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After this week I may try a different strategy for these link dumps: highlighting interesting articles as they appear.

There were more great articles last week than I could keep up with! Here are some of the best:

  • Your Food Doesn’t Come From the Store: A journey into the heart of industrial agriculture (Grist) – Grist had a great week-long series of articles on food and farming. In addition to the article linked above, I’d recommend the following:

  • Lazy-Ass Nation (Vanity Fair) – This is a funny and saddening look at our overriding quest for convenience. I found the following section to be particularly disturbing:
    “Hunting and the Internet nearly made the best combination since peanut butter and chocolate: Texas entrepreneur John Lockwood came up with a way for people sitting in front of home computers to shoot animals on his canned-hunting ranch. Lockwood had it rigged so that a customer, with a mere click of the mouse, could activate a .22-caliber rifle on his property. He managed to realize at least one instance of online hunting, when a friend of his logged on and shot a wild hog in the neck from his desktop, before state and federal lawmakers outlawed the practice. For now it looks as if Lockwood will have to be content to go down as some sort of lazy-ass pioneer.”

  • Climbing Down The Ladder (The Archdruid Report) – Yet another great article by John Michael Greer on succession and civilization.
    “In the middle term, societies that combine sustainable subsistence strategies and economies with an effective use of the industrial age’s legacy technologies will likely do much better than the lingering fossil fuel-dependent societies they replace, or the ecotechnic societies that will replace them in turn. Only when fossil fuel production has dropped to the point that coal and oil are rare geological curiosities, and the remaining legacies of the industrial age no longer play a significant economic role, will ecotechnic societies come into their own… Instead of trying to make the leap to an ecologically balanced, fully sustainable society all at once, it may turn out to be necessary to climb down the ladder a step at a time, adapting to changes as they happen, and trying to anticipate each step in succession in time to prepare for it, while working out the subsistence strategies and social networks of the future on a variety of smaller scales.”

  • Diet for Small Planet May Be Most Efficient if It Includes Dairy and a Little Meat, Cornell Researchers Report (Cornell University) – This was a very interesting study which found that a purely vegetarian food production system in New York state would feed fewer people than if it also integrated small-scale animal production. This makes intuitive sense, but it’s nice to see the numbers worked out. Sharon Astyk (author of Casaubon’s Book) has published a nice take on this study as well.
    “‘Surprisingly, however, a vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most efficient in terms of land use,’ said Peters. The reason is that fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality cropland, he explained. Meat and dairy products from ruminant animals are supported by lower quality, but more widely available, land that can support pasture and hay. A large pool of such land is available in New York state because for sustainable use, most farmland requires a crop rotation with such perennial crops as pasture and hay. Thus, although vegetarian diets in New York state may require less land per person, they use more high-valued land.”

  • Shipping Pollution ‘Far More Damaging Than Flying’ (The Independent) – A new study finds that emissions from shipping exceed that from aviation. While I think it’s important to draw attention to the immense pollution arising from the shipping industry, and to do something to reduce it, I think this article is a bit unfair in that it doesn’t compare the numbers of most importance: the pollution generated from transporting X tons of goods by ship versus transporting X tons of goods by jet. I suspect that the latter would be orders of magnitude higher.
    “Recent studies in the US and the Netherlands showed pollutants from ships contribute half of the smog-related sulphur dioxide in Los Angeles. In Rotterdam, North Sea shipping lanes run within 25 miles of the shore, spewing pollution that can travel up to 1,000 miles. ‘If you want to improve air quality on land, you will have a larger effect from spending one euro at sea than you will have spending one euro on land,’ said Pieter Hammingh, from the Dutch environment agency.”

  • As the World Burns: Powerdown Revisited (Richard Heinberg) – An interesting discussion of the possible societal and governmental responses to post-peak economic decline, plus a depressing summary of recent events from a Peak Oil perspective. This article is a nice complement to the one I linked to above by John Michael Greer, as they both hit on some similar themes.
    “Where shall we focus our efforts? As I suggested in Powerdown, there is important work to be done at all levels of social organization. Individuals and families should take to heart the advice given prior to every commercial airline flight: ‘Secure your oxygen mask before helping others.’ In other words, see to your own survival prospects first. This is not necessarily selfish behavior: communities and nations in which individual members are prepared and relatively self-sufficient will fare much better than those in which everyone is dependent and unequipped. If no one is prepared, who can teach others what to do? Learn the life-skills of the pre-fossil-fuel era; know how to use and repair hand tools; know where your water comes from and how to compost wastes; grow food. Communities must begin now to redevelop their local support infrastructure – especially local food systems… In any case, two things are absolutely clear: business as usual is not one of the options; and the more we do now to prepare at every level, the better off we all will be.”

  • A Carbon-Negative Fuel (WorldChanging) – A great article about gasification and biochar (aka terra preta), which have a ton of potential to provide both a fuel source and an agricultural fertilizer, while sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere. In my opinion this is one of the few energy technologies we should really be putting our resources into developing.
    “We’ve mentioned terra preta before: it’s a human-made soil or fertilizer. ‘Three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous, and twenty times the carbon of normal soils, terra preta is the legacy of ancient Amazonians who predate Western civilization’… These simpler molecules are more easily broken down by microbes and plants as food, and bond more easily with key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. This is what makes terra preta such good fertilizer. Because terra preta locks so much carbon in the soil, it’s also a form of carbon sequestration that doesn’t involve bizarre heroics like pumping CO2 down old mine shafts. What’s more, it may reduce other greenhouse gases as well as water pollution… As it happens, the process of burning/pyrolisizing agricultural char is also a way to produce energy.”

  • Prairie Chicken: Why environmental groups have been slow to fight the border wall (Grist) – This is an interesting article about the insane wall being built along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the political reasons that environmental groups have shied away from fighting it more vigorously.
    “However, a 2006 NBC poll found that a significant majority of people said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored building a fence along the border. And that may explain some of the momentum. Precisely because of the wall’s ineffectiveness in stanching the flow of people across the border, it’s the perfect solution for the many members of Congress who want to show their constituents they’re doing something about illegal immigration — without actually cutting off the supply of cheap labor demanded by Big Ag and the service industry.”

Last week was slow in terms of good articles to link to, so I decided to combine it with this week. I’m still going to keep the list short, however, because I haven’t caught up on all my reading for this week.

  • Visions of a Biofuel Future (Jeff Vail) – On the humanitarian crises starting to stem from biofuel production.
    “Indentured servitude, a workforce confined to the borders of the plantation by armed guards, being ‘paid’ by being allowed to live in unlit huts and drink water from the pig trough. Violations punished by summary execution and burial in an unmarked pit. This sounds like a historical account of life on a colonial plantation of the 18th century, but is actually the description of the sugar industry, today, in the Dominican Republic… Of course, the larger issue here is that biofuel production is dependent on exactly this industry… It may be quite some time before Americans are enslaved in the production of fuel for other Americans’ cars, but are we so racist/nationalist/blind to accept the enslavement of others to these ends?”

  • Toward An Ecotechnic Society (The Archdruid Report) – More on the ecological succession model of human civilizations.
    “As it exists today, the industrial economy can best be described in ecological terms as a scheme for turning resources into pollution at the highest possible rate. Thus resource exhaustion and pollution problems aren’t accidental outcomes of industrialism, they’re hardwired into the industrial system: the faster resources turn into pollution, the more the industrial economy prospers, and vice versa. That forms the heart of our predicament. Peak oil is simply one symptom of a wider crisis – the radical unsustainability of a system that has evolved to maximize resource consumption on a finite planet – and trying to respond to it without dealing with the larger picture simply guarantees that other symptoms will surface elsewhere and take its place.”

  • October 6 – When One Planet Was No Longer Enough (iNSnet.org) – This is an interesting idea – the Global Footprint Network calculated how many Earths we would need to support our current levels of consumption (the answer right now is 1.3). Based on that, they determined the day of the year on which we began living off “ecological debt”. That day is getting earlier and earlier each year.
    “‘Humanity is living off its ecological credit card,’ said Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director of Global Footprint Network, ‘Just as spending more money than you have in the bank leads to financial debt, ecological overshoot, or using more resources than the planet can renew in a year, accumulates an ecological debt. This can go on for a short time, but ultimately it leads to a build up of waste and the depletion of the very resources on which the human economy depends.’”

  • Of Doomers, Realists, Powerdowners and Fantasists (Energy Bulletin) – This is a good article discussing Peak Oil “doomers” (i.e. people who believe we are in for a hard crash) and “powerdowners” (people who believe we are in for a gradual, soft landing). Which side is being most realistic?
    ‘Doomers’ in the article are also used in an analogy with religious fundamentalists, people normally charged with being (as Sinclair Lewis put it) superbly trained in reconciling contradictions. But in my opinion, anyone who maintains that biofuels will save the day, that voluntary simplicity is a feasible solution to Peak Oil, or that energy can decrease and population stay the same, is hard at work at contradiction reconciling.

  • Barack Obama’s Plan to Make America a Global Energy Leader (via Gristmill) – I’m not posting this in order to advocate voting for him (he’s not even my preferred candidate), but I was pleasantly surprised by his new energy plan. It seems to be quite good in most respects, from what I can make of it. I’m not impressed by his advocacy of biofuels, coal, and nuclear energy, but he does say that these energy sources should only be utilized if the numerous issues surrounding them can be resolved. Whether he’ll stick by that statement down the road when we’re desperate for energy is another matter… I do really like that his plan includes a restructuring of our communities to support a more sustainable transportation infrastructure, as well as an emphasis on higher efficiency.

I’m a little late in posting this, but here are some of the best articles/posts I came across last week:

  • The NASA Delusion (Gristmill) – Although I love the idea of space exploration and for most of my life have whole-heartedly supported it, I’ve changed my tune a lot in the past year. With all the impending crises we’re currently facing (Peak Oil and other energy issues, global climate change, habitat destruction and mass extinction, desertification and salinization of arable land, etc., etc., etc.), the idea of spending trillions of dollars to build a moon base now seems completely ludicrous to me. We need to get over the Sci-Fi pipe dreams we have of living in a Star Trek-like technological society and start putting our resources and ingenuity toward building a simpler and more sustainable civilization.
    “So what’s the problem? After all, I’d rather see NASA waste the money than see it wasted somewhere else in the government. The problem is that NASA’s budget is, to a good approximation, a zero-sum game. The money for the Moon-Mars project is being taken out of useful and productive science programs — including robotic missions to other planets as well as research on our own planet.”

  • Feet of Clay (Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog) – Discussion of interesting research in China which is resulting in more sustainable rice farming though the use of varietal intercropping.
    “Zhu’s name is associated with a method of growing rice that delivers higher, more stable yields with lower inputs of fungicides and a more stable harvest from year to year. Not bad for an amazingly simple idea… The solution is to grow the varieties as a mixture. In the paddy, four or eight rows of modern hybrid alternate with a row of traditional landrace.”

  • Biofuel: Is it a Greenhouse Gas, Gas, Gas? (Gristmill) – Further discussion of an article I linked to last week, regarding the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from biofuel production.
    “In 2006, U.S. ethanol producers burned through 18 percent of the corn harvest to offset 3 percent of gasoline use. What the Minnesota study is telling us is that we could increase corn ethanol production by two-thirds (to achieve a 5 percent offset) — burning through 40 percent of the corn crop — and still only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by just a bit more than a half percent… And — finally coming to the point of this post — a new study [PDF] has emerged declaring that even that comically paltry GHG benefit may be spectral. Biofuel use may actually increase GHG emissions.”

  • Civilization and Succession (The Archdruid Report) – This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time and it has greatly impacted my thinking about sustainability. The basic gist is that we can view civilizations through the lens of ecological succession and gain a much better understanding of why societies have followed the courses they have. This article is a must read.
    “The industrial economy is well into overshoot at this point, and at this point a crash of some kind is pretty much inevitable. At the same time, the more efficient K-selected human ecologies of the future have been sending up visible shoots since the 1970s, in the form of a rapidly spreading network of small organic farms, local farmer’s markets, appropriate technology, and alternative ways of thinking about the world, among many other things… A truly advanced civilization, here or elsewhere, might well have more in common with a climax community: it might use very modest amounts of energy and resources with high efficiency, maximize sustainability, and build for the long term.”

  • How Fast is Global Warming Happening? (Casaubon’s Book) – A good synopsis of recent research on global climate change. The bottom line is that Earth’s climate is warming up much, much faster than even the most pessimistic projections.
    “…this summer’s ice retreat was so dramatic, that in, fact, the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center is now suggesting that the arctic could be ice free as early as 2015, 8 years from now. In less than six months, we’ve jumped our predictions for a major tipping point factor up by a minimum of 30 years. That’s astonishing – and terrifying… One of the most disturbing things about listening to scientists studying climate change, then, is the fear in the voices and words of people not accustomed to be fearful, and the sense that generally speaking, scientists are far more worried than most of us are. We can either believe they are worried because they are foolish, easily frightened and scaremongering, or we can believe they are afraid because they are seeing things they have never seen before with implications that are terrifying, and do not understand why the rest of us are so unafraid.”

  • Eating Locally (Discover Magazine) – This is an old article, but I just came across it this week. It’s about Gary Nabhan’s experiences eating locally in Arizona for a year. We haven’t read his book about this yet, but it’s definitely on our short list of books to read in the near future!
    “From then on, 80 percent of Nabhan’s food would come from within a 250-mile radius of his home— about as far as he could drive (and drive back) in one day or walk in 10. ‘It seemed like an area within which, historically, you might have some cognizance of your neighbors,’ he says. He wanted at least 90 percent of what he ate to be native to the Southwest, but he kept his goals realistic…”

There were a lot of great articles this week, and here were the highlights for me:

  • Vegeculture: Further Rethinking How We Eat (Casaubon’s Book) – We should be growing more root crops.
    “Hand produced polycultures of one acre that emphasize roots integrated with perennial plantings a la permaculture or vegeculture and include animals to eat wastes and maintain fertility can dramatically outproduce existing monocultures of grains.”

  • Can You Spare a Dime? Why We Could….But Won’t (Casaubon’s Book) – On the (impossible?) challenges we face in simply maintaining our existing infrastructure and way of life.
    “And the reality is this – we actually need very few fossil fuels. There is little question that human beings pee out enough nitrogen to keep us fed, along with judicious use of land. Our basic needs – and I mean very basic ones – are for food, shelter, water… The vast majority of what we use fossil fuels for are comfort and convenience, and we may find that without them, we do surprisingly well.”

  • Crop Yields Expand, but Nutrition is Left Behind (Worldwatch Institute) – We are growing more food than ever (apparently; I thought food production worldwide was declining), but our food is less nutritious than ever.
  • Vegetarianism and Environmentalism (Grist) – This article hits on a point which I plan to write about in a separate post eventually – “environmentalism” is difficult to define and is, in my opinion, counter-productive and misguided.
    “Is it true that you cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist? This is a deeply silly question. The term ‘environmentalist’ is socially contingent and highly contested. Environmentalism has no metaphysical essence. ‘You aren’t an environmentalist’ is moral judgment masquerading as an assertion of fact.”

  • On Meat Eating and Global Warming (Grist) – We need to be eating less meat.
  • Top 25 Censored Stories 2008 (Project Censored) – A scary list of news stories.
  • George Marshall on Our Personal Efforts to Reduce Climate Change (The Guardian) – This is a fantastic article, which I mostly agree with. I love the analogy I quoted below:
    “Why is everyone so keen to believe that tiny actions can prevent climate change? We are given easy household tips by campaigners and the government that will help ‘save the climate’… Lest you think I am being harsh, look at this from a different point of view. Imagine that someone came up with a brilliant new campaign against smoking. It would show graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the punchline: ‘It’s easy to be healthy – smoke one less cigarette a month.’”

  • Can’t We All Just… Be Vegans? (Grist) – We can all be vegans and still eat meat! At least, we can be 50% vegans… An argument for a more critical analysis of the environmental impacts of eating meat.
    “Allowing a sustainable number of cows to sustainably graze natural grasslands is essentially a carbon neutral exercise, especially if the meat is processed and consumed locally with little or no fossil fuels. It is only when expansion of that grazing is accomplished by destroying grasslands or forests that it becomes carbon intensive.”

  • You Are What You Buy (Grist) – “On the impact of food purchases.”
  • Solving Fermi’s Paradox (The Archdruid Report) – Another fantastic article from John Michael Greer. This one is about the limits on technological advance.
    “Throughout the history of our species, in fact, each technological revolution has depended on accessing a more concentrated form of energy than the ones previously available. The modern faith in progress assumes that this process can continue indefinitely. Such an assertion, however, flies in the face of thermodynamic reality.”

  • Biodiversity, Trash Heaps, and the Evolutionary Origins of Crops (Earth Forum) – Discusses a recent paper on the origins of some domesticated plants in Mexico.
  • Traditional English Cooking: Nettle Pudding and Other Ancient Recipes (Daily Mail) – Interesting recipes from pre-Roman Britain.
    “Served with a wild duck or cinnamon sauce, hedgehog was the provenance of the rich, with its thorny nature meaning it would have been avoided by all but the most adventurous cooks. Barley bread was popular from around 5,000BC, while pottage, or meat and vegetable stew, became part of the Ancient Briton’s diet 3,000 years later.”

  • Grasshopper Stew (Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog) – This is a funny coincidence, as we are planning to harvest some of the grasshoppers that are currently filling our garden.
    “Apparently, harvesting grasshoppers mechanically to eat and sell them is not only good for your nutrition and income, it can also save on pesticide use.”

  • Jordan: The Kafrin Site, Part 2 (Permaculture Reflections) – Describes an amazing permaculture project in Jordan. There is also a great video about it on YouTube. One interesting local angle to this project was that they utilized our native foothills palo verde (Parkinsonia microphylla).
  • Rapeseed Biofuel ‘Produces More Greenhouse Gas Than Oil or Petrol’ (Times Online) – Another reason why biofuels (at least some of them) are bad ideas. The described study demonstrates why it is important to consider greenhouse gases in addition to carbon dioxide.
    “Measurements of emissions from the burning of biofuels derived from rapeseed and maize have been found to produce more greenhouse gas emissions than they save… Rapeseed and maize biodiesels were calculated to produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels.”

I came across a lot of interesting articles online this week. Here are the highlights:

One of the things I plan to do on this blog is to post links to the most interesting or relevant stories I’ve read each week. Usually these will be sustainability- or food-related, but often they will be about interesting science papers or other topics. To start this trend off, here is the link dump for this week:

And for something completely different:

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