Category Archives: Environment & Nature

Fallout Fears (Part 2)

A pair of reactors in Belgium, near Gent. (Photo credit: Koert Michiels)

This post is the second installment in a two-part post on nuclear worries. If you’re a little lost, read part 1 here! Thanks.

First, radiation has a long history of very negative popular perception (only natural, considering the 20th-century’s long romance with nuclear weapons). Particularly to those who grew up during Cold War times, radiation is a symbol of fear and uncertainty, and it carried with it the threat of foreign aggression. Even now, when nuclear proliferation isn’t quite as much of an issue (though don’t get me wrong, it’s still a concern), at least to the younger generation, nuclear danger is still portrayed as a supreme threat in all kinds of media, even video games. Simply put, radiation is still seen as a grave danger to society by people of nearly all ages and cultures.

Second, radiation is invisible. This may sound like an incredibly stupid point to make, but bear with me here! The fact that radiation can’t be seen, especially at dangerous levels, makes it seem like a dangerous and unpredictable killer, and one which we simply cannot do much to stop. Now, while this is true to a certain extent, the fact is that the amounts of radiation typically produced by nuclear power plants are nowhere near enough to be harmful to our health. In fact, it’s been found that coal ash is frequently more radioactive than NPP emissions.

Third, radiation spreads, and fast. To add to that, there’s almost nothing we can do to stop that spread, or keep it from affecting people, apart from relocating entire populations, which almost anyone would be understandably hesitant to do. Unlike landslides, forest fires, or even tsunamis, there’s almost nothing we can do to halt the advance of radiation’s spreading. We may be able to predict it, but like a hurricane or tornado, there’s nothing we can do to control or avert it. Fires can be dowsed or at least contained, and floods can be dammed, but radiation spreads no matter what.

Finally, radiation has an unpleasant habit of overstaying its welcome, often for a very, very long time. Like a dictator who won’t give up power or a lingering and unwanted dinner guest, radiation is an insidious presence that refuses to be rooted out, at least not without a fight. The greatest damage that radiation inflicts is done over the long term, as it causes long-term cancers and seeps into soil and water supplies. This damage is hard to keep track of or measure, so it has an aspect of nameless dread to it.

So it’s easy to see why people fear radiation so much. It’s invisible, it’s silent, it’s trackless, and there’s almost nothing we can really do to stand in its way once it becomes a problem. But if you really look at the numbers, you’ll find that, danger-wise, nuclear has nothing on coal.

It’s not an easy thing to say that we need nuclear in the midst of the crisis in Japan, and it’s certainly not the most popular stance in the world for me to take. But unfortunately, our energy needs (and our need for cleaner energy) are simply too great to give up on nuclear power. What really must be done is a tightening of safety regulations on nuclear power plants, and further expansion on research into what must be done to keep plants safe. We can’t prepare for all contingencies, but the events at Fukushima Daiichi have showed the world that we must have well-thought-out plans for emergencies.

But the harsh reality is that almost no form of energy is truly 100% safe, no matter what precautions we take. And to move toward a more sustainable energy future, as well as a safer one, we must continue to stand by nuclear energy.

Author’s Note: This post was slightly modified on April 2nd, after its initial publication on March 29th.

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Fallout Fears (Part 1)

A nuclear power plant (NPP), an example of a key source of energy for much of the world. (Source:, photographer unknown)

As I write this post, Japan is still reeling and recovering from a devastating trifecta of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear threat. The country has suffered a terrible three-headed beast of a disaster, and it’s taking a toll, not only on the country, people, and economy of Japan, but on the world’s mindset on nuclear energy.

For years and years, nuclear power has been viewed as a viable and clean source of alternative energy in much of the developed and developing world. But after the shocking triple tragedy in Japan, there has been growing fear and apprehension towards nuclear power plants and  nuclear energy, as the safety of this source is being called into question.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Germany, where seven reactor facilities are being temporarily shut down for safety testing, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has, for what many think is a mix of political and safety reasons, called into question the entire country’s nuclear power supply.

This kind of thinking has taken root all across the European Union and in many other parts of the world, including the United States. But is this anything more than hasty reactionary thought sparked by the ongoing crisis in Japan? There was little outcry or objection to nuclear energy sources before the disaster, but since the radiation dangers in Japan have caught international attention, leaders and thinkers have begun to reconsider whether nuclear energy is a safe option.

Now, it’s of course natural to look into one’s own energy systems’ safety precautions, especially right after a disaster such as the one in Japan. But the kind of panicked shut-downs and alarm seen in places like Germany in response to the crisis are, in my opinion, blown far out of proportion, and have potential to greatly damage popular perception of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy has given us the opportunity to create quite substantial amounts of energy at little cost to the environment, especially when compared to other sources such as “clean” coal. A 2008 study that examined the relative emissions of a nuclear power plant and a fossil fuel plant found that the fossil fuel plant had emitted around 11 million tons of waste in a year, while the NPP emitted a mere 26 tons. There’s really no arguing that this is one of the cleanest energy sources available to us.

Besides that, the dangers of NPPs really do not exceed those of other energy sources, especially coal. It’s estimated that two to three thousand workers die in coal mining accidents every year in China, and explosions and collapses still kill dozens of workers every year in the United States. So why is it that people are so afraid of nukes?

Because this post is becoming rather lengthy, I’ve decided to split it into two parts. Check back soon for part two!

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Beyond Environmental Consciousness

A power plant in the Turkish countryside. (Photo credit: Connor Schaefer)

A very popular phrase these days is “environmentally conscious.” It’s a pretty ambiguous term when you really examine it.

The word “environment” is pretty easy to wrap your head around. But what about that word “conscious?” Many people throw this phrase around in the vaguest way imaginable, talking about “environmentally conscious solutions” to the problems facing our world. But few really make it very clear what that term really means in this context.

To be conscious is to be aware and attuned to your surroundings. Alternatively, it can mean to be awake. So if we go with these definitions, environmental consciousness means being awake to the environment, and being aware of your own impact on it.

But I would say that environmental consciousness is not a big enough step to take anymore. To be conscious of your impact on the environment is a great thing of course, but it’s no longer enough. The amount of damage that humanity can and does inflict on the Earth is tremendous, so instead of simply being aware of our place in the world, we need to focus on actively working to be more responsible members of this world.

Another way to think of this is as a shift in attitude from passive to active, or to use a bad driving cliche, to shift from ‘Neutral’ to ‘Drive.’ When home from college, I live in Portland (Oregon), a city that prides itself on its collection of hipsters and its (general) love of the environment, so I’m accustomed to seeing cars that look something like this. But many Portlanders, and really Americans all across the nation (and people all across the world), show their commitment to the environment only by words or appearances, and take little action other than buying stickers or using steel water bottles. (That said, I really do love Portland quite a lot, and there are a lot of people their committed to the environment.)

But words and water bottles are nowhere near enough to bring about the kind of environmental change we need to be responsible to our planet. We all need to move from consciousness to activism. Our consciousness of the environment is something like waking up from a deep sleep of ignorance. But it’s time that we got up out of bed and started actively walking towards a goal of greater responsibility and care-taking.

This can take many different forms, but I believe that the most important thing to do is to become actively involved in the political arena in whatever capacity you can. Of course, we should all be personally responsible about the choices we make: The food we buy, the clothes we wear, the ways in which we get around. But the simple fact is that the greatest negative impacts on the environment are committed by huge industrial, commercial, and agricultural pursuits. Now, there isn’t a lot we can do to directly affect environmentally harmful companies and industries’ pursuits. But we can vote or lobby for a change of government policy toward these groups, and get local, state, or even national government involved in calling the nation to responsiblity.

And perhaps even more importantly, we can make this an important issue in the communities around us. While our own environmental decisions have an impact on the world, we can do so much more by encouraging others to be responsible as well. The more people there are who are genuinely concerned for and dedicated to treating our environment right, the more this kind of responsible thinking will become a part of our day-to-day lives and culture. It’s time to move above mere environmental consciousness. Spread the word!

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How Do We Survive?

Cooperation: It keeps us alive.

The title of this post may seem a touch strange, or even ridiculous. You may have already answered this question mentally: “Well stupid, we breathe, we eat, we drink, we reproduce.” And on some level, this is exactly how we survive.

I would ask you to imagine yourself completely alone in a desert, with no bottled water, no prepackaged food, and nothing but your wits to keep you alive. I promise you wouldn’t make it very long.

Alternatively, if you favor moister climes, picture yourself in a jungle. There’s food and water all around, but there’s the constant threat of wild animals, contaminated water, poisonous spiders, disease, and aggressive chimpanzees (see the “Aggression” section of the article I’m linking to). So chances are you wouldn’t make it long there alone either! Besides just these risks, we are under constant threat from environmental disasters, infrastructural failures (bursting dams, etc.), and freak accidents. Every day, someone’s life is tragically ended by a seemingly meaningless and random event.

Looking at life this way, my titular question becomes a lot more valid. Humans really have no special survival mechanisms, at least none that can save us from drought, storms, famine, or semi-trucks. So how is it that we’ve been so successful? How did our distant ancestors ever make it in such a hostile world?

I was recently listening to a podcast, Planet Money (which I would say is one of the highest quality podcasts out there today). Episode #248 (find it on iTunes!) is about the great economist Adam Smith and his political and economic philosophies, and in the podcast, a guest on the show brings up an interesting point about Smith’s philosophy: We as humans are weak and vulnerable, and we survive only by cooperation. He believed that the exchange of goods, services, and most strikingly, ideas is what allows to survive in this harsh world.

Now, this philosophy really took hold with me for one reason or another. The idea that exchange is what allows us to survive is strange at first, but also extremely compelling. As we humans progress through life, we learn more things about the world around us, and the more we know, the better prepared we are to deal with the problems we encounter throughout life. When you get right down to it, the only reason that humans have been so successful is that we’ve been better able to work with each other to advance common interests, and we’ve been better at communicating with each other.

I would say those are the two keys to human survival: Cooperation and communication. By cooperating with each other, we as humans have been able to build huge civilizations, make incredible technological discoveries and advances, and build vastly better lives (on average) than we had even 1,000 years ago! For such a young race (humans probably diverged from neanderthals about 500,000 years ago, while modern shark species date from 100 million years ago), we as humans have done extraordinarily well. While we still tear each other apart in war and can carry out horrifying acts of cruelty against each other, we’re nonetheless able to work together more than any other species, and it’s allowed us to put together everything from mud huts to space shuttles.

Our communicational abilities help a lot too. While other animal species certainly communicate, by hormones, verbal sounds, physical features, and a host of other methods, no other species on the planet can top the human ability to communicate and discuss complex ideas. Unlike any other animals (at least as far as we know!), humans are able to comprehend and construct economic systems, political structures, and, some would say, religious outlooks. We possess a whole parallel world of ideas and principles that no other species on our planet can claim.

And indeed, it’s this that keeps us alive. By working together, humanity has been able to accomplish more than any other force on this earth, excepting the forces of the Earth itself. While it’s true that we sometimes overuse and abuse this power, it’s what has allowed us to stay alive. Without our complex network of social, economic, and technological connections, we lose so much ability to thrive. I may write more on this later, and whether it’s a good or a bad way to be, but for now I’m content to marvel at this. I think it’s incredible how the complex world we’ve built around us, our governments, our countries, our economies, even our dinner table chats, have made us the dominant species on this planet.

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Black Blood: Oil and the Value of Human Life

Our leeching dependence on oil has sapped away our value for human life.

At some point in the 19th century, a wondrous thing was created: The internal combustion engine. Though there is still dispute over who it was created by and the exact year it was finalized, this is a fair timeline for it I think. The engine never had much popularity when it was first created, as it depended on petroleum-based fuel to function. But around the middle of the century oil fields began to be discovered and depleted. And so our oil addiction began.

Since around the turn of the century (the 20th one, that is), oil has been a precious resource. Though it started its history in fairly limited use, its’ importance has grown extremely rapidly over the last century, as the vehicles, industries, and other aspects of life it has fueled grow larger and larger. Nearly every part of life, especially here in America, has become in some way dependent on our oil supply. With the incredible developments in transportation technology, oil’s importance has grown larger and larger, as our cars, airplanes, cargo ships, semi-trucks, trains, cruise vessels, helicopters, military vehicles, and a plethora of other technologies have become almost completely dependent on this fuel. Even if you leave transportation out of the picture, many other products we use in our daily life are dependent on oil as well. In the words of the US Department of Energy: “Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy.  Currently, it supplies more than 40% of our total energy demands and more than 99% of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks.” (found on this page)

And beyond the repercussions we’ll face when these reserves we’re so dependent on start running out, our dependence on and high esteem for oil have elevated it to the status of a societal god. One of the most important goals of US foreign policy has become finding and securing our oil supplies, and this “black gold” has become of paramount importance in our relationships with other countries that supply our all-important oil. America is the world’s most voracious consumer of petroleum, and only about half of the oil we use comes from our own soil. The other half comes primarily from Canada, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Nigeria (see the link above for details), which enthralls us to these countries for our most important resource.

I would say, with little hesitation, that our national (and in some ways, global) obsession with oil has reduced the value we place on human life. Entire countries such as Saudi Arabia have become little more than oil fields in public thought, and US leaders are as much concerned about the oil supplies being cut off in LIbya as they are about the people being massacred there. Oil giants like BP build offshore oil rigs that they know have a high chance of failing, at the expense not just of the nature around them, but on the people in their environments too. Some would say that a primary reason George W. Bush pushed for an invasion of Iraq was to secure its lucrative oil fields, and indeed, Iraq is among the top ten oil importers to the United States. I don’t know if I would say this was Bush’s sole reason, but it certainly didn’t hold him back.

There’s a brokenness to this high value we give to oil. Behind it lies the assumption that this natural resource is somehow of higher value than the people also involved in the situation. I understand that our country has a high dependency on oil for our day to day lives, but why is this? We’ve raised our standards of living exponentially in the last century, and it’s gotten to the point where most Americans feel they are somehow entitled to a fair share (or, in many cases, far more than a fair share) of oil for their personal needs. Almost unconsciously, Americans consume vast amounts of natural resources daily, in most cases without knowing the costs to the environment and the people in that environment.

But this goes beyond oil. The American people have been living beyond their means in many ways for years now. While all of our technological super-advances of the last century (and even the last decade) have made our lives more connected, more convenient, and even more fun, this comes at a cost that few people are willing to recognize. The more resources and luxuries we come to depend on for our daily lives, the more we suffer when they’re taken away or are harder to come by, as we saw in the peak of oil prices a few years ago in the US. So maybe it’s time to cut back. Maybe it’s time to realize that our choices and luxuries have a real cost to real people. Maybe it’s time to free ourselves from this cycle.

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Seeking the Spiritual: Nature and the Divine

Could our spiritual being be connected to nature?

Ever since the dawn of man, humanity has had a deep connection with the land, or at least it has been meant to. Our land has been used for growing our food, providing us with water and animals, building our homes and habitats, and supporting most of life as we know it. Humanity depends on the rest of nature for almost everything we do.

But I think that nature has much more than a utilitarian connection to us. So often, we as humans view the rest of the environment as a kind of resource to be used and exploited as we see fit. Many people fail to see that we as humans are a part of nature, not above it, and that we’re very much dependent on it for almost all of our most basic needs. So in some sense, humanity is deeply rooted and connected to the world around us.

But I would say this extends far beyond a simple physical dependency on the land. Humankind has a spiritual connection to the world as well, in ways I can’t claim I’m even close to completely understanding. The religion I grew up in, Protestant Christianity, has never had much interest (or concern) for nature, being careful to keep it in a subservient role so as not to “idolize” creation. I was always taught that creation cannot and should not be revered above its creator, and to elevate nature too high would put me in the heresy danger zone. And, although I’m still young, I’ve begun to see more and more how limited I had allowed my spirituality to become, especially in this area.

Until recently, I would never let myself think of the natural world as something I could be spiritually connected to. While I’ve always known I’m in some way part of nature, for most of my life I’ve thought of myself as above and apart from the natural world. But now, I’ve begun to realize just how important and meaningful nature is for me, especially in a spiritual sense. There are few times when I feel more connected to my spirituality, the world around me, and even my fellow man than when I’m in a beautiful, natural place.

What I really want to stress in this post is this: the connection between man and nature is not specific to any religion, creed, or belief system. It is a spiritual, divine connection between human beings and the world they live in. If all people, all across the world, could agree to live in a way that honored this connection, then we could be responsible inhabitants of this shared Earth.

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Plastic Bags and the Place of Government

The future of shopping!

I live in Oregon, a state typically known for its environmental friendliness and urban liberalism (centered in Portland of course). I’m pretty proud to be a resident of this wonderful state, especially now that I can be involved in its political affairs (and by that I mean I’m old enough to vote).

Recently, a bill was introduced in the Oregon senate, Senate Bill 536. The bill would ban the use of plastic bags for check-out in almost every retail setting in Oregon, and require stores to charge 5 cents for each paper bag used. The idea of the bill is to encourage Oregon shoppers to bring their own reusable bags more often, not to tax shopping.

Now, I want to say first that I think this is a great idea. Plastic bags have become almost universally symbolic of retail shopping and are hugely convenient, but have a terrible impact on the environment. I think that this bill is a great way to encourage Oregon shoppers to be more environmentally responsible, and it could be another badge of pride for Oregon’s history of environmental care.

But on the larger scale, this brings up an interesting question of how far the government can and should take their control over the personal lives of the governed. This is a question I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. On the one hand, I want to say that the government should keep its paws out of peoples’ personal lives, and let people allow their own morals to guide their decisions. But on the other hand, I think that government has the unique power, opportunity, and most importantly, privilege to help improve the world we live in and improve the lives of the people that live in it.

Now, on some issues, I would say the government has a responsibility to mind its own business. Some of these issues would be things such as sexual expression (regarding most kinds of sexuality; I’m not condoning pedophilia), religious and spiritual values, and a few other very personal decisions and traits. These are the areas of life that government should avoid intrusion into (and incidentally the ones that many GOP lawmakers seem most interested in meddling with). However, there are some areas of our lives that can be bettered by a governing presence in them. There are too many people who view the government as a purely negative, invasive organization whose only goal is the restriction and removal of their civil liberties.

This is a ridiculous and painfully close-minded view of government. This institution was always meant (in America at least) to be a governing body put in power by the people, and there for the betterment of the peoples’ lives. Personally, I believe that good government not only outlines and enforces fair law, but also helps build and support a better and healthier society. Now, most of the time, I think this should take the form of putting laws and legislation into place that prevent wrongdoing, or providing specialized services (such as Medicare or Medicaid) that can’t necessarily be fully provided privately. However, I think there are many circumstances, such as this one, where the government must encourage citizens to act as they ought to. Environmental responsibility doesn’t come naturally (pun intentional) to everyone, though it should, so perhaps the government has a duty to help the people do their duty.

My liberalism shows pretty strongly here, I know. I never promised to be bipartisan! But here’s my point: While it may seem questionable to some to put a lot of authority in governmental hands, they frankly have much more power than the average individual. And while it could be argued that private groups (companies) can provide many of these services, these companies would inevitably have the wrong motivation for social good: money. The simple fact of the matter is that organizations motivated by profit aren’t philanthropic by nature. Jumping off from this, some form of government is necessary for what I mentioned earlier, where the government sometimes has to encourage the people to do the right thing. This shouldn’t extend to the private areas of peoples’ lives, such as their sexual or religious or political expression, but the government does have a right and duty, to a certain extent, to regulate the ways commerce is executed.

I like this bill not only because I agree with its sentiment, but because of the interesting point I think it helps illustrate: There aren’t just rights associated with being a citizen of a country, but duties as well, and I think environmental responsibility is one of these duties. Our government not only has a duty to protect militarily, but environmentally, even if in some cases that means from its own citizens.

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Using Our Water Responsibly

What could be more crucial?

Water. It’s one of the most basic compounds known to humanity, and also one of the most necessary for the survival of nearly every form of life. It powers not only our individual bodies, but provides insulation for the planet, energy for our civilizations, and food for people, both indirectly and directly. Simply put, no other substance could be more basic, universal, or important for our survival than water.

So why is it used so irresponsibly? Many people have yet to realize it, but our societies, especially those of very developed or developing countries, use or pollute colossal amounts of water, even in the simplest day-to-day activities. The real problem I want to focus on though is the area of life in which the modern world uses water most freely (and oftentimes, irresponsibly): agriculture.

Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the world as a whole needs to cut back on agricultural development. Of course this is good and necessary, especially in our modern technological society. But there are many practices in this crucial field that can help reduce the titanic amounts of water we pour into it.

But first, how much are we really using for these things? Here are a few examples: A pound of corn requires about 108 gallons of water to grow. The same amount of cotton uses 713 gallons, cheese uses 600, and a pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water. Now, there is the argument that all these figures exist in a vacuum (that is, they seem like significant numbers, but there’s little to compare them to in order to put them in perspective), and this is somewhat true. Perhaps comparing this to the amount of freshwater remaining for us will help.

The main source for American agriculture (which is centered in the Midwest) is a huge underground “sponge” of rock called the Ogallala aquifer. This aquifer supplies around a third of America’s farming, with around 14 billion gallons of water withdrawn yearly for farming and another 330 gallons or so taken out for other purposes. At this rate, it’s estimated that we’ll have drained this aquifer down to nothing with 190 years or less. Some estimates even hold that the US will face severe water shortage issues with 50 years. The Ogallala aquifer isn’t refilling either. It’s filled with what is sometimes called “fossil water,” meaning that the water was deposited there millions and millions of years ago and is hardly being replenished at all.

So what to do? The biggest problem facing modern agriculture is that it has become tied to a hugely outdated system of ideas that were established in the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Many good things came of this development, and the economic strength and stability of agriculture was vastly improved, but all of this came at a high cost to the environment in the form of ecological destruction and use of huge quantities of natural resources. While we may have had an excuse during the Revolution for the new pollution and contamination, we’re no longer blameless. It’s crucial that agriculture, especially in the developed and developing worlds, is responsible and efficient. We can do this by watching how much water is used in irrigation, what kind of irrigation we use, restriction of pesticide use, and so many other innovations. The time to seize the future of our water supply is now. Time is short.

Note: A great resource to use if you’re hoping to understand the water crisis better and get a better grasp on how much water we use is the National Geographic Freshwater webpage, which is where these statistics came from. Also, if you can get your hands on the April 2010 issue of that same magazine, it’s a special edition on the water crisis and a fantastic set of articles. Some books I would recommend are Blue Planet Run and Water Consciousness, both of which offer a lot of insight into this subject (and BPR has a lot of fantastic pictures too!).

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