Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Whither Resilience?

Two recent news stories—one from China and one from Chile—has made me think about the nature of resilience. The word has become a common term in sustainability circles, where it has roughly the same meaning as it does in psychology: the positive ability of people (or communities or human-made or natural systems) to withstand stress and catastrophe.

An example of a resilient human community might be New Orleans, which is showing resilience in the face of two disasters in five years: Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It's still to be determined whether a related natural system—the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—having suffered for years from the slow catastrophe of human colonization, will have the resilience to bounce back from these recent disasters. However, the discovery of new species of oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico may mean those waters have evolved resilience, thanks to the existence of large natural oil seeps.

So, resilience usually has positive connotations, and that's the kind of resilience I hope the 33 gold/copper ore miners in Chile exhibit. As of this writing, these men have been trapped in their collapsed mine for more than three weeks. Yet despite their almost hopeless plight—they'll have to survive for as many as three months before a bore large enough to rescue them can be drilled—they were incredibly upbeat (singing patriotic songs, no less) when a lowered camera enabled them to contact the outside world.

In fact, notes sent up by the miners—short and poetic, and in one case, asking for a sweetheart's hand in marriage—have captivated Chile and earned praise around the world for their expression of fortitude, hope, and brotherhood. To put it in colloquial terms, these miners are hard as nails.

On the other hand, we have the Chinese drivers who had to live through an ordeal that, although pale in comparison with the Chilean mine disaster, would bring most of us to our knees. The "Great Crawl of China" was a traffic jam that lasted for 11 days and was 60 miles long at its peak. There are photographs of the, um, "inmates" entertaining themselves playing cards, washing themselves down on the road, getting fed and watered by opportunistic vendors, and sleeping under trucks.

That's the problem with human resilience. As a species we have a remarkable ability to suffer slings and arrows. But when stress and catastrophe far exceed what other species or habitats can resist, that spells environmental trouble. After all, humans can survive low oxygen (Tibetans), extreme cold (Inuit), and extreme heat (Tuareg), environments that kill most species—we are extremophiles. The Chinese drivers were just applying that evolved resilience to a disastrous, disgusting, and dismal human-made environment.

This is worrying. It's often said that the majority of our population will only get the message on, say, the threat of global warning when disaster strikes home. But what if—like the clueless frog dropped in a pan of water being heated to a boil—we simply and slowly become resilient to the catastrophic world we are creating?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Electric Event

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles (PHVs) were delivered to SyracuseCoE this morning. These are demonstration concept cars that drive about 13 miles on a full electric charge before switching over to the Prius' regular hybrid system. Out of 600 PHVs delivered worldwide, Syracuse has six, with Syracuse University, SyracuseCoE, and CuseCar taking possession of two cars each. Toyota is partnering with universities and other organizations in order to get real-world driving data with the hope of improving the PHVs for the mass market.

Syracuse is a great place to test the cars, of course. We have, um, "robust four-season weather," so if the Toyota engineers were wondering how the cars will charge up when the temperature is 20 below or how the system will fare with a temperature swing of 60 degrees in a day, they've come to the right place. Thanks to some excellent lobbying by Barry Carr of Clean Communities of CNY, Toyota also know that this city has been used as a test bed for all sorts of products over the years and that our city's green reputation is growing stronger each day.

It's easy to be cynical about technologies such as Plug-In Hybrids. To some, it might be seen as "too little too late," and the 13-mile driving charge simply too small to be effective. But think for a minute about your typical driving day. For me, during the week, it's a 16 mile door-to-door commute, and if staying at home on a weekend, it's chores in the village, a mile from my house. That is, the 13-mile charge will do very well for a typical week's driving.

In fact, the average commute distance for Americans is 16 miles. And that fact might be the key to what Toyota want to achieve with these concept PHVs. It'll be awfully difficult weaning Americans off the internal combustion engine, and one drawback to electric cars in the minds of many drivers (I heard this comment more than once at today's press conference) is the fear that losing charge in a car will leave the driver stranded.

To make a bridge for the consumer between gasoline engines and fully electric cars, the Toyota PHVs parked at SyracuseCoE not only have a charge that more or less matches the country's average commute distance, they have an easy-to-use system that allows the car to be plugged into a regular 125 volt outlet (for a slow charge) as well as a 240 volt outlet (like the outlet that runs your clothes dryer, for a quick charge).

Where electric cars should get to, as I wrote in an earlier post, is an exchangeable, generic battery system and a national network of battery changing stations, ideally using locally produced energy to charge banks of batteries. We may get there some day, but for now, Toyota should be given points for developing a car that helps pave the way.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Fit to Print?

Is the survival of the "serious news business" a sustainability issue? By serious news business, I mean the kind of in-depth, worldwide reporting outfit once taken for granted but that is now—in the US especially—an endangered species. In print especially: the New York Times and Washington Post are moribund, both having slashed their staffs and bureaus. Once-indispensible Newsweek was recently unload for one Yankee dollar.

On TV, the situation is in some ways more dire. A short while ago, my brother was visiting from England and wanted to watch "the news." It was 8:30 pm, and there was no news to be had. On every "news channel"—MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and even CNN Headline News—there was a talking head, the TV equivalent of the bloviating news blogger, with entertainment gossip or sports scores scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

TV news as it is consumed in England doesn't really exist in the US anymore. There is no 24 hour reportage of world events on American TV, no equivalent of BBC24 or, dare I say, Al Jazeera. America's 24-hour news outfits tend to focus on just a few "sexy" domestic political events, which sooner or later are turned into a horse-race-for-the-presidency story. The traditional 6:30 pm newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC are so obviously skewed to an aging audience that if I can't stand to watch them, why would a 21-year-old!

I suggested my brother go online—to the huffingtonpost, for instance—but there again, the narratives drive toward comment, not in-depth reporting, and gossip, not hard news. There are bright spots: NPR is a growing concern and does a decent job of worldwide news gathering and investigation with its limited resources and somewhat limiting medium. And let's not forget how American filmmakers have revived both the arts of documentary making and muckraking, led by the indomitable Michael Moore!

Many social, political, and cultural movements suffer from the parallel downward spirals of shrinking news bureaus, increasingly soft-edged reporters, marginalization of investigative reporters (did I mention Michael Moore), proliferation of partisan commentators, and infotainment. But consider how deleterious this death spiral is to the national conversations that surround the Four Pillars of Sustainability, serious conversations that can only take place with serious amounts of research and reporting ...

• Ecological Sustainability—Climate Change is real, is happening, and needs solutions, although the climate change story that gained the most traction recently was the one about UEA climate scientists' supposedly damning internal e-mails.
• Social Sustainability—The media has always played a crucial role as watchdog to monitor the progress of human rights, labor rights, and corporate governance, but how well is it doing when it comes to the national conversation about US immigration reform?
• Economic Sustainability—The sub-prime mortgage disaster was also a disaster for the media. They got to the story after the fact, and, thanks to news units' financial wings, actually contributed to the mess.
• Cultural Sustainability—The genius of the First Amendment of the US Constitution was that it deliberately recognized the growing power of the media and found a place for it within a democratic republic. Thus the media became a vital part of American culture, both political and social—but what happens now that the media is devolving back into partisan soapboxes, entertainment rags, and sports pages?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence