Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Other BP Spill: Methane Gas

The broken BP Horizon well is leaking another dangerous substance besides oil: methane gas, at concentrations up to 100,000 times the natural levels. The extremely high volumes of methane are causing anoxic conditions which are killing off the lower segments of the ocean food chain, and threatening the survival of many species of fish. In the Guardian UK:

"In a conference call with reporters, Samantha Joye, a scientist at the University of Georgia who has been studying the effects of the spill at depth, said the ruptured well was producing up to 50% as much methane and other gases as oil. . . Joye said her preliminary findings suggested the high volume of methane coming out of the well could upset the ocean food chain. Such high concentrations, it is feared, would trigger the growth of microbes, which break up the methane, but also gobble up oxygen needed by marine life to survive, driving out other living things."

The release of huge amounts of methane gas in the oceans is every climate scientist's worst nightmare. Methane is 72 times more potent a greenhouse gas than C02. Not only does it speed up global warming, oceanic methane causes anoxic "dead zones" that kill oxygen-breathing sea life, increases ocean acidity and decreases the capacity of the ocean to absorb C02.

Transition Towns and Climate Camp come together in Heathrow

Heathrow was the site of the first big Climate Camp protest in England, which stopped the expansion of the Heathrow airport. But there is also Heathrow, the village, and the locals who live there have started their own Transition Towns group called Transition Heathrow. Transition Towns is normally not an activist movement, but focuses on practical solutions to climate change and peak oil in the form of locally grown food, energy conservation and green transportation. And Climate Camp usually focuses on large-scale regional campaigns to shut down coal-fired power plants. It is not normally focused on local development issues. But in the Grow Heathrow project, these two movements have come together in an extraordinary way. On the land that was supposed to be turned into the expanded airport, there was a large greenhouse that had been abandoned. Transition Heathrow and Climate Camp got together to clean up the greenhouse and begin to grow food there. The video they made of their initial efforts is wonderful.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Olaf Otto Becker and Greenland's Moulins

German photographer Olaf Otto Becker has recently published his third book of Nordic photographs, Above Zero. According to Eve Bowen' article in the New York Review of Books,

Between 2003 and 2006, Becker made a series of solo expeditions in an inflatable Zodiac boat along 2,500 miles of the west coast of Greenland. His photographs of this remote North Atlantic shoreline—its icebergs, rock cliffs, scattered settlements, and the ocean waters that crash against it—are collected in his second book, Broken Line. They were taken at night by midsummer light, with a large-format camera and exposures of up to several minutes. Unsentimental and astoundingly beautiful, they show a violently shifting ice-filled landscape at arresting points of stillness. In scale and subject matter, some resemble the sublime landscapes of nineteenth-century painters like Frederic Edwin Church.

In the summers of 2007 and 2008, Becker returned to the west coast of Greenland with the Arctic explorer Georg Sichelschmidt, this time to photograph a series of remote rivers whose traces he had originally spotted in a NASA satellite photograph. No road exists in this region; about a hundred miles northeast of Ilulissat, within the Arctic Circle, it can be reached only by trekking inland from the coast across miles of glacial crevasses and melting ice floes.

In Above Zero, Becker documents even more directly an endangered landscape changing before our very eyes. Of the first river he photographed, in July 2007, he writes:

"At the time we were there, this river was seven and a half kilometers long and supplied by innumerable meltwater streams and rills. Lining its banks were millions of cylindrical holes full of water. On closer scrutiny, they turned out to contain black dust and soot that, having absorbed the warmth of the sun much faster than the reflective ice had, sunk through the ice, creating cylindrical holes. Far away from the coast and surrounded by inland ice, the fast-flowing river suddenly disappeared into a moulin [a glacial hole that can be hundreds of feet deep]. When approaching the moulin, we heard the ice creaking loudly beneath our feet, the meltwater having presumably carved huge cavities underneath the ice sheet, which here is about 700 meters thick."

Such inland rivers are stunningly captured in Becker’s photographs: the bright color of the water contrasts with eerily pockmarked snow and ice that we might have expected to be a pristine white, but that appear instead in shades of white, gray, even black, darkened by dust that has traveled through the airstream from as far away as China. As the pockmarks in the ice merge together, trenches resembling tire tracks develop and gradually turn into rivers, lakes, and moulins, all the while weakening the ice sheet and hastening its disintegration during the warm months of each year.

“When I am photographing,” Becker has said, “I am very conscious of what this same view might look like in fifty or one hundred years, even five hundred years’ time. How will it have changed? Will all the ice and snow be gone?” Because of rising temperatures and ice melt around the globe in recent years, many landscapes in Above Zero have already changed dramatically since Becker photographed them. As Freddy Langer writes in his introduction to the book,

"Every one of Becker’s photographs, as beautiful as they are, is hard and fast evidence of a process of destruction that is rapidly gathering pace. His pictures are beguiling images of the long-drawn-out death of a unique world."

Additional images from all three of Becker's books can be viewed on his website.

As shown in the image below, moulins play a crucial role in speeding up the melting of the Greenland icecap. Additional information about moulins is available here.

Finally, beautiful as they are, Becker's photos fail to capture the dynamic impact of thousands of gallons of water flowing into a waterfall within the ice cap. For that, you need video.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Transition vs. Resilience vs. Public Opinion

I recently came across an interesting report by Alex Haxeltine and Gill Seyfang of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement.

Here is the abstract:
This paper presents an exploratory case study of a new community-led sustainability initiative in the UK called the Transition movement. In recent months Transition movement groups have appeared in a significant number of UK towns with the stated aim of responding to the question: “how can our community respond to the challenges, and opportunities, of Peak Oil and Climate Change?” [Transition Network 2008]. The originators of the initiative have developed a “comprehensive and creative process” aimed at awareness raising, network building, and, eventually, a community-defined and community-led plan for a transition over a 15-20 year timescale. The parallels to the transition management approach being pioneered in the Netherlands and elsewhere are immediate and fascinating, but are they merely superficial? What are the actual differences and similarities between this emerging civil society movement and academic discourse and research on sustainability transitions? The resilience and transition frameworks are briefly presented as two ways of using a systems framing to understand, and inform, the governance of social and technical change in the context of sustainability. Using a combination of survey results, participant observation and documentary sources, we then explore how the terms transition and resilience are being used in the discourse of the Transition movement. The paper then explores the similarities and differences between how the terms are used in the academic literature versus the Transition movement. Finally, the analysis is employed to generate insights about the practical use of the notions of transition and resilience in civil society contexts that involve “lay practitioners”, and how these insights in turn might inform research on transitions and resilience.

Garry Peterson, over at the Resilience Science blog, has pulled out some interesting passages focusing on the differences in the two approaches:
The specific language used is of “rebuilding resilience” – drawing on historical descriptions of towns in the UK around 100 years ago, the handbook argues that resilience has been decreased in recent decades. The narrative describes how localised patterns of production and consumption (and the associated skill sets and community cohesion) were eroded in a relentless shift to ever larger scale industrialized systems of production and consumption, made possible by the use of fossil fuel energy sources. Hopkins argues that there is now a great urgency to the need to rebuild resilience because of imminent disturbances (or shocks) in the form of peak-oil, climate change, and the associated impacts on economic systems and trading patterns (Hopkins, 2008). He links this urgency directly to our current oil dependency: “it is about looking at the Achilles heel of globalization, one from which there is no protection other than resilience: its degree of oil dependency” (Hopkins, 2008).

The framing of the Transition model provided in the handbook does explicitly draw upon the academic literature on resilience in socio-ecological systems (citing a 2006 introductory text by Brian Walker and David Salt for example), but what ideas are being taken from this literature, and to what extent is the resulting framework consistent with the interpretation of resilience quoted in section 2 of this paper? The Transition Handbook (Hopkins, 2008) cites studies of what makes ecosystems resilient, identifying: diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks:

These initial resilience indicators rely heavily on equating resilience with the re-localisation of systems of production and consumption. So the Transition Handbook could be said to provide a starting point for talking about resilience in a Transition Town, but it is still a long way from being clear about what is needed in practice. Furthermore the evidence from observation of the local Transition groups (during 2008-2009) is that they are in an equivalent situation of trying to frame multiple actions in terms of the building of resilience but relying heavily on equating resilience with a re-localisation of production-consumption patterns.

Resilience theory highlights the fact that building resilience to a specified disturbance (such as Peak Oil) does not necessarily provide the same resilience to all possible disturbances. Some properties of a Transitioning community, such as strong community networks and diverse skill sets, may help provide resilience to most disturbances, while other properties may be very specific to one disturbance. If one were to take the position that the greatest shocks in the coming years may, in the end, turn out not to be the ones that we expected, then successfully building a specific resilience to an expected threat (such as Peak Oil) may not provide resilience against realized disturbances. So what may be required is to build resilience to specific threats in a way that also builds system properties that help in coping with diverse possible threats – implying, for example, a need for a capacity to innovate.

The current framing of resilience equates resilience with localisation in a rather unquestioning way, as demonstrated by the resilience indicators given in the Transition Handbook. We would argue that increasing any one of these indicators could actually either increase or decrease resilience to a specific disturbance, depending the exact nature of the disturbance and on the exact systemic changes used to enhance the indicator. We also argue that the desirable goal is not to simply increase such indicators as much as possible, but to find the right balance between resilience and other goals, such as quality of life and well being.

In the interest of never letting a good crisis go to waste, it is useful to look at public opinion following the current Gulf oil spill. Big events have been known to have significant and sometimes lasting impacts on public opinion and policy. Double hulled tankers became the rule following the Exxon Valdez accident and, more significantly, North America stopped building nuclear plants following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. A recent NY Times/CBS Poll on the Gulf Oil Spill has a number of interesting findings. It is worth plowing through the frequencies yourself, but the one I found most interesting was the disconnect between a) the appetite for dramatic change (58% think US energy policy needs to be fundamentally changed, 31% think it is so out of whack it needs to be completely rebuilt and a tiny 6% think it needs only minor changes)coupled with b) an expectation that fundamental change was unlikely (only 24% thought it very likely that the US would develop an alternative to oil as the major source of energy in the next 25 years) and c) their general unwillingness to pay any costs associated with facilitating the transition (51% opposing a gas tax compared to 45% willing to accept one).

Simply put, its unlikely that the Gulf Spill will have the same sort of transformational impact that, for example, TMI had. The reason? Even with all the attention it has received, only 13% if the public see it as the most important problem. In contrast, 20% identify jobs as the most important problem and another 20% list the economy. All crises are not alike. Had the oil spill occurred at a time when the economy was booming, it is likely that significant policy changes would result. But, in a global economy battered by the collapse of the banking system and worried about the financial viability of a number of European countries, bread and butter issues will trump environmental and energy policy concerns among the bulk of the population.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Peer Pressure: The Key to Efficient Behaviour

Motivation researcher Robert Cialdini conducted an experiment to see what kind of message would prompt people to save energy. He and his students placed signs in several homes in certain neighbourhoods, exhorting people to conserve energy for one of four reasons: (1) to save money; (2) to save the environment; (3) to benefit future generations, and (4) because the majority of your neighbours are doing it. Other houses had no signs posted. After one month, Cialdini found that the message about peer energy use provoked people to be the most efficient. Later, he sent letters to homeowners telling them how their energy use compared with their neighbours, which prompted even stronger energy conservation.

The article in the New York Times explains this research in more detail:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Frank Zappa, the Exxon Valdez and the Deep Horizon Fiasco

I'm a fairly visual person, as those who have waded through the posts on this blog will realize. But, while wondering the world of YouTube I came across Frank Zappa's chilling synclavier work Outrage at Valdez which was used as the score for a video produced by Jacques Cousteau's son, Jean-Michael. Oddly, I find that this audio does a much better job of capturing the sinister destruction brought about by the Exxon Valdez, and now being repeated in the Gulf, than any photo. Here's the first 7 minutes of the song.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Visualizing the Deep Horizon Spill

The estimated flow rate of the Deep Horizon spill keeps going up. The current low estimate is a flow rate of 25,000 barrels a day. But what, exactly, does that look like? 25,000 of anything is a lot, but exactly how many? Fortunately, some kind folks have used gaming technology to simulate 25,000 barrels stacked around a pillar 15,000 feet high, and then group by group falling to the ground.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Equally Clueless: Katrina vs. Horizon

How can one say what needs to be said, what one deeply feels, about the BP Gulf oil spill? Daily streams of outrage don't seem to be enough, don't seem to capture the sense of powerlessness and despair.

Naomi Klein manages in one short essay to capture some of the depth of feeling that is so critical to feel, otherwise we would simply become stupefied with numbness:

"If Katrina pulled back the curtain on the reality of racism in America, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order fish species to survive, or brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money – not BP's recently pledged $20bn (£13.5bn), not $100bn – can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast."

To get a sense of how clueless and inept was the federal government's response to this crisis, imagine if the BP Horizon oil rig had been bombed by an Iranian "terrorist." How do you think the federal government would have responded? You would have seen Obama and his entire administration, including the entire Dept. of Defense, spring into immediate and relentless action. Obama would have been in the Gulf region as soon as the explosion had settled and the area was secured. His face would have been on television 24/7, talking incessantly about "the bombing of our oil supply, the destruction of our coastline and the threat to our nation." There would have been a relentless "pursuit of justice to punish those responsible for this attack." There would have been non-stop international negotiations with the UN and our Allies on the crisis, speedy and decisive plans of action to "stop the immediate threat to our national security", and a war-room huddle to decide whether to respond with an attack on Iran. How many billions of dollars in soldiers and armaments would we have spent to counter the attack of a terrorist bombing of an oil rig?

We had no such response to the BP spill, because, as Klein says, we believe that "nature takes care of itself." "Nature" took our endless dumping of garbage and plastic crappola for the last thousand years, so we suppose "nature" can take it for the next thousand years.

And since it was "collateral damage" from our own corporate allies, our own greed for oil and profit that caused this spill, we got instead a completely inadequate response from the Obama administration. His tepid, "too little, too late" response was just as vacuous, limp, and clueless as the response of the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina. The President's supporters protest that Obama didn't cause the oil spill. Well, George Bush didn't cause Hurricane Katrina. What we faulted Bush for was his incompetent and racist response to it. Bush then and to this day did not grasp that a hundred years of overdevelopment, the burning of fossil fuels, and a total disregard for the protective functions of coastal wetlands led to the catastrophic conditions that caused Hurricane Katrina. Bush didn't get it then and Obama doesn't get it now. Sadly, Obama has, in his response to the BP blowout, been equally clueless. People are absolutely right when they say, "it's Obama's Katrina." Sure, Obama has the rhetoric, calling for a "new green economy", but even Bush admitted more than once that "we are addicted to oil." Talk is cheap, and rhetoric is meaningless where immediate and decisive action is crucial for dealing with an ecological crisis of this magnitude.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The 20 minute neighborhood and other ideas for Fredericton

Groups as different as Mother Nature Network, Popular Science, and Grist have ranked Portland Oregon as the most sustainable city in the US (though Portland was ranked 3rd by the Natural Resources Defense Council).

In a recent interview, Portland mayor Sam Adams talked about his new initiative -- the 20 minute neighborhood.
We're also working to make every section of Portland a complete 20-minute neighborhood to strengthen our local economy. Two-thirds of all trips in Portland and in most American cities are not about getting to and from work. So if I can offer quality, affordable goods and services, eliminate food deserts, have neighborhoods with schools and parks and amenities--if I can create these 20-minute complete neighborhoods all over Portland--it strengthens our local economy. We drive 20% less than cities of comparable size, and because we don't manufacture cars, produce oil, or have car insurance companies, every dollar that we don't spend elsewhere, will stay in Portland's economy. There's about $850 million that stays in Portlanders's pockets because we drive less. With a 20-minute neighborhood, also reduce congestion and meet our climate action plan goals.

It's interesting the way the idea is framed in terms of the local economy. I recently returned from a visit to the other Portland (Maine) where I was really impressed with the strength and sophistication of their 'Buy Local' initiative. They aim to get everyone to shift 10% of their spending to local stores pointing out that "For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 stays in the local economy, creating jobs and expanding the city's tax base. For every $100 spent at a national chain or franchise store, only $14 remains in the community." Part of their success comes from the merger of local farms and the restaurant industry. Bon Appetit labeled Portland "America's Foodiest Small Town." They use some interesting electronic technology to help inform locals and tourists about food related matters. And the food is simply amazing. While I like our local Greek food at Dimitri's, it pales in comparison to what you get at Emilitsa. Probably the best meal of my life and definitely the best baklava!

Perhaps a better comparison for Fredericton is Bellingham, Washington (a university city of 67,000 people where I did my BA) and ranked Number 1 by the NRDC as the Greenest Small City in the US. They have an active Transition Towns movement.

Monday, June 14, 2010

IF you ever wondered what the war in Afghanistan was really about . . .

at least since 2004, and especially for Canada, whose Cdn companies control 60% of the mining projects in the world:

Report: US Discovers $1 Trillion in Afghan Mineral Deposits

The New York Times is reporting the United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, including huge amounts of copper, cobalt, gold and lithium. US officials say the find could alter the Afghan war and make Afghanistan one of the most important mining centers in the world. An internal Pentagon memo states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and cell phones. The value of mineral deposits dwarfs the size of Afghanistan’s existing economy. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is only about $12 billion. American geologists have been studying the potential for mining since at least 2004. The timing of the New York Times article has been questioned by some because it is being published at a time when the Obama administration has little good news to report on Afghanistan."

(from Democracy Now, 14-06-10)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Obama, Palin, Weber and Charisma

Not really on topic for the blog, but here is a link to a recent article which emerged from a classroom discussion involving some of the blogs contributors. Thanks to Hassan and others for the inspiration!

Obama, Palin, and Weber: Charisma and Social Change in the 2008 U.S. Election (p 171-190)
Canadian Review of Sociology, Volume 47 Issue 2 (May 2010)
DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-618X.2010.01229.x

Both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are commonly labeled "charismatic" by the public. To assess whether or not Obama and Palin exhibit charisma in the Weberian sense, their rhetoric and actions are examined in the context of past elections and the political stagnation brought about by the politics of the culture wars. Where Palin’s connection with the public flows from her role as a fighter in the culture wars, Obama articulated a vision of shared community and, in doing so, reorganized the electorate by incorporating disenchanted youth who had not voted over the past decade into his coalition. Thus, in Weberian terms, only Obama manifests charisma.