Posts filed under ‘Education and Awareness’

A plan to save civilization

This coming week, I’m in Taiwan but through the magic of auto-posts, ThinkingShift lives on. I hope to take heaps of shots with my new plastic fantastic Superheadz Pink Dress camera.


But today I’m bringing you a slide presentation you need to look at. Awhile back I told you about Lester Brown, the American environmentalist. His website, Earth Policy Institute, has just published a slideshow called Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Plan B refers to the response to the environmental challenges our planet now faces. The major challenges, as I’ve blogged about many times, are food insecurity and climate change. Here’s a summary of the slide show:

  • Earth’s average temperature will rise 1.1-6.4˚C (33.98 ºF-43.52 ºF) during the 21st century;
  • we are already outpacing these predictions;
  • crop yields drop by 10% for every 1˚C rise in temperature;
  • in an effort to ensure their own food security, some affluent food importing countries, such as Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea have begun buying or leasing land abroad to grow their own food. If you don’t believe that rich dude countries are leasing foreign land, then check out this – Pakistan is having a hissy fit that Saudi Arabia is planning to lease 202,342.8 hectares of farmland in Pakistan. I would have thought Pakistan had enough hungry people without leasing out precious land. And Libya is planning to grow wheat on 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) in Ukraine ;
  • historians have argued long and hard that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to food shortages and skirmishes over access to food (along with the Sumerian and Mayan civilisations). The fall of our own civilisation will be due to food shortages and battles over water. I’m now seeing articles about future water wars. My own view is that we’ll see the rise of water privateers. Here’s just one example I can give you of how the poor in developing countries (not to mention you and me) will get shafted by the privatisation of water. Water is going to be the oil of the 21st Century. Private companies will buy rights to water. Two French companies – Suez Lyonnaise des eaux and Vivendi Environnement – are the ones I think we need to watch. Just search for these two companies on the internet – go ahead, it will freak you out to find that these two companies alone supply water to 230 million people around the world (and this includes the US).

The slide show offers up some responses (Plan B):

  • a worldwide switch to highly-efficient lighting would cut electricity use 12%, equivalent to closing 705 coal-fired power plants;
  • the wind potential in North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas alone could satisfy U.S. energy needs.

There are heaps of ideas in the slide show to save the planet and our civilisation. There are also a ton of facts that will freak you out such as:

  • soaring food prices – from mid-2006 to mid-2008, world grain and soybean prices tripled;
  • since 1981, oil extraction has exceeded new discoveries by a widening margin. Most of the easily recovered oil is already pumped;
  • between 1950 and 2000, world water use tripled. Some 70% of water use is for irrigation. Over-extraction is leading to disappearing lakes and rivers failing to reach the sea. Aquifer depletion is causing water tables to fall and wells to go dry;
  • massive Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are melting at accelerating rates. Together hold enough water to raise sea level 12 meters (39 feet). A 10-meter rise in sea level today would inundate coastal areas home to more than 600 million people.

November 16, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Games for change

So you know the next two weeks will be thin on the ground for me – I’ll be flat out like the proverbial lizard preparing for my KM study meeting in Taiwan, flying to Taiwan blah blah.

I don’t want you to hit the Unsubscribe button though because I’ll be back with those long, raving and ranting posts I know you love so much. But to clear up my backlog of interesting stuff to share with you – here’s a great site I found that uses games to bring attention to the most pressing issues of our day, such as poverty, human rights, global conflict and climate change.

So a lot of arty geeky types, along with academics, journalists and individuals from the nonprofit and government sectors have collaborated on the site Games for Change. I’ve been dabbling with some of them because I need to design curriculum in the next few months.

There are various game channels – I really wish I had access to this sort of interactive, educative stuff when I was a teacher back in the mists of time. I particularly like the games on global conflict and human rights. They deal with real-world issues.

Check out this game – 3rd World Farmer - designed for ages 11+ years, the game lets players manage a small virtual farm in a developing country and experience the hardships and dilemmas faced by the poor.

Ars Regendi is a political game where a player can found their own State and lead it according to his or her political ideals. And Escape from Woomera is probably a very timely game for Aussies to play given the current situation with Sri Lankan refugees. The game gets players to try and escape from an immigration detention centre.

And my favourite? It’s a game called Civilization IV: Quality of Life and involves players in using their moral values to reward a society.

Given Gen Y and Millenials penchant for virtual worlds, these digital games are a fabulous way of raising social, legal and moral issues and facilitating social change. The site also has a toolkit of the game-making process and prompts you to think about the sorts of questions you need to ask if you’re thinking of designing a digital game. Cool!

November 7, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Choice lab tour

From time to time, I get invited to trial new products or blog about something specific. I only do so if my curiosity is piqued or it’s a product or service I think is worthwhile. So I’ve been invited to blog, tweet and take photos at the upcoming Choice Shonky awards, which exposes the year’s dodgiest products. For my international readers, Choice is a leading Australian consumer advocacy group. They test consumer products and provide reviews as well as lobbying to change laws and industry practices.  The awards will be held this coming week in a no doubt glittering ceremony hosted by actor/comedian, Jean Kitson. Since I’m a long-time reader of Choice magazine, I decided to take up the invite.

In the run-up to next week’s ceremony, I was invited to tour the new Choice lab facilities where they test products. This was their first blogger lab tour and I found myself on the tour with a couple of food bloggers who were busy twittering and an online media content creator, who was filming. So next week we’ll be blogging and twittering at the ceremony, which you can follow on Twitter under hashtag shonkys

So…what did I discover at the secret squirrel labs? I was hoping to find some mad looking scientists in white lab coats and test tubes full of bubbling liquids about to explode. But no…I found some normal looking people going about their business of testing products. We started off by meeting John Ashes, the Choice lab manager, who took us on the tour of the new premises, which used to be the Pie TV factory back in the 1950s. Very cool.

They have about 15-16 staff who test products and they all come from varied backgrounds with different university degrees. First up, we went into the food lab where Fiona was testing hand-held food mixers, which she even tests on pizza dough to assess the strength of the product. Choice do extensive comparative testing and test a product for about 2 weeks. I didn’t take my Nikon with me; just a small camera, so the photos are a bit dodgy. But here’s a few shots of John and Fiona and the mixers in the funky food lab with lots of shiny equipment:

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Fiona was about to test the mixers with meringues and cake mix but alas we missed out on any food tasting because next up was the computer test lab to meet Ryan. He tests things like computer monitors, budget laptops, TVs and so on. His tests appear on the Choice website and in Computer Choice, which is a separate magazine (6 issues a year). The good news I picked up in this lab was that TVs in stand-by mode now have to conform to less than 1 watt energy usage. Choice staff often sit on Standards Australia committees and they were involved in the Standards around TVs and use of energy. Here’s a shot of Ryan in his lab and John pointing to the calibration monitor. All test instruments are calibrated externally and they compare their test instruments using this unit. Even rulers are calibrated (serious scientific testing stuff!).

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On our way to other lab areas, we passed through the breakout area where staff have coffee and (of great interest to me) share knowledge about various products and tests going on.

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Next up was the refrigerator testing area and then the small appliances and toy testing labs. I learnt that there are only 4 or 5 fridges in Australia that can really do the job of keeping food in an even temperature and the best temperature for the fresh food compartment is around 3.3 degrees Celsius or 35-58 degrees Fahrenheit. Peter in the small appliances lab looked to have the best job if you ask me. He was busy testing coffee machines using Vittoria coffee (as this is a brand of coffee most consumers can find and purchase). He was testing machines that range in price from AU$200-1200 and it seems that hefty price doesn’t necessarily give you the best cup of coffee.

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I really liked the testing area for dishwashers and washing machines. This is Choice’s busiest lab because they run two types of tests at once. For dishwashers, testers use standard plates and cutlery, soil these with food from the four food groups and let things dry overnight in 20 degree temperature with 60%  humidity. A computer logs information whilst testing is going on and measures things like water and energy use, temperature etc.

With washing machines, Choice uses soiled patches from Holland, coated with standard dirt and they also attach 100 sq cm of embroidery material of a coarse weave. This flops around and frays so they then trim and measure the area, which gives a score of gentleness. Who would have thought! They even determine how much detergent is left over in a washing machine.  They test white loads (white towels, white sheets, white shirts) because it’s representative of what the average person will use or wear and they wash in cold water.

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The last stop was the area for testing products like light bulbs and baby strollers. What was really cool was seeing 150 energy-saving light bulbs being tested. The bulbs are tested for 60 hours in a temperature controlled room and suspended from the ceiling on a rack.

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It was great to see the thorough testing that goes on at Choice – it certainly gives me consumer confidence.  I’ll do a further blog post soon about the awards. Thanks to Choice for the lab tour.

October 25, 2009 at 5:17 am Leave a comment

Dear New Yorkers

Dear New York readers. Are you worried about climate change? Wondering if your wonderfully cosmopolitan city will shimmer in the landscape as hotter weather breathes down on it? You’d better be – basically you’ll be toast. Just in case you missed it, your Mayor Bloomberg (sounds like a smart dude) commissioned a report entitled Climate Risk Information: New York City Panel on Climate Change. You can download it here (scroll down). I’ve been researching into climate change, particularly in cities and so I came across it.

I’ll save you the trouble of reading all 74 pages and give you the bad news:

  • NYC has a 570-mile coastline and 8.5 million people live only about 10 feet above sea level.
  • NYC average temperature will rise 1.5-3 °F by the 2020s; 3- 5 °F by the 2050s; and 4- 7.5 °F by the 2080s.  Heat waves will become frequent, more devastating and last longer – cities retain heat, much more so than surrounding areas.
  • you will get milder temperatures and less snowfall but….a third of the days during summer will above 90 degrees.
  • rising sea levels will happen (>95% probability of occurrence). Maybe not enough to send your Statue of Liberty underwater but you’ll see 2-5 inches by the 2020s; 7-12 inches by the 2050s; and 12-23 inches by the 2080s.  If you include ice-melt, then the sea level could rise by approximately 41-55 inches by the 2080s. Check your home insurance policy now to see if you’re covered for water damage! But rising sea levels will lead to coastal flooding; increased street, basement & sewer flooding; structural damage; issues with water quality; and encroachment of saltwater on freshwater sources and ecosystems. The report mentioned an increase of salt front up the Hudson and Delaware Rivers, leading to reduced supply of drinking water – that would freak me out. Mind you, a wall of water flooding Wall St and getting rid of greedy banking dudes is not a bad idea.
  • a sea level rise of only only a foot and a half  — a realistic prediction for 2050 — would see a storm as severe as Katrina requiring New York City to evacuate as many as 3 million people – can you imagine the chaos.
  • droughts will become more severe, especially towards end of 21st Century.
  • the strain on the power grid during the summer months of heat will cause it to, well…possibly fall over.

The report’s conclusion is stark – if humans continue on their wayward path of greenhouse gas emissions and if the polar ice is indeed melting faster than predicted causing a sea level rise of six inches or more – most of NYC will be under water. And I sense that the report is saying that NYC needs to prepare for the inevitable changes that climate change will bring – it’s about adaptation and mitigation. The 1995 Chicago heat wave knocked off around 600 people in five days so the health and human life implications of having a third of summer days above 90 degrees is staggering.

But what can be done to prepare? I checked out some engineering reports and blogs to find out.

  • don’t build on the waterfront
  • ensure high rise apartment buildings can withstand fierce storms
  • a lot of infrastructure will need to be elevated – so for example, a new waterfront power generating station on the East River has been built to withstand a 4-foot sea level rise
  • solid barriers across the entrance to New York harbour might need to be built. They can be opened for shipping traffic and closed during vicious storms.
  • introduce congestion tax (like London) to reduce the flow of traffic within the city itself.
  • plant a whole heap of trees to help absorb carbon dioxide.

I found a great site – Climate Change Information Resources – which outlines what is being done in the New York metropolitan region to adapt and mitigate. For those of us not in New York, there’s a site I came across called City Based Climate Action Plans, which offers plans from North and South American, Asian, European and African cities. Mmmmm…..I can see Melbourne’s plan but where is Sydney?

Well, New Yorkers, you are not alone. Sydney of course might just be the world’s major climate change catastrophe about to happen. The canary in the coal mine. A CSIRO scientist is saying you don’t want to be living here in 2060 because basically Sydney will be toxic and suffering from dust storms. Hang on!! Sydney was hit with an unprecedented, apocalyptic-looking dust storm just this week. International readers, here’s what Sydney looked like on Wednesday September 23, 2009, covered by a blanket of eerie orange red dust:

Another (smaller one) hit us on Saturday September 26. Is it related to climate change? One source is saying yep, possibly. Mmmmm…another reason for leaving Australia.

Image credit: New York Post and National Post.

September 27, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Environmental boundaries to save Gaia

If you’re wondering whether humans are stupid enough to be the architects of civilisation’s collapse and will become extinct….read on. Twenty eight scientists have been asked how we are going as stewards of Planet Earth. Really, why bother with twenty eight scientists when I could have given the short answer: humans are wrecking the planet and we will all be kaput!

Anyway, the pointy-headed scientists have drawn up a list of nine “planetary boundaries” that we had better not transgress if we, as a species, want to hang around and not suffer disastrous consequences. Check out this article from Nature for full details but basically, I’ll give you the goss – and the bad news? We’ve already crossed three of the planetary boundaries. Our planet’s environment has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years. This stable period is known as the Holocene (aka The Long Summer) and has seen civilisations rise and fall. But since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve been in a new period – the Anthropocene – and basically the signature of this period is human activity driving environmental change, which could push us beyond the stability of the Holocene and into abrupt, irreversible climate change. So here is the framework the scientists propose to keep us within safe boundaries:

(1) Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Human changes to atmospheric CO2 concentrations should not exceed 350 parts per million by volume (p.p.m.v.) but current CO2 concentration stands at 387 p.p.m.v. and climbing. The boundary of 350 p.p.m.v. ensures the continued existence of the large polar ice sheets (but as we know, these are rapidly melting). So we’re probably toast as we’ve crossed this climate boundary already. The article says that we are already seeing evidence that some of Earth’s subsystems are moving outside their stable Holocene state eg accelerating rates of sea-level rise during the past 10–15 years and the retreat of mountain glaciers around the world.

(2) Biodiversity loss. This is the second boundary we’ve crossed and/or screwed up. Species extinction is a natural occurrence but biodiversity loss in the Anthropocene has accelerated massively and many scientists say we are in the grip of a sixth great extinction event. In 1993, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson estimated that Earth is losing around 30,000 species per year (and this equates to three species per hour). Here’s a great site if you want to learn more about the mass extinction humans are causing. Today, the rate of extinction of species is estimated to be 100 to 1,000 times more than what could be considered natural.

(3) Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The rise of industrialised agriculture has thrown off Earth’s natural nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and we have pollution on land and in our water ways. We’ve passed the threshold with the nitrogen cycle because the planet and oceans simply can’t process the chemicals being dumped by humans obsessed with food production and cultivation of crops using chemicals. A major side-effect of nitrogen use is pollution of oceans – the Gulf of Mexico, for example, has a 5,800 square mile “dead zone” caused by nitrogen/fertilizer run off.

(4) Ozone. We haven’t stuffed this up because a 1987 ban on ozone-eating chemicals (being chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs) has resulted in atmospheric levels of ultraviolet radiation-blocking ozone now being at the safe level. Ozone depletion is a serious issue because it can lead to skin cancer, cataract and premature ageing of the skin.

(5) Freshwater use.  Demand for fresh water is soaring due to hygiene, sanitation, food production and industry. But planetary supplies of freshwater are dwindling. Current consumption for agricultural, for example, may expand from 2,600 cubic kilometers to 4,000 cubic kilometers in the future and this will lead to further environmental damage and water scarcity. Check out this freshwater scarcity map – it will freak you out:

Source: Scientific American

(6) Land use: I was reading the other day that Australia’s population growth is exploding (and given that we are the most arid continent on Earth, not sure this is smart). We will have 35 million by 2049 (current: 21,993,806 according to ABS). The world population is currently around 6.8 billion and is projected to surpass 9 billion by 2050. Just imagine: in 1950, the world population was 2.5 billion. To accommodate 9 billion people in 2050 you need land – so natural terrain, forests, fields and wetlands will most likely disappear to make way for cities and expanding suburbia. We’ll be lucky to spot a small shrub in the crowded concrete jungles of the future!

(7) Ocean acidification: Our civilisation oozes carbon dioxide and eventually it finds its way into waterways and oceans, raising their acidity levels. In acidic seawater coral, for example, have a tough time building their skeletons because the minerals they produce to build the skeletons quickly dissolve in acidic water. Apparently, oceans are now acidifying 100 times faster than at any time during the past 20 million years.

(8) Chemical pollution: I’m always saying that our era will be known as the “chemical generation” (that is if there are any humans left in the future).  We are chemical crazy. Go off and look at the ingredients in your shampoo…I’ll wait. Do you see Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Sodium Laurel Sulfate? If so, chuck it out now – these chemicals are known as surfectants and are basically foaming agents. They are known irritants and have also been linked to liver toxicity and may be carcinogenic. These chemicals also pop up in toothpaste, soap, mascara, laundry detergent, body wash, shave cream and so on. But you can get SLS-free products, go here for a list. Of course, nasty chemicals end up in our waterways and have been linked to genetic damage.

(9) Atmospheric aerosols. A volcano spewing forth its muck is likely to pollute the atmosphere but so are human-made sulfate aerosols created by the burning of coal and oil. Human-made sulfate aerosols are now thought to outweigh naturally produced sulfate aerosols such as desert dust and volcanic aerosols resulting from eruptions. Human-made sulfate aerosols are suspended in Earth’s atmosphere and actually have a cooling effect on climate but do not offset global warming.

Of the 9 planetary boundaries, we have crossed three. Below is the “planetary boundaries” table that shows the sorry state of affairs.

Click here for larger view (Source: Nature).

September 26, 2009 at 2:14 am Leave a comment

The state of the climate

I’m going to be very busy over the next week, so posts will be more about pointing you in the direction of interesting stuff (rather than my usual ranting and raving).

I came across a very interesting debate between four scientists over climate change issues. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite before you trot off and read the full article:

  • the Earth is now 0.75 degrees Celsius warmer than it was a century and a half ago;
  • if we continue with our current trends in burning fossil fuels, the ocean will become more acidic than it has been at any time in the past 65 million years;
  • both poles are getting warmer and this is different from the past because both poles did not move together – one pole would lead and the other would follow. Now, ice is melting from both poles at an accelerated rate;
  • although the planet warmed in the past, it did so over millions of years and ecosystems could adapt. What we’re seeing now are rates of increase in greenhouse gases and warming that exceed natural rates by a factor of 100;
  • we are at a critical point in history – if we don’t stop stuffing up the planet, the scientists believe that geologists in 50 million years (if there are any!) will be able to pinpoint the exact time in history when civilization had developed advanced technology but didn’t develop the wisdom to use it wisely;
  • we will have to raise the food supply another two times to feed all of the people that we think will be alive by the latter third of the 21st century;
  • to address global warming, we’ll need US$500 billion to get going but ultimately trillions;
  • the stratosphere—the upper atmosphere—is cooling while the lower atmosphere and the land surface are warming. This is a sign that greenhouse gases are trapping energy and keeping that energy close to the surface of the earth.

All four scientists have serious academic chops and also address the contrarian view (that climate change is not happening). So if the above hasn’t scared you enough, go here to Discover magazine to read the full article.

And Happy Independence Day to all my US readers!

July 4, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

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