Yes They Can

Hot on the heels of President Obama's inauguration and his promise to focus on renewable energy and green jobs, the young people of America have started to make that vision a reality.

According to the New York Times, enrollment in major and minor Environmental Science programs has skyrocketed nation-wide, sometimes rising as much as 45% over the last few years.

I don't really have an awful lot to say about this little piece of news, but I do have some questions that I'd like to pose to you, the reading public. How much do you think this trend is affected by the charismatic new president and his calls to greenify his country? I have posted other blogs mentioning that green jobs are becoming more popular in a stagnating economy because it's one of the few industries still generating jobs -- do you think the trend is pragmatic, that people are just looking for some kind of job security and are training in the appropriate field (regardless what field that might be)? Or do you think it's a question of personal accountability -- do these students really have a drive to make the world a better place?

Your comments are welcome, as always, and you can check out the full story here.


Good idea, bad idea...

I have always been a huge supporter of NASA. I think the idea of going into space is, in a word, awesome. There are countless things we can learn about our world and our place in the universe by venturing beyond the boundaries of our own atmosphere.

Take, for example, the recent NASA initiative to launch a specialized research platform into orbit -- the Orbiting Carbon Observatory was designed to monitor greenhouse effects in the atmosphere in an attempt to learn more about the process and, hopefully, how we can curb the negative properties of the greenhouse effect.

Awesome, right? Right.

Except it fell into the sea.

Yes, you read that right.

You know, I really want to give these guys a lot of rope. They're the people that put men on the moon, for goodness' sake. They've charted far-off galaxies by sticking a huge telescope in orbit; they have pushed back the boundaries of scientific exploration farther than our parents could ever have imagined. Clearly, these are some of humanity's greatest minds.

So why can't they make things work the way they're supposed to?

Challenger. Columbia. The Mars rover. And now this. Two exploded shuttles and a handful of dead astronauts, a robot that journeyed millions of miles just to smash into a planet, and a $256M orbital platform that now resides at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Like I said, I'm all about finding new and innovative research methods to help us understand our planet better. But I can't help but think that $256M might have been better spent elsewhere. If you're going to invest that kind of money into a project it would help if the project was a success.

NASA -- get it together!


We can't please everyone...

The quandary into which we've inserted ourselves as a culture is becoming increasingly clear to me. There are a lot of people out there, some of them lawmakers and politicians, who recognize the importance of "going green" and supporting initiatives to clean up the environment, but we've been walking the same road for so long, we've become extremely dependent on a wasteful and harmful way of life. It's so much this way that policy changes are never "good" all across the board -- sooner or later, somebody has to pay the piper, and it seems that it's never the people who should be paying.

Take for example the recent proposal by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick to impose a higher registration fee on large SUVs and trucks (luxury vehicles, essentially). This isn't a new proposal -- the idea has been around since 2001 -- but this is the first time a sitting governor has actively backed the idea. On one hand it sounds great, because it is a good incentive for people to invest in smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, but as always, there's another shoe.

Opponents of the proposal have cited the fact that small businesses and the self-employed will suffer as a result of this fee -- the people who actually need trucks and SUVs and don't just want them are going to pay the price for the extravagance of others who will invest in these vehicles as a luxury and not an occupational necessity. I can dig where they're coming from on this point -- I have an uncle who works in construction by day and is a gigging musician by night, so his truck is a non-negotiable part of both his jobs (hauling concrete or a lot of music gear requires the use of a pickup). He's self-employed and has enough trouble making ends meet as it is; an additional taxd on his head would hardly be fair.

We can't make everybody happy, unfortunately, but I rather wish there was a way for us to tax people who deserve taxing and exempt others who can prove they don't just want the thrill of driving an urban assault vehicle to their kids' soccer practice.

Check out the full article here.

At Least They're Trying...

I don't know quite what to make of this, but I'm going to try and flesh it out.

Over the next century, about 4000 oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico are going to be decommissioned (side note: yay!). Usually the government does to these rigs what they do to everything that's no longer useful -- they blow them up. This has the unfortunate side effect of killing everything in the sea for miles around Ground Zero, go figure. It also costs really a lot of money, to the tune of millions of dollars per unit, due to the precise nature of controlled detonation (can you really use a word like "precise" when you're talking about thousands of pounds of high explosives? Guess so).

Enter Morris Architects, who have developed the potentially brilliant (and potentially dangerous) idea of turning these metal behemoths into Dubai-esque luxury hotel/resorts. According to BLDGBLOG the total surface area of each rig is somewhere in the realm of 20,000 square feet -- multiply that by four thousand rigs, and you're looking at a massive amount of real estate, ripe for development (according to Morris Archtiects).

Initially when I read about this, I thought "what a great idea!" but that was honestly the result of my knee-jerk reaction to the fact that Morris wants to make these oases eco-friendly and self-supporting (always a plus in my book). But then I got to thinking about it and I read some of the comments left on the original article. One reader mentioned that he works on oil rigs for a living and regardless how many bells and whistles you might add to one, it's still an oil rig and a crappy vacation destination. Another reader stated simply "hurricanes"...good point there too.

Here's another one: if these rigs are slated for decommissioning, it's probably not because there's no more oil to be had in that particular part of the world (much as I keep saying we're running out, we're not quite THAT low yet). If the government is seriously considering exploding these structures, I'd imagine it's likely because they've reached their operational capacity and are no longer structurally sound. Translation: they spent a hundred years in salt-water and are about to fall over into the sea.

Also: the logistics of this project are staggering to say the least. Morris Architects made a big deal out of how easy it would be to transport the necessary materials to the rigs, but leaving aside all the other arguments I've already made, what about getting the PEOPLE out there? And who's going to go? Rich folks, that's who, because nobody else could begin to afford the price of such an extravagant vacation. So who does it help? Realistically -- nobody.

I'm all for making use of existing platforms instead of just demolishing them, but instead of turning them into luxury items for the upper class, what about setting up hydroponic farming or even just "floating forests" to help clean the air?

I'd appreciate your responses to this -- I think it's an idea that needs consideration, but I don't think Morris Architects' idea is the right way to go. Feel free to agree or disagree.


It's Getting Hot In Here...

For those five people out there who live under rocks and have no interest in the outside world, Australia is on fire. No, really. Wildfires have been raging across the continent, wiping out entire towns and killing almost 200 people at last count. It's a very, very bad situation, and while it's not unprecedented (wildfires are common in some parts of the Australian outback) it's far and away the worst, most widespread series of fires in recent history.

As usual, the culprit is global warming. According to recent studies, Australian greenhouse emissions are getting so bad, scientists expect a 3 degree upward standard in the next twenty years, and a 6 degree raise by 2070. That doesn't bode well for a country ill-suited to deal with widespread fires (though you'd think they would have figured out more efficient protocols by now).

Seriously folks, this is only the first wave in a long series of negative repercussions we're going to see as a result of global warming. I hate to beat a dead horse, but isn't it time we start treating this issue with the gravity it's due? How many people have to die because of our negligence? How far must this fire spread before we all realize that all the stop-gap extinguishers in the world aren't going to stop the flames? Prevention is key, here, in my opinion.

Check out the full story here.


The Algae Will Save Us...

Every so often, in the slew of environmental news I try to keep up on day-to-day, something really strikes me as being a light at the end of the tunnel. With the world in economic recession and the ecosystem a total shambles, it's sometimes hard to keep hope that we'll start finding some legitimate answers to these self-created problems. Then I read something like this, and my hopes are reignited, even just a little.

Everybody knows that green plants help to clean up the atmosphere by converting CO2, yeah? Well how about this: ALGAE. Infinitely renewable, easy to grow, and after some time, it decomposes into vegetable oil that can be used to create biodiesel, jet fuel and plastic products.

Companies all over the world are jumping on this initiative, including American groups Sapphire Energy, OriginOil, BioCentric Energy and PetroAlgae, Japan Airlines, and Brazil's MPX Energia, which plans to trap anywhere between 10 and 15% of the carbon emissions from a coal plant by feeding them to algae.

We're a long way from having this idea become commercially viable, but it's a step in the right direction. Who would have thought that pond scum you avoided like the plague at the watering hole as a child might hold the key to cleaning up our act?

Wonder Twins Unite! Form of Common Sense!

As though this actually comes as a shock to someone, researchers have decided that merging all our climate-control and anti-pollution initiatives under one flag might just save some money. Right now, all the major organizations and treaties regarding global warming (the Kyoto Accord, etc.) operate independent of one another, which to me is absolutely absurd. When one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing, the chances are any and all efforts towards the common goal are going to be inefficient at best.

The Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO) is suggesting that the European Union alone could see savings in the billions of euros if only these organizations would work in tandem instead of independently. They also suggest that merging these functions might help convince some of the worst Kyoto offenders (like China) to start working more comprehensively towards an anti-warming goal.

The full story is here, if you're interested, but the general consensus seems to be that working together is a Good Idea. Who knew. Of course, the fine folks at the Environmental News Network just HAD to mention that some pollutants actually help to curb global warming (something about particles in pollution reflecting some of the sun's energy back out of the atmosphere), which to me is like saying that cigarettes will kill you, but the upside is that you look really cool. I don't even want to get into that.

Once again, my point remains -- why can't we all just get along? The world is a rough enough place these days as it is; why not try to work together towards a common goal -- like survival??


Desperate times...

...breed desperate measures, at least as far as the Big 3 auto manufacturers are concerned. In an amusing move (at least to me), Ford has announced that it's going to aggressively pursue "green" automobile initiatives this year, in the interest of turning their profit margin around and digging themselves out of the shallow grave dug for them by a downturning economy and a total lack of consideration for the environment -- a sentiment that hasn't garnered them an awful lot of public support as more and more Americans are looking for ways to make their lives more environmentally-friendly.

The full story is here, but the thrust of it is basically Ford backpedaling like mad and trying to convince people they really do care about the state of our environment, which is why they're suddenly, conveniently interested in the green initiative. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda have been making hybrid cars for years, and before the economy tanked people were far more inclined to invest in them than the urban assault vehicles made by the Big 3.

I can't help but laugh a little when I see major companies forced into taking their customers seriously, instead of just telling us what we want. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come.


Team North for the Win!

In a time when people are bandying around a lot of opinions on sustainable energy, it's nice to see that some people are still chasing that elusive answer empirically.

A team of students and faculty from Ryerson University, U Waterloo and Simon Fraser in BC have joined forces to develop a fully solar-powered home which will illustrate the potential uses of solar energy in everyday life. This team is one of only two Canadian teams to be accepted to the prestigious 2009 Solar Decathalon competition (a yearly competition sponsored by the United States Department of Energy).

Team North (as they're called) is developing their "North House" to suggest marketability of solar energy to middle-class families with active lifestyles. In addition to increasing the popularity of this renewable resource, it is hoped the North House project will highlight ways to make solar energy affordable to the average household in North America.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic initiative, well worthy of Canadian involvement; though at the same time on some level I kind of wish major organizations like the Department of Energy would be more interested in pursuing these initiatives on a day-to-day basis instead of a once-yearly project. I think we can all agree that developing alternative energy sources is a worthwhile endeavour any day of the year.

Check out the original article here, and tell me what you think -- do you suppose making a competition out of the initiative helps boost its public image, or do you figure more funding should be put into following these projects all the time?

Another one bites the dust...

And another species hits the endangered list -- finally. This is something that really grinds my gears. According to the Environmental News Network, the California tiger salamander has been waiting to be put on the "protected" list for almost five years. The original petition was turned down by the Fish and Game Commission in 2004, basically because they didn't want to put the species on the list. The Commission went on to falsely claim they lacked "proof" that the species was in fact endangered, despite repeated attempts by the Center for Biological Diversity to show empirically that the salamander deserved to be on the list. One commissioner repeatedly referred to the species as a "problem", citing that the salamander's presence on private land constituted a nuisance.

Great idea guys -- let's deny protection to any species we deem inconvenient. There's a species that's even more troublesome than the tiger salamander -- I'll give you three guesses. Chances are you won't need the first two.

It's okay, I'll wait.

Still haven't got it?

It's us.

Seriously, who are we to start playing God and deciding what species gets to thrive and what species gets the axe? Who are the commissioners of the Fish and Game board to make those kinds of decisions? We don't run the planet...and if it wasn't for our intervention, chances are the salamanders (among the thousands of other endangered species) would probably be just fine. It bothers me on a very fundamental level that we think ourselves so high-and-mighty as to take the power of life and death away from Nature or God or whatever and start making determinations that could change life as we know it on this planet for the worse. Okay, maybe the tiger salamanders don't play a HUGE role in the ecosystem, but if they didn't play A role, it's likely they would have died out on their own.

This planet's ecosystem is far, far too complex for us to begin to be able to comprehend it -- and therefore we're making sweeping decisions based on incomplete information. What a terrible thing to ponder.

Oh well, something is better than nothing, I guess, and I'm glad to hear the salamanders finally made the grade. Maybe if we're lucky we can save this species from disappearing altogether.

Read the original story here.


It's All Related!

The more I read about continuing research into alternative fuel sources, the more I'm tempted to make an entire series of blog posts entitled "Damned if we do, damned if we don't" because it seems to me that every time we make inroads into potential green fuel, we're flummoxed by yet another road block.

Take, for example, this article. It's been long thought that bioethanol (usually derived from corn) would be a great substitute to run our internal-combustion engines. It's cheap, clean and renewable, right? Apparently not.

First of all, according to studies done by scientists in the biofuel field, growing all the corn to produce the ethanol is actually jacking up food prices. Just like any other form of agriculture, the demand for corn will lead to extensive clear-cutting of forests to provide room for the fields (which is a whole other kettle of fish), and as far as cost goes...this is my favourite part.

Using computer-generated tests developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, scientists in the United Kingdom have generated a cost-to-benefit scale which places the total environmental cost of gasoline at 71 cents per gallon. The total cost of corn-based ethanol biofuel? 72 cents per gallon. On some level this is almost laughable (I mean, it's a cent!) but on the same token, multiply this number by a few billion per year, and suddenly that 1 cent difference becomes a difference of hundreds of thousands -- maybe millions -- of dollars. And that's an unflattering proposal for a biofuel that isn't all that efficient.

Happily, research in this field continues, and it's hoped the next generation of biofuels will be able to eliminate some of the negatives found in corn-ethanol, but once again we're getting pushed back down another rung in our climb towards a nature-friendly, efficient fuel source. It's disheartening -- but we can't give up just yet!