Just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg

A small story from NYTimes, by Danny Hakim, says that the trend in SUV purchases lost a little steam in the first quarter of 2005. Here's a particularly egregious statement by a Houston auto-purchaser:
The New York Times > Automobiles > A Love Affair With S.U.V.'s Begins to Cool: "For Ms. Cooks, gas prices, which are $2.09 a gallon for regular at a Shell station nearby, were not part of her decision, and she said she came close to buying a Lexus S.U.V. The 300C, equipped with a gas guzzling Hemi engine, is hardly akin to a Toyota Prius.
'Gas prices worry me with any vehicle,' she said. 'One day they're up, the next day they're slightly down.'"

This is what she said as she was buying a Chevrolet 300C. While some consumers are starting to think about fuel economy, I fear that a great many still see the current spate of high gas prices as only that. A temporary increase, probably associated with the summer season. But, Ms. Cook, you are wrong. Things are going to get worse and worse. This is our chance to take some steps away from petroleum, and we really should take them.


Well, what else can we do?

In a rather bland report, NYTimes reporter Felicity Barringer [LINK] says some long-time "environmentalists" are starting to accept the possibility that using nuclear power might be a viable option. While I accept that waste generation and storage/disposal are important problems that still haven't been adequately solved, I have long been in the pro-nuclear power camp. The public at large has serious issues with anything "nuclear" or "radioactive," but it seems like that might have something to do with growing up in a world in which they were constantly threatened with nuclear annihilation. Duck and cover, anyone?

Today we have to make decisions with imperfect knowledge and technology. On the one hand we know that fossil fuels are starting to run low (by the way, I still like "Out of Gas", see previous post) and we also know that using them is contributing to a warming planet. On the other hand, we are afraid of using nuclear technology because it can be used for unfriendly purposes and we don't have a very good way to take care of the waste. Also, nuclear fission is not really a renewable energy source, unless we can mine Uranium out of Earth's core. What do we do? Should we abandon both and hope that somehow other renewable energy sources are quickly improved? I'd say that is not the best solution. Let's face up to the facts, and say that the dangers posed by nuclear power right now are far smaller than those posed by fossil fuels or a global energy crisis. With that decision, the immediate future should rely heavily on nuclear fission, with at least one eye toward the future, which should include nuclear fusion along with renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.). Or at least that's how it seems to me.


It doesn't relate to the things I usually post here, but this is too cool not to mention. Some folks at Cornell have made a robot that reproduces itself! Yes, all our dreams have come true. Okay, well, it isn't quite that good, since all it does is reproduce itself, and it can only do that in idealized conditions. It is still a very impressive demonstration. The future applications are endless, once the technology (hardware & sofware) advances. The story can be found on wired.com, and is written by Stephen Leahy [LINK].


A helpful site?

So I heard about this "new" website called GreenerChoices.org. I haven't looked at it much yet, but it might be useful from what I see. It seems to be from Consumer Reports, which isn't a bad thing. If I find anything particularly good, I'll post it later.


Dairy waste as an evironmental problem

It's funny how we become more and more specialized in a field, learing all kinds of details about one little niche, while we can be completely ignorant of other parts of the field. Then you have to wonder about defining a field and subfields and such, but anyway that was just a comment meant to lead into this story. I really don't know very much about air pollution, from the chemical and health sides of the story. Yeah, greenhouse gases or water vapor and I can keep up, but volatile organic compounds and I struggle more than I'd like. Related to a mother's day conversation I had this weekend, I happened upon a story about air pollution due to dairies in California [LINK]. It seems that California somehow classifies the waste produced by cows according to a study conducted in 1938, and now they are trying to decide how to update their classification.

First off, I don't doubt that people could measure cow waste in 1938. It probably isn't that difficult to do. Of course, there might be differences in what you measure, and methods of measuring, but I wouldn't be too surprised if modern techniques gave approximately the same answer for some "control cow." However, I have a strong feeling that today's dairy cows are demonstrably different from those in 1938. Today, dairy cows are raised and used for just a few years before being shipped off to become hamburger or dog food or whatever. These cows don't live like normal cows. They don't wake up each morning, eat some grass, and eventually get milked by some farm hand. They are attached to automatic milking machines, they are forced to continuously produce milk until their production decreases below some threshold, and who knows what kinds of, let's just say medicine, they are given. So, yeah, it is probably nigh time to update that classification.

The article mentions three distinct numbers, ranging from about 6 pounds of waste per year per cow to about 38 pounds per cow per year. This isn't total waste, obviously; if you've ever spent time around cows you'll know they produce about 6 pounds of waste per day, and maybe more. These numbers try to measure the effect on air quality. So that would include the gas cows expel, and some fraction of their solid waste that might end up in the air. I have no clue how they try to measure that, but the range of estimates suggests there is disagreement about how it should be done. The article makes certain to suggest these numbers are "politicized," with environmentalists (whoever they are) favoring the larger number and the dairy industry (or some lawyers who work for some big agri-business) favoring the smaller number.

An interesting tidbit is that the San Joaquin Valley has terrible air quality, and the dairy industry is a giant polluter locally. You can confirm the bad air quality by looking it up, which I did this weekend while investigating a different matter. If the dairies can be shown to be culpable for the pollution, it would be a great step forward to regulate their waste in a more reasonable way. After all, there weren't always 2-million cows being stored in the SJV.


Highly recommended reading: Out of Gas

Over the course of a couple hours (spread over yesterday afternoon and this morning), I read Out of Gas by David Goodstein. It came highly recommended by an astrophysicist friend of mine, and was loaned to me by a fellow climate scientist. Many of you may have already read this very popular book, but for those of you who have not, I can only say it is worth the couple hours.

The subject matter is not cheery. Subtitled, The End of the Age of Oil, Goodstein quickly describes how M. King Hubbert predicted the end of the USA's oil dominance in the 1970s two decades in advance, and goes on to explain that the same factors are beginning to come all too clear in the world oil resources. Goodstein is a physicist, a distinguished professor at Caltech, and has written several books and hosted The Mechanical Universe for PBS [additional bio]. He doesn't work for the oil companies, and neither does he owe loyalty to the Sierra Club. I wouldn't be surprised if he does become a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists at some point, though. The book is political only after it makes its reasoned, scientific arguments. Essentially Goodstein recognizes the impending global energy crisis, makes conservative estimates of how far away this crisis will be (following the more statistically and logically sound reasoning of Hubbert and followers), and concludes that the world can't keep going like this much longer. We must find an alternative to fossil fuels. Keeping a strong grounding in fundamental physics, giving some of the relevant physical and historical context, Goodstein reviews the pros and cons of known alternatives, and finds all of them lacking.

Out of Gas is a call to engineers, physical, social, and even life scientists to wake up and start to address this problem immediately. The stakes are high, and the rewards of successfully averting the coming catastrophe are even greater.

An aspect of this book that I can't help but give some bonus attention is the way all the arguments are based on fundamental, freshman-level physics. A quick look using a popular search engine for either "David Goodstein" or "Out of Gas" or both shows no immediate negative response. Books that politicize or over-dramatize these issues, or are written by non-experts are routinely criticized by right-wingers and nay-sayers for (generally) ridiculous reasons. Having simple arguments using basic physics written by an established, respected physicist lends credibility to Out of Gas unknown to many of the book's peers. In my experience, people arguing against alternative energy or global climate change (also touched on in the book) try to confuse the issues with circular or wrong-minded refutations, but it is harder for them to do so with such clear arguments.

So go now, and read this nice little book. Pass it along to your friends and colleagues. Let's start working on this before the worst case scenario befalls us, and we are sent spiralling into a Mad Max world of regional warlords fighting for water and oil, with widespread hunger, murder, and misery. Yes, we really are talking about the fate of our entire species.