Energy: The Good News, The Continuing Struggle

Boston Globe
Boston Globe
First the good news. The Boston Globs reports this week that Massachusetts’ largest utilities have signed long-term contracts for wind generated energy from six wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire at a mere 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Which is actually cheaper than electricity from coal [10 cents/kwh], nuclear [11 cents/kwh] and solar [14 cents/kwh].

The utilities – National Grid, Northeast Utilities and Unitil Corp. – are together purchasing 565 megawatts of electricity, enough to power ~170,000 homes. The Cape Wind offshore project in Nantucket Sound is expected to serve more homes overall when it is fully on-line, but the price per kwh will be higher. As more wind projects get built, the price should even out in the face of competition, so we may all look forward to something eventually cheaper even than natural gas. Which at 6 cents per kwh is now the least expensive electricity generation technology, but that will inevitably go up as gas reserves dwindle and environmental regulation puts a crimp in the destructive practice of fracking.

Wind generation has tremendous potential in the most populous regions of the country, including the Megalopolis corridor from D.C. to Boston, and in Texas and California. The entire Great Plains is ripe for wind as well as solar, and solar technologies are enjoying a hefty level of research funding to see if its costs can be brought into competitive line with wind and hydro. New storage technologies for all renewable sources are also being researched and developed apace, while coal plants are being shut down and new ones aren’t getting built.

Now for the less-than great news. Confusing and contradictory signals from the Obama administration about approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta through the heartland has a consortium of 25 environmental groups signing on to a letter to President Obama urging rejection of the project. Tar sands oil is the most environmentally damaging form of petroleum to capture and refine, making the pipeline a serious threat to efforts to battle global warming.

Groups signing on are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Environmental Action, CREDO, 350.Org, Public Citizen, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Sierra Club and others. For years groups of indigenous people in Canada and the U.S., farmers and ranchers from Nebraska to Texas and citizen activists as well as environmental organizations have protested the project.

Those of us who have chosen to live our lives in such a way as to serve as example of a more aware and involved partnership with this home planet are not usually at the forefront of civil actions pushing for better government and corporate policies related to energy, but we do need to increase our outreach to those who are on the front lines. Please do check in on groups in and near your area, maybe attend some gatherings or subscribe to newsletters, offer what you can offer to help support this important work. Even if it’s some fresh organic food, a nice place to hold a planning meeting, or an offer of shelter for participants from far flung places, we need to be part of the needed changes on as many levels as possible.

Who knows? There’s even a chance you could get to know some local/semi-locals who would love nothing better than to put in a little time on your project here and there, at planting or harvest time, maybe help with some very cool energy projects they could then use as inspiration to others along their travels and among their contacts. The real changes happen at home, not in D.C. Which seems always to be playing catch-up with what the people have already figured out for themselves. Changes that need a community’s commitment and support and labor are best done with the help of a community. So let’s get plugged in!

How ‘Food Security’ Killed the Farm Bill

The grand rivalry of political philosophies and established systems of government known as the good ol’ Cold War offered for many years the stark differences between Communist-style 5-year plans for food production, and Capitalist-style Big Agribiz dominated mega-farming. Sure, Big Agribiz has long been subsidized directly by public money (taxes paid by average citizens) just as in the old Soviet bloc, but the high profits accruing to those who control production and trade in food commodities goes to the corporation (which pays little to no taxes) and/or its shareholders through Wall Street and the commodity exchanges.

Food_Security

The United States won the good old Cold War some time ago, with most historians placing the actual surrender in 1991. I mention this because farm policy in the United States began including in the 1930s a government program designed to distribute the vast excess production of already-subsidized foodstuffs to the many in this country who were going hungry – thus belying (for practical propaganda purposes of our ‘enemies’ in the Green Revolution… er, War) our wondrous ability to produce far, far more food than Americans alone could ever consume. Not even expanding export markets managed to dent the surplus significantly, so the government again stepped in as final purchaser – at discount price – for bulk commodities like excess grain, milk, cheese and such. Which became the original generics with those plain black and white labels stamped with USDA generic descriptions and portioned out at the county extension level to community members who wanted or needed it.

That program morphed during the Cold War 1970s into the subsidy being switched from the farmers to the people, who were issued a sort of play money called “Food Stamps” [SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], which could only be redeemed for food. Now there’s debit cards, same restrictions. So that the poor, the working poor, people in temporary straits, etc. could at least eat and feed their children. Republicans of course don’t like the program, any more than they liked anything that became policy known as the “New Deal” back during the last Great Depression, or any later extensions of the “Great Society” that came later in Lyndon Johnson’s time. So the allotment in food stamps has been going down steadily in purchasing power as well as necessary funding over the past 15 years or so. Still, it’s something. With nearly half the population unemployed or underemployed, losing their homes and life’s savings, going hungry has become endemic even as the funding for the program has gone nowhere but down.

Thus has the issue of SNAP become a major stumbling block to Congressional passage of a workable Omnibus Agricultural Bill, in a Congress fatally crippled by partisan bickering to the point that its general approval rating is somewhere south of 20%. Every time a Congressional session fails to pass a new Ag bill, that entire section of our economy must remain funded at the last Ag bill’s level. Minus the cuts to SNAP they’ve included as riders on unrelated legislation in the last 4+ years, and the portion of USDA/FDA budget cut by the current Republican-caused “Sequester.”

People are going hungry in this nation. While that has always been true, the situation since the economic collapse in 2008 has grown much worse. Thirty Million More are now in the SNAP program than were there just ten years ago. 30 million MORE. Conservatives don’t like it one bit. The House of Representatives passed a farm bill earlier this month that removed the SNAP program entirely.

The Senate is entirely unlikely to approve the House’s bill. Its own version passed earlier contains $4 billion in cuts to the program, but doesn’t remove it from the agricultural end of things entirely. So for another year at least SNAP will be funded at current levels.

Time Magazine published an excellent in-depth blow-by-blow article on the situation, entitled How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill that is well worth a read if you are keeping track of things affecting the agricultural portion of our individual homesteading experiences.

It seems to me that our government can always find money to finance endless (and sometimes illegal) wars, to bail out the wealthiest segment of society and their business concerns (banks, Wall Street, insurers), and Big Brother spying operations hoovering up every bit and byte of our digital and telephonic lives. If they’re really so worried about the debt, there are a good many extremely expensive budget items that could be slashed in half or more without materially affecting the average American’s lifestyle and/or relative ‘security’. Taking food out of the mouths of hungry children and adults who would love to have a good job if there were any is mean-spirited enough to cause serious consternation. Shame, shame, shame.

It almost seems like since we don’t have the old Soviet Union to kick around anymore, all public-spirited programs designed to make life in the US of A look preferable are on the chopping block so that War, Inc. can maintain its global hegemony.

We who have chosen to live on this beautiful land, we who maintain and caretake it and those of us who try to make their living by living this way, have a stake in the ideals that made this country great and allows us to live where we live and do what we do. Everything this nation wanted so badly to be, and tried so hard to accomplish back in the days where getting rich involved imagination, skill and industry instead of just money-changing and unbridled greed.

Homesteaders are among the few in this modern world who still value the land and water, who caretake the wider nation and its beautiful places, who conserve and often practice skills and industry drawn from imagining that it can be done. And doing it. This country needs us, it needs us to care. And to sound alarms when alarms are necessary. Ex-President Jimmy Carter told Germany’s Der Speigel this week in an interview that asked his opinion of the NSA spying scandal, that “America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy.” He’s right.

We homesteaders are rural dwellers by choice, members of extended rural communities of like-minded people as well as the local old-timers who have always lived on and worked the land. Our thoughts and contributions are important in those communities, even if we’re ‘just’ artists. There’s a mid-term election coming up that is more than just your local Sheriff and Registrar of Deeds. There’s also a congresscritter who represents you in D.C. on the ballot, and maybe a Senator as well. And he/she/it only draws the loyalty of about half the voting population. Some concerted on-the-ground effort on our parts locally could help a lot to change the current gridlock situation in Washington. We must get rid of the stonewallers, get some representatives who will actually represent us.

At any rate, that’s my political rant for the quarter, and a heads-up about the political maneuvering in the nation’s capital that will end up directly affecting rural dwellers to a significant degree. There will have to be workable farm legislation soon. It’s going to have an impact on our lives, our environment and our plans for the future, one way or another. So please, my homesteading friends, don’t forget to vote – every chance you get!

Resources:

How Food Stamps Killed the Farm Bill
GOP Fumbles Farm Bill
Holy cow! A farm bill about farming