Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Green on Green

Guardian picture: Lewis wind farm

This article explores the tension between conservation and climate change policy in the context of the Lewis wind farm proposal I discussed earlier this year.

It mentions that the Isle of Lewis's peat bogs, now protected by the Scottish government's decision not to allow the wind farm, will be vulnerable to climate change, but fails to mention that the more low-lying parts of the islands will likely disappear under water due to sea level rise. This will occur on a slower time schedule than any continued warming, and the extent to which it occurs is not fully known. Read the article by Jim Hansen here for a good discussion of the known historical precedents. But if we fail to reverse CO2 increases, it will occur.

Funnily enough, I've been asked to go help with a carbon footprint of some Maine islands. Islanders are more worried than ordinary folks, and they should be. Low-lying islands everywhere should be concerned.

But so should conservationists. There will be very little point left to a whole century's worth of conservation since John Muir and Gifford Pinchot began the movement if we allow the climate to change as drastically as we expect it will change. It might as well never have happened.

Green v green

The rejection of the Lewis wind farm this week highlights how environmentalists are lining up against each other in countryside battles. Mark Lynas reports

* Mark Lynas
* The Guardian,
* Thursday April 24 2008

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Whack-a-mole games...

That's what I think of climate deniers these days. Just as one influential celebrity denier makes a switch, changes their mind and tone, another steps into the breach.

And there's worse. The drug of climate denial is addictive. In the nature of denial, there's a section of the general public that actually demands journalistic material that is contrarian in tone, and various publications and outlets, ranging in status from from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, to the tabloids and blogs, step up to the plate and peddle them the street s..t they want. Just like cocaine.

One contrarian blogger I once foolishly argued with for weeks would spend sweaty nights tapping out his crudely uneducated ideas and distributing them widely, and people would actually read the stuff and demand more of it, so he started a blog purely dedicated to his climate denial material. This was a guy who'd never even thought to take a course on climate science. People loved his stuff.

Fear is the root problem in denial. Until an extreme weather event hits their town, few folks will have the guts to look the science right in the eye. Why should they? It's scary news. In the meantime, people tend to seek out comfort in the form of a community of denial.

It's nasty, nasty business. People are already getting hurt and dying over this. More to come.

Tabloids rapped over climate coverage

* Jemima Kiss
* Monday April 28 2008

The "deliberately contrarian" tone of tabloid newspapers had damaged public perception of climate change, a research paper published today said.

Researchers at the University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute say that superficial and simplistic tabloid coverage and limited depth in reporting had contributed to a "significant divergence from the scientific consensus that humans contribute to climate change".

Monday, April 28, 2008

Return of the Clay

Thanks, Clay, for doing this elementary but useful recycling project.


Free boxes have been distributed through all the dorms, and there should be one on each floor.

If you have stuff you don't want put it in the box!

If you see stuff you want take it out of the box!

Everything remaining in the boxes after finals well be taken to the Goodwill in Waterville, or if anyone knows any other local places accepting goods donations, like clothing/food/etc.

Last year the boxes were overflowing which is fine just stack stuff next to them neatly as possible.

If you have questions or want to help please let me know

Last year I put about 15 hours into this so any help is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Gas Hydrate Warning

The methane hydrate feedback has long been the most fearsome and worrisome of all possible climate feedbacks. Since the average person can't yet fully comprehend the ordinary climate change we are expecting, the IPCC BAU or similar, and its causes and intricacies, talking to climate beginners or skeptics from a cold start about hydrates is not advisable. Like moving from an explanation of how to put air in the tires to a full-on discussion of the tolerances required for a bearing rebuild; the shift in topic is slight, but the shift in assumed knowledge needed to understand the material is huge. You pretty much need at least a week of basic climate teaching before you can begin to discuss the most worrisome feedbacks.

So far our journalist friends seem to help rather than hinder. Below is a fairly poorly worded, poorly imagined article from Germany's Der Speigel, in which the author manages to "balance" discussion of a methane hydrate emissions crisis with notions of how we might use them for fuel in the same breath. That anyone in today's world can imagine using methane hydrates as a fossil fuel astounds and terrifies me.

(This journalistic "balance", and it's equivocating political equivalent, is beginning to physically nauseate me. It's "balancing" the discussion of placement of deck chairs on the Titanic, and increasingly incoherent and cognitively dissonant. I can imagine a day when what is left of civilization puts journalists like this one, and the editors, and the politicians, on trial for their irresponsibility and fecklessness.)

It's because climate change, particularly drastic feedbacks, is is so hard to explain, and because we are so actively delaying political climate action, filibustering even a minor deck-chair shuffle, that as early as several years ago I began to play out the resultant civil emergencies in my head, so I might have an idea of what would be needed.

Now we do have quite a bit of experience with civil emergencies in this country, and perhaps yet more in my home country, the UK. Although few climate scientists and mitigation folks have studied civil emergency management, and few politicians and ordinary climate activists have enough grasp of 20th century history to have an understanding of what to do in the event of something like a runaway climate warming feedback crisis occurring in the context of a heavily populated industrial civilization, there is a historical record of events of similar magnitude in terms of civil disruption, a record that runs the length of the 20th century, and includes things like the 1940s food crisis resulting in the UK from the Battle of the Atlantic, the concurrent 1940s Blitz in Britain and the equivalent response to the heavy British and American bombing of Germany, and the civil restoration of Germany and Europe in general after WW2 and accompanied effort to feed, house and resettle displaced persons and survivors of death camps. Possibly useful for examples of what not to do if you intend to keep democracy, there's also the immediate post war eastern European and Soviet experience and the Cultural Revolution in China. If you need to see what happens when modern vehicles, cell phones and computers still work, for the most part, you might study hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the San Diego wildfires, the 2007 UK flooding, the current food riots in Haiti, and so on. There are many, many other examples, and, partly because of climate change, our knowledge is growing yearly, and even weekly with this new food crisis.

(This history is particularly on my mind right now because my RAFMRS colleague "Heavy" Whalley, senior team leader at the Lockerbie disaster, is visiting here at Unity College with us as "Rescue Expert in Residence" for a few more days, and due to talk in Tim's Introduction to Criminal Justice class on the subject of Lockerbie tomorrow. Heavy received several medals and commendations for the work he did in the aftermath of that disaster, and his cool thinking on how to structure the response in that burning hell-hole was crucial to managing the disaster, and by extension to reestablishing civil order and stability.)

How to begin applying this kind of knowledge?

Well for starters, we have to be capable of imagining the scale and direction of trends likely to result in civil emergencies, so we need some basic climate science and some ecological and geophysical modeling. The following is informal, based on the intuitive models I carry around with me. But it might be formalized easily enough.

We can currently envisage two possible emergencies, a runaway warming feedback, or a runaway cooling feedback. Right now, based on the emerging data from scientific study of specific feedback loops like the undersea methane hydrates (below) or the arctic albedo feedback, a runaway warming feedback seems most likely, perhaps an order or so of magnitude more likely than a cooling feedback.

A runaway warming feedback sufficient to create civil emergency might occur over a timescale of a couple of years, some tens of years, or even a couple hundred years and still be rapid enough as to overwhelm ordinary provision for food, housing and shelter. The most obvious drivers of emergency and instability are food system failure and destruction of housing. Any underlying rapid warming trend will also be accompanied by more extreme weather, possibly more extreme than anything we've seen yet. Wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, if we start to warm by say, a degree Celsius a decade, or two, all these may double, triple, or more, in intensity and frequency primarily because of the extra heat or climate "forcing" building up on the surface of the planet and in the lower atmosphere and oceans, but also because of the increased heat differential as the new heat will not be spread evenly across the planet surface. High heat differentials and resultant high pressure differentials drive extreme weather. Another, secondary driver of emergency conditions is civil unrest which can result from either of the above, or from political unrest unrelated or only somewhat related to climate.

Crop failure is already occurring patchily around the world from drought and other strange weather, particularly important being the failure of Australia's wheat harvest last year. Crop failure, with high fuel prices impacting food systems, has been one cause of the food crisis in the developing world. If transport systems remain intact, crop failure is a temporary regional phenomenon alleviated by food aid. If they don't, it may produce chronic, long-term starvation.

Housing destruction may become driven by rising sea level, but is already driven by floods, storms and wildfires, and of course we already have experience with these in the USA, the UK, as well as countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia (after the tsunami) and elsewhere recently.

Civil unrest calls for a policing or a military response in which force is used or threatened to prevent populations from fighting among themselves for food or housing resources that remain. It is also possible to envision a crisis so widespread that civil unrest takes on the likeness of a war or civil war between populations excluded from resources, but that are armed, and those who still have resources. One such situation smolders currently in Haiti.

Society can respond to all of the above using ordinary market or social provision if the scale and pace of events does not out-pace markets and social aid. The nature, form and actual development of a climate emergency, as such, is related to the capabilities and resilience of ordinary provision for housing and food and policing, whether through markets or government "social" provision. So in the aftermath of Katrina, the civil emergency in which extraordinary government response was needed was a few months long, after which insurance companies began, belatedly to make payment, and construction companies, commercial food systems, and other more regularized social housing and feeding were established or reestablished, and, essentially, civilization was slowly restored. The skills that were in immediate demand after Katrina: emergency public health care, emergency medicine, rescue, civil emergency organization, emergency pollutant assessment and control, helicopter piloting and related ground support operations, civil emergency feeding, emergency policing against looters and criminal gangs, and more; and those in demand during the rebuilding phase: demolition, construction, plumbing and electrical, non-profit management, government grant and loan operations, civic planning, and so on, both were and will in the future be different from the skill sets in demand for basic climate mitigation.

Civic organization in an emergency is not helped by counting carbon emissions and changing light bulbs. But the skill of leadership is common to both climate mitigation and climate emergency response.

There are also geographic and ecological concerns to consider in any climate emergency because food system and housing failure will occur patchily. Some current food supply and housing resources may prove ecologically resilient. Others will not. Fast action on the part of a government, such as moving, say, agricultural equipment and fertilizer and seed from one area to another so that crops can be grown according to some emergency plan, may proved crucial. Planning out contingencies for such events might be helpful. A general preemptive policy of adding to food stock storage and supporting resilient agriculture and resilient housing before a crisis hits could literally save civilization.

What would be resilient agriculture? We don't really know, since we don't know which ecological regions areas might still be productive in the event of a runaway climate warming, but we obviously must begin to imagine it. In Britain during WW2, resilience was sought and found using small scale decentralized production, adding gardens and livestock to small patches of useful land. Labor was usefully added to agriculture without taking troops from fighting, using programs like the Women's Land Army. All these and other related policies enabled land that had been pasture since enclosure to be plowed up once more for arable crops. The scale and intensity of of agriculture was increased everywhere. In any future climate emergency, agricultural mobility might be key; in WW2 Britain, the ecosystem at least was stable. In the future, we may find we can have ecologically productive homesteads and farms on northern and high altitude land currently under-utilized, such as that which surrounds us here in Maine. A government program to purchase by eminent domain and distribute such land to qualified farmers and homesteaders might also be key, as might the training of such people. Shared equipment for clearing and planting, shared seed stock and breeding stock resources, imaginative use of animals and crops such as using sheep and goats to help clear land for future arable production, or using cover crops to sponsor nitrogen production without fossil fuels, all these might prove helpful. Finally, a few thousand tonnes of concentrated fertilizer and a few tonnes of seed stored in decentralized government buildings in each ecoregion would save, literally, millions.

Resilient housing might prove to be that housing that can either survive the crisis and still be useful, based on location or physical resilience. It might also be prefabricated emergency housing, or housing that can be moved relatively easily from one place to another, or housing that people can build for themselves with or without government help. People may also need to be physically moved, as after Katrina, to safer yet distant places where they may be temporarily or permanently rehoused. And as the immediate crisis after an extreme weather event winds down, emergency feeding and social welfare/job schemes that allow householders to work on their own homes and those of their neighbors might prove useful. Retraining may be needed.

Homesteading or smallholding, the production of food, fuel and shelter for one's own consumption and/or for a small commercial surplus, should not be overlooked in all this. A homesteader family who can produce enough or some for their own needs and help their neighbors, is likely at least to not need as much in the way of government care as a displaced urban family with effectively no practical skills. Neither should the Town Meeting system of government practiced here in New England be overlooked. Doughty homesteading and farming communities have run their own governments in my county of Maine for nearly two centuries, with very little help from state and federal government, and more than a little hindrance. In any future climate emergency, the wisest authority may be the one that realizes when they have insufficient wisdom to have authority.

(Would that were so now, and we might escape the emergency in the first place.)

Resilient police and military forces, and health care services, controlled by resilient democratic government structures, will be key to surviving such a crisis with some semblance of civilization intact. Again, decentralization and scale are important, because opportunities for safe food and housing provision will be patchy and ecologically scattered. If sea level began to rise by a foot or two or three per year, for instance, moving people and housing and farming to higher and more northerly ground while maintaining social order, would be driven by consideration of where that higher ground and northern land suitable for housing and agriculture was, who was in charge of it, and what islands and peninsulae might result after Greenland and Antarctica are done melting or partially melting. Canada will be a very popular country. And state legislatures and state governors, congressmen and women, Presidents and their staffs, government agency heads, all, unfortunately, will need to be protected. Plans for succession should be in place. Communications must be sufficiently resilient to survive repeated extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

(Whether our government officials will actually deserve such protection after letting such events occur is a purely moral question. As an expedient, for once, I would say, we shouldn't "throw the bums out." We will need every scrap of government we can get, and we may not have time for politics in any case. The UK national government headed by Winston Churchill suspended elections for the duration of WW2.)

In general, in any ecological crisis driven by warming, north is obviously better than south and higher better than lower. The US and the UK are both lucky to have large areas of relatively unpopulated higher land in their respective norths. The Highlands of Scotland, Maine, Montana's great plains, places I've spent my own life in the wilderness, these may be the refuges we will seek. There's no surprise that my farm is at 500 feet. And I've always wanted to live on an island.

Gallows humor aside, I don't want to have to imagine these things but I think we must. I'm not a ghoul who likes to imagine death and destruction in his spare time, nor am I a conspiracy theorist nut-job who keeps several years of food supply in his basement. But I am an Englishman whose grandfathers and grandmothers fed their families with Victory Gardens, rabbit hutches, and chicken coops during WW2, whose father was bombed out of his house, all of whose male relatives over 50 have served in the armed forces, and who has himself been on the scene of dozens of aircraft crashes and served at several civilian emergencies, responded to hundreds of casualties in first aid situations, and who, with his wife, produces food, fuel and shelter on a small but hopefully resilient farm in Maine. My wife Aimee, on the other hand, comes from the German-American Peace Church tradition, and raises and puts up food almost instinctively, while giving it away with even less thought.

Actually, with that kind of history, we really can't help but think this stuff through.

A Storehouse of Greenhouse Gases Is Opening in Siberia

By Volker Mrasek

Researchers have found alarming evidence that the frozen Arctic floor has started to thaw and release long-stored methane gas. The results could be a catastrophic warming of the earth, since methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But can the methane also be used as fuel?

The Lena River flowing through Russian Siberia and empties into the Arctic Ocean. This satellite image shows the river delta, where methane concentrations are unexpectedly high.

It's always been a disturbing what-if scenario for climate researchers: Gas hydrates stored in the Arctic ocean floor -- hard clumps of ice and methane, conserved by freezing temperatures and high pressure -- could grow unstable and release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Since methane is a potent greenhouse gas, more worrisome than carbon dioxide, the result would be a drastic acceleration of global warming. Until now this idea was mostly academic; scientists had warned that such a thing could happen. Now it seems more likely that it will.

Russian polar scientists have strong evidence that the first stages of melting are underway. They've studied largest shelf sea in the world, off the coast of Siberia, where the Asian continental shelf stretches across an underwater area six times the size of Germany, before falling off gently into the Arctic Ocean. The scientists are presenting their data from this remote, thinly-investigated region at the annual conference of the European Geosciences Union this week in Vienna.

In the permafrost bottom of the 200-meter-deep sea, enormous stores of gas hydrates lie dormant in mighty frozen layers of sediment. The carbon content of the ice-and-methane mixture here is estimated at 540 billion tons. "This submarine hydrate was considered stable until now," says the Russian biogeochemist Natalia Shakhova, currently a guest scientist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks who is also a member of the Pacific Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok.

The permafrost has grown porous, says Shakhova, and already the shelf sea has become "a source of methane passing into the atmosphere." The Russian scientists have estimated what might happen when this Siberian permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes. They believe the methane content of the planet's atmosphere would increase twelvefold. "The result would be catastrophic global warming," say the scientists. The greenhouse-gas potential of methane is 20 times that of carbon dioxide, as measured by the effects of a single molecule.

Shakhova and her colleagues gathered evidence for the loss of rigor in the frozen sea floor in a measuring campaign during the Siberian summer. The seawater proved to be "highly oversaturated with solute methane," reports Shakhova. In the air over the sea, greenhouse-gas content was measured in some places at five times normal values. "In helicopter flights over the delta of the Lena River, higher methane concentrations have been measured at altitudes as high as 1,800 meters," she says.

The methane climate bomb is also ticking on land: A few years ago researchers noticed higher concentrations of methane in northern Siberia. The Siberian permafrost is known as one of the tipping points for the earth's climate, since the potent greenhouse gas develops wherever microorganisms decompose the huge masses of organic material from warmer eras that has been frozen here for thousands of years.

"A Wake-Up Call for Science"

Data from offshore drilling in the region, studied by experts at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), also suggest that the situation has grown critical. AWI's results show that permafrost in the flat shelf is perilously close to thawing. Three to 12 kilometers from the coast, the temperature of sea sediment was -1 to -1.5 degrees Celsius, just below freezing. Permafrost on land, though, was as cold as -12.4 degrees Celsius. "That's a drastic difference and the best proof of a critical thermal status of the submarine permafrost," said Shakhova.

Paul Overduin, a geophysicist at AWI, agreed. "She's right," he said. "Changes are far more likely to occur on the sea shelf than on land."

Climate change could give an additional push to these trends. "If the Arctic Sea ice continues to recede and the shelf becomes ice-free for extended periods, then the water in these flat areas will get much warmer," said Overduin. That could lead to a situation in which the temperature of the sea sediment rises above freezing, which would thaw the permafrost.

"We don't have any data on that -- those are just suspicions," the Canadian scientist said. Natalia Shakhova also passed on the question of whether to expect a gradual gas emission or an abrupt burst of large quantities of methane. "No one can say right now whether that will take years, decades or hundreds of years," she said. But one cannot rule out sudden methane emissions. They could happen at "any time."

One thing is clear, though: The thawing of the Arctic sea floor will create "new potential sources for methane ... which no one had reckoned with until now," said Laurence Smith, a professor for geography at the University of California in Los Angeles. Smith is researching North Pole frost zones and expects that a thawing of the permafrost will "supply fuel for methane engines."

The first methane rocket thruster was tested by the US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2007, and methane from manure has been collected as "biogas" to heat and power homes in experimental German towns.

In any case, the team taking part in the Siberian study installed a number of probes in the Laptev Sea, a central part of the broad Siberian shelf sea. These probes are measuring the temperature on the upper edge of the submarine permafrost. Overduin wants to pull up the probes in August. Then, for the first time, scientists will have access to a full year's worth of data on the conditions of the sea floor.

For her part, Shakhova thinks researchers should be doing a lot more. She says too little is known about the fragile shelf sediment and the methane it stores, which could be explosive for the environment. "Actually," she says, "this is a wake-up call for science."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bio-plastics make methane in landfill

"You can't just do one thing." of Commoner's four summary laws of ecology. It came home for me (again) in a interesting way when I read the article below. I've been worried about what to do with the large amount of bio-plastics entering our campus compost stream, which can only handle so much waste. Charlie (creative food-service guy) obliged me and the Sustainability Committee by worrying about much the same thing without being asked, and deciding to cut back and use regular china plates as much as possible.

Then I helped with a magazine article on packaging, and the editor and I interviewed all these very alpha-type businessmen and women who were in a very big hurry to tell the world about their PLA-based containers, and the small nagging eco-troll that lives in the back of my mind was dinging quietly on an alarm bell.

Then I read this (below), a front page Guardian headline.

But wait a minute. The problem is, PLA breaks down in landfills to form methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than the CO2 that would have been made by making regular plastics. Does the problem go away if methane is used to make electricity and/or heat from landfill gas? Then we're just back to CO2, right?

But you can't just do one thing. Everything is connected to everything else. What about the hungry people in the world? Biofuels are one problem. Bioplastics just add to that problem.

Just try not to use very much packaging at all, I think, is likely the best rule. Buy bulk. Grow a garden. Raise grass-fed livestock. Recycle food waste through pigs and chickens and other worthy critters low enough on the food chain to enjoy that kind of thing. I fed our sheep a pear core last night, and they loved it. Now just where Aimee got pears from in Maine in May is another question we won't ask just right now. One problem at a time.

If you have a job that requires packaging, try to find a way around it, like Keith the head custodian with his bulk shipments of green-cleaning liquids that come in reusable containers. That one saves money too. Highly recommended eco-tip.

'Tis the season for composting winter animal bedding on the Womerlippi Farm. I think I'm going to finish the newspaper, drink my coffee, and go make another compost heap. At least I know that works. And it will help us grow more food, which will reduce the amount of food needed elsewhere in the world because, well, I won't be buying as much and neither will all the people we sell or give food away to.

"Dig for Victory." "New" eco-slogan. One we know more or less for sure works in most places because we've been doing it for so long in those places.

"Sustainable" Bio-Plastics can damage the environment.

John Vidal, Guardian, UK

The worldwide effort by supermarkets and industry to replace conventional oil-based plastic with eco-friendly "bioplastics" made from plants is causing environmental problems and consumer confusion, according to a Guardian study.

The substitutes can increase emissions of greenhouse gases on landfill sites, some need high temperatures to decompose and others cannot be recycled in Britain.

Many of the bioplastics are also contributing to the global food crisis by taking over large areas of land previously used to grow crops for human consumption.

The market for bioplastics, which are made from maize, sugarcane, wheat and other crops, is growing by 20-30% a year.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Addressing Climate Change...skeptics

I'm putting together an article for those thoughtful skeptics of climate change, whether they range from not accepting in warming average global temps to those who understand climate change but don't agree that we should change our behavior for the future.

Please help in this endeavor. Let's share our phrases, sentences, paragraphs, whatever you have, that you use when trying to address climate change skeptics. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

RE: burn calories not carbon

Chris Goodall, author of 'How to live a low carbon life', has come to a surprising conclusion about the carbon emissions associated with driving vs. walking: driving may result in fewer emissions!

Assuming that you eat conventionally raised beef to supply the calories you need to walk a given distance, driving a car over that distance actually emits a smaller quantity of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the beef production, if one includes all the activities associated with beef production. For details, see Goodall's essay here.

So should we all drive more to save the earth?? NO! I fully support walking, biking, skiing, or paddling where one is going. Goodall's conclusion is a critique of the resource-intensity of conventional modern agriculture, particularly beef production, not an indication that driving cars more is a 'green' thing to do. His take-home message is that to meaningfully address climate issues, we need to watch what we eat AND how much we drive.

Also look at Chris Goodall's website,, for many useful resources.

In Your Backyard

From Stef '06 at the DEP:

New Fertilizer Law for Our Back Yards

Spring is here and many Mainers are starting to think about getting their lawns in shape. For some that means going to the store to get the first fertilizer of the season. But wait! What kind of fertilizer will help get you a beautiful lawn? Is this the right time to apply fertilizer? Do you even need to buy fertilizer? New research can help you have a healthy lawn with fewer lawn chemicals.
First, most lawns don't need fertilizers containing phosphorus. Over 90% of lawns tested in the past 5 years would not have become greener with additional phosphorus. That means your lawn - and your lawn care budget – shouldn't require phosphorus to stay healthy.
To have a good looking lawn, you may not need to fertilize at all. If you leave your grass clippings (the natural fertilizer) and your lawn is 10 or more years old, there are enough nutrients in the soil to grow a healthy lawn. Even better for your budget! (And by the way, clippings don't lead to thatch.) Younger lawns may need some nitrogen.
So if your lawn doesn't need fertilizer and phosphorus in particular, please don't use it. Save time and money -- and your local waters. Just as fertilizer can help plants grow in your yard, they also can help plants in our lakes, streams, and bays. Rainwater and melting snow wash fertilizers and other pollutants from our lawns down our driveways, road ditches into storm drains or directly into nearby waters. Those fertilizers can turn our waters green, lead to smelly scums, and rob the water of its oxygen causing fish kills.
Lakes and streams are so sensitive to phosphorus that a new law effective January 1, 2008 discourages the use of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus.
It is ok to use phosphorus fertilizers when:
1. Soil test results from a laboratory indicate that phosphorus is needed or
2. The fertilizer will be used to establish a new lawn, although new research shows that most soils only need nitrogen.
The amount of phosphorus can be located by looking for the 3 numbers on the package label. The numbers indicate the percent of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, in that order. Look for packages where the middle number is zero for phosphorous free such as 10-0-5.
If you must fertilize - avoid over fertilizing! Measure your lawn area to determine the square footage. Then calibrate your spreader to apply one-half the recommended amount of fertilizer based on the bag's label. Watch for your lawn's response. Reapply at the reduced rate when your lawn's response is not acceptable. Don't apply before spring green-up. If your lawn isn't growing – it can't take up the nutrients. The best time to feed your lawn is September.

If you want to test your soil, get a test kit at stores that sell fertilizer, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Offices, Soil & Water Conservation Districts, or call the state soil lab at 581-3591.
Together, we can have green lawns and clear waters!
This column was submitted by Barbara Welch, Lakes Education Coordinator with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Land and Water Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP. E-mail your environmental questions to or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Scrap call....

April 14, 2008

Subject: Got Scrap Metal?

Got Scrap Metal?

Don’t waste a piece, recycle it!

You can get rid of the junk for cheap at the Metal Recycling Bin on the Crosby Brook Road open the first Saturday of every month!

Scrap metal is a really broad category, but most of it will only cost you a dollar to get rid of. For a one-time fee of $1.00 you can dispose of a variety of items.

Such metal items as:

Stoves, water tanks, water pumps, scrap metal, pipes, fencing, bikes, metal furniture, file cabinets, storm doors, window frames, metal toys, shop metal, tools, lawnmowers, tanks, drums, and cylinders.

Have a refridgerator, freezer or air conditioner? For a $15.00 handling fee you can get rid of your cooling equipment and be environmentally friendly!

Don’t throw away your Scrap Metal, recycle it! Take your Scrap Metal to the Metal Recycling Bin Located on the Crosby Brook Road. The Metal Recycling Bin will accept most of these items for a one-time charge of just one dollar! Dispose of your Scrap Metal in responsible and environmentally friendly way! Make a difference in your world!

If you found this helpful, would like more information or wish to give any feedback please feel free to contact:



Student Survey 1

42 Murdock Dr. UC Box 487

Unity, ME 04988

Burn calories not carbon

(Not the most physically accurate choice of title, since carbon-burning produces calories of heat. But it was chosen by a student who hasn't had physics yet.)

Doug responded to the student with the following calculation:
Good idea! Can I refine the calculation a bit? We are, after all, burning organic compounds and creating carbon dioxide when we walk. Here's a back of the envelope calculation:

Assuming the food we eat is an average of 15:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, 2% nitrogen content, and is around 900 calories per pound. (3500 calories per pound for fat)

1 pound/900 calories = x/100 calories = 0.11 pounds of food burned to walk a mile

.11 pounds of food x .02 = 0.002 lbs N

0.002 x 15 = 0.033 lbs carbon per mile added to the atmosphere from walking

C= 12 O2 = 32 12/44 = 27% carbon in carbon dioxide

X = 0.33 (44)/12 = 0.12 lbs of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere from walking

Assuming 20 miles per gallon for gasoline:

19.6 pounds carbon dioxide per gallon

19.6/20 = 0.98 lbs per mile carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by driving

No guarantees on the assumptions, and someone should check my math, but it looks like those who choose to drive should pick up nine passengers on the way.


From: Heidi Brugger
Burn Calories not Carbon!

Walk or bike to school day April 24th!!

On average there are 84 cars in the parking lots (for students and faculty commuting to school) lets try to make it 34!!!

walking burns about 100 calories per mile and biking burns about 30.
One gallon of gas burns bout 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Help the Planet and help yourself!!!

~If you live to far away try and carpool with a housemate

Monday, April 21, 2008

Walk or Bike to School Day

Burn Calories not Carbon!

Walk or bike to school day April 24th!!

On average there are 84 cars in the parking lots (for students and faculty commuting to school)
Lets try to make it 34!!!

walking burns about 100 calories per mile and biking burns about 30.

One gallon of gas produces 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Help the Planet and help yourself!!!

~If you live to far away try and carpool with a housemate

From Nicole Cronin

Towel Triumph

The following data on our new paper towel dispensers may be interesting.

Thanks to Keith, the Custodian Crew, and the CRAP Crew for all their efforts on reducing waste, green cleaning, and recycling.

It also makes my life a lot nicer to have Keith and his staff stepping up to the plate. And what great self-starters!


Your very happy Sustainability Director.

------ Forwarded Message
From: Keith Giles
Date: Mon, 21 Apr 2008 08:58:30 -0400
To: Mick Womersley
Cc: "Roger T. Duval"
Conversation: paper towels
Subject: paper towels


I finished working the numbers on paper towels, since we have switched to the new towel dispensers we have used 515 fewer rolls this year. This is a 27% reduction and a $1627.40 savings. This number would have been better but we didn’t make the switch until October of this year. These 515 rolls equals a little over 1 ton. According to the research I did on line to make 1 ton of paper it takes 7000 gals of water, 17-31 trees, and 4000 kwh of electricity. It also places 60 pounds of pollutants in the air.


Vernal backyard pools

From Stef '06 at the DEP:

Are There Pools in Your Back Yard?

Spring is here, with its special sights and sounds.
On a rainy night when the temperature is above 40 degrees you can not only hear the chorus of frogs but see Maine's wonderful amphibians. Keep your eyes peeled for frogs and salamanders coming out of the woods, crossing your yard, the road, or whatever obstacle might be in their way. These critters are making their annual migration from winter habitat to breeding habitat – they are headed for vernal pools.
Vernal pools (vernal comes from the Latin word for spring) are generally small depressions in the woods that fill with water during spring and fall, and frequently dry up in the summer. These woodland pools don't have fish living in them, and don't have an inlet or outlet that would allow fish to get to them. That's why they make great nurseries—no fish to eat the eggs, tadpoles, and baby salamanders!
In fact, in Maine, vernal pools provide the primary breeding habitat for wood frogs, spotted, blue-spotted, and four-toed salamanders, and fairy shrimp. They also provide critical habitat for some endangered species such as the Blanding's turtle and the ringed boghaunter dragonfly.
Vernal pools are valuable to many other animals as well. All of those hundreds of eggs that the frogs and salamanders lay are meals for hungry skunks, weasels, and other larger animals including bears. Other animals such as deer and moose visit the pools in early spring for fresh leaves because vernal pools tend to green up earlier than the rest of the woods.
The surviving eggs hatch within a few weeks, and tadpoles and larvae emerge. Once the young frogs and salamanders leave the pool, they are still hunted by skunks and weasels and lots of others looking for food.
The frogs and salamanders that survive make their way to either a forested swamp or some dry part of the woods to spend the summer. Wood frogs have been shown to migrate up to 1000 feet from the pond they were born in to find summer habitat – that's a long way for an animal that small!
Next spring, this new generation of frogs and salamanders will make their way back to the same vernal pool in which they were born, to start the process all over again. It is important to protect not only the vernal pool itself, but also the land around the pools, since many organisms spend most of their lives in the surrounding areas. Effective September 1, 2007, a new law enacted by the Maine Legislature is helping to protect the vernal pools and surrounding areas to make sure this continuing cycle of life can take place.
To learn more about vernal pools go to and click on the Keyword "vernal pools" for more information.
This column was submitted by Mary Pierce, formerly an Environmental Specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Land and Water Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP. E-mail your environmental questions to or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

In Your Backyard

From Stef '06 at the DEP:

This isn't the normal Backyard Newsletter, it's an article written by a Unity College student about bringing nature back to your yard, Enjoy!

...Over the last several years the idea of creating backyard habitat for wildlife has been spreading across the county. Many people wonder what they can possibly do to increase the health of their communities, bring wildlife back to their yard and fight larger than life problems like global warming. Wildlife require diversity in their habitats and when creating backyard habitat landowners should strive to meet the four basic needs of wildlife which include food, water, cover, and space. There exist many simple things that landowners can do to meet the requirements of wildlife and reduce the amount of energy and fuel it takes to heat and cool their homes throughout the year. First, plant many native trees and shrubs, but be sure to put them in the right location.

Evergreen trees not only provide essential shelter and food for overwintering wildlife, but if planted on homes' north-western side can dramatically reduce heating bills in the winter. On the southern side of homes, deciduous trees, which loose their leaves every year, will provide summer shade, but allow winter light to come through after only a few years. Acorn rich trees such as oaks make a great choice because they provide hard mast for wildlife in the fall and winter and can withstand high winds. Northern white cedar trees provide excellent winter cover for wildlife because of their dense foliage. It is also important to think not only horizontally, but vertically as well when creating backyard wildlife habitat. Different species inhabit the various levels from basement (soil) to canopy, and the more vertical diversity incorporated into the habitat, the more species of wildlife will be able to call your yard home. Non-living components are just as important as the plant components of a healthy backyard habitat. Things such as nest boxes, dead trees, perches, brush piles and rock piles, dust and grit, salt, and water all become essential building blocks of a backyard habitat.

Creating backyard habitat is one small step all landowners can take to not only bring wildlife back to their yards, but to create healthier communities, reduce global warming, and save money.

Want to learn more?

All residents of Maine are invited to become Habitat Stewards™ by attending the Habitat Stewards™ Program which is a volunteer effort of the National Wildlife Federation® and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. By enrolling in the Habitat Stewards™ Program you will learn and or participate in: "What wildlife need to live and how to improve their habitats; How to design a home landscape as wildlife habitat; Use of native Maine plants in the home landscape; Local field trips, and much, much more."

Further, with payment of the $75 (Scholarship assistance is available upon request) fee you will receive: "A handbook from the National Wildlife Federation® and educational materials from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension; Advice and training from conservation professionals, and ongoing support for you as a Habitat Steward, including continuing education on habitat topics."

Applications will be accepted from now until Aug. 15, and all classes are held at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Androscoggin-Sagadahoc Counties office in Lisbon Falls at 24 Main Street (or in the local area) on alternate Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., on the following dates: Sept. 13 and 27, Oct. 11 and 25, Nov. 8 and 22.

For more information on the Habitat Stewards™ Program please visit its Web site which is filled with free information and downloadable brochures:

If you have further questions and or would like to receive an application packet please call Nancy Coverstone, extension educator, toll free at 800-287-1458 or locally at 353-5550 or e-mail her at

Don't live in Maine? For a free 28-page colorful booklet published by the NRCS that applies to backyard conservation across the country just call 888-LANDCARE and they will mail you a copy.

Matthew Dedes is in the class of 2008 at Unity College

What is a watt?

Dear Mick:

I'm having a brain cramp, and I need some help. The "Watt" listed on the top of the lightbulb is the Watts-per-Hour the bulb uses right?


Dear XXXX:
Yes. It's a truncation, but a confusing one. Household "watts" are a measure of power flow, like cubic feet measure stream flow for a kayaker. But they are not the same things as System Internationale watts, which are a measure of power. Household watts are actually watt-hours.

Flow is somewhat meaningless without knowing the amount of time flow is sustained, so the kayakers say "cubic feet per second." Likewise, electrical engineers use "watt-hours."
A watt-hour is actualy a formal SI watt sustained for an hour. A thousand watts is actually a thousand watt hours, or one kilowatt-hour, or 1 KWH, or 1000 SI watts sustained for one hour. Your power consumption is measured in KWH by Central Maine Power when they make up your bill.

For household uses, light bulb companies mistakenly rate their products' consumption by watts when they 'watt" they really mean are watt-hours. A 13-watt compact florescent bulb actually uses 13 watt/hours per hour of use.

From wikipedia

"The watt (symbol: W) is the SI derived unit of power, equal to one joule of energy per second."


"One joule is the work done, or energy expended, by a force of one newton moving one meter along the direction of the force."


Sunbathed on Kinder, burnt to a cinder

The site of the mass trespass discussed in the Alladale series on this blog, and its coat of blanket bog, is in trouble, threatening to release millions of tons of CO2:

Ramblers ruin right-to-roam's landmark site

The mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 began a revolution that opened the countryside to millions. Now the Peak District's bleak beauty is under threat of erosion - partly caused by its popularity. Caroline Davies reports

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Saving money on solar: the Renewables Obligation

Image: Matthias Loster, from wikipedia. Text accompanies the image:
"Solar power systems installed in the areas defined by the dark disks could provide more than the world's 2006 total primary energy demand (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%). That is, all energy currently consumed, including heat, electricity, fossil fuels, etc., would be produced in the form of electricity by solar cells. The colors in the map show the local solar irradiance averaged over three years from 1991 to 1993 (24 hours a day) taking into account the cloud coverage available from weather satellites."

I've been waiting to see how a combination of more aggressive government grants and a more aggressive Renewables Obligation policy would work out for solar power development in Europe, particularly for ordinary householders. This article here is a good introduction, and sums up the finances for an ordinary householder in Britain.

If the government is going to encourage the switch from fossil-fueled electricity to solar power, and in doing so intends to take advantage of household economics and existing buildings, then a Renewables Obligation is a good policy. Obligating power companies to buy household-produced solar power at a decent rate, and possibly adding an obligation for power companies to sell a mix of renewable power and regular power through the grid to other households, helps ensure a return on investment for householders who install grid-tie systems. But the RO is currently insufficient, because of the present high cost of a solar-electrical system, so a grant or tax credit is also needed.

Because solar power is only produced when the sun shines, new grid-tied solar power capacity can't help your household make power in the night-time when houses typically use most of their electrical power. But if you live in a region with a Renewables Obligation and thus can sell solar power to the grid for, say, 12 ¢/KWH, and buy it back when you need it at, say, 15¢/KWH, then the power company can make the cost of it's power lines, and a small profit, and you can begin to recoup the investment of several thousand dollars worth of solar gear by paying a smaller electricity bill, or even getting paid for your surplus power.

You've become a utility!

Added to this savings is the savings for the power company and power grid by not having to build peak load power stations to provide power to industrial customers who need it during the day, as well as the savings on hardware when panels are simply installed on an appropriately tilted already-existing south-facing roof, instead of on custom posts and brackets.

A householder with good home equity credit worthiness and existing home equity can leverage the installation by getting a new loan or extending an old one. The finance is cheap -- 6,7 or 8 percent interest is perfectly normal and reasonable. If you have the average household electricity consumption of 4,000KWH or thereabouts, and therefore install a 4KWH peak system, essentially 40 100WH panels, for about $30,000 installed costs with inverter, then your house in most US regions will easily make as much power as it consumes.

Do the math: fun and family friendly:

The map above shows the solar energy that falls on the different parts of the planet. Taking into account cloudiness and rain, the sun shines on average for a few hours each day in each region. In our region we get useful sun for 2.5 hours on average in winter and 6 hours on average in summer, so say 3.5 hours a day for 365 days a year times the 4KWH of the system gives 5,110KWH per year. The return on your investment is in abated energy bills of 4,000 KWH total, plus 1,110KWH surplus. Assuming all power is used NOT when the sun is shining, you have to pay 3¢/KWH for the first 4,000KWH (your electricity consumption), and you make 12¢/KWH on the next 1,110KWH, you make $12 on your electricity production over the course of the year, but abate $600 of electricity bills, or $50/month. Not enough to pay the cost of hiring $30,000 of new home equity: you will need more like $350-400/month.

But if you can get a grant or tax credit for half of that cost, and if the value of the solar panels is recouped when you sell the home, then you're looking at a better deal. If I could be solar-powered for about $150/month and in so doing add $30,000 in inflation-proof assets to the value of my home, I'd go for it. Wouldn't you?

The government intervention is just needed to get the ball rolling. If the price of fossil power goes up, as it is likely to do because we make it with oil and coal and natural gas which are currently increasing in price, and if the price of solar panels comes down as it is likely to do because of new thin film technology and because of increasing economies of scale in production, then the two ends of this calculus will begin to meet by themselves, and we will be looking at a solar boom.

So understand that the economics of a Renewables Obligation plus solar grants or tax credits would be not only a short-term boon for US credit, solar, and electrical installation companies, but a long term investment for the US economy and US employment. In Maine, presently, we have an obligation for the power company to buy your home-produced power, but the rate is set at a miserly 2¢/KWH. There is also an obligation for the power company to sell 30% renewable power back to every customer through the Standard Offer, but this isn't enough to stimulate solar when we have so many hydroelectric plants in-state already.

I think we can do better than this. A lot better.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Note from Trey on farm crisis and response

-----Original Message-----
From: Trevanion
Subject: Meat + Biofuels

Evening Unity-
I have been hearing a lot about how detrimental Biofuels are lately. The media focuses a great deal about how they take away from the global food supply causing a food crisis in third world nations, how they encourage the destruction of rain forests and how the recent increase in federal subsidization of crops grown for biofuels is a scam, etc, etc... All of these critiques raise valid and worthwhile points, but they bring them to a conclusion that I consider narrow-minded at best. In response to an article my sister sent me, (attached below) I wrote the following rebuttal. Here it is for your thought and consideration.

Well, the problem as I see it lies in trying to confront one problem while ignoring others. The article got several things correct; most importantly is the idea that the way we currently grow food uses an amazing amount of oil. The second is that ethanol and much of the fad of biofuels has been nothing but a scam. It was painfully obvious from the beginning that GM's ethanol initiative was little more than a PR stunt. Ethanol is not cost or energy effective (especially from corn), so GM got to say "Look how green we are!" and then act disappointed when ethanol did not really take off.

But I digress. The point is, biofuels have amazing potential as a transitional tool to aid us through the end of cheap oil. In the long term, they are not really sustainable; financially or ecologically. The problem that biofuels can fix is that we have no where near the alternative powered transportation infrastructure in place to continue shipping anything anywhere at the costs that we can do it with fossil fuels. So as oil becomes exponentially more expensive, the cost of producing and transporting foods will increase the cost of food to the point where the only financially viable means of crop growth will be local and organic. Unfortunately, through a combination of people's lack of willingness to cough up the extra money and effort to buy food produced locally on a large scale and the federal government's ever-increasing assault on small farms, there is nowhere near the local farm infrastructure in place to provide for the populations that exist, especially in places like Boston and new york, so this cannot happen as quickly as the increase in the cost of foods will. The other problem that makes this problem really tricky is that people now feel that it is their God-Given Birthright to eat red meat three meals a day. This is not and has never been sustainable in any North American ecosystem. It takes 16 pounds of grain to create one pound of red meat. If the US were to reduce its red meat consumption by 10%, we could free up 12 million tons of grain per year. That is enough to feed every person who dies of starvation or malnutrition on the entire planet (Celsias). If we were to reduce our meat consumption by another 10%, we would then have another 12 million tons, 10 of which we could convert to biofuels without needing to increase croplands or reduce food supply. The problem is not that we do not have enough grain to both make biofuels and feed people. The problem is that we feed more than half of the grain we grow to cows and then eat them (Cornell).

There are no systems in place to provide transportation, heat or power for as low a cost as fossil fuels do, at the scale on which they are currently used. This means that the transition from the magic of cheap fossil fuels to alternative means of transportation, heat and power is going to require some serious lifestyle changes. The easiest and first one is a dramatic reduction in the amount of meat that we consume. If we continue dedicating the percentage of our grain to meat production that we currently do, than biofuels form crops will continue drive the cost of food worldwide up so sharply that it will be a humanitarian crisis. Alternatively, if we choose to cut our meat consumption by 25% now, than we can create a surplus of food while creating an abundance of biofuels with which we could ease the transition into a more sustainably structured society.

Finally, when confronted with public arguments against things of this nature, consider who would benefit from the argument. Whose profits would be cut into by a decrease in oil consumption and meat consumption, and how much influence do they have with the media, the advertising industries, and the culture as a whole?

"Your beliefs are all that is truly yours. Don't let anyone shape them but yourself."
Trey, interesting post.

One additional thing to consider:

It might be overall more efficient to feed animals on forage and forage crops in those farm regions and locales where growing corn or soybeans or other arable crops is not an option. So on small and rocky pastures in Maine, for instance, especially when the animals require little or no imported feed. This is the reason I'm very interested in sheep, particularly as the main product apart from meat, fleece, can be used for clothing and building insulation. Breeding ewes require winter feed for lambing, but they can otherwise thrive on hay and grass.

Also you may be interested to know that Jake Harr and I (mostly Jake) are currently beta testing some Maine-grown biofuel for a local farmer in Jake's grease car.

In general, I would not be very interested in this project as it diverts nutrients from human food to fuel, and thus adds to the food crisis, but in this case the farmer sees the oil as a by-product of his small scale soy-bean pellet operation, and has no outlet for it so wishes to run it in his tractors to save on diesel costs. At the margin, this is efficient since the sy oil might otherwise go to waste for lack of an outlet.

I have to investigate a little to see what alternate local outlets there may be for the oil, and to look at the price points difference before I can help advise the farmer as to the economics of this plan. But jake is testing the oil right now.

All the more reason why small scale local and regional farm and food systems are helpful. High prices for food also help, though, as small scale operations may now begin to make money. And facilities for properly processing and distributing the product of local agriculture are important too: small scale slaughtering, small scale compost and food waste management, humanure recycling, etc, can all be helpful.


Small scale regional/local farming key to food crisis, says report

Change in farming can feed world - report

· Ample resources wasted, global study warns
· Biofuels exacerbating shortage of food crops


"Responding to the report, a group of eight international environment and consumer groups, including Third World Network, Practical Action, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, said in a statement: "This is a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming. Small-scale farmers and ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis and meet the needs of communities."

Lim Li Chung, of Third World Network in Malaysia, said: "It clearly shows that small-scale farmers and the environment lose under trade liberalisation. Developing countries must exercise their right to stop the flood of cheap subsidised products from the north."

Guilhem Calvo, an adviser with the ecological and earth sciences division of Unesco, one of the report's sponsors, said at a news conference in Paris: "We must develop agriculture that is less dependent on fossil fuels, favours the use of locally available resources and explores the use of natural processes such as crop rotation and use of organic fertilisers.""

Read more here

Stern Review reviewed by Stern

I underestimated the threat, says Stern

Sir Nicholas Stern has warned that the gloomy predictions of his high-profile review of the future effects of global warming underestimated the risks, and that climate change poses a bigger threat than he realised.

Stern said this week that new scientific findings showed greenhouse gas emissions were causing more damage than was understood in 2006, when he prepared his study for the government. He pointed to last year's reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and new research which shows that the planet's oceans and forests are soaking up less carbon dioxide than expected.

He said: "Emissions are growing much faster than we'd thought, the absorptive capacity of the planet is less than we'd thought, the risks of greenhouse gases are potentially bigger than more cautious estimates and the speed of climate change seems to be faster."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NPR clip on food crisis

Right after I wrote the piece below, I turned on my radio while driving to work, and an NPR clip said much the same thing.

Great minds think alike...

Food crisis

Recently, one of our staff happened to mention in a campus-wide email that he/she thought that increasing demand for biofuels was not causing the food crisis. I thought that outlook optimistic to say the least. Of course any diversion of foodstuffs like commodity maize (corn) on a large scale from food commodity markets to fuel markets will, all other things being equal, increase the cost and decrease the supply of food, at least in the immediate future.

It will also, all things being equal, increase the demand for, and price of, farmland, increase the price of secondhand and new farm equipment, stimulate conversion of land from non-fuel crops to fuel crops, raise the price of close substitutes, and even cause an increased rate of development of virgin land. All of these exchanges will occur at the margin and in the short term, that is to say, an incremental change in the independent variable of food quantity, will cause an incremental change in the dependent variable of food price, until the market corrects by finding other ways to satisfy demand.

Another way of saying this, is there are no magic bullets or black and white explanations, just reasoned marginal analysis.

Should anyone who hasn't taken micro-economics be permitted an opinion on this? Well, of course. We value free speech, as well as free enterprise. Will that opinion be reasoned and of predictive value? I leave that for the reader to decide.

Micro-economics will only do you so much good, though. It will tell you what a market will do under specified conditions : perfect information of parties to bargains, absence of force and fraud, no free rider effects and so on. It won't tell you what a market should do. That, as Hume explained, is a different question, for a different discourse with different rules of operation. Should the government intervene to help feed people? Of course it should if they are hungry and the market is temporarily disabled. That's what governments are for. No "modest proposals" here, please.

In general, if I put on the uncomfortable cap of augury, what I see for the immediate future is a food crisis. A food crisis is also a farm opportunity. There remain serious ecological problems for agriculture to solve. The chief process for producing ammonia-based fertilizer also depends on fossil fuels, already less economic. And the large scale shipping of food, while obviously key to human life as we currently know it, will become somewhat less economic. Land currently disused or lightly used for agriculture, or in patches previously too small to work economically, may now be more economic to work. Land in northern climates previously marginal for agriculture will, because of climate change, now be more likely to be economic to use. All these changes too will occur at the margin.

All this suggests opportunities for local and regional agriculture. It suggests farmers may now be able to make some money from Maine farmlands previously tending towards disuse. It also suggests that local and regional nutrient cycling using compost, manures, and rotational crops will be more attractive to busy farmers than they were in the last fifty years. Mixed farm systems, using livestock like these piglets to manage wastes back into food, and to produce fertilizer, as well as growing crops, will become somewhat more necessary, somewhat more useful, and somewhat more economic.

This doesn't mean to say farmers will all become Small Farmers Journal or Mother Earth News types with that same believer's attitude. I get both magazines. But I also get Sheep Industry News, highly recommended for its lengthy articles on the preferential characteristics of exploding and cyanotic coyote baits over plain exploding ones, or its considerable discourses on how to get a higher value per unit feed with early spring lamb at Easter than late near-mutton in fall. (In other words, don't bother to feed the cuddly lamb babies all summer, but kill them off early to get the best profit per unit input.)

There has to be a middle ground between the crumbling rock of airy-fairy hippified ridiculousness and the hard, hard place of thoughtless, callous, agribusiness. Is there anyone with both a conscience and a brain that thinks either system, applied wholesale, would actually be tolerable and ecologically stable? The reasoned position is likely to be somewhere between each of these upsettingly iconic editorial positions.

And yes, biofuels are one of the causes of high food prices. Climate change is another.

One thing is for sure, agriculture is NOT going away any time soon. Anyone who doesn't think farming is important, never went hungry, even for a day.

Hunger. Strikes. Riots. The food crisis bites

Across the world a crisis is unfolding at alarming speed. Climate change, China's increasing consumption and the dash for biofuels are causing food shortages and rocketing prices - sparking riots in cities from the Caribbean to the Far East. Robin McKie and Heather Stewart report on the millions facing starvation - and the growing threat to global security

Monday, April 14, 2008

Pickens disposes then proposes

Texas tycoon T. Boone Pickens hates the look of wind turbines, but that hasn't stopped him from beginning to build the biggest wind farm in US history. He goes on to propose a major government-led scheme to plan out the resource nationally -- not a bad idea and one committee I would happily sit on. According to this story, there are new wind roughnecks all over the Texas panhandle. But don't expect George W to realize that renewable energy is the ticket out of our current near-recession.

From the Guardian:

Pickens, being Pickens, has come up with a solution - and it makes his own gargantuan plans for a wind farm in the panhandle look tiny. For the benefit of the Guardian, he draws on a white board his master scheme. He carves out an enormous corridor of land running north to south through the middle of the US - along the great plains - where he would build an army of wind farms. Then he draws an equally enormous corridor running east to west from Texas to southern California which he would similarly dedicate to solar energy.

"You need a giant plan for America. Not the pissant 83 megawatt [windfarm] deals being stamped all over the country. There needs to be a huge plan from someone with leadership. It's going to take years to do, but it has to start now." Only then, he explains, can the US stop what he regards as the madness of a flood of money flowing out of America to the oil producers of the Middle East. "That money is going God knows where - a few friends, a lot of enemies. We've got to stop it."

Read the whole thing here...

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jimmy the man says it again

NY Times image of Hansen

You gotta love Jim Hansen, the Jonathan Swift of our era, a doughty foe of all unsustainable stupidity, and a solid scientist to boot. The paper referred to in this e-memo, a fairly accessible read on climate sensitivity, was quickly used in our Ecological Economics class to do modeling experiments on the rate of oil depletion in "peakist" scenarios versus EIA scenarios, and to create a basic model for carbon sensitivity.

Say what? If you "know nothing" about peak oil and carbon sensitivity, should you be voting?

James Hansen
Sent: Thursday, April 10, 2008 8:33 PM
Subject: Yankee Ticket Prices and Fossil Fuels

Yankee Ticket Prices and Fossil Fuels

10 April 2008

When I was young, Yankee Stadium had ~70,000 seats. It seldom sold out, and almost any kid could afford the cheap seats. Capacity was reduced to ~57,000 when the stadium was remodeled in the 1970s. Most games sell out now, and prices have gone up.

The new stadium, opening next year, will reduce seating further, to ~51,800. This intentional contraction is aimed at guaranteeing sellouts, increasing demand, allowing the owners, in pretty short order, to hike prices to double, triple, and more. The owners know that scarcity will fatten their wallets, even though it reduces the number of sales. This is more than a bit distasteful, as it discriminates against the lower middle class.

Nevertheless, it should be a great stadium and as long as the owner is footing the bill without public subsidies for the stadium itself, we may have little grounds for complaint.

The reason that I draw your attention to this practice is that fossil fuel moguls are intent on hoodwinking the entire planet with an analogous scheme. The basic trick is this: fossil fuel reserves are overstated. Government “energy information” departments parrot industry. Partly because of this disinformation, the major efforts needed to develop energies “beyond fossil fuels” have not been made.

The reality of limited supply forces prices higher. Eventually, sales volume will begin to decline, but fossil fuel moguls will make more money than ever. They will continue to assert that there is plenty more to be found, aiming to keep the suckers (that’s us) on the hook. Indeed, they could find somewhat more in the deep ocean, under national parks, in polar regions, offshore, and in other environmentally sensitive areas. They don’t need much to keep the suckers paying higher and higher prices.

Oil “reserves” suddenly doubled when OPEC decided that production quotas would be proportional to official reserves. These higher reserves are, at least in part, phantom. Coal “reserves” are based on estimates made many decades ago. Closer study shows that extractable coal reserves are vastly overstated, which is consistent with present production difficulties and rising prices. The presumed “200 year” supply of coal in the United States is a myth, but it serves industry moguls well.

Conventional fossil fuel supplies are limited, even if we tear up the Earth to extract every last drop of oil and shard of coal. Tearing up the Earth to get at those last drops, even though Exxon/Mobil proudly advertises that they are drilling to the depths of the ocean and going to the most extreme pristine environments, is, for us, as insane as the smoker who trudged four miles through a raging storm to buy a pack of Camels to feed his nicotine addiction.

It would be possible to find more fossil fuels, and extend our addiction and pollution ofthe environment, should we be so foolish as to take the path of extracting unconventional fossil fuels such as tar shale and tar sands on a large scale. That choice cannot be left to the discretion of industry moguls. The planet does not belong to them.

Basic fossil fuel facts (about reserves) must be combined with basic climate facts described in the paper “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”. That paper has been submitted to Science and is available in arXiv, the permanent archive for physics preprints. The main paper is at: and the Supporting Material is at:

Our conclusion is that, if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, CO2 must be reduced from its present 385 ppm to, at most, 350 ppm. We find that peak CO2 can be kept to ~425 ppm, even with generous (large) estimates for oil and gas reserves, if coal use is phased out by 2030 (except where CO2 is captured and sequestered) and unconventional fossil fuels are not tapped substantially. Peak CO2 can be kept close to 400 ppm, if actual reserves are closer to those estimated by “peakists” (people who believe that we are already at peak global oil production, having extracted about half of readily extractable oil resources).

This lower 400 ppm peak can be ensured (assuming phase-out of coal emissions by 2030) if a practical limit on reserves is achieved by means of actions that prevent fossil fuel extraction from public lands, off-shore regions under government control, environmentally pristine regions, and extreme environments. The concerned public can influence this matter and it is important to do so now – time is short, the industry voice is strong, and climate effects have not yet become so obvious to the public as to overwhelm the disinformation of industry moguls.

A near-term moratorium on coal-fired power plants and constraints on oil extraction in extreme environments are important, because once CO2 is emitted to the air much of it will remain there for centuries. Our paper describes ways in which improved agricultural and forestry practices, mostly reforestation, could draw down atmospheric CO2 about 50 ppm by the end of the century. But a greater drawdown by such more-or-less natural methods does not seem practical, making a long-term overshoot of the 350 ppm level, with potentially disastrous consequences, a near certainty if we stay on a business-as-usual course for several more years.

If we choose a different path, which permits the possibility of getting back to 350 ppm CO2 or lower this century, we will minimize the chance of passing tipping points that spiral out of control, such as disintegration of ice sheets, rapid sea level rise, and extermination of countless species. At the same time we will solve problems that had begun to seem intractable, such as acidification of the ocean with consequent loss of coral reefs.

A fundamental point is that, in any event, we must move beyond fossil fuels reasonably soon. The underlying reason is that a large fraction of CO2 emissions remains in the air for many centuries. Thus the upshot: we must move to zero fossil fuel emissions. This is a fact, a certainty, a lead pipe cinch. So why not do it a bit sooner, in time to avert climate crises? At the same time, we halt other pollution that comes from fossil fuels, including mercury pollution, conventional air pollution, problems stemming from mountain-top removal, etc.

Breaking an addiction is not easy. But we may now be at a point analogous to that of the smoker who told me about trudging four miles through rain to get a pack of Camels – when he got back to his motel he threw the pack of Camels away and never smoked again.

Fossil fuel addiction is much more difficult -- an epiphany to one person cannot solve the problem. This problem requires global cooperation. We must be on a new path within the next several years, or, our paper shows, it becomes implausible to reduce CO2 below the dangerous level this century. Developed countries, as the cause of most of the excess CO2 in the air today, must lead in the steps needed to develop clean energy and halt CO2 emissions. Yet it is hardly a sacrifice: ‘green’ jobs will be an economic stimulus and a boon to worker well-being.

A major fight is brewing – it may be called war. On the one side, we find the short-term financial interests of the fossil fuel industry. On the other side: young people and other beings who will inherit the planet. It seems to be an uneven fight. The fossil fuel industry is launching a disinformation campaign and they have powerful influence in capitals around the world.

Young people seem pretty puny in comparison to industry moguls. Animals are not much help (don’t talk, don’t vote). The battle may start with local and regional skirmishes, one coal plant or other issue at a time, but it will need to build rapidly – we are running out of time.

P.S.: Do not fall for the moguls’ dirtiest trick – ‘green’ messages spewed to the public. That is propaganda, intended to leave the impression they are moving in the right direction. Meanwhile they hire scientific has-beens to dispute evidence and confuse the public. How will you be able to tell if they ever “get it”? When they begin to invest massively in renewable energies, when they become truly energy companies aimed toward zero-carbon emissions.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Green scheduling

Alisa sent this one in. Not a technology I've had chance to keep up with, but seems to be an extension of the "smart buildings" concept.

Scheduling To Reduce Energy Consumption

An interview with John Anderson


Recently PeopleCube, a provider of on-demand workplace and resource management technology and Building Sustainability LTD (BSL), a company offering energy-efficient building solutions, announced that they have integrated PeopleCube's Resource Scheduler with BSL's Footprint Tracker energy consumption and carbon emissions tracking solution. CT interviewed PeopleCube President and CEO John Anderson to find out how the partnership can help institutions reduce their carbon footprint.


Biofuel foolishness

For several generations of Unity students in Environmental Sustainability class, anyone who asked "couldn't we use vegetable fuels for transportation" was told to go away and calculate how many hectares would be needed.


Waste grease is an entirely different matter. The Grease Car clubers are aiding in recycling, and the climate emissions are officially considered negligible.

Poor go hungry while rich fill their tanks

Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart
The Guardian,
Friday April 11 2008

Rocketing global food prices are causing acute problems of hunger and malnutrition in poor countries and have put back the fight against poverty by seven years, the World Bank said yesterday.

Robert Zoellick, the Bank's president, called on rich countries to commit an extra $500m (£250m) immediately to the World Food Programme, and sign up to what he called a "New Deal for global food policy".

Zoellick said: "In the US and Europe over the last year we have been focusing on the prices of gasoline at the pumps. While many worry about filling their gas tanks, many others around the world are struggling to fill their stomachs. And it's getting more and more difficult every day."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ozone online

From Stef 06 at the DEP:

This one's more for Mainer's, but everyone could learn something, enjoy!

Ozone: A New Twist on an Old Foe, In Our Back Yard
It is getting to be that time of year again when ozone levels around the state begin to climb and people that are sensitive to pollution should pay attention to the air quality forecast. That is old news to some of you but there is a new twist this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revised the ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard from an 8-hr average of 84 parts per billion (ppb) to 75 ppb! While this level is not as low as many scientists believe it should be, it is certainly a big step in the right direction.
In the upper atmosphere ozone protects us from the sun's harmful UV rays. However, at ground level it is a pollutant which hurts human life by harming the heart and lungs. Ozone is a photochemical pollutant which means that it is not emitted directly, but is created from various other pollutants from power plants and cars in the presence of strong sunlight. That is why ozone levels in Maine are highest on long sunny summer days and lowest during short winter days.
Recent studies have demonstrated that ozone effects people's health at lower levels than previously thought. So it is a good thing that EPA lowered the ozone standard! This means that federal regulations will be in effect to reduce ozone levels across the nation.
In the meantime, what does the new ozone standard mean for Mainers this summer? Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) forecasts air quality every day of the year using the Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI categories are: 'Good' (green); 'Moderate' (yellow); 'Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups' (orange); 'Unhealthy' (red) and 'Very Unhealthy' (purple). Each category above 'Good' now starts at a lower level than it did before. This means that if ozone levels are typical this summer, we'll have fewer 'Good' days, more days in the 'Moderate' and 'Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups' categories and even a day or two in the 'Unhealthy' category. The length of the ozone season may change as well, ranging from March through October rather than April through September.
If we have a typical summer for ozone, you will likely notice Maine DEP encouraging you to take precautions to protect your health more often than in the past. This does NOT mean that air quality is getting worse, just that the AQI is lower to protect your health.
To find out what the air quality forecast is you can dial the toll-free hotline at (800) 223-1196 or go to and click on the 'Maine Air Quality Forecast'. This website displays Today and Tomorrow's forecasts and has links to current and past data, ozone and particle pollution trends and a wealth of information. You can even sign up for EnviroFlash which is a service that sends you an email when air quality is forecast to be poor in your area. So remember, to protect your family's health 'Keep an eye on the AQI.'
This column was submitted by Martha Webster, Air Quality Meteorologist for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Air Quality. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the DEP. E-mail your environmental questions to or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.