Monday, December 27, 2010

Making Things

There are deep snowdrifts outside and fierce, blowing winds. Inside the family is busy with projects. Phil is braiding a piece of wool fabric to patch the  rug that sits in the middle of our living room, a giant ten or more feet in diameter that my grandmother made thirty years ago. The girls are busy with projects they started over Christmas weekend - a lacy turquoise scarf and a warm earth-toned striped one, each perfectly matched to the personalities of the knitters.

Our Christmas was rich with hand-made gifts, too, My parents worked together to make beautiful wooden boxes for each of the grandchildren: sturdy tool chests with wrought iron hinges for the boys, delicate angled boxes for the girls. Phil's knitting needles were flying through socks and hats that weren't quite finished in time for wrapping. Spread across the kitchen table are the parts of a secret present for grandparents, aimed to be finished by New Year's when we'll see them next.

The pure satisfaction around here when the last stitch is knitted and the scarf is draped around a neck or the hat is pulled onto a head is a thing to behold. From the four year-old weaving pot-holders with his new loom under the Christmas tree, to his grandpa unveiling his beautiful wooden boxes, the desire to create things that are beautiful and useful runs strong and deep in most of us, maybe all of us. The products of this desire are as varied as the individuals with the compulsion to create:  well crafted sentences, paintings, patchwork quilts, six-layer cakes, or well-executed computer code. When I look at the people around me, it's the act of creation that brings the pleasure, as much as the finished product.

In the transition to sustainability we are going to need to call upon and depend upon all sorts of new 'high-tech" inventions, from smart-grids to super-efficient materials, but we are also going to need to shift to a world focused on quality rather than quantity, on designing things to be patched and fixed and re-used, rather than tossed away when a plastic part snaps or a circuit burns out.  In the world we need to be moving towards,  making thing will be not just a pleasure but, it seems to me, an integral part of life. Therein lies a blessing:  the forces pushing us to more sustainable ways of living seem to be pushing us towards more satisfying ways of living, at the same time.

Our younger daughter and her friend just came up the stairs to the room next door to my office. "I'm in a project mood" announces the friend.  While I write these few paragraphs, yarn and needles are coming out, the ideas are taking shape, and I keep overhearing snatches of conversation:  a serious disagreement about the definition of knit and purl and finally agreement:('the swirling things are knit and the things that look like braids are purl.' There's some sort of struggle with the 'darned slip knot', a quick lesson in casting on ('you point a gun and then go up with the yarn') and then the needles are clicking in earnest, and the two are chatting away like grandmothers on a front porch.

I worry about these children and their generation a lot of the time. But, along with the messes they are inheriting, they are, in the changed world they will inherit, going to  discover gifts, as well. If they dig deep enough into themselves, they will find, they obviously already are finding, aptitudes and attitudes that will carry them well through turbulent times. Or so I hope.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Borrowing and Sharing

In yesterday's post I wrote about studies of happiness that show people tend to define what they need to be happy in relation to what they see around them and discussed how this can lead to escalating consumption and escalating environmental impacts. The more stuff in a community, the more people feel the need for more stuff, or so the logic of this feedback loop goes.

But in real systems no feedback loop exists in isolation. Today scanning through my Cobb Hill community emails, I was struck by the evidence for the exact opposite process, at least in our little community of 23 families, where borrowing, lending, and sharing often saves us from needing more stuff of our own.

Here, from the emails over the weekend is a sampling of the evidence:

  • I’m looking for a small piece of wire mesh, about 5x5” – could be a scrap of window screen or something heavier.
  • Does anyone at Cobb Hill have a soldering iron suitable for electronics, that I could borrow for a few days?A short length of flux-cored solder would also be helpful.
  • Does anyone at Cobb Hill have a socket set with 1/4-inch drive or similar, with sockets going from about 3/16 to 7/16 inch, and from 4 to 10 mm, that I could borrow for a few days? It doesn't have to have a rachet, a driver will do just as well.
  • Anyone have a bulb for a mudroom florescent light they would lend us until we can get a new one? 2 tubes, four prongs. Your neighbors in the dark.

On top of the borrowing and lending there are four or five emails about activities this week that require no (or hardly any) consumption, from gingerbread house building for kids, to a weekly photography class for teenagers, to Christmas morning waffles in the common house.

All sorts of new habits are needed to move from a world where more abundance around us leads us to us want more and more material goods of our own to a world where more abundance around us means we can be happy with less of our own.

From learning to ask for help to remembering to return things in cleaner, better shape than we received them, none of this seems to be second nature for folks raised in modern industrialized societies. But, ten years into the experiment of Cobb Hill, informal trades and sharing seem to work much more often than they fail. And from simple community email lists to websites specializing in car sharing or barter, new twists on the kind of sharing our grandparents took for granted offer one of the lowest cost, most efficient solutions to the sustainability challenge.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Radical Act of Defining Enough For Yourself

Not long ago, a colleague sent around some results from studies of human happiness which show that despite strong increases in the amount of stuff in people's lives in the developed world in recent decades, self-reporting of happiness hasn't increased all that much. The research shows that people tend to base their sense of what they need to be happy not on some absolute internal sense of well being, but instead on a sort of mental comparison between themselves and others. With such mental calculus, the feeling of "enough" is never constant, but instead is ever-rising. In systems terms, this way of searching for happiness has the same dynamics that drove the Cold War search for security through  assembling ever larger stores of weapons.

System dynamics teaches that there is one way out of any arms race, be it the race to obtain security by stockpiling more weapons than your enemy or happiness by acquiring more stuff than your neighbor. Arms races loose their fuel as soon as one party stops participating. The enoughness race, and its relentless impact on the Earth, would slow if more and more people found a way to set their own definition of enough and live by it.

Easier said than done, as seems always to be the case for true leverage points.

But, after a weekend of simple pleasures, from cheering for 8th grade basketball players, to walking in quiet woods, from listening to Christmas music, to cooking good food, it seems to me that defining enough may not be as hard as we sometimes think. And, not long home from the most recent UN climate conference, a simple fundamental solution, like defining what is enough, seems like it just might accomplish what geo-engineering, carbon markets, and new technologies might not. It might help us create societies that recognize and embrace the reality that our beautiful planet is also finite.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's Not Our Planet, It's Yours

A slow cold rain is falling, I've spent the day catching up on paperwork and emails with one eye on the headlines as the world analyzes and reacts to the 'Cancun Agreements'.  The rush of travel and analysis is behind me for now, the press release analyzing the Cancun Agreements is posted on the Climate Interactive website, and, finally, there is a little time to reflect.

No one expected tremendous progress in Cancun, to say the least. But still, when a journalist asked me today if I found it 'worrisome' that the Cancun talks didn't make progress to close the gap between the level of effort countries are willing to commit to and the level of effort that science tells us is needed, it was all I could do not to snap at her. Worrisome? Of course its worrisome. I've got young children who need us to do better than this. They need us to hand the planet over to them in better shape than we are on track to do so far.

I hung up the phone and watched again a video someone  pointed me towards in Cancun.  In it,  the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres  answers a group of young activists who ask her what inspires her to do the work that she does. "It's you," she says, fighting back tears.
 Look: We’re doing this but this has nothing to do with us. It’s all about you. It’s all about you. We’re the ones that have caused the problem but you’re the ones that are going to have to pay for it, right? The fact is, I’m the mother of two women about your age, and I realized many years ago that I had inherited a planet that was a diminished planet. And that if I didn’t do something about it, my daughters would grow up in a planet that had been severely diminished by what we’re doing. And I just can’t look at my daughters in the eyes and not do whatever I can.
So, it’s you. It’s about the kind of planet that you’re going to have. It’s honestly not my planet. It’s yours, okay? We borrowed it from you for a few minutes. But you will take it over very soon, because it’s yours. And you’re going to have to give it over to your children.
Honestly, there’s no perfect job here, okay? Nothing that we are going to do in Cancun is going to be perfect. Don’t expect perfection. Nothing is going to be highly ambitious. Nothing. Everything here is going to be one step, and everything is going to be insufficient. But it is the best that this group of people in these circumstances, with these political constraints, in this economic environment, can do for the time being. And as soon as this finishes we have to start pushing for the next step. And so it goes. But each one of us that is here has the moral responsibility to do the absolute best that we can at that moment under those circumstances. So what inspires me? It’s you.
 Many people are finding reasons for hope in the outcomes of the Cancun Agreements. I'm not sure, that Christiana's words make me hopeful exactly, but the fact that our world has chosen someone to lead the global climate treaty process who is in touch with her heart and grounded in current reality is, at the very least, a reason to keep on going. Like Christiana, how can we not do whatever we can?

Please, take a moment, and take in the UNFCCC leader's words and spirit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

At COP-16: Some Progress, Further to Go

Last year in Copenhagen, our team's message was "we've made some progress and have further to go."

Whenever we were interviewed by the press or had a chance to brief a policy-maker about our analysis of the pledges for emissions reductions, we stressed that if the pledges were implemented, future generations would experience somewhat less warming than under "business as usual" but that current pledges were not sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change within the century.

Now, one year later, back home after the conclusion of the Cancun round of UNFCCC negotiations, the message of our analysis is still the same.

No countries increased the ambition of their pledges, and the body as a whole did not set forth targets for emissions reductions beyond 2020. The end of the conference had some steps that most observers consider progress, and the Mexican hosts are widely recognized for their skilled diplomacy and consensus-building. The negotiators agreed to keep on talking, and to take up, in 2011, the challenges of increasing the strength of 2020 pledges and making commitments for longer-term reductions. They reaffirmed the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C and agreed to revist the goal in a few years to decide if an even lower target might be appropriate.

With many speculating that the whole process might become deadlocked in tensions between rich an poor nations, the fact that the Cancun Agreements  emerged at all signifies that commitment to global cooperation on climate change is still strong. The rounds of standing ovation for the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs during the final sessions were more about celebrating the ability and willingness of countries to keep on talking rather than any decisive actions on behalf of the climate.

One oft quoted Greenpeace campaigner summed up the results well when he said that the talks represent "a victory for the process more than a victory for the climate".

And so, as in the days after Copenhagen, the message still seems to be:  "We've made some progress, and have further to go."

The glass is half empty, and also half full.

It's not so surprising that this is the case, much as we may wish things were different.

We are living through some of first moments in human history when people are trying to come together as inhabitants of a single planet to anticipate a problem that has not yet occurred, trying to work out a solution together. There are moments especially in the plenary with hundreds of delegates and observers speaking many languages, wearing many traditional dresses, that I marvel that we are, as a species, doing this at all. With our agriculture revolution only 10,000 years behind us, with an ugly past 500 years of colonization and injustice, it is a marvel that we can even imagine stewarding our shared planet together. It is a wonder that, from satellite imaging to sophisticated monitoring we can see and understand our planet as a whole, and that our wired world is connecting us together in new and powerful ways. The glass is half full.

And yet, the process is flawed, unfair, short-sighted, bogged down by local politics and narrow interests. It hasn't managed yet to even agree to the magnitude of effort that the climate demands, let alone achieve the massive mobilization that will be needed to implement any agreement. The glass seems, at times, to be almost totally empty.

With time so short, with emissions needing to peak in under 10 years, progress seems painfully, worryingly, heart-breakingly slow. The halls of the conference were filled with talk of other solutions, outside of a global treaty. Everyone seemed to have hopes for cities, or businesses, or local initiatives leading the way. But a global problem calls out for global solutions. The businesses and cities and initiatives need the lift of a global cap on emissions or a global price on carbon.

Only time will tell, I guess, whether our species is up to the challenge of bringing itself below the limits of the planet, whether we can come together fast enough, and whether we can recognize our common interests and act on them in time.  I do know that thousands of passionate, intelligent, creative folks, and millions more behind them at home around the world, were, over the past two weeks, giving it their best shot. I have no doubt that most of them are now headed home to regroup, reflect, and re-engage, marking the progress that has been made and getting organized to build upon it.

We've made some progress.

We have further to go.

Time to get to work.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chosing to Feel Hopeful About the UN Climate Conference

I'm sitting tonight in an airport hotel, preparing for an early morning flight to Mexico to attend COP-16, the follow-on international negotiation to last year's Copenhagen conference.

For weeks the commentary in the press has been gloomy on prospects for progress in Cancun. With the changes in the make up of the legislature in the US, prospects for the negotiations overall are widely viewed as dismal.

It's hard to leave home and family for a giant conference center in a resort city for a meeting that seems already been written off by many. There may not be a global treaty at the end of Cancun but, based on the other UN climate conferences I've attended in the past few years, I think there will be progress on several fronts, no matter what the negotiators themselves accomplish.

Deeper ties will be woven, between individuals and groups, especially civil society organizations who send representatives to share and learn. People from different countries, different sectors, and different age groups will be thrown together for these two weeks, based on their shared search for fair and lasting solutions to climate change. The momentum that these groups continue to build and the network they continue to weave is changing the world, in subtle and not always predictable ways.

Scientific and technical exchange will continue. At the edges of the conferences are dozens of 'side events' where groups talk about the research and policy experiments. What's working in Africa to help farmers adapt to changing weather? What does the latest science say about needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? What are the latest ideas about how to finance those emissions reductions? Whether the negotiators find any points of a agreement or not, the exchange of ideas will go on, and will lead to new ideas, new collaborations, new experiments.

In the end we do need a global agreement to reduce emissions and the sooner the better. But getting to that agreement is not only a matter of the immediate politics of an agreement. It is also a matter of creating the right conditions, in each country, to allow leaders to lead toward sound climate policy and to allow negotiators to seal a deal to implement it.

Perhaps the negotiations will surprise all of us with a stronger than expected outcome, but if they don't, it makes the rest of the work of Cancun – the learning, the relationship building, the exchange – that much more important. That is the work that prepares the ground for the kind of global agreement we need.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Measuring the gap is an essential (but only a first) step toward steering a system

This morning, a new report was  released by the United Nations Environment Program. It represents about half a year of work by dozens of scientists, including me, who were asked by UNEP to assess the expected global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 if countries fulfill the pledges they made last year in Copenhagen.
It was a challenging task for reasons ranging from  lack of clarity about what exactly some pledges meant, to differing historical data sources, to differing projections of future emissions in different parts of the world, and, of course, due to the uncertainties inherent in our imperfect understanding of the climate itself. But given all of the challenges, I think the report does a good job of giving us a snapshot in time of the best scientific answer to a complex question: if we desire to limit temperature increase to 2°C over pre-industrial temperatures, do the Copenhagen Accord pledges go far enough? You can read the report here, if you want all the details, but the bottom line answer is: no, there's a gap between where we are headed and where we need to head. We filled about 60% of the gap, and have another 40% of the way to go.

As someone who has made a career of studying systems, I know that registering a gap is an essential step in self-regulating feedback. Whether it is the drop in blood sugar that sends an animal in search of food, or the increase in body temperature that leads to sweating, all self-regulating systems keep themselves in balance by measuring the gap between where some parameter is and where it needs to be, and reacting to the difference with corrective action.

It could be that the Emissions Gap report is, like the gap detected by a thermostat that turns on a furnace, a signal that spurs self-correcting, balancing action, in this case global resolve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, not every gap that can be detected by a system triggers self-corrective feedback. My mentor, the systems analyst, Donella Meadows, once said jokingly about the increase in standardized testing in schools: "trying to improve learning by increasing testing, is like trying to cure a fever by taking your temperature." Measuring a gap, without the determination to act on it, is unlikely to change a system.

The Emissions Gap report is, like a test, or a thermometer, an effort to measure the size of a gap, the amount of deviation of a system from healthy conditions. But the assessment of the gap alone can't bring the system into balance any more than a thermostat can warm a room if it is disconnected from the furnace.

A gap is an essential part of any self-corrective feedback loop, but only a part, a trigger. To create change, there must be something to act on the news of the gap.

So where might we find the rest of the self-corrective feedback loop that seems to be struggling to emerge as humanity grapples with it's overshoot of the planet's limits?

There's nowhere for it to lie, really, except in us. Individual human beings, from environment ministers to ordinary citizens. In the everyday personal choices we make, and more importantly, in our coming together to change the prices of energy, the rewards for efficiency, the design of cities, and the vision of a good life for an individual or a whole society. 

The good news of the emissions gap report is that the gap could be closed, brought to zero, given reasonable assumptions about technological progress and investment and the pace of change.

The hours of thinking, analysis and editing will seem well worth it, if the news of the Emissions Gap helps, in small ways or large ones, to trigger the the systemic self-corrective action we know is needed to keep the climate with in safe bounds.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Seeing with new eyes thanks to the space station and twitter

The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we've actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other. --- Joanna Macy

I'm as likely as the next mother to tell my kids to get off the computer and go outside, but I have to admit that one source of hope for me is the way that new developments in global communications seem poised to bring the people of our planet closer together than ever before.
I notice this in my work all the time. Tomorrow, for example,  I'll be offering a 'webinar' briefing on a climate study that will have me, in my home office in Vermont, connected to people not only in the US, but Europe, Asia, and South America. For 30 minutes, aided by GoToMeeting technology and the internet I'll be able to share important results about the implications of the Copenhagen Accord with concerned, knowledgeable people from around the world, people who will be able to do something with the information. And none of us will have spent a dollar on a plane ticket or burned any jet fuel to come together.
I've also recently begun to follow the 'tweets' of Astro_Wheels, an astronaut on the international space station who has been taking photos of the Earth from his vantage point and sharing them via "twitpic" (Did you know there is internet access on the space station, somehow?)
The photographs are breathtaking, but even more moving to me are the mixture of languages (and alphabets!) in the dozens  of comments beneath each picture. Seeing our shared home seems to elicit the same expressions of wonder and appreciation across cultures, nations, and languages.
Here are few of the comments in response to the photo above, of Japan at night:
wow coooooooooooll! im on this planet.
Thank you! Astro_Wheels! キャ~!!待ってましたよ。日本!綺麗ですね。海岸線が光のラインではっきりわかります。私の住んでる名古屋も輝いてます☆
que bella foto! gracias! increible saber que estoy en Güemes,Salta,Argentina y poder disfrutar
うわー!北海道から山陽山陰四国まで見えますね!I live 2cm point from the top of this photo!!ThanQ so much♡♡♡
huau muy buenas fotos¡¡¡ espero alguna de argentina
wow!!! very pretty!
maravilloso y sin igual esta imagen te deja sin palabras ....gracias
"It's my home country! I'm glad! I am hoping for safety of your voyage! Thank you! :-)"…From:One of these light."

These responses show who we are as a species, just as much as the needless wars, the painfully slow march to a global climate treaty, the unacceptable gap between rich and poor.

So yes, cooooool!! amazing, gracias,  Astro_Wheels. Keep the glimpses of our wholeness coming.

--from another one of these lights.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Good, Low-Carbon Day

A satisfying simple November day today.

It started with community workday, the one day per month we set aside for those jobs that need - or are just more fun - with a group of people. I helped move wood up to the shed and caught up with some of the news in some of my neighbors lives at the same time. When we couldn't cram another log into the shed, I wandered down the hill and started preparing the herb garden for winter, pulling a few late weeds, and cutting the dead growth off the oregano, thyme, tansy, and yarrow. A fragrant, pungent job.

Then, a pause for a fine warm lunch, set up by a neighbor and some of the kids, a little more conversation about grandchildren and politics and the rest of the workday list, and back to the garden to finish it off in the good company of a neighbor armed with pruning shears and some news of old friends.

A walk in the woods, a simple supper of roasted root vegetables, green beans from the garden, and a sampling of chocolate and strawberry frozen yogurt, the result of the newest business venture of some Cobb Hill neighbors.

Now, I'm warm and cozy in our house, with a cup of tea and a moment to think.

It's not the only 'low-carbon' way to live, and it certainly isn't as low carbon as it will need to become as we navigate the challenges our changing climate is thrusting upon us, but, with my warm cup of tea at my side I just can't shake a certain sense of confidence. When we,  as a nation, as a world, turn to renewable energy (all those loads of logs), local food (the herbs, the roasted vegetables, the chocolate frozen yogurt), and finding pleasure and relaxation without fossil fuels to transport us around quite so much (the walk in the woods, the watching as the light changes over the hills during the course of one day on the land), we might just find ways of living that, far from being a sacrifice, bring unexpected richness and warmth and the honest satisfaction of tired muscles to our lives.

Friday, November 19, 2010

If you want people to believe that climate change is real, talk about solutions

There have been press reports this week about an interesting new study on people's attitudes towards climate change.

In the experiment participants were given one of two factual articles about climate change. Half the participants received articles that ended with "warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of global warming." The other half read articles that ended with "positive messages focused on potential solutions to global warming, such as technological innovations that could reduce carbon emissions"

Here's the interesting part:

"Those who read the positive messages were more open to believing in the existence of global warming."

At first that sounds counter-intuitive -- people become more convinced of a problem when they have evidence that it can be solved? But it does make a certain kind of sense. If a problem is devastating and unsolvable there are all sorts of self-protective mechanisms that help us block the problem out.

I think this study has some interesting implications:

Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we  act as though there are no solutions to climate change, our fellow citizens will be more likely to ignore the problem all together, making solutions even less likely to emerge.

And, more importantly, daring to envision solutions and talk about them and implement them, at whatever scale we can, is a self-fulfilling prophecy as well. Helping people see solutions helps them bear the truth of what is unfolding during their lifetimes and opens the way for them to help build solutions, which maybe opens the way for some one far removed from you to accept the problem and create solutions, and so on, and so on.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Time Affluence

School starts tomorrow,  and so the girls and I and two friends of theirs had a final summer fling this afternoon.

Following the directions of a friend – "turn right after the General Store, then turn down a narrow road that looks like a driveway and park at the edge of a path that leads through a patch of brambles" – we came to the most lovely hidden  stream with deep pools, gigantic boulders, and slippery  water slides that  the girls were soon shooting down like little otters.

We had a picnic, laid on the rocks until we got too hot, then plunged into the water until we got too cold. There was a rope to swing on, cliffs to climb, and rocks to leap between.

I, without doubt the most sedentary of our little group, tended to favor sitting in the shade with my feet dangling in the water and, as I did, a phrase I read in a computer modeling paper earlier in the day came to life in my mind: 'time affluence'.

The paper, from the Tellus Institute, was about the dynamics of the transition to a sustainable world, which the paper argues will require a values shift on at least three dimensions:  human solidarity, ecological resilience, and quality of life. And quality of life, the authors argued, is deeply tied to time affluence, to the amount of time one has to spend in leisure, with family, or in community. Policies that improve our affluence with regard to time tend to make us happier and healthier, while reducing consumption and pressure on the Earth's systems. Like organic farming that builds the soil and feeds people or renewable energy that improves air quality and provides good jobs, time affluence is at once a solution to the sustainability crisis and its own reward.

I can't think of a better example of affluence than spending the last hot afternoon of school vacation in cool water, not far from home, surrounded by laughter and splashes and fun. Real affluence lives not far out of our reach, so much of the time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Shifting Consciousness, Starting With My Own

Sitting in my post-vacation inbox was a very tantalyzing email inviting me to join a  distinguished group of sustainability thinkers and doers, including some old friends I'd dearly love to see and some folks I've always wanted to meet.The agenda looked inspiring, all expenses were paid, and I've spent the past few days badly wanting to reply with an enthusiastic "count-me-in" while simultaneously thinking how crazy that would be, having already committed to workshops and conferences in Burlington, Boston, Geneva and San Fransisco between now and November.

The allure of the invitation is a strong combination I'm somehow deeply susceptible to – a mix of intellectual curiosity, gratitude for being recognized and included, and the hope that somehow maybe this group could make a big difference, change the world, halt the damage, open the way to new possibilities. If you tell me I could do something to accelerate the shift toward sustainable human communities on this Earth,  I will be putty in your hands.

But, this time,  I haven't sent that enthusiastic reply, at least not yet.

Instead I left the computer long enough to walk a little in the wet late summer day, breathe the moist air, and think about all the not-so-glamorous things I need to do this fall, from finishing some scientific writing projects, to planting the winter greenhouse, to helping a ten year old adjust to a new school, to helping a new team at a new organization find its stride.

None of that is likely to be the unitary key to a global shift in consciousness, but some of it might be a small part in a greater shift that is already underway. The scientific paper, if done well and met with receptive conditions, could help expand the time horizon of climate decision makers. The growing team, with the right mixture of hard work and good luck,  has a chance to help people understand the urgency and the possibility of the shift to a low carbon economy.

I still I haven't hit 'reply' but I think the answer is arising for me, in me. I think I'll be staying home that week in September, a week that is among the most beautiful of all the weeks of the year on a farm in Vermont.

I can't say for sure whether the faint voice I am hearing is the voice of wisdom or the voice of exhaustion, but one principle of complex systems is coming to mind, finally after all the soul-searching: systems work because of the diversity of their parts. Each part has to do its part, but no part has to do the whole job. The heart cell just has to do the work of the heart cell, the aster in the meadow just has to be an aster, not a milkweed, not a grass.

There's something restful in that idea, and something that leaves me grateful to know that such a fine group will be meeting in California, without being desperate to be there myself. And that's a new kind of acceptance for me, one that just might qualify as a shift in consciousness.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Celebration of Agriculture

Thanks to our younger daughter, we had a welcome respite from computers, emails, conference calls, and weighty decisions in general last week.

Instead, from Thursday through Sunday the four of us more or less lived in a 10 foot by 10 foot corner of one of the cow barns at the Cornish Fair.

Our kids have been helping take care of Cedar Mountain Farm's Jersey cows since they were 5 and 8. And this year our younger daughter went so far as to become a member of 4-H and bring a young calf and a year-old heifer to the fair. Over the course of four days she showed her animals six different times, being judged variously on the quality of the cows and the quality of her care and handling of them. She won a few ribbons, made a few friends, learned a lot, and declared the whole event one of the best things to ever happen in her life. The rest of us played supporting parts, ate a year's worth of french fries and ice cream, and cheered her on.

A few impressions stand out in my mind as memories of the whole experience:
  • Watching a toddler in a stroller connect the dots between the udder of a giant Holstein cow and the milk in his sippy cup with a 'you've got to be kidding' look on his face.
  • Noticing the wistfulness on the face of an older Hartland neighbor of ours, whose family sold their last cows some years ago, as he sat at ringside and watched the judging.
  • Watching the wild soccer game under the judging tent late at night when the showing was over, the chores were done,  the fair visitors were off in the other world of the midway, and the kids who had been so focused and disciplined all day were suddenly just kids again.
  • Seeing again and again the toughness, sweetness, confidence and full-out strength of teenage girl after teenage girl muscling, coaxing, and cajoling giant animals who outweighed them many times over. The boys were great too, but I was very happy to have our two girls looking around in awe at strong, smart young women who were definitely in charge of their destinies.
  • Noticing the links between farm families, and figuring out that some of the littlest kids leading calves around the ring had grandparents who had shown cows in the very same ring, and realizing that, though struggles abound, we are blessed to live in a region where family farms continue not only to exist but to thrive. 
We are back to the world of emails and deadlines again, but I think we are going to remember the fair for a long time to come. And I know for sure that those who say that the world is forever addicted to easy entertainment and conspicuous consumption and that people will never sign up for the challenge of more sustainable ways of living have never spent a long weekend in cow barn at a fair.

If they had, they would have to agree that some families have never stopped being rooted in the land and in the care of animals and that those families are, in fact, having a pretty good time in the process of keeping those traditions alive.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cheap Gas - Even With a Voluntary Tax

I wrote yesterday about the experimental voluntary 'carbon tax' at Cobb Hill - where many of my neighbors have agreed to pool $1/per gallon of gasoline that we use during August and September.

In Bonn a few weeks ago I picked up a flyer with the picture shown above in it (from GTZ (German Technical Cooperation) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Coperation and Development). It shows international gasoline prices for 2009.

The figure shows, from the lowest price at the top to the highest at the bottom, the average price citizens pay for a liter of gasoline in each country.

I added the big yellow arrows for the US average (just between Angola and Jordan) at 56 cents per liter, and the US average plus the Cobb Hill voluntary tax (which moves us up to the company of the Republic of Congo and Pakistan), but still in the bottom half of the price distribution.

If you follow the link to the actual data, you'll see that the countries with the most expensive gasoline are not monolithic. You'll find some of the wealthiest countries that have excellent public transportation and walkable cities, like Denmark or the Netherlands, and some of the poorest countries, like Burundi and Eritrea. What I don't think you will find are countries whose cities have reputations for excellent public transportation or biking or walking amongst those countries in the top fourth of the graph, where the US currently sits.

You get what you pay for, as my grandmother always said. Somehow our $1 tax isn't seeming so steep anymore.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Carbon Tax Passes, At Least A Voluntary One in My Community

I love the experimental attitude of Cobb Hill, something that I think traces directly back to Cobb Hill co-founder, Donella Meadows, who wrote and spoke often of her belief that no one knows how to create a sustainable world and that therefore we must commit ourselves to experimentation, be willing to make mistakes, and share what we learn along the way.

This experimental spirit showed up in my email box the other day, in the form of a note from my neighbor, Tom, with recommendations for a two-month experiment with a voluntary carbon tax within our community.

The idea was simple. Any family who wanted to participate would keep track of the number of gallons of gasoline consumed for  two months, and commit to paying a 'tax' of $1 per gallon, the proceeds of which would be collected and invested in yet-to-be-determined ways that would enhance the sustainability or fossil-fuel independence of the community.

I signed up (though I gulped when I saw the recommendation that air-miles be 'taxed' as well, knowing that my fall schedule of flights to climate meetings is quite high; the irony of this which is a topic for another post someday!)

There are all sorts of questions about our voluntary tax, pretty much the same ones that play out on the national and international scale.

How do we ensure that the tax is not an unfair burden on those with the lowest incomes?

How to invest the revenues towards our long-term goals?

What about other fuels, like propane for cooking?

If the past ten years at Cobb Hill are any guide we will talk about all these questions and more. We will try things out. The plan will change. It might even be abandoned in the end, and that would be OK with me. The plan itself is not the point. What is important is, as Dana Meadows said,  the willingness to admit that we don't know exactly what to do and then get down to the work of trying things out.

So, stay tuned for the debate, the lessons, and, of course, the answer you might be most interested in:  how big will the Sawin/Rice August/September voluntary carbon tax bill be?

And, who knows, maybe your family or your neighborhood will get sick of waiting for the Senate and decide to  try something similar, yourselves.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Low Carbon Peaches

Every morning at the breakfast table for the whole summer, we have been watching peaches ripen on the tree outside. First they were little green oblongs, then they grew and took on some color, and then one day the tree was bent over with its burden of fruit. The harvest was, for backyard orchard scale, huge:


We had already begun feasting on peaches, eating our way through a case of "Amish" peaches shipped up from Pennsylvania, and they were really, really good. 
But these peaches, which traveled straight from the tree to the kitchen table in a one-hundred foot journey are almost another fruit. It is as though you started with the Pennsylvania peaches and then added a little taste of mango, a dash of something limey, and maybe a  bit of coconut flavor. There's a complexity, a mixture of tastes that must not survive the shipping process.
I was eating one of our 'low carbon' peaches today, letting the juice drip down my chin, and thinking about a conversation over a dry and tasteless sandwich in the Maritim conference center in Bonn during one of the recent UN climate negotiation sessions. My lunch partner insisted that all we can count on in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are 'proven technologies'. Lifestyle change and behavior change were, in his view, highly unlikely and not to be depended on.
I know many people who share this perspective, and I realize that they are just trying to be realistic, trying not to count on changes that might not happen.
But, from the midst of the best eating month in the year if you live on a Vermont farm, I have to say that I think there are all sorts of factors yet to be taken into account in the calculus of what people can be counted on to do. 
There is no doubt in my mind: the peaches and a whole lot else are going to be better in a low carbon world, and I'll take a juicy mangoey-lime-coconut peach over a tasteless sandwich any day.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Balance: On the farm and in the atmosphere

Hazel, resting after her eighth calving.
Doing chores in the barn yesterday morning, my younger daughter and I paused for a moment to enjoy the sight of an hours-old calf.

Leaning over his pen, watching the little guy work on his first bottle,  I chatted with Kerry, owner and manager of the herd of Jersey cows here, about the health of his mother Hazel following his birth.

I noticed how often Kerry used the word balance in our short conversation. The health of Hazel today was related to the balance of calcium in her blood, bones and milk, which in turn depended upon the balance of nutrients in the pasture, the hay, and the grain she ate in weeks and months past. Managing a cow's health – in fact managing the whole of a farm – is structured around attending to balance, and acting swiftly to keep an imbalance from growing into a crisis.

 Of course, balance is a critical concept in the climate arena as well: it has long been true that emissions of greenhouse gasses are far out of balance with their removals to oceans and forests. On a farm an imbalance in the metabolism of a single animal can lead to sudden crisis and even death of the animal. The time between imbalance and disaster is a matter of hours, or maybe even minutes. Even in the slower metabolism of the soil, imbalance leads to poor yields in season or two. 

Unfortunately for all of us, in the climate system, the delay between an imbalance in the metabolism of the planet and the arrival of serious consequences is measured in decades, maybe even centuries.

Kerry is smart, hardworking, observant and dedicated. But so are most of the people I've meet who work in the world of international climate policy. Acting swiftly and effectively to restore balance is easier when the consequences of imbalance are strong and direct, and harder when the feedback is slow and initially weak.

That's a classic finding of system dynamics and at least one reason that explains why human beings, if they put their minds and hearts to it, can do a very good job at maintaining the many balances within a farm ecosystem, and why as a global species, we aren't doing such a good job attending to planetary imbalances.

From computer simulations to sophisticated policy instruments, there are all sorts of tools that could help climate policy makers do a better job, but today, with the conversation in the barn fresh in my mind,  I'm wishing for an even simpler shift, one that would help us see the Earth and its climate as alive and dynamic, just like an animal in our care or the body of a loved one - capable of beauty and productivity and longevity, but only when the conditions are right and only when life-giving balance has been maintained.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Big World, Little World

I had an interesting conversation with my older daughter last night. After months of work our Climate Interactive Project has left Sustainability Institute, where it was born and grew, to become a project of the Washington DC-based New Venture Fund. With that milestone (and the hours of legal and other decisions) behind us, she was expecting more time and attention from her mother in these last weeks of summer.

I, just back from a week at the UN climate talks in Germany, and on a fast learning curve about setting up all the organizational provisions to take care of a team of six, feel more pressed for time than ever.

We had a good talk, but no resolution.

All in all, I think I do OK as a mom. In the past day or two, I drove her to her pet-sitting job, which is well within walking/biking distance, left the computer to play "Moose In the House" with the little boy she was babysitting downstairs, and took a walk with her in the misty pre-dark to help take care of her chickens. All on top of the usual services of cooking and laundry.

But I do work a lot. And it is not easy to stop thinking about deadlines, strategy, or the ticking clock of rising CO2 levels. There are a lot of times when my kids have to repeat themselves because my mind is not in the room with them, but off somewhere else, racing through lists or worries or possibilities.

One of the big fears I carry through this life is that someday when I am an old woman my kids will ask me why I didn't do more to prevent climate change.

Last night's conversation reminded me that there is another extreme which I fear just as much. When I am an old woman they might say, why were you gone so much when I was growing up? Why did you sometimes put everything you had into your work without reserving enough for me?

I haven't found any easy answers to this constant pull between the big world and my little one. Doing my best seems to mean doing the work as well as possible, looking up from it as much as possible, and remembering to be grateful for everything, especially the chance to try to weave a life that serves my family and something bigger, too. It's not a perfect weaving, not a flawless tapestry, but more of a patchwork quilt. That's good enough for now, and maybe some of the more visible ragged edges and loose threads of the quilt of my life will even leave my girls feeling free to create their own messy and complicated patchwork lives, stitching together some of this and some of that, feeding their souls and hopefully the world.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Wherever we are now

This house is cool and quiet.

with swallows under the eves

and a soft green garden outside each window.

Somewhere else

oil slides onto the shore

creeping into the tiny secret spaces

between feather barbs,

between grains of sand.

Somewhere else

Daddy will never come home from the coal mine,

Daddy will never come home from Iraq,

Daddy will never fish those waters again.

Somewhere else the deluge washed the house away.

That place wasn’t a flood zone, the people said,

but everywhere is a flood zone if it rains enough, and

they were happy to save the baby pictures.

Somewhere else,

somewhere in Africa,

five year old children

have never seen rain.

The sea road washes out,

the fish swim north,

and old farmers stand baffled in an unknown season called change.


even here outside this cool and quiet house,

the air is changed.

This is not is not far in the future.

This is not somewhere else.

This is you and me.

Wherever we are now.