Staying with the big things that matter most: Climate

Brenda Cooper @ 01-06-2011

I’ve been talking a lot about media in this column lately. We’re seeing a lot of fast change in the amount of media available, the way we consume that media, and also in what that media says. One of the new media books I’ve been reading is Al Gore’s iPad app version of “Our Choice” about Climate Change. As I write this, it’s pouring rain and hail outside my window and ten degrees colder than normal. The city of Joplin has been almost leveled by a tornado, and at this very moment there is a tornado warning in effect in Northern California (which is not historically a place where many tornadoes touch down). So I decided to write about climate change. Continue reading “Staying with the big things that matter most: Climate”


Design for the Soul

Brenda Cooper @ 23-02-2011

Bangkok Airport, exteriorLast month, I talked about what the future needs from us. One of the things I mentioned was better governance. I suspect there’s no actual link, but people seem to be arguing for better governance, not only in Tahrir square but other places as well. This month I decided to focus on one frontier of the brave innovation theme I also think we need: sense-of-wonder design. I’m a science fiction reader, and a lot of the stories I remember best have excellent and fascinating design ideas. Rama. Ringworld. Stillsuits. Continue reading “Design for the Soul”


Eat meat, kill planet

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

I’ve always struggled with ethical arguments for vegetarianism*, but bio-economic arguments have a pragmatism that I find myself responding to. In a repeat of a riff that I’ve heard a few times in years previous, Ars Technica has an article discussing a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which suggests that livestock farming is very close to the point of being ecologically sustainable.

Given the source, some of you will no doubt dismiss the concern out of hand… but it’s interesting to note that, yet again, the blame is laid at the feet of the Western world in general, and the US in particular. A liberal-left conspiracy to take The Empire down a peg or two? Or perhaps just an inconvenient truth: there’s only so much planet to go round, after all, and whatever justifications you choose to use, there’s no denying that the West consumes a disproportionate amount of the resources available.

As of the year 2000, the livestock sector—meat, egg, and milk production—is estimated to have contributed 18 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and 63 percent of reactive nitrogen mobilization, and to have consumed 58 percent of net primary productivity. We are already coming dangerously close to the safe operating space in all three areas. If we continue eating animals at the same rate we do now, this model predicts that these figures will rise by 39, 21, and 36 percent, respectively, until the livestock sector uses most of, or exceeds, our safe operating spaces.

So, what to do?

Based on their results, the authors suggest that “reining in growth of this sector should be a policy priority.” They suggest a number of ways to accomplish this. One is to make livestock production more resource-efficient, which is feasible at the level of feed crop production and more cycling of animal manure in lieu of synthetic fertilizers. Another is to encourage people to eat more poultry and fish rather than beef to meet their dietary protein requirements.

Unfortunately, consumption of meat is currently at twice USDA-recommended levels. Americans have not yet cut down, even thought we know it’s better for our bodies and better for our wallets; it seems doubtful that we would therefore cut down just because it is better for the Earth.

AT points out that the grim storm-cloud on the horizon here is the prospect of increased demand for meat protein in developing nations… which echoes some of the more popular justifications for refusing to limit carbon emissions (“well, they’re not going to slow down, so why should we?”). I’m increasingly convinced that, thanks to the politicising of environmental issues, the only thing that’s going to force a behavioural change on a large scale is economics: we’ll all start eating less meat (and driving more efficient vehicles) when we can no longer afford – as individuals, and as communities – to maintain our current habits.

Whether those economic factors will kick in early enough to prevent the nasty side-effects of running up against resource limits (we’ve had oil wars already, food wars are starting to show, and water wars are a not-too-distant inevitability) remains to be seen. It’s an ugly gamble to have to make as a species, but I rather suspect we’ve left ourselves little other choice.

[ * And there’s my own selfishness, lest anyone think I’m putting myself on some pedestal of righteousness here; the underlying problem with working against the prospect of ecological catastrophe is that we’re all complicit in it, which leads to the inevitable fusillade of finger-pointing as we all try to find someone more at fault than ourselves. Here’s hoping for Doug Coupland’s promise of a species-wide sense of culpability; sooner we get it into our heads that we’re all in the same boat, the sooner we can start solving problems. ]


Portugal plans ‘smart’ eco-city

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

OK, so ‘smart’ is a persistently misused word in the modern context (my smartphone isn’t smart; damn thing can’t hold a decent conversation for more than a minute or two), but nonetheless: the northern end of Portugal will, if all goes to plan, play host to a designed and networked ecological city, wired to the gills with sensors and systems to control the consumption of energy and water. Unsurprisingly (and in keeping with the general trends in ecological product marketing) it has a stupid smug pun of a name:

Like other sustainable cities, PlanIT Valley will treat its own water and tap renewable energy. Buildings will also have plant-covered roofs, which will reduce local temperature through evapotranspiration, as well as absorbing rainwater and pollutants.

Yet that is where the similarities with other eco-cities end, according to its makers Living PlanIT based in Paredes. For a start, PlanIT Valley will be built closer to existing transport links than the likes of Masdar. More significantly, its “brain” will use data collected from a network of sensors akin to a nervous system to control the city’s power generation, water and waste treatment (see “Brains and nervous system”). It’s a kind of “urban metabolism”, says Steven Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT.

While this network of sensors sounds expensive, the cost of installing it will be offset by using more efficient building techniques.

Rather more utopian and blue-sky than the Cisco city-in-a-box, then, which – one presumes – focusses more closely on the infrastructural bang for the buck required in the rowing economies of Asia than on touchy-feely eco-gubbins; one suspects some sort of mid-point between the two might be an ideal worth aiming for.

While PlanIT Valley is obviously a well-meaning project, the designed city doesn’t have a wonderful history of successes, at least not here in the UK; anyone who has ever visited Milton Keynes will know what I’m trying to say here. As pointed out in the article above, it’s all very well to build a technological marvel of an urban space, but all bets are off until people move in and actually start building a community there… and as even the most casual student of utopias will be aware, it’s usually the people that cause the problems rather than the buildings that house them.

[ Why, yes, I am feeling rather pessimistic today – how did you guess? ]


A world without mosquitoes

Paul Raven @ 11-08-2010

Years of popular science broadcasting (not to mention a few science fiction stories) have inculcated the idea that eradicating any one creature – no matter how undesirable and nasty – from its native ecosystem is to invite the collapse thereof. But that may not necessarily be a universal truth – it turns out that we might be able to wipe out mosquitoes (or at least the human-biting disease vector species thereof) with little risk [via Michael Anissimov]. Might.

… in many cases, scientists acknowledge that the ecological scar left by a missing mosquito would heal quickly as the niche was filled by other organisms. Life would continue as before — or even better. When it comes to the major disease vectors, “it’s difficult to see what the downside would be to removal, except for collateral damage”, says insect ecologist Steven Juliano, of Illinois State University in Normal. A world without mosquitoes would be “more secure for us”, says medical entomologist Carlos Brisola Marcondes from the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. “The elimination of Anopheles would be very significant for mankind.”

Collateral damage, eh? Poor choice of words, perhaps, given recent events. Still, wiping out some mosquitoes could not only deep-six malaria and dengue (still huge killers in developing nations), but allow the colonisation of huge tracts of land that mosquitoes have made impenetrable, such as the Arctic tundra. But those are exactly the areas where the lack of mosquitoes would have the strongest effect on the ecosystem… so it’s not a decision I’d want to be responsible for, myself.

But one thing’s for sure: if we’re going to kill mosquitoes, we should use frickin’ LASERS.


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