Archive for June, 2008


Video: ‘Green’ Nanotech: An Overview

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Pesticides, plastics, and the genetic-modification of plants are our only hope. Each of them, single-handedly, will save the day! Or, so it was once heralded. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that these new technologies do more harm than good—to the environment, to our food, to us. The new mysterious stranger on the block is nanotechnology…or, “Clean, green, and never seen, nanotechnology!” (The part about single-handedly saving the day is understood.)

Nanotechnology is used in everything from USB flash memory to shampoo to plush toys. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies claims that over 609 nanotech consumer products exist today, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3-4 per week. (They have a great nanotech product directory here.)

If you’re unsure what nanotechnology actually is (like I was), there’s no way to get a good sense of whether or not it is dangerous. As with any new technology, the products that use it find their way into our homes long before the technology’s safety information. As Mark Schapiro pointed out in this interview, we are the guinea pigs. A new technology’s safety information doesn’t come to us, it comes from us.

Here’s a video overview of nanotechnology from KQED, a public television station in northern California. The video does a good job covering nanotechnology in understandable terms, while address both the potential (improved solar panels), and the risks (nanotech cellular attacks).

Carole Bass has written an article for AlterNet about the potential risks of nanotechnology and the early findings with regard to threats to the health of our world.

From the article:

Environmentalists, scientists, and policymakers increasingly worry that nanotech development is outrunning our understanding of how to use it safely. Consider these examples from last month alone:

  • An animal study from the United Kingdom found that certain carbon nanotubes can cause the same kind of lung damage as asbestos. Carbon nanotubes are among the most widely used nanomaterials.
  • A coalition of consumer groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban the sale of products that contain germ-killing nanosilver particles, from stuffed animals to clothing, arguing that the silver could harm human health, poison aquatic life, and contribute to the rise of antibiotic resistance.
  • Researchers in Singapore reported that nanosilver caused severe developmental problems in zebrafish embryos — bolstering worries about what happens when those antimicrobial products, like soap and clothing, leak silver into the waste stream.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense, in an internal memo, acknowledged that nanomaterials may “present… risks that are different than those for comparable material at a larger scale.” That’s an overarching risk with nanomaterials: Their tiny size and high surface area make them more chemically reactive and cause them to behave in unpredictable ways. So a substance that’s safe at a normal size can become toxic at the nanoscale.

The US’s attitude when it comes to nanotechnology “shoot first, ask questions later.” We proceed full-throttle with this, and other fully untested technologies, until we begin to see harmful effects coming back to haunt us. This attitude cannot carry into this new world of replicating pollution. When it comes to the genetic modification of plants and nanotech-manipulation of cells, the consequences of a mishap could be catastrophic (See Ice-Nine) and potentially unstoppable due the fact that this new form of pollution cannot be cleaned up and can reproduce itself.

Europe’s approach to these new technologies is to use caution. It seems they’ve learned their lesson in the past.

The European Union, by contrast, is taking a precautionary approach. While U.S. regulators generally presume products to be safe until proven harmful, the EU’s new REACH legislation demands that manufacturers demonstrate the safety of their chemicals. Just last week, the EU released a document concluding that nanorisks “can be dealt with under the current legislative framework,” with some modifications. For example, the document says that under REACH, when companies introduce nanoforms of existing substances, they must provide additional material about “the specific properties, hazards, and risks” of the nanomaterials.

Mark Schapiro writes about the benefits of the European precautionary approach to regulation in his book Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power.

So what do you think? Are we giving nanotechnology a properly thorough examination? Should there be more regulation? Does it scare you?

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A Conversation with Hervé Kempf

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Hervé Kempf, author of How the Rich are Destroying the Earth, sat down with Leslie Thatcher of truthout.org to discuss Comment les riches detruisent la plan te—the original French version of the book.

From the interview:

Leslie Thatcher, for Truthout: I read “Comment les riches detruisent la plan te” this afternoon. I’m not sure “like” is the operative term for my response. I devoured it in one go, which means I will need to go back and reread many passages – my copy is now as prickly as a porcupine with all the little bits of wastepaper I stuck in to mark the passages I’d want to review.

The book seems to me an incredible tour de force. I could not imagine it possible to lay out systematically, with sentences of classical limpidity and concision, such a complete, as well as completely persuasive argument for what ails the world and what needs to be addressed. The dense connections between all the disturbing phenomena of recent years – ecological degradation to the point of habitat destruction for our own species, increasing social inequality and unemployment, the new totalitarianism (government snooping, torture, the percentage increase in prison populations), and the disappearance of a seriously contentious press are simply and powerfully delineated.

[...]

Hervé Kempf: I’m very happy and honored “Comment les riches d truisent la plan te” pleased you so much. I believe it has touched a sensitive chord with many people in many places. Many readers have responded with great interest: it was useful to clearly connect the environmental crisis and the social question.

[...]

Truthout: I read that you bicycle to work: how else do you personally reduce your own consumption, share with those who have less, and create a new ethos?

Kempf: Reducing my personal consumption? First of all, it’s possible to live in Paris without a car, given that public transportation is efficient. In daily life, the family (I have five children) goes without television, a microwave, a dishwasher and all those electronic gadgets that are expensive, use a great deal of energy, and take too much time. We pay attention to turning lights off in rooms where no one is present. My wife is a good cook and we eat healthily and pleasantly without meat every day. One important point is that I live without credit – indebtedness is one of the most pernicious instruments pushing us towards excess consumption. Obviously, all this makes life quite happy, since we have the time to read and we spend a lot of time with our friends. The children adapt well to such a thrifty life, even if their friends often have more gadgets than they do. As to sharing with those who have less, one never does enough – of course. But I regularly send money to charitable and development organizations.

Truthout: If Veblen is right about the basic human drive to compete insatiably for social status, it seems to me we need to replace the competition of conspicuous consumption with virtuous competition: to make recycling and reusing – as well as real leadership – “chic.”

Kempf: Veblen and new values: yes, absolutely! To change the world we must create new norms of “savoir-vivre” [manners] (I re-echo Veblen’s formula) so that what’s “chic” is not having a big SUV and taking the plane, but bicycling, having a convivial social life, and consuming less stuff. And in this regard, the oligarchy has a heavy responsibility also.

As Senator Obama said at his Candidates@Google discussion when asked how we force Washington insiders to change a system that so hugely benefits them: “Shame.” It sounds like Hervé has a similar tactic: peer pressure.

Read the full interview here.

Video: Carbon Tax, The Coming Storm, and 350ppm

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Dr. James E. Hansen is a physicist by training and currently directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies—a laboratory of the Goddard Space Flight Center and a unit of the Columbia University Earth Institute. Today, he will testify, as a private citizen, to Congress about global warming—20 years, to the day, after his first testimony in 1988.

Hansen has posted an article for the Worldwatch Institute comparing the differences in the political and environmental climates between 1988 and today. He also outlines the grave danger we’re in and the need for immediate action to not only cap carbon emissions, but to reduce them.

From the article:

Again a wide gap has developed between what is understood about global warming by the relevant scientific community and what is known by policymakers and the public. Now, as then, frank assessment of scientific data yields conclusions that are shocking to the body politic. Now, as then, I can assert that these conclusions have a certainty exceeding 99 percent.

The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb. The next President and Congress must define a course next year in which the United States exerts leadership commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation.

Otherwise, it will become impractical to constrain atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced in burning fossil fuels, to a level that prevents the climate system from passing tipping points that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity’s control.

[...]

Moving from fossil fuels to clean energy is challenging, yet it is also transformative in ways that will be welcomed. Cheap, subsidized fossil fuels engendered bad habits. We import food from halfway around the world, for example, even with healthier products available from nearby fields. Local produce would be competitive were it not for fossil fuel subsidies and the fact that climate change damages and costs, due to fossil fuels, are also borne by the public.

A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. A carbon tax with a 100 percent dividend[2] is needed to wean us off of our fossil fuel addiction. A tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

A carbon tax on coal, oil, and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public-an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

A carbon tax with a 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low- and middle-income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.

Demand for low-carbon, high-efficiency products will spur innovation, making U.S. products more competitive on international markets. Carbon emissions will plummet as energy efficiency and renewable energies grow rapidly. Black soot, mercury, and other fossil fuel emissions will decline. A brighter, cleaner future, with energy independence, is possible.

The carbon tax with a 100 percent dividend that Hansen mentions is based largely on the cap-and-dividend approach described by Peter Barnes in Who Owns the Sky: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism. Barnes is also the author of Chelsea Green’s book Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide.

Here’s a video of Hansen speaking with The New York Times DotEarth about his predictive dice, the public’s perceptions of weather, and the fuel for the climate change “debate.”

Video: Greg Pahl Interview with Talking Stick

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Greg Pahl, author of The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis, sat down for an interview with Mike McCormick, producer of Mind Over Matters heard 6 – 9 a.m on KEXP 90.3 FM in Seattle, Washington. The video is available from Talking Stick, a weekly one-hour program on SCAN cable access channel 77 in Seattle, Washington. They also stream their show online Wednesdays at 9pm (PST) at scantv.org.

Here’s the interview (also available on ChelseaGreenTV):

Video: Kunin talking Hillary on WNYC

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Leonard Lopate talks with Madeleine M. Kunin, former governor of Vermont and author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead, on WNYC.

Lopate and Kunin discuss Hillary’s run for the Presidency, her lie about “sniper fire” during a 1991 visit to Bosnia, and her vote to authorize the Iraq war.

Greensburg, KS City Manager: Eat Fresh and Local

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

As we covered earlier, Greensburg, Kansas is rebuilding itself into a “green” town after a tornado devastated over 95% of the town.

One of the aspects of their new green design is interesting because it has nothing to do with renewable energy, “smart” power grids, or even technology at all. It is a cultural shift. The shift back to eat fresh and local foods instead of the bounty of supermarkets.

As the Huffington Post’s Green section is reporting today, the Greensburg City Manager says “one of the main inspirations for going green is that Greensburg is an agriculture town and that it’s in the town’s spirit with all the wide open spaces.” At the heart of supporting the local farmers and rebuilding a devastated town is a re-dedication to local food and local community.

It’s rare that a community has the opportunity to examine every piece of itself, and then rebuild in a way that’s healthiest for its members, business, and environment. It’s a shame it takes devastation to do it.

Top 100 Green Building Firms

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Apparently construction projects with a focus on sustainability is no longer only a hobby for eco-geeks, aging hippies, and the nuts at the end of that scary dirt road in your town. ‘Green building’ is now a multi-million dollar industry—with Forbes-like rankings to prove it.

Engineering News-Record (ENR) has compiled a list of the Top 100 Green Design Firms. As this ENR article about the index states, the ranking of these firms is based on the “firms’ 2007 design revenue from projects registered with, and actively seeking certification from, third-party ratings groups under objective environmental or sustainable design standards, such the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.”

Collectively these firms brought in $1.74 billion in revenue from their 2007 ‘green’ projects. Here’s how the projects break down:

Here are the first 10. For the remaining 90, check out the full list here.

  1. HOK, St. Louis, Mo.
  2. URS Corp., San Francisco, Calif.
  3. Gensler, San Francisco, Calif.
  4. HKS Inc., Dallas, Texas
  5. Fluor Corp., Irving, Texas
  6. Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc., Raleigh, N.C.
  7. AECOM Technology Corp., Los Angeles, Calif.
  8. Perkins+Will, Chicago, Ill.
  9. Tetra Tech Inc., Pasadena, Calif.
  10. Perkins Eastman, New York, N.Y.

Review: The Political Mind, by George Lakoff

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

William Saletan recently reviewed George Lakoff’s latest book, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, for The New York Times. One review reviewer over at smilt.net called Saletan’s review “putrid.” Further adding:

The NY Times has done it again, assigning an important book with a careful and documented message to yet another hack, this time William Saletan of Slate “reviewing” George Lakoff’s recent The Political Mind. One of the reasons I quit reading Slate long ago was because of its inordinately poor selection of columnists, with Saletan being one of the most prominent. If Saletan were a body part, he’d be a polyp in your colon, not important enough to really threaten anything yet but something you don’t take a chance with in case its particular bile poisons you someday. You’d have him removed and sanitarily disposed of. No such luck at Slate, but that’s no excuse for the Times, which, as frequently noted here, seems to set its criteria for reviewer selection at the same level as selection of Britney Spears’ undergarments.”

Precisely. Well said. We fully agree that this is an “important book with a careful and documented message.” That other stuff is just funny.

Read the NY Times Review here. And smilt.net’s review of the review here.

Video: Peter Barnes and the O/S of Capitalism

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Peter Barnes, author of Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide, spoke about what he see to be the three largest flaws of “the capitalism operating system” in a presentation for the Authors@Google lunch series. Peter explains the three flaws and how to fix them.

  1. Capitalism destroys nature.
  2. Capitalism widens the gap between rich and poor.
  3. Capitalism doesn’t make people happy.

Here’s the one-hour video presentation.

Courting Climate Failure

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Kudos to U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and his cosponsors for Doggett’s newly introduced “Climate MATTERS Act.” Their bill is in many ways an improvement over the Lieberman-Warner bill that recently failed in the Senate. That failure was a good thing in the long run for both environmental and political reasons made clear by Peter Barnes. Alas, the same might need saying for Doggett’s bill. In the summary on Informed Comment, a few items stand out:

o The Climate MATTERS Act emissions cap will reduce emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

o While excluding agriculture, forestry and small businesses from the emissions cap, this bill also provides incentives for these sectors to reduce their emissions.

First, the target reduction is likely insufficient, and second, excluding huge swaths of the economy means that it is effectively impossible to reach even that inadequate target.

Friends, consider the situation. We are experiencing global warming, and the warming has already reached a level which is causing measurable harm to human society and to much of life throughout the planet. Human use of fossil fuels and clearing of forests was already causing an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide as early as the year 1800. By 1925, the accumulation of added carbon dioxide had begun to induce a recognizable warming trend in the average global surface temperature.

Source data PDF

This upward trend in global temperature had begun when atmospheric carbon was only at about 305 parts per million. The count today is now roughly 385, and increasing each year at a faster and faster rate.

Annual (not cumulative) carbon emissions from burning of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and gas flaring (but excluding clearing of forests and disturbance of soils) in 1925—the year we see the upward trend in temperature begin—was 975 million metric tons. In 1990, it was 6,196 million metric tons.

That means that global warming measurably began when annual emissions had only reached 15.7 percent of the level in 1990. And that relatively low level of annual emissions in 1925, along with the many years of lower annual emissions that had preceded it, had already been enough to create cumulative emissions capable of triggering global warming. The cumulative count only rises and rises since that time and on into the future.

And yet most people have latched on to the idea that our target emissions rate for the year 2050 should be merely 80 percent below the level in 1990. Remember, that means that in every year between 1990 and 2050 our carbon emissions have been and will continue to be higher than that target—and that that target level is itself above the level at which global warming measurably began.

Now maybe people promoting this target are keeping their fingers crossed that the target—while itself insufficient—will spur enough economic and energy reform, and the development of enough new technology, that we will actually do better and will surpass the target by 2050. Entirely possible; but keep in mind the other possibilities. Most of those concerned about global warming are probably preferring Barack Obama over John McCain, but let’s beware of getting too swept up in his campaign theme of Hope. Hope is a good thing when it inspires action. But hope that displaces or undermines action, hope that is married to timid action, that kind of hope is a curse. For yourself and for your political activism, make sure you are conscious of just which form of hope you are cultivating.

So to be entirely clear, if we are to have a chance, just a measly little chance, of maintaining a climate that doesn’t starve us through droughts, drown us through floods, smash us through tornadoes and hurricanes, sicken us through increased disease transmission, and damn us through all the inevitable social strife that accompanies these crises—if we want to have that chance, we have to do better than reduce our collective carbon emissions. We have to drop them so much that the atmospheric concentration begins to fall; we have to drop them so much that the cumulative emissions trend actually starts to bend down rather than merely flatten out (as will happen with even the strongest policies yet offered by our government).

You can start by reducing your personal emissions, but personal goodness won’t get us there. This is as much about power as it is about carbon. If we, collectively, can’t generate the political power to shift all of society in the negative-carbon direction, all our individual do-good efforts will fail. Hervé Kempf has it right when he says that

the ecological crisis and the social crisis [of growing economic inequality and the associated undermining of democratic institutions] are two faces of the same disaster. And this disaster is implemented by a system of power that has no other objective than to maintain the privileges of the ruling classes.

photo courtesy of azrainman


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