Wildcats on the Prairie

Click the link on this blog for NASA’s “Vital Signs of the Planet” web site.  I spent sometime on it yesterday.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration site is actively monitoring climate change indicators such as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, polar ice melt, and key gases such as methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  Go to the site and use their interactive tools to study how each indicator has changed over the decades.  A recent study on methane gas levels caught my eye.  Scientists have been puzzled at a leveling off of methane gas in the atmosphere.  The study reports on 30 years of data for ethane/methane and was published in the journal Nature on August 23.  Here is an excerpt:

In results published Aug. 23 in the journal Nature, the team led by UC Irvine chemistry professor Donald Blake reported that the observed leveling-off in atmospheric ethane/methane is largely a result of changes in fossil fuel use – specifically, reductions in fugitive emissions of natural gas that can occur during fossil fuel exploration. Fugitive emissions include venting and flaring, evaporative losses, and equipment leaks and failures, but exclude combustion of fuels. The study finds these measures probably account for up to 70 percent of the slowing growth in atmospheric methane levels observed at the end of the 20th century.

This is pointing to positive steps Americans can take right now in the upcoming election.  A vote for Romney-Ryan team will likely lead to increases not only in carbon dioxide emissions but also methane emissions because the duo plans to open up drilling and other policies (giving states the right to choose how their coal, gas reserves are managed) that will most likely lead to increases in both these gases if history tells the truth .  Obama’s administration has not shown strong leadership in this direction either but the record tends in the right direction, whereas the Republicans will throw us back into even greater emissions of both CO2 and methane.  Voters from both parties will need to be actively engaged with their leaders and representatives to make sure policies are not short sighted (what is not economically feasible in the short-term may be very feasible and prudent in the long-term).

Long ago it was determined that the maximum safe level of heat energy in earth’s atmosphere should be no more than 350 parts per million or less of carbon dioxide (CO2 being the most abundant heat-trapping molecule in the atmosphere).  According to the NASA site, we are at 393 ppm and rising.  Go see for yourself.  Add more methane to the atmosphere and the heating goes up at a faster rate – 20 times greater.  Think of fracking, one of the new technologies that will be unleased by the policies being unveiled on the republican platform.

Right now my state, Florida, is on a path to converting from coal to mostly natural gas for its primary energy source.  This is a trend nation-wide.  Obama is tooting clean fuels.  How clean are they?  NOAA scientists who started measuring air pollution near well-sites in Colorado’s oil and gas fields found they were leaking methane at substantial rates.  The industry representatives they spoke to indicate that measuring pollution from wells is expensive and not economically feasible.

The Republicans and Democrats are concentrating on jobs because the public demands it.  Yet it will be GAME OVER if we reach a temperature threshold that substantially changes the atmosphere.  How will that will be economically feasible?

We are brimming on the edge of that threshold now.  Yet, our leaders are silent about climate change because voters – the American public – in substantial numbers ignore the scientific data.  If you are one such person, ask yourself why you turn a blind eye to incontrovertible evidence that our climate is changing and that the human thumbprint is in large part the reason for dramatic increases in temperature (carbon dioxide emissions the culprit).  We know with certainty that our combined human activities – demands for more and more energy – are creating conditions for environmental degradation on a scale unknown to humankind. (Remember also that Americans per capita are the energy hogs of the planet. Sorry, its just the truth.)


Yet we are wildcats on the prairie again with hydraulic fracking the earth’s surface to get at the natural gas reserves.  In doing so, we are releasing increased amounts of methane into drinking water in adjacent watersheds and into the atmosphere. Its bad policy and will be judged as immoral in a more desperate future if we choose that path.

Democrats and Republicans both need to check the facts.


It’s About Nature…

The debate between left and right is, at its conceptual basis, about how we relate to nature.  It is an old debate, known in the early conservation years as one between Preservationists and Wise-Use advocates.  That’s been waging for about 200 years in America.

But it has always been much deeper than policies and economics, hasn’t it?  Aldo Leopold put it simply:  How can I live on a piece of land without destroying its ability to renew itself over and over again?

That renewing quality is a complex thing, perhaps truly unknowable, though we try to understand how it works.  By accident or neglect we have learned what happens when ecosystems breach their carrying capacity, when populations are disrupted by over harvesting, or by removing keystone species like wolves or bears.  We know this, have witnessed it time and again.  We also know that if this occurs, the economic potential of that resource base declines or is used up forever.

No, this is not about the economy.  This is about how we view Nature: part of us or outside of us/us part of Nature or us outside of Nature.

That piece of toast you have at breakfast is a fine example of the debate.  It can be seen as a wheat commodity whose value is set in a global market and depends on demand—comprised of the mental/emotional gestalt of market purveyors at any point in time.  It can also be seen as the product of temperate air produced by forests half a world away that produce clouds and rain; soil organisms numbering in the thousands of species whose interconnected activities produce nitrogen, sulfur, and other elements plants needs to grow; of insects, butterflies and birds that pollinate and spread the seeds; and countless other elemental resources that go into making the stuff of production, delivery, storage and display (trucks, tires, electrical circuits, asphalt, cardboard for delivery, and refrigeration – all dependent on the elements of this earth – all made by processes that tick along and are observable but which are no longer observed by humans as a whole).  All this has become expected – a Right.  Yet if you stop, and stopping is a value-laden activity that requires will, then you readily see it…that all things are interconnected and not separate things to be bought and sold, used and discarded by you.  Therefore, a conscious being uses discernment to make choices not based on the market as its primary basis but rather on the totality of its impact on all, with the market factored in.  Otherwise we join with the unconscious or semiconscious who daily speculate with their own lives, yours and mine.

Think of it.  This is the debate…your thoughts?

The Two American Minds

The past two months I have been reading and rereading many of the works of America’s great conservationists and philosophers, even returning to read the biographies of our early founders, especially Ben Franklin.  For example, in the early part of the 1900s Teddy Roosevelt posed to the nation that how we conserve and also use land was the most important domestic issue before Americans of the era.  Aldo Leopold, the most outstanding of America’s modern conservationist, and a forester by profession, concluded that the central dilemma for humans was how to live on a piece of land without destroying its capacity to support them.

In 2012 that dilemma encompasses not just America but the whole of the planet as our numbers approach 9 billion and the impacts of resource depletion have made earth’s ecosystems less resilient.  Food stocks are dwindling.

I like to read the early novels and essays from the founding of the West, satisfying my hunger to know what was lost before I was born – the deep topsoil from which crops flourished, uncut forests and communities of life within them that are simply unimaginable in our day and time.  The unraveling of the continent’s great natural resources through our desire to work the land as we see fit, and to make the greatest profit possible (American ideals of personal freedom) required an ethic that did not exist in most people’s minds until Roosevelt and Leopold began to question those ideals in light of the responsibility to protect the nation’s “seed corn” for future generations.

The two American minds exist together: the pioneer mind, free to act on what he owns and the communal mind which is concerned with whether its welfare is enhanced or diminished by individual actions, and for the generations coming who wish the same generous portion of opportunities.  This push me-pull you consciousness is ever-present in the American psyche to this day and I believe is the basis of the heated political arguments in Washington about who will lead the country.

The problem has always been that we do not have the values incorporated in our Constitution that are required to make fair and healthy decisions about land, resources, and people’s well-being. The pursuit of happiness has been grossly misunderstood by modern America. To John Adams and other founders, it meant the freedom to pursue an education, to develop the life of the mind.

For all the national emphasis on science literacy and scientific research, we are sorely in need of an education about how to live as members of an ecological community.  That knowledge is perceived to “knock up against” our cherished value of personal freedom.  Yet if we dig just a little deeper into our relationship with land, we would readily understand that there is no freedom in wanton destruction of nature for short-term profit because the result is utter ruination and a life not worth living! The Dust Bowl is our own nation’s living example.

The key is to create sane conversations that use the wisdom of the greats like Roosevelt and Leopold, who were not against use of resources for human benefit, but who realized a new set of principles are necessary when making decisions that challenge one or the other perspectives.

Leopold’s Land Ethic is simple:  “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  (Sand County Almanac, The Land Ethic)  Of course the complexity of this kind of thinking requires the ability to consider the complex nature of our individual and collective relationships with the land community.  It requires what Leopold eventually called The Ecological Conscience—a way of thinking and being that is whole: intellectual and intuitive, economic and esthetic, personal and communal.

We’ve been using one American mind almost exclusively.  This can be seen most recently in our rush to exploit national coal and oil reserves that has resulted in sanctioning of violent technologies (mountain top removal and fracking) that leave lands barren, water poisoned, animals and plants destroyed and communities impoverished for the future.  Both parties in Washington have supported these new ventures.

We are using the old way of thinking in our fear and uncertainty, never drawing the connection between the economic downturn and the dwindling natural capital on which all our wealth depends.

Good Company

I am continuing to read Round River—a meditation of immense wisdom in journal form.  What am I learning?

  • That land is different than country
  • That the hobbies of common people following their own curiosity can be more powerful than the most sophisticated science because these humans are puzzling-together the life story of a  plant or an animal, its natural history
  • That trying to change a person’s mind or behavior by threatening them with calamity does not work
  • That we are diminished in direct proportion to the incremental loss of wilderness

With Aldo Leopold I enjoy easy company with a man who understood what it means to be human.

Aldo Leopold on the Colorado

Aldo Leopold has been a lifelong inspiration for me and someone whose writings I turn to often.  For the first time, however, I am reading Round River, published in 1953 by Oxford University Press.  The second chapter, The Delta Colorado, chronicles his trip with Carl Leopold on the Colorado Delta region below the U.S. border starting in San Luis and going deep into a wetlands wonder before the Hoover Dam caused its long slow death.

What struck me were two things: 1) the amount and variety of wildlife that dwelt therein (now vanished or reduced to small numbers), and 2) the amount of game it took to keep two grown men from hunger.  Leopold’s daily journal entries are fun, informative and definitely from a “guy’s” point of view.  He’s getting to know the land by hunting, canoeing, hiking, and exploring its contours.  They meet and try to talk with a Cocopah youth on horseback – unheard of today in that region.  The record is point-in-time, when that region and all its communities were at the brink of massive environmental and cultural change that most did not fathom.  Up stream three hundred miles near Parker, Arizona the realization of other men’s dreams would radically change the lives and fortunes of many by siphoning off water for development in the seven states of the Colorado River Compact.  Ironically this agreement was signed the very same year Leopold made his now famous trek.

Round River is a collection of lyrical prose.  Leopold is one of our best writers in this genre.  Sometimes I just read his works for the sheer joy of its language and easy style.  This little book of essays includes many gems including one about the nature of hobbies (A Man’s Leisure Time) that is still instructive today:

A good hobby may be a solitary revolt against the common-place, or it may be the joint conspiracy of a congenial group.  That group might be the family.  In either event it is a rebellion, and if a hopeless one, all the better. ~ p. 8, Round River, 1953, first edition.

Where does the sidewalk end?

by Shel Siverstein

There is a place where the sidewalk ends

And before the street begins,

And there the grass grows soft and white,

And there the sun burns crimson bright,

And there the moon-bird rests from his flight

To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black

And the dark street winds and bends.

Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow

We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,

And watch where the chalk-white arrows go

To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,

And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,

For the children, they mark, and the children, they know

The place where the sidewalk ends.

This is a profound poem that I read to my children when they were small and somehow they just “got it”—the feeling that I think Shel Silverstein tried to convey.  Only now I wonder if today’s children turn to a beautiful virtual world where they can control what happens…a place that is more engaging than the real world outside their door.

What do the children mark?  What do they know, today?

America is a creative process…

America has always been a creative process—preserving what is good and true; burning away the old to make room for the new, or changing opinions and actions by slow accretion through dialogue, hopefully, or conflict.  This weekend we landed a car-sized robot on Mars with the precision of a surgical procedure even while confronted by a citizen gone mad and the tragic loss of lives in an American religious community.   When we begin to see differing opinions, ways of life, and religious persuasions as “other” or evil, we forget what American was established to do:  unify.  While this drama took place, the Olympics put teamsmanship and international, friendly competition in our living rooms.  What a dramatic kaleidoscope of events all happening in the big shadow of Super PAC ads that seek to divide us. There is no dialogue between political parties anymore, only acid rebuttles and smear tactics on both sides of the aisle.

Thus the soft landing of Curiosity and the ecstatic faces of Olympians were momentary antidotes to the virulence parading as democracy.  Let us remember these words of Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address on the eve of the ending of the Civil War:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Paradise Screwed?

“On Florida’s Energy Future” – an article by Amy Keller in this month’s Florida Trend – interviews Adam Putnam, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.  His office has oversight for energy and climate change policies and programs.  The article includes invaluable charts of the types of energy (i.e. coal, natural gas, solar, etc.) currently utilized by each of the state’s four investor-owned energy providers and projections for each by 2019.  Alternative energy sources are not projected to change substantially.

To Putnam’s credit, he wants to see more diversity in energy sources and asserts that we have to develop “all of the above” when it comes to steady energy delivery as Florida grows.  He notes the “game changer” has been the discovery of huge reserves of natural gas inland. Putnam even reflects that increasing drilling in the oceans is not very compelling now that a cleaner and more abundant source of energy has been discovered on land in such abundance.  Gulf Power, our local energy provider, is drawing over 84% of its energy from coal-burning whereas all the other providers are using less than 60% coal, with one as low as 45%.

However, diversification in the mind of Florida’s energy commissioner means development of nuclear power, or at least bringing existing nuclear power plants that are shut down back into operational status.  Florida Power and Light  operates two nuclear power plants near Port St. Lucie and has two pending applications to build two more plants at a Turkey Point site, 25 miles south of Miami near the Everglades.  Progress Energy owns a nuclear power plant that has been shut down since 2009 but may reopen in 2014 with repairs, while they have two pending applications to build power plants in Levy County.  Gulf Power in Pensacola is considering building a nuclear plant in Escambia County but has no pending applications.

The discussions about renewables was a minor bleep on the screen during this discussion; the bottom line as always is cheap energy.  Why then are we considering a total of 8 nuclear power plants in Florida in key ecological areas that will impact human health and wildlife, and by default, the state’s key tourism dollars?  It makes no sense.  Experts point to the relative high costs of developing nuclear power to the long-term cheap costs of maintaining it. So, then, why not make these same investments in “expensive” alternatives which promise even better outcomes?

Everyday I watch tractor trailers pull gigantic wind turbines, manufactured in Pensacola by General Electric, to other states, like Texas, where wind now comprises about 20% of the state’s total energy.  In 2005, the Texas Legislature passed legislation which established five Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) to ensure that electric transmission infrastructure was aggressively developed to deliver wind energy throughout the state. The projected increase from the current wind generation capacity to an estimated 18,000 megawatts should happen by 2015.  Why has the sunshine state, a state with potential to develop wave and geothermal energy, not developed a big vision like Texans have done?

TEXANS!  If they can do it, should Floridians be able to do it?  What’s keeping us from forming a sustainable vision?

Florida operates like a rambunctious territory with wildcat development, graft and dark deeds.  The nation has been the recipient of its bird plumes, alligator hides, pine trees, red snapper, sugarcane, spring water, and tourist destinations…all at the expense of a vulnerable landscape. Miami journalist and popular fiction writer Carl Hiaasen has been making a good income off all these stories, based on real people and events. Hilarious to read, the longer I live in Florida the less funny they seem.  (Read Paradise Screwed for example.)  While making fun of the state (he is a native God bless him) Hiaasen is dead serious.  His Miami Herald column has angered many a politician, developer, or investor in the wild schemes that plunder The Swamp.  These precious springs and shores are priceless treasures of biodiversity, and beauty with important functions in the larger ecosystems to which the state is connected.

Don’t get me wrong: air conditioning, bug spray, and roads have made Florida habitable, and no one loves the beach more than me.  But we must join other states in figuring out how to live here sustainably.  Nuclear power plants have no place in Florida.  That is a NO BRAINER!  Carl?