29 August 2010

Purely a Crisis of Imagination

We rode our electric bikes up to our friends' garlic farm for their annual Garlic Festival today. It's a low key event held every August, but educational (there's more to garlic than meets the eye!) and delicious, and we always come away with a year's worth of garlic.

However, the highlight for me this year was visiting the basil, growing hydroponically in a greenhouse (... visions of pesto pasta for dinner). There was a lull in the garlic barn, so Dan gave us a tour of the basil operation, explaining how he pumps water from the irrigation pond and then filters it four times or more and finally puts it through a reverse osmosis unit. (He has to do all this because he sells the basil commercially, and grocery stores have very high standards for cleanliness at all steps in the growing process.) All the "waste water," instead of being wasted, is recycled back into the pond. Everything was homemade, using household items and fairly simple technologies, with a little help from a mutual friend who's into electrical engineering.

Now, I didn't understand everything that Dan explained (physics ≠ me), but I perked right up when he said his next dream is to power all this using solar panels. This led to a discussion about the importance of using the best of the old ways, and integrating the best of the new technologies. This is what's so exciting, so compelling, about creating a sustainable future.

You see, so many people get stuck in "either/or" thinking. Either life stays the way it is (comfortable and unsustainable), or it becomes sustainable and miserable. What a crisis of imagination! Why can't a generation that grew up watching The Jetsons and Star Trek on TV picture a different world, a different way of living, that works?

No, we're not going back to the cave, unless we totally fail to use our collective and individual imaginations and creativity to imagine a wonderfully sustainable new world into being.

So thanks for that reminder, Dan. And wow, you wouldn't believe the pesto I made for dinner tonight! Talk about pungent ... I think it put hair on my chest! (Just kidding ... but got your imagination going, eh?)

22 August 2010

On Climate Change, Old Friends and Fun

In between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed.
— Sid Caesar

I just spent a wonderful week with my best friend from my childhood and her husband. It was a vacation week for me, and it was both fun and delicious.

These friends are meat eaters from beef country who decided "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." After several days of vegan fare, they admitted that vegan food is actually — and surprisingly — quite delicious. They lost weight this week, feel lighter and look better. They're talking about going vegetarian one day a week. We haven't converted them to a fully veg diet (and weren't trying to), but they're going home much more open-minded about it.

Another neat part of the visit was morning walks with my friend's husband, who works for an oil company. Our conversations were a study in finding common ground. Asking him about peak oil led to a discussion about the fact that the Stone Age didn't end when they ran out of stones. He's all for energy conservation and making the transition to renewable energy technology — recognizing, as I do, that we're going to need today's fossil fuels to gear up for tomorrow's Solar Age. (What I mean is, there's only one company that I've heard of that is using solar energy to manufacture solar panels.) He went from thinking climate change is probably due to natural cycles to understanding that the rate of change is unprecedented — and our inability to adapt rapidly enough to this kind of disruption in the climate system is the problem.

And you know what else? We had fun. We laughed. We told jokes and recounted funny old memories. We caught up on family news. We showed them our favourite nearby places. We walked and talked and broke bread together. We sat around the table and chatted for hours. We watched two movies together, a favourite of theirs and a favourite of ours; one made us cry, one made us laugh.

All that reminded me that, well, there's still life to live while I'm living. I love this life so much that I want to spend the rest of mine safeguarding all life, for all living things. But I want to enjoy it, too.

So here's to remembering that we can have fun along the way, whether it's a bit of fun each day or a fun vacation every once in a while. Saving the world is serious business, but it needn't be totally serious.
Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.
— Dr. Seuss

15 August 2010

What We Don't Know Could Doom Us

How about this for a wise saying?
"If a person takes no thought about what is distant, he or she will find sorrow near at hand. He or she who will not worry about what is far off will soon find something worse than worry." — Confucius
Yup, Confucius — a very wise man (probably had a brilliant wife). Can't imagine what he was thinking about at the time, but it certainly fits today's situation — especially if by "distant" he meant Russia, China, Pakistan, Africa, the Gulf of Mexico....

Another wise man wrote something just as insightful in the comments section of a climate change blog recently:
"One of the difficulties we face is that further research is prone to discovering that things are worse than we thought, since the default assumption is that the unknown is benign." — Steve Bloom
I just spent a week updating my beloved's website (Climate Change Emergency Medical Response — send it to your doctor!) and I have been well and duly reminded that the unknown is not benign. All sorts of carbon feedbacks are kicking in — and these weren't even included in IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) projections and models!

I sense a "waking up" out there — anyone else noticed it? The denialists and skeptics seem quieter in the blogosphere ... or am I just learning to ignore them? Perhaps in the light of, ahem, reality, they finally realize that they're just blowing smoke for the sake of being contrary. (Did I ever tell you my theory that those folks were unpopular in school, which is why they're loving being in the spotlight now? So, maybe they do need some compassion after all!)

My small island community has joined the myriad "Transition Towns" around the world — and for good reason. We can't picture our island without "imported" food and energy, ferries, cars. But there's a growing recognition that when these things are disrupted or disappear, we're going to have to go back to what's been described as "a much more connected and self-sufficient community."

We have to stop picturing the future "unknown" as benign, and we most certainly have to start thinking about what is, for the moment, "distant."

And while we're trying to figure out what to do when the climate change %$#@ hits the fan in this part of the world, let's send out deep compassion and condolences to all those being so horribly devastated already.

08 August 2010

The Cake is Burning! The Oven's Still On!

We had a lovely dinner here last night with two wonderful young friends. Over ratatouille (it's that harvest time of year) on couscous with pain de campagne (sounds fancier than it was), we talked about a lot of fun things as well as harrowing life experiences — as friends do over dinner.

And then, sometime during dessert, C sat back in his chair and said, "I guess this is a debate that could go on all night.... [long pause to leave us in suspense] ...but a lot of people are saying that there's no such thing as global warming and that the Earth is actually cooling."

I'm happy to say that I avoided spewing my blood orange sorbet with fresh cherries all over the table! My beloved very calmly explained that the temperature has gone up — and it hasn't gone back down again, therefore the Earth can't be cooling.

Then he used the analogy that's so easy to understand, our friends were nodding in no time.

If you put the oven on at 350ºF (my stove hasn't gone metric yet), the temperature of the oven will rise until it hits 350, and then stop rising. That's when the little light goes out and we put the pan full of cake batter in. Now, if we don't at some point (about 30-40 minutes later) turn the oven off and take the pan out, what happens to that cake? It is going to go past "baked" to dried out and then to burned.

Globally, we have turned the oven up by 0.8ºC — AND WE HAVE NOT TURNED THE OVEN OFF! Hence there's no way the Earth can be cooling.

I know that a 0.8ºC increase in global average temperature doesn't sound like much, but it's been enough to rough up the climate in numerous parts of the world: I'm freezing (okay, chilly) in early August where I live, Russia is ablaze with forest fires and heat records, precipitation patterns are changing (hence more droughts and floods), and on it goes.

Remember, we've evolved to be an agricultural species since the last Ice Age, and our agriculture has been based on a stable climate (and stable global average temperature) over the last 10,000 years.

Folks, we have to turn the oven off (mitigation) or at least start taking the pan out of the oven (adaptation) — and we have to start yesterday. Why are so many people still listening to the progenycidists, children haters, and fossil fuel investors?

What's stopping us from drumming up a little courage and compassion, putting on our metaphorical oven mitts, and simply getting the job started?

02 August 2010

Burning the Candle at Both Ends Can't Last Long, Let Alone Forever

Two very big bad "newses" this week:
  1. Russia is burning.
  2. Phytoplankton populations are plummeting.
So, on land, our food sources and forests are burning up. In the oceans, the very foundation of the marine food web (which extends onto land) is disappearing. Is it possible that someone might NOW announce the climate change emergency?

As reported by the BBC, a United Nations team, "shocked by the destruction it saw on the island of Sakhalin and the vast region of Khabarovsk near the border with China," has said that "the scale of the damage caused by recent forest fires in Russia's Far East amounts to a world-wide ecological disaster."

"The experts said the damage would have far-reaching consequences not only for neighbouring countries, but for the entire northern hemisphere." Russian Prime Minister Putin has called in the army to help with the devastation.

According to Alexei Lyakhov, director of Moscow's meteorological service, temperatures for July were 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees F) higher than normal!! He sees the heat as evidence of global warming.

Lyakhov also says that in 130 years of daily weather monitoring in Moscow, there has never been such a hot summer. "This is not normal weather, this has never happened."

Imagine. Siberia, the coldest place on the face of the planet in winter is experiencing a heat wave — temperatures are hitting 32 degrees C! (That's pushing 90 degrees F!) And Moscow has broken temperature records, reaching 37.2 degrees C (99 degrees F) on Monday, July 26.

According to Agence France Presse (reported at WeatherOnline), "an emergency drought situation has been declared in 19 of Russia's 83 regions with crops dying on an estimated 9.6 million hectares of fields."

So not only are "developed" nations in the northern hemisphere going to struggle as the Arctic summer sea ice melts away (doing away with our summer "air conditioning"), but now we're also facing this carbon feedback: the heat of global warming dries the forests, which start to burn, releasing more carbon and creating more heating — which will devastate our agriculture: more heat = more summertime fires and more droughts. That extra heat also means that green plants are withering instead of absorbing carbon, another carbon feedback.


And why should we be concerned about a bunch of microscopic plants floating around in the ocean? Because a 40 percent decline in the world's phytoplankton is a planetary catastrophe! Planet Earth is, after all, an ocean planet — all life on land came from the oceans and is entirely dependent on the oceans. For example, phytoplankton produces half of the oxygen we breathe. (And we're burning up the trees and withering away the green plants that produce the rest of our oxygen ... hmmm, deoxygenation of the planet. Sounds to me like we're heading for suffocation.)

Again, the BBC is on it. According to researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, "the amount of phytoplankton — tiny marine plants — in the top layers of the oceans has declined markedly over the last century."

An Icelandic website explains that in the summer, phytoplankton live in the upper photic zone (the layer of the ocean reached by sufficient sunlight to allow plant growth) where they are carried by currents. Phytoplankton, like plants on land, have the ability to use sunlight to make organic matter out of non-organic, using the process of photosynthesis. Phytoplankton then become the main source of organic material for other organisms, especially as food for zooplankton (tiny animals), which in turn are prey for young fish and pelagic fish (those that inhabit the upper layers of the open sea). "So the phytoplankton is the basis for all organic life in the sea...."

Phytoplankton need sunlight from above and nutrients from below, but as the oceans warm they are becoming more stratified, limiting the availability of nutrients, conjecture the researchers at Dalhousie. Since phytoplankton removes carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis, this trend could act to accelerate global heating — another carbon feedback.

Carl-Gustaf Lundin, head of the marine programme at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says that the implications could be significant. "If in fact productivity is going down so much, the implication would be that less carbon capture and storage is happening in the open ocean. So that's a service that humanity is getting for free that it will lose."

Alas, we are burning our candle at both ends — land and sea — and threatening Nature's gifts (ecosystem services) at the same time. And we're the intelligent species?