Market Places

I am sharing these photos from a couple of trips I made to Taiwan with Wen-Ling. They are of a market place in the town of Sijhih, just east of Taipei. This market might be my favorite place in Taiwan.

Every morning vendors set up in an alley about a half mile from my mother-in-law’s home. They sell every type of food imaginable, from baked goods to fresh vegetables to freshly caught fish.

“Fresh-caught” isn’t a marketing phrase. The photo showing the fish with their tails tied to their gill-flaps is about more than just presentation. It is also to prevent these live fish from flopping off the table. The shrimp you buy are still moving, too.

Vegetables are all local. There is one garden/farm just around the corner from the market, next to a laundromat, in the middle of the city. It occupies maybe a half acre, but probably less. Lying in a ravine, all sorts of vegetables are grown there, along with tropical fruits like mango, papaya and some trees I don’t recognize. Other nearby farms also provide produce.

Along with the produce, vendors sell shoes and clothing, toiletries, and knick-knacks. The vending is all done between the hours of about 6 am and noon. By one o’clock it has reverted to a residential area. The vendors are basically setting up in the entrance ways to homes. Most homes in the city occupy three to four floors. The ground floor typically has a garage-like front with a living-room behind it. Bedrooms are usually on the third and fourth floors. The kitchen will also be found on the first or second floor.

I love the intimacy of this market place, the way neighbors easily meet and mix. I don’t understand the local alliances, the politics, and the personal tensions that exist. I bought some pastries one morning and brought them back to my mother-in-law. She wanted to know who I had purchased them from. It turns out I bought them from a woman my mother-in-law doesn’t do business with. None-the-less, we did all share the food. Perhaps it would have tasted better if it had been prepared by my mother-in-law’s friend.

I share these photos to highlight the differences between the typical American corporate market place and the traditional Chinese market. The Chinese market sells local food. If we consider the notion of degrees of separation, the typical customer at a Chinese market is separated from the producer of the food by two or maybe three degrees. In other words, the vendor may be the farmer who grows the chickens or the vegetables. Or, she may be a middleman between the customer and the fisherman.

How many degrees of separation are there between the American customer and the farmer who produces our food? We have the people who work at the grocery store. There are truck drivers connecting the grocery with one or more wholesale buyers operating cold-storage warehouses. Then there are the farmers. It may be four or five degrees of separation.

In Taiwan much of the food is probably produced within a forty mile radius of where it is purchased. In the U.S. the radius is probably a thousand miles, maybe more. In fact, some of our food may even come from Taiwan!

It is true that in America we can enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the year. Our food is relatively inexpensive. No one is deprived. But there are environmental costs associated with such a diet. And there are economic vulnerabilities. For instance, both Taiwan and America depend heavily on foreign oil. But, if our oil supplies were cut for an extended period how likely would starvation be in American vs. Taiwan? My guess is that Taiwan would fare much better.

In any case, my real motivation is to point out that there is an aesthetic component to the Chinese culture of food that is sorely lacking in America. And, it’s not specific to China and Taiwan. India has it, as does almost any developing nation. Our food culture here in America is an industrial culture, heavy on engineering, but largely lacking in beauty. I would gladly give up my local Fry’s supermarket if I could trade it in for an alleyway of vendors near my home.


Peachy Green’s Analysis of Ethanol Assumes Some Myths

Until recently I have generally thought that alcohol as a biofuel is a bad idea.  However, after reading David Blume‘s Alcohol Can Be A Gas I have become excited by the prospects this fuel has to offer.

I had accepted a number of positions on alcohol fuel because I had not heard some of the countervailing arguments.  Today I came across a blog posting from Peachy Green that attempts to explode some myths.  However, I found that while they were able to debunk some myths about alcohol, they contribute to other existing myths.

I will take on each of the five myths that Peachy Green discussed, with some counter-arguments obtained from Alcohol Can Be A Gas.

1.  Corn-based ethanol is a “green” alternative to foreign oil.  Peachy Green says, “False”.

David Blume makes the argument that using corn to produce ethanol is a poor choice because of the fairly low yield of sugar/starch produced per acre.  Using corn to produce ethanol can yield about 200 to 250 gallons of fuel per acre.  There are a number of other crops that can be grown that yield far more.  For instance, sugar beets can produce about 1000 gallons of fuel per acre.  Cattails can produce up to 7000 gallons of fuel per acre.  So, in that sense, David Blume would probably agree that corn-based ethanol is not a green alternative to foreign oil.

However, Peachy Green focused their arguments on resource inputs vs. energy outputs.  They are basically arguing the points of David Pimentel.  David Blume shows how Dr. Pimentel’s research is bogus.  You can read a short summary of his argument here.  Blume points out that fossil fuels have the negative return on energy.  The argument presented by Peachy Green assumes that fossil fuel energy will be used to produce alcohol as an alternative energy.  Blume argues that in a permaculture-based economy, where biofuel inputs are used to produce biofuel outputs, “the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one”.

2.  The new pressure to produce corn-based ethanol  is correlated to high food prices.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.  Here they are in agreement with Blume.  They identify a number of factors leading to high food prices.  They did fail to mention that the pressure to produce corn-based ethanol comes, in part, from surpluses of corn in North America, and a need to dispose of it profitably.

3.  Corn-based ethanol is cheaper than fuel from refined oil.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.

Peachy Green says, “In August 2008, ethanol sold for about $2.40 a gallon wholesale. Currently, gasoline is about the same cost, and may go lower.”  However, they fail to identify many of the hidden costs of oil.  Oil production is heavily subsidized by our government.  Many of these costs are passed on to you, but not necessarily at the pump.  For instance, the war in Iraq was basically to secure middle-east oil.  That has cost us trillions.  Then there are the environmental costs.  As well as the tax breaks that big-oil has enjoyed.

Blume argues in his book that alcohol comes out ahead of oil based on cost.  We can either subsidize alcohol production to the same degree that oil is subsidized, or we can remove the subsidies enjoyed by oil.  In either case, alcohol will come out ahead.

Peachy Green also says,

Notwithstanding the fluctuations in gasoline prices, ethanol yields about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. That means that you will have to re-fuel more frequently. Over the long run, gasoline is less expensive than corn-based ethanol.

 Blume goes into great detail in his book on the merits of gasoline vs. alcohol.  (If you like chemistry and physics, his book is an awesome read.  If you don’t, he presents these topics in laymans terms so don’t be intimidated.)  There are many facets to a comparison of alcohol vs. gasoline.  Just one argument shows where Peachy Greens argument comes up short.

It is true that gasoline contains more energy per gallon than alcohol.  However, more of gasoline’s energy is converted to heat.  Alcohol fuel actually provides more motive force.  Less of its energy is lost as heat.  Under certain conditions alcohol will provide less mileage than gasoline.  But, it is a complicated topic and I would refer you to Blume’s book for a complete discussion of the facts.

I will also point out that all engines currently in use have been optimized to run on gasoline.  However, when you begin to consider the optimizations that can be made for alcohol fuel, the idea that alcohol provides less mileage falls flat on its face.

4.  You will have to convert your vehicle to run on ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is “mostly false”.  They are mostly right. 

Where they are wrong is in arguing that money should not be spent on a flex-fuel engine to run higher concentrations of alcohol so that the money could instead be put to the purchase of a hybrid.

Alcohol is a renewable form of energy.  Electricity can be generated renewably.  I am all for solar- and wind-generated electricity.  But, in all likelihood, your hybrid is burning coal or nuclear fuel as a trade off for lower gasoline inputs.  And, in the end, it’s still a gasoline-burning engine.  So, while hybrids are better than most non-hybrids, they are not better than a vehicle that burns a renewable alternative to gasoline.

5.  There will be less global warming as a result of fueling our cars with corn-based ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is false.

I disagree after reading Blume’s book.  First, Peachy Green’s argument is very narrowly focused on corn-based ethanol.  Second, they are presenting the arguments of Dr. Pimental, which Blume thoroughly debunks in his book. 

Peachy Green quotes an article stating that, “corn-based ethanol would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, compared to fossil fuels. This is due largely to the effects of cutting down trees which absorb CO2 emissions in order to grow crops.”

Blume shows how a permaculture-based economy, which he has demonstrated himself on his own farm, would actually sequester carbon-dioxide in the soil in the form of an increasing amount of organic matter.  If alcohol is a renewable fuel, it is difficult to imagine how greenhouse gases would double since we would be pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to produce alcohol, and then burning it, which puts it back into the atmosphere.

The reason Peachy Green is making this argument is that they are falling into the same trap that David Pimental finds himself in.  They are looking at alcohol fuel from the perspective of a fossil-fuel based economy.  In order to understand the promise that alcohol and other biofuels hold, we must begin to look at all of the ways that we have structured our economies and cultures in order to accomodate oil, coal, and nuclear.  Then, we can start to ask whether these accomodations would be necessary if we were running on renewables.

Democracy Doesn’t Stand a Chance

They said Iraq wasn’t about oil. The brain-dead base of the Republican party swallowed George Bush’s big bag of bullshit that this war was about promoting democracy in the middle east. Then, today, a bombshell of a story broke in The Independent. Bush is planning to ram through a treaty “…under which US troops would occupy permanent bases, conduct military operations, arrest Iraqis and enjoy immunity from Iraqi law…”

President Bush wants to push it through by the end of next month so he can declare a military victory and claim his 2003 invasion has been vindicated.

Victory, my ass.

America currently has 151,000 troops in Iraq and, even after projected withdrawals next month, troop levels will stand at more than 142,000 – 10 000 more than when the military “surge” began in January 2007.

If this were about democracy, a victory would allow the U.S. to bring its troops home knowing that a competent government, of and by the Iraqis, is prepared to take control of its own destiny. Bush and Cheney have something different in mind.

Under the terms of the new treaty, the Americans would retain the long-term use of more than 50 bases in Iraq. American negotiators are also demanding immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors, and a free hand to carry out arrests and conduct military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government.

Fifty long term bases. U.S. troops and contractors carrying out arrests and conducting military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government, and immunity from Iraqi law. Sounds like a long-term occupation to me. But, that’s what Bush had in mind from the beginning.

This war was never about democracy. It has always been about oil. Bush and Cheney are both oil men, and they can read the writing on the wall. They wanted American boots on the ground in the middle of the east because that is where the vast majority of the world’s oil exists. As the supplies dwindle, they want to ensure American access to what’s left.

The precise nature of the American demands has been kept secret until now. The leaks are certain to generate an angry backlash in Iraq.

No shit. I just hope that the leaks also create an angry backlash here in America. George Bush and Prick Cheney both need to be impeached. It won’t happen, though. There are too many idiots driving SUVs who are more concerned about whether they can afford to fill up than they are about the morality of this power play. Washington has too many moral idiots representing this constituency.

The US is adamantly against the new security agreement being put to a referendum in Iraq, suspecting that it would be voted down.

In other words, the US is adamantly against democracy in Iraq.

Phoenix Sustainability Project

Good news.  Local government is considering issues of sustainability here Phoenix.  Debating the merits of what they are doing can be left to another date.  You can check out the Phoenix Sustainability Project here.  They are addressing many important issues, like transportation and air quality, energy use, recycling and pollution prevention, historic preservation, riparian area restoration and preservation, water, and land use.

The one thing missing from the site is the use of the term ‘peak oil.’  This doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of the problem.  But, it is something I find curious about political dialogue within the United States.  Governments in general aren’t discussing it.

There are exceptions.  I was pleased to discover that the Minnesota state legislature passed a resolution asking the governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, to prepare a response plan. 

Roscoe Bartlett, former (and possibly future) governor of Maryland addressed Congress about peak oil back in 2005. 

Even so, most of the time discussion of the issue takes place within the context of ‘climate change’, or ‘sustainability’.  Few people in government specifically speak directly to declining oil reserves.  And yet, the fallout from peak oil potentially could impact the average person more than climate change.

There is a lot of resistance to acting on behalf ‘climate’ within American politics.  There are quite a few climate skeptics on the Republican side of the debate.  I myself am not entirely sure how much of it I buy into, myself.  Perhaps, switching the terms of the debate to ‘peak oil’ would be more effective in generating intelligent debate and support for well thought out initiatives.

Certainly climate change activists would like to reduce carbon consumption.  Peak oil has the potential to do just that.  Both issues could be addressed through broadbased initiatives to develop renewable sources of energy and energy independence.

Without a frank political discussion of how we are to meet our energy needs as oil supplies begin to decline, there is the possibility of panicky behavior and irrational decisions too focused on the short term.  That could be disasterous.

Phoenix, drying up and blowing away?

Hillary is battling hard for a chance to upstage Barrack at the eleventh hour. If she is successful in beating Obama tomorrow, it could be due to broad support from ignorant masses who eat up the notion that she can do something about the power of OPEC.

“That’s not a market. That’s a monopoly,” she said. Ben Smith states in his blog, “It’s a potent message, like the attack on ‘Wall Street money brokers,’ with deep roots in American politics.” It also happens to be an absurdity, another phenomenon with deep roots in our political tradition.

Ignore the crazy image of the male leaders of the middle east kowtowing to a female American president representing a country without the financial or political capital to force the issue. The reason she can’t do anything about OPEC is that they can’t do anything about the supply of oil.

World oil production has been nearly flat for the last three years. It’s not because the oil producers aren’t trying. The price of oil is at an all-time record. Why would any sane business person hold back?

World oil production flattens out

This was predicted first by a geologist named M. King Hubbert back in the 1950’s. Peak oil theory states that we won’t be going up much further, if at all. And then, oil will become increasingly scarce. (Even if supply doesn’t fall in real terms, which it eventually will, oil will become increasingly scarce due to growing demand.)

Any way you cut it, high oil prices are here to stay and grow, Hillary be damned. The price of oil will fall eventually, when people stop demanding it. But, people won’t do that unless we create some viable alternatives.

There are many ideas. None are easy to implement, especially as our nation goes broke. (Thanks, George, for the three trillion dollar (to-date) NEEDLESS war! History will judge you alright!)

Why does this matter to the good people of Phoenix? Because we live in a friggen desert, in a city that did not consider the antiquated notion of ‘pedestrians’ during its boom years! It’s the reason the gloomiest predictions regarding peak oil feature the absolute demise of Phoenix.

I have a problem with this idea, though. I realize we live in a harsh environment, and that the magnitude of the problems peak oil presents — which are just beginning to be felt — stagger the mind. But, I also believe we have the ability to innovate, adapt, and cope. I do foresee a lot of pain as energy shortages and economic problems set in. But, I don’t see Arizona just drying up and blowing away. It’s a state, for god-sake.

The previous statement may seem absurd to some people. Civilizations do collapse, after all. We’re not immune. It will come down to the choices we make, individually and communally.

I am looking forward to meeting people who are aware of the issue, and writing about how various people are handling it. No matter how you slice it, it’s our problem to deal with.

Many people will blame politicians. Some of it will be deserved. They do make some asinine decisions. But, that’s also because they represent us. We make asinine decisions, too.

Many politicians will be quick to scapegoat on the issue, while others will make fantastical promises. Don’t buy any of it. Hillary, Barack, and McCain are all too human. We will have to force our leaders to be realistic, if we are to have a fighting chance.

No Ice Cream Yet, But Sustainability May Exist In Small Pockets

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to make my own ice cream as a way to strike back at the food producers who shrink their products as a strategy for inflating prices while keeping prices relatively constant.  By selling smaller amounts for the same price, they don’t have to mark their prices up and explicitely tell the customer that inflation is taking place.

I talked it over with my wife.  She likes the idea, too.  So, I spent a short amount of time searching for a local milk producer.  My goal is to find someone who, preferably on a small scale, is producing either cow milk or goat milk.  I didn’t find a producer, yet.  But, I did find a couple of interesting links.

One link is to Downtown Phoenix Public Market.  This appears to be a farmers market.  We intend to check them out this coming week.  Hopefully, by meeting and talking to people we can find a supplier of milk.

Another link is to Phoenix Permaculture Guild.  Their members include people raising livestock within the city.  Mostly chickens and ducks, from what I see.  But, again, maybe someone knows someone who “gots milk”.  Not industrial milk.  Rather, wholesome milk.

Several days ago I was also surfing on the web for evidence of local sustainable culture here in Phoenix.  I came across Phoenix Slow Food.  This is local chapter — or convivium, as they call themselves — of Slow Food USA.  They also look like an interesting group of people.  They are fighting the fast food culture by slowing eating down and making it much more of an intimate experience.

This especially struck a cord with me since I recently read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal, by Eric Schlosser.  Schlosser’s book is an eye-opening work that reveals the effects of the fast food culture on the economy, people, our communities, and on our individual health.  It certainly makes a person think.  It has me thinking about alternatives.

Of course, I am interested in alternatives for other reasons, too.  A big item in my anxiety closet is the phenomenon of peak oil.  I’ll probably be blogging about this more in the future.  Peak oil, in simple terms, is the end of cheap energy, at least for the foreseeable future.  There is evidence that we are at peak.  The implication is that life as we know and enjoy it cannot be sustained.  To what extent this previous statement is true is open to debate.  And that is part of the motivation for this blog.

I am interested in using this blog as a vehicle for discovering, and writing about, what people are doing that is sustainable here in the Phoenix area.