Soggy Spring, Silent Seas (link suite overview)

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On storms, floods, food prices and foolish farm policies; Redistributing fertility from where it’s needed to where it’s not; Corn, gullies and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone

TrackerNews link suite on the record storms and floods in the US. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

According to insurance industry consultancy EQECAT, the damage caused by the hundreds of tornadoes that exploded across the southern tier of the US in April rank right up there in Hurricane Katrina territory: $2 to $5 billion. That’s 2 to 5 times the average seasonal toll. Meanwhile, the death count—still not final at 340—is more than four times the seasonal average. And while the outbreak itself lasted several days, individual tornadoes shredded cities, tossed cars, stripped trees and pulverized farms in mere  seconds, the strongest storms packing winds far more powerful than even a “Cat 5” hurricane.

The before-and-after photos are Hollywood blockbuster extreme: Landscapes scoured beyond recognition. Whole neighborhoods reduced to spiky plywood shards and lumps of fast-molding candy-pink insulation. With almost tornadic speed, a Facebook page was set up in the aftermath to reunite photographs and documents tossed from homes that no longer exist with their owners. The successes only underscore just how much is gone.

Heavy, steady rains and snow melt have combined to swell streams, rivers and lakes from Canada through the Deep South to the highest levels seen in decades. But it is the raging waters of the Mississippi and Ohio drowning America’s breadbasket that have grabbed most of the headlines.Gravid with topsoil-rich run-off,  they are breaking all the wrong kinds of records. To save Cairo, Illinois, a small, historic, hardscrabble city at the southernmost tip of Illinois where the two rivers meet—and was once a critical stop on the Underground Railway—the US Army Corps of Engineers blew a two-mile hole in a levee, turning nearly 200 square miles of rich Missouri farmland flood-plain into an insti-lake.

FARM REPORT

It will be months before the land dries out. Even then, the legacy of  chemical residues and storm debris will likely render the land unusable for some time. The situation is almost as dire throughout farm country. As of the last week of April, only 13% of the corn crop had been planted. Usually, 40 and 60% is in the ground by now. Prospects for the winter wheat crop are also bleak, with over 40% considered to be in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Predictably, commodity prices are soaring, with corn up 99% from a year ago and wheat up 55%. What began as a regional tragedy will become global catastrophe as food costs climb beyond the reach of millions.

At this point, even planting “fence row to fence row” will not be able to make up the losses. In fact, part of the problem has been this  push—supported by government subsidies—to plant every-last-possible–square-inch. Spring rains carve out deep gullies, funneling run-off laced with chemical fertilizers into creeks and streams—hundreds of tons of topsoil literally washed away every season.

Well, not quite away. The Mighty Mississippi will be delivering a mighty mother lode to the Gulf of Mexico in the coming days, where it will fertilize a bumper crop of algae, which will suck so much oxygen out the water, fish will either flee or float. Many predict a record hypoxic “dead zone” this year.

Stormy weather, indeed.

Scientists won’t know for sure whether any of this can be chalked up to climate change—a warmer world is a juicier, rainier one—until, frankly, it is too late to matter. It will take years of wretched weather to establish a proof-positive pattern.

But while we wait, there actually are some fairly simple things that could be done to mitigate damage from future storms. According to “Losing Ground,” a new report by the Environmental Working Group, creating land-cover buffers around creaks, streams and rivers would reduce farm run-off significantly: “97% of soil loss is preventable by simple conservation means.”

Really, why wouldn’t we want to do that?

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RELATED READING  / VIEWING

The Nuke Factor: How to Make Disasters Worse and the Implications for Humanitarian Aid

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On 400+ aging nuclear reactors, quake-prone countries, food chains, trade networks and what this means for first responders and social entrepreneurs

TrackerNews link suite on the Japanese nuclear disaster. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Let’s get right to the point: What happens the next time a nuclear reactor goes rogue in the wake of a natural disaster? Japan is a worst case scenario in a best case place.

But what if the earth were to quake in Iran, China, Italy or Turkey—all of which are pursuing nuclear-fueled futures? Or Pakistan, where the IEAE  and US just gave their respective stamps of approval for two new Chinese-built plants? Each of those seismically-rocking countries floats precariously at (tectonic) plates’ edge. In fact, one of two reactors planned for Turkey is just a few miles from a major fault line.

The assurances of political leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are somehow less than reassuring: “I don’t think there will be any serious problem…The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”

Forty years may seem like an eternity to a politician, but is, in fact, a blink in a time-scale defined by nuclear radiation (see Chernobyl). Inspections have a way of getting missed (see Japan). Human error happens (see Three Mile Island).

In the meantime, major earthquakes striking all of these countries sometime over the projected lifespans of their reactors is a sure thing.

Beyond the issues of nuclear waste storage, the almost inevitable black market trade and surreptitious weapons programs, what happens when the “sure thing” meets the big risk? How does one keep radioactive fall-out from contaminating emergency food rations? Or find safe water? What happens when those best able to help are put in mortal danger if they try?

Is this the kind of border even doctors won’t cross?

No matter. The radiation will eventually come to them, traveling first through food chains, then trade networks. Some produce is already showing levels of radiation several times accepted limits, though authorities insist it is still safe. So far, the milk supply remains uncontaminated. But according the WHO, Japan is a big exporter of baby formula and powdered milk to China and the US. As the crisis drags on and radioactive particles work their way into cattle pastures, that could change.

In short, bad gets worse—much worse—once nuclear is part of the equation.

WAKE UP CALL

The tragedy in Japan should be a wake up call to NGOs, social entrepreneurs and all those working, as they say, “for positive change.” The nuclear issue is not an abstraction to be relegated to politicians, engineers and lobbyists. This threatens your work, potentially reversing years of hard-fought economic gains in poor countries and undoing decades-worth of global public health efforts. This isn’t just about regional clusters of radiation-related illnesses, but also of the loss of infrastructure for disease surveillance and drug distribution that would tip the balance in favor of infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics.

Finally, the thorniest of ethical questions:  Who makes the call to send staff into disaster zones so dangerous that not only is personal health at risk, but that of future offspring as well? (As a 1950s military film put it: “the ultimate symptom, death itself”)

With more than 400 reactors spread across the globe—many now nearing their “sold-by” date—the next Japan is more a matter of when, not if. Power plants, of course, are not designed as weapons, but that doesn’t make their  fall-out any less lethal.

Humanitarian aid workers: Are you ready?

Global earthquake activity since 1973 and nuclear power plant locations (click through to map web page)

* Addendum 3/31/11:

Hospitals and temporary refuges are demanding that evacuees provide them with certificates confirming that they have not been exposed to radiation before they are admitted….

…The eight-year-old daughter of Takayuki Okamura was refused treatment for a skin rash by a clinic in Fukushima City, where the family is living in a shelter after abandoning their home in Minamisoma, 18 miles from the crippled nuclear plant….

…Prejudice against people who used to live near the plant is reminiscent of the ostracism that survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 experienced. Many suffered discrimination when they tried to rent housing, find employment or marriage partners…

—”Japan nuclear crisis: evacuees turned away from shelters” / The Telegraph

Discrimination based not on race, creed or color, but on a cruel twist of geographic fate: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It is tragedy compounded, reverberating through generations.

Perhaps we need to add a “futures wrecked” column to graphs purporting to show the comparative benignness of nuclear energy versus that produced by coal and oil. It is a lobbyist’s argument, telling a truth, but not the whole truth.

The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.

Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.

We need to get beyond this devil’s choice fast, to invest in renewables at every scale, macro to micro (e.g., micro-wind). We—as in “We the people,” as in our governments—need to support research and innovation and help ideas scale for practical, commercial use.

One the few hopeful stories this past week was the announcement of an “artificial leaf” that can create energy from photosynthesis. MIT professor Daniel Nocera has been working on ways that essentially cut out the middleman in energy generation. Unlike coal and oil, which are fossilized sunlight—energy banked in the past—or nuclear power, which requires vast investment to tap, Nocera’s inexpensive playing card-size solar chip can harvest enough energy from a gallon of water—stored in a small fuel cell—to power a home in a developing country for a day. The water doesn’t even have to be all that clean, either.

The latest version of Nocera’s technology is of commercial interest because, by integrating the catalyst with the chips, it dispenses with the need for traditional solar panels. That, he says, will cut costs considerably, by eliminating wires, etc. “The price of the silicon of a solar panel isn’t much,” he says. “A lot of the cost is the wiring. What this does is get rid of all that.”

“The real goal here,” he adds, “is giving energy to the poor” – especially, he notes, in rural Africa, India, and China.

Even better, he adds, the device doesn’t need ultrapure water. “You can use nature water sources, which is a big deal in parts of the world where it’s costly to have to use pure water.”

MIT scientist announces first “practical” artificial leaf / Nature

Recently, Tata Group, an international conglomerate best known as India’s largest automaker, invested $9.5 million in Nocera’s company, Sun Catalytix.

Follow the money. The smart money.

(video: Daniel Nocera explains personalized power / Poptech / 1 of 2)

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Additional links include:

Germs, Soap & Water: Link Suite Overview

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At TrackerNews, we tend to shy away from issues that have “days” as almost a sure mark that the cause, however noble, is all but lost. Awareness is whipped to fever pitch, followed almost inevitably by a “what do we do now?” hang-over, and an ADD sprint onto the next issue du jour. But World Toilet Day (Nov. 19) caught—and kept—our attention. So much so, we used it as the fulcrum of one the largest link suites ever on the aggregator.  —Ed.

“Germs, Soap & Water” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

It is as basic—and necessary—as breathing. And, just like breathing, one of the first things we need to be able to do on our own: We poop. But what begins as a triumph of living, quickly devolves into daily problem with deadly implications. Human poop is a happy home for at least 50 pathogens, including cholera, the latest of Haiti’s cascading list of immeasurable woes.

At some point each day, each one of the now more than 6 billion people on that planet will need to “take a moment,” “go to the powder room,” or “be right back.”  For one in six, however, there is no “powder room,” or even a bucket into which to “do one’s business.”  A full third don’t have access to a clean bathroom. Instead, they do as nature designed, find a place to squat and simply “go”—or, in the jargon of the sanitation experts, perform “open defecation” (OD).

It is messy, smelly, wildly dangerous in terms of public health, and dicey in terms of personal safety. Women and children are especially vulnerable to attack and rape. No safety, privacy or dignity.

Journalist Rose George, author of “The Big Necessity” and an expert on the issue, notes that only a small fraction of development funds spent on water projects goes toward sanitation. Yet to seriously move the dial on global public health, safe toilets and hand-washing with soap are required as well. According to one, oft-quoted stat, one child dies every 15 seconds from largely preventable diarrheal diseases. Hand-washing with soap alone can reduce the tally by more than half.

Which is why Clean the World (CTW), a two-year-old charity that steam-cleans partially-used hotel soaps for distribution in poor countries, is one of the best, cheapest, smartest public health efforts to come along in some time. At 50 cents a bar, soap in Haiti is a luxury. Free soap is a literal life-saver. Think of it as a kind of bed-net against germs.

Likewise, Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) delivers dramatic results for almost no cost, using a combination of shock, peer-pressure and incentives to stamp out OD. Villagers are graphically shown how excreta and germs get into water and food via dirty hands, shoes, feet. Not only are latrines quickly built, but a combination of fines and rewards ensure they’re used.

INNOVATION, HISTORY, CULTURE & ART

At TrackerNews, we never met a stray fact we didn’t like and bathrooms, it turns out, are full of them. Consider the latest breakthrough in TP tech: the tubeless toilet paper roll. The center is hexagonal—a biomimicked bee hive cell—which is a particularly strong shape that easily fits over a roller. Not only is every sheet usable, but if the design were to be widely adopted, one that could keep an estimated 17 billion-with-a-“b” cardboard tubes out of landfills annually, just in the U.S.

Although the basic design of the flush toilet hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years, the variety and sheer spectacularness of loo-design has been nothing short of breathtaking. From Golden Plunger award-winners to “Toilets of the World” (book & website), the variations on the theme are inspirational.

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Additional links include:
  • maps on Haiti’s cholera outbreak
  • night soil: free, cheap, endless supply of fertilizer
  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Vaccines!: The Good Fight, Funding Struggle, Breaking the “Cold Chain” and a Bit of Biomimicry

TrackerNews “Tumblr” posts are short intros to new link suites on the aggregator.  However, the Vaccines! post ran a bit longer than usual, so we have decided to reprint here as well. – Ed.

Few things bring as much “bang for the buck” in global public health as vaccines. It is simply a lot cheaper to prevent a disease than to pay for treatment and the cascade of downstream costs (orphaned children, food for people too ill to farm or keep jobs, etc.) Yet in the current economic downturn, funding cuts have forced even high profile programs such as polio eradication and HIV vaccine research to make some fraught decisions about which initiatives to pursue and which to drop.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of money vaccines. Sales jumped nearly 30% between 2007 to 2009, from $18.5 billion to $26 billion, with flu jabs accounting for $5 billion, and Gardasil, Merck’s controversial vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer, hauling in just over $1 billion. Per year.

Some vaccines provide subtle but significant side-benefits. Use of vaccines against diarrheal and pneumococcal diseases, for example,  have led to a decrease in antibiotic resistance in local populations. Fewer antibiotics overall are needed, which cuts down on the opportunities for resistance genes to evolve. Those who need antibiotics are more likely to actually benefit from them.

Likewise, GALVmed’s focus on livestock and poultry vaccines not only benefits animals, but also the hundreds of millions of rural poor in developing countries who rely on them for food and income. A measly 5%  of international aid goes toward agriculture, yet it is much cheaper to help people grow their own food than to ship stockpiles of emergency grain.

Breakthroughs in vaccine delivery and storage have significantly increased the effectiveness of immunization programs. Breaking the “cold chain” has become a rallying cry for a raft of new technologies. Traditionally, vaccines have had to be kept chilled throughout the entire journey from high-tech lab to off-the-grid clinics. A new bi-chambered syringe, which keeps the vaccine in a freeze-dried form until needed, may change that.

Vaccines with longer shelf lives should also cut down on costs. An estimated $260 million worth of swine flu vaccine had to be thrown out in the U.S. when it hit its expiration date over the summer.

Research continues on “edible vaccines,” a.k.a. “plant-based pharmaceuticals,” a.k.a. “molecular farming.” Although not quite the headline-darling they were five years ago, in large part due to concerns over GMOs, 20 years of research has more than proved the concept. It is possible to snack one’s way to immunity.

Since human researchers have yet to invent anything Nature doesn’t already do at some level (see “jumping genes), it begs the question whether foods naturally provide a degree of vaccination. For example, could this be a contributing factor for why not everyone gets sick drinking contaminated water? Is it possible that plants, which are known to take up pathogens via water (e.g., e.coli in lettuce), slurp up low levels of local germs, triggering an antibody response in those who eat them?

Of course, this is just speculation. But if anyone out there knows of any research, or is inspired to do the research, please keep us posted at TrackerNews. We love this sort of thing. Nobody does balance better than Nature.

The link suite includes articles and videos on:

  • Breaking the “cold chain” with a smarter syringe
  • Malaria vaccine possible by 2015
  • Vaccinating the middle man: protecting robins against West Nile and mosquitoes against plasmodium
  • Dengue trials for an all-four-strains vaccine in Australia
  • Why the money might run out before polio does
  • Hurdles slowing down progress on TB jab
  • Fungus to fight fungus – vaccinating trees
  • Is eradication futile?
  • and more…

All links become part of the TrackersNews’ searchable archive.

Trees, Food, Pakistan & the Lessons of Medieval Monks: How Ecosystems Thinking Can (Still) Save the World

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On deforestation, floods, global commodity markets and food empires; The lessons of medieval monks; Urbanization and ecosystems thinking; Saved by a worm?

On the frontlines of Pakistan flood: Chris Anderson's posts, videos and photographs

Of all the horrifying stories to come out of Pakistan in this long waterlogged summer of raging floods, perhaps the most tragic is why the disaster become a full-blown, future-blighting catastrophe: Deforestation had left the country stripped of almost all its forest cover. Trees that would have soaked up rain and slowed the flow weren’t there to do so. Nor were roots in place to keep land from sliding away.

Adding insult to injury, according to Al Jazeera, money from illegal logging near the Afghan border in Malakand found its way into the pockets of the Taliban. And in a literal cascade of bad to worse, the ill-gotten timber, stashed temporarily in ravines, magnified the destructive power of the flood-waters, shredding bridges and roads in the hurtle down river.

When the waters eventually recede, an eroded landscape will emerge. Whatever fertility the ground held will have been leached away, much of it to end up as mucky silt, clogging Pakistan’s over-extended, under-maintained massive irrigation network.

Even without flooding, deforestation means more than the loss of trees: Biodiversity flat-lines. In Pakistan, wild animals and plants that had been a source of food and medicine are no longer there to be hunted or gathered. The people who depended on the forests are out of luck. Another, albeit thin, slice of Eden gone.

Although the scars are local and downstream effects regional,  the impact is actually global.

Take, for example, Pakistan’s role as the world’s fourth largest producer of cotton, generating roughly 10% of global supply. Since this year’s crop is a literal wash out, the 2010 global harvest won’t meet demand. The situation is that much more serious, considering that even minus Pakistan’s contribution, the harvest will be larger than last year’s, coming in at 100 millions bales.  Increased demand from an ever-growing global population will translate to a 4 million bale shortfall, according to analysts. That means cotton prices are going up for everybody everywhere.

Next year, when you pay more for jeans, blame the Taliban…

(added 10/4/10: “Cotton Clothing Price Tags to Rise” / New York Times)

HOW MORE BECOMES LESS

Global supplies are also tight – and prices rising – for other commodities. What began as a season full of bumper crop predictions turned to whole wheat toast in the heat of Russia’s bumper drought, and mush in the wake of Canada’s floods. Supplies aren’t expected to ease until the end of 2011, the earliest a temporary Russian export ban may be lifted.

From corn to rice, and fish to fruit, the era of easy surpluses is over. Any glitch almost anywhere in the weather, or disease outbreak, insect infestation, pollinator decline or oil spill can send ripples throughout the global food network.

“Despite record harvests beteeen 2000 and 2007, the world ate more food than it produced. Back in 1998, human beings grew 1.9 billion tons of cereals and ate 1.8 billion tons of them. Since then yields have risen, but so have our appetites, and there’s a disjoint between the two. In five of the last ten years, the world consumed more food than farms have grown, while in a sixth year we merely broke even. Reserves are bottoming out. Even without a climate trigger, the ledger shows some unpleasant mathematics.”

Empires of Food

So entwined have commodity markets become  that instead of diluting risk, we share consequences. Inevitably, the consequences that are roughest on the most vulnerable: As the need for food aid increases, not only is there less food to go around, it is also more expensive.

FOOD / CULTURE

This is hardly the first time this sort of thing has happened. In their new book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas write with breezy style and depressing detail of how food networks throughout history have crashed for utterly predictable, if not always completely preventable, reasons.

They point to four fraught assumptions:

  • Soil is fertile: Unless carefully managed, it won’t stay fertile. Fertility “bumps” from planting on newly deforested areas are temporary. Chemical fertilizers are addictive: The more you use, the more you need. Also, much is lost in farm field run off, which knocks nature’s balance out of whack as it moves downstream (e.g., algal blooms that lead to marine “dead zones”). Fertilizers and pesticides also take a toll on soil’s natural microfauna, further affecting fertility.
  • Weather is good: Civilizations tend to flourish when the weather is predictable, with nice long growing seasons. But climates change, with or without man-made greenhouse gases to goose the process along.  A drop of one degree in Europe’s average temperature during the 16th century was enough to tip the Little Ice Age. “While such aberrations may seem piffling, if spring temperatures drop by just half a degree, the growing season can shrink by ten days.”
  • Specialization is smart business: Monocultures are more vulnerable to disease and predation. A food network of monocultures is only as strong as its weakest link. “…(S)ince all our specialty food patches depend on one another to constitute our food empire, none of them can exist alone.”
  • Energy is abundant and cheap: From fossil fuels used in chemical fertilizers, to fuel for tractors, trucks, trains, ships and planes and electricity for refrigeration, the cost of modern food is wedded to the cost of energy. Oil prices rise and food prices follow. If they spike, expect food riots, such as those seen in 2008, despite record-breaking harvests. “The weight of the global breadbasket was 2.24 billion tons, a robust 5 percent increase over the previous year. Yet food prices utterly detached themselves from the fact that we had reaped the best harvest in the entirety of human existence.”

To be mistaken in one colossal assumption about our food empire may be a misfortune. To be mistaken in all four seems like something worse than carelessness. It seems like willful disregard for the truth. When we finally shed these assumptions, we’ll realize the genuine price of the way we produce, distribute, and consume food.

MONKS, MONOPOLIES & TREES (AGAIN…)

Fraser and Rimas tell a cautionary tale from the Middle Ages that offers particularly striking parallels the present. A thousand years ago, monasteries sat atop a vertically integrated food network that would have been the envy of  any modern transnational conglomerate. The monks had money to invest in innovative technology (the moldboard plow), which provided an unbeatable advantage over small farmers, who found themselves with no choice but to move to cities. The monks also had to clout to control processing (royal licenses for milling) and become gatekeepers for distribution (royal licenses to run market fairs). But even such divinely-blessed productivity wasn’t to last.

More than temporal success, the most striking impact that the Cistercians had on Europe was that they chopped down all the trees. …(R)eal estate in Europe had gotten expensive. Even marginal land, bits of scrub and hilltop, needed to come under the plow to feed the growing markets in the cities. Since chopping trees and tilling hilly ground is a sure means of exhausting and eroding soil, over time, the harvests worsened. The monks kept pushing their farms outward, even plowing uplands that once pastured sheep and cattle – animals whose digestive systems had done an effortless job of fertilizing the earth. With the loss of livestock’s manure and the added cultivation, the ground blew and washed away even quicker…

…By the end of the thirteenth century, margins between supply and demand had thinned to a razor’s breadth. A decline of 10 percent in a year’s harvest spelled hunger; a loss of 20 percent of the harvest meant famine.

…And then the financial system imploded. For centuries, bankers in Siena had loaned heavily to Europe’s royal houses, financing wars and armies. They overextended themselves on architecture, cavalry, and crusades, so when the harvests dropped and manors or cities defaulted on their loans, the banks collapsed. In 1298, the Gran Tavola bank of the Bonsignori, the Rothschilds of their day, failed. Rents soared as landlords struggled to pay their debts. Work on Siena’s great cathedral came to stop…”

It took a few centuries, but the clever Sienese finally figured out how to turn a giant half-built nave into a tourist-driven profit center offering a one-of-kind-view of the Tuscan countryside. In the meantime, things got worse:

For most of Europe. the crisis truly began with a midsummer storm in 1314. It rained too much and for too long, drumming flat the ripening crops and rotting them on the stalk. The grain harvest proved both late and short, and the next year was worse. Dikes collapsed, the sea engulfed the fields and pasture, and an epidemic carried by Mongol raiders, possibly anthrax, managed to snuff out much of the continent’s livestock. In England, the price of wheat jumped eightfold. In 1316, it rained again, and Europe toppled into the worst famine in its history.

Deforestation. Economic collapse. Torrential rains. Burst dikes. Floods. Famine. Disease. Sound vaguely familiar?

By some estimates, 10% of Europeans starved to death that year.

CENTURY OF THE CITY

Can we learn from the monks’ mistakes? Or is the tragedy of Pakistan a sign of things to come? From Haiti to Guatemala to Borneo, deforestation has amplified the effects of natural disasters, yet planting trees is rarely, if ever, part of comprehensive aid packages.

graph credit: "Foreign Policy" - from a package of stories on global urbanization

The disconnect is pervasive. Urbanization may be the defining trend of our time. Over half the population now lives in cities. One billion people live in slums – a number expected to double with a couple of decades. Collectively, cities are expanding at a rate of 130 people-per-minute. China and India alone will account for 2/5 of global urban growth over the next 20 years. Yet few urban planners, economists, policy-makers or politicians seem to take into account the importance of undeveloped land –  sometimes far beyond city limits – for the health and safety of cities.

Stanford economist Paul Romer tells of looking out a plane window while flying over Africa and seeing plenty of “uninhabited” land, perfect for  “charter cities.” These are settlements built from scratch, based on rules designed to “provide security, economic opportunity, and improved quality of life.” These rules of men, however, show a breathtaking obliviousness to the rules of nature. Land empty of people doesn’t mean it is uninhabited, or that is doesn’t provide key services. Wetlands, flood plains, forests – all have great value for people. But their value is tied up in costs avoided (storm damage, pollution-related expenses), which are always more of a challenge to slot into a spreadsheet for investors.

To help make his case, Romer shows a graphic that visualizes all the arable land on Earth as a series of identical dots. The planet’s 3 billion city-dwellers take up only 3% of the dots. Add another billion living in proposed charter cities and it is 4%. Which sounds like a pretty reasonable deal, but, of course, the dots are not identical. Some land is good for wheat, other for rice. Some is ruined for a season by flood or drought, or just plain marginal. Some dots are former forests that have been slashed and burned to make way for  biodiversity-busting palm oil plantations. More people means we probably need more dots of arable land, not fewer. And as for wildlands that help nourish and provide water for the arable lands that feed the people in cities? Dot-less.

NODES & NETWORKS

Likewise, the truth behind the much-touted efficiencies of scale that make dense cities “greener” than car-dependent suburbs can get a little messy. “Green-ness” isn’t only about whether people walk or drive to stores, but also a function of how “green” the products and services they purchase may be, shipping included (which is why hybrid cars, loaded with globe-trotting battery components, aren’t quite as eco-friendly as billed). A true urban footprint extends as far as the trade routes used to bring in the goods that keep a city going. By that definition, almost every city is now a global city.

Boundaries are further blurred as urban areas merge and sprawl into megacities. In a sense, cities have become nodes of a single globe-spanning “supra-urban” network.

It will take systems thinking – preferably ecosystems thinking – to fully understand the dynamics of the network, and the keystone roles played by “undeveloped” lands.

Still, the connections are are clear enough to merit serious attention in the U.N.’s first “Global assessment report on disaster risk reduction,” published last year. Fast-growing slums are singled out as especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Along with improving urban infrastructure, the report underscores the need to protect ecosystems.

SAVED BY A WORM?

According to Fraser and Rimas, civilizations are only as strong as their food empires, and our global food empire is fraying badly. The quick fixes of chemical fertilizers, miracle pesticides, massive water projects and genetically modified seeds have either come up short or led to unintended consequences. Old blights, including Norman Borlaug’s nemesis, wheat rust, are staging comebacks, wiping out crops with as much ruthless efficiency as our increasingly erratic weather.

Growing Power's Will Allen with agricultural gold: vermicompost and worm casings

Although the situation appears bleak, ecosystems thinking – this time  writ small –  may help tide us along. Urban agriculture, from Havana to Brooklyn to Detroit, has gone from  green-hearted curiosity to a movement with the potential to change the dynamics of the global food empire. Small, local, replicable, scalable, flexible – it offers an alternative that can be adapted to almost any urban configuration.

Incorporate a closed-loop  aquaponics component, as MacArthur genius Will Allen has done at his three-acre Growing Power farm in Milwaukee, and there is a replenishable source of protein to go with all the fresh veggies. Fish – perch and tilapia by the thousands – swim in water filtered through plants grown in compost fertilized by the castings of red wriggler worms that have munched through mounds of garbage.

The worms –  Allen refers to them as “the hardest working livestock on the farm” – are the lynchpin of the operation. They generate the fertility that drives the biomimicked ecosystem, starting with a product that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Sweet Water Organics, the first commercial scale-up based on Allen’s blueprint, has now been in operation in Milwaukee for about a year. The learning curve has been steep, but the first crops of fish have now been harvested and sold.

Would such an operation work in Pakistan? Possibly. It would not answer the need for grains, which require fields. It would take time and investment. But it could provide a model for a local sustainable food supply. It could be a part of the solution.

So… If you really want to make a make a difference and help save the world, start by planting trees. Lots of flood-slowing, land-stabilizing, biodiversity-nurturing, CO2-absorbing trees. Then be humbled by the talents of worms. Support urban agriculture. Finally, try very, very hard not to repeat the food mistakes of the past. The story, guaranteed, always ends the same grim way.

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TEDxOilSpill: Surface Slicks, Deep Water Despair, Galaxies of Oil Platforms and Why We Really, Truly Don’t Need Oil

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The bottlenose dolphin swimming the Gulf of Mexico was “splattering oil out its blow hole.” The obscenity of such a thing was too much for marine conservationist, author and founder/director of the Blue Ocean Insitute, Carl Safina, whose voice broke as he told the story in the middle of a lecture at the TEDxOilSpill conference. No matter what BP may promise in its ubiquitous ads, there is simply no way to make something this horrible “right.” But as speaker after speaker noted, BP could start making things at least a little less wrong by coming clean with information.

The TEDxOilSpill Expedition team – photographers Duncan Davidson and Kris Krug, videographer Pinar Ozger and writer Darron Collins – were kept far from the water’s edge by BP’s private security firm, Talon,  whose staff controlled the beaches. When Collins literally crossed the line by stepping over a miles-long orange boom dozens of yards from the water line, he was accosted by a team right out of “Monsters Inc.,” who set about washing his feet and decontaminating his shoes with great flurry and fanfare.

The Fat Orange Line: Boom Barrier on the Beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 2010; TEDxOilSpill Expedition, photo credit: Duncan Davidson (read, view more & donate!)

It took persistence, luck and a gutsy pilot to score a flight into the massive”no fly” zone to better see and document water set afire and oily sheen to the horizon.

What the photos can’t tell you is what it smells like. So let me describe it for you:  Walk into a garage. Take a case a motor oil and dump it onto the ground. Take a bunch of gasoline. Pour it on top of it. Now take a can of propane. Crack it open. Let the propane vent out into the air. Maybe take another and light it on fire. Now take some Windex. Throw it into the mix. That’s what it smells like when you’re orbiting the site.

Duncan Davidson

ANOTHER GULF WAR

Photographs and video also can’t show what is happening beneath the surface – though what little we have seen, isn’t good: video of the broken pipe gushing clouds of oil and gas 24/7 on “BP cam”; video from 20 to 30 feet down taken by intrepid divers, among them Philip Cousteau, another of the day’s speakers, revealing sheets of red-brown “mousse,” undulating in the waves, blotting out the sun, blotting out life.

Yet it is the devils you cannot see that present the most insidious threat to recovery. “We have only explored about 5% of the world beneath the sea,” noted Dave Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In the best of times, we barely have a clue what’s going on down there. “We don’t know how it works. Especially a mile deep.”

What has been glimpsed is humbling. Parts of the deep ocean – regions that have never seen a ray of sun – have more life in terms of density and diversity than a tropical rain forest.

No one has any idea what the effects of a massive oil spill or the massive use of dispersants will have on these ancient ecosystems, or, indeed, how these ecosystems fit into greater Gaian scheme of things.

“Who’s calling these shots?,” asked Gallo. “At the deep ocean, who’s in charge?” Fundamental questions remain unanswered: “What’s coming out that well? What’s the mix of oil, gas, the toxic elements? What’s the flow rate? … Where has it gone? Where is it going? … What will the impact be? … Why don’t we know?”

Some of the best ocean warriors I know are still sitting in their labs, wondering what’s going on… It is another war. It is another Gulf War.

Oil gushing from the Deepwater Horizon pipe - about the diameter of a sewer cover; Originally estimated by BP at 1,000 barrels per day, the volume of the flow is now guesstimated at an "Exxon Valdez" every 5 to 7 days

It is a war we are fighting blind, armed with a “fleet” of only a handful of small robotic submersibles. While up top, hearty souls such as the TEDxOilSpill Expedition team and John Wathen of the Waterkeeper Alliance (Keith Olberman interview), can try to run BP’s “no-fly” gauntlet to bag digital proof of horizon-to-horizon destruction, it is impossible for any independent observers to witness what is going on beneath the waves. Instead, we wait to see what floats to the top: dead whales, pods of sick dolphins, oil-soaked birds and turtles. But as BP sets fire to the sea, spreading the pollution even further into the atmosphere, whatever life, or struggling life, that may have floated to the top, is incinerated or sent to the depths, dead.

SILENT SPRING: MARITIME EDITION

Toxicologist Susan Shaw, founder and director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, wants to know what, specifically, is in Corexit, the oil dispersant BP has added to the Gulf by the millions of gallons. On June 8, over a month after the spill, BP released a list of ingredients peppered with the words “derivatives” and “distillates” to gloss over the details, knowing that only a handful of wonky chemists would notice. “These are whole big groups of many, many compounds,” Shaw pointed out. “They are not identified and why? Trade secrets, again. BP is running the show.”

Spraying oil dispersant, Corexit, on surface slicks in the Gulf of Mexico

Although the Environmental Protection Agency’s studies suggest Corexit is fairly benign, labeled “practically nontoxic” when half the shrimp or fish died at exposures of 130 parts per million and”slightly toxic” when the seafood went belly up at concentrations between 19 and 55 parts per million, those tests tested the wrong thing: The question is not what Corexit does in isolation, but in combination with oil.

According to Shaw, it is a nightmare. The dispersant makes it easier for oil to get into the skin and organs of animals and microbes because it breaks down the oily lipids protecting cells. In effect, it serves as a oil delivery system, transporting toxic compounds to where they can wreak the most havoc.

Government agencies and corporations often use the phrase, “the best science available,” which sounds cutting-edge and progressive. But when “the best science available” isn’t very good, it can be dangerous. What we don’t know can kill.

Diving in the slick goo of the Gulf, Shaw saw first-hand “the web of death” as small plankton at the base of the food chain were enveloped by globules of Corexit-treated oil.

* Read about Consensus Statement: Scientists oppose the use of dispersant chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico – drafted by Susan Shaw)

http://ted.com/talks/view/id/925

Naturally-occurring oil-loving microbes can make a faster meal out of smaller blobs, but they are slow eaters. Adding a dash of fertilizer can help speed up the feeding process, said Ron Atlas, a microbiologist who worked on the Exxon Valdez and several other spills. But “speedy” can mean 8 years instead of 10, he explained, and in a situation as literally fluid as this one, all bets are off.  By the time microbes might make a dent in the Deepwater Horizon gusher –  now measured in “Exxon Valdezes” (one every 5 to 7 days) – it will be a silent sea, with only a fraction of the life that filled it prior to the spill.

Corexit-treated oil also easily and sereptitiously slips past skimmers and booms, taking the “low road” to marsh and shore. Many now fear that a hurricane-driven tidal surge will transport this poisonous water inland, turning whole towns toxic.

For Carl Safina, the only explanation for its use is a cover-up. “Personally, I think the dispersants are an attempt to hide the body because we have put the murderer in charge of the crime scene.”

WE ARE ALL SEA CREATURES

The use of dispersants also baffled Sylvia Earle, a Time magazine “Hero of the Planet,” TED Prize-winner and all around emeritus: “If you were to write a recipe for good health for the Gulf of Mexico, for the lives of the creatures who live there, it would not include use of dispersants to clean up this mega-spill. It would not include the spills at all.”

Earle, who just returned from diving among whale sharks feasting on plankton about 70 miles off the Louisiana coast, is torn between delight at seeing more whale sharks than she could count and worry because these surface-skimmers are right in harm’s way. If the spill oozes into their feeding grounds, they wouldn’t be able to avoid either filtering gallons upon gallons of oil-tainted water, or soaking in harmful aerosols at the surface.

She is also worried about the devastating effects on fish populations that rely on the Gulf’s sargassum for nurseries. Lose the sargassum, which soaks up oil like a sponge, and fish populations, including bluefin tuna, will crash. If the slick is picked up by the Gulf stream, as many fear, it will threaten another vital nursery, the Sargasso Sea, a 5,000 square kilometer “liquid jungle” floating in the mid-Atlantic just south of Bermuda. Both are what Earle calls “Hope Spots,”which if protected could help restore the oceans to their former healthy bounty.

The Deepwater Horizon gusher is just the latest in a centuries-long marine assault that has led to the depletion of fish stocks and put fully one-third of all marine mammals in danger of extinction.

Now is the time. We have a little window before it is too late to take actions that will secure for – not just the creatures of the sea – but for all of us connected to the sea. We are sea creatures.

THE BIG LIE & NOT SO SIMPLE TRUTH

A "galaxy of oil rigs" in the Gulf of Mexico / Nearly 4,000 40-story tall rigs drilling 32,000 wells; map credit: NOAA

Out of sight and out of earshot, right off the shores of the Gulf Coast, is a sprawl of 4,000 drilling platforms tapping into 32,000 wells, stitched together by thousands of miles of pipeline, pumping 1.7 million barrels of oil each day. “This is our addiction. This is what it looks like,” said Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

It is “a galaxy” of platforms, vast yet so dense, ship captains navigate by “constellations.” Each platform rises from the water forty stories tall, powered by massive diesel generators whose locomotive sound defines the region. 30,000 mostly men work on the platforms, with thousands more running supply ships, running refineries or working in other support-related jobs.

Stunningly, even as oil and gas continue to spew from a broken pipe a mile-plus beneath the surface, a number of political leaders – many if not all beneficiaries of oil industry campaign largesse – have protested against any move to stop, or even pause, drilling. They have positioned themselves as defenders of jobs, and their constituents, with few other ready options, believe them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Speaker after speaker hammered home the message that oil is a jobs-killer: Recycling fishermen into clean-up crew, trading nets for booms, doesn’t count. There is a brighter future, by every definition, they promised, in developing a clean energy economy: wind turbines, solar panels, biofuels, efficiency.

But as doable as doing without oil may be, the logistics are complicated by a world designed around cars and trucks. “We have designed a system where if you want to get and keep a job, it is much more important to have a car that runs than to have a GED,” noted Lisa Margonelli, energy policy analyst at the New America Foundation and author of “Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline.”

We don’t talk about the amount of oil that we use. We talk about energy independence. We talk about hydrogen cars. We talk about biofuels that haven’t been invented yet. Cognitive dissonance is part and parcel of how we deal with oil.

The costs drop to the bottom line: Families with two children living on $50,000 per year spend more on their car and fuel than on taxes and health care, Margonelli pointed out. “Gasoline costs are a tremendous drain on the American economy. They are also a drain on individual families. And it’s kind of terrifying to think about what happens when prices get higher.”

Key to fixing the system is changing the game so that the rules quit favoring oil consumption. That means charging drivers who drive more higher insurance rates. It means providing more and better public transportation options so we can all drive less. It means adding a small gas tax to make gas less desirable, and fund greener alternatives. It meas adding a surgeon general’s-style warning to the bill to help consumers connect the true-cost dots:

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that ever gallon of gas you burn in your car creates 29 cents in health care costs.

THE WAY FORWARD

Few have focused as intently or as long on turning fossil fuel companies into fossils as Amory Lovins,  co-founder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute. His latest initiative, Reinventing Fire (RF), builds on more than three decades of research:

Imagine fuel without fear. No climate change. No oil spills, dead coal miners, dirty air, devastated land, lost wildlife. No energy poverty. No oil-fed wars, tyrannies, terrorists. No leaking nuclear wastes or spreading nuclear weapons. Nothing to run out. Nothing to cut off. Nothing to worry about. Just energy abundance. Benign and affordable for all. Forever.

Although Lovins wasn’t able to attend TEDxOilSpoil in person, he created a video for the conference with background on RF research, which is still in progress.

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Christen Lien’s layered viola compositions brought the crowd gathered at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre – along with hundreds who watched  the conference via livestream – literally back from the brink of despair. There was little good news from the Gulf and only daunting tasks ahead. Meanwhile, the oil keeps gushing, the clock keeps ticking, the death tolls keeps mounting, the social costs keep rising and now hurricanes are coming.

Twitter satirist @bpglobalpr / Leroy Stick, who has ridden the razor’s edge of plausible corporate idiocy to 180,000+ follower fame, summed it up with trademark brevity: “If you think the status quo is unacceptable, then don’t accept it.”

Easier said than done, perhaps. But what else are we going to do?

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* NEW 7/29/10: X PRIZE: WENDY SCHMIDT OIL CLEAN-UP X CHALLENGE

Since the BP gusher started spewing millions of gallons of crude oil and methane into the Gulf of Mexico more that three months ago, there have other high profile spills, including one of China’s largest, near the city of Dalian, that created a 170 mile slick. Closer to my home in Chicago, a pipeline break released over 800,000 gallons into western Michigan’s Kalamazoo river, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Last year, Australia took a one-two punch, first with a tanker spill that fouled 40 miles of Queensland’s coast, then an oil rig blow-out eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In Nigeria, oil spills have become such an every day nightmare – an estimated 7,000 between 1970 and 2000 – that the tally is measured in units of “Exxon Valdez” (over 50 and still counting).

Clearly, if you drill, it will spill. Although the X Prize Foundation’s Oil Clean-up Challenge was developed in response to the mess in the Gulf, its importance goes far beyond our local oily waters. “The oil industry has focused on,”How do you drill deeper, further, more efficiently. Little money has actually been spent so far on “How do you clean it up properly?’, ” notes Peter Diamandis, X Prize CEO.

With $1.4 million in incentive prizes provided by the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Challenge is designed to wrap up next summer, with demonstrations of the promising technologies at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility (OHMSETT) in Leonardo, New Jersey.

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When Tipping Points Collide: On Oil Spills, Dead Zones, Superweeds, Dead Birds, Dead Bees and Not-So-Funny Laughing Gas

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Graphic justice: from the Greenpeace BP logo competition

If only there were a rewind button.

From the first, almost cheerfully do-able estimate of 1,000 barrels of oil spewing daily into the Gulf of Mexico to a…

  • jaw-dropping 5,000 barrel revision
  • horrifying 19,000 barrel update
  • are-you-kidding-me? 25,000 barrel recalculation
  • and an it’s way-way-way-more-than-the-Exxon-Valdez admission

…the bad news on the BP catastrophe has gone so far off the dial, it has zoomed past “worst case scenario” to “pretty much the worst case ever.”

ABC News: Sam Champion & Philippe Cousteau don Hazmat suits to dive into the muck: "This is...what BP does not want you to see."

Dispersants that present environmental issues of their own have only made the situation more complex. “We’re dealing with an aggregation of hundreds of thousands of patches of oil,” according to Admiral Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard commander in charge of the clean-up. It will takes months to scrub the surface. Years at least to scrub the wetlands.

The situation beneath the waves is even murkier, with massive underwater plumes comprised of tiny oil droplets hundreds of feet thick, stretching for dozens of square miles. They cannot evaporate or be burned off  and concerns run high that they are death traps for almost anything that swims by.

Specialized oil-loving microbes – either naturally occurring or lab-concocted – work slowly, especially in cold or low-oxygen waters. They also give off CO2 in the process, adding their microbial 2 cents to ocean acidification, and soak of oxygen, potentially to the point where nothing can survive: a Silent Spring beneath the waves.

THE DEAD ZONE

The BP geyser isn’t the biggest (at least for now) or even the longest-running oil-driven disaster in the Gulf. For over 60 years, chemical fertilizer-laced farm run-off has flowed into the Mississippi, then down to the Gulf where it annually triggers massive algal blooms, followed by equally massive algal die-offs. Microbes on decomposition duty soak up so much oxygen over an area averaging 6,000 square miles, the water turns into a lethal “dead zone.” (the size of the zone depends on a variety of factors, including which way the wind blows).

Crime Scene: Watersheds contributing to Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone"

America’s famous bumper corn crops are in large part thanks to chemical fertilizers. Since fossil fuel is a key ingredient in the manufacture of artificial fertilizers, it is a key ingredient in the production of corn-based ethanol. Oil’s would-be replacement requires…oil.

Writer Michael Pollan has spent a career tallying the costs of an agricultural system tipped so far out balance, there is almost nothing natural about it. Short term gains, measured in bountiful harvests and weed-free fields, have collectively blinded us to the full costs, unsustainability and sheer craziness of it all:

From the standpoint of industrial efficiency, it’s too bad we can’t simply drink petroleum directly, because there’s a lot less energy in a bushel of corn (measured in calories) than there is in the half-gallon of oil required to produce it. Ecologically, this is a fabulously expensive way to produce food–but “ecologically” is no longer the operative standard. In the factory, time is money, and yield is everything.

What’s Eating America

SUPERWEEDS: NATURE BATS LAST…AGAIN

But the end of the era of easy bushel-busting gains may be over. All around us, the “ag bubble” is deflating. Fertilizer isn’t the only thing coursing down the nation’s waterways. So is topsoil. By the ton. And the more topsoil that’s lost, the more dependent crops become on fertilizer, which means the more dependent they become on…oil.

NYT: Spread of Roundup resistant weeds. “It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen.”

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds were sold, in part, as a way to reduce topsoil erosion. The genetically modified seeds were designed (and patented, but that’s another story) to be impervious to the company’s proprietary herbicide, Roundup. Farmers could stop tilling the soil – reducing erosion – and simply spray their weed-troubles away. Man-engineered genetic selection, however, turned out to be no match for the old-fashioned natural kind. Roundup-defiant “superweeds” have now invaded millions of acres in the U.S. and they are just warming up.

ABC News: Hardy pigweed defies chemical assault."There is no rhyme or reason how we can control it"

Like a rural touring company of “The Little Shop of Horrors,” giant pigweed plants dot farmers’ fields, growing as much as three inches per day, sucking up water and nutrients, threatening tractors and devouring livelihoods. Not only must farmers till the soil once again, but also apply a witch’s brew of poisons in an escalating battle for control of the fields.

Since petrochemicals are ingredients in herbicides and pesticides, the more crops need to be treated, the more dependent they become on…oil.

ENGULFED

NYT: Oil disaster timeline, updated regularly

Back in the Gulf, the magnitude of the devastation caused by a hole in the sea floor roughly the size of sewer cover goes beyond words, and even beyond maps. The now iconic New York Times infographic, updated regularly and viewable as a disturbingly long, mesmerizing time animation, only shows the story on the surface. Data are harder to come by for the deeper story, and what little is known isn’t encouraging.

While waves of oil and “mousse” wash up on beaches, ooze into marshes, and devour sea-life and shorebirds, deep-sea droplet-plumes flirt with Altlantic-bound currents, threatening to spread the disaster straight up the Eastern seaboard. Although progress is finally being made toward diverting the oil, if not stopping the flow, the devastation continues to cascade. Entire food chains are on the line. From micro to macro, wildlife face either direct annihilation or a slower, equally grim fate marked by illness and starvation. The biochemistry of the Gulf itself could be forever altered. What was once may never be again.

The damage isn’t confined to water and wetlands, or even to a region. Migrating birds, including those currently nesting in blissful ignorance in my Chicago neighborhood and as far away as the Canadian arctic, will find themselves in harm’s way when they fly south again for the winter.

The entire planet could feel the effects. New research suggests that marine dead zones can trigger an an increase in the amount of nitrous oxide filtering into the atmosphere. That might be kind of funny – it’s laughing gas – except that N2O, per unit weight, is nearly 300 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. It also contributes to the development of the ozone hole, increasing the planet’s exposure to UV light. So, more climate change and skin cancer. Great. Just great…

WHATEVER IT TAKES – WHATEVER THAT IS

Skimming, burning, setting booms around hundreds of miles of coastline, dredging insti-sand berm islands, collecting the hairy/furry leftovers from nation’s hair-cuts and pet trims to make oil-absorbant materials, spreading hay across the water’s surface – in the face of such overwhelming disaster, the only right answer is “all of the above.” (And if all else fails, there is always “Stephen Colbert’s Oil Containment Solution Randomizer.”)

But only microbes have what it takes to break apart oil and get things back on ecological track.

Communities of naturally-occurring microbes, evolved to dine on oil burbling up from natural seeps (of which there are many across the world’s oceans), have, so far, proven more effective than any microbes developed in the lab. “A superbug fails because it competes with this community that is adapted to the environment,” notes Ron Atlas, a microbiologist who worked on the Exxon-Valdez spill and has co-written one of the definitive books on the subject, Bioremediation.

That hasn’t stopped researchers from trying, yet even GMO bugs need a dollop of nitrogen and phosphorous – the same ingredients found in the fertilized run-off behind the Gulf’s dead zone – to pick up their naturally slow pace. Getting it to them in the middle of the open ocean isn’t so easy.

Enter NASA.

In 1992, a failed attempt to create liquid crystals in zero gravity led to the discovery of microspheres, bubbles of gas trapped in tiny crystalline structures. NASA Tech Hall of Famer, Petroleum Remediation Product (PRP) is based on this technology and designed to soak up oil spills. The sphere-lettes, less than 100 microns across, are made of beeswax, which is naturally full of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Beeswax is also oleophilic, which means it binds with oil. PRP has been used to clean up everything from boat bilges to driveway stains. Once the oil is gone, PRP biodegrades and that’s that.

But wait a minute. Bees are dying from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). For the fourth year in a row, more than a third of the hives in the U.S. failed to survive the winter. No one has been able to pinpoint a single cause, though suspicions run high on a perfect storm of pathogens and chemical exposures. Dozens of pesticides have been identified in samples of bees, wax and pollen. Herbicides are another concern – and petrochemicals are in both. Could bees be yet another species doomed by oil? And since bee pollination is essential for so many crops, what does this mean for us?

THE NETWORK

Although humans may not be able to plug into the planet Earth as literally as the Na’vi on Pandora in Avatar, we are as inextricably linked to greater whole. The oil spill in the Gulf brings this into sharp focus. There is no escape: what goes around, comes around.

Have we reached a point where the resilience of the planet’s network of elegantly interlaced ecosystems has been stretched to the limit? In a few short centuries, we have taken a good deal of the “bounce” out of the system  And once tipping points start to collide, there is no predicting what could happen next.

Perhaps – finally – this is the “teachable moment” where something actually gets learned. In one form or another, fossil fuel plays a part in every one of these grim scenarios. There are alternatives. Yet somehow those greener, smarter, environmentally-friendlier, job-creating technologies only seem to get hauled out for display on Earth Day, World Environment Day, or during political campaigns to give us all a rosy glow about the promise of brighter tomorrow.

Even BP had hung its corporate hat (top hat?) on a greener, cleaner future, spending millions of dollars on a sunny logo and a “beyond petroleum” ad campaign.

Well, yes, now that you mention it, I would like a world beyond petroleum.

As soon as possible.

Boston.com "Big Picture" slideshow

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