Saturday, July 31, 2010

one small proposal for gettting from here to there

Our earth is undergoing measurable global climate warming that has a significant anthropogenic component, with the primary anthropogenic contribution to warming coming from the steady increase in CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Moreover, warming that has already occurred over the past century and warming that is certain to occur in the next century, have had and will have recognizable negative impacts on the health of human beings and human societies. Those impacts include, but are not limited to, rises in sea level and loss of shoreline, changes in plant and animal populations (declines, increases, shifts in range) including changes in disease vectors (such as West Nile Virus and Malaria carrying mosquitoes), increasing drought with its impact on food crops and human water supplies, and increasing extreme precipitation events with concomitant flooding.

Among the scientific community there is debate and need for continuing research on how much warming and how fast future warming will occur, and the regional patterning of impacts, but there is general consensus on the basic facts of warming and its causes and its consequences. Recent polling of the general population in the United States shows that about three quarters of the American population accept the scientific consensus on the reality of global warming and the anthropogenic causes of that warming. However, there is a decided lack of consensus both within the scientific community and the general population on exactly what should be done to address the problems posed now and in the future by global warming.

Just because people agree that a problem exists and that something should be done, has never meant that they will agree on what to do about that problem. This has always been true. There are lots of good sociological and psychological reasons for this lack of agreement. From a psychological perspective immediate, present threats to one's livelihood and material well-being are more salient and real than predicted future threats no matter how real we consider those future threats to be. A parent will always be more concerned about the present day need to keep a roof over their children's heads and food on the table today, than they will be about the availability of housing and food for those children in 20 years.

From a sociological perspective we have organized our economy around the need to maintain very short term current profitability to retain investors, rather than around long term future. The structures, rules and practices of business decision-making and investor decision-making, make it difficult for either business managers or investors to forgo current profits in exchange for long term sustainability.

For a utility company currently generating most of its electricity from coal fired plants shifting to solar or wind generation has many economic drawbacks. If a utility simply purchases "green" power from another electricity producer who is already invested in wind, solar or hydro-power, the primary profit from power production goes to the actual producer not the utility company purchasing the power. To make any profit, they have to raise the cost of that power to the customer, making it more expensive than the coal generated power, and thus less attractive to consumers of electricity. Such a move also introduces greater inefficiencies -- the further electricity is transmitted the greater the loss, so purchases power from a distant provider means that you get less power for your buck as well.

On the other hand, if a utility company decides to themselves begin producing electricity from wind, solar or hydro sources, there is the huge upfront capital investment that must be made. While this may have great long term profit potential (once constructed one never has to pay for sunlight or wind unlike coal), it has tremendous short term costs that affect profitability and investor satisfaction. If a utility attempts to pay for this by raising utility rates up front, there is substantial customer dissatisfaction, and in states (like Kentucky) with strong political incentives to protect coal, little political interest for public utility commissions to support such rate increases. Additionally, the construction of a centralized solar or wind generation plant requires huge acreage, that may not be readily available to a utility company near its customer base.

Finally, another reason that utility companies become nervous about discussions, is that the idea mode of generating electricity from solar energy is a pattern of dispersed, household level or building level generation, where solar panels sufficient to the needs of a particular housing unit or office building are placed on the building itself. This eliminates two problems: first, all the extra land that would be needed for centralized solar generation, and second, the problem of electricity losses due to transmission over distance. However, since currently housing unit and office building solar electricity generation is financed and operated by individual families or businesses it represents a loss of revenue for the utility company, and certainly not something they really want to encourage.

Moreover, from the point of view of the individual, family or business, the cost of constructing small localized solar (and wind) generation is quite large (at least $20,000), and far beyond the reach of the median household. While such household level solar (and wind) electricity generation does pay for itself over twenty to twenty-five years (the vast majority of the costs are in the initial hardware and installation and after that the electricity itself is essentially free), the upfront costs are prohibitive for all but the most affluent and most environmentally committed.

Now, finally to my proposal. I acknowledge up-front, as a person who is uncomfortable with the power of utility companies now, this is not my ideal solution, but it is a means of decreasing the input of CO2 into the atmosphere, to ameliorate future extent of global warming and its impact, while dealing with many of the problems outlined above. My proposal is that electric utility companies currently heavily invested in their own coal-fired generation consider adopting the model used by Bell Telephone in the 1950's. In exchange for a modest installation fee (say a few hundred dollars that could be prorated over a period of time) well within the budgets of middle and working class families with "green values," the utility company would deliver and install solar panels on the consumers home -- but, and here's what I think is a new idea (at least as applied to electricity generation) the utility company would retain ownership of those panels in perpetuity, and charge the consumer a monthly fee for the electricity consumed from those panels.

Here's the details -- the one's that I think would make this idea appealing to both the consumer and to the utility company. The individual solar installations would 1) be large enough to provide for ordinary, peak daylight hours electricity use and 2) would be tied into the grid allowing for both inflow and outflow. The utility company would benefit, because all excess electricity generated would flow into the grid for use by other customers (and unlike the situation where a household customer owns the solar installation, the utility company would own that excess flow outright and not be paying the customer with the installation for it). With each household or business that added solar generation, the electricity generating capacity of the entire grid would be expanded. The capitalization costs would be spread out over time -- no huge up-front investment in generation capacity years before any new power can be generated. Moreover, following current phone company and cable company practices, the utility company could charge a very small (a few dollars) monthly maintenance fee to consumers, to cover costs of periodic maintenance and repair.

The consumer would benefit in two ways: they would have the assurance that in the absence of sunlight they would still have electricity, and conversely, during widespread power outages due to downed transmission lines they would also still have their locally generated power. Indeed, if several households in a neighborhood had contracted with the utility for solar panels, the entire neighborhood circuit might be protected from electricity loss during a widespread outage.

In the beginning only middle income and upper income families that are highly committed to environmental, "green" values would participate. I know I would. I would be very willing to pay a reasonable premium in installation costs just to be assured that while I was sitting at my computer typing away I was using electricity generated by solar power rather than by coal obtained by scalping the mountains around me. Overtime, as people begin to notice, that one of their neighbors still has electricity after a storm has knocked out everyone else, the appeal of solar panels might spread. If the utility made the cost of electricity generated in situ from the solar panels marginally less expensive (say 1/2 cent per KWH) compared to electricity pulled from the grid, this would increase the appeal of participation.

From the utility company's perspective, they are able to gradually expand their generating capacity, using "green" sources, with small, periodic expenditures of capital that can be partially charged to the customer (installation fees), and also recouped by feeding all excess electricity generated into the grid. Customers without the panels who depended solely on the grid would pay the standard rate for their electricity. By dispersing solar generation through out the households served by a utility, there would be a substantial increase in efficiency, as electricity would be consumed closer to where it was generated, reducing the losses to long distance transmission. Most of all this idea allows utility companies to make the transition to renewable electricity generation gradual and incremental, and thus less painful and more acceptable.

So there is my idea -- somebody tell me what's wrong with it!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

weather is not climate, but....

The Weather Channel's website has a number of nifty new features. One of which provides you with lots of information about how your current month (and previous month) stack up against historical weather patterns. I've captured the screen shots for my zip code 41825, for June 2010 and July 2010.

Notice that for both June and July the "highest temperature recorded so far" is higher than the historical record for that month -- so we broke the all time temperature records for both June and July in Eastern Kentucky. Notice also that the total rain fall amounts for both June and July are well below the average. June's precipitation total was 1.05" below the average. Of course July isn't over yet, but let's hope we don't get 3.65" of rain in one week. While the July total rain is more than three and a half inches below normal, eastern Kentucky did get one whale of a gully-washer, to the great dismay and anguish of hundreds of folks in Pike county.

While it is important to remember that weather is not the same as climate, and unusually hot days occur periodically, as do droughts and floods, overall warming of the climate as is currently occurring on planet earth, does give rise to more frequent extreme heat, more common droughts, and paradoxically more frequent intense rain events like that seen in Pike County this month.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

how shall we live? part 1

My attention has returned in recent days to a theme that has long concerned me, a theme that has popped up in several very interesting blogs.

Will of Zen Agnostic sums this theme up nicely in this quote:
"most of what the doctors are calling mental illness, clinical depression, neurotic behavior - this not illness. It is a natural reaction to an insane culture and a dying planet....Part of the problem in this insane screwed up world is that people can't be open about their grief and anger. Our emotions are natural and healthy - but society at large labels us as unhealthy if we don't put on a smile every day and joke about the weather and sports and the latest celebrity DUI arrest. Simply writing about it, naming it, not hiding from it, is an act of resistance."
Over at Robert Jenson writes:
"To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one's own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse."
And Dave Pollard at how to save the world writes of the dissonance between the messages from our bodies (physical survival, avoidance of pain, procreation of our genetic material), our culture (values, beliefs, attitudes and norms), and from our environment or biosphere which he labels gaia. Dave argues that:
"this dissonance is paralyzing; it renders us ill, physically and mentally, and ultimately we get exhausted trying to handle it so we become desensitized, shut down."
Like these three bloggers, everything I know, everything I study as a sociologist, as a observer of human society and culture, suggest to me a world in collapse, that has already "overshot" the material basis (resources, food, energy) on which its existence depends. I strongly recommend reading the work of Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth (1972), Beyond the Limits (1992) and The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (2004). Meadows, Randers and Meadows wrote in their first book (1972) that:
"If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrolled decline in both population and industrial capacity."
By 1992, Meadows, Randers and Meadows were convinced that those limits had already been reached in several areas (for example world wide grain production peaked in the 1980's), and by 2004 the conclude that we were approaching other limits much faster than their original hundred year time line.

Most people in modern industrial societies have lost awareness of how deeply the health of society is tied to the health of the environment. They think of our technology as lifting us above the vicissitudes of weather and changes in climate. Yet all one has to do is examine the extent to which "normal" daily activities in our society are fouled up and even stop dead, when it gets too snowy or too hot, or when a hurricane stops the pumping of oil for the Gulf, to realize that our technology has made our societies more rather than less vulnerable to changes in our environment.

We are on a path that is unsustainable in human social terms, not just in environmental terms. The two are so intimately intertwined that we cannot deal with one without dealing with the other. Our economy is not only unsustainable in terms of its use of resources and energy, but it is unstable and unsustainable in terms of the ever increasing disparity between the tiny percentage whose wealth is growing and the other 95 percent whose wealth is declining. We are impoverishing our people and our society as well as our ecosystems and biosphere.

[I realize that this is a larger topic than I can do in one post, given all the other immediate deadlines in my life, so I'm going to make this a multi-part post, with this installment just identifying the problem and linking to some great blogs. more on the actual question posed in the title another day.]

Friday, July 16, 2010

singing the truth together

I recently I discovered a very early book, After Long Silence, by my favorite science fiction writer Sheri Tepper. In the story, humans have settled on a world they view as devoid of sentience, but which is inhabited by at least two sentient races--one huge crystalline entities, and the other small, furry, mammalian creatures called "viggy" by the humans. Through the viggy, Tepper critiques certain aspects of humanity by posing a more attractive alternative. Here is an extended quote, that I think says something extraordinarily valuable about communication and truth, and the error of human ways:
"Memory is a strange thing. A viggy would experience a thing and remember it. Another viggy would experience the same happening and remember it as well. And yet the two memories would not be the same. On a night of shadow and wind, one viggy might sing that he had seen the spirit of his own giligee [nanny], beckoning from beside a Jubal tree. Another viggy might sing he had seen only the wind, moving a veil of dried fronds. What had they seen, a ghost or the fronds? Where was the truth in memory? Somewhere between the spirit and the wind...

When the troupe traveled down a tortuous slope, one would remember pain, another joy. After a mating, one would remember giving, another would remember loss. No one view would tell the truth of what occurred, for truth always lay at the center of many possibilities.

Many views yield the truth...This was the first commandment of the Prime Song. Only when a happening had been sung by the troupe, sung in all its various forms and perceptions, could the truth be arrived at. Then dichotomy could be harmonized, opposition softened, varying views brought into alignment with one another so that all aspects of truth were sung."
One of the benefits of blogging (and Facebook) for me has been not just singing my song of my life, but having others who were present sing their song back to me, and I come to see how limited my own perspective was then and continues to be. Often just the fact of writing things down, has opened my eyes to not just the possibility of other perspectives, but of the great likelihood that my perspective was seriously flawed, limited and self-absorbed. Having high school and college friends respond with their own memories has enriched my understanding in ways I never anticipated.

I don't think that this search for truth together means that all perspectives are equally valid. For example, there are always those students who insist "I don't care what the statistics say, divorce HAS to be increasing." [It's not by the way, it has been declining since 1981, and is lower today than it was in 1967]. But it is worth us trying to discover together what it is about their life experience that makes them feel as if the divorce rate were increasing.

We appear to be at a juncture in our social and political history, when the lessons of the viggy might be good ones to remember.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

my life as a ghost

When I was a teenager and a young woman, indeed until I married in my mid-thirties, I had delusions of insignificance. In those days I viewed my impact on others as like that of a ghost.

Perhaps you remember the movie Ghost (Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze), in which the dead (Swazye) require enormous effort and concentration in order to have even the smallest impact on the physical world and to attract the attention of the living.

I believed that to have friends, to have people care about me, required enormous, constant effort on my part. The idea that people would like me, just because I was me never crossed my mind. I had friends, but I believed that was only because I worked so hard at being a good friend.

Friendship was hard enough, but the idea that I might be noticed by men and loved for myself was utterly beyond my world view. I was convinced of my inherent unlovableness. I imagined that if I were to try hard enough, if I baked enough cookies and brownies, wrote enough poems, spent enough time listening to his stories and jokes, gave him enough flowers and unique presents, painted his portrait, devoted enough direct attention to him, then like Patrick Swayze in the movie, I might move the penny just enough to penetrate his awareness. Then if I could penetrate his awareness, I might, with sufficient effort, gain some small measure of affection. However, I was realistic, after all I was not “the kind of girl men fall in love with” – a mantra I repeated often to myself.

Because I thought of myself as a ghost, who could only make an impression on others with great effort, I was unable to conceive of my actions as having any impact on others. Since I believed that it took concerted concentration for me to even begin to dent the awareness of others – especially men – the thought that action or inaction by me could wound someone else never floated into the realm of possibility.

In college when I dated two men who were roommates, it never occurred to me that they would even notice, much less be hurt in any way by my actions. When I made out with one young man one weekend, and his close friend the next, it was to me as if my actions were invisible, cloaked by my ghostliness, occurring in separate, discrete, universes. Even if it had occurred to me that either young man noticed my behavior, it would not have occurred to me that there could be any hurt feelings. After all, how could some one who was a ghost impact on another’s feelings.

My deeply held conviction of unlovableness made it necessary for me to be oblivious to any signs of real affection from young men. Some men I was able to tune out altogether (and learn of their affections years later). Those were the lucky ones. The unlucky young men were the ones in I was interested in, the ones who perhaps might have been interested in return, but for whom, I set ever higher and higher obstacles or tests of their affections.

I would think “if he holds my hand” then perhaps he cares. Then he would hold my hand, and it would not be enough. So I would think “if he kisses me” then perhaps he cares. So he would kiss me and it was not enough. The tests would be come more and more unreasonable, so that it would not take long before whoever he was, he would fail, and I would be reaffirmed in my unlovableness. The saddest part is that there were one or two young men who must have cared a great deal, because they kept coming back, kept passing then failing my "tests" over years, and kept getting hurt.

My ghostly existence was finally penetrated in my mid-thirties by some one who was able to convince me of my lovableness by marrying me, and by a wonderful group of friends who were my friends even though I didn’t do any of the work I thought was necessary to create friends, and by a very wise and insightful therapist.

Twenty-five years later I’m still trying to understand what made me into a ghost girl, and to guard against falling into old habits of imagining my actions do not affect others. Delusions of insignificance can be attractive and reassuring. If we are insignificant it we do not have to be careful of the feelings of others, or of our impact on the world.

Painting, acrylic on canvas "The Oberlin Condition" by S. Greer, copyright 1973.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

just a pollyanna I guess

It never fails. Almost every single time in my life that there has been some costly problem (with house, car or health), some extra money has come into my life to cover that cost.

This summer the problems include: vet bills for a pregnant stray cat and her kittens, car air conditioning that pooped out in the hottest summer ever, and in the past 24 hours a broken pipe gushing water underneath the house. The extra money comes from a merit bonus ($1500 before taxes).

I prefer my way of looking at things to the reverse, i.e., that every time I get any extra money a problem comes along to use it all up.

It comes down to preferring to be happy about things than mad about them. It's a lesson learned from all those books, like Little Women, The Five Little Peppers and Pollyanna, that I read as a child.

Friday, July 9, 2010

rain, no wind

Odd weather today.

Yesterday was not the very hottest day this week (most places round here it was in the low 90's) but the air was very, very still and thick with pollutants. Visibility was limited, and distant hills disappeared behind a gray veil. This may be a rural area, but its a rural area with extremely heavy truck traffic (i.e., coal trucks) belching out lots of exhaust.

We were looking forward to the rain, to cool things off and freshen the air. Instead while the rain came cooled things a bit, there is no wind, not even a slight breeze. The moisture has mixed with the pollution and created an even thicker miasma to cloak the mountains. The other side of the holler, only a few hundred feet away is obscured by the veil of light rain and smog. This must be what the 19th century London fogs were like - that mixture of damp and industrial pollution.

Perhaps we will still get some thunderstorms and wind to push some of this stale air out before the warmth comes back tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

a prayer for the good people

I am blessed to know so many good people. I'm married to one of them. I have many friends, old friends, new friends, work friends, Internet friends who are good people.

The good people I know rarely know that they are good people. They think they are bad. They feel every mistake they ever make. Their mistakes can eat them up sometimes. Because they are good people, they care about doing right, about helping and not hurting. So when they screw up, which we all do (good and bad) because we are after all...[wait for it]...human, they ache for the pain that they, unintentionally, caused others.

My prayer for all the good people in my life, is not that they stop feeling sorrow for their mistakes, after all that is what makes them good people, but that they avoid allowing that sorrow to engulf and drown them.

Be well happy and peaceful my friends. Shalom and namaste.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Where are the global warming deniers?

The first thing to remember is, as any competent climate scientist will tell you, weather and climate are NOT the same thing. A snow storm or a heat wave are weather. Climate is a decades long pattern made up of millions of weather events. Climate has predictable patterns, that can be modeled by computer simulations with some accuracy over decades. Weather is far more variable, and accurately predictable only several days at a time.

There is, of course, a connection between climate and weather. Climate is the long term accretion of weather events. More rainy days, with more inches of rain create wetter climates. And wetter climates create more rainy days with more inches of rain. However, even in the rain forest (climate) it is dry sometimes (weather), and even in the desert (climate) it rains sometimes (weather).

During the midst of the heavy snow storms, the deniers of the reality of global warming, happily confusing weather and climate, were loudly crying "where are the global warming supporters?" "Where is Al Gore?" Ignoring (of course) that models of global warming actually predict an increase in extreme precipitation events including extreme snow storms. But now the worm or at least the weather has turned. See the CNN article: Blistering heat expected in Northeast - and a heat waves of historic proportions are gripping the U.S. this summer.

Some very hot summer days are not proof of global warming any more than some very snowy winter days are disproof. But as the climate warms, the frequency of both very hot summer days and very heavy precipitation events (winter and summer) tend to increase. The likelihood of each new summer producing new records for heat increases as climate warms.

So my question is, where are you, global warming deniers? How do you account for this? Do you only recognize the difference between climate and weather when it is convenient for you to do so?