Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Worse Than We Could Possibly Have Imagined

Those who took the time to study climate data objectively always said that we were putting the future of the planet at risk because of the amount of CO2 that we were spewing into the atmosphere.  We knew since the 1970s--if not earlier than that--that our CO2 emissions were raising global temperatures and the effects of this warming trend would lead ultimately to rising sea levels and more unstable weather patterns around the world. 

We knew all this, and yet collectively we did very little to try in a serious way to curb our wanton CO2 emissions.

But now the latest scientific data indicates that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached levels not seen in at least three million years.  You heard it right.  That's 3,000,000 years. 

In other words, we're failing miserably as a species to address the single most important issue facing our planet today.  We selfishly thought, perhaps, that climate change was a problem that the next generation would have to deal with, because the more dire impacts of climate change wouldn't be felt for some time.  But the new data indicates that climate change is our problem and it has to be addressed right now.  Actually this problem really needed to be addressed thirty years ago, but our selfish human tendency to want to live as though there were absolutely no consequences  to our voracious exploitation of the earth's resources got in the way of sensible action that could have been taken on this issue.

We can certainly blame conservatives, who have spent the last twenty years acting as shills for the gas and oil industry and who have spread doubts about the reality of climate change.  But most Democrats have lacked the courage to act decisively on this issue when they controlled the White House and Congress.  President Obama may have mentioned the dangers of climate change once or twice in the five years that he's been President, but he has been too timid to even raise the issue of a carbon tax--the most effective way to control carbon emissions.

Let's not forget that we Americans have been the largest emitters of CO2 for some time, even if the Chinese are now surpassing us.  It's our consumptive way of life that is the cause of the problem. But rather than trying to live in greater harmony with nature, we have instead gleefully spread our American style of consumerism to the rest of the planet. 

I wish that I could say that this new milestone will be exactly the kind of impetus that our elected officials need to begin working to place caps on carbon emissions, but I know almost for certain that this won't be the case.   Human beings are certainly capable of acting cooperatively and rationally when their interests are in jeopardy, but it takes our species a long time to get around to doing what's right.

And time right now is a luxury that we simply don't have.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Renewable Energy: The Time Has Come

In an really interesting article in this weekend's New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal takes issue with the idea that the United States needs to be dependent fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.   In fact, we could probably transition quite successfully to clean, renewable forms of energy like solar and wind power  if there was the collective political will to do so.

Right now, the United States is falling behind the rest of the developed work in the development of renewal forms of energy.  This keeps us hostage to Big Oil and to the petty dictators in the Middle East who control much of the world oil supplies.  As Rosenthal points out, it doesn't have to be this way.

If we were as committed to funding research in renewable energy as we are funding research on new weapon systems for the Pentagon, we could be completely energy independent by mid-century.

A missed opportunity, for sure!

Monday, January 21, 2013

What's in a Flush?

To be human means to love, to experience regret and loss, and to aspire to transcend the existential limitations of our mortal being.  It also means—more prosaically to be sure—having to eliminate the liquid and solid wastes that have built up in our bodies as a result of the process of consuming food and drink.  In the not too distant past, people would have eliminated such wastes in an outhouse (basically a big hole in the ground with four walls placed around it), in an open field or stream, or by simply throwing such waste out of the windows of their squalid tenement apartments.  Only in recent history have human beings had the luxury of evacuating their food waste into toilets and flushing these waste products miles away from where they are living.

None of us, I’m sure, would like to return to pre-toilet days.  And, provided our toilets are connected to modern sewage treatment systems, the consequences of our modern methods of waste elimination are convenient for society and much more beneficial for local ecosystems than simply disposing of our waste products in whatever hole in the ground we are able to find. 

But, in our effort to forget that being human also means having to piss and crap, we have created a system to dispose of solid and liquid waste that is so inefficient, so wasteful of the most precious resource that our planet provides us, that we literally commit an act of ecological evil every time we flush our toilets. 
Before you think that I’m exaggerating, consider these facts:  If you live in a home built before 1994 (the vast majority of homes in the United States), each flush of your toilet consumes 3.5 gallons of water.  The average person in such a household, therefore, wastes 19.5 gallons of water per day and 7,135 gallons of water per year simply flushing their toilets.  If the typical household includes four people, that household, then, is responsible for wasting 78 gallons of water each day and 28,540 gallons of water each year.

Consider further that water is our most precious natural resource; that we human beings are made up of over 50% water, and without a clean, steady supply of this precious liquid, we simply couldn’t survive as individuals or as a species.  Finally, consider the fact that many parts of the world—and many parts of our own country—have been experiencing severe drought conditions as a result of climate change.  It has been suggested that water will become such a contested commodity in the 21st century that the wars of the future may very well be fought, not over access to oil, gas, gold, or silver, but over access to a reliable supply of potable water. 

And most of us are content to waste 3.5 gallons of this “liquid gold” every time we relieve our bladders!

The solution to this problem doesn’t involve having to squat in our backyards (the neighbors probably wouldn’t appreciate that very much anyway).  The easiest solution is to replace older toilets with more efficient models that waste less water.  New toilets have a tank capacity of 1.6 gallons of water—more than enough to flush away whatever comes out of our bodies. Better still, European-style toilets are made with dual flush options, so less water is used to flush liquid waste than solid.  If money is an issue, a free solution is simply to put a 1 or 2 liter soda bottle filled with water into your toilets tanks, which will reduce the holding capacity of the tank and automatically use less water.

The most important thing that we can do, however, is to stop thinking about water as a free resource with no consequences attached to its use.  While there is a constant amount of water on the planet and in our atmosphere, making waste water potable enough to drink requires building enormous water purification systems that are energy intensive (Singapore has been experimenting with this).  Even in a country as wealthy as the United States, building enough purification systems to “reclaim” all of the water we waste flushing our toilets would be prohibitively expensive.   The solution then is conservation, not reclamation.

This demands that each of us develop a new relationship with water that recognizes just how precious this resource is. If something is truly precious to us, we wouldn’t consider simply flushing it away without any further thought. 

I used to take a group of students to West Virginia as part of our Appalachia Project every summer. The two Catholic nuns who were in charge of our group spent a significant part of the students’ orientation educating them about how important it was to live in harmony with the local ecosystem. They then went into a lengthy discussion—much to the student’s dismay, I’m sure—about their system for flushing the toilet. The students were instructed that, if they absolutely had to use the toilet in the house (as opposed to using the outhouse), they had to follow the following rule: “If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” It took the students quite a while to get used to this system (their natural inclination, of course, was to flush immediately regardless of whether the waste they produced was brown or yellow), but eventually they got into the routine. The students probably didn’t continue this practice when they returned to “civilization” (as they called it), but for a while it certainly did make them conscious of an issue they probably never gave much thought to before. 

So, the next time you feel compelled to eliminate waste products from your body, you may want to consider if the flush you are about to produce is, in fact, absolutely necessary (if it’s yellow, could it stand to mellow for a while?), or, at the very least, whether that flush is wasting much more water than necessary to achieve your desired goal of getting what you eliminate from your body out of your house with reasonable efficiency.

Then we can discuss just how much toilet paper you absolutely need to wipe your posterior before you even consider flushing the toilet. But that’s a topic for another post.

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