Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Unscrutable Cadence

My conscientious photographer sister, Marie, recently emailed this picture--sometime around my birthday last month. It shows my Mom at about my age proudly surrounded by her three grandchildren at the time: two of my sister's three boys, Daniel (left) and Andrew (right,) as well as my son, Matt (middle.) These boys are now in their thirties, and my son is raising two sons of his own.

This cycle of life that we take so personally actually rolls on impersonally to an inscrutable cadence. Revolution after unceasing revolution humanity grows in creativity, that divine quality
about which we know so little and take for granted that which we do acknowledge.

Until now. Now is different, and many are awakening to the shouting voices of worried visionaries who clearly see that: "The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and their destination." In the last few years, many are beginning to understand that we are the creators, and no one else is poised to save us should we miss that point.

To assure a bright and successful future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren, today's parents must come to grips with their responsibility to the biomass called lovingly, Mother Earth. No one would argue that without coming together on this weighty matter, we're toast--quite literally. Some are making plans for her perceived destruction by creating spaceships to take them away from the scene. Wouldn't it just be easier to join in the new creativity that the current slew of problems require and help all mankind in the process?

The response to this last question has been a resounding YES, and thankfully, enlightened thinkers are fueling a new age of concern for the ground on which we walk and the air which we breathe. Many, including corporations, are beginning to see the environment now as community property for which we are all responsible.

The editor of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC recently opined that "Being green is not a trend. It is, perhaps, the most important challenge of our time." Last year this pioneering magazine acquired the Green Guide (www.greenguide.com) that touts itself as a consumer resource for Earth-friendly living offering "sophisticated" ideas past changing the light bulbs to florescent. As a matter of fact, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine editorial board has a long history of responsible green behavior going all the way back to 1888 and have been leaders in the movement ever since.

We will know we have hit an environmental milestone when abundant biofuels are available. Many innovators are racing to this mile-marker, and at the forefront of this creative movement are biofuels made from non-food sources. (Whoever pushed biofuels from food sources should have his or her head examined, don't you think?)

As an example of this, the eccentric owner of Virgin Airlines, Richard Branson, impressively introduced his coconut and Brazilian babassu nut biofuel blend by drinking the stuff. Grimacing he said, "It's more appropriate for the engine." After that, the mixture was added to a plane that flew from from London's Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam in the first commercial biofuel airline test. The WSJ reported that the historical flight came off without a hitch with Sir Richard beaming like a proud parent, although he admitted between burps that the fuel tasted "horrible" (2-26-08.) Ah, what pioneers do for the cause!

The U.S. Air Force has their finger in this pie as well and has set a goal to have its entire fleet of planes using alternative fuels by 2011. That's only three years, but whose counting? Maybe they know something we don't, although word has it that the AF has been experimenting with natural gas and coal rather than biofuels, which could explain how they intend to take the leap so soon.

Other interesting biofuels include those made from algae. An advertisement from CNN in TIME magazine this week extolled the virtues of algae oil made by a start-up company in El Paso, Texas. The scientist in charge of the experiments said that algae can produce 100,000 gallons of oil per acre compared to 20 gallons per acre with corn! The pioneering scientist went on to say: "Take one-tenth of the State of New Mexico and convert it to greenhouse algae production, and the result would be enough oil to meet the transportation needs of the entire U.S." The citizens of New Mexico might not be too excited with that prospect, but the point is lowly algae may play an important innovative role in fueling our grandchildren's future.

Even more exciting are biofuels made by breaking down pollutants, creating a two-fold solution. InSinkErator, the Wisconsin maker of the ubiquitous kitchen disposal, has created a system being sold in Europe that takes kitchen throwaways and converts it to biogas and fertilizer (WSJ, 2-26-08.) While the waste-capturing system might not work everywhere, in Europe it is finding a place.

Along this same line, from my archives, I dug out an article about a Massachusetts environmental microbiologist, who discovered a bacteria in the Potomac River that "breathes rust instead of oxygen, thrives in polluted earth, and can even generate electricity" (TIME, 2-9-2004.) This crafty microbe, Geobacter, was used to clean up a uranium mine in Colorado and an oil spill in Minnesota. However, the creation of electricity as part of the clean-up process actually gained the most fanfare and caught the all-seeing eye of the Departments of Energy and Defense. These megaliths bankrolled this frontline endeavor because of the potential for Geobacter to power sediment batteries on the battlefield.
I wonder if four years later these batteries are in use, although we might never know.

Of course, with every pro comes a con, and biofuels are no different. As it turns out, biofuels don't burn any cleaner in airplanes, and emissions are similar to the usual fuel blend. What is gained is the reduced environmental impact in their creation. In the Virgin Airline article, WSJ concluded: "Plants and trees producing the oils remove carbon from the atmosphere, and don't come with all the drilling, refining and shipping costs of crude oil. "

On the other hand, a recent study published in Science magazine found that "Corn based ethanol will nearly double the output of greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them by about one-fifth. . .a separate paper concludes that clearing native habitats to grow crops for biofuel generally will lead to more carbon emissions" (WSJ, 2-8-08, A4.)
It goes without saying that biofuels made from foodstuffs, such as corn, is just plain wrong, unless it's food wastes, such as turkey parts. But we can see from these examples that scientists, politicians and ethicists will be kept busy with these thorny issues for years to come.

And finally, a blog on the environment would not be complete without one mention of an enterprising recycling project. There are so many to choose from these days, but this one caught my eye for it's originality in creating expensive handbags from used candy wrappers, catalogs, and even New York City subway maps. The enlightened company Ecoist calls this group of purses the Candy Wrapper Collection, which have been purchased by such luminaries as Lindsay Lohan. Even more telling, however, the piece in DISCOVER magazine goes on to say: "The $188 Large Portfolio handbag, woven from Luna bar wrappers, was hand-made by fair trade workers in Mexico or Peru. Part of the proceeds funds a nonprofit organization that helps poor Mexican families build self-sufficient communities, and for every bag sold, Ecoist plants a tree."

The lesson here: capitalism, too, can be a positive human creation, and my hat goes off to the Ecoist company for figuring this out in such an innovative way. Our grandchildren's future can indeed be bright as they learn from an early age that they are inextricably intertwined with all else, including their candy wrappers, not to mention their cell-phone cast-aways.

Today's Weather Report: 3 - 5 inches of heavy snow fell last night, and Jim had to plow today. This is typical for March. Today was warmish, although I didn't put as much as my toe outside.

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