Sunday, December 25, 2005

Bean Power and the HPV Revolution

Bean Power and the HPV Revolution

Remember the other way I said that I traveled by bean power? Well, it is true. I put the beans in my tank, and then I use the energy contained in this heavy fuel to turn the cranks on the most efficient mode of transport ever developed by homo sapiens—the velocipede, known in our common vernacular as a bicycle. If it helps you to take this machine more seriously, you can call it an HPV, or Human Powered Vehicle.
Now, the bicycle is a truly righteous form of transportation! The frame is made of the most recycled material in the industrial materials stream-steel. (What’s that you say? Your bicycle is not made of steel? What can you be thinking? For an exhaustive discussion about the superiority of steel for bicycle frames, go to and let Grant Petersen straighten you out. Seriously, though, it don’t make no difference what the thing is made of as long as you ride it.) The bicycle cannot be beat for efficiency. I am talkin’ maximum amount of expended energy converted into forward momentum—99% of energy put into the cranks turns the rear wheel. It takes one fifth as much energy per mile as running, and it is far more dignified! In addition, the bicycle is beautiful, healthful, quiet, honest, and sustainable. It is non-violent, taking away the occasion of oil wars, and it is a sociable machine, reducing isolation and putting the rider into her environment, rather than isolating her from it. In addition, the bicycle is a major contributor to the shapeliness of buttocks, which is why I really ride one. You just can’t exaggerate what a wonderful machine the volocipede is!
Though early “push-bikes” can be reliably dated from the early 1800’s, where the rider pushed his feet directly against the ground, it wasn’t until the latter part of that century that pedal power really got going. In the 1890’s the ‘Golden Age of Bicycles’ came in with Dunlop’s pneumatic tire, freewheels, coaster brakes, and the development of the “safety bicycle.” Over the years these machines have gotten more gears, better brakes, lighter weight, etc. In mechanical terms, however, even these early bicycles were so efficient that the improvements that have been made are mostly significant in terms of rider features and reliability.
The automobile totally messed up the bicycle in the United States, providing an arguably faster, flashier form of transport, and simultaneously making the roadways less safe and pleasant for the humble bicycle. Cars suck, as the saying goes.
After the take over of the automobile, say by the end of World War One, bicycles were largely regarded as a children’s toy in the U.S., but that changed during the “Bicycle Boom” of the late 60’s. Derailleur gears and the social revolution and ecological consciousness of the 60's and 70's made bicycling hip, chic, cool and stylish. Americans took to riding bicycles in significant numbers. However, even though there were many more Americans on the whole in the 1960’s than the 1890’s, there were many more adult cyclists in the "Golden Age" than in the "Boom." It was the first democratic transportation device! As the longbow was to warfare (suddenly a peasant could kill a knight before the knight could get within a sword’s length), so the bicycle was to transportation (before the automobile). It was cheaper, faster and all together less hassle than a horse and carriage. Women rode bicycles, at great benefit to their health, and female cyclists spawned the practical clothing movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a milestone of empowered womanhood! I love bloomers!
What would Jesus drive? Well, a donkey comes to mind, walking is always a staple of the spiritual wanderer, but a bicycle wouldn’t be out of the question! Keith Helmuth suggests that John Woolman would cycle were he around today. ("If John Woolman Were Among Us")
Anarchist transport, that’s what! You consider yourself part of the counter-culture but you still let the Department of Motor Vehicles tell you if you are fit to drive? You pay redicudollars for car insurance? You can’t fix your car when the microchip gets out of whack or the carburetor starts leaking? You got a monthly car payment equal to a week’s wages? You ain’t no counter-culture revolutionary, you are a SUCKER, that’s what. You gonna be an anarchist, you gotta go with anarchist transport, and that is a bicycle—no license, no physical exam, no insurance, no payment plan, easy to fix. That’s how you give the Man the Finger in style!
Now, this is not to say that the bicycle isn’t legit. The bicycle is plenty legit. In 1968 the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic determined that a bicycle is a vehicle, and a person controlling a bicycle is a driver. You got rights and responsibilities. You got a right to be on the road and take the lane, and you got a responsibility to follow the rules of the road. Anarchy doesn’t mean that there aren’t any rules, you know. It means that there aren’t any rulers. At least the responsibility for cycling safely is reinforced by the laws of physics—on a bicycle the person you put most at risk by driving unsafely is usually yourself.
I learned to ride a bike when I was five years old. My dad had this tiny folding bike with ten inch wheels and solid, white, non-pneumatic tires. He would hold the seat and run along side and then he’d let go and you’d keep pedaling like mad until you realized that the old man wasn’t holding the bike up anymore, and you’d promptly crash hard. My big sister and I realized after a single hard crash that we had ridden independently quite a ways before we contacted pavement, and so we got on and rode unaided after that. However, after the inevitable skinned knee, my little sister felt betrayed and was delayed some weeks after this ordeal before she joined the rest of the family in two-wheeled bliss. (My sisters will of course remember this totally differently, and may respond to this blog accordingly, as they wish.)
[I wanna put in here that there is a way better way to teach kids to ride bikes, and I’ll tell you what it is. If the kid has already had training wheels on, that is o.k.—it teaches pedaling. You take the training wheels off, since they don’t teach anything about balancing and countersteering a bike. Then you put the seat down so that the kid can easily touch the ground with both feet. Then you take off the pedals. This arrangement allows the kid to sit on the seat and paddle the ground with her feet for forward momentum. Eventually she will get to coasting longer distances. If you observe her rolling down a driveway or other decline without crashing, she is ready to have the pedals back on and learn to provide her own forward momentum without relying on Gravity Drive. It is a kind of “no tears” way to learn to ride a bike, and hopefully will result in a lifelong love for and fascination with this mode of transport. I believe that the ability to ride a bicycle and do basic maintenance can contribute greatly to a kid’s sense of agency, which might otherwise go undeveloped in our pushbutton world. Also, no kid who rides to school will get diabetes or depression.]
What about metal, paint, rubber, plastic, etc. in the bicycle? It isn’t a zero-footprint technology, is it? Also, I have had concerns about labor rights in the manufacture of bicycles since so many of them are made in places with less than stellar records on labor, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, China.
Remember the theme of this three-part series? Righteousness is a trap, and yet giving up when we know that we aren’t really ‘living in that Life and Power that takes away the occasion of all wars” also isn’t an option. It is what Harvard theologians call ‘praxis.’ It is why the Quaker book is called “Faith and Practice.” We step forward in Faith, and change our Practice. When we do so, we are changed, the covenant community is changed, and the world is changed. In that new light, we return to stillness and seek further guidance. What once seemed safe and clear may become blurry and less obviously the Way. This is what has happened for me with biodiesel. Once it seemed like all that was being asked of me, and now I can see that it is a stopgap—that it represents a less than full surrender. The bicycle is an honest vehicle, using only the energy that I put into it. The “something for nothing” mentality is the single most destructive legacy of the European diaspora. From alchemists trying to turn lead into gold, to colonists claiming Peru for Spain, the driving tenet of Western Civilization has been “something for nothing.” Slavery of Africans was one experiment in something for nothing, and the transition from slavery to industrialism driven by fossil fuels was immediate in this country, perpetuating the adolescent notion that there is such a thing as profit. Profit means that people were exploited and/or the planet was stripped of something. These two things make the illusion of prosperity in America possible. Furthermore, when five percent of the world’s population uses 25% of its resources, you have a formula for resentment, and a mandate for war against the peoples of the world and the biosphere itself. How else to perceive global climate change?
Enter the humble bike. Sure, it has a footprint. The footprint could be smaller than it is, if we used greener construction methods. (Chris King Headsets are the very best available, and as green a company as you could wish. Still, a steel frame will last a lifetime if properly taken care of. A good Brooks saddle will go 50,000 miles for sure. If every able-bodied person who can safely operate a bicycle on the public road did Katie Alvord’s experiment (Divorce Your Car), the ecological benefit of reduced car travel would hugely offset the ecological cost of bicycle manufacture. In this experiment, you get a map of your town and find your house. (Kids love this exercise, by the way.) You set a map compass to five miles, using the map scale. Then you put the sticky point at your house, and mark a circle with the pencil point describing a five mile radius around your home. Noting what is included in that area, you then commit to ride your bicycle to those places that are within the circle. If you want to have other provisos, such as ‘If I don’t have to get anything too big or too heavy,’ or ‘only during the day,’ or ‘unless it is raining,’ go for it. It’s not about living up to anyone else’s standard, but making it fun and easy for you; bringing your life in to right order as you perceive it.
After a long hiatus from cycling, I did this myself about five years ago. I didn’t even own a bicycle! Hard to imagine, given the current stable of eight! (I have a tendency to adopt and adapt orphans.) I lived barely five miles from work, so I started to ride there every day on a Specialized Crossroads that I bought new on a last year’s models sale. Only under rare and extenuating circumstances is it necessary to buy a bicycle new, and this wasn’t one of them. It was a mediocre bicycle, barely prepared by the bike shop which shall remain nameless. Derailleurs needed adjustment, headset was loose after the first ride, and there was so little spoke tension in the wheels that they were out of true immediately. Nonetheless, I began to ride regularly.
Now, I have been having some fun with this “Righteousness” thing, and I hope that you, the esteemed reader, realize that I’ve been tongue in cheek about that. I wrote before about John Woolman’s assertion that “Love was the first motion.” From the point of view of a panentheist (‘that of God in everything, and everything in God’), this is an all-encompassing, cosmic love characterized by awe. Brian Swimme has written, "The universe shivers with wonder in the depths of the human." Creation myth after creation myth (Genesis not excluded) tries to give us our context as humans. One of the strong consistencies in these myths is that once the human is created (always in some way a penultimate part of the story, just as the creation of fungi is the penultimate moment in mushroom cosmologies), the human expresses awe and gives thanks to the creator and the creation. This humble awe and appreciation is our fundamental relationship to our universe. This is the cosmic Love that is indeed the first, primary motion.
Now that you are feeling all touch-feely, let me tell you what I believe that the second motion was, for Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Teresa of Avila, John Woolman, and any other mystic you can thing of. The second motion is a lived system of ethics that grows out of and honors the Love. Faith and Practice, dig?
My point here, is that we must keep the first and second motions in mind at all times. Otherwise, our attempts to live in right relationship with the Earth become dogmatic, rigid, self-righteous, and (horrors!) boring. Jesus chastised the Jews again and again for having fallen into a legalistic system of piety, rather than an authentic living expression of divine love. This is the meaning of sin as a term taken from archery, meaning "to miss the mark." When an archer misses the mark, she goes and fetches (not fletches, now; that comes earlier) her arrow and shoots again. Very much more alive and dynamic than, "Now you've got a black mark on your everlasting soul, and St. Peter will make you sweat for it." So, when you are doing your ecological footprint at, don't forget why you are doing it. Love.
"Is there Life in it?" is an old Quaker query used for discernment. I think that oaths and committments and resolutions are onerous when they don't have life in them. They may even be considered a form of violence, even if self-inflicted. However, they can also be a helpful tool for us in our praxis and living into "Pure Wisdom." (That's John Woolman, not Buddha). For me there is energy around this question of transport. I realize that the electricity running my ancient Macintosh comes from coal, nuclear, natural gas, or dead rivers, and that the solar panels on my roof will take five years to recover their own ecological footprint, but at this point the transportation issue is more alive for me. (I do have plans for a new, efficient refrigerator.) So, for 2006, I renew my old pledge, but with a radius of ten miles (because there is nowhere that I regularly go within five.) Exceptions will include large loads, really hairy weather (not just light rain), and night riding. For those things, I will burn biodiesel and straight vegetable oil.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Is Biodiesel Righteous?

America is the mobile society. We love to ramble. We got songs, movies, legends. You pretty much had to be a wanderer to end up in America voluntarily. Many of the Native American tribes were at least semi-nomadic. Also, our nation is vast. All of these things have lent themselves to the development of a mobile mentality. “Watch the police and the tax man miss me—I’m MOBILE!” the song says.
When we talk about appropriate technology, sustainability, lightening our pressure on the Earth, one of the first things we talk about is how to get around, despite the fact that how we stay put and meet our needs is far more important than how we get around. Our hypermobility will probably be one of the first things to go with Peak Oil, or any concerted effort to create a sustainable human society (whichever comes first), and it will almost certainly correspond with increased health of the human organism, but more of that anon.
I rely on beans for my mobility. No really, I do. I love beans. The two primary ways that I use beans for a transportation power source are that I use pinto beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, refried beans, soy beans, red beans or whatever you got to power my bicycle, and I use genetically modified soy beans to power my biodiesel pickup truck. Now, it is true that I actually put a lot of fuel into the engines of both my bicycle and my truck that is not derived from beans, but beans will stand as the representative of organic fuel source.

First, the truck: Is Biodiesel Righteous?

One day, about four years ago now, I was working at the Arcata Community Recycling Center, known locally as the Acey-Arcy (ACRC). This was a day job while I worked on my Masters degree at Humboldt State University. I was schlepping green glass to the green glass bin, and aluminum to the aluminum hopper. I was weighing and paying, directing traffic and generally carrying on. It was a Saturday, and we were plenty busy. Just as we got totally slammed, my beautiful accomplice in eco-living drove up in a beat to hell Isuzu pickup truck with a nervous undergrad from Humboldt State in the passenger seat. It was a very sorry looking truck, and it sounded worse than it looked. Smoke curled from its tailpipe, and the diesel motor rattled like catastrophic mechanical failure could occur at any moment. You couldn’t see anything in the mirrors when the motor was at idle, because they shook so much that everything was a blur. (Still do!) My statuesque Gaia goddess came over to where I was working, looking cute with her hair all piled up on the top of her head and a faded pair of denim overalls on.
“Do you think we should buy it?” she asked. “We’ve been wanting a diesel pickup to run on biodiesel. They are hard to come by. He wants $700.00”
I was busy and a little frazzled. The other guy on duty, Jay of the monodreadlock, was stuck at the aluminum hopper with some frat boy who had brought in a semester’s worth of Bud cans. Meanwhile the line at the scale was backing up. At the same time, the sight of my sweetie in overalls was making me realize how much I enjoyed being other places than here.
“You’re gonna have to decide,” I said. “If it drives o.k., offer him $500.00 If he won’t go for it, we can walk away.”
I did go over and shake the kid’s hand and try to do the guy thing about motors, but he clearly knew nothing. I gave my sweetie a lingering kiss and she gave me an affectionate swat on the buttocks. Reluctantly, I returned to the din and bustle of the Acey-Arcy on a Saturday, immediately picking up a tote that spilled sour milk all down my front as I watched the truck drive away.
Several weary hours later, as I coasted my Bridgestone MB-3 mountain bike (a $8 Acey-Arcy Reuse Depot score) up the driveway, I discovered that I was the proud part owner of a beat to hell 1982 Isuzu diesel P’up. I shucked my clothes on the back porch, went into the house, took a shower, ate a wonderful repast of stir-fried vegetables, and then got very distracted by my beautiful lover, and went to sleep early.
The next day, after Meeting for Worship, I looked over this crappy beige truck. The tires were bald, the bed rusted through in several places, the windshield cracked, wheels mismatched, seat totally trashed, and the whole of the thing inside and out was filthy and grimy. She did start fairly readily, however, belching a huge cloud of stinky diesel soot, and emitting that same gnarly rattle that I’d heard the day before. I put her in reverse and rolled out of the drive. I tooled around the block, noticing a terrible skreek in the steering, and crazy howling in the front end whenever I went over a bump. I got on the highway to see what she could do. I wound that little four cylinder motor up tight, so that we were going a scathing fifty miles per. I say scathing because despite years of traveling at Mach Schnell on motorbikes, and winding high-revving motors to redline, that little buggy was maxed out at the big 50! Shimmy, shake, roar and smoke! It was exciting, I tell you. I really felt that I was taking my life into my hands. To make matters worse, the clutch slipped really bad, the whole vehicle pulled hard to the left under braking, and the cloud in the rearview mirror would have made James Bond envious.
Well, I won’t bore you with the details, but I filled the tank with biodiesel, replaced the ball joints and lubed the front end, bought four used tires, changed all fluids and filters, replaced the master cylinder and one slave cylinder, battery, glow plugs, shocks, and adjusted the cable clutch. I still have that truck, which I call the Rough-N-Ready, today. She’s approaching the 300,000 mile mark, and the engine has never been opened. She starts on a dime, runs smoothe as a top, and gets over 40 mpg. Alas, I no longer have the beautiful eco-woman warrior who first recognized the hidden potential of the Rough-N-Ready, but that’s another story. She’s happy and healthy and out there in the world engaged in what Thomas Berry calls “The Great Work” of bringing about the “Ecozoic Era.” I hope she still wears overalls from time to time, because everybody needs to feel that truth and beauty are real things in the world.
I react my own biodiesel. Me and the Eco-Amazon got into it by serendipity-do while we lived in Arcata. Actually, it is important to understand how we got into it, so I’ll go into some detail, in my inimitable style. I want you to understand that these things don’t just happen.
Before I worked at the Acey-Arcy, I worked for the Berkeley Ecology Center’s recycling program. Dave Williamson, who makes a first impression of an overweight southern Bubba type, is actually a genius and a fierce eco-warrior. He looked up his job description and found that as the Operations Manager of the curbside recycling program, “fuel procurement” was part of his purview. You see, Dave never waivers from the first goal of any true eco-warrior or person on a spiritual mission. He adheres to the pursuit of Truth. He never deluded himself about curbside recycling. “It is a stopgap, end of pipe shell game really, “ he would declare in the booming voice of a man who has spent much of his life around loud machinery. “Plastic recycling is a total sham, creating the illusion of ecological responsibility while actually passing the buck. To do all of this in diesel trucks that get three miles per gallon is absurd!”
So, he got a few gallons of biodiesel. He did not ask permission. Take a note there, o.k.? You wanna do something worth a damn in this world? It is a pretty good bet that you are going to have to at least start the thing off without asking permission. Dave put our crappiest, slowest, ugliest recycling truck on a strict B100 diet. B100 indicates 100% biodiesel. B80 is 80%, B20 is another popular formula, and most of the diesel in Europe is B2, just for lubricity. Dave wasn’t going for half measures, though, so B100 it was. The crew at the Ecology Center was mostly Mexicanos, and they called that truck “La Vieja”—the Old Woman, with overtones of The Old Bitch.
Well, first off, all the accumulated crap and gel in the fuel system got broken loose by the biodiesel, and clogged the fuel filter. This is a spin-on filter with a water trap, and it is mounted on the outside back of the cab. It takes 74 seconds to change that filter, if you aren’t in a rush. Then the truck cleared her throat, belched a huge cloud of black smoke, stretched, shuddered, shook herself down to the tire treads and started on her rounds. By the end of the day she was running better than she had in years. Since the stack on these trucks is right behind the open cab, you more or less work in a cloud of diesel fumes, and it is physically strenuous work. By the end of the week the drivers were vying for a chance to work on La Vieja because her exhaust was so sweet. There were never any biodiesel related mechanical problems that I know of.
At this point Dave went to the Board, and got approval to run the whole truck fleet on B100. It is still the test case for fleet biodiesel use in the U.S. because it was the first, and has burned biodiesel the longest. When I worked there, I fueled trucks with biodiesel, drove trucks on biodiesel, and generally got used to the idea that this was diesel fuel, just organically based rather than petroleum based. Rudolph Diesel first showed his engine at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. For the demonstration it ran on peanut oil. When the petroleum industry came up with a distillate that worked in this engine, it was called diesel fuel.
The eco-Amazon and I bought a little 1979 Volkswagen diesel Dasher and powered it on biodiesel that I bought from a graduate student in Arcata. That was in 2001, before the Rough-N-Ready. She called me on the phone from Berkeley when she first put the biodiesel in. The car ran quieter, and was no more underpowered on biodiesel than it had been on petroleum diesel. VW developed that chassis for an 88 horsepower gas engine, and for the diesel put in a 44 horse powerplant, so it was plenty underpowered regardless. It got an honest 45 mpg, though… It was an obnoxious appliance-white colour, so we painted it green (appropriate, eh?) with brushes in our driveway, and put thousands of trouble free miles on it. It we called it The Mighty Golightly, as a tribute to its light footprint and an invocation of the lovely Audrey Hepburn in the classic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” When we went our separate ways, the Mighty Golightly went with her mistress until this Fall when the car died and was replaced by a 1983 Mercedez 300D, the crème de la crème of biodieseling transport.
We bought our biodiesel from the grad student who was making it out of local restaurant oil. Then, an organic farmer friend of mine with a Datsun diesel pickup truck asked us if we’d be open to his moving his biodiesel reactor into our garage. He couldn’t keep it at the place it was because it scared the landlady to death. My landlord was super cool and green and I said, “Go for it.” It wasn’t until people were making fuel in my very own garage that I learned to do it. Then I was unstoppable.
So, the Ecology Center, then a local source, and finally folks making it in my garage is what it took for me to start to make my own fuel. Incremental steps over time, not a single epiphany. This is another note-taking point, like the one about not asking permission. Even where a life-changing epiphany appears to have occurred, if you look more closely, you will almost always find a step-by-step process.
I’m gonna talk in a non-exhaustive way about the footprint of biodiesel, and just for fun, I’m gonna try to do it as concisely as possible. Most biodiesel burned in this country is made from virgin oil. Virgin oil comes from food oil crops, because that is what helps agribusiness. This oil contains more imbedded fossil fuel energy than it does calories of useable energy. There are approximately 10 fossil-fuel calories in every calorie that we eat, and biodiesel oil is at least that bad. Biodiesel made from recycled oil, like sweatshop clothing bought second hand at a thrift store, is less evil, but not quantifiably so.
Biodiesel creates less of all pollutants than petroleum diesel, except NOx, or nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is bad stuff. Also, my truck still spits out plenty of particulates—soot—under heavy acceleration. The big claim is that biodiesel is carbon-neutral, and therefore does not contribute to global warming. It uses carbon that is in the current carbon cycle, not ancient carbon from the depths of the earth. Still, if you didn’t burn that carbon, it wouldn’t go into the atmosphere at all, right?
Could we grow other crops for the oil? Sure. We could grow oil palm, which yields 4,585 pounds of oil per acre. We could grow coconut, which yields 2,070 pounds. However, what we actually grow are the food crops that make Montsanto rich—soy at a paltry 345 pounds per acre, or safflower at 605 pounds. To grow high-yield oil crops, you would have to subsidize the first years as the trees grew, and to do that you would have to have the political will to spend a massive amount of money on an endeavor to save the biosphere which would hurt the petroleum industry. Brother, once you’ve got the political will harnessed to do that, you could do better than biodiesel! Hell, you could create a domestic rail system that worked, or something equally radical!
Seventeen to twenty-two percent of biodiesel is methanol, furthermore. We derive our methanol in this country from petroleum sources. So biodiesel is at best approximately an 80% non-fossil fuel. You can make biodiesel out of ethanol, but you need more of it, it won’t react as well with used oil, and the sources of industrial ethanol in this country are all controlled by agribusiness, which means genetically modified corn feedstock, and that stuff has got at least 10 fossil fuel calories behind every calorie of energy that ends up turning the wheels on your vehicle.
This is all fairly brass-tacks ecological footprint sort of stuff. Then there is the less tangible issues. Supporting ArcherDaniel Midlands and Montsanto is an issue. The oil "cubies" that I collect my used oil in from the local restaurants who "sponsor" the Friendly Fuels Biodiesel Works show the ADM stamp right on the bottom of the plastic jug, as shown (poorly) in the photo above. On their website, ADM prominently features their work on biodiesel and ethanol--expert Greenwashing, if you ask me.
Perpetuating the myth that the individual transportation pod can be made sustainable is another. The paving of the planet is not abated by “alternative” fuels. The illusion that the soul-killing, stress-producing, give-me-another-Xanax, pace of life that the denizens of the developed world maintain is not destroying us is maintained by biodiesel. The use of the internal combustion engine, which turns only 13% of the energy in its fuel into forward momentum is continued—it is an invention which would never get off the ground if brought on the market today.
Discouraged by all of this, and inspired by the passionate students of the Woolman Semester, a radical semester program for students interested in Peace, Justice and Sustanability (, I did a project with two of them to put a Greasel brand ( straight vegetable oil (SVO) kit into the truck. The kit works fine, and was pretty easy to install, even with two teenagers helping. (Kidding, guys—you were great!) The truck runs just as well on the hot veggie oil as it does on biodiesel or regular diesel. That eliminates the methanol question, and gets my fuel costs down to about ten cents a gallon. Not bad, eh? The switch on my dashboard that throws the solenoid fuel valve from biodiesel to straight vegetable oil is labeled “”Paradise” for SVO, and “Purgatory” for biodiesel. Still, there is a little more soot, the long term effect on the engine is not known, and most of my other criticisms of biodiesel still apply.
The big issue, and the thing that has been most gratifying to me as a biodieseler, has been that I feel righteous (and possibly even self-righteous) about not personally contributing to oil wars. However, we cannot turn the entire domestic vehicle fleet over to biofuels. We can’t even turn the domestic diesel fleet to biodiesel, because we’d have to farm every available acre of land, and since we farm with more energy than we’d yield, we’d end up destroying our arable land in a total loser proposition.
Biodiesel, my friends is better than fossil fuel, has some potential to be better than it is now, and is still a classic case of ‘You cannot destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools.” It ain’t paradigm shift. It is simply wishful thinking.
Enter by the narrow, gate, my eco-compadres. Enter by the narrow gate. Read on…

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Trap of Righteousness

Various and sundry modern authors of note have written tracts about how we assess the value of technology. E.F Schumacher, Jerry Mander, Scott Savage, Wendell Berry and Katie Alvord come to mind. A multitude of rubrics for determining the appropriateness of a given technology have been proposed. Most of them are eloquent and comprehensible. A few are Byzantine or unnecessarily complex. All of them disqualify just about the entirety of modern technology.
One of the reasons that creating a sustainable future is a spiritual undertaking is that a spiritual perspective immediately means that we are focused on the process of life, and not merely the outcome of our actions. If this sounds like the exact opposite of religion obsessed not with how we live in this life, but whether we are admitted to an exclusive club after death, I won’t apologize: I believe that perspective to be anti-spiritual as well as defeatist. It certainly fails the old Quaker test of, “Is there life in it?” The Kin-dom of God is at hand, yo!
The implication of a process-based approach is that if we can determine the criteria for right livelihood, right relationship, gospel order, or sustainability—however we term that harmony—it will not only give us clues as to how to do things, but what it is meet that we should do. Much of our appropriate technology thinking takes as given our current lifestyles and values, and tries to figure out how to carry them on in a sustainable manner. We ask, how can we decrease the footprint of our travel from San Diego to Chicago. We don’t ask why the hell we need to go to Chicago four times a year.
Quakers assume that Simplicity is an important spiritual discipline for the individual. This is not to say that the concern about slave labor, or the overwork of stagecoach horses is not a key element of compassion, but that the simplicity we practice is really the act of holding God at the center of our lives, and not admitting impediments to our relationship to the Divine. When this becomes truly primary, we are ready to take quantum leaps into the unknown. We are ready to be Fools for God, walking when we could ride, taking Amtrak when we could fly, working fewer hours and for less income than we might, in order to put our priorities on our highest values, dreams, aspirations, leadings. The rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of original sin and the belief that Jesus’ atonement restored the covenant between God and humanity that was in the Garden set the stage for a belief that striving for Gospel Order is the business of our lives. This is what has seemed so naïve about Quakers over the last three and a half centuries. We are most famous for focusing on the abolishment of war, yet living sustainably on planet earth is no more utopian or naïve that trying to live without war. In fact, we may find that part of why we have not succeeded in outgrowing war is that our attitude about exploitation of Earth was constantly in the way.
In pursuit of right relationship, I have tried to eradicate the “Seeds of War” against the biosphere (which includes people, don’t forget) in my life. It has been a disappointingly unsuccessful effort. Last summer at a Joanna Macy intensive retreat for “The Work That Reconnects,” I went into the circle of the Truth Mandala and surrendered my own desire for righteousness. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and yet there is no moral ground to stand on in our society!” I cried out. “I am compromised at every turn. The shirt on my back is made of the most heavily pesticided crop in America—cotton. Industrial mining gave me the stainless steel and seventeen jewels that make up my wristwatch. Feedlot cows died for burgers and the shoe leather I wear on my feet, petroleum makes up my eyeglasses, and all of it built by exploited labor.”
I have spoken of the challenge of righteousness before in a previous blog about John Woolman: “John Woolman and the Plastic Bottle or What Would John Woolman Do?”. It would seem that righteousness was within Woolman’s reach. “Right order” might work better, but remember that righteousness is not the same as self-righteousness, which I have also been accused of.
I want to say here that just because I gave up in the ritual space the obsession with righteousness, that doesn’t mean that I gave it up once and for all. Rather, I began a process of repeatedly giving it up, for the tendency to seek it is deeply ingrained in me. John Punshon first chided me during the question and answer period after a plenary address of his at Friends General Conference, saying, “I see, young man, that you are one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness.” The process of surrendering righteousness has, in the ironic (or paradoxical) way of the work of Spirit, also meant that I have had some openings in the realm of moving my life into right relationship. Life is a messy and complex business, and easy answers give way to new questions. Righteousness also fails the test of "is there life in it?"
This is where the beans come in. Frijoles. Yes, brother, I am talking about the magical fruit, yo! The more you eat…
Read on…