Creation Evolving and other stories

I’ve been busy exploring some of the information about the transition accessible on the Net now, especially from the Post Carbon Institute – more on that below – and looking into ways to enhance the resilience of my local community here on Manitoulin Island. But i’ve also been busy revising the last chapter (19) of my book Turning Signs.

I’ve been growing more dissatisfied with that chapter since i first published it in 2015, but not until now have i come up with a version that seems to work as a culmination of my whole 19-chapter argument. It’s called ‘Creation Evolving’, it’s online now, and i’d appreciate any comments on it from critical readers. (Since it frequently refers back to previous parts of the book, i’ve included lots of links back to the key concepts, but i don’t claim that it’s an easy read!)

This reflects my habit of going back and forth from a local focus on current practice to a more global contemplation of “deep time” and the deeper practices of nature and cultures. It’s like my other habit of alternating between silent walks in the woods and spells of wrestling with words. (The photo below was taken by Pam during one of our November strolls. Note the rare patch of blue sky reflected in the puddle.) I feel that the two practices enhance one another by alternating, somewhat like sleeping and waking. (After all, how can you wake up if you haven’t been sleeping?)

Anyway, this sort of back-and-forth seems to help me keep my balance in this Era of Upheaval. I’ve lifted that phrase from the title of a Post Carbon Institute book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. You can buy this book from the usual sources, or you can get access to it online for free by registering with the PCI.

Another relevant book you can get for free, thanks to the generosity of the authors, is Your Post has been Removed: Tech Giants and Freedom of Speech, by Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen. This new book delves into the roles of the ‘tech giants’ (especially Google and Facebook) in the current cultural/political upheaval. I’m halfway through it now, and although its main focus is ‘freedom of speech,’ it also throws light on the role of social media in the ecological/economic crisis.

As Stjernfelt and Lauritzen point out, ‘freedom of speech’ includes freedom of access to information, so it’s appropriate as well as fortunate that they’ve allowed open access to it. Like Turning Signs, it comes with a Creative Commons license. At this traditionally hyperconsumptive time of year, it’s good to see the Commons growing!

Finally i’m really happy to see the website of Local Food Manitoulin. This is the kind of community initiative that can address all four sides of the current crisis: ecology, energy, economy and equity. It doesn’t ask you to indulge in either optimism or pessimism about the climate emergency, because it can work (locally, of course) toward both prevention and mitigation of the worst effects of global heating.

At our latitude, we’re sinking into the darkest part of the year (for those of us who are solar powered, at least). But we have the winter solstice coming up in less than two weeks, and things are bound to get brighter after that. In the meantime let us carry on with the upheaval, or transition, or whatever we call it. And keep in touch with the Earth.

Novemberpuddle
photo by Pam Jackson

Electric realism

William Rees, co-inventor of the ecological footprint concept, recently published an article entitled ‘Don’t call me a pessimist on climate change, I am a realist.’ He outlines all the reasons why it is unlikely that humanity will achieve the transition to a just, healthy and sustainable way of occupying our planet. I’m inclined to agree with him on that. So i hope readers don’t think i’m an optimist on climate change just because i’m writing about ‘the transition’ and doing what little i can to further it. I’m not an optimist on living forever, either, but that only encourages me to live more deeply the little time i have.

The same applies to human civilization, as far as i’m concerned. If we are in the process of destroying ourselves, i’d really like to understand what it is about human-nature relations that pushes us in that direction. If we are in the process of making the transition to a civilization that respects the nature of ecosystems, i’d like to understand that too. Or at least contribute to somebody else’s understanding by reporting on our local experiments.

This meter in our kitchen is how we keep track of our solar energy supply. This Monday morning at 11 a.m. we have 9.7 amps more coming in than we are using.

One of those is our Chevy Bolt EV. Electric cars face special challenges in winter, because cold batteries don’t operate as efficiently. We do have an enclosed garage, but it’s not heated. The manual for ours recommends keeping it plugged in when temperatures fall below freezing. We can’t do that because we’re off the power grid and keeping the car plugged in would very quickly drain the batteries that power the whole house. To give you a rough idea, we need about 5 kilowatt-hours per day to power the household – more in the November-to-February stretch because the nights are longer. On an uncloudy day we can draw that much from the sun in 3 hours or less; but uncloudy days are rare this time of year, and 5 kwh will only power the car for about half an hour’s driving.

Of course we can’t just let the car sit unused for weeks at a time either. Since the cold weather started, Pam has been out driving three or four times a week. One weekly trip includes a charging session using the Level 2 charger we installed at our on-grid place in Little Current (15 km from home). She’s found that we can save energy by using the heated driver’s seat and steering wheel rather than heating the whole interior of the car. Of course we need the windshield defroster occasionally – but not very often (unless there’s too much conversation going on among passengers and driver!). Anyway, the risks of relying on an EV in winter are greatly outweighed by the benefits of low maintenance, zero emissions and very low “fuel” costs. We’ll see what happens when the temperature drops to -25 C.

November propanity

Remembrance Day is a good time to honor those who sacrificed so much in those 20th-century wars. It’s also a good time to reflect on our national and personal contributions to the 21st-century war against global heating.

Canada is lagging behind most other G20 countries in this respect, according to the latest Brown to Green Report from the Climate Transparency network. Part of the purpose of this blog is to help subscribers keep track of how the “Brown to Green” transition is going on the planetary scale – but in this post i’d like to focus more on our own household.

I should mention first that in my personal approach to “the transition,” i’m not trying to change the world. I am simply recognizing that the world is changing, that the impact of human actions on the ecosystem is increasing rapidly, and that my own actions affect that impact. So i am changing the world whether i like it or not. The fact that our household choices are too small to register on the global scale makes no difference on the psychological or spiritual level, if i may call it that. The life of the spirit is its presence to the moment we are living, and that moment is independent of scale. The Big Bang happened yesterday, and i started writing this paragraph eons ago. The time is now, as always.

So today i’m writing about propane, the one fossil fuel we rely on directly here at gnusystems. It’s relatively clean as fossil fuels go, but burning it still emits greenhouse gases, so we try to minimize our use of it. Our main year-round use is cooking. We made that choice because using electrical heating elements to cook is not practical for an off-grid solar-powered house, and cooking with a woodstove is not practical either for our situation. We do heat the house with a woodstove, but ours isn’t suitable for cooking.

Now that we are entering the darkest and coldest part of the year, we start using much more propane. We use a propane wall furnace to keep the plants in our greenhouse from freezing. In the picture, you can see it on the right, next to the sliding door to the outside. I just plugged it in today (it uses electrical power to light the flame and run the fan) because it was -10° C. outside this morning. But i’m hoping that this year i won’t have to leave it plugged in all winter.

We have it at the lowest possible setting, which is 5°, but when it’s running it actually keeps the temperature in there at 10°. But since the greenhouse is attached to our main house, there should be days, even in winter, when the added heat from the sun is enough to keep it above freezing. So i’m experimenting with shutting off that heater on some days, in order to reduce the amount of propane we use.

Our other main use of propane in winter is to fuel the generator which charges up our batteries on days when there’s not enough sun to do it. We’ve also taken steps to reduce propane consumption there too, by adding more solar panels this fall and increasing our battery capacity a couple of years ago. The more power we can get directly from the sun, and the more of it we can store, the less we have to rely on fossil fuels. We’ll see how these experiments go.

I don’t want to leave the impression that keeping track of our household energy consumption is an onerous chore, or a “sacrifice” we are making. On the contrary, knowing intimately where our food, water, energy and connectivity is coming from is one of the best features of living so far from the city. It’s our idea of a good time, infinitely more than flying down to Rio or the south of France for the winter. Of course we love the peace and quiet too …

Next time i’ll report on how our electric car is handling the onset of winter (another experiment in eco-living).

Databiz exposed

Last week i posted my reasons for dumping my Facebook account. Today’s National Observer has a report on the work of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News which gives some further insight into the workings of Facebook and other social media giants.

Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie was among those who addressed the Committee about major Silicon Valley firms and the way they exploit customers: “The current business model is the root cause of the problems you are trying to address​​​​. Its toxicity is unrelenting. It is not a coding glitch that a legal patch will fix. Data at the micro-personal level gives technology unprecedented power and that’s why data is not the new oil — it’s the new plutonium.”

A transition to greater climate justice will depend on reining in the political power of Big Oil, but it may also require reining in the power of Big Data.

Building a world of resilient communities

Living in these rapidly changing times is a challenge on many levels. There are many internet resources that can help us all meet the challenges in one way or another. Today i will just redirect you to one that i consult almost every day: resilience.org, a program of the Post Carbon Institute. Click around there and see if you don’t find something interesting. Then bookmark it, or even better, sign up to get a daily email showing the latest additions to the site.

Green New Deal as job creator

Every part of the world that has invested heavily in renewables and efficiency has found these sectors to be much more powerful job creators than fossil fuels. When New York State made a commitment to get half its energy from renewables by 2030 (not fast enough), it immediately saw a spike in job creation.

The accelerated time line of the US Green New Deal will turn it into a jobs machine. Even without federal support—indeed, with active sabotage from the White House—the green economy is already creating many more jobs than oil and gas. According to the 2018 US Energy and Employment Report (USEER), jobs in wind, solar energy efficiency, and other clean energy sectors outnumbered fossil jobs by a rate of three to one. That is happening because of a combination of state and municipal incentives and the plummeting costs of renewables. A Green New Deal would take the industry supernova while ensuring that the jobs have salaries and benefits comparable to those offered in the oil and gas sector.

There is no shortage of research to support this …

— Naomi Klein, On Fire (p. 281). Knopf Canada. Kindle Edition.

Unfortunately, the recent federal election in Canada shows very little popular support for the Green New Deal, especially in those parts of the country that need it most for job creation. Both the Green and New Democratic Party platforms called for accelerating the transition from oil dependence to renewable energy by eliminating subsidies to the oil industry and redirecting government money to build up wind and solar infrastructure and retrain workers for it. But neither party got many votes in Alberta or Saskatchewan; most of the votes there went to the Conservatives, who are more interested in conserving the profitability of oil extraction than in conserving an environment that is healthy for everybody to live in.

This leaves most of the oil patch workers in dead-end jobs: either those jobs will disappear because the green shift will resolve to keep the oil in the ground, as required to bring down carbon emissions – or climate change will degrade the ecosystems to the point where the economy will collapse, bringing oil workers down with it. Most likely the actual outcome will be somewhere between those two extremes, but the oil patch seems to be in deep denial about both scenarios. Is that because people generally resist changes in how they make a living, instead of embracing new opportunities? Or is it because the Big Oil executives are using propaganda effectively to prevent workers from seeing the reality of their situation? Again, maybe it’s both.

Anyway, neither the Liberal minority government nor the Conservatives show any sign of supporting the kind of “new deal” that would improve the lives of workers in the coming decades. It will take a massive social movement to overcome all this inertia. This is perhaps the major point of Naomi Klein’s new book, which I can recommend to anyone with an interest in the transition we are now going through, and how our lives will be different when today’s teenagers are running the show.

Planting and planning

This afternoon, after the wet snow stopped and the sun came out, Pam and i planted the garlic we’ll harvest next July. If the time between now and then unfolds as it usually does, that is. We’ve been doing this for years, and we know what to expect. But we also know there are no guarantees, and that climate change is increasing the uncertainty that all gardeners and farmers have to cope with. Even if our garlic and other garden vegetables have a good year next year, food security is going to become a problem for us, sooner or later. Man does not live by garlic alone, and we depend on community food systems for most of the staples of our diet.

The prospect is worse for those who depend on industrial food systems. Large-scale agribusinesses, especially the meat industry, are major contributors to global heating, and it is already coming back to bite them in the form of floods, droughts, storms and heat waves. The situation is going to get worse before it gets better, even if carbon emissions can be cut in half by 2030. In the longer term, i think the only question is whether producers and consumers of food will change their habits drastically, or the whole industry will collapse.

Our local community is fortunate in that we can at least grow some of our own food in our own gardens, and even supplement it with hunting and gathering. Millions of other humans are not so lucky, and before long may be joining the flood of climate refugees. This is part of the reason why a practical response to the climate emergency calls for something like a “Green New Deal.” But I’ll save that subject for another post.

The flood

An article in the New York Times yesterday, based on a new study reported in Nature Communications, says that previous estimates of the effects of sea level rise due to climate change have been far too optimistic. ‘The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury’ – many of them in large cities such as Bangkok and Shanghai. This is not a worst-case scenario but a most-likely scenario based on the current rate of carbon emissions.

For those of us relatively unaffected by flood, drought, hurricanes, wildfires, extinctions and other effects of global heating, news about them has become a virtual flood of information, and sometimes we feel as if we’re drowning in it. How are we supposed to respond?

With anxiety about our children’s future?

With guilt, because we’ve played our part in the consumptive economic system that is causing it all, and we haven’t done enough to curb our emissions, and we know that the worst effects of this accelerating catastrophe are suffered by those least responsible for causing it?

With rage against the wealthy oligarchs who buy off politicians and flood the media with toxic progaganda so they can continue to profit from their ownership of the economic engine?

With despair because there’s nothing we can do about all this?

By “changing the channel,” distracting ourselves from a painful reality?

With commitment to the cause of changing the system into something more just and ecologically sensible? That seems to me what a good citizen of the world would do – perhaps motivated by some combination of anxiety, guilt and rage. But i doubt whether such a commitment can be sustained by those feelings. Rather, the sustenance of commitment has to be something more like love. Hope helps too, if it’s something deeper than optimism. But the core of it, i feel, is not the fear of losing what we love, but the inconceivable joy of its presence to us and with us now.

Can that kind of joy be invoked or evoked or expressed with words? I don’t know. It depends on what kind of practice follows from the words. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Antisocial media

One of the habit-sets we all need to rethink in these transitional times is our use of media (such as this one). Pam and i have both decided recently to close our Facebook accounts. Facebook has become one of the forces undermining our democracy, most obviously through its role in recent election campaigns (as documented in, for instance, the Netflix movie on Cambridge Analytica, The Great Hack). Mark Zuckerberg apologized for that, sort of, and promised to “do better,” but we see no signs of improvement.

The problem with Facebook is systemic. It’s grown to its dominant position among “social media” by selling its users’ attention to advertisers, while leaving it up to the users themselves to provide the content that makes it worth paying attention to. We refuse to support that, even though we haven’t been targeted with a lot of fake news and political attack ads. If you are on Facebook, even though you are paying no money to it or to its advertisers, you are supporting it.

When we mention this to friends – I mean real friends, not Facebook “friends” – they protest that they use it to keep in touch with family and other connections. But there are other and less addictive ways to do that. Email is no harder to use than Facebook, once you get into the habit, and it doesn’t pull your attention in all directions when you write or read the same things you would see or say on Facebook. I refuse to use fb for the same reason that i refuse to “monetize” this blog: I consider your attention a precious gift that should not be abused.

OK, end of rant. And if you still find Facebook worthwhile in spite of its complicity in the decline of truthfulness, i will think no less of you. You make your choices and i make mine, and we can still be friends. Real friends.