This is why we can’t have nice things

October 24th, 2005 § Comments off § permalink

These days, miners need at least 30 tons of ore to get an ounce of gold, and extracting that gold causes cyanide, lead, mercury, and cadmium to ooze all over the place. (It also displaces anyone who was unfortunate enough to live on top of the ore before the mining company arrived.)

Meanwhile, in case you hadn’t heard already, our old computers often wind up in enormous, overseas garbage dumps, where the unlucky recipients, who use brute-force methods to salvage parts from the old machines, are poisoned by the toxins they contain.

Oil be seeing you

December 4th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

George Monbiot, a British journalist who writes for the Guardian, has a new column that explains how quickly the world is running out of oil and how drastically our society will have to change in oil’s absence. Oil production could very well peak in the next decade, he argues, and alternative energy sources are either not viable or chronically underfunded. He is not optimistic about our ability to adjust to a world without oil:

The only rational response to both the impending end of the Oil Age and the menace of global warming is to redesign our cities, our farming and our lives. But this cannot happen without massive political pressure, and our problem is that no one ever rioted for austerity. People take to the streets because they want to consume more, not less. Given a choice between a new set of matching tableware and the survival of humanity, I suspect that most people would choose the tableware.

Goodbye, butterfly

November 11th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

Global warming—or “climate change,” as it is now euphemistically known—may wipe out the world’s monarch butterflies within 50 years. Monarchs need a relatively dry habitat during the winter, and according to current climate models, the forests where they spend each winter are likely to get a lot wetter.

Would people be as willing to ignore global warming if they believed that it would wipe out such a universally adored creature as the monarch butterfly? Is there a way to help people understand this stuff without making them stick their fingers in their ears and say “LA LA LA I AM NOT LISTENING”? Hey, George Lakoff: a little help?

Yesterday’s fuel today

August 18th, 2003 § 12 comments § permalink

Cognitive dissonance is reading Coal: A Human History while standing on a busy street. You look up and see six lanes of cars, trucks, SUVs, and buses roaring past you; you look down and read passages like this one:

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we’ve burned enough fossil fuels to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by about one-third, already bringing it to a level probably not seen in the last several million years. …There is plenty of evidence that the warming has already begun; the 1990s were the warmest decade since global record keeping began, around 1860. Indirect data from temperature proxies, like tree rings and corals and ice cores, indicate that the 1990s were probably the warmest decade of the last thousand years. Plants and animals are already beginning to shift their ranges in their efforts to follow the climate that suits them; permafrost is thawing, and on nearly every continent ancient glaciers are in rapid retreat. …

[A group of over 2,000 scientists gathered by the United Nations] predicts warming over the next century ranging from 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. …Even at the high end of that range, it’s hard to be alarmed over such tiny numbers until you realize that these global averages can mask climatic changes of epic proportions. At the depth of the last ice age thousands of years ago, much of the land in the Northern Hemisphere was covered by an ice sheet about a mile high. The average global temperature at that time was only 5 or 6 degrees Celsius colder than today’s. At the high end of the warming range, we are looking at a warming in only a century about as great as the one that melted that ice sheet, with more warming in the centuries ahead.

What every parent should know about “grass”

May 19th, 2003 § Eight comments § permalink

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine has an excellent article about Southern California’s love of lawns. (You can use “pinchydotorg” as the login and password.) The author profiles a couple that replaced their lawn with native plants, only to incur the wrath of their homeowners’ association. He also discusses the history of American lawns and considers whether California’s water shortage will lead to smaller lawns in the future.

Apparently there’s a special word for drought-tolerant landscaping—it’s called xeriscaping. I suppose I’ll have to start learning these things, since I’m going to be in the same department as a bunch of landscape architects.

The appeal of sustainable building

February 5th, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

The Tofte Project is a brilliant chronicle of the renovation of a Minnesota cabin, built in 1947 on the shore of Lake Superior. Every aspect of the renovation reflects the owner’s commitment to sustainability; many of the construction materials were salvaged from other buildings, and the building’s designers took pains to integrate their work with the cabin’s surroundings and the community’s history.

More importantly, the building is beautiful, and the people who designed and built it took well-earned pride in their craftsmanship. Beauty and joy are the best fringe benefits of sustainable design.

Technology’s environmental toll

January 23rd, 2003 § Comments off § permalink

A group of researchers at Japan’s United Nations University decided to find out what materials are needed to make a 32-megabyte memory chip, which weighs about two grams. Their findings: For each chip, manufacturers consume “32 kg of water, 1.6 kg of fossil fuels, 700 grams of elemental gases (mainly nitrogen), and 72 grams of chemicals (hundreds are used, including lethal arsine gas and corrosive hydrogen fluoride).”

Studying the climate

December 2nd, 2002 § One comment § permalink

Another article from the New York Times describing the Bush administration’s plan to study global warming for another 10 years before doing anything about it, then explaining the likely consequences of this plan:

Under what is considered a best-case model, global annual emissions of carbon dioxide will have to start declining by 2020 to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at 450 parts per million. Even at that level, there would probably be substantial losses…including a global die-off of coral reefs.

Societies have probably already missed that turning point, scientists say, and the longer societies wait to act, the higher the eventual greenhouse plateau and the greater the consequences.

If emissions do not start declining until 2033, carbon dioxide concentrations will plateau at 550 parts per million—more than double preindustrial concentrations. That level raises the likelihood of more calamitous consequences, including intensified storm and drought cycles, wider extinction of species and perhaps the eventual freeing of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could raise sea levels a century or two from now 15 feet or more, inundating coasts where most human settlements are concentrated.

Thin ice

November 18th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

Because of global warming, Montana’s Glacier National Park may run out of glaciers within the next 30 years. Visitors to the park are beginning to understand why they should be concerned about climate change; the park’s superintendent says that people “wanted to know what I was going to do about stopping the glaciers.”

The ethics of meat

November 11th, 2002 § Three comments § permalink

Michael Pollan has yet another terrific piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine about the ethics of eating meat. After examining the philosophical underpinnings of vegetarianism, Pollan concludes that the act of eating meat is fine; it’s the way we raise meat in the United States that’s troublesome. Worth a read no matter what your eating habits might be.

Incidentally, Pollan is lecturing at UC Berkeley tomorrow (Tuesday) night. I wish I could go.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Environment category at pinchy dot org.