Thursday, June 30, 2011

Quote of the Day: Björk

"...the whole thing started as an environmental thing for me. Huge aluminum factories were about to get built — me and my friends and more than half of the nation feel like it’s not a really good idea, but we just happened to not be politicians..."

"For a weekend, us and 150 experts, sat down and wrote a manifesto to give to the government, like laws they could change now, without it costing any money to make it easier for startups... there’s like 5000 things you could do, you could harness the tides in your bay, you could start a computer company, but basically in all the villages in the countryside it was just like, no, one aluminum factory and everybody will get jobs, end of story, end of discussion..."

"We started a petition and were trying to get people to sign it to not privatize access to our natural energy resources. 48,000 people signed it in the end. We ended with a marathon Karaoke that took four days and we got up to this 48,000. It was really touching. Old ladies had driven on their old trucks or jeeps or whatever from the other side of the island and they just stood up on their own and said “I don’t want a karaoke machine” and sung acapella, the national anthem, like crying, and all these farmers would come … and choirs would come and sing “we want to keep our natural resources ourselves; we’re not selling to ALCOA or international companies." - Björk, in an interview on her new album Biophilia with Stereogum.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Environmental News Roundup: India

Photo by Meena Kadri
First in a series of country/region specific environmental news roundups.

"If the Indian liability law was in practice in Japan GE which built those reactors that are now in trouble would be responsible for paying damages to the people of Japan. If it is found, you know, that some fault of the GE technology was responsible for the catastrophe. GE is at the moment staying away from India. They really want to be here but at the same time they want the liability laws changed." - India rethinks reliance on nuclear energy

"It is in the meeting of genuine human need that the future of Asian capitalism must lie: food production, environmental stewardship, and health and education. "It's harsh for Asians to be told that as latecomers to the capitalist party they will never be able to attain that way of life taken for granted in developing countries." - Arguments for constrained capitalism in Asia

"In the fertile farming areas that support large rural populations in much of Asia, the new coal boom spells civil conflict, as fields are seized, villages are ordered to pack up and leave, and communities resist. For the U.S. coal movement, the 2,500 people who turned out to protest the Capitol Power Plant was a large number. In India or Bangladesh, marches and demonstrations of more than 10,000 people are not uncommon." - Down with coal! The grassroots anti-coal movement goes global

"Shiva says that the largest democracy in the world 'is destroying its democratic fabric through its land wars.'" - In India Its A War On Farmers

"29 percent of Indian consumers and 48 percent of Brazilians say they are willing to spend more than 10 percent extra on green products." - Green Building 101: Where Is The Market For Green?

"If Minister Ramesh believes that India should be the world leader in solar power, why is there no discussion on starting in the most affected areas--the villages? In my experience working in the villages of India as part of the Giving the Green Light initiative, the lack of access to electricity goes beyond inconvenience. During a village meeting, I met a woman who had the entire left side of her body burned by a kerosene lamp." - Energy Poverty: India's Best Kept Secret

"Santosh built the house with money she made as a solar engineer. Thanks to her, the other households in the village now have solar power too." - The women of India's Barefoot College bring light to remote villages

"Tata Motors in India is set to introduce the car that runs on compressed air." - No Hovercraft, But Will An Air Car Do?

"More and more young Indians are heading for towns and cities, in some cases lured by the promise of quick bucks from the ever-growing service sector. As I’ve been talking to people about that choice I’ve noticed that many of them speak about a void that’s been created in its wake: a void of spirit or community or belongingness or something" - Field Notes from South India

"The Ganga, known for its rich fish diversity, is adversely affected by degrading environmental and ecological conditions. According to Singh, there are more than 300 exotic fish species in India. Many of them (particularly Cyprinus carpio of common carp) escaped from the confinement and are now present in Ganga challenging its ecological equilibrium." - Plenty of fishes in Ganga cheers consumers, worries experts

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hope vs. Despair

The Door to New Directions by h.koppdelaney
It seems that an increasing number of writers have begun turning from the "we must do something to avert climate change" mantra to the "well, doesn't seem that we can stop it - what now?" track. I was particularly interested in Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption because it's more hopeful than most books on the subject and sadsacks like myself need that. Gilding's point is that humans are slow, but not stupid. We'll wait until the last minute to change our wasteful habits, but we will change them. Not only that, but the world he envisions after this "Peak Everything" crisis will be a better one with stronger community ties and less stuff.

Gilding focuses heavily on personal consumer habits. James Howard Kunstler's piece in Orion Magazine describes what the future will look like from an urban planning perspective. Both the suburbs and the cities will wither, he says. What we're in for are a small cities/villages close to farmland. I definitely dig that:
A lot of young people already have no use or affection for suburbia, and have begun moving into big cities. But when our energy supply problems get worse, there will be wholesale demographic shifts to smaller cities and small towns, especially places that have some relationship with local food production, water power, and water transport. Our smaller cities and towns are intrinsically better scaled for future energy realities. Most of these places are in sad shape after decades of neglect, but they can be repopulated and reactivated.
Peering into his crystal ball, he also sees waterfronts being converted back into commercial use, the demise of the trucking and aviation industries, migration (in the US) out of the Sun Belt and southwest, obsolete skyscrapers, the movement of food to the center of the economy, the decay of the suburbs into "squats, ruins, and salvage yards" and the loss of an "infatuation with technomagic".

Comments on the article display that push-and-pull between the optimists and the pessimists. One pessimist seethes: "[the article is] a pointless diversion in an empire undergoing catastrophic collapse. The world we are heading into will bear more resemblance to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than the middle class fantasy Kuntsler envisions."

A similar hope vs. despair debate is happening in the comments section of Friedman's recent NYT article on Gilding's book. And the pessimists are getting the most hits. One comments "I am thoroughly convinced that we will eat the last grain of rice, ear of corn, rabbit, squirrel, rat or cockroach on the planet before we do anything to solve this problem."

Neither Gilding nor Kunstler are entirely convincing and the pessimists sharp points are difficult to ignore, but maintaining optimism is the only way to stay sane.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Morning View: Dulles Toll Road

I often bike the bridge overlooking Dulles Toll Road. Lately, the bridge is clouded in dust from all the construction taking place at the new Wiehle Ave. Metro station opening in 2013. If it's humid and the traffic is heavy, you can almost taste the smog. This was taken around 10 am.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Anthropocene in Art

I had a chance to visit the Hirshhorn Museum yesterday and what struck me was the contrast between the museum's collection of modernist paintings, preoccupied with blocks of color and straight lines; and the works of more contemporary artists that seem to have turned away from the linear to the ambiguous borderland between natural and constructed. Two artists in particular, working with video: Grazia Toderi and Laurent Grasso. First, Toderi's work Orbite Rosse:

The flashes of light, the red glow evoke, as the exhibit guide describes, "night-vision news broadcasts of the first Gulf War". I've seen similar glowing grids while flying over cities at night. One gets the sense that something has been destroyed, that we're seeing the after-effects of some major event, the earth in 200 years, perhaps. Despite the artificiality of the scene, the presence of slowly whirling stars lends a sense of calm and timelessness to the world.

Laurent Grasso's work is also beautiful and unsettling. His Polair film has unpopulated views of East Berlin lightly obscured by fine, fluffy seedlings. Or what appear to be seedlings. The regularity of the seedlings' movement and the background electrical pops lead one to think there is something not quite naturalistic about the scene. Unfortunately, there are no good clips of Polair online, but here's one of his other works:

The videos don't do the installations justice - especially the clarity of the imagery and the way the background noises surround the viewer. Seeing these two works together, and seeing them in contrast to the static works of the museum's permanent collection left me wondering if a new environmentalism has been gaining traction in contemporary art. Sure, depictions of nature have had a long history from Maria Sibylla Merian's insect illustrations to Chinese scrolls filled with mountain scenery, but now art seems to be capturing the uneasiness of living in the Anthropocene. The living on a knife's edge where technology and nature have begun to mesh almost imperceptibly.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Does Congress Have the Energy?

I follow DCGreen Scene on Twitter and they tipped me to something called the "Annual Congressional Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Expo & Forum". As it was open to the public, I thought, hey, why not? Here's a chance to see some environmental discussions taking place in the belly of beast. The format was this: a bunch of renewable/efficient technology companies and nonprofits, split into panels by sector (solar, fuel cells, policy, biomass, etc.), standing in front of a cramped room in the Cannon House Office Building pitching their wares and ideas to the audience, and with hope, to the smattering of representatives and senators who were there.

The biofuels panel faced questions on lifecycle costs and food prices. The Senate recently voted to end ethanol subsidies.
Supportive congresspeople and administration officials also sporadically broadcast encouraging remarks over the din of the exhibit hall.

Senator Udall touts the benefits of the DOD Energy Security Act (DODESA)
Themes that surfaced in the few hours I was there:

* ROI. Knowing how resistant consumers and politicians are to typically higher up-front costs of these technologies, panelists liked to state the point at which folks earn their investment back. Most seemed to be in the 1-3 year range.
* Systems and Lifecycles. The importance of accounting for the energy spent in all stages of the production process. Engineering better grids, electrical systems and water facilities. Not too sexy, but oh so important.
* China. "China's doing this, China's doing that. Why aren't we?" The biofuels panel pushed this.
* Retrofitting. You don't need to build brand new to implement this stuff.
* Department of Defense. The military is an enormous energy suck. DOD's recently begun implementing some measures to address that, by both congressional and internal mandates. Renewables stand to benefit. There's some circular irony in using oil to fuel wars for oil which a Quaker lady sitting next to me pointed out.

My favorite quote (and seemingly, the audience's) was from Eric Huffman, Sales Manager for a daylighting company: "There's nothing more efficient than 'off'". The LED guy who followed him quipped that LED was next best to "off". CFLs already seem old-school.

Is this where the real discussions take place?
So what's the take-home message here? Well, I learned some new things, like how many mercury-laden 4-ft florescent tube lights are thrown away each year (600 million) and what Methanol is and that the Longworth Building cafeteria serves a pretty good sweet potato side. But I can't shake the feeling that the really influential discussions happen elsewhere -- I'm so pessimistic I assume most policymakers view renewables as a quirky curiosity. The record backs this up, despite advocates presence in congress today and renewables' growing popularity. And dang it, Mr. President, where are your solar panels?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Protesting Nuclear in Japan

Energy Shift Parade in Shibuya by SandoCap
It's heartening to see large anti-nuclear protests breaking out in Japan after the Fukushima disaster. It's as if people are drawing a line in the sand between what those in power tell us is a reasonable risk and the very fundamental things that allow us to live on this planet. This from The New York Times:
“I’m here for my children,” said Aki Ishii, who had her 3-year-old daughter in tow. “We just want our old life back, where the water is safe and the air is clean.” Her daughter wore a sign that said “Please let me play outside again.”       
Hiromasa Fujimoto, a rice and vegetable farmer, said it was his first protest, too. “I want to tell people that I’m just so worried about the soil, about the water,” he said. “I now farm with a Geiger counter in one hand, my tools in the other.”       
“It’s insane,” he added.
Meanwhile, NOVA's recent program Power Surge explains that China plans to build 400 nuclear reactors over the next 30 years. Yes, you heard correctly: 400 reactors.  One can only hope that the plants will have more structural integrity than all those schools in Sichuan that collapsed during the 2008 earthquake there. NOVA's producers aren't worried though. They're all "rah rah rah" about nuclear:

Watch the full episode. See more NOVA.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Forests, Myth and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Abandoned Buildings in Pripyat/Chernobyl by Daniel
I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately and American Public Media's The Story had a fascinating piece last month on forests inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Like the DMZ between the two Koreas, the Exclusion Zone has become a strange, de facto nature preserve. Comprising over 1600 square miles, the area has been called Europe's largest nature preserve. Henry Shukman, the author interviewed for the story describes an abundance of birch trees rising up through ghost towns, howling wolves and wild boar, a place both "fecund" and "scary", primeval and postmodern:
It's weirdly distressing to be here. As a human, it's like staring down the barrel of our likely fate. We may wipe ourselves out with a nuclear holocaust, or with carbon and methane, or some other way we can't yet conceive of. Or nature may do it for us. When it happens, trees may or may not mind. Cyano­bacteria poisoned their own atmosphere two and a half billion years ago by releasing vast quantities of a gas that was poisonous to them—oxygen—and in the process created an atmosphere suited to higher forms of land life. Who knows what creatures may adapt to a high-carbon, high-methane atmosphere if we keep going the way we are? They may include us, or not.
Though nature flourishes on the surface, evidence points to instability on the cellular level: birds with asymmetric wings, a new "breed" of birch tree that grows like a bush. This persistent, human poison coupled with the mysterious forests of European fairy tales reminded me of the Sendak illustrations in a book that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid, Grimm's Dear Mili:

The monochromatic, foreboding fires and sunsets smolder at the thick treeline. The forest protects us but also heightens the terror of the unseen. Perhaps the essence of our future can be found in such stories. The same species that created myths has also harnessed nuclear energy, after all.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Gentle Place

My niece in the grass
Kids remind me of how free and easy my experience of nature used to be.