Feeling remarkably fresh for someone working on three hours of sleep (poker is a cruel mistress), I threw my backpack in the trunk and settled in for ride. Behind the wheel was my friend Arun, who generously offered to drive for the trip down to protest the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington D.C. I’d been anticipating this excursion for at least two solid months, so despite my fatigue I was pumped to finally be underway.
Joining us for this excursion were Shayna, my Andover-connected companion from the Portland, Maine protest a few weeks ago, and Ben, a pleasant fellow in his 40’s that Arun found on an internet ride-share board. Together the four of us spent the next ten hours chatting, snacking nonstop, and cheering wildly whenever we crossed over into a new state. Being the only meat-eater in a car full of herbivores, I did have to tune out several conversations about favorite brands of tofu and recipes for wheatgrass-infused healthy planet juice. (Going vegetarian/vegan is something I’m considering for the future…but for right now, Meatless Mondays is the best I can muster). I took advantage of this tune-out time to open my newly-purchased Pokemon deck and teach myself the rules. More on that in a bit.
Being interested in climate change necessarily means being interested in technology…after all, it’s the high-tech world of renewable energy that will drive our transition away from fossil fuels. So I was very excited this week to learn about a breakthrough in energy storage that has been discovered using a substance called graphene. Graphene is a polymer of pure carbon, arranged in sheets only one atom thick. In this configuration, carbon becomes one of the strongest substances on the planet, but miraculously maintains tremendous flexibility.
Graphene’s physical properties are amazing, but it’s its energy capacitance that really makes it a revolutionary substance. It’s already being dubbed a “super capacitor”, because it charges and discharges much more quickly than conventional batteries. Imagine a plugging in your phone or laptop and getting a full day’s charge in a few seconds…that’s the promise of graphene, and by extension the massive market shift it could produce by making conventional batteries obsolete. Best of all it’s dirt cheap (carbon is the most abundant element in the universe), and the processes to make graphene are stupidly simple (the scientists in the video below create it using a normal computer’s CD drive).
The discovery of graphene has especially big implications for the world of renewable energy, whose biggest hurdle has been the issue of storage. It’s important to have a way to provide power when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, and the natural answer is generate energy and store it for later. However, our current generation of battery tech to date hasn’t been able to meet this need on an appropriate scale. Graphene could change all that, by providing efficient, dirt cheap energy storage for renewable power generation of all kinds. If early tests bear out and graphene goes on to be commercialized on a large scale, it might just change the world.
Whew, what a whirlwind weekend, I’m still catching my breath. The Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washingon D.C. this weekend was a great success, with between 35,000 – 50,000 people in attendance (double the expected turnout!). I’ll have a fuller report up soon, but I figured I’d at least dump a few photos here to get the ball rolling.
In my continuing effort to find challenging audiences and expand these climate talks outside my circle of Boston friends, I was pleased to accept a dinner invite from my Uncle Ramey and Aunt Carol. Ramey is my mother’s oldest brother and a retired accountant who lives with Carol (herself a retired schoolteacher) in Rutland, Massachusetts. I have many fond memories of their house, as my extended family celebrated numerous holidays and birthdays there when I was growing up. Some of that fondness revolves around food (Aunt Carol is a great cook), and some revolves around nature (there’s lots of property to run around on, and Uncle Ramey cultivates a large garden). But usually my excitement for a trip to Rutland focused on their three kids, my cousins. For kids, older is often synonymous with cooler, and so any trip to Rutland meant getting to hang out with the cool kids, playing with the cool kid toys, and making the cool kid mischief.
These days we don’t see each other very often…like most extended families, the years introduce a host of new in-laws and grandchildren that demand their own attention and make extended family get-togethers difficult. So when Sarah and I arrived, we had a lot to catch up on! Ramey and Carol have been retired for a while, and in my opinion they’re doing it right. Every year they take at least one serious vacation, usually a river cruise, so they’re always full of interesting stories from their last exotic get away. In their day-to-day lives they keep super busy, especially Aunt Carol. It seems like very day of the week she has activities planned, from church meetings to social outings to singing in a choir. One of her grandkids was similarly impressed: on display in the kitchen was a “quilt” made out of construction paper, each patch depicting one of Aunt Carol’s myriad activities.
When Obama opened his mouth to speak about climate change during the State of the Union last night, my heart skipped a beat. Maybe it was the way that Joe Biden rocketed out of his chair to applaud, or the way that John Boehner’s face soured as if he had taken a bite of stale Freedom Fries. Maybe it was born of a “what’s next?” feeling after Obama planted a flag on the issue during his inaugural address, or that the Twittersphere had been engulfed in an orgy of speculation about how the #SOTU would ratchet climate politics into high gear. Whatever it was that got my blood pumping, I should have known better. The speech turned out to be “weak sauce”, as the kids say these days.
(video of relevant sections for State of the Union, enhanced with charts!)
Okay, sure, it wasn’t a terrible speech, it did contain a few good notes. Obama outlined his plan to cut home and business energy use in half over the next 20 years, and hinted at building vehicles that run on alternative fuels. He declared himself unwilling to wait for Congress to pass climate change legislation, vowing to use his executive powers to advance the cause where he could. One part I found particularly interesting was his decision to stoke America’s fear of China’s economic might, particularly regarding solar power. Perhaps he believes that rivalry might prove a better motivator for conservatives who seem unmoved by the job growth and planetary well-being that renewable energies provide?
Positives aside, the speech felt like a lackluster, time-wasting affair…at best a warmed-over version of his inaugural address. Any objective look at the science reveals that climate change demands an urgent, transformational response. So when Obama continues to promote domestic drilling for oil and gas, it makes me feel like he either doesn’t get it, or he’s too timid to lay out the harsh realities to the American public. His messaging about “our children and grandchildren” is dangerously misleading, as it frames the issue as a future threat rather than a matter of outright survival for those alive today. His go-to line, “we need to do more”, implies that we’re doing something of consequence right now, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. When a football team is way behind in the 4th quarter, the coach doesn’t fire up the team with “we need to do more”, he screams at the top of his lungs, begging his squad for some guts and fury.
I won’t be satisfied until I see guts and fury from Obama. With the window for action rapidly closing, last night’s speech was another squandered opportunity to flip the narrative on climate change. Obama had a real chance to plant his feet and launch forward, but he still sounds like he’s trying to justify the issue to the country (a country that overwhelming gets it by now, I might add, all Republican arm-flapping aside). We need to move beyond this, and we need to do it fast.
Ever wanted to build your own bulldozer or 3D printer? These guys have created a series of open-source, cheap-to-build machines to power a new collaborative economy.
The real contribution is the philosophy, however…it shows us a way to maintain a high standard of living while doing with less and being more empowered individually. This is a subject I’m sure I’ll be writing about a lot in the future, as it’s got important implications for human sustainability in a climate change world.