Archive for the ‘environment’ category

The paper chase

June 12, 2011

Here’s an interesting fact. Last year my university used an estimated 2 million sheets of paper on which to print out electronic files or photocopy materials. Two million. That’s our contribution to what I believe is an annual consumption of paper across the world amounting to around 522 million tons. It is beyond me to try to work out what that means in terms of the world’s use or abuse of scarce natural resources, destruction of forests and pollution of the environment.

But it does make me wonder why we – and I mean all of us – still print so much stuff. I still find myself going to meetings at which everyone is reading print-outs of documents. Students are still being required to submit work in hard copy. All over our universities reports that nobody will read in any format are being presented on glossy paper.

I’m no better than anyone else. I still have and use a printer. But I have started to put most of my papers on my iPad and taken that to the meetings. And I’ll try to find other ways of avoiding this particular environmental craziness, including ways of minimising paper consumption in the university as a whole. Something for all of us to consider?

Universities not bottling it

November 6, 2010

One of the things I didn’t know until recently is that universities and colleges account for quite an astounding percentage of the sale of bottled water – in particular water sold in small bottles. These (almost invariably plastic) bottles in turn have become a major environmental issue: it would not be so if the bottles were all consistently recycled, but those sold in universities almost always are not.

There are of course many solutions to this, including the use of water fountains (although these often involve plastic glasses with similar issues), encouraging people to use tap water, setting up proper and convenient recycling bins, and so forth. But for now, on most campuses thousands of bottles are sold and then discarded – if we are lucky, in some litter bin, or quite often just thrown away at random.

Now in the United States a number of universities have banned the sale of bottled water this autumn in order to tackle this environmental problem. We should probably be considering something similar here, and also use the occasion to look again more generally at the environmental impact of what we do. Universities are educators, employers and businesses, and environmentally conscious programmes initiated there tend to have a disproportionate effect. It’s time to act responsibly.

Environmental symbolism

April 2, 2010

I think it was in 1973. At the time the developed world was rocked by the oil crisis that had arisen from the conflict in the Middle East. Back then I was living in Germany, and the government there decreed that for one month every Sunday would be ‘car free’. On those days citizens were not allowed to take their cars on the road, except for some exempted categories. I remember enjoying these Sundays and taking quite long trips by bicycle on completely empty roads. I don’t remember what the impact on oil consumption was of these days, but there must have been at least some effect.

So how useful are these perhaps rather symbolic occasions? Do they make a major difference? I suppose there are conflicting stories here. For a few years now we have, together with other countries, had a so-called ‘car free’ day in September, but the impact of this appears at least in Dublin to have been close to zero. It seems that in Ireland we are unwilling to support the environmental cause by practising self-restraint in our driving. On the other hand, the recent practice of designating an ‘Earth Hour’ on a day in March, which came out of Australia in 2007 and which now has support in nearly 100 countries, seems to have caught the imagination rather better. This year’s ‘Earth Hour’ was last Saturday, and lights were switched off in large parts of Dublin.

We need to be more imaginative in the environmental campaigns. The difference, I suspect, between the entirely unsuccessful ‘car free’ days and Earth Hour is that the latter avoids the sort of preachy finger pointing that is an undercurrent in the former, but rather focuses on a sense of adventure and fun as much as gloomy ‘the end is nigh’ warnings. Finding the right tone for the environmental movement is vital. The spirit of the campaigners should be a bit less that of the pleasure-killing commissar and more of the promoter of community spirit. There is hope that this is how the environmental message will be communicated as the urgency of that message grows.

Golf balls, the monster, and environmental destruction

December 13, 2009

Separating the trivial from the important is a self-appointed task for this blog. And in that spirit I am anxious to draw your attention to the following significant story. Recently a team of American scientists used a small submarine to examine the lake bed of Loch Ness in Scotland, apparently hoping to find evidence of the monster. After you have had a chance to pause for a moment to consider what sort of scientists these guys must be if that was their mission, you might note that what they actually found was something quite different: hundreds of thousands of golf balls. Rather than suggesting (as they might well have been tempted to do) that they had discovered something new about the Loch Ness monster and that it must fit in really well with the culture of the country that hosts Gleneagles and St Andrews, they concluded that what must be happening was that people were using the shore of the lake for golf driving practice.

However, here the environmentalists jump in tell us that this particular find introduces us to something much more menacing than Nessie: golf balls are apparently a toxic nightmare wreaking havoc on the world’s fragile ecosystem. According to the Danish Golf Union (who else?), once they are lost or abandoned golf balls take between 100 and 1,000 years to decompose, and as they do so they send all sorts of toxins and pollutants into the environment. Except on the moon, by the way (and yes, one US astronaut tried some shots on the moon in 1971), where the more extreme temperatures destroy the wretched things really quickly.

Therefore, if you are a golfer and you want to demonstrate that you care about environmental problems, pick up your balls after you have finished practising. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fire them into Loch Ness, because if we find you have killed the monster by polluting the creature’s home, those guys in the submarine are coming after you.

Election mess

May 7, 2009

Here we go again! In a month or so we will be going to the polls, this time to vote for members of the European Parliament and of local authorities. More about the elections themselves another time. For now, this question: do the parties – and more importantly, do we – need all these election posters? Uniquely in Ireland the parties smother the country with smaller posters on every lamp post. It creates a horrible mess. And does it actually persuade anyone to vote in a particular way?

The nuclear dilemma

April 26, 2009

Twenty-three years ago today, the world’s worst ever nuclear accident took place at Chernobyl, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). On this day nuclear reactor No 4 of the power plant exploded, sending considerable amounts of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. This produced major damage at the plant and in its vicinity, and created environmental health problems as far afield as Wales. Only 56 deaths in the Chernobyl area were directly attributed to the disaster, but over half a million people were exposed to radioactivity, and it is not yet known how many of these have suffered from cancer or other conditions as a result.

Chernobyl became a byword for the risks and dangers of nuclear power. Apart from the damage it caused directly, it seriously undermined the cause of nuclear energy and gave additional life to campaigns seeking to end its use. Two decades on, the world is having to face the fact that our traditional assumptions about energy need to be revised. We may have reached ‘peak oil’ (the moment at which new oil discovery is no longer keeping pace with the exhaustion of existing resources), and other carbon fuels (such as coal) are also being phased out. In this setting, many experts are arguing that nuclear power represents one of the key ingredients of a viable energy policy of the future.

Chernobyl may be not so much a warning about the desirability of nuclear power, but rather a reminder about the importance of the appropriate construction, maintenance and use of nuclear power plants.  In the light of the safety record of nuclear energy in other countries and the ongoing research into much higher safety levels and also the development of nuclear fusion (which when available will produce energy with almost no waste), it seems unwise to rule out this particular option now, and Ireland too should at the very least consider the possible benefits of this source of energy.

In the meantime, there are still many victims of Chernobyl alive today and still facing an uncertain future. Programmes designed to alleviate their position still deserve our support.

The longest day

June 21, 2008

Well, it’s the longest day of the year in the last week or two of June, so of course it’s pouring with rain here in Dublin, there is a strong wind, it’s cold, and at noon it seems to be almost totally dark. Yes, summer is here! For me it is all the more striking because, only a few days ago, I was on a brief visit to Los Angeles, where (as a friend remarked) it was more like being on the surface of the sun, with scorching heat. And I imagine that in Sydney, in the middle of their winter, it’s much warmer than here.

Weather patterns, it is often said, contribute significantly to our cultures. There are significant differences in attitude and lifestyle between Northern Europeans and those from the Mediterranean countries, and the contrasting climate almost certainly contributes to that. The rather laid back but also ‘can do’ Californian ethos is helped by year-round warmth moderated by breezes from the Pacific. Here in Ireland we have lots of rain, but also mild conditions brought about by the gulf stream. When my family moved to Ireland in 1961 my parents were struck by the fact that Irish people were almost always at least somewhat positive about even very bad weather. We arrived in September, and our move was followed within days by a major hurricane which dislodged trees and blew roofs off houses – and my father was told by a local that the wind created ‘great drying conditions’. The rain following a few days later was not a problem either, because it was ‘nice soft rain’.

I hope we can always remain positive about the weather. But of course our fragile environment may get in the way of that, as it already has done in so many parts of the world, with devastating consequences. This world needs a sustainable future, and needs global climate conditions that make that possible. And we humans as the most invasive inhabitants of this planet need to do more in pursuit of that goal. DCU intends to focus on that agenda in its research over the period ahead. It is my belief that, alongside the need to adjust patterns of behaviour in order to secure a sustainable future, we also need to prioritise scientific discovery that will secure cheaper and cleaner energy and widely available but non-destructive methods of global transport.

From now on during this year the days will get shorter. We need to ensure that in terms of the health and welfare of the earth we are not about to go into long term decline.