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Burning is Not Renewable. Period.

Burning is the black heart of the growing debate over what's renewable...and what natural systems are most endangered by burning "anything."

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"But environmentalists argue that one of the goals of renewable energy is to cut back on the heat-trapping gases emitted from burning most things, whether fossil fuels or bananas. When there is no fire, there are no emissions."New York Times, May 2009

That quote was the first I've found in the media addressing the root problem -- "burning".

My husband and I have been discussing for many months the ramifications of "burning" anything in quantity. It occurred to us when we moved to California and witnessed our first forest fires. The amount of smoke and emissions and heat emitted by this man-made fire that nature escalates is so incredible that it's hard to fathom. So we started thinking through the impacts. Among the more visible results of wilderness fires are:

  • Particulate matter that is spewed into the air and distributed over thousands of miles.

  • Tremendous heat waves that are released into the atmosphere.

  • Loss of organic matter for recapturing by the soil

  • Burned soil, natural mulch and microbes

  • Burned wildlife from earthworms to caterpillars and butterflies to birds and four-legged critters

  • Burned and destroyed native plants and seed stock in the top layers of soil

  • Burned, charred, heat stressed and singed rocks, minerals and other surface materials.

The implications of burning carry far beyond wildfires. When we have smoldering landfills, we also get a lot of these same impacts with additional chemical contamination of the air and water supplies from toxic chemicals that have been dumped in the landfills or that form through the unexpected consequences of mixtures and solutions that form in the underground caverns and cracks among the debris.

To call burning a "renewable energy source" negates the sensible approach that calls for the "natural" transformation of natural organic materials through decomposition. Not burning.

Soil is probably the most fragile, precious natural resource on our planet. Just ask the drought-ravaged peoples in areas where arable soil has been devastated by lack of water, fires and abuse of the soil.

Do you recall the American Dustbowl?

My husband is actually an Oklahoma native, and we lived there for more than a decade. And that's where I attended college and learned details about the fragility of our geo-resources.

The Dustbowl was caused, not by natural windstorms, but by the exploitation of the Great Plains for the golden windfall of the era -- wheat! Properties were bought by East coast financiers and they pushed the productivity of the soil beyond its capabilities to restore itself. And the soil gave out. And when the soil gave out, the plants gave up. And a drought ensued. And the winds kicked up the dust and carried those precious inches of topsoil into the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

The same thought process is once again attacking our soil. Push production beyond the soil's natural ability to restore itself. Burn the organic matter that must be used to replenish the nutritional habitat of the soil.

Burning organic waste stops the natural decomposition of soil ingredients. Burning petroleum products heats up the atmosphere which kills plants in their native habitats. Burning switchgrass and poplar trees and bamboo and all those other organic materials also remove organic materials from the soil's nutritious balance.

Renewable energy is not a renewable or feasible goldrush.

Exploitation of ANYTHING organic can only lead to disturbances of the natural balance of our natural systems. And we are so out of touch with nature (especially in our highrise offices and homes) that we can't even imagine the consequences of such exploitation. We can't even make good decisions about these systems.

It's like a good typist trying to fix a computer's motherboard. Ain't gonna happen!

Solutions for Renewable Energy

The only truly renewable energy is that which doesn't disturb the condition of the materials being harnassed.

Solar PV is renewable if the manufacturing doesn't disturb natural resources in the making and waste of this labor/resource intensive product.

Solar thermal is renewable if it doesn't destroy water supplies.

Passive solar is renewable if it is used on modest size buildings that also use tremendous amounts of natural resources.

Even human-powered renewable energy is renewable only if the purpose helps restore and conserve natural systems.

Burning wood, coal, oil, gas, waste, or even banana peels is not renewable. The change of the chemical makeup of organic matter into heat and emissions puts tremendous strains on the natural system to reclaim those limited molecular resources, and unbalances the earth's temperature, which is part of a very delicate overall natural system that controls water, vegetation, soil and water temperature, seasonal rainy periods...and many other subsystems.

Strategies Better than "Renewable"

There are strategies that work much better than the holy grail of "renewable energy."

First comes "right-sizing".

The Western way of life uses FOUR times the amount of natural resources used by developing nation lifestyles. We aren't four times happier. We aren't four times healthier. We aren't four times better educated. Or more caring and loving. Or satisfied.

Less truly is better than "more" renewable anything.

Second is value-based decision making.

There are limits to freedom when survival is in jeopardy. Do we really have the resources to waste on frivolous or harmful or toxic or violent business output?

Do we really need pornography? Or prisons? Or trinkets and trash? Or mansions?

At this point in our evolution, surely we have ways to allocate resources to help us survive the growing disasters that are affecting all of us and will be the growing cause of the deaths of millions of our children and cousins and species in the wild.

We regulate where we put housing. We regulate smoking. We regulate the size of cars. But we don't adequately regulate the size of prisons. Or the availability of porn. Or the use of firearms to kill endangered species. Or toxicity of pesticides that kill untold natural workers in the soil and wild nooks and crannies of our essential habitat.

Value is a difficult issue to deal with. Survival is, too.

Face Our Own Impact

The first ripple of value impact is with our self. It's hard to clean up your own gluttony of natural resources, no matter how much you value your own mansion or waste or poor behavior. We all excuse our own choices more easily than we excuse similar actions in others. But in this critical time, maybe we need to have more open discussions about our foibles and alternatives that work better.

Maybe we need to discuss the bare essentials that ar needed for survival. Things like population control. Things like voluntary simplicity. Things like spending more time with our children. Things like reducing gift giving of nonsensical "stuff". Things like buying foods that are shipped thousands of miles.

Maybe we need to redefine "Real value." And yes, there is certainly latitude (and longitude)...but hard choices need to be made individually and in small groups -- like families and friends and coworkers and fellow-worshipers and neighbors.

Maybe it's time to not just set a 10% goal...but a 50% goal and make the challenge worth serious training and effort. Like training for a marathon, because that's what we are signed up for, like it or not.

Step one is to "just say no to burning." No matter how difficult that is.



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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