Home > Uncategorized > Earth Day: looking at the horizon

Earth Day: looking at the horizon

April 22, 2010

I thought it was Earth Day a few days ago, but maybe it’s today.  Thing is, we’re living on Earth every day. 

Each day the bluefin tuna population goes down.  Each day more atrazine leaches into groundwater.  Each day more CO2 builds up in the atmosphere.  Not a day goes by that more coal isn’t burned.

Coal.  I remember an article years ago extolling the virtues of coal as America’s energy future.  We had enough coal for hundreds of years.  Isn’t that great? Much better than that nasty old nuclear!  Even then, scientists knew that was wrong; coal plants put out far more radiation than nuclear.  Coal ash is full of heavy metals, including mercury, and so much uranium that the Chinese have begun to process it for commercially useful quantities at lower cost than digging pitchblende out of the ground. 

Think about that for a minute: those metals are in the coal ash because they were in the coal. Which we burned, and sent the smoke up really tall smokestacks because presumably, what goes up never… comes down?  I wonder what the reasoning is there.

Energy is all over the place but we want it in dense packages.  This is like saying we want to live on low-hanging fruit instead of having to climb ladders or even plant vegetables.  Our industry lobbyists whine; why does everything have to be so hard?  You’ll destroy our competitiveness if we can’t keep doing things the old way!

It’s difficult to make the case that we even deserve to pull ourselves out of the eco-spiral we’re in. We have an entire (very popular) television network devoted to denying that we should do anything at all to keep our environment livable.  We’re a society full of people who don’t want to take the slight extra effort to recycle their aluminum cans, but Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial airline fleet every three weeks.  Aluminum that is, for the most part, refined from bauxite in an energy-intensive process that begins with coal-generated electricity.

But the Earth isn’t conscious, so we can’t bargain with it.  Our planet doesn’t give a damn about our treaties or our excuses.  It isn’t deciding who’s naughty or who’s nice, and it isn’t mad at us.  We can destroy all the species we want, acidify the oceans and screw up the global food chain from the ground up, and if by fortune the survivors start acting more responsibly, the planet will just start making new species and going about its business.  Or if there aren’t any survivors, same result; it makes no difference to the 588 quintillion tons of iron and rock that we’re riding in an orbit around our star.  But either way the transition promises to be a giant humanitarian suckfest that would be well worth avoiding. 

So what difference does it make to refill a water bottle, or recycle a single can?  I don’t know; there could be a “donut effect”, in which a person who exercises starts to realize; that donut is a half an hour on the Stairmaster.  Next thing you know, it starts to affect other dietary choices.  The same thing could happen with small acts of environmental responsibility.

There’s also an Overton Window effect; the more people who openly do small things for the environment, the less socially acceptable it is to put politicians in office who are quite so transparently in the pocket of dirty industries.  In short, we’ve got to stop being so short-sighted, and the more people looking at the horizon, the more people who will.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 22, 2010 at 09:35 | #1

    Please forgive a nasty, Christian word, but “Amen!”

  2. April 22, 2010 at 15:16 | #2

    You sure can’t tell when Earth Day is by looking at the Earth Day site. You’d think they’d put that little detail there, wouldn’t you?

    Since they’re holding a big Earth Day rally on the 25th, I’m assuming that’s when it is.

    As for what difference we can make as individuals, one of the best things we can do is not use so much energy personally. Drive less. Turn off lights we’re not using. It sounds simple, but in reality it’s often cheaper to not use energy than it is to generate more. So, while it won’t have much effect to recycle that aluminum can, the aggregate effect is potentially powerful.

  3. April 22, 2010 at 19:54 | #3

    “But the Earth isn’t conscious”

    Hmmmm … OK, I get what you mean, but this could be argued.  Though not by a Zen adherent… arguing is nothing.

    What I will say is, yes, the planet will survive.  The only species that is capable of destroying the planet will not remembered.

    (Captcha is “remember”.  Spooky)

  4. Joe
    April 22, 2010 at 20:54 | #4

    “…coal plants put out far more radiation than nuclear.”

    Erm… what? That doesn’t make any sense. Coal contains very little radioactivity. Granted, during normal operation, a coal burning plant will cause much more environmental damage than a nuclear plant per KwH produced, but the nuclear radiation at a coal burning plant is not any higher than the baseline you’d get anywhere else.

  5. April 22, 2010 at 21:52 | #5

    You’re right: the problem isn’t usually right at the plant.  For instance, though there’s plenty of mercury emitted, the actual mercury-contaminated fish may be bioconcentrated miles away.

    But while the radiation isn’t the primary environmental hazard of a coal plant, it is there and reflects irony upon the popular radiation-hysteria about nuke plants.  It’s mostly in the ash, which greatly concentrates the effect from its base level in the source coal. 

    Reference Scientific American, 13 December 2007: Coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste.  The trouble is that, unlike nuke plant waste, it’s really bulky.  So it gets stored in huge holding ponds and fills, and used for civil engineering, mine reclamation, even drywall.  But radiation is the least of worries with coal ash (unless some was used in constructing your house, in which case you will have a nontrivial radon problem).  It’s also Hella toxic (think groundwater), and for what it contain it’s poorly regulated with several toxic sites that nobody is really sure what to do with.  Not all ash is the same; there are four types with local variants that get used in different ways.

    There’s also local variation in ash carried up smokestacks.  Scrubbers in the US, not necessarily in China, India, or South Africa.  We burn about one third of the coal consumed by the top 8 coal-consuming countries.

  6. April 23, 2010 at 09:27 | #6

    Its hard for me to understand why people can’t seem to grasp the concept of how coal is bad in large doses. What is even more sad is how those I work with cannot seem to grasp the irony of how global warming is bad business for our ag company. If ag as an industry falls apart from global warming our company would take a huge hit and loss.

  7. April 23, 2010 at 09:41 | #7

    Yep.  Reminds me of a comic I saw a few years ago.  Showed a couple people in a rowboat, floating down a flooded street in NYC.  The guy in the front of the boat (the woman was rowing) said; “Sure, but doing something about global warming would have been bad for business!”

  8. Joe
    April 26, 2010 at 11:38 | #8

    // Reference Scientific American, 13 December 2007: Coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste. //

    I stand corrected. Thanks for the link!

  9. April 26, 2010 at 12:00 | #9

    I do wish they would avoid sensationalistic headlines.  The article makes clear that the coal plant puts more radiation into the environment than the nuke plant, and that because of the bulk of coal waste it’s difficult to imagine a remediation for it.  But pound for pound coal ash is not more radioactive than spent nuclear fuel rods. 

    I think writers must have little say in the wording of article headlines.  New Scientist is even worse than SciAm in that respect.  I’d love to find a good science weekly that doesn’t “amp it up”.  Have you seen Science News lately?  Have they succumbed to the headline dark side?

  10. April 26, 2010 at 13:45 | #10

    Authors generally have no input on how headlines are written.

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