the “efficiency” trap and RE’s benefits

Efficiency is an overused/misused concept. It is just a measure of the closeness to maximum energy exchange of a process. So when you burn coal, the best modern engineering can extract from this “burn” is ~33% (given conventional systems) because to get “electricity” (the energy we want) from the coal we have to create steam which then spins a turbine (and in each step there are losses in conversion). Geothermal systems are actually less efficient in converting heat to electricity (see article, ref 1; though much more efficient in extracting heat, as in, geothermal heat pumps which are much better than conventional gas-powered furnaces). And solar arrays are in the same ball park as geothermal systems with efficiencies of ~15-20%.

However, the big difference between the coal and the others is the fact that while the sun provides us light for free and the Earth provides us heat for free (24/7 as well), the coal comes by way of extraction from distant areas. (Solar photovoltaic panels and geothermal components require the extraction of materials from distant lands as well, but once this initial extraction is done and manufacturing is completed, they operate for 25+ years.) Also, sun and Earth heat will continue into the distant future while coal is limited in quantity (as it takes too long to replenish). Additionally, when one burns coal, waste products are produced, many which are quite toxic to humans and life, most notably, mercury, PAHs and sulfur dioxide (ref 2).

Thus, while efficiencies of renewable energy forms may be less efficient than fossil fuel forms, the key benefits derived from RE’s are:
(1) the pollution created in using them (over a 25-year cycle) is so much less;
(2) the RE energy sources are on-site (or close by) at the point of use;
(3) the RE sources are plentiful and renewable.

Additionally, and importantly, given the nature of geopolitics right now, RE resources also create more jobs (ref 3) and can be more decentralized (which allows people to have more control over their operation and production; I say “can” because this requires forethought and intentionality regarding democratic input and collective ownership, something still missing from most RE installations).

Given all of these benefits (here is the Union of Concerned Scientists’ take on these, ref 4), investors are finally taking notice in a big way and, as expressed best by a recent (April 2016) Bloomberg article, “Wind and Solar are Crushing Fossil Fuels” (ref 5). So, don’t be squeamish at all advocating vehemently for RE creation/expansion in your neighborhood/community. Everything is now on the side of RE (economics, environmental concerns, and social/health factors). The time is right, to “flip the switch.”

fireworks

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the founding of the United States. How will we do this? People have different ways but the most noticeable one is to make tons of noise and display lots of colors, using fireworks! Last night, two nights before the “big” night, people in the neighborhood I was visiting were blasting these incendiary devices for several hours. I guess people’s celebratory zeal was just too much to contain.

With all the talk about “protecting the environment” and “cleaning our air and water,” you might reasonably ask, “are fireworks a sound practice?” Given that the air blackens and smells horrible after a fireworks event, the answer to this simple question seems obvious. However, as usual in environmental thinking, the “devil is in the details.” So are fireworks safe and should we continue to use them as we do? (I decided to write this on the day before the “BIG” day, so as not to be too much of a “Danny Downer.”)

Apparently, fireworks consist of gun powder, heavy metals and other toxins, such as perchlorate (ref 1). Many of these are known to have carcinogenic impacts or interfere with human hormones (ref 2). What chemicals that are used change while “exploding” and take on new chemical forms and properties, many of which haven’t been carefully studied. And these chemicals stay in our air (more than 12 hours afterwards) eventually settling in the soil and ultimately ending up in our waterways. Not good, right?

Yet, maybe since we normally only use them on one BIG day, everything is fine; famously, “everything in moderation.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work either. First of all, we are beginning to use them at many public events (baseball home runs often come with a firework display and colleges are using them at pre-graduation celebrations, and recall the pre-July 4th eruptions in our neighborhoods). Also, the chemicals used are often persistent meaning that they don’t easily break down into “safe” forms, so they remain toxic to our environment for years to come. Additionally, fireworks result in a huge numbers of hospital visits–in 2014, there were over 10,000 emergency room visits during the “month” of fireworks (ref 3). And lastly, you would be surprised how many thousands of cities, towns, and even neighborhoods have their own large firework displays. Last year, while driving around St. Louis looking for Ted Drewes’ amazing ice cream, I witnessed at least four such events going on at the same time.

Despite all of the above information (and books more of it at our cyber fingertips), I have a hard time thinking that we’ll make any headway stopping people from enjoying their city’s firework displays or blasting off a few bottle rockets in their backyards. (Though apparently there are 8,700+ people who have signed a petition to ban the private use of fireworks in New Zealand, ref 4 And, due to this years terrible drought many communities in Michigan are calling for reducing or cancelling displays (ref 5)). Sadly, this just represents one more thing that we know we shouldn’t do but we just can’t seem to do. This is particularly confusing when we realize that we are talking about something that is completely unnecessary to us and our collective health. As such, it represents another instance of the need to completely rethink how we function as a society. We need to have principles that we adhere to (such as, “we shall not poison our air and water without due cause and consideration”) and don’t deviate from just because its “fun” or “the thing we do.” Change is hard but challenges make life interesting, don’t they? Celebrate tomorrow, but do so with a small kernel of awkwardness and contemplation.

only two problems?

If we could solve only one problem, which problem should it be?
This is a question that I often get asked and it is one that I have pondered on my own as well. It presupposes that there is one problem that, if solved, could lead directly to the solution of other problems. Well, I haven’t figured what that one problem is, but I can tell you that if we solve two problems, we’d be well on our way to tackling most human challenges.

What must you do, each and every day? Eat food and drink water. So, assuming that these things were provided to you, you could get on with your “life.” What else would you need? Well, obviously, shelter of some kind. Would that be enough? Water, food and shelter may be enough to live, but there are other things that have become part of our “civilized” human condition. Most importantly among them is energy. We need energy to survive and to live a modern lifestyle requires quite a bit of it—to run our refrigerators, our computers, our water heaters, our cars and lawn mowers. Clearly, any future that looks anything like the present would require sufficient amounts of energy.
Here is the rub. Despite the fact that at least a billion people on Earth have sufficient access to food, water, and energy, many more do not. And while that is horrible situation (and how can we celebrate everyday things when so many go without, especially when there isn’t really any good reason why they don’t), the question I would like to examine here is, “How key are food and energy to our collective present and future?”

Clearly, if nearly a billion people on Earth suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1), “we have a problem Houston.” Obviously, every effort imaginable should be made to make sure that this problem is eradicated. A comparable but less recognized evil is the energy poverty that exists in the world today. Without basic allotments of energy, many people around the world cannot satisfy basic needs, such as, cooking food, heating/cooling their homes, or perform important tasks at night; consider that 1.4 Billion people do not have access to electricity (ref 2). Even in places where some energy is available for such things, it is often dangerous (e.g., kerosene) or detrimental to local environments (e.g., firewood). Without sufficient food or energy, more than 1,000,000,000 people suffer unduly.

Obtaining food and energy isn’t just an issue for those that don’t have much of them but also to those that live in areas where food and energy is plentifully produced but improperly distributed. How much current conflict in the world is due to “resource wars”? As these two sources indicate (ref 3, ref 4), many (if not most) of the conflicts occurring right now have strong drivers in resource shortages. And these shortages are not getting alleviated much because the current unbalanced distribution is due to the increased commodification (and profit obtained) of these resources. And sadly, the $1.4+ trillion dollars spent each year on militaries (largely to protect/secure these resources) creates a huge financial well that leaves very little left for other critical needs (such as education, health care, etc.).

In closing then, if we were able to tackle the food and energy problems, we would likely be on our way to solving most of the world’s current problems. We have enough (to be clarified in an upcoming BLOG), we just must begin to share what we have and look at each other as “brothers and sisters” rather than enemies.

getting to know other humans

Despite it being 2016, we still know very, very little about planet Earth. For instance, it is estimated that scientists around the world have only documented ~14% of the world’s terrestrial species (ref 1). And documenting them doesn’t come close to accounting for their unique properties and behaviors nor their chemical makeup, all of which represent “intelligences” that could have profound implications to humans biomimetically (learn more about biomimicry, link).

However, as astoundingly unaware of our biological neighbors as we are, I assert that we are equally unaware of our human neighbors and this “ignorance” probably has profound implications as well. There are two ways in which we are acutely unaware of humans and both prevent us from acting in ways that are in our best interests and the planet’s best interest. First, we (and I mean the vast majority of us, myself included) have almost no idea what the majority of humans struggle with day in and day out. Nearly 50% of the world’s human’s live on less than $2.50 a day (ref 2). How do they survive on so little? Many of these people live in nations that are recipients of military aid yet little humanitarian aid (from the US and other nations) (ref 3). They suffer from preventable disease but despite the extremely low cost for a basic series of immunizations millions of children in these lands suffer and die each year because they don’t have access to this basic medical care (ref 4); apparently it would cost between $11-15 billion to meet the WHO-UNICEF Immunization Targets (ref 5) which is less than 1% of the world’s military budget. My failure to fully appreciate the horrors associated with these horrible (unnecessary) circumstances faced by hordes of fellow humans makes it very difficult for me to prioritize the needs of these other humans in my own life. I suspect that if I, or one of you, were to spend quality time with these people, our hearts would open up and our life’s priorities would change quite drastically.

Second, we are largely unaware of the humans on this planet that are making the greatest positive impact. Have you heard of the Goldman Prize? Since 1990, the Goldman Environmental Foundation has been giving awards to the top environmental leaders around the world. One person from each of the six major continents (Islands and Island Nations are considered a continent) is awarded a Goldman Prize for his/her/their “sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk” (ref 6). Take a look at the list of recipients (link), who number ~175 now. How many of them do you know about? (Why does the mainstream media tell us about any of them and their great achievements?) A few are household names among informed people (such as, Wangari Maathai and Lois Gibbs) but the vast, vast majority of them are unrecognizable to us. For example, the 2016 North American winner, Destiny Waterford (for her bio, link), is a name, embarrassingly I admit, I’ve never heard of until this writing; nor had I heard anything about the other five 2016 recipients.

Why does it matter that we don’t know who these people are? You might be saying, “Peter, there are 7+ billion people on this planet, how I can know them all.” Well, the reason is, these are incredible people who are successively working to make the world better. And none of them are acting alone either; most have tens if not hundreds of others working hand-in-hand with them. If we knew more about these amazing “neighbors” and the challenges they are tackling, often despite greater disadvantages than we personally have, we might be inspired to struggle more intensely regarding challenges our communities face (such as, hunger, water quality, teen pregnancy, economic hardship, tree death, etc. where I live). Understanding how these heroes and sheroes work with others to make progress would teach us how essential it is to work collectively and how voting in elections isn’t the primary way these leaders (and their support “staff”) make things happen (despite the overwhelming importance granted to this singular act by our media outlets). Just over 10 years ago, I had the amazing fortune to work side-by-side for five months with a future Goldman Prize recipient (Kim Wasserman, Chicago, 2014 Goldman recipient) during my first sabbatical. The lessons I learned from assisting her organization’s campaigns all the while surrounded by other dedicated staff and volunteers (at LVEJO, link and in the Little Village community) were profound. This experience convinced me that I had to be more involved in my community. I had to take action. I had to reach out to and work with others. And, most importantly, as Kim and her team proved when they successfully got the two coal-fired power plants in Chicago to close and spearheaded the creation of the new La Villita Park on the West side of the city that opened this year (link) (both struggles took more than 10 years before their desired outcomes were achieved), we can make our world healthier if we really want to.

So, there you have it, we need to understand humans better. There is a lot of positive that could come from that knowledge and engagement. Let’s do this.

Lincoln’s shadows

At the fourth of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, the following was spoken, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone.” So whom do you think said this? Hint, it wasn’t Douglas.

But, less than a month later, while in Galesburg during the 5th Debate, Lincoln said, “Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.”

So, which Lincoln do we know or choose to remember? Obviously, most of us learn that Lincoln was the champion for equality and eliminating slavery. We learn that he was a man who was killed because he had the courage to support such “radical” ideas during a different, less “enlightened” period in our nation’s history. Yet, in simplifying and mischaracterizing his beliefs and contributions, aren’t we making a major error, one that makes it harder to understand today’s political discourse and action as well?
Obviously, based on the two quotations provided, Lincoln was very conflicted about race and equality. He didn’t see humans as equal but at the same time he didn’t think it was right for one person to be so powerful relative to another. This is simple to understand, yet we generally don’t learn this complexity in school. Many other “great” Americans (such as Thomas Jefferson) thought that certain humans were inherently inferior and to others and this belief rationalized their superior position and privilege. This is our nation’s history. Rather than recognize it, we are too willing (or wanting) to accept the rosy and simple version of it. (For a great piece on modern slavery, check out Doyle’s article from 2006, link.)

Though it might “feel good” to publicize and celebrate the “good” beliefs/thoughts/actions of our heroes and sheroes, we do a disservice not being more honest about our history. By living with a “lily-white” version of history, we fail to understand the complexities and hypocrisies that our former (and current) leaders live with. A truer picture of our history reveals that all of our idols had/have contradictions and confusions. And, by extension, so do we. It is one of those things that comes with being human. This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to justify irrational or immoral beliefs or actions, but it does allow us to understand things as they were/are rather than glossing over disagreeable elements in our past and present.

History is formed through contestations–moral, intellectual and physical. Our predecessors made it and we are also playing a part in making it. Realizing this in light of the inconsistencies and contradictions of our historical icons might give us reason to be: (a) more inquisitive about our collective past; (b) more textured in our assessment of our nation’s success; and, (3) more willing to be self-critical about our own beliefs about important challenges we face today. With these things in mind, we should be able to be better makers of history ourselves.

a “can” or at least a “maybe”

One of the more frustrating things about being a community activist is the number of people that tell you and others what can’t be done or why X is not possible or won’t work. I’m all for a “reality check” and no question I am a bit too optimistic about things sometimes. However, the core of my frustration stems not from people who have taken new ideas seriously but those that either flippantly reject them out of hand or offer none of their own.

From my vantage point, humanity is in a very precarious position. A good number of people in my community don’t disagree with this sentiment. However, where we tend to disagree is how we should go about doing something in response to it. I tend to want to act more than think deeply and others prefer thinking deeply first. I am comfortable with this continuum and actually think diversity of thought is something we should value rather than extinguish. However, diversity of thought doesn’t mean that negativity (or, worse, fatalism) should trump positivity, optimism, or “out of the box” thinking, most of the time.

Einstein is famous for saying many things, but perhaps the most relevant to this conversation are his definition for “insanity”: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” and his related insight, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” We have created lots of problems in the last two centuries and many ecological systems are at their “boiling” point. We have to begin thinking differently and doing things differently.

Spend some time watching how people interact with each other and how often people will “shoot down” someone’s new idea. This mentality is so pervasive we often do it to ourselves as a reflex action. Self-censorship is off the charts. I hear it from my colleagues and friends, who say things like, “it is too risky to say X or Y,” “it might identify me as M or N,” “I might be wrong.” In this cultural environment, isn’t it time to say what we think and feel and be open to honest responses? And, isn’t also time to listen to others more fully, especially those that are trying desperately to make things better before criticizing them or their ideas. Perhaps, a simple, “maybe, that seems plausible” or “perhaps that can work” will be that contribution that keeps us moving where we haven’t been.

feeding people

Everyone deserves to eat healthful food, right? I would argue that this should be a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, thought so too. In its Article 25, it reads: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.” But despite this, we know that nearly a billion people still suffer from chronic malnutrition (ref 1, ref 2) and among urban children rates are still 30% in Africa and 14% in Europe (ref 3). These are shocking statistics during a time when we have more than enough food for everyone (ref 4).

Hunger is not just a disease that affects people in poor countries. We have considerable amounts of it in the United States as well. According the USDA, 17.4 million households (or 14% of people) were food insecure at some point in 2014, where a food-insecure household is one that “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources” (ref 5). Two conclusions derive from this finding. One, it is horrifying that over 43 million people go hungry in the “richest” country in the world. Two, the chief cause of this hunger is poverty (and, by extension, economic inequality). If you wonder what type of people go hungry, Feeding America (an non-profit organization) provides a heartening look at the faces of hunger on its website. Answer: everyday people.

So what should we do about this? A lot of people in this country work on this problem as they, themselves or through their neighbors and friends, have felt the pangs of hunger for a long time (it is not a new problem). In my community, we have several food pantries operating, we have an organization that serves free meals twice a month, we have another relatively new organization that fills backpacks for school children on Fridays (so that the kids can get food on weekends when school lunches aren’t available), and we have a Farmers’ Market that ensures that LINK dollars (the IL version of “food stamps”) can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. And while these organizations and the hundreds of volunteers that make them function do incredible things for our struggling community members, the programs they run are largely “Band-Aids” rather than long-term solutions. Our community took one of these “Band-Aids” off this summer when, due to state budget failings, its school board eliminated summer school for elementary students. This cut hurts our kids’ minds as well as their stomachs because a summer breakfast/lunch program, that was mandated to exist in conjunction with any summer school offering, was cut as well.

How should we respond to these continued cuts and hunger in general? We could organize volunteers to feed children this summer. We did just that about five years ago when the local schools closed in early January for two weeks to save money on heating bills. It, the Lunch Spot Program, was a great success (and even received high commendations from the State) but it required a lot of intense volunteerism over a two week period. In the situation we are facing now, we would need at least that level of support during the summer (a harder sell for volunteers than winter) for ten weeks. And, even if that were to be accomplished, it would still be a Band-Aid. Thus, we need to create solutions that solve the problem of hunger, not just ones that relieve it temporarily. This will take new ideas and new visions of what is most important in our community. If food truly is a human right, today is the day to offer up these new visions. Ideas?

out of sight

Most of us know that terrible things are done on our behalf each and every day. These awful deeds may come at the expense of the our food which, if meat, probably comes from animals living in concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) where they are pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones on a daily basis, or, if vegetables and fruits, probably come from farms where the laborers are grossly underpaid, overworked and exposed to harmful chemicals broadly sprayed by industrial agriculture techniques (farm workers have poverty rates double other paid workers) (ref 1, ref 2). They could come from the clothes we wear, many which are made in factories here or abroad where workers are treated horribly and suffer many human rights abuses (ref 3). They also come by way of our ubiquitous use of electronics. Nearly all electronic devices that transmit Wi-Fi (which includes phones, video games, and computers) have a metal alloy called coltan in them. Sadly much of this rare metal comes from regions of the world mired in war and conflict (such as The Congo), which the valuable resource has largely exacerbated (ref 4). And every time we use energy, in virtually every form it comes in, whether its source be fossil fuel or renewable (e.g., in solar panels that are increasingly made in China), large amounts of toxic material is produced and many humans are abused. (The Story of Stuff puts a lot of this into perspective: the Book & the Videos).

Not a fun paragraph to read, was it? Well, if all this harm is being done on our behalf, especially those of us fortunate enough to live affluently, why aren’t more of us doing anything about it? Many answers come to mind but the most telling may be that the bulk of the harm done is done “out of sight,” somewhere far from us. I believe that humans are moral beings. Most of us are not intentionally and purposefully doing harm to others. We wouldn’t. Most of us would be sick to our stomachs if we were forced to live this way. Wouldn’t we? Perhaps this is why when presented with “facts” that implicate us, and our lifestyles, we ignore them or get defensive. This creates a real existential problem then. The people that need to change (us) to make the world more humane aren’t willing to accept responsibility for the damage being done. So what can we do about it?

This blog is largely dedicated to exploring answers to this question but I think the first step for everyone is to familiarize themselves with the various “pains” created by our way of life. This knowledge can be very liberating. It motivates us to do something to make others’ (and by extension our own) lives better. This revelation is extremely eye-opening for many. And many of us definitely recognize this. Consider how many people in your community donate/volunteer 100’s of hours a year for the greater good! We do get greater satisfaction from intrinsic rewards even though our culture (especially that component that is trying to sell us something or another) puts so much emphasis on extrinsic ones (ref 5). So by knowing more about the true impacts of our lives and, then, intentionally acting to make them more humane, we can all begin to heal and feel better all the while.