Monday, December 10, 2012

The Greatest Crisis Faced by Humans

As society frets over relatively trivial problems—such as the debt crisis and unemployment—the breakdown of natural systems presents a scenario that could literally bring an end to civilization, says Paul Ehrlich in an article published by the Stanford News Service. But, instead of reacting to the dangers, nations around the world are essentially carrying on as usual. Ehrlich points to the need for a coupling of the human (socio-political-economic) system to the natural world—a relationship that has garnered a great deal of attention in the environmental science community in recent years. 

As Ehrlich describes the situation:
"In the absence of dramatic changes in human behavior relative to Earth's natural systems, gradual population shrinkage, an end to overconsumption by the rich and a redistribution of wealth and opportunity, it is likely the natural system will react in ways that will reduce the scale of the human system in a very unpleasant manner. Debt and employment problems can be solved entirely by negotiation; one cannot negotiate with nature."
Among the groups mentioned in his talk that are attempting to move along a more sustainable path:  Occupy Wall StreetGlobal Movement to Solve the Climate CrisisGrowthBusters and MAHB: Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Desalinization Powered by the Sun

Fresh water is scarce worldwide and growing scarcer. This adds even more importance to the achievement of Sundrop Farms, working in South Australia, to accomplish an impressive agricultural feat: using solar desalinization to produce vegetables in the desert. 

A 75m line of motorised parabolic mirrors that follow the sun all day focuses its heat on a pipe containing a sealed-in supply of oil. The hot oil in turn heats nearby tanks of seawater pumped up from a few metres below ground – the shore is only 100m away. The oil brings the seawater up to 160C and steam from this drives turbines providing electricity. Some of the hot water from the process heats the greenhouse through the cold desert nights, while the rest is fed into a desalination plant that produces the 10,000 litres of fresh water a day needed to keep the plants happy. The water the grower gets is pure and ready for the perfect mix of nutrients to be added. The air in the greenhouse is kept humid and cool by trickling water over a wall of honeycombed cardboard evaporative pads through which air is driven by wind and fans. The system is hi-tech all the way; the greenhouse is in a remote spot, but the grower, a hyper-enthusiastic 27-year-old Canadian, Dave Pratt, can rather delightfully control all the growing conditions for his tonnes of crops from an iPhone app if he's out on the town – or even home in Ontario.
 The project is not without controversy. The originator of the process, Charlie Paton, objected to some of the techniques being used by Sundrop and received an undisclosed ex-gratia settlement for cutting ties last February.

The article captures Charlie Paton's parting words:
"We will absolutely keep on at this in our own way," he says, "but I don't really feel that proprietary about it. The heart of the technology is actually a bit of soggy cardboard. You can't patent or protect the idea of evaporative cooling. The idea of using seawater to do that absolutely was a major breakthrough, but again, you can't patent it. The main thing is that it's us that's still picking up the plaudits, and I think that makes Philipp really angry."
In this case, the purely commercial ethic and altruistic ideals operate on entirely different levels. Only by bringing these two viewpoints into closer alignment can the true benefits of this achievement be realized on a global basis.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Realistic Solutions for Combatting Climate Change

Naomi Klein, who is currently in the process of working on a documentary about climate change, is one of the most articulate, well-reasoned spokespersons on the environmental front. Her appearance on Bill Moyer offers a great example of how to address the issue in a persuasive, knowledgeable way.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Promise of Zero Waste

Some of the most encouraging developments in sustainability arise from citizens concerned about the effects of commonplace activities on their community. In this case, a group of women in Kovalam, India, motivated by a public interest research organization, Thanal, took on the challenge of eliminating the problems associated with incinerating toxic waste. As reported by Truthout, a horiculturist, S. Ushakumari, helped establish a zero waste team and worked to develop alternatives to incineration based on rethinking the materials being used in the region. The movement took root in the community and quickly spread. In her words: 
The idea from Kovalam has gone all over the world now, which I think is the most beautiful part of the project. At least six or seven states are now modeling their zero waste programs after the one in Kovalam. Other countries — like the tourism department in the Philippines — are keen on implementing a zero waste program. 
I think zero waste is what Gandhiji taught us. He didn’t coin the words ‘zero waste’, but what he told us about self-reliance, about non-violence, it’s all the principle of zero waste. The basic philosophy, the basic efforts, the basic understanding, is the same.
 The article concludes with a list of resources for anyone who wants to get involved with similar efforts. Small steps—from the bottom up—often surpass top down efforts.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Solar Flares and Nuclear Safety

Solar flares

Photo by Fernando Reyes Palencia

Power grid failure presents a serious risk to the operation of nuclear reactors, which require electricity to maintain cooling water circulation even when shut down. As demonstrated by the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima reactor complex, if you lose power lines and suffer backup generators failures at he same time, the loss of cooling capabilities rapidly causes the situation to spiral out of control.

Besides the natural disaster impacts of earthquake and tsunamis, another natural phenomenon—solar flares—poses dangers unlikely to be factored into the accident trees that assess plant operational risks. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs), which peak during regular cycles of the sun, can potentially disrupt the energy grid and render nuclear plants unable to maintain coolant circulation far beyond the week that diesel backup generators are required to function. In Flare-up: How the Sun Could Put an End to Nuclear Power, Gar Smith writes:

A 2011 Oak Ridge National Laboratory report warned of a 33 percent likelihood that a solar flare could lead to “long-term power loss” over a nuclear reactor’s life. With 440 nuclear power plants in 30 countries, and 250 research reactors, there are nearly 700 potential Fukushimas waiting to be unleashed.

Faced with a grid collapse, nuclear plants must rely on backup power to cool reactor cores and spent-fuel ponds. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires only eight hours of battery power and enough fuel to run emergency generators for a week. Restoring outside power to Fukushima’s damaged reactors was a daunting task even when Japan had a functioning grid to fall back on. If the Sun sends a geomagnetic tsunami sweeping across Earth, it could become impossible to provide any form of traditional power.

The failure of the Solar Shield Bill (H.R.668), which included provisions that could protect the grid against the threat of geomagnetic storms, illustrates how woefully unprepared we are to deal with the very likely possibilities of large-scale power blackouts. As Gar points out in his article:

The US could protect its grid by spending around $1 billion to “harden” 350 key EHV transformers and stock blast-proof warehouses with replacement parts. Transformers could be protected with ground resistors. Costing about $40,000 each, they could be installed on 5,000 critical transformers for less than $200 million – about one-tenth the cost of a B-2 bomber.


Friday, April 13, 2012

A Community Breaks Away from Coal


Dissatisfied with the direction of the utility company supplying their energy, citizens of Boulder, CO took matters into their own hands and passed ballot measures to create their own municipal power utility. As written in Yes Magazine:

The city’s current electricity supplier, Xcel Energy, is a large corporation that sources more than 60 percent of its power from coal. Colorado climate activists tried for years to persuade Xcel to transition from coal to renewables, arguing that the state’s plains, mountains, and 300 days of annual sunshine give it abundant potential for the development of wind and solar power. But they found Xcel’s take-up of renewables was frustratingly slow. Xcel is investing $400 million in its coal-powered plants, and its plans for renewables stops at just 30 percent in 2020, with no further increase until 2028.

If more communities follow this example, we might even become effective tackling global warming while demonstrating the power of genuine democracy in action.


Thursday, April 05, 2012

Go fast without gas

Humans have a lot of different ways to get from Point A to Point B on this planet, but only the velomobile lets you travel with the grace and whimsy of a cartoon character. 

As profiled in Grist, the velomobile consists of a reclining bicycle protected by a fiberglass shell that can optionally be assisted by an electric motor. They're fast, fuel free, and worth consideration if you're tired of being a victim of the fossilized proponents of the fossil fuel industry.

Get out there and pedal!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Protecting Life on the Blue Marble


Sometimes we need a little perspective to get our priorities straight. As Bill McKibben points out in "The Great Carbon Bubble: Why the Fossil Fuel Industry Fights So Hard," we experienced the greatest weather extremes in recorded history in 2011, 14 weather disasters in the U.S. alone. And yet we have an entire political party in denial that there are any large-scale dynamics at work in the global weather system that potentially threaten our survival.

Why is the fossil fuel working so hard to spread denial about climate change? As in many things in life, follow the money.

Part of it’s simple enough: the giant energy companies are making so much money right now that they can’t stop gorging themselves. ExxonMobil, year after year, pulls in more money than any company in history. Chevron’s not far behind. Everyone in the business is swimming in money.

Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology or research and development for the same. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.

The billions of dollars in profits earned by Chevron and ExxonMobil will build a lot of mansions for their highly paid executives. But, what's the point of a mansion if you don't have a habitable planet to build it on?