Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Deforestation and Climate Change

Last night I had dinner with some musician friends from High School (thanks Facebook for making such a meeting possible!). And there were only two of us who had left the fine arts world for science. My friend Abbie (who used to play Oboe in the Vermont Youth Orchestra) has been working on the international politics of global climate change. Her most recent Masters Degree (she now has two) in Environmental Studies led her to a thesis regarding the importance of including deforestation policy in climate change talks. According to her 1/5th of the world's Green House Gas emissions come from deforestation, slash & burn, in the rainforest. And that's the cheapest thing to fix. Instead of building wind turbines, or switching to biodiesel, we could just not destroy forest land for agricultural use.

According to Abbie, slash & burn in the Amazon was, once upon a time, a sustainable technique used by natives for agriculture. A small population would clear an area of forest, but the land was so poor that it could only support them for a handful of years, after which they'd pick up camp, move to another location and do the same thing until, after about a 30 year period they would end up at the original plot.

Abbie's thought is that a high carbon-emitting country could pay a highly forested-country to not cut down their forest land as a way to offset or sequester their carbon.

This plan was opposed by Abbie's friend who works first-hand with Brazilian farmers saying that in such a case, one country basically pays the government of another country and the farmers who need jobs are left with nothing.

Here's as fundamental question: how can we both preserve forest land and create jobs for native peoples?

When a french-horn playing friend asked, "so what's an acre of forest worth?" Abbie replied that it depends on the type of forest and how much carbon is sequestered there. For some forest areas that have been burned it may take on the order of 50 years to gain back the carbon lost to decay or burning. However, the peat forests in Indonesia which are incredibly carbon dense, she said once those have been filled in for agriculture, the space will *never* recapture all the carbon it once held. And ironically, the agriculture in Indonesia is largely for Palm Oil, which is used in many products, but also biodeisel. Apparently the EU just put out a mandate that some percentage of all transportation fuel must be biodeisel. So this mandate is creating a market for a horribly carbon-unfriend practice. Bleh! So complicated!

All this stuff sounds fairly depressing and too big to handle, but I'd like to propose that it's not too big. It's all just policy. Let's change the mindset. I think, globally our morals are shifting, so what should they be? Look at whole systems, give back what you take, businesses need morals too, what do people need?, progress at what cost? hmmm I feel another post coming on... :)

On another note entirely:
Last night I had a dream that my students were presenting their original calculations regarding energy and climate change at a church and WCAX was there and wanted to know if we wanted to use their microphones or if we should use our own. I came up to give an introduction to the presentations when I woke up, and as I did the phrase throbbing in my head was:

"The Rich want to Drive. The Poor want to Eat."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Remembering Romaine Tenney: "The Man Who Would Not Be Moved"

I heard this story from my mom last night, which I felt was so compelling that we did a little more research and found an article regarding the events in an old newsletter. Here's my version.

In Ascutney Vermont back in the 60's there lived an old man who had a small farm with a gorgeous 19th century gingerbread farm house and a barn across the road. Romaine Tenney, who had been born in the house was the only one of nine siblings still living there, working the farm, which had 40 cows. He was quoted as saying "I was born in this house and I'll die in this house."

Mr. Tenney milked his cows by hand even in 1964. After a little research I found an article in a newsletter from the Weathersfield Historical Society by Edith F. Hunter which states, "He did not approve of electricity, daylight savings time, or gasoline powered vehicles. He heated his house with wood stoves, lighted with kerosine lamps, and did his farming with horses." Mom says she remembers him because he used to rent pasture land from her parents' farm, and he would drive his cows up the road to Weathersfield and their farm, always walking along behind the cows.

"In the early 1960's I-91 was being constructed" the article says. "Many things stood in its way - rocky hills that had to be dynamited, wetlands that had to be filled in, houses and barns that had to be moved or destroyed. One of those houses... was the farm of Romaine Tenney in Ascutney." Tenney resisted all offers from I-91 reps. They offered him almost ten times what the property was worth according to town records, and he wouldn't budge. They offered to move the house, but that was eventually deemed unfeasible.

As I-91 made its progress closer to Tenney's property neighbors offered to help him move, the local school offered to donate large boxes so he could move his belongings, to which Tenney replied, "Perhaps I can use them, or at least they will burn well."

As my mom was telling me this story, I thought it was going to end, "and that's why there's a funny little bend in I-91", but no, that's not how the story ends.

Again from the article: "On Friday, Sept. 11, [1964] the county sheriff came with a court order to remove Romaine Tenny's possessions, and brought along four helpers and two trucks to get the job done." Apparently these movers just started working, moving stuff around all day.

Later that night, after another man named Fitch had dropped off his children's baby sitter he drove by the house and noticed the interior was "all aglow", and there was a strange light inside the barn. He raced to the fire department, but when they arrived they could not break down the door because it had been "spiked" shut. Even if they could have gone in it would have been unsafe as the building was structurally unsound at that point as the fire consumed the house.

Tenney's dogs and cows had been set loose outside the barn, which also burned to the ground.
The next morning, inside the house they found what they believed to be human remains in a bedroom with a .32 caliber rifle, revolver, and exploded shells, although it was unclear if the shells exploded from the fire and the barrels of both the revolver and rifle had been melted shut.

When Mom drives down 91 she knows exactly where the house was and remembers Mr. Tenney as she drives inches above where his house once stood.

Emminent domain is maybe one of the scariest laws I can think of - it symbolizes all that I don't love about forms of government with high level of intervention such as socialism and communism. This also means that despite the fact that I wish certain properties in Montpelier would be managed differently, I respect the fact that it's not my decision and the state, the "will of the people", should not force a change.

True as this story is, it serves as a fable or archetypal myth conveying sentiments which I believe many Vermonters identify with. The reclusive old ludite harrassed by the government in a fit of depression gives in and destroys something beautiful in a final catastrophic statement about progress. Where are we going? Is it somewhere good? Who decides what is good and what is meant by "progress"?

These are difficult questions that I believe many Vermonters are currently struggling with. I hear it in conversations at church, at school, and with students. When students gave me a positive reaction to the possibility of an electro-magnetic pulse bomb going off over America, that certainly gave me pause to question our current state of technology.

The story also raises questions about states rights vs. the rights of individuals. Who's will is more important: those of property owners, or the collective majority's will, the rich foreigner's will or the poor native's will. I believe it's part of the state's job to look out for the rights of its poor constituency.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sustainability Rally and VECAN Conference

The last few days have been just crammed with ... wow - great, bad, wonderful, horrible stuff.

Let's start with the highlights:
Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network (VECAN) conference at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. That was just awesome. I went to regional policy session first: not that interesting, but good to know, and meanwhile I found myself brainstorming about other things. Then I dialogued with a VTC prof with whom I'd been meaning to connect, Joan Hall-Richmond. We're both interested in engaging students in the weatherization process. She might also be interested in the Summer of Solutions program (which I'm not sure if I'll do yet).

Then I got to chat with Ken Jones, which was great (as usual), then a final session led by the "ethical consciousness director" for Seventh Generation, Gregor Barnum. There were other people presenting, but he was mainly the show. And he was really good - gosh, he was funny, but I enjoyed his presentation on the Low Carbon Diet workbook very much. I've already proposed doing it with my environmental Bible study group at St. Andrew's.

And finally instead of hearing another speaker I connected with Kimberly Hagen of VEEP (Vermont Energy Education Program?) so she's planning to come to my class to do some energy demonstrations, which I'm completely stoked about.

After the conference I went to a friends house for a potluck followed by a contra dance in Montpelier. And wow. I had never been to the one in Montpelier before, but it was packed with spectrum of ages: people my age, high school-aged folks, middle aged, and more gray-haired folk. It was also one of the few events that I've been to at which there were more men than women. *gasp!* Anyway, I had a ball - thanks for entertaining this paragraph of non-physics related material.

On Friday of the weekend I went to a rally with a bunch of (mostly) college kids, followed by hanging out with legislators and getting a feel for the up coming session and students were able to discuss issues they cared about. It was great.

So now... instead of relating the low points of the weekend, how about we'll frame it as things I've learned:

From the rally:
If I'm not in charge, I should not pick up other people's garbage.
Rely most heavily on adults rather than students to get things done.
I just need to be a confident leader and people will follow.
It's important to keep an open hand and let things evolve as they will evolve. I can't control outcomes.
Having friends around can help me breathe in the midst of chaos.

From the press:
Be careful about what you say to reporters.
Don't involve the media unless you really believe in what's happening.

From the aftermath of the article:
It's best to sweep up miscommunications right away so that feelings are not hurt.

If you'd like to read the article it's here (it had some less than bright implications about our relationship with the cafeteria).

Altogether I'd say it was a successful weekend even with all the madness with the media. We'll just chalk that up to my own education.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Is Your Life Sustainable? Reflections on busy-ness

This evening I met with one of the pastors of St. Andrew's over tea at Uncommon Ground in Burlington, and I told him all about the latest excitments in my life:

Recent trip to Chicago for a Knowles Science Teaching fellows meeting; I just got interviewed by a woman from the Bridge for an upcoming article about Capitol Area Neighborhoods; VSHI is hosting a rally for sustainability this Friday and KSTF's advertising company caught wind of it and so they've managed to interest the Times Argus sometime before the rally; and apparently Vermont Magazine is interested in an interview in the near future.

Meanwhile I'm working on weatherizing the homes of St. Andrew's goers, visioning where St. Andrew's should go next, and just today I met up with a guy from the Roots school in Calais which teaches primitive and survival skills. I'd really like to have him come to my classroom to teach students how to make fire, in conjunction with our unit on force and friction.

In the course of conversation he said, "Do you think your life is sustainable?"

I said immediately, "no", but I was really just referencing the gasoline in my car and the propane heating my house. Of course, that's not what he meant, and so it gave me pause to wonder if I could continually bite off more than I could chew indefinitely. Maybe. I've been doing it for so long that I don't know what else I would do, how else I would live.

Maybe if I ever decide to date someone, then maybe I'll slow down. What's more important relationships or changing the world?