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Sustainability and A Planet Out of Whack

We are talking more and more about sustainability, as an end to our oil resources is something almost calculable by now. As our living space will decrease with population growth and demands on usable water will increase. As our landfills overflow and seep toxic gunk into the groundwater.  As our land turns to dustbowls or swamps and arable land becomes scarce, as millions of cars belch fumes into the sky.

Right now fires are sweeping across BC, again, threatening people living in cities. In Westbank/Kelowna 11,000 people have been evacuated with another 6,000 on alert. This echoes the terrible, devastatingly traumatic fires that swept through parts of Australia earlier this year. Fires so intense and vicious that they caught people as they tried to get into their cars, that burned land to a cinder killing all living things, whether plant or animal, that stood upon the land. Australia faces the collapse of its wine industry, vines grown for years either burned to a crisp or without water to keep the crops going. Their cattle industry is also in danger. A whole country and continent without enough water.

This is not a new thing. Disasters and climatic devastation have happened throughout history but the ferocity and frequency are increasing as the planet warms and suffers under the onslaught of chemicals and fumes not meant to play with nature. The change in the planet probably began with the industrial revolution, once machines were chugging blue smoke into the sky and sluicing runoff into the streams. It began with the first car. And if we think about it, that was only about a hundred years ago. A tenth of a millennium and civilization has existed for at least twenty thousand years.

Think about it. We are exponentially increasing the danger to the planet and to ourselves, and sticking our heads in the sand won’t make it go away. So just what is sustainability? Let’s look at defining it first, from Merriam Webster: 1: capable of being sustained 2 a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society> 

So that a resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. Wow. Perhaps it’s easier to look at what is not sustainable than what is. What’s left over is what we have to work with. Let’s start with the biggest resource. Our planet. It is of a finite circumference with finite water and land. The world population is at 6.7 billion. It is expected to increase to 9 billion in 2040. That’s within a lot of our lifetimes. There will be less land to live on and the more building that happens takes away from land to grow upon. Water is already an issue in many places. What will it be like in thirty years?

This means no matter how much you love children, think they’re cute, want to be surrounded by bundles of joy or your religion has said, go forth and multiply, it is just not sustainable. Everyone can take personal responsibility and for every couple have one child. That will bring our population down. It will make the planet breathe a sigh of relief and continue a bit longer. Plagues, diseases and flus won’t spread like wildfire. And yes, businesses will have to restructure from the grow grow grow buy more mentality. But we’ll survive.

What is not sustainable is manufacturing more and cheaper cars, SUVs, Hummers and every gas guzzling monster. For sustainability they should be outlawed. And we see right now the glacial progress of moving to electric cars. Governments need to move faster on this and provide incentives to get people to change. More cars plug city thoroughfares and raise costs in maintenance, accident prevention and care. Fewer cars and bigger carpool systems will lessen the strain and road rage. Electric cars, bicycles, viable and cheap public transit will help alleviate both pollution and the sucking of the world’s limited oil and metal resources. Another unsustainable depleting resource.

Manufacturing that uses water needs to be looked at, if our water is becoming limited. Healthy, interactive systems of filtration need to be used to keep our water pure and reusable. We could end up like the people in the novel Dune, having to wear suits that recycle and sweat and urine into drinkable fluids over and over because the planet is desert. Water saving devices for taps, toilets and showers must be used. Education will help stem the tide there.

Building homes and offices, making paper all work on depleting trees. The forestry industry has been made responsible for replanting for quite a few years. But you can chop down more trees in a day than will grow in  a year. it takes years to get a big tree, centuries. Ripping out too many tress not only affects flora and fauna of an ecosystem but also affects the topsoil, the nutrients and the infrastructure of the land for both stability and water.

I could go on but every person as well as every company and government must take responsibility and look at what they use and how it’s reused or discarded. Everything from food to clothing. If we don’t start now, we should have started fifty years ago. And if you truly love children, start now and look at what you can do for sustainability because there could be no tomorrow.

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Environmentalism & Politics

I actually wrote this last year on my other blog but I think it’s still pertinent. What often happens with government is that they focus on whatever the media starts paying attention to. And the moment the public looks away, they go off in another direction. Although the economy is of great concern, so is the environment still and always important. Moreso now when recycling companies are not making as much a profit and therefore it isn’t “economical” for them to recycle or for other places to buy the products.
There has been quite the hullabaloo in the media lately as politicians have woken up from a twenty-plus year hibernation to look around in sudden alarm and go “Oh my, we have an environmental problem.” Hello?

When I was a teenager I wouldn’t litter and a friend asked, oh why bother? I said, well it may only be me today but then tomorrow it might be me and someone else, because they saw me not littering. And the next day there could be three or four, etc. I feel vindicated that at least recycling has become more of a norm (at least in some provinces) than it was in my teens.

And at least by the time I was in my twenties I was reading about the Gaia Hypothesis (how the world is one symbiotic living organism and what you do to it in one place affects the whole) and how our pollutants were wreaking havoc with the world and if we stopped all smog causing agents, then it would take at least fifty years to see any positive results.

In 1998 I wrote for a now defunct e-magazine (victim of the dot com downfall) called technocopia.com. It looked at how new technology was changing one’s life and lifestyle, from cell phones in third world countries to robotic heart surgery. I was researching fuel cells and hybrid cars and came across the Kyoto Protocol. Governments had already signed up for it. So how is it in 2007 various governments have dropped out of fulfilling the requirements and now cry it will break the bank because there’s not enough time? That was ten years of time.

I hear Stephan Dion say on CBC that pollution has just become a problem? What!! Just? Puhleese. I’m not sure what the benefit was to Tony Blair to stand up and start waving the big green flag but it suddenly looked like the cool thing to do and Canada jumped up beside him. George Bush of course is still in right wing crusader war mode. Environmentalism might mean putting collars on his pals, the oil and car companies.

But I’m cynical enough and eyes open enough to wonder why politicians would suddenly go on about this when a lot of us have known there’s been a problem for over twenty years. Well, hmm, minority government. Who wouldn’t want to keep our country green and with air we can breathe? For Harper it’s a surefire way to garner a shiny star on his report card. But it would be much more believable if saving our resources wasn’t done because of political maneuvering and was just done because it’s the right thing to do.

And yet, the Conservatives whine and shuffle their feet and say oh we can’t meet the Kyoto Protocol. Or, maybe we could but it would cost gadzillions and all you poor Canadians that we normally only care about when you’re voting will pay the price. A few weeks ago on CBC, The Current had business leaders from various sectors and they were saying that they were on board with changing and implementing environmentally safe processes and procedures. The interesting thing here was that all of them said that it would be more cost effective and they would probably actually make more profit by switching over. So how is it that the Baird Report says we’re going to have to pay with our first born?

Perhaps I’d almost believe that maybe, just maybe, our lovely government was actually concerned with the environment and not with losing power if it wasn’t that I see this as a big smokescreen. What have polls of recent years shown is the number one priority for Canadians: universal medicare. So why aren’t we hearing more about this? Because it needs a massive overhaul. And we’ve all turned to look at the shiny new green flag being waved so that we won’t notice the huge cutbacks, the ever longer waiting lists, the rampant deadly infections running amok in hospitals and killing people. Because the government can win votes easier with this lovely green beast than with the monster of medical coverage.

I was willing to let go some of my frustration, anger and disgust with the head-in-the-sand attitude various Canadian governments have had if it meant at least something was being done. But then we get the Baird Report; more stalling about actually really doing something.

I’m trying to do my part and have for years. I could do more. We all could. I’d get a hybrid car if I could afford one. What part is the government really doing? Will they put teeth into their policies or leave them to gum the ankles of corporations and groups that continue to pollute? I’ll wait and see.

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Election Day

Well after a nice long weekend of ignoring the news completely, I also completely forgot about the election. But I have my little card and will be voting after work. I’ve been hearing how this year you need a piece of ID to be able to vote. It’s not been very clear as to whether you need this if you have the voter registration card. Spokespeople for Elections Canada have been saying it’s marked very clearly.

I’d certainly like to know where it’s marked clearly. The voter registration card is printed in maroon and white. Some parts have a maroon background, some on white. But with the overall two-tone color nothing stands out in particular. I’ve read it once and didn’t see this caveat to bring ID. I’m sure many other people will miss it if they haven’t heard it already. And this morning CBC talked about a guy who brought in his laptop with PDFs of his bills. This wasn’t good enough and he needed to have a printout. That doesn’t necessarily make it any more secure. But at least we’re not at the pregnant chad state of the US.

How will this election turn out? I think we may have another minority government but whether Liberal or Conservative, it’s hard to tell. The polls were showing a race getting closer and the NDP gaining a fair number of seats. Campaigning is outlawed on election day and I heard once that all campaign signs had to be down by that day though I’ve never seen this really carried out. The news stations are waiting with baited breath for the polling stations to close before they start reporting the news like some huge horse race. The wild speculation and criticism has stopped as those particular horses have been flogged to death.

Everyone gets three consecutive hours to vote so if the stations are open from 7am to 7 pm and you work 9 to 5, your employer must give you time off (either 7 am to 10 am or 4 pm to 7 pm) with pay. They are not allowed to intimidate you by law. I’ve seen the coercion happen in the past, in subtle ways sometimes but still a limiting of the legal time. You can check out legalities of the election at the Elections Canada website. It will even tell you if you can eat your ballot. (I kid you not.)

http://www.elections.ca/content.asp?section=faq&document=faqvoting&lang=e&textonly=false#voting26

But here it is, Tuesday morning, after a long weekend, our bellies filled with turkey and other thanksgiving equivalents. Somehow the price of gas went from $1.12/litre on Thursday to $1.21 this morning. What was the huge crisis this time? Another seasonal storm in a tropical clime? A shifting iceberg? A hangnail? An impending election? The birth of another child? Price of oil is dropping they say but the manipulation of our pocketbooks on a daily basis hasn’t. I guess that will be save for the next election, or the one after that.

Soon it will be back to the usual, another government, another pack of unfulfilled promises. And the world continues.

 

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Saving Energy and Environment with the Power of Fuel Cells

From 1999-2000 I wrote for Technocopia.com run by Hillary Rettig, which unfortunately fell victim to the dotcom drop. With her permission I’m listing some articles here. It’s interesting to note that most countries had already signed on to the the Kyoto Protocol, including Canada & the US who used various strategies to start backing out later.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 stated that by 2008 all signing countries agree to lower their emissions of airborne pollutants from cars and industry.  Development and deployment of new technologies must begin years in advance of that deadline for countries to comply.

One approach that some regions are taking is mandating that a certain proportion of new cars sold produce zero emissions.  In the U.S., California, Massachusetts and New York are all calling for zero emission regulations. California will require that 10% of all cars sold by 2004 have zero tailpipe emissions.

Electric cars are one possibility.  Long recharge times on batteries, limited driving range (50-100 miles), and few recharge stations have left the public and car manufacturers less than enthusiastic about electrics as viable clean energy transportation.  

Another alternative is the new hybrid gas/electric cars that use an electric battery and a small gasoline tank. Although these cars have a driving range comparable to gas-powered cars and are self-charging they still use nonrenewable fossil fuels though emissions are lower.

Enter the Fuel Cell

A new contender in the zero-emission-vehicle race is the fuel cell.   DaimlerChrysler and Ford hope to have fuel cell-powered cars on the road within the next few years.  Both are partial owners of Ballard Power Systems Inc. in Burnaby, BC, which is the leading researcher and developer of fuel cell technology.  GM, Volkswagen, Honda, Nissan, and Mazda are also experimenting with fuel-cell-powered vehicles.  Chicago Transit Authority and Vancouver’s Metro Transit authority (Translink) are deploying fuel cell-powered buses on a test basis. The fuel cell uses hydrogen and air, which produces clean water (in some cases, water vapor). It can also be topped up quickly with fuel instead of having to be charged slowly like an electric battery.

A fuel cell is a chemically coated membrane sandwiched between two walls. On one side hydrogen is fed in and from the other side, oxygen. The hydrogen, upon reaching the membrane, splits into protons and electrons. The hydrogen protons move through the membrane to join with the oxygen on the other side. At the same time the hydrogen electrons, which cannot pass through the membrane, move out of the cell and are harnessed as electricity. The hydrogen protons meet with the electrons and the oxygen to form hot water.

Fuel cells sound like the “perfect” technology, but there are some problems that still must be resolved if it is ever to be commonly used in transportation.  These include the weight and size of the fuel cell stack, the fact that hydrogen is a highly volatile substance, and the lack of fueling stations.

Hydrogen can be extracted from other fuels but some emissions are produced. Methanol (known as wood alcohol), is a safer fuel source than pure hydrogen and will probably power DaimlerChrysler’s future mass-produced Necar, as well as other fuel cell cars.

Personal Fuel Cell Uses

Fuel cells are also being investigated for use as a power source for homes and appliances. Ballard’s Mark 900 fuel cell will be the basis of a one-kilowatt generator to power Japanese homes. The generator will extract hydrogen from natural gas.  It would be used during off-peak hours as the energy source and then supplemented by the city’s power grid during peak hours when many lights and appliances are turned on. Japan is eager to switch to fuel cell generators since several nuclear reactor accidents “have sapped the country’s already brittle confidence in nuclear power.” The Vancouver Sun (01/14/2000)  Ballard believes that Japan’s fuel-cell generator will be ready in two years.  They are also looking at marketing the generators for Europe and North America.

In the U.S., fuel cell generators are also being looked at as a supplement to city electrical grids. Many of these power grids obtain their energy from nonrenewable resources. Plug Power in Albany, NY received over twenty million dollars in research grants to develop a fuel cell that could be used in residential homes instead of using the traditional electric company grid. The fuel cell generators might be used to supplement photovoltaic panels, which collect solar energy.  Some houses already running on solar energy only draw on the grid during peak hours, cutting down the costs for household power and electricity.

The subkilowatt world of portable devices, such as laptop computers and cell phones may also soon use tiny fuel cells instead of traditional batteries. Motorola Inc.’s new “air breathing” fuel cell, developed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory “eliminates the need for air pumps, heat exchangers and other complex devices that previous fuel cells required and therefore disqualified them from successful use in small portable electronic products” according to Reuters, (01/19/2000).

The Motorola fuel cell measures one inch by less than one-tenth of an inch, and would last ten times longer than the standard lithium batteries now used, stated Christopher Dyer in The Chicago Tribune (10/25/99). Another two to five years of research and development are needed before the air breathing fuel cell is ready for the consumer. 

Fuel cells may still be the energy source of tomorrow, but that tomorrow is so close that the bus you ride today and the laptop you buy tomorrow may be powered by this clean energy. Fuel cells are one way that will let us all breathe easier.

Some Useful Sites
Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, www.ngvc.org
Methanex (This site provides a good explanation of methanol.) www.methanex.com
U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eere.energy.gov/
American Hydrogen Association, www.clean-air.org
Ballard Power Systems (A good description & graphics of the fuel cell.) www.ballard.com
Fuel Cells 2000 www.fuelcells.org

 

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Suffering the Effects of Gas…Prices

Alas, today I had to put gas into the car. $25 for a quarter of a tank at $1.42 a litre. For those of you in the US, there are 3.8 litres to the US gallon (different from the imperial gallon) but roughly you can multiply it by four for a price of $5.68 a gallon. It’s still cheaper to gas up in the US, when I can, but I can’t afford to drive as far.

So, gas prices, definitely causing us discomfort but these days we hear, oh the price of food is going up because of gas prices. Airline tickets–gas prices. Clothing–gas prices. Gas prices–gas prices. Yes, the price of gas is going up because of the price of gas. Or gas prices are going up because of volcanoes, tsunamis, rain, broken fingernails or war somewhere. I wonder how much George Bush can be blamed for gas prices?

The moment that our lovely provincial government mentioned that they would be doing a carbon tax on gas as of July 1, the price went up by a couple of cents (back in April). Let’s not forget that gas is already taxed federally and provincially and more if you live in large urban centers–36.3% as of 2006 for Vancouver. Oh and there is tax on the tax. (You’ll have to read my earlier rant, “Carbon Tax: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” to see why I think it’s hugely flawed–the least amount of work the gov’t can do toward environmentalism.)

Let’s go back ten years or more. I remember a time when the price of gas stayed the same for months on end and would only change by a cent. In BC, less than ten years ago Arco started to come into the province. Gas went down to an unprecedented .29 cents a litre. You could gas up for $15. It began a gas war because of Arco’s low prices. Do they even exist anymore? At that point in time prices would drop or rise but stay that way for a week.

Somehow everything sped up exponentially. It became a daily thing to see prices change by .10 cents a litre and it still happens. So, tell me, great gas corporations, are your prices changing on the hour because of every geographic upheaval, drop of rain or hurled insult somewhere in the world? Does this somehow affect the reserves? According to these poor beleaguered gas companies, which I’m sure are losing money, yes, every little earthquake, every insurrection causes gas prices to change instantaneously.

Wow, we are so volatile. I notice that those world crises are at their lowest late at night and mid day but that they affect gas prices most when we are going to or coming from work and always on the weekend when you may be driving at any particular time. Gosh, our world is like a bunch of festering sores just constantly popping.

There have been calls for investigations into the price of gas and the fluctuation of such. I have yet to hear that there was such an investigation or the results. We’re at the mercy of the gas companies who will only switch wholeheartedly to hybrid or other clean energy cars when they can no longer suck the last drop of oil from the earth and likewise suck us dry. Just look at how little advertising has ever gone into a hybrid car and how they are more expensive than any gas guzzler. Oh, and if you check far enough some gas and car companies are often jointely owned or have shares in each other. Can we say collusion?

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Carbon Tax: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

The latest craze that even the government on all levels has realized brings popularity and kudos, is to go green. From civic to federal governments, this last year we’ve seen such buzz words as “eco, green, carbon tax and environment.”

Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan has been championing his “eco-density” movement as we move closer to an election campaign. For the busy, unthinking or easily duped they hear the word “eco” and will go, Oh it must be good for us and the environment, so I’ll vote Sam. What does it really mean? It’s another word for condo, high-rise and sardine city. Eco-density, like the use of collateral damage to mean dead people, is just disguising the continual downgrading of our living spaces to smaller and smaller areas for higher prices. Oh, but they’ll put a little greenspace outside so that when you’re pressed up against the glass and staring down five stories, you can dream of a previous era where people gamboled in the grass.

The BC government, so good at tearing up contracts and firing hospital workers to the tune of saving money, cleanliness issues and losing lives, who started singing the song of saving our environment has just instituted the carbon tax, to take place July 1. Because, they parrot, it will make people use gas less and think of greener alternatives. Supposedly it will affect every use of fuel, including those who have to heat their homes this way. It will include gas, diesel and natural gas. Much better to let those little old people with their thinly insulated skin shudder away and wrap up in old blankets. Then the government can say, well look at them; aren’t they doing a great job.

The carbon tax makes no sense. It’s like saying, oh people are buying too much food, so we’ll raise the price of food. The rich will just pay more and the poor people will eat less and starve. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were cheap, viable and environmental alternatives. But there aren’t. A hybrid car is already more expensive than a gas-powered car. But the federal government was giving a $1000 rebate should you buy one. The price was still more than a cheaper gas car and the government decided it sends a better message to get rid of this rebate.

Bus/SkyTrain transportation is so expensive that it was still cheaper for me to take my car to New Westminster from Vancouver than to take the bus and its requisite hassles (not reliable, not always on time, strange, sometimes dangerous street people). I’ll have to check again but the green alternatives aren’t there. Those buses still spew gas. Electric or hydrogen buses would be better. Vancouver has been testing one fuel cell bus that I know of.

Alternative fuels or making the gas and oil companies change the composition in the fuels could help. There is ethanol for one, though it has its own issues. Putting better systems into new cars for fuel and emissions also could help but I don’t know how much can be done there or how much research has been done. I’d like to hear about it though and the government isn’t chatting about all the green alternatives they’re offering or looking into.

Perhaps the government thinks it’s a frivolous option for people to go to work. There are many smaller areas and farm communities where people must drive to go anywhere. It really doesn’t help them and punishes them. Not to mention, the truck drivers that haul goods and food across the country are doing us a service. Perhaps they should stop driving too. Oh no, of course not; the price of everything will just go up. And try to sell a car right now so that you can go green: you can’t.

Should I even mention that this does nothing for the existent problem of pollution and greenhouse gases and it’s the least effective (energetic) way of implementing change. I’d like to know what the tax money will go to except lining government coffers. Bringing in better mass transportation and alternatives would make the carbon tax more feasible if it was actually applied to the big users. If even the little people, the poor people and those who have no choice are punished, it just means that in the end as always, the poor will get poorer and the rich will just continue to pay more to consume the same amount. And the government will sit back like a fat cat and lick its chops.

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