Friday, 31 October 2008

Oiche Samhna (Halloween night)



The Irish celebrate Halloween with fireworks, as Americans would Independence Day -- as we found out when we first moved here a few days before Halloween with a new baby.

Sometimes neighbours will light a bonfire in the field nearby, as people used to to celebrate Samhain (Halloween).

Friday, 24 October 2008

Old well near our home


It's tucked into the corner of someone else's property, so I don't know how useable it is -- but it is next to a stream, so it must tap a water table. Properties around here -- and perhaps where you live -- have all kinds of half-forgotten resources like this, waiting to be used again.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Wind


If aliens came down and told us that there was an infinite source of power on the Earth, one that would not affect the climate or damage the environment at all, would we take it?

The aliens are hypothetical, but the solution already exists -- wind. Unlike photovoltaic solar panels, which require exotic metals that must be mined and shipped around the world, windmills can be made using parts that are available almost anywhere. Many of the parts could be cast or carved if need be, and only the electrical and magnetic pieces would require large manufacturing – an important consideration during the Long Emergency. After the parts are manufactured, wind turbines use no fossil fuels and create no pollution or carbon emissions. And unlike power plants, a sea of wind turbines could never present a target for terrorists.

What happens when the wind is not blowing? Individual wind turbines can not generate energy all the time, but neither can power stations. Modern wind turbines in Ireland, however, can generate decent amounts of electricity 97 percent of the time, better than most power plants. Also, unlike any other form of power, the wind here is highest and generates the most energy during the darker, colder months of the year, when energy demand is at its highest.

The speed of wind and energy available always varies, but towns do not need to depend only on their own wind turbines; all towns are already linked by an electrical grid, and when there is less wind in, say, our village, there will be more in other villages all around. Even if all Ireland were to go still for a while we still have solar power, tidal power, and all our present means still available.

One British newspaper a few years ago actually called for abandoning wind power, saying it was too expensive – reducing one tonne of carbon, it said, cost 77 euros. But 77 euros is a bargain; at that price we could reduce the carbon emissions of every country in the world to zero, stopping climate change in its tracks, for less than one percent of world GDP – a blip in the world market. Or we could take the other choice, let climate change smack us down hard, and -- according to the Stearns Report -- lose five to 20 percent of our global GDP per year. The last 20 percent drop was called the Great Depression.

The same newspaper also said that, instead of building windmills, we should make homes more energy-efficient. But we are not faced with a choice between wind and efficiency, any more than we have to choose between eating healthy foods and exercising -- doing more of one encourages the other.

They can be used in most areas of the world, but the American Midwest, hit hard by a credit crunch and rising gas prices, has the potential to be a Saudi Arabia of energy. Ireland's famously windswept coasts could also suppply massive amounts of power to populous Europe.

Right now, Ireland imports nearly 90 percent of its fuel supply and relies on oil for up to 60 percent of fuel alone -- completely vulnerable to the unreliable oil market. Ireland and most other countries generate power at giant plants, using some kind of fossil fuel and generating massive pollution, and then must send the electricity across hundreds of kilometers of dangerous power lines, losing most of the electricity in the process. With wind, however, every town could become self-reliant, as they were in the past, but now connected to the rest of the planet.

If we are to use more wind, we need to be realistic about a few limitations. Some people who bought the new satellite-dish-sized windmills for their home have been disappointed to find that it does not furnish enough electricity to power a home. This is a new infrastructure we must build in place of the old one, not a minor attachment we can install like a weather vane.

Second, wind turbines provide electricity, not fossil fuels. For people, and especially North Americans, to keep moving we would need electric rails. The light rail commuter lines that have been mainly sold as a transit solution for hip urban neighbourhoods needs to replace every motorway in Nebraska – not just so that Nebraskans can go on holiday, but so that the world’s breadbasket can keep supplying grain to the majority of the world’s seven billion people that live in the Third World and are already hungry or close to it. More on that in a few days.

Thirdly, we should not invest in wind farms because they are the latest hot commodity, or because they will gush forth energy like a new oil well. They take several years to pay for themselves, and their power may cost more than oil at the moment. We should invest in wind power because it is the thing that can preserve our internet servers, with all their accumulated human knowledge; our trains, that can carry the aforementioned grain across a continent; and our global communications network that will allow our local communities to remain part of a global community. Wind is the most likely thing to preserve civilization, and we need to start building the infrastructure for it immediately.

Top photo: Tournafulla wind farm in County Limerick. (public domain)
Bottom photo: Twilight as seen from a train to Cork, Ireland. (me)

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Thatch cottage near our home


Straw-roofed homes like this used to be the norm around here, and a few still remain in every town. They would not work in a dry climate, and they have to be updated every ten or twenty years, but there is no cheaper or more sustainable roofing material. After a while, moss grows on the roof, adding to the protection and the charm.

Hearteningly, a number of the dilapidated thatch cottages near our home have been restored recently, and I have seen entire hillsides of new thatch roofs in County Clare. There are few thatchers left, but they have had good business lately, and their numbers might increase as the method returns.


Ireland’s Greens win power through controversial deal


Origially published in Green Horizons, July 2007.

In its first quarter-century Ireland’s Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, grew slowly but steadily, while maintaining a fierce independence. All that changed this summer, however, when they made a controversial deal to form a coalition government with the country’s largest and most conservative party. Many Greens have cheered their party into power, while others fear the compromises they will have to make.

Many Greens hoped this would be a breakthrough year, but few were expecting this outcome a year ago. Most talked only of only continuing their growth in the Dail (national legislature, rhymes with toil) and some general government shake-up. For one thing, this was the first election since issues like climate change and peak oil, long mocked as fringe concerns, have percolated into front-page headlines in Europe.

This was also to be only the second election of the Celtic Tiger, which in ten years has transformed Ireland’s landscape and population. For hundreds of years until the 1990s, the nation was considered on the fringe of the European economy, known for its picturesque villages and slow pace. The Information Age changed all that, as the nation’s educated, English-speaking workforce and corporate-friendly tax codes drew computer industry giants, making Ireland – with a population a third that of New York City -- the world’s largest exporter of software.

The boom made Ireland the fastest-growing economy in Europe, raising the growth rate from almost zero to eight percent a year and bringing Ireland’s GDP per capita from one of Europe’s lowest to among its highest. In addition, the country has had to adjust to a mass influx of immigrants – mostly from Eastern Europe – for the first time in its history.

The Greens had been able to build a presence in Ireland’s government for two reasons. First, the party started organizing campaigns in neighborhoods and towns, slowly building a base and working upward. Second, third parties thrive in Ireland and most European countries because of electoral systems that make every vote count and consider multiple choices, while Americans remain weakened by a system in which presidents are elected by only a small margin of voters in a few states. While most Irish vote, most Americans do not, perhaps because we understand that most of our votes don’t make a difference.

The Irish have strengthened their voting freedoms in two ways. First, Irish voters rank their top two choices for office, and if no candidate has enough votes, second choices are taken into account. This is similar to the system Greens in America have worked for under the name “instant runoff voting,” and it allows third parties to run without being accused of “spoiling” elections.

Secondly, more than one candidate wins in each area – if a county sends three representatives to the Dail, it sends the candidates who received the first-, second- and third-most votes. This ensures that, say, 49 percent of the voters are not shut out of government, as can happen in the United States. The country’s two major and four minor parties, however, must form coalition governments to have a majority of the Dail, sometimes making strange bedfellows.

To the surprise of many Greens, the election results seemed to change little. The dominant party, Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall), retained their 45 percent of seats. Greens lost as many as they gained, holding onto less than four percent.

The big change, however, was that Fianna Fail’s old coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, lost three-quarters of their seats, and Fianna Fail needed an additional ally to control a majority of the Dail. In the days after the election, armchair politicos put minor parties together like jigsaw pieces to come up with majorities, but in the end Fianna Fail reached out to the growing Greens. The parties’ leaders met for days of tough negotiations, and on June 13 an emergency meeting of Greens approved the alliance.

One reason Fianna Fail selected the Greens as partners may have been the growing public alarm over climate change, said Colm Ocaomhanaigh, Comhaontas Glas General Secretary.

“It was awareness that it’s a big problem, and a lack of awareness about what to do about the problem,” he said. Ireland’s emissions have risen 25 percent since the Kyoto Accords, but he hoped that Green-backed reforms will turn the tide. “We are committed to a reduction of three percent per year, and while it might take us a year or two to meet that, it will happen,” he said.

Compromise advances some GP ideals

The Greens fought for and got several important reforms out of the deal. Under the agreement, Ireland will expand its plans for solar and wind power, and Greens hope to have a third of all the nation’s energy come from clean sources by 2020. The Greens also plan to re-open old railway lines to expand Ireland’s public transportation; forge a carbon tax; and aggressively pursue lower levels of poison in the air and water.

Two longtime Green activists were named ministers (like U.S. Cabinet members): John Gormley was named minister of Environment, while Eamon Ryan will head the department of Energy, Communications and Natural Resources. Former party head Trevor Sargent also became a junior minister of Food.

Most Greens praised the alliance and their new power. “I never thought I would see a document with Fianna Fail’s name on it that would make real commitments on climate change,” Green lawmaker Ciaran Cuffe told the Associated Press.

The deal, however, conceded several issues on which the party had always stood tough. For years the Greens had fought to prevent a highway from bulldozing through the hill of Tara, an ancient seat of Irish kings, yet the plan is still going ahead. Nor is the government expected to ban corporate money in politics, as the Greens had hoped.

Many Greens were especially angered when the party conceded on the issue of “rendition,” the U.S. federal government’s abducting civilians and transporting them to dictatorships to be tortured. Amnesty International reports that some of those “rendered” have included teenagers and women, that many may be innocent of any crime, and that some of those abducted have been electrocuted or had their fingernails ripped out of their bodies. Some such flights pass through Shannon Airport in western Ireland, and Greens had mobilized intense pressure to ban U.S. federal flights from the site. Now, the flights will continue, and the Greens will stand down.

Green-sympathetic Irish offered mixed reactions to the alliance, mostly a ratio of optimism and caution. Some pundits argued that, as the world faces crises like peak oil and climate change, Greens should be less neighborly and play more hardball.

“There is little in this deal that the Greens could not have achieved by standing back and offering Fianna Fail their support in the Dail on an issue-by-issue basis,” wrote Mick Hall in the Irish magazine The Blanket. “…With this act (Fianna Fail) has silenced a major section of the progressive opposition …”

The Irish Independent, meanwhile, wryly noted that many of the Greens’ victories had been “recycled” from earlier proposals.

“The Greens brought a shopping trolley to the Fianna Fail hypermarket,” the editorial said. “A small reusable plastic bag would have been adequate to hold the tiny basket of recycled Fianna Fail goodies they got in exchange for getting two jobs there.”

Green Isle going greener

Greens spent the months since the election navigating the delicate minutiae of government regulation, while being assailed as sell-outs by activist groups and as naïve utopians by political veterans.

“It’s been tough,” said Ocaomhanaigh, “but we’ve been able to pass some reforms that people have been wanting for a long time.”

He cited new building codes that Gormley passed in September, which promise to require 40 percent more energy efficiency in homes and 40 percent less carbon dioxide emissions in building by next year. The new regulations are expected to increase to 60–percent required efficiency two years from now, with “zero-carbon” the stated long-term goal.

“People have been trying to improve building standards for 15 years, for example, and we’ve done that in only a few months,” Ocaomhanaigh said.

Greens are also pushing for the European Union to ban fishing over a thousand square miles off the country’s Atlantic coast, over endangered coral reefs that are being crushed by deep-water trawlers. Gormley believes that the proposed ban – the first of its kind in Europe – will be in place by the end of the year.

Ocaomhanaigh named other reforms – increased taxes on oil and gas exploration, increased university representation in government – but also acknowledged the things Greens will not change.

“The biggest problem was our inability to change the decisions that had already been made when we came into power,” he said, citing the highway through Tara and the rendition flights through Shannon. “We don’t have the leverage to change all these things.”

In between the purists and the insiders, however, the public response to the Greens has been generally positive. After voting themselves a hefty pay raise, Fianna Fail’s approval numbers have sunk rapidly, a drop that Ireland’s Sunday Business Post called “unusual,” while Greens, who “avoided any of the political fallout,” saw rising numbers, and they have had a surge in new members.

One longtime supporter described the Greens’ recent decisions with satisfaction: “It takes no courage to stand around and complain. It takes courage to wrestle things into being a little bit better. Good for them.”

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Victory Gardens


By BRIAN KALLER

Imagine the White House lawn turned into crops, Hollywood celebrities campaigning for backyard gardens, and America’s best-selling music stars singing songs about patriotic recycling. It may sound crazy, but that actually happened sixty years ago.

As the U.S. entered World War II, much of the food industry focused on the war effort. Farmhands were needed at the front, machinery for planes, and people needed to do more for themselves. A grass-roots movement spread across both countries to create “victory gardens,” and the idea was picked up by celebrities, politicians and the mainstream media.

Similarly, In Great Britain, 60 percent of food was imported when World War II began, and most of that food now had to be grown locally. Before the war, British farmers had gotten most of their seeds from abroad – then, suddenly, farmers had to save their own.

On radio programmes, magazines and movie newsreels, housewives were encouraged to preserve food in energy-saving, old-fashioned ways, like clamping potatoes under mounds of hay to keep them for the winter. Many used economical ways to cook food, like putting boiling soups in hay-stuffed boxes to slow-cook.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the victory gardens worked. They allowed most people to grow their own food, and spend less money. They put to work the precious space that is now being used simply as lawns or landscaping features. In a time when energy was scarce, they allowed more trucking and food to be used for the war effort.

Victory gardens meant that citizens ate better food – fresher than can be bought at any store, with the maximum nutrition and no chemicals. A now-forgotten 1977 Congressional panel observed that heart attacks and strokes went down in the war years, even with the stresses of war and a demographic shift toward the elderly – because of more fresh vegetables in their diet.

They ensured that millions of people became self-sufficient, and were insulated from the chaos of energy shortages and supply chain disorder. In the event of a crisis, every gardener makes your neighbourhood more secure.

The gardens meant that people spent less money – the less money you need to spend on food, the more you can put away for paying the mortgage or eliminating the credit card debt. They created more beautiful neighbourhoods, gave people exercise, and brought communities together.

In fact, while Ireland never entered into World War II, the same thing was done here – council estates gave families as much land as a cow needed, and it was once common, I’m told, to see cows and chickens in many yards in Dublin. Most schools and hospitals here used to have their own gardens, and at the schools around here, they are rapidly returning.
Today, a new victory garden movement would do all these things and help us with new challenges like peak oil and climate change. Every boxful of vegetables you grow is one fewer that does not have to be shipped in from Australia. Also, building good soil is not just carbon-neutral, it’s carbon-negative, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it back where it belongs.

Such gardens also reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which are currently used to plow fields, make fertilizers, create pesticides, harvest, process crops and transport them to market. Gardens eliminate all those steps at once, reducing a 10,000-kilometre diet to a 10-metre one.

Writer and former Soviet citizen Dmitri Orlov wrote that most Russians had kitchen gardens, and that 90 percent of the country’s food was grown in such plots. Even though they were formed from necessity, because of the poverty of the nation and the incompetence of centralized agriculture, they ended up being a blessing – as the nation collapsed, the people could still eat. He warns that many nations in the West are now heading for a crisis, but are not as well prepared.

Could we feed ourselves? We have in the past, and with less knowledge and technology than we have now. Australian ecologist David Holmgren has estimated that his country’s cities could not only feed their own population, but become net food exporters, if the yards and golf courses were replaced by everything from leeks to cardoons to turnips. Presumably the same could be done in most cities in Europe and America.

This is being done around the world, one plot at a time, as understanding of peak oil and climate change spread. It may not seem like much now, but it wasn’t much at the start of World War II either, and within two years – not much time to get a garden going – Americans were growing almost half their own vegetables. At the beginning of the war, however, it was crucial to have a critical mass of people already doing these things and who knew how, and who could teach others.

This is where we come in, we who are Greens / peak oil activists / traditionalists / crunchy cons / permaculturalists / whatever “ist” you like. We need to prepare, not just to grow our own food, but to be leaders during whatever shortage may arise. We need to save seeds for our neighbours as well, to lend our tools, to patiently teach and gently supervise people who might be panicked and angry. We need to walk among the world as it stands now, knowing that, however old we are, we may soon have to act like elders.