The Other I

June 3, 2017

My new housekeeper

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

Image result for spider in a web

I’ve taken to watching a spider in its web on my bathroom ceiling.  Usually I try to get them back outside, or vacuum them up with an apology about their having landed on a foreign planet.  But Trump’s climate change denials have made me increasingly aware of just what a special, unique place Earth is, and I’m observing even the most ordinary things with fascination and even awe.

Besides, a new study estimates that spiders consume up to 800 tons of insects every year.  We humans consume a mere half that total in meat and fish.

So I thought perhaps I would not, as is my custom, try to move the spider outside, or vacuum it up.  This time of year, a whole feast of insects make their way through the sky light into the bathroom.  I’m welcoming the spider as my housekeeper.

As long as it stays out of the bed anyway.

October 9, 2016

International Trade: The devil’s own?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

In my last post, I reviewed what I found to be the astonishing feat we humans have accomplished in providing nourishment for literally billions more people than populated our globe a mere 75 years ago.  This is an incredible feat for which we as species can be proud.

Most of us have no idea of the size of this gigantic accomplishment nor that it could not have been achieved without international trade.

The great risk of this ignorance is that many of us, especially in the developed world, are undergoing a mega-temptation to close off the very processes of this source of enrichment.

This might just sound ignorant, selfish, or racist on the part of people who are just too lazy to work.  But it would be a huge mistake to reduce the problem to bigotry or a preference to depend on hand-outs.. Vast swathes of joblessness resulting from international trade has created real problems for hard-working people who have been driven from a middle class life style to the edges of serious poverty.  This has happened before, but perhaps never so rapidly and without the accompanying awareness made possible by our modern communications system.

Worldwide international communication conceptHere’s an example.  China was accepted into the World Trading Organization in 1993, it looked like an unalloyed win-win situation for the world.  It indeed has been a win for Chinese workers who now supply 20% of world-wide manufacturing exports.  China has been transformed from a poor to a middle-income country, taking hundreds of millions out of poverty.   And in the developed world, the less well-off benefited hugely from cheaper imports of everything from computers to solar panels.

But the developed world did not foresee the millions of  factory job losses in countries benefiting from cheaper products being imported from China.  Today, economists estimate that up to 2.4 million jobs in America alone may have been lost as a  result of Chinese imports.

And these jobs were not replaced.  Workers could not simply move to another part of the country.  The kind of jobs for which these unemployed workers were trained no longer exist in sufficient numbers in the developed world.

It is easy to understand why people on the ground resent international trade.  It’s a resentment swelling up in Europe, Australia, North and Latin America, the Middle and Far East.  But the solution, unfortunately, is not to build walls, to slam the door shut, to go back to the mythical days when we were supposedly all able to take care of ourselves.

The problem is extraordinarily complex, and solutions are not simple.  But there are things we can do which will not destroy the huge benefits which so many have received as a result of international trade.

Culturally, the human species has always had to walk that narrow road between benefiting from our great diversity of gifts and being quite realistically threatened by them.  But we are all in this together, and with increased globalization, it is increasingly important that we learn to appreciate the huge value of our differences.

Politically, we also need to make changes.  The America government has been particularly – but not uniquely – slow to appreciate the scope of job-losses resulting from China’s rapid industrialization.  Some countries – Denmark, for instance – have done a better job of providing job retraining and meaningful unemployment benefits for those actively seeking for work.  Governments can also create jobs.  In the U.S. the needs for upgrading our transportation, electricity, and other superstructures is significant.  Few countries are without similar needs.

There are also world-wide problems of reduced competition and tax avoidance by international companies which is increasing joblessness among former factory workers.  Internet giants by and large pay above-average pay to all their workers.  But they crowd out small businesses or buy them up, reducing competition.  These are not easy problems to solve, but we must grapple with them if we don’t want to lose the benefits of international trade which enriches us all.

February 7, 2016

Yes we can!

As I said in an earlier post, I believe that the environmental change we humans are effecting on our planet is the biggest challenge facing the world today.  In so far as it could lead to our own extinction as a species, it may actually be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.

I do not agree with those who argue that the emergence of this challenge is a result of human greed.  It is the outcome of evolution, of the drive for survival which lies at the very core of every living organism.  Millions of species that survived for hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, are now extinct because they were unable to adapt to the environmental change which they themselves often orchestrated.

In the last century, lighting and heating our homes and offices by burning coal and oil, increased transportation by road and rail traffic, industrialized farming, the domestication of farm animals, all have kept millions of people from starvation, poverty, the effects of deadly weather, and disease.

These innovations were spread by loving, creative, hard-working people around the world often making sacrifices for their children and communities.  We didn’t know it then – we had no idea – that carried to an extreme, we could be destroying the potential of our very existence.

Yet we may be the only species that can now see that many of the very solutions to the problems we have been intelligent enough to solve in the past in order to insure our survival have now created the very problems we need solve in order to insure our continued survival.

We have the intelligence to solve these problems without destroying ourselves.

In New Zealand today, research is being carried out which is already producing cows and sheep which expel less methane.  In Europe, scientists who have discovered that the huge expanse of man-made forests consisting of conifers isn’t reducing global warming but increasing it are moving to replace the conifers with nature’s original choice of broad-leaved varieties.  We are identifying new and clean ways of tapping into the sun’s energy using the ocean waves, pedestrian traffic, even the tires rolling on the road might someday be used to charge car batteries without their ever needing to be plugged into a socket.

There are hundreds – no, thousands – of examples like this.  Some are already being implemented, some are still in the experimental or even conceptual stage.  The solutions are not yet all obvious. Nor will the problem be solved in one fell swoop, with one big single answer.  It needs many steps, some small, some large.

But if we believe in ourselves and in our responsibility to care for this planet that has been given into our care, we can make it even better than it has ever been.

We are the ones who have to do it.  And we can!



January 22, 2016

Is global warming just a joke?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:44 pm

Scientists have announced that the world for the year 2015 was an average of 1 degree celsius (that’s about 2 degree fahrenheit) warmer than has ever occurred in recorded history.

But 1 degree?  That doesn’t sound like the potential catastrophe of droughts, floods, extinctions, starvation and global disease scientists say could occur if the planet warms more than just one more degree.

Is this serious, is it mere hysteria?  is it a fraud?

Nothing would please me more than to write that scientists are exaggerating the problem.

But let us put 1 degree celsius into context.  A decrease of just five degrees celsius would plunge the world into an ice age.  So a change of a mere five degrees can dramatically change our planet.  Unfortunately, it can do so in the opposite direction as well.

Global warming in the form of 2-3 degree celsius can be devastating.  The melting of glaciers could raise the oceans’ water level by as much as 6-8 feet.  Think of how many of the world’s greatest cities will be underwater, how many islands will disappear, how much land will be lost to the sea.  As sea water becomes increasingly acidic, much of sea life will be lost.



Extreme weather patterns, some of which we have already seen this year, will proliferate.  Floods will sweep entire towns, fields and farm land away.  Tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons will flatten anything and anyone in its torrential path.

Electricity, communication media, and travel could be devastated, leaving survivors isolated.  Water supplies will be corrupted.

Fifteen years ago when I first read about global warming, I thought it sounded quite comfortable.  Some of us would perhaps have to sacrifice our winter snow and skiing vacations.  But our heating bills would be greatly reduced, and the growing season for our crops would be lengthened.

But that’s not what’s happening.  Environmental change, even environmental destruction, would be a much better term for what we call global warming.  Yes, the temperatures are increasing, but the effects on our mother earth are not benign.

Can we stop it?  Yes, I believe we can.  It doesn’t have to happen.  With research, with ingenuity, if governments, if businesses, if individuals are determined to save our planet we can do it.  The ways of producing clean energy now being provided by polluting fossil fuels is developing fast.  Solar panels are becoming cheaper.  More efficient, lithium batteries are getting smaller and are even being used to store electricity in houses, making them independent of the grid.  We’re even finding ways of tapping into the energy that Einstein discovered pervades every inch of our atmosphere.

But we can’t walk around and deny the problem created by our unlimited use of fossil fuels.  Or count on somebody else to fix things.

We all have to do our part, no matter how small that might feel.  But we can do it if we choose.  We don’t have to be victims.

December 13, 2015

Truly Tidings of Good News!

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

We watched the negotiators in Paris yesterday when the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced that almost 200 countries in the world had reached agreement on climate change.  There was a moment of dumb silence, and then an explosion of celebration.  They had done it!

Christiana Figueres and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius welcome the final agreement.


Yes, I know it is only the first step to saving the only planet on which we live, and which is uniquely ours.

Yes, I’ve read enough of what is contained in the legally binding agreement to know that without good will, determination, generosity, and creativity we will continue down the road to destroying our only home.

So the problem is not done and dusted.  There is a great deal of hard work and sacrifice still facing us.  Governments, business, communities, and individuals must all do our part.

But we have taken an absolutely huge and essential first step without which no progress at all could be made.  And until the last minute, that was by no means assured.

And so I am celebrating the future of mankind today.

Truly it is a day that brings us Tidings of Good News.

November 30, 2015

Solar-powered celebrations

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 2:20 pm

There is a company called Plantscape that sells or rents solar-powered Christmas trees and other decorations.

Hanging Christmas tree. Image: Plantscape

Don’t you wish you’d thought of that!?  And Christmas trees seem such a fitting spot to capture our winter sun.  After all, Christmas was originally introduced by the pagans as a celebration of the returning light of the sun.

It’s another example of human ingenuity suggesting that tackling environmental degradation doesn’t necessarily require a return to primitive life styles.  We don’t even need to contemplate pre-industrial life styles.  We just need to use our creative determination.  Plantscape has been in business for 8 years and still growing.

November 15, 2015

Magical balloons

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 5:11 pm

The news this weekend seems particularly depressing.  The multiple terrorist attacks in Paris seem especially terrifying and unexpected – on the par with 9/11 in terms of its shock value.

In the midst of this global awfulness, I stumbled on what might really be seriously important and good news.  Hang on:  this could sound utterly boring, but it might have implications for all of us and those we love and care about.

A group of international scientists have just published a report in Nature (highly respected science journal) in which they report having invented an ultra-porous liquid which contains huge (well, huge in atomic terms) bubbles.  What is potentially significant about this invention is that these bubbles may be able to contain vast amount of carbon-dioxide — the greenhouse gas we are throwing into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels which is so destructive of our environment.

If we can capture the carbon-dioxides we are currently pumping into the air we might be able to avoid disaster.  That is, we may be able to avoid the droughts, starvation, wars, diseases, flooding, mega-storms, and destruction of our oceans that global warming is already beginning to visit on us.

Above all, it may make a significant contribution to earth’s not hitting what scientists call a tipping point.  One of the most dangerous tipping points we could trigger is the melting of the arctic ice to such a degree that it releases the vast amounts of methane gas currently trapped there.  Methane gas is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and once it escapes, it will be too late for us to turn things around.

When I was a child, I thought balloons were magical.  Maybe I was right.

Image from

October 26, 2015

Helpless and hopeless?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm

I’ve suspected for some time that people’s denial of the human contribution to environmental destruction arises out of a sense of helplessness.  Despite the fact that evidence is building up that we ourselves are potentially making planet earth uninhabitable, an astonishing number of people simply refuse to take the possibility seriously.  Many of these climate change deniers are religious fundamentalists.  Many believe that they will be among the Saved when four horsemen usher in the end of the world, and so they don’t have to worry.  (Not, I will admit, a very Christian attitude for those exhorted to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.  But common, nonetheless.)  Others simply quote Jesus’ exhortation for us to “look at the lilies of the field,” and convince themselves that God can cure climate change “with the snap of his fingers” if he wants to.

Some recent research into the workings of the brain began to make this kind of reasoning make some kind of sense to me.  Researchers have found that we may very well use the same part of our brain for problem-solving as we do for at least some of our religious thinking.  In other words, religious belief may actually be a problem-solving exercise.

This has certainly been true historically.  What we now think of as religious belief was the explanation for why the sun seemed to go into a sulk every year and needed to be coaxed back by the sacrifice of a virgin or two.  Religion explained why the stars did not fall down on our heads, and even today is used by some preachers to claim that our sinfulness is the cause of events like tsunamis and earthquakes.

Religion, therefore, can often solve problems that otherwise seem unsolvable.  It saves us from a sense of hopelessness and despair.

I that context, I wonder if a lot of people deny climate change – or at least our contribution to it – because the problem seems unsolvable.  I will admit that until very recently, my main hope was not that the governments of the world would agree to the measures we all must take around the world to save us from destroying ourselves.  My most optimistic scenario was that a sufficient number of humans would survive the inevitable global droughts, starvation, wars, and disease that would reduce our numbers from the current 7 1/2 billion to a more manageable billion or so, which will have learned the lesson that God does not intervene when we ourselves are creating our own problems.

But I am reading a book, which frankly, I am finding astonishing.  It is Adventures in the Anthropocene:  A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by an Australian journalist Gaia Vince.  She does not by any means minimize the size of the problem we have created for ourselves.  With terrifying clarity she visits and describes the problems that are already evident – the air that is killing us, temperature changes that are moving populations, melting glaciers, depleting water tables and creating a rate of species extinction on a mega-scale, the destruction of farmlands and forests on every continent.

But she is also identifying solutions that creative individuals have designed that have addressed these problems, transforming entire villages, farmlands, cities.  Some of them are simply amazing.

It is convincing me that we can solve this problem of environmental destruction if we do not give up in despair.

And it is not up solely to governments.  In fact, many of the solutions have already been found on a small scale.  They have been found by creative, determined individuals and small groups who have refused to simply ring their hands in despondency, saying there is nothing they can do that will make a meaningful difference.  Governments need to look at these local solutions, study them, and find ways to spread them across the world.

No one – not even the most creative or powerful – is going to turn this problem around alone.  Nor are governments going to be able to do it alone.

But the human race is incredibly ingenious.

Jesus didn’t look at the lilies of the field and suggest that we should just sit back and trust that supper will somehow miraculously appear on the table tonight.  It is not telling us to sit passively in the trust that God will take care of everything and we don’t have to do anything to make things better.  Today, this parable, I think, is urging us to trust that we do not need to despair, that we have been given the capacity to solve the problems of environmental change.

But we do have to work at it.  We do have to take responsibility for what we are doing.  Almost all of us can take small steps that add up.  A few can take giant steps that we can emulate and apply.

Over the next months, I plan to describe some of the solutions Vince lays out in her book.  I hope it will help spread hopefulness, rather than helplessness.


July 3, 2015

Glimpse of the future

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 8:36 pm

Two days ago was the hottest day ever recorded in Great Britain.  Ever.

When you look at a the globe and see that Great Britain shares a latitude with Siberia, one can appreciate just how hot that was.  The temperature hit 37.4 Centigrade or 99.3 3 Fahrenheit.

I lived for many years in New York City, and also in Spain.  So it wasn’t the hottest day I have ever experienced.  Although after living for 12 years here in England, it felt like the hottest day, and I was utterly exhausted and occasionally nauseous.

It felt like a glimpse of the future.  Environmental change is happening, and that change includes the seemingly contradictory changes reflected in exceptional heat as well as exceptionally cold winters for some, record-breaking droughts along with deadly floods and acidfying oceans.

But personally, the loss of energy I experienced felt like a it could be a glimpse of my own future as well.   If my getting to be seriously old-old is going to feel on a daily basis as tired as I felt during this heat wave, I’m not so sure I’m interested in lasting that long.

March 17, 2015

An environmentally friendly concoction?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:53 pm
This is a photo taken by a real estate agent here in England, presumably to actually find a buyer for the house where this ingenious installation was accomplished.
Optimisation of space taken to the extreme
I will admit to a certain admiration for the person who figured out all that clever piping to save water and space.  Well, I guess that’s what they were trying to do:  I’ve been trying to figure out what happens to the excess grey water from the machine when the cistern is full.  Or how the toilet flushes when the cistern is empty.
And sitting on a toilet underneath a 500 lb washing machine seems a rather high price to pay for recycling, doesn’t it?
I come from a family of engineers, some of whom have tried out some ideas that I think could legitimately be categorized as wacky.  But I am extremely grateful that the none of the engineers I know and love have ever tried to replace the picture above with toilet with a washing machine.

January 17, 2015

Updating the worry list


Should we be unable to generate a list of our own, one of Britain’s major newspapers has just helpfully published a list of the most important things we humans might worry about for the next ten years.

Climate change:  The world has made literally no progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions since the first Kyoto agreement, and scientists are warning us of increasing deadly droughts, floods, water and food shortages, acidic oceans, air pollution, uncontrolled fires, and mega extinctions of up to 25% of all mammal species possibly within the next 50 years.  Oh, and 2014 has been the hottest year on record.

The global spread of a viral epidemic like SARS or Ebola:  The Black Plague swept over the world, reducing populations by 50 -75% of the population when it struck.  It is not inconceivable that a virus could jump on the back of our global communications systems today and outpace the ability of scientists to develop a cure or immunization to outwit it.

An implosion of failed states and states being taken over by religious fanatics.  Theoretically religion is supposed to make us better, more loving, more caring.  Again and again, though, it is the reason for torture and killing.  Western countries today look with horror at the terror being visited on peoples in Africa, Europe, America, and Asia by Islamists.  But Christians have more than a thousand-year history of doing exactly the same thing.  In fact, ethnic cleansing and rampant racism in our own back grounds suggest that we are even now not immune to persecuting those who are different from us.

Economic collapse:  An economic collapse similar to the one that shook the world in 2008, only bigger and longer and more universal worries some economists the way climate change worries climatologists.  Governments are still facing the problem of what to do about banks and other financial institutions that are too big to fail, and big corporations spent vast amounts of money lobbying state officials to make sure that legislation will not damage them.  Meanwhile, the gap between the richest and poorest is growing, not closing, and recently economists have produced research suggesting that this might be an endemic tendency of many modern capitalist societies, including America.  Historically, situations like these fester and simmer, until one day blowing up into outright rebellion and warfare.  Endings are not necessarily happy ones.

I think these are worries worthy of concern.  Great concern that singly or together they could even lead to the extinction of the Homo sapiens.  My problem with worries, though, especially when the worries are big and serious and global as these, is that they tend to turn people off.  We look at them and quite realistically realize that not one of us as a single person can solve any of them.  So we either deny they are happening at all, sink into despair or anger, or hope that God will do something about it rather than leaving it to us.

But the whole point of democracy, of community, or responsibility is not to say a single voice doesn’t count.  It says that lots of single voices is what change the world.  To give into the temptation of helplessness is the very thing that will contribute to our worst worries coming true.

What can I do?  Lots of little things that will change the world if a lot of us do them.  In relation to the environment, I can use my vote to make sure that I don’t help elect a climate-change denier or someone so indebted to big business that they won’t support reductions of fossil fuels and support renewables;  I can sign petitions supporting policies that I think will support work toward a creating economies that don’t destroy the environment;  I can do my best not to waste energy, turn off lights I’m not using, install solar panels, buy an energy-efficient car.  Ride a bicycle.


We can’t solve any of these problems by ourselves.  Just as we couldn’t create any of them by ourselves.  We are just single human beings.  But for better or worse, what each of us does adds up.

November 21, 2014

Don’t think about it that way

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on human decision-making.  Now he has just published a book, Don’t Even Think About It, exploring the psychology of climate change deniers compared to those who believe that climate change caused by human behavior could be lethal.  His basic conclusion is that all of us have pretty much already made up our minds and that we aren’t likely to be persuaded by evidence or experience.  What matters, he says, is the ideological group with which we identify.  Tea Party members, for instance, tend to have an ideology that automatically takes a position in opposition to environmentalists.  And vice versa.  For this reason, Kahneman is quite pessimistic about the likelihood of our avoiding what might be the worst Great Extinction ever to hit our planet.

The potential catastrophe is terrifying.  (Obviously, I am not a convinced Tea Party member.)  Several reports in the last six months have been published by leading scientists who in the past thought we had as long as a century to avoid drastic climate change.  That has now changed.  A very large number of scientists now think that we have as little as ten years to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and at most twenty years.  If we do not act within that time frame, within sixty years, we may have an 8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperatures.  That is a temperature not seen on Earth for the last 5 million years.  40% of plant and animal life cannot live in these conditions.  1/3 of the Asian rain forests would be at risk, and most of the Amazon rain forest would probably be destroyed by fire.  Crops would collapse in Africa by a third, in the US, crops like corn and soy, would fall by more than 3/4th.  2/3rds of the world’s major cities – like New York and London – would be underwater.  That’s in 60 years from now!  And that does not even factor in the conflicts and deaths in increased warfare created by starvation and disease.

Why aren’t we doing something about this!?  

Because scare stories don’t work, however realistic or scientifically-founded they may be.

Because when we read about the importance of reducing greenhouse gases, even if we take it seriously, there seems to be little we as individuals can do.  Will it matter in the great scheme of things if I walk or use a bike instead of drive?  if I turn down my heating so that all I do is prevent pipes from freezing, even if I myself am shivering?  if I change all the lights in my house to low-energy LED bulbs?  if I don’t turn on the lights at all?  if I don’t use the wash machine or dishwasher or microwave or oven?  The personal inconvenience could be huge, in some cases life-threatening, and it wouldn’t make a stick of difference unless there is mass cooperation in such a project.

I think we have got to think about this problem in a completely different way if we are to have any hope of cooperating sufficiently to solve it.

In September, 4 former presidents or prime ministers, 2 Nobel economic laureates, and financial experts from the World Bank, IMF and the Asian Development Bank published a detailed study entitled “Better Growth, Better Climate.”  They offer a list of costed changes that would both improve economic growth and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It would require governments world-wide to act on structural reforms of urban infra-structure, farmland, forests, and energy markets.  And it would not be a total solution to the climate change problem.  But it would be a huge start.  And it might make it possible for people of vastly different ideologies to cooperate.

Even the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress might agree.


March 27, 2014

Magnifying a ray of sunshine

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:35 pm

Tesla is an electric car company that has recently announced plans to build a “gigafactory”  possibly in Arizona.  The goal is to double the world’s production of lithium-ion batteries while reducing the cost by 50% by 2020  for batteries that charge faster with a higher storage capacity than anything on the market today.

It’s potentially a serious game-changer.  If  Tesla succeeds, we are much closer to affordable storage batteries for individual homes which charge up when the sun shines or the wind blows and then give us heat, light, and power when the sun goes down.

Ultimately, this could do a great deal to reduce environmental pollution and climate change.

But it will be highly disruptive.  The role of traditional energy companies will change radically.  Energy companies in Germany are already facing huge losses as a result of renewables there. (One company posted a loss of $2.76 billion last year.)   Traditionally, energy companies have smoothed out the delivery of electricity to our homes and businesses, so that we mostly experience a steady steam of electricity whether the sun is shining or not, or however much electricity is being pulled out of the grid at any given peak time.

Of course, there aren’t any simple answers for problems as huge and complex as our increasing global use of energy.

But part of the solution lies in human ingenuity.

This might be a big one.

February 12, 2014

Taking the weather seriously

Some years ago, I read a weather forecaster who said that the effects of global warming were unlikely to be what people were expecting – even looking forward to.  Familiar weather patterns would not disappear, he said, but become instead more extreme.  Droughts would occur more often and last longer.  So would floods, snow storms, and deadly heat waves.

For Britain, the forecaster said, the chances were that colder winter temperatures would sweep down from the arctic.  They might dump snow on America, but as the weather systems crossed the Atlantic, they would turn to rain, bringing more rain, gale-force winds, and potentially disastrous floods to Ireland and Britain.

Well, this might not be global warming.  One can’t say with certainty until a clear pattern has set in over many years, by which time it may be far more difficult if not impossible to reverse forces that have been triggered by greenhouse gases.

But the weather we are experiencing now in Ireland and Britain sounds like it could be a brutal introduction to environmental change, and is breaking centuries of records.  Storms have been arriving on a conveyor belt from America since December.  Some people have been flooded out of their homes since before Christmas, and many will never be able to go back.  Tens of thousands of acres of farmland are under water, and herds of farm animals are in grave trouble.  Tonight more than a quarter of a million homes in Ireland are without electricity and half that many again in England.  A thousand people were evacuated from their homes just last night.  Sewage water is backing up into the streets and into people’s houses.  Some homes have been told not to flush their toilets but to use porto-toilets.  Gale winds have washed rail lines into the sea and blocked access to much of England’s south-west coast.

The army and navy are both out, supporting thousands of volunteers who have been working for weeks to try to hold the sea at bay, and politicians have been buying boots in order to wade about in the waters to make it look like they are doing something.

What is most worrying is that it is getting worse and there is no end in sight.  These weekly – even tri-weekly – storms could last into the end of March, bringing more rain and floods, uprooting more trees whose roots have been loosened by the water, pushing more people out of their homes.  When I hear weather forecasters telling Americans in the north that more snow is coming to be added to their already 15-foot snow banks, I tremble.  I know what that kind of snow is like.  But when it arrives as unrelenting rain, it’s devastation can be even worse.

We here in Cambridge are not getting the worst of it.  Roads are closed and fields are flooded.  Yesterday when we returned from shopping, we had to take four separate detours to get through.

But we’re not flooded out – yet anyway.

I won’t say it’s easy, but there is a spirit of determination among the English right now.  I won’t say they aren’t angry.  And they certainly aren’t enjoying it.  But they are pulling up their boots.

If the only expected result of global warming were the potential for flooding, I wouldn’t worry about Britain.  They’re going to solve this problem one way or another.

In the meantime, it’s wet.  And depressing.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea





April 7, 2013

Is slowing down a good idea?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 9:16 pm

Sometimes I find the economic naiveté combined with the self-righteous high-mindedness of the left-wing  irritating.  (You may have noticed.)

But yesterday I read a left-wing proposal suggesting that we re-instate the 55-miles-per-hour speed limit that struck me as eminently sensible.

  • Cars on average are about 25% more fuel-efficient at speeds below 55 mph.  So it would save drivers money at the pump.
  • There aren’t any upfront costs involved in implementing this policy.  Cars don’t need special adaptation, panels don’t have to be installed on our roofs, we don’t even have to lower our thermostats.  It wouldn’t involve any new taxes.
  • A new law doesn’t even have to go through Congress.  The Environmental Standards Agency could mandate it without further legislation.
  • By reducing America’s  oil consumption about 4%, it would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce pollution of the air we breathe.
  • A 55 mph speed limit might even save lives.

Unfortunately, upon further reading, I have discovered that  the arguments are not quite as convincing as I first thought.  For one thing, it’s not at all clear that cars are 25% more fuel-efficient at speeds between 45 and 55 mph.  So it might not save as much oil as proponents think.

And the number of lives that a reduced speed limit saves is also not quite as straight forward as the initial claims reported.

It might still be a good idea to reduce the speed limit.  But it might not be quite as obviously a good idea as I thought at first.



April 4, 2013

A politically incorrect solution to global warming?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:44 pm

I have just read an article by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known – some might even say infamous – author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.   He is one of the few people I have read who has presented some startling facts and figures about climate change that just might change my mind.

First, he says that almost certainly global warming is real, and almost certainly mostly man-made.  At that point, however, he parts company with the politically correct view.

First of all, he says, let us stop claiming that at this point, global warming is about to end human life as we know it.  Over the next century, more people will die from excessive heat, but an even greater number of people will not die from exposure to cold.   Global warming will reduce the yields on some crops but the higher levels of CO2 which acts as a fertilizer, will significantly increase yields on other crops.  Economists estimate that global warming will cost more than it saves beginning about 2070.   Assuming nothing else changes, global warming is predicted to cost about 1.5% of global GDP  in the next two centuries.  A problem to be solved, then, but not utter disaster.

So how should  we solve this problem?  Lomborg argues that the Kyoto agreement has had almost no impact whatsoever.  Countries like Britain which are producing less greenhouse gas have simply exported its production to countries like China.  So has Denmark.  So has much of the European Union.  America, as you may recall, declined to join the Kyoto agreement.

I’ve been reading for years that renewable energies simply were never going to be able to take the place of fossil fuels.  For one thing, we haven’t figured out how to get renewable energies to do a lot of the heavy-duty things fossil fuels do.  Secondly, even assuming we can and want to dedicate hundreds of square miles to solar panels and wind and wave farms, it is hugely expensive. Here is the central fact that the Green Lobby must address:

The cost of CO2 for the next 200 years is projected to average about £3.50 a ton – that’s about $5.  Reducing CO2 emissions through the use of renewables today costs £26 a ton in China, in Britain and much of the developed world it costs £81 a ton.

Okay, maybe this huge cost would be worth it if renewables could do the job.  But on current form, the most optimistic forecasts are that renewables can reduce the use of fossil fuels by about 8% total in  the next hundred years.

That’s just not going to solve the problem, is it?

Lomborg argues that rather than putting money into expanding our present-day renewables, we should instead invest much more in research and development to find ways of producing the energy we need that is both clean and affordable.

He gives some rather tantalizing analogies.  We did not, he said, get better computers by subsidizing the vacuum tubes on which early computers were based.  We didn’t get them by taxing typewriters either, or provide grants so that every home and school  had at least one computer.  We got better computers because IBM and Apple invested in human ingenuity – that is, in research and development that produced both better and cheaper computers.

Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed a potentially very serious problem.  If global temperatures rise by an average 4 degrees Celsius (about 8 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists simply don’t know how bad the flooding, the droughts, and extreme weather events will be.

But Lomborg also points out that research is showing that we have a little more time to deal with it than we thought just a few years ago.  Okay, he says, let’s take advantage of this.  Let’s learn from the mistakes we’ve made for the last 20 years.  Let’s plug in to that great reserve which has been our greatest force for the last two hundred thousand years – human creativity.

Will it work?

Well, one can’t be sure.  But the evidence is suggesting that what we’ve tried so far hasn’t succeeded and isn’t going to.

Personally, I’m inclined to bet on human creativity.  If we’re willing to put the money and effort into it, I think we have the brains to do it.  If we do, we could save the planet as well as ourselves.


January 31, 2013

Are we going to make it?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies — theotheri @ 2:54 pm

On my bad days, I don’t see how Homo sapiens is going to survive the twin assaults of environmental pollution and militarism.  Each is destructive enough on its own, but my fear is that they are each escalating factors for the other.  As food, water, and oil become more scarce, we ratchet up our determination to get enough of what we want, whatever the cost.  If the cost is bombs from drones or on the backs of suicide bombers, whether its nuclear or germ warfare, if  survival is the issue, I fear the restraints on our assaults on others who have what we need or think we need will decrease exponentially.  Globalization exacerbates the problem as well.  We can no longer hide away or walk away from peoples who disagree with us, or who have what we want.

But I do have good days as well, when I still have some hope that a combination of altruism and ingenuity will pull us through this.  Every once in a while I see reason to hope that enough of us around the world will recognize our common humanity.  With that comes a recognition that we all have human rights that go beyond our religious and ethnic differences.

And there are times too when our capacity for ingenuity and creativity almost make me dance.  Maybe after all we can do it. Maybe we can figure out how to preserve our planet and each other at the same time.

What if, for instance, we could figure out how to run all our cars on water?  Well, the Japanese have done it.  They have produced a car that will run on water – any kind of water.  It will run on rain water, ocean water, drinking water, even tea.  It will run at 80 kilometers an hour (about 50 mph) for an hour on a litre (about a quart) of water.  A couple of quarts of water can be carried as back up, to run another hundred miles or so.  The car works by generating hydrogen from the water, which in turn runs the car.

It’s difficult to estimate just how much a car like this might reduce greenhouse gas emissions and global warming because although the number of cars  being driven worldwide is increasing every year, so too is the efficiency of the cars.  My best guess is that cars produce about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but don’t quote me.

The Japanese hope to start mass production.  No price has been set yet.

Wouldn’t you love to have one?

January 6, 2013

Fracking and other dirty words

You're fracked


Fracking is the process of pumping water, chemicals and sand into shale rock in order to release the huge reservoirs of natural gas that we now know is stored there.  The UK government has just given its approval for fracking to be resumed in Britain.

As in America, the process has resulted in another one of those controversies in which both sides believe passionately in the moral rightness of their position, and often strongly suspect the other side of such deep bias that they are unable to examine the issues objectively.

I’ve been trying to sort out the issues.  This is the way it looks to me so far.

Is shale gas less polluting than oil and coal?

Yes:  Shale gas is substantially less polluting than carbon-heavy oil or coal.

No:  Yes, shale gas is less polluting than oil or coal.  But that does mean the coal and oil will stay in the ground.  What we don’t burn will be used instead by other countries who don’t have shale gas.  Shale gas, therefore, won’t reduce pollution or the gases that are causing global warming.

 Unanswered:  If fracking can be made to work, won’t other countries start fracking as well instead of using oil and coal to meet their energy needs?  In that case, wouldn’t it help reduce our carbon problem?

Is shale gas less expensive than oil and coal?

Yes:  As the United States has demonstrated, shale gas is substantially less expensive than oil and coal alternatives.  Within 15 years, America will be completely energy-independent, and will not need to import any of the oil it does today.  This would have huge political and economic benefits for the American economy, and for maintaining America’s role as a global super-power.

No:  Neither the economic or political benefits of fracking may be as great everywhere as economists are predicting it can be for America.  Shale gas supplies at this point are still in the exploration stage and so largely unproven.  In addition, the jobs fracking companies are promising may be far fewer than predicted.  And there is evidence that tourism, house values, and agricultural output are all reduced when the frackers move in.

Unanswered:  Just as exploration is required to estimate how much oil or coal may be underground, so too further exploration is required to assess how much gas may actually be trapped in shale fields around the world.  We simply don’t know.

Is fracking environmentally destructive?

Yes:  Fracking has been associated with contamination of water supplies, air pollution and also with earth tremors and minor earthquakes.  In addition, we are potentially talking about digging thousands of boreholes.  They will remain a long-term danger if they start to leak after they have been sealed after the gas has been extracted.

No:  Thousands of shale gas wells have already been drilled in the USA.  The number of problems with leakage has been minimal. In any case, potential leakage can be drastically reduced if fracking is required to remain at least half a mile below any drinking water aquifers.

In addition, earth tremors resulting from fracking, when they occur, are small enough not to be a safety concern. Tremors have not been reported around thousands of other fracking operations.

Unanswered:  Just how much solid evidence is there to tell us just  serious our concern that fracking pollutes water supplies should be?  Can the possibility be controlled by demanding safety procedures on the part of the frackers?  Similarly, just how securely can closed boreholes by sealed, and will any regulations be seriously enforced?  Both oil and nuclear industries do give cause for concern on the issue of regulation and safety.

There is also a serious question about the amount of water used for fracking in some areas.  The four million gallons used on average for each borehole could create serious problems in shale gas areas that are suffering a drought.  It would be doubly destructive if these areas are also agricultural centers where much of our food is grown.

Do we need shale gas?

No:  The world unquestionably is going to continue to use more and more energy.  The Greens say these needs can be met by investing in energy from wind, waves, and sun, along with a concentrated reduction of profligate energy use.

Yes:  Many scientists and environmentalists say that renewable energy sources simply cannot produce the energy we require to maintain the life styles which the developed world has and to which the developing world aspires.


At this point, my own sense is that fracking, certainly in the United States, is going to continue to expand.  The short-term possibilities are simply politically, economically, and politically too alluring to be stopped by longer-term concerns.

I also think that either our future energy needs are going to be met as a result of technological development, or our continued pollution of the environment will eventually reduce our energy use by reducing the size of the global human population.

If those are the two realistic alternatives, as I think they are, then our best efforts are to do everything we can to develop those technologies that will reduce our carbon footprint.  Personally, I have reached the conclusion that it is wasted effort to try to stop fracking.  But we can put effort into maximizing its benefits and decreasing its dangers.

If you are interested in reading more, one of the most even-handed discussions of the issues related to fracking is on

December 9, 2012

A hopeful look at the climate change challenge

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

Let’s assume that serious climate change is happening that includes rising temperatures, acidification of the oceans, continued mass extinction of plant and animal species, reduced crop yields, water shortages, and air pollution.  Let’s also assume that, along with the normal variability of the weather, human activity is driving these changes in one direction and that ultimately these changes could drastically change life on this planet.  If it gets too warm, it could extinguish human life, or even all life itself on this planet.

That’s the worst case scenario.  It could happen.  The Doha round of climate talks has just concluded with what seems to be a positive spin on promises for the future without any painful commitments.  I suspect the chances of a global political agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions  before the earth’s climate reaches a tipping point of no return are close to zero.

Many governments are sincere in their worry about global pollution and an urgent need to stop it. The problem is that even voters who are concerned about the environment are more concerned about the economy today, about putting food on the table, heating our houses, driving our cars, sending our children to good schools.  Governments that put an economic recovery at risk for the sake of future climate change are going to be voted out.  It seems possible to me that the discovery of shale gas and oil, which can reduce the cost of energy as well as our dependence on foreign sources, could make the matter worse rather than better.  Why put money into expensive renewables when we can pump it out of the shale for a lot less?

So is there any hope at all, short of hoping that the scientists’ predictions are wrong, that we won’t walk blindly into our own destruction?

I think there might be.

First of all, every expert who studies the problem believes that the solutions to climate change must be multiple.   Wind and wave farms, solar panels, nuclear plants,  clean coal technology,  and switching to cleaner gas instead of oil all together might be essential but they will not be enough.

Individual households and companies also have to use less energy.  This can be achieved in part simply be being less profligate – turning off lights and appliances when they aren’t being used, through better insulation, and judicious travel.  Americans on average send 16 tons of greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere per person per year.  That’s ten times more than China per person, 90 times more than Kenya per person, and even more than fully developed countries like Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

America, all by herself, could do a lot to reduce global emissions.  There are many individuals who are already doing it, and are putting pressure on state and federal governments to accelerate the changes.

The great unknown, however, is human ingenuity.  The history of human evolution suggests that innovations are often driven by need and the desire for a better life.  It is not foremost driven by governments.  It is most often sparked by creative individuals looking for a better way to do things.  That’s how the electric light bulb was invented, and the steam engine, and the water wheel, the telephone, the car, and probably even the first stone tool.

So I do not think that human inventions are a naive or insignificant hope.  Already hundreds of processes and products and ideas have emerged.  The footfall of pedestrians walking on the sidewalk outside office buildings is being used to generate light in Germany.  A plastic light is about to be marketed in the U.S. that could save the output of 600 power plants worldwide.  Oregon has just planted saplings of trees with a life expectancy of 2,000 years to help reverse climate change.  Virgin Airlines has developed a plane that will fly on bio-fuel, and electricity plants are experimenting with recycling human sewage.

The list of ingenious ideas is very long.  Will they save the planet?  I think they might.

I’m not suggesting it will be ideal, or even that we have nothing to worry about, or that there will not be a high cost to be paid.

But if the past is the predictor of the future, we might just dig ourselves out of this.

After all, we did survive the Black Plague when as many as 60% of the population in Europe died.  We did survive when the human population was reduced by the Toba Supervolcano to several thousand people for 20,000 years.  We even survived the 20th century.

December 5, 2012

A seriously hot topic

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 3:46 pm

I have just gone to and searched for books on “Global Warming.”  6317 possibilities came up, reflecting every possible view of the subject.  No wonder there is so much controversy!  If one spent just a single minute reviewing each book,  it would take 105 hours.  That’s two weeks’ worth of eight-hour days.  A comprehensive analysis of this complex subject requires more than reading an occasional headline or news column.

Over the years, I have learned several painful realities by applying the psychology of Carl Jung to myself.  Jung argued that when a point of view drives us into an irrational fury, we need to ask if we haven’t hit a neurotic complex ourselves which we cannot face with honesty.  Arguing a point by name-calling is one of the most frequent characteristics of complexes.  Non-negotiable so-called religious or supposedly scientific convictions sometimes qualify too, insofar as they are an excuse for not examining the evidence but simply declaring the truth.

From what I can see, the topic of global warming hits these complexes in a lot of people.  Just the title of some the books on Amazon give a hint.  Words like “scam,” “rip-off,” “hoax,” “conspiracy,” “fraud,” “corruption,” “cover-up,” “blunder,” and “fools” appear on the first page of listings.  Further down the line, there are religious assurances from all camps — global warming is a punishment from God but the truly righteous will be saved, the apocalypse is coming, or the claim that global warming isn’t happening at all but a small number of people are exploiting the vulnerable in order to make money.

As I have said, my own un-expert view is that global warming is happening, and that within several decades it could reach a tipping point making it impossible for us to reverse it.

Will it happen?  The most optimistic scenarios are 1) that global warming isn’t actually happening,or if it is, it’s a natural variation which will stabilize itself irrespective of our greenhouse gas emissions, 2) human ingenuity will find enough ways to reduce our greenhouse emissions to stabilize the environment, or 3) — well, this possibility isn’t really optimistic — energy use will be cut because the human population is drastically reduced as a result of some catastrophe like an epidemic similar to the Black Plague.

Addendum:  I suspect that “global warming” is actually too narrow a description for the environmental changes which are occurring.  Scientists today, for instance, have published a 17-year world-wide study indicating that the viable male sperm count has been decreasing on average at the rate of  almost 2% a year.  The causes of this worrying development are not yet clear, but the suspicion is that it is the result of  our modern life styles including high levels of saturated fats, smoking, alcohol, drugs, obesity, and exposure to industrial chemicals, especially those used in making plastics.  The falling sperm count may also begin before the child is born.  That’s another factor that could reduce global energy use.

One would hope for less drastic solutions.  Assuming, of course as I do, that a solution is needed.

December 2, 2012

Is global warming really happening?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:41 pm

I’ve been surprised to discover that the controversy among scientists isn’t whether global warming is happening.  There is just about universal agreement across the board that it is.  For example, the sea level around New York, for instance, is a foot higher than it was 100 years ago, which is one of the reasons why the storm Sandy was so devastating.  And a recent report bringing together what up to now had been disparate measures of the  polar caps show that ice is melting three times faster than it was just 20 years ago.  Some scientists now think that temperatures could increase by as much as 6 degrees  Celsius instead of their 4 degrees maximum expectation last year.

The real controversy isn’t whether changes are occurring.  The controversy is the cause of this environmental change.

Is it, as some climatologists think, a natural variation around the norm that occurs in the weather over the years?  We have, after all, experienced severe droughts before.  Floods are not a new phenomenon, nor are mega-storms, or occasionally exceptionally hot summers or warm winter temperatures.  Europe even experienced a “little ice age” as recently as the 17th century.

Or is human activity responsible for the increase in greenhouse gases that are changing our weather?  Before the industrial  age began two centuries ago, greenhouse gas equaled 278 particles/million.  Since then, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased by 40% to 391 particles/million.  This is the highest it’s been in more than 15 million years.

Again, no serious climatologist claims that greenhouse gases do not contribute to global warming.   But some scientists think that we do not have enough long-term data to jump to dooms-day conclusions.  They claim, quite rightly, that cutting down on greenhouse gases by using less fossil fuels and more renewable sources of energy may very well slow down the global economy, leading to increased poverty for millions and the deprivations that go with it.  Better they say, to wait and see.

Wait-and-see is a recipe for disaster for the majority of climatologists who think the data already is increasingly pointing to human activity as the cause of global warming and destructive environmental changes in Earth’s oceans and on land.  They point out that once the data is unequivocal enough to convince even the most skeptical, it will be too late.  The melting of the Arctic ice cap  is already accelerating;  in twenty years time we will not be able to slow the process even if we don’t add another particle of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

So this is the question:  should we act now even when there is still some modicum of doubt in order to try to avert what might be environmental changes that all agree would be catastrophic for life as we know it?  Is it worth the mega-effort and expense that reducing our fossil fuel use will demand?  Or should we be careful, keep watching, and trust that should things get worse, we will be able to figure out how to handle it intelligently when it happens?

To some extent, we are in the difficult position of having to answer the question – even by the default option of doing nothing – before we have all the information.  But what we decide will have huge implications for our children and our grandchildren.  Even if we don’t know for sure what those implications are.


November 29, 2012

The downside of getting warmer

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:32 pm

It is important to examine whether global warming is actually occurring, and if it is, whether it is due to human activity that we can do something about.

But I’d like to look first at what scientists are saying they believe will happen during the next 80 years if global warming continues at its current projected rate.  I don’t want to begin with these potential consequences in order to scare myself or anyone else with prophetic warnings of doom.  It’s rather because it seems to me it’s something that could be seriously important that we should look at and decide whether we can and should make an attempt to do something about it.

Here is a brief summary of the report commissioned by the World Bank into the potential effects of global warming in the next 80 years.

Warming:  the expectation is that on current trends, the average temperature on Earth will have increased 4 degrees Celsius – just over 7 degrees Fahrenheit – by the end of this century.  The warming will not globally uniform, however, but be greater in places that are already warm, like the Tropics, and Mediterranean countries, parts of which could become uninhabitable for humans to live on a permanent basis.

How much is 4 degrees Celsius?  It’s the difference between now and the last Ice Age, only in the other direction.  The other significant difference is that the temperature changes will occur in a century, instead of a millennium, giving species – including humans – less time to adapt.

Weather:  Weather events will become more frequent and more extreme.  The kinds of hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, droughts,and floods with which we are familiar will occur more often and be more ferocious.  The Amazon rain forest will disappear.

The Oceans:  Two important changes are occurring:  the oceans are rising, and are becoming more acid.  The changes are evident already because of the heat from carbon dioxide which has been temporarily stored in the oceans since about 1955.

The acidification could eventually dissolve the world’s coral reefs which have been important barriers reducing flood damage, and which host some species of life not found anywhere else on the planet.  The projected acidification would be unparalleled in Earth’s history and would cause the extinction of many plants, fish, and mammals with which we are familiar.

The increase in the oceans’ water levels are expected to be about three feet (one meter), but eventually could be as much as 12 feet or four meters.  The loss of land around coastal areas and islands will displace hundreds of millions of people.  How many people is that?  500 million people are equal to about 1 in 12 of the world’s population.  That’s also equal to about six times as many who died in the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

Food and Water:  Warmer temperatures lead to a drop in crop yields.  Farmers have been experiencing this decrease since the 1980’s.  If global warming accelerates, the 2012 drought that affected 80% of US agricultural land will recur.  The loss of fish as a result of the ocean’s acidification will also reduce food supplies.

Seawater is apt to get into many of the fresh water sources, making drinking water less available.

If extreme and prolonged weather events occur simultaneously, it will become increasingly difficult to move food from areas that have surplus to those in need.  The insufficient supply of food could be felt everywhere.

Diseases:  The warmer weather would encourage a large increase in diseases like malaria, dengue fever, cholera, diarrhea  and epidemics.  To put that in context, the flu epidemic following World War I took the lives of a hundred million people.  The Black Plague reduced the population of 14th century Europe by as much as 60%.

Social and Economic Breakdowns: Rapid ecological and environmental changes tend to have social, political, and economic consequences.  Wars and violence increase as people struggle for the essentials to stay alive.

In describing the possible effects of global warming, I’ve tried to leave out words like disaster, or catastrophic, or unprecedented.  To some extent, I don’t think these words help.  It’s enough to know that our own children and grandchildren may have their lives destroyed by these forces.  We do not need to multiply them to worry.

We do know that the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is higher than it has been for 15 million years.  If the views represented by the scientists who are warning that it is we who are causing global warming and so our own potential destruction are right, then obviously we want to take them seriously.

What are the chances that the scientists are right?

That’s the question for my next post.



November 27, 2012

A challenge too big to talk about?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:47 pm

I’ve just read a summary of a report commissioned by the United Nations into global warming.

The prospects for our planet in the next 80 years could be much much worse than I’d imagined.  I can see why people go around denying it.  It feels too horrendous to deal with.  So let’s live for now and let the future generations deal with it.

The future generations, though, are already born.  They are our children, and unquestionably our grandchildren.  And it is unlikely to be a small inconvenience for them.  It’s potentially drastic.  Potentially deadly.

I do know from psychological studies that we often simply repress news that we find intolerable.  No, I say, this cancer isn’t terminal;  no, my child is not retarded, no I don’t have an alcohol problem, or a drug addiction.  No, I say instead, science makes a lot of mistakes, and this is a mistake.

I also know that scientists and government officials have felt that scare stories about global warming are apt to be counter-productive for that reason, and so have soft-pedaled the most extreme possibilities.

And I do know – better than most – that science makes mistakes.  I also know that the research on global warming is by no means clear cut.  The climate is incredibly complex and convoluted, and is beyond the current reach of science to comprehend totally.  But we are taking a terrifying risk if we simply put all our eggs in the basket that science might be wrong.  We take out insurance against all kinds of things that science tells us have a far lower chance of happening.  We get vaccinations and take out health and life insurance — just in case in the unlikely event…

But global warming seems too big, too overwhelming, too complex etc.  I know it is.  I’m sitting here thinking that with the short years I have left in my life, if I can make even a small contribution to reducing environmental pollution and global warming, that’s what I would like to do.

But there seems so little I can do besides turn off the lights I’m not using, and install solar panels.

But believe me, that alone is not going to save the world.  Even if we all do it, it’s not enough.

I haven’t given up, but I don’t know the answer.

In my next post, I’ll summarize what the United Nations report says.  Look away now if you’d rather not know.

November 17, 2012

Could humans really change the climate?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

Many people today think that what we humans are doing is not the cause of the global warming which Earth is experiencing.  Can humans really be responsible for the extreme weather that is flooding our lands, destroying our homes and fields?  Could Homo sapiens really be responsible for the melting arctic ice and the rising ocean levels?  Could humans really change the pattern of the winds that have controlled the movements of warm and cold air around the globe?

In other words, could humans really change the environment so much that we actually permanently change the living conditions of the entire globe?

The evidence, though complex, strongly suggests that we can, and that we are.

If you think that human beings are too small, too ineffectual to accomplish anything this gigantic, think about the bacteria.  About four billion years ago, bacteria developed the process of photosynthesis and began to excrete oxygen as their waste product.  Atom by atom, they added oxygen to the environment.  A billion and a half years later, oxygen was so plentiful that plants and animals totally dependent on this oxygen began to evolve.  Eventually there was so much oxygen that plants and animals came out of the seas to start life on dry land.

If the relentless activity of single-celled bacteria can change the environment this radically, it’s not inconceivable that we humans can do it just as dramatically.

The evidence is that we are doing it.

The question is whether we will also be able to live with the new environment we are creating.

November 2, 2012

Are we all in this together?

Scholars have argued strenuously and publicly recently about whether we would be  better off without religion.  There are those who argue, on the one hand, that without religious values, we would have no enduring reason to be moral.  Others point to the wars and crimes perpetrated under the banner of religion and argue just as strongly that we would be better off without religion at all.

Both of these arguments assume that religion is a primary source of human behavior.  They assume that religion is the cause of much of what we do, that it is an primary basic controlling factor.

But I think the sociologist Max Weber was closer to the mark.  He argued that religion is a construction of society, and as such is as much a mirror of what we do as a cause.  In this sense, there is a close relationship between religious and political thought.  Both as individuals and as societies, we use religion to justify and explain to ourselves and others the things we do.  But they are things that we actually do for other reasons.   Most fundamentally, the primary motivation for are behaviors is survival.  We may label those reasons political or religious, and they are those things.  But the root goal of politics and of religion is survival, or elaborations of survival.

So if a society survives, it will have religious values that are good for that survival.  If a society does not survive, neither will its religion.  Cannibalism, for instance, even when practiced for religious reasons, has largely died out – either because societies engaging in the ritual eating of hearts and brains of those whom they admire have died out or because their religious beliefs have changed, perhaps with the arrival of missionaries.

With this view of religion in mind, it has occurred to me that there should be a positive correlation between the evolutionary principle of survival and the widely held religious principle of love.  Evolution says that we are driven by the innate energy which motivates us to survive.  Religions across the world teach that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

As we look at our planet today, it is becoming increasingly clear how much we are connected.  The effects of pollution or drought, of the success or failure of food production, of war, of inventions, of trade, of better communications, of cooperation across borders, or disruptive weather patterns all reach across borders.  We don’t live in our houses independent of others.  We cannot survive without other humans, other animals, other plants, even without billions and billions of organisms on which we depend mostly without even knowing it.

Loving and taking care of each other and of the entire living world is indeed a survival mechanism.  God’s mandate to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is perhaps more relevant in this 21st century than ever before.

We are all in this together.  Much as we might like to think it all depends on the individual, it is patently obvious that it does not.  We can’t survive without taking care of the whole.

So loving our neighbor isn’t just a charitable thing to do.  It’s a self-serving survival act as well.

November 1, 2012

The message of the witches

I’ve learned more about the history of Halloween and witches, and read more about witches today than I have in a whole life time.  I will link to some of writing I’ve found most provocative because they are worth going to.  Here are some of the things I have found most fascinating.

When I went trick or treating as a child, I was told Halloween began as a day in which people who had died and gone to purgatory came to our doors to beg for prayers in order to be in heaven to celebrate All Saints Day the following morning.  I recently learned that the custom had come to America from Ireland, and I myself have seen it return to this side of the pond almost certainly as a commercial holiday to fill in the space between the end of summer and Christmas.  Until the last 20 years, few farmers even grew pumpkins here in England, and when they first began to appear in supermarkets,  nobody knew how to cook them.

Now I have been astonished to learn that, like Christmas, Halloween was a pagan feast converted by the Roman church to fit Christian theology.  For the Druids it was a Festival of the Dead, and it remained full of dread until modern times.

The origin of witches goes back much further even than the Druids.  “Witch” is a derivative of the word “widow,” and the world over, women who survived their husbands were viewed with fear and suspicion.   Even the wives of gods were potential witches. Kali, the wife of the Hindu god Shiva is pictured with withered skin and dressed in black.  In earthly life,  widows were typically cast out with no community support.  Even in modern times in the Western world, wives could be left outcasts and penniless if their husbands died before them.  Widowed women, therefore, in order to survive often resorted to helping others.   That help might be in the form of potions, some mere placebos, some effective, some deadly.  Witches were sometimes sought to cast spells on enemies, and predict the future.  A mixture of fear and belief made a witch’s life style a dangerous one.

What of witches today?  Germaine Greer  has a warning more terrifying than any Halloween story.  Stephen Hawking, the renown physicist at Cambridge, warns that humans are destroying earth’s environment and will not survive another thousand years if we do not colonize another planet.  Greer points out that life on this planet, from microbes to humans, are interconnected.  We cannot survive without the support of an incredibly complex system beginning with microbes, which support plant life, which are essential for animal life.  Another planet, she points out, will not come equipped with the support system we need.

The really scary Halloween story is how desperately we need to care for our planet.

September 28, 2012

Recycling suggestion

I read a report about a woman here in England whose goal is to limit  to one trash bin a year all trash she produces that cannot be recycled but is dumped into a landfill instead.  (The pick up in her area is twice a month.)

Among other things, she cuts open tubes of things like toothpaste to get out the last bits at the shoulders that can’t be squeezed out.  I tried it, and am amazed at the amount of toothpaste or shampoo or tomato paste that is left inside a tube.  So much that I’ve begun to wonder if manufacturers do it on purpose.

It has started me wondering how much would be saved if tubes were shaped at the top like /\ instead of  like | |.

In the meantime, I’m afraid I could get used to cutting off the tops of tubes for those lost 4-5 brushes’ worth of toothpaste.

Do you think I should write to Colgate?

July 22, 2012

Why it’s harder to make a living in some places on earth

Economists have studied various economic and governmental institutions which either facilitate or retard development in a country.  They have identified some critical variables, but they are apt to miss some of the geographical variables that are equally important.

A look at a map of the globe in which the average incomes are displayed show that in both America and Africa, the countries at the northern and the southern tips of the continents have higher per capital incomes than countries in the middle.  This pattern holds even when government institutions are not ideal.  Why?

Because by and large, tropical climates tend to suffer from three significant geographical limitations that temperate climates often do not have to face.  These factors are disease, agricultural productivity of the land, and transportation.

Take disease.  Tropical diseases like elephantiasis or malaria are far more difficult to control than disease occurring in a temperate climate.  Partly this is because disease-causing microbes are not killed off each year by winter temperatures.  In tropical countries they continue to multiply year-round.  The problem is exacerbated when these microbes are carried by mosquitoes or ticks, which themselves multiply much faster in tropical climates.  Finally, the human workforce is itself debilitated both by disease and by the significantly higher number of children women bear, nurse and care for as insurance against the high death rate of children.

Disease, therefore is one factor which contributes to the second limitation of tropical zones which is lower agricultural productivity.  There are others.  First, plants that grow in temperate zones tend to store more energy in parts that are edible than plants that grow in tropical zones.  And disease also attacks plants in tropical zones more aggressively than in temperate zones, for the same reasons disease attacks humans more aggressively.  Fewer microbes are killed off by cooler weather.

Secondly, glaciers repeated advances and retreats in temperate climates have left the land nutrient-rich.  Tropical areas haven’t been enriched in this way.  Finally, because temperatures are higher in the tropics, organic matter is broken down faster by microbes.  This might sound like an advantage, but it isn’t because the nutrients produced by rotting matter is leached away more quickly than in temperate climates.  So by and large, soils in tropical climates are not as rich as they are in temperate zones.

The third factor which tends to favor temperate zones at the ends of the continents rather than in the middle is the availability of transportation, especially by sea.  It costs seven times more to ship goods by land than by sea.  This is one of the significant reasons why landlocked countries like Bolivia in South America, and the fifteen landlocked countries in Africa are among the poorest.

Geography isn’t everything, just as our genetic make-up is not a complete explanation for what any individual human becomes.

But geography hasn’t created a level playing field.  It’s a lot harder to make a living in some places than in others.

May 14, 2012

The potential of tasty maggots

But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the worst and the best things that happen to us.   Creativity is not just the daughter of inventive minds;  it’s also the daughter of every living organism striving to stay alive.  For us humans, when it’s a question of feeding ourselves and those we love and of keeping a roof over their heads, it’s amazing what sometimes the most seemingly ordinary people think of doing. Between the recession and the challenge of global warming, people are coming up some of the extraordinary ideas.

On of my favorite stories is the maggots.

Jason Drew, an English Yorkshireman living on a farm in South Africa, was told by his doctors that if he wanted to live much longer after his second heart attack, he’d better take it easy.  In the process of lounging around, he discovered that one of his neighbours who raised chickens was feeding them fishmeal.  Fishmeal is a high-protein food used to feed animals.  One-third of all fish caught every year around the world go to make this kind of animal feed.

I don’t know how this idea came to him.  Perhaps he was a fisherman who used maggots as bait.  However it happened, Mr. Drew is now producing a high-protein animal feed called Magmeal.

Drew keeps a breeding stock of millions of flies, then harvests their larvae which he feeds with waste blood from abattoirs — who actually pay him to take it off their hands.  Within three days, fat, nutritious maggots are dried and processed as animal feed.

Every tonne of Magmeal he produces saves a tonne of fishmeal.

Maggots instead of fish:  I wish I’d thought of that.

And I hope Jason Drew lives a long life.  Though it doesn’t sound as if he’s exactly following his doctor’s order to slow down.

March 28, 2012

Be careful which god we choose

I have just been reading about Tucume in the Pervuian Valley of the Pyramids, neither of which I have ever heard of before.  It is a valley first discovered by a German engineer turned archaeologist in the early 1900’s, but which is only now yielding its secrets to modern forensics.

Tacume itself is the third and largest of the pyramid cities built in the shadow of Stingray Mountain.  Unlike the Egyptian pryamids, the Peruvian pyramids are not burial places, but huge solid man-made structures with rooms on top where the leaders of the people lived in luxury.  Tacume has 26 such pyramids which represent years of work by thousands of workmen.  Building the pyramids was, undoubtedly, an ongoing and massive project.

But quite suddenly, in the mid-sixteenth century, the people themselves destroyed it in a massive fire.  The evidence is that the same thing happened to the earlier pyramid cities some centuries earlier.  Why?

Records suggest that the people of the pyramid city believed that the gods resided in Stingray Mountain.  In emulating them, the leaders of the people lived atop the man-made pyramid mountains.  But it was their job to live pure lives and to appease the gods who, if they became angry, would send life-destroying weather in the shape floods and winds and drought.  Today this weather is seen as the result of El Nino, but the people around Stingray believed it was due to their sinfulness.  Burning down the pyramid cities was required because it had been defiled and must be purified.

The disaster that hit Tucume was not a weather event, however.  It was reports of men riding into cities further north on strange animals that we recognize as horses but which the people had never seen before.  They believed they were the gods of Stingray Mountain incarnate, come to wreck vengence on the people who had dared to disobey them.  In an effort to appease the gods, the people offered hundreds of men, women, and children in gruesome sacrifice.  Forensic archaeologists are today examining their remains left in front of the building which had been the temple.

But the gods were not appeased and the Spaniards kept advancing.  The people of Tucume burned their pyramids and melted into the forest before the Spaniards actually reached their valley.

But they believed, they believed absolutely that their understanding of what was happening was right.  They believed so absolutely that they were willing to sacrifice their own families and children, to completely destroy their homes and to flee into the forest.

What’s so scary about this story for me is that we still have not learned that just because we believe we are right doesn’t make it so.  We can be willing to die for our convictions.  But we can still be wrong.

Yesterday the Scientific American featured a report by scientists that we have reached the tipping point in relation to global warming.  We have, at most, a short decade to begin to turn things around.

Earlier this week, Tennessee became the 4th state in America to pass a law requiring that schools include in their science classes the teaching that global warming may not be real.  Unfortunately, making a law requiring people to say it isn’t true isn’t going to keep the planet from warming, or prevent the quite dire consequences to life on the planet that will arise from it.

Making it a law that it isn’t real won’t stop global warming.  The Roman Catholic Church threatened Galileo with the excruciating torture of the rack if he did not withdraw his assertion that the earth  revolved around the sun.  Galileo publicly withdrew his assertion and lived the rest of his life under house arrest.

But the earth isn’t flat.  And it’s still revolving around the sun.



February 7, 2012

Whatever you call it

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 3:52 pm

Some people might not want to call it global warming.  But whatever might be causing it, something is happening:

9 out of the 10 warmest years since 1880 have occurred since the year 2000.  The other warmest year is 1998.


August 15, 2011

Weed Be Gone

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm

On the back of my New Yorker cartoon page for the day is this suggestion for going green:

Pour boiling water to kill the weeds growing between the crevices of driveways and walks.

I can see it saves on polluting the underground with chemicals.

But how much water does one have to pour on a weed to actually kill the root rather than just wilt the leaves?

I’ll try it out.  Watch this space.

May 30, 2011

Environmentally-friendly Memorial Day

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 11:46 am

Illustration of bat catching moth

If you are bothered by mosquitoes as you gather around the barbecue today, there is an environmentally friendly way to solve the problem:  get a bat house.  Bat tenants are marvellous natural pest controllers.  Just a single bat can eat up to one thousand mosquitoes in one hour and bats don’t even require batteries and electricity.

Bats are essential to our survival, but perhaps as much as 50% of the world’s bat populations are under threat.  Like the threat to bees, this is one of those extinctions that the human species simply cannot afford.  Among other things, bats keep the insect population in balance and without them, the eco-system can go badly array.

Bat abodes are available on-line – I’ve found them on both Amazon and e-bay, and they are often sold in local home centers.  They should be mounted in a sunny spot 12-15 feet off the ground.  For the really environmentally friendly and handy types, there are free bat-house plans also on the web.

I did notice when I Googled bat-houses that it brought up several sites giving directions for catching a bat should it get into the house, and how to discourage its setting up there on a permanent basis.  We don’t have a bat in the house so I haven’t read the articles.

But I think I would begin by giving the bats a house of their own.

April 2, 2011

Resources Ltd.

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Food chains — theotheri @ 3:32 pm

I have just read an article in the New Scientist.  I don’t understand most of the argument which reflects more mathematical reasoning than I could get my head around.

But the main idea is that even wind and wave energy is not infinitely renewable.  If we set up too many wind and wave farms around the world to harness energy for our personal uses, we will severely change the climate.  The effects will be as dramatic as those feared as the result of our carbon emissions.

In less than half a century, predictions are that the human population will have increased from the 6 billion today to 9 billion.  If planet earth is going to support a human population of this size, we are going to have to be very very clever.


That might not be the hard part.  The hard part might be that we also have to cooperate with each other.

I sort of wish I were going to be around to see what happens.  But by 2050, the chances are that I won’t be using up any of the world’s energy at all.

March 26, 2011

Solar panels and reimbursed virtue

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:50 pm

We sent our meter readings reflecting the kilowatt-hours our solar panels have generated to our electricity company last Thursday.  The automated return email said we should receive a check within the next 28 days.

In the meantime, obsessive-compulsive Germanic mathematician that I am, I have been comparing our electricity bills for the last four solar-generating months with the same period last year.  The potential manipulations could keep me computing all morning because so many of the numbers at this point are still mere projections.  One might even say they are mere promises from the company that installed our panels.

Anyway, for any fellow  solar-philes who may be interested, here is what I know or am guessing after four months:

Since our days here in England are excessively short in winter and marvellously long in summer, the expectation is that the four months from mid-November when the panels were installed to now should produce about 14% of our annual output.  So far we are on track, and if we don’t go off-piste somewhere along the line, should eventually save about $300 on our annual electricity bill this year.  That savings will increase if (or perhaps more accurately, I should say when) rates go up.

Besides that, the government has mandated that we are paid about 65 cents for every kilowatt-hour we generate ourselves.  What we don’t use gets fed automatically back into the grid, but we get paid for everything we produce whether or not it is we who use it.  This tariff feed-in, as it is called, is the big reason why installing PV panels is cost-effective for the individual homeowner.  It is not only generous, it is tax-free, and index-linked to inflation for the next 25 years.

So we liberated a chunk of our savings and put them into the solar panels now on our south-facing roof.  We are unlikely to be living in this house – if indeed we are living at all – in 25 years.  But besides producing an income and reducing our electricity costs, the panels have increased the value of the house should we sell it.  If we don’t, someone will benefit from the legacy.

Our main electricity meters are outside the house, but we have set up two remote meters in the kitchen, one telling us how much electricity we are actually using at any given time and the other giving us a read-out of the kilowatt-hours currently being produced by the solar panels.

We are using the meters to maximize our use of the solar electricity.  So far, since the days are short and the sun weak, we haven’t been able to use this strategy to any effect.  But as the days get longer, we hope to run the dishwasher and do the laundry during peak sun hours.  What I’m really hoping though is to use our electric immersion heater to replace our oil burner to heat our hot water for five months or so.   That depends on our being able to capture enough electricity that would otherwise go back into the grid, so I’m not yet spending the savings.

In any case, I would like to say that we are feeling virtuous.  But I’m afraid I must admit that virtue would be more apparent if it were also always quite as financially rewarding as our solar panels seem to be.

March 12, 2011

The earthquake next door

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:49 pm

One of the things I find so devastating about the earthquake and tsunamis that are currently hitting Japan is that Japan was prepared.  Japan is not littered with sub-standard buildings and slums clinging to mountain sides.  It is a modern society that has taken the risks of earthquakes and tsunamis seriously.  Its buildings are constructed to withstand earthquakes,  its sea walls to defend against tsunamis.

And yet thousands of people – probably tens of thousands of people – are dead.  Entire villages have been swept away by the raging waters,  whole trains travelling along the east coast are now missing, boats have disappeared in the whirlpools, millions are without water and electricity, hundreds of thousands are in shelters.  The damage has been felt half way around the world.

Gone: The same scene just moments later shows how the entire residential area of dozens of homes is completely obliterated by the unforgiving waters which swept away anything in their path

Click to see more photographs from the Daily Mail

And now the nuclear reactor along the coast has exploded, the consequences of which are not yet known.  It will be a powerful weapon for the Greens to use against building more nuclear plants.  Japans nuclear plants are not second-rate.   But it was vulnerable and the damage of escaping radioactive cloud may yet be immense.

The terrifying thing is that not only could it have been worse.  It could still get worse with after-shocks that are powerful enough to trigger more tsunamis and collapse more buildings.

Could something this destructive happen in the United States?  Yes.  The west coast is particularly vulnerable but there are the fault lines of tectonic plates on both the east and west coasts.

We call her Mother Earth.  But sometimes she is Medea, murdering her children in cold revenge at her betrayal.

February 23, 2011

The challenge of civilizations’ survival

I started asking the question after reading Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee:  The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal some years ago.  The question of just how often climate change has contributed to the collapse of civilizations continues to lurk in my consciousness.

It isn’t an easy a question to answer, mostly because it often isn’t climate change that leads to the collapse of civilizations but its accumulated effects.  Civilizations that are not destroyed by volcanic eruptions or earth quakes most often have collapsed as a result of  disease and tribal warfare arising from insufficient supplies of water and food, which may be exacerbated or even caused by climate change, but also have other causes.

There is, however, a frequent pattern of civilization collapse appearing as far as 7,000 years ago.  Civilizations prosper, populations increase dramatically, cities emerge with highly sophisticated systems of trade and specialized roles.   And then the climate changes.  Most often the most debilitating changes seem to have been extreme drought.  Mayan cities were abandoned  in the 9th century after 200 years of drought.  So did the Mesopotamian civilization three and a half thousand years ago, and Egypt collapsed following severe drought in 2300 BC.

But flooding and extreme cold also result from climate change.  The story about Noah’s and his arc is about flooding.  An ice age ended the Viking dominance in Greenland in 13-1400 AD.

The list goes on.

The question for the human population today is just how devastating the climate change we are currently facing might be.  In this last year flooding has displaced millions of people and destroyed crops from Pakistan,  Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Australia.  Drought has possibly destroyed so much of China’s grain this season that it may be driven to importing it for the first time, and the encroaching desert underlies many of Africa’s wars.

The human population has doubled in less than fifty years, and continues to grow, though at a slower pace.  Last month, scientists with the United Nations warned that in less than 20 years the world would have insufficient food and water unless we begin to take action now.  It’s impossible to imagine this won’t lead to increased war, disease, starvation, displacements, and immense suffering.

Will we survive?  Will we destroy Earth’s ability to sustain us?  Will we simply starve?

The pessimistic answer always somehow sounds like the braver, wiser response.  Optimism so often seems to spring from ignorance or simply naive fear of facing the awful impending reality.

But personally, I think we will survive.  Along with the greed and selfishness and arrogant stupidity that plagues our species, I see also incredible ingenuity, bravery, and creativity.  I see  love and determination.  I think we have a willingness to cooperate and share on a global scale.

It is a challenge.  It is a great challenge.  In fact, it is a very very great challenge, and we won’t achieve it easily.  The cost, in the best scenario, will be great.

But I am hopeful that the end of Homo sapiens is not yet in sight.

February 17, 2011

Food or freedom?

Following the successful overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt the western media continue to report demonstrations and unrest throughout much of the Middle East.  The commentators and politicians often suggest that the primary demand is for freedom and democracy, but my own hunch is that these demonstrations are also being driven for  something just as essential – food.

In country after country, the ruling elite have amassed fortunes, while the quality of life for millions has not improved.  Now they are dangerously at the edge.  Food prices and unemployment are ballooning for not only the poorest but for the educated middle classes.

I’m not sure that the internet and social networks alone can bring about a revolution.  I’m not sure revolutions cannot still be stopped if the military is determined to attack its own people.  And I’m not sure that a desire for freedom alone will sustain a revolution for long enough and among large enough numbers to succeed.

None of us, after all, have absolute freedom.  It’s not just the constraints of physical existence that limit us.  It is often the laws and customs and constraints of society.  Only we don’t most of the time tend to think of these constraints as impinging on our basic freedoms as human beings.  We agree with many of these customs and constraints and are outraged when criminals and psychopaths violate them.  And if we get angry enough, we can toss out one government after several years, and if we don’t like the next one, we can vote it out too.  But mostly we have enough to eat.

I think the fight for freedom that is going on in the streets and squares of the Middle East today is real and significant.  And I agree that we don’t live by bread alone.

But we don’t live without bread either.  As the American revolutionaries knew during the War of Independence against the British, even taxing tea so that the common man cannot afford it is more than the human spirit will bear.

Which is why I think today’s demonstrations are motivated by the need for both food and freedom.

It may also point to a reason why the global environmental change we are experiencing might be more destructive than most people expect.

February 15, 2011

A rose isn’t always a rose

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 5:14 pm

Juliet, in Shakespeare’s play declares that “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”

But I’m not so sure.  I think there is a great deal in a name and that it has a major influence on what we notice and how we evaluate it.

Personally, I don’t think I would feel quite the same about the bunch of roses Peter gave me for Valentine’s Day if they were called instead something like “a bundle of shit.”

It’s also why I can’t use the term “God” to describe the mystery that seems to me to permeate the universe.  What I sense has absolutely nothing to do with an autocratic father whose refusal to forgive his subjects who displease him lasts for eternity.

On a more practical subject, I suspect that we have made a mistake about global warming.  Global warming doesn’t sound all that bad a lot of the time.  In fact, it sounds rather appealing.

What we seem to have in reality, however, isn’t resort weather.  We seem to be having more extreme weather events – some winters are breaking records they are so cold, tornadoes and hurricanes are more frequent and more deadly, flooding is occurring in places and with destructive depths we have not experienced before.  What we have are environmental events for which we are seriously under-prepared.

The United Nations has recently warned that the world is going to face a serious food shortage in the near future.  We are already facing mini water crises even in the developed world.

Rather than calling what is currently happening a result of increasing “global warming,” I think we should call it increasing “environmental extremes.”

I think we’d pay attention to it differently if we did.

February 5, 2011

Signs of true faith

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 2:29 pm

A church in Maine has put up a sign.

From the looks of the snow, I think I would go to the snow-prayers with my next request for divine intervention.

December 20, 2010

Omg, this might BE global warming

Here in Britain we are facing what is literally breaking records for cold.  Not just the last ten years, or “since the 1962 winter,” but quite possibly the lowest temperatures ever recorded in modern Britain.  Thankfully they do not extend to the ice age 15,000 years ago.  They don’t even extend to the 17th century mini-ice age when people crossed the River Thames in London on foot and in New York walked from Manhattan to Staten Island.

Yet modern records are bad enough.  During the winter of 1962 (which those who lived here then remember and shutter), it did not get over 5 degrees any where in Britain before mid-March.

This morning a meteorologist reminded me of something I’ve known for years but have tried to forget.  Instead of global warming making Britain a warmer, if wetter, place, it could shift the Gulf Stream south.  In which case our weather here in Britain will resemble that of Siberia or Alaska which are on the same latitude.

This winter the Gulf Stream has shifted south, and is highly unlikely to return here this year.  And it does feel like Siberia or Alaska right now.

Well, we will survive that.  But what if the Gulf Stream never returns?  I do not find the scientific evidence comforting.

As they say, one should be careful what one prays for.

November 3, 2010

Going solar

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 5:29 pm

They began installing the solar panels on our roof today and should be finished tomorrow.  We have a relatively small south-facing roof so we will have 20 panels that should produce about half our electricity.  What we don’t use goes back into the grid.  

It’s impossible to calculate how long it will take to get our investment back because how fast electricity costs will rise is guess-work.  It is also impossible to know how much it might increase the value of our property.  There is a generous government subsidy though,  which is a fixed amount for all electricity we produce , so we estimate a return on our initial investment will take 7-8 years.

These kind of solar panels apparently are effective for about 25 years and then have to be replaced.

But that, even by the most optimistic standards of our longevity, is unlikely to be our problem.

October 10, 2010

When green isn’t green

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 4:33 pm

So we cut down the 200 ft blue spruce in front of our house two days ago to provide the sunlight the solar panels we are installing to work efficiently.  It felt like a Faustian choice to begin with, and the pigeons looking for the kidnapped tree made it worse.

Today I read that the toxic fallout of China’s solar panel production boom is producing poisonous waste that is polluting the air, blighting crops and water supplies.


May 5, 2010

Just another ordinary chaotic day in the world

Sitting here in my little corner of England, I have tried not to make this blog a commentary on international affairs.  But right now three very big events are unfolding simultaneously that I think might have momentous results.

The closest to home is the British election tomorrow.  Four weeks ago the result looked like a foregone conclusion, but tonight the polls are suggesting that it will be a three-way nobody-wins outright outcome leading to a hung parliament.  The bond and currency markets are staying open all night on Thursday, because nobody knows how the markets will react.  Some analysts are predicting that if there’s no clear government identified by Friday afternoon, the value of the British currency will plummet and bond rates will inflate, quite possibly rocketing Britain with an unsustainable deficit, dashing the economy, and creating rampant inflation.

(I personally agree with analysts who think it will take a little longer than 24 hours for a crash like this to happen, but if there’s still no sign of a stable government grappling with the deficit within a week or ten days, the bottom will almost certainly begin to fall out.)

Which gets us to Greece.  The rioting on the streets again today in Greece, including the torching of a bank that killed three people trapped inside, is not a local matter.  Portugal, Spain, Italy, and possibly Britain, could find themselves in a similar situation, and it could tear Europe apart.  In the worst case scenario, riots and serious civil unrest could spread across the continent, the euro (Europe’s single currency used by 15 European countries) could implode, and Europe fall into a deep economic depression.

This would have grave effects way beyond Europe, including making it much harder for America to continue to pull out of recession and pay down our deficit.

The third event with potentially world-wide effects is the oil leak in the Gulf.  It’s already obvious that the environmental damage is going to be huge.  We just don’t know how huge.

But since most of the world’s oil is now being accessed through underwater wells, this accident is going to increase the cost of oil, and reduce its availability.  The one good effect of this catastrophe might be that green technology gets a bigger boost than all the warnings of global warming could produce.

Whatever else, I can’t see how anyone finds life boring.  Scary, maybe.  Infuriating often.  But not boring.

January 31, 2010

The one moral imperative of science

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 4:05 pm

Most people don’t think of science as moral.  In fact, for many people, science is quintessentially amoral.  Science does not submit the validity of its findings to any religious belief and does not claim the right of judgement over the personal conduct of scientists.  Except in relation to one totally non-negotiable demand.

Science demands that scientists tell the truth about what they claim they have observed.

This may sound obvious.  But the skeletons in the closet of scientific history suggest that it is far harder to tell the truth than it might seem.  Lured by promises of promotion, professional recognition, honour, fame, and sometimes simply stubborn conviction, scientists have not always been able to resist the temptation to message the data or even to fabricate it.

And it’s just happened again.  Not only has it happened again, but it has happened in relation to one of the most critical issues facing humanity today among scientists held in the highest international regard.

The summit on global warming held in Copenhagen last month was riveted by a warning from the  United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that climate change would melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035.   Since millions of people in India and China depend for their very livelihood on the water generated by these glaciers, it was a claim of terrifying significance.  In fact, one of the key points of disagreement which the conference was unable to resolve was the extent to which rich nations should pay the underdeveloped nations for damage which was being inflicted by global warming caused by policies of developed countries.

Since then, scientists behind the warning have admitted that this claim was wrong.

Okay, scientists make mistakes, and scientists studying global warming have been clear that their predictions are not absolute.

But what is so critically wrong is that the IPCC knew before the Copenhagen conference that their claim was wrong.  If the Himalayan glaciers continue to melt at their current pace, they will last for at least another 300 years.  Not the 25 years they claimed.

Presumably the IPCC argued that rescinding this claim before the conference would do more harm than good for the case of scientific credibility related to global warming.

It’s far more likely to have the opposite effect, giving another boost to those who think global warming, if it is occurring at all, is not the result of human action.  But even if the effects of this particular deceit had not been so demonstrably negative, pretending that the data suggested what it did not was a lie.

And that kind of lie violates the one non-negotiable moral imperative of science.

Sunday posts of this blog will also appear from now on my The Big Bang to Now blog.

January 10, 2010

Cold enough

Filed under: Environmental Issues,The English — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

Despite two gigantic salt mines, Britain didn’t plan on this much cold weather and is now rationing road salt and grit throughout the country.  Emergency shipments from the United States are due to arrive by the end of the month.  (Seriously.)

Still, as most of the northern hemisphere is locked in by sub-zero temperatures while at the same time I am sitting here in quite a cozy room with our fire going, it feels worth remembering that besides being inconvenient, ice can also be beautiful.

And that, despite appearances, hell probably isn’t freezing over.

Frozen fountain with cold elephant


Wave frozen in motion as the water rises from the sea into the cold air


January 7, 2010

Will it end sooner rather than later?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 3:36 pm
Tags: , ,

Although generally speaking, most of us aren’t thrilled by it, we mostly accept that we are going to die and that in galactic terms, that will be rather sooner than later.

But what about the end of the world?  St. John in the Apocalypse prophecies a rather ghastly end to the world, but with the consolation that at least the good will be transported to a better place to live in peace and harmony.

But scientists also ask how our earth might end.  And if most of their hypotheses don’t have “And they lived happily ever after” endings either, at least  up to now most of the possibilities lie comfortably millions of years in the future.  The sun won’t burn out for another four billion years and by that time, if  descendants of Homo sapiens are still around, they might have established some outposts in other galaxies.

Today, however, the papers are featuring two “the-end-of-life-on-earth possibilities that are a little less distant.

The first is the possibility of a supernovae explosion in our neighbourhood that would destroy earth’s ozone layer.  Astronomers from Villanova University in Pennsylvania said the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite shows a white dwarf star that is sucking in gas and steadily growing.  In the process, it has released small blasts of energy called novas every 20 years or so.   These burps stopped in 1967.  But when the star reaches a critical mass the star will blow up in a supernova blast.   The star is over 3,000 light years away, but the blast could destroy earth’s protective ozone cover, exposing it to deadly radiation.  As one writer put it, “it would frazzle the earth.”

At the moment, although scientists say it could happen “soon,” “soon” in galactic terms does not seem to mean this week.  They aren’t suggesting we all run for radiation cover for another million years or so.

The second end-of-the-world scenario covered in the news today is the possibility of a huge methane explosion that could devastate earth’s oxygen supply.  Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more warming than carbon.  Huge amounts of it are stored in bogs, in the seabed and ice caps.

The melting ice caps could be the problem where the release of methane has accelerated.  The rates of release are not lethal at this point, but there is cautious concern that a vicious circle could accelerate:  as methane is released with global warming, global warming is thereby increased, leading to faster methane releases leading to… etc.

A mega-methane explosion has been fingered as the cause of at least one of the five major extinctions that we know have taken place on the planet.  Major extinctions are catastrophes not to be taken light.  They usually last millions of years and each have wiped out between 75 and 95% of all the species living anywhere on the planet.

At least, unlike the supernova explosion, we might be able to actually do something to reduce the possibility that the worst-case-scenario will occur.

I think most of us would agree it would be better if it didn’t happen.

December 19, 2009

What’s wrong with global warming?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

Now that the Copenhagen conference seems to have failed comprehensively, is it really  so bad?  What’s really wrong with global warming?

Okay, let’s assume that the sceptics are right.  Everybody agrees that climate change is occurring – the ice caps are melting, water levels are rising, incidents of extreme weather are increasing.  The sceptics say that it is not due to the tonnes of carbon-dioxide we humans are pouring into the atmosphere.

I’ve just come in from clearing 8 inches of snow from our drive, and I wish the sceptics were right.  But I’ve read an awful lot, and I fear they are wrong.  The uncertainty that I worry about is whether the changes are occurring at a much fast rate than even the most pessimistic scientific projections predict.  But let’s assume that global warming is not a result of our carbon emissions.

There is another problem caused by carbon emissions and that is the acidification of our oceans.  What difference does that make?

There are two really significant problems.  The first is that acidification is already beginning to disrupt the ability of ocean organisms to make shells.  That means coral, crabs, lobsters, oysters, clams, mussels, and other small shell-fish which are vital to the diet of fish and plankton.  If acidification continues at its current rate for another 50 years, shells will actually be dissolved by the acidic water.  This will  feed through to the entire ecosystem including whales, dolphin, tuna, salmon, and the many species of other fish that currently provide roughly half the food sustaining us humans.

The second problem with acidification is that it may already be slowing down the oceans’ role as a “carbon sink.”  The data on this is still mixed, but it is scary.  The ocean absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide which is then sequestered on the ocean floor.  But if the ocean stops sopping up so much carbon, the problems of global warming are going to accelerate.

The politicians are putting a brave face on the abject failure that has come out of the Copenhagen conference, pretending that it represents a giant leap forward.  It does nothing of the kind.

I think that us “ordinary people” are going to have to take matters into our own hands.  I might sit here smugly with the comfortable knowledge that the deterioration of the planet is unlikely to be the cause of my death.  I will most probably die of something else.  But I don’t have another 50 years to live.  If I did, I wouldn’t be too sure that I didn’t have to worry.

And apart from how personally vulnerable I might be, I just don’t like the idea of trashing the planet, and leaving a lethal legacy to threaten the next generation.

December 14, 2009

A manageable problem

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 9:51 pm

The news tonight is that the Copenhagen meeting on climate change fell apart for about five hours today when the African nations walked out.  Things didn’t look good before, but now they look positively hopeless.

So I’m concentrating on a more manageable problem.  One, I agree, about which I am equally unable to do anything about.  But at least it does not tempt me to despair.

The manageable problem is this.  The Marquis of – Something or other, I don’t remember, but he’s very important and very rich – has just had his first son.  Or rather, his first sons.  They are twins and were born by Caesarean section.  Mother and babies doing fine and are healthy.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that the title of Marquis of Something-or-Other  and a considerable accompanying fortune is inherited by the first-born son.  Which is…?

Anyway, it’s a distraction from worrying about potentially catastrophic climate change.

November 21, 2009

Have we got this backwards?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 10:20 pm

Last month I bought an energy tracker.  It’s a gadget that plugs into the wall and it will tell you how much electricity is being used by whatever appliance is then plugged into it.

So far it has changed my habits sufficiently to reduce my annual bill by $100.  It’s a great idea.

As I am earnestly trying to reduce the atrocious percentage of carbon that I’m responsible for throwing into the atmosphere, I read that the OPEC countries – the oil producers who are so benefitting from the world’s oil extravaganza – are aggrieved.  They have announced if there is an agreement in Copenhagen in December to reduce world oil consumption, that they expect to receive compensation.

I wish I could dismiss this as simply preposterous self-serving egocentrism.  But what I’m afraid of is that they might use their oil to force some concessions to this outrageous demand.

It looks to me as if they could hold the world to ransom.

Unless, of course, we find some major effective alternative.  That really would be a giant step for mankind.

October 28, 2009

Another simple solution isn’t simple

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

Several posts ago I said that several renown economists were seriously floating the idea that CO2 emissions are not the cause of global warming, but that the warming could be slowed down by spraying sulphur dioxide into the air.

Well, I’ve started to read the book – it’s only one chapter in Super Freakeconomics – but The Economist has convinced me it’s worse than a bad idea.  That’s too bad because if it had been a viable solution, it was almost laughably simple and cheap.

Two big objections to this whizz idea are:

– sulphur dioxide sprayed into the upper atmosphere might disrupt patterns of rainfall with results no less drastic than global warming

– the problem with CO2 emissions isn’t just that it’s one of the greenhouse gases causing global warming.  It is leading to an acidification of our oceans which will kill millions of species living in ocean.  It’s already threatening our fish-and-chips, and coral reefs are dying by the mile, and is threatening bio-diversity on a huge scale.

Even if cutting CO2 emissions won’t stop climate change, we badly need to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

So I’m putting a thermal inter-lining on all our curtains.  All our windows already have thermal light-filtering blinds I imported from the States.  (They’re terrific, by the way.)

October 23, 2009

A lot of little itsy bits

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 2:57 pm

I am, I imagine, like most other people who are minimally informed about the world, torn between the feeling on the one hand that I have an urgent obligation to do something to right so many wrongs, and on the other waves of despair as it seems to me that I can’t possibly do anything that makes a difference.

Global warming, for instance.  Although I realize that my personal energy use is a small part of the problem, a report from the International Energy Agency published earlier this month suggests that what we do as individuals is between 1/3 and 2/3rds of the global solution to carbon emissions.

The Agency gives the way we use energy the fancy name of “end use efficiency.”  That’s to distinguish it from the way it’s produced – through biofuels or nuclear stations or wind and wave farms, for instance.

“End use efficiency” refers to the insulation in our houses – attics, wall cavities, windows – the tire pressure of our cars, the efficiency of our light bulbs,  fridges and wash machines, whether we turn off lights and stand bys when we’re not using them.  Almost all little things.  You probably know most of the list by heart.  I know I do.

The Agency estimates that the world needs to keep carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 parts per million to halt global warming.   They have produced a graph showing the effects by 2030 of  an all-out program of sustainable biofuels, next generation nuclear power stations, renewables, and us – that is “end use efficiency.”

One-half of the difference between the worst and best case scenarios is end use efficiency.  That’s us.

I find that just astonishing.  And hopeful.

In any case, if I’m leaving my lights on, overheating my house,  or driving like my car runs on air, I can’t point my finger at the lazy selfish slobs who should be doing something instead of just making money.

PS:  Last month I bought this tricky little gadget that enables me to measure how much electricity individual items are using.  So far we’ve concluded that if we turn off our stand bys on our televisions when we’re not using them, we’ll save about $100 a year in electricity costs.

I don’t know about everyone else, but there is no way I would consciously choose to pay $100 for the convenience of a TV stand by.  I’d rather go out to dinner.

October 15, 2009

Freaky facts?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 2:39 pm

I’ve just read a review of a recently published book, Super Freakonomics, and for the first time I am beginning to rethink global warming.  Not that it’s not happening, and not that we aren’t involved in the process.  But I’m shocked to discover that there is a reasonable scientific argument for the possibility that the culprit isn’t CO2 emissions.

Which of course means that curbing CO2 emissions might not be the solution either.

Anyway, what are the arguments against what is almost a universal scientific consensus on this question?

First of all, carbon dioxide is not the major greenhouse gas.  Water vapour is, but since we don’t know how to measure water vapour and cloud cover, it’s left out of the models.  But this might be like ignoring the famous elephant in the corner.

Here are some specific relationships which are disconcerting for the CO2 hypothesis:

  • The heavy particulate pollution we generated in earlier decades seems to have cooled the atmosphere by dimming the sun.  That sparked a panic over global cooling in the 1970’s, which I remember.  The warming trend returned when we subsequently started cleaning up the air.
  • Carbon dioxide has increased in the past century from 280 parts per million to 380.  But that’s not as high as it sounds.  60 million years ago when mammals were evolving, the concentration was three times as high as it is now.
  • Another fact that does not fit in conveniently with the current consensus is that global temperatures have actually decreased in recent years.  That really shouldn’t be happening, although I have assumed along with almost everybody else that this fluctuation was merely interfering noise on a graph that was heading inexorably upwards.  But maybe it isn’t.
  • Recent ice-cap evidence show that over the past several hundred thousand years, CO2 levels have risen after, not before, a rise in temperature.
  • Recent research, moreover, shows  carbon dioxide levels do not always mirror human activity and that atmospheric carbon dioxide does not necessarily warm the earth.  A doubling of carbon dioxide emissions traps less than 2% of outgoing heat from earth.
  • Nor is carbon dioxide exactly quite as poisonous as its current reputation suggests.  In fact, we cannot survive without tons of it because it is the food on which plants thrive.  And if plants don’t thrive, we don’t eat.  Hydroponic greenhouses typically keep their CO2 levels at 1400 parts per million.  Increases of CO2 in our atmosphere could actually increase our food production by as much as 70% without increasing use of land mass, water, or additional nutrients.
  • Rising sea levels – which are real – are not being driven primarily by melting glaciers, but by the expansion of the water than is already there.  Because warm water takes up more room than the same amount of cold water.

But if CO2 emissions really aren’t the culprit causing global warming, then cutting CO2 emissions worldwide with the expectation that it will cool things down could have terrible consequences.  Not only might it fail to reduce warming, but the economic toll will be huge.

All right then, if it’s not CO2 emission reductions, what will help keep our planet cool?

The Freakonomic authors do have a startling suggestion.  About which more in a later posting.  Right now I’m ordering the book.

And preparing for my sister’s arrival from the States.  So my postings may be sporadic for the next week or so.  Sitting down over cups of morning coffee and evening glasses of wine come first!

September 28, 2009

A demographic surprise

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 8:11 pm

One of the counter-intuitive discoveries of recent years is the widespread observation in country after country that people who aren’t starving have fewer children than people who are.

That presents a double challenge as I see it.  Not starving to death must rank as one of the most basic of human rights, and making it possible for people to have adequate food  may be one of the few goals about which almost the entire world could agree.

But as global warming puts increased pressure on food and water supplies, more people than now may enter the ranks of the starving.  Which paradoxically may mean that even more people will be born into a world which cannot feed them.

If that happens, the world’s population will not shrink but increase.  But people will also be living under even worse conditions.

The situation might seem so bad that we might as well give up trying, and simply be grateful that we personally will probably not be the most badly affected.

But there are an awful lot of creative ideas out there.  The worst possible thing, I think, we could do is to give up hope.

August 12, 2009

A plan for hunkering down

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 3:57 pm

National papers and news magazines here have been running articles this week on the likelihood that Britain will experience a shortage of electricity and repeated blackouts in the coming years.  Poor planning and government policies are the main culprits, and it is a problem that is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

So we have been talking about how to reduce the impact on our lives of an erratic electricity supply.  We’ve run down the list of our options in the likely event that we are faced with the prospect of hunkering down.

Last winter we installed a multi-fuel stove that heats the main living areas with either wood or coal, and greatly reduces our dependence on our central heating system which requires a supply of oil with a boiler requiring electricity.  We’ve already insulated the loft, walls and windows to above-industry standards but I am tempted to get reflective radiator panels for our old-fashioned radiators, and add an insulated lining to our window curtains.  We also have several mobile heaters that work with gas canisters, so we are unlikely to die of hypothermia.

The multi-fuel stove also has a cooking ring which will at least boil water, and we still have our camping stove that we’ve used more than once to cook entire meals.  So we probably won’t starve.  We could even invite our neighbours in.

Also left over from our camping days, we have an array of flashlights that work forever if you shake them and battery-operated lanterns.    So we won’t have to go to bed with the sun.  And we could supplement our current back-up system with solar lights, I think.

One of our computers works on a rechargeable battery, but that will hardly make up for regular computing or television.  But if we have books and lights, I suspect we will survive around the fire.

We don’t have any back-up for heating hot water and wonder if we should install solar panels.  Right now, a windmill on the roof to generate our own electricity seems a step too far.

And we don’t have a serious back-up for food we might have in the freezer.  Not opening the refrigerator door and hoping the electricity is turned on soon is definitely a short-term strategy.  Eating everything very fast also doesn’t seem like a winner.

But the whole process of thinking about it and radically reducing our dependence on an an external electricity supply was sort of fun.

Rugged individualists that we are, we even went outside and talked about planting cabbages and cauliflower between the rose bushes.

August 10, 2009

In defense of pursuing the lost cause

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 8:20 pm

Research shows that people who are successful are usually pretty good at judging whether they can do something or not, and if they can’t, they don’t tend to spend their energies pursuing frustrating failure.

I’m a person who likes success quite a bit, and as a general rule I don’t favour heroic projects I can’t achieve.

In many ways, trying to manage environmental change so that it does not seriously degrade or even destroy Earth’s capacities to support the complex life that currently makes its life here might be one of those heroic challenges.

First of all, because if the scientists I’m reading are right, the task is immense and is going to require radical changes in life styles.  That will take major and sustained commitments from governments and individuals alike.

And because I fear that a very large number of people either do not think environmental change is a problem, or that if it is, there’s little any of us personally can do about it.

Some scientists think that the only thing that is going to bring about effective change and a determination to act is a catastrophe on a mega-scale.  If we are lucky, it will not be so mega that we will be helpless by the time we realize maybe we need to do something to survive.

My own guess is that mankind will not glide fairly effortlessly into environmentally sustainable life styles.  I suspect it will involve significant angst and loss of life first.

But if that time comes, everything we can do now will make the losses smaller and the way forward clearer and shorter.

That’s why I think it’s worth trying.  Even if it doesn’t lead to obvious success.  In any case, it may be unlikely to unfold for better or for worse in my lifetime.  But whatever foundations we start laying now will matter in ten years time.

And they will matter more in twenty years time.  And thirty.

It will matter until humankind either succeeds or fails.

August 9, 2009

Intimations of Armageddon?

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

One of the problems with climate change is that nobody knows for sure just how bad it might get.  Or how fast.

As I’ve been studying the issue over the last few months, I’ve come across several seriously scary scenarios.  I haven’t written about them because it seemed to me – as it has to many other scientists and politicians – that if you suggest that the situation is potentially so bad, too many people might simply give up trying.

Is it really worth worrying if ultimately the problem is beyond our control anyway?  Does it make just as much sense to say “eat, drink, and be merry today, for tomorrow we all die”?  Or as some religious fundamentalists say “I’m among the saved, so I’m not going to be bothered whatever happens.”

Before I write about my thoughts on confronting the possibly hopeless, here are a few possibilities which, I admit, have frightened me:

  • The human population has quadrupled in the last 100 years, and is not abating.
  • By 2025 some scientists think human population size will have reached the point of global catastrophe, probably in the form of an unstoppable pandemic like eboli or the plague.  If it’s not too too bad – perhaps if it kills just several billion of us – it might be easier to develop a sustainable life style for those who are left.
  • But if it kills as big a percentage of the population as the bubonic plague, then it is possible that civilization itself could not survive.  Too much knowledge, too many skills, too many communities would be lost.  The changes in the way humans live could be as great as it was ten thousand years ago when hunter-gatherer societies put down roots and began the foundations of life as we know it today.
  • We are already consuming 30% more than is globally sustainable;  this is not always apparent because the 85 countries that are exceeding their own bio-capacities are importing from countries that still have spare capacity.  But this spare capacity is shrinking.
  • One of the greatest dangers of global warming is the melting of the frozen ice and tundra.  It’s largely understood that this will increase flooding, reduce arable land, and ironically reduce water for millions of people who depend on seasonal warming of ice for their water.
  • But the nightmare of melting ice and tundra might be the amount of methane that this releases.  If it’s bad enough – and nobody knows – it will destroy the very oxygen on which our lives depend.  Life as we know would no longer be possible on this planet.  Nobody is predicting this will happen, they are saying only that they fear it could.

So if things are this bad, why bother?

My current thoughts on why we should bother to bother on the next post.  Now, however, I  go to eat and drink and possibly be merry enough to live another day.

August 7, 2009

More than 4 times our share

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 9:04 pm

This is a number I’ve been looking for, and now that I’ve found it, I am – well, I suppose discouraged is probably the right word.

I’ve long thought that the terms global warming or environmental change made the problem appear to be smaller than it is.  I have thought that environmental resources more accurately described the problem, and now I’m even more convinced of it.

There just are not enough resources on this planet for every person alive to live what we in America consider a normal middle-class life style.

Because we Americans use about 9.2 hectares per person to maintain our current life style.  All the available hectares in the world total an average of 2.1 hectares per person.

I simply cannot see Americans or any other developed country voluntarily changing our lives sufficiently to downsize to using no more than our fair share.

George Bush kept telling the world that the problem would be solved by technology and inventing new and better sources of energy.  Apart from the fact that energy supplies do not include our increasing needs for water (not to mention clean air), I doubt very much technology can tackle this problem before the world implodes.

Enough of this for now.  I have to turn off my computer and think about this.

August 4, 2009

A Yes-We-Can Car

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 4:03 pm

The person who told me about rain chains has just sent me the specs on a car which is going on the market in Singapore for the equivalent of $600.

It’s a VW single-seater and gets 258 miles to the gallon.  It will travel more than 400 miles on the 1.7 gallons that will fill the tank, and get up to speeds of 74 mph.

Just imagine what it would do for global warming if every car journey involving a single person took place in a car like this!

I guess it’s still a hassle to import to the U.S.  The parent company is headquartered in Hamburg, Germany, though, so perhaps we will get them on the market here in Europe in the near future.

Maybe an American car company could begin to think the unthinkable and produce something like this of its own.  I would think it would out-compete any electric or hybrid car that is coming on stream any time soon.  And for $600!  You could triple the price, add some more safety features, and it would still be the bargain of a lifetime.

We could give it a special lane on the road.  Just like bikes.

July 20, 2009

Smart electricity meter

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:09 pm

We bought a gadget yesterday that enables us to read our second-by-second electricity usage around the house.

So far, the savings gained by turning the tv or computer off at the wall outlet instead of using the stand by is so minuscule as not to even register on said gadget.

The real question we have, though, is whether it is cheaper to heat our hot water in the summer with the electric immersion heater or with the boiler that uses oil.

I hope to have the answer to this by the end of the summer.

If I live long enough, I will  save the original cost of this investment.  $40, however, might not be enough to save the planet.  Watch this space.

July 17, 2009

Exactly how much did you say?

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Political thoughts — theotheri @ 7:58 pm

We had a spectacular series of storms that left all of Cambridge and surrounding areas without electricity for much of today.  We mopped up the floods in our conservatory, hoped that the blocked sewer would not back up into our house, and cooked our evening meal on a gas stove we kept from our camping days should such a need arise.

It quite obviously could have been much worse, and during the many hours without computer or television and no household appliances in working condition, I thought about global warming and about what much worse could be like.

Because I stumbled upon a figure that I admit challenged even my usual indefatigable optimism.

Last week, the G8 leaders and all the attending leaders from developing economies like China, Russia, Brazil and India, agreed that the dangers of global warming were such that it was imperative that average global temperatures not rise more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. 2 degrees centigrade).

In order to do this, they were also all in uncharacteristic agreement that greenhouse gases needed to be cut by 50%  of our current levels by 2050.  The developed countries agreed that since our levels are already so high, America and Europe needed to cut carbon emissions by 80%.

Put more simply, the agreement is that by 2050, emissions should be cut to no more than 2 tons of CO2 per year per person.

There was absolutely no agreement about how this is to be done.

And this is why:

In Britain, the average CO2 emissions per person is 10 tons a year.

In America, it is 22 tons.

That’s why this isn’t going to be achieved just by turning off the lights when we’re not using them.

The changes are going to have to be big, they are going to have to be many, and they are going to have to be varied – a combination of ingenuity, science, and nuclear energy, and conservation.

I don’t know if we can do it.  America, I think, has the capacity for ingenuity. I believe that we can do it if we make up our minds that it needs doing.

But how many Americans think we need to do it?

July 9, 2009

Climate change #5

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 2:51 pm

In an attempt to estimate the size of the world’s energy needs in fifty years or so, I’ve been trying to find out how the current energy usage in the developed world compares to that of emerging economies.   Here are a few figures – without accompanying adjectives:

  • The developed world has about 20% of the the world’s population;
  • it uses 6 times as much energy as emerging economies;
  • Within the next 20 years, world energy consumption is expected to rise by about 44%.
  • Within 40 years, global population is expected to have increased by 30%.

It looks to me as if the only way to look at these figures and avoid the conclusion that we have a mega-challenge in relation to our energy consumption is to revert to pre-scientific, if not irrational, reasoning.

I’m not without hope.  In a way, I think it’s a terribly exciting time to be alive.  Maybe even to be young.  But solving this problem is going to require something more than turning off lights we’re not using.

I’m not sure a blog is the best way for me to tackle an issue as huge and complex as climate change.  I do think there is an urgent need for the problems and solutions to be presented in a way that makes them comprehensible to people who don’t have time to take an entire course, but whose involvement is going to be critical.

So at some point I may give up the blogging format and write a book like The Big Bang to Now which I wrote to make all of time comprehensible to people like me who don’t routinely deal with numbers much bigger than 10,000.   It’s not that the market necessarily needs yet another book on climate change.  I just may need to write it.

July 6, 2009

Humbled to near speechlessness

I set out a little over a month ago on a project to learn about the scope, the dangers, and the possible solutions to global warming and climate change.

I have been reduced to near silence by an issue complex, vast, and significant beyond my most wild imaginings.  I’ve been torn between the extremes of hope and despair and back again beyond counting.  The ingenuity, the creativity, the possibilities seem so hopeful.  And then I run smack up against the size of the problem.

The size of the problem:  80% of the world’s total population of 6.9 billion people live in Asia, Latin America, or Africa.  25% of them subsist on an average of $1.25 a day.  That’s more than 20% of all the people in the world.  They are not currently contributing to greenhouse gases by driving cars or turning on refrigerators, TVs or central heating.  And the great majority of people are not consuming energy at the rate of the currently developed world.

It gets worse:  By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase to 9 billion.  That’s an increase of 30%.

So what we have is a developing world seeking to improve living standards, which, as countries like India and China illustrate, means that their energy consumption will increase dramatically.

In less than half a century, not only will the world’s population have increase by 30%, but energy consumption per person will also have increased.

Assuming that the world did not run out of sources of affordable fossil fuels, the pressure such a vast increase in consumption would put on Earth’s environment is immense.  That probably won’t happen, though, because experts say that fossil fuels are getting harder and more expensive to get at.

Except perhaps coal, which is far and away the filthiest of the lot.

Is the problem solvable?  I don’t know.  I am sure that it is within our power to influence the size of the problem posed by fossil fuels.

More later about some of the avenues that might lead us out of this cloud and smoke which we have created for ourselves.

June 29, 2009

Last gasp effort to save the environment

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 9:53 pm

As Congress is trying to pass its watered-down Climate-Change bill, I pass on to you the innovative suggestions coming out of Britain.  I’m sure they are revolutionary:

  • The Church of England is urging Christians to give up using their dishwashers for Lent
  • Manchester City Council has suggested that a local crematorium uses the heat it generates to power its boiler
  • Marks and Spencer, a hugely popular main street department store chain, has launched a range of school uniforms made out of old plastic bottles.

Somehow I’m not sure these are the kind of revolutionary ideas that are going to save our planet.

On the other hand, mabe if we all started to make our clothes out of old plastic…

June 25, 2009

Turning cream into butter

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 8:38 pm

Last week I have decided to try to answer six questions in relation to climate change.  In an outburst of irrationality, I decided to start with the last question first:   How urgent is the problem of global warming?  what will happen if we do not change the way we are living?

I’m starting with this question because I think that right from the beginning we ought to face the reality that not all scientists are equally convinced of the urgency of doing something about global warming.  And nobody knows for sure how fast and how drastic climate changes might be.

There is a possibility that the majority of scientists might be wrong, and global warming might either not be happening or might not be caused principally by human activity.   So why not wait and see instead of going through the tremendous expense and upheaval of trying to reduce the emission of green house gases?  After all, the credit crunch has just shown us that the majority of scientists can be wrong.  So how do we know that scientists aren’t wrong about climate change?

Up to a point we don’t know.  But let us suppose, for a moment, that we do not have any evidence of pollution, water and food shortages, and species extinctions that do indeed seem to be related to our human activities.  Let us suppose that all we have are the threats that these things might happen.

What if the majority of scientists are wrong?  If we haven’t changed, life will continue to change incrementally just as it always has.  No great environmental catastrophe will occur.

But what if the scientists are right and we haven’t changed the way we generate and use energy?  Doing nothing is going to be catastrophic.

Myself, I think this is good enough reason to take pretty drastic action.

But for those who think that we can wait a little longer before we make up our minds, there is the problem of tipping points.

Tipping points are like the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It looks as if nothing much is happening as small changes are made.  And then quite suddenly, the entire situation is dramatically transformed.  If you whip cream too long, it does not gradually become butter:  it happens quite suddenly.

Even worse, the processes are frequently irreversible, or reversible only with great effort.  A hard-boiled egg can’t be made soft again by taking it out of the boiling water and putting it back into the refrigerator.  In fact, it can’t be made soft again by any process that I have ever heard about.  Similarly, have you ever tried to turn butter back into cream? It is possible to approximate something like cream by mixing milk and butter, but it’s far more successful not to turn the cream into butter in the first place.

If our climate warms sufficiently to melt earth’s permanent snow and ice, it will be like that.  The snow reflects a great deal of sunlight and helps keep Earth cool.  Without it, Earth will get warmer and warmer, and we won’t be able to put the snow back.

Destroying an ecosystem is a lot easier than trying to restore it.

So all in all, I’m inclined to think that global warming is as urgent as most scientists think it is, but I realize they and I might be wrong.  But I don’t think we can take the risk of assuming that they are wrong.  Because if they aren’t, we won’t be able to get the toothpaste back in the tube when we have the conclusive proof.

June 19, 2009

Taking the time to hurry up

Filed under: Environmental Issues — theotheri @ 7:44 pm

Until very recently, my attitude toward climate change has been a rather vague view that the world shouldn’t take the risk of not trying to slow down our destructive emissions and other environmental destructive activities even if we are not absolutely sure of all the science involved.  Because by the time we were sure, it would probably be too late.

Apart from that, I haven’t seriously tried to understand the scope of the problem or how drastically we might have to change our behavior.

But I’ve recently begun to think that I need a better grasp of the issues.  I’ve got an educational background that makes it possible for me to explore many of the questions, and since I’m retired, I have the time.

So I’ve decided to spend the next six-twelve months – or whatever is needed – to answer these questions:

  • how much energy, on average, is used per person in the developed world?
  • how much of that energy is currently supplied directly or indirectly through fossil fuels compared to renewables?
  • what are the parameters of changing the ratio of fossil fuel use compared to use of alternative energies?
  • how many people are there in the developing countries who aspire to a life style with an energy consumption similar to that of Western countries?
  • what things can we do to ameliorate the damage of global warming, especially in poor countries who, ironically, will probably suffer the worst effects while having done the least to have caused them?
  • finally, how urgent is the problem of global warming?  what will happen if we do not change the way we are living?  if we change just a little?  change it a lot?

I am starting out with three studies, all available on line.  The first is the Global Climate Change Impacts in the United State, the second is a similar report as it applies to Britainand the third is David MacKay’s study Sustainable Energy.

I took a quick look at the first two reports today, and both are saying that we don’t have a lot of time to turn things around.  If Earth’s climate reaches a tipping point it will be too late.

Nonetheless, I won’t return to this subject until I think I have a better grasp of the subject than I do now.  At which time I will, no doubt, be insufferable with my pronouncements about what must be done.

Probably yesterday.

PS:  I’ve just re-read this post and realize it sounds like a course outline. Well, this time the first person I’m planning on teaching is myself.   I hope I like the professor.

June 16, 2008

Home-grown oil?

I have just read one of the most intriguing articles I’ve seen in years.  A group of young scientists in Silicon Valley, California, have produced bacteria that feed on agricultural waste and excrete crude oil.  No kidding.  Within the month they expect to be able to test their produce called “Oil 2.0″ ” on a real car.  Unlike oil pumped from the ground, this Oil 2.0 is carbon negative, putting less carbon into the air when it is used than the amount of carbon it sucks out of the atmosphere when it is being produced.

Even more astonishing – at least to me, is that the company plans to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010, and to have a commercial-scale plant open within a year after that.

Meanwhile, a scientist in Japan is working with an algae that excretes oil.  He is receiving massive government support and thinks he can create algae-filled fields producing enough oil to meet Japan’s current oil needs within five years, and within less than a decade enough oil to turn Japan, which today has to import every drop of oil it uses, into an oil-exporting country.

The more I think about it, the more mind-boggling this becomes.  I remember when I first read about AIDS in 1970’s, discussing with a colleague at the university where I was working that this was going to be a big thing.  I thought the same thing when BSE infected cattle.  But the potential for this kind of renewable petroleum to change the world in a positive direction dwarfs almost anything short of global warfare that I can think of.

Think about it.  If mankind has figured out how to produce oil without pollution and at an affordable price, the geopolitical landscape through the world will change dramatically.  Food shortages resulting from creating fuel from bio-mass will disappear.  Pollution will be drastically reduced, along with the greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming.

And all of this potentially not in my life time, but in less than a decade.  It is so astonishing as to be almost unbelievable.

Well, perhaps it is unbelievable.  At least it’s not a sure thing.  There are some rather significant problems to be worked out before either plan becomes commercially viable.  But that’s what they used to say about putting a man on the moon.

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