Tag Archives: energy

Talking trash on Valley Public Radio

I continue my contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio with another essay to be broadcast during this morning’s Valley Edition between 9-10 AM (rebroadcast at 7PM). Tune in online here if you get the chance. The audio will later be available in the archives, and I will post a link here when it does. In the meantime, I am posting the text of my essay (slightly expanded and linkified) below.

I wrote this essay during Thanksgiving weekend, that celebration of American cornucopia which is now increasingly marred by the ever-earlier manufactured rush of Christmas shopping, with Black Friday this year starting on Thursday, i.e., on Thanksgiving! As Jon Stewart later noted, Christmas is now eating other holidays, egged on by a marketing push in an economy wedded to ever-increasing consumption of goods, damn the environmental consequences.

Interestingly, a short while after I sent my essay in to the series editor, the Fresno City Council voted (closely, 4-3, after a heated debate) in favor of a measure pushed by Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin to outsource the city’s garbage collection to a private company, ostensibly to save money and get revenue from the company to balance the city budget. Ironically, a few days later, National Geographic lauded Fresno as “a city serious about recycling”, since it now keeps 73% of its trash out of landfills, making Fresno number 1 in the nation for recycling. Shortly after that, the garbage outsourcing measure passed a second round of voting by the same margin, so the city is one step closer to losing its nationally leading recycling program. I haven’t seen much discussion in the local media about what happens to the excellent recycling program, nor how the city plans to make sure that the private contractor will maintain quality of service. We will see how it all shakes out, I suppose, but the outlook is not very good, and the city leadership’s shortsightedness is disappointing if predictable.

All of this adds to the context within which I happened to write this essay, intending to make broader points about our garbage-spewing consumer culture. So here is my essay:


Can you imagine ever running out of garbage?

Maybe it has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, the one about how entropy or the amount of disorder in a system will always increase. Or maybe it is this time of year, between Black Friday and Christmas / Boxing Day, when we are constantly exhorted to go out and buy things, things we may or may not need, but things we should want, because they are bright and shiny and cool, and offer momentary happiness in sharing gifts, or because this is how we are supposed to help businesses stay in the black, and help the economy! Accompanying all this jolly holiday consumption, of course, is a growing mound of garbage from all the packaging and the gift-wrapping, and the unwanted or rejected gifts that end up, eventually, in our landfills. It is hard to imagine us running out of garbage!

These days we are running out of many of the earth’s natural resources, ranging from oil and other fossil fuels, to drinking water, to even the fertility of our soils. In this time of scarcity, if there is one thing that we are in no danger of exhausting, surely it is our supply of garbage. So how can we run out of the stuff? And what would that even mean?

Well, as it happens, the country of Sweden is running low on garbage lately, so much so that they import it from neighboring Norway—and get paid for taking it off Norway’s hands! So efficient have the Swedes become at recycling and composting all of their household waste that only 4% of it ends up in landfills. As a result, they simply aren’t producing enough trash any more!

Wait! Not enough trash? Not enough for what?

For generating energy, of course!

According to a recent NPR story, Sweden runs one of the most successful waste-to-energy programs in the world, generating one-fifth of the nation’s district heating, and powering a quarter million homes. But now, because its citizens have become so conscientious about minding their own household waste, Sweden has to turn to other countries for garbage. Isn’t that a nicer problem to have than the litany of more depressing environmental challenges we face these days?

Why don’t we all do this? Kill two birds with one stone: reduce the amount of waste going into landfills and reduce our need for fossil fuels in the process.

Indeed, Fresno County is now entertaining proposals for a new garbage-fueled power plant. And, Fresno is already recognized as a national leader for its recycling programs. It also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern landfill: the pioneering design of the Fresno Municipal Sanitary Landfill, a National Historic Landmark, set the standard for municipal waste management in 20th century America. Now Fresno can lead us again as the 21st century standard-bearer, by turning our trash into energy!

Dungbeetles Canthon simplex rolling a ball of dung.
Nature’s recycling crew at work, because in natural ecosystems, everything is recycled

In nature, there was never such a thing as garbage until humans came along, because any waste produced by one species is consumed by another in the circle of life. Our industrial civilization, paradoxically efficient and wasteful, broke the circle, and this may be the first time that a single species has generated too much waste for ecosystems to handle. 

We must close the circle again, and soon, before our planet is dead and covered in giant trash heaps.


Skyscraping towers of garbage on a desolate earth, as seen in Wall•E

A planet running short of garbage? Why, that’s how ours was not too long ago, and how it can be again if we put our ingenuity to solving the problems we have created.

For The Moral Is, this is Madhusudan Katti

Is it too late for us to do anything about climate change?

Bill McKibben answers the question, describing some dire scenarios if we don’t get off fossil fuels soon. And no government is currently planning to do that. One might argue that its never too late to try and at least slow the warming down, maybe, but we’re already in a new domain. So brace yourselves… it will get bumpier on planet Earth. 

[brightcove vid=1978531660001&exp3=1140772469001&surl=http://c.brightcove.com/services&pubid=16991917&pk=AQ~~,AAAAAAEDRq0~,qRcfDOX2mNtWW87VePrJiaFRXUo43tGn&w=480&h=270]

How easily, mindlessly, have we learned to kill 800 year old living beings…

… and this time even in the name of green energy! Only fools would object to such wanton destruction in the name of sustainable climate friendly energy projects, we are told. Be a fool, feel for the silent ancient Mojave yucca, and weep with me…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BGRD21H07Y?wmode=transparent]

A BrightSource contractor working on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in California’s Mojave Desert kills a Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) that was likely between 400-800 years old.

This video is posted under Fair Use provisions of US copyright laws, as a means of exposing activities by BrightSource that contravene that company’s agreements and obligations to protect the fragile desert wildlife on the site it is now bulldozing.

The BLM recently reported that they expect as many as 140-150 tortoises to be found on the 4,000-acre site. If BrightSource is breaking its promises to transplant and preserve ancient desert plants, how can we trust what they’re doing with the tortoises?

Imagine if this were a more charismatic plant, say a similar-aged Redwood or Sequoia tree – would you weep then? Would you be outraged?

Sorry Desert Tortoise. No room for you in Google’s Earth Day paradise.

Today is Earth Day, a once grassroots movement seeking to remind people to pay attention to the earth which has now grown to become a global event apparently “celebrated” by over a billion people – much of it courtesy of your neighborhood multinational corporations who have co-opted the day to urge you to buy more products at special discounts to “celebrate Earth Day”. They must mean “celebrate our collective destruction of this earth for profit and a few fun consumer products and gadgets”. Why, instead of actually going out and planting a tree today, you can enjoy playing Lorax Garden on your iPhone! Download for free today!! After all, why bother getting your hands dirty in an actual garden when you can get virtual karma playing it on your smartphone. Surely that’s what the Lorax wanted us to do, no?

As part of these corporate celebrations of the once-grassroots movement, Google sports this image of an impossibly idyllic edenic paradise as their doodle for the day:

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Lovely, isn’t it? Pandas and penguins and tigers living in harmony with the corporate logo tastefully hidden amid the verdant scenery!

Unfortunately, Google’s vision of paradise has no room for the Desert Tortoise, the Joshua Tree, or the ancient mesquites and all the other poor denizens of the Mojave Desert, just a few hundred miles outside Google’s corporate office windows. You see, just last week, Google upped their investment in the “green” solar energy company Brightsource, pouring in another $168 million to support that company’s massive solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Never mind that the project is already killing endangered tortoises, destroying their habitat along with that of all the other denizens of the Mojave’s unique biodiversity. And never mind that this kind of concentrated power generation with associated transmission costs and losses is an outdated model for this century. After all, combating global warming by switching to non-fossil-fuel energy sources is the be-all and end-all of environmental movements these days, we are told. By none other than the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who thinks conserving land is just “boring” compared to using exciting new “green” technologies to destroy habitats! This massive solar power generation technology is so exciting, it seems, that even Science Friday invited Madrigal to celebrate it on their Earth Day broadcast – where Ira Flatow forgot to ask any questions about the ecological impact of putting massive solar plants in the Mojave:

http://www.sciencefriday.com/tools/players/mediaplayer.swf

What’s doubly sad this Earth Day is that Madrigal is not alone. Too many environmentalist nonprofits and activists have bought into this model of green technology. One that merely substitutes one kind of power generation for another “greener” one without questioning the whole model! Why must we generate power at such massive scales, entailing land degradation, transmission losses, and a host of other problems, rather than developing smaller-scale technologies for distributed power generation from rooftops and parking lots? Whatever happened to “small is beautiful“? And why not put larger plants, if they’re needed, in brownfields and other land that we’ve already severely degraded through our other uses instead of bulldozing tortoise habitat? After all, there is plenty of such land within California’s urban/agriculture matrix which already covers more of the state than the remaining desert patches. If Germany, not known for its bright sun, can generate a significant amount of its power from rooftops in a distributed model, why must the US have to destroy remnant habitats still containing biodiversity? And why is Google, a company once at the cutting edge of innovation, with a motto “don’t be evil“, a supposed champion of the open-source internet as a force for democracy, i.e., distributed power, now investing in concentrated large-scale power projects mired in the old models of centralized production and distribution?!

Why aren’t more environmental groups raising these questions? Why is it left to a handful of “useful idiots” like Chris Clarke and Solar Done Right?

More importantly, why are we not asking the more fundamental question: WHY ON EARTH DO WE NEED TO KEEP USING SO MUCH DAMN ENERGY??!! Why can’t we cut down on the energy we currently waste, become more efficient, and work on reducing our massive ecological footprint by using less power-hungry products?

Oh, I forgot… how can we ask these questions, when the corporations are dangling all that shiny new magical technology in front of us all the time? Bright shiny smart phones where we can go play the Lorax game… what were you going on about the environment for, mate?

Sorry Lorax. Sorry Desert Tortoise. Sorry Mesquite. And Sorry Earth. We’ve sold you all out for a few shiny baubles. Happy Earth Day.

 

Can patriotic greedy bastards succeed where birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers have failed with climate change solutions?

Nice reframing of the climate change conundrum and possible solutions in this trailer. I’m intrigued and look forward to seeing the whole film – wonder if this way of packaging the inconvenient truth will go down better with conservative deniers of climate change than Al Gore’s slide show.

Also makes me wonder: whatever happened to the precautionary principle? Isn’t that essentially a conservative idea?

Coyote says: America’s Deserts Are Not A Renewable Resource…

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poster courtesy of the Coyote at faultline.org

… and the environmentalists on the renewable energy bandwagon that has begun to raze these deserts for concentrated industrial solar power plants had better pause and think about that for a moment!

Do we really want to destroy these diverse unique ancient ecosystems for a few megawatts of energy from power plants that will run down in a couple of decades? For what? So we don’t have to turn off the lights when leaving a room or power down our electronic gadgets when not using them? Really?

Cyborgs and avatars against Prop 23 in California?!

I’m not quite sure what to make of this ad, especially the hilarity at the end… but I suppose it might have some sway over the masses who poured big bucks into Cameron’s coffers for his fantastical treatment of the white man’s burden of environmental problems on a fictional planet. Maybe doing that gave him enough cachet to pontificate about real life environmental issues. Maybe he can buy more cachet by spending some of the avatar bucks on campaigns like this. Whatever.

What do you think?