Researchers Find Polar Bears Are Irish

polar-bear-stare-head

This Photo is in the Public Domain

Polar bears are best known for wandering the icy expanses that once composed the Arctic Circle, but new research suggests that polar bears originated from a species of brown bear native to Ireland. The polar bear would have begun is genetic drifting from the Irish brown bear around 100,000 years ago, but the two species likely continued to come into contact up until 20,000 years ago. Though the brown bear disappeared from Britain and Ireland almost 9,000 years ago, all modern polar bears are actually descendants of the extinct species.

This Photo is in the Public Domain

According to the press release put out by the research team, “Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University and one of the team’s leaders, explained that climate changes affecting the North Atlantic ice sheet probably gave rise to periodic overlaps in bear habitats. These overlaps then led to hybridization, or interbreeding — an event that caused maternal DNA from brown bears to be introduced into polar bears.” The researchers believe that this hybridization occurred over a span of 30,000 years before the two species finally and permanently parted ways around 20,000 years ago.

These genetic discoveries dispel previous beliefs regarding the polar bear’s origins, which placed the specie’s ancestor on a collection of Alaskan islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) as recently as 14,000 years ago. Few would have guessed that the truth could be found on the very opposite side of the Arctic Circle. The discovery that the polar bear is in fact Irish, rather than Alaskan, will probably surprise zoologists and zoo visitors alike.

Swimming polar bear at the NC Zoo in Asheboro, NC (Source: Flickr)

As global temperatures continue to rise and the ice caps of the arctic diminish, the polar bear’s ancestry could be vital to its future. As the hunting grounds of this northern predator disappear, they could begin to travel south where they will inevitably come in contact with brown bears once again. Researchers anticipate the immersion of a new hybridization between these modern bears, repeating a phenomenon that has occurred intermittingly over the last 100,000 years as global warming and cooling cycles have come and gone. The polar bear’s ancestral history could be the key to preventing the species from disappearing from the planet forever.

TreeHugger

Swimming polar bear photo: Flickr

Kenyan Elephant Orphanage

Many of nature’s most amazing creations have been devastated by poaching and the expansion of human populations. Africa’s elephant population is certainly a case and point; adults are targeted and killed for their ivory and meat, leaving their young vulnerable and unprotected in the unforgiving sub-Saharan landscape. I recently read an article from National Geographic about how keepers at the Nairobi nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust have taken it upon themselves to care for these infants as they grow into the planet’s largest land animal.

Photograph by Michael Nichols

The Nairobi nursery is celebrated as the world’s most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. The nursery rescues orphaned elephants from across the country and hand-raises them until they have developed past milk dependence. According to NatGeo writer Charles Siebert, “once healed and stabilized at the nursery, they are moved more than a hundred miles southeast to two holding centers in Tsavo National Park. There, at their own pace, which can be up to eight to ten years, they gradually make the transition back into the wild. The program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated.”

Photograph by Michael Nichols

The orphaned elephants that are fortunate enough to end up at the nursery are looked after by keepers clad in bright green coasts and white safari hats. They spend their days in the Nairobi National Park, playing like a gaggle of school children. Despite the tragedy of their pasts, the elephants are able to recover thanks to the care provided by the nursery and the instinctive community support that characterizes the species. It is sad to consider how human development has decimated one of the planet’s most advanced species. The African elephant once roamed the continent in great herds, tracing out prehistoric migratory routes. I wonder if these routes are still ingrained in the specie’s subconscious or if they have been lost forever as the land they once traveled is striped for farming and development. It appears that despite ever dwindling populations, the elephant cannot escape its greatest threat, humanity.

Photograph by Michael Nichols

The work of the Nairobi nursery plays a vital role in counteracting the otherwise negative role humanity has played in the young elephants’ lives. The nursery is run by a dedicated staff that has worked to learn what is best for the individual animals. Every night, a keeper will sleep in each elephant’s pin, feeding them when they demand to be fed. During their days in the bush, the keepers and orphans are sometimes visited by a group of wild elephants. The keepers keep the milk-dependent orphans close for they would not survive without the nursery’s care, but those elephants over 5 or 7 are free to go off with the wild herd. Some will return to the nursery in a few days while some will leave for good. I imagine the keepers feel like parents watching their children head out into the wild world.

Source: National Geographic

Photographs: Nichols Photography at NatGeo

The Decline of the Amazon River Dolphin

It is a story retold all around the world; humanity competing with nature’s greatest species for now dwindling resources. Not surprising, people tend to dominate the competition. The same is true along the waters of the Amazon river basin where pink dolphins compete with local fishermen for the day’s catch. Despite legal protections on the freshwater dolphins, the Amazon is far too expansive to protect and convincing fishermen to respect their rivals is a difficult prospect.


There are 40 species of dolphin around the world, and while the U.S. tends to view the species as a playful aquatic neighbor, the same cannot be said elsewhere. Many Japanese fishermen view schools of dolphin that pass through their fishing grounds as genuine pests. Fisherman in Taiji, Japan and the Faroe Islands still hunt and eat dolphins, despite the high mercury levels known to be found in dolphin meat. The Chinese more or less disregarded the Yangtze river dolphin as they dammed, polluted, and over-fished the waterway, driving the dolphin into extinction in the wild. The Ganges river dolphin is not far behind. The pink dolphins of the Amazon river find themselves in an similar predicament: they are competing with locals for food and the locals are not particularly inclined to share.

To make matters worse, the dolphins are harpooned and used as bait to catch catfish. Supposedly, in just on day of fishing, two dead dolphins can provide enough bait to yield $2,400 in catfish sales. The prospect of such substantial returns coupled with the always pressuring need to catch enough to feed and provide for their families makes the fishermen of the Amazon anything but allies of the pink dolphins.

The illegal dolphin hunting is on the rise in the Amazon and clearly demonstrates the great challenges of policing environmental law in a protected land. The wild and untouched character of the Amazon basin reflects the immeasurable ecological value as well as the near impossible task of patrolling the territory. Researchers believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of the estimated 30,000 remaining pink dolphins are killed each year by people. When you realize that 1,300 Brazilian environmental protection agents are responsible for looking after a territory larger than India, it is no surprise that the future of the Amazonian river dolphin is in the hands of the local fishermen that travel the waters each day.

The root cause of the dolphin’s decline in the Brazilian Amazon is the indifference of the people living along side them toward their killing. Jars of oil from dolphin fat can regularly be found in open-air markets. Dolphin genitals are sold as good luck charms for sex and love. There is no need to hide these illegally acquired products when the vendors know that no one from the environmental protection agency is coming to arrest them. People know they are not allowed to kill the dolphins, but protecting them is simply not a priority.

The pink Amazonian river dolphin, an iconic character in local lore, is in a state of decline. The species may very well find itself on the verge of extinction faster than anyone can predict. As has been the story time and time again, human indifference proves to be one of the most destructive forces the planet has ever seen.

Source: NYTimes

One-Third of Global Food Supply Is Never Eaten

While global populations may be edging closer to a food crisis, it is not due to a lack of food. According to a study conducted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of all the food produced around the world, approximately 1.3 billion tons a year, is never eaten. That is, one-third of the global food supply is lost or thrown away. The report indicated that the food waste is roughly split between developed and developing countries, though it is important to recognize that rich countries account for a small portion of the world’s population yet an equal share of the waste.

In developed countries, food waste is disproportionately the result of retailers and consumers who throw away “perfectly edible food.” This behavior can be described as nothing but wasteful. In developing countries, food waste is, for the most part, the unavoidable outcome of “poor infrastructure and low levels of technology in harvesting, processing and distribution.” The impacts of food scarcity on the developing world could be substantially reduced if the essential infrastructure were put into place to prevent this unnecessary waste.

In many ways, heightened food prices are more to blame for the prevalence of starvation than a scarcity of food. But even as food riots ignite throughout Africa, consumers in the world’s wealthiest countries continue to throw away a comparable quantity of food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).


Food waste represents not only the squandering of produce but the meaningless loss of valuable natural resources. Food production relies heavily on water resources, land, labor, and capital. Not to mention the enormous quantity of fossil fuels burned during planting, harvesting, and post-harvest transportation, adding unnecessary tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

It is sad to consider how different these stats would be if Americans were willing to eat a bruised apple. I believe our migration away from the farm has distorted our understanding of the environment and disconnected us from where our food comes from. Changing consumer attitudes will be an uphill struggle in a culture so preoccupied with convenience. Our disposable society, begun by the consumer boom of the 1950s and 60s, will inevitably be the force that destabilizes the natural world.

Source: FAO via NYTimes

A Note to President Obama: Political Polarization

[The following is a paper I wrote for an American Politics class. I enjoyed writing it so I thought I’d post it.]

While Robert Kuttner’s observation that “the national agenda is looking more Democratic, both because the circumstances demand it and because Republican policies have so palpably failed”[1] speaks to a distinct turning-away from the policies of the Bush administration, it does not suggest that the Obama agenda is going to find support and success. Something is certainly amiss when protesters carry signs that read “Don’t steal from Medicare to support socialized medicine.” I do not mean to imply that only Republican protesters are folly to hypocrisy, but as the Tea Party takes center stage in the push-back against the Obama administration and the Democrats, such errors in logic and misinformation are important to understand.  A mixing of personal beliefs and party rhetoric is to blame for such clearly incompatible declarations. The Gallup polls detailing the gaps in presidential approval ratings show a clear divide between the Democratic and Republican Party. This divide has widened between the first and second year of the Obama term.

Obama entered office with a message of optimism and progress and yet only 23% of Republicans approve of his first year. When addressing the approval of the highest elected official in the U.S., a 65 point approval gap in the first year, long before policy changes had time to take effect, is not politics as usual. In this essay, I will suggest that, in the current political climate, approval ratings and public support are largely indiscriminate of the individual in office. While Obama’s race, oratory skills, and leadership have an amplifying effect on public opinion, any president would have an approval rating of over 70% by his/her political party and less than 30% by the opposing party. The increased approval gap from year one to year two is not a sign of Obama’s performance, but a byproduct of disenchanted Obama supporters and an opposition intent on undermining the presidency using partisan politics, racism, and bias media. Second, I will defend that Obama should continue to speak to right-wing voters but to focus his attention on those voters who won him the election. Obama entered office because the majority of voters supported his message and his legislative agenda. To focus too much attention on compromise and the corralling of bipartisan support is a risky endeavor in the short term and will be judged harshly by Obama supporters if unsuccessful.

As observed by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the great American presidents used their leadership to first transform the public understanding of and attitude toward national challenges.[2] Once this has been established, the president is able to “break through impasses made up of congressional blockage, interest-group power, voter cynicism or passivity, and conventional wisdom.”[3] The Obama campaign convinced many that a new era of politics was on the horizon, but as a whole, the country is not yet prepared to move on to phase two of Goodwin’s vision. The popular understanding of national challenges remains too polarized to be effectively mobilized in support of Obama’s legislation.

At this point in American history, political parties do not reflect core principles or ideological convictions. The Democrats still bear the flag of liberalism but share few other values with their anti-Federalist founding. The Republicans are as business friendly as ever, yet miles from the anti-slavery coalition that first brought them into power. More recently, “the right wing has abandoned its principled support of states’ rights in favor of a doctrine of opportunistic federal preemption.”[4] This gradual drift in ideology is natural for a political party responding to the issues of the day, but as we continue into the 21st century it must be realized that political parties now separate themselves on an issue by issue basis; the centrist and moderates willing to move across the aisle as their principles required are being replaced. Democrats say pro-choice, raise taxes, reform healthcare, and so forth while Republicans take the correspondingly dissonant chord. In this way, people judge a politician based on his/her political affiliation first and look to party leaders for cues rather than forming logical beliefs on issues. The further polarization of Obama’s approval ratings in his second year reflects the successful efforts by right-wing conservatives to take advantage of the public’s malleability and undermine the legitimacy of the administration. Political pundits question Obama’s birthplace and his citizenship, compare his administration to the Third Reich and Communist Russia, and oppose his legislation because of his ethnicity and not-republicanism.

In a truly American way, “people blamed their slowly worsening circumstances on themselves rather than coming together in a movement for political change.”[5] Poll studies have found that “belonging to the upper social class encourages one to believe that through one’s own effort success can be achieved, and government should be limited in its ability to spend tax money to aid those who have not been successful in life’s competition.”[6] Over the past three decades, the Republican party has managed to pass this attitude on to even its middle to low income supporters, a significant portion of whom have been made to believe that medical reform, government regulation of industry, and tax cuts to the country’s wealthiest will somehow do them harm. Such an illogical conclusion hinges only on the belief that government does not work. “Reagan succeeded in transforming public assumptions from the general premise that governments should help to the idea that government was likely to make matters worse.”[7] Consequently, the more Obama tries to achieve, the more conservatives will cry foul, regardless of the principles (states right, individual rights, government regulation, etc) at stake.

This presumption of ineffectual government is the greatest obstacle that the Obama presidency will face in the pursuit of publicly supported legislation. It will require every last bit of oratory skill and inspirational speech writing to move the country away from the cynicism that Reagan and subsequent Republican leaders have so skillfully shaped. For three decades, the American people have been told by Republican campaigns that government does not work. Once elected, these same Republicans have demonstrated precisely how incompetent government fails to respond to the needs of the populace. It is no surprise that a Democrat behind the desk of the oval office finds himself approved of by Democrats and adamantly opposed of by Republicans. While I respect Obama’s attempts at bipartisan legislation, very little will come of it unless he can first change the way the public perceives the role of government in their lives. Great political leaders do no achieve success by simply being centrist and bipartisan. Rather, Obama must challenge his opposition, inspire our better selves, overcome cynicism, and take political risks in the pursuance of principles and policies that promote the common good.

A delicate balancing act is necessary to persuade those on the center-right, maintain the support of the youth and those on the center-left, and become the progressive leader the country needs in this era of economic hardship. The people have shown that they are ready to support a progressive president if he asks them to be a part of the solution. American youth are more politically active than they have been in the previous three decades. The age of Facebook and social media has made the younger generation easier to mobilize but quick to dissolve if left to idle. This is precisely what occurred after Obama’s election and continued from the first to the second year of his presidency; Obama dropped his supporters and allowed them to return to their politically-inactive lives. The President needs to put his base back to work and continue the social-political movement begun by his campaign. If left to mass media, the messages of the Obama administration will be skewed, debated, and contradicted long before they reach the general public. When the White House can speak directly to the people through YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, the information does not need to come second hand. Make high school, college, and post-grad youth the conveyors of the Obama legislative agenda and the message of progress and optimism will outlive the next two or three decades of presidential turnover; send the Obama youth back to the streets with a clear purpose, the addresses of congressmen to pressure, and well documented support regarding key issues of the day.  People are prepared to defend their beliefs and convictions if Obama is prepared to call upon them, a give-and-take that has been seriously lacking from the administration.

In Barack Obama’s own words, “the true test of the American ideal is whether we’re able to recognize our failings and then rise together to meet the challenges of our time. Whether we allow ourselves to be shaped by events and history, or whether we act to shape them.” The Obama opposition is spearheaded by a group of faux-conservatives who mistake tax cuts for fiscal responsibility and corporate profits for economic stability. Because Republican policy is largely incapable of responding to the needs of the lower and middle class, bipartisan legislature is not a positive end-goal. To achieve success and growth, Obama must directly address the fallacies of right-wing policy and take on the role as a resolute progressive rather than a well-meaning post-partisan. I am not alone in feeling that Obama has done much less shaping-of-events since entering office. We live in a country shaped by decades of Democratic dominance in Congress and yet we remain convinced that government does not work. We need a president to influence events and engage the populace, “a president who profoundly alters American politics and the role of government in American life.”[8] To bridge the gap in approval ratings and pull the country back from the political poles, Obama must be the Democratic progressive we need, must reconnect with and energize his base, and must put to use the influence of the executive office. Obama has the advantage of being on the positive side of history and will be remembered as a great and influential president if he can continue the popular movement begun by his campaign.


[1] Kuttner, Robert. Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2008. Print. Pg 189.

[2] Kuttner, Robert. 2008. Pg 2.

[3] Kuttner, Robert. 2008. Pg 2.

[4] Kuttner, Robert. 2008. Pg 189.

[5] Kuttner, Robert. 2008. Pg 20.

[6] Erickson, Robert S. American Public Opinion: Its Origins, Content, and Impact. New York: Longman, 2002. Print. Pg 203.

[7] Kuttner, Robert. 2008. Pg 4.

[8] Kuttner, Robert. 2008. Pg 1.

Protecting the World’s Forests

For decades, the immense size of the forests has led people to believe that they can cut and burn the area for its rich natural resources.  International attention and increased conservationism has dramatically reduced the rate of deforestation, but the Amazon basin certainly isn’t in the clear.

old-growth-rainforests-amazon-conservation

San Rafael Falls in Amazon Rainforest: Ecuador

Many more of the world’s old-growth forests are coming under the protection of greater conservation efforts. UN records report that most regrowth over the last decade has taken place in wealthier regions such as North American and Europe. Here the rural populations have continued to decline, dramatically lessening the reliance on clear-cutting for farming and for biofuel. New understanding about the importance of environmental protection has led some densely populated, poorer countries to change the way they see their forests. Perhaps most notably, China has undertaken costly and widespread tree-planting programs in an effort to avoid future environmental disaster. Places that were, just a decade ago, eager to chop down and sell off their natural resources are becoming (from a conservationist’s point of view) fortunately more reluctant.

While this progression toward environmental protection shines a positive light on the potential for humanity to let go of our doomed habit of stripping away the world’s natural resources, it isn’t enough to undo the damage that has been done. To secure biodiversity and restore the water system on which these forests rely, large areas of farmland must have their former forests replanted.

Scarlet Macaw

Old Habits Die Hard

Much of human “development”, historic and pre-historic, has been characterized by our ability to transform the environment in which we live and harness the living organism around us to our own benefit. We are talking about millennium after millennium of clear-cutting for agriculture and deforesting for shelter and fuel. Human behavior isn’t going to cease just because regulations change. Decades of public education and a significant shift in how the environment is perceived will be necessary before the world’s forest can be deemed protected. A perceptual separation between the natural world and humanity’s activities continues to exist in modern society.

The pressure on forests has weaned in most wealthy and developed countries, but the third world, home to over half the surviving forests, is too preoccupied with poverty, disease, and increased population to be concerned with environmental protection. To simply tell people (who have no access to alternative forms of energy) that they can no longer turn their forests into charcoal because the developed world has already released too much CO2 into the air is both unjust and doomed to failure. The ever rising demand for food and biofuels will eventually force people to turn to their environment, destroying the natural resources in the process of meeting their needs, regardless of the sustainability of the practice.

Climate change adds an entirely new dimension to the already convoluted equation. Rising temperatures in Canada have already begun to unleash plagues of harmful bark beetles. Cold, very very cold, winters used to act as a natural population control but recent warming has caused this system to break down. Australia was the driest continent on the planet long before man discovered fire or fast-food and climate change has led to more devastating drought and forest fires than ever before.

Forests are the storage tanks in the entire environmental system. Trees capture CO2, holding it for decades before burying it in the ground when the trees eventually die. Scientists estimate that rainforests currently hold twice as much CO2 than the atmosphere, meaning that we cannot live on this planet without these old-growths. Trees also sponge up rainwater runoff when it rains and slowly releases moisture again when the weather turns dry or sends water into underground reservoirs instead of surface streams. The fundamental reason that the Midwestern and Southern U.S. is so devastated by landslides and floods each spring is because so many of its forests have been replaced with fields. Development has disrupted the water-cycle on the local scale and to destroy the world’s rainforests would have repercussions on a global scale. The loss of the Amazon rainforest could diminish rainfall across the Americas.

Let’s Reset

Globalization has introduced the practice of growing cash crops like cotton, coffee, and sugar cane in regions that can barely provide staple foods for their local population and dramatically augmented the demand for agricultural goods from tropical countries. In the process, populations that used to exist in comparative harmony with their environment are taking big steps in two directions. Greater wealth means better education, stronger government, and more organized conservation efforts but the demand for new fertile farmland and biofuel is equally significant.

A massive international effort will be necessary to change the way the natural world is used and protected. There are no easy solutions when it comes to meeting individual needs while considering the best interests of the entire population. For millennia, people have understood their potential to change the world around them but they believed themselves incapable of altering the environmental system as a whole. Well we did affect the system. Are doing it. Need to stop. Climate change doesn’t just mean warmer temperatures but an unpredictable redistribution of air and ocean currents. Some countries could turn into swamps while other continents turn into dust bowls. The natural world will survive just fine, but large populations of environmental refugees could be our future if we fail to protect the forests and the environmental systems they support.

[Please Note: I claim no rights to the photos in this article.]

Anyone reading this post, please accept that I am neither a reporter nor a researcher and make no guarantee on the accuracy of this information. If you are really interested in the subject, read  National Geographic or UN Report: GEO Amazonia

Algae Biodiesel: Oil from Algae

One of the newest and most innovative forms of alternative fuels in development today is algae based biofuel. Algae are one of the fastest growing and most adaptive organisms on the planet and researchers are developing ways of using algae to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and to output fuels that can meet our energy needs. Proponents hope that large scale production of algae based fuel can dramatically lessen our dependence on crude oil as well as capture immense quantities of CO2 in the process. Obviously this CO2 will be released again once the fuel is burned, but the system represents a cycle that is much more sustainable than the one currently practiced.

The process of producing algae is really quite simple. Algae are grown in either open-pond or closed-pond systems. Once the algae have been harvested, the lipids (oils) are extracted from the walls of the algae cells. There are different ways to extract oil from algae. The oil press is the simplest, most popular method because it extracts up to 75% of the oil from the algae being pressed.

Another process is called the hexane solvent method. In this method, the hexane solvent is combined with combined with the pressed algae, which then extracts up to 95% of oil from algae. First, the press squeezes the oil. Then, the leftover algae is mixed with hexane, filtered, and cleaned so as to ensure that no chemical is left in the oil.

A third process is known as the supercritical fluids method. This method extracts up to 100% of the oil from algae. Carbon dioxide behaves as the supercritical fluid—when a substance is pressurized and heated to change its composition into a liquid as well as a gas. The carbon dioxide is then mixed with the algae. Once combined, the carbon dioxide turns the algae into oil. The additional equipment and work needed in this method makes it a less popular option.

Once the oil has been extracted from the algae cells, it is refined using fatty acid chains in a process called transesterification. In this process, a catalyst such as sodium hydroxide is mixed in with an alcohol such as methanol. This creates a biodiesel fuel combined with glycerol. The mixture is then refined to remove the glycerol, leaving the final product: algae biodiesel fuel.

Algae biodiesel researchers are using a process studied in organic chemistry called transestrerification to discover efficient ways to make algae biodiesel fuel. In transesterification, an alcohol and an ester compound are mixed, and through the resulting reaction, a different type of alcohol and a different ester is created. An ester s a special type of chemical compound in which an acid has had one of its hydroxyl groups replaced by a molecule of oxygen. In this process, the oil that comes from the algae is altered into biodiesel through a specific chemical reaction.

Growing Algae for Biodiesel Use

The most natural way of growing algae for biodiesel production is through open-pond growth. Using ponds, algae can grow in hot, sunny areas of the world in order to produce a maximum amount of algae. Open-ponds provide the least invasive method of algae growth, however it has numerous drawbacks. Bad weather and contamination from strains of bacteria or other organisms can stunt algae growth. Furthermore, the water the algae grow in needs to be kept at a certain temperature, which can be difficult to maintain.

Vertical growth/closed loop production has been developed to produce algae faster and more efficiently than open growth ponds. With vertical growing, algae are placed in clear plastic bags, so they are exposed to sunlight on two sides. The bags are stacked high and protected from the rain by covers. With the extra sun exposure, the productivity rate of the algae is increased, increasing oil production as well. Furthermore, the algae are protected from contamination.

Closed-tank bioreactor plants are employed to increase the rates of oil production even further. These plants grow algae indoors within large, round drums which can grow algae under ideal conditions. The algae are manipulated to grow at maximum levels and can be harvested every day. This produces a high output of algae, which produces large amounts of oil for biodiesel. Closed bioreactor plants can be strategically placed near energy plants to capture excess carbon dioxide that otherwise would pollute the air.

Researchers are experimenting with a process called fermentation where algae are cultivated in closed containers and fed sugar in order to promote growth. In this method, all errors are eliminated because the growers are given the ability to control all the environmental factors. Algae biodiesel can be produced anywhere in the world through fermentation. However, researchers are trying to find a way to get enough sugar without creating problems.

The PROS and CONS of Algae Biodiesel

It all sounds so ideal: a plantlike material grown, squeezed, chemically altered, and blended into a clean, efficient biodiesel. However, critics of algae biodiesel have found many cons.

First, open-pond growing is a very risky process. Not only does the water temperature have to be exact, carbon dioxide has to be pumped into the ponds, creating a high risk of contamination. Biodiesel labs are currently solving this problem by using the closed bioreactor system in order to counteract these issues.

No real testing has been done on algae biodiesel and its effectiveness with actual cars. Companies are making deals with large oil companies to test and produce the algae, however, it is all still in the testing phase. There is only one algae biodiesel car on the streets: a Mercedes Benz E320. The company used algae biodiesel to fuel this car and drive it on the streets of Park City, Utah. No statistics were released on the car’s gas mileage or what kind of emissions it produced.

Under optimal conditions, algae can be grown in massive, almost limitless, amounts. Half of algae’s composition, by weight, is lipid oil. Algae can be converted to oil, refined into biodiesel and have its remaining material sold as high protein animal feed. Algae are a non-food crop which removes large amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, and it also grows extremely fast. Algae grows on water, thus it does not use valuable land for growth. Algae are a high energy dense crop which needs a large source of carbon dioxide to grow. Thus, algae can be set up near electric utilities looking to reduce their carbon emissions. Algae capture phosphorous and nitrogen from wastewater treatment facilities. If developers can get all the kinks worked out, algae has the potential to change the way we produce oil and deal with CO2 emissions with a single high energy organism.

Source: HowStuffWorks

The Economics of 350

There is a growing consensus that the world can stabilise atmospheric CO2 at 350 parts per million at a cost of less than three percent of global GDP.

2nd November 2010 – Published by Solutions

Worldwide, there is a growing consensus that strong action is needed to reduce carbon emissions. European Union (EU) governments have begun large-scale policy initiatives to do so; the United States lags behind but has finally begun a serious debate about proposals for climate legislation. Yet at their best, both EU and proposed U.S. policies would contain CO2 concentrations at about 450 parts per million (ppm), which until recently was considered a “safe” level but which many scientists now believe would still result in substantial, costly climate changes. Even a target of 450 ppm is viewed by many economists as too ambitious and potentially damaging to the economy.

Economists for Equity and Environment, a group dedicated to applying and developing economic principles to protect human health and the environment, conducted a study last year titled The Economics of 350.1 None of the scenarios from credible research that were examined found that moving toward a goal of 350 ppm would cost, at its peak, more than 5 percent of global GDP, and the long-term average cost of achieving 350 ppm is more likely to be between 1 and 3 percent per year.

Let’s examine, for example, spending the equivalent of 2.5 percent of GDP, roughly the rate at which developed countries’ economies grow each year, on climate protection. That would be equivalent to skipping one year’s growth and then resuming. Average incomes in the United States would take 29 years to double from today’s level, compared to 28 years in the absence of climate protection costs. In an economy experiencing 10 percent annual growth, as China has in many recent years, imposing a cost of 2.5 percent per year is equivalent to skipping three months of growth; if 10 percent growth is sustained, average incomes would reach double the current level in 86 months, compared to 83 months in the absence of climate protection costs.

Or consider this: In 68 countries, military spending is greater than 2.5 percent of GDP. In both the United States and China, military expenditures exceed 4 percent of GDP. Military spending in France and India, among many other countries, is at or above 2.5 percent of GDP. Around the world, people willingly spend very large sums to protect themselves against perceived threats to their way of life. Catastrophic climate change is just such a threat.

Inaction is the most expensive scenario. Scientific research continues to yield evidence that climate change is occurring faster, and its consequences could be more severe, than previously expected. We need a big initiative, a comprehensive global deal on protecting the Earth’s climate by rapidly reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Reaching 350 ppm: Challenges and Possibilities

How do we arrive at 350 ppm? The first step is to decide how soon to get there. James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, has argued that paleoclimatic evidence shows that 450 ppm is the threshold for transition to an ice-free Earth, with catastrophic sea-level rise and extensive flooding. Since the world is already at 390 ppm and rising, Hansen believes aggressive action is needed to get down to 350 ppm by 2100.2

In Hansen’s scenario, coal burning would be phased out by 2030, or else technology would have to be developed to capture and store 100 percent of emissions from it. Oil and gas use would fade out on their own, presuming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimates of reserves are correct; these fuels can be used as their market prices allow (assuming, as economic theory suggests, that prices will increase as reserves shrink, until and unless nonfossil energy sources are developed).

But Hansen doesn’t want to just control emissions; he wants to aim for negative net carbon emissions by midcentury (i.e., removing more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted). To do that, he has proposed large-scale reforestation and biochar initiatives, with land-use emissions hitting zero as soon as 2015 and massive sequestration of carbon in forests and soils outweighing global emissions within a few decades. Because that ambitious approach might be deemed too demanding, we considered an alternative: aiming to reach 350 ppm by 2200. In that scenario, the world would not have to achieve negative net emissions, although it would have to quickly approach zero. The different trajectories could have important, though highly uncertain, implications for peak temperature changes: the peak temperature change from 1990 is 1 °C in 2050 in Hansen’s scenario, compared to a peak change of 1.5 °C in the 350 ppm by 2200 scenario.

Note that both scenarios assume success, within this century, in the vast undertaking of converting the world energy system to carbon-free or low-carbon sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and biomass-fueled power. This is the first and foremost challenge for climate policy, the essential hurdle that must be overcome. But it is not all that is needed, especially if we set out to reach 350 ppm of CO2 by the end of this century.

Both scenarios have very similar emissions through 2020. Then, within a few decades, Hansen’s assumptions of complete carbon capture from coal and large CO2 withdrawals from land-use changes make yearly emissions in that scenario negative, and the stock of atmospheric CO2 begins to decrease over time.

Our scenario, which represents the most ambitious schedule we can imagine without assuming the technical, political, and institutional changes necessary for achieving negative emissions, would reduce emissions to 54 percent of the 1990 level by 2020 and to 3 percent by 2050. The conversion to renewable energy systems would have to be complete and the world economy would have to be virtually free of carbon emissions by midcentury, a more demanding goal than any of the leading policy proposals under discussion today. To achieve 350 ppm before 2200 without net negative emissions in any year, global emissions would have to be reduced even faster.

Carbon Removal

The ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at this point is fairly limited. There are, however, three widely discussed methods of carbon removal, of which the first two (reforestation and biochar) are currently available and the third (biomass burning with carbon capture and storage) is still under development.

Reforestation (and the prevention of deforestation) is a key, low-cost component of any strategy for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle, absorbing CO2 emissions from the atmosphere and storing carbon long term in woody biomass and soil. Hansen’s plan assumes that the world can sequester 5.9 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 annually through reforestation starting in 2030, an amount roughly equivalent to annual U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions in 2008. Other estimates of the technical potential for sequestering carbon emissions range from 20 to 110 Gt of CO2 annually.1

Much of the potential for emissions reduction through forestry is found in the developing world, where forest conservation and reforestation initiatives would compete against alternative land uses, including logging and commercial and subsistence agriculture. Bottom-up estimates of forestry mitigation potential in developing countries suggest that much of these reductions are available for less than $15 per ton of CO2.1

The search for low-cost global opportunities for mitigation repeatedly leads to a focus on tropical forest management. Nicholas Stern, the economist who wrote the influential Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change for the British government, released in 2009 a “blueprint” for a new global deal on climate change, calling for spending $15 billion per year to combat deforestation in tropical countries; he estimates that this would buy 3 Gt per year of reduction at an average cost of $5 per ton of CO2 equivalents (CO2-e). (Concentrations of all gases are typically expressed in CO2-e—the amount of CO2 alone that would have the same warming potential as the full range of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Because of the importance of methane and other gases, 350 ppm of CO2 alone roughly corresponds to 450 ppm of CO2-e, that is, of all greenhouse gases combined.)

Heavily forested developing countries should not bear the financial burden of these reductions. New international agreements, institutional structures, and financing arrangements are necessary to facilitate payment to developing countries and to ensure the legitimacy of these reductions.

A second effort to remove carbon is biochar, a relatively obscure technology that is getting more and more attention. The technology involves slowly burning plant material into a form of charcoal and then burying it in the soil; that process sequesters carbon and may have beneficial effects on soil productivity and water retention. However, while appealing, biochar is unlikely to play a major role in reducing emissions in the coming decades. Hansen estimates that 0.6 Gt of CO2 can be sequestered annually via biochar.

Biomass and Carbon Capture and Storage

A related prospect is using biomass—including sugar cane, switchgrass, corn (maize), palm oil, and carbon-rich waste products from the paper and agricultural industries—as a fuel, burning it to generate electricity or heat. The use of biomass as a fuel is typically described as carbon neutral: the CO2 emissions released in combustion are balanced by the CO2 removed from the atmosphere by the growth of the plant material.

For biomass crops, especially those grown in an industrial agricultural setting, this equation is more complex—emissions removed in plant growth still equal emissions released in combustion, but biomass farming is also responsible for emissions caused by tractors and other farm equipment, by the production of pesticides and fertilizers, and in some cases by land-use changes, as when forest is converted to agricultural land for the purpose of biomass farming.

To use biomass energy as a tool to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, a second step is necessary: biomass power plants must be combined with carbon capture and storage. The full life cycle of biomass energy production with carbon capture and storage would absorb carbon in plant material, burn that material to make energy (thereby avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels), and then capture the resulting CO2 emissions and store them underground.

Carbon capture and storage stops greenhouse gas emissions by trapping CO2 from power plants and storing it indefinitely. If the process could be developed on a commercial scale, it could be used for more than biomass plants; it could also allow continuing use of coal-fired generation while still reducing emissions. Without carbon capture and storage, it is difficult to fit large-scale use of coal into scenarios for rapid emissions reduction. This potential for “redeeming” coal may account for some of the current interest in the strategy. Full-scale industrial carbon capture and storage, however, may not be commercially viable for some time to come.

In the meantime, experimental programs are testing a few carbon capture and storage technologies: pre-combustion carbon capture and storage removes carbon from fossil fuels before combustion, often through coal gasification. Post-combustion carbon capture and storage removes carbon from power plant smokestacks before it can enter the atmosphere. And oxyfuel carbon capture and storage burns fuels in a pure oxygen atmosphere, which limits smokestack effluent to just water vapor and CO2; cooling the smokestack gas is sufficient to separate the two into liquid water and gaseous CO2.

CO2 storage options are the same for all three capture processes. CO2 must be transported to the site of storage and injected 800 meters or more into the ground. Beneath the soil, CO2 may mix with groundwater to form a fizzy seltzer or may become trapped underneath rock formations. Potential storage sites include former oil and gas fields and deep aquifers.

Carbon capture and storage may not win the race to demonstrate that carbon can be economically removed from the atmosphere; numerous other inventions and proposals are beginning to appear. For example, recent scientific efforts to extract CO2 directly from the air have attracted the attention of investment capital. It is important to keep developing new technology—but at the same time, public policy cannot wait for or count on technologies that are still in the works. It is certainly possible to imagine some other means of mopping up unwanted CO2 emissions—the matter transmitters of Star Trek would no doubt do the job. Yet unless science fiction becomes reality, achieving net negative emissions will remain an enormous challenge.

Costs of Emissions Reduction: Five Examples from across the Globe

At least five research groups—four academic research teams publishing in peer-reviewed journals and one well-known consulting firm—have modeled global scenarios that lead to 350 ppm of CO2. These scenarios impose only moderate reductions in GDP—and one of them found that new climate investments might accelerate economic growth, creating new jobs for the unemployed. (Many research studies model emissions and impacts of all greenhouse gases, not just CO2. We have limited our attention to CO2 to highlight key numbers of current policy interest.)

Scenario 1

The first report we consider is by Detlef van Vuuren, Michel den Elzen, and others at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP).3 Their scenario relies initially on energy efficiency and on reduction of non-CO2 greenhouse gases. These measures are low cost, but their potential is soon reached. By midcentury, the model relies on carbon capture and storage (applied to virtually all remaining coal use), expanded sequestration (especially in large carbon plantations in East Asia, South America, and the former Soviet Union), bioenergy production, and some expansion of the roles of both non-hydro renewable and nuclear power (hydropower is assumed to be at or near its maximum potential).

Further reductions in later years depend on changes in energy use. In the second half of this century, the authors project that hydrogen fuel cells will become affordable, reducing emissions in transportation at moderate cost. Carbon prices will rise steeply, but most emissions will be eliminated long before prices reach their peak (electricity is virtually decarbonized at “only” $55–$82 per ton of CO2 equivalents. By the end of this century, they estimate that fossil fuel use will be virtually eliminated (the small continuing uses will be for electricity production associated with carbon capture and storage), and biomass energy production with carbon capture and storage will remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

The cost of the scenario peaks at about 2 percent of world output at midcentury. Analysis of the regional impacts of this scenario finds that costs would be high for the Middle East and North Africa and the former Soviet Union, the regions most dependent on oil and gas production. Member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) would experience medium costs, while other regions would have lower costs or even gains. Nations that rely most heavily on oil and gas revenues would stand to lose under a global climate deal—a pattern of regional impacts that has been confirmed in other research as well.4

Scenario 2

The GET model, developed by Christian Azar and Kristian Lindgren at Chalmers University in Sweden, has also been used to project the costs of reaching 350 ppm of CO2 by 2100.5 It presumes that, by midcentury, nuclear and hydroelectric power are already at their maximum potential, and it limits wind and solar power to 30 percent of electricity demand due to intermittency. Oil as the dominant transportation fuel is eventually replaced by hydrogen, with solar energy used to produce it. Carbon capture and storage is vitally important in this model, shrinking the cumulative cost of mitigation over this century from $26 trillion to $6 trillion when carbon capture and storage is applied to both fossil and biomass energy.

In this model, costs peak at 5 percent of GDP in 2030 without carbon capture and storage—or at 3 percent of GDP in the 2070–2080 period with it. In the 350 ppm with carbon capture and storage scenario, coal use is roughly constant throughout the century, but carbon capture and storage enters around 2020 and applies to virtually all coal use by 2060. Solar hydrogen appears around 2060 and is the largest source of energy in the global system by 2100. Biomass rises in importance until about 2060 and then remains constant; carbon capture and storage is applied to biomass energy starting around 2050 and applies to almost all remaining fossil energy by 2100. Oil declines rapidly after 2040; natural gas remains important until near the end of the century but with increasing use of carbon capture and storage after 2050.

Scenario 3

Another analysis, conducted by Terry Barker and Katie Jenkins at the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research (4CMR), at Cambridge University, projects that in a global economy characterized by slow growth and high unemployment, a program of investment in emissions reduction will increase employment and economic growth at a cost of between 2 to 3 percent of GDP by 2030, achieving 450 ppm of CO2-e by 2100.6

This study, which is less explicit about specific technology choices, suggests that moderate-to-high carbon taxes could shift the electricity system to low-carbon options, including coal and gas with carbon capture and storage, renewable resources, and nuclear power. Taxes could also propel the wholesale adoption of electric cars by 2050.

Scenario 4

Ottmar Edenhofer and his colleagues at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Research (PIK) have also engaged in extensive studies of low stabilization targets. In a major EU research project, these researchers compared the projections of four different models for the costs of achieving stabilization targets from 400 to 550 ppm of CO2-e.7 One model projects economic gains from the investments in mitigation; the three others, from different research groups, make relatively consistent projections, showing cumulative GDP losses through 2100 of 1.7 percent or less, even for the 400 ppm of CO2-e target (which is equivalent to about 300 ppm of CO2). Biomass and carbon capture and storage assumptions are crucial to costs everywhere; in contrast, nuclear power plays only a minor role. The lowest stabilization scenarios also require expansion of non-biomass renewables, with the level of biomass use determining the level of mitigation costs.

Scenario 5

McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm, has looked at the cost of greenhouse gas abatement from the bottom up, most recently in a study that examined the potential and the costs of more than 200 abatement opportunities from now through 2030.8 The study found that there is the technical potential to reduce global emissions 35 percent below 1990 levels, or 70 percent below business as usual, by 2030—if all measures with costs below $84 per ton of CO2-e are adopted. The total investment would be $280 billion to $490 billion annually by 2030, or less than 1 percent of global GDP in that year, on a stabilization trajectory that reaches 450 ppm of CO2-e (350 ppm of CO2) by 2200.

The McKinsey study’s projected emissions reductions consist of three roughly equal categories: energy-efficiency opportunities, such as more fuel-efficient cars, better insulated buildings, and more advanced manufacturing controls; low-carbon energy supply, shifting from fossil fuels to wind, nuclear, or hydro power, as well as equipping fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage capability; and forestry and agriculture changes, such as halting deforestation, switching to rapid reforestation, and changing agricultural practices to increase carbon sequestration in soils.

In addition to identifying the substantial opportunities for negative-cost emissions reductions (many of them from energy efficiency), the McKinsey research also points out that the cost estimates are sensitive to the price of oil. As the price of oil rises, the costs of investment in emissions reduction are largely unchanged, but the value of the saved energy increases, implying a lower net cost. The basic forecast assumes an oil price of $60 per barrel; every $10 per barrel increase, if accompanied by proportional increases in other energy prices, cuts average abatement costs by $4 per ton of CO2-e. Although the report does not spell it out in these terms, this formula implies that at an oil price of $90 per barrel, the entire emissions reduction of 38 gigatons of CO2-e would have zero net cost.

Many of the model results discussed here express costs as percentages of GDP, a measure that is natural to economists but may seem opaque to other readers. Most scenarios put the cost of mitigation at between 1 and 3 percent of global GDP—in 2008 terms, that’s somewhere between $600 billion and $1.8 trillion. This would be an annual, recurring cost that will have to be paid for many years. Yet as we noted at the beginning, this is far from an impossible burden.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Our most important conclusion is that a 350 ppm stabilization target will not destroy the economy. On the contrary: we found widespread agreement that sound economic analysis supports policies to promote energy conservation, development of new energy technologies, and price incentives and other economic measures to redirect the world economy onto a low-carbon path to sustainability—at entirely affordable costs.

Agreement with this conclusion, of course, is not universal. At one extreme, business groups warn that moderate reductions called for in recent U.S. legislation would cripple the economy—and some economists, quite mistakenly in our view, worry more about the costs of climate policy than about the risks of climate damages.1 At the other extreme, some environmental groups anticipate “win-win” economic outcomes and large net savings from eliminating carbon emissions. But between these extremes is a growing body of research that finds that even very ambitious emissions reductions aimed at reaching 350 ppm might only cost 1–3 percent of world output.

Is the estimated cost of a global climate change strategy of 1–3 percent of world GDP a large or a small number?

The answer depends on how seriously you take the risks of climate change. If we believe that inaction could lead to massive ice sheet melting, flooding in some areas and droughts in others, crop failures, extinctions, and other disasters, then spending a few percent of output to protect ourselves and our descendants against so much harm seems reasonable. In private life, many people spend a few percent of their income on fire and life insurance to protect against unlikely disasters, such as residential fires or the deaths of young parents. In public life, climate protection is insurance for the planet and future generations.

The low price of fossil fuels in the United States skews the discussion by masking the true costs of our energy use. We recommend putting a price on carbon, either as a tax or through a cap on emissions; a cap would likely be adopted as part of an allowance or emissions permit system. There is ongoing debate about the merits of auctioning allowances each year, the approach we prefer, versus freely allocating them to potentially affected business and other interests, the approach that has often been favored in Congress. These approaches have very different effects on the distribution of income but could have the same effect on the price of carbon.

It is preferable for the high fuel price to be imposed by a tax or cap rather than by private markets, even if the effect on consumers is the same. When market forces push up the price of oil, as they did in 2008, the extra revenues go to oil producers, not to the public. When oil prices remain high, incentives are created for environmentally destructive production of energy—from oil shale, oil sands, and increasingly deep, dangerous offshore drilling. In contrast, a high price imposed by policy creates incentives for consumers to conserve, but not for producers to engage in costly production from easily damaged resources. An oil tax transfers revenues to the government, which can use them for environmental investment, other public purposes, or refunds to citizens.

Predicting the future—what will happen next week or next month—is challenging; predicting a century of technological and economic change is inescapably fraught with uncertainty. Nonetheless, the best available estimates imply that we can, indeed, afford the economics of 350. What we cannot afford is too little climate policy, too late.

References:

1. Ackerman, F et al. The Economics of 350: The Benefits and Costs of Climate Stabilization [online] (Stockholm Environment Institute, Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, 2009). www.e3network.org/papers/Economics_of_350.pdf

2. Hansen, J et al. Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim? Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2, 217–231 (2008).

3. van Vuuren, DP et al. Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at low levels: an assessment of reduction strategies and costs. Climatic Change 81, 119–159 (2007).

4. DeCanio, SJ. The political economy of global carbon emissions reductions. Ecological Economics 68, 915–924 (2009).

5. Azar, C, Lindgren, K, Larson, E & Möllersten, K. Carbon capture and storage from fossil fuels and biomass—costs and potential role in stabilizing the atmosphere. Climatic Change 74, 47–79 (2006).

6. Barker, T & Jenkins, K. The Costs of Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change: Estimates Derived from a Meta-analysis of the Literature; A Briefing Paper for the Human Development Report 2007 (Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, Cambridge, UK, 2007).

6. Knopf, B et al. Report on First Assessment of Low Stabilization Scenarios [online] (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany, 2008).

7. Nauclér, T& Enkvist, P-A. Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy: Version 2 of the Global Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve [online] (McKinsey & Company, Seattle, 2009). www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/ccsi/pathways_low_carbon_economy.asp.


By Frank Ackerman, Elizabeth Stanton, Steve DeCanio, Eban Goodstein, Richard B. Howarth, Richard B. Norgaard, Catherine S. Norman, Kristen Sheeran

Link to original article source here

Villa Vals

Designed by Bjarne Mastenbroek and Christian Müller of SeARCH and CMA, the Villa Vals is masterfully built into the mountainside of the Swiss Alps at the end of the Valsertal Valley. The villa is built near the famous Therme Vals of Peter Zumthor and on the edge of a small Swiss village.

Photograph by Iwan Baan

The driving focus of the design was to create a living space that neither intruded on nor distracted from the surrounding landscapes and scenic views. Completed in 2009 and outfitted with an interior of Dutch design and style, the Villa Vals is truly a beautiful and unique approach to integrated design and environmental consciousness.

I was pretty taken aback when I first came across pictures of this villa. The beautiful home with its mix of rustic, modern, and natural styling and materials looks like something out of a classic children’s story. I could easily imagine this house to be the home of Mrs. Frisby or Mr. Fox. All it needs is wall decorations made out of buttons, furniture built from thimbles, and a cupboard full of grain and berries, and this home would make real the daydreams of my childhood.

Photographed by Iwan Baan

I was a little disappointed to find that the villa is not “as one with nature” as it may first appear; built among several hotels and villas, the villa is not the romanticized natural experience that sprang into my mind. Nonetheless (seriously, nonetheless, who could really complain about such a beautiful building and the sprawling mountainsides that surround it), the Villa Vals is one of the most beautiful homes I have ever seen.

For more details and pictures of the interior, visit VillaVals.ch, House-Inside-a-Hill and Iwan Baan’s Page.

Urban Farmers Unite

As a rule of thumb, the 8th floor of an urban apartment complex isn’t the best place to grow a vegatable garden. Despite the less than ideal setting, members of The Windowfarms Project are making the most of limited space and light resources with interesting new designs. Through innovation and creative thinking, people are turning their windows into productive hydroponic gardens.

The Project’s website, WindowFarms.org, is filled with different kits, informative step-by-step DIY manuals, and plenty of suggestion and shared experiences. All this information makes it possible for urban farmers to grow healthy foods indoors all year long. Most people living in an urban environment simply don’t have access to good (unpolluted) soil in order to start a garden. The Windowfarms Project is making this social and economic change possible for people around the country. The mission of The Windowfarms Project is to promote environmentally sustainable lifestyles in urban spaces. This goal is being achieved by empowering individuals with the knowledge to grow product in their own homes and apartment. People are then encouraged to share the knowledge and experience they have gained in the process through a web-based platform that the project has created.
The Windowfarms Project is a truely altruistic mission. The group is not simply trying to sell a new product to the pub
An importanlic, per se. Some complete kits can be found on the website but these are intended for individuals without the power tool or handyman experience to create a complete system of their own. Not everyone has the time or experience to start a design from scratch and turn it into a fully functional window garden. But the true essence of the project can be found on the website and the abundance of shared information. People show the plans they have created, discuss the issues they had to adress, hear suggests from other project participants, and so on. It really is group projress through individual effort.

The Windowfarms Project presents their intent for member participation as a 6 part process:
Join our.windowfarms.org
Download DIY instructions
Build a window farm of your own
Improve/Troubleshoot your assembly while posting problems and ideas on the project website
Test solutions and ideas with others in the online community
Contribute to improving designs and instructions to further the work of the Windowfarms Project.

The Windowfarms Project is, at first glance, a very simple concept (show people how to start a vegetable and herb garden in their apartment windows), but it is the underlying mission that is so important and inspiring. The project connects people all across the country with a shared goal of improving the sustainability of how they live. The message you should take away from the Windowfarms Project is this: Don’t just wait for others to figure how to save the environment, get your hands dirty and do your part to create a sustainable lifestyle.

The Thing About Plastics…

Popular science suggests that it takes a plastic water bottle 450 to 1000 years to completely biodegrade. To make matters worse, the compounds that common plastics breaks down to can be described as hazardous at best. The actual amount of time depends on the conditions the bottles are placed in, but the message should be crystal clear: it takes a long time. Plastics cannot be incinerated using low heat incinerators (like those used at most trash to power plants) because the combustion creates one of the most deadly gases humanity has discovered, Dioxin. Dioxin is a organic compound class that includes Agent Orange, produced by Monsanto during the Vietnam War. The greatest threat of dioxins is not the immediate deaths and ecological destruction, but the residual effects and birth defects that destroy the lives of generation after generation.

Photo by Chris Jordan, part of his Running the Numbers series.

In 2006, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation conducted a report on the growing use of bottled water in the United States. The report was full of staggering figures and awesome percentages. Like: Did you know that Americans spend nearly $11 billion a year on bottled water and that bottled water costs roughly $10 a gallon while tap water costs less than one cent per gallon. That is an inexplicable discrepancy considering the water sources are so comparable. While most bottled water in the U.S. does come from springs or underground reservoirs, 25% of bottlers simply sell packaged tap water. In truth, it is a brilliant business model: let the city do all the costly and energy demanding work to filter, treat, and chlorinate the water supply before placing it in cheap plastic bottles and selling it at hundreds of times the production cost. If you drink Pepsi’s Aquifina or Coke’s Dasani, you are most likely drinking processed tap water. If the label says “purified” or “drinking water,” that is a sign that the water is not coming from a glistening mountain stream like the image suggests.

Considering the importance of clean drinking water to our daily lives, it is quite surprising that water remains a grossly unregulated resource (in most places, if you own the land then you are entitled to the water in the reservoirs under your property). Bottled water companies exploit this fact, which is completely legal, in order to earn billions selling people their own water resources.

Manila Bay,  Philippines

Of the over 31 billion bottles of water sold a year, only about 10% are recycled. That means that 27.9 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills and oceans every year. And water bottles are one of the few recyclable kinds of plastic. Of the 7 types of plastics, only 2 are readily recyclable. That means only 2 types are worth TRYING to reuse. The rest are dumped, no questions asked.

The NY DEC report also found that every day, 30 million single-serve non-returnable plastic containers are discarded. That means water bottles, microwave dinners, takeout containers, etc, are all used just once before being sent of to a landfill to sit for 450-1000 years. Of course, that assumes these plastics even make it to a landfill. Even though the toxic conditions of a landfill are not well suited for biodegradation of plastics, it is still an improvement over the significant percentage of the plastics that end up in rivers and streams. From there they are carried off to the ocean. Once in the ocean, the litter collects with other garbage floating around in islands of trash and slowly deteriorates into tiny bits of plastic. Seabirds are known to mistake these colorful bits of plastic for food and to feed them to their young. Entire species will likely disappear before they learn that plastic is not edible. As these bits float down to the ocean floor, they are eaten by fish, adding a further stress to already over-fished populations.

For anyone who thinks that bottled water is safer and cleaner, it simply is not true. The only truth is that Americans are very easily exploited by advertisements. (If you have ever heard someone say “My clothes express who I am,” you should realize that that mentality is the result of clothing advertisements in the 60’s and 70’s aimed at recapturing a youth population that had rejected the homogenous styles that characterized previous generations.) Bottle water companies have created distrust in tap water through years of advertising, the tried and true American way. Almost all industrialized countries have high water quality standards which guarantee that tap water is clean and treated (water resources even includes traces of chlorine to prevent contamination and fluoride to prevent tooth decay).

Bottled water, by contrasted, isn’t regulated. Plus the deterioration of a plastic bottle may be slow, but it begins the moment it is created. Leave a bottle of water in the sun for a couple hours and you will be able to taste some phthalate that leaches into the water. A few years ago people were all up in arms about BPA in hard plastic water bottles, but ordinary plastic bottles are much much worse.

The solution: buy a metal or hard plastic water bottle, drink tap water, and stop polluting nature’s water resources. I shouldn’t even need to convince you.

Sources: MSNBC,