Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hotel Greenwash

You've probably seen these signs, right?

"Save Our Planet".

If you care, hang up your towel and we won't change it! Save millions of gallons of water and detergent!

Well, I faithfully hang up my towel but every day it gets changed anyhow.

I'm not blaming the cleaning staff.  They are probably underpaid and have a lot of work to do without worrying about my eco-sensibilities.

But it's hard to escape the conclusion that the object of the exercise is to make us feel good about how we are doing something for the environment.  Not, uh, actually to do anything...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

We Can Do That, Too!

Vampire Spa "Let my people go!"

Twelve chapters (4-15) of the book of Exodus center around those words, spoken by Moses on behalf of God to the pharaoh (or king) of Egypt, who has enslaved the descendants of Joseph. Ten plagues strike Egypt before the pharaoh obeys. The first is recorded in chapter 7.
In the sight of Pharaoh and of his servants, Moses lifted up his staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood.  The fish died, and the Nile stank, and... there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.
Then things take an unexpected turn. 
But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts.
What was the point of that?,  I want to ask. (The standard conundrum, where did they get the water?, doesn't seem to bother the biblical author a bit.)

The magicians don't have a helpful solution to offer (like changing blood back to water, for instance).  All that they can achieve is to undermine the story Moses is telling, the story which relates this mysterious disaster to their country's slave labor policies - to the source of their wealth.

Their counternarrative doesn't last long - they fade out of the story a couple of plagues later - but while it does, it serves to give Pharaoh some cover for his business-as-usual approach:

So Pharaoh's heart remained hardened...  Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart.

 According to a midrash quoted by Brevard Childs in his commentary, Pharaoh believes that he can afford to be unconcerned; his wealth will shelter him from the troubles that his people must suffer. "You don't trouble me", this story has him replying to Moses, "for, if I can't have water, I'll drink wine."

Any excuse for inaction.

Photo entitled "Vampire Spa" by Flickr user jcoterhals, licensed under Creative Commons.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Electric-Car Battles

You've probably already heard about New York Times reporter David Broder's controversial recent article about a road trip he took in the Tesla Model S electric car.  If not, a quick recap.

The Tesla is a plug-in electric car (not a hybrid) which has won many awards.  Broder was offered a test drive from Washington, DC, to Connecticut. The point of the trip was not so much to test the car itself as to try out the new rapid recharging stations that Tesla had installed along the route.

Broder reported that the trip was a bust - he ran out of charge and the car had to be loaded on a truck - but the details of his account have been fiercely contested by Tesla boss Elon Musk (and Broder has counterchallenged in response).  Meanwhile, electric-car skeptics like Charles Lane of the Washington Post have seized on the debacle as further evidence that "the electric-car fantasy may finally have died".

Interestingly,  though, both camps seem to agree about what is the key question: can an electric car ever be as convenient and adaptable as its gasoline counterpart?  I'm not so sure that this should be the key question.

Gasoline is an incredibly efficient and compact way to transport energy around: according to Richard Muller's Energy for Future Presidents, a given weight of gasoline can store about 25-50 times as much useful energy as the same weight of batteries. (This figure takes into account the relative efficiencies of gasoline engine v. electric motor.) That is a high barrier for the electric car to climb, and I tend to doubt that it can be surmounted.

But gasoline is a nonrenewable resource: the US can't burn over 100 billion gallons a year, year after year, for ever.  And when the supply does get tight, Nature has no obligation to supply us with any equivalent fuel.  No natural law demands that Americans shall forever possess personal transportation devices capable of moving a half-ton payload in climate-controlled comfort four hundred miles without stopping.

The car of the future may be electric, if renewable electricity is available to fuel it. It may also be smaller, more inconvenient, and have less range.  But if it beats the alternatives available at the time, we'll still take it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Economics and Theology with Joe Stiglitz

On the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking is a video of a discussion at Union Seminary with Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, to inaugurate a year-long discussion on Economics and Theology.   Quoting their website: "The event was held on September 19, 2012, and featured a wide-ranging conversation with Stiglitz about the intersection of economics with hope, happiness, death, suffering, values, grace, and evil. Stiglitz was joined in the discussion by Union Theological Seminary President Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, INET Executive Director Rob Johnson, Union Professor of Social Ethics Gary Dorrien, and Betty Sue Flowers, former director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum and Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas". Here is a "highlights" video

And here is the full session

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Prospects for a Green Mathematics

This is crossposted from the MPE2013 blog, and written by John Baez and David Tanzer.

It is increasingly clear that we are initiating a sequence of dramatic events across our planet. They include habitat loss, an increased rate of extinction, global warming, the melting of ice caps and permafrost, an increase in extreme weather events, gradually rising sea levels, ocean acidification, the spread of oceanic “dead zones,” a depletion of natural resources, and ensuing social strife.

These events are all connected. They come from a way of life that views the Earth as essentially infinite, human civilization as a negligible perturbation, and exponential economic growth as a permanent condition. Deep changes will occur as these idealizations bring us crashing into the brick wall of reality. If we do not muster the will to act before things get significantly worse, we will need to do so later. While we may plead that it is “too difficult” or “too late,” this doesn’t matter: a transformation is inevitable. All we can do is start where we find ourselves, and begin adapting to life on a finite-sized planet.

Where does mathematics fit into all this? While the problems we face have deep roots, major transformations in society have always caused and been helped along by revolutions in mathematics. Starting near the end of the last ice age, the Agricultural Revolution eventually led to the birth of written numerals and geometry. Centuries later, the Industrial Revolution brought us calculus, and eventually a flowering of mathematics unlike any before. Now, as the 21st century unfolds, mathematics will become increasingly driven by our need to understand the biosphere and our role within it.

We refer to mathematics suitable for understanding the biosphere as green mathematics. Although it is just being born, we can already see some of its outlines.

Read the full post.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Its a Rental

I need some energetic music when working out.  I put on Switchfoot's wonderful Vice Verses.  The final track is Where I Belong.
The song chews over themes that the writer to the Hebrews meditates on, in chapter 11,
These...acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  People who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland...they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
This sense of  longing permeates much Christian spirituality (and rightly so). But it can overflow into seeing this present world - this body, this creation - as defective, second-rate, not worth taking seriously.  The lyric that brought me up short was
I'm not sentimental
This skin and bones is a rental
And no one makes it out alive
 "It's a rental"... Yes, it's true. The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof... human "dominion" just means managing, for a while, something with which I have been entrusted by another.  But "it's a rental" can also connote, "I don't have to take good care of it.  It doesn't really count".

I wonder what the band had in mind.  In Jesus' parables (e.g. Luke 19:12f), how the steward takes care of the master's property counts for everything.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Math for Sustainability Course Description

 I just finished putting together a second draft for the description of the course I hope to teach next year (for GreenFaith readers, this is part of my GF Fellowship project).  Would love to have comments both technical and otherwise.  Here are links to other posts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
John winding up for the 2-minute version of the course at the GreenFaith retreat this January

The course will provide students with the mathematical background and quantitative reasoning skills necessary to engage as informed citizens in discussions related to resources, pollution, recycling, economic change, and similar matters of public interest.   These include the four key mathematical ideas of “measuring”, “changing”, “risking” and “networking”, further detailed below.  Throughout the course, the techniques that are developed will be applied to a range of real-world examples at individual, local, and global scales.

This course is intended to be one of several offered by the mathematics department with the goal of helping students from non-technical majors partially satisfy their general education quantification requirement. It is designed to provide an introduction to various mathematical modeling techniques, with an emphasis on examples related to environmental and economic sustainability.  The course may be used to fulfill three credits of the GQ requirement for some majors, but it does not serve as a prerequisite for any mathematics courses and should be treated as a terminal course.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Air Travel and the University

Hintz Family Alumin Center, Penn State
In a recent post, I spoke about how air travel represents a huge chunk of the carbon footprint of an academic like me.  But what if instead we consider the carbon footprint of the university as a whole?

Energy use figures for the Penn State university system can be found on the web at the "Green PSU" site.   From this page we can infer the following annual consumption figures for the University Park campus:
  • 284 GWh of electricity from the grid
  • 36000 tonnes of coal
  • 900 million cu ft of natural gas
Using ballpark figures for CO2 intensity of these sources, the respective CO2 emissions from these are
  • 140,000 tonnes from electricity generation (assumed intensity: 500g/kWh)
  • 105,000 tonnes from coal burning (assumed 80% of coal is C, converted completely to CO2 by combustion)
  • 48,000 tonnes from natural gas (using 53.6 tonnes per million cubic feet).
The total of roughly 300,000 tonnes  per year is divided among roughly 45,000 students, 3,000 full-time faculty, and 9,000 full-time staff, giving about 5.1 tonnes/person annually for the campus-based emission figure.

Now, how much flying do these people do?  It is not easy to get direct information about this.  I already fessed up to an academic travel program that runs about 8 tonnes/year, but I am probably on the high side.  My undergraduate research assistant Kaley recently carried out a survey across several University Park departments and colleges.  67 faculty members completed the survey and the  data (I should stress very preliminary) suggest that an average academic travel program corresponds to about 3 tonnes/year emissions.  If we assume that all 3000 full-time faculty travel at this intensity, that produces a figure of 9,000 tonnes/year or about 3% of campus fixed emissions.  That may well be high because it is plausible that those who don't travel at all were disproportionately likely not to respond.  Even if you assume that everyone travels as much as I do, the percentage is still "only" 8%.

What to make of this figure? It makes a significant but not a huge dent in the total environmental impact of a place like the UP campus.  But on the other hand, the campus meets the needs of 45,000 students as well as the faculty and staff.  It would be equally "correct" to say that the average carbon dioxide emissions attributable to a faculty member's travel seem roughly two-thirds of  the fraction of the campus' fixed emissions attributable to him or her.

Which way of counting is most morally relevant?

(UPDATED 2/8 to correct an arithmetical error.)

Photo by Flickr user akrobat77, licensed under Creative Commons

Sunday, February 3, 2013

High-flying low-hanging fruit

Airbus A380 takeoffA few months ago, I wrote about some of the efforts I'd been making to moderate our household energy consumption: improving insulation, buying a more efficient refrigerator, replacing lightbulbs, installing a real-time electricity monitoring system and so on.  The results are visible in the "home energy report" that now arrives regularly from the power company.  "Great! You used 34% less energy than your efficient neighbors!"  (Efficient neighbors are defined to be the top quintile of all our neighbors, so this is a good statistic indeed.)

When improving energy efficiency, we want to start with the things that are easy to do and make a big difference - the "low-hanging fruit".  The new refrigerator was the biggest "low hanging" item for us.

Suppose though that I move on from thinking about "what can I do around the house" and ask about my whole lifestyle.  Which elements of my life are greediest for energy, or (more or less equivalently, in our present world) contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions?

There's an obvious answer: air travel.  

Academics are enthusiastic travelers (and with reason: in my own experience at least, new ideas often come from the chance to meet face-to-face with new people.)  I travel about 40,000 miles a year.  A ballpark figure for carbon dioxide emissions from flying is 200 grams per passenger-mile, so that's about 8 tonnes of CO2.  According to the European Union's EDGAR database, United States annual carbon dioxide emissions run about 17.3 tonnes per capita.  So, this particular "fruit" for me weighs about half of the whole tree!  It hangs low indeed.

Am I willing to harvest it?

Photo by Flickr user Ndecam, licensed under Creative Commons.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

What's a mathematician to do?

idealist!Via Andy Revkin's blog at the New York Times, I found this dialog with a student who asked:
I am someone with a deep-seated desire to help the planet remain as habitable as possible in the face of the trials humanity is putting it through. I’d like to devote my career to this cause, but am young and haven’t chosen a definitive career path yet. My bachelors is in pure math and I am considering graduate study in either applied math or statistics. I’m curious what you would recommend to someone in my position.
Gavin Schmidt from NASA responded on Realclimate.org, and a lively discussion followed.  Read it here. 

Picture from Flickr user Martha Dear, licensed under Creative Commons.