Monday, October 2, 2017

#275 / Surfing The Silver Tsunami

My friend Rob Caughlan, who was the first President of the Surfrider Foundation, is known to friends as "Birdlegs." This sobriquet is actually somewhat descriptive

Rob has had a long and wonderful career, working for both Senator Dianne Feinstein and President Jimmy Carter. He helped start Friends of the River and served with me on the Board of Directors of the Planning and Conservation League. He has produced a wonderful documentary about the life of Pete McCloskey, a Korean War hero who became an anti-Vietnam War Member of Congress. For those who think that politics is inevitably venal, and to be avoided, watch Rob's film about McCloskey, Leading From The Front, and learn otherwise. 

Most recently, and certainly not of least importance, Rob has been a leader in efforts to protect public access at Martin's Beach, in San Mateo County

A couple of weeks ago, Rob sent me a copy of a speech he made in November 2016, at the Green Festival in San Francisco. He called it, "Surfing The Silver Tsunami." The topic is "green burials," and I was hoping it was online, so I could share it with friends, but it doesn't seem to be. 

I can now report, having done my search, that there are a number of OTHER speeches online, all with the exact same title ("Surfing The Silver Tsunami"). All of them are probably quite worthwhile, and discuss various impacts that can be expected as people like Rob and me (now silver-haired, but still kicking) move into an ever-older age bracket, but they are definitely not on Rob's topic. Given the plethora of other presentations, with identical titles, Rob's paper should probably be called: "Surfing The Silver Tsunami: Green Burial Edition."

Here is Rob's speech. It is worth reading, and worth thinking about. It is time for some new public policy, it seems to me!


Surfing The Silver Tsunami [Green Burials]

NOVEMBER 12, 2016

Good morning everyone. My name is Robert Caughlan. I am a political and environmental organizer, and I am going to talk about how each one of us can make our last act on earth be an important little contribution to the health of our planet.

I have been active in the environmental movement for almost fifty years. When I was in high school President Kennedy challenged my generation to go out and do something good for the country, and I got interested in politics and got my degree in political science and international relations. As a surfer, I naturally drifted to the green end of the political spectrum because I fell in love with the ocean.

As an environmental activist, in l974, I was a co-founder of a group of dam fighters called Friends of the River. In the 80s I was elected as the first President of the Surfrider Foundation, a group of surfers who fight for a cleaner ocean. In politics, I worked for Senators Dianne Feinstein, Alan Cranston, Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Leo Ryan (who, you may remember, was murdered by a cult group leader in Jonestown), and in the Environmental Protection Agency, and in the White House for President Jimmy Carter.

One of the projects I worked on was a major study of international environmental issues called The Global 2000 Report. It was, unfortunately, the only time the US government has attempted to do any long range, holistic trend analysis.

It ended up to be an l400-page study of the global environmental problems and the way they were going and growing.

It was a sobering picture. We made some good projections. And we missed some big issues. But one of the major conclusions was that there are no big magic bullet solutions to any of the giant environmental issues that we face today. We need lots of little solutions.

That is why the environmental slogan, “Think Globally, Act Locally “is so important.

Some of the problems are very predictable. The Global 2000 Report was very accurate in predicting that the world population was going to be about 6 billion people by the year 2000.

We have a similar big issue coming at us in the US today. It is a historic and gigantic demographic anomaly. It is the demise of the Baby Boomers. 80 million of us boomers are going to boom in the near future.  There is no issue that is more predictable.

And, depending upon the way we deal with this phenomenon, we will either add millions of tons of weight onto our already Paul Bunyan-sized  boot print, or substantially help lessen our impact on the climate. It’s a huge environmental issue that no one has paid much attention to yet.

I didn’t coin the phrase, but as a surfer, I like it. This demographic anomaly has already been called The Silver Tsunami.

Silver Tsunami Slide*

I have spent a large portion of my life attempting to get people involved in solving environmental problems. As I mentioned, I’ve organized river lovers and helped get the surfers involved. Now I want to get a large new constituency participating – dead people.

(Getting dead people active may actually be easier than it was to organize surfers.)

Here’s the situation. When Americans are buried in a typical tomb-stone cemetery, they are buried under flat green grass that has been watered and filled with pesticides. (The Skylawn Cemetery in San Mateo uses $300,000 of water every year).

Embalming Slide

Then the body is filled with embalming chemicals. We place four million gallons of formaldehyde into the ground every year.

Brass Coffins Slide

Twenty million board feet of lumber a year is used on the caskets. I don’t have any problem with that if it is not endangered South American hardwood. A good book about all of this, Grave Matters by Mark Harris, estimates that the average ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground has l,000 tons of casket steel.

But worst of all, all are the cement vaults. These cement boxes keep the lawns flat, keep the tomb stones from tipping, and makes it so they can pack more caskets closer together.

Unless we can provide people with better alternatives, about forty percent, or thirty million, of us 80 million Boomers will probably choose to be buried in this manner.

Coal Mines Slide

Each cement vault weighs more than a ton. (Cement is a large contributor to global warming gasses and most of the cement is made with coal-fired energy). I saw one study that said as much as 10% of global CO2 emissions come from the production of concrete.

BTUs Slide

Each vault contains about five million British Thermal Units, BTUs, of energy. So, we will burn 150 TRILLION BTUs to create all those cement vaults. That’s 150 with 12 zeros:


Put another way, a barrel of oil contains 5.6 million BTUs. So, we will burn the equivalent of 27 million barrels of gasoline. There are 42 gallons of gasoline in every barrel, so that equals 1.125 billion gallons of gasoline.  (26,786,000 x 42)

Even in my old gas guzzling muscle car, which only got 25 miles per gallon, I could drive about 30 billion miles,  around the planet 1,172,000 times, if I had that much fuel to waste.

Now, mainly because it is less expensive, the other 60% of the baby boomers, about fifty million people, will choose to be cremated.

Cremation Slide

It takes about l5 therms of energy to cremate an average body. (A therm is l00,000 BTUs).

That means burning the rest of the Boomers, the other 50 million, will require 75 trillion more BTUs of energy.

Or another 625,000 drives around the planet.

Then, of course, there is the smoke from 50 million burning bodies. Cremation is correctly viewed as being easier on the planet than full body burial. And cremation will probably continue to be a bit less expensive than natural burial plots.

In Japan, 95% of the people are cremated because Japan is a small country. They don’t have a lot of space. In the United States, we have plenty.

From an environmental point of view, natural burial is by far the best.

There is a growing movement in Europe and the United States for natural burials. These so-called “green burials” are really just a return to the old ways, doing what the Pilgrims did. Bury the person in a pine box or a shroud and plant a tree over the grave. What we now call “green burial,” used to be called “burial.” 

I think this is a positive and important new aspect of environmental preservation.

We are lagging behind England. They have more than 250 green cemeteries, or natural burial parks or ancestral groves. We only have a couple dozen, although that number is growing. I just saw the plans for a new one in Florida.

The Willows Slide

There are many within the funeral industry who are, understandably, not big fans of the natural burial movement. Green burials are not as expensive as a typical flat lawn cemetery. They won’t get to sell as much concrete or brass or formaldehyde.

Ramsey Creek Slide

But more and more of the typical flat lawn cemeteries are starting to respond to the increasing interest in green burials by dedicating parcels of their properties for green burial. These are now being called hybrid cemeteries.

The Fernwood Cemetery in Marin County was the first in California. Skylawn in San Mateo has three areas that will be dedicated to natural burials, although they have been pretty slow to start offering the green burial option.

Steelman Town Cemetery Slide

But hybrid cemeteries will not be enough. Most of our typical cemeteries are already almost full! We need to start planning and creating a large quantity of new cemeteries to accommodate the millions of Americans who will choose full body burial. We will need to accommodate about eight million people right here in California, in the very near future. Like I said, there is no future problem that is more accurately predictable.

It is difficult to set up new cemeteries. The rules in California are tough. But I think we could help solve the shortage of cemeteries and provide people with a green burial option by working with land trust organizations.

Plant Trees Slide

The concept is simple. Land trusts dedicate a small portion of their holdings for a natural burial park. The consumers purchase a plot and the burial service. The land trust plants trees or native grasses over the graves and uses the proceeds to protect more open space. It’s called a conservation cemetery - it has a higher purpose than just storage.

Alvin Toffler, in his seminal book, Future Shock, emphasized the importance of developing better long-range vision. We need to get better at looking ahead because the problems are coming at us so fast, and we need time to prepare for their consequences and get started on the solutions.

Penn Forest Slide

Because you are the kind of people who care enough about environmental issues to come to an event like this, you have much more influence on things than you may understand. Let me explain.

In political science classes, everyone learns about the 80/20 law. That law says that in all societies - large countries or small tribes, regardless of ideology - that about 20% of the people shape the actions of the other 80. The 20% are called “opinion leaders.” They are the ones who are known by their peers, or community, to be informed about current events and particularly knowledgeable about certain issues. As people who are already involved in environmental issues you are part of that 20%. Your influence will become more important as this issue starts to be noticed.

How? Just talk about it with your friends.

Harley Burial Slide

All the trends are showing that people want more participation in the end of life events. Home funerals, hospice midwives, and innovative burial events are increasingly popular.

Star Trek’s James Doohan had a portion of his ashes shot into the Earth’s orbit. Outdoorsman John Grayson Rogers had his ashes put into an eternal reef ball placed near the coral reefs in the Chesapeake Bay.

I believe that there are many thousands of people in California and around the country, like Prius buyers and Whole Foods shoppers, who care strongly about environmental issues and climate change who would rather spend their money for a more for an ecological end of life alternative.

Marshall McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”

I believe natural burial can be a win-win-win idea. It’s a win for open space preservation because it would help fund land trust protection efforts. And, it is a double win for us Boomer consumers. We save some money. And we benefit from knowing that our last act made a small but positive contribution to the overheated little planet that we will soon be leaving to our grandchildren. And that makes it a win for the planet.

The eloquent environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote,

A rock decays and forms soil. In the soil grows an oak,
Which bears an acorn, which feeds a squirrel,
Which feeds an Indian, Who ultimately lays him
down to his last sleep in the great tomb of man
– to grow another oak.

Hearse Slide

Thanks for your continued interest solving environmental problems. If I can answer any questions I’ll be glad to try. I am going over to The Final Footprint table with my friend Jane Hillhouse. She can even show you some more of her beautiful ecological caskets.

Image Credit:
Rob Caughlan - Image accompanying the article cited in this blog posting
*The heading titles indicate that this presentation was accompanied by a set of presentation slides.

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