Follow Up to Earth Hour

Now that all the buildings have gone dark for their required one hour, I have had a revelation that I want to post regarding Earth Hour.

Earth Hour was an attempt to change human behavior. Unfortunately for environmentalists human behavior is almost impossible to change for moral reasons. I care about the planet and future generations such as my daughter as much as anybody, but can I give up my car, stop using the Internet (a major CO2 source), or give up buying bananas? Nope, and anybody who thinks that we can and will change our lifestyles in major ways is deluding themselves and doesn’t understand history because we’ve never done that before.

However, we do stand a chance at kicking climate change in the teeth with technology because technology can change human behavior almost overnight. The plow, the clock, the light bulb, the car, the plane, the computer, etc. Theses are all technologies that altered human behavior in major ways. Nobody alive in 1900 would have imagined flying across an ocean for a business meeting, but people were doing just that 50 years later.

The same opportunity is being offered to our generation. Clean/green technology is available and we can change the way our technology works to harm the planet less (or even help the planet). But, to do so we have to engage capitalism, the most creative and powerful system we have.

Making money is the best way to drive development of anything from a better mouse trap to a car that runs on air. We all need business to embrace the challenges of the environment if we hope to have a planet, or if we hope to make gobs and gobs of money.

Al Gore was right and wrong. The choice between the planet at money is a stupid one, but he got his argument reversed. Without money, we can’t have a planet.

So, all you greedy people, start saving my kid’s planet already.

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Is Earth Hour Good for the Earth?

I see Earth Hour through two different lenses, and neither of them is all that rosy.

First, I see it as an amateur astronomer and stargazer. Ever since Edison invented the light bulb, leagues of stargazers have been forced on a celestial exodus from development and cities into rural areas with no light pollution.

So, you might think that Earth Hour would be great for amateur astronomy. Afterall during the gigantic blackout in the summer of 2003, astronomers were able to observe the Milky Way from downtown Toronto (most likely the first time in over a hundred years).

But, 8-9pm is basically dusk for astronomers. No serious observing can really be done until after Earth Hour is over.

Moreover the streetlights, porch lights, Wal-Mart signs, and a whole host of other lights that point upwards will still be on. I can’t imagine that there will be a substantial drop in light pollution.

While I think projects like the Ontario Science Centre’s “Starwatch + Earth Hour” where people are encouraged to see how many of the Little Dipper’s stars they can see is good PR for science and astronomy, I doubt it will really offer any basis for the change in light pollution.

For example, I can make out the Little Dipper in my light polluted Waterloo front yard with cars driving because I have young eyes, good eyesight, and know where and how to look for constellations. Will Starwatch take into account ages, eyesight, and stargazing ability when they try to collate their results?

The second lens I see it through is that of an environmentalist struggling to find solutions to the huge problem of climate change. In an hour, very few tonnes of carbon will be prevented from hitting the atmosphere.

However, it is good PR for climate change because it shows people the supposed change that we can accomplish. “Wow, the CN tower/Sydney Opera House/Time Square is dark, and look at how different things are.”

But, will they turn off the lights every night? Certainly, this exercise might help some businesses or individuals to see that they can turn off their lights every night with no harm and major energy and cost savings, but what would Paris be without its lights. The City of …what? French fries?

What would be significant is if instead of turning off all our lights, we turned on only the ones that are energy-saving compact fluorescent lights or LEDs. That way rather than trying to send ourselves back to the Dark Ages where smoke inhalation and house fires were far more common, we could drive green innovation.

So, if you see my house all lit up during Earth Hour, don’t worry they’re CFLs and they use less energy than that flashlight you are using to stumble around your darkened living room.

Naturally Interesting

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When I got an email last summer asking if I would like to go on a birding trip to Manitoulin Island and write an article for ON Nature magazine, I jumped at the chance.

Now, many months later that article has finally hit newsstands, and you can read the entire “In An Alien Land” feature online.

As an interesting aside, my profile picture was taken while I was on that trip. I am in the act of taking some amazing picture of the foggy shores of Manitoulin Island. Of course, that picture probably didn’t make it into the magazine, but I did get a cool profile picture out of it.

It Never Rains But It Pours

The last couple days in Waterloo, Ontario have been eerily similar to an article of mine that was just published by National Geographic News.

First it was bitterly cold, but that’s to be expected in Canada. All of a sudden it warmed up to eight degrees Celsius, and it rained. Now, it is has plummeted back below freezing, leaving us with lots of ice.

If this had happened in the Arctic, it would be called a Rain-On-Snow event, and it would be in my article on the mysterious phenomenon.

In the Arctic, the ice layer that has turned my sidewalk into a skating rink would be turning the permafrost into the frozen foods aisle for muskox. Only problem is that muskox can’t warm it up, so they starve. In fact, in 2003, a rain-on-snow event killed over 20,000 animals. Bad news for the native people who depend on those furry beasts.

However, new research which I describe in the article will give the indigenous people an early warning system, allowing them to sprinkle some salt on the tundra to help save the population from starvation.

Drowning Coastal Cities…All in a Morning’s Work

I think this qualifies as a dilemma.

I just made myself a cup of hot chocolate (I don’t drink coffee). I mixed some fair trade, organic hot chocolate with some steaming hot water in my Unemployed Philosophers Guild Climate Change Mug, then dropped in a few marshmellows.

What I am wondering is, just how many contradictions can I pile on top of each other? I mean, fair trade coffee compared with a mug that was probably made in China. Organic chocolate alongside chemically synthesized marshmellows. And, of course the decadence of hot chocolate at night mixed with my mug depicting the end of the world if all the polar ice caps melted.

I think this is the root of the problem facing environmentalism these days. We live in a world where contradictions are inherent in existence. No matter how small you think your carbon footprint is and how many carbon offsets you buy, you can’t live without being a consumer. Every breath you take is worsening climate change.

So, what are you going to do, kill yourself for the planet?

Unless you are part of a Gaian cult that believes that humans are a cancer upon Eden, I would suspect this is the thing that really gets people. How can I make a difference for good, when I make such a difference for bad out of my very existence?

And, I don’t have the answer. Neither does Al Gore or David Suzuki. Or the Pope.

I think the people mentioned above present life as black or white, good or bad, carbon neutral or gas-guzzling. But, if you think of theology, the message is the same. All sins are the same in God’s eyes, so how can we ever hope to be “saved.”

Here’s my shot at the answer (I guess I lied two paragraphs earlier): forgiveness and understanding.

We all live in the world, and the world demands us to make allowances and mistakes. We have to offer each other forgiveness and understanding for our environmental infractions. If we become to all or nothing, then we will lose everything.

Of course, this could all just be a way for me to justify my continued enjoyment of marshmellows.

Sucks to be an Urchin

index_urchin.jpgSuppose you were a purple sea urchin. You are eaten by fish. You live in the bottom of the Antarctic. And, now as if things couldn’t get any worse, climate change is going to decimate your populations in the next 100 years.

The purple sea urchin is just one of the most basic species like algae and krill that is being negatively affected by climate change. I wrote about how purple sea urchin are finding it hard to produce their hard outer shell in more acidic oceans for National Geographic News.

The future does not look bright for escargot lovers.

Green Tech

Many of the most exciting technologies being developed hope to address the enormous environmental problems we face today. I discuss two of these at Green Living Online, where I am their go-to-guy on science topics.

First, I take a look at new developments in nanotechnology solar panels. Building a solar panel from the atom up, it turns out, is a great way to harness the energy of the sun. It requires less raw materials, is more efficient at deriving power, and oddly enough it is quicker.

Second, I try to understand what the heck rare earth elements are and why they are so important. In essence they are a group of elements that are not found in very high concentrations around the world, so we have to mine dig up a lot of rock to get a little bit of these materials. However, all that work is worth the effort because these little gems are key to a lot of really great devices like new TVs, cell phones, even hybrid batteries.

The only catch is that we aren’t able to find as much of these rare earth elements as we need, leading some experts to think that we are running out. Talk about a major need for recycling.