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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Drawing down atmospheric carbon

Drawing down atmospheric carbon

There are two ways of addressing rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon; reduce the amount of carbon emissions or increase the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere.  Most of our efforts have been focused on reducing emissions.  I’d like to shift the conversation to drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The picture above was taken in the corn field near my home showing the hard and cracked soil in this field.  The picture below was taken in my garden earlier this spring.  I simply turned over a shovel of soil and you can see worms, roots, and soil structure all indicating a healthy soil.  These pictures should make clear the differences between the degraded conventional farmland and healthy organic rich soil.  My garden soil contains about 9% organic matter, which is refreshed each year with mulch used to suppress weeds and feed the soil.  Most Midwestern farmland has been degraded and contains a small fraction of the organic matter it had when it was first farmed.

In our county we often see a decrease in organic matter from 5% to less than 1%.  The soil in the farm field is little but dust particles.  The surface cracks are an indication of what happens when the soil loses organic matter.  It dries out and the surface hardens. This farm soil has no soil structure because it has lost it’s thriving microbial life, the bottom of the food chain.  Without worms and fungi there is nothing working to form and hold opens pores, the soil surface becomes a hardened crusted surface soon after plowing and planting. 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Food for a small planet

Food for a small planet

What do people eat across the world?  An excellent photographic answer to this question was provided by Californian photographer Peter Menzel who visited 24 countries for the book “Hungry Planet” .   The thing I found most interesting from his photographs was the difference in the percentage of whole food vs. processed food that make up diets across the world.  Americans eat mostly processed food and very little whole food.

The Ahmeds’ extended family in the Cairo from Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 118). Food expenditure for one week: $68.53 USD.

The first book I read about the connections between agriculture, government, food, health, and the environment was “Diet for a small planet” written by Frances Moore Lappe in 1971.  I woke up to the reality of food production and converted for a time to a vegetarian diet.  Eventually I settled on my preferred diet which includes smaller amounts of high quality meat along with mostly fresh plant based food; vegetables, fruit, dried legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. I changed my diet because I wanted to eat food that was better for my health and better for the environment.  There is a reason why obesity has become an epidemic in America, it is because of the food we eat.  Compare the difference between an American and a European lunch.  The Italian lunch contains more whole foods and more importantly less sodium and high fructose corn syrup.

I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother but I learned to cook  vegetarian meals as an adult.  My mother and grandmother had grown up on a small family farm where most of their food was produced, all of it high quality. 

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What will it feel like to be left behind?

What will it feel like to be left behind?

Chris Martenson’s recent article about collapse and the plummeting of biodiversity made me think about what it feels like to be left behind.  Few people living in affluent countries or communities understand what this means. 

Americans closed their eyes to the plight of people in underdeveloped countries whose soil, water, and air were exploited by US corporations seeking profits at the expense of people.  Instead we touted our booming economic growth as American exceptionalism.  We deserved a better lifestyle because we earned it, right?  But today as billionaires are capturing more and more of the world’s wealth and most of the rest are being left behind, we no longer think the situation is fair.  We don’t enjoy it when we are the ones left behind. “The 12% increase in the wealth of the very richest contrasted with a fall of 11% in the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population.”

Human exploitation of the environment is competing for the resources other species of life need to survive.  Climate change and the use of pesticides toxic to most species is causing a severe decline in species of insects, amphibians, birds, butterflies, bats, etc.  It is also causing a decline in human health.  Species are going extinct at rates unprecedented except by catastrophic natural events such as a meteorite impact.  Our decision to protect or conserve nature has evolved from ideas in the 1960’s that we should protect “nature for nature itself” to the idea in the 1990’s that we should preserve “nature for people”.     Economic policy dictated that the needs of people mattered first and foremost.  It is only more recently that people are slowly realizing the importance of natural ecosystems, and that it is “humans and nature” we need to understand and protect.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The religion of American Politics

image: Apostle St. Simon the Zelot

When are we willing to fight for our views?  Simon the Zelot was a disciple of Jesus.  He advocated aggression with the Romans.  He literally fought for his views.  I find it odd that Simon was one of the twelve disciples because Jesus seemed very much against violence (unless one considers the story of the  money changers in the temple!)  Politically I consider myself a moderate independent and normally I do not view political views something to fight over…disagree certainly, but this does not include violence!

My political views fall somewhere between a conservative Democrat and a liberal Republican, but since these political positions no longer exist I find my views falling more and more into a vacuum.  I stopped affiliating with the Democratic Party in my late 20’s, but I never switched to the Republican Party.  I have increasingly felt dismayed by the inability of politicians to compromise, to understand the value of the middle ground.  Today political partisanship has brought us to new levels of government dysfunction.  Frankly, it’s getting difficult to relate to my fellow Americans.

I was moved by the speeches made at Senator John McCain’s memorial service as well as those given for President George Bush.  We heard much about their civility and we owe a great deal to the leadership of these two men who served our country with distinction in and out of politics.  Strangely enough when George Bush was elected president I believed the opposite was true.  During Reagan’s term in office I felt our country’s political body was becoming ever more divided.  But after two years of Trump in office I look back with fondness at all Republican presidents before him.

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Wake up. Stop dreaming!

Wake up. Stop dreaming!

Wake up, stop dreaming

“The sun is in the sky again
There’s a hole in the ocean
And water’s pouring through.
Oh, wake up stop dreaming
And wipe the sleep from your eyes.
Are you frightened of heights?
Are you falling”?

-Wang Chung song lyrics.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac . “Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

I fell in love with woods, pasture and creek living on my grandparent’s farm when I was a child.  After my family moved to the nearby small rural community I found my dose of ‘nature’ walking down a dirt road to the lake, where I would sit with my back against a giant cotton wood tree and look out over the water.  Someone loaned me a copy of the geologic history of our community’s lake.  I was fascinated to learn that it was a remnant of the last ice age; the basin formed from an iceberg that calved off the retreating ice sheet and buried in sediment where it slowly melted over decades.  During a particularly bad drought in the ‘30’s the shore had retreated and farmers plowed the lake sediment.  The lake had existed here for thousands of years and we often found arrow heads in the nearby land.

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Our opposable thumb

Our opposable thumb

Stereoscopic vision, depth perception, certain emotions and other perceptions, and the ability to stretch our thumbs farther than most other species, the ability to build and destroy things, and many other traits individually or in combination separate us from other species, not necessarily all species though.  Other animals with opposable thumbs include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other variants of apes; certain frogs, koalas, pandas, possums and opossums, and many birds have an opposable digit of some sort.  Many dinosaurs had opposable digits as well.  Granted, most of these are primates, as are we.  I wonder if rationalization is something unique to humans.  The ability to ponder may be as well.”

Humans are not the only species with an opposable thumb.  We are not the species with the largest brain.  We are not the only species to communicate or walk bipedal.  So what does make Homo sapiens unique? Perhaps it has something to do with our imagination, our ability to ponder “what if?” and our stubborn persistence.  Long ago I realized that I depend very strongly on my ability to imagine.  Confronted by a challenging situation I imagine choices unfolding into the future.  “Will this work?” I let my imagination run and a scenario plays out allowing me to decide “yes, I think this will work” or “no, I don’t think this will work.”  I wonder, is imagination the real strength of Homo sapiens?  It certainly helps when deciding a direction of action if we can picture a scenario in our head and imagine future outcome, assuming our assumptions are correct.

Now let’s take it one step further, what about belief in the absence of knowing?  What does it mean that we can act even in the absence of logical argument?  True story.

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The flood washes over us

The flood washes over us

A year ago I wrote an article discussing Hurricane Harvey.  Here we are again watching another 1 in a 1,000 year hurricane disaster unfold.  I won’t try to summarize all the other weather disasters that have been unfolding around the world this year.  This year is going to be the fourth warmest year on record behind 2016, 2015, and 2017 respectively.    Our global climate is obviously in chaos and weather disasters becoming more frequent and severe.

In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence’s landfall meteorologists struggled to find words to describe this storm’s unbelievable potential for destruction.  The storm was “biblical”, “unprecedented”, “historical”, “a monster”…yet none of the words really conveyed the reality of risk that few have yet faced.   Governor’s of both Carolina’s took the warnings seriously and called for evacuation.  Many heeded their warnings but the fact that some people chose to stay and ride out the storm showed a dangerous lack of understanding for the danger they faced.  The media’s obsession for making storm disasters into morbid entertainment was in full form when one reporter struggled to stand against wind that seemingly had little affect on nearby pedestrians strolling by.  Like passing a highway accident we can’t seem to turn our eyes away.

The fact that Florence didn’t inflict greater wind damage when it made landfall was a fortunate break that had to do with the storm weakening after its final eyewall replacement cycle.  By Thursday evening September 13th hurricane reconnaissance indicated that a new eyewall was not likely to be completed; the eastern section of the wall not likely to reform.  This prevented Florence from rebuilding the strength of its winds and the storm continued to weaken as it lumbered towards landfall.  Instead of a Category 4 hurricane, Florence came ashore a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 90 mph versus 140 or higher.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Urban and Small Farm Agriculture

Urban and Small Farm Agriculture

We often read about the environmental damage and unsustainable practices of modern agriculture.  Some people have proposed urban gardens and small farms as a pathway to food resiliency; repairing environmental damage, reducing fossil fuel use, and improving our health and well-being.  Others conclude that it takes too much effort; people aren’t going to change; no one wants to slave away in the garden, kitchen, or on the farm; it can’t be done in every country;  small farms and gardens can’t feed the world’s population.  All these arguments have some merit, but I have found the reality of growing local food becomes quite different once the transformation begins.

I have always believed that wherever climate and conditions favor it, local food production on small farms, in backyards, community gardens, and empty urban lots will become an increasingly important source of fresh food.  And if one uses season extension or poly covered tunnels and drip irrigation we can expand the growing area to much wider climate conditions.  It’s nice to read scientific research that confirms my thinking, that there are positive benefits and potential from urban agriculture. A news brief recently published by the Earth and Space Science News describes how expanding agriculture into cities could improve food security, ecosystem health, and more.  “With more than half of the world’s population currently living in cities, and that percentage expected to increase significantly by 2050, production of food in urban areas may become a necessity and certainly should be considered essential for local resilience.”

Researchers from several universities in the US and China collaborated on the project to measure potential benefits of urban agriculture (UA).  They used data collected from satellite imagery (Landsat 5 Collection 1 archive) and compiled results of several variables using Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) computed from a cloud-free median composite of 3 years (2009–2011).  They assessed global aggregate ecosystem services from existing vegetation in cities and calculated the potential of UA based on estimates of urban morphology and vacant land.   They concluded that “there is the potential of annual food production of 100-180 million tonnes, energy savings ranging from 14 to 15 billion kilowatt hours, nitrogen sequestration between 100,000 and 170,000 tonnes, and avoided storm water runoff between 45 and 57 billion cubic meters annually.  The value of these ecosystem services could be as much as $80 to 160 billion, but there will be significant differences in country-to-country variability.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Will the Center hold?

Will the Center hold?

The photo above is William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

“The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

the falcon cannot hear the falconer;

things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

the ceremony of innocence is drowned;

the best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

when a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

a shape with lion body and the head of a man,

a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

that twenty centuries of stony sleep

were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

I find there is something visceral about Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming”, his  words and phrases reach into my gut, grab hold, and demand my attention.  His poem has been often quoted when people write about social change.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  These lines seem to perfectly describe events unfolding today.  Yeats wrote this poem after the end of the First World War, a time of great social and civil unrest.  The poem captures more than just political unrest and violence of his time.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Food as Medicine

Food as Medicine

Hippocrates said “Let food be they medicine, and medicine be thy food.”  At the doctor’s office for my annual checkup I was asked to list any herbs I take and I thought “this should be interesting.”  Sure, I take herbal supplements but what about all the fresh or dried herbs I cook with or drink as tea?  What about Mediterranean herbs in spaghetti, garlic in hummus, basil in pesto, chamomile or mint tea?  What about carrots, sweet potatoes and squash in navy bean soup to boost our immune system and fight off colds?  I asked the doctor if I should list basil in pesto and was told “No, that’s food!” (along with a look that said I must be an idiot).  Well isn’t that the point, that our food is our medicine!

I was watching T.V. and listening to the warnings of side effects from the medicine being advertised, and wondered why people consider the risk worth taking the medicine!  Many food and drugs sold seem to cause health problems.  There’s a phenomenon called ‘prescription cascade’ where one prescription causes side effects that require another prescription, which causes side effects that require another prescription, which causes side effects…. and well, you get the idea.  Nice profit for drug companies and doctors who control the prescriptions.

Our industrial agriculture and food manufacturing practices are making food  with lower nutritional value.  Fresh minimally processed ‘whole’ food contains nutrients important for our health such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, beta-carotene, vitamin B-complex, vitamin-C, vitamin-A, and vitamin K, antioxidants, soluble and insoluble fiber.  Processed food has nutritional supplements added back in along with preservatives and artificial color and flavors, and many other food additives.   We no longer think of food as medicine, or expect it to be medicine.  We are more often concerned about the negative aspects, avoiding the unhealthy foods we shouldn’t eat.  Plants have provided our medicine for most of human history.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A world made by hand

A world made by hand

Only a few generations ago we made many things by hand.  Over the last 50 years store bought products have replaced handmade goods.  Few people still work with their hands, and I often wonder what we have lost in this process?  What have we lost when we no longer enjoy or even know how to make things with our hands?

Humans prehistory is described by the tools and artifacts left behind.  Tools were both functional as well as art.  I love handling a kitchen tool that belonged to my grandmother.  Human development is attributed to our opposable thumb and ability to make and use tools.  So how have we changed now that we seldom use hand tools, and our hands are most often busy using a computer or phone? Are these the same kind of tools as a wood lathe, a knife and cutting board, or a needle and thread?

I love making pottery, bread, and cooking from scratch.  My grandmother taught me to knit and sew and I’ve made several articles of clothes and scarves.  I taught myself to carve wooden spoons and often think I should spend more time doing that…but don’t.   Like many people in their 50’s I often think, I’ll do that after I retire.  We are drawn to the beauty of artisan crafts and desire to explore making them ourselves, but don’t.  Perhaps life is too busy, it would take too much time to make things by hand.

In a world that has less energy available, a world that cannot afford to burn more fossil fuels, we need to move away from machines and back towards things made by hand.  That probably seems unimaginable if you didn’t grow up with a parent or grandparent that made things by hand.  But I think the reality of living like this will be more satisfying than you can imagine.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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