what goes up

When you live beside a wide-open lake, you can’t really tell yourself “It’s a dry cold.” Even on Tuesday morning, with the temperature at –17°C, plenty of moisture rose from the warm waters and condensed on any handy object – tiny dust particles in the air, for example, or leaves and stems in the waterfront marsh.

Reed – February 13, 2018 (click images for larger views)

In the most sheltered areas the frost formed feathery trees more than a centimeter long, but in windswept areas the frost was reduced to tiny glittering crystals.

Steppes – February 13

 

Summer Red – February 13

On warm afternoons strengthening rays of sunshine patiently worked through the thick coatings of ice over driftwood logs.

Window – February 12

One at a time drops of water formed at the ends of the icicles, pausing before splashing to the pebbles.

Counting Time – February 12

 

Snowy Geese – February 10

And sometimes the clouds of vapor over the lake come right back down as wet snow. That doesn’t seem to bother our resident geese at all.

Blue Light – February 10

 

Photo at top: Shadow – February 12 (click here for larger view)

The climate revolution: a manual for head, hands and heart

Also published at Resilience.org.

How many people in North America and Europe have known for at least 15 years that climate change is dangerous, that it is caused mostly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we must drastically reduce our fossil fuel consumption?

That would be most of us.

And how many of us have drastically reduced our fossil fuel consumption?

Not so many of us.

Mostly, our actions proclaim “We’ll cut back our fossil fuel use when everybody else does … or when the government forces us … or when hell freezes over – whichever comes last!”

Physicist and climatologist Peter Kalmus found the gulf between his beliefs and his lifestyle to be deeply unsatisfying, and he set out to heal that rift.

The result, he says, has been a dramatically richer life for him and his family.

His book Being The Change (New Society Publishers, 2017) outlines the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of his family’s reduction of their fossil fuel consumption by 90% in just a few years. His discussion ranges from climate science to economics, from bicycling to beekeeping, from community networks to meditation, in a deeply inspiring narrative.

Waves of gravity

Kalmus didn’t begin his scientific career in climatology. With a PhD in astrophysics, his speciality was gravitational waves and his day job was working through the data that would, in 2016, confirm Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves.

But he was also learning about the onrushing catastrophe of climate change, and as a young parent he was deeply worried for the world his children would inherit. Motivated by a desire to work on problems closer to home, he switched his professional focus, taking a new job at NASA studying the role of clouds in global warming.

Kalmus describes Being the Change as a book for the head, the hands and the heart. Wearing his scientist hat, he lucidly lays out the science of climate change. These chapters don’t require more than a high-school science background to understand, but even those who have read many books and articles on the subject are likely to learn something. For those who have read little or nothing on this subject, a good beginning would be to read Kalmus’ chapters on climate science three or four times over – he packs a lot of information into 50 pages.

His sobering conclusion is that we have already stalled too long to have any reasonable chance of keeping global warming below 2°C. Within two or three decades, the mean global temperature will be higher than in any record-warmth year in human experience so far. That new climate era will last centuries, challenging the resiliency of not only human civilization but global biodiversity.

The key uncertainty, he says, is the temperature at which global warming will peak. None of us alive today will be here to experience that peak, but our actions this generation will have a major influence on that peak. A higher peak will cause a spike in the rate of species extinctions, and if and when global warming slows or stops, it will take far longer for biodiversity to recover.

“A good overarching goal for today’s civilization would be to minimize global warming and its concomitant biodiversity loss for the sake of the next few hundred thousand human generations.” (Being the Change, page 69)

Fear of not flying

Climate science gives us clear warning of the disaster we are bequeathing our descendants if we don’t change our way of life, fast. Kalmus concludes, “it’s critical we begin saying that burning fossil fuels is causing real harm and needs to stop. It’s even more important to begin living this message.” (Being the Change, page 120 – italics mine)

A second major focus of the book is “hands-on” – the many ways people can change their own lives to join the movement away from fossil fuels. Kalmus relates his personal experiences here, but he also provides valuable suggestions to help others estimate their consumption of fossil fuels and reduce that consumption in meaningful ways.

Kalmus found that one category of fossil fuel consumption outweighed all others in his life: long-distance travel by air. Much of this consumption happened in traveling to distant conferences where delegates would warn of the dangers of climate change. Kalmus’ decision to stop taking these flights led to a more satisfying life, he says – though this was a rejection of one of the signature privileges of a global elite.

“The act of flying is an exercise of privilege. Globally, only about 5% of humans have ever flown.” (Being the Change, page 151)

Even the average American spends relatively little time in the air. Kalmus writes that “The average American emits about 1,000 kg CO2 per year from flying, which is roughly equivalent to one 4,000-mile round-trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.” But in 2010, Kalmus’ carbon emissions due to flying were 16 times that average – and so it was obvious where he had to make the first change to align his lifestyle with his knowledge.

Kalmus’ graph of his greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 – 2014. Source: Being the Change, page 144. (click graph for larger view)

For the average American, Kalmus says, the “largest climate impact is from driving.” He largely eliminated those CO2 emissions from his life too, through routine bicycling, driving a car that he converted to run on used vegetable oil, and taking a bus or trains for occasional long-distance trips.

Each person’s CO2 emission profile, and therefore their opportunities for emission reductions, will be different.

But Kalmus hopes others will share his experience in one key respect – a greater peace with their own lives and their own surroundings.

“I think most people are afraid of a low-energy lifestyle because we equate quality of life with quantity of energy use,” he says. “My experience has been the opposite: low-energy living is more fun and satisfying.”

Reading about his new-found love of gardening and beekeeping, and the strength of the local community bonds he and his family have developed, it’s easy to understand the richness of this low-energy lifestyle.

He also makes clear that he doesn’t believe that purely individual actions are sufficient to halt the fossil-fuel juggernaut. In the realm of public policy, he pens an excellent advocacy for his preferred fiscal approach to reducing national and international CO2 emissions – Carbon Fee And Dividend (CFAD). He also discusses his work with one group working on the CFAD option, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Finding a lifestyle that matches his principles brings joy and a significant measure of peace of mind. At the same time, finding peace of mind is key in giving him the energy to embark on all those personal changes. That brings us to a third major focus of Being the Change: meditation.

“As part of my daily work, I look directly at the truth of global warming, and what it’s doing to the inhabitants of the Earth. Meditation gives me the strength and the courage to keep interacting with this truth, as it is – not only to cope, but to be happy and as effective as possible in enacting positive change.” (Being the Change, page 203)

As one who has never been attracted to the practice of meditation, Kalmus’ story here left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, his discussions of dissolving the ego and escaping all wants were, for this reader, just about the only parts of the book that weren’t wholly convincing. On the other hand his life story so far is truly moving, and if he says meditation has been central to that journey then I can only celebrate the strength and peace that meditation gives him. More than that, his book has made me ask whether I want to introduce meditation into my own life in a concerted way; better late, perhaps, than never.

Science and love

Peter Kalmus has written a profound book about the science of global warming, and a profound book about love:

“These two seemingly disparate things – reducing my own fossil fuel use and increasing my ability to love – are actually intimately interconnected.”

In the process he grapples with three of the most troublesome questions facing the environmental movement. Can we convince people it’s essential to eliminate fossil fuel use, when our own lifestyles say that fossil fuel use is no problem? Can we convince people that a high-energy lifestyle is unnecessary and destructive, when we act as if our lives depend on that lifestyle? Can we be happily productive agents of change, while we are caught up in the high-energy whirl of consumptive capitalism? It’s hard to answer those questions except with “No, no and no.” And yet Kalmus’ personal message is deeply positive and deeply hopeful:

“On my own path, as I continue to reduce, I’m actually experiencing increasing abundance. It’s a good path.”

 

Photo at top: Peter Kalmus, photo by Alice Goldsmith, courtesy of New Society Publishers

Taking the lane, and making our cities safe for all

“Vehicular cycling” and the Slow Bicycle Movement

Also published at Resilience.org.

The “vehicular cycling” approach promoted by John Forester can be a great help to all of us who have to ride on busy streets dominated by cars. Yet I think there are good reasons why this approach has always had limited appeal.

In this second installment of a two-part essay I compare the vehicular cycling approach to what is arguably a much stronger social force – the Slow Bicycling movement.1 (Part one of the essay is here.)

When I took up urban cycling in Toronto at the beginning of the 1980s, Forester’s insights were just what I needed to hear. I had quickly come to the conclusion that a bicycle was a beautifully appropriate technology for getting around in cities, and I’d be damned if I would accept that most streets should be ceded to cars and trucks.

In his book Effective Cycling2 Forester called his approach “vehicular cycling”, and he helped me to understand that a cyclist in motor traffic is generally safest when behaving like a driver and asserting the rights of a driver.

Take The Lane

Several basic ideas are key. First, an urban cyclist is safer riding on the road than on the sidewalk. That is because at the many intersections – both driveways and cross streets – drivers are not habituated to looking at sidewalks for anything faster than a pedestrian, and they may well turn right into a fast-moving cyclist. When the cyclist stays out in the road, right in the normal line of vision of motorists, the cyclist is seen early enough for the driver to slow down.

Second, a cyclist should not hug the curb, but should take and hold a place well out into the lane. Again, the cyclist should be in the normal line of vision of drivers, and in addition should avoid near-curb hazards such as sewer grates, road-edge potholes, and debris in gutters. It’s particularly important not to weave in and out between parked cars.

When a lane is too narrow to allow a car to safely pass a cyclist within that lane, the cyclist should move right into the middle of the lane, so that a driver will slow down until it is safe to pull around in the next lane.

An extension of the “take the lane” idea is that cyclists should take the appropriate lane. For example, when coming to an intersection with a right-hand turn lane, a cyclist going straight through should move out of that lane into the through lane. When approaching an intersection with a left turn lane, urban cyclists can often safely move right across the roadway into the left turn lane. (These examples assume North American driving conventions; cyclists in Britain would follow the same principles adjusted for left-side driving.)

These lane changes depend on a procedure Forester terms “negotiation”. He urged cyclists to practice turning their heads to make eye contact with overtaking drivers, and in so doing, signaling intent while also verifying that the driver had seen the cyclist. I quickly adopted this practice and found it very helpful, which is partly why to this day I have never got used to using a rear-view mirror on a bike.

There’s a problem with this “vehicular cycling”, however, that goes to the heart of this essay. A successful “negotiation” for a lane depends on the cyclist maintaining a speed fairly close to the speed of the cars and trucks. If you’re riding at 15 kph, you can’t make meaningful eye contact with a driver coming up behind you at 60 kph. Forester recognized this:

“When the traffic is moving more than 15 mph faster than you, negotiation is impossible ….”3

To Forester this wasn’t a big problem – he pitched his ideas to fit and active cyclists – and it wasn’t a big problem for me, 40 years ago, either. Although I have never been athletic, I was in the prime of life, very enthused about cycling, and I could generally keep close to or surpass the speed of city traffic. I didn’t stop to worry about letting motorcars basically set the pace for almost all of the cycling I did.

What’s the risk?

Humans don’t generally like the feeling that they could be crushed at any moment; we’re funny that way. So even though the risk of riding in traffic in most cities is much less than the health risk of being sedentary4, vehicular cycling didn’t catch on all that well, and cyclists’ ranks in North America grew slowly.

As for me, I quickly concluded that the risk of cycling in traffic was relatively low compared to many other common activities.

But I always knew that one careless move – either by a driver or by me – could result in my instant demise. I knew, too, that most of the time when we make the kind of mistakes all humans make on the roads, there are no consequences; just once in a while, there is a confluence of circumstances that gives a particular mistake a deadly outcome.

We can take reasonable precautions to reduce our risks, and then get on with life without worrying a lot about the risks that always, inevitably, remain. For me those reasonable precautions included riding by the principles of “effective cycling”.

When I first heard discussion of having separated bike lanes alongside city streets, I didn’t like the idea. It struck me as a declaration of surrender, a formal ceding of streets to motor traffic. Besides, I thought, a separated bike lane will soon get crowded if indeed it attracts many more people to cycling – and then we’ll all have to ride at the speed of the slowest cyclists. (Much later, I learned that Forester was also a determined opponent of separate cycling infrastructure, for similar reasons.)

For three reasons, my thinking on this took a 180 degree turn – but the turn took years.

First, over the past twenty years it became apparent that separated bike lanes were very popular among cyclists, especially new cyclists. As cities like Toronto, Vancouver, New York and Minneapolis started their modest developments of cycling lanes, the ranks of cyclists, and their effective influence in urban planning, started to grow at a rate that gave real hope for sane transportation systems. In this respect we remain several decades behind cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, but we are finally moving in the same direction.

Second, as luck would have it, I got old. (Or at least, much older than I ever intended to get, back when I was a callow youth of 30.) And as I got old I got slower, especially once I’d passed the half-century mark.

My personal experience, I now realize, was opening me to the views of the “8-80” movement. Popularized by Guillermo Penalosa, 8 80 Cities advocates for urban environments that are safe and pleasant for 8-year-olds, 80-year-olds, and everyone in between.

The vehicular cycling approach, by contrast, is clearly targeted to fit adults in the prime of life. In a recent online discussion with a determined opponent of dedicated cycling infrastructure, for example, I was told that real cyclists “inevitably get in good enough shape to cruise (maybe not average) in the 15-20 mph range.” I had to respond that the days when I cruise at 20 mph are already in life’s rear-view mirror – but I hope to be a “real cyclist” for a good many years, during which I will happily roll ever more slowly.

The final factor in my conversion came while cycle touring, when I took my first long ride on a rail-to-trail route. Though I had never worried much about traffic while biking, after a few days away from all motor traffic I realized how blissfully quiet, peaceful and stress-free the ride had been.

A healthy compromise

For all the above reasons, I am now happy to consider myself part of the Slow Bicycling movement. Does that mean I no longer appreciate the ideas of vehicular cycling? Not at all.

Most of the places I want to go on bike still don’t have dedicated cycling facilities, so I still need to ride in traffic much of the time. When and where I am able to ride at an adequate pace, following “effective cycling” principles makes my rides reasonably pleasant and safe.

Furthermore, I don’t think either the “Vehicular Cycling” or the “Slow Bicycling” approaches are fully adequate to our present predicament.

There is a widespread attitude in North America, energetically promoted by the motor industry generations ago, that cars belong on streets, and bikes don’t. Effective Cycling says that both cars and bikes belong on those streets. I believe that bikes and pedestrians belong on streets, and inherently dangerous cars do not. But I know that I’m unlikely to live to see the day when streets are returned to bikes and pedestrians, when streets are no longer the site of mortal vehicular peril.

In the meantime I think the Slow Bicycling movement, with its push for widespread, convenient and safe cycling lanes for people of all ages, is going to help us grow toward sustainable urban lifestyles, as tens of millions of North American city dwellers feel comfortable in getting out of cars, getting on bikes, and enjoying the outdoors as they move about their cities under their own power and at their own pace.


Photo at top: Toronto cyclists gather at Bloor & Spadina in May, 2009 for a Critical Mass ride. The ride celebrated the approval of bike lanes on a busy downtown route, Jarvis Street. These lanes proved short-lived, as the administration of the next mayor, the late Rob Ford, returned that precious pavement to motorists.

References

1Though there is no official definition of the Slow Bicycling movement, the Slow Bicycle Movement group on Facebook is a good introduction. Founded by Copenhagen-based urban planner Mikael Colville-Andersen, this group includes in its statement of purpose, “This group/movement is a celebration of cycling, formed as an alternative to the perception of cycling as a hardcore endurance sport/recreational activity. … The bicycle takes us places. It’s those places and getting to them that sums up this group’s spirit.

2Forester, John. Effective Cycling, first edition 1976, most recent edition 2012.

3Forester, John, (1994). Bicycle transportation: A Handbook for cycling transportation engineers (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Quoted in Listening to Bike Lanes, by Jeffrey A. Hiles.

4For example, see the article “Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?”, Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2010, which concludes “On average, the estimated health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks relative to car driving for individuals shifting their mode of transport.”

 

the beginning is nigh

Photo Post

Warm rain … soggy ground … the smell of wet soil, old leaves, and new shoots of green. It’s felt like spring in Port Darlington – but since it’s still January, other possibilities are more likely. Something is just over the horizon – but is it a deep thaw, a snow squall, a sunny afternoon, or another cold spell?

Lines – January 26, 2018 (click images for larger views)

After ten days of unseasonably warm weather nearly all the shore ice has disappeared from the harbour. The snow on Bowmanville Marsh has melted in the rain, frozen at night, and gone soft again the next day.

Photosynthesis II – January 26

While warm days in winter often come with dull, cloudy skies, there is still colour to be found embedded in the ice. Leaves, sticks and feathers stand out against the surface, and sometimes fine crystals of frost capture the hue of sunrise and sunset.

Papyrus – January 27

 

Winter Rain – January 24

 

Leather Shines – January 24

 

Shade – January 26

The week-long process of snow drifts condensing to slush, then finally turning to hard ice, has created a surface rich in topography. (Or poor skating, if you want to look at it that way.)

By the day’s last light, if you squint your eyes just right the marsh ice looks like the skin of a far-away land.

Red Planet – January 28

On a warm and quiet morning gulls and geese gather in the centre. The layer of water atop the thin ice makes for good reflections, but walking through this slick puddle is a tricky business.

Congregants – January 27

 

Curl – January 27

 

Pair – January 29

Back in the shallows of the harbour suitable floes are now scarce, but this fisherman is enjoying some prime real estate.

Outpost – January 29

 

Top photo: Floatation – January 28 (click here for full-size image)

Why I love the Slow Bicycling movement

Also published at Resilience.org.

The end of the 19th century gave us one of the great advances in transportation history, the modern bicycle.

Alas, the early years of the twentieth century gave us the speedometer.

And while the speedometer was far from the worst technological development of the 1900s, a fixation on speed was an unfortunate detour for several decades of bicycling history, especially in North America.

Over the past 25 years, fortunately, the trend has changed, bringing important new players to bicycle-and-accessory businesses and into municipal planning.

Yet a lingering tension has remained between those who are willing and able to ride fast through the traffic on busy streets, and those campaigning to make safe cycling routes available to everyone from ages 8 to 80. As one who used to love darting from lane to lane while pedaling past cars and trucks, it took me decades to embrace the idea of separated bike lanes on city streets.

The joy of speed

Those of us who were introduced to bicycling in the 1960s to 1980s can remember seeing two types of bikes in the stores: kids’ bikes, and “speed bikes”. If you were an adult wanting a bike, the thinking went, then you were a fitness buff. And the key measure of that fitness was the number on the speedometer.

Thus the bikes had very skinny tires, and no encumbrances like racks or baskets. Serious cyclists were expected to wear tight-fitting clothes, and to ride with their noses just an inch from the low-mounted handlebars in order to reduce wind resistance.

Going fast on a bike has always been a thrill, of course. For nineteenth-century women getting on the earliest bikes and moving at velocities hitherto unknown, for seven-year-olds whizzing down a modest hill, or for septuagenarian cyclists catching a stiff tail wind and suddenly feeling 30 years younger, a burst of speed has always been part of the appeal of pedaling.

The key phrase here is “part of the appeal”. Rolling slowly and quietly along a wooded lane so you can hear every bird song; riding side by side with a friend on a safe path while conversing; getting to work in half the time it would take to walk, without breaking a sweat; or carrying a heavy load of groceries home on your bike without straining arms or back – these are no less important aspects of the appeal of biking.

Furthermore, the thrill of going fast is not actually increased by having that speed measured. Flying down a previously unexplored hill is great fun even if you have no idea whether you’re moving at 45 kilometers, 55 kilometers or 65 kilometers per hour.

On the other hand, once you’ve acquired a speedometer and you’ve started to pay close attention to your average speed, a ride might indeed seem less fun if your speed drops, and you feel like you’ve let yourself down. In fact, you may develop a strange compulsion to buy a bike that weighs a few less grams, or to wear a sleeker lycra jersey, or to pump your tires a little harder, to ensure your speed keeps increasing.

Winter blues

In continental climates it’s impossible to maintain summer biking speeds through the winter. The lubrication around ball bearings gets stiff, tires are hard to keep adequately inflated, and boots, overpants and winter jackets all add wind resistance.

Riding in Toronto through the 1980s, I developed a theory that by November one could see which cyclists would carry on through the winter, and which cyclists would soon hang up their bikes until spring.

On the first frosty mornings, when some cyclists had switched to long pants or wool tights, others would still be clad in lycra shorts. For the latter group, obviously, comfort was secondary to speed and “fast fashion” – and just as obviously, the winter would soon get the better of them.

Unfortunately the bike shops catered mostly to those with a focus on speed. And thus for many years it was hard to find a bike with a good sturdy basket or rack that could carry your groceries, or fenders that would stand up to winter slush. Nearly all the high-quality bikes were made for racers and wannabe-racers, and that meant they were mostly useless for carting groceries, transporting small children to day care, or even riding short distances to work on days when the roads were sloppy.

Change in this dominant biking culture took hold in the late 1980s, as early mountain bikes begat hybrid or “city” bikes. A wide variety of useful accessories also became easier to find.

A flowering of utilitarian bike culture has certainly occurred in the past 15 years, with many types of cargo bikes introduced to the market in North America, along with fat bikes, folding bikes, and electric-assist bikes. And with a noticeable uptick in the commuting cyclist population, some cities started to pay more than lip service to the idea of protected bike lanes.

Bike lanes vs. Effective Cycling

While the creation of bike lanes on urban streets was cheered by a new generation of urban cyclists, some long-time cycling advocates see this development as a regrettable step backwards. Opponents of separated cycling lanes often cite the work of John Forester, author of the Effective Cycling book and training course in the 1970s.

Forester’s work guided me from my first years of urban cycling in the early 1980s. The strategies outlined in Effective Cycling made it possible for me to quickly come to terms with riding on city streets, during years when separated bike lanes were not scarce, they were non-existent. Biking has been the most healthy, liberating form of physical activity in my life for decades, so I owe Forester a huge debt of gratitude.

Yet over the past 20 years I’ve come to believe that what is loosely termed the Slow Bicycle Movement offers wider promise than Forester’s approach, and I’ll turn to that comparison in part two of this essay.

Photos taken on Dundas Street, Toronto, January 13, 2018

horizon

Photo Post

Immovable object, meet irresistible force.

Mid-winter thaws soften the shore ice, brisk winds move the floes around the bay, and each morning we greet a new coastline.

Overhang – January 16, 2018 (click images to see larger view)

The massive frozen shelves grow icicle beards in the cold spray day after day, then suddenly topple as waves undercut them.

Tilt – January 6

Shore ice reflects the many tones in the winter sun’s low rays, while also picking up colours from sand and silt which freeze into the mix.

Blue Bear – January 17

 

Bubble – January 17

Incoming waves meet other waves bouncing back from the ice shelves. The resident buffleheads steer clear of shore to avoid the turbulence.

Rollin’ – January 17

In a rare moment when all the snow has blown off a small patch of frozen beach sand, the multicoloured grains form an otherworldly landscape.

Sandstream – January 14

In a small clearing in a cedar forest, all boughs pick up a fluffy load of new snow. But the sheltered cove also soaks up the heat of sunshine and the white hats shrink hour by hour.

Red Seed – January 4

 

Top photo: Island – January 5 (click here for larger view)

The unbearable cheapness of capitalism

Also published at Resilience.org.

René Descartes, Christopher Columbus and Jeff Bezos walk into a bar and the bartender asks, “What can I get for you thirsty gentlemen?”

“We’ll take everything you’ve got,” they answer, “just make it cheap!”

That’s a somewhat shorter version of the story served up by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore. Their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, illuminates many aspects of our present moment. While Jeff Bezos doesn’t make it into the index, René Descartes and Christopher Columbus both play prominent roles.

In just over 200 pages plus notes, the book promises “A Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet.”

Patel and Moore present a provocative and highly readable guide to the early centuries of capitalism, showing how its then radically new way of relating to Nature remains at the root of world political economy today. As for a guide to the future, however, the authors do little beyond posing a few big questions.

The long shadow of the Enlightenment

Philosopher René Descartes, known in Western intellectual history as one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, helped codify a key idea for capitalism: separation between Society and Nature. In 1641,

“Descartes distinguished between mind and body, using the Latin res cogitans and res extensa to refer to them. Reality, in this view, is composed of discrete “thinking things” and “extended things.” Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things, Nature was full of extended things. The era’s ruling classes saw most human beings – women, peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples – as extended, not thinking, beings. This means that Descartes’s philosophical abstractions were practical instruments of domination ….”

From the time that Portuguese proto-capitalists were converting the inhabitants of Madeira into slaves on sugar plantations, and Spanish colonialists first turned New World natives into cogs in their brutal silver mines, there had been pushback against the idea of some humans owning and using others. But one current in Western thought was particularly attractive to the profit-takers.

In this view, Nature was there for the use and profit of thinking beings, which meant white male property owners. Patel and Moore quote English philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who expressed the new ethos with ugly simplicity: “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her,” and the “empire of man” should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.”

The patriarchal character of capitalism, then, is centuries old:

“The invention of Nature and Society was gendered at every turn. The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup. … Through this radically new mode of organizing life and thought, Nature became not a thing but a strategy that allowed for the ethical and economic cheapening of life.”

Armored with this convenient set of blinders, a colonialist could gaze at a new (to him) landscape filled with wondrous plants, animals, and complex societies, and without being hindered by awe, respect or humility he could see mere Resources. Commodities. Labour Power. A Work Force. In short, he could see Cheap Things which could be taken, used, and sold for a profit.

Patel and Moore’s framework is most convincing in their chapters on Cheap Nature, Cheap Work, and Cheap Care. Their narrative begins with the enclosure movement, in which land previously respected as Commons for the use of – and care by – all, was turned into private property which could be exploited for short-term gain.

Enclosure in turn led to proletarianization, resulting in landless populations whose only method of fending off starvation was to sell their labour for a pittance. The gendered nature of capitalism, meanwhile, meant that the essential role of bringing new generations of workers into life, and caring for them until they could be marched into the fields or factories, was typically not entered into the economic ledger at all. The worldwide legacy remains to this day, with care work most often done by women either egregiously under-paid or not paid at all.

Yet as the book goes on, the notion of “cheap” grows ever fuzzier. First of all, what’s cheap to one party in a transaction might be very dear to the other. While a capitalist gains cheap labour, others lose their cultures, their dignity, often their very lives.

Other essential components in the system often don’t come cheap even for capitalists. In their chapter on Cheap Money, Patel and Moore note that the European powers sunk tremendous resources into the military budgets needed to extend colonial domination around the world. The chapter “Cheap Lives” notes that “Keeping things cheap is expensive. The forces of law and order, domestic and international, are a costly part of the management of capitalism’s ecology.” The vaunted Free Market, in other words, has never come free.

A strategic definition

How can the single word “cheap” be made a meaningful characterization of Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy and Lives? The authors promise at the outset to tell us “precisely” what they mean by “cheap.” When the definition arrives, it is this:

“We come, then, to what we mean by cheapness: it’s a set of strategies to manage relations between capitalism and the web of life by  temporarily fixing capitalism’s crises. Cheap is not the same as low cost – though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work – human and animal, botanical and geological – with as little compensation as possible. … Cheapening marks the transition from uncounted relations of life making to the lowest possible dollar value. It’s always a short-term strategy.”

Circular reasoning, perhaps. Capitalism means the Strategies of getting things Cheap. And Cheap means those Strategies used by Capitalism. Yet Moore and Patel use this rhetorical flexibility, for the most part, to great effect.

Their historical narrative sticks mostly to the early centuries of capitalism, but their portrayals of sugar plantations, peasant evictions and the pre-petroleum frenzies of charcoal-making in England and peat extraction in the Netherlands are vivid and closely linked.

Particularly helpful is their concept of frontiers, which extends beyond the merely geographic to include any new sphere of exploitation – and capitalism is an incessant search for such new frontiers. As a result, it’s easy to see the strategies of “cheapening” in the latest business stories.

Jeff Bezos, for example, has become the world’s richest man through a new model of industrial organization – thousands of minimum-wage workers frantically running through massive windowless warehouses to package orders, with the latest electronic monitoring equipment used to speed up the treadmill at regular intervals. Life-destroying stress for employees, but Cheap Work for Bezos. Or take the frontier of the “sharing economy”, in which clever capitalists find a way to profit from legions of drivers and hotel-keepers, without the expense of investment in taxis or real estate.

Patel and Moore note that periods of financialization have occurred before, when there was a temporary surplus of capital looking for returns and a temporary shortage of frontiers. But

“there’s something very different about the era of financialization that began in the 1980s. Previous financial expansions could all count on imperialism to extend profit-making opportunities into significant new frontiers of cheap nature. … Today, those frontiers are smaller than ever before, and the volume of capital looking for new investment is greater than ever before.”

Thus the latest episode of financialization is just one of many indicators of a turbulent future. And that leads us to perhaps the most glaring weakness of Seven Cheap Things.

The subtitle makes a promise of a guide to “the future of the planet”. (In fairness, it’s possible that the subtitle was chosen not by the authors but the publishers.) The Conclusion offers suggestions of “a way to think beyond a world of cheap things ….” But in spite of the potentially intriguing headings Recognition, Reparation, Redistribution, Reimagination, and Recreation, their suggestions are so sketchy that they end a solid story on a very thin note.


Top photo: “The boiling house”, from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, 1823, by William Clark, illustrates a step in the production of sugar. Image from the British Library via Wikimedia Commons.

point of light

Some of us like to explore new geographies when we go on vacation. The wonderful thing about a cold winter on Lake Ontario is that the shoreline takes a new shape every day, and each day’s excursion becomes an exploration.

Just three days ago a fierce wind was pushing huge waves our way.

Winter Waves  – January 2, 2018, 3:30 pm (click images for larger views)

But after a day of new snow and gentle breezes, slush and ice chunks drifted into the bay and then froze into place.

Icefield – January 4, 8:45 am

These expanses of ice may look dense but that is often deceptive. Imagine quicksand, with some hard chunks of ice thrown into the mix. A good way to learn about this is to step through the snow and ice in a spot where the water below is waist-deep or so – deep enough to fill your boots with icy water – and do it in a place where you can walk home before your feet freeze. (A bad way to learn is … well, let’s not go there.)

Bridge – January 4, 9 am

 

Gravity – January 4, 9 am

By Friday morning, after a night with windchill of –35°C, the new coastline was deeply carved with new fjords.

Blue Light of Dawn – January 5, 8 am

 

Shelter – January 5, 8 am

 

Flow – January 5, 8:30 am

I love these mini-vacations just a short walk from home, but for our newest neighbour this truly is foreign territory. Will our Snowy Owl find enough to eat to stay warm in these new environs?

Profile – January 5, noon

Lemmings are scarce in these parts but there are lots of rabbits and smaller birds. During Wednesday afternoon’s snowfall I was pleased to see the owl sitting in the middle of the frozen marsh, working on a meal. When she had moved on I found a few bits of red meat left on the snow, along with what appeared to be a duck’s foot. The next morning three crows were polishing off the remains.

Marsh Diner – January 3, 2 pm

For all my efforts so far I have failed to snap a clear picture of the Snowy Owl in flight. Yesterday just before sunset, however, as the owl waited far out on the breakwater, a beautiful treasure came drifting by along the snow, pausing here and there before a gentle puff of wind carried it away.

Soft Landing – January 4, 4:30 pm

 

Top photo: Points of Light (click here for larger view)

what a difference a day makes

We think of ice as solid, stable, slow to change, especially during a record-breaking cold snap. But on the shoreline of Lake Ontario the ice is always dynamic, changing from day to day and from hour to hour.

Waves pushed by a stiff wind can shatter and dissipate a thick sheet of shore ice overnight – or the spray from breaking waves can add many layers to that ice.

Just Before Dawn – December 28, 7:45 am (click images for larger view)

The steam that rises from the relatively warm lake water billows up to the clouds – or freezes against any solid cold surface.

Steamship – Dec 27, 9 am. This freighter was approaching the St. Marys Cement pier.

Through the cold weather, year-round resident water birds – Canada geese, mute swans, and several species of ducks – continue to feed in the shallows.

Ducks in a row – Dec 28, 8:40 am

Not so common is a bird that sometimes travels from the north along with the Arctic air. This Snowy owl (likely a first-year female) was bathed in the warm light of sunset on the breakwater.

Snowy Owl – Dec 28, 4:25 pm.

On the pebbles and the icicles right at the shoreline, water cycles through all its states continuously. Water vapor rises from the lake, condenses into mist, freezes into hoar-frost or solidifies into clear ice, before a wave or two washes across, either melting the ice it touches or freezing into thicker ice.

Frost Forest – Dec 28, 9 am

Even on the surface of the Bowmanville Marsh where no liquid water is to be seen, the ice changes hour by hour.

Morning Feather – Dec 27, 9:30 am

Though the temperature only rises to about –10°C, the weak winter sun dries the ice crystals off this tiny feather. And the feather, in turn, shapes the solid ice beneath it, catching and reflecting just enough warmth to carve out a tiny crater in the ice before the cold night returns.

Evening Feather – Dec 27, 5:05 pm

What a difference a day makes.


Top photo: Morning Flight, Dec 28, 8:05 am (click here for larger view)

Pebble Beach

One of the richest lodes of gemstones in the known universe can be found along the north shore of Lake Ontario – but only when the conditions are just right.

With the sun shining low on a cold winter’s day, and soft waves lapping over the icy stones, brilliant gems are scattered profusely.

Sandfish – Dec 13, 9:40 am (click images for full-size view)

Of course there are many other beautiful sights at the beach on such lovely days. The frozen sand can be hard and smooth, or scalloped into terraces. Steam rises off the warm lake water, swirling up to the clouds or disappearing in thin wisps that catch the sunlight.

Blue Shift – Dec 13, 9:15 am

But the stones hold a special fascination – especially since each wave might lift off the icy covering of one pebble, or roll more colourful gems from the shallow waters onto the beach.

Still Life – Dec 17, 10:40 am

 

Egg One – Dec 17, 10:40 am

 

Egg Two – Dec 17, 10:40 am

Still, on a winter walk to pebble beach you don’t want to look down at the ground all the time – if the air is crisp enough you may be treated to an icy rainbow – a sundog formed when the sunlight is refracted by tiny plate-shaped crystals floating above the horizon.

 

Sundog – Dec 14, 8:30 am

Top photo: Redstone – Dec 17, 10:10 am (click here for full-size view)