Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Catherine and Amanda Go Solar

In this summer of national self reflection on just what noble cause our soldiers are dying for in Iraq, a little counter celebration is in order as I listen to workmen on our roof. Look at all those panels. Laid out like that they were nearly as large as the lawn.

Solar Power, that Holy Grail of eco living has long been a dream that I was willing to finance, but not owning a house it remained a dream. Catherine who has been a homeowner for twelve years (a legacy of her marriage), had heard the call of solar too, but being a homeowner, any extra money was earmarked for more pressing projects like replacing the roof. By the time the two of us got it together, installing solar panels became a significant milestone to celebrate in our journey to partnership.

Eleven years ago when I accepted Catherine's invitation to move into her house, I couldn't believe I was going to live in a house with a leather couch. And a beige one at that. How yuppifyied could you get? Having never considered becoming a homeowner, I had spent my adult life living in shared rental housing. This usually meant an eclectic assortment of furnishings. The shabbiness of the couch being a measure of the occupants' priorities or lack thereof.

I asked Catherine if I could bring my worm bin with me. She hadn't heard of worm composting. She just thought I was eccentric. It was a testament to her love that she allowed me to set up my homemade plywood box, occupied by several pounds of earthworms, in the coolness of the half basement. I tenderly introduced her to my worm friends. (In this household of purebred animals - a Manchester terrier and a ball fetching, Abyssinian cat, it amused me to refer to the worms as my pets.)

The first five years I spent gardening, replacing a third of the lawn with paving stones and drought tolerant perennial beds. I bought a push mower and installed drip irrigation. Catherine took care of the front yard and we argued about what plants were tidy enough for curbside appeal.

Our first mutual commitment to eco living was toilet paper (80% post-consumer recycled content) and compact fluorescent light bulbs where I could stand them. (The color didn't look right in the lampshades). Meanwhile Catherine began buying organic food because she didn't want us to be poisoned by pesticides and didn't trust genetically modified foods. This was a luxury I didn't feel I could afford, but as I realized the connection between what we ate and the health of the soil, I resigned myself to the high prices. To compensate I stepped up my vegetable growing and joined an organic gardening group.

After six years of living together, we felt we had enough of a commitment to last the life of an appliance, so we bought an energy star refrigerator and a dishwasher together. Catherine had the house painted, put in double paned windows and had the floors refinished. Still we kept our money separate. I was in the stock market on a tear to make my fortune.

When I emerged from the bust, financially battered, demoralized and unnerved, my perspective was significantly altered. Having a long-term relationship took on much greater significance. We decided to take the next step - sign the papers that would insure I would not have to think about being tossed out of the house should Catherine expire suddenly. ("Sounds like I'm a tub of cottage cheese", she comments.)

It turned out this potential expulsion had affected me much more than I realized. The house never really felt like my home until we signed those papers. Only then did I started thinking like a homeowner, thinking solar and water catchment systems, on demand hot water heating and building more than just a garden trellis.

This spring when Catherine asked if she could turn the compost heap, I realized we had arrived. When she declared, after watching a documentary on factory farming, that she was becoming a vegetarian, I was alarmed.

"What," I asked pragmatically, "are we going to do with all this chicken in the freezer?"

"Feed it to Tango," she said. Well if we were going to feed it to the cat, I could eat some of it too. We compromised. Mostly we would be vegetarian and once in a while Tango and I would treat ourselves to free range chicken.

We were serious now. Together we had looked at what was happening to the environment, how global warming was affecting the oceans, what it would take to stop the process.

When Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse, asked what was going on in the mind of the Easter Island inhabitant who cut down the last tree, he was asking us what is going on in our minds as news of the planet's demise keeps surfacing and global oil supply approaches its peak. Why are we continuing to drive ever bigger cars, build bigger houses, remodel our kitchens with banks of 8 lights where there was one before and plugging in more instant on appliances with their phantom loads?

The government isn't addressing global warming, let alone peak oil and the media continues to treat the subject as not happening. What if those luckless Easter Island inhabitants didn't know it was the last tree? Perhaps those in power convinced them there was plenty more on a just-out-of-reach, we'll-go-there-someday island or that the great gods they were building statues for would finally provide. This would not be us, but we were bucking the everything-will-work-out optimism of American culture.

Some how people were concerned, but just not concerned enough. Why were we different? Why did we insist on delving into the depressing news of big fish and plankton dying off, permafrost melting, plastic molecules contaminating the oceans, when even environmental organizations don't go there really? (Whether out of fear of paralyzing their supporters or of alienating potential business allies, this may be the undoing of the movement.)

Because, I realized, if we don't fathom the problem, we won't know how great our commitment and our effort needs to be to overcome it. From what I was reading, we would need every effort from all of us. Maybe some would be overwhelmed by the dire news and become paralyzed or start hoarding and panicking, but most had not been asked, not been motivated to rise to the challenge.

Lacking this rising of the populace to make change, it became for us a moral issue really. We would not go to our graves knowing that we simply shrugged and said what could we do, the problem was too overwhelming.

If cutting our emissions by 70% in order to halt the warming process was what was required then we needed to at least try. We would be the first on our block. It would not surprise any of our neighbors after seeing the Sparrow (still in the shop, alas, awaiting parts if indeed said parts are still made).

Once I bought the electric car, solar was the obvious next step. No more would naysayers be able to point out that I was still polluting because I was plugging into a dirty grid. Though they would try to say that the making of solar panels cost more energy to make than would ever be generated over the life of the panel. That bit of misinformation seems to have lodged itself into the smarty-pants noggins of pro-nuke sorts and the occasional MBA. Perhaps it was an attempt to explain why solar was impractical in a market economy while not admitting that it wasn't a level playing field.

I asked our installer about the embedded energy in the solar panels. It takes two years for the panels to generate the power it took to make them, he admitted. That wasn't so bad. (For you doubting Thomases here are charts and graphs and everything from the energy dapartment.) We were also pleased to learn that it wouldn't cost as much as we expected. Catherine was thinking $20,000, but because our power need was half what our installer would have guessed, given the size of the house we would only need a 1.6 kilowatt system - 12 panels.

After the various rebates and tax deductions it came out to just under $12,000 with the electrician's fee added. Solar was definitely a serious commitment to our principles, but the satisfying part would come from selling power to PG & E at peak rates, 31 cents a Kwh in the summer, then buying it back in the evening and morning at 8 cents a Kwh when we use most of our power. Plus we would have that thrill of watching the meter run backward.

California representatives continue to push through legislation to boost support for solar. The Million Solar Home bill that Schwarzenegger is so proud of is being discussed in the Assembly Appropriations Committee next week. The Senate already passed it 30 votes to 5. If passed the bill would not only continue the rebates and tax credits, but also require homebuilders to offer a solar option on every large single family home built, with the cost integrated into the mortgage. This would save on cost of installation and push down prices as demand rose.

Originally the bill was going to require that every new home be outfitted with solar, but this was considered too much of a boon to the solar industry (as if the oil and gas industry didn't already have a leg up from government subsidies). By 2018 if the million solar homes goal is met, 3,000 megawatts of solar energy would be generated. Enough to provide all the peak energy needs of 750,000 homes (or a city the size of San Francisco). Go California.

We had accepted that there would be little federal government leadership in the direction of building renewable energy until it was too late. All the more reason to proceed locally.

"We have to be our own leaders," I had said to Catherine. "No one else is going to do it."

Thus we had both applied for and were accepted into a year long program called Be The Change sponsored by Acterra, formerly the Peninsula Conservation Center merged with Bay Area Action. Catherine was also spearheading a new chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship at our meditation center, while I was working with a colleague on a workshop to teach organizers how to counter afluenza (habitual shopping beyond need) in their clients.

With both of us driven like this, we would feed each other, strengthen our relationship at the same time and keep despair away. That in itself was a powerful way to live (and love).

"What do you think of visiting Hiroshima?" Catherine asked me, eager to delve into our nations shame.

"I think Spain would be more fun," I said thinking, of Gaudi, Barcelona and sunny public squares.

Published concurrently at the energy bulletin.

Monday, August 08, 2005

SARS, Bolton and Globalization

We can once again point to Bush's incompetent leadership in his appointment of Bolton to the UN, where he will undoubtedly alienate the diplomatic community. I find it makes more sense to see the Bush administration's leadership as largely successful, given its long-term intentions. Bush can list Bolton as one of his accomplishments along with the passing of CAFTA and the new supreme court judge and even, dare I say it, the war in Iraq where the US can now stay as long as it wants.

With the appointment of Bolton we can look forward to the dismantling of the U.N." An article I read in the Chron convinced me that Bush appointed him for precisely that reason. The headline read "Bush's nominee for U.N. envoy has already irritated the world."

Who would bother to read that? Irritate is a word used for violating a dress code as when Cheney wore a parka instead of a suit to an event in Europe. Bolton had done more than "irritate the world" he had frightened it to death by weakening the biological weapons treaty, killing it basically. After describing how Bolton had basically opened the way for an arms race in bio weapons, probably with China, the article casually reveals that the World Health Organization had analyzed the SARS virus and determined that it was "an artificial creation designed to kill fast and furiously" and it had probably escaped from a military lab.

I couldn't believe what I was reading right there in the paper. Surely such news about SARS should be on the front page in large type. Very large type.


The article went on to explain that the information was suppressed by a certain superpower. You know who. We Who Will Not Be Named. (Only it is not "we". The American people had nothing to do with this). Suppressed because the U.S. wanted to avoid having a worldwide debate on the need for a bioweapons treaty, which could be enforced internationally.

And why, one might well ask, would the U.S. consider endangering the world in this way? Well, to have a bio weapons arms race with China, I was thinking. After all, the nuclear arms race worked terrifically to bring down the U.S.S.R. We made them go all out to fund their arsenal of weapons until they went bankrupt. Why not do the same to China? Ah the games superpowers play.

Apparently the SARS analysis and Bolton's track record was too much for the Chronicle to pursue. They put this article, which was written by a Geneva based reporter, in the Sunday Insight section usually reserved for opinions. Soon it will be relegated to conspiracy theory territory. We are not to think that the government is up to no good. We are to believe nothing more than that Bush makes stupid choices.

"It's crazy making," said my Buddha buddy, ex-hippie friend Rainbow at the monthly potluck. "It's like having your lover cheating on you."

"That's just what I was thinking," I sympathized, having had a lover cheat on me in the most convoluted, multilayered way. (My ex). The lies and deceptions had fractured my mind. I had to rebuild it from scratch, going over every nuance of the past, replacing each deception with the truth until I could trust my mind again.

Like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, we are systematically told that something we perceive isn't happening, while the diabolical husband works in secret to rob her. Bolton wouldn't merely alienate the delegates at the UN; he had an agenda to weaken the UN governing powers in favor of the US.

Not everyone was fooled. People were pursuing these stories and posting their findings on the Internet (which the press tells us is the source of all nonsense, until bloggers find something juicy then they turn around and commend us). One of these truth seekers was posting election fraud information and 9/11 "inside job" evidence to our Buddhist yahoo discussion group. I asked Rainbow if she knew who he was.

"Yes, in fact he just sat down at the end of the table, there." Well how serendipitous is that?

When I introduced myself he said, "You're Amanda Kovattana?" as if I was making it up. And he said it again.

"Yes that's me," I told him, flattered to have my name spoken like a household word and by a good-looking man too.

"I've seen your blog; I've seen you quoted on other people's blogs," he said. Wow. Maybe I had developed a following. Meanwhile here was my chance to fathom what it was that drew people to conspiracy theories. Were they tuna fish hoarding, basement bunker survivalists?

No, he was just a man struggling to reconcile evidence that the government was engaging in criminal activity with his spiritual quest to find peace of mind. If there was anything that distinguished this intelligent and educated man as a disgruntled crackpot, it was that he hadn't been able to find a job in his chosen field for four years. He was an IT specialist. "Ah", I thought, "all we need is a few more pissed-off, out-of-work computer people with time on their hands."

In fact all the people I would meet on this journey were smart, rational, thinking people who were trying to do something constructive whether it was to distribute information or teach organic gardening. (Organic gardeners, having studied the poisoning of our food chain were already inclined to believe that our government is criminal).

My experiences in Thailand were enough to convince me that the U.S. was not what was being represented as a fair, well intentioned promoter of free trade, bringing democracy, wealth and the good life to all. In embracing the free market, Thailand had been one of the much applauded, newly industrialized successes known as the Asian Tigers.

With each visit I was able to participate in the global trading issues of the day. In the Reagan years an embargo had been placed on all manufactured goods made in Thailand. Why? Because U.S. tobacco companies wanted to penetrate the Thai market. (Penetrate is the preferred word of free market advocates as if nations must lie before the U.S. with legs open wide.) Thailand had its own tobacco industry and did not allow foreign companies to enter it, plus the government had strict regulations on smoking in public places.

Rather than negotiate an equitable deal with Thailand, Reagan simply put the economy in a vice grip intending to force the country to drop the protectionist law. All those parkas for Mervyns were suddenly without a buyer. What were the Thais going to do with them? This was the tropics.

"So this was how America treated its friends" I thought and after Thailand had been such a loyal ally in the Vietnam war, allowing military bases, ships in the Gulf, the use of resources and labor, the expansion of the sex trade for GIs (the sex trade having originally been set up by the Japanese during their occupation in WW II), My engineer father gave his genius to the American war machine, first through the Thai air force with his work in surveillance, then as a defense contractor in the American work force once we moved to the States.

My aunt thought the embargo was a great bargain sale for me to pick up some cheap goods normally sold in America. Meanwhile the Thai government was promoting a Buy Thailand campaign to encourage citizens to boycott foreign goods, but the rich were not about to give up their devotion to BMWs, Gucci bags and Rolexes. Still the tobacco monopoly prevailed setting high tariffs on foreign imports.

In 1989, my aunt was explaining the newspaper headlines to me regarding the potential loss of foreign investment because $3.50 a day for labor was too high and they could find cheaper in China. The government was considering dropping the minimum wage.

Meanwhile traffic jams in the city were horrendous and the air quality was worsening all the time. Catherine wears a mask when she visits and I can rarely get through a week in Bangkok without contracting a soar throat followed by a cold. On my bare feet in my father's teak floored house, I can see the black dust of diesel fumes. The maids swept the house daily. The poor were not so lucky. The lifespan of tollbooth takers was about thirty years. Meanwhile the rich simply ducked into the air conditioned, air filtered, department store palaces.

Finally the booming, speculative, debt ridden economy could take it no more and the currency collapsed in 1997. What a shock? No one was prepared. But we did everything you told us to do said the eager Thai financiers to the World Bank. Now what? Not to worry the International Monetary Fund will foot you a loan to pay back your foreign debts. That, my friends, is how a nation becomes a slave state to the US.

Now there will be no money left in the already lean government coffers to improve conditions or fight crime, as the bulk of it must go to pay the interest on the loan. Police are already paid so little that only bribe money will transport them from their rented room in a wooden boarding house to any where near the lifestyles of the wealthy city dwellers they protect.

The IMF now has control of the policies of the Thai government as a condition of the loan. This means allowing national industries like utilities to be privatized, lowering trade tariffs and scrapping public education, health clinics, pollution regulations. Yes, they do this. They insist for the sake of the free market economy. So don't even talk to me about the corrupt Thai government and its support of child prostitution, opium growing, copyright law infringement, the (CIA sponsored) drug trade, the sex trade and all the other complaints that well meaning liberals and feminists think up to tell me is wrong with my country. It's too busy trying to keep up with the manufacturing needs of the American consumer. "Made In Thailand" used to make me proud, but now it just makes me think of speed addicted, stressed out workers, cancer clusters and a crowded, environmentally toxic city.

Thailand was lucky. It had always been an ally of the US, enslaved by peaceful means only. For if nations could not be had by economic strangling, then by invasion in pursuit of "communists" and now "terrorists". Never mind that we have created more unrest and terrorism than ever. Terrorists are good for business, for the war profiteers.

Bolton would make sure the UN had no teeth, no bargaining power to stand in the way of US control of world trade.

The more I learned how our government distracts us with fear to make sure the war against terrorism is a high priority, even possibly to the point of manufacturing false terrorists attacks, the more I realized how little we mattered; how little our leaders had our best interests in mind.

Suddenly it didn't matter that people were not willing to believe what I was suggesting, that our government was devious in the extreme, because in the back of their minds would be this inkling that things were going from bad to worse for whatever reason and life was somehow not quite right and nothing made sense. How could the leaders of the free world be this incompetent?

I did not have to convince them things had gone seriously awry whether by staggering, multiple, coincedental, incompetence or by design. In the end we would only have each other and it would be up to us to better things. Against monstrous adversaries. This revelation filled me with a compelling urge to just be kind. Yes kindness was an empowering act of resistance.

Earthworm. Get yours at