Archive for January, 2009

Permit me to begin with a metaphorical (but true) tale about a chicken.  In my early twenties, shortly after I started cooking for myself, I visited some relatives living on a farm in Denmark.  Thinking I would prepare a meal for them, I brought along a recipe for one of the few dishes I had mastered: a simple chicken stir-fry.

My aunt offered to gather the ingredients.  I knew something was terribly wrong when I headed for the kitchen to get started and she called out, “The chicken is in the sink; I plucked it for you.  Will you be needing the neck?” 

My stir-fry called for boneless, skinless chicken breast–you know, the kind that comes wrapped in cellophane.  As far as I could see, the thing with its chopped neck still bleeding in the sink had nothing whatsoever to do with chicken.  And so the meal I was supposed to cook for my family turned into the meal where I swallowed my pride, and my disgust, and scrubbed potatoes while my aunt cooked the chicken, laughing her head off. 


Americans are notoriously in the dark about where their food comes from (although we Mainers know a bit more about farming than most).  But Mainers can claim no intimacy with where electricity comes from.  It’s true that we know something about hydroelectric dams, but we simply can’t imagine the realities of mining and processing coal – the raw power behind over half the nations’ electricity.  Our electricity comes skinned, de-boned, and neatly wrapped in cellophane.


The real story about electricity is, I think, especially hard to fathom because what it delivers is so helpful, so bright and so clean.  It’s light in the dark, it’s dishes that wash themselves, it’s ice in summer, and it’s live-saving medical equipment.  It serves us quietly, with no fuss: just a tangle of wires and a mysterious monthly bill.  


Why mysterious?  Consider this: How many of us know what a kilowatt hour (kWh) is?  How many can read an electric meter?  How many know what our dehumidifiers cost to run?  Or that some TVs can use as much electricity as a refrigerator?


Contrast this ethereal substance with gasoline.  Like all self-respecting vices, gasoline lets you know that it’s nasty.  It looks nasty.  It stinks, it smogs, and it exacerbates our kids’ asthma.  We must constantly refill it, we know exactly what we are paying for and how it will get used up.  We know we are buying gas guzzlers when we buy them.  Spilled oil is an environmental hazard, but what happens to spilled electricity?


We could stand to put some more thought into electricity.  It costs the average Maine household $1,000 a year.  Pocket change this is not, nor are the environmental impacts of generating it.


In the case of coal, the bleeding chicken in the sink this: coal-fired power plants are possibly the largest obstacle we face to avoiding catastrophic climate change.  They are the biggest single contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, and the United States is poised to build more.  Yet they are so damaging that, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, even one additional plant is of grave concern.  


And who up here in Maine could imagine that the last few decades of mining coal in Appalachia has meant bulldozing and blasting the tops off hundreds of mountains (several ridges a week at the current rate), utterly devastating over a half million acres of forest, and burying over 1,000 miles of valley streams?  


Single mines cover thousands of acres.  Silos and impoundments holding back lakes of toxic sludge sit perched above hundreds of communities, and in one case, just 300 feet from an elementary school.  Is that dangerous?  Last month, a coal sludge impoundment ruptured in Tennessee, poisoning forests, rivers, and homes with more than a billion gallons of toxic goop.  


Fortunately (or perversely, depending on your perspective), a lot of electricity is wasted without providing any service to anyone–curtailing this waste offers us some easy opportunities to dramatically reduce use.  


Our own household, much to my surprise, was able to drop our electric usage by 25% with no significant investment of time, money, or hardship.  We already had an efficient fridge, hung our laundry, turned off lights (mostly), and had efficient bulbs in our primary light fixtures.  What else was there?  


First, we gradually switched all our remaining bulbs to compact fluorescents, which use about 70% less energy.  


Second, we plugged our TV/VCR and computer/printer/modem into two power strips that we turn off when not in use.  Most home electronics draw small but significant amounts of energy even when turned off .  Efficiency Maine reports that this “phantom load” slurps up 75% of the juice used by these gadgets.


Third, we became progressively more compulsive about turning off lights in unoccupied rooms.


All we really did was to stop paying for electricity we were not benefitting from.  Here is a graph of our power consumption.  (The bar on the left is the average annual electricity use for a Maine household.)  We now spend $160 a year less than we did in 2004, and our monthly bill is about $40.  




Electricity in Maine comes largely from gas and oil-fired power plants, which, although not as bad as coal, both make significant contributions to global warming.  For a few cents more per kWh, Mainers can buy electricity generated by emissions-free wind and hydro power through Maine Interfaith Power and Light (http://www.meipl.org/ or (207) 721-0444)).


What if Mainers led the way in reducing electricity demand and switching to renewables?  We can, and should, inspire our fellow citizens to turn off the lights and change our light bulbs.  And maybe school children in the poorest part of Appalachia can have some purple mountains majesty in their backyards rather than a new coal sludge silo.

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Carl Newmark, age 10


Nothing upsets our chaotic daily departure for school like an earwig in the shoe.  I have two girls, and you might imagine that such an event would elicit shrieks of disgust.  Indeed, there were a few shrieks as I mushed the offending bug and chucked it in the toilet.  But, about a block from the house, my youngest daughter turned to me with a quiver in her voice and said, “Why did you have to squish it?  Why couldn’t we have taken it outside?”


I was expecting this.  She’s the same daughter who wanted to know why we killed the tick that we pried off her back last summer.  “Wasn’t it just trying to get some food?” she inquired.  “Shall I put the next one in the garden?” I asked.  “Yes,” she replied earnestly, “you should.”


So, in an effort to salvage our teetering morning, I cast about for a reply.  Some bugs, I say authoritatively, get squished when they show up in the house, and other bugs get taken out to the garden.  That’s just the way it is.  Earwigs, I say flatly, get squished.  What about ants, she asked, as we walked along.  Squished.  Pillbugs?  Taken out to the garden.  Yellow jackets?  Squished.  Honey bees?  Taken out.  Mosquitoes?  Squished.  Spiders?  Left where they are, unless on the ceiling above your bed.  Armadillos?  Taken out, most definitely.  Fortunately, by now, she was smiling. 


She can get pretty upset over the fate of the world’s creepy crawlies and I have some sympathy for her perspective.  As a child, I was the one who diligently escorted the spiders out of our third floor walk-up.  I remember my dad calling, “Sarah, get this critter outta here or it’s a goner!”  My mom, with a bit less drama, quietly squashed them.


Some interesting studies by researcher Martin Seligman in the 1970’s showed that it is much easier to cause people to have a fearful emotional reaction to things like snakes and spiders (if they didn’t already have such a reaction) than to have a fearful response to flowers (not surprising) or even guns (surprising).  Seligman speculated that modern humans have evolved with an inborn aversion to things that could harm our ancestors.  


One could easily imagine that people who happened to be afraid of snakes lived longer and therefore may have had more children than people who were were not afraid.  Over thousands of years, more people would be born carrying genes that made them inherently fearful of snakes.  Folks who did not happen to be bothered by snakes were more likely to get bitten by them (and possibly killed); thereby they would be less likely to pass their fearless genes on to potential children.  


Fear of guns, in contrast, cannot be transmitted through our genes (yet) because guns have not been around long enough to affect our genetic make-up.  Thus, being scared of guns is learned and not inborn.  Seligman called his theory “Biological Preparedness.”  


Other explanations for Seligman’s findings have been put forth, but I find his theory compelling.  It makes sense that part of our reaction to creepy crawlies is inborn.   Yet, some of must be learned as well.  Do we spend time teaching our children to appreciate beetles, worms, and eels, or do we only teach them to admire panda bears and unbearably cute soda-can sized Saw Whet owls?


Part of the answer, I think, has to do with our sense, or lack thereof, of the interconnectedness of everything in the natural world.  Might we not have more fondness for bees, for example, if we spent more time thinking about how life on earth is entirely dependent on them for pollinating most of our plant species?  


The sweet fuzzy creatures of the world inevitably depend on the smaller creepy creatures, whether directly for food or indirectly for services such as pollination and decomposition.  If we poison the bugs eating our prized dahlias we may also be poisoning the bluebirds pulling worms and the butterflies sipping nectar.


Perhaps it is easier for a child than an adult to summon forth a deep and abiding respect for the whole spectrum of life forms.  Perhaps it is easier for a child than an adult to intuitively grasp how intricately intertwined is all life on our planet.  


Most of us adults, at least in our culture, generally act as if everything in nature is discrete.  If all our bees die (and indeed, bees are declining at an alarming rate), why then we just won’t have bees.  We act as if having bees or polar bears or mosquitoes is not profoundly linked to having food or a stable climate in which to grow crops.   


One of my daughter’s favorite books is called Thanks to the Animals by Passamaquoddy storyteller, Allen Sockabasin.  In this tale, an infant tumbles unnoticed from his family’s sleigh as they move from their summer dwelling to their winter home in the woods.  The child would have frozen to death, but all the animals of the northern forest come out one by one and pile around him to keep him warm.  Finally realizing the child is missing, his father spends the night hiking back along the trail.  At sunrise he finds his son amidst a heap of animals, all sheltering under the wing of the great bald eagle.  


According to the text, the father thanks each animal, one by one.  But the lovely illustration by Rebekah Raye shows him thanking not the charismatic moose, the sweet beavers or the lordly bald eagle, but rather he is talking to the tiniest mouse that helped keep his son alive.  This is my daughter’s favorite picture in the book.  I think she’s on to something.  

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