Sunday, November 29, 2009

Diamonds to Dinosaurs: Field Museum Chicago

Her name is Sue. She lived 67 million years ago in what is now South Dakota and is the most complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found. Sue is the celebrated star of the Field Museum in Chicago, a stunning natural history museum that I visited for the first time on Friday.

Sue’s skeleton was discovered in 1990 by fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson. At 42 feet long, 13 feet tall, she weighed 7 tons. According to the Field Museum, only 7 T. Rex skeletons that are more than half complete have been discovered. Of these, Sue is the most complete and best preserved.

The museum is a spectacular building in the Classical Revival style which was built in 1893. I wished I had more time to explore all of its many permanent exhibitions. The museum has a collection of over 21 million specimens and is considered one of the most important natural history museums in the world. After viewing Sue in her prized spot in the grand Stanley Field Hall, we went through the Evolving Planet exhibit which was a fascinating journey through 4 billion years of life on earth. The exhibit was the best I’ve seen on the various cycles of life, the 5 previous mass extinction cycles with a 6 minute video on the present 6th mass extinction cycle that we’re going through now. The centerpiece of the exhibit is an impressive hall of dinosaurs.

We also viewed the Lions of Tsavo, the famous man eating lions that terrorized railway workers in East Africa a century ago and are the subject of the movie The Ghost and the Darkness.

The Nature of Diamonds is a temporary exhibit that explores the geological origins of diamonds from deep inside the earth, and traces their place in history and adornment. On display was the Incomparable Diamond, the most flawless diamond ever found. At 407 carats it is the third largest cut diamond ever found. It was discovered in the Congo in 1980. The famous 128 carat Tiffany Diamond was also on display.

See Field Museum Website and go if you ever have a chance!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Green Thanksgiving

I'm heading to the Windy City for the Thanksgiving Holiday. It's not a holiday we had when I was growing up in Jamaica but I have come to love the idea of having a holiday where you give thanks for blessings and celebrate with family and friends. In Canada they celebrate in October and here in the U.S., in November. Either month, it's a great holiday. Good article today in the Huffington Post from Robyn Griggs Lawrence on 8 ways to green your Thanksgiving including the obvious ones such as buying local produce, eating a natural turkey, don't use paper or plastic plates, etc. Just good reminders.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Our Choice - Al Gore

Literary Arts presented Al Gore at the Keller Auditorium in Portland last night. He was in town to talk about his new book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis and the solutions to the climate crisis. Since the publication of An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It Gore held 30 “Solution Summits” with scientists and engineers and other experts to discuss the solutions that are possible to solve our global warming crisis.

Gore began his talk by saying “Our choice represents the key ingredient [to providing the solution].” He said that our civilization has benefited from the advances in technology and lifestyle afforded to us from previous generations. “It would be an immoral choice to now give the back of our hand to future generations by failing to act on this crisis.”

He stressed that solving the climate crisis also solves some of our other crises. For example, getting us off the dependence on foreign oil from the Middle East is also solving a national security crisis. Acting on the climate crisis will also provide for a huge number of jobs, which of course is desperately needed here in the U.S.

Gore spoke of how our relationship with the ecosystem has been radically altered in the past century and half and that the most vulnerable aspect of this is the atmosphere. He said “We are dumping 90 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere each day – treating it as if it is an open sewer.”

To the global warming skeptics and deniers (who were out protesting in front of the Keller) Gore said “If you don’t want to believe in the science, fine. But at least help us become less dependent on foreign oil and create jobs.”

He urged us all to become active in this issue. He said “It is important to change light bulbs however, it is more important that we change our laws.” We need to all become politically active to urge the Senate and the Congress to pass the laws necessary to begin action on this.

He then turned to the solutions that he said are all here and that are dealt with in depth in the book:

Solar Energy
CST – Concentrated Solar Thermal
Photovoltaic Power

Wind Power

Geothermal Energy – Gore spoke of “enhanced geothermal power” which is where technology from the oil and gas industry is used to dig several kilometers into the earth to reach hot dry rock particularly in the U.S. western states. He said there is an unlimited source of energy from this process.

Growing fuel – He spoke of the disappointing results and high cost with ethanol production and how it’s competition with food crops is an issue, however he said that there are now new biomass sources – 2nd generation bio liquids and 3rd generation cellulose which are not food crops that are coming on stream.

He also touched on two controversial issues which are touted as part of the solution however, he said that he is not convinced that they are: Carbon Capture Sequestration – he said that this seems like a nice idea however it comes at a big cost, and Nuclear power – which is also extremely costly and mired with other issues such as the disposal of nuclear waste and enriched uranium for weapons issue.

Gore spoke about the issue of waste and how we are using technologies that are over a hundred years old. We need to implement new technologies that eliminate waste such as retrofitting buildings, a super grid and electric vehicles.

He spoke about China and their race to become energy efficient. They are dominating the production of solar panels, building a new super grid, and fast becoming the largest producer of wind power in the world.

So what’s stopping us?
Gore spoke of the obstacles in front of us, the greatest being political will. He said that the expectations for the Copenhagen climate talks are now lowered and that is a direct result of the fact that the U.S. Senate has not passed the Cap and Trade legislation which passed in the Congress.

He spoke of the fact that current market capitalism is inefficient (I would say failing) on this issue. Companies are allowed to have no accountability on this issue. Large corporations basically treat pollution as an “externality.” It is off their balance sheets, they are allowed to keep it “out of sight, out of mind” and therefore they have no accountability. In order to make them accountable and to get the market to reflect accuracy, there needs to be a price on carbon. He mentioned the success with cap and trade policies that were used to bring sulfur dioxide emissions under control – it worked well. In Europe, Cap and Trade is being used effectively for global warming. It can work well here. (But 100 U.S. Senators are the major obstacle).

Gore spoke about our “culture of distraction,” where the average U.S. citizen watches 5 hours of television a day - this comes at the expense of civil engagement. He said we are predisposed to thinking short term about our problems and we need to use our rational and reasoning capacities to develop long term goals and move with consensus on this issue.

Gore also spoke about the protests which seem to be following him around the country as he does his talks. He said that they are being funded by Koch Industries, the largest carbon polluter in the United States. They fly people in to where he is speaking and give the appearance as if it is a grassroots group of protesters; however, they are one of these ‘astroturf’ groups. They are trying to cast doubt and fear with pseudo science. He also said there are 5 climate lobbyists for every member of Congress.

He concluded with a strong call to action and said “We have everything we need to solve this crisis with the exception of political will. However, political will is a renewable resource in the United States!”

Websites for more information:
Our Choice - the book
Repower America
The Oregonian's coverage of Al Gore's speech in Portland
Huffington Post article "Energy industry front group plans "teabagger" protest at Gore's event in Portland
United Nations Climate Change Conference
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC
Bill McKibben review of the book Our Choice in The Nation: An Inconvenient Solution

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Vanishing Beaches of Hawaii

When I was in Hawaii (on Oahu) earlier this year, I spent time at Kailua Beach where the problems of beach erosion are hard to miss. The sea is creeping up to meet the tree line and trees are being lost as seen in these pictures that I took while I was there.

A good article titled "Hawaii's White Sandy Beaches are Shrinking" was posted today on The Huffington Post. It details the problem and the threat of rising sea levels expected with global warming.
Excerpt of article:
KAILUA, Hawaii — Jenn Boneza remembers when the white sandy beach near the boat ramp in her hometown was wide enough for people to build sand castles.

"It really used to be a beautiful beach," said the 35-year-old mother of two. "And now when you look at it, it's gone."

What's happening to portions of the beach in Kailua – a sunny coastal suburb of Honolulu where President Barack Obama spent his last two family vacations in the islands – is being repeated around the Hawaiian Islands.

Geologists say more than 70 percent of Kauai's beaches are eroding while Oahu has lost a quarter of its sandy shoreline. They warn the problem is only likely to get significantly worse in coming decades as global warming causes sea levels to rise more rapidly.

"It will probably have occurred to a scale that we will have only been able to save a few places and maintain beaches, and the rest are kind of a write-off," said Dolan Eversole, a coastal geologist with the University of Hawaii's Sea Grant program.
The loss of so many beaches is an alarming prospect for Hawaii on many levels. Many tourists come to Hawaii precisely because they want to lounge on and walk along its soft sandy shoreline. These visitors spend some $11.4 billion each year, making tourism the state's largest employer.

Disappearing sands would also wreak havoc on the environment as many animals and plants would lose important habitats. The Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered species, gives birth and nurses pups on beaches. The green sea turtle, a threatened species, lays eggs in the sand.

Chip Fletcher, a University of Hawaii geology professor, says scientists in Hawaii haven't yet observed an accelerated rate of sea level rise due to global warming.
Instead, the erosion the islands are experiencing now is caused by several factors including a steady historical climb in sea levels that likely dates back to the 19th century.

Other causes include storms and human actions like the construction of seawalls, jetties, and the dredging of stream mouths. Each of these human actions disrupts the natural flow of sand.

But a more rapid rise in sea levels, caused by global warming, is expected to contribute to erosion in Hawaii within decades. In 100 years, sea levels are likely to be at least 1 meter, or 3.3 feet, higher than they are now, pushing the ocean inland along coastal areas.

Fletcher says between 60 to 80 percent of the nation's shoreline is chronically eroding. But the problem is felt particularly acutely in Hawaii because the economy and lifestyle are so dependent on healthy beaches.

The state is doing everything it can to keep the sand in Waikiki, for example, joining with hotels in the state's tourist hub on a plan to spend between $2 million and $3 million pumping in sand from offshore.
Go to full article here.
Related Post:
Aloha Oahu
Lanikai Beach and Windward Oahu

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Jamaica + IMF + Jamaica Kincaid = Life and Debt

Life And Debt
I am presently deeply immersed in a study of Jamaica Kincaid's controversial book, A Small Place. Kincaid, an Antiguan, wrote this amazing polemic which in my opinion, effectively deconstructs the whole myth of the Caribbean paradise that is sold to fantasy driven tourists in the glossy travel magazines. The whole issue of privileging tourists over locals is one of the issues she examines. It is much more than that though. Kincaid takes on the post-colonial government of Antigua and the "rubbish heap of history" left by the British. It is a challenging read on the first go but it is 80 pages of richness. The book's message is applicable to the experience of many Third World countries and in fact, it was adapted for a script for the documentary film Life and Debt. Life and Debt, released in 2001, chronicles Jamaica's experience with the IMF and the effect, particularly on the agriculture sector, by policies imposed by the IMF. The film is worth seeing. I do think it leaves out some important aspects of government actions that contributed to Jamaica's economic demise, however, I recommend the film for anyone who has not seen it. Particularly as Jamaica is now again waiting for an assessment from the IMF for further assistance. The film is an important statement on globalization and the havoc it causes in small economies.
Trailer for the film:

About the Film from its website:

Utilizing excerpts from the award-winning non-fiction text "A Small Place" by Jamaica Kincaid, Life & Debt is a woven tapestry of sequences focusing on the stories of individual Jamaicans whose strategies for survival and parameters of day-to-day existence are determined by the U.S. and other foreign economic agendas. By combining traditional documentary telling with a stylized narrative framework, the complexity of international lending, structural adjustment policies and free trade will be understood in the context of the day-to-day realities of the people whose lives they impact.

The film opens with the arrival of vacationers to the island-- utilizing Ms. Kincaids text as voice-over, we begin to understand the profound contrasts behind the breathtaking natural beauty of the island. The poetic urgency of Ms. Kincaids text lends a first-person understanding of the legacy of the country's colonial past, and to it's present day economic challenges. For example, as we see a montage of the vacationer in her hotel, voice-over: "When you sit down to eat your delicious meal, it's better that you don't know that most of what you are eating came off a ship from Miami. There is a world of something in this, but I can't go into it right now." (adapted excerpt "A Small Place")

As we begin to understand the post-colonial landscape outlined in Ms. Kincaids text, we cut to archival footage of Former Prime Minister Michael Manley in a post-independence speech condemning the IMF stating that "the Jamaican government will not accept anybody, anywhere in the world telling us what to do in our own country. Above all, we're not for sale."

Life & Debt includes a segment on the banana industry wherein Jamaica has been granted preferential treatment from the British through the Lome Convention, providing a tax-free import quota for 105,000 tons/fruit per year to England. Through a case the U.S. brought to the WTO, the U.S. government is demanding the Lome Convention quota removed, (although the U.S. does not grow bananas on its own soil) forcing Jamaica to compete with exporters from Central America and South America. Specifically Chiquita and Dole, which are U.S. companies who produce bananas on a large scale. Central America is characterized by cheaper labor, a different soil type, high rainfall and a climate suited to large-scale banana production and thus more efficient. In 1993, a strike at Chiquita Farms in Colombia wherein 25,000 workers protesting for better wages was settled by firing shots at the striking workers and killing 40 people and the banana ships rolled insuring Chiquita's high rate of "efficiency." Jamaica's entire banana production could be produced by one farm in Central America. Banana's bring in 23 million US to Jamaica, comprising 8% of all exports. Yet, in the Windward Islands, bananas account for 50% of total exports. In St. Lucia, St.Vincent, bananas also comprise significant % of total exports, so quota loss will impact the entire Caribbean. At present the European Union has granted $600 million to help Jamaica become more efficient in their banana production so that they may attempt to compete on the "free market" in year 2000. The quota that is being so forcefully contested by US multinationals is under 5% of all global banana production. It is unlikely that the banana industry here could match the price of bananas from Central America. Already the number of small banana growers on the island have shrunk from 45,000 to 3,000.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ecotourism: Green Problem or Green Solution?

Good article on the Nature Conservancy blog today on the paradoxical issue of ecotourism. Is it good for nature and wildlife, or is it just serving to feed the desires of tourists who leave a large ecological footprint? I think Matt Miller presents both sides clearly:

Ecotourism is often presented as the savior for wildlife and wild places — providing local communities with financial incentives to preserve nature while also reducing poaching and development pressure.

But, lately, others question whether rich Westerners jetting around the world really help much at all: They disturb animals, create demands for new development and only employ local people in low paying jobs.

Some conservationists even consider tourism to be a significant threat to natural areas.

Which view is correct? Is ecotourism a problem, or a solution?

My biases up front: I’d rather travel for the purpose of seeing wildlife and enjoying various outdoor activities than just about anything. My wife has remarked it’s my drug of choice.

That aside, I still think the issue of ecotourism defies easy answers. Problem or solution?

It depends.

Certainly, the ecological havoc wreaked by tourists in places like the Galapagos is well documented. A fragile ecosystem, animals unafraid of humans and an increasing number of cruise ships has been a recipe for disaster.

One doesn’t have to look hard to see tourists behaving badly in nature.

People harass and feed wild bison, leave trash strewn across the Himalayas, demand resorts in places they shouldn’t be — the list is long.

And then there’s the whole carbon footprint issue. We all know that flying has tremendous impacts, so can we really justify flying off to some far-off corner of the world to see animals or scenery?

These are important concerns. Without a doubt, ecotourism can be a threat. But is it always?

After all, would there even be a Galapagos left as we know it if it wasn’t for tourism? Really?

Consider other island ecosystems and how difficult it is to conserve native island wildlife. If it wasn’t for those tour boats, the Galapagos would likely be a highly developed, rat-infested island devoid of wildlife.

Yellowstone may at times be crowded with tourists behaving badly, but would there still be herds of bison and packs of wolves and grizzly bears without those tourists?

The Serengeti faces issues, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the wildebeest population there continues to migrate, during a period of time when so many other large mammal migrations have disappeared.

Private ranches in places like Brazil’s Pantanal and Namibia still have large populations of wildlife, in part because many ranchers here now attract tourists. It seems naïve to expect that they will keep conserving wildlife if visitors quit showing up.

Ecotourism, ultimately, is a complicated issue. And in that way, it’s not so different from most other conservation issues.

Some conservationists have the tendency to declare activities as simply “good” or “bad” — whether it’s ecotourism, ranching, timber harvest, invasive species, hunting, fire, or agriculture. All have their proponents and detractors.

However, we should make decisions based on the reality of our world, not on utopian fantasies where humans no longer have any impacts on nature.

We can work to make sure that ecotourism is done in appropriate ways that benefit wildlife and local communities.

And as the saying goes, conservationists can’t “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Ecotourism isn’t perfect.

In many cases, though, it’s the best solution we have.

See link to article:
Ecotourism: Green Problem or Green Solution?

Related Post:
The Paradox of Whale Watching