Saturday, April 9, 2016

When Faith in the Earth Betrays Us

Spring has been peeking out of the darkness of winter for a few weeks now; at least here in the city where I live. The occasional warm days have teased us. Hints of green and fleshy buds have enticed us with visions of things to come. The bounty of life is poised to burst forth and grace us with color and fragrance, bird sounds and activity, delicate seedlings and earthy possibility.




I was just a little bit surprised, then, by the relative barrenness of the woods on the outskirts of town during my hike there last weekend. With the exception of the occasional swath of violet where a stand of almost blossoming redbuds seemed to glow, the forest was practically naked. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Urban centers are generally a bit warmer than the surrounding areas on account of the heat stored in the abundant concrete and asphalt. It makes sense that spring would arrive just a little bit later on the outskirts. It’s also the case that I was hiking in a hilly area, with many sheltered draws and hollows where the air stays cooler than elsewhere. Nonetheless, I was taken aback; and more so for reasons that I’m about to relate.

It was a windy day, far windier than seemed the norm for a spring day with no storms in the vicinity. It set the bare trees swaying, and their upper limbs swirling and clunking together like bone wind chimes. Eerier still was the occasional dead tree fallen across the trail, and the not infrequent sounds of limbs crashing to the earth here and there throughout the forest.

I’ve heard of people being killed by falling trees, a possibility that suddenly didn’t seem like all that freakish an occurrence. It seemed more like something that I needed to remain vigilant of as I walked beneath limbs and past trees that could potentially fall across my path – which, in my mind, was every one of them that I passed! Such awareness was necessary, I felt, just in case I needed to take some instinctive action to dodge this way or that based on whether a cracking sound was louder in one ear or the other, or based on how it echoed off the other trees in the vicinity.

The experience conjured up in me an apocalyptic vision. What if this forest wasn’t to wake up after all? What if climate change has already tipped the scale just enough with regards to temperature or moisture such that this woods is destined to become a dead zone until different species can take root and predominate? And what if that scale has already tipped too far? What if this area has already become too hot, too windswept, too dry or too acidic for much of anything at all to grow? What if this area should never again be any semblance of what it has been for me all those times in the past on so many hikes?

Some years ago, I rode my bicycle alone through Yellowstone Park. It was almost nightfall as I pedaled mile after mile through burned up forest stretching as far as the eye could see. The scorched gray remains of the pine trees pointed at various angles like the fallen dead on a vast battlefield. Thankfully, though, the fleshy green of new growth was already poking up out of the earth – less than a meter tall, to be sure, but present nonetheless. So many animals had been killed. So many trees had been killed. I had faith, though, that the earth would rebound.

For so long we’ve had faith in the vastness of the earth and its ability to sustain our numbers, regardless of how selfishly we behave or how wasteful we are. For so long we’ve assumed that we could count on the regularity of nature – the predictability of rainfall and a suitable growing season for our crops, the constancy of the sea level and the coming and going of the seasons, the infrequency of devastating storms such that we can have faith that what we build today will not be blown away tomorrow. Even when we’ve lost faith in just about everything else, our faith in the life-sustaining potential of the earth has remained. Alas, though, are we on the verge of losing even this most fundamental faith that has been with us since human consciousness first arose?

I have no particularly strong fear of death, although I do hope that it is yet many years in the future! I’ve come to feel that my afterlife, to the extent that I have one, is the perpetual right here and right now that I and everyone and everything now living help to create, along with everyone and everything that has ever lived in the past. Any joy that I feel as I pass away will be vicarious joy for those still living in this world that I’ve played a role in creating and nurturing. Any remorse that I feel as I pass away will be remorse that my actions have created or maintained a world still rife with suffering and fear. And I can’t imagine suffering and fear on a grander scale than that of humankind having lost faith in the earth’s ability to sustain it. Those who believe in God might rightly see this as the most Godforsaken of futures that could possibly await those who happen to be alive during such times of tribulation.

So, what is the nature of your faith? Have you placed your faith in an earth so vast that no amount of human negligence can possibly diminish its life-sustaining potential? Have you placed your faith in a God so loving that he or should couldn’t possibly let us destroy the very earth on which our lives depend? Perhaps you’ve placed your faith in humankind’s intellect and ingenuity being so great as to provide us with technological solutions to all the messes we've made and devastation we've caused. And me? Where do I place my faith? I have faith in our ability to wake up and transform ourselves – individually and in community – thereby transforming our relationship with the earth so that we never lose faith in its ability to sustain us.



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Aftermath of Yellowstone forest fire by David L. Sifry via:



Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ideas For Treading More Lightly on the Earth

You may not have had the opportunity yet to see that I’ve totally revamped Crossing Nebraska’s Contents page. Please take a few moments to explore it here if you so choose. The various categories that I’ve created will make it easier to find topics that are of interest to you. I’ll be adding hotlinks shortly in order to make navigation even easier.



In going through this process it occurred to me that I’ve written quite a few posts that in some way encourage the reader to tread more lightly on the earth. Whether more generally related to living simply and sustainably, or more specifically related to the human-caused threat of climate change, these posts all encourage mindful living for the benefit of ourselves and all living beings. For a time I had a separate blog page detailing specific things that I’m doing or have done in order to tread more lightly on the earth. I’m updating that page and republishing it here since the new Contents page will make it so much easier to find. I’m also including things that I’d like to do, or things that others are doing but which I can’t find the time or money or energy for right now. In this way, this post will provide many more suggestions and ideas for possible action. Here goes:

Ideas For Treading More Lightly on the Earth

Diet

  • Consider a vegetarian diet. Eating lower on the food chain requires fewer resources, in addition to being healthier and minimizing the suffering caused to animals. If you can’t embrace a totally vegetarian diet at the present time, try minimizing the quantity of meat that you do eat. Our protein needs can be met by eating a lot less meat than is present in the average American diet. If you decide to eat more seafood in lieu of red meat, be mindful of environmental pressures on individual species. If you decide to eat more chicken and turkey instead of red meat, be mindful of the environmental and ethical issues involved in factory farming. Consider free-range chicken and turkey instead.
  • Shop at the local farmer's market in order to support local and regional agriculture. Doing so minimizes fuel-related shipping costs and eschews big agribusiness for the sake of supporting individual growers and small businesses.
  • Purchase unprocessed or less highly processed foods. Doing so makes more intimate our relationship with food and the earth from which it comes. This fosters greater understanding of and appreciation for that which sustains us. Which in turn leads to our making wiser and more sustainable choices. It also requires less energy.
  • Stay away from bottled water if you can. Often there is no appreciable quality difference between bottled and tap water. The manufacture and shipping of bottled water is extremely wasteful, and the plastic may even be unhealthy.

Nurture

  • Try composting your kitchen waste for use in the garden. In addition to nurturing the soil it is a regular reminder of the processes that sustain us.
  • Forego municipal leaf collection in order to compost on-site, thereby replenishing the soil and decreasing fuel used during the collection process.
  • Consider returning paved areas to the earth. This allows more rainwater to soak back into the earth, in addition to it acting as a carbon sink and providing habitat for local fauna.
  • Plant trees! They can reduce your cooling costs by shading your house, and they also act as a carbon sink.
  • Plant a vegetable garden. It will provide you with healthy food without any shipping costs. And it will give you healthy exercise and a greater appreciation of the earth.
  • Maintain a spiritual practice that keeps you centered, fosters greater awareness, and makes you better able to make healthy decisions for yourself and the planet. Stress prompts us to act in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and the environment – whether by prompting us to eat in unhealthy ways, to act in uncaring ways, or otherwise making it easier to view ourselves as separate from the earth that sustains us.
  • Take time to appreciate the peace and beauty of the natural world around you. You will be reminded of your connection to it.

Organization and Awareness Raising

  • Consider a political candidate's environmental stance when determining how to vote.
  • Become informed about simplicity, sustainability, climate change, deep ecology and other environmental issues. Check out books such as Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, or the resources offered by the Northwest Earth Institute, for instance.
  • Sign petitions related to environmental ballot initiatives.
  • Support local and national environmental organizations.
  • Lobby your political representatives.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Repurpose

  • Replace incandescent bulbs with higher efficiency ones. Invest in low-wattage LED bulbs for those fixtures you have lit most often – like porch lights.
  • Consider moving towards a simpler lifestyle – one that requires less energy and fewer material goods in order for you to get your necessary chores done and enjoy your leisure time. Do you need all of those electrified gadgets? Does your entertainment and recreation really require you to expend so much energy and resources? What is really necessary for your happiness and fulfillment?
  • Learn of ways that you can donate leftover paint, construction materials, and home maintenance items to charity. For instance, the Habitat for Humanity ReStores are a great place to donate leftover items and help a great cause at the same time.
  • Find a resale shop that will find happy new owners for all of your unnecessary knick-knacks, tchotchke, and underappreciated remembrances.
  • Donate unused clothing in order to help someone else save their hard-earned dollars even as you keep resources from being wasted.
  • Take advantage of your community recycling program. Consider organizing a workplace recycling program if you don’t already have one.
  • Take advantage of special collections for electronics, batteries, chemicals, etc.
  • Consider product life-cycle and packaging waste when making purchasing decisions.
  • Use public transportation when feasible. Walk, bicycle, and share rides. Efficiently plan the running of errands so as to minimize fuel usage.
  • Considering owning your automobile for longer than has been your habit if it is still dependable and reasonably fuel efficient. I strive to get ten or more years out of any new vehicle I buy.
  • Determine what you really need to be comfortable. For instance, in winter I keep the thermostat at 63 F at night and when I am away, and 65 F during the day. I wear a sweater if need be. Sometimes I build a fire in the fireplace in order keep the thermostat lower. I usually have enough firewood from pruning the trees on my own property. I utilize passive solar energy to heat my home by opening the shades of south facing windows during the day.
  • In summer I keep the thermostat at 83 F whenever I have the central AC on – higher if I’ll be away for an extended period. I utilize a window AC unit in my bedroom at night prior to the weather becoming so consistently hot as to require turning on the whole-house unit. I keep the house cooler by closing the shades of south facing windows during the day.
  • Collect the cold bathwater in a bucket prior to it being warm enough to begin showering. This yields enough water to flush the toilet, water a few plants, or fill the birdbath.
  • Think of ways to be more efficient with cooking water. Steam vegetables as you’re boiling potatoes, for instance. Then use the waste water to soak the dishes prior to washing them.
  • Collect tap water in a watering can prior to it getting warm enough for washing dishes. Fill the basin just enough to wash the smaller items and let the rinse water fill it up the rest of the way so that you can wash the larger bowls, pots, etc.
  • Consider installing a rainwater collection system in order to help water the garden.
  • Consider planting perennials that don’t require as much water, and which will reduce the amount of lawn you have to mow.
  • Wash and reuse plastic sandwich bags and utilize bread bags and such for storing produce.
  • Use durable shopping bags. Use any other plastic bags that might accumulate for trashcan liners.



I hope you find this list helpful. Share it with a friend. And add a few more to it when you do!

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Earthrise by NASA via:



Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Freedom, Responsibility, and the Price of Fireworks (and Carbon)

A week or so ago I wondered aloud on social media about the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl. Just how much fossil fuel ends up being burned in order to bring that annual spectacle into existence? Of course, I wasn’t really expecting an answer. I was simply hoping to get the question percolating in people’s minds as they watched. Despite its rhetorical nature, though, my question does indeed have an answer. It would just take a whole lot of work for us to arrive at a reasonable estimation of it.

Not surprisingly, I was taken to task for my elitist attitude. After all, I enjoy a good film festival now and then, which has a carbon footprint, and my blog resides on servers that require a lot of energy to power up and keep cool. What’s the difference? We’re all creating carbon dioxide with our various endeavors and diversions. This person here sits in front of a television screen watching a football game. That person there sits in front of a computer screen blogging. Different strokes for different folks. This is a free country, right? Indeed, this is a question that touches on some of our most deeply held beliefs about freedom and personal responsibility. Before I delve into all of that, however, let me tell you a story.





When I was a child my family vacationed over the week of the Fourth of July at a little resort on one of the scenic rivers in southern Missouri. Most of the guests returned year after year so it was a week spent getting reacquainted with old friends. We rode horseback. We played cards and tennis and miniature golf. Mostly, though, we went swimming and floating in the river, or hiking and exploring along its rocky banks. On the evening of the Fourth, however, we all gathered down on the riverbank for a makeshift fireworks display put on by one of the families. And as the show progressed to bigger and louder and more colorful pyrotechnics, so the good-natured jeering of the beer-drinking adults grew more and more boisterous. Whooshhh…Pow! “Yeah, that was probably a couple of bucks!” someone would feign dismissiveness as the pace of the ignitions picked up. And so the ritual would proceed. Whooshhh…BAM! “There goes five dollars!” someone else would exclaim. The jeering and the laughter became contagious. Whooshhh… KerPOW…Bang, Bang, Bang! “Ooohhhhh! That had to have been a ten-spot!” And so it would go until the last ordnance was fired, its monetary value assessed, and the good-natured jeering gave way to sincerely appreciative applause.

The next day, however, would always be a little bit sad down by the river. The remnants of the previous evening’s festivities would be littering the beach and floating in the water. Half-burned cardboard tubes, tinfoil rocket fins, and plastic propeller blades from the various projectiles could be found here and there and far downstream. It took a while for the river to clean itself and return to more pristine condition.

In economic circles, such litter is referred to as an externality – negative in this case. The river was diminished by some amount that was not accounted for in the price of each of the fireworks. There was no clean-up crew that accompanied those fireworks, nor was there any credit given to those river visitors whose aesthetic enjoyment of the scenic beauty was decreased by all of the trash that seemed to be everywhere one might look. But that’s not all. There were chemicals and heavy metals in those fireworks that disbursed on the air and dissolved into the water. Such potentially harmful pollutants eventually worked their way into the bodies of living beings, with very difficult to calculate effects resulting over time.

This is a free country, and, depending on local ordinances, we have the freedom to shoot off fireworks. But we also recognize that freedom comes with responsibility. We can’t shoot fireworks at people; we can’t burn down the property of others, etc. And if we really take seriously the responsibility that goes hand in hand with our freedom, we shouldn’t diminish the health or aesthetic appeal of the environment around us either. Or if we do we should pay the community for whatever damage we have caused. But how exactly should we quantify this negative impact on the environment so that we might add this onto the cost of the fireworks? And what should be done with the extra revenue that is generated. Here’s a public health report that might stimulate thinking in this regard.

Which brings me back to the Super Bowl. Nowhere to be found on the balance sheets of any of the NFL teams, the league itself, the product manufacturers and suppliers, the entertainment companies, advertisers or television studios is a line item related to the incremental cost to the environment of the fossil fuel burned in order to bring the entire spectacle to life Рthe carbon tax, if you will. In other words, the incremental cost of a degraded environment vis-à-vis climate change represented by the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl is borne by all of us in some way, but especially by those who live close to sea level or in other ecosystems that have begun to feel the effects of climate change already in the form of drought, destructive rains and winds, the spread of tropical disease, and extinction of local species.

So, how would we even begin to calculate what that carbon tax should be? Should it be a proportional share of whatever amount is sufficient to fund efforts to remediate the impact of climate change? Or is it sufficient that the line item merely serve to nudge energy users away from fossil fuels and toward alternative energy sources? It is a complicated question, but one very worthy of our consideration.

If we were to account for the externality of the carbon dioxide that we create, if we were to have fossil fuel use priced appropriately, then we would be appropriately balancing our freedom to burn whatever fuel we might choose with our responsibility to reimburse others for whatever harm that we cause. Such a carbon tax or surcharge, if implemented, would prompt companies to either find alternative ways to power their operations or else pass the additional cost onto those who buy their products or services.

Think about how this would ripple through the economy for the better. Companies that continue to fuel their operations with greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels will find their products relatively more expensive than their competitors who utilize alternative fuels. No longer will fossil fuel-powered operations be subsidized by all of us, to the detriment of all of us. Think about how this would impact the Super Bowl. Unless it could be transitioned to alternative fuels then maybe the entertainment would need to be scaled back. Maybe the media coverage would need to be stripped of some of its pizazz. Maybe those commercials would become too expensive to make and the airtime charged too expensive to purchase. Maybe the extravaganza would need to be televised as pay-per-view if it ended up being too big to be underwritten by advertising fees alone.

But why only pick on the Super Bowl? Film-making would also need to adapt to the new right-pricing of fossil fuel use. Production would either need to be revised or else ticket prices and what have you would need to go up. And if all the companies that keep the internet up and running can’t find a way to power up and cool all those file servers with renewable fuels, then maybe all of us bloggers and video watchers and web-surfers will need to just pony up a little bit of money for the freedom to do so.

One thing is certain though. Once we have fossil fuel use appropriately priced we really will be able to say: “This person here sits in front of a television screen watching a football game. That person there sits in front of a computer screen blogging. Different strokes for different folks. This is a free country, right?” Yes, and it will still be a free country. It will also be a more responsible country.


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New Year fireworks in Valparaíso, Chile by Difuntoman via:


Copyright 2016 by Mark Robert Frank