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October 29, 2005

A moment of clarity

When I saw it, I thought, what the hell? Does anyone know what he is talking about? A drunk guy? Maybe brain-dead, or just dead floating at the bottom of the hudson. But can you really call it floating when he has sunk so far deep down? Not "deep" in the sense of profound, of course, but rather, deep in that it is way down in the water, like those fish with the crazy eyes that bulge out of their head. Yeah, those are some crazy fish. Too crazy for me to have even considered keeping them in my aquarium. Not that it was a small aquarium or anything -some of them were pretty big- but I did have to watch out for the well-being of my other fish -you know, the innocent tetras and all... Anyway, no use letting a crazy fish or guy or anything else in there with them.

What the hell is Kevin talking about you wonder?

Actually, I was just wondering how many people actually read my web site. This was just an experiment to see what would get people to click on past the first page so I can count them... Thanks.

BTW, if there are any psychotherapists reading, I would appreciate an analysis of that crap I wrote above...

PG-17

The problem with Awii (and the reason I think, that we have no little baby cockatiels yet) is that he just gets too excited and doesn't know how to handle the ladies.

Granted, yesterday's post showing a rare moment after they had both taken a sip from my wine-glass, shows how smooth and romantic Awii can be. The problem is, as soon as Klee made any indication whatsoever that she was willing to go back to the cage with him, he gets all excited and starts doing something stupid...

I have not read anything about such mating behavior before, so the best I can figure is that it is akin to the behavior we all remember from our kindergarten days. You know... when you use insults and violent or antagonistic behavior, such as hair pulling or spit-ball shooting, to express our love (or shriek something like "eww that's weird!" when the boy tries to hold your hand -similar to Klee rejecting Awii's advances a few years ago).

In this case, awii succeeded in seducing Klee into a long (four minutes and 18 seconds!!!!) kiss. Klee was obviously hot. They began to talk dirty, as they often do -making a soft gurgling noise (more)... and then, to Klee's dismay, he started the head-butting thing you see in the photo above.

Idiot.

* * *

More cockatiel prOn from Winged Wisdom Magazine

...I think the cockatiels are the most romantic and the most entertaining.

Entertaining? Yes. Romantic? Sometimes.

When first introduced, a pair may pay no attention at all to each other.

Or, in our case, even though we specifically bought Klee for Awii, he pretty much seemed to hate her.

But, as time passes (sometimes minutes, sometimes months)...

Years for us.

...they generally become a bonded pair. Some signs of bonding are spending time next to each other on the perch, eating together, mutual preening, and the actual act of mating.

Lots of mutual preening going on, but I have never seen the act of mating between Awii and Klee. I have seen him try to mate with my hand, and I have seen other birds mating -such as a couple of love birds in the pet store a few weeks ago... amazing stamina. But I have never seen Awii and Klee mating. A year or so ago, Awii often tried to "climb on", but Klee always rejected him. Then, when she was obviously um... begging for it, he was too dumb to notice.

A female tiel wanting to mate will sit low on the perch with her tail in the air while emitting a sort of tiny peeping sound. This and hanging upside down from the perch with her tail feathers spread

She does this a lot lately. But I don't see much of the following behavior from Awii.

When a male cockatiel is interested in a female, he generally displays a combination of the following courting behaviors:
  1. Beak Pounding : Tapping the beak on the cage wires, the nest-box or anything else within reach to get the female's attention. The sound is somewhat like a rowdy woodpecker.
  2. The Strut: Male cockatiels tend to do a strange looking strut and dance while whistling, chattering, screaming and beak pounding. They'll hop, bow their heads quickly (possibly tapping the beak on the floor), whistle and then do it all again. It's rather comical to watch but can get disturbing to those who aren't used to the sound.
  3. The Wing Thing: This describes when a male cockatiel holds the top portion of his wings away from his body to try to get the females attention. If you look at them from the back while they are doing this display, you will notice the wings take on the shape of a heart. This is generally used in conjunction with several of the other types of courting behavior.
  4. Whistling: There are several cockatiel mating calls and each male also brings with this, their own compositions. One of the male mating calls can be heard by clicking HERE.
  5. Checking out the nestbox: Before a female tiel will generally enter a nestbox, it has to be checked and approved as "safe" by the male. Once he jumps in and out of the box several times and whistles to her from inside (and of course bangs his beak), mating will generally occur soon.

WARNING: EXPLICITE CONTENT FOLLOWS. BY USING THE SCOROLL BAR RO SCROLL DOWN YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOU ARE OVER 18 YEARS OF AGE AND DO NOT LIVE IN A COUNTRY WHERE BIRD-PORN IS ILLEAGAL

The mating occurs when the female crouches low on the perch and raises her tail feathers. The male then mounts the female's back from the side, stands on her back, tucks his tail under hers and proceeds to rub his vent against hers. He will swish his tail side to side until the act is complete. During this time, the male will most likely be very gentle, kissing, preening, and whistling to his mate.

To see the tail swishing thing, check out this video.

Before your pair reaches this point, you may want to make sure the males toenails aren't sharp or long. If they are, you'll need to clip them. The female will not tolerate a male on top of her long enough to complete copulation if the nails are hurting her.

Ahh... maybe we can use this to get Awii to voluntarily get his toenails clipped.

Copulation may occur several times a day.

Or, in the case of those lovebirds I saw the other day, once a day, but all day.

Here comes the really interesting part....

Expect your pairs to fight some but they shouldn't fight to the point that one of them gets hurt. If that should happen, remove the offending party and try starting from scratch with a new mate. The type of fights I'm referring to would be more like lovers quarrels. The male may want the female more often than the female wants the male and a quarrel ensues. The female may think the male needs to share the brooding or he may want to flirt with the female in the next cage while his mate is on eggs and a quarrel follows. Basically, they seem to act a lot like humans who are about to become, or are new parents. If you're lucky, they will both take to the mating/brooding/feeding like a pro and will get along like honeymooners.

October 28, 2005

Green Drinks Tokyo

I have been oh-so-slowly (actually, oh-so-extremely-slowly) plodding along on some of my many ideas for great projects that never seem to materialize. An obvious part of the problem for me is a lack of peer group here in Tokyo.

Being in Sweden was amazing. Not because of the program, which was interesting enough, but more because I was spending every day with a big group of diverse individuals, from varied professional and personal backgrounds, who all shared an interest in doing something to make the world a better place for both ours, and future generations.

Now that I am back, I am, for the most part, alone. I read a lot, I "learn", in so far as inputting information into my brain can be considered learning, but I have no place to share my project ideas or get advice, feedback and, what I most need, constructive criticism.

I was poking around on the web yesterday, looking for some clubs where I can meet others who care. Although I was not able to come up with any Japanese clubs (I am sure exist, but my Japanese search engine skills suck), I did find the Green-Drinks club, which looked pretty much like what I had in mind... just getting together with other people working in the field for casual drinks, conversation, and networking.

Since using the name of such a prestigious organization will lend me the credibility I need to gather members, I have officially adopted the name "Green Drinks Tokyo" for an informal meet-up of eco-freaks, sustainability advocates, and anyone (Japanese or otherwise) who cares about the future.

Now I just have to send out some invites and hope at least three people besides me show up... It may not sound like a lot, but if I remember correctly, the first Tokyo bloggers meet-up I attended three or four years ago was only four people as well.

So, if you are interested in meeting for drinks to talk about sustainability-stuff, or, if you know of an existing group I can join so that I don't have to do the work to organize it, please let me know.

I'm also sending out invites to various organizations and bloggers based in Japan that I know of. If you have any ideas about who may be interested, I'm all ears.

True Romance

October 27, 2005

a new friend

I found a new friend in my garden last night clinging to my beans. I'm must say I am happy to see her. I had been attempting to grow some komatsuna, but had all but given up on them after the caterpillars took over.

I know preying mantis like to eat moths, but will she also like the aphids I saw on my spinach the other day? (Luckily, the caterpillars don't seem to like spinach).

She seems quite pregnant, so I'm hopping to be around at the moment the eggs hatch so I can get some shots of the little baby preying manti.

One thing I won't be doing however, is inviting the babies into my apartment (as I did the mother last night) in order to get better photos. I'd hate to have one of them get loose and decide that Awii or Klee might make a good meal.

UPDATE:

I found some good news and bad news here. The good news is that the baby mantids will eat my aphids. The bad news is that they wont actually hatch until next spring.

What is sustainability and why care?

Environmental Science Part I: Introduction to Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science. What is this?

There is cause for concern about the general condition of the global environment. What are four global trends that are of particular concern?

I'm going to pretty much skip this as well, for the same reason I bypassed the last "main point" of the introduction.

The next point up on the long list of topics is:

Environmental Science Part I: Introduction to Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science. What is this?

Sustainability is the practical goal towards which we should be working. What is meant by sustainability? For a sustainable society, what are the principal prerequisites?

At the risk of simply appearing lazy, instead of spending yet more time writing about this again, I'm just going to re-direct anyone interested to some old posts I have written about what sustainability means.

* * *

That's enough excuse making. I promise to write a long, upbeat, optimistic, bright-green essay for next time based on the next question for discussion raised in the textbook

Environmental Science Part I: Introduction to Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science. What is this?

Sustainable development is now a broadly accepted ideal. How do different disciplines address sustainable development?

Hatching an evil plot

I often see the birds whispering to each other, looking up at me, and making a strange bird-laugh noise. Today I figured out what they are saying. Shortly after some suspicious activity such as you see in this photo, they both flew up to perch on my monitor. Awii made three sharp whistles, and on the third, they both pooped, simultaneously, so that it would slowly dribble down the screen. Immediately they took off, flying circles around the room laughing and screeching.

This photo is supposed to be a treat for Tomoe to look at from work, but I'm sorry to say that she will not get a chance to play with the birds again because I have locked them in the cage FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES!!!!!

Who's laughing now guys?

October 26, 2005

Avian Flu Prevention

I'm constantly amazed at how smart these birds are.

With all the talk of the Avian flu, Awii has begun covering his nose when he sneezes. I don't even do that when I am at home alone, so I have no idea where he picked it up.

Likewise, we don't have a TV, and Klee hasn't been outside since our semi-regular walks over a year ago, so I have no idea where she learned to give the traditional Japanese "peace" sign when the camera is pointed at her.

You will be seeing the birds pretty frequently as part of a little scheme I have developed to buy Tomoe's time. In return for help or advice on my project, I post a bird photo for her to look at from the office -hopefully giving her something positive to look forward to in those outrageously long hours she spends there.

October 25, 2005

Rice Farmin'

Today was an exceptionally fine day at the farm. The sun was shining but with fall knocking on our door it was not too hot. From the morning it looked as if it would shape up to be a normal (yet wonderful) day, picking peppers, beans, pumpkins, planting, digging, etc... but the afternoon offered me an unexpected treat. I got to work in the rice field today.

We spent about two hours hanging the harvested rice to dry in the familiar (if you have spent any time in Japan in late summer) rice drying racks (I didn't get to wear one of the cool bonnets). Then I got to climb into the mud to cut and bundle the rice myself. The farmer does have a small machine that can do the work faster (and with more CO2 emissions) than me, but there were areas that were too soft and muddy for the machine and had to be done by hand with a nifty little tool that all-too-easily cut through my shoe as well.

One thing I was surprised at was the size of the fields it takes to grow one person's worth of rice. I don't have a photo of the paddies, and I don't know the exact size, but it was about half of a city block. It only produced enough rice to provide a little less than a year's worth of rice for the farmer's family of six; father, son (30), son's wife(>30), and son's three children (5, younger than 5, and younger still). I thought for sure it would be a more economical use of that space and the time it takes to grow it, for them to plant a cash crop and buy imported chinese rice at the supermarket. Or, for even more money, forget the cash crop and build an apartment complex (it's pretty close to the station, about 40 minutes frrom Shinjyuku, and a beautiful area).

Apparently however, because of it's location, it gets too much water running off from the surrounding hills. If they want to plant something other than rice, they will have to fill it in with dirt from other places which will be extremely costly. Even still, the son intends to stop growing the rice there once he get's complete control of the farm from his father. I guess the land will just revert to a bamboo grove, like much of the area already has as farming families opt for the salary-man life, abandoning their land.

I wonder if there wouldn't be someone from the big city who wants to go in the other direction though that would be willing to pay even a small amount to borrow the land for growing their own rice...

The photos above are from our trip to Kyushu, and the fields you see are much bigger than what I was working in today. For a nice photo gallery with description of Japanese rice tradition, check out The Rice Cycle.

* * *

This NASA movie of the 2005 Hurricane Season is one of the most fascinating clips I have ever seen (this year). Despite a short description, I don't know what it all means, but in addition to it's fascination value, it sure is purty to look at. And I am even more excited to discover that the NASA site has a whole gallery of similar animations. I know what I will be doing for the rest of the night. A curse on World Changing for introducing me to new and improved ways to waste my time and use more electricity!

October 24, 2005

Optimism and The Fall of Civilizations

Environmental Science Part I: Introduction to Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science. What is this?

History is a saga of rises and falls of civilizations. What are the factors that brought about the collapse of the Easter Island civilization? Are there any parallels in the present?

No, I have not forgotten about my little blog project to review, online, the Environmental Science textbook that I first read a few years ago. And no, it's not that I am too busy (although there are a few unrelated things that I have been exceptionally excited about lately). The reason I have not posted anything about it is that the next important concept the book attempts to teach is what you see above.

"What!?.." you may be thinking, "Stories about how we are bringing about the end of civilization? That's Kevin's specialty."

Well, that's just it. Some readers have remarked recently that my writing is growing more negative and doomy-gloomy. That is surely not the intent, and I can't stress enough how non-gloomy and good-humored my face is while I write. But, alas, the reader can not see my face and probably imagines this.

And, while what I am writing is simply an attempt to wrap my head around the way things are. Like it or not, history is a saga of rises and falls of civilizations, and there are parallels between the collapse of Easter Island and today. My belief, and obviously the belief of the textbook authors, is that the first step to making sure that our current global civilization doesn't go the way of so many smaller civilizations in days past, is to recognize those parallels.

Unfortunately, it seems that all too many people like to skip that step, jumping right to "innovating", believing that those who do recognize the negatives are, at best, pessimistic, at worst, reveling in the thought of global civil and eco-system collapse. I assure you I am neither.

So, I'm not going to write any essay about this point. Instead, I will simply suggest that anyone interested in truly understanding environmental issues, and why they are important look into this a bit on their own, keeping in mind that the point is not to spread doom and gloom or loose hope, but rather, to identify trends and factors that lead to the collapse, basic principles, if you will, showing how we can really screw up our world, allowing us to innovate without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Perhaps a good place to start is Michael Balter's site, which I just learned about this morning, and have not yet had a chance to browse. Or, perhaps, Jeremy Diamonds newest book, Collapse also which I have not yet had the chance to read (anyone out there with a used copy I can buy?). Or, if you don't have time, here is an interview with the author on Diane Rehm.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond examined the downfall of some of history’s greatest civilizations. In COLLAPSE! How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he now asks: “What causes the collapse of great civilizations, and what can we learn from their fates?” Diamond weaves an all-encompassing global thesis through a series of fascinating historical-cultural narratives. From Polynesia to ecologically robust areas like Montana, he traces the fundamental pattern of catastrophe: environmental damage, climate change, rapid population growth, and unwise political choices — and offers solutions. Brilliant, illuminating, and immensely absorbing.

October 22, 2005

Vacation Bird Feeder

I feel so ashamed. I have been home for two months now and I have yet to post any new photos of the birds. Today, that will change. This is the first entry in the new "bird photos" category. Aren't you excited?

Also in this post, you can see our nifty recycled bird feeding products that allowed us to go away for a week to ride our bikes around Kyushu. The ideas are pretty basic, not anywhere near major feats of engineering, but I post them anyway in the hopes that it might, just maybe, be the small spark needed to keep someone from going out and buying a fancy new away bird feeder when they most likely have everything needed right there in their own home, perhaps even waiting to be sent to a landfill or incinerator.

The main idea of course it to make sure the birds have enough food to last the week. Now, the birds are good at only eating what they need, so if we were to simply place a big bowl of seeds in the cage they would not eat them all in one day. The problem however, is that the empty shells of the seeds they eat on the first day would cover up the rest of the week's seeds. Unfortunately, despite the well-documented intelligence of some birds, our birds are too dumb to look under the empty shells to find the rest of the seeds.

To solve this, we tried a few things.

The recycled PET bottle bird feeder with a ramen spoon.

This is incredibly complex, so pay close attention.

Step 1. Poke a little hole in the side of a PET bottle large enough for seeds to come out, but small enough that they don't just pour out at once.

Step 2. Put a ramen spoon, or some other trough shaped object into the hole. Angle it down so that the seeds fall down into it. It is important not to angle it up, as we have discovered that the seeds do not readily travel upwards, rather, have a tendency to fall downwards.

The seeds might gat a little sopped up in the hole, but this is fine. Once the birds discover where the seeds are coming from, they will readily pick at it unplugging any stoppages.

The good thing about this, is that the trough is small enough that the empty shells do not all fall back into it, covering up the fresh seeds. Since we were going to be gone for a week, we made sure the spoon was elevated a bit so that the empty shells falling around it would not get too deep.

This little invention worked well. When we got home the birds had eaten all the seeds possible.

The hunter-gather foraging seed sack

This was intended to give them both something to keep themselves busy for the week, as well as emergency reserves of food. Assuming they are not so hungry that they have lost all their strength, they should be strong enough to chew their way through a clear plastic bag to get at the seeds they see inside. (The love doing this when they are out of the cage and happen to see the feed sack laying around unguarded)

To make sure that they don't just chew a single hole allowing all the food to pour out at once (which would then lead to the same problem as if we had just put a dish with the food in there from the start), we decided to make layers so that they can chew through one layer, have fun with the food, and then if they get hungry later, they can chew through another layer.

The reason we call it the "hunter-gather foraging seed sack" is that we hang them in various places around the cage that normally don't have food. They have told us that they enjoy the feeling of foraging for food as their wild ancestors once did. For added fun, some of them should be hung so that they are just within reach, but not too easy.

In actuality, they didn't even touch these while we were gone. In fact, judging from the unusually large pile of crap under their perch, it appears that they spent most of the time sitting in one place -something that rarely happens when we are home.

The recycled PET bottle bird water feeder.

The big problem with water is that it gets all scummy after a day or two, so just leaving a big dish of water would not be much help. We used a PET bottle, again taking advantage of those crazy laws of physics.

Simply poke a hole in the bottom of the bottle at the level you want to the water to be at. Fill the bottle with water, screw on the cap, and you have a water dispenser that makes sure the water is always at the same level.

We made the water level very low to make sure that the ratio of scummy standing water to clean water from the bottle was not too high. Unfortunately, the water still becomes scummy, especially at the top, so even if the water below is clean, the birds have to eat through the scum to get it.

I think next time we will experiment with one of the hamster water bottle style designs. The reason we didn't do it this time is that we weren't sure if they would know how to use it.

Fun-fun Toy Feeders

These are simply a collection of odds and ends that the birds like to chew on strung together with a needle and thread. We soaked some soy beans and chick peas over night making them soft enough to poke the needle through, then hung them in the sun to re-dry once they were threaded. Not only can the birds eat this, but they also can't resist chewing them -especially if it is dangling there tantalizingly from the top of the cage.

In addition to the beans, we also give them mikan (tangerine) peels. For your bird's sake though, think about where the mikan has come from and what kind of poison, pesticides, and waxes or silicone are in the skins. We, of course, only give them non-pesticide, non-wax peels -something that we would feel comfortable eating ourselves. They also like peanuts which are both fun and food. Just breaking into the peanut shell is at least a thirty minute project for Awii.

Finally, on the rare occasion that we have corn on the cob, there is always some left over bits of corn kernel that we just can't get out of cob, so we dry it in the sun and hang it in their cage. While this is not one of their favorite toys, we have seen them picking out the leftover kernels on occasion.

October 21, 2005

Awareness: Ecological footprinting and my ethics

So, from my last post following my efforts to track and lower my own ecological footprint, we can clearly see that the earth is doomed and we are all basically going to hell. Just kidding. If I believed that I wouldn't really be wasting any time worrying about it.

But then, why do I worry about it? Why do I spend time writing about it?

Annual Expenditure On Luxury Items Compared With Funding Needed To Meet Selected Basic Needs *

Product Annual Expenditure Social or Economic Goal Additional Annual Investment Needed to Achieve Goal
Makeup $18 billion Reproductive health care for all women $12 billion
Pet food in Europe and United States $17 billion Elimination of hunger and malnutrition $19 billion
Perfumes $15 billion Universal literacy $5 billion
Ocean cruises $14 billion Clean drinking water for all $10 billion
Ice cream in Europe $11 billion Immunizing every child $1.3 billion

*from The WorldWatch Institute; State of the World 2004: Consumption By the Num

Since this is the most subjective part of the whole project, and I have no hopes (nor goal) to make anyone change their ethical beliefs or value system, I will forego any long lectorious writing. Instead, I will just say that I feel a need -no, a responsibility- to pay attention to my own consumption habits. Tracking my ecological footprint is simply a took that I hope will help me to reduce my consumption by setting future goals and accounting for current consumption in relation to those goals.

I have come to feel that it is a responsibility because I know the current trends, and I can't help but ask myself ethical questions. Of course, I don't have a list in my pocket, and the questions change depending on the situation, but here are a few that I have adapted from Radical Simplicity.

  • Can the earth support billions of people living at the same level of consumption as I currently do? (we already know that the answer is no.)
  • Do my consumption patterns negatively effect other people's (now or in the future) ability to meet their needs?
  • Does the money I do spend have a net positive effect on the ability of other people (now or in the future) to meet their needs? Or, does it have a net negative effect?
  • Do other species on the earth have a right to exist and meet their needs?
  • Do I have an inherent right to use more resources, and deprive others of their right to meet their own basic needs, because of my race, gender, nationality, or social standing?
  • Are wars fought over the resources that I consume? Would I be willing to die fighting in those wars myself? Or, would I want those wars fought in my hometown?
  • Would I be willing to work in the same conditions, and for the same wages (figuring for the difference in value of local currency) of those who produce the goods I consume?

I'm guessing that the reader already knows how I would answer all of these questions. But how I would answer is really only important for me. It puts the current reality into perspective, as well as keeps me focused. The more I ask myself what I really value and believe, the more I live according to those values and beliefs.

I wonder what questions other people ask themselves?

October 20, 2005

If only the Superbowl or rosebowl could be even one tenth as exciting and dramatic as this football game (begins at 39:28).

In the towns Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the schools are closed, most families have fled, and the town itself has been almost entirely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. Now residents are asking themselves: how do you bring a whole town back to life? Their answer was a particularly American one: a high school football game in donated uniforms, with National Guardsmen (pictured) filling in as sideline officials, played to the drumbeat of just a single member of their marching band. This, and other stories about coming back to life, when all is lost.

This American Life is quickly becoming my absolute favoritest show in the whole wide galactical universe -as opposed to jut "one of my favorite shows" (as it has been for a few years now).

Whatever you do... don't make her angry!

Yet another negative (as in not-so-good) positive feedback loop. (via Organic Matter)

With major companies and nations large and small adopting similar logic, the Arctic is undergoing nothing less than a great rush for virgin territory and natural resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Even before the polar ice began shrinking more each summer, countries were pushing into the frigid Barents Sea, lured by undersea oil and gas fields and emboldened by advances in technology. But now, as thinning ice stands to simplify construction of drilling rigs, exploration is likely to move even farther north.

Last year, scientists found tantalizing hints of oil in seabed samples just 200 miles from the North Pole. All told, one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources lies in the Arctic, according to the United States Geological Survey.

So, essentially, the areas of the arctic being exposed because of polar ice melt brought on by anthropogenic warming are likely to be exploited for the extraction of additional fossil fuels.

As you can see from the photo above, this greatly upsets Tomoe... and I don't think anyone wants that...

The Taste of Your Mother's Fingertips

I learn something new every day.

As I was doing some research about how the food I eat is produced, I came across "The Great Japan Korea Kimchi Dispute". I knew that the kimchi usually found in the supermarket here in Japan tastes different (not exactly bad, but pretty different -and not quite as good) than that produced by someone's mom in Korea (which I have had only rare occasion to eat), but I always just assumed it was because they change it here to fit Japanese tastes. Apparently, it tastes different because it is (arguably) not really Kimchi.

For the Koreans, Japanese kimchi is not genuine kimchi. It is nothing but copycat kimchi. Korean kimchi is made with Chinese cabbage, red pepper, garlic, salted fish and ginger, and then stored in clay containers to ferment for at least four weeks.(Korea Food Research Institute) However, Japanese kimchi is made with Chinese cabbage and artificial flavor, skipping the fermentation process.

Kimchi is more than a food for the Koreans. It is a kind of national symbol and part of the national identity for Korea. Kimchi is Korean traditional culture itself. Korea has a saying that "the taste of kimchi is the taste of your mother's fingertips" (The Independent: October 9, 2000). Thus, to use the term "kimchi" for imitation kimchi is not acceptable for the Koreans, and even it might insult Korean culture.

Apparently, as Japanese style kimchi has gained a good share of the world kimchi market, some people in Korea are, somewhat understandably, upset. They feel that their cultural image is being tarnished.

Today, only 10% of kimchi consumed in Japan is imported from Korea; the rest is produced in Japan. 80% of the world kimchi market is occupied by Japan.

...

Japan's increasing share of the world kimchi market has reminded Korea of the past Japan's invasion.

Anyway, all I know is that my sister (who lives in Korea) better bring some of the real stuff home for Christmas.

October 19, 2005

How fast is the world changing?

Via WorldChanging, I came across the peoples grocery. It's a project in California to help the inner-city folk get access to healthy, chemical-free or organic foods.

West Oakland is home to 36 convenience and liquor stores, only 3 of which sell fresh produce or adequate food for a balanced meal. Prices at all of these convenience stores are 30%-100% higher than at supermarkets and none of them carry any chemical-free or organic foods.

This gets me wondering about the statistical availability of local, healthy, chemical-free or organic foods here in Tokyo.

The big argument people always raise against organic food is that it is more expensive (true on a per item basis, but as an overall lifestyle choice, my own experience seems to indicate that "choosing sustainable" reduces monthly spending). The other argument is that it is difficult to find. Granted, it takes a little looking, but once found, most of my shopping could be done at the Tokyo Coop I used to live by. Currently, I don't live nearby a physical store, so we rely on our food being delivered, which is a little less convenient for me because I am not good at planning my food needs one week in advance when we have to order. This of course has led to many more visits to the "regular" supermarket than I used to.

Granted, it is still much more difficult to make a full, fresh, local, and ecologically responsible meal from the supermarket than from the coop, but the more I peek out into the mainstream world, the more I realize that there are affordable local, chemical-free / organic options on their shelf as well. At least a lot more than I remember.

Have these been there all along? Have I just not noticed? Or, has the availability actually increased that much in the past three years?

It would be really interesting to see how much of an average Tokyo persons/family's grocery needs can be filled with fresh, local, chem-free/organic foods, and how far they have to travel to get it. It would be even more interesting to track that over time, to find out if it is just my imagination, or if the world really is changing.

* * *

Speaking of world changing, I recommend two blogs of students (in the program I was studying at last year) who are trying to do just that. So, if you are not bored to death already by my (all-too-introspective) eco-ramblings, or if you are, and are looking for an alternative, check out Strategies for Sustainability and and miles to go before i sleep. They are both doing a much better job of following along online than I was able to.

October 18, 2005

Awareness: Ecological footprinting and the current reality

Consumer Spending and Population, by Region, 2000 Region *

Region Share of World Private Consumption Expenditures Share of World Population
( percent )
United States and Canada 31.5 5.2
Western Europe 28.7 6.4
East Asia and Pacific 21.4 32.9
Latin America and the Caribbean 6.7 8.5
Eastern Europe and Central Asia 3.3 7.9
Australia and New Zealand 2.0 0.4
South Asia 1.5 22.4
Middle East and North Africa 1.4 4.1
Sub-Saharan Africa 1.2 10.9

*from The WorldWatch Institute; State of the World 2004: Consumption By the Num

Since measuring one's ecological footprint is very much about consumption, a logical place to look for the current state of the world, is the WorldWatch State of the World Report for 2004 which centered on the consumer society. Some brief highlights:

  • The global consumer class (users of televisions, telephones, and the Internet) totals some 1.7 billion people —more than a quarter of the world
  • Nearly half of global consumers now live in developing countries, including 240 million in China and 120 million in India
  • even as per person consumption expands, the absolute number of people also continues to grow—close to 3 billion human beings are likely to be added by mid-century.
  • Some 41 million passenger vehicles were produced in 2002, five times as many as in 1950. The global passenger car fleet is growing by about 11 million vehicles annually.
  • Auto sales in China alone increased by 60 percent in 2002 and by more than 80 percent in the first half of 2003. By 2015, if growth continues apace, industry analysts expect 150 million cars to be jamming China’s streets—18 million more than were driven on U.S. streets and highways in 1999.
  • Consumers across the globe now spend an estimated $35 billion a year on bottled water.
  • In 2000, one in five people in the developing world—1.1 billion total—did not have “reasonable access“ to safe drinking water.
  • In 1999, some 2.8 billion people—two in every five humans on the planet—lived on less than $2 a day.
  • 2.4 billion people worldwide—two out of every five—live without basic sanitation.
  • Providing adequate food, clean water, and basic education for the world's poorest could all be achieved for less than people spend annually on makeup, ice cream, and pet food. (come back tommorrow to see this table)

It's clear that population growth is a major problem in terms of the earth's ability to support human society, but often we focus solely on the raw per-head population counts of developing nations. It is helpful to keep in mind a population measurement I learned from Manfred Max-Neef, which, instead of counting one Chinese and one American as two equal people, instead counts each person based on how much of the ecosystems resources they use (similar to ecological footprinting). Max-neef calls this new hypothetical person an "ecoson" (ecological person).

When counting population by ecoson, it becomes clear that the areas which are actually "overpopulated" are not China and India, but rather the developed world, where our consumption far outstrips the earth's ability to sustain. This is not to say that China or India are not also "overpopulated". They are... in the sense that "overpopulated" means that there is a larger population than the ecosystem can support. What too often is forgotten however, is that if we in Japan, US, or Europe actually depended on our local ecosystem to provide the same amount of resources we currently consume, we are way more overpopulated than China and India. We are lucky enough however, to be able to use their resources as well... in a sense, our overpopulation seems to exacerbate the problems of their overpopulation.

That being said, much of what the bullet points above, as well as the WorldWatch book, illustrates is that the population in terms of ecoson is quickly rising in the developing world as well. If we were to equally divide the usable area of the earth among all the people of the earth, we would have to meet our individual needs with 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) of land. Considering that the current world average is already 2.3 hectares -and growing, and that if everyone on earth consumed as much as the average American we would require four earths, (only a few less earths if we only consumed as much as the average European).

The question that no one can answer -not even the most optimistic scientists and futurists, (well, that's not true... science fiction writers have lots of ideas) is, where will the extra resources come from? Attempts to replicate working ecosystems have only served to illustrate just how complex our world is. Why do I bring this up? Just to point out that there is currently no realistic scenario on the horizon that would allow us to live in space stations (as I often hear people (who read science fiction books watch science fiction movies) say will "probably" happen when faced with the truth of our current over-consumption)

And, if you haven't noticed, everything I have written so far has been pretty human-centric. I haven't even mentioned the needs of other living creatures to get their fair share of the earth's resources. As WorldChanging's Alex Steffen points out in his must-read essay (though I don't agree with it all), Winning the Great Wager

[W]e're already using between 40 and 50% of the world's "net primary productivity." What that means, for those of us whom math makes sleepy, is that humans are using about half of all the life on earth – that about half of all the plants, insects, microbes and mammals alive on the earth are being sucked into the systems that go to feed our needs. Think of every living thing on the planet as a river. We're diverting half of that river to suit our needs, already.

[W]hile we're busy sucking up all that "net primary productivity," there are a whole mess of other critters -- from salmon to tigers to little bacteria and beetles we're never heard of because they remain undiscovered by science -- that can't get what they need. Clearcuts; overgrazed grasslands; eroding farmlands; fishing boats strip-mining the sea; huge toxic plumes in the air and water, radiating out from our cities: our current over-use of nature is driving species extinct all around us.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on filling pages with statistics and facts documenting the unsustainable state of our consumption. I'll stop here though. And just to be clear, I don't think that spouting all these depressing facts and figures does any good to convince anyone, or change anyone's mind who doesn't already believe that our current lifestyle is no sustainable. These figures do, however, help me to keep things in perspective. They are not so much shocking me into reality, as they are acting as grounding points. being surrounded every day by a society that refuses to acknowledge the reality, it is helpful to come back and review these so I don't get swept up in the denial.

Next time, I move on to "awareness" of some possible (not prescribed) moral and ethical reasons that one might want to pay attention to their ecological footprint.

October 17, 2005

Paint, tents, and the nobel prize

As my parents are contemplating adding a new study onto the house for newly retired dad, I am reminded of the pain I felt using terribly toxic paint in a room at the cafe in Skarvfa where I lived part of this summer.

Note to mom and dad: When it comes time to paint the new room, If you pay half of the markup on these paints (or some other like them) compared to the regular baddy-bad ones, I will chip in for the other half.

Eco paint in my apartment would also holds a place in my heart because my birds love to eat the walls. I don't really want them eating something that I wouldn't (and before you ask, yes, I do eat their seeds -they make a nice snack).

* * *

So, I hear that the winner of the 2005 Nobel Prizes in Science is the guy who discovered (long ago in 1982) that ulcers are not caused by stress, but rather by bacteria. Why then, I wonder, did my doctor tell my mine were caused by stress? They did do a test for the bacteria, but as of the last time I was there the results had not yet come in so they "weren't sure". According to this though, the results must surely be positive... so why the need for a test?

* * *

ARRRRGRRGRGRGRGRGRGGRGRGRRHHRHRHRHRHRGRGRGRGRHRH!

On the last day of our trip we had to wake up early to catch a bus home. I mistakenly thought the bus left forty-five minutes later than it actually did, and so we showed up just as the bus was about to take off. In the rush to get our bikes dis-assembled and stowed in the luggage area, we ended up loosing Tomoe's helmet. If that wasn't bad enough, I just discovered yesterday that I also lost my tent poles. This HURTS. That was the greatest tent ever (the VL-22) . With only two poles and no strange shapes or hooks or anything, It goes up and down in seconds. It's easy enough that anyone can even do it in the dark without ever having done it before. And now...

Although, a few years ago when Tomoe and I went to Vancouver Island for a kayaking trip, I totally forgot to even pack the poles and didn't realize it until we arrived on the island. Luckily it is still pretty functional if we use the attached strings and some rope to keep it up. This is probably what we will have to do next weekend if our plan to spend a few days (two days for Tomoe, longer for me) riding from Nagano City south to... well, it's not yet decided.

October 16, 2005

Awareness: Ecological footprinting and the system

Last time I wrote about my plan to make a plan (resisting the urge to simply jump ahead and start "going green" without one) to follow my ecological footprint. I wrote that the first step of the planning process was the "A" (awareness) of ecological footprinting.

Now this "awareness" naturally means that I understand what ecological footprinting is, but it also means that I should understand my own reason for using this tool. My reason is further based on:

  • Awareness of how the ecological system I am a part of works
  • Awareness of the current state of that ecological system
  • Awareness of my own ethics and values

While I had originally intended to lump these all together into one post, as I began to write it grew, and grew, and grew. To make it less tiresome to read, I will simply break it down into three more "bite-sized" posts.

What is ecological footprinting? ↑menu

This is something I have written about before, and has been covered well by many other sites, so, at the risk of further boring anyone who has made it this far, I will pretty much copy and paste:

The Ecological Footprinting is an accounting process used to quantifiably measure the total area required to produce the food and fiber that a single person, family, or organization consumes, absorb its waste, and provide space for its infrastructure.

Footprinting by itself does not regulate how you live, nor does it pass any moral judgments. It doesn't tell you what you should or should not do, it doesn't tell you if what you are doing is "good" or "bad". It is simply an accounting tool , and as with business accounting, the numbers, in relation to the goals, speak for themselves. By tracking our footprint, we can estimate the environmental impact a population's consumption habits have with regards to:

  • Land and water resources used to raise livestock, harvest crops, or mine materials.
  • Energy resources needed to manufacture and ship the goods to our door.
  • Energy resources required to recycle waste.
  • Land and energy resources used to assimilate non-recyclable waste.

How does our ecosystem work? ↑menu

As huge of a topic as this is, my guess is that most people have some basic understanding if only based on simple intuition. Even answering these questions based with my liberal arts background I can see that I have some understanding of at least how the ecosystem does not work.

  1. How much earth is there?
  2. Are the earth's ecosystem resources infinite?
  3. How much of the ecosystem resources do humans use?
  4. How much of the ecosystem resources are humans expected to use in the future?
  5. How many other species do we share that ecosystem with?
  6. What are those species' resource needs?
  7. At our current rate of consumption, how much will be left for future generations?

As for how it does work, I'm obviously not qualified to go into details, but I am confident enough to say that, in a broader sense, it all boils down to a few realities based on thermodynamics. While the ethical reasons for following my ecological footprint are certainly not shared by everyone, there is just no way to get around the laws of thermodynamics, no matter who you are.

Basic Scientific Basis for Ecological Footprint

  • The earth is a closed system.
  • In a closed system, energy and matter are neither created nor destroyed.
  • Energy and matter tend to disperse.
  • Humans consume energy quality.
  • Plants, through the process of photosynthesis, are the primary producers of material quality.

Someday I may get into a deeper explanation of what I mean by these bullet points, but for now... Basically, what this is supposed to be saying is that what we have here now is what we get -we have to make due with it. New material resources do not spontaneously appear, and all of our energy resources originate from the sun. Likewise, our waste does not spontaneously disappear. Some waste can readily be broken down and re-integrated into the system. This takes an input of energy, which comes from the sun.

* * *
Next time, I continue my gaining awareness stage by looking at the current reality regarding the state of human consumption and interaction with the ecosystem.
Before I go on:

I want to explain that this whole ecological footprint series is supposed to be two things...

  1. an account of my own experience measuring and lowering my own ecological footprint. As such, it will naturally be personal and filled with my own personal opinions about how I should live my life.
  2. a resource , helpful for anyone else who may want to follow along (I can cream can't I), to do so. As such, I guess it should be more matter-of-factual, less polluted with my own opinions. The last thing I want to do is write another bible, telling people how to live their lives. My goals is simply to illustrate how this tool can be used.

Please bear with me as I try to find the balance.

October 15, 2005

Childish Development

Tomoe says that my imagination is going crazy lately. I have to agree as almost everything I see sets off some child-like thought, sometimes involving super powers, fantastical attributes to inanimate objects, ideas for useful inventions, but often times they are thoughts that are more within the realm of reality. It's almost like I'm twelve again. And it's not just my imagination that seems to have been rejuvenated either. I am a lot more inquisitive and interested in small wonders than usual. For example, today I caught a moth laying an egg on one of my roof-top-garden radishes (which were devastated by the moth larvae while we were gone). I realized that, although I knew intellectually what was going on, I had never actually seen it happen before. I was so excited at witnessing it that I almost wrote Tomoe an email at work to tell her.

Sometimes, of course, I feel stupid; being excited about something so "elementary" or expressing some imaginative thought that is so obviously crazy, but then again, if it popped into my mind, why not express it? And besides, being filled with wonder and making up stories in my mind is loads more fun than suppressing my inner child. (I'm thinking about making myself some GI-Joe like action figures.)

This got me wondering about why I may be so much more imaginative lately. Not having spent too much time dwelling on it, I think I can attribute this fun change to one main cause: I have time. But time alone is not enough... after all, if I spent all my time reading blogs, watching TV, or playing computer games I doubt I would get much out of it. Rather, having time has allowed me to play with botany, experiment with cooking, "re-learn" basic biology (I am still working my way through the biology textbook and the web-site, and loving it. Every day I learn something cool and fascinating), spend time noticing things that I never had time to notice. I now have time to do things that are not "career related"... i.e. things that are irresponsible by society's standards.

As restless (and sometimes worthless) as I feel lately because I don't have a "real job" (regardless of the fact that I am always busy), I can't help but fear that in order to feel "worthful", I will have to give up the gift of time and once again conform to an imaginationless, relatively explorationless world of "adulthood".

How can I keep my imagination alive, keep having fun, keep learning, and, at the same time, dedicate the time required to "specialize" in a specific topic that will make me once again a productive adult in this messed up world? In other words, how can I become a working child?

I suppose I will spend some of my free time now to think about that, and in the mean time, I'm gonna continue to revel in and soak up as much biology as I can, exercise my imagination, and most importantly, play.

October 14, 2005

Biking in Japan - Kyushu

A little more about that bike trip I just got back from...

First, the basics... (you can click on most of these images for larger versions)

Day 1

Well, I guess it depends on what you consider day one. The actual first day of the trip consisted of six hours on the train to get from Tokyo to Hakatta. All was not lost however, as we spent the night eating at one of the famous yattai street-side food stalls. Fatty fatty ramen, oden, beer... it all brought back memories of my days in Kyushu University when I would stop by the yattai for a quick bowl of ramen on my way home from the bar in play district, Tenjin. Inevitably, there would be a drunk salary man there insisting that I accept his offer to buy more beer for me. No such luck this time, but we were lucky when it came to finding a place to set up camp. Hakatta station is open all night, and filled with homeless people, so we just set up tent there. Our bright yellow tent didn't quite blend with the brown boxes, and it was extremely hot and loud, but it was an interesting experience.

On Day 1 -of riding- we awoke and packed up around 5:15 because we were told the police come through every morning at 5:30. After a relaxing breakfast at Mr. Donuts (enough Mr. Donuts to last for at least two more years), Tomoe wanted to check out Kyushyu University where I (and later my sister and her husband) spent a year. It was just as unkempt and run-down as I remember.

As we left, heading for Dazaifu, a famous temple where school kids go to pray for good grades, it started to rain a bit. This would normally be fine, but combined with getting lost because we hate riding on the car-polluted main roads, it turned a bit ugly.

By the time we arrived in Dazaifu however, all was well again. This was probably the twentieth time I had visited Dazaifu. As a foreign student in Fukuoka, every new acquaintance one meets insists on taking their new foreign friend to Daziafu to show them the beauty of Japanese culture. I remain a bit skeptical of the power of the temple... if I see a study showing a correlation between a students grades and their proximity to the temple I may believe that there is something to all that praying (and donating) that is going on at the temple.

Anyway, we left Dazaifu hoping to make it to Hita by nightfall. Had we followed the busy route 386 through a valley, we would have made it, but instead we opted to climb a mountain which slowed us down, but oh-was-it-worth-it. Following 509, and then a smaller road through Nihara, was one of the best few hours of biking I have had in all our bike trips through Japan. The views were great, the road passed through a mixture of small villages, field, and forests before we arrived at the top. Unfortunately, by the ride down it had already gotten dark, but it was fun none-the-less.

We didn't make it all the way to Hita, but luckily it is Kyushu, where there are Onsen baths in every town. We stopped in Haki taking a well-deserved bath at a rather boring hotel. It was not until we started searching for a place to set up tent that we noticed a much more local, interesting, and cheap bath tucked away on a side street. Oh-well, it was still worth the 800 yen we payed.

After a great dinner at a local Izakaya, we set up camp under the roof (it was cloudy and looked like rain) of a road-side vegetable stall that had closed for the night.

Day 2

Again, we woke up early hoping to get out of the vegetable stand before the owners arrived to open for business.

Following some side-roads through the fields in the valley between Haki and Hita, it took about an hour to get to where we had originally intended to camp. There we stopped for breakfast from the supermarket, as well as to see if I could get a new tire for my bike.

Due to some confusion about the three types of inner-tubes sold here in Japan (English, French, and US), each having a different style of nozzle, I had mistakenly purchased English style tubes while Tomoe's hand pump only works with US style. So long as we are in a city, English style is no problem, but if the tire should puncture on top of a mountain (as had happened on a previous trip and, as you shall soon read, would happen on this trip) it could be devastating.

I was not able to find a US style tire to use with her pump, but the nice old man in the bike shop sold me his portable English/US style pump for 500 yen. I was happy. (this is intended to be a little foreshadowing).

Leaving HIta, we again decided to bypass the crowded route 386, fowling instead, route 48 over the mountains. Yet another great biking road of Japan. (I have been thinking I should make a book about great biking roads in japan.) I judge a "great biking road" partly by my ability to forget that we are walking our heavy bikes up a hill for hours. This time was easy to forget because of both the scenery, and also because we had a stash of dirt-cheap umeboshi and pears left over from the previous day's lunch at a local farmers market.

After a quick lunch of onigiri and Pocari Sweat, from a local convenience store style place this time, we faced the choice of going over yet another mountain pass, or following the car-polluted valley.

Our original goal was to go to Beppu, but there were a few problems with that now.

- if we go to Beppu today, we have to retrace our same path back the next day on our trip to Aso.
- in order to get to beppu we have to take a crowded, dangerous, ugly road.
- we are already behind schedule.

Tomoe came up with the great idea to stay at Yufuin and just take the train to Beppu and back to Yufuin the next day. This would give us a rest, as well as prevent us from having to cover the same road twice.

I would have been fine without Beppu, as I had been there once before with my Parents. While I think it was good for them, it was nothing I expected Tomoe to enjoy. The main draw of Beppu is that it has a lot of onsen. It also has some different colored hot springs that aren't baths, but some people like to look at. Imagine Yellowstone in the middle of a city -but even more Disney-ized and even more expensive (each hot spring has an entrance).

It's a little off-topic, but one thing I really remember about Beppu from the last time was that I got a nice minshuku (Japanese style inn where you eat traditional Japanese food, take a bath in the big hot-spring bath, wear a yukata and sleep in a futon on the tatami floor) for my parents. The place was great, and would love to stay at someplace like that, but the first thing I said to the nice old lady running the place was that my dad is deathly allergic to shellfish. "no shrimp, no crab, no oyster, no muscle, NO SHELLFISH. If he eats it he will die!", I says. After a nice bath, the dinner came out (and it was beautiful and delicious) but after a few bites my dad feels his throat puffing up. Sure enough, there is shrimp, muscles, and probably various other shellfish I can't identify in almost every dish.

When I asked the old lady for something else, she says "He should try it... he may like it."

Anyway, getting back on topic, we decided to take the mountain pass and stay in Yufuin, which is also famous among Japanese people (I had never heard of it). The road was not so much fun. While I can handily going up for a few hours before going down, I hate roads that can't make up their mind. This one went up and down and up and down. The only redeeming quality was that it was on the border of a Japanese Self Defense force training ground. While this was only evident by a few jeeps filled with troops passing by on the almost empty road, the novelty factor was still there.

As bad as the up-down pass was, the downhill into Yufuin was brilliant (as most down-hills are).

Yufuin is famous (it is even the setting of a recent NHK drama) and therefore filled with over-priced onsen. We, however, used the locals bath which was only 100 yen. Sitting in the break room enjoying a beer afterwards we struck up a conversation with the locals, discovering that some of them come there twice a day -despite the fact that they have onsen water coming into their own home as well.

After dinner at another izakaya we spent that night in a parking lot.

Day 3

Getting up early again, we checked the train schedule to Beppu discovering that it took a long time and was expensive. Luckily, there was a bus that was quicker and cheaper, and passed by better scenery.

We went to Beppu and partly followed a walking tour recommended by the crazy lady at the tourist information center. As expected, we were too cheap to visit any of the Disney-style multi-colored hot springs. Beppu wasn't anything special and the only value was that found in avoiding the regret Tomoe would have felt if we had not visited it while we were so close.

We got back to Yufuin around 2 and left around 3.

We had intended to take the "Yamanamai Highway" recommended in our Touring Mapple 7. I am glad that we screwed up and found ourselves following another road south. Instead of going back, we decided to improvise by crossing a smaller mountain pass that leads to the same destination.

Along the way we passed an amazing little one (steep) road town that I dream of living in. I just have to hope that Tomoe's company opens a new office there.

After that town, we followed a road that was marked as "daato" (in katakana) on our map. Neither of us knew what that meant until, after a few near getting lost, we turned onto a steep "dirt" road. (get it? daato = dirt.)

We were to follow this road for about 2 km until we come across another road on the right. It was not until it had grown dark and we had climbed and climbed the daato road for much to far that we finally came to the top of the mountain. Expecting to have a nice (if a bit dark and bumpy) downhill into our intended destination on the Yamanami Highway, we instead found that we had been following a electric-pole service road that ends at the top of the mountain.

Our choice now was either to go back down the dirt road in the dark to where we "know" there is another route, or to camp there. In my opinion, camping there was one of the best things that could have happened to us. It was windy, it was on the top of a mountain, it was in the middle of nowhere, it was a clear sky, and there were more stars visible than I have seen anywhere outside of Sweden, and the Great Sand Dunes park in Colorado.

Day 4

It was also a good choice to stay there that night because, as we found the next morning, the "other route" we would have taken was in terrible condition. We should have been suspicious considering the road work going on the previous day where the major road had been covered with a land-slide, but we are just a little too slow in the brain I guess.

We walked our bike up the mountain through a terrible dirt road, and then back down the other side where it was impossible to ride -especially with our heavy gear, as was illustrated when we tried to ride down and I blew out my back tire.

This is where that foreshadowing about the bike pump comes in. The tire blew out and I thought "no problem." I have a pump and a tire. I will just change it. Unfortunately, the new pump didn't quite fit with the new tire, and it wouldn't inflate, in fact, the nozzle on the new tire broke off!!! The old blown out tire was US style, meaning Tomoe's pump would work on it, but it was punctured in two places -one was fixable by patch, the other was right by the nozzle where no patch would stick. We patched what could be patched and tried our best to fill the other hole with glue. In the end, it worked well enough that I was able to inflate the tire and continue walking my bike down the mountain.

Don't get me wrong, the reason we were walking is not because of the tire... it's because the road down was worse than the road up. There were points where the road was so washed out that we had to literally pick up the bike and carry it over a crevasse where the road used to be. I can't even imagine trying to navigate this road in the dark had we decided to make a go for it the night before. Eventually however, despite fears that this road too would end (at the bottom of the other side this time), we met up with paved leading to the Yamanami Highway.

In actuality, I prefer following the beautiful foliage covered dirt roads of the mountain in the rain and soft mist than I did Route 11 (Yamananmi Highway). The road from here was filled with speeding cars, each with one, two, or three people driving all the way up to the nearby national park gist-shop where they stop for ten minutes to buy some crap before continuing on to the Aso gift-shop.

Despite Tomoe's swearing that as soon as we get down the other side she is going to stop riding, we somehow (after a big lunch) found the strength to ride on up and over the Makinoto Pass.

The road after the Makinoto Pass was a highlight of the trip. It was foggy, rainy, and cold. It was a busy, windy road. But, it was all downhill. Oh-so downhill. What's more, when we neared Aso, the are which I had mistaken (on a black and white copy of our map) as an uphill, was actually a downhill. We cruised on more and more, longer and longer, making it much further than we had imagined

After a stop at a local bath which is said to magically cure any ailments one may have, we rode the final four kilometers to the base of Aso. Here we used the coin laundry to ruin my sleeping bag, and set up camp behind the local office.

Day 5

As usual, we were up early, this time we rode to Aso station where we caught a bus to the top of Mt. Aso. Again, this is someplace I have already been, and been unimpressed with, but the main value was not in actually seeing the gift-shop at the top, but rather in Tomoe not regretting missing it after being so close.

We did our best to kill the time until the next bus down. Once down, we mounted our bikes and set off on the best city riding I have ever seen in Japan. It was hours of downhill riding as we cruised from the Aso plain down to the coast where we caught a ferry over to Shimabara.

This day was, for the most part, uneventful. When we weren't waiting for a bus to escape the Aso gift-shop, we were cruising through a boring city. The only thing I really have to mention is that it is here that we set our speed record of 56 km/h maintained for at least thirty seconds.

There was a brilliant sunset, but we could only see it from behind the line of motorcycles waiting to get on the ferry. By the time I had a clean shot, the sun had sunk behind the islands.

When we arrived at Shimabara, we took a quick bath and set up camp in a museum parking-lot.

Day 6

I awoke lamenting that this was to be the last day of our trip. We had originally planned to ride to Kagoshima, but our little Day 3/4 adventure on the top of Ogiyama caused us to rethink. We had intended to already be further south along the island chain by now, but by now our plan had changed. Our new goal was Nagasaki. The only question was if we should go north, following the coast, or over the famous Unzen volcano.

Thankfully we chose to go over Unzen. Along the way, we stopped at the disaster park where houses that were covered in a 1991 landslide are preserved in their post-slide condition. Looking up at the top of the volcano I imagined what I would do if it began erupting and I found myself in the path of a landslide.

The ride (or walk as the case may be) up the mountain was not much different than previous up-hills, but this time we knew it was the last one. This made it worse and more tiresome. Once we arrived at the top, however, all the suffering was forgotten. The ride down was the windingest of them all, but it also offered some of the clearest, tree-free views of the coast below. As we neared the bottom, both Tomoe and I stopped without even having to signal the other. Each of us thinking the same thing... This is our fantastical image of Japan -the farmers harvesting golden rice from a field bordering on the jagged coast, across the bay fog softens our destination's jagged sillouette.

Yeah, that was beautiful, but the rest of the ride to Nagasaki was hell. There was only one realistic route, and as such it was extremely crowded with careless drivers. To make it worse, it was several hours of up-down riding such as we had never before seen.

By the time we arrived in Nagasaki, we were more than ready to get on the train home, but we were also deathly hungry. As such, we decided to stay one more night, enjoying a meal of famous Nagasaki chanpon noodles in China-town.

Later, we took the famous trolly (100 yen) to a bath in the north of the city within walking distance of the Peace Park and ground zero. There were big statues and what not, but the most impact (on me) was a simply map showing what was where at the time the atomic bomb dropped. It showed how the roads to the right and the left were lined with noodle shops, shoe repair shops, rice-stores, and everything else you would never suspect as being threatening enough to bomb into oblivion... Yet another time and situation I have difficulty empathizing with.

Cheap as we are, instead of paying 100 yen for the tram, we walked back to Nagasaki Station to pick up our gear from the locker. The rest of the night was spent with a bottle of famous Kyushu potato wine, shochu, and nearby Okinawa style brown-sugar ume-shu (plum wine), sitting in a park where 26 catholics were martyred in 1597, on a mountain side overlooking the city.

Day 7

Nothing happened this day other than waking up early to catch the bus which I had mistakenly thought left forty-five minutes later than it actually did. We arrived just as the bus was about to leave, and in our rush to get our bikes de-assembled and packed into the luggage area, we lost both Tomoe's helmet, and my tent poles.

Dang.

October 13, 2005

What is "The Environment?"

Before I left for my vacation from my vacation, I was starting to think a little more about how people interact with their environment, looking for good examples that I could make into overly-dramatic National Geographic style one-liners. (I also want to improve my creative writing skills.)

I realized something though... perhaps because it is "too obvious", I never stopped to think just what "environment" means. What is my environment? What is theNenet environment? What constitutes the environment of the various people I encountered on my bike trip? It further dawned on me that how different people define their own "environment", -where they draw their boundaries, may be one of the keys that keeps me from understanding why more people just don't seem to care about "the environment".

So what is my environment?

The textbook defines it as follows:

Environment

The combination of all things and factors external to the individual or population of organisms in question

Suddenly "environmentalism" takes on a whole new meaning that that of the nature loving hippy which is all too often presented in main-stream media. If the environment does not just mean birds and bees, but rather includes the combination of all things and factors external, we are suddenly talking about economic and social issues as well. This complicates the question a bit, but brings it closer to what I have come to know as "sustainability", which by most definitions is based on the interconnectedness of ecological, economic, and social issues.

As far as my homework -describing how the people I saw on my trip interact with their environment- my dog ate it. Well, actually, I don't really feel that I have enough information, after just watching people for a fleeting few seconds as I zoomed by on my bike, to draw worthwhile conclusions.

Maybe an easier example, when talking about how people interact with this larger definition of environment, is this recent Living on Earth article about the town of Chalmette, just outside of New Orleans, where residents face massive oil spills.

The interaction between the oil spills and their current quality of life is painfully obvious. Although I am not living in the immediate vicinity of the oil spill, I can understand, to some degree, the consequences since they effect me and all of society, all-be-it in a different way than they effect the people of Chamette.

What I have trouble understanding though, is how their connection to oil grew so strong. I am not trying to blame or criticize the people. After all, they were in a position that I have never been in. I am simply thinking out loud as I try to understand how and why people interact with their environments in the way that they do -and how is this based on the interaction of natural, social, and economic environments.

As people in southern Louisiana start moving down the long road to recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, some places have to contend with more than muck, mold and debris. There are also massive oil spills. Officials say eight million gallons leaked at more than 50 sites in the region. That's more than two-thirds of what spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska in 1989.
Families in Chalmette go back generations; neighbors know each other and value their connections. The main industry was once fishing, then more people took jobs with the oil refineries that grew up against the neighborhood's fences and yards. Now the oil that brought jobs threatens more than a thousand homes.

Sure, I understand it on an intellectual level -how the more immediate need to feed the kids can take precedence over longer-term needs to provide a healthy natural environment, or perhaps how some people may want a bigger house and nicer car more than clean air. Empathetically though... I have trouble putting myself in their position... I have lived a privileged life, never been in an economic environment so bleak to willingly and knowingly allow (and help) the oil company to destroy my immediate natural environment to such a degree in the first place.

The argument [for a law-suit agains the oil company] goes like this: wetlands and coastline once stretched many miles between the cities and the Gulf. But canals for pipelines and drills contributed to coastal erosion, which cost Louisiana more than twenty square miles of wetland a year over the past decade.

The oil and gas industry destroyed that terra firma. Had that ecosystem existed it would have absorbed the hurricane force winds and storm surge.

It's not like they weren't aware of the risks to their physical environment either... it seems like they ignored them, for whatever reason, in favor of an improving economic environment.

Like other businesspeople here, Mustachio had mixed feelings about Murphy Oil and the other refineries. There were the occasional accidents that forced midnight evacuations, and persistent questions about air quality. But then, there were also the jobs.

Then again, I am constantly put in a position to either aid in the destruction of our natural environment for the promise of a better economic environment, or more comfortable (in the short-term) life. I try not to make that compromise, as I am sure they did as well... but I always do, when I choose to take a train all the way to Kyushu for a vacation when I could just as well have had the vacation nearer to Tokyo, or to buy imported raisons when there are no local alternatives instead of simply giving them up, or my fondness for tea heated by natural gas instead of just drinking it at room temperature, or using nuclear generated electricity so I can play with my computer...

I can't deny feeling somehow "better" than people who I see as compromising more, though I do deny believing that I am better. I recognize that a major part of how we interact with our natural environment is based on our economic and social environment. But is that all it is? Another comment that one of the towns people made seems to indicate that our different perspectives on how we should treat the natural environment in relation to economic and social is also based on a differing understanding of a key word...

MUSTACHIO: They generated money for this Parish. And generated sustained life while taking it away from us, in a sense, because it polluted so badly. But we depended on it. Right now, I can't see them doing anything for us, but we'll see. I don't know. All I can hope they can do is buy my property and have me move on, you know, because I don't want to be here. And I think a lot of people are the same way now.

This quote uses the word "sustained" to describe the lifestyle that oil money brought to the community.

Certainly it depends on the context, but when it comes to "life", the word "sustain", for me, has a long-term implication... longer-term than my own life-span. Could it be that the residents actually saw the benefits of the oil industry in their backyard as being something that could be sustained for such a long time, despite the negative effects to the ecosystem? Or, does their definition of "sustain" imply only a few years or decades?

Perhaps the word "sustain" is not where we differ, but rather how we define "life". Being from the privileged background that I am, I would not consider a life plagued with the dangers of occasional oil spills in my back-yard as one I would want to sustain for very long. Then again, I do not live in what I would consider an ideal social environment, with a strong sense of community. This would make it easier for me to give up my own social environment and move elsewhere. Perhaps they had a more ideal social environment, a place they called "home", and placed a lot of value on it -more than they placed on their natural environment.

I guess I will never know, but it was an interesting exercise to take ten minutes out of my day to think about it. And now that I am thinking about it, I can't seem to stop recognizing these interactions wherever I look, or whatever news story I hear. It's not rocket science, it's just something I never really consciously looked for before. And yet, the question remains unanswered... what defines, and how do I interact with my environment?

The photo is of Japanese rice farmers in Chijiwa, on the island of Kyushu, near Nagasaki.

October 12, 2005

400 Kilometers

6 days, 400 total kilometers (average 66 kilometers per day), 55.5 hours on the road (including breaks, eating, and walking up many-a-mountain it averages out to 9.25 hours per day). I would rate this as the best bike trip yet. I didn't take many photos though... in fact, hardly any. Partly because getting the camera out was a pain in the ass and would slow us down (we had an ambitious plan and tight schedule) and partly because I felt there was no way to capture the amazing beauty of Kyushu.

The only sure things were that we would spend some of the day pushing the gear-laden bikes up a mountain, and that there would be an onsen (hot spring) bath waiting at the end of the day (except for the one night we got lost in the forest). Other than that, this trip included great country-road riding, crappy city riding, long climbs, long downhills, fresh veggies, fatty tonkotsu ramen, friendly locals, unfriendly motorists, hot sun, cold rain, flat tires, top speeds of 56 km/hr cruising down the hills, low speeds of 4km/hr walking back up the other side, and many minor adventures.

Maybe I'll tell you all about it one day.

October 04, 2005

Still here

I'm beginning to wonder if we will ever leave for Kyushu. We were supposed to leave Sunday, having an 8 day trip, then it got pushed back to Monday, then tomorrow. Of course it is 1am and no packing has been done. Tomoe took her bike apart to tune it up. This mostly resulted in fighting as once she could not get it back together again, she would not believe a word I said about how to fix it. Granted, I am not an expert, but I have built my fair share of mountain bikes from found junk parts. I also somehow manage to keep my bike running after thinking more than once,twice, ten times, that I would finally have to break down and buy a new one. In the end, I managed to learn some new things about bikes (her's is the most "modern" and high-tech I have ever worked on), and the bike is working again. But, she wont ride it until she has a chance to take it to a bike shop so they can turn a few screws and declare it "safe".

We've also been trying to figure out what to do with the birds. We have no one to come feed them, and the pet-hotels we looked at are either outrageously expensive, or they are certainly not a place for a bird you like. Instead, the engineer caps have been on our heads all night as we use old pet-bottles and plastic bags to devise simple devises that will ration their food and water for the entire week. I have to do the same with the water for my roof-top crops.

I'm quite proud of us actually. For more than whipping up some simply inventions that will allow the birds to be alive. I'm also proud of us for surviving a trip to the outdoor sporting goods store having spent only $5 for a canister of camp-stove gas (which is what we went there for). There were a million things that we saw thinning to ourselves, "Oh. that would be handy!". I'm proud that we have the smarts to ask ourselves why, if it is so handy, we have not needed it yet. In most cases, we realize that, yes, while it may be handy, it's mostly just plastic crap. There were some things that were handy enough that we would want them. I'm proud of us because instead of buying them, we did a little brainstorming and mental inventory and figured out how to make comparable stuff with all the little pieces of junk we have collected at home.

One thing I couldn't make though, and would have bought if I saw it in the shop (but I didn't), is this Swedish Fire Steel I just saw on Meta Efficient.

Well, I should get to bed in the hopes that we somehow make it out of Tokyo tomorrow. Even though it's raining in Kyushu now, it will be a good birthday present for us. Oh yeah, October 1 was our birthday. In the past we have tried to go out but can never get up the nerve to go someplace fancy. (It all seems like such a waste). One year we went out looking for a birthday special. The place we finally went to had a special of cake and a bottle of wine for a semi-low price. We figured what the heck, we'll get one and split it -after all, it's our birthday. When they found out that it was both of our birthdays, even though we only ordered one special, they charged us for two saying that even if we don't eat it (or want it), we still both have to be charged for the birthday special... because it's two of our birthdays.

Needles to say, this year we didn't look for any specials. We did, however, take a walk over to Nakano station which has a lot of really nice-but-not-expensive looking places to eat. Despite that, we wandered around for a long time still not able to find something that fit all our criteria, so we finally settled on a cozy, yet somewhat expensive, little Japanese place with a wall full of strange and exotic sho-chu (potato booze). The bottles had all manner of root, snake, lizard, and even a human finger. At first we were excited to try some, and planned to order it after we finished the first bottle of beer, but soon the excitement wore out we ended up going to the supermarket to get a cheap ice-cream cone instead.

By the way, I'm kidding about the finger thing.

October 03, 2005

Connection vs Awareness

Stabbing, crunching, thinly crusted snow crisps the already sharp air. A long pole -young, of birch- creaks a final sigh as it finds it's center of gravity, resting conspicuously perpendicular to this endless -impossibly so- landscape. The Arctic dusk, florescent, silent, softens by contrast. This is where Andrei has decided to set up camp.

The darkness crawls in like the reindeer-skin-clad figures that have begun to appear, of which the women set themselves to work. Slowly, yet steadily, wooden planks, iron stoves, handcrafted tent poles, and reindeer skins appear. These will soon form the walls of the chums, tepee-like shelters that serve as the mobile homes for the brigade -as the Soviets once called a group of these nomadic herders. Chatter and laughter carry far through the arctic air, and despite the harsh, potentially deadly environment, no one seems in a hurry, for as the Nenet say, "Those who hurry in the tundra are in a hurry to die".

Yet, not far beneath the chatter and seemingly laid-back atmosphere, lurks a growing fear. Though the Nenet have long since learned to adapt to and love their nomadic lifestyle here in the northern most reaches of siberia, at the fringes of the modern world, and despite their certainty that they are the best reindeer herders in the world, a beliefs that, says Andrei Golovnev, director of the ethnology section of the Ural Institute of History and archaeology, "allows them to survive", they know that their way of life is in trouble.

The Yamal Peninsula, the Nenet's summer pastureland, is home to what may be the largest natural gas reserves in world. For all the benefits the industrial age is expected to bring to the people of Russia, it has already brought along a drastic increase in population and pollution in the Nenet's natural habitat. The environment suffers from acid rains. Some reindeer die from eating moss laden with heavy metals, but those that live to the slaughter eventually enter into the human diet. Nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya are another grave danger to the health and existence of the people of the area.

Environmental Science Part I: Introduction to Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science. What is this?

The Concept: The way in which humans interact with the environment varies drastically across regional, cultural and economic boundaries, but, all of human society is intricately tied to the environment, relying on healthy ecosystems for our survival.

This is one of the main concepts underlying a sound understanding of sustainability and environmental science, and it is briefly touched on in the textbook I am following along with (Chapter 1: Introduction: Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science).

At first, it sounds almost too obvious to even spend time on. Yet, thinking back, it must not be too obvious, because I clearly remember when, as an adult, I first started consciously becoming aware of just how closely my life is tied to my environment. I was filled with a mixture of awe, inferiority (stupidity), and anger. I felt stupid that I had never really realized or thought about it, and I felt anger that this was not covered in school as I was growing up.

Although (or perhaps because) I never explicitly thought about it, I guess I was under the impression that some people, such as those seen in National Geographic, were "more connected" to their environment than we "modern people" were. Perhaps it will sound like a trivial issue related to semantics, but I realize now that it's not that some people are more connected to the environment than others, for we are all completely, and undeniably connected to their environment, relying on it for everything in our lives, rather, it's that some people are more aware of that connection.

* * *

The above account of the Nenet people is probably not so accurate. It's actually just my imagination based on a National Geographic article I came across of stack of old magazines at the local junk shop a few weeks ago. I was particularly drawn to this article after having spent time in Sweden listening to my neighbor's stories from Lapland, fascinated that people could live in such a harsh climate without our modern dependance on fossil fuels. I was fascinated that people could be so in touch with their environment that, as the Blue Earth Alliance writes:

Everything the Nenets need can be roughly covered by one word: reindeer. These half-domesticated, half-wild animals supply almost all their food, clothing, transport and shelter. They Nenets move as the reindeer move, following their annual migration north to the open tundra across Yamal, which they call the "land of the second sun".
Yet, despite an obvious connection, and deep understanding of their environment, the Nenet's also have their own issues. The Yamal Peninsula is not only being exploited for it's richness in oil and natural gas. As the demand for reindeer meat drops due to the high cost to get it to market, the Nenets simply increase the size of the herds. According to Nenets: Surviving on the Siberian Tundra, in the March 1998 issue of National Geographic, land that some ecologists estimate can sustainably support 120,000 reindeer, are currently home to over 175,000. Yet, despite warnings from both russian and western scientists that as much as half of the peninsula is being overgrazed, little is being done. In part, says the article, because Nenet leaders refuse to accept that overgrazing is a serious threat.

The Nenet's close relationship to their environment is obvious. The National Geographic article is peppered with colorfully dramatic one-liners (as only NG can do) illustrating that connection.

As the nomads move north across the melting snow of late spring, they will shift to the lightweight summer sleds that their reindeer can pull across the fields of damp tundra grass.
Aleksei can lasso galloping reindeer with ease and make a sled from larch, without nails or modern tools, in less than a week.
"Give me fresh air on the tundra, not the stink of gasoline in the cities," [Aleskei] told me one night after pursuing a stray reindeer in a blizzard.
Reindeer, also called caribou, are everything to the Nenets: their food, clothing, shelter, transportation, even their sense of identity.
Man and deer become almost related... The first thing a newborn baby touches outside the womb is the deerskin in which it is wrapped by the mid-wife. A dead man is also wrapped in deerskins. And between these first and last encounters, a person lives with the deer [and] thanks to the deer.
A herder relies on the instincts of his lead reindeer. When lost in a blizzard with no hope of finding the camp, he'll look to the lead reindeer to show the way.
Nenet women depend no less on reindeer in their daily lives, making use of every part of the body. One morning I watched Anna Serotetta, the grandmother in our chum, using her teeth to separate a sinewy substance into strands, which she then rolled between her palms. The material came from a reindeer's tendons, and she was turning them into sewing thread. The [reindeer skin] garments are extraordinarily warm, offering protection from winter temperatures that routinely drop well below zero.
One day Anna Serotetta scratched under the snow and pulled up handfuls of straw-like grass she used to insulate her boots. Another substance, a cottony pulp scrapped from under the bark of birch trees, substitutes for toilet paper and is used in diapers.
"Do all people look the same to you?" [asked Vladimer] "No," I replied. "Well," he said in a voice raspy from cigarettes, "neither do all these reindeer look the same to us".

Compared to our* more modern lifestyle, it is easy to see how some people would consider the Nenet lifestyle to be more "primitive", and why we so often forget that our life is just as inextricably tied to our environment. This got me wondering. "Can I come up with some catchy, colorful, National Geographic-ish one liners that illustrate how?" I feel like a little school boy getting his first homework assignment. This will be one of my goals as I ride my bike around Kyushu next week. I'll not only be paying extra attention to how I interact with my environment, but also how the people I come across along the way do as well.

* I'm assuming the majority of my readers are not Nenet or member of any other indigenous people living their traditional lifestyle.
* * *

The bottom photo is originally from Bryan & Cherry Alexander, 1996, "The Vanishing Arctic"; Found at this site with caption: Nenet woman and reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula (below). This image shows a Nenet woman and reindeer, part of a "brigade" heading south on the autumn migration. They are leaving the summer pastures of the peninsula's tundra terrain to the west of the Bovanenkovo gas-condensate field and moving south to the winter pastures in taiga (forest zone), southeast of Salekhard. The top photo is from my trip up to the North of sweden.

October 02, 2005

Introduction to Environmental Science

This is something I have wanted to do for a long, long, long time -even before I ever went to Sweden to study. It's also something I have tried to start doing several times, but for some reason of other it always ends up dying.

What? ↑menu

The plan is to dedicate a new section of my blog to the basics of Environmental Science.

I'll be following the outline and concepts found below, as presented in Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future, the textbook I used a few years ago to introduce myself to the concept of environmental science and sustainability. As much as time allows, supplementing this with articles and research from both on and off-line, as well as, hopefully, the experiences and knowledge of anyone following along that wishes to comment.

  1. Ecosystems and how They Work
  2. The Human Population
  3. Renewable Resources
  4. Energy
  5. Pollution and Prevention
  6. Toward a Sustainable Future

The textbook was initially chosen based on it's availability (Tomoe lent it to me). I am using the 7th edition, published in 2000. The 8th edition was published in 2002. I will do my best to find the latest facts and figures for any charts.

Why? ↑menu

Well, one obvious reason.

  • This is something that everyone should know.

But also, after having attended a graduate program in Sweden about sustainable development, I am looking for an excuse to revisit this text, looking at it through my "more learned" eyes.

  • Question what I think I know.
  • Explore what I don't know so well.
  • Share what I learn.
  • Translate knowledge into action.

And finally,

  • I have secreat fantasies that other people will find this intersting enough to follow along, maybe even on their own blog... and maybe... maybe an entire blog-ring style learning community could develop and we could learn about it together... maybe... maybe...

Guts ↑menu

I tell myself that the reason I never did this before (although I once started it, I never made it public), despite thinking about it every time I sit down to blog, was that I never had the time. I'm not sure I reall buy that, in fact, the main reason I am finding the time now is to prove to myself that despite my previous failure, I do have the guts... the guts to expose my own ignorance, to advertise to the world how much of, what seems like such a simple concept once I read it, I didn't already know.

So, if what I write sometimes seems excrutiatingly elementary, please bear with me. If what I write sometimes is excrutiatingly mis-informed, please correct me. But, in the other hand, if what I write is sometimes new, interesting, or helpful to you, I'd appreciate a comment or two.

October 01, 2005

Ecological footprint project

If he can do it, why can't I?. That is a general idea that has been rattling around in my head for a while.

Another theme in my thoughts is related to what I do when I find time between volunteer farming, interning, fermenting beans, making tofu, hunting wild boar, collapsing on the kitchen floor, and having cameras snaked down my throat, I try to follow some great sites that highlight hopeful new ideas and technologies that will usher us into the "bright green" future. There are some amazing things going on out there in almost any field you can imagine.

Yesterday's post was documenting my effort to bring these two themes together. While I am not too stubborn to see the benefits of many of these up-and-coming technologies, I don't feel like I am a part of it, after all, I am only reading about them, but not using them. I am also a bit fearful that this may be because too much focus on technology leads us to feel safe and content to just sit and wait for the hydrogen economy so that we don't have to do anything -we don't have to make any sacrifice. On the other hand, if Bill McKibben can go a year following the basic concept of "eat local", why can't I stop reading about these things and concepts that will save the world, and start using/practicing them?

That being said, the goal is not to "try out cool technologies", nor to "see how primitive I can get". The goal (something I have longed to do for years now, is "simply" to lower my ecological footprint. If I can do that by using lots of cool gadgets, great. If, however, it takes a little sacrifice and not eating imported bananas (actually I don't eat bananas anyway), so be it. I suppose that it will constitute a combination of both new technology and old fashioned will-power and thinking before I consume. But I hope that I will at least be able to find out, once and for all, if it is possible for me to live as a responsible member of not only the global society, but also the global ecosystem.

And although this is not intended to be a competition between "bright green" and "radical simplicity", I am sure that I will sometimes have a tendency to frame it as such (sorry about that). For example, yesterday I was looking for alternative energy options that are available, affordable, attractive, fit my lifestyle, and most importantly, will lead to the largest decrease in my overall ecological footprint. As it turns out, there are a lot of great products out there, and even more that are on the horizon, but my tentative conclusion from yesterday is that, in my current situation as a renter, I am probably better off just being more conscious about how much on the grid energy I use -and that, extremely regrettably, none of the technologies currently available seem to fit my particular usage patterns (of course, I have a feeling that if the current fossile fuel / nuclear subsidies were given to renewable instead, there would be no way I can afford to use the grid -I'd be forced to get the amazingly affordable solar panels). I was really looking forward to hanging out a solar panel, but I don't want to have to buy an iPod to make it worth it.

So, getting to the whole "ecological footprint" thing.

Yesterday I did what I usually do, and started without a plan. I just decided I wanted solar panels, and started searching as well as really paying attention to the electric meter above my door. While I encourage people get out of their seat and look at the meter right now, write down the number and then look at it again tomorrow, or in a few hours, I am going to take a step back because, it's time for a plan.

"Finally", I think to myself, "I can use something I learned last year." While the stages of effective planning and acting are not new, and in fact most people follow them unconsciously, last year I learned a nifty little acronym to summarize them. It's helpful for me to keep it in mind because sometimes I'm not such an orderly person and can have a tendency to jump ahead to the juicy "action" part before I have a plan.

Anyway, the nifty acronym I learned last year was simply ABCD.

Planning with ABCD

  1. A: Awareness of the of the system in which the plan is to be enacted.

    This means knowing the rules of the game -i.e., the laws of thermodynamics. It also means having an understanding of the basic principles you intend to follow. In the case of sustainability (as was presented to me) is nicely summed up by The Natural Step. In this "let's see if I can do it" project, the principles will certainly include those, but there may also be some more values-based (as opposed to science-based) principles so long as those expected to follow the plan (in this case, just me and, hopefully, Tomoe) can agree on them.

  2. B: Baseline of your current state in regards to the principles outlined in the Aawareness step.

    Where does my current lifestyle stand in relation to these guiding principles? What aspects of my life is in clear violation of them? What aspects of my life are already moving in the direction of success? How can these aspects be changed or built-upon as the case may be.

  3. C: Clear and compelling vision.

    In this step, I create a vision of what I expect my future to look like when I am living in complete accordance with the principles I have set forth in the Awareness stage. While this vision will most likely be extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve, it is something that is a nice combination of realism and idealism, a vision that I can feel compelled to chase after, yet one that is strict enough that I don't compromise the principles simply for the sake of achieving it.

    This step also includes coming up with ideas of actions that will move me from my current position (made clear in the Baseline phase) toward this vision.

  4. D: Down to action.

    Finally, this is where I get to buy the new solar panels, provided they meet the criteria I set up for evaluating possible actions. In this case, although I am willing to spend more for renewable energy, pure conservation looks like the best choice, and the more I conserve, the less attractive the return on investment in solar energy looks.

    However, I do not completely rule out getting some shiny new solar panels, because it may become a better option in the future, but for now, I am going to start with low hanging fruit, or super-duper-easy-to-accomplish-with-no-negative-side-effects actions, such as turning off the computer instead of just putting it in sleep mode when I go to bed at night.

This ABCD planning method is just a basic framework that we naturally apply to many life decisions, wether we realize it or not. When it comes to getting more specific about what a plan for lowering my ecological footprint actually looks like, I'm lucky that I don't have to make the plan up all by myself from scratch. Jim Merkel has already done a lot of the leg work regarding how make and carry out your plan, and he even published it in his book Radical Simplicity. I am simply following along and applying the process he outlined to my own life. The only difference is that, as I wrote above, I am going to be on the lookout for ways to lower the footprint without being "radically" simple. i.e. using bright green technology to keep as much complexity as I want and is appropriate while still meeting my goals.

And now, I am tired of writing, so consider this part two (yesterday was part one) in my new ecological footprint series. If you want to, feel free to follow along, try it out, rip it apart, tell me I'm a crazy idealistic moron, or tell me that I am not "radically simplistic" enough.

Solar Apartment?

The random goal is to cut our on-grid electricity usage in half... even with winter coming up. (it's part of a bigger goal to see how small of an environmental footprint we can get away with, but I'm taking it one step at a time)

A couple days ago I was curious about how much it would cost to do this with solar panels or micro-wind energy alone, but then my president mentioned a radical new idea... something called cosovo... consovo... ah! "conservation!" that's it! "conservation"!. I started thinking "I'f it's good enough for the pres, it's good enough for me", so I have also added that into my plan.

I have to admit though, that if I can reduce my usage by half by simply conserving it's sure not as fun as buying cool high-tech solar panels. So yes, I will look for places I can conse... dang, forgot the word again... oh yeah, "conserve". But I am still curious to see how realistic it would be to use solar alternatives -keeping in mind of course, that I live in an apartment and can't do any construction on the roof or anything like that. And I'm pretty sure I can't sell anything back in.

To make it worse, some items, such as the ceiling lights and built in electric water heater controller are pretty much restricted to using the in-house energy source. (on a side note, while looking over the light fixtures I discovered that one of them is broken and could easily electrocute a curious bird -gotta remember to cover those exposed areas up). But... the lights that were in here when we moved in are not energy efficient, so I could replace those bulbs at least. -gotta figure out how much that will cost.

Anyway, I would be happy with reducing our on-the-grid usage by half. I made a quick audit to see what kind of things we have sucking up energy on a pretty much regular basis during the day. As I write this, the following items are plugged in:

  • my computer
  • computer monitor
  • radio
  • telephone
  • fridge

And sometimes:

  • microwave (usually unplugged unless it is in use)
  • desk lamp (only used for reading when I am not using the computer)
  • oscillating fan (on hot days, but probably no more this year)

And coming soon:

  • small space heater (though the apartment is south facing and small enough that it doesn't need a heater on sunny days)

I was not sure how much I needed in an average hour during the day, so I checked it out today. One hour's usage with the things in first list: 200 W. I then unplugged the fridge (don't tell Tomoe) for an hour. Still using the computer, monitor, radio and telephone, the new total came to 100 Wh. Sure, I could be off by 50 Wh depending on which angle I look at the dial from, but it gives me a rough idea.

My first stop was Tree Hugger Solar section. Nothing much there that would be any help to me. Most of it was either large scale solar projects, or small, portable, useless-gadget chargers. I hate to be negative about solar products, but most of them are not even enough to run my iBook which uses around 50 W/h. Although it would be useful to charge my camera battery on the road, I am sure it takes more energy just to produce and ship the solar charger to me than I use charging my camera battery once a week. In the end, if the goal is to reduce energy consumption, we're much better off just not buying the iPod.

The most interesting thing I saw there were the 20 Watt Powerfilm and ICP Mobile Solar Panels which can be rolled up for portability. This Folding 30 Watt Solar PV Panel with Case also looked nice. When I first saw them I thought the wattage was too low, but after getting a rough estimate of me pre-conservation hourly electricity usage at home, which may be too low to justify the cost of getting a 150 W/h panel set-up, the small scale trickle charge option has started looking better.

The problem, of course, (besides not being able to run my radio and fridge with it) is that with these I assume I am paying extra for portability, but I don't need portability. The only "small gadget" I have to charge with this is my iBook (and my camera once every two weeks). I would much rather get something that puts out more power -enough to store in batteries that can then be used to run the appliances I use in the house, i.e. the radio, telephone, fridge, and maybe even space heater.

As for cost, of course I would love to quickly make up the entire investment by lower electricity bills, but it wasn't a requisite (again, I rent, so if I get a set-up that produces more juice than I use, I don't think I can really sell it back into the grid). As for how much more I can afford to pay per month, I am not sure yet, but thinking about how much money I waste on stupid shit like beer and the occasional i-tune, I guess I can afford to pay a little more for my kids' future.

And now the moment of truth..... The prices below are general ballpark figures after a couple hours of research. I guess I should add the electricity used by my computer or those couple hours to the cost of the PVs as well. I also have not yet looked into the second hand route for the battery, inverter, and controller.

140 W/h (2x70watt) solar panels (Japanese) small enough to hang out my window. JPY88,000 (US$776)
1 Battery (lasts about 3 years) JPY60,000 ($529)
1 Inverter 30-40,000 ($264 - $352)
1 Controller 20,000 ($176)

Total: 200,000 ($1,764)

So how low can I expect my post-conservation electricity bill to be, considering that I can't move entirely off grid without also buying a lot of new lamps and a solar water heater. Given the after-conservation usage, how long would it take to make up the cost?

Hmmmmmm. I have a little math to do when I get my next monthly usage statement, but it looks like I may have to stop conserving to make solar worth it. Maybe we can start turning the air-conditioner on when I am not home (when I am home I much prefer a fan), as well as use the central heating in the winter -but that will most likely cause me to die of heat stroke. I'm going to have to think about this a little more.

* * *

Even if I was not able to settle the apartment compatible solar power option issue, I did find this really awesome invention that blows my mind.

tan through speedos.

* * *

And what really looked enticing -if only we had more than an average of 5 m/h wind- is this 400 watt AIR-X Small wind turbine. For only $700 it can be put right up on your roof without a tower or anything.

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