Monday, April 19, 2010

Earth Day!

April 22, 2010 is Earth Day, and in honor of that, we're going to have some posts about the environment.  This is more of the application and effects of science rather than the research, so hopefully it will be a fun series. 

First, there's the history of Earth Day.  This was started about 40 years ago by Gaylord Nelson, a Senator from Wisconsin who wanted to call attention to environmental issues.  He believed that grass-roots activities like the ones used by Vietnam protesters provided excellent models that he could use. So in the fall of 1969 he announced that there would be a grass-roots demonstration in the upcoming spring.  During the winter, people called, wrote and sent telegrams about their concerns.  (Yes, the telegram, and no snickering. The world wide web was just California and Utah in '69, and email wasn't going to show up for another 2 years.)  It was a big success: the first Earth Day was on April 22, 1970, and was celebrated by about 20 million people in the US.

How do we use the Earth?

One concern that people have about the environment is the overall impact that humans have on it.  We have a high standard of living: running water, heat, electricity, industrial and commercial transport, water sanitation and single-family dwellings.  Our impact is pervasive enough that it's changing how we think of the ecosystem.  But what does our usage actually cost, in ballpark terms?  Here's a game that tries to figure out your Ecological Footprint: you make a little person and see how much it takes to maintain his standard of living.

An interesting question from the quiz was about how much trash a person might generate.  This is a major concern in Ohio, because we are the home of Rumpke Sanitary Landfill, which is one of the top 10 largest landfills in the nation. Incidentally, Rumpke Sanitary is nicknamed Mt. Rumpke, because it's the tallest point in Hamilton County, OH.  There have been a lot of developments on landfill techniques that you can read about in their white paper (pdf) or see in this video. These give an easy explanation on how landfills work and new landfill techniques.  The people in Hamilton County are probably very interested in these advancements because the landfill is not only running out of space, it has been on fire since last August.

Do we have enough?
A major global concern is oil depletion.  In fact, a few days ago, the US military released a report that said that the country will face major oil shortfalls in as little as two years.  Concerns over oil led to recent government initiatives, like expansion of offshore drilling, as well as focused critiques on how our oil demands guide our foreign policies or how other nations will deal with being key producers when current stocks fall.   The issues regarding our energy consumption expand to climate change, ecosystem destruction, health concerns due to pollution and overpopulation accelerating our energy demands.  This will be the first issue we discuss, starting tomorrow.

How does the Earth affect us?
There are ecological concerns that aren't influenced by human behavior, but that still have major effects on our lives.  A natural occurence like the Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcanic eruption has obvious physical effects, like ash plumes that can be seen from space, but also far reaching economic effects, like disrupting Kenya's horticulture industry.  The Haiti earthquake is an even better example.  The initial damage not only killed tens of thousands of people, it also demolished the country's infrastructure.  So the next major fear is of an ordinary annual occurence: the 3 month rainy season that begins in May.

What can we do?
There are a lot of things that we can do, but I think the first step is for us to educate ourselves.  So we'll talk about different initiatives locally and nationally that discuss environmental concerns. We'll also talk about source of information and how to use the tools we have to ensure we're getting the information we need.

Images, Sources: 
  • The Ecology Flag was created from the work of Ron Cobb and the structural layout of the US flag.  I love the concept art for this, so scroll to the bottom of the page.  There are 13 stripes to indicate the original colonies, and instead of blue (for justice) and red (valor), it uses green for the environment and retains the white, which symbolizes innocence. It's entirely possible that a red, green, blue and white flag would just be visually cluttered, so I don't know that the deliberate omission of colors has any special meaning besides it doesn't look as nice as green and white alone.
  • trash can image: courtesy of Katie Chao and Ben Muessig from Shooting Brooklyn.
  • pipe line image: courtesy of Wili Hybrid
  • monsoon image: courtesy of Millzero
  • hammer image: courtesy of Herzogbr


    1. I appreciate this historical context that you provide for our upcoming 40th anniversary celebration of Earth Day. It's astonishing to think that Earth Day is as old as the Internet. We still have so much work to do.

      Our Earth is our home, and it is so beautiful: a magnificent blue-green gem, draped in white, glowing there in the shimmering blackness of space, cradling our life. It is all we have, and we must be united in our efforts to protect that home.

    2. Awesome Article! I really liked the part about the ecology flag. But why are you so down on MT. Rumpke. Mt. Rumpke is the pride of Southern Ohio. You've obviosly never driven past Mt. Rumpke in December and seen the lighted up Christmas tree on top of the mound.

    3. Hi Randomroad,

      Thank you for your comments!

      Rumpke Sanitation does a very good job, so I'm not downing them - we need landfills, and theirs has a good track record.

      However, our overall trash production is a huge ecological problem, but for many of us, it's an "over there" issue. I wanted to point out that it's a "right here" issue as well, so having one of the top 10 landfills in the country makes this more relevant and personal.

      The fire and space considerations aren't indications that Rumpke does a bad job, but rather a sign that the sheer amount of trash we produce can adversely strain the resources used to contain it. It's not Rumpke's fault that they need more space, it's ours.

      It also raises the question about the how landfill sites are selected. Ohio is known for the land fertility, so it's interesting that some of that the land is diverted for this purpose (as opposed to non-arable land somewhere else.)

      I definitely appreciate your comments, and I'll make sure to check out that Christmas tree the next time I'm over that way!