|The Global Environment|
|Needless to say the beauty of our planet is immensely important to me, but its beauty is only one measure of the health and the value of what we were given in this world. The Earth's living systems are intertwined with that beauty and are no less important. Our own futures and our prospects for liberty and the pursuit of happiness are likewise inescapably intertwined with the planet and its health.
Our species is ripping the world apart at a stunning rate, just by getting up and going about our business each day. Given that our numbers have become as vast as they have, and that we live nearly exclusively through systems which are not sustainable, it is simply inevitable that we would be ripping our world to shreds. Until we learn it and confront this terrible reality, we will be able to do little to stem the destruction.
During my lifetime, half of all the rainforest on Earth has been obliterated and the rest is going fast. Since 1980, half of the arctic sea ice has melted from human-induced climate change. The Caribbean Sea is largely dead. So is the Mediterranean. Most of the major fisheries of the world have either been destroyed or severely damaged by overfishing. A majority of the life forms of the planet have seen their habitats severely diminished by human activity, most of which is accelerating. Catastrophic climate change is well under way and threatens to ruin our agriculture, spread tropical disease dramatically, and drown coastal areas and river deltas around the world. And for what? So that we can live another day with our heads in the sand?
There is no excuse for our collective foolishness. For one thing, it runs completely counter to the Constitution of the United States, which exists to protect us from ourselves, yet is failing completely to protect us from this new way we've found to diminish our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. How can we secure the blessings of liberty for our posterity if we consume them all ourselves? Collective humanity will remain unworthy of the term civilization, until the day when we can really say that we have finally learned to live sustainably on the Earth. But by such time, we will, of course, have lost most of what was here in the first place.
In the meantime, we can all contribute to living less harmfully by the choices we make at the ballot box, by getting involved in writing letters to Congress and other public officials, by choosing to cut our waste of energy, and by reading. Here are some of my favorite news items, sources of superb reading, and hopeful bits of technology for diminishing our messes.
1) Burning gasoline (and other fossil fuels) is a sin, and always has been, but we all do it and take it for granted, so it seems OK. It's not. Especially now that it's been done so much by so many of us. Toyota has built an incredible power train for gasoline-powered cars which nearly doubles the actual efficiency (mileage), compared with an average, equivalent 2003 model year gasoline-powered car. It's called Hybrid Synergy Drive and it's far and away the biggest development in the history of internal combustion. You never have to plug it in because all of its electric power ultimately comes from the gasoline. It's not only far more efficient, but it drives better and I believe it will require vastly less expenditure on repairs over the lifetime of the car because a) it has no transmission (in the conventional sense), b) it has no clutch, c) it has no starter motor (in the conventional sense), d) it has no alternator, e) it has just one rubber belt on the engine, and like more and more new cars, it uses a timing chain instead of a timing belt. And then there are the brakes when you step on the brakes, the big electric motor slows the car down, making power for the 88-pound NiMH battery, and the hydraulic brakes on the wheels don't even move unless you step on the brakes hard or when you are coming to a complete stop so they last far longer between repairs. In fact, they may never need repair. This is a lot of stuff that can't wear out because it doesn't exist or because energy isn't being wasted. The first car to get this mature hybrid power train was the 2004 Toyota Prius, a revolutionary car that made all prior motor vehicles obsolete in my opinion. Toyota considers this power train technology to be their corporate crown jewels and plan to put it into every model they make by 2012. Toyota has 670 patents on the two generations of the Prius combined. They used 1000 engineers to create this second-generation Prius. The Prius is quieter than a regular car. It has the lowest coefficient of drag of any production car on the planet (the Honda Insight is lower, but it's built by hand). It has the first window glass in the world which is both heat and UV absorbing both huge benefits. It has the world's first electric automotive air conditioner. It has a superior systems control interface for adjusting climate and other things without taking your eyes off the road. It has a very cool nav system option and available self-leveling HID headlights. And a smart entry system option that lets you unlock the car with no hands and start it without touching the key fob at all. It handles beautifully, has more leg room in the back than a Camry, has more flexible cargo hauling capabilities than a Camry or an Accord, has the same wheelbase as a Camry, yet is only as long as a Corolla overall, and has the same short turn radius as a Corolla or a Civic. It is the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2004 and the North American Car of the Year for 2004, the industry's two highest honors. It is also essentially non-polluting, with respect to smog-forming emissions. And it's even beautiful to look at. And at 2890 pounds curb weight, with six airbags, including the side and side curtain option, the car is undoubtedly one of the safest on the road. One more thing it sells for the same price range as a Camry, starting at $20,875 for 2005 including destination charge, well-equipped. Climate control, the seven-inch color LCD touch screen, heated outside mirrors, traction control, and a CD player are standard. EPA rating 60 city/51 highway. Did I mention I love this car? Keep in mind that I hate cars. It still burns the evil liquid, but a lot less. The next big thing will likely be fuel-cell powered cars that use hydrogen. The hydrogen will initially (we hope) be made by reforming natural gas in small reformers at gas stations. Eventually, we will be able to make enough cheap power from windmills, cheap solar cells and biomass conversion to make our hydrogen from the electricity with hydrolysis, then our cars and maybe even our aircraft can begin to enjoy nearly pollution-free perpetual motion. And by then our power generation systems will be free of our terrible dependence on fossil fuels and uranium. Here is my new Prius:
|Use less energy. Pollute less. Reward the companies that make better products. Prove to other people and companies that it can be done, and feel really good about doing it. And when a politician votes against raising the CAFE standards to 42 miles per gallon, get mad, for they are hurting us as surely as our enemies did during WWII. They will lie to you about bigger, heavier cars being safer. Safer for whom? The gas guzzlers of America kill several times more Americans in other vehicles than the sedans do, per registered vehicle year, and they're not even safer for their own drivers because they roll over so easily. Read the definitive study here ("t021full.pdf" 268KB). Unnecessarily large cars are unpatriotic and antisocial. The H2 is the biggest insult of all. But then long commutes are terrible too...
Toyota USA Prius page: http://www.toyota.com/prius
How it Works: Visit the Special Reports page and select the PDF download for THS II (April 25, 2003).
2) Speaking of the hydrogen economy, here is how you can learn all about our future energy carrier (not an energy source) from the best source I know. Visit the Energy section of The Rocky Mountain Institute's Library and download a great PDF called "Twenty Hydrogen Myths" by Amory Lovins and other papers about hydrogen and why its use is vital to achieving a renewable and sustainable energy system. It turns out that it will work beautifully if we make the right choices.
3) Another emerging great hope for affordable energy without the drawbacks of fossil fuels is the Thermal Conversion Process of Changing World Technologies, Inc. First revealed in an article in Discover magazine, this process promises to be able to convert any kind of organic matter into high-grade oil plus valuable chemicals economically and efficiently. If it were used to convert all of our agricultural plant waste into oil, it would produce as much as we import today over 60 percent of our total petroleum usage.
4) The biggest thing most of us can do to stop wasting huge amounts of electricity, thus stemming our damage to the sky and our wallets, is to take any old refrigerators we may have out of operation and replace them with new ones. If you have one built in the 1970s or earlier, it has by now consumed roughly $8,000 to $15,000 worth of electricity, or more, causing horrific amounts of pollution from the power plants (and wasting gobs of your money). The new Energy Star model that you buy will not only be nicer and perhaps larger, but will also use one fifth as much power and pay for itself in power savings alone in about four years. Ours is a bottom-freezer, 21 cubic foot Amana, but there are lots of good ones. Our old frig was from the 1960s. Be sure to have the old one properly disposed of by an organization that will pick it up and take it away to have its ozone destroying refrigerant captured. Whatever you do, don't keep it as a spare. You'll likely be eligible for a rebate from your utility or state government too. The consensus is that you should replace any refrigerator built prior to 1990. Huge efficiency improvements were made during the '90s. If you spend much on air conditioning, you should look into that too. Department of Energy refrigerator information page and EPA's Energy Star page