Meet the Peecyclers. Their Idea to Help Farmers Is No. 1. – The New York Times

For this article Catrin Einhorn traveled to Vermont, where she saw many different kinds of toilets.

“BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — When Kate Lucy saw a poster in town inviting people to learn about something known as peecycling, she was mystified. “Why would someone pee in a jug and save it?” she wondered. “It sounds like such a wacky idea.”

She had to work the evening of the information session, so she sent her husband, Jon Sellers, to assuage her curiosity. He came home with a jug and funnel.

Human urine, Mr. Sellers learned that night seven years ago, is full of the same nutrients that plants need to flourish. It has a lot more, in fact, than Number Two, with almost none of the pathogens. Farmers typically apply those nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — to crops in the form of chemical fertilizers. But that comes with a high environmental cost from fossil fuels and mining.”

Everything You Thought You Knew, and Why You’re Wrong (says Vaclac Smil) – The New York Times

HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS

The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going

By Vaclav Smil

“The title’s pleonastic fourth word is the giveaway. It announces the tone of Vaclav Smil’s 49th book: vinegary scorn for the irresponsible declarations of self-proclaimed experts, particularly those guilty of innumeracy, ahistoricism and other forms of wishful thinking that Vaclav Smil would never, ever fall for. You’ve heard a lot of prognostications about the state of the world. They’re bunk. Here, at last, is how the world really works.

Smil, who has taught at the University of Manitoba for half a century, rests his expertise on the strength of a polymathic pedigree nearly unmatched in North American academic life. Unlike Noam Chomsky — whose own breadth of expertise Smil ridicules in passing — Smil does not suffer polemics. Nor is he a forecaster, as he stresses repeatedly (with mounting exasperation). If anything he is an anti-forecaster, contemptuous of any prediction made about complex systems. Smil is a compiler of data, an indefatigable quantifier (to the 10th decimal), a summarizer, a pragmatist and a utilitarian. Or, as he puts it, “I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works.”

“. . . . To do so, however, one must sort and prioritize — one must filter the world’s information through subjective criteria. Even utilitarianism lies in the eye of the beholder. Should policies designed to favor the greatest number of people, for instance, account for people not yet born? If so, how many generations of them? When it comes to such questions, critical as they are to climate policy, mathematical calculations yield inexorably to ethical ones.

In short order Smil summarizes the history of global energy, food, material production and trade. (Smil has dedicated books to each subject.) Salient details emerge. Canada, blessed with greater forest acreage than any affluent nation, saves money by importing toothpicks from China. No country possesses sufficient rare earth metals to support its economy. The world throws out a third of its food. Human beings today enjoy, on average, the annual benefit of 34 gigajoules of energy. Expressed in units of human labor, that is “as if 60 adults would be working nonstop, day and night,” for each person. Residents of affluent countries have it better: An American family of four has more hired help than the Sun King at Versailles.

During these expositional chapters, a bell keeps ringing, and its din soon drowns out the litanies of diesel fuel per kilogram units and ratios of edible mass to mass of embedded energy. It brings the grim announcement that every fundamental aspect of modern civilization rests overwhelmingly on fossil fuel combustion. Take our food system. Readers of Michael Pollan or Amanda Little understand that it’s morally indefensible to purchase Chilean blueberries or, God forbid, New Zealand lamb. But even a humble loaf of sourdough requires the equivalent of about 5.5 tablespoons of diesel fuel, and a supermarket tomato, which Smil describes as no more than “an appealingly shaped container of water” (apologies to Marcella Hazan), is the product of about six tablespoons of diesel. “How many vegans enjoying the salad,” he writes, “are aware of its substantial fossil fuel pedigree?”

This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real

“There are these billions of people who want to burn more fossil fuel,” says Vaclav Smil. “There is very little you can do about that.”

It is best to eat local, but we do not have enough arable land to support our population, even in our vast continent, at least not without the application of obscene quantities of natural-gas-derived fertilizer. One must further account for the more than three billion people in the developing world who will need to double or triple their food production to approach a dignified standard of living. Then add the additional two billion who will soon join us. “For the foreseeable future,” writes Smil, “we cannot feed the world without relying on fossil fuels.” He performs similar calculations for the world’s production of energy, cement, ammonia, steel and plastic, always reaching the same result: “A mass-scale, rapid retreat from the current state is impossible.” “

David Lindsay: There is much here to admire, but one must handle with fire mits. Here is the best so far, of many excellent comments:

Brian D
Maryland May 11

I haven’t read the book, but from the review this sounds like just another manifestation of the doomer ethos “Nothing is worth doing because nothing can save us.” Smil says that food requires energy and refuses to believe that energy can be obtained from renewables, or that ammonia can be made from anything but natural gas. This sort of blindness is the same as that which led Malthus to predict mass starvation, he failed to foresee changes in farming practice including the advent of artificial fertilizer. The solution to problems like decarbonizing food or transportation may be multipartite, difficult, expensive, and require systematic change, but that is not a reason to throw up our hands, it is a reason to start sooner and work harder. I read a lot of climate books and talk to climate activists and no one is on either of the extremes Smil so despises, he is defeating strawmen. Everyone involved on any but the most superficial level understands that large painful changes will have to be undergone if we are to avoid even more catastrophic results, but the idea that nothing can be done is and has always been the biggest force pushing us towards what could well be a civilization ending chain reaction. How does the world REALLY work? It works by people deciding to make changes and uniting to do the hard work. Anything else is simply abandoning our grandchildren.

3 Replies73 Recommended
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Here is what I have to add to the comment above:
David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT comment:
Thank you Nathaniel Rich for this fascinating report. I greatly admire Vaclav Smil for his tough talk and numbers driven analysis. I wonder why he doesn’t join hawks like my partner and me, in saying clearly, the people of the world need to reduce their numbers, since their pollution is killing the planet. Humans are going to have to radically change their behavior, as in, reduce their consumption levels, to reduce green house gas emissions. I agree with one commentor, that Smil appears to have given up. If this is true, it would explain why he sounds almost like a shill for the oil and gas companies,
David blogs at InconvenientNews.net

David Brooks | The Secrets of Lasting Friendships – The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

“In early 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, I met a woman who said she practiced “aggressive friendship.” It takes a lot of her time, but she’s the person who regularly invites friends over to her house, who organizes events and outings with her friends. What a fantastic way to live.

I thought of her while reading Robin Dunbar’s recent book, “Friends.” If the author’s name means something to you, it’s probably because of Dunbar’s number. This is his finding that the maximum number of meaningful relationships most people can have is somewhere around 150. How many people are invited to the average American wedding? About 150. How many people are on an average British Christmas card list? About 150. How many people were there in early human hunter-gatherer communities? About 150.

Dunbar argues that it’s a matter of cognitive capacity. The average human mind can maintain about 150 stable relationships at any given moment. These 150 friends are the people you invite to your big events — the people you feel comfortably altruistic toward.

He also argues that most people have a circle of roughly 15 closer friends. These are your everyday social companions — the people you go to dinner and the movies with. Within that group there’s your most intimate circle, with roughly five friends. These are the people who are willing to give you unstinting emotional, physical and financial help in your time of need.”

Thank you David Brooks for another thoughtful piece. I remember reading about the magic number of 50, for the number most people can keep up with, and the observation that all over the world, throughout history, most military companies had 50 fighters. The comments are also interesting, because some people testify about the truth of the research reviewed, while others skoff and deride it as outdated. Many wounded people have trouble making friends, and feel threatened by the data revealed. I was often a black belt in many sports and martial arts, but never at making friends.

Frank Bruni | Losing My Eyesight Helped Me See More Clearly – The New York Times

“. . .  I stopped pouring. I stewed in frustration. I lived in suspense, willing my left eye to hang in there. And as it did, there was a blessed development that the doctors didn’t augur: Bit by bit, the people around me came into sharper focus, by which I mean that their fears, struggles and triumphs did.

The paradox of my own situation — I was outwardly unchanged but roiling inside — made me newly alert to a fundamental truth: There’s almost always a discrepancy between how people appear to us and what they’re actually experiencing; between their public gloss and private mess; between their tally of accomplishments — measured in money, rankings, ratings and awards — and a hidden, more consequential accounting. I’d long known that. We all do. But I’m not sure how keenly we register it, how steadily we remember it.”

Dr. Herbert Benson, Who Saw the Mind as Medicinal, Dies at 86 – The New York Times

“Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research showing the power of mind over body helped move meditation into the mainstream, died on Feb. 3 at a hospital in Boston. He was 86.

His wife, Marilyn Benson, said the cause was heart disease and kidney failure.

Dr. Benson did not set out to champion meditation; in fact, even after his first pioneering studies, he remained a skeptic, picking up the practice himself only decades later.

He was, however, open to the possibility that state of mind could affect a person’s health — common sense today, but a radical, even heretical idea when he began researching it in the mid-1960s.

During a stint working for the U.S. Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noticed that island residents often had significantly lower blood pressure than their mainland counterparts, all else being equal. He began to wonder if part of the cause lay outside the usual explanations of diet and exercise — a question he took up when he returned to Harvard as a researcher in 1965.”

Maureen Dowd | Can Dems Dodge Doomsday? – The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

Maureen Dowd  Get an email as soon as Maureen Dowd’s latest column is published. Get it sent to your inbox.

“It may be a TikTok world, but sometimes old hacks know best.

James Carville helped Bill Clinton get elected against stiff odds. David Axelrod helped Barack Obama get elected against stiff odds. And Stan Greenberg was the first to identify the fateful trend of Reagan Democrats.

All three Dems are speaking out with startling candor about the impending Repubocalypse. Many Americans are fed up. The jumbled Covid response has eroded an already shaky trust in government. Inflation is biting. War is looming. Things feel out of control. People are anxious and reassessing their lives. Democrats have to connect with that.

The Democrats are stepping all over themselves. And Republicans are doing all they can to prevent the Democrats from accomplishing anything, and then are trashing them for not doing anything. Voters like to punish the people in power. So if the Democrats don’t figure it out, Jim Jordan is going to be running the House and pushing investigations of Biden and Hillary. They can’t quit her.

Exhausted, confused, isolated and depressed Americans are not buying the Democratic line that things are better than they look.

Biden’s superpower was supposed to be empathy, but nobody’s feeling it.”

David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT comment:
MAUREEN DOWD hits another homerun. I hope the sane part of our country get this important message from James Carville, David Axelrod and Stan Greenberg. So many commenters tear this piece apart, which bodes poorly for avoiding the Repubocalypse.

Doctor Visit Guide – Well Guides – The New York Times

“If you are looking for a specialist to do a particular procedure (like hip replacement, cataract surgery, a CT-guided biopsy or heart valve surgery), look for a physician who does lots of them. When it comes to complex medical procedures, more is better. A doctor’s experience correlates with fewer complications for his or her patients. Propublica has created a website that publishes the complication rate (and the death rate) for surgeons in the United States doing eight common elective surgical procedures. Medicare also has a website (Physician Compare) that publishes physician performance scores on various self-reported quality metrics. However, this, too, needs to be taken with a grain of salt.”

Try These Brain Foods to Improve Your Mood – The New York Times

To help patients remember the best foods to eat to support brain health, Dr. Ramsey has devised a simple mantra: “Seafood, greens, nuts and beans — and a little dark chocolate.” He also hosts a free online cooking class (the next one is Feb. 7) called “Mental Fitness Kitchen.”

For this week’s Eat Well Challenge, try adding some new foods to your plate that have been linked to better brain health. This list is based on suggestions from Dr. Naidoo and Dr. Ramsey. Much of the science on the possible brain benefits of various foods is still in its early stages, and eating these foods won’t result in mood changes overnight. But incorporating several of these foods into your meals will improve the overall quality of your daily diet — and you might notice a difference in how you feel.

Dr. Ramsey calls leafy greens the foundation of a brain health diet because they’re cheap, versatile and have a high ratio of nutrients to calories. Kale is his personal favorite, but spinach, arugula, collards, beet greens and chard are also great sources of fiber, folate and vitamins C and A. “

David Brooks | America Is Falling Apart at the Seams – The New York Times – And my response

Opinion Columnist

“In June a statistic floated across my desk that startled me. In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell 13 percent because of the pandemic, but the number of traffic deaths rose 7 percent.

I couldn’t figure it out. Why would Americans be driving so much more recklessly during the pandemic? But then in the first half of 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motor vehicle deaths were up 18.4 percent even over 2020. Contributing factors, according to the agency, included driving under the influence, speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt.

Why are so many Americans driving irresponsibly?

While gloomy numbers like these were rattling around in my brain, a Substack article from Matthew Yglesias hit my inbox this week. It was titled, “All Kinds of Bad Behavior Is on the Rise.” Not only is reckless driving on the rise, Yglesias pointed out, but the number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive, and so on and so on.”

“. . . But something darker and deeper seems to be happening as well — a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility. This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.

What the hell is going on? The short answer: I don’t know. I also don’t know what’s causing the high rates of depression, suicide and loneliness that dogged Americans even before the pandemic and that are the sad flip side of all the hostility and recklessness I’ve just described.

We can round up the usual suspects: social media, rotten politics. When President Donald Trump signaled it was OK to hate marginalized groups, a lot of people were bound to see that as permission.” . . .

David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
Thank you David Brooks for another thoughtful and challenging column. You do have a blind spot, or malfunction, like the EVSE I use to charge up my two electric cars, or one electric car, and a Prius Prime, which is only electric for 25 miles in the summer. To fix the EVSE, when some widget seizes up, the manufacturer said, turn off the breaker, and hit the unit with a rubber mallet really hard. And it worked. I wonder if a rubber mallet would unstick you. I’d like to add to your thoughtful short list of the usual suspects, climate change and the sixth extinction, and the world overpopulation which are the cause of both. My adult daughter says she might not have any children because of these environmental crises. My adult son son says nothing I do for mitigation matters, since we have probably already passed the tipping point, and human life on the planet is probably doomed. I write about this stuff, with weird dark thoughts intruding on my brain, when awake and asleep. One sick thought, is that the pandemic has failed, because it hasn’t killed enough people. I admit this is a dark and ugly thought, but so is driving thousands of non human species into extinction, which is real, and going on this century, and accelerating. Are we committing an unforgiveable sin against other forms of life?
David blogs at InconvenientNews.Net
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In addition,  one irony of this sin of human overpopulation and consumption, and of our poisoning the water, the air, the land, and the atmosphere, is that according to the late scientist Edward O Wilson, if we kill off over 50% of the world’s other species, which is where we are headed, the human species will probably not survive. During the 5th and last great extinction in the geological record, when the dinosaurs died off, so did probably about 95% of the world’s other species at that time.