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Mosanto: The Invasive Species?

November 13, 2011

The term neophyte, with its ecclesiastical heritage from the term neophutos, means literally newly planted. Many ecologists are of the opinion that the (plant/animal) newcomers do more harm than good and must be eradicated. A rather uncanny feeling creeps up in the connotation and conjures xenophobic visions that see a threat in all newcomers. Nevertheless, it has been accepted as the gold standard, to cut down and eradicate that what is considered new and threatening. And the tools that are put to use, in the pursuit of this aim, can range from mechanical to plain poison aka herbicide.

Before we fall into the inane fear of the “unknown unknowns”, as one unfortunate soul of history had trumped up, let us ponder on a slightly related issue. Is it possible to hold the clock and stop evolution in its steps, without influencing it? From our knowledge of quantum physics, we should know that it is impossible to do so. But nevertheless we try and try again, in this never-ending search for equilibrium that has evaded humankind since time existed.

The majority of people would not have heard about Willapa Bay in Washington State, USA, or ever get to see that part of the world. What is taking place there is a microcosm of our (mis-)conception of what we perceive to be the ‘correct’ evolution of species. This could be an oxymoron or a dangerous precedent that has its antecedents in eugenics, which was practiced on humans in the not too distant past. Animal and plant breeding has been practiced for thousands of years, with some success and an equal amount of failure. In a modern day 12 loaves story, they have been instrumental in providing nutrition for millions worldwide.

Monsanto Corporation has been in the limelight for decades for reasons that any company would prefer not to be in. This appears to be the fate of many large corporations working in fields such as biology, chemistry or pharmaceuticals. Are we dealing with greedy corporations who seek their own self-aggrandisement at the expense of many others? Or does it go with the territory of offering solutions that have, by their very nature, a flip side?

The presence of a salt water grass, spartina alterniflora, in large numbers in Willapa Bay has provided Monsanto, with their Roundup and Rodeo and BASF with their Imazapyr herbicides a good commercial opportunity in the governmental attempt to eradicate this weed, which incidentally is not classified as a weed on the US east coast.

A quite incisive, neutral and detailed write-up can be read at Truth Out.

The greater issue that should be of concern to us is our wish for a constant, static and highly regulated change process that refuses to acknowledge that evolution has been a timeless and a never-ending process. If any species can be termed as the master of invasion, it would be the dubious privilege conferred on homo sapiens sapiens.

It is but opportune for us to reflect on the positive (and negative effects) of the Scotch Broom, cytisus scoparius, introduced to America from Europe and the effect of PL 480 (US Food for Peace!), which brought Parthenium aka Congress Grass to India from the US in the late fifties.

In the words of Portia from The Merchant of Venice act 4, scene 1)

“Tarry a little, there is something else.

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;

The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’.”

The Clean Water You Drink was Sewage Water Once

November 8, 2011

Some societies more than other baulk at the thought of drinking treated sewage water. Whereas many subject themselves to a literal hand to mouth transfer of water that leads to deadly water-borne diseases – some of which is due to ignorance in simple hygienic practices – there are others who steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that matter cannot be created or destroyed. That water can and does go through a regenerative cycle and regains the purity that distilled water has.

Our perceptions on the water cycle are deeply flawed and much is related to the inherent ignorance that energy consumption plays in the entire water cycle. The primary aim must lie in reducing water pollution and the secondary goal should be in rejuvenating water with minimal energy. This is again a call to, especially in big cities, cut down on the size of centralized treatment plants and have more local sewage treatment that can effectively carry out the process at a lower price, with many advantages such as reductions in energy consumption and recovery of exothermic energy for local use either for heating and/or electricity generation.

Present day sewage treatment plants carry out a combined mechanical and biological treatment process, thereby discharging the water into large flow water bodies. These water bodies later serve as a source  of drinking water. A partial closed loop process that has been effective in providing clean drinking water where such facilities are available and large water bodies are a perennial source.

The paradigm shift that many have to face is the need to close and shorten the loop, leading to a quick turnaround that could lead to a 50% and higher reduction in the need for fresh water. It is possible, using today’s technology, to recycle water and reuse it. See my blog entry on The Darn Energy Shift and the need for decentralized solutions.

All that stands in the way in the words of Carol Nemeroff is “It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone.”

We need to get the dirt out of our minds! NPR has a feature on ‘Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds‘.

Money Rules the World OR Does Size Matter?

November 6, 2011

Forbes, Times or you name it have repeatedly come up with these mildly amusing selected few as the person of the year or better still the most powerful (read influential) person in our part of the Milky Way. The seemingly endless list of metrics that one can think of, in defining power and influence, apart from the few benign exceptions such as a Mother Teresa that are not the rule. We have put to use this endless array in showcasing individuals, corporations and nations as being the greatest and the best. Replete with a testosterone charged size comparison, we never fail in raising one chosen person (or entity) onto the pedestal.

Switzerland’s Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich has crunched billions of Bytes of open-source data and in a recently published report, The Global Network of Corporate Control, listed machinations of the evil empire – The web of corporate institutes owned and operated by a select few. It is but apt that Vladimir Ilyich Lenin wrote his impression of finance capitalism in ‘Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism’ in 1916 in the very same city, Zurich. History repeats itself, or the same verbiage rehashed in a new package? Long before the 1% vs. the 99% turned main-stream, we have had many apostles warning about the exploitation of the proletariat. Lenin must be having a laugh in his mausoleum at the Red Square.

Analysing over 43’000 trans-national corporations (TNCs) as defined by the OECD and using the Orbis database for data on ownership. The scientists at the Chair of Systems Design at the ETH have whittled down the mass to a core of 1’300 companies that are interwoven to the extent that 3/4ths of the shares remain within the core. The study whittles down the number to 147 corporates or individuals who own and control 40% of TNCs worldwide. Before the conspiracy theorists start screaming, only the dependency and interconnection of the entities was examined. The study does not inquire or study the motivations and whether there has been deliberate collusion or attempt to collude within these entities.

Lord Acton is quoted to have said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Does the democratization of the world in the past hundred years have a decisive influence on societal processes? In other words does democracy enable an evening out of power and control both within political and corporate institutions? If history is anything to go by perhaps not, if the recent exposures can be verified. As can be seen by revelations that regularly surface in public space, about the acts of democratically elected representatives, who seem to have their own peccadilloes and predilections take the upper hand.

So does size matter? Fat Man and Little Boy, the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, had an explosive force equivalent to 21 kt and 18 kt TNT respectively. The B-53 series of atomic bombs, now considered obsolete, have an explosive force of 9 mt TNT. After having taken care of ringing in Armageddon on Earth with the B-53, the pilots will then fly off to paradise, wherever that may be. Keeping in mind the improvements in technology and circular error probability (CEP), it appears that we no longer require a sledge hammer for castration.

Solar Powered LED Lamps

November 5, 2011

Global Light & Water Systems, an Israeli company, has come out with a product that can be instrumental in contributing to a paradigm change in our energy consumption. Firstly in the use of photovoltaic energy for lighting and secondly in a decentralised power production and distribution system.

Their LED street lamp, Orion, provides autonomous street lighting that goes a long way in reducing power consumption. The comparative figures between high power Sodium vapour (HPS) lamps and Orion’s LED lamps are truly attractive with power consumption savings that can go up to 70%, for the same light intensity. With a rechargeable battery system that can provide power for 10 hours, this is a product that must find use worldwide. Undoubtedly there is the issue of the initial price and the life of the accompanying electronic boards together with the vexing issue of electronic parts recycling. None of these are insurmountable and can be resolved with due process.

Our lives are determined by the use of artificial light and it is imperative that we reduce our energy consumption and this also includes the ‘grey’ energy, which is the energy put into the manufacturing process and logistical chain.

The New Moses Alias Matt Ridley?

October 10, 2011

The Rational OptimistIn the words of Louis Armstrong, the great Satchmo, it was a ‘Leave it all behind ya’ (could be an environmental slogan!), and as we hum along to the evergreen ‘What a wonderful world’, hoping that it is still and will continue to be wonderful one, we stop and ponder on Matt Ridley’s prophetic words.

It is this ‘wonderful world’ that appears to be the tag line of Matt Ridley’s sheer optimism that makes him popular, holding lectures, talking to audiences, selling books and generally spreading the ‘good news’. A relief one could say, in a world that has been clouded with doomsday prophets from time immemorial.

Great SatchmoHaving recalled the grave and unmistakable message of the ‘Club of Rome‘ with the ‘Limits of Growth’ or the rather cute reflections in ‘Small is Beautiful‘ from E.F. Schumacher in the seventies, to be followed by the likes of Francis Fukuyama with the ‘End of history‘, we find ourselves often hampered in our progressive steps by our own fear of mortal degradation.

In a compilation of facts and figures, Matt Ridley has comparative figures that seem to underline his thesis that we have made tremendous progress from our beginnings in the African Savannah. And this in spite of all the drawbacks and slippages! The rational optimist or is he the ‘Town crier’ by profession? Matt Ridley was the Managing Director of Northern Rock, the British bank led to the brink of bankruptcy and to the privileged statehood of governmental takeover. Lest we fall into witch hunting, nobody is perfect.

Division of Labour

Ridley’s theory is that our ability to barter goods and services has been instrumental in the rapid progress of humans. That it is our capability to use our individual talents to the best of our abilities and, last but not least, the freedom to exchange these worldwide that has been hugely responsible for the improved standard of living. Hindsight is a great relief to many, so much so that we wish  we had a gluteal rear-view of sorts (pun intended). Unfortunately, hindsight can be rarely brought to play within a generation. The doomsday energy scenarios in the seventies is a case in point. We should be running out of oil just about now, if the pundits of yore were right. Anyone who has dabbled at the stock exchange and lost will find no relief to know that the trend has always been positive!

The Great Divide

Ridley’s factual thesis must however take a beating, when he discounts the well documented fact that the divide between the rich and the poor has indeed grown. This is a grave error of judgement and a misinterpretation of facts, on his part. Distribution of wealth, and this it is not a socialist agenda, has been skewed to epic proportions. The fatal error that anyone can make in interpreting statistical data, an error that Winston Churchill is attributed to have said, and which has never been substantiated: The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself. Matt Ridley’s fatal error is using different base lines and disparate data, in coming to false conclusions.

Free Markets

Matt Ridley is quite right in warning of dire consequences, if markets are protected and free trade hampered. The concept of home (urban) gardening or the sole use of organically grown produce is cute but unsustainable both to feed the population and to the economy. However, it is time to reflect and look for a judicious mix that would and can provide for the population without running the economy aground.

Environment

Ridley’s thesis on CO2 emission is indeed highly controversial, as he supports economic growth at any cost, expecting nations to clean up after the debacle. The effects of green house gas (GHG) emissions are insidious and long-term, their influence cannot be switched off like he does with his much revered iPhone. Perhaps his book royalties would finance a trip to the island nations that are literally swamped by rising sea levels, to help him change his mind.

Epilogue: A good read taken with a pinch of salt. No one is infallible!

Solar Panels Have Never Been Cheaper

October 5, 2011

Vaillancourt-Schneck Memorial Nature TrailThe drop in prices of solar cells can be traced to three important factors, lack of subsidies (strange but true), improved technology and competition.

Subsidies apparently lead to manufacturers raising production, in anticipation of higher sales, and to charge them higher prices, as the customer can apparently now afford it! A slight but important “willingness to pay” factor in a free market economy. Apparently the drawing down of subsidies (See www.dailykos.com) in countries like Germany and Italy has played a major role. Now that the subsidies are gone, the customers have also disappeared. Subsidies apparently have multi-fold repercussions, one of which is to largely improve  corporate profits! Something that was not the primary purpose of the subsidy.

The improvement of technology that has improved power output has also contributed to a drop in unit watt prices. First Solar’s Cadmium Telluride solar cells – oops hazardous disposal – now have a test laboratory output efficiency going from 11.7% to 17.3%, bringing down the unit cost of power to $0.75/Watt in comparison to $1.40/Watt for Silicon solar cells. Innovalight’s Silicon-Ink technology improvements has made DuPont see a market potential.

IPCC’s price trend curve appears to have been spot on, showing a price drop from $6.50/Watt in 1985. The $0.75/Watt price is still way above the price that a consumer is willing to pay, so that one does have to continue to factor in a life-cycle cost covering pricing mechanism, which would look at the carbon footprint of power production. Power producers still require incentives to make the change, and this means that governments must find ways and means to provide negative tax subsidies to facilitate an energy shift. With the parochial interests at stake and the vested interests of oil, gas and coal producers, it will be a long haul before we can make the energy shift.

It is naive to think that the ‘natural’ drop in renewable energy prices will make it attractive to customers. Even a cursory look at the price of oil and natural gas in the past couple of decades shows that the moment demand drops there will be a commensurate drop in energy prices. There is no way around than to look at the entire life-cycle cost and the carbon footprint, in determining how taxation can channel development.

Nutrition Produces a Lot of Hot Green House Gas!

October 3, 2011

The often less acknowledged and well documented fact, that humans are  Green House Gas producers (See National Digestive Diseases
Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)
, for a primer) on a regular basis that include carbon dioxide and, at times, methane and compounds of sulphides crossing volumes over 2 litres a day, must be seen in a rather interesting context. No, it does not have to do with the digestive system and its peccadilloes or the passing of wind as a form of entertainment or emotive expression, but with the  actual nutritional source.

In what I must say has been an eye opener is the fact that the largest contribution to  (GHG) through consumption comes from our nutrition! Over 30% in fact followed by housing with over 20%. An interesting blog called Eaternity (some pages in English) in German has touched upon a subject that we may need to factor-in when calculating our CO2 footprint. The actual production process of meat and meat products appears to contribute just a shade short of 60% to total emissions, whereas fruit and vegetables contribute just 6.5%. The caveat however is that vegetarian per se is not necessarily less of a GHG contributor. Secondary milk products such as cheese have higher levels of GHG emissions during the production process. Just as the production of rice and potato chips have high levels of GHG emissions. See Environmental
Impact of Products (EIPRO)
for further information.

The basic and quite well documented tenets of sustainable nutrition are based on three primary factors vegetarian, seasonal and local. Now if that isn’t an invitation to go to the local farmers market and skip that prime beef steak once in a while? Provided of course the produce is indeed local.