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Musings from the Back Porch

Maybe this page will be a sort of blog? (Actually, I’m not sure what a blog is.) Anyway, on this page I will from time to time, as the inclination strikes me, express whatever thoughts, questions, concerns are in my mind at the moment. If you’re sitting on the back porch, you’re welcome to listen. If what you hear sparks thoughts of your own, let me know.

If you’re the sort of person who is offended by the expression of ideas with which you strongly disagree, please back on out into the more utilitarian parts of the site now. Thank you.


May 4, 2009: Nuclear Waste, Morally Wasted

Predictably, supporters of the nuclear industry are wrapping themselves in a “green” mantle as they make a big push for a comeback of the industry: Nuclear-powered electricity will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being spewed into the atmosphere by coal plants. Even a number of prominent environmentalists—for example, promoter of the Gaia theory James Lovelock; author of a book on past collapsed civilizations Jared Diamond; founder of Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand—have bought into this point of view.

Since supporters are likely to dismiss scare stories of Chernobyl Redux (oh, and there was that bit of unpleasantness at Three Mile Island), escaped radioactivity, and the devastating ecological effects of uranium mining, let's focus for the moment solely on the question of storage of nuclear wastes, and related questions about which there is no debate:

Since as said worst case scenarios are unlikely to get much traction with supporters of increased reliance on nuclear power, I'm going to base my observations solely on best case scenarios.

The unbreachable container I read recently that the containers proposed for storing nuclear wastes in Yucca Mountain [the site we’ve chosen as the eminently sensible place to store this stuff—that is, not in my backyard] should prove safe from rupturing for 10,000 years. Sounds encouraging, but no one is proposing that we just stack the containers inside Yucca Mountain and walk away. Without exception, everybody in the debate recognizes that (best case scenario) we will have to monitor the integrity of the containers. For 10,000 years. Now it’s getting interesting.

The period of required stewardship What is being seriously proposed is this: For the sake of a temporary source of electric power in our time [and it will be temporary—known uranium depsosits in the whole world will fuel nucluear power generation for only sixty years or so], we plan to burden future human beings for hundreds of generations with the necessity—at the risk of calamitous results for them and their unborn children if they fail— of properly monitoring the storage facilities, and responding if there is a containment failure. What will be the state of their technology? What will it cost them in personnel and resources to ensure the integrity of the facilities? We have no idea.

What is certain, however, is this: We prattle on about “liberty,” which means freedom of choice. And yet we have not a qualm about saddling generations to come, for a period longer than recorded history, with a choice they will have had no role in making. No government has ever lasted 10,000 years, of course—not even close. Ah, but here's the real kicker: Those unfortunate people will have the non negotiable burden of guarding the nuclear wastes, while deriving not one smidgen of benefit from the electricity it once generated.

The devil-may-care attitude we bring to this issue is unfortunately utterly consonant with reactions to our other negative effects on future generations: Just keep the benefits for me going, for now, while it’s still possible, in my lifetime—I really don't give a damn about the consequences after I’m gone.

We truly are a race of moral monsters, richly deserving the extinction we so assiduously court.

If you have a response to the above, please let me know. It would be good to hear from you. ~Harvey

February 20, 2009: A More Reasoned Response

Ronald in Iowa also responded to my New Years Day piece. Fortunately, in contrast to a couple of other readers (see below), Ronald observed the important precept: Engage brain before starting mouth.

This was my response:

Ronald, thanks for being in touch and sharing your thoughts—I appreciate the opportunity to share perspectives on the undprecedented conditions in which we find ourselves.

As for my assessment of the Obama adminstration in the first month: I have to say, I’m not too hopeful. President Obama came to office promising “change,” and of course in many ways he does represent enormous change from the Bush administration. But with regard to certain fundamentals, he is still blind to the realities of our changing situation.

I don't doubt that there is much in the gargantuan “stimulus package”—for example, expanded unemployment benefits and access to food programs—that is critical for helping people out who have lost their jobs or suffered other financial reverses. But I don't question the criticism many Republicans have made, that this is a huge spending bill, much of it representing expansions of government outlays for programs favored by Democrats, with little relevance for immediate stimulus. More fundamentally, I question whether taking on such a huge increment of national debt is going to dig us out of a hole that has been created to a large extent by—endlessly and recklessly accumuulating national debt.

I think this is a good place for a fundamental clarification: Everybody bemoans the fact that we are in effect “borrowing from our children,” since it is they who are going to have to “repay our national debt.” Anybody who thinks our national debt is ever going to be “repaid” should have a look at U.S. National Debt Clock for some sobering facts. Our total debt now stands at $11 trillion dollars. (I've read many analyses concluding that the true debt is many times that, but for the moment I won’t argue the point.) The total has increased by $3-½ billion per day since September 28, 2007.

Since neither you nor I have any more idea what a trillion is than a chicken, let's imagine the scale of the debt in these terms: It comes to more than $35,000 per person. Mind you, that’s not per taxpayer, but per person in these United States. That means that, if we virtuously decided to pay off the debt today, the share for a family of four would come to more than $140,000. But of course in reality, it would be far greater than that, to account for the millions of people who don’t pay any taxes at all: the homeless, the unemployed, under-the-radar immigrants, CEO’s of corporations raking in millions of dollars a year, etc. And remember, these staggering sums would be required just to pay off the debt—taxpayers would continue paying taxes at current levels to sustain ongoing governmental operations.

When we think of what it would take to “repay the debt” in those terms, there is only one possible conclusion: It ain’t going to happen. It is inconceivable that Americans are going to tax themselves, now or in the time of our children, at these stratospheric levels. This is the secret nobody dares to say out loud—from Mr. Obama down to your local county supervisor—because the implication is unthinkable: At some point the nation is going to default on that debt. Whether we do so outright or by “printing money” is irrelevant—the result will be the same.

Against the above as backdrop, the “stimulus package” just passed by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress amounts to: “Okay, to resolve the economic crisis, let's imagine we have $800 billion dollars to spend…” This is as much an exercise in fantasy on the part of the Obama administration as the Bush administration’s delirium about re-making the Middle East in our image.

I think that President Obama, for all his reminding us that we’re in our current predicament because of our long-time unwillingness to “make difficult choices,” is trying to avoid the most fundamental hard choice of all: The choice to forego the dream of an endlessly-expanding consumerist utopia and find ways to come into more sustainable balance with the physical world. No meaningful version of “prosperity” will be possible until we do so.

And it grieves me that, like all of his top economic advisers, I’m sure, Mr. Obama seems blind to what is to my mind the single most important opportunity both to put those millions of people who have lost their jobs back to work, and to address many of our other most pressing problems: Radically reconfigure the way we do agriculture, in ways that are less energy-dependent and more dependent on people-power in the fields.

I'm so glad, Ronald, that you've been been able to buy a piece of ground on which you expect to become more self-sufficient. I would just caution, though, that thoughts of defending what you grow with the “.50 Cal turret” may be misguided. I expect things may well get pretty turbulent as we continue the downward spiral; but I long ago concluded that, if it comes to a shoot-out, I lose. I hope that being of service to others—who don't have the same experience providing some of their own food, and can use some help getting up to speed— will do more to protect me in difficult times than firepower.

My best wishes for an abundant homestead. ~Harvey

If you have a response to the above, please let me know. It would be good to hear from you. ~Harvey

February 17, 2009: Response From Another Thoughtful Reader

My “Musings” entry for New Years Day was published in the current issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal. After reading it, Tim in Pennsylvania sent me his thoughts:

This was my response:

Tim, thanks for being in touch—always good to hear from my readers.

We can continue to choose sides, and imagine that those on the other side are knaves and fools, and waste the time and focus needed to come up—and that pretty quickly—with some radically different approaches to how we “earn our living” (as a species). I think the crisis we’re in is extremely serious, and getting worse. And when the shit really comes down, we’re not going to care about whether Bush or Obama or Clinton or Rush or Newt or Saint Ronald holds the key to our salvation—we'll understand that none of them do. Our political beliefs, parties, leaders are irrelevant to understanding what is really happening, and the need to move in the radically different directions that will matter.

Please do all you can to grow more of your own food in whatever dirt you call your own in the coming season—I truly believe that absolutely nothing is more important right now. The more progress you make with that, the more you will be able not only to provide for your own needs and those of your family, but the more opportunities you will have to be of service to neighbors who don’t have a clue.

Very best wishes for your endeavors. ~Harvey

If you have a response to the above, please let me know. It would be good to hear from you. ~Harvey

February 8, 2009: Response From a Thoughtful Reader

After reading my New Year speculations about what we can expect in 2009, Roberta in Colorado sent me her thoughts:

This was my response:

Roberta, thanks for being in touch.

Alas, I’m afraid you're right: However brilliant and caring is our new president, there's virtually nil chance of his “getting it right” where correcting the distorted choices of several generations is concerned. Our monumental problems have arisen not because we did or didn’t elect Bush or Obama or Clinton or Saint Ronald, but because of a kind of willful cultural blindness, a childish fantasy that we could have it all, a heedless recklessness about our impact on the rest of the living world—and most of all a willingness to enshrine greed/money as the dominant power in our economy and governance. Against the momentum of that stream, I fear it really doesn't matter whether we have as president a clueless bonehead like Mr. Bush, or the most brilliant, thoughtful, and well-informed (despite, I readily admit, being inexperienced) president we’ve had in my lifetime. No, it doesn’t really matter—Obama doesn't understand the core problems, the foundational flaws, much better than Bush—or Clinton, or Newt, or Limbaugh, or Saint Ronald—and we are going to have to pay some dues.

I think ’09 is the year when arguments about whether this politico or that best deserves adulation as Savior of the Free World should be seen for just how silly they are. It’s a year to concentrate instead on really important questions like where the food for oneself and one’s family is going to come from, when the unexpectedly fragile underpinnings of the industrial food system give way, and we are dependent as never in our lives on our own efforts and those of neighbors who care about us personally in a way that Monsanto and ADM and Safeway never will.

It is a year for re-learning the lore of coaxing sustenance from a complex community of plants and animals, close by. I wish you every success in that endeavor. ~Harvey

If you have a response to the above, please let me know. It would be good to hear from you. ~Harvey