Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fall Equinox 2012: Above the Clouds in the Smokey Climate

For three weekends a climb to the summit of Mt. Adams has eluded me.A wildfire sparked by a wave of lightening storms that swept across Eastern Washington on the weekend of September the 8th caused the closure of the South Spur trail to the Mt. Adams summit. I waited checking the inciweb, pining on every update wishing for a quick burn out that would allow for the climb. The fire only grew. A combination of abundant fuel from beattle infested dead wood and very dry conditions kept the fire growing. In fact the fire is still burning and has grown to over 20,000 acres. Unable to make the Mt. Adams summit I shifted my plans and climbed up Mt. Sahale in the North Cascade Natioanal park. Based on the weather forecast I expected to encounter low lying clouds that would be hovering below the staging area at the toe of Sahale glacier. What I did not expect was the thick smokey air that smelled sooty like an early morning campfire still smoldering from the night before. Just over the eastern ridge of the Cascade Pass area where I was climbing was yet another fire that had been sparked on the same weekend as the Mt. Adams fire. The Wenatchee fire complex was too far away to be a threat, but the smoke was enveloping the upper regions of the North and Central Cascade Mountains.
Smokey skies above rolling clouds below my Fall Equinox campsite.

2012 has been a record year for Wildfires in the US. The total area burned, some of which is still burning, is three times the next largest scorched area within the last ten years. The above-normal fire weather potential of the West occurred as a result of the hot, dry conditions that have persisted. Combined with lightening storms and dried out higher-elevation fuels, wildfires have been sparking up en mass. The increase in the number of wildfires and scorched area is not just an isolated event of 2012. Since 1972 the frequency of wildfires has increased at least four-fold, and the total size of burn areas has increased at least six-fold in the western United States.

Washington wildfires from space.
When we consider climate change as the root of the increase in wildfires it is important to separate localized and seasonal variations in weather and long term climactic trends. However some seasonal weather events are so extreme the link of these extremes to climate change cannot be ignored. Such is the case with the Spring and Summer of 2012. Nevada experienced its warmest August on record this year (1895-2012) while Colorado and Wyoming experienced their warmest summers since 1895.  From June-August 2012, nearly 10,000 daily high temperature records were broken. July 2012 was the hottest month in U.S. history. The unusually hot summer helped January-August be the warmest such period in U.S. history. 2012 will set a record for the warmest year in U.S. history (since record-keeping began in 1895). 

As extreme as the heat wave of Summer 2012 was, it pales in comparison to the record breaking temperatures experienced this Spring. The duration, areal size, and intensity of the high temperature events in  March, 2012 are epic, and the event ranks as one of North America's most extraordinary weather events in recorded history. Of these extraordinary weather event the mos extreme were low temperatures beating previous high temperature records for the same date. Never before was there a case where the low temperature for the date beat the previous record high. This happened on several occasions during  March, 2012. Marquette's low of 52 beat the previous high of 49. Mt. Washington NH's low of 44 eclipsed the previous high of 43. The low tied the high in several cities in MN and IL. Many of these hot March days also broke the record high temperature for the corresponding date in April. Another unimaginable temperature phenomena of March 2012 was the range at which some of the temperatures were broken. In at least three locations in the country the previous high was broken by over 30 degrees.

Now as fall cools things down we all forget about the hot 2012 and move on with our daily routine. The extreme heat of the Spring and Summer has fallen out of the news cycle and politicians are not considering taking actions that may help slow down or prohibit future extreme climactic anomolies. The Farmers Almanac used to tell us what to expect and how to plan for the weather of the upcoming season. How do we plan for more weather like Spring and Summer of 2012?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Environmentalism's Language: Sowing the Seeds of Us and Them

"The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject if he has no hand to paint them to the senses.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson -

At work today my colleagues and I were discussing a recent policy to ban stocking trout by state fisheries in  National Parks alpine lakes. Perplexed by the reasoning of this "Lake Greening" as the Parks called it, one of my co-workers expressed his views on the topic in an exacerbated tone. "Must of been a bunch of tree huggers huh? Isn't a National Park green enough for them?" I was struck by this comment. Of course I have heard it before, the distaste in the mouths of those using adjectives that describe actions meant to protect our environment; but here was a coworker who has spent the last 25 years of his life fighting to protect salmon habitat. The fact that he was using these words to express his disagreement with a National Park policy made me think about the fundamental framework environmental protection is operating within. It was at this point that I realized that the adjectives and language currently being used to describe positive environmental action not only were turning people off but tuning them out.

The ban on stocking trout in alpine lakes by the National Parks did provide some "green" benefits by protecting native amphibians, but it turns out one of the main reasons for the ban was the cost of trail maintenance from the extra use by fishers. Protecting our environment has the highest rate of return of any investment that can be made. Actions that enhance the bio-diversity and environmental complexity of our surroundings yield a positive rate of return, socially and monetarily. Yet a large proportion of  Americans don't care or are mislead to believe the opposite is true. So when trendy language is used that describes beneficial environmental action, regardless of the positive social or economic benefits, the implementation of the action is met with resistance. A significant segment of the population exists that cannot digest the potential benefits of environmentally positive actions because they are blinded by the perceptions that are fused to the language used.

The time has come to re-frame environmentalism and the language used to describe it. Environmental protection and enhancement have two fundamental benefits, societal and economic. All environmental actions should only be described within a social and economic context. For example there is no such thing as sustainability. There is only a decrease in the rate of loss. Call your action "sustainable" and you have used a trigger word that turns people away. Describe your action as a "savings" and people will listen. One of the worst adjectives for positive environmental action is "alternative". Most people want to remain in common. The very nature of the word "alternative" alienates the action from most people. Wind energy production that in some areas of the country provides a much greater social and economic benefit than carbon based energy production should not be described as an "alternative" energy source. In these regions wind energy production should be described as the primary energy production choice; not green, not environmentally friendly, not alternative, not zero emissions, not by its carbon footprint, not ecologically sound, not clean, not sustainable but as profitable.

Historically environmental protection has been implemented in response to crisis management. During these times of crisis a wave of populism surrounds environmental causes and policies are born. We are currently riding a wave of populist environmentalism. Unfortanetly  this time it is being co-opted by major corporate interests that are branding these modern terms associated with environmental actions. The consumerist model is instituting a lexicon of faux environmentalism bluring the lines between beneficial environmental actions and advertisement. I used to believe that trendiness was the solution to social acceptance of environmental action. However now I realize that trends don't last. The environmental trediness of the seventies brought about sound environmental policy however today the deluge of our modern environmental adjectives are #'s for corporate interests that further the polarization of Americans. Americans who after all have a unified interest in profiting from maintaining a decent place to live.

Of course one size does not fit all and the environmental phraseology of the day does and will continue to resonate with a portion of the population. For some the altruistic nature of a beneficial environmental action is enough and therefore a "green" language works. For others any personal sacrifice must be justified economically. Recently my elementary school aged daughter and her younger brother had been leaving the water on while brushing their teeth. I explained to them both that we get our water from a local river and that by leaving the water on they were wasting water that was needed by the fish and other animals that use the river. My daughter responded immediately and no reminders to shut the faucet off while brushing were necessary, she wanted to help. My son however continued to run the water even after several reminders and another discussion about the impacts wasting water has on our environment. Finally one night as the water was gushing from the faucet at full blast I went and grabbed our water bill. I showed him the bill as he was brushing away and said "did you know the water that is going down the drain costs money?" He stopped brushing and looked up innocently and replied "No." Too which I asked, "did you know Mommy and Daddy have to pay for the water that is running down the drain not being used?" Again he replied "No." Then I asked him if he would like to help Mommy and Daddy pay for the water. At this he fell silent and I continued on to inform him that from now on every time he left the water running while he brushed his teeth he would have to give us a coin from his piggy bank. He has not left the faucet running since.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Go Dogma Go!

"...the reception of a new paradigm often necessitates a redefinition of the corresponding dogma." 
- Thomas S. Kuhn -

With my kids in tow we recently attended a reading of the story Go Dog Go at the local library. I have read the story hundreds of times over the course of my parenting days but during this particular reading was struck by the power of the few pages that have the dogs driving cars. The dogs are lined up far down the road, each one on their own, in a car, obeying a traffic signal and then zooming off. By far this part of the story got the most attention from the little people in the audience. They were excited by the prospect of pretending to drive. If a dog can do it surely I can.

Stories are important. I had not considered until now the impact this introduction of car driving dogs has on the little people growing up in our driving culture. Even dogs are doing it. According to the Federal Department of Transportation there are more than 200 million cars and light trucks on American roads. These vehicles use over 200 million gallons of gas a day. Nearly16 per cent of the worlds oil production goes into American cars. In terms of total C0² contribution cars represent a third of U.S. greenhouse gas production. Worldwide the proportion of contribution from U.S. vehicles is 5.4%. Carbon dioxide contribution from U.S. cars cannot be ignored.

Electric cars are beginning to become more available. Although the cost is out of reach for the average American family. Hybrids first came on the scene about 8 years ago. In general they have better fuel economy then non hybrids and switch to electricity at slow speeds and in stop and go traffic. A few total electric solutions have been released recently as well. These cars can be plugged into an outlet to recharge have a maximum speed of about sixty mile per hour and can travel a maximum distance of about 60 miles on average. I always wondered if everyone had an electric car and plugged it into a power source derived from burning coal if there would be a significant net decrease in the overall C0² contribution. Turns out this has been studied. An entirely electric vehicle would produce greenhouse gas emissions from its power source equivalent to a car that gets a little over 30 mpg. Over half the country has power that is coal derived.  It seems as though it is just a shift to another C0² producing mechanism for power. Now the cars are not burning oil they are burning coal as the power plants would have to ramp up energy production to support all the cars being plugged in. There is an incremental emission decrease from electric cars however when dealing with the hazardous waste the batteries produce when they are no longer viable, serious consideration must be given to the net benefit of the electric car.

In our attempt to understand the solutions to many climate change issues we lack clarity. It seems that electric cars are more of a distraction then a solution to reducing transportation related C0² contribution. The solution to transportation related contributions is to create communities where for the vast majority of people owning an automobile is not required in their day-to-day lives. Like many of the solutions the answers seem improbable, if not impossible. It is important however not to be paralyzed by the scale of the problem. In the words P. Eastman "Dogs, Dogs in cars, Dogs driving away fast in cars." Are we born to drive?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Loco for Locovores

"Man eats not for enjoyment but to live" - Gandhi

Farmers Market's are becoming very popular in urban areas across America. The Farmers Market in my Seattle neighborhood is a quaint market that takes up one block of old Ballard. Small local farmers and craftspeople are all lined up down the middle of the streets under pop up tents selling their organic vegetables, soap made from goats milk, meats and crafts. Kids, dogs and folks out for a stroll love hanging out at the market on Sunday, getting a snack and listening to the buskers playing music. These days the Market is bursting with produce as the harvest season is upon us. Perusing the lush produce I found myself ogling over a pile of bright yellow potatoes and beets purply royal when it occurred to me that this time of year freshly grown local vegetables are abundant, but soon they would be scarce. So if I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint by  reducing my purchase of imported vegetables my selection at the Market of green stuff grown in Washington in the winter would be very limited. Then I tried to imagine if I was in Kansas in the winter. What local greens are grown there? 

I recently read in our monthly Woodland Park Zoo newsletter that thirty percent of CO2 contribution in the US is related to food transportation.  Locavores contend that to ship a tomato from California to Kansas so the people of Kansas can have fresh tomatoes in the winter is a significant contribution to climate change. It would be nice if the economics and analysis were that simple, but it never is. It seems if I added up all the statistics that assess different activities that contribute to climate change I would come up with 2000%. I do not know where the Zoo newsletter came up with the thirty percent number for food related transportation CO2 contribution, they did not cite it. The Federal Department of Transportation puts all vehicle related CO2 contribution at 33% of the total U.S. CO2 production. I find it hard to imagine that food transportation accounts for 30% of CO2 production and commuting just 3%.

Food related transportation is really an issue of comparative scale. Because industrial farms produce food in such large quantities the energetic cost and the climate change contribution of transporting those foods is diminished. Assuming people in Kansas have a demand for tomatoes in the winter that will be met one way or another. Driving a few bushels of local winter grown greenhouse tomatoes to a Kansas grocer is proportionally (tomatoes produced per pound of CO2 released) a greater contribution to climate change than driving ten semi trucks of tomatoes to Kansas grown en mass on an industrial California farm. Even though a lot more CO2 was produced by driving the semi’s we have to consider the efficiency of the actions. An analogy would be taking the bus to work as opposed to driving alone. The bus burns more fuel than your car but gets a lot more people to the same place. Food transportation certainly is a significant contributor to climate change however its overall impacts are overshadowed by other activities in the dirt to table food production economy. When transporting food to our table tops open air refrigerated food storage in the grocery store, driving to and from the grocery store, and refrigeration of food products at home far outweighs industrial food transportation CO2 contributions.

 The locavore movement is huge though. So much so that McDonalds recently began a billboard marketing campaign in Washington state showing a potato under which it says grown in Richland Washington and a box of French fries under which it reads gobbled in Seattle making the point that French fries in Seattle come from Richland potatoes. Never mind that Richland potatoes are not the only potatoes used in McDonalds French fries. McDonalds French fries are produced outside Washington using potatoes from all over the country, some of which come from Richland Washington. But you know a movement has taken hold when McDonalds embraces it as part of its marketing scheme.  Big agra business like any industry has negative impacts. Industrial farming though is an interesting conundrum. The land area used for major American farms is nearly the same as it was over one hundred years ago and feeds three times as many people. The US is one of the largest food exporters in the world. An optimistic view of industrial farming says we have conserved land that otherwise would have gone under plow and are feeding hungry people all over the world. However this would not be possible except for the fairy dust that is used to grow so much food. This fairy dust known as fertilizer is produced from petroleum.  Fertilizer, top soil loss and pesticide use are the unfortunate consequences of getting more and more food from the same amount of land. Among a long list of environmentally devastating impacts from growing food using petrol chemicals and fertilizers is the huge dead zone that extends into the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The locavore concept of growing and selling food using low impact methods by caring for the soil and reducing transportation is important at the local scale. It supports the local economy and reduces agriculture related environmental impacts in the areas where the food is grown. However shipping food is an imbedded aspect of the economic and social structure of our country. As long as there is a market for fresh tomatoes in Kansas that produces a profit for growers elsewhere Kansas will have fresh tomatoes. The underlying mechanism that governs all the issues surrounding climate change and the geomorphasis that is taking place is fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels use in relation to food production comes in the form of globally inflated caloric production. America produces more food than the land it is grown on should be able to generate. This food production bubble in turn supports a greater population than the land it is grown on should be able to support. In fact the entire fabric of the American economy and much of the world rests on the petrol produced food bubble. Sea levels may rise, species may go extinct or occupy new habitats, weather patterns may intensify all as a result of climate change, but if the world cannot shift from a petroleum based food production paradigm then when the oil runs out famine will be commonplace. Is the assumption of continuing yield growth sound?


Monday, September 10, 2012

This is not the Future

There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. "The Time Machine" H.G. Wells 

There are three legs to the stool that climate change sits on; time, fossil fuels and desire. Of these time is the most important. I have always been struck by how we measure time. Why sixty? Turns out the Greeks were the first to divide the day up into a twelve base counting system. It was the constant they needed to make consistent astronomical predictions. Now we use this reductionist concept as our basis for knowing. We break everything up into little myopic focused moments and are unable to assess our actions relative to the present, past and future simultaneously. This lack of a holistic sense of place in time is evident in the technology that produces and provides the energy we use.

Nearly ninety percent of our power in the US is generated by non renewable resources. Seventy percent of our power is produced using fossil fuels, the other twenty percent by nuclear power. The burning of fossil fuels for energy production in the US contributes six billion metric tons of C0² per year to the atmosphere. To make matters worse the power grid that delivers the energy produced is highly inefficient. Half the energy produced is lost during transmission to the user. Most of this is due to the poor conductivity of transmission cables, however because there is no storage capabilities, power that is produced beyond consumptive needs is purged out of the system. In order to avoid shortfalls electricity production always is greater than consumption. This is known as base-load production and waste is an inherent part of the process. Perception of time is prevalent in this problem. For example the technology that drives the power generation plants is the same steam engine technology that was first patented in 1705. The fundamental tool for fossil fueled power generation plants in America uses three hundred year old technology. This is not the future.

Ten percent of the countries power is generated using renewable technology seven percent from hydroeclectric power generated by damming rivers. This type of power generation comes with a whole other set of environmental impacts. Three percent of our electricity comes form alternative sources such as wind and solar. There is a huge push right now to increase energy production using the power of the wind and sun. However the transmission grid and storage issue are severe impediments. The primary limitation to wind and solar is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine so production is intermittent. Intermittent production is not compatible with a power grid that requires a constant input that outpaces consumption. Storage is the solution however battery technology is not capable of accommodating the power grids base-load needs.

Some technological solutions using batteries for base-load storage are happening. The town of Presidio Texas had frequent blackouts due to undersized transmission lines built in 1940. Extra energy was being purchased from Mexico, but hours long blackouts were still common. So in 2010, the power company built “BOB” (Big Ol' Battery). BOB weighs over 320 tons, cost $25 million to produce, and provides just 4 megawatts of base-load power to Presidio for about eight hours. A large city uses 25 megawatts of power in eight hours. In short storing solar and wind power to provide base-load storage for an ancient inefficient power grid is not plausible at this time.

A friend lives on one of the San Juan Islands on the very north edge of Puget Sound. The Island is a community from another time. There is no ferry service and everyone on the island has a gritty way about them that self sufficiency brings. A visit to the island usually involves a dinner gathering by a large number of islanders. Almost invariably the killing of a goat or other small farm animal is involved, and there are always piles of crab fresh from the Sound. The quite and comfort that surrounds me at the end of these dinners stays with me for days when I get back to Seattle. There is something about a brief existence in that space that feels right. Being off the grid my friend generates all his power via solar panels. He lives a normal life from a power usage standpoint, with a fridge, computer, stereo ect. What is abnormal about his house is the large battery room that holds over 1 ton of batteries for power storage. I remember getting the tour not long after he completed the power station for his new house and thinking how odd it was that the success of the advanced solar technology he used was beholden to the 1915 technology of acid batteries. This is not the future. When I brought it to his attention he just laughed and said “yep, still the cheapest most efficient way to go, even after all this time, its hard to believe the existing machinery is still the same huh”.


Friday, September 7, 2012

A Mountain of Change

This morning I woke to another crystal clear Seattle late Summer day. The Mountain was out as they say around here, standing boldly in front of my morning commute. Unabashed by the pinks and purples the sunrise painted upon the Mountains facades its confident stature dominated my thoughts. Mt. Rainier is a daunting awesome spectacle. The size of the mountain distorts our since of scale because it starts its accent very close to sea level. It is one of the only mountains in the world of its size that does this, and is why mountain climbers from everywhere use it to practice oxygen support free climbs. The blood cannot adapt to its oxygen gathering task fast enough when one makes such an extreme elevation change in such a short time.

We are not going to be able to adapt to the extremely rapid changes the Mountain is confronted with by climate change either. Historically Mt. Rainier is one of the snowiest places on Earth. The Paradise Ranger Station holds the record for the most accumulated snowfall in a single year, 93.5 feet in 1971. In an average winter approximately 630 inches of snow falls at the ranger station. Snow pack has been decreasing though and flowers are growing were they once could not. Pines are overtaking meadow bogs and some scientists predict a thirty percent loss in snow pack in the Cascade mountain range by 2020.

Because Mount Rainier is a protected area it offers a different look at how temperature and precipitation changes alter the surrounding environment. Nisqually glacier is a great example of this. Measurements of the glaciers outer edge began in the late 19th century. Since the parks formation in 1916 the glacier has receded over a mile up the mountain valley. I can remember driving over the Nisaually bridge in the park in the 1980’s and having a clear view of the glacier. Now it can barely be seen from the bridge. In fact glaciers are very sensitive to atmospheric temperature fluctuations and more than any other piece of data the global glacial recession indicates the climate is warming. In 2005 out of four hundred and forty glaciers being monitored ninety percent were retreating.

The day remained clear and just like the morning it was a crisp cool evening.  Watching the sun set on the Mountain I was reminded of the time I followed the path of a giant orange full moon as it rolled behind the Mountain. I was with a friend who remarked, referring to the giant orange circle before us, that "our culture just doesn't get the circle anymore." I chimed in wondering if western science will ever really explain the universe, because we are trapped in the linear notion of a beginning and an end, but  that the universe is circular. To which my friend replied, “Yea, the universe may be circular, but returning to a specific past is not possible.” Does our expectation of restoration to a specific past inhibit our ability to see the future?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Climate Change Seasons: Food Winter - Arab Spring -Societal Fall

At the onset of the Egypt uprising and the Arab Spring food price inflation in Egypt was over 20 percent. The increase was caused by the rising global price of wheat. The global price of wheat rose between 50 and 70 percent in 2010. As a result Egyptian budgets were drained. Egypt is among the world’s largest importers of wheat, and the global wheat market has been dynamic recently. The primary culprit for the rise in wheat costs that broke Egypt's bank leading up to the overthrow of the government came when Russia was hit by an unprecedented drought and heat wave that destroyed forty percent of its wheat harvest. Russia abruptly banned exports, and Egypt, which had just signed a big wheat import deal with Russia, was left having to find alternative sources. The Egyptian government tried to stabilize wheat prices through subsidies and rationing. But anxiety over food prices and bread shortages gained strength in the weeks and months before the protests. Some think the problem can be traced to climate change and its impacts on food security. The heat wave that destroyed Russia’s wheat harvest was no ordinary weather event that was on the outer margins of an expected summer temperature range, which in Russia is about four degrees Fahrenheit. The heat wave that hit Russia came in off the charts with an average temperature fourteen degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. The stresses climatic events like the one in Russia put on food supplies contributed to the unrest we see in the Middle East today and will result in more future social unrest around the globe. How can the nations of the world plan for a food shortage that is unpredictable and will be intermittent but will have cumulative societal impacts?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fear and Loving in our Envirobrain

I have come to realize lately that nothing can be gained by silence. We cannot move further apart or closer together by not communicating. If we are silent the ebb and flow of the breath of a relationship is gone. Silence impacts the struggles we have as a society to solve our need to have an healthy ecosystem to live in. Ultimately our actions that degrade our environment are caused by our conflicted nature which keeps us silent. It stifles action and keeps the collective conscience from speaking from the heart.

At the root of true change, important change is pure intentions that govern our desires, desires that are born out of love.  Fear however gives birth to our conflicted nature. Fear causes us to access the prehistoric part of our brain triggering our fight or flight mechanisms. How we manage the prehistoric part of our brain function is primary in solving big social problems like climate change because how human beings relate to one another ultimately defines our world,  keeping it healthy and viable one generation to the next or threatening to destroy it. Relating to one another, in larger social groups, is the most complex thing human beings do, so in order to run a government that is not paralyzed we need to relate in emotionally and socially intelligent ways.

 The autonomic nervous system regulates automatic body functions like heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion. This part of our brain is divided into two parts the sympathetic regulates action and the parasympathetic regulates calming. These action and calming elements are regulated by the brain in the unconscious social engagement system where our stress levels are kept in check. When the sympathetic and parasympathetic are out of balance we can feel stressed or lethargic. That is why feeling safe in relationships is important because this feeling of safety enables tolerance and functional communication. However when we perceive a threat or danger, a part of the brain called the amygdala prepares for fight or flight. We can experience this as an hostile and aggressive action towards the threat or we can become silent and paralyzed. Either reaction is not conducive to individual or societal relationships, nor are fight or flight reactions conducive to information sharing on a level needed to solve small problems much less huge ones. To build a library for generating fight or flight the amygdala also regulates our social judgment center and our emotional learning, assessing our experiences, pairing them up with an positive or negative emotional regulatory response. These paired experiences help us judge whether to accept or avoid similar experiences in the future. What makes the amygdala so effective is that it operates implicitly, outside conscious memory and it performs much faster than conscious memory. So our conscious intention may be to work towards ending a problem that ultimately could mean our demise but we become frozen by the more effective subconscious mechanism, the amygdala, governing our social response. Responses to life or death scenarios often result in paralysis. It could be that because we perceive climate change as an extreme threat to ours and future generation’s survival that we are unable to overcome the effective function of the collective amygdala .

One can hope that as we become more civilized we will evolve towards limiting the role that the amygdala and fight or flight response has governing our ability to act in the face of fear. Clearly some people such as caregivers and some religious figures brains are more evolved than others. They have found ways to limit the amygdala governance. "Verily, he who sits and meditates under the tree bears the marks of omnipotence; he will doubtless become the Buddha!" The words from Herman Hess in the book Siddhartha convey the message that if you deprive yourself of bodily desire and meditate for long enough you can reach enlightenment. However Buhda’s teachings tell us that enlightenment is not gained by sitting under a tree, but by acting as a human. Buddhism is a beautiful philosophy, but above all, it is about action. An enlightened mind that allows us to act is free from the brains primitive functions. Some of which are over-expressed to avoid being eaten. The notion that an enlightened mind is "free" from the paralyzing impact of the amygdala  is summed up in the words of the famous funk group Parliament Funkadelic “free your mind and your ass will follow”. 

However it is not extreme spiritual endeavors that will move subconscious control of the mind towards an enlightened state of consciousness. Ultimately the method by which our more highly evolved predecessors may attain enlightenment is by acting compassionately in the face of circumstances that generate fear. Is it this fearless nature that is needed to tackle the pressing environmental issues of the day such as climate change?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Quandry of Corn and Climate Change

The people of the world are dependent on corn. Over the last century corn production and distribution has changed the way in which we live. Over 270 million metric tons of corn are produced annually in the U.S. alone. Corn may be the most important grain crop on the planet. Corn is used widely in the foods we eat. We feed corn to livestock and chickens. A short list of corn uses includes fuel, cooking oil, meal, sugar, starch and for growing penicillin. Much of the world is dependent on corn production to remain at current levels.

Recently a primary use of corn has been for ethanol production. Forty percent of corn grown in the U.S. is now used to make ethanol. The impacts in this shift of corn production to biofuel use has impacted the worlds economy and food supply.

However recent research has found that climate change will have a far greater impact on the corn supply then other uses such as ethonal. The result will cause a volatile global economy and shortages in the worlds food supply. Economists have warned that our growing dependence on corn will cause soaring prices for food if the nation suffers a drought in the Midwest. This year we are seeing such a drought, and world corn prices have jumped 55%.

Climate change models suggest that a moderate warming trend is likely to increase the number of days of severe heat in the Midwest growing season. Therefore we can expect corn yields to decrease and fuel and food prices to rise. In addition scientists have claimed that India and China, Asia's largest corn producers, will experience severe dry conditions due to climate change as well, prompting the need for the region to import corn.

What is the cost of our corn dependance? Do the benefits such as greenhouse gas reduction from the "green" fuel it produces outweigh the cost of corn production? Fertilizers produced from oil are used in vast quantities to grow corn. In addition the Mississippi River contributes significant amounts of water to irrigate these crops at a time when the flows of the river will be diminishing. Should our food supply and global economy be teetering on the success or failure of a single grain? Climate change could make this years Midwest drought the norm over the next couple decades. As climate change causes corn yields to decrease we need to ask ourselves how can we diversify our grain production and who should eat what little corn is produced; people or cars?