Tag Archives: Review

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

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Cradle to Cradle – A review

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Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is about envisioning a better way to manage human interactions with the natural world. The authors ask,

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Starting from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, they analyze the design decisions that led capitalist society to the environmental crossroads it faces today. While things weren’t quite so dire in 2002 when the book was written, its analyses of the pitfalls of rampant industrialization are thorough and thought provoking.

The most refreshing part of this book though is it isn’t just a list of where capitalism went wrong and why we’re all doomed. Cradle to Cradle outlines ways in which designers, engineers, and scientists can work together to deconstruct the current way we make things and redesign our material lives to benefit the natural world. The main idea, which I find to be very solarpunk, is to look at how in nature there is no waste. Everything serves a purpose in the environment. The fruit of the cherry tree feeds birds and animals while those animals spread the seeds of the tree. The droppings of those birds and animals fertilize the ground where the cherry tree and its offspring grow so that they can offer more food. Everything has its place in the cycle.

In one project, a shampoo was redesigned from scratch to only have positive effects by carefully selecting every chemical going into it, including the bottle. Herman Miller had a new factory designed including natural lighting, more ventilation, and a “street” with plants inside to bring nature closer to the workers. As we saw with the Nature Fix, bringing humans and nature together has positive benefits for human health, and by bringing the outdoors in, Herman Miller was able to bring its new focus on environmental sustainability to the forefront.

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The book isn’t just anecdotes and feel-good aphorisms, it also includes a framework for how to approach design to ensure maximum good. One of the ongoing themes in the book is that so far, most industry has tried to do less bad to the environment when it cares at all, but it’s time to go a step further and see how we can take industry and make it improve the world around us.

A success story in this vein tells of a textile factory in Europe that worked to make a better upholstery fabric for office chairs. When the regulators came to check the factory’s wastewater (effluent), they were confused as the water coming out of the plant was cleaner than that going in.

The equipment was working fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufacturing process, this dividend is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.

One of the things I’m hoping to investigate further in 2019 is the circular economy, and I think the design strategies outlined in Cradle to Cradle are a good first step in this direction. I found there is a followup book called The Upcycle written in 2013 that I will be checking out from the library soon.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle or have thoughts on the circular economy? Let us know below!

2018 – A Retrospective

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When I started Solarpunk Station in January, I was hoping to address some of the more common criticisms of the movement. Namely, there’s not enough practical solarpunk, and that solarpunk is’t really punk, just a lot of pretty, utopic pictures without any substance.

In the upcoming year, I’m hoping to refocus and bring you more practical solarpunk projects. Writing a book review about the health benefits of nature is a lot easier than getting out in the woods to experience it. Writing about cryptocurrency is a lot simple than exploring the limits of distributed manufacturing technology.

Right now, I’m in the planning stages of two modest, but real projects that I hope to share in 2019. Do I hope to do more? Yes. But I need to start somewhere, and I’ve learned that when I try to start too big I might not be able to finish.

In the face of all that’s going on, I realize that trying to live more sustainability might seem pointless. I think finding a better way to live that is lighter on Mother Earth is something that I need to do for me. Trying to make more sustainable choices is something that helps me feel more in tune with the world around me. I’m no enviro-saint; I’m just trying to do the best I can and learning from my mistakes along the way.

Feel free to forgive yourself and learn. When you come across climate deniers or other people with belligerent world views, remember that ideals and ideas are mutable. I was once a climate skeptic, but after meeting with scientists at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) I was able to see why the concern was real.

Encourage open-mindedness in your opponents through empathy and understanding. Shouting matches rarely breed thoughtful discourse. That said, it’s not your responsibility to convert the world. There are toxic, dangerous people out there, so if something feels off, disengage. Don’t feel obligated to get yourself hurt trying to convince people that climate change is real. If you’re a brave soul who can go out to protests and direct action, more power to you. If you can write your elected officials or sign a petition, that’s great too. There’s no one way to win the fight for a solarpunk future, so do what you can, when you can.

I’m a maker, so I’m going to try to use my skills to make this world a little better. If you can, see what skills you have and think of ways you can use your powers for good. Feel free to share any ideas or questions below.

The Nature Fix – A Book Review

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Do you feel more relaxed after going for a walk in the woods? Does the scent of conifers make you think of happy times? The Nature Fix by Florence Williams investigates the connection between nature and human well-being, physical and mental.

As a scientist, I’m always excited to bury myself nose-deep in a new area of investigation, and I’ve found that popular science books are one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with something you’ve never studied before. Instead of getting bogged down in equations and minutia, you can dive right in and see what the science has to do with your life. Williams has done a brilliant job in The Nature Fix connecting the dots between how you feel during your day and how much exposure to nature you get.

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While skimming photos of mountains and trees on Instagram might help you relax, it turns out that your other senses play an important role in your well-being. For instance, researchers in Korea have found that the smell of cypress trees have health benefits and some of the compounds the trees produce may even deter cancer.

Other researchers Williams talked to have found that sound plays an important role in our health. Bird song can have a positive effect, while many human-made noises such as jet aircraft can overstimulate the fight-or-flight aspects of our brains. One example from the book is that the “World Health Organization attributes thousands of deaths per year in Europe to heart attack and stroke caused by high levels of background noise.”

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Williams goes into biology, evolution, neuroscience, and sociology to really see what it is about nature that is so compelling. To really improve your mood and health, some Finnish researchers interviewed suggested a minimum of five hours of nature per month. As this can be difficult for the increasingly large proportion of people who live in cities, she points to examples like Singapore that endeavor to be a city in a garden. This really appeals to my solarpunk tendencies as cities that are full of lush, native plant life and provide physical and mental stimulation to their residents are my ideal.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Nature Fix to anyone who is interested in nature, even the tiniest amount. I would also suggest that all health professionals should read it regardless of their interest in the outdoors. I got my copy from my local library, but you can also find it through IndieBound here.

Have you read The Nature Fix? What did you think of it?

Team Human discusses AI and consciousness (podcast suggestion)

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Are you a solarpunk wondering, “Am I using technology, or is it using me?” If so, Team Human is the podcast for you. Every week, Douglas Rushkoff meets with guests to discuss what it means to be human in the digital age.

If you’re concerned about AI, consciousness, and how artists can relate to technology, the discussion with Kenric McDowell from Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence group will be right up your alley. If that’s not your thing, check out their archive of other shows.

I really love the way Team Human remains positive about technology while still being critical. Technology can be a great tool, but we need to make sure we’re using it as a tool, and not becoming tools for the technology. One of the things that is a repeating theme is that the internet held so much promise but then was invaded by corporate interests who turned it into an advertising platform. While some people say you should unplug if you are worried about privacy and manipulation through the internet, that isn’t really a reasonable option for most people. Team Human is here to help us navigate the murky waters of humans and machines working together.

Do you listen to Team Human? If so, what episodes would you recommend? For more podcasts I think solarpunks would find interesting, check out the Resources page!

 

 

Glee Gum – A solarpunk gum?

As a solarpunk trying to reduce my impact, I’ve been looking for easy switches to more sustainable products. I chew a lot of gum, but when I started doing more research I found that most gums on the market contained plastics that don’t break down in the environment. While I’m not plastic-free, I wanted to find gum that tasted good and didn’t leave a permanent mark on the planet. Enter Glee Gum.

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I found a store in town that had it and grabbed two different flavors to try: peppermint and lemon-lime. I stick to sugar-free as my teeth need all the help they can get, but Glee also makes sugar gum. Like most fruity gums, the lemon-lime loses its flavor pretty quickly, but the peppermint has better staying power.

Glee is a bit softer than the Trident White gum I’m switching from and it doesn’t end up getting super hard if you chew it for more than 30 minutes like the Trident did. The main disadvantage of Glee Gum is that it is a bit stickier than most mainstream gums. The advantage is not having to deal with empty blister packs of gum.

Empty blister pack of gum

Glee Gum comes in either recyclable cardboard boxes, plastic pouches, or giant 400 piece tubes if you order it in bulk from their website. I decided to order a tube of peppermint from the website after my initial testing was complete. It was shipped in a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper. They even included a little sample of sugar-free watermelon gum! I was super-excited that all the packaging was recyclable and the cost per piece of gum is about the same as the Trident White I was getting at the grocery store, even when I include shipping costs.

Glee Gum Coupon CHEWMORE - Save 15%

Glee Gum Coupon CHEWMORE – Save 15%

Glee has an extensive “Learn More” section about how they make their gum here, and I think they’re making a great product in a really responsible way. You can find a local store that carries Glee Gum on their website, or get it on Amazon here. You buy it online from their store which I think is the only way to get the giant 400 piece tubes.

Do you chew Glee or know of some other good options for solarpunk gum? Sound off in the comments!

Green Jobs: A review

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Green Jobs: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Employment (2008) promises the following on its back cover:

> Get up to date on the green movement’s latest trends
> Choose a career that’s good for the environment — and for you!
> Go for extra training, if needed
> Learn about the exciting advantages of “green collar” employment

Let’s look at how it stacks up…

This book was published in 2008, so we get an interesting snapshot of the “green revolution” right before the Great Recession caused a major setback to climate action. Having 10 years of perspective on where things have gone gives a bittersweet read of what the authors expected of the future. A few of the technologies touted in the book have proven to be dead ends, including a particularly bullish look at fuel cells. Refreshingly, there is some treatment of the geothermal industry which is an often overlooked part of the energy puzzle.

As far as finding a career in the green industry goes, this book has a lot of good resources on companies and organizations to investigate, broken down by job type and skill set. Some of the companies are now defunct, but there is enough information here to get you started looking into interesting industries and finding positions that are a good fit for your particular set of skills and training.

Many community colleges and universities now have programs either in green trades or degrees available. Many of these programs were just starting in 2008, so there may be good programs now in your neck of the woods. As a quick example, the solar industry now employs more people than the coal industry, and most of those workers are in the solar installation business. A large number of schools offer training for the skills you need to install solar panels all around the United States. I suspect this is similar in other countries, but I’m not super-familiar with education abroad.

The primary advantage of getting a job in the green industry is having a job that aligns with your personal values. Some other possible benefits include getting help with cycling or using public transit to go to work. Some companies are headquartered in LEED certified buildings as well, reducing your impact and exposure to VOCs further. Most green jobs will come with your standard benefits of 401K, health insurance, etc. as well.

TL;DR: Green Jobs is a good read, and while some of its information is outdated, it is still a solid starting point if you want to get a job in environmentally sustainable businesses/organizations.

Disclaimer: I use Amazon affiliate links to help keep the lights on here at Solarpunk Station. I borrowed this book from my local library, so you might check out yours to see if you can read it for free. If you do decide to buy, using the links here will help keep the site running. Thanks!