Dear Readers,

I started blogging last August with the goal of writing regularly while the rest of my life proceeded somewhat irregularly. I went to Chicago. I got a cat, then left the country.

This blog has served its purpose for me. I’ve continued writing during a year spent in motion. I have nudged my own thinking just a little bit further. Perhaps what I’ve said has, at some point, nudged someone else, too.

However, this coming August will be another transitory period for me. I’m moving (internationally but not inter-continentally this time), I’m beginning a postgraduate program. To focus on these efforts, I am going to leave this blog for now.

Thank you & goodbye
-Emma

When we talk about energy, we often seem to be stuck thinking of energy as something we have to pull or explode out of the ground. When I think about “energy” and “power,” I think about industry, huge electrical plants. I may even begin thinking about nuclear energy, but it takes longer for me–even environmentalist me!–to consider solar, wind, or hydro-generated power.

These are all “alternative” energy sources. Yet they’re alternative mostly because they’re relatively scarce. In a different sense of “energy,” these are all primary energy sources. We call petrochemicals “fossil fuels” not because they are old and buried in layers of rock, but because crude oil was, originally, living matter, dead organisms like algae bound up, highly compressed, and intensely heated into the oil we know and love.

We have living organisms because of solar energy, not because of fossil fuels. And it took millions of years of geologic pressure for those living organisms to turn into petroleum. It is often argued that using fossil fuels has enabled humans, as a species, to make great advancements in technology and standard of living. I think there is some validity to this, though I’m hesitant to allow this argument to justify our current overconsumption.

While it is true that Western society seems to have benefited from industrialization, I am (a) unconvinced that this is a universal truth for all human societies and (b) now that we’ve launched ourselves into the technological age, it’s high time we use that technological prowess to generate power in ways that won’t disrupt ecosystems.

Our current “energy problem” is this: there is a growing demand and a shrinking supply of readily available fossil fuels. However, this problem is only a problem if we limit ourselves to fossil fuels. If we can consider other kinds of energy sources and ways of reducing energy demands, we’re looking at an entirely different problem.

Here are two interesting examples of this kind of thinking:

Yes, donkeys in Western Turkey and refrigerators made out of clay are not going to solve the world’s energy needs. But that’s not what they’re claiming to do. They’re taking small bites out of a large problem. Or, another way of looking at it, they’re solving small problems with small solutions.

We tend to like big solutions: this much X could meet the world’s energy needs. But I think the growing trend (or at least I am hopeful that this is a trend) is to look at specific ways we use energy and specific ways we could meet those needs without fossil fuels, as this is what the future looks like: a world without fossil fuels.

But maybe it is also a future with more donkeys carrying solar panels, and I’m okay with that.

It is hard to say what is more disgusting about changing a baby’s raw, messy diaper: the phenomenally gruesome smell or the fact that he looks exactly like a freshly plucked chicken. When I was little, I used to be squeamish about even opening packages of meat–cutting through thick layers of plastic beaded with drops of fat and blood held absolutely no appeal for me. I can still remember how opening hot dog packages would make my hands smell horrendous the entire evening.

Gross smells aside, the fact that we actually do resemble chickens (at least when under two years old, diapered, and lying spread-eagled on our backs) isn’t that strange. We are animals. Full stop. I have never really understood why humans seem so determined to differentiate themselves with being animals. A lot of animals do considerably less to fuck up the world than humans, if you’ll pardon my French…

Recently I read an article which casually called humans “superpredators.” That’s accurate. What other creature has developed the atomic bomb?

Personally, I don’t mind being considered an animal. I eat, breathe, and defecate like so many other animals. So what if I’ve developed complex social structures and especially complex ways of interacting with the world? So what if I have an iPhone?

We are phenomenally smart. We earn PhD’s. We send people into outer space. We figure out ways to cure diseases. We build skyscrapers.

We are also phenomenally stupid. We earn money, something which is utterly useless unless the entire species agrees that it can be exchanged for (actually valuable) goods and services. We send people to prison. We figure out ways to assassinate people we have elected. We build skyscrapers.

The quintessential element of humanity seems to me to be our complexity. We complicate matters. Matters as simple as eating and breathing are in peril, because of us. Yet like all other animals, we have not escaped ecosystems. We exist in basically every ecosystem there is. We have diverse ways of inhabiting the planet.

Perhaps instead of trying to be so human we should try to be better animals. As Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love.”

I had been planning to write about the Oxford Botanic Gardens on Thursday, July 3. Then it dawned on me that the following day is the Fourth of July, and while I may not be particularly patriotic, no way was I going to write about England on our (American) Independence Day!

When I was a child, I constantly chafed at the bit to be more independent, whether that meant being able to read on my own or learning how to drive. Now, having lived away from home, I’ve become even more independent: I can cook, clean, do laundry, mow the lawn, take out the trash, unclog a toilet, change lightbulbs, do dishes. Among other things.

But the only way I’m defining independence here is relative to my previous childhood dependence on my parents. I’m still dependent on them in some ways and, zooming out a bit, I realize that I am dependent on a whole host of people and places, including people I’ve never met and places where I’ve never been.

To my mind, these still have a little wear left...

To my mind, these still have a little wear left…

My favorite pair of jeans (also the only pair of blue jeans I had in France) just wore out. They’re threadbare all over, but the real kicker is that I now have torn patches in the rear end. Both knees had already split, but conveniently that has been fashionable this year.

Though it isn’t obvious, jean production relies on a healthy planet. Or at least one healthy enough to grow cotton and indigo. Denim is a fabric made from cotton; the dye used is now often synthetic, but was once indigo (from the plant). Thinking like that takes a certain stretch of the imagination, though, since we are so far removed from most of these basic processes. Most things turn up either in totally artificial contexts (like shopping centers) or in plastic (like the apricots sitting on my desk, couched in a plastic tray and covered with a plastic netting).

I have actually had to explain to adults where eggs come from. We are too far away from that which gives us life. With limited personal power–(in my current job) even the power to make decisions about what food to buy or where to buy it–it is discouraging to try to figure out how I can make a difference. But, realistically, “I” can’t. Just as I can’t survive on my own–if nothing else, we all need the planet’s natural resources–I also can’t change things on my own.

In Wendell Berry’s essay, “Compromise, Hell!” published in Orion Magazine, he writes,

We have got to learn better to respect ourselves and our dwelling places. We need to quit thinking of rural America as a colony. Too much of the economic history of our land has been that of the export of fuel, food, and raw materials that have been destructively and too cheaply produced. We must reaffirm the economic value of good stewardship and good work. For that we will need better accounting than we have had so far.

Throughout Berry’s writing, “we” are the subject. We are interdependent, not independent–nor should we be. As an American, I do value freedom. To me, that is, most of all, the freedom to breathe clean air, to drink clean water, to eat clean food. To ensure these freedoms, we the people need to band together against corporate interests, like the freedom to destroy land I–we–depend on.

Yet our current system seems to prioritize cheapness over value–and it’s really not just our current system. As Berry points out, Americans have never taken very good care of America, the place. When we were colonists, the land was much richer than we were. We didn’t learn stewardship, we learned how to make a profit.

By now, however, we should have grown up. We shouldn’t need slavery or colonialism to provide for our basic needs, yet we still use both of those systems in exported forms. When I go to replace my jeans, I will almost undoubtedly be buying a pair sewn overseas by sweatshop labor. While I try to find better options, it’s difficult to discover–and afford–alternatives.

As an individual, I’ve been told over and over that my main democratic power comes in the form of dollar bills which I can choose to spend wherever I like. Yet I don’t really have that freedom when the system is rigged. When I buy food, I shouldn’t have to decide between what’s healthy and what’s subsidized by the government (if anything, healthy food should be subsidized as its consumption would have a public health benefit)–yet that is reality.

Americans have always been idealists. We’ve never shied away from risky ventures or hard labor. Those are some of our better qualities. We are now at an historical moment in which we can decide to pursue these values–and the values of freedom and justice for all–or we can continue in the path we are headed, following dollar signs to our own destruction.

The real beauty of America is that we are free to decide. Free, but not absolutely independent: everything we are is possible because of the land; everything we do affects the people and places around us.

… Happy Independence Day!

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From my solitary travels in Paris, June 2014. A small measure of my own independence.

P.S.  If you haven’t read it in full, I highly recommend reading “Compromise, Hell!” here, on Orion Magazine’s website. Published in Nov/Dec 2004, it is still highly relevant and particularly so on July 4th, touching on themes of freedom and our colonial history.