Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Teotihuacan is a giant archaeological site –the former great city of several long lost peoples: those who built it, now called the Teotihuacanos, and those who came upon it once they had disappeared, most famously the Aztecs who named it the place where gods are made. The sheer scale of Teotihuacan is humbling. The pyramids seem built to rival the mountains around them.

Renamed the Pyramid of the Moon by the Aztec --the far smaller of the two great pyramids at the site.

This is an immensely complicated site, founded around 100 B.C.E. and expanded and occupied by various peoples in the subsequent centuries. Although there are many Mayan influences to be found here, the site itself has nothing to do with the 2012 apocalyptic predictions of the long-count calendar. Nevertheless, the world of the Teotihuacanos ended, obviously, and the site is assumed to have been largely abandoned when the Aztecs happened upon it.

The new beginning of a new year and my first visit to the site gave me pause. Scholars think there are two overlapping factors that brought about the end of the first era of Teotihuacan and both are presciently facing our global society today: drought, caused by changes to the climate, and a popular uprising of the common against the elite classes in their city. Apparently the academics used to think that Teotihuacan was attacked, sacked, and burned, triggering its downfall. Broken artifacts and traces of charring seemed initially to corroborate this. On closer examination, however, archaeologists discovered that this kind of destruction was limited to the structures related to the upper classes, indicating the revolution of a people who had lost faith in their leaders.

I put exactly zero stock in doomsday predictions, but walking through the ruins of such a complex and advanced city does make me think that there is no reason to not believe  in the end of the world as we know it. For me, this usually manifests itself in fantasies of somehow collectively manifesting a better world, one without poverty and violence (or, even in my fantasy, let’s hedge and say significantly less of these). There is, however, no reason to assume that great, global change, the kind that might wipe out a people who built a mountain, isn’t in store for us if we don’t move forward with humility and great forethought and caution. It is a good reminder to not be flippant with our experiences of climate change and social unrest. It is a good reminder to not be flippant with our world or each other.

On one of the upper terraces of the Pyramid of the Sun.


Carefully climbing down the steep steps.

The man-made mountain: the Pyramid of the Sun.


I’ve written on this blog before about fracking. Fracking is the high pressure injection of water contaminated with a toxic (and secret) blend of “fracking chemicals” under the ground to break apart the bedrock and release natural gas where we can collect (some of) it. Because of our unique (absurd) relationship with property ownership, one can own ones land but not the gasses and  minerals underneath it. Gas companies have been gobbling up drilling permits all across the country. As oil prices have risen, the phrase “America is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas!” has become a mantra.

There are lots of environmental reasons to be opposed to fracking, but here is one more.

Ohio ended 2011 with a magnitude 4.0 earthquake on New Year’s Eve, the second quake to strike the area within a week and the 11th of the year. That earthquake, the most recent and the strongest, was traced back to the fluid injection wells at a fracking site in Youngstown, Ohio. Indeed, all 11 earthquakes occurred “within two miles of the injection wells.”

Now, state officials are shutting down the injection wells and letting the waste fluids that were injected to “bubble back to the surface in an effort to relieve underground pressure.” The original injection pressure will force the brine waste water back out of the well into storage tanks, which should “help stop the ground from shaking.”

Read the rest of the article on Think Progress.

Ohio was in the process of debating opening up the state’s parks to fracking and hopefully this will help prohibit that. If fracking were able to save us from the impending energy crisis, there might be a stronger justification for continuing it despite the outrageous environmental degradation. The truth is that fracking will not save us. Natural gas is also a limited resource with consequences for global climate change. Fracking is a way for oil and gas companies to squeeze more monetary value out of the earth in the short term without paving the way for energy sustainability or environmental health in the long run.

And apparently it can cause earthquakes.

Picture from the AP: Anti-fracking demonstrators at a recent protest in Youngstown, Ohio.

The Torre Latinoamericana is a 44-story building near the Centro Historico or downtown of Mexico City. It embodies a story of a mental paradigm shift that I just love.

Its height is completely unremarkable by today’s standards, even here, but it was the tallest building in the city for a number of decades. More importantly, it represents an inspiring leap forward in thinking as it was one of the first buildings engineered to withstand Mexico City’s not infrequent earthquakes.

In 1948, when construction began, the popular thinking was that no building of such height stood a chance against the seismic forces that periodically rock the region. Even as the engineers, brothers Leonardo and Aldolpho Zeevaert, methodically studied the soil at the site and adjusted their designs accordingly, it was largely assumed that, when actually put to the test, such a building would fall down. That’s what happens in earthquakes, after all.

The tower was finished in 1956 and given its first test in 1957 when a 7.9 magnitude quake shook the city. In the famous and deadly Mexico City quake of 1985, the tower’s region was among the hardest hit and buildings collapsed all around it, but the Torre Latinoamericana stood tall. Now, it represents strength, stability, and safety and its technology is considered groundbreaking.

The Torre Latinoamericana in 1985 surrounded by the rubble of fallen buildings. The broadcast tower in the picture was similarly engineered after the Torre's pioneering seismic resistant technology.

This is what I love about this story –the challenging of a mindset with innovative thinking, the improving of the status quo with a better design, a model that saves lives, saves resources, and allows people to live in better harmony with an unpredictable natural world.

From the 44th floor observation deck, you get an incredible bird’s-eye view of the city, an opportunity to see how it is tucked under a blanket of yellowish smog at the corners.

Bellas Artes from the observation deck.

The open space in the distance is the Zócalo with the Catedral to the left and the Palacio Nacional directly facing the camera.

From this icon to innovation, it is clear that we need a new paradigm shift in our use of energy resources –climate change may not be as immediately dramatic as an earthquake, but it has the potential to be far more deadly.

From the top of the Torre Latinoamericana.

What do you get a planet for its seven-billionth person? published this article back in May announcing the UN claim that in just a few weeks, around Halloween of 2011, the seven-billionth person will be born on Earth. We started thinking of ourselves as a six-billion person planet way back in 1999. At least we started referring to ourselves that way –I’m not sure six billion is something we’re capable of thinking of.

World population hit 1 billion people in 1804. It took 123 years to add the next billion, but less than a century to cruise past the next four billion — from 2 billion people in 1927 to 6 billion people in 1999.

The music is cheesy, but this is worth a watch. It’s not that there are just too dang many of us –or them, more likely– it’s that we seem to be fundamentally so bad at sharing

For most of my adult life I haven’t owned a TV. I don’t play video games unless I’m on vacation at my brother and sister-in-law’s and I get most of the media I need from the Internet, renting the occasional DVD, and bumming off someone else’s TV in a pinch. Then, last year when I was a live-in nanny in Massachusetts,  I had a TV in my room. With cable. After about a week of quietly and awkwardly sharing the space, I got bold and turned it on. And loved it. I hated it a little, too, I guess (Jersey Shore made me feel depressed), but it was mostly a great time. Top Chef Masters!

One thing I was really surprised to learn that I had missed out on during my break from TV was the greening of the oil companies’ images. I was surprised to hear, for example, all the happy reports from Gulf residents who found that BP had kept all of its promises after the massive spill and left the Gulf Coast better than ever.

Or that Exxon Mobile has done so much for green energy research.

This one was especially hard to handle, given the film “Gasland” and so many independent reports of water contamination due to fracking.

From Bloomberg News this past July:

July 30 (Bloomberg) — Exxon Mobil Corp., the biggest U.S. oil producer, spent more on Washington lobbying during the first half of the year than all clean-energy companies combined, researcher New Energy Finance Ltd. said.

Exxon Mobil, based in Irving, Texas, spent $14.9 million lobbying in the six months, 23 percent more than the $12.1 million laid out by companies that make solar panels or wind turbines to generate electricity, London-based New Energy Finance said today in a note to clients. Oil and gas companies spent a total of $82.2 million on Washington lobbyists, according to the report.

Congress is debating legislation that would promote renewable power, limit carbon dioxide emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and expand drilling for oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico. President Barack Obama signed a law earlier this year that allocates more than $60 billion to promote clean energy.

Read the rest of the article here. The most recent clean energy expenditures I could find for Exxon Mobile were from 2008. They totaled 1% of the company’s budget.

These commercials are the contemporary, highly polished version of the 1950’s doctors trying to get us to smoke Camels.

Except their product is killing everything, not just lungs and people.

In Deep Economy, The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007) by Bill McKibben writes,

The year 2005 was the warmest on record, and nine of the ten hottest years were in the decade that preceded it; as a result of that heat, about an extra degree Fahrenheit globally averaged, all kinds odd things have begun to happen. For instance, everything frozen on earth is melting, and melting fast. In the fall of 2005, polar researchers reported that Arctic ice had apparently passed a “tipping point”: so much sun-reflecting white ice had been turned to heat-absorbing blue water that the process was now irreversible. Meanwhile, other scientists showed that because of longer growing seasons, temperate soils and forests like the ones across America were now seeing more decay, and hence giving off more of their stored carbon, accelerating the warming trend. So far, this young millenium has already seen a killer heat wave that killed fifty-two thousand people across Europe in the course of a couple of weeks, and an Atlantic hurricane season so bizarrely intense that we ran out of letters in the alphabet for naming storms. The point is, climate change is not some future specter; it’s already emerging as the biggest problem the world faces (p. 20). Bold added by me.

As someone who lived it, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that 2011 in Texas set the new record for hottest summer recorded anywhere in the United States. Apparently the state averaged a temperature of 86.8 degrees Fahrenheit across the months of June, July, and August. Everything planted by every optimistic gardener I know in Austin (there are several) stopped growing in the stifling heat and 3:00AM’s air was heavy and tepid like bathwater. Noon to 4:00PM was just dangerous. According to the Lower Colorado River Authority, “As of Sept. 30, Austin has recorded 90 days of 100-degree temperatures this year, obliterating the old record of 69 days set in 1925.” More worrisome, the year marked from August 2010-August 2011 was the driest in all of Texas’ history and the unprecedented heat has plunged essentially the entire state into extreme drought conditions.

Texas' Drought

Time did a painful cover story on this depressing phenomenon: Why Texas’ Drought May Have Global Effects.

And then this past weekend, it rained. Not enough, but a lot. It was almost as though I felt a sigh of relief come from this city that I love. It does nothing, of course, to halt or delay the frightening trend, but it does seem to mean that Texas has finally tipped into its lovely non-summer months and that it’s going to make it another year. While it is wonderful to hear the rain-induced excitement from home, it is so frustrating to listen to would-be Republican presidential candidates continue to debate the existence of climate change while Texas suffers in its grip.

For the most extreme of these views –that global warming is in fact a hoax drummed up by politically motivated scientists manipulating data– you need look no further than the man who has served as Governor of Texas for the past decade.

Thoreau, in his famous Walden; or, Life in the Woods claims “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” For me, it is quite the opposite and solitude is often deeply unsettling. I have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the mandate to use my time wisely and yet finding both the impetus to do so and the reassurance that I am using my time wisely is so much harder when I am alone without the comforting institutions of work or school or the calming, centering daily exchanges with roommates or a significant other. When backpacking solo in Belize three-years ago, I wrote this in an email to a dear friend:

“There is this constant and confusing need to listen to myself, since there are no other factors… Am I hungry?  Am I tired? Do I want to take a walk?  Do I want to read a book?  It’s a little overwhelming, actually… I feel like I’m on a never ending date with myself.”

And, if I’m being honest, I often feel like I would’ve liked that date to end several hours ago.

This was the position I found myself in in the days leading up to my departure for Mexico City: alone except for my dog at my parents’ house in the country. Here I tried to organize the disparate pieces of my life (physically, my possessions and mentally, everything else) and distract myself enough to keep my heart from beating so hard that it hurt. The temperatures kept me trapped in the house with the window shades drawn for most of the day and I occasionally took note of the outdoor thermometer as it crept towards 108 in the hottest hours.

In the evenings, however, I would take my dog on a long walk around my parents’ property. The unbridled joy that my dog displayed on these walks was a good reminder to come back to myself in the present moment –to breathe deeply and to look around.

Ita needs no instruction in living deliberately.

Texas is crisp right now and despite some recent drizzles the drought lingers. The grass is brittle and crunchy, the trees are hungry for water. The little pond on my parents’ property is shrinking to a muddy, stagnant puddle. At the same time there is something profoundly settling about being in the woods, even if I must be there by myself.

The abundant cactus carries on.

Thoreau’s most famous quote from Walden is this: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” While I think deliberate living can be done or avoided anywhere, I do agree with an aspect of the essentialist’s perspective: that life at its most fundamental simply feels more real.

There can be no doubt that the little dog feels it, too.

Ita adores swimming in the pond, nevermind the water level.