Thursday, November 30, 2006

Can mining ever be sustainable?

If you're reading this it means that you are using a computer. According to the publication "Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities and the Environment": Your personal computer contains a medley of metals, including gold, silver, aluminum, lead, copper, iron, zinc, and tin. Many of these materials could be salvaged at the end of the computer’s life and recycled. But currently, most discarded computers are dumped in landfills or incinerated.

Which brings us to the Metal Industry's Declaration on Recycling for Sustainable Development. An interesting concept. Is it for real? (GW)

Metals Industry Publishes Declaration on Recycling for Sustainable Development

(CSRwire) November 30, 2006- The metals industry has today published a declaration on recycling principles aimed at encouraging product policy-makers, designers and manufacturers to adopt life cycle thinking when developing metals recycling policies.

Metals are chemical elements and therefore can be recycled infinitely with no inherent degradation of properties. Commonly today the content of recycled metals and alloys in products is used as a driver for increasing recycling rates and an indicator of environmental performance. However this approach is too simplistic and could encourage inefficiency in the production and use of recycled metals, according to a broad coalition of 18 metal industry associations including the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).

The industry coalition believes the objective should be to promote eco-efficiency in metals use, that is to minimize negative environmental impacts whilst maximizing the economic benefits to society.

The Declaration argues that specifying a minimum or target level of recycled material content in a product ignores the environmental costs and benefits associated with achieving this goal. Indeed attainment of the goal may lead to an increase in economic and environmental costs when for example metal available for recycling is diverted to the manufacture of a particular product away from one where the recycling loop is more economical or environmentally efficient.

The Declaration states that a life cycle approach which considers the material flows at the end of the product life, enabling accurate assessment of the environmental and economic implications of any intervention aimed at increasing recycling is preferable. This approach helps decision-makers identify inefficiencies and associated environmental impacts and optimize product recovery and material recyclability.

In welcoming the Declaration ICMM President Paul Mitchell said, “Encouraging policy makers and product designers to adopt life cycle thinking when planning for materials recycling in a product system will promote a reduction in the overall environmental impacts of metal-based products.”

The Declaration is a consequence of metal producing companies extending their interest beyond the plant gate to a consideration of the whole life cycle of their materials. This focus on materials stewardship is in the interests of environmental and economic efficiency, achieving regulatory compliance and enhancing reputation through responsible behaviour.

The Declaration by the metals industry on recycling principles is available at

The declaration on recycling principles has been jointly produced by: American Iron and Steel Institute, Cobalt Development Institute, Eurofer (European Confederation of Iron and Steel Industries), Eurometaux (representing the European non-ferrous metal industries), International Aluminium Institute, International Chromium Development Association, International Copper Association, International Council on Mining and Metals, International Iron and Steel Institute, International Manganese Institute, International Molybdenum Association, International Stainless Steel Forum, International Zinc Association, International Tungsten Industry Association, ITRI (formerly International Tin Research Institute), Lead Development Association International, North American Metals Council, Nickel Institute.

The International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) is a CEO-led organization representing the mining and metals industry internationally. An important part of its mandate is dedicated to sustainable development. ICMM comprises many of the world's leading mining and metals companies as well as regional, national and commodity associations, all of which are committed to improving their sustainable development performance and to the responsible production of the mineral and metal resources society needs. ICMM's vision is a viable mining, minerals and metals industry that is widely recognized as essential for modern living and a key contributor to sustainable development.

ICMM’s 15 corporate members are:

Alcoa, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, BHP Billiton, CVRD, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Lonmin, Mitsubishi Materials, Newmont, Nippon Mining & Metals, Rio Tinto, Sumitomo Metal Mining, Teck Cominco, Xstrata, Zinifex.

ICMM’s 24 association members are:

Camara Minera de Mexico, Chamber of Mines of South Africa, Cobalt Development Institute, Consejo Minero de Chile A.G., Eurometaux, Euromines, Federation of Indian Mineral Industries, Indonesian Mining Association, Instituto Brasileiro de Mineraçao, International Aluminium Institute, International Copper Association, International Wrought Copper Council, International Zinc Association, Japan Mining Industry Association, Lead Development Association International, Minerals Council of Australia, Mining Association of Canada, Mining Industry Associations of Southern Africa, Nickel Institute, Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, Sociedad Nacional de Minería (Chile), Sociedad Nacional de Minería Petróleo y Energía (Peru), World Coal Institute, World Gold Council.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The intersection of "Hope and Despair"

Historically, programs promoted under the banner of "urban renewal" have been eyed suspiciously by many poor and disenfranchised residents. In fact, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement African Americans often substituted "Urban Renewal" with the phrase "Negro Removal" as a way of expressing their distrust of city planners and racist policies designed to eradicate "undesirables" and make way for gentrification.

These days when one hears about new programs to shelter homeless city panhandlers, it's hard to know if they're sincere efforts by city officials, or merely Chamber of Commerce code for "Let's get these folks off the streets before the ruin downtown business." It's worth watching Baltimore's Downtown Partnership to see just where it falls on the spectrum. Partnership president Kirby Fowler's remarks that close the article makes one wonder. (GW)

Where a Quarter Can Buy a Little Hope

By Joel McCord
New York Times
November 26, 2006

BALTIMORE — The corner of Hope and Despair sounds like a meeting place out of a 1940s movie, but it is part of what Baltimore boosters say is the first attempt of its kind to fight panhandling.

The Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit alliance of local businesses, is installing recycled parking meters with fake Hope and Despair street signs along the busy strip between Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Inner Harbor, a route well known to tourists and panhandlers alike.

Drop a coin in the meter, and the needle jumps from “Despair” to “Hope.” But no matter whether it is a nickel or a quarter — or how many coins are tossed into a meter — hope flashes for only a few seconds before the needle drops to despair.

“That’s not to be discouraging or anything,” said Michael Evitts, a partnership spokesman, “but to make room for the next person who might want to drop in some change.”

The money in the recycled meters, which are painted green and blue and placed at least 10 feet back from the curb to avoid confusion with functioning parking meters, goes to Baltimore Homeless Services, the arm of the city Health Department that provides shelter and treatment programs for homeless people. The Downtown Partnership’s president, Kirby Fowler, said the idea was to let people help the homeless without giving money to panhandlers.

“A lot of people are inclined to help the homeless, which is laudable,” Mr. Fowler said. “But they aren’t so sure that their money would go to productive uses if they gave it to panhandlers. This way they’re sure the money will go to programs for the homeless.”

Not all the panhandlers in downtown Baltimore are homeless, but many of them are, and like many cities around the country, Baltimore is looking for a way to solve the problems associated with homelessness. A city Health Department census done one January night in 2005 found nearly 3,000 people looking for shelter.

Last week, City Council President and Mayor-elect Sheila Dixon and Joshua Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, announced the formation of a committee whose mandate is to come up with a plan to end homelessness in the city in 10 years.

Ms. Dixon, who will succeed Mayor Martin O’Malley when he is sworn in as governor in January, said the committee would look at programs like Housing First, which has been tried with some success in several cities. Housing First places those needing shelter in subsidized housing before they go to work on other issues — like drug abuse and mental health problems — that might have contributed to their homelessness in the first place.

“Once you can get housing, you have a place to stay, then you can get the other services you need,” Ms. Dixon said.

Officials in Philadelphia started a campaign to get homeless people off the streets in the late ’90s, committing $5.6 million for housing and treatment programs. Now the city spends about $17 million a year on homeless services, and the number of people sleeping on the street has been cut by two-thirds.

No one pretends that Baltimore’s brightly colored recycled parking meters will raise enough money to end homelessness in the city. But Mr. Fowler estimates that they will bring in several thousand dollars a year, salve the consciences of those who want to help the homeless but not give indiscriminately to panhandlers, and perhaps drive away the panhandlers themselves by drying up a revenue stream.

Panhandlers “mar the downtown experience,” he said. “So we’re trying to make it easy for people to say no to panhandling, but yes to helping the homeless.”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Pantagonian toothfish, anyone?

For a small institution not yet even 50 years old, Hampshire College has produced some remarkable graduates over the years. I've had the pleasure of knowing and working with quite a few of them, most notably Gary Hirshberg, one of the co-founders of Stonyfield Yogurt and Josh Goldman who is featured in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine article that follows. These two gentlemen have made extraordinary contributions to sustainable food production. The college's emphasis on multidisciplinary learning and honoring each student's curiosity seems to pay off.

When I served as Massachusetts' commissioner of food and agriculture I took John Phillips, my counterpart with the state division of fish and wildlife, to visit Josh at AquaFuture -- an innovative aquaculture company he founded and was running at the time. John is an avid fisherman a connoisseur of fish. We had some AquaFuture-produced stripe bass for lunch. John said it was some of the best he'd ever eaten. I considered that to be a pretty good endorsement.

Given the state of the oceans and the fishing industry, it's likely that in the not-too-distant future, most of the fish we eat will be harvested from farms like the one Josh has developed. (GW)

The Next Big Fish

Chilean sea bass was the first celebrity fish - until we nearly ate it all. How far do we have to go to find its successor? Just near the Berkshires, actually.

This is a story of two fish.

It is an old tale of the price of fame. It is both comedy and tragedy. It begins with a South American dictator. It's a story of plucky fishermen pushed out to sea and into peril. It even has pirates. But, mostly, it is the story of one fish that spent hundreds of placid centuries inoffensively cruising the deepest, coldest waters of the southern sea, down where the great primal engine of the Humboldt Current drives the waters of Antarctica into the southern Pacific, a fish that became so popular that it was sold into virtual extinction. Once upon a time, there was a fish that died of marketing.

More than 30 years ago, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in a frenzy of deregulation, threw open his country's territorial waters to foreign factory fishing, which not only decimated the local supplies of cod and hake – the fatty, versatile whitefish that are the staples of seafood restaurants everywhere – but also sent Chilean fishermen into deeper and more dangerous waters. Soon, from depths that exceeded 5,000 feet, they began hauling up the Patagonian toothfish, an enormous, hideous creature that had evolved in ways that made it a nearly perfect replacement for the species that had been devastated by factory fishing. For example, because it lacked a swim bladder, the fish had developed a method of using fats secreted directly into its tissues as a means of flotation. Its body was almost all white flesh. The fish was nearly pure foodstuff. All it needed was a spiffy nom de cuisine. Nobody ever would have taken a bite out of something called the Patagonian toothfish. And thus, in 1977, was born the product known as Chilean sea bass.

“It was just this sort of junk fish that they brought up from the depths,” explains Lydia Bergen, the manager of the Sustainable Fisheries Initiative at the New England Aquarium. “The white flesh is really appealing to the US palate. It's not very fishy flavored, but it's oily, so there's almost no way you can overcook it.” Its popularity exploded throughout the 1990s. Around the world, but especially in this country, chefs loved the versatility of the Chilean sea bass. They served it up grilled, broiled, blackened, and steamed to a public that couldn't get enough of it, so much so that unscrupulous chefs began to serve things like black cod under an assumed species. By the end of the decade, Chilean sea bass was the most popular fish in the world. And that was the worst thing that ever happened to it. Once its name was changed, its fate was sealed. And thus did a species perish, the first one ever to die of a brand name.

And then, once upon a time – and a very recent time it was – there was another fish, and this is the happy story of The Next Big Fish, one that has quietly begun appearing on the menus of 25 restaurants in the Boston area alone, including the Legal Sea Foods, Naked Fish, and Skipjack's chains, as well as at the Ritz-Carlton. “It's an interesting fish. It's one of the first farmed white-flesh fish, and it tastes pretty good,” says Legal Sea Foods owner Roger Berkowitz. “I have a preference for wild [fish], but Australia's the only place where they eat this fish wild. A few months ago, we started playing around with it.” The Next Big Fish has already started appearing on Legal's menu, but Berkowitz says he needs the fish to be grown bigger for the restaurant to use it more regularly. “We haven't been able to get enough product of the size we want so far – 4 pounds or bigger – and so we're working with them on that.” By 2007, 40,000 pounds of The Next Big Fish is expected to be shipped each week out to a world that is, well, hungry for it, that is looking, always, for the next big thing, and that usually finds it in the damndest places.

Places like the remotest parts of Australia, say, or the peaceful slopes of the Connecticut River Valley in Western Massachusetts. The autumn light is sharper here, honing itself between the peaks and whetting itself through the branches of the trees until it falls into the swales and valleys in shards as hard as diamonds on the eyes. It comes in bursts as the roads narrow and the towns get smaller, and you have to wait to cross the bridge that leads into Turners Falls so that the bread truck can pass over it first. Across the bridge, then, and through the small-business district, all weathered brick and old handbills, and then off through the trees and the hills again, off through the sharp and glistening light toward where the cutting edge is.

The tanks are round and deep, and they're tucked away under a flat white roof in an industrial park that surrounds the tiny airport, not far from where townspeople say Bill Cosby parks his private aircraft – which is hopefully not called The Pudding Pop. The water in the tanks moves in a constant circular motion, and there is only the faintest stirring beneath the surface until someone takes a small, foul-smelling pellet and tosses it low across the water. There is a sudden, silvery explosion, a loud snap of jaws, and a splash, and then the surface goes flat and still and silent again.

“I'm kind of in love with this fish,” says Josh Goldman, who runs the complex and who has brought the cutting edge to this unlikely place in the valley where The Cos parks his ride. “It does so much of what I am trying to achieve.” The barramundi – which means “fish with big scales” in an aboriginal dialect, or Lates calcarifer, if you're speaking Latin at home – was until very recently merely a feisty game fish hanging on the den walls of people who fish the remote Northern Territory of Australia. An admittedly ugly perch-looking creature, the barramundi is yet another product of the freakish isolation in which animals in Australia evolved. For example, it spawns in the ocean, but it moves easily through the brackish coastal waters and into the long inland stretches of freshwater streams and rivers. Aussie fisherfolk spend good money in pursuit of the barramundi, reeling in specimens in excess of 33 pounds. It also has become the whitefish of choice in Australian restaurants, from fish houses all the way up the scale to what the people in the eating industry call “white-tablecloth restaurants.” In short, it's their cod, and, like the koala and the kangaroo and Aussie-rules football, the “barra” has become one of those unique local phenomena in which Australians take a peculiar provincial pride.

Which only begins to explain how the barramundi came to Western Mass., and how it is very soon going to be coming onto your plate – if it's not already there. It seems that the barramundi is a fish for all seasons. It tastes great, and it's rich in omega-3s, those fishy proteins that are so good for the human brain and the human heart. Moreover, the barramundi turns out to be something of a natural environmental activist, nurtured without antibiotics or hormones in its innate scaly Greenhood by people who went looking for the cutting edge and who brought it to the most unlikely place in order to unleash The Next Big Fish, tasty, healthy, and blessedly guilt-free, on the rest of the world.

Click here to read the entire Boston Sunday Magazine story.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Man with a plan to combat global warming

Everybody's talking about climate change these days, but few are approaching the crisis with the sense of urgency it deserves. Instead we seem content with receiving periodic updates on how much time we have to act before we cross the point of no return. That appears to be somewhere between 10 and 50 years depending on who's asked. Meanwhile, animal and plant species have begun dying off or changing sooner than predicted and researchers are convinced they represent the climate change version of the "canary in the coal mine".

We've reached a stage where continued inaction is not an option. Rather than arguing whether or not renewable energy projects like Cape Wind should be built, we should be figuring out how to get it up and generating clean energy as quickly as possible while also implementing every other option available that could help prevent the most devastating ecological and economic catastrophe the Earth has ever experienced.

I know that there are people who think that some new technological "silver bullet" needs to be discovered in order to get us through this crisis. However, I also know that many share my belief that we know what needs to be done to create a sustainable energy future -- and the technology to do it already exists or is within reach. What's lacking is political courage and will to (in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard) "Make it so". (GW)

Drastic Action on Climate Change is Needed Now - and Here's the Plan

By George Monbiot
The Guardian
October 31, 2006

The government must go further, and much faster, in its response to the moral question of the 21st century

It is a testament to the power of money that Nicholas Stern's report should have swung the argument for drastic action, even before anyone has finished reading it. He appears to have demonstrated what many of us suspected: that it would cost much less to prevent runaway climate change than to seek to live with it. Useful as this finding is, I hope it doesn't mean that the debate will now concentrate on money. The principal costs of climate change will be measured in lives, not pounds. As Stern reminded us yesterday, there would be a moral imperative to seek to prevent mass death even if the economic case did not stack up.

But at least almost everyone now agrees that we must act, if not at the necessary speed. If we're to have a high chance of preventing global temperatures from rising by 2C (3.6F) above preindustrial levels, we need, in the rich nations, a 90% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. The greater part of the cut has to be made at the beginning of this period. To see why, picture two graphs with time on the horizontal axis and the rate of emissions plotted vertically. On one graph the line falls like a ski jump: a steep drop followed by a shallow tail. On the other it falls like the trajectory of a bullet. The area under each line represents the total volume of greenhouse gases produced in that period. They fall to the same point by the same date, but far more gases have been produced in the second case, making runaway climate change more likely.

So how do we do it without bringing civilisation crashing down? Here is a plan for drastic but affordable action that the government could take. It goes much further than the proposals discussed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown yesterday, for the reason that this is what the science demands.

1. Set a target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions based on the latest science. The government is using outdated figures, aiming for a 60% reduction by 2050. Even the annual 3% cut proposed in the early day motion calling for a new climate change bill does not go far enough. Timescale: immediately.

2. Use that target to set an annual carbon cap, which falls on the ski-jump trajectory. Then use the cap to set a personal carbon ration. Every citizen is given a free annual quota of carbon dioxide. He or she spends it by buying gas and electricity, petrol and train and plane tickets. If they run out, they must buy the rest from someone who has used less than his or her quota. This accounts for about 40% of the carbon dioxide we produce. The remainder is auctioned off to companies. It's a simpler and fairer approach than either green taxation or the EU's emissions trading scheme, and it also provides people with a powerful incentive to demand low-carbon technologies. Timescale: a full scheme in place by January 2009.

3. Introduce a new set of building regulations, with three objectives. A. Imposing strict energy-efficiency requirements on all major refurbishments (costing £3,000 or more). Timescale: in force by June 2007. B. Obliging landlords to bring their houses up to high energy-efficiency standards before they can rent them out. Timescale: to cover all new rentals from January 2008. C. Ensuring that all new homes in the UK are built to the German Passivhaus standard (which requires no heating system). Timescale: in force by 2012.

4. Ban the sale of incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and other wasteful and unnecessary technologies. Introduce a stiff "feebate" system for all electronic goods sold in the UK, with the least efficient taxed heavily and the most efficient receiving tax discounts. Every year the standards in each category rise. Timescale: fully implemented by November 2007.

5. Redeploy money now earmarked for new nuclear missiles towards a massive investment in energy generation and distribution. Two schemes in particular require government support to make them commercially viable: very large wind farms, many miles offshore, connected to the grid with high-voltage direct-current cables; and a hydrogen pipeline network to take over from the natural gas grid as the primary means of delivering fuel for home heating. Timescale: both programmes commence at the end of 2007 and are completed by 2018.

6. Promote the development of a new national coach network. City-centre coach stations are shut down and moved to motorway junctions. Urban public transport networks are extended to meet them. The coaches travel on dedicated lanes and never leave the motorways. Journeys by public transport then become as fast as journeys by car, while saving 90% of emissions. It is self-financing, through the sale of the land now used for coach stations. Timescale: commences in 2008; completed by 2020.

7. Oblige all chains of filling stations to supply leasable electric car batteries. This provides electric cars with unlimited mileage: as the battery runs down, you pull into a forecourt; a crane lifts it out and drops in a fresh one. The batteries are charged overnight with surplus electricity from offshore wind farms. Timescale: fully operational by 2011.

8. Abandon the road-building and road-widening programme, and spend the money on tackling climate change. The government has earmarked £11.4bn for road expansion. It claims to be allocating just £545m a year to "spending policies that tackle climate change". Timescale: immediately.

9. Freeze and then reduce UK airport capacity. While capacity remains high there will be constant upward pressure on any scheme the government introduces to limit flights. We need a freeze on all new airport construction and the introduction of a national quota for landing slots, to be reduced by 90% by 2030. Timescale: immediately.

10. Legislate for the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system. Shops use a staggering amount of energy (six times as much electricity per square metre as factories, for example), and major reductions are hard to achieve: Tesco's "state of the art" energy-saving store at Diss in Norfolk has managed to cut its energy use by only 20%. Warehouses containing the same quantity of goods use roughly 5% of the energy. Out-of-town shops are also hardwired to the car - delivery vehicles use 70% less fuel. Timescale: fully implemented by 2012.

These timescales might seem extraordinarily ambitious. They are, by contrast to the current glacial pace of change. But when the US entered the second world war it turned the economy around on a sixpence. Carmakers began producing aircraft and missiles within a year, and amphibious vehicles in 90 days, from a standing start. And that was 65 years ago. If we want this to happen, we can make it happen. It will require more economic intervention than we are used to, and some pretty brutal emergency planning policies (with little time or scope for objections). But if you believe that these are worse than mass death then there is something wrong with your value system.

Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century. There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it's happening and that its results will be catastrophic, but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.

George Monbiot's book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning is published by Penguin. It is slated to be published in the U.S. in July, 2007.

Nuclear conFusion

ITER is a joint international research and development project that aims to demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power. The idea for ITER originated from the Geneva superpower summit in November 1985 where Premier Gorbachev, following discussions with President Mitterand of France, proposed to President Reagan that an international project be set up to develop fusion energy for peaceful purposes.

Many who are opposed to nuclear fission hold out hope that fusion will make good on nuclear energy's promise as a safe and unlimited source of energy. However, a number of environmentalists remain unconvinced, believing that the benefits of fusion have been overblown and its problems understated. (GW)

States sign nuclear energy pact
BBC News
November 21, 2006

An international consortium has signed a formal agreement to build an experimental nuclear fusion reactor.

The multi-billion-euro project known as Iter - or "the way" in Latin - will aim to produce energy from nuclear reactions like those that fuel the Sun.

If successful, it could provide energy that is clean and almost limitless.

The project, which will be based in France, follows years of talks between South Korea, Russia, China, the EU, the US, India and Japan.

If all goes well, officials will build a demonstration power plant before rolling out the technology to the world. Iter says electricity could be available on the grid within 30 years.

Big reward

"Fusion could become the dominant source of electricity on Earth in a century or so - we have to work to try to get it," Jerome Pamela of Iter told the BBC.

"Not doing so would be irresponsible because the outcome could be huge, great for humanity," he said, adding that it was nonetheless a "very, very demanding challenge" to essentially imitate the work of the Sun on Earth.

In a fusion reaction, energy is released when light atomic nuclei - the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium - are fused together to form heavier atomic nuclei.

To use controlled fusion reactions on Earth as an energy source, it is necessary to heat a gas to temperatures exceeding 100 million Celsius - many times hotter than the centre of the Sun.

The technical requirements to do this, which scientists have spent decades developing, are immense; but the rewards, if Iter can be made to work successfully, are extremely attractive.

One of the attractions of fusion is the tiny amount of fuel needed. The release of energy from a fusion reaction is said to be 10 million times greater than from a typical chemical reaction, such as burning a fossil fuel.

Lead partner

The project is based in Cadarache, about 60km (40 miles) from Marseille in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region. It currently hosts Tore-Supra, one of the existing European centres for fusion research.

Work to clear a wooded area for the Iter buildings will begin in the spring. Ancillary and power facilities and a visitors' centre will go up in 2008. The reactor itself will start to take shape in 2009.

The French site was chosen after a long period of bartering between the Iter parties; and the EU, as the host bloc, is shouldering 50% of the five-billion-euro construction costs.

The deal signed by ministers on Tuesday puts those negotiations into effect, establishing the international organisation that will implement the Iter fusion energy project.

The signature took place at a ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, hosted by the president of France, Jacques Chirac, and by the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso.

After the signature ceremony, the first meeting of the Interim Iter Council will take place.

The green lobby is opposed to the Iter project. It believes the benefits have been oversold and the difficulties and waste production issues underplayed.

Roger Higman, policy coordinator for Friends of the Earth, told BBC News: "We face a very real energy crisis over the next 50 years which is to do with climate change; that we have to stop using coal, oil and gas.

"The question we would ask is: isn't the money that's being spent on fusion better spent on proven technologies rather than chasing a dream that even its proponents say will take a hundred years before it's going to providing any of our energy answers?"

  • The proposed Iter reactor is shaped like a doughnut - a Russian-conceived design referred to as a tokomak
  • Deuterium and tritium - isotopes of hydrogen - are fed into the reactor and heated to 100 million Celsius
  • A powerful magnetic field holds the hot plasma, or gas, away from the walls and squeezes to initiate fusion
  • Iter hopes to do this in bursts of 500 seconds; a commercial reactor would have to run for prolonged periods
  • In a commercial reactor, energetic neutrons are absorbed in a surrounding 'blanket' to drive a steam-turbine system

Thr photograph of the torus at the top of the page is courtesy of EFDA-JET.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Dylan-inspired Thanksgiving epiphany

Rocks of Ages

Last week, I went to see Bob Dylan at the Nassau Coliseum. It turned out to be a terrific rock ’n’ roll show. I must admit, however, to being somewhat distracted by how Mr. Dylan and his band were dressed. They wore hats and rather elegant suits, and it was in the midst of “Like a Rolling Stone,” as Dylan stood before the keyboard howling out the refrain, that I had what I’ll call a Thanksgiving epiphany.

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve spent the past four years researching the history of Plymouth Colony, but at that moment Mr. Dylan and his band reminded me of the Pilgrims. Not the actual Pilgrims, but the cardboard caricatures we come to know in elementary school, dressed in dark suits, with buckles on their hats and shoes. It was then that I remembered that almost precisely 31 years before, in 1975, Bob Dylan launched his legendary Rolling Thunder Revue in, of all places, Plymouth, Mass.

No one living has a better appreciation for the sneaky and unnerving power of American myth than Bob Dylan. In the fall of 1975, the United States was gripped by what the playwright Sam Shepard, who had been hired to work on a film about the tour, called “Bicentennial madness.” With 1976 fast approaching, America was obsessed as never before with its origins, and as Mr. Dylan knew perfectly well, there was no better place to launch his tour than the mythic landing ground of the Pilgrims.

Mr. Shepard did not end up contributing much to the film, but he did publish a log chronicling the tour’s first six weeks. Included in the book is a bizarre photo showing Mr. Dylan and several fellow musicians peering over the side of the Mayflower II, a reproduction of a 17th-century vessel berthed at Plimoth Plantation. A stiff breeze is blowing, and two of the party are desperately hanging on to the brims of their cowboy hats as the front man of the Byrds, Roger McGuinn, speaks on a huge, ’70s-style portable phone.

But perhaps the weirdest and wackiest portion of Mr. Shepard’s log describes how Mr. Dylan and his pals recreated the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. As the poet Allen Ginsberg sat beside the iron fence that surrounds the rock, chanting and chiming his set of Tibetan bells, Mr. Dylan haphazardly piloted a dinghy to the Plymouth shore.

Last week at the Nassau Coliseum it occurred to me that Bob Dylan is a lot like Plymouth Rock. Just as he emerged full-blown onto the New York folk scene of the 1960s, claiming a shadowy and, it turned out, apocryphal past, so did Plymouth Rock suddenly come to the attention of the American people in a manner that smacks of dubious self-invention.

There is no reference to a rock in any of the Pilgrims’ accounts of their arrival in Plymouth Harbor. Not until more than a century later did 95-year-old Thomas Faunce claim that his father, who did not arrive in Plymouth until three years after the Pilgrims, told him that the Mayflower passengers first stepped onto an undistinguished boulder at the edge of Plymouth Harbor. Thus was born the legend of Plymouth Rock.

Before the American Revolution, a group of patriots known as the Sons of Liberty seized upon the rock, literally, as a symbol of the unyielding righteousness of their cause. They decided to move the rock from its original location at the edge of the harbor to the center of town. Unfortunately, as the Sons of Liberty extracted the rock from the sandy muck of the harbor, it broke in half. Leaving the presumably Loyalist half behind, they carted their half of the rock to the town square.

Decades later, the rock was moved to a different part of town, only to be dropped once again and broken in half. All this time, souvenir hunters had been picking away at it. By the time the two quarters were reunited with the piece that remained at the edge of the harbor, around the time of the Civil War, the total size of the rock had been diminished by approximately half.

Today, the ornate granite edifice that enshrines what’s left of Plymouth Rock serves only to mock what is now a virtual pebble with a cemented seam running across it. Mount Rushmore, it isn’t. Indeed, Plymouth Rock has been deservedly called the biggest letdown in tourism.

And yet the rock is, as far as I’m concerned, a wonderful metaphor for what we Americans do to our history. We slice it, we dice it, we try to put it back together again, but in the end it is just there: a sadly diminished thing that, despite all the abuse we have heaped upon it, retains an enduring connection to a past we can never really hope to recapture.

Bob Dylan is a legend who has received his own share of knocks — whether it be from acoustic purists at the Newport Folk Festival or from his own motorcycle. Last week at the Nassau Coliseum, he proved that no matter what the passage of time and the constant touring have done to his vocal cords, he can still deliver songs like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “All Along the Watchtower” with a feral abandon that has grown only more powerful with the years.

And so, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am going to give thanks not only for turkey, family and football. I am going to pay homage to the staying power of two American icons, Bob Dylan and Plymouth Rock.

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War” and “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.”

Processing what it is we eat

I believe that Thanksgiving is one of those rare days (Christmas being another?) when most, if not all, fast food chains remain closed. At least that's the case in Massachusetts where 17th century blue laws are still in effect. Even if they are open elsewhere for business, I'm guessing that McDonald's, Burger King and their brethren must experience a noticeable dip in sales on Thanksgiving -- a day when families come together to enjoy traditionally prepared meals. So, what better time to explore the topic of processed foods? (GW)

Coming back for seconds

by Erik Aker
November 22, 2006
Ventura County Reporter

Fast Food Nation changed the way America thinks about food. How far do we still need to go?

On Friday, Nov. 17, at theaters around the country appeared an unexpectedly ambitious film based on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, a nonfiction blast at the culture and commodities of the fast-food industry. First published in 2001, Schlosser’s book analyzed not only the history of companies like McDonald’s, but also their advertising to children, their exploitation of teen workers and the synthetic flavor compounds in their foods. Schlosser went further than this, too, connecting trends in fast food with the growth of American suburbs and their reliance upon automobiles, with consolidation in the meatpacking industry (four meatpacking firms now slaughter 84 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S.) and with the pressure on small ranchers and chicken growers that has resulted from the explosion of restaurants selling burgers and McNuggets.

Armed with his avalanche of facts (he researched the book for two years), Schlosser built an argument that was cohesive and consistent and, somewhat unexpectedly, audiences loved it. In 2002, Fast Food Nation was among the top-10 best-selling paperbacks of the year; it remained on The New York Times best-seller list for two years. At this point, the book has been translated into 20 languages, has sold millions of copies around the world and is now used in college classrooms around the country.

All of this is notable, in part because Fast Food Nation originally was not accompanied by the hype that usually attends books expected to be best-sellers. Its reviewers, for example, did not anticipate its success. Rob Walker reviewed the book for The New York Times Book Review in 2001, and as he remembers, “So far as I’m aware, there wasn’t any huge prepublication marketing blitz or anything; it wasn’t one of those books that gets a lot of hype in advance.”

So what made people read the book? One of its attractions may be the volume of data it presents. Schlosser collected so much information that at least one jaw-dropping figure is present on every page, all from verifiable sources. In one famous section, for instance, he cites a USDA study of beef-processing plants nationwide that noted that “78.6 percent of the ground beef contained microbes that are primarily spread by fecal matter.” For those who miss the point of this statistic, Schlosser reinterprets it in short form: “There is shit in the meat.”

Not only was the book based on comprehensive and meticulous research, but it was also well-written. Schlosser employed an easy-to-follow organization, and he never engaged in elitism toward his subject or degraded into polemic. Walker confirms, “He did a good job of reporting. He was also making a case that seemed pretty factual, but not shrill; he didn’t come across as an advocate, someone who was an activist who was writing a book.” This is perhaps what gives the book its potency: Schlosser was not a vegetarian, an organic farmer or a Ralph Nader campaign activist. He was simply a journalist.

Of course, McDonald’s hated him. Arguably the world’s most recognizable brand (next to Disney), McDonald’s was inevitably to become the primary target of Fast Food Nation. The company, like Wal-Mart, is easy to bash, in part because it has achieved a scale that other businesses slavishly envy: 73 percent of U.S. households live within three miles of a McDonald’s, and an estimated one out of every eight workers in the U.S. has at some point worked at one. McDonald’s is also the largest owner of retail property in the world; it spends more money on advertising than any other brand; it operates more playgrounds than any private entity in the U.S., has the nation’s bestselling line of children’s clothes and is one of the largest distributors of toys.

It’s difficult to say whether Schlosser’s book directly impacted the monolithic McDonald’s, but the restaurant did post its first quarterly loss in the 50-year history of the company in 2002, one year after the book’s publication. More abstractly, Fast Food Nation was so widely read that it is now firmly lodged in the discussion of food, and its legacy has been to open up a whole field of possibility for popular nonfiction that hasn’t been touched since Upton Sinclair penned The Jungle. Schlosser’s work inspired the production of works like Morgan Spurlock’s popular film Supersize Me (2004), which prompted McDonald’s to stop supersizing meals six months after its release. This summer saw publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, a Schlosser-esque comparison of food options available to American consumers, as well as a host of other food-analysis books. In May of this year, Schlosser also published Chew On This!, a version of Fast Food Nation aimed at middle-schoolers.

Food is an extremely popular topic right now, and it hasn’t been such a hot topic, perhaps, since processed foods first started making it onto the market in the ’50s and ’60s. At that time, highly processed foods were strange and new, and they were sold in different ways from their contemporary counterparts.

“A lot of this has to do with notions of modernity,” argues Felicity Northcott, an anthropologist at Johns-Hopkins University. “What you had were TV dinners, for instance, and the idea was that people who are smart and educated didn’t really need to cook anymore. So you had all of these processed foods and it was a sign of being modern, eating foods that were highly processed.”

In the early years of processed foods, modern living meant modern food, which doesn’t rot or mold and tastes great five months (or five years in some cases) after it was manufactured. Taste is important, of course, and in his work Schlosser is careful not to judge the flavors of fast foods as being mediocre or bland. It turns out, however, that the flavors present in modern fast food and other processed foods are synthesized by chemists in lab coats and manufactured in factories, and that these chemical compounds are present in foods in such tiny amounts that one drop of bell pepper flavoring, for instance, is enough to add flavor to five swimming pools. These flavor compounds are necessary because processing food destroys its flavor and necessitates the addition of synthetic flavors under esoteric names like “natural” and “artificial” flavoring. Thus, in the McNuggets, milkshakes and even the french fries (long praised by the public and even food critics) at McDonald’s, the flavors are simply chemical compounds synthesized in a lab, manufactured on a large scale, and then added to the finished products before they arrive frozen at the restaurants.

For Schlosser, fast food is merely symptomatic of this aspect of the American food system, a system of processed food. Currently, he points out, “90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food.” Processed foods are no longer really sold as symbols of modernity because we’re all so used to them, but instead are now offered as inexpensive and convenient alternatives to meals cooked from scratch. Schlosser’s statistic, then, points to the volume of food being used to replace the cooked-from-scratch method. Of course, it makes sense in light of the modern supermarket, where nine out of 10 aisles are devoted to frozen, canned, dried or otherwise manufactured foodstuffs, and the only nonprocessed sections are the produce aisles and the aisles dedicated to nonfood products. The statistic also points to the ways in which most of the food at fast food and other chain restaurants arrives at the restaurants frozen.

These details emerge in a chapter of Fast Food Nation titled “Why the Fries Taste Good,” where Schlosser’s research takes him to a flavor-manufacturing facility in New Jersey. In some cases, he reveals, these added flavors and colors come from unexpected sources. Cochineal extract (or carmine), for instance, comes from the body of an insect that lives in Peru and the Canary Islands. The bug eats a red berry and its body is dried and ground into a pigment that is used to make certain foods look red or pink. “Dannon strawberry yogurt gets its color from carmine,” Schlosser notes, “as do many frozen fruit bars, candies, fruit fillings and Ocean Spray pink grapefruit juice drink.”

These kinds of details are surprising, but this surprise itself demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge on the part of the American consumer. Where does this food come from and what is it? If the old adage about being what you are eating is true, and if we so obviously don’t know where our food comes from, then what can we know about ourselves?

Click here to read the entire Ventura County Reporter story.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Is a Venezuelan plan to share the wealth too much of a good thing?

What would your reaction be to a presidential candidate with a plan to distribute up to $500 per month to low and middle class citizens in need from corporate oil profits? Would he or she get your support? Manuel Rosales is running against Hugo Chavez for President of Venezuela on just such a platform. You may be surprised by the reaction his proposal is receiving. (GW)

'Mi Negra Plan' Manuel Rosales: Opposition Candidate for President of Venezuela

by Sean Kriletich
Upside Down World
November 20, 2006

Two weeks before Venezuela's Dec. 3 presidential election, political campaigning on the part of the two frontrunners is heating up in the capital.

Puntos Rojos, red tents used to organize people in favor of incumbent Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution can be seen on every other street corner of Caracas. Supporters of the opposition candidate, Manual Rosales, are also trying to round up support with their Puntos Azules. These blue tents, which are outnumbered 10 to 1 by the puntos rojos, function as a place to sign up for the Mi Negra or "My Black Card". Mi Negra is a plan which forms the basis for Rosales campaign. The plan's name is apparently derived from the color of crude oil and intends to directly distribute approximately 20 percent of Venezuelan oil revenues to the middle and lower classes.

According to information available at the Puntos Azules and Manual Rosales' website,, this plan would give all eligible persons around one million bolivares per month. The Mi Negra card would have a function somewhere between a debit card and food stamps. Approximately 600,000 bolivares ($280 USD) of the total could be spent any way the recipient chooses, while 400,000 bolivares would be exclusively for purchasing food. This is a sizeable quantity of money for the ordinary Venezuelan considering that the minimum wage is approximately $250 per month. The eligibility requirements for this card have yet to be quantitatively established but everyone is encouraged to fill out the form. The opportunity for this money draws a modest line of Venezuelans to the puntos azules but considering that these tents are far outnumbered by their counterparts the number of people signing up in advance for the Mi Negra card is relatively small.

Jose Vargas, a Rosales supporter manning a Punto Azul, claims that currently the country's oil money is being used to "fund the necessities of other countries while here at home people are begging in the street, hospitals are in complete disarray, indexes of unemployment are on the rise and hundreds of companies are closing every day… through the Mi Negra card this money would be passed to the Venezuelan people directly and used for anything from feeding the family to starting up a small to medium sized business." When asked about the origins of the plans name, Gabriel Romero another Rosales supporter and Punto Azul worker is adamant that "although some of our detractors have said the name of the plan, my black, is racist it has nothing to do with skin color, it is derived from the color of crude oil."

In a small coffee shop across the sidewalk from the "punto azul" where Vargas is encouraging people to fill out the application form for the Mi Negra card, the patrons do not consider the name of the plan as an issue of racism. Rather, their concerns are focused on what the possible effects of the Mi Negra program are distinct. Angela Iglesias believes that "if that plan goes into effect no one is going to leave their house to work. The quantity of money he is talking about giving away is nearly twice the minimum wage. I prefer to earn my own money and let the government use its money to help the people through the various missions offered by the current government."

The sentiment of many people in Caracas's poor and middle class neighborhoods reflects that of Iglesias. These people, who work jobs ranging from bus drivers to street cleaners, say that the various missions created by the Chavez government have helped them immensely. Cheo Torres works the front counter of a small bakery and says that "in the last eight years [of the Chavez government] unemployment has dropped, there is less begging in the street and the doors to education have been flung wide open for all Venezuelans." He added that he prefers the current plan of helping people succeed through social programs to the Rosales plan of "giving people so much money they won't have to do anything."

The true conundrum of the Mi Negra plan lies in the fact that in January of this year, when Chavez detractors in the wealthy neighborhoods of Caracas were asked, "what do you see as the biggest problem with the Chavez government?", the vast majority responded by saying that he was giving the poor too much and that if people didn't have to work for what they had, they would never appreciate it. However, Rosales is in little danger of losing the support of this wealthy class considering their disgust for the Chavez government.

While Rosales seeks to gain the support of poor Venezuelans by offering them nearly twice as much money as they can make working low-end jobs for a private corporation, Chavez and his supporters are trying to destroy the culturally constructed idea of low-end jobs by socializing the Venezuelan economy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Could a few "good pirates" help save the oceans?

Today, the Conservation Law Foundation and World Wildlife Fund-Canada will release a report recommending that marine reserves be created in about 20 percent of the ocean from Cape Cod to Eastern Canada's Scotian Shelf, and extending 10 to 200 miles from shore. The protected areas would probably include some of New England's most productive fishing areas .

A recent article in Science warns that the world will run out of seafood by 2048 if steep declines in marine species continue at current rates. The authors base their conclusion on a four-year study of catch data and their effects on fisheries stock. While experts and special interests debate the study's assumptions and methodologies, it is clear that the overall health of the world's oceans is in serious decline. Various national and international commissions have reached this conclusion including the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. They have also recommended policies to address the crisis. Still the situation has not improved. Another approach to addressing the crisis was offered by Greenpeace Foundation co-founder Paul Watson in 1998. He suggested that pirates be hired and dispatched to enforce the existing international policies designed to protect the oceans. (GW)

Neptune's Manifesto: how a few good pirates can save the ocean

by Captain
Paul Watson
CoEvolution Quarterly
Fall 1998

Beginning in the 1600s, the Grand Banks was the great fishing commons of the Atlantic. Now it is a commons emerging from chaos. Just five years ago, there was no sincerity and no trust between fishers. Fish and fishers were deep down on their luck. Like most of the high seas, the Grand Banks was a commons plagued by cheaters and outlaws, lax monitoring, and almost no enforcement. Enter Captain Paul Watson, the Lone Ranger of the open seas, whose monkey-wrenching and non-violent protests have elevated oceanic commons after oceanic commons into international consciousness, shaming ineffectual leaders and pushing the process of a robust commons forward. Here is Paul's proposal for a non-governmental, unbiased navy to keep the commons honest. (Peter Warshall)

The oceans of the world desperately need some aggressive, committed, passionate, determined pirates -- eco-pirates of conscience to stop the ongoing destructive pillaging by the pirates of profit and greed.

The pirates of greed operate on the high seas with impunity, so why not build a navy of the former -- an eco-force of environmental privateers. beholden to no corporate interests or state authority?

It was not the British or Spanish Navy that put an end to piracy on the Spanish Main in the seventeenth century. God knows, both navies spent considerable energies and resources in pursuit of that goal, but both failed miserably. Piracy was instead vanquished by an individual -- a pirate, Captain Henry Morgan, in fact. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the governorship of Jamaica.

Individuals and non-governmental organizations can triumph where state governments fail because bureaucracy can be dispensed with and expediency can be deployed. Whereas the bureaucratic state is shackled into non-action by the vested interests and conflicting political ambitions of its citizens, a non-governmental organization is fueled by the common interests and passionate desires of its members. A state must include all interests, many of which are in conflict. A non-governmental organization moves ahead by a common interest and seeks a common goal.

If the common goal is also one that nations agree with in principle, if not in practice, then an NGO that reflects this common concern should be at least tolerated, if not actively supported by some nation-states.

There were many in the British and Spanish Empires who profited directly and indirectly from piracy, including many in positions of influence. The advocates in government wishing to end piracy had to wade through the muck of political and corporate corruption, special interests, diplomatic dilemmas, conflicting ambitions, and just plain old bureaucratic red tape.

Captain Morgan, on the other hand, concerned only with his own ambitions, simply got on with the job, and most effectively.

Post-modern Piracy

Today, another form of piracy is practiced on the high seas. The ever-escalating demand for resources is pillaging the planet's oceans.

And because this greater part of the Earth's surface is free of state authority, there is no structure, and no political or policing body that is in a position to defend these resources from high-seas piracy. The world's oceans are an open frontier, with everything up for grabs for those who possess the biggest and best technologies to extract fish, seals, whales, minerals, oil, krill, plankton, or energy. The same holds true for those who view the seas as a dump site for radioactive waste, sewage, toxins, or discarded plastic.

On the high seas, might makes right. It is the only law that exists in practical fact, whereas most international laws exist only in theory. Laws without enforcement are not worth the paper they are written upon. Captain Jacques Cousteau once told me that he believed that the navies of the world should stop playing war games with each other and get down to the real business of protecting the oceans from the greed of humanity.

Of course, navies are merely the tools of nation-states and it is not in the real-politik interest of any nation-state to protect the common heritage for the good of the commons. In the long term, of course, it makes perfect sense, but politics has not been a discipline to concern itself with long-range objectives.

High Sea Frontier Commons

We are stuck with a dilemma. The oceans are being plundered, yet the status quo of international law allows nation-states to choose to disregard any law, even if they have agreed to abide by it.

At present, what we know as international law is merely a collection of agreements by certain nation-states, all of which have no binding force to back up their implementation.

The drafting of the laws is undertaken only by those who are deemed to have "standing" to do so -- i.e., representatives of nation-states.

Monitoring of ecological balance, of fish stock or whale populations, is underfunded, biased, or simply ignored for the political convenience of industry or agriculture.

The government of Canada in the early eighties was very much aware of the possibility of the collapse of the northern cod fishery off Newfoundland. Action was continually delayed until the fishery crashed, at which point Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin launched a public relations ploy that blamed the whole mess on the Spanish, to distract from the incompetence of his own government.

Canada still has refused to learn from its mistakes. This is illustrated by the fact that salmon populations continue to decline off the West Coast under pressure from the large fishing companies and unions that deny the fragility of the species and the ecosystem.

Crimes against ecology are also crimes against humanity. These crimes have been consistently committed by the same nation-states that possess the standing to participate in the formulation of treaties and laws. None of these states will admit to wrongdoing -- or if they do, they will certainly not agree to be penalized for their transgressions.

Just a quick trip through a short list of the crimes of some of these nation-states reveals the awesome extent of lawlessness on the world's oceans: Iraq's gross ecological crime of dumping millions of tons of oil into the Persian Gulf; the former Soviet Union's crime of dumping nuclear reactors into the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans; Canada's illegal whaling and incompetent management of both Atlantic and Pacific fisheries; Mexico's slaughter of dolphins and the endorsement of this slaughter by the United States in the interest of trade; Norway's and Japan's blatant violations of the global moratorium on commercial whaling; the drift-netting of the oceans by Taiwan, Korea and Japan, with monstrously long nets; uncontrolled worldwide poaching of marine wildlife; cyanide poisoning of tropical reefs; the operation of unsafe oil tanker traffic by all nations; the unrelenting destruction of wetlands and estuaries.

The litany of threats to the environment is endless and ongoing. The real victims, the generations yet unborn, have no voice to protest and no standing to contest these crimes.

Yet, we have laws to protect the environment. Don't we? Japan and Norway are both members of the International Whaling Commission, and between them they have slaughtered some 18,000 whales since the IWC implemented a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

We have international conventions like the 1973 convention on vessel-dumping at sea and the 1973 convention for the prevention of pollution by ships, both of which are essentially unenforceable.

Article 192 of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea provides: "States have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment."

These are all words, without adequate measures for enforcement.

One possibility for enforcement is the enactment of national legislation that would impose trade embargoes on offending nations. For example, under regulations of the US Department of Commerce, measures can be taken to sanction nations that do not adhere to the rulings of the International Whaling Commission. Despite this being the law, President Clinton has consistently chosen to ignore the law and has substituted `letters of protest' to offending whaling nations like Norway and Japan. His reasoning is that the issue is not worth upsetting trade relations over. As a result, despite the law, both nations have annually raised their illegal quotas without recriminations from any nation.

Both the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as international treaties render domestic legislation like the US Endangered Species Act subordinate. International trade agreements negate domestic conservation legislation. For this reason, Mexico successfully sued the US under GATT for barring trade in tuna caught by the method of "fishing on porpoise." This in turn forced the US to overturn legislation protecting dolphins from tuna nets.

What all this means is that the future looks bleak for conservation because it will always be forced to take a back seat to the interest of free trade.

Oceanic Range Wars

Of course, as resources are depleted, warfare will become the natural extension of diplomatic discussions. We saw this surface in 1973 with the British and Icelandic cod war when Iceland unilaterally extended its territorial limit to fifty miles. This was the first step toward an international agreement creating the globally recognized 200-mile limit, a measure that was successful because it appealed to the territorial ambitions of all the participating states.

Still, this was not enough. In 1995 Canada fired on the Spanish trawler Estai outside the 200-mile limit to underscore its desire to protect fish that it considered its own regardless of whether said fish might travel across an imaginary line in the water in the course of their migrations. In turn, Spain charged the Canadian Fisheries Minister with piracy, but, like everything else on the high seas, the charges did nothing. The incident furthered the Minister's political ambitions in Canada. Spain carried on fishing as Canada congratulated itself for displaying some rare machismo.

It is interesting to note that it was Canada that arrested me in 1993 for chasing the Cuban fishing fleet off the Tail of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. This was also outside of Canada's 200-mile limit. Nonetheless, as a Canadian citizen, I was put on trial on three counts of felony mischief. Although I did not damage any property or injure any person, Canada attempted to impose two life sentences plus ten years as punishment for having demanded that the Cubans leave the area.

What I had done was no different than what Canada did to the Spanish two years later, except that I did not use force. My trial was held shortly after the Spanish incident, and when my attorney attempted to compare my actions to those of Canada, the judge ruled that it was improper to compare one criminal action to another criminal action as a precedent. In his summation, the Crown Prosecutor informed the jury that "a message must be sent that interference by citizens with over-fishing must not be tolerated."

Sheriff without a Badge

In other words, it was not my actions that were objectionable, but the fact that the actions were not taken by a representative of the State. Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin was lauded as a hero for doing what I had done -- after charging me with the commission of a crime when I did the same thing.

The jury trial did give me the opportunity to defend myself utilizing the United Nations World Charter for Nature.

Specifically, I pleaded that I had acted in accordance with Principle 21 Section (e) of the Charter, which reads:

"States, and, to the extent they are able, other public authorities, international organizations, individuals, groups and corporations shall:

"...(e) Safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction."

Canada sent a legal expert to my trial to argue that although Canada had indeed signed the World Charter for Nature, the Charter was not to be considered as a defense for actions under Canadian law. My lawyer successfully argued that if Canada signed the Charter, then Canada agreed with the Charter.

Canada informed me that I was responsible for some thirty-five million dollars in lost revenue to the Cubans. All I could see was the vast number of fish this represented and considered it a victory.

I have been operating under the World Charter's stipulation for many years. The same spirit that brought it into being compelled me to set up the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society -- not as a protest organization but as an enforcement organization to uphold international laws and treaties.

I began this endeavor in 1977, five years before the Charter came into existence, but it was in anticipation of the need for the Charter that I did so. In 1982, the Charter simply gave us some legal authority to act.

I confess to being a pirate. Since 1979, we have sunk nine outlaw whaling ships and have rammed numerous illegal drift netters and tuna boats. In doing so, we are complying with the law, as defined by the UN General Assembly in 1982: States, and, to the extent that they are able, other public authorities, international organizations, individuals, groups and corporations shall safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Copyright 1998 Point Foundation. Click here to read the entire article.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thumb's the word

Someone once said, 'A good rule-of-thumb will turn information that you have into information that you need.' I'm not sure I know what that means. However, I do think in order for information to qualify as a rule-of-thumb it should contain just enough detail to raise it a notch or two above common sense. Product instructions such as: "Do not use iron on clothes while wearing them" do not qualify, since they clearly defy common sense.

The following list was compiled from articles by Tom Parker that ran in the Fall 1982 and Fall 1983 issues of CoEvolution Quarterly. Readers were invited to submit rules-of-thumb they actually use and thought would be useful for others to store somewhere (relatively deep) in the recesses of their minds. It strikes me that rules-of-thumb must endure the test of time.
What do you think of these? Thumbs up or thumbs down? (GW)

Rules of Thumb
by Tom Parker
CoEvolution Quarterly
Fall 1982/Fall 1983

  • To get your bees through the winter, leave ten pounds of honey for each month of winter.
  • Ten people will raise the temperature of a room one degree per hour.
  • When spit freezes before it hits the ground, its 40 degrees below zero.
  • If you see one mouse in your house, you probably have a dozen.
  • One ostrich egg will serve 24 people for brunch.
  • Double the height of a three-year-old to determine his or her adult height
  • Each person contaminates a hot tub with two to three pints of perspiration per hour.
  • When generating power on a large scale, no more than 15 percent should come from any one source. Things get screwed up when more than 15 percent is out of service.
  • During a job interview, never talk for more than 60 seconds at a time.
  • You have a 50 percent chance of surviving overboard in 50 degree water for 50 minutes.
  • The distance that a river, under normal conditions, will run straight, is never greater than ten times its width.
  • One trained dog equals 60 search-and rescue workers
  • Three times the average distance you run every day is the maximum distance you should run in a race.
  • Fresh artichokes squeak when rubbed together.
  • You can check the fit of new pants without trying them on: With the top of the pants closed and the button snapped, the waistband should just wrap around your neck.
  • A pair of shoes is good for 1000 miles. A pair of bicycle tires is good for 4000 miles.
  • You can be fairly sure that you are dealing with a bureaucrat if he or she has to dial nine to get an outside line.
  • If the difference in price between medium and large eggs is less than eight cents per dozen, the large eggs are the better deal.
  • To find out how many lights your Christmas tree needs, multiply the tree height times the tree width times three.
  • The number of guests at a child's birthday party should be limited to the age of the child. Invite three for a three-year-old, five for five-year-old.
  • To avoid looking silly on a horse, choose a mount whose withers are the height of your shoulders.
  • When hiring boys, remember: One boy's a boy; two boys -- half a boy; three boys -- no boy at all.
Always remove child before folding up his or her stroller.
Rule-of-thumb or stupid product instruction?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Lagos: somewhere between the law of the jungle and civilization

Is it possible that the sixth largest city on Earth could be considered "superfluous" in the grand scheme of world affairs? George Parker hints that this might be so in his November 13th New Yorker story on the Nigerian city of Lagos. He paints a picture of a sprawling slum where an informal economy based on "collective adaptation" and "survivalist entrepreneurship" rules. It is also the destination of six hundred thousand West African refugees every year -- a major factor that has contributed to the city's physical deterioration. Following are excerpts from Parker's article. (GW)

The Megacity
by George Packer
New Yorker
November 13, 2006

In 1950, fewer than 300,000 people lived in Lagos. In the second half of the twentieth century, the city grew at more than six per cent annually. It is currently the sixth largest city in the world, and it is growing faster than any of the the world's other megacities (the term used by the United Nations Center for Human Settlements for "urban agglomerations" with more than ten million people). By 2015, it is projected, Lagos will rank third, behind Tokyo and Bombay, with twenty-three million inhabitants.

Unlike other megacities, Lagos has no distinct satellite areas where the destitute live. The whole city suffers from misuse...It is a city where only 0.4 percent of the inhabitants have a toilet connected to a water system.

The hustle never stops in Lagos. Informal transactions make up at least sixty per cent of the economic activity; at stoplights and on highways, crowds of boys as young as eight hawk everything from cell phones to fire extinguishers. Begging is rare...In Lagos everyone is a striver.

Stephen Omojoro, a fifty-two-year-old taxi-driver and father of four, with broad horizontal shoulders and vertical tribal scars carved into both cheeks, took me around Lagos in an aging Mercedes...In his view, Lagos has been deteriorating since shortly after his arrival (when he was seventeen) owing to a general moral collapse brought on by the oil boom of the seventies. What he remembered as a city of enterprising family men like himself is now overrun with corrupt soldiers, politicians, and police and with a mass of young people willing to do anything for money except honest work.

There was once a master plan for Lagos...The plan, jointly drawn up in the seventies by the firm of Wilbur Smith and Associates, the United Nations Development Program, and the Lagos state government, was intended to guide the growth of the city in the last two decades of the twentieth century. There were to be thirty-five self-sufficient district centers, each with commercial, industrial and residential zones, to prevent congestion on Lagos Island.

On New Year's Eve, 1983, a bloodless coup overthrew civilian rule, and for the next sixteen years a series of military dictators from northern Nigeria treated Lagos. the country's center of democratic activism, as a source of personal enrichment...The government that came to power in the democratic elections of 1999 has begun to revive the old master plan for Lagos.

[Today] what looks like anarchic activity in Lagos is actually governed by a set of informal but ironclad rules. Although the vast majority of people in the city are small-time entrepreneurs, almost no one works for himself. Everyone occupies a place in an economic hierarchy and owes fealty, as well as cash, to the person above him--known as an oga or master--who, in turn, provides help or protection...Every group of workers has a union that amounts to an extortion racket.

The most widely available commodity in Lagos is garbage. It is an engine of growth in the underworld of the city's informal economy, a vast sector with an astonishing volume of supply. In the recycling business, most of the suppliers are "dropouts, miscreants"---scavenger boys who scour the gutters and streets and municipal dumps, filling up sacks or carts and sell what they can to their oga, who has twenty or so boys working for him, in a kind of dependency that resembles that of Fagin an the pickpockets of "Oliver Twist." The oga, in turn sells the refuse to a grinder who then sells the ground bits to a exporter of recycled plastics. A thousand pickers live down in the pit (the dump), among flocks of white cowbirds.

"It is somewhere between the law of the jungle and civilization."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Deep oil

Addictions are difficult to kick. This is especially true when they make rich and powerful people richer and more powerful. Those benefiting financially from the addiction will go to great lengths (or, in some cases, great depths) to perpetuate the dependency. Whether oil supplies have peaked or not, Nature’s tolerance for burning it to satisfy society's energy needs has. By now, the reality of climate change should make it clear that peak oil is a meaningless concept, for even if plentiful new and accessible sources of the "Black Gold" were discovered, we should cease drilling for it immediately and redirect our resources towards the development of alternative energy sources. The recently released Stern Report on the economics of climate change confirms what environmentalists have been saying for some time; that in addition to being harmful to the environment, the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels makes no economic sense whatsoever.

Future historians (assuming civilization survives this madness) will undoubtedly look back at this pivotal juncture and ask why, in light of all we know, we continued to focus on drilling for oil deep into the Gulf of Mexico seabed and the Alaskan wilderness while making it increasingly difficult to site wind farms. (GW)

Drilling Deep in the Gulf of Mexico

New York Times
November 8, 2006
By Jad Mouawad

ABOARD THE WESTERN NEPTUNE, Gulf of Mexico — Every 17 seconds, a small armada of ships trawling 130 miles from the Louisiana coast fire powerful air guns toward the bottom of the sea in a hunt for the next big oil discovery.

The Neptune and three other ships are on a three-month mission to map one of the most remote regions of the United States. The data they collect from the vibrations set off by the guns in the gulf’s deepest waters will help engineers form a picture of some of the world’s newest petroleum prospects.

As oil consumption grows and access to most oil-rich regions becomes increasingly restricted, companies are venturing farther out to sea, drilling deeper than ever in their quest for energy. The next oil frontier — and the next great challenge for oil explorers — lies below 10,000 feet of water, through five miles of hard rock, thick salt and tightly packed sands.

“It’s not a place for the timid,” said Paul K. Siegele, the vice president for deepwater exploration at Chevron, which commissioned a survey by the Neptune. “It’s a place where a lot of people have lost their shirts.”

To picture the challenge, imagine flying above New York City at 30,000 feet and aiming a drill tip the size of a coffee can at the pitcher’s mound in Yankee Stadium. Then imagine doing it in the dark, at $100 million a go.

Even after hitting pay dirt, it will take another decade and billions of dollars to transform oil from these ultra-deep reserves into gasoline. Some of the technology to pump the sludge from these depths, at these pressures and temperatures, has not yet been developed; only about a dozen ships can drill wells that deep, and no one knows for sure how much oil is down there.

While most people regard affordable and abundant supplies as an essential element of the nation’s prosperity, few realize how complex and costly the quest has become, even in the nation’s own backyard. At the same time, some experts argue that the industry is nearing the limits of what it can do to maintain a growing supply of fossil fuels.

But for the geologists, scientists and explorers who work here in the Gulf of Mexico, the history of the deep water holds another lesson: technological breakthroughs have always breathed new life into the energy industry.

“This is as close as we get to the space age on earth,” said Kenny Lang, BP’s vice president for gulf production.

Thanks to advances in offshore technology, and tremendous leaps in supercomputers and three-dimensional imaging, this region’s deepest waters have become the hottest exploration prospects in the nation.

Barely more than a decade ago, the area was called the Dead Sea and was nearly abandoned as the major energy companies left for better prospects in Russia and the Caspian Sea basin.

In fact, the region’s output would have peaked and started slipping long ago without the leaps that have driven the search for offshore oil and natural gas. While production from the Gulf’s shallow waters is declining, deepwater production is on an upswing. Altogether, the Gulf of Mexico accounts for more than 25 percent of the nation’s oil production and 20 percent of its natural gas output.

According to the most optimistic estimates, there could be 40 billion barrels of undiscovered reserves in the deep water, which starts at about 1,500 feet, enough to satisfy American consumption for more than five years.

These reserves might lift the offshore output to 2.2 million barrels a day by 2012, up from 1.5 million barrels today.

Still, that’s a drop in the bucket. Even as the deepwater resources are developed, the nation is expected to continue to import more than two-thirds of the 20 million barrels of oil it consumes each day.

Since 2001, there have been 12 discoveries in waters 5,000 feet deep, drilling into older rock formations known as the Lower Tertiary. Those point to the presence of a region that might hold as much as 15 billion barrels of reserves.

The latest and largest find in the Lower Tertiary, about 250 miles south of New Orleans, was announced in August by BP. The find is a layer of 800 feet of oil-bearing sands, more than five miles under the ocean floor.

“The deep water in the Gulf of Mexico is a textbook application of where technology drove opportunity,” said Barney Issen, a geologist with Chevron. “It’s been known for quite some time that there were huge resources out there but we didn’t have the seismic data to have the nerve to drill. And even if we did, we didn’t have the drilling tools until recently.”

Last month, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it would develop three ultradeep discoveries 200 miles south of the Texas coastline. The project, called Perdido, will tie together fields called Great White, Tobago and Silvertip, and is projected to have a daily capacity of the equivalent of 130,000 barrels of oil by the turn of the decade.

Some of the earlier doubts about production in the Lower Tertiary were recently lifted when Chevron successfully tested its Jack field. The test proved that oil could flow in commercial quantities from sediments deposited as long as 65 million years ago.

“The geology has been proven, the oil is present,” said Renato Bertani, the chief executive of the American unit of Petrobras, Brazil’s national oil company. His company plans to produce from Lower Tertiary discoveries in 2009.

“The result really encouraged us tremendously,” he said. “There is nevertheless some level of uncertainty.”

Part of the problem for deep exploration in the Gulf of Mexico is a thick layer of salt — 15,000 feet deep in some places — that extends unevenly under the Gulf’s waters. The salt acts like frosted glass when geologists try to see through it, blurring their view of untapped oil reserves thought to lie below.

A clear image of the subsea salt can make the difference between a successful discovery and a dry well.

“This is an industry that has to manage risk,” said Rocco Detomo Jr., a senior geophysicist at Shell. “And it’s much too risky and too expensive to look for oil the old-fashioned way.”

At BP’s sprawling campus in a Houston suburb, geologists take many years looking for oil before drilling a single well. They are counting on huge leaps in processing power from computer networks that allow scientists to make sense of the complex seismic data acquired by ships like the Neptune.

The more sophisticated data is necessary because drilling costs have soared in recent years and can now reach as much as $800,000 a day, or up to $100 million for a single well. Those costs raise the risks when, on average, only one in every three to five wells turns up oil.

Chevron, for example, expects to spend $3.5 billion on its Tahiti project, which should start production in 2008. BP invests more than $2 billion a year in the Gulf and devotes 40 percent of its global exploration budget here.

“When you’re living in that place where you’re constantly on the edge, occasionally you’re going to stub your toe,” Mr. Lang of BP said.

That recently happened at BP’s Thunder Horse, the world’s largest offshore platform, with a planned oil capacity of 250,000 barrels a day. The platform, dwarfing anything else in the Gulf, was supposed to start production last year, but ran into problems, including being left listing after Hurricane Dennis passed in 2005. The latest mishap involves replacing critical pieces of equipment at the bottom of the ocean, a lengthy process that will delay production until 2008.

Thunder Horse has been more than a decade in the making, according to Cindy A. Yeilding, the company’s chief geologist in Houston. Back in the early 1990s, Ms. Yeilding and other BP scientists used better technology, including the new three-dimensional seismic mapping, and more powerful computers to focus on big fields, which are referred to as “elephants” in the industry.

“We went on an elephant hunt,” she said. “To test a new play, we needed to find a huge accumulation of hydrocarbons and we needed a rig that could drill in 5,000 or 6,000 feet of water. It was a combination of geology and technology.”

From 1992 to 1997, the company acquired dozens of new leases from the government, spurred by a new royalty relief program that provided extra incentives to encourage deepwater exploration.

On the first day of 1999, the company finally began drilling a well in the Mississippi Canyon’s Block 778, a lease in the northeast region of the Gulf, about 125 miles from New Orleans. The drilling team, led by Ms. Yeilding, was confident it had found the giant field it was looking for but was nervous at the prospect of drilling through salt in deep waters.

“We were petrified,” Ms. Yeilding recalled. “We were so afraid of salt, we wanted to go around it.”

But the efforts paid off. On July 4 that year, the BP well reached its final depth of 29,000 feet, after having gone through 6,000 feet of water and 2,500 feet of salt. There, BP made the biggest discovery in the Gulf of Mexico. The field, holding one billion barrels of reserves, became known as Thunder Horse.

The wider hunt has been on ever since. On the Neptune’s deck, the repetitive beat of the air guns can barely be heard. But below the sea, the vibrations travel deep inside the earth’s crust. Then they bounce back and are picked up by streamers of densely packed electronic sensors, stretching four miles behind the ship.

Inside, working in cool temperature-controlled rooms, dozens of engineers control the ship’s position, collect the seismic data and begin forming a picture of the earth’s geological layers.

“The easy oil is running out because it has already been found,” said Ezio Plenizio, an Italian geophysicist aboard the Neptune, which belongs to the oil services company Schlumberger. “But 20 years ago, when I started in the business, people were already saying that oil is going to run out soon.”