Satire or Reality? The Onion on the Cancellation of Fall

After wondering why fall didn’t appear this year, I finally stumbled on the answer in a recent piece in the Onion

“Fall, the long- running series of shorter days and cooler nights, was canceled earlier this week after nearly 3 billion seasons on Earth, sources reported Tuesday. 

The classic period of the year, which once occupied a coveted slot between summer and winter, will be replaced by new, stifling humidity levels, near- constant sunshine, and almost no precipitation for months.”  Read more of this article.  

 Why does satire often seem more real than reality?

 The typical news story on the absence of fall would, of course, contain perspective from a weather expert. This expert would explain about natural variation in weather patterns, blah, blah, and that we can’t make predictions about climate change based on a couple of years of data, blah, blah.

 Somehow satire seems to get more to the point. 

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NPR Interview Offers Big Picture on Water

The current drought will end at some point, but the need to conserve water likely won’t. Peter Gleick, a water conservation expert, tells NPR why the nation will need to conserve and manage water better in the 21st century. He also explains the paradoxical prediction by climatologists that global warming will lead to both more floods and more droughts. If you’re interested in understanding the big picture about water and have 20 minutes to spare, this is great background information. 

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Carrboro Farmers’ Market: Fresh, Healthy, but not “Organic”

I had the following article published in today’s Chapel Hill Herald.

By Sheila Read : The Herald-Sun
chh@heraldsun.com
Nov 18, 2007 : 10:00 pm ET

CARRBORO — The handmade signs at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market make a wide and sometimes confusing variety of claims about the farmers’ produce and meat.

On a busy Saturday in autumn, at least 18 farms display signs making claims about how their food is raised.

“Nothing icky,” says the sign at Castle Rock Gardens, above an array of arugula and watercress. “Pasture-raised chickens,” advertises Castlemaine Farm. “Sustainable,” says Perry-winkle Farm. “No chemicals,” says Graham Family Farm of its grapes and oriental eggplants.

What’s noticeably missing from the signs is the label organic. Only one of the regular vendors at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, Timberwood Organics, advertises its organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Without certification from the USDA, farmers are not legally allowed to call their produce organic.

The Saturday crowds at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market are just one small manifestation of the growing numbers of people across the country who go out of their way to shop for food they believe is raised in more healthful ways. Organic food accounts for 2 percent of U.S. food sales, but it has been one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market since the late 1990s, according to the USDA.

In 2002, the department adopted national standards for certifying food as organic. To qualify as organic, producers must avoid most conventional pesticides and not use fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients. Animals cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

About 70 to 80 percent of shoppers who buy organic say health and nutrition are their top reason, reports Samuel Fromartz in “Organic, Inc.” Shoppers also buy organic because of freshness, taste, environmental concerns and an interest in supporting sustainable farming, he writes.

Multiple answers

So why aren’t small farmers in this area getting organic certification to capitalize on this growing market?

The answers provide insight into the growing movement toward buying local food — and the suspicions many small farmers have as the organic food movement becomes more industrialized.

One reason that local farmers tend to shy away from organic certification is the hassle and cost associated with filling out long government forms. “The paper work is fairly onerous,” said Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm.

Small farmers also tend to be suspicious of government regulation and to prize staying independent, several farmers said. “It’s hard to feel independent when someone is looking over your shoulder,” said Ristin Cooks of Castle Rock Gardens.

But many farmers also expressed skepticism about the meaning of organic certification at a time when corporate farms are increasingly coming to dominate organic food production. Small local farmers say they believe the USDA rules for certification were designed to fit the needs of large corporate farms, not small farms. “Certification is expensive and in some ways meaningless,” said Cooks. “It applies to corporate monocultures that we feel are not good stewards of the land.”

And just because a product is certified by the USDA does not mean its label means what consumers might think it does. One frequently cited example has to do with chickens labeled “free-range.” This does not mean the chickens freely range outdoors, as shoppers might expect, but that the chickens simply have access to the outdoors, whether they ever go outside or not.

“I’m really afraid that in the near future we won’t be getting organic although it’s labeled that,” said Daniel Tolfree of Millarckee Farm.

What’s most important

At the Carrboro market, the fact that the food is grown locally is even more important than whether the farmers use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, farmers said. To sell at the market, vendors must farm within a 50-mile radius of Carrboro.

Locally-grown food appeals to people who are seeking fresher, more flavorful meat and produce. “Local” and “flavor” are top two selling points at the market, said Hitt of Peregrine Farm.

In the bigger picture, many people buy local because they agree with the inherent values of preserving local farmland and preserving communities, writes Michael Pollan in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Buying local also appeals to people who are concerned about global warming and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with burning fuel to ship food across the country and the world.

But the most important aspect of the local food movement is the ability of customers to talk directly with the farmers who supply their food. Organic certification isn’t necessary when farmers can talk directly with consumers, several farmers said.

For example, Hitt said that after 22 years selling at the farmer’s market, his customers know him so well he doesn’t even use signs describing his growing techniques.

As with any market, a danger exists that unscrupulous sellers will attempt to win sales by misleading customers about their products. But the opportunity for customers to develop a relationship with the farmers they buy from is a disincentive to fraud.

“There’s nothing to stop a local farmer from using chemicals or abusing animals — except the gaze or good word of his customers,” Pollan writes. “Instead of looking at labels, the local food customer will look at the farm for himself, or look the farmer in the eye and ask him how he grows his crops or treats his animals.”

Farmers acknowledge that the array of different signs at the market making claims about food can be confusing. It’s important, some said, that consumers be prepared to ask good questions.

Laurie Heise of Wiseacre farm said she stopped using a sign labeled “naturally grown” because people didn’t seem to know what that meant.

“People were making jokes, ‘Everything’s naturally grown,’ ” she said. Heise now has a sign with a detailed explanation of her farming practices. More importantly, she says she’s willing to explain how she farms to anyone who asks.

QUESTIONS TO ASK FARMERS

About fruits and vegetables:

— Are you trying to grow food organically?
— What techniques do you use to control pests, weeds and disease?
— Do you allow the public to visit your farm?

About beef, dairy, chicken, pork and eggs:

— Do you use antibiotics?
— What type of feed do you give your animals? Does it have animal byproducts?
— Are hens caged?
— Do your cows eat from pasture? How often?

Source: The Green Guide Institute

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Drought Response: Theater of the Absurd

There is no seeming end to the absurdities in the ongoing response to the drought. An Atlanta man who lives alone is using 400,000 gallons of water per month, ABC News reported today. And the water authorities can’t do anything to stop him unless they catch him in the act of breaking water restrictions.

What’s the point of water restrictions when no viable enforcement exists? Local governments keep calling for residents to restrict water use, but the public officials seem to badly need a lesson in basic psychology. People tend not to listen to exhortations from authorities unless they think there’s something in it for them. How often did you obey your mom’s pleas to clean up your room?

Gov. Mike Easley’s plea for North Carolina residents to cut water use in half is, predictably, not working. I’m no expert, but I’ll venture some guesses as to why. For one, I think most people have no idea how much water they use per day or what activities tend to use up the most water. It’s hard to cut back on something when you don’t know how much you use to start with. It’s like telling someone to cut calories in half when they don’t have any idea how many calories are in various foods.

More importantly, the lame response to the drought seems to be self-reinforcing. No one wants to be the sucker who sacrifices when others aren’t making the same sacrifice. So even though I am trying to cut down on my water use, I still often use more water than absolutely necessary. (I love that last unnecessary extra minute in the shower.) One reason is I keep thinking, why should I cut back when so few others are?

I don’t feel much of a sense of community uniting to protect a common resource. Instead, I have the nagging feeling that most people hear the drought stories as background noise, or as hype they don’t believe.

In my opinion, the big news story that the mainstream media is missing is an exploration of why many people aren’t conserving much, if at all.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to fess up on why you’re not conserving more. Or if you are conserving, share what you’re doing to cut back on water use.

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Where Did Falls Lake Go?

My mouth fell open when I drove past Falls Lake on I-85 last weekend as I headed north to D.C. The lake, which used to stretch far into the distance on both sides of the road, is …

gone.

What remains are mud flats and a few rivulets of water.

In case you didn’t know, Falls Lake is the main reservoir that is the source of water for Raleigh. People in Raleigh who don’t yet get the need to conserve water owe it to themselves to take a little road trip to see what has become of this lake.

It makes me glad I live in Chapel Hill, where the water authority has instituted year-round conservation measures and is working to find more ways to save water.

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Water Shortages May be Part of Warming World

Here’s the headline no one wants to see in their community: Tennessee Town Has Run Out of Water. The town of Orme, Tenn., 45 minutes west of Chattanooga, is so short of water that the water manager turns the water on for just three hours per day, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

North Carolina is not alone in facing serious water shortages because of exceptional drought. Drought is afflicting much of the Southeast and Southwest United States. The problem is serious and long-term, experts say in recent articles. Unfortunately, the water experts don’t offer much hope for those who may be praying for rain to release us from the need to conserve water.

An in-depth New York Times Magazine article describes the Southwest as not just in a drought but drying into desert. The magazine quotes experts who believe the dryness in the West is a sign that the effects of global warming are already occurring.

Global warming has been on my mind during this summer and fall’s unusual heat and drought: the weather in Chapel Hill this year has had an eerie resemblance to the predictions of international climate experts. It was hotter (August broke the state’s previous heat record), dryer, and the rain that came often fell in torrents. “I’m very concerned that global warming is aggravating the drought,” Bill Holman of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions told me in September.

Scarce water in a warmer world may provoke increased battles between states for access to water, the Times says. Indeed, that’s already happening in the Southeast. An article in U.S. News & World Report describes the fight between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over access to water, as Atlanta residents fear their taps will run dry.

An AP story cites government projections that at least 36 states will be short of water in five years. Warmer temperatures, drought, growing populations, and urban sprawl and excess consumption are to blame. Poor water planning also plays a part.

Now, many water experts are calling for a new approach to water, one that will involve a cultural shift in attitudes toward water use as well as technological solutions. The AP quotes Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency:

“The need to reduce water waste and efficiency is greater than ever before. Water efficiency is the wave of the future.”

Four-minute showers, anyone?

For more information on predictions of the effects of global warming on water resources, see this Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

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OWASA Director: People Failing to Conserve Water

Water usage in Orange County has not dropped much since tighter water restrictions went into effect last week, and the director of the local water authority said water usage trends are “very discouraging.”

“Frankly, our customers are not doing enough to save water, period,” said Ed Kerwin, executive director of the Orange Water & Sewer Authority. “We need help from them.”

The rainfall in the last two days, while welcome, has done little so far to relieve drought conditions. “This is not a drought-buster rain by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a start,” Kerwin said at an OWASA board meeting Thursday night. The Cane Creek and University Lake reservoirs are 50 percent full, meaning they have about a 6-month supply of water.

Kerwin said that in his opinion, using 1,000 gallons of water per person each month would be reasonable given the exceptional drought conditions and Governor Mike Easley’s call for cutting all water use by 50 percent. The average household in Orange County uses 5,500 gallons of water per month.

Kerwin also acknowledged that information OWASA offered about an 800-gallon per day limit during Stage 2 restrictions may have been misleading to customers. “We’ve done a poor job perhaps of explaining what that is,” Kerwin said in an interview. “It’s in no way, shape, or form a goal or target. It’s the threshold at which you’ll lose your service.” Kerwin added that 800 gallons per day is a “ridiculously high” amount of water.

To conserve water, Kerwin recommends that people flush the toilet half as often, take showers that are half as long, and turn off the water when shaving and brushing teeth. “These are all reasonable, practical things that I don’t think should hurt anyone’s quality of life and would save a lot of water when we need it to be saved,” Kerwin said.

Even when Stage 2 restrictions were announced last week, customers continued to use more water than called for during the more lenient Stage 1 restrictions, according to OWASA charts. Stage 2 restrictions aim to produce a 15 percent reduction in water use, while Stage 1 called for a 10 percent reduction.

Stage 1 restrictions also produced “discouraging” results, Kerwin said. Since Stage 1 restrictions went into effect on Sept. 27, on about half the days customers used so much water that water usage was higher than the water authority had projected even before the drought, according to OWASA data.

OWASA wants to see total customer water usage of around 7.5 million gallons per day, Kerwin said, but so far demand for water is well above that level. If customer water demand fails to drop significantly, OWASA will “sooner rather than later” recommend going to Stage 3 restrictions, Kerwin said.

The water authority encourages customers to report suspected water violations either to OWASA or to the Chapel Hill or Carrboro police, who will issue citations. Under current restrictions, no spray irrigation is allowed. “There’s no exception for anyone,” Kerwin said. “If water is being sprayed freely in the air it’s a violation.”

Since August, the flow from streams into OWASA’s two reservoirs has been lower than it was during the record drought of 2001-2002. That drought lasted nearly 15 months, while the current drought has been going on for six months. Climatologists predict an unusually dry winter.

Kerwin said OWASA is deliberately being conservative in its approach to managing the water supply. If stream flows this winter return to normal, or even a little less than normal, odds are 70 to 80 percent that the reservoirs will refill, Kerwin said. “But we’re going to plan for the worst-case scenario and just not take the risk of running out of water.”

What are your thoughts on why people have failed to date to respond to calls for water conservation?

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