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Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Sustainability science at a glance, borrowed from the journal

Returning to the issue of alternative energy sources, a few noteworthy facts about ethanol and AAAS’s endorsement of it remain unaddressed. Consider ethanol in the context of another lucrative avenue for profit- generation touted by corporate tycoons as our culture’s salvation from oil- dependency; it has no realistic potential for providing a sustainable solution to our energy crisis. Whatever observable short-term gains we may acquire from its pursuit and achievement, we can be confident that the crisis will resurface. It is disheartening to observe that the traditional American approach to problem solving, “solution-via-consumption”, has been selected to rescue the natural world from peril. If this is the only model we’ve got, then perhaps we should cannibalize it. We must appreciate all that is at stake and proceed thoughtfully. Central to the issue of alternative energy is, as with any issue, the inherent interconnectedness and codependency of progressive causes.

Eradicating world poverty, ensuring universal access to quality health care, establishing peace and stability in conflict-ridden regions of the world, implementing social/political/economic models that protecting equality and fundamental human rights; these sorts of humanitarian endeavors do not succeed or fail in isolation, rather they influence one another intensely. This is why our commitment to these causes must be socially conscious and mutually intertwined on multiple fronts. Growing corn on unprecedented scales for the sole purpose of extracting its energy content is a self-defeating solution inasmuch as it is obscenely indifferent to the prevalence of persistent hunger in developing countries and the Third World, and in the arena of sustainable energy, this incontrovertible truth is significant.

Maybe you feel that allocating agricultural resources in this manner is acceptable, that thousands of children dying each day of starvation are making reasonable sacrifices for a new method of powering your car. If these egregious imbalances in human rights don’t bother you, then pursuing further discussion on the subject is pointless.

What ought to bother you, in any case, is the evidence that images such as corn escaping a gas pump on the wall of AAAS passively avoid but render painfully clear: that this direction, this technological azimuth if you will, is the one that our society shall take and that its support shall be generated through advertising.

These two precedents, though deep beneath the surface of the energy crisis, must be addressed openly in dialogue; people must be informed and conscious. While the aforementioned social issue, that of world hunger, may only concern one side of the debate, the greater issue of environmental preservation concerns all creatures universally. Environmental issues are not merely the poster subjects of far-left hippies that suffer as subjects of barroom jokes; they are the interest of all who have parented children and would like to see those kids someday raise a healthy brood of their own. They should concern all people who depend, daily, on the availability of clean drinking water, breathable air, and sufficient crop yields to sustain their existence.

Those individuals to whom these criteria do not apply may reasonably argue on the opposing side. It’s really just that simple; there can be no less partisan issue. Global sustainability is essentially the campaign to continue our species’ presence in our world’s ecological communities for all generations to come; it is the scientific equivalent to hope. Those who oppose it -whether for economic ideological disparity, corporate loyalty, deregulatory “free-market” interest, political affiliation, or the general liberal-bashing that lately seems to be in vogue- should be recognized for what they are: obstacles to the very preservation of our kind. What political camp advocates causes more important or urgent than the continuance of humanity?

– -Daniel Black

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For all the reasons to de-prioritize ethanol as an alternative source of energy (see An Unusual Sight, an Unexpected Choice), there is one solid truth that would explain why it might be pursued over the others in scientific research, the last disconcerting truth that piques my skepticism,

…ethanol, which already accounts for two percent of what’s mixed into our transportation fuels, promises growth for agribusiness that any stakeholder of any industry would die for, that is, if it becomes the alternative fuel of choice to replace oil.

This may be the deciduous factor between ethanol and all the others: a powerful lobby behind it. (Keep your eye on Presidential Candidate Barack Obama; Illinois stands to gain or lose a fortune on this issue).

Wealthy constituencies (and their handsomely-paid congressional representation) proceeding with their agendas independent of public health or environmental preservation concerns is commonplace, but to observe symptoms of such behavior in the American Association for the Advancement of Science is alarming. The organization is the largest society dedicated to the public advancement of science understanding in the world. It is not-for-profit, autonomous from government, and in addition to advancing science, it is (by self-report) dedicated to serving international society. From the minutes of its first ever meeting, now nearly 160 years ago, the organization committed its endeavor “not exclusively for the benefit of any nation or age.”

Within this large organization are numerous initiatives that reflect their commitment. Progressive programs to further the causes of human rights and social justice account for a great deal of what AAAS does. Specifically focusing on developing the public understanding and appreciation of science, especially among the world’s poorest, AAAS charters projects that ensure all people of the international community, independent of ethic or racial origin, geographic location, or political/ideological background, will be prepared for changes that accompany advances in technology and civilization. With an eye to our natural habitat, other projects focus on “sustainability“, and AAAS provides abundant scholarly resources, an international forum on sustainability science, research and project opportunities, and encouragement for widespread education and pro-environmental action.

For all these accomplishments, the AAAS has my admiration, but for endorsing ethanol, they cause me bewilderment. What of the billions of people in the developing world –cited on the AAAS website– that live in abject poverty? Shall we grow staple crops for their potential to power cars, not for their potential to feed the world’s poor? Are sustainable sources of energy less appealing than those that are profitable? Are these two issues, the issue of poverty and the issue of the environment, unrelated?

– -Daniel Black

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Bike-riding down H street NW toward our nation’s capitol every morning, I frequently see an ear of corn, picked and shucked, protruding from a gas pump.  Intriguing, I suppose it must be, to the unfamiliar eye; captions underneath this unusual image invite the observer to learn more about alternative energy on the advertised website.  More specifically, the alternative energy ethanol on the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The creative rendition appears on the south-facing wall of AAAS’s office building on New York Avenue, Washington D.C.

AAAS Building, Washington D.C.  With many initiatives underway to find an energy source that reduces dependency on foreign markets, decreases negative environmental ramifications, is renewable and sustainable, and carries few harmful side-effects on public health, this organization chose ethanol.  Several disconcerting truths pique my skepticism.  To name a few,

…ethanol provides a small amount of energy relative to the energy expenditures necessary to acquire and harness it.  The ratio is unfavorable and it is unlikely that science can significantly improve it;

…while appealing in that it will ameliorate our foreign dependency, there is scant hope for a long-term continuous supply of this energy source; a host of intervening variables impinge on its reliability that simply don’t affect the petroleum industry’s to say nothing of the fact that global warming effects and agricultural performance are most undesirably but undeniably intertwined;

…although substantially cleaner than fossil fuels, the combustion of ethanol is still combustion, and no doubt carries untold consequences if burned on the colossal scale that oil is today.  (easily dismissed as baseless, this perspective should be considered with an open mind; the best scientists a hundred years ago couldn’t have foreseen our current environmental turmoil from observing the running of a single gas-powered vehicle.  We should demand of ourselves and our representation this sort of forward-thinking)

Why would AAAS espouse this energy source, specifically and exclusively, on its wall?  Why does it seek support through the medium of street advertising?

– – Daniel Black

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The environment has become a hot topic in politics lately, seemingly everyone on all sides of the political debate acknowledging that we have a serious problem.  About half asserting that global climate change threatens the survival of life as we know it, the other half asserting the problem is the first half itself.

The story appearing “in the spotlight” of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ homepage today, under the title “Global Warming Obscured by Politics,” offers some indication of the current debate’s substance and quality.  Because the scholarly inquiry into global climate change has been so seriously defiled by the biases that invariably accompany environmentally crass political agendas, the scientific community has been forced to pursue authentic inquiry through their own independent means.  Government supported inquiry has proven valueless because the ends it seeks always have an eye to corporate profit, a reality that effectively compromise its utility.  The issue of whether our home planet can sustain our current lifestyle -or even sustain our continued presence as a species at all- is, it would appear, unworthy of anything beyond the deceitful and subversive political tactics that typify most other social concerns.

The environment, it is important to realize, differs sharply from other political issues; this is one topic of political debate wherein contempt for the perspective of science is more than just foolish, it is suicidal.  The stratagem of the leading skeptics is hopelessly misguided, and quite shameless, I believe.  Few people, I think, are able to acknowledge reality for what it is, with all its discomforting implications, and continue to believe as they wish against all evidence suggesting that they shouldn’t.

When the United Nations’ experts appeal to our national conscience, asking that we open our minds to the possibility that grotesque over-consumption could be responsible for impending ecological catastrophe, the United Nations itself is baselessly discredited as threatening our “American way of life” or attempting to attack our global economic sovereignty.  When scientists publish a report exposing the urgency of environmental crises, corporate lobbyists offer other scientists cash incentives to dispute the reports, or they simply attack the credibility of the scientists that have the audacity to suggest something contrary to the corporate agenda, no matter how grounded in objectivity the report might actually be.  These practices, though common among large environment-wrecking corporations, are well-known but somehow escape public scrutiny.  When measured in terms of its likely consequences, the truly criminal nature of this corporate behavior cannot be overstated; it is conceptually reducible to murder for profit.  In that its aim is to threaten the survival of humanity as an undivided collective, solely for the purpose of self-interest, intervention of this sort is more serious a crime than is genocide.

The most urgent arguments regarding global climate change are rarely even addressed in our culture’s narrow spectrum of public debate.  The conventional lines of even the most liberal solutions offer little hope in saving the human race from self-destruction.  Constructive solutions such as “E85” (an alternative fuel source attained through mixing ethanol and gasoline at a ratio of 17:3) are patchwork solutions whose hope of restoring our environment’s health and stability are nil.  It is as though we cannot face the inescapable truth that meaningful environmental improvement demands significant lifestyle change.  Efforts toward other objectives are tantamount to attempting improvement of one’s health by switching cigarette brands or transitioning to smokeless tobacco.

Unless our attitudes change, it is reasonable to assume that the fate of the earth’s people will ultimately be decided by a scant 4% of its population, an influential few who thrive on poorly presented lies which survive not for their logical viability but merely for the fact that they are more attractive than the plain, undeniable, simple truth.  Science matters; the consensus of leading international scientific enterprises are more discussion-worthy than some unaccountable gargantuan corporation’s ability to hire some hack with a PhD to lie.  These are facts we must accept, or we shall die with our denial.

— Daniel Black

 

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Conservative radio and TV talk show host Sean Hannity has been asking viewers/listeners to send in pictures of Al Gore boarding private planes. To hear Sean Hannity tell it, if Gore flies or drives or burns a fire in a fireplace then he is a hypocrite and An Inconvenient Truth is worthless or dishonest. But Gore’s travel habits, regardless of how lavish they are, don’t negate the dangers of global warming. And to suggest that Gore should cease flying or driving is simply ridiculous; an advocate must spread his message and Hannity’s attacks are thinly veiled political attempts at discrediting the message, by attacking the messenger. (What good would Al Gore do sitting in a cave somewhere worrying about melting glaciers in Greenland?)

I’m hesitant to accept Al Gore as a radical environmentalist. During the Clinton administration Al Gore hit the sheets with the biggest polluters in the industry. Today he seems genuinely dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of global climate change, and this is admirable. People can certainly change and if Al Gore now supports green policy, more power to him.

The campaign season has inspired Fox News to pick up where Sean Hannity left off. Gore may be considering a 2008 Presidential bid and the well-oiled conservative smear machine is working over time to distract voters from the issues and portray or frame Democrats in an unflattering manner. It’s cheap politics and I hate that.

— Igor Volsky

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