In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Forces of Nature.”
“The planet is fine. The people are f—ed.”
― George Carlin
How’s the weather in your part of the world?
Here in the northwest US, water and snow are in short supply. It’s a big change for us, who are used to winters so rainy that sometimes moss grows in the middle of the streets.
In the Willamette Valley where we live, the warm, dry winter brought a lush spring. Strawberries appeared at the farmer’s market two months early. Apple trees are loaded with fruit, and the roses are already in bloom.
On the eastern side of the state, where we visit to watch birds, hike and enjoy the quiet, evidence of the dry winter is everywhere — empty ponds —
— Low snowpack.
One dry year does not an apocalypse make, and, as climate scientists keep reminding us — the weather outside the window isn’t evidence of climate change one way or the other — but California is four years into a drought. Drought could happen here, too.
“Men argue. Nature acts.”
Ever heard of Lord John Browne, Baron Browne of Madringly?
In May, 2007, Lord Browne abruptly resigned as CEO of the oil company BP, after he was outed by a tabloid newspaper. With tales of a greedy lover juicing up the media, he decided to throw in the towel. It cost him $30 million in stock options and retirement benefits.
Up to that point, John Browne had been a company man, a lifer, who joined BP in 1966 as an apprentice and worked his way to the top. He was there when British Petroleum became BP, and turned the company into the fourth largest corporation in the world. He stayed out of the limelight, partly to hide the fact that he was gay.
Although professionally respected, Browne was privately the butt of jokes and speculation. He was small in stature, and employees who didn’t like him nicknamed him “elf,” short for evil little f_____.
He was also ridiculed by peers — for embracing climate change.
At a time when other executives called global warming a hoax, he rebranded BP as “Beyond Petroleum,” supported the Kyoto climate treaty, vowed to cut BP’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10%, and invested $500 million in solar power.
Environmentalists were skeptical, saying BP’s green makeover was a cover for an unflattering environmental track record. The $500 million dedicated to solar power, for instance, was dwarfed by the $8.4 billion spent in 2004 for oil exploration and production. The company joined those who lobbied hard to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
Instead of pretending to go green, said others, Browne should have been paying more attention to maintenance.
Above, 2005 explosion at a BP Texas refinery, killing 15 and injuring 170. Also under Browne’s watch: 2006 pipeline failure Prudhoe Bay, which spilled millions of gallons of oil.
BP’s stock value sank. John Browne was exposed, and eased out.
Oil executives were by then acknowledging that the cheap and easy oil was gone, but they weren’t interested in wind and solar. The consensus was that demand would rise ad infinitum, and that the smartest thing to do was invest heavily in the oil that is difficult, dangerous and dirty to extract. Browne’s successor at BP, Tony Hayward, doubled down on fracking, tar sands extraction and deep water drilling.
Meanwhile, John Browne moved on with the same vigor he’d demonstrated at BP. He encouraged gay entrepreneurs and published a book, The Glass Closet. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, installed as President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He kept his hand in the oil business too.
Fast forward to 2015.
The bet on dirty oil was wildly successful. World oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, and profits were, for awhile, staggering.
But — surprise. Prices today are half what they were a year ago, and may not rise again anytime soon. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A.) predicts “slower demand will continue for the next decade.” One of the reasons? People everywhere are waking up to the threat posed by climate change.
Oil companies have laid off workers. Shell dropped plans for a petrochemical plant in Qatar. Chevron set aside a proposal to to drill in the Arctic seas. Norway’s Statoil changed its mind about drilling in Greenland.
Of course, this could all change if prices climb again. Still, we have a pause, a breather in the mad dash for oil.
And Lord Browne? Whether or not he was serious in 1999, he’s still sounding the alarm about global warming. Climate science is settled, he recently declared, but “this conclusion is not accepted by many in our industry, because they do not want to acknowledge an existential threat to their business.”
The battles continue. Old school oil executives vilify Browne, as do environmentalists, but my, how things have changed.
Eight years ago, one of the most powerful executives on the planet was trying to hide his sexual orientation, and climate change was mostly relegated to the back section of the papers. Now executives, congressmen and sports stars are proudly coming out; and climate change has moved from the back to the front pages. The world oil market is flooded, partly because — who would have guessed? — demand has slowed.
Is John Browne courageous or opportunistic? Does it matter? More important: Are we finally ready to begin the painful process of weaning ourselves from oil?
While we in the Pacific Northwest are starting a winter-less spring, and the Northeast is awaiting yet another snowstorm, it doesn’t seem to have hit many Americans’ radar that there are four tropical storms in the South Pacific.
The biggest, Pam 15, is passing today almost directly over Port Vila, Vanuatu, a category 5 hurricane with winds over 150 miles per hour.
Six months ago, Vanuatu wasn’t on my radar. We’d never heard of it, not until our daughter, who volunteered for the Peace Corps, received an assignment there. Now, I often dream of Vanuatu — big, colorful, vivid dreams.
It’s hard to let go of your children, and really hard when they decide to go far away, even when it’s an amazing, courageous and wonderful thing to do.
It might be harder though to adjust to the idea that the world she’s just started to get to know, the new friends, the culture and the wonderful people, are all under threat.
The 80-plus islands of Vanuatu are northeast of Australia, and until the 1980’s known to westerners by the colonial name, New Hebrides. It’s the birthplace of bungee jumping, and home to live volcanos. A 2004 “Survivor” series was set in Vanuatu. Ambae, the island where our daughter would live and work as an IT specialist, was the inspiration for James Mitchell’s “Songs of the South Pacific.”
Vanuatu was featured last month in the Bill Weir’s TV series “The Wonder List”, which highlights countries that are just about to be forever changed by westerners. He described it as Hawaii without hotels.
Some of the islands are hilly, with villagers protected from rising seas, but many are low-lying and vulnerable.
And all are vulnerable to storms.
It’s impossible to pin any one storm on climate change, but scientists assure us that more storms, and more violent storms are on the way.
The Peace Corps volunteers have been evacuated and are waiting to hear about the fate of the people they have come to know and love.
Above: our daughter’s “little brother” runs away with her kite.
Have you, or has anyone you know volunteered for the Peace Corps? Where? Has that country been affected by climate change?
Do you check out the messy side of the places you visit?
When we travel, tidy arrangements for visitors are much appreciated on my end, but it doesn’t seem right to go away without lifting the carpet. When we went to Disneyland, it was all I could do not to open the “employees only” doors, to peek behind the scenes. In New Orleans, we took side trips to quiet neighborhoods where people live and work, despite tourist-book warnings about safety.
Life is both glorious and grubby. When a man-made place looks perfect, it means the people who constructed and maintain it are hiding something. Maybe it’s a good something. Maybe not. To uncover the secrets of a place, I generally try to find out (1) where the water comes from and (2) where the trash goes.
In Singapore, surely one of the tidiest countries on earth, we learned there are almost no native sources of water. That’s pretty amazing for a country with 5 million people squeezed into an area about half the size of Los Angeles. How do they do it?
Singaporeans are largely dependent on Malaysia for water. They supplement with catchment basins for rain, water recycling, desalination and set aside estuaries for water storage, but for the most part the water has been, at various times, shipped and piped in.
And trash? Very complicated. There is one landfill, on an artificial island.
Household recycling is voluntary and complex, since most people live in high rises.
Some industrial waste is repurposed. Waste that can be burned is sent to incinerators, which generate energy; also pollution, but apparently not very much. The ash is transported to the landfill. Their goal is a 60% recycling rate, which is phenomenal given how most of the rest of the world deals with trash.
But enough about Singapore.
This week we visited a small outpost on the Sea of Cortez. Spectacular. Remote.
Trash? Most of it dumped, covered with palm fronds, just out of sight of the resort.
Water comes from the mountains, which also supply Cabo San Lucas, about 4 hours from where we were.
It is filtered for drinking, and post-use, processed in a septic field. Or so we hope.
Efforts in Mexico are underway to capture trash for recycling, but as anyone who walks along storm tossed beaches can see, that battle is only beginning. In an hour of trash-collecting on the uninhabited island of Cerralvo, we gathered a full bag of plastic: water and soda bottles, tooth brushes, shampoo bottles, shoe soles, umbrella handle, twine, tubing, and many dozens of bottle caps.
If you are traveling to the La Paz area and are interested in minimizing the impact of the trash you leave behind, check out this post by Fives on the Fly.
What’s going on in your neighborhood in the water and trash departments?
The other day the newspaper featured a story about two local guys, Charles Wilson and Omar Ellis, who just launched a cricket flour business.
Knowing me, and in light of my recent post about the benefits of entomophagy, my husband pre-empted any discussion of the matter, saying if cricket flour appeared in any of our cookies, there would be, well, trouble.
I’m not running out to buy a bag of cricket flour. Marital bliss takes priority. Also, cricket flour doesn’t sound very appealing.
We westerners are pretty specialized in our diets. We depend on four kinds of grasses: wheat, corn, rice and millet.
Also, we’ve got a mind set that insists these crops be grown in a certain way, which is expensive, sterilizes soil, puts bad stuff in water and releases a lot of carbon into the air.
What happens if even one of those four species, is wiped out, despite our best efforts to fertilize, water and inoculate?
Maybe put some money in Cricket Flour stock?
If you try Peruvian chocolate cricket flour, I’ll try it. You first.
Where are the fights over land use in your part of the world?
Cities are required by law to incorporate enough land to accommodate future growth. In accordance with the law, the next town over from mine is proposing expanding its boundary. The proposal swallows up farmland in several regions.
It has set off a firestorm of criticism, particularly in one area with several small farms, that borders an arboretum visited by about 500,000 people a year.
City officials say that the arboretum, waterways and most farmland will be protected. Farmers, hikers and residents cry foul.
Fights like these are going on everywhere.
“We are like people living in the penthouse of a hundred-story building. Every day we go downstairs and at random knock out 150 bricks to take upstairs to increase the size of our penthouse. Since the building below consists of millions of bricks, this seems harmless enough … Eventually — inevitably — the streams of vacancy we have created in the fabric of the walls below will come together to produce a complete structural collapse.
When this happens — if it is allowed to happen — we will join the general collapse, and our lofty position at the top of the structure will not save us.” Daniel Quinn, “The Danger of Human Exceptionalism”
With economic growth a priority and population growth on a steady upward trajectory, it’s inevitable that we’ll chip away at forests and farmland.
Still, many are willing to question, and push back.
As discouraging as it may seem, small-scale fights like these help everyone think about and remember how important open space, clean water and the survival of other species is.
Have you been involved in land use planning? Have you worked to save open space, or to change zoning for or against industrial use?
Do you have a theory about how the world works? Can you boil it down to a few sentences?
MY THEORY OF THE WORLD: What we think we are:
The best creatures anywhere, ever.
What we actually are:
Recently evolved bipeds.
To improve our lot.
What our actual purpose is:
To reproduce. Evolve. Host bacteria.
How we think we improve our lot:
By rearranging things and making ourselves comfortable.
What we actually do:
What we think we’re uncovering:
Secrets of the universe.
What we’re actually learning:
Nature does everything better than we do.
We are bit players. Nature is the boss.
We live on a rock in the middle of nowhere. The important stuff — life, air, breath, companionship, joy, consciousness — is absolutely free. Our own brains are the most complicated things we’ve ever discovered. We have no idea how this happened, or why. It’s a miracle. And geologically speaking, we’ve just gotten here. What’s next? My suspicion is that whatever is coming, it’s going to be a wild ride.
How do you think the world works?
Are you a traveler? Where are your favorite places?
This year, as we celebrated thirty years married, we covered a lot of ground.
What do we get from going places for fun?
For me, travel is a wake-up. A trip bookmarks time and place. It humbles.
It’s good to breathe the air somewhere else, and see for myself how big, and how small the world is.
Travel makes me go outside.
Times and places where there aren’t many people, or things made by people, feel the most important: sunset over water, fish in a stream, fog descending over firs.
What does travel do for you? Are there places you want to see in 2015? Before you die?
Happy New Year
May the year’s journeys be everything you hope for.
*”Interior with a Girl,” Picasso
Your chance to sound off about a hot button issue.
What do you think about the Keystone Pipeline? Why has it become such a lightning rod?
Do these facts change your opinion?
Keystone is a multi-phased project. Several sections have already been built and are in use. The Keystone XL pipeline that is under consideration and the subject of controversy is the last of four phases.
Oil extracted from the tar sands/oil sands in Alberta, Canada is called bitumen. At 57 degrees fahrenheit it is as hard as a hockey puck. It must be warmed or diluted before it can be piped. Extraction is energy intensive.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline crosses an international border. Approval depends on a finding by President Obama’s administration that construction will be in the national interest. Proponents say it will help the economy and lessen dependence on oil from hostile suppliers. Opponents say it will worsen global warming, and that spills will cause environmental damage.
￼Existing pipelines: Three segments of the pipeline are already in use: (1) Hardisty, Alberta to Steel City, Nebraska and Pakota, Illinois. (2) Steele City to Cushing, Oklahoma, and (3) Cushing to Port Arthur, Texas. The controversial route more or less duplicates the Hardisty to Steele City route, but is shorter (see green line on map, runs through Baker, Montana).
Several additional pipeline routes to carry oil across Canada are being planned; and, a pipe parallel to an existing line from Hardisty to Wisconsin, has been proposed.
Spills: Over the last ten years, 4.1 million gallons of petroleum and hazardous liquids have been spilled each year in pipeline accidents, causing an average of two deaths per year. Property damage: $263 million annually. The Keystone Phase 1 pipeline, which opened in 2009, has had 12 reported leaks. In 2010, over a million gallons of Canadian diluted bitumen spilled from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River. As of Aug. 2013, Enbridge Corporation, the company that built and maintains the pipeline, had spent more than $1 billion to repair and mitigate the damage. Cleanup is still underway.
Train transport: The number of train shipments of bitumen-derived oil has increased exponentially in recent years. Transporting by train is more dangerous than by pipeline.
Train accidents involving oil transport in 2013:
- ￼July, Lac Megantic, Quebec: Oil train derailed and seventy two tanker cars exploded and burned. Forty seven people died. Forty downtown buildings were destroyed. Cleanup estimate: at least $200 million.
- Oct., Gainford, Alberta: Four rail cars carrying crude oil and nine carrying liquified petroleum gas derailed in Alberta. The fire burned for days.
- Nov., Aliceville, Alabama: Crude-oil tanker train derailed and burned. Released up to 750,000 gallons of oil.
- Dec., Casselton, North Dakota: 20 cars in a train carrying crude oil ignited after colliding with a derailed grain train near Casselton, N.D., sending up a fireball and spilling an estimated to 476,000 gallons of oil.
Environmental impact of bitumen vs. ordinary oil: From shale to tail pipe, bitumen releases 17 to 20 % more carbon into the atmosphere than regular gasoline.
Jobs: temporary jobs (one year or less, full and part time) 42,000. Permanent jobs: 30 to 50.
Scribbler’s view: It was a surprise to learn how much of the Keystone Pipeline is already finished, how common pipeline spills are and how much oil is transported by rail. Tar sands oil extraction is more dangerous and dirtier than I thought, and more of a done deal.
The last phase of the XL project will probably be approved. Even if it isn’t, stopping the construction of the pipeline will not end the extraction, shipment and burning of bitumen-derived oil from Canada. At most it would increase costs. This is a symbolic fight, a line in the ‘sand,’ and rallying point to organize fights against practices which worsen climate change.The legacy and value of the controversy will be new political alliances, and that the fight has brought the issue to the headlines.
How do you think Congress and the President should/will resolve the Keystone controversy?
Have you ever written to a government agency on an issue you care about?
If you’re interested in local farming, and minimal use of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, now is a good time to write to the The Food and Drug Administration.
In 2011, the FDA updated its food safety regulations with the most comprehensive overhaul in seventy years, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). They are still working out the kinks. Anyone with an opinion is invited to comment before December 15, 2014.
Here are the new rules in their entirety. If you don’t have time to wade through all of that, Scribbler is here to help.
About fifty years ago, we made a U-turn in how we grow food. We introduced nitrogen fertilizers and new practices that allowed us to exponentially increase the amount of food we produce.
We are a long way, however, from understanding how best to grow food for billions of people. Scientists are discovering practices that encourage microbial activity in the soil, and are healthier and safer than some of the chemical-based practices most farmers use. Until we know more, farmers who work and experiment with soil, water conservation, composting and organic methods need to be allowed — encouraged — to continue. The new FDA rules will make that difficult. Some farms could inadvertently be put out of business.
Here’s what’s important for organic and small farms:
1. Farms vs. Facilities
When food producers get big enough, the FDA stops defining them as “farms” and starts calling them “facilities.” The new rules update standards that facilities, i.e., large institutions, must comply with. Farms have separate requirements, designed for smaller operations.
The new definitions of what qualifies as a facility and what is a farm are fuzzy. For instance, small farmers who work jointly to store and package what they produce, or who have plots of land that are not contiguous, might be inappropriately classified as facilities.
According to laws passed by Congress, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA’s) are farms, not facilities, but the FDA rules don’t make that clear. Small farmers who decide to, say, add a U-pick strawberry business that brings in $5000, might find themselves subject to rules requiring putting together and maintaining an expensive Food Safety Plan. To understand what that means, have a look here. The plan could cost more than the income from the strawberries.
2. Due Process
Legal remedies and processes need to be clarified. If a grower’s status is changed, say a “farm” gets classified as a “facility,” there is no requirement for prior notice, leaving farmers no opportunity to correct the problem. The agency also doesn’t have to list reasons for a change in status, and there is no clear path to appeal the FDA’s decisions. All these issues need to be addressed.
3. Soil Amendments
The words “compost” and “manure” don’t appear in the new food safety rules, but they are in the subtext. Here’s a good breakdown of new rules governing soil amendments. Basically, the FDA is trying to prevent crops from being contaminated with bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. The trouble is, the new FDA rules conflict with those of the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. There is disagreement about how long compost tea and manure fertilizers must be cured before they can be applied. The science is not clear. The National Organic Program, which was adopted after many months of research and public comment, in cooperation with the National Organics Standards Board (part of the USDA), should be the standard.
Water is different everywhere, and the quality needed for safe drinking and swimming, is not the same as what’s needed to safely grow food. The FDA is proposing narrow rules that set one standard for all water use, both recreational and farming. This will lead to over-use of chemical water treatments. The rules need to be flexible to accommodate water in different geographical areas, and for different kinds of water use.
5. Sound off
It’s not just mega businesses that control what happens in Washington. When enough people speak up, policy makers respond. Witness the influence of the Tea Party, and the delay of Keystone Pipeline. The FMSA itself is being revised because of a huge response from the public. If you want to send a comment or statement to the FDA, here are instructions. Several sites also have templates and more information. See The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, and the Friends of Family Farmers.
Do you follow the ins and outs of rule-making about how we grow food? Have anything to add about the FDA’s new proposals?