Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day 2015: Drought and Denial

This morning (I'm working ahead--this is Sunday, the 19th) I went out to empty the wheelbarrows I'd been using around the yard yesterday, because we had a thumper of a thunderstorm last night that dropped at least an inch of rain in less than an hour. I even went out and moved Vera to the porte-cochère to protect her from the hail that had pretty much stopped by the time I decided to brave it. So far this year, this area  has had about three times as much rainfall as we experienced by Earth Day 2014: 15 inches vs. 5 inches. When I dumped the wheelbarrows, I also tipped the rain gauge out since there's a chance we might get more this afternoon.

Despite all the recent precipitation (including a couple of snow days in February), Collin County will remain on stage 3 water rationing through the near future. 

The irony of all this is that as I type, another wildfire is roaring away near my old stomping grounds in southern California (the Highway Fire in Riverside County), and much will undoubtedly be made of current conditions, the lack of rain, and high temperatures as immediate causes.

Only recently, as most of us know by now, California has finally owned up to the fact that it needs to do do something about water over-use. Meanwhile, in north Texas, we've been watering lawns on alternate trash days for the last three years or so. Now, I don't generally think of Texas as being particularly enlightened in terms of climate knowledge and common sense, but Texans do seem to understand water a bit more than folks do further west.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, this part of north Texas is undergoing severe to extreme drought--about the same general, long-term conditions as obtain in a large part of California. One would think, therefore, that we'd all be addressing our problems in a similar fashion. Like southern California, north Texas is building a lot more houses than it should, further taxing the state's water resources--but we've got two things going for us: the recent weather, and a little more foresight.

In the CNN report on the fire (which is the first thing that popped up into the Google window in response to one search term: drought), a firefighter immediately mentions the drought (which is causing vegetation to burn that normally doesn't), and an interviewee notes the fact that there's "a lot of new housing" nearby. A related report ("California Running Out of Water") linked to the main page interviews residents of Porterville (in the San Joaquin Valley to the north, where my father was living when he died) whose wells have run dry and who have no running water. The plight of the agricultural towns in California is dire, and the reasons are complex, so I'm not going to start in on them. They don't need some cranky ex-pat grousing about agricultural practices.

But I'm not at all sympathetic to the Los Angeles area because they've depended on the kindness of others, and the political machinations of the twenties, for far too long. The inhabitants of the Owens River Valley have been dealing with drought ever since the aqueduct that siphons their water out of the valley and into reservoirs to the south was built a century ago.  The story is legend, and well documented, and I've griped enough about it over the years; there's no need to lay it all out again, but Felicity Barringer does a nice job of summarizing the story in her New York Times article in 2012: The Water Fight that Inspired Chinatown. I should mention, however, that an alternative version of the story is available in Gary Libecap's 2005 article, The Myth of Owens Valley. I knew Libecap when he was a grad student at Penn, and he was a reasonable chap then--although our views on political economy differed. But he's right that there is a mythical element to the account of Owens Valley as some sort of agricultural paradise before the aqueduct was built.

In the end, folks went on with what they were doing, and my grandfather ended up working for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power at the Cottonwood power plant--where my fondest childhood memories were formed at the edge of the aqueduct. This is the view from nearby, taken when I was home last December.

So this post is not about heroes and villains, or even about greed. It's about not being very smart for all the talking we do about being homo sapiens sapiens.  We don't plan well, we build cities without regard to the land, and then we mourn when people die as a result of our lack of foresight.  Los Angeles should be a smallish town, not a smog-spewing megalopolis. It should have been conserving water all along, not just beginning this month. And north Texas must keep rationing its water, even though we're pretty soggy at the moment and some of my neighbors are probably already complaining that all this climate change and global warming crap is a Communist plot.

But if we want to survive long-term, beyond next month, next year, next century, we need to start thinking. We need to not grow so much (if at all), so that increasing land and water use aren't necessary. We need to conserve what we have and not use up everything there is; otherwise, those people my age who have grandchildren will condemn them to future droughts, wildfires, and endless other problems that stem from a general lack of wisdom.

Sustainability has become a buzzword, when it should be a watchword.  Only abject denial or an irrational faith in our ability to overcome future problems that result from current shortsightedness can lead people to think that constant, unrestrained growth is either possible or desirable. The anthropocene could well be the last "age" of the planet.

It's time we stopped paying lip service to Earth Day and start making sure we have more than a few of them left.

Image notes: The opening shot is from Dirty Sock, south of Owens Lake; there is currently a bit of water in the lake itself, due to the dust-mitigation programs put in place to help Los Angeles not breathe in the chemicals that used to blow off the dry lake.  Over the winter holidays the Beloved Spouse and I took the puppies to Dirty Sock, where my mother's stepfather had once built a concrete pool to hold the mineral waters that well up from underground.  The second photo, of the lake itself, was taken from Cottonwood road, across the aqueduct from the power plant, which is still in operation. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

It's Not the Science--It's the Ethics

Although I’m only tangentially trained in science (I took geology courses to help me beef up my archaeology cred), I am somewhat more than your average science groupie.  Actually, I’m not sure there are science groupies, but should there be, I am the equivalent of an avid fanboy. What academic credentials I do possess are focused on the philosophy of science and technology, both of which I comment upon frequently.

I subscribe to The New Scientist, read the science and technology articles first in the New York Times, and one of the few feeds I get through my e-mail is the one from Space Weather.  So it should come as no surprise that I’m more than a little disturbed by the current rise in what journalists are referring to as “antiscience.”

Most of time I just dismiss reports about those who still don’t believe that we’ve landed on the moon, or that the earth is flat, or who find it any kind of reasonable to believe that the Biblical account of creation is literally true.  I do live in Texas, after all.

But newer manifestations of this phenomenon are growing more and more alarming: people who refuse to vaccinate their children for fear of autism, air-born ebola threats, etc. The latest issue of National Geographic Magazine (which manifests itself spiffily on my iPad once a month, proving that some applications are actually worth owning) poses the question, “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”—and begins with a reminder of Jack D. Ripper’s obsession with fluoridation (and his excuse for launching nukes at Russia in Dr. Strangelove).

So now I have to out myself as maybe one of those “reasonable people” who “doubts” science, because for one I don’t buy fluoridated toothpaste (figuring that I already get enough of it in my tap water)—and I'm skeptical about GMOs.

However, I also have to point out that my skepticism stems not from the process of genetic modification itself. As the article assures us, the scientific community has declared GMO foods to be no worse for us than those developed from the hand-selection of genetic characteristics human beings have been doing with animals and plants since the Neolithic. And while that is probably the case, my questions stem from another discipline: philosophy.

More precisely, I’m worried about ethics.  And genetic modification schemes bring on huge questions concerning the morality of some activities—like transferring genes from one species to another, or the practice of patenting genes and wreaking havoc on the farmer next door who accidentally gets his canola plants crossbred with your proprietary strain.

For some background, see these two articles: Monsanto's Harvest of Fear (Vanity Fair, May 2008), and the more recent Monsanto’s Newest GM Crops May Create More Problems Than They Solve
(Wired 02 Feburary 2015).

Many of the problems critics point to have to do with issues other than science, such as whether the science is smart, necessary, or even desirable. The same issues are frequently raised about organic gardening and farming, and dismissed on similar grounds (the science to "prove" that organic is more healthful seems to be slim). While organic crops may arguably be no more nutritious than conventionally grown crops, it’s pretty easy to argue that the former are better for us in myriad other ways, because they don’t require pesticide, they tend to be sustainably grown, and they actually do taste better.

So, while I fervently agree that this world is getting dumber and dumber about science and how it works, let’s please not throw out the proverbial baby here. Neither science nor technology are without blame in creating the state of the world as it is.  And if we want to convince the generally ill-informed populace of its validity, science as a discipline cannot ignore ethical questions and/or dismiss them out of hand. Raising questions about science is not always about denying its importance or rejecting its methods. Rather, it's about making sure we can make moral arguments to support the use of what science discovers.

Image credit: I obtained the photo from Wikimedia Commons via the keywords "genetic modification." It was uploaded by Canoe1967.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Caravan Dreams

Sometimes it actually becomes possible to act on a desire—to fulfill a pipe dream or a deeply held wish.  So, after innumerable years of daydreaming about owning an old travel trailer (specifically, a ‘60s era Shasta Airflyte), the planets and stars finally reached a favorable conjunction and we got one.

Sort of.

Last year I filed for Social Security benefits, realizing that what I’d acquire in extra benefits by waiting until age 70 probably wouldn’t pay off in the end (given my genes and the current state of the world). The tidy little sum I now get every month on top of my salary (I’m still teaching full time) has meant that we’ve been able to pay off significant debt and begin to allow ourselves a few luxuries we’d never have dreamed of before now.  Our frugality had, in fact, begun to wear on us, and we decided that rather than wait for actual retirement we’d try to enjoy ourselves to a modest extent before then.

I should also mention that just last summer we’d had some work done on the house (about which I’ll write anon), which included a new hog wire and cedar fence with two twelve-foot gates on the west and south. This was viewed at the time as rather fanciful, since we had nothing to pull through those gates and no real hope of getting anything any time soon: just planning for the distant future, we thought.

Then, after I had paid off the loan on Vera, it was the Beloved Spouse’s turn to purchase his final car (we don’t either of us imagine ever buying another). Quite coincidentally, the Shasta company had celebrated its 75th anniversary last year by re-issuing the little 16 foot Airflyte in a somewhat modified version at a price comparable to what we would pay for an authentic vintage job. And this version has a toilet, which is a significant issue for folks our age.

Of course, we needed a car that could pull a trailer—even one as modest in size as the Shasta—so we conducted research on Toyota FJ Cruisers and small trucks, looking for the most fuel-efficient V6 we could find.  In the end there turned out to be no such vehicle—and everything appropriate got about the same: 20 mpg or less.  And since we didn’t want anything fancy (my dream was to find something with as few electronic components as possible), we started looking at another company that had been making vehicles since 1941: Jeep.  The Wrangler Sport we ended up with has 4-wheel drive, no GPS, roll-down windows, and locks that require keys be inserted into them. And, it can easily pull our little 2500 lb. trailer.

It also turns out to be a terrific dog car, which we found out by dragging the Guthrie boys to California and back over our winter break.

More on that will follow, because it involves a visit to the Valley and some time at old haunts. But the fact that I can write anything at all is due in no small part to the fact that we were able to get away for the first time in ten years, and that having fulfilled the probably silly dream of having that trailer parked in the back yard (just as my grandmother had done in my fondly-remembered childhood).  Every time I go back there, it makes me smile.

First stop in an RV park, Midland/Odessa Texas, 21 December 2014

The last three photos are a bit cheesy (via Vintique on the iPhone), but they remind me of some taken inside Gram’s Shasta back in the day.

It's not quite Grandma's trailer (somewhat less substantial, and the back bench can't be used as a bed, even for dogs, because when it's pulled out it blocks the loo), but makes for a lovely little backyard retreat and a good place for sipping wine and watching sunsets.

Educating one's desire is an admirable pursuit, but it can lead to general angst and resentment, especially when one is surrounded by ridiculous extravagance on all sides. So while it's probably not inappropriate to question my philosophical purity, at least we didn't buy a behemoth truck to pull one of the colossal forty-foot toy-hauler monstrosities that were parked next to our little Shasta on the lot. And the important thing, I think, is that we wouldn't ever want to.