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Poison Power

Incredibly, even after the nuclear accidents in Japan, there continues to be political support for nuclear power in Iowa and nationally.   Mid American Energy is pushing a bill forward in the Iowa legislature that has financial and other incentives for new nuclear power plants for Iowa.

“True Cost Accounting for Nuclear Power “ is  a great interview with Amory Lovins from NPR’s Living on the Earth program.

Lovins makes a very credible argument that we can meet our need to generate electricity and reduce greenhouse gasses better and cheaper without nuclear power.  Lovins, in response to a question about whether we can meet carbon reduction targets without nuclear

“…we could do so more effectively and more cheaply. It is quite true that if a nuclear plant displaces a coal plant that would replace carbon emissions.

But if you spent the same money on efficiency, renewables and combined heat and power, you would reduce the carbon emissions by about two to ten times more and about 20 to 40 times faster. So nuclear is such a slow and costly climate solution, it actually reduces and retards climate protection, compared with a best buys first approach.”

Regarding market economy resistance to building new nuclear plants (even the much touted “safe” new generation reactor designs):

“I  know the industry likes to blame environmental groups – of which, by the way, we are not one – for holding up licensing for several decades. New nuclear power plants in this country are offered subsidies that now rival or exceed their total construction costs.

And yet, even though that’s been true since 2005, three years before the financial crash, they’ve been unable to raise a penny of private capital, simply because the cost and risks are unfinanceable. Wall Street will not invest in them – it’s an utterly unfinanceable technology, and it’s obvious why – it’s grossly uncompetitive…….

Look, here’s a quick summary of what’s going on with nuclear in the world. At the end of 2010, there were 66 nuclear units, officially listed as “under construction” worldwide.

You look a little closer, you’ll find a dozen of them have been listed as “under construction” for over 20 years, 45 of them have no official start up date, half of them are late. All 66 of them are in centrally planned power systems, not a single one of them is a free-market purchase. And since 2007, nuclear growth has added less electricity to our supply each year, then even the costliest renewable – solar power – and it will probably never catch up.”

Here’s another article by the ecological economist Robert Costanza on taking a holistic look at nuclear power:

It’s from Solutions magazine, a new publication that hopes to be partly scientific journal, partly popular magazine, like Scientific American for sustainability solutions.

I found a version of John Hall’s anti-nuclear anthem Power (Poison Power) on youtube.  It’s from the 1979 No Nukes benefit concert album and features the Doobie Brothers, John Hall, Carly Simon, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and many others (some of you may have to ask your parents who these artists are).    My generation spilled blood on the streets to stop nuclear power in the 1970′s.   It’s ironic that 30 years later we still haven’t made the switch to renewables.

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Lies My Teacher Told Me and other books I’m reading

“Lies My Teacher Told Me” is one of the most powerful books I have read in years.  It is a really well written history lesson in the form of a brilliant critique of how high school history (the only history most if us get) is taught.  It was recommended to me by prosper Waukon of the Winnebego tribe in Nebraska as a quick way to get the basics of Indian history and to learn why Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are not holidays of joy in Indian Country.  I was ready for the message of this book based on what I have been learning working with the Tlingit and Haida Indian tribes in Alaska and thinking I have been doing on the relation of equity and justice to sustainability.

Other books I have read in the last month:

Sons of the Generous Earth – Philip Oyler (excerpt) – An account of peasant life in the Lot and Durdougne regions for France in the years just before and after world war 2, by someone with much love and appreciation for the land.  Recommended by Eliot Coleman

What Technology Wants  – Kevin Kelley (excerpt)

Tools for Conviviality – Ivan Illich It took me a long time to get to this book, but it was worth the wait (excerpt)

Both books below are utopian/distopian visions of the futrue after a collapse of industrial civilization,  Both are written by people who are famous for something other than fiction writing.

World Made by Hand – Kuntsler (excerpt) Surprisingly engaging and well written fictional account of life after collapse of modern industrial society

Through the Eyes of a Stranger  – Will Bonsall.    Will is a legendary seed saver (his entry in the seed savers catalog lists thousands of plants and seeds for exchange) and veganic farmer.  I loved my visit with him last summer (blog post on this later).  He might take interns.  Beg him.

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The People’s Republic of Malakoff

Malakoff is a suburb of Paris, at the far edge of the Metro.  We went to visit Annie and Yve, friends of Valerie that live in Malakoff the day after Christmas.  Annie and Yve’s daughter came to visit us for a month in Iowa last summer.

We went for a walk at the Parc de Seaux, which includes a beautiful old chateaux and grounds, with lots of trees, a lake and a canal.  It was great to get out of the city and into nature.  Annie mentioned that her teenage son was gone on ski trip.  She explained that the City of Malakoff owned a chalet in the mountains for youth of the city to use for ski trips  She explained that Malakoff has had communist mayors for many years and has paid attention to taking care of the people of Malakoff in ways that other communities haven’t.

I went to Malakoff’s web site to  find more background on this.  I was stunned to find that Malakoff actually owns 6 properties in rural areas of France, used for youth and family recreation.  I also discovered that Malakoff only has 31,000 population (roughly the population of Ottumwa, Iowa) and .8 square miles of land area.    In the US we are warned against collective action, but here is a small town that seems to be doing some pretty amazng things through collective effort.

Valerie’s sister Carole commented that she was puzzled by the huge controversy and fear around the word socialism in the US.   She said that in France, they look at socialism as a legacy of 50 years of collective social progress for the nation – minimum wage, weekends off, 40 hour (now 35 hour) work week, 6 weeks paid vacation, health care, higher education – everything we lust after as workers in America.   I think in America, commercial interests have promoted the social myth of rugged individualism and what economist John Ikerd calls the economic belief system (link).  In ironic contrast,  France is much more rooted in the democratic belief system and looks to collective action as more part of the solution than part of the problem.  Of course,pursuing individual self interest has it’s place, as should rightly understood collective action

For a very funny (so funny it hurts) illustration of this, check out the section of Michael Moore’s film Sicko dealing with the French health care system (link) (more on my experience with the French health care system later)

I think that, despite the efforts of the industrial economy to blame the individual for environmental problems (you bought the wrong light bulb), we will never reach sustainability thorough individual effort alone (for further discussion of this, see Derrick Jensen’s article “Forget Short Showers” (link)).   We will need to learn new methods of working together collectively.  And places like Malakoff and France in general show that, for wealthy western societies,  another world is possible.

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Cherche la truffe (Looking for truffles)

I decided to get my wife a truffle for Christmas  – the mushroom, not the chocolate (although I did find something that, oddly enough, combines both).  Here is the story of my search.

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Compact Flourescent Bulb Disposal in France

Compact Florescent Bulb Disposal Station at the Monprix near Nation

I noticed this CF disposal station at the Monoprix near Nation in the 11th arr in Paris.  Monoprix is a big department store with clothing, household items, and a large grocery supermarket.

I wonder what happens once a bulb gets put in these bins?

Compact florescent (CF) bulbs have come under attack in recent years because they contain a small amount of mercury.    Like many products of the industrial economy, they need to be properly disposed of when their useful life is over.  The best system for “proper disposal” I have seen is the cradle-to-cradle concept of Mcdonough and Braungart, detailed in their book Cradle to Cradle:Remaking the Way We Make Things (essential reading for anyone in Sustainable Living).   In a sustainable future, we need to eliminate the concept of waste.  Without a cradle-to-cradle economy, we will often be stuck with “less bad” solutions rather than sustainable good solutions.  For now, many products of the industrial economy are not designed with proper disposal in mind, and CF bulbs are a prime example.

While mercury of any kind is a concern for human health, it should be noted that the largest emitters of mercury are coal fired power plants.  The coal burned to power an incandescent bulb puts more mercury into the environment than is contained in a CF bulb, so even if CF bulbs are improperly disposed of, they put less mercury into the environment than conventional bulbs in areas with coal generated electricity (Coal is used to generate 80% of the electricity in Iowa)

EPA florescent bulb clean up procedures are here:

You can download  a study from Europe on the web page above with a good discussion of the controversy surrounding mercury from CF bulbs. The study suggests that even though CF bulbs contain mercury, their use leads to significant reductions in mercury in the environment.   Look for the link that begins “May 2010 opinion…..”

With many contemporary environmental dilemmas (Paper or Plastic?) encountered in daily life, there are no simple answers.  There is great potential that CF bulbs will be replaced by LED bulbs in the near future, which have even lower energy use and no mercury.  But my mother-in-law (belle-mere) here in France that she read “led lights are bad for you and can cause cancer……..”  (sigh)

Relative energy use of various bulbs:

Incandescent: 10

Halogen: 9

CF 2.5

LED : 1

Personally, I use CF bulbs in my solar powered home.  I am gradually changing them out for LED as quality improves and the cost comes down.  From my review of the controversy, I have no reservations about recommending CF bulbs over incandescent bulbs, assuming you don’t want to go without electric lighting altogether.

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Student Strawbale Cabin

I once heard Geoff Lawton (a long-time permaculture teacher and designer from Australia – for an example of his work see say that local solutions for sustainable design problems are often durable.  This means that good local solutions will not become technologically obsolete.  I think the straw bale is such a solution for  building in the midwest.   Here is what it has going for it:

  • It is easily produced in every community
  • It uses agricultural byproducts with minimal processing.
  • It has the high insulation value that scorching hot midwest summers and freezing cold winters demand.
  • Suitable for do-it-yourselfers and community involvement in building

I’ve been building with straw since 1992, and I have been involved in the construction of 5 straw bale buildings for my own projects and have consulted on dozens more  (see here for a photo portfolio of buildings I have been involved with).  I live in a straw bale house with my wife Valerie and son Eliot.

MUM Sustainable Living student Jeremiah Blakely came to me early in  October and asked if he could do a directed study building a straw bale cabin.   He was interested in doing a very experimental structure – a straw bale dome.  He was looking to build something simple that he could live in while he finishes his degree.  This is something dear to my heart, as in 1992 I quit the Master in Computer science prgram at MUM to pursue building a strawbale home.

I was open to the idea of his doing this as a directed study,  but I felt that he would be better served to do this separate from the University, when the time spent on the project wouldn’t cost him tuition.  I suggested he start with a simpler rectilinear design, but I directed him to consult with Michael Havelka, a partner in Abundance Ecovillage  ( who lives in a strawbale house with a strawbale insulated domed roof.  I also gave him a few other connections in town with people with strawbale building experience.

I didn’t hear much from Jeremiah for a few months after that.  I did hear that Jeremiah decided to build his cabin and that many Sustainable Living  students were helping him out.  We met with me once to discuss options for solar power.

Jeremiah and his cabin

A few weeks ago I went to visit the site and was startled by the amount of progress that Jeremiah and Co had made since early October.  This is what I found:

Pit where clay was mined for plasters

This is an excellent first effort, and I am sure everyone learned a lot in the process.  I’m a little concerned about the trees and clay used to build up the floor and as a foundation for the bales.  The logs will eventually rot, but long after Jeremiah graduates.  The building itself has a post and beam frame with concrete piers as a foundation for the frame.

I also think better use could have been made of passive solar design.  The east side of the water is facing east.

Jeremiah plans to live in the cabin starting this winter.  Check out Jeremiah’s blog about his summer internship doing analysis with Elaine Ingham’s living soil lab in Canada.  Elaine was guest faculty at MUM in 2010 where she taught her revolutionary soils/soil biology  course.  Check out the course web site here.

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Maire de Paris and electric bikes

As this sign says, the city of Paris offers 25% off on the purchase of an electric bike (up to $400), and there are many shops that sell them.  Prices range from 1000 euros on up (Today 1 euro = 1.32 US dollars).  Here is one of the shops.

The shop allows people to take ebikes out for a trail spin and rents ebikes.  It is near Nation, in the 11th arrondismont, on the way from my mother-in-law’s apartment to my favorite bakery, Autre Boulange.   Autre Boulange is organic and is only one of three bakeries in PAris that still use a wood fired oven.  The oven is old – from the time of Alexandre Dumas and the Three Musketeers.    The owners of Autre have offered to take MUM Sustainable Living students as interns but the need to be able to speak conversational French.   More on Autre Boulange later.

While walking to Autre Boulange one morning, I saw the gentleman above step out of a building, put on a helmet, light up a small cigar, and step on to what I thought was a motorbike.  Surprise, no engine noise- it was an electric scooter.   He rode down the street with the cigar clenched in his teeth.  I’ll try to find another scooter like it and report on make model and cost here in France.

Close up of a similar electric scooter:

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France: Green and White

My wife is French and I am currently working from Paris, visiting family and working on a variety of projects over the holidays.  I’ll be writing about some of the sustainability initiatives I’m finding here, as well as a few food adventures. I think there is much in France that to inform sustainability efforts in the US.

On Wednesday we had a blizzard, and I attended my first outdoor market in a blizzard  (outdoor markets function year round here – more on the markets later).  According to the evening news, Paris hasn’t had this much snow in December since 1986.   I was surprised to see many people still riding motorcycles, riding bikes, and using Velib, the unbelievably fantastic free/low cost  bike service that is ubiquitous in Paris.

A Velib station outside of the BHV (a large department store) in the center of Paris

Velib has 1800 automated stations to pick up and drop off a bike, 20,000 bikes.  It’s free to use for the first 30 minutes.  It is the first practical  full-scale real alternative to cars for cities that I have seen.  Frank Cownie, the visonary green Mayor of Des Moines, recently implemented a smaller trial version.  More on the pluses and minuses of Velib later,  from those who use it every day.

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