A Junk Drawer of Changes

December 8, 2019

A tip of the hat in respect to those servicemen who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 – almost 80 years ago.

This week I was cleaning out two kitchen drawers that had turned into junk drawers over the years. I became aware of how much things have changed in the past twenty years. There was a digital pedometer that we don’t use anymore. A cell phone app does that now. There were 9- volt batteries in the drawer that were long past their expiration date. The new lithium smoke and carbon monoxide detectors don’t need them. The manufacturer says to replace the entire unit after ten years. There were bayonet type Garden Accent light bulbs in the drawer. We use LED fixtures now. There were phone cords and phone couplers for landline phones. We don’t have those anymore. There were batteries for a modest digital camera. We use our cell phones to take photos now. There were expired C-batteries for a battery-operated adding machine that we don’t use anymore. Technology is changing more rapidly than I clean out my junk drawer. Maybe I should do that more often.

Talking about change….

I was in Amish country in Iowa a week ago. Although different communities have different rules, they ordinarily don’t use fossil fuels. We were in one store with a big iron wood burning stove. At a grocery warehouse, the clerk used a battery powered adding machine instead of a cash register. We saw a few men cleaning up the fields and tossing the remains of last season’s planting into a large container sized like a dump truck. It was pulled by a team of four horses. For tasks requiring gasoline, natural gas and electricity, the Amish rely on outsiders whom they call “English.” For farm work requiring a combine, they hire outsiders.

Most of us do not want to live the way of the Amish. We have become accustomed to the benefits of the very efficient energy provided by fossil fuels. Our society and economy thrive on energy. Stricter regulations have spurred technological advancements that enable our cars, furnaces and power plants to burn fuels much cleaner now. Climate scientists point out that we are putting far too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some scoff at the idea that carbon dioxide can be a problem. We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in. As part of the dynamic energy cycle, carbon dioxide itself is not a problem.

The threat to our way of life is the extra amount of carbon dioxide that our industrialized society is exhaling into our atmosphere. We are rapidly tapping a reservoir of carbon that was stored in the earth more than 300 million years ago. The key word in that sentence is “rapidly.” We are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the plants can absorb. In some developing countries, people are cutting down the trees that absorb carbon dioxide as part of their life cycle.

From ice cores extracted from Greenland and the Antarctic climate scientists have been able to deduce a familiar cycle of events when the carbon dioxide concentration increases. The planet warms, the oceans rise, and precipitation increases. Permafrost at extreme latitudes melts and releases the carbon it has stored. That creates a feedback loop that intensifies the effect.

We need to slow down our consumption of fossil fuels, but we don’t want to give up the savings from the energy they provide. The internal combustion engine lowered food production costs, increased yields and lowered the cost of food for all Americans. Farmers dry their corn and other staple crops with fossil fuels. In another time, they might have plowed a damp surplus crop back into the ground.

We can’t attribute the lower cost of food entirely to fossil fuels, but a comparison of prices surprised me. A hundred years ago butter cost .58 per lb. in NYC (BLS, 2006). That’s $7.54 in current dollars. Eggs were .57 per dozen, so about $7.40. Current price for eggs was $1.28 last month (BLS, 2019). That’s a sixth of the price a century ago. Milk, a government subsidized product, was .28 per 1/2 gallon – approximately $3.64 in today’s money. The current price for milk is $3.12 for twice as much, a gallon. Milk today is about 40% of the cost it was a century ago.

Sixty years ago, the development of nuclear energy plants promised cleaner and less expensive energy. After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the building of new nuclear plants was severely curtailed [Wikipedia, n.d.]. Each year more coal miners die in accidents than all the people in history who have died from a nuclear accident. When it comes to nuclear, people disregard comparative statistics.

We don’t like making hard choices. We don’t like inconvenience. We absorb change and become accustomed to it. We put our old ways of doing things in the junk drawer of history and forget about it. We don’t want to live like the Amish to adapt to a planet with rising levels of carbon dioxide. What choices will future generations make?

/////////////////////////

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (2006, May). 100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending. [Web page, PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (2019, November). Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. City Average and Northeast Region. [Web page, PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/data/averageretailfoodandenergyprices_usandnortheast_table.htm

Photo by katherine cunningham on Unsplash

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Three Mile Island accident. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident#Effect_on_nuclear_power_industry

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