It’s a paradox of life that what gives us pleasure in moderation often gets us into trouble when we get greedy.
I’m not talking about food, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or any of the other things that might come to mind. Because the second-highest heat index ever recorded in a city was marked today in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran – a mix of high humidity and soaring air temperatures yielded a ‘feels-like’ of 74°C (165°F).
So I’m talking about air conditioning.
Air conditioners in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: PKR
Modern air conditioning, the kind that transforms vast stretches of hot agricultural land into productive cities with office buildings and booming economies, was only invented in 1902. Before that, the height of technology when it came to cooling was the rotary fan, which was used as far back as the 2nd century in China (only for the very wealthy).
So what’s the paradox with air conditioning? Well, there are a few. For one thing, that delicious cool air comes at a price. It’s considerably more expensive than your average table or ceiling fan when it comes to electricity, because it needs a lot more power. A ceiling fan uses 25 to 90 watts of energy; central air conditioners can use as much as 2500 to 3500 watts. Even with increasing efficiency in AC units, and the expansion of renewable power generation, AC is still an energy intensive alternative.
Old-fashioned air-conditioning in Dubai. The tower catches wind from four directions and channels it down into the house. Photo: Denise Chan/Flckr via The Ecologist
And then there are the ozone-depleting refrigerants. CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs used for cooling are all greenhouse gases. The worst of the coolants have been banned in western countries (starting in the 1980s with the Montreal Protocol*). HFCs were banned in a 2016 treaty signed in Kigali, Rwanda, with phase-out starting in 2019 in the United States and then gradually for other countries, notably China (2024) and India (2028).
Meanwhile, AC use is rising rapidly in these countries as the middle class expands. Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that about 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be installed by 2050. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that we went for millennia without it, or have architectural techniques for coping with heat without AC – methods both ancient and new.
The more we use air conditioning, the hotter we make the planet, and the more we need air conditioning.
So get out your hand fan, crank up your ceiling fan (or in my case, table fan), and get ready for the next heat wave.
*Reagan signed the Montreal agreement with the words, “The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. (It) is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”
At least here in south-eastern France, the dog days have already begun – hot and sunny and cloudless and dry.
We’re in the midst of the year’s first proper heat wave, with the temperatures at near-record highs. There’s the sense that every year now, or at least most of them, will be record-breaking when it comes to heat.
We hooked up cisterns to catch spring’s ample rainfall – with any luck, that water will see the kitchen garden through what promises to be a very long season of sun spread over ever-shortening days.
Grape vine breaks through a garden door down the road from our house. Photo: PKR
So many of us live in cities these days that when we think of The Environment, we think of it as something separate, elsewhere, an entity apart from our daily lives.
Design & Nature shop window, Paris. Photo: PKR
We see slogans like Save The (Insert habitat or animal name here) and it’s not a place or creature we know like we know our own piece of green, or our family pet.
We can say we are all part of a whole, but we go to a park and don’t take off our shoes to really feel that.
We see a new construction project go up and like it or don’t like it, but don’t apprehend that this, too, is our own creature environment changing, and changing us.
Design & Nature shop window, Paris. Photo: PKR
What does the loss of a glacier, a forest, a species of songbird have to do with your daily life? Go out and find the nearest patch of dirt or green or tree. Take off your shoes. Look around and be there, a part of it just for a moment. You are there as much as any of the creatures and habitats – no more, no less.
It’s World Environment Day. Protecting parts of life doesn’t mean putting them in a museum or under glass any more for them than it would for you. It means protecting ourselves.
Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.
Traveling Landscapes. Artist: Kathleen Vance
Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.
This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.
It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.
Traveling Landscapes. Artist: Kathleen Vance
Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.
In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.
Bialowieza Forest. Photo: Emily Sun
Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.
The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.
But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.
Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?
The image below, of bottles and some kind of a collection, immediately made me think of marine life. Maybe it’s the small, irregular pieces carefully arrayed beneath each bottle. Maybe it’s the size of the bottles and their tidy alignment, paired against the sandy randomness of their spilled contents.
I thought it might be a collection of sand types, something from the Sand Atlas.
Samples from various beaches, perhaps.
These are forams (Sorites), Cyprus. Source: Sand Atlas
The round bottles also made me think of sewing and buttons.
Maybe these were shards of buttons that had been found in an archeological dig.
Or perhaps the image is a tiny environmental art installation of natural materials.
The Darkness, an installation taken from part of a collapsed Sussex cliff. Artist: Cornelia Parker
But no. The collection turned out to be none of those things, although each jagged piece will outlast almost anything else I had imagined. Each small piece here, even if it hadn’t been retrieved and catalogued, will endure for decades if not centuries.
I was correct about the marine life connection. The pieces had been battered and reduced from their original forms by water. But before they found their way into these lab bottles, each piece found its way into the mouth of a turtle hatchling, and each bottle represents the stomach contents of a hatchling either starved to death on a belly full of plastic, or that died as a result of damage caused by the plastic.
Larger turtles can survive some level of plastic ingestion, which includes everything from small debris to entire plastic fishing nets. The hatchings can’t pass the plastic through their systems.
According to Jack Lighton, head of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Florida where these samples were collected, “It’s no longer a question of ‘if a sea turtle has ingested marine pollution,” it’s now a question of “how much the turtle has ingested.”
And because it’s not just turtles swallowing our garbage, but all manner of other animals on land and water, it’s something to consider in our ongoing world of packaging, non-reusable items like straws and plastic forks, plastic bags and plastic furniture.
Switzerland just experienced its coldest winter in thirty years; back in October, several meteorologists predicted this winter would be Europe’s coldest in a century. From my vantage point on the Franco-Swiss border, where temperatures didn’t get above freezing and were further chilled by a strong northerly wind, I can testify that January was desperately cold for our region. These are some local effects of a warmer Arctic, a slower jet stream, and the resulting stationary cold fronts.
But how do we know all this? Because we’ve been keeping meteorological records for decades and have further records based a variety of environmental investigations. While a few decades worth of temperature recordings might not be much along the vast time line of the planet, they do give us insights into directions, movements, influence. Without these records, we are cut adrift into speculation.
Record-keeping of environmental data is how we can move beyond the snapshots of the time in which we live to gain an overview of our world as it evolves, of our impact on it.
Tsunami stone. Photo: Roselinde Bon/Flickr
And so it was with dismay that I read of various environmental agencies and national parks being muzzled as one of the first orders of business under the new U.S. administration. From the Environmental Protection Agency to every national park to NASA to the Department of Agriculture, public access to public science was restricted, while government scientists were prohibited from communicating with the very taxpayers for whom they work. A memo announced that all studies, papers, publications and grants would be reviewed for approval by the incoming administration. It’s possible this is just a prelude to massive de-funding.
Offhand, I would guess that this is an outgrowth of the new administration’s less-than-enthusiastic support of the science behind climate change, and that a blanket gag order is one way to control a large, ongoing conversation between scientists and the public. Without regular record-keeping, otherwise known as data gathering, we are blinded.
Record keeping is how we humans remember. Whether through oral history, parchment paper, printed studies or virtual data memory, this is how we find our way forward by knowing what came before. Our collective access is greater than ever before, provided it’s not suppressed for ideological and commercial expediency.
Stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below its location. Photo via: Fackler/Bend Bulletin
Back in 2011, the great Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami swept across the Sendai province of Japan like a scythe. It was the largest earthquake ever measured in Japan, and the fourth largest in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, a nuclear reactor in Fukushima was compromised and released large amounts of radioactivity into the environment.
Yet there was data that warned of building below certain elevations. After all, Japan is a land of earthquakes and tsunamis. Hundreds of tsunami stones, some dating back 600 years, warn inhabitants to build on high land and not below. In the boom years following WWII, this data, this knowledge, was forgotten or ignored and the stones relegated to historical curiosities as towns, oil refinieries and nuclear reactors were built right up to the coast line. It was commercially and politically viable, and modern society thought that higher sea walls would outweigh inconvenient ancient data.
Data and remembering are more than history, more than signposts to be pointed wherever the political wind is blowing. Some of the gag orders on U.S. agencies were lifted following public outcry, not that these agencies will necessarily be spared cutbacks. But this kind of information is the result of input by countless contributors from around the world, from those who develop data gathering methods to scientists and community volunteers who collect data in the field to those who interpret it. This knowledge shouldn’t be subject to national borders, much less capricious limitations.
The environment doesn’t recognize or respect national borders, nor does climate change. Records and this kind of information are our collective global right and legacy.
Tsunami Memory Stone, Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture. This is one of many memorials to the victims of the 2011 tsunami. Its English inscription reads: Memorial Stone of the Tsunami. Just run! Run uphill! Don’t worry about the others. Save yourself first. And tell the future generations that a Tsunami once reached this point. And that those who survived were those who ran. So run! Run uphill! Photo: Osamu Yamasaki/Digital Journal
It always counts as a surprise when we find out that unexpected networks have been operating right under our collective noses. We use the word ‘discovery’ to describe the newness to our understanding, even if, in retrospect, it might be a bit like describing a city’s take-out food delivery system as a ‘discovery’ just because no one had noticed a connection between all the scooters with restaurant names and the arrival of restaurant food at private homes.
The discovery, in this case, is something that makes a lot of sense: At least one kind of sea grass that flowers underwater manages to employ underwater pollinators in a manner similar to terrestrial flowering plants that use airborne pollinators like bees, bats and birds.
There aren’t many plants that actually flower under water – most produce their flowers above the water surface. Thalassia testudinum, known as turtlegrass, grows in large meadows, and produces small flowers near the seabed. The male flowers release pollen in the evening, and until now it was thought that the pollen was carried to female plants solely via water currents.
But a study published last fall in Nature Communications showed that there is another factor that increased the distribution of pollen. In a series of aquarium-based experiments, it was demonstrated that a variety of invertebrates, from spider crab larvae to tiny crustaceans to marine worms, are drawn to the male and female flowers, and these fauna were proven to fulfil the criteria of being characterized as pollinators* even in the absence of water flow.
The researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico state that that other, larger animals might also contribute to pollination, but that these were not included in this particular study. Unlike bees, there’s no hive or honey involved. But, like their terrestrial counterparts, the fauna here were attracted to the flowers for feeding, and moved between the blossoms in search of more food.
A male turtlegrass flower releases its nocturnal pollen. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS
Look at the intelligence of turtlegrass. It has small flowers, and they aren’t packed densely together, waving in the breeze. Rather, they are close to the sea bed and spaced well apart. Relying solely on water flow to pollinate might not do the trick. Why not make the petals sticky and attractive to the myriad small creatures abundant in the water, and get them to do a bit of the heavy pollen lifting for extra evolutionary insurance?
I applaud lead researcher Brigitta van Tussenbroek and her research team for noticing and studying this fascinating network of activity, which they have given the name zoobenthophilous pollination, i.e. pollination carried out by animals close to the sea bed. The discovery of the role fauna play in underwater pollination could help better understand and protect these ecosystems, which, as van Tussenbroek and her colleagues state, “are amongst the world’s most productive ecosystems. (They) improve water transparency, stabilize coastlines and store carbon, and also provide food and shelter to a diverse faunal community.”
I have the feeling it may just be the beginning of a deeper understanding of many things that are right in front of us, but which we aren’t yet seeing. All it requires is a willingness to shift our perspective.
A female turtlegrass flower with visiting invertebrates, bits of pollen and sand. Photo: ICMyL via DGCS
(1) both male and female organs (of the flowers) are visited, (2) the visitor carries pollen, (3) the visitor transfers pollen between male and female sexual organs, (4) pollen deposition by the visitor results in successful fertilization, estimated as pollen germination on the stigmas, pollen tube growth or seed set.
This piece of mine came out on Medium’s Midcentury Modern right after John Glenn passed away in early December, but it seemed a fitting way to send off 2016 as a whole. Not because it was as great as John Glenn, but because we all need a little something to get us through the hard times:
It was 1975 and Nixon had left office the year before. A new, dark cynicism about our system of government had freshly hatched and was flailing around like a hungry mongoose, hissing and snappish. Saturday Night Live started that year, and began by openly mocking then-President Gerald Ford on a regular basis, and if it bothered Ford, the general public never found out. John Glenn, a military man and former astronaut, had just been elected senator for the state of Ohio.
I had just moved back to California to live with my father after a few years of making my mother miserable with her new husband in his home town of Milwaukee. Returning from an orderly suburban life that ticked along like Chinese water torture, I found myself living in a cabin that my father and a bunch of buddies slapped up in a forest clearing. It was a 10’ x 12’ redwood box, tar-papered and shingled, heated with a wood stove, no running water, and it was located around fifty feet from my dad’s own cabin in the middle of a dense bay forest. I couldn’t see his place from mine, and at night, once the sun went down, it was prehistorically unlit by anything but the flame of my small kerosene lamp. I was thirteen. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, had flown around the planet a couple of weeks after my birth and now I lived in my own little satellite beneath the stars.
Society was all at sixes and sevens in the Sixties and Seventies, people wandering off in different directions, and I occupied myself with reading a lot of science fiction. Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov. Their casual misogyny and racism was dated, even then, but there was the pull of the great yonder. The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was already seven years old; Apollo 11 had landed on the moon six years earlier.
At the rate we were going, surely space colonies couldn’t be far off, soon enough to beat any population problems, nuclear wars or environmental disasters we might inflict upon ourselves. I wrote what would be my first publication, a letter to Co-Evolution Quarterly, offering to go off-world if it would help save the planet. I got an unexpected check for $25 in return, my first money for words.
My father wrote songs, and some of them came from dreams. He had a tape recorder at the head of his bed, and if a song came to him at night, he’d push the record button and sing,
still mostly asleep, at the machine while the little wheels of the cassette tape turned. We’d listen to the results over breakfast, which was always at his place, just after dawn.
I’d wake up and listen for him to whistle, which meant he was awake and I could come over. Sometimes it took a long time and I sat on my doorstep, looking out through ferns and bay trees and beyond, to Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County, and thinking how hard it would be to fit that all even into the largest space station. How would we transport all this earthly wealth with us to barren planets? Maybe the moon was close enough. “Zero G, and I feel fine.” That’s what John Glenn said when they reached orbit and he became weightless for the first time. Sounded pretty good to me, I just wanted to take a few trees along.
One morning, the whistle finally came and I made my way up along the narrow path that wound between ferns, carefully using a stick to part the dewed spider webs strung across the way. We sat down in our respective chairs to tea and pancakes, and I reached over and pressed the rewind and play button the tape recorder to see if there was anything there. My dad’s voice sang a groggy ditty that was unintelligible except for a long, four-note “meeeeeee” at the end of two lines. “What the heck is that?”
My dad’s face brightened as the dream returned to him.
I was walking on the surface of Mars with the Colonel. There was nothing, just red wasteland, except for the compound behind us. We came to an enclosure, a fence around waist high.
‘This is where we keep them,’ said the Colonel.
‘The space monkeys.’
I looked down, and there, in a little space suit just like ours, was a chimpanzee. It stood right in front of us, and then it took off its own helmet. And it had the face of John Glenn. Smiling, beatific. It looked at us, and then at the sun, so far away. And John Glenn beamed. He started to sing!
Radiant sun! Shinin’ on meeeee! Radiant sun! Shinin’ on meeeee!
My dad wore the same smile he must have seen on his dream version of John Glenn. The song instantly entered our lives as a way of expressing joy about anything that was really, really terrific, and we’d sing it, or just say that something was a ‘radiant sun’ moment. We were probably what most would have would called radical hippie types at the time, but if there was one thing pretty much everyone could agree on, it was that John Glenn was a good guy who flew higher than Cold War politics or partisan pettiness. You couldn’t not like him.
The song and the dream of John Glenn stayed in my life. I got my first truly soul-killing office job at Equitable Life Insurance in 1981. The supervisor parked me in a cubicle on the seventh floor of a high rise in downtown San Francisco, tasked with the Sisyphean job of transferring all the client paper files to the early mainframe computer system, and even though I knew from the first week that the job and I would never be a good match, I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. One day, after a particularly rough week of talking to a lot of very sick, broke people on the phone who hadn’t been paid because their files hadn’t yet been transferred, I arrived at work to find one small addition to the wall of my bleak cubicle: It was a postcard of John Glenn in his space helmet, his confident face radiating its goodness right down on me. It was signed, Courtesy of Your Fellow Inmates. Glenn got me through the next few months, before I quit to pursue another life.
Space colonies didn’t become a reality as quickly as expected. Instead, I left the country for other continents and other countries, and ended up spending most of my life far from my country of birth. John Glenn made his mark as a senator for the state of Ohio. Mostly he did a good job, an advocate for science and, more importantly, for enduring curiosity that lasted a lifetime. He had a knack for looking beyond borders.
So, now he’s left Earth’s orbit for good, and I find myself thinking that we need a John Glenn these days. Someone who inspires everyone, no matter their persuasion, to look beyond their own cynicism. Cynicism was rife under Nixon, and then Ford, and even under the artificial-honey reign of Reagan, but at least we could all agree that astronauts and the science that kept them aloft were objects worthy of admiration.
So farewell, John Glenn, and thanks for getting me through some hard times and inspiring more than just happy songs. It was radiant.
Thanks for visiting Champagnewhisky, and wishing all of you a wonderful 2017.
Almost everything about fossil fuels, by definition, happens in the dark. The organisms that form coal, gas and oil form in the dark; they are extracted from deep dark places that are under water, under mountains, beneath broad plains. From well to tank, most oil never sees the light of day unless there’s a leak, or a spill.
And then, by the time we find it, damage has already been done.
Back in 2013, the one of the largest on-land spills in the United States took place beneath a remote piece of crop land near Tioga, North Dakota. It took several days for the farmer who owned the property to discover the spill and then report it. It took several more days to stop the spill, which was due to a leaking pipe. And it took another week or so for the authorities to report the spill to the press. The spill was estimated at 865,000 gallons (20,000 barrels).
That spill necessitated a clean-up effort that is still ongoing. The most recent cost estimate I could find online put the cost at $42 million – and that was over a year ago, when approximately one-third of the spill had been removed. From the most recent article I could find on the spill, on Oil Price.com: “The 2013 spill contaminated around 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site grew to 35 acres to accommodate excavated soil stockpiles from digging 50 feet deep and then baking hydrocarbons out of the soil.” The Oil Price article was actually on another, more recent spill, that of 17,000 gallons (400 barrels) of oil and 120,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastewater near Marmath.
In general, oil spills are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest where there’s no one to hear it – if there’s no one around to witness a spill, then as far as authorities and oil companies are concerned, it might as well not have happened. Compiling a global list of incidents in which oil escapes its pipelines, even just the known offshore and onshore spills, would be a virtually impossible task, even if oil companies were ready and willing to expose the underbelly of the business.
This opacity when it comes to the collateral damage of our oil dependency extends to other aspects of the oil industry, from the funding of climate change skeptics through ‘dark money’ to the fighting of environmental regulations around the world.
So, what to make of the nomination of an oil company chief to the United States’ highest diplomatic post, that of Secretary of State, key advisor on foreign policy and fourth in line to the Presidency? Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (largest U.S. oil company by revenue), is undoubtedly an extremely able individual, manager and businessman. He is also the person who said, just a couple of months before the big spill in North Dakota, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers? (…) My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do (…) The rest is risk management.”
The question is, where does the management begin, and where does it end? How much of this management will truly be brought to light?
Throughout winter, our little village can often be found directly on the fog line of the milky blanket that covers the Geneva basin for weeks at a time. We are just high enough in altitude (490 m/1600 ft) to catch a glimpse of blue above, not quiet high enough to see out over the fog itself.
The freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight coat most surfaces with an ever-thickening layer of ice – hoarfrost – as the fog lingers and becomes solid. The garden, the roads, are obscured by a moving veil, with visibility down to a dozen yards or so, and then suddenly, like the revelation of a hidden truth, the fields and mountains and tree-tops reappear.
When the sun bursts through, there’s a brief, wonderful space of time when the hoarfrost falls from the trees and bushes in chiming shards. And the birds, mostly silent in the fog as it’s an eternal evening, suddenly begin to sing again.
I went for a run today at just the right moment. The fog broke, and though I could see the borders of the fog bank just below our own property, above was all soft light. I could hear raucous birdsong, and the gentle tinkling of frost rain.