Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two years

I apologise for not having written much this past month. Part of me has been focusing on trying to complete my dissertation, while part of me felt that I needed a little bit of a break from writing, not because there wasn't much to write about, but because I was in need of some inspiration to maybe take my thoughts in different directions. I am glad to say that I have found such inspiration, albeit a sort of academic inspiration that can easily be erudite. I will try my best to interpret what I have been exposed to, through my discussions, to a language that is simpler.

Today marks two years since I began living trash free. The 29th of March has become more of a marker of the year than either New Year's Day or my birthday, because I feel that New Year's Day is a fairly arbitrary day in general, marking not much, and my birthday is something that doesn't necessarily signify a defining moment in my life to look back on. I am generally with friends partying or something anyway.

Here is a picture of most of my trash from year two--just a few pounds, less than six. (I am yet to quantify the recyclables in the white bag and the non-recyclables in the beige bag.)

In the first year, I was able to get by without buying almost anything. Of course I bought unpackaged second-hand things when I felt that I needed to, but on the whole, I definitely did not have the urge to buy anything new. Things changed a little bit this year, not dramatically, but substantively.

During my first year, I did not have to maintain and upkeep what I already had. The material things I had did me well. But this year, I bought a new cycle tire because one tire, which was at least six years old, was dry rotting. A different motivation, that of protection, led me to buy as a pad lock in Montreal for a locker to keep my passport and money in. The most difficult, yet most satisfying purchases of the year, however, were two pairs of soccer shoes--one for indoor soccer, one for outdoor. I had been meaning to buy some shoes for about a year now, because my old ones barely kept themselves together. That is all I bought.

Things haven't been challening on the whole, though. I must admit that at times I have been a little more lax with my behaviour, but I have not caved. Part of me feels like I have come to a fork in a path. I am at the point where I need to make another big step, another change in direction, a direction that will build off of the past. The other day, I was talking to a few engineering undergraduate students, part of the student group BLUELab, about engineering, the environment, and individual action. I want to write just a little bit about what two students asked me, and my responses to them.

Zach asked me, "Why wouldn't you live, say, carbon-neutral?" In the past, I had told people that the lens under which we think about our actions isn't necessarily that important; power dynamics and violence present themselves under each lens, whether it is oppressive working conditions or polluting someone's drinking water. Furthermore, since everything is inherently connected, one can follow the philosophical and moral paths that are created by an inquiry into this power dynamic and violence. While saying exactly this to Zach, I realised that maybe that isn't neccesarily the case, and that different lenses allow different insignts into how much this culture, and I, have to change. Because even though I have been living trash-free, I have still hopped into a car at times, and I have still taken a few flights to get to conferences, all of which have spewed greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. I live in Michigan, a state that is heavily reliant on coal for its electricity, and I have bought food that has been transported some distance. There is room for continual change.

On a very different note, Adam challenged me by saying that to him, living trash-free seems not that impactful, and that more systemic changes are needed. I have written about these issues of individual action in the face of large problems at length, and I have spoken about it elsewhere. But I take Adam's comment very seriously, because it reminds me about the importance of the public nature of the intimate and personal changes that need to be instantiated. Culture doesn't change if we don't. But we cannot be satisfied with "doing our part" by living off-the-grid, by living trash-free, by being advocates for peace in our own lives. Our lives must unfold on others around us.

Year three begins, and I am hoping to challenge myself in different ways.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What do we do with what we know?

Eric Goode, a wealthy New York restauranteur and conservationist of extremely endangered chelonians (turtles and tortoises) found himself in thickets of Madagascar with Miguel Pedrono, a French conservation ecologist, and Lora Smith, an American herpetologist, trying to rescue the extremely rare plowshare tortoises, which collectors are willing to pay upwards of a hundred thousand dollars for--an example of "the perverse economics of rarity". William Finnegan, who accompanied Goode, documented this episode in the January 23 issue of The New Yorker,
Would defacing the shells discourage smuggling?

"Marking them won't fix much," Pedrono said. "Marked animals can be bred."

Goode asked about the Durrell Trust.

"They should stick to captive breeding," Smith said, diplomatically. "They have been having success with that."

Goode said, "I know the best thing to do sometimes is nothing." This is a core conservationist truth. But Goode isn't really built to do nothing...
The wild population (of plowshares) was clearly in decline. To get an accurate count, Goode wanted to mark every plowshare with big numbers and letters engraved into the carapace with a Dremel tool. But had the species already passed the point beyond which it could self-replicate?
The best way to find wild tortoises to mark was with trained dogs. But, if Goode brought a team of dogs and their handlers here, the poachers would quickly see the efficacy of dogs. For that matter, it might not be doing the plowshares any favors to hunt them all down for the sake of an accurate census and to mark them--too many local onlookers would also learn where they were. The poaching had been accelerated by the Internet, which connected the Asia market with local suppliers. If the goal was to help the plowshare survive, it really might be best to do nothing.
The other day, while talking to a group of undergraduate students, I was asked about how to remain positive and enthusiastic in the face of large the messes we face. I was left a little speechless, for I would be lying if I said I never feel cynical. But my mind jumped to something that I try to constantly ask myself and act on...What do we do with what we know? Sure, there are things we don't know, but do we really need to know them in order to do something? We know that dioxins are cancerous. We know that mountaintops are being blown off to burn their guts and spew their insides. We know that the most abundant thing this culture has produced is junk. We know. And so, maybe that something we need to do is nothing. But maybe that something is...something. We can suffuse our world with positivity. We can take simple, meaningful steps.

As a researcher, I am always surrounded by the anticipation of newness. Newness brings with it hope and optimism and the opening of new possibilities. Yet, there is a determinism that is deeply embedded in newness. That the directions we take are to be expected, needing no justification. There is a linearity to everything. Once it begins, it doesn't end, and the next step taken is the only possible step that can be taken. Many people make their lives and careers in aiding this determinism. Determinism is what guides most every technologist's and technocrat's thinking. It is as if a deterministic evolution has taken over all forms of inquisition and moral reasoning.

If you are reading this, you are probably very privileged with access to most basic things in the world. You have a roof over your head, food on the table each evening, and maybe some expendable money for a beer or two here and there. You probably have a decent education--you can read and understand and think about what you read. You also probably read the news, and observe violence and ecological degradation all around you. So then, I ask, what are we waiting for? What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for? Are we waiting for the never-to-come silver bullet that will wipe away power imbalances? Or are we willing to have agency, and recognise our privilege, and take a non-deterministic step?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Guest blog #25: Ashwin Salvi on greenhouse gases and reforestation

Here are some thoughts from Ashwin, a previous guest blogger, on reforestation. I appreciate the post, particularly because its nature is different than what is typically written about on the blog.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration to combat climate change. Sequestration is, in a nutshell, the capturing of airborne CO2, which has a warming effect on the climate, and storing it in liquid or solid form, either underground or on the surface. Darshan has written about such geo-engineering approaches and the ethical and procedural justice issues surrounding them previously. Today, I want to focus a bit more on the technical aspects of sequestration.

A recent Michigan Energy Club lecture got me thinking about CO2 sequestration via reforestation to reduce the presence of CO2 in the atmosphere. While replanting trees is a good idea, the issues are a bit more complicated once they are unpacked a bit.

Firstly, it is important to note that growing trees does absorb a considerable amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. It is estimated that that global forests absorb ~20% of CO2 emitted from fossil fuel combustion. However, all living things respire; trees also emit CO2 via respiration! While the amount of CO2 released through respiration is less than the CO2 absorbed for their growth, the point is that we cannot forget that the CO2 and trees is not a one-way operation. In addition and possibly more significant, trees also emit a variety of hydrocarbons (HC) that can lead to increased tropospheric ozone levels. Of course, these biogenic emissions are completely natural. (Click here to read about an interesting study comparing HC emissions from different trees.) It is what is anthropogenic that is of deeper concern.

Furthermore, it also matters where reforestation takes place. Trees growing in tropical climates are more effective at absorbing CO2 than those growing in higher latitude forests. Higher latitude forests have actually been seen to produce a net warming effect on the climate. The darker leaves of these trees absorb more heat and outweigh the cooling effect CO2 absorption and evapotranspiration. This is because the albedo, or reflectivity, of the earth’s surface changes from a higher value (with snow), to a lower value (darker leaves), making less of the incident solar radiation reflect back into space. In addition, higher latitude forests experience seasonal effects, reducing their ability to absorb CO2 due to tree hibernation.

Tropical forests are seen to be more effective at CO2 absorption due to faster growth rates stemming from year round growth, abundant sunlight and rain. In addition, evapotranspiration from the leaves of trees also contribute to a net cooling effect.

Let’s think further down the line, though, toward the end of the tree’s life. The tree spent its entire life absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and now that the tree is dead, where does the carbon go? Well, as the tree decomposes, the carbon goes back into the atmosphere as CO2 and methane, with methane being one hundred times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. So while, the tree does a great job taking carbon out of the atmosphere while it is alive, the problem of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere really isn't solved, but just kicked down the road; the tree is just an ephemeral holding box. Therefore, trees as a means of CO2 sequestration will help in the shorter term, but a longer term solution (like reduction of emitted CO2) must be what is tackled.