Archive | August 2015

Do you have a flag?

I saw this in IFLScience: Planet Earth Now Has A Flag | IFLScience. Boy am I relieved.

Yes, this is a beautiful flag, and my little utopian heart dreams that things like this can help unite us in love for planet Earth, etc.

The cynical bastard side of me, though, is also quite pleased. See, once we use up this planet, we’re gonna need a new one. This means we must make some serious investments in space research.

For instance, we’ll need to keep advancing our ability to detect new, potentially habitable planets. We’ll need new propulsion techniques — or, better, as-yet-unrealized advances in physics that enable us to get there quickish while still remaining alive. We’ll need better ways to recycle air and everything else aboard a spacecraft and withstand all the weird effects of space on the human body. And of course we’ll have to find somewhere we won’t be instantly broiled or frozen sandblasted to death.

But luckily for us, the most crucial part of the enterprise has already been taken care of. We don’t want to work our way into space over maybe hundreds of years, put up with burning and freezing and weird gravity and mind-bending physics and the intensity of the void and all that, and finally come to Earth Phase II and stride out onto its surface and look around us with hope and pride only to be greeted by some other species that already lives there just looking at us skeptically with its 85,000 calcium carbonate eyes and being like, “Yeah, bro, but do you have a flag?

We have a flag.

“We stole [planets], through the strategic use of flags.”
Image credit: Oskar Pernefeldt, via IFLScience

Commence with the space-conquering.


Watch your ass(umptions)

How many differences can you spot? (Answer: irrelevant)

How many differences can you spot? (Answer: I can’t remember the picture on the left, so I’m’a say none?)

Studies such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have given us a rough picture of how much human activity impacts the rest of the biosphere. Answer: approximately as much as a live-in gang on PCP would impact your house. Many industrial groups and others trying to reduce their environmental impact have done studies on a finer scale. Known as life cycle assessments, these studies try to determine, say, exactly how much water is needed to produce one Australian pig, or how much pesticide is used to produce a kilogram of cacao beans. This is a serious step toward making improvements, marginal though they often are in the grand scheme of things.

Now it turns out that even companies trying to measure their environmental impact (at least in terms of land use–forests lost, carbon not sequestered, water not recharging the aquifers) are probably underestimating, according to a study in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. This is because, when people conduct life cycle assessments, they often consider the land from the perspective of its current use. If you’re going to knock down a forest to build a new factory, that impact is counted. However, if you have already built a factory, an LCA (at least, an attributional LCA, the form commonly used for quantifying the impacts of current practices) doesn’t normally consider the fact that your factory could still *be* a forest, or could return to being a forest if given the chance. This is akin to having a home inspector come in while your house is occupied by the PCP-gang and make note of the conditions, then go away. If he returns and finds the gang still there, his response is to nod amiably, since there has been no change. He never saw the hydrangea bushes *before* they were on fire. Maybe he even thinks things are better now, since someone put a tarp over the hole in the roof.

The paper, by Sampo Soimakallio of the Finnish Environmental Institute and several colleagues, argues that an LCA should use a baseline that takes into account natural succession. The impact of your cacao farm on the surrounding ecosystem should be considered on the basis of what would happen if the cacao farm stopped operating. Instead of what is there, you try to take into account what could be there. Obviously a cacao farm isn’t going to turn back into a rainforest overnight, but nature could do something with your farm if you weren’t farming it. Land permanently occupied, then, is land that cannot be (re)occupied by natural ecosystems, and an LCA that fails to recognize this is underestimating our ongoing impact on the land.