Environmental Heresies

Environmentalist / futurist Stewart Brand, who founded the original Whole Earth Catalog as well as the legendary electronic community The Well, and who is now involved with The Long Now Foundation has written an excellent piece for Technology Review on changes of heart — and needed changes of heart — within the environmental movement.

He starts by separating environmentalists into scientists, who “live to admit their mistakes,” and lay-environmentalists, who are often romantics and have trouble changing course. For example, while much of the environmental movement still clings to old ideas about indefinitely expanding populations being the greatest umbrella threat to the environment, world populations are actually in rapid freefall as rural areas empty out and people move to the city (life in the country encourages lots of children, life in the city discourages same). Most environmentalists have not yet gotten the message that population changes are now actually working in their favor.

He also makes some interesting cases about genetically modified foods. For example, the Amish, who are among the world’s best farmers, have enthusiastically embraced genetically modified crops. And he makes the point that environmental concerns like protecting wild spaces (a goal he embraces) are helpless against invasive species of flora and fauna, which do as much or more harm to the natural balance as man. “I can’t wait for some engineered organism, probably microbial, that will target bad actors like zebra mussels and eat them, or interrupt their reproductive pathway, and then die out.”

And then he gets to the zinger we knew was coming, re: climate change:

So everything must be done to increase energy efficiency and decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conservation in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy, passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut. But add them all up and it’s still only a fraction of enough. Massive carbon “sequestration? (extraction) from the atmosphere, perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it’s just a hope. The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon dioxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.

I do disagree with Brand on this: “Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the road, performing public good.” Hybrid vehicles may be less bad than gas-only cars, but “performing public good?” No matter how efficient, cars still take up way too much space in comparison to the number of passengers they typically transport, lead to congestion and the relentless paving over of the planet, and discourage bicycle and public transport. Hybrids are good, but they don’t “fix” the problem of cars in the larger picture.

There are other things to quibble with in Brand’s essay, but it seems clear that the environmental movement is entering a period of deep reflection. To achieve its goals, it will have to honestly question its positions on the very pillars of its philosophy. To save the planet, environmentalists have to be intellectually honest and begin debate on many of their fundamental planks. And that debate has barely started.

Related links at Metafilter.

Music: Joni Mitchell :: The Boho Dance

Bamboo Bicycle Frame

I want one.

The most difficult part of building the frame was to find quality bamboo rods. It took me much more time than the building itself. I visited several dealers in near surroundings and I tried to find appropriate rods of the necessary diameters from huge amount of bamboo. Finally I found a few rods I wanted, but frankly said, next time I build such a frame, I’ll rather grow my own bamboo or fly to Asia for it.

Music: David Bowie :: Kooks

Post-Consumer Industrial Beauty

Steeldrums Chris Jordan photographs the overflow of consumer culture as panoramic portraits of steel drums, piles of crushed cars, sawdust, mountains of cell phone chargers, shipping containers, gas cylinders… production and its waste are not without beauty.

Music: The Slits :: Liebe And Romanze

Did Jesus Wear Birkenstocks?

The concept of “stewardship” as described in the Bible: “We are not owners of creation, but its stewards, summoned by God to ‘watch over and care for it’ (Gen. 2:15).”

Position on the environment of some of the most extreme anti-environmentalists of the religious right: “The truth is,” writes Carter [author of a widely circulated paper warning against the lure of creation care], “the whole of nature has been delivered over to man for him to use as he sees fit. Man is not simply the head of the natural order, rather, that order was made for him.”

The Bible supports environmentally sound thinking, so the first step in encouraging pro-environment Christianity is dismantling the James Watt-derived notion that Jesus would actually want us to milk dry the earth (“After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back”). [Update: A commenter points out that this widely-circulated quote was not actually made by James Watt, but attributed to him by Grist.] There are still many Christians who believe that Rapture is imminent, and that there is therefore no need to take care of the earth.

Nice piece at AlterNet on the greening of the Christian Right.

Conservative evangelical Christians are getting worried about the fate of God’s creation. Can the greening of the GOP base happen fast enough to derail the party’s scorched-earth plans for Bush II?

Despite the efforts of old-guard religious conservatives like Carter to squash the growing Christian environmental movement, many national Christian groups, such as the National Association of Evangelicals, are working to teach churches that you don’t have to sleep with hippies to care about your world. The memes are slowly changing.

Roosevelt had it right:

Today’s GOP likes to toss around the name Teddy Roosevelt, but it has no use for the party philosophy expressed by T.R. when he declared, “[S]hort of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendents than it is for us.”

Baby steps.

Music: Modest Mouse :: Beach Side Property

I Can’t Roll My Eyes Hard Enough

Last week, cleaning up after a catered event at work, noticed that people were throwing away some large, very solid, easily-reusable serving platters. I asked, “Doesn’t the catering company want them back? Shouldn’t we save them?” Response: “Nahhh…” And that was it. I said something about landfills, and the janitor rolled his eyes at me, looking for confirmation from another person in the room that I was, indeed, crazy.

This week, a team of 1,300 scientists has released the most comprehensive analysis ever conducted of how the world’s oceans, dry lands, forests and species interact and depend on one another.

Many of the world’s ecosystems are in danger and might not support future generations unless radical measures are implemented to protect and revive them. The five-year study, commissioned by the United Nations and a number of businesses and independent groups, arrived at a mixed prognosis for planet Earth: Its deteriorating environmental health still is treatable, but only with aggressive and expensive corrective measures. In the 219-page report, scientists looked at 24 different “services” the Earth’s ecosystem provided people and found that 15 of them are in trouble. … “Human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted,” the authors said.

And still, the merest suggestion of care causes half of America to roll its collective eyeballs.

Music: Yo La Tengo :: Little Eyes

Octopus Walk

They’ve probably been doing it for milennia, but the behavior was never documented until recently. Octopuses occasionally stroll around the ocean floor on two legs, tucking the other six up under them into a ball (videos at site). UC Berkeley researcher Chrissy Huffard: “This is the first underwater bipedal locomotion I know of, and the first example of hydrostatic bipedal movement.”

Music: James Chance & The Contortions :: Contort Youself

SanDisk: Profligate Wastrels

Huge Sandisk What’s wrong with this picture? Hint: It’s not the loafers on our mystery model. Size of CompactFlash card: 1.5″ square x .25″ thick. Surface area of impenetrable plastic container: Unaccountably vast. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this kind of packaging waste makes me feel ill. Clearly it serves no purpose other than to make the product stand out on the shelf. SanDisk marketing droids, listen up: If I see your product on the shelf alongside a similar product in less wasteful packaging, I will choose your competitor’s product, even if I have to pay a bit more for it — just to send a message. And don’t even get me started on the difficulty of opening this kind of container, which has become inexplicably ubiquitous. Seriously, it’s a mystery – how can this much technology go into making the package “pretty,” so little thought go towards even the slightest shred of environmental awareness, and so little concern be granted the poor consumer who has to figure out how to open the damn thing? I just don’t get it.

I feel like Andy Rooney.

Music: Ray Charles :: I Wonder

What Would Jesus Drive?

Tectonic shift? Probably not, but it occurred to me recently that there was a sort of cultural/political musical chairs going on. Pro-nuke Greens! Pro-environment Christians!

On one hand, a growing cadre of pro-nuclear Greens — a notion* that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago.

On the other, an apparently growing swath of pro-environment Christians. This makes so much sense to me – without being a Biblical scholar, I’ve always thought that the teachings of Christ pointed in important ways to environmental sensitivity; so the preponderant alignment of Christians with the profoundly anti-environment Bush administration has always seemed unsettling. It does make you wonder: What Would Jesus Drive?

OK, not a tectonic shift, but evidence that religious and political generalizations are always bound to fail… and to surprise.

* I swore I’d never use the word “notion” here, but there you have it.

Music: Musci – Venosta :: When A Dolphin Saves A Baby

Pro-Nuke Greens

Provocative piece in the current issue of Wired on how small swaths of the traditionally staunchly anti-nuclear Green movement are starting to go pro-nuke. My earliest awakening of any socio-political thought whatsoever occurred while protesting the construction and launch of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in the early 80s with Mom and Dad. But now:

Some of the world’s most thoughtful greens have discovered the logic of nuclear power, including Gaia theorist James Lovelock, Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, and Britain’s Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a longtime board member of Friends of the Earth.

The “green” arguments in favor of nuclear power are not airtight, but the Wired piece does make a pretty compelling case. Not because nuclear power has become as safe as solar or wind, but because the current hydrocarbon-based situation is so dire.

Burning hydrocarbons is a luxury that a planet with 6 billion energy-hungry souls can’t afford. There’s only one sane, practical alternative: nuclear power.

Not to mention the sheer scale of global energy requirements — to generate the kind of power with solar or wind that can be obtained from a single nuke requires enormous masses of land. Space requirements relative to power sources to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity:

Nuke: .33 sq. miles
Solar: 60 sq. miles
Wind: 300 sq. miles
Biomass: 1,000 sq. miles

So, yes — if we had put all of the effort and funding over the years into solar that we’ve put into nukes, solar power generation today would be cheaper and more efficient than it is. But I somehow don’t think we would have put that much of a dent in the space requirement problem.

I think I’d be willing to reconsider my stance on nuclear power if we had adequate answers to long-term waste storage problems. Unfortunately, the article pretty much glosses those, focusing instead on the possibilities of recycling spent fuel (which are promising). But until the storage problem is really nailed, there is a problem of conscience. We call the ancient Egyptians “ancient” and they were doing their thing just 5,000 years ago. 100,000 years+ is an almost inconceivably long period of time. It is almost impossible to image us not coming up with a good storage answer somewhere in that span. But it is also unconscionable to start laying this stuff in the ground before we’ve figured it out. It’s our problem, not our childrens’.

Music: William Parker Violin Trio :: Scrapbook

Living Things

Before the election, I made a plea to prioritize care for the environment (take the long view) over the war in Iraq when casting votes. Now the war in Iraq is (maybe) winding down, while environmental issues that will affect us all in much more profound ways seem to be biting us back (again). Two stories in the Chronicle today left me feeling bewildered and very, very sad.

First, a story about how the EPA has been cooking the books for the Bush administration to meet business-friendly goals.

The Environmental Protection Agency ignored scientific evidence and agency protocols to set limits on mercury pollution that would line up with the Bush administration’s free-market approaches to power plant pollution, a report released Thursday by the agency’s inspector general showed. [… and later …] “Mercury is a toxic metal … known to have a range of harmful health effects, especially on young children and pregnant women.”

According to EPA insiders, science took a back seat to politics in the creation of the report, and the agency whose responsibility it is to protect the environment became a puppet of the administration.

“I don’t think anyone has ever seen as much political influence in the development of a rule as we saw in this rule,” said one EPA staff member, who attended meetings between administrators and staff. “Everything about this rule was decided at a political level.”

Autismgraphic That story was buried on page A11. The second story, which made front page, is about the shocking rise of autism in California (actually nation-wide, but the story is mostly about CA). “The number of autistic people getting services at the centers has increased from 5,000 in 1993 to more than 26,000 now.” (see graphic). And researchers are baffled. Part of the rise can be explained by increased awareness of autism, but the increase is far too drastic to be accounted for via awareness alone. Early childhood vaccinations are not ruled out (but see below). No one can prove anything, and yet someone must. Because the rise is generalized to a huge geographical region, explanations will have to be either environmental or social (e.g. too much TV rots your brain).

On the other hand, the article does point out that dropping the mercury-based preservative Themerisol from children’s vaccinations does not seem to have had any impact on autism rates. So maybe there’s no linkage between mercury in the environment and the rise of autism. But something in the environment is causing it. And the official stewards of our environment are puppets of big business.

I’m not making a direct causal connection between these two stories. I am making a connection between the awesome (and, I would argue, common sense) responsibility to maintain the health of our only human home and the ultimate consequences of failing to do so.

Music: Moby :: We Are All Made of Stars