The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Splitting Atoms to Boil Water

Most of the time, we cook on a wood cookstove, which is also our only heat source.

The model we use is a modern Amish design called the "Baker's Choice" - it cranks out a ton of heat fast with a relatively small firebox and big oven. With a good woodstove, tight and well-insulated construction, and passive solar design, the temperature in our house is super comfy.

This year we will be hooking up our household hot water to the Baker's Choice too--it's designed so that you can heat or pre-heat your hot water by running it through pipes in the firebox, and send it back to your hot water heater for storage.

Our main fuel source for the stove is scrap wood from pallets that would otherwise be headed to the landfill.

We don't use a wood cookstove because of some romantic notion of picturesque old-fashioned homesteading. We do it because household appliances that create heat (namely hot water heaters, ovens, and ranges) are major consumers of energy.

Where we live, our electricity is produced mostly by burning coal and splitting atoms. (The mix for our household, according to the EPA, is about 40% nuclear and 50% coal, with renewables making up less than 3% of the remainder, of which most comes from massive hydroelectric projects involving dammed rivers). You can find out where your electricity comes from by entering your zip code here:

To get the bigger picture of how electricity is made, you can also see maps by state with sites of coal and nuclear power facilities here:

Don't get me wrong, I'm not out here on the farm huddled over a fire in the dark. I like my modern conveniences - refrigeration, lights that turn on with the flip of a switch, my trusty Toshiba laptop, and the occasionally-used kitchen appliance (I'm particularly fond of my hand blender). But I just can't justify splitting an atom or blowing up a mountain to boil water for my cup of tea in the morning.

Knowing that the lion's share of our electricity comes from Mountaintop Removal coal and dangerous and toxic nuclear power makes me highly motivated to cut our consumption as much as possible. Similar to knowing where your food comes from, knowing where your power comes from is a good first step.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima has brought all of this to the forefront of my mind, so I thought I would post a little something about energy here. Not that I expect everyone in the United States to install a wood cookstove, or that even if something that ridiculous happened that it would solve our energy problems.

But I stoke the fire in our stove as a small prayer for sane and simple solutions to our energy needs, solutions that work with the planet's natural forces - air, water, sunlight, tides - rather than destroying the earth and leaving toxic waste behind for future generations. It's a tiny act of resistance to the ridiculously complicated and irresponsible energy systems that humans have created.

My hope is that we learn from the tragedy at Fukushima - that the contamination of air, soil, water, and food in Japan and the low-level radiation dispersing around the planet are finally enough to teach us the lesson we need to learn about nuclear power: it's not worth the risk. Even without accidents, it's not worth the burden of the waste. (Here's an article I read recently that sums up the opportunity for learning and changing our behavior: The Lessons of Fukushima).

More broadly, my hope is that we begin to understand the foolishness of the philosophy that leads us to engage in acts like Mountaintop Removal and the creation of nuclear energy. The idea that the goal of science is "to attain a gradually greater and greater control of nature" as Oppenheimer famously put it, is arrogant and naive. The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident in Japan have shown us nothing if not that the idea that we can control nature is delusional. I want us to look back at Fukushima as a turning point: the moment when we stopped trying to control nature and started working with and for the natural systems of the planet, understanding that we are part of the community of life on the planet and dependent upon those systems for our survival.

Rant complete. Now off to check on my nuclear-fueled tomato seedlings.


Dana said...

Nice one, Beth. I appreciate your fire stoking prayer and your links to more options of self education on energy situations. I also hope your tomato babies are thriving, despite suckling from the teats of the split atoms... Cheers to you all. Love, Dana

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

This pretty much says it all: "But I just can't justify splitting an atom or blowing up a mountain to boil water for my cup of tea in the morning."

Nicely done....and nicely described.

Milkweed said...

Thanks Dana and Jack,
I also had an inquiry via email about this post, which I thought was worth re-posting in case anyone else had the same question...thanks for reading, Sylvie!

"Love your post 'On splitting atom to boil water' - very beautifully, and eloquently said - and hopeful tool. One of my biggest frustration is the cloth dryer. What's wrong with the sun? or even an indoors line.... free and available to all....

anyway, may I ask where your source your stove?"
(My response)

Hi Sylvie,
Thanks for writing, and for the kind words! Yes, we don't use a clothes-dryer either - and an indoor rack is even more effective when it's next to the woodstove! We purchased our stove from Lehman's ( - they still sell the same model, but it looks like the price has gone up considerably - we paid around $1000 for ours about 6 years ago and now it looks like it is about $1500. It's called the "Baker's Choice" - here's the link: You also have to pay to have it shipped freight class.

We were able to justify the cost because at the time we were paying around $1200 per winter for heating oil plus electric bills to run an oil furnace, and the stove essentially paid for itself in one winter. When we built our house, we moved the stove and basically designed our kitchen around it. I really love cooking with wood! I notice that you're in Virginia - another option is that particularly in rural areas you can sometimes find secondhand wood cookstoves from a couple of generations ago when everyone cooked with wood. We found one for $200 that an elderly mountain lady had been using up until a few years ago (we installed it in our interns' kitchen). I have to say that difference between the Baker's Choice and the old rickety secondhand one is really noticeable - the modern model is so much cleaner, more efficient, and easier to use. I also like its simple and sleek look.

Hope that helps and thanks for reading!