31 January 2006

Applaud President Bush For Courage in State of Union

Did you ever think you'd see the day? The former oil man and the industry's latest favorite friend, President Bush, calling for investments in alternative energy and a "Advanced Energy Initiative" in tonight's "State of the Union" address. But as I heard one pundit say after the broadcast, If Nixon can go to China in his second term, then I guess Bush can become a champion for alternative energy.

Here is a portion of the transcript from the White House website:

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources -- and we are on the threshold of incredible advances.

So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative -- a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research -- at the Department of Energy, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.

We'll be looking closely at the "Advanced Energy Initiative," for the details of his proposal. For now, we applaud President Bush for his courage in sticking his wildcatter's neck out by suggesting it's time to turn to market-based incentives for alternatives to oil dependency.

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29 January 2006

BBC's "Planet Under Pressure"

I was talking with a friend this morning about the impacts of climate change and the question of what can be done about it. In sending him some background on the subject, I ran across this web site from the BBC.

The six-part series exploring "the planet's most pressing environmental problems." "Planet Under Pressure" ran some time ago in the UK (2004), but I don't know that it has been broadcast in the states. The site features a range of information, infographics, and evidence of change. Part six is devoted to the subject of climate change. Check out the animated guide, images of the impact, and the responses to environmental damage offered by teenagers.

Worth a look: BBC's "Planet Under Pressure"

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26 January 2006

Peter Senge's Vision for an Interdependent Planet

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning, and Systems Thinking guru, examines interdependence and, in an excerpt on the Pegasus web site, explains the facts of climate change using an elegant "stocks" and "flows" illustration. Worth a look (see link below):

In his keynote presentation at the 2005 Pegasus Conference, Peter Senge examined some of the factors that make it so hard for us to understand the complex interdependencies that connect us to each other. First, he suggested that the accelerated pace of change that we are living today has brought us to a place of unprecedented complexity where it is fair to say “we have never been here before.” Second, he observed that we simply have not fully developed our natural capacity to see the systems of which we are a part. And finally, he noted that we are challenged to expand our temporal and spatial horizons to see beyond the limits of our own perception to anticipate the impact and consequences of the choices we make.

Read the excerpt here: Senge on Interdependence

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23 January 2006

Crisis or Opportunity, China Looms Large

A good friend of mine is fond of using the Chinese characters known as "Crisis," commonly assumed to be a combination of "Danger" + "Opportunity," to illustrate crucial moments of decision. Turns out this may be fallacious, according to Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who says that "while it is true that wēijī does indeed mean 'crisis' and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of 'danger,' the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify 'opportunity.'"

The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like 'incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).' Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry....If one wants to find a word containing the element jī that means 'opportunity' (i.e., a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement), one needs to look elsewhere than wēijī, which means precisely 'crisis' (viz., a dangerous, critical moment)."

Mair suggests "zhuanjī ('turn' + 'incipient moment' = 'favorable turn; turn for the better'), liángjī ('excellent' + 'incipient moment' = 'opportunity' [!!]), or hao shíjī ('good' + 'time' + 'incipient moment' = 'favorable opportunity')." [Note: this program does not support the symbols that should appear in a couple of the words above, my apologies to the author. Please follow the link above to a complete version of the article.]

I bring this to your attention neither to embarrass my friend nor to contribute to what Mair calls "a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society," but rather to illustrate a point: whether "wēijī" or "liángjī," we are facing a crisis, an incipient moment, a crucial point at which things may go awry or take a favorable turn with regard to China and indeed all of Asia.

According to an article in GreenBiz.com last week, the newly released State of the World 2006 Report, published by the Worldwatch Institute, suggests that the "dramatic rise of China and India presents one of the gravest threats -- and greatest opportunities -- facing the world today."

The next few years, Worldwatch posits, will spin the world towards "growing ecologial and political instability" or towards the next global revolution, a "path based on efficient technologies and better stewardship of resources."

Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin says that he was "encouraged to find that a growing number of opinion leaders in China and India now recognize that the resource-intensive model for economic growth can't work in the 21st century." He cites China's growing investments in solar energy and India's pioneering rainwater harvesting as examples of how the two countries are poised "to leapfrog today's industrial powers and become world leaders in sustainable energy and agriculture within a decade."

Not all is rosy in the report's estimation; China and India and their huge populations are fast emulating the United States and Europe and their tremendous demands on the earth's ecosystems. The report cites a number of negatives, including the Songhua River chemical spill, rapidly dwindling feshwater resources, increased dependence on oil and coal, and grain consumption.

Nevertheless, says Worldwatch, there are "early successful efforts to employ new approaches," such as the 2005 commitment by both nations to accelerate the development of new and renewable energy sources, a growing emphasis on public transportation, and laws that give "Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stronger legal standing to participate in decision-making."

The question is whether China, India, Europe and the United States can cooperate to "develop new energy and agricultural systems, maximize resource efficiency, and continue recent progress towards participatory decision-making in China and India."

One must not jump to the conclusion that China is offering a beacon of hope in the smog of natural resource use, just yet. Environmentalists and scientists are concerned by the impact China is having on ocean ecosystems, specifically large predators like sharks. According to a recent article by Juan Forero released through the New York Times News Service, China's burgeoning middle class is increasing the demand for shark fins -- shark fin soup being a delicacy used in ceremonial dinners. Populations of shark species "like the hammerhead and great white, have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent in the last 15 years, while others, like the silky white-tip have disappeared from the Caribbean."

Still, as the Worldwatch Report concludes, "The rise of China and India is the wake-up call that should prompt people in the United States and around the world to take seriously the need for strong commitments to build sustainable economies." Perhaps, as the authors surmise, viewing this turn in the global arena as an opportunity (liángjī) rather than a crisis (wēijī) makes for an incipient moment that may result in favorable circumstances for the global environment, economy, and society.

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17 January 2006

Ben Franklin, Early American Environmentalist

Today is the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest Americans in history, Ben Franklin. In fact, he is often known as the "first American," because it was his philosophy and writings -- and his hubris -- that influenced the founding of the country.

In addition to Franklin's renown as a scientist, statesman, businessman, philanthropist, publisher of newspapers and pamphlets, founder of the first lending library and improver of the postal system in this country, along with two educational institutions, he was also involved in the crafting of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Ben was also one of the first American environmentalists, to wit:

In 1739, Benjamin Franklin and neighbors petitioned the "Pennsylvania Assembly to stop waste dumping and remove tanneries from Philadelphia's commercial district. Foul smell, lower property values, disease and interference with fire fighting are cited. The industries complain that their rights are being violated, but Franklin argues for 'public rights.' Franklin and the environmentalists win a symbolic battle but the dumping goes on."

And from 1762 to 1769, a "Philadelphia committee led by Franklin attempts to regulate waste disposal and water pollution." Finally, in 1797, Franklin's will stipulated the construction of a fresh water pipeline for Philadelphia, which led to the formation of the Philadelphia Water Commission.

Franklin understood the value of such environmental measures to quality of life, human health and well-being.

Over the past few years, leading up to this anniversary, I and my son have developed a keen interest in Benjamin Franklin. In part, because of our residence in his city and our proximity to many of his landmarks and discoveries. Franklin is a good role model for my son; indeed he is a good role model for us all, as Americans and citizens of the world. And as conservationists, we would do well to remember Franklin's words,

If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher's stone.

Remember Benjamin Franklin, born on this day in 1706, He died in 1790.

References for this post include the Wikipedia "Timeline of Environmental Events" and other sources. For an excellent biography, try Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. Last year, I listened to a wonderful, abridged recording of this book, available on CD in a reading by Boyd Gaines.

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16 January 2006

"A Day On, Not a Day Off"

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country will honor the life and work of Dr. King by participating in service projects in their communities. (My family just returned from one such event -- putting together hygiene packages for a homeless shelter.) Together, we honor Dr. King's legacy of tolerance, peace, and equality by meeting community needs and making the holiday "A day ON, not a day OFF."

In the words of Dr. King: "Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve."

For more information, see Martin Luther King Day of Service.

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14 January 2006

It's About Caring: Why Sports Matter

The New England Patriots have just lost to the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady lost his first playoff game in 11 tries. The Patriots won the Super Bowl three of the last four years; they were going for the first three-peat in NFL history. But not this year. Why should I care?

I missed last year's Super Bowl victory by the Patriots over the Eagles. I was on a boat in Indonesia, with a group of scientists and donors and the Swiss ex-pat boat captain. I remember the night: no radio, no way of knowing the score or the outcome. And the boat captain saying to me, "Hey, you're an environmental guy, why do you care about football? Why care about any sport?" And the underlying question, why root for a bunch of overpaid, over-hyped guys overloaded on testosterone running around in a decidedly environmentally unfriendly pursuit?

My answer was and is that sports help you learn to care. Your affiliation with and allegiance to a team is learned at an early age, right when you are deciding what matters and what you care about. I care what the outcome is, want my team to win, and am disappointed when they fall short or don't do well.

One of my heroes, A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late commissioner of Major League Baseball and president of Yale, scholar and poetry enthusiast, said it best in his essay about the Red Sox,

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

That is what caring about sports is all about, and it is related to caring about anything that is "abiding" and "resists corrosion." And I venture here to say that when you learn to care about sporting events or teams it connects you to the larger ethic of caring. That if you can care about a seemingly meaningless venture, with all its hype and hyperbole, all its illusion and artifice, you connect to a vast web of caring that goes beyond games. To me, through a life of caring about teams like the Red Sox and Patriots and Bruins (remember hockey?), my caring about such outcomes demonstrates an empathy for those things outside myself.

I can have no influence on the outcome of a game such as the one played tonight or those played last fall by the former World Champion Red Sox against their paler hose compatriots from the Windy City. I can barely influence the outcome of my son's Little League team, even as a coach. But the illusion is that if I care enough, if I care more, that somehow, we will triumph, somehow we will emerge victorious and all will be right in the world.

A friend of mine is also a Red Sox rooter and conservationist. He once remarked that the two were natural together. "If we can win the World Series, I feel like somehow we can save the world too," he said. "And it is that hope that keeps me going, that springs eternal."

Hopes are easily dashed, such as the hopes of Patriots fans everywhere tonight, whether lifers like me or of carpetbaggers from the past two seasons. Nevertheless, tonight, in Denver, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Seattle and in the other cities represented by those who remain, hope still takes hold. Moreover, I am convinced that even if a little bit of that hope, that caring, transfers to the concerns of the world, we just might win the true Super Bowl of the 21st century: the very survival of our home field advantage.

I will leave you with the closing words of Bart Giamatti's essay,

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

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07 January 2006

Celebrities Take On Climate Change

I don't have cable, so I wasn't able to see the TBS special "Earth to America," which was billed as a humorous approach to building awareness of global warming. But stopglobalwarming.org has some of the most creative spots on their site, including these from actor Jack Black and performance artists The Blue Man Group:

Jack Black

Blue Man Group

Check out the web site and sign up for their "Virtual March": stopglobalwarming.org

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03 January 2006

Edge Asks, "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?"

Each year, the Edge Foundation asks prominent "third culture" thinkers a question. Last year's question was "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" By third culture, they mean "those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are." Pretty heady stuff, eh?

You should check out their question for 2006: "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" And the responses from such heavyweights as Craig Venter, Daniel Goleman, Brian Greene, John Allen Paulos, Martin E.P. Seligman, Jamshed Bharucha, Helen Fischer, Michael Schermer, Richard Dawkins, Michael Nesmith (yes, of The Monkees), Eric Fischl, Alison Gopnik, Stewart Brand, Leonard Susskind, and others. Here's how Edge impresario John Brockman describes the project:

Something radically new is in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

This year, the third culture thinkers in the Edge community have written 117 original essays (a document of 72,500 words) in response to the 2006 Edge Question "What is your dangerous idea?". Here you will find indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.

You can find the answers at: The World Question Center 2006

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