Archive for the ‘Side Salads’ Category

If you’re wondering what the Russian government is capable of — as we are, all the time, around here — behold this image. This is the highest resolution photo of earth ever taken. It’s 121 megapixels, snapped 22,369 miles above planet. And it’s ONE PHOTO, unlike other images of earth, which are usually composites of many pictures.

There’s an interactive version here, where you can zoom in or out. We also noticed that if you stare directly at the center of the globe in this photo, it appears to move ever-so-slightly.

One point worth noting: The camera used special high resolution infrared technology, which shows a rust color over some of the land mass. That’s not an accident. The color is meant to show areas where there used to be lush vegetation. And now there isn’t.

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As we approach the two year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill and as the war on the Keystone XL pipeline wages on, we are reminded of the actual and potential damage of chemical spills.

Not something we'd really like to witness.

The question is: How frequent are chemical spills?  These two scenarios, Deepwater and Keystone XL, represent two extremes—the worst-case scenario and a hypothetical.  To provide some middle ground perspective, I’d like to share with you data from a study conducted in Southern Ontario.

Yes.  I am aware Ontario is in Canada (though I have never visited our neighbor to the north).  So yes, it’s not perfectly applicable to the U.S.; however, it is still a notable longitudinal study that paints a realistic (and by that I mean not driven by the media) picture about chemical spills, particularly in energy-intensive regions.  Really, it’s not like Canada is the Galapagos Islands.

Of course, I wouldn't mind being in the Galapagos...

Researchers in Ontario collected data on spills covering the period 1988 to 2007.  What they found might shock you a bit.  Over this time period:

  • A total of 14,174 chemical spills occurred.  This averages out to 709 spills a year or 2 spills each day.
  • Spills most frequently resulted from: (1) Pipe/hose leaks; (2) Fuel tank/barrel leaks; (3) Process set up; and (4) Discharge/bypass to water course.
  • The sector most responsible for spills was the industrial sector (44.9%).  Within the industrial sector, the biggest contributors were (in order): metallurgy, chemical, and general manufacturing.
  • These spills have a wide range of environmental impacts, including surface water contamination, soil contamination, air pollution, and multi-media contamination.

These stats paint a good picture about the nature of spills, especially those that aren’t making headlines in the news (like Deepwater).  What is most frightening is to learn that of these spills, only 10 percent were cleaned up entirely.  Perhaps this is because most large cities in Canada do not have a spill management plan.  So whether it’s no plan or an outdated plan, seems like there needs to be some plan action going on in the world of chemicals spills—unless of course we want to enjoy ourselves a good dose of cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene.

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Yesterday, I attend Vanderbilt Law School and the Environmental Law Institute’s Annual Environmental Law and Policy Review Conference (ELPAR).  The conference focused on three topic areas and while all were interesting in their own right, one raised a very valid question that I now would like to raise to you in the hope that you will supply your own thoughts.

Professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western University’s School of Law (not Jonathan Alter for you political junkies and not that Jonathan Adler for you fasionistas) in a forthcoming paper will argue that one of the best ways for the federal government to find solutions to our energy needs and climate change is not through the traditional federal grant process, but rather by creating prize competitions.  He makes a fascinating case for this line of reasoning.

Oooh. Ahhh. I want shiny.

The overarching argument is that prize competitions produce proven winners.  This may sound like a strong bashing of grants, but it’s not meant that way.  The grant process has produced plenty of innovative ideas—Google being just one of those many ideas (no, I’m not lying.  Larry Page was awarded an NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship that brought forth the birth of Google.)  This said, the grant process begins with a call for proposals to ideas to the table for consideration.  The most promising submissions, after undergoing some intense scrutiny, receive grant money to carry out research that may or may not produce the intend result.  That is the point, friends.  We provide money in the hope that the proposal yields the desired outcome.  Yet, at the end of the day, the idea is untested.  Boiled down: the wonderful, glorious idea may fail.

It pains me to bring this point up, and while it’s not entirely relevant as it was a loan, a point was raised about Solyndra, the infamous solar company that went bust after receiving a DOE loan guarantee.  Had Solyndra instead competed as part of a larger pool for a prize, perhaps this prickly pear could have been pinned on our bad economy and not the government.  Again, not a perfect parallel because loans are subject to a different set of scrutiny, but it’s still food for thought.


Even Dan's been known to be a prickly pear from time to time.

On this note, for those of you skeptical that government has your best intentions in mind/suspect that grants are a form of cronyism, prize structures can assuage some of your concerns by, again, awarding money to the idea that works the best in reality and not on paper.  This bypasses favoritism and friendship between grant seeker and grant awarder.

Prizes can also induce involvement from the private sector.  This example is readily apparent in looking somewhat outside the climate box to our nation’s space agency, NASA.  In this time of fiscal restraint, NASA has increasingly involved commercial companies in their projects and design competitions.  Evidence abounds in just the press release section of their website.  As for the world of energy and climate, since carbon does currently have a price sticker associated with it, privates have no real reason—other than good moral ethics and common sense, so perhaps economical is a better word than real—to fund solutions to carbon emissions.

Another point is that prizes resemble an incentive process that has produce many of our best ideas through the protection it provides.  This process is none other than our patent system.  The first to file structure (a new change from the first to invent structure thanks to the America Invents Act passed by Congress and signed into law last year) rewards those who provide a good idea and also prove that it works.

Timothy Brennan, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and frequent contributor to Resources for the Future (RFF), in his comments on Adler’s paper provided additional strength to Adler’s argument. A prize structure, he argued, allows for a more flexible contest design where not just the winners are rewarded, but perhaps the second and third place designs also win a prize.  Whatever the winning project may be, it has to meet a specified set of criteria.  And then of course, unlike the patent system, the prize idea can become property of the U.S. government where it can be sold at a marginal cost instead of the maximum cost (as would likely be the case if it remained in a private individual or company’s hands, unless they weren’t seeking to maximize profits).

While not necessarily countering his assertions, Brennan did point out the fact that those looking to prizes as a way to avoid centralized bureaucracy would be sorely mistaken to do so.  The desired criteria and winners are decided still decided by the government.  He also affirmed that the peer-review process is strong, and so his commentary wasn’t necessarily a knock on that process.  Furthermore, none of this is to say prizes are the solution to finding solutions.  There is also the thorn in every project’s design, regardless of how it’s brought about: bringing the project to commercial scale.  But, perhaps that could be made a criteria point for determining a winner.

As someone who recognizes the fiscal predicament enrapturing our country and many other governments the world over, I feel the need to conclude this list of arguments by noting the benefits of a prize structure in times of fiscal restraint.  As I’ve said already, the winners are the ones that get funded.  Sp we reduce payouts to projects that can’t quite make it across the finish line.  If you’re feeling sorry for the losers, Tom Petty has some lyrics for ya.

So how does this apply to the fine world of nutritious and delicious greens?  The whole point was that in the world of energy and climate change, we have a very specific goal in mind with certain criteria that need to be met (keeping temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, minimizing seal level rise, reaching 100 miles per gallon of gas, you list name it).  Instead of awarding grants, why not try to harness America’s competitive nature and create a prize competition?  Of course, the competition has to be reasonable; sadly, no one is going to make greenhouse gases disappear tomorrow.  But, we could try to create (or revive) competitions to create solar-powered car designs, longer lasting batteries, or even more ambitious things like effective nuclear waste storage cases and better waste pool liners.  Think of the possibilities….

You'd certainly be one of a kind in this ride.

On that note, be sure to share in the comment section.

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First, a warm and hearty congratulations to all who participated in today’s Cherry Blossom runs!  While there were few cherry blossoms to be seen (fault the lack of winter for that one) and the race really should have been a week earlier, the race organizers did something worthy of a shout out.

While I have never participated in this race until this year, I have participated in a good number across the country.   Normally when I trek on over to the race expo to pick up my bib number, I am pelted with coupons for this and flyers for that.  My bag of goodies is just nasty.

Seriously, what am I going to do with all this crap?

This is the first race to put forth an ecofriendly organization effort.  What do I mean by ecofriendly?  In addition to setting up proper recycling bins (believe it or not, this is not always the case), I was sent a “virtual” goodie bag.  So instead of getting those eight thousand handouts, I received this lovely item in my inbox:

Your Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run
and 5K Run-Walk Virtual Goodie Bag

Dear Credit Union Cherry Blossom Entrant:As the excitement and anticipation build for the race, now just one week away, we are pleased to provide you with our new “Virtual Goodie Bag.” This is our second year of providing our runners and volunteers the link to our Igift Bag. Initially we knew that the Virtual Goodie Bag would help in our race greening initiative by eliminating over 100,000 sheets of paper that had been stuffed into our conventional Goodie Bags. However we soon discovered that the Virtual Goodie Bag provides a much richer interactive environment for special offers from our vendors. Enjoy!


The Credit Union Cherry Blossom Organizing Committee

Serious props—to both the runners and to the Credit Union.  I’d recommend other race organizers take a cue, cut printing costs, and be friendly to our environment with a similar virtual goodie bag.

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I’m normally a newsy kind of gal.  The inspiration behind the pieces I share comes from my wonderful and plentiful clips, newspapers, or just watching Congress (yes, I called Congress inspiring).  Today, I found a different source of inspiration.  It’s not often that reading a scientific article makes me want to jump up and scream, “YES, YES, YES!” like an Herbal Essences shampoogasm.  But, one recently did (props to grad school for this one, and to Amber Saylor, Linda Stalker Prokopy, and Shannon Amberg of Purdue University for writing it).

Not too long ago, I saw a Brita ad on tv talking about the number of plastic bottles the U.S. used in 2010 (39 billion) and how many times those bottles could wrap around the world (190 times).  (Damn.)  The point being, stop using plastic and get a Brita filter.  But, for me, it actually brought on a moment of reflection.  I wondered, “When exactly did water bottle fever take off?”  Was it the striking and stunning Jennifer Aniston advertising for Smart Water on billboards?  Is Fiji water just that much better?  Or is it something more?

Definitely eye catching... maybe even behavior altering.

This may date me a bit here, but back in my day we didn’t purchase packages of bottled water.  When you went on a field trip, you (or your mother/father if they were so kind) packed yourself a water bottle.  If you needed a refill, well, that’s what water fountains at the zoo were good for.   But at some point, somewhere, there came Evian, then Dasani, and now… it’s just out of control.

I was a pretty cool and coordinated kid.

The good folks at Purdue University similarly wondered what spurred the increase of bottled water use.  In a study published last year, researchers at Purdue sampled the campus population (undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff) to gauge bottled v. tap water use and perceptions about the two.  They discovered that, overwhelmingly, undergraduates were more likely to consume water from a bottle than from the tap.  Furthermore, of the undergraduate population, bottled water consumers were more likely to be female.

Why?  What made the female undergraduates opt for the bottled water over the tap?  The big takeaways influencing behavior: believing that bottled water is safer than tap water, convenience of bottled water, the feeling that tap water is unsafe to drink, and preferring the taste of bottled water to tap water.

Tap water? Eww. Likely totally gross. I only drink Aquafina.

They were unaware that there is little evidence to support the idea that bottled water is safer than tap water; in fact, it is likely the opposite.  Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), the water that comes through your tap is subject to more rigorous standards with more frequent monitoring.  The SDWA also requires reporting and public notification when a water treatment plant detects a violation of standards.  There are no such requirements for bottled water.  Bottled water is supervised by the FDA (not the EPA, like with tap water)—and only when it is being transported across interstate lines.  If it is not, that is the water is being captured and bottled within the state, it is exempt from federal regulation.  And folks, 60-70% of all bottled water in the U.S. falls under that category.

As a conscious environmental steward, I am sure that you know the true environmental impacts of bottled water use.  It seems, however, that not everyone is equally aware.  Purdue researchers also revealed that both male and female undergraduates saw little environmental harm in their consumption of water from plastic bottles, particularly once recycling was factored in.  What both sexes failed to note is that only a mere 20 percent of plastic bottles are recycled.  They also failed to perceive the fossil fuel emissions that went into producing the polyethylene terephalate (PET) that comprises the majority of plastic water bottles.  Then of course, refrigerating and transporting plastic bottles requires large amounts of energy, likely from nonrenewable sources.  All in all, it is estimated that the 33 billion liters of water consumed in 2007 required 32 to 54 million barrels of oil.

Mind you this study and its results come from a sample of a sample, but it’s also a start—and a needed one at that.  Additional questions, particularly going forward, might ask if awareness of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and water treatment plants lack of ability to treat them influences people’s perceived safety of tap water.  We here at Spinach will be looking forward to those answers.

Oh.  Wait.  You tuned in to hear about what I had for breakfast?

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We get pretty steeped around here in energy and policy and what Kara had for breakfast. But every once in a while we like to go outside. Especially this time of year – and specifically during a freakishly warm winter – when the weather warms and we SpinachHeads get to leave the cannery and spend more time in the fields, if you will.

Today’s topic: wildlife corridors, and whether or not they actually work to unite populations of species despite development of roads and highways and ongoing growth of cities. The idea is a brainchild of friend-of-the-blog (in our dreams) E.O. Wilson, who hypothesized back in the 60s that the biggest threat to species survival was habitat isolation, and the more we cut off major parts of habitat, the more dire some species’ peril becomes.

So do they work? That’s the question Fred Pearce at New Scientist asked earlier this week. And it got us thinking. There really isn’t much academic evidence we’ve come across to show that corridors indisputably work as intended.

There is, Pearce points out, lots of proof that species like to travel through tunnels (do they hold their breath?!) and travel. But there’s little to show that these things show genetic diversity across geographic distances. It’s a question of time and breeding. Is the population expanding faster than lone animals are using the corridors? If so separate populations won’t become united. The reverse is that animals of different populations are interbreeding faster than the overall population expands. That second scenario would make the corridors effective.

Problem is, it’s looking more and more to be the first scenario. One of the most comprehensive studies on the topic looked at marsupials in a narrow forest corridor in Queensland, Australia. Despite the expensive engineering, researchers found that genetically distinct populations had persisted. Ergo, over time, the populations would continue to grow apart.

The $64,000 question – and don’t worry, we can hear you asking it – is why the heck does this matter? Surely we have more important environment and wildlife issues to consider than whether a bunch of moose use tunnels, right?

Only partly true (and don’t call me Shirley). Corridors have long been the key argument by developers and contruction companies for continued growth. They nip at the core of how we reconcile our growth with the broader health of the environment are our terrestrial counterparts. As long as we keep habitat protected and allow species to roam wild and free, we can do whatever we want to the planet, the thinking goes. Yet this series of studies seems to offer a rather firm rebuke of that rationale.

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Happy President’s Day!  For those of you enjoying your day off, don’t forget the reason why.  For those of you at work (like yours truly), know you’re making our presidents proud (that’s what I’m telling myself anyway).

Today is a great day to take a break from the usual headlines and highlights to instead reflect back on our nation’s history and honor our great leaders.   I’m sure many of you out there are already catching on to my direction; for those of you who aren’t, Presidents Day is a day that environmentalists can also rally around, and should (expand your mind folks, we’re not just limited to Earth Day).   Hence, we here at Spinach are going to take a quick moment to do so.

While many people contributed to the founding of the environmental movement or environmental awareness (at a minimum), one key member of the movement was also one of our nation’s presidents.  Dubbed the “Conservationist President,” our nation’s 26th president paved the way for the environmentalists to follow his lead.  If you haven’t already consulted your presidential timeline or are still scratching your head, I’ll go ahead and share:  I’m talking about Teddy Roosevelt.  Roosevelt wasn’t just some wimp in big glasses who rose up to ride it rough, become president, speak softly while carrying a big stick, and go on to lead the Bull Moose Party.  Believe it or not, there’s a legit reason why we call them “Teddy Bears.”

Roosevelt had a big soft spot in his heart for nature.  As president, he used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service and establishing 51 federal bird reservations, 4 national game preserves, 150 national forests, and 5 national parks.  He also signed the 1906 American Antiquities Act which he then used to declare 18 national monuments.  During his presidency, he protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land.  Out of a total land area of over 2 billion acres—and not discounting for urban areas, agriculture, private lands, etc.—that’s not too shabby for a first crack.

So on this day, let’s remember his wisdom with a toast:

“We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

To learn more about TR’s efforts, visit the National Park Service’s website.

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