Dry Slot


By: Bogon, 7:11 PM GMT on March 25, 2010

A bit of history

The Green movement is nothing new. There was an upsurge of environmentalism as I was coming of age in the '60s and '70s. OPEC produced the first big oil scare in 1974. People started talking about alternative sources of energy, getting off the grid, throwing away the teevee etc. It was clear that the frontier was closed and that we are all Bozos on this bus.

In 2002 I took a driving vacation to the west coast. At one point I found myself rolling through the sandhills of Nebraska on route 2. For many miles the road follows the Middle Loup River valley. Alongside the road runs a railroad track. As I ascended the high plains toward Alliance, I met train after train, one about every half hour. They were hauling coal from the strip mines in Wyoming to feed hungry power plants back east. Each train was about a mile long, nothing but black coal cars, tons and tons of coal.

Coal Train

I don't know much about scheduling and inventory control of coal-fired power plants, but I'm sure all that coal has been burned by now. All that and ten thousand train loads more.

When I started this blog I stated my intention to stick with weather and to steer clear of politics and religion. My problem with politics and religion is that here is where the discussion turns partisan. Tempers run high, while the level of discourse sinks toward an execrable nadir. My goal is to unite, not polarize, my audience. Alas, these two elements of our culture are so widespread and pervasive that one often trips over political or religious connections with virtually any topic you might name, including weather.

A word to the wise

I mention this because this week my title comes to us from the world of religion. The religion is Islam, and the phrase is Insha'Allah, which means "God willing" in Arabic. You may see different spellings elsewhere. I don't speak Arabic, and I don't pretend to understand all the issues involved in rendering Arabic into western script. For the duration of this blog entry I am adopting an orthography found in Wikipedia.

Throughout many Arabic-speaking parts of the world, if you inquire whether some event is likely to occur, the answer you get will be, "Insha'Allah." This generally reflects an attitude of fatalism on the part of the speaker and his culture. There is no need to strive, because events are subject to the will of God. There is no need to hurry; you may rest easy knowing that God holds your destiny in His hands.

This attitude bugs me. I'm not worried about God. If there is a God, His actions are entirely beyond my control. I assume that God helps the man who helps himself. I am a practical man. When I want to visit the mountains, I head west. I don't sit and wait for the mountains to come to me. I don't have that much time.

Where going green is concerned, we're all running out of time. Forty years ago maybe we could afford a more relaxed approach. After all, we had an extra forty years to work with. Now that time is up, and what's different? We're all a lot older, and the earth is in tougher shape than ever.

My faith

I believe that, everything else being equal, your chances of success improve if you strive to reach your goal. I believe that you will reach it sooner if you proceed without delay. I believe in physical laws such as conservation of mass/energy. If you dump a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the environment, it doesn't just disappear. It goes somewhere, and it does all the things that carbon dioxide can do. You're going to have a billion tons' worth of greenhouse gas warming and oceanic acidification happening. When it comes to natural laws, all sales are final. These laws don't require enforcement. There is no court of appeals. There is no cop you can wheedle out of writing you a ticket.

There you have it: the gospel according to Bogon. You may or may not believe as I do. It doesn't matter. Just as physical laws don't require enforcement, they absolutely do not require belief. They operate. They are measureable. Repeat the measurement and you get the same answer. That is what science is all about. If there is one lesson you need to learn about science, this is it. Science is not about faith. It is about knowledge.

Exhorting the faithful

If you think global warming (or any other form of environmental degradation) is cramping your style, praying isn't going to help. If you want relief from carbon dioxide's greenhouse gas effect, you need to devise some feasible physical or chemical method for taking CO2 out of circulation. At current rates of emission your method must be capable of handling in excess of 28 billion metric tons of CO2 per annum. Otherwise you can look forward to a hot time in the old town tonight.

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The Limits of Growth

By: Bogon, 9:51 AM GMT on March 13, 2010

The state of Texas requires a driver to mount license plates on both ends of his car. North Carolina only requires a plate on the back. A lot of Tarheels leave the front blank. Or, if you wish, you are free to display some other device to make your car easier to identify in the Disneyland parking lot. When I was a kid, my family's car sported a tag from the city of Burlington blazoned with the mantra, "BIGGER BETTER BURLINGTON".

About a mile from our house stood a tall guyed steel tower, the transmitter for WBBB radio. I understood that the station's call sign derived from the city motto. Today the monicker WBBB belongs to a station south of Raleigh. I don't know what the call letters stand for in that context. Gasp! Now that I think of it, pursuing that subplot might lead to a whole other blog entry. Please stand by for a station break!

Okay, welcome back to "BIGGER BETTER". 'Better' is a judgement call, a subjective appraisal. There are any number of ways in which we might consider that a town has improved. Infrastructure. Culture. Amenities. Those sorts of improvements take both imagination and budget, and I see little to suggest that Burlington has an overabundance of either. Speaking for myself, I'm not convinced that Burlington has improved during my lifetime as a place to live. Something tells me that I'm not alone. Quality of life is not the subject of today's blog, however, so I'll defer further discussion of that topic.

'Bigger' implies growth. Politicians and economists are always talking about the benefits of growth. A city may grow geographically by expanding its limits or demographically by increasing its population.

Burlington has grown both ways during the forty years since I left it to begin my adult life. The city's penchant for annexation is hampered by the proximity of a dozen other communities which surround it. To the east lies Haw River. Graham anchors the southeast. Elon blocks the west end. This is, after all, the East Coast: the part of colonial North America that has been settled longest and is now most densely populated. There's a town over every hill.

You can see it best from the window of a plane at night. Almost the entire landscape is illuminated. You can pick out bodies of water as pools of darkness rimmed in light. As you fly west across the Mississippi the fine mesh of lights begins to thin into a sparser grid. Each town is a bright nexus joined to its neighbors by gossamer threads of highway lit by vehicles and streetlamps.

USA by Night

Astronomers complain about the effects of light pollution on their observations. Skyglow is the bane of astronomers everywhere. One might think that it would be possible to find dark skies in the remote desert southwest, but the coruscating neon of Las Vegas ruins the seeing for hundreds of miles in every direction.

Las Vegas

That electric glow spreads from man's domain. Nature is exiled to dark corners. Those bits of landscape where the natural world has been marginalized are being nibbled away, fragmented and assimilated. There is real estate to be sold, fortunes to be made. There are more and more people and less and less of everything else.

Unlike my ancestors I don't have to defend my house against bears and bison. Both are part of my natural heritage. Today the only place I'll find a bison in North Carolina is in the museum, stuffed. There are a few bears left in the mountains and swamps, where they are subject to poaching. Our twisted economic system is such that, the rarer the animal, the greater the poacher's incentive. That setup pretty much guarantees eventual extinction. A proper system would value the live animal over the collected trophy. The animal is a renewable resource. The trophy is dead, finished; it will never beget another trophy. Thus, in our system, the poacher is tricked into working against everyone's self-interest, his own included.

As a man I am part of the 'winning' side, but I worry. We flatter ourselves that we are masters of the planet. It's a lie. We still rely on the natural world for essential services such as recycling our air and water. Historically these services were regarded as externalities, beneath our notice. That attitude is reflected in our language in expressions such as "free as air". How much is fresh breathable air worth to you? How long are you prepared to do without? Economists are only beginning to include environmental services in calculations of costs and risks. In the meantime our atmosphere and oceans serve as communal cesspools. It's called the tragedy of the commons.

There is a complex and poorly understood stratum of life dedicated to processing waste streams. At the lowest levels it is comprised of microscopic bacteria and fungi. At the top we see vultures and other scavengers. We tend to hold these organisms in low esteem, even though our lives depend on them.

Garbage collection is one of the services, along with water and sewer, for which I send a monthly payment to the City of Burlington. Once a week I trundle to the curb with my garbage can. Each Tuesday morning the municipal garbage truck roars down my street emptying all the waiting cans. All the trucks from all over town convey their contents to the county landfill. I confess I don't know much about landfills. I don't spend much of my time thinking about them. If it weren't for the marvels of modern digital communications the story might end here. Fortunately for you, dear reader, a couple clicks of my mouse divulged this fascinating overview.

Here are a few salient facts:

* The facility, known as the Austin Quarter Landfill, began operation in March 1994, when the Swepsonville landfill closed.
* 536 total acres designated for landfill purposes.
* The current facility is expected to be usable for 60 years.

Hmm, I wonder at that last item. Does it mean that the landfill will serve the needs of bigger, better, burgeoning Burlington (and all the other settlements in Alamance County) for sixty years, or merely that it is constructed sturdily enough to endure sixty years? What happens after the sixty years? How soon after the landfill closes can it be recycled into, say, a park or housing development? How long until we can stop monitoring for leachates and methane?

One thing I do know about landfills is that eventually they get full. When that happens, the usual remedy is to open another landfill. Alamance County is big enough to accommodate approximately 500 landfills the size of the Austin Quarter facility. Of course, if there were that many, everyone in Alamance, Bellemont, Burlington, Graham, Haw River, Green Level, Elon, Mebane, Ossipee, Swepsonville, Saxapahaw, Altamahaw, Snow Camp, Eli Whitney, Mt. Hermon, Gibsonville, Pleasant Grove and the other communities of Alamance County would have to move, because nobody wants to live next to a landfill.

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Updated: 4:11 AM GMT on March 14, 2010


About Bogon

Unemployed software engineer. "What is that?", you may ask. It's someone who has time to blog about the weather...

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