Thursday, May 29, 2008

Let’s Take That First Step

Being green is more than a state of mind or a catchy political platitude to throw around at parties to show your friends that you are ‘concerned’ abut the environment.

We have to get serious about first reversing the damage that this current short-sighted, corporate robber baron that we call President of the United States has done. Then we need to heal the scars that our drive to profitability has left on this planet.

This incessant need to live and drive in luxury (as if we think we deserve it) is exacting a very high toll on the environment and therefore our future.

Mankind has always arrogantly placed itself above nature with the idea that everything is here for our amusement and pleasure. Resources are finite. Wildlife represents an integral link in the chain of life that helps supports every other link in that chain. We have all heard horror stories and speculations of what would happen if that chain were to fall apart. Respect is what is needed. Now, more than ever we need to respect what nature has to offer us and what we must do to give back and this requires the same thoughtful consideration we would like to bestow upon ourselves.

We don’t need vehicles that have the ability reach speeds above national speed limits that deplete copious amounts of fuel. We do not have to get from one part of the world to another so fast that excess fuel is burned just for the ability to do so.

We will not go hungry if we don’t have out-of-season foods on our dinner table and our health is not dependent on eating animals. Wearing animal parts is not a status symbol.

Living simpler, learning to do without will help ease the pressures we are placing on the environment in the name of making our lives easier. Let’s learn to live with what we have as opposed to using what we have. Let’s turn our attentions to nurturing what is available to us and forego the corporate welfare that is slowly destroying us.

This idea of using what we have available to us is rooted in turning a profit on every thing we see and touch. It has gotten out of hand, it has become wasteful. Free markets properly value raw materials and encourages producers to eliminate waste and pollution, by reducing, reusing, and recycling. Corporate capitalists don’t want free markets, they want dependable profits, and their surest route to profits is to crush competition such as small businesses and local farmers that help anchor local economies and communities. These local merchants are being squashed by the big-box stores who funnel their profits to distant corporate headquarters effectively taking the life-blood out of the backbone of this country. Over 60% of these large corporations don’t pay taxes because they place their headquarters on foreign soil which leaves gaping holes in our inner-city neighborhoods across the country.

Teddy Roosevelt often said that America could only be destroyed by those individuals who hold the greatest wealth when they subvert our political institutions. Well ladies and gentlemen, that is exactly what is going on here today. George W. Bush and his corporate cronies now dominate our political landscape. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the American people of falling under the control of the “military-industrial complex”. Abraham Lincoln lamented “I have the Confederacy before me and the bankers behind me, and for my country I fear the bankers most.” Franklin Roosevelt warned “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”

The White House has learned a lot about fascism from the likes of Hitler’s sidekick, Hermann Goering, who once stated “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for their lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” They have devised a system of terror alert levels that keep us in constant apprehension, required for the people of the U.S. to believe we need to keep our leaders in place to protect us. And while we are kept worrying about our protection, Bush/Cheney have endorsed and subsidized corporations who destroy our public lands and waterways while they search for profit.

These corporations benefit from the largest federal subsidies in history, going to grazing, lumber, mining and agribusiness. We now have oil drilling taking place in our once pristine national forests. The protection of wildlife and flora has become secondary to corporate profit. The latest business receiving abundant federal subsidies is biofuel production despite its connection to increasing food prices and creating a food crisis around the planet which disproportionately affects the world’s poor.

We must hold ourselves responsible for the environment and hold our politicians accountable when they allow corporations to plunder our countryside. The first step in this endeavor is to embrace nature as a complex living organism, not as a thing that can and should be used for our benefit without giving back. We can live with nature comfortably without destroying the very thing we need for our survival. And corporate commercials touting their ‘greenness’ is just BS to keep you buying their products. Don’t be fooled by their crafty corporate-speak when they say they are green. They are using our tax dollars to pay for those well thought out commercials to pat themselves on their corporate-piggy-backs to make themselves look like one of us. They are not one of us.

Further reading:

Park Service Approves Oil Drilling in Florida Preserve

Bush Allows Oil Drilling on Pristine Texas Beach

U.S. Proposal Would Allow Oil Drilling Off Virginia

Whale Habitat Off Alaska Could Open to Drilling

U.S. Government ‘selling oil-drilling rights to polar bear habitat’

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Garbage Powered Garbage Trucks

Why hasn’t this been thought of before? This is a great example of using a substance that we pay to haul away to pay for the equipment that hauls it away.

California is backing an initiative between the Linde Group and Waste Management to build a liquefied natural gas facility that will produce clean liquid fuel from landfill gas using municipal waste incinerators. The facility is expected to open in 2009 and will produce up to 13,000 gallons of fuel per day. The ground-breaking project will be the largest of its kind and will enable California to tap into a valuable renewable source of clean energy while greatly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

The collaboration between these two industries is the result of the U.S. EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program which is designed to find a way to effectively use landfill gas as an energy source. Landfill gas (LFG) is created from the decomposition of organic materials in an anaerobic environment. A variety of gaseous products are created through this process, primarily carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide is likely to leach out of the landfill because it is soluble in water. Methane (a powerful greenhouse gas), on the other hand, which is less soluble in water and lighter than air, is likely to migrate out of the landfill. Landfill gas energy facilities capture the methane (the principal component of natural gas) and combust it for energy.

There are approximately 445 operational LFG energy projects in the United States. In addition, about 110 projects are currently under construction or are exploring development options and opportunities.

Perhaps the best way to show the effectiveness of capturing and using LFG can be best explained through numbers:

In the year 2007, all operational LFG energy projects in the United States prevented the release of more than 21 million metric tons of carbon equivalent.

* This reduction is the carbon equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions from more than 14 million passenger vehicles or the carbon sequestered annually by nearly 18 million acres of pine or fir forests.

* This reduction also has the same environmental benefit as preventing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the consumption of nearly 182 million barrels of oil or from the burning of more than 408,000 railcars’ worth of coal.

Burning methane releases only carbon dioxide and water. It is much cleaner than burning coal and oil which release a variety of potentially harmful air pollutants.

This may sound like a small step, and you might think it isn’t enough to make a difference, but I believe that this small step taken together will all of the other small steps that are being taken will go a long way towards combating global warming.


Landfill Methane Outreach Program

Monday, May 19, 2008

Maple Syrup for Packaging

Maple trees, long treasured for their delicious maple syrup to pour over our pancakes, is now being tapped for a new use. Researchers have discovered that the sap can be used as a base for a natural, biodegradable polymer that could help us take another small step away from our dependence on fossil fuel-based plastics.

A range of new biodegradable products will be possible, such as packaging material, and medical applications like drug delivery systems and surgical sutures, the National Research Council said.

Canadian producers accounted for 86% - over 34,000 tons - of the world's maple syrup production last year, with the United States accounting for the remainder. This production led to sales of $178 million in 2006, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

After reading a report in a Quebec newspaper about a 27 million kilogram surplus of maple sap, due to slipping domestic sales, NRC scientist Jalal Hawari decided to see if the substance might help him with a project he was working on to create natural polymers. Hawari said the secret behind this new technology is bacteria called Alcaligenes latus, known for transforming sucrose into a group of naturally occurring polymers called polyhydroxyalkannoates, or PHAs. Before turning to maple sap, Hawari's group had been feeding the bacteria liquid waste from the apple juice manufacturing process.

The bacteria find the syrup an excellent food source. While the bacteria feed on the sap, they process the sugars and store much of what they cannot eat in the form of PHAs, which can then be extracted and used as a biodegradable material. This is done much more efficiently in maple sap than in other sucrose solutions. While corn and sugar cane can be used in a similar manner to feed the bacteria, Hawari said breaking them down into a sugary solution palatable to the bacteria adds to the cost.

Unlike fossil fuel-based polymers, natural polymers biodegrade over time more readily, but are still stable enough to perform their functions. They are also biologically inert, meaning they won't adversely affect humans if used for medical applications or wild animals who will ingest the substances once they are thrown away.

Since currently only one-third of the potential reserves of maple trees are tapped, using this food source for other than food purposes may not increase the retail price of syrup, unlike what has happened in using corn for ethanol.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Extinction Rate on the Increase

A little off topic but this ties in with the environment and how the actions of mankind is contributing to our own extinction. I read a report, produced by World Wildlife Fund, the Zoological Society of London, and the Global Footprint Network, that says land species have declined by 25%, marine life by 28%, and freshwater species by 29% over the past 35 years.
This Living Planet Index tracks populations of 1,313 vertebrate species - fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals - from all around the world. By tracking wild species, the Living Planet Index is also monitoring the health of ecosystems. This global trend suggests that we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history.
This chart by courtesy of World Wildlife Fund.
Since the late 1980s, we have been in overshoot – our ecological footprint has exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity – as of 2003 by about 25%. Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand – people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.
Humanity is no longer living off nature’s interest, but drawing down its capital. This growing pressure on ecosystems is causing habitat destruction or degradation and permanent loss of productivity, threatening both biodiversity and human well-being.
The eminent Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson, and other scientists, estimate that the rate of extinction is 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than what has historically been recorded as normal. Humanity’s pillaging of Earth’s biodiversity is directly resulting in animal populations declining by 30% between 1960 and 2000.
The Yangtze river dolphin is a case in point. Scientists believe it is extinct, as successive searches for the freshwater mammal have proved fruitless. There are many reasons for its rapid path to extinction: collisions with boats, habitat loss and pollution. These factors all point back to one perpetrator: mankind.
The implications of such drastic reductions in biodiversity are already having an impact on human life. “Reduced biodiversity means millions of people face a future where food supplies are more vulnerable to pests and disease and where water is in irregular or short supply,” said James Leape, director general of WWF.
“No one can escape the impact of biodiversity loss because reduced global diversity translates quite clearly into fewer new medicines, greater vulnerability to natural disasters and greater effects from global warming. The industrialized world needs to be supporting the global effort to achieve these targets, not just in their own territories where a lot of biodiversity has already been lost, but also globally.”
How mankind tackles the growing problem of greenhouse gas production in these next few years, to maybe a decade, will determine the quality of our very future existence. No matter what ‘solution’ we come up with, the way in which we conduct our business as well as our leisure time will be forever changed. Wildlife, on the other hand, will always depend almost entirely on us for everything, including their very survival.
It is estimated that life on this volatile planet has existed for 439 million years. During this time, there has been five great extinction events. Each event wiped out between 50% - 95% of life. During the aftermath of each near-extinction period, studies have shown that it takes roughly 10 million years to attain the biodiversity that existed before the near die-off.
Today we are living through the sixth great extinction, sometimes known as the Holocene extinction event. We kicked off this event nearly 50,000 years ago as we migrated out of Africa with our Stone Age tools into a pristine Ice Age ecosystems and changed it forever by wiping out at least some of the unique mega fauna of the times, including, the sabre-toothed cats and woolly mammoths. When the ice retreated, we terminated the long and biologically rich epoch sometimes called the Edenic period with assaults from our newest weapons: hoes, scythes, cattle, goats, and pigs.
But that period of this current extinction does not compare to what we are doing today. We have participated in the degradation and overexploitation of habitat, we have created agricultural monocultures and we have brought about climate-change and the rate of these changes are increasing exponentially, until now in the 21st century the rate is nothing short of explosive. The World Conservation Union’s Red List - a database measuring the global status of Earth’s 1.5 million scientifically named species - tells a haunting tale of unchecked, unaddressed, and accelerating biocide.
It is extremely difficult for our imaginations to fathom the devastating effect human existence is having on plant and animal life on this planet. The actual annual sum is only an educated guess, because no scientist believes that the tally of life ends at the 1.5 million species already discovered; estimates range as high as 100 million species on earth, with 10 million as the median guess. Bracketed between best- and worst-case scenarios, then, somewhere between 2.7 and 270 species are erased from existence every day. Including today.
Those of us who do not give much thought to extinctions usually, when it is brought to our attention typically at a zoo or university level class on the subject, think of the plight of the rhino, tiger, panda or blue whale. But these sad sagas are only small pieces of the extinction puzzle. The overall numbers are truly terrifying. Of the 40,168 species that the 10,000 scientists in the World Conservation Union have assessed, one in four mammals, one in eight birds, one in three amphibians, one in three conifers and other gymnosperms are at risk of extinction. The peril faced by other classes of organisms is less thoroughly analyzed, but fully 40% of the examined species of planet earth are in danger, including perhaps 51% of reptiles, 52% of insects, and 73% of flowering plants.
Every week, the world loses two breeds of its valuable domestic animal diversity, according to estimates just published in the 3rd edition of the World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity. The publication, issued by FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme, results from ten years of data collection in 170 countries, covering 6 500 breeds of domesticated mammals and birds: cattle, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigeons and even ostriches.
"In the past 100 years, we have already lost about 1,000 breeds," says Keith Hammond, Senior Officer of Food and Agriculture Organization's Animal Genetic Resources Group. "Our new findings show that domestic animal breeds continue to be in danger: one third are currently at risk of extinction."
In a 2004 analysis published in the journal Science, Lian Pin Koh and his colleagues predict that an initially modest co-extinction rate will climb alarmingly as host extinctions rise in the near future. Graphed out, the forecast mirrors the rising curve of an infectious disease, with the human species acting all the parts: the pathogen, the vector, the Typhoid Mary who refuses culpability, and, ultimately, one of up to 100 million victims.
More than 16,000 species of the world’s mammals, birds, plants and other organisms are at present officially regarded as threatened with extinction to one degree or another, according to the Red List.
With all of these grave and, hopefully, eye-opening numbers, we still cannot expect mankind to be concerned to actually improve the situation. Unless we can come up with a way in which to make saving the diversity of this planet profitable, biodiversity and the future of mankind are at risk.
There is plenty to go around on this planet to support our population as well as the several billion more that is expected, but we need to learn how to grow it, share it and use it. If we continue to cause other species to go extinct we cannot help but increase our chances of extinction because we are all connected.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Drowning in Crap

Sorry, but after all of the progress we have made toward cleaning up our environment, see Main Stream Media and the Real Story, learning that human error and our aging infrastructure is responsible for millions of gallons of raw sewage being dumped into our healing waterways almost every day just makes me disappointed. These systems have deteriorated because maintenance has put off due to lack of funds or simple low priority. Well guess what, repairing these systems is going to cost even more now.
Here are some of the worst examples:
January 2008, about 20 million gallons of sewage flowed into Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River after a 42-inch pipe ruptured near Reading, Pa.
January 2008, heavy rain, combined with deteriorating pipes, overwhelmed a Marin County, Calif., wastewater treatment plant in January, spilling 2.45 million gallons of sewage into Richardson Bay, which connects to San Francisco Bay. Days later, an additional 2.7 million gallons of sewage spilled into the same bay when operators failed to engage all of the treatment plant's pumps.
February 2008, A mechanical failure at Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's Piscataway Wastewater Treatment Plant in Maryland sent millions of gallons of raw sewage into nearby Piscataway Creek in February.
In March 2008, between 700,000 and 1.3 million gallons of human feces and other waste spilled from a damaged pipe into Grand Lagoon at Panama City Beach, Fla.
August 2007, a ruptured sewer pipe spilled millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson River just north of New York City.
June 2006, Improper excavation near Cary, N.C., ruptured a pipe and spilled approximately 8 million gallons of raw sewage into Swift Creek, Lake Wheeler and Lake Benson.
March 2006, a pressurized sewer pipe in Honolulu burst, spilling 48 million gallons of sewage into Ala Wai canal, which runs into the Pacific Ocean. High levels of bacteria detected in coastal waters closed Waikiki beaches for a week.
Between 2004 and 2006, about 14 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into San Diego Bay due to improper construction of a Navy barracks high-rise.
August 2007, about 7.8 million gallons of raw sewage poured into White Clay Creek in Wilmington, Del., for 13 hours after a pump station switch and an alarm failed.
According to EPA data, hundreds of municipal sewer authorities have been fined for spills since 2003. And dozens of local governments have agreed to spend billions modernizing failing wastewater systems over the next 10 to 20 years. Many of those projects will be financed by rate increases.
At least one-third of the nation's large, publicly owned sewage treatment systems have been penalized by the EPA or state regulators for sewage spills or other violations. The penalties included fines as well as orders to fix problems or expand treatment capacity.
Total fines amounted to $35 million. The fines were assessed against 494 of the nation's 4,200 municipal facilities that treat at least 1 million gallons of sewage daily. In addition, some states have levied penalties that aren't included in the data.
Cities with the largest fines included San Diego ($6.2 million), New York City ($3 million), Los Angeles ($1.6 million), and Pittsburgh ($1.2 million).
A database of sewer facility treatment plant reports by state and county has been set up by Gannet News Service.
Many sewer systems are over 100 years old. And they need some immediate attention. When the volume of rainfall becomes too much for these old pipes to handle, the water and sewage mixture bypasses the treatment plant and flows directly into local waters. This is unacceptable.
Sewer systems overflow about 23,000 to 75,000 times per year, releasing an estimated 3 billion to 10 billion gallons of untreated waste into local waters, according to the EPA. These overflows are unlawful.
EPA officials say water quality has gotten better in many communities that have improved their sewer systems.
The nation's public wastewater treatment plants and sewage collection systems need about $350 billion to $500 billion over the next 20 years for repairs and expansion, according to estimates from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The trade group based the estimates on figures from the EPA and other federal agencies.
Ratepayers certainly will be asked to help foot much of the bill. In Louisville, residential sewer rates jumped 30% last year to help finance an $800 million sewer renovation program that won't be completed until 2024. "We don't have any recourse," Louisville resident Roseanne Southard said as officials prepared to approve the increase. "These agencies all want more money, and I'm not making any more."
It’s a shame to see so much good work be wiped out due to lack of maintenance and shoddy infrastructure design. Once again we have fallen victim to this errant line of thinking where minor problems can be put off until they become major problems with major repair costs usually leaving someone else to pay for it.
This year, the federal government has budgeted $687 million for wastewater improvement, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
Here are some strategies that communities across the country are adopting, often at considerable expense, to protect rivers, streams and other bodies of water from sewage overflows.
• Relocate sewer lines away from environmentally sensitive areas.
• Repair damaged sewer lines, manhole covers and pump stations.
• Survey the entire sewer system to improve operations and maintenance.
• Educate homeowners and restaurateurs about how to avoid clogging sewer lines with fats, oil and grease.
• Eliminate sewer outlets that discharge combined raw sewage and storm water directly into local rivers and lakes.
• Eliminate leaking septic systems by connecting homes to sanitary sewer systems.
• Install meters and other technologies to identify and track sewage overflows.
I want to acknowledge Robert Benincasa, Gannet News Service, and Dan Klepal, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal for providing most of the facts in this article.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Main Stream Media and the Real Story

Bloggers like to think we are presenting information that is useful to a large number of people. But even if that number is small the information we present should be accurate. In the pre-internet days when news dissemination fell under the purview of main stream media, editors decided what was to be printed or broadcast based on their perceptions of what the public wanted to hear. Today, with an increasing number of news outlets falling under the control of corporations, editors and journalist are forced to temper, slant, or choose their news stories in accordance with corporate agendas. Blogs and websites, not owned by corporate news outlets, are free to present information without regard to what the corporate world wants or does not want to see. We can ‘round out’ news items, fill in the blanks or present information that the main stream just does not touch upon. Granted individuals can and often do have their own agendas but overall we serve to present a balanced more pedestrian view of what is going on in our world.
The environment is a small subset of the ‘big picture’ and environmentalist have been historically regarded as alarmists or ‘nut jobs’ with derogatory nicknames such as ‘treehuggers’, ‘granola eating hippies’, ‘recycling nazis’, that don’t exactly foster respect. We like to point out how plastic is such a danger to wildlife due to its non-biodegradability or how the rush to embrace biofuels to free ourselves from the grasp of foreign oil is creating more problems or even how we are not recycling enough.
Today, I would like to turn our focus to something positive. In an attempt to counter the overwhelming negative reports we see in the news, let’s look at some of the positive results brought about by environmental regulations that has allowed steady and significant progress in reducing almost every form of pollution.
The quality of our drinking water has clearly improved through improved purification methods and the amount of attention we have placed on it to not pollute it in the first place. According to the Council on Environmental Quality, the percentage of water sources that were judged to be poor or severe fell from 30% in 1961 to 5% in the 1990s.
The treatment of industrial and municipal waste has greatly reduced the amount of bacteria that enters our streams, rivers, and lakes. Wastewater plants served only 40 million Americans in 1960, approximately 22%, compared with 190 million today, approximately 70%.
In 1972, only 36% of America’s rivers and streams were suitable for swimming and fishing. By 1994, that percentage was 86. Lakes that were pronounced environmentally “dead” in the 1960s and 1970s, such as Erie and Ontario, are now producing record fish catches.
In 1989 the Exxon Valdez crude oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William sound was a catastrophe of epic proportions that saw 41 million liters of crude oil coat once pristine coastlines and wildlife. Today, American households pour 1.3 billion liters of oil-based products down the drain each year contaminating lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater. There are safer alternative methods of handling households chemicals. The good news to take from this report is that the number of oil spills have been reduced since the 1970s.
Solid waste in the U.S. more than doubled from 1960 to 1990 but recycling rose by 96%. About 60% of the physical waste now generated by the United States is biodegradable.
We use energy much more efficiently today than ever before. According to calculations by the National Center for Policy Analysis, “the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of GNP has been steadily declining at a rate of 1% per year since 1929.
The loss of U.S. wetlands fell from 500,000 acres per year in the 1950s to about 50,000 acres per year in the mid 1990s. This rate is still too high, but it is improving.
These facts and figures gives us much reason for optimism for it indicates that we are headed in the right direction.
Even though these great strides in cleaning up our environment have been made public opinion polls indicate that the general public does not seem to be aware of it. Listed below are some amazing poll results that illustrate the extent of mis-information and inaccurate views of the state of the environment.
A Roper poll, taken in 2003, found that most Americans believe they know more than they actually do about the environment.
* 120 million Americans think spray cans still have CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in them. But CFCs were banned in 1978.
* 120 million think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills. They actually represent about 1% of the problem.
* 130 million believe that hydropower is America's top energy source. In fact, it accounts for just 10% of the total.
A 2001 Gallup poll asked “right now, do you think the quality of the environment in the country as a whole is getting better or getting worse?” Of the 1,060 adults who responded,
36% said it is getting better,
57% said it is getting worse,
5% said its about the same
A Newsweek magazine poll in 2000 asked: “Since the first Earth Day was held 30 years ago, how much progress do you think has been made toward solving environmental problems: major progress, minor progress, or no progress, or have environmental problems actually gotten worse?” Of the 752 adults polled,
18% said there had been major progress,
52% said there had been minor progress,
16% said the problems have gotten worse
7% had no opinion.
A Yale University poll in 2005 found that 52% of Americans believe the environment in the U.S. is getting worse. And only 15% thought it was getting better.
This article in the Calgary Herald states similar misinformation and negativity from Canadians.
These more recent polls show that Americans consider environmental issues to be of high importance.
Why is it that when so many people claim to place so much interest on the environment that such a disproportionate number of people doubt environmental success? Main Stream Media is a major reason. Americans are spoon fed by sources with little information, but alternative agendas. The Roper poll respondents were asked where they get their information, 60% cited mostly television and newspapers, 25% credited the government and 33% said radio or environmental groups. (More than one source could be chosen.)
Simply stated, bad news sells more copy and ad space than do success stories. Findings show that a small percentage of people actually follow the news no mater what it presents. But, as Roy Greenslade, professor of Journalism and media commentator for the Guardian points out, peoples’ interest in news is much more intense when there is a perceived threat to their way of life. They want to know what has gone wrong rather than what has gone right.
People just do not bother to inform themselves about what is being done by those who govern them in periods between the eruption of crises. This means that they are not aware of the complexities of problems until it is too late for them to take a coherent stance for or against policy decisions. This situation tends to favor political leaders.
I realize that this post will probably only be seen by those few who actually have a developed curiosity and are civic-minded enough to want to learn more about what goes on around them, but just maybe this post will reach someone who has come to the conclusion that there is more to the story than what the ‘big boys’ of media let on and is willing to subject themselves to a more complete story.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Moving From the Fringe

A UN report “Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment" states that ‘the idea of renewable energy being a fringe interest of environmentalists [has come to a full stop]. It is now a mainstream commercial interest to investors and bankers alike.’

It took high oil prices and an array of government incentives to get here but the huge flows of investment capital into renewable energy, which reached $100 billion for the first time in history last year, indicates that the sector is now re-emerging.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A New Environmentalism

We are constantly reminded by environmentalist that we all need to kick in and do our part to make this world a better place in which to live.
We see it in the blogs and websites we visit. We hear about it on radio and television, mainly on the Public Broadcasting stations. There are pockets of environmental activism groups sprouting up here an there but it just seems that there are still so many people who don’t believe their small part can make any real difference.
The underlying inhibiting factor to seeing more local activism is that people feel impotent with regard to politics and public affairs. The feel they have been pushed out of public life and that getting involved makes little difference in their community.
If people could be convinced that what they do would make a difference then they would do more. It is difficult to develop stewardship if it cannot be connected with personal responsibility. Without a clear connection between our actions and individual responsibility to the environment then all of the scenes of marine wildlife choking to death from ingesting our plastic throwaways or the many urgent calls from scientists to lessen our carbon footprint will go unheeded.
Throughout history, society has placed the power of caring for us and the environment in the hands of politicians and we have adopted the idea that it is their problem and therefore it is out of our hands, and with this attitude we have effectively taken ourselves out of the picture. Government models consequently take up the policy of ‘command and control’ through which laws and lawsuits are meant to shape our behavior.
While we cannot legislate responsibility or good judgment, individuals are beginning to recognize a common interest and a common purpose in becoming a more active and responsible citizen through recycling, water conservation, and fuel economy.
People and companies have made great strides in becoming more environmentally responsible. However, these efforts still fall short of what is needed for the long term health of this planet. While the ecosystem has some abilities to correct or heal itself, the limitations on the damage it can sustain are quickly approaching. It is vital that even more people begin to recognize the seriousness of these issues and start taking personal responsibility for what they are doing to the environment.
We can find plenty of sources to tell us what we need to do, and we need to herald the activities of the countless citizen groups and individuals that are participating in the environmental movement in hopes of igniting a more participatory spirit. We don’t need free-market environmentalism that depends entirely on the whims of the individual and the economy, we do need a participatory environmentalism that emphasizes community partnerships between local businesses, local governments, local individuals and stewards who are closest to the resources.
The old environmentalism has developed a loss of local control for citizens and local governments that often find themselves at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency and mired in politics instead of science. This has led to contradictions between what individual property owners believe is best for their own interests vs. what is in the best interest of the community.
Shortly after the creation of the EPA it soon became apparent that a centralized form of ecosystem management was flawed. Only when locals have a say in their own community and environmental civics can we see great strides in protection of our unique ecosystems.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the great American architect, practiced his own brand of environmental civics by insisting that homes conform with their natural settings.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the great Wisconsin conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac, believed that conservation is too important to be left to government alone; it is a realm for individual responsibility, good science and economic reality.
Like Leopold, I believe that if we don’t have committed, responsible citizenry then all the efforts in the public sphere will go for naught.
We cannot give up control of our local environments to the ‘one-rule-fits-all’ mentality of the federal or even state governments. Forming constructive partnerships is difficult and sometimes frustrating work but the effort to do so is essential.
To paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam 27 ’Tis better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all’.
As always, comments are welcomed and encouraged.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Smarter Electrical Grid Could Save Us Money and Energy

We have heard of smart appliances - fine tuned washers, dryers, water heaters and refrigerators – but what about a smart electrical grid?

These appliances are outfitted with computer chips to help prevent the colossal power failures (brown outs) that plunged large areas of the U.S. into darkness in 2003 and 1996. The chips sense when the electrical transmission system is stressed and partially turn themselves off to save kilowatts. Using these chips in a clothes dryer, traditionally the largest user of residential electrical energy, can turn off the heating element until the grid restabilizes.

The electric grid, a vast network of transmission lines that carries energy from power plants to your home, wasn’t designed to anything more than what it does. We flip a switch or plug something in and generally get as much power as we're willing to pay for. But with the ever increasing demand for more power plants and the growing environmental consequences of providing that power coupled with the rising costs in generating electrical energy this system is unsustainable. As a result, power providers and technology companies are making the electric grid smarter.

In order to convert this passive supplier of electricity into a means of telling us, in our homes, when power demand is high, power companies are testing methods to coax users to reduce their demand during peak periods. One method for cutting back on electrical use is through smart appliances, another is by a glowing amber dot on a light switch that will blink to ask you to turn that switch off.

Smart-grid technologies have gotten small tests throughout North America, as utilities and regulators scout how to coax people to reduce their demand for power. The utility Xcel Energy plans to soon begin a $100 million smart grid project reaching 100,000 homes in Boulder, Colo.

In a separate test that began last September in Milton, situated on the western edge of the Greater Toronto area, 200 test participants are given the ability to use their personal computers to visit an online control panel that configures the home's energy consumption. Each subject chooses the temperature and which lights should be on or off at certain times of the day. Rules can be set for different kinds of days, so the house might be warmer and darker on summer weekdays when the family is out.

The family can override those changes manually, whether it's by turning on the porch light or raising the thermostat to ward off a Canadian chill. But the system guards against waste. If midnight comes and no one has remembered to lower the thermostat and turn off the porch light, those steps just happen.

These little tweaks add up nicely for another person testing the Milton system, Marian Rakusan. He's saved at least $300 on utility bills since the program began.

Programmable thermostats and other "smart home" controls have allowed people control their energy use for some time now. The big change here is the combination of these controls with that blinking amber light on the switch -- where the grid talks back.

Milton's local gas and electricity retailer, Direct Energy, will set those amber dots blinking in an emergency. It might happen a few times in a summer month. Maybe there will be congestion in Ontario's overtaxed transmission network. Perhaps a power plant will be down for maintenance. Or the number of air conditioners in use will overwhelm electric capacity.

If users have not responded quickly enough during times of grid-stress or their individual settings demand that the power company step in then Direct Energy will be able to remotely enforce conservation, should it become necessary. It can raise the set temperature in a participant's home by 2 degrees Celsius in the summer (nearly 4 degrees Fahrenheit), reducing its air conditioning load. The company also has permission to shut off the testers' water heaters and electric pool pumps for four hours at a time during these power emergencies.

Most people prefer this reach of the power company into their homes as opposed to having rolling black-outs. California officials recently had to back away from a proposal to require remote-controlled thermostats in new buildings.

An alternative to the test in Milton is to provide powerful economic incentives to force conservation.

An advanced notion of this will be tested this summer in 1,100 homes served by Baltimore Gas & Electric. Pricing plans will vary, but generally the households will pay the cheapest, "off-peak" rates most of the time. Some testers will pay higher rates every weekday afternoon. And all of them will be subject to "critical peak" periods of even higher charges, declared on as many as 12 weekday afternoons with stress on the grid. The Maryland utility will have its own version of Milton's amber dots. Most of the homes will get 3-inch-high orbs that will glow different colors to indicate the price of electricity: red instead of their usual green, for example, during critical peak periods.

By far the best way to save energy consumption is to have the whole system automatically adjust itself for the highs and lows of electrical use. Controllers are being tested for this purpose. A Demand Controller is a microcomputer load control system that monitors the amount of energy being used in your home and can turn off selected devices until power consumption has lessened. Maximum tolerable loads can be set by the home owner with the highest-conservation setting for dishwashers to start only when electricity prices are at their lowest, or when wind power has kicked on. This can save the home owner 20% to 70% off their energy bill.

Electricity use per home has risen 23% from 1981 to 2001, according to the Department of Energy. Electronics and appliances, and our decreasing tolerance for sweating through the summers are mainly to blame for this increase. The Census Bureau says 46% of single-family homes completed in the U.S. in 1975 had air conditioning. By 2006 it was 89%.

Raw materials that fuel power plants are soaring in price and being eyed more skeptically by regulators concerned about air quality and greenhouse gases. We simply cannot continue to build more coal plants even if they do claim to be cleaner burning. More efficient use of what we already have can be the better answer. A mere 5% improvement in U.S. electric efficiency would prevent 90 large coal-fired power plants from having to be built over the next 20 years, according to Jon Wellinghoff, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In some states, residents can get rebates if they let the utility trigger radio transmitters on their air conditioners that cycle the chillers off for a few minutes in strained summer hours.

Companies such as EnerNOC have built software and sensor networks that can remotely dim lights or raise refrigerator temperatures inside businesses, in an instant. For homes, upgraded electric meters can offer near-real-time feedback on energy use. And new generations of appliances and thermostats can coordinate with each other and electric meters over in-home wireless networks.

Whatever smart system is adopted, it is sure to be an improvement for both the environment and the home owner.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

It Is Dangerous to Take Gifts From Politicians

Senator John McCain has proposed a gas-tax-holiday, a ‘gift’ if you will. Every year, just before the summer driving season, someone in congress proposes just such a break to ease our economic woes. Has it ever happened? No. Will it happen this time? Let’s hope not.
The amount of federal tax collected on a gallon of gasoline is 18.4 cents, roughly 5% of the current average price of $3.38/gallon. This would save the average commuter between $3 and $4 per tank. If the average commuter fills their tank once a week, then by the end of this three month no-tax period, he/she could conceivably save $36 to $48 which is truly a paltry sum.
During that time, the federal government would lose $9 billion and more than 300,000 jobs. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by this tax, is already facing a $3.4 billion shortfall to finance much needed infrastructure repairs nationwide. The federal transportation department says every $1 billion in highway spending creates 34,779 jobs. Sure, it would help companies like FedEx and UPS who are struggling to stay profitable due to high gas prices, but saving some jobs only to lose others is not a very responsible economic policy.
McCain plans to cover this loss with money from the general fund which would add to the deficit. Also, a very stupid and short-sighted idea. It saddens me that this is the best that a presidential candidate can come up with. And of course, since this proposal is outright political pandering for votes, Senator Hillary Clinton jumped right on it. America is in for more serious trouble.
There are several major drawbacks to this ridiculous proposal. First, by making gasoline cheaper during the busiest driving time of the year consumers will only use more of it. This not only quickens our pace towards the bottom of the trough but it would have immediate detrimental financial and environmental effects by increasing the price of a gallon of gas, increasing the amount of CO2 emissions (which contradicts Senator McCain’s stated goal of reducing CO2 emissions) and increasing the profit to oil producers.
Does this still sound like a ‘gift’?
“You don’t want to stimulate consumption,” said Lawrence Goldstein, an economist at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, interviewed by the New York Times. “The signal you want to send is the opposite one. Politicians should say that conservation is where people’s mindset ought to be.”
Mr. Goldstein said that instead of freezing the federal tax, the government should help lower-income populations pay for gasoline. It would be cheaper and benefit those households that need it most.
This guys shows much more leadership quality than any candidate we are currently forced to deal with.
The United States has the lowest gasoline taxes among industrialized countries. It also has the highest gasoline consumption level in the world, nearly 25% of all gasoline consumption is by Americans. Energy experts say the two are related. Raising the tax on a gallon of gas would slow down its consumption and finally force us to think about our driving habits and force us to be more energy conscious.
Haven’t we learned yet about what they say about accepting gifts from politicians? We always pay more for it in the long run.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Sustainable Agriculture Can Feed the World

After reading a fascinating post by Kate of Hills and Plains Seedsavers, my curiosity began me on a quest to learn as much as I could about sustainable agriculture. We both, as well as many others, have written our thoughts on one form or another of organic agriculture for some time now and I was wondering if we could actually produce enough food to feed the world without using pesticides or other synthetic, non-natural fertilizers that purport to boost food crop output.
In my research I discovered a web site entitled Food First. They published results of a study that was done by the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology that shows that not only can we feed the current world’s population without the help of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, we can by converting to a sustainable organic food production system support a population of up to 10-11 billion by the year 2100! Which will be the world’s expected population by that time.
The original Green Revolution of the 1940’s (Victory Gardens) was credited with averting widespread hunger by drastically increasing agricultural production during World War II. When our soldiers came home after the war, it was felt that the need for these gardens was over and so they fell out of favor. The post-war economic boom saw many people leave the farms and home gardens to experience the conveniences that our new found prosperity brought to us. Farm yields were increased through the science of plant genetics and chemical fertilizers. Food production was improved by the ability to mass produce canned and frozen foods that greatly cut down on food preparation time. This allowed people to enjoy more of the new leisure time that everyone craved.
Years later, after seeing the damage caused by chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the fact that hunger is still a major problem, sustainable organic alternatives are once again receiving the attention they deserve.
The study was published in the June 2007 issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. I won’t go into great detail of the trials, but they compared alternative and conventional agriculture from 91 studies and were able to demonstrate that current scientific knowledge implies that organic agriculture could actually increase global food production by as much as 50% (to 4,381 kilocalories/person/day).
The problems of hunger and food security in the world are not presently associated with not enough food, but with poverty and the lack of ability to acquire food. Whether sufficient food is produced organically or conventionally, the problems of fair distribution and acknowledgment of the right to food will still need to be resolved, and no amount of food production alone will change the political system that leaves those without money to live without sufficient food.
Currently, the world produces enough food to feed everyone, if we would stop artificially fattening up cattle with grain that could go to feed humans. Cows stomachs are not designed to process grain, their natural food is grass, but ranchers receive more profit by feeding their cattle grain. This mis-direction of human food leaves over 800 million people who cannot acquire enough food for their basic needs, according to Food First. They go on to say that if we are to address world hunger, we cannot avoid food sovereignty: people's right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, no matter how much is produced. This implies the democratization of our food systems—not their further industrialization.