14 08 2016

It’s getting wild out there. There’s a lot going on in the Presidential race, from the Green Party’s post-Sanders bump, to the Democratic Party’s increasing right turn and its decision to aim its propaganda weapons at us, to many curious tales of, and from, the Trump campaign. I’ll probably be back on those beats next month, but this month I’m going to take a look at genetically modified organisms from my “Deep Green Perspective”

Back in June, I received several emails from a long-time friend, urging me to accept the evidence that genetically modified organisms are safe to eat, and thus there is no reason to oppose their rapid introduction into our food stream. I confess, I kind flamed my old friend with the vehemence of my initial “no way!” response. I decided that I owed it to him to read the articles he had sent me with as open a mind as I could muster, and consider the pro-genetic modification argument, instead of only reading the anti-genetic modification campaigners like Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists. I read the National Academy of Science’s report on the safety of genetically modified foods, as well. I’ll tell you up front: I did not change my opinion on the appropriateness of widespread use of genetically modified organisms. Here’s what I wrote my friend.

Dear _______,

I think the best place to start is with this challenge from you:

It’s hard to make the case that we should trust science and act to stem global warming, while at the same time we are scoffing at the statements [PDF] of *snort* scientists on genetic modification.

 We’re looking at two very different kinds of science here. The science of global warming is pretty cut and dried. It involves measuring temperatures and gas concentrations over time, making a graph of them, factoring in possible different levels of future fossil fuel use and other factors that are coming into play such as deforestation, melting permafrost, etc., and noticing that, in a “business as usual scenario,” we are going to be toast in short order.


Already in the pipeline? (note green sky due to increased CO2 content)


It’s all very quantifiable, very basic chemistry and physics, and what that basic chemistry and physics tells us is that we have in all likelihood dangerously overshot the amount of carbon dioxide we can safely release into the atmosphere and we need to stop all fossil fuel use and commence extreme carbon sequestration and a carbon-neutral culture. Genetically modified crops, and the industrial/chemical agriculture system that they are part and parcel of, are a major source of the excess carbon in our atmosphere, and thus the answer to the science question is that the science of global warming trumps the science of factory farming, which includes pretty much all use of genetically modified organisms. Read the rest of this entry »


8 06 2008

I went to the Sonnenschein Festival in Hohenwald, Tennessee, over the weekend, a curious little hybrid critter enjoying its third year down in the hill country of south-central Tennessee.

Hohenwald is the county seat of Lewis County, in a part of the state so poor and inaccessible that it was, as I understand it, not even settled until the 1890’s.  The thin soil won’t grow much, not even trees of any great size, and so it was one of Tennessee’s last frontiers.  Nothing much is happening there, nothing much ever has happened there.  When the Tennessee Department of Transportation, that infinite cash cow and welfare system for the state’s road contractors, started to build a 4-lane, divided highway between Hohenwald and Columbia in fulfillment of their self-appointed mission to connect all the state’s county seats with these monstrosities, the legislature actually woke up and stopped them, because everybody could see that the expense and environmental destruction involved would be totally out of proportion with any benefit–and that was before $4/gallon gasoline.  That’s how podunk Hohenwald is.

Anyway, the Sonnenschein Festival is, as I said, a curious hybrid.  The city fathers’ original intent was to have a little bluegrass and gospel music and some cotton candy, bratwurst, and knicknacks, but some of the local counterculturalists got wind of the event and signed up for booths featuring solar energy, biodiesel, alternative construction methods, and the like, and suddenly there were two very different festivals going on all intermingled with each other, even though there originally seemed to be an attempt to segregate all the new ideas off in a building some distance from the main festival grounds.

The festival moved, this year, from around the courthouse to downtown Hohenwald, a difference of a block or two, but the struggling downtown merchants hoped it would generate some more business for them.  Lord knows, they need something. The few miles of four-lane that did get built heading east out of town has sprouted a roster of all the best-known names in low-end American chain stores, including a “Family Dollar” and a “Dollar General Store” going head-to-head and a Walmart Superstore that, even without its parking lot, takes up more room than all of downtown Hohenwald put together–and then there’s the empty, smaller building they vacated when they built the “superstore,” sitting out in front of it–good for what?  Green Walmart?  Get real!

The festival got a lot more integrated with the move. The “alternative” booths are no longer so isolated– Green Party U.S.. Senate Candidate Chris Lugo was right next to the Kewpie dolls.  Another new feature of this year’s festival was a full roster of countercultural speakers in what was referred to on the program as “The Strand Theater.”  I have been an irregular visitor and shopper in Hohenwald for twenty-five years, and I couldn’t recall ever seeing a theater there–imagine my surprise to find that one of the town’s famed “dig stores”  (featuring cheap, cheap, cheap second-hand clothing) was now once again a theater, which apparently it had been back before television shuttered so many of the country’s small movie houses.  With the cost of gas to get to the nearest multiplex now rivalling the cost of movie tickets, a local revival was taking place.

I was curious to see whether the townsfolk would turn out for the speakers, and I was gratified to see that, in significant numbers, they did.  Not massive numbers–a couple of dozen at a time, making them about half the audience–but from what I could gather, many of those who were attending are the town’s movers and opinion makers, and what they appreciated and took from the talks will probably be spread all over Hohenwald.

The opening speaker was David Blume, a lively advocate for permaculture and home-brewed alcohol fuel.  He criticized the country’s current ethanol binge as ” bad implementation of a good idea” and stressed that smaller ethanol plants are much better at providing re-usable outputs (such as feed and fertilizer) than the massive production facilities now being built.  He emphasized that there is not one big answer to the fuel crunch so much as a lot of small, diverse answers, and got cheers and applause from the whole audience when he pointed out that, for a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war, we could have provided “food and energy for everybody in the world.  And when everybody’s got enough food and enough energy, what’s there to fight about?”

The next speaker was Catherine Austin Fitts, whose specialty is relocalizing economics and helping people get their money out of what she calls “the tapeworm economy.”

“What good is it to go and protest the war,” she asked, “when your money is invested in keeping it going?”

And she challenged bible-belt Hohenwald with, “Where would Jesus Bank?”…she can do that, she’s a professing Christian.  Significantly, she will be meeting with the county commission on Monday to discuss how to make Hohenwald more financially self-sufficient.  I’m impressed.

Then there was a break for a benefit auction to help raise money for the festival and Green Living Journal, a magazine that I help edit.  I came out of that with a hundred-dollar gift certificate from “Our Nursery,” a local permaculture nursery that specializes in bamboo.

The third speaker was Albert Bates, a veritable polymath from the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm.  He painted a dire picture of the mess we have gotten into, with oil in decline and CO2 on the rise, but pointed out that many small towns are taking stock of the crisis and organizing to meet it–and, once you are organized to meet this challenge, you’re…well, in a much better position to meet it, and less likely to just get sucked under as it alters our society.

“We have used up five hundred million years worth of stored energy in just the last hundred and fifty years,”Albert said, “and the binge is almost over,” adding a William Burroughs line about “Hairless Apes in the Gasoline Crack of History.” On the positive side, he pointed to brain research that shows that optimism chemically primes our frontal cortexes to be better at problem solving than pessimism does, and quoted economist David Fleming to the effect that “localism is at the limits of practical possibilities–but the decisive argument is that there is no alternative.”

It seems that the movers and shakers in Hohenwald are starting to see that, which I find very reassuring.  After Albert, I had absorbed about all the talk I could handle, and I was hungry, so I went outside and strolled the midway, passing over the bratwurst, the barbeque, and the deep-fried snickers bars, until I found an  old friend cooking health-food pizza in a solar oven he had built himself.  I had to wait for the biracial lesbian couple ahead of me to get done fixing up their kids with pizza, but just the idea of a biracial lesbian couple with kids in ol’ whitebread Hohenwald was delightful.  The heat was brutal and the crowd was thin, but I could feel a change in the air.  Out there in the hinterlands, they’re starting to get it.  Me, I’m hiring my friend to build us a solar oven.  It’s time.

music: Greg Brown, “Our Little Town”


8 02 2007

What do George Bush, Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden have in common? This is not a joke!

They all want to expand ethanol production in the U.S.

And what else do they have in common?

That shows the extent to which none of them are in touch with reality, and the extent to which they are in touch with, f’rinstance, Archer-Daniels Midland, which will benefit from rising corn prices, probably more than the corn farmers will, if history is any guide. Once again, Mr. Bush has shown his proclivity for “solving problems” by benefitting the corporatocracy, and the country’s leading Democrats have shown what whores they are by falling in line behind him, in spite of the fact that we could reduce our fuel usage by mandating higher fuel efficiency for a fraction of the cost of subsidizing ethanol production.

The simple math of turning corn into ethanol should be enough to make anyone with half a brain realize it doesn’t add up. If every single ear of corn grown in the US today were turned into ethanol, it would be enough to supplant—ta da!--twelve percent of our current gasoline usage—and leave no corn left over for corn flakes, corn bread, animal feed, or export to Mexico, which, since NAFTA, has become totally dependent on US corn production, with disastrous unintended consequences, which I’ll discuss later. For now, let’s stick with turning the entire current US corn crop into ethanol.

It takes a lot of water and a lot of natural gas to brew ethanol. Water availability in the midwest is going down, and natural gas prices are going up. At current corn and gas prices, it costs around two dollars a gallon to make ethanol, and uses three gallons of water, on top of the water that is needed to grow the corn. Ethanol advocates talk glibly of “putting another thirty million acres into production,” an area about half the size of Kansas, but where those millions of acres are going to come from is a serious concern—are we going to overturn everybody’s wetland and conservation set-asides and shelterbelts and woodlots and plant them in corn, which is the most erosive, heavy-feeding crop a farmer can grow?

That’s not sustainability, that’s ecological suicide, even without factoring in that it takes more BTU’s to produce ethanol than the ethanol provides—that’s why they use natural gas to brew it—using ethanol to make ethanol would be an out-front losing proposition.

In case you’re wondering, it takes eleven acres of corn to brew enough ethanol to supply the average American car’s fuel needs. That’s enough land to feed seven people for a year…according to one estimate, it would take an area equivalent to 97% of the surface area of the US to grow enough corn to completely switch over to ethanol. Proponents promise more efficient ethanol production from crops and technologies that have yet to be developed. There will also be pie in the sky when we die, and seventy virgins waiting in heaven for every American martyr in Iraq….but, I digress…..

And of course, increased demand for corn would drive up the prices we pay for meat and dairy products, as well as corn flakes, corn meal, and…tortillas. The nascent demand for ethanol has already driven US corn prices to their highest level in decades. Because NAFTA eliminated trade barriers between the US and Mexico, Mexican agriculture was washed away by a flood of then-cheap American corn. Now that the price is going up, the price of tortillas, Mexico’s staple food, has risen by thirty percent in the last three years, sparking food riots. Used to be, when things got tough, Mexicans just headed for El Norte, but with the border tightening up and the economy up here shutting down , Mexico is turning into a time bomb. Can you say, “failed state on our southern border,” boys and girls?

And of course, the disaster called “NAFTA” was foisted on us by the same mainstream coalition of Demopublicans and Republicrats who are now cheering for ethanol, coal gasification, and new nukes. Hey, it’s lining their pockets. Who cares if it tears up the planet? They’re rich enough to insulate themselves from the consequences, and after they die, who cares? Hell, leave the kids holding the bag! That’s the way to build character in young people!

No. The way to build character in young people is to set a good example. We need to redesign our culture—not from the top down, but from the bottom up. We need to create an economy that is not so energy intensive, one in which work and play are local. We need to recreate a culture in which we can either walk or use public transportation to get where we need to go, a culture in which we do not need ever-larger homes for ever-fewer people. We need neighborhoods in which we can share childcare and lawnmowers and garden vegetables—maybe we need to forget about the lawnmowers and keep a few sheep around to graze the lawns and keep everyone in sweaters. We need to forget about stylish new clothes and the latest kitchen gadgets, turn off the air conditioning and quit worrying so much about how we smell. There simply is no way to keep on living as we have been. We can fight it or we can work with it, but sooner or later we’ll have to change, and the sooner and more cheerfully we all do, the better off we’ll all be.

music: Julian Cope, “Ain’t No Gettin’ Round Gettin’ Round

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