A Man with a Flashlight

Quote of the day
July 6, 2007, 8:03 am
Filed under: Politics, The Earth

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” – W.H. Murray of the Scottish Himalaya Expedition, often wrongly attributed to Goethe himself.

Note to Mike Gravel, Bill Richardson, John Edwards, Barack Obama: propose a large tax on gasoline. This writer, and others, will have new respect for your seriousness on a range of issues, from peace in the Middle East to addressing the environmental catastrophe.

And he was driving a Prius
July 5, 2007, 11:58 pm
Filed under: Drug Prohibition, Politics, The Earth

Can you get greener than being Al Gore’s son, cruising along the San Diego freeway and smoking green buds?

I’m sure I won’t be the first to ask if the marijuana was as hybrid as the car. Yuk yuk yuk.

Strange to say, but my first reaction is a slight tinge of envy. It must be my hippie roots. There’s something strange, even dreamlike, about the whole situation. It seems to come straight from the subconscious of the Left. Does Al Gore III stand for something in all of us, the rampaging id of the gentle liberal psyche?

Heads in the sand
July 1, 2007, 11:09 am
Filed under: The Earth

I’m not an expert, but the theory of peak oil seems straightforward to me. The petroleum we use accumulated slowly over millions of years. There is no prospect of renewing it, at least not on a human timescale. As it becomes increasingly scarce, it will become increasingly expensive. And at some point, there will be left only petroleum which requires more energy to extract than it yields. In any case, long before that it will be so expensive that solar power will be a bargain by comparison, and oil will be dead. (Please do correct me if I’ve blundered so far.)

So I guess we should not be reassured when the chief economist for British Petroleum claims that oil is infinite:

This scenario is flatly denied by BP, whose chief economist Peter Davies has dismissed the arguments of “peak oil” theorists.

“We don’t believe there is an absolute resource constraint. When peak oil comes, it is just as likely to come from consumption peaking, perhaps because of climate change policies as from production peaking.”

So we don’t have to worry about the inevitable downslope in oil production making it prohibitively expensive, because the environmental costs of using oil will be prohibitively high, killing demand for it.

An interesting prediction, especially since there seems to be no indication of this coming drop in demand:

BP’s review shows that world demand for oil has grown faster in the past five years than in the second half of the 1990s. Today we consume an average of 85 million barrels daily. According to the most conservative estimates from the International Energy Agency that figure will rise to 113 million barrels by 2030.

We are addicted to oil, and like any junkie, we have an assortment of lies to support our habit. No-one wants to be the one who tells us the obvious: oil is the author of our current way of life, and that way of life may last no longer than the oil does.

Will Ferrell does Bush on global warming
May 6, 2007, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Comedy, The Earth

A classic, revisited.

Peak Oil, in 1881
May 6, 2007, 12:33 pm
Filed under: The Earth

Peak Oil has worried me ever since I watched “The Road Warrior,” though I didn’t know the term for it at the time.

The theory was refined and publicized by Marion King Hubbert in 1956 and accepted by the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. But you may not be aware that in the mid-nineteenth century, scientists already knew fossil fuels were not permanently exploitable.

William Thomas, a professor at Glasgow University, in 1881:

subterranean coal stores of the world are becoming exhausted surely, and the price of coal is upward bound… windmills or wind motors of some form will again be in the ascendent.

(Arnold Pacey (1974). The Maze of Ingenuity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.)

The Zeer Pot: Refrigeration Without Electricity
May 5, 2007, 8:18 pm
Filed under: Design, The Earth

Freakin’ cool man. The Zeer, or “pot-in-pot refrigerator,” is made by putting a small clay pot inside a large one. The space between the pots is filled with sand, which acts as an insulator. Water added to the sand evaporates steadily, cooling the inner pot. There’s more:

Each zeer can contain 12 kg of vegetables, and costs less than US$2 to produce.

Experiments assessing its ability to extend shelf life show that tomatoes and guavas can be kept for 20 days, compared to just two without. Even rocket, which usually lasts only a day before wilting, can be kept for five days.

And it was invented in Nigeria.

Green building materials
May 5, 2007, 4:26 pm
Filed under: Design, The Earth

The BBC has a detailed article about London’s Think 07 trade fair. Treehugger blogs it here.

This is a subject I want to learn more about.

That some hot shit!
May 5, 2007, 3:54 pm
Filed under: Design, The Earth

A concrete bench at the University of Quebec Design Student show uses the heat of underground sewer pipes to warm your ass. Cool!

Does size matter?
May 5, 2007, 3:32 pm
Filed under: Design, The Earth

Subway systems of the world, presented at the same scale. Nod to Design Observer.

China and the Dickensian fog
May 5, 2007, 11:29 am
Filed under: The Earth, The East

It’s one thing to see this on a TV screen. It’s another to walk around it for yourself. I was in Chongqing in 2003 and the air was just like this. The problem is compounded by the wet, still air. Just walking around was like swimming through an odd industrial algae.

What suffering is bad enough that people will accept this to escape it? Poverty, stupid.

The sound of one jaw dropping
April 29, 2007, 1:52 am
Filed under: Design, The Earth

Now and then you come across a slap-to-the-face reminder of human ingenuity. Here’s a beauty – the Falkirk Wheel. Most futuristic visual design turns me off, but in this device, any attempt not to look futuristic would seem silly.


My favorite line from the Wikipedia description: “The electric motors… consume just 1.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy in four minutes, roughly the same as boiling eight kettles of water.”

If we really do screw the pooch and melt the icecaps, how are we going to explain to the future that our civilization could build this, but it couldn’t stop a catastrophe that was seen coming for decades?

How much space do you need?
April 23, 2007, 12:50 am
Filed under: Design, The Earth

Tiny houses are taking off, says the Christian Science Monitor.

A much-needed trend. Until now quality of life has been a matter of how much you can consume – money, oil, electricity, space.
For us to survive the next century, we need to start asking instead how many different things we can do with a limited pool of resources.


More tiny house pictures on display at tinyhouses.net. Just one complaint: they’re all standard American country/suburban single-family homes. The age of the automobile is ending. Let’s dense up, shall we?

How do I get one of these for my backyard?
April 9, 2007, 9:01 pm
Filed under: The Earth

Trees give me a thrill. It’s not just the various things they do for us, without our lifting a finger to help them – the shelter they give, the habitat for birds and countless other animals, the wood that makes tools, furniture, or whole houses. It’s not even that humans and every other animal are, for better or for worse, parasites dependent on the layer of oxygen that they prepared before we came. No, what really kills me is how a seedling, anchored in place forever, finds resources enough in a single patch of dirt to grow into shapes like this:


Fucking golden eh?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the kind who can appreciate trees on a purely aesthetic level. Or much of anything else for that matter. No, I admire them the way a baby admires his mother’s breasts. Both are majestic shapes which just keep giving to you, for no clear reason. Symbols of mysterious generosity.

Every time people talk about environmental problems, inevitably someone will say, “oh, I don’t worry myself about it. There will be a technological fix.” It always irritates me.

Now, technology is fundamental to humans. The wheel is a technology, as is planting crops. Books are a technology, and for a long stretch of our history it took enough effort to produce one that they were chained to library shelves. So I won’t even stoop to saying that I approve of technology, because that is like saying I approve of us being humans instead of apes. Of course I do.

A technology has been thought of which will reduce global warming by scattering trillions of mirrors, each 2 feet in diameter, between the Earth and the Sun. And who knows, it may be tried. This is quite something.

Like the Joker said, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”

Still, let’s not expect the impossible from our wonderful toys. In the end, they depend on us to repair them and protect them from the elements. They need to be charged or fueled, and that electricity or gas requires enormous networks of cooperation to be moved into the right places at the right times. Powered machines cannot be depended on to work in emergencies. If they could, buildings would not have stairwells – the elevator would be sufficient. Think of how you would feel inside a building with only elevators and no stairwells.

As Ian McHarg put it, “nature perform[s] work for man without his investment.” Whereas our technologies, by definition, perform work only with our investment. If we went to space for a thousand years and came back, our machines would all be useless rust. But the machines of nature would be spinning at their optimum pace, even if we stayed away for a thousand million years.

Put another way, since they are working for us anyway, why even contemplate allowing them to cease doing so?

Click here to see neatorama’s list of the world’s 10 most magnificent trees. (Nod: The Hairy Reasoner)

An ominous sign
April 7, 2007, 5:00 pm
Filed under: The Earth

Is America getting worse, not better, at solving climate problems? This global warming article in the Christian Science Monitor suggests it may be. To wit:

Economists say that decarbonizing the economy will cost around 2 percent of the gross domestic product…

…The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1960s and 1970s, which cost more than the estimates for curbing emissions today, are seen in retrospect as absolutely the right thing to have done. That such costs are now viewed as untenable speaks to the shortcomings of the cost-benefit approach that has driven environmental policy for the past 25 years, says Frank Ackerman, director of research and policy program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Bush administration finds common ground with the Chinese government
April 7, 2007, 11:53 am
Filed under: Politics, The Earth, The East

Both succeed in soft-pedaling warnings on global warming contained in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Among their achievements:

American negotiators managed to eliminate language in one section that called for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions…

…China objected to wording that said “based on observed evidence, there is very high confidence that many natural systems, on all continents and in most oceans, are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.”

Clap. Clap. Clap.

What’s the opposite of irony?
April 3, 2007, 12:37 am
Filed under: Movies, The Earth

Whatever it is, that’s what this is. NY Times, reg required. To wit:

“Like the sinking of the Titanic, catastrophes are not democratic,” said Henry I. Miller, a fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “A much higher fraction of passengers from the cheaper decks were lost. We’ll see the same phenomenon with global warming.”

While we’re on the subject of the apocalypse, the sequel to 28 Days Later is coming out. Sequels are sort of a rough ride no matter what. If you didn’t like the original, then why see it. But if you liked the original, you just know the sequel is going to defile it.

Well let’s have a looksee shall we?
[Youtube= http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCjleOos16Y%5D

Taiwan environmentalism watch
March 29, 2007, 1:26 pm
Filed under: The Earth, The East

Stores were forbidden to give away plastic bags in 2002. Now supermarkets must reduce packaging for many foods.

Local hypermarts or supermarkets are required to submit their first-year plans for cutting plastic packaging to the environmental protection units of local county and city governments, and report their achievements in this regard by the end of September 2008. Those failing to meet the demand for a 15 percent reduction will face fines of NT$30,000 to NT$150,000. (US $900 to $4500)

Heavy-handed government action? Sure. Effective? You betcha. If retailers face an economic incentive, they can be very creative. And pollution imposes a cost on everyone.

Taiwan environmentalism watch
March 25, 2007, 10:55 am
Filed under: The Earth, The East

A major highway is partly closed and covered with nets to allow butterflies unique to the island to complete their annual migration.

The economic development of the island created a host of environmental problems. But now that a broad middle class has emerged, they are demanding action on the environment.

Can we state broadly that prosperity brings environmental protection? I think, at the least, that where people have no secure livelihood, they are likely to worry about that first, the environment second.