Thanks to the popularity of Star Trek, it’s trite to describe space as the final frontier. It isn’t (a frontier, that is. The cliche is certain). To characterize it as such is to reduce it to something as reachable and knowable as the forest on the far side of a river. It is to maintain that space is at our gate, waiting there for us to exercise our claim on it.
Space is far more inaccessible than that. Despite all the heroics of the space-age, we haven’t made it any further than the first step on the path. To invoke another cliche (two in fact), yes, the moon-landings were a giant leap for (hu)mankind, but in cosmological terms we merely hopped from one speck of sand to another on a very very big beach.
Of course, it won’t be long before we make it to Mars. Step two. Our robots have surveyed the surface and our scientists have crunched the numbers. People of means are indeed rubbing their glittering mitts together at the prospect of colonization.
But the enthusiasm of the uber-rich is more than likely misplaced. If our priority was to escape Earth, choosing to go to Mars would be like exchanging the Mississippi Valley for the Sahara, but with greater extremes of heat and cold and less water. It ain’t exactly the Garden of Eden up there.
The simple fact is that contemporary technology isn’t up to inter-stellar emigration. Traveling at the fastest achievable speeds, it took thirty-five years for the first man-made object to make it beyond Pluto. Voyager 1 passed into the void on August 25, 2012, and it’ll continue on until 2025 when its power-pack will die. After that, its carcass will glide on in silence until it collides with something.
Which might take tens of thousands of years. The nearest star system to ours is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years away, and that is but our closest neighbor among billions of trillions. To invoke the mother of all cliches, there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on all the beaches in all the world. It is true, but even that metaphor barely covers it. It’s entirely possible that Voyager 1 will never collide with anything.
Perhaps the fact that we are obliged to speak of space in cliches is an indication of just how foreign and inaccessible it is to us. Nothing in human experience compares. Outside of mathematics, we simply don’t have the language to describe it.
And that’s where art comes in. If it’s understanding of space you want, then art is not limited by language and doesn’t require knowledge of mathematics. If it’s a connection to the cosmos you crave—the preposterous scale, the alien nature, the potential—then images may foster a relationship better than facts or crazy figures.
Some well-known photographic examples support the idea. Taken on the way to the moon in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, The Blue Marble contrasts the black void of space with the jagged greens and browns of Africa, the buoyant navy of the oceans and the matrimonial-white of clouds and the Antarctic ice-blanket. It is the color and variety of life set against the stark nothingness.
Of similar substance, but perhaps articulating its point even more emphatically, EarthRise, taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, foregrounds the dead moon-surface against the void as our fertile Earth ascends on the horizon, appearing as it would to a moon-man the way the moon appears to us.
As a pair, these images mark a paradigm change in our understanding of our place in the universe. In their wake, there could be no doubt that we cling to a bright blue speck gifted with life as it spins through an immense barren blackness. Our Planet-hood is undeniable.
Perhaps even more influential has been Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, the photo of the curiously named astronaut with his better known partner, Neil Armstrong, reflected in his visor. One of the most famous images of all time, it has so entered the collective consciousness that ever since countless artists have rendered people in space with bent left arms.
That the Moon is shown to be an ashen desert only reinforces the lesson of EarthRise. Yes, we have the technology to get to the Moon (and back) but, no, we can never prosper there. It is an iconic moment in human history captured, the day that Earth became Home.
But while these three images connect us to space, they are not really of space. Their power to move us derives from their capacity to illustrate our relationship with space, crystallizing perspective on our existence. They include space, but they convey very little of the nature of space itself. In a word, they remain anthropocentric—centered upon humans.
It’s only as images focus on subjects further into the cosmos that we begin to sense the nature of space dissociated from humanity. As we move away from the familiar Earth, the anthropocentric loosens its hold and we realize that our connection to true space—real space, outer space—manifests on a very different plane of understanding.
An image which illustrates the point is that of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, taken in 1979. Depicting in mandelbrotian detail a storm on the surface of Jupiter, we cling to the familiar when we describe it as “big enough to swallow the Earth three times over,” as is so often said.
Yet while it keeps that toe in the anthropocentric, it takes a giant leap away from it (to invoke the cliche once again). The image is unambiguous: Jupiter is not like Earth. Who would disagree that the swirling ripples and bands of color invoke the Abstract?
And the further from Earth we go, starker the discrepancy between the known and the impressionistic becomes. Images of outer space transcend the anthropocentric entirely, defying those planes of understanding by which we make sense of ourselves and our world. Galaxies and Nebulae exist on scales so far outside human experience that human perspectives are pointless. We can engage with them only in the abstract.
And there, in the abstract realm, is where art comes into its own. The Pillars of Creation is the perfect example. This recently re-released update of the 1995 original shows a portion of the Eagle Nebula, a cosmic formation probably most usefully described (in anthropocentric terms) as a womb for stars. The misty woven wisps of gases, the flaring pinpoints of light and the amniotic stirrings of plasmas are breathtaking. It is chaos, and yet it is order. It is both.
Reduced to the scale of our screens, the vastness is lost, and yet somehow in the interwhirling colors and flares and harmonic hues it remains. Our response is primal, instinctive. We feel our connection in our gut and in our bones. We feel it just as we feel the work of abstract artists.
And that’s because it is abstract art. Images of this kind come courtesy of the Hubble telescope. The space-based device has brought us unprecedented clarity of the cosmos, and its images are tantalizing. But some might be surprised to learn that the Hubble cameras capture only greyscale images, black and white.
The detail comes courtesy of computer manipulation at the hands of a skilled operator. It is the result of matching colors and processes to numbers, chosen to conform to human schema. Even if you could gaze upon the Eagle Nebula with the naked eye, you would see nothing like this. Images such as The Pillars of Creation are as manipulated as any advertisement. They are not images of scientific space. They are the work of artists.
It is the job of artists to challenge, probe and test, to access the inaccessible and render comprehensible the incomprehensible. Abstract images such as The Pillars of Creation render in human terms something which transcends the terrestrial realm.
From just this condition spring the works of Intergalactic Discourses, the space-inspired artistic fruits of Ioannis Galanopoulos-Papavasileiou, Toomas Altnurme and Ricardo Bragança—three very different artists from very different disciplines who find common ground in contemplation of the cosmos.
A big breakthrough in battery technology is needed if the fossil-fuel age is going to end, and it looks like somebody has cracked it.
In days of old, I was a parcel deliveryman. For eight very long years I bolted around the Melbourne CBD in a caffeine-fueled fluster, shoulder-length hair billowing as I chased down toner cartridges. I, the Toner Tornado.
Eventually, the stress of the hunt made a dog’s breakfast of my nerves, and I turned to radio for succor. The popular stations seemed to be geared only for acid parties, drag racing events and lining their own pockets, so I cuddled up to the commercial-free ABC, Australia’s equivalent of the BBC.
There I discovered Radio National, the station devoted to the preoccupations of what an eminent Australian socialite once referred to as "the chattering classes." With me as a listener, their audience boomed into double figures. Riding high upon those medicinal airwaves I unexpectedly encountered Philip Adams, an Aussie legend with a background chock-a-block full of un-Australian activities.
Philip was the commie who prospered in the uber-capitalist advertising industry, the delegate to the Australian Council of Trade Unions who turned up to meetings in a Ferrari, the lower-class school-leaver who promoted native Australian arts culture, founded the Anti-Football League and fought for universal and free education and the rights of the indigenous, women, gays and the environment. He was also the traveller who collected rare Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities.
Where, exactly, did he find the time?
His show was a magazine program called Late Night Live, and in my desperate state I guzzled it like mother’s milk, tuning out the traffic and the toner, happily entangling myself in the barbed humor as he and Christopher Hitchens banged on about Teresa and Clinton, Gandhi and Kissinger--the deified mortals who so got their goat.
I’m afraid I left many a PA tapping their toes by dormant photocopiers while I chortled away in my van unwilling to detach myself from the drip. Once I’d found the cure, I wasn’t about to put my health second to anybody or anything.
Thanks to an Aussie mate, I recently re-discovered Late Night Live on iTunes and found Philip still going strong - older and wheezier and with a lazy delivery I assume to be the remnant of a stroke, but still the same contrarian frustrater of popular opinion and assumption he always was.
That night, he was having a go at lithium-ion batteries. Together with Steve Levine, a writer on geopolitics and technology, Philip explored the idea that lithium is poised to become the new petrol. It isn’t. The batteries are too heavy and over time they lose their capacity to retain a charge.
But recently a researcher named May Le Thai at the University of California discovered by accident that the addition of a cheap plexiglass-like gel to a hitherto fragile technology called Nanowires allows the manufacture of batteries which can be run through at least 200,000 cycles while retaining 100 percent of their capacity. Lithium-ion batteries, by contrast, typically last only 7000 cycles.
So, there it is.
Now, these days I tend to be sceptical about breakthrough technologies. I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that I got all pumped up about TerraPower, Bill Gates’s vision for putting nuclear waste to good use. That one’s a long way off, as other ‘breakthroughs’ have turned out to be (where is ethanol made from algae?) But this incarnation of nanowire tech has the makings of a winner.
Cheers, Philip, once again, for the medicine. Things were getting rough around here.
New research says things are looking super-bad for the future of the climate. But the doom-n’-gloomers won’t get us down.
Outwardly, at least, I am a pessimist. Even while growing up in what could justifiably be described as a seaside idyll, I feasted on novels like Brave New World and 1984 in which the rules that underpin civil society had broken down or been usurped. I saw their themes reflected in my relations with schoolmates.
These days, I relish the apocalyptic fantasies emanating from the publishing empire of Bill Bonner, an American billionaire constantly on the move between renovation projects in Baltimore, Switzerland and somewhere wine-and-cheesy in France.
Bill’s particular brand of apocalypse is financial, and he’s onto a winner. Even the most superficial study of financial history reveals that sooner or later markets crash. Well, Bill knows this better than superficially, yet he peddles the looming disaster as proof of his prescience. It’s a bit like predicting that people are going to die. You can’t really go wrong.
One writer in Bill’s Australian stable, Vern Gowdie, is particularly doomy. Nary a day passes without Vern claiming the latest drop in BHP’s share price is the dawning of The End of Australia, the title of his latest book. The pessimist in me wants him to be right. The optimist bought BHP at $29.
I relish doom-n’-gloom movies, too. The genre really took off in the 70s with the Airport movies (no, not Airplane), The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and the best of the bunch, The Towering Inferno, in which a group of A-grade actors fought to put out a fire in a B-grade tower block.
Enviro-themed apocalypse movies entered the genre when Kevin Costner produced a fantasy set in a world of water, the eminently forgettable . . . something-something. It saved its most dramatic disaster for the box office.
More recently, there was The Day After Tomorrow, a blockbuster cornfest I witnessed with my wife in a theatre somewhere in deepest, sweatiest Asia. Someone had turned the air-con down to ten degrees—deliberately, perhaps.
Clad in but t-shirts and shorts, we shivered through it very much in sympathy with the characters. It didn’t make for a pleasant viewing experience, however, and we emerged from the theatre as grateful for high-thirties humidity as we were for having escaped Dennis Quaid’s acting.
Interestingly, new research suggests that the film’s far-fetched vision of environmental apocalypse may not be that far-fetched after all.
Ricarda Winkelmann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concludes that the burning of all available fossil-fuel reserves threatens dozens of coastal cities—New York, Tokyo and Shanghai included. We can expect the seas to rise ten feet every century for a thousand years, then continue to rise for thousands more beyond that to a top of 200 feet.
In short, we’re in for disruption, devastation and dystopia.
But Hal Wanless and Michael Mann argue that Winkelmann’s model underestimates the speed of the rise. And James Hansen, the scientist who first testified to Congress of the dangers of global warming back in 1988, agrees that multi-meter sea rise could happen within decades, not centuries.
And that ain’t the half of it. Hansen says the intrusion of the cold freshwater into the planet's oceans is shutting down ocean circulation. We can look forward to “superstorms,” or “all hell” breaking loose.
So, to summarise, Winkelmann says the future will bring floods, devastation, disruption and dystopia. And the others? Well, that’s where it gets really exciting for us pessimists . . .
It could be worse.
Big business is waking up to the opportunities of a clean economy. We may be entering an era when an industrial boom benefits the environment.
Warren Buffet is known as The Sage of Omaha. A perennial presence atop the Forbes Billionaire’s list, he remains a modest man, living in a large but not untypical suburban house in Omaha, driving second-hand cars that have been hail-damaged then repaired.
His office has a staff of but twenty-four and no computer. He spends his days reading and thinking and playing bridge on the internet—though not in his office. He has an aversion to debt and he doesn’t go in for Silicon Valley food fads like Schmilk. In fact, he lives on junk food.
You’d think a man of his responsibilities would be harassed and harried, given to bouts of Stalinesque paranoia and control-freakery. But no. Warren simply invests in well-run companies and lets the management get on with running them well while he searches for his next good idea.
In short, Warren defies convention. He simply doesn’t think as other businessmen do—even when it comes to climate change.
As an American industrialist, you’d expect him to see it as a threat. Executives at ExxonMobil certainly did, privately funding the science that confirmed the phenomenon then working in public to deny it.
As a political conservative, you’d think he’d label the whole thing a good ole liberal hoax. American politics, in general, is riddled with climate deniers. One hundred and eighty-two members of the current Congress refuse to accept that it’s happening.
But where the mediocre see a scam, The Sage sees opportunity. Warren views risk to business from climate change the same way he views risk from technological change—something to be planned for.
‘Inaction now is foolhardy,’ he says. ‘Call this Noah’s Law. If an ark may be essential for survival, begin building it today, no matter how cloudless the skies appear.’ He may own a railroad that ships coal, but he’s also one of the biggest suppliers of renewable energy in the US.
His company, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, has made commitments to the development of renewables in support of the deal at COP21. Buffet says the pledges make sense both environmentally and economically.
And the numbers back him up. Mark Jacobson, professor of engineering at Stanford, concluded that a fossil fuel-reliant US will need 2,310 GW of energy by 2050. Alternatively, a 100 percent renewable energy-reliant US would need but 1,296 GW. In the transition to renewables, the country would curb global warming, create jobs, reduce air pollution and save $8,000 per person per year in terms of electricity, health and climate.
It would mean a boatload of economic, social and environmental change for the better.
Other businessmen are getting the message. Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates want a slice of the pie, and financial institutions such as JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo & Co are getting in on the ground floor, cutting back investments in coal.
Over the pond, UK Energy, the UK’s biggest energy lobbying group representing the six largest utilities, wants a piece of the action too. They’ve begun campaigning for low-carbon alternatives. CEO Lawrence Slade says, ‘No one wants to be running the next Nokia.’
The time has arrived for an industrial revolution which makes as good business sense as it does environmental and social sense. Hell, if the Prophet of Profit says to build an ark, then build it. With the flood already at some people’s doors, now’s not the time for conventional thinking.
The breeze ain’t good merely because it dries my washing. It has played a pivotal (though generally unacknowledged) role in human history, and will do so again.
In 1492 Columbus sailed smack-bang into the Bahamas. The historical significance of the moment was much greater than the deed itself. As far as sailing went, traveling five weeks across an open sea wasn’t much chop.
And the great man’s geography was off. The doofus thought he’d landed in Japan! Even an averagely observant parrot would have noticed that the natives didn’t slurp when they ate their noodles.
Perhaps that’s why he killed them all off. They knew his shame. Was Columbus so vain he committed genocide to save himself from public embarrassment? I think we all know the answer to that . . ..
He was certainly an ego-maniac, claiming for himself the prize for being first to sight land when, in fact, a sailor named Rodrigo de Triana had hooked that lucrative fish. History remembers Rodrigo as the only man to have been shafted worse than Pete Best.
Columbus wasn’t even the first European to reach to the New World. In addition to the Vikings, the fisherman of Bristol knew the American coast well, having harvested the cod of the Grand Banks for donkey’s. Unlike Columbus, they kept the precious resource quiet, hoarding it for themselves.
So Columbus gets the credit because of what followed in his wake—and I’m not talking about yer usual icons of Americanic trumpeting such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights or gun deaths. No, the most significant consequences of Columbus’s voyage sprung from his discovery of the trade winds.
These bands of prevailing breeze circle the earth from East to West astride the equator. This was the power Columbus harnessed to whisk the Santa Maria from Africa across the Atlantic. He also learned that at higher latitudes the winds blow the opposite way, and so could whisk him home again.
Thus the Portugese established a triangular commercial route: Europeans to Africa, misery to America and riches to Europe.
It was all about cash. Good for some, disaster for many, but in either case the harnessing of the trade winds tipped the balance of economic power in favor of Europe. And (as always) with economic power came political power.
As it was, so it is, and now the world is on the cusp of wind-driven revolution once more.
In Europe, wind now generates more power than hydro, and the gap to coal and gas is closing fast. In Denmark, wind supplies 42 percent of all electricity, the highest percentage of any country. They’ll reach 50 percent by 2020 and 84 percent by 2035.
The Scots are racing them neck and neck. This January, wind provided almost half of all electricity on the Scottish national grid. For twenty-two days in the month, wind alone generated enough electricity to supply every home in the country.
Over in Norway, they’re building Europe’s largest onshore wind farm, a 1GW network to deliver 3.4TWh of power each year. And in Sweden, the government has announced plans to become fully reliant on renewable energy within thirty years. The idea is to cut domestic emissions by 85 percent and offset the remainder by investing in energy projects abroad.
The technology to be free of fossil fuels is out there. At the moment, the economy needed to achieve that does not exist. But history has shown that the harnessing of wind has driven great economic change before, and may do the same again.
The US cops a lot of flack for the sorry state of the world’s climate, but the Chinese ain’t far behind in terms of responsibility. One of them is embracing a cleaner future, and it may not be the one you think.
Before coming to the UAE I did four years teaching in the Taiwanese incarnation of the Gulag, after-school torture-chambers known as Anchinbans. In these sorry excuses for educational institutions, rows of little kids churn out reams of homework like prisoners breaking rocks and suffer, like inmates, a debilitating drain upon their spirits.
It was quit or suicide, so I chose to move on. The kids don’t have that option, and the statistics reflect that.
If the learning environment was toxic, the living environment wasn’t much better. Often, I commented on the beauty of the tobacco sunsets, the nightly fire-orange and pink extravaganzas which played a decisive part in a number of successful romantic encounters.
‘It’s the smog,’ I was told.
That made sense. On the way in from the airport I’d noticed the wilting freeway-side vegetation, which I’d put down to the abominable heat. But two years later I realised that ever since I’d been suffering a sore throat. Once, I turned side-on in the mirror to find my shoulders hunched and wondered if, perhaps, I was wilting too . . ..
Taiwanese people die from air poisoning. Taipei has the highest population density of any city but Dakha, and the industrial miracle of the last fifty years hasn’t happened simply by churning out dumplings and bubble tea in the Great Mall of Dubai. No, heavy industry and the people live cheek-to-jowl, lips-to-smokestack.
Leave a bowl of cereal out long enough and poisonous particles will settle on it like sugar crystals.
But the poisons ain’t all native. Each year, in a certain season, winds pick up Mongolian dust and distribute it across China. As the winds push south and east, they gather industrial sputum billowing up from the flammable-clothing and plastic-toy factories below and dump it up the Taiwanese nose.
The Taiwanese can’t take it anymore and, not surprisingly, neither can the Chinese.
Beijing experienced its first ever red alert for air quality last December. A red alert doesn’t just mean the air is hazardous. It’s far worse than that. Nor does the issuance of the first red alert mean the air had been that bad for the first time. Rather, it was merely the first time the government had been prepared to admit it.
Implicit with the red alert was the recognition that the time had come to do something.
They’re already at it. The Chinese lead the world in installation of wind energy, adding 29 GW of wind capacity in 2015 after installing 21 GW the year before. The figure accounts for forty-six percent of all wind power installed globally.
The next best country is the US, which installed 8.6 GW—a long way behind and, sadly, receding. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the twenty-seven states opposed to the Clean Power Plan are celebrating their freedom to poison their air as successfully as Beijing has its, just as that economic rival is heading full tilt in the opposite direction.
Of course, for the Chinese it ain’t necessarily about doing right. It used to be said that wherever you find an opportunity to make money, you’ll find an American. But nowadays that Yank will be queuing up behind a couple of Chinese.
It’s about moolah. Lots of it. Enormous, hierarchy-altering piles of it.
The winds of change are blowing in more directions than one.
In the UAE, the race is on to reduce economic dependency upon oil. Recognition has come that the desert nation possesses another resource in even greater abundance than the black stuff.
My mum had itchy feet. The moment each seven-year stretch was up, we’d hobble off to pastures new. Her timing coincided neatly with Dad’s realisations of outdoor furniture and the maturation of his apple trees. Just as the fruit ripened, Mum would pull the plug.
I believe he enjoyed the suffering this entailed. Presumably, the new owners enjoyed the apples.
For us boys, the trauma was less redeeming. A child torn from all they know will respond well enough given explanations of the upside and a long enough lead-in—and I should know, having inflicted it myself. But parenting in those days lacked a certain quality, something called compassion, considered desirable of late.
Even so, each uprooting had its positives. One move befell us while I was transitioning in more ways than one, putting away childish things, exchanging the world of boys for the world of adolescents—a process I hope to complete before my eightieth.
I was clearing a closet when I came across an old pencil case, a sharp-edged wooden blockhouse of a thing. Inside was a forgotten toy, a ball of chewed gum and, low and behold, ten dollars I had long before stashed away for safekeeping.
In all my endeavors, I have never been as wildly successful as I was in this. Hoooowee!
It made me feel like a lottery winner, sparking dreams of a summer of snacks—great bags of mixed sweets, baths of Smarties, swimming pools of fried chicken into which one might bellyflop. In those days, ten bucks meant potential unlimited.
Last week I felt much the same when I came across a series of articles about renewable energy in the UAE.
At first glance it appears counter-intuitive that the UAE would move to divest itself from fossil fuels in favor of renewable technologies, especially with oil at thirty dollars a barrel. But it’s happening.
The motive is not so much the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but the meeting of domestic energy demands which are swallowing a growing share of oil production. For the future of the UAE, it is better to export oil than burn it. But the country has to get its energy from somewhere. The question is, where?
The answer is outside Dubai. DEWA’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is a landmark project for the nation. The first 13MW stage is doing well enough, but the second stage has the makings of something truly special, having ignited international discussion and excitement around the cost competitiveness of utility-scale solar.
Initially, the winning bid of under six US cents per kilowatt hour met with skepticism. But since then the project has been fully financed, doubled in size to 200MW and the price (almost) repeated elsewhere in the Middle East and the US. The extraordinarily low cost has made competition extremely tough among tenders to build the final 800MW phase.
Sometime between now and the achievement of Dubai’s long term renewable energy targets, coal will be left for dead. With the cost of panels falling ten percent per year since the 1980s and a whole host of governments including India, France and the US pushing a renewable agenda, it looks increasingly like the future is solar.
In the UAE, where sun is plentiful, to say the least, it makes sense to let this inexhaustible resource work as hard for the nation’s goals as does oil.
Trump’s pretensions to leadership are symptomatic of everything that ails the GOP. What’s dressed up as patriotism is, in fact, the failure to adapt to a fast-changing world.
At High School, my mate Dan was an excellent student. I don’t mean that he swotted it up while others ran and jumped and fell in love. He did all that. I mean that when exam time rolled round, Dan would dig himself out of whatever hole he’d spent the semester digging himself into and climb to the top of the class. We called him Dan the Deliveryman.
The pressure of other people’s expectations fired him up. We all told him he’d do great, and our teachers niggled him constantly about his natural abilities. His girlfriend, the hottest chick in school, pushed him like a locomotive. Dan needed it to count, and he needed others to tell him it counted.
Then Dan went to university. There, invisible to teachers and anonymous among classmates, the pressure was off. The girlfriend moved on and then suddenly, like a pizza boy with a flat tire, Dan stopped delivering.
It was as if a great big crevasse had opened up and swallowed him. Last I heard, he was drifting through nowhere jobs, struggling to climb out of bed.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Dan lost himself in the environment of independent learning at uni. In an ever-changing world, the failure to adapt can bring disaster.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump says he wants to get America back on track. But his attitudes toward alternative energy promise to keep it running off the rails.
I am reminded of a story in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, Five Go Down to the Sea, which my kids love. It recounts the evil deeds of Wreckers--coastal people who guided ships onto rocks with false lights to pillage the contents and murder passengers and crews for their valuables.
Such are Trump and the GOP. These people have made fortunes in the status quo, and they want to go on milking the coal cow as long as they can. They deny the reality of climate change, dressing up their failure to adapt as patriotism. Their stance demonstrates just how tight a grip vested interests have on conservative American politics.
Fundamentally, they are afraid of change. And in a world in which change is constant, they are being left behind.
Coal is on the way out, and solar is on the way in. Even in an economic environment where coal is cheaper than dirt, during 2015 the US installed seven gigawatts of solar capacity. The solar sector added 35000 jobs, pushing the industry total to 240,000 by the end of this year. Business is booming thanks to solar investment tax credits, positive developments for solar net metering in California and, now, the agreement at COP21.
Gradually, policymakers are climbing aboard. On January 13, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to eliminate all use of coal in the state by 2020. The day before that, President Obama’s State of the Union speech announced a push to “change the way we manage our oil and coal resources so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet.”
With change underway both on the ground and at the top, Trump and the GOP will find themselves increasingly isolated. Of course, Donald might win the election, and then the farce will go on. And, just as Britain’s economic dominance did not survive the colonial era, the US’s economic dominance might not survive the Trainwreck.
Proving that even bloggers can benefit from recycling of resources, to get me through the holiday season I'm posting an article I wrote long ago. Boy, things have changed. And yet, they've stayed the same...
My dad wasn’t a farmer though he very much wanted to be. He housed us on one acre of garden and two of farm and populated his lands with the Guinness World Record’s smallest herd of cows. Being the conscientious cocky that he was, he installed an electric fence to discourage the unrulier elements of the Gang of Three from acting on dreams of greener pastures.
One chilly morn, I trudged bleary-eyed and groggy through the gap in the hedge to deliver the beasts their daily hay. As I dumped the lucerne over the fence, I suffered a barbaric blow to the base of my spine. Screaming in agony, I whipped around to curse my elder brother for assaulting me. I might have added “again.” Not sure.
To my dismay, the space that should have accommodated his demonic form was bare. Had he finally been raptured downwards by a vengeful god for his beastly misdeeds, as I had so often wished?
Eventually, I realised I had touched the electric fence. The cows, themselves having suffered the torment of the wire many times, chomped away contentedly without so much as a moo in sympathy. Did I detect, rather, a hint of sardonic amusement in those sinkhole eyes?
The point is, things weren’t what they’d seemed. Which brings me, logically, to cycling.
It is the pin-up boy of environmentally-friendly pursuits. But it turns out that professional cycling is the most polluting of all sports.
The Tour de France attracts 12 to 15 million spectators, and it’s these enviro-bandits who are the problem. On TV the baddies look innocent enough, waving flags and bouncing on their toes in excitement as the peloton swooshes past in a millisecond blur of rainbow lycra and body odour.
But then they hitch houses to the back of their ageing Renaults and Peugeots and wallow about the Pyrenees in low gear belching poisonous clouds of CO2 over the mountain meadows, laying waste to wildflowers and smothering eagles on the wing.
To be sure, when a spectator plants his foot in the Alps, a dugong goes belly-up in Australia.
F1, on the other hand, is leading the environmental charge from the front. In 2014, the sport introduced rules that demanded a 33 percent fuel saving. If Toyota announced a new Camry that used 33 percent less fuel than the last one, they’d be branded environmental heroes.
The trick is that engineers have matched a small petrol-burning engine to two energy recovery systems to create a hybrid system that is relevant to the motoring industry. In two seasons of competition, the beardy-weirdies have raised the thermal efficiency of the internal combustion engine from 30 percent to 45 percent. By the end of 2016, they will achieve 50 percent.
In other words, the last two years of development has achieved 50 percent as much as the previous one hundred and twenty.
The statistics testify to the value of competition as a driver of innovation. It’s just this kind of thinking that will propel the species over the line if anything will. Hand the present to the engineers and let them forge the future out on the track, I say.
The race is well and truly on to be first into the mass market with this cutting-edge tech. And that’s a good thing because the sooner cycling fans can ditch their eagle-smothering wildflower murderers for F1-derived enviro-wagons the better. We’ll all breathe a little easier, and perhaps, then, cycling will become what it now only seems to be.
For a fortnight, COP21 dominated the news cycle. While the outcome was positive, its ascendancy obscured news that bodes badly for chocolate lovers.
As newly-weds, we shared a granny flat at the bottom of someone's garden. Obviously, Granny had carked it many moons before. The building was derelict.
Nothing worked. The water ran scalding hot and frigid but never in between, and a couple of times a week the fuse box would express its incompatibility with the twentieth century by plunging us into darkness. Before long we found a new place.
We went out to celebrate. In our haste, I neglected to switch off a bedside light. Dust, damp and dinosaurian electrics combined to strike a spark that ignited some tissues, which ignited my pillow, which ignited the rest.
Dinner was gorgeous. I had steak (well done) and she oysters. Soon signals promised that festivities would continue long into the night — or a couple of minutes of it, at least. As we strolled home hand in hand, the lights and screaming sirens of the fire engines hurtling by belonged to another world.
‘Some poor sucker’s in trouble,’ I said. And we smiled into each other’s eyes, luxuriating in the certainty that no matter how awful life was for others it could hardly get any better for us.
At that instant, we realised the lights and the noise and the hellish orange glow were coming from our place. We sprinted home and observed from behind a tape barrier as the flames lay waste to everything we had, chastened.
And so, just as fire fractured the illusion of our inviolability, we illuminate the theme of this article: joy in the positive can obscure the negative.
Kudos to Paris
With praise raining down like pieces of Russian planes, only the Heartland Institute — whose conference (also held in Paris) coincided with COP21 — would have the gall to brand the landmark deal a bad thing.
At long last there was recognition — even from that big stick-in-the-mud keeping the Atlantic and Pacific apart — that coal will die as soon as the economic drivers demand it. Once Solar and Wind are cheaper, businessmen will seize the opportunity and everyone will dance on its grave.
It’s not far in the future. But we shouldn't get too carried away. Before the world changes for the good, a lot of bad has to happen.
In Ivory Coast, failing rainfall due to global warming is decimating the cocoa crop. Farmers are harvesting smaller beans of lower quality. Limiting the warming to 1.5 C isn’t going to stop it.
Cocoa expert Christophe Douca says there is a risk that cocoa production will collapse. Understandably, he, the farmers and the country as a whole are worried. And we should be, too. If climate change has anything to teach us, it’s that we’re in this together.
Producers in the $80 billion chocolate economy are already among the most vulnerable people on earth. Typically, cocoa is grown alongside food crops by subsistence farmers. It pays the bills. But that’s it. Many live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day.
The pittance paid them is one of the reasons we can afford to decimate boxes of the stuff over Christmas. As we fill our faces, we might ponder the consequences as 33 percent of the world’s cocoa is lost.
The deal in Paris bodes well to recognise that economics will drive the world to sustainable practices, but we should nevertheless prepare ourselves for changes already in motion that might not be easy to swallow.
Not everyone is going to cop it sweet.