Already figured out

A list of things we have already figured out, ways of living that support the planet’s future, to be quite frank about it.

Fast(er) trains – take the best one in the U.S., the Acela in the northeast corridor. We should have deeded it over to France or Japan years ago. They would charge us less, the trains would already be faster and more efficient, likely easily spread south and west for obvious reasons, displacing an over-reliance on regional airline traffic. Because we… see title.

Live close to work, school and play. This supposed magic to happy living requires no reverse engineering, and actually very little engineering at all. Just incentives and penalties, zoning, bikes lanes, public transport, and host a host of things we… see title.

Eco-friendly products, ‘perils’ of greenwashing (who’s, exactly?), and renewable energy generation. The barriers holding us back to realizing these are… the decisions not to embrace them. It’s very much akin to not funding pre-K or other early childhood education that we already know works really well. They all exist right now and have for decades. Renewable energy is in its early adulthood, and the so-called ‘perils’ are only fueling the corporate campaign to delay changing anything:

The peer-reviewed paper, published Thursday in the journal Science, analyzed all known climate predictions produced or reported by scientists at ExxonMobil and its predecessor from 1977-2003, and found that they were “at least as skillful” as those by independent experts (Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999). Like those independent models, most of Exxon’s proved to be accurate.

“They didn’t just vaguely know something about global warming decades ago, they literally knew as much as independent academic scientists did,” said Geoffrey Supran, the paper’s lead author, who recently left a research position at Harvard University to become an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science. “We now have this airtight, unimpeachable evidence that Exxon accurately predicted global warming years before it turned around and publicly attacked climate science.”

How much longer we’ll have to let the debates about ESG rage on, die off, and make comebacks are more about the fate of business news operations and PR than they are about investments in viable products, power, or even politics. Getting past what we’ve already figured out is the only route to splashy new breakthroughs like, hey, the coral reefs might actually survive.

Image: ACC Transportation and Public works

In Her Own Right

I’m reading this terrific book by Elizabeth Badinter, a little every day and it’s at once a great exercise and fascinating in its own right. The book is a history about the 18th century scholars and philosophers of the Académie française, their writing, quarrels, vanity and thirst for fame that led to all manner of behavior that looks positively decorous by today’s standards. The scientific nationalism she describes is curious but understandable in the context of the newtonians versus cartesians. Badinter had once petitioned the Mayor of Paris about Madame du Châtelet, who was known as Voltaire’s lover though Badinter insisted she should be known as France first female intellectual:

Educated at home, the young Émilie learned to speak six languages by the time she was twelve, and had lessons in fencing and other sports. Even from a young age she was fascinated most by science and math, much to her mother’s displeasure. Such interests were not viewed as proper for young ladies, and her mother even threatened to send her away to a convent. Fortunately, her father recognized her intelligence and encouraged her interests, arranging for her to discuss astronomy with prominent scientists he knew.

Émilie also had a flair for gambling, applying her talent at mathematics to give herself an advantage. She used her winnings to buy books and laboratory equipment for her scientific investigations.

When she reached age 18, she knew she had to get married, and she accepted the proposal of Marquis Florent-Claude du Châtelet, a distinguished army officer. This was a convenient arrangement for Émilie, because Châtelet was often away from home, leaving her free to indulge her interests in studying math and science on her own.

She was also free to carry on an affair with the writer Voltaire, one of the few men who appreciated her intelligence and encouraged her scientific pursuits. Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire renovated Châtelet’s large estate house in the countryside. The house included several rooms for scientific equipment and space for experiments, and a large library holding over 20,000 books, more than many universities at the time.

Although she was frustrated at being excluded from scientific society and education because she was a woman, she was able to learn mathematics and science from several renowned scholars, including Pierre-Louis Maupertuis and Samuel Konig, by inviting them to her house.

In 1737, after several months of conducting research in secret, she entered a contest sponsored by the French Academy of Sciences on the nature of light, heat and fire, submitting her paper Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu. In it she suggested that different colors of light carried different heating power and anticipated the existence of what is now known as infrared radiation. She did not win the contest, but her paper was published and was positively received by the scientific community.

She also developed a strong interest in the work of Isaac Newton, which was somewhat controversial at the time in France, where Cartesian philosophy was favored over Newton’s ideas. Émilie and Voltaire jointly wrote a book, Elements of Newton’s Philosophy, which explained Newton’s astronomy and optics in a clear manner for a wide French readership. Only Voltaire’s name appeared on the book, but he acknowledged her important role.

Émilie also worked on another manuscript, Foundations of Physics, in which she considered the philosophical basis of science and tried to integrate the conflicting Newtonian, Cartesian, and Leibnizian views.

One of her most important contributions to science was her elucidation of the concepts of energy and energy conservation. Following experiments done earlier by Willem ‘s Gravesande, she dropped heavy lead balls into a bed of clay. She showed that the balls that hit the clay with twice the velocity penetrated four times as deep into the clay; those with three times the velocity reached a depth nine times greater. This suggested that energy is proportional to mv2, not mv, as Newton had suggested.

While conducting her scientific work, Émilie du Châtelet still carried out her duties as a mother to her three children and as a hostess for her many visitors so she was always busy, and had little time for sleep.

At age 42 Émilie du Châtelet discovered she was pregnant. At that time, a pregnancy at such an old age was extremely dangerous. Knowing she would likely die, she began working 18 hours a day to complete her biggest project, a French translation of Newton’s Principia, before she died.

For many years, hers was the only translation of Newton’s Principia into French, amazing considering the context and just goes to show how obtuse we can be, even at the heights of civilization.

Nothing for Water

One of my colleagues is being interviewed and quoted widely about this week’s deadly tornado in Oklahoma. As he tries to makes sense of the connections between extreme weather and climate change, I sure hope he can get through to some people who have been, let’s say, stubborn about the whole thing.

But another issue that is bad enough on its own but also brings that broader issues into focus is the draining of the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas. It’s important to remember about global warming and its associated devastations: the Earth will be fine – it’s people that won’t survive, especially difficult without water:

The Ogallala Aquifer suffered its second-worst drop since at least 2000 in a large swath of the Texas Panhandle, new measurements show.

The closely watched figures, published this week by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, cover a 16-county area stretching from south of Lubbock to Amarillo. The Ogallala wells measured by the district experienced an average drop of 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013. That makes it one of the five or 10 worst drops in the district’s more than 60-year history, said Bill Mullican, a hydrogeologist with the district.

“There are some pretty remarkable declines,” Mullican said. One well in the western part of the water district, he said, dropped 19 feet over the year.

The vast majority of Texas is enduring a drought, but the Panhandle has been especially hard hit, causing farmers to pump more water to make up for the lack of rain. That depletes the amount of water stored in the aquifer over the long term, which means future generations will find less water to pump to grow crops.

via LGM. There are a ton of connected issues, of which drought is merely the worst.

Actual Surface of the Ground

Just back in town but had an interview planned for this morning with Jonathan Herz, Chief Architect for Sustainable Facilities with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An authority on many aspects of sustainability, Herz was a great guest – very kind of him to talk with me. One thing he told me about as our conversation continued off-camera was a White House conference on conservation… in 1908. Here is President Roosevelt’s address from that conference, which was attended by many of the major industrialists, who saw that using up all natural resources was not in their best interest:

I welcome you to this Conference at the White House. You have come hither at my request, so that we may join together to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation.

So vital is this question, that for the first time in our history the chief executive officers of the States separately, and of the States together forming the Nation, have met to consider it. It is the chief material question that confronts us, second only–and second always–to the great fundamental questions of morality. [Applause]

With the governors come men from each State chosen for their special acquaintance with the terms of the problem that is before us. Among them are experts in natural resources and representatives of national organizations concerned in the development and use of these resources; the Senators and Representatives in Congress; the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and the Inland Waterways Commission have likewise been invited to the Conference, which is therefore national in a peculiar sense.

This Conference on the conservation of natural resources is in effect a meeting of the representatives of all the people of the United States called to consider the weightiest problem now before the Nation; and the occasion for the meeting lies in the fact that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue.

With the rise of peoples from savagery to civilization, and with the consequent growth in the extent and variety of the needs of the average man, there comes a steadily increasing growth of the amount demanded by this average man from the actual resources of the country. And yet, rather curiously, at the same time that there comes that increase in what the average man demands from the resources, he is apt to grow to lose the sense of his dependence upon nature. He lives in big cities. He deals in industries that do not bring him in close touch with nature. He does not realize the demands he is making upon nature. For instance, he finds, as he has found before in many parts of this country, that it is cheaper to build his house of concrete than of wood, learning in this way only that he has allowed the woods to become exhausted. That is happening, as you know, in parts of this country at this very time.

Savages, and very primitive peoples generally, concern themselves only with superficial natural resources; with those which they obtain from the actual surface of the ground. As peoples become a little less primitive, their industries, although in a rude manner, are extended to resources below the surface; then, with what we call civilization and the extension of knowledge, more resources come into use, industries are multiplied, and foresight begins to become a necessary and prominent factor in life. Crops are cultivated; animals are domesticated; and metals are mastered.

We can not do any of these things without foresight, and we can not, when the nation becomes fully civilized and very rich, continue to be civilized and rich unless the nation shows more foresight than we are showing at this moment as a nation. [Applause]

Every step of the progress of mankind is marked by the discovery and use of natural resources previously unused. Without such progressive knowledge and utilization of natural resources population could not grow, nor industries multiply, nor the hidden wealth of the earth be developed for the benefit of mankind.

From the first beginnings of civilization, on the banks of the Nile and the Euphrates, the industrial progress of the world has gone on slowly, with occasional set-backs, but on the whole steadily, through tens of centuries to the present day.

It never does advance by jumps, gentlemen. It always goes slowly. There are occasional set-backs, but on the whole it goes steadily.

But of late the rapidity of the process has increased at such a rate that more space has been actually covered during the century and a quarter occupied by our national life than during the preceding six thousand years that take us back to the earliest monuments of Egypt, to the earliest cities of the Babylonian plain.

Now, I ask you to think what that means; and I am speaking with historic literalness. In the development, the use, and therefore the exhaustion of certain of the natural resources, the progress has been more rapid in the past century and a quarter than during all preceding time of which we have record.

When the founders of this nation met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia the conditions of commerce had not fundamentally changed from what they were when the Phoenician keels first furrowed the lonely waters of the Mediterranean.

You turn to Homer–some of you did in your school days, even if you do not now [laughter]–and you will see that he spoke, not of the Mediterranean but of one corner of the Egean only, as a limitless waste of water which no one had traversed. There is now no nook of the earth that we are not searching.

When our forefathers met in Independence Hall, the differences were those of degrees, not of kind, and they were not in all cases even those of degree. Mining was carried on fundamentally as it had been carried on by the Pharaohs in the countries adjacent to the Red Sea. Explorers now-a-days by the shores of the Red Sea strike countries that they call new, but they find in them mines, with sculptures of the Pharaohs, showing that those mines were worked out and exhausted thousands of years before the Christian era.

In 1776 the wares of the merchants of Boston, of Charleston, like the wares of the merchants of Nineveh and Sidon, if they went by water, were carried by boats propelled by sails or oars; if they went by land were carried in wagons drawn by beasts of draft or in packs on the backs of beasts of burden. The ships that crossed the high seas were better than the ships that three thousand years before crossed the Egean, but they were of the same type, after all–they were wooden ships propelled by sails. There the difference was one of degree in our favor. On shore the difference was one of degree against us, for on land the roads, at the end of the eighteenth century, when this country became a nation, were not as good as the roads of the Roman Empire, while the service of the posts, at any rate prior to the days of Benjamin Franklin, was probably inferior. In the previous eighteen hundred years there had been a retrogression in roads and in postal service.

In Washington’s time anthracite coal was known only as a useless black stone; and the great fields of bituminous coal were undiscovered. As steam was unknown, the use of coal for power production was undreamed of. Water was practically the only source of power, saved the labor of men and animals; and this power was used only in the most primitive fashion. But a few small iron deposits had been found in this country, and the use of iron by our countrymen was very small. Wood was practically the only fuel, and what lumber was sawed was consumed locally, while the forests were regarded chiefly as obstructions to settlement and cultivation. The man who cut down a tree was held to have conferred a service upon his fellows.

Such was the degree of progress to which civilized mankind had attained when this nation began its career. It is almost impossible for us in this day to realize how little our Revolutionary ancestors knew of the great store of natural resources whose discovery and use have been such vital factors in the growth and greatness of this Nation, and how little they required to take from this store in order to satisfy their needs.

Since then our knowledge and use of the resources of the present territory of the United States have increased a hundred-fold. Indeed, the growth of this Nation by leaps and bounds makes one of the most striking and important chapters in the history of the world. Its growth has been due to the rapid development, and alas that it should be said!

Reflections on the Passing of a Car

Value – noun, verb, -ued, -u·ing.

A colleague used this term in a written draft recently and it immediately triggered in me the impulse for the equivalent of an electronic scratch-through; so much do I detest the term as generally construed but especially in the context of quantifying the benefits of something that should be considered in terms of quality.

So, given such a distaste and allergy, the sensible thing is to turn sharply back into the term, which I did on my walk this morning.

One of the qualities still heartily propping up Our Way® is the skewed preference we preserve for the wrong things – wrong in the context of resource depletion and ghg generation, the burning of coal and general wasting of essentials that is the chief characteristic of 1st world progress. We’re not that far away from being able to shift our priorities – the rank of what we value. But we’re also not close to actually doing it, either. We basically market ourselves vis-à-vis that transition as far into the future as possible, so much so as to make the possibility appear remote and implausible, and largely making this so, as well.

Why this disconnect between capability and action? Value (n.,v.) seems to be the culprit.

An example close to home, pun intended: We could value the ability to commute to work on foot more than the ability to drive that Porsche or BMW we cannot afford anyway. Now this one statement is chock-full of some of the neat contradictions that define us. But we do reserve a high degree of importance for the kind of car we can drive, not in any way comparable to that which we attach to walking – which we associate with drudgery as well as a kind of personal failure on the part of the walker. It takes excessive time and energy. But the car, its excessive costs and energy externalities, delivers a kind of status walking cannot touch. The qualitative difference at the center of our ability to value one over the other, despite the terrible quantities of money and energy demanded to hold this equation in place – not to mention the quantities of time and health extracted from us in the exchange – make the arrangement appear permanent and intractable. That’s not even considering the marketing to which we voluntarily submit ourselves and our consciences. Until we realize how we are not the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement and attach status value with being able to go car-less, indeed we are trapped within this tight little circle.

Yet it is easy to comprehend: were we availed of it, walking has just as much status potential, with the ability to do it everyday far superior to being trapped in a personal automobile.

Even supposing a person could conquer the desire to drive a Porsche or BMW and replace it with a preference for walking to the same destination, what would a person have to do in order to close the distance. The first order would be actually closing the distance, creating a real choice between the two modes of transportation. Granted, this is not the option for most people, and makes the question moot. But how to move the window? You would have to put value on living with proximity to work, food, school and play, with the ultimate prize being the ability to walk. In-town neighborhoods would be the most desirable (and most highly-valued, touché!); once they are fully occupied, demand drives development at the edges of walkable distances; to remain carless at these edges, public transportation infrastructure crops up to facilitate access to proximity – convenience, but not prioritized for personal automobiles. With this, a cascade of other values fall into place. You suddenly began to value other things that end with you/yours and quality re-enters the picture whereas before only quantity was considered: how many miles to work? How long will it take with traffic? How fast can we eat? How long can he wait at school for me to pick him up? How much does gas cost now? How much for new tires? Repairs?  A tune-up? There is no end to these questions. Their answers may change subtly but their nature does not. They worry and weigh upon us, but these questions are essential trivial – which itself worries and weighs on us, re-enforcing the circle.

We need the slippery slope of weightier issues and topics. Compare to: what is the walk doing to my weight? Am I feeling better with a little more exercise? What should we eat tonight? Is that new book store open? What should I read? What should I write? What new music would I like? Should we get the band back together? Could I learn Italian listening to a podcast five minutes a day? What is Coriander for? These questions are also endless, in a good way as you can see.

Which set of questions do you prefer?

The Perils of Ownership

At first [okay, maybe only right away], this article about efforts to save the Everglades benefitting U.S. Sugar appeared to be the apotheosis of green: environmentalism that made sense fiscally, actually working to save an industry whose competition – sweetener not from sugar but corn –  was wrecking the ecology, not to mention the health, of the country. Also, being so easy to find right up near the top of the page of the Times on a Monday morning, surely it might also be a positive harbinger – you see, this is what green is supposed to mean.

Boy, talk about projection.

In its current form, the deal’s only clear, immediate beneficiaries would be United States Sugar, a privately held company based in Clewiston, Fla., and its law firm, Gunster, which is expected to collect tens of millions of dollars in fees for its work on the sale, according to current and former United States Sugar executives.

The sale, scheduled to close March 31, amounts to a lifeline for the company, which entered negotiations at a time of profound weakness; it was facing a costly shareholder lawsuit, sinking profit margins and increased foreign competition. The deal would enable it to wipe nearly all the debt from its books.

United States Sugar had an unusually powerful advocate in Gunster, a West Palm Beach law firm that had represented it since 1990. Gunster’s chairman, George LeMieux, was Governor Crist’s chief of staff when the deal was first conceived. Mr. LeMieux, who began working at the law firm in 1994, returned to it in January 2008 as the deal was being renegotiated.

So, on top of the long-obstinate landowners getting to profit by allowing a lifeline to clean water for the ecosystem, their competitors, the Native American tribe that lives on the land, conservation groups and the feds were all locked out of negotiations right up until before they were announced. It’s not that this alone doomed the project, but it certainly didn’t help – mainly because the governor and U.S. Sugar created a dynamic whereby their efforts would naturally be opposed, instead of engendering a sort of automatic support – the kind I had when I first glanced at the headline.

Because (uh-oh, the Adventures of Positive Boy), as North Americans, cynicism is not our default setting. But that’s not where I was going… oh yeah. There is a disconnect, a patented (that’s a crazy, if illustrative, euphemism: only in this country – where, oddly, everyone’s gotta own everything but everything that is not privately owned has some taint and is not worth anything) separation between a ‘best of both worlds scenario’ and  the ‘worse possible combination’ that are so close to each other that they travel the same pathway. Yet we persist in believing them to be completely different. The path to health for the environment and positive economic outcomes is the same. Not to say this path is an easy one but, Occam… gesundheit.

We can have eminent domain on all kinds of levels, but we must only use it to benefit commercial interests. We can’t allow ‘the state’ to value the Everglades – the only subtropical wetlands ecosystem of its kind – in its own right; it must be attached to profit and ownership in some form.

How about we engage in a little trade for a euphemism-to-be-named-later: we change the concept to manifest domain, in exchange for eminent destiny.

Can you tell who’s had a supposedly free morning? jeez.

When Dashing was an Adjective

And until it is again. Someone reminded me of how many times per day we get into our cars to complete singular errands, multiple trips out and back; performed so quickly, even with great frequency, these trips have an implied efficiency about them – and what our ability to perform them says about us. All the while, we directly refer to these efforts as ‘running’ out. Without unpacking the load of obvious parallels, this is perhaps a semantic point we can leave until later.

But, the fact remains: we are wedded to an ability to make invisible and necessary an extremely wasteful method of performing necessary tasks.

With ‘taking longer’ identified as the real enemy, with a number of very explicit exceptions of course, we set about to shorten everything, supposedly whittling the fat down to essentials. Now we are not just running out quickly, but getting it all done (even if it takes multiple trips), introducing an, again supposed, tertiary efficiency to our moving about. All the while adding to copious amounts of wasted effort, time and brain power, creating unneeded effluents and emissions and depleting the resources much of our running around would be meant, in a more excellent world, to conserve.

Today’s question: will we be able to take any advantage of the many devices and methods we have contrived to save us time before the ability to power, control and organize them runs out*? We are approaching a point of diminishing returns that may begin to appear strikingly similar to what we are actually doing – as this happens, will we lose the ability to make distinctions between the two? If we begin not be able to recognize the certain things that are happening (as we warn ourselves against these, citing worst case scenarios that may already be underway), then what?

*As a clarification, I’m not talking about any end times fainting-couch hysterics, but merely the banal impossibilities inferred by an ill-matching task/skill set like… trying to use technology to fall in love.

The joneses, keeping up with

This is exactly what I was talking about in this week’s column. Admittedly it does involve foreign concepts like nonprofit utility boards and conscientious people, but this

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

is universal. Set aside ethical sympathies about the environment. Shame people into keeping up with their neighbors and they’ll take care of the imaginative/innovative part; you just put the comparative graphs on their bill. Okay, and the frowny faces, too.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

bread & stone

So, tree deaths in the western U.S. have more than doubled over the last few decades, and the most obvious cause is rising regional temps due to global warming. But…

When questioned about the most pressing issues facing the country, poll respondents in the same U.S. rank concern about global warming dead last. Hmm, the coincidence is lifting into a fog, enveloping our ability to discern among our crises. The old saw about about ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ is seamlessly seguing into something along the lines of ‘if the woods all fall together and everyone sees it, will it make any difference?’

But… it’s Friday, when I usually offer some kind of contextual reading. So how about a snippet from Aldo Leopold‘s The Land Ethic? Here’s a section, Substitutes for a Land Ethic, to consider:

When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century songbirds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.

A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptoral birds, and fish-eating birds. Time was when biologists somewhat overworked the evidence that these creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings, or that they control rodents for the farmer, or that they prey only on ‘worthless’ species. Here again, the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid. It is only in recent years that we hear the more honest argument that predators are members of the community, and that no special interest has the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself. Unfortunately this enlightened view is still in the talk stage. In the field the extermination of predators goes merrily on: witness the impending erasure of the timber wolf by fiat of Congress, the Conservation Bureaus, and many state legislatures.

Some species of trees have been ‘read out of the party’ by economics-minded foresters because they grow too slowly, or have too low a sale value to pay as timber crops: white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and hemlock are examples. In Europe, where forestry is ecologically more advanced, the non-commercial tree species are recognized as members of the native forest community, to be preserved as such, within reason. Moreover some (like beech) have been found to have a valuable function in building up soil fertility. The interdependence of the forest and its constituent tree species, ground flora, and fauna is taken for granted.

Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only of species or groups, but of entire biotic communities: marshes, bogs, dunes, and ‘deserts’ are examples. Our formula in such cases is to relegate their conservation to government as refuges, monuments, or parks. The difficulty is that these communities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands; the government cannot possibly own or control such scattered parcels. The net effect is that we have relegated some of them to ultimate extinction over large areas. If the private owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be the custodian of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add diversity and beauty to his farm and to his community.

In some instances, the assumed lack of profit in these ‘waste’ areas has proved to be wrong, but only after most of them had been done away with. The present scramble to reflood muskrat marshes is a case in point.

There is a clear tendency in American conservation to relegate to government all necessary jobs that private landowners fail to perform. Government ownership, operation, subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry, range management, soil and watershed management, park and wilderness conservation, fisheries management, and migratory bird management, with more to come. Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and logical, some of it is inevitable. That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it. Nevertheless the question arises: What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base carry its eventual ramifications? At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.

Industrial landowners and users, especially lumbermen and stockmen, are inclined to wail long and loudly about the extension of government ownership and regulation to land, but (with notable exceptions) they show little disposition to develop the only visible alternative: the voluntary practice of conservation on their own lands.

When the private landowner is asked to perform some unprofitable act for the good of the community, he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the act costs him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only forethought, open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least debatable. The overwhelming growth of land-use subsidies in recent years must be ascribed, in large part, to the government’s own agencies for conservation education: the land bureaus, the agricultural colleges, and the extension services. As far as I can detect, no ethical obligation toward land is taught in these institutions.

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy for these situations.

Now, it’s overhead

So, following up on the last post about transmission lines, I was talking with an environmental engineer about whether a new grid system as such would be overhead like we are accustomed to seeing, or buried, as other public infrastructure improvements in sewage and fiber optics have been. Without recreating the discussion I’ll try to hit some of the high notes.

A lot of this is already happening – burying supply lines – which loses much less power in transmission with some of the new technology utilized to deliver the load to absorption or reflection points. Plus, he muted the point about the high costs of installation and maintenance of underground wires with the high costs of overhead wires brought on by perfectly predicatable events like ice storms. Overtime crews, trucks in the field – these things, too, have a cost.

There is a bigger, hidden idea behind this transformer transformation, if you will, that does not change now matter how much more renewable energy we can generate and even connect from remote locations where it’s captured to more densely populated areas where it is needed. The compulsion to say/think we can replace present energy consumption levels, whether it is for electricity or for transportation, must be overwhelmed. This is where the plans and discussion stop making sense and venture into territories unknown, and, coincidentally, where we usually tune out.

We’ve got to use less of the stuff, whatever it is but definitely energy – plus, we’ve got to figure out how we can still have jobs for people to do. But before we can even get to that part, the reality of using less must be reconciled. Until it is, that’s the dark cloud following us around.