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Posts Tagged ‘environment

“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


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

“Not taking risks one doesn’t understand is often the best form of risk management”*…


climate and risk


Jerry Taylor is the CEO of the Niskanen Center.  A veteran of conservative and libertarian think tanks (including the infamous ALEC) who spent much of his career working to thwart climate change mitigation moves, he has had a change of heart…

I spent the better part of my professional life (1991-2014) working at a libertarian think tank—the Cato Institute—arguing against climate action. As Cato’s director of Natural Resource Studies (and later, as a senior fellow and eventually vice president), I maintained that, while climate change was real, the impacts would likely prove rather modest and that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would greatly exceed the benefits.

I changed my mind about that, however, because (among other things) I changed my mind about risk management.

If we think about climate risks in the same fashion we think about risks in other contexts, we should most certainly hedge—and hedge aggressively—by removing fossil fuels from the economy as quickly as possible.

Let me explain…

And so he does, at “What Changed My Mind About Climate Change?

* Raghuram G. Rajan


As we struggle to be good ancestors, we might recall that it was on this date (as nearly as scholars can mark it), that the first long-distance electric power transmission line in the United States was completed: 14 miles between a generator at Willamette Falls and downtown Portland, Oregon.  While the distance seems trivial today, the feat was considered a major engineering accomplishment in its time.


An illustration of the Willamette power station and transmission line painted by one of its engineers



Written by LW

June 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call.”*…



“Whitening” the ocean (to reflect more solar radiation) by widely dispersing films, foams, floating chips, or other reflectors– or by towing icebergs from the Arctic down to lower latitudes, so the whiteness of the ice would reflect the sun.


The 1990s were a critical decade for action on climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of…

Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering. During the peak of Exxon’s obfuscation, the company’s top climate scientists, Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi, along with two other scientists who didn’t work for Exxon, coauthored a chapter in a book called Engineering Response to Global Climate Change. Using dense, technical language, they outlined more than a dozen planetary-scale fixes to global warming. Not every idea was their own—some were borrowed, at least partially, from prior scientific literature—and the scientists also cautioned that the proposed solutions were not necessarily ready to be implemented. “Geoengineering may well have unintended and unforeseen consequences,” they wrote.

Indeed, geoengineering was considered fringe science in the 1990s, not least because there was still widespread hope that carbon emissions could be reduced through global agreements like Kyoto. (President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the accord in 2001.) It would take a decade before Scientific American declared that climate intervention had “gained respectability,” and almost 15 years until the United Nations’ climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would begin publishing assessments on geoengineering options. That’s because while some of the ideas featured in the Exxon study were straightforward (planting trees, for example), a lot of them were quite insane…

Destroying the earth to save it?  Review several of the oil giant’s visionary “solutions”: “Giant Mirrors. Ocean Whitening. Here’s How Exxon Wanted to Save the Planet.”

* Naomi Klein


As we head for the hills, we might spare a thought for Robert McCorkle Netting; he died on this date in 1995.  A geographer and anthropologist, he pioneered the field of cultural ecology.  Among the many findings from his extensive field work, he argued that worldwide, small farms succeeded where large-scale agricultural enterprises tended to fail, the household being the most effective management unit.  His methodology has been widely adopted, and his textbook, Cultural Ecology, is widely used.

nettingrobertthm source


Written by LW

February 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”*…



The Treeographer [is] a collection of the true histories of significant or symbolic trees from around the world. The stories cover a wide variety of topics, including culture, history, science, religion, and more… All of the stories to date are organized geographically in the Archive. If you aren’t sure where to start, try Ogawa’s Sacred Cedar – A 780 Million Yen Rescue Mission

Nick Rowan shares his passion: The Treeographer.

* Chinese proverb


As we take the shade, we might spare a thought for Gerald “Gerry” Malcolm Durrell; he died on this date in 1995.  A British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter, most of his work was rooted in his life as an animal collector and enthusiast… though he is probably most widely known for his autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals and its successors, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods... which have been made into television and radio mini-series many times, most recently as ITV’s/PBS’s The Durrells.



“What is common to many is least taken care of”*…



As an evolutionary biologist who received my PhD in 1975, I grew up with Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine in 1968. His parable of villagers adding too many cows to their common pasture captured the essence of the problem that my thesis research was designed to solve. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but it also led to an overgrazed pasture. The biological world is full of similar examples in which individuals who behave for the good of their groups lose out in the struggle for existence with more self-serving individuals, resulting in overexploited resources and other tragedies of non-cooperation…

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009…

David Sloan Wilson on the design principles that can solve the tragedy of the commons: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas.”

For more on the tragedy of the commons, see here— also the source of the cartoon above.

* Aristotle


As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that we– the entire population of the earth– narrowly avoided total obliteration, as the 500,000 ton asteroid/planetoid 69230 Hermes failed to collide with our planet.  It missed by twice the distance of the Moon… but that’s only three seconds.  (In 1989, the earth had an even closer approach, but by the smaller 4581 Asclepius.)

69230 Hermes




Written by LW

October 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change.”*…



The Trump administration released a report that predicted global temperatures will be four degrees higher by the end of this century, assuming current trends persist. World leaders have pledged to keep global temperatures from rising even two degrees (Celsius) above pre-industrial levels, with the understanding that warming beyond that could prove catastrophic. The last time the Earth was as warm as the White House expects it to be in 2100, its oceans were hundreds of feet higher. Which is to say: The Trump administration ostensibly, officially expects that, absent radical action to reduce carbon emissions, within the next 80 years, much of Manhattan and Miami will sink into the sea; many of world’s coral reefs will be irreversibly destroyed by acidifying oceans; vast regions of the Earth will lose their primary sources of water; and a variety of extreme weather events will dramatically increase in frequency.

And the White House believes that this fact is an argument for loosening restrictions on carbon emissions… the administration uses its four-degree warming estimate to argue that eliminating 8 billion tons worth of emissions won’t be enough to change the climate outlook, by itself, so the federal government shouldn’t bother…

This argument is deplorable in its nihilism. But its core assumption is also patently absurd. The administration’s analysis is premised on the notion that there is no relationship between what the United States does with regard to climate regulation, and what the rest of the world’s countries do. Which is totally bogus: Not only can the U.S. lead by example, it also has the power to coerce other countries into emulating the carbon standards we set for ourselves…

That said, if one assumes that the entire leadership of the Republican Party has concluded that human civilization will not survive Barron Trump, then their governing agenda starts to make a lot more sense. Exacerbating inequality and subordinating the commons to short-term profit maximization isn’t in the enlightened medium-term interests of the GOP donor class — but in the medium-term, we’ll all (apparently) be dead!

The whole sad story in full: “The Trump Administration Anticipates Catastrophic Global Warming by 2100.”

* Margaret Atwood


As we we recall, with Marshall McLuhan, that there are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, only crew, we might take a celebratory trip in honor of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and anthropologist who became famous for his Kon-Tiki  Expedition in 1947 (though he went on many others as well); he was born on this date in 1914…  He once responded to an interviewer, “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of most people.”

220px-ThorHeyerdahl source


“Some people call it global warming; some people call it climate change. What is the difference?”*…


The Battle of Terheide.

Climate change has had, and probably will have, very unequal consequences for different groups of people. We often assume that developed societies will fare better in a warmer future than the developing world. Yet the Dutch thrived in the 17th century not simply because their republic was rich, but because much of its wealth derived from activities that benefited from climate change.

Today, we can learn from the republic by strengthening social safety nets, investing in technologies that exploit or reduce climate change, and thinking proactively about how we will adapt to the planet of our future. It just so happens that much of the federal government in the United States is abandoning these policies, but there are more optimistic stories at the state and municipal levels, and there is exciting news coming out of China and India…

Compared to the climate change we’re experiencing now, the Little Ice Age — which chilled the globe from the 13th to the 19th century — was modest. “The world has already warmed more, relative to mid-20th-century temperature averages, than it cooled in the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age,” says Dagomar Degroot, a historian at Georgetown University. “And there is much more warming to come.”

In his new book, “The Frigid Golden Age,” Degroot argues that the Little Ice Age– and more specifically, the Dutch experience of the period–  has a lot to teach present-day societies about coping with climate change.  He summarizes his findings at: “When the World Was Cold.”

* Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and political consultant


As we beat the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955, at General Motors cars how in Detroit, that G. M. engineer William G. Cobb unveiled the “Sunmobile”– a 15-inch prototype of an electric car powered by the sun, the first working solar-powered car.

Sunmobile_detail source


Written by LW

August 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

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