Remembering Iohan

We stared through the dark windows at the ice-covered street, wondering … “Is he still going to make it here tonight?”

It was the evening of December 21, 2013, several hours after a huge ice storm settled over the north shore of Lake Ontario. Hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity, including everyone in our town of Port Hope. In mid-afternoon, before we lost all communications, Iohan had sent a message saying he was still determined to make it to our house that night – but he was making slow progress on his bike.

Long after dark we spotted a tiny flash bobbing down the street. Iohan was pointing his bike light at the houses, looking at the numbers, until he found our place at the end of the street. And so we met a truly unforgettable character, covered from head to toe in wet ice, who quickly filled our home with good cheer.

Iohan Gueorguiev had contacted us a few days earlier through the website Warmshowers, asking if he could spend a night at our house. We had hosted our share of eccentric travellers but Iohan’s plans were particularly audacious. As a newbie cycle traveller with no winter cycling experience, he was going to ride from Hamilton, Ontario to Halifax, Nova Scotia – more than 1800 km – during his Christmas holiday break from university.

By the second day the trip fit what would become a classic “travels with Iohan” template: tackle a challenging route, with minimal preparation and barely adequate gear, throw in plenty of rain, ice and bitter cold, plus the occasional major equipment failure, and Iohan would lap it all up and be even more eager for the next ride.

During his long day between Toronto and Port Hope he endured hours of cold rain, then plodded through the darkness on ice-covered roads, without studs on his tires or on his shoes. The next morning, it wasn’t easy to persuade him to stay another night rather than setting off again on the still-slick roads.

Fortunately for us he did stay and we got to enjoy his company for an extra 24 hours. We prepared an early Christmas dinner on the stove-top for 10 people, then feasted around a candle-lit table.

For many of our hours together, Iohan peppered me with questions about biking the ice highways in the western Canadian arctic. After two nights inside, however, he wasted little time packing his bags and suiting up for the ride. The roads were still ice-covered, there was no thaw in the forecast, and there wasn’t a working traffic light to be found anywhere in the region.

Iohan Gueorguiev, December 23, 2013, in Port Hope, Ontario

He biked away along our street and that turned out to be the last time I saw Iohan in person. But the memories of Iohan were just beginning. As I read his blog and then watched his many videos over the years, I joined a circle of friendship that grew to hundreds, then thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of people.

For a few years we corresponded frequently, about biking and camping gear, possible travel routes, and how to shoot and edit his videos. In 2015 he was accepted into the Blackburn Ranger program, and was awarded some of the best bike-packing gear plus training for a journey along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Alberta to Mexico. Before long, it was clear that he knew far more about rugged bike trips than I had ever dreamed of knowing. Not only that, but he had a real gift for shoestring-budget, solo videography; his simply-narrated, simply astonishing travel stories gained a huge and devoted following.

The risks he took were breathtaking. Still a newbie winter camper, he explored off-beat trails where, had an unexpected blizzard outlasted his skimpy food supply or ripped his fragile tent, he may not have been discovered until spring. He slid down steep scree slopes, in areas so isolated that a broken limb could well have been a death sentence. Acquiring an inflatable raft, he arrived at a rocky trailhead on the Pacific coast, loaded his bike and gear, then embarked on his first boating trip, battling waves and wind throughout a very long day to reach a safe harbour.

Not all of his thirty-nine videos featured the same degree of danger, but most featured challenges and setbacks that would have turned back almost any other traveller. It was not unusual for Iohan to fail, at least on first try, to reach his destination. That uncertainty was always part of the attraction: “If you know you can do it,” he said, “why go in the first place?” Beyond the danger and the hardship, though, his videos share his love of the sky, the mountains, the waves, the snow, the animals – be they bears, horses, or dogs – and the kind-hearted people he met even in seemingly lonely places.

As much as he loved solitude Iohan connected readily and easily with people. That was clear from the two days he spent with our family, from the segments of his video where he enjoys newfound friendships, and from the testimonies of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people blessed to host this big-hearted traveller over the years. Perhaps that need to connect with people made the last two years particularly difficult.

My last communication with Iohan was in the spring of 2019. He wrote from South America, but he was hoping to do a winter trip down the frozen Mackenzie River from Norman Wells, NWT, beyond the Arctic Circle to Tsiigehtchic (shown on many maps as Arctic Red River), a distance of about 400 km as the crow flies and a good bit more as the river meanders. It was pointless, of course, to tell Iohan, “it sounds very dangerous, don’t do it.” I did, however, list many things that could, in my view, go wrong, even asking the advice of an elder friend who had travelled that route many times since growing up in the area.

I’ll likely never know whether my cautionary advice was a factor – it had never discouraged Iohan in the past! – but it seems he postponed that Mackenzie River trip. And now in hindsight I wonder, was my caution quite beside the point? During the past few years, it seems, Iohan had been struggling with what, for him, turned out to be more deadly set of challenges.

Yesterday I was amazed to see Iohan’s picture in the Washington Post, and heartbroken to read that he had died in August. In one of many poignant tributes, David Von Drehle wrote: “Iohan Gueorguiev died by apparent suicide in late summer. He was 33. Word of the loss moved slowly, as if on two wheels. As if through thick mud. As if across snowfields grabbing at fat tires, relentlessly.”

Iohan’s friend Matt Bardeen sheds light on the combination of factors that might have led Iohan into a storm I would not have imagined. Increasingly severe sleep apnea meant Iohan could not get a good night’s sleep, which in turn contributed to depression. The sleep apnea may have been worsened due to Iohan’s strenuous trips at high altitude, including one in February 2020. He received a diagnosis and the aid of a CPAP machine, but I can’t help but wonder if Iohan feared he’d never be able to drag a CPAP apparatus on the kind of trips he loved to take.

And then the pandemic set in. Iohan was unable to travel to other countries, and though he took short trips in Canada he could no longer make new friends with the hosts who had, unpredictably but frequently, given him a bed, hot meal, and warm conversation during his previous trips. He was unable, too, to keep up the stream of video releases which had become not only his livelihood but, I can only guess, a central part of his identity.

Frequently over the past eight years, I feared that someday I’d get news that Iohan had died. I thought he’d be lost in a fierce blizzard, or fall through the ice of a northern river, be attacked by a grizzly bear or polar bear or a poisonous snake, be swept under a wave in a coastal storm or slip over a cliff into a remote canyon. So the manner of his death was a complete shock, and a reminder that depression can be as tough and as dangerous as anything else we might face.

On my own first bike trip, a retired newspaper editor had waved me down on a Michigan road, warning me of an impending severe thunderstorm and giving me a safe place to sleep inside his barn. As we chatted he asked if I thought my trip was dangerous, then quickly followed that thought with “But then, the man who never died, never lived.”

Nothing can lessen the tragedy of Iohan’s final struggle and his far too early death at the age of 33. But more than just about anyone I’ve known, he avoided a greater tragedy – that of never having lived. For the better part of eight years, he lived with a joy that carried him from the frozen Beaufort Sea to the high plains of Wyoming, from the coastal inlets of BC to the jungles of Panama, over the Andes and onward to Patagonia. I count myself blessed to be one of the hundreds who met Iohan somewhere along his journey, and one of the millions who have been awed by his stories.

Iohan Gueorguiev
Born January 20, 1988, Bulgaria
Died August 19, 2021, Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada


Photo at top: Iohan Gueorguiev on December 22, 2013, in Port Hope, Ontario. (Full-screen image here.)

Recent articles about Iohan:

Bikepacking magazine tribute

New York Times obituary

The Hard Road: Insights Into Iohan Gueorguiev (From A Close Friend), by Matt Bardeen in CyclingAbout

A Tribute To Iohan Gueorguiev, by Alee Denham in CyclingAbout

A man, his bicycle and an incredible gift to the world, Washington Post

making arrangements

PHOTO POST

Two birds move near each other. An insect hovers next to a flower. A ray of light sneaks between two big trees. Temporary arrangements all, sometimes enduring an hour, sometimes a second. But if you can arrange to get your camera into the right place at the right time, you might make the arrangements last a bit longer.

Swallowtail and Phlox

In the lawn and garden special arrangements form every day, rewarding a fresh look.

Painting with Wind

 

A Tree is an Open Window, 1

 

A Tree is an Open Window, 2

In the marsh the egrets and wood ducks add new pictures.

Proximity

 

Quiet Glitter

As migration time approaches, a few turkey vultures along the shoreline gradually become dozens. They glide with seemingly effortless grace but they’re all business when they come closer to earth.

Rustic Perch

As the season turns, travelling birds wait for their moment, then fly south in their ones, twos and hundreds. Far below, deep in the woods, a profusion of mushrooms erupts from the soil, flashing through the rich damp dark.

Six of One

 

Tip of the Hat

 

Almost Like New

 

Behind the Curve

Your gas tank is not an oil well. Your battery will not be a power plant.

Also published on Resilience

My car comes with an amazing energy-storage, demand-management-and-supply system; perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the “gas tank”.

Thanks to this revolutionary feature, if I get home and the electric grid is down, I can siphon gas out of the tank and power up a generator. In a more urgent energy crunch, I can siphon out some gas, throw it on a woodpile, and get a really hot fire going in seconds. If a friend across town has no power, I can even drive over there, siphon out some fuel, and run a generator to provide power in an alternate location. It’s beautiful! I can shift energy provision and consumption both temporally and spatially.

There is one minor drawback, to be sure. If I siphon the fuel out of the tank then I can’t actually drive the car, at least not more than a few kilometers to the nearest fuel station. But let’s not let that limitation cast a shadow over this revolutionary technology. If this flexible load-management system were widely adopted, and there were cars everywhere, think how smoothly our society could run!

These thoughts come to mind when I hear someone rhapsodize about the second coming of the electric car. Recently, for example, a Grist headline proclaimed that “Your Electric Vehicle Could Become a Mini Power Plant. And that could make the electrical grid work better for everyone.” (June 21, 2021)

Stephen Peake, in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons (review here) wrote that “new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (emphasis mine)

One more example: an Oct 2020 article at World Economic Forum says that “When electric vehicles are integrated into a city’s energy system, the battery can provide power to the grid when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The key to this supply-and-demand magic is “bidirectional charging” – the electric vehicles of the near future will have the equivalent of a gas tank with a built-in siphon. Thus their capacious batteries will not only be able to quickly suck power out of the grid, but also to empty themselves out again to provide juice for other purposes.

But allow me this skeptical observation: electric car batteries do not have huge batteries because the drivers want to offer aid to the “smart grid”. Electric car batteries are huge because cars are huge consumers of energy.

(True, electric cars don’t consume quite as much energy as internal-combustion cars of similar class and weight – but they consume a whole lot more energy per passenger/kilometer than intelligently routed electric buses, trains, or especially, electric-assisted bicycles.)

And let’s be clear: neither an electric car vehicle nor its battery provide any “energy supply”. The car itself is a pure energy suck. The battery is just an energy storage device – it can store a finite capacity of energy from another source, and output that energy as required, but it does not produce energy.

As with internal-combustion powered cars, when the tank/battery is drained for a purpose other than driving, then the car ceases to be a functional car until refueled.

That will leave some niche scenarios where vehicle batteries really might offer a significant advantage to grid supply management. The Grist article begins with one such scenario: three yellow school buses which run on battery power through the school year, and serve as a battery bank while parked for the summer months. If all 8,000 school buses in the local utility service area were EVs, the article notes, their fully-charged batteries “could collectively supply more than 100 megawatts of power to the grid for short periods — or nearly 1 percent of Con Ed’s peak summer power demand.”

When parked for the summer, electric school buses would not need to be charged and ready to drive first thing every weekday morning. So they could indeed be used simply as (terribly expensive) battery cases for two or three months each year.

OK, but … let’s be careful about singing the praises of school buses. This might be a slippery slope. If big buses catch on, soon Americans might start taking their kids to school in giant pick-up trucks!

Of course I jest – that horse has already left the barn. The top three selling vehicles in the US, it may surprise people from elsewhere to learn, are pick-up trucks that dwarf the pick-ups used by farmers and some tradespeople in previous generations. (It will not surprise Canadians, who play second fiddle to no-one in car culture madness. Canadians tend to buy even larger, heavier, more powerful, and more expensive trucks than Americans do.)

The boom in overgrown pick-ups has not come about because North Americans are farming and logging in record numbers, nor even, as one wag put it, that a 4X8 sheet of plywood has gotten so much bigger in recent years. Yet urban streets, parking lots, and suburban driveways are now crowded with hulking four-door, four-wheel-drive, spotlessly clean limousine-trucks. Those vehicles, regardless of their freight-carrying or freight-pulling capacity, are used most to carry one or two people around urbanized areas.

If we are foolish enough to attempt electrification of this fleet, it will take an awesome amount of battery power. And as you might expect, car culture celebrants are already proclaiming what a boon this will be for energy transition.

A pre-production promo video for Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pick-up truck gets to the critical issue first: the Lightning will accelerate from 0 – 60 mph (0 – 97 km/hr) “in the mid-4-second range”. But wait, there’s more, the ad promises: the battery can “off-board” enough power to run a home “for about three days”.

Keep that in mind when you start seeing big electric pick-up trucks on the road: each one, in just a few hours of highway driving, will use as much power as a typical American home uses in three days.

Keep it in mind, too, when you see a new bank of solar panels going up in a field or on a warehouse roof: the installation might output enough electricity each day to power 100 pickup trucks for a few hours each – or 300 homes for the whole day.

Given that we won’t have enough renewably produced electricity to power existing homes, schools, stores and industries for decades, is it really a good idea to devote a big share of it, right at the outset, to building and charging limousine-trucks? Are the huge batteries required by these vehicles actually features, or are they bugs?

Granted, an electric car battery can provide a modest degree of grid load-levelling capability in some situations. It can be drained back into the grid during some peak-power-demand periods such as early evening in the heat of summer – as long as it can be recharged in time for the morning commute. That’s not nothing. And if we’re determined to keep our society moving by using big cars and trucks, that means we’ll have a huge aggregated battery capacity sitting in parking spots for most of each day. In that scenario, sure, there will be a modest degree of load-levelling capacity in those parked vehicles.

But perhaps there is a better way to add load-levelling capacity to the grid. A better way than producing huge, heavy vehicles, each containing one battery, which suck up that power fast whenever they’re being driven, while also spreading brake dust and worn tire particles through the environment, and which significantly increase the danger to vulnerable road users besides. Not to mention, which result in huge upfront emissions of carbon dioxide during their manufacture.

If it’s really load-levelling we’re after, for the same money and resources we could build a far greater number of batteries, and skip building expensive casings in the form of cars and pick-ups.

Other factors being equal, an electric car is modestly more environmentally friendly than internal-combustion car. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?)  But if we’re ready for a serious response to the climate emergency, we should be rapidly curtailing both the manufacture and use of cars, and making the remaining vehicles only as big and heavy as they actually need to be. The remaining small cars won’t collectively contain such a huge battery capacity, to be sure, but we can then address the difficult problems of grid load management in a more intelligent, efficient and direct fashion.


Illustration at top of post: Energy Utopia, composite by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain images.

Sunshine, wind, tides and worldwatts

A review of Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons

Also published on Resilience

Fun physics fact: water carries so much more kinetic energy than air that “A tidal current of 3 knots has the same energy density as a steady wind stream at 29 knots (a fair old blow).”

And consider this: “Ninety-nine per cent of planet Earth is hotter than 1,000 °C (1,832 °F). The earth is, in fact, a giant leaky heat battery.”

Stephen Peake uses these bits of information and many more to lucidly outline the physical bases of renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, geothermal energy, wave energy and tidal current energy. But the book also touches on the complex relationship between the physics of renewable energy, and the role energy plays in human society – and the results aren’t always enlightening.

Peake takes on a formidable task in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons. The book is part of the “Pocket Einstein” series from Johns Hopkins University Press (or from Michael O’Mara Books in Britain). He has less than 200 small-format pages in which to cover both the need for and the prospects for a transition to 100% renewable energy.

Key to his method is the concept of a “worldwatt” – “the rate at which the world uses all forms of primary energy.” Peake estimates the rate of energy flow around the world from various potential renewable energy sources. Not surprisingly, he finds that the theoretically available renewable energy sources are far greater than all energy currently harnessed – primarily from fossil fuels – by the global economy.

But how do we get from estimates of theoretically available energy, to estimates of how much of that energy is practically and economically available? Here Peake’s book isn’t much help. He asks us to accept this summation:

“Taking a conservative mid-estimate of the numbers in the literature, we see that the global technical potential of different renewable sources adds up to 46 worldwatts. There is a definite and reasonable prospect of humans harnessing 1 worldwatt from 100 per cent renewable energy in the future.” (page 31)

But he offers no evidence or rationale for the conclusion that getting 1 worldwatt from renewable sources is a “reasonable prospect”, nor how near or far “in the future” that might occur.

A skeptic might well dismiss the book as renewable energy boosterism, noting a cheery optimism from the opening pages: “There is an exciting, renewable, electric, peaceful, prosperous, safer future just up ahead.” Others might say such optimism is the most helpful position one can take, given that we have no choice but to switch to a renewable energy way of life, ASAP, if we want human presence on earth to last much longer.

Yet a cheerfully pro-renewable energy position can easily shade into a cheerful pro-consumptionist stance – the belief that renewable energies can quickly become the driving force of our current industrial economies, with little change in living standards and no end to economic growth.

Peake briefly introduces a key concept for assessing which renewable energy sources will be economically viable, and in what quantities: Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). He explains that as we exploit more difficult energy sources, the EROEI goes down:

“As wind turbines have become larger and moved offshore, the EROEI ratio for wind over a twenty-year lifetime has declined from around 20:1 in the early 2000s to as low as 15:1 in recent years for some offshore wind farms.” (page 84)

Affordable renewable energy, in other words, doesn’t always “scale up”. The greater the total energy demanded by society, the more we will be impelled to site wind turbines and solar panels in areas beyond the “sweet spots” for Energy Return On Energy Invested. Peake’s book would be stronger if he used this recognition to give better context to statements such as “Renewable electricity is now cheaper than fossil electricity …” (in the book’s opening paragraph), and “solar is now the cheapest electricity in history” (page 70).

While Peake expresses confidence that a prosperous renewable energy world is just ahead, he doesn’t directly engage with the issue of how, or how much, affluent lifestyles may need to change. The closest he comes to grappling with this contentious issue is in his discussion of energy waste:

“We need to stop wasting all forms of energy, including clean renewable sources of heat and electricity. The sooner we shrink our total overall demand for energy, the sooner renewables will be able to provide 100 per cent of the energy we need to power our zero-carbon economies.” (page 141)

Near the end of the book, in brief remarks about electric cars, Peake makes some curious statements about EVs:

“Millions of [electric vehicles] will need charging from the network. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity in terms of managing the network load.” (page 130, emphasis mine)

And a few pages later:

“In the future, new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (page 134 emphasis mine)

In my next post I’ll take up this concept of the electric vehicle as energy storage, supply and load management resource.

In conclusion, Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons is a valuable primer on the physics of renewable energy, but isn’t a lot of help in establishing whether or not the existing world economy can be successfully transitioned to zero-carbon energy.


Photo at top of page: Wind Turbines near Grevelingenmeer, province of Zeeland, Netherlands

 

the otters and the others

PHOTO POST

This post is mostly about “the others” – meaning those other herons who aren’t so well known as the Great Blue Herons. But some other others also have a way of popping into the photo opp when you least expect them.

And even the Great Blues, which you see almost every time you gaze across the marsh, can still surprise with new poses.

Meerkat Impressions, First Prize (click images for full-screen views)

This bird gave me a double-take, because I didn’t recall ever seeing a Great Blue stand so perfectly erect. Just a moment later the same bird looked a lot stouter.

Space Needle

What I really love about this time of year, though, is that the small herons make themselves visible too. The Green Heron and the Black-Crowned Night Heron both stay hidden most of the time in early summer, but now that their young ones have left the nest both adults and juveniles are out and about, particularly as the sun sets.

Whether you see much green in its feathers or not, the Green Heron is, in my considered opinion, one of the snappiest dressers in the neighbourhood.

Focus Right

But both the Green Heron, at left below, and the juvenile Night Heron, at right below, have beautiful and striking patterns that nevertheless can serve as great camouflage in many marsh settings.

Different Strokes

Young Night Heron at Dusk

Other than the distinctive red eye, the juvenile Night Heron looks only slightly like its dowdy parent, below. The elder sports a nifty long white plume, but otherwise keeps the design simple.

Night Heron, Plumage

The small herons keep their eyes open for small fish and frogs – and grab insects when they are close at hand. (Or close at foot; an insect landed on a Green Heron’s foot, below, and was snapped up in a flash.)

Very Light Supper

Whether in full light of day, the glow of sunset, or by the light of a full moon, there are few birds more striking than the Green Heron.

Listening Post

That being said, while you’re out looking for herons you never know who else might light up the evening. On one recent evening, a Wood Duck turned on the wattage before slipping back into the shadows.

Wood Duck Glow

And just as darkness falls, a couple times a year if you’re lucky, the Otters might suddenly join the party, splashing and diving and swimming circles around each other.

Surfacing

While you watch them they periodically perform an “up periscope” routine to get a closer look at you. And then after a few breathy barks, they suddenly disappear among the lily pads and the waters are still.

Pop Goes the Otter

the fullness of summer

PHOTO POST

The afternoon sun is hot, but the evening air cools. Gardens and marshes are lush and green, but golds and reds peek through. Fruits ripen, seeds swell. The fullness of summer is now.

Wood Duck in a Rippled Mirror

A young Spotted Sandpiper (the spots will come later) hunts in the shadow of lily pads.

Sandpiper seeks Shadow

The full-grown pads easily support the weight of these diminutive birds.

Sandpiper seeks Light

The lily pads may also hide supper – a frog, perhaps? – for a Great Blue Heron.

Blue on Green

Closer to home a Blue Jay relaxes in the early-morning sun.

Blue Jay with Tall Grass

The hundreds of Red Soldier Beetles that gathered on a Hydrangea Paniculata were not ready to relax.

Busy Beetles

Mushrooms pop up every day and many, like these on a wood chip path, won’t stand up to the mid-day sun.

Sprouting through the wood chips

The Tomatillos in the garden, on the other hand, love the August sunshine as long as they get enough water.

Tomatillo Forest

The Sour Cherry crop is now put away – and our resident Chipmunks were glad to help in the harvest.

Ground Squirrel out on a Limb

Cherry Chipmunk

altered landscapes

Also published on Resilience

My home sits beside one of the world’s great bodies of fresh water, Lake Ontario, and beside one of the precious shoreline marshes that even today offer refuge to more species of wildlife than most of us will ever see.

Yet large-scale industrial transformations are visible in nearly all directions. This post pictures some of these alterations.

Twilight Telegram (click image for full-screen view)

Though their influences have been profound since the day they were built, the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific rail corridors draw relatively subtle lines through local geography. Unless you get stuck waiting for a long train at a level crossing, or have your ears blown out by a nearby diesel horn blast, it’s easy not to notice the railroads.

Angular Momentum

The St. Marys limestone quarry and cement plant makes a more dramatic imposition, with its tall silos, its kiln, its smokestack, and its pier reaching into Lake Ontario.

Auto expressways are virtually inconceivable without vast quantities of concrete, and no single piece of infrastructure changes the landscape here quite so pervasively as route 401, Canada’s busiest highway.

Though There Be No River, Yet Shall Thy Crossings Thereof Be Great

In contrast to the railroad’s slender ribbon, the 401 gobbles vast tracts of land. The tangle of ramps and bridges above constitutes just one T-junction, allowing drivers to connect at full speed to a short new north-south spur (Highway 418).

Another neighbouring industry, the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, is nearly invisible to people passing on land. But skeins of high-voltage transmission lines, with steel towers jutting into sky, run north, east, and west from the station.

Network Effects

Force Field

Radio Free Moon

The altered landscape continues into Lake Ontario, with the St. Marys pier protruding 650 meters out from shore. The pier allows freighters to dock, carrying away cargos of cement clinker and bringing shipload after shipload of coal and petcoke – some of the carbon-intensive fuels that make our current way of life possible, and which may make life impossible for our descendants.

Plastic Coating

On the direction we are traveling, the concrete and steel of our highways and towers may soon crumble, rust and collapse. The much larger-scale but invisible transformation of our world – elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – will outlast us and will wreak climate havoc for millennia.

Empire of Coal

the crakes and their ilk

PHOTO POST

Do we have Crakes in North America? That depends on whose definition you follow, but I like this one from Merriam-Webster: “any of various rails, especially a short-billed rail.”

At least four species from the Rail family, including three short-billed ones, have made appearances within a kilometer of my home this year – so at least we can say that the Crake cousins are well represented here.

The first one to show up this year was the American Coot, in early spring. I only saw one individual, and it only stuck around for a few days. Likewise, the Common Gallinule and the Sora have also put in appearances here.

Consider the Coot (click images for full-screen views)

The Coot spends somewhat more time swimming than do most Rails, but when it gets out of the water you can see one of the distinctive adaptations shared by Rails. Their feet, which can spread across floating mats of roots and reeds in soupy mud, make it possible to stride through swamps where you and I would sink to our waists.

A Coot’s Feet

The Rails usually hang out in the marsh interior, and they’re not easy to find. But while you prowl the marsh’s edge looking for a good vantage you can spot all sorts of wonders. A multitude of snails, for example (which just happen to be one of the favoured foods of Rails).

In a wet light

Milkweed grows beside the marsh in great profusion, and the blooms attract the Virginia Ctenucha Moth.

Contrasticity

I’m convinced the spelling of Ctenucha was devised merely to confuse people. (The first letter is silent.) But apparently “ctenucha” means “having a comb”.

Tcomb

In the lush meadow at water’s edge there are several storeys of growth. Near ground level I pondered this botanical apparition.

It’s not easy thinking green

With a clear view of the marsh interior, on the right day, with the right light, you just might get a glimpse of some Rails – in this case, the Virginia Rails. The chicks appeared to be just a few days old and, camouflaged in coal-black fuzz, they remained all-but-invisible unless they ventured out of the shadows. (See if you can spot the one in the background below).

Illuminated Marsh

The Virginia Rail chicks already sported feet nearly as long as their tiny bodies.

In the spotlight

Nine days later I got a look at two more chicks, now foraging on their own, and beginning to show the Virginia Rail patterning.

Giant Steps

Taste of independence

While the Rails spend their summer walking among the reeds, seldom swimming or flying, most other marsh birds have different ways of life. Wood Ducks (below) swim throughout the marsh though they nest in trees close to water.

Under the Arch

Flycatchers are fond of the thickets at marsh edge. The different species are notoriously hard to distinguish except by their songs, and I didn’t hear this one sing before it flitted out of sight. Perhaps, some day, I might make its acquaintance once more.

Flycatcher


Photo at top of page: Learning the way (click here for larger view)

Reclaiming hope from the dismal science

Also published on Resilience

Post Growth is published by Polity Press, 2021.

“Empowering and elegiac” might seem a strange description of a book on economics. Yet the prominent author and former economics minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, chooses that phrase of praise for the new book Post Growth, by Tim Jackson.

In many respects the book lives up to that billing, and in the process Post Growth offers a hopeful vision of its subtitle: Life After Capitalism.

My dictionary defines an elegy as “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” In writing an obituary for capitalism, paradoxically, Jackson also gives us a glimpse of a far richer way of life than anything capitalism could afford us.

Along the way he takes us through the origins and later distortion of John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism; the demonstration by biologist Lynn Margulis that cooperation is just as important an evolutionary driver as is competition; the psychology of ‘flow’ popularized by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi; and the landscape-transforming campaigns of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai.

Jackson accomplishes all this and more, elegantly and with clarity, in less than 200 pages.

The dismal science and its fairytales

Since the mid-19th century, under the influence of the ideals of competition and survival of the fittest, economics has earned the sobriquet “the dismal science”. At the same time, contemporary economics grew in significant part from the theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in which the goal of economics would be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. During our lifetimes, mainstream economics has proclaimed a gospel of unending economic growth. What gives?

In Mill’s day, Jackson writes, the word ‘utility’ was “a kind of direct proxy for happiness.” But meanings change:

“Economists today use ‘utility’ to refer to the worth or value of something. They tend to measure utility in monetary terms. The argument that we are driven to maximize our expected utility then assumes a very different meaning. But perhaps it’s easier to see now why the pursuit of GDP growth is seen as an irreducible good by economists and policymakers alike.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Speaking to the UN Conference on Climate Change in September 2019, Greta Thunberg famously dismissed economic orthodoxy as “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” Jackson devotes much of Post Growth to demonstrating, first, that this fairytale contradicts fundamental laws of physics, and second, that capitalism does not deliver ever-greater happiness, even for the minority in the upper half of the income scale, even during the brief and anomalous burst of growth following World War II. He explains,

“An infinite economy (the ultimate end of eternal growth) means infinite depreciation. Infinite maintenance costs. An infinite need for available energy to turn back the tide of entropy. At the end of the day, the myth of growth is a thermodynamic impossibility.” (Post Growth, page 79)

Jackson’s elegant discussion of thermodynamic limits notwithstanding, I found his discussion of the end of economic growth less than fully satisfying. He notes that labour productivity grew greatly up to about 1960, that this growth in productivity was the major enabler of rapid economic growth, and that as labour productivity growth stalled over the past several decades, so too has economic growth. He mentions – without clearly endorsing – the idea that this labour productivity was directly tied to the most easily accessible fuel sources:

“A fascinating – if worrying – contention is that the peak growth rates of the 1960s were only possible at all on the back of a huge and deeply destructive exploitation of dirty fossil fuels ….” (Post Growth, page 31)

But his primary focus is to outline why we not only must, but how we can, lead prosperous lives that give freedom to limitless human potential while still respecting the unyielding limits that thermodynamics set for our economy.

Growth when necessary, but not necessarily growth

Is money – and therefore, also GDP – a good proxy for happiness? In an important but limited sense, yes. Jackson cites what is now an extensive body of evidence showing that

“more income does a lot to increase happiness when incomes are very low to start with. Looking across countries, for instance, there’s a rapid increase in measured happiness as the average income of the nation rises from next-to-nothing to around $20,000 per person.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Beyond that modest income, however, the measured increase in happiness that goes with increased income dwindles rapidly. At the same time, research shows that “Society as a whole is less happy when things are unequal ….” From a utilitarian viewpoint, then, trying to constantly provide more for those who already have more than enough is pointless. But by closing the inequality gap – “levelling up our societies” – we can greatly increase the happiness of society as a whole.

Jackson doesn’t stop, however, with merely making that assertion. He dives deeply into discussions of the true value of care work, human creativity, the psychology of flow, and love. In the process, he goes a long way toward fulfilling a major goal of his book: presenting a realistic vision of a future “in which plenty isn’t measured in dollars and fulfillment isn’t driven by the relentless accumulation of material wealth.”

Late-stage capitalism, in fact, goes to great lengths to ensure that people are not happy.

Merchants of discontent

In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, Jackson says, the industrialized economies were able to produce material goods beyond the needs of citizens. The response of capitalism was to develop ways of ensuring that consumers constantly feel they “need” more. The burgeoning advertising industry “drew on another metaphor, borrowed from an emerging ‘evolutionary psychology’: the insatiability of human desire.”

This development “turned Mill’s utilitarianism completely on its head”, trading not in happiness but in discontent:

“Anxiety must tip over into outright dissatisfaction if capitalism is to survive. Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically fail to deliver it. … The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability consistently to disappoint us.” (Post Growth, page 91)

Fortunately there are ways to pursue fulfillment and satisfaction which do not depend on ever-increasing consumption. In this respect Jackson draws extensively on the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi and his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

In Jackson’s description, 

“People ‘in flow’ report an unusual clarity of mind and precision of movement. They experience a sense of confidence and control over the task. But there is also a sense of being lost in the moment, sometimes even being carried along by a momentum that is entirely outside of oneself. People describe a sense of wonder, a connectedness to the world, a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond happiness or the gratification of pleasure.” (Post Growth, page 101)

Fleeting pleasure can be bought and consumed. By contrast enjoyment, in Jackson’s use of the terms, typically takes work – the enjoyment from playing a sport well or playing music well may involve an investment of hundreds of hours of focussed attention. This work need not and often does not have adverse environmental impacts.

Clearly one needs a basis of material prosperity – beginning with adequate nutrition and housing – in order to pursue what Jackson describes as high-flow activities. But in a relatively egalitarian society which provides basic needs for all, people can achieve lasting satisfaction in activities which, Jackson and colleagues have found, tend to be both high-flow and low-impact.

“Flow exemplifies with extraordinary clarity the kinds of dividends that remain available to us in a postgrowth world,” Jackson writes. “Flow offers us better and more durable satisfactions that consumerism ever does.” (Post Growth, page 102)

While celebrating human creativity, it is equally important to restore the dignity of “the labour of care.” Some activities are fundamental to maintaining human societies: providing the food we need every day, taking care of children, providing comfort and care to those stricken with illness or in the fragility of end-of-life. Jackson notes that many people suddenly realized during the pandemic how fundamental the labour of care is. But we have done precious little to afford workers in these sectors the respect and security they deserve.

When we honour and reward all those who perform the labour of care, and we promote the lasting enjoyment that comes from flow activities rather than the resource-sucking drain of consumerism – then, Jackson says, we will have the foundation for a resilient, sustainable, postgrowth society.

Can we get there from here?

Jackson cites an oft-told joke in which a tourist on a road-less-travelled asks an Irish farmer about the best way to Dublin. The farmer replies, “Well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.” The point being, of course, that no matter how inauspicious our present location may be, we can only start from exactly where we are.

Unfortunately I found Jackson’s road map to a post growth society unconvincing, though he makes an honest effort. In successive chapters he relates the work of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich That Hanh. Their examples are moving and inspiring and Jackson draws important lessons from their achievements and from the obstacles they faced.

But Jackson’s book is likely to reach primarily an audience in wealthy countries, and primarily readers who have at least a basis of material prosperity if not far more than they need. If we are to reach a post growth society soon enough to avoid both environmental conflagration and social collapse, a large number of relatively wealthy people need to realize they can be much happier by escaping the treadmill of constantly greater wealth accumulation and constantly greater consumption. I think Jackson is right on the mark in his discussion of flow, and I’d like to believe that his vision will catch on and become a civilization-defining vision – but Post Growth doesn’t convince me that that appealing future is likely.

In the concluding chapter Jackson writes, “In the ruins of capitalism, as I hope to have shown in this book, lie the seeds for a fundamental renewal.” I believe he has identified the seeds we need, and I dearly hope they will grow.


Illustration at top of page, from clockwise from top left: Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, in photograph from Wikipedia; author Tim Jackson, photo copyright by Fernando Manoso-Borgas, courtesy of press kit at timjackson.org.uk; philosopher John Stuart Mill circa 1870, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Healthy, peaceful and more equitable – life in the low-car city

Also published on Resilience

“For as long as humans have been living in cities, and until only recently, streets were the main site where children grew up,” write Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett, in the opening pages of their new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives. 

Curbing Traffic is published by Island Press, June 2021.

Unfortunately city streets in the twentieth century became unsafe spaces for humans, especially young humans, when so much prime urban real estate was ceded over to cars. The Bruntletts discuss the negative effects of car culture for children, for care-givers, for social cohesion, for social justice, for mental health, for the ability of the elderly to age in place – plus the positive effects in these realms when urban planners carefully and sensibly curb traffic.

In a previous book, Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (reviewed here), the Bruntletts described the policies and practices that have transformed cities throughout the Netherlands and have turned the nation into a world leader for active transportation. Their new book deepens the analysis from a distinctive personal perspective: two years ago the couple and their two children moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to the Dutch city of Delft.

Visitors to the Netherlands are rightly amazed at the extensive network of dedicated bike lanes which go to every section of every city, as well as through the countryside. But just as importantly, the Bruntletts explain, is how the Dutch deal with myriad residential streets that do not have dedicated bike lanes: these streets must be safe for human interaction, whether that means kids playing games or biking to school, neighbours standing and chatting, elders strolling along while admiring gardens.

“The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” isn’t really about bicycles. It’s about refusing to sacrifice vast amounts of the public realm to the private automobile; instead reserving space for commerce, community, and social connection. The ubiquitous bicycles are simply a by-product of that larger process; a tool to achieve the end goal of what policy makers call an autoluw (low-car or nearly car-free) city.” (Curbing Traffic, page 4)

Where Building the Cycling City focused on the freedom to bike safely, Curbing Traffic pays more attention to the benefits of a low-car city for those who are not, at any given time, on bikes.

The Child-Friendly City

It starts with children.

Historians of the cycling revolution in the Netherlands cite the key role of the “stop de kindermoord” – stop the child-murders – protest movement nearly fifty years ago. Alarmed and outraged by the ongoing tragedy of children being struck down by motorists, Dutch citizens began what would become a far-ranging reclamation of street space.

Fittingly, the first chapter of Curbing Traffic is entitled “The Child-Friendly City”. Prior to the automobile era, the Bruntletts write, urban children could take care of themselves for hours every day, playing on the street close to home within sight of a parent or trusted neighbours.

The dominance of cars turned that safe space into a violent space. In the words of University of Amsterdam geographer Dr. Lia Karsten, in most cities “cars occupy the street and the space in front of the house. What we see is parents are more afraid because of the danger of motorized traffic. This danger is directly in front of the house, which should be one of the safest places for children.”

Making residential streets safe again for children has involved a complex of modified street  design, driver-responsibility laws, and strong social norms that tell drivers they are guests on these streets. Dutch streets have become, once again, places for socializing for people of all ages. And because the safe space starts right outside most urbanites’ front doors, children can take off on their own to bike to school, to sports fields, libraries and stores.

The success of the famous Dutch cycling lane network, then, depends on people of all ages being able to safely navigate their neighbourhood streets before reaching the cycle lanes along major roads.

Care is essential

Child care is one important type of care work, and the freedom to let children play outside on safe streets is itself liberating for child-caregivers, who tend to be women. That is one advantage a low-car city has in becoming a feminist city, but there is more.

Curbing Traffic notes that historically the traffic planning profession has considered “work” to mean paid work, which in turn has emphasized commuting to full-time jobs away from home. Planners have focused on facilitating these longer-distance commuting trips, which happen once at the beginning of the work day and once at the end.

Care-givers, on the other hand, typically engage in many shorter trips – to a day-care centre, grocery store, or children’s after-school activities. These trips, which often add up to more kilometres per day than a bread-winner’s commuting, are ignored in many traffic planning studies. (“The Canadian census, for example, only asks about journey to work data, as do countless other countries,” the Bruntletts write.) When these trips are made by a care-giver who also works a paid job, they often involve detours on the trip to or from a paid workplace – “trip-chaining.”

Even in cities which are now putting significant resources into cycling infrastructure, the focus is often on the type of major-thoroughfare bike lanes used by bike commuters to get far beyond their own neighbourhood. (As an example, the Bruntletts discuss new cycling infrastructure in their former home city, Vancouver. See also my discussion of the “cycle super-highways” in London, UK, here.)

In most Dutch cities, by contrast, many short trips that go along with care work happen on streets that are just as quiet, relaxed and safe as the dedicated cycle lanes are. That is one important reason that in the Netherlands, in strong contrast to most industrialized nations, the urban cycling population is more than half women.

Car noise makes us sick

The air pollution caused by motor traffic is frequently discussed, for good reason. Less understood, the Bruntletts write, is the pervasive effective of noise pollution caused by motor traffic:

“While air and water pollution tend to receive the most attention from environmentalists, noise is, in fact, the pollutant that disturbs the greatest number of people in their daily lives. It is a universal stressor, one that stimulates the fight-or-flight response in virtually all animals. An astonishing 65 percent, or 450 million Europeans reside in dwellings exposed to levels above 55 decibels, the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) deems unacceptable.” (Curbing Traffic, page 92-93)

The noise falls into two primary categories, propulsion noise and rolling noise. The arrival of electric vehicles, with their silent engines, should significantly reduce propulsion noise. Rolling noise – caused by the friction of tires on surfaces – goes up dramatically with vehicle speed, and is not ameliorated by electric motors. Unfortunately, Curbing Traffic notes, rolling noise is trending worse, “as the automobile industry continues to push out larger and heavier vehicles, which also require wider tires.”

Constant motor traffic noise, which reminds our senses that streets are dangerous places, stimulates a flow of “fight-or-flight” hormones and contributes to stress. This happens whether or not we are “used to the noise.” In the words of Dr. Edda Bild, a soundscape researcher at McGill University, “People who live in big cities are used to the churning sounds of passing cars. But just because we don’t perceive it, doesn’t mean our body isn’t having a physiological response to what’s happening.” As with air pollution, noise pollution tends to be worst in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The ill health effects associated with the pervasive presence of noisy, dangerous vehicles go beyond the physical to the mental. Canadian neuroscientist Robin Mazumder summarizes what urban planners can do to help address the global mental health crisis: “Primarily, we need to eliminate the threat that cars pose. Whether that’s through traffic calming or car-free streets, that’s the first thing I would target.”

Through reflections on their personal experiences and through discussions of the work of diverse urban life researchers, the Bruntletts cover far more  issues than this review can touch on. Curbing Traffic is both entertaining and deeply thought-provoking. Let’s give them the last word.

Living in Delft, they write, has shown them “what is possible when we reduce the supremacy of motor vehicles from our lives and prioritize the human experience.” They add,

“With the right leadership, traffic evaporation policies, as well as those aimed at improving social connection, reducing noise, addressing mental health and equity, and ensuring resiliency regardless of what environmental and health challenges are yet to come, cities of all sizes can provide the quality of life our family now cherishes. We understand why it is so important to have fewer cars in our lives. The critical next step starts today. Now is the time to make it happen.” (Curbing Traffic, page 218)


Photos in this post taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in September, 2018.