Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Start 2014 with some good news - more clean energy for you!

While the year brought its fare share of bad news stories — some energy related, like the Lac Megantic oil train derailment — one review highlights some good news developments. In their ThinkProgress article, "13 Major Clean Energy Breakthroughs Of 2013" Kiley Kroh and Jeff Spross describe significant advances in alternative energy production.

They are:
1. Using salt to keep producing solar power even when the sun goes down.
2. Electric vehicle batteries that can also power buildings.
3. The next generation of wind turbines
4. Solar electricity hits grid parity with coal.
5. Advancing renewable energy from ocean waves.
6. Harnessing ocean waves to produce fresh water.
7. Ultra-thin solar cells that break efficiency records.
8. Batteries that are safer, lighter, and store more power.
9. New age offshore wind turbines that float.
10. Cutting electricity bills with direct current power.
11. Commercial production of clean energy from plant waste-
12. Innovative financing bringing clean energy to more people.
13. Wind power is now competitive with fossil fuels.

Read the full article and get the details at http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/12/18/3060131/13-clean-energy-breakthroughs-2013-2/

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The tree that engulfed a fence

This tree slowly overgrew the fence that was alongside it.
Eventually the fence was cut away, leaving the metal fence posts and chain-link within the tree, which lives on.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Good, Clean Energy & the salt of the earth.

Have you noticed how most North Americans now concede that their contribution to climate change is real (and increasingly spectacular), yet have no access to clean energy?

At the modest end of the scale, installations of solar and/or wind energy remain prohibitively expensive for the average citizen. Some of the costs can be recovered by feeding unused energy back into the grid, but this entails more expense. Moreover, solar panels and wind turbines are not yet installed in quantities that allow for economies of scale.

On the large utility scale, only a handful of solar power generators supply electricity around the clock. Wind generator farms are typically connected to the grid, but contribute only a fraction of world electrical consumption. Hydro-electic power is well established  ̶  in areas where water supply and topography are favourable. Fuel cell electricity is highly specialised, costly and not available to the general public.

So, what can the rest of us do to experience the joy of clean energy? Well, some folks do it themselves, making and installing solar or wind power units. Some installations energize small devices such as laptop computers or lights, while others power up homes and recreational interests.

One website - instructables.com, gives us an idea of the scale and variety of DIY generators . One of their smallest units makes use of old floppy drive motors while a more ambitious project supplements a homes's utility source with electricity from an array of collectors and rechargable batteries.

An ingenious supplementary source of hydroelectricity is found at Turlough Hill, Ireland, where a double-reservoir system pumps water to the upper dam. On demand it flows down again to the lower dam, generating power at peak consumption times.

On a larger scale, Gemasolar Concentrated Solar Power plant in Spain has achieved a round-the-clock power supply. Believe it or not, the key ingredient in its heat storage  is molten salt!

SEE ALSO: http://cleantechnica.com/2013/10/14/worlds-largest-solar-thermal-plant-storage-comes-online/

Thursday, September 26, 2013

A record number of weather records fell in 2012

It's 2013 and most of us in North America have a sense that weather extremes have become more common. In Southern Africa and Australia the snow falls more often. Yet whatever inspiration may be found by climate change skeptics in the global warming hiatus noted by the IPCC, unabated pollution makes less sense than ever.

To help us check the facts the US Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) has put up a web page where one can enter a US zip-code and find out how many records have fallen in that area.

For example Beverly Hills 90210 : In 2011, California experienced:

    60 broken rainfall records
    15 broken heat records
    19 broken snowfall records

What about Boulder Colorado 80305? - in 2011, Colorado experienced:

    21 broken rainfall records
    11 broken heat records
    6 broken snowfall records

According to an NRDC news release, "In 2012, there were at least 3,527 monthly weather records for heat, rain and snow broken by extreme weather events" in the US, surpassing 3,251 records broken in 2011.

You can get a graphic sense of this with an interactive 2012 map that even includes forest fires in the US.


Monday, September 09, 2013

Blame global warming for melting a car - is that the last word?

If there was ever an illustration of the human mental interpreter at work, it may be this PR statement:   “The phenomenon is caused by the current elevation of the sun in the sky. It currently lasts for approximately 2 hours per day, with initial modeling suggesting that it will be present for approximately 2-3 weeks.” The spin doctors were responding to the ability of London's concave Walkie-Talkie skyskraper to focus sunbeams and partially melt a car. Our mental 'interpreter,' so named by neurologist Michael Gazzaniga, is explained by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist:
    The left hemisphere is the equivalent of the sort of person who, when asked for directions, prefers to make something up rather than admit to not knowing. This impression is confirmed by Panksepp: ‘The linguistically proficient left hemisphere… appears predisposed to repress negative emotions, and even chooses to confabulate.’ To some extent perhaps we inevitably confabulate stories about our lives, a process overseen by what Gazzaniga calls the left-hemisphere ‘interpreter’. - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, 2009
Among the rationalizations offered by the architect for the architectural faux-pas - in addition to the sun being in the wrong place -  are:
  1. 'the superabundance of consultants and sub-consultants' required by UK regulations
  2. 'sub-consultants that dilute the responsibility of the designers'
  3. 'the fault of the architectural discipline which has cast itself into a completely secondary thing'
  4. 'the calculations said it was only going to be 36 degrees'
  5. 'there was a lack of tools or software that could be used to analyze the problem accurately'
It gets worse (or better, depending). Of a similar debacle in Los Angeles the same architect said "That was a completely different problem," claiming he was following a masterplan that specified arc-shaped towers. "We pointed out that would be an issue too, but who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, right?" The master designer reflected: "They are calling it the 'death ray', because if you go there you might die. It is phenomenal, this thing."

Persistent rationalizations and denial are among the key ingredients of progress traps. Gazzaniga was perhaps too kind when he called the cerebral grey matter that does this, the 'interpreter'.

Oddly enough, we probably all feel a modern, urban compulsion to let the architect and master confabulist have the last word:
"When I first came to London years ago, it wasn't like this...Now you have all these sunny days. So you should blame this thing on global warming too, right?"
Daniel B. O'Leary


McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His Emissary. Yale University Press

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Carbon dioxide emissions - Sea level rise - NBC News sounds alarm

Ann Curry of NBC News interviews Inuit leader Aqqaluk Lynge in Greenland about changes in their environment and his message is blunt: we in the industrialized world are using more than our fair share and our children and grandchildren will pay the price.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Sunday, July 07, 2013

For coping with climate change, media must get with the program

Several recent events have signaled a timely change in mainstream media coverage of events related to climate change. And possibly a change in attitudes.

In an interview on July 1 an Arizona fire chief gave a no-nonsense reply to Scott Pelley's (CBS News)  mention that many people don't believe in climate change:  "You won't find them on the fireline in the American West anymore because we've had climate change beat into us over the last 10 or 15 years. We know what we are seeing.."

In a MacLeans article  David McLaughlin, a long-time conservative, criticized the Canadian Government for evading climate change issues: “Now we have in 2013 the second once-in-a-century flood in less than a decade,” he said af the 2010 and 2013 Alberta floods.

“Denying that climate change is a cause is akin to putting your head in the sand — in this case, your head in a sand bag.”

McLaughlin headed the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy which was eliminated in March 2013.

The time for counting on scientific proof of anthropogenic climate change is over. Instead, we have entered a period of 'beyond a reasonable doubt.' Good judgement says we need all the help we can get, not just the proven kind.

Whether one is in a progress trap or not there yet, tremendous creativity is needed for coping with the damage, and to prevent further societal deterioration.

Scientists in particular need to accept that the 'progress trap' syndrome exists, even if it implies that progress can be flawed.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Does the world really have too many people and not enough food?

With the successful world-wide March against Monsanto (May 25, 2013) and the US Supreme Court's ruling against the farmer who grew Monsanto's genetically modified soybean seeds instead of buying them, we need to look at the big picture. Especially in light of Monsanto's standard argument that it is dedicated to alleviating hunger...

read the full article:  Monsanto and the hidden hunger 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

mmmm...Monsanto Makes Me Mad

mmmm... that's what we say when a nice plate of food is before us, and more often than not these days, that food has been genetically modified - so that there can be more to go around, they say. And chances are, that food has been genetically modified by Monsanto.

Here's the problem: A case - Bowman v. Monsanto Company -  is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the court must decide whether Farmer Bowman was wrong to have saved and re-used soybean seeds. Seeds that Monsanto had engineered to be resistant to the Round-up herbicide (also made by Monsanto). This is what Farmer Bowman did: he bought the soybean seeds from an aftermarket grain elevator, not from Monsanto. But then he planted the variety, sprayed the crop with the herbicide and saved the ones that were left standing for planting later. Monsanto requires that farmers who buy this seed also sign a contract saying that they can't save any harvested seeds for replanting, buying their next season's seed only from Monsanto. The company is arguing that the farmer infringed their intellectual property ownership rights in sowing, harvesting and replanting seeds that contained their weedkiller resistant formula. The farmer is arguing that in turning it's unsold seeds over to the grain elevator for sale as feed, Monsanto had abandoned its claim to the seeds' properties.

Let's think how agriculture got started in the first place: after the Ice Age, humans in the Middle East began harvesting wild wheat - but did not know how to plant it. That they left to mother nature, which blew the unharvested seeds to new ground for the next season. In time, naturally, there came about a genetic mutation between wild wheat and a goat grass variety that engineered a new, bread wheat plant whose seeds did not scatter in the wind. As Jacob  Bronowski put it "the bread wheats can only multiply with help; man must harvest the ears and scatter the seeds; and the lives of each, man and the plant, depends on the other. It is a true fairy tale of genetics, as if the coming of civilization had been blessed in advance.." Like Farmer Bowman. Thus was agriculture born and with it such giants as Monsanto - a fact that it, and the learned justices might do well to remember. Especially Justice Breyer, who managed to cast aspersions not only on the mental health of the farmer, but in the same breath, on mental illness in general.

When the farmer's lawyer responded to the justices' questions about intellectual property protection with a suggestion that Contract, not Patent Law, should protect the intellectual property, Justice Elena Kagan remarked "all that has to happen is that one seed escapes the web of these contracts, and that seed, because it can self-replicate in the way that it can, essentially makes all the contracts worthless."

And here a term appears that is heard repeatedly in the arguments by Monsanto, (which is favoured by the US Administration): self-replicate. Since when do soybean seed's self replicate entirely on their own? Since when does any seed self-replicate unassisted? They all need the miracle of life, growth and replication provided by Mother Nature. Monsanto may own its patents to weedkiller and anti-weedkiller formulas, but it will never own the miracle of life. The justices, Monsanto's supporters and even the administration seem to fear that a victory for the farmer would be the end of free enterprise as we know it. Fear not good judges - it might be the end of companies like Monsanto fraudulently claiming that they have appropriated the miracle of life. They own the miracle of life as much as Mr. Ponzi owned the miracle of financial growth.

So back off, Monsanto. And please, don't give Mother Nature another reason to punish us earthlings.


Jacob Bronowski, Ascent of Man, BBC, London, 1973, pp. 65-69.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Obama, now you're talking!

"I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior, and carbon emissions," Obama said at a news conference on 14 November 2012, shortly after he was re-elected (without mentioning climate change in the campaign debates), adding "and as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it." In his victory speech on November 7, he had said "We want our children to live in an America ... that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."  In the State of the union address, he drew attention to his powers of Executive Order, to act if Congress can not.

So I take back what I said about President AWOL. Actually I borrowed it from The Worldwatch Institute

But there is much that can be done even without executive orders. Apparently the United States can achieve emissions reductions using current law, flexing the muscles of the Clean Air Act and the Ozone Protocol. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has published a playbook (yes, with a silver lining) that explains what can, and must be done to bring harmful emissions under control. The main points are:

The greatest projected emissions reduction opportunities by 2020 and beyond come from four federal policy measures. The Administration will need to pursue these opportunities if the United States is to achieve the 17 percent reduction target. Those policies are:
  • standards to reduce carbon pollution from existing power plants (48 percent of total emissions gap between business-as-usual (BAU) and 2020 target);
  • requirements to phase out the use of certain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) (23 percent of total emissions gap between BAU and 2020 target);
  • standards to reduce methane emissions from natural gas systems (11 percent of total emissions gap between BAU and 2020 target);7 and
  • actions to improve energy efficiency in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors (8 percent of total emissions gap between BAU and 2020 target).
Download the summary from WRI

There is also a fascinating discussion at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. on the implications for Canada of Obama's new U.S. climate-change measures. 

This site is a companion site to The progress trap and how to avoid it, which is a companion site to the book Escaping the progress trap

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Creativity: how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind

(from Escaping the Progress Trap, chapter 14) A great institution such as science is like a society, and the scientific paradigm is at risk of failing to shift from the defining, isolating laboratory mode to an inclusive, open culture of human and natural possibilities. The medieval Church as an institution might not be thought of as having much in common with Easter Island, or with Control Data Corporation, but all these share a similar fate: interrupted progress. If modern science fails the inhabitants of the globe, it too will fall from grace.

There can be no doubt that each human being is a reserve of great potential. In The creative mind: myths and mechanisms, Margaret Boden explains how the culture of the scientific revolution demoted the subjective properties of creativity: *
.. no room for notions like creativity, freedom, and subjectivity. As a result, the matters of the mind have been insidiously downgraded in scientific circles for several centuries.
In her book, Boden considers many creative minds in the context of analytical machines: Beethoven, Mozart, Kekulé, Coleridge, Kepler, Copernicus, Dickens, Crick and others from the arts and sciences. She is encouraged by the fact that:
computational psychology is helping us to understand such things in scientific terms. It does this without lessening our wonder or our self-respect…on the contrary it increases them, by showing how extraordinary is the ordinary person's mind.
There is one last case, that of Abraham Lincoln, which brings together resilience and creativity. It is well known that he suffered from melancholy, but how he came to terms with it is not part of popular legend. Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, describes how Lincoln made use of his affliction, rather than attempt to defeat it: **
In his mid-forties the dark soil of Lincoln's melancholy began to yield fruit. When he threw himself into the fight against the extension of slavery, the same qualities that had long brought him so much trouble played a defining role. The suffering he had endured lent him clarity and conviction, creative skills in the face of adversity, and a faithful humility that helped him guide the nation through its greatest peril.
We may not all be as gifted as Lincoln or Beethoven, but as Pinker*** and Boden suggest, each of us can come up with extraordinarily good ideas. As a global community, our reserve of skills, our long evolution and our modern sharing of wisdom point toward a positive future. (from Escaping the Progress Trap, chapter 14 - Resilient Adaptations)

* Margaret A. Boden, The creative mind: myths and mechanisms, Routledge, New York, 2004, p. 304. 
** Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln's Great Depression, The Atlantic, Oct. 2005, p.60. 
*** Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works, W.W. Norton, New York, 1997

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