February 1, 2009 – It seems that everyday there’s new evidence that concern for the environment, coupled with a willingness to act, has moved into the mainstream. The February issue of Hadassah magazine is designated their “Green Issue.” Story titles include “A Time to Save the Planet,” “The Greening of Kashrut (kosher foods),” “Jewish Environmental Resources,” and “Season to Taste: Greener Kitchens.” While young adults were taught in school to prepare for what’s coming, those of us who get our information by reading paper information sources, i.e., baby boomers, still need teaching. This is the kind of thing that will get that job done.
One aspect of climate change that has been discussed only in the vaguest terms so far is the cost. It’s hard to know what it will ultimately be, though it is my opinion it can accurately be described with words like astronomical and colossal. There are many reasons it is difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of climate change-related expenses. Certainly one of the reasons has to be the law of unintended consequences. It is impossible to anticipate everything that could happen in a world that’s been turned upside-down.
For instance, if warming cannot be sufficiently slowed to prevent, or at least limit, the melting of permafrost (ground which we had, up until now, thought would be permanently frozen), we could be in for heavy exposure to airborne methane. Enormous amounts of methane are locked up in permafrost, where the methane remains inactive. In the event that even some of this methane is absorbed into the atmosphere as permafrost melts, the known consequences for human beings could be life altering. Why? Because methane is up to twenty times more toxic to the human respiratory system than carbon dioxide. What will we do? Wear gas masks all the time? Where will we get them? Will the government provide them to those unable to purchase them? How many people who simply can’t stand wearing a mask all the time, die? Children and the elderly are always the most vulnerable. Who will help them? What possibly unknown diseases might result from the overexposure to methane? Not just respiratory diseases, either. Skin will be exposed, so will our mouths, so will our food. How will we eat if we have to wear masks all the time? How will we sleep?
I learned a terrible thing during the ten years it took my father to die. Like the earth itself, my father was full of life – buoyant, filled with positive energy, life loving. When he initially became ill, it never occurred to any of us that he would eventually succumb. He was too vital, too robust. Oh, of course, everybody dies someday. But someday was a very long time away. After his first few episodes requiring a stay at the hospital, he came home and resumed his normal life.
But congestive heart failure was making inroads that affected his quality of life. His inability to breathe when he lay down at night caused him to sit up in the kitchen (where he passed the time smoking cigarettes). His struggle to breathe was impacting his heart’s ability to function. All of his organs were, little bit by little bit, shutting down.
He took so much medicine - 17 pills at a time. Still his vitality carried him along, his belief that tomorrow would always be a better day. Because he was who he was, his tomorrows invariably were good days. We saw and we believed. He was still Dad.
The ugly truth? He was still drinking, he was still smoking, he still ate meat (perhaps not quite as much), he never exercised. His disease was, in fact, a lifestyle disease. The way he lived, coupled with the denial in which he and we indulged, kept him and us from acknowledging that things had to change immediately, or he would never get better, only worse.
The visits to the hospital became more frequent, his stays became longer.
The doctor did all he could, given that he was treating a recalcitrant patient. The choices had never been clearer. Neither had Dad’s decision. Plainly he had decided that, if he could not live life on his terms, he would hang on as long as he could, but there would be no changes. We were asking too much. Once those of us who loved him had managed to absorb that fateful reality, there remained only one unanswered question: how long could he last?
This is the part where I tell you the terrible thing. As slowly as his disease had seemed to progress at the beginning, that was how quickly it advanced at the end. Wishful thinking blinded us to the fact that his poor body was, at last, making its limitations known. He had recovered every other time, which permitted us to believe that he would come home yet again. Later, I likened his swift passage to a spiral: at the top of a spiral, the coils are wide. It takes a long time to traverse the distance of one complete coil. Though gravity hastens the trip of the object traversing the coil, and the tighter circles take less time to complete, there are so many of them, the bottom of the spiral still seems far away. Then, all at once, the trip is almost over, the coils have become tiny, the trip is finished when the object rattles to a halt at the bottom. How could we not have been ready for the end? Couldn’t we see the direction he was headed? None so blind as those who will not see.
That’s how it is with our ailing planet. We’re riding the death spiral. Where on the spiral are we? Shouldn’t we get off as soon as possible? At what point will we act as if what we do matters? How small do the coils have to get before irreversibility leaves us with only one unanswered question: how long can it last?
February 2, 2009 – On CNN, there is a story about an island nation called Tuvalu. It’s in the south Pacific, and consists of 14 small islands. Its population is 10,000 people. The rising seas are swamping Tuvalu. You wonder: where will Tuvalu’s inhabitants move? Are they preparing themselves for the day the move takes place? Of course, it will take longer than a day. Will their new home come to seem more like home as they gradually transfer their belongings to it? What rituals or ceremonies will they develop to help them say Good by?
February 7, 2009 – Doug and I were shopping at Whole Foods yesterday. Doug loves to “graze,” going from one island of free samples to another. At one kiosk, the salesman was hawking milk. I believe the name was “Snowyville Creamery.” I thought the taste was excellent. It turned out that, relatively speaking, Snowyville is produced locally: Athens, Ohio. The owners keep a herd of 265 cows – I think that’s what he said – on open pasture. The pasture and the cows are not exposed to chemicals of any kind; however, the farm has foregone an organic designation. When I asked the sales guy why, he said because one of the requirements for being certified organic is that if a cow gets sick, it needs to be slaughtered. At Snowyville, they separate sick animals from the herd, but don’t kill them. He said their cows live much longer than animals at an industrial organic farm. I thought that was pretty interesting.
Then, today, I saw an article in the Enquirer which stated that research shows cows with names that are talked to by name give more milk than cows without names! I love it!! It further declared that farmers had long known this, but I guess thought it sounded kind of foolish and “unscientific.” They also love to be touched (the cows, not the farmers). I wish someone would find out the same thing about pigs. When I read about the conditions in which pigs and piglets are raised, it just makes me feel like crying. I’ll bet happy pigs put on more weight than sad pigs! Of course, even if they don’t, God gave them the gift of life, which they should be allowed to live and enjoy in their own way.
February 12, 2009 – Wildfires have been raging in southeastern Australia
for about a week now, largely out of control. Some, sadly, were purposely set; others were not. The drought in that part of the country has, of course, exacerbated the situation. I don’t think the damage can be assessed yet – deaths are expected to top 300. The connection to global warming was openly alluded to, a very interesting change from only a short while ago.
Closer to home, rain and wind have been the story of the week. I heard thunder at work, and the wind was gusting quite strongly last night. This is unusual for February, of course. The temperatures the early part of the week were unusual, too – highs in the 60’s for three straight days.
I never returned to the subject of sustainability, which I should have. What would sustainability look like, if we lived sustainably? There are a few ways to imagine it: first, think of the way the Amish live; second, think of the way Europeans and the Japanese live; third, think of the way people lived prior to the Industrial Revolution. Why do I cite these three examples? Let’s look at each, one at a time.
While the Amish way of life is not well known to me, I do know a few things about it. The Amish use very little electricity; I believe the Old Order Amish use none at all. The Amish grow their own food. They barter for or buy what they are unable to provide themselves. The Amish do not own or drive cars, instead using horses to pull wagons, carts, or carriages. The Amish live in very close-knit communities. They are involved in one another’s lives, and help each other out.
What can we learn from the Europeans and Japanese? These two groups of people have always driven compact cars, due in large part to the short distances they drive, and the lack of available space for roads and parking lots. Europeans keep their cars for a much longer time than we do, thereby diminishing the number of cars that need to be manufactured. BMW has long been known for recycling car parts from older cars into newer ones. The Europeans and the Japanese live in smaller houses on less land than we do. They use smaller appliances. Their smaller houses and appliances require less energy. It is instructive to know that their populations have stabilized (this happened long ago in Japan), easing pressures placed on their natural resources, though in Europe immigration has increased dramatically in the last two decades.
What about pre-industrial life? Certainly there were many aspects of human existence 250 years ago that no one would care to experience, not the least of which were filth, disease, illiteracy, ignorance, and early mortality. The fact that people farmed “organically” back then was unknown to them. Had they known of a better way, they would no doubt have employed it. Locomotion, as with the Amish, was slow, horse-dependent and nonpolluting. Housekeeping was laborious, and could be dangerous, especially cooking over a fire in the fireplace. The forms of energy most readily available were human, then animal, then wood-burning. Mills were water powered, and thereby nonpolluting, as – frequently - were long-distance travel and trade. Production of most items used in daily life was either home based, or in small quantities which were then offered for sale. These activities – the making of soap, for instance - did require wood burning and were, therefore, air polluting. It’s possible that the lye, which is toxic to humans, used in soap making did get into the waterways, albeit in small amounts. Dyes and inks may also have been dangerous to humans, but there was an assumption in place that the use of these substances was very small in relation to the availability of places to get rid of them, once people had finished with them.
This last way of life, pre-Industrial, was extremely difficult. As previously noted, one of the primary sources of energy most heavily relied
upon was human energy. Because human beings labored very hard for sometimes unremarkable results, life could be quite short. Human beings literally used themselves up. While animal power was definitely an asset, the vast majority of people, who were in the lower socio-economic stratum, could not afford to own a horse. Food, depending upon its availability, could be quite expensive for the non-agrarian populace. Bad years could cause people to rely upon easy-to-store crops, like potatoes, for weeks on end. A varied diet was uncommon, though less so during the growing season. Winters could be very, very hard. The extremely poor were often unable to keep warm, due to a lack of wood to burn, and insufficient warm clothing and food. Long, harsh winters were dreaded by rich and poor alike.
February 16, 2009 – Before returning to the topic of sustainability, I wanted to make note of a couple of items. First, the spill of coal ash into the Tennessee River: the TVA now admits that it was worse than originally reported. It will cost over $800 million to clean up. I wonder what the cost of refitting the plant so that it produced less ash would have been? Taxpayers will, inevitably, pay for some or, more likely, all of the clean up. Perhaps taxpayers should have paid for refitting the power plant.
The second item – actually, two items – I’ve gleaned from Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln. I’m reading the second volume right now, in which Sandburg relates comments made by Lincoln while delivering lectures prior to his run for president. Though it was far more common for Lincoln to make political speeches, he also spoke at length on all manner of subjects, drawing on his learning as a widely-read, self-educated man. In a lecture entitled “Discoveries and Inventions,” Lincoln had this to say concerning what we would now refer to as “alternative energy sources:” “He (Lincoln) looked at the waste of wind power, and noticed that for thousands of years other thoughtful men had been doing the same thing, trying to figure out how to used the immense horse power that is lost in winds not being hitched up and used in man’s service. Except in sailing vessels and a few pumps and windmills, wind power hadn’t been tamed and harnessed. Control and direction was the difficulty, for the wind ‘moves by fits and starts – now so gently as to scarcely stir a leaf, and now so roughly as to level a forest.’ Men were using sail vessels ‘at least as early as the time of the prophet Isaiah,’ and have therefore struggled more than three thousand years knowing at least something about the value of wind power.” It would appear that this is a problem we haven’t tried very hard to address, otherwise by now we’d have learned to put this clean, renewable source of energy to good use. I don’t know very much about T. Boone Pickens’ plan to harness wind power, but if we’re smart, we will at the very least use his proposal to start a long-overdue conversation.
Later in the same lecture, Lincoln delivered this assessment of what is known today as agribusiness: “The ambition for broad acres leads to poor farming, even with men of energy. I scarcely ever knew a mammoth farm to sustain itself, much less to return a profit upon the outlay. I have more than once known a man to spend a respectable fortune upon one, fail, and leave it, and then some man of modest aims get a small fraction of the ground, and make a good living upon it. Mammoth farms are like tools or weapons which are too heavy to be handled.” I believe what I hear Lincoln saying is that agribusiness carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. Any endeavor based upon human beings having to lie to themselves will eventually disintegrate under the weight of those lies. I look forward to the day when we, yet again, re-learn that truth.
In speaking about sustainability, I referred to three examples of sustainable living. I hope I succeeded in demonstrating that the first two examples were ones we should consider emulating, and that the third was not.
What, then, can we learn from the Amish, and Europeans, and the Japanese, with regard to living sustainably?
Perhaps I did not adequately make the point that the Amish do not live consumer-driven lives. Since I think that is probably the most important lesson they have to teach us, it deserves more attention. The English have a saying: enough is as good as a feast. This adage could well serve as the Amish motto. The Amish do not wish to be poor, but neither do they wish for, nor believe in, having more than they need. Because they believe in having large families – unpracticable in the society at large, since it is unsustainable – their needs can be considerable. Because they do not drive cars, and use very little gas or electricity, their impact on the environment is small.
How can they live like this? The Amish are unable to travel long distances, for obvious reasons, and are therefore constrained to remaining close to home. Home life and work life are situated close to one another. Amish families do not indulge in owning endless “outfits” for various occasions. Their sturdy, serviceable clothing is intended to be worn for any and all occasions. Older, mended clothes become work clothes for adults, play clothes for children.
Food is grown by the families that consume it. So are farm animals. Because human energy is a very important source of energy for the Amish, they frequently band together when large projects, like house or barn building, are undertaken. Their life experiences are not widely varied, but shallow; rather, they are repetitive and deep. Their lives lack the bustle of endless activity. This allows them time to ponder the experiences they have, the things they see. This is the second lesson they have to teach us: slow down, and think.
The European/Japanese motto might be “Keep it small, stupid.” The American proclivity for ever-increasing consumption has lately manifested itself in the building of gas-guzzling vehicles, known as SUV’s and Hummers, and McMansions, over-sized homes with endless amenities, all of them requiring more energy than in even the recent past. The citizens of other developed nations see things differently, although it should be noted that, while the Japanese live in very close quarters and are therefore accustomed to small homes and cars, they are inveterate shoppers, with a love of consumption equal to the United States. Be that as it may, their energy consumption is relatively low. Europeans are likewise frugal with energy. Just as their homes and cars are not wasteful, either in the sources consumed in making them or the sources consumed in running them, neither are Europeans wasteful of food. They eat less than we do – so do the vast majority of people in the world – and use less refrigeration for keeping food fresh. Food shopping is generally close at hand and done several times a week. Europeans have long understood the value of eating food that is grown locally!
In terms of sustainability, then, what can these three very different groups of people teach us? First, that to continue believing that we can consume more and more, world without end, Amen, is a specious premise upon which to base our lives. We live in a finite world. Our needs are finite, it is our desires which seem to know no bounds. The things we buy cannot, by themselves, make us happy. Humans must be able to discipline themselves to say no, when what they want exceeds their ability to pay. Having one’s basic needs met is a human right; having all of one’s desires met is impossible. Endless consumption leads, in the end, to an impoverished world for the vast majority. Natural resources that were intended to last humankind for hundreds of generations wind up on the trash heap, after a shockingly ephemeral useful life. Mining trash heaps is what lies in store for future generations.
In the pursuit of beautiful and luxurious homes and cars and clothes, Americans have lost sight of the fact that one of life’s truly meaningful experiences is time enough to think about what has happened to us. To frame our experiences, to give them context and meaning. To decide what truly matters to each of us, what makes life worth living. It is this determination of values, so little thought about in modern society, which is lacking and consequently leads us to seek meaning in possessions. Less time devoted to the earning of money allows us more time for relationships, face-to-face conversation, shared experiences close to home, reading, and, yes, thinking. It would be a change of monumental proportions, there can be no question.