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Posts Tagged ‘environment

“Tossing away a piece of paper is clearly taboo”*…

 

paper

 

Today, in an age of computers, smartphones and e-books, you could be forgiven for predicting the demise of this ancient wonder material. But though there has been a small decline in the demand for so-called “graphic paper”, like newspapers and books, the paper industry is booming.

The world currently uses around 400 million tonnes of paper per year. And from money to cardboard boxes, to receipts, coffee cups, stick-on notes, baking paper, egg cartons, birthday cards, straws, wrapping paper, and, of course, papier-mâché, it’s hard to imagine modern life without it. We might be edging towards a cashless society, but the paperless society, as the American librarian Jesse Shera famously put it, “is about as plausible as the paperless bathroom”.

In fact, demand for paper is growing all over the world, and as we turn our backs on single-use plastic, paper is one of the main contenders to take its place. The last few years has seen numerous retailers announce that they are switching to paper bags, while paper-based chocolate wrappers, ready-meal trays and water bottles have also started to emerge.

In Canada, the government recently approved a ban on certain plastic items, while the EU has pledged to eradicate some of the most notorious by 2021. Some Indian states have gone further, ditching single-use plastic altogether. Many businesses have already announced that they will be replacing throw-away plastic items with paper versions.

But how sustainable is paper really? And what can be done to reduce its environmental impact?…

[Consider, among other factors, like deforestation…]

Almost every phase of paper manufacturing involves water. Scaled up to the magnitude of the industry today, a vast amount is required. To make just a single A4 sheet, you need between two and 13 litres. In China, which remains one of the leading players in the paper trade, the industry sucked up 3.35 billion tonnes (roughly three trillion litres) in 2014 – enough for about 37 billion baths.

After the pulping and bleaching is over, paper mills end up with water containing a cocktail of organic compounds, alkalis and bleach, which must be treated so that it can be disposed of safely. This can be a huge technical challenge, and some paper mills simply discharge the effluent straight into the local water supply, where it’s acutely toxic to fish and other wildlife  – even at concentrations of just 2%

For better and/or worse: “How paper is making a comeback.”

* Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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As we muse on materials, we might recall that it was on this date in 1814 that London suffered “The Great Beer Flood Disaster” when the metal bands on an immense vat at Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery snapped, releasing a tidal wave of 3,555 barrels of Porter (571 tons– more than 1 million pints), which swept away the brewery walls, flooded nearby basements, and collapsed several adjacent tenements. While there were reports of over twenty fatalities resulting from poisoning by the porter fumes or alcohol coma, it appears that the death toll was 8, and those from the destruction caused by the huge wave of beer in the structures surrounding the brewery.

(The U.S. had its own vat mishap in 1919, when a Boston molasses plant suffered similarly-burst bands, creating a heavy wave of molasses moving at a speed of an estimated 35 mph; it killed 21 and injured 150.)

Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery

source

 

 

Written by LW

October 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”*…

 

12_population

 

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Over more than 40 years, his books on the environment, population, food and energy have steadily grown in influence. He is now seen as one of the world’s foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis. Bill Gates says he waits for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie. The latest is Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?
Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good enough just to say life is better or the trains are faster. You have to bring in the numbers. This book is an exercise in buttressing what I have to say with numbers so people see these are the facts and they are difficult to dispute.

Growth is a huge book – almost 200,000 words that synthesise many of your other studies, ranging across the world and exploring far into the past and future. Do you see this as your magnum opus?
I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it – economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that…

The always-illuminating Jonathan Watts interviews the always-provocative Vaclav Smil: “Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’.”

Pair with “Minimal Maintenance,” the essay version of a talk by Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.  As Patrick Tanguay suggests: it is a “really excellent read which ties together maintenance, degrowth, libraries, museums, environmental justice, and architecture…[it] frames degrowth not as blanket anti-growth but as a critique of growth as an end in itself.”

See also Astra Taylor’s “Bad ancestors: does the climate crisis violate the rights of those yet to be born?” and. for a look at the challenges ahead, The Economist‘s “The past, present and future of climate change.”

* Miles Davis

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying premiered on Broadway.  A musical comedy by Frank Loesser, with book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, it was based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same name.  It follows young, ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch, who, with the help of the self-help manual How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company.

The play, which starred Robert Morse and Rudy Vallée, ran for 1,417 performances; it won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

220px-How_to_Succeed_in_Business_Without_Really_Trying_1961_Original_Cast_Recording source

 

 

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education”*…

 

pre-human

 

One of the creepier conclusions drawn by scientists studying the Anthropocene—the proposed epoch of Earth’s geologic history in which humankind’s activities dominate the globe—is how closely today’s industrially induced climate change resembles conditions seen in past periods of rapid temperature rise.

“These ‘hyperthermals,’ the thermal-maximum events of prehistory, are the genesis of this research,” says Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Whether the warming was caused by humans or by natural forces, the fingerprints—the chemical signals and tracers that give evidence of what happened then—look very similar.”

The canonical example of a hyperthermal is the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a 200,000-year period that occurred some 55.5 million years ago when global average temperatures rose by 5 to 8 degrees Celsius (about 9 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit). Schmidt has pondered the PETM for his entire career, and it was on his mind one day in his office last year when the University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank paid him a visit.

Frank was there to discuss the idea of studying global warming from an “astrobiological perspective”—that is, investigating whether the rise of an alien industrial civilization on an exoplanet might necessarily trigger climate changes similar to those we see during Earth’s own Anthropocene. But almost before Frank could describe how one might search for the climatic effects of industrial “exocivilizations” on newly discovered planets, Schmidt caught him up short with a surprising question: “How do you know we’re the only time there’s been a civilization on our own planet?”

Frank considered a moment before responding with a question of his own: “Could we even tell if there had been an industrial civilization [long before this one]?”

Their subsequent attempt to address both questions has yielded a provocative paper on the possibility Earth might have spawned more than one technological society during its 4.5-billion-year history. And if indeed some such culture arose on Earth in the murky depths of geologic time, how might scientists today discern signs of that incredible development? Or, as the paper put it: “If an industrial civilization had existed on Earth many millions of years prior to our own era, what traces would it have left and would they be detectable today?”…

The entire fascinating piece at “Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?

* H. G. Wells

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As we ponder predecessors, we might recall hat it was on this date in 1974 that Nature published a paper by F. Sherwood Rowland documenting his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (like freon in aerosols and refrigeration units) contribute to ozone depletion.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA source

 

Written by LW

September 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Oxygen / Everything needs it”*…

An aerial view of forest fire of the Amazon taken with a drone is seen from an Indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso

 

As tongues of flame lapped the planet’s largest tract of rain forest over the past few weeks, it has rightfully inspired the world’s horror. The entire Amazon could be nearing the edge of a desiccating feedback loop, one that could end in catastrophic collapse. This collapse would threaten millions of species, from every branch of the tree of life, each of them—its idiosyncratic splendor, its subjective animal perception of the world—irretrievable once it’s gone. This arson has been tacitly encouraged by a Brazilian administration that is determined to develop the rain forest, over the objections of its indigenous inhabitants and the world at large. Losing the Amazon, beyond representing a planetary historic tragedy beyond measure, would also make meeting the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement all but impossible. World leaders need to marshal all their political and diplomatic might to save it.

The Amazon is a vast, ineffable, vital, living wonder. It does not, however, supply the planet with 20 percent of its oxygen.

As the biochemist Nick Lane wrote in his 2003 book Oxygen, “Even the most foolhardy destruction of world forests could hardly dint our oxygen supply, though in other respects such short-sighted idiocy is an unspeakable tragedy.”…

There are very many very good reasons not to burn down the Amazon rain forest.  Still, humans could burn every living thing on the planet and still not dent its oxygen supply: “The Amazon Is Not Earth’s Lungs.”

(Again– burning down the rainforest is bad, very very bad.  But as long-time environmental reporter Michael Shellenberger argues, if we ground our concerns in the actual details of what’s happening, we’re much likelier to find effective responses.)

* Mary Oliver (from her collection Twist)

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As we take a deep breath, we might recall that it was on this date in 1666 that the Great Fire of London broke out.  The conflagration raged for four days, mostly in the City of London, within the old Roman walls; it did not spread to the aristocratic district of Westminster, to Charles II’s Palace of Whitehall, nor to most of the suburban slums.  It destroyed 13,200 houses, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and 87 parish churches.  Miraculously, fewer than 20 people lost their lives.

Great Fire of London.jpg source

 

Written by LW

September 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The more serious about gardening I became, the more dubious lawns seemed”*…

 

Colorado Rockies Grounds Crew

 

Surprisingly, the lawn is one of America’s leading “crops,” amounting to at least twice the acreage planted in cotton. In 2007, it was estimated that there were roughly twenty-five to forty million acres of turf in the United States. Put all that grass together in your mind and you have an area, at a minimum, about the size of the state of Kentucky, though perhaps as large as Florida. Included in this total were fifty-eight million home lawns plus over sixteen thousand golf-course facilities (with one or more courses each) and roughly seven hundred thousand athletic fields. Numbers like these add up to a major cultural preoccupation.

Not only is there already a lot of turf, but the amount appears to be growing significantly. A detailed study found that between 1982 and 1997, as suburban sprawl gobbled up the nation, the lawn colonized over 382,850 acres of land per year. Even the amount of land eligible for grass has increased, as builders have shifted from single-story homes to multi-story dwellings with smaller footprints. The lawn, in short, is taking the country by storm.

Lawn care is big business, with Americans spending an estimated $40 billion a year on it. That is more than the entire gross domestic product of the nation of Vietnam…

How did the plain green lawn become the central landscaping feature in America, and what are the financial, the medical, and perhaps most painfully, the ecological costs? “American Green.”

* Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

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As we go to seed, we might spare a thought for John Garnet Carter; he died on this date in 1954.  A hotelier who ran a lodge at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee/Rock City, Georgia, he built the first “Tom Thumb Golf” course to keep the children of his guests occupied– only to find that the attraction was a hit with adults.

Miniature golf dates back to the 19th century in the UK and the earlier 20th century in the U.S., when putting greens became attractions in their own right.  But Carter’s patented “Tom Thumb” approach– which incorporated tile, sewer pipe, hollow logs, and other obstacles, along with fairyland statuary– earned him the honorific “Father of Miniature Golf.”

garnett Carter

Carter, putting

source

 

Written by LW

July 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually”*…

 

dredging sand

Dredging sand from one of Greenland’s fjords

 

Readers may recall a post a couple of years ago on then-dawning shortage of sand (“To see a world on a grain of sand“).  The problem has only grown, and has led to a new kind of crime– sand rustling.

But there is a new source of sand emerging…

The world makes a lot of concrete, more than 10 billion tons a year, and is poised to make much more for a population that is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions.

But because of the erosive power of ice, there is a lot of sand in Greenland. And with climate change accelerating the melting of Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet — a recent study found that melting has increased sixfold since the 1980s — there is going to be a lot more.

“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. [Mette] Bendixen said. “One part of the world has something that other parts of the world are lacking.”

Dr. Bendixen is planning a two-year study to answer basic questions about the idea, including its feasibility and the environmental effects of extracting and exporting large amounts of the material. The government of Greenland, a self-ruled territory of Denmark, is studying it as well…

All told, Greenland’s ice sheet delivers about 900 million tons of sediment to the waters surrounding the island each year, or about 10 percent of all the sediment delivered to oceans worldwide. The glacier at Sermilik Fjord, about 50 miles south of the capital, Nuuk, delivers about a quarter of Greenland’s total. That explains the vast delta of sand visible from the air as well as from a research boat as the tide begins to go out.

The delta, with muddy rivulets crisscrossing it, stretches to the glacier more than five miles away.

Dr. Bendixen has made some hypothetical calculations. If just 15 percent of the sediment pouring into this fjord every year could be extracted, that amount of sand — 33 million tons — is twice the annual demand of San Diego County in California, one of the most populous in the United States.

Sermilik Fjord is only one of a number of places in Greenland with large amounts of sand. And the sand will keep coming as the world keeps warming and the ice sheet keeps melting. “It’s like a tap pouring not only water, but sediment,” she said…

Even as climate change taketh away, it giveth: “Melting Greenland Is Awash in Sand.”

For more (and listenable) background on the ubiquity of sand in construction: 99% Invisible‘s “Built on Sand.”

[TotH to MKM]

* Jimi Hendrix

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As we have second thoughts about silver linings, we might recall that today is Fools Paradise Day- a kind of “day off” for the mind, celebrating happiness that is rooted in false beliefs or hopes.

The concept of a paradise of fools has a long history; Dante and Ariosto, for example, described such planes– places where fools or idiots were sent after death: intellectually incompetent to be held responsible for their deeds, they cannot be punished for them in hell, atone for them in purgatory, or be rewarded for them in heaven.

The phrase first appeared in English in 1462 in the Paston Letters (“I wold not be in a folis paradyce”).  But it began its trek into the vernacular– and acquired it’s current meaning– in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (when the Nurse says to Romeo, “if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behavior”).

fools paradise source

 

Written by LW

July 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”*…

 

concrete dam

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China– the largest concrete structure in the world

 

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defences against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one. Unlike the natural world, however, it does not actually grow. Instead, its chief quality is to harden and then degrade, extremely slowly.

All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The cement industry pumps out more than that every two years. But though the problem is bigger than plastic, it is generally seen as less severe. Concrete is not derived from fossil fuels. It is not being found in the stomachs of whales and seagulls. Doctors aren’t discovering traces of it in our blood. Nor do we see it tangled in oak trees or contributing to subterranean fatbergs. We know where we are with concrete. Or to be more precise, we know where it is going: nowhere. Which is exactly why we have come to rely on it…

Solidity is a particularly attractive quality at a time of disorientating change. But – like any good thing in excess – it can create more problems than it solves…

Another entry for the “any solution can become the next problem” file: Jonathan Watts on the many ways that concrete’s benefits can mask enormous dangers to the planet, to human health – and to culture itself: “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.”

* Gunter Grass

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As we muse on materials, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Linus Yale patented the “safe door lock” (U.S. patent no. 3,630), the first modern “pin tumbler lock.”

yale-door-lock-patent-1844 source

 

Written by LW

June 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

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