Nostalgia for the 21st Century

If i may shamelessly lift a few lines from the last rites of the Bokononist faith:

God made mud.
God said to some of the mud, ‘Sit up!’
‘See all I’ve made,’ said God, ‘the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.’
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.

The mud of the 21st Century had truly wonderful means of looking around. If you never heard of the Bokononist faith, for instance, you could just “google” it and read all about it. Or type the keywords into some other search engine, if you didn’t trust Google’s algorithms to properly rank the results.

You didn’t have to fly anywhere to witness nature’s most amazing events. The BBC Earth crews did the flying, and the patiently waiting for the wildlife to do something interesting, so you could see it all in high-def, time-lapse and slow motion. You could even see a picture of the supermassive black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy, taken with a radiotelescope array the size of the Earth.

Meanwhile, other species of mud living on the same planet were swallowed up in mass extinction – the sixth in the planet’s history, but the first caused by a single species. That peculiar form of mud even had the means to look into its own past and see where it went wrong, and what a more sensible species could do on behalf of all mudkind. It had the means to wonder whether it would ever wake up from its busy, busy sleepwalk.

Winter Solstice, 2019

The winter solstice is here at last. It’s comforting to know (as well as we can know anything about the future) that tomorrow the northern hemisphere will begin tilting back towards the sun and the daylight hours will begin to increase. Our solar-powered life here on Manitoulin Island will become more secure; by February we will hardly need our generator at all to keep our batteries charged up. In the meantime we can enjoy tramping about the woods with our snowshoes, or watching the chickadees and goldfinches at the feeder.

The global news is not so good. The climate summit in Madrid, COP25, was an abject failure, with the big polluters blocking any attempt at a concerted international effort to significantly reduce greenouse gas emissions. We can expect no genuine leadership to come from the top levels of our governments. That leaves it up to us at the local level to build up our relilience as we deal with the ongoing emergencies. As for instance the Dutch agroecology movement is doing.

The more we humans carry on consuming our context as we have been, the less likely we are to manage the consequences. For instance, where will the hundreds of millions of climate refugees go in the coming decades – now that we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet and driven so many other species to extinction? One journalist in Madrid was musing about all this, and about the Greta phenomenon, as he watched the negotiations fall apart.

My own musing is this: whether we manage to “manage” or not, i hope we can at least wake up from the dream of “progress” and live our time wholeheartedly. I find more resonance than ever in Thoreau’s words from Walden:

God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.… Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature … Be it life or death, we crave only reality.

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.