Kim Stanley Robinson on science fiction and California: "California is a terraformed space"

In this interview with Boom Magazine, Kim Stanley Robinson discusses the relationship of California to the future. Robinson is a profound ecological thinker, and two of his books in particular, Pacific Edge (the best utopian/optimistic novel I've ever read) and 2312 (a dazzling work of environmentally conscious, wildly imaginative eco-futurism) are both important works for thinking about a way out of our current dire situation.

In this interview, Robinson's analysis is particularly cogent, making a microcosm out of California for the whole world, and making important points about the way that good technology is key to any answer to questions about humanity's future on and off Earth. Especially worth reading are his views on the relationship of science to capitalism:

"Capitalism’s effect on humanity is not at all what science’s effect is on humanity. If you say science is nothing but instrumentality and capitalism’s technical wing, then you’re saying we’re doomed. Those are the two most powerful social forces on the planet, and now it’s come to a situation of science versus capitalism. It’s a titanic battle. One is positive and the other negative. We need to do everything we can to create democratic, environmental, utopian science, because meanwhile there is this economic power structure that benefits the few, not very different from feudalism, while wrecking the biosphere. This is just a folk tale, of course, like a play with sock puppets, like Punch and Judy. But I think it describes the situation fairly well."

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Horrific plague causes starfish to tear themselves to pieces

A mysterious plague has manifested in the world's starfish population, quickly spreading to several regions in which starfish (also called "sea stars") are found. Starfish afflicted with the disease tear themselves to pieces, the arms crawling in opposite directions until the animals are literally torn to pieces. Unlike healthy starfish, the affected animals are not able to regenerate after they are torn apart.

The disease is largely a mystery. Researchers who are studying it are asking beach-walkers to photograph any starfish they see to tweet photos of it with the #sickstarfish tag. Starfish are important marine predators; a serious depletion of their numbers will have far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems.

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The future of technology might be in Greenland

The rare earth elements that play an important role in everything from electric car batteries, to LED lighting, to surgical lasers, aren't actually rare. The vast majority of them come from China right now, but that's not because China has them and other countries don't. In fact, the US and Australia also have large deposits of rare earths. Instead, rare earth elements come from China because China is willing to cheaply mine and process them, which can be extremely polluting. The more protections against pollution that you put in place, the more expensive the rare earths become, which is how the US got priced out of that game.

All of that is important background information to help you understand why a proposal to mine and process rare earth elements in Greenland is so controversial. On the one hand, it could bring economic and political independence to the country (which still relies heavily on Denmark), and provide jobs in a really rough economyu. On the other hand, actually challenging China's supremacy in this business means cutting costs in ways that would likely have lasting, negative impacts on the land.

Image: Tasiilaq Greenland Marina, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from chrissy575's photostream

Leaked: environmental chapter of the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty

Most of our coverage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has focused on its Internet-regulating provisions. But the treaty -- which has been negotiated in unprecedented secrecy, with heavy-handed shoves from the US Trade Representative -- also has disturbing implications for the environment. Today, Wikileaks published a leaked consolidated draft of TPP's environment chapter, which sets out the ways in which corporations will be able to prevent countries from passing environmental laws that interfere with profit making.

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Chronology of Canadian Tories' war on science libraries

As I've written, the Canadian Harper government's purge of environmental and scientific libraries has been a horrific shambles, as priceless and irreplaceable books and documents going back centuries were thrown away or even burned. Science librarian John Dupuis has assembled a comprehensive timeline of the disaster, with links to news stories and first-hand accounts that should have warned us something was amiss. Cory 15

Canadian libricide: Tories torch and dump centuries of priceless, irreplaceable environmental archives


Back in 2012, when Canada's Harper government announced that it would close down national archive sites around the country, they promised that anything that was discarded or sold would be digitized first. But only an insignificant fraction of the archives got scanned, and much of it was simply sent to landfill or burned.

Unsurprisingly, given the Canadian Conservatives' war on the environment, the worst-faring archives were those that related to climate research. The legendary environmental research resources of the St. Andrews Biological Station in St. Andrews, New Brunswick are gone. The Freshwater Institute library in Winnipeg and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland: gone. Both collections were world-class.

An irreplaceable, 50-volume collection of logs from HMS Challenger's 19th century expedition went to the landfill, taking with them the crucial observations of marine life, fish stocks and fisheries of the age. Update: a copy of these logs survives overseas.

The destruction of these publicly owned collections was undertaken in haste. No records were kept of what was thrown away, what was sold, and what was simply lost. Some of the books were burned.

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The cheesy streets of Milwaukee

Back in September, the city of Milwaukee announced that it would be spreading cheese brine on its streets this winter in a pilot program to see whether the salty liquid could reduce the amount of rock salt necessary to de-ice roads. Now, it looks like the plan is working out well. In fact, there's not even a smell to the streets.

Utility companies go to war against solar


Utility companies across America are fighting solar, imposing high fees on homeowners who install their own solar panels to feed back into the grid. This one was predictable from a long, long way out -- energy companies being that special horror-burrito made from a core of hot, chewy greed wrapped in a fluffy blanket of regulatory protection, fixed in their belief that they have the right to profit from all power used, whether or not their supply it.

Bruce Sterling once proposed that Americans should be encouraged to drive much larger trucks, big enough to house monster fuel-cells that are kept supplied with hydrogen by decentralized windmill and solar installations -- when they are receiving more power than is immediately needed, they use the surplus to electrolyze water and store the hydrogen in any handy nearby monster-trucks' cells. When the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining, you just plug your house into your enormous American-Dream-mobile -- no need for a two-way grid.

This solution wasn't just great because it aligned the core American value of driving really large cars with environmental protection, but also because it was less vulnerable to sabotage from hydrocarbon-addicted energy companies.

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New Yorker on Kim Stanley Robinson: "Our Greatest Political Novelist"


Writing in the New Yorker, Tim Kreider addresses the brilliant science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson as a political novelist. It's keyed to Stan's September novel Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age, which I haven't yet read, but which I'm taking with on my Christmas holiday. Robinson is one of my favorite writers (and people!), and books like 2312, Forty Signs of Rain, the Mars trilogy, and especially Pacific Edge (which I re-read once a year, or any time I feel hopeless about the future) have made an indelible mark on me.

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How the TPP will gut environmental protection


I've posted a bunch about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a shadowy, secretive trade deal that will have a disastrous effect on the Internet, privacy and free speech, thanks to the brutal copyright provisions the US Trade Rep has crammed into it. But that's not the whole story.

Michael sez, "You might be interested to know the TPP looks terrible for environmental protection too, due to a proposed mechanism called 'investor-state arbitration'. Basically this'd allow investors to sue countries for passing legislation detrimental to the financial interests of those investors. Yep, think environmental protections, workers' rights laws and any other kind of public protection that might reduce a profit margin.

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Open Source Beehives: sensor-enhanced hive design

Tristan from OpenPixel sez, "You might have heard that bees are dropping like flies. When we realised the implications of this (which everyone should look into, because it's serious) we borrowed some ideas from the WikiHouse project and applied them to bees - ie. low cost, distributed, open source manufacturing."

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Face scrub micro-beads are choking the Great Lakes

Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes, a new paper in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, looks at the prevalence of micro-plastic beads, thought to originate with face-scrub, in the great lakes. These beads pass through water-treatment processing, and have long been suspected in freshwater pollution. The paper has occasioned a pledge from several big cosmetics companies to phase out the use of beads in their products. Five Gyres, an NGO that worked on the paper with SUNY Fredonia, has proposed model legislation banning the use of microplastics in consumer products. In the meantime, they've got an app that helps you find products that are free from microplastics.

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How To: Regrow a coral reef

I'm totally fascinated by this photo that the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program posted to their Facebook page. It shows little branches of staghorn coral growing on a "tree" made of PVC pipes. Harvested from wild coral colonies when they're only 5 cm long, these samples will double in size every two months while attached to the tree. Once they've put on enough heft, they're transplanted to new homes on damaged coral reefs, where they grow into the surrounding environment and help to restore ecosystems that could otherwise be lost. I'd heard about coral restoration before, but had never seen pictures of the process. At the RJD website, you can see a series of photos that take you through it step-by-step. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it looks a lot like underwater gardening — similar to grafting fruit trees.

Banksy's anti-BP dolphin ride


Graffiti/street artist Banksy has built and installed a BP-leak-themed dolphin ride on Brighton Pier. The coin-op ride offers trenchant commentary on the light liability borne by BP for its role in the poisoning of the gulf. Plus, it looks like a lot of fun!

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Lead on your lips

Ancient Roman cosmetics were notoriously poisonous — despite the fact that it was already a well-known toxin, folks slathered their faces in white lead and dabbed red lead rouge on their cheeks. You wouldn't drop dead from a single application. The problem built up over time, as more and more and more of the stuff was applied (and absorbed) by your body. And that's still true today. In a new column for The New York Times — all about chemicals and your environment — Deb Blum writes about the lead (and aluminum and cadmium and all sorts of of other metals) that contaminates modern lipstick. The doses are low, much lower than Roman times. But the reapplications are many. Lipstick wearers touch up their color as often as 20 times in a single day.