Physics & Society – Physics 3650 – Brooklyn College of CUNY

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Physics 3650 – Physics & Society

Syllabus – Spring 2013

Prof. Micha Tomkiewicz –

Required Reading:

Output Documents:

Miriam Webster Dictionary – science that deals with the structure of matter and the interactions between the fundamental constituents of the observable universe. long called natural philosophy (from the greek physikos), physics is concerned with all aspects of nature, covering the behavior of objects under the action of given forces and the nature and origin of gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear force fields. the goal of physics is to formulate comprehensive principles that bring together and explain all discernible phenomena.

The objective of the course is to discuss whether man can now be considered to be part of nature and to explore career opportunities beyond the usual boundaries of textbooks that include human activities. The anchor throughout the semester will be a report that was recently issued by the US National Intelligence Council titled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative World. The attempt in this report is to analyze the state of the world and state of the United   States based on extrapolation of the important driving forces that they are presently identifying.

These driving forces include:

  • Population      growth
  • Economic      growth
  • Income      distribution
  • Governmental      practices – power distribution
  • Environmental      impact
  • Climate      change
  • Science      & Technology
  • Energy
  • Water
  • Food
  • Meta – correlations between the forces.

Every student will adopt a specific driving force and will search for information to identify specific aspects that requires specific quantitative attention that can form a productive seed to attract the attention of physicists (or future physicists). Examples (taken mainly from climate change which illustrates the instructors ignorance on the other topics) can include Gini Coefficients (Income Distribution), Tipping points (Climate Change), Climate sensitivity (Climate Change), Demographic distribution (Population growth), Frequency of extreme events (Climate Change). Class work will be dedicated to the mutual dependence of the forces, again searching for issues that might benefit from attention of physicists.

One of the objectives of the course will be to keep the syllabus flexible and adaptive to the changing World. The class will spend some time investigating the airways (including the blogosphere) to investigate other efforts on this line.

The main output tool that the class will create is an open blog. In the blog, students will discuss the quantitative aspects of their specific forces and everybody else will have the opportunity to comment on each other’s effort and invite comments from the World at large. Projects that will show promise will be documented (optional) as posters in Science Day (end of the semester) or an article in the Brooklyn College undergraduate journal

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Craving Food in the Lab

Craving Food in the Lab

Ibraheem Shahadat   April 15, 2013

Many companies, organizations, and corporations make  decisions every day which influence the shaping of humanity’s future. As early as 2001, companies invested great interest in creating food as a viable solution for the future of humanity. In 2008, PITA, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), sponsored a million dollar  award for any researcher who could produce lab-grown, in-vitro, or cultured meat. In June of 2012, PETA’s challenge was swept across ten states. As the deadline of their request approached, it became clear that no one was able to create lab grown meat.   However, later on that year, in October, PETA   announced the first taste test of in-vitro hamburger meat. The applications of such a test would later show various companies the potential for marketing cultured meat to the public.

Mark Post, head of the dutch team focused on creating in-vitro meat hopes to produce his product by using cow stem cells, proteins, myocytes, and various organs. They carefully place stem cells in  petri dishes  which are then put into a container to create muscle cells. The muscle cells grow over time to become a muscle whose dimensions are about one centimeter wide, two centimeters long and a millimeter thick. The small piece of product is described to have an off white color and to appear like calamari and taste bland. The reason for their bland taste is because the produced muscle isn’t pre-exposed to natural substances such as fat, blood, hormones, and other biological factors which govern meat. The Dutch team hopes to expand their experiment to add blood and fat in the growth process and create larger patty like sizes of meat rather than small calamari sized meat. This accomplishment will cause more appeal to public interest.

Another researcher in this field, Gibbore Forgacs who specializes in tissue engineering at the university of Missouri, is working on creating in-vitro meat. Modern Meadows, the outfit started by Forgacs aims to produce meat which is delicious and also inexpensive for society. Their goal is to gain the approval of both  the people who want to eat meat but are restricted by  personal constrains such as religion, and to provide a solution for the  occurring hunger crisis.

This idea of creating lab grown meat is not new. In 1931, before Winston Churchill was elected prime minister, he predicted that by 1981 “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” In 2001, 20 years after Churchill’s prediction, Morris Benjaminson of Touro College came up with an idea to take freshly cut muscles from a goldfish and put it into a vat of nutrient rich fetal bovine serum. This serum allowed the live muscle cells to divide and result in a 14% increase in mass. Although his experiment produced more mass, the audience to which he presented his experiment refused to eat the cooked product. AFter seeing his audience’s reaction, he came to the same conclusion many seemingly hopeless experiments come to, and that’s to deem the experiment useful for astronauts. AFter hearing about his idea, PETA supported his findings and encouraged further research into the experiment. In 2008, Norway hosted a conference on test tube meat. The conference released a study stating that for the cost of $5,000 a ton of meat could be produced. This cost for production is feasible to compete on the economic basis with regular meat. As to date, there are 30 different companies working on this project.

So how competitive would this meat actually be on the market? In illinois 2007, the cost for raising a pound of beef was about 65 cents. The retail price of the beef in supermarkets was $2.88 a pound. The markup is roughly 4.5%. If we looked at the $5,000 per ton cost of lab grown meet and applied the same 4.5% markup, we would arrive at a cost of about $11.00 per pound. Which is especially competitive if marketed correctly.

Forgacs’ Modern Meadows is using a technique slightly different than Post’s. By using a 3D printer, Modern Meadows sprays successive layers of something called bio ink onto a muscle to further build its mass. Bio ink consists of various components of meat such as muscle cells. The complexity of this project is grand considering the goal of balancing fuel, salt, minerals and hormones of whatever cells remain alive. Although signs of success are apparent, both Post and Forgacs are in compliance that society’s first introduction to engineered food will not be with in-vitro meat. Rather, it will be with some smaller ingredient such as flower used to make larger dishes.

The society would find some great value in the success of this research. One of which is that lab grown meat would have about 78 to 96% fewer greenhouse gasses. it would also take up 99% less land to raise. It would consume 82 to 96% less water and it would reduce the 18% of the world’s greenhouse gasses which come from livestock. There exists a large gas omission problem in the livestock industry. The first main source is methane gas from cow manure. The second comes from the petroleum used to take care of the industry. The in-vitro meat would also be very energy officiant. We now use 100 grams of grain to produce 15 grams of meat. This means that 85% of the energy transferred from plants to animals is lost. The estimate percentage  of energy efficiency for in-vitro meats is 50%. Further research shows that a pound of beef necessitates 2500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of top soil. With respect to energy, this is equivalent to a gallon of gas. Scientists predict that meat production will have to double in the next 40 years because of increasing incomes around the world. Typically, when your GDP increases, your consumption of meat skyrockets. In the example of China and India whose GDP are on the way up, the general consensus seems to state that the demand of meat in these countries is going to increase. Unfortunately however, though the demand for meat increases, the amount of land available to serve these needs is minimal. 70% of dry land on earth is used for either grazing or livestock. The question posed is what do we do as there isn’t much more land left for grazing cattle? The pour solution is that the price of meat will continue to increase. The ideal solution would be to resort to in-vitro meat. But, despite its bland taste and its visual representation to squid, potential for progress give sign in its stage of early development. Jason Matheny, director of New Harvest, a non for profit research organization said that in-vitro meat would offer health advantages because it would be easier to control pathogens in a lab. Also, the amount of fat in the meat could be systematically controlled, which ultimately makes the meat healthier.

In conclusion, although lab-grown meat has many obstacles to surpass before it becomes a pragmatic substitute for actual meat, the fear from researchers seems to be the marketing aspect of the product. How can we convince people to by something synthetic over something natural? Especially if, as of now, concerns don’t just govern the economic cost of the meat, but its palatable compatibility.


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Potential Ways to Redefine Economic Growth Involving Collection of Raw Data.

In measuring GDP (there are some varying methods but in theory the value should always be the same) one of the values taken into consideration is consumer spending. This consumer spending is measured per household. This got me to question exactly how we define household. Is one person living alone a household? What about people living in a room of someones home? Someone living in a basement? Do we consider the constant flux of people renting rooms for the summer months while another is abroad? This “household” spending adds up. For any of you data collectors I wonder if we can evaluate GDP as a function of the number of people living in a household. My assumption would be that although we would think spending goes up as the number of people in a household increases, there must be some point at which the spending becomes leveled and decreases. Perhaps there is an ideal household size that minimizes household consumption. Think about it. A person living alone must buy small milk carton because milk spoils quickly. A small milk carton is more expensive than a large one because of the production costs of the carton and design and ink. Buying in bulk saves and the larger the household the bigger the bulk no? An extremely large household simply requires more food and that means more money. After a certain point the milk cartons are not sold any bigger because they are not made any bigger. I wonder what the raw data can tell us. A bell curve?

As well, perhaps we can relate economic growth to debt. Does a person who goes into debt guarantee increased income later in life? What if we were to invest into a long term study to evaluate the effects debt has on the individual? The household? The economy at large? We could follow a group of 50 or more individuals who are currently getting into debt as they obtain higher degrees and track what happens over time. Is there a relation to the amount of debt (negative economic growth) someone is in and their future earnings? (economic growth) What is it that people are going into debt for? Opening up businesses? Getting an education? Is what a person going into debt for related to the future return?

Collecting this data and using it to come-up with a differential equation may be an important step towards redefining economic growth using calculus. We may also include sustainability through identifying an ideal household size and an ideal amount of debt that ensures minimal environmental impact and future return.

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NEOs: Will an Asteroid Destroy Civilization?

Remember in February when there was this hullabaloo about a gigantic piece of rock flying through space that would just narrowly miss striking Earth by just this much? Well, if you remember correctly, as that rock zoomed past us, another, smaller one landing in Russia. Chelyabinsk, to be exact.
Well, that meteor was only about 20 m in diameter – just shy of the length of a basketball court – and it weighed 10 THOUSAND tons, making it heavier than the Eiffel Tower! And knowing the speed of the meteor when it exploded to be about 18.6 km/s, we can calculate the meteor’s kinetic energy to be

KE = ½·m·v2 = ½·(107 kg)·(18.6 × 103 m/s)≈1.8 PJ

That amount of energy is 20 to 30 times the energy released by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in WWII. Luckily for Chelyabinsk residents, the meteor exploded about 15 miles above the Earth’s surface, so that energy didn’t cause as much damage as it had the potential to. Thousands were injured from windows that shattered by the exploding meteor’s sonic boom, but there were, thankfully, no casualties.

The Chelyabinsk meteor is indicative of a larger problem: we don’t know too much about small Near Earth Objects (or NEOs). NEOs are comets and asteroids that have been nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits that can cross the Earth’s orbit, meaning that they have the potential of hitting Earth under the right conditions. When it comes to larger NEOs (ones that are upwards of 500 m in diameter), we know of and track about 90% of them. But our technology is limited, and so we don’t know of the smaller ones until after they’ve already hit Earth. For example, we were able to look at seismographs after the Chelyabinsk meteor landed and find that it entered our atmosphere above Alaska about one minute before impact, but that knowledge was obtained only in hindsight.

This isn’t the first time this sort of impact has happened. Just over a century ago, in 1908, another meteor hit Tunguska, Russia. This meteor was 100 m in diameter – the length of a football field! – and it’s the largest NEO to hit Earth in recorded history. This impact leveled 830 square miles of land that was, fortunately, unoccupied, with the energy of 1000 Hiroshima bombs. It is enough energy to wipe out all of NYC, parts of NJ and Long Island, and a small part of Connecticut. Or, consider the K-T impact, which wiped out the dinosaurs.

Aftermath of Tunguska event

The damage area a Tungusken-like meteor would cause in NYC (center at Times Sq.)

The damage area a Tunguska-like meteor would cause in NYC (center at Times Sq.)

So what exactly is the likelihood of an NEO hitting Earth? The truth is that they impact Earth in a fairly regular and predictable pattern, and so we can estimate how often they will impact and the amount of damage they might cause by their size. The following data is from

NEO diameter (m) larger than:
Average interval between impacts (years) Energy released (megatons of TNT) Crater diameter (km) Possible effects/comparable event
0.015 Hiroshima atomic bomb detonation.
30 300 2 Fireball, shock-wave, minor damage.
50 2000 10 ≤1 Tunguska-type explosion or small crater.
100 10,000 80 2 Largest H-bomb detonation.
200 40,000 600 4 Destruction on national scale.
500 200,000 10,000 10 Destruction on continental scale.
1000 600,000 80,000 20 Many millions dead, global effects.
5000 20 million 10 million 100 Billions dead, global climate change.
10,000 100 million 80 million 200 Extinction of human civilization.

While the chances of a larger NEO impacting Earth are relatively low, there are still a bunch of smaller asteroids that may potential enter Earth’s atmosphere at any moment, since we don’t currently have the technology to track them. CUNY CSI Professor Charles Liu estimates that it would cost something like $10,000,000 to build the necessary equipment to locate and observe these small rocks. If we broke that down to committing $1,000,000 each year over a decade, and divided that by the 7 billion inhabitants of our lovely planet, it would cost about $0.14 per person per year to fund such an apparatus! Of course, there are some people who would not be able to afford that, but to ask those that could spare even $1 per year to construct the technology that could save cities and millions of lives seems like it would be money well-spent.

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Clean Energy Costs on the Decline

Over the years, many climate change skeptics and economists have pointed to the high cost of clean energy. (such as solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries used for clean electric transport) They conclude these energy sources as too prohibitively expensive to be cost effective alternatives to cheap, carbon based energy like oil, coal, or natural gas. The transfer from dirty to clean energy would cause economies to crater as consumers and business would be unable to afford higher energy prices. Despite the many actions governments can take to minimize these costs through investment, subsidies, and tax breaks, the process of development and implementation would still lag behind increasing economic demand for energy, and would hinder growth.

However, despite ignoring the ‘external’ costs of pollution and climate change which, when taken into consideration make fossil-fuels the most expensive form of energy one could imagine, recent analysis has shown that clean energy costs are dramatically declining. A recent analysis by Bloomberg presented at the Clean Energy Ministerial of New Delhi illustrates just how disruptive clean energy is and could be in the existing carbon-based market.

Photovoltaic cells have dramatically declined in cost:


As have the cost of onshore wind turbines:


Additionally, the cost of Lithium-ion batteries have fallen steadily:


The culprit for falling prices has been a large rise in government investment for technological development as well as subsidies and tax credits for cheaper manufacturing and consumer costs. Quite obviously, the more capital investments are made in clean energy and battery research, the greater the return in innovation and efficiency. As the following chart illustrates, the amount of worldwide capital investment required to maintain a modest, somewhat reasonable threshold of carbon dioxide emission (so that emissions peak in 2020 and decline thereafter) is realistically feasible. Unfortunately, as one can see, expenditures have not kept pace with that goal. In fact, the US has seen a 37% decline in clean energy investments in 2012 from 2011 during the same period. More pressure must be put on the President and Congress to ensure adequate investment. From 2008-2011, the government via Treasury and the Federal Reserve spent nearly $8 trillion propping up our failing banking system. Just imagine the scale of innovation that would commence if a similar amount was applied to further developing clean energy.


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How to Alleviate Economic Inequality

My previous post discussed the flow- like nature of monetary transactions, a model that roughly explains how wealth comes to be distributed so unevenly [worldwide, the top 1% held about 40% of all wealth in 2000 (, a number that has certainly not fallen since]. However, like any model, this one that I mentioned has its flaws. For one, the economy isn’t quite a “finite- sized system” – governments and banks continually create money out of nothing. Things like water and air are more or less finite, but wealth is essentially man-made: there was once no money, and now there is a whole lot. Additionally, natural systems of flow (like the examples from my previous post) are largely unimpeded. Sure, we’ve put up dams and levees, but we have many more ways to alter the “natural” flow/distribution of money. We’ve recognized that, by allowing for the uneven distribution of money, we are allowing for entire communities and nations to become impoverished. As Jason pointed out in his last post (, this leads to the added problem of increased global environmental impact. So, what are these mechanisms for altering the flow of money to avoid the supposed inevitability of inequality? Here are a few:

1)      Income tax: A progressive tax code – one where tax rate essentially increases with income – logically reduces inequality. Allowing the poor to pay their debts and accumulate wealth, while those with stockpiles of money shoulder more of the tax burden naturally creates the conditions for equality of opportunity. Of course, we must be careful not to enter the territory that conservatives fear – where we will create a disincentive to work (if such a territory truly exists).

2)      Other taxes: Other areas of the tax code can have a similar effect. For example, taxes on capital gains, properties, and other assets affect only those who are wealthy enough to have any of these assets in the first place. On the other hand, gasoline tax, sales taxes, and licensing taxes (marriage, hunting, etc.) tend to affect everyone equally. Variations in these tax rates thus clearly affect the degree inequality (for a relevant example, see:

3)      Government spending: Social programs, from welfare, food stamps, and unemployment benefits to public education and healthcare, can also increase equality of opportunity. Conversely, defunding these programs (like we’re seeing now) increases economic inequality. Government subsidies for basic goods and services such as food, gasoline, and housing would also fall under this umbrella.

4)      Reducing higher education costs: This one’s pretty obvious, too. Making college unaffordable for the poor exacerbates the issue of economic inequality. One method is to increase the availability of scholarships and loans. I think a better solution is to fund more public education, being that a college degree has become basically essential and demand is relatively inelastic.

5)      Raising the minimum wage: Clearly, minimum wage was established for a reason: so that poor, unskilled worked are not essentially enslaved by employers due to an over-abundance of labor. Raising the minimum wage regularly (with inflation) at the very least helps to keep inequality from growing.

6)      Unionization: When workers are allowed to unionize, they typically either mitigate income inequalities or bargain for conditions that have the same result in the long-run. There is obviously a reason why businesses tend not to like them.

7)      Regulating businesses: Corporations are regulated by health, safety, and environmental regulations, because it is simply not in their economic interest to self-regulate. When sectors of the economy become deregulated, there are naturally increases in environmental pollution, public health problems, worker disability, etc. The costs of these problems are either passed on to the public or the employees themselves – both of which increase economic inequality: more wealth for corporate executives and stockholders, less wealth for lower- ranking employees and the public (the relative public burden, of course, depends on the tax code). I’m sure we all recall the obvious example of this with the recent fiscal disaster and subsequent “bailout”.

8)      Property distribution – Similar to redistributing wealth, governments can also re-appropriate land for public or private use. I am reminded of the short-lived “40 acres and a mule” policy post- civil war, but more modern examples involve the use of “eminent domain”. When used the right way, this can lead to increased equality.

9)      Reducing discrimination – Basically, the definition of discrimination is to decrease equality (of opportunity, income, etc.) to one group, thus benefitting another. Creating and enforcing anti-discrimination laws necessarily increases equality.

10)   Inhibiting “globalization”(?) – When American- owned companies produce goods in other nations, the working class in America suffers from increased unemployment and lower wages while corporate profits increase. However, such processes also employ the impoverished in other countries – so, on a global scale, it’s kind of a wash, though it certainly increases domestic inequality.

11)   Limiting immigration (?) – Along the same lines, an influx of immigrants would increase labor competition. The net result is more domestic inequality, while global inequality would seemingly fall. I guess with these last two, policy would depend on your motives.

Okay, so that list was even longer than I’d thought, and it is surely incomplete. I can only hope that there are even more mechanisms yet to be uncovered. The biggest issue in play is that inequality of wealth actually begets greater inequality:

– The rich save more money because they don’t need to spend it on necessities (that is, their marginal propensity to consume is lower).

– They also have a disproportionate effect on government. Think campaign contributions and lobbying efforts.

– They also earn more money on their money. With money to spare, it can be invested in interest- bearing assets. Even think of how bank accounts work: you earn interest if you have a lot of money, but get charged fees when you don’t have enough (I’ve recently shelled out $12 for a couple months during which my account balance dipped below a certain amount).

In class, we’ve discussed ways that physicists (and mathematicians/ economists) measure income inequality (namely, the Gini coefficient: Perhaps now we, as physicists (who are hopefully seeking to increase economic equality), can seek to physically model how the aforementioned “cures” affect inequality and discover how to tweak the variables in a way that will save the world. No big deal. Then, all we need to do is convince policymakers to wield their power for good – or maybe just become policymakers ourselves.

I leave you now with this recent video on wealth inequality in America:

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Poverty and Affluence and Environmental Impact

Poverty and Affluence and Environmental Impact

It is important to point out the differences in how poor societies and wealthy societies affect the environment. Poverty impacts the environment negatively. The definition of poverty is being unable to meet one’s basic needs. Such needs include food, water, shelter, healthcare and education. Roughly half the world’s people live in such conditions. Their focus is on obtaining the basic needs for short-term survival. Many of these people are forced to deplete or degrade forests, rivers, fields, and soil. These groups don’t have the privilege to be concerned about environmental impact. Many poor people throughout the world die very prematurely from health problems as a result of environmental degradation.

One such problem is a lack of access to properly sanitized facilities. More than a third of the world’s population does not have adequate bathrooms. The have no choice other than to use outdoor fields and streams for elimination. The result is that over a billion people obtain water from sources that are contaminated from human and animal waste. A second problem would be malnutrition. People living in poverty stricken environments do not receive sufficient amount of nutrients for proper health. Many of these people die at a young age from normally treatable illnesses. The third most common problem is respiratory illness. In poorer areas people rely on burning wood or coal within their own homes as a means of cooking or just staying warm. Such actions lead them to breathe in high concentrations of indoor air pollutants. The World Health Organization states that about seven million people die each year from these conditions. About two thirds of these people are children under the age of five.

            Affluence on the other hand, affects the environment both positively and negatively. However, the negative effects of affluence on the environment are far greater than those caused by poverty. People who live in well-developed areas such Europe, Canada, and the US, or rapidly developing areas such as China and India exist in high consumer societies. Such a lifestyle leads to unnecessary depletion of resources. Such affluence has terrible consequences for the environment. G. Tyler Miller and Scott E. Spoolman give us a more specific example of this disparity. “While the United States has far fewer people than India, the average American consumes about 30 times as much as the average citizen of India and 100 times as much as the average person in the world’s poorest countries.” [1] The environmental impact caused by one person in the US is far greater the average environmental impact caused by someone in an undeveloped country.

            The flip side is that affluence can also be a source of help for the environment. People living in well-developed societies have the luxury to be more concerned about environmental impact. Affluent societies have the financial means to invest in technological research that can reduce pollution and other forms of consumer waste. Wealthier nations tend to have cleaner air and water. The food supplies are also better sanitized which leads to longer life spans. Money has the power to improve environmental status since it can finance scientific research. Wealthier societies also generally have higher levels of education, which encourages people to demand that governments and corporations be more environmentally friendly. This duality is what leads to the graph known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This graph demonstrates that as the GDP per capita increases, the environmental impact increases until a certain point in which it starts to drop again but at a slower rate than when it was increasing. The following graph taken from the World Bank in 2005 demonstrates this phenomenon by showing the CO2 emissions (kt) of fifteen different countries with varying degrees of GDP per Capita (dollars).

The x-coordinate system is measured in dollars and represents GDP per Capita. The y-coordinate system is measured in kt and represents CO2 emissions.

The countries included are Belgium, Egypt, Ghana, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Namibia, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, and Switzerland. Ghana is the poorest and Switzerland is the richest. As you can see accumulation of wealth results in an initial rapid increase of environmental impact but at a certain point this changes and we start to see a decrease in impact, although at a much slower rate. Here are some examples of countries when viewed on their own. These graphs, ranging from 1960 to 2008, also display the relationship between CO2 emissions (kt) and GDP per Capita (dollars).

For each of the five following graphs, the x-coordinate system is measured in dollars and represents GDP per Capita and the y-coordinate system is measured in kt and represents CO2 emissions.

As you can see countries like Switzerland, Sweden, and the United States follow a very similar pattern. Countries like Belgium and the United Kingdom, on the other hand, are much less similar. While it is true that wealth can bring environmental protection, this should not be seen as a reason to celebrate the rich and demonize the poor. The affluence of these countries relies very heavily on exploitation of poorer communities. Furthermore, affluent people tend to be blind to the ways in which consumerism leads to environmental degradation, even if they are generally against such problems. What all of this means, is that poverty and environmental justice are inseparable. It is not possible to tackle the issue of environmental protection without also dealing with the problems of poverty and class structure. To do so would be to drive due north with blinders on.


  1. Miller, G. Tyler. Spoolman, Scott E. Sustaining the Earth: An Integrated Approach. Cengage Learning Inc. Copyright 2009. Page 15.
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Did you know that a renewable energy source is the biggest electricity producer in NYS?

The mechanical energy from a fraction of the water headed towards Niagra Falls is converted into electrical  energy (around 2.4 million kW!) as it moves through the Lewiston Pump-Generating Plant. The system, which harnesses energy even when energy use is low, can serve as a model for engineers looking for more effective ways to store solar or wind energy.

One of the main arguments against solar/wind energy is that they may not be the most reliable sources. Although the solar energy that comes down during the day is more than enough to please consumption rates, what happens at night? Or after a week of clouds and rain? The same type of questions are asked of wind energy. As of right now, even the most efficient storage isn’t enough to harness enough excess energy for later use.

A popular suggestion is to combine solar and wind energy with pump-generators much like the one at Niagra Falls. Ideally, excess energy produced during peak times – during the day for solar and whenever it’s windiest for wind – would be used to pump water up an incline into a reservoir. Once the sun set or the wind stopped and the reserve of energy was used up, the water would be let down the incline, flow through generators that converted the mechanical energy into electricity, and into a ‘lake’ at the bottom to be used again the next day.

Although some say that this system wouldn’t work in areas without natural inclines, I say just build an incline! Solar farms are already being built in areas considerably out of everyone’s way, due to popular NIMBY sentiments, so what affect would an artificial lake and hill have?

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Why Aren’t We More Energy Efficient?

So carbon emission rates have been high, and that makes sense due to the fuels we use to supply energy to the people.  There has been a cry to use sustainable, renewable energy to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide people release into the atmosphere and protect the environment.  So far, people have come up with many options, such as hydroelectricity, solar energy, and wind energy, but why aren’t we more energy efficient?

It’s not that people don’t want to protect their environment.  People have generally accepted that it is important for them to take care of the Earth so that their children will still have a place to live and the Earth won’t be completely miserable.  However, most people haven’t really been doing much to help things themselves.  Instead, they go tell someone else to do it.

One of the many reasons for this is because energy efficiency isn’t pretty.  Kate Plourd, Senior Account Executive of Solomon McCown & Company, states that “energy efficiency has a messaging problem and- plain and simple-the energy efficiency industry has to market an un-sexy product that doesn’t thrill most Americans.”  The term “energy efficiency” is an unattractive word in itself.  Some forms of sustainable energy aren’t pretty either.  Wind turbines aren’t a pretty sight.  “Supporters of energy efficiency will make more of an impact if serious efforts are made to educate and excite individuals on energy efficiency and how making their homes smarter about how they use energy is the right and smart thing to do.”

The next question is of convenience.  How convenient is it for people to switch over to another energy source?  People drive cars.  The “findings of SIM Air’s 20 cities study that shows that in Delhi [India], cars emit as much as 56% of the CO2 from vehicles” (India Shies Away From Setting Fuel Economy Standards).  The Indian market is currently dominated by small cars, but there is a shift heading towards mid-sized and large cars.  Obviously, this means that more gas will be needed to power these cars and there will be a higher rate of carbon dioxide emission.  In a review by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a “10% increase in large vehicle sales results in a 2% deterioration in fleet fuel economy” (India Shies Away From Setting Fuel Economy Standards).  Nevertheless, if you have a large family, will it be convenient for you to get a smaller car?  No.  Is it worth it to get an electric or hybrid car?  In the long run, it would be.  But some families cannot afford the price in the short run.

So enough about people; why aren’t governments trying to make their countries more energy efficient?  Many countries just look out for themselves.  Sometimes, it’s cheaper to work overseas and other countries have lenient environmental laws.  Other times, it could be that a certain not-eco-friendly method has been successful for other countries for decades, so why go for something new?  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  In a case of US vs. India, India is trying to use solar panels, but the “US charges that India’s National Solar Mission is discriminating against foreign solar companies.”  Meanwhile, India says that the US is subsidizing solar panels to India, in turn making Indian solar manufacturing companies uncompetitive.  If turning to solar power will hurt the Indian economy, India will be opposed to sustainable energy.

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Population: on the rise?

A growing population is a constant worry when living in a closed environment with limited resources. But… is the population really going to grow? Below I talk about projections provided by various sources such as UN and census.

50 years used a simple formula[1] to reach an estimated 9.8 billion population by 2050 while the UN reached a range with a low 7.4 billion and a high of 10.6 billion. A research team from the Autonomous University of Madrid, publicized an interesting study in which they predict the world population will stabilize by 2050 by using the fertility rates provided by the UN they were able to create a model that showed that the population will stabilize and decrease over the span of 50 years.

source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat(2000). World Population to 2300. New York: United Nations.

source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat(2000). World Population to 2300. New York: United Nations.

100 years
The UN has provided projections based on fertility variants. The 2010 projection shows an outlook of a little over 10 billion in 2100 with a high 27 billion and a low of 6 billion.

300 years
Further projections are included in the UN’s earlier publication of 2000. With the population being at well below 6 billion due to the difficulty in maintaining the replacement of parents (each couple producing 2 children).

source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat(2000). World Population to 2300. New York: United Nations.

*Of course none of these estimates include scenarios such as natural disasters or epidemics.

Predicting the future population is just that : a prediction. Though these predictions are detailed and backed by billions of dollars there is no way to know the population in 2050, 2100 or 2300 until . Although pyramids are becoming pillar in form in developing countries[2], nothing is set in stone.


[1] r(t)=[((p(t+1)-p(t))/p(t)]*100
t = year
r(t) = growth rate from midyear t to midyear t+1
p(t)= population at midyear t

[2] See previous post.

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Keystone XL essential for tar sands development

Earlier this year, the Obama administration, via its Department of State, concluded an environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline–the notorious transnational pipeline linking the world to the spigot of its second largest oil reserve in Alberta, Canada. Despite tar sands oil being the world’s dirtiest form of fossil fuel–inaccessible by drilling and requiring a wholesale evisceration of landscape–and the instrumental role the pipeline plays in the expansion of tar sands, the administration concluded the project would not pose a risk to climate change.

The State Department’s reasoning did not downplay the catastrophic effect tapping into the reserves would pose for climate change (aptly described by climate journalist Joe Romm as a “carbon bomb”). Rather, it concluded the pipeline’s effect as “neutral” since the oil would be mined, refined, and burned regardless of whether or not the pipeline was built. In other words, the extraction of the tar sands would happen in any event, so the construction of Keystone XL on-balance changes nothing in regards to tar sands development, as some other pipeline would be built  anyway to accommodate production.

However, according to the industry’s own expectations of future tar sands extraction, the Keystone XL is instrumental in its further development and even profitability. Currently, Canada’s tar sands industry produces about 1.8 million barrels per day and has publicized plans to nearly triple production from to 5.2 million barrels a day by 2030. Additionally, according to a report by CIBC World Markets Inc., constraints in pipeline capacity–the ability to transport tar sands oil to refineries and world markets–will reach a critical level as early as 2016. Without an increase in capacity to reach international markets, the high capital costs of extraction will render tar sands oil too costly to produce and lead companies to abandon projects and reduce guidance. Keeping demand high by providing international markets access to tar sands oil is crucial in keeping extraction cost-effective, and without such access, would render planned projects inviolable.  Even if all other pipeline projects currently proposed by Canada to transport oil to its West Coast for export were actualized, the Keystone XL pipeline would represent 36% of the pipeline capacity needed to achieve a 5 million barrel per day production target, according to Pembina Institute’s Jan ’13 analysis.

The Keystone XL would thus allow the tar sands oil extracters access to new markets and to receive a higher price for their product (as currently 99% of tar sands exports are exported to the US and compete with far cheaper WTI crude and locally produced natural gas). The proposed pipeline would directly link Canada’s dirty oil with refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast which provides easy access to the international markets of Europe and Asia (where oil is sold at a higher premium). Worse of all, tar sands oil is projected to be the fastest growing source of emissions in Canada and has been described by leading climate scientist James Hansen as rendering “implausable” any chance to stabilize climate change and avoid “disastrous global climate impacts.”

Unfortunately, the State Department decided not to take all this into account when conducting its environmental impact review of the pipeline. Perhaps that is because the very firm this project was outsourced to–Environmental Resources Management–which, according to Grist, “was paid an undisclosed amount under contract to TransCanada to write the statement”. Instead of relying on objective analysis from established climate scientists, the administration handed off the review to a lobbyist and consultant of the company proposing to build the pipeline in the first place. The result is a whitewashed report on perhaps the most important climate change decision of our time, one that Hansen  has called a possible “game over” for the climate.


Posted in Climate Change | 2 Comments