Practice Makes Perfect.
Everything that is already hard is going to get harder. Ecological zones will be reshuffled. With many species already in danger of extinction and conservation efforts focused on preserving habitat, lots of that hard-won habitat is going to be irrelevant—too warm, too dry, too something—as suitable habitat shifts faster than species can travel. Fisheries, already stressed by pollution and over-harvesting, will now confront warming and acidification. Droughts and food shocks may intensify political and military conflict: more resource wars, more grain-price revolutions.
Being poor, in particular, gets worse as climate changes. Nature has always been hardest on the poor, because infrastructure, transport, medicine, and the rest of our capital-intensive technologies are the key ways we tame her violence. To be poor—for an individual, and even more for a country—is to be vulnerable to the whims of the natural world. Recall the very worst of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the poorest parts of New Orleans in 2005 and then project those onto Bangladesh, a country of 155 million—almost half as large as the population of the US.
There’s lots of uncertainty about details—as the Report itself painstakingly documents; but most people not in denial have known the broad outlines of this picture for well over a decade. It was 1989—when the Berlin Wall came down—writer Bill McKibben was already announcing “the end of nature” in the era of climate change. But with every IPCC report, the optimistic scenario, where “the world” slashes greenhouse gases and stabilizes climate change, feels more like a weak deus ex machina. Meanwhile, the drastic scenario—where everything accelerates, the Greenland ice cap melts sometime in the next century, sea levels rise 20 feet or more in our grandchildren’s lifetimes, and the Gulf Stream and the Amazonian forests both consider giving up the ghost—that scenario feels more and more like a weather forecast: unseasonably warm this weekend with a growing chance of apocalypse by Sunday evening.
But “apocalypse” is probably exactly wrong, even though floods, droughts, and storms are just the kind of thing that one might expect would presage an apocalypse. Instead, living in a climate-changed world is becoming a post-normal normal, a chronic crisis.
The IPCC Report reflects this, spending four chapters on “adaptation” to climate change. Already, commentators are celebrating the move to adaptation as a win for gritty practicality over empty idealism, local and private efforts over “grand international declarations.” Of course it’s true that we need adaptation, especially for the poor regions that are the most vulnerable and can’t wait while the waters rise. But pretending that giving up on big climate action means a victory is nothing but rationalizing defeat.
This passivity is tempting because political action has done so little and doesn’t seem likely to do much about climate, and doesn’t exactly look poised to do more that is more than symbolic. Because climate change is distributed around the world and has a very long lag time, whatever we do about it here and now mostly helps faraway and future people. So it’s very tempting to come up with excuses for doing nothing, or just enough to feel righteous about what you’ve done.
Sure enough, in international negotiations, the U.S. has long refused to do anything meaningful until China and India “did their share,” while those countries answered that the U.S. had added more than its share to the problem and needed to lead in paying for the solution. At all scales, down to the nation and even the individual, the same puffed-up hemming and hawing works out nicely for the living—who enjoy our energy-intensive lives now—and badly for the future.
Ordinary politics, with its self-interested deal-making just barely hidden under high talk, is a lousy tool for global problems that play out over centuries and would require the living generation to do something costly and inconvenient. And there is not much that is more costly and inconvenient than retooling your infrastructure, from energy to transport to manufacturing, when that infrastructure is where we all live.
That leaves us with, basically, two ways out. One is extraordinary technology: either a silver bullet to produce cheap, renewable energy, or a reliable geo-engineering technique to adjust the global atmosphere-temperature-weather system directly. Either might happen—the first likely will, maybe too late to prevent permanent crisis; but waiting on clean energy is a very big risk, and geo-engineering brings huge risks of its own, from getting only half the problem to ending up making the system even more unstable. The “simplest” geo-engineering proposal is to bounce a bunch of earth-warming sunlight back into space by launching mirrors or particles into the upper atmosphere; but (1) it’s a half-measure, since the oceans would continue acidifying, stressing and maybe destroying many marine life forms and disrupting other global processes; and (2) if anything ever happened to the mirrors, sunlight would pour in and our carbon-enriched atmosphere would start to warm up like an oven.
The other way out is extraordinary politics: politics that goes beyond the usual interest-swapping and sets new commitments for the country and the world. This, admittedly, is a desperate measure. It is the last thing you want to rely on—other than, possibly, launching mirrors into space to adjust the planet’s atmosphere. These, however, are desperate times, at least where the global climate is concerned.
One reason for hopefulness, even for measured optimism, is something our hyper-knowing, reflexively cynical political culture trains us to forget: extraordinary politics is a real thing, not just an idle wish.
Consider the end of slavery—not in the U.S., but in the British Empire, which abolished the practice thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation, by an act of Parliament, with compensation to slaveholders. The economic cost was huge. For decades, historians assumed it must have been a subterfuge for someone’s economic benefit—otherwise, how would such a thing be possible? But the historians’ view these days is that British emancipation was, in fact, a wildly expensive and disruptive moral commitment, executed through extraordinary politics. The powerful thing about this example is its scale: the global economy of the British Empire was nearly as entwined with slavery as ours is with the fossil-fuel economy. The change wasn’t just costly: it pulled some institutions up by their roots. If that never happened, we’d really be out of reasons for hope on climate change. But sometimes it does.
We should learn to look at climate change simultaneously through two very different lenses. Keep one eye on the scientists’ reports, with their steady accumulation of reasons to worry, and the Silicon Valley technologists’ innovations, with their promise of landing on an extraordinary technology. But cast the other on the activist kids who don’t know enough to realize they can’t win—the ones getting arrested outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and pressing universities and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels, as if Exxon were R.J. Reynolds, or Apartheid South Africa. And don’t forget the people who are experimenting with low-carbon living in their “transition town” projects, trying to recast energy sources and other infrastructure in a less carbon-intensive form.
It’s easy—ridiculously easy—to show that the activists shouldn’t expect to win, and that whatever they did succeed in doing wouldn’t be enough to stop this massive global problem. But that is true at the beginning of every episode of extraordinary politics. That why histories of abolition, the civil rights movement, even environmentalism, don’t begin with people who are powerful, realistic, or even normal. They begin with people who don’t know better, and who find the world they are born into intolerable.
That is key, because if we end up tolerating a climate-changed world as the new normal, then it probably will last forever—or as long as anyone is around to care about it.
Our current normal is built out of principles that used to be considered impossible—gender equality, racial equality, democracy—and became common sense long after some people were too unrealistic to give up on them. Once they win, these principles get absorbed into common sense—and, of course, get betrayed left and right, like any civic piety. But a world where they are elements of common sense is still vastly different from one where most people accept that they are impossible.
We sort of know this about human freedom and equality, even if we tend to forget it in practice. But environmental issues tend to get cast as technical problems for scientists and bureaucrats, or as hopelessly politically divided between liberal greens and conservative climate-skeptics. But that is only half the picture. Historically, environmental attitudes have changed almost as dramatically as attitudes around gender and sexuality: Americans used to hate wilderness, love to see a forest burn, and wage war on wolves and other large predators. Even more basically, they had no conception of the global web of life that we call ecology, or just “the environment,.” A series of political movements and cultural revolutions changed this, beginning as far back as the nineteenth century. Today’s climate activists are aiming at the same kind of change: to help see, and feel, a disrupted and dangerous world as their problem, their responsibility, something they love enough not to give up on it.
So the age of climate change doesn’t just need climate scientists, or even technologists, and adaptation engineers. They are essential, but if we just rely on them, we’re likely to drift further into passivity and pessimism. We also need, in incremental and experimental ways, to keep building up a real politics of climate change. That politics will be both environmentalist and human-oriented, because there’s no separating the two in the age of climate change. It will have to ask how the peoples of the world are going to live together and share its benefits and dangers, and also how we are going to use, preserve, and transform the world itself. Braiding together human rights and distributive justice with environmental ethics and the human relation to the natural world isn’t just a nice-sounding, if daunting idea. It’s quite simply the only way forward.
Any answers that we succeed in giving these questions will transform us as earlier extraordinary politics changed people: those who ask the question are no longer the same once they givereach an answer. That transformation, to a culture and economy that could change the trajectory of climate change, is exactly what seems impossible now. And that is why everyone should be paying respectful attention to the activists who refuse to believe in impossibility, and even more to the parts of ourselves that refuse to believe it, too. This isn’t idealism. It’s a higher realism, and should be scheming a little impossibility of our own.
New article on Urban Homesteading frontlining Mother Earth News this month. Written by Rachel, with some photos by K. Ruby. Check it out at http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/guide-to-urban-homesteading-zm0z14amzrob.aspx
Photo by K. Ruby
This is the online version, you can also find it in magazine format at newstands and grocery stores.
Check out this graphic on where California’s water goes. The mind-blowing statistic of this month is that 90% of all water used in California is used by industry and industrial agriculture. That makes me want to take a long hot shower, and get involved in policy discussions at every level about water distribution. As with all the other problems in our culture, the persistent unequal distribution of resources–with those at the top of the “food chain” who can most afford to pay being charged the least for the resource–holds trye for water as well. We have to direct our activism not only to our own backyards but to the bigger policy issues which affect the distribution of all resources.
Here in California we are grappling with how to continue to garden when the rain is not falling from the sky in adequate quantities–i.e., barely ever, and certainly not enough to sustain all the human and other life in our vast state.
Here’s some tips for gardening in dry times and dry climates:When facing serious drought, we can be water-wise and successful growing a food garden. Here are some thingsto consider when planning a food garden during a drought and some suggestions for optimizing water usage.
The first step in deciding to have a food garden is to determine if extra water beyond basic household needs of cooking, bathing, etc. is available. This includes rain collection systems, captured water, and greywater.
FOOD GARDEN ACTION PLAN
1. Compost, compost, compost! Add organic matter to the soil. If soil is sandy, the addition of organic matter allows the soil to hold more water. Organic matter also helps open up soil allowing roots to go deeper and find more water at lower depths if there is any. Higher soil nutrition helps plants produce better yields with the same amount of water. Avoid adding excessive amounts of nitrogen as this encourages lush leafy growth that requires more water to sustain.
2. Mulch, mulch, mulch! Mulch keeps soil cool, conserves moisture and reduces weeds. Use three to four inches on top of the soil. The larger the material size, the deeper layer you need to provide. Choose from straw, fallen leaves, hulls, shredded bark, grass clippings and newspaper. It is not advisable to use plastic sheeting as mulch because it deprives the soil of much-needed oxygen. Keep mulch two inches away from the base of the plant to avoid the possibility of rot. When hand watering, pull back mulch so that water goes directly into the soil.
3. Use a drip system. Learn about individual plant moisture needs and group plants that have the same need together on the same valve. If using in-line emitters in one-fourth inch tubing that use one-half gallon per hour per emitter and there is a length of ten feet with emitters spaced every foot, five gallons of water an hour is used on that section of tubing. Add up all drip lines to determine total water used. Install a timer. Install shut-off valves at the beginning of drip lines in order to turn them off when an area is fallow. Irrigate only as long as it takes to moisten the active root zone. Water, preferably, in the morning or in the cool hours of the evening so that soil stays evenly moist. Don’t forget the drip system once it is set up. Monitor and adjust it, as needed.
4. Be selective. Consider the water available to support crops through harvest, and grow only the amount and types of vegetables the family will consume. For example, plant two beds of vegetables instead of six; plant four tomatoes instead of ten. To get the most out of the water you apply, grow high yielding vegetables like beans, chard, mustard, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, squash, quinoa and amaranth. Do not grow crops that need consistent moisture. Examples include most brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower and radishes), lettuce and other greens, beets, carrots and other root crops, celeriac, celery, leeks and onions. Avoid these unless a particular variety has been bred to need less water. Generally, cool season crops are not drought resistant and growing them during the heat of the summer requires lots of extra water to keep them cool.
Consider the following observations on which crops need the most water and when:
Some beans and sweet corn need considerable water to produce a good crop. Beans need water most when they are blooming and setting fruit.
Corn needs water most during tasseling, silking and ear development.
Yield is directly related to quantities of water, nitrogen and spacing.
Peas need water most during pod filling.
Other vegetables, such as cucumbers and squash, and fruits, such as melons, need water most during flowering and fruiting.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant need water most during flowering and fruiting. (Note that after tomatoes set, they can do very well with reduced water).
After deciding what to grow, choose varieties that tolerate dry conditions. Look for the terms “drought-resistant” or “drought-tolerant” in seed catalogs or on plant labels (note that “heat-tolerant” refers to above ground air temperature and is not the same as drought-resistant or drought-tolerant). Even these varieties require water. Some water is needed to start seeds or establish a seedling, and to periodically irrigate the plant through the growing season. Selecting varieties that are described as “widely-adapted” in addition to drought-resistant and drought-tolerant also may be helpful.
5. Consider days to maturity. A crop needing fewer days to mature requires fewer irrigations before harvest (e.g., 62-day ‘Stupice’ vs. 85-day ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato). Look for early-maturing or short-season varieties. Days to maturity will vary from one part of the country to another as well as from one microclimate to another.
6. Increase plant spacing. Spaced plants are not competing as much for water in the soil. Very deep, open soil or French intensive double dug beds allow vegetables to be planted closer together because the roots have more room to grow deeper and find water if it is present. Try increasing the spacing recommended in the SCMG “Vegetable Planting Summary,”iv by 50 percent or even doubling the spacing if you have room.
7. Eliminate weeds. Weeds compete for water. Be aggressive in removing them from growing areas.
8. Use light-weight row covers. Cover plants as a means to collect dew. Dew drops onto soil and keeps it moist. While using row covers can help prevent insect damage, look under the cover from time to time to monitor plant growth and check for unwanted insects trapped inside.
9. Use shade. Heat-sensitive vegetables can benefit from being planted where they receive some afternoon shade. Plant them underneath or behind taller plants or consider using shade cloth.
10. Use windbreaks. The moisture on leaf surfaces is dried by moving air, causing the plant to need more water. In coastal and other windy areas, windbreaks will help roots keep up with leaf demands.
11. Determine when it is time to water again. Use a soil moisture meter. Or squeeze the soil in your hand: if it sticks together, it is still moist; if it is crumbly and falls apart, it is time to water.
Sourced from Sonoma County Master Gardeners
Researchers at UCSB’s NCEAS compile the largest global dataset of urban birds and plants, which shows world’s cities retain a unique natural palette The rapid conversion of natural lands to cement-dominated urban centers is causing great losses in biodiversity. Yet, according to a new study involving 147 cities worldwide, surprisingly high numbers of plant and animal species persist and even flourish in urban environments — to the tune of hundreds of bird species and thousands of plant species in a single city.
Contrary to conventional wisdom that cities are a wasteland for biodiversity, the study found that while a few species — such as pigeons and annual meadow grass — are shared across cities, overall the mix of species in cities reflects the unique biotic heritage of their geographic location. The findings of the study conducted by a working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and funded by the National Science Foundation were published today in the Proceedings B, a journal of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences. “While urbanization has caused cities to lose large numbers of plants and animals, the good news is that cities still retain endemic native species, which opens the door for new policies on regional and global biodiversity conservation,” said lead author and NCEAS working group member Myla F. J. Aronson, a research scientist in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
The study highlights the value of green space in cities, which have become important refuges for native species and migrating wildlife. This phenomenon has been named the Central Park Effect because of the surprisingly large number of species found in New York’s Central Park, a relatively small island of green within a metropolis. Unlike previous urban biodiversity research, this study looks beyond the local impacts of urbanization and considers overall impacts on global biodiversity. The research team created the largest global dataset to date of two diverse taxa in cities: birds (54 cities) and plants (110 cities). Findings show that many plant and animal species, including threatened and endangered species, can flourish in cities, even as others decline or disappear entirely.
Cities with more natural habitats support more bird and plant species and experience less loss in species as the city grows. Overall, cities supported far fewer species (about 92 percent less for birds and 75 percent less for native plants) than expected for similar areas of undeveloped land. “We do pay a steep price in biodiversity as urbanization expands,” said coauthor Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “But even though areas that have been urbanized have far fewer species, we found that those areas retain a unique regional flavor. That uniqueness is something that people can take pride in retaining and rebuilding.” Conserving green spaces, restoring native plant species and adding biodiversity-friendly habitats within urban landscapes could, in turn, support more bird and plant species. “It is true that cities have already lost a substantial proportion of their region’s biodiversity,” said Madhusudan Katti, a faculty member in the Department of Biology at California State University, Fresno. “This can be a cup half-full or half-empty scenario. If we act now and rethink the design of our urban landscapes, cities can play a major role in conserving the remaining native plant and animal species and help bring back more of them.”
The human experience is increasingly defined within an urban context, the authors noted. They maintain it is still possible for a connection to the natural world to persist in an urban setting, but it will require planning, conservation and education. “Given that the majority of people now live in cities, this group’s synthesis of data on plant and urban plant and animal diversity should be of broad interest to ecologists as well as urban and landscape planners,” said Frank Davis, NCEAS director.
Reprinted from http://www.eurekalert.org/pubnews.php>
This (slightly scary) article about Monarchs and Bees can be a good reminder of how important it is to grow native plants to create and maintain pollination opportunities for our important pollinators.
The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear
By JIM ROBBINS
Published: November 22, 2013
On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.
This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.
“It does not look good,” said Lincoln P. Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar College.
It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.
Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.
That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.
“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”
A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.
Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.
As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, andanother found 90 percent was gone. “The agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower.
The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds. Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects, primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. “All of them are in trouble,” said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota.
Farm fields are not the only problem. Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537 species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects. Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for bugs and birds.
Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves, which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,” said Dr. Spivak.
Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,” and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”
There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down the worsening crisis in biodiversity.
When the Florida Department of Transportation last year mowed down roadside wildflowers where monarch butterflies fed on their epic migratory journey, “there was a huge outcry,” said Eleanor Dietrich, a wildflower activist in Florida. So much so, transportation officials created a new policy that left critical insect habitat un-mowed.
That means reversing the hegemony of chemically green lawns. “If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. “But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”
First and foremost, said Dr. Tallamy, a home for bugs is a matter of food security. “If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the plants,” he said. “That is not an option. That’s a huge problem for mankind.”
Jim Robbins is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of “The Man Who Planted Trees.”
Here’ another interview with Carolyn Evans-Dean, an urban homesteader and prepper in upstate New York. Her new radio spot features urban farm artists like Ruby and myself, doing what we can to respond to the moment with grit and grace.
Radio interview with Rachel Kaplan and Dr. Prepper, an old-time back to basics author and practitioner hailing from the hinterlands of Texas. We had a good talk about urban homesteading, heirloom skills and other practices of preparedness. And even though we live far from one another on the political spectrum, we found our common ground in the practices that support our lives. I appreciated the opportunity to talk with James Talmage Stevens, aka Dr. Prepper.
“It is time to talk about important things. Why have we come so close to the brink of extinction so carelessly and casually? Why do we still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert? How can humankind reclaim the commons of atmosphere, seas, biological diversity, mineral resources, and lands as the heritage of all, not the private possessions of a few? How much can we fairly and sustainably take from Earth, and for what purposes? Why is wealth so concentrated and poverty so pervasive? Are there better ways to earn our livelihoods than by maximizing consumption, a word that once signified a fatal disease? Can we organize governance at all levels around the doctrine of public trust rather than through fear and competition? And, finally, how might Homo sapiens, with a violent and bloody past, be redeemed in the long arc of time?”
Is Urban Homesteading enough? OF COURSE NOT. But is it one of a series of solutions that help us rise to the challenges of our time? OF COURSE IT IS.
Check out this article for more thoughts on conducting ourselves in the years ahead:
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