Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Academic Minute on Caves

Click for photo credit.
I had the wonderful opportunity of talking about the significance of caves and karst research on The Academic Minute recently. It is a nationally broadcast feature on PBS that highlights emerging research in academics. Check it out here.

While you are at it, check out some of the other short pieces by other academics around the country. Other pieces include topics on the Cambrian explosion, refugees, and the significance of sleep.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

6 Reasons to Own An Electric Car on Long Island

We have owned our electric hybrid car (a Ford Fusion) for just over two years and we do not regret the purchase. We are getting about 95 miles per gallon which is far better than hybrids and certainly better than conventional cars. Long Island is a perfect place for electric cars. Here's why.

My car plugged in at Hofstra University. Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
1. Long Island's first suburbs were built around the car. We have excellent roadway infrastructure that easily gets us from place to place. However, the infrastructure dates to the 1930's and 40's. It developed before the mega suburban transportation infrastructure of places like Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles. We have lots of parkways and freeways, but they are limited in size and distance. It might not make sense to have an electric car if you have big commutes in the newer suburbs, but on Long Island, the scale is different. Plus, most people take commuter rail if they are going long distances and drive a limited amount of miles and park at a train station.

2. Long Island has a fair number of charging stations and there are efforts to increase this number. If you look at this charging station map from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy from the U.S. Government, you will see that Long Island has one of the densest concentrations of charging stations in the United States. Hofstra University, where I work, has 6 charging stations. There are so many electric cars on campus that there is a competition for the spots.

Many people commute via train. They drive
from home to the train station.
Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
3. Long Island has some of the highest gas prices in the country. It is not uncommon for us to see prices 20-40 cents above the national average (sometimes higher!). While energy electricity prices are also high, the electricity is far cheaper than the gasoline costs.

4. We're an island. We don't drive that much off the island. Manhattan is a barrier that we have to get through if we are going anywhere. If we go to Manhattan, most of us take the train. Thus, we tend to do our driving on the island and do not drive the long distances others might. My range is about 26 miles before I burn gasoline. I could go back and forth to work with limited stops solely on electricity. However, because I have a charging station at work, I can make multiple stops on the way to and from work and still not burn gas unless I have to go longer distances across the island.

5. The hybrid technology which increases energy efficiency under urban driving conditions (lots of breaking) works well on Long Island with its high traffic volume and suburban infrastructure.

6. Long Island has some serious air pollution problems, in part driven by vehicular exhaust. By increasing the number of electric cars on the road we are reducing pollution. Centralized electric production is far less polluting and more efficient than burning gasoline.

Electric cars don't make sense in all settings. But certainly Long Island is one of the best areas in the nation for their use.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Rethinking Clothing

Click for photo credit.
I recently heard an interview with a French fashion writer who spoke about the difference between American and French fashion. She explained that the French buy one or two high quality pieces and wear them like a uniform. It's what they wear all the time. In contrast, Americans change outfits each day and thus own far more clothing than their European counterparts.

This has led to the development of a throw away culture in the U.S. and other countries around what is called fast fashion. According to this article on Environment 360, Americans throw away 80 pounds of clothing each year for each man, woman, and child.

The problem, of course, is that clothing stores sell extremely cheap clothing made in a globalized market where workers in developing countries earn a very small amount of money for their labor. But one must dig deeper to fully understand not only the labor cost of the clothing but the environmental cost. Cotton uses about a quarter of the world's insecticides and textile manufacturing in places like China with its shoddy environmental rules has caused widespread pollution. Those cheap t-shirts, skirts, and pants come at a big social and environmental cost we don't feel.

In the last few years major clothing retailers known for selling fast fashion have been trying to get a handle on this problem. They have aggressively worked to develop ways to recycle fabrics to try to limit the use of new materials. One retailer, H & M, provides a statement on their Website about their initiatives here.

I expect that the conversation on clothing recycling will accelerate in the coming years as we come to terms in the U.S. with the huge amount of waste we are producing.

While I am always encouraged by discussions about improving recycling of waste products, what is missing is a conversation about reducing consumption. We wouldn't have to create complex systems for recycling if we didn't consume so much to begin with or if we took responsibility in our own homes for our own reuse of the materials we purchase.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a current exhibit called ManusXMachina: Fashion in the Age of Technology that highlights how major fashion houses have used technology to change their collections over the years. The exhibit showcases new fabrics, precision computerized design, and the link between human construction and technology in our modern era. Each piece on display is a work that says something about the designer and the times he or she lived in.

If fashion is art, what does our fast fashion say about our culture and about us as individuals? I think this is a question that many are asking now. The Rational Dress Society, for example, has created a very stylish jumpsuit (really, you have to take a look at it) that one can order for about $150. Their message is that fashion is out of control and we all need just one outfit, the jumpsuit. They have designed their product for 248 different body types and released the pattern for their product free so that people can either make them or buy the constructed garment. While I might not want to wear a jump suit every day, the folks at The Rational Dress Society are having a significant influence on how the next  generation of Americans think about fashion.

We may be hitting peak consumption of fast fashion as concerns on the ethical dimensions of clothing consumption come out of the closet and into mainstream society.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Gifford Pinchot Quiz!

Click for photo credit.
It has been a while since I posted an On the Brink Quiz so I thought I would take the opportunity of the 151st birthday of Gifford Pinchot to post a quiz about the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. Answers to the quiz are in the comments. Links to previous On the Brink quizzes follow the questions.

1. How did Gifford Pinchot's parents make their fortune?

2. While Pinchot learned about the environment in college in the U.S., his post graduate work in forestry did not take place in the U.S. because no university at the time had a program in forestry. In which country did Pinchot study the field of forestry?

3. His family endowed which venerable U.S. school of forestry?
Click for photo credit.

4. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Pinchot was a member of which political party?

5. Which president appointed Pinchot to be the first head of the U.S. Forest Service?

6. Pinchot was fired from the job because he subtly manipulated the media against the President at the time and had disagreements with powerful friends of this President. Who was this President that fired him?

7. Pinchot had a public argument with this notable conservationist over the Hetch Hetchy dam. Name him.

8. Pinchot did not believe in preserving nature for nature's sake. Instead, he believed in a different conservation ethic. What conservation ethic is he most known for?

9. Although Pinchot was born in Connecticut, he was governor of which important state that often swings in our current elections?

Click for photo credit.
10. Pinchot is especially known for his work on conservation, but he was also a strong advocate for this highly controversial initiative that left many less high, but dry.

11. When Pinchot took over the National Forest Service in 1905 there were about 60 public forests covering 56 million acres. When he left in 1910, the amount of public forest lands increased to 172 million acres (contrast that to today when we now have 193 million acres). How many national forests were in place in 1910?

12. Pinchot's first book focused on his work as a forester on a private estate. What is this notable estate that provided the inspiration for Pinchot's first important writing?

13. While many have noted Pinchot's fights with the public lands preservationist community in California during the Hetch Hetchy dam controversy, few remember his fights with those who wanted to develop public lands for coal extraction in one particular region of the United States. These fights ultimately led to conflict with very powerful people who sought his removal as head of the U.S. Forest Service. Over which region of the U.S. did this fight take place?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

50% Renewables in New York by 2030

An upstate New York wind farm. Click for photo credit.
New York's Governor Cuomo announced earlier this month that the state would move to 50% renewable energy production by 2030. There are specific targets that must be met by utilities along the way. The program also highlights improvement of efficiency and phases out coal burning power plants by 2020. This will also help the state realize its goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050 based on 1990 standards. It also continues the state's support of nuclear energy. Of course, the nuclear issue is the most controversial element of the state's overall energy plan and there are many who are unhappy with the Governor's continued support of nuclear. Nevertheless, the striking reduction in greenhouse gas output is quite a goal and I have no doubt that the state has the ability to achieve it. For those in the sustainability world we know that this is how it's done. One sets targets, puts policy in place to help achieve the target, and assesses the outcome.

A key component of attaining this goal is advancing wind and solar generating power infrastructure. At the moment, New York and Massachusetts are moving heavily into offshore wind energy production. An article in yesterday's Washington Post highlights how the two states are aggressively moving forward on developing sizable offshore wind farms.

A few years ago it would be hard to imagine a state as complex as New York achieving an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases along with a goal of a 50% renewable energy portfolio. Now it is in the realm of the possible thanks to vision and policy.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Green Olympics

A rainforest sprouts from the Olympic Stadium during the opening
ceremony in Brazil. Click for photo credit.
Like many people around the world yesterday, I watched the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics that are taking place in Brazil wondering what the designers would showcase about the region. Since it was the first time that the Olympics were held in South America, the opening ceremony took on great significance.

While many themes were addressed, climate change and associated global warming were the main focus of the event. Brazil's expansive rainforest, global temperature change graphs for the last several decades, and maps depicting sea level inundation were all presented in the midst of a very visually dynamic presentation. This focus is truly unprecedented for the Olympics. Previous opening ceremonies tended to focus on national identity and not on science or global problems.

There were many clear green symbolic elements incorporated into the ceremony. Each athlete planted a seed prior to entering the stadium, young national guides carried tree seedlings, and each national name placard was carried on a human powered tricycle carrying plants. The seed platforms near the close of the ceremony created the olympic rings which dramatically sprouted trees at a high point of the event.

Although I found the message wonderful, I could not help but ponder whether this was just some broad greenwashing. So many organizations paint themselves as green even though their practices are anything but green. Was this the case with the Rio Olympics? The huge amount of carbon it took to bring athletes to the region and the amount of energy to build the venues is very large.

I poked around to find out what kind of sustainability initiatives were in place for the event and I actually found quite a bit of information. This link perhaps has the most information on the event's greenhouse gas management planning while this one has a tremendous amount of information about broader sustainability planning.

I am sure that there will be follow up reports to assess the effectiveness of the sustainability planning and to evaluate the greenhouse gas impacts of the event. However, it is clear that the Rio Summer Olympics are not greenwashing--they have done the work to make their message credible.