Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Big Debate About Climate

I'm afraid if you're looking for a chicken little article you've come to the wrong site. Like any other reasonable human being I can look at the fossil climate record and see for myself that weather on this planet has traditionally been anything but consistent. Sometimes it goes through periods of stability, no doubt we've been witnessing one of those for our collective retrievable memory, and sometimes really incredible things happen abruptly. The so-called "Snowball Earth" must've been a pretty weird time in our planet's history! Surely the Permian extinction, when about 95% of life on Earth was wiped out, was not a pleasant place to be either.

But to say that burning 85 million barrels of oil a day is having no affect on life around us is potentially one of the most selfish, myopic opinions ever known to our greedy species. I'm not sure who exactly is promoting this junk, but I'm glad I'm not that naive. It's having a big time affect on life around us. Many of the indicator species have gone extinct, amphibians in particular. Water and air quality have been severely compromised, despite such pleasant sounding progams as "Clear Skies." We walk a taut line on the freshwater supply, having already dropped fossil aquifers (i.e. aquifers that don't recharge) by hundreds of feet in some regions of the world. Saltwater intrusions, into the freshwater aquifer nearby, are common in coastal areas. Six years ago the regulatory agency I worked for was already developing de-sal plants, and buying water rights from privately owned reservoirs on Mormon lands in east-central Florida.

And still we drop off our waste several times each day in a couple gallons of drinking quality water, and sprinkle 1000s more on useless lawns. Why? Well, having a lawn was a sign of prestige in England, where the practice comes from. It meant that you were wealthy enough to set aside a portion of your land for something useless. Needless to say, it's become quite the pissing contest, with 50,000 square miles of the stuff cultivated intensively in the United States alone. 50,000 square miles of some of the most toxically-maintained real estate in the world. More poisons and oil are dumped on ridiculous lawngrass, per acre, than any other landuse in the world, short of toxic waste dumps. And I'm certain we have way too many of those as well.

Are humans impacting the climate? Probably. Are we slowly killing the biosphere? Definitely. And I'm being nice by putting in the word 'slowly.' A lowly swamp darter might not mean much to you, certainly not as much as a farmer. But this is just another false dichotomy really. We can have farmers and swamp darters. We just have to change the way we farm. We have to drop the hubris a notch, and stop acting like we're the only animals on the planet that matter. Even if it's just to keep US alive. Something that selfish still depends on the presence of biodiversity. When we kill the swamp darters we start digging our own graves.

Just how dug those graves are already is debatable for sure, but if we continue doing what we're doing, knocking down forests for new strip malls, dumping our sewage in estuaries - in short, converting natural ecosystems into more humans - there will be a threshold that trips and makes life pretty ugly for us first world humans. And by "ugly" I mean potentially a lot less of us first world humans. Count on that. The laws of physics dictate it. When you create an island economy and an island ecosystem out of a planetary population, which we basically have with our numbers and trade, you face island ecology consequences. Coal, and particularly oil, have given us the energy necessary to overshoot our planet's carrying capacity, and overshoot is only ever followed by one thing in nature: collapse. So something has to give, and since I am ever the optimist;) I'd rather it was our impact on the place than the bulk of people that I love. If we went back to pre-Columbian carrying capacity, pre-fossil fuel carrying capacity, we're talking maybe 50 million in the present United States? US population is 300 million now, and I guarantee you none of us are as qualified to live off the land as your garden variety native* was. Imagine, IF we all got real good at this real fast, "only" 5 out of 6 people you know starving to death. And I can't even imagine the learning curve from Wal-Mart and Little League to subsistence farming and foraging.

Maybe the planet's carrying capacity is up for debate, but I can almost assure you it's under 6billion. At least 6 car-driving, suburban house-owning billion. And according to pre-industrial age history, it's more like 1 billion. Maybe. And that's when we were using a LOT less energy per capita. We have other things to worry about besides climate change.

So instead of a hissy fit about global warming what you'll find instead on my blog is discussion of resilience measures. Resilience being the property of an ecosystem which characterises its behavior in response to perturbation or disturbance. A resilient system can "bounce back" in one way or another. What if climate did change abruptly? What if it was 5 degrees F hotter than "normal" for the next decade? If you're pushing your self-reliance limits every season, and let's say you're looking for sources of fat for your diet, could you be growing olives in preparation for a drier, hotter climate? Maybe they don't fruit now, but they don't take up too much space either as young trees. They grow quite slowly, and are kind of lanky, so just pretend they're not there taking up room in your garden. (I mean besides planting them with friends.) If they get to a point where they are taking up too much sun, and not doing you any good, you can always take them out, one at a time preferably, just to hedge the bet a bit longer. And the wood is beautiful! Use it to turn a new set of cups, and make some cooking utensils out of the branches. Celebrate those trees that contribute to your site's resilience in whatever way presents itself.

OK, so we've all seen "The Day After Tomorrow," and as unlikely as something like that is to happen, there is plenty of evidence in the fossil record of rapid climate shifts following some sort of threshold breach. In fact, it's not uncommon for ice ages to start in a matter of a couple of years, not a couple of centuries, as previously thought when catastrophism was out of vogue. So are we nearing a breach point? Maybe. We already know by the laws of physics that the human population on Earth will be much lower in the future. And according to human history and pre-history we number about 7 times the typical population. We also know that, compared to pre-industrial humans, we use several times more energy per capita. The signs of the biosphere collapsing are all around us (if you look for yourself instead of being told what to believe). We've covered the fact that freshwater is looming large as a limiting factor for continued human expansion, (this I tell you first hand), yet we still poop in it every day, and dump it on the grass by the trainload.

But the only way to convince people that this behavior is killing us rapidly and absolutely has to be abandoned at our earliest convenience, is to set the standard. There are many people out there that I admire for bringing me up to speed by their example. You can only write about it if you know it, and I'm just getting to know it, so I'm very much standing on the shoulders of giants here. My deepest hope in relating all this is that I can inspire someone else to make some radical changes in the way they inhabit the landscape.

So I don't want people coming here to pick fights about details. I want to hear from intelligent people who want to talk about answers to the problems we should all be familiar with by now. To still be fighting about whether or not we are actually compromising our ability to persist on Earth is to be very far behind in the only conversation that really matters. I won't waste much time with deniers. Too many important things need to be sorted out. I don't think "low-fat" is something we'll be eating by choice for too much longer.

Hope to see you around.

*The term "native" has a loaded meaning in our culture today. I'll argue in a later post that our concept of native should be re-evaluated.


  1. What a very refreshing read. I really like the idea of being industrious instead of just complaining/arguing about whether global warming is real or not. As for as planting olive trees I think because of the current climate I live in (Upstate South Carolina), it might be wise to raise my olive trees in containers to start with. Unsure if you have olive trees planted in the ground or not, but I really would like to see how they would fair in a southern winter. I know they are very hardy trees and can survive drought like conditions just unsure if a cold wet winter might not lead to frost damage or disease

  2. Great post! Can't wait to read more.

    I hate to be a fatalist, more for my children's sakes than my own, but I fear a tipping point is near.

    The unfortunate part is how many of us need to keep on keeping on, just to keep the food on the table & the bills paid.

    I'd love to hear more about the financial/lifestyle shifts you've made.

  3. learningtolivesmall, thanks for the encouragement! And I agree that we have a population keyhole event to pass through. If for no other reason than we 1st-worlders, myself included, have hard heads when it comes to making big changes. If we all understood what exactly was at stake here, maybe, but there's so damn much denying of anything being amiss, such a paucity of responsibility, that I can't imagine catching it in time. In any critical mass anyway.

    What to do...what to do? Move into the unfamiliar crowd and start doing magic tricks for everyone? Or move to the end of the road, where the water is clean, and the air is quiet, and just get prepared?

  4. Vamp, again, thanks for the props! Brilliant thing to come home to from a visit to the mountains.

    My olives are in the ground here in Macon - I've got Manzanilla, the little green salad olive, Kalamata, that earthy little jewel, and Lucca, a very high oil variety. They're supposed to be hardy to 14 degrees, which just about covers us here, but maybe not where you are? Create micro-climates to help out. Mine get the dawn's early light, and grow on a slope to help shed cold air and keep their feet dry.

    The Mediterranean climate that gives us olives is cool and wet during the winter, so maybe your winters are actually appropriate? They're used to hot, dry summers though, and we have regular rain with our heat. Usually. My Israeli permaculture buddy says they won't fruit here, but maybe he just means this year! Who knows what can happen!

    But I'll tell you that the Nursery at TyTy, GA, down west of Tifton, planted 175 acres of olives recently. And my uncle, who is running for state house on this ballot, is talking about planting 2 or 3 acres of them on his property. So we're not alone in this resilience and relocalization effort for sure! (Whether they know it or not;)

    Now, what if it gets colder suddenly? I was thinking about planting some hazelnuts at Small Batch. They won't "fruit" without about 200 more chill hours than we get here, but I love em, and what the hell? Who knows how this will go?

    I think regular fat and meat will be prized in our future diet, not shunned like today, so that's where my focus is a lot of the time. Producing various meats and fats. The fruit, herbs, eggs, and mushrooms are just an afterthought!

    How weird that must sound to a modern American!

  5. Tripp,
    I lost you brother (software change wiped out favorites) and then I just plain forgot and then I remebered and then I had to find your name on the Cluterf#$&* Nation and then an internet search and ......
    Much to catch up on soon