Archive for July, 2008


Recession could have a silver lining for us and planet

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Rob Hopkins, author of The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, was recently quoted in an article in the Irish Times.

From the article:

Stress, excess and environmental damage are just some things we might usefully jettison in leaner times, writes Breda O’Brien.

ROB HOPKINS, in his new book, The Transition Handbook – from Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, has a humorous analogy that might have some relevance for our looming recession.

He says that persuading people to change is like inviting a reluctant friend to come with you on holiday. “Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday location – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and psychology are all wrong.”

However, Hopkins may be too kind in his description of the picture that environmentalists paint. Rather than a seedy B&B, it is more like a holiday on the last remaining ice-floe with a starving and agitated polar bear. Environmentalists want to alert the world and shake it out of its complacency, and yet, at the same time, it is all too easy to reduce people to fatalistic passivity.

If selling environmental change is hard, even Pollyanna would be hard-pressed to sing the praises of a recession. The shiver down the spine is particularly real for those of us who remember the 1980s. However, for the middle classes who lost the run of themselves entirely in the last decade, it could represent a return to some form of sanity.

Even better, the demands of a recession overlap to a large extent with the demands of a planet where global warming and peak oil are realities. It may help some people take a giant leap in awareness now that we are being forced into change by economic realities like soaring petrol prices.

Our lifestyles, as we became more rich and privileged, became ever more wasteful. Cobblers went out of business because people just threw shoes away rather than getting them repaired. Household appliances were replaced because they did not match the new kitchen decor, not because they did not function. Children were casually tossed €20 or €30 every day to purchase their paninis and lattes, because packed lunches were so 1990s.

Meanwhile, we managed to ignore the real poor in our midst, and consign them to the category of losers. Strange how that tendency fades when we ourselves experience a touch of economic frost.

At some stage in the future, our grandchildren may look at the hideous waste mountains that we generated and the species we wiped out with the same horror that we regard children working down the mines in previous eras.

Yet in spite of our affluence, aside from property prices, stress was the second most common topic of conversation. People had more of everything except time, and that included more ulcers. For some people, there may be a secret sigh of relief now that the frantic quest for more, more, more seems to be coming to a halt all by itself.

Hopkins believes that a vision of the future that is positive and uplifting is far more effective than a lesson on how to avoid a holiday in a soggy B&B near Torquay.

He often uses humour to illustrate what he means. For example, he has a tongue-in-cheek tale of the Beckhams in 2029, still trendsetters in their 50s, building a cob house, and cooing over how they managed to make it smaller and smaller. Their new hobby is growing heirloom fruits and vegetables. (Cob is a building material made of clay, sand and straw.) That’s a sly dig at how our expectations of celebrity currently shape our lives, but there is more than a grain of truth in it. Already, celebrities are embracing the painless aspects of change – buying ethically sourced clothing, raiding secondhand shops or toting cloth bags instead of some monstrosity of a handbag that costs as much as a small car.

Read the full article here.

Has Big Pharma Corruption Suppressed Effective Treatment Options?

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

Dr. Bruce E. Levine, author of Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy, posted a new article to AlterNet examining the unethical treatment suppression tactics of the big pharmaceutical companies. Congress is taking a closer look and not liking what they see.

From the article:

American psychiatry has been rocked by Congress. Congressional investigators first exposed the financial relationships between high-profile psychiatrists and drug companies. “But now the profession itself is under attack in Congress,” reported the New York Times on July 12, 2008.

Specifically under attack is psychiatry’s premier professional organization, the American Psychiatric Association. The New York Times stated, “In 2006, the latest year for which numbers are available, the drug industry accounted for about 30 percent of the association’s $62.5 million in financing. About half of that money went to drug advertisements in psychiatric journals and exhibits at the annual meeting, and the other half to sponsor fellowships, conferences and industry symposiums at the annual meeting.”

The American Psychiatric Association is, as the New York Times notes, “the voice of establishment psychiatry.” It publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the standard diagnostic manual. It also publishes influential professional journals. And it is the primary lobbying organization for American psychiatry.

The president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association is Alan Schatzberg of Stanford University, and his $4.8 million stock holdings in a drug development company raised a red flag for Congressional investigators. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, informed the American Psychiatric Association, “I have come to understand that money from the pharmaceutical industry can shape the practices of nonprofit organizations that purport to be independent in their viewpoints and actions.”

One example of how psychiatric treatment practices are corrupted by drug-company money was revealed in a 2007 analysis of Minnesota psychiatrists. The analysis showed that psychiatrists who received at least $5,000 from makers of newer-generation antipsychotic drugs wrote, on average, three times as many prescriptions to children for these drugs as psychiatrists who received less money or none.

Read the full article here.

Review: The Wall Street Journal and Farm Friends

Friday, July 25th, 2008

The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed Farm Friends: From the Late Sixties to the West Seventies and Beyond by Tom Fels.

From the review:

While campaigning, Barack Obama has criticized the politics of baby boomers who are still “fighting some of the same fights since the sixties.” Such a criticism must resonate with many Americans, who have grown weary of the boomer cohort’s fondness for itself.

Tom Fels’s “Farm Friends,” although a 1960s memoir, does not really belong to his generation’s self-celebratory tradition. It concerns a group of people who, in the manner of 19th-century utopian communities, lived on a communal farm in western Massachusetts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They worked diligently to usher in the New Age — living as self-sufficiently as possible (aided by the stealing of food and tools), sharing responsibilities and avoiding “the world of trauma outside.” That world included the Vietnam War as well as American middle-class culture, with its apparent lack of interest in realities deeper than consumerism. Farm life would supposedly help create the kind of peace and harmony that the 1960s counterculture was so keen to find.

Naturally, the New Age did not arrive, and the farm members went their separate ways. But Mr. Fels is not intent on merely condemning the experiment or praising it. He shows an appealing resistance to sweeping philosophical explanations and to aphorisms disguised as existential truths, both favorites of the 1960s. In “Farm Friends,” he describes life on the farm, interviews the commune members in later years and examines how their lives reflect (or do not reflect) the ideals they once espoused.

Read the full review here.

Photo courtesy of Tom Fels.

Video: Where my bees at?!

Friday, July 25th, 2008

Bees are in danger. It’s been covered widely in the news. Colony Collapse Disorder is devastating hives across North America. The collapsed hives are not full of dead bees, the bees are simply gone. A few theories for the cause of this disaster are the heavy use of pesticides in plants, or the use of genetically-modified crop, or the increasing pollution in the air.

Häagen-Dazs, the ice-cream company, has started an ad campaign to help bring back the bees. Centered at helpthehoneybees.com, the campaign is producing several viral videos to distribute its message via the web. We’ve included one below.

Kudos to Häagen-Dazs.

The Bee Boys

Video: Simran Sethi on Elevision

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Simran Sethi, environmental journalist and co-author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, just sat down for an interview with our friends at the Elephant Journal. The interview appeared on the magazine’s Elevision video channel.

Here it is for your enjoyment.


Elevision at LOHAS Boulder – Simran Sethi: The Face of Green Media from Evan Finn on Vimeo.

Video: Simran Sethi on a Toxic Tour

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Simran Sethi, environmental journalist and co-author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, tags along on a “toxic tour” of the Los Angeles area. These tours are hosted by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and lead participants through area neighborhoods where they point out the toxic release facilities in the area and detail the health effects on the surrounding citizens.

Below is a map of Los Angeles County’s toxic release facilities and their correlation to the neighborhoods with high percentages of minority populations.

Part One of Simran’s Toxic Tour
Part Two of Simran’s Toxic Tour

The Food Not Lawns Community

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

The Food Not Lawns concept is catching on. As gas and food prices skyrocket, people are turning to the food-producing patch of land laying dormant beneath their lawn. As Heather Flores points out in her book, Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community, growing your own food is a great way to save money, eat healthy, and build community.

Well that community is getting bigger every day. And to help facilitate that growth,  Heather has started the Food Not Lawns social network! Now you can begin to meet other home-farmers to swap ideas, share recipes, provide encouragement, and have fun.

Join the Food Not Lawns social network at http://foodnotlawns.ning.com. Have fun!

Riki Ott: When Harm Goes Unpunished

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Riki Ott, author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, posted an editorial on The Huffington Post asked Congress to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision to cut ExxonMobil’s liability for the Exxon-Valdez disaster by nearly 80%.

From the article:

Cordova, Alaska. When the Supreme Court slashed punitive damages in the Exxon Valdez case last month, it was more than a travesty of justice. The court’s decision also charted a dangerous course for America–one largely overlooked in the flurry of coverage on the court’s other eleventh-hour, high-profile decisions, but one that renders our legal system incapable of protecting people from long-term harm caused by corporations as large and profitable as ExxonMobil. Unless Congress acts to overturn this ruling, the court has paved the way for corporate rights to trump individual rights whenever manmade disasters put people, their livelihoods, or both, at risk.

Here, in a nutshell, are pieces of the Exxon Valdez story that are familiar to most news-reading Americans: 19 years ago, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, causing the largest oil spill in the United States, contaminating 10,000 square miles of ocean and 3,200 miles of pristine coastline, and trashing the local fishing industry and the communities it supports.

And, here are the lesser known elements of the story: after Exxon got thousands of claims thrown out of court, the roughly 32,000 that remained were heard by a jury that awarded spill victims $5 billion in punitive damages and another $287 million in compensatory damages. The compensatory damages were only for short-term harm–mostly fisheries closures in 1989–and not for the long-term harm that we have since experienced in Prince William Sound from collapsed fisheries. Exxon, then ExxonMobil, appealed the punitive award, and the Ninth Circuit judges cut that award in half despite finding no legal reason to do so. ExxonMobil appealed again, this time to the Supreme Court–keeping the case unsettled for nearly two decades–and that court slashed the punitive award to just $507 million, a mere 10 percent of the original award and an amount so small, after court expenses, that many plaintiffs face bankruptcies, foreclosures, and other financial distress from debt stemming from this spill.

But that is not the worst of it. The biggest injustice is that the Supreme Court set a dangerous precedent by ruling to limit the size of punitive damages in maritime cases to no more than compensatory damages. In other words, the court set a cap of 1:1 punitive to compensatory damages.

It is just a matter of time before this precedent in maritime law is extended to other fields of law–which will affect everyone in America.

No community should have to go through what we, in Cordova and other oiled communities, have been through. Livelihoods have been lost, financial stress has broken families apart, businesses supported by fishermen have crumbled, and our environment remains oiled after 19 years awaiting compensation. Ultimately, the law could not replace what we lost. And the Supreme Court has just assured that others will fare no better in future manmade disasters, unless we act now.

Read the full article here.

The Generation of Renewable Electricity Project: Micro-Hydro

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

On July 17th, Al Gore issued a bold challenge to our nation to commit to producing 100% of our electricity from cheap, clean renewable energy sources within 10 years. It may sound like a daunting task, but the good news is that we know how to do it!

Since 1984 Chelsea Green has been publishing books that detail many various methods for transitioning our homes, cars, and lives off oil and coal. To honor Gore’s Challenge, we’re launching “The Generation of Renewable Electricity Project”—or The G.O.R.E. Project, for short. This series will consist of tutorials from some of our books explaining how to begin generating your own renewable electricity.

The first tutorial in this series explains a simple micro-hydro generation system that can be put to use on any property with a river, stream, or brook—with minimal disruption of the ecosystem.

The following is from Mat Stein’s When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency.

Micro-Hydropower Overview

If your property contains a creek with a significant drop to it, micro-hydropower could provide you with a terrific source of electricity for an investment far less than an equivalent-sized PV system. The vertical distance that your water supply drops from the source to the turbine is known as the pressure “head.” Available water power is a function of the volume flow rate (how much water is flowing) multiplied by head feet (head relates directly to available water pressure). Micro-hydro turbines can operate with as little as 2 feet of head if you have a high flow rate, but are usually operated with heads of 25 feet or more. High water flow rate can compensate for low head, but head tends to be the more important factor.

(This diagram shows a small dam at top left. However, damming is not necessary and not recommended.)

Micro-hydro, like most PV systems, usually generates electricity at modest rates that are far below most residential peak demands, but because it generates electricity day and night, it adds up to quite a bit of energy every day. This energy is accumulated in batteries, where it is available to drive high loads when required.

Micro-Hydro Considerations

• Head. What is the vertical drop (head) from your water source to your micro-hydro generator? This is the most important factor in determining whether micro-hydro is feasible and how much power you will be able to extract. If you have a fast-flowing creek with less than 2 feet of head, you will not be able to use a micro-hydro turbine, but you may get a worthwhile amount of energy from your creek using a propeller-type turbine from Jack Rabbit Energy Systems.

• Flow rate. How many gallons per minute can you provide to your micro-hydro turbine? This factor combined with head determines your potential available power. For small flows, time the flow of your supply into a 5-gallon bucket to estimate flow rate. For larger flows, consult civil and mechanical engineering books or Microhydro: Clean Power from Water, which will show you how to build a simple “weir” to accurately estimate stream flow rates.

• Available power. A good rule of thumb for determining available power (in watts) is to multiply the flow rate (in gpm, gallons per minute) times the head (in feet), and then divide by 10. The maximum theoretical power is actually divided by only 5.3, but a factor of 10 accounts for efficiency losses in the turbine, the alternator, and some in the piping. For example, a head of 25 feet with a flow rate of 100 gpm would provide you with somewhere around 250 watts of continuous power (100 × 25/10). In general, a value of 1,000 or more for the flow rate (gpm) multiplied by the head (feet) is the point where micro-hydro turbines become worthwhile.

• Pipe head loss. The flow rate, length, size, and type of pipe will determine how much pressure (and power) are lost due to the friction of water flowing through your pipe. Friction through a pipe decreases with a cube of the diameter, so a pipe that is twice as big has one-eighth the friction loss. Fire hoses are big fat hoses because you can’t squirt a lot of water through a small hose. The same is true for your microhydro supply piping. Water pipe sizing charts will help you to size your piping by estimating how many feet of pressure head are lost flowing through the length of pipe. Losses are typically given in feet of head per 100 feet of pipe length, so you must factor in the length of your pipeline. For high flow/low head systems, a friction loss of more than 1 or 2 feet of head may be unacceptable.

• Distance to batteries. Squeezing electrical current through wires is a lot like squeezing water through pipes. Long distances between a power source and your battery bank can result in excessive power losses. Thicker wires and/or higher micro-hydro output voltages (24, 48, or more volts) can help reduce power transmission losses between generator and batteries. To keep wire thickness and wiring costs reasonable, most battery systems are currently designed to supply power to inverters at 48 volts, rather than the old standard of 12 volts. (See the “Energy, Power, and Electricity Primer” section at the end of this chapter for more information.)

• Custom systems. Micro-hydro alternators and water jets are custom matched for each application. See your RE dealer for assistance in evaluating your site and choosing among different micro-hydro options.

More Micro-Hydro Resources:

Some Worthwhile Videos:

The UK’s Green New Deal

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

triplepundit.com is reporting today about the UK’s Green New Deal to combat economic depression and climate change. It seems that invoking the FDR legacy adds weight to the movement.

From the article:

Inciting the rhetoric of FDR during the days of the Great Depression, several economists, politicians, and environmentalists in the UK have made news recently with the proposal of the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight the triple threats of the credit crunch, high gas prices, and climate change that are factoring to degrade life and the world as we know it.

Many have claimed that the present economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression. Drawing many parallels to FDR’s initiatives in the 1930’s, the group has set a goal of 100 months to prevent global warming and other serious economic and environmental effects. Though it is not as radical as FDR’s 100 days plan, the group similarly wants to start with how financial institutions are run. According to an article on the Guardian UK’s website, amongst other things, the proposals seek to redistribute the “distorting power” of the banking industry. They suggest that large banking groups be forcibly split up to minimize the systemic risk that federal bailouts of institutions like Northern Rock and Bear Stearns pose.

[...]

The group’s recommendations include (via the BBC):

• Massive investment in renewable energy and wider transformation in the UK

• The creation of thousands of new “green collar” jobs

• Making low-cost capital available to fund the UK’s green economic shift

• Building a new alliance between environmentalists, industry, agriculture, and unions

“Such a Green New Deal could set a useful and groundbreaking international example of how to save the economy, whilst saving the planet.”

Read the whole article here.


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