Friday, March 26, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Sky? What Sky?

This is a quickie because it's that time of the quarter and I've got projects and exams to deal with. But I wanted to share with y'all what the sky looked like on the first full day after the Vernal equinox--only there wasn't much sky to see, because it was still snowing.

Now I know folks up north and in colder regions of the world might snicker a bit at how north Texans respond to this sort of event. Spoilt as we are, however, we expect the peas to be bloomin' by now, and this late, deep (in the end we had 8 inches) snow threw many of us for a loop.

Hope everyone has a good, snow-free weekend. I am definitely ready for Spring!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Spring in the Year of Global Weirding

The winter solstice occurred yesterday around noon, but today marks the first full day of spring.

This morning we awoke to another record snowfall. At 8 am, the snow was six inches deep in the back yard, and it was still falling. Now, at almost 11 am, the sun is beginning to emerge, and what white stuff is blowing around comes from the trees that were weighed down with it only a few hours ago.

Of course, locals are going to use this as evidence that environmentalists are full of crap and global warming is a leftist hoax (after all, it's snowing--so it can't be warming). But then, these guys still haven't been able to fathom the difference between climate and weather. They also seem to have a very abbreviated notion of geological processes--which only makes sense if they're operating under a view that the earth is only six thousand years old.

Periodic changes in the path of the jet stream, the cyclic appearance of El NiƱo, solar activity, and other meteorological phenomena contribute to what our weather ends up looking like on a local scale over relatively short periods of time. Climate is, of course, a whole nother, highly complex, albeit manifestly human-influenced, process that takes much longer (tens of thousands of years overall)--even though what we're spewing into the atmosphere at the moment will probably begin to affect local weather sooner than we'd like. So no, the three feet of snow that's fallen in my back yard this year does not signal the coming of the next ice age.

As I learned in my Pleistocene geology course thirty years ago, we're probably still in the midst of an interglacial period (scientists refer to it as the Holocene) and may not actually have seen the end of the most recent glacial period. The thirty thousand years or so since humanity started mucking about in Europe (having already made it from Africa to India and Australia) may be just a blip on the screen, and we may well mosey back into another major glaciation a few thousand years from now.

But we do seem to be having impact already--what with the melting tundra and all--so the smugness being felt around these parts will probably be short-lived. As a whole, Americans seem to be far more worried about financial deficits than they are about what kinds of resources will be available to their offspring. So cranky, dusty old crones like me are probably condemned to sit back and wag our fingers, waving copies of Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood under their noses.

Despite all my innate curmudgeonliness (with apologies to Archie, who thinks you have to be a guy to be a genuine curmudgeon), I loved what I saw when I awoke to the white wilderness outside my back door. The bottle fence looked like ice-pops (see opening photo), the carbon sink like a little forest, and various bits of detritus around our distinctly grubby looking yard were all covered and softened and hidden away under piles of pretty white flakes of frozen water. Even the front porch got hit, because the snow came in from the southwest rather than from directly west.

The sun is again hidden away by clouds, but the reflected light from the snow adds a cheery glow around the inside of the house--rather a distinct difference from yesterday's rain and gloom. I'm inspired to get some home-keeping done, do some slow cooking, and grade some projects--all possible during the next few hours because daylight savings time is now in place.

But that's another rant, and the "puppies" want to go out for another romp (note footprints leading into the "forest," above). They've loved this stuff since we first got them (six years ago), and I truly hope that this will be their last chance to enjoy it before next winter. I really do need to get that garden in if I'm going to feed us fresh veg over the next few months--depending, of course, on what comes our way in terms of weirdness over the spring and summer.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hybrid Driving

Not long after my post about the conversation in response to Derrick Jensen's article in the current issue of Orion Magazine on activism (Is Resistance Futile?), I had to take my nine-year-old Honda Civic into the dealer to get it fixed up enough to pass state inspection. As I waited for the bad news, I started lurking in the showroom, poring over brochures on new Civics and Insight hybrids. When the "counselor" (no lie; that's what she called herself) came in to tell me that they needed to do a $200 smoke test to determine what was wrong with my fuel line, and that it would take a couple of hours, I went outside to enjoy the weather and look around the lot.

After a surprisingly long time, a salesman came out to see what I was interested in, and proceeded to let me test drive the two models I was most interested in: the new Civic hybrid, and the Insight--Honda's answer to Toyota's Prius.

The Civic didn't drive much like mine, it was a bit larger, and considerably clunkier. The Insight, on the other hand, is a dream to drive, and its cockpit is almost identical to what I'm used to in the old Civic. The best part, though, is that this car acts very much like a mobile video game, with pretty lit-up displays (mostly blue and green, but with some red and amber) designed to teach one how get the best fuel economy possible.

By the time the counselor came back to give me the estimate ($2K, including the new timing belt I'd been warned about last year), I was signing papers. So the sales office paid for the smoke test, and I turned over the keys.

They gave me peanuts for the Civic, but sent me home in a loaner until the LX model I'd ordered in "Tango Red Pearl" arrived a couple of days later. Honda had some incentives going, but I didn't need them to convince me that I wanted this car. The EPA estimates on gas mileage run from 40-45 mpg, and the lower emissions alone would help me lessen my carbon footprint substantially--even though I had been getting between 35 and 38 mpg in the old car.

Although I'd been waffling about the need for a new car for several months, two additional components entered the mix when I read Jensen's article, and Sharon Astyk's new book, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front.

Astyk blogs on The Chatelaine’s Keys and Casaubon's Book about sustainability, peak oil, and community. As a matter of fact, I'm going to recommend to the Orion forum that folks who are looking for advice on how to resist the current state of economic short-sightedness order this book. Astyk practices what she preaches much better than I do, and offers an appendix chock full of practical ways in which we can survive the unrest we've only begun to see reflected in our current economic difficulties.

I haven't really been ignoring peak oil over the last forty years, but it had rather become background noise, grinding on below the din of everyday life. I heard M. King Hubbert speak at Penn back in the '70s (during the first of our many moments of oil hysteria), warning that at some point in the foreseeable future we'd reach the moment at which oil supplies would be half gone. But rather than weaning ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, over the intervening four decades we've become ever more dependent--not only on our own supplies, but on what we buy from foreign sources.

In the meantime, peak oil concerns have become entwined with a variety of doomsday scenarios and conspiracy theories, and most rational folk seem to have been ignoring the situation--even as our fuel costs roller coaster up and down the economic spectrum. The whole concept is getting harder to ignore, however, and books like Depletion and Abundance provide a sensible, constructive path toward forging communities that might be able to withstand whatever turmoil might ensue.

No longer very good at participating in any community beyond my classrooms, I have little time left over for the kinds of activism that Jensen and Astyk advocate. For as long as I've been writing this blog, I've nattered on and on about my small gestures at lessening my own dependence on various fuels, and my efforts to minimize any bruises I leave on the planet. Although I lack the physical and psychic energy to picket the bad guys or join anything, I have been trying to be a wise consumer, and buying a sensible car seemed like a decent thing to do; I consider it a little bit of an offset for the obscene number of Hummers I see on the highway. This will probably be the last car I ever own, so I thought it would be a prudent investment.

I also think it unwise to underplay the power of making sustainable economic decisions. For example, we've got an inefficient ten-year-old gas furnace that needs to be replaced, so we're looking into a geothermal heat pump. It's a costly change, but could well pay for itself within ten years in energy savings, and it doesn't use oil or gas. Solar panels are another possibility, although the number and location of trees on the property limits their efficacy. Upcoming necessary improvements to the house will all be made with sustainability and low environmental impact as primary considerations.

The fact that the entire state of Texas remains in denial about climate change and other environmental concerns doesn't help. But this particular town, at least, seems to be more and more open to "green" solutions, so it may be that moving to an old area of town full of recycled houses may not have been a bad idea in the end. And now that I can go 450 miles or more on a tank of gas, I won't feel quite so guilty about working thirty miles away from where I live.

Photo credits: I pinched the picture of the Insight from Treehugger; the opening "shot," Exxon Desert Tanker a "satirical image created in Photoshop to illustrate the concept of peak oil," was created by AZRainman and available through Wikimedia Commons and his Flickr Photostream.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Puddle Sunset

Every now and then an accidental shot turns out better than most intentional efforts. The other evening, after yet another rain, I went out to see what the sky had to offer. My battery was running low, so after I got a few more-or-less ordinary, but pretty, pictures of the usual late winter north Texas sky, I went in to swap the battery out for a fresh one. Things were getting pretty intense, color-wise, so I stepped out the back door into a puddle, and looked down to see what opens the post. Who could resist a shot like that?

Two examples of the earlier views appear below: nice to look at, but pretty much what I've become used to since I started contributing to Skywatch Friday.

Well, it's off to errand-running and a full afternoon and evening of teaching, but I did want to wish everyone a great weekend. May the colors be with you--and happy Skywatch Friday.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Skywatch Friday: After the Rain

None of this week's entries are particularly spectacular, but after weeks of mostly dismal weather, and another recent succession of rainy days, this sunset offered a welcome change.

The opening photo is the last of the sequence, showing an interesting cloud pattern. The rest are from the beginning and middle of the progression--which took about seven minutes all together.

Happy Friday, and have a great weekend, fellow Skywatchers!

Photo notes: Taken at around 7 pm, 28 February 2010, with the Nikon D80.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is Resistance Futile?

As usual, the latest issue of Orion Magazine is chockablock with pithy, thought-provoking material, including another entry from that cranky young upstart, Derrick Jensen. This time he's on us about not sitting on our butts while the rest of the planet's inhabitants (i.e. non-human species) are being lost at the rate of about 120 a day.

And he may be right that if we don't get a whole lot more active about making significant change, we may well end up being one of those species one day. Jensen doesn't happen to think that the answer lies merely in composting or driving less or buying into the green economy, however. He thinks we have to get together and actually force changes in policy and practice, like the Movement for the Emancipaiton of the Niger Delta (MEND) has done in Africa against Big Oil (for some photos of the impact, see this article from National Geographic). Of course, one man's liberator is another man's terrorist, and the tactics used by MEND militants might be described as either, depending on the context. The people of the Niger Delta have indeed been exploited persistently and often brutally over the last fifty years, and their environment has been trashed just so folks in this town can drive whatever behemoth internal combustion-run vehicle they want to (it's a free country, after all), using fuel that costs less than a gallon of milk does.

The conversation about Jensen's article is running rather mildly (so far) compared to those about earlier essays, but I'm somewhat heartened that people generally seem to think that we can both be more active about how we pursue change and continue to make "lifestyle changes" that lessen our own personal impact on the planet. The armed rebellion option probably won't emerge, because Orion's readers tend to be a peaceful lot, and even though that's really the only way revolutions have occurred in the past, most of us don't cotton to violence--even the fairly mild kind exhibited by the more obnoxious tea-party types.

Violence these days brings with it too many complex consequences. We're still reeling from 9/11, and have since begun to realize that our collective response (kill the bastards) has not ended the threat of further violence. While a goal to end abortions might be laudable, killing abortion doctors accomplishes nothing, and seems counter intuitive if killing is what you want to stop. (Yes, I know that the argument pits the "guilty" doctors against the "innocent" unborn, but that's about as simplistic an idea as one can invent.) We are what we do, and if we do violence we invite violence.

So while I think Jensen is right that we need to be much more assertive in our political and social efforts to effect change, I don't really think we should start manning the canons. And in some cases we have to be rather subtle about how we approach problems, because every other guy on the street seems to have a concealed handgun permit. We can vote, we can join community groups, write letters, participate in environmental campaigns, volunteer, and practice what we preach. If you want to resist Big Oil, buy a hybrid vehicle or an electric car the next time you're in the market, and drive it to the nearest public transportation node whenever you can. (I say drive because the nearest DART station is fifteen miles away. Those of you who have one nearer might be able to walk.)

I don't think that the efforts more and more of us are making--composting, growing your own veg organically, buying renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, consuming less, recycling more, driving fewer miles in less-polluting automobiles, conserving water--are futile acts of spitting in the wind. They may not be enough, but they're better than nothing. If we can, by example, convince more and more people that change can happen this way, perhaps it really can.

But, as Jensen reminds us, another 120 species went extinct today; we may, thus, eventually run out of time.

Image credit: NASA photo of the Niger River Delta from space (north is on the left), via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Good News and Bad News in the Water Wars

As a once-stolid Republican and still something of a "crunchy con" (with apologies to Rod Dreher), I frequently find myself shaking my head at what is popularly considered a "conservative" viewpoint in this neck of the woods. In my day, conservatives (no capital C, thank you) were those who thought we should act prudently and spend carefully, and preserve values important to at least some of our ancestors: family, thrift, wise land use, pastoral life, kindness and caring, fiscal responsibility--that sort of old-fashioned stuff.

But over the last three centuries, the occupants of this part of north America, and in particular this part of north Texas, seem to have lost sight of the common good, preferring to spend with abandon on huge cars, big roads, enormous houses, and to treat water as if it was ours by right, no matter where we had to get it, and no matter from whom we took it. And as valuable as drinking water seems to be, Big Bidness and Big Agriculture in Texas seem to think it's also their divine right to dump anything they want to in the waterways.

According to the U. S. Drought Monitor, Texas is now drought-free for the first time in three years, and you just know that, come summer, the sprinkler systems will be drenching lawns all over the area until somebody points out to over-users that the situation is not exactly stable, and that "global weirding" (I will be forever grateful to Thomas Friedman for that one) has been known to offer up everything from tinder-dry amber waves of grain to gushing flood waters to Katrina-sized hurricanes--all within a very few years. So getting happy and frolicking in the sprinkler is probably not a very prudent way to proceed.

My own innate, old-fashioned (antique?) conservatism thus causes me to be grateful to the Texas Supreme Court's ruling that no, Dallas cannot flood 25,000 acres of land in east Texas to build yet another reservoir just so neighbors can let water run off their over-fertilized overly-verdant lawns into the streets all summer. Instead, the area will become a wildlife preserve--one I can't wait to visit once the planners get the land bought and the titles secured. It's good to know that Texas can exhibit the same kind of sense that California did in regard to the Lower Owens River Project, which has resulted in reviving the Owens River where I was born. (Well, not in the river itself, although the bulrushes in the opening photo might be a good place to look for baby Hebrew prophets.)

After having sat through I don't know how many commercials during the Olympics, urging us to drill and suck and grind and process more and more fossil fuels, it was deliciously pleasant to find out that there is some real conserving going on after all.

Most news these days is crammed with justifiable ire over the fiscal debt we're leaving our grandchildren, but the loudest voices say little about the environmental debt we're handing down to them. It might be possible for future generations to co-operate and grow food and co-exist if they run out of money, but if we pollute the air so badly that they can't breath it, disturb the climate so severely that weather patterns are seriously altered, or use up so much water that they can't sustain crops, we will hardly be remembered fondly.

While looking for photos to illustrate this post, I ran across a notice about Texas Water Day--held on February 9-10 in Washington, D. C. (somehow I missed it). The announcement was enough to cause a hefty smirk to emerge on my naturally skeptical face. It thanks prospective attendees for supporting Water For Texas, because "Clean, adequate, and affordable water protects public health, supports economic prosperity, and ensures a robust environment. Texas’ stewardship of this precious resource is unparalleled. Help us celebrate our successes and plan for the challenges ahead." Stewardship is hard to demonstrate if the answer to Texas's water problems is to mess with the environment and just build another damned dam. Pardon me if I smell a lobbyist. These folks stayed at the Liaison Hotel for $269 a night and spent part of their stay meeting with the Texas Congressional delegation. Hmmm.

I do wonder how much of that conversation centered on the prospects of a big new reservoir, but I suppose that next year's Texas Water Day might include some discussion, at least, about the necessity for expressing some of our vaunted conservative values through water thrift. I am somewhat reassured by the Texas Water Matters website, which seems to be taking a sane approach to the whole matter. Were we to manage our consumption better, we would prevent the necessity for future reservoirs in the area, according to the data presented on the TWM page for Region C, in which the Dallas/Fort Worth area lies.

Stock tip of the day: companies that make affordable rain barrels seem like a good investment.

But just as I was beginning to relax a bit about the water wars, today's New York Times includes a story about rulings that restrict the reach of the Clean Water Act and have thus resulted in pollution without prosecution in numerous cases over the last four years.

The problem seems to be with the Act's inclusion only of "navigable waters," which is open to a wide range of interpretation--even though, as the Times article points out, 117 million Americans obtain their drinking water from vulnerable sources.

This kind of short-brained thinking is going to cost our descendants far more than the various dollar amounts being tossed around in deficit discussions. The potential for future water deficits and/or polluted water sources seems to be far more threatening from where I sit, even with rain pouring down outside my window for the umteenth time this winter.

It's enough to make a person grateful for not having grandchildren.

Photo notes: I took this picture near the junction of US 395 and the road to the old Reward mine north of Lone Pine, California, in December of 2003.