For industries teetering on the edge of irrelevance,the strategy to remain relevant has always been the same – deny their activities have caused a problem, debunk evidence of harm, and claim they are only giving the people what they want, thus shifting blame onto consumers. From the tobacco industry to the fossil fuel extractors and the pesticide and herbicide manufacturers, they all follow the same script as evidence mounts that the products they once touted as a boon to humanity turn out to be poisonous. Poisonous to mind and body. Poisonous to people, to animals, and to the planet.
The Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep. 20, 2019, was attended by over 100,000 people, making it the largest climate protest in Australia to date, and rivaling the anti-war protests in 2003 and the Vietnam Moratorium in 1970. Photo by Flickr user Takver.
Add to the list of peddlers of poison for profit agribusiness and its processed foods, along with animal confinement operations and massive applications of fertilizers that deplete the soil instead of enriching it, ultimately leaching into the water every creature needs for survival. Give the people what they want. In entertainment, give the people gossipy reality television shows in the evening and mean-spirited confrontation programming in the daytime.
Social media companies give people information dressed up as news when it is nothing more than pandering to what they want to hear. If giving the people what they want absolves purveyors of poison from responsibility for their actions as they go about making money, then hardly anyone is responsible for anything. A sociopath is concerned only with what he or she wants, and whether the pursuit of those wants interferes with the rights and needs of others is material only to the extent that those others can obstruct the sociopath in achieving their desired end. That’s the society of imagined meritocracy and capitalism of “looking out for number one” that giving the people what they want instead of what they need has created.
The new Ford F150 Lightning battery-powered pickup truck is a step in the right direction of redressing these hypocritical imbalances in an energy hungry society. The original F150, the gasoline-powered one, has been the best selling vehicle in the United States for over three decades. The gas-powered pickup truck will still be available alongside the battery-powered version, but the investment Ford made in developing the Lightning was not insignificant. They could have developed a different vehicle altogether as their flagship entry into the battery-powered market. Putting that investment into a version of their biggest breadwinner, the F150 truck for the masses, is a big step toward making use of electric vehicles common.
A scene from the 1970 film Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn. Chief Dan George played Old Lodge Skins, and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the picaresque title character.
The development of the Lightning could do for electric vehicles what Ford’s innovation with the Model T did for internal combustion engine passenger vehicles over 100 years ago, namely make a new technology accessible to everyday people. Electric vehicle models have until now been popular only in niche markets, whether that’s more well off people with a need for sportiness driving a Tesla, or people whose need for merely getting around town could be met by a Chevy Volt. If the Lightning becomes as popular today as the Model T did in its day, then it could go a long way toward redressing the climate imbalances kicked off in large part by its predecessor.
Researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile have developed an insulating material which allows a device to achieve a cooling differential of up to 23 degrees Fahrenheit using no electricity and no moving parts. 23 degrees cooling may not be sufficient on its own in all applications, but it will certainly increase the efficiency of existing devices by assisting them in not working as hard and thereby using less electricity. The useful attributes of the new insulator will help mitigate the climate warming effects of increased use of air conditioning and refrigeration, which in turn can lead to increased climate warming, and on and on.
Heating and cooling of indoor spaces accounts for between 40 and 60 percent of energy use worldwide, depending on location and also on who is doing the studies and how. It’s enough to know that indoor climate control is the single biggest factor in energy use around the world. Heating is the larger portion of the 40 to 60 percent of energy use, but that could flip by mid-century as the warming climate increases demand for cooling and lessens demand for heating. Be that as it may, it helps to understand that overall energy use will continue climbing, as it has throughout human history, though perhaps at a lesser rate due to improvements in the efficiency of devices and systems.
A banner outside the August 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, displays an image of Martin Luther King, Jr., along with a quote from him. Though the Reverend Dr. King’s remarks and activism on behalf of civil rights earned the most attention, his beliefs about the evils of unbridled capitalism and militarism were also worrisome to leaders of the nation’s power structure. Photo by Flickr user Liz Mc.
The achievements of researchers and engineers who develop improvements in using energy more efficiently are necessary and helpful in the fight against global warming, and they are to be lauded. It is government and business leaders and ourselves, the users of energy, who deserve condemnation as improvements in energy efficiency come without changes in the overall demand for energy and reduction of its deleterious effects on the climate. Embracing improvements in efficiency without simultaneously reducing our demand for more of a currently harmful thing is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Eliminating the burning of fossil fuels for energy will make the single greatest reduction in the pollutants causing global warming. That seems obvious, and it’s a simple statement to make, but it conflicts with powerful corporate, capitalist interests. Switching energy production entirely to renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric will greatly reduce pollutants, though not eliminate them. That also seems obvious. Ignoring for the moment the fraction of the population who blindly refuse to acknowledge responsibility for what is happening all around them, there is a greater obstructive force standing in the way of reducing carbon emissions enough in the next 10 years to slow – or even halt – climate change, and it is called capitalism.
The Trio of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt sing “After the Gold Rush” on Late Show with David Letterman on March 24, 1999. Neil Young wrote the song for his 1970 solo album, and the lyrics of the final verse dreaming about escape from this planet to a new home are bound to remain a dream for the foreseeable future, despite the efforts of technology capitalist Elon Musk.
At the climax of Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, the team of scientists studying an alien microbe they have dubbed “Andromeda” discover in the nick of time that the destructive microbe would grow out of control if given a nearly limitless source of energy, in this case the detonation of a nuclear device meant to contain it by destroying it. They discover the opposite would happen, that the Andromeda strain would feed greedily on the energy supplied by nuclear fission and would quickly overtake the planet, and in a tense scene during the countdown to detonation, they manage to disarm the research facility’s nuclear device. Capitalism is similarly greedy and destructive. It is a system that needs close watching and regulation, not the rampant deregulation of the past 40 years. Like the unregulated sex urge which has led to global overpopulation and the consequent strain on the earth’s resources, greed is also an innate urge in humans, an urge that has found its closest reflection in capitalism, and unregulated it plunders and eventually destroys the earth’s resources, including its many peoples, rich and poor alike. — Techly
Recently an Etsy entrepeneur started marketing “Make America Greta Again” caps, “Greta” being Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who has been in the news lately after her speech at the United Nations in New York City and her participation in the Climate Strike, which she inspired with the Fridays for Future school strikes she started a year ago. The entrepeneur, Johan Hansson, claims 100 percent of the profits from cap sales will go to Greenpeace, and if that is indeed the case, then it appears his primary goal in making the caps is trolling the current president and his followers, the MAGA crowd.
Mr. Hansson did not think up the slogan for his caps, which has shown up on placards at climate change protests since Greta Thunberg became an internationally famous figure, but he did think to put the slogan on caps that look exactly like the original MAGA caps. The typography and colors are the same, and all Mr. Hansson had to do was switch around two letters. It’s a clever twist, and as for trolling the trolls it is bound to be effective. The question is whether that is the best way to read the science behind climate change, as Ms. Thunberg continually stresses is the driving force of her activism, or whether it is merely a satisfying way to get under the skin of MAGA people by giving them a dose of their own medicine.
Greta Thunberg speaks at the May 2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (or Fair). Photo originally posted to Flickr by the Austrian Foreign Ministry. Like the enlarged image of Ms. Thunberg on the screen at the left of the stage, her influence on the climate debate has grown in the past year such that journalists and politicians have attributed the tripling of seats gained in the Austrian parliament by the Green Party in the September 2019 election to what they call “The Greta Effect”.
The problem is not the altered slogan itself, but in how the design of the new cap mimics the original so closely that even from several feet away most people would be unable to distinguish the difference. The original MAGA cap has over the course of a few years become strongly associated with hatred and hatefulness, and the wearers delight in how its appearance “owns the libs”, or trolls them. For MAGA people, that’s part of the fun of wearing the cap. Since the new cap looks exactly the original from a distance, most reasonable people, associating the wearer with hateful beliefs and often unpleasant behavior, would probably steer clear, under the assumption the wearer is a devoted follower of the current president, a hateful person who often exhibits unpleasant behavior.
MAKE AMERICA GRETA AGAIN
Fellow MAGA travelers, on the other hand, upon companionably sidling up to the wearer of a cap with a slightly changed slogan, may not even notice the difference until the wearer gives out unexpected opinions or points out the change to them. The old trick of switching two letters in a familiar word derives its surprise from how often people will gloss over the change in their minds and never even notice it.
MAKE AMERICA GRETAAGAIN
Trolling trolls may seem satisfying at first, but the long term result is like that of a wrestling match between a person and a pig in a muddy pen (once considered a fun event at county fairs), in which the person ends up filthy and exhausted, and the pig is happily in his or her element. The altered slogan would probably serve its ultimate, positive message of taking action against climate change better by rising above the muck where the current president and his followers wallow in hatred and hatefulness. To do that with the slogan on caps, perhaps changing the color or font or point size of “Greta” would make all the difference in signaling to friend and foe alike that the original was only a point of departure, and a lowly one at that. Maybe change colors of the cap and the typography of “Greta” entirely so that it stands apart, the way Greta Thunberg herself has demonstrated in dealing with the trolls. Nothing infuriates trolls more than not being taken seriously and having their distractions ignored as reasonable people go on about the business of taking serious action on real problems, and that can give climate activists some measure of satisfaction in denying the power of climate change deniers in MAGA caps.
“You, who are on the road, Must have a code That you can live by. And so become yourself Because the past is just a goodbye.”
— Opening lyrics of “Teach Your Children”, written by Graham Nash.
Organizers of Woodstock 50 have canceled the event scheduled for this weekend that was intended to commemorate the 1969 concert on a scale commensurate with the original. There were mounting difficulties in putting together the 2019 concert, and at the end of July the organizers threw in the towel. Instead there are small scale events scheduled for the weekend that have been organized by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts near the site of the 1969 concert, and there are also some informal events happening at the original site.
It’s just as well Woodstock 50 fell through the cracks, because these continuing reboots of past successes have become tiresome and shallow scavenging for meaning grafted Frankenstein-like onto the present, as if clinging to the past would revive only the good times. For the promoters of such events and movies and television shows like them, there is profit to be made borrowing on memories. And since people continue paying for these popular culture revivals, there is no reason for promoters and Hollywood producers to stop digging up old things, slapping a modern sheen on them, and charging admission to the public for the dubious enjoyment of reliving the old days.
A protester holds up a sign at the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Photo by Flickr user Lorie Shaull.
Let the past be past. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). Let the past be its own thing. For the important things that face everyone today and in the future, it appears children are taking the lead, while adults around them are either in denial or slogging along, many of them disheartened and looking in the wrong directions for answers. In the last couple of years, youngsters have marched in protest against legislators who drag their feet in addressing gun violence, and have struck from school and marched in protest against legislators’ unwillingness to effectively tackle climate change.
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is now on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic Ocean in order to attend the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York City next month. She started striking from her school in Sweden last August, founding the Youth Strike for Climate movement, and she has attracted so much attention to the cause since then that earlier this year three Norwegian parliament members nominated her for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. If she wins, she would join 2014 winner Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan as the second teenage activist to win the Prize.
Greta Thunberg with her sign outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018. The sign reads “School Strike for Climate”. Photo by Anders Hellberg.
More importantly, she will gain international validation for the cause, an essential step in repudiating and ultimately sidelining the hateful antagonism of skeevy jackasses such as British businessman Arron Banks, who tweeted to Ms. Thunberg as she set off on her Atlantic cruise “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August.” He later claimed his vile suggestion was “a joke.” Ha ha. It was a joke like the 2016 campaign trail hint from the skeevy jackass now occupying the Oval Office was a joke when he floated the idea of “Second Amendment people” assassinating his Democratic Party rival. Ha ha.
Make no mistake about it – when Greta Thunberg arrives in this country, the Oval Office Blowhard will heap scorn, derision, and personal insults on her simply for defying the power of entrenched interests in the fossil fuel industry, and his morally bankrupt cult followers will cheer him on because he will frame his invective as salvos in another battlefront of the culture war against politically correct liberals. Never mind that she is a mere child. Never mind that what she has taken upon herself is simply bringing to everyone’s belated attention the scientific fact that our house is on fire and we have to do something about dousing the flames now, not stand around arguing about it as the fire engulfs us. For bearing that unwelcome news, they will heap abuse upon her, and not reflect for even a moment on what they are teaching the children of the world.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at Woodstock in 1969, but “Teach Your Children” was not in their set list even though Graham Nash had written the song earlier, while he was still part of the British group, The Hollies. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included the song on their 1970 album Déjà Vu. Here the San Francisco Community Music Center Children’s Chorus sings the song for Mr. Nash and attendees at a Climate One conference in 2013.
“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.”
— Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Some sociologists have disproved the widely held notion that people become more conservative as they get older, and while that may be the case, and therefore old does not necessarily equal conservative, statistics verify there is still a generation gap between the percentages of older and younger people who vote. Old people turn out to vote in a higher percentage for their age group than young people do in their age group. Old for our purpose here is over 50, which encompasses Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Greatest Generation. Young is under 50, which includes Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z.
The two largest demographic groups of voting age are Baby Boomers and Millennials. In this year, Millennials will surpass Baby Boomers in numbers as Baby Boomers continue dying out. For all that, the voice of Baby Boomers at voting time remains louder than that of Millennials, because the percentage of Baby Boomers who vote remains higher than the percentage of Millennials who vote. Baby Boomers remain in control of the leadership and apparatus of both major political parties, and that led to the debacle of the 2016 presidential election.
The March for Our Lives protest took place on 24 March 2018 in Washington, D.C., and other cities, when hundreds of thousands of students and others marched to demand common sense gun control in the wake of deadly school shootings in the United States. Photo by Mobilus In Mobili.
In the Democratic Party, leadership foisted Hillary Clinton on everyone, and she turned out to be a candidate with little appeal to voters outside of the Coasts and the big cities, a fact that polling consistently pointed out heading into the election, but which the Democratic leadership chose to ignore. For the Republican Party, the crowded field of candidates in the early primaries allowed the demagogue who eventually overtook the field to win with vote percentages only in the teens and twenties, and with that he was able to pick off his rivals one by one, aided by high amounts of free media coverage for his outrageous comments and behavior.
In the end, we got the president we deserved, we meaning all of us, voters and non-voters alike. A dismal statement, but one we need to come to terms with by election day in November 2020. It seems we have all overestimated the liberal leanings of Baby Boomers as a group, and perhaps popular culture is responsible. News coverage of Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and ’70s, the enormous changes in fashion and entertainment, the weekly confrontations on television’s All in the Family between Baby Boomer Mike “Meathead” Stivic and his Greatest Generation father-in-law, Archie Bunker, all may have contributed to a perception of Baby Boomers as liberal overall.
Looking at national Democratic Party leadership since Baby Boomers took over with the election of Bill Clinton as president in 1992, it’s difficult to deny they are in most ways more conservative than their predecessors of the Greatest Generation and particularly going back to Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) a generation earlier. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were certainly more liberal than Bill Clinton. FDR’s policies would be considered dangerous socialism today, which is why candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose policy proposals are in line with what FDR might have done, are considered too far left by Democratic Party leadership, and therefore unelectable.
Enumerating goals can be difficult, as demonstrated here in a television skit by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
In the Republican Party, attitudes have shifted so far right since Baby Boomers took over with leaders like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney that even Richard Nixon, in whose administration Mr. Cheney first took part, might not have a chance to be elected president these days as a Republican. Too liberal! Dwight Eisenhower, in whose administration Mr. Nixon served as Vice President in the 1950s, would be considered by today’s Republican Party leadership, and assuredly by the MAGA (Make America Great Again) crowd, as a RINO (Republican In Name Only), despite the era he presided over being the one they pine for.
There is no evidence to suggest Millennials are overall more liberal than Baby Boomers, but unlike Baby Boomers they do appear willing to act on the most pressing concerns for humanity, starting with climate change. Unless we take action on climate change now, nothing else matters. Next is growing wealth inequity, because that leads to many other problems, among them being affordability of health care for all. Population growth also needs to be addressed, because Earth’s resources are not infinite, much as delusional capitalist economic modelers like to pretend otherwise.
A satirical public service announcement from the Knock the Vote project. Warning: foul language.
Down the list but hanging over every creature on Earth is the bugaboo of all generations alive since 1945 – nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are down the list because while they are obviously capable of ending everything quickly, they may be the hardest nut to crack on account of their continued proliferation being due to human nature. Addressing these problems requires becoming informed, and voting as well as activism, and it is up to Millennials to rise to the challenges their forebears have been reluctant to grasp. It’s time for Baby Boomers to let go of power if they cannot or will not contribute to battling the world’s most pressing problems, though we know it’s human nature to cling to power, and usually the grave provides the only means of separation.
Vegetarian or vegan substitutes for meat are not necessarily aimed at people who don’t eat meat, but rather at those who do, because by getting those people to eat less meat the environment will benefit, the animals being raised for meat will certainly benefit, and the meat eaters themselves will be healthier. The problem has been in developing a suitable substitute for meat at a reasonable cost and without creating a Frankenmeat with all sorts of nightmarish unintended consequences. Reading the reviews coming from the latest Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, it appears the company founded by Stanford University biochemistry professor Patrick O. Brown, Impossible Foods Inc., has gotten the formula right with the latest iteration of their Impossible Burger.
Other meat substitutes, such as the Boca Burger, have been geared toward vegetarians who wanted to retain some of the meat eating experience, and they were and are pathetic imitations. Attending a backyard cookout where everyone else was eating real beef burgers and then making do oneself with a Boca Burger or equivalent was an experience similar to being relegated to the kids’ table, with miniature versions of the adults’ dinnerware. Why bother? There are a multitude of vegetarian and vegan recipes available for real dishes, making it unnecessary to have to settle for dry, grasping imitations of what the grown-ups are eating.
The vegan Amy Burger at Amy’s Drive-Thru in Rohnert Park, California. Photo by Tony Webster. Amy’s Kitchen started in 1987 making organic and vegetarian frozen and convenience foods for sale in supermarkets around the country, and in 2105 opened the Rohnert Park restaurant, their first.
The point of the Impossible Burger is not to satisfy vegetarians or vegans who miss eating meat, but to replace meat in the much larger percentage of the population who are committed carnivores. Those people might have tried one of the previous meat substitutes out of curiosity, and they were right to scorn them as alternatives they could never embrace and still satisfy their nutritional and taste requirements for meat as well as a more nebulous, deep psychological need satisfied by eating meat. Professor Brown and his Impossible Foods colleagues intend their meat substitute to fulfill all those needs, and apparently they are well on their way to succeeding.
Replacing meat in the diet of the world’s people is enormously important, and probably the biggest single step toward ameliorating climate change other than reducing fossil fuel use, which would incidentally also be a byproduct of reducing livestock farming. Animal suffering would also be greatly relieved, because the situation now is horrific and getting worse as Americans and other Western peoples eat meat at least once a day, and in some places for every meal, and hundreds of millions people more in China and India aspire to the same relatively affluent lifestyles of Westerners. Factory farming of animals will become a larger industry still as the demand for meat goes up worldwide.
A scene from the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, directed by Joel Zwick and written by Nia Vardalos, who also portrays the bride, with John Corbett as the groom. Eating meat is such an ingrained part of personal identity and social custom that most people give it little thought. Anyone who has ever been vegetarian or vegan, however, soon becomes aware of how others react to that news with bafflement or acceptance or, oddly, hostility, because refusal to eat meat is to such people a repudiation of their hospitality and identity, and possibly an indictment of their morality if the chief reason for not eating meat is because of animal suffering or the environment. It’s interesting that often the best way to smooth the ruffled feathers of meat eaters upset over learning of a vegetarian or vegan in their midst is to tout the health benefits of giving up meat, a reason that will usually gain their understanding and assent.
Consumers want more meat even though it’s not healthy for them. People will also eat more sugar than is good for them if they have the money and the opportunity. These are desires hard wired into human beings, and while some people can overcome them through will power however gained, most cannot, or even have a desire to try. For those people, the majority, give them a meat substitute at a comparable price to real meat, and satisfy their other needs for taste and nutrition and the most difficult need of all, but probably the most crucial, the carnivorous kernel in the brain that is the cause of all the social customs around eating meat or not eating meat, give those people that and the climate and the environment will be better for it, the animals all around the earth will be better for it, and those meat eaters themselves will be better for it, whether they understand and acknowledge it or not.
The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report lays out a stark timeline for how long we have to reduce our carbon emissions to avoid crossing the threshold of a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global temperature leading to catastrophic effects for life on Earth. Paraphrasing the report, at present levels of emissions we have until 2030, or 2050 at the very latest. To avoid the worst case scenario, we will need to cut emissions in half by 2030, and cut them entirely by 2050. Given the conservative political and capitalist landscape prevalent today, meeting those targets does not seem likely.
A wedding party crosses a street in 2006 in Oulan-Oudé, Republic of Bouriatia, Siberia, Russia. Photo by Cyrille (Suleiman) Romier.
Since national governmental and business leaders will not take the initiative on this issue because it conflicts with the greed of the status quo, it will be up to local leaders and citizens to address the problem. There will be calls to use technology, such as geoengineering, and wholesale adoption of driverless cars and electric vehicles. Those are attempts at a fix that are best implemented by national organizations on a large scale, and cannot be relied on considering the need for national consensus and funding. Geoengineering may work to a limited degree, though it would certainly be subject to the law of unintended consequences. Tweaking the worldwide car culture would have more limited effects since improving the efficiency of how cars are driven and shifting their emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack would ultimately amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
A scene in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, depicts New York City’s thriving pedestrian culture. Warning: foul language.
What’s needed is a wholesale change in the approach to daily living, particularly among the citizens of the world’s wealthier countries. Start with walking. Every day, everywhere. Build sidewalks. Get cars, driverless, electric, or otherwise, off the roads entirely. Bring back public transportation for trips that are impractical for walking. People will have to demand improvements in public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure through their votes and their dollars, rather than waiting on public officials and corporate executives to make the necessary changes. As a quote popularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi has it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And as he did, walk if you can, for yourself and for change in the world.
March 2012 caricature of Rush Limbaugh, by DonkeyHotey.
On Tuesday, September 11, as Hurricane Florence bore down on the southeastern United States, Rush Limbaugh spouted off once again on his radio program with his own ideas about hurricanes and climate change, much like he did last year when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on southern Florida. Last year, after cynically boasting of his skepticism over the forecast track and intensity of Irma, which he attributed to scare mongering by the political left, he hightailed it from his West Palm Beach estate in southern Florida to Los Angeles, California.
Presumably Florence does not threaten any of Mr. Limbaugh’s properties, and he has not made headlines for hypocrisy this time, but merely for being a dangerous loudmouth as usual. If Mr. Limbaugh remains skeptical of anthropogenic climate change and also thinks the hardworking forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) are in league with sellers of bottled water and other emergency supplies, then he should start doing his own weather forecasting and climate assessments using publicly available data from weather stations and satellites. He and his conspiracy theory acolytes would probably find other reasons to twist the facts to suit their beliefs, such as intimating the data were skewed by leftists, but it’s best not to go too far down the rabbit hole with them.
In this satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Florence nears the East Coast of the United States on Wednesday, September 12, 2018. West Palm Beach, home of Rush Limbaugh, is safely out of the way at the bottom left of the picture, near the southern tip of Florida.
It’s easier than ever to gather useful data from public sources in this, the Information Age. It’s easier, however, and apparently more profitable, to sit on your butt in the back of the class and shoot spitballs. It’s unfortunately likely that some people who heeded Rush Limbaugh’s lazy, reckless frothings on hurricanes and climate change are now coping with the destructive flood waters brought on by Hurricane Florence, which doesn’t care what he has to say.
Battery storage has long presented a conundrum to renewable energy enthusiasts who tout the relatively benign environmental footprints of wind and solar power. The batteries can contain toxic metals and chemicals which cause environmental damage in mining and formulation, and then again when they have exhausted their usefulness and users need to somehow safely recycle or dispose of them.
Partial eclipse of the sun – Montericco, Albinea, Reggio Emilia, Italy – May 1994. Photo by Giorgio Galeotti.
For a time, it seemed the answer for homeowners using a solar array was to sell excess power produced during the day to the power company and then draw on grid power at night and on cloudy days. These grid-tied systems effectively used the power company as storage, mostly dispensing with the need for a bank of batteries at home. Unfortunately for homeowners with grid-tied systems, it appears power companies are backing away from those setups in order to protect their equipment and to maintain tighter control over power generation.
Power companies have been investing in their own renewable energy production as costs go down. Since there is no external backup for the electricity generated by the power company, the power companies need to employ huge amounts of batteries. Batteries have improved in the past generation both in toxicity and length of usable life from the days of lead acid batteries. Improvement does not mean they are exactly environmentally friendly. The problem comes down to relative harm, such as whether it is less harmful to the environment to drive an electric car when the source for its electricity is a coal burning power plant.
An illustration of the relationship of renewable energy to energy storage from the German cartoonist Gerhard Mester (1956-). Panel 1: “More solar energy!!” Panel 2: “More wind energy!” And in the last panel: “More energy storage!” Incidentally, Germany is a world leader in solar energy production despite receiving less sunlight than many other industrialized nations.
Nothing people do technologically has zero impact on the environment, and arguments from the extremes of both sides of the tug of war between those in favor of continued use of fossil fuels and those who want greater reliance on renewable energy are neither accurate nor helpful. Continuing the status quo of burning fossil fuels for most energy production is clearly a path to environmental catastrophe, while renewable energy production does not have quite as low an impact on the environment as some enthusiasts suggest. It is in the batteries especially that renewable energy has an unfavorable impact.
Nevertheless, in countries with higher renewable energy production than the global average the air is cleaner and greenhouse gas emissions are lower. Because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, the key to minimizing reliance on batteries, the most toxic element in renewable energy use, is diversification of power sources supplying the grid, from geothermal to hydroelectric. None of these methods of supplying the power necessary for humanity’s modern lifestyle are perfect, but they are all better than the alternative of continuing down the path of polluting the air and warming the planet. The two biggest obstacles to switching the United States to 100 percent renewable energy are the fossil fuel industry interests entrenched in national politics, and battery technology. Of the two, the latter will be more easily overcome by a concerted effort, and with time the new technology will push out the former technology and its moneyed adherents as obsolete and destructive. But will it be soon enough?
This summer, archaeologists from The Public Archaeology Facility of Binghamton University in New York State are digging up the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair near Bethel, New York. They hope to uncover an accurate and comprehensive scheme of the place as it was originally laid out for that enormous event nearly 50 years ago, and then turn over their findings to the museum on the site in time for the 50th anniversary in August 2019. Besides broken glass and other relics from the event, the archaeologists dug up numerous pop tops from aluminum beverage cans.
Unlike the stay-tab which replaced it in the late 1970s, the pop top tabs from the late 1960s and early 1970s were meant to be pulled entirely off the top of the can by the consumer. The consumer then had a piece of waste in addition to the waste the can itself would become after emptying, and many consumers simply dropped the pop tops on the ground, where they not only littered the environment but on account of their sharp edges became a safety hazard for anyone in bare or lightly shod feet, as Jimmy Buffett noted in his song “Margaritaville”. Some people dropped the pop tops into the can either while they were drinking from it or afterward, and then some of those people were unfortunate enough to swallow the pop top or otherwise injure themselves when it resurfaced during their drinking.
A litter trap on the Yarra River in the vicinity of Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Biatch3.
When a Reynolds Metals engineer named Daniel F. Cudzik invented the stay-on-tab, or Sta-Tab, in 1975, he solved the littering and safety problems of pop tops. Some inconsiderate people still tossed the cans wherever they liked when they were done with them, and unfortunately it appears a certain percentage of people like that will always be among us, but the problems originating from improperly disposed cans have lessened since the 1960s with the adoption of better designs and recycling programs. Since then, and particularly after bottled water took off in popularity in the 1990s, plastic beverage containers have taken over from aluminum cans as a major littering and safety problem.
Engineers and designers have created biodegradable water bottles in the past several years, but so far the bottled water industry has not embraced their inventions, and may never do so without consumers pushing themselves and the industry in that direction. Part of the reason for delay is the relatively abstract nature of the problem for many consumers. Yes, empty plastic water bottles may litter roadsides, where they are unsightly, but they don’t really pose a physical danger to people, unlike aluminum pop tops and cans with their sometimes sharp edges. The physical danger from plastics all seems to happen to animals, many of them far away and out of sight, such as the ones who live in the oceans, where all that plastic garbage ends up and lingers for decades. It was only recently that scientists discovered we, like our animal cousins, are also ingesting plastics, though in our cases we are more dainty in our discernment in that we choose only to take in micro-plastics, meaning those we cannot see. What goes around, comes around, and there’s no escaping it.
In Mike Nichols’s 1967 film The Graduate, Mr. McGuire, played by Walter Brooke, has some advice for Ben Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman. In a later scene, Hoffman’s character floats on a raft in the pool at his house and sips a beverage from a can which has two v shaped openings in its top, the marks of having been opened with a can opener, or church key, the most common way to open such a can before pop tops became widely available on beverage cans in the mid 1960s.
Most people can be coached to some degree to change their behavior, and once they are understand viscerally that a problem exists because of their past behavior, many of them can become open to change. They have to feel the problem personally, though, because an abstraction doesn’t always get through to them. A minority of others are hardheads, and little can be done to persuade them to change their ways beyond legal sanctions and public shaming. The mounting problem of plastic litter shares this model of personal and public behavior with the looming dangers of a warming climate. For too many people the problems remain abstractions because the effects can be distant, indirect, or slow moving. The rest of us can’t wait for those people to come around, because they may only do so when they are up to their necks in seawater while standing in their front yards, fighting off all the plastic junk bobbing in the water, and obstinately refusing to reconcile their beliefs with what they see and feel around them.