Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My name is Adam, and I am 13.7 billion years old

I’ve been spending my free time between semesters trolling scripture for a green ministry class I’m teaching this spring. Among others, I read from Genesis a couple of chapters I’ve read dozens of times and found a remarkable lesson. In the second account of creation (the one that appears in the second chapter), we find:

7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

The earth’s physical attributes and every living thing we find here – past, present, or future – are inextricably connected. The surface of our planet is largely covered with water, which is full of salts, leached from rocks over the eons. Water vapor also permeates our atmosphere, which is itself mostly nitrogen, with some oxygen, carbon dioxide, ozone, argon, and other bits of this and that. Much of the solid portion of our soils (as well as the cocktail of dissolved solids in soil-water) is the result of rocks being physically and chemically picked apart.
From this nonliving environment bacteria, protists, plants, fungi, lichens, and animals build soil, fix nitrogen into chemicals useful to living things, and spin carbon dioxide and water into sugars and (with those useful nitrogen bits) proteins. We see that in a literal sense, living things, including humans are made of the nonliving “dust” of Genesis, along with the “breath of life”. We’re composed of the recycled leftovers of the begininng of the universe, squashed into stars and blown apart, squashed again into our Sun and Earth, worn ragged and perfect by relentless physcial and chemical action.
But we are not an end result. We are not the owners of all of this mineral wealth that is our physical selves. Instead, as we see in Gen 3:19, we will return all of this. Implicit in the “to dust you will return” is the macabre fact that our remains will wind through the long, slow cycles to become carbon dioxide, perhaps limestone, perhaps sea salt, and certainly part of other animals, plants, and living things so insignificant, we don’t bother to learn their names. Moreover, with every breath we take from the moment of our birth until we expire, we participate in this conversion of nonliving into living, and living into nonliving.
So what do we get out of this? Another somber reminder of mortality on the eve of a new year? No, instead we see that we’re blessed with much, but that we’re only caring for these gifts for a while. We see that we are temporary participants in creation, sharing everything with other living things, and that we are not alone in this role. Our gifts and responsibilities belong as much to our grandchildren’s grandchildren as they do to us and to our ancestors. We have a responsibility to take care of them.

Image source: Freer + Sackler Galleries

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Google Earth versus the bad guys!

One of the great things about Google Earth is its ability to show the world what's really going on around the world. An excellent example was its exposure of the destruction in Darfur, with burnt villages marked for all to see.

So this morning I got the brilliant idea (about five years after everybody else) that it might be nice to examine the extent of surface coal mining. As it happens, a quick Google search shows a number of websites that use aerial photography to present compilations of environmental damage:


I'm sure that there are more, but I was unable to find them without digging through lots of unrelated material. I'd therefore like to request readers to present links to any such compilations of which they are aware.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem, I present coordinates for a number of sites that I found in a small region of central West Virginia:

Lat 38º 20' 46" Long 81º 01' 25" 6 mile diameter
Lat 38º 26' 42" Long 80º 36' 37" 2.5 mile diameter
Lat 38º 29' 13" Long 80º 35' 45" 1.0 mile diameter
Lat 38º 23' 34" Long 80º 44' 22" .64 mile diameter
Lat 38º 25' 24" Long 80º 40' 59" .25 mile diameter
Lat 38º 24' 13" Long 80º 40' 58" .25 mile diameter

This last is an older surface mine site that has been partly grown over. What's interesting is the paucity of foliage. It appears to have some grass, but little else. And once you see that and learn to recognize the pattern, you'll find sites like this almost everywhere. 

Not all non-forested areas are old strip mines. There are areas cleared for farms or homes; those are identifiable by the fact that they tend to line up in the drainage valleys. The valleys are often marked with public roads; if you see a line of open ground adjacent to a road, it's unlikely to be old strip mine. Structures are also contraindicators to strip mines. You might also be fooled by logging areas, which are brown and are most easily identified by a series of parallel dirt roads on a hill slope. 

But where you see open, sparsely forested land away from a road, with no structures on it, it's probably an old strip mine. I think you'll be appalled at how much land is covered by them. And this does not show all the land that's affected. A lot of the spill goes into the watercourses below.

So take a Google Earth stroll over West Virginia sometime. 

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bee the solution -- grow a meadow

Like most Americans who pay attention to the news, especially environmental news, I had heard of "Colony Collapse Disorder" that has been killing off about one in three North American honey bee colonies each of the last several winters. However, I was not aware, until watching this TED presentation by Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture, was that native polinators like bumble bees, and bats, are also disappearing -- bats are disappearing at an alarming rate. The majority of fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat depend upon pollination by honey bees, so this, like all environmental problems, is a human problem and an economic problem, not just a "bee" problem. Watch, enjoy, and learn!

The most interesting and valuable suggestion that Dennis vanEngelsdorp makes in this video, is to replace your lawn (or at least part of it) with a meadow. Here's a way that ordinary citizens can be part of the solution to an environmental problem. A few years ago, I heard a speech by a horticulturalist who advocated (for a variety of environmental reasons) leaving a six to ten foot radius circle around major trees in your yard. We immediately instituted that practice in our 2/3 acre lot. There's lots of benefits of this, in addition to creating more habitat for polinators -- less time wasted on mowing the lawn, less gasoline is wasted, less noise and pollution is created, less greenhouse gases created, and many more butterflies, birds, and other wonderful creatures will find their way to your yard.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

We need clearer price signals

In economic theory, price is supposed to act as a signal to consumers as to the relative scarcity or importance of some good or service. In a perfect capitalistic system, the price allows everybody to balance their values against the availability of various resources.

Unfortunately, the market in the real world falls short of the ideal in several important ways; I would like to address what I consider to be the biggest shortcoming of the market: its steep discount rate. To put it another way, the market doesn't take the future into account very well. 

An obvious example of this is the market for fossil fuels. Right now, lots of people are bidding for the earth's oil. But there are also lots of people who aren't participating in that marketplace: the unborn. Fifty years from now those people will need oil, too, but they don't get to put in their bid. Because they are not represented, the price of oil is cheaper than it would be if they were bidding, and so we consumers get a false price signal: burn up the oil now, it's cheap. Which means that fifty years from now those future folk won't get as much oil to use as we have. Not very fair, is it?

This problem should, theoretically, be handled by speculators. They should be buying up oil today and saving it for the future, figuring on making huge profits fifty years from now. But that's not happening, for two reasons.

First, nobody who has the money to buy up lots of oil today will be alive in fifty years. What's the point of investing money if you won't live to see the return on your investment? The life expectancy of a human being puts blinders on our investment strategies. It forces us to plan for the short term. If there were people with life expectancies of 900 years, you can bet they'd be investing in future oil. But since nobody will live that long, we just screw future generations.

The other factor that inhibits long-term investments is the uncertainty of the market. Hey, fifty years from now, civilization might be destroyed by thermonuclear war -- your ROI wouldn't be much in such a case. They might have gotten fusion energy working by then, in which case nobody would even want your stupid oil. Or the government might have confiscated your oil in a crisis. Who knows? There are so many uncertainties, it's just not safe planning that far ahead.

This innate economic short-sightedness also undercuts our efforts to stem environmental degradation. Who gives a damn about global warming -- it sure won't be a problem before I'm dead. It's a problem for future generations -- let them deal with it. Similar reasoning subverts all other efforts to protect the environment. Why should a 2008 person suffer in order to make life better for 2058 person?

What this really boils down to is a fundamental question that every society must answer: how much do we want to pass down to future generations? How much do we want to sacrifice to improve the lives of our descendants?

Here I will indulge myself in grand hypothesis-building. We all know that civilizations rise and fall, and theories as to what forces push a civilization through that arc are a dime a dozen. So here's my own $0.0083 worth:

I suggest that one of the factors driving the rise of any civilization is its sense of destiny. A civilization that considers itself to be on the cutting edge of growth into greatness will make lots of sacrifices for its children. I believe it was George Washington (well, it was certainly one of that crowd of tricorn hat wearers) who said, "I am a soldier today so that my children can be farmers and engineers, so that their children can be artists and poets." That's the spirit of sacrifice for the future. That Roman chap who stuck his right hand into the brazier just to show off to the Etruscan king just how tough he and his fellows were was doing the same thing. Societies on the rise are full of people who have seen too much suffering and want to build a better future.

But at some point, people in a society start to wonder why they should be making any sacrifices for the future. They undergo a fundamental shift in outlook: instead of seeing the world as a place of pain and suffering, they see it as a place of pleasure and leisure. That shift dooms a civilization; once people start thinking in terms of getting theirs while they can, they stop building for the future and start eating their capital.

I believe that America has crossed that point. You can see the shift in a thousand small places. Look at the response to oil shortages -- "Drill baby drill!" That's about as short-term as you can get. Or the response to global warming issues -- "Why should we have to suffer?" Or any of a thousand other problems. 

But the most compelling indicator, to me, is the expansion of the national debt. The national debt is our way of borrowing from our children, a negative bequest of wealth. The gigantic rise of the national debt in the Bush years proved beyond any doubt that this country has given up on its future and seeks only to enjoy life while it can.

It could be argued that we are already bequeathing a huge amount to our descendants. For example, kids today are much better off than when I was a kid. They have great toys to play with, cell phones of their own, and computers. Lots of high school and college kids have cars of their own -- in my generation, most people didn't get their own cars until sometime in college or after. Plenty of kids get to travel to foreign countries -- my first trip outside the country came when I was 31. And air travel -- I think I was 24 the first time I flew. So there's no question that kids today are better off than they were 40 years ago.

But that doesn't mean anything about how kids 40 years from now will do compared with kids today. Past success doesn't imply future success. You've got to keep working at it all the time. And I think Americans are losing their sense of dedication to the future.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are full of optimism and excitement about the future of their civilization. They're saving their money to help their country grow, and they're planning for their kids' futures. In fifty years, China will be the world superpower, and the USA will be like Britain is today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rising earth greets Apollo VIII astronauts

While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, the three-man crew aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft—Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders—offered live holiday greetings from outer space. After describing the desolation and bleakness of the lunar landscape, the astronauts read from the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. Commander Frank Borman concluded the historic interplanetary telecast—sent to an audience of half a billion people around the world—with the message: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you—all of you on the good Earth.”

This photo, taken forty years ago, reveals the second greatest gift humanity has ever received. In this oft-repeated image, we see how small and isolated our home is. We are reminded that this is a gift that we share with every member of our human family, including all of those who have come before us as well as generations to come.

Image and caption (italicized) from the National Archives and Records Administration

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Coal River Wind -- a better way

Coal River Mountain, West Virginia is slated by Massey Coal to become the next casualty of mountain top removal strip mining. This form of mining blasts the tops of mountains with dynamite, then hauls away tons of rock and soil, dumping this overburden in nearby valleys covering up streams and habitats. The photo on the right is Marsh Fork where some of the overburden of the projected Coal River Mountain mine will end up.

On the top left is Coal River Mountain as it looks to day, before any mining commences. The photographer is standing at the edge of an existing mountain top removal strip mine of what was once Kayford Mountain, looking southwest to Coal Mountain.
The bottom left an aerial view of what is left of Kayford Mountain, WV: an 11,000+ acre Mountaintop Removal coal mining site that sits just to the Northeast of Coal River Mountain.

A.T. Massey has already received permits that would allow them to engage in mountain top removal and valley fill operation on more than 3,000 acres of Coal River Mountain, and have two additional areas mapped, that would add and additional 3,000+ acres.

Local residents concerned about the impacts on the quality of life in their communities formed the Coal River Mountain Watch, and joined with regional and national environmental groups to suggest an alternative to mountain top removal -- a wind farm that would capitalize on the strong persistent winds on these West Virginia mountain ridges.

The coalition of groups funded a four month study of the economic potential of both the planned mountain top removal and the proposed wind farm. In sum, the study found that because the power generated by wind could continue indefinitely ("forever" as the fact sheet states), while the mine would be played out in 14 to 17 years, the proposed wind farm would generate both more energy and more dollars. Moreover,

"when externalities such as public health and environmental quality are factored in, a mountaintop removal mine ends up generating an economic LOSS of $600 million over its expected 17 year life. A wind farm on the other hand would remain profitable over the life of the wind farm. This means that when the true costs of mining are considered, the wind farm option wins hands-down." Rory McIlmoil, Coal River Wind.

The Coal River Mountain Watch and its partners are asking for support from you and others like you around the country, to generate more public awareness of the problems of mountain top removal and the possibility of economically viable, clean, renewable energy alternatives. Another goal is to create support for the national Clean Water Protection Act that would drastically restrict where the overburden from mining could be dumped, which would limit the scope of strip-mining and mountain top removal substantially. You can learn more about your own personal connection to mountain top removal and what can be done about it at I Love the Mountains.

Re-use, recycle, regret

Benjamin Franklin was truly a remarkable fellow. He was the most famous and accomplished American until the Revolution, when he was eclipsed by Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and the rest of that crowd. I've always felt that Franklin was that most honorable of accomplished people: his accomplishments were not glorious victories or the amassing of huge wealth, but instead subtle small things insinuated deep into the culture. And one of his most successful means for doing that was Poor Richard's Almanack, which he peppered with clever adages extolling the virtues of thrift, hard work, and a reserved tongue. 

I've been re-reading some of the old gentleman's adages, and I have found a few that are worthy of repeating:

Death takes no bribes

One good husband is worth two good wives; for the scarcer things are the more they're valued.

The poor have little, beggars none;

the rich too much, enough, not one.

Waste not, want not.

This last has now become a standard of our extended language, and it certainly plays a large role in my thinking. I feel badly about wasting things; it seems not just dumb but out-and-out wrong. Sending something to the dump when it still has some value bothers me a lot. If I do find it necessary to throw something away, I usually disassemble it to recover any parts that might be useful. Sometimes I take this to silly extremes. I once had to replace a shattered drive shaft from the power takeoff from my tractor. The break was at one end and so, when I removed the broken part, I found that it was a good three feet long, a 3/4" steel rod weighing at least ten pounds. This I just couldn't throw away. Fortunately, with 40 acres and three outbuildings, there's plenty of space for these odds and ends. And who knows, perhaps someday I'll find a good use for a ten pound steel rod. And if I don't, after I die the executors of my will shall have an odd time figuring out how to get rid of all the junk I've squirreled away.

But today I would like to relate another tale of the dark side of recycling. Two days ago a small fan of mine failed. It has been running continuously in a corner of my house for the last five years. Why? Because that corner is a nook that holds our upright freezer, which is a little too big for its nook. Accordingly, there's very little airspace for the air to circulate around the cooling coils, which means that the deepfreeze is quite inefficient. Did you know that your refrigerator and freezer are probably the biggest guzzlers of electricity in your house (unless you have electric heating)? That's because they run 24/7. So anything you can do to improve their efficiency is a good thing. That's why I set up this little fan.

It ran well for five years, but finally it developed some sort of mechanical problem and began making noise. So I dragged it up to my workroom and took it apart. The bearings appear to have locked up, so I cleaned them out and re-oiled them. It was a rather time-consuming task, and as I worked I wondered at the wisdom of spending so much time repairing a fan that could be replaced for ten dollars. But my sense of aesthetics demanded that I continue, so I got everything clean and smooth and re-assembled it. It didn't work. More disassembly, more diagnosis. After another hour of poking around, I finally realized that an internal connection in the coil had been broken. That's where I draw the line on repairs. I could probably fix it, but a small error on my part could have made the fan a fire hazard. So I gave up. All that saintly effort was a total waste of time. Not wishing to retire from the field in total defeat, I retrieved a few screws and nuts from the thing to put into my supplies. You never know when another screw will come in handy.

I wonder about the deeper motivations for my behavior. Is it a fear of irreversibility? Am I afraid that someday I'll be kicking myself, thinking, "If ONLY I had saved that tractor PTO drive shaft, I'd be able to deal with this problem today!" After all, I can always throw it away tomorrow. Am I prudently preserving my options are am I obsessively evading the inevitable? Is this, at some deeper level, a distant echo of a fear of my own mortality? It seems that obsessive saving of things is more common among old people -- is there some sense of identification with the discarded item? "I'm old and worn out, too, but I don't want to be thrown out, either!"

I really don't know. But I think I'll put this essay into my archives.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I respectfully dissent

Since President-Elect Barrack Obama named evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, there has been no shortage of ire. The decision has been called “Appalling” by gay-rights activists. Others in the blog lines and a variety of media sources have suggested that the choice is antithetical to the idea of an inclusive administration, or that it is divisive. While I'm on the subject of Pr. Warren's positions, I disagree with him on a few points. So, apparently, does Mr. Obama.
But, I applaud this choice. Far from “divisive”, this choice suggests a legitimate commitment to a dialog between dissenting opinions. It could also be regarded as a statement to those who voted against Obama that he plans to work for them as well as his supporters. Ending division isn’t accomplished by squashing dissentors (see US political history, 1776-present).
Only time will tell whether the Obama administration will actually part with the tradition of banishing and scapegoating those who disagree with the reigning party, and exacting four years of blind revenge on the leaders of other parties and ideologies. However, Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren suggests that the President-Elect acknowledges that a diversity of opinion and belief exists, and that disagreement on one issue doesn’t preclude cooperation on another. Moreover, this selection recognizes the plain truth that leaders from across the ideological spectrum can and must work together to realize meaningful change.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Regulating CO2 Emissions - a cautionary tale

Last month, November 13, 2008, to be exact, the Environmental Appeals Board of the EPA, handed down an important decision [the complete text of the decision can be read here]. The decision concerned a permit granted Deseret Power Electric Cooperative, which would have allowed construction of a new waste-coal-fired electric generating unit at Deseret’s existing Bonanza Power Plant, located near Bonanza, Utah.

In 2007, the Sierra Club presented a challenge to this permit, and sought to have it reviewed on the grounds that a) EPA's Region 8's office that granted the permit " failed to adequately consider “alternatives to the proposed facility;" and b)Region 8 failed to "apply “BACT,” or best available control technology, to limit
carbon dioxide (“CO2”) emissions from the facility." The first issue (a) was set aside and not considered by the Environmental Appeals Board. It was on the second issue that the ground breaking decision was made.

The Environmental Appeals Board determined that EPA Region 8 had inappropriately dismissed the application of a BACT (best available control technology) standard out of hand. Region 8 argued that had not imposed "a CO2 BACT limit in the Permit" because "it lacked the authority to do so."

The Environmental Appeals Board essentially said that the EPA (and EPA Region 8) DID have the authority to impose a CO2 BACT limit, and therefore must consider such a limit. The Appeal decision does not require a BACT limit to be imposed in this case, only that the reasons given (lack of authority) could not justify the lack of a BACT limit. The Appeals Board decision stated:

"Accordingly, we remand the Permit for the Region to reconsider whether or not to impose a CO2 BACT limit in light of the Agency’s discretion to interpret...what constitutes a “pollutant subject to regulation under this Act.” In remanding this Permit to the Region for reconsideration of its conclusions regarding application of BACT to limit CO2 emissions, we recognize that this is an issue of national scope that has implications far beyond this individual permitting proceeding. The Region should consider whether interested persons, as well as the Agency, would be better served by the Agency addressing the interpretation of the phrase “subject to regulation under this Act” in the context of an action of nationwide scope, rather than through this specific permitting proceeding."

This ruling recommends that the EPA to develop "best available control technology" (BACT) limits for CO2 emissions that would apply across the nation to all new construction or additions to coal fired electrical generation facilities.

But what is the "best available control technology" when it comes to limiting CO2 emissions? Although "clean coal" has been bandied about by the coal and electricity industry for several years, the actual technologies this term applies to are still for the most part on the drawing board, or deployed in small scale research settings only. Short of carbon capture, some existing technologies that reduce CO2 emissions include co-generation (of heat and electricity) or recycling, and co-firing with biomass. Simply determining the minimum possible CO2 emissions of existing highest efficiency conventional coal-fired technology is a challenge that will have to be met.

Many environmental organization and blogs hailed this decision as a triumph that would put a complete stop to permits for new coal-fired electricity generation. But the decision falls far short of that. EPA Region 8 can decide against imposing BACT limits on CO2, it just cannot use the same set of reasons (lack of jurisdiction or authority to set such limits).The Appeals board only recommends (nor requires) that Region 8 consider its decisions as part of a larger national policy. While the ruling makes the development of CO2 BACT limits more likely, the imposition of such limits on any particular new construction or expansion of an existing plant must also include considerations of economic impacts.

It could take months, or even years to establish meaningful BACT limits for CO2 emissions. Environmental Appeals Board decision does not require that all new permits for coal-fired generation wait until those limits have been established, although it certainly can be seen as recommending this action. Much will depend upon how the new Obama administration decides to respond to the Appeals Board ruling.

Friday, December 12, 2008

From crappy Pampers to happy campers

This was a tough one. I try to do my part to minimize my negative impacts on my local environment, and I make time to volunteer and undo other people's negative impacts. So every time I threw away a disposable diaper, I cringed a little. Diapers are made of plastic and paper, which means landfilling persistent waste and cutting trees. But, I cringed even more at the thought of everything you have to do with cloth diapers. I also thought about a diaper service, but this still means dealing with cloth diapers and it means the diaper van makes a couple of trips to the house every week.
As it turns out, I was dead-wrong about cloth diapers. The image that kept creeping into my head, that of trying to work origami out of a cloth square, in the dark, while wrestling with a squirming baby, is just a piece of historical fiction. Unbeknownst to me, cloth diapers had secretly become smartly designed and easy to deal with at some point in the recent past. Several vendors make fully reusable diapers, and at least one makes what I'll call "hybrid diapers" that include a disposable pad in a reusable shell. Forget big cloth squares and safety pins. The new ones are contoured, don't require a bunch of folding, and rely on Velcro.
My wife and I have been using Bum Genius diapers (one of the fully reusable types)since the baby was about 10 weeks old (he's now 9 months old), and they've been working great. They're easy to get on and off and they clean easily and completely. We haven't had any more problems with leaks than with disposable diapers. My back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis tells me that we've already recouped the initial investment, even allowing for some very rough recurring costs for water and energy to keep them clean.
That said, it does take longer to change the diaper, because it has to be rinsed after use. And, once in a while, there is that moment of abject panic when I open the diaper and realize that I have to clean it. Also, this is not a solution that lends itself to being away from home for long. My wife and I still use some disposable diapers when we're out. However, we've cut our use of disposables by about 3/4.
Be aware that this involves the Fundamental Waste-Water-Energy Trade-off. When we trade a disposable product for a reusable one, this generally means that we increase our local use of water and energy to maintain the reusable product. This becomes even more confusing, when you consider all of the water and energy that goes into producing the disposable products vice the reusable one, and all of the energy (and potentially water) that goes into disposal. Of course, disposable diapers are also largely made from pulp, which is made from trees; there are some petroleum-based plastics and adhesives thrown-in for good measure...
Needless to say, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis would be tedious and time-consuming (I might use the word "torturous"), if not impossible. So we have to use what we know about our respective situations, toss in some common sense, and make our best estimate as to whether or not this is a good choice for a particular household.
If you live in a place with water issues like Phoenix, Atlanta, or near the Ogalala Aquifer, washing lots of reusable diapers probably isn't an environmentally sound decision. In those areas, water conservation is likely a more important issue than the municipal solid waste stream. For someone like me, living on the edge of Megapolis, in an area with ample water, the reduced waste that comes with the reusable diapers is a good option.
Think about your own situation and decide whether or not this works for you. If you're not sure, ask friends who know local environmental issues, consult Google, or post some questions here.
Oh, right, "Be the solution."

Image courtesy of the author.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Some Questions.

Here are some questions (loosely themed) that have been provoking some thought that I thought best to just propose:

1. What happened to the symbiotic relationship between employer and employee?

2. Related to above, why has society allowed this relationship to degrade?

3. Is there a happy medium between the two extremes of hyper capitalism and hyper socialism?

4. If fidelity to the prosperity of our children is a stated ideal of our morality, then why have we as a society knowingly let it slowly degrade over the past decades?

Friday, December 5, 2008

We Can Do It!

I’ve written before about the importance of conservation, though in many cases, I’ve assumed that its impacts go without saying. I recently ran across a simple analysis that may help me to articulate why I see energy (and other resource conservation) as the crux of an energy solution, rather than icing on the cake.
Consider the example of an incandescent light bulb in a lamp in your home, powered by electricity from a coal-fired power plant. This is a typical, though somewhat simplified scenario:
Coal is a source of chemical energy. Converted to thermal energy (heat) in a furnace, we lose about 15 percent of its energy to inefficiency, limitations of insulation, moving fluids and fuel, &c. We convert this thermal energy to mechanical energy by means of a turbine that loses more than half of the remaining energy overcoming friction and other impediments. The generator loses another 5 percent, while transmission, distribution, and grid congestion claim almost 10 percent more. The bulb itself converts electricity to light with about 5 percent efficiency (95 percent of the energy is wasted). The end result is that the light from the bulb represents a more than 98 percent loss of energy from the original coal. Put another way, every unit of light energy saved conserves 60 times as much chemical energy in the form of coal. That doesn’t include the energy spent mining, processing, and transporting the coal to the power plant, nor disposing of the 1000 tons of waste that a medium-size coal-fired plant produces in a day.
It turns out that Mom was right. We really should turn out the lights when we leave the room. Evidently, it actually conserves about 60 times more energy than it seems to. How’s that for an easy way to be the solution?

Image source: Victoria & Albert Museum

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mountain streams on the losing end

On Monday December 1, 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a rule change by the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) that would allow the dumping of rocks, dirt and sludge from mountaintop removal in stream areas. The rule change essential exempts mining overburden (the rock, soil, and sludge removed to access coal in strip mines and mountain top removal) from the definition of "waste" that is prohibited from being dumped in seasonal and ephemeral streams.

This rule change has been eagerly sought by the coal mining industry, while opposed not only by environmental organizations, but also by top government officials in coal mining states such as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, Kentucky Congressman Ben Chandler, and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen. Grassroots citizens organizations such as "I love Mountains" and "Kentuckians for the Commonwealth" which include hundreds of coal county residents among their numbers have actively campaigned against this rule change.

This change sought by the Bush administration has already been approved by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The Department of Interior, which includes the Office of Surface Mining will make the change to the rule final in December after briefing members of Congress, and it will go into effect in another 30 days -- roughly about the time that the new Obama administration is sworn into office.

Administrative rule changes like this take time to develop. This particular rule change was first introduced in 2004. A complex process of hearings, comment periods, and reviews by other agencies (such as the EPA) are required before rule changes can occur. While the Department of Interior must brief members of Congress, there is no requirement of legislative approval. Consequently, it could take as long to undo this rule change (should the Obama administration make that a priority) as it did to create it. In the meantime, thousands of additional miles of streams in central Appalachia will join the more than 700 miles of streams that have already been buried due to lax enforcement of the existing rules.

The consequences of this rule change extend far beyond the central Appalachian mountains, to all the urban and suburban areas that are dependent upon river and stream fed lakes for their municipal drinking water.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Green Friday

Some BIA readers will no doubt plunge into the mayhem that is Black Friday. I will be laughing at you from the comfort of my home or a nearby park.
As much as I rail against consumerism, giving gifts is important. It’s part of our culture and it’s part of just about every culture. These days, it does also seem to contribute the accumulation of a whole lot of stuff that people don’t really want, or at least don't want for long. There’s also that whole awkward situation, wherein some relation or friend who doesn’t really know you gives you something for which you have no use, no room, and no interest. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for anything someone sees fit to give me as a gift, and make a genuine effort to put it to good use.
Fortunately, there are some good ways for gift-givers to reduce their impact, which don’t involve stealing Christmas, declaring it a humbug, or being a complete ass to friends and family. Be the solution:
An event is a great way to do this. Tickets to a game or a performance are good options. Keep in mind that most restaurants also have gift certificates, as do hip local inns that serve good spätzle or have a superb collection of whiskies. Once the event is done with, there’s nothing to throw away. (Caveat, caveat, caveat.)
A carefully selected bottle of wine or small batch bourbon (or other spirit of choice) is another good option. This will be consumed, its container recycled.
Some gifts have already enjoyed a long and useful life. Antiques and other vintage goods (denim, vinyl, musical instruments, books, &c) don’t require the expenditure of new raw materials or energy to produce and they’re more likely to find another home than a trash can in the future. Similarly, works of art are gifts of enduring value with comparatively small environmental impacts.
Buy locally produced products. These gifts haven’t traveled as far, which means less energy has been used in their transport. Buying local can also avoid some of the public health and environemntal problems associated with production in countries with poor health and safety, environmental, and labor laws.
If you’re even a little unsure, give a gift receipt with your gift. And, equally important, don’t be offended if your gift is exchanged for something else.
There is of course the more esoteric stuff. For instance, know the person you’re giving the gift to, and give something that will be meaningful, rather than simply trying to rack-up dollars spent. Don’t get bogged-down in giving so much stuff. That’s not at all the point, and recipients (especially children) will learn to appreciate their gifts more if they’re not overwhelmed by volume.
Finally, keep in mind that while exchanging gifts is what we do, the important parts of the exchange are the people, not the things.

Image source: Paper Crave

Friday, November 14, 2008

Wake up

This past weekend, my wife and I joined some friends for a pseudo-annual trip to Shenandoah National Park. This was our son’s first such excursion, though in general he is no stranger to public parks, national or otherwise.
We generally make the trip this time of year, a couple of weeks after the leaves have done their thing. We find that the Sleepwalking Masses are no less ephemeral than the pumpkin-colored xanthophylls that paint the trees for a week or two. I like it that way.
Alas, this year they seem to have hung-on longer than the leaves. Who are they? They leave cigarette butts or spent Evian bottles here and there. They everywhere talk loudly on cell phones and complain how bad the reception is in the park. They drive, no matter how short the distance, including the 0.3 mile stroll from the lodge rooms to the dining room. They make snide remarks about Virginia wines and local accents. They encourage their lethargic children look up for a moment from their horde of electronics only to throw Skittles to the whitetails. They spend more time in the gift shops than on the trails, and when they do hike, they complain about how far the falls are from the parking lot. These are the people Ed Abbey loved to hate in Desert Solitaire. The chestnut blight and the gyspie moth are less of a scourge on the park than are the Sleepwalking Masses.
Understand, I have no ire for ignorance. We are a culture blinded by consumption and suburbia. It is a sad state, but an honest one; it is a state not to be insulted, but corrected with an open mind and an appreciation for great and enduring things. I don’t begrudge a new visitor trying to make sense of the savage order of nature, anymore than I would think ill of my infant son for trying again and again to crawl and feed himself, or a student for picking up a new book.
Indeed, I was quietly gleeful to see the curtain of ignorance pushed aside: My godson momentarily befriended another boy about his age, as kindergarteners will do. The other lad hastily disentangled himself from an iPod, and they both stood grinning with bated breath at the cartoonish celerity of a chipmunk darting in and out of a woodpile. The two positively cackled when the cheeky little beast acknowledged them and instantly rendered itself invisible. Children always understand chipmunk humor better than adults do.
I don’t aim to discourage anyone from visiting a park. Rather, I want to encourage those who make the trip to actually experience the place. This means watching and listening. It means extending courtesy to the other visitors to the park, including those who have yet to arrive. It means respecting the land and the living things whose lives are woven into it for more than the length of a weekend trip. It means submitting to power of western mountains devouring the Sun or to the subtle alchemy of green shield lichens slowly, slowy, slowly consuming a boulder.
Wake up, sleepwalkers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Finish Line Seems So Far Away

BIA was created to explore the intersection of the many issues facing all of society in the one and only home we have - Earth. All of these issues, at some level, require people of different cultures, sex, religion, race, and orientation to come together and find a consensus of how to move forward.

How can we expect, then, to become a sustainable society, end poverty, create an economy that aims to raise the standard of living, and establish a peace-filled Earth on all continents if we cannot come together as a people and provide equal freedoms and rights to all.

While this blog is not necessarily focused on discussing social issues, I believe it clear that the only way true and comprehensive solutions to the big issues facing us will occur is when we stand up and say ENOUGH to hatred and discrimination of our neighbors, countryman and women, and fellow members of Earth.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

a modest proposal

General Motors announced last week that they will run out of cash (liquidity) by the middle of 2009 unless the economy and sales recover or the government steps in and gives them money.

Here is an industry that has been in trouble repeatedly for the past 30 years. The American automotive industry has required numerous bailouts, loan guarantees, and other financial assistance to stay afloat since 1970. In return they have reduced their American workforces (even in good times) with automation, outsourcing, and shifts in the location of production; and they have produced huge hulking gas guzzling monstrosities that American consumers were already turning their backs on before we moved into genuine recession.

General Motors themselves have been in serious financial trouble since at least 2005, when the company announced massive layoffs of 30,000 North American employees reducing their workforce to 143,000 salaried and hourly workers by the middle of 2005.

The argument against letting the automotive industry fail (as they most certainly deserve to) has always been that it would be a death blow to the American communities where they operate and to the families of the thousands of workers employed by the automotive industry.

The size of the bailout that GM is seeking has not yet been mentioned, however, one can guess from the fact that GM burned "through $6.9 billion in the September quarter" (CNN today) that any bail out request is likely to be in the range of ten billion or more.

As stated above, in 2005 GM had 143,000 salaried and hourly workers in North America (this includes Canada and Mexico as well as the United States). In April 2008 GM laid off 3,500 workers from their 80,000 North American hourly workforce, bringing their hourly workforce down to 76,500 workers. Then in June 2008 GM pared their hourly workforce even more through buyouts of some 19,000 hourly union workers, bringing the hourly workforce down to 57,500. GM salaried workforce has also been cut back to 32,000 in 2008. So an estimate of the GM North American work force (including Canada and Mexico) is 89,500. Let's say for the sake of argument that at least 80,000 of those workers are in the U.S. Let us also say for the sake of argument that GM would only ask for $10 billion for a bailout.

Well I have a suggestion -- that will probably not be seriously considered by anyone in a position of decision-making authority. What if instead of giving that money to General Motors, we let General Motors go bankrupt and out of business and we give the money directly to each and every individual who worked for General Motors in the United States.

Ten billion dollars divides up among 80,000 workers to $125,000 a piece. Suppose we say that the federal government will replace every single General Motors employees income for two years up to $60,000 a year -- folks that make more than $60,000 will just have to suffice with that. All employees would receive two full years of income, even if they found work again before the two years was up. Moreover, let us also require the recipients to pay income taxes, but not social security taxes (which are only assessed on "earned" income any way). They would not be eligible for unemployment insurance, but the federal government would also pick up the tab for paying General Motors portion of their workers health insurance, while the former workers would pay the same premiums they did under GM. Release from social security payments would give GM employees slightly more money in their pockets for two full years, during which they could go back to school, enter apprenticeships or any other form of education or training they wished to pursue. They could relocate, and take the two years of money with them. They could start their own small businesses.

This will probably be labeled as naive, but it seems to me that this would do much more to put our economy on sound ground than to give more to a company that hasn't seemed to figure out how to do it right for decades.

Armchair Politicing

With high hopes and the opportunity for breakthroughs on issues ranging from health care to foreign policy to the economy, every pundit, blogger, and concerned citizen seems to be offering what they would do if in President-Elect Obama's position come January 20th.

With that, I offer my own proposal - his second policy goal should deal with energy.

I think it is widely and justifiably expected that his first act will be to come up with a series of economic proposals, many of which he outlined in his first press conference Friday. Looking past his proposals of extending unemployment benefits, infrastructure projects, and the like, I believe Obama should then turn his focus to energy.

The reasons are three-fold:

(1) Currently, there is vast public support for a new national energy plan. The latest post-election poll pegs US support at 78%. With such support, passing a comprehensive energy plan would continue the excitement among voters and calls for bipartisanship that have been made both inside and outside of Washington.

(2) Within a similar context to the first reason, a comprehensive energy plan is a much easier "win" politically than other Obama-proposed reforms like health care. A consensus can be forged in Congress as long as the proposal includes offshore drilling for oil, a policy that directs oil companies to use the land they already have and don't use, as well as more directed research and development of alternative energy. Building off of that consensus can be other policies such as a National Low Carbon Fuel Standard, increasing the Renewable Fuel Standard, or the focusing of infrastructure projects on upgrading our electric grid for alternative uses.

(3) Such policies can be framed within an economic context. The fabled green economy can be realized if the US gets truly serious about alternative energy and vehicles, as well as sustainability. A huge push for energy legislation directly after implementing specific economic policies, would show the world the US is serious and provide a good framework for future work towards a new, sustainable economy.

With that in mind, many pieces of legislation have been offered in the past few months that could be the source of discussion, two of which follow:

(1) 21st Century Energy Technology Deployment Act - Introduced in both the House and Senate, CETDA would focus on upgrading our electric grid and move to further deploy many of the alternative energy technologies the US has to the market. It sets targets for the efficiency of different alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar and it charters a 21st Century Energy Deployment Corporation that would act as the vehicle for implementing future technological breakthroughs.

(2) Green Energy Production Act - Introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, GEPA would create a specific green energy corporation within the Department of Energy, that would consist of both public and private members, to focus federal research and development efforts on green technologies. The corporation would direct grants to higher education organizations for R&D as well as towards projects aimed at commercializing products.

In both cases, the idea is clear. The US needs a focused effort to mobilize the, what seems like, haphazard group of federal and state R&D labs and universities working on energy efficient technologies. Such a one-two punch of economic-energy policies would move the US in a prosperous (in my opinion) direction.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Bitter Sweet Night?

The fight against discrimination in America took a giant leap forward last night, but also a number of steps backwards. On the day the United States overwhelmingly voted in the first African American to the White House, thus taking a giant leap forward in their battle for equality and justice, they also voted to discriminate against the gay community.

In Arizona, California, and Florida voters stated their preference to not allow gay couples to marry. In Arkansas they expressed their preference to not allow gay couples to adopt.

It seems that while after decades of discriminating against African Americans, many Americans are continuing or transferring those feelings towards another cultural group.

So, while yesterday was a proud moment in the United States history it was also bitter sweet. It shows how much more work needs to be done to end unnecessary hatred, inequality, and injustice in our communities.

Image Source: Athens, Ohio Post

How do you feel?

Image source: National Museum of American History

Friday, October 31, 2008

(I will follow)

I set out to write about traveling on foot rather than by car. I had in my head the benefits to personal health and finance that come from walking the quarter-mile errand or parking once at the sprawling shopping center and walking from shop to shop. There is of course the environmental benefit that this practice uses less fuel, which reduces impacts from producing, transporting, and burning fossil fuels. And, there is a diagonal benefit for those people who would otherwise drive to a gym and spend time walking in place.
However, my son’s recent fascination with fallen leaves, a phenomenon he experiences now for the first time, uncovers some of the less tangible and perhaps more valuable benefits of walking. Walking takes us steps away from the built environment, and steps closer to our natural environment.
Thoreau writes in Walking, in his charmingly confrontational style,
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.
Pirsig follows a related train of though in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, when he describes how different it is to travel on a bike, exposed to the elements and part of the landscape, as opposed to traveling by car, where the real world is something separate and framed like an image on television.
I think Thoreau misses (or more likely avoids) the truth that people are part of both nature and society. However, focusing on the former, he offers important insight. Hidden in buildings, riding in cars, squeezed between earphones, and blocked from the real world by television, it’s no wonder we as a society don’t understand environmental problems or why they are fundamentally important to people. The world around us changes year by year, season by season, day by day, and minute by minute. But we set the thermostat to the same number, year round. We buy grapes in the dead of winter from the same shelf we do in the height of summer, oblivious to the convoluted feat of international trade that makes this possible. We turn the tap, unaware of whether the reservoir is ready to spill its banks, or if it has receded to leave expanses of dry mud. Distracted by a television, we don’t know if the geese have yet passed for the season, or that the Eastern bluebird has come back from the edge.
Even if only for a moment, taking a step out the door pushes away the curtain of our ignorance. Walking through the neighborhood reveals some sliver of all of the natural systems upon which our lives are built. A walk in a nearby wood or farm field is an opportunity to learn. The conscious walk makes clear the habits of water and wind and begins to explain the riddles of thistle and finch.
Save some gas, open your eyes, be the solution, walk away, walk away.

Image source: ER Dunhill

The great pumpkin

Halloween was a big event at my house when I was growing up. My mother donned a tall black hat and a black cape and became a witch, attended by our two black cats. My brother and I would, weeks in advance, sketch plans for our costumes with particular attention to the faces, and get to work repairing or building moulds and pouring liquid latex. This would yield flexible scars, open wounds, heavy brows and jaws, and other ghastly bits. On the big night, we'd adhere this stuff to our faces and hands, cover it with grease paint in some putrid color, don meticulously-torn clothing amended with dirt and charcoal dust, and tour the neighborhood as zombies or ghouls.
This holiday seems to be in a state of flux, with communities pushing trick-or-treating toward more convenient days and times, many communities doing away with it all together, and people instead attending parties here and there.
I’ll put some questions to the reader and ask, “How can one be the solution for Halloween?” What are some easy ways that people can green all of the accoutrements of this most excellent holiday?

Image source: Some flickr page that I randomly looted

Monday, October 27, 2008

Redress of grievances

As the Washington Post and several other newspapers reported Thursday, the Maryland State Police recently distributed letters to 3 members of the nonprofit group, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, indicating that the state had maintained records and gathered intelligence on those 3 individuals as suspected terrorists.
This organization seeks to educate citizens and advocate for clean energy in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It’s based just a short Metrorail ride from my home in the MD suburbs of DC. And while I’ve never been affiliated with the group, I have known several people, mostly high schoolers in need of service learning hours, who have volunteered with them. CCAN describes itself:
“The Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is the first grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to fighting global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Our mission is to educate and mobilize citizens of this region in a way that fosters a rapid societal switch to clean energy and energy-efficient products, thus joining similar efforts worldwide to halt the dangerous trend of global warming.”
A nonprofit group with an office in Takoma Park, MD, which recruits volunteers to write letters to the editor, send postcard mailers, hold peaceable rallies at the Statehouse during critical votes, or pass-out fliers about wind turbines and light bulbs, doesn’t seem like a terrorist breeding ground to me. Even recognizing that members of the organization engaged in an act of civil disobedience (several members were given citations for laying in a roadway to block access to a coal-fired power plant in MD), this is not the kind of organization that engages in monkeywrenching, let alone violent terrorism. The CCAN members on the list as potential violent terrorists have no criminal records.
I’m generally concerned that the state government seems to be indulging in the fiction that environmentalism is somehow intrinsically linked to terrorism. It’s not. That’s worth restating, in no uncertain terms: Environmentalism is not a fringe or radical movement and it is not a front for vandalism or domestic terrorism. Suggestion to the contrary is not only profoundly ignorant, but insults thousands of Marylanders who work or volunteer their time to improve their communities.
I’m concerned that the actions of the Maryland State Police may not have been this general or accidental. Among the Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s platforms has been opposition to the Inter-County Connector, a planned multibillion-dollar stretch of highway in the Washington, DC area. Pushing the ICC through was among the central platforms of Maryland’s former governor, who was in office during the period that the CCAN members were labeled suspected terrorists. This concern over abuses of power becomes more pronounced, in light of similar listing and surveillance of members of other groups that opposed the governor’s politics, such as anti-death penalty, anti-war, and pro-choice groups. The appearance that politics may have been the motivation behind black-listing these individuals is troubling.
I remind my government:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The right to peaceable assembly, the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and freedom from unreasonable searches are outlined in the US Constitution. I believe Maryland’s government owes its citizens an explanation.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

So, where does that leave us?

Prometheus has a very thought provoking post up on Europe's approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert climate change. Many climate change activists have pointed to Europe as a "laboratory" for climate change policy methods in much the same way that the US views the states (e.g. California passing a low Carbon Fuel Standard).

Yet, while the EU has taken a much more proactive stance against climate change than the US, results have been mixed thus far. The first graph shows change in emissions on a per capita basis, while the second shows total emissions, beginning in 1997.

In both cases, it is apparent that many European countries are not necessarily halting their share of emissions. In fact, many countries seem to be having a difficult time stabilizing their emission output. Even so, these graphs don't tell the whole story.

I think it is obvious that it is very difficult to create a portfolio of policies that reduce emissions while paying head to entrenched politicians and economic feasibility. It is so difficult that my entire thesis is based entirely on this issue. Yet, President Bush or no President Bush, the discussion on how to reduce emissions would still be filled with grandiose speeches of how much a lie global warming is or how those that want to reduce emissions are communists. It would still be filled with deal making and consensus policies. The policy levers used by the US may still not be "ideal" or those used by Europe. Behind the scenes, though, there is a much different narrative.

First, many European countries are taking the initiative to embrace alternative forms of energy. For instance, Germany is becoming the world capital of solar energy, even though it gets as much sun as say, Rochester, NY. Also, many of these countries will have an easier time to reduce emissions due to their smaller share of total global emissions. The US represents almost one quarter of global emissions - with those produce by just our passenger vehicles representing almost 5% themselves.

The focus on the US and its inaction is merited in that our path to a sustainable emissions level is much more difficult than most of these European countries. So, where does that leave us now?

So, what is it?

I heard a college kid explain to her father that "...sustainability is just another term for environmentalism", as I rode home on the Metro yesterday evening. The word "sustainability" has been bandied about here and there, especially since the UN's World Summit on Sustainable Development dispersed the idea in 2002. But, it seems that lots of people still don't get it.
So, what is sustainability? Is it purely an environmental idea, as our student suggests? Have sustainable ways of life ever existed? Do any exist now? If we were to shift our current way of life to a sustainable one, who would win and who would lose?

Image source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On walking and chewing gum

For a number of reasons, environmental issues have enjoyed a central place in policy debates and decisions, elections, business, and the public consciousness for the last few years. With troubling economic changes afoot, particularly in the financial and housing sectors, will the environment again retire to obscurity? Should leaders and communities shift their focus away from environmental issues?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Tragedy of the Community: An Uprising

I remember a few summer ago, sitting at a table eating breakfast with a group of Ph.D's before a day of talks from science policy professionals. I was the only undergraduate student present and largely remained quiet, choosing to listen and learn. In this particular morning I was feeling a little spirited and began a discussion on where and how society needs to move forward. I presented my opinion that some sort of radical movement needs to occur in order to truly mitigate climate change, make the economy more just, and so forth. The looks I received were, at the time, terrifying to me. They were followed by a backlash of how naive I was, in much the same, stuffy, elite tone of voice that should be expected of upper echelon academics.

I'll never forget that moment. Fast forward to what has occurred since then and I wish I could see them all to smile and say, "told ya so."

It seems to me and a growing number of other (well respected) thinkers, that the United States is on the cusp of a new, progressive movement. This movement began at the grassroots level and manifested itself in the netroots. It continued at the local government level as voters looked past the superficial arguments (see previous post) and started voting for progressive candidates in both primary and general elections. More and more candidates and issues oriented groups have continued the discussion on corporate greed, climate change, an unjust economy, and universal health care. A wave of progressive thinkers are beginning to fill the halls of our policy making institutions.

Coupled with an unpopular war, financial meltdown, housing crisis, credit crunch, and increasingly negative natural disasters, many in the U.S. who previously were "unwilling" to act are saying enough. An uprising has been born.

The public trust in both the private and governmental sector are at record lows. Polls show wide agreement on the need for action on a suite of issues that have been unattended to for well over a decade. Jobs are being lost, retirement accounts purged, and debt is skyrocketing, so voters are say enough of the politics as usual - this year is different.

The tragedy of the community - where broad, yet important issues have gone largely untouched due to large swaths of the population being unwilling to act - is gaining attention. Comparable uprisings occurred in much the same manner in 1932 and 1980 - bringing about long lasting changes to both liberal and conservative ideologies, so this isn't a new phenomenon.

As the media solely focuses on the Presidential election, it is important to note that the U.S.'s citizens are speaking...albeit finally. So, while the result of the election is far from certain, there are greater forces at work here. Incumbent politicians aren't safe. Corporate bosses won't be given a free ride. Important issues will no longer be brushed aside for political gamesmanship. Bill McKibben pointed out the need to mobilize the communities to move the country and world forward and it looks like it may be coming soon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wolf pack

OK, that was a dirty trick. This has nothing to do with wolves and everything to do with packs. I simply wrote “wolf”, because they’re inherently cool, like ninjas, spy-planes, and most dinosaurs*.
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, under a rock, with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears, you’re aware that those plastic bags that they hand out- well basically everywhere- clutter roadsides, streams, and parks, get stuck in trees, and fill landfills. You may have also heard that some cities and communities are so tired of dealing with them that they’re banning them from grocery stores and drugstores. IKEA and other retailers have begun charging for them, while others plan to discontinue using them altogether.
Be the solution. You, the clever Blue Island Almanack reader, can sidestep all of this bureaucratic mayhem, duck the recurring charges, and reduce the stream of trash moving into landfills and everywhere else by carrying your own bag.
Skirts, you’re way ahead of me on this one. Cats, fear not: I’m not talking about toting the ridiculous “European men’s carryall” of Seinfeld and Friends fame. Lots of vendors offer backpacks, rucksacks, knapsacks, and courier bags that are amply manly. (If you’re still a little worried, you can grow out your beard, talk loudly about contact sports, or smoke a Stogie or a pipe while you carry it.) You can compound your positive impacts by buying your reusable bag from a vendor that offers environmentally-friendly or fair-trade models.
In addition to carrying any carefully chosen odds-and-ends you buy while you’re out, this is a great way to bring along your other reusables: your Ka-Bar hobo set (or titanium spork, or lacquered chopsticks), your travel mug or water bottle, and your cloth napkin.
When you inevitably become the owner of a plastic bag or two, remember that they can be reused and recycled.

*Author's note: Leptoceratops is an example of a tragically uncool dinosaur.

Image sources:
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Simple Shoes

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I wrote some time ago about the beginnings of a green ministry at my church and promised that I’d address this again in the future. On Saturday, this green ministry quietly began, as I led a group of 17 volunteers on a seed collection in suburban Maryland. The ministry will officially kick-off in the spring, with a four-week Sunday school class on stewardship beginning Earth Day Sunday and with more events. We’ll focus on learning about and showing appreciation for our gifts and we’ll work to serve others.
For now, I’m finding kindred spirits in the congregation and building interest and buzz. I’m connecting the dots that working for a healthy environment is among Christians’ responsibilities: The Father gave His people this duty in Genesis. Beyond this, we should take care of a gift for which we are grateful, especially a gift in which the Maker has expressed such pride. Moving ahead to the teachings of Christ, we see a charge to care for the physical needs of others.
This weekend, we put this theology into practice. In two hours, we learned about watersheds and native trees, and served our community by collecting seeds that will soon become seedlings. These seedlings will grow to become trees, perhaps part of a new forest. They will make for cleaner streams and rivers, improve drinking-water quality, feed and shelter local wildlife, and support the men and women who earn a living harvesting crabs and oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Not bad for two hours spent with friends on a beautiful fall day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

just an observation

One year ago, on October 9, 2008, the New York Stock Exchange -- Dow Jones Industrial Average reached its all time high closing price of 14,164.53.

Today, the New York Stock Exchange closed at 9,447.11, a decline of 4,717.42 points in one year, or a loss of 33.3 percent – one third of its value over the past year!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Tragedy of the Community

The Blue Island Almanack represents an intersection of different views, disciplines, and issues. The central theme - Earth - may be the only common characteristic that unarguably binds us all. With this in mind, I provide the final paragraph of the book "Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben.

"It's extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know. But our current economies are changing the physical world in horrifying ways. It's our greatest challenge - the only real question of our time - to see whether we can transform those economies enough to prevent some damage and to help us cope with what we can't prevent. To see if we can manage to mobilize the wealth of our communities to make the transition tolerable, even sweet, instead of tragic."
It provides the dichotomy we all - each of the four authors and those that provide discussion - stumble around. On one hand, the actions of 6 billion people on Earth are harming the land we walk on, the air we breath, the food we eat, the water we drink, the economies that provide a standard of living, and the communities we grow in. On the other hand, the actions of 6 billion people on Earth provide some shelter to live in, clean air in some locations to breath, food to some, clean enough water to drink, economies that provide a good standard of living to some, and moderately stable communities to live in.

The tragedy of this dichotomy can be stated two fold. First, that the total community of 6 billion people, with combined wealth and effort, are incapable of fulfilling basic requirements of living to all its people. Or second, that the total community of 6 billion people, with combined wealth and effort, are unwilling of fulfilling basic requirements of living to all its people.

It is a sad story and while I did not necessarily set this post up as a debate, I hope that it provides a context for the discussions we have had or are going to have. When reading through the comments directed at whether there is an issue (e.g. climate change) or what to do about it (e.g. environment, economy, etc.), the arguments for inaction or action are normally the same.

A persons cultural values (e.g. racism), religious values (e.g. evangelical), economic standing (e.g. upper class), familial upbringing (e.g. broken home), political leanings (e.g. liberal), educational status (e.g. Professor), and living environment (e.g. inner city) all are given as fundamental reasons why or why not issues should be dealt with. It seems that, often times, we stray from the underpinning reasons for the things we, as communities, do (e.g. providing housing, jobs, food, health care, etc.). Empirically, it comes down to our capability or willingness to act, nothing less and nothing more.

On climate change, where do you fall? Poverty? Financial deregulation? Federal funding of basic research and development? Abortion? Gay marriage? Universal health care? Foreign aid?

Friday, October 3, 2008

...Which they ate with a runcible spoon

The setting: It was an evening meeting of my city’s environment commission to review zoning changes. This was one of those grueling three-hour meetings that you just have to power-through, but at least the city provided us with some dinner from a local restaurant.
The players: Environmental activists, all. Two LEED-certified architects. A former environmental engineer and an environmental lawyer. Two green business gurus, a GIS expert, and one E.R. Dunhill.
The problem: As I looked around the table I noticed that we were all using plastic forks and knives, the ubiquitous accoutrements of carry-out cuisine. By the end of the evening, we would generate a heap of plastic and Styrofoam waste. There was no need for this and it just didn’t seem right.

The solution: I’d love to be able to write that the next day I happened to be leaving on a backpacking trip, and just happened upon the thing. Or perhaps I could recount that it was handed down from heaven, like Jean d’Arc’s sword. Instead, the mundane truth (the one that fits with things like three-hour zoning meetings) is that the image of my Ka-Bar Hobo Set simply appeared in my mind the moment I saw the plastic fork problem. I’ve carried the thing to every dinner meeting we’ve had since, not to mention a number of other occasions that would have otherwise produced more plastic.
For those unfamiliar with this marvel of technology, it’s essentially a pocket knife that includes a detachable folding fork and spoon. Campers have used them for eons, and something like them has been standard issue in armies from here to Timbuktu. It’s portable, reusable, and many models will go right into your dishwasher. Most importantly, it doesn’t produce recurring plastic trash.
It’s also not alone in the pantheon of quirky cutlery. We all remember the humble spork from elementary school. As it happens, Brunton makes a titanium version for grown-up backpackers, but there’s no reason that it can't follow you to work or campus. A friend of mine who taught in Australia for a while also tells of the Splayd, which is simply a Down Under variation on this theme. (You don’t have to turn upside-down to use it.)
If you’re not sure about carrying some weird piece of cutlery, if you’re just not ready to help me pretend that this is normal, you can always bring a plain old fork or spoon (or both) with you. The goal here is simply to reduce waste, particularly plastics, which are made from petroleum and don’t biodegrade for many human lifetimes. There’s no need to produce all of this trash when there are easy alternatives. Be the solution.

Author’s note: E.R. Dunhill is aware that “runcible” is a nonsense word and does not constitute orthodox nomenclature for sporks, splayds, or other hybrid utensils. However, since “spork” and “splayd” aren’t exactly the King’s English, the author doesn’t really care.
Also, E.R. Dunhill’s city government now primarily uses disposable cutlery made from potato starch, which is compostable. More on that in the future.

Image sources:
E.R. Dunhill

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Longhorns and snakeheads and bees- Oh my

Over the weekend, I found a moment to peruse the Sant Ocean Hall online exhibit on the National Museum of Natural History website. I'm thinking ahead to some opportunities to get the little one to an exhibit that will catch his attention. I happened upon a page about the rapa whelk, a fairly recent exotic pest (some might say a menace) in the Chesapeake Bay region. It's been in various conservation groups' publications for a while.
What in the heck is a rapa whelk? It's a type of marine snail that has some nifty adaptations that allow it to spread itself around very quickly. Unfortunately, it's not from around here. It hails from Asia, almost certainly arrived in the bilge water of ships, preys on clams and oysters, and is a threat to the local marine snails. This presents yet another problem for the region's shellfish industry, not to mention the already badly degraded Chesapeake Bay ecology.
The rapa whelk is what's known as an invasive exotic species. This isn't a new idea. You've probably heard of many others, perhaps without realizing it: The fire ant, the Asian long-horned beetle, the gypsie moth, the zebra mussel, the European house sparrow, &c. This short list is merely the tip of the iceberg.
There are others that don't get peoples' hackles up, though: The honey bee, chickory, and the cattle egret, for instance. These pollinate many of our crops, make a proper cup of coffee for folks in New Orleans, and get rid of some of the fire ants that wouldn't have been here in the first place if we hadn't been so careless. (And, while we're at it, basically everything we eat comes from somewhere other than here.) These species are our friends, right?
I put some questions to the reader: Is it worth the effort to try to stop exotic species from invading new areas or to drive them out before they take hold? Is it appropriate to get rid of exotics that have been in an area for a long time? Does the usefulness or harm of the new species weigh on this? Should we hesitate to introduce an exotic crop? Should we simply accept that people will change the biosphere and make do with those changes?

Image source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Sant Ocean Hall

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hidden in plain sight

They’re less like National Treasure and more like The History Detectives. Their magic is less epic than cerebral, but they are subtly powerful. They are the fail-safe protection on our governments, enabling citizens to petition their officials for the redress of grievances. They are temples of secrets.
I’d venture to guess that the reader has likely passed their local or state archives or even a branch of the National Archives without realizing it. They are frequently crowded into basements, or are sometimes overshadowed by a single exhibit. Most people don’t have a good sense of what they are or what they’re for.
Archives answer questions. For those who work for the community, they are a means to understand complex issues involving our government or other institutions. Archives contain the reasons and the politics behind the establishment of a park or state forest boundary, document legal battles between citizens and government agencies, record what some parcel of land was really intended for, and chronicle how communities have succeeded or failed when faced with all manner of environmental problems. More generally, archives are home to records of the decisions an institution makes and to the evidence of the actions it takes. Sometimes they’re even a place to make a point.
Archives offer something to people who want to understand the past- their own, their family’s, and their community’s. They contain snapshots of the places people connect with the government- the ubiquitous census records, land patents and deeds, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the oft-overlooked prison records. (Everyone wants to discover that they are descended from royalty. It’s more likely that you’re related to horse thieves and other nogoodniks.) Sometimes, you can even find a picture. These records, together with the recollections of other family members, can help you to uncover where your family is really from, where and how they lived, and even paints a picture of what they wanted out of life. Archives build a human story.
In creating and answering questions with these collections, you’re doing the impossible. You’re creating something of expanding value without expending anything. This value has the potential to grow without limit as you learn more, make new connections, and share all of this with others.
Perhaps the best part about an archive is that you get to touch most if not all of their collections. While museum objects are safely sequestered under glass, archival documents are handed-over by the Hollinger box-full. You can hold in your hands Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sermons, a century-old photograph of the wild mountains that would become Shenandoah National Park, or your grandfather’s enlistment records, revealing that he lied about his age in order to join the Marine Corps. Some archives or manuscript collections contain maps of places you know, made before you knew them, or hand written notes about the way a classic book was originally going to end. Some contain sound recordings and moving pictures. They establish a tangible connection to history and make it relevant to the present.
Obviously, this tip is more complicated than carrying a bandana to reduce the number of paper towels you use or buying local beer to save energy. But, whether you need resources to make your community a better place or you want to put stock in something of enduring value, archives offer a way to be the solution.

Author's note: The people pictured above are committing a crime. They are highlighted here not because I agree with their sentiment (I don’t think there is a constitutional basis for their assertion), but because a friend alerted me that this demonstration was unfolding at the National Archives earlier this week. It seemed fitting to include it.

Image sources:
Anonymous photographer, undisclosed stack location, Washington, DC
Veterans for Peace
National Park Service