It's the Environment, Stupid.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Carbon Trading 101

Jeff Goodell's piece in the NY Times sunday magazine, "Capital Pollution Solution?" is a good introduction to carbon trading markets. Goodell talks to Richard Sandor, chairman and CEO of the Chicago Climate Exchange, about the evolution of the (voluntary) U.S. carbon market, and its role in the future - from a business perspective.

Not without its flaws, the carbon market has some potential to be an effective way of reducing CO2 that standard command and control regulations don't. There's a certain flexibility and business incentive that makes cap and trade, market-based mechanisms more attractive to big polluters. But there is also the uncertainty of the market, and some net emission flaws that are evident drawbacks of this "solution". While this type of policy isn't for all pollutants (it's a very bad idea for things such as mercury that can accumulate in hot spots), in theory, it should and can be effective for CO2.

Goodell is also the author of the recent book, Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, which I read a few weeks back. It is a GREAT book. Goodell looks into all aspects of the coal industry - who's running it (coal barons, railroads), who benefits and who suffers from it, and what is in store for the future of the industry, both in the U.S. and worldwide (China specifically.) He explores the history of the coal industry and debunks a few widely held myths - as in, there isn't as much accessible coal out there as we've been led to believe. Definitely worth a read for an in depth perspective on this otherwise hidden energy source.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Global warming or no global warming?

It seems as though there is STILL a debate going on about whether or not the planet is getting warmer and why.

It is SUMMER after all - it is supposed to be hot in our hemisphere, right? There are even people benefitting from the heat, such as a German farmer who stopped raising pigs to start producing solar energy. But as the heat related death toll rises in Europe, and morgues are overloaded in California, fossil-fuel proponents continue to perpetuate the grand debate, and brush off warming indicators as mere summertime anomolies.

According to an AP article, published yesterday in the NY Times, "Coal-burning utilities are contributing money to one of the few remaining climate scientists openly critical of the broad consensus that fossil fuel emissions are intensifying global warming... a Colorado utility organized a collection campaign for [critic, Patrick J. Michaels] last week and has raised at least $150,000 in pledges." The collection campaign reportedly included a letter that called for a response to counter "alarmist" viewpoints (ie. the Al Gore movie).

If coal and oil companies want to protect their interests, they should move on from the negative P.R. campaign designed to doubt the changes, and put more money into developing ways of adapting to them.

Photo from the NY Times (Monica Almeida). The caption: About 16,500 dairy cows have died, and many others are suffering, according to a state milk cooperative.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Europe wilting

It's not just us here in the U.S. who are complaining about the heat - folks in western Europe are also warming up according to a NY Times article, "Record Heat Wilts Europe, Strains Power Supply and Hurts Crops".

The Brits, the Dutch, the French and Germans are all swapping their heated tales - have you heard the one about an English entertainer who fried an egg on his suit of armor? What about the one where nuclear power stations in France and Spain have had to reduce output "because the river water normally used to cool reactors is too warm"? Or how about the low water levels in Italy's Po River that have affected hydro power supplies? Then there's the potentially disastrous damage to crops in Poland and Germany due to the high temperatures and drought.

Of course these tall tales will fade into distant memories once the summer succumbs to fall, and then into winter and other headlines take over. Unfortunately once the power is back on, and the din of the AC dies down, and things are back to 'normal' there will be no pressure on the power companies, or elected officials or governments to do anything to prepare for next summer. We are a very reactionary people - we respond and direct our attention to the problems facing us in the present using short term fixes, when what is really required is more adequate, longer term planning.

We need to begin efforts now towards a precautionary approach and learn how to adapt to our increasingly changing conditions. What happens when our rivers can no longer cool our nuclear reactors? What happens when hydropower stops because the river levels are too low? What happens when grain production in Poland falls by twenty-percent? What's next when these seasonal inconveniences become bigger problems?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sultry weekend ahead...

The NY Times weather copywriter is getting creative - but when the map of the states on the back of the sports page is shades of orange every day, I suppose variation is called for.

Today's metropolitan forecast into the weekend describes the next few days as being: humid, muggy, some sun, mostly sunny, sticky, and - my personal favorite - sultry.

Metropolitan Forecast:
TODAY........ Some sun, more humid
TONIGHT....... Warm and muggy
TOMORROW....... Mostly sunny, sticky
FRIDAY....... Hot, humid, a shower
SATURDAY/SUNDAY....... Sultry, showers Sunday
"Saturday will be sunny and sultry. It will again be hot and humid on Sunday, and spotty thundershowers will develop as another front approaches."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Weekend away

I've been out of NY most of the weekend, and still with out a computer - but fingers crossed the computer will arrive this week. I'll post more when I get back to town...

Friday, July 21, 2006

Power woes in Queens

Areas of Queens, NY have been without power for the last few days. What was rough going during the heat wave earlier in the week, has gotten downright nasty as reports say the lights aren't coming on until some time over the weekend. Electricity provider, ConEd (Consolidated Edison), is turing out to be the bad guy in all this. And who can blame Queens residents for pointing the finger at them? According to the NY Times, Mayor Bloomberg finds it "annoying" - he too blames ConEd for the extended outtage, and Astoria assembly man, Michael Ginaris, wants a criminal investivation done of the power company.

Sure some thunderstorms that swept over the area earlier in the week (and outside my window in Brooklyn at the moment), had a part in the power failure - but I have yet to read about anyone who blames the average electricty CONSUMER for this outtage. Has there been any blame put on the people and businesses of NYC who are so addicted to AC that the city becomes a mass of giant, refrigerated (non-energy efficient) skyscrapers kept cold enough to chill your produce? The summer equivalent of the wind-chill factor - it's 92 but feels like 107 - isn't just the humidity. The heat island effect plays a role as well. The city is a massive concrete sponge absorbing the heat during the day and slowly releases it at night, so it never really quite cools off during a 'heat wave'.

Yes it is ConEd's job to fix the problem, and of course we as the consumer expect it to be done NOW, or YESTERDAY even though we have no idea what it takes to assess and repair whatever damage has been done. You can blame ConEd, you can blame global warming, but you might also want to blame your government officials for not requiring green roofs, energy efficient windows and materials, renewable energy incentives or other such policy that might do more to keep the power on and keep the city cool.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mother Jones - continuing ocean coverage

Mother Jones magazine is following up on their March/April special issue, The Fate of the Ocean, with what they're calling Ocean Voyager.

Ocean Voyager is "a virtual voyage to ocean trouble spots around the globe, Ocean Voyager includes tracking fish pirates off the west coast of Africa, watching orcas within touching distance, tracking polar bears, and diving into the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone. At each stop, we highlight solutions and point you to actions you can take to help protect the ocean. Ocean Voyager incorporates videos, audio interviews, web cams, and links to informative web pages created by more than twenty organizations."

So I signed up to see how exactly I'm going to help save the oceans - and to see how Mother Jones is extending their coverage beyond the pages of a special issue to an interactive online effort.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Friedman - Addicted to Oil

Last night I attended a sold out event sponsored by The New York Times in conjunction with The New School featuring pulitzer prize winning journalist, Thomas Friedman, and his documentary, Addicted to Oil.

First of all - I liked the documentary. It was more of an investigative, journalistic news magazine, and totally different than the Al Gore movie. Addicted to Oil covered oil (as the title indicates), mainly in relation to vehicles and spent a lot of time on plug in hybrid cars, with a little bit about how the hydrogen car more than likely won't be viable any time soon, and a little bit with Amory Lovins and his lightweight, super strong, carbon material. The documentary also explored renewable energy sources (well, wind and solar anyway), and it presented renewable energy, and energy efficient building as smart business models (Texas Instruments, Bill McDonough, and an Aspen ski area to name a few). Unlike the Al Gore movie, Addicted to Oil dealt with climate change in a non-doom and gloom fashion, and it provided potential technological solutions to our oil "problem".

After the screening, Friedman took the stage. He explained that there is a "method to [his] madness", reiterating a theme he stressed in the video, "This is not your parent's energy crisis." He then listed four reasons why. 1) Our (the U.S.) reliance on oil is funding terrorism. 2) there is going to be an increasing energy demand with China and India's expected economic growth. 3) green power - it'll be a growth industry in the 21st century (with or without the U.S.). 4) Geopolitical/democracy (my notes are fuzzy on this point, but something to the effect that with the rise in the price of oil, the less "free" or democratized a country becomes).

Friedman also made a few other points that aren't always talked about within the non-green realm. One being that we need to rename green, or rather change the image of green and take it mainstream. Green, as it stands now (he says) is a liberal term that the conservatives turn into a bad word, that winds up pitting democrats against republicans rather than developing positive change. He also said that despite the lack of action from the federal government, there is a lot going on (as far as green building/energy solutions) in the U.S. on local and state levels. Of course these aren't new points, but I think it was the first time many people in the audience had heard these ideas presented - a woman sitting behind me said to her companion, "I like that Cradle to Cradle stuff."

During the audience Q&A I had to ask, since it wasn't even mentioned or alluded to in the documentary or in Friedman's comments - What did he think of nuclear power? He said he is not opposed to nuclear power and that there is no magic bullet for energy security - we'll need a little bit of everything, he said.

Everything but oil perhaps.

Monday, July 17, 2006

G8 - make more oil

There are already a few stories floating around about the beginning of the G8 meeting - the first one that caught my eye this morning was in the NYTimes - "From Group of 8, Energy Focus Is on Oil".

While it is reported the the group did talk about many forms of energy, the focus was on oil - specifically, getting more of it to the market. "On energy, the Group of 8 leaders said they were addressing “high and volatile” prices, with oil soaring above $75 a barrel last week, by endorsing policies to encourage oil field investment and raise production. They said that demand for oil, natural gas and coal would rise more than 50 percent above current levels by 2030, and that these fossil fuels would constitute 80 percent of the world’s energy supply by then."

Some one please tell me why this is a good idea? Of course demand for oil (and other fossil fuels) is expected to increase dramatically given current technologies and the looming economic booms in both (heavily populated) China and India. Of course the price for oil will continue to rise right along with the demand. But why encourage the trend? Yes, "policies to encourage oil field investment and raise production" will be necessary in the short term to meet current and short term needs - but what about the long term?

Why can't the G8 also throw their weight behind policies aimed at making us less reliant on fossil fuels (and the technologies that support them) in the long term? We can still flood the markets with more oil AND develop more fuel efficient vehicles, AND implement smart planning and building and transportation policies, AND give incentives to businesses who use renewable energy, AND make it more cost effective for utilities to provide better, more reliable (and perhaps renewable) services through graduated subsidies. Does it have to be one or the other?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

US farmers speak out over ag subsidies

Cotton farmers from the U.S. took a tour of their counterparts in West Africa and experienced first hand how federal govt subsidies affect cotton producers world wide.

According to a Reuters article via NY, "The United States is the world’s biggest exporter of cotton and its producers received about $4.2 billion in government subsidies during 2004-05. West Africa’s cotton producers say this depresses world prices and ruins their economies... America’s huge cotton subsidies have repeatedly been a stumbling block in world talks to cut farm tariffs, with the so-called C5 West African countries — Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Senegal — lobbying for a separate deal on cotton."

Oxfam, an international non-governmental organization (NGO) sponsored the tour that the U.S. farmers took of the West African cotton and other types of farms, which according to an Oxfam Press release, is timed to coincide with World Trade Organization (WTO) deadlines of the Doha round of negotiations. One U.S. farmer quoted in the press release says, "'The benefits from reforming trade rules and U.S. agricultural policies could flow both to impoverished African economies and to U.S. farms,' said Jim French, a rancher from Reno County, Kansas and an organizer with Oxfam America. 'Upon returning from this educational journey, I hope that we will have opportunities to communicate our experiences to a broader American audience and to our legislators.'"

I also hope that the word of the farmers will have a little weight with American decision makers in this matter - U.S. agricultural subsidies don't always benefit farmers, and can have many negative externalities, one of which is the price depression of crops that flood the global marketplace, affecting many nations, including those in West Africa.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New power in Nigerian city

According to a World Bank Press release, Aba, Nigeria is getting the country's first Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) project.

"Aba Clean Energy Carbon Project will construct an efficient, gas-fired power plant, which will displace the electricity and steam currently being generated by industrial and large commercial enterprises in the City of Aba. Residents and business enterprises say that the current grid is over-stretched and unreliable and many of them have their own on-site diesel generators to supply their energy needs...This new initiative will introduce an efficient co-generation unit that will reduce GHG emissions that are responsible for climate change—the power plant will have dual-fuel turbines that will primarily use natural gas backed-up by diesel facilities in case of gas pipeline interruption."

"By providing reliable electric supply to this cluster and its industrial customers, the Aba project would make industrial production cheaper, with related benefits to the Nigerian economy. Residential customers would also benefit from the project as reliable power supply would make day-to-day life easier for local residents."

The developer of the project is a private Nigerian company, Geometric Power Limited. The project is anticipated to generate carbon credits for Nigeria that they can sell on the market as part of the CDM aspect of the Kyoto Protocol. There are also several other elements to this including the addition of street lights, a school, and a medical clinic for the community.

I think it will be a good thing if this project is able to provide consistent power to the city and the benefits are realized as anticipated once the project is completed. However, it is still a centrallized power structure, and it still relies on natural gas which needs to be piped in. While this is clean, it gets back to the issue of energy security, as well as the issue of cost recovery for operator of the system. It is unclear from the press release as to whether the developer will also be responsible for managing, distributing, and maintaining the infrastructure/power. It is also unclear as to how the pricing/distribution structure will be set up, and whether or not individuals will actually stop using their on-site diesel (CO2 emitting) generators. I would also like to think the World Bank has other infrastructure planned as far as transportation systems and affordable housing, and other things that might become stressed if this stable power supply is as effective at boosting the industrial production economy as predicted.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Energy security - ExxonMobil

I've blogged previously about ExxonMobil's ads in the NY Times op-ed pages (here, here, and here.) So of course I have to mention today's ad titled: "True Energy Security." (You can see the pdf here.)

While I'm not so sure they've got the best interests of energy users at heart, they've at least got a stake, not to mention a major role in how energy is secured in the future - especially where oil markets and trade are concerned. Of course it is no coincidence that this Thursday (these ads often run in Thursday editions of the NY Times) falls on the week before the G8 summit where international energy security and trade will be the top topics (the ad says as much.)

So how does ExxonMobil view energy security? "The most immediate way to achieve energy security is through effective interdependence. By improving relations between producing and consuming nations, strengthening trade ties and developing supplies from many different parts of the world, we can reduce the impact of disruption in any one exporting country. This stability helps energy consumers and producers alike." This makes perfect sense, only as with most things, is easier said than done. Many oil rich nations, especially in Africa, are rife with corruption and violence when their economy is based on resource extraction. (I met a government official of Nigeria at the World Urban Forum last month, who I'm sure would back up that statement.)

Perhaps that is why in the next paragraph the oil giant touts their diversification and risk hedging: "ExxonMobil is helping diversify Americans' energy sources by building partnerships and developing energy in 26 countries on 6 continents. In North America alone we've invested $25 billion over the last five years. We also strengthen energy security by promoting energy efficiency and researching commercially-viable, breakthrough energy alternatives for the future."

While the ad is vague as to what these "breakthrough energy alternatives" are, if we are to have an energy future where we are interdependent, as opposed to independent, it will be imperative for countries to focus on diversification (not just different sources of oil, but several sources of energy production), which I believe will be the key to true energy security in the future.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Peak uranium?

With all eyes turning to nuclear to power us into an emission free future, the question seems to have turned away from peak oil to peak uranium.

According to a Reuters story via Planet Ark News, "A decision by the UK government to build new nuclear power plants will increase pressure on uranium reserves and the need to process lower grades will cause greenhouse gas emissions, environmental groups said on Tuesday."

Nuclear power requires uranium, and all of the accessible, high-grade uranium is reportedly nearly used up. Once it's gone we'll have to go for the lower grade stuff, which'll take a little more effort (energy) to make into fuel.

Essentially we're just jumping from one finite resource to another - oil, coal, uranium. Which will it be, and at what cost? And why isn't there more talk about renewables?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Pre-cursor to the G8

UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, spoke at an event in Berlin, Germany Monday (nice that they were in the same city as the World Cup finals on Sunday.) Annan's speech was focused on the upcoming G8 meeting, the Millennium Development Goals, trade and energy.

However, Annan makes a few statements that are a bit misleading. He asserts that it is the energy supply that needs to be more secure. This is true, but it is also the infrastructure that needs to be maintained and adequately funded.

He mentions that we must take responsibility for environmental effects of energy supply - meaning specifically the global reliance on fossil fuels, and the associated effects of climate change. While no alternative is mentioned in his speech, I'm guessing he's not going to disagree with the intent to make nuclear king in the future as I'm sure it will be touted next week as THE 'clean' and 'environmentally responsible' energy of tomorrow.

Below are the points in his speech I made reference to above:
First, it's essential to think what energy security means to people living in developing countries. More than billion and a half of them live with no electricity at all, while many of those who do have access have to endure frequent power outages, caused by inadequate generating capacity and faulty grid lines.

Without more reliable energy supplies, these people are condemned to perpetual poverty. Studies show that, to reach the Millennium Development Goals, developing countries will need to nearly double their electrical generating capacity.

Second, we cannot achieve energy security unless we address the environmental consequences of energy consumption -- especially our currently overwhelming and deeply entrenched reliance on fossil fuels. By producing greenhouse gases and other pollutants, these fuels affect the sustainability of life itself. Our reliance on them puts the very future of humanity at risk.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The scientific consensus is overwhelmingly clear: climate change is happening, and humans are contributing to it. And while almost all of us will suffer, poor people above all are vulnerable and will bear the brunt of the damage -- especially in rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events. For those living in the low-lying areas of the developing world, energy security is inseparably linked to the environmental consequences of energy consumption.

Of course, these two aspects are intertwined. The need to increase energy supplies in order to fight poverty could entail a vicious circle, with ever more severe effects on health and the environment.

But that does not need to happen. Fossil fuels can become cleaner, or even clean. Energy efficiency can improve significantly, in transport, buildings, appliances and manufacturing. Renewable sources of energy can be utilized to much greater effect. And all this would have significant economic, health and environmental benefits.

Check out the whole speech here. Via WBCSD.

Nuclear going global

Daily Grist reports that GW is collaborating with the G8 on a "global energy security" plan that'll power our world with nuclear, and hand over the associated waste to Russia (a country that is not new to "disposing" of the stuff for themselves and their nuclear waste generating neighbors.) Of course environmentalists are shouting out their usual protests over the whole waste issue. According to The Washington Post those darned environmentalists "have denounced Russia's plans to transform itself into the world's nuclear dump."

This is all well and good - after all, how much more secure can you get in energy production than nuclear? It's clean (if you ignore the radioactive waste issue). Plants are cheap to operate once they're up and running (we'll ignore the high, often subsidized construction costs). They don't use fossil fuels (not directly anyway). It creates (the illusion of) jobs. It's a form of energy which steers clear of politics (because nuclear power and nuclear weapons aren't related in any way at all.)

Sure, nuclear can be a viable part of our energy future, and may in fact be necessary, but I fear that heavy reliance on nuclear power will effectively squash any R&D going to other forms of power generation - renewables or otherwise (otherwise meaning coal gasefication and the ever elusive hydrogen).

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sprawl is misunderstood

Sunday's NY Times features an op-ed by Robert Bruegmann (who, according to the bio line is "a professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, [and] is the author of 'Sprawl: A Compact History.")

The op-ed piece is titled, "Poor, Misunderstood Sprawl." I'm guessing this is what his book is about - and if it is, I think I'll add it to my reading list. He suggests that sprawl isn't the root of all evil as it's often made out to be. Sprawl is often thought to drain the life of cities, and cause increasing traffic and pollution. "These suggestions," he writes, "are based more on dislike for suburbs and wishful thinking than on any rational analysis of what has actually happened or is likely to happen to the metropolitan region over the next decades."

The metropolitan region in this case is NYC, and Bruegmann goes on to cite several examples of said rational analysis to prove his point. Outward expansion and growth can actually give new life to cities; people move out away from the city to find more affordable housing; the city core simply can't accommodate all of the expected population growth.

He suggests that there needs to be a shift in thinking for cities and suburbs to thrive together within regions. "Perhaps the most important thing that policy makers can do at this point is to reject shopworn notions about sprawl and decentralization, dismantle divisive notions that pit city against suburbs, abandon the fierce debate between public versus private transportation and concentrate on making the entire region, from the central city to the far exurbs, a more efficient and attractive place to live."

While I'm curious to know how or in what ways this transformation to "efficient and attractive" will take place, it is refreshing to see a different perspective regarding suburbs and their relation to the city. After all there would be no suburbia without the urban area it expanded from.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The AC Dilemma part 2

Thanks for all of the comments/suggestions regarding the recent AC dilemma, which really boils down to a matter of conscience vs. convenience on an individual level. My roommate and I ended up opting for convenience - as did at least 5 other households in my neighborhood (we passed several empty AC boxes on our walk to purchase ours at a nearby big-box home improvement store, not to mention several already installed AC units that were running high on a not-all-that-hot day.)

Our cooling machine is mid-range on the energy star rating (although it is a higher energy star rating than a similar, yet slightly cheaper model). And while it could probably stand to be a little more secure in the window frame, it's in, and we've yet to turn on. So until it gets really hot again it will sit in our living room window, silently nagging my conscience, "do I really need the AC? really?"

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The computer dilemma

If you happened to have read my blog in early June, you'll know I was having internet issues - as in I didn't have internet at home. Not the biggest of problems of course, but a pain in the rear when one attempts to blog on a daily basis.

Well, yesterday I encountered an even bigger challenge - my computer died. I don't know what is wrong with it other than it won't power up. No lights. No power. Nothing. (and no, nothing was backed up.) It is broken.

So - now I must do a little research on what kinds of lap top computers there are out there, and how to get my info off of my current one (if at all possible) and then figure out how to dispose of it properly.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The AC dilemma

My roommate and I are probably going to get an air conditioner soon. Like tomorrow probably. I really thought that I could be the good energy saver and not get one. But when the place doesn't cool down for four days straight and it gets a little too warm to sleep, that's when I started doing a little AC research.

Where I come from we don't need air conditioners in our homes. There might be a week or two, or three tops (however, more than likely not consecutive weeks) of warm temperatures in the summer, but then it'll cool down and you can get on with life.

Of course there's part of me that says - suck it up, it's only three months out of the year. Then there's the other part of me that says - boy it sure is hot in here, even with the fans, if only I had AC like the rest of New York.

So I'll probably justify the acquisition of this luxury item by doing a little homework on the appropriate btu and energy efficiency of the AC unit - but that is just one more AC unit that'll be on the great big power grid of the city.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Flood damage - shocking?

As the waters recede and damages are assessed, the devastation in the northeastern US becomes more apparent.

According to a Reuters article, via Planet Ark, a wealthy resident is quoted as saying: "'On a road called Riverside Drive [in Binghamton, NY] there's huge million-dollar homes with instant swimming pools in their backyards,' he said. 'And we're supposed to get more rain, it's insane.'" On a helicopter tour to survey parts of the state, NY gov George Pataki put the damage of homes, businesses and roads close to $100m.

I'm always shocked at how shocked people are after flood/storm damage is assesed. Not to discount the lives that are affected by these tragedies - but why aren't we more prepared? Why doesn't anyone consider how an extreme amount of rainfall might affect where people buy/build houses, or when the city builds roads, or extends permits for businesses to build vast gigantic parking lots (or other such impervious surfaces), or allows developers to get rid of natural vegetation?

We must move from a reactionary approach to a more precautionary approach when planning/building our cities/suburbs. Anticipating and preparing for "natural disasters" must become a priority because more rain will come, and storms will continue to wreak havoc on our increasingly built-up environments, (and in certain areas the rain won't come and cause droughts and other conditions equally as damaging).

I've addressed some of these issues before in this blog here and here and here. There aren't any easy answers, but there's no reason we should continue to not learn from the past (New Orleans) or from others who are beginning to realize the benefits of planning for the future (the Netherlands.)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

An Omnivore's Dilemma

I just finished reading Michael Pollan's, An Omnivore's Dilemma. I loved it. I haven't read any of his previous works, but I once attended a reading he gave from his book The Botany of Desire. I had first read select exerpts from his latest book in an issue of an environmental magazine (although, I'm sorry to say I don't remember which one...)

In some reviews I've read, An Omnivore's Dilemma has been compared to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. I can see the similarities as Pollan tries to track a meal (multiple meals) through to its origins - the farm, the forest, the factory. Pollan's trek is more personal than Schlosser's. Pollan breaks down some of the arguments or struggles surrounding food that I believe many of us deal with. Organic or non-organic? Polyculture or monoculture? Vegetarian or carnivore? He delves into the history of the systems involved in the biology and science of natural processes - food chains, evolution, insticts - and how humans have intervened by domesticating crops and animals for our purposes (or as he suggests, how corn and grasses have perhaps manipulated us.)

A review in The New York Times isn't that favorable, in which the reviewer is perplexed about what to do to solve this food dilemma Americans are faced with, and calls Pollan "too nice" of a writer (comparing him again, to Schlosser who by default gets the "not so nice" end of the comparison). I don't think the reviewer really got the point (and makes me wonder if he actually read the whole thing.). Pollan wasn't out to take down the agriculture industry, he was looking for answers to the "which is better?" question, and set out to explore how Americans and our ways of marketing and processing food have gotten us, well, fat. (Grist's David Roberts has a great Q&A interview with Pollan.)

The journey of the book begins with corn. It has only been since the second half of the 20th century that farms became bigger, and monoculture took over, as did the current conditions of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Pollan contrasts these things with a polyculture farm in Virginia, where animals and crops are raised and rotated based on a calculated and successful recreation of natural processes. Then he takes off on his own as a hunter/forager in the lands of northern California on yet another quest for answers to what might be unanswerable questions.

I don't know that An Omnivore's Dilemma actually answers any of the questions Pollan raises - or rather answers that the NY Times reviewer was looking for - but it does give readers the information to come up with answers on their own based on Pollan's research and experiences. And he definitely comes to some conclusions of his own (you should read it to see if you agree.)

I found the book to be an insightful and enjoyable journey through the ethical dilemmas and human conscience from farm to table and back again.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Oil - a valuable commodity?

Oil seems to be increasing in value as a precious commodity, so why doesn't anyone care when there is an oil spill?

Just last week 47,000 barrels of oil spilled at a Citgo refinery in Lake Charles, LA which, according to the latest NY Times article, "forced the closure of the channel, a key lane for transporting petroleum in and out of the region's four refineries. Citgo said the oil poured over the top of the tanks' walls during heavy rain, initially causing closure of the channel's 40-mile span to the Gulf of Mexico. The Coast Guard and the state Department of Environmental Quality are investigating the spill."

The biggest inconvenience was that ships weren't able to pass, and local seafood businesses were affected, as the title of yesterday's article mentions, "Ships Stranded and Seafood Threatened After Spill."

If a barrel of oil contains about 40 or so gallons, that's a lot of fill-ups that just went wasted. We don't seem to care about the ecological effects of a oil spill - even if it is a measly 47,000 barrels - so shouldn't we at least care that a highly valued commodity has just gone to waste? What about caring where the burden of clean-up costs really fall? Have we, as consumers/taxpayers, gotten so used to footing the bill that we accept it as a part of the cost of living?