Sunday, February 27, 2011

Some principles of Sustainability Thought and Deed

The (new) title of this blog is Sustainability Thought and Deed. This deserves a little elaboration, and some specification, so readers know what I mean. This particular post, with these elaborations and specifications, will be linked by a sidebar to the right so it's easily accessible to new readers.

Sustainability might be defined as the capacity to endure. To my mind, when we're discussing the human economy, sustainability means the ability to support human life at some desirable standard of living into the near and distant future, while maintaining key processes of the biosphere and the continued evolution of other than human life. Key ideas include energy systems that run on sun, not fossil fuel, that help stabilize the climate; agricultural systems that run efficiently on naturally cycled nutrients instead of using fossil energy to cycle nutrients; and a economic system that aims to maximize a more nuanced idea of human development, something like "gross national happiness" instead of gross domestic product.

There is no single agreed-upon set of policies for sustainability, nor is there a consensus on what kind of economic thinking is most likely to foster sustainability. The emerging discipline of ecological economics offers some possible avenues for an economics of sustainability, based largely on the work of Nicholas Georgescu Roegen and Herman Daly and the International Society for Ecological Economics. But this is not a well-known or widely taught set of ideas.

I've been thinking about sustainability for many years now, since at least 1985, when I left the UK's Royal Air Force in protest against the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In particular at the time I was concerned about Reagan's placement of intermediate and short range nuclear missiles on British soil, but not controlled by British authorities. I was also concerned about Thatcher's economic policy, particularly the outrageous attacks she ordered on northern and mining communities. Those difficult days were the beginning of my development as a political economist, even though it was several years before I entered the academy to formally study the issues.

These days, as a relatively senior academic whose job it is to teach about and study the emerging clean energy economy, I've developed a set of ideas I use regularly in teaching, research and consulting. They don't amount to a cohesive economic theory. They're more pragmatic than that.

I tend to think of them as a set of hard-learned principles and facts about the way the human economy works. Some are my own, others learned from others.

1) The human economy is a wholly contained subset of human society which itself is a subset of the biosphere. This means that a) the ultimate scale of the economy is constrained by the ultimate scale of the biosphere, and b) the economy exists to serve society, not the other way around. Economic theories that expect and/or prescribe a permanent condition of economic growth are therefore false. This would include both conservative (classical and neoclassical) and progressive (Keynesian and Neo-Keynesian) economics as currently taught and practiced by Anglo-American academic and political economists. All of these kinds of economics are growth theories. The planetary economy can't grow forever (unless space travel to colonize other planets becomes feasible). Also, because the purpose of the economy is to serve society, society has an intrinsic right to control and structure the economy so that the proper amounts and types of service are provided. This means, in particular, that Laissez Faire or classical economics is false when it argues for removal of all controls from economic activity. (These ideas are distilled from the work of Georgescu Roegen, Herman Daly, and Karl Polanyi.)

2) Human society is dangerously threatened by two particular, linked manifestations of unsustainable economic growth at present. One is the current energy crisis, particularly the depletion of oil reserves. The other is the onset of anthropogenic climate change. These two dynamic forces are currently acting together on a third area, food production, such that a very immediate human ecological problem already exists in food scarcity and high food prices. Other problems emerging as a result of climate change include the failure of certain ecological regions with respect to subsistence food and housing security. Problems of food and housing security manifest themselves differently in different eco-regions hit by different extreme weather patterns exacerbated by climate change, but in general they add to conflict between humans. These ideas and facts can be corroborated by any reasonable, non-biased reading of the international news. Climate change, including extreme weather, can be confidently expected to worsen over the next few decades, and even in the next five years as a recent sunspot cycle minima becomes a maxima. Current high oil prices are more a manifestation of recent unrest in the middle east than of scarcity, but in recent years, since about 2005, demand has risen while supply has not.

3) Despite the emerging problems detailed in 2) above, and the availability of a set of ideas to explain them economically detailed in 1) above, the great majority of people in the world today do not identify current events such as the recent Pakistani floods, or increasing food and energy prices, as events explicable by ecological economic factors. Instead most people who have time and leisure to think about it continue to explain what is happening using one or the other conventional form of economics. In particular in the United States and the United Kingdom, the ideas of neo-classical and neo-Keynesian economics compete politically, using their two-party political systems as a vehicle for this competition. Other ideas are successfully driven to the fringe. The ideas of ecological economists have very little impact on the world.

4) Although I studied under Daly and remain a member of ISSEE, I'm not sure I want ecological economics to become a powerful force in the world, not right away at least. I think the time when the overall human population could begin to think about restricting economic growth is not yet ripe. And were the great democracies of the west to begin at this point to restrict their own growth, the result might be simply that the west abdicates economic, and thus political and military power, to non-democratic regimes, particularly China.

This would not be a good thing.

I'm no great advocate for western or American exceptialism, nor the Samuel Huntingdon Clash of Civilizations thesis, but it seems to me more or less self-evident that some fairly large parts of the rest of the world would spin yet further out of control towards state failure, or further threaten the west's relative freedom, were the western democracies to stop growing economically right away, and by doing so reduce our military capability in some key dimensions. Key threats to democracy emanate from the Islamic regions, from Russia, and from China.

5) In time, we might move to ecological economics. If we recognize the key constraint of western military security and the problem of growth at the same time, we could move forward. The west might choose to make alliances -- the Europeans, the Indians, the African and South American and other democracies. With those alliances and careful trade policies we might eventually succeed in incentivizing democracy in China and improving it in Russia. That and a few other tweaks and a lot of "jaw-jaw" and patience might get us a majority democratic world. At that point, if as I suspect, a democratic China and Russia are no longer any threat, and actively assisting us in containing the more oppressive forms of Islamic theocracy, we might then begin to move towards a steady state.

6) Of course, in the meantime we have to make moves to reduce the most extreme carrying capacity problems -- climate change, food security, related problems like energy. They add to our difficulties supporting democracy. But I don't think we can concentrate on these steady state problems to the exclusion of security concerns, if it means letting a undemocratic power, of combination thereof, become stronger than the combined power of the democracies.

7) Generally, taking this into account, I tend to see the whole future of the west and human freedom hinging on western powers' success in deploying the next generation of energy technology, and in the development of a climate-secure agricultural system on lands within, or controlled by, western democracies.

If we can master solar, wind and advanced biofuel as primary energy sources, provide several, even redundant choices for storage and base load, including ideas such as solid oxide fuel cells and modular nuclear power plants, if we can electrify say 60 % of transportation in the next 30 years, and if we can begin to reduce dependency on fossil fuel-drive nutrient cycles that are currently used in place of solar-driven nutrient cycles in agriculture, we'll have a chance to get control of our own energy and food supply and of the climate, and our children and grandchildren might then stand a chance of growing up in a more peaceful world where the level of conflict is winding down and there is time and room to think about steady state theories and "gross domestic happiness." A key point in this will be the year 2050, when the planet's human population is projected to maximize at 9.5 billion. After then, a steady state economic consensus might be plausible.

Getting this level of energy and food security in a world in which the climate is already changing will require government intervention, particularly to develop and deploy key technologies. It may even require that some problems, if not industries, become nationalized. Luckily, the economic multipliers that result from green energy development will be more internal to western economies than those that result from importing oil, and so such policies will be self-reinforcing. However, at least some of the income generated will need to be spent on reshaping western military power, particularly British and American military power, to meet new kinds of threats.

This is clearly not an ecological economic manifesto. It's more a kind of green Keynesianism, and in fact owes much to the kinds of expedients that Keynes often used, most notably in his 1940 pamphlet How to Pay for the War.

(To which small book I might owe my existence as a person and a thinker. At the very least, without it I would perhaps be speaking German.)

And as can be seen, any radicalism I may have is also tempered by US and British patriotism. Although this will seem strange to some readers, I continue to believe that these two countries, preferably working together, remain for various reasons the last best hope for human freedom.

Detractors might argued that this point of view in fact capitulates to capitalism, and perpetuates the "violence inherent in the system."

Of course, of all economists, I have least to gain from placating capitalists. But I am willing to concede that we need them for some time yet. Adam Smith's invisible hand will be driven by energy scarcity to solve some of these problems for us.

We might study this particular Keynesian quote:

"The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight."

In other words, to place these old ideas in this new context, we will probably need to rely on the profit motive and private enterprise, directed by occasional government encouragement and/or discouragement, to develop the new energy economy and the energy efficient new agriculture we will need.

In the meantime, I think ecological economics should be more widely taught. As I mentioned, I remain a member of USSEE.

I really think this is the key to the problem: thinking about steady state futures, moving towards them, but making sure our actions are constrained by the need to respond to threats to freedom and democracy. Eventually, we will all grow up, economically speaking, and realize that we can do without even these expedients.

A good place to start would be by improving our own democracies, and particularly in reducing the influence of moneyed elites.

But that's another thread.

Enough sustainability thought. What about deed?

Well, in general I practice as much sustainable production as seems feasible and reasonable on our own farm, growing large amounts of food and fiber and fuel with small amounts of fossil fuel inputs, while at Unity College I train students in the replacement of unsustainable energy systems with sustainable ones.

In particular we work a lot on cost analysis and other number-crunching of energy efficiency and renewable energy development, and related accounting problems in climate emissions, a useful set of tools to know, particularly if, as I suggest above, the primary way that energy systems will change over the next few decades is through private enterprise.

We also study renewable energy system design, as well as building energy systems. Unity College is a leader in hyper-efficient building design.

For my own research, I work on analysis of community-owned wind power projects, using anemometry and GIS wind mapping. I was lucky enough to have been given an exceptionally useful engineering training as a young man in the RAF, and I use that nearly every day in this renewable energy work, and encourage my students to be practical as well as thoughtful young people. Sometimes, for fun, or with students, I design and build solar power systems or wind turbines. I also enjoy practical problems in household weatherization and energy efficiency, as well as building projects using local and recycled materials. To the best of my ability I engage students in these activities, although my ability to do this is hampered by the ridiculous nature of modern education which somehow assumes that young people can learn something useful in a fifty-minute class. I dislike this aspect of modern education and do my best to subvert it regularly with building projects and field trips.

The best book I've read recently on this particular issue was Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Recommended.

So that's what this blog is about. You can follow the results of these activities regularly here, if you are interested.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Busting budget bilge

There's a lot of tommyrot and poppycock promulgated about the federal budget. And a lot of gullible consumers of said silliness. Somehow, for instance, some folks are willing to believe that last Fridays shenanigans in Congress were important, when the much-lauded $61 billion savings represents less than one percent of the total.

I liked the White House's new interactive budget map, which uses the same basic proportioning idea as Newsmap to put everything in rectangular perspective.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A two horse power snow machine

I don't quite remember which day it was last week that I took these photos (senior moment!), but it was probably Tuesday. I had a busy week and didn't get around to posting them until today.

The Student Affairs department had organized some fun snow-based events in the run-up to the spring dinner-dance, called the "Snow Ball," or sometimes the "Semi-Flannel."

It's too cold in a Maine winter for prom wear, so the students come in a combination of cool glam and warm flannel.

Anyway, the horses and their driver were giving free sled rides around the green at the center of campus. With the very cold wind that was blowing, I don't expect students or horses were having as much fun as was expected, but still, there was a pretty good crowd around the horses at this stop here.

Click on the image to enlarge.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Were-Geld: Time for Tort

The ground-breaking work by has borne fruit, and the result will be a steadily rising increase in business uncertainty for those corporations who support efforts to obfuscate and refute climate science.

Admittedly, this is a kind of Revenge of the Geeks scenario, but one I've been looking forward to for a while. Science geeks borrow time on ordinary computers to make a super-cheap kind of mega-super computer which they use to calculate a more exact probability of damaging rainstorms in Somerset four years ago? Which may become the basis for civil suit using a 1500-year old system of law first worked out by warrior farmers in what is now Germany, Denmark and Old England? Sounds nuts, doesn't it? Like something out of a fantasy video game.

But at this point anyone who has been hit hard by recent extreme weather event who happens to live in a jurisdiction where English common law is the baseline of the legal system now has the option to sue any of several major corporations and behind-the-scenes financiers of climate denial propaganda.

Three such lawsuits, summarized here, are at various levels of appeal.

Of Anglo-Saxon-Norse ancestry myself, as my name, body type and hair color attest (read fat, burly, white man with reddish-blond hair), I can't wait for the Wapentake to assemble.

It's time for the law-speakers to speak the law.

I for one would love to see Lord Haw-Haw himself, the evil Monckton, in the dock. That is unlikely, of course, but not entirely out of the question. I think he'd make a great drama out of it, all squirmy and smarmy and Golum-like.

Enough imaginative scenarios. But this is fun for me.

And what could be more conservative and traditional in Britain and the US than that those who carry out and finance public harms have to pay for the results in civil court?


There will be an end to the tort suits, of course, when we get congressional action on climate. So what the news does, really, is provide a new constituency for a climate bill:

All those energy corporations that have up until now been arguing against one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What are denialists and shills for oil and coal most afraid of?

I just realized this, after writing yet another mildly grumpy email to yet another amateur lobbyist/hack for the oil and coal industry.

(As if they couldn't afford enough professional ones. Why do people sign up for this, for free?)

What they are most afraid, of, and what has already come to pass, is cost-effective renewable energy and energy efficiency!

Because the more investors, governments, and consumers realize that we don't need these polluting, mountaintop-removing, climate-ruining paleo-technologies, the quicker the apologists suddenly appear to be the dinosaurs they've always been.

The emperor has no clothes!

I keep saying this, but it's amazing to me how much money people are prepared to pay out for dirty energy that destroys the environment, when cheaper, cleaner energy is available.

Paying extra just to destroy the climate. Get 'er done!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Capitalism segregated

I'm going to think about the important idea that is embedded in this NYT op-ed for a day or two and then write something in response.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Stored sunshine: The way we get by up here

Here's a jar of our Juliet tomatoes, canned last fall, that I opened for breakfast this morning.

Juliets are a Roma-style plum tomato that I find hold up exceptionally well when canned, although because they're small, it's quite labor intensive to peel them. But once peeled and properly canned, it's a very great pleasure to eat them, especially when the warm days of early fall are long gone and there's four feet of snow on the ground.

I had mine with home-grown pork sausage and fresh eggs from our own hens.

This is one way we get by here in the frozen north.

Blog readers living and farming or gardening in warmer climes are probably surprised by the harshness of our winters here in Maine. It seems like every blog post for quite a while on A Great Farm Diary has been about snow.

It took me, an immigrant, a long time to get used to this. It will be daffodil time in South Wales, where my family lives, in a very few weeks. Some of the farm blogs I read from Britain are already planting seeds.

Here we're eking out the sunshine, stored or returning.

The sun is returning -- I have to keep telling myself that to believe it. All those massive mounds of snow will melt, and that water will go away, although it all seems very unlikely right now.

The returning sun is now around 30 degrees above the horizon at noon, up from 21 just a few weeks ago. By this time next month it will be 40 degrees.

The afternoons can be markedly warmer now, with the thermometer reading around freezing or just above any day the sun shines. Today is sunny, so I expect a pleasant afternoon. February sunshine is another way we get by.

The tomatoes are just one form of stored sunlight we collect around here. Hay is another, collected in square bales from fields round about, as well as oats from The County. That's what the sheep are eating. That's how they will get by until May when the grass begins to grow again.

(Aroostook County, known as The County, is where Maine grows most of its grain.)

Firewood is what was keeping us warm, more stored sunshine, but that's getting low, so we ordered and received a delivery of oil. Another form of stored sunshine. Fossilized sunshine, to be precise. It's been so long since we had a delivery -- three winters ago, in the winter of 2008-2009, to be exact -- the truck driver didn't recognize the house. His data sheet says that ours is a house with green siding. It's now cedar-shingled, the fruits of Aimee's labors over two summers.

100 gallons of oil still isn't very much. Not over three years.

I can get by, getting by on 30 gallons of oil a year.

Modular nukes

For about four years now we've been covering modular nuclear reactors in the "base load" section of our basic sustainability course, and in more detail in the energy course.

But even though this technology has been in the pipeline for quite a while, to my knowledge there has been no actual implementation.

Which is a great pity, because some of the modular technology is ground-breaking. Small nuclear reactors, using much safer fuel and more fail-safe systems than the larger commercial plants currently used, might easily be the ticket that lets us harden, decentralize, and smarten-up the aging grid, while providing the back-up power needed to make sense out of decentralized "rooftop" solar and offshore or land-based wind.

The new federal budget is out, in draft form, and $500m is being asked for to bring one or more modular technologies to the next scale, essentially to bring it through the "valley of death" whereby new ideas fail because private venture capital can't be convinced to back it in sufficient amounts.

Hopefully, Congress can be convinced to leave this relatively small program alone.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Concentrating solar power

I think I'm going to enjoy this movie

Here's a great quote from Solitaire Townsend, related to the Kahan et al reading:

"There are reams of evidence [showing] that we respond to messengers who are like us. If an advertising company wants to reach young women in cities, they'll put their message in the mouth of a young urban woman. If they want to reach rural farmers in the mid-west, that's who they'll use. It's not even questioned in advertising. But up until now there have been very few mid-western or southern messengers on climate action.

"The problem is that climate change is getting drawn into the culture wars. It is being wrapped up with a set of liberal values and that's a barrier to entry for conservatives. If you're not allowed to be pro-action on climate change unless you sign up to a set of other liberal values like being anti-guns and pro-abortion that's a huge barrier."

I found the trailer and the quote on this article here:

I think I'm going to enjoy this movie

Wildlife and fisheries management under climate change

I don't have much patience for students of conservation who won't make the effort to properly study climate change. Climatic changes are already moving habitats, and thus species, around the face of the earth rather dramatically, and every conservation program on the planet will have to consider how to manage habitats and populations under changing climate conditions.

I generally associate students' unwillingness to consider these phenomena to the either the "Animal Planet" mentality ("These fuzzy animals were put here to keep me entertained,") or the hunting show mentality ("These animals are put here for me to prove my manhood by killing them.") Both seem commonplace at our small college.

I'm probably oversimplifying here, the reductio ad absurdum, but whenever I make this challenge of students who seem to suffer from either phenomenon, I rarely get a adequate intellectual riposte. So I keep needling. If your ability to defend your ideas is this weak, you need them to be challenged.

The proper response, of course, is that it is instead your duty as a conservation professional to use your biological science and legal knowledge to protect the resource for future generations.

And if you can't understand climate science you can't do that.

I don't often demonstrate this point by publishing wildlife/climate news on this blog, because, well, my main job is to keep up with the climate science and the solutions, which are all related to energy conservation and new energy formats. That's a fast-moving field and it keeps me busy. But my first love was land conservation, and I've worked extensively in this field.

I decided to add more material about this stuff to the blog from time to time.

Here's a start: Fisheries managers in the UK are concerned to provide a biogeographical refugia for certain rare species of landlocked fish.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Green job search advice

I think this guy is way off on the proportion of engineers to non-engineers. My take is it's more like six non-engineers to every engineer.

But other than that, the advice is good. Especially "burn your boats."

Chinese pollution, for class

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Are you employable in a changing world?

Joe Romm, author of Climate Progress blog, has a question-answer piece on his blog where he asks "how can you be most employable in a world of global warming, peak oil, and food insecurity?"

I thought this was interesting, as many of the students in our required sustainability classes object to having to study climate change, oil depletion, and food insecurity for the perceived reason that it's nothing to do with their chosen career fields.

I've become a stuck record on this one.

After eleven years of teaching sustainability to non-majors, I have probably exhausted the entire possible repertoire of ways there are to get students to realize that we are all going to be affected by climate change.

Even so, the question needs to be asked, again and again, to each new class of students, or we wouldn't be very responsible as a college.

Of course, how employable you are in the future depends on how bad we in the present let things get. In the worst case scenario, none of us is employable in the traditional sense, because there are no traditional jobs, and we're all just surviving.

But assume that those of us that are struggling to make some kind of rationality prevail in the present succeed at least partly, and so in the future things are not so bad and society continues pretty much as it does today, except with slightly more rapid and more dangerous climate change than at present, increased conditions of energy scarcity, increased worries over agriculture as ecosystems move around, and so on.

I do tend to think of this as the most likely outcome. I'm neither irrationally optimistic nor irrationally pessimistic. I see that we are doing some things that will reduce emissions, and have plans to do more. I see that the latest information out of climate science is tending to decrease worry over rapid feedbacks and tipping points. And I think that as more and more Americans get flooded or tornado'ed, or get ten feet of snow each year in a two-foot region, they will begin to see sense.

Plus, climate skeptics as a whole tender to be older, grumpier white men and so they will die off after a while.

In which case, our graduates in Sustainability Design and Technology should be very employable (they already are) helping implement energy efficiency and green energy programs in business, government, and non-profit organizations, while our Agriculture, Food and Sustainability students will be worked pretty hard growing food in places where food can still be grown, such as Maine. I think our conservation biologists and policy wonks will be busy enough, too, trying to help solve problems of conservation as ecosystems move around the map.

To the extent that our marine biologists and wildlifers and foresters engage with the new information coming out of climate science, and learn the new conservation, they should be more employable than otherwise.

How employable will our future zookeepers and other animal care types be, the folks in our Captive Wildlife Care and Education degree? Or our Conservation Law Enforcement majors?

I think there's a role for zookeepers and interpretation experts that understand climate change, because we're going to have to keep explaining it to the public for years to come. The impacts will change, and so so will the explanation. But the climate change itself will be a fact of life.

As for the Con Law degree majors, while I'm not sure I can tell whether fighting poachers will increase or decrease as a priority (most likely it will increase) I am as certain as a scientist can be that we'll need more, and yet more expert, search and rescue services.

So there's a role for every Unity College degree program.

And assuming that students are willing to take time out from their degree programs and fairly study the problems for a semester of Core 3, Environmental Sustainability, they'll be prepared, whatever happens.

That at least is the college's plan. And mine.

And I'll have done my duty as a professor and a concerned citizen.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Getting into grad school

Our Sustech program is pretty new, but it's already making an impact by directing well-prepared graduates to sustainability- or energy-related policy and economics programs.

Aaron Witham was our most recent Sustainability Coordinator before Jesse, and although he didn't take the entire Sustech program, he took most of the classes, and he did get into graduate school.

He has his own web page here.

A fellowship is definitely the way to go. Well done, Aaron.

Now we have to get J____ into Harvard.

Straw bale letter

I get a lot of requests for advice on straw bale houses, based on the fact that Aimee and I once built one. It still stands after 8 years and is the home of a Unity College faculty member in Monroe, Maine. I'm usually moderately discouraging of straw bale unless the climate and local agroecology suits.

(Straw being an agricultural by-product.)

I have permission from the writer to print this particular letter anonymously, and my reply below.

Interestingly, the writer also said this in a more recent letter:

"By the way, you basically talked me out of the straw bale house idea. I looked up the humidity issue elsewhere and it seems
like too big of a risk."

Another satisfied customer.



I appreciate you having your slideshow of your straw bale house on the internet. I hope that it's okay that I'm emailing you.

I would like to know if you are willing to share your house plans.

Here's why I need them:

I lost my job a few months back due to the economy.

So I need to downsize to something affordable and I need to spend no more than about $20,000. I have a man who will be doing most of the building work at no cost.

I am really interested in a straw bale house because I have many sensitivies to chemicals and I understand that these houses are better for people like me.

I will have to figure out how to adapt the plans because of the climb to the sleeping area. Therefore if you have any plans for a house that doesn't require climbing that would be great too.

Thanks so much for your consideration

Emelda Higgenbotham :)



Hi Emelda:

Unfortunately, I didn't really use a plan for the bale house. There was a very simple line drawing used to work out the dimensions. After that, because the building was built with recycled and waste materials, we proceeded opportunistically. I changed aspects of the design as I went along based on what was available in the building waste section of the solid waste transfer station that day, or what I could buy cheaply from building materials section of the classifieds.

It's very much a glorified shanty or favela. Five-star, as such things go, but not really what you might call planned.

I would also counsel against assuming that because a building is built with so-called natural materials, it will be safe from a health and wellness standpoint. There are some incredibly powerful allergens and toxic chemicals found in straw, especially in warn, damp climates. (Maine is warm and damp in the summer -- I would guess our summers to be like Florida winters in some ways.) A design fault in this building led to the straw in one wall composting, setting up a dreadful mold problem in the kitchen wall, that was only fixed by removing the straw and replacing it with clean, inert, silicon fibers (also known as fiberglass insulation). The mold produced was potentially toxic and might easily have made the occupants very sick, were they sensitive. Additionally, the straw walls attracted all kinds of animal pests, several of whom come equipped with very powerful toxic chemicals. The highly developed cubic foot of wasp nest now found in one bale wall is just one example. One toxic sting can kill faster than plutonium, if an individual is sensitive.

I have a blog page, where I occasionally add material and host comments, meant to try to get people to think sensibly about straw bale -- not romanticizing it but balancing pros and cons. You can find it at

My advice to anyone considering on spending $20,000 on a building in which they plan to live in any area would be to carefully assemble the relevant facts and withhold judgment until you have them assembled and can organize them and create a decision tree. It's going to be complicated, and some math will be required. Here's a rough list for a starting point.

1) Start with the "sideboards" of what is permissible and possible in your jurisdiction: Look at building codes, planning rules, and insurance requirements. These vary from place to place, by county, state and ecosystem. Work through these and create a rough list of the biggest rules that you know apply, are enforced, and that will affect your choices. Some rules are not enforced, and a contractor will usually be able to tell you which ones, others will be enforced more vigilantly. Fire code is generally what most affects home-build projects, but planning requirements, rules for wells and septics, and insurance company rules on heat systems and electrical wiring will all affect what you can and can't do. Whatever you plan to do must maneuver around and through the items on this list somehow.

(Added later: And be safe! The rules are there for a reason in most cases. Except composting toilet rules. Composting systems are unreasonably prohibited by a lot of building codes.)

2) Then consider the ecosystem and the site to determine the best balance of price, availability, and durability of materials. What is a durable, cheap, abundant material varies by climate and region. Adobe is abundant and durable in Arizona, straw has held up well and can be cheaply found in Nebraska, raw timber and stone and clay can be found virtually free in Maine, while sawn timber costs only the price of labor if you can get the trees for free. Stone has proven over time to be the most durable building material in Maine's climate, and can be had for the price of labor, your own or a hired person's. Waste or recycled or surplus building materials can be found on building sites and in the more permissive waste management facilities and in classified ads in any state. My guess is that timber is more available in Florida than you suspect, and may last better than straw. I can only imagine what the extremes of heat and airborne moisture found in your region can do to straw.

3) Then fit the building to the site, whatever you plan to build with. Take advantage of sunlight in winter for heat, shade in summer. Arrange the buildings and lawns and gardens and trees, new or existing, to make foot travel around the site interesting and satisfying, especially if you plan to live there a while. In Maine in winter, at our "new" house, a 110-year old Maine farmhouse which we were able to buy with the money we saved by living in the bale house for three years, I've learned particularly to cherish our southerly aspect. We sit on a south-facing terrace that is a natural remedy for seasonal affective disorder and cabin fever, both of which are endemic.

4) Crunch numbers. Time and money are limiting factors for all except the wealthiest, and even they run out of time -- [which must be] nature's justice. You will need to budget both. Anticipate eventualities and contingencies: "How will I finish this building if I get that job I'm after?" Have reasoned quantitative plans for all of the most likely eventualities.

5) Don't depend on "experts." Contractors and tradespeople can be brilliant individuals, but as in all walks of life it's self-evident that most are average and some are bad -- the bell curve. I've seen work done by so-called professionals that would make me ashamed to think of for the rest of my life, had I been the corner-cutting, cack-handed fool that had done it. But then, too, I'm become more forgiving of my own mistakes as I get older.

6) Build. Just do it. It's natural. Women especially can find it very satisfying. But be patient with yourself. It takes time. One stone cemented to another, a timber here, a recycled window there, can be tedious, even an act of faith, but you get there in the end. Have a schedule, and include breaks. Have a place to sit and weep. You'll need it. But be prepared to sit and admire too, on occasion.

7) Enjoy. You'll usually only do this once or twice in your lifetime. I've built four major buildings at this point, three Maine barns and a house, and a handful of sheds. I've refurbished several buildings as well, including the one I'm sitting in now. I consider myself lucky to have spent so much of my life doing something so real. If you're really unlucky, someone will give you a job and you'll have to go back to the cubicle or office.

That's the best, most honest information I have for now.

I can imagine with your injury and current unemployment that building a building to live in is a very positive decision, and good for you, but I wouldn't expect it to be an easy path!

If you don't mind, I'd like to anonymize your letter and post it to my sustainability blog and maybe the farm blog too, along with this response. It makes more sense if I'm to write stuff like this down, to share it a little more widely.

I'll be sure to take out your name and email and other identifying markers.


Left-brain drain?

I'm not a great multi-tasker, nor a great socialite.

In fact, I've come to dislike certain busy social situations in which concentration is not possible. Neither do I enjoy messy, disorganized discussions. As Faculty Moderator of Unity College, I'm known for following rules of procedure and getting through the agenda on time.

What I do enjoy is complex, multiply-interlinked kinds of problems in which the dynamics of systems are involved, especially when geography and landscape are also involved, and the bulk of my higher education, in biology, economics, modeling, and related reasoning and problem solving, emphasized complex systems analysis of one kind or another, often related to landscape and geography.

Deep concentration is required for these kinds of problems, as well as a facility with numbers and complex quantification. I love nothing better than to sit down for hours or days on end with spreadsheets, statistical software, GIS, or modeling programs and sometimes all four at once, open and running hot, trying to work through some such problem.

These kinds of problems are like jigsaw puzzles to me. I really get into them. It's an altered state. I can absorb myself for hours and even days or weeks.

I never used to enjoy mathematics, though. I took until my mid-thirties to develop a facility with applied mathematics and modeling. I was in graduate school before I became any good at it, or began to enjoy it. I hated math in high school and junior college (which for me was a military college). There was something about the way it was taught, particularly algebra, that just didn't penetrate.

It took me years to realize that all those math teachers were just terribly poor at translating, from math to English and back again.

The reason I hated algebra was because it was so abstractly taught, and taught in it's own language, tautologically but not teleologically; it meant nothing real to me. No end use in sight.

And the reason it was taught this way was, simply, it meant nothing at all to anyone in the room. Not even the people at the front of the classroom. The teachers didn't really know what it was used for either!

Eventually I got into advanced university classes with professors who could show me the purpose of it all and make it useful.

So now I'm at the front, I take great pains to continually translate back and forth between math and English for all my students, so they can begin to learn the language of math for themselves, and do their own translating, and connect the math we learn to real-life problems, to show them what it's used for.

I notice, though, that there are some folks, some of my students or some of the people I encounter in my renewable energy work, who just can't concentrate enough on a problem for long enough to begin to master the long, looping chains of logic that are required.

I also notice that these folks are often more likely to be gregarious, social types, with warm and pleasant personalities, who like nothing better than to chit-chat and converse.

I don't think there are many of my colleagues who consider me warm and gregarious.

And while I enjoy conversation, I'm much better one-on-one, and much happier when the conversation is real and even deep, about something interesting or problematic.

So is this the old myth of left-brain/right brain dichotomy?

I was thinking about this recently while observing some students who are poor at math and modeling problems, but good at conversation and communication. And I thought, "If I'm to teach these kinds of difficult problems, I really ought to know what to expect from different types of students."

So I went to Wikipedia, to see what I could find on "lateralization of brain function."

To begin, the article spends quite a bit of text debunking the myth:

"Broad generalizations are often made in popular psychology about certain functions (eg. logic, creativity) being lateralised, that is, located in the right or left side of the brain. These ideas need to be treated carefully because the popular lateralizations are often distributed across both sides."

But then, down below, we read this:

"Linear reasoning and language functions such as grammar and vocabulary often are lateralized to the left hemisphere of the brain. Dyscalculia is a neurological syndrome associated with damage to the left temporo-parietal junction. This syndrome is associated with poor numeric manipulation, poor mental arithmetic skill, and the inability to either understand or apply mathematical concepts.

"In contrast, prosodic language functions, such as intonation and accentuation, often are lateralized to the right hemisphere of the brain. The processing of visual and audiological stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, and artistic ability seem to be functions of the right hemisphere. Depression is linked with a hyperactive right hemisphere, with evidence of selective involvement in "processing negative emotions, pessimistic thoughts and unconstructive thinking styles", as well as vigilance, arousal and self-reflection, and a relatively hypoactive left hemisphere, "specifically involved in processing pleasurable experiences" and "relatively more involved in decision-making processes". Additionally, "left hemisphere lesions result in an omissive response bias or error pattern whereas right hemisphere lesions result in a commissive response bias or error pattern." The delusional misidentification syndromes reduplicative paramnesia and Capgras delusion are also often the result of right hemisphere lesions. There is some evidence that the right hemisphere is more involved in processing novel situations, while the left hemisphere is most involved when routine or well rehearsed processing is called for.

"Other integrative functions, including arithmetic, binaural sound localization, and emotions (lateralization of emotion), seem more bilaterally controlled."

So should my students that can't concentrate on math and modeling problems, and that can't reason well, but that are warm and chatty, "sociable" types be perhaps considered "right-brained" individuals, while I'm "left-brained"?

And is it unfair or even cruel to try to teach them this kind of stuff at all?

As the article implies, this is far too simplistic and overreaching, and seems also to present an excuse that applied math and modeling ought not be taught at all to some kinds of students, especially in required classes, which is where I mostly teach it.

Obviously, everyone should try to learn a little math. Even the most tortured of artists must balance a checkbook.

And those of us with the other hemispheric bias clearly ought not be encouraged by society to be so left-brained that we can't make civil conversation, or appreciate art or theatre.

But taken with a pinch of salt, it does seem moderately useful.

At the very least, it explains a few things that I see in my work.

And it certainly seems that there are some possibly extreme kinds of folks who shouldn't try to do some kinds of things. I may even be one such type myself. You'd never get me to take on a job where I had to socialize or be nice to people all of the time.

I'd hate it. Particularly if it involved a lot of large groups.

Likewise, if you're a chatty, sociable, multitasking type, you probably shouldn't become a climate or economic modeler.

But I don't think history is destiny. You can do mental push-ups as well as physical ones, put your mind on a training plan, make yourself do a daily work-out.

Think of it this way: If you were looking to get in shape, you might join a fitness class or get a personal trainer.

If you need to learn to use or grow your mathematical and systems reasoning, you might take a class in modeling or some other applied math.

And I suppose, too, if I really had to, I could learn to like social occasions a little more.

If you made me.

LLG report support

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow day and Friday make-up assignment

This email is for students in the 8am section of IC 3013 Environmental Sustainability, Mick Womersley

Dear students:

Because of the snow day I am unable to announce in class this morning that this coming Friday 4th February I have to spend all day at KVCC.

(I'll be working with Maine Rural Partners and Efficiency Maine to provide a wind mapping and wind modeling training as part of a joint state/federally funded effort to provide better support for small scale wind power and related planning, such as noise issues.)

Unity College rules require me to provide some reasonable additional assignment if I cancel class for some reason. They're also encouraged, although not strictly required, for snow days.

Accordingly, here is an assignment for you in lieu of Friday's class and today's snow day.

Question: What is a science fact and should I believe one when I see one?

Later in class we will be discussing climate change. Some of you have already expressed that you don't "believe in" climate change.

(Others of you might think it unimportant or unrelated to careers and choice of major. I might draw your attention to recent events in Queensland, Australia, to suggest how climate change might impact your life whether you're interested in it or not.)

I might suggest that this "belief" is a conceptual error and that even the most concerned of climate scientists doesn't "believe in" climate change. A science theory is not something you believe in. It's the best explanation we have so far, of the available evidence so far. When more or different evidence is found, the theory must change.

If the theory doesn't change on the basis of new evidence, we're no longer doing science.

So scientists don't actually "believe in" things the way that other folks do. If you believe in something, that's a very fixed kind of a notion. Good scientists must be able to change their minds on a dime.

This is a kind of critical thinking, and in practice closely related to the concept of statistical significance.

The following social science paper attempts to explain why people of non-scientific belief systems approach facts in very different ways. Please read it and try to understand it as well as you can prior to Monday's class.

An optional follow-up paper, a recent update, is available at

If these links don't work, this same email is posted at my blog with tested hot links.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Name change for the blog?

I'm thinking about changing the title of this blog.

This deserves a little explanation.

Back when I started it, the intent was to highlight all of the hands-on work that Unity College does in sustainability, but particularly in agriculture and in energy, and to have a place to post informal writing that I often do on sustainability topics.

Back then, in December 2007, there were fewer of us working in sustainability at the college, and we didn't have the Sustech or Sustag degrees, the Center for Global Change and Sustainability, the Office of Sustainability, nor even Jesse Pyles, who runs the office.

So now we do have those things, at this point, my own involvement is limited to a small proportion of Sustainability Activities at Unity College.

Meanwhile, the Office of Sustainability has a very well-developed blog run by Jesse, Sara, Anne, and the large crew of student workers.

While this blog is now more limited in scope, involving primarily articles and movie postings required or recommended for the third year Environmental Sustainability classes, bulletins on renewable energy news in Maine and elsewhere, and my own writings both editorial and theoretical.

This doesn't mean to say that Sustainability Activities at Unity College has run it's course, or is becoming defunct.

It's just morphing. Evolution is natural. I wouldn't be much of a sustainability teacher if I couldn't tell when change was happening, and we're not just taking about global change.

So I'm trying to come up with a new title.

It will need to be Google search-able, and it should still reference both sustainability and probably Unity College, even if most of the postings are mine at this point. The blog gets a minimum of a thousand hits a month, and sometimes as many as three thousand.

If anything I'd like to increase the number of hits.

Recommendations for new titles can be posted in the comments section.

Wind power career chat online

A new presentation by NREL. Please note the sidebar towards the end regarding how many jobs exist for non-engineers.

We prepare Sustech students well for some of these types of career paths.

"Meet the skeptics": Hilarious

Skeptics from PTV Productions on Vimeo.