Al Gore vs Gorvachev: The .eco Domain

August 27, 2009

Those who try to lead the people can only do so by following the mob
~Oscar Wilde

Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev are in a battle for the control of the .eco domain. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the body that oversees the internet’s structure, decided to make available the “green” domain. Gore supports Dot Eco LLC, while Gorbachev is linked to the Canadian Big Room through Green Cross International, the charity that he founded.

Big Room promises to donate a quarter of the sales to environmental and social causes, it is also saying that they will to ensure that it will award a domain name only to groups that provide proof of their green credentials, thus making .eco into a cyber environmental certificate. Dot Eco is promising 50% of their profit to green causes, and it has no defined if they will be vetting any company to get the .eco domain. Note the difference between offering a percentage of sales versus profits.

Of course, Gore and Gorvachev do not mention the amount of money that they expect to make with the .eco domain. The price tag is $100,000 USD, but the Daily Telegraph calculates is worth billions.

The problem I see with this internet news is the bastardization of the words sustainability and green. The word sustainability has been cheapen down in the media to mean “ecologically friendly”, ignoring the economic and social factors inherent to it. I do not want to start raging again the concept of “green” that neohippies all over the world are spewing guised as knowledge. This is the mob I refer to in my quote, the people that promote green business until big business want to go green, then they will cry foul and hypocrisy. The fact that they do not mention the huge profit they can make from the domain also makes me wonder how innocent the business are. It is OK to make loads of money, but is not OK to pretend all you want is a better world; Sustainability is about BOTH, and the fact that they do not recognise it shows how the leaders become the followers of wannabe good-doers.

Who are this companies to decide who is green and who is not? Certain companies are not environmentally friendly by nature, e.g. oil companies, but they are companies like British Petroleum with a CSR and some like Pemex or Shell. A lot of companies, specially organic promoters, lie about the goods of their “green” products. As students of sustainability, we have it hard enough to define which companies are or are not following sustainable practices, we do not need self serving institutions policing the internet, which is the ultimate free expression medium.


Career Path

June 1, 2009

I believe you are your work. Don’t trade the stuff of your life, time, for nothing more than dollars. That’s a rotten bargain.
~Rita Mae Brown

Somebody asked me yesterday if I had lived in a Communist country, would I choose the same career that I did? I first answered yes, but then, a rapid succession of thoughts came to my mind and I change my answer to no.

When I was younger, it was Astrophysics or Archaeology that called my attention. I would devour in matter of hours any book on the matter, not important how big or difficult or technical it was. I would read adventure and science fiction books instead of Tom & Jerry comics (I was under 10); The Time Life collection was my (big) bedtable book. I also read Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, and I stopped shortly before trying to understand the complexity of Planck’s theory.

At 14 my father bought me my first computer and shown me how to used (How do you change a car tire? He asked*), I used BASIC to model maps of the space and planets full of archaeological treasures, but eventually a career path needed to be decided, and I have to chose between above the sky, under the earth, or the tool I was using to understand that.

“Contemporary career development theories have focused on person/environment fit, human development, and social learning as the foundation for Western models of career formation and counselling interventions. Chung (2003) awakened career counsellors to the reality that these theories incorporate the values and views of the modern industrial era and are established on a modelling characteristic of large organizations in the United States in the past century” (Whitmarsh and Ritter 2007) So I had to decided on do exactly what I wanted and die poor but happy, or find a compromise and live moderately rich and moody. Computer Science seemed to fit the bill, and up to today I have not regret my decision, since I were also able to mix it with Sustainability and still working in that path.

But had I lived in Romania or somewhere else, my decision may be different. Communist countries had strong restrictions on who could enter universities, since they were more interested in Labour and Agriculture, but still, 8% of students will gain access to College. You need to chose your path when you were 14 or 16, since at 18 you would be given once chance to apply to one university, and those were hard odds, but, “For students who gained successful admission to the competitive and selective university programs, the Romanian state provided generous financial support, including low-cost housing and meals, free tuition, book subsidies, and monthly stipends. The financial package awarded depended on various factors, like socioeconomic background and area of specialization”.

Downplaying the economic need that drove my career to Computer Science would surely tip the balance on astrophysics or archaeology (most likely the former than the later). Is not that economic rationale was not important in Eastern Europe, you still needed to put food on the table, but in those countries the mechanics was different, and I actually would be equally able to do so with any of those career paths. The fact that Eastern Europe saw a high level of women studying engineering and science (I. Ulescu 2005) would certainly helped my decision.

So, having growth up in a country were scientific research pays little and applied science pays way better influenced my career choice and make me decide for a compromise, while having lived in a country with a rich social safety net, more equal wage ranges, and a competitive environment to get in college would have the effect of me being now writing about the Sun Corona or Dark Mater, most likely, writing comic books… What career would you chose, if economic factors wouldn’t exist? I’d love to hear your answers.

Read More: The influence of Communism on career development and education in Romania.


May 26, 2009

Strive for perfection in everything you do. Take the best that exists and make it better. When it does not exist, design it.
~Sir Henry Royce

This blog is about sustainability. We can define sustainability as the right balance of a triple bottom line: Economic profit, social profit, and environmental profit. I have been focusing in the environmental profit because it is the one that is more urgent to address; the other two can be closely related (social and economic development can go hand by hand) but usually the environment receives all the cost of this development.

Global Warming is, by far, the most urgent matter of all the environmental issues. It is urgent because:
Some people have not yet realised the long-term effects of a raise in average temperatures.
Some people do not even recognise that Global Warming exists.
Unlike other pollutant, CO2 remain in the atmosphere for hundred of years, while is reabsorbed at a very slow pace.

Victor, Granger Morgan et al compare the emission-reabsorbsion problem as having a bathtub with a huge faucet but a very small drain. The only way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses is to dramatically reduce the size of the faucet, but whatever measure we may take in reducing the greenhouse gases emissions, the result will come decades later, hence the urgency to take measures now. The United States has been incapable to even cap their emissions, let alone reduce them. China has surpassed the USA as the main greenhouse gases producer, and the developing countries are just not going to stop producing the relative cheap fossil energy.

While efforts need to continue to reduce CO2 emissions, we need to try to reverse the effects. Geoengineering could provide a useful defense for the planet, an emergency shield that could be deployed if surprisingly nasty climatic shifts put vital ecosystems and billions of people at risk. Geoengineering is not a new idea, since the 1940s the USA and the Soviet Union experimented in seeding clouds to make rain and to reduce hurricanes power (with very poor results). Volcano eruptions, like the one in Philippines in the early 1990s, reflected so much sunlight that global temperatures dropped 0.5C in less than one year.

It works like this: 70 percent of the earth’s incoming sunlight is absorbed while the remainder is reflected back into space. Increasing the reflectivity of the planet (known as the albedo) by about 1% could have an effect on the climate system large enough to offset the increase in warming that is likely over the next century as a result of a doubling of the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is easier than causing rain in a particular location because it is not a fine tool: it is a blunt instrument that affects the whole planet, and that is exactly what we want.

Geoengineering techniques are divided in two: Removing the CO2 (e.g. fertilizing the ocean with nutrients that would allow plankton to grow faster and absorb more carbon, or scrubbing the air with cooling towers) and increasing the earth’s albedo. The latter are more promising: one kilogram of sulphur placed in the stratosphere would offset the warming effect of several hundred thousand kilograms of CO2, or seeding bright reflective clouds by blowing seawater into the lower atmosphere. “There is a general agreement that the strategies are cheap; the total expense of the most cost-effective options would amount to perhaps as little as a few billion dollars, just one percent (or less) of the cost of dramatically cutting emissions”.

This do not offset the importance of reducing C02 emissions, since reflecting the sun light does not reduce the already dangerous C02 concentration that is ending up in the oceans, killing coral reef and creating maritime dead zones. Altering the albedo will have some consequences, like changing the rain patterns (as learnt during volcanic eruptions), but the difference is that we can stop increasing the albedo, since Geoengineering requires constancy, Global Warming effects are, in the other hand, long term, and far more dangerous.

When you have Cancer you undergo chemotherapy, but you also take painkillers. Chemotherapy is the cure, is expensive, uncertain, and long term. Painkillers are a temporarily measure, cheaper, reasonably predictable, and a short-term solution. You need both to get cured, similarly, just trying to lower our present emissions is expensive, uncertain, and many nations just do not care. It needs to be done for sure, but in the meantime, they are options to reduce the risk and effects of Global Warming.

Furthermore, it only takes one powerful, decided nation to conduct a Geoengineering experiment. The literature and the scientifics studying this discipline is scarce, and further study may reveal that Geoengineering is just too dangerous; messing with the atmosphere is surely to be a shocking idea for the most of us, but we have already engage in a dangerous Geoengineering experiment by pumping massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The best and safest solution is to stop greenhouse gases emissions, but this will take time and consensus among countries with very different political and environmental views (remember, it is China and the USA talking about deep economic changes) As with particles accelerators, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering before, it is time to set regulations and rules to explore the idea that one day, the nations of the world may need to erect a shield to protect our mother land.

How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor

July 18, 2007

The world’s poorest people already spend 50 to 80 percent of their total household income on food
~C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer

I wrote some time ago about how the increasing use of ethanol was damaging the economy of the poor in Latin America, with little benefit for the environment. The rise of corn prices, driven by the excessive demand, increased the price of corn and other staple foods, and make them harder to afford for the more vulnerable citizens. C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer just published an article in the May/June issue of foreign affairs that expand on this problem.

There were 110 ethanol refineries in operation in the United States at the end of 2006. Many were being expanded, and another 73 were under construction. When these projects are completed, by the end of 2008, the United States’ ethanol production capacity will reach an estimated 11.4 billion gallons per year. President George W. Bush called on the country to produce 35 billion gallons of renewable fuel a year by 2017, nearly five times the level currently mandated.

The push for ethanol and other biofuels has spawned an industry that depends on billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies, and not only in the United States. In 2005, global ethanol production was 9.66 billion gallons, of which Brazil produced 45.2 percent (from sugar cane) and the United States 44.5 percent (from corn). Global production of biodiesel (most of it in Europe), made from oilseeds, was almost one billion gallons.

Of course this growth in the demand means that more and more of the corn production is used to produce ethanol, and this is affecting the food system. It is binding the prices of a staple food with oil, third world countries are double whammed with oil and food prices going up:

Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year. By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world. Biofuels have tied oil and food prices together in ways that could profoundly upset the relationships between food producers, consumers, and nations in the years ahead, with potentially devastating implications for both global poverty and food security.

Worse, this is not an economically driven phenomena, but a political one:

In the United States and other large economies, the ethanol industry is artificially buoyed by government subsidies, minimum production levels, and tax credits. High oil prices over the past few years have made ethanol naturally competitive, but the U.S. government continues to heavily subsidize corn farmers and ethanol producers. Direct corn subsidies equaled $8.9 billion in 2005.

Two additional effects are: the high price of yellow corn, the current source of ethanol and used to feed cows, will drive white corn -used for human consumption- and other staples foods’ prices higher, and more surface will be deforested to harvest corn:

With the price of raw materials at such highs, the biofuel craze would place significant stress on other parts of the agricultural sector. In fact, it already does. In the United States, the growth of the biofuel industry has triggered increases not only in the prices of corn, oilseeds, and other grains but also in the prices of seemingly unrelated crops and products. The use of land to grow corn to feed the ethanol maw is reducing the acreage devoted to other crops. Food processors who use crops such as peas and sweet corn have been forced to pay higher prices to keep their supplies secure — costs that will eventually be passed on to consumers. Rising feed prices are also hitting the livestock and poultry industries. According to Vernon Eidman, a professor emeritus of agribusiness management at the University of Minnesota, higher feed costs have caused returns to fall sharply, especially in the poultry and swine sectors. If returns continue to drop, production will decline, and the prices for chicken, turkey, pork, milk, and eggs will rise. A number of Iowa’s pork producers could go out of business in the next few years as they are forced to compete with ethanol plants for corn supplies.

And for what? Are we really helping the environment with corn based ethanol? Ford and Senauer do not agree:

Ethanol and biodiesel are often viewed as environmentally friendly because they are plant-based rather than petroleum-based. In fact, even if the entire corn crop in the United States were used to make ethanol, that fuel would replace only 12 percent of current U.S. gasoline use. Soybeans and especially corn are row crops that contribute to soil erosion and water pollution and require large amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel to grow, harvest, and dry. They are the major cause of nitrogen runoff. Nor is corn-based ethanol very fuel efficient. Debates over the “net energy balance” of biofuels and gasoline have raged for decades. Corn-based ethanol appears to be favored over gasoline, and biodiesel over petroleum diesel — but not by much. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have calculated that the net energy ratio of gasoline is 0.81, a result that implies an input larger than the output. Corn-based ethanol has a ratio that ranges between 1.25 and 1.35, which is better than breaking even. Petroleum diesel has an energy ratio of 0.83, compared with that of biodiesel made from soybean oil, which ranges from 1.93 to 3.21. (Biodiesel produced from other fats and oils, such as restaurant grease, may be more energy efficient.) Similar results emerge when biofuels are compared with gasoline using other indices of environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent. The production and use of biodiesel emits 41 to 78 percent less such gases than do the production and use of petroleum-based diesel fuels.

Using gasoline blends with 10 percent corn-based ethanol instead of pure gasoline lowers emissions by 2 percent. Likewise, diesel containing 2 percent biodiesel emits 1.6 percent less greenhouse gases than does petroleum diesel. On the other hand, biodiesel can increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to air pollution. In short, the “green” virtues of ethanol and biodiesel are modest when these fuels are made from corn and soybeans, which are energy-intensive, highly polluting row crops.

One root of the problem is that the biofuel industry has long been dominated not by market forces but by politics and the interests of a few large companies. Corn has become the prime raw material even though biofuels could be made efficiently from a variety of other sources, such as grasses and wood chips.

The World Bank suggests that caloric consumption among the poor declines by about half of one percent whenever the average prices of all major food staples increase by one percent. When one staple becomes more expensive, people try to replace it with a cheaper one, but if the prices of nearly all staples go up, they are left with no alternative.

If the prices of staple foods increased because of demand for biofuels, the number of hungry people in the world would rise by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods. That means that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025. The world’s poorest people already spend 50 to 80 percent of their total household income on food.