Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Short Vacation

I've been taking some time off to write an environmental and sustainability blog for the Kansas City Star. Please visit. Your comments, ideas and suggestions are appreciated. While some of the material will center on the Kansas City region, much of it will go way beyond the local.

It's call KC Earth Notes. You can find it at

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Just Stop Breathing

Summer in America is almost over. The reason we know this is that Labor Day is only a week away. Of course it has nothing to do with labor, only celebrating the end of summer, as well as children reluctantly returning to not so rare mediocre schools.

Speaking of mediocre, a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll claims that we adults don't read much. One in four adults, according to the poll, didn't read any books over the past year. One of those polled said reading just made him sleepy. He preferred relaxing by his swimming pool.

And speaking of education, did you know that the Grand Canyon is big enough to hold the entire population of the world? What about the fact that the fertilizer-choked dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is larger than New Jersey? These facts and others can be found in Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us.

What would our planet be like if we humans just suddenly vanished? This is the theme of Weisman's intriguing book. The good news is Earth would likely recover from human depredation. Of course the bad news is that this is only a "what if" question. If we do manage to do ourselves in, it will likely not be with a whimper. A good nuclear holocaust, for example, might just turn our entire world into a floating asteroid.

But in fairness to Mr. Weisman, he suggests that some positive changes might result even if humanity didn't completely disappear. The catch, however, is that we'd have to make some drastic changes in both our behavior and, yes, in our population. Weisman believes we would have to reduce our population by 2100 to where it was in the 19th century, less than 2 billion people. How do we begin?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Poor Rich

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an article about his government payment of $588 a year for not farming some land he owns in Oregon. The article is not about his small payment but about the American farm subsidy program, which is more often than not corporate welfare for agribusiness.

Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, said a few months ago that, "America's farm subsidy system is broken." This has been stated before but up until recently the average person would have had difficulty gathering information on these programs. They were shrouded in mystery and unclear as to what the rationale might be for passing out taxpayer money.

Something like two-thirds of U.S. farmers do not receive any subsidy payments. Farm program benefits have been highly concentrated and have often not rewarded land stewardship and improving the environment. But now there is a web site called MULCH.

You can find out what your congressional representatives are doing in terms of approving farm subsidies and who is receiving them. It's a step in asking some basic questions like why or why not are we subsidizing certain commodities, why or why not are certain farmers (or pseudo-farmers) receive payments, and what is the "nonpolitical" reason(s) for making the decision.

At its worst the billions spent on the farm subsidy program are the kind of welfare capitalism that America increasingly can no longer afford. It's in our self-interest in knowing who is doing what and for whom, especially in terms of food and the land it is grown on.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Proposal Modest

Would they actually buy and sell it if it were on the market? How would you react if you were told that global warming will cause the death of untold numbers of people, but there was a way to utilize all the corpses by making a new Exxon oil product? What better idea than transforming dead people into oil and calling the new product Vinoleum. Is this not another brilliant example of the market-economy at its best?

Two individuals posing as representatives of Exxon-Mobil and the National Petroleum Council were the keynote speakers at a conference in Calgary, Alberta, where they introduced their "new" product. The attendees listened politely until the two imposters passed out "commemorative candles" to the audience. The candles were supposedly made from the flesh of an Exxon janitor, who had died as a result of cleaning up a toxic spill.

If you like guerrilla theater, you'll love The Yes Men But what might it say about us? How easy is it to get us to suspend disbelief under the right circumstances? Of course Exxon over the years has spent millions of dollars supporting various front groups that called global warming a hoax.

If our capacity to imagine doesn't go much beyond the exploitation of Alberta's oil sands and the development of liquid coal, a worldwide environmental disaster will likely increase significantly. Perhaps we could chat with Lee Raymond, the former CEO of Exxon and now the head of the National Petroleum Council.

Hm-m. But just possibly Mr. Raymond would be willing to volunteer himself for the betterment of humanity ... and he is a large man. Would he be a good test case for VINOLEUM?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Making Smarter Love

We don't choose to talk about it in the industrialized world when listing all the individual to-do things for the environment, like changing to CFL lighting or turning up the A/C a couple of degrees. Governments don't talk about it when debating cap-and-trade schemes, carbon taxes, and renewable energy, all directed toward reducing greenhouse gases, global warming and lessening the negative impact of climate change.

In the poorest nations on the planet it's frequently considered a meaningless abstraction--and distraction--from the "real" problems. Occasionally it rears its unwanted head and then disappears just as quickly. The lurking monster in the room is of course human population increase.

According to Population Connection, some 13 million additional humans will appear on planet Earth from July 1 of this year to early September. Depending on United Nations' population projections in 2006, we could go from the current 6.5 billion people to a low of 7.8 billion or as high as 10.8 billion by 2050. Only the most naive, blind or willfully ignorant (a vast number) will continue to harbor the delusion that the pressures on our finite natural resources will not be enormous, with a greater number of people chasing after those shrinking resources, from water to fertile land to a secure place to live.

A number of scientists and economists believe that even if we were actually committed enough worldwide to cut carbon emissions 40% by 2050, a 40% increase in human population (to 9.1 billion) would likely cancel out the corresponding CO2 reductions.

There have been projections that suggest our planet could sustain a population as high as 12 billion people. Of course these forecasts point out that some drastic changes are required in how we humans think and live, as well as some striking technological breakthroughs not yet discovered. We ought not to hold our breath for the 'reptilian" brain to wither away anytime soon.

Population pressure is not going away just because we don't want to bring it into climate change discussions. We are the one species that needs to talk about it openly and consistently and demonstrate some intestinal fortitude by doing so.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Disposable Disposition

"Somewhere west of Laramie there's a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I'm talking about." This is the first sentence of the now famous 173-word advertisement for the Jordan Motor Car Company that appeared in the 1920's The age of modern advertising began in this decade.

By 1925 seventy percent of the total income for magazines and newspapers came from ad revenue. Ad agencies with their well-paid specialists opened up offices on Madison Avenue in New York. Mass marketing had arrived. Anything could be sold to the public these modern day alchemists told their clients, and they were mostly right.

Some 78 years after the American stock market crashed in 1929 ending the Roaring Twenties, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we Americans are number one in the world in terms of the amount of garbage and rubbish we produce. The average American manages to create about 4.5 pounds per day. Our closest competitor, Canada, generates around 3.75 pounds of trash daily.

The typical American today is exposed to about 3,000 advertising messages a day. Worldwide, global corporations spend more than $600 billion a year to advertise.

The United States has become the quintessential land of hyper-consumption, planned obsolescence, disposable "stuff" and, yes, credit card debt. E-waste (computers, televisions, copy machines, etc.) is now the fastest growing portion of our disposable world. Much of this discarded equipment, containing lead and numerous toxic chemicals, is shipped to developing nations, where it is stripped down, usually by people that have no idea of the kinds of risks they and their children may be exposed to.

We are, however, according to The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, no longer the leading producer in the world of carbon dioxide, the most pervasive greenhouse gas and contributor to global warming. China surpassed us in 2006 in the amount of annual CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere.

China's economy is growing rapidly and, of the more than 1 billion inhabitants, it's estimated that approximately 300 million are aspiring members of China's newly expanding "middle class." At least another one billion people in the developing world are right behind China; they as well are determined to acquire the disposable life. "I want to be like Mike," as the Nike commercial once proclaimed proudly throughout the world.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Bada Bada Bing

The Sopranos, America's fictional, dysfunctional family, finally faded into the sunset Sunday night. But I woke up this morning to learn once again that real dysfunction is alive and well in the U.S.A. and healthier than ever.

The latest Gallup Poll pointed out that the majority of people surveyed, some 1,007 adults, believed that "both" are likely explanations when the question was asked whether we humans are a result of God's creation or evolution over millions of years. Yes, those that subscribe to the creationism theory believe we arrived in our present form within the last 10,000 years--the beginning of the Neolithic period as scientists often refer to the time period.

Not surprisingly, 68% of people that call themselves Republicans don't believe in evolution. Unfortunately, however, 37% of Independents and 40% of Democrats do not believe in evolution, not insignificant minorities.

I liked the ending of The Sopranos because, while offering some possibilities, we weren't absolutely certain what would happen to Tony and his family, sort of like how the world really works. We can speculate. Are you inclined to be optimistic or pessimistic?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Around and Around

Missouri, the state where I live, according to an Associated Press analysis, has increased its carbon dioxide emissions some 32% between 1990 and 2003, while the state's population grew no more than 13% by the A.P. reckoning. The primary reason seems to be the increasing use of coal as an energy source.

About half of America's electricity comes from burning coal at this point in time in the United States. It's "cheap" and plentiful. States also vary considerably in their greenhouse gas emissions, largely due to decisions to use coal an an energy source.

The state of Texas emits more CO2 than most countries do. On a per-person use, Wyoming, one of the least populous states, sends out more carbon dioxide than any other state in the U.S. Both of these states burn a lot of coal. Electricity is cheaper in these states than many others but of course pollution and greenhouse gases are not remotely interested in state boundaries and travel everywhere, including to those states that don't use coal an an energy source.

Idaho, on a per person basis, emits the least amount of CO2. California, the most populous state, has decreased its CO2 emissions more than 10% from 1990 to 2003, and New York has lowered its CO2 levels. These states have either outlawed the burning of coal or have sought alternatives to reduce its impact.

There is no particular reason to think that the U.S. will develop national energy standards anytime soon or that the world will develop global standards to reduce greenhouse gases in the next several years. Perhaps if we decide to put a value on clean air, water and biodiversity we may have a chance to get beyond infantile "voluntary" mechanisms in the U.S. and belligerent "entitlement" from countries like China and India.

In the meantime turn the pressure up.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More Snake Oil

The latest news out of the U.S. Congress is that "coal" legislation is working its way through the various committees in the House and the Senate. The coal industry is lobbying hard and politicians from the coal producing states are working just as hard to make sure it becomes law, the sooner the better.

The coal industry wants large loan guarantees (public subsidies) for construction of plants, the type of facility that can convert coal to liquid fuel, a technology that has been around for some time. "Energy independence" is the siren's song whispered in the politician's ear, like the magic of corn-based ethanol that was touted among Midwestern ethanol producers and their pliable politicians not so long ago.

Dr. James Hanson, in an address to the National Press Club last February, recommended five steps we as a country--and ultimately the globe--need to take if we want to address global warming in a serious way. The first recommendation was a "moratorium" on coal-fired power plants until sequestration can be done on a commercial basis, probably some five to ten years away.

Send your Washington politician a friendly reminder that he or she cannot talk about legislation to deal with greenhouse gases and renewable energy and, at the same time, consider passing billions of dollars in subsidies for the construction of power plants that release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Products Not Micronized

I never knew there were so many "organic" sunscreens until I read dozens of e-mails recently on a list-serve-discussion group. Most of the products were supposedly all natural ... Earth friendly ... essential oils of plants and above all, better for you.

I learned that grapefruit seed extract might have "high antimicrobial" properties. I was informed that I probably should look for products that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide--but--which are not micronized or nanoparticles, because they might pass through the cell walls and into the bloodstream. Last but not least some of these "good" sunscreens/sunblocks could be contaminated with parabens.

Green products and green businesses are popping up everywhere, which is hardly news to most people. And of course, the expression carbon-neutral is seen frequently in print nowadays as well as discussed on television. The question remains however just what is carbon-neutral and what products are genuinely good. Above all, who is actually determining the Truth?

What we do know is that the market obviously believes that "green" is growing and likely to be very profitable in the not too distant future. But is there the possibility of moving from a healthy skepticism to mere cynicism toward all these various claims? Yet, should we not be happy that a kind of environmental consciousness is slowly spreading to the general population, regardless of whether or not some assertions may be exaggerations?

Related to all this "greenness" is the debate regarding cap and trade and carbon taxation. Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, in an article he wrote a couple of weeks ago, raised the question: "But is the carbon-neutral movement just a gimmick?"

What Revkin is asking is whether or not we're merely avoiding the obvious and the inevitable. Greenhouse gases are rising around the world and will for some time to come. Voluntary, unregulated markets are springing up that buy and sell these supposed "offsets."

You can fly your private jet to Paris for some shopping or an environmental conference and then write a check to an organization that promises to offset the amount of greenhouse gases your plane travel created (the actual dollar offset for our Paris flight could vary from one organization to another), perhaps through tree planting in Africa, building solar panels in Arizona or possibly even constructing a bike path in Des Moines, Iowa.

I don't know which sunscreen is the best nor do I believe carbon offsets should be dismissed out-of-hand. Is not some green better than no green and is not an offset better than doing nothing? But then again....

If rising greenhouse gases threaten the existence of our planet why don't we just cut through the smoke and mirrors? Why not have a carbon tax? Fossil fuels would be taxed based on their carbon content, one standard and no exception. And, yes, what about our sunscreen? How do you know it isn't Earth friendly?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Structure and Function

The oil fields are named Ishpingo-Tiputino-Tambococha. I became interested in learning more about them after reading an article in Responsible Nanotechnology about "green" nanotechnology. One quote in particular caught my attention: "When most structure and function can be built out of carbon and hydrogen by molecular manufacturing, there will be far less use for minerals, and mining operations mostly can be shut down." Really?

We undoubtedly will hear much more about nanotechnology in the near future, which is essentially the ability to manipulate and manufacture all sorts of things between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. A human hair is approximately 100,000 nanometers wide.

The oil fields known as Ishpingo-Tiputino-Tambococha are in Ecuador, a country where I lived for a year some 30 years ago. These particular fields are located in the center of Yasuni National Park, which covers some 1.7 million acres. The petroleum experts say approximately one-quarter of the country's known oil reserves are in this particular location.

Ecuador was poor when I lived there thirty years ago. It still is. Some 40% of the federal budget comes from oil revenue. The country as well has about 15 billion dollars of external debt, meaning it owes the international lenders a lot of money. It appears only logical that the oil fields at ITT need to be exploited ... yet.

Yasuni National Park may be the most biodiverse forest on Earth according to some biologists. (See Yasuni Rainforest Campaign .) ITT is also home to many indigenous people, who are dependent on a healthy rainforest for their survival. Finally, according to the University of Maryland's Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology program, Yasuni National Park could sequester possibly a half-billion tons of CO2--which could be increasingly important to all of us.

There is, however, another twist to this story. The president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has stated that he will seriously consider not developing this oil field, even though his country is poor and most certainly can use the oil income.

Correa will postpone oil development for at least another year if the international community makes a commitment to compensate Ecuador for approximately half of the projected lost revenue, estimated to be more than $300 million per year. The Ecuadorian president has acknowledged the environmental significance of Yasuni, but is also asking the wealthy countries to now acknowledge--in concrete terms--what Ecuador will have to give up. What if anything will the international community (including China) propose? (According to Information Clearing House the U.S. has alone spent to date more than $400 billion for the Iraq war.)

It's quite possible that nanotechnology will ultimately create a seismic shift on our planet. We may develop commercial carbon sequestration sooner than we think. For that matter, hydrogen fuel could be a reality in less than 30 or 40 years....

But what are we all willing to do right now regarding a place called Ishpingo-Tiputino-Tambococha?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Oprah Said So

Earth Day is today, one week after the National Day of Climate Action. I just noticed this morning in the shower, for the first time, that the shower curtain was made in China ... but why not? Why should America be making shower curtains? We could be producing new jobs in alternative energy and assorted green businesses, manufacturing wind turbines, making new hardware and creating more sophisticated climate change software. We could but will we? How many new, well paying jobs can we actually create? Can the environmental sector become big and noticeable, where even the most benighted politician has to pay attention if he or she wants to survive politically?

We're nibbling faster around the edges and some are now saying that Earth Day has served its purpose. More and more people are using CFL lighting, buying organic and so forth and so forth. According to the Pew Research Center some 83% of Americans think environmental laws and regulations should be stricter. That's the good news.

But there is some not so good news. According to Pew when you ask Americans if they're willing to pay higher prices to protect the environment the percentage falls to 60%. I know, is it half full or half empty.

This past Friday Oprah Winfrey devoted her program to going "green." She had the president of Shaklee on her program, a company she speaks highly of. I use Shaklee products and they are very good. Shaklee was the first company in the world to be certified climate neutral. Yes, Oprah has incredible clout. What if she devoted one day a month to climate change? Yeah, we are nibbling faster around the edges.

I am, however, increasingly uneasy as to why the honeybees are vanishing, maybe the real canary in the mine. What if it has something to do with cell phone towers? Are we ready to shut them off? It's going to be damn inconvenient if we do. But I may have watched too many disaster films, where one insect begins to act strangely. It's called foreshadowing.

Those glaciers are melting awfully fast and China is becoming a genuine environmental nightmare. Suburbia looks more and more like it ought to be behind glass at the Smithsonian. Talk about inconvenience. We're not going to "grow" our way out of this. That, it seems to me, is cartoon capitalism at its worst.

Jim Hanson, along with other climatologists, believes we have possibly 10 years to make drastic changes in energy use and overall lifestyle. Nibbling around the edges won't be good enough. Not even big chunks will likely be enough. It's only a vague unease at the moment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Teachable Moment

I was on the organizing committee for the Kansas City rally. Was I part of a social movement that will sweep across America ... and possibly the world? This thought entered my mind early Sunday morning before the sun had come up, the day after the largest global warming (or climate change) rally in America. But then the sun did come up.

Some 12 weeks before, Bill McKibben, an environmental writer living in Vermont, came up with the idea of a rally a week before Earth Day, but with a specific goal: Get the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. By April 14 more than 1,400 planned events were established in all 50 states, from Paia, Hawaii to Cold Spring, New York. Individuals and small groups within their particular communities organized these diverse events across the country. Bill McKibben created the national phrase Step it Up 07. How well will we ultimately "step it up"?

In Kansas City the weather had been cold and rainy the week prior to our event. Late Friday afternoon we had to make a decision to move our rally inside, because of possible snow some weather reports offered. "Unusual" for this time of year some said. Hm-m. More unusual weather in other parts of the country we learned.

I stood in a park late Friday afternoon, where our rally was supposed to have taken place if we had had "normal" April weather. I was holding an umbrella and about to be interviewed by FOX news. The cameraman clipped on the mike and the reporter asked me if I was ready.

The reporter's first question was whether or not I saw any "irony" in all this; the global warming rally was going to be moved indoors because of possible snow. I laughed. What the viewers didn't know was that before the camera started running the reporter and I had talked about how climate change might bring unusual or even extreme weather patterns, even though data showed steadily rising temperatures. The reporter, however, had deliberately given me a teachable moment.

The Kansas City rally was a success. Had it been held outside on a warm spring day we probably would have gotten more than a thousand people in attendance. However, what we did get were some 500 enthusiastic individuals along with various speakers and representatives for some of our congressional politicians. A good day in my opinion.

The following day the sun came out for the first time in at least a week. It was warm and bright, blue sky overhead. Spring had arrived. By 9:30 I heard the quintessential American sound. The neighbor to my right was mowing her lawn with the all-purpose polluting gasoline mower, along with two neighbors across the street. No, I didn't go outside and scream at them that the world was ending.

I live in the middle of Kansas City and our lawns are small enough to be cut with hand mowers or in some cases with a good pair of scissors ... no I'm exaggerating about the scissors. But you get the point.

At 10 o'clock the e-mails started arriving from our steering committee Goggle group. Do you think that reporter was being too sarcastic mentioning that snow had driven our "warming" rally inside ... we need to write to him and educate him ... "only" 500 people showed up ... don't they know how important this issue is ... what happened to the media ... etc, etc. I turned the computer off.

That afternoon I played tennis; it was a great day for doubles. We didn't discuss global warming (or climate change) once. The National Day of Climate Action was a nationwide success. Now, teachable moments are most certainly almost everywhere.

I think I'm going to spend more time chatting with my neighbors, and perhaps a little less--for the time being--with my "eco" colleagues. In fact, some of my neighbors may have a few teachable moments to offer my environmental friends. I suppose we could all talk together from time to time. Don't forget Earth Day this Saturday.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

One More Step

The National Day of Climate Action is next Saturday, April 14. The specific goal is to get the U.S. Congress to cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050.

At this point there are more than 1,200 planned events in all 50 states. This is a remarkable achievement in less than 3 months. Go to and find a rally closest to where you live. Time to toss the deniers in the ashcan of history and get the U.S. Congress to demonstrate they can do more than pose for photo-ops or utter the usual banality.

Global warming is here, but we still have time to change direction and reduce its impact.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Market Driven Conservation (1)

Have you noticed the number of times that global warming articles have appeared in the news lately? Have you noticed how many transnational corporations are now acknowledging that global warming is no longer a fringe idea but a serious worldwide concern that must be addressed?

For that matter, have you noticed how many small businesses are now calling themselves "green" or "environmentally friendly"? Isn't this good? After all, many of these small companies start the trends, create the new ideas and then the large corporations follow. Haven't we finally turned the proverbial corner?

Market-driven conservation is the latest buzzword. Simply put, it refers to profit making companies that want to incorporate both economic justice and environmental restoration as a central part of their business plan.

The types of businesses are varied. They could include companies that manufacture paper from wild grass, offer organic ant bait, sell organic pizza or make soybean candles. Many of these small businesses contribute part of their earnings to environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council or sponsor fundraising events for a local woman's shelter to an Ethiopian orphanage or perhaps contribute to the construction of a school kitchen in Guatemala.

Sambazon, founded by an American several years ago, is a company often used as an example of market-driven conservation. Its products are found in many health food stores around the world. The company "discovered" a fruit called acai (ah-sigh-EE), found in the Amazon region of Brazil. The fruit is apparently highly nutritious and contains large amounts of antioxidants.

Regarding the social justice and environmental priority of the company, Sambazon states that it buys the acai from local growers and pays its workers at the local processing plant wages considerably high than prevailing rates. As well, the company wants to make the small farmers organic certified.

The intention is not to harm the local flora and fauna but preserve it, nor exploit the indigenous people or cut down the tropical forests in order to create soybean plantations or cattle ranches, which unfortunately is a reality in Brazil at the present time--in spite of what the government oftentimes claims.

These market-driven conservation companies are a small but growing segment of the overall organic market. Terms like "fair trade" and "beyond organic" are now heard more frequently. It remains to be seen what the eventual economic, social and environmental impact will be on the larger markets, especially in North America, Europe and Asia. But have we actually turned the proverbial corner?....

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Good Day to Die

Clearly we humans--at least at the present--cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing. Is this belief an evolutionary adaptation or merely a byproduct of something else? After all, blood didn't have to be the color red. An article worth reading was in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, written by Robin Marantz Henig and entitled "Darwin's God."

The fictional character Maximus in the movie Gladiator advised his troops that it was "a good day to die," as the final battle with the unruly barbarians was about to begin. Maximus was reassuring his soldiers that the Elysian Fields awaited the warrior that fought bravely. Immortality, never-ending existence will be ours. Of course it's reassuring; it's the ace in the hole. As Proximo the slave catcher says to Maximus, "Ultimately we are all dead men..." Yeah, but maybe not really dead.

Some environmentalists have been told not to paint too gloomy a picture of global warming because people will merely throw up their hands in resignation or "make merry" until the end. Ultimately the fallback position of the majority of Homo sapiens is that some ethereal paradise awaits all of us ... well, maybe not all of us. Henig states in his article that logic and rationality have nothing to do with these beliefs.

But what if "most" of us did not believe in the supernatural at all? Death becomes quite literally the end--no consciousness whatsoever, of any kind, anywhere. Would nature still be just another commodity, to be shopped around for the best price? But perhaps nothing would change.

Would stewardship of the land be taken seriously if that were to become our lasting legacy? If there were no chance to reach the gurgling brook in the ether, would we treat our surroundings (including other humans) any better than we do now? Would we still have to be careful not to upset our neighbors when discussing responsibility and the "nature" thing? But maybe we're just wired not to really give a damn under any circumstance. Ultimately we're all dead. But what if we really are....

Saturday, February 24, 2007

I'm Merely Confused

Even Charles Darwin was initially skeptical when he first read about the views of James Hutton in the 1830's: The Earth might be millions of years old--possibly older! (We know today that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old.) It's hard to believe that less than 200 years ago, even among the educated, the Earth was unquestionably thought to be only some 6,000 years old, as was stated in the Book of Genesis, a collection of stories from the Iron Age.

Although far less well known than figures like Galileo, Newton and Darwin himself, the Scotsman James Hutton in discovering Earth's "antiquity" in the late 18th century, then forgotten about for some 20 years before being rediscovered, deserves to be placed alongside the greatest scientists in human history.

How far have we traveled in the past 200 years? Well, according to a Michigan State University professor ( Jon D. Miller), who conducted a study on science literacy in the United States, about 20 percent of Americans--at least 40 million--think the sun travels around the Earth. Does anyone recall what Galileo almost got burned at the stake for in the 17th century? But if it is of any consolation to American "patriots," Europe and Japan are only marginally better informed according to the report.

But is there a point to any of this? Well if one believes, for example, that global warming might not be an environmental "conspiracy," but a potentially very serious problem for all of us, then there may be an important point to be made.

A joint poll last year conducted by ABC News, Time and two universities learned that less than 40% of Americans think global warming is a serious problem and only 3 out of 10 feel humans have caused it. Americans also are under the impression that there is considerable disagreement among scientists as to whether or not the Earth is heating up.

While the success of industry front groups has something to do with the confusion of many Americans, coupled with the media's misunderstanding of so-called "balanced" news, the profound lack of basic scientific literacy among the majority of people is by far the essential problem, it seems to me. It remains to be seen what we are willing to do to change this. Of course, we first have to realize there is a problem. The late Carl Sagan once said, "Ignorance feeds on ignorance."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Renewables and Gao Trees

What sorts of things should we notice? What slight changes ought we to pay attention to? Is there anything we can learn from a farmer in Africa who lives in one of the poorest countries in the world?

The official name is Faidherbia albida. In English it's sometime called the Ana tree. In Setswana, a language spoken in Southern Africa, it's called Mokosho. Most folks in Niger just refer to it as a "gao" tree.

It is an especially good tree in a country like Niger located in the Sahel, where rainfall is limited and the desert always threatens to overrun everything. Niger is not a country most people would choose to live. The Gao tree is a perennial, which makes it a good tree to halt the advancing desert. It's also a nitrogen-fixing tree, which helps fertilize the soil. Its pale gray-green leaves fall off during the rainy season and become organic fertilizer. Most important in this part of the world the Gao tree is not competing with crops for water.

Some 20 years ago a few farmers realized that the cutting down of trees before planting their crops, such as sorghum and peanuts, was only reducing the land's fertility and speeding up desertification. Slowly they began planting their crops around the trees as well as planting new trees. The Gao tree is merely one type albeit highly suitable to the region.

Twenty or so years later millions of acres have been reclaimed in Niger. This has also led to overall improvements in conservation and livestock practices, as well as the government finally recognizing that trees on farmer's property ought to be the property of those farmers. At one time and apparently going back to colonial times, trees were the property of the state and farmers therefore had little incentive to take care of them.

Adequate rainfall is always precarious in the Sahel, but Niger is now better prepared to deal with changes in weather than it once was. Perhaps the point of all this is that slight modifications in human behavior can frequently have a significant impact in improving the surrounding environment as well as increasing productivity. This occurred in Niger without massive foreign assistance or government help.

In the developed world the "hot" word is renewable. What combination of solar, wind power, geothermal will help us keep the global average temperature from rising more than one degree Celsius? Can the U.S. reduce CO2 emissions 60 to 80 percent by 2050? Can we do all this without a carbon tax? Will we have to include nuclear energy in the mix? Is it worth the large taxpayer subsidy ... and on and on and on?

But if a tree grows in Niger, planted by one observant farmer, that ultimately assists in restoring biodiversity, do we all need to notice those smaller things as well--and perhaps first? How do we learn to observe better?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Take a Step

April 14th is to be the National Day of Climate Action. Its overriding goal is to get the United States Congress to "pledge an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050." At the present time there are some 640 events planned in 47 states. The original idea for all of this started with a group called Step it Up from Vermont. The web site is

Quite clearly the intent is to create a "buzz" that becomes ongoing and that cannot be ignored. Hundreds of rallies will occur throughout the country, encompassing various events and activities. There is no reason why this could not be recreated in cities throughout the world.

Yes here's a chance to take a step. Visit the web site. Start something in your community. Spread the word. Tell us what you'll do.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's Your Problem

A recent article in AlterNet entitled "Who's Funding Global Warming?" offers a perspective of some of the large banks and investment firms that are providing capital to build power plants. Texas, one of the more politically benighted states, is supporting the construction of 11 new coal-fired power plants. TXU, a Dallas utility company, is seeking the permits and the financing to begin construction.

An assortment of environmental groups believe these new Texas plants could generate more CO2 emissions than many small countries, such as Sweden. Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup are the three financial institutions that have, for the moment, agreed to acquire the necessary financing, some $11 billion. It is as yet not a done deal.

At the same time, an ever-increasing number of banks and investment firms are backing away from projects that have a negative environmental impact like the proposed coal-fired plants in Texas. It is clear that pressure needs to be continually applied to those institutions that provide funding for these types of projects. "Following the money" may make more sense in many cases than dealing with weak-kneed, ignorant politicians and shortsighted corporations. Applying pressure worldwide needs to be ramped up, individually and collectively on those that provide the financial wherewithal.

But of course the ultimate problem still exists: Where will alternative energy supplies come from? What are we willing to do to get them? What are we willing to pay for them? What exactly does "low-carbon" growth mean?

Luis da Silva, the President of Brazil, recently stated in no uncertain terms that the developed countries need to "stop preaching" to developing countries like Brazil. His country has no intention of destroying the Amazon da Silva indignantly proclaims. He pointed out that drafting climate agreements are easy and what the developed world likes to do, but at the same time has been reluctant to address global warming in a real sense.

President Bush's recent budget submission cuts 2007 spending for efficiency and renewables by 16%.

Some 263,000 people have been displaced in Jakarta, Indonesia because of flooding.

China says it is the developed world's responsibility. They are the principal polluters; they have the primary duty to reduce greenhouse gases.

Briana Cayo Cotter of Rainforest Action Network says, "There is a growing movement around the world to stop global warming and the U.S. has been at the back of the gang and has been holding things up."

But whose problem is it?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I Didn't Know

Thirteen percent of Americans in a recent survey have never heard of global warming. Is that so terrible? But perhaps the bar has been set so low that many of us are grateful for any sign of life. After all, this is the country where a poll reported not long ago that approximately two-thirds of Americans believe the devil--literally--is wandering the streets of America ... or that more than 40% of the adult population doesn't believe in the theory of evolution. But I think there is now reason to be cautiously optimistic, in the U.S. and elsewhere regarding global warming, energy use and most importantly, raising awareness.

A great many people are now uttering the words "global warming" and "energy." Even the colossal incompetent in the White House has mumbled something about the subject.

Environmental Defense has discussed three areas in particular where energy efficiency can be a focal point for action. These three areas are individual action, transportation and buildings. Yes leadership is still required but it can come from many levels, both public and private, local and national.

Improved building design, the major source of global warming pollution, can cut energy use by some 40%. Individual homeowners as well can make a significant impact on global warming along with saving money by doing such things as improving insulation and using energy efficient appliances.

Transportation represents about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. According to Environmental Defense, improving vehicle efficiency by some 60% by the year 2020 would reduce our fuel demand by 2.3 million barrels per day. This is what we now import from the Persian Gulf.

The Institute for Local Self-Government says, in reference to the roughly 350 cities participating in the Climate Protection Planning Process, that they will fail to meet their greenhouse gas emission goals if they don't get improved fuel efficiency standards for vehicles or get people to drive less.

Before the stampede sets in to build costly nuclear plants, more primitive coal-fired facilities or drill for oil in every preserve in America, we need to forcefully address real energy efficiency. It's not obscure nor is it fanciful. Do we want to be a California that uses half as much energy per person as Texas because they understand energy efficiency much better than the "lonestar" state? Do we want to see 19 more coal-fired plants built as Texas has proposed or do we want to follow a state like California that has a program to reduce CO2 emissions 20% within the next 13 years?

Certainly, if we want China and India to go beyond their global warming "entitlement" rhetoric, the U.S. needs to demonstrate that it has heard of greenhouse gases and is actually doing something to address global warming--beginning yesterday.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Carbon Constrained World

The leaks to the press indicate that the February summary will state that human activity is strongly responsible: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its report to be issued on the 2nd of February will likely find that we humans are more than marginally contributing to global warming because of the burning of fossil fuels. Of course we shall have to wait a couple of weeks to learn how "unequivocal" the final account is. Governments around the world will probably want the report to reflect their particular views.

Ten large, influential Fortune 500 corporations, along with several well-known environmental organizations, have formed the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (US-CAP). They are calling on the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that will cut global warming pollution, and not attempt to postpone it until after the 2008 presidential election. John Rogers, the president and CEO of Duke Energy, and one of the ten companies that are part of US-CAP, announced at a public meeting on Monday that we have to face reality. He said that we're going to be living in a "carbon constrained world." Could we actually be lurching forward?

Even the "dim bulb" that occupies the White House at the present is supposedly going to call for "better" fuel economy in his state-of-the-union message on Tuesday night. Is the rock beginning to move up the hill?

But is it all much too little after so much time of inaction and resistance? Probably so, but even more reason to push for more aggressive achievements while the door remains open. Get busy and get active wherever you are in the world. Don't let the door close again.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Gasping For Air

It's easy to believe that the Iraq conflict is "sucking" oxygen from almost everything in the United States at the moment, as well as slowly spreading across the planet, engulfing more and more countries directly or indirectly. Once again I found myself revisiting The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement website. The movement's motto is "May we live long and die out." It is a site everyone should visit at least once.

Scientists have recently reported that they have strong evidence, because of a South African skull apparently some 36,000 years old, that a clear resemblance exists between this skull and the skulls of other humans that were living in Europe, Asia and Australia at the same time. In other words we all looked pretty much the same back then. The original Homo sapiens--our ancestors--were moving out of Africa quite possibly some 65,000 years ago. New technology made it possible to determine the date of this skull with a margin of error of only three thousand years. So here we are in 2007 with ever improving technology and ever increasing knowledge.

I recall reading some time ago that on average a species goes extinct after approximately 1.4 million years. We humans have been around maybe 200,000 years, give or take. Is it possible we'll get anywhere near the average? May we live long and wisely?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Drink Your Hemlock

Children of Men, a movie set in the not to distant future, confronts a serious situation. For whatever reason, women are no longer able to get pregnant, raising an obvious dilemma. No one knows exactly what the reason or reasons might be, but speculation covers such possibilities as pollution, assorted environmental toxins and so forth ... and so forth. Does this fictional movie predicament seem ever so slightly plausible in the actual world we humans inhabit today?

Organic View states that some 40 cosmetic companies use potentially harmful "nanoparticles." These are tiny synthetic particles thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. Cosmetic companies like this technology because these almost invisible elements are able to carry various vitamins and sunscreen deep into the skin. Of course, nanoparticles can also enter directly into the bloodstream.

The industry naturally states it would not introduce any technology that has the potential of harming humans, presumably because it would be bad for business among other things. This is also the general response that nutritional, food, beverage, seed and pesticide companies offer. They too use nanotechnology.

At the present time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have regulations regarding nanotechnology. Cosmetic companies are not required to notify the FDA that they're using nanoparticles. There are as well no pre-approval requirements for what is called "cosmetic formulations."

In the past 60 or so years manufacturers in the United States have introduced an "estimated" 100,000 synthetic compounds. Only about 10% of the synthetic chemicals we currently use have been tested on animals.

We know the umbilical cord sends nourishment to the fetus. It can also deliver synthetic chemicals. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says the average American now has "116 synthetic chemicals" in his or her body, including dioxin and organochlorine pesticides--not something we probably need. Ah, but progress has its price. And of course an "unfettered" market knows what's best....