Recently in Environmental Category

ETech 09: Urban Futures

Chris Luebkeman from Arup. One of the first presentations on Wednesday at ETech 09. It was an interesting presentation, and he was a great talker but… I still don’t know what the point of the presentation was. It all felt like an introduction to something that we never reached:

ETech 09: A Greener World

Jeremy Faludi: “Priorities for a Greener World: If You Could Design Anything, What Should You Do?” From Tuesday afternoon at ETech 09.

ETech 09: Urban Green Space

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Elizabeth Goodman: “Designing for Urban Green Space”. A talk from Tuesday afternon at ETech 09. Goodman is from the UC Berkeley School of Information.

Alex Steffen from World Changing. One of the first talks from Tuesday morning at ETech 09.

Over at one of the Well’s public conference topics, Bruce Sterling is doing his annual discussion on the State of the World. It’s a long read — currently three very long tediously mono-spaced pages — but worth it if you have the time.

Google in ten years

To celebrate their tenth birthday Google’s official blog has asked ten of its “top experts” what’s going to happen in the next ten years. I must admit that the results are mostly underwhelming, as if these top experts find it difficult to look beyond their next quarter’s results and imagine what could possibly happen in ten years’ time. Brief summaries of each response below, with my thoughts in italics.

Central Nervous System for the Earth

HP Labs have a new(?) project, the Information and Quantum Systems Lab with an ambitious goal:

Shell's 2050 energy scenarios

Shell, the grandfathers of scenario planning, have a new set of scenarios that look at the world in terms of energy, through to 2050. There’s a PDF document that summarises the two scenarios — “Scramble” and “Blueprints” — and below is my summary of their summary. I must admit I’m not currently hopeful about our ability to cope with this stuff, given how poorly governments are able to handle other impending disasters… (Via City of Sound.)

Geoscale engineering

The Economist has an article summarising a journal from the Royal Society titled ‘Geoscale engineering to avert dangerous climate change’. There are two basic ways to lower the Earth’s temperature and several ways of achieving both. The article summarises them:


Danny O’Brien has an interesting post about Seasteading — creating small autonomous states that can exist on platforms at sea, independent of existing governments.

Long Now Lectures


I don't think I've seen this before: The Long Now Foundation has a series of lectures available free for download on a variety of, long-term issues (they suggest you umake a donation if you like them).

Public fragrance ban

Banning smoking in public places is becoming more common, and in places where there is no ban it's a common topic of discussion. Drinking alcohol is banned in some public places. What's the next step in making cities more pleasant/bland (depending on your point of view)? Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is discouraging the wearing of fragrances in public because the chemicals in them can make some people ill. A couple of places in California, USA have also banned fragrances in some situations. Will it become more common?

Chinese Rainmakers

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It's always fascinating to see new, if worrying, points on the road towards global water scarcity. According to this Scotsman article the Chinese are really serious about creating rain, "using aircraft, rockets and even anti-aircraft guns to seed the clouds for precious moisture." Provinces are reportedly competing to get the rain before their neighbours using technology that's been around for decades, but never used so intensely. The article reads like the synopsis of some unbelievable sci-fi comic:

Getting Chilly

Matt Jones (among others) quotes and points to a scary Fortune article about how soon and how rapidly (over less than a decade) global warming could make the Northern Hemisphere very cold. Leading to wars for natural resources and general horrifying scariness.

"This vehicle is powered by chicken fat"

Yoz links to a Guardian article about Asda, a UK supermarket chain, running its trucks on used cooking oil: "the biggest boost yet for the legal use of recycled cooking oil on Britain's roads."

Long-term climate change report

Described in the April edition of Future Survey as "the authoritative global document for the moment", the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report has parts available online. The Synthesis Report (8Mb PDF) and its Summary for Policymakers (300Kb PDF) include lots of graphs that both look back over centuries of climate change and provide several scenarios of change for the century ahead.

Richard A. Muller writes in last month's Technology Review about how we can survive this century's projected global population peak of 10 billion without running out of everything. We simply have to increase our rate of energy conservation from 1 percent per year (the average since 1845) to 2 percent. Not inconceivable when the US has managed 4 percent for brief periods.

Nuclear waste

Adjacent headlines at the Environmental News Network: After years of debate, U.S. Congress approves sending nation's nuclear waste to Nevada and Russia wins aid to clean up nuclear waste. Please bring your own irony to this post.

A disposable planet

An Observer article on an imminent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report which says, as so many do, that humans are destroying the Earth faster than previously thought. The article quotes a WWF spokesman saying "If all the people consumed natural resources at the same rate as the average US and UK citizen we would require at least two extra planets like Earth," and this is the point played up in the article (who knows how much a part it plays in the report itself, if any).

The world's worst volcano

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I'm a bit behind, but the January 2001 edition of Future Survey contains a fascinating summary of Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions (Amazon US, UK) which is a reminder of how devastating wild card events can be:

A few good stories on ENN... First, New York City is "susdpending" its plastic and glass recycling programmes for one and two years respectively. Mayor Bloomberg insists this is while the City works out if there's a more efficient way to do it. But if a scheme like this has taken ten years to mature I imagine a one year break will set things back much further. A reminder that steady trends, such as the spread of recycling schemes, can always hit unexpected setbacks.

Think again about global warming

Andrew Kenny claims that global cooling is more likely than global warming. Why don't we hear about it? Because, unlike global warming, there's no one we can blame for geological-scale cooling. With greedy companies and corrupt governments as targets, "global warming has become an immense international gravy train worth billions of dollars," blinding people to the truth. He goes too far at times (eg, claiming anti-warming campaigners want poor countries "to remain mired in noble poverty"), but it does make one think twice about things that have become ingrained as indisputable fact. Which is always good. (via SciTech Daily Review)

The first light pollution law

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I've been wondering for some time whether campaigners will make headway in their campaigns to limit human light and sound pollution. The Czech Republic has become the first country to introduce a law forbidding outdoor lighting that spills out above the horizontal plane.

Environmentally friendlier flights

Having heard a lot about cars using alternative fuels, I've often wondered about planes, given how much fuel they burn. 35 European organisations coordinated by Airbus are looking into liquid hydrogen planes in their Cryoplane project (or you can read a European Union press release).

A report from the University of California-Santa Cruz, USA, suggests that global warming and population increases could have a disastrous effect for the already dry US state over coming decades. Maybe green roofs and porous paving would help. Oh, and global warming does exist apparently, if you were in any doubt.

I've been reading the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Environment Outlook 3 which was released last week. It looks at the state of our world right now and what it might be over the next thirty years (the summary is a 1.6MB PDF). As well as a lot of current information, it features a set of four detailed global scenarios over 80 pages (the scenario chapter is a 2.5MB PDF). Three scenarios could be described as a continuum from a world where profit comes first to where the environment comes first (the latter unfortunately sounding the least likely). The fourth scenario focuses on the possibility that wealthy parts of the globe will attempt to insulate themselves from the poorer, more volatile societies. While the descriptions avoid almost any mention of specific countries they are very detailed and include many pages of charts and maps showing the implications of each scenario on different regions. The scenarios mention that some future events have the "War on Terrorism" as their cause and part of me wonders whether it's a good idea to base such long-term thoughts on something still so new. But, as the report mentions, most of the decisions have already been made that will affect our environment over the next thirty years and we need to look beyond that.

Rethinking urban lighting


I'm intrigued by people thinking about light and sound pollution. Lighting engineer Nancy Clanton is working on a project for the California Energy Commission, looking at reducing the use of outdoor lighting without reducing its effectiveness. Some interesting points about the effects of good and bad lighting, and what makes lighting effective in different situations (it's not just how bright it is).

A brief discussion of the potential effects on how building and city design might change following the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists. It would be interesting to read something more in depth on this (jump to the third and fourth pages for the looking ahead). (via Haddock)

The world's first sky preserve

I've posted at least once in the past about fledgling attempts to create noise-free zones. Aside from noise, humans create another kind of non-noxious pollution - light pollution. The government in Ontario, Canada, has created the world's first sky preserve, a 1,900 hectare area of land where the sky should be free of any kind of pollution from ground-based lighting. Lots more on the same site. There was also a segment on the USA's National Public Radio programme, Living on Earth and here's the transcript. Oh, just realised there's an International Dark-Sky Association. (via FoRK)

The USA's National Center for Environmental Research is looking for grant applications for futures-related work. Lots of money for educational and non-profits apparently available for futures research in Natural Sciences and Socio-Economics. (via Haddock)

Computerised bicycle loan schemes

Adshel, the street furniture company, is planning a system of bikes free for loan in Cardiff, UK, similar to a current system in Rennes, France. Each user has a card that identifies them when they check a bike out of one of the docking stations throughout the city. (via Gorjuss)

Community Mobility System

A report on Frog Design's system based around a golf-cart-sized electric car. Talks about neighbourhood hubs for delivery and collection of goods ordered online and links to a number of international car-sharing schemes.

Los Angeles is the future

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A look at the "L.A. School" of urban theorists who see Los Angeles as an alternative look at the future of urban development. Contrary to the usually cited course of events, the city is not de-industrialised, but re-industrialised and many of its suburban areas are in fact very densely populated. (via Arts & Letters Daily)

Growing Plastic

A good discussion about different techniques of growing plastic in plants. The benefit is less of the traditional petrochemical processes. The downside that it can take more energy to extract this new biodegradable plastic from the plants than it does to make plastic the old-fashioned way. The article looks at these issues and more. (via Arts & Letters Daily)

An illustration of the effects on people's lives of the increasing shortage of water in China. Poor harvests, demonstrations and an expanding desert that could reach Beijing in 35 years at current rates.

Supplies of fresh water are, of course, disappearing rapidly. Canada has 40 per cent of the world's supply and this article looks at the position the country will be in when it controls so much of a scarce commodity. (via Harvard World Health News)

Biscayne National Park (Florida, USA) is to establish a "soundscape preservation plan," the first of its kind. So far it appears to be a study of the non-natural environmental sounds, rather than any restrictions, so it's not yet up to the levels wanted by Gordon Hempton's "One Square Inch of Silence" campaign. As human-made environmental noises become increasingly unavoidable maybe there will be a higher demand for true silence.

Demand for power has risen dramatically throughout the USA, leading some firms to source their own supplies. New electronic systems use a surprising amount of power, and according to this Risks List posting the costs of power are rising dramatically. (via Risks Digest)

Water wars begin

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Aside from being a great roundup of environmental events around the world, this diary/map recounts a fight between monkeys and humans in Kenya. The area is suffering from drought and when water tankers arrived thirsty monkeys chased the humans away so they could drink. (via Robot Wisdom)

The century's scientific challenges


A press release from the United States Geological Survey listing the demands being placed on the world's resources. Nothing surprising in themselves, but a good round-up of problems: Safe, clean water; natural hazards; urban growth; emerging infectious diseases; biological invaders; global change; lifecycle of Earth's natural materials; USA's water infrastructure; coastal waters; "putting information in its place."

Global International Waters Assessment

Set up under the United Nation's Global Environmental Facility, this agency is charged with coming up with a plan to combat the increasing lack of fresh water on the planet. The site has information about the causes and issues of the freshwater shortage, and will include data about water around the world. (via BBC News)

Mud as a building material

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The Welsh Centre for Alternative Technology is constructing a £630,000 information centre out of mud bricks to illustrate its potential as an ecologically sound building material.

Monsanto's future water business

A description of Monsanto's plans to expand its business providing water in a world where safe water is becoming increasingly scarce. Looks ahead to 2025 "when the supply of water in India will be 700 cubic kilometres per year while the demand is expected to rise to 1050 units." (via EurekAlert)

Half the world's rivers at risk

A report from the United Nation's World Commission on Water for the 21st Century says half the world's freshwater rivers are threatened. Last year the number of environmental refugees (25 million) outnumbered those displaced by war for the first time.

Plants which need less water

Biotech could produce plants which lose less water, so they need much less to survive.

Canada to restrict water exports

"The Canadian government yesterday introduced legislation to ban the export of water from the Great Lakes and other boundary waters ... The move is a response to growing domestic fears that Canadian fresh water may be turned into commercial goods subject to international trade agreements." (From, article no longer available.)

Global warming could make Europe cold

An increase in freshwater flows due to global warming could disrupt the ocean conveyor built which brings warm southern water to North Western Europe, keeping its temperatures above average for such latitudes.

Japanese to drill for methane

The Japanese are beginning a project to drill for methane beneath the ocean floor. Estimates of when commercial use will occur vary from 18 months to 10 years. Mistakes when drilling can be catastrophic with the methane expanding to 160 times its size on release.

US astronomers have the first visual confirmation after watching a planet pass in front of a distant star. It confirms that calculations about such planets are correct.

Vat-grown meat

Three Dutch scientists are developing a method of mass producing meat without animal suffering. Samples of animal cells are cultivated on a matrix of collagen.

Methane could destroy the world

Deposits of methane gas beneath the ocean floor are the planet's largest untapped energy reserves. However, global warming or poor drilling methods it could let the methane loose, and with one cubic metre of this methane hydrate converts into 164 cubic metres of the greenhouse gas.

Slug Terminator

The Intelligent Autonomous Systems group at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK, have developed a robot which kills slugs. It can identify the slugs and captures them at the rate of ten a minute. When it's full, or batteries run low, the robot returns to base, transferring the slugs to a chamber where they're converted to a gas used to produce electricity for the fuel cell.

Cross-pollinating super trees

The World Wide Fund for Nature says 116 GM tree trials have taken place since 1988 and these trees can cross pollinate with native trees over a distance of 400 miles. "Other GM modifications under trial raise the prospect of silent forests, devoid of insects, flowers and birds. The idea is to create super-trees that grow rapidly, resist rot, and defy insect attack. The trees would be sprayed from planes to kill all life around them."

Article about a report by Greenpeace, European Wind Energy Association and the Forum for Energy and Development that says it's technically possible over the next 20 years to install enough wind-power generators to satisfy 10% of global electricity needs.

Report on a United Nations Population Fund report saying the world's population will be about 8.9 billion in 2050. This is down from an earlier prediction of 9.4 billion; a third of this gap is due to HIV/Aids which is spreading faster than expected. "In Botswana, where one of every four adults is infected, life expectancy has fallen from 61 years in the late 1980s to 47 today, and is expected to plunge to 38 by 2005-2010. Nevertheless, the population is still expected to nearly double by 2050." "Of the 4.8 bn people in developing countries, nearly three-fifths lack basic sanitation. Almost a third have no access to clean water."

NASA is starting a $600,000 project to turn astronaut waste into a power source using pyrolysis - breaking matter down by heating it without oxygen. Pyrolysis can result in liquids or gases, depending on the temperature of burning and these can either be burnt to release energy or turned into other materials such as plastics. They suggest the process could be used on earth for recycling human waste, plastic bags, etc.

The perils of the biotech century

Jeremy Rifkin on how we should approach the use of biotech. "It needs to be stressed that it's not a matter of saying yes or no to the use of technology itself and never has been ... Rather, the question is: what kind of biotechnologies will we choose in the coming biotech century? Will we use our new insights into the workings of plant and animal genomes to create genetically engineered "super crops" and transgenic animals? Or will we use them to advance ecological agriculture and more humane animal husbandry practices?

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