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.