Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sustainability, without the hot air (again)

Several months ago, I gave out the url to David McKay's book Sustainability: Without the hot air, which is published in html format on the Internet for anyone to read.

I think with term starting I should give it out again. A great resource for students.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lies, damn lies, and wind turbine lies

Picture: Bro Dyfi Community Renewables, Machynlleth, West Wales

US climate pollution emissions fell in 2008, although not for the right reasons. Obviously, because we're in, or just coming out of, a recession, less factory wheels and other kinds of wheels are turning and that reduces fossil energy consumption, which has reduced emissions.

However, in the same government report in which this information was released, a further reduction in climate pollution was attributed to increased deployment of wind power facilities.

This is important because here in Maine, one of the several spurious claims that are often made against wind turbines by wind power opponents at town meetings is that they will not actually reduce climate emissions. Those of us who knew something about electricity production and consumption know this to be an obvious falsehood, but it sounds good, and you can twist the facts to make it seem true, in much the same way that Mrs. Palin of Alaska turned end-of-life counseling into "death panels," Maine wind power opponents have latched onto this and other claims against wind turbines and pedaled them shamelessly in public debate.

The fallacy is obvious, and common-sensical, because if you think about it, if you put any additional renewable power generation capacity in a grid where there is fixed demand, then fossil power generation will naturally be displaced.

The only way new wind turbines couldn't reduce emissions would be if there were only enough of them to meet the growth in electrical demand. The originators of the fallacy took this point, that demand was growing and so unless wind turbines were deployed fast enough, faster than the growth in demand, then no, climate emissions overall would not actually be reduced.

This is still BS, of course. There would still be less emissions than if we had met the growth in demand with extra fossil fuel generation.

Anyway, the new report is proof-of-concept, as if proof were actually needed, that wind turbines do reduce climate emissions. Here's the specific quote, fresh from the Department of Energy:

"The decrease in the emissions intensity of generation of 1.1 percent in 2008 reflected, among other factors, an increase in wind-powered generation."

About time. I'm sick of hearing the lie.

The pedaling of these fallacies and others is bad and sad because as our wind power research is showing, many Maine hilltops would make good sites for community-owned turbines, which would feed power into the grid, reduce emissions and make quite a bit of money for towns. A single town-owned wind turbine of 1 or 1.5 MW on a piece of town land or leased land that happens to be on one of our Wind Power Density Class 4 or 5 hilltops can easily make $300,000 a year in profit for the town, or more, depending on the bond rate, the wind power density, and so on.

In Jackson, my home town, where our town budget is less than a million dollars, this would comprise considerable tax relief.

For only one turbine!

The commercial wind power development companies, of course, left to their own devices would litter our hillsides with far too many of these things, make a lot of noise for neighbors, and ship all the profit out of state, but with good planning and noise modeling and lots of careful, thoughtful work by volunteers like the community wind groups I work with every day, a few community-owned wind turbines would be very different, and an asset, not a liability.

You would certainly think we could interest our townsfolk in saving money like this.

The first Maine community-owned wind farm will come on line this fall in Maine on the Fox Islands and we should start to see the news of that plant's successful operation begin to condition the debate.

I expect that when some townsfolk see how they have been bamboozled and led down the garden path by some of their neighbors, and especially when they see that they could have made or saved some money for town coffers, reducing taxes to boot, then the folks who peddle these lies will begin to receive back some of their own medicine.

Undoubtedly, there will be quite a bit of shouting, and probably more lying, before this happens.

But it will happen.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cordwood construction

Some of our students, including Heidi who will be our first Sustainability Design and Technology graduate, are helping our with a local green/alternative building project, a cordwood home. I visited yesterday and was impressed with the quality of work, materials and detailing that the owner builders have put into it.

You can see the results here:

There are many kinds of new, and old, non-conventional building ideas and methods out there in the alternative building world, some of which deserve being reproduced more widely in the kinds of houses that ordinary folk live in.

I am quite fond of one of the materials these guys used, which I have used myself on occasion -- lime putty or plaster. Ordinary cementitious plasters and mortars take a lot of energy to make. Cement production for conventional concrete and mortar is a major source of CO2 emissions worldwide.

But you can make mortar and concrete and plaster with lime too, which saves energy. Lime is more dangerous to use than cement, and can cause very bad burns, so I don't recommend it unless you are prepared to read up on safety instructions with great diligence. But the very traditional Tudor-England appearance of a lime-washed wall when it is done is worth the effort.

Read their blog (above) to find out more.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Green and pleasant

Sometimes, when life is complicated, it's good to look back on a success or two.

These pictures show one of our farming successes: A junkyard becomes a green pasture.

When Aimee and I took over this Great Farm haven, this particular 1/2 acre wood-encircled field, part of our leased land, was filled with weeds, trash and junk. There were no less than three Ford truck cabs circa 1947, a couple of truck beds and chassis, a pile of trashed furniture, and mountains of regular household trash dating back to the 1800s.

Most of it got picked up, with some help from Friends Alysa and Anders. Some of the rest was covered by slash piles, which will eventually rot and become soil and bury it. The ground was seeded with red clover and Maine conservation mix.

And this is the result. As you can see these sheep have just been rotated onto this pasture which features the perfect 8-inch growth of clover and grasses. There are a few weeds, but not many. Some trees need to be taken out: a dead elm which may infect others, and several ash which will become firewood and when gone allow light into the field.

But even so, as a work-in-progress I have to say, it's looking pretty good.

The lambs vote yes, with mouths too full to baa.

There are also several apple trees, and one butternut, bearing this year in this field. As well as black cherry, bird cherry, hawthorne, and oak.

Lambs vote yes to apples too.

I'm not sure how they feel about butternut. Apparently it makes a good dye, if you're a rebel.

That maybe why there are not too many of them here in the north. I'm not a rebel, but I do want to see a better society.

I find in life that if you try hard enough long enough, you will make progress and make a difference. It's important not to give up too easily.

Sometimes you can't afford to give up at all: The lesson of 1940 Britain that all us Brits learned at our grandparents' feet and now carry genetically, stubborn so-and-sos that we are.

My favorite poem about green pastures, and lambs (of God), and about striving for improvement, is also a hymn, beloved of Yorkshire choirs: Blake's Jerusalem:

JERUSALEM (from 'Milton')

by William Blake (1757-1827)

AND did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Worm's eye view of the barn project as we get started again

We began building a new animal barn last year, as part of an Interdisciplinary Core class, Environmental Citizen: Building a Barn

The required permitting process proved elaborate and lengthy, and as a result we did not break ground in time for the winter weather. Instead we prefabricated most of the structural components and stored them inside a building where they would season nicely. (Being made of green hemlock lumber, it was necessary that they be seasoned.)

Spring is a poor building season in Maine, with very wet ground hampering everything, so we waited for fall.

Now a second set of students in Environmental Citizen: Building a Barn will finish what the first set started.

Here Associate Professor of Conservation Law Enforcement Timothy Peabody is shown digging the trenches for that elaborate building permit. We're putting in a perimeter drain for the slab, to carry the run-off from the extra roof surface to a detention pond. When we get done there will actually be better storm water management than before, not just because of this rather elaborate drain, but because we will demolish the old barn, which had no such protection, as we go. We will recycle much of the material in the old barn into the new.

If you are one of the students in this class this fall, you will no doubt be interested to see the rather large amount of prep work the professors are doing for a class not due to start for three more weeks! But the class is intended to teach carpentry and agriculture, and to discuss philosophies of service and labor, not to teach site work and back-hoe operation.

Visitors to Unity College for the first time might also be surprised to see what kinds of additional skills our professors have, in addition to teaching and research! Handy folks, these UC professors.

Tim and I did wonder, as we sweated away in the 90% humidity and 80 F temperatures, whether or not all this shovel and pipe work might not have made a good topic for a hands-on seminar!

But don't worry. There'll be some left to do.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Military Intelligence

According to this lead article at the NYT today, it looks like the Obama administration either instructed, or allowed, Defense Department officials to take climate change seriously as a strategic threat, and begin to make plans and alter existing ones.

Good. About time.

It might have been "allowed" since these folks are generally smarter than the average cucumber, and I know for a fact that large numbers of them "believed in" climate change through the dark anti-science days of Bush, when thinking about such things while on the job was definitely discouraged.

(A real scientist, of course, doesn't "believe in" anything. But that term, as in " you believe in all this climate change twaddle?" can be useful shorthand.)

A few years ago I had occasion to talk to a researcher at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA. This was a smart guy, and I had read and appreciated one of his papers, and called him up to talk about a point or two. He had time, and so we chatted for a while. Towards the end of the conversation I asked, "so, why aren't you teaching how climate change is foundational to many of these conflicts we are seeing."

Because of course it is. Climate change, together with lack of development and populations become too large for traditional forms of subsistence, is driving conflicts and tensions all over the Old World, particularly in a broad swath from Mali and Nigeria to western China. Even in Afghanistan, where we have "boots on the ground" as the Pentagon is fond of saying, we tend to forget that a twenty-year drought has severely affected farming. We shouldn't be surprised if the people in these places, especially the young men, resort to banditry and brigandage and, because it suits them religiously to think of themselves as jihadis, not thieves and drug runners, they dress it up as an Islamic insurgency.

If things were that difficult in western countries, more young men would become gangsters too.

This is not to excuse the Taliban and their ilk, just to help us see who they really are. If your average Ahmed Talibani could go to college and get a decent paying job and raise a nice middle-class Afghani family and go to mosque every Friday, do you really think he'd prefer to hide in holes in the desert and take pot shots at helicopters, with all the risk that entails?

Anyway, the professor agreed with me on the fact that climate change was a driver in these conflicts, but mumbled something non-committal in response when I asked the question again, finished the conversation, said goodbye, and hung up. I got the distinct impression that while he agreed with me, he was keeping his head down and wasn't willing to rock the boat or bring up the subject as long as Bush was President and Don Rumsfeld his boss.

I don't blame him too much, I guess, but so much for the superior courage of the military, huh?

I can say this out loud when others perhaps can't, because I served for many years, AND won an honorable discharge at tribunal in a protest case against my superiors' collective lack of intelligence and ability to see things as they really were. This was during the Thatcher administration, and the issues were Greenham Common and closing coal mines, and the then-class ridden, conservative RAF brass probably sided with Thatcher for the most part, but the principle remains the same. In an open democracy, the military cannot just always follow its orders. It has to think about them too, question them when they are stupid or wrong, and occasionally even refuse to follow them. Freedom and democracy is not well served by public servants who refuse to think for themselves and ask difficult questions.

We've known this ever since we opened those gates at Buchenwald in the spring of 1945.

We refined the system after William Calley ordered those illegal killings at My Lai.

There is, in fact, a whole system of understanding related to legal and illegal orders, and when you should follow them and when refuse. It seems however, that it broke down during the Bush administration.

This relative lack of officers who failed to stand up during the Bush years is particularly shameful, because the consequence of speaking out, for those who wanted to think strategically about climate change, or for those who opposed torture, was only, in the worst possible scenario, that they would lose their jobs or have to do a different one.

Big deal.

Now that the military is officially allowed to think again, we may wish to hand out a few extra medals for the one or two really bright and courageous servicemen and women who, during the Bush administration, did work that bit harder and take a few risks to keep climate change and other unpopular issues, such as a principled opposition to Cheney's and Rumsfeld's torture policy, on the Defense Department agenda.

It takes an extra bit of guts and courage to think the unpopular thought, and bit more then to stand up and say the unpopular thing. We should always encourage this, not discourage it.

Then we'll be freer and stronger, not the other way around.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nature, and nurturing nature, and the nurturing of nature-nurturers

A well-nurtured, properly husbanded 2009 ewe-lamb called Poppy takes a safe nap. Who's going to get me clean water, fresh grass, a little oats, and a safe fence and guard dog to keep away coyotes today? Who will observe me to make sure I'm not sick or lame? Who will make sure I can get to the oats without the big sheep getting there first?

After a rare day off yesterday, in which Aimee and I had a nice jaunt to Belfast town to see Harry Potter and find me some new steel-toed work shoes for the fall, and a new coffee mug to replace the one that fell of my sawhorse Friday, I'm still in reflective mode.

My morning muse, apart from my fine new coffee cup, is nature, chewed in tooth and saw.

As it should be. (Some of the time at least.)

This is about being involved in and aware of nature and what it does for us, and about being aware of and involved in husbanding or stewarding the resource, and what kind of frame of mind that really takes.

Two articles in interesting contrast, the Observer's's science writer Robin McKie spouting off about how ridiculous organic farming is, and one of my favorite organic farm blogs reflecting on rotational grazing, are what got me going.

Then an article about how the removal of coppice management has changed British woodlands, reducing biodiversity, and another about one woman's foray into butchery, added to the muse.

This is probably tedious to the non-farmer/land managers who read this blog, and I should probably get to my day's work before the heat arrives, but this is actually terribly important, and for my own satisfaction at least I should work out what is irritating me and record it.

The main link between all these articles is involvement. Of humans. And awareness.

Are people aware and involved?

Aware of where their food and water and shelter and fuel come from, and involved in their production in some meaningful way?

Or are they the normal kind of post-industrial zombies, slavish consumers just hanging on until the next paycheck and the next fix: the next night out, vacation, shopping trip, fill-in-the-blank, consumer experience.

It seems to me that the big problem we have is that we have no clue about where any of these things comes from. Ignorance conspires not just in the routine ingratitude that we have for nature, as well as the dislocation and commodification of the primary human-natural connection, which is subsistence, but it is also implicated in the fake romanticization/Disneyfication of nature that pervades in the new students I see each year in my classes, fresh from Animal Planet, and it directs the willful destruction of biodiversity and ecosystem services that surround us, which I see primarily as a direct result of that romanticism.

Of which the last, willful destruction, is by far the worst, and the one that will eventually threaten human life, is threatening human lives, as this combination of an energy crisis and climate change and all the problems that result take hold.

(You're going to have to read all four articles to see where I'm going with this, or this post will just be confusing.)

Ordinarily I'd agree with the Observer guy, organic can be overblown and faddish, if not at times downright cruel to animals: there's a use for pesticides and herbicides and livestock medicines, but in the right place, at the right time.

Ordinarily, Throwback at Trapper Creek annoys me with posts about homeopathy, which I find unscientific and silly. But she's right on with this monologue about grazing, and you can see how closely she watches her animals and pastures.


Butcher lady is totally involved too. Fascinating. And the coppice article is likewise fascinating and resonating. On our farm we manage woodlands for firewood and light grazing, as well as rural and biodiversity conservation, and the difference we have seen in just a few short years of letting light into the lower stories is huge. We're not trying to make a "natural" woodland. This old farm hasn't been natural since Israel Thorndike, that old pirate and serial abuser of Englishmen, had it cleared up 203 years ago. We are instead trying our best to look after a self-seeding American elm colony, that seems to have developed some small imperfect immunity to the blight, as well as a collection of heirloom apple trees, a herd of sheep, while removing to landfill a collection of ancient household and farm trash, to reveal instead a woodlot/pastureland that produces both food and fuel with vigor and efficiency.

You can't maximize four variables at once but you can understand how they work in system, or try to, and optimize.

It takes involvement. And awareness.

Thesis: A serious person who is involved in and aware of their surroundings and their connection to their own life will find out where their food and shelter and water and energy comes from, and take a hand in their production, learn to manage food, water, shelter and energy systems practically and unromanticly, and help provide them for others who cannot or will not manage them themselves.

In doing so they will become more human, more humane, more authentic, more compassionate, and will contribute to helping save the planet and humanity. They will also lead more compelling and interesting lives, keep a little healthier and fitter from better, more wholesome food, and some regular hard work and exercise, and possibly even better appreciate the other workers, human and natural that support them.

I think this is what I am trying to achieve for my students with my education and public service and research work, as well as for myself with my farming activities.

This all seems now to me to be the real point of human community and sustainability praxis, or husbandry, or stewardship, or what-you-will, that we have these systems and they work well because we look after them, and that they can be made to work in the very long run, and that individuals, particularly my students, are engaged and involved in providing for this long run.

Energy and climate crisis notwithstanding. Hopefully we can avoid both, but if not, at least some of our youth will be prepared to try to continue the human story.

McKie is wrong and being a bit of a twit to boot. Organic farming is not the solution, and it never has been, but learning how to be involved with our farmland again, and in particular how to reduce the energy needed to produce food is vital. Organic farmers may at times be scientifically ignorant, but they are energy efficient, for the most part. And they are involved and aware, which I suspect he is not. The point that will last, that will add to the longevity of the human story is the low energy use.

(Not the avowal of pesticide use.)

This also seems why our local anti-wind nimbys are so annoying. (Card carrying romantic environmentalists all.) Do they have any clue where energy comes from and how we plan to provide for it in future years? They are just as bad, in their own way, as the big wind companies, who given a chance would plaster GE 1.5s on every hilltop and shoreline in Maine, turning us into an energy colony of the lower 47. A green energy colony, but a colony nonetheless. I enjoy all the local small scale community wind groups I'm working with because they take responsibility for both the energy and the obvious nuisance that can be caused by badly sited wind turbines. They are aware and involved in the development, management and stewardship of the resource.

That may be enough for now. This is turning into a rant.

I have a date with a shelter/energy efficiency-enhancing project, my almost-done R 36 walls, and I need to be aware and involved for that or I'll cut a finger off with the chop saw. But first I have to re-set the rotational grazing fence and feed and water and move the sheep, feed the sleepy pigs (pigs love to lie in in the morning and I like to see them sleep so happily. Even though we plan to eat them, they deserve good lives too, as long as it lasts. No-one lives forever.), and take the trash and recycling to the transfer station because that is what you do in Jackson on a Sunday when you're done drinking coffee and reading newspapers and posting on your blogs.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On reflection....

(This post copied over from our farm blog at

Finally, we seem to be breaking out of the summer rain/thunder/muggy day cycle. It was a pleasant cool late summer morning this morning here at 527 feet above see level in Jackson Maine, around 55 degrees F instead of 70, and you could see all the stars last night. No sign of Orion yet, but I'm watching out. I did see a meteor.

Was it a Perseid?

I think of Perseid meteors as signs of approaching fall. Good. Fall is my favorite season in Maine. And I am ready for it.

It's been a long wet summer. Nothing has gone easily. Everything has been way harder than it should have been, and the weather never cooperated once. It either rained all my work time away, or it was muggy and hot and humid and I sweated buckets while slaving away.

Are we downhearted?


Fight them on the b****y beaches, is what I say.

Despite what it looks like in this old photo, which, characteristicly is Aimee's favorite photo of me, Aimee and I rallied and finished the straw bale house project that was giving me so much trouble back then, a previous muggy Maine summer I remember so well: 2003.

And I rallied late this week and despite the heat have broke the back of the massive household insulation project I started three-four weeks ago. I still have about two days work to do, but it's light work, and I am already looking forward now to the fall and beginning to plan my activities and down-wind.

Time to reflect and regroup and get a different kind of busy.

There's a lot of planning and prep work to do because I have decided to have a very hands-on fall at college, lots of hands-on teaching of barn-building carpentry, map reading, anemometry studies, and so on. With only three weeks to go, I need to get the prep work in hand, or I'll be working eighty-hour weeks in September.

The problem with my household construction projects is that I tend to do them alone. I like working alone, but it can make life difficult when a lot of equipment and materials are designed for a minimum of two men.

(You may think that's a sexist statement, but actually it's a statement of fact. A truckload of eighty pound bags of cement, or of 4 by 8's of plywood, is easiest handled by two guys who each weigh 200 pounds and are around five feet ten inches or more tall. They design the schtuff that way, and it's as bad for us lone wolf builders as it is for tiny women like my wife who like to build things.)

The worst of this is the forty-fifty-sixty trips up and down ladders with heavy loads that a day of siding or insulating or trimming a two-story house might entail for a guy who works alone a lot. Add 85-90 degree F heat and a dew point of 70, and you have a special kind of hell.

Still, it's good exercise. I imagine my muscles are in pretty good shape from all this practice of what Aimee calls "Mick-yoga."

Omne mane padme hum

But this fall I will have all the help I need and more. Students make good helpers, once you have them trained to work safely. I also enjoy the work of running a crew.

I ought to. I've been doing it long enough. I ran different kinds of crews for the RAF at the tender age of 19, younger than my students are now.

I especially like getting the heavy lifting done with ease. After this summer, I will be happy to have some students to work with me.

I'll be posting on our barn-building blog shortly as I get the prep work in hand.

Government money for wind and solar projects

You can now apply for a direct cash grant for your renewable energy project, instead of the previous tax credit.

Unfortunately, there is so far no funding available for non-government, non-profit institutions like ours, or you had better believe I would have applied for it.

However, upfront costs such as anemometry have derailed or slowed several of our community wind projects, so this money will no doubt speed up one or two of them.