On the Road Again: Hasta La Vista, La Peñita

La Peñita, I shall return! Well, I would not equate myself with that eccentric WWII general, but I do plan to come back to La Peñita next winter – how could I not? To return to that vibrant little village by the sea has too many reasons to list – most of them too complicated to try to explain here. But I would do it in any case, if only to see Martín again.

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Downtown La Peñita

That reason is complicated too. What an interesting character. Martín is a carpintero (a carpenter/woodworker, builder of windows, doors, cabinets, and furniture of all kinds) in his small shop La Peñita. Some would consider him an anachronism or maybe an inefficient economic actor in a worldwide industrial system that has passed him by. When I met the old man – well, I’m not sure if he’s older or younger than I am – three years ago, I felt an immediate affinity. That little old man with rotting teeth, standing in his flip-flops on the dirt floor of his woodshop, just glowed with serenity. He seemed completely comfortable in his carpintería on a side street a few blocks from the center of town. Martín had worked in the U.S. for awhile many years ago, remembering only a few words in English. We talked about wood and the world for an hour, despite my broken Spanish.

Searching for Huanacaxtle

I had been looking for a source of Huanacaxtle, a tropical hardwood sort of like mahogany, but with beautiful complex grain patterns. It is found throughout Central America and goes by several different names. I had seen some beautiful tables and other furniture made of Huanacaxtle in a gallery in Mazatlán, when we stopped over there, near the end of our first road trip to La Peñita. The grain, color, and figure of this wood are amazingly varied, rich, and muy bonito. After seeing finished pieces in that gallery, I seriously wanted to buy some to take home and make something with it.

Martín is a rare find in this world today, even in Mexico. He’s been working with wood for over a half-century. I might not have found Martin had I not asked a rather unlikely source if he knew anyone in the area who cut or milled Huanacaxtle. Seff Ramirez runs a typical roadside fruit stand on the highway a few km north of La Peñita. He operates a rather nice nursery there too. The man knows how to use a machete. We had stopped to get some of those delicious mini-bananas that are so prolific in the area. I had decided to ask anyone I met if they knew of a carpintería where I could buy some Huanacaxtle.

The Road to Martín

I always try to speak Spanish in Mexico; too many Norte Americanos expect everyone to speak English. That seems presumptuous to me, despite the surprising number of expats and tourists living or traveling in throughout Mexico. Seff surprised me when he answered my question in California English. I asked about that; turns out my guess was right, he’d lived in California for many years. Anyway, when I asked about Huanacaxtle, he said he knew a guy in the local pueblo up the road aways who occasionally cut planks to make furniture for himself or his neighbors.

I asked Seff if he could contact the wood-cutter to see if he had some to sell. It was getting close to our time to depart La Peñita and drive north through the central highlands and deserts to cross the border at Juarez. I wanted to buy a few pieces that would fit in the bed of my pickup truck amid all the other stuff we took with us on a three-month trip through Mexico. I wanted to make something of that beautiful wood in my home woodshop. That did not work out at first. (More, in the next installment of the “On the Road Again” series.)

Conserving Energy: The Overlooked Key to Mitigating Climate Disruption

Increasing production of renewable energy at competitive cost is the core strategy for environmentalists whose goal is to reduce carbon emissions and minimize the damage caused by the climate effects of global warming. The goal is to replace fossil fuel energy production with clean renewable energy production. It is widely known that per capita energy use has increased significantly in recent years. But the idea of limiting or reducing total energy use is rarely a topic of discussion among either environmentalists or politicians. Conserving energy is just not that exciting and does not provide a clear target for the investment of capital. Nobody wants to tell the public that its energy consumption is excessive; it’s easier to focus on replacing fossil fuel with ‘renewables.’

The Production Transition

Most of the debate around the growing use of energy has to do with its production. In New Mexico, for example, Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) is a dominant investor-owned utility company. PNM plans to replace its old San Juan coal-fired plant with other coal-sourced and nuclear-sourced energy production. New Energy Economy is a clean energy advocacy group trying to get the state’s Public Regulatory Commission (PRC) to reject the plan and require more investment in solar and wind energy production. Critics complain that the plan will lock New Mexico ‘rate payers’ into costly liability for (1) future damage to the environment and public health caused by continued mining and burning of coal in the Four Corners region, and (2) nuclear power plant risks and huge future decommissioning costs. And the costs of producing electricity will be greater as well. PNM is one of the most intransigent utilities in the nation, seemingly dragging its feet in every way possible to block solar and wind energy production. PNM’s ownership of and partnering with other investor-owned utilities in coal, natural gas, and nuclear facilities most likely are drivers of its plans.

California has structured its relations with utilities differently. Incentives are in place that allow utilities to make more money if energy is conserved. Significant investments are being made in very large solar farms in the high desert to reduce dependence on burning fossil fuel. In contrast, despite boasting some 300 days of annual sunshine and a lot of wind, the state of New Mexico has taken little advantage of alternative forms of energy production. Yet, whatever level of effort made at reducing carbon emissions by converting from fossil fuels to alternative or renewable forms of energy production, the problem is almost universally seen as only an economic conversion problem. That is, if we just get off using fossil fuels and convert to renewable sources of energy, carbon emissions will go down and climate catastrophe will be averted. But that is not quite true.

How much is the addition of solar and wind powered energy production helping us reduce carbon emissions? Well, not so much. In the U.S., emissions have continued to increase. Every discussion of how to mitigate climate change is framed in a context of assuring continued economic growth. In that context, solar and wind add to the total energy production and may even encourage more consumption and waste.

Houston, we have a contradiction!  First, the entire economic system is structured to encourage over-consumption. The culture focuses almost entirely on economic materialism. Second, the consumer culture is now infused with the idea that everything must be upgraded at shorter and shorter intervals. Current product replacement regimes far surpass the old slower paced “planned obsolescence” product design criteria. The “greening” of marketing and advertising do not reflect production and consumption practices that would result in any energy conservation. The entire environmental movement, it seems, has been captured and marketed as another means to achieve the economic growth encouraged by the corporate state.

Another even more disturbing problem has been brought to light but has not been widely discussed among solar or wind power ‘productivists.’* The new high technologies for renewable energy production not only consume considerable quantities of fossil-fuel sourced energy in their manufacture and installation. They also deploy significant amounts of the rare earth, heavy metals, and other exotic and toxic materials. These are the same materials used in the production of all the microelectronics in computers, smart phones, and the endless array of ‘smart devices’ that comprise the burgeoning “Internet of everything.” The manufacture of such devices consumes vast quantities of water, polluting it in the process, in addition to materials that are increasingly in short supply and often very toxic. Hardware upgrades constitute a growing problem of waste and pollution rarely talked about or considered in assessing the value of ‘renewable’ sources of energy.

Social Transformation, Not Production Transition

When the energy consumed in producing renewable energy production systems is combined with looming shortages of materials and increasing waste and pollution, it becomes clear that transitioning from fossil-fuel energy to ‘renewables’ will fall far short of achieving the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to avoid climate chaos over the next few decades.

Other strategies, often simpler and with far less environmental impact, are available, but they will require that we radically reorganize our economy, social policies, and the way we live. Devising ways to reduce energy use and waste will require a lot of creativity and work; this will generate jobs that use relatively little energy while directly reducing the excessive energy use and waste that cause carbon emissions. Investment in such jobs will be in direct conflict with the capital investment regime under which we now live.
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* Ozzie Zehner, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Zehner’s insightful and comprehensive study of the intersection of environmentalism and the growth economy goes beyond merely showing how difficult the situation is; he makes valuable suggestions for realistic policy changes that could be far more effective by reducing energy consumption, than the ‘whiz-bang’ high-technology based ‘productivist’ approaches to reestablishing a viable relationship between humanity and our biosphere.