Monday, December 31, 2012

Live Webcam from Times Square

Happy New Year!  Here are two live webcams for your New Years Eve viewing pleasure:

Times Square and the Jersey-Atlantic Windfarm.

Big Energy Links Greenhouse Gases to Global Climate Change

Click for photo credit.
In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Over the last few days, I discussed the lack of information about the "new normal"the wide acceptance of GMO food-frankenfoodthe fine tuning of environmental benchmarksthe science of Mars, and the impacts of the Internet on the environment.  For my last post on the theme, I've got some good news about climate change for the end of the year.

I am seeing more and more major energy companies step up and recognize that carbon dioxide is causing global climate change.  This is a significant departure from the past when energy companies were seen as obstacles in policy development.

Take a look at Chevron's Website on climate change.  It is perhaps the most environmentally positive of all of the major companies on the issue.  It recognizes that climate change is real, that carbon dioxide is part of the problem, and that Chevron has a responsibility to lead research on solving the problem. 

This article that reveals the major organizations involved with promoting climate change denial notes that ExxonMobil pledged to stop funding climate change denial organizations in 2006.

There is no doubt that oil will be a part of our long-term energy portfolio.  It is cheap, readily accessible, and easy to transport.  The acceptance of climate change by some major energy companies and their efforts to mitigate the impact of their products on the environment are positive developments that we can celebrate as we look toward the growth in alternative energy in 2013. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Dirty Filthy Internet

Click for photo credit.
In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Over the last few days, I discussed the lack of information about the "new normal"the wide acceptance of GMO food-frankenfoodthe fine tuning of environmental benchmarks, and the science of Mars.  Today, it's all about the dirty filthy Internet.

This article from the New York times back in September detailed the high energy costs of the Internet.  There are large arrays of servers all over the world that utilize the equivalent amount of energy each year as the output of 30 nuclear or coal power plants.

The energy use is due to the high cost of rapid Internet speeds and the huge amount of data stored online.  

And the problem is growing.  Each image stored online, each blog post, and each electronic store requires a constant supply of energy to keep it going.  The implications for energy consumption are huge.

Plus, think about the energy use of your own desktop computer.  It costs about $1 to keep it on overnight.  Multiply that by the millions of computers on throughout the world.  The energy wasted by having our computers, cell phones, IPads and other electronic devices always at the ready is staggering.  Then, add on the energy costs for the huge server storage needs for information.  

We haven't really brought this issue forward into our environmental consciousness.  But in reality, the Internet is responsible for a huge volume of greenhouse gas emissions.  One of the best things we could do for the environment is to get off line.  Of course, most of us won't do that.  Many researchers are working on trying to improve the energy efficiency of servers and electronics in general.  Until the problem is solved, the best thing we can do as individuals is to turn off electronics when not in use and delete online files, pictures, etc. that we no longer use.  

The Internet is truly a dirty filthy enterprise.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Amazon for Students in 2013

Click for photo credit.
When I started this blog a few years ago, I was getting a handful of hits a day.  Now, I am up to hundreds of readers a day.  I am so grateful for each and every visitor—even if you don’t always agree with me.

For the last few months I’ve been toying with adding an Amazon link to my blog to promote fundraising for student scholarships.  There are two reasons for this.

First of all, it could raise money for students—particularly with the growth in readers this blog has seen in recent months.

Second, I have been getting a number of questions from readers about my work or books that I would recommend.  While most of my writing is in journals unavailable to Amazon customers, some of my writing is available on Amazon.  Also, there are plenty of great environmental/sustainability/geology/cave/karst books available on Amazon that I would recommend.

Photo by Bob Brinkmann
Of course, we should all use our local libraries and purchase from local bookstores.  But if you don’t, you can utilize the Amazon links on the right to make purchases. 

There are four specific links that you will find. 

One is to a list of books that I recommend for sustainability professionals.  The titles range from some of the old classics to new books that challenge our modern thinking. The list is a work in progress and will change with time.

The next one is to books that I’ve written or contributed to in some way.  Most of my writing is not available on Amazon, but I’ve included most things that are here. 

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
Next, I’ve added a list of books on my nightstand.  These books are likely to be the subject of upcoming blog posts or are in some way important to the current time. This list will change as I add and remove materials.

Finally, I’ve added a search engine to allow you to search for anything imaginable on Amazon. 

I will also add another list of books (such as cookbooks and novels) that I like in the future.

Any purchase of recommended books will help sustainability students.

And you don’t just have to purchase books to make a difference.  If you purchase anything from the Amazon search engine on the right, your purchase will help students.

Photo by Bob Brinkmann
A total of 4-10 percent of all purchases will go toward my goal of raising 1000 this year.  My visitors would need to purchase $25,000 worth of stuff on Amazon at the lowest percentage return rate to make this happen.

I put a fund raising thermometer on the right to let my readers know how we are doing.  Can we raise $1,000 in 2013?  I hope so. Within a week of reaching this goal, I will go on a 15 mile hike to memorialize and celebrate the event.  I hope I can do this in the spring or summer and not in the late fall when things are way too busy for a hike!

If you purchase on Amazon, please consider purchasing through this blog.

Also, if you are feeling generous and want to make a tax deductable contribution to a fund to help college students earn a degree in sustainability, please let me know and we can talk about how you can help. 

There is so much need right now among the youth of our nation.  Your support would be gratefully appreciated.

The Science of Mars

Mars Curiosity self portrait released this month.
Photo from NASA.  Click for credit.
In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Over the last few days, I discussed the lack of information about the "new normal", the wide acceptance of GMO food-frankenfood, and the fine tuning of environmental benchmarks.  Today, I take us to Mars.

The Mars NASA Curiosity Rover has been diligently collecting data since its landing on Mars in August.  To date it has taken a wide variety of images giving us great information about the rocks, sediments, and soils on the planet.  In addition, chemical analysis of the atmosphere and soil is ongoing.  

In early December, NASA scientists announced that they found organic chemicals in Martian soil.  While it wasn't proof of life, the results widened discussion about the evolution of the planet.  Curiosity will continue to send back information to us over the coming months and I am sure that it will transform the way we see our Solar System.

The study of Mars helps us understand our own planetary environment--the evolution of our atmosphere, the evolution of life, and the impacts of global climate change.  I can't wait to find out what the mission discovers.  

Check out this video of my friend, Penny Boston (Professor at New Mexico Tech), reviewing the significance of Curiosity.

Here she is a few years ago at a TED Talk discussing her work on planetary exploration through caves.

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Favorite Hofstra Pictures of 2012

I try to take a picture each time I am on the campus of Hofstra University or when I am off campus on university business.  Hofstra is a beautiful place.  Here are some of my favorite images from on and off campus during 2012.  The ones of me were taken by friends of mine and the ones off campus were some of my favorite images of professional activities.  It's been a great year!
Me and Van Jones on campus.

Hofstra hosted the most important debate of the presidential election.

I worked with the Discovery Group to put in Hofstra's new student garden.

I went to China to develop new research and teaching programs.  Here I am with Hofstra's Ying Qiu.

I met Mr. Met at the 50th anniversary of the Mets conference where I gave a paper on baseball and sustainability.

This sculpture is always an inspiration. 

Research Assistant Lisa Marie Pierre planting tulips in the student garden.
She is always an inspiration to me and I am grateful to work with her.

I love the fall season on Long Island.

Part of the crop from the student garden on campus.

I love this sculpture on campus.  I always wonder where she is heading.  She looks so determined!
Hofstra has the most beautiful tulips in the spring.  What would you expect from a university named after a Dutch shipping family?  This picture was taken the day of the Long Island Small Farm Summit on campus.  I got to meet Will Allen and introduce him to the attendees.  What an honor!

If you know our campus, you know this guy.  He's always trying to get to Boston.

I love this sculpture.  I just wish it wasn't in the middle of a parking lot.

How inviting!

Some of my students in New York City on the High Line.  What a talented group!

Me and my posse at Vision Long Island.  I am so lucky to work with these people!!

Giving a talk to a professional engineering group on campus.

Celebrating the Peconic Bay Scallop restoration project which was funded as part of the Long Island Regional Planning Process.  I was very honored to be asked to serve as one of the writers of the plan.
I traveled to Carlsbad, New Mexico to attend the board meeting of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI).  This photo is from inside Carlsbad Caverns.  From left is the Director of NCKRI, George Veni, Hazel Barton (the Chair of the Baord) and her husband, and on the right, my brother John.  He came out to spend time with me and travel around New Mexico after the board meeting. We had an amazing trip.


Click for photo credit.
In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Over the last two days, I discussed the lack of information about the "new normal"and the wide acceptance of GMO food-frankenfood.  Today, I thought I would highlight the fine tuning of environmental benchmarks.

I am a big proponent of environmental benchmarks to set goals and targets for environmental improvement.  It is one of the most important strategies employed in environmental policy.  Over the years, many benchmarking strategies emerged including the LEED building rating system and the Forest Stewardship Council's certification program to name just two.  

While I have been a strong supporter of benchmarking systems, I have also criticized them as sometimes being environmentally ineffective or naive.  Take for example the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building system.  It is a fantastic system that advances technology and efficiency.  But one can build a huge mansion for 2 people with enormous per person environmental impacts and still be highly rated in the LEED system.  One real-world example I like to use is of a LEED Gold 9000 square foot commercial building with a handful of employees.  The building is fantastic and a marvel of technology, but was built in an area with abundant vacant commercial space.  It has a huge per person impact.  It stands alone as a luxurious testament to green excess--hardly what was intended when the rating system was developed.

But, times are changing.  The local is becoming much more important in the discussion of benchmarks and many communities or regions are developing their own rating systems and bypassing some of the traditional matrices.  Take for example PlaNYC.  This New York sustainability plan sets benchmark targets that make sense for New York City.  Many regions are following this example and developing their own targets and rating systems.  These activities are helping to transform universal rating systems to allow for local variation.  I expect that over the coming decade, more communities will conduct environmental inventories, set benchmarking standards, and make improvements that make sense for their communities.

Florida Continues Downward Trend in Environmental Oversight

This contamination site in Duval County Florida contains
arsenic and lead and is managed by the Florida DEP.
Click for photo credit.
I'll have a post in my end of the year series on overlooked environmental issues of the year later today, but I had to memorialize this article from the St. Petersburg Times about the layoff of long-term employees in Florida's main environmental oversight organization, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  

As most of my readers know, I was a professor in Florida for over 21 years.  Over that time, I saw the slow dismantling of many of the environmental rules in the state and the shrinking of the organizations involved with their management.  Just take a look at Florida's housing crisis and the overbuilding that occurred.  Some of this happened because of very lax oversight or rules on everything from transportation infrastructure requirements to wetlands protection.  While everyone could see that the boom couldn't last, politicians were doing everything in their power to promote more development by eliminating sound planning.

Now, according to the article, more employees, some of them long-term employees who did truly heroic work in the state, are being laid off and replaced by industry insiders and political appointees.  Many believe that the DEP is completely broken and that the state is using budget cutting as an excuse to layoff employees who actually ensured that rules were followed.

For those who cheer this development and think that the DEP should be smaller or shouldn't exist at all, please remember that this organization regulates pretty much everything that keeps Florida safe from pollution--pollution such as giant pools of hydrofluoric acid, sewage, and noxious gases.  States should have a strong organization involved with the oversight of these pollutants that has the full trust of the public.  Clearly this is not the case in Florida and it hasn't been this way for a long time.  

I think that the reason for the DEP's decline in Florida is that the state's executive and legislative branches of government are dominated by one political party and it has been this way for years.  There is very little oversight in Tallahassee that commonly happens with two-party systems.  

What can happen in situations like this is a strong swing back when the public becomes disgusted with corruption and incompetence.  There is certainly nothing wrong with having an efficient, well-run organization involved with environmental protection that works within a set budget.  But, the current DEP is problematic and puts the citizens of Florida at risk.  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The United States of Frankenfood

In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Yesterday, I discussed the lack of information about the "new normal".  Today, it's all about food--frankenfood.

Frankenfood is a term used by many to refer to genetically modified food.  I posted several times this year on genetically modified food or GMO (genetically modified organism) agriculture.  Many countries are banning its use in agriculture and/or importation.  However, the United States has jumped aggressively into the strange world of GMO production.

GMO food production is an outgrowth of the biotech industrial revolution that began approximately 2 decades ago.  It coincided roughly with the economic breakdown of the family farm and the industrialization of agriculture in the United States.  Today, most of our food supply is produced in a highly industrialized and corporatized system that is very successful at bringing large quantities of inexpensive food to world markets.  GMO foods are a big reason for this success.

Despite protests, the U.S. public has
embraced GMO food.  Click for photo credit.
Nearly all the cotton, soybeans, sugar beets, and corn grown in the United States derive from GMO crops.  As one could imagine, the policy issues are immense.  Farmers are no longer allowed to save seeds because these highly productive organisms are patented.  Plus, we do not fully understand the impacts of the proliferation of these new organisms on the environment.  In many ways, we are living in the dystopian science fiction world that was only imagined by the likes of Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury.

I have always been an advocate of the precautionary principle when it comes to the environment.  It suggests that no action be taken on activities that have the potential to cause harm to the public or the environment.  In my mind, the jury is still out on GMO food.  I am not only concerned with policy issues and the safety of the environment and the health of people eating GMO crops, but also about the ethics of changing the genetic makeup of organisms that have evolved over millions of years.   In addition, I think that inexpensive GMO and corporatized food sets up class divisions around food in this country.  Many have mapped food deserts in the US where the only source of food is fast food or food from convenience stores.  Fresh local food is too expensive for many.  Non-GMO food is becoming an expensive luxury thereby making it difficult for individuals to opt-out of the GMO food system.

I know that reasonable people strongly disagree with me and believe that GMO food is entirely safe and appropriate.  Indeed, they believe that GMO agriculture is a solution to long-standing food supply problems.

That seems to be the public's sentiment as well.  As noted above, the vast majority of U.S. staple crops are produced from genetically modified organisms.  In California, often a bellwether state when it comes to environmental issues, a proposition to require the labeling of food that contains GMO materials was defeated by the voters in November.  Plus, just last week, the FDA approved the first GMO animal for food.  It is a salmon with genes of salmon and eel that grows twice as fast as a natural salmon.  

In some ways, this period of time is reminiscent of the 1950's and the rapid advance of organic chemistry and the proliferation of organic chemicals in pesticides and herbicides that were widely used across our country.  There was so much hope and optimism for a world improved by science and technology.  We came to regret the excesses of those days.  It is unclear if we will come to question our rapid leap into this new world of manufactured organisms.  For now, we live in the United States of Frankenfood.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The New Normal

Click for photo credit.
In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Today, I highlight "The New Normal".  While much has been written about the "new normal" no one has really defined it.  In the environmental field, the phrase generally refers to the emerging early 21st century swings in weather as a result of global climate change.  But, what exactly is the new normal?  We all intuitively know that the weather is only part of it.  There are also variations in plant range, animal behavior, and overall ecology--to name a few indicators.

While I like the general pop culture feel of the phrase, I am a bit troubled by the lack of specificity behind it.  What I mean is this.  We all know what gravity is and we know we can measure it.  But, we also know what the new normal is, but we don't know exactly how to measure it. As a scientist, this leaves me troubled.  The data issues involved with measuring broad environmental change are nearly overwhelming.  With gravity, we measure one thing.  But how do we measure the new normal?  To do so requires complex data collection, analysis, and interpretation of everything from atmospheric chemistry to animal behavior.  In the last several years scientists saw patterns emerging that helped them interpret the impact of global climate change.  But in some cases, data collection is not widespread, uniform, or consistent and much of our knowledge comes from places where scientific information is readily available (North America and Europe).

Therefore our knowledge about the new normal is not well developed at this point.  We know the world is changing, but we don't know exactly how.  We have some models that allow us to make informed estimates, but (to use today's term) we are in a new normal and we are not sure if the models will be accurate.  By all accounts, estimates of global climate change impacts have been underestimated and indications are that the coming century will be a rather difficult one for our world.

In many ways, the new normal is not an overlooked story because the phrase was often used to discuss conditions that led to Hurricane Sandy.  However, I feel that the lack of definition or specificity about  the new normal makes it an overlooked environmental story.  We are in serious need of consistent global data collection about not only weather and climate, but also about ecosystems and other complex environmental systems in order for us to fully understand how the world is changing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

New LEED Skyscraper Not as Green as 1930's Icons

Click for photo credit.
Check out this interesting article from the New York Times about the energy consumption of skyscrapers in New York.  One of New York's newest skyscrapers, the LEED gold rated 7 World Trade Center building, does not fare as well in comparison with some of the older towers in the city, particularly the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.

According to the article, the tall buildings in New York represent just 2% of the total number of buildings in the city, but use 45% of the energy.  Therefore, it makes sense to focus energy savings efforts on these buildings.

But the way we built modernist buildings--full of glass facings and tall public spaces--is highly inefficient.  The old workhorse buildings, after renovations, seem to be doing the best job with energy conservation.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Nefertiti and Airplanes

The bust of Nefertiti discovered 100
years ago this month. 
In December 1912, two interesting things happened that changed the way we look at the world.  The bust of Queen Nefertiti was found in Amarna Egypt and the first U.S. Stamp featuring an airplane was sold.  Each added to the discourse of the meaning of 20th century modernity.

The sculpture of Nefertiti is considered one of the most important artifacts ever found in Egypt.  It dates from a unique period of Egyptian history--the age of the Pharaoh Ankhenaten.  Nefertiti was his wife and the two of them changed Egypt forever.  Ankhenaten moved the capital of Egypt to Amarna and separated himself and his family from the traditional polytheistic priests that influenced mainstream Egyptian culture.  He instituted monotheism and a realistic form of art that was remarkably different from the stylized and long-lived Egyptian art.  Nefertiti's bust is one of the most important representations of this period.  While the new capital and their form of monotheism did not survive, the ideas challenged Ankehnaten's Egypt and influenced future governance and art.  The bust's elegance and realism speak to us in a way that other Egyptian art does not.

Also in December 1912, the U.S. printed the first stamp depicting an airplane.  It was a biplane.  Airplanes were still experimental in 1912 and the first airline flight (between St. Petersburg and Tampa Florida) didn't occur until 1914.  However, by 1912, the airplane was within the American psyche and changed the way we thought about the world.  The representation of the airplane in a stamp tells us that they were part of the American imagination 100 years ago.

The first U.S. stamp depicting and airplane.
Each of these December 1912 events helped to transition us from the darkness of the 19th century into 20th century modernism.  The archaeological discovery provided a realistic glimpse into the life of people who looked just like us that lived thousands of years ago.  Were we really all that different?  At the same time, the inventions that led to the development of the modern airplane inspired an entire new engineering age.  The art of the past and the promise of the future converged 100 years ago and led us into our current time where we continue to feel the tension between historic traditions and the modern scientific age.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Coconut Oil, Yes or No?

Click for photo credit.
I have always heard the coconut oil was bad for you.  I remember hearing that it was one of the most dangerous oils due to its high saturated fat content.  But I do like having it around the house.  I've used it for shaving for some time.  However, when I took the vegan cooking class with Myra Kornfeld at the Natural Gourmet Institute I blogged about yesterday, we used coconut oil in everything.  

When I asked Chef Kornfeld about whether coconut oil was safe, she explained that it was one of the healthiest oils and that it was great to cook with in a vegan kitchen.

Of course, I did my homework.  I found that the studies that reviewed the health impacts were done on partially hydrogenated coconut oil, not the virgin oils that are available in today's market.  Indeed, there is no evidence that I could find that the oil is unhealthy.  Quite the opposite.   

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Myra Kornfeld and the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health

Watercress and green mango salad with peanut dressing
along with hot and sweet sesame nori fins.!  
Red Bhutan rice with roasted vegetables with lemongrass and
cilantro; yellow pepper coconut milk sauce; spinach Thai
basil sauce; baked tofu triangles; Indonesian sambal; and
crispy rice sticks.  Yum.
Mango lemongrass ice cream and lemon tuilles.
As part of my plan to promote food sustainability at Hofstra University in April for Earth Day month by going vegan for the month, I thought it would be appropriate to get educated about vegan cooking.  Thus, I took a course called "Southeast Asian Vegan Banquet" with noted chef and author, Myra Kornfeld, the author of The Voluptuous Vegan, at the Natural Gourmet Institute for food and health (located on 21st Street in Manhattan between 5th and 6th Avenues).

The experience at the institute was really top notch.  The concept is this: you cook the food at the instruction of the chef and then you eat it at the end of the 4-hour class.  There were 10 of us in attendance.  Plus, 4 assistants were assisting the chef, so essentially there was one person helping every two students.  Someone was always there to help you, to clean up after you, and to lend a hand or suggest improvements.  I would definitely take another class at the institute.  If you ever come to New York and are looking for a great activity for the evening, check out their class calendar.

The fun part about the class was learning some high-end cooking techniques --particularly the use of unusual Asian ingredients, cutting techniques, and seasoning.

Kornfeld was a gifted instructor.  At the end of the night, we all ate together with a nice bottle of wine.

The nice thing about this meal is that it was entirely filling, satisfying and flavorful.  It wasn't what most people would think of as vegan food and it definitely expanded my idea about veganism which should prove to be helpful in April.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy 100th Lady Bird Johnson

Lady Bird Johnson.  One of the most
important environmental figures from
the 1960's.
In discussing the modern environmental movement, one person sometimes is left out of the conversation--Lady Bird Johnson.  Tomorrow would have been her 100th birthday.  She was the wife of President Lyndon Johnson who served in office after the assassination of President Kennedy.  She became active in environmental issues, particularly highway beautification.

I was born in 1961 and times were very different in the 1960's.  Litter was everywhere.  It was common for people to throw trash out of car windows or on the street.  This was a time before there were common garbage containers or home recycling.  In the midst of this, fast food was emerging and the packaging exacerbated the issue.

Mrs. Johnson was involved in a number of initiatives during her husband's time as president, including advocating for the Civil Rights Movement.  But she is best known for her work on a national beautification program.  She focused her efforts on the national highways which were lined with trash in highly trafficked areas.  In addition, she worked to limit billboards along roadways and advocated for the Highway Beautification Act (sometimes called Lady Bird's Bill).

She also sought to plant native flowering plants along roads to improve the overall experience for drivers and passengers.  If you see a patch of flowers blooming on a trash-free roadway, you have Lady Bird Johnson to thank.  There is no doubt that her efforts helped to educate a generation of Americans on the importance of trash removal and the aesthetic role of nature in our every day life.

Her most famous quote is, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope."  So true.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gas Industry Sues Town Over Election Banning Fracking

Longmont, Colorado.  Click for photo credit.
This story from Bloomberg news details a case in which the city of Longmont, Colorado is being sued by the Colorado Oil and Gas Industry because its citizens voted to ban fracking.

This is a fascinating case and it involved the power of local people to decide if they can direct the types of activities that can take place within their jurisdictional borders via elections.  They certainly will experience any long-term negative impacts from fracking and it makes sense to me that they should be able to decide if they want the activity used in their city.  The industry claims that the law infringes upon property rights and state law.

I am not a lawyer, but I have had some law classes.  It is my understanding that local communities can develop local zoning or land use decisions.  Unless there is a Colorado law that prevents local communities from banning fracking in their communities, I do not see how the gas industry can win this one.

But, this raises a broader issue of corporate responsibility and basic ethics.  When I am not welcome at a party, I don't go.  If I showed up, it would hurt my reputation and the relationships that I might develop with the invitees for years.  I think the same basic logic holds true here.  Does the oil and gas industry want to damage their reputation by forcing themselves on a community that doesn't want them?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Missouri and UW Oshkosh Goes Green

Click for photo credit.
I've been getting some links from my readers about great things going on out there as per my request to send me information on groups making a difference for the environment.  I have two to share with you today.

First, from Missouri comes the Raptor Rehabilitation Project..  You can read about them here.  They are associated with the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine.  It is fantastic to see another group working on raptor rescue and rehabilitation.

The second is my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.  They received a major endowment to develop a new sustainable technology program.  This site provides more details.  (By the way, if anyone wants to make an end of the year tax deductible donation to support the sustainability studies program at Hofstra, drop me an email and I'll let you know what you need to do.)

It is really wonderful to see all of the cool stuff happening out there.  If you have anything you would like to share, send me a note and I'll post it.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tar Sands 101 and Tar Sands Blockade Activists

An area of remote Alberta that is being
impacted by tar sand strip mining.
Click for photo credit.
Perhaps you've heard of the controversy over the Keystone Pipeline.  Much has been written about it, and there is certainly tremendous political air around the topic.  Let me provide some facts.

Developers seek to build a pipeline from northern Alberta to Texas to bring crude oil derived from tar sands in Canada to refineries located from Illinois to Texas.  The total amount of oil produced from this network could be more than 500,000 barrels per day.

There is no doubt that the Athabascan oil sand fields are a rich oil resource.  Indeed, this area is one of the largest deposits of oil in the world.  However, the extraction of this oil produces some serious environmental impacts as a result of the extractive process and the way that the oil exists in nature.

The oil is actually mined, not pumped.  The sticky oil is enmeshed within sand deposits.  Thus, the sand is dug out through open pit mines.  The sand extends through over 54,000 square miles of Canadian wilderness, including many fragile wetlands and areas of permafrost.  Can you imagine the amount of environmental devastation that will be wrought in the extraction of these materials?  There are some processes that pump steam into the ground to liquify the oil for extraction without mining the sand.  It is estimated that 80% of the reserves could be extracted in this way.

The processing of tar sands is a very energy and water intensive process.  It uses a great deal of natural gas to extract the oil (roughly 40% of Alberta's natural gas usage) and 2-4 gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced.  The sand is heated with hot water and the water and sediment processed to remove the oil.  The waste water and waste sediment issues are immense.  Harmful chemicals can be released into the environment in processing.

However, these are largely Canada's problems and the development of this energy resource is Canada's business.  But, it becomes the business and interest of Americans when the crude, unprocessed material is shipped to areas across the United States from Illinois to Texas in a pipeline network over 1000 miles long.

Part of the network is in place and has been approved by the government.  However, due to environmental concerns over the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Ogallala Aquifer, there have been delays until alternative plans can be developed.

In the meantime, the reality of the impact of the pipeline in communities has hit home.  A great deal of activism against the pipeline has sprouted up in the last year and opposition is growing.  Take a look at this group, the Tar Sands Blockade, that has focused on eminent domain issues as one of their key concerns.  They are also concerned about leaks from the pipeline and water contamination. 

In a perfect world, tar sands would be the last energy resource we developed before we turn off the dirty energy engine as we transition into green energy infrastructure.  There are so many environmental problems associated with tar sand mining and processing, and so many other sources of energy, that its development seems premature and unnecessary.  It reminds me a bit of the fracking issue with natural gas.  There are other options and it doesn’t make sense to develop these energy sources at this point of time using these environmentally problematic processes.  Imagine what we could do if we invested the funds being spent on the pipeline on smart grid technology, distributed energy systems, and green clean energy infrastructure.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Garden

My co-worker Lisa-Marie Pierre sent along this short video from Jason Stefaniak about a garden in a city.  I thought my readers would enjoy it. 

Residential Solar Power Up 70%

Click for photo credit.
How about some end of the year good news?

According to this article, residential solar use in the U.S. is up 70% over last year.  The numbers could be better, but they could certainly be worse.  Most of the increase comes from California where there are programs that support the development of residential solar energy.

One of the challenges in our modern society is the whole concept of "too big to fail" organizations.  We have made huge organizations in charge of small things that impact our lives in immeasurable ways.  For example, we have a few companies managing our food network, a few companies in charge of our financial system, and single large organizations in charge of our power.  Solar energy brings back energy production to the single owner/renter in order to reduce reliance on the too big to fail companies.  This is important because in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we saw failure of the too big to fail organizations with power off in many areas for two weeks.

Getting homes and individuals more self-reliant on locally produced green energy is a key strategy that needs to be developed in the coming years.  This was discussed in a must-read op-ed in the New York Times last week.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Indian Runner Ducks

Indian Runner Ducks.  Click for photo credit.
Last night, the Department of Geology, Environment, and Sustainability had the annual holiday party hosted at the home of my friends Brett and Gail Bennington.  Brett is a professor in the Department.  He and family have three Indian Runner ducks as pets that they keep in their backyard.  They give the duck eggs to folks who like them (I understand they are a bit strong) and they are rather sociable, although sometimes aggressive, creatures.

They are about the most interesting suburban pet I've seen in a long time, so I did a bit of research on them.  They do not fly and are often used in gardens to control pests.  Take a look at the video at the bottom of this post to see how effectively they can be used as part of a garden's ecosystem.  

They are indigenous to Indonesia but are used all over the world as egg producers.  They are not really a meat duck, although they can be eaten.  Commercially, they can be used for egg production because they can lay over 150 eggs per year.   They like to be in groups, and resemble schools of fish in their group movement behavior.  They walk upright and look like a bowling pin or penguin.  

There is even an Indian Runner Duck Association that looks after the interests of these animals.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Feathered Hope

Thanks to all the environmentalists who inspire me
every day.  This Fish and Wildlife photo is of a release
event conducted by the Raptor Education Group.
Click for photo credit.
I remember when I took my first environmental conservation class in 1979 or 1980 I thought  It was the most depressing class in the world.  At the time, I recall thinking, "Boy, can't he (the professor) focus on anything positive happening in the environmental world?"  The class material was full of horrible population statistics, pollution issues, loss of species, etc.  These facts and figures are important, but in my own teaching, I always highlight the work of people trying to change the status quo and improve the world.  I try to keep students (and myself) inspired to make a difference.  I try to have them see the glass as half full and not half empty.

It is in this spirit that I introduce you to the work of the folks at Feathered Hope.  Their sole mission is to raise money for the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, Wisconsin.  I featured this organization in a post earlier this month.  They care for injured and orphaned native birds, particularly raptors.  

Based out of Wausau, Wisconsin, Feathered Hope sells photographs of raptors with the proceeds going to the Raptor Education Group.  You can see their ebay store here.

I know about Feathered Hope because they posted a nice comment about the blog.  If you know of a group making a difference for the environment, I would love to feature them.  Post a comment or drop me an email.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Vegan for a Month?

A parking lot designation outside of a restaurant in Seattle.
Click for photo credit.
I've been trying to think of something interesting to do around Earth Day this year on the Hofstra Campus.  Our Center for Civic Engagement is in charge of organizing a variety of events around the date and I am sure that we will have a variety of great talks and panels.  We'll also have some other events like tree plantings and a campus sustainability tour.

I've been trying to think of something to do around food that will draw some interest on campus.  Last year, I ran a year-long Meatless Monday campaign.  I got the signatures of over 1000 people at Hofstra to commit to eating meatless once a week.  This year, I'm thinking about going vegan for April to try to raise awareness of food issues.  

To be honest, I don't know if I can pull it off.  I was vegetarian for several years and I was a horrible vegetarian.  I didn't pay attention to my diet and I ended up eating way too many carbs and putting on weight.  All the vegans I know cook all the time and eat several meals a day.  I don't know if I will have the time for this.  Plus, April is the busiest time of the spring semester and I do like my stress eating.

But, it could serve as a way to educate the campus around food safety, food ethics, and the overall nature of our relationship to food.

If any of you have any suggestions or tips for me, let me know.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Crappy State of the Beef Industry

Click for photo credit.
A big thanks to Hofstra Sustainability student A.J. Sonnick for alerting me to this series of articles from the Kansas City Star on a host of issues in the beef industry, particularly e coli contamination.  The collected pieces will now be added to my supplemental reading list for my introductory class.  If you have any interest in food or food safety, I urge you to read the articles.  I know some of you professors out there read this blog and I think you'll find the information informative.  The series is probably the most important investigative journalism on food to come out this year.

The articles focus on the food safety and overall ethics of the beef industry in and around Kansas City.  As many of you know, most of the meat processing in the U.S. is done at a handful of facilities.  Cattle are transported great distances to feedlots near the processing plants where they are fattened and prepared for slaughter.  The idea of your local butcher processing meat from a local animal are long gone.  Now, meat is processed using Fordist assembly line processes using cheap labor in some of the largest buildings in the U.S.  The meat is packed and shipped from these slaughter houses to grocery stores all over the U.S.  Cattle from all over the world are handled in single processing facilities.  As is the case with many corporations, costs are cut at every turn to maximize profits.  There wouldn't be anything wrong with this if the food were truly safe.

But, once in the slaughter houses, there are many routes to contamination by e coli bacteria.  I don't know if you know anyone who has gotten sick from e coli, but it is a very dangerous illness that can lead to death.  The bacteria comes from the digestive system in cows.  Problems with e coli have increased because the cattle are fed a corn-based diet in the feedlots.  The natural diet of cattle is grass, so the corn causes issues with the digestive system which causes e coli to flourish.

I won't take the time to detail all of the issues raised in the articles (please read them), but suffice it to say that it is not a surprise that there have been so many meat recalls in recent years.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Logotabulous in California

The University of California has a bit of a controversy on their hands over their new logo.  For the last kazillion years they had a very stodgy formal logo shown here.  It has the seriousness that one would expect from one of the best educational systems in the nation--even if the logo is a bit out of date.  There is a tradition after all.

The new logo is below.  What do you think?  It certainly is modern.  It has many scratching their heads and wondering what the decision makers were thinking.  I kind of like it in a, "boy that sure is interesting" sort of way.  It certainly turns the page on the old one.  I am not sure it makes me think it is the logo of one of the best universities in the land, but it is logotabulous.  I hope that's what they wanted.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lisa-Marie's Suggestions for End of Semester and Ruminations on a Hurricaned Semester

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
My friend and colleague, Lisa-Marie Pierre wrote a blog post about what professors wished students knew at the end of the semester.  You can see it here on her blog.  I think it is a terrific list.

This is a tough time of the year for many of us in the academic world due to the various deadlines of courses, committee work, and publication commitments.  Plus, there are a million social obligations.

The hurricane really set me behind as well.  I cannot think of a semester when I have been so behind on so many things--all the time working as fast as I can.  I know that I am not the only person in this situation.  So many people I know at Hofstra and other northeastern schools are feeling the pinch.  So if you are expecting something from me or haven't had an email returned, forgive me.  I'll be on it as soon as I can.

Our students are feeling the pressure as well.  So, I have been a little lighter with the red pen this semester and a bit gentler in my comments on papers at the close of the year.

We've all been hurricaned a bit and could use a bit of extra kindness.