Friday, December 22, 2006

Strolling With Trees

I was reminded of Nathaniel Philbrick's book Mayflower recently, when I read an article about changes the U.S. Forest Service had made concerning national forests and grasslands.

When the Puritans arrived in November of 1620 on a cold, bleak day, in what is today the area of Cape Cod, they observed there were far more trees than what they'd ever seen in Holland or the coast of England. And they hadn't yet discovered the "real" forests that once covered much of North America.

The Forest Service now says that the public will no longer be able to appeal "long-term plans" but will be able to be involved and participate in the planning process from its beginning. It's difficult to say exactly what this means, but given George Bush's environmental record, a healthy skepticism is not unwarranted. It would be wise to let the new Democratic controlled Congress in January know we're not supporting tree farms for the timber industry nor suburban housing on the nation's grasslands.

There is some good news, apparently, regarding forests worldwide. According to a study done within the National Academy of Science, we've had a significant "reforestation" in the past 15 years in almost half of the countries with the most forests.

The study also seems to confirm the connection between general forest improvement and a nation's standard of living, agricultural practices, education and competent government.

At the same time, tropical forests are being destroyed in various developing countries because of greed, corruption, poverty, ignorance and the lack of competent government. We in the developed world have a clear responsibility as consumers--if nothing else. We cannot remain passive bystanders and just look for what is called "cheap." Nothing ultimately is.

While I enjoy hiking and climbing, there are some practical reasons why we want healthy forests everywhere on this planet. Beyond the obvious fact that trees absorb carbon dioxide, forests also encourage biodiversity and slow erosion, essential to our well being as humans. Healthy forests also provide clear economic benefits, whether it's lumber for building homes or paper we use for any number of things.

Find some woods, take a walk and leave the cell phone at home. Be grateful you can stroll with a tree.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Capping or Taxing

Capping and taxing our way to carbon dioxide reductions, the main greenhouse gas, are words now heard more often, even on the silliest cable news station. But that's probably a good thing because we're actually talking about global warming and that, it seems to me, is a very--very--good thing.

This subject has to go way beyond corporate board rooms, academic institutions and most politicians. A "moderately concerned" public here in the U.S. and presumably in the rest of the world need to understand what they can do individually and on a community level, which in the short to intermediate term may be far more important for greenhouse gas reduction than the "big" concepts.

Ever so briefly, capping refers to a cap-and-trade structure, whereby limits are place on emissions. Companies that are able to go below their emission goals can sell "permits" to those companies that could not. Taxing is a straightforward levy that would set a price (a tax) on each ton of carbon dioxide that is discharged into the air. Each side has its advocates and each method has its shortcomings, political as well as technological.

But returning to the individual and the community, it's worth looking at what an increasing number of cities are doing in the United States. Because of the astounding negligence at the national level these past several years, cities have taken the lead in addressing climate change.

Some 350 cities throughout the U.S., encompassing more than 40 million people, have adopted a "climate protection planning process." The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by studying and developing comprehensive plans for such things as energy use, transportation, waste management and overall environmental direction. Specific targets are established.

A central component of these plans is setting up community outreach programs. What can individuals and neighborhoods do? It could be a recycling program or merely replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights. It could be a neighborhood association newsletter or quartely community meetings. But above all it educates people and shows them ways to participate and make a difference.

This is related to efficient energy use. McKinsey Global Institute, a research organization, believes that within some 14 years the annual growth rate of energy demand worldwide could go from approximately 2.2% to about 0.6%. This is not by discovering some new breakthroughs but by using existing technology, whether it's an energy-efficient appliance, insulating one's home or improved commercial building design.

A good place to begin is at the local level. In Kansas City, where I live, our curbside recycling program--in its first year--saved an estimated 156 thousand barrels of oil and possibly enough electricity to run almost 8 thousand homes for a year.

Of course we need global standards. Clearly countries like China and India cannot get some infantile "free" pass. And most definitely the voters in the United States are going to have to take some real responsibility for their actions, beginning by electing competent political representatives.

When General Motors thinks it still makes sense to advertise the Hummer to rich halfwits on Sunday football games, we still have a considerable ways to go. But it does however start with one light bulb at a time. Get busy in your community. Locate the people that can conceive of something different.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fork in Road

How many times can one individual, one city or one nation reach a fork in the road and have to make a choice about which way to go? I haven't the faintest idea. But those "forks" appear for almost all of us sometime in our existence. Times are starting to appear interesting in the U.S. at the moment, once again. I'm talking about climate change and global warming. What decisions will we end up making? They will likely have an impact on the rest of the world.

We've had a series of reports, commissions and recommendations over the past several months, from various countries and international agencies, outlining what could happen if we don't address global warming. Even some of the global warming skeptics have become less shrill.

Intimately connected with the complexity of global warming issues is the so-called "peak oil" debate. The consensus, as far as I can tell, is that we agree we're going to run out of oil in the not-to-distant future. The argument centers on just when this "future" might occur. The optimists talk about some 100 years from now and the pessimists speak about the next 10 to 20 years. But clearly oil has made modern civilization possible. With very little research it is possible to discover just how many everyday items are derived from petroleum.

An interesting aspect of this "black gold" is the E.R.O.I. or the energy-return-on-investment. It looks like it's going to get more and more expensive to extract it. We're going to have to spend more energy to get more energy, because we likely have gotten most of the accessible oil and gas fields, and now it will become much more difficult and more expensive to extract. More money spent on energy probably means less money for things like education and other areas we undoubtedly consider essential to our welfare.

Cutler Cleveland, an energy scientist at Boston University, estimates that over the past thirty years investment return on oil and natural gas fell from "25 to 1 to about 15 to 1." If we try to extract oil from tar sands, for example, the return could be only 4 to 1 because of the conversion expenses.

Last but certainly not least is coal. The United States has a lot of it and it's relatively cheap. But until we learn how to bury its high carbon dioxide emissions, coal is not going to be our salvation. We can observe China right now and see the extreme pollution caused by the country's frantic construction of coal-fired power plants.

So what's happening right now? The moderately good news is that the Democratic Party controls Congress. But it most definitely remains to be seen what the Democrats will do. At the very least, however, they should be able to stop or slow down the Bush thug's most egregious environmental behavior. And there is a presidential election in 2008.

California with the world's sixth-largest economy has established caps on global warming pollution, requiring a 25% cut in greenhouse gases by 2020. This will have an impact throughout the U.S. and likely with other countries that want to do business with California.

The Bush--yes George Bush--administration is going to establish, after many years of procrastination, energy efficiency standards for numerous commercial and residential appliances, which will likely save significant amounts of energy.

Some 300 cities in the United States have adopted a Climate Protection Planning Process, covering approximately 40 million people. These cities have agreed to develop a specific procedure for assessing energy and transportation needs and overall environmental direction.

More and more business leaders are examining how climate change will affect financial markets and economic development. For example, this Thursday the University of Chicago Business School is hosting a conference on Midwest development. The Midwest, in addition to agriculture, has high concentrations of automotive companies, insurance and power generation. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulted in some $45 billion of insured losses. Changing weather conditions and possibly shorter growing seasons in the central part of the U.S. could have a significant impact on agriculture production--which certainly could affect the availability of food worldwide.

We have arrived it seems to me at another fork in the road. We have another chance to make a choice. Stupidity and lazy indifference may again prevail or we may just figure it out this time. Getting organized and getting informed are good first steps. How many chances do we get?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Searching For Wisdom

What happened in the midterm elections in the United States a couple of weeks ago? Will it be good for the environment? Do we know? Of course we don't really know.

The American electorate managed to wake up from its torpor (a significant problem) long enough to give control of Congress to the Democratic Party. But the party that lost control (Republican) was and is one of the most incompetent and possibly corrupt political parties in American history; a party that has become little more than an open sewer and finds rational thinking blasphemy. We can, however, be grateful for small favors, for a short while. Now, if the man-child playing President of the United States would vanish....

Kofi Annan, Secretary of the United Nations, remarked at the climate conference in Nairobi that there was "a frightening lack of leadership" in the world community.

REFOCUS, an international renewable energy magazine, said the U.S. is now the "most attractive country for renewable energy investment."

The chairman of the Global Carbon Project reported recently that CO2 emissions are "spiraling out of control." We may not be able to avoid some of the "bad" scenarios.

My city has established a "climate protection planning process," which includes benchmarks as well as public outreach and education.

So of course we don't really know--yet. Don't stop telling me that we have a new widget to help "bury" CO2, but even better, tell me there are ten more people that know what global warming is, what causes it and--best of all--know how to motivate and influence government action at the local level, the national level, and the international level. Keep searching for wisdom.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

One Percent Solution

If the world takes action now on global greenhouse gas emissions it will cost 1% of Gross Domestic Product. This in the conclusion of the recently released Stern Report requested by the British government. The release of the report was met by both interest and skepticism along with the usual "calls" for action among those that pay attention to such matters. For the world at large it went unnoticed.

Possibly the most important sentence in the entire 600-page report came at the beginning of chapter 21: "Public awareness and support is crucial for encouraging and sustaining cooperation." Far more critical than dedicated environmentalists, intelligent politicians and enlightened business people is a citizenry that has a reasonable understanding of the problem coupled with a willingness to make changes both individually and collectively. And therefore...?

Based on any number of facts the world is at the moment largely clueless. Global subsidies for energy research are some $10 billion annually, while subsidies for fossil fuel extraction runs about $250 billion annually. Only Japan among the world's economic powers has increased funding for energy research in recent decades.

The United States, which is still the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, is close to being "criminally" negligent. The American government spends around $3 billion per year on all
energy development. In contrast, the U.S. spends some $75 billion on military research.

Relying on private enterprise is largely a feverish hallucination. It is not that business is not crucial in dealing with global warming and developing various technologies, but the private market is simply not big enough nor can it be relied upon for a long period of time. Its motivation is profit, usually short-term. Private investors won't and most cannot afford to go much beyond five or six years before the big return on their investment is demanded.

Dealing with greenhouse gases, finding alternative energy sources, and developing technologies such as drought resistant crops will be long-term, expensive, and require coordinated global action. The United Nations reported just recently that greenhouse gases reached a "record high" in 2005. The Stern Report stated that global costs could go up to 20% of GDP over the next ten to twenty years if the world does not act now. Possibly more than 200 million people, again according to the Stern Report, could end up becoming refugees because of droughts or floods, let alone failed states and civil wars. So therefore...?

Many years ago I first heard the expression "luck is the residue of hard work." We are all going to need some luck and perhaps a lot of hard work. The developed world, especially the United States, has to change drastically--and yeah, that's political, on a national scale, and not in some distant future. So dear environmentalists (the few), politicians (the few) and business people (the few) get busy and fast. Most people are clueless. That's the really big problem.

A lot of the "developing" world believes it's entitled--read China and India for the moment--but they're not. The good news is that even the kleptocracy in say China now has an inkling that the "good" life will never arrive if you only create an open sewer.

The Stern Report like all the rest will end up gathering dust on some shelf unless the few realize the fight's going to take place on the street, literally and figuratively. How badly do we want to take care of the only real home we will ever have?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

All Kinds of Energy

The Worldwatch Institute ( has released a report entitled "The Renewable Path to Energy Security." It's a comprehensive overview, covering everything from biofuels to geothermal to marine energy. It is a report that every non-expert should at least glance through.

What continues to be frustrating is that a great deal of research in renewable energy sources has been going on for some time in both the public and private sector, yet policy makers worldwide have been, to various degrees, almost lackadaisical in their responses to both the potential problems of relying on fossil fuels, as well as the opportunities that renewables present.

In the United States, certainly in the last six years, the government has been almost criminally negligent--to put it kindly. While we Americans are supposedly in some global battle against the forces of "darkness," the U.S. imports about 13 million barrels of oil each day from some not so stable countries. This represents more than 60% of our total daily production. It's also costing us approximately $300 billion annually.

This is not to say the world has been standing still. The second-largest industry in the world--the insurance industry--has decided that stupidity may be too costly. The industry has slowly changed how it evaluates "risk-assessment." It more and more, for example, assesses how future climate change models may look, and less on current weather patterns. As well, the insurance industry is doing such things as cutting premiums for "green" buildings and giving discounts to people driving hybrid cars. As the insurance industry modifies its priorities other sectors will likely have to follow.

Right now global investments in renewable energy is some $38 billion. It is still a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket but continues to grow. Worldwide, wind and solar power are the fastest growing energy sources.

Jobs in the fossil fuel sector are expected to show little growth, in part because of automation, while significant employment growth is expected in the area of renewable energy over the next 20 years.

But we still have the "yeah, but" reaction more often than not and deservedly so. Until we have a serious nation-state response--meaning a political will--which ultimately means a real funding commitment, leadership, and education, we're indulging in a grand delusion. A survey taken not long ago in the United States indicated that nearly 75% of those polled believed global warming was a serious problem. Yet, this same percentage was equally at a loss as to what causes global warming. Perhaps Europe and Japan are not quite so uncertain but....

Equally important, until we have a coordinated international strategy, which must include China and India, we will remain locked in a narrow "free" market fantasy. So once again it comes down to the familiar question. What are we willing to do?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Painted Technology

It came to mind after reading an article by Michael Pollan in The New York Times.

A couple of weeks ago I hiked through the Painted Hills (part of the National Park Service) in eastern Oregon. It's a remarkable sight; it looks like a vast watercolor landscape. The hills are of various hues, colors sometime blending together and sometimes separate and distinct.

The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. The Painted Hills are made up of layers of hard claystones that were formed some 33 million years ago. Along with variations in moisture and light reflection, mineral elements such as Magnesium, Iron, Potassium, Silicon, Phosphorous and other elements are mixed together. It is as inspiring as anything any human artist could conceive of.

Three days before I left for Oregon I wrote a column for the Kansas City Star on the upcoming November congressional election and the growing "rot" in America. It does connect, no matter how tenuous it first might appear.

Pollan's article entitled "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex" (10/15/06) discusses the outbreak of E. coli last month where some 200 Americans in some 26 states became sick from eating packaged spinach.

It is not the dreary news that food in America (meat and vegetables) has become industrialized and increasingly susceptible to more disasters and diseases, but Pollan's contention that "it's easier to find a technological fix than to address the root causes of such a problem. This has always been the genius of industrial capitalism--to take its failings and turn them into exciting new business opportunities."

If we Americans--out of indifference, avoidance or ignorance--choose to let our food be controlled by a handful of conglomerates, than we ought to be prepared for the consequences.

Animals crammed together on cement floors, standing all day in manure, and fed a steady diet of antibiotics are not "Little House On the Prairie." If we don't mind our vegetables ending up in large food processing factories with bacterial contamination more and more likely, then sit back and enjoy. Only about 70 million Americans each year get sick, or end up in the hospital--or die from the food they eat. But national regulations may not be the answer either.... Michael Pollan's article is worth reading.

A visit to the Painted Hills is worth doing but sadly most people won't be able to. This small section of the United States tells us a lot about the planet we live on and our place on it. It's deserving of preservation. Industrial agriculture also tells a lot about what kind of people we've become--something not worth preserving.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Reading Signs--or Not

A species in transition ... hiring "forest people" for an ecotourism experiment ... the Ogallala aquifer running out of water: These are stories that appeared in the news in September. They are accounts from different parts of the world, seemingly unrelated, and yet are connected in important ways.

They are stories that have a lot to do with our ability to think critically as well as our willingness to conceive of something else. These are also tales about making choices--or not making them.

Paleontologists in Ethiopia believe they may have discovered a 3.3 million-year-old fossil of a child, estimated to be about 3 years old when she died. The child is a member of the Australopithecus afarensis species.

What is of possible major significance is that the scientists think that this child represents a "species in transition." The lower limbs are similar to early humans, but the upper limbs are more like a gorilla. Iron Age religious tales seem to pale in comparison when we consider the marvelous possibility of where we humans may have evolved. The scientists named the fossil Selam. The word means "peace" in the Amharic language.

Now try to imagine--not the beginning of the Neolithic Era--some 10,000 years ago, but the origins of our species Homo sapien, 100,000 years ago--200,000 years ago? And now go back one million years, two million years....

Attempts at ecotourism in third world countries have often been controversial. Who actually benefits? Do the flora and fauna thrive? Does the fact that rich first-world residents paying a lot of money to visit the "natural" world actually benefit indigenous people and the wildlife, and not just some corrupt elite running the country?

In one of the poorest parts of the world in central Africa, where life expectancy does not reach 40, three countries, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Congo Republic are establishing one gigantic national preserve larger than the state of Rhode Island. The World Wildlife Fund is guiding its development. The local Bayaka Pygmies have been hired as trackers and guides. The goal is sustainable development that can benefit the people that live in the area over a long period of time, as well as protect rare and endangered species like the western lowland gorilla. Now go back one million years, two million years...

The natural Ogallala aquifer in Western Kansas is getting low on water. This is part of the United States called the "Wheat Belt," in a country that has been the breadbasket of the world. But energy is getting more and more expensive, and so is water.

Wheat was the crop that was planted, in the perfect location, when the homesteaders first arrived in the 1860s. It thrived in the hot central plains on little water. But over the past twenty or thirty years farmers have moved to corn and soybeans, used primarily for such things as animal feed and high fructose syrups. There was money to be made; unfortunately, corn and soybeans need twice the amount of water as wheat--but the Japanese and others developed a taste for American beef.

What choices will ultimately be made? At what point will the choices be limited? How well will we conceive of something else? Imagine a dry aquifer in Western Kansas. What was it like one million years ago, two million years....

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Yedoma is Here

Have you heard of yedoma? Outside of those folks that study ice cores and worry about melting permafrost (the fragile layer of frozen soil found in arctic and some subarctic regions) on this planet, most of us would likely have no reason to know anything about it. It is, however, a subject we may want to acquire some basic knowledge about.

In the course of coming up with some ideas for a piece I have to submit in a couple of weeks to the Kansas City Star, I read a couple of articles regarding a study published in the journal Nature, and a European-sponsored project regarding Antarctic "ice coring."

It seems that scientists have been able to get sample ice cores that go back some 800,000 years. Air bubbles trapped within these "cores" can tell scientists the amount of greenhouse gas concentrations over nearly a million-year period. The long and short of it is that carbon dioxide levels are a good deal higher than at any time in 800,000 years.

Possibly even more worrisome is that the increasing melting of the permafrost, especially in Siberia, an area covering some 10 million square kilometers, is not only releasing more CO2 but also Methane. Methane is an especially nasty "greenhouse gas." While methane disperses faster than carbon dioxide, some 10 years versus 100 years for CO2, it is about 23 times more powerful in trapping heat than CO2.

Methane is being released from the permafrost much, much faster than expected. Greenhouse gases and rising temperatures are connected and self-perpetuating: more greenhouse gases mean more melting, leading to increasing amounts of green house gases, and so forth.

Yedoma is a type of permafrost located primarily in parts of Siberia, and mostly lies under lakes. What is of interest here is that the melting permafrost releases methane, whereas under dry permafrost carbon dioxide is released.

In the United States, within two months, Americans will again have another opportunity to break out of their own carefully constructed insane asylum. We will have a chance to change the makeup of the U.S. Congress. Global warming is happening now, and we Americans have another possibility of demonstrating we're not a country of total ignoramuses.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Cows, Corn, and Melting Ice

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture claim that the world's grain harvest, for a second year in a row, will not be able to meet worldwide consumption needs.

Professor John Holden, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said recently that climate change is happening a lot faster than predicted. So what, if anything, might this all mean?

The short answer is we don't know for certain. The longer-term answer is we don't know ... for certain. But only fools would act as though nothing has changed or that some very bad things are unlikely to occur. In conclusion, a great many fools inhabit the planet and a great many governments are run by fools.

The remarkable increase in world grain and food production that has occurred over the past 40 or 50 years has begun to slow down. For one, there are more mouths to feed. In 1950 the world's population was less than 3 billion people. Today we have more than twice that number. More people have meant less farmland under cultivation because the land is being used for human habitation.

Perhaps the vegetarians have had it right all along. It seems that as the standard-of-living has risen in many countries, meat consumption has increased. A lot of those slaughtered animals are fed grain. Perhaps a third of the world's grain harvest goes directly to feeding the animals we eat.

A relatively new problem has arisen in our attempt to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The primary reason for the interest in the need to reduce global warming gases as well as the distinct possibility that "black gold" could be a lot less plentiful and cheap. Biofuels is one of the many alternatives.

The potential problem, however, is that a biofuel, like ethanol--sometimes made from corn--and plentiful in the United States, will not be exported to feed primarily poor people overseas, but will be used instead to fuel our vehicles. In a country like the U.S. where there is no genuine energy-conservation-environmental policy, the consequences could be disastrous for grain supplies worldwide.

The potential monster in the room is of course climate change. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, heatwaves, floods, and desertification could cause global disruptions on a scale we humans can barely envision.

Increasing fuel efficiency standard and establishing authentic conservation policies in the developed world are important. Spending time and money to help people in the developing world grow food in ways that do not harm the environment are worth the effort. But until we believe collectively that a disaster may be inching toward us, and the developed countries find leaders that can both think and imagine, our choices will "drip" away every day.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Tell Me Why

Have you heard of the branch of pure mathematics called topology? Up until a couple of days ago I had not. Topology is a branch of mathematics that deals with shapes. Different shapes can be deformed or reworked into one another. The topologists are interested in so called "closed" forms that have a fixed extent or limit.

After reading a general description, I'm still reasonably certain I have only the slightest grasp of what it means--certainly in a mathematical sense. But its relevance just might extend well beyond the abstruse world of higher math.

Topology is in the news because Grigory Perelman, a Russian mathematician, some three years ago, informed the world he'd solved this mathematical problem known among mathematicians as the Poincare conjecture. Then the Russian disappeared. The world's foremost mathematicians continued the Russian's work and now, three years later, have reached a "cautious optimism" regarding Perelman's conclusions. Many are now suggesting that not only is it a remarkable achievement in mathematics--but of human thought itself.

Dr. William Thurston of Cornell has said, "You don't see what you're seeing until you see it, but when you do see it, it lets you see many things." Thurston goes on to say that, "curiosity is tied in some way with intuition." For most of us non-mathematicians this easily sounds like obscure gobblygook, but just possibly there may be something else to consider....

That something else is the two words curiosity and intuition. Where do they come from? Why do some people appear to have more of it than others? Does one need curiosity before intuition takes place or might it be the other way around? Why or how did Albert Einstein for example, sitting in a trolley car in Vienna, come up with the idea that time itself depends on where the observer is? Was he merely bored as he traveled back and forth from his dull job at the patent office? And will the latest mathematical discoveries get us any closer to an understanding? Are you curious?

Will the rising cost of a barrel of oil--and the difficulty of having easy alternatives--stimulate new energy sources? Is it scarcity that will push and develop our curiosity and intuition? History is full of examples where shortages led to new inventions as well as new energy sources.

The writer Deborah Blum, in an article in The New York Times, remarked that President Bush's veto of the embryonic stem cell legislation follows a fairly consistent pattern of those that have opposed medical and scientific "progress" on religious and moral grounds.

In the 11th and 12th century the Christian church warned individuals that using medicine to treat illness indicated a "lack of faith." As recently as the 19th century cries of "Satanism" were shouted when doctors began using chloroform to reduce the pain of childbirth.

Religious benightedness and incurious rulers have always been with us. But dogged persistence followed by evidence and success more often than not triumphed over ignorance.

To what degree does a vibrant, creative society encourage curiosity and respect intuition? To what degree does it ultimately demand evidence? What will we learn next about the Poincare conjecture?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Iron Age Fantasies

The most recent human obscenity, this time in Lebanon, again demonstrates that national borders have become almost irrelevant--certainly when it comes to global degradation.

The Israeli bombing of oil storage facilities and power plants has turned the Lebanon coastline into a black oil slick, which is apparently spreading to Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and who knows where else. We know it will likely have disastrous consequences for marine life, but it will also impact areas within Lebanon and Israel, due to deforestation, habitat destruction, and air and water pollution. It may turn out to be a major environmental catastrophe in the eastern Mediterranean.

Some scientists now believe that China, in the not to distant future, may account for "a third" of California's air pollution. While China itself is well on its way to becoming an environmental disaster, it could, as well, drag the rest of the world with it. An atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, after analyzing particulate matter (from Asia) at monitoring sites in Oregon said, "There is no place where you can put away your pollution anymore."

In the simplest of terms, even if the United States suddenly became the most environmentally enlightened nation on the planet, unrestrained growth in countries like China and India, with more than two billion inhabitants, could turn our planet into a nightmarish hell at the very least.

The option, however, is not to throw up our hands in despair or cling to some Iron Age fairy tales. There are no beautiful virgins waiting in the ether, nor did some Old Testament sociopath give some sand dunes to a particular group of people. The only "miracle" is this extraordinary planet we live on. We push even harder for global change. Earth is worth it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Magic Bullet

Adapted from article first printed in Kansas City Star, 7/22/06, entitled "Corn No 'Magic Bullet' For Our Energy Crisis."

Henry Ford in 1925 said, "The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust--almost anything."

The father of the mass-produced automobile was 81 years too early in his prediction, but it's now likely that "weeds" will play some part in fueling our vehicles.

But we should be extremely skeptical of the assorted snake-oil salesmen with their cure-all patent medicine. In the Midwest, the syrupy elixir is ethanol made from corn.

Biofuels, of which ethanol is the best known, are byproducts of once-living organisms, which could include such things as wood, elephant dung or grass. Today biofuels are essentially alcohols that come from crops like sugar cane, soybeans and corn.

Biofuels are "carbon-neutral," in theory. They don't supply significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, the main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Corn as fuel is now being touted in the United States. From Wall Street investment firms to bloated agribusinesses, corn has become the latest energy traveling circus.

But like the wizard behind the curtain, much of the ethanol ballyhoo is smoke and mirrors. Some people, however, may become rich because of the public's gullibility and its apparent unwillingness to even consider a national energy and environmental policy.

We've got a lot of corn in America. In fact, corn-based fast foods and the numerous products that contain high fructose corn syrup have helped make America possibly the most obese nation in history. The problem is that corn may be one of the worst plants we could consider as a biofuel.

Although corn is heavily subsidized, courtesy of the American taxpayer, it also uses more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop. The fertilizer comes primarily from natural gas, and nitrogen runoffs cause immense damage to water supplies and aquatic life. Corn also uses a lot of pesticides, which are made from petroleum.

Atrazine, a highly poisonous herbicide--banned by the European Union--is applied in large amounts on American cornfields. The Environmental Protection Agency states it is the second-most-common pesticide in drinking wells.

And even before the corn gets near a distillation plant, it has already used one-third to one-half gallon of gasoline for every bushel of corn grown. More fossil fuel is used when the corn is actually distilled. Cheap, readily available fossil fuel is a rapidly vanishing delusion.

Of course, global corporations like Archer Daniels Midland are salivating at the prospect of turning all that corn into gold. ADM is the largest producer of ethanol (from corn) in the United States. Over the years this particular company has been found guilty of price fixing, charged with numerous violations of the Clean Air Act, and has had to pay out millions of dollars in fines and settlements. Perhaps most ironic of all is that ADM proposes to produce much of the ethanol in its coal-fired plants, one of the dirtiest forms of energy around.

Reducing our fossil fuel consumption is urgent and long overdue. The obvious first step is an authentic national conservation plan.

Biofuels will become just one of many possible energy alternatives. In the not-too-distant future we may be making ethanol from vegetable cellulose such as switchgrass, which would be far more efficient, less costly and less harmful to the environment than any corn ethanol.

A country with no conservation policy, anxious to find a quick fix for rural America, and guided by some obsolete cartoon capitalism will believe almost anything, even some fairy tale about a new "energy bullet."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bigger Body Count

This year the United States will have a population of 300,000,000. We have a net gain of 1 person every 11 seconds. The U.S. is now the fastest growing "developed" country in the world.

James Howard Kunstler's book The Long Emergency is worth reading. Kunstler's thesis is that cheap fossil fuel has made the modern world possible; it is the "platform" from which our rapid technological advances have occurred, including everything from democratic institutions to improved health care to discussions about what our existence means. And it all may be coming to an end. Cheap, readily available fossil fuel is an anomaly in human history.

In the end, according to Kunstler, we may get optimistically 200 years or so out of cheap fuel--and we've already used up about 150 years. We're running out of it because it's a finite resource, although we sometimes act as though it's not. Most important, there is nothing we know of today that's going to remotely replace it or make it possible to enjoy continued growth or increasing levels of prosperity. It's going to get pretty bleak, what Kunstler calls the "long emergency." Some will find Kunstler's thesis implausible and others on target. But most people will nevertheless find it disturbing....

We have more than 6 billion humans living on the planet right now, and our rapid population increase began at the start of the industrial revolution around 1800 and really took off in the early twentieth century. In the late eighteenth century we had approximately one billion inhabitants on Earth. This could once again become the upper limit of our sustainable population.

America is now the third most populous country in the world. We are by far the worst polluter on the planet, emitting nearly twice the carbon dioxide emissions as our closest competitor, China. We average some 1,300 gallons of water per day, per citizen, the highest rate in the world. We Americans individually generate hundreds of pounds of trash each year, with paper, plastics, and metals leading the way.

One in three teenage girls in the U.S. become pregnant, and more than 50% of Americans now live within 10 miles of polluted water. The current American government has essentially restricted international family planning funds to sexual abstinence policies because of the dysfunctional influence of Christian fundamentalism. And we haven't even talked about the growing environmental disaster that's occurring in China and to a lesser degree in India. These two countries have a combined population of more than two billion inhabitants.

Even with cheap, readily available fossil fuels, we've got a planet in acute trouble. What are we willing and able to do? What are we willing to give up--because those of us in the developed world will have to part with a great deal? How fast are we willing to do it? The options are vanishing fast.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Changing the Footprint

Have you heard the name Wangari Maathai? That was the question Bob Ferguson put to me. I'd met Bob for the first time that morning on the tennis court, after which we got some coffee. Bob was a distributor with Shaklee (, a health and wellness firm.

Dr. Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, became a Nobel Peace Laureate in 2004. The Shaklee Corporation donated $100,000 in order to help Maathai plant some one million trees in Kenya. In 2000 Shaklee had become the first organization to be certified "climate neutral" by the Climate Neutral Network (

More and more today we're hearing the term climate neutral, as well as calls for both individuals and organizations to reduce their environmental "footprint."

The phrase climate neutral refers to a company's product or service that has little or no effect on the earth's climate. In other words, emitting little or no greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, chloroflurocarbons, carbon monoxide and small amounts of other gases).

In order to get certified a company must first make "internal reductions" within its own organization and then invest in offsets to reduce the remaining greenhouse gas emissions. Tree planting would be considered one of many types of possible offsets because trees take in carbon dioxide.

Regardless of the reasons why a company might embark on climate neutral strategies, it is in fact occurring throughout the world, from carpet companies and hotel chains to aircraft engine manufacturers like Boeing and financial service organizations such as JPMorganChase.

But as many organizations are finding out, it is often easier to declare climate neutral strategies than it is to clearly quantify and measure results. For example, when a particular company interacts with a diverse group of firms or suppliers in order to create and produce a specific product or service, how is credit divided up?

Joel Makower and ( have spent a good deal of time thinking and writing about climate neutral policies. Makower has pointed out that a world commodity market now exists for greenhouse gas emissions reduction. There's money in it--and the incentive for many an organization or investor to declare its climate neutral "worthiness."

In building an automobile, for example, how much credit does the aluminum industry receive when it improves existing technology or for that matter spends millions developing new technology, which ultimately ends up in new cars, making them lighter, thus causing carbon reductions? What about the automotive manufacturer? How do you quantify his credit for redesigning new cars, possibly making them less wind resistant and more fuel-efficient? What about government itself? To what degree do tougher regulatory standard drive the changes? Last but not least is the actual consumer. Does that person receive any credit for purchasing the particular car?

But if climate mitigation for the entire planet is a valued--and critical--objective, who should ultimately establish the overarching criteria and goal? Clearly a lot of bright individuals and farsighted organizations are now thinking about climate neutral ideas as well as implementing policies; but much is still missing, perhaps the most important component. The fact that there might be an enlightened company somewhere outside of Paris tells you one thing: One company outside of Paris has implemented some climate neutral policies.

According to the U.N. Climate Secretariat, carbon dioxide emissions went up to 15.1 billion tons in 2004 from 14.5 billion in 1990. The Greenland ice sheet, broad enough to cover an area the size of Mexico, is deteriorating faster than it was only a few years ago. How do we want to proceed? It strikes me as being somewhat more than a mere business school exercise.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I've ended up trying a few of Shaklee's products.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Gone Hiking

Heading off to the Pacific Northwest to do some hiking, gaze at some beautiful scenery, and perhaps visit a couple of national parks to see if there is any noticeable deterioration. Under this current American government budgets have been slashed and staff cuts have been made throughout our national parks system. Some national park bookstores are supposedly carrying biblical fairytales stating that the Earth is only six or seven thousand years old.

On June 8, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law protecting the natural and cultural resources of the United States. The Antiquities Act, as it's known today, gives the President the authority to protect national landmarks. I suppose under this current American president we should be grateful we even have something like the Antiquities Act, to at least slow down human depredation. Developers and the fossil fuel industry are now eying these heretofore-protected areas.

Speaking of landmarks, pressure has been mounting from scientists to get the UN World Heritage Sites Committee to acknowledge that some of the world's most important sites have been damaged by climate change brought on by greenhouse gas emissions. Some of these sites include the great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Belize Barrier Reef, the Waterton-Glacier Park along the US and Canadian border, and the Husascaran National Park in Peru.

The signatories to the Heritage Sites agreement (including the U.S.) state that they will not damage listed sites. The petition brought by scientists to the UN, if successful, could have poor countries being able to sue richer countries for not doing more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's expected that the United States government will oppose this petition.

No one said it would be easy!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Serious Economic Harm

What is the "environmental" health of Iraq right now? Does the question seem silly and irrelevant? After all, by watching T.V. newscasts and reading various accounts, Iraq appears to be a country residing in some inner circle of Dante's Inferno or straight out of the movie Apocalypse Now.

T.E. Lawrence, more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia, said 86 years ago (referring to British occupation) that Iraq was "a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor." Cicero, the Roman politician and philosopher, reminded his fellow citizens that, "to be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child." Cicero was murdered not long after the Roman Republic collapsed.

I don't know. But I found myself wondering a few days ago, after another bomb had exploded in Baghdad, with all the smoke and gasoline fumes, how bad was asthma among Iraq's children? But if you're getting shot and blown up on a daily basis, asthma rates may not be very important. What about all those uranium-tipped shell casings lying around. Is that harmful to your health?

I even found myself thinking about people's pets. Are there many anymore? Do they just shoot dogs wandering in the streets? After all, they could be carrying rabies. But why would we care about other species? We don't seem especially interested in our own. Then there's deforestation, water pollution, destruction of flora and fauna....

And what about the man-child playing President of the United States? Back in 2001 George Bush stated that the U.S. could under no circumstances support the Kyoto Protocol, a tentative step in addressing global warming. It would cause "serious harm" to the American economy. It would cost good paying American jobs he told us. What's the world's worst polluter to do? Simply put Kyoto would cost to much money. After all, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, heavily funded by Exxon, called global warming junk science or words to that effect.

Back in 2000 a figure of $325 billion was used, as the amount of money the U.S. would have to spend over many decades to be in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol.

Bush estimated that--before the invasion--the cost of the Iraq war would be about $50 billion, not that much for the world's most powerful country. At the present time the war has actually cost the United States more than $300 billion. If we include the estimated financial cost to Iraq and to the other "coalition" countries, the total world cost of the Iraq war is some $500 billion.

The Iraq war is costing the United states somewhere around $4 billion every month. We may reach a trillion dollars before it's all over. But climate experts now think that the goals of Kyoto need to be far more demanding and stringent if we are to slow down global warming. So perhaps spending all that money to kill all those terrorists in Iraq has turned out to be the right thing. Do you think so?

Anyone interested in assorted financial costs of the Iraq War and the Kyoto Protocol can go to Climate Ark at and Information Clearinghouse News at

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


The Nukak-Maku Indians, who have been living an essentially Stone Age existence forever, wandered out of the Amazon jungle recently and stated that they wanted to become part of the "modern world." No one at the present knows precisely why these indigenous people have now decided to enter a world they know absolutely nothing about.

In the United States millions of "illegal" immigrants (overwhelmingly from Mexico) are crossing the southern border of the U.S. No one knows how many are actually in the country. The numbers range from some 11 million to over 20 million.

Some two or three years ago, as a member of the Sierra Club, I received my ballot to vote for the new Board of Directors. At that time the contentious issue centered on immigration and the expressed belief on the part of some board nominees that environmental deterioration would occur with the flood of people crossing our borders. The worry for many of us was that the Sierra Club might be taken over by anti-immigrant bigots.

I, along with the clear majority of the Sierra Club, considered the views of these folks to be parochial and with more than a slight tinge of racism. My views have since changed, but not totally.

The word "cheap" has seemingly become the inspirational, all-purpose utterance for global capitalism and the developed world in general. As well, it is also the mantra for aspiring countries like China and India. Cheap (coupled with rising population) is now pushing us faster toward the destruction of finite natural resources throughout the planet. Cheap is the instrument for the "outsourcing" of far too many of us. Cheap is searching for workers everywhere on this planet who'll work for less and less and ask few questions. But cheap will also benefit a few of us--in the short run, a "run" that will indeed be, I think, much shorter than we think.

Why would a rational, well-run country, with an informed, well educated, and honest citizenry want millions upon millions of the poor and the illiterate crashing its borders? The answer is it wouldn't.

The problem is that the above description does not apply to the United States at the moment. America is not at the present time a rational, well run country. Neither is its citizenry well informed or well educated by almost any definition of a supposedly developed nation. We may actually be in the process of un-developing.

There may, however, be a "so-what" question in this entire discussion of immigration and the movement of people throughout the world. It may be that the diminution of nation-state sovereignty is rapidly becoming the reality. In other words, the state--any state--might not be able to preserve its borders for a variety of reasons. The term open source warfare, referring to increasingly powerful stateless organizations and groups within and outside of a particular country, may now be able to compete with the nation-state, and ultimately take control of it directly or indirectly. Anyone interested in a thought-provoking view of "open source" change should certainly begin with the web site Global Guerrillas published by John Robb.

But back to cheap, should we not consider the possibility that the Nukak-Maku Indians could end up being the cheapest workers of all, thus displacing workers from Colombia, who could then cross the Mexican-American border, and then displace lower income American citizens. The cost of goods at Wall Mart would continue to drop ... until of course they move their entire operation to China.

As the Nukak-Maku Indians know nothing of money or the "civilized" world, they could be taught some basic tasks and be paid in colored trinkets. This would reduce labor costs further, excite the financial markets, and make the few even richer ... for a short while. Did you buy "cheap" today?

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Predators and Prey

The other day I saw a reasonably well-acted movie about a human predator, in this case a sexual one. The difference this time was that the prey, a fourteen-year old girl, turned the tables on this sorry excuse of a hominid.

And speaking of predators, the Chinese government appears hell bent on trashing the planet in some pathetic desire to become a "great" power, whatever that now means in the era of environmental deterioration. The latest story again goes back to wood.

This time it's a lush, isolated spot of Borneo. China is about to spend billions over the next few years tearing down the forests of Southeast Asia in order to service the needs of its growing middle class, which in the case of China is going to be huge.

Of course it doesn't often take much more than dragging a $100 bill through the military barracks of some of these developing nations to bribe whomever you want. The Chinese have certainly learned their lessons from the West.

The latest obscenity is a "rush order" for a reddish-brown hardwood called merbau, some million cubic yards, in one of the most biologically diverse areas of the world. The purpose for this wood is to build sports facilities for the 2008 Olympic Games to be held in China. Perish the thought that we don't have adequate facilities for our pampered world-class athletes and their increasingly silly activities. The forests are going to disappear Homo sapiens sapiens. Who knows why that could be a very bad thing? In the meantime give them bread in a worldwide circus!

Optimists are fond of pointing out that a society, after a couple of generations, settles down. In other words, a certain standard of living is reached and people want more than "more stuff." Perhaps there are still sane people on this planet that believe we have the time.

The autocrats that currently run China have clearly proven--at least in the short run--that the most irresponsible cartoon capitalism can flourish without democracy. Above all, without any countervailing force to confront this idiocy, this unfolding environmental disaster may happen much sooner.

It's unlikely that these ex-communists "good old boys" are going to become enlightened anytime soon. Nor is any real boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games going to take place. The best we can hope for at this point is that the U.S. regains its sanity--soon. We in the United States certainly are not passive bystanders in this matter. Europe might try harder to internalize the word "survival," and Japan could stop slaughtering whales for no good reason. Just maybe the prey can confound the predator once more.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Idiot Season Begins

It's that familiar sound when spring has arrived in the U.S. It's the chug-chug of the power lawnmower, the whirring of the weed-whacker, and the chemical trucks pulling up to deliver the "fix" to your drug-addicted lawn. It has been a spring ritual for a good 50 years. ( see Turf Terror, November and December 2005 articles).

The encouraging news of course is that this spring obscenity is slowly changing. We're becoming more and more reluctant to dump huge quantities of pesticides and fertilizers on our lawns as well as pouring gallons of water over it, in order to create some artificially induced dreamscape. More and more Americans are coming to realize they can't continue to support this environmental disaster.

The province of Quebec in Canada has now implemented the most stringent standards in North America for lawn-care products. Some 210-lawn products, containing toxic chemicals, are banned. Products that contain 2,4-D are off the market, bringing Canada in line with other countries like Sweden and Denmark. It's time to push these standards throughout all of North America and start living in the twenty-first century.
Regular gasoline in the U.S. is inching above $3.00 a gallon. Americans are "getting angry," politicians are getting worried or seeing it as an opportunity to oust their opponents. But do we really get it yet?

I frequently drive by a coffee shop in the morning in a relatively affluent area. It clearly is popular because the parking spaces are always full as well as along the side of the street. What is most striking is the number of new SUVs parked there. Will these people feel it when gas prices reach $5.00 a gallon--$6.00? I don't know. But I do not think any reality will sink in for the overwhelming majority of Americans until prices rise to at least $4.00 (regular of course) and stay there.

The recent fuel efficiency standards for vehicles that the fools running America recently implemented are hardly worth the time of day. It might have been a "start" ten years ago. It's not now. Progress is telling the automotive industry it's not voluntary or optional, and it's not when it's convenient. And, it is the U.S. that has to take the lead; we have the greatest number of vehicles clogging up the roads and we're the main polluter on this planet. It's worthwhile when we're setting a GOAL of 100 hundred miles to the gallon.
The Ceres investor coalition not long ago analyzed some 100 major companies, in the U.S. and overseas, as to how effectively they're dealing with global warming. For example, in the oil and gas sector, according to Ceres, BP is a "leader" and (not surprisingly) ExxonMobil is a "laggard." But overall, Ceres states the electric power and oil companies are "largely dismissing" the global warming issue. For that matter entire sectors of the economy have not begun to develop clear strategies. The report is entitled Corporate Governance and Climate Change: Making the Connection. While finding out where our money is being invested is important, we can also begin--in the U.S.--tossing out the political errand boys and girls in the November elections. Yeah, you can make a difference.
Last, but certainly not least, don't let any snake-oil car salesman tell you to buy the car because it's got "hybrid technology." According to Jamie Lincoln Kitman, a bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, in a recent New York Times article, there's the good hybrid and maybe not so good hybrids. For example, Kitman points out that, while the Toyota Prius really does get 40 or more miles to the gallon, it's only when you're just driving around town. On the Interstate it stinks. In this case it becomes--where do you do most of your driving? Being environmentally responsible doesn't mean being an uncritical buyer. Yes, the hybrid may be right for you.

May every day be Earth Day.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Another Wood Story

Continuing the 25 March article, I came across a piece in Aljazeera, entitled "Cheap furniture endangering forests." The developed world wants wood products, the cheaper the better, and most likely oblivious to what "cheap" really means. Of course it's an all too familiar story. And China, the willing middleman, is ready to help, well on the way to controlling approximately one-third of furniture manufacturing worldwide.

The most populous country in the world is now the leading importer of wood from tropical forests in the developing world. Some of the more dismal statistics that the Aljazeera article points out is that illegal logging and corruption is widespread among the developing countries that supply the raw wood. Indonesia has lost about 65% of its ancient forests, and the World Bank claims that the country--within 10 years at the most--will lose some of its "richest" areas unless drastic measures are taken to stop the destruction.

As usual, the local communities where the forests are located receive little in compensation, but by the time the finished product reaches New York, Tokyo or London the value has increased thirty or forty times.

Of course it starts with enlightened political leadership in the developed world educating their consumers. Then it becomes the radical idea that global cartoon capitalism doesn't get to decide how to consume finite resources on the planet. Finally, local communities where the raw material comes from begin to receive fair compensation.

Yes, it's hard work getting ethical and intelligent people in positions where they can see beyond the next week or the next election ... as well as getting all of us to understand that "entitlement" has real limits. The fact that we can build a Hummer doesn't mean we should. When's your next election?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

What's Da Plan?

Cellulosic ethanol, extracting electricity out of trees, psychology of risk, and much more arrive almost every day. A lot of creative people, with so many creative ideas, want to make this planet environmentally worth living on.

A few years back we heard about a so-called split in the environmental movement, between those people that believed in "enhanced" democracy versus those that emphasized enhanced technology. Regardless, something has to be enhanced, the sooner the better.

Kimberly-Clark (an example), the largest manufacturer of tissue products in the world, claims on its website that some 1.3 billion people uses its products throughout the world. I have no reason to doubt their claim. We've all heard of Kleenex, Huggies, Kotex, Depends for example. But there is a concern.

It's about all that paper flushed down all those toilets or tossed in all those wastepaper baskets. It is about wood; it is about sustainable forests, biological diversity, endangered species, finite resources, and of course people--a lot of them. If you're a major stockholder in Kimberly-Clark do you salivate at the prospect that the growing yuppie class in Shanghai, China--millions of them--are discovering that along with the I-pod and the laptop they just must have a box of Kleenex? Workers of the world unite!

The corporation's detractors claim that KC is an irresponsible global corporation. They continue, as their opponents state, in spite of frequent, vociferous criticism, to rely on paper pulp made from clear-cut ancient forests, including Canada's Boreal forests. Less than 19% of its fibers come from recycled sources. The industry average, according to CorpWatch, is closer to 60%.

Obviously, as expected, KC denies it's a bad environmental corporation. Their web site has a fairly recent addition on how how well they're now treating forests. They seemingly have come to realize that negative opinion could affect their profits ... at least in the developed world. They're using a lot of recycled paper they say. They are responsible global citizens they announce.

Kimberly-Clark is cutting jobs in North America. Wall Street seems to be happy about the decision. KC is going into the developing markets of Brazil, Russia, India, China, Indonesia, and Turkey. Why shouldn't they? That's where fifty percent or the world's population is located. That's where the "growth" is. North America and Europe are to become mere replacement markets. So what's the plan?

Of course it's about politics. Of course it's about influencing decisions. But do you have some new technology that will help? Where do we put the carbon dioxide? How soon do we have fleets of cars that get 100 mpg? Who will "push" the technology? Who will inspire? No, it's not the Toyota engineer however. I don't know about democracy; it's a system that's hard for most of the people most of the time. But I still prefer it to all the rest.

And what about Kimberly-Clark? Where's the wood coming from to make all those Huggies? How much clear cutting will there be? Will it be nothing more than sterile tree plantations expanding throughout Indonesia and Siberia? You got some technology that will help? You got a plan?

In the meantime buy your toilet paper from companies like Ambiance, Best Value, Earth First, and Sofpac. There are others as well. Of course environmental well-being is too important to be left exclusively to global corporations and the shills that front for them, be they third-world strong men or members of the U.S. Congress. Get busy, get active, and get a plan.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Water Designers

I remember reading at least 25 years ago that the "real" conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would eventually be understood to be a struggle for water rights, not archaic religious differences or whose land some house would be built upon.

A recent newspaper article listed six areas of the world where conflicts could erupt over water. The Union of Concerned Scientists also published a report that evaluated water scarcity, rising populations, and possible clashes. While one of the areas of concern is the River Jordan, affecting Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, the Nile River basin could be the far more dramatic example.

The Nile is the world's longest river. Approximately 40% of Africa's population and some 10 countries live within the Nile basin or close to it. Water is needed for crop irrigation and industry, as well as for drinking. These countries are now accelerating economic growth and building dams, diverting water resources and servicing an expanding population.

Egypt, with some 60 million people, has one of the fastest growing annual population rates in the world, some two percent per year. Ethiopia, a neighbor in the region, has an annual population increase of 3.2%! The unspoken monster in the closet is global warming. No one knows what this might bring. (Some climate models show that most of North Africa will become one of the driest regions in the world by the end of the century.)

In the United States the U.S. Geological Survey recently reported that all of the rivers and streams it surveyed between 1992 and 2001 contained pesticides. The U.S. uses approximately one billion pounds of pesticides every year. The study pointed out, however, that there was no indication that drinking-water standards were compromised, even though no water samples were analyzed at water intakes.

The problem in the United States at this moment in time is not the lack of technology or even financial resources, but the politicization and weakening of government regulatory agencies and the required political "correctness" pressed upon many scientific bodies. It's a matter of trust. The current American government does not engender very much.

In the U.S. population demands may increase the cost of water by some $14 billion in twenty-five years (aqueducts, infrastructure, etc.). If you decide to add in the potential global warming problem, some estimates go up to $105 billion annually. Yes, water or the lack of is not just an issue for the developing world.

In an article entitled "Big Gulp" published in The New York Times, I learned about a company called Ethos Water. This company gives 5 cents of every bottle of water it sells to "helping children get clean water" throughout the world. This article reported that in 2005 some $250,000 was sent to Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and some other countries for various water programs. The company's goal is to raise $10 million within the next five years. Starbucks bought the company in 2005 for $8 million. Presumably a big corporation can market Ethos Water on a large scale. Is this not a worthwhile endeavor?

On the other hand, plastic bottles end up in landfills, as well as requiring more than a million barrels of oil to manufacture these bottles each year. There's the cost of shipping, marketing, etc., etc., etc. Finally, as mentioned in other articles, tap water, at least in the developed world, is better regulated than bottled water. Could we not just send the 5 cents to an international agency?

What political choices do we ultimately make? What are we willing to do? Clearly, slowing population growth reduces water "stress." Who do we choose or not choose to represent us--at least among those of us that have the option? Finally, as someone once said, the fact that you can build a Hummer doesn't mean you should. What political choices do we ultimately make?
Potential areas of conflict: Israel, Jordan, Palestine; Turkey and Syria; China and India; Angola and Namibia; Ethiopia and Egypt; Bangladesh and India.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Water Water Everywhere

The Khaleej Times reported recently that water shortages are so bad in Somalia that children, in many cases, have had to drink their own urine. The article goes on to say that parts of Somalia, where temperatures rise to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, people have to survive on the equivalent of three glasses of water per day for "drinking, washing and cooking."

Perhaps it's true that most often it is the obvious that eludes us. This was brought home to me recently when I happened to read an article on bottled water. Over the past six or seven years global consumption has doubled. In 2004 approximately 154 billion liters (41 billion gallons) had been drunk throughout the world. This increase is expected to continue. It is a very big business, well over $200 billion a year. I certainly have been a consumer of this product.

For whatever reason, I can't remember when I started buying bottled water on a regular basis. More important, I'm not exactly sure why I started. My neighborhood supermarket, I "discovered" recently, has at least 40 different brands of bottled water! Once I began studying the shelves devoted to water I realized the packaging was ... well, remarkably compelling in many instances. Equally surprising was where a lot of this water came from. It almost seemed like another example of outsourcing America.

There was an attractive 25 oz bottle of water from the U.K. selling for only $3.29. Canada had a bottle that promised zero arsenic, absolutely no MTBAs, and was 100% glacier water. Germany had a six-pack selling for $6.00. The state of Hawaii was represented, a good 10-hour flight from where I live. Although the Hawaiian bottle was made out of plastic, it looked like Steuben glass--very chic. But the ultimate in fine water consumption had to be the stuff from Fiji, a great looking bottle and a pledge of pristine delight. It could have been mine for $12 a six-pack

We owe most of it to the French. In the 1850s they began to bottle cold spa water. In 1968 Vittel, a French company, came up with the plastic bottle. In the mid-80s science discovered recyclable plastics. The rest is history. But the real story is much more than marketing acumen, gullible people, and the usual corporate "hustle."

Less than 1% of water on our planet is fresh water. There is another 2 to 3% but it's frozen within glaciers and ice caps. Obviously an important question is how much potable water will be available for an increasing world population, as well as what might happen if climate change becomes more than a "slight" adjustment?

China, which much of the world has apparently decided will be the next "great" power, is now having serious water problems. Because of its rapid industrialization, this country of 1.3 billion has managed to pollute a large portion of its water supply. The World Health Organization estimates that around 700 million Chinese drink water that doesn't meet minimum standards, which is the total population of the U.S. and most of Europe. The sales of bottled water, however, are increasing dramatically.

In general, in the "developed" world, tap water is safe to drink and can be made even safer still if we decide to start paying attention to it. In the United States and Europe tap water is regulated more stringently than is bottled water. It's also energy-efficient, unlike much of the foolishness of shipping, for example, bottled water from Hawaii to the middle of the United States.

It takes a lot of fossil fuel to move water from Fiji in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles, to my supermarket in the mid-west. It also requires a lot of plastic, another oil product. The packaging is polyethylene terphthalate. Plastic bottles wrapped in plastic packaging, made from crude oil, which globally amounts to some 3 million tons of plastic and--last but not least--according to the Container Recycling Institute, only about 14% of plastic bottles gets recycled, at least in the U.S.

In the developing world bottled water consumption is growing, certainly among the upwardly mobile, especially in countries like China and India. A lot of wealthy corporations will likely get a great deal wealthier selling one of life's essential needs. A problem, however, is that the majority of people in the developing world cannot afford bottled water. As well, a growing concern is the fact there are water shortages in many communities, because water tables have dropped rapidly due to water being quite literally sucked up by the bottling companies.

Contrary to what the well-groomed, shiny suits may tell us, bottled water in the developed world is not any guarantee that it is any better or safer than the water we drink out of the tap. In the developing world in many cases, with little or no regulations, it's buyer beware. That water in the bottle may actually have come from the stream containing bacteria, parasites, and chemical contaminants.

Bottled water is clearly not the answer in both the short term and the long term, no matter how it is packaged and marketed. The United Nations Millennium Report says that about $30 billion will have to be spent on water supply and sanitation over the next fifteen years if we want to significantly reduce the number of people who do not have a safe water supply. A lot of money yes, but approximately $100 billion is spent each year on bottled water.

In the developed world it's a matter of using some small amount of critical thinking skills; not that we must not ever drink bottled water, but how much do we really need, and why are we drinking water that is produced several time zones away? Are we all that easy to fool?

In the developing world it is and will become a matter of survival. But we in the West, trying to decide between the Fiji water and some other bottle of imaginary delights, will ultimately find this problem reaching our own doors as well, if we aren't willing to address it now. Evian spelled backwards is "naive." Water-water everywhere, but maybe not a drop to drink.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Scourge

On the face of it what do Danish cartoons and Muslim rage have to do with the environment? Well, if nothing else, it should be an incentive for the West to implement an "energy" Marshall Plan. Admittedly, the fact that the U.S., at the moment, is certifiably brain dead makes it more difficult, but not impossible. We need to get very busy.

I've certainly attempted to try and understand the "visceral" rage of the Muslims. I've read about how the West exploited the Islamic world beginning in the nineteenth century. I totally agree. Of course, the exploitation was relatively easy after the Ottoman Empire had turned the region it controlled into an ossified, decaying relic, where millions of Muslims were exploited by their own governments as well as by religious superstition.

Many Muslims today are being discriminated against in the West. It seems most likely. We need to talk to one another, sooner than later. Should we begin before or after the burning stops, the manipulation ends, and the endless, threatening fatwahs cease?

The Danish publisher of the cartoons apparently intended to provoke--someone. The fact that he supposedly refused to publish similar cartoons of Jesus Christ, because he didn't want to offend Christians, doesn't help his credibility one bit.

I do, however, find religious fundamentalism--of any type--loathsome and detestable. It has nothing to do with rational thought. It certainly won't help us take real responsibility for the well being of the planet we live on. I find more transcendence in one sunset than all the ignorant ravings of the temple priests anywhere and anytime.

The decision is easy. Of course I'm a Dane. I have to be.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Beer, Clothing, and Pet Food

In 1967 the population of the United States reached 200 million. Life magazine, among others, featured the arrival of the baby that supposedly was number 200 million. This coming October it's expected that an infant will be born bringing us to 300 million, ranking the U.S. third in population after China and India. Will there be the same interest in 2006 as there was in 1967?

The Director for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in the United States, wrote an article in which he expressed his fervent belief that pesticides and biotechnology will allow food production to keep pace with growing world population. The writer accepts the generally held belief that by 2050 we will have added another 3 billion people to the planet. The author warns, however, that "eco-extremists" and the "con of the 'organic utopia' " must not be allowed to confuse consumers; otherwise we will not be able to meet world food demand.

Others, possibly less politically conservative, speak of the next generation of computers and the potential of nanotechnology that could lead us to creative new design structures and innovative energy efficiencies, thus allowing us to adapt to all sorts of things, possibly even to extreme climate change, which we humans have likely contributed to.

But something about all of this seems shopworn, so familiar, and fraying around the edges. Feudalism and the "divine" right of kings were considered sacrosanct and clearly representing the best of all worlds once upon a time. Is a poverty of imagination our real problem?

The Hudson Institute article assumes that the world can sustain the same traditional market economy. Individual income growth will expand with rising population, according to the article, and we are going to have to meet the expanding worldwide desire for products like "beer, clothing and pet food." Apparently nothing is really going to change.

Will advertisers convince teenagers in Mali that they can't be truly happy without cell phones? The mining companies in the Congo certainly stand ready to step up their digging of coltan, the metallic ore with the unique properties for storing electrical charges necessary for cell phones to function. Yes there are numerous adverse environmental consequences ... but maybe technology will somehow save the day once again. Can the developing world use more of our discarded computers? Perhaps we could give free psychotropic drugs to the 9 billion people in 2050, so that for one day a week all of us on planet Earth might believe this is the best of all possible worlds.

I'm waiting for the next generation of thinkers. Now that idea is exciting.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Not To Worry

Whatever happened to that population "bomb"? More than thirty years ago a biologist by the name of Paul Ehrlich wrote a best selling book entitled The Population Bomb. He predicted that famine and mass starvation would be the lot of the human race because of overpopulation on planet Earth, and likely beginning in the late 1970s. Thomas Malthus, an Englishman, some 200 years before Ehrlich, also predicted dire consequences due to increasing population. Well, it didn't come to pass. There's hardly a whisper about growing world population today. Not to worry?

The word sustainability is on everyone's lips; technological breakthroughs appear on websites and various blogs almost daily. It is de rigueur among corporations to now speak forcefully about "greening." Even the remarkable disaster currently dwelling in the White House mentions environmental responsibility from time to time. But only a soft murmur is heard about all these people easing their way out of the birth canal every day. No big deal?

At the time of Caesar Augustus in the first century there were slightly less than one billion people living on the planet. Some 1,800 years later we had just about one billion people wandering around. One hundred-twenty three years later we had 2 billion people using the planet's resources. In 1960, thirty years later, we had 3 billion people spreading out across the third planet from the sun. Today there are 6.5 billion Homo sapiens on Earth. Where's the footprint? Is there one?

The United Nations believes it's possible that nine billion people will inhabit this world by 2050, an extra 200,000 people each day. Others estimate that we could have 12 billion inhabitants on the globe before population finally levels off. Some conservation groups believe we're utilizing around 20% more renewable resources than we'll be able to restore each year. Will we all eat cake?

China has clearly demonstrated that a police state--at least in the short run--can create a vibrant form of capitalism. I-Pods and designer jeans will always trump free speech and environmental accountability ... at least in the short run. Of course we can sustain several billion more people on our one and only planet as long as we are far more energy efficient, reorder world priorities, quickly reduce superstition and ignorance, and accept an overall lower standard of living within perhaps the next 50 to 100 years. Not to worry. But what if we had only 5 billion people taking up space in 2050? And, what if we seriously started talking about population control--oh, I mean family planning.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Yellow Brick Road

Time to "think" about throwing the witches and the wizards out of the castle windows in 2006, and not only in America. While individual and local change need to be encouraged even more, carbon dioxide, melting ice, and polluted rivers don't much care about an individual or the exemplary village. Voluntary efforts ought to be praised, but stateless global institutions usually need to be kicked into action. Don't be afraid of taking the smile off the politician's face if he or she never delivers. Stop making excuses for religious fascism anywhere in the world. And of course China and India--with more than a quarter of the world's population--are not entitled to any free ride, in order to "catch up." May the year be interesting.