THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST

13 06 2010

The Gulf Coast oil blowout is a tragedy of epic proportions.  Greed, ignorance, and foolish pride all came together, mounted on the backs of BP executives, government officials, and all us just plain folks who are socked in to our various petroleum habits, and now the ugly reality of our oil addiction is smeared across the clean white beaches,fertile green marshes, and shining blue sea of our country’s southern coast, like AIDS-related boils on the face of a once-attractive junkie.  It’s sad.  It’s sickening.  It is a horribly cruel fate for billions of innocent birds, fish, mammals and plants.  “Tarred and feathered” has a whole new, even uglier, meaning.  It is a wretched legacy for future generations, trampling on the rights of the unborn of all species.

But it is also only fair, and about time we Americans had our noses rubbed in the kind of devastation we have long been willing to visit on other, mostly dark-skinned people so that we can keep mainlining our petroleum fix.  The chickens have come home to roost.

The native people of northern Canada, the Amazon, and Nigeria know exactly what I am talking about.  In all of these areas, the multinational oil companies have squatted on pristine land and taken a massive, oil-soaked dump, fouling ecosystems integral to the way of life of tribes who have been living in harmony with nature far longer than the brief trajectory of our petroleum-fired, so-called “civilization.”

In northern Canada, BP and many other oil companies are busily strip mining 54,000 square miles of “tar sand,” permanently polluting three or four gallons of water for every gallon of oil produced.  It will take decades or possibly centuries for the slow-growing sub-Arctic forest to re-establish itself on the old strip mine sites (if it does so at all), leaving gaping holes in one of the planet’s major carbon sinks at a time when we need to sequester all the carbon we can stash.  And speaking of carbon,  the process of destroying the forest,  then heating the oil sands to separate out the oil,  releases  massive amounts of carbon dioxide….well, gosh, if there’s global warming, those boreal forests will grow back faster, won’t they?

Yes, the future is a very serious concern for tar sand oil extraction.  The water that is used in the process, polluted with solvent  chemicals and heavy metals, becomes toxic waste and is then “stored” in “settling ponds“–where it takes centuries to settle.  Even now, with all our technical capabilities, seepage from these ponds is fouling the Athabaska River, the region’s main source of water.   So far, the area directly polluted by this oil extraction effort is somewhat smaller than the Gulf blowout, which has closed 64,000 square miles of the Gulf to fishing due to likely contamination.    But we have no assurance that our technical civilization will maintain itself long enough to guard these poisonous ponds, which are highly attractive to migrating birds,  until they are thoroughly neutralized. Toxins like mercury and benzene are already seeping into the water table and spreading down the Athabaska and will in the long run poison vast tracts of the Canadian Arctic as they work their way into the MacKenzie River and, ultimately, the Arctic Ocean.  Since the ponds are not actually in the ground but above ground, surrounded by man-made dikes, a breach is almost inevitable.  That’s one hundred and eighty-seven billion gallons of toxic sludge hanging over our heads, four thousand seven hundred times more poisonous goo than has vomited out of the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico so far.

Sure, polluted water is not as horrific a problem as raw crude oil or nuclear waste, but we are still placing a poisonous burden on generations yet unborn so we can live in comfort and have amenities that will be unavailable to them, because we snorted up all the resources and left them a mess that they will likely lack the technology to clean up.

OK, let’s leave the deadly ponds of northern Alberta and travel to a warmer clime–the western Amazon basin, “the lungs of the planet,” one of the last places on earth where the ecosystem has not been completely perverted by our extractive civilization.

Hey, we’re working on it.  Everybody knows about the speed with which Brazilians are raping the eastern, northern, and central Amazon, but less attention has been paid to the far western end, which was long protected by the steep slopes and inhospitable climate of the Andes Mountains.  But there’s oil there, so the junkies are after it.

Peru’s government initially offered 70% of its Amazon territory to oil and gas companies, without consulting the people who live there.  This provoked a massive protest, and Peru’s Congress repealed many of President Alan Garcia’s expropriations, which included areas already promised as wildlife and tribal reserves, but the pressure continues.  Like junkies, like zombies intent on eating the living, oil addicts are nothing but an appetite on legs, with a brain dedicated to finding ways to satisfy that appetite–which, in a cruel but righteous cosmic joke, can never be satisfied.

Something similar happened in Ecuador, where Chevron struck a deal with the country’s neo-liberal government back in the 90’s and then took advantage of lax regulation and oversight to make a total mess.  Many rivers, water tables, and vast tracts of land were polluted by oil spills, drilling pollution, and a demand for “civilized amenities” such as alcohol, cocaine, prostitutes, and consumer goods.  This and other transgressions sparked enough outrage that the Ecuadorians voted out the plutocrats  who had been running the country for their personal benefit and installed Rafael Correa, a small-s socialist in the Hugo Chavez mode, who has thrown out Chevron, nationalized the oil infrastructure they left behind, and is working to guard the environment and make sure that whatever wealth the country has is much more equitably distributed than it traditionally has been.  Unfortunately, this does nothing to pull the fangs of the oil demon out of the Amazon, and the pollution continues.  Like, eighteen billion gallons of toxic waste loose in “the lungs of the planet,” compared to a mere thirty-eight million gallons of oil (so far) leaked into the gulf of Mexico.  Hey, some junkies sell their blood for a fix.  We’re selling our lungs.

These struggles barely penetrate America’s consciousness.  We hear of actress Q’orianka Kilcher’s arrest at the White House, protesting while Barak Obama hails Alan Garcia’s program of exploitation, red-baiting, and racism in Peru  as “an extraordinary economic success story.”  (That says more about Obama than most people want to hear.)  When activists who own stock in Chevron (so they can have access to stockholders’ meetings to protest Chevron’s policies) are denied access to the stockholders’ meeting and arrested, it briefly makes the news. Mostly, though, we Americans keep nodding on, zoned out on our petroleum buzz.  Out of sight, out of mind, y’know?

This brings us to Nigeria, which provides the US with 40% of our crude oil.  A study group that included a number of fairly conservative members–from the World Wildlife Federation to the Nigerian government–concluded that at least forty-six million gallons of oil, far more than what the Gulf blowout has leaked so far, have been spilled in the Niger delta in the last fifty years, not out at sea, but in and around villages and landscape where people are trying to live by fishing, farming, and hunting.  Imagine our deep water blowout occurring onshore.  Wouldn’t that raise an even worse fuss than what we’ve seen already?

But Nigerians are poor, dark-skinned people far away.  It is easy to ignore their complaints about Chevron’s lax environmental standards; anyway,  Chevron for its part claims that much of the leakage in Nigeria comes from sabotage and people tapping into the oil pipelines to steal oil.  I have two thoughts about that.  The first is that if the wealth generated from Nigeria’s oil were being shared more equitably, there would be a lot less robbery and resentment.  The other thought is that, just as nobody cared what the Palestinians thought about pushing them aside and relocating many of the world’s Jews to Palestine, nobody asked the Niger delta natives if they wanted to have their way of life totally disrupted by big oil, and that, in both cases, resentment is a completely understandable reaction to our high-handed treatment of indigenous people–in Palestine, Nigeria, or, gosh, the good ol’ USA.  We have oppressed and impoverished all of these people in pretty much the same way, but who cares if they live in misery, as long as we get our fix?

These examples are just the “big three” of oil-related nastiness.  I haven’t mentioned how Chevron props up the autocratic regime in Burma and looks the other way while native people are not only dispossessed to make room for oil and other infrastructure projects but enslaved to build those projects.  Chevron piously claims it “….continues to support the calls for a peaceful resolution to the issues facing Myanmar in a manner that respects human rights,” but reports from inside the country tell a different story.

Closer to home, but still far away and affecting mostly dark-skinned people and dumb animals, we have oil exploitation in Alaska, where broken pipelines have contaminated the tundra, while plans to begin deep water drilling in the Arctic Ocean are still  proceeding.  Wouldn’t an Arctic Ocean oil blowout in midwinter be fun to contain?

Meth labs are notorious for producing toxic waste, but all the meth labs in the world put together would not pollute the area we have fouled in the course of cooking up our oil fix.  It’s not a mess somewhere else any more, it’s a mess on our south coast, polluting American waters and shores and destroying American livelihoods.  Our oil-soaked chickens have come home to roost.

The meaning of this would be obvious if we were not so oil-addled.  This does not mean that we need to make sure we are using clean needles–excuse me, that we need better safety standards and more reliable technology to get the oil we think we need.  This means that we need to kick our habit before it kills us, and admit that it was never OK for those dark-skinned people over the horizon to die for our sins.  Now the Gulf of Mexico is dying for our sins, and we had better wake up from our nod and repent–not before it’s too late, because it is already too late. The age of oil is over.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “The Party’s Over





A LITTLE GOOD NEWS (JUST A LITTLE!) ABOUT THE BAD NEWS…

10 04 2010

And, while we’re on the subject of apologies….

Like many people, I spread the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan ice sheet, which is the third largest on the planet, and the source for every major river in Southeast Asia, was likely to melt by 2035.  Well, the good news is, they now admit they were wrong about that–it will actually happen in 2036.

Just kidding!

Seriously, though, the official estimate for the demise of that ice pack is now three hundred years, which, geologically speaking, is hardly any different from twenty-five years, and in any case, the IPCC’s estimates have consistently turned out to be optimistic, compared to what is actually happening.  For instance, fossil fuel use, and consequent carbon release, has risen much faster than even their worst-case scenario predictions.

A slower dwindling of the Himalayan ice pack means that the billions of people who depend on the rivers of Southeast Asia for their water–from the Indus in Pakistan to the Yellow River of China–will be gradually parched rather than suddenly hung out to dry.  If the affected countries plan carefully, this could allow time for voluntary population reduction, social programs to obviate the perceived need for large families, transition to less water-intensive agriculture, reforestation, and other water conservation and ecosystem stabilization practices.

None of that will be easy, and even a coercive state like China has not been able to actually reduce its population, in spite of a fairly strict one-child-per-family law.  The alternative, whether reached in twenty five years or three centuries, is horrific–billions of people displaced by famine, failing surface and ground water supplies, and rising seas.  There will be population reduction and eventual return to some kind of equilibrium, but it will not be pretty.

In fact, it’s not pretty already.

In India, the “Green Revolution” replaced lower-yielding, open-pollinated dryland crops with hybrid crops that, given irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, produced higher yields.  While costs of these fossil-fuel based inputs were originally low, they have since risen faster than the price of the crops that demand their application.  In addition, since they are  planting hybrid seeds, farmers can no longer save seed from one year to the next, and are confronted with rising seed prices.  This has had several serious, unintended consequences.  Indian farmers, caught in a noose of rising debt, are committing suicide in record numbers, and record numbers of families are being forced off land they have inhabited for centuries, seeking the dubious shelter of India’s already swollen and out-of-control cities.  Meanwhile, the increased demand for irrigation water is drawing down India’s water table, causing wells and springs to go dry, sending more people out of the countryside and into the cities.  Last but hardly least, the dryland crop seedlines–and the knowledge of how to grow and use them–are in danger of being lost in the rush to grow green revolution rice.

The monsoon, which provides another big chunk of India’s water supply, failed last year.  This is not unheard of, and not necessarily connected to climate change, but it should serve to remind us that we have set things in motion that we can neither predict nor control, despite our conceit about our own cleverness as a species.  Can you say hubris, boys and girls?

And, speaking of hubris, let’s look at China, where the rush to industrialize has resulted in incredible, pervasive levels of pollution.  Even boiled water is not safe to drink in many locations, because it is apt to contain chemicals that cannot be removed by boiling.  Worse yet, China’s much-vaunted railway line into Tibet is likely to help China exploit Tibet’s vast, untapped mineral resources–which, given China’s abysmal environmental track record,  will result in toxic mine waste polluting the water supply of most of southeast Asia–while it lasts.

I wish I had something vast and uplifting to offer you at this point, but I don’t.  The reality of our situation is grim and sobering, especially for poor people in the second and third world, who are going to be bearing the brunt of the problems we in the first world have created with our exorbitant, exploitive lifestyle.  We have the luxury of time and energy to form garden co-ops and relearn low-tech grain farming and animal husbandry, blacksmithing and woodworking, and to adapt high-tech electronics to consciously conceived and executed sustainable lifestyles. Most of us have plenty of clean water available. We are not Indian or Chinese peasants or urban slum dwellers, facing poisoned water or none at all, lack of land and other resources from which to feed ourselves, or even a secure home.  It’s a blessing that we have blessings to count, and probably the best way to insure our own continued good fortune is to seek ways to share those blessings with whoever we can reach out to.   That’s not much, but it’s what there is.

(on the subject of corrections, I have been crediting “The Road to Hell” to Leonard Cohen, because somebody gave it to me on a CD that was otherewise all LC songs, and they sound somewhat alike…finally figured it out!)

music:  Chris Rea, “The Road to Hell”





WHITE TRASH

14 02 2010

There has been good news and bad news in Tennessee in the last couple of weeks.  Some of the bad news is that our dear governor, not content with throwing poor people off Tenncare, has decided to throw poor hospitals off it, too.  Under his plan, struggling hospitals like Nashville General, and many rural hospitals, will not be reimbursed more than $10,000 for any Tenncare patient they take care of.  Now, I’m not about to defend hospital price schemes, or many hospital practices, for that matter, but overpriced and unintuitive as it is, our current medical regime works hard to save people’s lives and ease their pain. Setting broken bones is setting broken bones, whether you do Reiki on the patient afterwards or not.  Hospitals do have a legal and moral obligation to take care of people (and yes I know a lot of horror stories about what has happened when, for insurance reasons, they don’t), and if the state quits reimbursing them for that care, the net result over a few years is going to be fewer hospitals and less medical care for those on the bottom of our societal pyramid.

And, speaking of those on the bottom of the social pyramid, let’s talk some real trash, and more good news/bad news, like, the good news is, Tennessee leads the Southeast in the amount of landfill material we count as recycled….the bad news is that that appears to be the case only because we jigger our statistics, and everybody knows it, and a regional EPA representative who showed up at last week’s Davidson County Solid Waste Board meeting and at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) review hearing said that our funny accounting makes us “the laughingstock” of the Southeastern solid waste disposal community….a “solid waste disposal community?”…who knew?  But I digress….

Tennessee claims a remarkably high percentage of diversion from landfills, which is presumed to be “recycling,” but it seems that our near-70% figure (most states are in the 25% range) has been achieved by creating construction and demolition (C&D) landfills around the state and counting material that ends up in them instead of  trash landfills as “diverted from the landfill.”  As you may remember, there’s a big quarry out on McCrory Lane that some big operators wanted to fill with C&D trash…right next to the Harpeth River.  Well, we kept that mistake from happening, but there are  over 80 other C&D landfills in the state, and more bad news–due to Tennessee’s geology, almost all of them leak, as do almost all of our regular landfills.

More bad news–guess who tends to live near landfills?  Why, poor people, wouldn’t ya know, rural poor people who get their water from wells and springs that are all too often contaminated by runoff from these landfills…so then they need Tenncare to help cover the sometimes awful consequences of imbibing low levels of serious pollutants, but, gee, the Guv just cut their access to Tenncare….round and round we go….gotta pay for those roads, y’know….

Hey, I’m not just some radical conspiracy theorist making this stuff up.  That EPA guy I mentioned, Jon Johnston, called the pattern of dump sites in Tennessee “racist.”  It seems to me that if somebody from the government says something is “racist,” that kind of makes it official, doesn’t it?  So…all the trash generated by us rich white folks ends up poisoning low-income people of color, just like all the carbon we white folks spew is baking and inundating…dark-complexioned people in third world countries….is there a pattern here?

OK, good news–it looks like TDEC has finally been shamed into closing the C&D loophole….bad news, the C&D dumps that are still open get to stay open, and will keep leaching nasties into the water table.  At least the building boom is over.

Some further peculiarities of Tennessee waste disposal law have to do with food waste and its potential as animal feed and compost.

The average grocery store discards about a thousand pounds of unsaleable produce and other over-age food every week.  Used to be, farmers could take this and feed it to their animals, no problem.  But the garbage haulers looked at this, and they had a problem.  They wanted to get paid to haul that “food waste” to their landfills, so they had the state pass a regulation that said that all food waste must be heated to 140 degrees before it could be fed to farm animals.  Farmers, by and large, are not equipped to do this, and so the garbage haulers stopped a reasonable recycling program and fattened their own wallets, as well as increasing the load on Tennessee landfills.

They also tweaked the regulations on making compost out of this material, i.e., feeding it to worms, the only kind of livestock exempted from the 140 degree requirement.  They wrote the law so that you could bring anything in to your farm, but made it illegal to sell compost, classifying it as “toxic waste.”

The good news is, it looks like a lot of this is about to change.  There’s two kinds of green consciousness involved:   Greenback consciousness, and green living consciousness.

Greenback consciousness is about all the money it’s costing to bury recyclables in landfills.  Bruce Wood, who has devoted decades to advocating for saner solid waste policies, estimates that a quarter of what is “thrown away” in Nashville (and I put that in quotes because there is no “away”), a quarter of Nashville’s solid waste is compostable, and another quarter is paper.  Composting and recycling this material, Bruce calculates, would save Nashville thirty thousand dollars a day in hauling and dumping fees, as well as creating useful, valuable compost and paper that doesn’t come from sacrificing trees. Thirty thousand dollars a day…that’s a hundred and fifty thou a week, someplace around seven and a half million dollars a year…like I said, greenback consciousness has a certain leverage.

Let me put this another way to help you understand the scale of this.  A thousand tons, two million pounds, of compostable materials enter Nashville’s waste stream every week.  Handled properly, this could produce about 330 tons of finished compost per week.  Wouldn’t that make this city’s gardens grow!?

More good news.  The solid waste folks have confessed that their stringent regulations on composting are based on sewage sludge handling procedures, and that there needs to be a separate, much looser category for “vegetative compost.”

The problem with sewage sludge isn’t from what you’re supposed to put in your toilet, although mixing that with water does make it nastier than it has to be.  The problem comes from the myth of “throwing things away,” and all the toxic substances that people “throw away” that end up at the sewage treatment plant.

Out of the toilet and back to “vegetative compost”–it looks like we’re not just talking theory here.  Recycling activist Glenn Christman, who has been working to get a municipal composting operation off the ground (well, on the ground, really) for several years, reports that Metro’s Public Works Department has offered him five acres for a pilot program, and that TSU, while still reeling from being used by the Maytown Center gang, is ready to launch a program that will compost all the University’s food waste for use by the school’s ag department.

Meanwhile, Waste Management Incorporated, which has been the bad guy behind the restrictive regulations I have been describing, has realized that there is money to be made in compost, and has become a major investor in “Harvest Power,” a company that is planning to set up and manage municipal composting operations all over North America.  I’m not clear why this needs to be done by private, for profit industry, but  in a capitalist economy it’s a good sign, as long as the boys from WMI don’t start putting their competitors through the compost choppers….

music:  Drive-by Truckers, “Puttin’ People on the Moon”





MONEY TALKS, TVA WALKS (ALL OVER YOU)

12 04 2009

TVA is a public utility–that means we the people  own it, and it’s responsible to us,  right?

TVA takes our welfare seriously, can be depended on to do reliable monitoring of any potential pollution it creates, and therefore should have no objections to any third-party verification of those results, right?

Our District Attorneys are public servants–that is, they defend the public good when it is violated by private interests, right?

Wrong, Jack, wrong on all three counts.  United Mountain Defense volunteer Matt Landon found that out when he was arrested for trespassing on newly-purchased TVA land, even though the residents (and former owners)  had given him permission to be there.   It just so happens that he was on this land to check on air monitoring equipment that UMD had set up there, near the Kingston coal ash spill.  This was not an informal arrangement; UMD had entered into a legal, contractual agreement with the landowner to monitor air quality.  In a truly Orwellian turn, TVA had forbidden the former landowner from informing Landon that TVA had purchased the property.  In other words, TVA was acting to entrap Mr. Landon.

It seems to me that any District Attorney who took his “public servant” designation seriously would tell TVA to get lost for this kind of corporate bullying, but NOOOO!  DA Russell Johnson was only too happy to kiss TVA’s fat, well-funded corporate ass.  His office threatened Landon with a year in jail…for putting up an air monitor.  Gag me with a spoon, folks, does it get any plainer than this?

Landon wisely demanded a pre-trial hearing instead of knuckling under, and got a plea bargain offer in return:  some of the charges would be dropped, and he could plead guilty to the rest and just pay a fine.  “Guilty” of setting up and maintaining an air monitor where he believed he had every right to do so?  Again, he said “no way,” and got another plea bargain offer.  In his words:

…for the next six months I cannot travel on the Clinch or Emory River from Interstate 40 to mile marker 4 on the Emory River.  I cannot enter the 750 foot elevation (100 year flood plain) near these two rivers.  I cannot interact with any TVA employees or any other company workers employed by TVA to work on the Coal Ash Disaster.   The $3,000 bond will be held for the next six months until a follow up trial date of Sept 21, 2009 at which time I will have to pay court costs of nearly $600.  If at any time I break any of these clauses I will be pulled back into court and all bets are off probably meaning jail time.

On advice of his public defender, Matt took this deal.  After all, it shouldn’t be that hard to find somebody else to do what he has been doing, and anyway TVA’s hostile attitude about independent monitoring indicts itself.

Fortunately, UMD is not the only outfit keeping an eye on TVA.  Appalachian Voices, a group dedicated to “protecting our mountain heritage,” used the very modern technology of GPS to precisely locate TVA’s own monitoring sites, and found an easy explanation for why TVA kept coming up with such “reassuring” results.  In the words of Appalachian Voices spokeswoman Donna Lisenby,

“You can skew the data by putting testing points in odd locations, such as behind a sandbar or far upriver away from the spill.  The GPS locations show that that is what the TVA has been doing.”

Bob Gadinski, a former hydrologist for the state of Pennsylvania, concurred, saying…”TVA isn’t interested in properly mapping the contaminants in that river,” and that ” the locations were intentionally biased for nonsignificance.”

Hey, TVA’s got a bottom line to protect…oops, sorry, it’s government owned, well, hey the gov has gotten adept at CYA’ing, after all, it’s not like it has to be responsible to us little people, is it?

A government agency run amuck (literally!), a district attorney more than happy to help defend them against public scrutiny.  This is why we need a strong, viable Green Party here in Tennessee.  It’s not just about statewide and national races, or even the state legislature.  Local toadies like Russell Johnson should be challenged, repeatedly if necessary, by witty, well-informed opponents with a broad base in the community.  Victory is not going to come overnight,  but as long as we’re still coherent enough to be holding elections, it’s not too late to begin.  Volunteers?

music: Brother Martin and the Intangibles, “Terrorists in the Heartland





OBAMA–THE SENATOR FROM EXELON

3 02 2008

On the campaign trail, Barak Obama likes to talk about how he’s “taken on” the nuclear power industry, but the New York Times takes a look at his record and finds that a) he’s caved in to. and in the pay of, the uranium crowd, and b) he’s lying about it to the public.

While he initially fought to advance his bill, even holding up a presidential nomination to try to force a hearing on it, Mr. Obama eventually rewrote it to reflect changes sought by Senate Republicans, Exelon and nuclear regulators. The new bill removed language mandating prompt reporting and simply offered guidance to regulators, whom it charged with addressing the issue of unreported leaks.

Those revisions propelled the bill through a crucial committee. But, contrary to Mr. Obama’s comments in Iowa, it ultimately died amid parliamentary wrangling in the full Senate.

***

Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the United States Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.

Another Obama donor, John W. Rowe, chairman of Exelon, is also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry’s lobbying group, based in Washington. Exelon’s support for Mr. Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate.

Can’t vote for Hillary, can’t vote for Obama…how ’bout that Green Party?

And, from Britain, here’s a story that gives the lie to all that “clean nuclear energy” talk:

Britain’s most notorious nuclear installation was plunged into crisis last week, when vital equipment broke down just as it was recovering from an accident that shut it for two years. Sellafield’s Thorp reprocessing plant has been closed again, while starting only its second job since the shutdown.

And the Cumbrian complex’s crisis is compounded by an excoriating report which shows that its facilities for handling nuclear waste are a shambles and that its safety procedures for preventing accidents – which could kill hundreds of thousands of Britons – are “not fully adequate”.

And, while governments fall all over themselves to give money to dangerous white elephants like nuclear power and biofuels, private industry is about to introduce a new generation of solar cells:

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — High energy prices are fueling a sleek new kind of solar technology that could someday set skyscrapers and high-rise apartment windows quietly buzzing with renewable power.

The emerging technology uses so-called thin films mounted on glass windows and other surfaces to harness the sun’s rays.

The big problem here is that if everybody’s generating their own electricity, there’s much less need for a grid, centralized power generating stations, and all that capital-intensive stuff that utility companies make good money billing consumers for….can’t cut the power pigs off from the trough, now, can we?





CHINESE WATER TORTURE

9 12 2005

Last month I talked to you about China’s impossible dream—to have a living standard on a par with the U.S. There just ain’t enough oil , wood or grain in the world for it to happen, in a nutshell. Since then, an accident at an oil refinery has sent a hundred tons of benzene into the main water supply for Harbin, one of China’s largest cities. All that benzene has passed through Harbin; by now it has crossed the border into Russia, and eventually it will reach the Pacific Ocean, where it will enter a food chain that may end up on the plates of fish eaters here in America. Oh, joy.

You know, in a way we’re lucky it was benzene. Sure, benzene is a carcinogenic neurotoxin, but it’s not, y’know, acutely poisonous—it’s not like it was arsenic or cyanide or chlordane, not a Bhopal-type incident that’s going to kill thousands of people outright. It’s just going to create a leukemia spike, which, when you consider all the other toxins that are getting turned loose in China, will hardly be noticed. Really.

If the Chinese government has its way, that leukemia spike won’t be noticed at all, because they’ll hide or manipulate the statistics to keep it from showing up. The latest news reports from China indicate that the officials responsible for the spill are paying for it with their jobs, but the ones responsible for hiding it from the public are not.

This spill is just the most noticeable event of its kind, so far. A recent visitor to rural China wrote of villages where the only available household water was purple from industrial pollution, and noted how widespread industrial pollution is throughout the countryside. I suppose this is one way to deal with the problem of overpopulation.

Sometimes it seems to me the Chinese just don’t get it, even when they try to be ecological. A story recently came out of China, via the Associated Press, about the largest government slaughter of Chinese civilians since Tienamen Square. Troops shot ten people dead out of a demonstration of thousands who were protesting that they were being insufficiently compensated for seizure of their land. Why was the government confiscating their land? Why, to build a wind farm, a tidal generating plant—and a coal-fired power plant. For this they were displacing thousands of relatively self-sufficient, if financially impoverished, peasants. How ecological! Then I read something that really made my jaw drop—the government of China admits that 70,000 similar protests occurred just last year. Seventy thousand protests in ONE YEAR.

The thing is, the Chinese are not doing this for themselves or by themselves. They are doing it for us, with our money. The widespread pollution of China is a direct effect of a massive transfer of wealth from the United States and Western Europe to China. We, with our royal lifestyles, are responsible for those 100 tons of benzene washing down the Amur River, for the fact that five of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China. They are dying for our sins of gluttony and overconsumption.

When the first Westerners approached China about commercial trade, they were rebuffed, because the Chinese felt they had everything they needed already, and it was true. There is a remarkable book, “Farmers of Forty Centuries,“written nearly a hundred years ago, that details how the Chinese farmed the same land for four thousand years–sustainably, intensively, and organically feeding the longest-lasting, most sophisticated urban civilization that has ever existed on this planet. Sure, our civilization is a lot more sophisticated, but we have a few thousand years to go to match the Chinese record for sustainability. What they did was not easy, and for most of the people on the bottom it was not terribly gracious, but it by God worked for four thousand years.

But all that is being swept away. The Chinese have sold their inheritance for a pot of Walmart contracts and a dream of upward mobility for everyone. When I was a kid I read in Ripley’s Believe it or Not that if everyone in China stood on a chair and they all jumped off their chairs at the same time (a feat of synchronization that might not be past them), they would change the orbit and rotation of the earth, and that was several hundred million Chinese ago. What the Chinese are doing now is every bit as upsetting to global stability as jumping off of chairs en masse. and it really is happening.

As a “developing nation,” China is not bound by the Kyoto Agreement, although they have agreed to work on cutting their greenhouse gas emissions—if the European nations will subsidize that process. That’s not fair to the Europeans—China’s pollution problems have mushroomed much more at the behest of American demand than demand from Europe. And most climate scientists agree that the Kyoto Protocols are a drop in the bucket compared to what really needs to happen to keep from going into out-of control global warming—if we can still stop it at all. What profit is it to gain a world of money and lose the soul of soil and air?

musical segue: “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” as played by Richard Thompson from the live 1988 album, “More Guitar”








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