Water: Next Capitalist Tool?

This photo of a Burmese girl at the head of a long line on her daily water-collecting chore went viral last year; the girl became a new poster child for injustice, incompetence and greed in Burma.  Involuntary child labor is rare in our part of the world, and a chore like this the stuff of weather-related emergencies, unless you happen to live in Detroit.  Retrieving the photo was no more difficult than turning on a tap to fill my kettle or wash my hands.  In a well-functioning society, we take water — and Dala township, Burma: people line up to collect waterelectricity, and until recently, the Internet — for granted, squandering them as if there was no tomorrow.

If you’ve been following social media, you may have noticed that water is on the brink of becoming a marketable commodity, like fossil fuels.  Maybe you thought that just because water makes up between 50-75% of our bodies, it is a human right.  Corporations like Nestlé beg to differ. Nestlé has been bottling water from aquifers in Palm Springs, California, and selling it to drought-stricken Los Angeles.  Maybe we should have seen it coming when we gave in to the whole bottled water craze like our European neighbors, without cause.  New York tap water is wonderful.  But there’s no stuffing that genie back into the bottle, recyclable or otherwise.  I’m not generally an alarmist, but this latest corporate move does seem like a strike against basic human rights on a whole new order of magnitude. Water: Next Capitalist Tool.

As a coastal Florida resident, I think a lot about water, maybe more than most of my neighbors.  We prefer our water where it ‘belongs’:  at the beach where we can use it for recreation, and flowing from our taps for all the things we must do with water … and then some.  But too much water or the wrong kind can change that in a flash, as neighborhoods in Miami, Delray Beach and Loxahatchee know too well every time there is heavy rain, high tides and/or a full moon.

Last week, at the Second Annual Sea Level Rise Symposium, I got a refresher course in just how important water is to my adopted state, delivered by a group of smart, dedicated people — scientists, elected officials, activists and philanthropists.   Attendance this year was roughly double, filling up the auditorium of Oxbridge Academy.   In sum, according to keynote speaker, Kristin Jacobs, Broward County Commissioner and Co-Chair of the President’s Subgroup of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and others, unless we can respond appropriately and very soon, climate change will deliver two distinct threats to a state that is essentially entirely coastal: 1. the risk to real estate and tourism in the billions due to storm damage and flooding, and  2. saltwater contamination of drinking water wells, due to sea level rise and a compromised water table.  The maps made by Jayantha Obeysekera, aka “Obey”, chief modeler, South Florida Water Management District were, in a word, scary.   There are, he said, no wells that will not be affected.  Who should care?  All of us. And yet, according to Keren Bolter, FAU Geosciences PhD candidate, there is a chasm in public awareness between those who get it and those who haven’t … yet. Even EPA operatives are behind the curve on climate science, noted Bryan Myers, Energy and Climate Change Coordinator, EPA Region 4.  Don’t look for much help from our current state administration.  Commented Bobby Powell Jr., Florida State Representative, District 88, salt water would have to flow from our taps before there would be any action.  Just remember that come election time. So, where to turn?

Go local (where have I heard that before?).  Said West Palm Beach Major, Jeri Muoio, in any emergency, the buck stops at the mayor’s office.  In Miami, considered the most vulnerable city in the world for storm surge and sea level rise, 87% of residents approved higher taxes to address impacts, and agreed to an 84% increase in their storm sewer fees.  We, the people.

Jan Booher, South Florida Climate Action Partners, and Barbara Eriv, League of Women Voters of PBC (one of the Symposium sponsors), running a breakout session on Community Outreach, would agree.  The two are members of the Climate Change Working Group which is designed to enable climate activist groups to share information, plans and results. They intend to use citizen muscle — that would be us — to get more municipalities to sign on to the Mayors’ Climate Action Pledge.  As of this writing, only two out of 38 municipalities in Palm Beach County have done so: Boynton Beach and Delray Beach.

According to attorneys Mitchell Chester, SLRAmerica.org and Richard Grosso, Nova Southeastern University, Director of Environmental and Land Use Law Clinic, (Breakout: Legal Wars and Economics) the existing environmental laws are ‘more than sufficient to protect health, business, property.’   However, our justice and financial systems have yet to understand that climate change and sea level rise (SLR) represent a “global phenomenon that are a major challenge to our way of governance,” or to prepare for it.  We need a financial system for SLR because it is a monetary problem for individuals, and ‘there is money to be made’ in addressing it.  “If you deny climate science,” said Grosso, “you can still value the health of your children, the economic value of our coastlines, the need for clean air and water.”  How to communicate better with skeptics?  We could all use some help with that.  Until someone designs such a course, consider these.

HuffPo on Nestlé

The Everglades supply 66% of all the water used in South Florida.  Check out Love The Everglades.  Support this and other eco-organizations with your time and money

Read John Englander’s High Tide on Main Street

Write/call your state representatives, and VOTE.


Business Plan for a Planet

60 Minutes re-ran a show from November about The Pledge, an initiative created by Bill and Melinda Gates with Warren Buffet, to encourage people in the billionaire club – about 1,600 people in the world according to 2014 figures – to pledge to ‘give back’ 50% of their fortune to the charity of their choice.  Gates and Buffet are #1 and #4 in the world as of the Forbes List for 2014.

Max Plank imageSara Blakely, who turned $5,000 into billions with her butt-shaper, Spanx, is interested in ‘helping women.’  Steve and Jean Case (AOL) want to empower others in civic engagement.   Billionaire passions in the group interviewed included unemployment in South Africa; brain cancer; tax reform in California and the national debt.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aims to eradicate infectious diseases.

Honestly, I was struck by how few of these great business minds seem to think climate change worthy of their attention and money.  Only former Ebay president, Jeffrey Skoll, included climate change in his top five ‘global threats,’ although #2 water security and #3 pandemics are closely related.  Skoll is also founder of Participant Media that was a key underwriter for An Inconvenient Truth and Years of Living Dangerously, among others.

Could the reluctance of self-made billionaires to engage with the politically-charged issue of climate change have something to do with biting the hand that feeds you?  After all, American corporations in particular enjoy tax advantages and a cozy relationship with the government few ordinary citizens can aspire to.
(We can Amend this, and right-size corporate power.)

A business background is not preventing former hedge fund manager, Tom Steyer, from climate advocacy that is raising eyebrows on both sides of the political divide.  Steyer is pledging $50M of his own money — and seeking matching funds — to eliminate climate change deniers in key races (for governor of Florida, being one), fighting fire with fire, as it were.   And it hasn’t stopped former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg (Forbes List #15), from co-chairing a stunning report entitled Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the U.S.   It should be mandatory reading for everyone in the business community.  And if you live/work/invest in/own property along the East Coast, this quote from the executive summary should get your attention:

Within the next 15 years, higher sea levels combined with storm surge will likely increase the average annual cost of coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion.  Adding in potential changes in hurricane activity, the likely increase in average annual losses grows to up to $7.3 billion, bringing the total annual price tag for hurricanes and other coastal storms to $35 billion.

Where will the money come from to cover these losses?  Will ‘ongoing emergency response’ (Bill McKibben) become part of business as usual, accounted for in GDP in the years affected by big climate events?   What will happen to civil society in such a world?

It may be cold comfort (better than none) to realize that a large shift is occurring, not just among the people who hold most of the world’s wealth, but in the business community that, for better or worse, shapes and controls so much of who and what we are – and with our consent.   Whenever you feel powerless, remember what author/activist, Arundhati Roy, says so memorably about corporations: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. 

Boycotts are effective.  Remember Gandhi’s walk to the sea to gather salt.  But equally, it makes sense to identify the businesses that are part of the shift and support them: Starbucks, Stoneyfield Farms, Eileen Fisher, Ben and Jerry’s – about 170 at last count, and growing.  Here’s their letter in support of President Obama’s climate initiative.  Find the business leaders who speak your language, and don’t waste your time fretting about their personal lifestyles.  Plan B Team’s Mission:

We, the undersigned, believe that the world is at a critical crossroads.  Global business leaders need to come together to advance the wellbeing of people and planet.  In fact, we think business has to think this way in order to thrive.

More links:

Plan B

Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy

McKibben on Extreme Weather

Context is Everything

“We have to stop building vast houses on seashores,” said Rupert Murdoch. Huh? Has the chairman and ceo of News Corporation seen the light? Will Fox News repent its ways? What science fiction world is this? The reality: this taken-out-of-context quote was part of a Murdoch interview in which he gave climate change skepticism his personal stamp of approval.

contextContext is everything when it comes to a serious consideration of the impact of climate chaos on real life. If you have the wherewithal to build a vast house on the seashore, you can easily choose another location for your 3rd or 4th home. But if you are trying to continue life as you’ve known it in the Maldives or Bangladesh, you have a very different kind of problem on your hands. Of course, most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Even if you get global warming and are willing to talk about it, having a sane conversation with those who are sitting on the fence will remain difficult as long as Big Media keeps trucking in doubt. To call climate change ‘controversial’ is on the subtle end of the scale, relatively speaking, but it does the job nonetheless. For more on the contrarian view, see HuffPo Green.

We’re only human and this is scary s—t! There has been some criticism of The Years of Living Dangerously series for adopting the same fear-based tactics environmentalists have used for decades, with diminishing returns. We’re all looking for little glimmers of hope that someone or something will show up to solve the problem, or that we can tweak this or that and voila! our comfortable lives can proceed apace. We may have grasped the realities of global warming intellectually, but the way we conduct our lives is slow to catch up to it.

Maybe this tiny, also Australia-based media entity — a flea on the butt of an elephant by comparison — can help. The Simplicity Collective offers some well-written challenges to the status quo head on. Like the Transition Movement, the Collective begins with the fact that a world without carbon-derived energy is inevitable, and it also favors ‘disruptive social innovation’ as a way we can live, and even thrive, in such a world. “Let’s be pioneers again,” is its invitation.

In a recent paper, Samuel Alexander*, chief architect and main author of the Collective, recognized the futility of small, incremental steps “to catalyse a transformation to a low-carbon civilisation, at least, not within the ever-tightening time frame urged by the world’s climate scientists.” But you already know that. Or I hope you do. The paper goes on to review what Alexander considers the most promising contenders (Transition among them) for most innovative social movements. Bottom line: we don’t know what will work and what will happen next but doing nothing is not an option.

I encourage you to read the paper and explore the site, even if earth dome building doesn’t turn you on at the moment. After writing extensively about a compost toilet, a fellow Transitioner noted: I’m shocked by what gets me excited nowadays!  Below is a sampling of the contenders with links so you can explore further at your leisure (but not forever). Choose one, see if it makes sense for you.

The Divestment Campaign: Go Fossil Free It began with Bill McKibben’s Do the Math tour and has since reached beyond colleges and universities into the faith community.

The Transition Movement. http://transitionus.org This will take you to other sites. Transition is becoming a mature movement relatively quickly, with all the usual bumps in the road.

The Sharing or Gift Economy. See Charles Eisenstein, especially Sacred Economics and A More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. Of all, one of the easiest to adopt because everyone knows how to give in some way.

Urban Agriculture, including the CSA and farm-to-table movements. Too many to list as a simple search will reveal.

Voluntary Simplicity Movement. Beside The Simplicity Collective cited here, check out New American Dream and Annie Leonard’s great Story of Stuff.

Occupy (many permutations) and Move to Amend (slightly off topic, but relevant in the broad context of disruption.)

To these, I would add the work of John Michael Greer who writes a fascinating blog under the title The Archdruid Report — far out, provocative.

Context is everything has entered the Lexicon as surely as tipping point, so the source of the quote may surprise you as it did me. And here’s a fun stumbled-upon I plan to explore further: http://powazek.com/posts/1685 and a quote from Mary Catherine Bateson that’s so going up on my wall: “You are not what you know but what you’re willing to learn.”

*Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne. He is also a research fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) and co-director of the Simplicity Institute.

Image: http://powazek.com/posts/1685

Transition, With a Side of Homemade Yogurt

making yogurtNeeding a break from the ups and downs of doing Transition, I decided to take a page out of Rob Hopkins’ book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, and make yogurt this weekend. Both are about changing the culture, after all.

I wanted to bring the principles of meditation practice into the process and be more mindful, so I was aware that my automatic choice was to consult the Internet rather than a cookbook of which I have many.  Results: three pages, 10 links/recipes on each, before my search ran aground.  Most of the recipes seemed unnecessarily complicated, so I went with the simplest one from @thekitchnn — the language was kind and supportive, too.  I like that.

Yogurt has been eaten by itself or as an essential ingredient in many world cuisines for centuries, and today it is enjoying perhaps the greatest popularity since Dannon first began diversifying its product, with such innovations as fruit in 8 oz. servings, “stir-from-the-bottom.” In fact, yogurt was declared the official snack of the State of New York in May this year, the successful conclusion of a campaign begun by 4th graders. The latest craze, so-called Greek Yogurt, was also a featured story in The New Yorker (October 30) that describes how Turkish entrepreneur, Hamdi Ukylaya, built his company from 0 to $1 billion in five years.

I’m a sucker for rags-to-riches stories, but I’m in this for the probiotics, the practice, and what it will teach me about patience (a lot). Homemade yogurt is like many fermented foods: it takes simple ingredients – in my case, a half-gallon of organic 2% milk, ½ cup of plain Dannon yogurt – and transforms them into something exceptionally nutritious and tasty. I had the requisite stainless steel pots and bowls, a thermometer to keep an eye on optimum temperatures, and plenty of time (4-5 hours total).

Making yogurt isn’t especially labor intensive, but you do have to be mindful of things like the temperature of the milk at different phases. It is a good reminder that yogurt is derived from a living culture and it will only thrive under the right conditions.  The same could be said about any one of the many grassroots alternatives to the status quo among which Transition, Voluntary Simplicity and co-housing are the most promising.

Johnny Cash was singing from Folsom Prison while I stirred the milk over a medium-high burner (to keep from sticking) until the thermometer read about 185°F.  Mine clips to the side of the pan.  Some little bubbles had begun to form around the edge at this point.  Cooling the milk to about 112°F – the wrist test familiar to mothers – can be speeded up by plunging the pot and contents into a bath of iced and water. Or you can just wait.

It’s important to use a good quality, additive-free, plain yogurt (or you can use a starter). Whisk in half a cup into a cup of the warm milk, then add it all back into the main pot, whisking until it is all blended in. At this point, I had to deviate from the recipe because my electric oven doesn’t have a pilot light, perfect for holding the temperature steady.  A slow cooker might come in handy for this step. I heated a larger pan of water, about 2-3 inches of it, to about 120°F, removed it from the burner, and put the stainless bowl with the yogurt-milk mixture into the pan. Covered it with the lid – you can also swaddle the pot in towels for warmth — and forced myself to walk away. Well, I did sneak a few peeks, like the mother of a sleeping newborn. But the yogurt culture isn’t asleep although nothing much seems to be happening. It is quietly doing its astonishing thing. The longer it sits undisturbed, the more tart it becomes.

I went off to watch 60 Minutes, riveted by the Malcolm Gladwell profile (promoting his new book about underdogs, David and Goliath) and a terrifying story about live volcanoes. Back in the kitchen, about 10 pm, I lifted the lid. The yogurt was a firm, creamy mass ready to be transferred for final cooling to the refrigerator. It can be packed into sterilized glass containers now or later. It will keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator… I doubt it will last that long in my house.

This morning, with sliced mangoes and granola – simply heaven!

For Utilities, Small is Beautiful…Again

Click on image to embiggen.

Thanks to Ed Scerbo’s great post on microgrids on Transition Southeast and Deep South, I have my topic for today (although ‘micro,’ as I’m learning, it isn’t.) Relatively cheap electricity makes our society go, so it’s not possible to think about it without considering a number of related factors:  how we use, and abuse, it in our daily lives;  how we respond when power is interrupted — homes, offices, hospitals, schools, etc.– (quite well in the short-term, as stories from famous blackouts show);  and what the future may hold as conventional power sources shrink and renewables keep running into resistance from the, well, powerful. My iPhone 5 now tells me it is not compatible with the solar charger I wrote about so enthusiastically here a couple of weeks ago.  What’s up with that?

In case you need, as did I, a good definition of the microgrid and why we need to pay more attention to this technology, start here (http://whatis.techtarget.com — very useful to decode technical terms of all kinds):

“Any small-scale localized station with its own power resources, generation and loads and definable boundaries qualifies as a microgrid. Microgrids can be intended as back-up power or to bolster the main power grid during periods of heavy demand. Often, microgrids involve multiple energy sources as a way of incorporating renewable power. Other purposes include reducing costs and enhancing reliability…The modular nature of microgrids could make the main grid less susceptible to localized disaster.” (Emphasis mine.)

Localizing is the whole raison d’etre of the Transition movement so it isn’t surprising local power generation is getting a lot of attention in Transition Towns in the U.K.  See this Rough Guide to Community Energy and start your own exploration. The U.S. Military is driving development of microgrids – some 40 bases have their own. In fact, as more municipalities, cities and regions realize the value of decentralized power, the global annual market for microgrid power generation is expected to reach $40B, with North America taking the lead. Last week, the Department of Energy (as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan) launched a competition to award $100,000 to six operational microgrids.  When you consider what is being spent to suppress solar, this doesn’t seem nearly enough money.

As it turns out, Florida is home to a number of utilities that qualify as microgrids, and the trend is surfacing all over the Northeast in the wake of Sandy, including in New York, Connecticut and Maryland (but not so far in my former home state of New Jersey, boo Chris Christie!)   There is a microgrid  in my county of Palm Beach: Lake Worth Utilities.  The rest of the county’s population, some 41 towns and incorporated villages, must rely on Florida Power and Light. We do, however, as I’ve written here before, have some choice or where to source our power while remaining on the FPL grid. Despite some issues with utility rates, local power generation is but one of the eco-assets of Lake Worth that makes it potentially more resilient than many of its neighbors, my town of Palm Beach Gardens included.  I’d love to hear how LWU is working out for you, so Lake Worth residents, weigh in.

One of the best examples of community power generation in Florida is Gainesville Regional Utilities, serving 93,000 customers in Gainesville and environs. Not only does GRU stand out for its emphasis on renewable energy including biomass, solar – the first in the state to offer solar feed-in-tariff program — and landfill gas (that’s methane derived from decomposing organic matter), it does a great job of communicating with its customers on benefits and underlying values. By the end of 2013, Gainesville Regional Utilities drew 21% of its power from renewable sources. Pear Energy, which powers our home and EV, buys energy from GRU. Check out this remarkable company here.

I could go on, and may dig in more deeply in future posts.  In the meantime, let this small sample of an exciting emerging field encourage you to explore it further and give it your support wherever you live.  As we all know, how we make and use energy directly impacts the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (hovering at 400 ppm currently).  Distributed power provides a measure of security as the climate becomes more unstable.  But the microgrid, especially when tapping solar and other renewable resources, is smart energy for the future.  Global warming is a wicked problem.  To quote a buddy of mine: “We need to throw everything we’ve got at it.”

More reading:

Federal Incentives for Renewable Energy (expire December 31, 2016)

Renewable Energy World (much to absorb)

Kill-a-Watt EZ Meters For you DIYers

How Stuff Works – delightful article on microgrids