But I don’t think only being concerned about the environment is a good idea. People matter, too.
I don’t think it’s an either/or thing.
- Technology, history, and being human
- News and views
- Acting like faith matters
His father may have been as interested in new technology as I am. They got a kerosene lamp when such things became available in their area.
I probably also got my understanding that no technology is “safe” in the sense of being absolutely idiot-proof, from them. By way of my father, of course.
He told me that they tested the new lamp by clearing a firebreak around a stump. Then, setting the lamp on the now-isolated stump, they carefully lit the lamp.
Satisfied that it would produce light and some heat, and was not a serious safety hazard, they started using it. They later moved to an area which had been more obviously affected by the Industrial Revolution.
I remember my parent’s first television set, the hoopla over color television, and hand-wringing op-eds over the dreadful effect telephones had on the young. ‘Kids these days! They don’t communicate any more. They just sit for hours, talking on the telephone.’
My wife and I didn’t have Internet connections in the first years of our marriage, but our youngest kids don’t remember a world that wasn’t ‘connected.’ On the whole, I like living in the Information Age.
Today’s computers, smartphones, and data networks, won’t solve all our problems, but I don’t see information tech as a threat. They’re tools we can use to help or hurt each other. How we use them is our choice.
England was at the leading edge of the Industrial Revolution, starting somewhere between 1760 and 1840. That was good news, and not-so-good news.
On the ‘up’ side, we don’t have nearly as many famines these days.
I suspect we’ll be cleaning up effects of the ‘down’ side for centuries.
But I certainly don’t miss the days of frequent famines. That would make about as much sense as assuming that growing crops, instead of hunting and gathering, is a bad idea. (October 21, 2016; July 22, 2016; August 26, 2016)
I still run into other folks who talk as if they think Earth’s resources are literally infinite.
But I don’t think we’ll all starve, or drown when the icecaps melt, or perish of some calamity wrought by “tampering with things man was not supposed to know,” as the mercurial Mr. Squibbs said. I’ll get back to that.
While the Industrial Revolution was starting in England, settlers from former English colonies in North America were moving into land west of the Appalachians.
“…Many mills are already built on this stream, some of which are represented in the map, and will have a plentiful supply of water in the dryest seasons. … Here is great plenty of fine cane, on which the cattle feed, and grow fat….”
(“The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke,” John Filson (1784) via Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
His expressed attitude is understandable. He’d acquired large land claims there, and was encouraging folks to buy parcels of his investment.
We see the same sort of thing in today’s real estate ads.
I think quite a few folks shared the optimism shown in Filson’s publication. But not all.
Not quite two decades later, back in England, Thomas Robert Malthus assured himself a place of honor in the hallowed halls of doomsayers.
His 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population” set the standard for many later prognostications of grim futures.
He was a clergyman, and concerned about the poor. I think that’s reasonable. What he considered beneficial for the poor is — debatably charitable.
He thought, for example, that English Poor Laws encouraged the lower classes to have too many kids.
His work inspired terms like Malthusian catastrophe.
Malthus wasn’t the only one who wasn’t thrilled about the Industrial Revolution.
“…And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?…”
(“And did those feet in ancient time,” William Blake (1804))
William Blake’s poem may or may not involve his personal mythology. He’s been seen as colorful, eccentric, and — during his life — crazy. Also very talented. The “Jerusalem” he talks about in the poem has, I think, more to do with English folklore than history.
I take Blake’s work seriously: as poetry and literature. The same goes for works by Yeats and Lovecraft:
“…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
(“The Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats (1919))
“…hillfolk will tell you that it is indeed a spot transplanted from his Satanic Majesty’s front yard….”
(“The Tree on the Hill,” H. P. Lovecraft and Duane W. Rimel (1934))
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t use religious jargon that way, partly because I take my faith seriously. Also because I appreciate the capacity some folks have for mistaking poetry and metaphor for literal fact.
Scary environmental news items go back at least to an 1898 article warning that we were running out of oxygen.
I do not think we are burning the last of Earth’s oxygen and will asphyxiate in a few centuries. Lord Kelvin’s math was accurate, but his assumptions weren’t.
I’m also confident that we’ll sort out today’s environmental issues: and that the solution is improving technology, not fearing it. (February 10, 2017)
The lesson of the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 is not that irresponsibility is okay because future generations will develop tech that fixes our blunders. We can, and should, deal with today’s issues: within reason. (May 26, 2017; February 10, 2017)
I don’t know why some Christians, including some Catholics, seem so angry about — just about everything, and that’s another topic.
My guess is that some Catholics dislike “Laudato si” because Pope Francis wrote it. Maybe I’m being unfair. I’m still studying his ‘environmental encyclical,’ but what I’ve found so far is consistent with what the Church has been saying.
Bear in mind that my first impulse, on hearing that a Pope has said something that seems odd, is not assuming that I’m right and the Pope is wrong.
I start by finding out what the Pope actually said, not what some guy thought he heard someone say the Pope said. (July 30, 2017)
I was pleased, but not surprised, when I learned that the Catholic versions of environmental awareness and social justice make sense. That was years ago now. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 307, 339, 952, 1928–1942, 2415)
Using natural resources, within reason, is okay. So is private ownership. Again, within reason. But humanity’s “dominion” is not ownership. I must remember that future generations will live here, too. (Catechism, 2401–2405, 2415, 2456)
Part of our job is keeping this world in good working order. Science and technology aren’t problems. They’re part of being human. Like I said, using our tools wisely is up to us. (Genesis 1:26–29, 2:15; Catechism, 339, 2292–2295)
“‘Dodgy’ greenhouse gas data threatens Paris accord”
Matt McGrath, BBC News (August 8, 2017)
“Potent, climate-warming gases are being emitted into the atmosphere but are not being recorded in official inventories, a BBC investigation has found.
“Air monitors in Switzerland have detected large quantities of one gas coming from a location in Italy.
“However, the Italian submission to the UN records just a tiny amount of the substance being emitted….”
The “greenhouse gas” scientists detected is HFC-23, or CHF3, a form of Fluoroform used in plasma etching and as a refrigerant. It’s also a byproduct of making Teflon.
It’s not ‘green’ in a ‘save the whatever’ sense, but it is natural in the sense that some cells produce small amounts.
I figure BBC is right. The HFC-23 detected in Switzerland was almost certainly unreported industrial effluvia.
The photo’s caption isn’t strictly accurate, however. The structure is the Sphinx Observatory. There is an air monitoring station there, but it’s not “at” Jungfaujoch. It’s close, though.
Jungfraujoch is the name of a saddle in the Bernese Alps. The Jungraujoch saddle is between Jungfrau and Mönch, two peaks. They’re between Interlaken and Fiesch in Switzerland. Scientists have been using the Jungfraujoch area for almost a century.
Walter Rudolf Hess and others started the International Foundation High Alpine Research Station Jungfraujoch in 1930.
Scientists were working at the station a year later. They were studying weather, glaciers, and physiology.
Astronomers came, too, including some who were studying cosmic rays.
The Sphinx Observatory building was finished in 1937, except for parts that got added later. Lots of parts.
By now it’s got two laboratories, two terraces for science experiments, a weather observing station, a workshop, and living quarters for the two couples who keep the place running.
Researchers sleep and eat on site, too, but not tourists. Folks who aren’t working there can visit, though, arriving at a railway station that’s the highest one in Europe. The research facility is a big place, but maybe not as famous as the Piz Gloria.1
I’m not surprised that folks at the Sphinx research station detected gas that doesn’t officially exist.
Folks don’t always share what they know. Lapses in judgment during the summer of 1953, and spring of 1986, aren’t unique; but I think they’re good — or bad — examples.
A high-pressure air mass tangled with its low-pressure counterpart over Nebraska on June 7, 1953. The June 7th storms weren’t particularly memorable.
But one tornado on June 8th killed 116 folks. The body count was 247 by day’s end.
That photo shows part of Flint-Beecher, Michigan, after the storm passed.
What’s sad is that many of those deaths were most likely avoidable.
Officials at the National Weather Service knew that tornadoes were likely when the storm started ripping through New York state.
Folks in the New England area aren’t accustomed to twisters, though, so the powers that be didn’t issue a warning.
The official decision was, apparently, well-intentioned. Decision-makers at the Weather Service didn’t want common folks to panic. They did, however, issue the first severe thunderstorm watch in Massachusetts history.
Buildings and people are a lot closer together, on average, in Massachusetts: compared to much of Tornado Alley, anyway.
Several dozen abrupt deaths later, quite a few folks started wondering why nobody had given them a ‘heads up.’
Starting June 17, 1953, the Storm Prediction Center got reorganized. Since then, we’ve set up a nationwide radar/storm spotter system, and developed tech that helps us collect, analyze, and broadcast information.2
On the whole, I greatly prefer knowing that potentially-lethal weather is headed my way to being sheltered from scary facts ‘for my own good.’
I strongly suspect that many folks have a great deal more sense than our ‘betters’ assume.
(Updated, June 15, 2019: with a tip of the hat to Sharon Sloan, for drawing attention to the May, 1953, tornadoes. Wikipedia lists it as the 1953 Sarnia tornado: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Sarnia_tornado )
The Soviet Union, England, and America had been building nuclear power plants since the 1950s.
The 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown encouraged concerns, reasonable and otherwise, about radiation.
That made alarms going off at Sweden’s Forsmark power plant international news.
Sweden’s government wasn’t particularly vocal in denying their guilt, partly because radiation levels were rising all over northern Europe. Radioactive particles were spreading; and nobody seemed to know where the stuff was coming from.
Some scientists said weather conditions and radiation readings strongly suggested that the source was somewhere between the Baltic and Black Seas.3
Folks running the Soviet Union finally acknowledged that things were not entirely fine somewhere, and that everyone should stop asking so many questions. The statements were in diplomatese, of course.
Apparently Soviet leadership had a bit of difficulty with public trust after that. Americans went through the same sort of thing after the 1953 storms and 1979 radiation leak.
For someone at the ‘public’ end of society, I think the trick is learning how to be reasonably cautious, not hysterical. (July 28, 2017)
We still study cloud patterns. Around the 1700s, more precise data and improved analysis methods led to today’s astronomical science and relegated astrology to newspaper columns. (June 23, 2017)
Galileo didn’t invent the Galileo thermometer, an early sort of thermometer that’s now more of a home decor item than scientific instrument. The Accademia del Cimento released details of their invention in 1666.
Evangelista Torricelli was a member of that group, and had been a pupil of Galileo. Maybe “Galileo thermometer” sounds cooler than “Accademia del Cimento thermometer.”
Galileo probably did invent a thermoscope, which isn’t quite the same thing. Some folks say he was the first to make that sort of thermometer. A whole lot of folks in Europe were making the “first” thermoscope around that time: independently, I suspect.
Galileo did, however, rewrite the book on weather forecasting by measuring temperatures in 1607. Up to that time, European scholars assumed that heat and cold were qualities of Aristotle’s four elements.
As far as I know, folks generally didn’t get conniptions over Galileo’s temperature research, and that’s yet another topic. (March 24, 2017)
I was going somewhere with this. Let me think. Swiss laboratories, tourism, astrology, interior design. Right.
That made meteorology less a study of past weather, and more a predictive science.
The first weather satellite went into orbit in 1960. Today we’ve got a network of geostationary and other satellites monitoring atmospheric data, including cloud patterns like the ones Babylon’s experts watched.4
I’ve noticed that weather forecasts are more accurate than a half-century back, at least for the next 24 hours. And America’s weather service is, if anything, a bit over-eager about issuing severe weather warnings.
Maybe it’s because nobody wants to get reassigned to the Barrow Climate Monitoring Lab.
I don’t know why Italy’s official numbers for HFC-23 emissions don’t match what scientists detected in Switzerland.
Maybe everyone’s telling the truth, as far as they know, and numbers got accidentally scrambled somewhere between Italy’s monitors and bureaucrats who were handing the Paris Agreement’s paperwork.
But I won’t be surprised if we eventually learn that someone in Italy adjusted their reports of HFC-23 inventories to reflect what folks higher up wanted to read.
Assuming that nobody would notice the discrepancy might be easy for someone who didn’t keep up with science news.
It’s even possible that all six scientists who put their names on the 2011 report decided that they’d try fooling the BBC and UN.5
That seems a bit extreme for a practical joke, though.
Whatever the reason for the discrepancy between official numbers and what I assume are real observations, I think having someone other than officials and industries collecting data is a good idea.
My preference would be making raw data from satellites available to anyone who is interested. That would give us data on all of Earth’s atmosphere, not just a few spots near monitoring stations.
Having someone coordinating efforts like the Paris Agreement makes sense. But so does keeping an eye on data being collected, and seeing if it matches official summaries. Even if everybody’s being completely honest, mistakes do happen.
“Burning policy puts pressure on recycling targets”
Roger Harrabin, BBC environment analyst; BBC News (August 7, 2017)
“A boom in incinerator-building could make it impossible for the UK to meet future targets for recycling, a report says.
“The consultancy Eunomia says waste companies constructing new incinerators will need waste to feed them.
“And that could reduce Britain’s stated ambition to recycle more waste.
“A government spokesman said ‘great progress’ had been made in boosting recycling rates….”
That shiny structure is the Newhaven Energy Recovery Facility (ERF). Depending on who’s talking, it’s a generating plant turning household waste into electricity — or an incinerator that will bring doom upon East Sussex.6
ERF started operations five years back. East Sussex is still there. Some locals have probably gotten used to increased traffic around the plant, and others may still be protesting.
I also think that recycling is a good idea. But I’m pretty sure it isn’t the only good idea being tried these days. Also that it’s not a perfect solution to environmental issues.
The problem — if that’s what it is — seems to be that folks in England who like recycling have less municipal waste to recycle. That’s because power plants like the ERF are using it to generate electricity.
I don’t think either system is perfect, but both are better than dumping the stuff in a landfill. We’re also learning how to mine landfills for recyclable waste. I’m quite sure that it won’t a perfect solution, either.
Happily, I don’t live in the UK, and don’t have a recycling quota to meet.
There’s almost certainly a political angle to this, since folks from one party did more than their counterparts in another to start burning waste instead of coal to generate electricity.
Phasing out coal-burning generators was almost certainly a good idea. I’m not sure that protesting in fancy dress is the best way to keep folks reminded of London’s killer fog, and that’s yet again another topic. (July 28, 2017; July 14, 2017)
I think biofuels are a good idea, too: which is what the next article is about.
“Waste products, not crops, key to boosting UK biofuels”
Matt McGrath, BBC News (July 14, 2017)
“The UK should focus on using waste products like chip fat if it wants to double production of biofuels according a new study.
“The report from the Royal Academy of Engineering says that making fuel from crops like wheat should be restricted.
“Incentives should be given to farmers to increase production of fuel crops like Miscanthus on marginal land.
“Even with electric vehicles, biofuels will still be needed for aviation and heavy goods say the authors….”
I’ve been driving vehicles using a biofuel for years: a mix of gasoline and ethanol. Nothing unusual about that. Americans started using gasoline with 10% ethanol in the 1970s.
In 2005 the United States was producing more ‘ethanol fuel’ than any other country.
Biofuel for internal combustion engines goes back at least to the early 1800s. Samuel Morey developed and patented an engine that used turpentine vapor as fuel.
Steam power was the hot new tech of the day, though, so his little two-cylinder engine wasn’t well known. The 1836 patent office fire, one of several over our history, destroyed the official patent records; but not his family’s copies.
I think the lesson from Mr. Morey’s experience is that making and keeping backups is a good idea: not that someone’s burning government records. and that’s still another topic.7 (July 21, 2017; December 23, 2016)
I also think finding replacements for petroleum products is a good idea, but wasn’t surprised when folks learned that ethanol isn’t a panacea.8
The issue raised by the Royal Academy of Engineering should have been obvious.
Ethanol is made with ethyl alcohol. Some of the easier ways to make ethyl alcohol involve fermenting grain.
We can decide that part of a corn crop, for example, can be used to feed us directly. It’s also good for hog chow, and can be distilled into drinks like whiskey. But using a larger fraction of the crop for one use means smaller portions for other purposes.
That seemed obvious to me, back in the ’70s. Maybe it helped that I grew up in an area where agribusiness was an important part of the regional economy.
The good news here is that we can make ethanol from a wide range of organic stuff, not just crops we eat or use for livestock feed.
“Record number of environmental activists killed around the world”
Matt McGrath, BBC News (July 13, 2017)
“Growing competition for land and natural resources saw a record number of environmental activists killed in 2016, says Global Witness.
“The green group’s report details at least 200 murders across 24 countries, up significantly from 2015.
“Disputes over mining were the cause of the greatest number of killings, followed by logging and agribusiness.
“Brazil saw the most deaths overall, but there were big increases in Colombia and India.
“Global Witness has been publishing annual reports on the threats to activists since 2012, although it has data going back to 2002….”
I think it’s well to remember that not all “environmental activists” are like the folks who get their pictures taken at high-profile events like the G20 summit and Paris climate talks. (July 14, 2017 )
Some, like Berta Cáceres, are interested in more than purely environmental issues.
She founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras in 1993. The organization started with another name.
These days her group focuses on issues affecting the Lenca, folks whose ancestors lived in what’s now Honduras when European explorers arrived. They’ve maintained their culture, but not their language.
Many apparently don’t think folks running Honduras care what they say.
Considering how many Lenca, including Berta Cáceres, have been killed after expressing their displeasure, I think they may have a point.
It’s not the sort of response I expect from folks who are willing to listen.
Starting in 2006, Sinohydro, a Chinese hydropower engineering and construction company, and the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos, made plans to build four hydroelectric plants on the Río Gualcarque.
They apparently consulted with all the right officials, including the International Finance Corporation and Honduran government.
On-site work began in 2012.
That, apparently, is when folks who lived in the construction zone learned about the project.
They complained. I think that’s understandable. The land isn’t just their home. They depend on the river for their livelihood.
Nobody had asked them about taking their land and building power plants on their river.
Engineers who designed the dams may have taken local and regional needs into account. I don’t think they’re responsible for the mess. The power plants would have been run-of-the-river weirs, generating electricity without creating large reservoirs.
I suspect that at least some Lenca would have wanted their river left entirely alone. Their attitude toward it reminds me how folks in one of my wife’s ancestral homelands saw Donar’s Oak.
Some troublesome Lenca were tortured, others were killed. When folks outside Honduras started hearing about the issue, some of the project’s financial backers pulled out.
It’s possible that the Río Gualcarque power project will continue anyway.
But after the shameful way they have been treated, I think Lenca cooperation will be grudging, at best.
The good news is that apparently only one bothersome person was killed in Honduras so far this year. That’s an enormous improvement. But it’s still not good.
Roughly two thirds have access to electric power: mostly in urban areas. Most folks in rural areas get by without power.
Uneven electrical power coverage isn’t the only problem.
Honduras is among the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Exactly how the nation ranks depends on which statistics are counted.
One of the issues they’re dealing with is not having a well-developed market for export goods. My guess is that a habit of killing Hondurans who complain isn’t helping.
But I like to think that at least some folks responsible for planning those power plants meant well.
Twa were hunters, not farmers. They traded game for agricultural products.
Mountain gorillas are endangered, humans aren’t, so the Twa were evicted from most of their land. What was left got taken by other folks.
With no documents proving their land rights, there was no legal reason to pay them. The good news is that they’re occasionally allowed to make and sell pottery. (May 19, 2017)
Authorities recognized them as human, which is an improvement over some earlier eras. (August 26, 2016)
What happened to the Twa wasn’t a total loss, though. There are now nearly a thousand gorillas living in what was Twa land.
I think it’s nice that folks want to maintain a wild population of mountain gorillas.
I think it would also have been nice to treat the Twa with more respect: even if their rights had been defined by oral, not written, agreements.
I should love God, love my neighbor, and see everybody as my neighbor. Treating others the way I’d like them to treat me seems like a logical extension of those principles, but our Lord added it to the list. (Matthew 5:43–44, 7:12, 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 6:31 10:25–27, 29–37; Catechism, 1789)
Acting as if love matters makes sense, I think.
There isn’t much I can do to correct past injustices, or sort out today’s tangled mess.
But I can talk about what’s gone wrong, and — at least as important, I think — what’s going right. That includes the American weather service’s habit of issuing storm watches and warnings, and efforts to improve how we deal with waste.
Actually, compared to America in my youth, just being aware that reducing waste makes sense is a huge improvement.
But as I said, we don’t have a perfect society today. I don’t think we will. But I am quite certain that we can do better.
Where it ends is up to each and all of us.
I think that if we work with all people of good will, keep what is good in each of our cultures, and correct what is not, we can make this world better for everyone.
“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,”9 Pope St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))
It will be a long, hard job. But I think we can succeed, and am sure we must try:
- “Climate Change, Attitudes”
(July 14, 2017)
- “Bogs and Bison”
(February 10, 2017)
- “Climate Change Continues”
(January 20, 2017)
- “Conservative? Liberal? No: Catholic”
(January 22, 2017)
- “Authority, Superstition, Progress”
(October 30, 2016)
- Swiss Skyline/Schilthorn
- High Altitude Research Stations Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat
- “Forsmark: how Sweden alerted the world about the danger of the Chernobyl disaster”
News, European Parliament (May 15, 2014)
- Astrology and astronomy
- Astrology and science
- Classical element
- History of astronomy
- History of science
- List of Earth observation satellites
- Timeline of meteorology
- Weather forecasting
- Weather satellite
- “Evidence for under-reported western European emissions of the potent greenhouse gas HFC-23”
Christoph A. Keller, Dominik Brunner, Stephan Henne, Martin K. Vollmer, Simon O’Doherty, Stefan Reimann; Geophysical Research Letters (Received April 29, 2011; published August 2011)
- Newhaven Energy Recovery Facility
- “‘This is the end for Newhaven’ – controversial incinerator fires up”
The Guardian (July 6, 2012)
- “On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs”
David Robert Grimes, PLOS ONE (January 26, 2016)
- “The Unsolved Mystery of Samuel Morey,” Leon Maurer, University of Wisconsin-Madison (July 15, 2011)
- “Gaudium et spes”
Second Vatican Council December 7, 1965)
(From www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html (September 26, 2015))
- “To the United Nations Organization”
Pope St. John Paul II, Apostolic Journey to the United States of America (October 5, 1995)
(From w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1995/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_05101995_address-to-uno.pdf (November 26, 2016))