Join Earth Day Network on Earth Day 2018 - April 22 - to help end plastic pollution. Plastic is threatening our planet's survival, from poisoning and injuring marine life to disrupting human hormones, from littering our beaches and landscapes to clogging our streams and landfills. Together, we can make a difference.
Overpopulation has been a topic of discussion for centuries. From Plato and Aristotle to modern day scientists and philosophers, the questions of population control – whether we need to impose controls and what those controls should be – have been hotly debated. The world’s population currently stands at approximately 7.6 billion people and every day, around 360,000 babies are born. That’s roughly 15,000 new mouths to feed every single hour. On the flip side, only around 150,000 people die each day. The disparity is obvious and at this rate, population growth is inevitable, but is it a problem? Fifty years after Paul Erhlich terrified the world with his vision of starvation and death in his book The Population Bomb, do we still need to worry about the effects of overpopulation?
From Before Christ Onwards
As far back as the fourth century BC, overpopulation has been a concern. Plato and Aristotle recommended instilling strict birth controls to ensure that the population didn’t rise above 200 million people worldwide– a stark contrast to today’s 7.6 billion! Later, Thomas Malthus famously warned about growing population in 1798, and by 1968, Paul Erhlich argued that it was too late – we’d surpassed a sustainable level and control was no longer an option. Instead, he argued, we needed to actively reduce the population through enforced, compulsory methods. Skip forward to 2018, however, and the fiery conversations about overpopulation have been somewhat dampened. The urgency around reducing the birth rate or even reducing the population itself seems to have fizzled out. Does that mean that it’s no longer a problem, though, or have we simply become apathetic?
As technology continues to improve and the development of artificial intelligence hurtles towards progress, it’s no wonder we find ourselves asking whether we should be worried. What will artificial intelligence be like? Will we retain control or will something go wrong? Will it help us or hinder us? There is certainly enough science fiction to suggest the latter. Books and movies are littered with examples of rogue robots and AIs gone bad – machines that take over the world and enslave the human population or worse, kill us all off; but that’s just fiction. And besides, we’re a long way from walking, talking AIs who are part of our everyday lives, right?
A Present Problem
Wrong. We already encounter artificial intelligence in much of the technology that we use every single day. Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are, after all, forms of AI – albeit more basic than those we see roaming the streets in the latest sci-fi movies. Then there’s smart cars that can drive themselves, iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaners that guide themselves around your room and then return themselves to their charging stations, and security surveillance that can follow potential crime without human control. There are fraud detectors, predictors for retailers, recommendation services like those you find on Amazon, and even automated online customer service support.
And that’s just the beginning of it. In Japan, the tech firm SoftBank has released a best-selling humanoid-style robot named Pepper who can recognize emotions and responds accordingly. There are sex robots currently in production – alongside a sweep of controversy, automated weapons are being developed, and more and more AIs are taking the jobs of human beings. So what seems like a future problem is actually something that we are very much embroiled in already.
In September of 2014 the city of Burlington, Vermont became the first major city in the nation to source 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources. Though the achievement received scant media attention, it marked a major milestone for renewable energy in the United States. Across the country, coal plants are being retired and renewable energy is grabbing an increasing percentage of the electricity market share. Slowly but surely Big Oil and Coal are losing their stranglehold on the American power grid.
Cities looking to make their own contributions toward greening the U.S. power grid can learn a lot from Burlington's example. So what does it take to become the country's first renewable city?
What Powers Burlington?
Burlington's landmark achievement was a long time in the making. The city has been growing its renewable energy portfolio since 1984 when it completed construction of the Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station, a wood-burning power plant. When rising energy costs in the 1970s prompted Burlington's utility company, Burlington Electric Department (BED), to investigate alternative approaches to powering the city, the utility concluded that “[u]sing wood fuel would put money back into the Vermont economy, improve the condition of Vermont’s forests and provide jobs for Vermonters.” The facility is powered almost entirely by wood chips generated as a byproduct of the state's lumber industry. BED's most recent figures indicate that in addition to generating power through wood burning, the facility is now recovering methane gas produced as a byproduct (biogas) and using it to generate additional power.
The McNeil plant has been an important source of renewable energy for Burlington since its construction; as of 2013 energy generated at McNeil accounted for about 45% of Burlington's total energy consumption. In the intervening years, however, BED has invested in a variety of additional renewable resources, including several wind farms and hydroelectric plants. By 2013, these combined resources had allowed the city to reduce its fossil fuel usage to less than 6% of its total electricity consumption.
The tipping point for Burlington occurred in the fall of 2014. The city's declaration of independence from fossil fuels coincided with its purchase of the nearby Winooski One Hydroelectric Facility, which city officials had long had their eye on. Ownership of Winooski One ensured Burlington a long-term, reliable source of renewable energy and allowed the city to close the resource gap that until that point had been filled by fossil fuels. While exact figures have not yet been made available, according to a 2014 article by Burlington Free Press the city now anticipates that wind, hydropower, and biomass will each supply roughly one third of the city's power. Small-scale resources, such as locally generated solar power and agricultural biogas plants also contribute a small percentage of the city's power supply.
Composting: It seems like a simple enough concept. Throw kitchen scraps and yard waste into a pile, wait for it to decompose, and eventually harvest a rich, organic fertilizer to feed your garden. But as with just about anything from billiards to bagpipes, once you scratch the surface on the subject of composting you discover a whole complex world of conflicting opinions and advice on the right way to go about doing things. Some of the materials available in books or online almost make the act of composting seem like a full-time venture.
The truth is, anyone can compost, and it doesn't have to be a complicated affair. In an attempt to simplify things for the beginner composter, here I'll explore some of the questions I've stumbled upon in my own composting journey.
One of the first things an aspiring composter needs to consider is where to keep the heap and how to contain it. There are dozens of fancy compost bins and tumblers on the market, which can easily trick impressionable gardeners like myself into believing successful composting demands a serious cash investment. Luckily, this isn't the case. Buying expensive composting accessories is fine if you have the means, but constructing a functional compost container need not be expensive or time-consuming. Many gardeners have tremendous success with simple designs of scrap wood and chicken wire or other inexpensive materials. For those concerned about critters, more secure compost containers can be made by simply punching holes in a trashcan or plastic bin.
Organic gardeners are faced with a unique challenge; by putting health and environment first, we set ourselves up for a neverending struggle against pests, disease, and lackluster growth. In the absence of chemicals, the organic grower has to get creative and work twice as hard to achieve the desired results.
This, at any rate, is the popular narrative, one that undoubtedly prevents many hobbyists from going the organic route. Sure, we'd all love to do the environmentally friendly thing, but we also want a flourishing garden without too many hassles, and we're conditioned to believe this is only possible through chemical applications. But what many people don't realize is that by relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they actually create more work, rather than less, for themselves.
Most gardeners have probably heard that synthetic chemicals destroy beneficial organisms in the soil, but for many this concept is too abstract to grasp. Who are these organisms anyway? What are they up to? How can I know they're helping if I can't even see them? In their book Teaming With Microbes, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis demystify the world of the soil food web, identifying key players and their roles and offering detailed advice on how to protect and manage this ecosystem for maximum results.
Lowenfels and Lewis make the compelling argument that many of problems plaguing our lawns and gardens are the direct result of the home horticulturalist's reliance on chemical products which destroy microbial life. The result is a garden that depends on application after application of fertilizer and pesticides in order to survive. Conversely, a healthy soil ecosystem controls pathogen populations, provide plants with essential nutrients, and form relationships that encourage vigorous growth and healthy immune systems.
Solar panels, as we know them have been around since the 1950s, when the first silicon photovoltaic cell was developed in the US. They are now a common sight on the rooves of houses, some transport vehicles, calculators, and speed cameras. There is even a government-backed scheme offering large cash incentives to convert your home to solar power. But how to they work?
Most urban waterways have seen their share of abuse. Having acted as lifelines of industry and commerce long before anyone ever paused to consider environmental consequences, these rivers, streams, and canals have absorbed decades worth of industrial waste, chemical runoff, and untreated sewage, most of which was eventually carried into the ocean, thereby accounting for the mercury content of much of the fish we eat today.
But what if that waste hadn't been carried away? What if, instead of being swept out to sea, all those chemicals and byproducts remained right where they were dumped, festering for decades in the middle of a busy city?
In the realm of innovative growing techniques aeroponic growing is among the more obscure. It challenges just about everything the average person knows about farming by cultivating crops not in soil or even water (as in hydroponics) but in open air. To understand aeroponics, imagine a plant plucked from the ground, roots and all, and held in place so that the roots remain suspended. An artificial light source supplies the energy needed for photosynthesis and a nutrient-infused mist is applied at periodic intervals. Direct, efficient uptake reduces water usage by an estimated 90 to 98 percent compared to traditionally grown crops, fertilizer by 60 percent. A sterile growing environment and the plant's healthy immune system eliminates the need for pesticides altogether. When not absorbing water and minerals, the roots receive a direct, abundant supply of oxygen, and the delicate seedling grows faster and more robustly than its soil-bound counterparts. Soon a crop is ready for harvesting.
Air – it’s one of the things that keeps us going, keeps us alive. It’s full of that wonderful stuff: oxygen, without which we would be writhing on the floor gasping for breath. It could never do us harm, right? Wrong. In recent years, there has been a frightening increase in allergies all over the world. It’s not just an increase in the number of cases either. Reported symptoms are more severe and illnesses more debilitating than ever before. What’s more, traditional allergy treatments aren’t working. So you may ask what’s causing these symptoms. What exactly is causing the allergy? That’s the scariest part. It’s being caused by almost everything – everything manmade, at least. It’s even in the air we breathe.