On climate and opinion

Posted on December 2nd, 2009 by george.
Categories: environment, society, space, technology.

There’s a lot of buzz lately about the so-called “Climategate,” with so much dispute and contention that the wiki article has been locked.  Some say environmentalism has become ideology and should be regarded as a religion.  Lines are drawn, people choose sides, the issue polarizes and progress grinds to a halt as we all stand around fiddling while Rome burns.  I recently sent an email to a friend who tweeted about it, and she encouraged me to share my thoughts with the wider public.  The following are excerpts from my side of our conversation, with a few additions.

Global warming, climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, species extinction…these are all tough things to swallow, especially when we humans decide to acknowledge our responsibility as the dominant species and custodians of this planet.  It can be difficult to parse out just how responsible we are.  We’re learning, after all.  We don’t have a perfect overview of the situation, but I think the clues point in a general direction.  Our emerging global awareness helps highlight that at a population of around seven billion, we’ve reached the point where the sum our actions, for better or worse, has a measurable effect on the life support system we call Earth.

I don’t get into the debate, and I try to find common ground with everyone.  Surely there are things we can all agree on, and surely the solutions will be manifold, not singular.  It is still an issue of science for me, and I think everyone needs to stop choking the air with uninformed opinions and politically-rooted (and ultimately self-serving) diatribes.  The bottom line is obvious:  we need to reduce our impact on the incredibly complex, wonderful, and naturally-occuring systems of the Earth, all of which are vital to our continued existence and prosperity.  The solutions are easy to state, but hard for those profiting from the status quo to concede.  Don’t dump trash and hydrocarbons into the air and sea.  Use the sun and sun-powered natural phenomena to generate electricity.  Reduce packaging and the frivolous use of plastic.  Design, redesign and grow cities around the pedestrian.  Make goods, including electronics, easy to disassemble and recyclable.  Eliminate wanton and senseless consumption and destruction.  Align ourselves with the seemingly hard to appreciate yet demonstrably priceless processes that recycle our oxygen and water and provide a temperature- and pressure-controlled, radiation shielded, food-bearing wonderland.  One simply has to tick off the list of challenges and costs in supporting a continuous human presence in low earth orbit to make it plainly obvious that it is beyond our ability to do what the Earth does for all of us.  We may be able to keep a dozen humans alive for a limited time and with a constant resupply in a precarious perch overlooking our little blue marble, but good luck doing that for the entire human race without the inestimable gift of our biosphere.

We can’t just blame corporations, think that clears our consciences, and go on contributing to the demand that drives global exploitation.  We also cannot set up entities whose sole reason for being is profit at the expense of all else.  “Else” in this case being the welfare of Earth and humanity, whose fates are inextricable.  There must be balance.  Profit is not bad if earned within a responsible framework.  Unbridled, irresponsible profit that cuts corners, pollutes and exists only for the benefit of a mighty few is unsustainable, and will eventually crumble.  We cannot continue to treat Earth’s resources as infinite and free and expect life to go on exactly as it is in perpetuity.

Meanwhile, there are a million other things to tackle, like the health, welfare and education of BILLIONS of our brothers and sisters.  The Earth is going to warm up; we’ve already done it.  That goose is cooked.  It’ll be a shame to see some of my favorite islands and coastlines swallowed up, but we’ll adapt.  We’re going to be forced to, and no amount of blathering in the high school hallways that our media has become is going to make a whit of difference about it, except insofar as it influences people to change their habits in manageable ways.  The sum total of our lifestyle choices has an undeniable globlal effect.  There’s only so much we can do as individuals…but that’s exactly what we should do, and all that can be asked of us.

On this and all topics, people need to be open to discussion, truly listen to each other, examine the facts, and most importantly be willing to change their minds.  All too often ego trumps logic, and for some unfathomable reason, people think that admitting you were wrong, even partially, is a bad thing.  On the contrary, it shows that you are willing to assimilate new information and to refine your viewpoint, bringing it closer to the actual truth!  Truth, life, faith, they are all journeys of refinement.  In manufacturing and economics they call it “continuous improvement.”  In the Baha’i Faith we call it drawing nearer to God.  We need to let go of the idea that as a single human being, we can be “right.”  Only God has the claim of ultimate Truth, as the Source.  All human understanding is limited by definition, thus are our opinions, including mine.  No one should be proud of their opinion; our responsibility is to interact with each other with the utmost humility and love and to be ever-learning, ever-growing, ever-improving.

Think of it this way:  what would you rather be?  A feather, light and airy, devoid of any solidity, blowing about on the winds of public opinion and at the mercy of novelty?  A rock, staunch and unmovable, stuck in the mud, powerless to move or progress but proud of your crusty and outdated sediment, gathering moss and refusing to interact, offering nothing but blunt, cold, and hard opinion?  Or a blade of grass, firmly rooted in historical precedent but flexible, drawing upon the rich soil of previous human accomplishment and the guidance of the Almighty, able to bend in the breeze of new information and the breath of confirmation, soak up the rain of divine blessings and technological progress, and grow through the animating energy of the Sun?

This excerpt from The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, which Lorenia read to me this morning, says it better than I ever could.

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men.

1 comment.

Driving smart

Posted on September 18th, 2009 by george.
Categories: automotive, coincidence, environment, friends, fun, society, technology, travel.

Five months ago I posted a photo on flickr of a SMART car.

SMART

I remember seeing these little jewels on a trip to Europe as a teen, where they left a lasting impression on a young American.  Would you look at that!  Cars don’t have to weigh two tons!  And these suckers can “parallel park” with their nose to the curb!  I posted this shot because I’m very excited that they finally made it to America.  I didn’t expect anything from the comments, but the first one, from my friend Atoosa, caught me off guard.

“My cousin Neda is a paramedic and she calls these ‘smartcoffins’ because she’s pulled so many dead people out of them. Basically she says in a collision, this is a little plastic deathpod.”

“That’s unfortunate. But understandable, considering how overweight American cars are. If everyone drove a SMART, I’m sure the story would be different,” I replied.  While the SMART car is perfect for the tiny streets and low speeds of European city driving, I now see what a frightening proposition it is to take these things out onto the highway to slice and dice with SUVs and pickups at 70mph.  I went on to post links to crash test videos of the little Mercedes/SWATCH “deathpod,” and an article on SMART safety, that indicates this city car wasn’t really intended for highway driving.  On the other hand, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety praises the car’s low-speed (40mph or so) crash safety in the official crash test video with commentary.  I finished my flickr comment by saying, “It’s much safer than a motorcycle,” to which Atoosa replied, “My dear G, ‘safer than a motorcycle’ is hardly a reassuring recommendation.”

Fast forward to present day.  I got an email from my brother-in-law (happy birthday, Dan!) about Volkswagen’s L1, a 170-mpg, tandem-seat-layout, carbon fiber monocoque concept that’s been around since 2002 and whose original prototype famously drove 100 kilometers on one liter of fuel.

L1

They’ve updated the design of the new prototype with a diesel engine and a more production-ready design, hence the buzz.  VDUB claims it will bring this beauty to market in 2013, but I told Dan I was skeptical.  I love VW; Lorenia and I just purchased a Jetta and a GTI.  But I admit I’d be surprised to see the L1 make it through to production.  If it does, though, I’d buy a 2013 model.  In 2018.  In the meantime, there’s the glorious Aptera…if it ever makes it out of California.

Aptera

And, if we’re lucky, the US will get the zippy new Fiat 500 in 2010 or 2011.

Abarth

I cracked up when in the comments on WIRED’s article about the L1, someone said, “Who’s going to be the first to comment on how the vehicle will fare in a collison with a semi?  Somebody always does.”

Indeed, Atoosa made the semi comment five months ago.  “And yes, they do pass all crash tests or they wouldn’t be allowed on the road, if they hit an SUV — or even worse, an 18 wheeler, the tiny car goes bouncing like a skipping stone. Remember the video with the concrete wall only demonstrates the effects of the momentum of the SMART car itself. What would the impulse transfer be like if it hit an 18 wheeler going 70 mph?”

And that brings us to the purpose of this entry, which is to post my little flickr manifesto from April.  I made the following reply.

“True. It’s not as reassuring as, say, a new Volvo. I’d just like to point out that even SUVs are no match for 18 wheelers, so that argument against SMARTs is moot. Knowing that a big truck would pulverize your Celica doesn’t stop you from driving it. These are the choices that the individual driver has to make when we’re forced into car ownership by the societal status quo of a sprawled America devoid of intelligent urban design or the individual will to pay for such design through taxes that contribute to hard-to-measure quality of life benefits.

Bike vs. car is an even worse proposition than SMART vs. SUV, but that doesn’t stop me from riding my bike. Long story short, European-style, high density cities powered by renewable energy and with centers that exclude motorized traffic and emphasize pedestrians and bicycles are the way forward. Ultimately, the safety of a car is relative, and for most people cost, fuel efficiency, performance, utility and looks are all more important, since fatal crashes are relatively rare (42,000 vehicular deaths per year in the US versus 300 million inhabitants, or 0.00014% — 14 in 100,000).

Furthermore, almost no one considers the cost to the earth in terms of the materials and energy that go into producing a new car, which is why most don’t recognize that the greenest cars on the road will always be the pre-owned models: their environmental production cost has already been paid. No matter how efficient a 100% electric Tesla is, it can’t match the alternative: not gathering the materials and energy to build a new Tesla, and continuing to repair and drive what you have. Or better yet: selling your car and purchasing the nicest bike money can buy.

Fatal accidents in which you as the driver have no fault are exceedingly rare, on the order of acts of God. The majority of accidents can be avoided by paying closer attention to the task of driving and using defensive driving techniques, especially leaving enough distance between yourself and the car ahead. The unavoidable accidents, rare as they are, are not going to convince me to drive an SUV instead of a SMART, especially when the smaller, lighter car is more nimble and thus better at avoiding an accident. I’d rather die while trying to minimize my carbon footprint than survive crashes to burn another dinosaur another day. We can’t avoid it when it’s our time to go. What matters is how we treat others and our global life support system until we do.

Atoosa replied, “Very well put, my friend. That was like a blogpost unto itself. We keep fixing up our old Toyotas and riding our bikes when we can, but hopefully we won’t be pulverized, but will live to see the day when society around the world is built to minimize the human footprint on our planet.”

How strange, then, that both my 1992 Toyota Camry and her mid-nineties Toyota Celica would die last month.  After an extensive search and over twenty test drives, Atoosa finally purchased a Hyundai Genesis Coupe.  Notwithstanding the repair nightmares of being an early adopter, I’m very excited about her car.  But I’m equally excited that after my own protracted search for four-cylinder standard-shift cars, I found the fastest car I’ve ever owned:  a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T.

GTI

That’s right, GDUB has a VDUB.  One that goes to 70 in second gear and still gets 30mpg, thanks to the turbo.  Not as flashy as the L1, and I’m working on a few repairs to problems the dealer failed to mention, but I’m thrilled.  Living in a “city” where cyclists have glass bottles thrown at them and working at a job whose security gate is six miles from the office and bans bikes during rush hour may force me into car ownership, but if I must drive, at least I can have a car that’s responsible, affordable and faster than a scalded dog.

14 comments.

Pale blue dot

Posted on January 30th, 2009 by george.
Categories: enlightenment, environment, epiphany, film, future, life, music, society, space, synthesis, technology.

Didn’t think I was gonna get a post up in January, didja?  HA!  That’ll show ya.

Here’s a month’s worth of hope in one short film.  Watch it full screen.

2 comments.

HURRICANE!

Posted on August 19th, 2008 by george.
Categories: environment, fun.

And you know what that means.

PARTY!

Fay is rather weak as tropical storms go, so we’re just lounging about the house, watching the palms bend over and the rain come down in sheets, flickring and playing video games.  All is well.  This is better than a snow day!

3 comments.

Deep blue

Posted on July 14th, 2008 by george.
Categories: animals, environment, fun, future, life, sports, travel, video, water, youtube.

In spite of childhood swim lessons in frigid water at the crack of dawn (or perhaps because of them), I have always been a waterbaby.  In the past six months I’ve made rapid progress in scuba diving, beyond PADI certified rescue diver into specialties like wreck penetration diving.  Lately I’ve become obsessed with the geology and location of blue holes, occuring in equatorial karst regions throughout the Caribbean and across the globe, ranging from the cenotes of Mexico to the springs of Florida to the blue holes of the Bahamas, Belize, and the Red Sea.  In exploring online what I hope to someday explore in person, I ran across this video and was entranced.  If you can’t see yourself doing this, then imagine you were along with Lorenia today, as she swam in the azure waters off the Yucatan with massive sea turtles and giant whale sharks, exploring undersea caves and catching rides from 12-foot wide manta rays.

7 comments.

Why did the gator cross the road?

Posted on May 20th, 2008 by george.
Categories: animals, environment, video, youtube.

You tell me.  Shot today on the commute home.

10 comments.

The promise of the Sun

Posted on November 25th, 2007 by george.
Categories: enlightenment, environment, epiphany, future, society, synthesis, technology.

It’s only appropeaux that the marriage of the largest and smallest would yield such promising fruit, the seeds of which, when scattered far and wide, have the potential to grow into a foundation-shaking shift in the way we interact with the planet. What am I talking about?

Nanosolar. Say it out loud. Let it roll off your tongue. Be among the first, for soon it will be on every tongue.

Leave it to a company in Silicon Valley to free solar energy from the expense and complexity of silicon. I’ve been preaching the gospel of the Sun for years, patiently awaiting the day that technology caught up with the economy. That day is here, my friends, at one third the price of coal. If we no longer have to fight over cheap, clean, abundant energy, imagine the real possibility for peace among humans.

This is cause for celebration.

6 comments.

Priorities

Posted on July 25th, 2007 by george.
Categories: environment, food, life, society.

Gather ’round the boob tube kids, and Timmy, don’t touch that dial:  it’s time for another edition of everyone’s favorite game show, Where Are Your Priorities?

Alright, everyone.  Raise your hands if you’ve heard of Lindsey Lohan.

Good!

Now here comes the tough one.  Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Norman Borlaug.

*crickets chirp*

No one?

*someone snores in the background*

Ah well, don’t worry.  He was only just awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  This after already being presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize.  What makes ol’ Norman so special?  Besides being one of only five people in history to garner all three of these awards?  Well, he saved a few human lives.  How many, you ask?  Only a billion.  A few more than any other human in history.

But whatever.  OMG I heard Lindsay just went to jail!

12 comments.

Spastic chiastic

Posted on June 26th, 2007 by george.
Categories: environment, future, history, society, synthesis, technology.

I cleaned my bathtub this weekend. I cleaned out my 200-email-deep inbox at work today. Figured it’s time to clean out the link repository as well. The video above is slightly related to some of the topics we’re going to touch on. There isn’t enough resolution for you to see the phrase “Hydrogen 7″ on the rear badge, but it’s there. You can see a bit of the fancy paint job on the side, though.  I shot this on the way home from work today. Funny the things you see at NASA.

Let’s start with some good news. How about proof that when evil strikes, good can fill the void? Virginia Tech is receiving such an outpouring of support (in the form of memorial gifts) that they’ve had to enlist nearly a hundred volunteers and they don’t have room to store it all. From the article, “You could look anywhere in the building and realize we’re not alone,” he said. “The world cares.”

The world is a funny thing, though. And it can be confusing. It helps to listen to someone with insight, someone who is fair and balanced. One of those people is columnist Fareed Zakaria. Listen to what he has to say about the root cause of terrorism.

Britain, the United States and most other countries have not found it easy to address the root causes of jihad. But clearly, they relate to the alienation, humiliation and disempowerment caused by the pace of change in the modern world—economic change, migration from Third World to First World, movement from the countryside to the city. The only durable solution to these ongoing disruptions is for these people to see themselves—and, most important, the societies they come from and still identify with—as masters of the modern world and not as victims. How to open up and modernize the Muslim world is a long, hard and complex challenge. But surely one key is to be seen by these societies and peoples as partners and friends, not as bullies and enemies. That is one battle we are not yet winning.

Atoosa and I have discussed this issue before: it is the hearts of humans that provide the foundation for world events. Baha’u’llah has said,

Know thou that We have annulled the rule of the sword, as an aid to Our Cause, and substituted for it the power born of the utterance of men. Thus have We irrevocably decreed, by virtue of Our grace. Say: O people! Sow not the seeds of discord among men, and refrain from contending with your neighbor, for your Lord hath committed the world and the cities thereof to the care of the kings of the earth, and made them the emblems of His own power, by virtue of the sovereignty He hath chosen to bestow upon them. He hath refused to reserve for Himself any share whatever of this world’s dominion. To this He Who is Himself the Eternal Truth will testify. The things He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts, that He may cleanse them from all earthly defilements, and enable them to draw nigh unto the hallowed Spot which the hands of the infidel can never profane. Open, O people, the city of the human heart with the key of your utterance. Thus have We, according to a pre-ordained measure, prescribed unto you your duty.

That world over which we have been given dominion? It’s in dire straits. The oceans are not only being systematically raped of all life, but up to 40% of their area is covered in a toxic stew of degrading plastic. And it’s not just the oceans. It’s in the air, in our food, in our clothes, our cars, our homes, our bodies. This is the legacy of oil.

Speaking of rape, (I know, that’s a horrible segue) the perspective of 40 years has done a lot for the baby boomers. Turns out the Summer of Love wasn’t as rosy as we like to remember it. Less “free love” than “free sex.” For the men, anyway.

And now, in true chiastic form, let us end with the beginning: a positive note, and a car video.

4 comments.