Things look bad. We are at 400 ppm carbon in the atmosphere. The Syrian civil war hurls clusters of lit matches into the tinder box of the Middle East. And fear of terrorism in the US allows cities to be shut down while the police search for a lone crazed teenager.
But despite this, and many more depressing examples, there are compelling cases to be made to be hopeful. Especially, if that hopefulness gets you off your chair and into action. The case for hope is well made by Rebecca Solnit, who is the sister of my dear friend and activist titan Davd Solnit.
In her new book Too Soon to Tell, the Case for Hope she makes the following point.
But here’s what I’m saying: you should wake up amazed every day of your life, because if I had told you in 1988 that, within three years, the Soviet satellite states would liberate themselves nonviolently and the Soviet Union would cease to exist, you would have thought I was crazy. If I had told you in 1990 that South America was on its way to liberating itself and becoming a continent of progressive and democratic experiments, you would have considered me delusional. If, in November 2010, I had told you that, within months, the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had dominated Egypt since 1981, would be overthrown by 18 days of popular uprisings, or that the dictators of Tunisia and Libya would be ousted, all in the same year, you would have institutionalized me. If I told you on September 16, 2011, that a bunch of kids sitting in a park in lower Manhattan would rock the country, you’d say I was beyond delusional. You would have, if you believed as the despairing do, that the future is invariably going to look like the present, only more so. It won’t.
Well said. So the task for us is to not be disempowered by the endless stream of bad news and to keep looking for our opportunities and creating them when we see our openings.
I moved to Twin Oaks about 12 years ago, and about four years in, it became apparent to me that I was going to be a parent (the rapidly swelling midsection of my partner helped to tip me off). So I figured, as long as I was going to be raising a kid or two on the farm, they might as well be farm kids.
Not all reactors are created equal. In the global fight against nuclear power, there are some especially dangerous reactor types which clean energy activists take unusual pleasure in shutting down. I remember the day (in June of 1997) i heard that the French SuperFenix breeder reactor was going to be shut down permanently. I whooped so loud the folks in the WISE office all looked at me funny.
It looks like it will be time for another loud noise soon. Japan’s Monju breeder reactor is sitting on top of an active fault line and this plus the countries new more strict nuclear regulator plus the unusually poor management of the plant, might just be enough to shut it down.
Monju has had a troubled life. At a cost of US$12 billion, this advanced technology went critical for the first time in April 1994. However in the following 19 years, the operators have only gotten it to run for a single hour, due to two major accidents. In December of 1995 a leak in the sodium coolant pipes caused a leak of liquid sodium (which ignites in air and explodes in water) caused a fire of such great intensity it deformed hardened steel structures at the reactor. The operator then tried to cover up the accident, which was discovered and created public outrage.
In 2010 the reactors was finally repaired. Three months later a 3 ton crane was dropped into the reactor vessel, shutting the plant down again. It remains closed today.
The confirmation that there is an active fault line under the reactor combined with the operators skipping over inspection of over 10,000 components, including critical safety ones has spurned the new Japanese nuclear regulator into action. This inspection scandal forced the head of the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency (which operates Monju) to resign.
The reason breeders are especially nasty is that they perpetuate the especially toxic myth that there are accessible technologies which will take radioactive waste from existing reactors, burn this waste and create power. This has long been the holy grail for pro-nuclear folks. This makes great sense for the only problem with nuclear power besides the terrible economics, declining public acceptance world wide, terrible safety danger, captured and corrupt nuclear regulators, weapons proliferation risks, that real renewables are cheaper, that it is vulnerable to climate change induced weather problems, destablizes grids because of its large size, requires tremendous idle back up redundancy is the waste problem. So if you can solve the rad waste problem for power reactors, you can pretend that there are no other problems, and some people will believe you.
If Monju closes, then the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan will all have scraped their breeder program. Leaving the only operating production breeders in unmonitored Russia military facilities.
One thing that is especially satisfying for me is to bump into an organizer who has complimentary skill sets with another organizer. So it is with Irena at Acorn. She is good at staying on task, which is definitely one of my weaknesses. We work together on several things: the Communities Conference, the mechanics of the Seed business and most recently on the UVa dumpster dive.
Irena kept pushing me to work with the gal who runs the sustainability program for UVa, and thus got us pre-qualified for Chuck It for Charity, which is UVa’s answer to the growing dumpster diving “problem” that they face at the end of the academic year. But to understand this “problem” you need some back ground.
UVa is a large affluent school in Charlottesville, the nearest “big city” to Twin Oaks and Acorn. The academic calendar is designed so that the last day of exams is the day before all the students need to be out of their dorm rooms. So of course all of the students carefully manage their time so that they get their studying done for their exams early enough so they can pack all their stuff in time for the move-out deadline. And if you believe this, you apparently never went to college.
Instead the students study non-stop right up until their final exam, take the test and then try to pack up everything in their dorm room in less than 24 hours. This results in them simply throwing out a tremendous number of valuable things, from furniture to food to computers to (my big find a couple years back) an entire unopened case of beer. And with all of this wealth going straight into the dumpsters, it attracts a significant number of dumpster divers trying to salvage this stuff before it goes to the landfill.
For a few years (say 5 years back and earlier) things were pretty okay. Students threw stuff out, dumpster divers rescued huge quantities of stuff and it was still wasteful, but on some level it worked. For many years Twin Oaks would send several vans and a dozen or so members into town to scavenge and rescue for the entire day. We would then display them up at Emerald City in the warehouse (our “industrial park”) and dozens of members, many whom would not be comfortable jumping into a dumpster, would come and free shop the rescued treasure.
But then things shifted. My story, which i have no evidence for, is that someone in the legal department at UVa decided that some dumpster diver was going to get hurt and then sue the University, and the campus housing division and campus safety should be stopping dumpster divers from getting stuff in order to protect the university from this liability. As far as i know, no dumpster diver has ever sued a corporation, and certainly no judge has ever ruled in favor of a dumpster diver over the corporation which owned the dumpster. But reality and logic are not driving forces in liability issues.
As a result, a few years back Twin Oaks basically stopped doing the UVa dumpster dive. Their crews got stopped in the act too many times. I was banned for UVa for a year at one point as part of one of the last runs. But not to be scared off, Acorn (in large part because of Irena’s persistence and initiative) went this year as part of the Chuck it for Charity initiative.
It was fun and slightly surreal. We went and signed up, and were told that what they did not want was for people sorting through bags of clothes and cherry picking what they wanted and leaving the rest behind. Of course this is exactly what we wanted to do. So we had part of our group working behind the building sorting the clothes we wanted to keep (which was a surprisingly large fraction) and then re-bundling them. Then we returned the clothes we did not want to one of the approved Chuck it for Charity sites, with markings on the bags so we would not pick them again.
Turns out no one wants rugs, so we got a lot of them for the rave. And micro wave ovens and full length mirrors and cubbies and lots of clothes. It seemed to me like we were more interested in the stuff than any of the other charities, but perhaps they came after we left.
And some from our party were not going to be satisfied without getting into a real dumpster, so we went to one of the large dorm complexes. We were immediately told we could not be in the dumpsters by someone from student housing, but lingered around more discreetly (much of our group looks like college students, especially after they have donned the clothes the students were leaving behind) and got lots of food, including a number of cans of corn, which i was excited about.
In the end, it was a long, exhausting and quite rewarding day.
i missed the Dominion Resources shareholder meeting this year after having attended faithfully every year for perhaps half a dozen. Perhaps CEO Tom Farrell missed my annoying questions about how the utility which i own two shares of continues to waste money on plans for another reactor at North Anna, which will likely never be built. [I am told that Farrell finds annoying shareholder questions to be one of the most headachey part of his job, which i have to say gives me quite some satisfaction.]
The decision was viewed as an early sign that the wave of retirements of old generating stations across the Midwest is now stretching from the coal industry into nuclear power, driven by slack demand for energy and the low price of natural gas.
Also in this NYT article Dominion’s Farrell said of the closure of the plant:
“This decision was based purely on economics.”
It will not surprise people who watch nuclear power closely to hear that this is not what Dominion often says about how they make decisions. As with the North Anna 3 project we often hear that we need “a mix of fuels”. This is the marketing plan the PR people have cooked up to rationalize the poor economics of this plant. They are not doing it to make money for the company, they are doing it because it is important to have a diversified portfolio of energy types. Using this pathetic logic, Dominion should be opening day care centers where they were harnessing kids on treadmills.
No, the real reasons are always they same. They build reactors for the money, but the reason they can not be direct about it is because if it public where the money was coming from, there would be additional problems. For example, the utilities in Georgia and Florida are able to charge their customers now for reactors they are in the process of building or even some that they are thinking about building.
Then there are other tricks, like the “stranded assets” gambit, where the utility says “We built these reactors thinking we were a monopoly, and now that you are changing the rules and we are not a monopoly, we should get the profits from these poor investments as if the market did not exist.” As crazy as this sounds, this scheme has resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars being transferred from rate payers to utilities.
How Dominion’s plans to make money on North Anna 3 is not completely clear. But rest assured it is not because they think there will be a carbon tax in the US (this was used as a justification for a while) and not because they believe they need to keep all options open (otherwise they would be more serious about renewables). Dominion is not the largest contributor to political campaigns in the state of Virginia because it feels candidates don’t have enough money to run their campaigns. The reason is that they have a clever plan to bilk customers (and sometimes the state) for money and they are confident that they can pull it off.
i have long been slightly on the fence about going barefoot. i definitely like the way it feels and i also appreciate the foot protection and speed afforded by shoes. Today i fell off the fence.
“You know that there are studies showing there is a preventative effect on Alzheimer’s and other aliments by going barefoot.” Feonix said.
And i saw my mind decisively shift. Even if there was only a small chance that there were significant health benefits from walking barefoot more often, i live in places where i can often easily be barefoot. And on this day i was working at a craft fair on the beautiful Lyndhurst estate outside New York City, and i kicke doff my shoes. i carried them with me some, where they made occasionally convient detached pockets, but mostly this afternoon i was bare foot on grass. More generally on the commune it is fairly acceptable and accessible to be mostly barefoot, Rowan has modeled this behavior for his full 17 years of life.
Am i sure this is better for me? No.
And i dont need to be completely sure to try something which might be good for me and see how it works. And it also works for me to step out of shoe conformity, to test whether we have hurt ourselves by donning shoes.
And there is a kind of primitive appeal to the entire idea. What if this presumed benign technology turns out to be the source of a number of problems ? Have we heard this theme before?
The first time i played pick-up ultimate Frisbee i was introduced to a new way to select teams for the many one-on-one sports out there. As we gathered as a group someone said “find someone of about your ability and pair up with them. Everybody on the left is on this team the rest are on the other.” It was fast, it felt fair and it was completely novel to me.
I selected my fine friend Rabbit as my partner, not so much because we were the same ability, but rather because i knew him. This was a tremendous mistake. Rabbit could outplay me in almost all aspects of ultimate. The afternoon was frustrating and exhausting. And what was clear was that this was my choice. This also demonstrated the self-correcting nature of this system, since i would not repeat this mistake.
I thought to myself afterwards: why don’t we select all teams this way? It seems to be better in every way. I mentioned this to a couple of players who were often selected as captains. They did not see a reason to change from the existing system which rewarded their talents. They talked about team work and balancing abilities, the need for leadership. None of it was convincing. This was one of the foundational moments in my embracing anarchism. The broken system was perpetuating itself, despite clear better alternatives.
i had a bit of the same feeling when i saw this video:
This design takes exactly the same footprint in terms of space and makes it better for bicycles and safer for car and bike interaction. And why does this better design not happen (in the US)?
Thanks Basha for your comment and your link to this informative YouTube video on the history of Dutch bike culture and how it advanced after WWII. Instrumental in this it turns out was:
- Dramatic increase in car culture with increased affluence
- A significant increase in children killed by cars and the resulting protests
- The 1973 arab oil embargo, which hit the Netherlands far harder than the US
- National level political will to resolve these problems.
Check out this video
The organizers made a deal with the forces which control the weather. “If you don’t really need it to rain, it would be great if you could hold off until after the celebration”. With this deal struck, the rain remained at bay until after the circle was open.
One of the things which is significant to me personally is that my son chooses to come to these rituals. Last year he played the role of the element of fire during the callings. When i was a kid, there was nothing about the spiritual or religious experience of my parents that i would choose to do.
Part of what gives people confidence to try climbing the poll after the dance is complete is that even if you don’t make it, the crowd cheers for you. It is not about success, it is about being willing to take a chance and try.
When I first heard about fracking, I knew it was bad. I just didn’t understand much beyond that.
Then my friend Tom said something about getting payments from his parents’ land and a Natural Gas lease. Yes, it turns out, they have signed a lease with the natural gas company allowing fracking on their land. Last night I watched the rivetting documentary Gasland, which is essentially Tom’s story. Living on the beautiful piece of land he grew up in in PA, one day Josh Fox (creator of Gasland) got a gas lease form in the mail. Curious, he started asking questions. Talking to people. Collecting samples of people’s tap water. Travelling to other fracking sites in the west and midwest.
And the story slowly comes together. Turns out its really quite simple. Ten years ago, 1% of our natural gas came from fracking. Today its 30%.
This is largely because in 2005, then Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of natural gas drilling company Halliburton, got congress to exempt natural gas fracking from the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. The result was that fracking for natural gas expanded quickly, and that expansion has happened in an entirely unregulated, cowboy-like fashion.
So just what is fracking you may ask? Its pretty simple actually. Here’s a great basic definition from Don’t Frack with NY :
“Short for hydraulic fracturing— a drilling technique which involves injecting toxic chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water under high pressure directly into the ground to release natural gas in shale deposits. This mixture of toxins and sediment, along with any natural gas released, can leak to the surface and enter rivers and groundwater in the process.”
Doesn’t bode well for having clean, drinkable water from your tap.
This is one of those cases where if I really let myself be open to the facts of what is happening, and to the emotional experience of the people it is most impacting, I feel rage, overhwhelming sadness, and utter helplessness. And all I can see to do is try to stay open to the information that is coming at me so that when the opportunity arises I am able to take action.
Tom recently wrote the following about his family’s experience:
“My mom, dad and I have a lot to talk to about when it comes to the future and vision of our family’s property. The natural gas drilling has increased rapidly and soon we will know details about potential financial gains from the drilling. This is a confusing (whats the REAL cost of the drilling to the land, people and overall health?!) time for myself and my family as this process has taken about five years….It has been incredibly hard for me throughout this process due to my home in Pennsylvania always being “the safe place” to go home to and now with the drilling my home land has the potential of being physically harmful. This is incredibly hard to take. Its hard to believe this is happening to a place so serene, beautiful and close to my heart.”
[guest written by Kassia]