Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

(G)rumbles from Tokyo

Another week, another dozen aftershocks.  Nothing super-serious, but the earth shaking around can put a spin on your daily routine.

Otherwise things are fine, though surreal at times.  I was commuting from one job to another on a packed train (and “packed train” in Tokyo has an altogether different meaning than in most other countries) when everyone with an iPhone’s pocket broadcast the now familiar “bweep bweep!!” alarm signifying an earthquake in the magnitude 6 or more region.  iPhone’s are very popular here, so the sound was everywhere at once and impossible to ignore.  Like a few thousand bouncing balls being dropped inside the train all at once.

Being on the train, I couldn’t feel that one.  Not to be disappointed, I felt the magnitude 6.1 an hour later, and had already felt the 6.3 at 8:15 that morning, so I got my fill of entertainment.

More pressing is the continuing nuclear mess out east.  Media reports are all over the map, and just as I think I’ve got a handle on the seriousness of the situation another expert comes along to shake my confidence.  I won’t try to summarize the reports as I’m not a scientist and as I haven’t been following them as religiously as before, I’d likely confuse my facts.

Suffice it to say that I’m not much of a uranium-nuclear power supporter anymore.  I never was one, but I can no longer maintain the argument that it’s a necessary evil, as I’ve now read of enough alternatives that can, and could have prevented the need for a uranium/plutonium nuclear reactor in the first place.

Maybe the most surprising of these alternatives is the molten salt reactor (MSR): a nuclear reactor incapable of producing cataclysmic explosions, venting gas, runaway chain-reactions or any of the other nastiness involved with the traditional nuclear reactor.  To summarize the article in the previous link:

  • this technology has been around since the 60’s, and is able to run on thorium which is 400 times more abundant than the uranium required to run current reactors.
  • The reason it never caught on was because it didn’t suit the need of the U.S. military-industrial-complex for fuel that could be turned into bombs, and they would have had to do a lot of re-tooling to change.
  • As a result, MSR became the victim of lock-in, much like the QWERTY keyboard, while less efficient, was locked-in to our computer design.
  • China has recently expressed interest in using MSRs and thorium to power them (different article), and at least some people think that they might be able to break free of the lock-in.

At this point however, I’m starting to wonder what the governments of the world have been thinking.  They had two choices: one safe, cheap(er) and using relatively abundant fuel, the other psychotically dangerous, expensive, and using very rare fuel, and consistently they chose to use enormous amounts of taxpayer money to insure the uninsurable uranium plants and build them near large population centers and directly over fault-lines… because they needed to be able to blow stuff up real good.

Okay, maybe it made sense 50 years ago, but it’s long past the time when we should be addicted to uranium reactors.  If your QWERTY keyboard gave you an electric shock, melted your fingers and hemorrhaged your eyeballs every time you moved your laptop, I’m sure we’d be well on our way to a more efficient design, even if it could be folded up into a compact AK-47.

Just imagine no Three-mile Island, no Chernobyl, no Fukushima.  Why don’t they give MSRs to Iran!?  And no freaking out every time there’s another aftershock.

That’s peace of mind I think we should pay for.  Good luck to China, I say.

Water: A picture is worth a thousand words

The recent detection of minuscule levels of radiation in Tokyo water has caused all sorts of insanity here.

A run on bottled water, which, by the way, is usually not subject to even half the tests for chemicals and pollutants that normal tap water is subjected to, has transformed the population into a selfish group of water fiends.  If this is how the Japanese behave with safe levels of radiation in the water, I don’t want to see what could happen in other parts of the world.

I must admit the paranoia is contagious; even though I’m fully aware the levels are safe, I still have a mild urge to buy bottled water.  I haven’t had the chance yet to see what I’ll do if confronted with that situation, as I haven’t seen any bottled water anywhere for at least 3 days now… which causes the paranoia.  The vicious circle begins!

All the talk of water reminded me of a picture I found on Michael Tomasky’s blog at the Guardian a while ago.  He’d come across a picture comparing the relative sizes of the Earth, all the water on Earth, and all the fresh water on Earth.  Frustratingly, I couldn’t find the picture on his blog, but I did find it here.  Brace yourself, you WILL be surprised.

As the author (Marianne) notes below the photo: “Of that small dot of fresh water—which constitutes about 2% of the world’s surface water—75% of it is frozen in ice sheets and glaciers (many of which are melting into salt water).”

So cut that tiny sphere into 4 and what we actually have access to is just one of those parts.  Sorry – you’re math is probably better than mine, I just had to say it.  In fact, I was tempted to Photoshop and shrink that last dot down to 25% just to see what it would look like, but I think the point is clear enough.

Besides the stunning tininess of that speck of fresh water, what amazes me most of all is the fact that we’ve managed to harness it and distribute it widely within so many countries.  A very close number two is the fact that we’ve allowed so many people to dump garbage, toxic sludge, oil and pretty much everything and anything really, into it.

Perhaps the most current example of this is the horrifying case between Chevron and the people of Equador.  While it’s heartening to know that on February 14th, 2011 the courts found Chevron guilty, I cannot believe the degree of moral corruption that could have allowed so many people working at Chevron in Equador to let it happen.  If you didn’t read it already somewhere else, I want to make sure you understand that Chevron knew they were doing this.  It was no accident.  They ORDERED it done to save millions, perhaps billions of dollars.

And they’re appealing it!

Seriously, where do these people come from?  What do they drink when they’re thirsty?  I just imagine some workers dumping sludge into the Amazon on a hot day, they reach for a bottle of water to quench their thirst and… Can’t they connect the dots?  Are they even human?  Do they have a brain?

Thinking back to Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, the documentary I watched on the weekend, it seems that the problem is not lack of a brain, but rather a lack of empathy.  Just like the Wall Steet traders.  Just like the Corporate CEO’s.  If you don’t want to watch the movie, just Google “psychopath ceo” to see what I’m talking about.

The pattern that emerges is familiar to all of us even if we haven’t read the headlines.  The greed for money compromises people’s ability to make rational decisions beyond their individual self-interest; and in a society where the individual is king and money his power, we had best watch the wealthy much more closely.

So yes, it’s another terrible thing happening in our world, no big surprise.  And yet there’s cause for some hope:  The courts fined Chevron $9 billion which should make others of their ilk take notice.  And on the other hand, showing that all business people aren’t evil, a Canadian company has been making waves by inventing a cheaper, and more importantly a less energy-intensive way to desalinate water.  They’re called Saltworks.

Check’em out!

Excuse me, there’s a microsievert in my soup.

Heading back to Tokyo on the bus today, I’m most disturbed by the news that there is radiation in the water. No kidding.

Sure, the levels aren’t enough to kill a fly in a year, but the fact is significant because just yesterday there was no radiation in the water – at least none that I know of.

And that’s how we’re going with everything these days. From water to air to earth we’re incrementally poisoning ourselves, and everything else, with pollution of some kind. Not a day seems to go by where yet another toxin or “dangerous levels of fill-in-the-blank are detected” in someone’s critical resource. The planet is finite and the headlines are gorging on lakes and peninsulas.

As biological entities, our most important requirement is food. Without it, we simply can’t continue our lives in a normal way.

One of the things that differentiates us from 3rd world countries is our bountiful selection of fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and all the other foods we take for granted. If that disappears, I’m sure we will quickly notice the difference.

This may not be an imminent crisis, but with the world’s population forecast to grow to 9 billion by 2050 it’s certainly looming large on our collective horizon. We can’t continue to destroy our land and water with pollutants, many of which are symptoms of rampant factory farming and industrial agriculture. As things stand now, we are in big trouble.

With that in mind, how many creative solutions to our food dilemma do you see being embraced by our leaders? Most, if not all of the people with real political power appear to be doing little more than shifting around the small print in the status quo laws that were becoming obsolete in 1995. The people with the “other kind” of power appear to be bank-rolling and lobbying that apathy and the active destruction of even those paltry laws. Their preference is for processed and packaged foods, all of which require factories, more energy, more chemicals, more transportation, and all the other markers of corporate residence.

Yet there is an entire culture of people in each of our countries crying out for real changes to be made that can help their communities to become sustainable and healthy – places you want to live and work in because they’re fresh and innovative and actually doing something that makes our world work better.

So I want to talk about a real solution. Some people have called it a pipe-dream, and it’s realistic to say that it’s technically difficult and will be challenging, but we’ve managed to harness the atom at 442 reactors worldwide to power the lives of countless people. I think we’re up to it.

Vertical farming was recently introduced by Columbia University Professor Dr. Dickson Despommier. He proposes building high-tech urban 50-story buildings, for example, intelligently designed to take advantage of solar and wind power options, loaded with hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic apparatus to take back control of our food systems.

His vision for these buildings includes water recovery and local waste-water treatment, power generation from biological waste, and integration into local community needs. There are many other advantages to the vertical farm that he mentions in his book, but my eyes are starting to cross looking at my iPhone and my stubby fingers have had enough. One important part of the concept: quite a few good-paying jobs.

Despommier estimates that a 50-story building occupying 1 city block could feed 50,000 people, and a quick calculation shows that if we were to build them, 442 vertical farms could feed 22,100,000 people.
How many vertical farms could you build for the cost of one nuclear reactor?

Currently, huge swaths of our countries that used to be invaluable peak-ecosystem hardwood forest are now being plowed, over-fertilized and factory farmed year after year. The toll on soil and water systems is debilitating, and getting worse.

So what are we going to do? Continue to grow the same old way, eating our way through hectares like Doritos at a fraternity party? Or are we going to, as Despommier suggests in his subtitle, grow up?