Wisdom Magazine's Monthly Webzine Skip Navigation Links
Wisdom is a web compendium of information with articles, services and products and resources related to holistic health, spirituality and metaphysics.
Home  About  This Month's Articles  Calendar of Events  Classified Listings
 Educational Programs  Sacred Journeys & Retreats  Holistic Resource Directory
 Article Archives  Wisdom Marketplace  Web Partner Links
 Advertising Information
Sue Miller
Karen Clickner
Dancing Heart
Lou Valentino
Elizabeth Joyce
Sue Miller Art
Nancy Johansen
Light Healing
Wisdom Magazine
Alternatives For Healing


by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Besides generating seasonal allergens, do any plants actually reduce air quality or cause air pollution? -- Mike T., San Juan, PR

While many of us thought Ronald Reagan sounded crazy back in 1981 when he told America that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” the then-President may have been on to something.

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley recently unveiled the results of a study in which they determined that certain trees and plants common in Southern California off-gas natural yet nevertheless harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—to attract pollinators, protect against environmental stressors, and repel herbivores—especially during the hottest months of the year. This so-called particulate matter pollution is not only dangerous in and of itself to breathe in as the tiny molecules can get lodged in the lungs, but it also leads to the formation of ground-level ozone and smog.

While Reagan’s comment may have been an utter falsehood back then, who knew it would take the electrification of the transport sector to make it actually ring true today? The only way researchers could have any way of knowing that these plants are a significant contributor to air pollution would be by the elimination of the vast majority of fossil-fuel-derived “background noise” that we are no longer subject to as we breathe in the air around the streets of California—where the nation’s strictest automotive fuel efficiency standards have driven many to Teslas, Bolts, Volts, Leafs, Polestars, e-Trons, Priuses and other green rides—and elsewhere.

The researchers found that over the past two decades, concentrations of these VOCs fell by 50 percent between 1999 and 2012, and then to undetectable levels during the cooler months thereafter. But when the mercury rose, even without additional automotive emissions, so did concentrations of airborne VOCs. Four out of five excessive heat days (with air temps topping 100?) led to unsafe VOC levels outside.

With transportation emissions off the hook as the culprit, researchers looked to the plant community for answers. One of the worst offenders is the iconic and ubiquitous fan palm, but sycamores, poplars, willows and many oaks and pines also off-gas their fair share of VOCs when the weather heats up — which will be happening more frequently as we warm the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Backyard planners and landscape designers concerned about air quality and the environment might want to steer clear of these species when choosing plants.

“I am not suggesting that we get rid of plants, but I want people who are thinking about large-scale planting to pick the right trees,” says Ronald Cohen, the Berkeley atmospheric chemist who led the research effort. “They should pick low-emitting trees instead of high-emitting trees.” If you have the luxury of choosing which trees to plant and/or replace, and you care about your community’s air quality, some good choices include alders, magnolias, manzanitas, birches, hazelnuts, gingkos, apples and elms.
CONTACTS: “With drop in LA's vehicular aerosol pollution, vegetation emerges as major source,”
sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210323150822.htm; “Urban trees and ozone formation,” cekern.ucanr.edu/files/169131.pdf.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental pros and cons of so many of us relying on GPS apps (Waze, Google Maps, etc.) to get around these days? -- B. Rogers, Newark, NJ

It’s hard to measure whether having GPS apps on our smartphones is positive or negative for the planet, but some environmentalists are skeptical. Indeed, the rise of Waze, Google Maps, Inrix and other apps that respond to live traffic data to reroute drivers accordingly—not to mention the concomitant proliferation of app-following Uber and Lyft drivers—has turned millions of formerly main-route-following drivers into sneaky shortcut seekers. Formerly quiet peaceful neighborhoods may never be the same again.

On the plus side, the widespread use of these apps saves individual drivers some time and may slightly reduce the amount of time we all spend burning extra fuel by idling in congested traffic. But the data on this is mixed and warrants further research.

While you may have gotten to work three minutes faster this morning, what was the cost? Neighborhoods everywhere are miffed at the proliferation of cars racing through formerly quiet back streets to circumvent the latest highway logjam. The problem has been especially noticeable in already car-crazed Los Angeles, where neighborhood streets filled up with traffic once Waze hit the market in 2011 and started alerting Angelinos of the fastest, least congested routes to and fro. As more and more drivers followed Waze’s directions, the app sent them deeper and deeper into formerly forlorn byways. With Google Maps, Inrix and others following Waze’s lead, the problem has only gotten worse in recent years.

Research out of the University of California’s Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) concludes that while GPS apps are helping individuals get from point A to B faster, they are also making congestion worse overall. ITS’s traffic simulations show how freeway flow changes in response to an accident when no drivers use GPS apps versus when 20 percent of drivers have them activated. With more app-using drivers, congestion builds up at off-ramps and traffic on the highway slows. “The situation then gets much worse because hundreds of people just like you want to go on the side streets, which were never designed to handle the traffic,” says ITS director Alexandre Bayen. “So, now, in addition to congesting the freeway, you’ve also congested the side streets and the intersections.”

Critics of these apps blame the software designers—not us consumers just trying to get to and from work or the grocery store—for the negative effects on traffic flows and neighborhood peace. If the apps are so smart, why can’t they disperse drivers onto different routes and away from back streets and quiet neighborhoods to smartly reduce congestion overall? To wit, later this year Google Maps will start routing drivers to the most fuel-efficient route—not necessarily the fastest—to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save drivers money in fuel costs. If the greener route is significantly slower than another way, the app will give users the option to choose for themselves, but at least this move is a nod to how much greenhouse gas busting power a little bit of code on your phone can have to help save the planet.

CONTACTS: The Impact of GPS-enabled Shortest Path Routing on Mobility: A Game Theoretic Approach, https://trid.trb.org/view/1495267; “Your Navigation App Is Making Traffic Unmanageable,” spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/your-navigation-app-is-making-traffic-unmanageable; “The Perfect Selfishness of Mapping Apps,” theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/mapping-apps-and-the-price-of-anarchy/555551.

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is "climate feminism?" -- Jim M., Lorton, VA

Climate change impacts the everyday lives of all citizens around the globe, but certain communities are disproportionately affected. Women, in particular, shoulder a disproportionate burden as they are most reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods but lack the needed resources to properly respond to climate disasters. With women representing over 70 percent of the total global population living in poverty, the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of those displaced by climate change are women.

At the very core of female climate change vulnerability is the pervasiveness of patriarchy and gender hierarchies. Throughout history, women have been suppressed in politics, economics and labor, and many are forced to remain in the domestic sphere with the primary duties of raising children. Flooding, drought and other effects of climate change, such as increased heat and air pollution, can disproportionately impact women, particularly pregnant women, causing premature births, stillbirths and other problems.

“[The climate crisis] grows out of a patriarchal system that is also entangled with racism, white supremacy and extractive capitalism,”

says author and climate activist Katharine K. Wilkinson. And while women may be the most impacted by climate disasters, they have limited opportunities to participate in decision-making processes. Wilkinson, co-editor of a recent book of essays on climate feminism called All We Can Save, adds that the unequal impacts of climate change make it harder to achieve a “gender-equal world.”

Despite historical setbacks, climate feminists have made much progress in recent years, with increased female representation in government roles and leadership positions. Today, many of our climate justice leaders are women. Youth activist Greta Thunberg has captured the attention of global leaders, demanding they take immediate action against climate change. U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez developed and proposed the Green New Deal, pushing the U.S. government a step closer to recognizing the scale of our climate crisis and enacting drastic environmental policy changes.

Climate feminists believe women should be leaders in the environmental movement because their experiences with institutional sexism and other inequalities resulting from the way our society is structured engender a deeper commitment to fighting for justice and equality. Additionally, women tend to prioritize making change over being in charge—and recognize the importance of nurturing a sense of community in the broader climate movement.

That said, how can we help advance climate feminism? Men in positions of power can certainly change the face of climate leadership by listening to the ideas of women from diverse backgrounds—and stepping back for women to make the decisions and set the vision. Most important, women need more leadership positions in local sustainable management and development in addition to increased representation in the federal government. National climate policies that are gender-responsive can not only bring greater responsiveness to the public’s needs but also help dismantle ethnic or gender divides in the environmental field, pointing toward a more peaceful and sustainable future.

CONTACTS: “What is Climate Feminism?” https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-climate-feminism; “The Climate Crisis is a Feminist Issue,” msmagazine.com/2019/09/26/the-climate-crisis-is-a-feminist-issue/; All We Can Save, amzn.to/3uAtN5a.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on hydrogen powered fuel cells? Not long ago they were touted as the energy source of the future, but news has been scant of late. -- J. Gorman, Columbia, SC

Indeed, around the turn of the millennium, the development of hydrogen fuel cells to power our transportation sector with renewable, non-polluting power was all the rage among environmentalists and techies alike. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen via an electrochemical reaction to make electricity, with water as the only “exhaust.” The first crude fuel cells were invented in England in the 1830s, but the technology really gained momentum in the 1960s when NASA developed them for the space program.

Unlike traditional batteries, which need to be regularly recharged, fuel cells operate continuously as long as they have a steady supply of oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen is available anywhere and anytime from the air around us. Hydrogen, though also one of the planet’s most common elements, isn’t easily separated from the compound molecules it is usually part of. So, either gasification or electrolysis are used to separate the hydrogen out. But this requires copious amounts of energy, which is most often derived from fossil fuel sources, calling into question just how sustainable fuel cells actually may be.

Start-ups working on fuel cells for the auto industry (Ballard Power, Plug Power) became the darlings of investors in the 1990s and 2000s, but in the intervening two decades hybrids and EVs started to take over the auto sector instead of cars powered by hydrogen, and fuel cell makers shifted most of their attention to the aviation industry. So, what happened? Why aren’t we all driving around in fuel cell cars today?

One major hurdle was the lack of a refueling infrastructure. Internal combustion cars and trucks (and hybrids) can get gasoline at just about every other corner and highway exit across the country. Meanwhile, EV drivers just need an electrical outlet, one of the most ubiquitous pieces of “infrastructure” in our world, to recharge their cars’ batteries for the next 80-200 miles.

But if you do happen to drive one of the 300 fuel cell vehicles sold (or leased) in the U.S. in recent years—Toyota Mirai or Honda Clarity, to name a few, you’ll have to find a hydrogen refueling station to keep the road trip alive. And if you don’t live in California, home to 43 of the nation’s 48 hydrogen refueling stations thanks to the forward-looking state’s Clean Transportation Program, a fuel cell vehicle probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

While fuel cells may not have lived up to their initial hype as the future of the automotive transportation sector, they are playing an increasingly larger role in powering various aspects of the aviation and aerospace industries, where hydrogen production and refueling operations can be relatively centralized. Another growth area for fuel cells is stationary applications. Our existing natural gas distribution system could be modified to pipe hydrogen into our buildings to feed fuel cells to take care of our energy needs. While fuel cells alone may not be the answer to our environmental problems, they are proving to be one of the arrows in the quiver of those trying to be part of the solution.

CONTACTS: Fuel Cell Basics, fchea.org/fuelcells; “Why We Still Can't Deliver on the Promise of Hydrogen Cars,” thedrive.com/tech/33408/why-we-still-cant-deliver-on-the-promise-of-hydrogen-cars; “Hydrogen Fuel is Getting Buzz, But Here’s Why It Hasn’t Gone Mainstream,” news.usc.edu/trojan-family/why-hydrogen-fuel-isnt-mainstream-as-fossil-fuel-alternative/; “What Ever Happened To Fuel Cells?” powermag.com/whatever-happened-to-fuel-cells/.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of XPRIZE, which funds innovations in space exploration technology. Is XPRIZE used to address climate change or other environmental problems? -- J.D. via e-mail

XPRIZE was launched in 1996 to spur innovation in the commercial aerospace sector. Back then, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis offered $10 million to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. That first contest—officially dubbed the Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight—attracted 26 teams from seven countries. The winner didn’t emerge for another eight years, when Mojave Aerospace Ventures’ SpaceShipOne successfully completed the challenge. All told, the contest led to $100 million in aggregate R&D investment by the teams involved, spurring a new track in private commercial space development.

Given the success of this first contest, Diamandis then leveraged the concept and platform to fund innovation in a wide range of sectors, with the mission being to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity” through incentivized competition. No longer focused on just aerospace, XPRIZE now fosters high-profile competitions to motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the world’s grand challenges.

Subsequent XPRIZE competitions since Ansari have distributed $140 million in prizes. Several of the competitions focus on specific niches within aerospace, but the majority tackle other issues. Multi-million-dollar prizes have gone to teams working on designing super-efficient vehicles, accelerating the use of sensing technology to tackle health care problems, and creating a mobile device that can diagnose patients better than or equal to human physicians.

Several others have focused on solutions to vexing environmental problems. A $7 million XPRIZE went to a team building better technologies to map the Earth’s seafloor. A $1.75 million prize went to a project harvesting fresh water from thin air to help alleviate fresh water shortages. A $2 million prize went to researchers developing better ways to study ocean acidification, which prevents some shellfish from forming their skeletons and shells. And a $1 million prize funded a technology for cleaning up seawater surface oil resulting from spillage from ocean platforms, tankers and other sources.

Another recently launched competition, XPRIZE Rainforest, is offering $10 million for the best autonomous technology that can assess the biodiversity of the tropical rainforest and utilize rapid data integration to unlock the secrets to conservation of this vanishing treasure trove of life. And a $20 million prize is still waiting to be claimed by the team that develops the most impactful breakthrough technology to convert CO2 emissions into usable products.

This year will see the launch of the biggest XPRIZE competition to date, with $100 million on the line to those who can develop the most efficient way to help humanity achieve funder Elon Musk’s goal of removing 10 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year until 2050 to help mitigate climate change and restore the planet’s natural carbon balance. Registration for participating teams opened on Earth Day 2021 (April 2021), with the winner to be announced in 2025.

xprize.org; Here’s How Elon Musk’s $100 Million Xprize For Carbon Removal Will Work, techcrunch.com/2021/02/08/heres-how-elon-musks-100-million-xprize-competition-for-carbon-removal-will-work/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org


Add Comment

Article Archives  This Month's Articles  Click Here for more articles by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss
Wisdom Magazine
Nancy Johansen
Light Healing
Elizabeth Joyce
Lou Valentino
Alternatives For Healing
Dancing Heart
Karen Clickner
Sue Miller
Sue Miller Art

Call Us: 413-339-5540 or  |  Email Us  | About Us  | Privacy Policy  | Site Map  | © 2024 Wisdom Magazine