering to work with me, one of whom lights his house with LEDs; and am raising another.

Now; before you quit listening altogether, because 99% of you are thinking "sure, he could, but I really can't... just physically cannot." - you could actually make a difference if you just unplugged some of your "stuff".

Long ago, a very nice lady was writing on Dot Earth, Andy Revkin's blog on the NYT, and made the very common statement that "she'd really like to 'go solar', but she just couldn't afford it." Most people believe that, and repeat it so often it becomes "common knowledge", aka; "reality".

So I commented there that actually she could; anyone can; at any time. Here's how you go solar, on any budget. You go out and buy the solar system you can afford, no matter how small. Then- you only plug in the appliances that you have power for. If you don't have the power- then you can't use it. (A big part of why I have no refrigerator.) When you can afford more solar- you add it on. Then you can run more stuff. Not before. (And sure, solar is not the only game in town; just pay attention to the principle here.)

She did not, alas, go out and do as I suggested.

But just maybe- it's time for people to take that a bit more seriously.

So- if you find yourself concerned, and wanting to do something; think about actually, seriously and permanently, reducing your electricity consumption. That way; when the nuke pushers start saying "we must have them, or we will have no civilization"; they will have a little more trouble making that argument stick.

Over all electric consumption is down, in the "developed world". Most of the world has excess generating capacity, right now. But; the pushers are already pushing; claiming it's desperately essential to have more. If, however, civilized people are simply doing with less; one way or another; and general consumption fails to rise- it will be hard to make that stick.

How many electric clocks do you have in your house? How many do you actually need?

Do clocks use a lot of power? Hell, no; but they are the perfect example of our habits, which have resulted in the endless growth in demand. No, the clock uses "almost nothing"- but how many clocks that no one ever looks at do you suppose are running right now in New York City? I'd have to guess hundreds of thousands, since nice clocks, and clock radios, and an extra clock radio for the den, and the one your uncle gave you for college that is running in the baby's room- are a favorite gift, which we cheerfully give and receive and - plug in, somewhere. And never look at.

Ok; only an example of consumption that happens below our radar- and which adds up, over our 100's of millions of people; so that we probably need one whole power plant in the USA - just to run clocks no one looks at. Another example - just the "standby" features of all our gizmos are estimated to add up to 108 Billion Kilowatt-hours per year, just in the USA. If my math is right, that's more than ten 1,000 Megawatt power plants.

And how about the kids' Wii, that's never unplugged. The extra old fridge still running in the garage, that keeps fish bait and beer cool in the summer; but runs all year?

Truthfully; the easiest way to tackle the problem, if you are one who wants to, is to just unplug everything. Then plug things back in- only when you find you need them.

There's a million ways to cut your use. Put motion detectors in each room that control room lights. Etc.

And for a few. Go ahead. Unplug permanently. Go off-grid.

There are millions in Japan who just went off grid; the hard way. And millions more are cutting back; the hard way. It could go better for your household if you were making your own choices; not having them imposed by forces beyond all control.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Greenpa's Rules of Real Economics.

Gee whiz, everybody is talking about the price of oil, the price of gas at the pump, and how we're all helpless in the hands of foreign oil producers.

Here's a comment I made over on the NYT Green Blogs

#1. When they tell you, "Sorry, but this is simply too complex for untrained people to understand." - they are lying. If you managed a B in 5th Grade addition and subtraction, you CAN understand it.

#2. When Joe Sixpack looks at the prices at the gas station, and says, "That just doesn't make sense." he is 100% correct, and he only got a C+ in 5th Grade.

#3. When Big Oil reports record profits - of billions - and they say "Look, we couldn't help it, these prices are set by the international markets-" they are lying.

#4 Could Big Oil cut the prices they charge the gas stations - and still make exactly the same profits they did last quarter? Why, yes, they could.

#5. But they don't.


Of course, immediately after I hit the "post" button, a few more occurred to me...

#6. Does that mean Big Oil is ripping off the public - and they know it? Yes, it does.

#7. Does that mean Joe Sixpack's Aunt Ruth, the retired, pensionless, Kindergarten teacher, will finally go bankrupt, fail to pay her mortgage, become homeless, and die of exposure on the street? Yes, it does.

#8. Does that mean that when Aunt Ruth's bank can't sell her foreclosed house, loses money and gets sold to Bank of America for 10¢ on the dollar, and there is no one in town who will loan money to local businesses, some of them will have to close? Why, yes, it does.

#9. Wouldn't the Homeland Security Administration consider anyone causing such widespread economic damage as a threat to National Security, guilty of murder, and possibly guilty of Treason? Only if they're not a large multinational corporation.


Ok, yes, I have this bad habit of thinking that something obvious to me is of course obvious to everyone. Yes, that makes me an idiot.


As first commenter Eric pointed out; maybe it's not instantly obvious. So here was my answer to him; this is the simple math:

Here's how! Remember - it's their PROFIT that is UP. Are they making ENOUGH profit already? They certainly said so in their last stockholder's letter. They make more, automatically, because they've rigged it so their profits are figured as a PERCENTAGE of the price. Price goes up; profits go up. Making the exact same profit wouldn't hurt them a tiny bit.

And- seriously - do businesses have an ethical responsibility to NOT HURT their customers? Every business ethics class in the world would say so. Are their customers being hurt? Ask them. Millions have had to quit marginal jobs because they can no longer afford the commute; I know some of them; some of them have had to quit working for me.

Here's the math (I'm making these numbers up):

Overhead costs $80/bbl. Profits are figured in automatically at, say 20% of that; $16, so cost at the pump is now $96/bbl.

Ok; so; the price goes to $100/bb. Now, the automatic profit margin is $20. Price at the pump; now $120/bbl. And their PROFITS just jumped from $16 to $20, on every barrel.

Exactly what did they do to EARN an increased profit? Not one damn thing. But they still take more money out of YOUR pocket; and put it into theirs.

Could they??? Gosh?? Just continue to harvest a profit of $16/barrel? Yes, the cost at the pump would still go up. To $116/bbl. Yes, it would still hurt me, and my workers; but just a little less. Maybe Aunt Martha could squeak by.

nah. why bother?

Friday, March 4, 2011

What Would Greenpa Do?

Gingeranne writes:
"I've been reading your blog for several years now and have a favor to ask: if your schedule permits, would you do a post on what you would advise young people if you could? If you were in your twenties/early thirties, knowing what you know, would you choose this life, in this country, all over again? Husband, baby and I are trying to quit the big-city rat race, buy some property cheap (no mortgage if possible) and transition to as self-sufficient a lifestyle as possible. But as my awareness has grown of the depth and breadth of the problems in the country, I truly wonder whether it is even worth trying to stay here to do so. I am appalled by the way we truly seem to be going to hell in a handbasket environmentally, economically, societally and otherwise, and disheartened that most people seem too zombiefied to care. Surely there are other places in the world where sanity and humanity and common sense hold more sway? Or is that just the idealism talking? Your wise insights much appreciated. Many thanks."

Ouch. Was my first thought. And "scary." Do I dare give advice? Do I have any I'd give? You'll be glad to know, Gingeranne, that you spooked me good with that one.


Particularly since I gleaned this following bit from J.R.R.Tolkien, decades ago. It struck me hard, the first time I ever read it, and still does with each re-reading. The reason we love Tolkien is because he speaks the truth; and his truth comes from genuine ancient wisdom, gleaned from ancient stories. (You know, of course, that he was a scholar of ancient language and myth, specializing for years in the academic dissection of Beowulf, in its original and successive languages.)

This is from The Fellowship Of The Ring; before Frodo has even left the Shire; Frodo speaks:
" 'I have been expecting Gandalf for many days. He was to have come to Hobbiton at the latest two nights ago: but he has never appeared. Now I am wondering what can have happened. Should I wait for him?'
Gildor was silent for a moment. 'I do not like this news,' he said at last. 'That Gandalf should be late, does not bode well. But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. The choice is yours; to go or to wait.'
'And it is also said,' answered Frodo: 'Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.'
'Is it indeed?' laughed Gildor. 'Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill. But what would you? You have not told me all concerning yourself; and how then shall I choose better than you? But if you demand advice, I will for friendship's sake give it. I think you should now go at once, without delay; and if Gandalf does not come before you set out, then I also advise this: do not go alone. Take such friends as are trusty and willing.'

My italics. With one exception, I think I cannot do better. Every word of that tiny bit rings true for me.

The one exception comes from whether you should "go", and what that really might mean. Leave your country, to seek a more sane, safer one? Or find a way in the country and culture you know?

Sharon Astyk had a post on this topic just recently, I do recommend you take a look. And, I commented on it, with views others there found compelling.


My answer there was really oversimplified, for debate purposes. My true answer would be exactly Gildor's; the choice is yours, to go or stay. And while my own answer is "stay"; yours might very well be "go". It depends.

I'm staying because I have roots here, and family, and friends; here.

The case for going, sometimes, though, is very strong. If you were a Jew in 1929 Germany - you definitely should have decided to leave, if at all possible. That entire situation was utterly out of control.

There are places in the US at the moment, which have very high potential for getting out of control. And if you are possibly a target for such hatefulness - leaving might be by far the sanest thing you can do. Only you can know.

Changing cultures and countries is a non-trivial decision, though; and I do happen to personally know a very smart and highly educated couple who emigrated to Australia some decades ago, primarily in disgust at US political and social trends (Reagan, at the time). Five years later- it was clear to them that the social realities in Australia were truly no better; nasty people exist everywhere, always. And they did indeed regret making the move, though they have not moved back, either.

So. What if you have some roots here, and no good reason to leave?

It took me a full day, and sleeping on it overnight; but it finally dawned on me: I do have a bit of specific and useful advice to offer. I hope it helps.

Find a Transition Towns group, and start going to their meetings.

Find out if you fit that group. Not everyone fits everywhere, and Transition groups are not different from other human endeavors; some are wonderful, some suffer from abrasive egos- etc.

Find a fit. Find friends. Join that community.

The general consensus, among thinkers I respect, is that no one is going to make it through any of the serious collapse scenarios - alone. Only well-knit communities, well planned, well prepared, are likely to come out the other side.

And, in my serious opinion, the Transition movement is simply the best thing going; anywhere.

Take such friends as are trusty and willing. Hard to beat advice straight from an Eldar Lord.


I'm going to add one more thing to this post; and I don't know why.

All I know is; this particular song has been running through my mind for 2 days. Somehow; it seems relevant to this discussion. This is MacPherson's Rant (or Lament). There are many versions to the lyrics; and many versions of the legend. What seems clear though is; he was a real man; living in very bad times; who was eventually hanged, legally - for being - half Gypsy.