Life Webs

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This is a puzzle – a question, not an answer.

In our quest to heal the land – or our little piece of it, at any rate – my partner and I have been reading about permaculture and taking steps toward putting it into practice. We’ve planted ten fruit and nut trees to date, along with some berry bushes, and lots more are due to arrive this spring. We’re working on developing the “guilds” – assortments of plants to fill the other ecological niches – around them.

Permaculture (please excuse this abbreviated description of a very complex subject) is a way to accelerate the ecosystem succession (bare ground –> annual grasses –> perennials –> shrubs –> savanna –> climax forest) and then hold it at the savanna stage, which is considered the most varied and productive. At the moment, we’re working on hurrying along the bare ground and annual-grass areas and haven’t really dealt with the two-thirds of the land that is forested.

The name “permaculture,” and in fact the whole idea of sustainability, suggest that a balanced, self-equilibrating system is desirable and achievable. (Remember the “balance of nature” we learned about in school?)

But consider these quotes:

“Any level of secondary succession is determined by both those levels which precede and those levels which follow, the total ecosystem being the recurrent and regenerative pattern of youth and maturity. A dynamic balance is achieved through the periodic reestablishment of secondary succession initiated by fire. … It is the unnaturally protected, statically maintained forest, brush,  or grassland climax environment that is nonhomeostatic.” (Henry T. Lewis, “Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory”)

“One of the most important recent ecological insights is the critical role of periodic disturbance – fire, flooding, insects, windstorms, to name a few – in maintaining species and habitat diversity. Rather than an anomaly that occasionally disrupts climax communities, disturbance is now viewed as the key recurring factor that keeps a mosaic of habitats in different stages of vegetation development  …. [and] assures the presence of plants and animals that characterize each phase of the change from open land to mature forest.” (Glenn Douglas Dreyer, “Understanding and Managing Vegetation Change”)

“Many wetland ecosystems are not only resilient to periodic disturbances but dependent on them. For example, the floodplains of rivers in the western United States used to support stands of cottonwood trees, which are now declining. The cottonwoods rely on spring flooding for the germination of their seeds. However, once irrigation reservoirs were built to capture the snowmelt, the floods ceased and so did cottonwood generation.” (C. Colston Burrell, “The Natural Water Garden”)

These ideas aren’t new – the quotes above are from the 1970s and 1990s. This is just the first time I’ve grappled with them. If a “stable” system is in fact dangerously unstable, maybe we shouldn’t be striving for a stable, self-perpetuating system but rather for a dynamic system made up of many small parts, in which each part goes through cycles of several hundred years.

Native American tribes seem to have managed this quite well, using fire as the agent of disturbance. But again (see previous post), their success was based on very low population density and a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Trying to apply these ideas to today’s densely populated, settled world is more than a little mind-boggling.


Changes in the Land

changesinthelandThe brilliant book Changes in the Land, written thirty years ago by the historian William Cronon and said to have launched the field of environmental history (though Cronon modestly demurs), set me thinking about  what we mean by sustainability. Specifically, were Indian practices sustainable?

Cronon describes the land management practices of the New England Indians as of the time the English colonists began to arrive in the early 1600s, as well as the colonists’ practices, and the changes during the colonial period as the Indians dealt with the colonists and the colonists dealt with reality.

The outcome was horrifying. The Indians were largely exterminated, and the once-bountiful region was stripped and depleted of its resources. By the early 1800s, agriculture had moved west and New England was shifting to an industrial economy. Where the Indians had lived off the land for thousands of years, the English made it unproductive in a mere two hundred years. People still lived (and live) there, of course, but only as a part of a complex, global economy that is based on depleting resources in other, once-bountiful regions.

The colonists did not intend these results. The first settlers wanted to improve their own lives a little and not have to work quite so hard as they did in England. Early explorers’ (overstated) reports described the land as fantastically rich. Colonists imagined they could sustain themselves easily and make extra money trading with the Indians for furs and other commodities they could ship back to Europe.

Instead, they killed most of the Indians with germs they didn’t know they carried. (There was no germ theory of disease. Pasteur was not born until the nineteenth century.) They devastated the land because they tragically misunderstood how the Indians had managed it and what effects their own practices would have. In fact, they believed their industrious habits would improve land the Indians had neglected out of sheer laziness. This belief, as Cronon points out, sustained their ideology of conquest.

How the Indians Lived

Saying that the Indians lived off the land is somewhat misleading – it suggests that, as the English believed, the Indians simply feasted at the banquet that nature served up. But New England was not a wilderness. Even the tribes in what is now Maine, who did not practice annual agriculture, managed the land by burning the forest understory in their hunting grounds. (They also managed themselves by moving around in an annual cycle to the places that offered the greatest abundance in each season – something the English, with their fixed habits and household-level property boundaries, could not do.)

Tribes in southern New England, in addition to hunting and gathering, grew the famous Three Sisters – maize, beans, and squash. Contrary to the legend, they did not plant fish to fertilize their crops. They also had no draft animals, which typically fertilized fields in European agriculture. So even with legumes adding nitrogen to the soil, fields were exhausted in eight to ten years. Indian women would simply clear new fields and allow the forest to regrow in the old ones.

Indians throughout the entire area burned vast numbers of trees for warmth, in both winter and summer. Even the colonists were amazed by this – one of them wrote that the Indians used fire the way they used bedclothes. In fact, the Indians assumed that the English had crossed the ocean because they had run out of trees for fuel in their own land (which, as Cronon points out, was not far from the truth).

Sustainable or Not?

In several important senses, Indian practices were sustainable: The tribes had apparently occupied the same land for many years before the English colonists arrived. By late winter, they would be hungry, but outright starvation was rare. They apparently had no historical memories of things having once been better (as they did after the English began despoiling the landscape). Though Indian land management altered the ecology – for example, trees that regrew from their roots after girdling or burning, such as chestnut and oak, were favored, and some areas became deforested altogether – the levels of biomass and biodiversity, the two standards of ecological health, were both high.

Yet Indian practices – though they depended only on living resources, not on fossil resources – were far from energy neutral. If you keep open fires burning year-round, day and night, you take far more energy out of the environment than you can put back in. Exhausting fields every decade works only when you have plenty of land. So what made these practices sustainable is that the Indians kept their population density low (by what mechanism, Cronon is not sure) and didn’t even think of accumulating material goods, which their nomadic habits would have made impractical.

Today, with 7 billion people on the planet and little room to move, sustainability has to meet a higher standard. Humans make up such a large proportion of the ecosystem – and we take so much more than we give – that we can’t simply depend on the land’s ability to heal itself after we move on. We can look to indigenous practices for inspiration, but only for inspiration. We have to be way smarter than anyone had to be in the past.

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Trapping Water

Hugelculture swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Hugelkultur swales, or DIY terracing on a muddy slope

Our property is a long, narrow, wooded strip that slopes gently from a ridge to a creek. At least, that’s what its mirror image on the west side of the creek looks like. On our side, two large, flat, cleared areas interrupt the descent. One is the site of the old gravel mine, near the creek, and the other, closer to the ridge, is the house site. The state Department of Environmental Conservation “restored” the gravel mine some years ago, and now it’s a brushy meadow. Later, in 2009, we built a house near the top of the hill. The east side and part of the south side of the house are built into the hill and buried in mud. This is good for keeping the house cool in the summer. But there’s still a bare, steep, muddy slope above the house and another, steeper muddy slope above the meadow.

Neither of these slopes is an urgent problem. We’ve seeded them both with rye and clover to slow the erosion, and weeds are spreading there as well. The slope above the house drains into a ditch behind the house, which meets up with some other drainage ditches and empties into a pond below the house. (At least we call it a pond; it was dug about a year ago but has yet to fill up for more than a few hours at a time. Except after a heavy rain, it’s a deep crater with a puddle at the bottom.) The lower slope has no drainage, but whatever washes down it goes into the meadow, which may benefit from some extra dirt. Parts of the meadow are still quite gravelly.

But the Hudson Valley is rainy and is particularly prone to what are called “large rain events.” Sometimes, as much as six or seven inches of rain falls in as little as an hour or two, according to our official rain gauge, a ruler in a five-gallon bucket. So, drainage ditch or no drainage ditch, nutrients wash out of the soil, make their way down into the creek and eventually flow into the ocean, where they produce “dead zones.” Considering that the muddy slopes are mostly clay already, we don’t want to lose any more nutrients. Here, as in the rest of the world, topsoil is vanishing at an alarming rate and must be made up with chemical fertilizer derived from petroleum – in no way a sustainable solution.

Hazelnuts in the Mud

Ultimately, we need trees on these bare slopes – trees that will hold the water with their roots. Right above the house, in particular, we need fruit and nut trees that won’t grow large enough to damage the house if the wind blows them down. (North-facing slopes, which we have, are actually good for flowering trees, though not for much else.)

I’m thinking a row or two of hazelnuts would be just right above the house. They are small enough not to fall on us and will produce a delicious, edible crop conveniently close by. Hazelnuts were once an important part of this ecosystem – and they still grow wild in our county, according to the USDA plant database – but I have never seen any around here. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t here, even on this property. Completing the census of what’s growing here is one of my projects for this coming year.)

But how can we plant hazelnuts on a muddy hill? What will keep them from washing away, and what nutrients will feed them?

In many cultures, slopes are terraced for planting – which is, frankly, a lot of work. Similar approaches promoted by permaculturists involve digging swales, or ditches, along the contour lines, or plowing into the subsoil at a slight angle from the contour lines using what’s called a “keyline plow.” Those methods also require a lot of work as well as heavy earth-moving equipment.

DIY Terracing

What I’m trying – based on Jerome Osentowski‘s ideas, as reported in the wonderful permaculture book Gaia’s Garden – is a do-it-yourself terracing/swaling method. Instead of digging holes in the mud, I’m building up berms along the contour lines with rows of rotting logs. The logs should act like sponges, catching and slowing the water as it runs down the slope and giving it more time to sink into the earth. (If this works, that pond will never fill up.)

In addition, as the logs rot, they return organic matter to the soil, providing nutrients for the hazelnut trees or whatever we eventually plant there. Rotting logs actually make a great base for raised garden beds (this method is called hugelkultur, which you can pronounce in either the German or the English way); following the hugelkultur method, I can pile leaves, compost or rabbit manure on top of the berms before planting trees on them.

Fortunately, we still have plenty of wood from the trees that we cut down to build the house. (The house is concrete; we didn’t use the wood for building.) Some we gave away to people with wood-burning stoves, but the rest has been sitting in piles behind the toolshed for several years, not doing anything particularly helpful. On nice days, when I have a spare hour, I carry logs from the pile and build them into berms. It’s cheaper and more fun than going to the gym. And maybe, in a few years, it will turn the muddy slope into a lush garden.

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Eating autumn olives

autumnoliveAre autumn olives the greatest untapped resource in North America? Are they a scourge of mankind? Perhaps a bit of both?

First, what everyone agrees on: Eleagnus umbellata is a small tree or large shrub native to Asia. It was introduced into the United States as an ornamental in the early nineteenth century, escaped cultivation and now is found everywhere in disused fields, roadsides and waste lands – if you’re looking for it, that is. (In sixty years, I never noticed it.) It has shiny, dark-green leaves with silvery undersides, yellowish flowers and beautiful red fruits that ripen in early autumn. Though it is uninteresting to insects, the fruits are moderately attractive to birds. The trees are tremendously prolific, and they grow and spread quite rapidly.

Despite its name, the autumn olive bears no relation to an olive. The leaves and the fruits (especially the unripe fruits) do somewhat resemble those of olives, but the leaves are a bit rounder and the ripe fruits are red, juicy and sweet-tart, with small, chewy seeds. Actually, the fruits look more like red currants than anything else.

The prosecution says: These trees are invasive. They quickly fill entire landscapes, displacing native shrubs and grasses. Though they feed birds (one reason they spread so quickly is that the birds spread their seeds), they do not support insects – leaving the birds with nothing to feed their young. So in the end, they drive the birds away, too. What’s more, they keep landscapes stuck in mid-succession, preventing canopy trees from growing and returning the land to forest, which is what it “wants” to be. Finally, they have no commercial use; there is no market either for the fruit or the wood.

For the defense: It’s a beautiful tree. That should count for something. It’s nitrogen-fixing – as one of the few non-leguminous species to return nitrogen (that is, fertility) to the soil, it offers a way to quickly heal barren, depleted landscapes. (Did I mention there was once a gravel mine on the property where I now live?) Autumn olives can be used as temporary “nurse plants” to help other, more desirable trees get started.

Third, the ripe fruit – which is easy to collect – is highly nutritious. It’s chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, lycopenes, flavonoids, and all the other nutrients that have been systematically bred out of the fruits you buy in the supermarket. And finally, the fruit is delicious, either raw or cooked (or, so I hear, made into jams, jellies and fruit tarts).

So just imagine –  there are millions of these trees across the country, all producing delicious, nutritious, free fruit in waste spaces that no one is using. And sadly, most of the fruit goes to waste because few people know it’s good, or even edible.

We have a number of autumn olives (soon to be a much larger number) growing wild on the site of the old gravel mine. For the first four years we lived here, I admired the beauty of the trees, but only this year did I discover that we could eat the berries. In late September, when they ripened, we picked a bucket full, ate some raw and froze most of them. We’ve been eating them cooked with venison – one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted (and one you probably won’t encounter anywhere but in my house). I’m only sorry we didn’t pick enough to last us till next September. Next year, two buckets full. Maybe three.

The verdict: All right, I admit it. The tree is invasive. Nobody should be planting it. And eventually, as we plant more trees that are better-behaved and as those begin to grow, we’ll take out most of our autumn olives – or just let them be strangled by bittersweet vines, which is already starting to happen.

In the meantime, though, we have to ask, what is the alternative? If we chopped down all the autumn olives today, we’d end up with more multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle – two other invasives that have (as far as I know) no redeeming qualities whatsoever. So until we’ve created a more sustainable forest garden, the autumn olive has a role to play, both in helping to restore the land’s fertility and in feeding us. It’s hard to resent a tree that has so much to offer. Thanks for the freebies!

Planting chestnuts

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Our new arrival - a hybrid and, we hope, blight-resistant chestnut.

Our new arrival – a hybrid and, we hope, blight-resistant chestnut.

When I was a child, the streets of New York City were full of chestnut men. Fifty and sixty years ago, the pushcart vendors who today might sell hot dogs or falafel sold hot roasted chestnuts. You bought them by the paper bag full. Their tops were cut with crosses so you could peel off the skins.

Their dense, earthy smell sticks in my memory, as smells do. Sour and grubby as the subway, ever-present as the crowds, they were one of New York’s defining mysteries for me, a suburban child.

I didn’t know why the chestnut men were there, and I didn’t know why most of them had disappeared before I moved to the city as an adult. Had I considered the question, I would have guessed the tides of immigration had washed out the old vendors and deposited a new set from places where chestnuts weren’t so well known – and I wouldn’t have been altogether wrong. But another sort of immigration was the real culprit.

Here’s some of what I didn’t know:

Until the turn of the twentieth century, the Northeast and Midwest were covered with chestnut forests. There were more chestnuts than any other kind of tree – they accounted for maybe a quarter of the forest. They were tall, strong, spreading, long-lived trees. Chestnuts were a staple food for Native Americans, they were a staple food for European settlers, and they were a staple food for pigs and other domesticated animals.

At some point, nurserymen began to import Asian chestnuts. I’m still not sure why anyone thought imports were needed, but imported they were, along with the microbes that lived on them. Microorganisms that happily coexisted with Asian chestnuts did not get along well with American chestnuts, and American species couldn’t evolve quickly enough. About 1904, American chestnuts began to die of a blight, or fungus, that had arrived with the Asian chestnut. By mid-century, billions of big trees were dead or dying. By the 1970s, when I moved to New York, they were nearly gone.

Today, American chestnuts still sprout and grow to nut-producing age; then they quickly succumb to the blight and die. There are plenty of young trees but no mature ones. There are also Asian chestnuts growing in North America, but they haven’t repopulated the forests, and more important, they don’t support the insect life that in turn supports the forest birds and mammals. And chestnuts are no longer a staple food, even though every December, as we stroll through the stores, we still hear pleasant songs about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, a Minnesota farmer saw a healthy chestnut tree – one tree! – amid all his dead and dying trees. A single tree with a random mutation that allowed it to resist the blight. He took cuttings from it and grafted it onto Asian rootstock. The American Chestnut Foundation, formed in 1983, began intensively breeding these trees, back-crossing the hybrids with surviving American chestnuts to produce a cultivar that was as much as possible like the old American chestnut but still blight-resistant. Thirty years later, trees from this program are beginning to be introduced to the world. Thousands are now being used to reforest the Palmerton Zinc Pile Superfund site in Palmerton, Pennsylvania.

In our neighborhood, the folks at the Catskill Native Nursery got hold of some of these restoration chestnuts, and a few weeks ago they wrote about them on their Facebook page. Kim and I ran out and bought two of them, and he planted them in our meadow – the site of an old gravel mine that we’re trying to restore to forest. Next spring, we’ll plant some companions for them – berries and shrubs that do well with chestnuts, ramps and garlic and wild scallions to keep the grasses at bay, native wildflowers to attract pollinators, plants with deep taproots to bring up minerals, clover to add nitrogen to the soil.

We may not live to see the trees produce chestnuts. We probably won’t live to find out whether the trees are truly blight-resistant or whether they can support the other species that depended on the American chestnut. And I know we won’t live long enough to see the trees establish a new forest. But we can hope.

Update: I’ve conflated two entirely different restoration projects. The Dunstan chestnut trees, which we bought, should be blight-resistant and produce good chestnuts that are similar to older American varieties, but they’re hybrids and  probably won’t produce many – or any – blight-resistant offspring. You can reproduce them clonally, through cuttings, which is fine for an orchard but not fine for a continent-wide forest. The American Chestnut Foundation is working on creating a stable variety that should be able to repopulate forests. Those aren’t available yet (except in small quantities, in exchange for large donations to the foundation), but they should be available in quantity in the next few years. And that’s when we’ll start trying to regrow the forest.

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Big problems, small solutions

Some years ago, I went to a meditation class taught by people who were trained in Tibetan Buddhism. In the question period that followed the lecture, an attendee asked, “How can we ever end war?”

Whew. Big question.

One of the teachers answered, “Be kind to the people around you.”

Whew. Small answer.

When you think about it, it’s the only answer. If we all were kind to the people around us, wars could never arise.

On the other hand, it’s no answer at all. However hard we try – and even though we must try – none of us will succeed. I haven’t, for sure.

When she was still a middle-school student, my daughter, who today is (happily) a mostly kind and peaceable adult and (less happily) a survivor of several horrific, violent events and a historian who studies the history of violence, wrote somewhat prophetically: “As long as I’m in the world, there can never be world peace” – meaning not that she was a terrible person, but that even ordinary people have violent impulses and, more fundamentally, that people’s interests always conflict.

What I’m concerned with in this blog is violence not to other individuals but to the ecosystem, violence for which there can be no atonement or forgiveness, violence that may make the world uninhabitable for ourselves and for many other species. The threat of rapid climate change is real and terrifying.

I don’t fear for the future of life on earth. Over billions of years, living forms have evolved to adapt to new situations. This will doubtless continue until the sun burns out in another five billion years. As dinosaur extinction opened up new opportunities for mammals, so the extinction of mammals may open up new opportunities for mushrooms, or crustaceans, or ferns. New species will arise. Plastic-eating  bacteria may take over this blog when I’m gone.

In the meantime, however, I worry about the future of my grandchildren, and of the oak trees, the sparrows, the coral, the salmon, the polar bears, and thousands or millions of species that we haven’t even given names to.  And I suspect that as long as I’m in the world, there will never be ecological peace. Not that I’m a terrible person, but I can’t manage to live sustainably. Nor is the political system capable of answering these questions (or, at this moment, any questions at all).

There are small answers. There are ways, old and new, for raising food sustainably, even for healing the land. I want to write about some of them here. I’m working on putting some of them into practice. These are good and necessary and joyful things to do, on the order of being kind to the people around you.

The question is whether small solutions can solve the big problems, given the magnitude of the big problems and the short time we appear to have left before everything collapses. I’m suspicious of solutions that involve a return to the village economy, if only because there’s no political way to get there short of a complete collapse – and also, it’s far from clear that solutions designed for a small scale could work on the enormous scale we have to cope with today.

If we have any hope at all, it’s by applying new technology tools to scale up the “small answers,” the small self-sustaining solutions, that already exist. New materials, big data, sophisticated chemistry and physics, massive computational models- we can’t afford to ignore any of the tools at our disposal, or reject the science and technology that got us into this mess. Rather, we have to apply them to the systems thinking, the cyclical thinking, that was more natural to people before the age of technology.

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Input and output

I have had a checkered career. At one point I was an economist. At another point I was a systems analyst. At a third point (actually, several of them) I was an operational manager or management analyst. All these jobs involve similar world views, or at least a similar view of human activity. It’s linear: you put something in at one end, stir it around a bit, and something of greater value pops out the other end – like a goose eating grass and laying golden eggs.

Input ==> process ==> output

Economists focus on output. Mostly, they try to maximize output by devising signals that induce people to feed the proper inputs into the machine and stir them around in the proper way. A few economists, especially those in what used to be called “command” (i.e. socialist) economies, are interested in inputs, too (there is a branch of economics called input-output analysis). But I never met an economist who saw the “process” as anything but a black box labeled “current technology.” Economists don’t care much about what happens in the transformation.

Systems analysts, to the contrary, focus almost entirely on processes, or algorithms. They spell out processes in fantastic detail, with multiple branching pathways that allow for every imaginable scenario, intended or unintended. However, the inputs and outputs are often black boxes for them just as the processes are for economists. “Garbage in, garbage out,” is an old saying among systems designers – meaning, “Don’t blame my process if you aren’t getting the results you want.”

Managers have a more balanced view, which makes their job rather more interesting. They’re responsible for creating outputs, but they also have to assemble the inputs (including human effort) and decide which processes to use.

Not everyone thinks this way. The helping professions aren’t quite so linear-minded. (Recently, I tried to explain the input-output mode of thinking to a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and she asked me, “So in my job, what’s the input and what’s the output?”) Artists, too, are granted exemptions.

But in the workaday world, for the most part it’s input – process – output. A long time ago (in my role as a management analyst) I asked a tax auditor to explain her job to me, and she said something like, “I take this piece of paper from this box, I check the ratio between this and that, I add up these two numbers to see if they equal that number, and then I put the paper in that box over there.”

What’s wrong with this type of thinking? Work does, in fact, involve processes, and processes do – or at least can – add value to inputs. And the incremental value is what sustains us.

Here’s what is wrong: There is never just one output. There are always multiple outputs – some we are aiming for and others we are not. Doctors call unintended consequences “side effects,” and economists call them “externalities.” These are obviously loaded terms, because they make unintended effects sound insignificant. But the side effects of a medicine can kill you, and the externalities of an economic process can render the world uninhabitable.

Moreover, there is never a single process. Each process is part of a larger cycle, all of which support one another. A cycle that isn’t part of a mutually supporting cycle of processes is ultimately not a sustainable process. We have to think about where the inputs are coming from.


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Something is wrong with this way of thinking

Last year, I interviewed an executive of a global manufacturing company that won an award for sustainability. The company had trained its managers about ecological issues (“Some of them thought global warming was only a problem for the polar bears,” the executive told me) and encouraged them to meet ambitious “green” targets. The factory managers responded by massively reducing fuel and water consumption and substituting clean alternatives for many of the noxious chemicals they once used.

I was impressed. I’m still impressed. Then the executive told me one of his factories actually increased its greenhouse gas emissions. Why? It had turned off its diesel-powered generators and hooked up to the electric grid – and in southern China, where this factory was located, the electric utilities generate most of their power with coal.

“Why did you let them do that?” I asked.

He explained, “It reduced the pollution from sulfur dioxide even though it increased greenhouse gases. Also, if a country is run correctly, switching to grid power should be the right thing to do [because utilities should be able to generate cleaner power than local diesel generators]. But China is using coal, and influencing the government there is way beyond our plan.”

Well, yes, but…

Here’s another example closer to home – in fact, it is my home.

Five years ago, my partner and I left New York City and moved 100 miles upstate into the Hudson Valley. He had always wanted to design and build a house, I had always wanted to have a garden, and miraculously, the timing was right for both of us.

We were interested in building an energy-efficient house, and so were our contractor and architect. The state of New York was interested, too – in order for us to get a building permit, the architect had to certify that we met state standards for energy efficiency.

After reading a good deal and talking to people, we selected an unusual construction method – insulated concrete forms – along with radiant floor heating and an electric boiler. The house is half buried in the earth, and its footings reach down below the frost line. The thermal mass of the concrete slab, walls and roof help stabilize the building temperature. “We should be able to heat this place with a candle,” my partner said.

The good news is that the house doesn’t require air conditioning or even a fan in the summer. The earth does keep it cool. But in winter, we use about twice as much heat as, in theory, we should. We suspect this means the slab is not well enough insulated – but in fact, we just don’t know.

In addition, concrete has environmental problems. We knew it had high embodied energy because of the heat used to turn limestone into cement, but we hadn’t realized the decomposition of the limestone also releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide. The building may have to last 500 years to justify the energy that went into building it – and we don’t really have 500 years to spare.

Of course, stick-built houses have environmental impacts as well, as do any other types of construction, and there’s no clear way to compare them.

Why do good-faith attempts to change one’s interactions with the world – to be more responsible citizens – lead to confusion and frustration?

The problem isn’t lack of concern or even lack of resources. Rather, something is fundamentally wrong with the way most of us think about these issues. This blog will outline what’s wrong with the approach we’ve been using and present examples of more productive approaches.

This is a process blog. As I begin, I have a hazy idea of what’s wrong and only the vaguest notions of what’s right. I’m hoping the blog will record an increase in clarity and understanding over time, but I can’t promise that it will. If nothing else, it will record what I’m thinking, doing and learning in an attempt to reach clarity and understanding.