Why Solar?

Today I want to offer a clear, concise statement on why solar is the only solution to our world’s energy and pollution problems.

(1) Our Sun is an immense nuclear reactor. The fusion of hydrogen atoms occurring within its core releases an enormous amount of energy that radiates through the solar system. Only a fraction of this radiant energy strikes our planet, but so powerful is the energy source that each hour enough sunlight falls upon the Earth’s surface to meet all of civilizations’ energy needs for a year.

(2) The compound that allows us to harness the Sun’s energy and convert it to power is silica. Silica is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.

(3) The mechanism by which we convert sunlight to power – the photovoltaic cell – is a near flawless machine: PV panels have no moving parts and therefore are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. They have zero emissions.

The energy produced by our Sun is free, abundant, constant, and inexhaustible. No other existing source comes even remotely close to matching its energy output. The raw materials to harness this energy exists in abundance. And we have the knowledge to turn this energy into power. And yet…

Always there is an “And yet” with us. We can muddle the clear and confuse the simple. It is a strange habit for a species so advanced.

The problems with solar in United States are political, not technical. Very soon we will overcome the obstacles of solar efficiency and energy storage (begin the video at 6:40). All that will remain is for us to overcome our resistance, our fear, our confusion. We have an energy source 1/10,000 of which can meet all of our energy needs. All that is left for us to do is accept it. The greatest leap forward for society since the invention of agriculture is within our grasp. Limitless, free, non-polluting power will liberate humanity in ways we can’t comprehend.


Of Stardust and Life

We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. We are golden.

-Joni Mitchell

We are beings of the Universe. Composed of elements forged in the massive furnaces of a billion stars. For uncounted aeons we drifted through the black void of space until finding a home on Earth.

And what if we are all there is? What if in all the havoc and energy of the Cosmos, amongst galaxies that number like grains of sand on a beach, we are alone? All the life there is to be found?

What then is our responsibility, our humble obligation, to the stars that gave us birth? Do we not take to our ancient homes, explore and populate the Universe, and bring life to where none exists?

The Universe awaits. Humanity stumbles along pursuing the small and the insignificant. And the Universe awaits.

The Election in Perspective

The Pale Blue Dot

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, October 13, 1994, Cornell University
Photo courtesy Voyager 1, 1990, 3.7 billion miles from Earth.

Eyeless Spiders and the End of Species

If some smidgen of bacterial goo was found on a faraway asteroid, it would be the discovery of the year, perhaps the century. Life on Earth would not be alone! Yet when it comes to the life that surrounds us, people can be remarkably cavalier, even downright callous: What’s another frog species more or less? What’s it do for us, anyways?

That’s the question Wired asks in its coverage of a September 11 report from the Zoological Society of London and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (two separate groups). Their report, titled “Priceless or Worthless?”, lists the top 100 species closest to extinction. The report’s authors, according to a press release, “hope[s] to push the conservation of ‘worthless’ creatures up the agenda that is set by NGOs from around the globe.”

Within the conservation movement there seems to be a “what have you done for me lately” mentality regarding the conservation of species. There has been a tremendous effort to attach utilitarian values to endangered species, and nature in general: in other words, to monetize the value of life on the planet. Those species and places that don’t seem to offer value to the human species tend to be ignored. From the press release:

“All species have a value to nature and thus in turn to humans,” says Dr Simon Stuart, Chair IUCN Species Survival Commission. “Although the value of some species may not appear obvious at first, all species in fact contribute in their way to the healthy functioning of the planet.”

Yes! We find species within some systems and not others because they evolved over millenia to be a part of that system. Take away any part, any piece, and the system is no longer whole. It may continue to function, but this is not the same thing. But we humans tend to overestimate our understanding of the natural world, when in fact, we know so little about the biosphere. We are not so much arrogant as ignorant, and we tend to err by ignoring and/or devaluing what we do not know or understand or see. This is the case with the conservation of the small, the mundane, the non-charismatic species in the world.

But there are deeper questions that deserve to be asked, and answered:

“While the utilitarian value of nature is important, conservation goes beyond this. Do these species have a right to survive, or do we have a right to drive them to extinction?” said Jonathan Baillie, the ZSL’s conservation director.

Should this not be the first argument, the first line of reasoning, in dealing with species? That they have value beyond what we assign to them? Don’t they have some inherent value, some inherent worth? Now I understand the utilitarian arguments; they are important arguments, necessary arguments: For one, I happen to believe that these utilitarian arguments inevitably lead even the most utilitarian of us to the deeper questions about inherent worth. I think first we must see that a thing is valuable to us, and then to others of us, and finally to our species. Then we will make the intellectual leap to the value of the species for its own sake.

So, having thought about that, what about this? Workers on a $15 million highway project in Texas have been shut down due to a dime-sized spider no one has seen in 30 years.

Workers found the Braken Bat Cave Meshweaver (Cicurina venii) spider, which hasn’t been seen in three decades, in the middle of a $15.1 million highway construction project in northwestern San Antonio. The eyeless arachnid is on the endangered species list—since construction would disrupt the spider’s natural habitat, the project has been halted for the foreseeable future.

No one said species conservation would be easy. How far can our bio-ethics take us beyond our pedestrian needs for streets and power plants and housing developments? A spider for the comforts of life? Tough one, no?

Gray Wolves Make a Comeback

Did you miss the news dump on Friday? The Friday before Labor Day weekend? If you missed it, you’re not alone. Check it out:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the Wyoming population of gray wolves is recovered and no longer warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Beginning September 30th, wolves in Wyoming will be managed by the state under an approved management plan, as they are in the states of Idaho and Montana.

Depending on your politics you either view this news as tremendously exciting, or horribly depressing. The news is exciting because we have successfully managed to reintroduce gray wolf populations into the Northern Rockies, and have done so so successfully that the wolf is being delisted and returned to state control. In the U.S., wildlife is generally under the control of the states, unless there is some special concern that warrants federal intervention, such as endangered species.

Of course, this issue of state control may be the reason for your blue attitude about the delisting of the gray wolf. You see, state control generally means that the state will be in charge of managing population numbers. Population numbers will be managed through controlled hunts (hunting seasons) and ongoing predator control. This is the part some people don’t like, due to their distrust of local politics in these matters, owed largely to the general hostility that the northern Rocky Mountain states have shown toward the wolf reintroduction program.

For my part, I view wolf reintroduction and delisting as a general conservation victory. Let’s first remember that the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect species threatened with extinction: it’s not intended as a long-term wildlife management tool. It’s job is to recover species. Hat tip to the ESA. Since wolf reintroduction began in 1995, the population has grown to nearly 1,800 individuals in the northern Rocky states. The reintroduction program overall is considered a wild success, exceeding everyone’s expectations; therefore, continued ESA protections appear unnecessary. And lest you harbor concerns, the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to play a role in wolf management, monitoring populations and requiring the states to maintain a minimum number of breeding pairs so that the population is sustained.

No doubt there will continue to be a lot of hard feelings about the wolf reintroduction program, and I fully expect the environmental groups to challenge the wolf delisting, just as I anticipate future problems with state management. The politics of wolf reintroduction is not going to disappear overnight. But really, isn’t all of this a hopeful sign for the future? The successful reintroduction of a major predator species, the return of a beautiful wild animal – and they are beautiful – once all but forgotten in the western United States?

(photo courtesy U.S. FWS)


The President’s Agenda: Mountaintop Coal Mining

Mountaintop coal mining is a great case study in the complexities of American environmental policy. Very few environmental issues seem so clear cut as ending mountaintop mining, yet the debate over this practice rages. It’s a jobs vs. environment debate in an economically depressed region. It’s blue collar vs. environmental crowd. It’s neighbor against neighbor, corporation against community, and local politicians of both parties against national political groups. It’s a President who has done very little to clean up this practice because he needs to win the swing state of West Virginia, and a Presidential contender who promises coal jobs forever.

In my opinion, mountaintop mining is an extreme environmental harm that is completely unnecessary, and I believe the next President should prohibit this practice immediately.  

First, what is mountaintop mining? Mountaintop mining is a surface mining technique used to remove coal located below the surface in hilly and mountainous regions, most notably the Appalachian region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  Without getting overly technical, the practice of mountaintop mining works like this: once a coal seam has been located, the mountain/hill will be stripped of its vegetation. Explosives are used to loosen the earth above the coal seam. Heavy equipment will removed this loose material and deposit it in the valley floor or another fill area. A dragline then removes the layer of rock to expose the coal seam so that the coal can be mined. There may be multiple coal seams within one mountain (think of a mountain as a layer cake, with layers of coal contained between layers of sedimentary rock), so this process may be repeated. Once the coal is removed, the coal companies are required to reclaim the mountaintop.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of our coal production comes from mountaintop mining. But mountaintop mining represents 40 percent of the mining activity in Appalachia. In that region, it is the most cost-effective way to remove the coal. Mountaintop mining represents a lot of jobs, income, and relative prosperity in an historically economically depressed region.

Any reasonable person would feel compassion for the people and communities affected by mountaintop mining. No one wants to see the economic lifeblood of a region shut down. But I think we need to do it, shut it down.  Ending mountaintop mining will be costly to the region, as there will be a steep economic transition. But ending the practice will have very little impact across the nation’s energy markets, but will eliminate a tremendous environmental harm.

The legacy of mountaintop mining is one of permanent destruction; somewhere around 1,000,000 acres and 470 mountains have been changed forever. Over 2,000 miles of stream have been buried under the waste product, called fill, which remains after the coal is removed. The environmental harms are numerous and enormous: loss of soil productivity, loss of wildlife habitat, the destruction of headwaters and the introduction of heavy metals in the streams that do survive this practice, the occurrence of floods and the destruction of communities, and the end of a way of life for many who once sought sustenance from the mountains and streams and valleys of the region. Man has grotesquely and permanently altered the landscape in the pursuit of a small percentage of our nation’s electricity needs. I think the time for questioning is over: it’s time to end mountaintop mining forever.  

For more information and a great 20-minute video on this topic, see Yale’s Environment360 blog. Image courtesy US EPA.

Henry David Thoreau Is Not Amused

Via the Not So Subtle blog comes word that the whackamoles at National Endowment for the Arts are spending $40,000 to support a video game based on Thoreau’s book Walden. As you may recall from middle school reading assignments, Walden is Thoreau’s recollections of his experiences at Walden Pond, where he built a cabin and sought to immerse himself in nature to become more independent and self-sufficient. Building cabins and immersing oneself in nature being generally frowned upon these days, the NEA has decided that a video game is the best path to reconnecting our children with nature.

Reports that the video game will be constructed from twigs and leaves and operated by solar power are apparently unfounded. When asked for comment, a spokesman for the NEA said they do not suggest playing the Walden game outdoors, nor near an actual pond, as the game is not waterproof.

Thoreau was unavailable for comment.