Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category
Hard on the heels of the President (through the OMB) canceling EPA’s rulemaking on a more stringent ambient air quality standard for ozone, comes Walter Russell Mead fatuously intoning the death of environmentalism. The point he brings forward is a pretty punchless and poorly founded way of saying, “hah, loooosers”. I expected better from someone with Mr. Mead’s gravitas, and other people have foretold the “death of environmentalism” with far more eloquence than his. None of this concerns me terribly because it’s just conservatives vaporing, and people will be back as soon as the real environmental crises kick in, as if Hurricane Katrina or Texas burning up with drought this year aren’t real environmental crises.
Environmental progress seems to be more difficult compared with the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. The early successes resulted from going after low-hanging fruit (DDT, burning rivers, smog) which didn’t require a lot of individual sacrifice or change. It’s understandable that Western governments are reluctant to confront their citizens with the news that confronting climate change or resource depletion could involve curtailing everyone’s standard of living. The future of environmentalism involves a social revolution over values, and I’m not sure the professional environmentalist class is cut out for that. In the US, the professional environmentalists are still looking for legal/bureaucratic solutions from a system that’s either corrupt (Congress), or has undergone regulatory capture (the agencies), is too conservative for them (the courts) or has thrown them under the bus (the current Administration). Without governmental allies, against the money and media influence exerted by the regulated industries environmentalists are bringing a knife into a gun fight.
There appears to be some growing awareness of this problem. Some would argue that environmentalism needs to get more religious (see Lynn White for the definitive statement on faith and the environment). Someone is advocating a crowdsourcing approach blending today’s social networking tools with the values of the Summer of Love, though I’m with Terry Mann, the writer character played by James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams”.
What’s an environmentalist to do if money, mainstream media and government aren’t in your corner, and you have difficult truths to convey? Satire and ridicule is a start, perhaps. Recognize that you’re fighting a culture war and start reading about 4GW. Stop being reactive and start preparing to play the long game. Time is on the side of environmentalism.
Huffpo is info-smack for me. I really should dry out from it, but. . . well, what can you say? Maybe the smack example is a little much, so perhaps it’s like Pop-Tarts, tasty and somewhat filling, if completely un-nutritious. . . .
But sometimes, I get something mildly usable from it, at least enough to keep up the blogging rate. Today’s example is a post in Huffpo about the city in the nation with the highest home foreclosure rate, along with 16% unemployment: Stockton, CA.
I remember Stockton. Thirty years ago, I lived in Sacramento just about an hour north of Stockton, first working for the State of California regulating pesticides, then working for a couple of environmental consulting firms. I passed through Stockton more times than I can remember, on the way to the Bay Area – taking I-5 to I-205 and through the Altamont Pass was longer than I-80, but I would gladly drive the extra 70 miles, if I could go 80 mph all the way and avoid being stuck in traffic. Stockton was also a waypoint when driving south to the San Joaquin Valley, to work sites where I could observe and monitor workers using pesticides, measuring their exposure and collecting data to figure out methods for reducing those exposures.
I was just starting to see the growth in the Valley towns when we left California – tens of thousands of people who bought homes in places such as Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Patterson, and commuted two-plus hours per day one way to jobs in the Bay Area. I don’t think I have to read further to figure out what’s happened – the jobs in the Bay Area are starting to dry up, and there’s nothing locally to replace them. . . .
I’ve managed to miss all of this. We left California in 1995 for opportunities elsewhere, and it feels as if we dodged a bullet. It’s difficult for me to imagine what would be so desirable in a job that would make it worth driving 60 miles, one way in heavy traffic, while living in a garden spot such as Stockton. Don’t get me wrong, I could live there, if I had a job in town. Driving to Hayward to work every day? No way. But that’s me. In the end, I’m relieved that we got out when we did. California – forty million people can be wrong.
I don’t follow the Peak Oil debate closely enough to know who Michael Lynch is, beyond the fact that he was invited to write an op-ed in the New York Times about what a farce Peak Oil was, and that we’re not really running out of oil.
Reading that piece prompted a remembrance from about thirteen years ago. At the time, I was working on the RCRA corrective action for an oil refinery along the Gulf Coast. I had traveled to attend a meeting near the facility. During a break near the end of the day, I was chatting with one of the client’s technologists. He excused himself to go out and have a smoke. I went with him, bummed one and we continued talking. It was fall, and getting on towards sunset. Sunset was beautiful, all reds and oranges filtered through the crappy air quality and highlighting the cracking towers, flares and processing equipment in the background. Call it perverse but there was a sense of order at that moment, standing at the locus of ravening energy consumption and toxic hot spots, inhaling carcinogens and fine particulate matter.
We drifted on to the topic of oil depletion and the future of the energy business, and he expressed the opinion that we’re unlikely to ever run out of oil, which was understandable coming from a representative of the energy bidness. I replied yeah, we’ll probably pump 2% carbon dioxide into the air before we run out of oil. Both of us chuckled, then we stubbed out our cigs and went back into the meeting.
That was satire. Currently, a typical carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is 384 parts-per-million (ppm), or 0.000384% in air. The IPCC predictions are that, with emissions unchecked, concentrations could rise to over 800 ppm, or 0.0008% by 2100; I linked that value from an article that’s skeptical of anthropogenic global warming just to show I’m not biased, and to present an example of really, really, really bad science journalism. Anyhow, 2% carbon dioxide, my untutored speculation, would be 20,000 ppm in air, which if we achieved that, would probably have sedentary unfit people and asthmatics breathing a little harder, render glaciers a distant memory and make Little Rock, Arkansas beachfront property. I’m not terribly interested in commenting on Mr. Lynch’s analysis, though I’m sure the Oil Drum is on it. However, there is a description of subsurface investigation pertinent to this matter which has stuck with me, though I can’t recall the source any longer, and which goes like this: trying to understand the Earth by boring holes in the ground is like trying to understand the stars by looking at them through a soda straw. . . . Readers who don’t know anything about geological uncertainty, in other words most of them, might be fooled into thinking he has a point, when he’s really just blowing smoke. The Peak Oil mavens might be as wrong as he says, though we don’t really know that, and that being the case, how do we want to roll the dice with regard to our oil policy? Actually, we’ve already decided that, by making our oil policy the same as our defense policy, and committing to fighting a combined resource and holy war in the Middle East. Unanswered in Mr. Lynch’s editorial is the why are we fighting and dying for oil, if it’s so plentiful?
This was a waste of time, but it’s off my chest, and I can now close the link to Mr. Lynch’s editorial and the New York Times op-ed page and move on. Besides, I needed a break from writing about endocrine disruptors, carcinogens and breast cancer.
In my first quarter “Fate of Toxicants in the Environment” class (the classroom portion, not the second-quarter laboratory class from hell), we spent some time learning about petroleum refining, all of the organic chemical streams that were derived from petroleum, and how you could rank these by physical and chemical properties to determine where these would end up in the environment and how long they would persist. It helped me to cement the understanding of how tightly interwoven our society is with petroleum, a point that is being amplified right now as I re-read American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCentury by Kevin Phillips.
As a nod to Chris Jordan’s photographic essays on the costs and implications of overconsumption, a ScienceBlogger underwent a personal challenge to live a week without plastic, which provided a vivid reminder of plastic’s overwhelming presence in our lives. Will this get picked up in the mainstream media, so there can be more of a national conversation about why in an age of Peak Oil are we burning petroleum to drive cars when we should be conserving that oil so that we can have plastic? About why aren’t we being more thoughtful about closed cycles for production and consumption of plastic goods? Or, are we going to dismiss living sustainably as something that’s not practical, as has been done with the notion of exercising to lose weight?