Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mending Wall

As I attempt to bore through the culture shock of returning to the US, it’s the news that’s really tripping me up. After a year and a half or so of getting news online only and selectively picking headlines while pressed for time, it’s crazy coming back to the full bombardment of TV, radio and print – all in a language I understand.

I’ve been chuckling, as I’m sure many have, about the recent news about the fence company working on the Mexican border fence hiring illegal workers. It’s a tricky, complex issue for sure, and one I won’t tackle here except to say that I think it’s certainly just a symptom of underlying, systemic problems – which is where we should be focusing our energies, instead of on fence building.

It also go me thinking about the Shell Global Scenarios and how there is always an element of a kind of “walls” scenario – from back in ’92 with “barriers” through to last year’s with “flags” – in which eroding trust (a big issue on the declining wall of the funnel) hampers the emergence of a global community and a global consciousness, as well as global business and global security. As these thoughts swam around I happened upon an old book of Robert Frost poems – North of Boston – normally the kind of old book you pick up, admire the old pages, wonder how they’re still intact, smell the old-book-smell and put down. But today I flipped through and actually read one, which resonated:

Mending Wall

by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No ones has seen them made or heard them


But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are


We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neigh-


Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t


Where there are cows? But here there are no


Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to


But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neigh-


Stay going...

Thought control

Check out this new video - a remake of Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall

with a twist - "you don't need an education to save the planet" ... in fact today's educational system is designed in such a way that our thinking about problem-solving and how we meet our needs will continue to destroy natural & social systems until we radically alter our way of thinking - so we all certainly need learning to make it happen. In the meantime - do the easy stuff in your homes, or these kids will do it for you...

Stay going.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Biofuels & Sustainable Agriculture

A quick bit of good news from a new study out of the University of Minnesota evaluating a diverse mix of perennial grasses and other flowering plants provide more usable energy per acre than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel.

Now there’s often a lot of confusion generated around biofuels “in the leaves” of details. A strategic, whole-systems perspective tells us that moving from fossil fuels to biofuels helps with SP 1 violations – but for it really move us towards sustainability it must be done in a way that eventually eliminates SP2-4 violations. So if its biofuels are grown using huge amounts of pesticides & fertilizers that doesn’t help us with SP2 (and sets us back with regard to SP1, as its energy intensive to produce those). If they’re grown on huge tracks of previously natural areas, we’re done doing any good with regard to SP3, and if we get them from producers that exploit laborers (exposing them to toxins, underpaying them, etc) we’re not doing any good on SP4.

The good news is it’s fully possible to image creative ways to do this today – and by engaging on the process, we won’t be able to help but discover new innovations to continually do these things better. To keep the process moving, actions along this path should: 1) move us towards sustainability (i.e. not violating the 4 SPs), 2) be flexible platforms for supporting future actions, & 3) provide sufficient ROI to support & continue the process.

This study represents a great example of that – and touches on a couple of key components to sustainable agriculture & permaculture: integrating perennial crops (as the article says the roots sequester carbon, there’s less erosion from annual plowing and not all of the nutrients leave the soil with the harvest) & taking advantage of diversity (which when properly designed increases productivity by creating synergies, and mitigates risk of losses from pests & adverse weather conditions).

Check out this recap of the study with a link to the real deal.

Stay going.

Kenya Travel, Part VI (final)

DAY 15 – (Mon)

The next morning we woke to a personal wake up call at 6. Taking a minute on our porch to enjoy the peaceful still of the morning, we watched a crock slowly glide through the water, barely making a ripple. We continued on to have coffee with the hippos and then another, brief game drive. We enjoyed the indescribable sensation of witnessing the sunrise on the African savannah and were accompanied by four bounding buffalo running parallel to us through the golden grass along a stretch about a km long. Spectacular.

We returned to camp for another great breakfast, and packed to move onto to our next destination. We were supposed to meet an armed convoy at a particular intersection, as the stretch of road between Tsavo (where we were) and Amboseli (where we were heading) is apparently dangerous and prone to attacks by AK-47s wielding bandits. But through a series of communication errors, we missed the convoy and unwittingly ran the gauntlet through the dangerous stretch solo. Given the fact that all wazungu (whites) have been traveling through there in armed convoys for the last few years, I doubt there are really many ‘bandits’ still active there, but a bit of a thrill nonetheless. At a half-way check-point we met up with a different convoy and raced the rest of the way at speeds undoubtedly statistically more dangerous than any carjacking. Still, we made it to Amboseli safely, but our adventure was not over. Our map of the park was not great and didn’t include about 90% of the roads, so after a long search for petrol, we found ourselves at a dead end in a Masai village.

A group of friendly young Masai chatted us up, and tried to explain to Bradley that we were heading the wrong way and that we needed to head to the “that hill” pointing into the distance. Finally, one just jumped in the back of the Land Rover and drove 12 kms with us giving directions.

We made it to the Tortilis Lodge, again road weary, but in time for a late lunch. Again, the lodge was beautiful, but in a very different style from Finch. It was more open and manicured. Due to some confusion in the booking we were in a tent that was not what we paid for, and given their vacancies, the only alternative was the “family house” – quite an upgrade. The thing was huge with a beautiful deck looking over a watering hole, in front of what we would later discover was the stunning backdrop of Kilimanjaro.

After dropping our bags, we headed out with a guide in one of their vehicles this time (much smoother and easier on the back and way easier to see out of) for an evening game drive. Jumo, our guide, was mild mannered but very knowledgeable and calmly pointed out birds, tree species, and game as we drove. As we passed elephants grazing half-sunk in the swamp, he explained how the snow melts from Kili seep into the plains and support all of the biodiversity, adding ominously what was at the top of our minds – with global warming, the snow pack is expected to disappear within 20 years – “no snow, no Amboseli.”

He took us to a hyena den, full of pups right next to the road. Michelle had been requesting lions, and though he tempered our expectations heavily, we happened upon two lionesses and a cub, at quite a distance, but striking and exciting nonetheless. Heading home, feeling lucky and satisfied, we spotted a lone bull elephant meandering on an intersecting path to us with the dark blue and bright orange sunset horizon falling behind him. We stopped just in front of his path and he slowly, quietly, gracefully passed behind the car with a couple of meters. He paused momentarily, turned his head towards us flapped his ears and shook his head, just to demonstrate his power, before continuing on. Just then, awestruck, we looked up and the clouds had lifted from the peak of Kilimanjaro, revealing to us for the first time the equatorial snow cap. Words can do the moment no justice, so suffice it to say it was one of those moments.

We made it back well after dark, showered and headed to the lodge for dinner. In the bar we met a 3 friendly Canadians (again, virtually neighbors of Michelle’s, small world) who were making a documentary on global warming. They had been shooting at the COP and were here to get Kilimanjaro footage. We obviously had lots to talk about and joined them for an exciting dinner sharing experiences and thoughts on sustainability and throwing around ideas for the movie. We did our best to stay up and hang out, but the early mornings and dusty days on the roads were catching up.

DAY 16 – Return to Nairobi (Tues)

Again, a personal wake-up call at 6, only this time with coffee. We threw on some clothes and stepped out on the porch, only to be greeted by the striking spectacle of Kilimanjaro, fully clear of cloud cover. We sat and had our coffee, gazing at the mountain and watching a crane hunt in the little watering hole in our front yard. We joined Jumo again for a morning drive and watched the plains wake up and turn golden. We hiked observation hill and took in a 360 view of the swamps of Amboseli. Ready to call it a morning and head back to camp for breakfast, we got back in the vehicle, and just down the road spotted a cheetah out for a morning hunt. It was another lucky sighting and we spent about 20 minutes watching from about 50 meters as she stalked around, sat up on high ground, had a look around, and generally just showed off. It was amazing.

Sad to leave we headed back, got packed up and took a quick tour of the organic garden at the camp (that's a basil 'tree') - then we made the long drive back to Nairobi, for a joyous reunion with the little ones.

DAY 17 – T-day prep (Weds)

A slow day of recovering, unpacking & catching up on work – we also did a big grocery shop in preparation for an African Thanksgiving. We had a big bird lined up – and far and a way the highlight of the day was Em & I trying to figure out how to brine a turkey, following our brother emailed directions from a year earlier. After some clever use of a trash bag and a cooler, as well as some serious refrigerator reshuffling, we got it taken care of… well worth it.

DAY 18 – Thanksgiving, rain / water tank, turkey, intermitten power (Thurs)

It was pouring in the morning, and ironically we had no running water. Evans and I had a bucket water-catchments system going to refill the tank, but the pump still wasn’t working – this of course wasn’t helped by the fact that the electricity was intermittent. This fact also didn’t help us cook the bird – but we persevered. And after 6 or 7 hours – we had a fully cooked turkey (as best we could tell by candle-light). Em set a beautiful table, Mich had mixed up some unreal sage stuffing, and Agnus made her famous mashed potatoes. All in all a raging success – and as we ate we were joined by a Kenyan and a Norwegian, who were no doubt blown away by the dedication to our national heritage & the sheer magnitude of the spread – making it a truly international affair.

DAY 19 – Bizarre Bazaar, travel

Hardly believing it was over, we spent the final day at the Bizarre Bazaar, an annual pre-Christmas shopping fair for (mostly white) Kenyans. It was cool to see all the various goods & wears from around the country – everything from baskets & home stuff to clothes, art & music. We spent the evening packing, enjoying one final meal & some sad good-byes. All in all it was an unforgettable trip – and so much thanks & love to the fam for all the hospitality & so much more. Stay going.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Kenya Travel, Part V

DAY 12 – Bradley’s house (Fri)

The morning was committed to some family time and work. In the afternoon, Bradley took us on another tour of Nairobi. We checked out Eastleigh, the Somali neighborhood, Swahili town, and finally out to B’s house near the airport. He lives in an African neighborhood that is gated with high security in the small staff room behind a family’s house. It’s tight, but he has it tricked out with a small gas stove, and nice sound system & DVD.

The bed converts to a couch and the window looks out over the family’s small garden plot. The DVD player was the base of his former entrepreneurial means, when he was living in the slums and charging people 5 schillings (~ 7 cents) to watch movies, slotting him in with the approx billion people earning a dollar a day. He’s since stepped it up with his driving and landing some contracts for his art, which he studied in school. We watched some East African music videos and drank juice before taking the long commute back across town to Westlands.

Municpal waste management needs some work...

DAY 13 – Java House brunch, Village Mkt w/ Mads, birthday party (Sat)

Saturday, with no school for the girl and no work for the Papa was a family day. We started out with brunch at Java House, which was tarnished by the persistent rain, which ruined the appeal of the slides, but still very fun. We ran some errands with Papa and the girl, and looked at the fish at Village Market. Then home for a birthday party at the neighbors, which was lively despite a relatively small group of kids – there was a spider man, lots of acrobatics, heavy rains as we sat down to dinner outside, and a bloody lip – all in all a pretty standard birthday party. Tons of fun, and a stark reminder of the demands of parenting.

DAY 14 – Safari, Tsavo West, Finch Hattons (Sun)

Sunday we had the Land Rover packed up and on the road early, heading South from Nairobi for a 3-day safari. A couple of hours in the back of a Land Rover on African roads took a toll on our bodies and the car.

By the time we reached the main gate to Tsavo West, the door was stuck (requiring Duke’s of Hazard style window jumping), the muffler was rattling and one of the back seats had popped its bolt. All minor problems, of course, and after a pit stop, we were refreshed & ready for game.

On the way to the first lodge – Finch Hattons – we were treated to tons of undulates – dik-diks, gazelles, kudu, wildebeest, giraffe,

and zebra, as well as a huge heard of Masai cattle blocking the road. After an hour or two we reached the camp in time for a late lunch. The place was beautiful. It used to belong to a big-game hunter, who was the lover of Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and the main house preserves that character. Of course this requires constantly assessing the colonial heritage, which is still very much alive there. This was especially depressing directly after our cursory, but telling tour of Nairobi.

Still there was no denying the beauty and taste of the camp. There was a large hippo pool about 20 meters from the dining area, full of hippos lulling about in the water. There were no fences, and we were required to walk with askari (guards) to and from our tent at night. The tent was deluxe. A large platform with a thatch roof housed a big military style tent with a full bathroom in the back. There was a deck that looked over another watering hole, which was peaceful and surrounded by trees and in some way strangely reminiscent of a New Hampshire lake house – only full of crockadiles.

The camp has some of the trappings of a sustainable operation with solar hot water, limited hours on the generator, recycled stationary. These were small reconciliation for our thirsty Land Rover, but still nice to see a general awareness.

A guide joined us in the Land Rover for an evening game drive, which was exciting with buffalo, baboons, a hippo grazing, and beautiful scenery. After the drive and a quick shower we dressed for dinner and were treated to an incredible meal with perfect service. It was from another world. After an escorted walk home, we got a good night sleep, interrupted only by a cacophony of barking, howling and chirping, which we were later told was mostly baboons frenzied by a leopard in the camp.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Kenya Travel, Part IV

DAY 9 – Green Belt Movement (Tues)

Up early and out the door to meet up with a crew from the Yale Forestry program (one of the oldest and most prestigious environmental studies, moving towards sustainability post-graduate programs out there) to start a “Green Belt Safari.”

The Green Belt Movement was started by Wangari Mathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago for her work mobilizing Kenyan communities to plant trees. Jumping off that success, they now run “safaris” to check out some of the forests and the communities where they’ve been planting trees.

We started off with a drive to see some plantations, as well as some natural forests – stopping twice to check in with government forestry officers to sign guest books (maybe they thought Bono might be with the tour??). After a long drive (and a stop to check out some tea plantations) we stopped and had a short walk down a steep muddy hill through the jungle to see a waterfall. It was a beautiful spot, but it was never fully clear why we were there. Apparently the water level has decreased dramatically over the years due to a combination of climate change and upstream agriculture. We never got a clear picture of they manage potential trade-offs between the increased need for agriculture and space for tree planting and biodiversity preservation, but at least they have had success bringing the importance of the latter into the public’s awareness.

After the waterfall we drove to Lake Naivasha and had a nice buffet lunch at the Naivasha Country Club in a beautiful spot with water buck grazing on the expansive lawn between the club house and the Lake. After lunch we had a great talk from the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association – it was clear this guy knew the issues in and out and had given the talk as a powerpoint presentation plenty of times, and logically and clearly walked us through the main issues – which are many: a huge flower industry exporting cut flowers to Europe is draining the lake (in an arid area) on the one hand and polluting it on the other (fertilizer & pesticide run-off). The flower industry has attracted about 250,000 Kenyans looking for work (the industry employs about 30,000), which increases the impact (insufficient sewage & sanitation infrastructure). Our man was well versed in the issues, and the unfortunate barrier to the obvious double-solution – composting toilets supporting organic, sustainable horticultural practices (and producing biogas for cooking fuel at the same time) – was largely cultural (seems poo-issues are largely cross-cultural).

The situation is certainly tense though, as poaching is also a big issue around the lake, and an anti-poaching activist was recently killed under dubious circumstances. Of course the flower industry and poaching threaten not only the ecosystem (with its priceless, life-supporting services and intrinsic value) but also the tourism industry. It is a great safari spot as we saw just walking down to the dock (note the grass under it where there used to be water) where we saw dozens of bird species, water buck, and hippos in the distance.

By this point we were running late (aside from the fact that we’d been told 3 times we’d be back to Nairobi at 5, though the plan was apparently for 7 the whole time…?) and we headed out on the long, under-construction road (being built with financial support from the EU, so they can get their flowers faster) – after some more confusion, exacerbated by live wires down in Nairobi creating a traffic nightmare, we redirected, rearranged pick-up, and finally got home at 9:30pm… We had planned on hitting a COP side-event about “making the CDM work for Africa” but obviously missed it. All in all it was a good (not great) day – and given the organizational confusion throughout, and lack of information about what to expect and what we might need, we thought better of heading off for a two-night stay in a rural village under their arranging.

DAY 10Java House (Weds)

We were partook in an ex-pat Nairobi ritual of spending the better part of the day at the Java House, drinking coffee in exchange for wireless and caught up on a lot of work. We met an interesting Kenyan filmmaker who joined our table to spare her laptop from the afternoon rain, and who had been living around the corner from Michelle’s old place in LA. Small world.

The great Rift Valley... brought to you by Coca-cola!

DAY 11 – Conference of the Parties (COP)

We made our way into the UN and checked out the COP proceedings. It was the second to last day, and there wasn’t much action in the exhibition areas. Apparently delegates were busy getting their ‘last minute’ negotiations out of the way so they could get a jump on their safaris. The booths and materials were much the same as what we’ve seen at various carbon conferences, and there were plenty of familiar faces around.

All in all it reinforced that we didn’t miss much by not being involved for the whole two weeks, and from all reports it seems that the results of the conference were primarily agreements to really address the vital issues next year. This is not surprising given the nature of the challenge at hand, but of course not very encouraging given the acute need for meaningful action – primarily clarity & tighter caps post-2012. Still, it sounds like some important issues were at least given their due, particularly adaptation to climate change, and not marginalizing LDCs (least developed countries) from the carbon markets. Also, lots of talk on procedures for streamlining new entrants to Kyoto and the issue of caps (maybe voluntary) for non-Annex I countries (a key issue for the US stance on not ratifying).

It was cool to see the UN compound (ironically massive and built on a wetland, despite their promotion of ‘sustainable development’) and get a sense for the COP, though it was more or less anti-climatic.