The future ain’t what it used to be

I collect futures.

That is to say, I am an enthusiast of the various visions and conceptions of life in the future that various people have developed over the years.  I find them utterly fascinating.  Not because of their predictive value- which is often quite poor[1]- but because I think it says a lot about the person making it.  Ask someone for their vision of an optimistic vision of the future, and what you’ll often get is actually their idealized present.

Earlier this week, it finally occurred to me to go looking for visions of the future, rather than just stumbling upon them from time to time.  So I fired up Google [2], and searched for “sustainable visions of the future” (“visions of the future” proved to be too vague to be of any use).

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Better Messaging for Environmentalism

Sorry about the lack of updates- I’m TAing this Fall, and that’s kind of sucked up a lot of time.

Anyhow, today I’m going to discuss something that’s been on my mind for a while- namely, how environmental and sustainability advocates might be able improve their messaging and communication. This is trickier than it seems- it became apparent to me, that,  a lot of cases, this isn’t just a matter of rephrasing what’s been said before, it’s outright re-conceptualizing it. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

Rates of change may be more important than change itself.  This is something that I’m surprised isn’t brought up more often, especially in regards to climate change.  After all, the problem isn’t that climate is changing- that does happen from time to time throughout geologic history- it’s that it’s changing at an incredibly fast rate and amplitude compared to past norms.  To put it another way, if we were potentially seeing a 5-7 C degree change over 100,000 years, we wouldn’t care- and probably wouldn’t even notice.  It would be too gradual.  But when you compress that change into a 100 or 200 year period- which is what we are currently on track to get, if we continue business as usual- then suddenly things get a lot scarier.  Another example- one that is mentioned more often- is species extinction: there is an established background extinction rate, and in some respects, it is normal for species to go extinct.  However, the current extinction rate is over 1000 times normal.  That’s a problem.

Emphasize that solutions already exist.  We’ve got most of what we need to fix a lot of these problems- both technologically and from a policy point of view- it’s just a matter of having the political will to enact them. I know this isn’t necessarily too popular amongst dark greens, since some of them are after more radical change than what is currently offered, but given the magnitude of the crises we are facing, I think a little pragmatism may be in order (and, in any case, if you’re looking for that sort of radical change, remember: baby steps.  If such incrementalism frustrates you and you long for revolution, keep in mind Abiodun Oyewole’s sound advice- “Speak not of revolution until you are ready to eat rats to survive.”)

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Book review: Green Metropolis, by David Owen

So, this is a bit of a first, since I haven’t done a review before, strictly speaking.  But I’ve thought enough about this book that I figure I might as well write it all down.

The main thrust of David Owen’s Green Metropolis is a refutation of the anti-urban, back-to-the-land tendency found often in environmentalism.  While I had hoped for him to go into more detail about how this tendency evolved, he nevertheless gives an adequate summary of its roots in the Industrial Revolution (when city life was truly dreadful).  From there, he goes on, in great detail, to extol the environmental virtues of urban life- the denser, the better.  In particular, he holds up his hometown of Manhattan as a template for the sustainable habitat of the future.

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Early Mars rich in O2?

So, a few weeks ago, there was a report out that suggested Mars may have had a more oxygen rich environment in its early history than previously suspected.  While it’s not clear that this means Mars had an oxygenated atmosphere- or that if oxygen was present, it was in significant concentrations- it is thought provoking.

For one thing, if I’m interpreting the paper correctly, it does suggest that early Mars may have had some tectonic activity, which is a pretty big thing- for a long time it was assumed Mars never really was tectonically active (it certainly isn’t today).

If there was in fact an oxygen atmosphere- probably generated from the photolysis of H2O, rather than photosynthesis- it could have implications for early life arising on Mars.  On one hand, oxidizing environments tend to be less than ideal for prebiotic chemistry- this is one of the reasons that the atmosphere of the early Earth was thought to be reducing up until relatively recently.  After all, oxygen was toxic to most of the early anaerobic organisms.

On the other hand, assuming that life developed on Mars, there would have been a considerable evolutionary pressure to develop an aerobic metabolism, which in turn could have allowed more complex forms of life to develop, potentially much earlier than happened on Earth.

So, depending on how you spin it, this discovery could lessen the likelihood that life developed on Mars, or it could increase the likelihood that somewhat more complex life could have evolved during Mars’ early warm, wet period.  As always, more information is needed, but the possibilities are rather tantalizing…

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AbGradCon 2013 Field Report

Well, given that I promised that this blog would feature astrobiology, I suppose I should actually include some astrobiology content.  So, without further ado, here are some of the more interesting things that were presented at this year’s Astrobiology Graduate Conference, in Montreal, Quebec:

-The concept of “eyeball earths”- planets that are tidally locked with a dim, cool red dwarf host star, and therefore exhibit dichotomous hemispheres (see picture)

-Dennis Hoening’s presentation, suggesting that microbial weathering may promote plate tectonics by introducing more water into the crust.  He went on to use this as evidence for the GAIA hypothesis, but given that we have no other planet that has either a complex biosphere *or* plate tectonic to compare it to, I think this is a tenuous assertion.

-Dr. Britney Schmidt’s talk on an expedition to investigate the underside of the Ross Ice Shelf- they found some pretty cool stuff, including anemones that embed themselves in the ice and grow downwards.

-Jessica Stromberg’s work, which suggests that aerobic metabolism may have actually predated the oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere, developing in slightly oxygenated “oases.”

-Laurie Barge’s talk on hydrothermal vents as naturally occurring membrane fuel cells, which could power early biochemical reactions.

OSCAAR, an open-source program that allows anyone with a telescope and CCD to detect transiting exoplanets around other stars (I’m considering forwarding this info to WSU’s astronomy department, since we have a little Clarke refractor that can’t be used for any other scientific work because the light pollution from the campus is so horrid- but they would be able to do this).

-And finally, one of the last presenters at the conference was Ryan James, an information scientist specializing in scientometrics of emerging fields, who gave a talk on the health and robustness of astrobiology.  His preliminary conclusions, based on the surveys he had conducted was that 1) astrobiology has a healthy, broad distribution of age of participants (indicating that people who start in astrobiology tend to stay in it, and presumably can get jobs in the field- as opposed to an unhealthy, bimodal distribution, where you have a lot of grad students working for a lot of old masters, with little opportunity for early-and-mid career scientists), and 2) it’s really, really diverse.

I also found out I’m no longer the only person who does ecosystem modeling ,which was pretty cool.

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What Transition gets Right- and What it Gets Wrong

First off, sorry for the long pause in postings- since arriving home for the summer, I’ve found myself gifted with a list of various farm projects and chores my parents haven’t been able to do themselves, so I’ve actually been busier than I was during the semester.

With that out of the way, today I will be discussing the Transition Towns movement (sometimes just referred to as Transition). Transition is a social movement that sprung into existence out of the permaculture movement in response to the threats posed by peak oil, climate change, and, in some flavors of it, the general economic and financial disruption that presumably would accompany the first two.  Its proposed response is to downscale significantly: return the economy to a more local form, heavily localize food production, and greatly reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions (via reduction or elimination of car travel within the community, more things made locally and by hand, and strong promotion of energy conservation).  Supporters also claim that this will lead to better quality of life through a stronger sense of community, so a lot of what I mentioned in my previous essay on localism    holds true for Transition.  There is also a lot of emphasis on building resilience, both physical (for communities) and psychological (for individuals).

What Transition Gets Right
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A little perspective

You know, I’ve read a lot about how consumption (and, perhaps more importantly, overconsumption) are major driving factors for environmental degradation here on Earth, and that this is a major problem especially here in the West.  I worry that I might be contributing to it.

Then, while I’m waiting to get my haircut, I stumble across an issue of Departures magazine and realize that maybe I’m not really the type of person people are worried about.


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