Saturday, June 26, 2010

Alternative Energy

I heard in the news recently that there was a poll that showed that Americans were very interested in the development of new sources of energy. Americans are worried about too much dependency on oil.

I've been thinking a lot lately about using our own physical energy to do more.

For a big portion of my life, I did not have a car, and so I got myself around primarily by using my own energy -- walking and bicycling. There was a time of my life when I bicycled 10 miles to work and 10 miles back each day. Other times I lived in cities or towns, making bicycling and walking distances easily manageable. The first several times that I traveled around England, it was by bicycle. In those days, my choices were partially motivated by financial considerations, but also by principle. I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible.

During one of these times, when I was living in a city in the U.S., I was walking back home one day carrying a load of supplies I had bought. I was tired and, I'll admit, kind of miserable. But I happened to walk past a gym. Through large windows, I could see dozens of people putting forth frantic effort that was not actually doing any real work in the world. I suddenly stopped and watched for a bit, amazed. I realized that these people had all most likely driven here to do this! Yes, it was admirable that they were trying to stay in shape. But the sight of them with their earphones on, some reading magazines at their exercise machines, each lost in their own world, putting forth all this effort that was not actually powering anything else, struck me as incredibly bizarre. If they walked or bicycled to run their errands, as I was doing, they could integrate their exercise into their everyday lives and not need to take extra time to do it. By powering themselves by their own energy, they would save gas and ease global climate change.

Yet, I knew and still know why people do things this way. Getting in your car is safe and easy. Working out at the gym gives you a sense of motivation and security (because of all the others around) in a safe setting conducive to distractions if you need distractions to take your mind off the effort of exertion.

Integrating exercise into your life by using your own energy to power the running of errands is just not as fun. The weather keeps changing. You see strangers on the streets, not all of whom are friendly all the time. You may have to travel through questionable parts of town. You feel vulnerable when you are not enclosed in a lockable fast-moving metal box. Our towns and cities are not usually built with pedestrians in mind -- sidewalks give out; you have to take the long way around because the short way is reserved for motor vehicles; many crossings are highly dangerous. And carrying heavy bags of stuff on a long walk just isn't fun. Since you have to stay alert, you cannot distract yourself as at the gym, and so you are aware of the dangers and your own effort every step of the way.

Furthermore, it has become socially unacceptable to show up at public places all hot and sweaty. Gyms are the only places where being hot and sweaty in public is acceptable, and yet they have showers, giving the message that you must clean yourself up as quickly as possible after exercising to be presentable again.

Yet, all of this is real. It is good for us to use our bodies for work and to get out into the world and confront all of its uncertainties.

And, our own energy is a very real energy source. I think it is worth thinking about whether there are more ways we can use our own energy in place of fossil fuels. Do our villages, towns, and cities need to be re-designed to make it more possible to run our errands on foot again?

Also, I should clarify that I am not opposed to gyms. I appreciate the way they are constructed to bring people together to support each other, inspire each other, and learn from each other to develop comprehensive fitness. But why can't we hook up the exercise machines in gyms to make use of all of that human power? I had that thought too, on that day when I paused to watch the people in the gym. Not too long ago, I did hear that a college was thinking of doing this as an experiment: having the gym machines generate some of the building's electricity. Why haven't we been doing this all along?

So, one "alternative" energy source we might want to seriously consider is making more use of human energy again.

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Grocery Store

I'm sure my avid readers have been dying to hear about our new grocery store, especially after my anticipatory dream (see my comment to that post)!

Well, I am happy to report that it is quite nice. Like in my dream, I was happy to see that they still have the little grocery carts (small ones that are two-tiered. I put my re-usable bags on the bottom tier, and pile my groceries in the top. These smaller grocery carts are much easier to maneuver than the full-sized ones). Unlike in my dream, it wasn't hard to find things. The grocery store is arranged like a grocery store, thank goodness!

This new grocery store gives you a credit for bringing your own bags! I had already gotten in the habit of bringing my own re-usable bags, so this was a happy surprise, to find myself rewarded for this! Even more amazing, if you bring three bags but only use two, they still give you the credit for all three! Ok, it's only 3 cents per bag, but, still, it's nice that they are trying to provide an incentive.

The other remarkable thing about our new grocery store is that there is the sound of thunder just before the produce gets misted! I'm not kidding!

They have just about everything that the previous grocery store had, though I'm still trying to train them to supply some of what I buy on a regular basis. They have some extra items, too, that the previous store did not have, like Smucker's all-natural crunchy peanut butter, which I never succeeded in convincing the previous store to get. One time, they got a shipment by accident and they sold out very quickly. When I asked about this, the employee I asked just said, "Oh, it was a mistake," and was not at all interested in hearing that I thought it might be a good idea for them to stock it regularly! I'm glad to see that the new store is taking note that the crunchy kind sells much better than the smooth.

We live in an economically depressed area, and I have come to accept that we just can't have the variety that urban areas have. In fact, this simpifies life. But when I see businesses not taking customer interests seriously, I do worry that they are missing out on potential opportunities to improve economic conditions. So, while I did generally like the old store and was sorry to see it leave, I very much appreciate this new store's eagerness to respond well to consumer suggestions.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Are We To Learn From Oil Spill?

Like a lot of people, I have been greatly troubled by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The first morning that I woke up to the news about the accident and the spill, I took notice, but on the second or third morning I woke up distinctly alarmed upon hearing that they had still not stopped the spill. "That's bad," I thought, sitting up in bed. "It already was bad, but this is really bad." I had the uneasy feeling that if they had not stopped it yet, maybe they really didn't know how.

Little did I know that we would still be watching with horror a full two months later.

There are lots of obvious lessons we already can learn from this, and I will not re-hash those. Instead, I thought I would share some thoughts I have not heard widely articulated (although it might just be that I have missed them).

1. Have we finally encountered a technical problem we simply cannot solve?

Ok, I have heard this view articulated a little, but I would like to reflect a bit on this anyway. To some extent, it is true in the present. We haven't solved it. Obviously, a lot of people greatly want this problem solved -- and some of those people have great power and resources available to them. Yet, the spill goes on. So, it is true that we cannot solve it -- yet.

But what are the reasons? It might be that the solution is out there -- perhaps submitted by someone or some group, but not yet considered by those who are processing the suggestions that people have sent in. Perhaps they even did consider it, but rejected it.

Or, perhaps the solution is out there and is even in the queue for future implementation -- after other suggestions are tried first.

Or, perhaps the solution (something that we humans could implement that would really work) has not been thought of by anyone yet. Will someone finally think it? Will that be a person who can get the idea heard by those who have the power to implement it? Will those in power be perceptive enough to see that it would work, and will they choose to try it?

Or could it even be that this just is impossible for humans to fix?

Mixed into my comments above are really two questions: (1) can humans technically solve this problem? (2) are our social systems organized effectively enough that if someone does find a technical solution, it can be identified and implemented?

2. Money and power are not enough.

I think this is a striking example of how money and power alone are not enough to solve all problems. We also need good ideas. These cannot simply be commanded.

3. Money is strange.

Something else that has really struck me is how calm BP seems to be about the money issue. All along, they've calmly said, "We'll pay," and tried to assure everyone that the company itself is in no grave danger from this setback.

I don't know what to make of this.

First I consider the possibility that they mean it. But if they do, if their fortunes are so vast that they can afford (a) the wasteage of their resource, (b) the money to try to stop the spill, (c) the money to clean up, and (d) the money to help out everyone who has economically suffered from this -- if all of this is truly no problem, then maybe they are not as worried about it all as the rest of us wish they were! Maybe that's why the problem is not being solved faster. Maybe it's par for the course for them. "These things happen; we'll figure it out eventually and will be able to afford it..."

But then my next thought is to be absolutely amazed at the thought of their having so much money. Why do they have so much money? All around me, I see financial worries. I see jobs being cut, programs being cut. For mysterious reasons that no one seems to understand, money seems to be evaporating. And, yet, a company like BP claims to be able to cover the huge expense of this oil spill no problem.

Is that where all the money has gone? It got sucked up by huge, profitable companies?

What would have happened to all of that money if the explosion and oil spill had not happened? Would it have stayed locked away wherever it was it had been hiding?

Why have we let our economic system evolve to this? Why do some individuals and some companies have huge amounts of money while others struggle to survive -- and some do not make it?

Of course, we have to consider the other possibility too: maybe BP is lying (or is self-deceived) about how much it really can afford. Maybe it's talking the talk but when it comes down to it will show itself unable to walk the walk. Then what?

4. It's not just about money, anyway...

Yet, the problem is not just an economic one. The health and well-being of many living organisms and ecological systems is at stake. This includes, but is not limited to, humans. The long-term environmental consequences remain unknown.

5. Theological perspective

As I ponder this situation and pray about it, I find myself explaining to God, "Look, we humans can be greedy, prideful, and misguided, but even in this we didn't really mean the harm that we have caused. We're just trying to tap into energy sources to fuel all of our activity, creativity, productivity. Is the earth so fragile that we puny creatures can really puncture a hole that turns into a mortal wound for the entire planet? Or, even if so, can it really be true that we have the power to create a problem that we lack the power to solve? Why should we have the power to create a fatal problem, and lack the power to solve this? Would You really have made us this way?"

And so I find my worry about this situation to potentially be a kind of faith crisis. What do I believe about the planet -- is it that fragile? What do I believe about human nature -- are we flawed in that way (able to create fatal problems we cannot solve)? And, deeper than all of this, what do I believe about God -- the kind of Creator and Sustainer that God is, the kind of Love God has for us?

And so when I arrive to these questions in my prayers, I find myself reassured. Yes, the problem is serious, but we must not give up. I've looked at video images and diagrams myself, wondering if I could learn enough to offer helpful suggestions. I've hoped that, even if not, my putting some thought in that direction may somehow summon the powers of our collective consciousness and help someone better trained than I in such matters to find a solution. I find myself believing in the power of prayer, for how it might aid the flow of ideas and insights within this shared mental space of collective consciousness. I try as well to summon the healing powers of the earth itself.

There is much that we can and urgently need to learn from a situation like this. I do wish that we could figure out how to live with better environmental sensitivity and care. I do think our exploitative attitude towards the natural world is problematic. I worry a lot that we have created a system in which we are becoming subservient to the care and feeding of monstrous systems that do not in fact take care of us and support our worthy goals, but serve only to benefit those who are already wealthy and powerful. For the collective spiritual well-being of all of us, as well as for the physical well-being of all life on the planet, we do desperately need to make changes.

And so I look for signs that this event might be a wake-up call. Maybe we can survive it and learn from it. Maybe it will inspire the kinds of changes that will help us to live more harmoniously with the natural world and with each other.

This is my prayer -- a prayer for a solution, and for redemption.