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Bees and time.

8 October, 2016 | 11:14 am

“To bees, time is honey.Bernd Heinrich in Bumblebee Economics.

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28 October, 2015 | 09:42 pm

We are already tired of the word "sustainability" whilst many still do not even know what it means. In fact it's easy enough to consider that part of the fatigue of this language is its resistance to defineability and consensus. Recently, I've heard it suggested more and more often that we should shift the sustainability focus to *innovation*. But what, even, is innovation? According to the English Oxford Dictionary, to innovate is to: "Make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products" (2015). A quick images search reveals that the most popular association with this term is either an actual or a sketched lightbulb, which leads me to...

We have a tendency to focus on the last of the three mentioned objects of innovation - products - whereas methods and ideas fall by the wayside. Sure, the lightbulb is representative of ideas; yet it is still embodied as a product, standardized aluminum screw-bottom and incandescent filament included. Personally, I believe that this habit is based on the tangible activity of the modern capitalist system: to concentrate wealth and make more sophisticated the means of doing so through production, the generation of products. And what is done in the case of products (that also segregates this category so cleanly from methods and ideas)? Resources extracted, processed, formed, marketed, sold, consumed, and disposed. Classic cradle to grave.

What does this mean for sustainability innovation?

As an LA girl, raised in the era of Madonna, I would say it means, material material material. It is so deeply ingrained that our sense of newness relates to what we posses and consume, that the challenge of sustainability innovation stretches far beyond changes to the established methods or ideas to in fact run head on into culture, mentality, and even sense of self.


Perhaps not. We have, indeed, an innovation of generations, an innovation in the way we feel need and experience possessions. Granted, this change has been a luxury of the access to such. But it is a learning from experience that nearly uninhibited ownership not only fails to quell desire, it can actually hinder satisfaction. It is in this way that I believe that connection of innovation and well-being is essential to the fundamental innovation of sustainability mentality. Enough concepts eating at each other? Well, this is part of it. We lack even the language, and instead attempt to innovate the basis of the terms we use to describe the future world as we'd like to see it.

But the next time someone talks to you about innovation, go ahead and ask them what they mean and what they envision.

OED definition: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/innovate
Berkeley on the innovation organization: http://executive.berkeley.edu/programs/innovative-organization
Harvard Business Review on collective genius: https://hbr.org/2014/06/collective-genius/ar/1
Sustainability as a driver of innovation: https://hbr.org/2009/09/why-sustainability-is-now-the-key-driver-of-innovation
Sustainia 100: http://www.sustainia.me/solutions/
Sustainable Innovation Forum at COP21: http://www.cop21paris.org/about/about-us

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Owning genes is owning life

11 December, 2012 | 12:43 am

Whittled down to nearly the smallest of units, life is contructed of genes. True enough, genes are made out of nucleotides, which in turn are made out of sugars, phosphates and a nitrogen base. But it is the activity of these genes that determines our development, our physical viability and expression, and even to some extent, our longevity. So what is life without genes? Can it exist? Is there such thing as living nature without them?

Posed in such a manner, it may seem an obvious answer, but it is not so obvious that this is not a serious legal issue that the Supreme Court will be deciding upon in the near future. Indeed they will answer, fundamentally, the question of whether or not an individual gene molecule can be considered man-made (and thus patentable).

The case I am referring to is that of the American Civil Liberties Union v. Myriad Genetics. The basics are that Myriad Genetics holds patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes associated with breast cancer (thus, I'm assuming, the BRCA), and that while this stands, other researchers cannot investigate them, nor can companies run full genetic sequences without "using" them.

We really must believe that we are so clever to imagine for even a fragment of a second that mankind could in essense "make" genes. Sure, we can mimic, just like the apes before us; but that is hardly the same. On the contrary, we are really not clever at all to consider that women all over the world are not "using" these genes every moment of every day of their potentially shortened lives. And hmm, how to regulate that? Ah, in my nightmares, it could be done.

Let's say, for example, that a man and a woman create a baby girl together. Both the man and the woman have BRCA1 and BRCA2, but they may only be expressed in the woman. If they express, does this violate the pantent? Also, the baby girl now has both genes as well, and may likewise express them. And for the matter, for having created the genes within the baby girl, is it the father or the mother who is responsible? Or both? Horrendous.

This may seem to be a long stretch, but given the recent history of lawsuits filed by holders of agricultural gene patents against farmers, it isn't that far off. In some of those cases, the patented genes have undergone gene transfer from the intended genetically modified crop to a natural crop. Nonetheless, the farmer can be prosecuted for growing the once-natural crop that unbeknownst to him/her integrated the patented genes. In what sort of twisted legal world can someone be held responsible for the movement of genes in nature?

I'll tell you, the same kind of twisted legal world in which a company can patent a unit (or as many as they can sequence and file patent applications for) of the essence of life.

Very curious (and terrified) about the outcome of this decision... Let's hope that the Supreme Court has more moral and practical sense than the federal appeals court that upheld Myriad's patents.

Wikipedia entry on genes
"How Do Genes Work?" from The Tech Museum of Innovation (Stanford)
Article in the NY Times
Article in Wired Magazine
Article from Bio-IT World
Summary from Institute of Science in Society on patent lawsuits against farmers

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At Your Fingertips

21 November, 2012 | 10:10 pm

Every time I meet someone who does not believe in climate change, they assert that there is not any evidence. Every time I ask whether they have heard of the IPCC, and every time the answer is no.

You see, I was inspired to write this post because of a documentary segment on SVT Play about being Googled and how one should approach one's digital identity. Naturally, they brought up the search engine algorithms and the setting forth of sites that may or may not appeal to individuals as people or as consumers. This started me thinking about the way that we select which information we would like to seek... or is it that the information selects us? Yes, more like that. And this led me to thinking about how stifled we are by the information that beats against us like veined wings in a swarm of bats. It's confusing, frightening, overwhelming, a little appalling, and certainly not what we wanted.

When I search for "climate change", the first results are sponsored ads. The first is for Chevron. The second is for Columbia's Earth Institute. Well, no wonder folks are conflicted.

The IPCC is the sixth on the list, after Wikipedia, the US EPA, and news results. But hey, maybe I didn't get that far after the temptations of clicking of Chevron. In fact, I am going to sacrifice my search engine vote to the devil of curiosity...

Wow, within the first paragraph describing the inlaid video, even Chevron mentions the IPCC!
Now even the oil-glugging naysayers have no excuse.

On a related side note, I'm reading a book by James Gleick (author of Chaos) called The Information. It is my first extracurricular non-fiction read since my release from the academic world, wherein one is exposed to so much factual information that one's free time demands fantasy. I thought this 412 page book would dive directly into the pool of modern information; but rather, it starts where the author perceives the commencement of information conveyance -- namely, language. In doing so, Gleick gradually leads me through a fascinating story of unstructured, fluid and imperfect development of our words, right up until we started writing them down. There was in fact a time when no one bothered with the right spelling, or when one knew only definitions in the context of their own lives instead of from fat books. And there was a time when the Greeks considered: what shall writing do to the way people think? Will it not damage their retention, sense of time, sense of self? But even this pondering is only known because, of course, writing succeeded.

I bring this up because now because I think we have to ask ourselves more than "What does someone see when they search my name online?"

We have questions we are morally obliged to ask. Somehow we've become a people who do not feel that obligation any longer. I remember distinctly the feeling of being too old to ask questions that I should know the answers to and having to fight myself for my curiosity to draw out an answer. Don't get me wrong -- we are asking one-liners. "What is the best coffee house in Los Angeles?" or "What is the best way to protect my computer from viruses?" But we are not seeking truths online... Ask yourself about HIV infection rates, about the failures of capitalism in a globalized world, about what people do that really ends up making them feel happy. Ask yourself something worthwhile for yourself and for others. I guess I like to think that this journal is one small part of taking one person's investigations or contemplations just one step further. Afterall, the difference between a tweet and a blog post is that the former truncates a thought, whereas the latter elongates it. Read on, dream on, search on.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Article about the Google Algorithm
SVT Play's video on individuals being Googled (in Swedish)
Gleick's Information on amazon.com
Article with a segment on Plato and Socrates' struggle with the written word
Article about 2011's most searched questions

P.S. In my search for "questions about life on the internet", the third result was Wikipedia's "Phrases from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Well, maybe reading fiction is worthwhile :)

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Quote of the Week

9 May, 2011 | 10:16 am

"It's like a bicyclist's nightmare: Whichever way you go, the wind is against you."

- Mikkel Andersen, physicist at the University of Otago, New Zealand, while describing his team's new method of trapping atoms. Lichtman, Flora. "Building an Atom Trap." Popular Science. May 2011.
Tags: ,

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Did Someone Really Just Pair "Nuclear" and "Safe?"

17 April, 2011 | 03:04 am

In the wake of the incidents at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the debate over the safety and wisdom of nuclear energy has been reincarnated. "Chernobyl" is on some lips, "global warming" on others. Some just stick their heads in the sand and pretend that everything's fine. But one interesting data set floating around the internet is “Deaths per TWH,” which can be found here:

Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average = 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China = 278
Coal – USA = 15
Oil = 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas = 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass = 12
Peat = 12
Solar (rooftop) = 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind = 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro = 0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - (world including Banqiao) = 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear = 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

As you may have figured from this posting title, I think this is a sham. I don’t believe this is done intentionally, mind you, but I believe the article fails to consider two major aspects of the nuclear industry: 1) lack of transparency and outright illegal activities, and 2) the sheer time span inherent to nuclear material. Sure enough the article itself makes reference to “direct” deaths at Chernobyl (which is defined how…?); but does not explore less known incidences such as those at Hanford, Washington and Leningrad, Russia. Indeed there is much that should have been done to improve safety at the Japanese plant, but the point is that it wasn’t done and, in fact, the government had recently granted an operations extension permit despite these flaws. This is illustrative of common government practices when it comes to maintenance and oversight of nuclear power plants.

fukushima explosion

But even disregarding the blatant human flaws in handling these dangerous technology, it is still material that extends far beyond our typical abilities to comprehend life. The age of Planet Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years. The half-life of depleted Uranium-238 (DU) is approximately 4.5 billion years, and remember that that’s only half depletion, and that the by-products are radioactive as well. Chew on that.

And of course we’ve come up with excellent ideas of where to store this ancient radioactive material, right? A mountain with corrosive water leaking…? The ocean…? Rather, it usually just stays in cement tanks at the plants themselves while governments further and further delay transportation and permanent storage. Nope, no good ideas on that one. In the meantime, this material is prime target for military/terrorist attacks, and will just keep piling up for… hmm, practically forever. Just imagine if we increase our nuclear power usage – as it only accounts for some 6% of the world's electricity, as noted in the article. Does that really sound like safety to you?

Fish Cartoon Nuclear

Speaking of which, if these figures get to count installers falling off of roofs while placing solar panels, then I believe it should include the ever-so-closely intertwined nuclear arms numbers. Afterall, part of why we continue to pursue Uranium enrichment (as well as suppress it abroad) is because we want an easy, on-hand supply of death machine. So if we put that in there, that’s roughly 90,000 people from Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone – not incorporating indirect deaths from improper disposal, testing, scientists, and downwinders  (those who are exposed to radiation clouds downwind of testing sites).

Despite my misgivings about the usage of the article’s statistics, I would like to emphasize one point: it is important to foremost reduce mining operations as much as possible, and secondly drastically improve safety protections for miners. It is inherently a dangerous job, but often one conducted under poor working conditions and with little concern lent to the employees, particularly in developing nations (just take a look at South Africa’s mining history, not just gold and diamonds, but asbestos as well). And in any case, wind, solar, and hydro power are far safer than coal!

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Feeding the World or the World Feeding Itself

11 March, 2011 | 07:27 pm

Feeding the World or the World Feeding Itself: Do you know the difference?

I was inspired to write this post because of an article I read that approached concerns of a future global food crisis from the standpoints of pro-intensive and pro-GMO agriculture, which you can read here.

global food demand chart

It's here, and it's for real. There are too many people, and too many already suffer from poor or malnutrition. But is stepping on the gas really going to get us anywhere? Even if *hypothetically* intensification, GMOs, and better management could manage to bring the spoon to the mouths of 9 billion, what about the next billion? Realistically, an intensified, GM monocrop of corn is destined to become the toasted, yellow kernels -- accented by flame-roasted tomatoes -- on someone's poisson du jour. There is enough food now, but still people starve. So many factors contribute to this: weak infrastructure, poor international cooperation, political corruption, increasingly arid land, insufficient government support and supplying of farmers, international and corporate pricing, and more. And in the meantime, we are destroying the capability of the world to support anyone, let alone our growing population.

Ask yourself this question:

malnourished children
Are these children malnourished because of a lack of intensive, GM monocrops?

A much better idea is the global adoption of sustainable agriculture and agroecology practices. If you think these are not competitive with conventional agriculture, then you should fact check in the "abouts" section. An organic, ecological crop can even out-perform a standard crop in drought years. Further, these methods incorporate the integral social aspects of agriculture. It is, after all, agri "culture," an ingrained social practice at the heart of our seasonal changes and comfy circles around the dining table. It looks something like this:

But changes to agriculture alone will not be enough. Our entire functioning around agriculture must change. Not only is conventional agriculture not going to solve our problems, but there are a number of other current practices that are threatening the possibility of a sustainable future: unchecked population growth, land grabbing, privatization of seed, and war, to list just a few. It is simply unethical to accelerate the world's current tactics, and ultimately, we all lose. No more mangoes. No more flour.
In the meantime, you can make small triumphs in your daily life, including shopping organic, local, and seasonal. Vegetarianism doesn't hurt. And badger your politicians. But most importantly, consume only what you need and attempt to reduce both your demand and waste. Never forget to enjoy the food you have.
University of California's Sustainable Agriculture page: http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/concept.htm
Rainforest Alliance's agriculture page: http://rainforest-alliance.org/agriculture
USDA's sustainable agriculture tools: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/agnic/susag.shtml
Organic Farming Research Foundation: http://ofrf.org/index.html
Huffington Post article on the UN's report encouraging sustainable agriculture: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paula-crossfield/un-ecofarming-feeds-the-world_b_833340.html
Interesting videos:
Vertal's (UK) large-scale food waste composting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-pp7Pd-zdA
Making a Killing from the Food Crisis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwT_ga9-jFg

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Culture under the duress of Climate Change

4 February, 2011 | 12:06 am

How can you help but see tanned skin stretched out on sand when picturing the popular beaches in Rio de Janeiro? Or the bits of ice clinging to the beards of ice fishermen in Norway? And although the sun can be blinding white in Kutu, but Parc National de la Salonga can be dark with tropical shade, Congo will make you sweat just imagining it.

Are these places not themselves anymore after climate change? Are their people different somehow?

These questions were recently brought up to me in regards to Scandinavia in The Daily Climate article "Sunny, sweltering... Scandinavia?"
Read the rather short article here.

Culture Grounded in Climate

I can testify firstly that it is not getting any warmer in Scandinavia. In fact, it has been as much as 4 degrees Celsius colder than usual, and there has been more snow in the past two winters. But the question still remains -- would the Danish not be Danish without a cold winter?

There are a number of cultural practices informed by the cold: drinking (which admittedly occurs year round); ice skating; falling and hurting oneself (either on foot or bicycle); drinking gløgg (see drinking); fashion of hats, scarves, sweaters, jackets, gloves, and boots; generating a feeling of "warmth" with many candles; farming of Christmas trees, cranberries, and winter vegetables; painting various bright colors on the exterior of buildings; cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, winter marathoning, and other winter sports (no mountains in DK); snacking on hot candied nuts while walking in the city; maneuvering a car through ice and snow; developing a certain attractive blush to the cheeks after spending time outside; and suffering from a Vitamin-D deficiency and subsequent weakened immune system (potentially replaced by adopting a bizarre-looking tan from visiting tanning salons).

And it's a strange thing to focus on, in some sense, since this kind of culture is being interrupted by all facets of globalization. We're wearing winter boots made of sheepskin from Australia, and we're slicing gorgeous tomatoes onto our salads that were grown in Spain where the sun is still in force. We're listening to music from anywhere, and we're planning trips to everywhere.

History of Environmental Alteration

There is another aspect of the relationship between environment and culture that has a similar long-standing history. Longer standing, in fact. That is: humans have been mechanically altering their environments since day one. Whether it's as ancient as burning back the wilderness of woods, as classic as relocating water resources via the Roman aqueducts, or as modern as setting up an invisible boundary around a "park," our cultures' relationships to our surrounding world has never been static. The fact is, there is no such thing as natural anymore: this is an artifice of the human mind -- even the coldest deepest waters of the arctic host synthetic molecules.

Perhaps the main difference here is the sheer scale of the change. It is the entire world... well, not all at once, but mostly. And the worst is that the ones affected first (and most dramatically) are those who have fewer resources with which to mechanically cope with the changes, and whose cultural change will be as intense as being forced into the land of an entirely different culture.

Climate Change and Displacement

So is the most sensitive issue here how Scandinavians might deal with less ice? Rather, I think it's the cultural impact of displacement. As stated above, this is something that most profoundly affects disadvantaged (less global-economically developed) people; but is not their sole burden. So many of us are in danger of plunging into the seas we've been so long neglecting (I remember the Save the Whales campaigns of my childhood). And that's terrifying enough without the intense hurricanes, floods, and temperature extremes that we are already wrinkling eyebrows at each time centuries worth of records-keeping is broken.

There are so many layers to what threatens cultures these days: gentrification, consolidation of language, global trade, McDonalds. But what changes a culture the most is losing its land. In such different circumstances this has happened to other peoples, such as Jews, Slavs, native Americans -- and maybe in some way, it forces a concentration of cultural practices, but I think really, so, so much more is lost than gained. Perhaps this is the world of the future: the Brazilian's caramel skin (maybe not Brazilian anymore?) wrapped around a body in some other place in an unfamiliar country and Congolese sweat (maybe not Congolese anymore?) shed onto alien soil in an unrecognizable land.

But rest assured, the fisherman's beard will still be Norwegian.

Article bringing up climate change in Scandinavia
Wikipedia on culture in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden
Winter customs around the world
The Independent Institute article: "Does Globalization Destroy Culture?"
Emory University's Globalization Issues
Environmental History ResourcesRadford University's Environmental History Timeline
Introduction to Brookings project: "Making Sense of Climate Change, Natural Disasters, and Displacement"
Forced Migration Review report: "Climate Change and Displacement" (online pdf)

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Quote of the Week

7 January, 2011 | 07:38 pm

"Everything ugly is in vogue again."

- Josh Mogerman, energy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, while discussing efforts to convert natural gas and coal into diesel fuels. From Wald, Matthew L. "New Interest in Turning Gas to Diesel." NY Times. 23 December 2010.

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Condensation: phase shift from gas to liquid

7 January, 2011 | 07:34 pm

A sign of change in the oil industry is the transformation of resource bases towards other fossil fuels, the less energy intensive ones. Like coal being so prevalent? It certainly interferes with a person's idea of linear energetic progress. I mean, it's just so 18th Century.

LNG ChartOne such instance is the increasing popularity of liquefied natural gas (LNG), natural gas that has been cooled so that it turns to liquid and can be more easily (and safely) transported great distances. Now already, it's understandable if alarm bells are already going off in your head about the word "cooling." Any process that involves cooling a substance is going to use energy, and likely be inefficient -- as in the case with fission reactors and cooling the nuclear rods. However, gasoline has become so expensive, upwards of $100/barrel (a hint at supply, perhaps?) that some oil companies now calculate that converting natural gas into diesel fuel is cheaper for them; the key part of that phrase being "for them." The oil industry gets to maintain its current infrastructure (staking claim, extracting, processing, shipping and piping), and the powerful stay in power. And besides, energies are like stocks: the more diversified your portfolio, the less hard you'll be hit when one of them... runs out.

There are two important costs not included in these calculations: social and environmental.

An important case study for social aspects of natural gas is that of Nigeria, which contains some 3% of the world's natural gas supply. In addition to its political and human rights issues with off-shore oil drilling (thank you Chevron), there have already been shady -- in fact, illegal -- transactions in the natural gas sector (see article on Halliburton linked below). These arise from foreign companies desiring resource control in a region with little regulation or negotiating capacity and large supply. One argument is about the astronomical amount of natural gas flared off and wasted in Nigeria. However, this seems a pathetic argument against the meager 47% of Nigerians with access to electricity. Nigerians have a right to their own energy. It would be far more ethical for the global community (including energy companies) to contribute to Nigeria's infrastructural development that might enable them to utilize their own fantastic oil and natural gas resources.

Environmentally, the impacts are not quite clear. On the one hand, cars can hypothetically be designed to be more efficient using LNG. On the other hand, it results in a large surplus of carbon, which is hardly a valuable scarcity these days. And I'm finding it difficult to locate numbers on energy inputs in the conversion. Ultimately, it is still based on non-renewable fossil fuels and only has an efficiency of 62% of the gas itself. Compare this to the renewable and localized wind energy efficiency of 20-30%, and it might not sound so bad; but we are thinking long-term sustainability here. One thing is clear: we're still talking greenhouse gas emissions, and we're still talking foreign companies grabbing local resources.

So maybe it's not the worst portion of a transition package from your standard barrels of oil. The question is: is this the best we can do? Or even better: is this what we should be doing?

Article on LNG Diesel
LNG Information
Chevron LNG Fact Sheet
Article on Halliburton in Nigeria
Energy Subsidy Issues
Oil and Gas in Nigeria

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